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Designer Diary: SEAL Team Flix, or How To Publish A Game In Seven Years

Mark Thomas
United States
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Microbadge: Apex Legends fanMicrobadge: Cosmic FrogMicrobadge: Cthulhu Wars fan - cultist of the Black GoatMicrobadge: Theseus: The Dark Orbit fanMicrobadge: House of Spirits fan
Board Game: SEAL Team Flix
Our names are Pete Ruth and Mark Thomas, and we are the designers of SEAL Team Flix, a dexterity and tactical combat game published by WizKids. We think we have a pretty interesting story to tell, so we decided it would be a fun and potentially informative exercise to give those who read this an insight into how we went from design criteria given to Pete seven years ago to a fully realized board game concept.

In The Beginning

Back in 2010 or so, Pete went to an Atlanta Con with some of the best and brightest minds in gaming, such as Richard Launius, Zev Shlasinger, Frank Branham, and also, Stephen Avery. It was quite the multi-day adventure, and Zev having known Pete for a while, Zev asked him if he'd be interested in developing a game idea that he thought might be up Pete's alley.

What Zev wanted was a sort of "first-person shooter multiplayer" video game developed into a tabletop experience. Pete dug in and tried to come up with some key concepts that were crucial to successful video games in the genre, distilling them into a handful of mission-critical concepts: Urgency, Twitch Factor, Objectives, Buffing, and Enemy Intelligence.

From the start, we felt this would be best served as a cooperative experience. Zev wanted something scalable that could handle various player counts easily, something that would be played a lot, not played once and relegated to the shelf as the eternally dreaded Shelf Toad. He wanted a game that minimized opportunities for "analysis paralysis" and would feel fast-paced. His ultimate goal was to make a game that he loved so much that the ultimate payoff was to have a professionally produced copy to play at home.

Mark just got his first production copy a few weeks ago and he has been rubbing Pete's nose in it for the entire time. It's really, really good.

Teaming Up

After about four years of working on this design, with Pete forcing friends, family, and random people at game stores to play several very bad versions, he finally had a decent product — or so he thought. Unfortunately, he was a little too close to it, and when he showed it to Zev at Origins, Zev very rightly told him to keep working on it, which he did.

Shortly after that, Pete took a new job, and his time was not as freely dispensable as it once was, so he decided he needed a partner. As a matter of pure coincidence, in short order we ended up discussing the lack of a good first-person shooter-type game, and we decided that we should work together on this project. As it turns out, not only did Pete gain a new partner, he gained a truly unique friend who ended up being an incredible collaborator who, like himself, didn't get married to an idea or let ego get in the way. If we could give anyone advice about developing games, it's that it's best done as part of a team because two minds are always better than one. The fact that we were so quickly on the same page from a design perspective is why it took only two years or so to get from Pete's concept to the final concept that ultimately became SEAL Team Flix.

Incidentally, the game was originally called "Warfighter: Quick Response Force", but the Warfighter card game came out in 2014 and quashed that pretty quickly, which broke Pete's heart a little, but eventually, when we came up with the final name, he realized that the name is just way better now.

From gallery of TheGelatinousCube
First 3D prototype of the warehouse map,
which is made from foam core
Much of the original design concepts pre-Mark remained intact, but the mechanisms changed through a series of strange coincidences, epiphanies, and deliberation between Pete and Mark. The first one was going from a "dot-to-dot" AI movement system to a two-pronged behavioral system.

The game also started with a universal dice-based combat system, but Pete had an epiphany while playing crokinole and realized that rolling dice is exactly the opposite of "twitch skills", so the design had to be a flicking game instead. As a result, the combat changed to a kinetic disc-flicking one on the SEAL side and a dice-rolling one when SEALs are attacked. Once we got together on that, it was over; the decision was immediately made and we never questioned it.

Later came the idea of using 3-D walls to make the flicking more interesting and dynamic because few things personify gaming awesomeness as much as making a three-rail shot against a distant target. This all falls back to the idea of excitement and urgency; if you miss, you're in bad, bad trouble, but if you make it, your name will be echoed through Valhalla for all of time. If we had a dollar for every time someone playing this game spontaneously threw their arms in the air and cheered a shot, we'd have hired a development company and made this into an iOS app, and still have money for matching Ferraris. There's something tangibly exciting about flicking a little disc into a bad guy and watching him fly across the board — and something equally dread-inducing when you whiff all but the last shot, which ends up hitting the cover the bad guys are hiding behind, rendering that last fateful shot ineffective.

Originally, Pete's old AI system had the bad guys slowly plodding towards the nearest good guy, with a sort-of-complex decision tree that wasn't particularly clear and left a lot of room for interpretation. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it kind of sucked, badly.

After some thought, Pete decided that he would develop a better, simpler system of behaviors that are intuitive and make sense to the theme and setting, and with Mark's input and feedback, it became something unique and innovative. The way the AI works looks kind of daunting based solely on a reading of the rules, but the game can be literally played entirely off of the back page rules reference. We're both huge fans of Universal Head's rules distillations, and despite neither of us being nowhere near his level, Pete wanted to emulate him by distilling the entire rulebook's play flow into a detailed, but simple, one-page document. Not only does it work well, it reduces the amount of times we needed to look back at the rulebook for game flow and pocket rule reminders exponentially, especially as we kept it updated during development and the rules were changing often.

For an example of how robust the system is, we'd like to give you some background about the enemy forces and how they behave because it's one of the things of which we're most proud. There are, essentially, two main types of enemies: patrols mull around on a patrol path until alerted, and sentries stand in static positions and will move to cover only when threatened. Basically, until a patrolling enemy sees or hears something, he is predictably walking his patrol path which has been "verified by satellite imaging". When a patrol sees a SEAL or there is a gunshot or other loud noise, he radios in and all hell breaks loose; all of the patrols will run towards either the SEAL that was seen, or the loudest sound on the map until they make contact, at which point they will immediately seek the closest cover position from which to fire.

The system is designed to emulate logical combat behavior from the enemies, including a simple mechanism that simulates a Tango freezing up due to panic. The cover mechanisms are also robust and allow for simple understanding on how bad guys move to cover, such as around corners, with an easy-to-follow decision flow that is incredibly intuitive. Basically, the bad guys will always go to the nearest available space that will block SEAL fire while still allowing them to shoot at the good guys.

Speaking of cover, we had a strong desire to have destructible cover in this game, but we didn't want every game to have the same places to hide, so we came up with a system of cover that allows for big guns to destroy it and smaller guns to suppress — to "stun", in SEAL Team Flix parlance — people hiding behind it. Cover is placed pseudo-randomly based on die rolls in each room; each room has icons that indicate where and when to place the cover blocks, which are big, chunky wooden cubes that react really well when they're hit with varying disc sizes.

Board Game: SEAL Team Flix

Different weapons available to SEALs have different capabilities and choices that emulate their fire rate and stopping power, so a small MP-5 submachine gun will spit lots of little bullets in a firing action, but they don't destroy terrain, whereas a sniper rifle will shred it with one big bullet and a 12 gauge shotgun will shoot a stack of small bullets that will destroy the cover as well as blow doors from their hinges. With so many weapons and items, such as remote bombs, hand grenades, breaching charges, and snake cameras, players have a huge array of options from which to choose when deciding on the best strategy for any particular mission.

Mark came up with some truly novel ideas that made the game SO MUCH BETTER, the most profound being the sideboard mini-games. He thought it would be cool to take the more trivial tasks, such as hacking electronic locks and defusing bombs, and move them from a dice-based system to a series of unique flicking mini-games.

We cannot tell you how remarkably this changed the feel of the game. The few rote, unexciting parts of the game became nail-bitingly intense, and when he said we should also have a sand timer for time bomb defusing that's when the game literally exploded, in our minds, from a really good one into an incredible one.

Board Game: SEAL Team Flix

During the many (MANY!) hours of playtesting, we realized that some things like the way hostages were handled were very dull. We then came up with the idea of allowing snipers to have the option to use a sideboard, sort of like peering through a scope and going into "bullet time", which became the final two mini-games.

On top of all of this, there's also a game timer for each mission, which scales with difficulty setting, so this adds to the tension like the sand timer in that you have a finite amount of possible actions, and if time runs out, you lose. Even beyond that, when missions have time bombs, to add to the visceral and existential dread of a visible timer running down, we added dice to the bomb objectives that count down each round. You can literally watch your time running out, and this is arguably one of the more tense mechanisms we tossed into the mix, and one that we found to be one of the most compelling little fanfares in the production.

Once we had the meat and potatoes down, it was time for some garnish. Pete decided that, as a writer, just having a cool military miniatures game would be fun, but what would take the entire game into the realm of "narrative experience" was to create a campaign system that felt like a video game. Because Pete hates linear games, by and large, he developed a branching campaign that not only allowed for variation in objectives and set-ups, but told a story worth telling. The branches depend upon the outcome of the prior mission, so the story organically grows with your characters' progress.

We had originally looked at numerous types of enemies that pretty much everyone agreed were universally bad, but in the end we wanted zealots, specifically zealots with a pseudo-rational belief system. We went with eco-terrorists, populating the pages of the prototype rules with masked men stealing dogs from breeders and with apocalyptic images of a post-human world where "the real evil on Earth, Mankind, is extinct". Pete developed characters, the back story, and a narrative that makes sense and retains continuity no matter which branches players end up taking.

Board Game: SEAL Team Flix

Prototype campaign map

Mark, very rightly, pointed out that the game should have both a branching story as well as a one-off skirmish mode that was just as much fun, so we incorporated that into the game system. It's not as simple to do as you might think, but after arguing our points, we came up with a way to solve this in a simple to understand way. As characters grow, they decide on a specialty field, and with that comes access to weapons and gear specific to that specialty. As they grow further, gaining ranks, their particular set of skills grows with their rank, and the gear available to them expands in kind. Each mission in the campaign book has a rank listed that indicates to what "level" players should equip before undertaking that mission.

Board Game: SEAL Team Flix
If we do say so ourselves, one of the things this game does best is handle scalability. When you play with one or two SEALs, there's fewer enemies and objectives, and when you play with three or four, it expands the objectives and enemies. When you play on a harder difficulty, it does so again. Even the mini-games scale based on the difficulty level.

On top of the "pool of enemies" growing with higher player counts and harder difficulties, static enemies expand in number as well, meaning that your strategies must change when playing with more SEALs. In addition, we developed a blind-token system that distributes objectives randomly across the map (or maps, in the case of multi-map missions). What this means is that for every single game you play, the objectives' number and location will change based on the player count and the difficulty level. Between the two of us, we've played at least five hundred games of the final version of SEAL Team Flix and as far as we can recall with any accuracy, none ever played out exactly the same either from an initial set-up viewpoint or from a strategy standpoint. Quite simply, we've never quite played anything like this, a game with this much variation but that stays cohesive and makes sense within the framework of the setting and themes, and that is simple to understand.

It's worth mentioning that a disproportionate amount of time went into creating not only unique objectives, but unique objective items. The mechanism behind them is simple: You don't know what they are until one of your SEALs gets line of sight on them. The tokens are placed face down, so you know where they are from the beginning, but you don't know what they are. Some are bad guys, waiting to pounce. Some are alarms that create noise, which attracts bad guys. Some are time bombs, medical kits, evidence such as hard drives, or photographic intel.

The idea behind this was that we didn't want you to make a beeline for the objectives, knowing they were all precisely what you needed to win, but rather to spread them out and make them sometimes good, sometimes bad, forcing players to choose to stick together for more survivability, or break up into smaller squads, or go lone wolf. Even further, it added several layers of competing strategy choices, such as "do we stick together, or do I get slick and run over here behind the wall, have my buddies stir up trouble over there, then sneak past the melee unnoticed to go resolve an objective while my SEAL buddies are mowing down baddies?" Each of the six maps was meticulously designed so that no matter the set-up or mission, multiple paths and decision points will affect both the success probability and the individual survival rates of SEALs.

From gallery of TheGelatinousCube

One of the prototype boards sent to Wizkids

Publishing Deals

Getting back to the publishing end, we finally got with Zev for the last time at the 2017 Origins Game Fair, with Pete's amazingly detailed prototypes (that Pete spent way too much time and money making). We played a match and showed off the "features and benefits", and he loved it, just as everyone else who played it had. Pete sent him the prototype copy for his team to evaluate, and he came back with some very granular suggestions about how his team thought the game could be improved. We made some changes, then it was off to the artists and graphic designers. It's worth mentioning that Josh Derksen is an incredible guy to work with, as was Zev. Josh "got" what we were trying to do and internalized our vision and made it come alive.

Board Game: SEAL Team Flix

Final art of a map (art by Josh Derksen)

This was only Pete's second time working with a publisher, but the first time he's gotten a game to market. Mark has another published game, House of Spirits, and Pete took his wise counsel to heart when he said that a lot of compromise has to be made between the concept stage to the final product. SEAL Team Flix was always a miniatures game at heart. All of our prototypes used either 15mm metal miniatures or Roly pawns, and at the end of the day, we ended up with a game devoid of miniatures because, to be honest, they are incredibly expensive and we didn't have the budget for them if we wanted the game to be reasonably priced.

From gallery of TheGelatinousCube

Progression of pawns from prototype to final

We also knew that we wanted six maps, and this wasn't really negotiable on our end because we wanted the full experience to be felt by owners of the game. Compromising on the miniatures was the best option, and as much as we would have loved to have wee bad guys feeling the full wrath of our flicks of fury, the standees do a fantastic job, look great, and are a little easier to knock over than the Roly pawns we had been using. In the end, we are incredibly happy with the way it turned out and glad that we kept a relatively affordable price point so that more people can experience the game.

One of the last things we did in the game was create the characters and their profiles. We felt strongly that women should be in the game despite the fact that women have been excluded from SEAL service historically. Pete has daughters who love to play the game, and we wanted them to be represented, but we also wanted different cultures and nationalities represented because as Americans, we are not homogeneous, just as our own families are not. We felt it was of paramount importance that as many different people and cultures were represented as practicable under our budgetary constraints, so our final version has a very diverse cast.

Thanks for reading, and we sincerely hope you enjoy SEAL Team Flix! Please feel free to contact Mark or Pete if you have any questions as Mark is very active in the game forums, and we will be sure to promptly help you out if we can.
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