Behind the Scenes: Inventing Infinite Jonathans the Card Game
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"Getting In Trouble"
One day I was sitting at my desk, working on one of the many Breaking Games titles that were on my plate to finish -you know, minding my own business- when I got a call from Shari: "Ian, come into my office, I need to talk about something with you."
GREAT. I'M IN TROUBLE ...AGAIN.
(Don't you hate that when your boss says "something" and then doesn't say what that something is??)
Little did I know I WAS in trouble... I was formally introduced to Kurt Bieg.
I had sort of met Kurt just in passing at NY Toy Fair one year, when he showed us the initial stages of the Infinite Jonathans mobile app. The concept was cool, a crowd-vote-your-adventure through the life of Jonathan, and at the time I didn't think anything of it, because A) it wasn't done yet, and B) Breaking Games makes boardgames. Well, turns out Kurt and his crew over at Simple Machine were working on this app non-stop! Art, Copy, Coding, the works.
This meeting in Shari's office was a little bit different though. The mobile app was in Beta test, and cards from a previous voting game Kurt had were strewn all over the table in the center of the room. "We're looking to turn Infinite Jonathans into a card game." Shari said from her corner of the table.
I questioned, "Is this a re-skin of this voting card game where voting is in the spotlight, or are we going to let the story of Jonathan be the lead actor?" Both Kurt and Shari looked at me with a puzzled look, and while Shari got one of her dozens of distracting phone calls, Kurt and I chatted.
The decision was made (unbeknownst to Shari, haha) to not do a re-skin, but a new game entirely from scratch. A process that, over the course of a year, resulted in a great game, and a great friendship.
Sharpie Markers On Cards ARE Important
The first work meeting Kurt and I had was simply tossing around ideas to get to the basic framework of something playable. We wanted to make a game that echoed the mobile app, so a few things were listed as "must haves":
- Voting by players
- "Moments" of Jonathans life (not "Jonathan now has X power")
- 3 player minimum, and "as many players as can fit" maximum
- An amount of humor that really sold the Infinite Jonathans universe.
An iteration of the game was built where players voted thumbs up or down for 2 moment cards that were presented, one of which being added to Jonathan's Timeline.
We spent many design sessions together after this, which I always loved, because I also knew that meant a trip to Bubbakoo's Burritos (I love that place, tater tots inside of a quesadilla ...umm yes!)
BUT, many designers (even me!) have a tendency to do something: Putting the cART before the horse, which was an even easier trap to fall into, because the art for the app was almost complete, so we had a library of images.
What happened? Players learned about the moments of Jonathan's life in a way that involved voting. Players and passer-bys alike would also say "Wow that's super colorful! It looks really good!"
People putting their thumbs in the air to vote... Major Win!! But the game we had at the moment?? ...sigh... a little bit of slog. We had spent too much time making it pretty. I mean, the passer-bys were right, it was super beautiful. We spent a lot of time on that aspect. But, yeah, definitely needed some tweaking.
What did we do to improve the gameplay? We chatted a while about that. Some things had to be replaced or cut entirely. The most important part was maintaining the energy at the table. We wanted to make sure that the decision processes in-game were as colorful as the game itself, and in a voting game, the voting process IS the game.
Edits were made, but overall we didn't want to start over entirely... (foreshadowing)
Hard Turns at PAX UNPLUGGED
Kurt and I worked through the game, snagging people from the Ad Magic office every now and again to try it out. We got our game to a point where we thought we were good, but we needed a real test. We needed to put Infinite Jonathans the Card Game in front of people who would readily say whether or not our game is good or bad. We needed strangers, and we needed a lot of them. Time for a convention, so off to PAX Unplugged we go!
Day 1 of the show: We set our game out on the table and asked people to participate, and they happily obliged. They RIPPED into it.
(This sounds bad, but those of you who have read this far, this is one of the most important things you can do for a designer. We want real. legit. data.)
Remember the "start over" foreshadowing? Yeah, it's about to happen right now.
Day 2: We decided to try out a new mechanic entirely. However, this would result in us running to Staples for a ton of blank business cards.
I asked Kurt, "Hey, since i'm not tremendously versed in the Infinite Jonathans universe as much as you are, can we make our rapid-prototype with fantasy tropes like dragons and traps and stuff? Since we both know fantasy stuff, we'll able to see the holes better." Kurt agreed and we set out making a completely new game right then and there!
The new game that we came up with had four things to vote for instead of only two, and was an ever-changing game of prisoners dilemma.
Day 3: We played our new game (rough though it may be). We asked some more show attendees to play, and again they obliged! Gamers are the best! Before playing the new iteration, one person looked at how rough we were and said, "So how long have you been working on this game?" We replied "Since yesterday". "Oh..." they hesitantly answered back. Now sitting at a full table, it was our time to shine, and we were pleasantly surprised at the outcome!
THE ENERGY WAS GREAT! The wheeling and dealing being done by players to make sure they picked what you wanted them to pick, followed up with betrayals and stealing! This is the wild energy of the Infinite Jonathans universe.
We had a GAME that was FUN. YESSSS *FIST PUMP*!
Thing to note: When working with an Intellectual Property, sometimes it's better to capture that property's energy, rather than just copy what that property is already doing.
We died, but also didn't (More Dev).
Even with the iteration we brought to PAX being scrapped, we returned to the dev table proud of what came out of PAX Unplugged. One of the things that was involved with the fantasy tropes were health points. You could lose all your health points and die in this game. We had effectively created an eliminatory game of prisoners dilemma. While the urgency of elimination causes excitement, it can also cause disappointment, and we wanted to make sure to avoid those feelings and keep the energy at the table!
I asked, "What if dying was just a "Flat Tire" like in Milles Borne?"
"Then what?" asked Kurt.
"I don't know, I guess you're a ghost and get revenge on everyone?" I said.
"OOH we have a cool ghost image we can use!" replied Kurt.
We then spent the rest of the Development converting our fantasy business card version into the Infinite Jonathan Universe. I made a version to play at friends' houses, and Kurt did the same. Our friends loved it, and minus a few tweaks, we were done with the Game design!
We looked back at our "must have" list:
- Voting by players ✅
- "Moments" of Jonathans life (not "Jonathan now has X power") ✅
- 3 player minimum, and "as many players as can fit" maximum ✅
- An amount of humor that really sold the Infinite Jonathans universe. ✅
Lessons to be learned: We had a situation of putting the cart before the horse, working far into a given design, only to have that design be scrapped and started over. We then stayed ONLY in the mental space of sharpie markers until it was fun, before moving into art.
Those of you who are in art school, your thumbnails and rough drawings are important to arrive at a final you'd be proud of, and that applies to game design too!
We applied the Infinite Jonathans art to the game, and it turned out as beautiful as the earlier iteration, so it was really great to match the excitement of the game with the excitement of the art.
Some of the objects we had to brand into the Infinite Jonathans Universe, like "Jonergy" being the energy tokens, and "Jono-scopes" being the spinners you vote with.
Kurt and I put a lot of work into Infinite Jonathans the Card Game. The lessons we learned, and the struggles we endured together made us better individually, as well as gave us new ideas on things to work on together.
...And I very much plan on doing that.
-Ian Reed (co-designer of Infinite Jonathans)