Archive for Lorenzo Silva
The original idea for what would eventually become Co-Mix came to me around three years ago, as one of the many small personal side-projects I start when I have an idea haunting my head, but I'm not sure whether it can be made into a proper game. The idea: "Can I create a storytelling game that makes you play cards not only to introduce plot elements, but to actually create the full story in a graphical way?"
Something like this. Looks easy, hunh? Well, think again.
This may not seem that different from a "normal" storytelling game, but if you think about it with more attention, it's a rather unique approach, and it was never attempted before (at least to my knowledge). The ultimate goal was to give players a tool to create comics (or storyboards, if you're more familiar with cinematic terminology), to give them a game with "panel cards" depicting not only characters, objects and settings, but also "connection images" — things like shot changes, details, and actions — to fill the gaps you would usually fill with your words and storytelling skills. It doesn't sound like a difficult thing to do, right? You just have to draw those "connection images" and a bunch of the other more regular stuff and call it a day, right? Riiiiight.
But surprisingly (?), problems are always waiting for you around each corner, and I had to turn many corners before Co-Mix could eventually be born...
Problem #1: "What If the Game Developer Can't Draw?"
Answer: The development of the game abruptly faces a sudden halt. With many other projects to follow, and with my lack of drawing skills making it difficult to create a decent prototype, the "storyboard generator" project was archived as "a nice idea to investigate when there's more time for it" and put into the metaphoric drawer (and maybe also in an actual one, I'm not sure).
In all its ugliness, I think it still actually looks kinda cute. C'mon, look at that wolf! Adorable.
It was only after I met Matteo Cremona that new life could be brought into the project. Being a professional comic artist, Matteo could surely do a better job with those illustrations, I thought, thereby helping me to finally create a working prototype, right? Right? Well, it was right this time. Matteo turned out to be really talented, which helps a lot. Add to the mix that some time after I met him, Horrible Games was born, and you can see how the timing was perfect for the development of "The Game That Will Be Known As Co-Mix" to start again with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
Okay, maybe the final result is slightly better than mine, I admit it. I even put a lot of time and effort in it. Sigh...
The first prototype born out of this cooperation worked surprisingly well right from the start. (It turns out that years of study and practice of drawing techniques is more helpful than an amateurish effort and a lot of good will. Who would have thought?) After six months of hard work, the game was really starting to take shape. After a lot of tweaking, we had more than three hundred illustrations, with twenty different characters recurring in many of them, sometimes even interacting with each other.
Just a few examples of the various character design styles we tried
Each character also had a set of related stuff, like settings, peculiar objects, actions, and details, and all of this stuff also appeared in relation to the other characters. This gave each panel card a lot of versatility. Ideally it would be quite easy to use a panel with any other panel, even if the character it was created for was not being used in the player's story.
Sample detective panels
In addition to that, we also put into the mix a lot of "generic" panels that depicted specific actions or items or details without being associated with any other specific elements. They would work like a "joker" card; you could place them anywhere, and with the right idea, they could fit into any story.
It took Matteo a whole... like... ten seconds to draw this full page!!!
Okay, maybe a little bit more than that, but it's still... humiliating.
With so many different illustrations, the decision to make the panel cards double-sided was an early and easy one. I just needed to put a lot of thought into which illustrations would be on the back of which other illustrations to avoid a situation in which a player didn't have the kind of panels he would need for his story. If, for example, we made cards with a character on the front and another one on the back, with an unlucky draft you could have found yourself in the not-so-pleasant situation of having a lot of characters in your hand, but no action to make them do, stuff to interact with, or place to be in. It would not be a pleasant game experience, trust me. But after all, it was not that big of a deal.
When I think of how many times I had to cut and paste different combinations of these, I still get shivers down my spine
At this stage, as you can see above, all panel cards were still drawn in black and white. That was to save time and effort while still in the prototype stage, of course, but it leads us straight around the next corner just in time to smash our faces onto the next big problem.
Problem #2: "How to Color This Thing?"
Or even, "Do we need to color it at all?"
Some of you may need a little bit of context to make the above question not sound crazy. Traditionally, even to this day, Italian comics are mostly in black and white, just like Japanese manga and some other Asian comics. Tex Willer, Dylan Dog, Nathan Never, many of the Italian comic heroes you may have heard of — and if not, you should do some research — are published without any coloring (excluding the art on the covers and some special issues). We know and love a lot of color comics, of course, but it's not strange at all for us to read and enjoy a black-and-white comic.
Even without colors, this looks gorgeous, you have to admit it
And if you think about it, a black-and-white art style gives a lot of versatility to the illustration. An image of liquid pouring out of a bottle can depict anything; paint the contents of that same bottle red, and all you've got is wine, blood, or red orange juice. There's some variety, yes but you get the point.
After long and intense meditations, to give the game a broader international and age-independent appeal, I finally opted for colors. (Even in Italy, most children's comics are in color.) And that opened a whole colorful valley of possibilities! Should the colors be realistic? Dreamy? Artsy, like watercolor or something?
From sketch to final coloring, the evolution of our grumpy vampire girl!
The style I eventually settled for was not the one I planned for during the early stages of development — although to be honest, the game started as a noir-themed game, so my initial ideas were no longer accurate anyway — but it had the right balance. It had its own identity, it suited the game well, and it may appeal to the broadest audience possible. Max Rambaldi's contribution to the coloring process was key — that, and her patience with the many slight changes, and sometimes U-turns, in art direction that she was occasionally put through.
...and when I say "U-turns", I really mean it
While all of this was happening, it was quite clear that the storytelling mechanism in the game — which by this time, even though as a working title only, was already being referred to as "Co-Mix" — was working rather well. I was facing another problem though and a more difficult than expected one...
Problem #3: "How Do You Win This Game?"
The problem with any storytelling game is this: What if a player is no good at storytelling? Most of the time, the answer is that he won't be able to play in a satisfactory manner, and he won't have much fun. For most people, that's a given of the genre itself, and the one reason it's so polarizing: Some people love storytelling games, some people plainly hate them. There are not a lot of people living in the broad, desertic gray area between these two extremes. I wanted to find a way to make the game enjoyable even for people who lacked storytelling skills — that was one of the main goals — but I needed some sort of voting mechanism, so it was a bit of a Gordian knot.
A trip to Transylvania was luckily not necessary
When you leave judgement in the hands of players (i.e., you let players vote), you're always leaving room for people's feelings to get hurt if their efforts are systematically belittled or given a bad score — and that can happen more often than what I initially thought.
Moreover, if you happen to have at the table one of those hideous people who would give a bad score to the story that's clearly the best of the bunch just because its creator is winning — there's no hell-equivalent in any afterlife you may believe in that's harsh enough for these game-spirit-ruining fellas — and your scoring system allows those people to do that, you've got a serious problem, a problem that can totally ruin the experience of the game for a lot of people, and this is exactly what I wanted to avoid when the Co-Mix project was started.
An early version of the cover illustration — gorgeous art, but it wasn't really working
I'm not going to summarize all the different — and differently flawed — scoring systems I tried; the months of doubts, pain, and suffering; the endless debates; the group psychotherapy and anger management session; the aborted pluri-homicidal plans and the attempted pagan and/or voodoo rites aimed at the eradication of the evil breed of good-story-downvoters from the entire globe once and for all. (I'm still tinkering with this last idea, though.) Out of frustration, I was very close to giving up and releasing the game without any voting mechanism at all, releasing it as a tool to tell stories and have fun. This was a version that playtesters, both old and new, enjoyed a lot, but even I felt that something would have been missing should I have gone through with that decision. Like the legendary Gordian knot, all that was needed was thinking a little bit outside of the box.
Oh, scoring, wherefore hath thou caused me so many problems?
Suddenly, and luckily, the right idea came to me. The scoring mechanism that made the cut and went into the final game solved all of the problems I mentioned above, almost magically. It was a wonderful feeling, like seeing all the pieces of a really complicated puzzle that was going to completely ruin your life, forever and ever, finally fit together in a joyous, harmonic picture of cohesion and unity. (Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating just a tiny little bit.)
By making players say only what they liked about a story, and not how much they liked it, the problem of consistent down-voting was eliminated once and for all. It's the consensus between the players, not the players themselves, that determines the score. And by rewarding people who vote honestly — by giving bonus points to any player giving to a story the "right" vote, i.e., the one the majority of people gave — king-making was obliterated, too. With this system, it's simply not a strategy that rewards you. Yes, I'm really proud of this voting mechanism. Is it very noticeable?
The final game in all its glory...
And They Lived Happily Ever After?
I'm still recovering from the PTSD any bumpy game development causes a game developer, but I'll be fine eventually, thanks for asking.
Most of all, me and my crew sincerely hope that all of our efforts allow a lot of people to have half the fun we had creating and telling crazy comic stories. That's who we are — we just want to selflessly give joy to the whole world, so feel free to buy this little thing we created, and if you already did, share it with your friends and family! And convince them to buy it, too. It can be useful in many different ways! It's the Swiss Army knife of board games! Think of a rickety table, some annoying air flowing through your window, a very cold winter and an empty fireplace asking for something to burn in it...
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!
Final game board
The first draft of the idea that later became Dungeon Fighter came when we were frequenting university during a high-booze night, thanks to a splendid target and some darts flying around.
Us being brave level-20 geeks, though, the idea of simply throwing darts at a target like your regular tough pub guys wasn't a great attraction, especially when doing so could become a wonderful, gaudy and loud fantasy adventure in which yelling "TAKE THAT, EVIL LORD!" would earn you the respect of your party fellows (instead of becoming an indelible social stigma).
That was a very pleasant evening and rivers of alcohol were poured – for many people the two things are synonymous – but for some years "Dungeon Fighting" stayed just one of the many leisure activities a man (or a woman) could do after a day of not-studying Biology.
When we finally passed the Biology test, we expanded upon Dungeon Fighter more and more, with the gradual appearance of new elements such as monsters of increasing strength, rewards in gold coins, and the concept of the Shop where you could buy original objects such as the elvish darts, the dwarvish darts, and the wizard's darts. Our imaginations was very limited...
It took us many years to realize that we could change the idea into a real game! As hard to believe as it may be, the idea that Dungeon Fighter could become a board game never hit us, even though conceiving of, editing and producing games is our daily job!
But how to evolve Dungeon Fighter from a simple pastime with darts to a full-blown board game, while keeping the dexterity aspect that made it so compelling?
Obviously the first problem was to find an object players could throw at the monsters without the risk of losing their eyes or becoming human pincushions. And so, even though reluctant, we had to give up the idea of putting in the box objects such as darts, shurikens, or throwing knives.
Lorenzo Silva learns the risks that come with creating a game
The first version included a basket-cup in which players would throw a die, an idea that proved to be fun for the first two minutes – then became totally boring.
In the second version we created a primitive rectangular-shaped board, but unfortunately it had a little issue, namely that the players sitting in front of the longer edge had a clear advantage since their target was significantly larger and thus easier to hit.
Evolution of the dungeon map
This detail, even if negligible for some, brought us an ingenious intuition: The board had to be round so that every player would have the chance to throw his dice from the same distance. (The fact that this is the typical shape of a dartboard is merely an innocent coincidence, no matter what malicious people may think.)
The second issue we had to overcome was that simply throwing a die grew boring quickly because it's relatively easy to get accustomed to the task and hit a bull's-eye with tedious regularity.
To add some spice to the whole thing, we started by adding the much-hated empty spaces. (Even now when we hear our ears burning, we know somebody out there has just tried a jump shot from under his leg against the Boss, his die has unfortunately hit one of the holes in the target, and he's cursing our given names with words we prefer not to repeat here. We know that deep down you're sensible souls.)
Soon we came up with the idea of "acrobatic" throws, which is what made DF the game it is today. We spent many hours deciding which were the easiest and most difficult throws, giving them lower or higher power levels accordingly – only to discover one day that one of the playtesters could perform catapult shots (which we thought were almost impossible) with alarming ease, while simply being unable to throw with his weak hand (which is considered by many one of the easier tasks).
This situation, since observed in many other of our guinea pig players, brought us to the simple but not obvious conclusion that throws didn't necessarily have difficulty levels that could be easily compared between one another, and this greatly simplified our balancing work.
Evolution of the monster cards
The last tricky issue we had to solve was...the Dungeon! We couldn't make a fantasy combat game without a Dungeon worthy of the name – not to mention the capital D! – if for no other reason than because the game was already called Dungeon Fighter. We had to put a Dungeon in there one way or another!
For your own sake, we'll spare you the list of all the Dungeon variants we considered, from the labyrinth full of crossroads, traps and dead ends to the one in which the monsters wandered around the corridors on their own and you could have an encounter with the Boss in your first fight; suffice it to say that after many (many) trials and errors, we understood that the game couldn't be based on complex exploration, but had to focus on fighting, power management, equipment and acrobatic throws! Nevertheless, in the Dungeons of DF you still can find life fountains, hidden treasure chests, and deadly traps.
Evolution of the hero cards
Another turning point in the creation of Dungeon Fighter surely has to be when we showed it to Heidelberger Spieleverlag at Castle Staleck. In our legendary wisdom, we forgot the target board in Milan and had to draw a pen-and-pencil version in a hurry, with rather "original" results! Anyway, DF was generally well-received by most of the people present at the event, and Heidelberger showed its interest immediately!!!
When we finally had to choose the graphic style we were going to adopt for Dungeon Fighter, we didn't lose too much time thinking about it and we hurried to call Giulia Ghigini. The sweet Giulia, for her part, conquered us instantly with a fantastic draft of the cover, an early version of the one now on the box. After that happy event, though, she was tortured and whipped by Cranio Creations' evil art director because time was running out, and more drafts were needed.
That's roughly how Cranio Creations created Dungeon Fighter, but soon we had to face the next challenge: actually producing the game, a task that also heavily weighed on the shouders of Heidelberger's guys, expecially Heiko Heller. That brave teutonic knight has produced more than one miracle to make possible the presence of Dungeon Fighter at Spiel and Lucca in 2011.
We're proud to share the fun of those old university nights with all of you, no matter if you are or will soon be skilled Dungeon Fighters!
Cranio Creations (Aureliano Buonfino, Lorenzo Silva, Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino & Alessandro Prà)