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Archive for Ben Stanley

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Designer Diary: Questor – Fantasy Dungeon Exploration for All Ages

Ben Stanley
United States
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Néstor Romeral Andrés recently approached me about developing a game to be included with the launch titles of his new nestorbooster service, a Kickstarter-like tool for gamers to pre-order designs that see production if they reach a funding (i.e., "fueling") goal.

I have always enjoyed working with Néstor: He publishes two of my own beloved designs, the customizable abstract strategy wargame simulation Symbol, and the fast, portable, scalable, fun and challenging stock market game of brinkmanship Nyse. He also publishes the expansions for Symbol, Symbol². He is the consummate professional and always a joy to collaborate with, offering brilliant ideas and dedicated craftsmanship with stunning, beautiful, custom components for every game he publishes.

What Makes Questor Unique?

Néstor has long wanted a dungeon exploring game in his catalog, so together we refined and enhanced a wonderful, unique little game I designed with my children in mind: Questor. Questor is exceptional in three specific ways that were the foundation concept of this design of mine:

-----(1) Players could compete as in a traditional game or decide at the outset to play it fully cooperatively (or one player can puzzle through it solo).
-----(2) Each player has a different objective than any of the others.
-----(3) Because the objectives of the players differ, the actual play styles and strategies for the players differ.

A lot of games have hidden roles with unique victory conditions, but I know of very few with known roles with unique victory conditions. One of the few is Chaos in the Old World, an excellent and entertaining design, but a lot darker, longer, and more component heavy than what I was designing. I wanted a game that I could play with my children and we would all have a great time, every time. If they are too young to enjoy competitive gaming, we can play cooperatively; they can pick the hero to play that has a goal and style they like, and not have to worry about random choice or not understanding the objective and having to get help as they might in a game with secret roles.

Picture of the original prototype, which used the smallest and simplest components possible

And as I noted, the play styles do feel quite different. The Warrior character, for example, is after fame for slaying foul dungeon beasts, and relies on combat, a little luck of the dice, and deciding when to go where others would like him to and when to strike out on his own. In contrast, the Rogue is seeking fortune, and she must focus on efficient movement and avoid helping other players as she tries to claim two treasures and escape. The Mage is instead intent on gaining knowledge and wants to see the entire dungeon explored, so he often has to make the most carefully planned and strategic decisions to incentivize other players into doing things that will help him with his goal. And the Healer is hoping to join each of the other players at some point in their quests, and so must rely upon timing and persuasion skills, as well as determining when to aid others and achieve her objectives in return.

And all of that can happen in a fast, fun, enchanting, and entertaining game. The theme really shines with the beautiful, laser cut and custom heroes and monsters Néstor has planned for the game.

Any Interesting Challenges During Development?

There were a few changes as the game was refined. I had originally planned to have a custom etched die to roll and reveal the orientations and presence of monsters on dungeon tiles, but relied on a standard die and a dice table in the prototype and playtesting sessions. Néstor had a truly brilliant idea to dramatically simplify the placement of the dungeon tiles without requiring a custom die at all, which freed a lot of resources to keep the costs of the game as low as possible and allow for more elaborate pawns and tokens, which do much more for the game's appeal. That's one of the advantages of working with a math genius on your games.

Prototype art for a custom die for the game, replaced in the published version with a clever numbering scheme on the tiles themselves
that indicates where to position the tile in response to the number rolled on a standard die

Similarly, I used double-sided dungeon tiles in the prototype to track when players had used a "dig" action to change the number of available paths in one area of the dungeon. Néstor again developed a way to keep the game more affordable and allow for more luxurious elements in other places by offering dungeon path markers that went on the existing dungeon tiles and reflected the change.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge of the game was coming up with a name that we both loved! Néstor said the play reminded him of the old video game Gauntlet (in which four heroes with different powers explore a dungeon), but several dungeon crawl games, including some recent releases, have that word in their titles. However, the Elf hero in that video game is named "Questor", and I liked that title because it rhymed with Néstor and was a nice tribute to an old arcade classic. The name stuck.

We truly hope you and your family love this dungeon-delving gem as much as we have bringing it to you.

Benjamin D. Stanley
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Wed Jan 9, 2013 8:01 pm
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Dawn of a Design and Formation of a Philosophy: Creating Symbol and Other Games while Pursuing a Childhood Dream

Ben Stanley
United States
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I have told my design story in fragments in various places, but when Eric Martin offered me the opportunity to share it in the official BGG News, I could not resist.

In many ways, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to folks like Eric and to BoardGameGeek, a site with a plethora of supportive, intelligent, and interesting people.

I. Introduction

I also owe much of the successes of my experience to the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah. I was passing through Salt Lake City one day and randomly saw a sign for Game Night Games, a fantastic store. I stopped in and met Mike Compton (The Heavens of Olympus) and he invited me to start attending the meetings of the BGDG of Utah held there each month. My brother and I made regular trips to SLC to join the Guild, and met a number of truly gifted designers and artists, including Mike, Alf Seegert (Trollhalla, Bridge Troll), Sean MacDonald (Pastiche), Steve Poelzing, Rick Maxey (God Dice), Scott Nelson, Phil Kilcrease, Ryan Laukat (artist for Dominion, those two awesome troll games mentioned above, and several others), and many more.

As a new member of the Guild, I decided to get serious about getting a game actually published. Crazy, I know. I grew up playing chess and hundreds of other games, still wish I had kept my childhood copy of the hot new game at the time, Fireball Island, and thought I could create something at least as awesome as that. As kids, my older brother and I had designed scores of board, card, and dice games, but we never did anything with those designs.

About a dozen years ago, I had the inspiration for a highly customizable and portable chess-like game that combined elements of Magic: The Gathering and Shogi. I decided it was the most likely to really appeal to gamers, so I had a prototype crafted by the good people at Litko, and took it to a playtesting session at the BGDG. It was a hit, and playtesters kept challenging each other over and over. Phil Kilcrease and Mike Purcell played several games, and suggested I get in touch immediately with Néstor Romeral Andrés of nestorgames.

I did.

II. From Conception to Production

Symbol was entered into an abstract game design contest thread here at Néstor's suggestion, and was declared a winner of the contest in relatively short order. It went on to gather some early fans, and though production presented nestorgames with some significant challenges – and the name was changed and then returned to the original – the game was released in mid-2010. I love the laser cut acrylic and deluxe treatment nestorgames gave the game, and have always been tremendously impressed with Néstor's professionalism, skill, and dedication to his craft and the broader industry.

Two mini-expansions (alternate game boards) are available in Symbol² as of June 1, 2011 to coincide with the one year anniversary of Symbol. These boards are entitled Symbol: Hexagonal Warfare and Symbol: Battle Bay. In addition, in mid-March 2011 the game had a new release of its rulebook that incorporates a simplified ruleset, intended to help new players ease into the experience of a customizable "symbolic and abstract wargame".

Finally, a developer friend, the same developer for Alchemy, is planning a conversion of the game to the iOS format, with Game Center integration which should allow networked multiplayer games! That's a big and exciting step, as many excellent board game apps from the largest publishers do not support that feature. That will probably only feature the simplified ruleset at first (without stacking and combining of units), but it should still be a tremendously fun opportunity and a chance to build the fan base and lay the groundwork for the full Symbol experience on the iOS in the future.

III. The Cascade of Opportunities

After having my first design published, the opportunities came quickly to see other creations realized in various ways, and provided the connections to see my current trend toward iOS releases of games.

A. A success that still showed me what not to do, or at least what not to do yet . . .

One of my game designs, Skeleton Crew, was a finalist in the 2010 SaltCon Ion Award competition, and I often describe the game, seen here in prototype form, as the child of Agricola and Jamaica with Small World named as its Godfather. Players command ships of skeleton minions, claim islands, gamble, attack each other, trade, explore, and horde gold. I'm very proud of the thematic and wildly fun design, but publishers were concerned about the number of components involved (200 resource cubes, ship maps, encounter tokens, modular board, skull starting token, dice, port tiles, warehouse boards, Port Skull resource board, mystic fortune cards, and many other parts).

The game will be an ideal project for Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder some day, but I learned that most publishers were hoping for mass market hits with simple component requirements, so my future designs gravitated that direction. The component-heavy concerns around Skeleton Crew did a lot to shape my future design efforts, and I began to emulate prolific designers who shall remain unnamed but are known for simple, engaging games with light themes and very few pieces – at least until I develop enough of a reputation that publishers entertain my thematic, engrossing designs and are willing to make the investment to produce them in all their epic glory!

So my next string of designs were simple and elegant, with a goal to distill the game play to quick, rich, tense, but mostly abstract or simplified experiences. In some ways, that best fit my own competing time demands and play preferences, anyway. That became my new design philosophy: the "ultra-light" games that still offered fascinating choices.

B. A second project with nestorgames

Working with nestorgames on the release of Symbol was a joy, and nestorgames also published a stock simulation game that I had developed. Nyse was created to offer a ten-minute game that was comprised solely of chips, and would be fast, portable, durable, scalable, thematic, tense, interactive, and tough. I am quite proud of a game that plays one to ten players in a format that is perfect for dinners out: the games are often over when the food arrives, the pieces never suffer from spilled drinks, and everyone seems to really enjoy the challenging game of brinkmanship, which fits in a pocket without any trouble at all.

Nyse was published in late November 2010.

C. Getting to know W. David MacKenzie of Clever Mojo Games

Another excellent game published by nestorgames, Jin Li, was also released in an iOS format. I played the game and got to know the designer while analyzing the artifical intelligence implemented in the iOS version. David is a truly fantastic guy, and he was a huge help on my path, maybe even more than he realizes!

Impressed with my insights into the AI for his game, he connected me with his iOS development team, who licensed the rights to code one of my game designs for the iOS: Tribal Dice. Tribal Dice also captured my new design paradigm of creating simple, addictive games that could appeal to the masses and represent a tremendous gaming value. With solo, multiplayer, music, artifical intelligence, pass and play multiplayer, and clear instructions, and a ridiculously low pricepoint the developer is still honoring, the game proved popular as well, and was released just before Christmas, which really helped sales in the iTunes store.

Here's a humorous side story: I was contacted by a fan in early 2011 who told me that he saw Tribal Dice uploaded to a server as a hacked and pirated copy for those with jailbroken iPhones. As a general rule, Apple seems to do a pretty good job of keeping application piracy in check, but this individual contacted me not to warn me, but to congratulate me!

He felt like I should be very pleased that the game had been hacked; to paraphrase his comments, he felt it's a lot of work to hack an app, and many of the apps in the store don't get hacked, so I ought to be thrilled. Apparently the same hacker hacked N.O.V.A. and Assassin's Creed and a few other very popular games, so he "obviously had good taste" when he selected my app as one to hack and upload. At least in this person's opinion: "You know you are a success when you are being stolen from on a global scale!" He felt like I ought to be grateful for the free marketing and hope that the illegal downloads turned into a few legal ones at some point, and that I shouldn't waste a moment thinking about it.

D. More iOS development

Once one game was released on the iOS, other developers were interested in pursuing game designs, as well. I got to know an incredibly talented coder who wrote the iOS implementation for a very simple combinatorial game, Alchemy, that I had designed as a way to use the pieces for the game Symbol, and to pick first player. It has a lot in common with other combinatorial stacking and Nim-family games, but has a nice thematic explanation for its mechanics, and a way to combine or destroy elements, that fits the pieces and mechanisms of Symbol itself.

The speed and quality of that implementation, with Game Center integration for global leaderboards and twenty-five challenging achievements, and the universal nature of the iOS app (dynamically conforming to the iPhone or iPad format) made it another great value for simple and engaging play. The music, art, sound effects, and quick play made for an immersive experience.

The same developer from Alchemy has planned to create the first electronic implementation of Symbol, so you can look forward to announcements on that in the months ahead, and I hope that it finds as much support, both before and after release, as my other designs have so far.

IV. What else does the future hold?

I have a favorite design, Ivory Tower, that I want to see coded on the iOS, I have dozens of other game designs waiting in the wings, and recently announced my first and only print-and-play game: Pandora's Box. Look forward to a few interesting and exciting announcements related to Pandora's Box in the months ahead!

Anyone who wants to lend a hand (artists, programmers, publishers, reviewers, donors, etc.) to see some of these "broad appeal" designs available in the short term, please feel free to contact me!

Like many designers, creating games was a childhood dream that became possible in recent months thanks to industry giants who let me stand on their shoulders, to paraphrase the immortal words of Sir Isaac Newton.

Keep on gaming, and thanks for reading about my experiences so far.

Benjamin D. Stanley
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Wed Jun 1, 2011 6:30 am
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