My very first game, BEARanoia, is about to be released at Essen and I couldn’t be more excited. But for this design diary, I decided to turn it over to my husband, Pete, to tell our tale in his predictably funny fashion. – Jasmine
Some games take a lot of time to take from raw idea to something playable. You have a lot of ideas, which translates into a lot of moving parts, which in turn leads to painful editing choices and tricky balancing.
AND THEN THERE ARE GAMES LIKE BEARANOIA.
“I’ve got an idea for a game!” said my then-fiancée now-wife forever-design-partner Jasmine on the road back from Indianapolis two Gencons ago. “One of you … is a BEAR!”
I paused, waiting for her to continue. “And…?” I finally said.
“That’s it! That’s the game! One of you is a Bear!”
“And eats all the other players…?”
“Well, duh. You’re a BEAR!”
“So, like Werewolf?”
“No! The Bear isn’t going to pick you off one-by-one. It’s an angry Bear. And he knows where you sleep. You have one shot at getting the Bear, or you all die.”
IT’S WEIRD WHAT SILLY IDEAS WILL GET YOUR BRAIN IN MOTION.
About an hour of pocasts later, I said “What if there are Bear Cultists?”
“Yeah. Guys who are in the Church of the Holy Ursine or something. They think Bears are misunderstood, and want to martyr themselves. Sucker the other Villagers into killing them, instead of the gentle giant they’re trying to protect.”
“… who then eats the village, Cultists and all.”
“Yeah. They’re not very bright. But they do know better than to talk.”
“Because BEARS can’t talk! They can only growl and stuff!”
(I THINK that Bears not being able to talk was my idea. Might have been Jasmine’s. As you’ve probably guessed, this conversation’s a bit fictionalized. We didn’t have a stenographer in the back seat. That would have been creepy.)
“GRRR!” said Jasmine, who might have been a Bear.
NO, REALLY, IT’S ACTUALLY A GAME NOW
And just like that, we had a playable game. Silly — deeply silly — but totally playable. A kind of one-night Werewolf where at least two players are trying to psyche all the others into selecting the right (or, from the Villagers’ point-of-view, wrong) person.
… in ninety seconds.
That was Jasmine’s idea. I argued against it, but she was adamant. The game would have a ninety-second timer, and if it ran out before the People (we switched from “Villagers” to “People” to tone down the obvious Werewolf lineage) had enacted their vigilante pre-justice, the Bear won.
Developing this game, which quickly became known as One Of You Is A Bear, was never a priority. We had (and still have) more serious games that we’re both working on. But the components were just so easy to make. A few index cards, a timer, three other people, and voom! Off we go! We couldn’t resist the temptation to try it out at game night.
And damned if Jasmine wasn’t completely right about the timer.
The Cultists made the game playable. But the timer is what made it fun. It added pressure, immediacy. It also sent a very clear message: “This is a silly game about figuring out which of your growling friends is a Bear. Do not think about it too long. Do not dither. If you dither, you will be eaten by a Bear.”
In addition, Jasmine realized that making everybody growl was an important part of teaching the game. “All right, before we begin, let’s hear your best bear impersonations!” It’s an improv thing. People don’t want to look silly, so if you get the Bear (or the Cultist) card and you’re feeling self-conscious, you’ll just not say anything. And what fun is that? But once you start the game by making everybody look silly together, problem solved.
Initial responses were that it was fun … for a few play-throughs. But once you got the joke, you got the joke. There wasn’t a lot of depth.
Which honestly had been bugging me from the beginning. Yeah, it was a trifle, but did it need to be? All our playtesters agreed there needed to be more information in the game. But how?
FIXING THE GAME
Perhaps everybody could show their card to the player on their right? That’d mean somebody would know who the Bear was, but maybe they’re the Cultist? Not bad … except it made the game solvable. So, actually, NOT “not bad.” Just bad. Really, really bad.
In a game with only one Cultist in play, let’s say somebody immediately announces “Her! She’s the Bear! I saw her Bear card and everything!” The People just won the game. If the player who called “Bear” is a lying Cultist, the accused just has to say “No I’m not!” and victory is is merely determining the one player who can’t speak (since the Cultist just blew his cover). And if NOBODY announces who the Bear is, that means the Cultist is the one who saw the Bear, meaning that once you figure out who the two growly players are, you just select the one standing on the left.
As a philosophical exercise, it didn’t suck. (And I look forward to seeing the Bear/Bear Cultist Problem in textbooks someday.) But as a game, it was 100% broken. It got a bit less broken with TWO Cultists in play, but that jacked the minimum number of players to seven, and meant that believing whoever cries “Bear!” is still an excellent strategy for the People and … no. Just no.
And the more Jasmine and I talked about it, the more we realized that we really wanted to keep things simple. In its base form, this was a game you could play while waiting in line for something. The speed and simplicity were two huge factors in its favor; anything that compromised either needed to be treated with deep suspicion.
We didn’t solve the problem by adding more information. We solved it by adding more chaos.
BEAR CHAOS IS THE BEST CHAOS
What if one of the People was unable to speak? What if there was the possibility of People who could only growl, because they were sick with bearyngitis? It still didn’t quite solve the show-the-player-on-your-right problem because an immediate “That guy’s a Bear!” was still a very strong strategy, but how about just scrapping the card-showing thing and introducing it on its own?
Jasmine suggested doing expansions for the game. In a game this simple, what can you expand on? Well, how about other Bears? Bears that can talk, but have very strict rules governing what they say? These rules needed to objectively define everything you said as either in-bounds or out-of-bounds. Everything you say must be a compliment? No, too open to interpretation. Everything you say must involve food? Eh. Still a lot of room for interpretation. Clumsy, too.
How about … everything you say must be a lie? Ah. There we go. And given that asking people questions like “Are you a Bear?” is an important part of gameplay, “Everything you say must be a question” seemed natural. And thus the Polar Bear (the sneakiest of all Bears) and the Black Bear (the most inquisitive of all Bears) were born.
And, of course, as long as we had the possibility of ‘sick-growly People’; ‘lying jerk People’ and ‘annoying nosy People’ became inevitable.
So. One of you is a Bear, who will have one of three restrictions on what they can say. Zero or more People might share those restrictions. And there’s at least one Bear Cultist trying to screw you up. It’s a real-time logic puzzle that you have ninety seconds to sort out, but with growling and/or lying and/or the “Questions” game from improv. Go!
Now THIS was reliably fun — and, it left the core gameplay totally untouched. We could still do the original base rules to teach it, then add more silliness as time went on. And if the game is TOO silly for some players, they only wasted ninety seconds figuring it out.
I think this was about the time it finally solidified in our minds that this absurd little micro-game was worth publishing.
FINDING A HOME FOR BEARANOIA
Jasmine had the idea to change the name “One Of You Is A Bear” to “Bearanoia.” We went back and forth on whether we should do it, and while we’re still fond of the original name, “Bearanoia” is quite good and you can say it a lot faster.
On the last night of Origins, we shared drinks with this friendly tattooed guy in a Snow White dress. We wound up describing our game to him, and even showed him the copies we had on hand.
He loved the hell out of it.
And — surprise! — he was a printer looking to get into doing small runs of silly little micro-games like ours.
And thus started a chain of events that led to MORE Bears, turning the People into Campers, giving EVERY Camper some special shtick (thus upping both the chaos AND the fun factors), reducing the timer to SIXTY seconds (for even more pressure), and an eighteen-card game about growling and eating people debuting at Essen as the first published game Jasmine and I have ever had our names on.
But that story belongs to the guy in the princess dress.