I am in our Dungeon with my two partners, Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino and Aureliano Buonfino, busy as always, when one day my phone rings. On the other side, an unknown guy who asks me: "Have you published a game called Escape to Outer Space with the Spiders from Mars?"
I think, "Oh, my God, who is this idiot?!" but I gently answer, "Do you mean Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space? Yes, I published it, and you don't know how much I'm regretting giving it a name like that at this precise moment."
The guy's name is Alessandro Milone and he tells me, with great confidence, that it is destiny that brought us to meet because he is a friend of the girlfriend of one of the boys from Santa Ragione (the authors of EFTAIOS), and he also coincidentally has another friend who invented a science fiction game about the Moon landing and that we should absolutely meet to test his prototype. I sigh, thinking he's the typical crazy kind of guy who happens to call us all the time, but I give him an appointment nevertheless, perhaps because under that delusional rant I felt a spark of genius.
Alessandro Milone knocks at the gates of the Cranio Dungeon a few days later, accompanied by his infamous author-friend, a guy called Andrea Crespi. The former is a self-confident-looking man in a suit; the latter a Popeye-like hunk with huge forearms and a shiny bald head, but with blue eyes.
We instantly thought they were super-nice despite their outlandish theories on fate and inner energy. Our sole philosophical rule sounds something like "beer and pretzels", but we get along together very well right from the start.
Andrea Crespi: After we set the meeting, we headed into the center of Milan, home of the Cranio Creations headquarters. Once fulfilling the not-so-easy task of parking our car in the center of Milan, we headed to the doorbell panel (there were something like 100!), and after careful research we found the right one.
They buzzed us in, then gave us instructions on how to get to their office...very long instructions. Hmmm... I began to wonder what I was doing here. Well, after passing by boilers, through hedges, and down narrow stairs going deeper and deeper, we finally reached the massive door of the Dungeon. Lorenzo Silva opened it, smiling and inviting us to enter. As soon as I did, I had to roll a d20 for a dexterity check to avoid a disastrous fall on some improvised steps made with pallets.
They take out their prototype with a proud look on their faces, and I instantly suffer a heart attack caused by the cover artwork and its unspeakable horribleness.The Cover Not Fit To Be Seen by Man or Beast
Nevertheless, I continue to smile politely, patting my chest in a desperate attempt to restart the familiar and reassuring pit-a-pat of my heart. Me and my two partners, we are then immediately thrown into the gameplay of Conquest of the Moon, the great-grandfather of 1969."We want more numbers!"
Even then, each player represented one of the nations competing in the lunar race, and they had to handle all the economic and development decisions to enhance their aerospace industry during the period from 1961 to 1969, the year in which the game ends. In each round, players could invest part of their assets to increase their revenue in the next round or spend them on technological development, thereby advancing their knowledge. The ultimate goal was to be the first nation to successfully land on the Moon.
To do this, six tests of increasing difficulty were performed, representing the six key steps of the whole mission (from the launchpad start to the landing itself). In addition, each player could send satellites to the moon to explore it and try to find the best landing site, thus lowering the difficulty of the mission.
The whole thing was topped off with a good set of cards which guaranteed a lot of interaction between players.
The game worked well and was a lot of fun – we were pleasantly impressed by it – but something was missing. It needed a lighter, general-audience-friendly approach as the core mechanism was based on a complex mathematical calculation that made Aureliano's nose bleed. (The guy is a half historian and is unaccustomed to arithmetic.) We took a few days to think about it.
The next meeting takes place in Andrea Crespi's own Dungeon. (Yes, there are a lot of dungeons in the Milan area.) Here we discovered many dark secrets about him and his lascivious passions...
Andrea, apart from rubbing his shiny skull to make it shinier and spending whole days in a gym pumping iron in his forearms (something that we encouraged him to stop doing as he's no longer a youngster), has a huge passion for all things "space". Following this passion he embarked on several projects, from the construction of DIY dioramas of HUGE scale (in the range of four square meters) that depict the moon landing (included below, and yes, it's really there) to collecting related memorabilia. (We realize only in this moment that the day of our first meeting he was wearing an original NASA pilot jacket!)The Giant Monster that lives in Andrea's Dungeon...
Andrea tells us that in the beginning he was undecided whether to build a real rocket to go the moon or try to publish one of his board game prototypes, but that for merely practical reasons – the need to drill a huge hole in the roof of his house to make space for the launchpad made his wife frown at him more than he was disposed to undergo – he finally decided for the second option, hence Conquest of the Moon was born in 2008.
We ask Andrea and Alessandro to leave the game in our hands for a few months to see whether we can improve it and make it more marketable, clearly specifying that parts of the game could be turned upside down. If everything goes well, we would have the game ready for Spiel 2011. The dynamic duo accepts our proposal.
Andrea Crespi: The day they came to me, as soon as they entered my Dungeon, they froze as if they were struck by the gaze of Medusa! Feeling their astonished aura with my spider-sense, I turned around and saw an incredulous look in their eyes, their foreheads collectively ran a flashing message saying "This guy is either a complete idiot or an utter genius", but I clearly felt they were more inclined to the former. However, after the initial shock, we talked and discussed, and finally we agreed on our future plans.
This was followed by months in close contact with Andrea and Alessandro: changes, revisions, playtests, fights, memorable games with completely screwed-up versions of the game that absolutely made no sense, weekly meetings, brilliant ideas and wagons of crap. My memories are hazy and I still have nightmares of that time, as if I had been in Vietnam.
We have a seemingly finished version of the game; we are absolutely convinced of it and we're really happy but exhausted.
The game has changed a lot, while maintaining the same feeling. We added various kinds of Scientists; Successes and Failures had replaced the complex additions of dice rolls and bonuses from the early version of the game. The flow of the game changed, too, as players now had only a single lunar Mission; they would conduct preparatory missions that, if completed successfully, could increase the effectiveness of the various components of their rocket. However, the player who arrived on the moon first would still instantly win the game.
There is little time before Spiel in October, but we can do it. We need the cover, the illustrations, and the graphics. I take the phone in one hand and my trusty whip in the other and call our dear Giulia Ghigini, who despite her complete ignorance of what a LEM or an EVA are, decides to fully commit to the project. (The poor girl would regret it very soon.) The aesthetics we originally planned for the game were a sort-of "Soviet propaganda poster" style. Giulia was thrilled.
After a while, though, we realized that it did not fit at all with the game mechanism and it was difficult to adapt that concept to the actual components and gameplay, so we went on to something more realistic. Giulia was desperate.
Meanwhile, Dungeon Fighter is upon us.
No holidays for anyone – yet we're not even close to completion.
Meanwhile, Dungeon Fighter increasingly weighs upon us.
Okay, needless to say, we were hopelessly late. The most obvious decision was to go to Essen with some mock-ups and give them to some of our publisher and distributor friends.
Meanwhile Dungeon Fighter is like an unmovable boulder upon us.
Andrea Crespi: End of July! During the 1000th appointment I learn that "There isn't a snowball's chance in hell", time is ticking out, and the Cranio guys have Dungeon Fighter covers printed on their eyes... They are going to take a break as they just can't follow all the things going on at the same time. Silvia (my wife) takes the defibrillator to restart my heart, which stroked after the terrible news, and brings me back to this planet!
In September a flurry of files starts appearing on my computer: many different versions of boards, player sheets and cards that travel back and forth between us and them to try to ease the tasks for everybody. At the end of this lengthy process we create what we believe to be the final version of the game, and we realize some mock-ups.The player sheet has a new life...First idea for the Lunar Mission
Spiel comes with all the madness that ensues, including the last second release of Dungeon Fighter...which had on us the same effect as if World War III suddenly broke out. We deliver the mock-up of 1969 to some friends and partners, with the promise to meet again in Nuremberg in February 2012 to talk about it.
Those "friends and partners" we gave the game to return the mock-up to us and provide us with utmost frankness the news that the game quite sucks. Well! Long live sincerity! We return to Milan with our mood under the heels. There we play the game again and...we realize that the game really sucks!The board of the boring version of 1969 – too many steps in a Mission, and too many die rolls and tests!
Andrea Crespi: They give me the news on the phone. After a dull thud followed by a busy signal, Silvia (who still is my wife) heads snorting to the defibrillator and brings me back to life, again.
And down again to work on the game design, hurray! We revolutionize the game, the two key changes being to introduce victory points and to eliminate the majority of the dice rolls. If in the previous version the missions were resolved after a series of dice rolls, making the game a bit boring in the long run, now every mission could be resolved with a single die roll.
We go to Cannes where we demo the game to Gabriel from IELLO, who gives us some great advice on how to improve it. We go back to Milan, with a renewed determination.
Now we have a product that really rocks. We just need to call Giulia and change the illustrations to adapt them to changes in gameplay. Giulia is not happy at all; she still does not understand how the hell a carrier rocket works, but the seventh time she has to draw the LEM, she finally manages to put the hatch on the right side!
The game is almost finished; we just have to balance it a little more (mostly victory points) and fix some inaccuracies. We are still working on the conversion values between victory points and money, and on the ability of blue scientists, which were originally a defense against the black ones – a feature that turned out to be of little use once you mastered the game.
We also still have some doubts on the Intelligence cards, which were too strong on the lunar mission, making the game frustrating when playing against aggressive players. (The name of Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino materializes in my mind, crystal clear, for no specific reason.) There is also a Research (the Bank), which grants 2M per success at the beginning of each round with an unmodifiable dedicated die roll and could unbalance some games with a steep luck factor.Final player sheet
We solve the remaining problems by introducing an increasing Intelligence cost for the Missions so that the cards are much stronger early in the game but become less influential as the game progresses. We also introduce the blue Scientists in their present form: boys with wide shoulders whose studies were funded just because they are good at basketball. (It's your fault, good American people, if things like this come to our minds. We see them in your movies!)
The Bank is replaced by a more balanced "Investors" Research. And last but not least, we put a limit to the number of VP/money conversions that can be made, depending on which turn is being played.
With this determination in our hearts, we arrive at Heidelberger's event at Castle Stahleck to present the game...and luckily it was a great success. We did it! After all, if the Germans like a game, it means that it works! Heiko and Harald and give us their blessing and baptize us with beer.
Andrea Crespi: They call me to give me the news. As soon as I pick up the phone and greet Lorenzo, my wife puts down the iron and goes to the defibrillator, but when they tell me how it went, I tell her to leave it there. We won't need it this time!
The game is in our hands, complete and super cool! We also have a great promo Research (the Stock Exchange) we will distribute to BGG or in fair events... you know what? This time we're almost ready to go to Essen!
Lorenzo SilvaFinal game board