The Games I Play and the Lessons I Learn: Game 001 Villainous

Elegance in game design is an ideal I chase, but halfway through the chase I forget what it looks like. This past weekend, I was vividly reminded of what elegance looks like; unexpectedly found in Disney’s newcomer, Villainous.

I’d heard about Villainous from various people on social media, but it wasn’t until I’d had several playtesters mention I should check out this other game about villains that I sought to play it. I wasn’t sure what to expect when sitting down for a game. Would a game with the same theme as my own demotivate me, or would it inspire me to push my design further? Spoiler alert: it was the second one.

In Villainous, you play as one of several notorious Disney villains. Each villain has their own story, plot, and end game goal. Each player has their own board, and two decks of cards which they cycle through in order to play through their story. You only interact with other players by drawing cards from their Fate deck, which is filled with heroes and nuisances your villain must overcome.

For example, I was Captain Hook. My goal was to find the map of Neverland, and afterwards, find, chase, and fight Peter Pan. The map was located somewhere in my character deck, my draw deck for each turn. Peter Pan, a hero, was hidden in the Fate deck and I had to find ways to cycle through my Fate deck or trick my enemies into drawing from it for me.

Playing Villainous, I noticed that everyone picked up the mechanics quickly and no one mechanic overshadowed the other. During the game, all of the mechanics were used evenly instead of players favoring one over the other. The mechanics were straightforward and simple enough that everyone understood them so no one avoided using mechanics due to lack of understanding.

I compared that to my own game, which had a dueling mechanic that people either loved or hated. Regardless of how they liked it, it was always confusing for players to learn. Players who didn’t understand how it worked would avoid using it entirely, and if they still played the game successfully, would wonder why that mechanic was even there.

In Villainous, my goal as a player was clear from the beginning; find the Neverland map, then find Peter Pan and defeat him. I had to scheme to catch Pan and hinder other players while only being vaguely invested in their own plotting. As I neared closer to my goal, tension naturally ramped up, keeping players engaged and the end game exciting.

I wondered what was exciting about my game? What brought tension? Was I highlighting that or distracting from it? In my game, players enjoyed destroying parts of the board. It gave them immediate gratification by rewarding them with victory points, but also restricting what spaces players could move to on the 4×4 grid. Instead of playing off of this tension, my duel mechanic was distracting from it with its complexity.

Destroying a tile on the grid was as simple as playing a card and flipping the tile to its backside. Dueling, however, required specific cards, awareness of your power level and the power level of other players, solid understanding of the duel process and order of events in a duel, and just a little bit of luck. I justified it by saying once they learn it the first time it’ll be easier, but I feel like that line of thinking hindered my game.

Villainous was elegant in every way, from its silky smooth components to its sleek graphic design. Before even learning the game, you feel invested through sight and feel alone. Each players gets a player board, divided into four zones, and a mini of their character. On each zone there are four icons indicating actions you can take when you land there. There are 6 unique icons total so the icons repeat, making it easier to memorize them and make faster decisions.

I’m not a graphic designer but I feel like there is so much value in doing your best to make the player experience as easy as possible. Players can get visually overwhelmed and be done with the game before you even open your mouth to teach it. I had to re-evaluate if my icons and the key for those icons were simple enough. Were players struggling to know which deck did what, or identify what they were supposed to do on their turn? The answer was yes, and I determined to take the time to fix them.

Player turns in Villainous were simple. You move your pawn to any of the four zones on your playerboard, and you may do up to all four actions indicated by the icons. The only thing that can hinder you is a hero or obstacle placed on a zone, which prevents you from taking certain actions until they are defeated. With only four zones, six icons, and two decks, they were able to create a full gaming experience.

After playing Villainous I was forced to reevaluate my game and decided to remove the dueling mechanic I’d been holding on to for the better part of a year. I analyzed why I was holding onto it and why I liked it. The answer was that I enjoyed the interactivity and drama of directly confronting your friend on the game board.

I then analyzed what the mechanic was doing. I was using it as a way to give players the option to move to a tile that was already occupied by another player. I questioned if there was a better, cleaner way I could do it, and after some initial resistance, I was able to come up with just that: a pushing mechanic that would be less punishing, less finicky, and eliminate almost a page’s worth of rules.

I don’t know what I expected when I sat down to play my first game of Villainous but I walked away with inspiration, and the determination to let go of my darlings.