We wanted this year’s Playful to be more interactive than ever. I spend far too much of my spare time designing board and card games, so it seemed like an interesting challenge to design something that could be played by everyone at Playful and which fitted this year’s theme of “Hidden”.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year playing the hidden-role card game “One Night Ultimate Werewolf” (ONUW) which takes the classic party game “Werewolf” and condenses it down into an intense 5-minute experience without losing any of the negotiation, pleading and fun of the original.

Some of the role cards from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Some of the role cards from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

ONUW has an interesting genesis. Social deduction card games have become all the rage over the last 5 years. Games like “The Resistance” and “Coup” had players trying to work out who was on their side, and what role (and therefore what abilities) they had. Japanese designers, especially Seiji Kanai, further distilled these ideas down into ‘microgames’ such as the multi-award-winning “Love Letter”, a game consisting of just 16 cards.

Some of the role cards from Love Letter

Some of the role cards from Love Letter

The Japanese designer Akihisa Okui applied this microgame ethos to Werewolf, and the idea was refined by American designer Ted Alspach, who made the inspired decision to add an app which played the narrator/moderator role (one of the annoying thing about the original Werewolf was that one person was required to sit the game out in order to play this role).  I could (and may!) write a whole blog just on dissecting a single game of ONUW. For now, suffice to say that I have never known a game that packs such a punch (and so much fun) into such a short space of time.

So for this year’s Playful I wanted to take some of these ideas and design a game that could be played by 300 or more people over the course of a day (we think this may well be the biggest card game ever played in the UK!). There are many interesting factors to take into account with this sort of game.  The three most difficult limitations are that you can’t really have a draw pile, you can’t have turn-taking (people need to be able to wander round and play with who they want in a completely ad-hoc manner) and you can’t have many rules – the game needs to be instantly understandable. You also want to avoid player-elimination, and ideally keep the victory conditions at least partly hidden (because you don’t want the game to be over in the first 5 minutes, or someone thinking that they’ve got a winning hand and then hiding for the rest of the day).  I had 5 or 6 ideas for games… some of the rejects are shown here.

First set of test cards.

In this game you have 2 or 3 cards and try to make the longest word possible. There wasn’t much incentive to swap cards once you’d made a word as it usually meant destroying the word you’d already made.
Second set of test cards.

In this game you try to match a sequence of icons (these are actually symbols from Zener cards used for testing ESP) which are revealed one at a time over an hour or two. This was fun until people realised that there was no way someone was going to trade a card with a partial match.
Third set of test cards.

We tried the icon match game again with more lines (and therefore more ways of matching longer sequences) and a subway-map aesthetic, but it was just too confusing and still suffered from the ‘why trade?’ problem.
Fourth set of test cards.

This version ‘borrowed’ ideas from Lucas Pope’s amazing indie video game Papers, Please. Players swap cards trying to find a matching set of papers (and one in which there are no other ‘mistakes’ such as expired visa dates or mismatched serial numbers). This was good fun on a small-scale test, however we decided not to pursue it because of the amount of work in producing around 1000 unique cards, and the fact that there was no easy way of testing whether the game would work when scaled up to 300+ players. (Of course we would have changed the graphics/theme from Papers, Please if we had decided to take this beyond prototype stage)
Fifth set of test cards.

These are a few of the cards from the prototype for the game we finally went with. It uses some of the ideas from Love Letter, but changes and extends them so that the game will work in a free-form, simultaneous format and scale to hundreds of players.
Near final test card.

Near-final version for one of the cards for our Hidden game.

But in the end, after several playtesting sessions (though it’s difficult trying to extrapolate from 5 testers to at least 300 players), I returned to the design that is closest to social deduction microgames such as “Love Letter” and its ‘sequel’ “Lost Legacy” – though it’s very different to either of those games, to allow for the limitations described earlier, and the game has over 600 cards rather than 16! I’d like to explain it in more detail here, but I think the game will be more fun if people don’t know the rules in advance, so we’ll save the detailed description for another blog after the event (along with an analysis of how successful – or otherwise – the game was!).

A few tickets are left for Playful: buy yours now.

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