Bloat and Refine

I’m trying a new process with my latest game. It’s quite a simple idea:

  1. Take something with a lot of elements.
  2. Duplicate each element.
  3. Modify each new element into something else.
  4. Test all elements.
  5. Delete the weakest half.
  6. Finish up with something that’s working even better.

Let’s talk about how that’s gone and the strengths and weaknesses of the approach.


Firstly, lets dispense with the boring practical concerns, because they’re important to consider. This is only going to work for some types of thing, a random event deck can be improved a great deal this way, but doubling the units in a rock-paper-scissors game might undermine or alter the fundamental nature of the game, introducing Spock where he is not wanted. It also takes a while to do, in a way that means certain other people on the project (particularly artists) are hampered by the uncertainty surrounding what’s going in to the game. Finally it can be quite draining to try to find the creativity to generate so many elements above and beyond those actually required for the game.

However the benefits are also pretty noticeable. It’s procedural in a way that makes it easy to keep the plan rolling on difficult days. It’ll almost always generate some level of improvement, even if the original element is chosen in the vast majority of cases the substitutions that are made are all improvements. It allows you to understand your game on a much deeper level, having seen rather than theorised the results of dozens of slight variations and being able to project from there. Finally it creates a safe space to experiment, the thought of knowing that you’re likely to throw something away as you create it generates a mindset that can try something that’s 95% likely to be rubbish but that just maybe could turn out to be brilliant. It’s possible for a designer to “play it safe” too much and wind up producing cookie cutter blandness that’ll never delight anyone.

There are a lot of experiments in the double size SatW build, I’m going to talk about three: One that worked, one that I learned something interesting from and one that failed. See if you can guess which is which.


I tried a few variations on considering things outside of the games internal logic and generating an impact. Probably the most extreme of these was the new Sister France card which has the power “Give a card to the most attractive player”. Giving a card is an interesting power in the context of the game because it always helps an opponent, but powers are mandatory, so undesirable powers do interesting things to bidding patterns. Depending on how you looked at it the targeting requirement is either a way to ensure that one player offers another a compliment or acts as a way to dissolve relationships.

Another new idea was cards which overwrote the general bidding procedure, making something other than “who paid the most money” determine the order in which players chose cards. The riskiest of these (from a game design point of view) was probably Drama Bear, which bore the instruction “Bidding order is determined by argumentativeness, the least argumentative player chooses first.”

Finally I did something to make Magic players cringe. Back in the day someone wrote a card called Chaos Orb, which is flipped onto the table and destroys any card it touches. It generated a lot of problems, including people trying to eliminate entire decks and players insisting on playing on vertical tables using magnets. The famous one is people tearing their orbs into pieces in order to hit more targets – which probably seemed clever at the time but who’s laughing now that they’re trading for over $200 a pop? Anyhow, I enjoy this comic in which sister Russia is depicted diving through the air to represent the behaviour of the Russian air force at the time. So I gave sister Russia the Chaos Orb power to see how it’d go.

chaos orb

“Most attractive player” … “Least argumentative player” … “Chaos orb” … I didn’t know what to predict, how do you think it went?

Starting in the middle, the interesting result was “Least argumentative player”. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I put this in to the game and was surprised to find playtest groups treating it very differently. Some had an honest to goodness debate about how argumentative they all were, which somehow didn’t turn into a brawl! Some had sacrifices in which someone would say “I’m really argumentative, but so is Joan, so Mike gets to go first” – I’m still not sure if the people involved were getting a strategic advantage out of putting themselves last to force someone else to be second-last. I think my favourite response was a group that one by one said “I’m the next least argumentative, so I’ll have this card” once they all realised that nobody wanted to be the first to start an argument about it. That turned it into a racing card.

So far it has started zero fights, which is quite a lot less than I’d have predicted. I’ve learned a lot about how different groups of players can totally and utterly modify the impact of a card, which is neat. Ultimately it’s probably not consistent enough to be included though. I’m often looking to balance different types of effect so having a card that’s effect changes depending on the group is an obstacle to neatly balancing the game.

The “Most attractive player” card generated some beneficial effects. An earlier build of the game had a broken strategy in which a player bid zero every round in order to maximise their hand, ultimately reaching a point that they could win in a handful of heavy bids once they were in position. Adding negative mandatory abilities helped to break that strategy, as players realised there were turns that a zero-bid would generate an unjustifiably large penalty.

Looking at the bids a lot of players viewed the card as having a hugely negative penalty, far beyond much more mechanically dangerous ones. Giving an opponent a one card advantage is bad, but it’s a fairly small effect. It turns out that on average people value “Not having to identify who at this table I think is the most attractive” as being worth about two and a half turns of resources. In a way that’s really serving its design goal, but in another way it makes the card really negative. For some players it’s negative in a way that transcends simply losing a game and encroaches on their real world anxieties and depending on the game state they might not have the capacity to (within the rules of the game) avoid it. For that reason, despite serving its design goal well, I dub the card a failure.


So that leaves “Chaos Orb Russia” as our surprising victor. Since I’ve been testing with the goal of eliminating half of the cards in the deck I’ve been asking players to specifically highlight cards they’d like to see kept or removed after each test. Sister Chaos Russia has more “keep” comments than any other card in the deck, which is a surprising result.

I think that this partly comes down to the context of the game. The Scandinavia and the World game is a light game, that doesn’t take too long and doesn’t have much riding on it. By contrast Magic is played at the tournament level for not inconsiderable cash prizes. The context in which a game is played goes a long way towards determining how it is played. A lot of the behaviour that surrounded Chaos Orb and lead to it making games less fun isn’t encouraged by the environment SatW generates. Yet all of the good things that presumably lead to its inclusion in the first place remain and are perhaps even emphasised.

In particular it gains something from the notion that it’s possible to have ongoing negative effects, throwing a card into the middle of your opponents stuff and removing a bunch of it will ruin their day in a lot of games – but here, people have a harder time getting mad about it when it may rid them of the influence of Nazi Germany. Also somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of players seem to like the excuse to make aeroplane noises.


So where does this leave the experiment as a whole? Does bloat and refine work?

It’s generated a lot of good for the game. While I’ve talked about the extreme examples here there are a lot of moderate improvements that have been made to various aspects of the game as a consequence of going through the process. The process is still ongoing though and it looks like it’s going to be extremely tough to make decisions about some of the bread and butter cards. There are a lot of powers with no “keep it” or “ditch it” comments, that aren’t exciting in their own right but act as necessary glue to keep the game-play experience together. I’m not quite sure how I’m planning on choosing which of those to go with, perhaps it doesn’t matter, but given that there is often a measurable difference between various options I’m inclined towards the notion that there’s a right and wrong choice here.

Perhaps that’s a danger to the approach, maybe it’d have been better to bloat by a smaller amount than 100%, but never to have created anything too mundane with the extra cards, I may try something like that with a future games project.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this insight into the process and that you get a chance to experiment wildly with probably bad ideas today. You never know how it’ll turn out 😉

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