Jan 23, 2017

Debtzilla - Game Design Diary Part I: Theme



Right after the launch of Wongamania: Banana Economy, I started to brainstorm on a new game which can portray another aspect of the world of finance. There has been requests from different sectors on different subjects. Some wanted me to create value stock investment game, some wanted me to focus on commodity and there are ideas on using a game to teach people about real estate investing. However, as we reach out to more people, it became apparent that debt is a common topic among the man on the streets. There has been rising cases of young people getting into debt with little understanding of the consequences that they face as a result. We decided to create a game that touch on the consequences of Debt.

The initial game idea is pretty simple. Your uncle is deep in debt, as a result of certain unsavory habits (gambling, drinking etc)  and you work with other players to manage the different aspect of your uncle's life and the objective is to dig your uncle out of the pile of debt. I shared this idea with a couple of my friends and there is a generally negative response.

"Look, there is always an idiot in the family that gets themselves into trouble, resulting in the need to borrow money from his or her relatives. This almost always result to family argument and conflict and most people prefer not to play a game that reflect real life so accurately. I know I will prefer not to play the game because I will recall the unhappy times when our family quarreled over debt problems."

Well, that's pretty good feedback. One of the purpose of games is to help people escape from realism and allow them to do things which they normally cannot do in the real world.

"You can turn the uncle into a gnome or some troll," my friend continued. "It definitely beats a realistic modern setting that will distance people from their real problems."

That is one of the biggest challenges in creating education games. The need to communicate real life lessons, yet to be disconnected from the real life to let people have fun and escapism.

I took my friends suggestions to the next stage and replaced "Uncle" with a creature which I created in Wongamania: Banana Economy - Debtzilla. So the story goes that Debtzilla goes into debt and a bunch of merry men made up of lawyers, bankers and psychiatrist is there to help Debtzilla get out of Debt. This idea immediately ran into a logic trap. How can a fearsome monster merrily spend its time going into Louis Vuitton, buys a luxury bag and get intimidated by a bank officers calling for repayment? That sounds too incredulous, even in an alternate universe in Banana Republic.

At that point of time, Captain America: Civil War is screening with great reviews in the cinemas and one of the highlight of the show is Spiderman. That sparked off my inspiration for the new game design idea.

What if, most of the superheroes in Banana Republic are like spiderman. They are not too rich, get into debts and is scrimping together some small savings to finance their superhero lifestyle in order to battle and corruption and injustice in Banana Republic? How about making Debtzilla the final boss and is the result of the manifestation of the debts which the heroes have accumulated? The theme is fresh and gives a new take on the superhero meta theme, while fulfilling the purpose of highlighting the debt problems that everyday people faces.

With this idea in mind, I started to share with some of my friends on this idea. The idea pretty much got a universal thumbs up from everybody and the common feedback is that the idea is familiar and yet fresh and is guaranteed to get attention from people who are looking for a fresh theme and game concept to try out. 

Here is the theme of the new game:
  In the land of Banana Republic, an incompetent and corrupted government has caused a wave of crime and lawlessness in Banana Republic. 

A few brave souls have finally showed and decided to take on the mantle of heros - to combat the Villains who are stealing the hard earned savings of ordinary citizens. However, beneath every hero lies an average human being, who has a job to perform, daily expenses to pay and crime fighting gadgets to buy, using their trusty credit cards. Little did they know that their credit card bills are feeding the ultimate monster of mass destruction: Debtzilla, which they have to confront at the end of the game. The more they borrow, the more powerful Debtzilla becomes.

Debtzilla is a 2 to 4 player, cooperative board game where heroes work together to protect ordinary citizens from being scammed by Villains, and take down the final boss: Debtzilla. Sharing the same universe as Wongamania: Banana Economy, Debtzilla focuses on the issue of how debt affects the lives of ordinary people in Banana Republic. Using a combination of card drafting and dice mechanics, players have to race against time to bring down the bad guys before the law of compounding debt interest destroys their chances of winning the game. Be too stingy on your finances and you will find your hero too weak to do any good in a real fight. On the other hand, splurging too much on those flashy hero gadgets on borrowed money will result in the final boss too difficult to defeat. Can you balance your books and save the world at the same time?

With Great Power, Comes Great Debt!


Most designer board game started with the design of game mechanics, before looking for a theme that will sell well in the current market. However, for an education game, the purpose and theme comes first before finding the right mechanics to communicate the educational message, while at the same time, retain the fun element of a great game. This triples the difficulty from a game design point of view. The next blog post, I will talk about the difficulty of finding the right mix of game mechanics to bring out both the educational message, fun factor and the tension involved in a superhero game.

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