Scoundrels: Design Diary

June 2016: An Old Game Idea for a New Game!

Schwarzer Peter (Black Peter)

I didn’t know anything about game design and honestly I hadn’t played many “gamer’s games” up to that point in my life either. I had an idea for a game and wanted to try and make it a reality, though I’m a little embarrassed to say my design was based on the game Old Maid (this was my second game design, I’m even more embarrassed to admit my first game design was based on the game War).

In Victorian days Old Maid was played with a regular deck of 52 cards and one could be randomly removed from the deck, without anyone knowing which card was taken out. Players would then match pairs of cards (red 2’s, black 7’s etc) and if you got stuck with the card that didn’t have a match then you lose! I liked the idea of not knowing which card was missing from the deck! That sounded more interesting than the way I had grown up playing the game. I learned there were variants of this game all over the world, one of which was called Schwarzer Peter (Black Peter), which gave me the idea for a theme… Scoundrels. There would be pairs of Scoundrels each player needed to match and each Scoundrel pair would have a liability that would activate if matched. Matching pairs would help you to exit the game early (if you could get rid of all your cards) and the liabilities were meant to cause you grief as you played, so you might think twice before matching a pair of Scoundrels that had a particularly nasty effect.

There it was! I had a game! I reached out to a friend of mine to see if he could mock up some Scoundrels images for me and I got to work on coming up with names of Scoundrels and liabilities to go along with them.

Playtesting went well enough. My family liked it (immediate and extended family was the extent of my playtesting group at that time). Though everyone seemed to like it… I didn’t. To me it felt flat and random. I walked away feeling very disappointed.

October 2017: Alleyways and Officers

Scoundrels had been on the back burner while I worked on other games for a little over a year. I had a few games that used a dice mechanism to indicate a growing threat at various locations on a map. I decided to junk a few of those designs and add that mechanism to the Scoundrels theme and completely rework that design.

There would be 8 locations on the board and each player would have a hand of 8 cards that corresponded to those locations. These locations would have a stockpile of resources each round and players would secretly send their Scoundrels to steal those resources by playing their Location Cards face down. All players would simultaneously reveal where they chose to send their Scoundrels. If you went alone then you wouldn’t cause a disturbance (the threat level would not go up), however, if another player chose the same location as you then the threat level would rise. Officer cards would be revealed and as long as the number on the Officer Card was less than the threat level, you were both ok and could take (split) the resources, otherwise you’d both lose your Scoundrels to the Officers.

Scoundrel cards could be hired at the Tavern, they still had liabilities which made the game more interesting, there were contracts that needed to be fulfilled and a fluctuating Black Market where stolen goods could be sold off for cash!

The game was certainly more fun and interesting than it was in it’s Old Maid days. There were lots of moving parts to the game which unfortunately cost players a lot of time and upkeep. I ignored the thought that it felt cumbersome, as I told myself it was “that kind of game”. Looking back on it, I’m not sure what “that kind of game” really meant, other than I don’t know that I had the skill or understanding of how to address some upkeep and streamlining issues.

December 2017: Upgrading the Game

As I continued to refine and improve on some of the elements of the game I also picked up some wooden resources and improved on the Black Market Board.

I started to work in additional mechanics into the game, adding action selection tiles that worked somewhat like Puerto Rico. This gave some flow to the game and allowed players to choose actions that would especially benefit them as well as a bonus for having led with the action.

The “I split, you choose” mechanic needed more structure to it and as I discussed this with some of my game design friends, Chris Anderson (from the Board Game Workshop podcast) suggested a Brain vs Brawn mechanic where each Scoundrel has a separate Brain and Brawn value. Whoever has the higher Brain number will split (they are smarter of course) and whoever has the higher Brawn value would choose first (the stronger one would force their hand). It all made perfect sense! It was a stroke of genius! This has continued to be one of my favorite parts of the game!

I started to redesign the board and changed how the Alleyway worked. Previously it was just like every other location, where you’d face off with other players, splitting and choosing the goods at each location. Now players could go and push their luck as a way to gain money and stolen goods.

After messing around with the layout, over several iterations, I was happy with the final result. I made a quad fold board and quickly buttoned up the game so I could continue playtesting with the Board Game Designer’s Guild of Utah.

January 2018: Cardboard Edison

Though I knew the game wasn’t really ready for a contest, I liked the idea of getting the idea out there and gathering feedback from those who know games. I threw together a quick video and paid my $5 to the contest and crossed my fingers.

The video didn’t really share the highlights of the game and was more of a showcase of the art and theme. Looking back I would certainly have done many things differently.

I find it’s helpful to share as openly as possible when designing a game so I’ll share the specific feedback that was given to me. I’ll also mention that of all the contests I’ve entered over the past several years I would rank the Cardboard Edison feedback as some of the most thorough and helpful feedback.

Cardboard Edison Feedback – 2018

Judge: Anonymous
-What was the game’s strongest aspect? I like the artwork shown in the video.
-What was the game’s weakest aspect? Video did little to explain what the game would be like to play. Rulebook needs to be edited for length and clarity. Many different mechanics might make the game hard to learn.
-Any additional comments? -None-
Judge: Eric Alvarado
-What was the game’s strongest aspect? I like where you are heading with the game. The theme works well with some of the selected mechanisms. The victory conditions based on the scoundrel’s reputation is good. The locations and action space is good.
-What was the game’s weakest aspect? Honestly, I would step back for a moment and take a look at what you are trying to design. At its core, you are leveraging and action selection system in order to acquire goods. This mechanism has been done many times. This would be a great opportunity for you to introduce something fresh. I also would have liked to see if the locations could interact with the players thereby rewarding them or penalizing them for their decisions. Lastly, I think the players should be allowed to control the police — not sure how, but this would amp up the player interaction.
-Any additional comments? Keep up the good work! Good luck!
Judge: Anonymous
-What was the game’s strongest aspect? I really like the treadmill mechanic you have going there. The fact that ONE of your people will help you while the rest are liabilities is just delightful. I think the set collection mechanic is well thought out, and could be a publishable game given some work.
-What was the game’s weakest aspect? I think 90-120 minutes is WAY too long. This game should be around 60-90 minutes at MOST. I also think there is one too many mechanics in the game. This is a gut feeling, but there is something about this game that feels slightly bloated. Again, this last bit might just be me, but would be something I would explore if I were to consider signing it.
-Any additional comments? -None-
Judge: Anonymous
-What was the game’s strongest aspect? I like Brains to decide the loot split and Brawn to select first.
-What was the game’s weakest aspect? I’ve not played the game, but it reads like the length of play may be too long for what it is. I’d like to play a game like this in under an hour.
-Any additional comments? -None-
Judge: Suzanne Zinsli
-What was the game’s strongest aspect? Really solid looking game. Great integration of theme and mechanics.
-What was the game’s weakest aspect? I worry that people who play it multiple times will have a benefit since they are more familiar with the Scoundrel cards
-Any additional comments? Great design! I hope to get to play it!
Judge: Anonymous
-What was the game’s strongest aspect? Seems like a well thought out game with some originality and variability to it.
-What was the game’s weakest aspect? I wonder if it may be TOO complicated for the theme.
-Any additional comments? Don’t make me read a video. You have the ability to talk during it – use it

April 2018: Feedback from the BGDG of Utah

After getting the final results from Cardboard Edison I continued with the game and met with my design guild again. All of those feelings I had about the game being cumbersome and bloated came up in my feedback with the guild. The biggest issues seemed to be the number of things a player needed to remember at any given time. Liabilities, abilities, market values, contracts, loot at each location, officers at locations, among other things. Playtesters really seemed to like how the game played, though they mentioned it was hard to think through how to get an edge in the game because the cognitive load was so high.

A simple suggestion was to improve the graphic design on the contract cards. These cards were basically a recipe saying what loot needed to be acquired in order to fulfill the contract and gain points. If the card had pictures where players could lay their resources directly on the card then could see at a glance what they had and what they needed to get which would allow them to focus on other parts of the game. It was a simple fix that seemed to provide some needed streamlining.

In addition to taking in feedback from Cardboard Edison and the BGDG of Utah I also tried incorporating feedback from SaltCON’s ION Award and the Board Game Design Lab contests, which I had entered. I started stripping some things out of the game and added in some additional mechanics, all in an effort to streamline and improve the game.

Looking back it seemed I was attempting to please everyone who had some form of feedback for me and somewhere along the path I started to lose my way with this game. My latest playtest was a total flop. I had lost the fun of the game. Mechanically it all seemed to work fine but it just wasn’t fun anymore. I wasn’t sure where the game had gone and I felt unsure about where to go from here. I needed to figure out what feedback to listen to and what to ignore. This was a very valuable lesson for me!

June 2018: A Major Transformation

Scoundrels had been put on hold for a couple months. During this time I had an idea that buzzed in the back of my head: What if I stripped out all superfluous parts of the game and boiled it down to a multi-use card game? How would resources be gained? What would I do about contracts and money? I knew the game was not what I wanted currently, previous iterations were much better but ultimately unsatisfactory. I wondered if I could “find the fun” by stripping it down to its most essential parts.

I started by creating a spreadsheet and crunching the numbers I would need to make the game work. With the wooden resources I used the market board to indicate value, now, with no market board I used scarcity to help promote the value of these goods so there would be half as many valuable goods as the common ones. These would be located at the bottom of the Scoundrel Card.

When cards were in a players hand they would never be used as resources. That way players wouldn’t confuse what the card meant when in their hand. Cards would only represent resources when at a location or in a player’s storage and in both instances the card would be tucked so that only resources would show. Location cards could be used to cover the cards and provide a place for resources to pile up.

Each round locations would be filled with resources. These cards would be added until two matching bonus symbols occurred. Two stars meant a Scoundrel would be added to the location for hire. Two Tavern signs meant a Rumor card would be added to the location. Two Officer badges would mean Officers were at that location (the location card would flip to the image on the back of the card that showed officer badges at that location. See the Market location above). If no one cleared a location of it’s resources during the round then more would be added until an additional bonus symbol was duplicated, thus enticing players to go there due to the wealth of resources.

Each player would have a hand of location cards that matched the public locations on the table. Players could then select Scoundrels from their hands and hide them under the locations they plan to send them to. All players would then reveal their intentions. Brain and Brawn values are then compared at each location and goods are acquired accordingly (as well as bonus Scoundrels and rumor cards). If fewer than three Scoundrels showed up at a location with Officers then no resources were gathered and Scoundrels at that location were lost.

I also needed a way for players to cash in on their acquired goods. I decided to use the back of the Scoundrel cards for money. One side would have a single coin and once a player had four coins they could convert them to a money bag by rotating one card and discarding the other three. I simplified the flow of money so common goods could be sold at four per coin and valuable goods were sold at four per two coins. This simple structure made the game easy and players picked up on it very quickly!

I playtested, refined and re-playtested until things felt balanced. Scoundrel abilities and liabilities continued to adjust. I had always had three Scoundrels sent out by each player and cut that down to two, with a third Scoundrel acting as a special “Professional” Scoundrel. The two Scoundrels being used to gather resources were called Henchmen and used their liability. After each round a player could choose one of their Henchmen to become their Professional, who was now experienced from their time on the streets. The Professional could now use their ability instead of the liability but no longer went on missions to locations and new Henchmen from your hand needed to be sent out to gather from the locations. This rotation of Scoundrels made the game fun and tactical and kept the game feeling fresh and interesting.

Overall, the game really seemed to be coming together! It was much simpler to teach and I was happy with the transformation from an oversized game with lots of components to a game with relatively few components and best of all, the game was playable in 45-60 minutes instead of 90-120 minutes! This was a much more palatable time frame for this game!

February 2019: The ION Award at SaltCON

In December of 2018 I had submitted the new, card version of the game to the ION Award and had also submitted to Cardboard Edison again. I’ve included the pitch video I used for both contests.

While traveling back from a trip to California for work I noticed an email concerning one of my submissions! I was being notified that Scoundrels was selected as a finalist for the ION Award! In addition to that, one of the judges, a publisher, had reached out to me! He congratulated me for becoming a finalist and asked for a digital copy of the game for further consideration! I couldn’t believe it!

I was told to prepare for a 45 minute meeting with the judges, where we would play my game, talk about it and answer any questions the judges might have. I immediately began preparations for that event.

I’ll outline the feedback I received from both the ION Award judges as well as Cardboard Edison. The spreadsheet is the feedback from the ION Award before the finalist presentation.

ION Award Feedback -2019

Cardboard Edison Feedback -2019

Judge 1: Carla Kopp
-What was the game’s strongest point? I liked that the cards were multi use in that they could be goods, henchman, or track your current amount of money. I also liked that you could choose to send both your henchmen to the same location. It seemed like you would have some interesting choices to make based on what was in your hand, what you wanted, and what you knew the other players wanted.
-What was the game’s weakest point? 45 – 60 minutes seems like a long time to play the game where not much changes between the rounds. It doesn’t seem like the first round would be much different than the last round, other than the set collection aspect to the game. It’d be great if there was some build up or change that happened as time went on.
-Any additional comments: -None-

Judge 2: Chris Zinsli
-What was the game’s strongest point? I like the mix of simultaneous-selection and I-cut-you-choose. That’s pretty neat, particularly with how the brains-and-brawn roles work during the splits.
-What was the game’s weakest point? I-cut-you-choose is a great mechanic and one that’s really underused. However, the downsides are that it can lead to analysis paralysis and significant downtime, so I worry that resolving a series of such decisions every round could slow down what otherwise looks like a quick-moving game.
-Any additional comments: -None-

Judge 3: Mike Bonet
-What was the game’s strongest point? The multi-use cards were fantastic. I like that this game doesn’t ask players to track goods tokens and uses the scoundrel cards as the goods cards. I also quite enjoyed the interesting take on “I split, you choose.” This gives players some real decisions to make on which scoundrels to send where.
-What was the game’s weakest point? I don’t care much for the theme, but that is minor because the mechanics are unique enough.
-Any additional comments: -None-

Judge 4: anonymous
-What was the game’s strongest point? Bidding on both splitting and choosing a set of cards is a novel concept and looks to be very interesting. You have also made clever use of just having cards as a component in the game.
-What was the game’s weakest point? Blind bidding games have inherent luck (which is much of their charm) but I’m concerned that the player who draws the best brawn cards will be at a big advantage. While splitting sets is useful, you essentially need high brawn to score points. So I think the luck of draw combined with the chaos of the bid could be frustrating for some players.
-Any additional comments? There are a lot of little creative touches in this design, and I can see that some really fun card interactions would come about. I just wonder if a less swingy way to acquire scoundrel cards could take this design to the next level.

February/March 2019: Presenting to the Judges at SaltCON

I arrived early on February 28th and began setting up my game for the ION Award judging session. I was equal parts nervous and excited! As the judges arrived I went through a brief explanation, not wanting to be overly verbose and aimed to get them into the game as quickly as possible, while at the same time wanting to ensure they weren’t left in the dark on anything critical to game play.

Each judge picked up on the game quickly. A few questions arose as they progressed through the game. The judge/publisher who had expressed interest in the game early on seemed to be clearly in the lead and seemed to have a great grasp of the game. During the final scoring, another of the judges pulled out a win with some hidden points from his Rumor cards (a hidden set collection mechanic) and it appeared that the energy in the room evaporated. There were lots of questions about the balance of the game and how the variety and number of Rumor cards seemed off, as it created a swingy game in the end.

I attempted to balance accepting their feedback with providing rationales, not wanting to come off as defensive, though I may have just rolled over with the feedback. I’m not sure there was anything I could have said to repair what seemed definitive in their minds at this point. I left feeling hopeful, but questioned how realistic a win seemed at this point.

The Award ceremony was two days away. I enjoyed my time at SaltCON leading up to the ceremony and received lots of congratulatory comments throughout the convention, especially from any BGDG of Utah guild members, which felt amazing!

The Award Ceremony began and I was invited up to the stage and the results were read aloud. Scoundrels was not chosen as the winner of the ION Award for 2019.

March 2020: One Year Later

It’s been a year since Scoundrels was presented at SaltCON. I’ve got many other games I’m currently working on and one that’s been picked up by a publisher. I’ve not made a big push with this game, though I’ve been getting the itch to pull it out and run with it again. It’s come a long way from its early Old Maid days and has become a game I’ve really loved to design! Thanks to everyone who’s participated in the development of Scoundrels and perhaps we’ll see Scoundrels hit the streets again!

If you’d like to follow updates on Scoundrels and other games I’m working on then join the Odd Fox Games Facebook Group!

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