Why “Pirate Brawl!”? – Part 1

Pirate Brawl! was not the first game we designed but it is the first we decided to take further. How did we end up going through with it all the way to Kickstarter? What makes it so special?

Spoilers: it involves a lot of hard work.

The Forbidden Lagoon at the September 2015 Berlin Mini Jam

Pirate Brawl! shares its origins with its predecessors: we developed the core ides during an eight hour game jam session.

The themes of the jam were “A World in the Skies”, “Voodoo” and “stranded”. The game we came up with evolved around voodoo priests luring pirate ships onto their treacherous reeves to steal their treasure.

And it already contained some of the elements of the current version: the circular board with the island and ports, pick up and delivery and the wind mechanic.

It was fun, chaotic … and did not really work.

Boosted by the success at the game jam – we won the grand prize for the theme – we took the game to other meet ups and played it with our friends. It very quickly became apparent that the game was – as a friend of mine put it – a random box of fun: you shake it and something happened, but you have no idea why and what you could do to change the outcome.

Or to put it in technical terms: there was no player agency.

But even though agency was lacking there was something in the player to player interaction that people enjoyed tremendously.

There was joyful bickering about your own success and failures, which always directly impacted other players. There were collective outcries of “Oh my god!” when the misguided use of wind created another catastrophic or heroic situation.

The core mechanics of competitive game play on a small board, where every action impacts other players, was great fun. Auction elements and collective movement strengthened the player interaction even more. The whimsical theme and the constant change of tides prevented the arguments to ever escalate to serious.

In hindsight, these ideas became core pillars for the future development of the game from “Voodoo Lagoon” to “Pirate Brawl!”. At the time we only knew we had something at our hands that we and others greatly enjoyed spending our time with.

And that was a good thing, then now the real work started.

About nine month after the original game jam, Thibaut and myself found ourselves with some spare time on our hands and we decided to go for it.

Playtesting at the co-working space (September 2016)

We both had rented a place in the same co-working space and for three months we spend one afternoon per week working exclusively on improving the game design.

We knew we had to tackle the issue of agency but without damaging the core of fun and casual player interactions.

Between two design sessions we would try to come up with ideas to tackle issues in the current design. On our “board game afternoon” we would start with discussing the possible solutions trying to find one we both found interesting.

We would then play test the idea, modify it and then rinse and repeat. Sometimes two to three player turns would be sufficient to find out if an idea was terrible (or excellent). Sometimes we needed to play several rounds, or invite other people to play with us.

Spending one afternoon per week focused on improving the design helped tremendously: during a single session we could usually solve at least one  issue and prepare the session for the next week.

After the three months, the game was pretty much in the form you can play it today: there were cards for movement, battles decided by bidding, the wind controlled by cards and of course: the kraken.

All done, right? Kickstarter next month!

Well, and this is were the real work started (if you are having a deja vu, you are not alone).