I love to read designer diaries to see the different iterations of the design, what choices were made, and how they impacted the final feeling of the game. I love the small changes in rules that create a totally different game experience, and I love to see how all these small changes were carefully made to optimize the game, turning it into the finished product that I have sitting on my shelf. It’s why I love designing games as well.
Therefore, it feels strange to write this designer diary when the reality of the situation is that I’ve probably spent more time on writing this than I spent actually designing Hard to Get.
Hard to Get is a co-operative word association party game for 2+ players in which only one player knows the correct word in a 4×4 grid on the table, and the other players have to guess which it is. The only clues they will get are the answers to five dilemma cards. Is the word more “Light or Heavy”? More “Floral or Striped”? And is it more like “Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks”? Through the process of elimination and a lot of discussion, the players remove words from the table until only the correct word is left, at which point everybody wins — or until they accidentally remove it, at which point everybody loses.
It All Started with the Name
Inspiration comes in many forms.
For me, it all started just before Christmas 2020 with me finding an online anagram generator, and the first words I put into it were, of course, my own name: Mads Emil. (If you don’t know, an anagram is a word or sentence made by rearranging the letters of a different word or sentence.)
The only word that came out was DILEMMAS, and immediately I knew I had to make a game called “Dilemmas”. I thought, what is a dilemma, and came to the conclusion that it is a choice between two things. I had had a discussion the night before (over one too many beers) about whether Bruce Springsteen or Bruce Willis was “The Bruce”, and my mind immediately went to that: a word association game in which you have to decide whether a word is more like Bruce Springsteen or Bruce Willis.
That night, I jotted sixteen words on small pieces of paper, asked a friend to choose one randomly, then asked him which Bruce it was more like. Another friend and I then started to remove the words we definitely didn’t think it was, then asked him another “dilemma”. We kept playing for more than two hours, writing new words and coming up with new dilemmas. We figured out that the dilemmas that were the most fun weren’t the opposites, like “apple or pizza” and “wet or dry”, but the dilemmas that were somewhat related, like “apple or pear” and “wet or cold”. What made the game fun was that there were no obvious choices…and a lot of disagreeing.
I did the same with three other groups, each time having a blast, laughing a lot, and having discussions that to an outsider must have sounded like crazy talk.
I decided to make a nicer-looking prototype instead of just having handwritten words on torn-up pieces of paper, so I sat down and started to write the best words and the best dilemmas on my computer. I printed the cards, sleeved them, and went to a local publisher and showed it off. It was an immediate hit, and I signed the publishing deal shortly thereafter.
A couple of “cards” from the first prototype
When people ask me how long I spent designing the game, I usually tell them that it took only 10-15 minutes since that first prototype I played with my two friends has the exact same rules as the finished game now sitting on my shelf.
But it wouldn’t have been such an easy process without having played hundreds of games leading up to it.
I remember the first time I played Codenames sitting at the biggest board game café in Copenhagen: Bastard Café. I was amazed how good the game was and how much fun we had discussing all the hints made by the spymaster. Afterwards I sat with a thought that most people going to see modern art might recognize: “I could have made that!” The rules were so simple, yet it created this brand new and clever experience that none of us had ever had before. It has been one of my favorite games ever since.
This experience happened again more recently when I played Wavelength. We must have played for four hours straight — not counting points, just having the most absurd discussions.
I’ve heard Hard to Get compared to both of those games, and it is no coincidence.
My only gripe with Codenames and Wavelength is that with some groups there’s a lot of time waiting for someone to come up with the best hint possible, and the better the hint, the easier it is for the team to make a decision. That means less time spent discussing possibilities, and to me, that is less time having fun. I’m very happy that Hard to Get minimizes the time spent waiting for a clue and that the clues are always very debatable as that means that most of the time will be spent doing what I feel is the most important thing: Convincing your friends that Tom Cruise is way more like a cactus than Tom Hanks.
The second prototype, in Danish, printed on paper and sleeved with playing cards
When I say that the game was finished the first night I prototyped it, that is not exactly true.
After my first two playtests, I felt like the game needed some urgency and needed to force players to remove more words from the table. At that point, the only rule was that you had to remove at least one word every round.
The next time I tested it, I added a rule that would be known as the 5-4-3-2-1 rule, which meant that you had to remove five words in the first round, four in the second round, and so on, until you were left with only two words in the fifth round and had to remove one. For me, it gave the game a lot more tension, and it often forced players to remove more words than they were comfortable with. It also gave the cluegiver a lot more control of the game because they knew exactly how many words the players would remove and could therefore look at all the words on the table, then decide which clue was the safest to give.
The strategy that the rule created meant that I as a gamer thought the game was a lot more interesting, but it also created bad situations with non-gamers in which a word was removed for being too much like Tom Hanks, even though we could all agree that it was a lot more like Tom Cruise. You simply had to look at all the words on the table before giving your clue — and that was too much for most non-gamers.
I actually pitched the game to the publisher with the 5-4-3-2-1 rule and an even more difficult 8-4-2-1 rule, but they made the right decision to just leave it up to the players how many words they would remove. We kept the game at five rounds, though, to still keep some of the pressure and force players to make riskier decisions. That said, if you, the reader, are looking for a more tactical feeling when playing, I highly recommend playing with the 5-4-3-2-1 rule.
A later prototype, testing the 5-4-3-2-1 rule, adding a board (which was a bad idea), and adding different difficulties on the dilemma cards
Working with Gameplay Publishing
Hard to Get is the first game I’ve had published, so for me it has been really interesting to follow the publishing process. I have a good personal relationship with the publisher, and I do playtests most weeks in the same building where they have their office, and as such I would often get small glimpses of where they were in the process and give my feedback on the graphic design. I am not a graphic designer myself, so I’m happy that they mostly didn’t listen to me…
The name was changed from “Dilemmas” to Hard to Get, as they thought “Dilemmas” sounded too boring. I understand the decision, but I was also sad to see the main inspiration for the game gone.
In the beginning, we discussed whether we should add different difficulty levels and give the game a sort of mission structure in the style of The Crew. It ended up just overcomplicating the game without adding any more fun, so we decided to keep the game simple as it was. We did add some “easy” dilemmas to the design to make it easier to explain the game to new players.
In general, Gameplay Publishing worked really hard to make the game as good as it could be, and I’m very happy with the result and to have worked with them the last couple of years. Hopefully the partnership will not end here, and there will be enough interest in the game that we can start working on new versions. Walk in the footsteps of Codenames, and do a picture version, a two-player version (even though the design already works with two players), and maybe even a Harry Potter version? Mostly I would just enjoy coming up with more ridiculous dilemmas.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you will enjoy playing the game with your friends and family as much as I’ve done over the last couple of years. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions — or if you just want to tell me who “The Bruce” is.