Designing a Social Game – Part 1


I love rules, I love new mechanics, and I love designing new games and giving life to old mechanics. My google drive is filled with pages and pages of partially written rulebooks, new mechanics, or just goals and concepts. My gaming shelf has boxes of prototypes, blank cards, stickers, beads, and other supplies. Most of my games take one simple idea, and polish it as much as I can. I dislike games that try to be too many things at once, and end up being a headache to teach. This brings me to my current venture, a social game I call Cliques.

Making something I want to play

Why a social/party game? Because I need something to play at my parties… and I think I can do better than what’s out there. I understand that games which can accommodate a large number of players are usually social deduction games like Resistance or Werewolf. Those games can be fun with the right group, but can also be exceedingly frustrating. I want to make a game that is just as strategic, but something that everyone can have a good time with all the time.

I’m just not very good a lying…

Brain storming

I set out to list out my requirements for the game. Initially, they are

  • Must play 12 or more players
  • No downtime at all for any player
  • Logic, strategy, and tactics must be involved
  • Does not focus on lying until your pants are on fire
  • Encourages conversation and jokes
  • Creates lasting experience

That’s it, I don’t have any mechanics in mind, and definitely no theme.


The page remained the same for weeks. I look at it with a blank face every few days, hoping to type something else. A theme, a revelation, a fresh mechanic, anything really. Until one day, I saw the trailer for “Wonder” (When I went to watch “Daddy’s Home 2” at Christmas time…). Just like every other movie involving an elementary or high school, there was a scene with the main character holding the lunch tray in a cafeteria. He doesn’t know where to sit, no one wants him. All the other kids already have friends and groups they belong to. Something clicked in my head that made me pull out my phone in the theater (I’m sorry!!!) and wrote the word “cliques” on that page.

Overused teenage movie trope to the rescue!

I got home, and over the next few weeks I fleshed out more and more of the game. I combined my favorite mechanics from games such as “2 Rooms and a Boom”, “Spyfall”, and “Codenames”, added a little dash of flavor, and began writing the rules.


Pretty soon after I wrote the rules I came across a major problem. To explain the problem I need to explain a little about the game. Cliques is a party game where players try to group up with their own team, which is determined by a card they are dealt. How do they know who has what card? Each player also has a secret word, which is shared among members of their team. Each team member has the same secret word (eg. Jocks, Nerds, etc…). In my head this mechanic is perfect. There can be so many different types of cliques, and they are all secret, and every game is different. In practice though…

Even before making a prototype, I was worried about printing cost… thanks Mom…

I spent weeks mulling this over. I almost gave up on the idea. Let me tell you why this doesn’t work. Say you are playing a game with 4 cliques, and 4 people per clique. Each person in the clique will have the same word. So I need 4 cards for every single word. If the game has just 20 words, that is 80 cards dedicated to just words. And that’s not even considering the insane amount of time it would take to set up and organize. I need to totally rethink this. I posted this question on Reddit, and got suggestions like using smaller cards to cut cost, sharing cards, using a sheet of paper with all the words etc.

The solution

Those ideas were helpful, but not exactly what I needed. I took the idea for a table of words and went with that. So in my head I had a codename style table, with teams on the columns and a number from 1-5 as rows. Instead of getting a card with the word on there, the player would get a card with a number. They would then refer to the column and row on the table to find their word. What I thought would be a limiting factor (all players can see the word options) became a logical puzzle that actually lowered randomness and increased strategy. So problem solved, it is time to make a prototype.

Is there a plugin for this?

Sooooo… I got really lazy and didn’t want to write a bunch of words on cards. I decided in my big head that I want to make an app to generate the table instead. This is fine, except that I have never written an app before. This wordpress site is my only foray into HTML and CSS, and I was scared to touch Javascript. I buckled down and decided to do some tutorials and lessons online. Going at a snails pace, I managed to create a functioning table that makes a new random array of words each time. I bet if a web developer came to read the code, they would throw up in their mouth. The code is pieced together from snippets copied from stack exchange. The important thing though, is that it works.

Probably would’ve been faster to just write the words on cards

To further prove my laziness, I’ve also made it so that I can playtest it with just a regular deck of cards. The suits would be the teams, and the numbers A to 5 would be the rows on the table. Time to playtest, except a second hurdle comes into play

Hurdle #2

I did not know how to set up the game. There, I think that’s a pretty big problem. I need to deal out the same numbered cards to the same team cards. The players also cannot know what number went with which team, and who has what card. It took a few days before I realized that all I needed to do is to use clips. I would clip all the same numbers together, mix them up face down. Lay out all the team cards on the table, and deal a clipped set of numbers to each team. I would then clip the pairs (number and team) together, and shuffle those. I would then finally deal one clipped pair per player. The idea then evolved to using card sleeves, putting multiple cards in the same sleeve, making things easier to shuffle. Finally I am ready to playtest.

Game night

The weekend comes. This time there were 7 of us. We played a few published boardgames before I announced “Hey, would you guys mind playtesting a game I designed?”. Thankfully the group agreed. I went ahead and started explaining the game while I did the setup. It’s a simple game, and didn’t take long to teach. We soon got started playing. There were a lot of laughs and lots of talking and conversation, which was good. There were also a lot of confusion, which was bad. After the first round, people weren’t sure what to do anymore. There was almost no carry over to the second round. We played the game a few more times and the results were the same. The conversation part was great fun, but too short. I needed to make a lot of rule changes to make the win mean more meaningful.

“Who here likes Bingo??” “Me! Oh, and my wife is dead… I think” – Actual quote from game night

Back to the drawing board

I need something that carries over to the 2nd round. The obvious thing would be points, but that would be too easy. I also don’t want players to keep track of points, especially when this game is supposed to play 10+ players. I also need a way to take away some of the confusion. Increase structure, reduce randomness. I want to try and solve both of these problems together. I came up with a little “point” system I call influence. When you win in round 1, you gain influence, which makes your actions more powerful in round 2. Hopefully with the more powerful action in round 2 you can win round 2 as well, and gain more influence. Finally in round 3 you use those influence to achieve your objective and win the game.

That’s the idea anyways, I also made a timer in the app to limit the amount of time available for conversation based on player number.

Game night #2

There’s a couple more people for the second playtest. As usual, I set up the game, pulled out the tablet and generated a new array of words. I explained the new rules to a lot of head nodding from the veteran playtesters, and off we went. The game went a lot more smoothly this time. People liked the structure the new voting phase provided, and they like being given a chance to cast an extra vote or to veto someone out using their influence. The constructive feedback from this session was that the win condition still seemed very sudden and anticlimatic. Also, people that never earned influence felt like they didn’t have a choice. People still loved the core mechanic of the game, which was the conversation portion. I was very optimistic after this playtest, as I feel I’ve finally got a winner here.

“I like it dirty, do you?” “Sometimes, but I also like vanilla” – Actual quote from game night

To be continued…