April Game Project — House Advantage

Every month of 2022, I am trying, as part of both my PhD project and my all-purpose general game development, develop if not a whole game for game development, a project start, such that I can make playtest prototypes. This is a sort of report of the process throughout the month.

In 2016, I made a game playable with a deck of playing cards, a single session tabletop roleplaying game that was designed to get everyone in the experience of being a DM. I made it and did the graphics myself – these four pictures of the four types of character, Hitters, Fitters, Grifters and Lifters.

I’ve wanted to make a game based on this for a while now, something small, something that plays with pieces I didn’t get to play with for a while. I wanted to make a game you could slip into a little bag, which came with some tokens and some cards, and let you play out the fantasy of The Suits in a different way. Rather than telling a story, though, the idea this time around was something tactical, something about robbing a casino.

And something about poker.

This month I’ve been dwelling on a section of a book from Jesse Schell, the Art of Game Design (A Book Of Lenses). It’s a great book for game design in part because of its wholly affirmative position (that once you commit to making game choices you are a game designer) and its nearly juggernaut reserve of game design tools. And these are tools that you might not always think of as tools. A lot of the time when I talk about ‘game design tools’ I mean something like like a library of mechanics or a familiarity with other games or even just the willingness to pull things apart and consider why choices are the way they are.

In Schaal’s book the ‘tools’ are things like exercises. A panel with a clear question, like, what does your design need, what changes about it if you change this, does it have something about it that matters here, stuff like that. In this case, what I wanted was to focus on elegance: A vision of the game design with as minimal a piece as I can. That’s why I started on the pieces I had — just an ordinary deck of playing cards.

Alright, here’s how the game works.


Players start by setting up the Casino. The deck is the tens, aces, and faces out of the deck. Shuffle ’em up, deal out 9 and put another card in front as the burn card, face down. Deal each player two cards remaining. That gives you your hand.

Each player has three gang members, marked 1, 2, and 3 on the bottom. At the start of the game, they all start on the face-down card, all face down so your opponents don’t know what number they have. You can check at any time. Then, at the far end of the casino you put a pair of tokens that are the casino security.

Play proceeds by turns. On your turn, you get to move one of your crew into the casino, and then you get to move someone who’s inside the casino two spots. At the end of your turn, you get to move one of the security tokens to stand between two cards. The two cards adjacent to the security are occupied by security, so you can’t move into them or out of them.

Once all three tokens are in the casino, there’s a countdown timer – not sure what. I think it might even be that once you’ve moved your third crew in there’s one more round of movement then the game ends.

Either way, when the game ends, you reveal the tokens, flip ’em over, and whoever has the highest number in each card is the one who scores that card. Based on that, and on the cards you have in hand, you make a hand, the winner is the one who controlled a better territory. You can get draws, though, and there needs to be some tiebreaker mechanism for the more complicated version of the game.

It’s a real simple little territory control game. That’s literally all the core of the game needs, and played like that it’s reasonably engaging. You don’t even need specialised pieces – you can use ordinary player cards and folded tabs of paper for the workers.

What I aim to do next is to make a nice version with a bag, and tokens, and aesthetic cards:

I’m not sure which I like better at this point. If I go with the more jazzed-up look, I’m going to run into the design of the the Suits, and that’s a lot of work. On the other hand, if I do that I also think I want to make it so the aesthetic is less abstracted – look more like rooms, give the roundings on the outside a clearer ‘walkway’ feel to them. This is how I did things when I made the Pipesm’n game, after all.

One game mechanic I decided on though, is that the cards with special abilities are only jacks and tens. I may even scale it down to just jacks and jokers, with jokers as a wild card, to make it so people fight over them pretty hard.

Game should be being playtested sometime this post goes up.

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