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Design Diary - Feb 2023 - Mystery Puffs

The initial prototype game

The Beginning

An early mockup of the packaging

Mystery Puffs is a project that I began in mid-2020, we had just been diagnosed globally with pandemic and I was looking to turn my puzzle design skills to something a little bit more “play at home”. It was at this time that I became a member of the Facebook community “puzzle people”, which for any puzzle enthusiasts, reading I highly recommend. Here is the link to join if you would like to. Become a part of this great community.

The Concept

The idea was simple. It’s an escape room in a cereal box. A massive inspiration for this idea was from watching a movie called “Under the Silver Lake”. Which is a great surreal film noir treasure hunt set in LA starring Andrew Garfield. I highly recommend it. In the movie, Andrew Garfield’s character unravels this thread, this conspiracy within LA, and a part of it is him getting an old box of cereal which inside contains a treasure map. This was the catalyst for me to design a game that came packaged in a cereal box. I really wanted to capture that idea of opening a cereal box and pulling out a toy but instead of it being just a toy, it’s this massive, immersive tabletop puzzle adventure.

"Spacestones" from Under The Silver Lakes

So, I spent the next six months developing a pretty basic prototype. The flow was quite simple: There was a map, and on that map was one half of the puzzle, and inside the box were a series of envelopes. The player was to open each envelope, which would eventually lead them to solve a puzzle on the map and progress through the game. The story was that the player was trapped on the island and they needed to solve the puzzles in order to escape.

I really wanted this to be an interactive game, and early on in the design process I wanted this game to be a one-shot game. So that allowed me to do some really fun things, namely destroy pieces of the puzzle in order to reveal information. One of the things I’ve final reveals was that you would have to scratch away some of the map to reveal the submarine, signifying that you had won the game.

Ever since this prototype, this project has been stuck in design hell for the last couple of years. I’ve become distracted with other projects, a new job, life and of course the ever present question: how do I make a great tabletop puzzle game? I’ve since come a long way in my design theory. Now, I wholeheartedly believe in the power of a replayable game and the importance of sustainability in your design of materials and manufacturing. So, I really wanted to make a game that was replayable.

After the first iteration of the prototype, I realised I wanted more signposting and more symbiosis between diegetic and non-diegetic storytelling. I wanted the player journey, the physical player journey sitting at the table, to run alongside the character’s journey. Within the game I thought this would be easy, but it turned out to be exceedingly difficult. As puzzle designers, it’s very tempting to get carried away with a good idea for a puzzle and which can then make it very difficult to reverse engineer that back into the story.

I really wanted to make sure that every puzzle that was solved and every mechanical movement done by the player was somehow tied into the narrative movements of the character. I would sit and think, sit, think and sit and think until I could workout and crunched through a series of unique puzzle experiences that would leave players going, “wow, this is a really cool player experience because what I’m doing is also at the character is doing”, and so that suspension of disbelief is easier to achieve.

Version Two

In the next iteration of the Mystery Puffs game, I included something called a Wayfinder. This is utilising a very popular form of puzzle visual puzzle called a Rebus puzzle, where you combine two images to create a word or a phrase. I thought this would be a great mechanic to guide players to the different envelopes to open in order to progress the game.

Version 1 - Draft 3 of the Wayfinder

I also wanted there to be an interaction with story. One of the most difficult things for a puzzle/experience designer to achieve is a user experience that engages the player mechanically and also narratively. There is a massive cleave, perhaps it’s the trouble of sending information too quickly from one side of the brain to the other, between solving puzzles and engaging with narrative.

Video games offer a great solution of doing one, then the other. There is a cutscene, and then there is the gameplay.

Taking inspiration from Scooby-Doo Haunted House I realised that narrative was possible in a tabletop puzzle game that wasn't strictly in-world. I knew it was possible, but I wasn’t sure of the exact mechanic.

A Breakthrough

Then, while on a train travelling through the beautiful crisp countryside of the Czech Republic it hit me: chapters in a book. All I needed to do was guide players to certain chapters in a book in order to progress through the game. If each chapter had a title that the wayfinder would lead them to then you would have this wayfinder – book – envelope – puzzle – map – wayfinder circuit. The gameplay would be simple and intuitive and players would move through a story – puzzle – story – puzzle mechanism.

And so, during my honeymoon on long trips, I would write these chapters while also designing the game flow. Here is the first half of the gameflow to give you an idea of who simplicity may emerge from complexity.

Design Flow of Part 1

This style of game flow design works really well for me because it enables me to categories each white box as a physical component that I need to create, the linear nature of the flow shows me that timeline, and the colour coding represents a balance between narrative, puzzles, and ephemera. As a result I can look at this flow and understand how the game should move, what needs to be made, and is there balance between opposing design elements.

A vintage sci-fi cover for a book called Canary Island. There is a lighthouse in a storm as the image
Mockup of the fictional novel supplement that guides players through the story of the game

I hope this can give you an idea of the design process and flow of a tabletop puzzle game. I believe they require a delicate balance of interaction, narrative, and a dance between the player journey alongside the character journey.

Let me know your design style and what works for you!

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