With more and more board games being inspired by their digital relatives, it should be no surprise that Fruit Ninja is making its way from your phone to your tabletop! This incredibly popular mobile game is being given physical form by publisher Lucky Duck Games, and is now crowdfunding on Kickstarter! The campaign features not one, not two, but three unique games by different designers, each inspired by the gameplay of the original app and the Fruit Ninja universe.
Now you might be thinking to yourself "How would that even work?", and that means you're in the right place! Koen Hendrix is the designer of Fruit Ninja: Slice and Dice, and he's shared his designer diary with us to show some of the process behind the creation and development of the game. Read on to find out how a game about rock climbing ninja'd its way to becoming a more fruitful tabletop experience...
In 2016, while playing a children’s game with my son, I wondered whether the colour dice that we were playing with were ever used in non-kids games. After some thought I ventured to design such a game myself. My colour-rolling game was quickly themed as an rock climbing game. Not only because I enjoy rock climbing myself, but because indoor climbing is done on coloured holds, a natural match for the coloured dice.
Based on these coloured holds, my first prototypes had players roll dice to grab holds and ascend the wall (not entirely unlike Monza). But this gameplay turned out to be rather bland and repetitive. Inspired by games like King of Tokyo and Machi Koro, I iterated on the design several times and the game gradually evolved from “roll dice to ascend” into “roll sets to conquer walls” and “every conquered wall gives you a bonus ability”.
The regular playtesting events I took the game to showed a steady increase in players’ appreciation of the game. But almost all testers spotted a new issue: It didn’t feel like a rock-climbing game anymore. Nothing was being climbed, and the abilities you gained were fairly generic “get better at rolling dice” ones.
My mechanical improvements had all but erased the theme. What to do?
Enter The Ninja
As I was pondering what to do with my thematically disconnected game, Lucky Duck Games put out a call for game designs. They were looking for games based on the popular mobile app Fruit Ninja, though not necessarily a direct simulation of the mobile game; as long as it fit in the Fruit Ninja universe.
This seemed like a match made in heaven. Game in search of theme, meet theme in search of game! It did not take me long to put those ninjas on every single component in my game. The coloured dice became fruit dice, and rather than climbing walls we were now completing levels, participating in tournaments and earning new swords. The “chalk” - probably the only thing left in the game that really evoked climbing - became a powerup, just like the purchasable powerups in the mobile game.
With everything re-themed, I sent Lucky Duck Games some PnP files. They played a 2-player game of it, and immediately liked it so much they wanted to sign it. I was over the moon, and tremendously proud of my own game design and re-theming ability.
This did not last.
The publisher started externally playtesting my game. The game had been well received at my own playtests, so I didn’t expect much development to be necessary. But to my dismay the playtesters’ feedback was harsh: Too much downtime! No interaction! Not like Fruit Ninja at all!
The game was good for 2 players, but more players made it progressively worse (Yes, I have been lucky that the publisher’s first play happened to be with 2). With 2 players there was little downtime and a sense of interaction by claiming cards so your opponent couldn’t claim them. At 5 players the game had devolved into “20% solitaire, 80% waiting for your turn to come around”.
I can hear you think, Didn’t you test it with more than 2 players before submitting it!? Well yes, most of my playtests were actually with 3 or 4 players. But interestingly, I had only the occasional comment on the amount of downtime, and didn’t see it as an issue. I believe this was largely due to the difference in thematic framing of the game. The theme sets the baseline for players’ expectations:
Me: Here’s a rock climbing dice game.
Playtester thinks: OK, it’ll probably be a gentle, slow-paced risk-reward game.
Me: Here’s a Fruit Ninja dice game.
Playtester thinks: OK, it’ll probably be a quick, frantic fruit-slicing dexterity game.
Lucky Duck Games and I agreed that the core of the game was good, but the downtime issue needed work, and the audience’s Fruit Ninja expectations would need to be met... somehow.
Try And Try Again
We spent a lot of development iterations trying to elegantly solve the game’s issues, particularly the downtime. We tried having Daily Challenges, special cards that cycled through the players and would give the current owner a bonus if a specific colour combination was rolled. We tried an “off-turn” system, where every player rolled a single die on other people’s turns, which allowed player to amass a powerup currency.
While these solutions did reduce downtime, they didn’t shake the impression that we’d added a rule just keep the players busy (which was true to some extent). They felt too much like an added-on distraction, not enough like an integrated part of the game.
As Vincent and I both realized the “just give them something to do” approach wasn’t really working, a playtester made exactly the right suggestion at the right time. Why not let everyone roll their dice at the same time?
In hindsight, this seems so obvious. We had even talked about the virtues of Dice Forge before this suggestion was ever made, but I suppose we weren’t exploring the simultaneous rolling avenue because of the extra components it requires. Quadrupling the dice in the box is a serious cost increase, but a good $30 game is still preferable over a $20 bad game. Affordability is no excuse for bad game design.
At the final stage there was one final Eureka moment. The simultaneous rolling was well-received by playtesters, but introduced one new issue for a particular kind of players: Hardcore gamers would wait to see which dice other players re-rolled before re-rolling themselves. This would slow the game down and could even lead to stalemates.
The solution was a real-time limitation on the rolling phase. This not only solved the avid gamers’ re-rolling problem, it also added some tension and drama, making everything feel more urgent, and, well, more Fruit Ninja! It was the perfect capstone of our development journey.
To summarize: I ruined my own game by thoughtlessly plastering a well-known ninja IP over it. But thanks to honest playtesting feedback and intensive development, we eventually ended up with a much better, well-integrated game.
So what are the takeaways from this experience? I personally see two main ones.
Adapting an existing game to an IP is not trivial. Working with an established IP has its perks: You usually get a load of cool art, and characters, and backstory, which all enrich your game. But along with this “free stuff” you get the baggage of different customer expectations, financial requirements, and the need to cater to a non-board-gaming crowd. Consider how your game lines up with the IP, on the gameplay level, the thematic level, and also as a product.
If it’s not working, shake things up. When you’ve worked on and tested a game design for a while, it’s natural to become cautious about making big changes. After all, you don’t want to test everything again! But sometimes small changes can only paint over an issue rather than solve it. Try throwing some core assumptions -- like player count, or component limit, or level of complexity -- out the window, make a big change, and seeing where that leads you. External partners, who aren’t invested in the game the way you are, can be a great source for radical changes.
Finally, I’d like to sincerely thank Vincent Vergonjeanne, all the playtesters at Lucky Duck Games, and all the playtesters at the Sugar & Dice board game café for their contributions to this game.