Rainbow, A Beautiful Card Game by Danger Games. A Talk About Balancing, Game Mechanics, and Play Test
We’ve all been there… playing a game that wasn’t close to being balanced. Infuriating to say the least. Understandably, there are many aspects of games that make it difficult for it to be completely balanced. However, being the most balanced game doesn’t mean that it is fun. In some cases, it may be boring if there wasn’t an element of randomness. It is hard “balancing” act if you will.
We have Curtiss Patrick who is designing Rainbow here with us to help us understand how he is balancing his game. Ranging from play testing, listening to feedback, and understanding his core concepts, he continues to find solutions to balance his game. Let’s see what he has to say!
Launch Date: TBA
Rainbow is a trick-taking poker game. It has 75 cards (5 colors with 3 sets of Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace in each color). The game is played in rounds. In each round, players get 15 cards to play 5 tricks — a 2-card, 3-card, 4-card, 5-card, and finally a 1-card trick where everyone lays down their last card. Players bid on how many tricks they think they can win, the tricks are played, and points are scored based on who was the highest bidder and whether or not they won at least the number of tricks that they bid. Hand rankings are based on poker groupings like pairs, straights, etc. with all “ranked hands” needing to be the same color (so an example of 3-of-a-kind would be 3 PURPLE aces). If players have the same hand, like a pair of aces, the color of the hands determines the winner. Purple is the strongest color followed by blue, green, orange, and red. This makes hand color a built-in trumping order.
How did you come up with the game concept?
It’s funny, I was actually working on another game called Road to Reno that involves quite a bit of casino gaming as part of the player interaction. I had been teaching poker to 2 of my sons who are 7 and 9 years old so that they could play the game with me. We started keeping the cards in hands that we won to tally a score since we weren’t doing any lunch-money vs. allowance betting. While we were playing this “trick-taking” version of poker I had this thought that a trick-taking version of poker could actually be really fun. I’ve also always thought that having more than 4 suits in a trick-taking card game would be interesting, so I tried combining the 2 ideas and an early version of Rainbow started forming.
What is the biggest balancing problem you struggled with when designing Rainbow?
For sure the biggest balancing problem in Rainbow has been scoring. In a trick-taking game the bid and the way you score is what ends up making the game exciting and competitive. In the first version we had players would bid clockwise one at a time needing to outbid the highest bid or pass. The highest bidder would then either win or lose the number of points bid based on whether or not they got at least the number of tricks bid.
As you can imagine, this sometimes led to some scores in the low negatives and one player sometimes feeling like they were pretty much out of the game. It also led to a fear of bidding anything over 2. We then moved to a blind bid. We’d say “3, 2, 1, bid” and each player would reveal with their fingers how many points they bid. Now the highest bidder(s) would have the opportunity to win or lose the number of points bid. The game and the hand management were still fun, but something always felt off about players falling below 0 in a race to 11 and my 7 and 9 year-old got pretty good at delaying their “bid fingers”.
Finally, after playing for a few weeks and getting some helpful rules feedback on Reddit, we settled on the setup we have now: players bid counter-clockwise needing to outbid the highest bid or pass. This leaves one “highest bidder.” The highest bidder can win the number of points they bid if they win at least that number of tricks. If they fail to meet or exceed their bid everyone else at the table receives one point for each trick that they won. This has been the best version of scoring by far. Players always feel like they have some skin in the game even if they aren’t the highest bidder. It also makes bidding extremely important as it is in many good trick-taking games.
How often do you play test?
I play test at home almost every day. My wife and I play once every 3 or so days and lately my 3 sons (5, 7, and 9) and I play just about every morning when they wake up. My 5-year-old son doesn’t really understand all aspects of the game yet so I set his cards up for him so he can just lay them down and cheer. He’s more interested in getting lots of purple cards than anything else. My 3-year-old daughter plays, too, but by “play” I mean tests the durability of our prototype decks.
I’ve also play tested with a handful of people outside of my family and will do a lot more of that now that we feel like the rules are fair, fun, and the format is getting closer to being ready for “blind” play testing where I’m not around to help answer questions.
Did you ever have players with contradicting feedback? How did you deal with this?
I haven’t really had any contradicting feedback from actual players of the game. Their concern is usually around how easy it will be for players who aren’t familiar with poker or trick-taking games to pick it up. Because of that feedback I am spending a lot of time on the rule book trying to make the game quickly understandable for anyone.
I do get a great deal of contradicting feedback online, especially when I post designs or rules on Reddit. My approach is typically to play test as many different ideas as I can. It usually doesn’t take long to see whether a rule change feels good in the game or not when the cards are on the table. I have a feeling I will deal with more contradicting feedback from actual players of the game in the next month or so as we move to blind play testing.
Did you experience any ground breaking play test? How did it change the game?
I can’t really think of a “ground-breaking” play test but I think there are a few great examples of the game changing based on feedback both during play testing and simply discussing the game:
- The day I had the idea for Rainbow I called my dad who loves card games. I was rambling on and on about colors with suits and numbers and trumps, poker hands, and tricks. He patiently listened and then finally said, “It sounds like you might not need suits.” It was amazing. After hours of running all sorts of complicated ideas through my head the game felt simpler. Colors ARE the suits. From there colors turned into a built-in trumping order as well which ends up being a very fun part of the game, especially in the 1-card and 2-card tricks.
- The day my wife and I first played. My wife is a good sport. I am constantly bombarding her with ideas for games, books, businesses, etc. Luckily for me, she is very honest. She is not afraid to let me know when she thinks an idea is a waste of time… as many inevitably are. The first day we played a round of Rainbow I remember asking her if she wanted to play another one. She said “yes”, and I couldn’t believe my ears. This was during we-finally-got-the-4-kids-to-bed-and-I-just-want-to-lay-on-the-couch-and-watch-Grey’s-Anatomy time. The fact that she liked the game enough to keep playing it was very encouraging for me and is probably the thing most responsible for how much time I started spending on the game. It’s been a really fun experience for both of us and she has since contributed a great deal to all parts of the game play. I asked her recently if she likes the game as it is right now and she said, “I do find myself wanting to play it.” Pretty much the most ringing endorsement you can get from a mother of 4 after 7 p.m.
- I posted my very first “playable” set of rules on Reddit in r/tabletopgamedesign back in February. I got a lot of great feedback but one user in particular commented on the scoring and how users would feel disengaged if only one player at the table could win or lose points. At the time I disagreed but the statement buried itself in my mind and the more we played the game the more it made sense. That user’s comment led to our focus on reworking the bidding and scoring system.
- I meet weekly with 4–5 game designers. We discuss our games on Discord throughout the week and have a Tuesday night call where we talk about our games. On my night this month I created a web app where we could play test Rainbow. All 3 of the guys who played it with me that night have been huge helps in many aspects of the game. Getting to play test it with these other designers and hear their live feedback was really helpful for me. It immediately highlighted rules that were unclear and places that the game could be improved. I would encourage anyone who’s designing a game to seek out at least one other person who has designed or is designing a game. Getting to bounce ideas off of someone in the same stage of development as you are is incredibly helpful. A great example of a piece of the game that has come from this particular play test is the reference card that will help players understand the hand hierarchy.
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Thanks Curtiss for the great insight. Best of luck with Rainbow.
Article published on www.fourtato.com.