Reinventing The Wheel – Avoiding the Sunk Cost Trap

In a previous post I briefly mentioned that I am designing a board game. Today I will discuss one mechanic of it more in depth and why I believe it is never too late to think of starting again. In our game, Wheel to Wheel Racing, each player takes control of a driver as they race around a track. They do this by using a deck of cards, the amount of spaces you move and the amount of wear you take is determined by what tyre you are using. Each driver has a unique deck and we have spent a lot of hours balancing six different decks together that they are all competitive but last week I decided I was going to change it all. So why would I decide to reinvent the wheel?

An example of a current card in our game

Since the beginning, I have wanted that discarded cards represented the tyres wearing on the track. Our first attempt at this was to have three separate decks representing each soft, medium or hard tyres. Each player picks which tyre they use and would shuffle the respective deck into their current deck. However, it added too many unnecessary steps to prepare for the game. We settled on the above card system soon afterwards and have been working with that ever since. I have played hundreds of hours balancing each deck and last month we were ready to move onto letting others play the game.

Although I wasn’t totally content with that system, throughout the development process I had another idea for how it could work but I never took it any further than just some thoughts in my head. I always had some excuse, “All the time we have spent working will have been wasted” or “It will be more difficult to design”. I became a victim of a sunk cost trap. This is the tendency to continue to follow through with something because they had already invested time, money or effort into it. Last week we had all the rules set and the next step was polishing it and sorting out all the game art. I couldn’t shake that idea from the back of my head. I thought that if I never at least test out the idea then I will always have doubts about if the game was the very best that it could have been. I made a quick prototype for the new system and I had a trial run. There is definitely some issues that need to be ironed out but I feel it went well and moved on to present it to my partner.

Was it worth it? Absolutely, worst case scenario the new system wasn’t going to be used and we would have kept what we had but I will have gained experience in designing something that could maybe used for another game in the future. I also wouldn’t have had any doubts about what could have been either. In the end we both agreed that the new idea enhances the game and makes it even better and because of that we will end up with a better product than if I didn’t try out the new idea. As for the lost time in developing and testing the other system? Everything I learned throughout that process allowed me to design a more balanced prototype quicker than when I first began designing the game. Your time is never wasted even if what you worked on doesn’t make it to this game, it could make it to another one later or it teaches you something that you can apply to other aspects. The more time you invest into an idea the harder it will be to change from it but time spent in the past shouldn’t dictate where you want to take something if you believe that it could be better.

I think this can also be applied to anything in life. Have any of you bought a meal and felt full half way through, but kept eating because you already paid for it? If so, you also fell into a sunk cost trap.

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