A Humble Rat
Rats to Riches started out as a social enterprise project under the university student society, Enactus Manchester. Back then, we had a financial literacy project called SPOT Finance; it was a volunteering project where we would go every Friday to secondary schools in the community to teach basic finance to the students.
In 2017, the project was not doing very well; we were struggling to find enough committed volunteers to carry on teaching, and the schools were not happy with the quality of our work. Trying to find a more sustainable solution, I came up with the idea to make a finance board game that could teach the curriculum while letting the kids have fun doing so. It would also lessen our need to physically be there every week, but at the same time allow us to generate some revenue to fund the society's other projects. It sounded hopeful, but things did not work out with the school nor with the volunteers. When the project was disbanded, I carried on working on the finance game idea independently, seeing where it would take me. Thus, in June 2017, Rats to Riches was born.
What you see here is the first 'printable' prototype of the game. Before this, there were already 3 purely-online versions of the game, like what we have in the previous photo. This version, the MK4, was made with the intention of getting a minimum viable product that could be physically tested with some friends to get their feedback. This photo was taken just after i had printed the sheets at the university library, and it was a moment of pride and excitement, as i thought about showing the world what an awesome creation i had made. Man was i so wrong. During the first ever game of Rats to Riches (back then it was still called 'The Game' for lack of better options), we had 2 players bankrupt. They had no cash, and had to give away cards turn after turn, with no hope of ever recovering. One of them, Rav, rage-quit on me and just stormed off. The other, i guess feeling bad for me, decided to stay on till the end. Bless his soul. Mind you, that game took 2 and a half hours to finish, so just imagine the pain he had to go through. Meanwhile, another player got so rich that we didn't have enough coins to physically show how much he had. Instead , we took out £10 notes from our wallets to make up for it. Turns out, that man would later become my boss. Go figure.
So my first ever Rats to Riches playtest was a painful blow to my ego, but brought with it important lessons for carrying the idea forward. Needless to say, major re-balancing followed.
Singapore. Summer 2017. MK5 to MK8.
I had to fly back to Singapore over the Summer break to work for the Singapore Navy (a story for another time), but that didn't stop game development. Every day after work on board the ship, I would come home, research on game development (mostly just watching YouTube videos of other people playing board games), work on new ideas, make new prototypes (with the help of my lovely sisters) and playtest!
MK5-MK7 was a board game where all players had their own 'Career Boards'; these 'careers' were special abilities exclusive to you, that you could obtain if you paid its respective cost. We also had Brown resource cards, Green investment cards, Blue asset cards and Red tactical cards for players to choose from. Back then, the cards were passed around in a 7-wonders style card draft system (you choose 1 card from your hand, then pass the rest to the next player). There was also an Events deck, which players draw from every turn to see if they get stuff that helps or hinders them. In MK8 i got rid of Career Boards and instead put the careers as Purple cards that were available to everyone. For a more detailed breakdown of all the changes that have happened since the beginning, check out the Patch Notes document here.
As it was my first time ever designing a game, I had so much to learn. Thankfully, I had my friends and family who supported me through the journey, especially during those early days. Gone were the crazy imbalanced games of players getting bankrupt or ultra-rich; now things were milder, more fun (arguably), and really just coming together as something that could hold its own.
Manchester. September 2017.
Finishing my stint with the Navy, i flew back 11,000km to the birthplace of Rats to Riches (its around this time that i settled on this name). With a fresh set of MK8 in hand, i sought to showcase Rats to Riches with all my university friends (yes all 5 of them). This time, there were no worries with rage-quits or huge imbalances; games were quite a close fight till the end most of the time. But with stability also comes a certain sense of staleness. The game had become something that everybody kind-of liked, but nobody was really burning with passion for it.
With the numerous playtest sessions, coupled with more 'research' and brainstorm sessions, there were a ton of new ideas flooding in. Awesome, right?
Well to some extent, yes. It meant a lot of work, making new versions practically every week, testing out odd concepts like Corn Cards and Tunnel Cards. It also meant that the game got really 'crowded'. Think of a soup where you try to add every ingredient in your kitchen, or a song where every instrument is playing at the same time. Kinds spoils it, don't you think?
Call it fate, or a necessary evil, but nonetheless I was not prepared for what was to come next.
Keeping in a comfort zone of friends and family is nice, but the reality of breaking out of that zone can get pretty painful.
In October 2017, I found a Meetup group in Manchester for playtesting. Other game developers that wanted to get their games tested would gather and we could try each others' games. Sounds cool, so i went, thinking that i would wow the crowd with my 'polished' game.
Turns out, they absolutely slaughtered it. Like straight up, they just said it was a bad game, i was wasting my players' times because the half the game was spoiling the other half. Like, what does that even mean? Anyways, it was BRUTAL. I really thought i had something good going for me there, but i guess that's the value of having strangers test it out because they will have no qualms saying what they think.
And that was for MK8. After making some major changes to the fundamentals of the game, i made MK9 and MK10 based on others' feedback and went back to that same Meetup group, fingers crossed.
They liked it!! Awesome! You won't believe the joy, the relief i had when i walked out on to the Northern Quarter street after that session. But as amazing as that feeling was, it was not the end.
By this time, word on Rats to Riches had started spreading around campus and an Economics professor was interested to find out more. So i met up with him, talked about the concepts behind the game, played afew rounds, before he told me that there was too much going on in the game. It was too difficult to understand; i needed to rethink the rules, make the game more like chess: simple structure, complex interactions. Surprised, but trying to act professional, i thanked him for his time and input, then walked out. It was a disheartening experience to say the least. At that time, the thought running through my mind was: 'what does this old guy know about games? my peers like it, and i think its great exactly how it is'.
Reluctant to admit, I knew he was saying the truth. But to do what he was trying to get me to do would mean a serious overhaul to the game. Was that really what we needed?
I think you already know the answer to that. It was exactly what we needed. It's funny because, i walked out of that office in denial, but it was only the next day while i was in the shower that it hit me. Showers seem to be the best places for epiphanies. Maybe its because the water is hitting your brain so it stimulates thinking.
It hit me. The idea for a chess-like structure to the game. Players can choose between 3 paths, Green, Blue or Red. They get to make this decision every turn. Then, we will have a River of cards that they can buy stuff from, using the three basic cheese they have been collecting. Eventually this becomes The Sewer, because it fits with the rats theme better. And everything starts falling into place. I make the prototype, test it with a few groups of friends, make some changes, and voila! MK11 is ready for business.
I brought the MK11 to the playtest Meetup group, they said it was great. I brought it to Dragonmeet (a game conference in London), the people who tried it said it was great. Brought it to strangers in a pub, they said... You get it. At last, I had a prototype that was consistently performing well.
We've come a long way. Looking back, all i can say is that, each step of the journey, each person who playtested and gave feedback, each brainstorming session, each failure, each small iteration, they were all necessary to create what we have today. It is through the most humbling of experiences that we achieve the greatest growth.
Have we went from rats to riches? Well, that's for you to decide.