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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Shake That City

by Mads Fløe

Diary written by Kåre Torndahl Kjær

A New Collaboration Leads to a New Concept

I first met Mads Fløe, my co-designer of Shake That City, when I signed up to participate in Game Rush, a game jam he was hosting at Fastaval, the biggest role- and board gaming convention in Denmark. This was also the place that fostered the first ideas for the excellent Spiel des Jahres-nominated Magic Maze by our common friend Kasper Lapp. That year I participated with Troels Vastrup, co-designer of Among Nobles, and we made a game together in just a few days, all while I was presenting another newly designed game in the main board game competition of the convention.

A few years later, I was visiting Aarhus, where Mads works at a board game café, to meet him and talk about board game design. I was in a phase of my life in which I decided to make a push to get a game published by working only part-time for half a year. I was going to use that spare time to design games. I was also interested in co-designing games and was in the process of finding potential collaborators.

In the café, Mads showed me a game he had almost finished, for which I suggested a solo mode that worked nicely. We quickly found chemistry and potential in each other’s inputs and ideas. When I started my leave from work, I was happy that Mads wanted to work together on designing new games.

We began to meet once a week online, as this was in the spring of 2020 when it wasn’t possible to meet in person due to Covid-19. We brainstormed a lot of different ideas. We talked about which known mechanisms existed that could get a new life with a modern twist, for example. We came up with ideas for around ten or so different games, made rough prototypes for them, and started playtesting to find which ones were worth pursuing.

The Spark

One day Mads came to me with a simple idea — he pulled some cubes from a bag and placed them in a grid. From there it went really fast, and we quickly came up with the concept of drawing a 3×3 pattern of cubes from the bag one at a time, filling each row from left to right. We created patterns that none of us had seen implemented in a board game before and realized that we had designed a polyomino generator.

The first prototype of the shaker — we’ve come a long way since!

Designers before us have tried to solve the “draw a random polyomino” problem, but how can anyone randomly draw different shapes, as even with closed eyes, they all feel different and therefore can be easily identified? Also, how do you ensure that random doesn’t mean complicated and useless?

Laying out the polyominoes in a ring as in Patchwork is a good solution, but it’s not quite a random draw as you have a finite number of different polyominoes and only a few are available on each player’s turn. There’s still uncertainty as the other player will not know which polyominoes will be available on their turn, thus creating a randomizer of sorts, but both players can see all the shapes left on the table.

The first physical and digital prototypes — make ugly prototypes & fail fast!

But with this system, we could randomize a pattern each and every time by drawing the cubes from a bag, then placing them in the specified sequence in a grid. Then another realization dawned on us: We had a system that would not only randomize patterns, but would also create modular polyominoes (disconnected polyominoes) since cubes of the same color would not necessarily end up adjacent to one another.

This also meant that when replicating these polyominoes on a player’s own grid (player board), they would interconnect in ways never before possible with regular polyominoes. We both knew we had something special, and we started testing immediately. We both liked the system very much, finding ourselves caught up in playing rather than testing. This was definitely a great sign!

Necessity & Invention

The system of using a bag to draw random cubes to make a 3×3 pattern was great at first — but drawing nine cubes from a bag, one by one for multiple rounds, could become tedious. Necessity being the mother of invention — we started looking for a new solution.

We ditched the bag and punched nine square holes in a small box, replacing the larger dice with cubes, which allowed us to generate new patterns much more quickly. We found it quite fun to use the box, although some caution had to be made while operating it since the holes in the bottom of the box were still open while you lifted it to reveal the pattern.

Version 2.0 of the shaker with an internal locking mechanism — but no lid!

Another potential issue was that the box was open, and allowing players to look into it while shaking could create the impression that the box was a dexterity game of sorts in which players could try to create patterns with their own will and skill.

But because the game was just so exciting to play, and because Mads and I didn’t look consciously into the box while shaking it, we weren’t worried about this issue at this point. Perhaps us not caring was to our benefit because we soon had a working prototype and a game we found ourselves playing over and over for fun — constantly having to remind ourselves, multiple times, that we were supposed to work, not just play for fun!

Time to Say Hello

Inevitably, I was running out of dedicated time to work on our games as my leave was soon ending. We were still having fun playing, but soon another corner had to be turned: pitching the game. This process is where we realized that we had a real hit on our hands.

We had both pitched games before. Mads had even had his first game, Ka Pai, published the year prior with three expansions to follow, while also having 26(!) meetings at the SPIEL fair in Essen. We knew what to expect, as do most designers: rejections and more rejections, long waits for replies, and a small fraction of interested parties eventually leading to actual contract offers.

This time was very different, like night-and-day-different. We had a LOT of positive feedback from everyone we showed this design to, including publishers who wanted to get their hands on our game.

There was still the usual mixed interest from some and even outright rejections from others. As designers learn, it’s not only about making great games; it’s also about relationships and about having THE THING™* that a given publisher is looking for. (*What THE THING™ actually is is quite illusive and not even clear to most publishers, but they seem to recognize it when they see it.) Soon we had several direct offers for the game!

The Pitch Project

Shortly before all this, we had entered the game into something called The Pitch Project. This was back when Covid-19 was causing lockdowns all over the world, and The Pitch Project was a blessing sent from above – or really from hosts Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier, the duo behind great games like Mind MGMT: The Psychic Espionage “Game.”, Junk Art, Akrotiri, Belfort, and many other great designs).

A normal household kitchen becomes a studio for pitching Shake That City to 30+ publishers at once

So while we started having immense interest from different publishers, we also held them back for awhile as our game was picked as one of the best prototypes of The Pitch Project, meaning we had secured a slot to present the game to a long list of publishers at the finale of The Pitch Project, so naturally we wanted to be part of it.

One of those publishers that had shown early interest before The Pitch Project was AEG. They were completely open and okay with us participating in The Pitch Project. AEG is one of the good guys in publishing, in case you haven’t heard it yet, and this is one of many times they displayed this kind of openness and good faith toward us. It was one of the reasons why we eventually picked them over other interested publishers. We continue to be pleased with that decision to this day.

It’s still quite surreal to think about how we had a full hand of options and that we had the privilege to pick which publisher we wanted to work with. As it turns out, having to reject publishers you would love to work with is quite a bummer, and we still hope that we can work with some of them on future games — you know, if we can design THE THING™ they are looking for, of course. But for this particular game, AEG was our choice, and shortly after The Pitch Project we signed a contract with them to publish Shake That City.

Our original sell sheet. Would you have signed it?

Development

The next year or so we worked closely with the team at AEG to develop the game and polish it into a beautiful diamond. This is where we solved the issue of the open-topped shaker and added a few extra layers to the shaker box, one of which would move back and forth and function as a lever, opening and closing the nine holes in the bottom of the shaker when operated.

Coming up with a new mechanism, like modular polyominoes, sometimes leads to new devices like the Cube Shaker. Instead of constantly drawing cubes from a bag, one at a time, you simply shake the box, press the lever, release it, lift — and then you have a perfect 3×3 pattern on the table. It takes a mere second or two, and it’s both fascinating and fun to use. It even makes a sound that makes you curious of what is going on, and I cannot tell you how many times I have seen literal jaws drop when players see the shaker in action for the first time.

Youtube VideoStress testing the shaker with the newly added lid

Design Choices We Made

From early in the process, we had a clear idea of the characteristics we wanted to aim for. We wanted to make Shake That City a game that:

• Plays quickly (low downtime with a short overall play time)

• Is accessible (in everything from ease of play to price point for a low barrier to play)

• Makes an interesting experience each time you play (even after your 100th game)

This meant we were constantly looking to reduce complexity without removing depth. For example, previously the home tiles could be stacked for extra points, but we discovered that made it more difficult to visualize where to place homes and how to calculate their score. This rule also broke the placement rules for only this single type of tile, and it meant that the number of home tiles in the game had to be greater than all the other tile types. We soon realized how little we gained versus the hassle, so we scrapped it and the game became better in every possible way.

One of the first prototypes in which home stacking was allowed

Interaction: Finding the Sweet Spot

Games with a puzzly nature in which each player builds their own thing tend to mechanically fall into two different categories: Either they have a lot of interaction (typically something like whoever has the most X scores Y points, etc.), or they have none at all.

On one hand, the interactive model slows down gameplay and can give you a huge, branching puzzle as you consider all other players’ choices besides your own. On the other hand, the games with no interaction can play quickly, but that’s only because you can mind your own thing and ignore what all the other players are doing. This was closer to what we wanted, but a complete multiplayer solitaire experience didn’t align with the goal of having an interesting experience each time you played. For that we need human interaction, a way to meaningfully stitch the presence of the other players directly into the core of the gameplay.

We did two major things to accommodate this. First, we designed the game so that players are waiting only for what the first player picks, then the rest of the players simultaneously choose anything remaining — even the same thing as long as it’s not what the first player picked. However, the first player can still get an easy overview of the other players’ boards, and they can (if they choose) make an informed decision of what the other players might want to pick, and therefore consider taking that to block it from them purposely.

This is possible because of a second design choice we made. The boards are set up with the bonus tiles oriented in the same cardinal directions, regardless of different player perspectives from where they are sitting at the table. Since pattern rotations are not allowed, what you see when analyzing your own board is the same as what you see when analyzing an opponent’s board, regardless of whether they sit next to you or across from you.

What I see when looking at my city is the same as what I see when looking at yours

Another consequence of this design decision is that you play on equal terms. It’s a fair game — you don’t win just because you had the luckiest starting point with your bonus tiles. Everyone has the same set-up, and you even have the same choices in a round — but with the twist of the starting player blocking one of those choices.

The Curated Experience

Many games that will inevitably be compared to Shake That City have multiple scoring cards that you can mix and match before the game starts. In our game that would amount to having five different scoring cards for homes, five different scoring cards for shops, etc. However, we took a deliberate decision not to go down that road with Shake That City. Instead we have just a single set of rules for each side of the player board — two in total.

You can play on either the landlocked side or the beach front side of the boards

In many of the aforementioned types of games, winning relies heavily on your ability to find the combinations of scoring criteria that go well together at the start of the game, then focusing on those while playing. This means your chances of winning depend less on your choices throughout the game and more on your ability to spot the synergies in the scoring rules before the game starts.

Nothing is wrong with that. A lot of gamers love to crunch this out, and there are excellent games in which this is absolutely central — Dominion and Tiny Towns to name two obvious examples. Keeping in mind our target audience, it was our opinion that this would inevitably cause frustration rather than provide a fun challenge. There can be a big gap in a player’s ability and awareness to crunch out how to best utilize a set of scoring rules, especially if you exchange them game after game and have to re-learn new ones constantly.

Instead of creating sets of different scoring cards, we focused on designing and balancing two sets of scoring rules — one for each side of the player board — with built-in synergies that make you want to explore the boundaries of their possibilities through different strategies. We have tested them again and again and found that they continue to provide the high level of fun for which we were aiming.

Another integral part of why we scrapped the multiple scoring cards method is how randomization is featured thanks to the shaker. It’s different from what’s seen in other board games. The sheer number of different options it provides are so large that even after a hundred games, you are unlikely to have seen the same shake-out twice.

At the same time, specific small patterns occur so regularly that it is a valid strategy to gamble on getting them — a single road, for example. But there are no guarantees. It feels a little like a press-your-luck mechanism of sorts, with the same anticipation build up and release when you get — or don’t get — the thing you were hoping for in a pattern. And even if that specific pattern didn’t come up, sometimes the same pattern with a slight addition might work just as well — and sometimes it works even better.

The shaker can randomly generate almost two million patterns. How’s that for variability?

The Result

Because of the specific nature of randomness the shaker provides, the variance to keep the game fresh is built into the gameplay itself rather than being provided by different scoring cards. You are pretty much never presented with the same board state and the same options as in a previous game. It’s always something different.

Another positive step towards our design goals with this decision is that players get to dig deeper into the gameplay faster, dedicating less (and eventually no) mental capacity for learning and reminding themselves “How does this score again?” After a few plays, the scoring should come somewhat naturally, then you really get to explore the possibilities of the fixed 6×6 spaces, the random 3×3 cube patterns, the random (but identical for all) set-up of the bonus tiles, and the timing of it all in combination with each other. This is where the core experience lies in Shake That City.

An interesting shop pattern that calls to me like Russell Crowe in Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?!” Hmm, should I go for them, or will it turn out to be a trap?

For example, early-game shakeouts with big or unusual patterns can take your game in very different directions, like an early four- or five-tile shop pattern with perfect room for a road, or maybe a large group of factories lumped together. This can set a strategic line for the rest of your game — and you might never see those exact patterns in another game ever again! So are you not tempted to try?

These were some of the thoughts behind the design of Shake That City. We hope you enjoyed reading it and that it has given you an insight into how to best enjoy the game!

All the love,

Kåre & Mads

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