As a 90s child, I grew up with some of the best commercialised Trading Card Games (TCGs) hitting the market. This was a huge step forward from simply being collectible (like baseball/footballs cards), as having a competitive game system behind them allowed you to show off your uniqueness by choosing the cards you liked to go into your deck, while developing a further fondness for them as they help you beat your friends.

With a huge selection of TCGs to choose from (Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon etc.) I became obsessed with the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game and animated series. The series brought the cards themselves to life and as a child I connected directly with the artwork and the names of each of the cards. This led to decks of literally zero tactics – just my favourite cards all blended together in one colourful mismatch of childhood joy.

Being the impressively cool pre-teen that I was, this naturally led to travelling the country to compete in tournaments, and I started to refine my playing into a more strategic and tactical level. It was at these tournaments that I learned the most important lesson in how to win card games: break the rules down into its core mechanics, work out how ‘Advantage’ works, and find cards or systems that are “broken” within the game and give you too much of said ‘Advantage’.

(An aside: you’ll often find me calling broken cards “beardy”. This is in reference to my days of playing Warhammer Fantasy when the Dwarf figurine armies were completely and utterly overpowered).

Sun TzuStu’s Art of Winning

‘Beardy’ (or broken) cards are ones that give you a simple mathematical advantage over an opponent. In a card game, whenever you play a card from your hand you’re at a “minus 1” (you’re losing a card). That means to equal out, either your opponent needs to lose a card also, or you need to gain a card as a result. What was otherwise an average card becomes ‘beardy’ if you gain from playing the card (e.g. for playing 1 card, you get to draw 2 cards. So you’re at a “plus 1”).

Advantage is about using this maths in the overall scope of playing the game. Simply – no matter what the scoreboard looks like, whoever has the most cards and the ability to do more things has a greater control of the game as it progresses. And generally more likely to win.

Upgrading the size of my cardboard

Roll in the 2010s and I exchanged TCGs for board games. From the variation of artwork styles, rules, and being able to play them with friends, there are now a great many additions to my bookcase. And one game that has inspired me above all others is a household name – Exploding Kittens.

The reason I love this game is likely to be a surprise to you. Cool artwork? Check. Great comedic naming/narrative? Check. The ability to cause outbursts and anger at the dining table? Check, check check! But for me it’s that the game is so mathematically sound: You can’t ever run out of cards in the deck, and all the actions are “minus” – you lose more than your opponents do. The best advice I can give anyone playing Exploding Kittens is to not play a single card from your hand until the first kitten is drawn. You need them all for as late in the game as possible. Just keep drawing and building up that hand.

Making your own game

So what’s my patented Stuart Lawrence method to combine all this knowledge and passion to create your own game? Why, just follow these simple steps of course!

1. Come up with incredibly theatrical story arcs about very tired themes like knights travelling across the globe to defeat dragons

2. Cut out sheets of paper until you have a game with 500 individual components, each with their own individual name

3. Stop and restart from the drawing board to work on the mechanics because it’s all too complicated

So, it turns out that having just passion and knowledge alone doesn’t make game designing easy. But the passion kept me going and the knowledge helped me learn, and Pugs in Mugs was born from the decision to go… 

Back to Basics

Throwing my paper prototypes to the wind (not literally, recycling is your friend), I decided that for this new game I wanted the mechanics to be mathematically sound, simple, and have a play time of about 1 hour. 

To be mathematically sound there couldn’t be any unexpected end state, the odds and averages needed to add up, and the game couldn’t make a feature of any cards that would directly put a player at a disadvantage (minuses) without it being in return for completing a win condition.

Scraps of paper with “blue, red, yellow, pink and orange” and names of other cards, and many playtests later and the resemblance of a fun game meeting these conditions was born. But to make this game a success it was always going to need more than good game mechanics. You can address this either with a really good narrative, or be based on a theme with lots of appeal. Many options were thrown around with James, my colleague at Don’t Panic!,  and eventually we came up with Pugs in Mugs. Zany for sure, and there was definitely some initial trepidation. But then we talked to people about it, and they loved the idea. And actually, the more we thought about it, so did we. Just like a real pug, once you start playing with it you can’t help but start loving it. And pugs are so expressive, with the ability to somehow look so sad, and so happy, at the same time.

We had the mechanics of a game, a principle working title. Now it was time to start turning it into a publishable game!

Test, test, test!

I’ve played this game hundreds of times now. But you can only work out so many rules kinks by yourself and you have to eventually share what you’ve been working on. 

Some fundamental rules are different to the original mechanics I first worked out as a result of this testing. But the changes have always been guided by the “principles” I set out – mathematically sound, simple, and play time of 1 hour. (The five hour variant was a little much I must say…)

But even after all the work we did refining it, games like this don’t happen without a group of skilled people working together. By working with SDR to publish the game, we’ve managed to get the artwork drawn by the incredibly talented Rob Ingle, who really made the most of that pug expressiveness. It’s also helped us refine the wording, tone of voice and overall brand for the game. 

Polishing a Pug

In a normal deck of playing cards you have 4 suits. In Pugs in Mugs we had five types of Pug that we needed to create the theming system for. We started with colours. Then we added patterns (Paisley Pug was definitely a thing for a while). And then we realised both were the answer – to allow for quickly identifying by colour, with an accessible backup through symbolised patterns. This gave us – Red (love) pugs, Yellow (diamond) pugs, Purple (zigzag) Pugs, Blue (circle pugs), and Green (square) pugs. Then we got to work on the pugs themselves.

These were what could be considered a dress-up-your-dog gone wrong affair, but we wanted to give character to each pug. Expression, pose, and yes – how they’re dressed – give each of them a very individual personality.

SDR helped bring these to life with ideas, illustration, and a really important rule: We weren’t trying to draw the pugs as humans, we wanted them to stay as pugs – just with a bit of glitz to show themselves off. 

To Name, or Not to Name

You’ll notice that none of the cards other than Mischief cards have names or quotes in this game. And I’m sure you’d never consider leaving your child or pet nameless, so I assure you we do have our own names for each of these pugs. But we wanted to give you, the player, the opportunity to form your own attachment by choosing names for each of them. 

By leaving the names off the cards, it also means that the artwork is front and centre with no other distractions. While the Mischief cards are (at least at the time of us launching!) in English, the appreciation of our cute little pugs should be open to everyone to love and name them what they like.

I do have to name-drop my favourite of all pugs though. Pickles the pickled pug. Who’s got himself in a pickle by getting his paw stuck in the pickle jar. There you go, I’ve started you off. Just 24 more to name now… I’d love to hear what you’ve named your favourite pug in the comments below!

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