Designing Micro: Or All About Creating a Game Experience That Delivers More With Less

The golden poison frog. The deathstalker scorpion. The Irukandji jellyfish. What do they have in common? They’re all ridiculously small…and all incredibly deadly. It just goes to show you that Mother Nature can conjure up some pretty powerful creatures in little packages.
The same can be true of tabletop games.

In the past, small box games with very few components generally meant that players were in store for a less engaging experience. Microgames have come a long way since those days, however, as gamers now have several great options that deliver in big ways.

Perhaps no game has had more impact on the microgame genre than AEG’s “Love Letter,” which came out in 2012. In “Love Letter,” you take on the role of a suitor trying to woo the princess by delivering a love letter to her. The only catch is that all of your opponents are attempting the same feat. Each player uses characters in the game to try and prevent the letters of competing suitors from reaching the princess.

Love Letter, image by AEG

From the success of “Love Letter” came a whole slew of microgames, especially those using some sort of social deduction mechanism, from great games like “Coup” to “Council of Verona.” With each new title came new appreciation for just how much of a wallop a little game could pack.

Speaking of pack, it’s only fitting to mention Perplext’s “Pack O Game” series, with designs by Chris Handy. Chris has taken micro and framed an entire business model around it. With gum-sized tuck boxes, you can fit a whole set of games from their lineup in one of your pockets. Many are critically acclaimed, such as “Hue” and “Orc” thanks to their simple rules and strategic play.

If a pack of gum is too big for you, well, you’re in luck because microgames come even smaller than that. Take “Coin Age” by Adam P. McIver, for example, which is played with just a single card and some pocket change.

A few cards from Pod-X

And Button Shy Games, captained by Jason Tagmire, has perfected the art of the microgame with their Wallet Game Series. Each game is comprised of just 18 cards and seeks to erase the fallacy that small games can’t be awesome games, too. Games like “Avignon” by John du Bois, “Pod-X” by Daniel Solis and “Universal Rule” by Chip Beauvais reward players with engrossing themes and meaningful “big box game” decisions without being housed in actual big boxes.

The microgame craze even inspired me and my friends Danny Devine and Paul Kluta to create our own…a little western town builder called “Circle the Wagons.” Last year we entered it in Button Shy’s Wallet Game Contest and won the whole shootin’ match!

In a “pinch me” moment, we were told that it will be Kickstarting on April 4th, 2017 AND that Beth Sobel is the artist. If you’re unfamiliar with Beth’s work, you need look no further than your Friendly Local Game Store to see examples of her amazing work (“Lanterns” being probably my favorite).

From an Indie designer’s perspective, the best thing about microgames is that they are fairly quick to create compared to a larger game. You’re just talking about a few cards and maybe a few tokens or coins. It’s a lot less intimidating to tackle just a few components as opposed to a few hundred, but that doesn’t mean that the design process is necessarily any easier. If anything, your brain is forced to operate even more creatively to make solutions work without the game becoming bloated. This is minimalist art. The fewer elements, the better…but you better make every one of those elements count!

During the creation of “Circle the Wagons” and a few other designs I’ve worked on, I’ve definitely noticed that thinking “micro” is a bit of a different approach. Here’s some advice I’d given anyone who’s tackling a microgame for the first time:

  • Don’t try to cram a big box idea into a microgame – In the game “Panamax” you are controlling ships through the Panama canal, all while managing your shipping company, acquiring contracts, loading cargo, accumulating stocks, receiving dividends and managing your personal fortune. Can you imagine trying to shove the various mechanisms of “Panamax” into a microgame? What works for a heavier game doesn’t translate to a microgame. Instead, I would suggest you concentrate on one core idea that makes your game unique. Find that single hook and build the essentials around it to make it fun and interesting.
  • Make every card count – When you’ve only got 18 cards or so to work with, you’ve got to make every square inch of every card pull some weight to make your game great.
    The beginnings of a boomtown in “Circle the Wagons”

    With “Circle the Wagons” we have every card pulling double duty: one side is used for the in-game play (the map building aspect of the game) while the other side is used for scoring conditions (three of which are randomly revealed each game to set the goals for that particular game). Additionally, each map side is divided into four quadrants defined by both a terrain type and a special icon related to scoring, such as a cow, fort or wagon. Because each card is working harder, it helps bring more complexity and variety to the game.

  • Dig deeper for creative solutions – Need to randomly generate results but don’t want to include dice? Use a card as a spinner. Need to show card upgrades but don’t have tokens for marking them? Cover part of the card with another card to identify the new upgrade level. Need to track resources but can’t include any wooden cubes? Rotate a card 90 degrees right or left to indicate when you’ve gained or lost a resource (a nifty solution I noticed in Button Shy’s “Ahead in the Clouds” by Daniel Newman). There are almost always solutions to design challenges if you just look at them from a “micro” perspective.

Last year, I worked on a “nano game” called “Beast of Burden,” in which players moved their beasts (oxen, camels, elephants and mules) from village to village to deliver wheat and score points. It was just eight cards, plus one card that served as tokens when cut up. I got it into the hands of a publisher and the feedback was that, while it was a neat idea, it felt like it was a bigger game trying to squeeze into a micrograme’s suit. It just didn’t fit…and you know what, they were right.

The best microgames don’t have an identity crisis. They feel perfect just as they are, and a player couldn’t possibly imagine playing a big, overwrought version of the same title. Discovering that elusive sweet spot between “small game” and “big idea” is a special moment that, when done correctly, becomes a “Love Letter” to us all.

If you’re a designer, keep at it. Eventually you’ll discover yours.

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