Design Diary: Last Rites - Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 Gets a Premortem
November 23, 2018
We've been looking recently at the stuff inside the Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 box and its expansions, and we'll do more of that over the coming weeks. Today, though, I want to step back and show y'all part of the process of publishing the game itself. There are lots of moving parts that come between "Hey, here's a wacky idea for a new game!" and "Hey, here's a wacky new game on the shelf! IT MUST BE MINE!" and one of the most important is the premortem meeting.
For many years, we held postmortem meetings when new games came to the office. All the stakeholders would gather in a room, each with a copy of the game, and start going through, piece by piece, looking for things that we should have caught before printing and that we would mark to be fixed in the next printing. From time to time, someone would remark how useful it would be to have the postmortem before the game went to print, so that we could catch all those little mistakes before they ever saw print. Eventually, enough people said it that we decided, "Yeah, let's actually do that," and thus the premortem was born.
Anywhere from four to eight of us (depending on the game and who's available) gather in our large conference room with several printouts of every component of the game. We usually adopt an "outside-in" approach, starting with the custom markings we put on our shipping cartons, moving in through the game box, the rules and board (if there is one – you can see part of the Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 board to the left), cards, and on down to tokens and the like. By this time, at least three people have already reviewed all these files, so we don't expect to find anything too egregious.
Even so . . . sometimes we read what we know should be there instead of what actually is. This is why it's valuable to get more pairs of eyes on the pages, in a setting where we can talk things out, before the files finally go to print. Also, there are some subjective questions ("Is this art colored effectively? Does this layout work? Is this joke as funny as Andrew thinks it is?") where the collaborative setting really helps bring up concerns that may not have occurred to the earlier readers.
The real value to premortems is that everyone brings their own perspective to the table. It's common for one person to take a hard look at all the boilerplate (e.g., the copyright and trademark language, the "More Munchkin" box that appears in every Munchkin game) to make sure we haven't allowed an error to slip through because we're so familiar with that text that it's easy to gloss over it. Someone else will check the letter spacing in card titles to see if we can tweak that and improve the way things read. Still someone else will look at characters and monsters that appear on multiple cards to make sure coloring is consistent across the set. And we're ALL looking things over to make sure the game is as good as it can possibly be. Coming back from a premortem and rewording a card or rule is a common occurrence – not because what we wrote was bad but because when you have half a dozen people all scrutinizing the work closely, someone often finds a way to make something better.
Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 was no different. After we all looked over the "master case marking" (the text printed on the outside of the shipping carton), the box, the gameboard, the rules, and the cards, we ended up with just a few minor notes, ranging from "Get with Alain to confirm that this legal block is correct" to "I think we can make the art on this card a little bigger if we tweak the layout slightly." We also had some chuckles – and groans – at the jokes in the art and the text. That's a good thing in a Munchkin game! Fortunately, we didn't find any huge problems, and after we made our fixes and submitted the files to Games Workshop for approval, they didn't see any, either . . . which let us send Munchkin Warhammer 40,000 to print a little ahead of schedule. Thanks to the whole team for their hard work that made that happen!
The goal of the premortem is to send the best possible game to print, something everyone on the Munchkin team can be proud of. It's a critically important part of the process and I'm glad we've implemented this step. But, of course, errors do still creep in . . . if you think you've spotted one, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can make the next printing better still!