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When Killing Your Darlings Isn’t a Good Idea

Ikura Tiles

Ikura TilesI always say: “kill your darlings”.

That awesome line, that great mechanic, that fantastic character or storyline that you just have to include because it’s just that great. You know it’s great. You feel it’s great. Somehow nobody else does.

Kill your darlings. That’s the way to make a design tighter, faster and tenser. Kill your darlings. It’s the way to make a story flow better, suck the reader in more, sell. Kill your darlings.

Well, I’ve got a confession to make: I couldn’t do it.

Yeah, I try to kill my darlings. But this one was just such a darling. It stared up at me with those gorgeous tiles and I. Just. Couldn’t.

A Darling is Born

About a month ago I got a vision. I get plenty of visions so that not surprising (I don’t do drugs – I get high on life). But this one was so simple, so pure, so fantastic that I couldn’t put it on the heap. I had to make it.

The idea was one of tiles, with information on both sides, and you’d collect them and flip them over to deny them to your opponents.

I broke every rule in my book. Instead of making a throwaway alpha prototype I started out with making tiles. I knew what I wanted on them: Japanese numerals, black on an bamboo paper background. It’s not that hard to find a bamboo paper texture. It’s not that hard to make cutouts. It’s not that hard to glue cutouts onto tiles.

It’s very hard to get rid of them afterwards.

In the first version of the game (which I’m going to be calling “Numbers” here-forth because it’s about, well, numbers) I printed out all combinations of the numbers 1-6. That’s 15 tiles, which felt too few so I printed them out twice. Now I had a set of tiles with the number 1 on one side and the numbers 2-6 on the other. And a set of tiles with the number 2 on one side and… You get the point.

30 tiles. No rules.

No game.

Finding the Game

Whoa, I didn’t have a game. I knew what I wanted, I had the tiles but why didn’t I have a game? Because I couldn’t figure out how to make one, that’s why.

The rules went something like this: spread all the tiles on the table. On your turn draw a tile then flip a tile that you own (it may be the one you just drew). If, at the end of the game, you’ve got less of a number hidden (i.e. face down) than someone else has showing then you score a point for each instance of that number you’ve got hidden.

There are 30 tiles on the table, errr… What tile should I get? Doesn’t matter, just grab one. Ok, now we’ve got three tiles each, none is matching and well, what do I do now? Should I flip one? Should I take one I have or one I don’t have? I don’t know what is hidden on it. What should I do?

Stop playing the damned game because it’s clearly broken and you just have a bunch of tiles you think are cool.

RIP Darling

FireI should have killed it. It was clearly a darling. I should have spent the time on some other game that had the potential to work. But I couldn’t. Those tiles were soooo cute. I’d invested sooo much thought into Numbers already. I was soooo convinced that a working version of the rules was just around the corner.

Don’t be so stupid, silly!

I wasted a month of my very precious time on Numbers. And it still wouldn’t work. I tried and I tried and the whole mechanism was insanely complex for a game with little or no meat. It was like combining Tsuro with the SATs (like, really hard tests).

On Monday I went to my regular game group. In my pocket I had Numbers. I’d tested it there the Monday before, getting players with the caveat: “this is a broken game, want to help me fix it?” which had put some of my friends though the 10 minute grinder but not done anything for Numbers.

The Game Breaker to the rescue

But this time I met The Game Breaker. That’s my game developer friend (if I’m a game designer who’s forced to do game development then he’s a game developer who’s forced to do game design). This guy can break any game. Not only that, he’s able to figure out why it breaks. His mind is so soaked in games that is someone drops a chit two countries over his game sense tingles.

“Hey, TGB, I’ve got a darling I don’t want to kill,” I said.

“Yeah?” he said, as if the mere suggestion of not killing your darlings was something worthy of a straightjacket but he was willing to listen anyhow because A) he’s such a great friend and B) it’s a game and C) you’re going to buy him lunch some day (yeah, he’s a very communicative type).

Love Letter cards“See, I’ve got these tiles I love,” I said and told him the rules.

At which point he scratched his nose, ate a french fry and said: “you’ve got Tsuro combined with the SATs”.

His advice: limit the number of tiles a player has in front of them by scoring and removing tiles during the game. Limit the amount of information a player needs to keep track of by comparing only face up sides. Limit the amount of choice a player has by forcing them to flip all tiles of a single number each turn.

Limits That Work

Those limits worked. I tried it out and suddenly I had a working alpha build. The ideas I had, about freedoms and grand strategies, didn’t work for such a small game. By adding limits TGB had made the mechanics correspond to the components. Instead of Tsuro and SAT I now had Tsuro and a “What’s your sign” quiz in a ladies magazine.

This entire episode has made me come to a conclusion: I don’t have to kill all my darlings, I only have to kill those of them that distract from the core of my game, even if the core is a darling itself.

So I could keep the tiles and the flipping, but I needed to look past the vision (which was my overarching darling) and cut back on everything that didn’t strengthen the tile flipping that was at the core of my darling. That meant that for a small, light, tile flipping game I needed to cut out any rule that wasn’t small AND light. Suddenly the weight of my game went from “medium” to “light”. And with that I had the frame of something that could work.

Now less talk and more playtesting.

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