Designing A Puzzle

Some games are designed to be about setting up a play space, where you can sort of simulate a thing interacting with another thing. Games like Wobbegong-12 are about that very pure experience of a thing, in a place, doing stuff. Other games, though, are much more about a puzzle.

Recently I designed a game called You Can’t Win. The game got its start as originally, a conception of a bunch of villains siting around playing Russian Roulette, flipping cards from a small deck of 6 cards and shooting themselves. My efforts to refine this, to make the rest of the game engaging, required a more and more elaborate game, until finally, I realised, I had a puzzle that didn’t need the Russian Roulette mechanism.

What I was left with was a trick-taking game, and I found, my original idea to play it was breathtakingly hard to win. That sort of played into the idea of You Can’t Win and eventually gave the game its name.

The nature of You Can’t Win is one where, the first time you play it, nobody wins. Probably. It’s very, very easy to knock out all the playable numbers the first time you play. The tactical choices aren’t obvious – and in a game of say, four people, you only ever get to make four or five choices of what to play, which means your options are very limited.

Most players play a round or two of You Can’t Win and decide they think they know how hard it is, how difficult it is to play, then decide they’re not interested. That’s fine. It’s a cheap little game, it’s meant to be something niche. But, but.

For a particular type of player.

I’ve watched it happen. It’s that special character of that one person at church youth group, the teacher, the guy who remembers all the tiles in Carcassonne. It’s the mindset that you look at your card, you look at your hand, and you start trying to map the puzzle in advance. As the game gets played, more components of the puzzle play out. You know what’s in your hand. You know what’s not in your hand. You know you’re less likely to see a concentration of numbers, you’re more likely to see them spread out, but you might not. You know there are guns in the pool, too, making wild cards.

And for that kind of player, it is wonderful to sit there and chew on the puzzle. To grind it in their head. To try and properly solve the game… and watching as those players fight against one another and adjust the puzzle is fascinating fun.

It’s okay if what you’ve crafted is a nasty little knot of a game, basically.

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