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Seven Guidelines For Game Design

I’m going to go over my 7 guidelines of game design and how they apply to Hydras but first and foremost I want you to understand that this is just one way to slice a pie. Someone else might have 5 guidelines and yet another person might have 10. This is by no means meant to be the one definitive list and it was built on the experience and know how of many game designers before me.

I use the terms guidelines because that’s what they are. These aren’t rules or laws which can’t be broken. These are guidelines which are generally (but not always) a good idea.

1 Keep It Simple

The simpler your rule set is the better. Hydras is a game that is really easy to add new cards with exciting special rules and interactions. If you add too many though you can very quickly overwhelm your players. Sometimes its best to save things like that for an expansion. When I released the first version of Hydras though I got a lot of feedback suggesting that the game was too simple. The scoring wasn’t exciting. To that end I introduced labours. They kept things simple, but added a lot of excitement to the end game. Remember, these are guidelines and not rules. Use your judgement.

2 Offer Meaningful Choice

In the first rendition of hydras swords and shields were there own independent card much like torches. This only allowed for 8 swords and 4 shields in the deck. This meant that occasionally you’d get locked down with nowhere to grow early in the game and your only option was to discard and draw until you got a sword. I recognized this as a bad thing, because when it got to your turn you had no choice of what to do, only to discard and draw a new card and hope it was a sword. To combat this I made swords a part of existing hydra cards. This allowed me to increase the meager 8 sword cards to 20 and 4 shield cards to 10. This was a huge improvement. You almost always had a sword in hand and even if you didn’t it would be not long until you got one. This also improved the game in another unexpected way. Was it better to use that card as a sword or shield, or to save it and use it as more heads for your hydra.

3 Offer Reasonable Choices

This is different from meaningful choices in an important way. This is all about making sure that the things you’d reasonably want to do in a game are there along with offering a reasonable number of choices. Hydras is a game that you’d reasonably want to chop off heads of a monster, and you’d reasonably want to grow them back, and you’d reasonably want to use torches to prevent that from happening. I needed to make sure that all of these things were available at the very least.

As far as the reasonable number of choices, the game originally had a hand size that could grow or shrink as you played the game. This meant that some times you were picking from only 2 or 3 cards to play and sometimes as many as 10 or 11. By locking the hand size down to 4 I prevented this from happening and assured that there were always a reasonable number of choices to be had.

4 Reduce The Role Of Luck

The important thing to take away from this is that the goal is to reduce and not eliminate the role of luck. Hydras does a number of things to mitigate this especially if you play with the new labour cards. Having played hundreds of games myself I find it better when I introduce new players to let them play against each other. This is a game that has a surprising degree of subtlety an experienced player will have a serious advantage over a newbie. That said Hydras does have a high degree of luck, and you can win or lose based on bad draws. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the game newbie gamer friendly as they have a chance of winning their first game.

5 Reduce Down Time

Hydras never had much of a problem with this, but some of my earlier games did. The important thing here is to reduce the time between turns as much as possible, or to allow you to do something or react to something when its not your turn. Hydras does both.

6 Don’t Eliminate Players

This isn’t about just removing players from the game all together, but also about a player knowing that they have no chance of winning. This leads to a lot of resentment with the game because even though they know they can’t win, they still have to play the game. I feel a key way to handle this is either through a catch up mechanic or a hidden score mechanic. With Hydras I chose the latter. The labours offer a good way to keep you questioning whether or not you’re in the running to win. Your opponent may be better off than you at face value, but he may also have missed all of his labour card’s goals and be reduced a huge number of points by the end of the game.

7 Offer Player Interaction

I feel this one is key. The game can’t feel like multi player solitaire. There needs to be a way for you to change the game for other players. Hydras allows this through cutting off heads, burning stumps, and even more subtly trying to guess what goal cards a player ahas and prevent them from completing those goals. A bluffing tactic can even be used where you try to complete a goal you don’t have just to try to get other players to stop you from completing that goal.

So what do you think of these guidelines? Do you have any of your own? Let us know on Facebook or shoot us an email!