My game, Welcome to..., became number one on the BGG hotness list, staying ahead of amazing games such as Gloomhaven and The Mind. I know this is a temporary situation, brought by unexpected hype and buzz, but as far as game designers' bucket lists go, it's pretty far out there.
While I'm here, though, I wanted to take this occasion to try to present how this game came into existence, if only to let other designers know that something amazing can come out of the most mundane origin story.
Optimo! from 2015 that went very much unnoticed. Here is how my "flip and write" game came to be:
In 2013, I launched my very amateurish game design career at a gaming festival in France that resembles Unpub here in the U.S. (only prototypes), a festival during which I learned a valuable lesson: A mid-heavy Euro word game is not the best idea for getting a game published. But this was my first foray into the board game world, meeting amazing people such as Matthieu d’Epenoux (publisher of Hanabi, Imagine and Twin it) and the future Catch Up boys (publisher of Paper Tales) who helped me grow as a designer.
Later in 2014, I started on another design: "Hackers". The idea came from my ability to defy the laws of probability concerning dice rolling with my many epic fails in campaigns of Descent. I wanted a game in which there would be no bad rolls — designers can be selfish in their designs — so I worked on a dice system with a double input, i.e., color and symbol. Each roll, players had to choose between the color (resources) or the symbol (action) so that there would always be something interesting to do. For many months I worked on the prototype until another Gaming Festival in my home town of Toulouse.One of many versions of Hackers, which already included a naive attempt to deal with simultaneity without realizing it
I showed the design to several publishers, and the response was unanimous: The theme was horrendous, and while the game worked, there was nothing really interesting there. Worse, there seemed to always be a better and obvious pick in each roll. So straight to the closet for "Hackers"...
In 2015, I started working on a game called "Graal" with Alain Balay of Blue Cocker Games (publisher of Medieval Academy, Meeple War, ARGH, etc.). I had known Alain for a while but never had dared to talk to him. He is physically rather impressive and as luck would have it, for years he would always leave the room as soon as I pulled a prototype out of my bags. Coincidence?
Anyway, a running joke soon came into the development of the game as I would constantly add new components to the game while Alain moaned and complained.Even when he smiles, you're just not sure...
Then finally came October 2016 and the rebirth of "Hackers", back then very smartly called "Hackers Reborn". I still loved the idea of a double-input dice system and at the time, I wanted to give a whirl to the roll-and-write mechanism to see whether that added anything to the game. Short answer? No. Changing the way you represent progress in your game does not make it more interesting...
However, this revival gave me plenty of ideas on how to tweak the game and very early on, I started working on a system of "levels" to complete — what is now the housing estate in the final version of Welcome to... — to gear the game toward a risk-taking approach. Then, looking for a solution for the "non-choice" of "Hackers", I decided that instead of choosing between the symbol or the color, players would use both by combining two of the three dice used, thanks to a double combo system: a numerical combo (you add the value of the two dice to get a number to place down) and a chromatic combo (you add the colors to get an effect: blue + yellow = green effect), which very quickly became the engine of the game.
With this development, players had three combos to pick from, which pushed their strategies into different paths while infusing a great tension into the game due to players rarely being completely satisfied with both parts of the combo.The first version of Hackers Reborn — the heart of the game is already there
The game worked instantly, way better than "Hackers" ever did. Within a few days, I had tweaked it enough to make it playable by other people, and as chance would have it, I had a design session with Alain on "Graal" coming. So I went there to mock him and his constant moaning (however pertinent…) about component cost increases by putting on the table a game with only three dice.My precious D8 (October 2017-March 2018 — RIP)
The feedback was rather positive for such an early prototype, even if Alain claimed that it was not his style of game, and this feedback was enough to send me on a design frenzy to bring the game mechanically pretty close to where it's at now. In the span of a few weeks, risk-taking grew with the decision to let players decide the size of their levels/estates, and many of the "take that" mechanisms disappeared, solving most of the issues with the game.
Alain played again but frowned at the abstract nature of the game, the hackers theme having vanished pretty early on. He wanted a thematic roll-and-write game. Obedient to the core, I started working on themes such as skyscrapers and even a cocktail drinks theme, which was enough to make Alain decide to work on the game. The game was but two months old.The version that convinced Alain. So close and yet so far...
After a month of vain efforts — the cocktail theme broke all records on component cost increases thanks to a hundred tokens, a hundred cards, and dice — we found our perfect theme, which made total sense: a city-building game, with houses grouped in housing estates and placed in ascending order so as not to annoy the postman.
Graphically the game didn't change much but the theme added some sense for the players and it was rather easy to give thematic meaning to all the actions (the action to change the number became temp workers being forced to be flexible, etc.).The graphical dressing is sparse, but not everyone can be Anne Heidseick
For those who have seen the final game, my story so far must seem a bit strange. Indeed, I talk only of dice and combos while none of that exists in Welcome to..., and all because a friend, the owner of a FLGS in Toulouse, declared that this was not a dice game at its core and convinced Alain of this fact. That was a tough moment for the novice game designer I was. The game was only three dice, and then there were none.
And the worst part was that they were absolutely right.
The distinct advantage of the double-input dice was that the game was lean (and I am a huge admirer of those frugal games). With three dice, you had plenty of combos, but the first play could be intimidating. Each turn, players had to do six sums, numerical and chromatic, to get the three number+color combos, and for some, it was too much. More importantly, this activity made the game last around 40 minutes.
Changing the heart of the engine of the game was difficult, and many terrible ideas came and went in our efforts to solve this problem. (Big up to the "throw tokens in the bottom half of the box marked with targets" idea...)Sometimes, you just have to say no
Then came the idea (or rather the recycling of an idea from my first game) of creating the same randomizer but with double-sided cards working in pairs: on one side of the card, the final numerical sum, and on the other the chromatic mix. This was a game changer.
Even though statistically, nothing had changed from the dice rolling, the numerical and chromatic calculations were already done by having three stacks of cards present those choices to you. This change made the engine "invisible"; it cut 15 minutes off the game; it made the game more accessible; it allowed players to concentrate on the choices they needed to make instead of on the calculations; it allowed for a better thematic imprint; it gave us solo and expert variants; and finally it gave more control to the player (most notably by teasing the coming effects in the next turn on the number faces of this turn, thereby giving a tiny bit of info for players to ponder upon).This change also allowed for colorblind friendly symbols instead of colors, which is always good
The balancing phase came then with very thrilling decisions to make on the size of the streets, the number of pools, their location, the value of the parks, the accessibility of the first game (with the city plans), etc. In the end came Anne, who had the daunting task of making my Excel sheet both attractive and thematic — and she went beyond my wildest hopes. Anne's job gave the game its soul. (Soon, you may read on BGG her illustrator's diary of how she not only made the game pretty, but also how she managed to make the game easier to grasp with brilliant graphic design.)A very tiny improvement by Anne...
In the end, the game was finalized for a first unofficial outing at SPIEL 2017, with the final "Welcome to..." name to reinforce the impression of actually building your own city. Production started just afterwards, barely a year after the initial idea of the game. Welcome to... debuted at FIJ in Cannes in February 2018 and ever since, it has been pretty hectic.
The game buzzed at the largest French con, enough to get people interested all the way across the Atlantic. Suzanne from the Dice Tower acquired an import copy and talked very kindly about it, raising awareness in the U.S., notably at GAMA where Deep Water Games decided to get the rights for the English market, and then worked hard to be able to present it at the 2018 Origins Game Fair. Dude Games for Canada, SD Games for Spain, and Fever Games for Italy also got in the mix.
And here we are, four months after its domestic release, three French print runs later, the game is about to come out fully at Gen Con 2018 thanks to Nolan, Tiffany, and their friends at DWG, and the game has sat on top of the BGG hotness list for more than a week. International reviewers are starting to talk about the game, people are doing unofficial translations of the game in countries without distribution, Welcome to... broke into the top 2,000 games in BGG ranking and is climbing fast. And all I had wanted to do was to make fun of my publisher. (Well, not quite, but still…)
This is so completely unexpected that I rambled on for pages in this designer diary and some people are actually going to read it all. I can't thank the gaming community enough, nor my friend and publisher Alain for his faith in the game and for choosing Anne to give life to the game. Making a prototype can be a solo affair; making a game needs so much more.
I cannot wait to see what's coming, and hopefully neither can you...
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