Side Effects (and doing something I promised myself I’d never do)

by Gil Hova

So, I have a new game I’ve been testing lately! It’s a party game in the vein of Apples to Apples called Side Effects.

I got the idea for the game from a conversation with my girlfriend’s dad, who works at a copywriting agency in Big Pharma. We were discussing drug names, and we agreed that it would be nifty to have a game where the players were trying to come up with silly drug names.

That got my mind in gear. I started bouncing ideas off my girlfriend on the way home. How would the game work? What would it be like?

Like my friend and mentor Kevin Nunn, I’m a big believer in starting with core engagement when working on a new design. So what would the core engagement here would be? If the appeal was coming up with funny drug names, then a strategy game would be unlikely. Perhaps I could fit it as a light tactical game (and I had a couple of sketches in that direction), but ultimately, the core engagement pointed me towards a funny party game.

The problem was, simply coming up with a funny drug name didn’t seem fun or interesting enough to last a whole game. Any sort of strategy was out, so I kept brainstorming. One day, I wondered what else I could add to the drug names to make it interesting. It suddenly hit me: powers and side effects!

I immediately went to work and came up with 20 cards. Each card had a bit of a drug name (like “LEX” or “ZY”), a little bit of copy (what the drug does, like “enhances metabolic function” or “regulates body temperature”), and a side effect (everything from “taste of copper in mouth” to “anal leakage”).

With those cards, I just played. This is a good part of early playtesting; before thinking about balance, art, or anything, just open-play it. My friends and I call it “Calvinballing”; we find cool things we can do with the cards, and we come up with rules that would allow those things to happen. So I conned my girlfriend into joining me (a “silent tester”, as Ignacy Trzewiczek would say), and we played a few rounds.

We played with different hand sizes and play rules, and soon came up with a nice one. Every turn, we get six cards. A round started by flipping a card to the middle of the table. We had to come up with a drug that would remedy its side effect. We would choose three of our cards for their drug names, and arrange them to form a single word. Then two of our other cards would be the drug’s actual effect, and the last card would be its side effect.

At one point, the malady to cure was “constant flatulence”, and I was able to concoct a story about my drug in which it combined all the day’s gas into a single, powerful explosion. Its side effect, naturally, was deafness. It was then that I knew I had something.

It’s been a while since I’ve worked on a light game instead of a strategy game. It’s incredible how much lighter my touch needs to be. I don’t have any room to put in fiddly rules that enforce fair scoring. If there’s an exception to the rule, chances are, I don’t need the exception.

Thankfully, the core engagement of the game isn’t maximizing one’s score, it’s coming up with crazy-funny pharmaceutical drugs. So I don’t actually need complicated tiebreaker rules, or anything like that.

Like, at one first, I had only two people pitch at a time, and everyone else would vote between the two. Then the winning pitcher got five points, the losing pitcher got points equal to the number of votes he got, and the players voting got points if they voted for the winner. Bah, too complicated!

And too much downtime. After a few playtests, I realized that I needed either one judge (like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity), or everyone needed to play, and then everyone voted. That got everyone in the game every round. It also meant a lot of pitches to take in each round, but that seems better than not being able to do anything for a while.

But what happens if everyone votes, and there’s a tie? The fair thing would be to give it to the tied player with the fewest points. But what if there’s multiple players with the fewest points? This is the point in a party game where I feel things get too complicated; I’m too far from the game’s core engagement.

So my current thing is to have everyone vote, but designate one player as the Surgeon General. In case of a tie, the player the Surgeon General is voting for wins the tie. But what if that player isn’t in the tie? So what! It gives the Surgeon General some power, and encourages players to play to her tastes. That works much better for a game with this sort of core engagement than a fiddly tiebreaker rule.

I’m not very far in the design of the game so far; I’ve only playtested the game about six times or so. But people immediately get into the spirit, and some of their pitches have been sidesplitting.

I’ve also been surprised to see that I’ve been able to take the game to just about any gamer. Normally, I reserve a new, raw design like this to only game designer friends of mine. But I quickly saw that it was strong and simple enough to play with other gamers. That’s another nice thing about working on light games; less time in the garage, more time on the track!

So now that you’ve made it this far into my post, I’ll let you in on a secret: I am strongly leaning towards self-publishing this game. I’ve been against self-publishing for a long time, but things have changed. It’s not easy, and it’ll never been easy, but with Kickstarter and Amazon Fulfillment, it’s gotten easier, and I think it’s at least approachable for someone like me, especially for a component-light card game like this one.

No promises yet, of course, but I’m going to continue to learn the field before I embark on this new adventure! In the meantime, if you see me at a game convention or game day, don’t be surprised if you get yourself roped into pitching pharmaceutical drugs. It’s quite fun, and you might come across a cure for constant flatulence!