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Publisher Diary: BattleCON: Devastation, or The Six Lessons You Learn Between Your First Game and its Sequel

Brad Talton
United States
New Mexico
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In early 2012, Level 99 Games became a "real" board game publisher when we produced our first boxed game: BattleCON: War of Indines, a head-to-head fighting card game. BattleCON has been favorably compared to Summoner Wars, Flash Duel, and many other games in the year since it has come out.

Even before we had finished up the first BattleCON game, War of Indines (or "War" for short), I knew we were going to be doing a sequel as there was so much energy in the project and so much potential left untapped in the game. Work on the expansion was ongoing even as we finalized the first version of the game.

That sequel – BattleCON: Devastation of Indines – will be available at retail stores in mid-2013, and I'd like to talk about the lessons we've learned between the first BattleCON game (our first foray into boardgame publishing) and the second one (our fourth). This post isn't about designing Devastation, though, a process that was largely the same as the process for designing its prequel, which was covered on BGGN in March 2011. No, this post is a publisher diary detailing how we're taking the leap from "Indie Game" to "Triple A" between two games that are, at their cores, very similar.

1. Have a Strategy for Your Art and Design

When I was making the first BattleCON game, I knew only about five different artists, and they were all difficult to contact, work with, and coordinate. (Part of this, admittedly, is my own fault, for lack of coordination.) It took any one of them a month to put together a new illustration, and I wanted to get the game out quickly. I thought that as an indie publisher, I could get away with having different art styles, much like the early CCGs did.

It turned out this was not the case.

The disparity of the art has plagued me in reviews, in comments, and in demos ever since the first game was released. Any one of the artists could have done a fine job illustrating the entire game on his own, but instead the disparate styles clashed with one another, giving the game as a whole a disjointed feel.

In Devastation, we still have five different artists, but now things are managed a bit differently. One artist does the characters, one does the chibis (caricatures), another does the close-ups, another does the arenas, and so forth. Another step we've taken is to prioritize working with artists who keep in daily direct contact with us, rather than those who keep irregular schedules and are hard to contact. Basically, we're requiring a certain degree of professionalism to put someone on a project (and paying extra for that professionalism as well).

In this way, we've managed to pull together a lot of different talents for the project without compromising the consistency of its look.

If you're working on your first game, I'd urge you to set aside a generous art budget and talk with a professional and responsive artist about the complete vision for the project. Consistency of style throughout the game is more important than quantity of art, speed of delivery, or even (to a certain degree) visual appeal. This is especially true of highly thematic games.

2. Build and Actively Support a Playtesting Community

When we first started on BattleCON, the playtest team consisted of just myself and a few interested volunteers from among my friends. As the game gained exposure as a print-and-play on BoardGameGeek, we got more people involved in playtesting, but everything was coordinated by email and a shared Dropbox folder. This was a logistical nightmare, and it took just as much work to get the game into the hands of playtesters as it did to actually produce a new version.

Another thing we realized was that our playtester pool was gradually getting smaller and smaller over time. People who had helped us and who wanted to help us again on future projects just didn't know what new things we were working on!

We tried many iterations of playtester portals, from bulletin boards to project management software. Ultimately we settled on an online forum, which players can register for by contacting us directly and asking for an invitation. The bulletin board has made testing a lot easier. We've also made subscribing to a mailing list part of the set-up for becoming a playtester so that all of our playtesters can get monthly emails regarding what's in testing. We do a very laissez-faire type of playtesting – just posting prototypes in the forum and letting people download and try whatever looks interesting. Because of this, an email each time a new project starts has helped us to pull people back to the forums whenever a new game or a new version of a game becomes available.

With the Minigame Library – a collection of six small card games – and with Devastation as well, the fruits of these lessons have been abundantly clear. Having a bigger community of playtesters and giving them the ability to coordinate with each other and work together via the forums has allowed us to put together higher quality games at a much faster rate than we could do alone or by direct correspondence.

3. Design with New Players in Mind

Over the course of developing a game, you play it hundreds and hundreds of times, especially if it's a quick game with a low player count like BattleCON. Over all these plays it's easy to become desensitized to the plight of a new player who's just getting involved with the game. The new player won't be familiar with the mechanisms or set-up, won't know the characters – in fact, he may not even be familiar with board games at all!

One of my most embarrassing moments as a designer was when I was contacted by a player who couldn't figure out from reading the rules which cards were the "standard bases" in BattleCON. This was a fundamental mechanism of the gameplay and a core part of set-up, but I had glazed over it in one byline of the rulebook and expected the players to just pick it up.

In recent games, we've begun creating how-to-play videos and linking these videos directly within the product packaging (so you can snapshot a barcode to watch the game in progress before you buy it, or as an alternative to reading the rulebooks). A happy side effect of these rules videos is that our latest games have generated far fewer rules questions than previous games since the video tutorial plays out like one large example that covers many situations.

This time around we've invested even more time, energy, and ingenuity into making sure players know how to play the game, including a large rules comic with more illustrations, reference cards, explicit diagrams, and (of course) a list of all of the cards and tokens you need to set up and play the core game and each individual character.

We've also gone further in making sure our basic characters are truly basic – adding reminder text, putting important notes on the cards rather than in the appendix, and making the cards more visually distinct. All of these factors will help to make Devastation a much more approachable game than its predecessor.

4. Do the Math in Advance

For the first BattleCON game, we were initially quoted $6,000 to produce the game, and we collected about $15,000 in pledges on Kickstarter. Great job, right???

The final cost to make the game ended up being just over $26,000. Why so much more? Well, we started out with a box the size of Summoner Wars: Phoenix Elves vs. Tundra Orcs and similar material components. By the time the campaign had ended, we had a box just a bit smaller than the Ninja Burger Deluxe Edition that contained almost 200 cards, plus a game board. All these costs drove the unit price up to nearly double what we had been initially quoted for the small box.

On top of that, we didn't realize the prices of freight shipping or fulfillment. I had expected the post office to get two hundred games out the door for about $1,000 (as the boxes were smaller when I had done the math early on). Instead, we spent about $3,000 in freight to our warehouse, and another $4,500 to send them out to backers.

It took us most of 2012 and two more projects to get out of the hole that we had dug for ourselves with the first game. Basically, we were victims of our own success, promising too many extras too quickly as things got exciting during our Kickstarter campaign.

For the Devastation Kickstarter project, we got the pricing in advance for the game and made the box a bit bigger than it needed to be so that we could expand the game as necessary. I fear that this time around, weight may become an issue with the shipping of Devastation, but time will tell. We planned out most of our stretch goals and promotional materials in advance, and got a good general idea of what potential extras would cost so that we could create new goals quickly as we needed them without waiting on feedback from our printers each time things accelerated.

5. Get to Know People in Your Industry

In business, everyone tells you that it's the people you know that really matter. This is true. It's not because the world of industry is some giant conspiracy that you need inside help to break into, but because the nuances and caveats of each industry are different and nearly impossible to prepare for unless you have help from more experienced players.

Each company in the industry has its own way of doing business, its own fanbase, and its own style of products. By getting to know other companies, you can learn which ways of doing business will work best for your capabilities. By working with companies with lines similar to your own, you can share fans and increase exposure of your products. By having friends within these companies, you can take advantage of opportunities that benefit you both, and pool knowledge about specific subjects like printing, distribution, marketing, and more. As in all human endeavors, a business is most successful when you can work with others to mutual benefit.

After the release of BattleCON, we were able to start visiting conventions and making friends with other companies, opening a bunch of new opportunities and enabling us to tap into the experience and good advice of these new friends.

For Devastation specifically, we were able to get in touch with a bunch of fellow game companies and offer each other opportunities that would share games for both of our fans. In this Kickstarter, for example, we were able to partner with Sentinels of the Multiverse (Greater Than Games) and Malifaux (Wyrd Miniatures) to create some high-profile crossover characters. We also included promotional characters from some of our lesser-known friends (or at least, lesser-known in the board gaming world) VG Gal Iris, Big City, and Mark PTO to introduce them to a new group of fans.

When players tell me they played Sentinels of the Multiverse because we introduced it to them and they loved it, and when players tell me that they discovered BattleCON and loved it through Greater Than Games, I know we're doing something right for our companies and, more importantly, for our players.

6. Stick to Your Core Identity and Principle

When we created BattleCON, we built the game to have as much gameplay and replayability as possible. I didn't realize it when I was first making the game, but the idea of adaptability and minimalist variety would go on to become a staple of the Level 99 Games brand going forward. It's grown to become something our fans expect of us – a game that changes each time, that has nearly limitless replayability, and that allows them to play a personality rather than just a strategy.

As we expand our line with new games, we are continuing to work with the idea of large games in a small space. Games like Blades of Legend and Pixel Tactics that fit huge degrees of asymmetric play into a tiny tuckbox have been the most successful in our Minigame Library, which was itself an experiment in high-quality minimalist design. The more we embrace this central principle of strong core mechanisms and extensive gameplay variety, the more we become known for it, and the more we have attracted fans who appreciate it.

In Devastation, we've leaped into this core principle with total abandon. Doing so has allowed us to make a truly massive and modular game that still plays in twenty minutes. We've continued to explore the expansive design space that can be built on top of a simple system. We've built dungeons, massive bosses, alternate character powers, and even more into the game, while still keeping the core mechanisms streamlined and easy to pick up and learn.

In addition to our design philosophy, we have a way of doing business – moral and ethical principles. It would be easy to make more money by filling our games with scantily-clad characters or creating rare, expensive exclusives, but we want to put fans ahead of profits and take the high road to success, to make a game that you don't have to pay through the nose to play and that you can show to your family without blushing. We publish our rulebooks in advance of the games debut, and offer print-and-play "lite" editions so that gamers can try what we are making before they spend money on it.

The most important thing to us is making something cool and seeing people have a good time experiencing it. That's another part of our identity that fans have grown to know and expect, perhaps an even more important part than the games we produce. Changing our ethics would break an even deeper contract with our fans than changing our design principles.

One of the things that I realized, and I suppose am summing up here, is that when you create products, you can't be haphazard about them. Every new release affects your identity as a company and the perceptions of your fans. Releasing a new game isn't always inherently good, and making sure that each new product holds up your standards is of unparalleled importance.


Whether you're a publisher looking to make your first strike into the industry or a gamer interested in insight about how the business works, I appreciate you taking the time to read over the history of our biggest game yet! And if you're curious to find out more about Devastation, I invite you to try it out for yourself and see what you think!

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!

D. Brad Talton, Jr.
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Thu Aug 15, 2013 6:00 am
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Designer Diary: BattleCON – Design Philosophy and Game Breakdown

Brad Talton
United States
New Mexico
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Battle Connection — or BattleCON, for short — is a game that I've wanted to design for about as long as I can remember. It's a character-based, head-to-head dueling game that works in layers, with simple foundations that support multiple levels of customization and decision-making. It is themed and designed with the most compelling features of 2D console fighting games in mind. Two players (or three or four) can sit down and play a game in 10-20 minutes, and it's just a lot of fun.

I'm currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the publication of BattleCON, but let's first see how the game came about...

You Are Who You Play

When I was 15 years old — that's eight years ago at this point, wow — I started work on a collectible card game called The Anime Arsenal, after the name of an anime club that I belonged to in high school. Though I'm not a big anime fan anymore, we had a great time, and this club still operates in North Carolina.

Anyway, The Anime Arsenal was a collectible game along the lines of Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon or Legend of the Five Rings. I was the main card designer, and I would print the cards at the local OfficeMax, use spray adhesive to glue the fronts to the backs, cut them out, and distribute them to friends for free. (You couldn't squeeze money out of these guys with a vise because they spent it all on anime, naturally.) The game included around 400 different cards, with perhaps 2,500 cards printed in total, so OfficeMax made a bundle off of us.

The Anime Arsenal card game — one of my first large-scale projects

Everyone in the group played their own, unique deck. Curiously enough, players began to come to me with card requests: "Brad, you know Gerald's vampire deck? Well, it's way too strong for my giant robot deck. I need something to deal with this." Even when all the cards in the game were free and shared property, players didn't want to just adopt the most powerful deck available — they wanted their chosen deck to be the most powerful. A sense of identity was attached to what they were playing, and winning their way was more important than winning at any cost.

The Anime Arsenal card game gradually died out, mostly because everyone left for college, but the idea of that game stuck with me. What I learned — aside from a bit about game mechanisms, game balance, and prototype production — was that players in a competitive game identify with their side, much like people watching a sporting event. They want to win their way, and not just by using the commonly accepted tactics or the single most powerful option.

I have developed a lot of games between then and now, and the one thing that I was always looking for in a game was a way to bring players that sense of relationship with the side they are playing, to rally the player and get him excited about his particular army or team or character. I called that excitement "immersion", though the word means a lot of things to a lot of players, and strove to create games that would form an identifying relationship with their players.

Making More from Less

In the business of small game development, especially short-run games that you plan to play only with friends, you learn to do more with less. Card printing is expensive for personal use (about 11 cents per card), so you try to get the maximum use out of the fewest number of cards. You can't afford to playtest a 250 card CCG base set knowing that it might go through ten different iterations (which you have to print in triplicate if you allow multiples of a card).

Plus, the process is just too unwieldy. In MTG, I'd venture that 70% of the cards in the game don't see high-level play, and why settle for anything less? Part of good game design is that there should never be a suboptimal card, so you distill out every element that you can until you get the game down to its minimum. At most, I wanted a 20- or 30-card deck for a character. The deck wouldn't be customizable, but rather tuned to be the best and most competitive deck possible for that character, while also being balanced against other characters and ready to play right out of the box — a perfect high-level gaming experience. But 20-30 cards per character still makes for a 300-card game. These were pre-Dominion days, so a boxed game like that was pretty much unthinkable. I needed to stretch individual cards even further, but ten cards didn't seem like enough to make for a compelling character.

One day, I was playing my favorite fighting game, BlazBlue, and I was thinking hard about what made that game compelling. In the middle of a match, something occurred to me: Every character has a heavy attack; just about every character has a ranged attack; and just about every character has a feint of one kind or another. When they use the light, medium, or heavy versions of these attacks, they just change their stats a bit, becoming faster or stronger, or having more range.

Then it hit me.

All the characters were using the same tactics, but each had a different way of using them — the game had divided play style and tactics. Two distinct ideas were being merged into each attack seamlessly. Because I know in BlazBlue what a punch is intended to accomplish, or how to input a certain special move command, I can use just about anyone in the game decently. However, to use a specific character effectively, I have to master their individual quirks. I have to put the strengths of their style to work.

Suddenly, the mechanism I needed was staring me in the face, the base mechanism for what became BattleCON. And it wasn't just saving space either — it actually made each character easier to play! With the tactics all included in the base character cards, once a player understood those six cards, he could use anyone in the game decently. With five personal styles and one personal base, each character could have a completely different play style.

So with the basic mechanism in place, I had this hugely flexible game that was easy to teach and play with a ton of design space. And a new character consisted of only seven cards! The entire two-player game included about 96 cards total, while having a massive amount of variety with the 12 available characters. What's more, it let players create their own attacks via card combinations. When you pulled off something brilliant, the move wasn't luck of the draw — it was insightful decision-making and good hand management.

Bringing Characters to Life

After I stopped being an anime fan, I became a CCG fan. I played Magic almost religiously and had a singles set (one of every card) of 80% of the game. Under the influence of friends, I gradually got out of that and into board games. Having played only CCGs, I was blown away by the variety of mechanisms and conventions present in modern board and card games: trick-taking, resource management, hand management, chit-pulling, area control, time management, worker placement — the design space was nearly limitless. I once joked to a game designer friend that we should make a Mechanics Quest board game, in which each player got to utilize a different mechanic to try to win. At the time, we laughed it off and couldn't think of any good way to tie all of the mechanics together in a fair contest. But I never forgot about Mechanics Quest...

So after a few playtests of alpha BattleCON, I liked where the game was going. It just needed something... more, something that made the character's strategies not just present but integral. In addition to a handful of moves, I wanted each character to have something that made them unique. Somewhere, out of the murky depths of my cluttered game designer's mind, Mechanics Quest floated to the surface. I could use a different game mechanism to power every character!

As soon as I started considering board game mechanisms, things fell into place like magic:

• "Space Controller" can set a trap on the board to prevent enemy movement or punish them for moving into his territory.
• "Worker Placer" can get a bunch of minions onto the field to fight for him – if his opponent is in the right spots.
• "Risk Manager" has tokens that he can spend for power, but the more tokens he holds on to, the easier it is to get even more.

The mechanisms felt natural, and the system was clean and streamlined enough at this point that they just fell into place. I was using only 96 cards, after all, so I had tons of extra room to include the bits and pieces that would power all these mechanisms, while still keeping the game at a reasonable cost.

Including unique abilities made the characters even more personalized. Now it wasn't just a different matchup when two characters met, but a different game! Unique abilities added an additional layer of macro-strategy on top of the beat-by-beat tactical conflict occurring on the field. Could Resource Management beat Space Control? Would Modular Parts triumph over Worker Placement? The characters didn't just feel like two play styles clashing; they were now whole ideologies of game design fighting it out with one another!

The Elements Combine...

During conception and design, BattleCON had inadvertently separated the three major elements of competitive gaming — tactics, play style, and macro strategy — and boiled them down into modular parts that could be adjusted and tweaked.

The result was a nearly limitless design space that was light on components and extremely deep in game play. It had all the personal appeal of a CCG as your character could reflect your personality and grow in power the more you mastered him or her. The design also had all the production appeal of a boxed game: a reasonable production cost, tons of replayability, and a finite product that didn't necessitate expansions. It was the perfect launch title for Level 99 Games.

Making the Game a Reality

We've created a lot of games — video games, print-and-play, some through other publishers — but this is going to be Level 99 Games' first boxed board game. I'm a game designer because I like to see people having fun, and I decided to move forward and mass produce BattleCON because I think it's a game with universal appeal for both casual and competitive gamers.

One thing I believe in is trying before you buy. I hate opening a box and realizing that you didn't get what you were expecting, so I try to release a free version of every game I create. Thus, there's a free version of BattleCON with only six color pages to print (if you do the rules in black and white) that lets you play four of the characters in the full game. In the free preview game, you can check out:

Khadath Ahemusei, the space controlling trapper, who can manage the advances of his opponents and force them to stay where he wants.
Kallistar Flarechild, a risk-return striker, who sacrifices her own ground to try to take even more from her opponents.
Hikaru Sorayama, a resource management pressure-fighter, who uses different elements to give additional powers to his attacks.
Cadenza, a limited supply managing robot, who has the ability to shrug off his opponents' attacks, but can do so only a few times before he runs out of this incredibly useful power.

The full game includes 12 characters with five different play modes. You can also support four players with tag teams, hold 2v2 matches, and even play a 3v1 "Boss Mode" for players who want a cooperative challenge.

So, that's where we are! It's been a long road to create this game, but the results have been well worth it. I hope you'll give BattleCON a try, and support our Kickstarter project to make it real!

D. Brad Talton
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Tue Mar 15, 2011 3:19 am
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