When you hear the word upkeep, you might think of Magic: The Gathering, where players take certain actions at the beginning of each turn. This becomes a habit that players execute without having to think about it. But what happens when you require players as a group to perform upkeep? In my experience, what’s designed to be less work for everyone ends up being a major source of frustration, as the group has trouble remembering to shift between individual actions (players’ turns) and group actions (round upkeep).
In an early version of our wizard escape thriller, Prism, players were forced to do some upkeep at the end of each round. I thought it would be fun to have players go in a different order each turn, and that also seemed important because of the way the evil wizards would attack players. We essentially had fixed effects with randomized player order. During the “day” phase, each player could take three actions, starting with the randomly selected first player. Then, once each player had taken a turn, the “night” phase started: each wizard was interrogated by the opposing faction (the game) and had to respond appropriately. The original idea was that everyone would select their interrogation response at the same time, thereby creating a lot of excitement and drama when the cards were revealed.
This evolved into players revealing their cards one by one, which heightened the tension, but all at great cost: we found that it’s so easy to get lost in the game–doing the day phase of exploring the board, fighting monsters, casting spells, etc.–that you can easily forget the night phase. And since that’s the timer for the game, it’s a pretty important thing to remember.
I should have realized this was a poor design choice. Our first game, Micromanage, suffered from this same problem: we designed it so that each player would take their turn and then an Event card would flip over after each round. Having played this with a potential publisher, and forgetting to flip Event cards ourselves, we knew this had to change.
There just isn’t a good reason to interrupt players’ fun and enjoyment of your game to do upkeep.
Once we internalized this concept, that our players were actually having too much fun tramping around the board as wizards to stop and do something different, we knew we had to remove this aspect from our game. We also fixed it in Micromanage, too. Here’s how:
Starting with Micromanage, we completely removed the Event deck, keeping only the best effects from Events and Bosses, and putting the Boss cards into the Employee deck. Instead of forcing players to remember to flip over an Event card once per round, they naturally flip Employee cards over to fill the Hiring Pool. And when a Boss shows up, that’s the end of that round, and players score based on their current teams. Because players always want to hire the best Employees, they never forget to put a new Employee card into the Hiring Pool. And even if they do, the next player will realize they are two Employees short, and draw two cards.
To fix Prism, we had to completely redesign the timer for the game. Instead of our complex scoring track, and remembering to do upkeep, and randomly selecting the first player each round, we scrapped all of that. Now each player has their own personal Interrogation phase, and they draw an Interrogation card from a deck. The play order can be the same throughout the game, because the effects are now randomized. Players can more easily remember to do something at the end of each turn than they can at the end of each round. And now instead of the scoring track we simply put in the right number of cards in the deck to set the difficulty. If you design a map and it turns out to be too difficult, you can play again and add enough cards into the deck to effectively lower the difficulty setting.
It still isn’t perfect–there’s a lot of playtesting and simplification needed before we can be sure it’s ready for gamers to play without us watching, prompting, and jumping in when they mess up–but it’s much closer to a finished game now.
Is round upkeep an element of your game design? Maybe you incorporated it because you’ve seen it in other games, or because it’s just an easy way to reset things before each round. But is it really needed, or can you fold those tasks into each player’s turn so it feels less like you’re interrupting the fun?