Prototyping Secret Hitler

Secret Hitler is a new social deduction game that I co-created, it’s on Kickstarter now!

This year I’ve been lucky enough to work on a new game called Secret Hitler, which is now about halfway through its Kickstarter campaign to raise $54,000 for a first printing.

This is the fourth tabletop game I’ve funded on Kickstarter (I am also a co-creator of Cards Against Humanity, Werewolf, and Slap .45), and through those projects, I’ve learned so much about quickly prototyping games and bringing them to market.

In this blog post, I want to talk about the process of designing and prototyping Secret Hitler, and what I learned from the mistakes and blunders in my earlier projects.

The Shitty First Draft

The shitty first draft of Secret Hitler

Every game starts with a shitty first draft.

In Anne Lamott’s wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, she talks about the value of shitty first drafts:

All good writers write shitty first drafts. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)
One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do — you can either type or kill yourself.”

The first time I playtested Secret Hitler with Mike and Tommy, we crammed blank playing cards into card sleeves. This is one of my favorite rapid prototyping techniques — different colored sleeves let you work with different types of cards, and they let you swap out the card faces very quickly. (You can get plain-colored card sleeves for basically nothing — here’s 400 for $10 with free shipping on Amazon. If you don’t want to shell out for blank cards, you can just stick slips of paper over old Magic: The Gathering cards. Magic gives out free non-randomized “starter packs” at almost every major gaming event and nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.) This draft of the game wasn’t pretty, but it let us validate our idea and see if it was fun.

I asked some of my favorite tabletop designers — some of the most successful, established people in the industry, and some young people who are pushing the boundaries of tabletop games — to share their shitty first drafts with me.

Here’s a shitty first draft Exploding Kittens, the most successful game in the history of Kickstarter:

Exploding Kittens prototype by Elan Lee

Dan Shapiro made a shitty first draft of Robot Turtles (the most successful game in the history of Kickstarter before Exploding Kittens) using Powerpoint clipart sprayglued to cardboard:

Robot Turtles prototype by Dan Shapiro

Here’s a prototype of an upcoming game by Rob Daviau, who is, for my money, the most exciting working tabletop game designer right now:

Rob says: “The cards are different regions that players can visit/explore. I ran out of interesting names that sounded like eerie Antarctic locations, which is why one card is called ‘Clown School.’ FACT: I do think that finding a clown school in Antarctica in the 1920s would be mighty fucking terrifying.”

Keith Baker prototyped the transparent cards for one of my all-time favorite games, Gloom, with overhead projector film and Whiteout:

Gloom prototype on Projector film

And here’s Keith’s prototype for his new RPG, Phoenix:

Keith Baker’s newest game prototype

Here’s the great and mighty Mike Selinker’s prototype of Sausage Party:

Sausage Party by Mike Selinker

Here’s the first version of James Ernest’s Fish Cook:

Fish Cook by James Ernest

And here’s the first board for James Ernest and Mike Selinker’s modern classic, Lords of Vegas:

Lords of Vegas by Ernest and Selinker

The handmade prototype of Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel:

Burning Wheel by Luke Crane

Here’s Innovation by Carl Chudyk, photo courtesy of Chris Cieslik:

Innovation by Carl Chudyk

Here’s James Sutter’s first draft of the Kaer Maga Pathfinder campaign setting, next to what was published:

Kaer Maga by James Sutter; finished map by Jared Blando

A current draft of Will Hindmarch’s new game Side Scroller:

Side Scroller by Will Hindmarch

Here’s cards from the first playtest of The Metagame:

The Metagame by Jon Sharp, Colleen Macklin, and Eric Zimmerman

Draft of a Pathfinder supplement by Logan Bonner:

Pathfinder supplement draft by Logan Bonner. I love the note: “Cut or look for ways to make it interesting.”

An early copy of UnPub which lists mechanics on cards:

UnPub by Doug Levandowski and JR Honeycutt

Here’s Discount Salmon, the winner of Season One of Tabletop Deathmatch; a game is now known for it’s charming theme and art:

Discount Salmon by Waterbear Games

An early prototype of Teale Fristoe’s Corporate America:

Corporate America by Teale Fristoe, with rare printed prototype rules

Here’s a great one — Arnie Niekamp’s paper prototype of Bidiots, my favorite game in the new Jackbox Party Pack 2:

Paper Bidiots prototype by Arnie Niekamp

I can’t help but share this one… here’s an early prototype of the incredible ten-player arcade game Killer Queen:

Joshua DeBonis working on an early build of Killer Queen

And finally, here’s a prototype of one of my favorite party games, Skiptrace:

Skiptrace by Ayla Arthur and Tom Sellers

(A quick note: I got more of these prototypes than I could possibly share. Check out Wes Schneider’s incredible map notebooks, a great post on the prototyping of City of Kings, as well as Daniel Solis’ very valuable blog. I desperately want to collect these into a coffee table book. Please nobody steal that idea until I have time to make it.)

Iterative Design

I think you can see from all of these examples that game designers not only tolerate lo-fi prototypes, but really celebrate them— the shittier and more disposable the better.

This has been something very difficult for me to embrace. I’m a graphic designer by trade, and when I’m working on a new game idea, I can very easily go down the rathole of kerning the type, proofing the colors, and obsessing over the copy. Not only is this a tremendous distraction from actually working on the game, but it can lead to a scenario where I fall in love with my prototype as it exists and don’t want to make necessary cuts.

I first got into board games from reading Matthew Baldwin’s Defective Yeti blog. As soon as he started posting game reviews, I became hooked, and I bought my first modern game, Shadows Over Camelot, on his recommendation. When I met Matthew for the first time in real life, he gave me a copy of Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, and that book became my entire formal education in game design. Here it is now, sitting on my desk, like a magical talisman that will imbue me with +1 competency:

Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

This book taught me some fundamental ideas about games, but it also gave me the feeling that I could participate in the creation of games myself with nothing other than the stuff in my home. Right in the beginning on page 11, they define iterative design in a way that gets me excited to work on games every time I read it:

Iterative design is a play-based design process. Emphasizing playtesting and prototyping, iterative design is a method in which design decisions are made based on the experience of playing a game while it is still in development. In an iterative methodology, a rough version of the game is rapidly prototyped as early in the game design process as possible. This prototype has none of the aesthetic trappings of the final game, but it begins to define its fundamental rules and core mechanics. It is not a visual prototype, but an interactive one.
Early prototypes are not pretty. They might be paper versions of a digital game, a single player version of a networked experience, hand-scrawled board and pieces for a strategy wargame, or a butt-ugly interactive mock-up with placeholder artwork. Still, the prototype is more than an interactive slideshow — it is a genuinely playable game that begins to address the game design challenges of the project as a whole.

User experience

For Secret Hitler, the next step in our iterative design was to repeatedly playtest the game, observe the struggles that players had, and redesign the prototype to mitigate those struggles.

Rules of Play refers to this as “a cyclic process that alternates between prototyping, playtesting, evaluation, and refinement.”

In our playtests, we looked for players arguing over the rules, becoming confused, or fumbling with the components. It can be really hard to see feedback that’s right in front of you, and even harder to know what to do with the feedback you collect.

Here’s a few tricks that helped us:

  • Playtesters (especially experienced gamers) love to tell you what they think other people will think, i.e. “I loved this but I think other people will hate it.” This is usually worthless feedback — you should only value what players say about their own direct experiences.
  • Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback; “double or half.” If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the “Dr. House” approach to game design.
  • If you get stuck on a problem in design, consider the extreme users…people who have never played a tabletop game before, or people who have played every tabletop game and are bored with them all. This comes from David Kelley of IDEO, who said, “Who do you get feedback from? Extreme users. They help with the divergent part in generating ideas. Things often trickle down from extreme users to the normal users.”

During this phase of iteration, the quality of the Secret Hitler prototype rapidly improved. Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what, so we borrowed some mini playing cards from a Slap .45 promotion as our policy deck, and made a track out of cardboard. Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.

Borrowed cards for an early prototype

The first prototype I made on the computer started to introduce icons and common nomenclature for the Fascist powers, so players could all refer to the same thing. I used icons from the Noun Project, we printed it on our office laser printer, and taped it together.

By this point we already knew that we needed to give players a lot of secret information, and ran into a problem of them clumsily revealing cards, so we used some of these tiny envelopes from Uline. Once the cards were in envelopes, even if a player dropped them on the floor, they remained secret.

Max’s first digital prototype of Secret Hitler

We did our first round of blind playtesting with this set, and the results were very positive.

Around this time we brought on the incredibly talented Mac Schubert as an illustrator, and asked him to fly to Chicago to jam on the game with us for a weekend. We camped out in the office and worked together on a refined visual style as well as some new component ideas — in this version of the prototype, each player received a dossier with their charater’s info and removable cards.

This was my design concept:

Design concept of the Passport

…and here was the final version that we made that weekend:

Mac’s first illustrated prototype

Here’s my favorite thing about this prototype… see how the passport in the lower-right corner is more worn than all of the others? That’s Hitler. The players with the most anxiety-inducing role literally rubbed the ink off their passport over dozens of games. Once we discovered that, we stopped prototyping cards on a laser printer.

We loved the concept of the dossier but found some problems in playtesting. Since the entire game hinges on players keeping their identities secret, playtesters had a lot of anxiety about keeping their folders closed. This wasn’t a problem with the envelopes, so we switched back for the next prototype. Additionally, we discovered that making the “yes” and “no” voting cards green and red (like a stoplight) was influencing player behavior — people didn’t want to vote “no” because red was the team color of the fascists. We switched back to a neutral color for the voting cards.

Mac’s Second Prototype

One of the final issues we observed with this prototype was the issue of dropping the policy cards. Secret Hitler has a semi-complicated secret passing mechanic. Each round, the President secretly draws three cards, discards one, and passes the remaining two to the Chancellor, who discards one and reveals the final one to the group as a new law. If either player fumbles the cards, struggles to pick them up off the table, or holds them at a bad angle, the whole mechanic comes crashing down and the crucial hidden information becomes unhidden. This turned out to be a serious problem, and when we sent the game to China for print prototyping, we switched the policy cards to Carcassonne-like tiles. We’re still testing these, but they’re much easier to handle, and seem to have totally solved the clumsy-passing issue.

The policy desk is little tiles now

I think the game looks absolutely stunning now, and I take a lot of pleasure in watching first-time players figure out how to work with all of the components in a logical way.

The current Secret Hitler Prototype

We’re just now entering the final phase of prototyping — yesterday Zach Kaplan from Inventables brought over a demo unit of their new desktop CNC Router, the Carvey, and we started prototyping some wooden components that we hope to offer as upgrades:

CNCing wooden components on the Carvey

Desktop manufacturing machines like Carvey and Glowforge are incredibly exciting tools for rapid game prototyping. If you want to work with 3D components, my advice is to skip the 3D printer and go right to a CNC machine like a router or lasercutter. You’ll spend half as much time fiddling and twice as much time making, and you can use real-world materials like wood, paper, and metal instead of crappy ABS plastic.

I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating how great these machines are, but Carvey and Glowforge represent a new generation of desktop manufacturing with software and hardware working together in an incredibly powerful way. Here’s how we used the Carvey yesterday:

Design is how it works

The thing I hope to highlight in all of this is that prototyping is not simply a case of the graphic design getting better. The graphic design does get better, but that’s because the design is solving problems posed by gameplay. Great design in games is not just cool illustration, it’s understanding the real-world constraints and requirements of the game enough to make informed graphic design choices every step of the way.

It’s like Steve Jobs said:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

When you ask players to learn a new game, you are sending them into an unfamiliar situation, and as a designer, the graphic design and components in your game should give players a map. Jared Spool uses the analogy of trying to find a glass in a strangers’ kitchen to describe a UX problem:

There are few things more frustrating in life than trying to get a drinking glass in someone else’s kitchen. You have to open every cabinet door to figure out where they put the empty glasses. For a few moments, we feel like we’re invading a very private space, searching for something innocuous by opening every nook and cranny. It’s an interesting phenomena, since, in our own house, we have a cabinet with glasses. Chances are the glasses are in a cabinet near the kitchen sink. Yet, when we’re in unfamiliar territory, we’re on a search and rescue mission of immense proportions. In the 21st century, innovation has finally arrived. Cabinet manufacturers have come up with an amazing invention: windows. Yes, they now put windows in the cabinets so you see the glasses without opening every door. Simply brilliant. I wish I’d thought of it.

Great components and graphic design are more than how the game looks; they are are windows on the dark cabinets of your game. They are how it works.

If you liked reading about the design process of Secret Hitler, make sure you check out Tommy Maranges’ incredible post about designing the hidden information mechanics in the game.