For the Power Broker game design contest, my friend Ed and I designed “Whipsaw!”. It’s a set-collection card game with lying. You can’t have a Robert Moses game without lying. We didn’t win the contest, but we had fun making and playing the game.

When I told some folks about this at NYC Playtest, I was told that people who like set-collection games don’t like lying games and visa-versa, so nobody would ever play it. But in fact all of our playtesters liked it just fine. Also, poker is kind of that.

Random side note about poker: the notion of a game that is (almost) exclusively played for money is bizarre. Remember when MtG started there was this notion of playing for ante? And then people tried it and it was terrible and it never caught on. If someone invented poker today, as a Euro-style game, would people think of the real money thing as a gimmick? Would it be almost an art game, like Cordial Minuet or Train?

We didn’t do nearly as much playtesting on Whipsaw! as I’ve done on Loading Zone. It’s a much simpler game, and we were on a pretty tight timeline. It’s definitely not perfect: in playtests, players didn’t lie as much as we wanted them to. That might be because it’s hard to convince people to lie (or hard to do so in a set-collection game!). Or it might be because the incentives are wrong. But we weren’t able to figure out a way to improve the situation.

The game works like this: you’re trying to build parkways (there are four). The scoring is roughly quadratic: most parkway cards give victory points for each card in that parkway. So you would rather have all of one parkway than half of two. The cost of a parkway card is some number each of legislators, judges, and bankers. You have a hand of these resource cards, and draw more every turn. They’re played face-down, so you can lie about what you’ve played. Each type of card can also be played as an action: bankers lend money (which acts as additional bankers but costs points at the end of the game), legislators call bluffs, and judges temporarily block legislators, giving you a chance to “make it right”. To make lying more interesting, the resources have colored backs which give incomplete information about what they are. So, the cards with black backs are mostly judges — but not all. The game has a little more complexity, but that’s the gist.

Whipsaw! came together pretty quickly: I wrote up a first draft, then Ed and I tested it. My version was too long: it had six parkways instead of four. And it had a weird complication: instead of judges blocking bluff calls, special lawyer cards would do it. Lawyers could also block opponents’ lawyers. (In this version, instead of using legislators to call bluffs, you would do it by paying the cost of it yourself). Scoring was roughly linear (and Lost Cities-inspired: you could actually go negative if you didn’t have enough cards in a parkway).

My notes on this playtest say that the major fun parts were: - It played pretty quickly. - Getting away with lying was fun. - Strategizing about lying was fun. - Lawyers were probably the most fun part. - The colored backs made lying more interesting.

And the notes say that the major flaws were: - It was too long — 30 minutes would be better. - There was maybe not enough lying.. - There was definitely not enough calling of bluffs (in part because it was expensive). - Some of the complexity was silly. - And it was maybe hard to know what resources to save in your hand, and in general save vs spend was not an interesting decision. - Set collection wasn’t that interesting. - It was hard to track what other people were doing (too many cards, in part).

Ed’s second draft fixed most of this. He added more of a narrative arc by dividing the game deck into three “years”, with more-expensive properties available in the later years. He reduced the number of roads, and adjusted the scoring. And he invented the rules about how legislators, judges, and bankers worked. The game was pretty close to the final form at this point.

I ran a few more tests — at NYC Playtest, and at Recurse Center, and made some minor tweaks. And then we declared the game done and submitted. We should probably have done some artwork.

Want to give Whipsaw! a try? Here are the print-and-play rules and cards.

Next post: Against generality

Previous post: Projective