Designer Nate Heiss has kindly provided us with a look into the creation of Rumpelstiltskin.
I’ve been designing games for over a decade – trading card games, board games, PC games, and mobile games. Rumpelstiltskin, however, is one of the first games I ever made. Back when I was first aspiring to become a game designer, I sought out something to test and train my abilities. After Google searching something along the lines of “how do I design games?” I arrived at an unlikely place – an ask.com contest challenging people to create games that used deductive reasoning as their core mechanic. I always loved deductive reasoning games since childhood, like Clue and Mastermind. I would have never thought to try making one, so this turned out to be the perfect way to test my abilities. Even after creating my initial design, I never entered it into the contest, but I think it worked out much better for everyone that I didn’t.
Something you should know about me: I am a huge fan of Magic: the Gathering, and played professionally for a while. This meant I had two personal goals with this game:
I wanted to bring some of the fun of Magic to this game. Magic has some cool guessing/bluffing cards like Cursed Scroll. Some cards in Magic make you care about what your top card of the deck is. Plus, Magic has lots of cool deck manipulation cards. So that is where I started.
The second goal probably seems a bit strange now. As a pro Magic player 10-15 years ago, I spent a lot of time feeling bored while traveling on an airplane to go play in tournaments. I always wanted to play games with my traveling companions, but I never had a game that was ultra-portable and could easily be played on an airline seat tray. Of course these days, with the advent of smart-phones and awesome laptop computers, there is a multitude of awesome entertainment choices for air travel. That being said, this game was birthed a long time ago, and this was one of my goals.
Because of these two goals, I knew that I wanted to make it a card game. Little did I know that I was about to make a game with one of the best ratios of gameplay to portability.
In the early ruleset, players drew one card each turn, so it didn’t make much sense to be guessing the top card. The object of the game quickly changed to guessing the bottom card of the deck. This worked out great because it didn’t change much, and allowed me to utilize all the great deck manipulation effects I loved from Magic in a new and interesting way.
At first, the game had no flavor. Zero. None. Maybe less than none. It was just numbers and words. I struggled for a long time on how to fix that. At this point, I called the game “Bottoms Up” and thought it might be a good bar game for drunken Magic players who would have fun struggling to remember numbers.
For a long time, there were no “guesses” as they are manifested in the final game. Instead, you would just garner information via process of elimination and deduction by playing cards. Once both players passed, the game went to a guessing phase where each player got a single guess. If they were right, they won. Otherwise, the person with the higher number on the bottom won. This meant there was a gambit players could do where they just tried to get a really high number on the bottom of their deck. It helped that all the cards could be played on yourself or your opponent, and in different capacities. This allowed the game to have different strategies where you could be aggressive about seeking out your opponent’s card or be defensive about keeping your own a secret but making your number higher.
Then, something unexpected happened.
I got a call from Wizards of the Coast – they wanted me to come work for them as a member of Magic R&D. I was thrilled, as this was always a dream of mine. They didn’t allow employees to work on any side projects though, so I had to set the game down. My career in game design was off to a real start!
Fast forward about 8 years.
I was now a seasoned game design veteran. I had worked at Wizards, SOE, and Dire Wolf Digital. I was about to join up with a company called Z2. To my delight, they actually allowed their people to work on side projects, as long as it didn’t interfere or compete with their mobile games business. At this point I had released many games, but never had one with my name on the front, so I decided to get back into making board games.
I started working on several games (some you still might see in the future!), but with all my experience behind me, I knew I wanted to start with something simple and easy to manufacture first. This strategy immediately made me think of Bottoms Up.
I spend a lot of time over the years developing and critiquing other people’s game designs, so I got a bit of twisted pleasure around the idea of turning my expertise to my own novice design from 8 years previous. I basically wanted to rip into myself and be as harsh as possible, being honest about my previous design and seeing if it was viable to improve.
The good news was the basic concept was solid. The bad news was the game had no flavor or theme to unify it, and the mechanics needed a lot of work. For example – it was a deduction game where you only got one guess! Where is the fun in that?
The first problem to tackle was the guessing. I tried a few variants, including guessing every turn. In the end I really liked putting the guesses on the cards themselves for two reasons:
- First, I liked the elegance of the cards telling you more of the rules of the game it was less to learn up front. People can start playing with the simple instructions of: “Play a card every turn and do what it says.”
- Second, I liked being able to balance some cards based on not being able to guess. That let me make them really powerful. It can put the other player in a pressure situation, forcing them to have a response ready. This was reminiscent of the Magic style gameplay I wanted to evoke.
The next problem that needed to be tackled was the hardest one – what was the theme of this game? Many games start with the theme, and the rules all are built from the ground of to support that theme. Getting great mechanics to synch up with a great theme is the home run of game design.
Starting with mechanics first gives you a great technical game, but it is super hard to find the perfect theme for a seemingly random assortment of mechanics (see many eurogames for examples of this). I struggled with this problem for several months. For a while, I tried using the symbols of the zodiac to represent the cards – even though that made me want to use more cards than was really right for the design.
Eventually I focused in on the guessing part, trying on different themes dealing with guessing, like spies, super-villains, and detectives. Eventually in a flash of inspiration, I realized that the story of guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name was pretty close. I could craft a story about a whole bunch of goblin-like creatures like Rumpelstiltskin who are obsessed with guessing each other’s name. The best parts were that it involved zany goblins (which I love), and magical power (which solves many theme issues).
The Rumpelstiltskin theme worked great! However, it posed its own challenges. In a game that deals with memory, it is important that all the cards were memorable. Goblins can be unique and zany, which help memory. However they also want to have silly names. It took quite a few iterations to get the names to be something reasonably memorable and all starting with a different letter so they could be easily alphabetized. For a little while, I even tried having all the names as different versions of Rumpelstiltskin in different cultures and languages. Of course, these were too hard to pronounce and ultimately didn’t work. After a bit of refinement, I eventually landed on some lighthearted names that were somewhat evocative of the function of the card, and it worked great.
Once the game was ready, I partnered up with AEG to publish it. They have really been a pleasure to work with. Plus they commissioned some wonderful art from Felicia Cano that brings the game to life. The art for the goblins all feel so quirky, inviting, and full of personality, just as I had hoped. In my opinion, AEG’s experience with Love Letter makes them the perfect publisher for this game.
Overall, I am super proud of how the game turned out. I think achieved my goals and way beyond. The game turned out simple yet deep. Ultra-portable and very accessible. Children and adults alike seem to really enjoy it, which is not something I initially set out to achieve, but am super happy about. I hope you all enjoy Rumpelstiltskin as much as I have enjoyed it over the last 10 years.