Coping with Troublesome Game Mechanics

by Bryce Whitacre


Coffins and Tombstones had a few design challenges during its creation, but none as daunting as the initiative system that, at times, provided hours of frustration and reworking.

The Coffins system (now named Spectrum) resolves combat with icons rather than traditionally numbered dice. While this is popular mechanic today, back in 2007, when I originally conceived the game, the icon dice idea wasn’t widespread. I sat on the game for 4 years and in 2011 decided to revisit my design. My initiative system called for each cowpoke to roll a number of “horse” dice equal to their initiative score then act in order of most horses to fewest horses.

Once I stickered some blank d6s, I rolled them to test my design. I realized a terrible mistake made all those years ago. The dice rolled too many ties, sometimes 5-way ties that needed breaking.  These icon dice weren’t going to cut it, at least for initiative.

I contemplated a poker deck system. Originally I hated this idea because, while flavorful, everyone was using it.  Ultimately though, all the other rules were firing on all cylinders, and eager to playtest the game, I caved.  Playtesting began using a poker deck style of iniative where cowpokes are given a poker card and act in order but delay penalties move them down in the order.  Players record changes on a dry erase board. The game worked great; the players loved all the rules EXCEPT the initiative system which, after player feedback, was found to be amazingly cumbersome. I scrapped it after two playtests.

Weeks passed while focused on this issue, every solution proved weak enough in my head to never make the playtests.  If you are like me, the more frustrated you get about a project you are working on, the more the brain turn off ideas for the project. I needed a fresh approach. That approach came from John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. I stumbled upon Mr. Cleese’s 1 hour presentation about the science of creativity. He explained the method of closed mode, open mode, and playing with creative ideas. It structured a new way of thinking, I’ve used ever since.

Ultimately, my design block abated and I came up with something that was at least serviceable.  Cowpokes are given initiative cards based on their initiative score. They act on the high card. The higher the initiative score, the better the chance to go first.The system was playtested but the game was taking longer than using the dry erase method. Dealing out cards, collecting cards, reshuffling, and re-dealing created 10 minute start to every round.

I thought about the initiative system for a few weeks more while polishing other facets of the game. The creative process Mr. Cleese described had me playing with this idea of poker cards again and again, till finally something clicked. Initiative would be dealt once per game, a number of cards based on your initiative score. A delay penalty in the game would force you to flip your high card and go on the next highest number. If you ran through all your cards, you would miss a turn restacking them from highest to lowest.

This breakthrough changed a frustratingly slow mechanic, into a speedy mechanic that made the game even quicker than I ever intended.





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