People playing Art Deck
This is a guest post by No Quarter 2016 artist Holly Gramazio, documenting the process from No Quarter commission to Kickstarter campaign, where you can support it until June 30th!

Art Deckcurrently on Kickstarter – is a mostly-collaborative drawing game. Players use a deck of cards to build up instructions, and then they take turns to follow those instructions, all drawing on the same big sheet of paper. Each round ends when one player puts down a “Sign Your Name” card, and claims the current drawing as their own. (At the end of the game, the player with the best art wins.)

We made the game for No Quarter in 2016, along with a few other drawing games, and had a great time running it – and also making desperate notes to ourselves when we realised that, for example, the instruction “…while standing on the page” didn’t (as we’d imagined) result in people putting the paper on the ground, but instead resulted on people clambering terrifyingly onto swaying trestle tables.

Since then we’ve been working on-and-off to improve the game – getting Alex Parrott in to work on the visual design, refining the rules, trying out different art materials. But the big game design issue throughout has been about balancing the game’s two different priorities: making the game fun to play, and making sure that the pictures players create look good.

The way the game works is this: we have these cards that players use to build up sentences, and each card is numbered: a 1, a 2 or a 3.

Cards in position 1 tell players what to draw. Draw circles, draw a line, divide the page, draw another player, scrawl, draw a border.

Cards in position 2 tell players how to draw. In red, in yellow, with a marker nobody’s used yet, wildly, noisily, half on the page and half off.

Cards in position 3 are distractions, or difficulty modifiers – something to take the pressure off. With your marker clutched in your fist; behind your back; while describing something you fear.

People playing Art Deck

There’s a bit of overlap between the different categories, but that’s the core logic underlying them. And every card, in every position, has to both work to create a picture, and work to create a positive drawing experience. Once a full sentence is in place, whoever put the last card down follows the instruction; then someone puts down another card and changes the instruction a little, and follows it; and so on around the table.

Some cards are great in a really straightforward way – they’re fun and they create good pictures. Like “…half on the page and half off…”, for example – it’s fun to scrawl off the edge of a sheet of paper, but this instruction also gets players using the whole drawing space instead of just scribbling in the very centre of the page. Or “…without taking your marker off the page” – that’s a classic drawing exercise from art classes that gets people to think about the journey their pencil or paintbrush is taking, and it often makes for interesting lines, but it’s also a satisfying little challenge for a player to try to fulfill.

But we found that some instructions – like “Draw dots…” – were a lot of fun to follow but usually made the pictures worse; whereas others, like “…for a really long time…” would help to fill the page with interesting stuff, but got boring to actually do, especially for larger groups of players.  

So how do you balance those two different desires – for cards that create good pictures, and cards that create good moments? We’ve made a couple of expansions – ARTY and PARTY – to focus on different sides of the game, but that didn’t help us figure out exactly what belonged in the core deck.

So, what did?

We did a lot of playtesting of course, so that we could understand which cards did what. Even this turned out to be tricky! It’s really easy to see if people are having fun in the moment, and get a sense of which cards are most satisfying to play with. But because every drawing is dependent on so many different contributions, it was surprisingly hard to tell which cards made for good pictures.

We even made a tiny digital version of the game, so that we could make the computer play a few thousand games against itself, to help us notice any patterns that might emerge.

People playing Art Deck

We’ve played Art Deck often enough that we have a decent idea of what players do when they’re told to draw circles, for example – obviously some people interpret the cards differently, but for the purposes of finding out which cards work better on average, we don’t need to care about the outliers. So for the digital version of the game we got the computer to just draw how people mostly do, more often than not. And then we made it keep going, over and over and over.

We didn’t implement the whole game, of course. Quite apart from anything else, a computer can’t meaningfully hide under the table or stare into someone’s eyes, so instead we just had a “messiness” level that we changed based on the cards in use. Adding “…with your wrong hand” to the instruction set, say, made things a bit messy, and “…with your eyes closed” made them a whole lot messy.

Self-Playing Inexhaustible Computer Art Deck confirmed a lot of things we’d already suspected – for example, for a game with a limited number of turns, cards that tell you to draw BIG almost always lead to better images than cards that tell you to draw small. And cards that refer to other existing elements of the page work really well – whether that’s copying a thing already on the page, using the colour that’s been used most often already, or drawing something inside or outside an existing shape.

But we also found out a few things that just wouldn’t have occurred to us through normal playtesting. For example, we found out that if we changed the card in position 1 every turn, the “what to draw” card, we often ended up with quite incoherent pictures, whereas if we changed card 2 or 3 every turn and left 1 alone we’d get something more cohesive. We’re following through on this by including fewer Card 1s in the ARTY expansion – that way the cards in slot 1 will tend to change a little less often.

We also experimented with radically different lengths of game. Players are usually ready to play a “Sign your Name” card after 10 or 12 things have been drawn on a piece of paper – and in fact we’ve got a rule that prevents any single sheet of paper from sticking around for too long. But with the computer playing games by itself, we were able to get a sense of what would happen if we just let everyone play for ever. Here we’ve got example games with 8 individual moves on the bottom left, though to a couple hundred on the top right:

People playing Art Deck

If games are too short, the pages look boring; if they’re too long, everything becomes homogeneous as every colour gets used and more and more instructions accumulate. Once we could run hundreds of games without worrying about whether people were having a nice time, we began to suspect that the ideal length is perhaps somewhere around 20-30 turns. But that’s not fun. 20-30 turns is too many turns for real people to stay interested. So we used this discovery as a motivation to think of more cards that would get the effect of multiple turns from the time of a single turn, like:

  • …with as many markers in your hand as you can hold
  • …as often as you can in 30 seconds
  • …and everyone else does the same thing, all at once

That last card, with all the participants drawing simultaneously and getting in each others’ ways, is one of the most fun in the deck, and it only came about because we were trying to think of ways to get more stuff down on the page in the same number of turns.

People playing Art Deck

We’ve had a great time working on the cards and trying to figure out the best balance, and we’re really happy with where we are now. We’re also really excited to have Emily Short, Leigh Alexander, Pippin Barr and Viviane Schwarz designing us a few extra cards each as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter – after all this time trying to think of cards and testing them out and finding out which ones are fun, it’s amazing to see ideas from people who have a whole new perspective on the game. And perhaps most importantly, we finally managed to fit “(put the paper on the ground first!)” onto the card about standing on the paper, to ensure the integrity of kitchen tables across the world.

I can’t wait to see the drawings that emerge once we send the cards out and people start to play.

Art Deck is a game by Matheson Marcault, and is on Kickstarter until 30 June.