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While I was preparing my Gaming in Obscurity video review of City of Chaos, I went out on a limb and contacted one of the two designers through boardgamegeek. Martyn Oliver was kind enough to do this interview through email.

***

Ryan McSwain: As part of the intro, I’d love to include a quick biographical update, sort of a "Where is he now?" type of thing. Would you mind sharing what you are currently up to?


Martyn Oliver: My current employment is as an Application Support Consultant in the financial software industry, pays the mortgage.....

I’ve also spent time in the video game industry, 4 years at Activision (UK) in the late ‘80’s, games are really my passion.

RM: On with the questions. Do you remember what may have inspired the creation and design of City of Chaos? I’ve been curious about what influenced the gameplay and atmosphere of the game.

MO: The inspiration for CoC was quite diverse. I love fantasy fiction but always felt disappointed with fantasy board games, in that they never reflected the story element captured by rpg games like D&D. Colin and I decided to try and create a board game that was easy to play but had that storytelling element.

The influences that went into creating Byronitar were as follows:

a) Byzantium, a great sprawling city at the heart of a decadent empire. I actually visited Istanbul after CoC was complete.

b) Victorian London.

c) Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar (from the Fafhrd & Grey Mouser series, specifically ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’).

So mix those starting influences and add the weird imaginations of Colin & I and you get a unique setting.

The gameplay was derived from our experiences of playing rpg’s, board games and ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books. The idea was to get people straight into the game with minimal setup, just the shuffling of cards and that the game would be the guide for the player. I think for a game this complex and large, it was a little naive of us and it’s one of the things I’d like to amend.

It might be of interest to note that we had never heard of, seen, nor played ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ and it’s only this Christmas that I actually played TotAN, after getting Z-Man games’ excellent republication. TotAN is a good game but not like CoC in content.

RM: You share design credit with Colin Thornton. What was it like designing with a partner? Do the two of you still keep in touch?

MO: Designing with a partner was excellent, especially as Colin & I are totally different characters. We both put an inordinate amount of work into the game and it’s fair to say that neither of us would have completed such a huge project if we had worked alone. CoC started out as a hobby and I don’t think Colin ever really wanted any more from it than that, whereas I wanted to go the whole hog, which we did! I still don’t know which of us got it right!

RM: What were the biggest challenges in designing such a massive, paragraph-based adventure game?

MO: Designing the game was easy and incredibly hard work at the same time (please excuse the contradiction), it took us over 4 years for conception to completion. The biggest challenges were to make all our disparate ideas meld into a working game, try to make sure all the loose ends were covered and in the latter stages, raise the finance for the company and to convince retailers to stock the game.

RM: Am I right in assuming you self-published through your company, Monocle Games Ltd.? What could you tell us about your experiences with self-publishing?

MO: Yes, Monocle Games was created to publish CoC. Self publishing is very, very hard work, if there is one thing you need to self publish it’s money! Neither Colin nor I came from a wealthy background and cash flow killed the company, all the finance we raised went into the production and distribution of CoC leaving little or no money for marketing and silly things like wages!

So top of my list, if I ever went that way again would be to secure the correct finances for the company. Next on the list would be a good marketing/sales person, indispensible for a startup company. Of course, both of these things come behind having a good design and creativity.

RM: I really enjoy the art in City of Chaos, from the Bill Sienkiewicz-like cover to the intense character art in the rule book and on the guild cards. Who was responsible for the game’s graphic design?

MO: Thanks, I like it too, although we did receive comments from game retail buyers that the cover should have been more of a standard fantasy theme (in fact a big deal with a large book club company in the U.K. fell through for that reason, as we didn’t have the funds to change the cover and reprint the box).


Colin did the tiles and the look of the cards, an art student called Jonathan Burton did the artwork for the cover (I’m pleased you picked up on the Bill Sienkiewicz style, I’d just read Elektra: Assassin and was blown away by the artwork, I also liked the film poster for Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and asked Jonathan to incorporate these influences into the cover). Some of the black & white work was also done by JB but most of it is the work of one of his art student colleagues, Darrel Smith.

RM: What was the game’s print run? I’ve been curious just how many copies of the game are out there floating around.

MO: Only 3000 games were ever produced and the game sold all over the world. Surprisingly, for us anyway, was the resistance to the game by the U.K. games retail industry itself, we had great difficulty actually getting anyone to put the game on the shelves in our home market and exporting a 2kg game was very expensive.

RM: I love the metal miniatures included with the game that mimic the various guilds (lacking minis for only the Mesmerist and Magi). Who sculpted the minis, and where did you have them manufactured?

MO: The miniatures were sculpted by Steve Trickett and produced by ‘Alternative Armies’ who at that time were based in Nottingham, the company is still running but under different owners, I believe, now based in Scotland.

RM: Also about the minis, and just to satisfy my own curiosity, was the original intent to include eight of them for eight players, with a miniature for each of the guilds?

MO: We’d have loved to do a mini for each guild, but just could not afford it, I also wanted to include female miniatures and do regret not changing the sex of some of the guild pictures/minis.

RM: I read in the errata file that there were plans to make expansions. How far did work progress on those? Would you ever consider making what was finished available for the fans of the game?


MO: Work on the expansions never really took off, we were trying to get the business going and working on a new game and just didn’t get the time.

RM: The price of the game seems to still be climbing, especially for the recent mint copies with your signature that popped up on eBay. What’s it like having something you created become a collector’s item or--as they call them on Boardgamegeek--a Holy Grail Game?

MO: I’ve always been incredibly proud of CoC, in many ways it’s still unique 15 years down the line. For it to be recognized as such, by gamers on Boardgamegeek is more than I could have hoped for and I’ve now read every forum post, gamer comment on the site. I think I owe BGG and its members a huge debt of gratitude as without the site I think the game would have disappeared into obscurity. If only BGG had existed in 1996!

I’m a passionate student of Arthurian legend and to have CoC called a ‘Holy Grail’ game, well, it makes me smile Smile

RM: You mentioned to me that you’ve played the game recently with your son. Looking at the game almost fifteen years later, is there anything you especially enjoy about it? Anything you would like to have done differently?

MO: I love the atmosphere in the game, the way it creates a strange, unique world for the players to explore, also the way players interact in the game is always a joy to see.

Biggest regret is that I wish we had spent a little more time on the rules/mechanics of the game to speed up movement and iron out the few inconsistencies. The idea was to get players playing as quickly as possible, not to bog them down with too many rules (it is a board game, not an rpg), just a little bit more playtesting and explanation in the rules and we would have fully achieved that (it was never the intention that players ‘ditch the rulebook’).

RM: City of Chaos is your only design credit on Boardgamegeek. Do you have any other games out there or in the works? I’m sure we’d be interested in hearing about them and looking forward to seeing them in the future.


MO: City of Chaos is my only released game, no more games out or in the works, although I would love design more and I am working on a couple of designs, once again as a hobby.

RM: Do you have any advice for other folks wanting to publish a board game, especially those looking to do an adventure game? How about for those considering self-publishing?


MO: As I said earlier, cash is the lifeblood of any start up, make sure you have sufficient finance to make your dream a reality. And also make sure you can sell the product.

RM: Anyone reading this is probably interested in one answer above any other: what are the chances of seeing a reprint of City of Chaos in the future? And if not a full blown reprinting, would you ever consider making it available as a print-and-play?

MO: I’d love to see CoC, reprinted in a 2nd edition. Print & play, not sure, I would prefer a professional reprint by an established company.

***

So there you are, some insight into the creation of a very unique board game.
This is the first Gaming in Obscurity interview with a designer. Hopefully this is something you’ll see more of in the future.

If you haven’t already, please check out Gaming in Obscurity--Episode 6--City of Chaos (Part 1) (Part 2) for an overview of the game.
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Darrell Pavitt
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Intrigued as to why MO became OM by the end...

Its also fascinating that they never played Arabian Nights - there are striking similarities in some mechanisms, some sort of convergent evolution in progress.
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~Ryan McSwain
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nyhotep wrote:
Intrigued as to why MO became OM by the end...


I don't know what you're talking about. whistle

Thanks for pointing that out. Fixed.
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Gaming in Obscurity--Episode 6--City of Chaos is now live. It spilled over into two parts:

(Part 1) (Part 2)
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Brian Hamilton
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cough cough Stronghold Games
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Martyn Oliver
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Harumph...thanks
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Deano Ware
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Convergent indeed! I actually designed a game very similar to CoC back around 1980 and I also had not heard of Tales of the Arabian Knights.

My game is a solo paragraph driven game with a more medieval/fantasy theme than CoC though.

I actually copyrighted the game in 1986 which is about 10 years before CoC was published.

My inspiration was actually the fighting fantasy books/Lone Wolf Magnamund series and Dwarfstar's Barbarian Prince.

I recently tried to get funding to finish it through Kickstarter but I never met my goal.
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Martyn Oliver
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I'd play it!

The game definitely needs to be more than single-player though, co-op seems a popular format at the present.

And if City of Chaos ever gets republished I'd be interested in seeing it & possibly helping you out with it. How far did you get with your design?
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Deano, try, try again! Advertise on BGG and maybe you will have better success the next time.
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Somatologist wrote:
I'd play it!

The game definitely needs to be more than single-player though, co-op seems a popular format at the present.

And if City of Chaos ever gets republished I'd be interested in seeing it & possibly helping you out with it. How far did you get with your design?


Hi Martyn!
I was lucky enough to score a mint copy on EBAY last week.
Just waiting for it to arrive.

Have you ever considered Kickstarter to finance a reprint of COC?

How hard was it to come up with a paragraph driven game?
Error checking and rechecking must have been a nightmare.

Thanks again for bringing us this great game!
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Thanks Mike,

Hope you enjoy playing it.

Kickstarter is not really an option, if I was part of a games company in a thriving market then I'd consider it. But starting from scratch again in the UK is just more than my poor soul can contemplate.

The game concept/design was really easy. Colin & I could have gone on forever, lack of ideas just wasn't a problem :D Putting them all cohesively into a board game was more difficult.

Still, I think City of Chaos is still unique 15+ years down the line. We'll have to see how the latest story telling games approach the issue, although it looks like they may just be clones of TotAN gameplay in a different world, which in my opinion would be slightly disappointing.

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Just arrived today!

I'm inviting a friend over this weekend for a game.
I'll let you know how it goes.

P.S. As a designer, how do you know when it's time to stop designing (or adding features etc) to a game?



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Man we had a blast in our first day of exploring the City. We both died twice already and only half the tiles have been explored! I love hard games because it really heightens the tension and excitement.

One cool thing is that I was twice forced to avoid a situation between NPC's (due to my characters low health) where I really should have intervened! Talk about being responsible for your actions (or inaction) In the City of Chaos you really are.
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Martyn Oliver
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Thanks Mike, glad you enjoyed it.
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Somatologist wrote:
Thanks Mike,

Hope you enjoy playing it.

Kickstarter is not really an option, if I was part of a games company in a thriving market then I'd consider it. But starting from scratch again in the UK is just more than my poor soul can contemplate.

The game concept/design was really easy. Colin & I could have gone on forever, lack of ideas just wasn't a problem Putting them all cohesively into a board game was more difficult.

Still, I think City of Chaos is still unique 15+ years down the line. We'll have to see how the latest story telling games approach the issue, although it looks like they may just be clones of TotAN gameplay in a different world, which in my opinion would be slightly disappointing.



I have just discovered this game after hunting for something like it and it looks brilliant. I am on the verge of making my own because what I want just doesn't exist it seems. I will be on the look out for a copy for sure.
It is very sad that you cant use Kickstarter for a reprint/second addition for this. There is a lot of chaff on KS doing very well and something like this with the right campaign would be golden.

Would it be that hard to use all you original source material with a few updates sent to a printer to get this happening on KS?

Regards
Jason.
 
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Martyn Oliver
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Ah, if only it was so easy.

Glad the game interests you though.
 
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I think it's time someone else bugged you about getting City of Chaos out there again somehow! I'm dying for a copy and they're just unattainable online

Hope you're working on something cool, particularly a COC reissue.
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