Jul 16, 2017

Debtzilla - Game Design Diary Part II: Money Mechanics

After 1 year of design work and 13 design blueprints later, Debtzilla the board game is finally born. The biggest challenge of designing Debtzilla is the challenge of incorporating various important money concepts such as income statement and compound interest without resorting to players filling out a real balance sheet and whipping out their calculators. The other challenge is to create a game that flows, easy to learn, builds tension gradually to a climax and engaging the players at an intense level making them feel that time flies by quickly.

A Logical Timeline

In Debtzilla, a daily routine is developed which mirrors the working routine of an average working adult. In the morning, players work, earn an income and plan how you want to build their wealth in order to buy gadgets to power up your hero. In the late afternoon, they knock off from their work and head to the shopping street, checking out the latest gadgets that they can use to battle the villains. At night, the villains begin to prowl the streets looking for innocent citizens to scam while the players try to stop them with whatever resources they have accumulated. Once the villains are confronted and the dust has settled, the damage done to the city is tallied and the impact of the hero's actions will be felt in the following day in the form of interference from the final boss: Debtzilla. This flow of events help players get into the game quickly, minimizing their game learning time as it is intuitive and correspond to their daily lives.

Gamification of Balance Sheet

The biggest problem when designing this game is to find an efficient way to represent an income statement without resorting to actually filling in an actual income statement and slowing down game. How do I incorporate expenses such as interest payments, insurance premiums, personal expenses, while at the same time allowing players to build their income via dividends and proving their saving rates by budgeting and re-financing their loan. I borrowed heavily from the deck building mechanics of a famous boardgame named  Dominion whereby players start with a stand deck of cards and they get to pick new cards from a common pool, resulting in each players having different sets of monsters and abilities by the end of the game. However, the huge variety of cards offered by Dominion often result in a steep learning curve for players, which is daunting for non-gamers, which Debtzilla is trying to reach. As a result, a simplified version of the deck building mechanics is designed, with players limited to 8 cards to choose from, rather than hundreds typical in deck building game. The system is designed in such a way that more cards can be added to the Income deck in the future if I am keen to add in more kinds of debts and money instruments, such as medical debt, investment loan and car loans.

Law of Compound Interest

One of the key mechanic that I am trying to design into the game is the idea of an escalation mechanic similar to the boardgame Pandemic where players have to stop viruses from spreading exponentially. The world of finance has its own form of virus, it's called the the law of compounding interest represented by this formula
The actual calculation of compound interest actually requires a financial calculator and the mechanic to represent this formula in an actual game mechanic took some trials and errors before I got it to work elegantly.

The law of compound interest is designed into the health of Debtzilla in the form of the interest rate bar. At the initial stage, Debtzilla grows at a slow pace, often prompting players to be more reckless in their spendings. As the gauge move beyond 60, Debtzilla health starts to jump much faster, often causing panic among the players, who now will be trying to pay back the debt they have borrowed, but more often than not, the accumulated interest payment has grown so much by than that whatever amount thrown at the monster only delays the apocalypse by a turn or two. It translate the feeling of despair of crushing debt very well as players are now forced to work together to as any mis-step will lead to a losing end game.

Other Challenges

There are other challenges in design, such as balancing a 2 player vs a 4 player game and ensuring a good win-lose ratio for a cooperative game. However, these topic I will leave for another day as there are more things to talk about in the game design process.


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