This section serves as a space for honest self-reflection about the result of my game design process. It explains a number of key differences between the first prototype of First Lines that I explained in the previous section and the final version of the game. Perhaps most importantly, it considers the potential for First Lines to inspire genuine conversations about American Literature in light of game testing that occurred after the “final” version of the game had been created. The entire process has been a full of thinking and rethinking how and why I have designed a game to serve as my final project: Section II reflects all of this process.
From Prototype to Final Product: what has been accomplished?
One of the primary concerns in any game designer’s mind is playability. Roughly speaking, playability can be understood as the overall ease by which a game can be played once it has been well learned. Playability is important because it relates to all other elements of a game’s success, including its entertainment value, potential for widespread popularity, and ease of teaching. In fact, it is accurate to state that no great games score low on the playability scale and nearly all popular games rate highly on the same scale. I aimed to design a game that would resonate across many different groups of people, and so I was determined to create a game that was highly playable.
Under the umbrella of playability fall a number of different factors. One of those factors—perhaps the most important of them all—is the time required to play a full round of a game. The time estimate for a round of a game dictates who will play it and who will not. Because I settled on a cooperative group game during the planning stages of this process, I was determined to create a game that would last no longer than thirty minutes. I aimed to keep the gameplay under thirty minutes because I feel strongly that if people are to play a game at a party, for example, they expect that it serve as a form of entertainment, not as the sole form of entertainment.
As the game developed and began to take shape, I received input from a number of different people indicating that the game may require at least an hour to play. One classmate of mine offered a suggestion that helped me shorten the gameplay length a great deal. This suggestion is now a part of the final game design. It is as follows: Instead of a first round in which every player gets to pick their favorite first line, the final version of the first round involves only four “first line” cards being drawn. In other words, there will be only four sets of crowd-sourced first lines in the first round. In the second round, the other four players who did not serve as the first player in the first round will be the ones who act out the scene in charade format. By cutting the number of turns in which every player takes time to write up imaginary first lines, I succeeded in reducing the overall length of play by more than twenty five minutes, effectively increasing the playability of the game without curtailing its function as a space for imagination and creation. In this way, reflection about one element of the game—length of play—forced me to think consciously about how to preserve a different element—spontaneous interpretation—that is also crucial to the game.
The second element of playability that influenced another important change between my proposed game and the final version of First Lines is the concept of re-playability. In other words, a game must be entertaining to play not just the first time but also the second and tenth and twentieth times. During tests of the game with friends, I received feedback that it would not be entertaining to play if the same prompts came up repeatedly in the first round. There is a certain level of intrigue that arises from a game that is related to newness, and my initial version of First Lines would not be new consistently enough if players repeatedly had to write first lines for the same prompt. What is more, the creation of those prompts—the ones like “Melville, if he loved the circus instead of whaling”—was one of the potential challenges that I identified in the planning stages of the project; I knew that I would encounter problems generating enough creative prompts to make for just five good rounds, not to mention fifty.
With re-playability in mind, I decided to shift the structure of the first round significantly in a direction suggested to me by another classmate of mine. The first round now involves a Cards Against Humanity inspired structure that will enable infinite variability in the prompts that inspire the first lines. Here is the final structure of the first round:
- Before the round begins, each player writes down three random places on three separate sheets of paper that are provided to them in the game box. If eight people are playing, there are twenty-four slips of paper in a pile, each with a different place on them. This pile of cards is known as the “Setting” pile.
- The “Setting” pile sits next to two other piles of cards, each which contain at least fifty cards themselves. These two piles have words already written on them (they were designed by me). They are the “Character” pile and the “What the in World?” pile.
- The cards in the “Character” pile contain names of protagonists, antagonists, minor characters, authors, and thinkers all drawn from the American literary canon.
- The cards in the “Character” pile contain truly random nouns and verbs that are meant to add humor and variability to the game.
- To begin the round, the player who will be judging the first lines created by the other 7 players and selecting his or her favorite line picks one card from the “Character” pile, one card from the “Setting” pile, and one card from the “What in the World” pile. He or she reads each card aloud so that all players know the three words.
- The Judge (player who drew the cards) flips a two-minute hourglass and each other player begins writing down the first line of a novel that they imagine using the three words or phrases from the cards as the foundation for their creation. For example, a player may be asked to write the first line of a novel using “Scout” (Character card from To Kill a Mockingbird), “Bamboo forest” (player generated Setting card), and “hiking backpack” (What in the World? card).
- Each turn, the Judge selects his or her favorite first line, sets it aside, places the three cards at the bottom of their respective piles, and hands the hourglass on to the next Judge who begins the process again. This happens four times in the first round.
The new format of the first round properly addresses concerns about the length of play and about the re-playability of First Lines. During testing, the first round took about fifteen minutes to play, which is a reasonable timeframe considering the fact that much of the game’s framework is constructed during this round.
The final version of the second round does not differ much from the way I envisioned it in my planning stages. Now, however, the round involves only four instances of acting out the first lines as opposed to eight or sixteen. Paring down the number of performances means that the round will be less like charades and more like individual one acts about each first line. Another shift that I instituted in the final version of the second round was to add the stipulation that all members of a team but one must act out the first line in a scene that lasts at least one minute. Additionally, the sole person who is not acting out the first line and is instead attempting to determine which first line his or her team is performing only gets one guess. I instituted these changes because I realized during testing that teams could simply shout out all four possible first lines in rapid succession and know that one of them would be correct.
These new changes force the players who are acting to think hard about which elements of the first line form its essence, how to enact and perform that essence, and how their audience may interpret their performance. It also forces the player watching the scene to consider the intentionality of the actors’ actions more acutely because guessing incorrectly even one time eliminates their chance for a point. Most importantly, this new second round generates collaboration between different players in the creation of a performance of the first line. Teammates will need to silently communicate their intentions with one another during the mini one-minute act, all while being observed by the teammate who is trying to guess which line they are performing. This sort of collaborative performance is crucial to the spirit of the game, which is centered around the changing nature of texts as they are interpreted by individuals and groups. Importantly for playability, the revised second round takes about ten minutes to play.
As I mentioned in Section I of this paper, the third round of First Lines proved easy to conceptualize but difficult to create. The same classmate who helped me rethink the first round also contributed to my creative brainstorming on this third and final part of the game. The final version of the third round is straightforward. It involves concluding the story that was initiated in the first round and acted out in the second round by asking players to condense each first line and corresponding short skit into three words that best capture the essence or theme of the first two rounds. It works as follows:
- The four players who did not serve as Judges in the first round are the Judges in this round. The first Judge begins by asking all players to write down the three word essence of the first skit that was performed in round two and that was based on a first line from round one.
- Each player gets thirty seconds to write down these words on a slip of paper. The Judge reads them and awards a point to his or her favorite Essence.
- For example, if the first skit acted out in the second round was based on the Scout/Bamboo forest/hiking backpack combination from round one and involved characters performing an adolescent girl exploring freedom in a wondrous and exiting new place, the winning Essence may be something like this: wanderlust, liminality, and Nature.
- After all four Judges have selected their favorite Essences, points are tallied and the game concludes.
Within the context of the initial proposal, I think that this final round succeeds in adding to the overall theme of the game without negatively impacting the playability and the entertainment value of First Lines. Because it only takes five minutes to play, it brings the total play time to roughly thirty minutes, a length that makes much more sense in light of the aforementioned reflections on what might make First Lines a game that people will actually play. And it also contributes to the holistic sense that First Lines encourages its players to think about the connections between characters and performance in understanding the theme or essence of a piece of literature.
The Impact of First Lines on its players
I began this project with the intention of creating a game that would inspire its players to create their own textual and performance interpretations of the first line to a hypothetical American novel or story. Now that I stand looking back on the process, it is possible for me to make a number of reflections about the ways in which I succeeded in accomplishing that initial goal and the areas where I fell short.
The first reflection I can make about the impact of First Lines on its players is that the game is fun. During test runs with my friends, we found ourselves laughing time and time again at the ridiculous first lines that many of us created. The game flow is relatively smooth, and the progressively shorter rounds add a sort of momentum to the game that appeals to people looking for a quick and exciting interactive group game.
But I did not set out to create a fun game. Instead, I was intent on challenging players to create and perform using crowd sourced ideas. After playing the game a number of times, I am confident in saying that First Lines truly does force players to step out of their own particular comfort zones and meet the group somewhere in the middle of a shared interpretation. How does this happen? I think that the primary reason that players of First Lines find it possible to learn from the game is that it does not come with the pretense of requiring a great deal of knowledge about the canon. It is accessible. Players may not know who a certain person listed on a “Character” card is, but they can still participate in the first round because the “Setting” and “What in the World?” cards come from a more common base of knowledge. If all three cards required knowledge of the American literary canon, the game may prove to be discouraging for anyone who did not approach it with a firm grasp of American literature and it would fall flat. Instead, the second round provides an opportunity for one player to learn from other players about individual interpretations of what it may look like to perform Walt Whitman, for example. In this way, First Lines invites players to participate regardless of their familiarity with American literature. It provides a space for both teaching and learning about themes that course through the canon.
However, the final version of the game does have three main shortcomings. The first is that there is relatively little actual text from American literature in the game. Yes, it is true that the “Character” cards generate references to specific people and authors in the canon, but those references provide only a basic starting point for the game. In other words, I fear that when played by people who are not taking the game seriously, First Lines may become something of a glorified game of Celebrity, which is a party based game that also involves crowd sourcing words that are later acted out by different players on distinct teams. The lack of long quotations from specific authors or comprehensive descriptions of the themes that each author considers means that the game must be played with a sense of or adherence to American literature in mind if it is to accomplish my initial goal, which was to create a game that explores the ways in which performing American literature in game play helps individuals better understand individual characters and more over arching themes across the work. First Lines accomplishes the former, but I worry that it does not effectively accomplish the latter.
The second significant shortcoming of First Lines is that it is relatively limited in terms of the number of players it can handle. It will not work with less than six players, and ten players would make the game drag on longer than I could reasonably expect all players to maintain interest. The beauty of cooperative group games is that they can bring people together around a shared interest, but the downside is that if there is no strategy involved and if winning is not the main point, sometimes it can be difficult to maintain participants’ attention. Because it is important to maintain focus, the game must be capped at ten players; such a cap means that the game will meet its limit before everyone who may want to play has a seat at the table. In another sense, the maximum number of players is antithetical to the idea that the game should be available to anyone who might want to explore the ability to create and imagine other worlds based on prompts from American literature. And so the second shortcoming of First Lines relates to its limited flexibility in game play.
The final major shortcoming of First Lines is that it may not capture people’s competitive energy in a way that encourages them to invest in the game. Put simply, the game does not involve much strategy. While I noted this aversion to strategic decision making as a key defining factor in the game’s proposal and still believe that to be the case, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the game may be meant primarily for those people who choose not to involve themselves in competition in the first place. Or, alternatively, it may be the type of game that would be negatively impacted if one particularly competitive person decided to do everything he could do to accumulate the most points. However, this concern does not mean that the game cannot involve careful strategizing. It simply acknowledges the potential for First Lines to fall flat with the competitive gamers who make up most of the market for board games in the United States.
Changing First Lines: what comes next?
Reaching the end of this project means considering what I would have done differently were the project to be redesigned. The main change that I would make (and this relates to where I will take the project from here) would have been to focus on the graphic design elements of the game much earlier in the process. I am a traditionalist when it comes to games, which means that I often prefer the simplest and least flashy designs. However, the landscape of board and party games in America is rapidly changing. More and more people are making purchases based not on the game structure but instead on the design of the board or box or cards that comprise the game. I began this process focused almost exclusively on the structure and nature of the game that I wanted to design and neglected to consider the visual elements of the game enough. Granted, I still contend that good game design rests primarily on the structure and game play elements, but designing a board or cards that look good goes a long way towards getting people to play the game.
Because I acknowledge the visual shortcomings of First Lines (the prototype of the final version consists of cards made from colored construction paper), I have asked a friend who does graphic design to work with me this summer on a visual theme for the game. We will be collaborating on this design before printing an official version of the game from the company BoardGamesMaker. This order will serve as the version that I will present to the owner of the game store Pipe Dream Toys in Winona, MN that sponsors individual games which look promising, novel, and engaging. With any luck, I will have copies of the game in circulation by October of 2017.
Another decision that I would rethink if the project were to be redesigned would be to consider creating a physical board on which player’s “progress” (or point tallies) could be tracked. During testing, players complained that it was too difficult to remember how many points they had accumulated and that it would be nice if their progress could be visually represented in front of them. By adding a board to the game I would also be able to appeal to those players who approached the game looking for a slightly more adversarial and competitive experience.
Moving forward, I will create such a board and design pieces that each player can use to track his or her progress through the three rounds. In thinking about designing the player pieces, I am drawn to the idea of figurines of some iconic symbols in American literature. For example, one might be a great white whale, another a jet black raven, and another a bundle of leaves of grass. I will consult the same graphic designer about this process and attempt to print the figurines on a 3D printer located at the Fastenal Company in my hometown.
I began this semester with the vague notion that I would like to see how game design might be combined with the performance elements of the course as a way of enacting texts from the class. Although First Lines does not reflect a strict adherence to that guiding principle, it does contain many of the elements that I hoped might be present in any game that I designed, namely a performance element, references and text from the American literary canon, and a devotion to collaborative interpretation. The final product is a flexible version of a game that I hope will encourage laughter and engagement with themes and characters from both the texts that we covered in class and the others that I have included in the “Character” cards.
In my mind, this project has only just begun. Because I have a passion for game design and hope to pursue it in some capacity in the future, First Lines represents a solid step in a direction that I am excited to pursue. If the game is published and people are willing to play it, I will be thrilled to continue tweaking it as necessary. In the mean time, I plan to finalize the graphic design and construct the board. By this time next year, it may be available for purchase. That prospect is an exhilarating one because it confirms the feasibility of combining academic curiosities with genuine personal interests. If this project has taught me anything, it is that work inside and outside the classroom can be combined to create meaningful expressions of individual passion and interest. For that I am grateful.