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Archive for Stefan Malz

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Designer Diary: Creating Rokoko, or How About a Threesome?

Stefan Malz
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{We want to give you some insight into the long development of Rokoko by means of an imaginary interview performed by the gorgeous lady on the Rokoko cover, Mademoiselle Juliette.}

Juliette: How did the three of you end up designing Rokoko together?

Stefan Malz: It all started in March 2010. I just happened to get to know Matthias half a year earlier at the Essen fair after which we mailed and phoned from time to time, seeking each other's advice on current projects. In March, Matthias mailed me asking if I knew somebody who'd be interested in designing a game based on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with him. I knew the books and always wanted to broaden my horizon, so I agreed to go along.

Juliette: But this project obviously didn't come to fruition, did it?

Matthias Cramer: No, it didn't even start. The theme was on a publisher's list, but they had problems with the rights' proprietor. But I was still interested in the cooperation and asked Stefan if he and Louis had another idea for a project to begin with.

Louis Malz: And we did. My father and I had just started thinking about a game placed in St. James's Street in London where many of those famous shoemakers are located. Something strategic with craftsmanship, differently qualified employees, resources, and fine hand-made products.

Early "St. James's Street" prototype with wooden employees

Juliette: So this shoemaking game was the predecessor of Rokoko?

Stefan: Yes, but not directly. We first worked on "St. James's Street" for about two months, only to find that something was missing. It was a good game, and many playtesters liked it, but sometimes good isn't good enough.

Matthias: I was playing around with different variations of the deck-building mechanism at that time – but without making another Dominion copy. Deck-building became the engine and replaced the worker placement part of the game. In the first concepts of this design phase, we also broke two core rules that most other deck-building games have: We let the players pick their cards instead of drawing them, and new cards go to the hand instead of the discard pile. At the same time, we also changed the theme for the first time. Players now became morticians in Paris, producing coffins and gaining points for funerals at the famous Pére Lachaise. If you got a grave next to Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf or Marcel Proust, you scored additional points.

Stefan: Our playtesters liked the new game a lot, especially the sick humor within, but the new morbid theme was problematic for all publishers we showed the game. Having deceased ones and their bereaved as customers was obviously not appropriate for a family game. Too bad...

"Die letzte Ruhe" ("The Final Rest") cemetery board prototype

Matthias: At that time, we both were lost in other projects. Lancaster and Helvetia were about to be published and took a lot of my time. Louis and Stefan were working heavily on Edo. So "Die letzte Ruhe" was taking a rest itself for nearly two years.

Juliette: How come you gave it another go after such a long break period?

Stefan: During the break, I had the chance to show the prototype to an editor who took some time to think about our thematic problem, and he came up with the "Rokoko" idea. So in May 2012, after our own game Edo was finally published, I told Matthias that we decided to pick up the prototype again and try the new theme.

Louis: Only a few weeks later, we first presented it to Peter Eggert and Viktor Schulz from eggertspiele at one of their game designer meetings in Hamburg and they immediately showed an interest in the game.

Early "Rokoko" prototype

Matthias: In July, I took the game to the "Gathering of Friends" on Majorca. This is an event where publishers, editors, bloggers, and game designers spend a week together and test prototypes all day. We had a lot of sessions with very experienced players and made a lot of changes afterwards. The game was too long, so we capped the last two rounds, shortening the game from nine rounds to seven. We also introduced the bonuses for certain fields in the ballrooms. The card functions were changed many times during the last twelve months – I think it would be possible to fill a separate designer diary just with the different versions of cards and bonus distributions during the different stages of Rokoko.

Juliette: So it was already decided back then that Rokoko would be published by eggertspiele?

Louis: No, not yet. We had to wait until September for eggertspiele to finally agree to publish Rokoko, time that we used to improve the game further. We then all met at Spiel 2012 in Essen and discussed the agreement details. And we were already told that the plan was for Michael Menzel to become the game's illustrator. Now the whole development took up speed.

Nearly final employee card prototypes

Stefan: We started with an extensive testing phase, having three prototypes to play with. I once read an interview with Klemens Franz, the Austrian illustrator, who said that he always sets up a separate online forum for each of his projects to facilitate the communication between authors, publishers, and illustrators, so I did the same, setting up an online forum on our server. This helped a lot as we could log all playtests there, discuss upcoming problems, and store ideas for future use. In December, we had a first meeting with Michael Menzel at the publisher, explaining the game to him and discussing first graphical ideas.

Genuine play situation during final testing phase

Juliette: What was working in such a huge team like? With three authors, editors from the publisher, and the illustrator – did you ever agree on something?

Matthias: Coordination was not always easy as Louis and Stefan live more than 200 miles away from me. We were working with different testing groups and those delivered different results sometimes.

Louis: The fact that we had three separate testing groups resulted in many discussions that were based solely on unilateral experiences. Every one of us had different personal experiences with the game and regarded other aspects as important.

Matthias: We started using the online forum for our internal discussions. The disadvantage of such a process is that you have to fight for certain details — but by having to fight, you learn a lot about your own game and your motives, turning this into a huge advantage. We went very deep into detail for some questions, for example: How much money should be in the game, how is it earned and how is it spent? A complex game provides a lot of possibilities for modification and a lot of those led into directions that we didn't intend.

Stefan: It helped that I have long term experience in consulting, trying to find out what the customers really want and finding a solution that often incorporates the ideas of all participants while still being something completely new. In retrospect, all aspects of the game were teamwork in one way or another, combining partial ideas of all of us.

Final "Rokoko" cover by Michael Menzel

Juliette: Rokoko has been developed for three-and-a-half years now. If you compare the initial idea of St. James Street with the final game, do you still recognize the original ideas?

Stefan: Many basic ideas are still the same, as are many mechanical elements such as the market and workshop mechanisms. But in total, I'd say that we now have a completely new game. It's easier to explain and faster to play, and it has even greater variety and strategic depth.

Matthias: St. James's Street died before we started the balancing, so it's hard to compare both games. Rokoko started to live after a certain development stage of the cards and the decorations. There were several main strategies intended and examined from the beginning, but every game designer's dream is to discover other ways of playing aside from those strategies during playtesting. As we continued testing, more and more of the main strategies disappeared, making place for a larger variety of aspects. Playing Rokoko successfully means combining some of these aspects while ignoring others, so the three-and-a-half years spent with shoes, coffins, and dresses proved to be well-invested.

Juliette: Thank you for this interview. I hope that all the effort you invested in your game will be rewarded! And by the way, while you're here, I was thinking about a new dress. Something very special! Maybe you could...?
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Wed Oct 2, 2013 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: Make It Square – Creating Edo

Stefan Malz
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It's amazing where a single idea can lead to...

In June 2009 during the Game Developers' Gathering in Göttingen, Germany, my son Louis and I were sitting at our table, waiting as usual for any editors to visit us. We had already developed more than a dozen games, and this was our second time participating at Göttingen. All of a sudden, an idea hit me: Why not make square action cards that vary in their effect depending on their orientation?

This was well before World Without End was released, so it seemed like quite a new idea to me. In a few hours of talking and sketching, the basic concept of the game came to life: square action cards with four different actions each, a simultaneous planning phase in each round, multi-purpose pawns that can either activate action cards or move along the board to actually execute the actions, an indeterminate number of rounds, four different resources, three types of buildings, and various ways to win.

The Early Stages

It took two months for us to design the first prototype, without a real theme and rather abstract in the game material. First tests were promising, so we kept on going. Over just the next three months, the game experienced ten significant iterations, each of them thoroughly tested. Several other game designers gave valuable input, and our gaming groups liked the design very much.

An early action card (in German)

During this time, we introduced a setting for the design, settling on a non-descript plateau enclosed by mountains with a few passes to reach it. This explained the seclusion of the game's setting, provided for all game elements, and generated the prototype's working title: Altiplano, the Spanish word for mountain plateau.

Early board and material design, with action cards placed face-down on a player's tableau,
making planning rather tiresome

In November 2009, we decided to submit the prototype to the Hippodice Game Developers' Competition. During that competition's proceedings – a long four months – we playtested the game again and again, without changing any of the mechanisms. The rulebook, however, was revised and dressed up with some examples, while the game board's size was reduced significantly. This "uneventful" time was well-used to gain experience that would serve us well in future development stages.

An early version being played at the Hippodice Competition in 2010
(Used with permission of Hippodice's Karsten Höser)

On March 13, 2010, we received a simple e-mail informing us that Altiplano had won the special "Best Full-Length Game" award in the Hippodice 2010 contest. What a day!

Finding a Publisher

But despite our never-ending enthusiasm and contact with many editors, no one seemed to be interested in this game at first. We had to wait quite some time and needed a lot of luck to find a publisher for our awarded game.

During a gaming weekend in September 2010, we happened to meet an editor from Queen Games, while the rules of Altiplano had already been sent via mail to another Queen Games editor. A few days later, Queen requested a prototype, and only a week later we received a call – our game had been accepted! We were completely overwhelmed, and we would never have guessed what was yet to follow. Our adrenalin level was on a constant high, and we couldn't wait to sign our first contract several months later.

Better Is Better

One might think that this would be the end of the story, but it actually only started about then. Without warning, we were carried away by a helluva guy from the Queen Games team – a gaming maniac. Our game was virtually taken apart and reassembled several times in order achieve three main goals:

-----1) Remove any in-game text to make the game language-independent.

I would never have thought it possible since all action cards and tableaus featured a lot of text. But he insisted, so we took our time to create a set of simple icons to be used, which were consequently tested and optimized. Check!

Final prototype of an action card, now without text

-----2) Optimize the game material for better handling, less overhead, and more fun.

At first, players placed the action cards face-down on their tableau, making it necessary to remember the first choices while thinking about the last one. One had to pick those cards up again and again during the planning phase. The new planning tableau with a slot and an inverted action card layout did the trick. A complicated method to determine each round's starting-player has been removed without any bad effect on the game. Determining the income of the settlement was simplified. Many other elements were refined without losing any tactical or strategic choices. Some of the more complex action cards have been removed from the game, but many of them will probably return in future extensions. Check!

Final prototype of Edo – then still "Altiplano" – before the artists got to work

-----3) Find a good theme that fits to the game mechanisms.

Quite early we found one possible theme, placing the game during the Spanish conquest of South America. This choice influenced the game's further development, introducing additional elements that made the end of the game even more exciting.

But still, we were not completely satisfied with the theme. Then, after nursing the first theme for more than six months, someone from the publisher came up with the idea of placing the game in Japan during the Edo period. At first, we did not like the notion of completely changing the theme – but after some consideration we realized that this new theme fit perfectly! All game elements were completely in line with the theme, and many additional elements were waiting to be introduced. Check!

Detail from the game board
Only a few days later, the first cover design for the newly named Edo was agreed upon. Some weeks of waiting for more design elements followed. In the end, the cover was redesigned once, and many game elements were graphically changed several times. The results were absolutely awesome – an unobtrusive, yet very Japanese style with lots of details! We even got our very special samurai meeples and buildings.

And finally, the rules had to be adapted and designed. It never fails to amaze me how much difference a single word can make. In the end, everyone was thrilled by the final results.

And Here We Go

In retrospect, I still cannot believe how much of our initial prototype was changed over the years, while the game still feels much the same as at the beginning – but much more beautiful, less cumbersome, faster to explain, and much more fun to play. All our playtesters still love to play the game, although they already "had" to play it a lot of times.

I hope you will have as much fun playing the game – whether you back the current Kickstarter project or pick up the game at some later date – as we had creating and playtesting it for more than two and a half years!

Many thanks to the Queen Games Team and to our playtesters, especially Timo, Andy, Dennis, Velvre, and all the others of the Spieletreff Braunschweig.

Stefan Malz

[Disclosure: Queen Games hired me to edit the English-language rules for Edo. —WEM]
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Mon Apr 9, 2012 6:30 am
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