Designer's Notes: SPANC

by Fade Manley

I don't know how other people come up with card games; possibly they work out some clever theme, and extrapolate from there. In my case, SPANC started with a dream about pirates and ninjas. (I do realize that the proper plural of "ninja" is also "ninja," but these were inauthentic ninjas, so it's okay to stick an "s" on the end.) Recounting the dream on our friendly local PyraMOO, it came up that the only way one could surpass ninja pirates would be to add catgirls. And beyond that you'd have to add lesbians to get any better . . .

Thus, the original idea of pirate amazon ninja lesbians was formed. On a whim, I began writing up skill sets for a silly little RPG based on combinations of those four characteristics, with an eye towards eventually making a PDF game out of it. Pirates morphed into space pirates, with a little clause about how you could reset the game on the oceans instead of space by renaming one skill. Each character type had four specialized skills, and a given catgirl would have to focus on one or two sets, allowing for a nicely diversified set of characters. There were even rules for catboys sneaking onto pirate ships in disguise, much like the famous female pirates of yore.

Then I hit a nearly insurmountable roadblock: how do you write up a skill set for lesbians? Short of turning the game X-rated, one's preferred sexual partners just didn't translate to specific combat and social abilities. (No. Really. I tried.) I hastily swapped out lesbians for amazons, which made it much easier to justify all the poolboys running around the ships. (Before then, they'd been relegated to nothing but dusting and pool-cleaning. Something of a waste, that.) And so ANSPC began to come together!

. . . except everyone kept insisting I should call it SPANC instead. While I still prefer the way "Amazon Ninja Space Pirate Catgirls" rolls off the tongue, popular opinion assures me that SPANC is much more eye-catching and has its own lovely ring to it. (The opportunities for bad puns are legion, but I prefer to leave the punning to those with greater skill.)

SPANC probably never would have been more than a potentially amusing and badly-written little RPG if it hadn't been for Steve, who told me the idea was good, why not submit it as a card game idea? It wasn't what I'd had in mind, but I figured it was worth a shot (and wasn't about to say no to the potential for actual profit on this wacky idea), so I came up with a set of rules and submitted them for playtest one night.

Designing a card game is harder than it looks.

The first set of rules I came up with was insufficiently coherent and nearly unplayable. I'd made assumptions about how things worked that I never bothered to articulate, there were all sorts of special cases and combinations that I hadn't thought of, and it didn't much help that all the cards were written out in marker with my dreadful handwriting. I carefully used a different color of marker for each type of skill, to make cards easy to match up . . . and then swapped marker colors between two skills when doing the challenge cards, making the color-matching not so much "helpful" as "constantly confusing". Fortunately, rather than laughing me out of the place, the playtesters nicely pointed out the most glaring of my many, many omissions. They also recommended I try writing the rules up again, following a Munchkin rules sheet as an example of what to include.

By the third or fourth iteration of the rules, the most basic blocks were solidified -- the four skills, a series of challenges to overcome, crews made up of catgirls with various abilities -- but the gameplay, to put it bluntly, sucked rocks. The catfight rules either made it too easy for one player to be a jerk and continually screw everyone over, or were so weak no one bothered using them. And without catfights it was nothing but a series of random rolls with minimal choice involved. At one point, the beginning of the game would have entire crews wiped out repeatedly on a single challenge, and then by the end of the game every single crew could breeze through the entire challenge without even needing to roll. Every tweak I made yanked a part of the rules I hadn't considered into another direction.

Which is why I largely turned over the mechanics past a certain point to people with far more experience in such things, and got back to the fun parts: writing art specs. While writing rules was a tricky exercise prone to error and pain, coming up with entertaining card names, and then a picture to go with that card, kept me entertained for several late nights hunched over my laptop in a coffee shop. Some ideas had to be ditched (the Vicious Wildebeest just didn't have mass appeal), and sometimes I couldn't come up with anything much better than " . . . draw something funny for this name?", but the process was satisfying in a way rules-crunching had never been.

I've been a fan of Phil Foglio since I first acquired a copy of GURPS Illuminati University, so being able to get him as an artist for this game sent me into raptures. The card list morphed back and forth as we added in specials, changed the ratio of Catgirls to Toys to Challenges, and occasionally as I chopped an idea off for being too wordy or difficult to illustrate. Then it was another round of art specs emailed off, and time to wait and see what would be faxed back. I put a few in-jokes into the art specs, he added a few of his own, and by the end I got to stare happily at all sorts of marvelous sketches. (I still have the original faxes he sent for many of those, tucked away somewhere in my desk.)

After that, it was a matter of changing the rules a bit more, and waiting.

And waiting.

And reviewing the latest rules tweaks.

And waiting.

(Amazingly, I managed to not strangle anyone who offered helpful rules suggestions during this entire period. This was accomplished at the beginning by my marvelous powers of self-control, and then later on by my marvelous powers of denial. The game had been delayed again? Well, it was sure to come out by Christmas! . . . or February! Or . . . definitely within a few years! And all of these rules changes were in no way moving the game away from my original vision and the type of game I preferred to play, towards some sort of unholy Illuminati-like abomination of a thousand rules and a thousand more explanations and . . . .it was all fine!)

And then? There was some more waiting, and more rules tweaks. And some waiting. And changing the rules! And waiting. And sometimes changing the rules back to how they were before a change, accompanied by, you guessed it, waiting. By this point the rules were so far out of my hands I frequently had no idea what was going on with them, and could do little but smile and nod if someone asked me about a tweak. ("What do you think of this variation on the Amazon's use of Catfight?" "Given that the last time I saw the rules Catfights had been removed entirely again, it's hard to say." "Well, we've adjusted the Loot rules . . . " "The what rules?" "Oh, right, we renamed Fame.")

And then it was done. I played the almost-final rules version once, and the rules were not anything unholy attempting to devour my soul, but engaging and fun. This was reassuring, as I didn't particularly want to have doomed anyone's soul by means of my game.

Well. Maybe a few people's souls. But not most people.

By the time I watched those gray boxes being unpacked and put on the shelves, the whole process had acquired a distant, unreal touch. Surely an amusing little conversation several months back couldn't have made actual product. But there it was, in glorious color, from the "Clever Riddle" to "Carries Deadly Yarn" to the "Sailor Suit." The rules had gone through so many changes from start to finish I'd have to reread them a few times to be able to play without accidentally using long-axed variations, but I could still recognize the basic "take your catgirls, beat your way through challenges, win fabulous prizes!"

At this point, if you handed me the rules sheet for SPANC, I'd barely recognize it from the typed single page I'd handed in. The gameplay has grown much more complicated, and it takes significantly longer to play a single game than it used to -- some of my first versions went so fast I suggested playing multiple games with cumulative scores -- but people seem to enjoy it more. There's something to be said for expanding the mechanics; an extremely simple game might be able to fly on pretty graphics and letting the players talk casually rather than paying much attention to strategy, but then once you've seen all the cards there's no replay value.

If I'm ever crazy enough to do this again, I'm going to work through the rules a lot more carefully before making any poor soul try to playtest them. I'll focus more on theme, and let other people do the number crunching once it's time to poke at those things. I'll beg for more Foglio art, because, well, Foglio art. You can't go wrong there.

I've been told that any supplement or compatible stand-alone will definitely not be called Barbarian Dogboy Space Marines, or Boy-Dog Samurai Monks, or any other variation along these lines. Oh well. At least I can still secretly start writing out the art specs in my mind for the Wench cards to go with that game.

Article publication date: June 17, 2005

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