Egg Thieves » Starting a Dev Log

21 Sep 2020

egg-thieves history design

Hey, everyone! I'm working on a new game and it seemed like a good idea to talk about it in blog form as it progresses. It will help me stay accountable and move the game along and it'll also hopefully be interesting to read. Additionally, I'm working on expanding my game design toolkit and making things easier so that every game I work on in the future can benefit from having a website and blog attached to it by default.

So what is all this?

Well, let's start with the game. Egg Thieves née Oviraptors née Penny Dragons is a game I've been working on for a *long* time. It's taken on many different iterations and themes and has actually become a bit of a dumping ground for ideas that I wanted to explore further. The core of the game is about investing and trying to be sneaky about it. That part has been present, more or less, since the beginning. Every other mechanic and theme has been applied at one point or another and every tangent followed. At this point, I think I've dialed in exactly what I want this game to be and I've gained the knowledge to provide that experience.

Original sketch of a Penny Dragon
Original sketch of a Penny Dragon

Here be Dragons

The very first iteration of the game, Penny Dragons, was based on the premise that dragons love gold. Typical fantasy explorers have small bags of coins in their pockets and it seemed fitting that you'd have tiny dragons to guard them. Cute theme for sure... but has absolutely nothing tying it to the mechanics of the game.

Early prototype cards
Early prototype cards

To start, the game was about playing out cards in different suits, (gems, cups, coins, and stocks (what was I thinking?!)) and trying to balance that with attack and defence abilities against your fellow players. You'd steal coins and treasure from other players based on an overly complicated resolution mechanic that required more math than it was worth. It was not fun.

But, of course, there were lessons to be learned here and this is the origin of the investment mechanic being so integral to the game. Playing out cards of a certain suit and watching that value build is inherently exciting-- Humans have a weird thing for watching numbers get bigger. The problem with the structure of the game at this point was that the incentives for growing those values and being able to capitalize on them just wasn't there. It was really two different systems fighting each other. Winning was more about luck of the cards you drew rather than actually making choices and being clever. There was almost always one optimal move that you should make and, often, every other player had a equally optimal counter.

As a side-note, there was a cool combo mechanic here that let you play cards because you had already played certain cards. The basis for this was recycled into another game I made, Mixtape.

Stacks

The next version of the game still included the investing mechanic as well as the attack/defense, but presented in a different way. The stacks of different cards persisted, more or less to the current design, but with some key differences. On your turn, you'd always play two cards. One to yourself, face-down and one to a stack of treasure in the middle. There were some matching rules on where you were allowed to play cards, but the gist was that you had to match suit or number in order to be allowed to play a card. This created a lot of edge cases where I threw more rules at it to try to fix it instead of evaluating why it was an issue in the first place.

Second iteration with stacks and dice
Second iteration with stacks and dice

The attack/defense mechanic got a bit of a lift in the sense that it was more intuitive and engaging, but was very much still math-heavy. I had been playing Unearth and really enjoyed the ways that different polyhedral dice were used. I took it as a bit of inspiration to make the attack/defense mechanic more interesting. Basically, each card that you play to your own area is going to allow you to roll a die (d4, d6, or d8) for either attack or defense. The person with the highest overall value would claim the stack of treasure with this weirdly complicated resolution mechanic based on how they invested. Closer, but still not right...

Another notable thing from this iteration was that the stack sizes were fluctuating all over the place and the 'trigger' for a payout had to vary by player count in order for it to make sense. This was, again, a lot of math and was hard to track. Each stack had to hit somewhere around 30 in overall value for all treasure types to pay out. This often meant counting and recounting all the stacks to see which one was going to trigger next. Tying it to the number of cards didn't work much better, but it did lead to less math. At one point, I tried including counters for each stack so that you could increase it as needed and wouldn't need to count the entire stack every time. This was fiddly, easy to forget, and added even more components to the game.

Pitching and rejections

The game was playable, actually fun, and created the experience I wanted, more or less. I decided that I was going to start pitching the game to publishers at Gen Con and Metatopia in 2018. I got a lot of great feedback from the publishers I talked to, but I kept hearing the same things. The game was fine, but it was a $20 experience in a box that would cost $30. There were too many components and not enough gameplay to match it. I needed to get rid of the need for dice and counters but maintain the same game experience if I wanted to make it marketable.

Added a board, but removed all the counters. Tzuzu was here to add some chaos.
Added a board, but removed all the counters. Tzuzu was here to add some chaos.

Another key bit of feedback I received was to reduce the math and possibly make the game less predictable. Enter, Tzuzu, the bigger dragon AI that plays in every game. The AI player was, thematically, a larger dragon that the explorers were trying to steal treasure from... or something. This was where the theme and the mechanics really started to separate even more. At least mechanically, a few problems were being solved here, however. The stacks now triggered a payout based on the number of dragon head icons shown on the cards (I can't remember the exact number, but somewhere around 5 was right). Also, Tzuzu would play random cards to herself and to the current stack she was looking at, which injected a bit of randomness and co-operation between players. No one wanted Tzuzu to win so players had to work together to ensure that her treasure picks wouldn't be the ones that paid out.

This iteration wasn't all sunshine and giggles either. The game lost the counters, but gained more pieces and a board. The dice stuck around as well. Still, I persisted and pitched and got little traction (but great feedback!). There were some minor changes to this formula and distinct graphic design upgrades, but ultimately the core of this version of the game remained the same. I shelved the idea for a while and worked on other things for a while.

Early-ish iteration of Roll-and-Raptor, a terrain building egg-stealing tactical roll-and-write with a shared board.
Early-ish iteration of Roll-and-Raptor, a terrain building egg-stealing tactical roll-and-write with a shared board.

Roll & Raptor

Several months (and a cross country move) later, I came up with an idea for a completely unrelated game about raptors stealing eggs from the nests of triceratops. I was on the roll-and-write kick that was all the rage at the time and was also fascinated by the idea of a shared board that everyone could modify. Using dry erase markers, you add bits of terrain to the hexagonal map and move your raptors around snatching up eggs and running them back home. Eating eggs gave you more levels and more actions available on your turn.

Now, this game was fun, but I had yet another theme/mechanic mismatch on my hands. I think something about raptors terraforming the board to suit their needs just didn't make a whole lot of sense. Additionally, there wasn't much in the tactical space for this game and it was mostly about creating the perfect conditions for yourself and not worrying much about the other players. I ended up shelving this idea as well to work on many other projects.

What if it were a spatial investing game?
What if it were a spatial investing game?

A Tangent or Two

Next, I wanted to explore some spatial puzzle games. Stuff that allowed you to place terrain and manipulate it. I was still on an investing game kick at this point so I figured it might as well be a thematic continuation of the Penny Dragons theme. Now the explorers whose pockets you protect were moving around on their adventures... or something. Again, the theme mismatch wasn't doing me any favors here.

The game itself functioned okay and the ideas are certainly something I need to revisit. But this did away with all the cards, dice, counters, and Tzuzu. You built out a map with different treasures showing and bet on which ones your explorer would be picking up along the way. The trigger for paying out was based on surrounding a terrain type. You could spend coins to get one-time use abilities to manipulate the board and your own bets. Again, fun, but a bit wrought with rules exceptions and last player advantages. Still a lot of ground to cover until we get somewhere.

Three games, no, four... five games?

At this point, we're more or less caught up to the present. I have 4-5 games with a multitude of mechanics and a couple themes. But the idea struck me: I should use the Roll & Raptor theme with a variation on the Penny Dragons mechanics. The combination of "investing" by scouting out eggs in the triceratops nests and the stacks and resolution mechanics make for a better theme match. Additionally, I can take what I've learned from every other mechanical exploration I've taken since 2017 to make Egg Thieves into the best version of this game.

I plan on talking about how Egg Thieves evolved from the original, merged ideas more in future blog posts. And tangentially, I'll be talking about how I'm automating this blog, my prototypes, rules, and everything else-- Hopefully in a way that can be replicated for my own future games and shared for other designers to benefit from the tools I'm making.