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!

Gangster Derby Design Diary#1 Constant Threat

 “Ambivalence”, that is not a word I thought I would normally start a blog with as it indicates uncertainty  I tend to have very specific feelings about something, but when I received the artwork for my game Gangster Derby, I couldn’t help but feel extremely excited and extremely demotivated at the same time.

Taken from

What Rising Wolf has illustrated for me is an exciting scene: a thrilling high speed car chase where our players are just a few steps ahead of the pursuing police. This illustration was meant to depict the sensations of playing the game. By all accounts this was the perfect delivery, the conflicting feeling, however, stems from exactly that – the illustration was perfect but the game wasn’t.

Who wouldn’t want to play this game?
Illustrated by Jennifer Teh of Rising Wolf (Rising Wolf)

It is no easy task to try and replicate the sensations of a car chase in a card game, so I had to breakdown that sensation into digestible blocks, and the question I always asked myself was: “how much further can I abstractify this feeling?” The result from such a thought exercise led me to recent experience at board game café meetup:

Being primarily a solo gamer, my comfort zone for gaming always lingered around the cooperative games or “multiplayer” solitaire style games. Pandemic, Viticulture, and Spirit Island are all my jam when I’m having a quiet evening in. What attracted me about these games was the fact that I had total control of the game and its elements; I knew how I could be hurt and how to dish out the pain when necessary. I could plan my moves ahead, because I knew (mostly) what options the opposition had. As such I was never really exposed to deductive-style games, especially those with strong social elements. To think that your victory was entirely dependent on the actions/inactions of another person, it was not an appealing proposition.

Taken from

Fast forward to January 2020, I found myself in a board game event where most players were exclusively interested in social deduction games (like Ultimate Werewolf and Codenames). Being the ever INFP Mediator personality, I complied and found myself learning to play these games I once painted with a brush of ridicule due to their casual nature, and oh boy was I ever so wrong about these games.

Taken from

The game that stood out to me most that night was Coup, a game centered around lying about your identity, whilst players are trying to eliminate each other. The best thing about the game was not the deceit, nor the thrill of finally gathering enough resources to finally remove a competitor from the game, but the social dynamics that change as the game advances. Players were forming allegiances, backstabbing each other, forgoing obvious strategic targets just to satisfy egos – it was a bleeding free-for-all. This was all coming from a rule book that was less than one A4 page, and only describing legal player actions. The meat of the game, however, came from the players themselves: their emotions, their biases, their suspicions, and even their personalities. This was emergent gaming at its best, and that delivered a sense of pure suspense that I could never find in other games – the sensation of Constant Threat.

Now to be clear, this is commentary with the benefit of hind sight and some introspection, I’m not some blank-eyed psycho analysing and deducing the nuances of human behaviour whilst trying to lie through my teeth, hoping that no one can call my bluff. But that constant sense of dread, the fear of the unknowable (as this is controlled entirely by another player), and making decisions based on the people involved rather than some sort of “turn efficiency” (The staple of Euro style board games), was a thrill that I couldn’t shake off, months after playing the game. I didn’t just play a game, I had an experience, a story to tell, an epiphany.

I look back at all the games that I enjoyed playing with others, I realised that the sense of “Constant Threat” was ever prevalent (albeit not as intense as the sensation delivered by Coup):

  1. Monopoly Deal:  The constant fear as to whether someone had a card to undo all my properties (collected sets), or worse yet, take over the entire set.
  2. Dead of Winter: The fear of having a betrayer in your midst, as you are slogging through an hour long campaign. Worst part being, as all players will have some sort of weird in-game personality trait, you can’t tell if they are just trying to fulfill their victory condition, or that they are actively trying to cause everyone to fail.  

So how does that relate back to Gangster Derby? Well, despite being a game about the underbelly crime organisations, there wasn’t any real sense of “Constant Threat” that one should experience when operating within that part of society. Whilst the “Pursuit” deck was designed to give you that sense of excitement (modelled after the suspense from revealing Black Jack cards), it lacked the raw emotional sense of “Constant Threat” that came along with being pursued by the cops.

That’s when I decided to take a cue from “Game Theory”, the theory of interaction between humans. In the most famous example of Game Theory – The Prisoners Dilemma, players are given a choice of continuing the status quo (whereby all parties will receive equal amounts of benefits), or to betray that peace so that they can benefit more from it. The thing about being on the short end of a deal, is that people tend to want to even the playing field. In retaliation to the person who first upset the order, those who were disadvantaged will look for other ways to disrupt the new state of the “game”, such that it would seem to either benefit themselves more or reposition itself to be as fair as it once was. This realignment will continue to bounce back and forth, until they reach some form of new status quo – Nash’s Equilibrium. Whilst I’m not looking to make Gangster Derby a simulation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I see the appeal of its set up in relation to what I’m trying to achieve in terms of game feel.     

This research has led me to implement the “Informant” action of the game. As an action, at any time during the game, a player is allowed to become an informant to the police, which offers them a straight up bonus of Honour points (which is Victory condition of the game), and an on-going bonus which exempts them from Bust events, helping the player to preserve Honour points. The other players instead will receive an on-going penalty throughout the duration that the “informant” status is in effect (3 rounds). This effect may only be played once per game per player, and is entirely optional. Initial play tests have proven that the effect helps achieve what I wanted – an invisible and constant threat that can initiate at any time, by anyone. There is no big set up to pull this off, and no warning to the players, purely based on the musings or vendetta of another player.

The Informant action
Victims of the Informant

Originally I designed it such that it can only be activated once per game and that it would last till the final rounds (the game originally had set turns, currently it is race style game where the end game triggers when a player has achieved the required Honour points), so that if 1 player has become an informant, no one else could. Whilst it achieved the sensation I was going for, initial play tests have shown that it became frustrating to certain players, and was seen as unfair. Whilst I would have argued that the real world was also unfair, I took the criticisms to heart and modified it to the current rules as stated above.

I was rather reluctant in implementing this new mechanic at first, as this meant additional components and more rules for the players to memorise, taking away from the “design elegance” philosophy I try to adhere to in all my games. However, I’m more interested in making a great gaming experience, rather than making a supposedly “smart” and elegant game that can only be appreciated by enthusiasts or other designers.

Taken from … again.

Time will tell as to whether this was a good addition, but this whole thought exercise has opened my eyes to many design philosophies that I would have otherwise ignored due to my gaming preferences. I hope this passage helps you to push the limits of your game design, as it has for me.

I Hate Writing

Almost as much as I hate broccoli, but I still stuff my face with those miniature trees because it’s meant to be good for your health and sex life, apparently. I write because I found that the task of transcribing thoughts into legible words not only helps with the improvement of speech, but it also helps in the refining of ideas – an important tool to any designer.

Like my biceps, lats, and many other external muscle groups, the lack of training my brain muscles have caused it to transmogrify into a huge blob, lacking the stern definition that my youth had once gifted me. Despite comforting myself with mantras like “it’s not what’s outside that’s important, it’s what’s on the inside”, deep down, I knew that my brain was probably as smooth as a pebble that has been shaped by the torrential forces of speech to text, Siri, and Uber/Grabfood deliveries. Anyhow, I needed a noggin workout.

As a game designer, we all yearn to create the best experiences and challenges for our audience, and much like music, complexity is not represented by the song with the most notes or the most complex chord structures, but rather; the ability to effectively deliver the intended emotions within its genre. I would much rather be able to create timeless masterpieces like Doom (1993), than Doom 3 (Disclaimer: Doom 3 to me is an ok game, that tried to impress with its graphics and atmosphere. Which is usually something I look forward to in a once of experience, but not a game). So the ability to articulate ones vision is paramount to any undertaking, regardless of its nature.

Doom 1993, Very challenge, much tactical, so exploration, wow.

Image taken from
Doom 3, Much corridor, very darkness, cannot hold gun and torch at same time, has plasma rifles but torch light dies after 30 seconds, wow. At least the torch’s batteries are rechargeable by jump scares.

Image taken from kneedeepinthedoomed

If recent experience in game design has been any indication, the impressiveness of one’s artistic output is almost always directly correlated to its designer’s ability to articulate the high and low level details of its game, and how they all interact with each other. I guess this has something to do with being clear with what your visions are. The clearer the vision, the harder it is to detract or be vied away from it, and the better you will be at building upon it. This epic level of dedication is all attributed to having clear goals, rather than having general “sort of” “kind of” goals: The output from a “I want a competitive game, with an emphasis on momentum and short player turns”; compared to a “I want a game that’s sort of like Pandemic, with abit of Brass feel, with deck building elements”, is almost always a better game. Not to say you can’t start at the later, but one’s ability to get to the former is greatly aided from ability to dissect and discern elements, which (to me) uses the same mental facilities as articulation and understanding.

All of this is really just to say, this blog is intended for me to diarise processes, articulate thoughts, and to archive any game design related exercises. Hopefully this will result in sharper rule sets, more interesting concepts, but overall, better games. If the content proves helpful to others, then it is a great bonus, but it is mainly for myself. (even writing this introduction initially felt meaningless, but the process of doing so had forced me to do some introspection, checked the spelling of a word or two, and now I’m a better man for it).

Cheers, and unless I get a visit from procrastination, I’ll see you in the next blog post.