Welcome back to The Solo Saturday Post! Each week, I sit down with a different solo designer. In our chats, we cover their design process, get their thoughts on topics of importance in solo gaming, and share some stories behind your favorite games. We hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving (for our American readers).
Today, I am joined by Shadi Torbey who is best known as the designer of several games that have become the Oniverse following his first publication of Onirim.
Shadi, it's quite wonderful to speak with you. I recently played through the entirety of Onirim and absolutely loved the solo experience. It certainly has earned a permanent place in my collection. As someone whose games prominently feature solo modes, what do you think solo gamers are looking for in a gaming experience?
I'm very happy that you enjoyed Onirim! I couldn’t answer for my fellow solo players, but I can try to express what I am looking for: some of the things I want to find in a good multiplayer game (meaningful decisions and an immersion into a coherent and well designed system), and some of the things I get while reading a good book (a quiet moment for myself away from everyday’s life and an escape into another universe –be it an imaginary one if I’m reading fiction or one of concepts and ideas if it’s an essay).
Knowing what you personally like in a solo game, which designer(s) serves as an inspiration for you?
I admire the elegance of most of Reiner Knizia’s designs: how very simple rules manage to give us a lot of depth.
You can certainly see that influence in your designs as one of your hallmarks is to start with a a basic mode and then add in mini-expansions that all come in the base box? How did you settle on that model for your games? Why?
The min-expansions either originate by being part of the basic game and then removed to offer the ‘purest’ basic game possible, or are designed almost naturally because the basic game, once completed, calls forth for a series of specific mechanisms to be added to it.
It is also a way to allow player to adjust the difficulty as they please: hard, easy, rewarding, are all concepts that vary from one player to another. I like the idea that each player can assemble the base games and various expansions into the formula that fits best their tastes.
Describe for the readers your process to designing a game, if you would.
I’m not sure I can say I have A process: in some cases the theme comes first and I try to create a set of rules that supports the story I want to tell; in other cases the mechanism comes first, and try to find the best theme for it; in both cases, at a certain point theme and mechanisms evolve together and nurture one another.
For my first (thankfully unpublished) designs, I had to tendency to jump right away on glue, scissors and paper to build a prototype –and I did this for every single new idea of ‘improvement’! You can image how un-effective this was…
Now I let the idea mature for some days/weeks then make a prototype (most of the time a hideous assemblage of redundant trading cards on which I stick a silly piece of paper with symbols only I can understand) and start the playtest/develop phase.
And in general, how do you go about designing a solo mode?
For the Oniverse series, it’s almost incorrect to speak about a “solo mode”, since it is actually there from the beginning.
It is usually the two player mode that comes a bit later: for this mode, the challenge is to find a way to “divide” the players (in order to have each player struggling to compete a task) but still have them working towards the same final goal.
Another intriguing aspect of your mini-expansion format is scaling difficulty. Many solo gamers prefer tougher games so that wins feel more rewarding. Yet others, prefer experiences where they can win. How do you fall on that spectrum in regards to your design philosophy?
As a designer I try to avoid difficulty for the sake of difficulty –or for the hope that people will respect the game more because they rarely win. It is actually rather easy to make a difficult solo game: just adjust the stats against the player. The challenge lies not in making a difficult game, but a rewarding one.
When I play a game (any game, be it a solitaire or a multiplayer) I like to feel that my choices and decisions matter. So it’s not about how hard a game is, but about how much influence my actions have on the outcome. Some solitaire games gave me the impression they were “hard” not because of the difficult or brain-burning decisions the player has to made, but simply because the odds were against the player. For me it doesn’t make the game more satisfying: I have the impression I am playing a very random game, and the fact that, because of the stats, I may not win often doesn’t make the experience more rewarding in any way.
It’s interesting that you used the word “philosophy’ in your question, because it’s almost a question of view of the world: when trying to accomplish something (and I don’t mean specifically at a game table, it can be anything in our life) should we be punished by a long list of failures and hardships before possibly glimpsing some hope of evasive success, or, once we have understood a system and mastered a skill, can we count on steady and consistent (even if never completely certain) wins?
Speaking of trying to accomplish things and experiencing failures - which of your designs gave you the most problems?
Each one was challenging on its own, but I don’t remember one being particularly problematic.
What type of solo win conditions do you prefer: beat your own score, completing objectives, general win-loss conditions, an automa opponent, etc.?
I am generally partial to the win-loss condition. I really enjoy playing against well designed automas (some really give you the impression you are playing against a virtual opponent). Having to complete a scenario can be great fun –but in some cases the replay value might suffer from it. I’m a bit less excited by the “beat your own score”, although I also play some of those games once in a while.
Can you remember the first game you ever played solo? If so, what game and what do you remember about that experience?
The first board game I played solo was probably Space Hulk -almost 30 years ago! I remember having so much fun, and thinking that, since the Genestealers had so few meaningful decisions, it made more sense to play it solo and try to win with the Space Marines.
And now today, what would you say are your top 5 solo games?
A top anything is always tricky, because you often end up leaving out (and blaming yourself for doing this) some titles. So, if you allow me, I’ll instead name the 5 games that I enjoyed the most playing solo in the previous 5 months; some have been part of my collection for years, some I just recently discovered:
Spellbound (a hidden gem), Race for the Galaxy (great game, amazing replayability), Terraforming Mars (same as the previous), Viticulture (favourite solo worker-placement), Marvel Champions (played solo for the first time this week).
Let's dig a bit into your whimsical creation that is the Oniverse. It is currently comprised of six games: Onirim, Urbion, Sylvion, Castellion, Nautilion, and Aerion. These games each feature different mechanics, but are all solo games that feature a co-op mode. When in your creative process did you determine you would have a universe of games that are all interrelated in some fashion?
The very first thought that led to the creation of Onirim was: “it would be so cool to have a series of games that could be playable solo’. So the idea of a series was there from the very beginning.
The first weeks I “only” had ideas for two games (that would become Onirim and Urbion). The whole line up came a bit later.
What is the best order to play the Oniverse games?
Difficulty-wise, I would say that Castellion has an introductory mode specifically designed to be very, very accessible. The base game of Nautilion is also easy to apprehend. Sylvion and Aerion are the “trickiest”, (the former will probably present the player with the hardest hand management choices, and the latter looks like a yahtzee dice game but is actually a deck-management game –I’ve seen people at conventions getting crushed by it because they were only focused on the dice results).
Onirim stands somewhere in the middle.
Story-wise, they are connected, but each game is independent from the others, so it doesn’t really matter –although Onirim sets the frame for the whole series, and, in its last expansions, heralds the future games of the family.
You alluded to the differing mechanics with hand management being the most ubiquitous. Are there any mechanics you have tried to deploy into an Oniverse game and you couldn't get them to work how you had hoped? What were they? Why didn't they sing?
I haven’t had a major failure in trying to design an Oniverse game –maybe because I don’t try at all costs to fit one or the other mechanism in it: if I see that an idea doesn’t go very far, or comes too close to an already published game, I just drop it (I might decide to pick it up some times later if I have new ideas for it).
I also had a couple of designs where the two player version did not satisfy me and felt tacked on, so I decided to remove those games from the Oniverse series for the time being.
Of all the games in the Oniverse, which is closest to your heart? Why?
That’s really an impossible question to answer. Each of them represents a milestone in my journey as a designer.
Every Oniverse game is illustrated by Élise Plessis. How did that relationship originate? Describe what you here hoping to capture with the art style found in the Oniverse games as it is quite different from many games out there?
I saw Elise’s work at an exhibition and kept her name and contact ‘just in case’. Some years later, while working on finalizing Onirim, I remembered her work and thought it would be a great fit: falsely childish, fresh and vibrant and yet with the right amount of ‘unheimlich’ needed for a dream world full of dangers and challenges.
Help our readers get to know Shadi Torbey outside of the gaming world. What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of gaming?
I love music and stories -books, tv series, movies (with a ‘faible’ for sc-fi / horror / fantasy). And spending time with my family.
You are also quite an accomplished vocalist. Do you see any parallels between hobby gaming and operatic singing as they seem on the surface to be completely separate endeavors. It just seems unique to be so accomplished in two different fields.
Thank you, I don’t know if I’m so ‘accomplished’ in either of those fields –but I enjoy both of them a lot.
Indeed, they seem absolutely different, and yet, I see some parallels. The first one is sociological: opera is somehow a ‘niche’, and so is modern board-gaming. Opera-lovers probably feel they have some kind of edge over Taylor Swift’s fans, like Hobby gamers feel they play much better games than the people who play Monopoly or Uno.
This being said, I’m pretty sure opera- and hobbygame- fans would be very happy if more people were sharing their passion(s): I see it as a form of elitism, but one that doesn’t want to stay in a small niche just for the sake of feeling superior or different (although you’ll always find in both fields people who will enjoy being part of the minority). On the contrary: most opera-fans I know are happy to share their passion with newcomers –as are most hobby-boardgamers.
On a totally different level, structural similarities could be found: Opera is a combination of several elements, mostly music and text. Games also combine several elements, mainly a mathematical structure (the mechanisms) and a narrative one (the theme). Opera and board games have this in common that they are deeply un-pure forms of art/entertainment: opera is a splice between theatre and music, while board games could be described as a mathematical structure combined with a (more or less strong) narrative element: the theme.
Regarding singing opera and designing games, both are very different, and yet need a mix of discipline, rigour and creativity. Maybe there will be a bit more instinct and ‘guts’ in singing and a bit more imagination and ‘mental structuring’ in game design.
Well, I would argue that you are accomplished in the field of game design. After all, You are one of 17 people who have been inducted into the 1-Player Guild Hall of Fame and were the category winner for 2016. What was your reaction to winning this award?
There may be a paradox in any artistic endeavour: fundamentally you do it for yourself (for instance, I designed the Oniverse because I wanted to have a series of fast portable solo games that I would enjoy playing) but at the same time it is an huge satisfaction and sense of accomplishment –and maybe, more importantly sense of community- when you realise that your work somehow resonated with other people. The award you mention is one of the moments you realise you didn’t do it just all for yourself.
Well as I began, I love Onirim and enjoyed it so much, I added the rest of the Oniverse games to my wishlist. So Shadi, I'd like to thank you for your contributions to our community. Let's wrap up though and let our readers get back to gaming. Do you have any upcoming projects that you want folks to know about and where can people keep up with you on the internet.
There is the next chapter of the Oniverse series, that I hope to see published soon…
I don’t have a blog or a website, so the BGG is probably the best way to know about upcoming projects and releases.
Special Announcement: Next week will conclude our 2019 edition of The Solo Saturday Post Interview Series with a very special guest. After that, we'll present a couple Top Solo Games list to close out the year.
In 2020, I'll look to launch another series of interviews and do some other blog concepts.
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The Solo Saturday Post is an in-depth interview series with designers of games that solo players love. Each interview with a different game designer will explore their thoughts on solo gaming and provide some stories behind your favorite games!
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