The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Genesis of a Game

Larry Levy

February, 2002

Guess what? I just published my first game! No, really! After creating game designs for the last fifteen years or so for the enjoyment of my friends and myself, I've finally decided to take the plunge and go public with one. The game is called Head to Head Golf, and it's a (primarily) two-player card game based on match-play golf (which is when the object is to win the most holes rather than having the lowest total strokes). And even though the publisher (Omni Gaming Products, makers of fine camel games since 1999) is a very small one and the two owners are friends of mine, I'm still pretty happy with the result. Since I realize that so many Games Journal readers are also working on their own game designs, I thought some notes about the thought processes that went into the design and development of my game might be interesting.

The idea of designing a game based on golf is one that I've worked on sporadically for at least ten years. Even though there are lots of commercial golf games, they are either dexterity games or dice-rolling simulations in which luck plays much more of a factor than skill. I wanted to come up with a game that was both challenging and interactive.

In order to achieve this result, I felt it was important to allow myself some liberties with how closely the game modeled actual golf. In the games I like to play, I always favor playability over realism, and I saw no reason to change that when designing a game. Thus, I wanted to avoid graphical hole layouts and extensive charts giving the results of shots. Both add time and tedium to gameplay-I'd prefer that that time be spent on strategy rather than on locating exactly where the ball is at any given time.

Well, if you can't use pretty pictures, what's left? Card play was an obvious choice. Maybe I could include cards which reflected the results of using different clubs. I could also have cards that could be played by the active player's opponent that altered the distance and direction of the shot. This introduced the player interaction I was seeking. Again, realism takes a hit (in real golf, you can't affect your opponent's shot unless you clear your throat during his swing, a practice which is usually frowned upon), but I felt the benefit far outweighed the loss of theme. Holes could be described rather than be pictured; for example, between 200 and 300 yards, there is rough to the left and trees to the right, there's a sand trap at 380 yards, the green is 400 yards away, and so on.

The problem with this design is that there are at least 17 different types of golf clubs commonly used, which suggests that a big hand size and an enormous deck would be necessary to handle all eventualities. Even if clubs were grouped into families (for example, Woods, Long Irons, Short Irons, Chips, and Putts), a player could really be hurt by not having the exact length of shot in his hand that he needed to do well on a hole. Moreover, it would be entirely possible for a player to benefit from his opponent causing his shot to go awry (if, for example, he only had long and not short approach shots in his hand). This would make it very difficult to predict which cards would be better than others, which would add an unsatisfactory chaotic element when the players replenished their hands.

I kicked around these difficulties for a number of years. Of course, I continued to create other games, but I would periodically return to the idea of a golf game, mull the issues over, and shelve it when I could see no immediate solution.

The breakthrough finally came in a rush, which is not uncommon with me when I design games. Suppose if, instead of a card giving the length of a shot, it gave its quality. That way, higher numbers would always be better than smaller ones. Thus, an Iron shot with a high number would always wind up closer to the hole than one with a low number, regardless of how close to the green the player was when she hit the shot. In order to utilize this mechanic, a player's progress on a hole would be given by a single number. The higher the number, the better. Holes could be described as a range of numbers showing different hazards and features.

Prototype cards for Head to Head GolfThis single idea allowed me to come up with a feasible design. I used four types of shot cards (Woods, Irons, Chips, and Putts), as well as Miscue cards. Each shot card lists a number and a potential direction. For example, a Wood card might read "9 R". This card "advances" the ball by 9 and will go to the right if my opponent plays the appropriate Miscue card; otherwise, it will be straight. Each type of shot has a range of numbers appropriate to its length. So the numbers on Wood cards, for example, range from 7 to 10, while Chips only range from 2 to 5. There are three types of Miscue cards: those which can make a shot go left, right, or short. They can only be played on shot cards which match their direction. So in the example I gave earlier, my opponent would need a "R Miscue" card to affect my shot.

With each shot, the player adds an additional number to his running total and this total is used to determine how he is doing on a hole. For example, on a typical Par 4 hole, you might need a total of at least 13 in order to reach the green (allowing you to use Putt cards) and a total of at least 17 in order to reach the cup (ending your play on that hole). The running total is affected by the hazards defined on each hole. For example, on the right side of the hole at the number 9 it might read "Rough, -2". If in the example above, my opponent played a "R Miscue" card on my tee shot, I would have to subtract two from my total because I landed in the rough. Thus, my shot number would be 7, not 9. This presumably will make it harder for me to score well on this hole.

In order for this procedure to truly work, I again had to tamper with the theme. If higher is always better on the cards, what's the point of my opponent reducing my running total if I can just produce another big-ass Wood card and plunk the ball on the green in spite of an errant first shot? Thus, I required a certain order in which cards had to be played. For example, on a Par 4, your first play must be with a Wood card, your second play must be an Iron card, and then, if you haven't reached the green yet, you must play Chips, followed exclusively by Putts when the green is reached. This rule undoubtedly bothered my playtesters more than any other. It just seems wrong to be chipping when you're a mile away from the green. But the game doesn't reflect the real-world fact that it's harder to hit a small target (like a green) with a long shot than with a shorter one (that would have hopelessly complicated the design), so without this rule, the effects of miscues would have been greatly reduced. I stuck to my guns on this one and the final result worked just fine. Besides, this way, it was much more important to have different types of cards in your hand rather than one that just emphasized high numbered cards, and this kind of hand management, which I think adds considerably to the game's challenge, was one of the goals I had initially set for Head to Head Golf.

Now that the basics were set, I added features based on the lessons learned from modern game design. Some cards are clearly better than others, so to offset that a bit I made the lowest cards in each category impossible to alter (so they're short, but they're always straight). I also made the players "pay" for using the best cards (basically, you can only use a limited number of these cards a game). Since players were required to play certain types of cards at different stages of the game, the question came up of what to do if you didn't possess such a card. Drawing on the theme, I introduced "duffer" cards, which were always available, but which were worse than any ordinary card of that type. To add variety to the game, I also allowed each player to specialize in one of the four types of shots. The effect of this was to add one to the number for certain designated cards in your area of expertise. This also meant that the players preferences for the cards would often differ, which kept the game from becoming too symmetric.

Much of the skill of the game comes from choosing the correct cards to plan your play on the next hole, so you certainly don't want to have them drawn blindly from the deck. Instead, each player starts with five cards. Before each hole, four cards are exposed. The players take turns either taking one of these cards or picking the top card of the deck. After each player does this twice, any remaining cards are discarded and four more cards are exposed. The process is repeated, starting with the second player. At the end of this procedure, each player has nine cards and they can begin playing for the hole. So the players have some, but not unlimited, choices to try and tailor their hands.

As I said, once I came up with the one key idea, the rest of the design came very quickly, and within days I had a complete rule set. Then it was just a matter of designing the holes (which took much longer-coming up with unique, balanced holes proved to be surprisingly difficult) and creating the cards (using discarded business cards, my favorite building block for prototypes). Next, came the crucial step of playtesting. Many a promising idea is shot down during this phase. Fortunately, the game played well, although some changes were needed. It was too easy to alter your opponent's shots-scores were ridiculously high-so the number of Miscue cards in the deck was reduced. Players continually were locked out of the types of cards they needed to play a hole and were repeatedly forced to use duffer cards, which was both frustrating and unrealistic. So the card selection procedure was changed to expose six cards, rather than four. The putting specialist was dominating play-you almost always knew that adding to a putt's number would be useful, since it's coming at the end of the hole, while assisting other shot types could prove to have no effect if your opponent interferes with your succeeding shots on the hole. So I reduced the number of cards that the putting specialist could work with. All these changes had their desired effect and the game really started to jell.

Playtesting is useful in showing you the strengths and weaknesses of your design. But the playtesters themselves are a valuable resource and it makes no sense to ignore their suggestions. At one point, my principal playtester, Bill Moore, suggested that since players were supposed to be expert with the type of club they specialized in, wouldn't it make sense to allow them the option of adding one to the number, rather than make it a requirement. This was such a good idea that I agreed to do it before he even finished speaking. This rule particularly added to the appeal of the Woods specialist, giving some much needed flexibility to that player's ability.

I am very pleased with the final product. I think the game is unlike anything else you're liable to have seen, but the basic mechanics are sufficiently familiar that the learning curve should be reasonably low. I also think the game works for a wide variety of players; it can be enjoyed by casual gamers, particularly those familiar with golf, but can also be played at practically any strategic level one is willing to work at. I guess I'll just have to wait and see if other gamers agree with this assessment.

So can this design experience be summarized as Lessons Learned? I think so:

  • Base the theme on something you're familiar with, but not in an area that is already saturated with similar games. Try to fill a niche.
  • Use the theme to help generate game ideas and mechanics, but don't let it restrict you unnecessarily. You shouldn't be afraid to violate the theme if it helps gameplay.
  • Establish the game's goals-in terms of playability, skill level, interaction, etc.-early on and shape the game to fit them.
  • Don't be a lazy designer. For example, why be satisfied with rolling dice if with a little more effort you can come up with a more skillful or interactive mechanic? There are too many Monopoly clones out there as it is.
  • On the other hand, don't be afraid to borrow from what has been shown to work or from games you like, particularly from current designers.
  • Be open-minded to suggestions from playtesters. Be willing to make changes, but don't be afraid to reject ideas that violate your game's fundamental principles.
  • Perhaps most importantly, try to think outside the box. This can be particularly important when your design hits a roadblock (and believe me, it will!).

Finally, try to have fun designing a game that others will have fun playing. It's a good bet that the final product won't make you rich (I'll be happy if my game breaks even), so you might as well enjoy the ride!

- Larry Levy

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