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Designer Diary: Cooper Island

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Board Game: Cooper Island
The first idea of a game mechanism that eventually developed into Cooper Island came after playing Antics!, a 2010 game from Fraser and Gordon Lamont published by Fragor Games.

Back then I was really fascinated by the action-selection mechanism in that game. Being a passionate cube-pusher myself, I thought of a way to use the puzzle mechanism in that game to harvest resources of different kinds. Soon, I pictured a landscape with different types of territories. The idea of an island that has to be explored by the players came very quickly, and the use of ships to keep score on the water surrounding this island was already part of that set-up.

The initial idea of generating resources was that the aim of the players should be to get to high levels to have valuable resources, but also to force them at some point of the game to block the high valuable spaces with stuff that earns them victory points. To me, this is an interesting option: I build something up and have some kind of evolution or engine in the game, but it gets you nowhere for scoring within that game. Only by blocking these high value spaces will you receive points — and the higher the value, the more points you collect.

The island I designed didn't only have resources; I also designed buildings that could block spaces permanently, and agricultural goods that would block spaces just for a certain period of time. Players could use those goods to score during the game, but they could also set aside the scoring opportunity to re-use them for in-game purposes.

Board Game: La Granja
Board Game: Solarius Mission
After designing the island, I realized that I had no good idea of how to control the game, that the players needed something to do. Everybody would have their own island, but there was no main mechanism to execute actions. At that time, though, work on La Granja — which I had designed shortly before "Island Builder" (the first working title for Cooper Island) — had become serious very quickly, so I shelved the island game for the time being. That was back in 2012.

"Island Builder" remained on the shelf for quite some time. After my post-La Granja depression, Mike Keller and I started working on Solarius Mission, and that game also became serious quickly. Mike took over the development for Solarius Mission in the middle of 2015, and I had some free time to get back to my old idea of that island game.

After many inspiring discussions with my friend Julian Steindörfer over a worker-placement mechanism of his with a built-in turn order, he gave me the okay to use that mechanism in my design. Sadly, it caused a lot of problems with downtime, so I decided to re-design the worker placement to be quite simpler.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The first flaw in the game found by Claudia...

A very important step in the development of the game was initiated by my wife Claudia. Early on, I used ships as a victory point tracker, and the track they sailed on was the water surrounding the players' island. Each player had one track of their own as I found this to be very thematic as well as a chance to make the victory point track part of the game. I used this element for certain buildings in the game to gain food when the ships were placed close to the island coast. The building would have a fishing-related name, and effectively players could use the victory-point track to fish.

My wife came up with the idea of designing landscape tiles with one part landscape and one part water so that the victory-point track could be used as part of the tile laying — and she wanted to have bonuses on those water tiles when a player collected enough victory points to reach the island. During development, this became a key element of the game, and I always thought about this as a chance for having a unique element: Victory points are not only a way to find out who wins the game, but they're also part of the game while playing.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Fewer animals, more buildings

For the worker-placement mechanism, I decided to have a small number of action spaces, keeping it simple and straightforward. It is always hard to find the right number of action spaces for the different player counts. I wanted to avoid that problem, while also making it easier to learn the game because it had only a couple of actions — but if you have only a handful of spaces, you cannot allow the blocking of action spaces. To have some limitations, I decided that players could go to an action space only once a round, and to have some interaction, I decided that spaces already taken by other players would cost a fee for the players using that action later in a round.

At the beginning of the game, I had twelve rounds. Over the course of twelve rounds that limitation of going to one space only once a round was not a problem. Once I started cutting rounds because the game was too long, I realized that it was very hard to not be able to do one action twice a round. As a result, I gave every player the opportunity to gain more workers instead of having only a fixed number, while also giving them special workers that could do an action a second time in the same round.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The action spaces changed so often...

After a play of the great game Dilluvia Project (Spielworxx, 2015), I came up with the idea of adding a special bonus to the ability of the special workers. I also used different colors for the different type of workers as in Dilluvia Project. That got changed by my publisher due to problems for people with color blindness, and now you have workers with different shapes instead.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My publisher Matthias testing the game with me and Claudia

The next big step for Cooper Island was initiated by my editor early in 2017. Matthias Nagy of Frosted Games wanted the players to not be limited to their own victory-point track. Going to other players' boards and using their small bonuses from their islet tiles was a great idea — but I did not want the victory-point ships to be "flying" from one player board to the next. There had to be a thematic solution. I started working on layouts to merge the action spaces in the middle of the table and all player isles into one big island. This became a very complicated puzzle considering different player counts, and I had dozens of layouts, never sure whether this would be a thing that could be produced.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
A four-player test game with more interlocking elements

I never found a good way to connect all the stuff component-wise. During playtesting, I always used adhesive tape to keep everything in position. When Viktor Kobilke took over the editing job on Cooper Island, he came up with a way of producing the island and he designed the final layout that has now become reality. To me, this is a nice example of how editors and designers work together as a team to make a game better. Now Cooper Island has a unique board and a great table presence. I am really proud of our team efforts and cannot wait to see the game finally on the table.

Andreas "ode." Odendahl

Board Game: Cooper Island
Almost there — mock-up version at BerlinCon 2019 (image by GrisuderSpielteufel)
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