The Solo Interviews: Celebrating the 2021 Solitaire Print and Play Contest

Welcome to the Solo Interviews, providing a platform for the designers, artists, YouTubers, and creatives of BGG’s 2021 Solitaire Print and Play Contest. We’ll dive into their gaming interests, their new games, and lessons learnt from designing games.
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Interview with Ronan Stafford, designer of Audrey vs the Poisoned Dreams

Today’s interview is with Ronan Stafford, whose entry Audrey vs the Poisoned Dreams sees you take on the role of the guardian on a dream forest, which is being overrun by a poison turning dreams into nightmares. Enjoy the interview, and please head over to their WIP thread to check out the game and show them some love.

In the interests of full transparency – the designer of this game and author of the blog are the same person. And talking about yourself in the third person is definitely weird…

This is the last interview for the 2021 Solitaire PNP Contest - 39 interviews running over 33,000 words! I hope you've all found these interviews interesting and inspiring you to try new games. It has been a blast reading about everyone's gaming histories, game suggestions and the stories behind the development of their games. Best of luck to all the contestants, both for the contest itself and future evolutions of their games.

Could you talk about your gaming history? How did you get into board games?
As kids we had educational games (Travel the World and Explore! being ones I remember). Then a lot of Articulate! at university. Eventually I had a house mate who played board games and I went to a board games evening with him, where I discovered Euro games. Agricola is the one that got me hooked! Which is a strange one given how complicated the game is, but I loved the theme and how deep the decision making was.

I’ve since then been lucky to have a circle of close friends who are as much into boardgaming as I am, and with a variety of tastes. We also happen to have two board game cafes within easy reach. So this has helped expose me to lots of games with different themes, mechanics and play styles, which has really broadened by horizons!

A friend who's never played board games before asks you for advice on what to play. What starter games do you suggest to help them love the hobby?
My criteria are any game that involves players on every turn (so you’re never just sat disengaged from the game), are easy to learn (5 minutes to explain the rules, everything clearly spelled out from the start) and are visually beautiful. Of the games I’ve played, Dixit, Sushi Go and Tsuro are perfect.

I’d then transition players on to my three current favourite games: Azul, Parks, and Wingspan. They’re all beautiful works of art, combining fun mechanics with deep gameplay.

At this stage I'd maybe also introduce some Co-op games like Pandemic and Castle Panic - though I think these games very much depend on who's playing and being very careful that experienced players don't quarterback the whole game.

How did you start designing games?
Shut Up and Sit Down were the ones that got me into solitaire games, when they did a special series on solo PNP games in 2020. After watching their videos, I went diving into the BGG Solitaire Contest archives, and found so many interesting and beautifully crafted games.

This coincided with COVID lockdowns where I live. One day I was just doodling in a notepad about the probabilities of cards appearing on a bell curve (e.g. low probability of high value cards, high probability of low value cards) – not the most exciting of tasks, but it was keeping my mind entertained. Eventually I turned this into a prototype game, which over time and with the help of feedback from friends evolved (a lot) into my first design, REMember, which I entered into the 2020 BGG Solitaire PNP Contest.

Tell us about your game: why should we play it? What makes it interesting?
You play as Audrey the tapir, the guardian of a Dream Forest where poison is starting to appear, which turns dreams into nightmares. You move around the map, investigating the dream trees, which often triggers nightmare encounters. You have allies who help you move around the map and combat nightmares. Over the course of multiple chapters you pick up clues which eventually reveal the Poisoner, who you fight in the final chapter for ultimate control over the Dream Forest.

I’ve tried to design a game with lots of storytelling – there’s six chapters, each with introductions and conclusions, legacy elements to the game which evolve gameplay alongside the story, and interludes which are a mini-roleplaying game, where you enter the dream of a character of your creation and make choices based on the cards you’ve played in the previous chapter.

So while there’s a lot going on (Dungeon/map crawling! Combat! Legacy! Role-playing!), it’s all tied together by a single story which you’re partly creating as you play. And mechanics wise all the key decisions are made using a hand of cards from a standard 52 card deck, which I feel enables the game to have plenty of choice while keeping the mechanics easy to learn and quick to build.

Pick a theme or mechanic that's crucial to your game. What made you want to design a game with this in it?
The legacy elements of the game have been fun to design, from tiles you glue on to the map to cards with elements you cross out to enable new abilities, for both your allies and your enemies.

I’m surprised legacy elements aren’t more common in free PNP games. It’s a fun way of keeping your players engaged with your game, encouraging multiple plays by appealing to their creative side, and making each play through unique for a particular player – by the end of Chapter 6, you will have a unique map which is different to any other players.

I also know people who struggle with the legacy elements of expensive boardgames – it feels strange to spend so much money on something you’re going to draw on or tear up, when we spend so much time and effort keeping board games pristine through things like card sleeves. But this barrier isn’t there for PNP, as printing is relatively cheap (compared to the cost of a high end board game).

What have you found most challenging when designing this game?
Story telling has been the main challenge. Whilst it’s been difficult to get some of the game mechanics right, the story is my selling point for this game and end goal for what I wanted to accomplish.

This challenge has come in two parts. First there’s the progression of the narrative itself – you want to keep pushing the story forward in interesting ways, providing a hook at the end of each chapter and interlude to encourage players to keep on playing. But there’s also instances where I wrote myself into a corner and struggled to find a satisfying conclusion to what I’d built up.

This challenge of keeping the story interesting also applies to the mechanics of the game. Each chapter introduces new mechanics, new maps, and new challenges to overcome, which all need to feel fresh, interesting, and in step with the story itself. So you have the constant need to one-up the previous chapter with something different and fun, but without adding “bad” complexity into the game.

Hopefully I’ve succeeded in getting both these elements to come together into a gaming story that builds tension over time and then comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Other than your own, which game in this year’s contest is most interesting to you, and why?
For me, this contest has had some great “small size” games, with few (often 18) cards and minimal components. Tacmento has been an early favourite of mine and is a great example of a game that had some great building blocks at the beginning and has evolved into an amazing project. I love Wine Cellar for packing a lot of fun into so few cards and easy to learn mechanics. And I think the story of The Rent and how it’s been applied into a game is tremendous. Finally, I love the puzzle that Storks provides. All these games showcase an amazing amount of creativity packed into small packages that are incredibly easy to print, set-up and play.

Ask a question for another designer of your choice in this contest. We'll try to get that designer to reply in the comments

No question – just a very BIG thank you to everyone who’s taken part in the blog through interviews and comments, and everyone in the contest as a whole for making this such an enjoyable, record-breaking year!

Editor's note: to hear more from Ronan, head over to AD's Board Games channel on YouTube, where Ronan talked extensively about his experience of designing Audrey vs the Poisoned Dreams, the importance of rulebooks, and designing games themed around dreams.

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