Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Design a Bad Card Game

A friend of mine obtained a card game called Tentacle Bento. And as some of you may know, I kinda sorta LOVE card games. So we played it. ...And it’s bad.

I know – I’m a bit late to the “Let’s write about Tentacle Bento!” party. However, I’m not writing about how the game objectifies women and trivializes rape. There’s already been tons of discussion and articles on this topic you can find in places elsewhere on the web and within the blogospheres. No, what I’m actually going to cover is how horribly un-fun Tentacle Bento is. Tentacle Bento is bad game design!

To help illustrate how poorly-designed Tentacle Bento is, I’m going to strip away the theme of the game and just focus on how the game works mechanically. This way, you wouldn’t be distracted by all the fun flavor of capturing anime school girls with your tentacles hiding the fact that it doesn’t play all that well. This same phenomenon can be found in some video games (“Look at those beautiful cutscenes! Just ignore the fact that the gameplay isn’t all that great!”).

How to Construct a Bad Card Game Deck

The first thing you do is obtain two playing card decks and a sharpie.

Of the four Jokers, three will be a part of the deck. Write an ‘A’ on one, a ‘B’ on another one, and a ‘C’ on a third one. Set aside the fourth one to determine the Direction of Play during the game.

Of the eight Aces, mark four of them, all different suits, with a star symbol. The remaining four should each have a smiley face written on them.

Mark all the 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, and 6’s with a triangle symbol. All the 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s should be marked with a circle symbol. Also, mark four 10’s, each one a different suit, with a circle symbol. The remaining 10’s and the Jacks, Queens, and Kings are to be marked with a square symbol.

All the cards will form one deck except for the one unmarked Joker card to be used separately from the deck during the game.

How to Play a Bad Card Game

In this Bad Card Game, the goal is to score as many points as possible by matching Squares, Circles, and either Triangles or Stars. Forming three cards of the same suit of a Square, Circle, and a Triangle or Star can score you even more points. When the players randomly draw all four Smiley Face Aces from the deck, the game ends!

Now, using that deck you constructed earlier, grab four players and shuffle the cards of the deck except for the one unmarked Joker. The one Joker card you set aside should be placed face-up on the table. As long as the Joker card is face-up, you go through each of the players’ turns clockwise. While it is face-down, counter-clockwise. Deal seven cards to each player. If any player has any smiley face Aces in their starting hand of seven cards, they shuffle them back into the deck and are dealt replacement cards again until they have no smiley-face Aces. Lastly, discard the top card of the deck. If THAT is a Smiley Face Ace, shuffle it back into the deck and repeat until you don’t get one. Now, somebody goes first.

The first step of a player’s turn is the Draw Step. There’s three ways to draw cards in this game:
1) Draw a card from the deck.
2) Draw the top card of the discard pile.
3) Draw a card from anywhere in the discard pile plus put into your hand all the cards that are positioned above it. The card you drew must then be used to form a Circle-Square-Triangle/Star match where all the cards are of the same suit.

If the card you draw from the deck is a Smiley Face Ace, you must immediately play it, setting it face up on the table, and it affects all players with a game effect. Once there are four Smiley Face Aces on the table, the game ends. The fourth Smiley Face Ace’s effects do not take effect.

After you draw your card or cards, you can play Joker cards, form matches, and add Triangles to certain existing Perfect Matches you have made. Perfect Matches are matches where all the cards are of the same suit.

Joker cards ‘A’ and ‘B’ each do some kind of game effect that restricts a player and can be passed around from player to player indefinitely. Joker card ‘C’ does a game effect that messes with a player of your choice then gets shuffled back into the deck.

To form a match during your turn, you must choose a Square and Circle card from your hand then choose either a Triangle or Star card. A match with a star card will contribute one point toward your score. If you match with a Star card instead, it must be a Perfect Match. A match with a star card will cause a special game effect to happen and will count five points toward your score. A Perfect Match using a Triangle card instead of a Star card will result in a defined-in-the-rules game effect (one of which is flipping over the set-aside Joker card), depending on which suit was matched.

Lastly, you can add any additional Triangles you have in your hand to existing Perfect Matches of yours that do not contain a Star card. Imperfect Matches cannot have extra Triangles added to them. Each match can have a maximum of three Triangle cards. Each Triangle card in a match counts as one point toward your score.

The very last thing you do during your turn is discarding. If you have any cards left in your hand at the end of your turn, you must discard a card. Then the next player according to the Direction of Play Joker card takes his or her turn.

When the game is over, count your points from the matches you have then subtract the number of points total from your hand. Each Triangle in your hand is negative one point while each Star in your hand is negative five points. Player with the most points wins!

How to Strategize in a Bad Card Game

So, to win at this game, you need to score the most points by the time all the four Smiley Face Aces are randomly drawn by the players. How do we make sure we do our best to score the most points and win the game? Well, here’s how:

Since forming matches is what scores us points, we’ll look out for matches we can make. However, the best matches to make are Perfect Matches. This is because you can freely add up to two extra Triangles to those one, scoring more points. So, we’ll avoid doing Imperfect Matches.

To further add to the incentive of making Perfect Matches, when you draw from the discard pile from any position to have that card form a Perfect Match, you get to put all the rest of the cards that were placed above it into your hand. This is a massive card advantage over the other players. You get a lot of cards, and you deny the other players those cards you now have in your hand. And now you are likely to make even more matches as well as pick up MORE cards from the discard pile to form Perfect Matches

So, with this strategy, here is how your decision-making abilities break down: Does a card in the discard pile, when put into your hand along with all the cards on top of it, contribute to form a Perfect Match? If so, do that. During your turn, only make Perfect Matches unless there are three Smiley Face Aces out since the fourth one can pop up at any time. In that case, try to empty your hand as much as possible.

Now, get out there and win doing this! So much fun, right?

How to Determine a Bad Card Game

A good game should have several meaningful choices for the player to make. Tentacle Bento fails at this miserably. When one choice is hugely beneficial as compared to the other choices, then it results in really just one choice existing for a player to make, which causes the game to degenerate into not being fun. Chess gives you a ton of choices to make, many of which are just as good as other ones. Magic: The Gathering allows you to decide whether you should cast this spell now or later or whether or not you want to cast this spell over the other one in your hand with your limited amount of mana. In Tentacle Bento, the only real option you have to win at this game is to form a match of three cards of the same suit. That’s it.

And there is a BIG advantage to waiting to forming a same-suit match with a card from the discard pile since you get to pick up so many cards and deny others those same cards. This results in those players being unable to catch up to the player that is winning. The player that gets ahead is more easily able to get even more ahead.

The Girl cards (Triangles, in my earlier Bad Game example) are all the same except for suits. It would be beneficial to the game if there were effects associated with the girls. Stuff like drawing cards, taking cards from the discard pile freely, or messing with matches that exist. That would make each girl card a lot more interesting and meaningful. I know that it adds a layer of complexity, but adding just the minimum amount of extra game text on these cards would be necessary to steer the game toward being fun.

The boon of getting all the cards above the card in the discard pile you select to form the same-suit match is just ridiculous. This has to change. It’s a huge power imbalance that randomly happens to players when they just so happen to draw the right suit and card type.

The game randomly ending with the Event cards (Smiley Face Aces in my example) isn’t an elegant way to end the game. Also not elegant: Returning those Event cards back to the deck when drawing them in your initial hand. Figure out a different way to end the game.

The Character cards are a great idea to have in this game. After all, an all-girls school still has the faculty of teachers, janitor, cook, headmaster, etc. Having just three Character cards in a deck of over 100 cards is woefully not enough. Adjust the ratio of Character cards to the other card types in the deck to allow a more-plentiful amount of Characters.

Also, the Mayhem Effects that happen (the extra defined-in-the-rules game effects from forming a Perfect Match with a Triangle instead of a Star from my example) are not significant enough to shake up the game. It’s boring. Also, since the effects aren’t written anywhere besides within in the rules, it’d be helpful if the game effects associated with each suit were easier to remember or written somewhere more noticeable.

How to Conclude a Bad Card Game Blog Post

With that said, the good things that this game has going for it are: high-quality artwork, a lot of clever and witty euphemisms, and great thematic choices for the different suits of Sexy, Cute, Sporty, and Smart along with their associated Girl, Capture, and Location cards. I feel like this game can be quite enjoyable using the same deck of cards if the rules were re-written.

Tentacle Bento: An unfun card game whose sole selling point is the theme of what one could interpret as to possibly imply as hentai tentacle rape.


  1. I'm still waiting on delivery of my copy of the game, but from your description, it sounds like 2-deck Rummy plus [characters, events, mayhem, and a theme]. Have you never played Rummy? Your description, especially the way you had me visualize it all with standard playing cards, was very similar to how I would teach someone to play Rummy - except Rummy runs until one player runs out of cards, rather than when 4 "Event" cards are played, and thus players try to strategically run out of cards when they have many points and before the other players get too many.

    Since I've played many long, enjoyable nights of Rummy over the years, I look forward to discovering whether my existing skills and strategies will translate to Tentacle Bento.

    1. Teel,

      Thanks for reading and leaving feedback! You're right - Tentacle Bento does play very much like how rummy games play. I have never played rummy myself, and as an enthusiast of card games, I feel slightly embarrassed by this fact.

      I took a look at the basic rummy rules as outlined here:

      What I've found is:

      Ending a game of rummy by running yourself out of cards in hand is a strategic decision. Tentacle Bento ends the game randomly.

      There are a plethora of options in rummy for running down your hand of cards, which increases the value of your cards and gives you the ability to do more with your turn. Tentacle Bento restricts you to just suit and type (3 types) whereas rummy has suit and rank, which there are 13 of. This is a lot more than the 3 different types of cards for a match (Girl, Location, Capture). And adding to an existing match is restricted to just adding 2 more girl cards. In rummy, you go by the values already placed down (add a 5 to an existing 2-3-4).

      In the basic rummy rules, there isn't an option to gain huge card advantage by picking up a lot of cards from the discard pile like you can in Tentacle Bento.

      Conclusion: Rummy is more strategic than Tentacle Bento, and you have more options during your turns. It's also more balanced. Tentacle Bento has limited options, especially when you're considering playing the game with the strategy to win. What results is feeling like you're not making meaningful gameplay decisions.

  2. I think Fluxx or arguably Sopio show that it's possible to have a very enjoyable card game even when there are very few choices to make and winning is essentially random. One could argue that in a game like this where the theme is the main selling point, the actual mechanical side *should* be close to on-rails so as not to distract from describing your hilariously rapeish encounters

    ... yeah.

    1. Forgot the most important thing I meant to say: I like the cards-for-ending mechanic. It's structured but random, meaning there is strategy to the game but no strategy covers all possible eventualities; reading it I was reminded of the epidemic cards in Pandemic. Dealing another card if you happen to deal someone one to start with is inelegant, but not really a major problem.

    2. lmm,

      True! The same principle applies to Munchkin to an extent, where the main focus is on how silly/outrageous kicking down doors as a D&D party can be.

      In that case, you definitely don't want to leave your players feeling frustrated by a lack of options. Even if the decisions they make are just random in terms of the gameplay, they should still feel like they have choices they're making. They should be able to make decisions.

      Lastly, other games allow for players to catch up more easily than players can in Tentacle Bento. When you're behind in this game due to card disadvantage, you'll most likely be left in the dust. And you can see that, too, that you're not going to be able to win. That's not a good feeling for a player to have.

      P.S. I've just recently been getting comments on this blog post. If I may ask: what brought you to leaving this comment just now? Was it linked somewhere and/or discussed recently? Thanks! =)

    3. I got here via google. Maybe it's just that the game's now arriving for people who bought it?

    4. Awesome. Thanks for the feedback!