Level 99 Games just released my latest small card game and this seemed like a good time to look back at its whirlwind history. First, some background!
In I CAN'T EVEN, the player with the highest odd score wins. (If none are odd, then highest score wins.) That's the big hook!
How It Plays
Each turn, you play one card from your hand face-up and one face-down. Then each player takes one card into their hand that someone else has played this turn. This may leave some players with no cards in front of them, where others might have two. Usually you'll end up with just one card in front of you. If you have any cards left in front of you after everyone has drafted, you score points as noted on the card(s).
It's an old adage that a game should be a series of interesting choices. James Ernest once said that the most interesting choice is between a safe reliable option and a risky lucrative option. (He calls the latter the "crazy train.") Players tend to chafe if they're forced away or onto the crazy train, but if you always make that choice available then it tends to be pretty fun.
Now granted, this isn't appropriate for every game, but I've found it a pretty reliable backbone in my small card game design. The main "atom" of gameplay has been the same from the earliest developmental stages: You offer your opponents one secret option and one face-up option. All the other secondary design elements are engineered to make that choice more interesting and consequential with each passing round. At least, that was my goal!
The scoring mechanism was inspired by the clever design of "Why First?" In that game the player in second-place each round earns points and the player with second-most points at the end of the game wins. I loved how such a simple concept befuddled even veteran gamers and consistently made funny reveals.
I decided to make a pun out of the phrase "I CAN'T EVEN...", by making it a literal guideline for victory. Doing so made every scoring opportunity a double-edged sword. Because the highest odd score wins, you're always one point away from being out of contention even if you have a dramatic lead.
I had a few other sub-goals with this design, mainly to break myself out of a few well-worn design habits I'd developed.
- No endgame scoring: I've designed several games where you have to compare your game-state with various victory conditions or set collection criteria. I wanted to try avoiding that end-of-game accounting completely with this game. It was a personal challenge.
- Score Often, Score Visibly: I've also designed a few games where it's intentionally difficult to see who is currently in the lead. In this case, I wanted to make it absolutely clear where you are in the current standings.
- Variations on a Theme: I liked the idea that I could extend the "I Can't Even" concept to many different common game themes. I had originally planned on developing new decks based on Monsters, Superheroes, Trains, Space Empires, and other common board game themes.
I really thought this game was so small, so weird, that it would be a self-published POD product line for the long haul. POD has been very good to me over the years and I've developed a reliable base. Still, I was also realistic about its relatively small reach into mainstream markets.
I ran into Brad from Level 99 Games on the very last hours of BGGcon 2016. I was pooped after a long weekend of meetings and pitches , so I may not have been at my highest energy levels. Thankfully, Brad could forgive my considerable lethargy long enough to look at what I had in my quiver full of prototypes.
I believe I had a copy of the Monsters deck and the two Superheroes decks. I hadn't planned to pitch them, just to show friends whenever there was a lull at a table.
Brad was curious about it and after a review period, it turned out he liked it enough to publish! It was fast-tracked for a 2017 release and it just now hit store shelves a week early! We're starting with just the Monsters deck for now. It includes a new monster that didn't appear in the POD version of the game.
I asked folks on twitter ask me their own questions about the game. Here's what they asked!
Sean Bouchard: What decisions were the most significant - that ended up taking the design in a completely different direction?
When Level 99 picked up the game, I knew the barrier to success was much higher than in POD. We wouldn't even be able to consider this a series unless the first game really sold a significant pace during the initial print run. As such, we focused on the Monster deck since it introduced the fewest new mechanisms and had a fairly relatable theme. We would save the new mechanisms for future expansions, if we're lucky enough to get that far.
Sean B: What are your favorite ideas that didn't make it into the game, and why did you decide to leave them out?
We had to focus on making this first installment as approachable as possible. The superhero edition introduced a little more engine-building and triggered effects based on whether you had heroes or villains in your tableau. The Space Empire/Rebel edition introduced Traps that would trigger if you drafted that card from your opponent.
Sean B: What is the thing that you are most proud of about this game or your work on it?
Folks who follow my games know I rarely do "Take that" mechanisms in my games. More often, I'm looking for ways to make players say "Please take that." Or "Why the heck did I take that?" Or "Ha! Remember when he took that?" That to me is always more fun than directly attacking an other player in a multiplayer game. I'm proud of how we were able to build a tight loop of tension and relief with every turn of the game.
Drew H: biggest changes you were most reluctant to make, what convinced you to make them, and why you were right :)
Drew is trying to cause trouble! The one major change in the game was the way Ichthid scores. I initially designed it so that you would score it if you had scored an Ichthid in the previous round. The idea was that he was just trying to find another of his kind. Phrasing this was really tricky and consistently took the longest to explain. Brad suggested I simplify the scoring by just making the 2nd, 4th, and 6th Ichthid score, regardless of timing. To be honest, it was the right call in our overall effort to make the game more approachable. I do look forward to introducing more timing mechanisms in future expansions though.
Fin C: How did previous game design lessons affect this one? How was public development? How'd this one get published? Why lvl99?
Level 99 approached me about publishing it and had a history of giving small box card games a fair shot at the retail sector. I learned from my previous publishing history how rarely that opportunity would come along. I figured it was worth the chance to see the game grow into something bigger. I'm just glad Level 99 thought so, too!
I Can't Even With This Conclusion
And that about covers the history of I CAN'T EVEN! With luck and your support, I hope we can keep adding to the series with new themes, characters, and fun new additions to gameplay. Thanks so much!
- Daniel Solis
I Can't Even, Designer