How We Designed Tales
How We Designed Tales
Tales of the Fabulist is the first board game from our new company, Monkey Gun Games. In case you haven't played it yet, don't worry--a lot of people haven't played it yet. It's new. So new, very few people in the world have seen it or heard of it. The joy, for us, is hearing from the early adopters, both from game reviewers and our lifelong friends who backed us in our Kickstarter that got us through the manufacturing process, is that they're having so much more fun than expected! Besides peals of laughter, there's a spark of creativity, too often neglected, that bursts into flame from the most unexpected people. It is unbelievably gratifying to hear that we succeeded in bringing some good humor into the world during such a challenging time.
Several people have asked us how we arrived at the magical combination of rules and content to make Tales of the Fabulist such a unique experience. It's a great question, although it's akin to asking a poet how she wrote a sonnet. She just... did. I can explain our process, at least, and maybe fill in some of the gray area.
In the beginning, we started with the assumption that telling a made-up story is fun. As kids, we all did it, but as adults, most of us don't. Why not? If coloring books can make a comeback, I don't see why storytelling can't. Stacey and I batted around ideas on what the rules would need to be like so people would enjoy the experience. We wrote down our ideas on a sheet of paper. It was pretty high-level, but after a few revisions, showed some promise. On that page was a list of requirements for the player's experience, such as "players who aren't telling the story need a gameplay reason to pay attention" and "the story can't go on for too long". These are called Pillars of Gameplay. Whenever our ideas drifted away from these core pillars, we knew that we were headed in the wrong direction.
After a few iterations, I suggested we figure out what comes in the box, to help focus our energy on the components a player would need to integrate into their play experience. We came up with four decks of cards initially: Heroes, Villains, Quests, and Plot Twists. A couple of bottles of wine and a lengthy Excel spreadsheet later, Stacey had a rough prototype that would allow us to try the game out for real. We found some card-sized templates online and hacked together our four decks of cards. How was it? Terrible. Just terrible.
Finding the Fun
To me, the best part about playing a new game is when the rules click and I understand the flow of the game loop. There's a surprise and delight that comes from a well-crafted game loop that just... feels good. Bad games, though, are missing something important or seem to have extra parts that don't need to be there. The great sculptor Michaelangelo said "Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop." That's also how you make great games. Take away everything that shouldn't be there; the trick is knowing when you've arrived.
Stacey and I struggled with our early versions of Tales for a few weeks, then put it away. It didn't feel good. The way we dealt out characters in the beginning felt forced. Good guys were always good guys, bad guys were always bad guys. The stories we were telling weren't all that fun to listen to, nor interesting to tell. Every few months, we would discuss what was wrong and come up with different hypotheses about what would work better. Eventually, we realized there should not be good and bad guys, just characters. That required completely reworking the content so every character could be good or bad, which was a huge breakthrough! Bad guys became more likeable, good guys grew more flawed. The added depth gave characters more dimension, more... character.
We rewrote the Plot Twist deck about six times, in radically different directions each time. The earliest version had a short phrase on each card. We tried adding Mad Libs-style blanks, which was a big hit during playtests. I like to say that you can always find a line by clearly crossing it. Our next revision of the Plot Twist deck gave every card with two or three blanks. At that time, the rules dictated that players needed 5 Plot Twist cards in their hands. A few plays of this version made it incredibly clear that the mental overload for just selecting which card to play was too much.
It turns out that players need to make interesting decisions or they get bored (have you played Candyland lately?), but if the choices are too wide-open, it's easy to feel paralyzed by the number of options you have to consider. So we cut back. With fewer words on each card, it's faster to understand each card. With just two cards, people can quickly decide which direction the story should go. It turns out this was just enough of a framework to give the game structure, but enough flexibility for the players to feel creatively engaged.
Time isn't the main thing. It's the only thing. -- Miles Davis
One of the most critical pillars that inspired Tales of the Fabulist, which sets it apart from other storytelling games, is Time. Time is so fundamental to humor, to play. It's easy to imagine how longer stories could be more detailed, could be better. We struggled with how to keep the game moving while satisfying the need to tell a good story. We fought over how many seconds a turn should be and how many turns would be in a story. In the end, we let testing tell us the right answer. I believe we discovered something truly insightful about creativity and improvisation: By giving someone too much time to think, what comes out is overworked and bland, but tight time constraints flips a switch in the brain and they stop thinking and start talking--and more often than not, what comes out is hilarious!
What We Didn't (or Couldn't) Do
It would be wrong to just talk about what we did, because we learned a lot through this design process. Tales of the Fabulist spent two years in heavy creative development. In the beginning, we believed this was a new kind of game. Over time, we became more aware just how many storytelling games existed (and how few were successful). Had we done more market research, I feel confident we would have turned up a dozen games we could have bought and played early on, accelerating our design iterations.
Our plan was originally to take prototypes of Tales to gaming conventions and refine it with players. As you're well aware, COVID-19 cancelled 2020 and most of 2021, which meant the majority of our playtesting was done at home, in isolation. There are no words to describe how hard it is to create a party game when you can't do trial runs at parties. The few times we did get to play at Dragon's Lair and Emerald Tavern helped confirm suspicions about problems in the game, but refinements come slowly when you're too familiar with the material.
Finally, I will own the fact that we didn't make a game that appeals to everyone. Some folks are not willing or able to spontaneously speak in front of others, even when very comfortable with the other players. Some people are just not very linguistically creative. Although I would love to say everyone will enjoy playing, it's not true. What I will say, with 100% confidence, is that everyone enjoys being in the room while someone is playing Tales of the Fabulist. Achievement Unlocked!