One Thing to Avoid in Game Design


When game designer Paul Peterson was interviewed for the upcoming Titans Series of games from Calliope Games, there was one segment at 1:55 that really caught my attention (emphasis mine):
"A couple years ago I was teaching people how to play Guillotine and I hadn't played in a while. The first thing I did was say, 'The first thing you gonna do when you open your game is you look through this deck and you take this card.' I pulled out the Callous Guards card and threw it over my shoulder. Everybody laughed. I said, 'That's the biggest mistake I ever made as a game designer in my life.'"
Oof. Those are strong words.

What's the big deal?

For context, the game Guillotine is all about collecting the heads of French nobles during the revolution. There is only one guillotine, with a line of nobles waiting for their grim fate. On your turn, you play action cards to change the order of the line, then take the Noble card from the front of the line. Your goal is to collect the most valuable set of Noble cards by the end of the game.

So what the heck does the Callous Guards card do that's so bad? "Action cards that alter the line may not be played." It stops the entire heartbeat of the game. While it's in play, no one can change the order of the line, which is what the vast majority of action cards can do. It means no one has any meaningful choices or substantial degree of interaction with the game-state while the Callous Guards are active.

Peterson later tweets: That card taught me the best lesson. "Don't stop players from playing the game."

Callous Guards in Other Games


You see some of this same frustration when Magic players face a fiercely constructed blue deck. Blue is notorious for restricting players possible actions or compelling them to follow a narrow avenue of strategic play.

In this GDC talk, Eric Dodds describes an early version of Hearthstone in which you discard cards from your hand as mana cost to play other cards. They eventually abandoned this plan because it just didn't feel good to have a card you carefully chose to put in your deck, only to have to waste it as fuel for another card. Players want to play those cards.

But the most classic example is probably any mechanism that forces players to "skip a turn." That most loathed of mechanics, perhaps second only to roll-and-move. I really only see this mechanic in very new designs from inexperienced designers. It's a big heavy sledgehammer that's very easy to swing, but rarely actually builds anything from the wreckage.

When do Callous Guards work?

All that said, I'm never one to completely rule out a game mechanism from my toolbox just because it's unpopular. I started thinking about examples where this sort of thing may actually be useful. These are edge cases, of course, but maybe it will inspire something in your future designs.

  • Voluntary Passing/Folding: In games where playing the game can be risky, it's entirely sensible to skip your own turn voluntarily. As long as it's not mandated by another player's choice, then you can sit back for a little bit with a smug smirk while the rest of the table dukes it out in increasingly costly conflicts.
  • Narrower Scope: Callous Guards really grinds the game to a halt because so many of the action cards relate to changing the order of the line. If those cards were a smaller subset of the whole deck, it might not have had such a severe impact. If you're making your own Callous Guards, find a small subset of actions that they can affect in your game.
  • Expensive, but not Impossible: Instead of outright banning certain actions, your Callous Guards may simply make those actions more expensive. Perhaps they must pay you a bribe to pass through one of your territories or building a certain advancement costs extra resources.

That's just for starters. What do you think? Are "Callous Guard" mechanics more trouble than they're worth or can they be implemented with some refinements? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.