Designer’s Diary: Dead & Breakfast

Hi, my name is Rodrigo Rego and it’s been 0 days since I last dabbled in game design.

Since 2013, I’ve dedicated almost all my spare time to creating board games. Some might think it’s an obsession, but as a result I’ve created some games that I’m very proud of, like Papertown, Copacabana, and of course, Dead & Breakfast.

Let me tell you the story of how Dead & Breakfast came to life.

The inspiration

The inspiration for what eventually became Dead & Breakfast happened around June 2016, while playing a game called The Little Prince – Make me a planet. In this game, each player makes his own planet, using tiles with roses, baobab trees, animals and many other things.

The fun of the game for me was not knowing at first how your planet would score. The scoring tiles, that are also part of the planets, show up during the game, so to begin with you want a bit of everything. The trick is, the most abundant tiles are also the most risky, as they can be taken away from the planet.

Your planet at the end of Little Prince – Make me a Planet

The idea of a game in which you start building something without knowing how it will score got stuck in my head.

So far so good – the ideas are flowing. A few of them keep recurring, and each time they do, they bring a new mechanic that might work well together, or a theme that might serve as a good metaphor.

The ideas build up until you have no alternative but to start cutting up paper and putting it into practice.

The philosophy

Before I go further, let me tell you about my game design philosophy.

I’m mostly a light gamer. I like games that are easy to learn. That’s why I put a lot of effort into making simple, intuitive games. Clarity (a lack of ambiguities and rule exceptions) and fluidity (ensuring every action progresses the game in some way) are as important for me as strategic depth and balance.

Those were the principles that guided the creation of Dead & Breakfast.

The idea

The initial idea was: players will create a building seen from the front, in a 5×5 square. Each player starts with a lobby, and each turn places a double tile made of 2 windows. Each window had different objects – in the original game, they were teapots, birds and pies etc.

Each time you complete a floor (a row of 5) you invite a dweller and place it on a window. It’s these that determine how you score. Some give you points for pies on the same floor as them, others for birds in the same column.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it didn’t work.

Problem 1: different conditions for scoring

But that was expected. Never have I had an idea for a game that worked first try. Actually, I believe that people who think that their idea work well the first time are not looking close enough.

The first problem I found is that the game scoring was a little one-dimensional. The only thing you had to consider when selecting and placing a tile was how to align the objects to maximize the dwellers’ scoring. The game needed another way of scoring, one that the players had to consider simultaneously.

After many tries, the best option was to create an ivy that would grow on the building’s walls. Each tile now had a branch of ivy connecting 2 of its sides, and on each branch there were flowers of various colors.

Each player’s lobby scored points for 2 different colors of flowers in your building, as long as they were connected to the lobby by the ivy.

It worked very well, mechanically and thematically. Now the players had to consider in each turn not only how to align their objects but also how best to connect their ivy. That made every decision much more interesting.

An old version of Dead & Breakfast: 5×5 square building filled with objects, guests and ivy.

Problem 2: the drafting mechanics

I tried many different ways that players could draft tiles, from the classic Suburbia treadmill to blind auctions.

After all, what worked best was the simplest idea, as it often happens: 6 open tiles in a circle and a pawn on top of one of them. On your turn, you must take only one of the first three following the pawn, and advance the pawn to the tile you took.

This mechanic fit perfectly for Dead & Breakfast because:

  1. It allows for planning: with 6 open tiles, you can think 2 turns ahead
  2. It allows for indirect interaction: depending on how much you advance the pawn, you may deny the next player the tile he needed
  3. The game would not need a currency

Problems 3, 4, 5… of course there were way more than 2 problems in Dead & Breakfast’s creation process. Creating games means not only find the best way around them, but also, being able to find them. Watch people play and spot the moments of struggle, doubt and detachment, and try to remove them.

But now we’re getting into the next phase, which is…

The balance

Once the general principles of the game are set, it’s time to play with numbers to guarantee everything will work perfectly.

I have now 8 games in various stages of development. Not one demanded more work to balance than Dead & Breakfast.

It’s 6 different objects on the windows. 4 colors of flower. 6 possible exits for the ivy, which might or might not have bifurcations. All this must be properly confined to 54 tiles creating a whole mathematically balanced.

Besides that, it was necessary to calibrate the game’s difficulty – place it in that exact point on the complexity curve that doesn’t make it too frustrating nor too easy.

At each change in the balance of the game – more flowers, less ivy exits, less victory points per object, I needed to recalculate each of the 54 tiles. This was by far the longest phase of the development of Dead & Breakfast.

The publisher and the theme

But why would a game about creating an apartment building with birds and pies be called Dead & Breakfast, you ask? That’s where the publisher comes in.

As soon as they took an interest for the game, Braincrack Games suggested the theme change: instead of creating a building, why not a hotel? And not only a hotel, but a haunted hotel? Filled with ghosts, zombies, bats and voodoo dolls, that’s how Dead & Breakfast was born.

Besides the theme, Lewis was a great editor, seeing the potential of the game and helping me test, balance and close many loose ends.

Then he found Louis Durant, who used his cartoony style of illustration to make a hotel that was at the same time terrifying and cute, exactly how it needed to be.

Cute and scary – the new art by Louis Durrant

Now, Dead & Breakfast is available on Kickstarter.

I hope you think that it can be a great addition to your collection: a game that is at the same time cute and creepy. Easy to explain but full of hard decisions. Good for non-gamers, but very strategic.

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