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Designer Diary: Don't Turn Your Back, and Don't Stop Believin'!

Eric Vogel
United States
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Microbadge: Kitara fanMicrobadge: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game fanMicrobadge: Cambria fanMicrobadge: Zeppelin Attack fanMicrobadge: Don't Turn Your Back fan
Board Game: Don't Turn Your Back
In late 2012, Zeppelin Attack had been designed, but most of the production work by Evil Hat Productions had not yet begun. Based on the encouragement of Chris Hanrahan (now Vice-President at EHP), I had pitched one of my board game designs to them — a prototype that ultimately went elsewhere — so I felt like EHP had enough of my stuff in the pipeline and probably would not urgently want more. Meanwhile, I had vague expressions of interest from another publisher for a card game that would use a science fiction setting, so I was thinking vaguely in that thematic realm as I tried to design something over my Xmas break from work.

For every game idea that I feel is good enough to pursue, I get part way through the design of several prototypes that I give up on. Some of these I throw out after the first playtest or two. Many of them I quit without showing them to anyone. Sometimes I give up on these because I realize they are not viable mechanically, but mostly I give up because they just don't have the spark of originality I want my games to have. However, kicking around uninteresting ideas is what usually causes interesting ideas to gel, so that is how my design process usually starts these days. I started dreaming up games and throwing them out, in the hope that a good idea would come to me before my vacation was over.

Meanwhile, I had been playing Friedman Friese's Copycat and really enjoying it. The game is a brilliant, but very straightforward combination of worker placement and deck-building. Each turn, players do worker placement, where they compete to put meeples on limited fields to get assets – hence worker placement. They also play cards from a personal, expandable deck to the table in front of them – hence deck-building. The game is excellent, and I thought that Friese's own caveats that it was altogether derivative did him an injustice. It certainly took a leap of imagination to combine these two mechanisms. That said, the deck-building and worker placement in Copycat are not really integrated; there isn't a synthesis of the two mechanisms, rather they just co-exist as side-by-side systems. As I mused on this, an epiphany suddenly hit me, and the thought went almost exactly like this: "What if the deck-building cards ARE the workers?" The instant this idea came to me I felt like it was the best idea for a core mechanism I had ever had. I started drafting the first prototype that same day.

From gallery of erichv
Everything about the game flowed so naturally from the idea of cards-as-workers that the first prototype came into being almost effortlessly. I started thinking about what possibilities cards-as-workers create, as opposed to meeples-as-workers. Because the cards can hold complex information, that led to the idea of play-area restrictions and various unique text effects, like that of the Face Merchant Card. Unlike a pure deck-builder, every function did not have to appear on a card. Various functions of deck-building, such as trashing and card acquisition, could be assigned to board areas. The same card could be multifunctioned, and the different functions could be triggered by different board areas.

I like clean boundaries between functions in a design, so I made one board area for trashing cards (small, so that cards would not get trashed too quickly), one board area for collecting money, two areas that would generate VP in slightly different ways, and one area where card text effects would be activated. Thus, all the core functions of the final game were already in place in the first prototype, although it took a lot of tinkering to get them right.

Early on in the design process, I experimented with making each player's deck have unique cards. Players are always saying they want that kind of thing in a game, so I usually give it a try. As is the case in most instances, it did not work. Asymmetricality almost always creates problematic imbalances in a game design, and my games usually have tight-enough balance that it won't work. If I was an Ameritrash designer at heart, maybe I would see it differently.

A few prototypes into the design process, the idea of what would become the Law deck gelled, a board area that would provide different rewards each turn based on a cycling card. This got me effortlessly past an issue that is often a struggle: creating a good game-end timer. In this case, I could use the number of cards in the law deck to measure out the turns of the game — easy-peasy.

I also added the endgame bonus for trashed ("encased") cards. I think it is ideal in scoring-track games if some score elements are not going to be apparent until the endgame. Ideally, I want players to at least have the hope of winning until the game is over or almost over. Making this bonus be a multiplier for the cards left in the player's decks got me around the problem of giving the players a reason to still want new cards late in the game.

So I had a complete prototype, functioning well, before it first occurred to me that this design would be a much better fit with Don't Rest Your Head than the theme I had been thinking of. Also, as it became clear to me that this was going to be my best game design yet, I wanted to give first refusal to Evil Hat.

RPG Item: Don't Rest Your Head
Before I was commissioned to design Zeppelin Attack (as I detailed on BGG News in August 2014), I had spoken to Chris Hanrahan about the possibility of pitching a game to Evil Hat, and he directed me to take a look at the Don't Rest Your Head RPG, the first RPG that Evil Hat Productions published.

In Don't Rest Your Head chronic insomniacs become so sleep-deprived that they become sucked into another world, The Mad City, where they acquire dreamlike powers and are pursued by living nightmares. I am not a role-player, but I really liked Don't Rest Your Head as a piece of literature; it had an evocative, atmospheric setting with fascinating characters. As surreal as the Mad City is, it does have culture and structure like any other society. It also had a marketplace and economics (for very odd currencies and goods!), which seemed like good fodder for a board game. Early on, I had started playing with ideas for deck-building games that would be set in this world, but did not get very far, and most of those ideas ended up being incorporated into Zeppelin Attack. However, now when I tried to see my new game through the lens of the Don't Rest Your Head setting, the natural correspondences were immediately apparent. I went back to the Don't Rest Your Head sourcebooks, especially to the book of short stories set in the Mad City, Don't Read This Book, to refresh my knowledge of the setting. I encourage readers of this diary to take a look at those as well.

There are several distinctive districts in Mad City, so it was easy to theme the different worker placement fields as these. The Wax Kingdom is a part of the part of the Mad City where characters become sucked in, assimilated, and cannot escape, so it seemed like a natural place for the trash function to go. The Nightmares in Don't Rest Your Head travel to the normal world — the "city slumbering" — to harvest people's dreams to sell, so the money-generating function was a natural fit with The City Slumbering. The Bizarre Bazaar is the place where deals get made, so it seemed like the natural setting to activate the text effects. The 13th District and the High School are the most dangerous districts, places that players have to battle their way through, so those seemed like the natural places to score victory points via majority control. The movement of cards through the High School seemed to me like a nice representation of matriculation, so I altered the mechanisms to make this feel even more apparent. The 13th District was a natural fit with the idea of "Law" cards that dictate scoring.

Once the new theme was in place, I went back and started tweaking cards to make them better representations of some of the best-known Nightmare characters in DRYH. From that point on, development was mostly a matter of playtesting and tweaking the scoring of various game elements to get the balance right. It was important that District 13, the High School, and the endgame bonus for The Wax Kingdom had similar overall scoring potential. It was not my intent that each one of these represent a simple "path to victory", but I thought that player strategies should be able to focus on any of these areas.

It was at about this point that I demoed the game for Fred Hicks and Chris Hanrahan at Chris's house. In this case, three games were being demoed for Fred on the same night: a cooperative game by Eric Lytle and Chris Ruggiero, my 4X board game that Chris Hanrahan wanted Fred to look at, and Don't Turn Your Back. Fred had been given prototypes of the other games previously, but I sprung DTYB on him cold as the last game of the night. I've now done enough playtests and pitches to recognize a publisher reaction that signals real interest, and clearly Fred liked what he saw. By the end of the playtest it was fairly clear that Evil Hat was going to produce this game. I had become so enamored of the theme at this point that I am really not sure what I would have done with the game if he hadn't liked it!

Board Game: Don't Turn Your Back

There was not a tremendous amount of change to the game from this point on. Fred did some of his own playtesting at game conventions and asked for specific tweaks to a couple of cards that improved their theme-mechanism relationship. It was Fred who suggested that the distinctiveness of the Roof Rat would be that it was a weak card that could be played anywhere; that seemed like an excellent fit with the Roof Rats as they are portrayed in Don't Rest Your Head. I recall that I had to fiddle around quite a bit to get a distinctive Bazaar text effect for the Tacks Man that reflected his character. I think it was also Fred who suggested I add different third and fourth place scoring levels for the Wax Kingdom endgame bonus. Fred also named the game Don't Turn Your Back sometime during this period. Part of why I like working with Fred is that he is a great resource for game theming. (This is true even when he isn't the author of the original IP!) I also expanded the number of Law cards to create more variety from game to game.

Overall, this was a short design process for what is probably my heaviest game to date. The way I initially envisioned the design worked well enough that I had to revise much less than I usually do.

Let me say that I am exceptionally happy with the look of the finished game. I have been quite pleased with the art on all my professionally published games, but Don't Turn Your Back is the first one where I feel like the game itself is a visual art object. George Cotronis, the artist who has been primarily associated with the Don't Rest Your Head series, created wonderfully bizarre images for the game. Because the Mad City is so dreamlike, it is inherently difficult to translate it from narrative descriptions into concrete images. However, George was able to bring these to life without losing any of their strangeness or menace. The art is both beautiful and creepy at the same time, with a Goya-like quality.

From gallery of erichv

Fred did the graphic design for DTYB himself, creating a highly functional layout, which graphically complemented the strangeness of the art, using irregular splatters of color for the borders. One of the interesting things Fred set out to do with this design was to make it friendly for players with impaired color-vision, so in addition to some of the normal devices for this, such as having a symbol paired with the player color on each card, Fred did a lot of research into which set of four colors would register as most distinctive for people with various forms and degrees of color-blindness. This led us to have an unusual set of player colors: orange, blue, olive and teal, which again just helps to enhance the overall strange feel of the game.

Given the way Kickstarter has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom in the game industry, I find it bizarre that the range of popular artistic styles for board games seems to have actually narrowed over the last ten years. There is cute, cartoony art and painterly realistic art, and that is about it. There is nothing wrong with either style, and my games have used both at different times; the problem is the exclusion of other styles, and the way that the limited range of acceptable visual styles constrains the range of game themes we tend to see. Why should the range of visual styles in boardgames be any more limited than the full range of artistic styles that exist?

With that design done, we Kickstarted the game, successfully, and my second publication with Evil Hat Productions was done! As I write this, I have two more designs in different parts of the pipeline for Evil Hat, one of which I expect gamers to get particularly excited about, but those are stories for another day. Now as the Kickstarted copies of the games are getting into the hands of the backers, I realize that I have been having bizarre disturbing dreams for the last six weeks or so; meanwhile Fred Hicks reports suffering from chronic insomnia. I wonder...

From gallery of erichv
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