I've approached the pinboard to add yet another cut-out newspaper piece about an unexplained accident near the abandoned factory on the north side of the city. It's the seventh case in the last half of the year. Young people die in these empty facilities, and the only thing that connects those kids is the fact that each of them was a metallurgy student of one of the local universities. Another look at the pinboard - all those pictures, notes, and newspaper pieces - I know the answer must be somewhere here, a thin thread that ties it all together. I need to find it.
To write the story for the Detective I've hired my all time friend. We know each other since college. He was the best Call of Cthulhu DM in the entire area. After college, I've chosen the path in the gaming industry, while he became a well-known architect. Next thing I know, 20 years have passed.
I gave Przemyslaw all the freedom that he needed to create the story for the Detective. I remembered the fantastic stuff that he was creating years ago for the Call of Cthulhu, so I had only one demand: 'I want exactly what you're the best at - I need a story with a number of layers, plot twists that players will reveal when they get further in the story.'
It's what he is best at - an amazing ability to create simple at first sight plots that are not simple whatsoever. He masterfully combines different threads into one single master plot that connects everything. He spends countless hours searching through the internet and looking up different facts and slowly builds a story stretched through different times and places, that somehow, in the end, create one big picture. Playing either Call of Cthulhu with him or the Detective is like watching outstanding Netflix show filled with surprises and plot twists over the whole season.
I've experienced it so many times during playtesting - that stunning moment, that frame of a second when one of the players suddenly stops reading a card in the middle of the sentence. The player raises their head and looks at everyone else. There it is. Everyone at the table realizes it, this detail, that missing piece that allows you to see the whole big picture, a small crumb that turns everything around, a fact that ties with everything else, and connects things that had no connection at all just a second ago. Goosebumps.
For all these moments, for those chills running down your spine, when everything is finally making sense, and you're nodding silently impressed with how deep it was all hidden. For all of the above, you have to try and play the Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game. Przemysław Rymer is a genius.
Once again, I'm going through the box filled with everything that we've secured at the house of one of the victims. I grab an invitation for the Metal Heads Competition that took place in April, last year. A hunch? I reach for the phone and dial the number listed next to the company responsible for the organization and ask for the list of participants. A few minutes later I receive an e-mail, I print it out, highlight some names and stick it to the board. Twelve people were participating in this competition, and seven of them are dead, sitting there on my board right next to this list. Is this the thread I was looking for...?
The basics were simple. Roll dice. Get resources. Make a choice - spend them to build a building and gain special ability or spend them to gain Victory Points.
The game was short. Buildings and abilities were tempting, but you knew, if you spend too many rounds investing in your village and constructing new buildings, you will end up with a ton of awesome abilities and no points whatsoever.
We had a good time with it, we were playing with different sets of buildings to see which ones offer the biggest replayability and fun.
Everything was working nice and smooth.
And yet, something was missing.
I asked Asia to come to my office and I said: "The game is ready, it may go to print, we are happy with the result. But..."
"But?" she asked.
"I don't know. Play with it. Do whatever you want. Something is missing here."
"OK" she said and took the prototype.
She needed less than two days.
"I added to each building Tetris shape," she said showing me the boards. "When you score here on Empire sheet, as the game progresses you create a large area of crossed out spaces. You could use this area to draw these Tetris shapes. They would make the particular building stronger. Now, when the game progresses, you decide which buildings to boost by drawing these shapes."
I smiled. She found it. The missing piece.
To the basic choice, I created in the game - the standard engine building game choice - spend resources on Victory Points or continue to invest in your engine and build new buildings, she added another layer, another simple but meaningful choice.
It's no longer only which building you build. It is now which one you build, and then, which one of the built ones, to upgrade.
Simple game, and yet interesting choices. Do you upgrade the one that gives you 1 free Apple, to get 2 free Apples or even 3 free Apples, or you go after the one that lets you Harvest +1, and then when boosted +2, or +3 Resources from your Field...
There are only 6 buildings in the base game. There are only 4 of them that have abilities you can upgrade. And yet, there is so much fun.
We have new hotness. It is called Roll and Write and every publisher on planet Earth is jumping into the hype train. It’s a new deckbuilding. It’s a new legacy. It’s a new story-driven game. Every publisher is now telling great stories and he rolls and he also writes.
Anyway, this fascinating genre of games was present in the market over many years. I fell in love with Rolling Japan back then in Spring 2015, Dice Stars in 2016, and even earlier, some around 2013 I played and loved Qwixx. The genre was growing on me and obviously on my fellow geeks all around the globe. It was 2018 when two titles finally made a difference and started the whole phenomenon – it was German game Ganz Schon Clever and it was French title Welcome To.
At some point, I decided I want to do my own roll and write. It was in Autumn 2018.
The basic idea behind Imperial Settlers: Roll and Write is very simple. Most games in that genre offer players a ton of options at the beginning and then, with each round there is less and less empty spaces to write in and choices are gone. The base game of Imperial Settlers is engine building game, so I wanted its roll and write variant to keep the identity of the precursor. I wanted to shake things a little bit. In my game, you start the game with only a few possible options, but as your Empire grows and you build new buildings and get new abilities, you have more and more new choices. It’s engine building roll and write.
The first draft worked nice and smooth. Each player had a Village section on their sheet where they could construct buildings to get unique abilities and also an Empire section where they could build walls, cottages, and granaries to gain Victory Points. As with every good engine building game, it is always the fundamental choice – when to stop building new buildings for abilities and start spending resources to score, score and score more! The sheet was a bit crowded with all these options, but I knew we have here something. It was a natural port from the card game into the roll and write genre. You got resources from dice, you got apples, wood, stone and it was up to you to decide how to spend them. Playing the game was natural for anybody who ever played Imperial Settlers.
Imperial Settlers is a strong seller for Portal Games since 2014. The game won dozen of international awards, got 13 different language editions and 6 expansions. This beloved IP combined with cute cartoonish artwork sounded like a perfect choice for a roll and write game. It looked like publishing it is a safe bet.
And then Keyforge happened. Fantasy Flight Games revolutionary concept of each copy of the game being unique blew my mind. The fact that each player has their own unique set of abilities and powers in Keyforge or Discovery was something never seen before. And my brain began to work. I asked myself a question – can I do a game like that? My production department began to cry when I said something like “I have this idea…”
What if each game that we print has a different set of buildings to build? Can I design 50 or 100 different abilities and then mix them on a single sheet to get thousands of unique sets?
How the market reacts for that? We were debating it in the office and my production department was already checking possible option with the manufacturer when I got another idea – what if every sheet in the game is unique? What if instead of the block with 50 the same pages like in every roll & write on the market, I could have a block with every single page being different? Every single time you play, you play with different abilities. Every time you play, the game is different.
This is it. I knew it. Instead of producing 10k boxes that differ between each other, I will print 10k boxes that are the same, but in each box they have 48 different sheets.
I challenged myself and my dev team. I challenged my production department. I challenged the artwork team. I challenged the whole company.
I asked for a unique experience each time you play this roll & write.
After a few months of work, I can say I am proud of my team. The final box of the game comes up with a block of 48 standard pages like in every good roll and write game. These standard pages can be played in the basic, family oriented variant or an advanced variant with one small change in the rules that add the whole new level of decisions. It’s a regular good roll and write game.
Besides that, I have more. We put in the box one more block. We designed and produced an additional 48 pages with every page being different. 48 different sets of buildings, unique abilities, and challenges for players. Weeks of work of dev and artwork team. We called this block adventure mode, as each time you play, you have a new set of buildings to construct, new challenge and strategies to discover. Every time you play, it’s a new adventure.
And that’s how Keyforge inspired roll and write game.
This episode was recorder after Golden Geek nominees were announced, so you can listen to our commentary on the voting system. We also talk about the previous episode with a very special guest Tom Vasel, and of course we bring you up to date on what is happening in Portal Games, Stronghold Games, and in the industry in general.
We announced founding Portal Games Digital in January 2017. A separate division of our company dedicated to bringing our best selling games to mobile. It’s been two years. They finished developing First Martians app. They finished the Antares website for Detective. They almost finished companion app for Robinson Crusoe.
But the main project they were working was Tides of Time. After many months, two weeks ago it finally got released. I couldn’t be more proud of it.
Tides of Time is the all-time best seller for us. Released in 2015 this small card game immediately became a major hit, got nominated for Golden Geek in two categories – Best card game and Best 2 player game. It got dozen of reprints, it got follow up game called Tides of Madness and became a strong contender in our catalog.
It was the obvious choice to make Tides of Time the first app developed by PG Digital.
Tides of Time is a game with stunning artwork. Every art piece on the card is a top industry illustration. And yet, PG Digital ordered more art. I was skeptical, I didn’t see a reason for doing that. Months passed, 3d versions of every building for every card were made. And then animations. And then the surrounding environment. And then…
And then I was amazed. The illustrations I knew so well from cards became a part of the living empire player was building, epic structures surrounded by trees or fields. It all felt familiar and new at the same time. I guess you were right, I had to say to the team.
Each new version brought something interesting. I loved when we were testing AI and tweaked it to be more and more smart. We hired Michał Walczak, developer for the original Tides of Time card game to write the whole strategy behind the AI, what it wants to achieve and how it plays. We finally went for three basic levels for AI and it was fascinating to see Michał competing with the program he designed himself.
Then PG Digital showed me challenges. The small thing that sounded stupid and absolutely not necessary until I actually played with it. Cannot imagine playing Tides now without it. Each time you play the app challenges you with a small additional task. Win the game with Most Gardens in Your Empire. Lose first round and then win the whole game. Win without drafting any Crown cards. And so on, and so forth.
What’s fascinating to me is the ongoingness of the process. On one hand, the product is ready, gets amazing reviews (we have an average rating on Appstore 5.0!) and everybody says PG Digital did a great job with this app, and on the other hand we have so many new ideas for the game. It’s different from the cardboard industry I work for. You finish the game, it goes to print, you are done.
Here it’s different. Releasing the game did not change our routine, we meet with the PG Digital team and we plan. We talk about online play. We talk about campaign mode. We talk about adding ‘character’ to the AI, one would be defensive, another mean, another would be risky…
We talk about incorporating every tiny comment we find on the Internet and think has value.
I love my cardboard, but Portal Games Digital is a fresh air I love to breathe now. Possibilities are infinite.
It's Saturday, 11 pm, we are in a car, driving back home from meet up with fans in Bielsko Biała. It was an epic 6 hours evening with more than 50 fans showing up. I am dead tired.
I hear notification sound on Marek's phone. He checks his messages. He says: 'It's from my friend. They just finished L.A. Crime.'
'Ah, he asks me to not tell you that. He knows you'll be pissed off.'
It's 11 pm. I am dead tired. I am pissed off. Great Saturday night.
For the past few weeks in our weekly YouTube show called PlanszowkiTV (BoardgamesTV) I asked fans to relish L.A. Crimes. 'Don't you dare to open the box and finish it in a one damn weekend. Play once a week. Stretch it to the one month experience.'
Because I knew it - the moment they finish it, they'll ask for the next campaign. And man, I am so not ready for that.
A few weeks ago I recorded a special video called 7 steps to design a Case. Let me tell you about these steps today. It's a little bit more than seven, to be honest. Let me walk you through the whole process.
1. It all starts with the script. That's what we get from the writer, Przemysław Rymer in the base game and Mateusz Zaród in the LA Crimes expansion. It takes a few months for the writer to come with a good story. The script for L.A. Crimes was about 80 pages long. It covers the main plot, all characters, and their motives, it details all moments and fragments when the plot connects with the real world events and facts so we can use 'Breaking the 4th wall' mechanism. It's a thick book full of facts about crime.
It's the first step.
2. Then it's time to chop it into pieces. It's time to make the game out of it. It's this fascinating phase of building the mind map, putting all pieces of information on the whiteboard and slowly plan connections between them. Players will find this clue in that location, they will learn about this guy here, and that person will tell them about that thing. 80 pages long script cut into small pieces of clues players could find to deduct the whole story.
It's a madman job and it takes a few long weeks to translate the main plot into exactly 36 double-sided cards. It's the second step.
3. Then you write the base version of cards. These are very simple, almost no fluff whatsoever, they read like: "You step into Laboratory. You find out that fingerprints match to John Smith." or "You talk with Stephen and you learn that he loves to promote his products and that he moved to Florida 3 months ago."
I run a few test games of such Case to see if the mind map more or less works. If not, I tweak. If yes, we just finished step three.
4. We write all the text. It's massive work. In the game, we have 36 double-sided cards and then we have Antares website with all the autopsy reports, police reports, police files on suspects, and all kind of additional papers and files. It's a ton of writing. We showed it in one of our vlogs, the whole text from the base game of Detective is a huge 600 pages long novel. We wrote the amount of text that equals the first book in the Game of Thrones series. While playing players see only the friction of the material. You see about half of the deck and you see half of the Antares files.
Writing these cards is quite a challenge. Many of you made fun of the base game because of all the references to lunch breaks and salads. I smiled every time I read these jokes. Each card is a small story. Each one is like a postcard from the place. In the base game, we worked hard to help you imagine the scene. All these rush at work, hustle, lunch breaks with quick salad were on purpose. We planned the whole environment before sat to writing. Every time you visit PD Richmond, there is a hell going on. Every time you visit Laboratory, you are welcomed with silence, white, clean environment. Each time you work at your desk, you use high tech hardware.
Cards in L.A. Crimes are a little bit shorter, players asked to lower a bit the fluff part, but still, that's a lot of text to come up with. After another few weeks of work, we have our deck!
5. Playtesting is fun. Our groups get the Case and play it. As you can imagine, in the first version, it all is one big mess. Mistaken dates. Mistaken names. Clues are hidden too deep. Other clues are too obvious. Links and numbers to other cards are wrong. Files in the Antares are not ready.
This is one big mess.
We record every test game and then I listen and make notes. I listened to every damn test game of Detective. As for now, I guess it's hundreds of hours of material. I listen to how players debate, how they think, what conclusions they get after reading each card. And I make notes and edit over and over again. We print cards again, a new test, a new group, new notes, new edits, new print and it goes over and over for weeks. First I playtest with my employes, then with other groups. Every group gets a better and better version, more polished, more intriguing and challenging. And finally, we have it. The Case is ready. Weeks passed.
6. We translate it into English. On average it was 2 weeks per case. It's done by translation company, we outsource it (with a small exception for the first case in L.A. Crimes). It takes time, but it is time for us to take a breath. As soon as we have the translation, we read it carefully, sentence after sentence checking if no clue was missing during the process. It always is. Every time there is this one tiny thing here and there, that got lost in translation. We fix it. We are ready to move on.
7. Native speakers. There are two different series of editing the Case. The first one, the obvious one is native speaking editors fix all the tiny language problems in the text. Even though we try to hire the best translators, there are always some sentences that require polishing. We are lucky that Luke Otfinowski, who is leading editor for Detective speaks Polish. He was born in Poland and moved to the US when he was a kid. That allows us to have the best translation possible, Luke reads Polish cards - as they were originally written - and compares with the English version. He is in close contact with me and we have a ton of Skype conferences discussing different paragraphs. The language is polished and smooth and yet, no clue gets missing.
8. At the same time, there is another part of editing going on. It's Vinny and few other friends (including real police investigator!) who are for us of golden value. It's a step for checking all the cultural references. They tweaks all small details that make no sense for American readers. The action of the game takes place in the US, but it is written in Poland. Hence, sometimes we are wrong. Without too many spoilers, for instance, in L.A. Crimes in one of the Cases, there is a scene in the hospital, and we had to rewrite the whole card and develop brand new clue, because apparently procedures in Polish and American hospitals are different and what we came up with as a clue, would never actually happen in the US. Vinny and rest of the team were especially important with L.A. Crimes campaign that takes place in 1986. Back then I was 10 years old and lived in Poland under Russian occupation. I know no sh** about America in 80' and even though I spent countless hours doing research for the campaign, Vinny was just on point tweaking cards and adding cool references. His: "I remember this football player, it was the main news on TV back then." were funny, but at the same time extremely valuable.
9. Finally, our DTP department is ready to go. We have final text on all game components, in the meantime, our artwork department prepared all art pieces, layout, cardboard pieces, box and now only put the text on cards. I won't tell you how hard it is to find photos of people who look like it's 1986. I guess you can imagine.
These stock photos galleries you all heard about don't offer photos of people who look perfect as a Non Player Character in the game set in September 1986.
Anyway, my artwork department nailed it and the whole game is full of original photos from 80.
Back to work. Everything is ready, we have cards in PDF, we do another run reading everything over and over again, checking for every tiny mistake. I cannot look at these cards at that moment. I read them too many times. I am sick of it, but this is the last moment to catch any mistake.
10. It goes to print. I can have a few weeks of break. And then I must come back to the Case and start promotion of the whole thing - for instance, write an article like this one.
L.A. Crimes got released in Polish, German and English this week worldwide. French, Italian, Czech and other editions will follow up soon. I wish you a great time with the campaign. We spent months designing it and working on it. We had a blast, even though it was really hard work.
I have one message to you today though - Don't you dare to finish the whole thing in one weekend.
Board Games Insider episode 99 is here! We are just one step away from the epic 100!
In this episode Ignacy talks about Tides of Time app, and shipping of L.A. Crimes, Stephen announces a lot of street dates and updates you on Kickstarters. Meanwhile Games Factory Publishing, major Polish publisher goes out of business, GAMA trade show was a record breaking event, and CMON announces more changes.
It is also your last chance to enter BGI contest on BGG!