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Designer Diary: Evolutionary Lessons Discovered on Chimera Isle

Kevin Lanzing
United States
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Author's Note: The purpose of this designer diary is twofold. First, I'd like to chronicle the somewhat haphazard trajectory Chimera Isle took going from concept to published game. Second, I'd like this to be a primer for other aspiring game designers who could benefit from my hindsight. Interspersed with this story are five hard-learned lessons which can be applied when designing any game, not only this one.

As themes go, natural selection is as ambitious as they come. All the elements are there for a truly epic game: growth, evolution, migration, domination, natural disasters, extinction. The magnitude of the theme is staggering, but therein lies the problem. How could any game hope to bring together all of these grand elements in a way that is coherent, playable, and fun? Many games have tried, with varying degrees of success.

All of that just made me more determined to put my own mark on the "natural selection" theme.

Lesson #1: Don't get married to your concept.

My first concept for what would eventually become Chimera Isle was hopelessly complex. Anything and everything you might expect to find was there. Evolution – check. Migration – yes, over a large board representing the entire Earth! Climate – but of course, and naturally the effects of long-term climate change would transform the board. My game also modeled a food chain, in which every creature had to eat a nearby plant or animal, or starve. It was an absurdly cluttered, mostly incoherent system that would have been a disaster to actually playtest. Thankfully, I came to my senses before investing too much of my time into what would have been a train wreck of a game.

Had I seriously pursued my original concept, it would have looked and played a lot like Dominant Species – no offense intended to that game, which from what I hear is pretty good!

Especially at the start of any game design project, a designer must be flexible. Almost every game I have designed ultimately became something very different from what I originally set out to create. It is easy to start with one idea and let it snowball over time into something ponderous, technical, and dry. It's similarly easy to get attached to your game mechanisms, and forget that they are all more or less disposable.

I had to take a big step back and reassess where I was headed. Did I really want to create the last word on epic ecological adventures? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that natural selection is actually pretty straightforward. There are species, and there are stresses. The species best adapted to the stresses it encounters will thrive at the expense of others. To borrow a popular phrase, it's "survival of the fittest".

The first thing I did was get rid of the board – which was a hard choice, but most of the bookkeeping and component sprawl came from managing tiny bits and pieces on a gigantic board. To justify my decision, I chose to scale down my setting. Rather than a supercontinent (Pangaea Ultima, to be precise) the species of my game would compete for resources on a small island. Issues like migration, continental drift, and geographical separation wouldn't even be relevant on such a scale.

Even if I no longer had a board, I knew I had to model the environment in some way. I decided to make the many habitats of my small island the stresses that species would overcome. The struggle for territory would become the central conflict of the game. Species that failed to claim territory would decline in population and significance. Eventually, entire species might go the way of the dodo. I don't usually favor player elimination as a mechanism, but here it felt appropriate. Life is tough, and only the strong survive. No natural selection game worth its salt would accept anything less.

Lesson #2: The simplest solution is often best.

It occurred to me in a flash of insight that the game that was developing now strongly resembled a poker game. The species were the players, and their population the chips. When species risked their population for the sake of claiming a habitat, they were "anteing in". When one species claimed a habitat, it "won the pot". The analogy was solid, and I knew that this sort of conceptual overlap would help in introducing new players to the rules.

What about the species? They needed to be easily distinguishable and different. Early on, I considered an auction mechanism for "winning" genetic characteristics: things like spines, wings, claws, and fur. That was fine in theory and presented a good way to model evolution in-game. But by this point I was beginning to think that evolution added layers of complexity the game didn't really need. Anyway, the auction mechanism would only add play time to a game I was trying hard to shorten and streamline. What else was there?

Apparently American Megafauna has already filled the niche for "auction-based evolution game" – I've been scooped again!

A childhood memory supplied the breakthrough. I expect almost everyone has seen this or something similar. A book of animals is split into three sections: head, body, and tail. By mixing up the pages, the head of the lion can be attached to the body of a hippo and the tail of an iguana. Kids like to mix and match the parts and laugh at the bizarre results. Like the best toys, it rewards creativity and can be understood immediately without explanation.

I could do something similar with cards. Not only would the art be fun to look at, but it would have a direct significance to the game. Creatures with furry bodies would be adapted to the cold, while creatures with long necks could reach fruit from the tallest trees. Forget climax communities and biomes; this was way more exciting. Upon making the mental connection between my own bizarre animal cross-breeds and creatures of myth, I finally had a working title for the game: Chimera Isle.

This is completely ridiculous.

Lesson #3: Player interaction is the heart of a great game.

I presumed at first that some sort of symbology would have to be created to reflect the characteristics of the "chimeras". A cactus symbol in the corner would indicate fitness in desert settings, while a water droplet would indicate fitness in wetlands. This system was a sensible approach to the problems I faced. While it would have worked and was easy to read, it failed to leave much, if anything, to the imagination. If the game decided which chimeras developed and thrived, what was left for the players to do?

A game called Lifeboats supplied the answer. In that game, players are crewmen on a sinking ship who must escape to nearby islands on their leaky lifeboats. The tension and fun of the game comes from the voting mechanism it uses. Which boat moves forward? That depends on which one players vote for! Which boat springs a leak? Which crewman gets pushed out of an overcrowded boat? Vote! It's an exquisitely brutal game, for the reason that you must trust other self-interested individuals not to stab you in the back. I felt this was a nifty concept which could be effectively applied to my own game. Which chimera is the best swimmer: the one with the streamlined body or the one with webbed feet? Everyone votes, and the chimera with the most votes wins it all. It's a simple solution to a complicated problem. Rather than deciding myself which chimera is good at what, why not let the table decide?

Don't let the art fool you: Lifeboats is a cutthroat game.

I'd like to say that the voting mechanism for Chimera Isle emerged fully-formed and perfect on my first try, but as you must know by now that never happens. Originally players used a regular deck of playing cards, in addition to a hand of color cards. Players would conceal one color card representing their choice of creature, and a second playing card representing the strength of their vote. A single player with a "10" voting green would defeat two players voting red with a "5" and "2", respectively. Except for the Ace (value: 1), all cards played were discarded at the end of the turn. Only players who voted for the winning creature would themselves win new cards and a point at the end of the turn. The King, Queen, and Jack had special powers of their own which I won't go into.

Suffice it to say that I went overboard again and added needless complexity to what should have been a straightforward voting process. I quickly learned my lesson and pared down. Now players get one colored card for each creature they can vote for, and each vote is worth one point. The lead player breaks ties. Simple!

At this point the players still more or less represented the chimeras in the game. Each player was the secret patron of a specific chimera. Players won points whenever they voted for the winning chimera (whether or not it was their own), but also when their chimera did well. It was fun in a light and fluffy way, but all too quickly players recognized who favored what and adjusted their strategies to compensate. The "secret patron" game lives on as an optional variant, for younger players and those seeking a fast and light party game.

An early prototype of Chimera Isle – the game is starting to take shape.

Lesson #4: Nothing is ridiculous if it works.

By this point I was pleased with the direction of the game but dissatisfied with its depth. I tried all kinds of crazy things to make Chimera Isle both easy-to-play AND strategic.

Probably my craziest idea was to turn the game into an investment simulation! The points players won in the voting round were now a form of currency. Players could spend their points to buy "shares" of the chimeras, or even steal shares from other players. My chief inspiration here was Acquire, a game in which players influence and invest in hotel chains which they don't technically own. Does the idea of an investment game based around the animal kingdom sounds preposterous? Maybe so, but the mechanisms clicked right away and opened new avenues of strategic depth. I never looked back.

Shareholding and the animal kingdom are kind of an odd pairing, but if the shoe fits...

Lesson #5: Collaborate with others whose strengths match your weaknesses.

Chimera Isle was quickly shaping up to be both playable and fun. One problem remained, and that was the art. I am no artist, and my prototype was literally completed with Sharpie pen drawings on a cardboard canvas. That's fine for a prototype, but if I wanted to share this game with the world I needed the services of a real artist.

Don't laugh! The original art was serviceable, but nothing more.

A friend of mine introduced me to the work of "Bogleech", aka Jonathan Wojcik. He had a website showcasing strange things, creepy things, cute things, inexplicable things. Some of these were the product of his own imagination, such as his coloring book Old-Fashioned Nightmare Fuel for Children You Don't Love. His style could be described as "creepy-cute", sort of a "Tim Burton does Pokemon" kind of thing. It seemed like a good fit for Chimera Isle, but what sealed the deal were his articles on the many real-world misfits of the animal kingdom. An artist and naturalist all in one? He's like a John James Audubon who does cartoons! I sent him an email, he responded, and the result is Chimera Isle as you know it today.

Original art by Jonathan Wojcik – only the strange survive on Chimera Isle!

Kevin Lanzing
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