Cash ‘n Guns: Making a Game Physical

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Prior to becoming a game developer, I was an art thief. When I wasn’t doing downward dog yoga poses to circumvent laser beams, I often found myself getting into Reservoir Dogs style standoffs. I pawned off all my art under a fake name at several pawn shops in a different state each time. I used the funds to pay James Masino to draw the art for War Co. so I could finally make money in a more respectable way.

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The objective of Cash ‘n Guns reminds me of my bygone art thief days because the objective is to rack up the most loot. You do this by coming out uninjured from several violent standoffs. You have a limited amount of bullets (“Bang”) and blanks (“Click”). You choose a Bang or a Click at the beginning of each round and point your gun at someone. Each player decides whether they want to drop out or stay in. If you drop out, you don’t get any loot but you won’t get hurt. If you stay in and no one shoots you, you get a cut of the loot. If you stay in and someone shoots you, you won’t get a cut of the loot and you take a wound. Take too many wounds and you’re eliminated from the game. Each round you have a Boss, who can tell one person to change who they’re pointing their gun at. The possibility of becoming the Boss is one of the perks of staying in a round at the risk of getting shot.

Cash n Guns Second Edition Box

I’m simplifying the rules a bit to make a point with this article, but you can tell it’s an elegant and simple game. Nobody knows Cash ‘n Guns for its rules, though. Everybody knows Cash ‘n Guns for the fact that you point BIG FOAM GUNS at your friends. It’s goofy and a spectacle to behold. Cash ‘n Guns excels as a party game because the foam guns make it visual, memorable, learn-able, and emotive.

Cash and Guns
Photo taken by Wade Rockett and posted to #Flickr. (License: CC BY-ND 2.0. Source.)

Let’s break down Cash ‘n Guns into a little more detail and discuss why specifically its physicality works so well. I’m going to focus on the foam guns, because they are an inextricable part of the gameplay. The foam guns are why Cash ‘n Guns works so well. It’s no simple gimmick, though, there are many different levels to this.

The Foam Guns Make Visually Appealing Physical Comedy

Board games excel in the modern world because of their physical presence.  These are all great qualities in a game – especially a party game. Pointing foam guns at your friends is ridiculous. Those bright orange guns stick out like sore thumbs in the best possible way. It photographs beautifully and it’s extremely memorable.

Cash ‘n Guns is Funny, Which Makes Learning Easier

Laughter is a great teacher. In fact, studies have shown that making students laugh in the classroom drops their anxiety levels. Laughter makes students more receptive to their environment, engaging them more.

Like I said in the 5-Minute Dungeon breakdown, engagement is the bellweather of a great gaming experience. Whereas 5-Minute Dungeon drives engagement through time-ticking intensity, Cash ‘n Guns does it through sheer ridiculousness.

The Game Works without the Foam Guns, but Excels with Them

Cash ‘n Guns dials its comedy up to 11 through the inclusion of foam gun pieces. As I said before, this is no mere gimmick. It drives the emotions behind the game.

Imagine for a moment, a low-budget version of Cash ‘n Guns that has no foam gun pieces. You instead are instructed to make the finger gun hand gesture and point it at your intended target. This works and it would still be the same game. The core engine wouldn’t change, nor would the mechanics or rules. But let’s be real: it wouldn’t be the same without the foam guns.

The inclusion of the foam guns is a matter of theme and theme alone – but it’s integral to the experience. Remember that at the manufacturing stage, every component costs money. Everything you put in that box needs to be evaluated in terms of cost and benefit. The foam guns are unusual pieces and therefore cost money. It’s okay that the Cash ‘n Guns foam guns cost the creators more to produce because they’re funny, photograph well, and sell more copies of the game.

Mindfully made games drive home a single clear message. There are five basic ways you can communicate with players: the core engine, the mechanics, the rules, the internal narrative (theme), and the external narrative (marketing).

Five Levels of Communication through Game Development
Five Levels of Communication through Game Development

The foam guns provide a physical reminder of the core engine, mechanics, and rules of the game. The foam guns are highly visible, hilarious, and elegant forms of data tracking. The foam guns would technically be classified as internal narrative, since they are part of the theme, but they reinforce the three lower levels. What’s more, because the foam guns are memorable enough to be talked about and photographed, they work beautifully for marketing. The message spreads. People start talking. It builds hype. That’s the external narrative of Cash ‘n Guns. It was silly enough to become legendary.

Key Takeaways for Game Devs

  • Cash ‘n Guns excels as a party game because the foam guns make it visual, memorable, learn-able, and emotive.
  • Cash ‘n Guns works because its foam guns are bright, remarkable, and memorable.
  • Humor is one way of driving engagement. Engagement is the key to learning. Learning is critical to how players play your game.
  • The inclusion of foam guns in Cash ‘n Guns is not a gimmick! Though they cost more money, it’s worth it because they’re memorable, take great photos, and sell more units.

5-Minute Dungeon: How to Make a Table Rowdy (And Why That’s a GREAT Thing)

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of playing 5-Minute Dungeon at the friendly local gaming store for the first time. This game got us rowdier than ever before and it was awesome!

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Originally from Kickstarter, this game is not as ubiquitous as the others I’ve covered in game breakdowns, so check out the Kickstarter and Board Game Geek pages to learn more. Needless to say, this game is definitely worth your time and attention. It’s holding a staggering 7.8 on Board Game Geek – a site where ratings over 8 are practically unheard of. Plus, I can personally vouch for it.

Photo taken by Stin Shen and posted to Flickr. It’s licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Source)

Not only is it worth our time and attention, it’s worth our study as well. 5-Minute Dungeon is a cooperative game where 2-5 players work together to clear dungeons and wreck bosses in just seven five minutes. The dungeon consists of a deck of cards that must be beaten in sequence. Each player has a deck of cards, from which they can only hold a few cards at a time. Players beat the dungeon cards by playing cards with symbols that match the symbols on the dungeon card. For example, if the dungeon card has three arrows and two shields, then all players must work together to pool three arrows and two shields. When this is done, you sweep your resources and the dungeon card aside and get to work on the next dungeon card. Repeat this process 20 or 30 or 40 times until the dungeon is clear. Then you have to beat the final boss, which requires more resources than a regular dungeon card. Beat the boss and stop the timer – if it hasn’t run out on you already!

While 5-Minute Dungeon is very simple, it’s also very engaging. The core engine of this game works beautifully. It would be a blast even without the bright art, consistent humor, and narration by Jon Bailey. That brings me to the crux of this game breakdown: 5-Minute Dungeon uses timing and cooperation to drive player engagement. Engagement is the bellwether of great games.

Engagement Driver 1: Use of a Timer

From a psychological standpoint, there are few things as powerful as a timer. Timers keep us focused. Timers keep us tapping our feet and shaking our legs up and down with anticipation. The beauty of 5-Minute Dungeon is that it doesn’t merely incorporate a cheesy little Pictionary sand timer. The timer is built into the name of the game. It even comes with a mobile app that displays the digital countdown in big and bright numbers that you can’t miss.

Sand timer? Oh no, my friend, 5-Minute Dungeon makes this look like ancient history. Photo taken by Neville Nel and posted to Flickr. It’s licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Source)

Of course, for game developers, adding a timer is often not an appropriate way to drive engagement. There are other great mechanics you can use. Part of the magic of 5-Minute Dungeon is not the use of a timer, but the showmanship around the use of the timer. It’s dramatic. It’s symbolic. You can feel it. Come up with something that works for your own game that’s dramatic, symbolic, and emotional.

Engagement Driver 2: The State of Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow Model
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model

Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Pulled from the Wikipedia article on Flow (psychology)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model is a favorite model of mine for approximating how engaging games are. Ideally, you want your game to keep players in a state of Flow, or at least Arousal, Control, or Relaxation the entire time. In 5-Minute Dungeon, players are in a constant state of flow.

If we take this model 100% literally, flow is caused by two things. One, a player must be challenged. Two, a player must feel like their skills are up to the task. Nothing in 5-Minute Dungeon is hard per se, so players feel like they can handle anything the game throws at them. After all, it’s nothing more than symbol matching! Yet when you add group dynamics and the timer, the challenge is quite formidable. Players are constantly analyzing what their teammates are doing and how that changes what needs to be done.

How do you know you’re in flow? It feels like you blink twice and an hour’s gone.

Engagement Driver 3: Good Housekeeping through Mechanics

The game is being constantly timed and players don’t have the opportunity to slip out of flow. The game’s structure has the pleasant effect of nipping two board game fun killers in the bud: analysis paralysis and long play times. 

While you can create rules that stave off analysis paralysis and limit times, they’re clumsy to implement. As a general rule of thumb in game design, you don’t want to do anything with rules that can be done by improving mechanics. There is no “after thirty seconds, the player forfeits their turn” or “a winner is decided after two hours” rule. The game is designed to never let that be an issue in the first place!

Engagement Driver 4: Simplicity for Newbies, Dexterity for Veterans 

Success in 5-Minute Dungeon depends upon quick thinking and cooperation. The game encourages division of labor and gradually ups dungeon difficulty to encourage this. The game is simple and lightweight, meaning players of any level of familiarity with board games can play. The challenge stems from communication and teamwork – not from memorizing rules or decoding awkward board symbols.

To bring it all together, 5-Minute Dungeon works because the core engine of the game is designed to be fast and engaging. It’s the sort of game that moves so quickly that decision anxiety and time constraints never pose problems. You play it, you get deeply in the zone, and completely wrapped up in it. That’s engagement, plain and simple. Engagement is a holy grail in board gaming.

Takeaways for Game Devs

  • 5 Minute Dungeon is a successful game because so many mechanics work toward the common goal of keeping players engaged in the game.
  • High player engagement is achieved because the game requires quick thinking and cooperation.
  • Using a timer puts players in a state of flow, kills analysis paralysis, and prevents the game from running long.
  • 5 Minute Dungeon has simple mechanics and simple rules, which allows gamers of different levels of familiarity with board games to play well.
  • The game gradually raises difficulty, which allows players to organically learn and grow.

Colt Express: Making Players into Planners

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Becoming a game developer/blogger was my second career choice. In my heart of hearts, I’m a cowboy and a bandit. Despite an upbringing in the American Southeast, I shoot like that one guy in Blazing Saddles. It was therefore my great pleasure and fortune to be able to play out my Sergio Leone film fantasies at the game table of my friendly local gaming store.

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Colt Express is a popular game with a resume loaded with accolades like Spiel des Jahres Winner and several Golden Geek nominations. It’s no surprise when you play it on the table! It’s innovative both in its gameplay and in its presentation, which involves a 3D train and clever use of verticality which you don’t often see in the Flatland of board gaming.

Colt Express Box
Photo taken by MeoplesMagazine and posted to Flickr under the CC BY SA 2.0 License (Source).

It’s a pretty lightweight game, so it’s easy to explain the rules. Between 2 and 6 people can play and it takes roughly half an hour. You play as a bandit with the singular focus of doing what bandits do best: chasing sweet, sweet money. This money comes in the form of suspicious bags of cash, giant rubies, and Pulp Fiction suitcases. This cash is represented by components which are scattered across the train.

So far, so simple. This is where things get interesting. You and your opponents must choose your moves in advance for an entire round. You and your opponents all have ten cards for six possible moves: grab money, shoot someone, punch someone, move side to side, move vertically – from the cabin to the roof or vice versa, or call the marshal. You draw six of these ten cards. Then you and your opponents take turns playing cards until you’ve played four from your hand for the round. At the end of the round, you get your cards back, shuffle them up, and draw another six cards. After a few rounds, the game is over and you count your cash.

You determine what moves you’re going to make in advance of the round. Because of this dynamic, Colt Express is a programmable movement game. For the purpose of this breakdown’s coherence, I won’t go into details of the shooting and marshal mechanics, nor will I cover the end-game shooting bonus. I’m going to focus on the programmable movement, because this mechanic alone has a lot of subtle implications which I will proceed to break down.

Colt Express
Photo taken by Hubert Figuière and posted to Flickr under the CC BY SA 2.0 License (Source).

Colt Express encourages players to plan

Colt Express would be a very boring game if it were a one-player affair. You could tell your player exactly where to go, what to do, and when to pick up cash. Yet with other players in the mix, you introduce all sorts of fascinating variables. Players can pick up money before you get to it – making you waste an action by trying to pick up cash that isn’t there. Your movement could be thwarted by someone shooting you and knocking you back somewhere else. If a series of events conspires against you, you might end up walking into the marshal by mistake. Whoopsy-daisy.

It’s all these unknowns that make you have to not just play the game, but play the players. You have to anticipate what other people are doing. You have to guess their motivations. On rounds where everybody plays their cards face-up, this is easy. However, sometimes, you go through “tunnels”, which causes everyone to play their action cards facedown. When cards are face-up, you have to think on the fly. When cards are facedown, you have to think in advance.

There’s a larger subgame as well, because stacking cash too early can make you a target. Ideally, you want to come from behind so no one anticipates your actions.

Colt Express takes a mechanic with complex possibilities and uses its physical setup to teach players

Colt Express uses it components, its setup, its art, and its theme to really sell programmable movement in a way that feels perfectly sensible. Imagine yourself as a neophyte gamer for a moment. Programmable movement is a strange concept. New board gamers might liken it to a more extreme version of the dynamics found in Pokemon or old school Paper Mario. Yet in Colt Express, it never feels weird or awkward – even to new gamers I’ve played with.

Colt Express Uses Verticality
Photo taken by yoppy and posted to Flickr under the CC BY SA 2.0 License (Source).

The pretty train in Colt Express isn’t just for show or sales. Using three dimensions helps new players visualize their moves. It helps people to think four moves in advance, as they must in Colt Express. The theme also helps, since the idea of bandits stealing cash makes perfect sense as a narrative.

Consider for a moment how Colt Express would function differently as a 2D game. You could totally do it and it’d still be a great game! Just make a board with the two levels of the train depicted as different rows. It’s not hard to imagine…but it wouldn’t have the same staying power as a teaching tool. Some people learn well in the abstract, but others excel with spatial reasoningColt Express uses its rules, its theme, and its physical shape to reach out to different people who have different ways of processing information. That’s why it can sell a weird concept like movement programming in a lightweight game.

Colt Express is available on Amazon for $35.99. I definitely recommend that you check it out. It’s not just a great teaching tool for itself, but it’s a great teaching tool for design as well.