You have certainly read many designer diaries. As the publisher of Colt Express, we were tempted to follow the same exercise but from a different point of view. We would like to share with you what is our job, our passion.
Our job consists every day of finding new games and new ideas. Designers send us many emails detailing their projects, and we can meet them directly at the different game conventions. Over time, we've come to count some of them among our friends. That's the case with Christophe Raimbault, who we first met in 2009 at a French convention. Cedric Lefebvre (my husband and co-founder of Ludonaute) and Christophe tried many times to design games together via regular Skype sessions. They especially worked on different prototypes based on time travel, but it never resulted in anything really exciting.
The Beginning: August 2013
Christophe was writing a report on "game mechanisms in real time" at university and asked us to read it over. An excerpt:
I always try to design games as immersive as possible for the players. In current games, most of the time, the turn-based mechanisms generate a time-out each turn. Players waiting for their next turn are in a "pause" state, almost out of the game.
In the next Skype session with Christophe, he described a prototype he had imagined a few years ago with his brother: "West Pirates". He was working on it again to test a real-time mechanism for his report at university. We were interested by the idea and immediately asked him to send it to us.
We were really excited from the first test of the game: It already looked like a western movie! As we played, we could see the movie scenes taking place right there, on top of the table. All sorts of players can play "West Pirates": hardcore gamers, casual ones, our children, our family — everyone is excited about it.
Of course, the game was far from being ready; there was a lot of work to do. To be honest, if we hadn't known Christophe for long, we would have returned the prototype to him saying that it's a really good idea but there were many improvements to make — but we knew that we could trust Christophe, and the idea of finally working together on a real project was thrilling.
At the beginning, the game was quite different from today:
• It wasn't turn-based and players would play their action cards on the center pile as quickly as possible.
• The carriages were actionable and could be disconnected.
This version was fun but really chaotic. Despite this strong idea of a real-time based game, we suggested changing it into a turn-based game, and the first tests were really encouraging: The game was now more fluid and less chaotic.
At this point of the development, the train was represented by carriage cards lined in a row on the table. An outlaw was placed on the card if he was in the carriage and next to it if he was on top of it. A player could perform many more different actions than today: disconnecting carriages, jumping, performing a super action...
In November 2013, Christophe and Cedric met again at a French game convention next to Montpellier where they tested "West Pirates" together. Then, Christophe went home for two days, while the Ludonaute team continued, as always, to work in the dining room. We played many times and we had many ideas for improvement. It was a big step for the game. We signed right there a contract to officially become the publishers of "West Pirates".
Controlling the game was our first goal:
• What is the best way to draw cards?
• Can we choose them?
• How many cards should make up a hand?
• How many rounds should the game last?
• What sort of events should take place?
• How do we penalize wounded players?
From November 2013 to February 2014, we worked on all of these questions through Skype sessions with Christophe once a week. We played again and again...
What Type of Box?
We had now to choose in which form the game would be sold to shops. We were targeting casual and family gamers, but not only children. We had to get our game to be not too expensive and with an attractive design.
Christophe is a massive fan of card games and we considered publishing the game in a small box like our The Little Prince: make me a planet. It would contain only cards and a few pawns and would cost around $25.
The next step consisted in asking for prices from manufacturers. We discussed this with Whatz Games, our usual partner in China, and while this simple box with cards and pawns was doable for our target price, we didn't want to stop there; we wanted more. We fancied original material that would help the game immersion.
We immediately thought about plastic figurines, whether colored or pre-painted. We had never worked on this before and we had to learn everything: plastic types, molds, and so on.
Finally, we had to decide how big our first printing would be, which would lead to the unit price of our figurines. We had to speak with different partners, send prototypes, and obtain their agreement...
A New Member for the Team
Another crucial choice for the game was the illustrator. While Christophe looked for illustrations on the Internet to design a fine prototype, he found the blog of a storyboarder working in animation named Jordi Valbuena. We fell immediately under the charm of his "cartoon" style, colored but not childish. His drawings and sketches, visible throughout his blog, were full of movement and dynamism.
That was exactly what we were looking for: drawings that could bring a western world into life and touch as wide a public as possible.
First sketch of the "Climb" action
We contacted Jordi in December 2013. We were lucky because he lived in Marseille, only thirty minutes from us, so we invited him to come discuss and play at home.
We discovered an enthusiastic, inquisitive, and very professional man. It was his first time working in the world of board games. He played and discovered the technical constraints of the material. The illustration work started immediately by the definition of the characters. We needed six distinct characters, each of them showing a different aspect of the far west. There was the result of our discussions:
• A lonely bandit inspired from Lee van Cleef
• A charming and rebel women like Jodie Foster in Maverick
• A dandy like Christopher Waltz in Django Unchained
• An Indian girl
• A muscular giant
In January 2014, we spent two days with Christophe in Paris. We noticed that there were too many things in the game. From the beginning of the project, we had added all the ideas we had into the game without strong selection. Finally there were many rules and complicated interactions that were not good for a first discovery of the game.
We decided to clean up the game and remove all that could disturb new players, but we kept all these ideas in mind for possible expansions. For the basic game, we removed, for instance, scenarios, hostages, objects, and special carriages. We stuck to the original exciting feeling we had on the first tests: The movement. This simplification is a systematic step in our game developments. It allows us to focus again on the heart of the game and what is really original in it. We wrote the first rules, which was an important test to check whether the game was really as accessible as we thought.
The Naming Nightmare
We had been playing "West Pirates" for four months almost every day, but we didn't have a commercial title yet. Each game goes through the same difficulty: We need to find an international title that's easy to remember while perfectly describing the game — a real challenge, believe me.
We had a list of possible titles, but we couldn't decide. As the modern people we are, we called the Facebook community to help with a little survey:
The game finally has a title! Please, ladies and gentleman, cheerfully welcome Colt Express!
But this is not the end of the story. Yes, the first step of work on the game was now over: We had a game with great and simple rules. Moreover, this game had a name — Colt Express — and the first illustrations from Jordi were really exciting. But something happened — something great and important — that entailed long months of work...
The exhibition of our game The Little Prince took place in Lyon in February 2014. That same night, we played Colt Express with Little Prince designers Bruno Cathala and Antoine Bauza.
The prototype played that game night
We asked them their feeling about Colt Express. Was it a good idea to put miniatures in the box? Both thought the same way: "The heart of the game is the train, not the characters. You have to enhance the train, and if the bandits have to go on the roof, let's build a roof!" It seemed so obvious that it was the right thing to do for the game. Of course, there would be a lot of technical problems to solve soon...
Bruno Cathala thought as well that the game turns were too repetitive. A few weeks later, Christophe came up with a solution: round cards that introduced new way of programming and events.
Throughout February 2014, we worked on the concept of the 3D train. Cedric tried to find a shape that was easy to build and fun to play.
Different prototypes in paper and wood
We tried different solutions: wood train, painted train, plastic train, cardboard train... In each case, the choice of a 3D train would really increase the price of the game. We were leaving our initial target price; was that really a good idea? We guessed that players would buy a game with a low price or with original material (but both are quite conflicting).
We asked Dominique Breton, a friend of ours, to build us a train with a 3D printer. A big thanks to him!
The locomotive and a carriage built by Dominique
The Cannes Festival was a great opportunity to show the 3D train to the public. We wanted to learn the feelings of and get advice from the players. It was the crash test. At the same event, we talked to our American, German and Italian distributors. Ludo Fact, a German manufacturer, was really excited about the project and promised to offer interesting prices.
Christophe takes feedback from players
The feedback was unanimous: Colt Express is "the train game". The 3D train was essential.
In March 2014 we decided that Colt Express wouldn't get plastic miniatures but a 3D train instead. We had to find a manufacturer that could accept the challenge — and with a fine price. Cedric worked many days on board sketches...
First sketches and first prototype
There were many constraints:
• The train had to be solid, and the different pieces had to stick together. The conception was complicated, and we had to think through everything: punched board sketches, cutting margins...
Too wide snicks and the carriage is wobbly; too thin snicks and the train is really hard to build.
• The carriages had to be wide enough to receive meeples and loot, but not too wide because we wanted a normal box size. Indeed, the assembled carriages must fit into the box.
• The assembling had to be simple and easy. One of our prototypes revealed that the last piece was physically impossible to assemble with the carriage. You can imagine the great number of cardboard cuttings we had to do to achieve the expected outcome.
• The cardboard quality had to be impeccable, and not too thick to avoid the deformation when cutting small pieces.
Deformation caused by cutting too close in too thick cardboard
After lots of talks, our usual supplier Whatz Games proposed a great black cardboard: It was heavy, classy and did not split. We chose this material and asked for a final sample.
That was the moment when Ludo Fact sent us a quote with the price we had asked for in Cannes. We know that their cardboard is of good quality. (They produced Norderwind, for example, and its technicians are experienced.) So there was a dilemma. What do we do: go on with our Chinese partner who was very reactive on this project and who, in the end, offered a satisfying solution — or turn towards a European production at the same cost? After a long moment's hesitation, we chose Germany and Ludo Fact. Indeed, that choice allows us to avoid issues such as quality tests, customs clearance, and sea transport for most of our customers...
In May 2014, we approached many distributors in foreign countries to increase the number of printed copies and get the best public price. In the end, we're publishing eight versions for the first printing, with a total amount of 15,000 copies — an unheard of total for us. The game contents and the box size were decided then:
• A Ticket to Ride-sized box, same as Lewis & Clark, to allow people to place the train inside the box without disassembling it.
• Playing cards without bleed (because we like that )
• Wooden meeples, with a personalized shape.
• A cardboard train with six cars and one engine.
• The public price is fixed at $40.
What About the Artwork?
Meanwhile, Jordi was working, first on the Action cards, then on the Round cards.
Then he started working on the box cover: a huge work with lots of returns. The box cover picture is critical: That is the first view that potential players catch of the game on the Internet or in game shops. It has to be appealing, it must be understandable by a wide audience, it has to give the right idea of what the game is, and it must stand out. This is a great challenge.
We finally chose to place the train in the middle of the picture and the bandits acting around it. Once again, the train is the center of the game.
We opted for sunset yellow colors to fit with western movies codes, and a golden frame rather than a black frame in a spirit of the "Gold rush".
Contrary to Lewis & Clark, we resolved to get away from the historical, academical aspect. Too bad for realism this time — we wanted to make the players use their imagination.
The last step of the artwork is the train. Jordi needed the final sketch before illustrating the main contents of the game. The punched boards drawing was ready in early June, after the approval of the sample Ludo Fact made. Despite the big constraints he had, the artist succeeded in creating a wonderful decor in record time.
A Welcome Help
We had to finish the files by the end of June 2014. The game rules and the box bottom still needed to be illustrated. Time is short. We would not have the final sample we were waiting for to illustrate the examples in the game rules. We feared that we would have to postpone the game release.
Meanwhile, we started thinking of the game promotion: We loved the Miniville trailer that was broadcast in June in France. We needed something like this! We contacted Ian Parovel who made the trailer. He was excited by the project. We gave him all the art of the game so that he could check on which files he could work. He submitted a shooting script to us and offered to start with the making of a 3D rendering train. It was just what we needed at this moment to finish the games rules edition. Well done, Ian!
A part of the train used in the games rules and in the video
In passing, Ian had a look at the box pictures. Thanks to his advice, we improved the colors and made an attractive box bottom.
The box before and after Ian gave his advice
We also worked on the card tray in July. It was a real headache! See for yourself!
In Q2 2014, we demoed the game at various game events. Each time, the feedback from the players was constructive. Facing different audiences, we decided to include two ways of playing the game: a "casual gamers" rulebook and an expert variant that added management of the discard pile.
In mid-June 2014, at the game festival in Paris, the prototype was in its final version. Christophe was there and attend all the games, listening to all the comments and feedbacks. Everything went very well except a very small grain of sand in the wheels of our machine: Django's ability was too difficult to play. Following a proposal from a player, we changed it to the ability of shooting through the roof.
The prototype played in Paris
After seeing so much enthusiasm around the playing table in Paris, Christophe left the game event super motivated and eager to develop the game more. He started designing additional playing modules to add to the game in a possible expansion.
In early August 2014, Christophe visited us. We playtested his "Hostages", "Weapons" and "Horses" modules. So many great ideas he had! We played again and again, loving the game even more. The game has got a long life ahead of it.
After several hours of playtests, some weird things happen!
On August 8, 2014, all of the files were sent to the manufacturer, and just last week at the start of October 2014 the copies of the game left Ludo Fact's factory. We have checked the quality and do not need to worry about it anymore.
We have also released the video Ian made for us:
From now on, we are not in control of what will happen. We have put all our heart in this project together with Christophe and Jordi. Lots of people helped us along the last year, with feedback and advice. Thanks to all of them as Colt Express is the fruit of all of these interactions. It is a team adventure, a journey that changes you. We hope that you will enjoy the game as much as we had fun with it.
The game will start its life at Spiel 2014 in Essen, Germany and will be available in various European countries at the same time and in the U.S. in November 2014.