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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Top Pop

by Mark McGee

My name is Mark McGee, and with Joshua J Mills I’m one of the co-designers of Top Pop, which Talon Strikes Studios released earlier in 2023. I’m excited about the game and wanted to go through some of the major milestones during the design process and talk about how the game went from initial concept to the finished product.

Where It All Began

When I start designing a game, I don’t begin with the fiction of the game or any clever mechanisms. I first think about the humans who play it, then I imagine what real-life behaviors they perform as they play. What I had in mind for the game that eventually became Top Pop was “competitive sharing”. What would it look like if a game rewards people for being excellent at sharing? I imagined people sitting around the table giving some sort of resources to each other, but not in a co-operative style game. How would that even work? Who knows!

I had several prototypes that were sort of heading in that direction, things that encourage you to give cards to other players in a way that also helps you — but I didn’t have enough to make a full game, just bits of things that worked okay in isolation but didn’t connect.

One day, after recording a podcast with some buddies in my design group, we started chitchatting about our designs. I mentioned my work on a competitive sharing game, and my buddy Josh mentioned an idea that was interesting, but not enough for a full game by itself: “What if each player has their own color of money? You can spend anybody’s money, but something about the color impacts who controls what.” After tossing ideas around for a while, it seemed that his thought and my thought might be able to work together to make a game with a couple of unique twists, so we decided to co-design a game together: the competitive sharing game in which each player has their own color of money.

As far as other inspiration, at the time I was playing a decent bit of Container and Modern Art — brilliant games with player-driven economies and subtle interactions, which are two things I’m fascinated by. Also, Josh and I both have young kids who make it challenging to find time for longer games, so we both intuitively aimed to create something in the thirty-minute range, but we didn’t want to give up strategic depth to fit within that time frame.

Right off the bat, we had a vague vision of a half-hour, player-driven economic game in which players shared cards and then purchased those cards with money, and the color of the money gave a bonus for the player of that color.

Early Iterations Helped Nail Down Core Concepts

Since Josh and I both play games with a lot of social interaction (even if the game doesn’t call for it in the rules), any game designed by both of us is always going to be a game in which you try to manipulate other players and the game state to your advantage instead of a game in which you try to calculate the optimal conversion rate for your resources each turn.

This allowed us to hone in on a cool tradeoff a player must consider each turn that ended up being a core concept throughout the design. On your turn, you place a card in front of a player. That player will eventually get the money from the winning bid on that card. So why would you ever place it anywhere other than in front of yourself? Well, if you place a card in front of another player, you get free money for sharing! Thus, the tradeoff is either I get free money now for sharing, or I get some other amount of money at some unknown time in the future.

This was the first clear step toward making it into a game of timing and opportunity. It’s not just about figuring out what you want; you have to make your moves at the right time so things will happen for you. Having players get the money bid on the card in front of them creates an ebb and flow to who has the purchasing power throughout the game. Our working title at the time was “Bid All My Money”!

In order for any of that to work, there must be an ebb and flow not only of resources, but also in who you compete with at any given time. Shared incentives turned out to be the crux of how to make the bidding competitive. There needed to be a reason for multiple people to all want the same card. If only one player wants a card, then there’s no reason they won’t get it easily for cheap — but if there’s competition for pretty much every card, then the game starts to require players to know when to cut their losses and how to manipulate things to get what they want for the best cost.

After trying several different options, we landed with a triangle deck (three 3s, four 4s, etc) because it has variable rarities. We started out giving players points for collecting sets of the same number and also for a variety of different numbers. This scoring eventually changed, but it was enough to get us toward those shared incentives we needed.

Making Adjustments to Fix Problems

Shared incentives did provide us space for economic manipulation, but we found that players didn’t have the right tools at their disposal to influence the dynamics.

We were playing with different color money for each player, so we tried different ways to make the color matter. Because multiple players could bid on a single card, we used stacking caps to save space and (of course) you needed the top token of your stack to be your own color to indicate that it’s your bid. From there, it was a short step to the idea that you need money of a player’s color before you can place a bid on a card they are already winning. This was clearly tied to the “each player has their own color money” idea, and we wanted to tie it to the “competitive sharing” idea, too.

When we specified that the free money you get from sharing is the color money of the player you shared with, then it was immediately clear that we hit on an interesting tool for players to change the incentives of the market. If you want to outbid me, you need money of my color. The easy way to get that is to share a card with me. That card you share with me gets you free money of my color right now, then will get me some unknown amount of money at some point in the future. This was another step toward a game about timing and opportunity: now vs. later.

As players started manipulating the game economy more, we saw more problems with players getting totally screwed over and losing everything on a risk that didn’t go their way. Though this isn’t unheard of in highly player-driven economic systems, it’s not a fun way to spend an afternoon. We wanted players to have an opportunity to make smart plays that get them back into the game even after a rough patch.

In early versions of our game, if you got outbid on a card, your bid stayed on the card in case you wanted to add to it, but ultimately anyone who didn’t win the card lost the money they bid and got nothing in return. Going in the complete opposite direction, we tried giving players their money back as soon as they got outbid on a card — which turned out to be too friendly because there were few downsides to bidding carelessly.

We found a sweet spot in the middle where if you get outbid, your money stays tied up in that bid until somebody finally wins it, but if you don’t win the bid, you get all your money back. You already lost out on getting the card you wanted, and you already spent some of your turns bidding on it without anything to show, and your money was tied up the whole time where you couldn’t do anything else with it, so it feels like the fair thing to do is to give a player their money back when they lose a bid. This system also has the benefit of playing into the ebb and flow of resources, which helps with all the other things we were going for.

Pruning Systems that Didn’t Matter

For the longest time we had a mechanism in which whenever a card was won, the second-place player would be able to add one of their caps to a row of cards on the side. These side cards were bidding contests that lasted the full duration of the game rather than a few rounds. The intended dynamic was that you would have to focus on the normal round-by-round bidding, but also pay attention to which cards you were likely to win at the end.

The logo at the timeOne day I was playtesting at an Unpub event. The game had switched names from “Bid All My Money” to “Thinking Caps”, so the cards represented quirky inventions, and we were playing up the social aspect. A father and daughter pair came to play and asked whether the game was simple enough for a younger kid to play. She was maybe 8. I said yes, even though I was pretty sure there were too many interconnected systems for a younger player to grok and enjoy — so I decided on the fly which systems to drop in order to make the game simple enough for an eight-year-old to learn quickly. The main thing that I dropped was the side bid. I didn’t mention it for this one playtest…and the game was fine — better, actually.

After that game (they said they had fun and I thanked them for playtesting), I continued playtesting the design without the side bid and would pose the question, “I’ve been thinking about having a side bid…”, then describe the idea, and everyone always unanimously agreed that it sounded unnecessary, so it never came back.

Shaping the Experience

“Thinking Caps” was starting to feel like a small-scale economic strategy game. This meant that some people wanted to play it like a three-hour economic game. We had playtests in which people would grind the game to a halt by trying to calculate everything that could possibly happen. Maybe they were having fun, but nobody else was. To make it even worse, those calculations were no better than approximations. After all, given our highly player-driven system in which incentives could change if someone does something surprising, the most effective way to play would be to manipulate the economy instead of trying to predict it.

We wanted a way to communicate the idea that our game was not about calculating the returns of your moves, but about playing with other people’s incentives in such a way that they are unwilling or unable to stop you from getting what you want — so we tried introducing hidden information.

The first version of this idea was that you could play cards face down whenever you wanted, then people could choose to bid on them or not based on what they think you probably did. There were incentives to playing face up vs. face down, but it was something you could choose to do on any turn. This was too loosey goosey. In fact, in one playtest a player decided to play Every. Single. Card. Face. Down. They didn’t win, and nobody had any fun in that game, but we were convinced a nugget of something good was in the idea of playing cards face down.

We eventually made one card of each type into a night card that must be played face down; this card can be viewed by both the player who played it and the player with whom they shared it. This was enough hidden information that it clearly said, “You can’t math this out, baby” while also encouraging players to spend time thinking about what others are doing. By making it more clear that you can’t calculate everything and should pay attention to other players, the game was now quicker to play.

We changed the name to “Cairns” during this period and had some charming nature art that was actually cellphone wallpapers. Players stacked rocks (caps) to indicate which cards were territories they controlled.

Fine Tuning Incentives

When the core of the game seemed pretty solid, it was time to revisit our scoring math. We knew enough about what was easy and hard to do in the game that I started off by randomly dealing out cards as if they were what each player had collected during the game, then looking at them and thinking “Which of these collections would win?” I would then create scoring systems so that those hands would win. And then I shuffled and dealt out new cards to see whether the math still held up. Eventually, dozens of iterations later, it did.

As mentioned earlier, I needed multiple players to have a high likelihood of being interested in the same cards during the game. Scoring for variety makes it so that no matter what else, you benefit from having at least one of each type, which means pretty much every player wants one of each if they can manage it, which means each player’s first card of each type is likely to be contested.

But you also score points for having the most of one type of card. This means that for the more common cards, a player’s second card of each type will also be contested since that starts you down the path of majority. Thanks to the night cards, it isn’t always clear when you have the most of a type, which leads to more contested cards.

One of the last things we tackled was how to end the game. We used the same core ideas as we did throughout the rest of the design: Control is firmly in the collective hands of the players, and timing is a critical consideration. The bids on the last round can vary dramatically depending on how many resources are in the economy at the end of the game. There’s not a consistent ideal position to be in as the game ends. There’s definitely not a consistent first or last player advantage for the final round. Like almost everything in the game, it all depends on the players and how they bid and how they manipulated each other’s incentives.

Making It Top Pop

It wasn’t until after the game was signed that we changed the name to Top Pop and the money turned into the nifty bottle caps and the cards turned into cities that we are trying to influence. The art is sharp, and the caps are really fun to play with — and I like how the name subtly ties back to the rule that you need to have a cap of your own color on the top of each of the stacks you place.

When we pitched the design, it was the 3-5 player game with no powers and the scoring method found in the rulebook. Continued development brought about the two-player version, scenarios, scoring options, and city powers. I think scenarios will be most interesting for players who like to explore some of the edge cases of how the system works and gain a more nuanced understanding of how these changes will impact the game’s economy. The content was thoughtfully designed for players who enjoy that type of variability.

I personally enjoy playing the base game, and even after hundreds of plays during the design process, the development, and now finally the release, I still like the challenge of how to competitively share and manipulate the player-driven economy in my favor.

Mark (l) and Josh with a non-final version of the game

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