Designer’s Diary: Yukatan Jack

We love this game so much. And it seems as though not a lot of other people do.

The design story of Yukatan Jack is pretty simple. It sprung from a desire to do a top-down design based on Indiana Jones. Of course, we couldn’t call it Indiana Jones, but at the time Kevin was playing a lot of free online poker under the handle “Yukatan Jack,” and that sounded like a pretty awesome name for an adventurer, so we went with it. From there, it didn’t take us very long to come up with the central mechanic, and the central mechanic is really the entirety of this game.

Who hasn't always wanted to do this? Other than everyone, I mean.

But what a beautiful game it is. One of the things we preach a lot in design is making sure your game has a fun core, a central tension that you can rely on, no matter what else you hang on it. Yukatan Jack is a prime example of that. The core tension between the players, with each trying to out-think the other, is rock solid no matter what mechanics you decorate it with (like, for example, the thrown card “blade trap” or the Authentic Boulder Trap(TM)).

Cerebral Suspense
One of the trickier aspects of design is that players want their games to be skill-based, but they also want suspense and surprises. Probably our favorite source of suspense and surprise is your opponent, because his actions aren’t random. If you guess what a dice will do and you’re wrong, you got screwed by luck. If you guess what your opponent will do and you’re wrong, you got outwitted. Guessing what a dice will do is a matter of calculation. Guessing what an opponent will do is a matter of taking the measure of another human being. Different ball of wax.

Yukatan Jack takes this idea to its furthest extreme. Your opponent literally creates the playing field, and presents you with all the choices you’re going to have in the game. It’s no surprise then that the game is awesome at creating suspense. Yukatan Jack has the fairly intense experience of literally stepping into the unknown, while the Path player is forced to sit in anxious anticipation to see if his opponent will stumble into or see through his traps. At it’s best the game is a terrifically tense mental showdown, and we love it.

A “Designer’s Design”
But wait, didn’t I mention earlier that not everyone does?

Yes, it’s true. This is a weird game for us in that some people really like it, but some people really don’t get it. Some people for instance just don’t see a difference between a person and a dice. For example, here’s a classic Yukatan Jack scenario: Your opponent shows you a safe spot in space 4. Now one of two things is probably true. Either a). He put treasure in spots 1-3, hoping you will jump over them, or b). He wants you to think that, and hence put traps there instead. Either could be true. To some players, this is an agonizing decision, and they will endeavor to peer into the mind of their foe. To others, it seems as arbitrary as a coin flip.

This is our idea of a good time.

In this case, we’ve decided to live with that. Yukatan Jack is good at what it’s doing, and not every game needs to be for every person. But it’s an interesting lesson: Some players want games that lend themselves to more rational analysis, and that means games that need additional external, mechanical factors that can be legitimately analyzed.

Other players simply weren’t interested in investing in the mental gymnastics necessary to figure out what the Crypt player might be up to, or what Yukatan Jack might do. That’s a pretty crucial requirement; if you don’t spend the time and energy to figure those things out, you don’t understand the choices before you, and hence, they aren’t interesting. Again, we decided there wasn’t much we could do for those players on this game, but it is an interesting lesson: Some players would rather focus on the surface of the game than the gritty battle of minds going on beneath. Yukatan Jack doesn’t give you that option. It’s all gritty battle of minds.

Sound and Fury Signifying You Just Died in Five Seconds After a Ton of Setup
There is one last complaints that some players had, and it’s actually a valid one: The Crypt player can put a lot of thought into a path, only to have Yukatan Jack die on his first move. This one we actually could do something about. So here’s an alternate rule we made up when we designed the expanded, deluxe non-playing card version of Yukatan Jack: Jack gets two lives, but whenever he dies the first time, he loses a treasure. Honestly, we should have put that in the version we put online last week. We’ll go do that now. In the meantime, think of it as your reward for reading us ramble about the game.

Did I just mention an expanded, deluxe non-playing card version of Yukatan Jack? I did. It’s in the works and it is awesome, and if you are one of the proud few who like us appreciate how glorious Yukatan Jack is, you will love it.  We can’t promise it’ll ever see the light of day, but if it does, SpoiledFlushGames.com readers will be the first to know. I mean, other than our parents.

Do I feel a lessons learned coming on?  I do:

Lessons Learned

  • Make sure your game has a solid central tension in its core mechanics. The best tension tends to involve other players
  • Other players are an excellent source of hidden information and suspense
  • But be careful; some players want more surface elements that are easier to analyze than the vagaries of your opponent’s soul.

This Designer’s Diary get you all hot and bothered to try the game? Good news: you can find it for free right here.

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