Saturday, November 3, 2012

Designer's Diary - Ninja Family Picnic

Ninja Family Picnic 

Touch Paper Press' first collaborative effort and so remarkably different from anything we've done.  A family oriented board game with enough unique elements to make it stand out to strategy minded gamers.

How did it begin?  Where is it now?  How did it get there?  Why Ninja Family Picnic?

Trevor and my very first meeting and he asked "how do YOU start a new project?".  I responded that I always start from a simple concept that is evocative to me.  An image, or a phrase, or a feel and work from there.  Intrigued, Trevor asked what I meant..  For me, it was as simple as seeing or hearing something unique enough that it kickstarted my creative process.

Trevor:  Ok, let's try that!
Me:  Try what?
Trevor:  Let's just brainstorm some ideas and see if any of them are really inspirational!
Me:  Great!
Trevor:  Ok, go!
Me:  Huh?!
Trevor:  Go!  Brainstorm!  (though ascribing exclamation points to Trevor is misleading, he is incredibly even keeled and if you were there, you might think those should have been periods, but since I get to tell the story, he gets to be incredibly excited about the idea!)
Me:  Ok!  Ummm, Flash Gordon awakens ancient Cthulhuian evil in a retro sci fi horror madness.
Trevor:  Hmm.
Me:  Teenage mutant ninja turtles inadvertantly causing the apocalypse and now survive by hunting for pizza while driving around in solar powered dune buggies..
Trevor:  Hmmm..
Me:   Vampire schoolgirls choosing classes in college to determine how to either advance towards or away from humanity
Trevor:  Hmmmm..
Me:  Ninja Family Picnic?
Trevor:  ......
Me:  A pack of wild......
Trevor:  Wait, WHAT?  Ninja Family Picnic?

It seemed completely rational (to me, I know it's a huge stretch in reality) that ninja would have family and that the family would enjoy the simple things in life, including getting out as a group to the local park and enjoying fresh air and a bite of food.  However, how do you turn that concept into a game?  The answer was simple:  What would a ninja family picnic be like, and why would it be a challenge?  Is there anything else that would make it even more extreme / funny?

The answer was simple - the family would try to get into the park, over to the picnic, enjoy some food, and do it all without being seen.  To make things interesting, each member of the family wanted to be the first to get to the picnic and the one who went back to the picnic most frequently (to get all of the best and most scrumptious victuals!).

This was more than enough to get Trevor's mind churning over the challenge of coming up with what that meant mechanically.  He had stopped listening to me as I rambled about what they would eat, what they would look like, oh - and hey - maybe they're British?!

We laughed, we cried, and then we got to work.  Concept alone did not make for a good game.  However, ensuring that we were true to the concept mechanically WAS critical.

In a nutshell, we wanted individual ninja family members to navigate across a crowded park without being seen.  It would be competitive, so not only do they not want to be seen, but they want to jeopardize the other family members so that they WOULD be seen.

A picnic blanket / basket was located at a far point on a square park map, with the family members entering from the opposite side.  Everyone would take their turn at the same time and plan a hidden 4 part move agenda, then enact them based on the timing of their cards.  Your turn could be influenced by what others had done if their action had a higher priority..  To make things more interesting, visitors were coming into the park, wandering around following their own agendas and then leaving.

For instance, a gaggle of kids (we called them the Wee Ones) come rushing into the park, run around from one activity on the park to another, running with reckless abandon.  Another fellow might linger near the picnic basket, walking back and forth hoping for a morsel or two.

Some of the unique mechanics were the facing of the visitors, how they moved and how the interactivity of the player turns happened.

Our first attempt left us feeling that the game was too predictable, and that there would quickly come a formula for success.  We didn't want that.

Our second attempt had the pendulum swing the other way, and now it was too random.  There was no strategical or tactical distinction in the game, you could play just as well by randomly laying down cards (Trevor did this with our second revision and came close to winning.. BOOOOO)

Our third attempt tried to strike the balance.  We did this by changing the way visitors moved and faced.  It allowed for a predictive glance at the turn, without bogging down into too much detail (analysis paralysis!).  It wasn't perfect, but we were on the right track.

Next came the balancing of the individual characters.  Being "Sister" had to mean something, right?  Each character had strengths and weaknesses that should factor into turn making decisions both for the player playing them, and for someone trying to anticipate the moves.

Voila!  Our 15th (or maybe 17th) version of the game hit our primary metric for success - it was FUN!  However, it was hard to 'love' it still, since the prototype didn't have the aesthetic we wanted yet.

We needed an artist and we only had a shoestring budget.  The art HAD to capture the feel or it wouldn't work.  Trevor, being wise and just, recommended the "Speed Painting" style, and mentioned an artist he'd used previously for another game prototype.  An Argentinian gentleman named Vlad, who at a glance had exactly the style we were working for.  Without further adieu, I contacted him and gave him my set of criteria..  He got started with this instruction:

Father ninja:   He is a tall, middle-aged ninja wearing the typical black ninja clothes and standing straight up.  His right arm is extended out and holding a pipe (see the attached picture “FATHER” and imagine a pipe in his outstretched hand).  His left arm is drawn back tight against his body, and is holding a newspaper.  He has a slight pot-belly, blue eyes and an orange smoking jacket that looks very british.  He is about 40 years old.

Mother ninja:  She has her right leg extended behind her, and her left in front and bent at the knee.  Her left arm is bent with elbow pointing straight behind her (see the attached picture “MOTHER”) and her right arm looks like it is punching straight ahead of her, but in her hand she has a rolling pin.  She is wearing a white apron with red polka dots and she also has lovely blue eyes and long eyelashes.  She is about 35 years old.

Sister ninja:  She’s wearing “mother’s” clothes and is playing at being an adult ninja.  She is wearing a pink british sunhat with a wide floppy brim, a pink sash, and mother’s pink high heels.  All of which are too big for her.  In her left hand is a ninja-to short blade.  In her right, which is extended behind her (seem the attached picture “SISTER”) she is holding a teddy bear with button eyes.  She is about 10 years old.

Brother ninja:  He is kneeling (see attached picture “BROTHER”) and has a train in his right hand, and several throwing stars in his left.  He is wearing a blue and white striped train conductor’s cap, that is tilted forward over his ninja clothes so that his face is hidden in shadow and all you can see are his burning blue eyes.  He is about 7 years old

And this is where he ended up:


Vlad was a hit, he just "Got it" and seemed to know exactly what we wanted.  He commenced working on all of the visitors, food and drink for the picnic, the massive park itself and then finally the box cover.  We were impressed with Vlad's vision, his skill and his speed.  He breathed the final breath of life into our game.

We hope you enjoy Ninja Family Picnic as much as we enjoyed making it.

Thank you for reading!