6 min read

Pandante: a sneak peak on how Pandas gamble

A sneak peak at the design behind Pandante, a gambling game I didn't quite mean to make but accidentally did. It has ended up very opposite of poker, despite having a similar structure to it. The Pandas love it and someday maybe you will too.

My book starts with this quote, and it's the only quote to appear twice in the book:

"It cannot be found by seeking, but only seekers shall find it."--Sufi Proverb

That's a good description of how a game I'm developing has shaped up. It's called Pandante. I certainly didn't mean to find a game with the properties it has, but only seekers find such things I guess. My hobby, while I'm not making games, is to think about new games I could make. A lot of times the design of these imagined games doesn't come together enough in my mind, so I move on. Once in a while, it comes together in a big way.

I was thinking about some bluffing mechanics, and trying to build a game around them, but it just didn't add up. A friend of mine said, "You know, this would fit a lot better in a gambling game." A gambling game? Hmm, he was right. And suddenly I knew how it would all work, the whole thing. The cards, the board, the way bets work, the way bluffing works, even the graphic design. I actually created final looking graphic design for everything in the game, had it printed professionally, and wrote a complete formatted rulebook before playing it even one time. I was that sure.

And of course, things don't turn out how you plan. I had the wrong win condition, the tuning of the few abilities in the game weren't quite right, and the payoffs for bluffing vs telling the truth weren't quite right. Also, there are a few abilities in the game and they are tied to which color (suits) of cards you have, and it took quite a while to figure out how to handle the interaction between the color/ability part of the game and the part of the game that involves poker-like hands. For example, if you claim to have the green ability, that might say something about whether you really have a flush of all green cards. Ok, fine. But if someone thinks you're lying, calls you out, and you have to reveal that you do in fact have a green 4, then the part where you show the 4 now reveals way too much about what hand you have. That one was pretty tricky to solve and it took a few tries.

Even though those were all problems, the core of it all worked from day 1. So through more tuning and polishing over the course of several months, it seems to have all settled down into something that works. And now Pandante has these qualities:

It's a gambling game
that is fun to play for its own sake, even with no real money
that brings joy to everyone who plays it.


If you think about that for a minute, you realize how opposite it must be from poker. Poker is a gambling game. It really *isn't* fun to play for its own sake though, with no real money. I mean I don't doubt you could have fun if it was your thing, but it's just got a lot stacked against it. Players get eliminated, so it's awkward to play with a group because some people don't get to play very long while others go on for quite some time. You have to fold all the time, so a lot of the game is waiting around to ever have a playable hand. No special abilities means that there just aren't a lot of interactions. I don't even mean going all the way to Magic: the Gathering which has a wealth of complex interactions of abilities, I just mean having even a few simple special abilities can go a really long way towards making such a game interesting to play for its own sake. And finally, pokerusually brings misery to those who play it. It's an intense psychological battle, where you turn the screws on your enemies to make them sweat and fold out of fear. It's sort of hard to play poker with your kids or your family for that reason.


Meanwhile, Pandante has ended up about as far as you can get from that. No elimination, you don't have to fold all the time, has a few special abilities, and brings JOY. I think that was the most unexpected part for me, that people are so happy while playing it. I was very concerned with the system design of the game, so that's where my thinking was initially. To make sure the bluffing aspect really came through as strong as possible, we needed to tweak the payoffs to allow it to work. We then needed to create natural incentives to stay in a hand longer, rather than fold right away. There turned out to be a strong synergy here: if you have reason to stay in the hand longer AND if bluffing is powerful, then it means the set of playable hands is much, much larger. In other words, even if you have a bad hand, you can get away with bluffing way more than in poker, so that means you get to actually play the game more.

The synergies kept piling on more and more there, too. Pandante allows you to get a few more cards than you usually get in poker, so it means even a bad hand can become a good one if you stick with it. And on top of all that, the possible hands you're shooting for are not the same ones as in poker. Several are tweaked to work just with Pandante, and they're specifically chosen because they have reasonable probabilities to get. Not everything is some impossible long shot like 4 of a kind.

This system design ended up having the emergent property of "brings joy to everyone who plays it." The reason is that by the nature of the system, everyone wants to stay in the hand most of the time, so everyone is involved. And further, practically everyone is lying about something, and everyone else knows it. This creates a lighthearted atmosphere that feels like "play." Playing with truth/lies, playing with how you phrase your claims, and laughing that implausibility of some people's claims. People just seem a lot happier (as in smiling, laughing) than when playing my other games. Yomi is a great strategy game, though it's often about making your opponent suffer in various ways. Codex is a great strategy game, and it's often about thinking really hard about how to use the many possible options available to you. Pandante is about lying and pandas.

I look forward to telling you more about how it actually works. I'm hoping fully unveil it before the end of the year.

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