The Case for Cooperative Gaming
I discovered cooperative board games fairly late, starting with Pandemic. After many years of gaming, here was a revelation: Players don't have to compete to have fun! I know that the gaming community is divided on cooperative games - many refuse to play these games, and some don't consider them games at all. On the other hand, there are as many people who refuse to play games because they are "too competitive". The last few years have been good for cooperative titles, but they are still massively outnumbered by their competitive brethren.
I settled on the theme of firefighting very early in the design process. It has everything: danger, strategy, heroism, and above all teamwork. Upon reflection I was surprised that this theme was not more popular. I've never particularly wanted to be an orc, or a paladin, or a space marine, but firefighters and police officers and doctors were cool when I was five and they're still cool today. That said, these professions are under-represented in the hobby today. The reason for this is that their roles are largely defined by teamwork. Most games choose to emphasize conflict over cooperation, making these professions a "bad fit" for gaming. That at least is the prevailing wisdom. I hope that this assessment is challenged by a new generation of gamers; I hate to see any kind of limitations imposed on what a game "can" or "should" be.
Defining the Game
The process of going from a concept to a working prototype is never without complications. That said, my first prototype of Flash Point: Fire Rescue (originally "Flashover") still closely resembles the game that has developed. My goal was very specific: Create a cooperative tactical interior firefighting game on the operational level – interior firefighting because that is the sort emphasized in so many TV dramas and movies. By "operational level", I mean that my focus was on a single firefighting operation in a small structure. This would enable the players to role-play as individual firefighters, rather than as squads or departments. Role-playing is important in a cooperative game. Players who can relate to their role will be more engaged with the game and their fellow players than if their role in the game were more "macro-level" or abstract.
Fire Is the Enemy
This being a firefighting game, of course the antagonist was the fire itself. Here again, I was taken by how simply and effectively Pandemic models the spread of disease. I'm no doctor, so I couldn't say whether the process is realistic or not, but as a game designer I am attracted to simple systems that produce elegant results. That said, fire does not spread like disease. Fire is dynamic: it creeps, it crawls, it smokes and smolders and dies back only to explode when resupplied with fresh air, fuel, or heat. Devising a system to model the spread of fire that was true to life but also simple to understand was my first and greatest challenge.
From research I learned of the dangers of a flashover, which is when suspended gases reach a critical temperature and explode violently. This was modeled very simply in the game. As smoke spread throughout the house, it became at first a nuisance, then a threat. By itself smoke was harmless, but whenever smoke came in contact with fire... vooosh! the entire mass caught fire. This led to some tense moments when a section of the house that was merely smoky suddenly transformed into an impenetrable wall of fire.
Another danger is the backdraft, immortalized by the 1991 film with the same name. A backdraft occurs when fire becomes starved of oxygen, sputters, and appears to die. But really it is only waiting for someone to open a door or window, at which point the oxygen-starved fire feasts and explodes. This was also modeled in the game, albeit crudely. Whenever a player rolls two dice to advance fire, there is a chance that the space they target will already be on fire. In which case the fire explodes, rolling over nearby fire and crashing into walls, door, people...and destroying anything it touches. In later versions of the rules the "backdraft" became the generic "explosion", mostly because this was easier to explain.
The decision to use dice to determine the spread of fire (rather than cards, or some other arrangement) was made for several reasons. One, it differentiated this game from other cooperatives. Two, dice are inherently unpredictable. I wanted players to always be on their toes, never knowing with absolute certainty that the fire might not spread in their direction. Third, dice are cheap, easy to handle, and take up little table space.
My original board was a black-and white rectangle composed of four sheets of cardstock. The board loosely resembled a house, with one door on each side and many black lines denoting walls. There were doors which players could open, and if necessary players could even destroy walls to open up their own path. The board today looks much nicer, but is not so different than my first.
Admittedly, there were some differences. I had this crazy idea where the four quarters of the board took fire damage independently, and collapsed when they took too much damage. Victims died, firefighters were buried, and the fire was smothered. The collapsed quarter was flipped over and replaced with "rubble", which firefighters could move through only with great difficulty. It was pretty neat in principle, but introduced some problems. The moment my playtesters realized the best strategy for attacking the fire was to isolate it to one quadrant, then destroy the supporting walls was the moment I decided to get rid of this element. Oddly enough, my research has revealed that in fact collapsing a building can be an effective approach for smothering a fire. Live and learn.
The game as it stood was fun, but I felt it would be better if players could better differentiate their characters. Many games, and especially cooperatives, allow each player to choose a unique role with distinct advantages and disadvantages. This makes every player feel important. So of course I went in a different direction, by introducing firefighting equipment. Players chose which two pieces of equipment they wanted to carry, and that equipment would define their role. The radio allowed players to command rescue vehicles from afar, while the proximity suit was fire-resistant, and so forth. Players could switch their equipment at will, but only in front of the fire engine. The concept was interesting, but after all there weren't that many combinations of equipment which were viable or interesting. Which is why I scrapped the whole idea and replaced it with (you guessed it) specialist cards. Sometimes backwards is the surest way forwards!
The Game Crafter
This was around the time I discovered The Game Crafter (TGC). This is a print-on-demand company based in the United States that will help intrepid game designers design prototypes and even publish their games to the Internet. There are some shortcomings to the service: a limited parts inventory, no folding game boards (yet), and a high per-unit cost. But the advantages are compelling: TGC will save you time slavishly printing and cutting things out of cardboard. It provides a community and a marketplace for you to sell your own games, even if you don't have connections in the board game industry. It allows you to retain full rights to your game. And it will do this without the high up-front costs designers would incur with conventional publishing. I decided that the pros outweighed the cons, and set about creating Flash Point on TGC. I published in July 2010.
I had a few initial sales, which soon enough dwindled to nothing. Let this be a lesson to all self-published game designers out there: You must be proactive and look for every opportunity to promote your product. Don't expect the game to speak for itself. You must speak for your game, and you must be loud. A good start would be to list your game on BoardGameGeek.
I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends
After toiling in obscurity for a couple of months, I had a wonderful surprise. A complete stranger on the Internet named Thomas Arnold sent me a geekmail saying he had coded my game in Java, and asking whether I was okay with him releasing it the public. I admit to having low expectations - free games are never any good, right? But I downloaded his game (by which I mean my game) and was floored. It's fully animated in 3D! I can rotate the table and zoom in and all my graphics are there and there are particle effects, and, and... oh my!It even has a German translation! Check it out!
(NOTE: The rules and graphics for the Java game are outdated, but this still gives players a feel for how the game works.)
I must give credit to Dan Brooke of TaDa Ministries, who offered to review my game and did a great job. And also Ward Batty, who runs Atlanta Game Fest and does so much for the hobby here in the American Southeast. And to Frank Branham, who brought my game to the attention of publishers I could never have reached on my own. Word of mouth was extremely important for this game because I had no marketing budget. The amazing thing about board games is that they they can only be enjoyed in the company of others. Good board games spread like a virus, as one enthusiast introduces a cool new game to his friends, who buy their own copies and introduce it to others, and so on. And so it was that the orders started to trickle in.
Finally, a Publisher
In the past I have sent countless emails to game companies, asking them whether they'd be interested in looking at my game. You have to have thick skin because 90% of the time your email will go unanswered, 5% of the time they'll say they're not interested, 4% of the time they'll look at your prototype but decide not to publish it, and maybe 1% of the time they'll make an offer. I'm sure games do get published this way, but it's very, very hard.
This is why it was such a pleasant surprise to be contacted by a publisher who expressed interest in Flash Point and asked for a playtest copy. That was Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Cards. I hadn't heard of his company, but soon enough began seeing his games everywhere: Haggis, The Resistance, Triumvirate – a small company, apparently, but one with a reputation for quality. About a month later, we had terms for publication.
The game has gone through many changes in only a few months. Most of these have been in the direction of making the game easier to learn, faster to play, and more exciting. I'll admit to having butted heads with Travis on a few issues, but only because we are both passionate about making a quality product that everyone can enjoy. If pressed, I might grudgingly admit that the game that has developed is more polished and playable than my own version on The Game Crafter – but don't tell him I said that!
The Road Ahead
Flash Point: Fire Rescue will be released at Spiel in late October 2011. Right now there is a Kickstarter campaign underway to help with financing. Kickstarter-exclusive content is available, including a secret specialist, a scenario booklet full of new challenges, and a second board. We've already reached our $5,000 and $15,000 goal, but why stop now? If we meet the $30,000 challenge we can all have FIREMEEPLES! Or... rescue meeples, or whatever they wind up being called. Maybe you can help with that too?
Above is one of several worthy candidates. It's shameful how much I want these. Less than a week remains to "kickstart", and if we reach our goal these too will be part of the package!
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