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Interview: Morten Monrad Pedersen on Solo Gaming

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move on December 1, 2020. —WEM]

Automa Factory founder and lead designer Morten Monrad Pedersen joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his take on solo game design.

DM: Thanks for joining us today, Morten. You are the founder of Automa Factory, a design company specializing in single-player versions of multiplayer games. Creating solo modes for other designers' games is an extremely specific niche. Can you tell us your design background and the story of how you discovered this niche?

MMP: It is indeed an extremely specific niche, and if you had asked me some years whether one could make a living making artificial opponents for board games, I would have thought you crazy.

My journey started when my son was born and many of my friends were also starting to get kids. Suddenly we found ourselves very limited in how often we could find time to sit down together and play games.

I knew that solo board gaming existed, but it had always seemed a bit weird to me. I mean, why not just play a video game? I found out, though, that for me video games didn't scratch the itch I wanted scratched, so I gave solo board games a shot while expecting them to miss their mark. After trying Lord of the Rings LCG and Dawn of the Zeds, I was sold. They had given me some of my best board gaming experiences ever.

After playing solo games for a while, I started a blog about solo games and participated in a print-and-play solo game design contest.

In parallel with this, I got to know Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games by random chance because my family and I came home from a vacation where we had visited a vineyard in Tuscany just as Jamey started a Kickstarter for a game about running a vineyard in Tuscany. The sheer coincidence of that made me check out the game, and I ended up chatting with Jamey and giving him input.

During the development of the Tuscany expansion for Viticulture, some playtesters requested a solo mode for the game and not being a solo gamer himself he turned to me. The Viticulture solo mode became a success, and from then on Jamey started asking my team and I to make solo modes for all his games either in the core box or via expansions.

We've also started working for other publishers: Feuerland (Gaia Project and Terra Mystica), Funtails (Glen More II), Van Ryder Games (Hostage Negotiator: Circle of Automa), and a promo solo mode for Lookout Games (Patchwork).

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Viticulture

DM: Which solitaire games, whether specific designs or multi-player variants, inspired your own design career and why?

MMP: As mentioned, I participated in a print-and-play solo games design contest. One of the games in that contest was a game called Maquis that had a worker placement system in which enemy workers were placed via cards draws. That system inspired the worker placement system of the artificial opponent in Viticulture, which is also a worker placement game.

On a tangential note, Maquis has gone beyond its print-and-play roots and was published by Side Room Games a couple of years ago. I recommend checking it out.

The bot in Anachrony and other bots by Dávid Turczi have also inspired me without me actually knowing the rules. That may sound weird, but I've heard other people talk about them. One feature that has been mentioned repeatedly is that his bots work in ways that give players some insight into what they might do, just like you can guess at what a human opponent might do.

That's a feature that wasn't present in our first Automa. We've worked on replicating it in later Automas, but I'd like to go further than we have. It's a tough balance to strike, though, because too much predictability will make the game boring.

Other than that, I can't come up with other games or variants that have inspired my own ideas in ways that I've noticed directly, but I'm sure that I've been inspired subconsciously and my team has been very influential in our work.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Scythe

DM: Did you ever consider creating Automa-based original designs rather than adaptations?

MMP: I'm working on a few full games of my own, but until I got one signed with a publisher a few months ago they took backseat to my solo mode work because that's what pays the bills and the deadlines are usually tight.

Jamey Stegmaier has had a major impact on the design of the games I'm working on, and for one of them my favorite solo game designer, Shadi Torbey, has been a huge inspiration.

The games I'm working on myself tend to be designed with solo play from the ground up, so there's no need for an Automa to take the place of a human player. The type of decks could, of course, be used for other things, but so far, I haven't done so. After having worked with such decks in more than 25 games and expansions, it's nice to do something different.

DM: Can you describe your process for designing an Automa? What is the decision process for keeping, amending, or discarding part of the original game?

MMP: My process is guided by six design principles for making solo modes:

1. Use an artificial player (Automa) that takes the place of a human player.
2. The human who plays the game must do so by the same rules as in the multiplayer game.
3. The player must face the same decisions as in multiplayer.
4. The important player interactions must be simulated. This includes keeping the win/lose criteria.
5. The player must not make decisions on behalf of the Automa except in rare cases where it makes sense because of a co-operative element or for thematic reasons.
6. The Automa rules must be as streamlined as possible while achieving the above.

When I start work, the first item on the agenda is to identify the core player interactions in the game. Next is figuring out how to simulate another player's impact on those interactions in a way that stays true to the game (principles 2-4).

Then the goal becomes streamlining and homogenizing the interaction simulation rules while working to remove everything from the Automa that isn't strictly needed. An example of this is the player mat in Scythe, which doesn't directly impact other players, so the Scythe Automa doesn't have one (principle 6).

The actual process is, of course, not as clearly defined in steps like I describe, and the process goes in circles with entire subsystems being tossed out and replaced several times during the process.

To ensure the quality of the solo mode, we have external playtesters who put our work through its paces with the average numbers of tests by them probably being a few hundred. That number varies a lot with the game; we've just passed 700 in an ongoing project, and we've probably done 500 on top of that ourselves.

The playtesters are also instrumental in the decision process for what should be tweaked and what should be tossed out. For our Euphoria expansion, Ignorance is Bliss, we more or less scrapped everything we had made and started over seven times because the playtester feedback wasn't good enough.

On a smaller scale, playtester feedback is also instrumental in identifying parts of the rules that are either explained badly or easily trip up players. We work to smooth out such rough edges or remove the offending mechanisms.

Of course, we also work to find rough edges ourselves, and I sometimes spend days working to reduce five rules to four that in effect do the same and can be explained clearer with fewer words.

As to discarding parts of the original game, that's something we rarely do from the point of view of human players. We want to the whole game to be there for them (principles 2-4). Sometimes we add to the game, though, and in Tapestry: Plans & Ploys we made a five-scenario campaign that's only playable solo.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Tapestry (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: How has the design process developed over the years? Can each new Automa design be considered both an iteration on previous Automas and an adaptation of the multiplayer game it is designed for?

MMP: We always try to stay as true to the multiplayer game as possible. We're guests in the designer's house, and it's not our place to redecorate their house, so we always adapt our solo mode to the multiplayer game. (See design principles 1-4 in my list above.)

We also try to use our experience from previous Automas to improve new ones, so it's both iteration and adaption. An example is that in our first Automa (Viticulture) there was no progression in what the Automa does over the course of the game. In Scythe, we made a two-stage Automa that partway through the game modified its personality to fit the endgame. The next step was Gaia Project, where the Automa has a gradually evolving strategy.

Euphoria could be seen as the most current iteration of that idea because its deck is evolving in a manner that's more tightly controlled to reflect the progression of the multiplayer game. Similarly, we've had an evolution in the action selection system that can be seen from Viticulture to Between Two Cities to Scythe to Gaia Project.

DM: At what point in the multiplayer game's development do you begin work, and how much do last-minute changes to the multiplayer affect your design?

MMP: When the game is still in development but no longer undergoing major changes, we get prototype files from the publisher. Based on this, we make a rough framework for the Automa. As the game's development progresses and the rate of change goes down, we turn the framework into a fully functional prototype and invite the first few external playtesters.

Once the game is almost done, we gradually ramp into full scale external playtesting and aim to deliver our files when the publisher's graphics designer is done with the core game's files.

The impact of changes to the multiplayer game can vary a lot, but since we try to mimic the multiplayer game our systems are sensitive to game changes. During the development of Between Two Cities, the scoring system was unexpectedly changed significantly and since that Automa was heavily dependent on the scoring system, we had to redo a lot of work.

The worst case has been Viticulture Essential Edition where changes in which expansion modules were to be included meant that we had to remake a nine-scenario campaign twice after we were done making the first version.

As it happens, I spent every waking hour last weekend scrambling to figure out how well a solo mode we were working on could handle a last-minute change from the publisher. Luckily it worked out well.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Wingspan Automa by designer David J Studley

DM: Some of the games you/the team have worked are asymmetric, have legacy elements, or are widely considered to be "complex" games. What has been the most challenging game to adapt and why? Has there been a design you started but had to admit defeat on?

MMP: Asymmetry hasn't been as much of a problem as one might have suspected because we try to insulate the Automa from such mechanisms from the beginning of its development.

That said there have been cases where it has caused us trouble. In Tapestry, for example, some of the game's sixteen asymmetric factions have mechanisms that would require us to add significant complexity to the Automa to support one aspect of one faction out of sixteen, so we chose to simply remove those factions. This left twelve different factions for the player to use and three more that could be used if the player is okay with the game being less balanced.

We also have the advantage that it doesn't matter as much that all factions are equally powerful in solo as it does in multiplayer. In solo it just works as slightly different difficulty levels while in multiplayer it can feel unfair and frustrating. That's not to say that we don't care about balance; we playtest a ton to get the balance right, but a bit of variation between factions is okay in my opinion.

The legacy aspect of Charterstone was definitely challenging because we had to make an Automa system that could deal with a wealth of different rulesets and game configurations. This was made worse by the fact that we wanted the Automa to be useful for non-solo gamers who're normally not willing to run artificial opponents. That meant that we had to make it very streamlined.

The greatest challenge for a solo mode has probably been the free form board movement in Scythe, both because it is hard to make a simple cardboard bot handle that and because we weren't very experienced back then. That one took a ton of work, but its reception by players made all the work worth it.

We've never given up and not delivered a solo mode. The closest we've come is for a game I unfortunately am not allowed to talk about yet. For that one, we midway into the project tossed out all our work and started over from scratch because a significant fraction of the playtesters didn't like what we had made well enough. This is not counting Euphoria: Ignorance is Bliss, where we had seven restarts, but those were unrelated to the solo mode.

We also have two solo modes in development where we quickly realized that Automas weren't the right way to go, which is a first for us.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Charterstone (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM:: What games are on your "bucket list" of games that you would love to create an Automa for and why?

MMP: While I haven't tried Keyforge, it sounds really interesting, so I'd like to try my hand at that. A somewhat related game is Warhammer: Invasion, which I love but which doesn't have an official solo mode. My usual approach to solo modes very likely wouldn't work, though.

Next, and I hope this doesn't come off as offensive, there are several of Uwe Rosenberg's games, such as Agricola and Nusfjord, for which I'd like to make Automas. Contrary to Keyforge and Warhammer: Invasion, most of Uwe Rosenberg's games are ideal Automa material. Those games already have solo modes, but they're of the "beat your own high score" type. I much prefer artificial opponents that carry the game's experience over into solo.

This is not said to offend Uwe Rosenberg. I stand in awe of him; he's in my opinion one of the greatest game designers of all time, and I have three of his games in my top 10 solo games, so it's not me saying that I know better than Uwe Rosenberg or that I'm a better solo mode designer. Instead I'm simply saying that my taste in solo modes differs from his.

DM: What can we expect from Automa Factory in the future?

MMP: We have solo modes coming out for Terra Mystica, Glen More II: Chronicles, and Between Two Castles. Additionally, we have four Automa projects in various stages of development that I'm unfortunately not allowed to talk about.

Outside of our solo mode work, I've got a game, ForeShadow, that I have designed from the bottom up signed by a publisher. There's still a lot of work on it, so don't expect to see it anytime soon.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

DM: Looking back, is there anything that you wish you had known at the start and would this have affected your game design career?

MMP: It would, of course, have been an advantage to have my design principles as well developed as they are today, as would knowing what I've learned about game design in general. There's no one specific thing that stands out to me, and I have enjoyed the journey and wouldn't want to have missed it by starting with all the knowledge and experience I have now.

Careerwise, I brought a lot of relevant experience with me after a fifteen-year career being a programmer, supporter, team leader, and project manager. All of that has been a great help to me.

What I would really have liked to have known from the beginning is how to control my workload, but I still haven't learned how to do that...

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Tapestry (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: Do you have any advice to share with aspiring games designers?

MMP: The first thing you should do is ask what your goal is? Do you want to have fun and feel the creative rush? In that case, don't aspire to get published but start projects, stay with them until they're no longer fun, then move on to the next. This will give you the awesome creative rush again and again without all the boring work.

If you want to get published, you must give up on the idea that game design is all fun and rainbow unicorns. Those are there, but most of it is work.

Neither of the two paths is right or wrong; they're simply different. If you decide to go for publication, then the most important thing I have to say is: Tenacity and hard work beat talent every day of the week. You don't need to be the most talented game designer in the world to make a great game, and even if you are, you won't get anywhere without tenacity and hard work.

Keep at it when the project becomes boring work. Stay at home to work when your friends go to the beach. Get back up after each of the failures you'll inevitably have. Analyze those failures. Read/watch/listen to everything you can about game design. Analyze games you love and games you dislike to understand what makes them tick, what makes you like them, and what doesn't.

•••

Morten's general blog can be found here. Further insights into the "Automa Approach" can be found here.
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