How did I end up making a card game?

First of all… I never sought to make a game. It just sorta happened.

Ideas come from unexpected places.
Keep an open mind as to what’s possible.

I had cooked up a simpler version of my math game a couple of years ago just to help my youngest get better at mental math addition. One day in Feb 2022, while she was quarantining at home from school she asked to play that really old paper prototype game again. I thought to myself… Ok God I’m here playing a game with my kid and I’ve got time on my hands… what’s my next step? Inspiration hit. My old paper prototype was ok but the game could be more fun. Now that my youngest was older, her skills could be challenged by something more.

That’s when I decided to add an attack and defense element to the game for more strategy and fun. I ran into the office and made a whole new batch of cards with index cards and sharpies and the game started to grow from there. You could say that fateful day in Feb was my flux capacitor moment.

flux capacitor
flux capacitor

Prototype. Make a simple prototype to test with.
It doesn’t have to be pretty.
It just has to function.

The first two special cards I made were the minus 1 and the 7 ate 9 Mine! cards. It was a fun addition to the basic game… one test later, I realized.. uh… I need some sort of defense card. And what if I make a card that allows you to multiply your score?? Ooo. What about other attack cards like divide by 2 to attack an opponent’s space?

A few playtests at home with the family later… we realized we had a really fun game on our hands when we ended up playing late one night, way past the kids’ bedtime. Oops!

prototype evolution
prototype evolution

Test test TEST!
and then TEST some more

I called and texted all my board gaming friends. It was like I was back in school again. Hey friend… wanna play a game with me? Honestly, it’s a fun game. AND… you can bring your kids along, we can all play together. Whadya say? Some of my friends were available to play and I’m grateful to all who took the time to do so.

Take LOTS of notes for each and every test.

Testing with friends and family is fun and brings out all sorts of feedback. Hey mom, she attacked me. Aw… I wanted to do that. I can’t believe you beat me.

Testing and receiving feedback is one thing. Remembering all that feedback is another. Don’t trust yourself to remember what people said. WRITE IT ALL DOWN. Our memories get tainted with our emotions. If we had fun, we remember some things. If somebody said they didn’t like something about the game, we remember that even more… It’s sad but true that we remember negative feedback more. Writing down all the feedback allows you to take your emotions out of it. Write it down. Leave it for a day. Review it the next day with a refreshed mind.

Here’s something hard for most creative folks: discerning feedback. Not all feedback is gold. Sometimes the feedback is skewed. Did you ask for feedback on the game mechanics and instead received criticism about how somebody doesn’t like the genre of the game? Well if they don’t even like the game genre they’re not going to like your game at all and they are not your target market. Take the time to review the feedback you received and separate the wheat from the chaff. Recognize who your target market is and what they are looking for in the game.

Take care to note what changes were made
and WHY you decided to make those changes

An additional benefit of writing all the feedback down is that you can refer to it at a much later date and make some decisions on the feedback you received. Game testing isn’t a static process. It’s an ever-evolving process. Testing is iterative. Test, receive feedback, change something, and test again. Lather, rinse, repeat. My game evolved a LOT in the initial few weeks. I had attack cards, then I had to add defense cards. Then I had to adjust the card count because there were TOO many attack cards. Then I had to adjust the way you could discard cards in the game because it could give someone an unfair advantage. Then I had to adjust how to end the attacks on a space. That was a tough one. Does the turn end when you say something? When you slap down a card? When you say something and slap down a card? When are you safe from attack?

take lots of notes
take lots of notes

Take lots of notes during this evolution phase. Your future self will thank you. Because somewhere down the line somebody you’re testing with will suggest something and you’ll be able to say confidently… thank you for the suggestion, we tried that. It made the game too difficult. Documenting the decisions you made will help you be more confident with your decisions later.

After a couple of months, I had filled up a notebook with notes from all my testing sessions with folks. At one playtesting session with adults, somebody asked me, hey why can’t I discard all these cards whenever I want? Aha… I had an answer. I opened my trusty notebook. Somewhere in there, I knew I had notes on this, I had covered this ground before. And yes I had. I was glad I had my trusty notebook… but I’ll be honest, it took me a while to find my notes because it was a notebook. That’s when I realized I needed a better note-taking system.

Spreadsheets are your friend.
Just get started and adjust as you go.

At my playtests with friends and family, I would show up with my game and my notebook and leave it at that. For the first playtest session I had with strangers (not friends or family), I decided it was time to get more organized. I made a spreadsheet for the testing session. What were my goals for this session? What mechanic was I testing specifically?

ZQUALS Testing Prep
ZQUALS Testing Prep
ZQUALS spreadsheet testing notes
ZQUALS spreadsheet testing notes

Prepare Prepare Prepare

Before I went to playtest my game with strangers for the first time I was nervous. So I over-prepared. And I’m glad I did. Even though I thought I was only going to have time to test for 3 sessions, I printed 7 sheets. … Turns out I used all 7 sheets. I figured I’d be too busy to write feedback so I planned to take videos for each game. I prepped video consent forms. I’m glad I did because it was a fun, hectic session, and reviewing the video later helped me gather feedback that I would have otherwise missed.

ZQUALS Playtest at FPLA
ZQUALS Playtest at FPLA

On test day, prep testers on what to expect and what feedback you are seeking.

Setting expectations is good!

Be clear to users if you are just testing game mechanics and not the visuals of the game. That way, the feedback you receive will be geared to parts of the game that are currently in development.

Perfection is an illusion

I like to time everything. I timed how long it took me to explain the directions. I timed how long each game took. You know that saying practice makes perfect. Don’t strive for perfection. Perfection is an illusion that may cause you to shrink in fear and not act. Instead, trust yourself. Prepare as best as you can and then figure it out as you go. During that first session with strangers, I was testing whether a cheat sheet card I made would be helpful in the game. I realized after 2 games that nope… it was not helpful and there were a lot more playtest games to go in the evening. I had to pivot. Ok. That doesn’t work. Forget it. I need to nail how I explain this game to folks. I’m taking too long. How can I optimize my explanation? Optimizing how I explained the game allowed me to attract more folks to my game table than I expected. Because I explained it better, I attracted more people who like take-that games and math. Because I stayed energetic in my explanation more people saw the game as fun and wanted to join in. Excitement is contagious.

Stay optimistic. Receive all feedback.
Later reflect and keep only the golden nuggets.

During every game testing session… there’ll be lots of feedback. Some of it positive and some of it negative. I guarantee you will receive some negative feedback. And yes, some people will make their feedback personal. It’s hard to hear it at the time. Do not let that show on your face. You’re going to have to take a breath and keep your ears open and hear the feedback. Thank them and process it later. When you process, remember to qualify the feedback. Is this feedback from a user in your target market? Is this feedback relevant to what you are currently testing? Is this feedback actionable? Take the golden nuggets from the feedback you receive and get rid of the rest.

Pause & reflect on feedback.
Implement changes.
Test some more.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Game development is iterative. After a while, it may start to feel like.. ugh I’m tired of playing this game. Stay optimistic. Set goals for yourself. For me… I wanted to host my own playtesting event. So I did. I booked a space and invited a bunch of people and then I prepared and prayed that people would come. They did and it was a great success. Then I wanted to test with teachers. It was a bit of a challenge because it was the end of the school year and teachers are generally overwhelmed at that time. I was kind and persistent and one of the teachers agreed to meet with me over the summer. Yes! I’m so glad because the feedback I received from her perspective as a teacher was pure gold! I learned so much about how an educator could use the game.

evolution of card art

Be flexible and pivot.

How does that saying go?

Change is the only constant.

When I first started this adventure I thought, Oh, I’ll just do this game design thing for fun. Present it to a company and sell it to them. Yeah……
Then I realized um… Companies are really busy and you’ll probably not going to get a call back any time soon.

So I pivoted. Some folks told me to look into Kickstarter. I did some research. I talked to another board game designer who kickstarted their game and got it licensed. I just wanted to hear how his experience was. That was an eye-opening conversation. It made me realize that Kickstarter was not the way to go for me. I would have to source a manufacturer, guesstimate (yes, I said guesstimate) how much $$ I should Kickstarter to cover the cost of manufacturing, logistics, shipping, fees, etc., and hopefully have $ left over. Oh and with the way shipping and manufacturing were at the time early 2022, you probably wouldn’t see your product any sooner than six months. Yeaaaah… not going to work for teachers/ families who want to have this game in hand to play with their kids at home at the start of the next school year in August. I decided not to Kickstarter and go with just print-on-demand. The cost was higher for the consumer, but it was less complicated with shipping and it would arrive faster than six months.

ZQUALS game board printed prototype
ZQUALS game board printed prototype

Later, I realized that one of the major decisions I made wasn’t going to work for the final product. I had created a gorgeous game board and I wanted that to be part of the final game but it was the most expensive part of the game. My target market, families and educators, couldn’t tolerate the extra cost of the game board and the larger box it would need. The only way I could get it cheaper was to rethink the board. Did it really need to be a board? No, it didn’t. I had seen plenty of games that work off of cards. So I pivoted and redesigned the board into game board spaces using jumbo cards. It was hard to let go of my initial idea at first but it was a good change. When I later tested with a teacher, she mentioned that she liked that you could rearrange the spaces any way you wanted. You could even put fewer spaces down if you wanted. What seemed like difficult change became a feature. Who would have thought?

ZQUALS Playtest Event at Meeples Family
ZQUALS Playtest Event at Meeples Family

Testing my game with a teacher also made me realize that a lot of teachers purchase materials for their curriculum out of pocket. Therefore, cost is a big issue. A resource teachers use all the time is the website Teachers Pay Teachers. My initial intent was to have a boxed game… I hadn’t even considered the possibility of it also being a downloadable print-and-play game for teachers! A digital printable product reduced the cost significantly for teachers and homeschooling parents. Creating a print-and-play version of the game didn’t require too much reconfiguration from me.

Implementation stage

Ok, you’ve been iterating this whole time and you’ve nailed the prototype. You’ve got a few more changes to make before you can call this final. This is where ALL the notes you made will come in handy. At this crunch stage before launch, you’ll be tempted to make BIG changes. Oh somebody said something I really ought to change this before launch. Uh. Pause. Check your notes. Always check your notes. This is not a time to make decisions based on faulty memory or emotions.

For me the implementation stage was tough. I had already finished all the art for the game cards. I was 80% there. I just had to finalize the box artwork for the box and wrap everything up. I kept vacillating on including the game board or using game board spaces. A decision I had made a while ago. I kept trying to see if I could get costs down and keep my precious game board.

After chasing my tail on that for a while I had to set myself straight by re-reading my notes. Did the game work? Yes. Did people enjoy playing with the jumbo game board space cards? Yes. Then what the heck am I chasing my tail for? It’s time to keep moving forward.

Keep going

The ramp-up to launch is daunting. Especially if you’re working alone. The to-do list is extensive and it’s tempting to barrel through without resting and rejuvenating.

Take care of yourself

Exhaustion leads to mistakes. Yes, work hard. Also, have boundaries and preserve your off-time. Make a list of all the tasks necessary for launch. Then review the list again and re-assess. You might find you’re overthinking some of your tasks and they could be simplified or removed from the list.

Is this really necessary for MVP (minimum viable product)?
If not, skip it.

Because your launch is your biggest test. You’ll probably continue to learn and change as you proceed. Don’t get stuck on perfect. Get it done! Launch and plan for marketing to celebrate the launch with you.

I had planned a deadline for me to launch. And then life happened. Uh oh. Launch date isn’t happening anytime soon. I could work all weekend and bang my head against a wall or pause, refresh over the weekend and start again Monday. And so I did. I’m glad I did. I worked much more efficiently after taking a break and was able to make some decisions to simplify my task list.

Launch and reflect on all you’ve learned along the way.

Be grateful for how far you’ve come. Be proud of all you’ve learned.

I’ve learned a lot on my journey. How to version control my game rules. How to run testing sessions. How to receive and filter feedback. How to be brave enough to test with strangers. How to be brave enough to ask people I don’t know to test my game.

I’m grateful for this journey and the opportunity I had to pursue this project at this stage in my life. Thank you God. This was a fun journey we embarked on as a family. When I started designing the cards, my girls gave me a productive design critique on my initial art. Those two are going to be great art directors one day! My entire family endured many hours of fun game playing, videotaping of sessions, and coming along with me for game testing sessions. I couldn’t have done the journey without the help of all of them. I’m grateful for all the encouragement I received along the way.