Origins of Dam It
Two summers ago I came up with a goofy game design. Last week I wrote about the game being rejected, and what I learned from that. I called the game “Dam It!” The goal of the game is to build a dam across the river before any of the other beavers build their dam. Since the game was recently rejected by a publisher it is now back in my hands. So today I bring you my “designer diary” about the game from concept to its current state.
When I came up with the game I had the idea that it would be really cool to play a card game where you stacked transparent cards so that an image was built up after a few cards were piled on. This fit with a dam theme since you could stack cards to complete a dam (logs, sticks, mud, etc.). The problem with that is that when using transparent cards you can always tell what the other players are holding unless the outlines are the same image. And if the outlines are the same, then there’s no point in stacking them. The only way to make transparent cards work is to have separate decks; one for playing and one for building. So I threw the transparent card idea out right away. But for some reason I still made a game about building dams.
So I came up with the idea to build a dam using Big Logs, Twig Filler, and Mud. Oh, you can also hire helpful beavers to build more efficiently. And you can damage your opponents dams by sending stones or weeds down the river.
Now I had a bunch of cards to make and I had what I thought was a good system for how those cards would be used. Big Logs, Twig Filler, and Mud would be the building materials. Weeds and Stone would be damage cards. And Angry Beavers, Eager Beavers, Mildly Eager Beavers, and Busy Beavers would be the hired help.
The First Play Test
I made a board for up to six players. I printed and cut out about 160 cards. And I got my friends to try it out at a board game day. Here is a hastily made reproduction of what the original board looked like:
On your turn you would draw two cards and then play any or all cards that you wanted to play. When you played sets of cards onto your dam you would remove the appropriate number of cubes from that dam section. When your turn was done you would draw back to five cards.
The first play did not work so well. We were able to play the game, but it was like driving a Yugo down the road with two flat tires. The first problem was that the game took forever. Early on players would have to gather a set of 4 Big Log cards just to get a dam section started. Those Big Log cards each had a percentage on them. When the set of four was played, the percentages were added together and that is how much the flow in that dam section would go down. But players would have to get sets of four for Big Logs, Twig Filler, and Mud. And they would have to do that for each of the 5 dam sections. Changes ensued!
Making it (Marginally) Better
To make the game better and to speed the game up I made the following changes:
- Decrease from 5 dam sections to 4.
- Remove the percentages of the flow decrease on the cards and standardize each set. (i.e., all Big Log sets would be worth a 30% flow decrease).
- Increase the number of cards in a player’s hand from 5 to 7. This would allow for better probability of getting the required building sets.
So with those changes the game played better. But there were still problems. The downtime was too great. The interaction was minimal. And the greatest problem was that the game depended too heavily on getting the right cards. Often there would be one or two players who would just never draw the Big Log cards. And you can’t start building until you get them. So they just sat there at the table unable to do anything fun in the game. That’s boring. So I made more changes.
One of the best ways to illustrate the changes in the game is to show the evolution of the Big Log cards. Note: the log artwork on these cards is from Microsoft (here) and another source that I must not have documented. For future prototypes I plan on using only original artwork or artwork from sites like Game Icons.
In that image you can get an idea of the evolution of the game overall. One of the biggest changes was going from removing blue cubes which represented flow to adding brown cubes which represent the actual dam you are building. Another key change was to allow the Big Log cards to either be used individually or two at a time. Using them individually could help get you started faster. Using two at a time could help you build one section more quickly. But…
People Still Weren’t Having Fun
So during that playtest the night before potentially pitching to a publisher at GenCon one friend of mine pointed out that the game just wasn’t very fun. That’s a HUGE problem. The whole idea of designing board games is to create an environment where the players will be having fun. The comments were the same: minimal interaction, runaway leader, never getting the cards I want. So I made a change that added two new beavers: Sneaky and Grumpy.
The idea of the Grumpy beaver is to increase the interaction between players. Previously the weeds and stone could only be sent downstream. In the late game situations this basically meant you could only attack the player to your left. But if the player to your right is really close to winning, you’d probably rather attack them. So the grumpy beaver, when paired with stone or weeds, allows you to attack any other player, not just downstream.
The idea of the Sneaky beaver is to help prevent a runaway winner. When a sneaky beaver is played one player is attacked. The person playing the Sneaky beaver will remove three cubes from one dam section of the player being attacked. Those cubes are then given to other players and placed on three separate dam sections. This helped with the runaway leader problem.
So I had solved two major problems with the game through one revision. But was it any fun? Just the other night at our board game night the person who had never enjoyed Dam It mentioned that it was never any fun until these two beavers were added. That was music to my ears. So I had converted the hater. And I was now confident enough to send this game off to a publisher.
Yep… the game was rejected. You can read about that in last week’s post: Lessons Learned From Rejection. However, I received some excellent feedback on how to improve the game. The two pieces of feedback I found most helpful were:
- Use the cubes for more than just visual notation of the current state of your dam. For example, be able to spend cubes for a special action.
- Mitigate the luck of the draw aspect by having several cards face up to draw from, a la Ticket to Ride.
Both of these will increase the options for your turn, and give a player more to think about. Good stuff!
One of the things that I thought was really important was the art of the prototype. I should mention that this was before I followed a ton of great people on Twitter, who know what they’re talking about. I thought that the art had to be really good. I didn’t want thin paper cards with minimal art and sketches and notes. I wanted a product that looked complete. I thought this was important for the publisher. Why did I think that? Well, it seems like an obvious thing because it’s the idea of making a good “first impression.”
This was a problem for me as a designer because I spent way too much time working on the art (in The Gimp) when I could have been play testing or designing other games. While I enjoyed working on the art, it just wasn’t important. What if the publisher chose to publish the game, but also chose to re-theme it? Then all that time would have been potentially wasted unless.
Another thing that I would have done differently is to send the game off for blind play-testing. One great program for this is Grant Rodiek’s Prototype Penpal Program. I think blind play-testing is critical so that you can test not only the game, but also the clarity of the rules, from people who are not biased towards you. I plan on utilizing the Prototype Penpal Program after attending Protospiel-Milwaukee in March.
In hindsight there are plenty of things to change about the process I went through with Dam It. I’ve learned tons but only because I made the mistakes that I made. Sometimes it’s better to learn by doing, even if the doing is filled with mistakes.
What’s in Store for Dam It?
I will not currently pursue this game any longer. It is an appropriate time to shelve the project. I am currently heavily testing and revising my game, Scoville, so that it will be ready for demonstration and play-testing at Protospiel-Milwaukee in early March. Since Scoville has more potential than Dam It it means the beavers will have to take a back seat. I also have other game designs that I feel are more intriguing than Dam It that are not quite at the prototype phase yet.
If I were to pursue major revisions for Dam It I would start with play-testing the face up draw cards. That seems an obvious improvement to the game. I would also brainstorm the potential other uses for the cubes. I have added the face up draw to the rules, which should hopefully be up on BGG in the near future. If you want a copy of the rules, just let me know on Twitter.
Dam It has been a fun first game to work through the whole process of invent – prototype – play test – submit. I learned a ton and had a lot of fun. I think Scoville has definitely benefited from my experiences with Dam It! Want to find out? Come try it at Protospiel-Milwaukee!