Sam “King of the Hilltop”


When we set out to design Cult of the Deep, it was exciting to see the ideas come alive. Like many designers, I didn’t see any glaring issues with the game after my initial rounds of testing and tweaking. It wasn’t until later when testing the game with people outside my circle of friends and family that I ran into some deep and cutting feedback about the game. After all was said and done, I had to distill all of that feedback down to actionable decisions that I could make in the game’s design.

I am going to go through some of those comments, the decisions we made, and how I think the game has drastically improved because of it. But first, we need to set the scene and tell you a bit about the game.

The Game

We were in the final stages of game design for Cult of the Deep, or so we thought, when this playtest occurred at a Protospiel event. Cult of the Deep is a hidden role dice game for 4-8 players with a game time of 45-60 min. You are a cultist trying to establish your faction’s rise to power. Fight over rituals and mythical monsters as you seek victory and control of the cult. It’s a game that mixes the social deduction elements of hidden role games with a focus on rolling and making choices with dice. Options include things like stabbing other players, gaining life, giving other players’ life, helping with rituals to gain rewards, or trying to complete rituals to gain permanent bonuses and abilities for just yourself.

In the original set-up, you are given a unique character that comes with a special ability and a role card that tells you your win/loss conditions. However, the role card also had a special ability that could be used once per game at the cost of revealing your role.

The Critiques

After playing a game at the Protospiel, it was time for feedback. After chatting with everyone at the table for a while, there was a pattern to the critique. I hadn’t noticed before in earlier playtests because it was hidden behind excitement for the game and the idea of the game. This time, the feedback and issues were much clearer. There have been other critiques of the game that we have addressed but I want to focus on these three and our solutions to it.

Critique #1) The game really lacks social deduction.

In games of hidden roles and social deduction, I find the best ones find ways to muddle the clarity of who is who. It makes it harder for people to know who everyone is immediately. However, there is a component of liberty and choice that needs to be enabled in social games. Which means, that depending on the social skill or experience of a player, they may share too much information, etc. which can lead to less interesting and quick games as roles are quickly identified. So, trying to balance information with the ability to deceive, bluff, or play the game had to be taken into consideration. This critique to us was saying they were not having to deduce much or it was happening too quickly or easily.

Critique #2) There is not a lot of variety to the game in terms of combinations. I don’t think there is any replayability.

When people talk about replayability, they are usually referring to one of two things in my experience (which isn’t a whole lot mind you but some):

  • Will the next game provide different but viable strategies to win?
  • Will the game provide new experiences and choices to be made?

Being a social deduction game, the first one is a lot easier. There are usually some balancing questions that need to happen but social games are inherently fairly open ended in how you want to try and win. It’s one of the strong points of a social game. Are they all viable though? That is a tougher question and one that will likely never be truly solved because people and how they play will forever throw a wrench into it…which is AWESOME!!

The second point being the new experiences and choices is where our game at the time was struggling. We mentioned there would be more characters and cards coming later but it still wasn’t getting the desired response from the players. We needed to rethink what were doing here.

Critique #3) The once per game power is awesome, but why would I not use it first turn?

An observation here. This idea comes up a lot with gamers who tend towards heavy Euro style games. Many times they are concerned about efficiency. Why wait, when mathematically this is the optimal play? This can be looked at in several ways but to us it was calling out balance and the understanding of when a special power could be played. What are the benefits to waiting?

The Solution

We went back home and we fought with different ideas for hours and days. It was a difficult time, but it also proved to be the most rewarding. It’s now an interesting solution to look at when designing other games. We call it decoupling. When you take a mechanic and break it into smaller parts. It can lead to more steps or rules but sometimes that is warranted. In our case, it was to remove abilities from the roles. It’s a simple change but it had a dramatic impact on the development of the game.

#1) With the roles no longer being revealed unless you died, doubt could be introduced into the social process. Is that person really an enemy? Are they really a friend? Other than by their actions, how do you know? That helped solve the lack of social deduction issue.

#2) Once per game abilities, which became known as Sigils, could now provide a greater variety of experiences. Since they were independent, we greatly increased the # of possible combinations. With 9 characters and 9 roles w/powers we had 81 possible combinations. By separating the once per game powers, it lowered the number of different roles to 4 since each one was no longer unique, but now had 9 Characters, 9 Sigils, and 4 Roles. This is now a total possible 324 combinations. This led to never playing the same game twice.

We could have gone a different route by just making more roles with powers but we had to consider the first critique. Not enough deduction. Powers could now be revealed without exposing the role identity. It made it a bit harder to deduce. Perfect.

#3) Because of the increase in variety, there were more combinations with strategic tendencies. Meaning they helped give players ideas on what strategies they would want to use. This led to people having to make choices between efficiency in their role and efficiency for their character. This helps with not playing your power first turn as certain combinations do not favor an early use.

The Cost

However, there is always a catch. By doing this, we introduced more cards that would need to be introduced to the game and an increase to the clutter of the game on the board. These new cards will now need art that is different from the roles. Basically, we made a change to the game that is better for the game as a whole but also increased cost. That has to be weighed every time you make decisions about your game. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is quite difficult. We decided it was worth it and with follow-up playtests and demos, that has been a resounding yes.


Decoupling is a powerful tool and every board game designer should have it in their toolbox. You won’t use it all the time but when you need it, it can be very effective.

What other tools do you have in your board game design toolbox? Have you ever done decoupling to some of your board game rules?

Shout out

I did want to do a shout out to Protospiel. They are an organization that is really about helping board game designers get the playtesting and feedback they need. You should check them out and I know they have been doing a number of virtual Protospiels. You can check out Protospiel Online at: Homepage – (

Cult of the Deep

If you are interested in how Cult of the Deep is doing, you can check out the rulebook on the Cult of the Deep page. We are also launching it on Kickstarter February 2nd. You can check out our Kickstarter page or subscribe above to our newsletter.

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