Blind Business: The Origin of My Game Design Career

I never planned to design a board game.

I grew up playing a variety of games and sports, and ended up becoming a professional Ultimate Frisbee player. Off the field, I became obsessed with modern board games. After graduating from college, I started designing games as well. I wanted to see whether I could create my own game — not with the intent of getting it published, more to understand what goes into a game.

A live shot of me from one of 2023's professional ultimate (AUDL) games.

Blind Business is my first game design, but it was not my first game idea.

Originally, I wanted to express my passion for Ultimate Frisbee through a game. I planned to replicate decisions from the perspective of a coach: selecting players for the team via card drafting, allocating players to offense or defense using a deck-building-esque mechanism, and using card abilities to determine probabilities of scoring on a given point. Once I had that basic framework, I started thinking about how to design cards and balance abilities. I was utterly overwhelmed, so I set the idea aside.

My next idea was to make a game about my favorite book series, Red Rising — which made it funny when I saw the news a year later that Stonemaier Games was publishing a Red Rising game! This was an even more ambitious idea than my Ultimate Frisbee idea as I wanted to recreate the feeling of tension and political intrigue present in the Red Rising books.

My basic framework was a game in which one player plays the main character (Darrow) of the "good guys", one player plays a primary antagonist (the Sovereign), and everyone else plays a different mercenary who can give aid in a distinct way and ally with either side in this larger war. The earlier a neutral player allies with one side, the more powerful their aid will be, and they can switch allegiances by paying a hefty cost. Each character would be extremely asymmetric; the two main players would be playing a warlike game, while some mercenaries would be more economically or negotiation focused. Once again, as I reached the meat of the design process, I felt overwhelmed and put the concept aside.

I realized that designing games about my passions was not necessarily the best starting path. I set the goal of designing a simpler game that could be played solely with a deck of cards. Within a few days, Blind Business was born.

The First Iteration of Blind Business

With that limitation of only a deck of cards in mind, I thought about games I liked that were extremely simple. A primary game that was a source of inspiration — in part because it was the main game in my mind that I loved playing if I had only a deck of cards — was Skull. I knew I wanted to create a game that had meaningful player interaction and a dynamic metagame without a single dominant strategy.

The other game that was an inspiration (unsurprisingly, given the final product) was Hanabi. I love players having asymmetric information, and the idea of cards facing outwards seemed unique to Hanabi, so it made sense to try to use that idea in a competitive setting.

The basic framework of Blind Business came to me one night while I had all of these ideas swirling in my mind as I lay in bed trying to sleep. My vision was always that each player had four cards in their hand facing outwards, and that players would ask for a card from another player's hand and try to make a deal. The fundamental scoring system is also unchanged from that first design: You multiply the highest card in a suit by the number of cards in that suit. I wanted the scoring to be simple with only a few computations. (I wanted to avoid something like Lost Cities, which is a game I love, but it has a daunting, math-heavy scoring.)

The yes/no system has changed slightly, but is nearly the same as it was then. There were no special abilities or alternate scoring opportunities; you play a certain number of rounds based on player count, and whoever has the most points from those multiplications at the end wins. Even from that first night, my title for the game was always Blind Business as I liked the snappy alliteration, and it felt fitting as you are making deals without knowing exactly what you are giving up.

With the rules set and playable, I tried it as a three-player game with my two closest friends. I was thrilled to find that the game worked and it was easy to understand. I played it a couple more times, tweaked the rules for what happens when the recipient of the proposed deal says "No"...and put it aside, feeling satisfied that I had created a playable, simple game.

The Road to the Full Game

After designing the first iteration of the design in the summer of 2020, I didn't touch it again until the fall of 2021. While watching board game news on The Dice Tower, I saw that Ravensburger was accepting open submissions for board and card games. I hadn't even considered the possibility that Blind Business could be published. I sent the rules to Ravensburger and met with someone from the company to get their feedback. They were very kind and said that they liked the idea, but that it was a bit too basic and lacked variety. Reinvigorated as a designer, I set out to refine my original design.

The Road to the Full Game

After designing the first iteration of the design in the summer of 2020, I didn't touch it again until the fall of 2021. While watching board game news on The Dice Tower, I saw that Ravensburger was accepting open submissions for board and card games. I hadn't even considered the possibility that Blind Business could be published. I sent the rules to Ravensburger and met with someone from the company to get their feedback. They were very kind and said that they liked the idea, but that it was a bit too basic and lacked variety. Reinvigorated as a designer, I set out to refine my original design.

The biggest problem with that first iteration was the blandness of the cards; each card acted only as a multiplier for its suit, so a 10 in a suit is always strictly better than a 5 in that suit. My intuitive solution to this was to give each card a power, with stronger powers for lower numbers and weaker powers for higher numbers. Some of the powers have been completely unchanged from that first night of designing, like the 1 counting as two cards for final scoring and the 2 giving you a yes token/card. Many have changed, and I learned a couple of significant lessons while designing the balance of the card powers.

The first lesson was that balance is not the only consideration. I thought of making high numbers have significant negative effects and low numbers have significant positive effects, keeping the powers symmetric and numerically balanced. When playtesting early versions of the card powers, I realized that the negative effects, such as having to discard cards, were not fun for players. Instead, I made powers feel stronger and made each ability feel big and exciting. Now when I design, I focus more on empowering players through positive abilities while making sure the game is mechanically balanced.

The second lesson was that having many complex and powerful abilities can lead to the game feeling chaotic, which contrasted with its nature as a short, simple card game. I struggled with balancing the card powers; how would I make every card unique without requiring players to remember a dozen abilities? I did not want to have vanilla cards with no ability as I wanted every card to feel rewarding for players. I resolved this by connecting some of the bonuses to other cards, with players being rewarded for collecting all cards in a given set.

An early playtest of  Blind Business at Cal; thanks to my friends Evan, Dexter, and Vincent for their help!

I was excited to see that adding card powers made the game far more exciting and dynamic. By December, I was researching how to formally submit a game to publishers. I learned that I needed to make a sell sheet, a rules video, and a prototype. I spent much of my final semester of grad school at Cal-Berkeley looking for publishers who were accepting game submissions.

In May 2022, Devir said yes to Blind Business.

Developing the Final Product

Once Devir and I finalized our deal and I graduated from Cal, I spent the summer playing Ultimate and refining Blind Business. David Esbri, Devir's wonderful developer, met with me a few times with adjustments after playtesting my recently acquired prototype. The two big changes were adding suit powers and an alternate win condition.

The suit powers were a fairly intuitive change; I wanted the choice of which suits to pursue to inform strategy. I was still wary of adding too much rules overhead given that I already had the card powers in the game. I limited this by having two suits be tied to each other and giving the remaining two suits simple rewards for the player with the most cards in that suit. This creates another level of player interaction, as in addition to the bluffing and negotiations of deal-making, you are also fighting other players for the suit bonuses.

The alternate win condition is one that had entered the game much earlier, and I enjoyed it so much that I made it more prominent. Initially, the alternate win condition was the special ability of the 7, 8, 9, and 10 cards; if you have all four in the same suit, you win immediately. The tension of this potential spoiler added so much depth in my playtests that I decided to make it a rule for any run of numbers in the same suit. I increased the number of required cards to five, but added a card that counts as a wild number of its suit for the purposes of getting that five in a row.

The alternate win condition was inspired by 7 Wonders Duel. In that game, players earn points towards final scoring, but if a player does something challenging, points no longer matter and the player instantly wins. This often forces opposing players to sacrifice their own goals to block someone else's win and keeps everyone in the game. In Blind Business, even if a player is way behind on points, they may still be able to make a push for five in a row

At the start of Blind Business, a certain number of cards (depending on player count) are randomly and secretly discarded. This has elevated importance within the context of five in a row; perhaps the card you need to complete your five in a row isn't in the deck at all! I enjoy this tension in other games, such as Biblios and No Thanks!, as it introduces a press-your-luck element as you hope that cards needed to complete your set are still in the deck. The potential of winning by five in a row scales appropriately across player counts. With fewer players, each player will have more turns and thus get more cards, but far more cards are discarded at the start of the game, which can break up runs; with more players, few or no cards are discarded, but each player has fewer turns to get the cards they need.

What About That Piñata?

After a few months of refining the final version of the rules with card powers, suit powers, and the five-in-a-row win condition, we set our sights on theme and aesthetics. I initially thought the game might be business themed, and I also considered a baking theme of acquiring ingredients or a zoo theme of gathering animals.
However, we wanted a unique theme, and the gameplay of making somewhat blind deals fit neatly with being blindfolded and hitting a piñata. The instant win condition also makes sense thematically with popping a piñata. We thought about renaming the game "Piñata Party" or "Ricky Town", but decided that Blind Business had a nice ring to it.
We wanted the art to match the atmosphere of the game: lighthearted and high energy. A Cuphead-style look made the game feel distinct. The artist, Carlos Ureta, did a fantastic job of making the colors pop and bringing the characters to life.

Final Reflections on my Design Philosophy

I don't think I had a design philosophy in such clear terms when I started designing Blind Business. Over the past three years, though, I have learned three things I consider central to my design philosophy.
First, I think player interaction is essential. I do love puzzly Eurogames and solo games, but my favorite games force me to consider what my opponent wants and react to their decisions. I want more interaction than just blocking or denying opponents; I want to consider how they think about a given situation, and if I can have some elements of positive player interaction, I see that as ideal.
I've played Blind Business with many groups, and some like table talk to bluff players about what they're asking for while others prefer to play quietly with just yes/no responses to proposed deals, and I am happy that it can suit the personality of any group.

Second, I want my games to have a mix of tactics and strategy. Early in the game, players can see many of the available cards for the next couple of rounds, and what they ask for can determine which suits and five-in-a-row set to pursue. However, the game is also tactical as players react to what a given opponent has and which cards players end up with. I want players to feel like their early decisions are significantly changing the course of the game, while also having the flexibility to adapt and change their initial strategy.

Third, I always want to have many paths to victory. In Blind Business, players can focus on diversifying suits so they can take advantage of any card they receive. Players can focus on information gathering by using 3s and 4s to see the opponent's hand and make more informed yes/no decisions. Players can focus on five in a row, especially by using the wild number card. They can focus on any of the suit bonuses. They can focus on any number of the card powers: the 5/6 or 7/8/9 runs for points, using the yes tokens to get a key card late in the game, or foisting a 10/11 on their opponent to make them discard a card. I wanted whatever playstyle or card appears to you to be viable, so that players aren't shoehorned into a given strategy or that a "meta" becomes optimal each game. Both the card balancing and bluffing of asking for cards is intended to create more dynamic strategy options in what is still ultimately a light and easy-to-play card game.

I am thrilled to bring this game to shelves around the world and hope players enjoy Blind Business as much as I enjoyed designing it. At 24, I am just beginning my design career and am excited to bring more original ideas to the table in the future.

Andrew Roy