The Hooks

Having a good game is only half the battle (or some fraction), you also have to get people interested in your game. When people encounter your game, on a kickstarter, a shelf, or a review website it needs some big meaty hooks to draw in your audience. Perhaps, even more importantly, in-game, your game needs to engage all the players. The vast majority of games I own are games I played with a friend first, so playing a game needs to sell it as much as anything else.

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I’ve been polishing Killer Croquet in my off time for quite a while, and on a whim I brought it out to a local game night on the off chance of getting a little playtesting in.

Folks played and enjoyed it, came across common mistakes, but could solve most of them with little assistance from me. It played in a way that engaged people and felt very well balanced.

But were they hooked? Not quite yet.

In hosting a 2 hour game night on a weekly basis, I have gotten into the habit of teaching rules as quickly as possible so I can get as many games played within a set time as possible.

As a result, a lot of information gets cut from a game explanation, down to the bare minimum. Killer Croquet becomes a game where you play croquet and occasionally thwack each other with your mallet. This is more than a little reduced from my intent.

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“Killer Croquet is a death sport where the best Croquet players of the world are gathered to play to the death; characters like Thor (with Mjollnir duct taped to a broom stick), Hank Specter (sold his soul to the devil and is half ghost), and Mahue (a warrior princess out of the Amazon who’s tribe reveres Croquet as sacred). Each character has a secret reason for participating, whether coerced or seeking power.”

That’s just the basic concept, and there are points where that bleeds into the game itself. What I discovered is that in my presentation of the game I had gotten into the habit of leaving the hooks out of the game entirely.

Now that I feel pretty good about the usability of the game, I’m turning my eye to how I can better integrate some of that theming into my presentation of the game as well as the game itself.

There comes a time when in addition to using play testers to improve your game, you hope that you might convince them to be the first of your fans.

About a week later, I had the chance to play the game with a little more time available. I made a couple adjustments.

      -Context came first, brief but flavorful.

-Then came the bulk of the game, getting people playing the game is still priority one.

-After the players played a few turns and seem to understand the game, I look for brief opportunities to slip in little bits of theme.

It’s important to not disrupt the flow of the game, but it’s also important to make sure that you’re not overwhelming players with information. The more things a player has to juggle before they’ve taken a turn and mastered the basics, the more likely they’ll encounter a problem.

I found right after a player takes their turn is a decent time to insert something small but engaging. A decent chunk of my theme is character driven, so I’ll give the player a little information about their character. This has been particularly effective, because often a player will take this information and apply it to the game. One of the characters is a soviet super spy, and an engaged player will throw a Russian accent every now and then. The mechanics of my game generate a very wacky feel, and the player’s character can act as an entry point into the absurdist universe of the game.

This is a game element I’ve picked up from games like “Last Night on Earth” and “Betrayal at House on the Hill”, which both have a strong cast of characters. When I play a card and you lose a turn, that’s boring, but if I play a card and Johnny and Sally lose a turn because they succumb to their base teenage instincts . . . then you really have a game you’ll remember.

Bringing story elements into your game is yet another piece of the puzzle to consider on the route to self publication. Make sure your game grabs your audience: find and use your hooks!

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