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Subject: Interview with Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko (Plato Magazine n°80) rss

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(Note : this interview was originally issued in Plato n°80. This translation is proposed courtesy of Plato's publisher.)

The Keepers of the mystery keys
Oleksander Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko

The authors of Mysterium don't only play with spirits, even with ours. They also make tremendous efforts to promote and develop board gaming in Ukraine : founders of IGames, managers of a board game shop in Lviv and organizers of international conventions. At their instigation, it would not be surprising to see more and more titles with Slavic charm coming to us, like a fresh wind from the East

– Could you please tell us a bit about both of you? How did you get involved into board games? Is game designing your main activity?
Oleksander Nevskiy : I’ve been always interested in games. I dreamt of creating computer games when I grow up. I graduated in law and psychology and then worked as an artist for some time.
I and my friend Oleg just for fun created our first game My Happy Farm in 2011. After that game design became our main job. We worked on Mysterium about two years and after its publishing got great feedbacks from gamers from all over the world. We are very excited about its worldwide release in 2015. Now we are finishing the work on Pirates of the 7 Seas and Behind the Throne. We hope players will like it too.

Oleg Sidorenko : Oleksandr introduced board games to me in 2008 and literary in few months board games became my main business.

– What are your favorite games, those that will never quit your game library? And among the more recently published games, is there a few that you have found particularly good or impressive?
ON : It is not easy to name a few, because I have a lot of favorite games, but I will try. At the moment my favorite games are Hansa Teutonica, Battlestar Galactica, Ticket to Ride, Suburbia, Nexus Ops.
More recently published favorite games are: Five Tribes and Lewis & Clark. These are great games. They have very interesting gameplay and fantastic production. I am very curious to try: Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Codenames, T.I.M.E Stories, Black Fleet, Elysium, Loony Quest. It is not competed list. I always like to try new games. But the main problem is a lack of time.
I am very excited about huge success of new game from Ukraine Spyfall, and very proud for his author Alexandr Ushan.
OS : BSG has been the leader of my top board games. There is no game which I played more times than this one.

– Could you tell us how "Tajemnicze Domostwo" is born? What was the main idea? How it has been developed?
ON : Actually from the very beginning the project was called Mysterious Signs. Then we decided that it’s very long and we needed something understandable without translation for most European languages, maybe something from Latin. So, we got Mysterium. Tajemnicze Domostwo is the title which Polish publisher chose for Polish market. As the game were firstly published there and this is a popular publisher, lots people think that this title was the original one.

The main idea was to move the adventure game genre from PC onto tables. I am a huge fan of this genre. I mean, the golden era of these games. Also it’s evolved simpler form – “Hidden object”. But the main task was to make a game for several players where they create puzzles, every time a new one, by themselves. By the way there was an attempt to create something similar on computers; it was the project Myst Online: Uru Live from the legendary series Myst from masters of the genre and an ancestor of graphic adventure games. But, as far as I know, they had some problems with its realization. We decided to try, maybe it would be easier to realize on a table.
We understood that the world was changing and the games as well. Players wanted the simplest interface and the possibility to take interesting decisions with minimal efforts when concerns mechanics. We wanted people without any experience in board games play this one without difficulties of rules understanding. We had to remove obstacles in ergonomics and components, and to make skills and experience not important. The main things are communication, imagination and creativity. We were very impressed by the game Dixit, and how people interpret different images. It's like a kaleidoscope, you demonstrate a picture and human experiences, emotions and impressions give a totally unique image. We decided it would ideally suit for creating puzzles.
Firstly, we wanted everybody to take part in mysteries creation, but later we realized that this would take away another moment, namely an important part of communication. Then we did so that one player created mysteries and the game is simultaneously fully cooperative. And the role of the Master has to be interesting. Therefore, although the gameplay is very different, the task of players and a Ghost are the same. Its implementation requires communication by using images and hints. Moreover, it's a very creative role, and it needs lots of attention. You have to see what depicted in cards, and listen to the progress players in their discussion. The presenter has to make a plan where all card hint at one thing. So, there is an effect of comparison, players have to look for something common between the cards they get, and often it is not just the same things, but a as a certain image.

If you go back to the genre of PC adventure games, mysticism and detective were the most popular and interesting genres. Therefore, we had no problems with choosing the plot of the game. Mysticism almost always means old estates and ghosts that live there. So then we just needed to pick up the goal of the ghost. Establishing justice and soul liberation is always a noble goal. The crime is relegated to the second place, so we just turned to its main components: suspected, location and material evidence.
To sum up, the development of the mechanics itself took not much time, but the creation of a visual components required a few years.

– Oleksandr Nevskiy mentioned a mathematical model for Mysterium. Could you tell us a bit about it? Is it the core of the game, which defined the links between "dream cards" and "character / location / item" cards?
ON : It's very simple. When we started to build the first half of locations, we had no idea that we’d face with one obstacle. In general, the feature of this game is that pictures play the major role, and it means that before testing the game, you need to draw the finished picture. This is a different thing comparing with developing other board games.

When the first part of locations was ready, we found that people were not looking for something and didn’t use that huge number of things that we had prepared for them in the locations. They just tried to give a hint that indicates to the general function of the place. So it turned out that human attention and concentration are limited, especially if we want to have some fun. If there are too many things, we automatically, at the subconscious level, simply do not see some of them. By test, we found that the critical border is 5-7 subjects and it was better not to cross it. Then players will notice these things, and we’ll pick up cards for them.

After that we had to redraw all these locations, although they looked very good. Our artist was in despair, but he understood the problem.

In order to avoid the stable groups of associations, we added cross hints, such items interpreting which can be equally good connected with different answers. For example, there is a barrel and some bottles in the basement, hinting at them, you can decide that it must be the kitchen. There is the nutcracker in the kitchen, which is a toy as well, so pointing to it, you can decide that it must be the nursery. There is a desk in the nursery, hinting at it can bring you to the study. And so on. Plus multiply it all on the imagination. The most interesting thing when you work with images, you can try to predict one thing, but in the end players will take that differently, and it is very cool. There are several such combinations for each character and location.

Also, there is a thematic connection. Lots of professions, items and locations will be divided between the base and the extension. For example, there is a hairdresser in the base. Playing the extension you’ll be able to get at his place of work and find items he uses while working.

– The artwork seems to take also a great part in the mechanism of the game. How all these cards were designed? How did you work with the artists?
ON : I’ve already told you about the creation of the characters, locations and objects. As for the dreams, almost all plots of them were designed by me. I but it was very interesting, especially when I saw how the artist understood the idea from my words and embodied it in life. To some expanse it was also a game and it was infinitely interesting. Moreover, sometimes he saw it's in a different way than me, and almost always it came out something new and even more interesting. Also, some dreams were created by the artist himself, by his wonderful imagination.

– Some people defined "Mysterium" as a "Dixit with a strong thematic background". Does this definition suit you? Do you think there is a link between "Dixit" and “Mysterium »?
ON : Yes, I think the synthesis is present in all forms of art. Although, as I mentioned above, we have the main point of comparison which is searching of common between dream cards. This is one of the main differences in our form of interaction with the images.

I’ve also got a home rule for those who want to make the game a bit harder and who like comparing. Your first hint must consist of two cards at least. This makes almost impossible any attempt to remember something from the previous games. As it’s very difficult to get the same two cards into the hand simultaneously. Moreover, this is the additional task for the ghost.

– "Mysterium" has already had a great success in Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Italy. Although it is not officially distributed in other countries, some people got a copy of it. Why have you chosen not to publish it in other countries, and let Libellud make another version? Could you explain us how it happened, and how you met Libellud?
ON : We are a small company. It was our second foreign published game. By that time it seemed to us perfectly that our game will be published by Libellud. The company which already has got a great success with game based on imagination. Now, when we see how much efforts, inspiration and energy they have invested in this version, I think this is a good solution. We’ll see how it goes. I am really exited about Libellud version.

– Were you also involved during the development of "Mysterium"? Did you work together with Libellud? How do you find the new elements they have added in the game?

ON : No, we weren’t involved during the development of Libellud version. They just told us about changes they were planning to make. They are true professionals, we trust them, and they better know their market. So, we agreed.

We really liked the idea of the album for the Ghost. It greatly facilitates his task and saves his time. Therefore, we decided to add this component to our version. The first expansion will have such an album. Now we’re just thinking on its design.

As for the changes to the rules for our market we are sure in our version and think that it is better to our players. This concerns not only this game but also the others games, rules of which can be changed by the foreign publisher. We are always open to criticism and advice. But if we do so, it means that we are sure in that. By the way, this is our job. And we know our market pretty good.

– Libellud chosen to change the cards, but they kept the dream cards as they were in the original version. Is there a technical reason for that? Are these cards « mandatory » to play Mysterium ?
ON : Yes and no. Some symbols are encoded into illustrations, but this is the imagination question, so you cant’ have one right answer. They could be changed with a big desire. Why they didn’t do so, it’s better to ask Libellud about that. I think the answer is simple, it’s just because the illustrations are good enough. They have a little bit different art style, it’s more fairy tail one. But it’s ok, they are dreams.

About their decision to change the other cards, it was their right, and they asked us the permission firstly. I think they just tried to adapt it to the modern market and to increase the number of players for the game all over the world.
We, in our turn, continue to develop expansion to our version and stick to its style we chose before. Some illustrations of the characters in the base game had specific performance manner, in expansion, we aligned these points, and I think fans of this style will like that. Overall, we saw that this category of players sought to more mystical, melancholy and thriller entourage. So we decided not only to abandon them, but even to enhance these moments in expansion.

– Could you tell us about your future projects ?
ON : We’ve already finished the work on another of our project, which we started to develop parallel with Mysterium. It’s called Pirates of the 7 Seas, and we really like it. We spent about three years on its development, testing and balance. Despite the fact that we have played a huge number of parties, I’m not bored of it, and I am ready to play it again. Usually authors do not play their games after finishing work, but not in this case.

We made the decision to make a game about pirates after a fun idea of the combat system which unconventionally uses dice came up to my mind. It allows you to implement truly extensive and spectacular fights very elegantly and visually. At the same time, the preparation itself, and mainly counting the results of battles are elegant and takes a minimum of time, especially considering the number of participants in the battle. Now, this mechanics has evolved into a stand alone system «3D Dice Battle System», which is already licensed for other game developed by another publisher.
We wanted to squeeze into this box all the fun and "explosive" of the pirate world. For example, there are games simulators, where the authors are trying to create the most realistic adventures, the economy of that time, or the nuances of politics in the Caribbean. And there are games with gameplay which looks like a kind of extract, with focus on the adventures. When you take all the fun, dynamic and juicy, and throw away all the boring, routine and annoying things. We oriented on the second things. No realism only awesomeness!
We are also finishing the work on another of our project Behind the Throne. It's an easy game built on such mechanics as Push your luck, Set collection and Special abilities. There are only 9 different cards in the game. By the way, it is now in trend, and we also decided to try ourselves in this genre. Players take the role of Grey Cardinals who are trying to take control on as many nobles, generals and aristocrats as they can to rule the country. In the end you’ll get points for controlling each of them. A player with the most number of victory points wins.
This game was like a small vacation between large projects and we did it in record quick time. We were also very lucky with the artist, from the very beginning we could not find the right style, and have decided together to try the last time and that was it. We quickly did all the work on the illustrations. Now we are finishing the design and proofreading.
Those who like quick and relatively simple games will like the game. There are lots of things which depend on luck, but it does not mean that you can’t influence the game. The more active you fight, consider the risks and monitor opponents, the better your chances.
By the way, both of these games do not yet have a publisher in France, perhaps this article will help them to find it ?.)
We are also working on expansion to Mysterium. In addition, there are several ideas already and I can’t wait to start full work on them. I hope you'll like them.

- A few games designed in Ukraine are now available all over the world, this seems to be a quiet new thing. Could you tell us how is the Ukrainian market for board games? Are there more and more players and publishers ? Is there an « Ukrainian touch » in board game design?
ON : In general, our Ukrainian market of boar games is still growing. From one hand it’s a problem, but it’s a good opportunity to start working here at the same time. We started to popularize board games in 2009 when we opened a boar game shop here. We organized conventions, tournaments and even tried to communicate with mass media. But unfortunately, the most part of people in Ukraine still don’t know what modern board games are. They just heard something about Monopoly, Munchkin and Uno.

The biggest our achievement is Igrosfera game fair in Lviv, the place where Spyfall, Viceroy and Mysterium were found by world publishers. This is the place where publishers, board game designers and players meet. It took place 4 years in a row. With each new year it became better and better. There were even some foreign publishers including Portal games with its leader Ignacy Trzewiczek, Brain Games from Latvia, almost all publishers from Russia and Ukraine at the last Igrosfera fair. It was in 2013. After that we couldn’t hold this event again because of Russian aggression and war against Ukraine. Our people were shocked and it wasn’t a good time for any celebrations, we had to protect our country. Now the situation is difficult but it’s stable. So, we’re planning to hold the fair next year. So if French publishers are looking for something special and new welcome to Igrosfera. Because our authors, the number of which is growing, are rare guests at foreign conventions.

There are also just a few localized games in the Ukrainian language. The most of licensed games in our market are localized in Russian. The same situation is with computer games. Russian publishers are monopolizing this market. When Russian publishers get rights for Ukrainian territory they don’t publish it in Ukrainian. It is almost always true. Ukrainians want to have the opportunity to play games in the Ukrainian language. So we do all our best to create that opportunity. This is a very big part of our market and it’s growing continuously. Ukraine is one of the biggest countries in Europe. It’s about 40 millions people. So I’m very exited about the future of board gaming in Ukraine. I think this hobby is very inherent to people who live in Ukraine because they are very open, friendly and family people.

As I wrote above, the other Ukrainian game Spyfall is pretty popular right now. I tried this game one of the firsts when its author came to us to show his projects. We understood at once that this is a super hit game. Ant the author wasn’t sure about this game and he didn’t plan to present it to other publishers. We persuaded him to do that.

As for the “special touch”, it’s hard to say, but I think it’s all about its young age. Some Ukrainian authors create their games without playing modern board games. Sometimes they just reinvent the wheel. But sometimes it’s a good thing, because they don’t have any stereotypes, as they are Tabula rasa. So they can create something new and fresh. Our market consists of two types of people: people who have never played board games or very small group of geeks who are developing this hobby. So Ukrainian “special touch” means that Ukrainian authors have to do something like a “Mission impossible” – to create the game which would be interesting for newbie and for geek. We try to simplify the interface as much as possible for that it doesn’t bother players to take important decisions in the game. We want a player has interest choices every turn and it doesn’t depend of his level of experience in board games. We think the game must be easy to learn and to involve from the very beginning. Maybe this is a Ukrainian “special touch”.
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