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Designer Diary: Fleet – It All Started with Emperor Palpatine...

Matt Riddle
United States
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Microbadge: University of MichiganMicrobadge: Oh Captain! fanMicrobadge: The Realms of Terrinoth fanMicrobadge: Orange Revolution fanMicrobadge: City Building fan
Board Game: Fleet
Welcome to the designer diary for Fleet, covering everything from from The Idea to The Game. Fleet was co-designed by Matt Riddle (riddlen) and Ben Pinchback (bno70_1), both first-time designers. You, the reader, may be thinking to yourselves, "Do I want to buy and play a game designed by one guy with a thinly veiled 69 reference in his username and another with a not-so-thinly veiled reference to an ADD medication?" Yes, you do.

This diary is in my "voice" with Ben adding color commentary (in red). Working together on a game with a friend was a great experience. The give-and-take helped get us to the point where Fleet was able to generate interest from several publishers. We went with Gryphon Games frankly because they were first, and we cannot thank them enough. Rick and Joanne Soued (and the entire Gryphon team) have been amazing. Hopefully Fleet is the first of many games for Ben and I. We have privately begun work on the next four already, so stay tuned!

The creative process is truly addicting. Especially when you find something you might actually be good at and it helps when you have a friend whose ideas gel so well with your own. Not so long ago, Matt, another friend of ours, and I wrote a full-length movie script just to see if we could. That was fun. We weren't actually good at it, though. Some good ideas and jokes in there, but don't expect to see us at Cannes anytime soon.

Ben and I have been playing nerdy German board games ever since a friend of a friend introduced us to The Settlers of Catan in 2005. We played nothing but Settlers with our friends and family for the next two years straight, completely ignorant of the broad (and awesome) world of Euro and Ameritrash board games still yet to be discovered. We have both played games our entire lives, just not the right ones as it turns out. Throughout late 2006 and early 2007, we began to expand. First it was Carcassonne, then Power Grid, then Puerto Rico – then we found the Geek and it has been all downhill from there (or uphill depending on the context or whichever you prefer).

It was not until we played Race for the Galaxy that we really began discussing the idea of designing our own game. I like Race. I do not love it, but I like it. I find it as frustrating as I do fun, but love it or hate it, Race inspired us and Fleet is the eventual outcome of that inspiration.

Ben and I are fortunate to not only have grown up together, but to have attended church and college together over the years, and we now work together as engineers at a successful and large Fortune 500 company. While we were careful not to discuss the game at work (because hey, we were working... the entire day, all 8 hours... promise), we did have a 45-minute company mandated lunch period. Over the course of 2010, that time was used for Dork Game 1. Wait, I've gotten ahead of myself – let's go back to day one.

Dork Game 1 was the first thing I ever wrote down for a title. (You can watch the game subtly change names throughout the diary.) As soon as the first ideas of game design came to me around March 2010, I knew I'd be bringing in Matt. As far as gaming goes, he's basically my arch-nemesis on any gaming night, and I knew I couldn't do this project without him.

Ben stopped by my desk one morning and told me that we're designing a board game. He had an idea and we needed to start hashing it out. We settled on a lunch location (Taco Bell), and four agonizingly slow hours went by until finally we were sitting at TB hunched over trays of spicy chicken burritos and a nacho bellgrande as Ben got ready to explain The Idea. But first, a flashback...

Phase 0: The Core Principles

We came up with The Core Principles for Unnamed Best Game Ever before we even realized we were designing a game (hence the phase 0). Our game group (4-8 engineers every other Thursday night) had been playing a lot of Race for the Galaxy and Dominion. Those are two powerhouse games, but if I have a complaint – and I do – it is that 90% of the cards you touch, read, look at, etc. are going to have no purpose to what you are trying to accomplish.

In classic engineering fashion, we analyzed, broke down, and performed failure analysis on each and every game that we played. With Race, the same things kept coming up: I f#$%ing hate when I am building my engine and suddenly cannot draw a blue/brown/military/green/etc. card OR if I had just gotten that (insert name) 6-cost card I would have won. When I go military and on the second-to-last hand I draw Emperor Palpatine, that is a huge boost; if I do not, then...

The point here is that without either of us vocalizing it directly we had been analyzing the games we were playing and developing ideas that we would put into a game if we were the designers. These ideas in our heads eventually became:

The Core Principles
• Every player should have a shot at the "good" cards.
• Have different ways to build an economic and VP engine.
• Minimize luck, without eliminating it completely.
• Every card of every hand should have a purpose.
It really did start with Emperor Palpatine. I like Race quite a bit, but I distinctly remember sitting there seething one night, "If I had just drawn Emperor Palpatine at some point, I would have won." I'm a bad loser. A really, really bad loser – especially if Matt wins. That really pisses me off. I have issues.

Phase 1: The Idea

Continued from above: As we finished cleaning up and throwing away spent hot sauce packets and burrito wrappers, Ben slapped down his note sheet.
The Idea Ben dreamt up on the way to work that day was dual use cards and a mechanism to relate them to universally available "good" cards. This is also when he vocalized the first of The Core Principles: Every player should have a shot at the "good" cards.

Imperials began life centered around continents and cities. I mean, let's be clear here – we had been playing endless hours of Euro board games for going on four years. They had overtaken poker in our social circle as the primary activity, so continents and cities was a safe place to start. It was all we knew really, and it was a good theme to go with while we developed mechanisms.

Phase 2: The Initial Concept

Ben: "Here's our game: you buy continents, settle cities, there's an auction, and the city cards have an inversely related dual use VP/cash thing."

The best part was that Matt never really questioned the idea of creating a game. As soon as I threw it out there, he immediately hit the ground running.

This was The Idea in a nutshell. The Initial Concept for the game developed quickly around this, and it is actually cool how much of The Initial Concept made it into the finished game. We went in wanting Imperials to play quickly, but have good depth and important decisions. We wanted to be able to play it at lunch or while you waited for your buddy to show up to game night before you started a 3.5 hour game of Brass: Lancashire – but you could also play Imperials all night and every game would be different and rewarding. We wanted filler game length with heavy Euro game balance and depth. Using The Idea and The Core Principles, and keeping the aforementioned playability tenants in mind, we began the serious design process.

As mentioned above, the theme started as continents and cities. The Initial Concept was to gain continent cards from a publicly available group (through an auction) and play the city cards from your hand as VP. The continent cards would affect how/when/which city cards you played. Every continent card helped you and had value. Thematically, the players were explorers who were establishing cities on the new continents. Every card in a player's hand could be spent as money or played as a city for VP, but the only way you could establish a city was if you had "discovered" the continent by buying it in the auction.

The dual use card idea became key; every card of every hand should have a purpose. Ben and I did not want a player stuck with a handful of cards that did nothing to advance the game. If the cards were both VP and money, each player would always have the choice of how and when to play them. Do I use them as cash or save them to play as cities? Continent cards had to follow The Core Principles as well. With that in mind, the stackable continent cards became part of the game. Any continent card available is useful to the player, even if he already has one of that type. The stackability of the continents and their powers made for many, many possible build variations – different ways to build an economic and VP engine.

Board Game: Fleet: Salvage Yard Licenses
Our first continent cards were buffs on money (North America: $1 Cash), draw (Asia: draw 2, keep 2), discover/settle (Europe: play an extra city), and VP generators (Antarctica: gain X VP and Australia: VP modifiers based on tableau). There was also a trading mechanism (South America) that we later abandoned for balance reasons. (The resulting mechanism would eventually become "Salvage Yard", which will be available as a Kickstarter exclusive.) That gave us six continents and poor Africa was blank. We mulled those over for a long time and decided it was time for The Prototype.

North America, Asia, Europe, Antarctica, and Australia have been virtually the same, plus or minus some tweaks, since the first day we wrote them down on paper. For whatever reason, those basic ideas all worked and worked well. Balancing took some time, but not as much as you would think with these mentioned cards. Beginners' luck probably.

Phase 3: The Prototype

Sticking with our theme, we created seven sets of continent cards and associated city cards to go with them. Two decks of Bicycles, an Excel file, a pair of scissors, a roll of scotch tape, and two hours of Ben's time while he was NOT watching American Idol with his lovely wife, and The Prototype was ready. The Playtesting phase was here.

It was more like three hours. And no comment.

From gallery of riddlen

Phase 4: The Playtesting

This phase was by far the longest, most comprehensive, and most fun phase of the process. Ben and I began playing both two and four player games by ourselves to see how The Math and The Initial Concept would play out. It was love at first sight. Over months of playing, refining, editing, adjusting, and swearing, we still had poor blank Africa, but a much streamlined and better Plutocracy. We brought in our buddies who also were company mandated to take lunch every day and asked them whether they'd like to take a break from lunch Dominion to try out our game. Joe and Pat said yes and away we went.

There will be a more proper time to thank Joe and Pat, but it's not an exaggeration to say that Fleet doesn't happen without them. One more person, Mike B, deserves mention here. His concept boat art was worth a million bucks to us. We work with really smart and good friends. Like, Matt and I are easily two of the biggest idiots there. Tough to believe, I know.

The idea for Africa and a new mechanism to go with it came quickly once we started playing actual games with four people. The cities needed a mayor and that mayor would be VP. It was simple – take a card from your hand, play it on top of the city and now it had generated an additional VP and given the cards in your hand another purpose. Africa would buff the mayors by allowing more to be played and giving draw bonuses for having them.

As we played through that mechanism within the existing Initial Concept, we liked it a lot. Again, as simple of a mechanism as it is, it was one more decision to make on how to use the cards in hand. Weeks went by, and we were playing and balancing and checking The Math. We are tracking trends, victories by player (let's just say that if this were football, Joe would be the Cleveland Browns – sure it was possible he could win, but he usually did not), VP totals, game length, WHIP, and a bevy of other nerdy game play sabremetrics. This data led to one of our first hard decisions. We had to punt South America.

South America was a neat idea. It was, at its core, a trade mechanism. At some point in the design process we had discussed player trading. I think Ben and I would like to one day design a game in which player trading works and is not spiteful and vindictive and mean, but Plutocracy was not that game. Each city card had a VP value, Cash Value, and Settle Cost, and to get the VP, the city card had to be settled and the settle cost paid. If a player had managed not to spend all his money at the auction or during settling or mayor-ing, then he could cash in a remaining card for more cards right before the draw. It was a big time card generator, and as it turned out, too strong. Dang fun, but in its implementation at that time just too powerful. The loss of South America and a need for a new mechanism also led to further discussion of The Theme. The Playtesting will resume after the next segment, but it is cool to note how changing The Theme had a major impact on design.

Phase 4a: The Theme

The Theme came about during The Playtesting and helped shape Plutocracy into Fleet. (No more name changes, I promise.) As we began developing a mechanism to use for the now-defunct South America, we kicked around The Theme. We wanted The Theme to be meaningful and affect game play. Continents and cities made sense but is an overused idea. We tried military themes (squads, soldiers), cool but nerdy themes (orcs, elves, wizards), farmocracy (fields, workers, crops), and even space (planets, colonies, ships). Nothing felt right. Ben and I sat at lunch and discussed it with Pat and Joe, our aforementioned playtesters extraordinaire. Pat gets the attaboy for coming up with Fleet as he asked, "What if the cities are boats and the continents are fishing licensees?" Now is fishing the most exciting thing? No, I hate fishing. It is boring and you have to get up really early to do it, BUT I love Deadliest Catch and Whale Wars and A Perfect Storm and Master and Commander and fishing shows on Saturday morning on ESPN 8 "The Ocho". (All right, that last part is a lie – those fishing shows suck.) The rest of that stuff is pretty dang cool, and you know why? Cause boats are cool.

Boats are aces. I've never met anyone who doesn't like cool boats. I've bought more than one game just because it had a sweet boat on the cover. And you the reader should, too. Shouldn't you?

Board Game: Fleet
Board Game: Fleet

NOTE: It is an important distinction that Fleet is a strategic card game with a fishing/boat theme, not a fishing game. You know, on account that fishing is boring but boats are AWESOME.

Phase 4: The Playtesting (cont.)

With The Theme firmly in place and a name to go on the box we dreamed one day would exist, The Playtesting resumed. After a few more weeks of daily gaming and getting used to the new theme and penciling in the new card names on our super fancy proto, we still needed a replacement for South America. Brainstorming other ways to generate VP, somebody in The Playtesting group suggested fishing. After all, we were playing Fleet now right? That was a big moment. Not only had The Theme helped shape the game, but it had provided us with an entirely new VP mechanism. Each fish caught would be a VP. Once a boat was launched (the new settle) and Captained (the new mayor) it would begin fishing each turn. We added a fishing phase to the turn and began playing. It worked. It was fun and thematic. At first, we used random markers for fish and continued working toward the last mechanism (poor blank Africa). Fish are goods and have value – what if you can use them to generate money in game? That would be useful and makes a lot of sense. Processing Vessel was born.

Plutocracy was chugging along making good progress until Fleet + Fish + Processing Vessel hit us like a ton of bricks. Since that day, it's been full speed ahead, and we've made only one more legitimate design change. We originally gave one VP per Mayor(Captain), but dropped it because in the late rounds no one would bid for a "Big VP" license because they could score more points with a double launch, double captain, fish play. The Bigs not being attractive was not an option. Eliminating the one VP per Captain did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Ben and I decided it was time to update the proto, print out fresh card labels, re-tape while NOT watching more American Idol, and make fish tokens. Ben was so successful the first time, he took the card job and I went home and raided my beautiful wife's scrapbooking area. Using some sort of little press machine thingy, I made one hundred little foam discs with paper backing. (That prototype will be available to super awesome pledge guy on Kickstarter with a copy of the finished game.)

We returned to work the next Monday with The Prototype 2 in hand and The Playtesting resumed. No more major changes occurred. We spent several months and hundreds of games refining and balancing and awesomizing Fleet into what it is today. A watershed moment for us was watching Joe pick up a handful of fish and throw them across the conference room cursing loudly enough to be heard in the cubes outside. If a guy can get angry at a game, but still want to play it again, it must be good. Fleet had become everything we thought it could be and it was time to move on to publication. I mean, how hard could that be right?

Matt was more optimistic than me. He drove the train to get us noticed. Without his energy I probably would have quit after the first five or ten thanks but no thanks.

Phase 5: The Wake Up Call (The Long Road to Publication)

We did not go into this blind. We are not complete noobs, but I do not think either of us realized just how busy our friendly game publishers really are. I think with partial arrogance, possible naivety, and overall supreme confidence in Fleet we expected to just throw the game out there and wait for the checks to start rolling in...

Then we got The Wake Up Call.

I am being a little factious – we did not think it was going to be that easy, but I was not prepared for how long a few weeks or months can seem when you are waiting on an answer or email. Every publisher has different screening processes and demands, and we went to EVERY single one. We wrote a blurb and spammed it to anyone who would listen. In several cases, the game was outright rejected at that point. In many cases, a rule set was requested – a rule set that did not yet exist in a reasonably professional form. We spent a few weeks putting that together and sent it to all interested parties...and waited. I am patient guy. We are both pretty laid back, but holy schniekes does waiting suck.

This process began in earnest in February 2011 and we have been with Gryphon Games since August 2011. In retrospect, it's not THAT long of a time considering that publishers have to read the rules, decide they like it enough to spend time playing a proto, then actually play the proto – but it seemed like FOREVER. With all that said, we were fortunate to have several requests for prototypes in the same timeframe that Gryphon asked us to work with them. I sincerely thank those companies for the opportunity.

I sincerely thank everyone who even opened our emails. Nobody owed us even that much.

Ben and I never considered self-publishing. There is not an ounce of art in either of us and we are not in this to make money. (Sure, money is great, but we have good jobs.) I want two things out of this deal – the little "Game Designer" box under my name in my BGG profile and the ability to go to Amazon or my FLGS and see my (and Ben's) name on a box. How effing cool will that be?

I've always secretly hoped for an Essen trip – and maybe to meet Reiner K. Those would both be priceless.

(This is my first comment to a Ben comment, so how about blue. Wow, meet the good doctor at Essen? That would rule. Maybe if the Kickstarter campaign hits like 500% funded we can get Rick (Gryphon's boss) to fly us out there next year... Yeah...back to the diary.)

What if the game fails? Or what if it succeeds and the game sells most of the thousands of copies that get printed, yet falls into the middle of the road with so many other games? Is that a success? I think so. We think we have the next 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy or Coloretto. (Kidding – I hate Coloretto. Zooloretto is great but if I am going to make sets in a card game I might as well play rummy.) Do we?

We are both regular posters, so if you have any questions drop either of us a geekmail or if you just want to chat or even if it is to tell us the game looks dumb and you think Kickstarter is the worst thing ever. I will respond as quickly as able. Thanks for reading what ended up being a shockingly long diary – hope you enjoyed it!

This thing ended up being almost as long as our movie Cubefarm – NOT coming to a theater near you anytime soon.

Board Game: Fleet
Board Game: Fleet
Board Game: Fleet
Board Game: Fleet

But wait! There's more!!

If you haven't passed out yet, or are a masochist, or actually have enjoyed reading this Tolstoyian diary, please join us for Part 2: The Journey to Production.

Phase 6a: The Pre-production

It's a whole new ballgame now... My "The ______" gimmick doesn't really work here, but I am going with it anyway. As first time designers, we understand the reasoning behind the Kickstarter campaign and are ready to move forward and make it successful. Once that is successful, we move on to The Game! But before we get there we have to HAVE an actual game to show off and send around and get evaluated and show off some more.

Phase 6b: The Production Prototype

Turns out there is a lot that goes into The Production Prototype. Who knew right? The first step is getting an idea of what the little taped-on paper squares should actually look like on a card. How are we going to represent the theme through the cards and bits?

As mentioned before, neither Ben nor I are art guys. We have math-based technical degrees (read: nerds). When we began working with the artist/graphic designer and publisher, we knew we wanted boats and fish and licenses. That is a good start, but as it turns not a complete start. We didn't know what we didn't know. That is a key takeaway from this process for us heading into future games: Know what you want as specifically as possible.

We understand the publisher will have ideas as to what makes sense and what sells, but no one can know Fleet like we know Fleet. We spent two-ish years designing this awesome game and getting a publishing contract based on Bicycle cards and clear tape and an Idea. We were not fully prepared for "What kind of boat?", "What setting?", "What era?" Ben and I did not realize that we differed a bit on what those answers were. I wanted old boats, while Ben pictured modern fishing boats (which was more in line with the story we were using). I pictured cool old Portuguese fishing boats and Chinese junks and.... well, basically I wanted pirate ships with a net on the back. The issue with that era is that fishing boats did not look like fishing boats. Turns out boat technology did not go through any drastic visual changes for, like, hundreds of years. I am sure some doctor of boatany would tell me there was a major change to the outer hull designs in the late 16th century that led to increased displacement of water and a significant decrease in friction and cut DAYS of coastal travel time in the Baltic Sea, but to me a boat from 1584 looks an awful lot like a boat from 1901. Then came plastics and metal and all that, and we got cool Deadliest Catch-looking boats. That is what we went with and it was the right call.

Phase 6c: The Art

Okay, so it was time to find an artist. Here is the thing about The Art: I know NOTHING about art. I do not know how much work it is, how long it should take, what is involved, or how much it should cost. After all that, you are handing your game over to Some Guy who then uses your direction and vision to make your game look awesome.

You hope so anyway. What if it doesn't look awesome? What if it sucks? I mean, Some Guy somewhere else has your game in his/her hands. It is scary. Luckily, Rick had Some Guy ready for us. Enter Gabe. Gabe was artist/designer #1 for Fleet. He did a good job through what turned into a long, stressful process but was forced to leave Fleet due to unforeseen family commitments. He did his best, but he was unable to make progress and as time slipped away he finally had to step down. We thank Gabe for his work.

Enter Eric J. Carter (ejcarter). When we decided to have someone step in and take over midstream, we had already lost a lot of the time. That means the new Some Guy had to work quickly and be able to pick up where the last Some Guy left off. Eric did more than that. He had ideas on cleaning up the existing designs and did the full illustration set, box cover, rules, and kickstarter bonus layouts. He has been awesome. Hire him. Seriously, I mean, have you seen the box cover? It is incredible. See it again...

Board Game: Fleet

Back to The Production Prototype...

There were also the bits to think about it. We all LOVE bits. We spend thread after thread talking about them. Publishers clearly understand this, but have to balance them and their coolness against cost – not to mention that bits come from really far away. This was pretty smooth for us. Cool little wooden cubes and a boat for a player marker. Done. Then we get Eric to give our files to the printer and get a few The Production Prototypes printed out to show off leading into the Kickstarter campaign. All in all, not a bad process and it got us to where we are today – kickstarting a game with the backing of Gryphon Games! Woot!

Phase 7: The Kickstarter Campaign

This starts now and runs through April 27 – and WHEN successful we get to move onto Phase 8.

Phase 8: The Game

With the support of this great community, production will start after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign!

Matt Riddle
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