Designer’s Diary: Money Shot

The design goals of Money Shot were very simple. Sam wanted to design a gambling game that functioned with a 12-sided die. The execution of this came about in a slightly more circuitous fashion. First — why gambling?

Gambling is fun — additively so. We know first hand the thrill of staring down a big pot and calculating your risk. That moment of pure potential, when the die or cards are in your hand, but the outcome is uncertain is magic. You get a similar experience in any game when you’re on the verge of major play. That tenseness, the play between the potential and then the positive or negative feedback of the results, is part of what makes a game fun. But when real-life cash is on the line, it’s intensified 1000-fold. Gambling games are the hard drugs of the gaming world. They promise to be fun and glamorous, but contain a measure of danger. And no, we don’t suggest anyone go out and use hard drugs, or go to Vegas and put your car keys on “red.”If it’s illegal to gamble where you live, we don’t even suggest you play Money Shot for small stakes. That wouldn’t be right, but it would be fun. Why? Gambling is fun.

A game like Money Shot can be played for any stakes, or none at all. The hard thing about playtesting it was pretending real money was on the line in our test games. No matter how hard you try, you never know exactly how you’ll react or play when you’re risking your own money, especially when a big pot is up for grabs. We do know that the game is completely fair to all the competitors, however, and that the building tension and gradual increase of risk and difficulty in each “hand” of the game make it fun.

Rolling the Hard 12 Part One: Terminology
We love the arcane terminology that springs up around gambling games. Each action a player can make gets its own cool-sounding nick name. Craps, especially, abounds with them. Snake eyes, box cars, rolling a “hard” number, crapping out, the Don’t Pass Line, the Bones, the Bowl… the glossary for terms is as long as Mliton Berle’s arm. Learning all the little terms and rules is part of the fun, and something we wanted to include in Money Shot, hence terms like “fading,” “peak,” “rolling out,” “bowing out,” and “making the money shot.” As we wrote, and

What could be simpler?

played the game, these fun terms not only added to the atmosphere of the game, but served a useful purpose as a colorful shorthand, allowing the quick communication of complex terms. It’s easier to say “Fade” than “place in the pot a bet in the exact amount of the last bet made by the active player.”

Rolling the Hard 12 Part Two: Hardware
I mentioned one of our design goals for Money Shot was incorporate a 12-sider. This really was the case, and when we started designing the game, we took a hard look at a 12-sided die and thought about what a gambling game based on it would look like. What is the advantage of the d12 when it comes to performance? It turns out, there are a few. First, unlike rolling, say, 2d6, with a d12, the odds of any given number coming up are exactly the same, so its easy to calculate odds. This offers the advantage of inclusiveness — you don’t need to be a math whiz or odds-savvy gambler to be good at Money Shot. Additionally, it means high numbers, low numbers, and mid-range numbers will come up with the exact same frequency. This meant the 12, while seeming like a spectacularly lucky roll, was actually fairly likely to come up. Rolling a 12 on a d12 is fun. It feels cool and epic, like rolling a 20 on a d20 — an experience that any RPG geek is familiar with. In some ways Money Shot is based around that feeling; the promise of rolling the 12 and winning instantly always hangs over the game. That wouldn’t really work with a d20, because you don’t roll a “critical” often enough, and it wouldn’t really work with a d8, because an eight just doesn’t feel as unlikely or epic.


Second, we made sure that players had a lot of chances to roll the dice, and a lot of chances for positive feedback when they did so.  Fundamentally, in every round of Money Shot someone wins, and everyone else loses, but when you roll, you feel as though you’ve “won” if you just manage to take the lead, pressing that little “reward” button in the brain. When you do roll out, you’re not out of the game for long, since rounds go by very fast. Immediate gratification and low down time is a winning formula — just ask anyone who ever designed a slot machine.

Unbridled potential.
D12ecisions, D12ecisions…
Tabletop games are sometimes defined as a series of decisions. But Money Shot has only two decisions: How much to bet when you’re rolling, and whether or not to fade a roll. What’s behind that?

To some extent, gambling games can afford to be simple, because their fun derives not just from testing your mental acumen, but from riding the risk-reward roller coaster. You make a choice, and then you watch the dice roll, the cards fall, or the wheel spin with a mix of dread and eager anticipation. The central drama of most gambling games isn’t usually “Will my strategy work?” It’s, “How much am I willing to risk?” Or occasionally, “How much is that guy willing to risk?” Money Shot gives you two decisions to make, one hitting each of those points.

A game with only a few decisions isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if those decisions are meaningful enough. It keeps the game accessible.

Never Tell Me the Pot Odds
Of course, hardcore gamblers, particularly poker junkies, will immediately realize that the decisions in Money Shot are all about Pot Odds. You’re always weighing your chance of winning against the rewards sitting in the center of the table.

But Money Shot is an interesting implementation of the “pot” mechanic. In poker, the central promise of the pot is that everyone must always have the same amount of money in the pot at all times to stay in. Here, that’s not true. In Money Shot, you’re paying for your next roll. You’re getting a shot at all the money everyone has paid before you, and risking that your money might just wind up sweetening the pot for the next guy.

There are a few cool things going on here. First, the nature of the game makes standard pot odd calculations really hard. Sure, you know that every number has a roughly 8% chance of coming up. But to properly calculate your odds, you’d have to calculate the odds both that you will beat the previous guy’s roll and that no one else will beat your roll. You also will be able to increase the size of the pot and/or push people out with your ensuing bet. The result: While the mechanism that determines victory seems transparent and easy to take measure of, the actual odds of victory are very difficult to reduce to a simple, automatic decision. To some extent, you’re going to have to rely on your gut, and that’s where gambling games live.

Second, the pot mechanic encourages people to keep pressing their luck, even as the peak climbs, because by default, the pot will be larger, justifying a yet bigger bet. Sure sometimes someone will roll a 10 on roll one, and the game will end quickly. But other times the peak will slowly grow, and players will wince as they throw another handful of chips in the pot, knowing that even though hitting that 11 or 12 is unlikely, it’s worth the risk for that alluring pile of other people’s money.

Bowing Out
In the end, Money Shot achieved its one stated goal of “being a gambling game that uses a d12.” This ended up meaning a casual feel, but not without some excitement. A low bar of entry and a little quirky hardware make it unique, and hand-tailored for nerds who like to let it ride. Hard, fast decisions, quick action, and frequent bursts of  positive feedback make the game tick. We believe these are three things that all gambling games should at least consider. We’re pleased we were able to figure out how to take a 12-sider and turn it into butterflies in a gambler’s stomach.

Feel like rolling a d12 for some cash and/or positive feedback? The rules are free, and found right here.

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