Over the years, I’ve dabbled in game design. As a kid I made up playground games and board games to play with my sister and neighbors. But I know game design is a very deep discipline so I do not actually consider myself a game designer, I’m just a hobbyist.
For Christmas in the mid 2000’s my little sister got me a gift that would seem to meld two of my loves. UNO Nintendo Special Edition.
Like most UNO special editions, the main game is completely unchanged, they have simply added one new card with a special rule.
This one adds a ‘power card’ adorned with a starman that can protect the player against a draw two or draw four, while also serving as a wild card (by the way, at the time of this blog post there is a newer version of Super Mario themed UNO cards available. It has a similar star power card UNO Super Mario Game). This game was fairly par for the course for UNO special edition standards, but I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more customization to the rules of game.
The family that plays together.
Now for the backstory. Uno was always a favorite in my family.
The adults had their own card games to play with each other, but when it was time for the kids to join, it was time to break out UNO, and we always had a good time. As I grew older and watched the tabletop gaming hobby grow in popularity and complexity I tried to assess why UNO was even fun. The game is objectively too simple and playing with score optimization in mind, it essentially plays itself. As I analysed the game, I came to understand the probability curve of a shrinking hand size reducing the likelihood of having a valid play, but this isn’t where the fun exists. What I finally realized was the fun we were having playing UNO was the company we were playing with. The love and companionship of my family was what made it worth playing and returning to. Understanding this, I knew I wanted to have an opportunity to pass these kind of memories on to my younger nieces.
Rolling up my sleeves.
Ever since I received the UNO Nintendo edition, I felt like it was a missed opportunity. I had really wanted it to be more than just UNO with one extra card.
Leading up to Christmas 2012, I was trying to decide gifts for a couple of my nieces. When I can, I like to give handmade or custom gifts. For this year the idea occurred to me to turn one of their favorite video games, the Mario Kart series, into an UNO style card game that their whole family could enjoy. I didn’t want to do a simple re-skinning, but inspired by the works of game designer David Sirlin, I wanted to address what I saw as some of the weaknesses in UNO’s design.
As I mentioned, strategic opportunities in standard UNO are low. If you prioritize the score, you will only occasionally make a meaningful decision. As I designed my game, I tried to add just a little more depth, but not so much to be overwhelming to casual or younger players. I wanted to give the players more agency in the outcome of each hand while still being a very light weight game. To do this I reduced the overall number pool but increased the occurrence of each number. This allows for the decision of whether or not to change the color to come up more frequently. I included several attacks that can hit any player regardless of turn order to give the players more opportunities to stop a player in the lead. I also added attacks and rules that can give some players hidden information about what is in an opponent’s hand.
In keeping with the chosen theme, I decided to add many more attacks than featured in standard UNO. I then designed a few ways to keep these attacks from being paralysing. One way is the inclusion of the Starman to offer protection from many of the attacks. Another example is that only one of the eight different attacks causes a player to lose a turn.
This serves other purposes too. It helps to keep the game swift for all players. It also helps balance the strengths of the attacks. Consider the green shell and red shell. If the green shell made the attacked player lose their turn (analogous to UNO’s draw two), then shouldn’t the red shell do the same? But the red shell can attack any player out of turn order. Should we keep track so that player’s turn is skipped? What if they are attacked again? Do they lose more than one turn? By eliminating lost turns (except for one card that only attacks the next player), I eliminate all of these edge cases.
In short, the idea is that an attack should stall the player, but not be unrecoverable.
In standard UNO, when one of the attack cards is played it often becomes a veritable feeding frenzy of players taking the opportunity to shed their hand of their copy of said attack. This leads to long stretches of numbered card plays with only moments of chaos. For my game the attack cards are numbered. This does two things. First it gives opportunities to play any attack across any color. Secondly, when following the standard rules, you can only match cards by number or color, disregarding the item. To make it clear, no two alike items in the deck share the same number or color. This prevents piling on of the same attack by player after player.
Lastly I’ve encouraged play variations by describing several different scoring options and optional ‘house rules’ in the instructions. Also embedded in the game design is the opportunity for more house rules that I haven’t shared yet.
The future of the Mario Kart card game?
I’m very happy with what I’ve created, but I’m not sure if there is a next step. I obviously can’t sell this game using Nintendo’s IP. I could go the David Sirlin route and re-skin this game with more generic items (missile, homing missile, shield, etc…), but the Mario Kart theme is so strong to the game design, that I’m not sure the game would stand without it. Besides, I’m in no position to judge if the game’s quality would be up to commercial standards. I believe it’s good, but is it good enough? I’m curious what you think.
Considering that I’m releasing the game to the public, I guess popular sentiment will guide what happens next. I have ideas of updating the card graphics, or creating special editions. I even have some expansion cards in mind that I would like to develop.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for your time. I would love to hear any feedback.