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Designer Diary: Deep Blue, or Into the Deep End

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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I was never much of a swimmer as a child. My parents were adamant that I learn to swim at least half-decently, so for a couple of years I spent every Tuesday afternoon in swimming class in-between all the other sport activities that I found much more to my liking: soccer, badminton, and tennis.

Slowly I got the hang of it to a point where I didn't actively loathe those Tuesday afternoons, but I was more than happy when my parents told me that I didn't have to turn in for swimming class next year. I had learned the basics, but one thing I never got the hang of was diving into the deep end. Toss me a couple of meters below surface, and my entire body screams "Get out of the water, now!"

So what is more natural than making a game about diving for hidden treasures on the bottom of the sea?

It All Began with a Book — 2013

Fast forward a couple of decades. It was early 2013, and I was reading a novel about a Danish prospector who had taken part in major gold rushes around the world in the second half of the 19th century. I thought this setting was perfect for my first big-box board game. I had been dipping my toes into game design on and off for six months creating a couple of small card games but nothing like what I imagined this game would be like.

The book that inspired the game;
as a game designer I like to dig into myths and nostalgia of times past

I sketched a rough and ugly prototype, named it "The Prospectors", and brought it to the local playtest event on the next opportunity.

My idea for the game was this: You were a family of prospectors arriving at the California shore to join in on the 1849 Gold Rush. The game was one big gold rush divided into smaller rushes as mines opened and closed around the countryside. On your turn, you could:

• Pick up cards to prepare for the digs or gain abilities when you travelled around.
• Move your family members into the mine areas.
• Start digging for gold by flipping cards off the top of a treasure deck, thus discovering pockets of gold or dangers to be wary of.

In other words, a press-your-luck game. The core idea that made the game click (in my head at least) was that players were allowed to join in on another player's treasure hunting if they met certain conditions, such as being present at the mine site. My hope was that the tactical positioning on the map and timing when to dig for gold would add another gameplay layer to classic press-your-luck games that I had played and loved like Incan Gold and Can't Stop.

The early version featured a time-track system in which players have both a meeple and a disc to track scores and time spent; I have no idea which one is which, but I remember thinking I was clever at the time that one of them could not stack, so it made a difference

It kind of worked. It was a mess, mind you, but not a terrible mess. More importantly, there was a fun core activity in play that even I, novice game designer that I was, could identify. I saw that players liked to explore the unknown and appreciated the anticipation building as they prepared for big digs; I felt the strong emotions when a player pressed not only their luck, but the luck of everyone around the table. These three core features are still integral to Deep Blue today. Little did I know that this game would be the main push for plunging me into the big blue unknown of becoming a game designer.

I modified "The Prospectors" and brought it back two weeks later, then again and again over the next couple of months. Those iterations saw much streamlining and a lot of changes. I introduced a bag of gems because it is more exciting to pull stuff out of a bag than flip random cards. I removed the time track system à la Thebes that I felt limited the freedom of the players, though some playtesters kept asking me to bring it back. (Sorry, Troels.)

At this point "The Prospectors" started looking like a proper game. Finding pretty art for my prototypes has never been my strong suit, but I have always pushed to make them functional and not let players down. I think I did a half-decent job here.

By the summer, I was pretty happy with the game and decided that between this and my card games, I had a decent portfolio to bring to the SPIEL fair in Essen that I was attending for the first time that autumn. Now, the question I was asking myself: Who should I show the game to?

Enter Days of Wonder — 2013

When I began my journey as a novice game designer, I foresaw myself making family-friendly style games, and in my mind no one did this better than Days of Wonder (DoW). I even set myself some lofty goals, not thinking too much about the slim odds. One was to get a nomination for the Spiel des Jahres. Another was to sign a game with DoW. I was naive, I know, but coming from a pro-sports background (not swimming), giving myself challenges like this has always felt intuitive.

Nobody told me how to pitch a game, let alone to DoW, so one day in the fall of 2012 I saw myself walk up to Eric Hautemont, then-owner and CEO, who was in town as keynote for the Danish Game of the Year Awards. I had been working on a sports-themed game and why not start from the top and ask my favorite publisher (i.e. naive)? Eric was very friendly and generous with his time, and he gave me some good advice while also letting me know that a sports game was not in the cards for DoW. I remember that I told him that next time I had a game that was a better fit for DoW, I'd let him know. I am sure he didn't think too much of it, and why should he?

Now, ten months on I had "The Prospectors" designed with DoW on my mind. A few months before SPIEL '13, I wrote Eric again and gave him a short overview of my new game. His reply was surprisingly fast, saying it did indeed sound like a DoW style game and asking me to make an appointment with Adrien Martinot (current CEO), who was at the show.

I was amazed by how uncomplicated that had been, and I carried that feeling with me throughout my first SPIEL experience later that year. I had eight or nine meetings with various publishers and gave out prototypes of all my games. I remember that I was surprised how little those meetings resembled proper sales meetings and felt more like a chat between like-minded people who are passionate about games. Getting a game from idea to prototype, through pitch and development into a final product is sometimes a long and arduous process — but looking back, I reckon that had it not been for the ease by which I got to sit down with decision-makers from rather big publishers, I am sure I would not be designing games today. All my games had issues or at least rough edges, but I always felt encouraged to continue out into the deep end of game design.

A blurry picture shot as I anxiously waited for my meeting with Days of Wonder

Saturday morning at SPIEL, I walked into the DoW booth, sat down with Adrien, put the game on the table, and talked him through what you did and why it mattered, moving a few pieces around on the map as I explained. His reaction was that it did indeed look like a DoW-style game, so I left him a prototype and walked out the door, much energized only ten minutes after I had entered. The following months saw a lot of back and forth of emails discussing rules questions, issues they had seen, and potential ways to fix it. Also, it was mentioned in passing that we might need to find another adventurous setting for the game rather than the Old West. Though I knew nothing was certain, I must admit that I had a hard time not getting my hopes too high those weeks.

In the first version, a deck of mine cards determined where gold was newly discovered (here at the Jack Pot mine), which created frenzied rushes criss-crossing the map, but betting on where these rushes appeared was not the fun of the game

One morning in late December 2013, I was at my local café having a morning coffee as the latest email from Adrien came in. He thanked me for allowing him to play the game extensively, but told me that in the end they had decided against publishing it. It was all very considerate, but I was devastated — and proud. It was a weird mixture of feelings: devastated because I felt I was close to achieving a dream, and proud because I had come this far with one of my very first games designed. A few weeks later, I decided to stuff the game away in the drawer as a good learning experience, move on to new games, and thought that was the end of "The Prospectors".

Gold Fever — 2014

All right, so this is actually not completely true. While I moved on to new games, I did find inspiration in "The Prospectors" to create Gold Fever.

As a child, I spent countless summer holidays with my younger brother and grandparents driving around the Danish countryside looking for campsites by the beach to park their caravan. While my grandfather was at the driver's wheel, my grandmother would entertain us with all sorts of games. I treasured those holidays. A lot of the fun I get out of games today can be traced back to those childhood memories.

This summer I came across this old and beat-up camper that was the exact model my grandparents had. (I called my grandmother so that she could confirm.)

Now I was the one driving the car home from a summer vacation with my brother and our girlfriends. It was a warm afternoon, and everyone in the car was asleep so my mind wandered back to those childhood memories and the games we played. What would a travel version of "The Prospectors" look like that I would have loved to play as a child? The bags and the gems were a given, as was the press-your-luck gameplay.

The simple breakthrough ideas were 1. to allow each player to have their own bag and 2. to create more emotional highs by allowing players to ditch unwanted stones into other players' bags. By the time my passengers all woke up, I was done designing the travel version in my head that published in 2017 as Gold Fever, with the game being carried in the U.S. by Stronghold Games. I am still very proud of this silly little game because it keeps reminding me why I love designing and playing games.

An Unexpected Email — 2016

In August 2016, I was in a summer lodge with my family, now the father of two, and I received a most unexpected email from Adrien. He basically said the time might be right for publishing "The Prospectors" and asked me whether I would be up for making a new and improved version?

That was an opportunity I couldn't turn down, so I picked the game out of the drawer and started thinking. I cannot thank Adrien enough for believing in both the game and my ability to develop it to its full potential. Later that year in Essen, we discussed the new direction to take the game. I began to question every corner of the design to make sure I didn't stick to old decisions for sentimental reasons. I even remember suggesting to Adrien that we get rid of the game board, but I could tell by the look on his face that he definitely saw this as a game with a pretty map as a centerpiece. (He was right, of course.)

I saw work-in-progress art assets over six months, but I must admit that seeing this image of the entire package genuinely blew me away

Back to Work — 2016/17

I worked all winter on the new version before I shared it with the DoW team in early 2017. I was pretty confident everything was moving in the right direction, but I did have a few nagging concerns. One thing I did not want was to just wait for DoW to potentially turn down the game again, so I kept testing, collecting feedback, and refining my thoughts.

The new version introduced a lot of changes:

Development #1 — The earlier prototype had players move back and forth between the same six boom towns. Now I wanted some forward movement, a progression towards an end goal. It was much better in the new version but also felt a bit too scripted.

The theme offered a strong west-to-east movement as prospectors searched inland, but it didn't matter too much where you were as long as you stayed centrally located.

Development #2 — I wasn't content that the game was "just" about positioning to take part in digs at various mine sites. I wanted more asymmetries in play. My first solution was to have players gain certain advantages as they entered a mine. Some would be drawing extra cards, others would allow you to gamble on surviving the treasure hunt to score more points. I liked the idea of scouting spots, but it was a bit all over the place, and I felt I was setting myself up to re-invent the core game, which was not the point.

The Can't Stop mine is a good example: You could gamble on 8 or 12 points if you stayed in the mine, or you could pick up cards or gain extra movement

Development #3 — I wanted to inject the asymmetries into the core gameplay of drawing stuff out of a bag as you started a gold rush. In the 2013 version, you played cards from your hand only to defend against incoming dangers, but you never played cards to gain advantages from the good stuff you drew. I introduced new cards that allowed you to score more points just for yourself if you joined a dig where somebody drew specific gems (such as two gold or four silver). This felt like a major breakthrough. Now I just needed to figure out how to reinforce that specific experience. It would take a new version.

Some of the early attempts at cards that would give points during a gold rush

It's All About the Bag, Stupid — 2017

I was June 2017, the con season was about to begin, and I wanted to hand in a new version of "The Prospectors" to DoW so that they could bring it along for tests during summer shows. That left me with only six weeks to put my thoughts into a new and improved version of the game.

Oh, and I had added a fourth bullet to the development list above:

Development #4 — From numerous playtests, I had observed how players were excited to gamble on triggering their personal cards when certain gems were drawn out of the bag, but also their frustration when this rarely happened because those cards would not be on their hand at the right moments of the game. I knew I needed to find the right system to allow players some control over the card flow. It would require a major overhaul, so I asked Asger to join.

Diving Deep
by Asger Harding Granerud

Unlike Daniel's childhood memories avoiding the deepest parts, I from an early age looked for the deepest places. I also remember that the 4m deep pool often had coins lying at the bottom, which for a ten-year-old meant candy was basically lying around. In other words, I went diving for gold in my pre-teens...

As an adult, I also hold an Advanced Padi license and the 4 meters have been changed to 40 meters. I haven't found any gold, though.

Back to Ugly — 2017

During the spring of 2017, Daniel had been going back and forth with DoW on this design again. There was clearly an interest from the publisher, but it was also apparent that something was amiss. The design was Daniel's from before we started co-designing games together, and we had agreed on a clear split just there. Nonetheless, I offered to step in and co-design if Daniel would accept me, and eventually he did.

We knew we wanted to send a prototype to Adrien and his team before we hit our summer holidays. This gave us about six weeks to get the basics right, but of course we were already working off an existing scaffold and years of experience from Daniel.

Nevertheless, we immediately started taking the game apart, and it was obvious that the defining characteristic was the bag. As so often happens when we end up designing games, we find that core, then we stick to it, designing everything else to mesh with it. In Deep Blue, everything you do relates to that bag of gems, and I do mean everything!

Should you choose to sail on your turn, the benefits you will get is either access to diving spots or benefits to future dives. Cards you buy either help protect you during future dives, or cash in on them. You literally can't take an action in Deep Blue without it relating to the bag.

With this focus, we quickly zoomed in on what became the game you're seeing in shops today. When we are in one of our sprints, we rarely end up making pretty prototypes. On the contrary, the first ones here were drawn in two minutes on an A4. Though we did improve the quality, the actual prototype we ended up sending to Days of Wonder was hand drawn!

We managed to ship it off before going on holiday, then I came back to work in August and eventually told my board that I was going to quit and dedicate myself full time to game design. To validate that decision, already in September we got word that DoW was going to pick up the game.

The new prototypes in all their hand-drawn glory; it had to be ugly before it was pretty...

A Development Tour de Force — 2018/19

As happens in fairy tales, this is where Days of Wonder stepped in, took over the project, and ironed out all the kinks of the game for us. Or not. Not at all really. In fact, they were quite annoying, constantly putting a finger on the sorest parts of the design and asking "What about this...?"

The biggest design challenges at this point were the hand management and the endgame triggers. Throughout the process, there were numerous other more balance-related issues, and cards plus scouting spots were inflated and deflated at regular intervals. Big Excel sheets were built to track the data, which is probably worth an article in and of itself. Initially we had most cards being double use, which DoW then asked us to streamline into single-use cards, then half a year after that change back into dual use cards. This is quite typical for our process, though, and while a few years ago I may have been more inclined to insist and assume, now we test. Even if we believe the idea isn't great, it is better to know (test) than assume.

For months we tracked results through images and collected all of it in a good old spreadsheet — which is a game designer's kind of fun

I don't quite know why the hand management dogged us for so long. We eventually nailed it down in November 2018, and I think it took us that long because we also fretted about the "shuffle small decks" issue that can happen in the final version.

Along the way, we also tested a version in which you redraw all used cards upon a rest, but it had a number of issues. First, it gave certainty of which cards were in hand, which wasn't as interesting as not knowing. Drawing from that bag is more exciting for everyone involved if you can't tell for sure what your opponents' options are. Second, for some reason the full redraw resting somehow also got stuck in cycles in which everyone tended to rest at the same time.

The "redraw three random cards" rest fixed both of those issues, but it also introduced a number of secondary effects. There is the gamer efficient brain, which will try to redraw when precisely three cards sit in your discard pile. Redrawing at two cards reduces efficiency, and redrawing at four risks you missing out on the card you most wanted. This again puts pressure on when you should play which cards as a card that might be "correct" to play when you already have 0-2 cards in your discard pile might not be so with three discards.

Fixing the endgame trigger was tougher and wasn't fully solved until around SPIEL '18. For a looong time, we kept wanting to force an epic ending on the game — the final scene of the movie that would tie it all together. We made a special endgame dive in which everyone could join with their full crew available, along with a couple of other special rules. The trouble was that this caused extra rules, and the game could still end without a climax. The game lives off iterated experiences, and every single instance can either be a total bust or a complete boom. We can't control that, and once player expectations for the final dive were sufficiently elevated due to all the extra rules, if it fell flat, then that would be how the game was remembered.

We tested a lot of rules for the special dives, including some that did not end up in the game; maybe you can tell which...

We had already landed on the solution with the four hidden dive wrecks, and the most straightforward solution was simply to end the game once the fourth of those dives was completed. We still have the unknown ending as the four dives need to be discovered, and there is still some control because even once revealed you still have to actually anticipate when that last dive will happen. More importantly, this approach adds few extra rules and feels like a natural extension of the existing gameplay.

We still wanted to spice up the ending and provide extra replayability, so we added special rules to the four final dive wrecks. (The base came is quite variable, though, and as you never get through the entire deck of crew cards, the bag composition also varies from game to game.) Initially my gut reaction was to add four different special rules to the four different tiles, then later to add two rules to a pair of tiles. My reasoning was to create more variance and constellations for the set-up, but what was the cost I was paying. Daniel correctly dragged me back on track, and we ended up with seven variants that can't be mixed, but which are applied to all four wrecks for any specific game.

Why was I wrong? The shuffling of the variants caused confusion in players, and it provided no strategic guidance. Sure, one variant might cause a specific card to increase in value, but only for one-fourth of the endgame tiles — and you might not even see it. Focusing the endgame on one experience at a time made it easier for players to remember what's going on, made it easier for players to strategize around that situation, and as a result created more focused and memorable experiences. This allowed us to design the seven variants specifically with the experiences in mind that we wanted to emphasize. Try a game where you stock up on cards? Or rush ahead? Or relearn basic positioning? We have those ready for you, hopefully also guiding you organically toward some of the basic strategies.

An epic ending is never guaranteed, but you can't say we haven't tried to provide the means. Now it is in your hands...

Long Story Short

Deep Blue represents my deepest dive into nitty-gritty development work so far. (Perhaps save for a 2020 title that has already overtaken it.) I do think there has been a big payoff, and I am very happy with where Deep Blue has landed. It is a press-your-luck game in which you aren't sitting and maximizing your own odds in isolation, but are constantly part of a communal press-your-luck effort. Positioning, cards, and deck status all add up and ensure that even when you are participating in the same dives, you are doing so from an asymmetric point of view. That next cube could be a huge boon to you, yet completely irrelevant (or worse!) to someone else. This asymmetry, coupled with some specific design choices for cards, means we have hit that balance in which you're very often lured to draw "just one more cube".

Asger seems happy...

Naturally Deep Blue is a press-your-luck game, considering everything in the game relates to the bag, and engaging with the bag is the only means of gaining victory points. This will also cause a LOT of gamers to immediately disregard the game as luck is a factor. However, there are many elements you can manipulate to improve those odds, and you also have a say in whether or not you want to go for high payoff or low risk as a strategy. I know full well that none of this will stop people reacting to the perceived injustice, but one can only hope!

Happy diving!

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Asger Harding Granerud
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