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Designer Diary: Under Falling Skies

Tomas Uhlir
Czech Republic
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Microbadge: 2017 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: 2019 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: Under Falling Skies
Board Game: Under Falling Skies
Game cover by Kwanchai Moryia
You are facing an alien invasion. Hiding in a base below the city, you must defend yourself long enough to research a weapon and repel the enemy.

Under Falling Skies is a dedicated solo game for 20-40 minutes that uses a unique dice-placement mechanism. Place dice on rooms in your base to perform various actions, but for every die you place, the enemy in the same column moves towards the base. Higher dice rolls give you more powerful actions, but also make the ships descend faster.

Use your jet fighters to shoot down the enemy, maintain the energy supply, install robots, and expand your base — but don't forget about the research, which should be your priority.

Enemy fighters are not the only threat you face, however. The mothership slowly descends towards the city and will eventually crush you if you are not able to finish the research in time.


Under Falling Skies is a game being published by Czech Games Edition (CGE) in 2020 — but it started as a freely available 9-card print-and-play solo game.

Those of you who have been following Under Falling Skies more closely probably know that I wrote a few designer diaries already. I focused primarily on the changes between the print-and-play predecessor and the published version. They describe some interesting production ideas, graphics and user interface improvements, and the approach with the campaign.

But I still have an interesting story to share. How did it happen in the first place that a game consisting of only nine cards and designed with no publishing intention in mind became one of the awaited titles of this year?

BGG Print-and-Play Contests

It all started around January 2019 when I once again decided to enter the 9-card print-and-play design contest. In case you haven't noticed, at least a dozen similar contests happen every year on BGG. They are run by great enthusiasts, and they have an amazing community of print-and-play players and passionate designers around them. All the games are free to download, and it is assumed that people will print them themselves. Probably because the games from the 9-card contest are very easy to build, this particular contest is one of the most popular out there.

Designers of these contests actually take the role of the whole publishing team. You not only design the game, but you need to playtest it, take care of all the illustrations and graphic design, write the rules, and do the typesetting and proofreading — but all this is still not enough because there are around 100 other games in the contest, and you need to make your game stand out in the competition, so you touch the marketing side as well by starting the "work-in-progress thread", where you write about the game, hoping to attract enough players to get some desirable feedback. Oh, and you have about two months for all of this, working mostly during evenings after work, so as you can imagine, it's a very intense process. Believe it or not, there are even designers who enter with two games at once!

From gallery of uhlik
Some of the BGG print-and-play contests

To make these contests more interesting, most of them come with some kind of restriction. In the 9-card contest, the game can have only nine cards, plus up to 18 other common components: six-sided dice, cubes, tokens, etc. The design all needs to fit to one double-sided sheet of paper so that it's easy to print, but there are also 18-card or 54-card contests that don't allow components other than cards. Some contests are built around the number of players, like a two-player contest or — one of the biggest — the solitaire game contest. But you can stumble upon even more challenging restrictions like 1-card, 1-page, Postcard, Mint Tin, Video stream, 24-hour, etc.

I strongly recommend that aspiring designers try at least one of these contests. It's a great opportunity to go through the whole process of designing a game. The restrictions don't allow you to make it too big, so it stays manageable. However, the restrictions have also another big advantage: They force you into the most unique and creative solutions.

I will end this small detour by reminding you how great the BGG community really is. While the designers compete, they also playtest one another's games, provide feedback, make design suggestions, proofread other's rulebooks, and sometimes even help with the art. For me, it's this friendly community that makes it really special.

Initial Design

But back to Under Falling Skies. I had already participated in the 9-card contest in 2017 with a two-player game called First Snow, which ended up winning that year, so I had a pretty good idea of what entering the contest involved. However, when looking back at First Snow, I must admit that making a deeper multi-player game with only nine cards was probably a bit too ambitious. Equipped with that experience, I decided to go for a solo game this time.

I have to confess that at that time I had very little experience with solo games, but I took it as a challenge to design a solo game that I would enjoy playing. I realized that when there are no other players, the game itself needs to provide a satisfying challenge. Many solo games mimic the structure of multiplayer games by altering player turns with AI turns, the latter of which are mostly resolved by some kind of deck or instruction table, but I wanted to avoid any artificial AI rules or long upkeep phases.

Since you are the only player, you should play the vast majority of the time. The enemy actions should be closely tied to what you do, ideally with your own moves creating the challenge.

From gallery of uhlik
The first two prototypes — quite rough, right?
Once I decided upon a dice-placement game, the core idea emerged: The placed die's value determines both the strength of your action and the reaction of the enemy. This approach also solves the problem with dice games in which some rolls are simply better.

By that time, I was playing with the idea of designing a tower defense game, and this mechanism would fit it perfectly. The enemy would move towards your base based on the value of a die you place. After a short brainstorming about the theme, the "Space Invaders" inspiration emerged.

I won't go into much detail about other design decisions, but to my great surprise, the whole process from the initial idea to the first working prototype was really fast. I recall that I had been thinking about the details for a few evenings, doodling some sketches into my notebook and waiting for the weekend to make a prototype.

The first prototype was really rough, but as you can see, mechanically it hasn't changed much from the final version. All the core concepts are there: the drill, descending mothership, re-rolling dice, how research works, robots, the AA-gun rooms, etc. In the next iteration (about two hours later), I added room modifiers and the mothership effects; the main reason for them was to ensure that the player wouldn't forget to move the mothership at the end of each round.

Looking back at it, it still feels unbelievable how fast it all clicked. Even the very first game was fun and challenging to play, in contrast to the usual design process when it takes weeks or even months before you get at least a little playable game. I spent another week or two with details and balancing before I submitted the first prototype version to the contest.

And people liked it. Only a few tried it at first, but it kept spreading. At one point, I made a collage from various builds that people shared with me.

Board Game: Under Falling Skies: A 9-Card Print-and-Play Game
Print-and-play leads to great creativity and variety in builds

Joining Czech Games Edition

While I was working on the game for the contest, an opportunity emerged to work for CGE. I took it immediately as it was a secret dream of mine, after all. These were a super intense two months as I was working on Under Falling Skies, while quitting my previous job (as an interior designer) and starting to work for CGE.

Czech Games Edition stages a regular yearly gaming event called "Czechgaming" which is an opportunity for all employees to meet, playtest the upcoming games, and try new prototypes. I took Under Falling Skies with me, just to take the opportunity to playtest it — and you know what, it got played quite often. People were curious about that unusual tiny game, solo on top of that. I remember a really nice moment when people came to me one morning to tell me how they got an urge to try the game, then played until 3 a.m., and they wanted to let me know how it went. Word started to spread that CGE should publish it.

I should explain how it is usually decided in CGE which games are going to be published. Everyone is supposed to give their opinion, so that it will be clear that enough people are enthusiastic about the game, willing to work on the development, playtest it, go through the necessary iterations, etc. It's basically a joint decision by the whole company.

Soon after, the results of the 9-card contest came out. Under Falling Skies won not only the main category, but came in first or second in most other categories, too. It started to grow in popularity as more players built it.

By that time, we in CGE were already pretty sure that we wanted to do it; the question was when. One option was to take it mostly as it was and publish it right away (for SPIEL '19), but we wouldn't be CGE if we didn't seize the opportunity to do something extra. I had a few improvements in mind from when I had been working on the print-and-play, but in the end, we went much more generous than just tweaking some rules and adjusting the user interface.

From gallery of uhlik
Only one more pallet until we reach the weight limit for the container...

Development Process

Looking back on the process, I believe that most publishers would have released the game as it was and spread the other ideas into several expansions — but I am not a big fan of this approach. When there is something that makes sense in the base game, it should be there already.

Also, since I like to work within a predefined amount of components, I applied this approach to Under Falling Skies as well. In CGE, we made an estimate of what can we afford in the game's price range, and I started from there. At one point, it looked like we couldn't possibly fit all of the components in the box, but in the end it was the weight that surprised us. The finished game weights over 1,400g (over 3 pounds), which makes it one of the heaviest games of its size. The fun fact — or sad fact actually — is that we exceeded the weight limit for the container and weren't able to fill it completely, even though we combined boxes of Under Falling Skies with other games. Yeah, I wasn't aware that containers have a weight limit since the size is usually the limiting factor. I guess, you learn something new every day...

By agreeing to publish a game that in fact did not exist at that time, CGE gave me a great amount of trust, for which I am very grateful. The core mechanisms were there, but the amount of additional content and all the various combinations led to a quite demanding development process.

It doesn't happen often that a game designer is deeply involved in other production decisions, such as the artwork, components, etc., but since I was a CGE employee, this was not only possible, but logical. I really appreciate this opportunity.

Board Game: Under Falling Skies
Box content
Thanks to that involvement in the whole process, some unique solutions to the design became possible. Here's an example:

A big part of the retail version is the campaign. I envisioned a legacy-like experience, but replayable and without destroying stuff — yet when you want to maintain the surprise, you usually need to use envelopes, boxes and other quite expensive stuff. Since we had decided to keep the price low, I needed to come up with a different solution. In the end, all of the hidden content is on cardboard sheets the size of the box — sixteen sheets of cardboard. Now you can understand why the game weighs almost 1400g!

The sheets are divided into four chapters that are stacked in the box in layers, with the layers being divided by thin paper sheets with a comic on one side and new rules on the other. The player takes out new chapters only as they progress through the campaign. This approach required close cooperation between production and game design. We needed to decide on the size of the sheets and their number before I could start working on the content — and even then, figuring out the layout of the sheets felt a bit like playing Tetris.

But what kind of campaign would it be, without a story? Under Falling Skies offers an intriguing dynamic puzzle, but it's not a story-driven game. I wanted to avoid long paragraphs of mostly boring text that would distract you from what's the game really about.

I decided to use comics and use them so that they mostly develop the atmosphere and setting of the game, leaving a lot of space for the player's imagination.

From gallery of uhlik

The larger comics that serve as the dividers between chapters carry the main storyline, but each chapter consists of scenarios that can differ for each player and for every time you play the campaign, so the comics can't form a continuous story. Still, they are great for the atmosphere and for explaining what the scenario is about.

Finally, there are characters who join your ranks as you progress through the campaign. Each of them has their own tile with a unique ability, but they appear also in the other comics from time to time. All of this creates a sense of a rich living world filled with many interesting characters and with various events happening all around the world, from which the player experiences only a small portion.

And again, all of this required very close cooperation with the illustrator. It would be too much for one illustrator to do the cover, all the game elements, and also the comics, so we needed to ask another one. Petr Boháček, a skillful Czech illustrator who has already participated in some video game titles, joined us for this project. To be honest, when taking into account the amount of work required, I am still amazed how he was able to deliver it all in time.

From gallery of uhlik

Both Kwanchai and Petr did a great job. I am happy how the game came out, and I can't wait to play through the whole campaign once again, this time with the final components.

My gosh, this means I did it! I designed a solo game I really enjoy playing. After playtesting it for hundreds of times, I still can't wait to dive into it once more. I am looking forward to watching others play it and to reading about their experience. I am curious what variants players will come up with...

This leads me to one important thing. There is only one name on the box, but that isn't completely fair to all those people without whom the game wouldn't exist. I remember one occasion close to finishing the game when it was Sunday, one hour after midnight, and I was really tired and there was still a lot of work ahead of me. Then Jani, my girlfriend, told me after looking at the screen, "Look, can you see how many people are working on your game right now?"

And she was right. I realized that Petr was finishing the comics and he would be working all night. David just sent me a suggestion for a small graphics adjustment. Four or five other people were going through the rulebook, so that Fanda could prepare the next version over night, and so we could continue with the proofreading in the morning. Realizing that it was 1:00 a.m. on a weekend, in that moment, I felt really overwhelmed and grateful.

I thank you all for your admirable commitment, for all the wise advice, for the experience and talent which you've put into this game, and for the encouragement you've given me. Without you, this dream of mine would never come real.

Tomáš "uhlík" Uhlíř
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Sun Oct 25, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Spring on a String, or Big Journey of a Small Game

Tomas Uhlir
Czech Republic
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Microbadge: 2017 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: 2019 9 Card Nanogame PnP Design Contest participantMicrobadge: Under Falling Skies
Board Game: Spring on a String
At SPIEL '19, you might encounter the new game Spring on a String from Czech Board Games and Dino — and because its journey from the first idea to the released game was such an adventure for me, I would like to share it with you.

Spring on a String is a surprisingly thoughtful abstract game for 2-4 players set in a meadow full of beetles, butterflies, locusts, and other meadow animals. At first glance, it is particularly interesting for containing four laces and an unusual textile game board covered with brightly colored flowers.

This is closely related to where the game idea came from. At the end of 2015, my wife Jani and I were thinking about a Christmas present for our three-year old daughter Lenka. At that time, she was excited to tie, wrap, and knot everything that went through her hands, so we made a blanket with embroidered flowers with a hole in the middle of each one so that she can thread them through. It went really beautifully thanks to Jani patiently embroidering all the flowers. Still, I wasn't satisfied with this serving only as a toy when we had put so much work into it, and since I had been designing games for some time already, I made a simple game out of our blanket, too.


From gallery of uhlik
The first playable prototype, rolled up for easy transport


The basic mechanism of the game has remained almost unchanged since then:
Quote:
With their individual laces, players take turns threading flowers and trying to collect those with as many petals as possible for each petal is worth one point. When a player runs out of lace, they wait for the opponents to finish their lace, too. The player with the highest score wins.
I usually avoid this type of abstract game with perfect information because they often feel too confrontational and cannot be played intuitively. "Flowers", as we started to call our game, worked for me for some reason. A player never knows exactly how many flowers they can collect before they run out of lace, and this slight uncertainty can lighten the game. It also helps that even when players interfere and interact in many ways, each collects their own flowers and the winner is decided only at the very end.

At that time, I considered "Flowers" a simple children's game. The turning point came when the animals appeared in the game:
Quote:
Each animal brings an unique rule to the game and applies it to all flowers of one color.
In the beginning only five animals existed, but even with that small number, the game became much more varied and interesting because an animal can be assigned to a different color of flower each time and players can vary how many animals they use in a game. Animals brought not only variability, but a surprising amount of depth for a ten-minute game.


From gallery of uhlik
The first five animals, all of which survived to the final version with slight adjustments


But we didn't stop with five animals. With each game, more and more were added, some only for a while with others surviving to the published game. In the end, you can find 31 unique animals in the game, divided into three difficulty levels.

I was surprised by how much work this required. You may be wondering what might be so difficult in a game that can be explained in two minutes and played in under fifteen. Imagine that these 31 animals can be combined with each other, with some of their effects making you feel as if you're playing a completely different game. The animals can be assigned a different color each time and up to five of them can appear in a single game, not to mention how their abilities vary with differing numbers of players. This is an incredible number of combinations, which can create all sorts of conflicts and controversial situations that need to be considered.


From gallery of uhlik
Some of the old animal cards


At some point, we started to keep a diary of played games, with games played at home, on the subway, on trips, on the rocks, by the sea, and in the forest. With "Flowers" we traveled all over Spain and the number of records in our diary exceeded several hundred. During that time, I hadn't experienced two really similar games, and even now I am constantly surprised by new combinations.

I remember one day during our Spain trip when we were playing on a bus and some guy seemed very interested by the game. When he finally decided to ask us about it, it was our stop and we had to get off the bus. He had enough time to tell us only that he works for a game publisher and he believes that this could be a big hit and he wishes us good luck! I am still wondering who it might have been...

Spring on a String (as the game is now called) proved to be a perfect two-player travel game, but we also had a great time introducing it to a cute family on a train, enjoying it with our regular gaming group, and playing it with a random couple in a pub. To people who don't know the game, I would compare it to Hive or even better to Santorini, which feels different every time thanks to the unique god powers, similar to the animals in Spring on a String.

The game board went through three iterations before we reached the perfect balance of flower position — and each time, Jani patiently embroidered all the flowers...


From gallery of uhlik
Our final prototype before looking for a publisher


After about a year of testing, I visited a designer meeting organized by Czech Board Games (CBG). They support original Czech games, organize regular events, and annually select one or two games for publishing, trying to publish them in a small quantity to present at SPIEL where they'll look for a bigger foreign publisher for the game.

Spring on a String won the contest, but it took another two years to find a Czech publisher that would be able to deal with the specific production requirements. I took it to playtesting events organized by Czech Games Edition, where the game also got a great reception, but it obviously doesn't fit into their game portfolio. It was considered by other Czech companies until finally Dino seized the opportunity.

The textile game board was the biggest challenge. It wasn't easy to find a satisfactory technical and financial solution. We had been considering other materials like cardboard, wood, textile printing, etc., but to my great delight, the folks at Dino found a solution with a textile board similar to the original prototype.


From gallery of uhlik
The progression from prototypes to the final game board; the flower shapes changed to be more easily recognizable, with an even number of petals being rounded and an odd number being sharp and with the size of the flowers increasing with their value


It was still a long way to the final product. We had to come up with a fitting name, choose the most interesting animals, refine all texts, and start working on the graphics. A young talented illustrator, Dominika Hourová, took care of all the illustrations. We suggested that each picture should somehow evoke the appropriate rule, which was certainly not an easy task, but in many cases Dominika succeeded, and the final game looks beautiful.


From gallery of uhlik
The dung beetle allows you to collect his color of flowers only from smallest to largest, so we decided to depict it as if he's adding them one by one to his growing ball


It has been a super busy time, finishing Spring on a String and working on Under Falling Skies for the 2019 nine-card print-and-play design contest at the same time — all while quitting my previous job and starting to work for CGE. But now when I finally hold Spring on a String in my hands after three-and-a-half years, I am very happy about it. I learned a lot along the way and enjoyed every moment of the journey.

Thank you to all of those who have contributed with advice and have helped with the playtesting or in any other way. I hope you enjoy the game and experience a lot of pleasant moments with it.

Tomas Uhlir


Board Game: Spring on a String
The published game in action (photo from spoluhratky.eu)
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Sun Sep 29, 2019 1:00 pm
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