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Designer Interview: Frank West, Creator of The Isle of Cats

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
Taunton
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
Board Game Designer: Frank West
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Frank West. —WEM]

The Isle of Cats designer Frank West joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss turning a hobby into a career and making complex decisions both on and off the game table:

DM: Thank you for joining us today, Frank. Your third game, The Isle of Cats, was released to retail in March 2020 and has been a great success. Can you tell us how you got started in game design?

FW: Game design is something I have always been interested in. As a young child I enjoyed video games, often thinking of how a video game of my own would look. This interest carried on into university where I studied computer science and programming. My final university project was to create an AI for a real-time strategy game, which I spent a considerable amount of time developing. After university, I was able to work on video game projects as either a contractor or as a volunteer.

As time went by, I fell in love with modern board games. I particularly enjoy complex strategy games, and one day I had a realization that everything I had been trying to do in the video game world was more suited to board games. Projects that would take hundreds of people and a great deal of resources as a video game, I could either do myself or complete with a small team as a board game.

This led me to begin work on a hobby project that, after a long period time, got to the point where I wanted to add artwork. I wanted to turn it into a game that I could have on my shelf at home and be able show the grandkids in forty years' time.

I felt that I was enjoying the process so much and had made so much progress that I began to look at how I could turn this hobby into something much more serious. Eventually, that hobby project became The City of Kings.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: The City of Kings is a large, complex, game. Can you tell us more about how the game came together?

FW: In some ways I was lucky to have come from a video game background. Creating a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) was something that I had always wanted to do. There had even been a period where I spent around six months working full time on a game like that, so when I began creating The City of Kings, there was a stock of ideas that had been floating around.

Board Game: The City of Kings
I started to explore how video game concepts, such as open-world adventures, could be developed into a board game. How would exploration and movement work? How could character progression — a relatively simple-to-explain concept in video games — be represented physically?

These questions led to more questions: What does a quest look like? What are players going to need on that quest. Discovering the answers to these questions led on to other questions, other ideas.

I like to give an example of a three-tier creation process. There are the visuals and artwork, layered on top of the characters and story that are themselves layered on top of the mechanisms — each layer feeding into the others.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

For example, when we created the imagery for The City of Kings, we used two colors for each character: a "core" color and a "secondary" color. The character Sesharra — who is a tribal warrior, a humanoid cat-like creature that lives in the desert — had yellow as her core color, but we struggled with the secondary color. It was quite a challenge from an artistic perspective.

We thought about the character, about the traits a stealthy character like her would have. It made sense that a stealthy creature would use poison as a weapon. This allowed us to explore the use of the color green as the secondary color. Not only did this character trait of "poison" give us an additional decorative piece, it also enabled us to explore unique character abilities that could be used within the game. Everything in the character design fed into other areas of the overall game design.

Bear in mind that this was just one character. The whole game design process took around four years, initially with that hobby perspective, then on a much more full-time basis as time went by. It was a very, very, long project.

This length was partly because of the size of the game itself and partly because it was my first game. There was a lot of learning involved. When you create a game for the first time, questions you may not think of as a gamer — "How do I create a prototype?", for example — need answering. There was a more staggered approach to the project than perhaps there has been with more recent games.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Your next game was Vadoran Gardens, which is a much smaller game than The City of Kings. Are there unique challenges presented by a small game design versus a larger one?

FW: Yes, there are. With a small game like Vadoran Gardens there is a focus on the core of the game. What is the one thing that makes the game work? While this isn't true of all small games, many do have one, maybe two, mechanisms that make that game special when compared to other games in that market.

Designing larger games, with their increased number of mechanisms, becomes less focused on one special element and more about what is special about a combination of elements.

I believe it is a lot harder to create that "one special thing" needed in a small game, but once you have it, it is then much easier to finish. Once you have that "thing", creating prototypes and iterating the design is a quicker, simpler process.

For Vadoran Gardens, we could look at the design and say: "This specific mechanism needs streamlining." In The City of Kings, it was more a case of: "This one area needs...something."

DM: Scale isn't the only noticeable difference between The City of Kings and Vadoran Gardens. Do they have more in common than it would seem at first glance?

FW: One of the things that people seem to find interesting about me as a designer is that I don't design "similar" games. Game designers tend to become known for creating certain types of games, and my games have the appearance of going against that trend.

Board Game: Vadoran Gardens
However, Vadoran Gardens, The Isle of Cats and The City of Kings have more in common than they seem to at first. I am interested in trying new and different ideas, but each of my games has a puzzle at its core — different types of puzzle, different ends of the puzzle spectrum, but that puzzle element is what ties the three together.

This stems from my enjoyment of thinking things through. I hate to use the phrase, but I am a big "Euro Gamer". I play a lot of heavy, thinky, themeless, cube-based games. The City of Kings and Vadoran Gardens were both my attempt at creating that type of thinky game inside a much more thematic package. I wanted to create visuals and stories as opposed to a spreadsheet with cubes.

Although The Isle of Cats was aimed at a wider audience, it took what I learned from the earlier games in terms of creating a deep, complex puzzle. Those lessons helped create a game that is, I believe, relatively easy to learn but hard to master.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: The Isle of Cats is a more complex game than it first appears. How do you layer that many moving parts into an accessible format?

FW: The Isle of Cats was designed to be an accessible medium-weight game — approachable, but with a nice degree of high-level complexity. Hence the family version that was included for the younger and more infrequent game-playing audience.

But it is a balance and, as with many things, it's a fine balance. While many mechanisms came and went, from day one I knew that I wanted The Isle of Cats to be a polyomino and drafting game. They were the two core things that I wanted in there.

The reason behind the drafting mechanism was that I like the concept of drafting potential scoring opportunities versus the things you need to do to achieve those opportunities.

The "basket" cards used to determine the number of cats a player can rescue are part of this draft. However, in a previous iteration the draft involved more of a blind-bidding system. It was in the game because it felt like the right mechanism, then a playtester commented: "I like the game and I like the idea, but I'm not enjoying this because I hate blind bidding." And I realized...I do, too!

So I took out the bidding and began to explore the idea of paying for cards and the optimal way to do this within the game. The fish tokens act as resources in the standard version, but they are not present in the family version. The fish add a level of economy and resource management that blends well with the drafting and the overall game balance, but this does represent a lot of additional complexity. The decisions are that much harder. There is a need to weigh how much to spend on one thing versus another, and this is a different mindset to that needed for the family game.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: What effect has the popularity of The Isle of Cats had on you?

FW: It has been a phenomenal success, and it's still climbing and racing beyond anything we expected. Surprisingly, it is a strange and quite challenging situation to be in.

I haven't created a game that has been anywhere near this successful before. This makes it hard to make estimates of how "normal" this is. I publish my own games, and distributors have told me that perhaps five games a year see this level of demand.

Board Game: The Isle of Cats
I'm quite literal in the sense that if we sell X many copies, we can cover the bills and have enough money left over to make another game. Fantastic — it's been a great success! But I'm now receiving emails from distributors saying that their 5,000-copy order needs to be increased. We have already printed over 50,000 copies and are beginning the fourth print run.

I'm looking at the calendar thinking, "It's June 1, and the game was released to retail on March 17. Two months into its life cycle, we are printing tens of thousands of extra copies." I'm not sure how to interpret this information. Should I be very happy, should I take it with a grain of salt? I have no experience in this area, so I'm having to learn as I go.

It's also where a significant element of risk comes in. If I order 10,000 extra games and don't sell them, in monetary terms, that's hundreds of thousands that I may lose.

I recall reading a blog post from Jamey Stegmaier about how he struggled to keep up with the demand for Wingspan and how he received comments saying: "Why didn't he predict the demand?" I feel like I understand where he was at now. I'm printing games in numbers that are multiple times higher than anything I would have previously considered, and it is still not enough.

I enjoy the business side of publishing games; however, it can be quite challenging. In a game, you can lose thousands of dollars and think, "Oh well". In the real world, I'm now having conversations with my partner about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to print more games, and if the games don't sell, we will have to sell our house. That's a complex decision to make.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Shared universes are increasingly common. All three games have been part of the same "City of Kings" universe. What is the appeal of creating games within such a system?

FW: So often when we are introduced to a fictional creation, it is at one point, in one state. I find it fascinating as a designer to be able to explore new directions with existing characters or visit places at different points in time. What was this creation like in the past? What was happening five years earlier or five hundred years later?

The main benefit is that a shared universe creates infinite possibilities. When I was first designing The Isle of Cats, there was no theme other than this concept of buying cats and putting them into a house.

I was uncomfortable with this for two reasons. First, I don't like the idea of "buying" cats. Second, most polyomino games at the time used square or rectangular boards. It is easy to put pieces on those shapes, and I wanted to experiment with a different shape.

Setting The Isle of Cats in the City of Kings universe allowed me to think more about why we were collecting cats, about what the story behind it would be.

In The City of Kings, there is an evil being destroying things, and I was more comfortable with the idea of rescuing the cats from this being. This concept led to the idea of an island and rescue boats and their naturally irregular shape. Within around ten minutes, this all fell into place thanks to the pre-existing City of Kings universe. Without the universe, the game would have probably had a more generic, bland theme.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Do you have any advice for new designers and publishers?

FW: I would suggest starting now. Get the prototype made and start playtesting. It is so easy to spend a lot of time not doing that.

When I first made The City of Kings, the only playtester for a year or more was my partner. It was never ready to playtest formally because this wasn't done or that wasn't finished. We wanted it to be finished before we showed anyone else. We didn't want to show it to someone and have them say, "That's rubbish."

Now I will playtest games that I began working on that morning. I'll have a concept that I like, so I ask people to meet for a playtest to see where it organically goes. It is much quicker to get to a point where you'll be able to see whether the game works. Often playtesters will give suggestions that will improve the game.

Unfortunately, too many people delay taking that step because they are afraid of the outcome. Getting a design in front of people early is a good idea. I can't emphasize that enough.
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