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Designer Diary: The Brain

by Peter Jürgensen

The Brain is a co-operative card puzzle with limited communication. I did not plan to create a game in this “genre” or for “a specific audience of the market”; rather, it is the case that applying an abstract problem to a mathematical structure resulted in a…thing for which we happen to have names and categories.

The design took three ingredients to click together: an attempt to conceptualize abilities in games, my drive towards creating minimalistic games, and insomnia. More precisely, while not falling asleep, I tried to imagine a game with extremely simple abilities that operate on a minimalistic set-up. In my case, “set-up” usually means by default colored cards with an abstract icon on them for permutation purposes.

My thought about abilities were roundabout this: an ability has a trigger and an effect. The trigger can be anything, be it “paying for the tile” or “placing your worker on X”, and you can even have the effect of an ability being the same as the trigger of another ability in order to cause chain reactions.

The effect of an ability in a game manipulates a board position of the game. In a game with dice, this could mean applying +1/-1 to a die, getting one die more, or re-rolling — but of course it could also be as boring as “gain 3 VP”.

While this may be common knowledge or “obviously true once you read it”, it was important for me to express it in my own words since I didn’t tend to consider abilities in my games, instead concentrated on the act of playing, on incentives, and on how gameplay works on a moment-to-moment basis.

Now equipped with my refreshing thoughts on a big topic, I put it to the test with a simple set-up of thirty cards, permutated in five colors by six icons. The icons act exactly the same as the colors mathematically speaking, but they are on a different plane of existence psychologically speaking.

The trigger would be the easiest of all: playing a card to the middle of the table. Having this trigger meant that cards would be in the middle of the table, hence we have a board position to work with for the abilities.

Following suit, we could now have an ability that removes cards from the middle of the table. Removing all cards seemed boring, but removing only one card also seems boring. Hence it would be “remove all cards of this color” and “remove all cards of this icon”. As a nice side effect, this introduces leverage to card usage and allows for “playing more or less efficiently”.

However, there is so far no reason why you would want to remove any cards from the table, so at this point I introduced the rule that having five cards in the middle of the table at the end of your turn would make you lose the game immediately. This suggests that you have a co-operative game at hand, which also then means that players would have to hold their cards and would not know which cards the other players would hold.

The next ability would be to exchange a card with the middle of the table back to your hand.

A variation of this exchange ability would be to draw two cards from the middle, an ability that made it into the first version of the game.

Then there was the next ability, which would let you draw an extra card from the deck.

And finally we would have a card that forces you to play a second card into the middle, without triggering the effect of the second one. This would counter the “draw two cards effect” and also put some pressure on the game since most of it was about removing cards from the middle.

To round out the game, I made rules for the starting hand size, created the win condition of surviving the entire deck, and introduced the rule of drawing cards as the starting action of a turn.

I made a digital prototype using, which is a great tool for quick and dirty prototyping and playtesting, and invited some friends to play the game with me. It was clear the game needed changes, but it seemed to have something about it, especially the leverage of the removal cards and the pressure that got applied from the “play two cards in a row” effect.

I recognized that the hand size of a player was an additional board position. The exchange card adds another card to your hand since you also draw a card, while the “play two cards” effect reduces your hand size. By the third iteration, I got rid of the “take two cards back” and “draw card” abilities as they created large hand sizes with too many options.

I added a new ability, which was to gift a card to someone else. Its purpose is to make hand sizes tradable, but also to create open information for better planning as the gifted card is placed face up. This face-up placement got applied to the exchange ability as well since technically the exchanged card was already known by the players.

I had a proper permutation set up, which meant five colors, five icons, and five types of effects, which were arranged so that each color had each icon once, each icon features each ability once, and each ability features every color once. In the image below, think: color = row, icon = column, ability = diagonal.

During social distancing, the game sat on my shelf, and I was not really pursuing it since the online testing of the lockdown times did not click with me at all. I found a new job, though.

Before Covid, I used to visit Prague together with two friends, where we would have long prototype weekends with our board game café-owning friend Douglas. When traveling became possible again, we revived this little nerdy tradition, and I brought the prototype with me. I played it with some of the local game designers on a second table, and they did not like it, with a passion.

It is a simple truth of game development that the feedback of game designers is based on the games they would like to make themselves, hence being presented with a game that operates outside of their privately agreed upon metrics can lead to pretty devastating judgement. That is okay, and I am also guilty of that myself, but it pretty much led to my decision to throw The Brain right into the bin.

My decision did not last too long, though, because on our train trip back to Berlin, my friends asked me to play it…then we continued playing it for three hours straight, losing every single time and always wanting another go.

Here is a thing about The Brain: It looks solvable, but it is actually difficult. This type of frustration seems triggering as you get frustrated without losing hope, but once you do enough theory crafting to realize and overcome your previous systematic mistakes, you will most likely run into a yet unknown dynamic of the game and lose again. It is a very winnable game, but it does have a learning curve, and you will need to pay attention while playing.

With more playtests taking place, the final iteration on the mechanisms and the mechanical content was to change the abstract icons to creatures, and to introduce a sixth color, a sixth icon, and a sixth ability: the cover-up card effect. This introduced a safe-play option since covering up another card never creates a new slot that can lose you the game. Also, this ability fixes the problem of non-removable cards; if you have a red dragon on the table but both the red-removal and the dragon-removal are in the discard pile, you can no longer get rid of the red dragon. Such a situation can happen relatively early in the game, hence you needed a possible way to deal with it.

Shifting the card count from 25 to 36 not only made better timing in the game, the ratio between colors/icons and card slots in the middle felt better as well. Additionally, this change shifted the ratio of removal cards to deck size from 10:25 to 12:36, which does not seem significant when looking at the numbers, but it does register differently in your gut feeling. Having 36 cards also opened up the player count to support four-player games.

At this moment, let me quickly give a personal shout out: Thank you, Andi, for playtesting! You are the best!

The pitch for the game took place at the annual board game designer days in Göttingen, which you can imagine as ~250 board game designers setting up their games on tables in order to pitch them to ~60 editors from mainly German publishers. During this event, I sat down with 999 games and explained it, which resulted in a two-hour play session of the game involving Greifswald-based designer Kosch. We ended up losing every single game, creating in those losses two editors who realized they wanted to play more, while not being sure whether their companies’ audience would find it too frustrating.

In the end, I had two contract offers from which to choose, and honestly both were absolutely top tier, “I would sign with you blindfolded” options. I went with the Dutch 999 games for two reasons. First, they took on my old game Pechvogel, which they licensed from Zoch Verlag and made my best-selling game by a mile or two. While they are not exactly famous outside of the Netherlands and Belgium, they actually do mean business. Second, during Covid lockdown, they were the one publisher reaching out to me to ask whether I had anything new to show them, for which I was very grateful. As a result, the game is available only in the Netherlands and Belgium for now, but I hope that will change soon.

The final product development by Flo de Haan included the final name The Brain, extensive research on colorblind-friendly-ish colors, a solo mode, easier difficulty levels, and a very interesting take on the iconography for the effects. As he discovered, making icons that try to codify the exact actions was error prone, overly convoluted, and not easy to teach. Going instead with icons that were unambiguous and not trying to explain the rules led to a situation in which you needed to explain the effects once, and most players would instantly pick them up, all of them. By simplifying the iconography, the overhead for learning and playing the game was significantly reduced.

For the illustrations, made by Ross Ciuppa, it turned out that creatures made it easier to think and talk about the game when theory crafting. We made a slightly goofy selection of creatures to communicate that the game does not take itself too seriously — but the creatures were made to look mean and evil since The Brain should not be mistaken for a kids game by accident.

And it also makes sense as they are trying to kill you.

Happy losing.

Peter Jürgensen


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