Speakeasy Designer’s Diary

July 7, 2014 - Blog

Three years ago I started a game company called Waxwing. The idea was to create an event business that would let me design the games I’ve always wanted to create and to share them with people in Chicago. In the process of launching Waxwing, I created a few pervasive games  to be Waxwing’s flagship events and Speakeasy was one of them. The game has continued to change and develop until, earlier this month, I launched a Kickstarter campaign for Speakeasy. I thought I’d take a minute to chronicle the story of Speakeasy—which has been by far the most intensive game development I’ve ever taken part in.

How it Started

My favorite games fall into the nebulously-labeled category of “social” games. Think: Werewolf, Capture the Flag, The Resistance, Journey to the End of the Night, Assassins, Fugitive, even good old fashioned hide and seek. I’ve always found myself wanting to change and tweak the games I played to see if they could be made more interesting (hence the name of this site) and one day the thought occurred to me: “Werewolf is a great game… but can it be made any better?”

We all know and love that old party warhorse, Mafia, and its lupine cousin, Werewolf—they have been adding more than their share of deception, intrigue, and fun to living room parties since the 80′s. They are easy to learn, facilitate you getting into tons of semi-friendly arguments with people, and, best of all, they give you plenty of opportunities to lie to your friends and make them into minions for your nefarious schemes. (Sidenote: MinionsforMyNefariousSchemes.com would also have been a great URL for this site.)

But, as I see it, Werewolf has a few problems:

  1. It is an elimination game. Each round someone has to leave the game, which is a downer for them.
  2. During the first few rounds, the fog of war is so thick that you basically have to guess who to vote off at random.
  3. It is a game that can be beat. Read about the dominant strategy on Jane McGonigal’s blog.

Speakeasy was born as I tried to come up with a mobster-themed game that addressed some of those issues, yet kept the social deduction aspects that make Werewolf great.

Speakeasy Take One

I took a personality test once which told me that I scored high on “optimism” but low on “reality checking.” Basically, this means that I love to come up with ideas and instantly think those ideas will all work out (and will probably be ready to go by this time next week.) It was in this spirit that I made the first version of Speakeasy and invited my friends to a pub to play it. It was a fun night, but it was clear that the game would have to change.

old speakeasy roleThe roles were printed on 8.5 x 11 pages that were full of text. The first 15 minutes all the players did was read. Some roles had to wait for other roles before their ability could be activated, and they were unsure of what to do until then. The game took 2.5 hours to play. My instruction spiel still left people unsure of how to play the game. Even after a designer friend cleaned up the role pages (see left) it was still too much text. I went back to the drawing board along with a few friends who believed in the game and tried again.

This process would continue for the next three years. Design. Test. Tweak. Repeat. Luckily, Speakeasy is a card game, so the only costs I incurred during this process were for time, reams of card stock, and cartridge after cartridge of toner refills.

Speakeasy Take Fifteen

The good thing about launching Speakeasy through Waxwing is that there was never any shortage of players, and each time the game was played, it got a little better. I could focus on one aspect of the game that was making players stumble and then move on to the next one.

new speakeasy rolesBut there was still so much text on the role pages that the players were still spending the first 15 minutes reading and scratching their heads. I was getting great feedback from players, but the game still took too long to play. I decided to give Speakeasy a drastic overhaul and ditch the role sheets entirely in favor of a leaner, meaner game that could be played entirely with cards. Everything got smaller and less wordy and had to fit on a 2.5 x 3.5 card (see right).

This was the time the Rat made an entrance into the game and really made things interesting. There was always a double agent on both teams and it was always the most fun role to get, but there was a design challenge of how to communicate that to the lucky player who was the double agent on their team. We solved this challenge by giving the double agent role two role sheets, but that only doubled the problem of having too many words to read. The transition to cards helped catalyze the idea of having a “rat card” that the player received along with all their other cards that said their true team allegiance was the opposite of the one listed on their role card. I also added a section at the end of the game where each team had to vote on who among them is the rat—a nod to Werewolf and Mafia and a very fun moment in the game. Side note on game design: Sometimes when you’re stuck on a game problem, creative restrictions (for instance, “redesign this game using only cards.”) can trigger new thoughts and help you think of workarounds for tricky problems. An overhaul does a body good.

“Hey, You Should Do a Kickstarter”

Somewhere along the line, a friend told me I should do a Kickstarter campaign for Speakeasy. My first thought was, “That’s a cool idea, but there is no way I’ll be able to pull it off.” What did I know about printing cards, building a Kickstarter campaign, marketing, shipping, etc. etc.? Answer: very little. I put the idea off, but it kept coming up over and over again until I started to believe it was possible, and then dove in head first.

rat cardWhat followed was several months of even more intense playtesting, alternating with hours and hours of research on how to fund a game with Kickstarter. I’ve had a lot of help from thoughtful friends (and from Google) over the past six months of working on the campaign in earnest. Most of the time it felt like I would check one question off the list only to add three more that I didn’t even know I should be asking. (Perhaps you’re wondering, “Andy, what single resource helped you the most?” Answer: Stonemaier Games.  Check it out.)

I talked to perhaps 15 illustrators and finally found the right one along with a designer who could create a new layout and handle the technical aspects of designing the game box and creating the final template that goes to the printer. Slowly, as the July 1 launch deadline drew nearer all the components began to come together: the campaign page, the marketing plan, the draft emails, the Board Game Geek ads, the new art for the cards, and 100 other little things.

Then the fateful day came and Speakeasy launched! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1894392880/speakeasy-a-mob-themed-hidden-role-party-game

Hitman cardWhy I Love Speakeasy

I hope to write more in the future on the meta-philosophy behind Speakeasy, but for now I’ll list a few things that make me happy that Speakeasy is what it is on a deeper level than just the fun of the game.

  • In Speakeasy, every player interacts with every other player. Every game starts with the same social inertia that accompanies the start of every party—and by the end people have shared the kind of experience that relationships are made of. Waxwing has given me many opportunities to see groups of strangers start the game awkwardly and then by the end of it those same strangers are grabbing drinks and hanging around telling stories.
  • It is a true pervasive game in the sense that the magic circle in which game play takes place overlaps with the “real world” (especially when the game is played in public.) The fiction of the game is immersive enough that, while the game lasts, players are caught up in it, while all the while taking place in a real context that always shapes the game itself.
  • Similar to a few other games like Two Rooms and a Boom, Speakeasy is a game that is trying to push the boundaries of the genre set by Mafia and Werewolf in what (I hope) are interesting ways that expand the horizon of strategy within the game. For instance, the game is not turn-based; it happens in real time at the speed of player’s strategy. Players are standing instead of sitting down and have the power to choose who they want to talk to (or run from) and when. If there is a dominant strategy, I have yet to find it (but if you do, be sure to let me know.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *