Kitten Mitten Town Pound Design Diary: Who’s it for?

Apologies to my one avid reader (Hi wife!) for the lack of updates in the past 3 months, it has been a woozee of a time! Whilst most have found extra time on their hands, and were busy making variations of the same TikTok video; my time in social isolation has been my busiest: with a 1+ year old toddler that has made it her life mission to run and climb near every sharp object around the home; attempting the mythical task of working from home; trying to push a game out for the 2020 54-card competition on Board Game Geeks (Kitten Mitten Town Pound)… you can imagine what a time it was!

Tik-tok, bringing communities together one dance move at a time.

Getting back on topic though, I wanted to share some design pondering-s when designing Kitten Mitten Town Pound – a collaborative effort between myself and my friend Yung. Specifically, the pain of doing a total overhaul 2 weeks before submission date. I would like to take the next couple of posts to discuss 3 of the major pillars we always looked back on when facing design related conundrums. Despite my best editorial efforts, you may notice that some of the points seem to overlap, just the nature of the beast I suppose: no pillar can stand on its own.   

Samples of the prototype build. Available to play on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. PDF rules and assets available too.

Kitten Mitten Town Pound. If the name sounds sexual to you, trust me the original title was much worse! We kept the current version because of how nice it sounded when recorded, it’s not meant to mean much. Also, it was derived from this famous children’s song “3 Little Kittens” combined with the brawler-like feeling of the game play. So, you know, get your mind out of the gutter!

It never started out this like this though, fitting into the description of a highbrow boardgame elitist who pronounces Troyes as “Twar”, we wanted to create an elegant town planning game, the likes that Suburbia and Machi Koro have never seen before! All at the affordable price of a deck of cards, without fiddly tokens and tiles. The game was meant to give you the high and satisfaction of building the great city of Kuala Lumpur, oh how clever we were to tick all the “important” boxes that would lead to government grants and local media praise – we said to ourselves whilst clinking our virtual wine glasses (Social distancing!!) and twirling our sparse Asian moustaches. Alas, our dreams of being recognised on the streets as “those guys who made a thing that does stuff” were quickly shattered, by a rock thrown by the cruel board game gods who are quick to point out design related fallacies. Much like Prog Metal fans who can’t understand that music is meant to be listened to, and not dissected as a biology class experiment.

In Kuala Lumpur, players had to build they districts and buildings on the same map/grid, blanacing what they “wanted” to build, with what they were “allowed” to build. All whilst trying to make sure your collection of buildings were more impressive than your competition’s. This sounded great on paper, but what works in theory doesn’t always work out practically. Let’s just say that playing the game felt every bit as dreary as being a government town planner. A sample taster of our prototype cards can probably give you an idea of how things were going.

Sample Prototypes for Kuala Lumpur

Without boring you with the specifics, we went through an existential crisis (as I do with every game I’ve ever designed) and could not find a way out of this design maze. It was at this time, I did some introspection to reconsider some essential pillars of the game:

Remember Who You Are Designing For

It is easy to get sucked into a design buffet, adding mechanics upon mechanics and trying to outshine the likes of Uwe Rosenberg and Vital Lacerda. However, any designer worth their salt will always ask you “who is the game for”? There is a place for games like Snakes and Ladders; and a place in the market for games like Vinhos, both are equally valid and solid titles for what they are trying to achieve. Clearly outlining your target audience (their gaming preferences, their habits, and even their potential thought processes), and constantly reminding yourself of who they are will clearly help guide your design decisions.

When designing Kuala Lumpur, we clearly wanted to target gateway gamers in their late teens or early 20’s. They had played some Monopoly, and potentially some Werewolf and Coup. Their parents (or themselves) were blue collar workers, and probably only gamed once a week. While they occasionally play competitively, they usually play causally while chatting. Sometimes they may even want a quick round of solitaire play, whilst waiting for their food deliveries to arrive. They may enjoy the option of playing the game, dropping it midway to do some chores (because mum was yelling), and come back to it later. More than anything, the gamers potentially liked looking at the cards more than playing them.

An example of a design conundrum from Kuala Lumpur was that each card had 3 statistics: (1) Wealth; (2) Happiness; and (3) pollution. The cards also had tolerances to each of these 3 stats which would dictate where it would best be placed. Now the heavy euro player or solo aficionado may find the prospect of simulated town planning appealing, trying to math out the most effective move, leading up to the brutal Victory Point beatdown of their opponent. To our target audience, it is probably equivalent to cognitive suicide. Most of all, it just wasn’t the type of “fun” we were looking for.

As we wanted the game to be family friendly (and referring back to our target audience), we eventually removed ALL restrictions and focused on the player’s intentions instead. So rather than creating an environment where the game would dictate and limit the player’s hand; we are telling the player to do whatever they want, whereby the payback will vary based on what they do. What that meant was for us to be aware, of how many questions a player needs to ask themselves before committing to a move. The current game has an approximate total of 7 considerations a player can make to play efficiently; however, a decision can be reached by only considering 1 to 3 crucial elements. We felt that this would be more palatable to the intended audience, without watering it down for “core” gamers.

Comparing 2 similar cards from both games.

What we were most excited of, was the being able to fix a problem without creating more rules, but rather simplifying them and providing the player greater liberty (of course, we had to tweak the interaction between cards to facilitate this, but that would be a different discussion altogether).

Although not exactly the same thing, it reminded me of the core principles of systemic Video games such as Minecraft, Deus Ex, and more recently, Zelda Breath of the Wild:

Give the player the tools, and let them create their own solutions based on their understanding of the game’s rules.

As an example, in Zelda Breath of the Wild, in game objects and environments are laced with physics based rules, such as: light objects float on water whereas heavy objects sink; light objects can be blown by the wind; whereas heavy objects can store momentum. Bearing some of this knowledge, the simple action of crossing a river can be executed in multiple ways, you could: (1) chop a tree and use it as a bridge; (2) hitch a ride on a floating platform, pushed by the river’s currents; (3) use magic to freeze the river and create platforms for you to hop across; (4) grabbing hold of a boulder that is propelled by the momentum from a bomb blast; (5) swim … the list is endless. You can see the appeal of allowing the player to choose their own solutions, rather than shoehorning a predetermined method that may not be immediately obvious, relying on memory rather than instinct. Whilst some solutions are more efficient (and safer!), they all allow the player to get to where they want. I can appreciate that video and board gaming are 2 separate things, but the principles behind their designs are almost identical.

Remembering who will play the game, and how they will likely derive enjoyment would help to refine the rules and mechanics of your game. Without taking a step back to remember this, we may never have reached our eventual destination, stuck with a mish mash of a game that didn’t excite anyone at all.

Be sure to check out the game! See you all in the next topic of discussion!

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