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Designer Diary: Construction BOOM!, or Satirical Game Design

Jasper Schellekens
Malta
Sliema
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designer
Diary by Stefano Gualeni

We'll be honest with you: Living on a small Mediterranean island has remarkable advantages, such as a relaxed lifestyle, mild weather, and a sea that's always near. Malta is unique in comparison to other such small islands as it is one of the most densely populated places of Europe. In the past years, construction has been on the top of the chart of Malta's sources of revenue. The island is, in other words, undergoing a construction boom.

From gallery of illegal_alien

Living on the island, we — the designers — are confronted with the aftermath of the metaphorical explosion of the real estate business on a daily basis: trucks blocking little alleys, dust filling every nook and cranny, pneumatic drills waking us up at dawn and continuing with their loud mating call until late in the evening, and cranes stretching their long necks from behind each and every building.

The Inspiration

One day, just a few weeks after having launched the small philosophical game HERE, I was sitting by the sea in a Maltese bay. I do that almost every day as it is lovely to read books and think about the misery of academic writing in that setting. On that occasion in particular, I must have been quite annoyed at the ongoing construction work; being trained as an architect, I guess poorly designed buildings are more irritating to me than they are to other people. Sitting by that bay, I looked at the scene in front of me, and I started to see patterns, modules, complications, stratifications, stupidities. I decided to take a picture. Maybe there's a new game here, I thought to myself.

From gallery of illegal_alien

In the next days, I started prototyping a few ideas for a game about ruthless construction. I engaged some colleagues at the Institute of Digital Games in early playtests to help refine my original intuitions. Among those early helpers and collaborators that I want to mention are:

• Daniel Vella, who suggested the name Construction BOOM! and suggested the idea of having a limit of ground tiles to be in play at the same time to take into account Malta's scarce availability of land for construction, and

• Jasper Schellekens, who was first my most skilled adversary, then became a co-designer on the game who inspired the rules for ambiguous buildings.

The Prototype

At that early stage in development, this is what one of our prototypes looked like:

From gallery of illegal_alien

I originally intended the game as a paradoxical, humorous take on Malta's crowded, heterogeneous, and apparently unfettered constructions. It was supposed to be a playable satire of its real-estate business that seems unregulated and uniquely focused on revenue. With that purpose in mind, and starting from early prototypes, our game begun to generate puzzling game situations in which it was obvious that:

From gallery of W Eric Martin
• architectural consistency,
• the preservation of historical buildings, and
• the safety and sturdiness of the buildings

played a secondary role, if any.

The topic of collapsing buildings is particularly sensitive in Malta as a consequence of the frequent building collapses (and buildings collapsing on other buildings). In case readers are interested, we discussed the aspects of our game regarding building collapses in an academic paper (presented at FDG2020) in which many more aspects of playable satire are discussed in detail. The paper can be found here (PDF).

After an initial phase of game design meant to reinforce aspects of both gameplay (i.e., making play sessions short and strategically meaningful) and theme, the game started to become more stable and enjoyable for us. Matches were easier to predict, and the bidding aspects of the game were becoming more interesting and competitive: Is it better to let my opponents pick up an easy real-estate contract, or shall I outbid them with the almost complete certainty it would be an impossible building task to fulfill?

At that point, with a better game in our hands and a few advanced strategies already discovered, we started to engage players that were external to our research group. As expected, a larger player group trying their luck with Construction BOOM! also meant that we became aware of new problems with both the rules (which were often too long and tedious to read) and the game itself. This phase also marked the introduction of a new strategy in the game (roof crushing), as well as the beginning of the production of the first batch of art assets for the game. For those, we decided to hire a Maltese artist: the great Rebecca Portelli (personal site). I worked in close collaboration with Rebecca, and I honestly could not have been happier with the results.

Board Game: Construction BOOM!

Development

Construction BOOM! was a side project of ours, and its development lasted about one-and-a-half years. The final months of work on the game were mostly concerned with playtesting and with solving balancing issues. The designers among you might guess that balancing must have been quite a laborious process; we needed to make each of the three suits (i.e., types of building technologies) viable against (and vulnerable to) any other suit. Each building technology has different numbers of tiles and roofs and is characterized by unique qualities and quirks. It is intuitive to see that those details complicated the process of evaluating the respective advantages and disadvantages of each suit.

Additional work done in the last phases of development also focused on the readability of the tiles' information: their material type, their weight, and their sturdiness. Upon advice from friends and colleagues, the rulebook was also further simplified and reduced in the same period.

Ground Rules: Keep It Simple

The game was fairly simple and intuitive for us developers, but it turned out we were implicitly playing under established behaviors and implicit agreements that made sense, both in terms of gameplay and theme — behaviors and agreements that also burdened the game unnecessarily. Emerging from this realization was probably the biggest change we made; where previously each tile could collapse (with these collapses following their own set of rules), we made it so that only ground tiles could collapse. Out of everything we did, this change had the least impact on the game design, but the most on understanding and simplicity.

Another consideration that emerged from playtesting extensively with people outside of the development group and our friends group was that since cards are open, there is little luck involved in playing the game aside from the hands dealt to players at the beginning of each round. This means that experienced or skilled players have a distinct advantage over new players.

In order to mitigate this common hurdle to enjoying multiplayer games, we experimented with leaving a certain number of cards hidden (as in Texas Hold 'em poker). While this did allow for less experienced players to compete off the bat with a bit of luck, it also added a layer of complexity and we felt that we liked that feeling of control. We valued that feeling of when a player realizes, a few turns in, that they should have placed a roof elsewhere because the opponent found an unexpectedly creative way to use their construction tiles.

Print and Play Launch

After a gestation period of about a year and a half, the game launched online in a print-and-play version available for free. It was released on May 28, 2020, and started to receive attention from local (i.e. Maltese) media outlets with regard to its political message. Ironically, the article just above that coverage of Construction BOOM! was about the extension of an old building with a modern addition in Valletta, which fit with the ridiculous and spontaneous aesthetic the game seeks to mock.

In the months preceding the game, there was unfortunately a string of collapses and construction-related incidents, highlighting the absurd disregard for safety we tried to highlight in the game.

From gallery of illegal_alien

The Future

We're currently working on completing the retail version of the game with the help of Greek illustrator Aristotelis Falegos, who has freshly re-illustrated our rulebook and produced a very pretty boardgame box design.

From gallery of illegal_alien

We'd love to make the game available in a way that players can readily play it without the hassle of print and play, so we're going to get a prototype out to explore costs and options. Our focus had been on designing a game that was challenging and fun and that stimulated the conversation around the reckless construction practices we witnessed.

Satire in Games

When designing the game, we were very conscious of the thematic consistency and the need to communicate a message of satire that lined up with our view of the industry and the aspects we were looking to shine a light on and criticize. If you want a detailed analysis, there is the academic paper mentioned before, but we thought it could be interesting to point out a few key issues.

The more the goals, the aesthetics, and the rules of a game fall into a consistent, harmonious whole — that is, a common context further enriched by narrative aspects — the more efficiently the game will communicate its message. That being said, we were also interested in making a game that people would play and therefore the design also needed to be engaging. How much do you, as a designer, sacrifice from "fun" or "entertainment" to communicate a consistent message? We tried not to make the sacrifice which raises another question. When a game is "fun" and players are entertained, how much of the message will they actually come away with?

We hope you enjoy the game, but we also hope you're engaged enough by the message to consider how the construction industry and more broadly corporate and private irresponsibility is impacting your community and our individual, daily lives.

Stefano Gualeni, lead designer, and Jasper Schellekens, assistant designer
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