Designer Diary: Sonora, or Turning a Desert into a Flood of Ideas

It all started with a prompt on Twitter in the middle of 2018, a prompt that I have lost track of, but thanks to these mysterious posters anyway! The tweet was something like "Game design challenge: Mash up two mechanisms that have no business being together into a game." I noted one response to that tweet that suggested something like "Dexterity and area-control". Oh, now there's an idea! Here's the story of how that game — Sonora — came to be made.

For anyone who doesn't know me, I absolutely adore dexterity games. SHUX 2019 in Vancouver, BC had a whole section of the floor dedicated to them, and I played every single one.

Playing Ice Cool at SHUX 2019

As many of you might remember, Ganz Schön Clever was all the rage in 2018. I was playing this frequently and loved it, but I and others realized something after playing enough times: The game was solvable! It seemed as though there were an optimal formula to achieving the highest possible score. I won't dive into that strategy or discuss whether there truly was a solution, but the possibility of it being true was enough to get my brain working.

Imagine stewing on both of those ideas off and on during the summer, then getting on a five-hour flight (remember those?) to San Diego. This is my secret to coming up with game ideas. Isolated from distractions and seated in one spot for a long while, I like to challenge myself to come up with new game ideas. The ideas usually aren't something I can test right away — although on a flight to New Zealand, I brought along a mini design kit with blank cards and dice to validate some small ideas — but getting them out of my head and onto a page is a big first step that allows me to get started on anything that seems promising.

First design notes

The combination of the Twitter prompt, my Schön addiction, and being stuck in a window seat is how the initially themeless game "3456" was born. I wanted to solve the issue of an eventually solvable game, and the solution seemed to be adding chaos (not randomness). (Here's an overly complex article on the difference between the two, if you're curious.) This is where the dexterity component of "3456" played an essential role. The game that would eventually become Sonora lacked randomness. It was a roll-and-write without the roll. The uncertainty that came out of playing the game wasn't from drawing cards or rolling dice; it all came from the combination of your own flicking abilities and what your fellow players allowed you to do.

Let me explain how the backbone of this game works: This core idea of chaos stuck through to the final product even though the underlying puzzles and theme changed drastically. In Sonora, players have a central area onto which they flick numbered discs (the "flicking phase"). Whatever quadrant a disc ends up in corresponds to playing a mini-game on the scoresheet (the "writing phase"). For example, flicking the #5 disc into the "hexagon" zone of the board gives you 5 points to spend on the "hexagon" mini-game zone of the scoresheet.

During a your turn, you flick discs into a central board, knocking around the other player's or your own discs. This, on its own, is fun! Believe it or not, I had never heard of Crokinole at this point, yet that is ~90% of the appeal of that game. Skillful flicking, blocking, and denial are a game on their own, but I was trying to do something weird here, so I had to take the game one step further! Using the results of the flicking phase of the game to do things in the writing phase is ultimately what makes this game unique, but it wasn't a smooth road to go down.

The first prototype was made from the box I received Clank in, a rotating spice rack, foam, and a lot of glue; the shapes on the board correspond to the shapes on the scoresheet.

The first tests of the game were lukewarm at best. "Yeah, this is interesting, but have you considered just using dice?" was a phrase I heard more than once while working on the game. I nearly abandoned my beloved dexterity element based on these initial responses!

The biggest problem with the first versions of the game was that the puzzles existed in isolation. You put your #5 disc into the "square" zone, and you did the square puzzle, and that was that. If you wanted, you could ignore 3/4 of the game, do the one puzzle you enjoyed, and win. If your fellow players let you, you could pretty much ignore everyone else as well!

So I was faced with the issue of tying five standalone games together into a single, cohesive experience. The flicking needed to be better tied into the writing, and each puzzle needed to communicate with the others. The solution, as it turns out, was the same for both! I needed to create bonuses that made it so any individual action could trigger additional or bigger actions.

The first type of bonus needed to address the dexterity-skill level of the game. I needed mis-flick mitigation bonuses, which led to the creation of Reflick and Swap. If your finger is having an off-day, you could now use one bonus to reflick and try again. At the end of the round, you could swap any two of your own discs to change the number applied to a puzzle. This did wonders to even the playing field between new and skilled players of the game. This dexterity game benefits from being forgiving of a variety of dexterity skill levels.

Next, I needed to figure out how to get the puzzles to talk to each other. By putting bonuses in the puzzles themselves, you would be encouraged to not just go for points, but for combos: "If I circle this bit of the 'triangle' puzzle, it'll let me write a 5 in the 'pentagon' puzzle!" It worked (mostly), and one prototype rebuild and retheme later, I was off to Gen Con to do some testing.

The game's new name was "Arthropodyssey", and it replaced geometric shapes with friendly arthropods: bees, caterpillars, ants, and spiders.

I attended the Game Crafter designer night and met up with Julio E. Nazario, who encouraged me to get the game in front of publishers ASAP due to the game's novelty. I got an impromptu meeting with a publisher the next day, and while they weren't interested, they encouraged me to keep working on it. (Tip: This happens often. Don't get discouraged!) The biggest piece of feedback was that the puzzles didn't talk to each other enough still!

Side note: If you're not familiar with Julio's designs yet, you will be soon! He's creating some truly unique and fun things that are starting to come to shelves and Kickstarter. Ctrl is one of the best things that I've played in recent memory!

Okay, so the next (familiar) challenge was how to get the flicking to work better with the writing. I needed to introduce a bit of uncertainty into the mix. I added a smaller inset within each zone about the size of the flicking disc itself that would allow you to double your disc value, but as part of a different zone than the area that contained it. Flicking your #5 disc into the bonus zone would give you 10 points to work with in the puzzle opposite from the zone you were in. If that sounds extreme, that's because it is! You could have a very big turn with a lot of points to spend if you flicked well. Remember, I wanted to do some weird stuff!

The original geometric shapes stuck around for a while; oddly enough, a lot of playtesters never commented on it.

These changes made the core of the game solid. Now it was a balancing game. Each zone scored differently and was inherently difficult to balance individually. I did the best I could to get some workable numbers. I ran my own playtests and collected all the data I could from the small conventions I attended. I was trying to figure out whether there were any trends. (Did the winner always go hard on bees?) Next, I headed to Metatopia where the best possible thing to happen to the game would occur.

Shout out to Rosco, Nicole, and everyone else for trying out the game at Metatopia!

On the first night at Metatopia, I was waiting in line to pick up my badge and struck up a conversation with the person next to me, which happened to be Travis Magrum. He invited me to hang out and playtest some games. I hadn't expected to test "Arthropodyssey" that evening, but I sat down with Travis, Jonathan Gilmour, and Ian Moss to play. To say it went well would be an understatement. I wasn't prepared to pitch a game that evening, and I was keenly aware of some of the problems that still existed in the mechanisms; however, Jonathan was scouting for Pandasaurus Games at the time and wanted to take the game to show the company. I insisted that I needed to make a few more tweaks, but that we'd meet up again in a month at PAX Unplugged.

After doing a happy-dance internally and externally, I got to work. What needed tweaking? Well, Peter C. Hayward expertly pointed out every problem with the game on his first playthrough. The flicking was slow and overly chaotic because everyone used a single disc on their turn. He suggested flicking two discs, two discs, and one disc for each turn. Instant improvement. Second, the puzzles were too small! You could finish a given puzzle before the game was over, then lose interest because your favorite part of the game was finished. And finally, the bonuses that existed were good, but they needed a lot of work to truly sing.

I didn't waste any time getting to work on fixes; this is from the flight leaving Metatopia.

I spent the next month making more puzzle of each variety. The game needed more puzzle spaces to fill in, more bonuses to collect, and more combos to create.

I also created a 3D-printed version of the game that was more transportable, which is when I started to realize that the materials you make a dexterity game out of really matter. The bounce that can be achieved from wood hitting a wooden or plastic board is much better than the hard clack of wood hitting cardboard glued onto foam. In the early (very classy) prototypes, I glued rubber bands to the inside rim of the cardboard and foam version to try to improve this. The 3D printed versions were a marked improvement to this.

At PAX Unplugged, I met up with Jon again, and this time he took a copy of the game home with him. It was time to wait to hear what Pandasaurus Games thought after playing the game several more times (without me nervously watching).

Luckily, the wait was short, and we had a signed contract the very next month! Jon advocated for me pretty hard and was amazingly supportive. I was going to have a design made by Pandasaurus Games! Cue another internal and external happy dance. At this point, I had also moved across the country to Seattle where the game design scene is thriving! I had only a few tests of "Arthropodyssey" at the designer group, but their input was already super valuable.

For those new to the process of making a game idea into a product, there's crucial work (i.e., development) done by the publisher to ensure that the game is balanced, fun, and intuitive by the time it hits shelves. Development takes the raw idea from the designer and pokes and prods and tweaks and tests it until the game is truly refined. Jon was heading up the process, and I was lucky enough to participate. Each week, updates were sent out to a large group of playtesters, and feedback forms came pouring back in.

I have to say that working with Jon on development was an incredible experience. We bounced ideas off each other and tweaked the numbers and mechanisms. We had the simultaneous goals of balancing the game and removing the math. I'm all for encouraging mathematical skills, but at the start of development, scoring the game took a good ten minutes and a calculator to do right. We stripped out as many raw numbers as possible and brought the scoring time down substantially.

The original caterpillar and spider puzzles (which are now the fox and jackrabbit puzzles in Sonora) had a ton of tiny numbers to add in order to come up with your final score. Replace that with a bit of set collection, and the board becomes instantly more readable and easier to score (i.e., accessible to a wider audience). The only zone that remained mostly unchanged was bees (now lizards) where we simply tweaked the values.


Another major change in development was the complete re-working of the ant puzzle (now owl). It was my favorite one, but it had a lot of friction with playtesters. It wasn't intuitive and was (dun dun dun — my arch-nemesis) solvable! The replacement puzzle was still the same concept (moving an ant down an ant hill) but now it relied more on press-your-luck strategies. You wanted specific discs in that zone in order to move most efficiently, whereas most other zones wanted the highest value. (Tip: Kill your darlings.)

The last thing I did with the game was create an interesting solo mode (a convenient foresight for the upcoming months of people being trapped in their homes). The goal of shooting for a high score is fine, but not terribly compelling after a few playthroughs. The bar for a good solo game experience was raised by great designers like Carla Kopp and the team at Automa Factory behind the solo modes in games like Wingspan. I needed an AI behind the solo mode that was quick, intuitive, and independently interesting enough that players who would normally play with other players might still try it.

I could write another, equally-long designer diary about creating a solo mode, but I'll summarize it here. If we distill the game down, you are trying to play several mini-games as efficiently as possible and other players are sabotaging your efforts. That means the AI should be as antagonistic as possible and get in the way of your strategy in the same way a real player would, so the AI in the solo mode will block your efforts, bump up the threshold to claim your points, and generally make it harder to complete each puzzle. As a particularly cruel, sadistic bonus, you have to choose where you want the AI to sabotage you each round. You're flicking fifteen discs in each round in the solo mode and allocating them to yourself, the AI, and the discard pile. There can be some agonizing decisions when you have to choose where to thwart yourself!

By the time we were done with testing, we had tons of player feedback forms, spreadsheets full of data, and a good feeling that the game was going to sing when players sat down to try it. From concept to release date was just about two years. Making games takes a long time!

I can't take any credit for the final theme of the game and the incredible illustrations from Tom Goyon. The Pandasaurus team really knocked it out of the park here. I might be biased, but I think this game is gorgeous. Created on a plane flying to the desert, it is fitting that the final theme settled there as well. 

I also never could have finished this game without the help of my partner, Staci, my wonderful friends, Unpub, and the random happenstance of meeting Jon at Metatopia.

- Rob Newton, Designer of Sonora

Tagged with: Designer Diary

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