Penny Arcade's 'Paint the Line' Puts a New Spin on Card Gaming

“Make rapport with the paddle; pick pock how it go,

pop-lock as you wield it; feel the ball flow...

Ping pong, step up to the table

Ping pong, put the ball in play”

- MC Frontalot, Ping Pong

What do ping pong, a popular webcomic, and the Cold War have in common? More than you might think. The three have been combined to form Paint the Line, an upcoming card game from Penny Arcade. Stranger confluences of theme do exist in the hobby gaming industry, but you’d be hard pressed to find them. Paint the Line is unique, and its existence is owed to a single factor: the devotion of its creators to the subject matter.

For the past several months, we’ve been following along with the development of Paint the Line, holding numerous interviews, playtesting at various stages, and even spending some time with the finished game. Today, you’re going to get the full story. What follows is the complete tale of Paint the Line, from inception to final product.

If at first you do succeed, up the difficulty

When a theme comprises so many parts, though, which comes first? Paint the Line is the brainchild of Steve Bowler, a video game designer and unabashed fan of Penny Arcade, but PA’s influence was not present at the game’s inception. Instead, Paint the Line began as a Game Developers Conference design challenge: turn a video game into a card game in one hour.

Bowler admits that it “may seem ridiculous for someone who makes games for a living making more games in their spare time,” but that’s exactly what happened. When presented with the design challenge at GDC ‘08, Bowler immediately wanted to create Pong the card game.

“I threw out pong and everyone said it was too easy. I thought it was something we could actually complete, but they chose Gran Turismo instead. So I decided to make Pong on my own at home. It was too easy.”

Searching for a way to up the complexity of his design, Bowler looked to the sport of ping pong, and things began to fall into place. One year later, with his 60-card prototype nearly playable but existing only as a set of handwritten note cards, Bowler headed off to GDC ‘09. What he didn’t expect was an opportunity to pitch the game to Penny Arcade Business Manager Robert Khoo.

The cat was out of the bag: Bowler wanted to use Penny Arcade’s Cold War-era ping pong plot line, Paint the Line, as his game’s setting. Khoo was intrigued by the idea, and agreed to schedule a full pitch meeting at PA’s Seattle offices. That’s where things get a bit crazy.

“The pitch meeting... it was almost a work of art unto itself.”

Bowler knew he already had a fun game on his hands. What he needed next was to convince Penny Arcade that he understood how to use Paint the Line as a theme. The Cold War took center stage in Bowler’s pitch, and a bit of theatrics helped to seal the deal: Bowler was escorted into the Penny Arcade offices by two friends-cum-CIA agents, one carrying the game prototype safely in a “nuclear football”-style briefcase securely cuffed to his wrist.

For a guy making a card game in his spare time, the flashy presentation took two whole weeks to assemble. We’re talking custom everything. The case consisted of custom foam cut-outs holding custom card cases outfit with actual hinges for a military feel. Two real ping pong paddles, two mousepads, and a bit of craftiness resulted in a physical version of the iconic USA vs. USSR Paint the Line logo. Lastly, the icing on the cake owes a small debt to the greeting card industry. A custom sound chip played the theme from The Hunt for Red October when the case was opened.

How could Penny Arcade say no? “I shot a video of it before I delivered it because i knew I was leaving the case behind. It was my baby.” Lucky for you readers, it can still be viewed online.

When the dust settled, Bowler had more than an accepted pitch, he had a team. Assigned as the game’s graphic design was PA’s Art Director, Francisco “Kiko” Villasenor. PA founders Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik would make contributions to flavor text and coach card artwork, respectively, while artists Steve Hamaker, Alexandra “Lexxy” Douglass, and Alexandria “Beavotron” Neonakis provided card artwork.

Turning a game into a game about a game

The addition of Kiko added more than just Photoshop talent, though. Kiko’s ping pong experience allowed him to consult directly on the game's mechanics, helping to craft them so they would evoke the game’s theme. According to Bowler, “while making the game, I would watch countless videos of matches, read rules and theory, and learn so much about different grips and styles in the process of getting booksmart. But I still wasn’t playing ping pong, which to be fair, was pretty stupid.”

The same could not be said for Kiko, who was deeply involved in Penny Arcade’s own ping pong team. To say that Penny Arcade has a ping pong office culture is putting it lightly. Read these words from Jerry Holkins and try to say that Penny Arcade doesn’t take its ping pong seriously:

“It’s like the idea of a civilization. The indicator that civilization has advanced to a sufficient point is that it has reached the stars. Well, for me it’s like if you have an amount of space sufficient to hold a ping pong table, a ping pong table should occupy it. And that means you as an office environment have leveled up in a way. That’s progress essentially. For me, that’s more or less what it’s been about: having a ping pong table means you’re a real company.” - Jerry Holkins, Penny Arcade TV Season 1, Episode 9

Mike Krahulik, Jerry Holkins, and the Penny Arcade office ping pong table

Cold War theatrics aside, it was time to make sure that Penny Arcade was making a true ping pong card game. At its core, Paint The Line accomplishes this with two simple mechanisms: rock-paper-scissors and the roll of a twenty-sided die.

Bowler’s original concept started out quite simple: players would simulate a ping pong volley by playing cards with numerical values. The higher value card would win the hand, with the shot either being returned or not, but it just didn’t feel like ping pong. “It was too closely tied to creature-based card games at that point,” Bowler told me. “If I had this one card, I could win the whole game, so I wondered if having a random number generator might help things out. I thought of other professional sports here, considering Tiger Woods. Even at his heyday, he could still miss a shot or hit one into the crowd once in a while.”

Now, rather than having to play a card of certain value to continue the volley, players must hit or exceed a target number with the roll of a D20. Throughout extensive playtesting, Paint the Line’s most controversial inclusion has been the randomness of the D20, and while some alternatives may have offered more balanced gameplay, none of them felt quite as satisfying. In a bit of serendipity, the use of a white D20 allows the die to actually represent a ping pong ball.

Watch two players roll a white D20 back and forth at each other, and you’ll start to understand how well-suited Paint the Line’s mechanics are for its theme. “One of my experienced game designers playtesters suggested rolling two D10s to have a higher median value roll result,” Bowler stated, “but you don’t play ping pong with two balls.”

To determine what target numbers the players must beat with their D20 rolls, an “escalation deck” is used. A simple sequence of increasing numbers, the next card is revealed after each successful shot. Escalation works well to represent the growing distance that actual ping pong players travel away from the table as a volley progresses, and also serves as a double entendre for rising Cold War tensions.

Moderator Jeff Kalles (left) and designers Steve Bowler (center) and Kiko Villasenor (right) describe Paint the Line's gameplay at a PAX East 2012 Q&A. Photo: Matt Morgan

The other major gameplay mechanism, rock-paper-scissors, manifests itself in the different shot techniques a ping pong player can use: spin, lob, and drive. When one shot type beats out another, the D20 target number will shift in the winning player’s favor, giving them “advantage” during that shot.

While the core mechanics were sound, Paint the Line would not feel like a true ping pong game without some satisfying volleys. Problems crept up early on that caused players to quickly win or lose, requiring Bowler and Kiko to make several tweaks. The first step was to remove the “ace” card, which while true to the sport, diffused the tension (and fun) of matches with its instant points.

According to Bowler, “another area we tweaked because of Kiko’s great gameplay suggestions was the idea of always having advantage on service. It’s always to your advantage to serve because you get to set up the next shot, dictating how your opponent must respond.” This reduced the odds of players failing their service rolls and short-circuiting a volley.

If you really love something, you’ll let playtesters break it

While the rock-paper-scissor with D20 concept seems simple, each player in Paint the Line has a deck of 60 cards that drives these mechanisms. Generic stamina cards are played to the table and generate energy to fuel a myriad of different shot cards, each of which has its own shot type, cost, and effects. Deciding which shot cards, and how many of each, should be included in each deck required a massive amount of playtesting. Luckily, Penny Arcade happens to run their own gaming expo, giving Bowler and Kiko easy access to a horde of willing playtesters.

A variety of USA-specific shot cards. Image: Kiko Villasenor.

“If you really want to see where your game it broken, show it to 100 people. At once.” The team did this twice, once at PAX Prime 2011 and once at PAX East 2012, resulting in a more polished finished product. “When 100 people have that same problem, you can spot the pattern and know it needs to be fixed. I can’t stress enough how every game needs to go through that kind of testing,” Bowler told us.

Kiko was also able to mine the playtesters for UI and design feedback, as well. “The other major takeaway, from my perspective, was the table layout. Once you hit mid game, the testing tables became littered with cards,” explained Kiko. “While this wasn’t a huge problem, it made for a possible issue with casual players. It also bothered me from a design perspective. I took that knowledge and made a final UI alteration, allowing for the cards to be elegantly stacked while still being fully functional.”

“The world, this tiny ball; they are not so different.”

With a refined gameplay experience that truly screams “ping pong,” the final task was to make sure it also embodied that special Paint the Line brand of Cold War ping pong. That’s where the artists came in.

"Moon Shot" card artwork by Steve Hamaker

The mix of four different artists keeps the game from ever feeling too much Penny Arcade, too much Cold War, or too much straight up ping pong, as all three get their fair share of card artwork. At their PAX East 2012 Paint the Line Q&A, Bowler and Kiko showed off some of their favorite pieces, such as Steve Hamaker’s “Moon Shot” depiction of a US astronaut/ping pong player, and Alexandria “Beavotron” Neonakis’s “Wrist Shot.” For the latter, Kiko detailed the artist’s challenge of depicting how a Soviet hockey player would wield a ping pong paddle.

Final card design for "Wrist Shot." Artwork by Alexandria Neonakis

The final touch for Paint the Line was a dollop of Jerry Holkins-brand humor on each card’s flavor text. Ever the wordsmith, I challenged Holkins to describe his flavor text with a single word. “Textured,” he chose, and I am not one to disagree.

To game point, and beyond

Paint the Line is a done deal, but that doesn’t mean its designers have stopped to rest. For one, Bowler has a stockpile of card ideas that did not make the cut. 71 unique cards have been packaged into two 60-card American and Soviet decks, packaged as Paint the Line Expandable Card Game: Red Tide, available for pre-order now and set to ship on July 9th (optionally, gamers can pre-order through a Kickstarter campaign to receive an exclusive Paint the Line comic written and illustrated by Bowler himself).

Final product packaging for Paint the Line: Red Tide. Photo: Kiko Villasenor

Based on the sales of this first entry, Bowler and Kiko will be hard at work fine-tuning their next set. The Red Tide decks are themed around coaches Tycho (USA) and Oksana Svedlovigoba (USSR), so according to the Paint the Line story, we should see Gabe and the Soviet Twins next.

A second set would also expand the potential for deck construction. As it stands, players have the option to customize their decks by purchasing additional sets of Red Tide or trading with other players, but an influx of new cards would be a driver for this sort of gameplay.

In the meantime, you’ll find Bowler at the ping pong table. The Penny Arcade fan has made his own Penny Arcade card game and discovered a new love in the process. For a guy who did not play the sport when he set out to make Paint the Line, Bowler now describes himself as a “fully addicted” player who “spends a ridiculous amount of money on ping pong equipment,” has taken private lessons, and winds up playing at a club at least once a week when he can get away from his job. It looks to me like Bowler has learned to enjoy ping pong as much as some people enjoy board and card games. I don’t have a problem, I swear.