Pecking Order Endnotes

Origins

Pecking Order is a game I developed originally for a standard deck of cards, and later augmented a bit for publication with Winning Moves. The inspiration for the game came from watching birds jockey for perches – I would watch them approach and sometimes dislodge the other bird, and sometime fail to dislodge the other bird. I imagined that it wasn’t really known which bird was higher in the pecking order until this challenge took place … and that is the basis for the game.

The original game as played with a deck of cards is as follows:
Two players each take a suit – one diamonds and one hearts. The spades are placed up on the table in order. The clubs are set aside. Each player shuffles their deck of 13 cards. Choose who goes first then play alternates.

A player draws a card on her turn and places it face down beside one of the spades (the perches). This is the perch the bird is attempting to claim and at the end of the game the player who has a bird on that perch will score the value of the perch (1-13). If the opponent has already claimed a perch then the card that is already there is the defender and is revealed (if it wasn’t already revealed earlier). The other card is the attacker and remains secret. The attacker indicates which card is larger and the smaller card loses and is set aside – the larger card remains. If it is a tie the attacker wins. Note that the attacking card will remain face down whether or not it wins.

That is it – you can play one hand or several hands adding together the points. It is a light game with a bluffing, light tactics, a little deduction. I wrote up this game (or something very close to it) for Games Magazine between five and ten years ago.

Making a Board Game

The game seemed solid enough to make into a stand alone product – a light fast game for two players. I wanted to add a bit more meat to it than it had at this point and I came up with the following embellishments:

The Cat: The cat was a piece that beat all the birds but couldn’t itself claim a perch at the end. When it encounters a bird or another cat both cards are discarded. If on a perch at the end it is revealed and discarded so no one scores that perch.

Tie-Breaker: The lowest value perch was the tie breaker, and if a bird occupied that perch its’ team won ties rather than the attacking bird in an encounter.

Vision Roof: The 3 value perch has the special effect that when a player successfully plays a card there a face down card that the opponent has played is revealed.

Forked Perch: The highest value perch in this version is the 10, the second highest is 9, the third and fourth together are the forked perch and individually are worth 8, but if one team scores both that team gets a bonus 3.

In this way a few changes to the base rules gave a little needed variety and some fun color.

Interesting Elements

There are two mechanical elements in Pecking Order that I thought were fairly fresh – I don’t know if I had seen them before, but if I have they certainly aren’t common.

1) There are many games where random stuff comes up and you bid on it in some way. There aren’t many games where all the things you can bid on are there for the taking, but what you can bid is random. There are some where you bid from a random hand, but actually having your entire bid selected at random I think is rare. (I can’t think of such a game though I would be surprised if it didn’t exist).

2) There are many games where two secret cards or tiles are compared and one wins (most famously, Stratego), and almost always both players see both values. Electronic Stratego enabled the game to moderate and keep the winner’s tile secret. In Pecking Order only one player knows the identity of both tiles – which may be a first.

Pitching the Board Game

The game ended up with Winning Moves, which was a bit of a surprise since it looked like the European publishers appreciated the design much more than the American publishers. The American publishers tended to discard it as yet another bidding game – the European were more enthusiastic, apparently having a more refined taste for the differences between these sorts of games. Ultimately, however, it was too light – or handled too few players, or didn’t fit in some other way with the several European companies that expressed interest. Winning Moves, however, was very enthusiastic, loved the game, and was launching a new line that they wanted to put it in.

Working with Winning Moves was good, they had a constructive relationship with us, giving feedback we thought was insightful and respecting our opinions when we gave them. There were hints of problems to come, however, because the line they were trying to build was a new “hobby” line, and Pecking Order was not a hobby game, it is playable by the hobby market but it is more like their often excellent broader market games such as Coda (now being sold as The da Vinci Code Game, or something similar).  Hence, the art, while being good – was a bit alarming as it looked more like a hobby game than I thought it should have.

Critically Successful, Commercially not so good.

The game sold dreadfully. I really believe if it had been treated as a broader market game rather than part of a hobby line, and if it had been more modestly priced, it would have done well – but who knows. Ultimately I think Winning Moves convinced themselves that my name would help with the hobby market line they wanted to build even if the game provided wasn’t hobby market material. And I was equally culpable in that I convinced myself that having the game published by such a good publisher would magically get the right audience to it despite the fact the price point and presentation weren’t right for them. Despite this the game did get recognized in several places including Games 100 and one of about.com’s card games of the year for 2006.

The Future

I don’t know if I have given up on Pecking Order as a stand alone project, I certainly do not feel its’ potential has been reached – but I don’t know how much passion I have for taking it further. Certainly any card game book I do in the future will have a version of the game similar to the simple game that launched it. Perhaps I will try to make a computer version of the game since so much of my design effort these days have been in digital rather than analog games. In any case I have learned some lessons with this product that will inform my decisions on future games.

Comments

8 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Is there any sanction or mechanism to prevent the attacker lying about the victor in a challenge?

  2. A good question. I think games should try to avoid “untraceable” cheating, but traceable cheating is OK. For example, in bridge if a player doesn’t follow suit when they have to the other players will notice eventually if they are paying attention. However in “Go Fish” or “Authors” I can lie about whether I have a card in my hand and it can’t really be detected most of the time.

    Cheating in Pecking Order is traceable since players leave all defeated cards next to the perch they were knocked off of – and after the game players reveal all the cards. Generally this is done with glee since players want to gloat that they held a valuable perch with a worthless bird, or just barely defended a perch.

  3. Just wanted to drop a quick “Thanks” for this article. I’m trying to get a casual card game published right now, and so I’m trying to learn as much about the process as I can.

    Its interesting to me (because interest is better than frustration) that publishers aren’t only concerned with a good product. There’s also the question of how a product fits in a line.

    Anyways, thanks again. And by the by, September slipped by with no podcast…

    Good luck with your game, it can be a long process – try to have fun along the way! I have many products turned down and I always try to take it as an opportunity to improve the game a little.

    Podcast soon I promise – we have 2 “in the can” – they were delayed due to technical problems.

    Richard

  4. cyrilg,

    One day, I had the chance to play games of your design using regulardeck of cards. It was after a Pro Tour, e were waiting for plane.

    The game we played that day was about god, prophet and the rest of us. We had fun, sincerely.

    Well, back to the point, that day you said that you were writing a book containing games to play with a regular deck of cards. What happened to that book? Isn’t Pecking Order part of that project?

  5. The game you are referring to is not my design – it is Eleusis by a very interesting and creative game designer and puzzle maker – Robert Abbott.
    Here is a link to his excellent logic maze site:
    http://www.logicmazes.com/

    The card game book is a project I hope to undertake some day – and PO will be a part of it.

  6. I try not to plug my blog all over the place and let comments just be comments… but I whipped up a domino game this week and it the role of hidden information in that game reminded me of this post. So I thought I’d invite you to check it out.. I’m calling it “Johari Bones” for now. Rules are posted on my blog: onepointper.blogspot.com

  7. Thanks for the pointer Mike, cool stuff.

  8. Duncan,

    This was a fascinating blog post. I really enjoy Pecking Order, and honestly your name on it sold it to me as a Magic player. Hearing the thought process that went on is really helpful, especially in terms of the components and flavor. I would like to hear more about the thought process behind the Vision Perch. While I can certainly appreciate it’s mechanic, it seems like it could have been a bit more powerful to be more relevant and worth fighting over.

    On a related topic, how much control do you have over this game now? If you wanted to retheme it and take it to say Gamewright to launch as a childrens title, would you have the rights to do so? I mean, this game just seems so obviously suited to have nice large cards with big, fat, colorful birds on them fighting for position on a power line.

    Finally, I’m sure you’ve thought about how to open this style of mechanics up to more players. I mean, I love pecking order, but any game that can only be played with two players is a bit too restrictive for my regular game group. Any multiplayer variants you’d like to share?

Add Your Comments

Disclaimer
Your email is never published nor shared.
Required
Required
Tips

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>

Ready?