Game Design Tip: Know your Crutches


Game Design CrutchesWhen designing many games it soon becomes obvious that you will develop some crutches, and it would be wise to be aware of them when they happen.

A crutch is something you rely on when you can’t think of a better idea, mostly because it’s easier and seems to solve all your problems.  The biggest challenge with crutches is that since they are usually easy way outs, they’ve probably been done many times before and therefore means you’re not bringing anything new to the table.  It’s also possible that your crutch will merely be a shiny yet temporary coat of paint over your initial challenge you’re having.

For Sen and I, one of our crutches to solve a problem we might have with a game is to introduce a new deck of cards into the game.  Often this comes in the form of an Event Deck.  Early on in its design, Akrotiri (previously known as Santorini) was having some challenges with interaction.  So we immediately went to our crutch and made an event deck.  Now players were forced to draw an event card and this would cause interaction to happen!  Huzzah!  Success right?  Well, no.

In this example, our crutch merely painted over the challenge we were having.  Underneath the Event Deck – there was still minimal interaction in the game. Even though the Event cards made people interact, they still had to play the game with the same mechanics – and those mechanics still lacked interaction.

After more playtesting we tweaked the mechanics and some of the rules (i.e. how many boats can be at the same dock or how other players can affect the market), and we were able to remove the Event Deck entirely (and save it for an expansion 🙂 )

I think in at least half our games we get the idea to add another deck of cards to solve a problem.  By now it’s become an in-joke between us and we use it as a way to brainstorm through the problem but rarely actually make another deck of cards!  Not one of our current games has an event deck.  I’m not against event decks really, but they should only be used once the main mechanics are already solid, and not to cover up a problem.

Another crutch we have is to give our cards multiple uses.  This usually comes from a challenge when we think players aren’t given enough choices in the game.  OK, then let’s give them cards that have two options on them – either use it for this power or that one.  It’s not a bad idea and has been used successfully in some games, but too often we think of this as our solution for improving strategy.

It’s good that we are aware of our crutches so that we can be more objective in understanding if it truly is the best solution to a game design challenge.  For other game designers reading, what are some of your crutches?

-Jay Cormier

When I read the title to this post, I was surprised (pleasantly) that Jay wasn’t regaling you of tales of lawn-chair wrestling. Ah, university days…

Yes. Back on topic – on the subject of these so-called crutches, these are our go-to’s, our fall-backs, if you will, that we use when we can’t figure a way out of a problem. 9 times out of 10, using a crutch is the direct result of not putting in the time to think of a better way, a more efficient way, a cleaner way of getting the desired effect. How do I know this? Because 9 times out of 10, we eliminate the crutch entirely later in the design process as we have figured out a much more elegant and minimal method of achieving the same results.

When examining your crutches, also be aware of the potential downside to anything you build into your game from a publisher’s point of view. 1 more deck of 60 more cards may not seem like much, but you can bet your bottom dollar (both literally and figuratively) that any publisher would choose Game A over Game B if they were the exact same except Game A had less components. Less components = less cost = more margin = more profit. And, really, more profit is better not only for the publisher, but for you as the designer. In speaking to publishers at conventions, Jay and I got a good idea of how many cards can be made per page of stock at European or US dimensions. So we try to keep our card decks equal to or less than what will fit on stock sheets. This not only gives us a working limit, it shows publishers that we know the business somewhat and respect their needs.

Often times, crutches not only add to the cost, but to the complexity of the game, and needlessly so most of the time. This makes the game take more time in total, expands the downtime between turns, and makes the rules take longer to read and harder to understand. From a playtesting perpective, adding more to the game system invariably makes playtesting more difficult as there are that many more variables to account for. This has happened to us in Akrotiri. We added these flags that you could drop on islands, claiming them for your own. Then it took us a while to figure out what those flags did, how they scored, how much it cost, etc. The scoring was a bit more complex than warranted and they really took a lot of time away from the focus of the game. So, in the current version, they’re out.

And the worst offense of all, in my opinion, is that many crutches feel “tacked on” – like they were put there to pay lip service to some singular need and not really merged with the entire ethos of the game. Many experienced playtesters can sense these and if they can, the game playing public at large will be able to. This just makes for a “Frankenstein” of a game – a lumbering hulk of a play experience instead of a sleek, stripped down version where every component, every phase of game play seems necessary to get the full effect. For us, this came into play with Belfort, where we had a Dragon stomping on people’s buildings. It was messy, made us have to make up new rules about warriors and playing defensively instead of flowing the cash to build things (i.e. the main thrust of the game). The game played better, smoother and faster without the Dragon and very few other rules changes had to be made by eliminating the firebreathing beastie. Because of this fact that it could be taken out and nothing really changed to the negative, we knew that it was more tacked on than not. So it was taken out of the final version. Now, that’s not to say that a more well-thought out dragon couldn’t appear, harassing the citizens of Belfort in the future…

Jay listed a few of our big crutches, but one he left for me was the joyful “Secret Goal” card crutch. This one is a bit of a double edged sword, because we use them a lot in our games in order to make the game sneaky/shifty fun. But only in games where that is the original intent and flavour. We sometimes have the bright idea to stuff Secret Goal cards into games to see if that’ll up the fun factor. it’s really hit and miss. For some games, the Goal being secret means that everyone is off playing their own game doing their own thing. For others, it means that no one is willing to act because there’s not enough information on the table. So, Secret Goal cards are both a boon and a bane. If it fits from the beginning – i.e. if your initial game design concept is based around having goals, like spy games, and (for some reason) Jam Slam, then you should be safe. But if you’re looking for adding that certain je ne sais quoi to spice up your game and are thinking “Oooh! I know…let’s give each player a secret goal!”… you may find yourself removing them sooner than later because you have just used a crutch.

-Sen-Foong Lim

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6 thoughts on “Game Design Tip: Know your Crutches

  1. I haven’t designed many games, so I’m not sure I’ve experienced any crutches with my own designs. I have, however, helped develop a fair number of other peoples games and I’ve found I have a tendency to focus on the triangular number series (1,3,6,10,15,21,…) when considering scoring systems.

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  2. My big crutch is auctions. Don’t like rotating turn order? Auction it off! Choosing offerings or buying cards? Auction it off! Want more competition for a resource? Auction it off! Even my latest card game features an auction, though I’m handling payment in a different way than normal so it might actually work right this time.

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  3. Oddly enough, we’ve never made a game with a true auction yet. Jay and I read somewhere that auctions are a poor fix to a bad mechanic, or something to that effect (no insult intended), but that’s not why we’ve never used one. We’ve just never found the right game to put an auction in!

    Who knows, maybe we’ll make one about art that’s modern or something like that…

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  4. BTW, our latest crutch seems to be making a score track where things change depending on your score. Not that it doesn’t / hasn’t worked, but it is becoming a “first response” to gameplay issues.

    I guess a crutch is really only a crutch if it’s done in a knee jerk manner and other options aren’t explored.

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