I am a big proponent of “jams” or contests that require a creative individual to completely finish a project within a very small amount of time. It is a fantastic way to hone your skills in your craft of choice, gain experience in working quickly and efficiently, and actually finish something, which can often be a problem for creators with lofty and ambitious visions for their work. I have participated in several computer game jams such as Ludum Dare (which I have written posts about my thoughts on top finishers), but haven’t run across many equivalents for tabletop board games (granted, I haven’t looked all that hard). That is, until recently, when I saw the announcement for Panjam, a 48 hour board game design contest hosted by Pangea Games and sponsored (and judged) by the Gamesmiths. I have been wanting to practice more hands-on tabletop game design, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity without a huge time commitment. This post will walk through my experiences over the 48 hours of the jam, highlight some of my internal designer dialogue and lessons learned, and discuss my entry which ultimately ended up winning the contest!
Hours 0-2: Brainstorming on the Theme
The theme for Panjam was released at midnight EST, kicking off the 48 hour timer. Fortunately for me, I live in MST, allowing me to see the theme at 10:00pm. I think this is actually a huge help, because it allowed me to get in some solid brainstorming before calling it a night.
The theme for the jam was “they tasted quite delicious.”
Immediately my mind started racing through all the different ways that this could be interpreted as a theme for a game. My initial list of ideas looked something like this:
- Monsters eating adventurers
- Cannibals eating people
- Eating sushi
- Wine tasting
My goal for the first night was really to just decide on a theme, and then define some design goals such as target audience and feelings that I would want the game to evoke in the player. I tried to genuinely entertain each idea on my list, but I ultimately felt the strongest sense of direction with the “Monsters eating adventurers” theme. I had a vague vision of players controlling different fantasy monsters, and eating the adventurers that come to try and slay them.
Before I clocked in for the night, I wanted to have a clear idea of the basic mechanics so that I could really dive into making simple components for a prototype the next morning. I knew it was important for me to get away from designing in my head and into reality as quickly as possible. After some additional brainstorming, I came up with this general idea:
Each round, a group of adventurers (represented by cards) are dealt onto the table to come and “attack” the monsters. Under each card, a “nutrition facts” card would be dealt to highlight what the rewards were for eating that particular adventurer. Monsters would then bid for turn order using an initiative resource, and then take turns playing cards from their hand to attack the adventurers. Each monster would have a board that tracked resources such as initiative, health, experience, and different types of energy. Each “nutrition facts” card would reward players with a combination of these resources, as well as victory points in some cases. The player cards would require different energy costs, so players would need to focus on gaining energy to be able to play more cards in future turns. The turn order had the tradeoff of early monsters getting the first pick of which adventurers to kill, but with the added danger of being attacked by more of them.
At this point, I felt the interesting decision points in the game would be the following:
- How much initiative do I bid? Am I set up well to kill adventurers if I go first, without taking a lot of damage? Or am I better off trying to go later, when some adventurers may already be killed?
- How can I best use my cards to attack the row of adventurers? Different adventurers would have different stats and effects, so each round was meant to be a small puzzle in how to apply cards to kill adventurers while minimizing damage and maximizing the nutritional rewards.
Experience points would then be used to buy new player cards from a “store,” adding a small deck-building element that allowed each player to differentiate themselves throughout the game and gain more interesting options for card combinations.
This was a lot to go through my mind in 2 hours! At the time though, I felt like it was manageable and I was ready to hit prototyping hard the following day. At this point, I knew it would pay off to be well-rested, so I headed to bed.
Hours 3-10: Sleeping
Hours 11-17: Rapid Prototyping
After a quick breakfast, I began mocking out some test components as quickly as I could. Before long, I realized one major challenge with my design: I only was going to know the kinds of effects that player cards should have once I had a better feel of the design, but I could only get a better feel of the design by having player cards that I could test with. The game design wisdom echoed in my head, “you almost certainly aren’t going to get it right the first time and will have to iterate, so you might as well not waste time and rather put in some random effects to start.” I created four starter cards for two different fantasy monsters: a dragon and a giant slime.
I also needed some very basic adventurer cards to be able to start experimenting with how the row that was dealt each round would present a puzzle to the player. I quickly came up with the following types:
- Knight – 1 Attack, 1 Shield, 1 Health – No special effect.
- Ranger – 1 Attack, 0 Shield, 1 Health – Attacks before the player plays cards.
- Catapult – 2 Attack, 1 Shield, 2 Health – Attacks before the player plays cards.
- Priest – 0 Attack, 0 Shield, 1 Health – Each adjacent adventurer in the row gains 1 health.
- Mage – 1 Attack, 0 Shield, 2 Health – When attacking, steals one of the monster’s energy.
- Thief – 1 Attack, 0 Shield, 2 Health – If the last enemy in the row when killed, draw an extra “nutrition facts” card as a reward.
Realize that all of these effects and stats were literally just made up and written down within 10 minutes, without much thought at all about balance or how they would effect the game. I figured all of that could be worked out in playtesting, and I just wanted different characteristics that would make each round a little different depending on what was dealt. To increase this variability, I created a few “item” cards that could get added in future waves, such as chainmail or a weapon that would boost certain statistics on an adventurer.
Additionally, I needed some sample “nutrition facts” cards that I could assign to each adventurer, so I simply put together some permutations of the different kinds of rewards that could be gained. In my mind, this was where I saw a lot of the interest of the game emerging. Hopefully the nutrition cards would lead to decision such as, “well I could kill the Ranger and get some Power energy which would let me play this powerful card next turn, but this Mage would give me experience and initiative which would help me control my turn order and work towards buying a new card.”
With all of this prepared, I began to deal some cards and see how things would play. I evaluated each round, and quickly make tweaks that became obvious as I saw it all come together. The basic flow of the game at this point looked like the following (each round):
- A row of adventurer cards are dealt. The plan was to have this row grow and become more challenging as the players gained experience and more powerful cards.
- Players then take turns spending their initiative resource to determine play order. The starting player token for this bidding process would rotate each round.
- In the determined turn order, each player has the opportunity to either attack or rest. If resting, the player simply gained 2 health, 2 initiative, 2 energy of their choice, and 1 card back from their discard (at the expense of missing out on gaining any “nutrition facts” rewards that round). If attacking, the player would resolve the following steps:
- Ranged units (Rangers and Catapults) attack first, with the creature taking damage equal to their attack.
- The player plays as many cards as they want, spending the appropriate energy. These cards might attack the row in different ways or provide other benefits. Any used cards are placed in that creature’s discard pile.
- All the remaining non-ranged units then attack. This is the risk of bidding to go earlier; potentially more enemies left to attack you.
- The player then has the opportunity to spend experience to gain a new card from the store.
- Once all players had taken a turn, they would get to retrieve cards from their discard based on their health (fewer cards with less health), and gain one experience.
Play would continue for a set number of rounds, and then the player with the most victory points (gained from some “nutrition facts” and some player cards) would be the winner.
And so I had a functional game! But it was completely unbalanced, hadn’t really found its “fun identity” yet, and still required more work creating cards for the store to get a feel of the game’s progression. However, my wife and I now needed to attend a wedding, so I put the design on hold and gave myself a much-needed mental break.
Hours 18-20: Attending Wedding
Hours 21-23: Further Playtesting
After pulling together enough of the components for the game to be playable, my younger brother arrived to help playtest and figure out what changes needed to be made. I explained to him much of what I’ve written in this post so far, and we started playing some example turns to get a feel for how it all fit together. During this process, I had a nagging voice in my head that was telling me that not only was the game going to be hard to pull together by the deadline, but it still lacked the fun factor that I had envisioned. However, an opposing voice in my head reminded me that early prototypes are supposed to be rough, and as long as we quickly iterated and made improvements, we should be able to cause the fun to emerge.
So we spent a few hours discussing the design, and trying to identify what small changes might make things work better. This was all complicated by the fact that the game depended a lot on the player cards being created and balanced, and that was very difficult to do when it hadn’t found its identity yet. Finally, I voiced my concerns, saying something along the lines of, “I really have two options. Either I continue with this design, but I have to really move into creating components, rules, and additional cards without much more time to ‘find the fun,’ or I could abandon large parts of this idea and try to start over and create something simple enough to finish in the remaining 24 hours.”
This was a really really difficult decision. You can tell how much thought I had put into the design at this point, and throwing most of it away seemed like a huge waste, as well as risky. What if I ran out of time to implement a new idea? It would be a big leap of faith to trust myself to finish something from scratch in 24 hours. However, the alternative (staying with the current design) did not look all that attractive either. I felt like the game wasn’t near a fun and finished state, and it would take me most of the remaining time to just make the rulebook and components.
While we discussed these options, I had a random funny thought come to mind, which I mentioned: “What if it was still the same theme of fantasy creatures eating adventurers, but each adventurer you ate ended up being a piece that dropped into a little puzzle that represented the creature’s stomach?” We kind of laughed at the idea, but as we talked things over more, both of us saw major potential in the concept. If I was going to finish a new design in 24 hours, I knew it needed to be a very casual game; the kind of game my wife or mom would enjoy playing (in the lines of something like Cottage Garden, Sagrada, etc.) Any more time spent making this decision was time lost in actually creating something, so I finally made the call: we were scrapping the current design and pursuing this new idea.
Hours 24-26: Pivoting to New Idea
I knew the time left to work with my brother was limited, so we quickly made some design decisions and drew up some mock components that would let us test it. How I saw it, the design needed two specific parts:
- Some sort of puzzle that represents the creature’s stomach, with the pieces representing adventurers that are eaten.
- Some sort of drafting mechanism for players to actually acquire the adventurers that they eat.
If we could figure out those two parts, I figured it would achieve what I was looking for. We started with the puzzle itself. In my mind, I pictured something sort of like Tetris or Candy Crush, where new pieces would drop in from the top, and there would be some kind of scoring around creating certain patterns. One idea was to have patterns clear, similar to rows in Tetris, but I kind of liked the idea of the stomach “filling up,” both from a thematic standpoint, as well as for final scoring. The big question was, “what determines the scoring conditions?” Would the scoring conditions be the same for every player? Would they be same in every game?
One approach would be to have random “goals” dealt at the beginning of the game, and these would define the scoring conditions for all players in that game. I didn’t love this idea; it seemed like the easy way out and a bit derivative of other games, and I was more attracted to the idea of different players having different goals. How could I give players different goals and still keep things balanced? This is when I had a breakthrough idea for the design: what if some of the “pieces” that you dropped into the puzzle were actually scoring tiles that had specific scoring criteria based on their positioning? For example, you might have a tile that scores for having a certain tile type in the same row or column, so part of the strategy would be to drop the scoring tile effectively to maximize its potential.
The other main component of the “puzzle” portion of the gameplay was how the pieces actually filled the grid that represented the stomach. I wanted the grid to fill up entirely without any spaces (and this could trigger the end of the game as that creature is “full”), but I also liked the idea of Tetris-like pieces that were a combination of tile types, as it would make it more interesting to figure out how to rotate and drop a shape into the stomach. The answer ended up being a variety of Tetris-like pieces ranging from 1 to 4 total squares, with each square being assigned a value A, B, C, or D. Unlike Tetris though, when each piece is dropped in, every square drops as far down as it can, possibly breaking up the original shape.
At this point we felt like we understood the basics of how the puzzle portion of the game would work. Now we just needed to decide how players actually acquired the pieces for the puzzle.
Again, an immediate cliché mechanism came to mind: simply let players draft cards (passing undrafted cards clockwise) to pick their pieces. This certainly would have worked, but didn’t seem like anything special as games like 7 Wonders and Sushi Go! have contributed towards making that process commonplace in modern board games. I was inspired by how a game like Kingdomino put a simple twist on traditional drafting by having each piece not only represent the tile you are picking, but also your turn order for the next round. I felt like this was a good opportunity to come up with a similar, subtle twist on drafting, but what?
I love how game mechanics can emerge from two different sources: either they are an interesting puzzle or mechanism on their own and thematic justification is handled later, or they emerge from the theme and form something that would have never been invented without the theme (I discuss this apparent dichotomy a bit in my “Game Design Perspective” section of my Twilight Struggle review). In this case, the theme really helped me find a unique approach to the drafting. The cards were meant to represent adventurers coming to slay the creatures, and the creatures would be picking them off to eat. This caused me to envision a small 3×3 grid of adventurers, sort of like an army coming at the creatures. I thought about how these giant creatures could easily snatch up and eat adventurers, but it is also possible that the armed adventurers could do some damage in return. These ideas were pulled together into the following: players would draft cards from the 3×3 grid, but they would have to check for damage based on the cards around their selection. For every “sword” icon on cards next the selected card, and “bow and arrow” icon on cards two spaces away, the creature would need to take a damage. Damage would take the form of single-square tiles that are dropped into the stomach, taking up space without benefit, and possibly carrying some extra negative effects.
All of this brainstorming and decision-making had happened in less than an hour since we officially chose to switch ideas, and I think that is largely because the simplified scope made it easier to envision how the parts would fit together and what our goals were for the design. The last piece we needed in order to do a simple playtest was a way for players to actually get the scoring tiles. It seemed like we would want all players to have the same number of scoring tiles, and for them to be dropped into the creature stomachs periodically throughout the game. As a simple solution to help us to get playing more quickly, we just decided that every few rounds we would reveal some scoring tiles (“number of players + 1” seemed reasonable), and players would each draft one to immediately place. We also needed something to determine draft order for scoring tiles, and after throwing out some different ideas, we decided to add an additional “crown” trait to adventurer cards. During each scoring tile draft, players would pick in the order of who had collected the most crown icons since the last draft. We hoped this would provide another level of interest in selecting adventurer cards, as you had to consider not only the piece it would drop into the stomach and the damage from neighboring cards, but also how it might affect your turn order in the next scoring tile draft.
With that decision in place, we rushed to create a deck of adventure cards that had different permutations of Tetris-like shapes (with different combinations of A, B, C, and D), “sword” and “bow and arrow” icons, and “crown” icons. We drew up some simple 6×7 grids to represent the player’s stomachs (again, just a number that seemed reasonable), and grabbed a bunch of my extra colored prototyping cubes to use for the “tiles” that would get dropped into the stomach. We also quickly made some scoring tiles that explored different ideas around forming patterns in the grid.
And so, no more than an hour and a half after completely switching to this new idea, we started our first playtest.
And it went really well!
The design was definitely a little rough around the edges at this point, but the key was that the fun was clearly there. Even with our simple prototype, we found ourselves encountering interesting decisions and enjoying trying to figure out the best way to position things to score more points. We debriefed for a bit on our post-game thoughts, and then my brother headed home for the night. I exhaled, feeling a strong sense of validation in my decision to restart the design process, and spent the remainder of the night mapping out my priorities to pull the entry together the next day. Knowing I had a big day ahead of me, I hit the sack to get some rest.
Hours 27-35: Sleeping
Hours 36-40: Attending Church/Grocery Shopping
Hours 41-48: Creating Components and Rulebook
After a good night’s sleep and the completion of my scheduled morning activities, I sat down at my computer with about 8 hours until the deadline. Since completing our playtest the previous night, I had thought of several improvements to make, namely:
- Making the tiles dropped into the stomach have body part icons, instead of just “A, B, C, D”
- Adding a “grip” space to the creature board that temporarily holds a Leader tile after it is drafted. This was meant to make two improvements. First, it gives you some time to think about placement of a Leader tile before you actually have to drop it in. And second, it allows players to start with a Leader tile in their grip at the beginning of the game, giving them some additional direction with dropping in their first tiles from adventurers.
- Making player boards have unique “Personal Craving” scoring conditions. I liked the idea of having some goals beyond the scoring of the Leader tiles, and giving players different goals seemed ideal. It also helps to give players more direction at the beginning of the game when they don’t have many Leader tiles yet.
- Adding some Leader tiles with new scoring conditions, and attempting to balance all of them.
- Making damage tiles (which are dropped into the stomach when taking damage) incur a negative point if they are adjacent to another damage tile. Damage was already slightly harmful since it takes up space that could have been used to score points, but this would force players to be a little more careful about where they place the damage, and add a deterrent to taking too much.
With some of these changes implemented, I focused for the next 4 hours on creating all of the components for the game. I utilized game-icons.net to get some basic, clean-looking icons for the graphics, and I formatted everything in an OpenOffice Drawing document. For the adventurer deck, I used nanDECK, which is an awesome program for generating decks of cards from data in a spreadsheet, allowing the ability to quickly change details or formatting without needing to make the changes on every card. The process of making components probably took longer than it should have due to my tendency towards perfectionism with formatting (really need to fight that urge in these types of jams), but I was definitely happy with how everything ended up looking.
With about 4 hours remaining, I needed to crank out a rulebook. At this point I realized I probably wasn’t going to have time to do any more playtesting, but I felt pretty confident I could get the rulebook done. The consistent writing practice that I get with this blog (as well as some other writing projects I’ve been working on) has really helped my ability to quickly finish a draft and proofread it. My perfectionism continued to be a double-edged sword, but I finally finished everything, including proofreading, with about one hour remaining.
Not wanting to push the deadline, I pulled everything together, triple-checked it all, and officially submitted my entry with 20 minutes to spare.
Three days later I found out I was selected as one of three finalists, and the next day I was announced as the winner. I was already really happy with everything independent of the results, but it was an awesome feeling to see my creative work validated in that way after such an intense weekend of development.
This post is already getting a little longer than I had intended, but I always like to reflect on projects to identify what I have learned that can help me improve moving forward. Here are the main points that stood out to me:
Starting Over Was the Best Decision I Made
In these kinds of rapid design jams, it is very important to quickly decide on an idea so that you can have as much time as possible to develop it. Knowing this made abandoning my first 24 hours of work such a hard decision. I could have very easily decided to stick with it, and I can pretty much guarantee that I would not have found the same success. It ended up being excellent practice of looking objectively at a creative project, and making a decision that is unaffected by sunk costs. That is a skill that I hope to continue to improve in the future.
Always Learn Your Tools Before a Jam
Leading up to Panjam, I thought it might be a good idea to spend some time learning nanDECK so that I could use it if my design called for a varied deck of cards. When it came time to actually create the cards for Fantasy Feast in the heat of the jam, I was able to very quickly put them together simply because I had familiarized myself with the tool ahead of time. The lead-up to a jam or contest is always a good excuse to “sharpen the saw” and make sure your toolset is ready.
Do Not Exclusively Design Alone
It is possible that I would have abandoned my first idea even if my brother hadn’t come over to help with some playtesting. That said, having a second opinion and someone to bounce ideas off of definitely helped me reach that decision more quickly. It also made our first playtest of the new design a lot more efficient than if I had been trying it by myself. I don’t know what my entry would have looked like without those five collaborative hours, but it would have certainly been worse.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
New piece of advice I am going tell myself in the future: the design in your head is always 50% more complicated than you think it is. Often, shooting for what seems too simple will actually get you right where you want to be.
Getting Enough Sleep Helps
Both nights during the jam I chose to get a nice, full 8 hours of sleep. Perhaps if I had sacrificed some of that sleep, I could have had some extra time for additional playtesting. However, it is hard to quantify how much I would have lost in terms of my focus and stamina. Rapid design competitions require you to move fast and process a lot of information quickly, and I think feeling well-rested helped me to perform to the best of my ability.
Make Time to Participate in Jams!
Of course it is easy to say that participating in a contest was worthwhile once you know that you won, but I believe that the majority of the benefit from these kinds of endeavors has no dependency on the final result. Even if I hadn’t won, I still gained valuable design experience in a variety of areas (brainstorming, prototyping, developing, writing rules, etc.), learned and applied a new tool (nanDECK), and was able to build valuable connections with the online board game development community. And who knows, you might even win! I certainly wasn’t expecting this result when I decided to enter, but the one way to guarantee it won’t happen is to not try.
That wraps up what has hopefully been an interesting window into my design process over the 48 hours of Panjam. I feel I have improved as a designer by participating, and that is all I could have asked for. Feel free to reach out with any questions or comments, I always enjoy meeting other designers or like-minded creative folks!