I began brainstorming my first card game back during Geekway to the West 2015. I was talking to a friend about how I wanted to design a game where the goal was to lose, and what that might look like.
The problem with my idea was that the goal of losing had to actually feel like losing, and not just winning with a lower score. Losing also had to come with the same kind of thought process that winning usually does. I didn’t want a game where you just had to play worse than the other players. I wanted a game where you had to actively try to lose.
What does losing feel like though? Usually, it doesn’t feel good. Some players, upon losing, might think back on the game and all the mistakes they made, or what they could have done better. Sometimes there is nothing they could have done better. They either had bad luck with random elements of the game, or they perhaps simply got outplayed by their opponent. Other players might not even have any problems or struggles with the aspect of losing, as long as they had a fun time doing it. Sometimes losing can happen so spectacularly and out of the blue, that the other players can’t help but congratulate and celebrate their opponents’ victory. Lastly, there is a group of players that feel winning is everything, and take a loss extremely poorly.
How can you possibly make a game that encompasses those feelings, and have it not be frustrating?
I started thinking about what winning in games actually meant, from a mechanical standpoint. The easiest way to make a game about losing, would be to reverse the goal of winning. Instead of highest score, make it the lowest score. Instead of being the first to run out of cards, be the last to run out of cards. The biggest issue with simply reversing the goal of winning, is that it still felt like winning.
That’s when I started thinking about trick taking games. In a way, classic trick taking games like Hearts, Spades, and Euchre all require you to sometimes try and lose. In Hearts, the second a heart comes out on the table, the goal is no longer about trying to win the hand, but instead make sure someone else wins that hand. Until you realize that the person who won that heart, is now trying to win all the hearts and therefore shoot the moon. Each hand, therefore, becomes a complex decision making process where the players are all trying to figure out whether they want to try and win or lose any particular hand. Sure, winning a game of Hearts is about who has the lowest score at the end of the game. Sometimes winning that hand is okay, as long as you have less hearts in than your opponents.
I wondered what a game would be like where the goal was to lose every hand. Of course, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all losing every hand did was make the lowest valued cards the most valuable. It didn’t really change the feel of the game. Players would still be simply choosing the most valuable card to play at any given time.
Until I remembered Hanabi. Hanabi is everything I like about a unique game. It subverts the players expectations in several ways. Players never know what cards are in their hands. This creates a suspenseful moment when they’re playing a card that you can’t really get out of an ordinary card game. The clues given become a meta game of wondering whether the clue was given telling you to play a particular card now, or to hold onto it until some unforeseen future. My problem with Hanabi though is that eventually the meta game creates a logical set of rules for players to follow, and as players get better at it, they get better at reading each others’ clues.
Bomb Squad took the idea to another level by adding a timed component, and making it so that you’re controlling a robot along a board. The changing board layout meant that the meta game didn’t become stale. It was also easier to correct mistakes, which made the game less punishing if a player didn’t do exactly what you expected them to.
I kind of fell in love with the idea of games where you can’t see what’s in your hand, and I started thinking about that mechanic in a game about losing and trick taking. If you don’t know exactly what cards are in your hand, you can’t exactly just play the most valuable card at any given time. The game became less about what was in your hand, and more about what was in the other players’ hands. The clues took on a unique competitive aspect. Players would have to come up with the worst clues possible, so that their opponents would know as little about their hands as possible.
The mechanic that finally tied everything together was making it so that if you didn’t take any tricks, you lost. This turned the game into a delicate balance of trying to win a single trick with the least valuable cards. It wasn’t quite the win by losing idea I had in mind, but everything grew from that original goal.
The framework for Walking Doggos was born. All that was left was a theme. I started with basing it on the rainbow, similar to Red7, but that wasn’t really a theme so much as an abstract. It also had the problem of not being color blind friendly. I was talking about the idea to my ex, and she, perhaps jokingly, replied with “Why colors? Why not doggo?” She also suggested plants, but I like doggos. I thought about it for a while, and eventually argued that you can’t rate one doggo as better than another, to which she suggested ranking them by size. I briefly considered making a game about dog adoption, and trying to give away your dogs, but that was kind of a depressing theme. After some back and forth we came up with the theme as it is today.
Since then, I’m considered rethemeing a few times. Other possible themes included minimum wage fast food employees, politicians and trying to get rid of scandals, and some kind of hacker/coder themed bug squashing game. Really though, you can’t beat Doggos. Everyone loves Doggos.
The first edition of my print and play were cards that were just photos of dogs from Google Image Search. The biggest problem with that quick version is that you could hardly tell what breed each card was. Holding the cards naturally covered up most of the photos. I ended up making really bad vector art in Adobe Illustrator, and right as I’m about to post my horrible new art to my friends, one of them posts the art you see today, using stock art from GraphicMama-team on Pixabay.
From that point it was just a matter of play testing, refining the rules, and polishing the overall game.
The first time I got Walking Doggos to the table it was completely broken. I dealt out all the cards, and all of the players had the same reaction. They could figure out the five cards in their hands, just by looking at the cards other players were holding. Of course they didn’t know what card was which, but clues would narrow that down really fast. The solution was to use one extra card per breed than the number of players. This created a dead hand of 5 cards. Now players had to puzzle out which of the 10 cards remaining were in their hands.
Another issue we quickly discovered were that the clues either weren’t useful enough, or there were often obviously better clues to give. It took quite a few attempts to figure out the correct clues, and the rules for the clues, to work in a competitive setting. We quickly discovered that one card clues that only said the breed or number were too vague, and didn’t provide the player with enough information about their hand. There was also originally a clue that one card was greater than another card. That also proved to be incredibly useless as an actual clue.
We briefly toyed with the idea of trading cards with the dead hand, but quickly discovered that if everyone traded a card with the dead hand, it was effectively as if there was no dead hand. There was simply too much extra knowledge gained from trading with it. I scrapped that idea, until Geekway 2018, when one of my play testers suggested adding the pug breed, which I had stopped using early in the play testing, to the dead hand. This provided an interesting way to mitigate a player just being dealt a bad hand, by providing a chance of trading a high value card, for a chance at a very low value card.
I really believe the game as it is right now is ready for publication. I’ve been shopping it around to publishers, and submitted it to a few game design contests, so we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I’m providing the Print and Play files to a small number of play testers.
Thanks for reading!