Smash Up Designer Diary

By Paul Peterson

It started with an idea. It wasn’t even an idea for a theme or a game – just a mechanism for setting up a game. I wanted to capture the excitement of building decks in collectible card games, but without the player having to buy into something that complex. I wanted to make a single purchase product that would let the players build decks, then play. The idea I had was for there to be a set of decks, each with a different set of cards, and players would pick a couple of them and shuffle them together to make their deck. Almost as soon as I thought of this, I had a theme: The decks would be different factions, each with their own sets of abilities, and mixing any two factions would make a different deck from any other combination.

For those themes, I chose the best known factions in gaming starting with Zombies, then adding Pirates and Ninjas as a matched set. The last one took slightly more thought – but only slightly more – before I settled on Robots. I even thought of a name for the game: Pirate, Ninja, Zombie, Robot.

But what I had still wasn’t a game. It wasn’t even close. It was a mechanism and a theme. So I started working on different ways to use these ideas in a game. I started with the idea that when you mixed two factions together you were creating hybrid creatures, so you had Pirate-Zombies or Robot-Ninjas. Each minion you controlled had properties that it drew from both sides.

The first game idea I explored was about armies clashing, with each player having a number of troops. The troops would be your life, and when they were gone you would lose. On your turn you would play cards from your merged deck to try to kill off your opponent’s troops or bolster yours based on the factions you were playing. So the ninjas would have good attack cards, and the zombies would have ways to resurrect troops that had fallen. I played with this game a bit, but it didn’t really fit the kind of game I wanted to make and I soon abandoned it.

For the next version, I went back to my design roots from games I had worked on like Magic: The Gathering and Battletech. I designed a game in which the players would put down individual minions and use them to attack other players. My twist was that each minion could also be used as an enhancement on any minion of another type. So you might play a Pirate, then play a Robot on top of it to turn the minion into a Robot-Pirate, which would have abilities from both factions in a single package. I liked this idea and played with it quite a lot. Playtesting turned up a lot of problems with the game, though. The decks had to be very heavy on minions so that you could combine them effectively, which left less space for fun actions. Plus, you had to draw the right ratio of Pirates to Robots so that you could make your combined minions as they were the most effective that way; if you had a worse ratio than your opponent, you were going to have problems. There were solutions to all of this, of course, but it was pushing the game in a lot of different directions and I wasn’t very happy with any of them.

When I have a problem like this while designing a game, I like to take a step back and look at all the elements of the game and decide what I like and what I don’t like. In this case I realized that the thing I wasn’t in love with was the minions attacking the other players. For one thing, I prefer games in which all players are trying to build toward a goal rather than knocking each other out. I hate losing a game early and having to watch while everyone else continues playing, so I went back to the drawing board and thought about how to make a game in which players are racing toward a goal.

“What if the players are trying to take over cities?” I thought. “What if the cities are worth points and the first one to get enough points is the winner?” Things just started clicking into place. Players would have minion cards and action cards. City cards would be in play. Minion cards would let players take over the cities, and actions would help their minions and hurt their opponents’ minions. I abandoned the idea that the minions would be hybrids, and instead decided that they would be allies. The pirates would fight alongside the ninjas, and each would lend their own strengths to the deck. I could see it all coming together in my head.

I picked a faction (Zombies) and started making a deck. I wrote down lists of interesting things I thought zombie minions might do (like come back from the discard pile) and things that zombie actions might do (like turn enemies into zombies.) That list got pretty long, pretty quickly, so I started paring it down and created a kind of template for the decks. Each deck had almost the same mix of cards, just with different abilities. This helped with early playtesting, and worked so well that most of the decks still follow that template even now.

I went through each of the factions and made a long list of possible cards, then cut them down to match the template I’d created. Even though I had designed each of these decks to fit a particular theme, I went wide within that theme. I designed these decks to be playtested, and I wanted to try out as many different ways of playing the factions as possible, then narrow the focus of the decks as I went.

The next step was playtesting. I’m lucky in that the playtest group I started is composed largely of my friends who work on games, most of them game designers in their own right. The idea is that we can all bring whatever game we happen to be working on to a session and play them and get feedback from other people who work on games for a living. This set-up has worked very well so far. The group is good at not only seeing problems with games but talking knowledgably about ways to fix them. This design isn’t the only published game to have gone through this group; Deadfellas also received testing and feedback from us all early in its history.

Playtesting went very well. Everyone liked the game and had great comments on it. Major changes happened quickly to how card drawing worked, when cities were scored, and how many points it took to win a game. Every session the game got better. Cards were removed and new ones designed. Each faction got a better sense of what it could and (just as importantly) couldn’t do.

Eventually, after months of testing, I thought the game was ready to see whether other people liked it as much as I did. I decided to go to a trade show and show it off to a bunch of game companies. I built a couple of nice prototypes in case someone wanted to take one with them and headed out to the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas in 2011.

Over the course of several days I met with game companies that I thought would be good fits for PNZR, including Playroom Entertainment, Mayfair Games, Alderac Entertainment Group, and others. All of those demos went well, but the AEG meeting was special.

I have worked with AEG before. When we – that is, Jesper Myrfors, Peter Adkison and I – started Hidden City Games, the company was our primary partner for Clout and I worked with CEO John Zinser quite a bit. Because of this, I was especially excited to show him this game, but I also knew that if he didn’t like PNZR or think it was right for AEG, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell me so (while likely giving me good ideas for improving it).

Fortunately, John loved the game. I could see it immediately. He understood the strength of combining two decks into one. He got the humor of zombies fighting alongside pirates. We started talking about everything that could be done with the game, directions it could be taken, themes for decks. He liked it so much that we set up meetings the next day to show it to other people at AEG who were at the show and they got excited, too. I knew that AEG was the company I wanted to work with on this game. We were in perfect sync.

Of course that is exactly what happened. John took a copy of the game back to headquarters with him and showed it to everyone there, and before I knew it, we were in business!

Teams were set up, introductions were made, mailing lists started, contracts negotiated. It was very exciting – and then the real work began. AEG had a lot of great ideas for the game, and the first one was a BIG one. They wanted to double the number of factions in the base set from four to eight. It made a lot of sense. Four people would be able to play right out of the box, and they wouldn’t have to play the same factions against each other.

Adding four new factions was a huge undertaking, but luckily I wasn’t totally unprepared. I had designed this game from the start with the idea that there would be lots of factions so players could pick any two they liked and make a deck. I didn’t have anything fully fleshed out, but I did have some ideas already. The biggest question was “Which factions to pick?” We came up with many ideas: cowboys, witches, dragons, knights… I thought about each of them and which kinds of mechanisms would fit them, then we worked on which mechanisms would work well with the factions we already had. In the end we settled on Aliens, Wizards, Tricksters (faerie folk), and Dinosaurs (with powered armor, of course).

The next rounds of playtesting began in earnest. AEG has a great network of playtest groups for all of its games, and those resources were set to the task of making Smash Up – a much better name than PNZR – great. I was kept pretty busy testing the game, answering rules questions on the forums, tweaking cards, then doing it all again. The card set changed a lot over the next few months, especially the four new factions, but the game just got better and better. We honed in on the weak areas and either cut them or fixed them. I wrote the rule book, then Ed Bolme and Jeff Quick rewrote it, and then we all rewrote it again, just to make it as good as it could be, both for conveying the rules and the humor of the game.

I couldn’t be happier with the way this game turned out. AEG has been a great company to work with. They welcomed me as part of the “family” and made sure that I was as involved as I wanted to be at every step. I reviewed art and artists, box text, card layouts, and everything else under the sun. We all met on Skype weekly to go over the playtest results and our own thoughts on the game. We agonized over how to word particular cards to make them as clear as possible. In short, we had a BLAST!

I think that all that care shows in the final product. I’m incredibly proud of it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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Author: Todd Rowland View all posts by
Todd is AEG's Director of Marketing, as well as a Board Game Producer & Developer. Follow him on Twitter: @toddrowland