Game Design

axe throwing, zombies and game design

It’s October, the spookiest month of the year, so I wanted to write about throwing axes.  The truth is, I’ve wanted to write about throwing axes for a while now.  I went axe throwing with some co-workers earlier this year, but I struggled to come up with a good game design angle for this post.  Then I found an axe throwing game with zombies, and it all came together.

First time axe throwing: what to expect

When we showed up at Bad Axe Throwing in San Francisco, we were given some basic instructions and then invited to take turns hurling axes at targets.  The directions on how to throw an axe are easy, but in practice, throwing axes and getting them to stick to the target, much less stick at a specific location in the target, is actually kind of difficult.  Not difficult in the physically demanding or complex way, but difficult in the sense that it seems random when you’re first trying it out.

For me, throwing an axe in what felt like the same way (at least for us newbies) had different results each time, so it was hard to learn and get better at it consistently on the very first day.  There is technique, but throwing an axe is not a common everyday action for your body so you’re not used to it.  I suppose it takes a while to get used to the feeling, and then be able to tweak little things like your stance or your grip.

Pros:

  • Everyone just starting out is around the same level, so it’s quite balanced to pit newbies against each other
  • The novel, powerful feeling of axe throwing makes it fun, which makes up for the repetition somewhat, especially if this is a one-off session
  • There is a feeling of surprise and delight when you succeed and hit a bullseye, because it does feel kind of random at times

Cons:

  • It’s difficult to feel like you’re improving on your first day, which can be frustrating especially if you’re trying different things and they seem to be working only sometimes
  • Axe throwing is comprised of one action – throwing an axe at a target, and this can get repetitive and boring once the novelty has worn off
  • Doing badly or not getting the axe to stick at all can be frustrating

After practice time, the nice people at Bad Axe Throwing organised a couple of games for us to play.  The first was where two teams tried to get exactly 51 points each.  Going over would result in a subtraction from the team’s score, until it ping-ponged to 51, which gave the losing team time to catch up.  The second was a tournament-style game where individuals competed to get the highest cumulative score in three throws, the top half advancing to the next round, where scores were reset, until a winner was crowned.

These were pretty simple games.  They are all about tallying points, and that makes sense, because axe throwing is primarily treated as a sport, with its own league and very specific, official rules on how to set up a target and which throws count.  It’s more like bowling, with one setup and an identical way of playing it each time, as opposed to rock climbing, which has more breathing room for really cool game design elements.

Axe throwing has a lot of game design potential

But how about the casual axe throwers who take this as an outing and show up once a year to hang out with friends or get over their exes?  I think axe throwing has a big untapped game design space for people who want to try it out as a team event or as a novelty.  Using some game design would make axe throwing more of a fun event rather than just sports practice.

My research into axe throwing did not bring up many interesting games beyond what I experienced first hand.  The World Axe Throwing League’s page suggests a few games, including takes on Cornhole or Horse, where players in teams compete to get a certain number of points.  There’s also Around the World, where you have to hit spots on the target in a specific order.  All of the designs are basically variations on a scoring system, which is not that interesting.

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A winning axe throwing game design

Then, I discovered this gem.  Bad Axe Throwing’s Indianapolis location put on a Halloween axe throwing game called “Infection” in 2017, and it was well thought out and different from all the other “get x number of points” axe throwing games that I’d seen.

Description:

  • The game starts with two teams, one consisting of a “zombie” and everyone else playing as humans.
  • In a series of matches, the zombie team manages to “convert” a human to their team if they score higher than the human, while the human team tries to amass a cumulative score (30 – 100) to stop the zombie infection.
  • This uses a custom target, which has drawings of zombies and scores for hitting their arms, legs, chest, head, etc.
  • The designers even talk about ways to expand on their game design by modifying the target.  One suggestion was adding a drawing of an antidote, which would “cure” someone on the zombie team and bring them back to the human team.

Here’s what worked:

  1. Theming
    • Axe throwing lends itself perfectly to the humans vs. zombies theme.  Players immediately buy into the story of humans trying to survive a zombie apocalypse and fending off hordes with their axes.
  2. Asymmetrical goals
    • In many of the points-based axe throwing games, the goal is either for an individual to beat the competing player by scoring higher or for a team to get to a certain number of points first.  It is refreshing to see this game do both simultaneously, having the teams strive for different goals.  This makes the game more interesting to play and watch.
  3. Target design
    • The one major feature of this game that distinguishes it from regular axe throwing is the target design.  It not only delivers on the game’s theme but also gives players something interesting and different from the usual axe throwing target.
  4. Players don’t get kicked out
    • I wanted to add this point as a bonus, because in some of the other games, especially tournament or duel style ones, there’s a tendency to knock people out of the game.  So, if you’re out first all the time, you don’t really get to participate.  It’s nice that this particular game design does not kick you out of the game but shuffles you over to another team and allows you to keep playing.

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Here’s what could be improved:

  1. Team goals vs. individual goals
    • The most difficult part of this game design is in the switching of teams.  This means that as an individual player, my goal switches whenever I switch teams, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.  At the end, even though either the “zombies” or the “humans” win, I would not know whether to cheer for my original team or the team I’m currently on.  This is an interesting problem and requires some thought as to how to give individuals separate goals without disrupting the really cool feature of switching teams.
  2. Balance for team size
    • Playing this game with 4 players vs playing this game with 30 players is a very different experience if you just start out with one zombie.  Adjusting the points required for the humans to win and the number of people who start out as zombies can help, and it might be advantageous to determine an optimal number of players or a range, and an idea of the number of points as a goal for beginner or expert players.
  3. Add more surprise twists
    • If you play as a zombie, you get the satisfaction of “converting” a human player to your team if you beat them in a match.  However, the motivation for humans is simply to not lose and score points, which can get dull.  It would be nice to see additional twists, to balance this out.  For example, an “antidote” to convert a zombie back to a human does not have to be an item on the target.  Instead, whenever the humans land exactly on a score ending in -3 or -7, for example, they get an antidote.  Or, every 10 points, a card with some event on it gets drawn.  Things like “zombies have to throw from further away for the next 3 turns” or “humans’ points are doubled for the next 3 throws” could add more flavour and excitement to the game.
  4. Players get varying degrees of participation
    • Because of the asymmetrical teams, some players may be throwing all the time while others have to wait.  Watching others play can be fun, but I wanted to point this out here as waits can be quite long with big groups, so the initial sizes of teams might need to be adjusted, or the number of throws per match.

The designers cleverly looked at what was core about axe throwing, and made changes to the elements around that.  While keeping the primary action of throwing an axe at a target intact, they changed things like the target, the size of the team, the scoring system and the win condition.  What resulted was a really cool game design.  Doing this is a great method for designing a game based on an existing activity.

Game design is alive and well, and I’m excited to see where it takes axe throwing in the future.