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Designer Interview: Matthew Dunstan on Game Design and More

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]

Matthew Dunstan, designer of Monumental and co-creator of the Adventure Games series joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his approach to game design:

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Celebrating the release of The Great City of Rome (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: Matthew, thanks for joining us today. You have created many games. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first started your game design career?

MD: I started designing when I was still in Australia, around 2010 roughly. Only the year before I had rediscovered board gaming. I was playing all these new games, and I guess I was inspired by that to begin making little prototypes, replicating things I had seen already.

There wasn't really a playtesting group in Sydney, so I tried to set one up. I went to the annual Protospiel event — I had one prototype to show people — which was where I first met Phil Walker-Harding.

In 2011, I moved to UK and met Brett Gilbert, who had just signed a contract for his first game. He also lived in Cambridge, and we started to meet regularly at a pub. We weren't part of Playtest UK then — in fact, that wasn't a national network at that time — but we did regularly go to London for the Meetup events that were taking place.

Through that frequent interaction, and from the benefit of Brett's experience, I was able to become more "professional" or, at least, finish a design. I find that finishing a game is the hardest part of game design.

Once I got a design to a point that I was happy with, I entered a competition called Europa Ludi. It was a combination of events usually held separately in France and Spain. I think 2012 was the only year that they held them jointly.

Both Brett and I were finalists. Neither of us won, but later that year I found out — I wasn't aware at the time — that my game had been presented to publishers. Shortly after SPIEL that year, Days of Wonder emailed to say they were interested in publishing my game, which they did under the name Relic Runners the following year.

I guess my route into the industry isn't the easiest to replicate. However, I do recommend entering design competitions. Publishers do get involved in competitions sometimes, and there are more competitions than ever before.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Evidence of international success (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: There doesn't appear to be a single mechanism, theme, or even degree of complexity running through your portfolio. What do you believe is the thread that links all your games?

MD: Ha ha, I really don't know the answer to that question!

I think, ultimately, I just don't want to make the same game again. Some designers do iterate on the same idea or concepts. Personally, I don't enjoy doing that. I enjoy the puzzle-solving involved in "finding" a game.

I'll have some idea of how I can manipulate pieces and I'm interested in how I can "crack the code" and make an idea work. If I have already solved a problem on a previous game — perhaps how a certain distribution of cards will work, for example — I'm not interested in looking at that same problem again.

Family: Series: Good Little (Good Little Games)
That isn't to say there are no linking elements in my games. The titles in the Good Little Games line are examples of an imposed component limitation — some cards and a few tokens.

There is also a series of games in which Brett and I took the concept of a classic 110- or 120-card game and added an element of geography. The games themselves were quite small, but through the placement of cards on the table, a board began to develop.

We kept coming back to that idea of combining cards with geography. How could we mess with it? How could it be different each time? In Pyramids, there are two decks of cards, and players make a pyramid over the course of the game. Raids came from the idea of arranging the cards in a circle, which made gaining cards a much more interactive process. The Great City of Rome used a grid of cards. We currently have a game in development with Inside the Box games in which cards are used in rows, almost as outer and inner walls.

Outside of those mini component-led challenges, I wouldn't say a specific driving force links my games together other than that I like to experiment. If I had to pick something, I guess it's the intellectual curiosity needed to answer: "How do I go about making this?"

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Chocolate Factory before... (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: Can you give us an insight into your design process?

MD: I'm a lot better at the start of the process than I am towards the end. I have a digital notebook that I'll write in at least once or twice a day — a theme, a mechanism, or one or two sentences outlining an idea. From those notes, there is usually an idea that sticks with me. It's not necessarily related to the act of writing it down, but something about an idea will capture my imagination.

Once I have that first idea, I'll start making a prototype. My graphic design skills are horrible, but I'm able to put something together quickly. I usually use a computer for that. Sometimes making a prototype by hand gets you more involved in a game, but for me, making cards on the computer is fairly easy. I'm quite good at churning through to the point where a game can be played.

Once I have a playable prototype, playtesting and iteration begins. Currently I have ten or fifteen games in development. These are actual playable prototypes, not just ideas. I have far too many games on the go...

I'm a lot less skilled at playtesting my own designs — which, I think, is why I enjoy collaborating with other designers. It's an excuse to playtest with somebody else right from the very start. It also means that I don't need to rely so much on my own judgement to decide whether a design is worth continuing.

I find it frustrating when my mind sees a game much further along than it actually is, and if I had to rely only on my own feelings in the early stages, I probably wouldn't finish many things. An idea always seems better before the first prototype is made.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Chocolate Factory after! (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: You have collaborated with many other designers. What is it about that approach that appeals to you versus a single designer game?

MD: Most of my games have been co-created with other designers. I find that being able to bounce ideas off another person in a collaboration really helps with the process of iteration.

Having two opinions makes it possible to identify what it is that is interesting about a design, not only to puzzle through the challenge of making a design work. Right from the start, there is feedback from the other designer who is saying what they do or don't like about the design. Maybe we keep this part, maybe we throw another part out. Just being able to talk it through is, I find, an easy way to move things ahead.

There are some ideas that I do keep for myself — Monumental, for example. These become what I tend to think of as my "style" of game. They take a lot longer to create because although I know what I want to achieve, I don't have the back and forth from a collaboration to help move forward.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Brett Gilbert, one of Dunstan's key design collaborators (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: The Adventure Games line stands out as being quite different from other games in your portfolio. What is unique about designing a story-driven, co-operative game versus a more traditional competitive game?

MD: It is both easier and harder. Often you just need one element that changes the structure of the experience, a mechanical twist if you like.

Maybe the structure changing element is more evocative of another medium. The Adventure series itself is inspired by the point-and-click video game genre. In that instance, it's a case of transferring the genre into mechanisms more suited to the tabletop.

Regardless of the mechanisms, narrative games quickly let you know whether they are working or not. Mechanically, they typically don't require as much playtesting as other designs. They still go through the playtesting and refinement process, but feedback regarding the nature of the experience they are delivering is quick to see.

Narrative games are ultimately about player choice. In that sense, they are not so different from a strategy game. A strategy game will present several different choices, and they need to be interesting choices. In a narrative game, those choices relate to the story being told, and that is where the difficulty increases.

The storytelling narrative side is not my forte. Narrative game designers are essentially authors, and that is an entirely different skill set. A game design approach doesn't necessarily lead to the best stories. I think that is apparent in the varying quality of narrative games on the market. They may have an interesting way to move through the story, of making the game mechanisms flow nicely, but the pedigree of the narrative doesn't always match.

The narrative needs memorable characters, the classic three act structure — this is where collaboration becomes important, so much so that future Adventure Games will be created in collaboration with published authors. It will vary by author; some are writing a synopsis, others are creating detailed text that Phil and I will weave the mechanisms around.

One criticism of the Adventure Games is that they have "game" elements — points scoring and so on — but a significant portion of the audience doesn’t care about the "game". They want it to be an experience, one that is natural enough that the game feels like you are exploring a story. To achieve that, the mechanisms, no matter how clever they are, almost need to be forgotten by the players.

This becomes even more challenging if the narrative game features a strong element of puzzle, that is, where there is an answer to find as well as a story to experience. Narrative game design is a unique skill set and one that I believe will eventually branch off into a new school of game design.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Monochrome Inc., one of the Adventure Games designed in collaboration with Phil Walker-Harding (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: Your current release, Monumental, has been a huge success. Can you tell us more about how Monumental was brought to life?

MD: Originally, Monumental was a card game. When I first showed it to Funforge, it was an entirely card-based deck-building game. Funforge, however, had a vision for Monumental that soon outgrew that format. It was such a large vision that Monumental spent a further two years in development before being announced.

We started with the map. As that developed, further ideas were incorporated resulting in the interesting hybrid that Monumental is today. The cards are what drives the game, the engine where the decisions are made. The map opens interaction between players and creates a sense of progression that would not normally be available in a card game. There is also a tactile and tactical side that, through the combination of cards and a map, is both more appealing and less fiddly than some other civilization-building games.

The action selection/activation grid was inspired by Innovation by Carl Chudyk, which is one of my favorite games. In that game, cards can be played in different positions relative to each other. This allows the cards to have variable and upgradable actions. I wanted to look at that idea of aligning cards to create combinations in an interesting way.

Eventually, I created the grid-based action selection system in Monumental, which I believe is quite original. Of course, nothing is ever truly original and independent co-creation happens all the time, which is why certain themes and mechanisms suddenly appear at the same time in games that were created independently of one another. Something in the water, I guess.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Playtesting Monumental (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: Monumental has several expansions available. In general, what do you try to do when designing an expansion? Is it more challenging to find something that works well with an existing design?

MD: I find it easier than creating a new game because there is an existing system to work with.

I love expansions that do not necessarily add more to a game but instead subvert existing mechanisms. One of my favorite examples of that is the changing use of corruption in the Lords of Waterdeep expansions.

In African Empires, the new expansion to Monumental, one of the civilizations subverts how an existing resource, gold, is used. Not only does this civilization have a new way to use this resource, it requires other civilizations to re-evaluate their use of gold to effectively deal with that change. By altering a single thing, all sorts of wonderful new decisions are now possible. It's a new way to contextualize the mechanisms without needing to add more "things" into the game.

Having said that, the introduction of new elements can be very satisfying. Magic: The Gathering does this extremely well. Each new card released may require you to re-evaluate how you are using cards originally introduced years before. It's a nice sweet spot where players can look at new ways to play within the framework of a game, without need to learn a whole new framework.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
"Polygonia", one of Dunstan's many prototypes (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: What games do you have in the pipeline?

MD: Being an independent designer is a funny spot to be in sometimes. I'm never quite sure what I can talk about and what should be left to the publisher. It's also quite difficult to know what is going to happen in a post-COVID world. Some games may get lost in the shuffle...

In terms of games that have been announced, Brett and I have a game called Web of Spies due for release with Pegasus Spiele later in 2020.

It is a game at the "Spiel des Jahres" level of complexity, for want of a better description. In many ways, family games, and particularly children's games, are hard to create because they have to be intuitive and simple to understand without you being able to keep adding more stuff. This will be my first game of this type as I'm typically into more complex card combos and so on; however, this is Brett's forte.

Web of Spies is a route-building game with an evolving network of routes. How your opponents place their spies will affect the cost of your route as it's more expensive to go to a location where someone has already been. It's a game I'm very pleased with as we have distilled the essence of it into a quick to play, simple to understand format.

Oh, I nearly forgot! The Monumental expansion, African Empires, is out on Kickstarter as we speak.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Professor Evil cards (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to design a board game?

MD: Enter design competitions!

Seriously, though, at the beginning of your career, it is better to finish a design than it is to make a good design. What I mean by that is that the act of finishing one game will make you a better designer than a collection of half-finished designs ever will.

Game design requires a range of skill sets. Some parts you will be great at — maybe the graphics, maybe the playtesting — but other parts will need work. That may mean you spend more time working on those areas you are not good at, or it may mean collaborating with someone who is good in those areas.

It can be extremely frustrating to have a game that doesn't work, and you can't figure out why. Finishing a game will help you identify the parts of the process that you are not very good at. At least then you will know what the problem is.

Also, try not to be constrained by what has gone before. Don't be afraid to try something wacky or that breaks the rules. Design rules are a guide to making a game, but they are not a guide to making a great game. Breaking those rules results in innovation and drives the hobby forward.
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