Card Game Design Journal, Part One

I think it was Thurber who said “Immature writers imitate. Mature writers steal.” In that spirit, most of my games start from a game I enjoy but want to tweak. In this case it is an obscure but wonderful traditional card game of Netherlander origin called Thirty One. It’s a great game that kids from eight or so can play and it works for three to nine players, so I’ll take this opportunity to pimp it and teach it to you.

First, discard the 2-6s of a regular pack of cards. Deal three cards to each player and three cards to the middle. Player to the left of the dealer looks at his current hand and chooses to keep it or discard it, taking the three in the middle. Either way the three that end up in the middle are turned face up. Then the next player may take one of the cards on offer in exchange for one of theirs or pass and not trade again. Players are trying to build sets in their hand of matching suit (unlike 21) but adding up the value as in 21. Ace counts as eleven, picture cards are all ten so the highest possible score is A-x-x where the xs are ten-cards, giving a score of thirty one. Players keep exchanging until one player scores 31 and declares it (showing his cards) or all players pass. Then all show their hands and the lowest hand loses a chip. Last one standing wins.

Low cards are of course more often discarded but sets of three matching face are rated as thirty-and-a-half in score. This and the hidden nature of your opponents (and what may not be in play, since not all cards are dealt out) produces an interesting situation I’ve never seen duplicated in other set-building games: your struggle to produce a good hand can end up making the cast-offs in the centre more and more powerful. Actually, that happens in the Canasta family too, but in a different way. There is a rule where if you like what’s in the middle you can exchange your entire hand for said hand, but then are passed, so everyone knows your score.

So anyway, that’s my muse: what if you had a set-building card game like Ticket to Ride but if there was something far more dramatic that happened when there were thee jokers face up. Then I thought, what if as well as building sets in your hand you were building something on the table, and you had to decide whether to make it bigger and more dangerous or improve your own hand. Add in a touch of Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and Bang! two games I find quite amusing, and then I had some vague ideas for mechanics. The nature of game design seems to be a lot of see-sawing back and forth between mechanic and theme, like music and lyrics in a song. Some times you’ll have the mechanic for years before you find a theme you like.

Then one day these ideas crashed into my obsession with Owlbears, which is kind of a weird in-joke. I just find them hilarious and stupid and an example of the wackier side of D&D and there have been a few incidents with my various gaming buddies where funny things involving owlbears have happened. Like playing a round of Articulate and given the clue “It’s a land mass surrounded by water and its named after a D&D monster” and immediately and with 100% certainty answering “OWLBEAR ISLAND”. Later we freeformed the idea of an RPG set on Owlbear Island, where everything is an owlbear, including you (not to be confused with the island in World of Warcraft where all the monsters are owlbears, but the grass and trees and skies are grass and trees and skies.) ANYWAY. You kind of had to be there. But it’s a thing. Owls and bears, stuck together. Squid panthers. Teleporting dingos. The vulture elephant. The mosquito bird. That time in D&D when we got the druid’s weasel and stacked it with spells so it was a True-Seeing Alignment-Sensing Invisible Hastened Weasel and we used it as the ultimate spy camera. We never needed drugs growing up because Gygax was on them for us.

The two ideas met. Gluing animals together like a mad D&D mage – that could be the thing in the middle. And in your hand, harvesting their bits back into your magical laboratory to make potions of giant growth and alignment sense – that would be the set-building. And so I had a concept, and we were begun….

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