Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Forest Circus - A Report on a Tabletop Game Design

Getting an Idea

Confronted with the idea if desiging a simple tabletop game I started with some brainstorming and jotted down some associations I had. This resulted in the idea to create a game with one or more dies where you have to collect points to win. Very fast I had the idea of collecting points for a series of throwing results like in the Yahtzee game. I always thought yahtzee somehow dry but loved games with a story behind, like the vintage game "Lustiger Packesel" (Loading the Donkey), where you have to stack wooden sticks on a wooden mule.

These images are taken from online catalogs of game vendors.

I imagined different animals building a tower like the Town Musicians of Bremen.

An illustration by me.

I thought of starting with an elephant and a mosquito at the top or a tiger at the bottom and I asked people about it. Each person has their own imagination and I had to decide for one. I chose a couple of forest animals.
The story is something like they meet in winter and so it is cold they are declined to forget that some normally would eat the other. They worm each other, but also play games and one is to climb on each other in order to build a tower.
In the game now anyone can build this tower.  Throw a die with the animals on its six sides and look at the picture on the die. "Stack them" and get points according to this rules:
The animals have to be stacked in a certain order: Wolf, deer, fox, owl, hedgehog, squirrel Throw one time and look at the result. If it is a squirrel you get 15 points and you stop throwing the dice. If it is one of the other animals you can throw the dice as long as the next picture can be "stacked". You get 5 points for any animal in a sequences of animals. There is one exception. If you first throw the Wolf and then the Squirrel you get 20 points. For a short round or a big group the first player, who gets 50 points wins. Change this rule according to your conditions.

The picture shows part of my play test, where I was surprised by results I did not think of earlier. For example did I threw doubles, but decided they have no meaning.
I also became clearer of the amount of points possible. It is for example highly unlikely to throw the sequence wolf, deer, fox, owl, hedgehog, squirrel, but I left it as a possibility. You mostly get points from a sequence of one or two animals. The 15 from the squirrel and the 20 from wolf and squirrel keeps the game exciting. Chances to win the game are always there.

I also will design a board with a little illustration on it of the animals that you can see on the die.I asked myself and others if a board is necessary. It certainly is nice to have one. The picture shows a first rough design.

I was surprised how important it is that the game works properly in first place. As someone more on the visual design side this was a most valuable insight.
At this stage I knew apart from more play testing I need to find out how the writing pads should be equipped. If there should be one for each player with the possibility to note different rounds or is one pad enough where one person can note all the necessary information etc.

Never stop Improving

However, some days later I realized how disappointing it was, (to me and test players), that it is so unlikely to ever have six animals stacked. Changing some rules did not seem to help. They mostly would have made the game too long. I decided to add something new.

The game now is supposed to have a set of six cubes with an appropriate size and an appropriate image on them.

For each possibility to stack an animal a player set a cube. An example if the game starts and you throw the wolf and then the deer. Now you take the wolf cube and put it in the middle of the party. The next one just manages a hedgehog, no stacking, no cube. Some throws owl, hedgehog, squirrel and adds two cubes to the tower. The game ends when the tower is finished. The points are added and the one with the most points wins the round.

The play test was exciting. The players were able to accept that you can hardly build the tower by your throws alone, but there was always the tower in progress in  the middle of the party.
I had a thought about giving zero points instead of 5 for just one animal, but this decision seemed too rational. 5 points feel better than zero.

I also tried a different version with 6 dies and no tower, but adding the points say after 10 rounds. You could choose from the six dies the animals that you can stack and for example 4 stacked animals became very likely. The play test feels lively and rich, but maybe a bit boring just after a short time. You now could say we again build the tower but you need at least 4 right animals. Still, it may be personal, but I like the version above more and people I asked had too different opinions to rely on.

There is still a potential to make the game more engaging, like changing the rules or adding more assets, using a different set of dies etc. I have to look for more possibilities for play testing with different people. For now I like playing/ play test the game, with and without my friends.

What I certainly will do is creating artwork for the game, because I impatiently waited all the time to start with this and first I will go ahead my concepts for the different animals.

That's all what I can do for now

Despite my expectations of creating some artwork next I rather did more play testing and this time were able to interpret the feedback better than earlier. I also introduced the variation with 6 dies to my play testers and got valuable feedback.  I finally decided to go further with the six dies version. People feel better with it because of more possibilities.

I knew after my play testing that something still was not right. I often got feedback concerning choices. You simply had no choice. You got 6 dies and you have to try to achieve a right ordered series of the given animals.
As usual I was severe and did not allow any rule changes ;) One was sad because he threw five sixes in one but it was not worth anything in my game. Then I got a comment on this post (look at the bottom) and an online friend suggests the possibility to collect animals of the same kind. I at once was into this new rule, because it also adds so much to my story which is about coming together with different kinds, but sometimes we like more being with our own kind.

Now, please, play test!

Download the rules and a description how to prepare and play the game here.

You either can build your own materials or
you can download some prepared materials here.

I now feel as if it is a nice little playable game. You always can improve, yes, like thinking out which format the game has to have. Shall it have a board? Shall there be cubes for the tower? How to design the note pads? Should the possibility to note who won the round been added or is an extra notepad needed? More rules, choices? Which artwork? Style?



  1. Do players throw all dices in one time?
    Maybe a choice for the players is possible? build a tower or collect as much animals of the same kind?

  2. This is a nice idea! I will consider it for my next stage of improvement. Keep informed! (In the second version all dices are thrown at once.)