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Designer Diary: Creating Rokoko, or How About a Threesome?

Stefan Malz
Germany
Vechelde
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{We want to give you some insight into the long development of Rokoko by means of an imaginary interview performed by the gorgeous lady on the Rokoko cover, Mademoiselle Juliette.}

Juliette: How did the three of you end up designing Rokoko together?

Stefan Malz: It all started in March 2010. I just happened to get to know Matthias half a year earlier at the Essen fair after which we mailed and phoned from time to time, seeking each other's advice on current projects. In March, Matthias mailed me asking if I knew somebody who'd be interested in designing a game based on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with him. I knew the books and always wanted to broaden my horizon, so I agreed to go along.

Juliette: But this project obviously didn't come to fruition, did it?

Matthias Cramer: No, it didn't even start. The theme was on a publisher's list, but they had problems with the rights' proprietor. But I was still interested in the cooperation and asked Stefan if he and Louis had another idea for a project to begin with.

Louis Malz: And we did. My father and I had just started thinking about a game placed in St. James's Street in London where many of those famous shoemakers are located. Something strategic with craftsmanship, differently qualified employees, resources, and fine hand-made products.


Early "St. James's Street" prototype with wooden employees

Juliette: So this shoemaking game was the predecessor of Rokoko?

Stefan: Yes, but not directly. We first worked on "St. James's Street" for about two months, only to find that something was missing. It was a good game, and many playtesters liked it, but sometimes good isn't good enough.

Matthias: I was playing around with different variations of the deck-building mechanism at that time – but without making another Dominion copy. Deck-building became the engine and replaced the worker placement part of the game. In the first concepts of this design phase, we also broke two core rules that most other deck-building games have: We let the players pick their cards instead of drawing them, and new cards go to the hand instead of the discard pile. At the same time, we also changed the theme for the first time. Players now became morticians in Paris, producing coffins and gaining points for funerals at the famous Pére Lachaise. If you got a grave next to Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf or Marcel Proust, you scored additional points.

Stefan: Our playtesters liked the new game a lot, especially the sick humor within, but the new morbid theme was problematic for all publishers we showed the game. Having deceased ones and their bereaved as customers was obviously not appropriate for a family game. Too bad...


"Die letzte Ruhe" ("The Final Rest") cemetery board prototype

Matthias: At that time, we both were lost in other projects. Lancaster and Helvetia were about to be published and took a lot of my time. Louis and Stefan were working heavily on Edo. So "Die letzte Ruhe" was taking a rest itself for nearly two years.

Juliette: How come you gave it another go after such a long break period?

Stefan: During the break, I had the chance to show the prototype to an editor who took some time to think about our thematic problem, and he came up with the "Rokoko" idea. So in May 2012, after our own game Edo was finally published, I told Matthias that we decided to pick up the prototype again and try the new theme.

Louis: Only a few weeks later, we first presented it to Peter Eggert and Viktor Schulz from eggertspiele at one of their game designer meetings in Hamburg and they immediately showed an interest in the game.


Early "Rokoko" prototype

Matthias: In July, I took the game to the "Gathering of Friends" on Majorca. This is an event where publishers, editors, bloggers, and game designers spend a week together and test prototypes all day. We had a lot of sessions with very experienced players and made a lot of changes afterwards. The game was too long, so we capped the last two rounds, shortening the game from nine rounds to seven. We also introduced the bonuses for certain fields in the ballrooms. The card functions were changed many times during the last twelve months – I think it would be possible to fill a separate designer diary just with the different versions of cards and bonus distributions during the different stages of Rokoko.

Juliette: So it was already decided back then that Rokoko would be published by eggertspiele?

Louis: No, not yet. We had to wait until September for eggertspiele to finally agree to publish Rokoko, time that we used to improve the game further. We then all met at Spiel 2012 in Essen and discussed the agreement details. And we were already told that the plan was for Michael Menzel to become the game's illustrator. Now the whole development took up speed.


Nearly final employee card prototypes

Stefan: We started with an extensive testing phase, having three prototypes to play with. I once read an interview with Klemens Franz, the Austrian illustrator, who said that he always sets up a separate online forum for each of his projects to facilitate the communication between authors, publishers, and illustrators, so I did the same, setting up an online forum on our server. This helped a lot as we could log all playtests there, discuss upcoming problems, and store ideas for future use. In December, we had a first meeting with Michael Menzel at the publisher, explaining the game to him and discussing first graphical ideas.


Genuine play situation during final testing phase

Juliette: What was working in such a huge team like? With three authors, editors from the publisher, and the illustrator – did you ever agree on something?

Matthias: Coordination was not always easy as Louis and Stefan live more than 200 miles away from me. We were working with different testing groups and those delivered different results sometimes.

Louis: The fact that we had three separate testing groups resulted in many discussions that were based solely on unilateral experiences. Every one of us had different personal experiences with the game and regarded other aspects as important.

Matthias: We started using the online forum for our internal discussions. The disadvantage of such a process is that you have to fight for certain details — but by having to fight, you learn a lot about your own game and your motives, turning this into a huge advantage. We went very deep into detail for some questions, for example: How much money should be in the game, how is it earned and how is it spent? A complex game provides a lot of possibilities for modification and a lot of those led into directions that we didn't intend.

Stefan: It helped that I have long term experience in consulting, trying to find out what the customers really want and finding a solution that often incorporates the ideas of all participants while still being something completely new. In retrospect, all aspects of the game were teamwork in one way or another, combining partial ideas of all of us.


Final "Rokoko" cover by Michael Menzel

Juliette: Rokoko has been developed for three-and-a-half years now. If you compare the initial idea of St. James Street with the final game, do you still recognize the original ideas?

Stefan: Many basic ideas are still the same, as are many mechanical elements such as the market and workshop mechanisms. But in total, I'd say that we now have a completely new game. It's easier to explain and faster to play, and it has even greater variety and strategic depth.

Matthias: St. James's Street died before we started the balancing, so it's hard to compare both games. Rokoko started to live after a certain development stage of the cards and the decorations. There were several main strategies intended and examined from the beginning, but every game designer's dream is to discover other ways of playing aside from those strategies during playtesting. As we continued testing, more and more of the main strategies disappeared, making place for a larger variety of aspects. Playing Rokoko successfully means combining some of these aspects while ignoring others, so the three-and-a-half years spent with shoes, coffins, and dresses proved to be well-invested.

Juliette: Thank you for this interview. I hope that all the effort you invested in your game will be rewarded! And by the way, while you're here, I was thinking about a new dress. Something very special! Maybe you could...?
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