A year ago my game concept Capo Della Mafia was published by 999 Games in the Netherlands. It is my first published design and in this post I reflect on the design process and the game itself. If you can read Dutch, in this article the publisher wrote about their in house process of development of their games.
Capo della Mafia is a mafia themed bluffing game for 3 to 7 players. Players are a low level bosses aiming to get promoted by collecting Respect (victory points). The first one to accumulate 15 respect wins the game. Each round players need to allocate mafia members (cards on hand, each with unique skills) to the new mission flipped, which requires specific skills. Each mafia member also has a certain amount of ‘heat’, aka police attention that they add to your crew. Missions states a maximum amount of heat that can be present.
Every player needs to fulfil the mission individually. Or more correctly stated, each player needs to make the impression they fulfil the mission. After placing cards face down on the table every player decides simultaneously whether want to actively suspect another player of bluffing. If a player finds a bluffing player, they earn 2 respect (the boss is grateful). However, falsely accusing another player makes results in losing 1 respect. Doing the mission correctly (or seeming to do so) earns every player 1 respect. When a player gets exposed for bluffing, they earn no respect for the mission.
Choosing which cards to play and choosing whom to suspect is all done simultaneous, making the game time not much longer with a bigger group.
What makes it interesting
Players get 5 cards from the start. The only way to get new cards is to play 4 or 5 of them. So players need to do some hand management, and time their plays well. A player always has a team of mafia members, and 1 or 2 cards is not a team anymore. So when 1 or 0 cards are left, a player draws up to 5 again. At first players needed to have played all cards, but the publisher felt this was too hard and not fun. A nice bonus of the current version is that you feel like you can ’save’ a card for your next set. Sometimes you just don’t play a bad card. Other times you can keep 1 really good card.
Each round players are completely free to choose how many cards they put down. As the mafia is ‘one big family business’ each player is a bit aware of what is going on. Translated to mechanism: Players have to reveal half of their played cards, rounded down. This offers great opportunity to seem to manage the mission if you don’t, or seem to fail while you succeed. Or double bluff it. Players also need to plan ahead a bit: what cards do you keep and what you could do with then during the next mission (which is unknown).
The ‘revealing half of the cards played’ mechanism was actually added much later during the design process. A lot of fun was already had with playing cards face down and suspecting someone. But, rightly so, during a test a player had the critique that just seeing how many cards were played is not enough to go on for suspecting others.
Another critical iteration was the scoring in the game. I tried many different ways. A first version made you win or lose respect based on how many players suspected you (you got respect for being falsely suspected). This was too swingy and made it hard to guarantee a short enough play time. Imagine how first versions played in which some cards doubled respect losses and gains…
Having a relative short -and consistent- playtime was one of the demands the current publisher 999 Games had when they showed interest for publication. They wanted to make this game geared towards mass market. The core idea was liked by them, but at that point the also stated the game needed more development. It did for sure. So with the target audience in mind, the playtime needed to be streamlined, together with the scoring.
In the end it seemed most clear and fun to be able to keep respect for doing your own mission simple: get +1 of 0 Respect. While suspecting someone should feel as a small risk, but with potential gain: get +2 or lose 1 Respect. This makes suspecting very rewarding, unless a players accuses blindly. Falsely suspecting others can take away the nearing victory.
The defined target audience guided my development of special mafia cards and events: they should be simple enough, not too complex. It meant I added some randomness (a card that let’s you steal 1 Respect from every player suspecting you). And ensured I did not add more complexity even though some playtesters were requesting that often (experienced/ heavy gamers). This also inspired adding rules for a first play (not using some of the special cards), so learning the game first time would be a bit shorter and easier.
Hardcore bluffing players might find this game a bit too tame. However, players who usually never played bluffing games liked the way Capo della Mafia played. The game forces you to bluff, but players learn quickly what they can get away with it. If you have a hard time bluffing, the good news is your score is more determined by reading other players and making proper accusations. This ensures interaction, as players keep an eye on each other. and, because play is simultaneous, playtime does not increase much if the game is played with the maximum of 7 players.
In the beginning I tried varied amounts of different skills offered by the mafia members, aka cards and what missions required. The first version had 4 different types, with a card offering 1 to 4 of them. In the end 3 different skill types could offer enough variability and hand management, without resulting in too complex puzzling. Being inspired by a book about the ‘Ndrangheta mafia helped me defining the skillsets that are fitting: intimidation, bribing and smuggling.
The quantity of a skill offered was at first higher, and a mission then required quite a lot of total skill (say even 5 of one type). This made for more ‘math’ work and more puzzling. This was distracting and got in the way of the fun of this game, managing your cards, bluffing and reading players. In the end only a minority of the cards offer multiple skills, which make them feel special.
Spicing it up some more
To spice up the game some more, we wanted to add more special feeling cards. Having variability in the amount of heat *police stars shown) on a card was also something that underwent many iterations. In the final version there are usually multiple mafia members offering a skill with each a different amount of heat shown. This creates cards that are really good and some that are bad (but still useful to bluf or often enough can be played to fulfil a mission). Having skills and heat to consider makes managing your hand of cards more interesting. Two aspects are to be considered when playing, bluffing and analysing what others have played.
From the early start the prototype had corrupt cops as special cards. These do not offer mafia skills, but help you reduce the amount of heat of your play. These are quite common, so it is hard to keep track of them whether they are all have been played or not. If you keep track you might know it is improbable, but I felt it should never be a sure thing. This is also the reason all the action cards were added in multiples.
Other card effects include cards that offer a skill of choice (joker), a card that lets you collect 1 extra Respect if you were player respectfully and a ‘rat’ card that potentially increases the played team of all players with +1 star. But only if the player with that card gets suspected! (under pressure he talks and rats out all the mafia players to the cops). That last card ensures that even if you play truthfully you are not a 100% sure whether you get a respect for the mission. This card is uncommon, a few are enough to make it interesting often enough.
Event cards, really?
Another way to add spice to the game was by adding event cards. A standard for many starting designers, often not helping a game concept. With this game it seemed a good fit. Many effects did not survive testing. Either they were confusing or not fun. In the end the current set were clear and they change the game for a round. How they would show up and how often was something that took several tries. I did not want to have multiples in 1 round (very confusing) nor a long time before even one happened. The publisher suggested to have the back of the mission card indicate whether an event would take place. This way the events are random, and not happening every round, but a few will show up every game. With the backside of mission cards indicating an event, ensures they are not directly linked to a specific mission, which was the case at first.
Going through the Design Cycle, it took some time
The total process took about 5 years. I got the idea in 2012, during a holiday when I was thinking what to do with another game concept that was not going anywhere. Somewhere in 2013 I made my pitch to the the publisher. I pitched quite a rough version and I got a bit lucky they were looking for a bluffing game, because it was clear some work still needed to be done. In the next years I went through many iterations, while several major live events also happened. These days I try to have a prototype be more finished before pitching it and our test group knows better when a prototype is ready for pitching.
Playtesting was done with a lot of different players, including panel testing by the publisher itself (where I was not present). I also did a lot of ‘goldfishing’: a term from Magic: the Gathering players where they take a constructed deck and see how it performs without a real opponent or opposition (“play against a goldfish”). I used this to get a feel for the types of hands players would get and to determine how much players would need to bluf on average. I simulated hundreds of plays while watching movies and tv series. The goal was to have players bluff roughly 50% of the time. While it is cool to have some variability, turns in which noone bluffs or everyone does, should be rare. In early versions having such extremes often was an indication that the balance of missions and the mafia cards was not correct. Whenever I made some card changes, I would –again– do some more manual simulation. Maybe a computer program could have done this as well. However, doing it manually gave me a lot of insights on what kind of sets of cards players get and whether those are offering interesting choices.
In the end I added players cards to use for pointing to a player they suspect. For a long time you just used your hand to point at someone. This felt tedious, as you need both hands when you are having drinks and holding cards. Plus it required that you kept your hand up until all the accusations are resolved. Another player card was added to indicate whether you are bluffing or playing (seemingly) honestly. And the icons on those are used on the special mafia cards, so effects could become textless. An added bonus of these accusation cards is that a group can freely choose to point accurately or just throw their card in front of another player to suspect them. There is one event card that let’s players suspect an extra player, in this case it is for only 1 round and sudden mayhem is quite worth it.
At the beginning of 2017 I felt I could not improve anything to the game and said so to the publisher, inviting them to say so if they saw otherwise. 999 Games agreed and suddenly it was time to arrange a contract. They found an artist team and started up the production process. I got shared the art concepts, box design and helped out with checking the printing files.
At the end things moved fast. If you work with a relative bigger publisher they schedule a time line, reserve a moment for printing and that sets deadlines! Be ready to act fast. I had half a day to review the final rules version. Luckily they knew what they were doing.
The publisher took the game and made a product out of it. This means art, graphic design, component choices, font. I am very grateful what they managed to do. The box looks awesome and has a stylish insert. The yellow coloured tokens for scoring respect points are fancy. To be honest I was quite critical on the art pieces. However, the publisher and I have gotten a lot of enthusiastic responses on it. So they made a good call. And the box design really makes it shine. Some parents were less happy with guns drawn, but the comical look does redeem it for many.
The publisher had a brainstorm and came up with some nice Italian inspired names for the character. And the characters are reused in a fine way (combining characters on a card when it offers multiple skills, adding a moustache). I did hear the critique that different cards with the same skill but different amount of start now have the same title. Technically it does make no sense, but no-one seems really bothered by this.
The title changed at the very last minute. From the start of the game I came up with the title ‘Capo di Mafia’. The mafia theme stayed, so the title did as well. When I shared the box art on Facebook a former Italian student was quick to point out that this is not properly phrased. It should be ‘Capo della Mafia’. Woops! Before I could even contact the publisher, they send me an email that they saw the social media discussion and contacted an Italian relative to double check. The title got changed just in time. 🙂
With a product to sell, the next steps are to do promotion, marketing and ensure distribution. 999 Games does distribution themselves and have good contacts with hobby gaming retail stores and online platforms. They have a fanbase that gets their newsletter and made an animated promotional video! I am not sure how much impact the local attention had on sales, but it was cool to demo the game at a local game store, do an interview for local newspapers and a student magazine.
So far the game is only available in Dutch. Whether it will be sub-licensed (foreign publisher selling it at their region) is still work in progress. With the influx of games these days the odds of this seem to wane. As I understood the theme -mafia- is not helping, as many publisher already have a game with that theme or do not think it is trendy enough. I am happy with the sales of 2017 and early 2018: 4300 were sold, which is quite nice for a small country like the Netherlands. I am now waiting their decision to reprint or not. One international edition is in the works!
The final product looks good and I loved demonstrating it at conventions. I would still be happy to play it anytime, after all the testing and solo playing. The publisher was really nice to work with.
It is never done
There are some little things in the design that keep bugging me a bit. The events are working, but this still feels a bit fiddly. I ponder whether it might had been possible to create events that would change each game (rather than 1 round during a game). However, players have no issues with it.
The prototype had the amount of respect points gained or lost indicated on the player cards. These are not there in the final printed version. I feel the game could have benefitted from this, as it improves usability. It only takes a few turns, but beginning players need to check a few times what amount they gain or lose.
The game has many male characters, only 1 lady. And they all have the same skin color. This is a missed opportunity to showcase more diversity. Something I am more aware of now. I address this in the concept art I borrow for my prototypes, as I have learned that this already sets a creative direction for publishers and artists.
The design and development of this game really taught me a lot about game design and I am proud of the final product. During its development I founded a game design guild, aka spellenmaakgilde, and shifted to different career becoming a lecturer at a multimedia study where I also teach in game design (and organise playtesting events). A second game has been published in 2018 and I am working on many concepts. It was a great journey, and still is.