The Beginnings of an Idea
Sometimes mindless boredom is a good thing. In October 2015, I was attending a Protospiel event in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I wasn't planning to go until Saturday since I had to work all day Friday, but after work I decided to stop by and say hi to a few people.
Six hours later I was sitting around with fellow designers Keith Matejka and Ed Marriott, just chatting and half falling asleep. A random blank token was sitting on the table, and I grabbed it and started mindlessly flipping it off the edge of the table, eventually aiming for a cup that was sitting across the table. I remember saying, "You may not realize it, but this will be a great game." I'm sure they thought I was joking. In reality, that flippin' token would consume my thoughts for over a year.
I had a 45-minute drive home that night, so I thought about what the game could be. It had to be more than just flipping a token at a cup. I had started on a game several months earlier that was called "Flip Ships", but that idea never went anywhere. The previous idea had nothing to do with flipping tokens, but I decided this was as good a place to start as any, so this would be the new Flip Ships and I'd scrap the other game. I started with the theme of sci-fi spaceships attacking something. I thought it would be cool to have different levels of ships that could be upgraded or added to your fleet, and you would flip and land on different cards in order to get those upgrades.
The next day at Protospiel, I walked in and grabbed some of the blank components available from Game Crafter, and scribbled ships on discs and cards on which to land. The cards were scattered around the table and said things like "+1 ship", "upgrade a ship", and...I think that's about it. I didn't know what the game was, but I grabbed a few people and asked them to try it out. "Just shoot at that stuff. Let's say the first person to earn all their ships, then land on this tile wins", I said as I threw a tile on the table. I was winging it. All I knew is that I wanted to flip discs at stuff because that was fun.
Normally I wouldn't pull other people into a design so early (before there's even a game), but I was at Protospiel, so what the heck...might as well see whether people think the flipping is fun. I made a few adjustments during the game, including adding a cup to the table since that was fun to shoot at the night before. I didn't know what it was for, but hey, just shoot at that too if you want. That was all the direction I gave, and people started playing. And they had fun. And people started coming over to watch. And they wanted to join in. And that's why this idea consumed my thoughts for so long. Even before it was a game, people were enjoying it. I also knew that this couldn't be just another dexterity game. It needed to be different. Dexterity games aren't normally the types of games I play, so I knew that this had to appeal to non-dexterity game players. It needed to be more than just flicking discs at stuff.
Finding the Game
For the next two months, I thought about this idea constantly. I knew a great game was in there, and I just had to find it — but I couldn't. I built several large contraptions to shoot at, with different areas to land on and land in, but other than the basic fun of flipping the discs, the game was not there. It was frustrating.
We ended up going to northern Wisconsin to visit my wife's family over New Year's weekend at the end of 2015. It's about a four-hour drive, and on the way home I told myself that I had to figure this game out on the drive. It had been bothering me for too long, and I made it my goal to figure it out before I got home — and it worked. I remember the thoughts coming all at once while I was driving: "What if it's like Space Invaders?" "But cooperative?" "You're trying to defend your home planet by flipping discs while waves of ships are attacking you." I couldn't wait to get home and start making cards. My wife probably couldn't wait either because I'm sure I babbled on and on about it for the rest of the drive.
The first version of the game worked surprisingly well. I got too excited and made too many enemy ship powers and speed types, so I had to quickly scale all that back to make it more accessible, but the game was instantly fun and had a great tension.
Okay, so now that we're at day 1 of having an actual game, let's take a quick commercial break so that I can tell you how Flip Ships works in its final form.
As I just said, Flip Ships is sort of a cooperative Space Invaders game that uses the dexterity element of flipping discs at things.
Based on the player count and the difficulty level chosen, you deal out a certain number of cards from the enemy ship deck. These are the ships that will attack you and that you have to destroy. Ten are dealt out to start the game (with five columns of ships in two rows), and behind these cards you set up the mothership. The mothership is a 3D piece that you must also destroy (by landing in it) in order to win. Remember the cup?
On your turn, you take all of your active ships (discs) and flip them one at a time at the enemies or the mothership. Once all players have taken a turn, the enemies that weren't destroyed all move forward based on their speed value. You then refill the back two rows with ships, so you could potentially have up to twenty ships coming at you at once. Once an enemy has moved down past the fourth row, it has attacked your planet and will deal damage based on the attack value on the card. The card is then shuffled back into the deck, so it will cycle through and attack again, forcing you to destroy every enemy ship.
The thing that makes the game more interesting and the cooperation more exciting is that every player ship has a special ability. These are shown on cards randomly dealt out at the beginning of the game, so you always have a different mix of abilities. Some of the enemy cards also have abilities, so there are constant discussions about what the best course of action is. Some ships are slower but deal more damage, some are faster, some shield adjacent cards from attack, some need two hits to destroy, etc. Players make decisions based on the current game state and their special abilities rather than just mindlessly flipping discs.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled designer diary…
Your Regularly Scheduled Designer Diary
For the next few months, I streamlined a few of the card types, but the game remained mostly unchanged for a long time. Overall I was happy with the game, but there was always something nagging at the back of my mind. It wasn't a 10 for me (probably an 8), so I knew that I could do better. I just couldn't figure out how to do that. There wasn't anything that I disliked exactly; it was just a feeling of something being a little off. When I tried to pinpoint things, I could see two main issues: The game lasted a little too long for the type of game it was, and there could be a big imbalance in the number of ships players earned depending on how good they were at the game.
In the 11th hour, it hit me, and that one major change late in development fixed both of my problems. Through the entire life of the game, some of the enemy cards had icons on them, and if you destroyed those enemies, you would earn new ships or upgrades for your personal fleet. The problem with them was two-fold. If in your random assortment of cards in the deck, you got a lot of those upgrade cards, the game would be easy; if you didn't, it would be hard. In addition, if you were good at the game, you would hit those cards and level up faster, making it even easier, while if you were new to the game, you were in big trouble. I had tried fixes for this issue before, but nothing I was happy with, so I had gone back to the standard rules that were at least working, but now I decided that those icons had to go. I didn't have a solution in hand, and I knew it would be a lot of work to change a major component of the game this late, but I knew it had to be done.
I went through a couple of new versions quickly, and they all had their merits, but like the previous rule they didn't feel right despite working fine. When I came up with what ended up being the final rule, I knew immediately that it was the way to go. Now it seems so obvious that I should have had it that way all along. The way it works now is that the players get ships added to their fleet as reinforcements as the team takes damage. Thus, as the enemy ships attack you and do damage, there are triggers along the way that add new ships to your fleet. This balances the game out nicely because if you're doing well with the ships you have, you won't get reinforcements, thus increasing the tension. If you're doing poorly, you'll get extra ships that should help you stay afloat. This system provides the perfect balance of tension, with you feeling like you're on the edge of losing, but always with a chance to pull out the win.
One other change I made late in development was the overall structure of each round. The way it works now is that each player flips all of their ships, then resolves them before the next player takes their turn. For most of the design process, a player would flip one ship at a time, then the next player would flip one ship, and so on. Once all ships were flipped, they were all resolved. This method had some merits, but overall it made the game drag on too long, and it made resolving all of the special abilities at once confusing.
My goal was to have a game that was accessible to non-gamers, and having everything resolve at once would trip up even seasoned gamers. It had to change. Each player flipping and resolving all of their ships keeps the game moving along, and it makes the special abilities fun and interesting, but not overwhelming. With that final change, I was finally completely happy with the game. I made new pieces for my prototype and sketched out how everything would lay out in its final form.
Components and Art
Up until this point, I had tried to keep all of the components minimalist and cheap. The board along the side of the play area was just a few cards, for example. That's why the "moon spaces" are the size of a tarot-sized card. My plan was to have an Onitama-type box, with the box bottom being the mothership.
All of this sounded great in theory, but as I got close to the finish line, I realized that a lot of those things were kind of annoying in actual play. The cards would slide around all the time, which messed up the spacing of everything. I knew it would bump the cost up a bit, but I decided that a puzzle-locking board covering the whole side of the play area was the way to go. This would also allow for one big piece of art and a nicer overall experience for the player. Having Renegade as the publisher, I knew this wouldn't be an issue since they're all about making a game and its components the best they can be.
With the game complete, we could start on art. I usually handle the art direction on my games these days, and from early on I had wanted Kwanchai Moriya to do the art. From the first time I saw his cover for Catacombs, I had been keeping an eye on his work. Looking at his website showed me that he had a very diverse style, and all of those styles were great. Most of the work he had done on board games had a very stylized digital look (like Catacombs or Kodama), but I saw on his website that he also had lots of portraits painted in this funky acrylic style. I thought that would be cool in a game, so I contacted him. I was nervous that the style would maybe be a slight mismatch to the light and fun gameplay of Flip Ships, but I had a picture in my head of what I wanted, and I thought it was worth a shot. I wanted something different, something that jumped off the shelf. Flip Ships was a different kind of game, and I wanted it to look unique, too.
What can I say? Kwanchai nailed it, and then some. I wanted the cover to be a little weird, and I kept telling him that our version of space is funky. His final product is even better than I could have imagined. The graphic design team of Jeanne Torres and Anita Osburn did a great job, too. From the beginning I had been saying that I wanted an ambigram for the logo, but I didn't think anyone would be able to come up with something that was an ambigram, was still legible, and fit the sci-fi theme without detracting from the cover. Again, they nailed it. As always, working with team Renegade has been awesome.
The Final Product
One of the things I love about Flip Ships is that people tell me that they don't like dexterity games, but they love Flip Ships. That's what I was going for. It crosses that barrier for people. Since it's a cooperative game, it's more about the communication between players, the cheering and groaning based on the shots, and the ever-rising tension that the encroaching enemies bring. I like to think of it as a cooperative game with a dexterity element more than just a cooperative dexterity game. I've even had people tell me that they don't like cooperative games or dexterity games, but they love Flip Ships. That makes all of the work worth it.
It took a lot of time and attention, but Flip Ships did end up becoming a 10 for me by the time I finished designing it. It is a game that we pull out in any situation, and it's always a hit. Lunch-time gaming, family get-togethers, game store events, conventions — Flip Ships is a game I'm very proud of, and it all started because someone left a random token on a table and I was too tired to play a real game.
Now I need to get going. All this Flip Ships talk gave me an idea…