Where is the Pig?

Recently I decided to reboot a game I was play testing. It was actually a pretty well received game, but as I’ve said before you have to make a game you like. I decided this game was a bit too euro for my tastes, and the theme begged to be more lightweight than the mechanics allowed. A lot of my play testers were shocked when I dropped the old design, but I stand behind my conviction about the game you design having to really appeal to you.

I say this because the new game, with zero rules in common with the old, does share the same theme and story as the old one. It also uses some mechanics I’ve been dying to put into a game for some time now, so I’m really pleased with the design. The tricky thing is I purposely left the mechanics a bit on the spartan side. I’ll talk about this more in a future article, but generally speaking I prefer to design a game with fewer mechanics up front, and make it “deeper” as I play test. With this game I knew I’d likely need to add something to help push the story of the game along, but the mechanics were so unique I just wanted to confirm the game had potential before fleshing out the rest.

Meanwhile, I’m talking with a friend of mine who hasn’t done a design, yet, but he likes to muse about game designs that would appeal to him. In his game each player controlled a team of goblins piloting a steam powered mech, badly, trying to beat each other up. He spelled out a decent overview of the rules, and mechanics without going too deep for a pitch to me in an email. His final sentence in the pitch was “and if a goblin team can get the pig into the other player’s goal they win.” At no point previously did he even mention the pig. He didn’t have to. I instantly knew what he was going for, and I realized something. My game needs a pig.

As an homage to the idea I even named the mechanic in my new game “the pig.” Ultimately, I dropped that mechanic, but I was still worked to find the right pig. That is to say every game needs a pig, not just any pig, but the pig that will make it stand out, and move the story of the game forward, create that unique decision, or take the whole experience to a new level. It doesn’t have to be the most creative pig, but it’s nice when it is, but it does have to be elegant, and promote one of those core ideals of game design.

Just in case I’m not being clear about what “the pig” might be I’ll list a few well known recent games, and their pigs.

Mice and Mystics – The Cheese Wheel.
Finca – The windmill.
Forbidden Island – Water rises cards.
Dominion – Deck building.
Shogun – The dice tower. (It’s not a cube tower. It’s actually the battle tower.)
Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan – Tribute dice.

Of course not every game has an easily described pig. Look at Sentinels of the Multiverse. It’s an incredible game loved by gamers of all types, but I personally am at a lose to describe its pig.

Still, just because it may be tricky to describe a pig doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put one in your game. It’s critical to have a pig. So the next time you’re designing a game, playing a game, or play testing a game ask yourself “Where’s the pig?”