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  • Writer's pictureThomas Cardwell

Motivation and the First Game

I'm back with my first weekly blog post! I'll be trying to publish every Monday with something – a game review, an update on games in development, a breakdown of some common game mechanics, or maybe just to talk about how great my wife is.

Why am I starting this journey?

I have been playing games and attempting to come up with my own for the greater part of my life. Whether with Legos, paper balls, or middle school video-games lovingly crafted (read: terrible but with a lot of effort put into them), I wanted to get at what was fun in games. I learned some by playing some great games growing up like Super Smash Brothers, Monkey Island, Cranium, Runescape, and Dungeons & Dragons, some by taking a few classes related to game design in college, and some by just listening to friends discuss games. I also learned what made games not fun by getting destroyed at Pokémon card-game tournaments by adults as an eight-year-old with a $10 deck. All of these things have led me to push forward more seriously into game design, which brings me to...

Drum roll, please.

Element of Surprise

Today I want to bring you all up to speed on my first game: Element of Surprise. It is a card game with a bit of strategy in which you play elemental power cards such as Tidal Wave, Lava Flow, and Earthquake using three different elements (fire, earth, and water) and attempt to gather the most elements. After each of the five rounds, a new shared power is randomly revealed for all players to use. The shared powers and powers played from your hand enable you to gain more elements and power cards, steal elements and powers from your opponents, and occasionally cause chaos for other players.

Chaos for other players.

I set out to create a short card game that you can pull off your shelf, set up, and play in under 45 minutes. I've gotten a decent amount of "let's play again" comments immediately after finishing a playtest, which feels good, but it's also along the lines of the game I was envisioning – quick enough that some people might want to play a few times, or a game you could play when waiting for people to show up for your movie night. I also wanted to make a game where the method to get more stuff was by using the stuff itself. The prototype elements are played with poker chips, so it feels right to put them in the middle of the table to later gain more chips. There's some more inspiration from poker; a card is revealed after each round that is available to all players, creating a natural progression to the game. Otherwise, there is inspiration from social deception games, a genre where stealing cards and other resources is common, and games like Magic: The Gathering, where you must pay the cost for your cards with elemental resources to receive a power in return.

Twenty-five playtests in and a lot has changed, but the spirit has survived. As a designer, the minute you put the game on the table (or virtual table), scenarios you didn't think about become glaringly obvious. For example, initially I did not consider players running out of elements, and then it happened almost immediately. Now there are fundamental powers that each game starts with to prevent someone from being removed from the game. Previously, players were able to get stuck with low element counts too easily, so now there are some cards with bonuses for players in last place (my own Mario Kart blue shell).

Element of Surprise prototype cards fanned on a wooden table.

First printed prototype. Look Ma'! I graduated from sticky notes.

Each playtest gives me something to scribble down, even if it's wording on cards that is tripping players up. I've had suggestions from playtesters be translated into a change that really benefits the game. For example, a card that previously enabled you to draw one card now lets you draw two cards and select one – a direct suggestion from a player who wanted more choice in strategy.

In addition to the physical prototype, I have created versions of the game playable online with Tabletopia and via Steam with Tabletop Simulator. I'd love to play sometime! It helps me refine the game every time I see it played. Drop me a line and let's set up a play-through with you and friends.

Until next week,


Fun Games of the Week: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Among Us (free on iOS/Android)

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