Today the Kickstarter part of the campaign has ended, and we begin the journey of manufacturing Die of the Dead and getting it into our backers hands. If you missed the Kickstarter but are still interested, please send us a message or subscribe to our mailing list for further information. Thanks!
I always find it interesting reading about design changes and decisions, especially knowing which things didn’t work and the reasons for changing. No matter how good a game is, it never arrives fully formed, and so I don’t see any reason to pretend Die of the Dead did either. If this kind of thing interests you then I hope you enjoy reading about a few of the design decisions we didn‘t stick with when designing Die of the Dead.
Numbered player boards
In very early iterations players had 5 (and also 6) spaces on their player board, all of them numbered. When the second casket was shaken, players could only prepare souls in spaces shown on their dice.
Why was it removed? Firstly, it made the second casket incredibly overpowered when a player had lots of dice in there. It was a nice idea to tie the dice results to the boards, but it just rewarded too much those players who had dice in the casket. The other reason was having 5 or 6 prepared dice was just too many. A player with that many dice in the caskets had too few left, was likely to win all rolls, and that just left them with too few purposeful choices.
When a player’s dice showed a ‘6’ they gained a gem. They could then spend the gems to buy bonuses, improve their odds and more.
Why was it removed? Some players ended up with dozens of gems, the more you had the more you got. And then forgot to spend them. Essentially it was an extra layer of complexity and another component to account for, which only served to make the game more complex without making it more fun.
Having a board in place of the steps
Before we had the marigold steps for the souls we had boards for them to be placed on. This included a grid which awarded points based upon how many you had in a row, and a track, which sometimes had players retreive earlier dice they placed, and rewarded bonuses if the numbers matched.
Why was it removed? When designing any game it’s important to work out what you want players to attend to. With Die of the Dead the thought and fun came from shaking the dice in the caskets, whenever we tried to divert people’s attention to considering more complex dice placement the game just slowed, and that thinking wasn’t fun. The grid placement was moot- generally whoever had the most dice won, and there was no catching up quite quickly. The track was better, but the idea of matching values to gain bonuses was another unecessary layer, as was the retrieval step (which confused players). Additionally, having numbers over the bonus icons was just unreadable. In the end we stuck with the race track but elevated it, literally, by making it a physical structure which worked thematically and allowed all players to see it. Note- the icons here were very early, before we hired a cultural consultant, hence the ‘halloween’ feel to them.
Casket 3 was much more complicated
Casket 3 was the last casket we finalised, because it was the one which didn’t immediately jump to mind. 1- get souls in caskets, 2- prepare souls, 4- ascend souls, 3-?
This iteration of 3 lasted a suprisingly long time given its complexity. The idea was always to make 3 a casket of trials, and the idea of removing souls is represented a the top. The rest allowed the current player to ascend a soul, and for all players to gain a bonus depending upon the value shown on their souls.
Why was it removed? Look at it. In playtests this casket was chosen a fraction of the amount of the others. Playtesters were put off by the amount of things it did, and couldn’t parse quickly if it was a good choice. Additionally, the ability to ascend a soul from casket 3 made it too powerful when combined with two candles, and detracted form casket 4. In the end we just simplified it, and it got chosen a lot more.
The 5th Casket Board
Early on with the conveyor belt mechanic it was possible for players souls to seemingly sweep through the game constantly, without leaving the caskets. The 5th casket board was in place to stop this, activating immediately when the caskets moved, and causing one players soul to ascend. Putting a timer on the game.
Why was it removed? When simplified casket 3, with it being chosen more frequently and able to remove souls we had already changed the game to prevent a player loading all their souls into a casket and just watching them go around. Additionally, there was no reason for a player with one soul in casket 4 to bother choosing it. This weakened both those caskets too much, and was eventually nerfed so only certain values could be ascended. By this point there was just too much overhead, and so we tested it with it removed and it played like a charm. Essentially, this was a lot of rules overhead introduced to solve a problem, which we then proceeded to solve anyway, so became redundant.
This is our first Designer Diary since we launched Die of the Dead, and we have already funded and met both our stretch goals. It has been a wonderful first few days on Kickstarter, so thank you to everybody who has supported us. If you want to check us out please visit us here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/radical8games/die-of-the-dead/ Now, on with the diary…
Because Die of the Dead is a dice game, it felt right that it shouls have some custom dice. After all, what’s a Dia de Muertos themed dice game without a Dia de Muertos die? Personally I’d expect one, but there were also mechanical reasons for including custom dice. I’ve already talked about mitigating luck in dice games being an important part of their design, but additionally giving players the option to pursue these special dice, or ignore them entirely, adds more agency to the players’ choices.
The idea behind these ‘Power Souls’ was that they were more useful than regular souls, but not overwhelmingly so. The simplest way to do this was to use some of the sides as ‘wild’. These would be ‘6’s in those situations players just wanted to roll the highest value. But why not just make them ‘6’s? Well, in other situations players would benefit more from being able to choose other values. In caskets 1 & 2, a player might choose their wild value to be a ‘1’ so as to move the caskets. In casket 3 a player might choose their wild value to be any value, provided it doesn’t make a double.
Very early prototypes had different numbered dice altogether. Initially they were numbered 1,2 & 3, but the lack of variation in results meant we were dealing with totals, which not only slowed down the game, but made some caskets have forgone conclusions (1 die could never beat 4 dice). A lot of dice have the 6 as the wild side, but 6 is already the most powerful value for the end casket, so we didn’t want to remove it. We chose to replace the ‘3’ and ‘4’ with the wild value, because this leaves the high value rolls, but also the 1 (which can be useful) and the 2 so as not to make it too powerful. It can still be beaten, but the luck swings a little more in that player’s favour.
And that’s the last of our Designer Diaries! Hopefully they’ve
given some insight into our design decisions, and helped understand Die of the
Dead a little better. I will upload some failed designs, which should prove
interesting, and so people can get a sense of the things we tried, and explain
why they were removed.
Last post we talked about two of the tokens players can use
to help guide their souls to the land of the living. Today I want to show the
Candles adorn the ofrenda, with the light used to help guide the souls on their way back to the land of the living. In Die of the Dead candles are used to help move souls towards the steps. Side A of the candle will allow players to move all caskets forward one space (with the unfortunate casket in position 4 returning to position 1). Side B allows players to swap the locations of 2 adjacent caskets.
The vivid orange and yellow marigold, the cempasuchil, is the predominant flower of the Day of the Dead. It has been associated with the festivals for the dead since pre-Hispanic times. Both the colour and the aromatic scent are thought to attract souls. These flowers don’t just adorn the ofrenda, but paths from the petals are sometimes laid out to help guide the souls to the house and back to the cemetery. In Die of the Dead the cempasuchil adorn the 9 steps, going form the world of the dead to the land of the living. However, players can also trick souls using a cempasuchil flower into leaving the path. Both uses of this token will cause a player to remove a soul from the caskets. Side A allows a player to also peek into a casket to see what souls are in there, but then remove one. Side B allows a player to add a souls to casket 1, but then remove another player’s soul from there. All removed souls go back to their owner to be placed again- so they can still make it to their relatives for the festivities.
And that’s how we’ve used the items found on an ofrenda, to try an bring the theme in more, keep it looking lovely, and from a gameplay persepctive, offer more choices and decisions. Next, in the final blog, we look at our custom dice.
For the tokens we wanted to keep the theme of the game and choose items which would be pertinent to the Day of the Dead festival. We chose to use some of the objects and decorations incorporated into the displays and offerings (ofrenda), that are created in family homes. In the game each of these can be used to provide a small bonus to players, 2 different bonuses depending upon setup.
Pan de Muerto, aka Bread of the Dead, is a lovely sweet
bread, baked with a distinctive bone shape on top. It is believed the souls
absorb the essence of the bread, and after they’ve had their fill it’s time for
the family to eat them.
In the game bread is all about getting your souls further in
their journey. Both the uses of the bread token gets your souls into the
caskets. Side A allows you to add a soul to a casket that another player
chooses. This is a great way to jump ahead, but you do need someone to choose a
later casket. Side B allows a player to add souls to an empty casket. Being the
only player with souls in caskets 2 & 4 is a fantastic plus and can be
incredibly beneficial as you’re guaranteed the win on those caskets.
Copal incense is another of the tokens players can gain. The
burning of this incense dates back to early Mesoamerica, and is used to draw
the souls of the deceased to the home.
In Die of the Dead, incense is used to change results of
rolls. When the smoke clears, maybe the results weren’t what they first seems?
Side A allows players to adjust the result on one soul up or down by 1. This
can prove the difference between ascension or losing souls, depending upon the
casket. Side B simply shakes the casket again, helping mitigate any unlucky
Hopefully this gives some ideas of how we’ve enriched the mechanics by careful thought of the theme. In the next post we’ll talk about the other two tokens.
The core gameplay of Die of the Dead lies in the caskets.
Players need to consider which ones to choose, remember what’s in them, move
them forward, and be joyous when the contents are revealed. So there had been a
long question about what should happen to the souls once they’ve ascended out
the caskets. Initially there was a maze system set up, but thematically it just
didn’t fit, and mechanically it was too distracting.
We wanted something which added to the core gameplay loop,
but didn’t distract from it. After trying various area control mechanics, which
were overcomplicated, we settled on a simple race system. First to ascend 9
levels wins! It’s simple and effective, and helps reinforce the catch-up
mechanism- the more souls you have on the steps, the fewer you have in the
caskets. Additionally depending upon where your soul is placed you can gain a
powerful boost. This incentivises players to place their own souls, and not let
other players place them on a blank space.
At first the steps were just flat, but there was an issue
with this. After the first few dice were placed, the player sat furthest away
couldn’t see what the options were on the steps, and it wasn’t immediately
obvious who was winning. So I took the idea of the souls traveling up and made
it more literal- what if there were steps? After plenty of card crafting the
final steps were made. They had to fulfil 4 criteria:
Only be made once
Fit back in the box
Not require adhesive or complex steps
Improve the gameplay
The final design does all those things. It’s made from a
total of 12 pieces of punchboard and nothing else. All players need to do is
fold each step and insert it into the sides. Once done it won’t come apart
again, and will remain sturdy and secure. By removing the back the steps lie
flat in the box. All of this is quick, simple and easy to do.
So does it improve the gameplay? Yes. Thematically it just works, and has a real wow factor to boot. All players can see the options for where to place the dice. And we’ve worked to eliminate some of the frustrations from other games with steps. Our steps have been thoughtfully designed to prevent dice toppling off. Each step is on a small incline, almost imperceptible, but which prevents the dice from moving forward, even if the structure is moved.