When you've been playing tabletop games since grade school, like Chicago Transit Authority Project Manager Zach Barton, it's only natural to seek bigger challenges as you get older.
"I started getting into more complex board games. I picked up [Catan] in high school and I never looked back since then," said Barton. "As you play more of these games, you get ideas like, this is fun, but it would be better if you came up with new rules."
So the only logical conclusion for Barton was to create a board game of his own, Tabletop Deathmatch finalist Bad Detectives, even if it took a few attempts to earn that title.
"Catan is obviously the gateway drug," said Barton while citing games that have inspired him, but his long history with tabletop gaming has given him plenty of other sources to draw from. "Carcassonne is a big one and actually had a lot of influence on how Bad Detectives has been coming along. We play a lot of Betrayal at House on the Hill, Dominion, RoboRally. We've got a pretty big game closet here."
However, when developing Bad Detectives, Barton took cues not only from relatively niche board games, but also mainstream network TV police procedurals. As the titular Bad Detectives, players compete for an opening on the homicide desk. But as players attempt to use their cards to crack the case, they'll run into the problem that, according to Barton, everything they know about solving police work was learned from watching episodes of Law & Order and CSI.
"The idea started out as a build your own CSI plot generator. I'm a big fan of those types of shows. My wife and I watch Castle all the time and it definitely follows a formula," said Barton. So instead of actually trying to find the true killer, the game is about replicating lurid crime show tropes like shocking plot twists and unlikely suspects. "I always call it a reasonable approximation of justice. It's a light-hearted take on murder."
But beyond just being a funny comment on most average players' own ignorance of real-life law enforcement, the metaphor also helps ease newcomers into the sometimes abstract world of tabletop gaming.
"There are some familiar concepts for new players to work off of," said Barton. "You don't want to lift the mechanics from other games, but other successful games do things right, so when you are trying to introduce some new concepts unique to your game, you don't want to overwhelm new players."
New players weren't the only ones that needed to do some learning though. It took two years of iteration and two entries into Tabletop Deathmatch to bring Bad Detectives, Barton's first game, to its current incarnation. But even with the extra work, he was still shocked when the game was selected.
"I wasn't expecting to get in, especially because it was the same idea. Other people may have had new ideas and come up with some great new things, and I was hammering on the same concept for a year," said Barton. However, his changes were far from minute. Barton revised everything from card size to rule complexity to how long players determined their moves based on when they drew their hand. "The submission I put in for 2014 looked nothing like what I put in for 2013."
But the lengthy development cycle sometimes hurt more than it helped.
"After two years of working on it, it's really hard to throw out mechanics that just aren't working because of all the time spent on them," said Barton. "If a fundamental concept or mechanic isn't working, I've got to be okay saying goodbye to that. But every change I've made so far feels like it's been for the better."
However, even after all those improvements, once Bad Detectives finally reached the Tabletop Deathmatch judges, Barton learned so much more.
"By far, the best part about Tabletop Deathmatch is getting to play your game with industry experts. I got a lot of good advice out of just a couple of play tests with people who do this for a living, things you don't really consider," said Barton. "I was sitting here trying to focus on making the best game that I can and you had experts on the retail side of things telling you about why this game would have trouble selling, or what the strong points are. You had the production experts telling you about what the cost is to actually produce these games." Barton said this outside perspective was incredibly valuable. "That's what helped me make further changes after the contest. When I took this game home after Gen Con and kept working on it, I had a lot of good feedback to work with."
Since then, Barton has clarified Bad Detectives' mechanics and rules since the biggest criticisms it received were over its intimidating amount of information. With the game now "90% locked down," Barton wants to shift his focus to the game's visuals before looking into possible production. And while the project has been a labor of love, after working on it for two years, Barton now wants to move on to some of his other game ideas.
"I've been staring at these tiles for a long time," said Barton. "But I really want to see this through all the way."
Bad Detectives was interviewed by the fantastic Jordan Minor. Catch him on Twitter as @JordanWMinor.