Designing for the Whole Flock: The Mission Behind Backyard Birding's Design
By Jeff Morgenroth
Making games is hard.
Like … really hard.
If you’ve never done it before, I encourage you to try. You’ll think all of your ideas are great, groundbreaking, and so much fun! How could anyone not enjoying playing this?
Then it hits you: the gut-wrenching experience of watching people try to play the first version of your game. Emphasis on the “try,” because first versions always have dead-ends, weird rules, logic loops, and missing essentials that will make your game basically unplayable.
We were not immune to this. In the first version of Backyard Birding we realized that we hadn’t even worked out the conditions for winning. Whoops!
Humbling as they may be, play-throughs at this stage of the game’s design are essential for making a game that’s focused and fun. Think about games you’ve played where you just decided to ignore the rules because you thought it was more fun to play it YOUR way (which is usually the EASY way)!
The goal of Backyard Birding’s design was to toss out the clutter and arbitrary mechanics to give you the most streamlined and enjoyable experience possible.
Here’s how we did it...
It’s Fun to Win
Yes, obviously the game will only have one winner at the end, but you need to feel like you’re winning throughout the game. Nothing is less fun than a game where you take an action and nothing happens.
Making players feel totally at the mercy of dice rolls or difficulty scaling had the result of lots and lots of birds going uncollected. We asked ourselves: what’s more fun A) seeing birds fly away, or B) collecting them? Collecting them of course! That's why we tweaked the game throughout our play tests to be biased toward collecting. For example, we wanted to make sure players had the most chances possible to collect birds they wanted by allowing them to roll to attract a bird with only one Backyard card that bird needs. It's a 50/50 shot, but still possible.
In a nutshell, we designed the turn-by-turn gameplay to make you feel successful, but still competitive enough to offer that thrill for certain players.
Once you know the rules, turns in Backyard Birding can take as little as 10 seconds, depending on the thought players put into choosing that perfect bird to go after. This is essential for a casual, family-friendly game.
No one likes sitting through agonizingly long games waiting for their turn. The game’s quick turns keep the cards flipping, dice rolling, and birds flapping.
The Rule of 2
Here’s a secret: remembering the number two is a key to remembering how to play.
Each turn you reveal two Bird cards, draw and play two Backyard cards, and finally roll the dice two times (once to attract a bird, once to see which fly away). This consistency and simplicity makes remembering the turn sequence easy and active.
The icons on the Bird cards are laid out the way they are for a reason. The Bird cards are designed to give the information you need to move through your turn in the order you’ll need it.
The Season icon is positioned at the top right next to the bird's name, as the season will likely be the first factor you use to decide which bird you want to try to attract (remember, the season determines the Bird card’s point value). Then comes the photo of the bird
and icons showing what the bird needs to come to your yard.
Finally come the dice icons indicating which dice rolls will make the bird fly away. This coincides with the final step of every turn. In this way, each Bird card is a subtle reminder of how to play the game.
Backyard Birding isn’t a cut-throat, winner-take-all kind of game. Many players just love being reminded of birds they enjoy in real life … but other players need more.
For them we built in the opportunity to experience the heated intensity of dice rolling, the sideways glance at opponents, the giddy thrill of seeing a bird needed by your rival fly away, THE TRIUMPH OF A CRUSHING VICTORY … well you see what I’m getting at.
Backyard Birding lets you have fun no matter your motivation, while also ensuring that even if you lose you’ll get enough birds to feel good afterward.
Get People Talking and Sharing
So here’s something not in the rules, but definitely built into the experience of playing: Backyard Birding gets people talking about birds!
In all of our play tests and games with friends and family, we’ve found some folks just can’t help swapping stories about when and where they saw a rare bird, or remarking on how cute or interesting certain birds are that they’ve seen around their neighborhood. Some just talk about how cool or weird some birds look (have you ever seen what an American Coot's feet look like?!).
For us, the particulars don’t really matter. It’s all about getting people thinking about birds, sharing the experience with friends, and carrying that interest and respect for these feathered creatures into their daily lives. After all, that's what we feel Backyard Birding is all about.