How we made a popular political game that doesn’t start fights. The Contender Part 1.

I’m John Teasdale. My friends and I raised $142,000 on Kickstarter to create The Contender: The game of Presidential Debate. This is the work we did before we launched our campaign.


Spoiler: We finished it.

There are three reasons I’m writing this article:

  1. Nostalgia. I recently found an old email with an early print and play attached to it and took that all the way down memory lane. Each section below contains a link to download the PDF file we used to play test that version.
  2. To provide an example for folks just getting into game design.
  3. To show the type work it took to create an original game in the genre defined by Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity.

The Spark

Justin Robert Young and I had made games together before. In December of 2014, he told me he wanted to make a game to fill the ‘people are still arriving to game-night’ void. He wanted a quick-play game, slightly more complex and interesting than UNO. I was playing with the idea for game that sounds like a conversation when played.

I floated the name “Politically Incorrect”. Players would use cards to debate, trying to box the other player into saying something inappropriate. As a big fan of politics, Justin only heard the words “political” and “debate.” It made sense. Presidential debates have the highest stakes of any conversation in American society, yet they are formulaic and full of childish rhetoric. America already celebrates and mocks the witty, cutting, and unfortunate remarks politicians make. Plus, it was an election year. Oh, what a year it turned out to be…

Fifteen minutes later we had our first prototype. We figured people can use three ‘types’ of arguments in a debate: Facts, Attacks, & Distracts.

Facts are general statements about issues; and don’t have to be true.

“Read my lips: no new taxes”
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Attacks portray your opponent in a bad light.

“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
“There you go again”

Distracts are nonsense statements. They don’t really mean anything, but they take the sting out of attacks, rally the crowd into a patriotic fervor, and give them a reason to applaud.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

I had been playing a lot of Lagoon: Land of the Druid, a game with an interesting circular scoring method. (Think Rock beats Paper beats Scissors beats Rock etc.) With that as an example, we created our original rules.

Version 0 — Game Mechanic Test

This draft of the original rules was the first thing we ever wrote down for The Contender.

[Note: These rules turned out to be pretty technical. If you’re not a game person you might want to scroll down to the Problems section.]

Setup

This is a 2 player game.

Remove the Clubs from a deck of 52 playing cards and shuffle them. Both players draw 5 cards.

Hearts (Facts) beat lower Hearts and any Diamond.

Diamonds (Distracts) beat lower Diamonds and any Spade.

Spades (Attacks) beat lower Spades and any Heart.

Rules

You can never have more than 7 cards in your hand. If you have 7 cards and cannot play, you lose the round.

On a normal turn, a player can take one of two actions.

  • Play a card that beats the previous card. — or —
  • Draw three cards and do not play a card (also known as Stalling for Time).

If you choose to Stall, your opponent has the chance to respond by either:

  • Also drawing three cards (this does not count as a Stall) — or —
  • Playing another card in addition to the one they have already played.

If you are the Stalling player and your opponent played an additional card, you still only play one card, but it has to be able to beat both of those cards.

The round continues until one of the players can neither play or draw a card.

The first player to win 3 rounds is the winner.

Example Round

Player A plays a level 6 Fact (6 of Hearts) — has 4 cards left

Player B plays a level 2 Attack (2 of Spades) — has 4 cards left
 — beats the level 6 Fact because all Attacks beat all Facts

Player A plays a level 7 Attack (7 of Spades) — has 3 cards left
 — beats the level 2 Fact because higher Attacks beat lower Attacks

Player B Stalls (draws 3 cards) — has 7 cards left

Player A players a level 10 Distract (10 of Diamonds) in addition to the 7 Attack — has 2 cards left

Player B plays a level 11 Distract (Jack of Diamonds) — has 6 cards left
 — beats the level 10 Distract because higher Distracts beat lower Distracts
 — also beats the 6 Attack because all Distracts beat all Attacks

Player A Stalls (Draws 3 cards)— has 5 cards left

Player B plays a level 14 Fact (Ace of Hearts) in addition to the level 11 Distract.

Player B has created an unbeatable situation. Since the Distract will beat all Attacks, and the Fact will beat all Distracts. Player A would have to play a higher Fact to stay in the game. Since Player B played the highest fact possible, Player B wins the round.

Problems

More complicated than we thought. Despite playing Rock, Paper, Scissors since childhood, it’s hard to keep the circular (Fact > Attack > Distract > Fact) rules in your head. That said, it does play well if you have a reference sheet. This was a test of our initial mechanics. The real fun begins with…

Version 1 (Working Title: Some Kind Of Debate Game)

Me (at the time): Damn, I am an excellent graphic designer. *rolls eyes*

Created: January 5th, 2015 — Download Print-and-Play
[Note: Funnily enough, a lot of these cards would make good Topics for the published version.]

I had two goals with the first print and play.

  1. Make it easy for people to remember which cards beat what other cards.
  2. Add a political theme.

Changes

Card powers now go from 1–5. (regular cards are 1–14).

Each card says the type (Fact, Attack, Distract) it beats.

Attacks, Distracts, and Facts each have an bonus written at the bottom. [Note. We never used this. Keeping the circular rules in your head was difficult enough, even with the helper text on the card. Anything additional was too much.]

We also reversed the Fact/Attack/Distract power wheel. Why? Just cause.

All other rules are the same as Version 0.

Problems

Somewhere between Version 0 and 1, the idea to make the game sound like a conversation got lost. Justin had the idea to put a political tactic on each card with quote demonstrating that tactic. I’m think he also wanted an opportunity to use the phrase ‘Paradigm Shifting Shade’.

The political content strengthened the debate theme, but it didn’t feel right. The phrase “Patriotic Nonsense” on the card is funny, but you don’t look at it at all when the numbers and card type are all that matter. For the next version, I finally got conversational mechanics. We replaced the phrase ‘Patriotic Nonsense’ with some actual patriotic nonsense.

Version 2 (Working Title: Contender: The Presidential Debate Card Game)

That’s some star-spangled patriotic nonsense.

Created: March 15th, 2015 — Download Print-and-Play

Wow, look at that name. Only took three months to settle on that. Our design inspiration was 70’s campaign materials; I perfectly capture their shittiness.

Changes

Card titles are phrases that you say out loud as you play the card.

Technique Cards! When played, they give you a bonus that lasts for the game. Before the start of the game, each player selects three Technique cards and keeps them hidden. During normal play, you can chose to activate a Technique card instead of drawing cards when you stall.

Fact, Attack, and Distract are color coded (Attack is red, Distract is white, Fact is blue). The bar on the right of shows what cards this one beats.

Problems

Making a conversation game is HARD. A phrase on a card has to sound more impressive than a phrase on a card it beats, or the whole theme falls apart.

Also, Technique Cards needed more of a cost. With these rules, there was was no reason not to play them as soon as possible.

Version 3: (Contender: The Presidential Debate Card Game)

Me (at the time): Damn, I actually am getting good at graphic design!

Created: April 10th, 2015 — Download Print-and-Play

At this point, the quotes match up with each other well and the game looks good enough. Play-tests in our gaming groups were going well. This could have been the final version. But more on that later.

Changes

In order to play a Technique card, you have to discard three cards. Either:

  • One Fact card, One Attack card, and One Distract card — or —
  • Three cards of the same type.

We also made some quote changes for polish.

Problems

On a whim, Justin reached out to his friends Meg & Faun of Guts and Glory (a design and branding studio). They liked the concept, and the summaries of the quotes. We set up a quick play test.

Meg & Faun are extremely talented designers, but they are not game enthusiasts. Our circular mechanic was completely lost on them, and the game was unplayable.

This sucked. We always thought our main market would be a crossover of political enthusiasts and casual gamers, but now our core mechanic was too complicated. What might have been a disheartening evening ended with one last play through. We threw away all of our rules, Justin ab-libbed a moderator question, and we responded by reading the quote summaries. Immediately, it was fun.

I looked at Justin and said, “We’re gonna need way more cards.”

This is Part I of Making The Contender — Conception to Completion.
Part 2 (How we ran the Kickstarter)
Part 3 (How we spend the Kickstarter money)