Gamifying the Faustian Bargain

I started playing boardgames when I was nine or ten, and whether writing rules for role-playing games or adding necromancy spells to HeroQuest, I explored the making of games almost from day one. My fate had been sealed.

Fast forward to adulthood through a brief stint as a journalist, a couple of “real” jobs, and in 2006 I started making games professionally. Digital games.

I love making and playing digital games. They can test your mind, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and they can compel you in many different ways. There are many things that only digital games can do.

But there’s a catch with digital game design – even the simplest digital game takes a lot of time to make. Between having a great idea and a playable prototype there are months upon months of brainbreaking work.

You’d think that the basics are covered already, but the truth is that you’ll have to revisit input, shaders, menus, user options, and many other things before your game is worth playing by someone that isn’t you. To turn a digital game into a polished experience that resembles the idea your mind’s eye conjures up can take forever. Even if built just for testing.

Fast forward again and it’s 2014. I’ve been making games professionally for eight years by this time and I’m talking to a friend over Skype about the many obstacles between idea and playable game. I have so many ideas but so little time! First world problems, I know.

My friend then refers me to Daniel Solis’ fascinating blog, where Solis talks about his card game prototyping. It gives me a quick realisation, which’s self-evident simplicity is a thing of beauty:

All you need to make a card game is pen, paper, and scissors.

This seemingly obvious realisation opened up a whole new world for me. I had stacks of unused card sleeves lying around and I saw that nothing was stopping me from playing around with card game ideas. I could start tonight!

So I did.

The monster hunting asymmetrical card game I called “Beast.” From a play test in 2014.

Most of the ideas were never tested at all because I could see that they didn’t work from just flipping the pieces of paper around by myself. Others were tested with random people—typically during lunch with current or former colleagues—but were discarded after an iteration or two because they simply weren’t fun, didn’t work out as I had hoped, or failed to capture their theme accurately.

The first lesson was that everything I considered my intuition with game design had to be summarily defenestrated. Where I could reasonably know what a 1.5 would do compared to a 1.3 in code, adding or removing a card or attempting to balance things for real-life players turned out to be a different thing entirely. Not terribly surprising, of course—all creative disciplines have their own subset of skills required—but I had expected that previous game design experience would transfer over more readily than it did.

After scrapping most of the card game ideas, I still kept coming back to one in particular. It was getting good feedback in play tests and it felt like something that could become a real product down the line.

The year is now 2017 and the game is called Pact. It takes 10–15 minutes to explain and another 20–30 before people get it. A whole session takes almost two hours with a full complement of six players. It’s obvious that it’s never going to be accessible enough to be an entertaining card game. But it’s still getting positive feedback.

Why?!

This is a brief study into three specific “aha”-moments that brought the game to where it is today.

Aha! #1: The Hotel Lobby Test

‘Pact’ play test in 2017, after which it was almost scrapped entirely.

A friend was visiting from the U.S. as we sat down in a hotel lobby with a group of mutual friends. I incidentally brought out my play testing cards for Pact and started explaining the rules.

The tableau of characters on the table was called the “city,” and would get a new character each turn. People could purchase characters from this tableau by placing other characters there that matched certain icons on the available characters.

These icons could be used to perform actions during your turn. Gun icons let you steal cards from other players. Ritual circle icons let you postpone paying the price for your pacts with the devil. Money icons let you draw more cards. Etc. 

The icons and systems were hard to understand and even harder to teach. I bet your eyes glazed over halfway through the previous paragraph — now multiply that by six!

The play session took close to two hours to complete, at which point no one felt like playing again. I was ready to get the thrashing I deserved.

But no thrashing came. People enjoyed the game. More importantly, they really liked the pacts — the things that the game took its name from.

Aha! #2: The GothCon 2018 Test

For almost a year, the game was left unattended. Feedback from the playtest was positive, but it was hard for me to see how I could make the game play faster without losing some of the clever systems I thought I’d designed.

After some time, I had an epiphany. If pacts were fun, then why not focus the whole experience around them? I decided to simply scrap all those “clever” systems. Reduce the characters to a form of victory points and kill the economy stuff completely. Remove the points values on cards you played and simply have the pacts pay for the number of cards you play.

Armed with this new iteration of the prototype, I went to the Swedish GothCon game convention. I was there to do other things, but made sure to squeeze in some PAKT play tests. Yes, the name had now changed. Losing the ‘c’ felt relevant. Not to mention how people that believe in magic add a ‘k’ too, so there was no reason for me to be a muggle.

I had a few play tests with friends and got the feedback that the game was great and I should do a Kickstarter. But I wasn’t convinced.

Randomly, we got a play test together with people who had never seen the game before and who didn’t know me personally. A no holds barred play test.

It was awful.

One of the players saw that the game was using a Magic: The Gathering-style stack allowing you to defer card interactions. For example, saying, “before your turn ends, I play this, and this card.” One player played all his cards at the end of the previous player’s turn and won. Almost instantly. Every time. The game had obviously and fundamentally broken mechanics that needed fixing.

It had just been min/maxed for the first time. Min/maxed to death.

Aha! #3: The First Blind Test

The first art iteration of Pakt, with proper art and graphics (thanks to the excellent Lupus Nensén)!

After the game’s second disaster play test, it was once more left unattended for a while. Figuring out how to stop sudden wins and abusive tactics felt like the most important thing left to do. Once more, it seemed the game was broken beyond repair.

But a bit later I had the golden opportunity to force my unsuspecting game design students to test the game for me, at the Futuregames school in Stockholm where I was teaching at the time. It turned out that the new version was actually quite fun.

Some more iterations were made at the school, and I started to feel confident about the game again.

Early 2019, the artist attached to the project had finished all the cards. A small number of test decks were printed and cut to size, then placed in really nice tuck boxes. This was the first time we could play with real decks that weren’t just card sleeves with placeholder cards in them.

But what may have been even better than just having the cards was that the artist played the game with his friends. It showed one glaring flaw. I had always assumed that the Magic: The Gathering-style “stack” was self-explanatory. It had already caused problems (at GothCon 2018), and now it was causing other kinds of problems.

In this group, what happened was that separate “cells” of people around the table were playing cards, and the whole turn order broke down completely. It was counter-intuitive to the point where it caused frustration. Sorry, Monsieur Stack, but you’re not needed anymore.

From now on, you’d only play cards during your own turn. One exception was kept, as is the case in many similar games. The ability to cancel a card as it’s being played.

Pakt in its Final Form

Following these three crucial pivot points for the design, the game has stayed roughly the same through a veritable gauntlet of play tests. Through this play tests, many things have been tweaked and tried and tested. Here are some of the results of those tests that should all be credited to the many play testers.

Why are they ‘characters’? They should of course be followers.

Why is there no way to create an uneven playing field in the first turn to generate competition? The card resurrecting dead followers now brings them directly into play.

Why is the card played onto another player’s pact so convoluted in its description? It can just say “add to another player’s pact” instead.

Why is there a card that has you steal just two cards, when another card lets you draw three? The “steal two cards” card was simply removed.

In its current form, this game feels polished. It’s much easier to explain, it plays fast, and all the various pakts (that we haven’t even mentioned here) can be combined in crazy ways to give some good laughs around the gaming table.

Let’s see how we take it from here.

Three iterations of the same card. From left to right: the playtest version, first graphics iteration, and final iteration.

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