Sam “King of the Hilltop”
Congratulations! You have a complete design and it is beautiful and glorious! This game is a masterpiece! What!? What do you mean you don’t think it flows!? You think the tokens are clunky? You’re clunky!
I have learned a lot over the last few years and especially now that I have a local playtest group that meets every two weeks. There have been moments where I feel like Cult of the Deep is 90% done. An almost complete board game. Then after testing, I must face the truth. There are things that need to be changed in order to help the game be its very best.
This concept is called “Killing Your Darlings.” There are things that you love in your board game design, your story, illustration, or design work but those things being there detract from the whole. So, they need to be removed, or in other words, killed.
I designed a few games before Cult of the Deep and even though I absolutely loved them, they were not meant to be. During this process of failed games, I realized something, I wanted to create a board game that other people wanted to play. I needed to be willing to modify ideas and gameplay in my board game vision in order to better help communicate that vision.
An example, in our board game, Cult of the Deep, there is a Kraken creature that shows up in the game. I thought it was brilliant that the Kraken would show up and start to “consume” people. When they were consumed, they would start to become weaker and weaker every round until they perished in the bowels of the mighty Kraken! YES! BOW BEFORE ITS POWER!!
I LOVED THIS IDEA!! A giant creature showing up and eating people where they slowly waste away to nothing. Digested by one of the greatest avatars of the Deep! So thematic! However, players weren’t having fun, unless they were the ones who happened to be winning. It made the end inevitable. There were no real comeback mechanics as you just became weaker and weaker. You couldn’t fight back and you would lose the game, but you had to wait 3-4 rounds before it was over.
I loved the bleakness and loss of hope! I would drink in the salty tears of despair and love it! But after looking back at the comments about the game, the playtesters, the math; I finally decided to kill that idea and had to change it. It was HARD! It took me weeks and weeks to finally let go of the idea. I was even creating cards and abilities that would modify this specific event in the game. Yet, I realized that by adding those rules and cards the game was becoming more and more complicated. I loved the idea of people being eaten and digested by a giant monster. Now, that is a worthy idea, but it’s in the wrong game. After finally deciding to make some changes, I can definitively say it has helped the game become leagues better than it was.
Besides, I always remember the words of one of my favorite authors, Dan Wells. ” Yes, I am killing it now. But someday, I will be able to raise it from the dead.”
So one day, I plan to go back over some of these lost souls, these lost board games and game mechanics, and bring them back to life.
What about you? What darlings have you killed? What dastardly ideas did you have that you want to bring back from the dead?
In the meantime, I am linking a great podcast that has helped me a lot through both writing and game design processes. They are strikingly similar at times. Listening to this podcast has allowed me to: think through problems, come up with solutions, and let me know I am not alone with the struggle to create. A great listen.
Below is the particular episode that inspired this article and taught me about this concept.
I Don’t Want To, You Can’t Make Me
Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”
Killing your “Darlings” has been referenced by authors for quite some time. It has been referenced by Brandon Sanderson (where I first heard it), Stephen King, and where Stephen King mentioned it he was referencing William Faulkner. The thing about this concept is that it is applicable very easily outside of writing. We as people naturally have our favorite things. Some of these favorite things aren’t necessarily good for us (such as my over consumption of carbonated products) or other individuals don’t like it. (People’s reaction when I put sugar on my spaghetti.) So when trying to design a product or sell something, it is important to keep in mind that you are not trying to get yourself to like it but you are trying to get others to like it. But this leads us to a singular problem.
The problem is no one else can make you kill your darlings. The problem is no one else can make you understand why it is important to kill your darlings. In the world of board game development and design a “Darling” is a mechanic, setting, theme, action, type, or some part of your game that you just think is absolutely brilliant, the best ever, and it’s going to just be the best thing about your game. Now it is possible this is the case but often times it just needs to be stabbed and left to die, alone, by itself, in the corner. Your darling is probably one of the favorite parts of your game, you probably want to tell everyone about this cool thing you have in your game. However, there is a problem. The feedback you get about that “Darling” is lackluster, or downright atrocious, and you keep defending it. That is a mistake. It needs to die.
This is done by admitting to yourself that it probably needs to go, and stepping back, removing it from the game. From here you have a clean slate and you can begin to address the problem. This allows you to see what is left and how to address the void that is left by removing it from the game. Sometimes this will not leave a void and you learn that by removing it your game is more streamlined. You may find a different mechanic or action to address the void that leads to better game design, flow, and decision making process. The key here is to address the root of the problem. Often your darling is the symptom. Address the underlying issue. Like anything else, addressing the underlying cause is what solves the problem. If a game is too complicated is it because of too many rules, or too many steps? Are there too many options in a turn? Can you simplify the options? Can you move the options into a seperate phase? If you are exchanging/moving pieces on the board, is there another way to accomplish the same objective? And etc.
This culling of darlings has been done several times in the development of Cult of the Deep. There have been things that I really liked and they were cut, and left lifeless on the floor. Sam has had more darlings then I can count in this project, left to die by the wayside. These have all been beneficial and once excised, the root problem identified, and addressed, the project has benefited.
I find the concept of “Killing Your Darlings” to be an interesting one that can even be applied to life. What are the habits that I do, that I love, that I don’t want to give up, but probably should? How much better would my life be if I killed these personal life choice darlings? In the end I don’t want to, you can’t make me, I probably should, and with some I will.
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