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January 02, 2010

Game Design Is Murder, Part I

Although I spend much of my time as a programmer, and not as a designer, nonetheless I like to think I've contributed to the design of most of the games I've shipped. But I actually managed to ship 6 games in which I was the sole writer/designer and indeed, also served as the live team, which I'll explain. They weren't computer or videogames, but nonetheless I learned a few things from doing them that I thought I'd share.

A little back-story: On New Year's Eve, December 31, 1996, my then wife and I hosted friends for an evening of murder. At some point, I had been given one of those Host a Mystery in a box games. I don't remember the specific title or really anything of the plot, but I do recall that it was set on Maui, and so a group of eight of us got together to enjoy pineapple, fruity drinks, luau-style food, and a few laughs while the story played out over a few hours and courses. I don't think a single one of us got the murderer right, or at the very least, not for the right reasons¹. In any case, it was a good time, and the evening stuck in the back of my mind.

Over the course of the next year, a few things led me to host another for my family, a gathering that would turn out to be 13 people, myself included. At that size, buying a boxed set was out of the question, and that left me only with the option to write one myself. I've been reading mystery novels and short stories for ages, cut my teeth on Encyclopedia Brown and Sherlock Holmes in my early youth and never looked back. Anyway, so began the first of several little game design projects, one a year for the next six years.

The following items come from things I thought about and learned that first year.

  • Item 0: Fun is foremost. It's worth repeating again and again: focus on the fun. I had done a couple of these before as both host and participant, and had been involved with role-playing for years, so I had a sense of what would work and what wouldn't. A variety of familiar character types and a healthy leavening of humor, with lots of interaction were the key. It wasn't even all that important that anyone solve the mystery, but the clues had to be there and the story had to be something that could be unraveled, if one were paying attention, because some players really enjoy that sort of thing. Liberal glasses of wine don't hurt either ;)

    I made every attempt to include fun at every step of the process, from names to the night in question. The title of the murder was "Murder fra Diavolo", owing to the theme, and the characters included Al Cappuccino, Ed Spresso, Gina Amaretto, to name a few, and myself, the chef, Scorchy Vanilli. Once there, I wore an enormous red chef's toque and had music from Big Night playing (along with some opera courtesy of my father's collection), to help further set a whimsical tone.

  • Item 1: It has to start with a hook. Investing a bunch of hours into this sort of project (it would take me approximately 80 to prepare the first, not counting the night in question, with six hours of cooking), one needs to find a hook that will hold your interest long enough to want to deliver on it, and keep you motivated.

    My first hook came from a film I had seen that year, Big Night. At the time, I didn't know I wanted to host a murder, but after seeing that timpano, I knew I had to make one some day. When a timpano recipe appeared in the New York Times Magazine², the wheels started in motion. I needed a celebration to make such an enormous dish, which got me thinking about New Year's Eve, which got me thinking about the New Year's Eve prior...

  • Item 2: Plan, plan, plan... until planning gets in the way. Based on the boxed set I had, it seemed reasonable to have every player make two accusations and respond to two accusations; more about that in the next item. Based on that, though, I didn't want to have any one person accuse the same person twice in the game; in some cases, I wanted the responder to counter with an accusation the following round, just to give a sense of continuity. Balancing that all out is important, and planning enough of this stuff before I started figuring out what the actual clues were was important.

    However, making a sensible story from basically a set of diagrams is difficult, and you have to work the problem from both sides; figure out what your story is independent of who's going to say what to whom, if you can, and then look for opportunities to wire the two together.

    In the end, I ended up having to replumb the diagrams based on the coherence of the story, and rebalance as I went. This wasn't terrible, but I did end up redoing a fair amount of work as I tried to keep to the rules I had set for myself.

  • Item 3: You *can* have too much content. Twenty-four accusations per round is a lot of content to assimilate; having people figure out what was going on from that was more than they could reasonably handle. In this case, I think a little more thought up-front would have helped dramatically. Based on this, I switched to a one accusation/one response per person per round in future years, which was a significant improvement. That said, people really got into the role-playing aspect of these games -- they just couldn't reasonably figure out who the murderer was with all that information being thrown at them.

  • Item 4: Props are fun... In a boardgame, or interaction game like this, props are good. I brought notepads and pens with me to the gathering so that people would have an opportunity to take ample notes if they wanted to. People were encouraged to dress the part, and in invitations sent out a month or so before the big night, their characters were described to them. It was a mob theme, a marriage between the children of two Mafia families, the Spressos and the Cappucinos, with the groom having been murdered, so it was familiar enough that folks could reasonably make costumes without significant outlay. Additionally, each participant would produce a Special Clue at some point during the evening, which might be a receipt for something, a photo, a newspaper article, that sort of thing. These Clues helped reinforce the play and lended further realism.³

  • Item 5: ... but be clear on the dividing line between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, that year the identity of the murderer hinged on a real physical trait of one of the participants, which didn't go well with at least one of the players, as it blurred the line too much. Although other evidence pointed in that person's direction, the fact that distinguished that particular person was a trait in the real world. If I were to do it again, I would have had the writing reinforce that fact to enter it into evidence, as it were.

In the subsequent articles in this series, I'll describe each of the murder mysteries and how the rules I learned along the way applied. Check back in a few days or so for the next installment. Regrettably, my electronic copies of these games appear to be lost, but I'll keep digging around to see if I can find them on a backup disk or CD.

¹This was actually the second time we had done something like that, I'm now recalling. We also had a group of friends over a few years previous for a similar evening with a Star Trek: The Next Generation theme. (back)
²Cue collective groan from my friends, who have probably heard me say "I think I read about it in the New York Times Magazine" about eleventy billion times over the last 15 years... (back)
³Which seems particularly helpful now, in retrospect, considering some of the atrocious accents we had around the table each year...(back)

Posted by Brett Douville at January 2, 2010 02:36 PM


Thanks for the memories and all the effort you put into the New Year Eve mystery dinners. Those nights will forever be part of family lore. We all had such wonderful times - the costumes, non-stop laughter and terrific meals are so fondly remembered.

Posted by: Dad at January 5, 2010 08:34 AM