I’m Dave Chalker, game designer for several games including Thief’s Market, Heat, Criminals, and my most well known game Get Bit! If you’re familiar with the game, you might not be surprised that the game started with a shark.
Years ago, when I was just starting out in game design, I attended a talk at a convention by Reiner Knizia, designer of many of my favorite games. One of the first topics he discussed was how to get started on a game. He said there was a “triangle” of different ways to start: with a game mechanism, a theme, or a component (game pieces.) Eventually, of course, your game will need to cover all three to various extents. When you’re first getting started, it’s useful to hone in one part and move out from there.
The third one, starting with a component, isn’t one you hear about that often, except with games that have a toy-like component. However, in my case, I was handed a shark (that had been purchased at a gift shop in Hawaii while on honeymoon) and told “make a game with this!” And so I did.
Of course, few games spring fully formed. Some of the basics shook out early enough: there’s a line of swimmers, each belonging to a different player, in a line in front of a shark. The shark is trying to eat them. You, as one of those swimmers, are trying to avoid that.
I’ve called myself a “Garbage In, Garbage Out” designer because I play a lot of different games and then end up being heavily influenced by games I enjoy. (As a sidenote, this is very different from Dr. Knizia, who almost never plays other games.) I had played a game called Leapfrog that used numbers to determine their order in a line, and so I leapt off that idea for the early versions of Get Bit!
The earliest versions of the game had the line, the shark biting the back of the line every round, and everyone having an identical hand of cards that are simultaneously chosen and then revealed. Very quickly it became clear that some interesting mind games happened if you tie with someone else’s play, so that rule was incorporated.
What took a while was figuring out the appropriate punishment for being bitten by a shark. Of course, it should be bad, and that’s a way to drive the game to a close. But if it’s too punishing, you start to lose early, and then have no chance to catch up. Early versions had you losing cards out of your hand permanently, then randomly (but secretly). In every case, it was too tough to get back in the game. Eventually my wonderful game design group helped me come up with a solution: when you’re bitten, there’s no penalty at all… except for being closer to losing. In fact, we determined it worked best if there were two catch up mechanisms: one, you got all the cards you played back (which meant that people’s hands cycled at different rates, which was a good part of earlier playtests) and you got jumped to the front of the line (so you weren’t just always stuck in the same spot, and created opportunities for sacrifice plays.)
I had my theme, my mechanisms, and my components. Well, I knew the shark would stay. But what about the swimmers? It became clear that colored pawns and tokens with “CHOMP” on them didn’t quite convey enough of what was going on in the game. So I replaced those pawns with my LEGO collection, so you could tear bits off of them. When you were out of bits, you were eaten. Simple.
Soon, the LEGO dudes became replaced with figures with easily removable limbs. A few more rules shook out of continued playtesting, mostly related to how the game started, and how the game ended. By and large, it was done.
I started to shop the game around, and received a few offers, all of whom said they couldn’t really make it with the pieces the game should have. One offer wanted the game made entirely with cards, which I wasn’t interested in.
Eventually I worked with the person who had given me the shark figure in the first place to produce the first run of 500 copies, and who came up with the name “Get Bit!” I gave it to reviewers and other folks like Wil Wheaton when I saw them at conventions, with a “no pressure, here’s something I made and hope you enjoy” attitude. Those giveaways would pay off in getting attention to my tiny shark game.
Eventually, Mayday Games made an offer to pick up the game for a full print run. They cleaned up some of the issues with the first printing, helped get it into other languages, which eventually lead to the fancier Deluxe edition.
What started out with just a single shark piece took a few years to get a simple game as good as I could make it. Now it’s sold over 50,000 copies and has been translated into 10 languages. So if you’re ever handed something and told to make a game out of it… do it!