Designer Diary: Spots | BoardGameGeek News


Game designs can start with anything. Usually I start with a mechanism, like strategic withdrawal (Air Land & Sea) or inverted social deduction (Scape Goat).

Spots, on the other hand, started with an image:

From gallery of jonperry

This visual pun was created by Christoph Niemann. At the time I came across it, Alex Hague, Justin Vickers, and I were in the midst of developing a big-box dice-placement game together. As a card game designer primarily, I was excited to be working with dice for a change — but I was a bit overwhelmed by the scope of the game we had started. It was going to require a ton of content, and I had other large projects on my plate.

Perhaps that’s what made me attracted to the promise of a smaller, more casual dice game. Perhaps on a subconscious level it also had something to do with the fact that I had recently become a dog owner.

From gallery of jonperry

My dog Gumbo, who insisted on being included in the game…despite not having any spots

Niemann’s image suggested an obvious mechanism, specifically dog cards that act as “recipes” and require different dice to be fulfilled, so with a sharpie and some blank cards, I whipped up some crude-looking components and started experimenting.

From gallery of jonperry

An early “dog” card

Initially, I drew inspiration from a game called Las Vegas. In that game, you roll a bunch of dice, then take all those of a single number, so early versions of Spots featured a central pool of eight dice, and players would take turns drafting all the 6s, all the 2s, etc. Drafting more dice than you could legally place would result in negative points, so ideally you would look a few turns ahead and try not to get forced into a bad position. If you didn’t like the dice you took, you could choose to roll them and gamble on turning them into something more useful (or potentially much worse).

In theory this all seemed pretty appealing, but as is often the case in game design, it didn’t work as well in practice. In fact the game ended up going through thirty more versions on its way to completion! And along that journey several fundamental questions had to be answered.

How Do You Win?

Board games can end in all kinds of ways, but two approaches are particularly popular: either the game ends after a fixed amount of time and you compare points, or the game is a race and ends immediately when some goal is achieved. For Spots, we settled on a simple race to complete six dogs, but we went back and forth on this question throughout the design process. There were multiple “points-based” versions in which you would pile your completed dogs in a stack and count up the points on them at the end of the game.

There are at least three reasons why a race ended up working best. First, a race structure provides more clarity. You can look around the table and quickly judge how everyone else is doing. This can then influence how much you want to press your luck. If your opponent already has five scored dogs, perhaps it’s time to make that big risky play.

Second, a race allows us to better feature John Bond’s great illustrations. As I alluded to above, the points-based versions required stacking your dog cards, which obscured the art and undermined the fantasy of building up your dog pack. In the race version, the winner of the game finishes with a nice grid of six completed dogs in front of them.

From gallery of jonperry

A player on the brink of winning with five scored dogs

Third, a race offers a punchier ending. Instead of everyone sitting around quietly counting up points, the game ends instantaneously on a dice roll, which feels right for this kind of game.

What Happens When You Take the Wrong Dice?

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to penalize players for excess dice. Originally, excess dice were just worth negative points, but of course this had to go away once we got rid of points and made the game a simple race to complete six dogs.

Over time, the penalty dice evolved into the much more exciting “buried dice” pile. If you couldn’t place a die, you had to bury it in your yard. Instead of all buried dice counting against you, you could safely bury dice that totaled up to 7, but if you ever exceeded that limit, you would bust.

Moving to a buried dice system immediately improved the game as it created very nice tension as you got closer to 7 and your risk went up — but we initially struggled figuring out what the penalty for busting should be.

One thing we briefly tried was forcing you to give up a dog card, but this not only felt bad mechanically, it was clearly problematic from a theme perspective. What happens to these dogs that you lose?

Next, we tried a “clean up” action. This was an action that simply cleared out your buried dice. This action was optional, unless you exceeded the limit at which point it became mandatory. However, forcing players to skip their turn and take a lame clean-up action was predictably annoying. We tried to make it feel less bad by giving the player a treat for cleaning up, but that was a band-aid at best.

From gallery of jonperry

Part of an early reference card; the game was starting to get a bit overly complicated around this time

The solution we eventually settled on seems obvious in hindsight. When you bust, all the dice you have on your unscored dogs go away. In addition to being intuitive, this rule has many nice dynamics. It’s a genuinely scary punishment, one that creates rising tension as you acquire more dice, but it’s also not as big a setback as it first appears. Right after you bust, you have tons of open spaces to fill, which allows you to safely roll larger quantities of dice and catch up fairly quickly.

What Do You Do on Your Turn?

The Las Vegas-style dice drafting managed to stick around through several versions, but in the end it didn’t lead to many interesting decisions. A lot of turns felt rote and obvious: If you needed 3s, you just took some 3s.

It also became increasingly clear that the moments when you actually rolled the dice were by far the most exciting parts of the game. In hindsight, this seems like an obvious conclusion! Rolling dice is inherently fun, and it only makes sense that it should be the primary activity in a game all about dice.

A third and final takeaway was that it was surprisingly interesting choosing how many dice to roll as this directly impacted your risk-reward ratio. More dice meant more risk of busting, but it also meant you could move faster and outpace your opponents.

Building on these lessons, I decided to restructure the game completely. Instead of drafting dice directly, you now draft from a central pool of action tiles called tricks. Most trick tiles tell you to roll some number of dice, but some of them also improve your position in other ways, such as by helping you accumulate treats (which act as re-rolls) or draw new dog cards. After a trick tile is chosen, it flips over and becomes unavailable for a while, so your access to actions is affected by the other players at the table.

From gallery of jonperry

The first prototype of the trick tile system

This system ended up working really well because it not only gave players a nice rotating set of choices, it also preserved the uncertainty you want in a dice game. This was a major breakthrough moment in the design; once we switched to using trick tiles, the game immediately got way better!

From gallery of jonperry

The Las Vegas mechanism did survive on the final version of the Fetch trick tile, one of 22 trick tiles included in the game

A second major breakthrough involved the way finished dogs are scored. Originally dogs would score automatically upon being filled up with dice, without any action from the player. This system worked fine, but eventually I discovered that the game improved if I removed auto-scoring. Now you have to score your dogs manually by spending a whole turn. Since scored dogs can’t have their dice lost due to busting, this introduces a new decision point around when to bank your progress. Waiting to score your dogs is dangerous, but you can move faster if you put it off as long as possible.

What Happens When It’s Not Your Turn?

Lots of great designs, including many dice games and press-your-luck games, feature simultaneous turns. Simultaneous turns have the great advantage of cutting playtime and keeping players always active. So why not use them for Spots? I considered going this route, but in the end rejected simultaneous turns for two main reasons.

First, we found that one of the main joys of Spots is watching other people press their luck. Often you’re gleefully hoping for your opponents to roll poorly or trying to goad them into making an irresponsible choice. It’s also not uncommon to root for another player’s success, especially someone who’s fallen behind or who’s undertaken an exceptionally big gamble. All of this audience participation would be lost with simultaneous turns. In fact, once we pinpointed that watching was a core value of the game, it informed every aspect of the design. It was important to us that you should be able to observe someone’s turn from across the table and immediately grasp what was happening.

From gallery of jonperry

Making it fun and easy to spectate other people’s turns was a key value for the design

Second, as a casual game, Spots has the potential to be played in the manner of other cozy hangout games, one in which you’re free to make conversation in between turns, and it’s not a big deal to get up from the table and go get a drink. Sometimes nonstop engagement is not actually what you want!

How Should It Be Balanced?

For me, balance is less about making sure all players have mathematically even chances and more about making sure the dynamics match the experience you’re trying to create. In the case of Spots, I wanted to make sure there weren’t too many blowouts since close games tend to be more exciting games.

At the same time, I have a distaste for contrived catch-up mechanisms, so instead I try to nurture catch-up mechanisms that feel more inherent to the system. The busting rule is a good example of this; even though you lose all your dice, afterwards you have a lot of open spaces to fill and can roll more aggressively to regain your position.

Another example is the progress bottleneck that happens at the end of the game. Since you can never have more than six dogs, it gets increasingly difficult to find the last few dice you need, which means that leading players have the potential to stall out, allowing other players catch up.

An additional balancing consideration was the dog cards themselves, which needed to have various combinations of dice faces on them. It was going to be impossible to balance them perfectly — especially once I decided to remove points from the game — but I wanted to get them somewhat close.

I had a sense that cards with higher numbers were better and that cards with fewer dice faces were also better, but it wasn’t clear how big these effects were, so among the crazier things I did was build a simulation of the game to help answer these questions. In the end, it was insights from this simulation process that led me to add bonus paw print icons to the cards with more dice faces. This change not only made games closer, it also added a nice extra dimension for players to think about!

From gallery of jonperry

A snapshot of a computer simulation, in which two (fairly dumb) AIs would play hundreds of games of Spots against one another

The last balancing issue I want to discuss might be the most interesting to me personally because it flew under my radar for a long time as the negative impact it had on the game was not immediately clear. It involved the buried dice pile.

For much of the game’s life, there was a trick tile that would let you clear all of your buried dice, then earn one treat for each die you got rid of in this way. Not only was this really satisfying, but it also led to some interesting emergent behavior, like players intentionally burying lots of 1s or 2s as a way to earn large amounts of treats. In my mind, I even thought this was helping players who were behind. After all, it let you turn something normally bad (buried dice) into something good (treats), but in practice it was having the exact opposite effect.

Since busting causes you to lose all your buried dice, making buried dice into a resource turns out to be a very dangerous idea in this game. It turns busting into a double punishment as not only do you lose your progress, but you lose your supply of resources as well! Once I grasped this concept, I ended up cutting all but one of the trick tiles that let you benefit from buried dice.

What’s Special About This Particular Game?

This is a question we asked ourselves throughout the process. There are plenty of other dice and press-your-luck games out there, so what makes this one stand out? We started with a fun visual hook of dogs and spots, so we at least had that going for us, but what about the actual play of the game was unique? This was something we had to figure out along the way.

For me, what makes Spots stand out is its turn-by-turn variety. In a lot of press-your-luck games, turns are very similar to each other. Often these turns have the same basic blackjack structure: Will you hit or stay? In contrast, I find the rotating menu of trick tiles in Spots helps keep each turn fresh, with different probabilities to consider. This feature more than anything is what has kept me enjoying the game after endless playtests.

From gallery of jonperry

A middle-stage prototype, featuring some early concept art by our illustrator John Bond — an example of how art and game design were developed in tandem

Lastly, I believe Spots is helped greatly by the particular way it was conceived: as a project built from the ground up in collaboration with the fine folks at CMYK. Most board game designs start their lives as bland prototypes, then get “skinned” by a publisher at the very end of the process. With Spots, we were able to take a more holistic approach and develop art and component ideas in lockstep with design advancements. The result is a polished package in which all the elements work together. In the end, I’m very proud of the game we created, and I hope you will enjoy it, too!

Jon Perry

From gallery of jonperry

The final production of Spots

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