Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
first published on Diagonal Move in August 2022. —WEM]
Roland MacDonald joins Diagonal Move to talk about his work illustrating board games, including the Undaunted series and Final Girl.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Roland. Your artistic career began in a video game environment. Can you tell us about that experience?
RM: I started as a 3D artist on PS2 games at Creative Assembly before moving to the Total War team. Computer games were a good place to get started, and I learned a lot of different skills. It gave me the time to become a real expert with Photoshop. After a while, I got tired of 3D modeling. I found it too creatively limiting, so I started drawing again. After a couple of years of hard practice, I was asked to join the Total War: Shogun 2 team as a concept artist and illustrator. This was a turning point for me. I got to draw every day and make a real impact on the project. I love Ukiyo-e printmaking, so making illustrations in that style and helping the team bring that flavor to the whole project was great.Total War: Shogun 2
DM: When and why did you transfer from the video game industry to board game projects?
RM: Shogun 2 gave me the confidence and the skills to go freelance, which coincided with me moving from the UK to the Netherlands. Computer games were fun, but the prospect of working on more Total War iterations was not that exciting to me, and in truth I am more of a solo act than a team player. It took four years of working with all sorts of different clients before I decided to really pursue board games.
I had started playing a lot more board games around 2014 and thought it would be an enjoyable arena for more creative types of illustration. Up until then, a lot of my freelance work was commercial illustration. In 2015 I decided to go to SPIEL and try to talk to publishers. In order to get noticed, I made a very special "business card". I designed a card-based version of Cluedo (called "Suspicion"), fully illustrated it, and printed two hundred copies to give away. It was a big project and not cheap, but it made a big impact. Unlike a business card, it was unlikely to be thrown out, and it was both a portfolio and a talking point. It got me a lot of meetings even without appointments. (By the way, do make appointments!! Publishers are very busy at SPIEL.)
DM: How much "carryover" is there from one medium to the other?
RM: Computer games at this stage is a very developed industry with hundreds of people contributing to a single project. It is very professional but is also cautious. Board games as a business is still very amateur and very small, even the bigger companies. The plus side is a wealth of creativity. Small teams mean your contributions have a real impact in shaping the product, and project lengths are much shorter, which I particularly appreciate. I worked on Shogun 2 for two years plus. Working on short projects is much more fun.
Technically, as an illustrator the job in either field is largely the same. I do everything digitally. Making the tiles for Undaunted uses a lot of the texture tiling techniques from games texturing. Item design and character are really not that different.
DM: In terms of a project, how do you develop artwork from an initial brief to a finished design?
RM: This depends so much on the client, the scale of the project, and the budget. Now that I am more experienced and have repeat clients who trust me to get good results, I often get a lot of freedom to develop a look and feel.
Research is the most overlooked part of the process and is a big stage of any project for me. For most projects I make a Pinterest board that I share with the client to explore ideas and get us on the same page. From a communication point of view, I like to run all of my projects via Trello (a free project management tool) as this removes the need for emails and keeps everything easy to find and discuss in one place. I like to update this regularly, so the client can keep up to date and so I can get quick feedback. I highly recommend it to other illustrators.
I usually fully work out one or two illustrations to establish color and style before returning to a more standard work mode of showing sketches, making small changes, then painting. My sketches are often quite loose as I like to work out details whilst painting. It keeps the whole process interesting.
If it is a big project, I will move between different parts of the project or switch between different projects to stop getting fatigued from repetition. For example, in Undaunted: Stalingrad there are a lot of soldiers as each troop has an upgraded version and often a reinforcement replacement, so when I got tired of drawing them, I worked on the map of Stalingrad, which was also an epic task. This time it is a single huge map, but most of the tiles have two of three different damage states. Switching between soldiers and tiles kept me fresh and engaged throughout.
I work digitally from sketch to final and almost exclusively in Photoshop, sketching and painting with a 27" Wacom Cintiq. If a project needs a lot of world-building, I do go to a café with a sketchbook and Pinterest and do some concept art on paper. I did this with Ruination a fair bit.Roland's retheme of Battle Line
DM: How do you build on the work of others, for example for an expansion or for a retheme, such as Battle Line?
RM: Battle Line was a personal project that grew into a full production. I wasn't willing to pay for the original as I found it too ugly so that was just a complete overhaul. By contrast, I did an expansion case for Detective: City of Angels. That was originally illustrated by Vincent Dutrait, a real master, so that was very scary to do! There was no point trying to ape his style, but I wanted to make my work feel comfortable alongside the base game art. I tried doing some sketches for a more painterly style, but in the end found a middle ground that I am pleased with and tied in well with the original.
With Undaunted, each box has slightly different treatments. They all sit well together, but small adjustments keep it interesting for me to do the "same" project over and over. Stalingrad is grittier and epic, and the art reflects that. Working in a style you developed years ago when you have gotten a lot better over time can become frustrating, so it is also nice to be able to move on to new projects and try something fresh.
DM: How much research do you do for a historical game such as Undaunted, and how does this shape the final work?
RM: Research is a big part of the Undaunted series. Osprey supplies me with a few books and I do as much research as I can online. Time and budget are the limiting factors. For the most part, we try to get as much right as possible. There is a lot of conflicting, low-quality imagery out there, though, and I am not a WW2 buff, so I rely on the Osprey history nerds to catch errors. It is an enjoyable part of the process, but it is easy to get lost in it. I have way too many reference pictures of guys with guns.
DM: In addition to your work as an artist, you've designed your own game, Ruthless. Please tell us more about it and how the process of game design and development differs to the design and development of art?
RM: Ruthless a pirate-themed, deck-building and hand-management game that was published in 2018 after two years of development and illustration in my spare time. I started out by wanting to make a more involved deck-building game that was more think-y than just playing all five cards, rinse and repeat until someone wins. Players are competing over a series of rounds to build the best crews, with poker-style sets. You play only a "single" card from your hand each turn, which makes the decision space more involved, and timing and bluffing become important, making a more interactive game experience. Obviously there is a lot more to it than that. Last year I designed and published a big expansion to the game which I am very proud of.
Designing a game exercises some of the same creative muscles as illustrating and in some ways is also like playing a game or solving puzzles. The testing phase is a lot like developing a character or building a world. Lots of iterations and changes slowly improving the whole until everything comes together. Ruthless was very much a mechanics/experience-led design. The pirate theme just seemed to fit really well with the gameplay — which I was not happy with at first as pirates are so cliché, but in the end it comes together very well, and in the Tall Tales expansion, the theme was able to influence the mechanics much more, introducing the Kraken, famous pirates, and quests.
DM: What are your most memorable experiences, good and bad, from your career to date?
RM: Working on Final Girl Season 1 and Season 2 was a lot of fun. I know the guys at Van Ryder Games, and they trusted me to run wild with those projects and explore new ideas.
Ruination is a game where I had total free reign, and I had a blast. I got to go wild with color and world building — designing moons and doing all of the graphic design, too — and that project really pops.
I did the art for a football game back in 2011 that was pure hell. I totally undercharged. The designer wanted endless changes, and I don't even like football. It is my freelance horror story. I learned a lot the hard way on that one.
DM: Are you able to tell us about any forthcoming games or pipeline projects you are working on?
RM: The biggest title on the way is, of course, Undaunted: Stalingrad, coming out in Q4 2022. This is a much more ambitious iteration of the Undaunted system where the outcome of games has a real impact. Troops can get experience and gain new skills or die permanently. Equally the battlefield will change depending on your own games. If you blow up a building, that tile will get replaced with a damaged version and may even be completely flattened, making way for tanks in future scenarios. Of course, all of these variations required a huge amount of extra drawings. It was as epic to work on as it will be to play. David and Trevor just keep knocking it out of the park.
Everything else is kinda still top secret. I am working with Bézier, Kolossal, and Van Ryder Games between now and February 2023, and there is more from Osprey in the pipeline, too.Undaunted: Stalingrad
DM: What advice would you give to budding artists?
RM: I highly recommend doing your own version of a game you love to play but hate to look at. This will teach you how to work on a whole project and give you real design challenges. Making one-off characters or pictures is fine, but designing a series of illustrations that all come together and work in service of the gameplay is a big step towards being a professional.
If you are just getting started, then the advice is practice a lot, like every day whenever you have a break. When I was retraining myself to draw, I drew people waiting for the bus, sketched ideas over coffee, and did at least one hour of digital sketching / studies a day. You get out what you put in.
All images in this article were provided by Roland. You can read more about Roland at his website, Roland's Revenge.
To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, contact us at email@example.com.
Archive for Neil Bunker
- [+] Dice rolls
16 Apr 2022
first published on Diagonal Move in March 2022. —WEM]
Cryptid: Urban Legends designers Ruth Veevers and Hal Duncan join Diagonal Move to talk about their approach to abstract game designs.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Hal and Ruth. You are known for your game Cryptid, which was a big success a few years ago. Can you tell us a bit more about yourselves and how you got into gaming?
Hal: I got into hobby board games roughly when I started university in around 2005. Before then I'd played role-playing games and some Magic, and I have faint earlier memories of leafing through the glossy board games pages of the Argos catalogue each Christmas.
When I started at uni I recall playing a lot of Zombies!!! and Illuminati, enjoying them but wanting something shorter and with a bit more control. I played Citadels at a university club, and soon after that Power Grid, Puerto Rico, and so on. There's a long running games club in Norwich, and I think the first game I played when I joined them was Brass; I did miserably at it, but it's my favorite game to this day. I started designing games when I was working night shifts and would have lots of time to think about games, but time for playing games didn't line up with others very often, and eventually one of those games was Cryptid.
Ruth: I started at the same university in 2008, and I'd wanted to give Dungeons & Dragons a try, so I went along to the university's game group. By then Hal had become the president and had started up weekly society board game nights, which were a bit of a revelation for me. I'd known I loved playing games like Scrabble and Cluedo, and finding out that there was a whole world of modern games to jump into was great. Developing a massive crush on Hal also inspired me to go every week...
DM: Can you describe how you create games as a design partnership?
Ruth: I think my first attempt at game design came in around 2009 after I misremembered Agricola so badly that I had in effect created a completely different game. I filled in the gaps and put together a hand-drawn prototype named "Peachtree Hill", then forced Hal to play it. To this day, I maintain that it was actually quite good, although I will not be replaying it to confirm.
Later, Hal started coming up with more deliberate game ideas and talking them over with me. I think we spend so much of our lives talking to each other that it was quite natural to discuss the ideas and develop them together. We both enjoy developing and discussing games, but we're quite anxious about the process of actually releasing a game. This means we're quite happy to shelve a game if it's not perfect; we have a prototype graveyard of projects that are Absolutely Fine, but I don't want to release anything unless I'm super excited about it. I think that takes a bit of pressure off when it comes to differences in opinion as we have as much time as we need to try out different versions, discuss them, and ultimately end up with something we both like.
Our roles within the design partnership aren't super strictly defined, although Hal tends to handle the social side while I prefer working on any computational requirements. Hal is really good at identifying interesting new mechanics that work as a great launching point, so most of our games start life as one of his ideas. He's also very open to suggestions, even if those suggestions are a massive shift in direction. I've proposed a few new games, but I usually playtest each one once or twice, then decide it's mediocre. I'm trying to find a nice way to phrase, "I'm very opinionated and critical, and really enjoy dissecting prototypes looking for ways to improve them", but I'm afraid I might just be a nightmare.
As an example, Urban Legends started as a ghost-busting game proposed by Hal before Cryptid came out. It started as a more traditional hidden movement game played on a grid, with a team of ghost-hunting players moving different colored sensors around the points on the grid. A hidden ghost player would be secretly positioned in the squares of the grid and would report back about the adjacent sensors. That core puzzle — arranging the sensors to make their possible outputs more informative, or trying to position yourself to make your location ambiguous — was really neat, but the surrounding game had some issues.
I love hidden movement games, but my least favorite point (at least when Hal and I play) is when the detective player draws up massive logical trees of possibilities based on where the hidden player came from and where each position can lead to. This game in particular led to a lot of agonizing over the board and drawing up trees for the detective player and a lot of sitting about for the hidden player. I proposed a version where a similar sensor system is used, but the game itself is played directly on such a tree. The slight hitch was that the board would immediately become massive and stretch off the ends of any gaming table. We didn't work on the game any more until a couple of years later when Hal thought up a really clever system of simulating a growing tree by moving backwards and forwards between just two layers, which is the core part of Urban Legends' gameplay. From there, we worked on the project almost daily, identifying the experience that we wanted players to have and trying variations of each mechanic until it all felt right.
Hal: I handle most of the playtesting with people outside our core group. There are great events under the Playtest UK banner in both Cambridge and London, which I went to semi-regularly at different stages. I try to kind of process and gauge feedback from those sessions down to the bits that would be useful for Ruth and I to puzzle over together.
One of the things I love about working with Ruth is that I find she is great at identifying what the core appeal of a game is, keeping us focused on emphasizing those parts, and trimming ancillary bits of the game. In terms of making mechanical decisions, that's collaborative. I feel we often talk over the issue, and if a solution doesn't arise from that, we let it stew until something bubbles up for one of us. It can mean we're a bit slow, with things on the back-burner for long periods, but we're both happy to wait for a good solution rather than slog out an acceptable one.
DM: Cryptid is a deduction/puzzle game. What is the appeal of designing a puzzle or abstract game, and how does Cryptid differ from other games in the genre?
Hal: I have a love of games that have a win condition other than the accumulation of points, where you have to accomplish some task in order to win. Puzzle and deduction games provide a clear focus and objective: Solve the puzzle. It's a boon for design as when considering how something should work, you can ask yourself "How is this about solving the puzzle?" to guide your choices.
Within the deduction genre, the most direct influence on Cryptid is Zendo and the lineage of induction games like Eleusis. Both of these have a core asymmetry, having one player who knows some hidden rule, which the others are trying to divine. Perhaps against the then emerging trend for increased asymmetry, we wanted to flip this into a symmetric experience.
A key challenge in doing that was developing a game structure that can arbitrate when a final solution has been reached, without one player having sight of all the knowledge. One of the unique things in Cryptid is that all that work is pushed into the set-up and the identification of a unique space fitting all the players rules. Recent games, like the excellent The Search for Planet X, have had an app take on that role, but we wanted it so that the app was needed only in set-up, with multiple clues leading to a unique space allowed.
Ruth: I think there's an element of designing a puzzle-y game that itself feels like a bit of a puzzle. I found it quite enjoyable to work on trying to find the parameters and thresholds for clue generation that would make the game feel fair.
I also really enjoyed working on the clue generation algorithm itself. I'd finished university and gone to work as a programmer when we started working on Cryptid. Some of the questions the design brought up, about sets and information, felt related to but not exactly the same as known problems in computer science and maths, and it was interesting to think about how to approach these questions in those contexts. It was partly why I then went back into academia to do a Ph.D. — I had found that I really enjoyed working on a problem without knowing whether a solution even existed.
DM: Can you tell us about the design and development process for Cryptid?
Ruth: Cryptid came out of a discussion we'd had after an extremely long and frustrating game of Zendo. We wondered whether you could get an experience that felt as satisfying as solving an induction problem like Zendo, but without requiring a human to set the puzzle. We quite quickly settled on spaces on a map as the setting as you have a lot of potential clues built into that, such as terrain types, distance to landmarks, and so on. Hal manually created a map and put together the first set of clues, which seemed like an absolute nightmare, so I threw together a bit of code that would generate a hex map, pick a hex, then generate some rules to uniquely identify it. Within a week we had this working, and as soon as we played it, we could see that there was something really neat about it.
Hal: Theme was irrelevant for the longest time. We knew the game, mechanically, was about finding something within a space, so initially had it as a generic "finding buried treasure" theme. We weren't particularly attached to it, though. When the mechanisms were pretty stable, we started trying to find a story that provided an adequate excuse for why the game worked like it did. For instance, it's slightly tricky to explain why treasure hunters are sort of working together and discussing things, but it made more sense if you were scientists discussing your research about a creature. Currently, one of the features I like most about games is that like music, they can function without representing anything at all or by representing it only very vaguely.
DM: Cryptid has quite distinctive artwork. What impact do you think artwork and graphic design have on an abstract game, and were you able to have input on the artwork for Cryptid?
Hal: I'm really happy with how the artwork on Cryptid turned out, Kwanchai [Moriya] and Osprey Games did a terrific job. My sense for art is not particularly strong; I'll default to a sort of austere black-and-white look most of the time, partly as it's cheaper to print.
We were asked about what artists or styles we would want, but I don't think it was an area where we had a particularly strong vision. Duncan Molloy at Osprey was really great at ensuring there was a balance between art that would pull people in, while maintaining the readability of the game state. Because one of our core aims for the game was to have memory of all the answers stored on the board, making sure that is easily readable at a glance is vitally important to the game being playable. The boldness of color and iconic texture on the different terrains worked well I feel. It's one of the appeals of working with a publisher; you get the benefit of people with much greater experience and taste in areas where you're lacking. Plus, I can't get enough of that little snake on the cover. I think, when we get deep enough in the ocean, we'll find it.
Ruth: In general, we don't bother to make prototypes look good at all. Urban Legends spent most of its development as printer paper glued to card cut from cereal boxes. The first time we saw Kwanchai's art for Cryptid we were on a bus and I teared up in public about how good it looked. We're both very happy he's returned for Urban Legends and can confirm that everything we've seen of the new art absolutely slaps.Cryptid prototype
DM: How do you playtest a game like Cryptid with so many different possibilities?
Ruth: We spent a lot of time unsure about what the end product of Cryptid would look like. We considered the possibility of sending it out as envelopes that each contained a unique paper map and set of printed clues, where players would draw on the map instead of placing tokens. For a while, it was essentially a print-and-play where each time someone printed the map, it would be different.
We also considered making the app or website required for all set-ups. For this reason, I focused on making the code generate one of the practically infinite solutions on the fly rather than starting with a bank of set-ups and playtesting our way through them. This also meant that when we made changes to the potential clues or map tiles they would immediately be incorporated in the clue generation rather than having to scrap and regenerate a large number of set-ups.
Playtesting Cryptid became two tasks: making sure that our code was giving game set-ups and clue combinations that actually worked as we expected, and making sure that the game was enjoyable to play. Once we were completely satisfied that the code was putting out good set-ups, and Osprey had come up with the final booklet and card method of handing out clues, we manually checked each set-up but didn't worry about thoroughly playtesting each one.
Urban Legends has the same set-up for each game, which was a nice change. That let us focus more on exploring the different directions the game could go from that starting point.
Hal: Beyond having a working algorithm, which generated maps with functioning sets of clues, we also had to identify what felt fair. If one player's clue narrowed it down to ten spaces, while another player's narrowed it to forty, did that feel fair? Were some types of clues just much harder or easier to guess? For instance, at one point we had directional clues, which said something like, "North of the black shack". I was loath to drop them, and we needed them to make it feel like there were enough possibilities, but they were so visually obvious on the board that people resented getting dealt one.
Eventually we found a type of clue to replace them, adding animal territories (at the time we called them fissures), and later realized we could further split them into two types, giving us back the feeling of having enough possibilities. Once we'd got a sense of what felt balanced to players, we had to turn it back into thresholds and conditions that could be understood by the clue-generation algorithm, then head back to another round of testing. As Ruth said, it has been refreshing to work on Urban Legends, with exactly and only one set-up.Cryptid prototype
DM: Your next game is Cryptid: Urban Legends. What can you tell us about this new game?
Hal: It's inspired by hidden movement games, but it isn't one. There's no mechanical relationship between this game and the earlier Cryptid, but we hope that it retains a sense of feeling like a dynamic puzzle. Urban Legends is a two-player game where one player takes on the role of a team of scientists, trying to capture the other player who represents an elusive creature fleeing through a city. The city is represented by tiles, with places where the creature could be indicated by markers on those tiles. The goal of the scientists is to reduce the places the creature could be to only one (or zero) and thus capture it; the goal of the creature to make it such that they exist in a wide enough range of places to escape the scientists' net to freedom.
The goals are asymmetric, but the way players interact with the game is less so. Both players manipulate the location of sensors to make parts of the city more or less similar in terms of the sensors near to them. To my mind, the strongest similarity between Urban Legends and Cryptid is that we wanted to push the usually asymmetric way players interact with hidden movement games towards a greater degree of symmetry. Both are engaged in the same puzzle of arranging the sensors, but trying to achieve different goals, either expanding or contracting the places the creature could be.
Ruth: The games are using different mechanics to aim for a similar experience: We want players to be competitively engaging with a core puzzle, and we ideally want them to be approaching the puzzle without any need for note-taking.Urban Legends movement card
DM: Did you learn anything from the design process for Cryptid that you applied to Urban Legends?
Hal: Perhaps the biggest one was something we failed to apply for a long time. The earliest version of the design was more akin to well-known hidden movement games like Letters from Whitechapel, with the creature secretly writing down their moves and the scientist trying to arrange cubes (later to be sensors) on a squared board to best detect them. That puzzle, of arranging sensors on the board to get information about the creatures moves, has always been in the game and has always been the core engaging part.
For the longest time, though, it was only something the scientist player did. We tried to make the creature side more interesting by giving them a resource economy, access to powers, and some minor ability to manipulate the sensors. The game started feeling special for me when we quite radically reworked it so that everything focussed on manipulating the sensor cubes, and doing so was the core concern of both players; it was basically all you did. One of my favorite rules of thumb that served well in Urban Legends is that in this puzzle-y sort of game, players should touch the pieces as little as possible. The majority of the appeal is chewing over the problem, which is something that happens in the player's head; the more we can keep them there, and the quicker we can get them back there the better. There's definitely a bit more admin in this game than Cryptid, but a lot of times design seems to me to be making choices between mutually exclusive desirable properties.
Ruth: The Cryptid playtesting process, along with some of the responses it received, made me more sensitive to the effect of player error. I was so bad at putting out cubes instead of discs and vice versa that we had to add a rule to handle player mistakes, and some playtesting sessions failed because a tile was put out upside-down. Urban Legends is less fragile; there are no points that someone could give incorrect information that couldn't be spotted by the other player.
DM: Urban Legends has a degree of secrecy about the upcoming release. How hard do you find "keeping a lid" on the game?
Hal: We did have a smaller circle of playtesters for this game, partly because being a two-player only game there's sections of the development we could do primarily on our own, so there's fewer people to talk about it online. We also finished it up during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, so there are people who playtested it online under its working name of "Superposition", who didn't know me personally and who I don't know would necessarily link it to the current title.
I haven't personally made a particular effort to be secretive about the game. I think perhaps it's a matter of temperament for me rather than a conscious choice. I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about our games beyond giving a description of what it is; it doesn't feel like my place to frame people's expectations or reactions.
Ruth: I've always struggled to talk or write about myself and especially things that I've worked on that I'm proud of. Every time I see Cryptid discussion in the wild, I feel like I've just been poked in the intestines. I will, however, absolutely seek out all discussion of Urban Legends.Cryptid: Urban Legends
DM: Urban Legends is being released on April 28, 2022. Are other projects already in the pipeline? If so, can you tell us more about them?
Hal: We're quite slow, so there's nothing very developed currently. We've been noodling with another hidden movement type game, which is still hidden movement, but who knows what it might end up as. A while ago we finished up a traditional questions-and-notetaking style deduction game, which works well but maybe doesn't contribute anything particularly novel, so we're a bit unsure what if anything to do with that one.
Ruth: There are a few things that are stewing on the back-burner, waiting for some inspiration. There's a game using Cryptid-style induction for placing dominoes that was progressing quite nicely before local playtesting sessions were stopped due to Covid. There's also a different hidden movement game where everybody's movement is hidden from themselves, which is interesting but doesn't hold up to repeated plays yet.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a stage where Cryptid was a print-and-play game that would be different each time it was printed. That's something I find interesting, and lately I've been playing around with developing something similar. It's currently sort of a distribution method in search of a game. though, as the games I've been playing around with for it haven't been very inspiring.Cryptid: Urban Legends
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for designers looking to publish a puzzle/abstract/deduction game?
Hal: In a deduction game, you can consider information as a sort of currency. When other people reveal information to you, it's a gain; when you have to reveal information to others, you're spending it. Using information as rewards or penalties for actions will I think make a more focused feeling game; it keeps more of the decisions linked into the core puzzle. The risk with this is that players who are struggling with the puzzle may not perceive receiving information as a reward if they can't see how it advances their position. Using more explicit rewards, like handing out points, will make the game work for a broader audience, but I think you lose some of the intensity you'd get by keeping everything pointing back inwards at the puzzle.
Consider who gets to see information that is revealed. Keeping people engaged between their turns can be achieved by letting them see bits, or all, of the information, which they can then attempt to integrate into their understanding of the puzzle.
I mentioned it earlier, but consider how often you want people to be touching components. Solving the kinds of puzzles set by deduction games is mostly happening in a player's head. We used the amount of staring and frowning at the board as an indicator of how well the game was working, jokingly calling the pose of looking down, head on fist, frowning "Cryptid stare".
Ruth: My advice would be to back off, we don't need the competition.
All images in this article were provided by Osprey Games, except those of the Cryptid prototypes, which were provided by Hal and Ruth.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move in February 2022. —WEM]
DM: Hi, Kwanchai, thank you for joining us today. Many readers will be familiar with artwork you have created for well-known games such as Flipships, Kodama, and Dinosaur Island. Can you tell us how art and board games crossed over for you to become a career?
KM: Hello, and thank you for speaking with me! My career had quite a few twists and turns. I cobbled together two degrees, History and Illustration, from a handful of different colleges and universities and had many odd jobs.
Eventually I found myself in Los Angeles, with very little opportunities at the time. I was working as an after-school English and Math tutor to make rent, while doing odd gallery shows here and there. Board games had already been a big hobby of mine for some time, and eventually through a few lucky breaks I eventually got my first real gig — Catacombs (Third Edition) — illustrating characters and boards for it late into the night after getting home from work.
From there, I took that one board game I had done and started attending tabletop conventions and meeting with publishers, trying to get more work, and my career steadily built up from there.
DM: Much of your board game work is sci-fi and fantasy based. Have you developed this as an extension of your own interests, or has this developed because of the games you have been are asked to work on?
KM: I have been a big fan of science fiction and fantasy books and shows since I was very young, especially older stuff like Isaac Asimov's Robot series and Foundation series. I like to re-read Lord of the Rings every few years. So yeah, consuming fantastic worlds is definitely a part of my hobby, and it surely bleeds into my work. For example, I get a lot of project pitches that have some sort of retro sci-fi art direction, and I think that's likely because I have a lot of personal work that leans in that direction.
DM: Are there specific techniques or styles that you use when designing artwork for games?
KM: I like to try new things and styles constantly. In tabletop publishing, everything needs to end up as a digital file, but the way you start a project does greatly influence the process and the final look, so sometimes I might start a painting with oils and real paintbrushes, then scan it and finish it digitally. But for the most part, it's an entirely digital process done primarily in Photoshop and employing the use of a good set of custom Photoshop brushes.
DM: Could you describe the process that game art undergoes to take it from commission to published work?
KM: It varies wildly. A small card game might need just a box cover wrap and a dozen cards, which I'd estimate at around two months or so. A typical sized board game would require a game board, player boards, a box cover, cards, and more, and might take up to five or six months, even a year sometimes. The quickest turnaround I've ever done is probably The Game for Pandasaurus Games. They needed a quick turnaround to make a print deadline for the holidays, and I just ran with it.
I've found that very quick turnarounds or very long turnarounds make for the best artwork, for some reason. Like Bosk was a super quick few weeks, but is one of my favorite looking projects — and then something like 7 Summits was almost a year or a year-and-a-half in the end because of a delay in the project, but I had so much time to go back and rework the box cover.
DM: Your work is usually the first thing a player sees on the box cover or on the board. How do you conjure the feeling of playing the game using your art, or does your art serve to create that feeling?
KM: It's an illustrator's job, I think, to give the game a presence, a world. The cover and everything inside are each opportunities to reinforce and invigorate that world. Usually quite a lot is left up to me, once a general art brief and theme has been given, and I've found that as I've grown as an artist, clients have become more and more trusting of my intuition, and there is less hand-holding happening.
The most freedom I've ever had on a project is probably Curious Cargo by Capstone Games. They had all the bones of a shipping/receiving theme but needed more "stuff", so Brigette Indelicato, a fantastic graphic designer I often work with, and I came up with three playful types of animated goods and kind of built an atmosphere around them. Super fun!
DM: Could you highlight some examples of board game art that stand out for you and why?
KM: There's an abundance of top-of-the-line artwork in board games these days — so much illustration and design to be inspired by and to look towards for inspiration. Off-hand I'd say anything by Mr. Cuddington, Ian O'Toole, and Andrew Bosley, to name just a few. Vincent Dutrait's command of traditional mediums in Robinson Crusoe and Lewis & Clark were early inspirations for me. The colors and expressiveness in use with Jacqui Davis' work, like Colosseum and Ex Libris. There's so much to feel inspired and also challenged by!
DM: You have worked with games from many genres. Are some genres more challenging to create art for?
KM: Genres that have very specific details, perhaps historical or factual, or a setting that requires particular details to be right geographically, etc. are harder to nail down. It takes more research beforehand to make sure you are getting things right. The original Cryptid game and its new cousin Cryptid: Urban Legends were both really exciting to research because who doesn't like looking up urban myths and supernatural folk creatures? To do research for those games, I would put on a Bigfoot podcast and just deep dive into some library books on the matter. All sorts of weird, interesting bits to look at.
DM: How do you weave functionality/ease of use into your art?
KM: Functionality and ease of use is a part of my job, but it is much more key for the graphic designer. Although I have done the dual duty of illustration and graphic design on smaller games, I usually leave that job to much more capable hands.
DM: You've also created art for new editions of previously released games, for example, The Game. Are there any special considerations when working with games already in the public consciousness?
KM: The consideration to be made when working on a new edition of a well-loved game is two-fold. First, you need to identify the things that really "work" about the existing edition, whether it be certain visuals or the importance of certain physical components. And then secondly, you need to focus as much of your creativity in making those key elements really stand out with great artwork, while chopping away all the elements that didn't work or detracted.
A lot of times, though, I'm brought on to a project because there's just a serious need for more art on the new edition. Like The Game, which was plain white numbers on identical cards, there was quite a lot of space to create and innovate.
DM: Can you tell us anything about projects you are currently working on?
KM: I'm working on so many fun projects that it's hard to keep track of when one finishes and another begins. I just finished working on a game called Rolling Heights published by AEG which should be coming out this month; it's a really fun design by John D. Clair. [Editor's note: Rolling Heights was Kickstarted by AEG in February 2022, but the game isn't due out until February 2023. —WEM]
I'm also working on another game by John with Brotherwise Games called Empire's End, which might be one of the more complex box covers I've done. I'm also working on a few expansions for some of the better-known games that I've done in the past. Lots of great stuff.
DM: Finally, do you have any tips for artists looking to begin a career working in the board game industry?
KM: I would say the biggest thing that's helped me grow a career is reaching out to publishers at tabletop conventions. It's still a small world in this industry, and I think pounding pavement with your portfolio is a very honest and trustworthy way to test your mettle.
- [+] Dice rolls
Interview: Miniatures Gaming with Joe McCullough, Creator of Frostgrave, Stargrave, and Rangers of Shadow Deep
27 Nov 2021
first published on Diagonal Move in August 2021. All images provided by Osprey Games except where noted. —WEM]
Joe McCullough, creator of Frostgrave, Stargrave, and Rangers of Shadow Deep, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss the relative merits of spells vs. grenade launchers and other miniatures-based wargaming topics.
DM: Hi Joseph, thank you for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a games designer?
JM: Thanks for the invite! Looking back, two important things happened when I was in my early teens. First, I became a "gamer". This started when I found a copy of Dungeons & Dragons at a yard sale and quickly expanded to include other RPGs and miniature games.
At the same time, I started to develop a love of writing. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer. I spent most of my university and young adult life writing short stories, but never really getting anywhere. It wasn't until after I emigrated to Britain, took a job at Osprey Publishing, and helped in the development of Osprey Games that it occurred to me to try writing a game. Even then, it began as a fun distraction. Well, my first attempt at game writing was Frostgrave, and its success convinced me that maybe I had found my calling.
DM: You are best known for miniatures-based skirmish games including Frostgrave, Rangers of Shadow Deep, and Stargrave. How do miniatures-based wargames differ from sci-fi and fantasy themed-board wargames that use miniatures, for example Battle Lore?
JM: Board games are limited by their very nature. They are limited by the board and the pieces that come in the box. Now, this allows for much tighter rules sets because everything is governed by squares or hexes, and the designer knows exactly what the players will be using when they play. Wargames are open. Every player is likely to use different miniatures or terrain. This allows players to build unique tables and construct unique scenarios, giving miniature wargames infinite possibility. Of course, it also creates new challenges for the designer, who must create rules that can work with a degree of uncertainty with what terrain and pieces will be on the table.
DM: What does Frostgrave do differently from other miniatures-based games, and how did it build on the games that inspired you to be a designer?
JM: I think Frostgrave did three things that were rare in wargames at the time. First, it took a narrative-first approach to miniature gaming, meaning that the story you tell by the act of playing is more important than whether a player wins or loses. In fact, in a campaign, there are no specific victory conditions to a game. Players are left to decide for themselves whether the outcome of a game was good or bad.
Second, Frostgrave moved away from the traditional "warrior focus" of wargames, put wizards front and center, and gave them a huge list of spells from which to choose. This not only brought huge variety to the game since there are eighty spells and they all do different things, but it gave players meaningful choices to make each turn.
Finally, at every point in the game, I thought about how I could speed things up and keep players engaged. For example, combat is an opposed d20 roll, which determines both who won the fight and how much damage is done, so with one roll, either figure — or both — could end up dead. Also, each player activates only a few figures at a time, so the game moves very fast with a lot of back and forth. A player never has to wait more than a minute or two before rolling some dice or moving some figures.
DM: When designing a system like Frostgrave with multiple character attributes and equipable items and spells, how do you keep track of the "balance" of the game and ensure that one unit or spell combination doesn't overpower others?
JM: Basically, I write down all the cool stuff I can think of and sort it out later! Seriously though, I kind of set a "power level" in my mind, and I make sure when I write that everything in the game is floating around that level, so all the spells should be about "X level good". Now, obviously it is hard to compare an attack spell to a spell that turns a figure invisible to a spell that creates a wall, but it's a good baseline to approach the writing. I find that if I try to err on the side of caution when creating anything new, it's much easier to go back later during playtesting and make it slightly more powerful than it is to go back and make it slightly less powerful.
In the end, though, it's not possible to keep everything completely balanced. As the number of possible combinations reaches the infinite, there are going to be possibilities or interactions that the designer never even conceived — but that's what makes wargaming great. It's part of that infinite possibility. The wargamers who are attracted to my style of games are the ones who are willing to trade the occasional blip that they might have to legislate themselves for that huge level of possibility.
DM: Stargrave, the successor to Frostgrave, was released in April 2021. Can you tell us about the new system and how it differs from Frostgrave?
JM: The biggest single change is that now everyone is carrying a gun! I know that's a bit flippant, but seriously, it hugely changes the feel of the game and the tactics employed. So really, creating Stargrave was about taking that fundamental change, then rebuilding the rest of the system around it. Spells that are great in Frostgrave, such as "Elemental Ball", wouldn't be that great in Stargrave where you can get the same basic effect from a grenade launcher.
Instead of spells, you have a captain and first-mate who have "powers", which can be anything from biological enhancements, cybernetics, or well-honed skills to mystical arts, psionic powers, or just plain luck. So you can build a space-wizard if you want, but you can just as easily have a cybernetic super-soldier, a slippery rogue, or a robotics master. In fact, you could have a cyborg and a rogue because unlike Frostgrave, your two characters — your captain and first-mate — can have completely different power-sets, which gives a crew access to a host of different tactics they can employ during a game.
DM: Can you tell us more about Rangers of Shadow Deep? How does it compare to your other games?
JM: For Rangers of Shadow Deep, I took some of the core mechanics from Frostgrave, then rebuilt the game from the ground-up to be a solo or co-operative experience. It is my attempt to push traditional tabletop wargaming as far as I could in the direction of classic role-playing.
In Rangers, you build a character, much as you would in an RPG. It doesn't necessarily have to be a ranger; it can be a warrior, wizard, thief, whatever — ranger is just your job title. Then you surround that character with some trusted companions and go out on missions assigned by your king. While the game still has a heavy combat element, it also brings in other aspects of adventuring, such as exploration and investigation. In one mission, you team up with a small group of soldiers to investigate a farm that has been attacked. Unfortunately, one of your team is a werewolf! You just need to figure out which one. In another, you are exploring the ruins of an ancient abbey, searching for an important relic. You have to choose which rooms you explore in what order, collecting clues to the relic's location.
So while the game is still very much a tabletop wargame, it has a lot of the feel of an RPG, especially if you are playing it co-operatively with other players.
DM: What do you attribute the popularity of miniatures-based gaming and the success of your games to? Is it the world building, the element of roleplay, the chaotic fun of rolling handfuls of dice?
JM: I think most people get into miniature wargaming because, frankly, they love miniatures. There is just something pleasing about recreating a fantasy or science-fiction world in miniature that really appeals to a lot of people. In many ways, the rules are just an excuse to fuel the collecting, building, and painting part of the hobby. I think the freedom inherent in my rules systems — the encouragement to use any figures you want no matter the producer; the unimportance attached to species, so that any figure can be an elf, dwarf, orc, etc.; and even the unimportance of scale — gives people the excuse to buy and work on the miniatures they've always wanted to get but never had a specific need for. The same thing goes with terrain. The games are so open-ended that you can craft any terrain you want for them — or if you don't like working on terrain — you can just use a bunch of blocks or rocks instead.
Beyond that, I think a large group of gamers find my rules enjoyable because there is less emphasis on winning and losing. While you still approach the game with strategies, goals, and hopes, there is less tension to them than a lot of games, and you know you are likely to have a good time even if the dice go against you!
DM: The "hobby" side of miniatures gaming — building and painting the miniatures — is hugely popular and even draws in people who collect and paint models without ever playing the games. How much input as the game's designer do you have into the look and feel of the minis themselves?
JM: In my case, the answer is "as much as I want". Osprey Games and North Star include me in all the discussions about the miniatures. That said, I honestly don't think this is one of my strengths, so for the most part, I stay out of the way and let other people do the things that they are really good at!
DM: The initial and on-going costs — the vast array of expansions, multiple factions, new miniatures and rulebook editions on a regular release cycle — can be seen as both a barrier to entry for many players new to minis games and restrictive to regular players looking to try a new system. How do you feel about this, and can you suggest any ways players can reduce these?
JM: While I know some people see the hobby this way, I honestly don't think it is true. I mean, it is for certain games from certain companies, but it isn't true of the hobby as a whole. For example, if you want to play Frostgrave, all you need is the basic rulebook and a single box of plastic figures. This will give you enough figures for two people to field full Frostgrave forces. For terrain, you can use whatever you have around the house: books, boxes, blocks, cans, rocks from the garden. Believe me, you can have some great games, some great adventures, doing just that. I have! Heck, for Rangers of Shadow Deep, there are people who don't even use terrain; they just draw out the table on a big white board. That works, too!
Later on, as you get into the game you can expand. You can get expansions that give you new scenarios and optional rules, but none are necessary. You can buy a few monsters to increase the complications in your game, or a new miniature to represent your more powerful wizard. You can hand make some terrain out of old cereal boxes. One of the great aspects of the hobby is that you can start cheap and build everything up over time. There is huge satisfaction to be gained by this slow-build-up approach.
And these ideas aren't peculiar to my games. There are lots of minis games out there that require only a small initial start-up, just a book and a few figures, so never feel like you need to drop £200-300 at one go to get into the hobby. It's just not true.Image: Marco Arnaudo
DM: If someone wanted to start their miniatures gaming hobby with one of your games, which do you suggest as an entry point and why?
JM: If you are looking for a competitive game in which you battle it out with your friends, I would suggest Frostgrave. The rules are simple and can be learned quickly, and you need only ten figures or so to start playing. A lot of people just scavenge miniatures from board games they own but don't play! As I said, you can use anything for terrain. Since Frostgrave has so many different spell possibilities, it can be quite a wild and unpredictable game that leads to a lot of cinematic moments and a lot of reasons to laugh with your friends.
If you are a solo player or are more attracted to the idea of playing a miniatures game co-operatively, I'd go with Rangers of Shadow Deep. That's exactly why I created it. While you will need a few more minis for it to represent the bad guys, you can always get some cheap paper standees or just use proxies as you work on your collection.
DM: Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now?
JM: At the moment, I'm working on a small game called Deathship One. The idea is that a squad of soldiers has been pulled out of space and time and dumped in an alien death trap. You can use soldiers from any time period, past, present or future.
It's a solo or co-operative game, and in truth, you aren't supposed to win. It's a death trap, after all. The fun is seeing how far your squad can make it before they are overwhelmed. The whole game consists of playing through five rooms. In the unlikely event you make it through, you get to go home. I'm keeping the rules light and simple as I want the game to move very fast.
The plan is that it will be released in the next volume (#4) of Blaster, a miniature wargaming anthology series I am a part of that is irregularly released on DriveThruRPG.
DM: Do you have any advice for designers looking to create a miniatures-based game?
JM: Develop a writing habit. It doesn't matter how many ideas you have or how great they are unless you get them down on paper. Once you have a manuscript, making changes to rules is easy, but writing a complete rulebook, that's hard.
[Editor's note: You can read more about Joe on his blog: The Renaissance Troll. —WEM]
- [+] Dice rolls
13 Nov 2021
first published on Diagonal Move in October 2021. —WEM]
Peer Sylvester, designer of The King Is Dead, The Lost Expedition, and Brian Boru: High King of Ireland joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to talk about his career in game design.
DM: Hi, Peer, many thanks for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a game designer?
PS: Hi! I'm a math and chemistry teacher from Berlin. In 2003, I lived for about 15 months in Bangkok and back then there were absolutely no board games there apart from checkers and chess. Having played board games my whole life, I started to do a lot of print-and-play games, but also had some ideas of my own. Back in Germany, I moved from Hamburg to Berlin and met designer Günter Cornett, who introduced me to the Berlin game design scene. Now I had ideas AND a way to playtest them!
DM: You are now well known for designing The King Is Dead, Village Green, and The Lost Expedition. However, you designed many games before these. Can you tell us about some of those early games, and how you eventually "broke through" into the wider public consciousness?
PS: I had a lot of ideas, and I tried out a lot of stuff in my early days. The first published games were some abstracts from Hiku: Monochrom and Bamogo. Hartmut Kommerell, another known game designer from Berlin, told me that Hiku was looking for small abstract games, so I developed them with that goal in mind.
My time in Bangkok introduced me to Thai history, and I was intrigued by the question, why wasn't Thailand (or Siam, as it was once known) colonized? That thought process eventually developed into King of Siam, the predecessor of The King Is Dead. I met Richard Shako from Histogame at the Göttingen game designer meeting, and he agreed to publish this game. Since we both live in Berlin, we played other prototypes together as well. I introduced him to Wir sind das Volk and he really liked the idea and helped me develop it, with his involvement growing so big that we decided to be co-designers of the game.
At this time, I mainly worked with smaller publishers, so internationally I was not known. In Germany, I think I was mainly known as a boardgame blogger. Then in 2014 Duncan Molloy from Osprey Games contacted me because he wanted to make a new edition of King of Siam, which was well liked by the people who knew it. Obviously, I agreed and that established a friendship and the connection with Osprey, which has published a lot of my games so far.
DM: The King Is Dead has now seen two editions and was based on an earlier game. Can you tell us about how this game has developed over the years and what you think is the reason for this game's enduring popularity?
PS: King of Siam worked pretty much from the start. I changed the four-player game to a team-based game only because playtesters felt there was too little control against three opponents if you are on your own. In development, we added the home provinces, but apart from that it plays pretty much like the prototype. The King Is Dead changed the board, and the starting cubes are now random for more variety. I added the Mordred variant for seasoned gamers who want to try out something new. To be honest, I'm not a hundred percent happy with it, but it does work — just not very reliably.
The new edition has, yet again, new art, map, and setting. The number of ties for the neutral force to end the game has been reduced to three to make this more of a threat. And instead of Mordred, you now have new cards that you can exchange with basic actions. I like this new card system — we had a lot of brainstorming about what a possible expansion could do, and this is the idea that stuck, although of course this is a new edition, not an expansion.
Also, the anti-kingmaker rule from the original was scrapped at some point along the way. Originally you could play the very last card in the game only if you win with it. This affected only the three-player game and was quite clunky, and most groups would not run into problems without the rule, so off it went.
I think what people like about this game is that it puts a lot of strategy in a relatively short, dense game. There are not many rules, so the game is quite elegant, if I can say so myself. People like elegant games. And it's very direct, your actions have immediate consequences for everyone.Image: Tjark Schoenfeld
DM: The Lost Expedition is a co-operative game of jungle exploration known for its degree of difficulty. Can you tell us more about the design and development of The Lost Expedition and how you approach setting difficulty levels in a game design?
PS: I'd read David Grann's The Lost City of Z and was inspired by the story of an adventure crew going into the jungle, not knowing what they may encounter. Exploration games are a bit tricky because of the uncertainness of what to expect, but you want to be able to prepare for the worst things. For inspiration I scrolled down my "megafile of loose ideas and concepts", which contains all my ideas that haven't been made into working prototypes yet. One idea just read "Kramer's Take 5 as a co-op", and I thought that would be a good motor for the game. During the design process, we noticed that the simultaneous card selection isn't very satisfying, but apart from that you can see the remnants of the original idea.
In terms of difficulty, it's mainly playtesting with a dose of mathematics. To avoid really bad draws, I tried to make an advance symbol on every third card, if I remember correctly. Then I researched what encounters could happened and tried to translate them into game terms. And then it was just a matter of playtesting and tweaking a bit. I think a game feels right if you have the feeling most of it the time that you almost made it, with about 20% successes and 20% epic fails, but where the numbers improve when you play more often.
But to be honest, it's mostly gut feel...
DM: Village Green is a card-based puzzle game in the "easy to learn, challenging to master" vein. How do you approach the design of a "puzzle" game?
PS: This mainly started because I wanted to develop a garden game for my mum. I had the idea with the three different flowers in three different colors ages ago, but it never worked as a game until I had the idea that instead of just showing scoring cards, you play them in your garden. Then it was mainly a thing of removing the rule overhead. I playtested a lot with my mom, and every time I realized things were too complicated for her tastes, I streamlined things. Luckily the core is what makes this game shine, and it doesn't need any additional ideas.
So again, the solution to everything is "playtesting" and "gut feel". I'm sorry I can't be more helpful than that! When designing, I ponder an idea for a long time and think what I can do with it. If I have ideas, I'll implement them; if not, I write them down. That means that some ideas spend a long time on my "megafile" and maybe are used for something I haven't anticipated before.
DM: North American Railways has been described as an 18XX game without any tracks or a map. Can you tell us about the game and why you decided to focus purely on the economic aspects of a "railroad" game?
PS: It was kind of a challenge to myself. I'd read about a different game — I can't remember which — being described as "18xx the card game" and stopped reading to think, "How would I approach this? How can you have some sort of topology without a map? How can you make the stock market interesting? If you remove the track building (or simplify it a lot) in an 18xx, you automatically get a hardcore economic game.
My design process is driven by curiosity: I'm interested in things that haven't been tried before, and I like to see where my ideas end up. That can be a theme or a mechanism or a combination of games, to cross X with Y, or as in this case, how to do an 18xx without a map?
DM: Your latest game is Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, a trick-taking-based Euro with an historical theme. Can you give us any more details?
PS: The idea of designing a game about Brian Boru was long in the making, but my first ideas didn't work at all. One day on my way to work I pondered the question: "What if you play a trick-taking game and every card you play determines an action you are doing on a board?" This idea fit quite well with Brian Boru because he not only gained power by winning internal rivalries, but also by fighting the Vikings, by marrying off various family members, and by working strongly together with the Catholic church. These three things became the suits.
Now development took quite a long time because things were taken in and out, but what remained (and still remains) is that it doesn't feel like a trick taker. The card play is just the way you do things on the board, while also competing to win influence over a city (which you do by winning the trick). In this game everything is quite connected with each other. In its totality, I probably would describe it as a thematic Eurogame with a lot of variability.
DM: Now that you are an established designer with a portfolio of published games behind you, have your strategies for dealing with success and disappointment changed?
PS: It still feels kind of weird to think myself as a "well-known designer" who has "fans" to be honest. I'm very happy — after all, making games that people like brings me joy — but I can't really wrap my head around it.
Getting noted by publishers is definitely easier now, so it's easier to find a publisher for games, but I still get rejected a lot. That's just part of it. You do need luck to find the right person at the right time and also maybe some rejections are for the better as well. Luckily, as a teacher I have a very stable day job and I'm not dependent on my games, so I can take rejections in strides.
I'm still kind of nervous when a game of mine launches, hoping it does well and dreading that people think I'm a hack and never look at my games again. I still try to look into every review I come across though, just to see how people react to my game. If there is criticism, I try to see whether I understand it and divide it into "yes, that's fair" and "that person is completely wrong" (not really being serious there).
DM: Throughout your design career, your games have featured a wealth of different mechanisms and themes, everything from garden design to erupting volcanoes to stocks and shares. What do you feel is the common thread throughout all your games?
PS: That's a difficult question! Probably "full of hard decisions with little rules overhead".
For me, decisions are at the center of most games. In Village Green, you have to make the decision where to put your cards. In The King Is Dead, every time it's your turn, you have to make the "do or pass" decision and it's always hard. I think most of my games feature hard decisions of some kind.
I also design games "from bottom to top", i.e., start with the core and extend around the core until I have a working game that does what I want it to do. Other designers try to fit a lot of stuff into their games, and those games have more rules overhead. (I'm not saying my way is better — that's a matter of taste and what your goal is — I'm just saying, my games have fewer rules.)
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for new designers looking to begin their design career?
PS: Write everything down! Everything! Every idea for setting, theme, concept, or mechanism. If you have time, you can develop those; if not, or if you don't get an idea of how to make it work, you can let it rest and maybe you can use it for a later idea. The economic system of Wir sind das Volk started as an abstract game that didn't work on its own. Without my megafile, I probably would have forgotten about it. For more complex games, you need more mechanisms, and it's good if you have a "pantry" that you can visit for them.
But more importantly: Design what you like. It's hard to motivate yourself if you are not fully convinced about an idea. Design games that you would buy yourself. That must be the yardstick! This way, even if things don't go your way, at least you made a game that you like. That's worth a lot.
- [+] Dice rolls
11 Sep 2021
first published on Diagonal Move in August 2021. —WEM]
Fabio Lopiano — designer of Merv, Calimala, and Ragusa — joins Neil of Diagonal Move to discuss innovation in game design.
DM: Hi, Fabio, thank you for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in game design?
FL: Hello, my name is Fabio Lopiano, and I am a board game designer. I've been playing board games for a long time, but I started designing games only a few years ago. I currently live in Milan, Italy, but in the last twenty years or so I've lived in several countries, moving every few years.
In 2013, I moved from Paris to London — I went there to work as a software engineer for Facebook — and while in London I joined the "London On Board" Meetup group, which is a huge boardgaming community that meets almost daily to play board games in various venues around the city. There I met a few game designers, and I began playtesting their games. After a while, I also tried designing a game of my own, which eventually became Calimala.
DM: Your games to date have a distinct thematic tendency towards building and trading within a historical setting. What is about that theme that interests you?
FL: I've always been interested in history, especially in less known aspects of it. I read almost exclusively non-fiction books, mostly about history, science, or economics, so sometimes I come across some interesting historical facts that are not particularly well known and I try to use them as a setting for my games.
For Calimala, my first ever game, this was a little different but not too much. Although the setting might not seem particularly original, I saw that while there are already many games about Florence and the Renaissance, none of them were about the actual economics behind it.
Florence's wealth sprang from the international wool trade, driven by the guild of Calimala. With the incredible wealth accumulated through trading, these Florentine families eventually turned into banks, providing financial services both at home and abroad. With so much money in their coffers, they also started competing for prestige by building churches and sponsoring artists, while at the same time trying to gain control of the city government by getting seats at the city council. (This is more or less what happens in the game as well.)
The story of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) was interesting for me because when at school I studied the Maritime Republics, it was not mentioned at all (although it was among the most important ones, along with Venice and Genoa). I suspect this was because at the time I was at school, Dubrovnik was still behind the Iron Curtain and hence almost erased from history books of the time.
When I came across the name Ragusa much, much later, I was curious as to why I had never heard of it, and after reading some more about it, I decided to set my next game there.
Likewise, I found the story of Merv fascinating. I was surprised to learn that this was once one of the greatest cities in the world, but few people today have even heard of it, again because most of the history we learn at school is so western-centric.
DM: Your games contain intricate layers of mechanisms, including some innovative elements. Can you tell us about how the action-selection mechanism in Calimala developed?
FL: My initial idea with Calimala was to come up with an action-selection mechanism that would make every game different so that it would not be possible to have a set of "standard openings", but also so that the possible strategies would change enough from game to game that players have to look at the board and find what the best strategy would be for the given board set-up.
In the first iterations, I had eight action tiles in a circle, and players would place their token between two tiles and take both actions. Eventually I added a ninth, fixed action in the middle and changed the circle into a three-by-three grid.
The design process was iterative and long; it took me almost two years, bringing the prototype for a playtest to a couple of monthly meetings. Eventually I introduced the triggering of actions for previous players that already had a token in a slot as a way to reduce downtime and keep everyone involved in every player's turn.
The biggest breakthrough was the scoring trigger because it killed two birds with a stone. I had two main problems at the time: one was that once there were too many discs on an action slot, the triggered actions could cascade out of control; the other was that I didn't have a good way to decide when to score the majorities in the various areas. The greatest idea was to use one issue to solve the other: As soon as the fourth disc is added to a stack, the bottom disc does not get to do the actions, but instead triggers a scoring for an area.
Finally, having the order in which the areas score randomly decided at set-up made the game infinitely more replayable since now your strategy does not depend only on the way the action tiles are set up, but also on the order in which the scoring tiles line up.
DM: Ragusa, your second game, featured a spin on worker placement as players built the city's walls. Can you tell us more about how that game was designed?
FL: In Ragusa, I tried to push a few ideas from Calimala even further, with you now placing your token between three action tiles instead of two. I also tried to add more variety on the type of actions you can do and on ways to score victory points, so we have more resource management, set collection, wall building, market manipulation, etc.
All of this was informed by the theme, so I read about the history and economics of the city, and learned about the nearby silver mine, the oil and wine trade, the city walls and towers, etc. and I tried to incorporate as much as I could into the design, while keeping a certain consistency in how these aspects interacted with each other.
Because of how these actions interlocked, though, I could no longer have a completely random set-up; otherwise the game balance would go out of control and some spots could randomly be much stronger than others, so I had to go with a fixed map.
On the other hand, the game has a certain chaotic aspect as small variations in the order in which the first few houses are built will have huge repercussions on the way the mid-to-end game will develop, not only because actions will trigger differently, but also because the house placement rules make it so that houses built in previous rounds affect where new houses can be built.
DM: Your most recent published game is Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road. In Merv, the available actions vary based both on the position of workers on a grid and on the positioning of a protective barrier built by players (thematically the city walls). Was this mechanism a natural extension of those in your earlier games, and can you tell us more about what inspired the design?
FL: Merv had a very long and complex evolution, and I tried many different mechanisms before finding the current ones.
This was a theme-first game, so to speak, so I had some elements that were present from the beginning, such as caravans coming through the city with goods, building the walls, and defending from Mongol attacks. I also wanted to have a few mosques and libraries. (Merv was an important learning center at the time, and some important scholars of that time studied there.)
I didn't want to have some turns in which you collect resources and some turns in which you spend them. Instead I wanted a certain amount of resources to become available each turn, with players having to find ways to spend them efficiently. The type and number of resources that players gain depends on how cleverly they placed their buildings on the grid.
Initially I had this idea of a caravan walking through the streets and dropping resources that players would then use on their turn. This was a bit fiddly and went through many, many iterations. You can think of the current mechanism as a much more abstracted version of that: When you select a row or column with your meeple, it is as if you were guiding a caravan through that road, and the caravan leaves a matching resource on every house it stops by.
DM: Your games to date feature consequences from your actions for other players in the form of the ability to use their locations or generate resources out of turn order. What is it about this interaction that interests you?
FL: I like games that are very interactive as long as they don't have much conflict or "take that" elements. This leaves lots of room for positive interaction, which is one of my favorite concepts in board games.
This forces players to care about what everyone is doing at the table and provides interesting choices. On one hand, you have to make sure that a certain action you take will benefit yourself more than your opponents; on the other hand, you may look into ways to adapt your strategy in order to benefit more from what the other players are doing.
This also means that you can't simply pick a strategy at the start of the game and follow through with it until the end because you have to be flexible and adapt to what all the other players are doing.
DM: Given the interactive nature of your games, how did you adapt them to lower player counts?
FL: My first two games were aimed at a high player count — I prefer to play both Calimala and Ragusa with five players — and they all rely heavily on actions having side effects on other players.
The two-player version of Ragusa simply introduces a couple of "power-houses" per player that act slightly differently and try to solve multiple problems with a single solution.
When you place a power-house, you trigger all the actions for yourself (regardless of who owns the houses in that hex), so even if your opponent has already placed three houses on a space, by placing a power-house there you get four activations and your opponent gets none. This stops players from over-specialization and makes it not too bad to enter a space later in the game.
Moreover, power-houses are in a third color and must be placed along the city walls, thus breaking the wall sequences. (Without them, players could just place towers on each other's houses and potentially get both the maximum amount of points for the longest wall.)
Finally, they also add extra tension because there can be only a single power-house on each hex, so it introduces a game of chicken in which if you wait to place a power-house you might get more activations from it, but if you wait too long, your opponent could place theirs before you do.
Being such an interactive game, though, the solo version of Ragusa simulates a three-player game and introduces two automas to better deliver the full game experience in which each house placement activates every other player's houses.
The trick of "reserving" the automas' house slots at the start of the game makes sure that each opponent follows a sensible strategy. (Each automa card has a sequence of three house placement that make sense with each other, e.g. first place a vineyard, then make some wine, finally get some goods at the market, possibly paying with that wine.) Because the cards are shuffled back after each house placement, as a player you know that eventually your adversary will do those actions, but you are not quite sure of when exactly, so you have to adapt your strategy accordingly.
In the two-player version of Merv (as well as in the solo version) a third color is thrown in the mix that is controlled by both players. (The first player chooses the row or column, the other player chooses which house to build.) This makes turn order also extremely important for two players, and turn-order player manipulation is one of the most interesting aspects of the game. You don't want to be last in turn order because your opponent will likely place the neutral meeple to block the row or column that you would like to use instead. Moreover, the extra neutral houses placed provide more opportunities to both players for possible rows to activate and for houses to defend, in order to gain more influence.
Then the solo version mimics the two-player version, with one automa controlling the main opponent and both players (you and the automa) having shared control of the third, neutral color.
DM: Do you face challenges in developing and playtesting games that are relatively complex? If so, can you describe them?
FL: Yes, most of the "work" around designing board games lies in playtesting. Each playtest session will uncover some problems and maybe help with finding some solutions.
There are different types of playtests (and playtesters), and it is important to know what type of playtesting is needed at a given time. At the beginning of the design process, I usually playtest with some trusted groups of designers. We expect to play very bad games and keep an eye on things that don't work that could be improved or that show promise, etc.
If the game manages to survive several iterations with these groups, then I start playtesting it with regular players, i.e., not other game designers. Two very important types of playtests are with "new" players (i.e., those who haven't played that game before) and with "experienced" players (i.e., those who have already played an earlier version of the game).
The first ones are harder. It is important to make sure that when players try your game for the first time, they have a good experience, good enough that they will want to play the game again in the future. You want to do this kind of test with games that are in a good-enough state, and this is a great way to find rules that are not too intuitive or find that some things are too hard (or even too easy), etc.
The playtests with experienced players, on the other hand, are important to make sure that when players play the same game multiple times, they still find something new and interesting to do and don't get bored after a while. These are also useful for tweaks and balancing fixes.
As the complexity of the games increases, these playtests become harder, and depending on what I am trying to find out with a given playtest, I might intervene in different ways during play. For example, if I am testing how the first few rounds work out, or if some rules are intuitive, etc., I try to observe without interfering. But if I want to test some particular situation that might happen in the mid-to-late game, I can nudge players here and there, or suggest some moves in the early game so as to more easily reach the particular situation I want to test.
In the last couple of years, most playtesting moved to Tabletop Simulator, where things have become much harder and the timing has become unreliable. (Some activities are quicker, while others are much slower, so it is very difficult to gauge what the actual length of a game would be on an real table.) It is also difficult to understand what players are experiencing while they play due to a lack of non-verbal communication. Things are now slowly returning to normal, so live playtests are finally coming back.
DM: When seeking a publisher, are there unique challenges facing games that innovate or are aimed at the "heavier" end of the gaming spectrum?
FL: Innovation is an important aspect in games nowadays, and each game should bring something new to distinguish it from the thousands of other games being published in a given year. But, along with innovation, some familiarity is also necessary. A game with too many new concepts will be hard to receive for most players, so it's important to mix one or two innovative ideas with some other familiar things so that players are not overwhelmed.
Heavier games require a much longer period of time than light games from signing to publication. This is partly due to the extra development time because playtests tend to be longer, hence harder to organize, and they tend to raise lots of small issues that are harder to fix, especially if the game has lots of interconnected parts in which a small change somewhere could have unintended consequences somewhere else. Also the various pre-production tasks involved, like art, components, rulebook, etc., will require a bit longer.
But more importantly, many publishers tend to have a few fixed slots in their pipelines for bigger games and more flexibility for smaller ones, so while a lighter game could be published about twelve months after signing a contract, a medium game could require at least eighteen months, and a heavier game could easily take more than two or three years.
DM: Can you tell us anything about the games you are working on currently?
FL: Yes, I do have a few games lined up for the next couple of years. Zapotec will come out in November 2021 from Board&Dice. It is a medium-weight Eurogame with simple rules and an interesting engine-building aspect.
I am also working on "Autobahn", a new game I co-designed with Nestore Mangone (who also co-designed games like Newton and Darwin's Journey) about the construction of the German highway system. It is a slightly heavier economical game that will be on Kickstarter early in 2022 with Alley Cat Games and is expected to be ready for SPIEL '22.
Lately I have also been working with Mandela F. Grandon (designer of Glasgow and Overstocked) on a couple of other games, one of which is scheduled for SPIEL '23, but it hasn't been announced yet.
So, yeah, I'm trying to keep a schedule of one game per year for now.
DM: Do you have any advice for new designers interested in creating games that layer multiple mechanisms?
FL: I guess one piece of advice would be not to be afraid to remove cool things.
In most of my games, I start with a couple of initial mechanism ideas, I then keep changing things around, adding and removing things, mostly driven by playtests. I tend to alternate between expansion phases, where I might add lots of parts, and contraction phases, when I try to remove redundancies and possibly replace two things with a new one, ideally solving two different problems with a single solution.
Eventually, when things start really clicking together, I find out that pretty much all the mechanisms that were there in the initial versions are now completely gone. They were important to provide a framework around which to build the rest of the structure, but once the game starts to work, they might not be that necessary anymore, so do not try to keep them anyway if they don't really contribute to make the game better.
- [+] Dice rolls
26 Jun 2021
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in June 2021. —WEM
This month, Peter Hazlewood, founder of Board Game Hub, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss the ups-and-downs of being an independent board game publisher. All photos provided by Peter Hazlewood except where noted.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Peter. You are the owner of UK-based independent board game publisher Board Game Hub. Can you tell us about yourself, and how you got started in the games industry?
PH: Hi, Neil. Thanks for taking the time to interview me. I got into modern board games in 2013 thanks to a great guy from my church called Neil. I caught the bug very heavily, and it wasn't long before I was starting a local gaming group, then an annual gaming event in Worcestershire.
A few years down the line, another friend and I were discussing one day how we should start our own board game company. It would be called Board Game Hub and a place for people to find out about (and potentially buy) games from independent publishers. I worked on this venture but eventually came to realize that the concept was too big for just one person — my business partner had left to start a racing team — and the kind of funds needed to successfully launch an online retail business were beyond what I had available.
But in the meantime I'd stumbled upon a fairly obvious idea: that I could also publish games myself. And that's how I came to run my own little publishing company.
DM: Board Game Hub's most well-known project to date is Tranquility, which was a successful Kickstarter release. Please tell us about the design and development of that game?
PH: Yes indeed, and it was our first game! I'm friends with Richard Denning, game designer, game publisher (Medusa Games), and director of the UK Games Expo, and he very kindly offered me a place at the designer-publisher speed dating event at UKGE 2019. It's an incredible event in which a huge room is filled with tables of designers pitching their games to an equal number of publishers and rotating one-by-one. Every publisher sees every designer and the hope is that some of these designs will get picked up by publishers at the event.
I met James Emmerson who pitched his game, then called "Hush", which was a co-operative game played in silence about completing a grid of numbers. He sent me a prototype, and I felt the game had great appeal. After he decided that we were a good fit, he signed a contract with me to publish his game and the rest, as they say, is history.
The game was pretty fully formed by the time I saw it, so the amount of development from me wasn't excessive. James would be able to tell you more about the overall design concept, but it came out of him messing around with a copy of 6 nimmt!. My job was then more about taking the prototype and turning it into a viable product. The "tranquility" theme came out of Tristam (Rossin)'s artwork. I gave him some ideas and broad guidelines, then let him get to work, and thus the floating islands came into being. We themed the game around the sea, honed and refined the mini-expansions to the best they could be (and in keeping with the theme) and thus we had our game ready for Kickstarter.Image: Antony Wyatt
DM: How important did you find non-game elements — the art, marketing, social media, etc. — to the success of Tranquility?
PH: The artwork was huge in terms of putting Tranquility on the map, as it were. As a first-time creator, you have to earn the trust of backers by showing them a high-quality product. It's the only way to attract support when you don't have previous successes to point to. As such, the feedback we got for Tristam's artwork was both immediate and overwhelmingly positive. He'd post an image on Facebook that he was working on and phrases such as "insta-back" would come in. I'll tell you that's music to a publisher's ears!
As for marketing and social media, these aren't things that come naturally to me. I prefer for the qualities of a person or product to do the talking rather than it boiling down to whoever shouts the loudest. That being said, I'm not so naïve that I thought we could succeed without marketing, so I set about trying to grow awareness of the game, and Board Game Hub in general, by demoing at conventions and working with specific reviewers whose work I enjoy to help show the nature of the game in a natural and enjoyable way. These efforts undoubtedly played their part in achieving the level of success that we did.
DM: Other publishers have commented that once their Kickstarter campaign was over, the "real work" began. Did you find this to be the case also?
PH: This is a curious one, and for me I feel it would entirely depend on the game and campaign in question. For Tranquility, fulfillment aside, I'd say the bulk of the work was before and during the Kickstarter campaign. These days you can't expect to go to Kickstarter with a raw concept and gain a whole lot of funding. We worked hard making sure the design was rock solid as well as planning for the campaign process and what would happen post-campaign. Aside from adding in some promo cards with new artwork developed during the campaign, we didn't touch the game after the campaign. Everything was ready.
I'm not keen on publishers going to Kickstarter with an incomplete product. It's not fair on backers to expect them to stump up money for a game that isn't even finished yet, and how can a customer judge the quality and pricing for such a game? The other big problem with this kind of approach is that game development takes a long time — or it should — to ensure balance, find issues, and judge the overall gameplay over a period of time with different audiences. If the publisher does their job properly and the gameplay is as it should be, this is going to take time and therefore the project takes even longer to fulfill. Everything should come back to the customer. Don't ask them to back an incomplete game, and don't expect them to be happy to wait countless months or years after the campaign to finish the game when, in my opinion, this should be largely ready by the time the campaign begins.
Of course, there is plenty to do after a campaign has finished, but in my experience the hard yards should largely be completed beforehand.Image: Antony Wyatt
DM: What did you learn from your early Kickstarter campaigns that you wish you had known at the start? Is there anything you would do differently?
PH: Good question, and probably the honest (and unhelpfully broad) answer is that we learned masses during and after the Kickstarter campaign. I'm still learning things most weeks about publishing, game design, shipping, manufacturing, etc. The biggest mistake was assuming that I'd be able to easily handle the fulfillment of the project. To be fair, I suspect it's quite rare for a first-time project to get 2,400+ backers, but it was undeniably a mistake not to outsource it. We also under-charged; my priority was to offer the best quality product I could at the most reasonable price, but the shipping turned out to be more expensive than expected.
While I still aim to provide great value games, the lesson has been learned that we actually have to make some profit in future campaigns because otherwise there's no viable business there.
DM: The next Board Game Hub release is Tranquility: The Ascent. Can you tell us more about that game? How does it differ from the original Tranquility game?
PH: Tranquility: The Ascent takes certain core elements from Tranquility — it's a non-communication co-op for 1-5 players that involves completing a grid of numbers — but the gameplay is really quite different. With Tranquility, you had a 6×6 grid to work with and that meant that, in theory, players could play anywhere on their turn. The Ascent is much more restrictive, though in a pleasing way. The theme this time around is about climbing a mountain. As such, the players have to ascend slowly from the base of the mountain and can play only in specific locations. This generally results in players being faced with more compelling choices pretty much every turn.
Tranquility: The Ascent also adds in a major new feature, which is essentially three suits of cards. Each row is considered a separate entity from the others, but within those rows, you may not play cards of the same suit next to each other. It's another added restriction that forces the players to constantly adapt to the game in front of them but which allows them to make good tactical plays and keeps the game very fresh. You also no longer have the set formation in which players fill the grid from the lowest point to the highest. Rows can start with high numbers or low numbers, and it's irrelevant what has been played above or below.
The mountain develops very differently from game to game, and it's extremely pleasing to see the players battling against the game trying to ascend to the summit when it keeps throwing different challenges at them. In summary, on paper Tranquility: The Ascent may sound very similar to Tranquility, but the truth of the matter is that the overall experience is completely different. Indeed, Rahdo featured The Ascent in his May 2021 round-up, and his take was that the game is plenty different enough to justify owning both, and that he prefers The Ascent to the original!
DM: Various releases feature limited communication in a co-operative game. From a publisher's POV, at what point do you consider a mechanic to be over-saturating the market? How does Tranquility: The Ascent overcome this familiarity?
PH: That's an interesting question and a tough one to answer categorically. I can only answer this from my perspective and others may feel differently. Over-saturation is definitely a concern that I have considered before. We invited game design submissions on our website for a good while, and one of the primary reasons that I might turn down a game would be because I can't see anything new in it.
It's exceptionally difficult and very rare to come up with a brand new concept in board games, but what happened after everyone had played Dominion, credited with pioneering deck-building as an entire genre? Game designers and publishers went to work to explore this mechanism, refine it, combine it with other mechanisms in new ways, apply it to different styles of games, and ultimately create new gaming experiences that diverged a long way from the original inspiration.
Do we consider that the board game market is over-saturated with deck-builders or worker placement or area control? Can we say that there are definitely enough games now that feature farming or fighting or zombies or trains and, therefore, that there should never be any new games with those themes? Arguably, each person can decide that only for themselves. It's my job to publish games that are fun and engaging, and it's up to the customer to decide if they want to buy it. I don't think we've hit the saturation point for limited communication co-ops until publishers start releasing games that fail to provide anything new. I can rest easy in my mind that Tranquility: The Ascent feels like a very different game to Tranquility and indeed any other limited communication co-ops that I'm aware of; it's up to the gaming public to decide if they wish to buy it.
DM: Board game publishing is highly competitive. How do you stand out as a small independent publisher?
PH: I think if I knew the answer to this question, then Board Game Hub would a lot more successful by now! It does feel competitive and challenging to make yourself stand out. Small publishers don't have the marketing budgets that the major companies have access to — this was one of the reasons behind the idea of Board Game Hub, to provide a platform for those companies whose work we believed in to reach more customers — so you have to try to stand out in other ways. Some companies set their stall out to blow away customers by the quality or volume of components; others release games or products that are in a niche of their own; others have a specific target audience that they go after.
We're still finding our way at Board Game Hub, but there's one thing that we're consistently aiming for: high quality across the board (pun not intended!). That's high quality gameplay, high quality (but appropriate) components and artwork, and the best customer experience we can provide. I believe that if we achieve this simple (though demanding) aim, then eventually Board Game Hub will gain recognition for how we go about things.
DM: Despite the success of the Tranquility series, Board Game Hub has faced challenges. Can you tell us more about those?
PH: I've touched upon one issue that we encountered during the Tranquility campaign, that of the cost of shipping out orders going way over budget. Our profit margins were thin as it was, and those extra costs meant that we basically didn't make any money from the campaign. This obviously isn't viable in the long-term, and it meant that despite gaining a lot of backers and good will, the finances of the company didn't come out of it very strong.
Tessera, our third game, on Kickstarter in November 2020 with complete confidence in the game, but it failed to gain any momentum. There are several things we would've done differently, but it does feel like not being able to promote the game at conventions affected us badly.
With the campaign for Tranquility: The Ascent, we're in the process of trying to rebuild. If it's successful, then we're getting back on track. If the campaign really takes off then that should guarantee our short- to midterm future and it'll allow us to make more concrete plans for the multiple projects that we're currently working on and are excited to get in front of the gaming public once more.
DM: If you could offer advice to anyone wanting to start their own publishing company what would it be?
PH: I think I have to break this down into a few different answers. First, it's tough going it alone. I recommend finding someone to work with who provides different skills and expertise to you because there's an awful lot of different roles that a publisher has to fill. Second, have a clear goal in mind. Work out what you want to achieve, then plan how to make it happen. Third, I'd say don't be afraid to ask for advice or help. Speak to other publishers to gain the benefit of their experience; talk to designers to find out their perspective on the publishing process and game design.
Also, do your research. Many games are released every year, and there's little point in developing a game that's already been done. Find out what's out there, and this will help you identify what you could do differently or better.
Note from NB: The Kickstarter for Tranquility: The Ascent launches on June 28, 2021.
- [+] Dice rolls
Interview: David Digby, solo mode designer and developer for Undaunted: Reinforcements, Merv, Waggle Dance and many more.
12 Jun 2021
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in May 2021. —WEM
In this month's Diagonal Move interview, we take a look behind the scenes of board game development with solo mode designer and developer, David Digby.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, David. In recent years, you have developed a growing reputation as a designer of solo modes for games such as Dice Theme Park, Chocolate Factory, and Undaunted. However, you are also involved in the "background" of the board game industry as a developer and rule book editor. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you first became involved in the industry?
DD: Hey there, I'm David Digby, a board game designer and developer based in Essex in the UK. Outside of games, I work in theater as a technical manager, coach cricket, and play golf. Clichéd as it sounds, I've been playing games since childhood; my Mum was a keen board gamer and I took up the mantle. Typical story of family games, D&D, and Magic until I discovered there was a lot more out there at university. When I stopped playing cricket three years ago, I decided to get back into board games properly, joined Facebook groups and local clubs, and the rest, they say, is history.
DM: A rulebook editor is surely one of the unsung heroes of the industry. Can you describe the role in more detail, and what makes a good rulebook from your point of view?
DD: I was incredibly lucky to learn under Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules! I started just proofreading, then Paul started to ask me to edit rulebooks under his supervision, and then on my own. Paul is one of the best in the business, and I try my best to follow his methods and systems in the work I do now.
Most rulebooks follow a similar structure, and I've learnt the types of games I can do a good job of. Good rulebooks teach you the game and allow you to find things once you're playing. Sounds simple, and it really isn't. We start with the designer's rulebook as a Google Doc, hack it about, rewrite a lot of it, then it goes to a graphic designer for a layout PDF, then we go through it all with a fine-tooth comb, adding images and examples, etc. It can easily take 10-20 hours for the small-medium sized games I do.
DM: You have been a "developer" on games such as Villagers and Waggle Dance. Game developer is a far less high-profile role than game designer despite some similarities in function. How do the designer/developer roles differ?
DD: There are many definitions, and it very much depends on what the relationship is like between the designer, the publisher, and the developer. Generally speaking, as a developer I'm hired by the publisher to playtest and tweak an existing design to take it from whatever state the designer got it to to something that the publisher can produce. A developer will often change small elements of a game without making big changes to the core feel. Sometimes the designer produces only a cool idea, and the development work is very involved.
DM: How does game development differ from playtesting? Can you walk us through the development process for one of the projects you have been involved in as a developer compared to one where your involvement has been limited to that of a playtester?
DD: A playtester plays the game, often multiple times, to produce results and give opinions. The developer runs the playtesting process — collecting all the info and deciding what merits thinking about and what doesn't — and suggests changes to improve the game based on the playtesters' feedback. Development involves a lot of playtesting, particularly early on, and later involves it much more analysis and fine tuning.
A lot of the work I do for Dávid Turczi is playtesting. I'll play the solo mode a bunch of times and give feedback on what worked, what didn't, what was fun, how many points were scored how etc. Perseverance was a good example of that as I played that quite a lot, and my nagging won through in the end when Episode 2 got changed to asymmetrical AI opponents, but I didn't do much of the design work with that one.
Something like Merv for Osprey Games was more of a development job as I played the game a few times, then sent in a few small changes that I felt would improve the solo experience. I then played those changes with a few adjustments and that's what we went with. Like a lot of solo games, though, I must have got too good at it as a lot of people have struggled to win it since it came out.
DM: Gaming during the coronavirus pandemic has seen a growing focus on solitaire modes, digital versions, and online interaction. How has this altered the game design and development process in terms of both games scheduled for development and the process itself?
DD: Almost all of my work has moved onto Tabletop Simulator. Since March 2020, I have logged almost 1,800 hours on Tabletop Simulator! A large crop of online testing groups have sprung up; I moderate one of them, and they have built great communities for playtesting, but it's not without its challenges. Luckily I have a few friends who enjoy testing and don't mind playing the same things a lot.
Having previously had only my own Facebook page, I now run a Discord server which organizes all my testing and development. There's just short of one hundred people on it now, which is great. It can be really tough, though. Games are meant to be social experiences, and solo modes can make a nice change but spending all day (and I mean all day as my days are often 12-15 hours) on TTS can be very draining. I'm not that computer smart, but I can make my own mods, limited more by my infamously terrible graphic design, and it's the go-to for almost everyone now.
I think solo has been on the climb for some time, and hopefully it doesn't slow down anytime soon. Publishers are making more of an effort; more designers and developers are learning the skills; and players are still able to connect through social media.
It will be great to get back to in-person testing for a lot of games, but the way we work has changed forever.
DM: You have a growing list of solo mode credits to your name. What qualities do you feel a great solo game needs?
DD: I identify solo games into three categories: puzzle, challenge, and opponent. However, I see these as a Venn diagram with a lot of overlap. Only rarely does a design fall entirely into one category. Puzzles have a single solution that the player is tasked with finding. Challenges give the player a framework to see how well they can do. Opponents simulate another player or two that you need to beat. Designing the right solo mode for the right game is really key.
Undaunted obviously has to be an opponent. It is a very strong two-player experience with a lot of interaction, which is perfect for building an AI or bot or Automa. Chocolate Factory or Dice Theme Park are low interaction and the fun of the game is in what you do entirely independent from other players, so they require a more challenge style. I like operating in the grey areas or the overlaps between the categories as I see them. Whatever it takes to bring the best out in the game for the solo player.
DM: When designing a solo mode as opposed to a dedicated solitaire game, what process do you follow for recreating the multiplayer experience?
DD: I've never tried a solo-only game, so I'm not much use in comparing the two, but I imagine a lot of things are very similar. I did mentor someone who was designing a solo-only design and found a lot of the principals I use still apply. First thing I do is play the game a few times at two-player. Work out how strong that is, find the really important bits of interaction, and work out how to best abstract stuff out. It's a fine balance — you want most of the fun to be on the player's turn, which means simplifying things for the bot so you don't have lots of complex stuff to do is key. But abstract too much and it doesn't feel right. It's about finding the right bits to do and not do.
Dávid Turczi is the master of this; some games he can do after less than one play, which is bewilderingly impressive. It takes me a lot longer! Working with him on Undaunted was great. When I came on board, he had already built a core system based on a few scenarios. We talk a lot about flow charts in solo design; the more spatial or tactical a game, the more flowcharts you need, and Undaunted was a lot of little flow charts. If this is true, do this. If not do this, and so on. My job was to design all the little flow charts for all the troops in all the scenarios. I think there's around 36 scenarios, two sides in each, and on average around six troop types. That's around 432 flow charts to work out and test! Now a lot of them are the same, but getting them all right was really important. There's some pretty good fan-made solo modes out there, but because they don't change regardless of the scenarios, they aren't as smart or as accurate as the ones we created.
I played each scenario at least four times to get the instructions right, and some were harder than others. Spurred on by Anthony, a developer at Osprey, and Dávid saying that I didn't need to do them all from both sides if it was too hard, I finally cracked them all. Anthony then did an incredible job of fitting all my notes onto a card-based system, and the Undaunted solo was born.
There are never any shortcuts in solo design — you have to play the game a lot. Most of the time that means finding lots of testers, but on this one it was just me. Credit to Osprey for investing that heavily in the solo mode!
DM: In addition to the development and solo-mode design roles, you are working on several original designs. Can you tell us more about these?
DD: I can, but if any get published is a different question! I have absolutely no intention of self publishing anything ever, so I'm very reliant on a publisher picking up my designs. I am working on a few things directly for publishers, which I'm hopeful for, but it means I can't talk about them!
"The Seven Dwarves" was my first design, and I still enjoy playing it. It was popular at UK cons, but there's a few things stopping it being publishable right now. I've just re-themed my multi-use card drafting game to be about social media, so perhaps that'll give it a new lease of life. I've agreed to bring some co-designers in on some ideas, like "Rock Band", a real-time co-op, and "Theatre Land", a tableau builder, to try to take them to the next level. I think my gateway-plus "Octopus" game deserves to get made; it's about finding the right market for it. I have a design inspired by my work with Martin Wallace that's been going well, but that's quite early. There's a handful on my drawing board, too, but it's all too easy to get waylaid with development or solo design work.
DM: Can you tell us more about some of the forthcoming projects you are working on?
DD: Err, let me think what I'm allowed to talk about! The three titles from Alley Cat Games that have been on Kickstarter recently all feature my solo modes, and I was a lot more involved with Tinners' Trail. Bright Eye Games, an offshoot of PSC, are re-releasing Waggle Dance and publishing its new sequel Termite Towers, both by Mike Nudd, and I've done the solo for those. Scrumpy has just been on Kickstarter and Distilled is coming soon, two booze-themed games from smaller publishers. Two games that have just been announced are Ruthless and Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan. I don't think I can mention any others yet, but there's always plenty going on!
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for anyone looking to enter the games industry?
DD: Give it a punt, but don't expect to earn big bucks. There is an enormous variety of skills within the industry so you can probably find something, but it's really, really hard to make a living out of it. The community is extremely friendly and helpful, for the most part, and advice and information is everywhere, so use it. Much like theater, the industry is very small and pretty close; most people know most people, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Do the stuff you enjoy and see where it leads.
More details regarding David's design work can be found on The Games People.
- [+] Dice rolls
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in April 2021. —WEM
Nigel Buckle, designer of Omega Centauri, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his career in game design and his 2021 dual-box release: Imperium.
DM: Hi, Nigel, many thanks for joining us today. You've been a game designer for a number of years. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a designer and about the early years of your career?
NB: I've been playing games for as long as I can remember — and back then there was far less choice, so if a game didn't suit my tastes, I'd come up with "house rules" to change it. Actually designing games grew from that. Of course having an idea for a game is the easy bit; turning it into a playable game others want to play is more challenging, and then actually getting it published is a whole different story.
DM: Your most well-known game is Omega Centauri, a sci-fi take on civilization building. Can you tell us about that design?
NB: Omega Centauri is my second published design. I've always enjoyed space 4X computer games, but the board game versions were all rather long and often ended at the point you researched all the cool stuff, so I decided to design a space empire game that plays in a shorter time and has a far flatter technology tree so that you can get to use the tech you research. To get the playtime down, a major part of Omega Centauri is deterministic combat; you can work out what the result of a conflict will be before fighting.
DM: Your latest games — the twin set of Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends — also have a civilization-building theme, this time centered around the civilizations of ancient history and myth. What is it about civilization building as a theme that inspires you?
NB: I have an interest in ancient history — and when I played Dominion back in 2008 I thought the mechanic of actually building a deck as you played was amazing. I was not so gripped by the theme or the rest of the game, though. I decided to try designing my own deck builder and to give it a civilization theme, so making each deck very asymmetric. Of course that is far easier to say than actually do — it's taken over a decade!
DM: Civilization-based games tend to focus upon the civilizations that bordered the Mediterranean Sea (Rome, Carthage, Egypt, for example). Imperium casts its net wider than this to include the civilizations of the Americas and Asia. How did you decide upon which civilizations to include? Were there any that you wanted to include but couldn't?
NB: My original design had four civilizations (Rome vs. Carthage and Greeks vs. Persia), and you played them in pairs as a two-player game. As I developed the game, it turned into a multiplayer game and I added more. To add a civilization, I researched its history, then thought about what mechanics would represent this civilization and at the same time give a new strategic puzzle for the players to solve.
I wanted each civilization to be unique, and moving beyond the Mediterranean Sea is certainly one way to do that. Furthermore there is a timeline in Imperium; the earlier a civilization comes in history, the more likely it will become an empire first in the game, so Egypt is the earliest civilization and thus has the fewest nation cards and most development cards. The Vikings, on the other hand, are the latest and never actually become an empire at all in the game.
The civilizations we've included all fit into the timeline — rise of Egypt around 3000 BCE through to the failed Viking invasion of Britain, 1066 CE — apart from the mythical civilizations, of course. I'm sure we could design more if publisher Osprey Games wanted us to.
DM: How closely do the play styles of the civilizations in Imperium reflect historical characteristics of the societies depicted?
NB: Obviously there are limitations. Each deck is around 23 cards, which restricts what aspects you can feature. However, we have tried to give each civilization a unique deck and link it to the history of that civilization. For example, with the Olmecs you'll find giant stone heads, step pyramids, stone masks, and cacao all coming together in a deck unlike any other. The Scythians are nomadic, and we've tried to represent that lifestyle in their deck. I think playing these two civilizations will feel very different — and for that reason we recommend players look through their deck before playing as a strategy that works for one civilization may well not work for another.
DM: You also include Atlantean and Arthurian legend in the game. What was the reason for extending the scope outside of a purely historical theme?
NB: Atlantis came about because we wanted to offer the players the challenge of a civilization that starts as an empire. This means, in our timeline, this civilization had to come before Egypt! That was a challenge, so we settled on a legendary early empire instead, which certainly offered more creative freedom. After some initial playtesting, it was clear some sort of personal trash pile — the "history" pile, even though Atlantis is not exactly historical — was needed and a twist beyond "start as an empire" was also needed to make them interesting. This was solved by replacing their history with a sunken pile and having the mechanic that Atlantis sinks its regions with some of the cards in its deck.
The development team at Osprey decided to divide the civilizations into two boxes rather than release a large game or remove half of the designed decks. There was some discussion over what split made the most sense, and eventually they settled on Classics and Legends. The problem was, at that point, the only "legend" we had was Atlantis, with a hint of legend with the Minoans and their Labyrinth.
So we set about designing two more mythical civilizations: the Arthurians and the Utopians. Being free of history meant we could push the design further than we had done with Atlantis. For example, the Arthurian deck introduces knights and questing and not wanting to continually cycle your deck. The end of the nation deck for the Arthurians means you are fighting Gwaith Camlan (The Battle of Camlann) and that's far from ideal. When playing the Arthurian deck, you want to complete your quests and find the Graal before that final battle starts.
We pushed this idea of not wanting to cycle your deck even further with the Utopians. When you play this civilization, every time you empty your draw pile you have to add an unrest to your hand — and unrest is bad, a junk card that scores -2 victory points. The Utopians have only a starting deck, so no private market of cards at all. Instead you have two double-sided journey cards representing your journey to the mythical city of Shangri-La. The Utopians are totally different in play style and goals from all the other civilizations in Imperium.
DM: Mechanically, Imperium is a deck-building game with both hand management and tableau-building elements. From a design perspective, how did this combination of mechanics evolve into the game we see today? Natural evolution or deliberate early design choice?
NB: My original design of a deck builder included a draft rather than tableau building — but as soon as I tried this out with players beyond my usual playgroup, it was clear the game was too difficult to learn. You had to know what you were doing to draft sensibly so that aspect was dropped and tableau building added.
Tableau destruction (either by opponents or yourself for the powerful fame cards) was added after I'd pitched the game to some publishers and the feedback was that the tableau needed to be more dynamic.
DM: There are sixteen civilizations across Imperium: Legends and Classics, each of which can be played multiplayer and solo. Can you describe the process of developing so many playable factions and modes?
NB: A secret to game design is using spreadsheets for tracking the results of playtests — which cards get played, which cards are ignored, what are the scores — but also for tracking the various decks and what the latest card text is.
I started with four civilizations and they became the baseline; any new civilization was played against the original four initially and adjusted as necessary.
The solo game included in the boxes came later. I had a solo mode for testing as I do not like inflicting prototypes on my playtesters when I know things are not working; I much prefer to think they work and my testers prove me wrong. My solo mode was fairly rudimentary. It worked for testing, but I certainly didn't give the same experience as you get playing against a human opponent.
When Dávid Turczi joined me as co-designer, looking at the solo game was one of his first priorities. David has an approach to solo game design: The game needs to work as a multiplayer game first, then you identify what aspects of your opponents actions matter to you and try to replicate that feeling in a simple-to-manage solo BOT.
DM: With the design challenges of a multi-factional, card-based game in mind, how did you find the design, developing, and publication process for Imperium as whole?
NB: It has been a very long road. My original concept is rather different to what has been published by Osprey. In the beginning I had no thought about publishing the game; I was designing a deck builder as a challenge to myself and to play with my regular gaming group. It's only after showing the game to others and the positive feedback I received led me to try to get it published.
That proved rather challenging as my initial pitches were unsuccessful, although I did get some helpful feedback. Eventually NSKN (now Board&Dice) signed the game in 2014. They had a full schedule, so it was not due to be published for a few years, which gave me time to make more changes and add more civilizations. They also brought Dávid Turczi on board.
They intended to Kickstart the game in 2018, but unfortunately the project did not get a good start and the campaign was cancelled. They gave the rights back to me and generously included the art they had commissioned for it and also agreed that Dávid could continue to work on the game with me in his own time.
We showed the game to Osprey, and they loved it and the art, so agreed to publish the game and keep the art and, in fact, added a whole lot more.Evolution of a civilization from prototype to finished design (image: Nigel Buckle)
DM: The civilizations in Imperium are available across two separately available boxes: Classic and Legends. Can you describe the differences between the two boxes and what players should keep in mind if they can purchase only one?
NB: Both boxes are the same game; they share the same rulebook. The differences are the mix of civilizations in each box and the common market cards. The two can be combined at a basic level by just taking civilizations from both and playing them. You can also mix and match the common cards from either box, too, for more variety.
All the civilizations are very different, so picking a box that includes the civilizations that appeal to you is a good start. The civilizations also vary in complexity, and we have included a difficulty rating for each civilization in the rules and the higher difficulty civilizations are definitely harder to play.
The Legends box has more of the complicated civilizations, so players seeking a more challenging game may want to start there. On the other hand, if you are less experienced with deck-building games or want an easier version to teach new players, then Classics is probably a better starting point.
DM: You've clearly had some success in designing an historical game. Do you have any advice for new designers looking to embark on an historically-themed game design?
NB: Research your history first, and have a vision about how you want to represent that history in your game and what role you are expecting the players to take. Then think about mechanics that will best reflect that vision. Otherwise you run the risk of people commenting your theme feels pasted on.
DM: One final question: Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline?
NB: I have thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process with Dávid. I am proud of the game we've produced between us, and I think it is better for our joint involvement. We work so well together that we're repeating the process, but nothing is at a point where I can say very much. I'm sure news about the next Turczi/Buckle game will be forthcoming when the publisher is ready to make an announcement. (Editor's note: That collaboration would be Voidfall, which publisher Mindclash Games announced in early May 2021. —WEM)
- [+] Dice rolls
01 May 2021
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in March 2021. —WEM
Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, King of Tokyo, KeyForge, and many more joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable career in game design.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Richard. What inspired you to become a games designer?
RG: I find games fascinating and full of possibilities — like an exciting and largely unexplored land. It helped me understand the world and other people in a way that nothing else did. When I first got into games, I was amazed how little there was known about them relative to, say, books or movies or music.
The key moment for me was learning Dungeons & Dragons. That game broke all the rules for game design that I knew and thrust both the game master and players into the role of game designer to some extent. I figured if something so incredible existed that I had never heard of before, surely games were filled with many treasures to be discovered or created.
DM: You are probably most well-known for Magic: The Gathering, which has been a phenomenal success. Can you tell us the story of how Magic came to be, and at what point did you realize just how popular Magic was?
RG: Magic came about because I couldn't find a publisher for RoboRally. When I showed it to Peter Adkison, the head of Wizards of the Coast, he said he would publish it but needed something cheaper and fast-playing first to get started.
Soon after that, I had one of my few "flashes of inspiration" moments — most of my design is slow, intuitive, and experimental. I realized not all players had to have the same deck. I was swept up in all the possibilities for game play that had — and wary of the many problems it posed. It is sobering to think back to that time and remember — that amid the excitement — I told Peter that it might not be possible to make such a game. After all, Scrabble where you choose your pool of letters or Poker where you choose your deck are not necessarily good games, let alone better games. They are likely at best interesting puzzles. It was a matter of several weeks before I had a prototype that looked like today's Magic; it was built upon the framework of one of my many designs that I had enjoyed playing with, but didn't think was finished yet.
Looking back, it is easy to see that for years I had been fascinated by games where many elements of the game allowed the player to "break the rules". This interest first got kindled with Cosmic Encounter — and the spirit carried through many of my designs and was fully a part of Magic. My ideal was a game that was simple, but endless complexity was introduced through different cards. Anyone who sees the early magic rules knows I fell short of the "simple" goal, though probably not as far as it looks. 99% of Magic could be learned easily — and players could learn that fast and play a long time based on it. The remaining 1% was a nasty mess though.
There was no particular point that I realized how popular Magic was. I was perpetually surprised during the first few years, and honestly its impact on game design still surprises me from time to time. I knew Magic was a special game — the playtesters' passion was a testament to that — but I also knew many of my favorite games were not "smash hits", so I didn't think that meant Magic was destined for big things.
DM: Magic was followed by other well-known card game systems: Netrunner and KeyForge to name just two. How did you approach those designs? Was there pressure to repackage Magic, or were you free to experiment and take the designs into new directions?
RG: Usually I have been free to experiment with my designs, and that is what really keeps me interested. My first and second post-Magic trading card games (TCGs) were Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and Netrunner. With those, I was trying to figure out what mechanics worked well in this new kind of game. I learned many things about TCG design back then; for example, prior to V:TES I used standards that I had developed in board and card games, so I thought nothing about having a trading card game that ran for two hours with four or five people. After V:TES, I realized that so much of a TCG's value is in replay, possibly with a new deck or different tweaks to the old deck, that making the game short enough to allow for replay was a really good thing. Fans of V:TES either liked it as a TCG despite its length, or often liked it as a boardgame experience more than a TCG experience.
With Netrunner, I tried a lot of new things and I ended up with a game that I was really pleased with — but also learned some hard lessons. While Netrunner was in some objective sense simpler than Magic, the fact that everyone by that time knew Magic meant it was in fact much more difficult to learn than a game that was more like Magic would have been. I realized then that novelty in design comes with a cost, and as a designer it was my responsibility to make sure that novelty carried with it a payoff that was worth it for the player. For this reason BattleTech — my third TCG — was intentionally designed to be close enough to Magic to allow players to learn it easily, while being different in enough ways to make it interesting to them.
Fast forward twenty years and we get to the design of KeyForge — which was a game concept I wanted to explore for a long time, but couldn't because printing technology wasn't up to the challenge (or at least it would have been prohibitively expensive). With KeyForge I was trying to get the variety and uniqueness back into the game form which is diminished, if not destroyed, by players playing constructed decks with access to all the cards they need. For years I have been dissatisfied with that point in trading card games where one finds themselves removing cards they like from their deck because they just don't pull their weight. My preference is to play decks that are not honed to a razor's edge, but to play decks with more variety. In the TCG culture this is simply playing bad decks — and a player who does so is viewed as casual at best, and probably a bad player. But these decks, they can be very challenging to play and there is a great deal of skill to playing them well. I don't want to play casually — I want to play seriously with interesting decks. That is what KeyForge is about.
DM: In addition to creating your own "worlds", you've also designed within existing IPs — Star Wars and BattleTech, for example. Can you describe how the design and publication process differs for these compared with your other games?
RG: Yes, I have done a number of licensed games, and the experience varies widely with how appropriate the license is for the game and how flexible the licensor is so that the best compromises between good play and best reflection of the world can be made. Working with a supportive licensor can be marvelous; it was that way with Star Wars, for example. Working with the other kind is soul killing.
I quite enjoy the exercise of figuring out the best way to frame a game within an existing world. There is a special pleasure to be found with a world elegantly reflected in an appropriate game. However, I will always lean toward making my own world since I know that I can do whatever I think is best for the game in that case.
DM: From a design point of view, how does iterating within a Living/Collectible System differ from designing expansions? Are there specific challenges that need to be overcome?
RG: Designing massively modular game expansions and expansions for a board game each carry their own challenges. In some ways, the massively modular games are easier to expand because that is what they are designed to do. Expanding a board game often involves challenges associated with adding complexity without a good enough value to the player, or the expansions undermine appeals the unexpanded game had. There are many times I have played board games and liked the base game — but then played expansions of it and for all the added variety the aggregate experience was worse, sometimes much worse.
A particular example from my own work is King of Tokyo. The success of the base game lead us to think about an expansion — but the challenge soon became clear. The easy expansion of "just adding cards" is not satisfying because cards are only a part of the game experience; some players play an entire game without getting any cards. Just adding cards impacts only some players, and the more cards added the less they each mean to the overall game.
So then let's explore another common request: monsters get unique powers. On the surface, this is an easy and obvious thing to add — but it turns out to be quite difficult to add without making the game worse. To see this you must understand that the basic game is a dice game with three principle strategies: attack, get VP, or get cards. A more casual player might pick a strategy and run with it, but a player who plays well will be adapting their decisions to the circumstances and the dice rolls they get. Being a dice game, either approach can win — but the "serious" player will win more often, a characteristic I really like in games.
Now if powers are added in a straightforward way and a monster gets, say, an advantage in attacking, suddenly the "pick a strategy and run with it" approach becomes stronger, and the player doesn't even have agency in that strategy since it is defined by their monster. The simple solution will be satisfying for a certain audience of very casual players, but many players will have the feeling that the expansion isn't as fun — even if they can't always put their finger on why.
Expanding a massively modular game is far easier in this regard – there are usually many different mechanics to explore, and even when there are limited mechanics, there are essentially infinite environments of mechanical combinations.
The challenges facing expansion of these games, however, in their own way can be quite difficult. As an example, let's talk about game balance. The stakes are generally much higher in balance, and the massively modular nature of the games usually make that balance much harder to gauge. To see why the stakes are higher, you have to understand the promise these games make to the player is endless variety and personal customization. A card that is too good must be in every player's deck, which makes both those promises less maintained. A card that is too bad shouldn't be in any player's deck, which does the opposite — which isn't quite as bad but still undermines the game's promise. Some degree of that is okay, but the more the expansion strays, the worse the overall experience becomes. And the more cards there are in the environment, the harder it is to manage that without making the game changes very conservative.
There are many reasons this is often not as big a problem in board games. Some of that is cultural; boardgame players typically have an easier time getting their group to not play an expansion they don't like — or even just play part of the expansion, or they modify it to their taste. The massively modular games tend to have massively modular playgroups — which makes that much more difficult.
Another reason is that often the imbalance in a game impacts all players equally, so going back to King of Tokyo, a card can absolutely be too powerful, but the system is much more forgiving since all players have access to it. A card that costs 0 and makes you win the game would ruin the play experience since the players' strategy would almost certainly be simply to collect energy and use it to sweep the board until they draw the game-winning card. However, a card that costs, say, 5 and was twice as good as another card of that cost? It would make collecting energy more appealing certainly, but is unlikely to break the game in the same way. That is a really large range of "error" one can get away with, especially if as a designer you aim for about 25% difference in power being acceptable rather than 100%. But in a game where players choose their own cards? This would be a "must have" card and make the play experience noticeably worse since every player would feel they have to have it.
DM: You have also designed some hugely popular board games. Most well known is probably King of Tokyo. Can you tell us the story behind this game, and why you think it has been an enduring success?
RG: King of Tokyo came out of a thought exercise around Yahtzee. A friend of mine was doing some serious analysis of Yahtzee at the time, so I was reflecting on how strong a design it was in that fashion that I really like: excellent play gives you better chances, but casual play can win. I wondered that if I were to try to design a game with the same principles, but interactive: what might it look like?
Interactivity in games can be tricky; done carelessly, it can involve a lot of "take that" political decisions which I am not fond of. I don't mind directly affecting another player, but I don't want to be in the position of choosing which player to affect, at least not often. The usual way to solve this issue is to make the interaction indirect, which, of course, can make an excellent game — but often one that feels "passive aggressive" rather than directly interactive.
My solution here was to make a "king of the hill" structure to the game. Being on the hill was rewarded, but carried with it risk in that you were the target. This made players in some sense in control of how much damage they were subject to and had a feeling of "low politics, direct interaction" that I often like in games.
Later came the flavor of "the hill" being Tokyo and monsters. I often design my mechanics first with some fairly generic theme, then completely redesign once I settle on what the theme should be. Once the theme has been picked, if you fail this redesign, it will feel much less integrated into the game play. For the record, I do design in the other way as well — where I have the theme first and build a game to that theme.
My own guess as to the enduring popularity of the game is a combination of the direct, yet low politics interaction — which is really pretty rare in games — and the cartoony and playful theme which IELLO managed to create around the concept.
DM: Staying with your board game designs: King of Tokyo sees players fight giant monsters, in RoboRally they control robots while Bunny Kingdom is an area control game about rabbits. These are thematically and mechanically quite different games. What do you feel is the thread that connects them?
RG: Mechanically I am driven to explore different areas of design, so I am likely to move to something new once I have gotten what I want out of a particular space. Sometimes it doesn't appear that way; in particular I had a number of drafting games (Treasure Hunter, Carnival of Monsters) come out shortly after Bunny Kingdom, so it may have looked like that was "my thing" — but actually they were all part of the same exploration at about the same time, and they were made in part because I was having a lot of difficulty getting a publisher to see them as interesting game space. Before 7 Wonders came out, they weren't really enthusiastic about it, and after 7 Wonders there was quite a stretch of time where they seemed to think there was no point in doing another because of 7 Wonders. Then there was a shift, and suddenly it was a class of game that could stand on its own.
A mild thread of mechanical connection, which is really more of a design style, is that all of these games can be played casually with a chance of winning or with great thought for increased chance. I tend to prefer games the casual and serious player can play together.
Thematically there is a strong connection between these games and most of my games which aren't made for existing properties: a sense of humor and playfulness. I like that more than "dark serious" game flavors because I think serious players can get past it if the game mechanics are worth it and the players are more playful with it when learning the game — which allows them to take the swings in the game a little less seriously when learning it. There is kind of a toxic "rush to judgement" with some players these days, and I believe this helps mitigate that just a bit — and if they stick with the games a bit longer because they don't take them seriously, they might actually get good enough to see how to play well and have fun with the mechanics.
DM: How has the huge success that you've enjoyed changed your approach to game design during the course of your career?
RG: I would guess that it is mostly the amount of time I can spend designing, playing, and studying games. The nature of my interest hasn't changed; I don't design more or less publishable games these days except insofar as my practice has probably made me better. Most of my designs are just for my own interest and that of my friends, and that has always been the case. Sometimes that leads to something I think other people will like — and then I look for a publisher. I have been in the fortunate position of never having to design to make ends meet, which might have lead me to working on games that didn't interest me or that I thought wasn't servicing the players enough to warrant.
Certainly, looking for a publisher is much easier than it was before Magic, and I do take pleasure in the fact that if I have a game that I think players will like, I can get a publisher to look at it and consider it seriously. That doesn't always lead to a product — or sometimes it takes a long time as it did with my series of drafting games — but that process of presentation and consideration always leads to improvement in the design, or at least the presentation.
DM: Is there a game you would like to revisit and do differently if given the chance and why?
RG: Hah. Every game I have made I want to redesign at least in minor ways. I am known to be reluctant to play any game of my own design once it is published — and I think the reason is that I get frustrated when I can't fix something.
For a major case of that perhaps I would go to SpyNet — which weirdly I would actually change very little about except for the messaging. I am disappointed that it barely got noticed after publication, yet find it one of my favorite two-player games. I think the decision to promote it primarily as a team game made people not give the two-player game a fair shake. Also, I think the special cards in the game gave a sense of "wackiness" to the play and players didn't take it seriously because of that — despite the fact that once you know what is in the game, there is a lot of interesting play dealing with that. I had some luck with friends incorporating a small card reference, I believe because it showed the players that they were supposed to anticipate the possibilities rather than just be surprised by them — which, of course, is common in first plays of any game.
DM: Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
RG: Roguebook is a digital game I worked on with the folk who made Faeria. It is a deck-builder in the same family as Slay the Spire. One of the key things we aimed to do was make constructing a big deck — a "tower deck" as we call them — a viable strategy. Most deck-building games are as much, or more, about removing cards than adding them. This is an interesting and skill-testing characteristic, but it is not logically required of the genre for an interesting game.
Personally, I like adding cards more than subtracting them, and I am particularly pained by removing cards that are fun to play but aren't quite worth playing with. The resulting decks are more challenging to play because the decks are less reliable and generally more flexible. One way we went about this was by adding a bonus that is unlocked for getting your deck to particular levels, so adding cards gives a bunch of cool powers to your deck over time. Of course, you can still play a lean mean deck if that is what you want.
Half Truth is a trivia game that I made with Ken Jennings, and I am really pleased with how it turned out. My inspiration was Ken's book Braniac, and I resolved after reading it to try to make a trivia game that could be played by a broad audience that wouldn't feel like the trivia nerds would always win. When I first shared the design with Ken, in fact, he played two games and lost the second one. (Not to me — I wrote the questions!)
The way it works is each question is multiple choice, and half the answers are correct. All players secretly make 1, 2, or 3 guesses. If a player misses any guesses, then they don't profit from the question at all. The players get only a small advantage for getting the second and third answer. Each question is a little minefield, and you can definitely get by with always just trying to get one answer correct. A lot of the fun comes from the really random and silly questions that are sprinkled throughout. One of my favorites was written by Koni, my wife:Quote:Is a poisonous mushroom:Here I guessed Destroying Angel with some confidence, but I wasn't sure about the others. When the answers were revealed, it turned out all the bad answers were Magic cards! I saw the Thallid but missed the other two — but this opens up a really interesting characteristic of the game: You can have questions that you have no idea about but can still get a good guess in — occasionally even getting all three — if you can recognize the fakes.
• Fool’s Webcap
• Blinding Angel
• Destroying Angel
• Deathspore Thallid
• Deadly Galerina
• Night’s Whisper
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
RG: Play lots of games, even games you don't care for. Learn what players like about them. Getting those qualities into other games where possible, ones you do like, will make your games better. Also, you will get more pleasure from games in general. Often a game I didn't like, once I really took the time to understand it, I not only understood the appeal but I acquired the taste.
Get a playtest network that has both casual and serious players. Listen to both. One common development standard that I regard as a mistake is just listening to the best players and looking to them for data. This is natural as a single group plays the game through many iterations over months or years. The problem is that game balance that is ideal for beginners and casual players is not the same as that for experts. One that seriously considers the former will often be much more exciting the first few times it is played and that is critical these days since there are so many other games to play. Development that relies too much on the latter can look very same-ish to the beginner — as if it doesn't really matter which strategy is chosen and the expert will always win by their 2% advantage.
If you use Kickstarter or some other method of self-publishing, get some playtesters outside your bubble, playtesters in particular that you don't teach the game to. One very important thing a publisher provides is an experienced sanity check on the game play and rules. I have many games that profited from their insight that I would have published on my own without hesitation. Sometimes that insight leads to improvement in mechanics; at other times it leads to improvement in the way the game is presented — both are important.
- [+] Dice rolls