Last week, Game Career Guide‘s game design challenge was to design a game based on insomnia. My entry, titled Counting Sheep, was recognized as one of the best entries on the contest. In retrospect, my choice of name might have been a poor one. But, I’m glad that the GCG editors who were managing the challenge were able to look past the (admittedly) silly name and see the merit of my game.

With the challenge’s 500 word limit, some of the things that I wished I had more time to discuss in my design document were the different (and completely unexpected) strategies that evolved during playtesting and the different design choices I had made.

Strategy

At first blush, the game seems to be a race to get into bed, but the reality is slightly more complicated than that. As the game took its final shape, playtesters were playing in exactly that way. Each hand was ending in four or five turns and frequently scores were very low or negative. But then, after several go-rounds, concrete strategies started to find their way into play.

As it turns out, the most effective strategy developed in playtesting, was one of strategic waiting. The highest scores began to be turned in by players who had half (or more) of their body in bed and had been cycling cards through their hands for several turns. Since the most points a player can score from getting into bed first is 8 (3 for a Jack and 5 for the body), finishing first usually doesn’t equate to a high scoring round; especially if the player who finishes first has one or more non-sheep in his hand. A player who has several turns to shed high non-points paying cards (through discard or play) and also hoard points paying cards seems to score consistently higher even if they are never getting into bed first.

It also began to appear as if racing to place the arms in bed gained a player the psychological advantage over the other players. Because the player who places the arms first could conceivably get into bed “at any time” the other players who weren’t as close to getting into bed almost immediately started to shed high cards (even high pairs) in order to not be trapped with a large negative point total.

Design Process

My first instinct when I read the challenge was to create a narrative roleplaying game that used playing cards as a conflict resolution mechanism and explored the mind bending effects of insomnia through storytelling instead of a fortune mechanic. Unfortunately, just the explanation of the conflict resolution system grew to be far more than the contest’s 500 word limit so I tabled the roleplaying game for a week and concentrated instead on the letter of the contest: a card game.

Re-coloring an existing card game was immediately unpalatable to me. I already thought that trying to get the mechanics of a card game to convey something about the inability to sleep would be hard enough without having to bend the theme to fit already existing mechanics. Instead, I wanted to parse the theme into its component parts and design the card mechanics to fit the thematic components.

According to Wikipedia, insomnia is: “a symptom of a sleeping disorder characterized by persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep despite the opportunity.” I wanted the game to have the ultimate goal of falling asleep, with all the gameplay leading the players towards that eventual end. I also, from the very beginning, wanted the scoring of the game to be called “counting sheep.” (But, apparently, so did everyone else.)

The game started with just the body on the table and no real scoring. I pulled out a deck of cards and just started laying them on a table, trying to see what made the most sense and tossing different ideas for scoring out to see if they worked with what was on the table.

Laying the body to rest went through several changes, from a simple name change (laying a body to rest is a euphemism for burying the dead) to the number of cards that make up the body, before reaching its final form. Out of the blue, I came up with using a two-eyed face card for the body’s head. As it turned out, the two-eyed rule  limits the player to two Jacks, three Kings and a full compliment of Queens as choices for the head. The two-eyed rule was the impetus for the scoring tied to the body’s head since Jacks are the most limited option.

In its early forms, the players were playing at least one card every turn, and usually more. The game went too fast, which forced the creation of the “one part of the body per turn” rule. I also wanted there to be legitimate reasons why a player would choose to play one card over another during the course of play because I think that difficult decisions are ultimately something that increases in-play enjoyment. The negative scoring was created to increase player choice during play by tying serious scoring consequences to the player’s decision about what cards to play, discard or hold.

Even with the “one body part per turn” ruke, I still thought that the game was still playing a little too fast. So, in an attempt to slow down the play even further, I changed the layout of the body from one limb at a time to pairs for the arms and legs (legs lower than the arms). At this time, I also considered making players’ hands smaller, but that would have had the unintended consequence of severely limiting scoring opportunities for the player who got into bed first (four cards seemed like a good sweet spot).  Finally, the body’s heart was added almost as an afterthought, but with a head, a heart, a pair of arms and a pair of legs, the game developed a well controlled pace that allowed the development of the strategies discussed above.

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