Marcin Senior Ropka
It's related to Solar City - a brief history of how it was created
by Marcin Ropka
From vacation to Essen
The summer of 2017 was a time of big changes in my career life. I just stopped working for the Portal Games and, feeling regretful to leave the team of amazing people led by Ignacy Trzewiczek, I went back to my beloved Kraków. Thanks to the experience I gained during my time at Portal Games I was offered a game developer position at Games Factory. The negotiations were long and hard as I had a few other offers, but I finally made up my mind and joined the GF team. My job was to publish original games both in Poland and abroad. After two years I was coming back home to my family and to face new challenges… but first, we went with Viola for a well-earned vacation.
We went knowing that it just a first step towards an even more intense work awaiting me in Kraków. Changing the job and a new scope of duties gave me a powerful nudge to dust off forgotten prototypes. We started with Viculus – a rather dark memory from Boardmania that we still wanted to develop.
Viola and Marcin:
We knew that Games Factory wanted to enter the market with new, original board games. And since both of us closed certain chapter of our career, we were able to get back to designing. We packed our car with games, bikes, and luggage and went north, towards the beautiful Tuchola Forest. Somewhere between one suitcase and the other we managed to fit in a small, inconspicuous green box with a funny name on it: Viculus. The only thing we did not pack was a printer. And we were grateful we didn’t!
That is how our vacation usually looks like: bikes, board games, and designing. After spending hours cycling we sit at the table, play games and let our poor muscles regenerate. If we are not playing – we design. The weather this time was perfect both for field trips and working: sunny in the morning and rainy in the afternoons. We stayed at a lovely quiet guesthouse with a lake view. All in all the conditions were ideal for designing.
We went back to Viculus after four months since the last game, when we watched the torment of the players with growing sense of embarrassment. We knew that this was not the game we intended it to be and that it needs massive changes. We already published two original games, there was yet another title coming and we had couple more prototypes, so we were not afraid of the challenge. In spite of our usual modus operandi we decided to start with the theme. We wanted it to work well with the main principle of the mechanics – the activation of rows and columns on the board.
This is a very broad topic for board games. If you go through the first hundred of the BGG ranking list you can draw a conclusion that what sells nowadays are games about history and old civilizations. Through the Ages, 7 Wonder Duel, Puerto Rico, Agricola – these are all games from the top 200 of the BGG list. A game about building a generic, medieval village would need to be really original to be noticed. Last few years showed us that thematically generic games (like generic fantasy or pseudo-medieval games) became less popular. With that in mind and while sitting at the shore of the lake and looking at the clouds we had a sudden idea. We changed the village into a blue sky and the medieval buildings into airships, that would gather the clouds with its nets. We figured that the best thematic equivalent of our mechanics would be dieselpunk with a pinch of magic that would allow the airships to float across the sky.
We also changed the rules. We knew that it had to be done since the Boardmania in January 2017. But before we tell you more about this we would like to stop for a moment to share some thoughts about game designing. We often see young authors so satisfied with their prototype that they ignore comments and observations made by more experienced colleagues. They are so devoted to their ideas that they will not accept any critique. With every test, they strengthen their belief that they should not change anything just because somebody does not like their product. We used to feel that way too, but it is vital to change that kind of attitude. The first prototype we presented to other people was perfect to us, ready to be played, and no arguments would persuade us otherwise. And this proved to be the very reason why it remained our only unpublished prototype.
With each new title, we learned how to see a bigger picture while developing and publishing board games. One could turn this into a maxim: “you create the game not for yourself but for others”. But working with a group of testers for Trefl-Kraków company and testing games with the group Trochę Nałogowi Testerzy (A Bit Addicted Testers) we could see that many designers does not understand or support that idea. It is, of course, understandable, after all, it must be difficult to separate oneself from one’s “child” and to admit that what one created is simply not good enough. But being a game designer means destroying your own ideas. If you want to be good at this job, you have to be ready to throw away something you have been working on for days and improve whatever is left. It is not uncommon to throw away even 90% of the prototype. It is the 10% that is left that is worth working with and may be the key to success. Designing games mean getting rid of your own ideas and some of the things you have been working on for months. So, without any regret, we destroyed the first version of Viculus and left just a few pieces that would become our new project.
We got rid of every element that did not work. We started with the need to feed the villagers. It was difficult to understand for many players and contradicted the idea of optimizing the game. Then we reduced the length of track of revealed tiles from which the players chose only one tile. At first, we intended to give the players an ocean of possibilities – 26 options to choose from! – and it turned out that most of them ended up drowning in it. We realized that having too many options is paralyzing. Well known rule says that you can make an optimal decision with six options to choose from. And this was exactly the number of revealed tiles we decided on in the final version of Solar City. We also decreased the number of resources to two kinds: the main one (called money) and scoring one (called victory points). It proved to be a good idea, as the players were able to focus solely on the clouds (money) that they would later turn into precious stones (victory points). We changed the way tiles functioned. We gave up the idea of tiles’ levels (that would also set their value) and replaced it with the addition of the other side of the tile. This way we reduced the number of game components (which is important in terms of the price of the game) and the limited number of tiles available during the game. Players would now choose from six types of tiles, which shortened decision time. We reduced the size of the board to 4 by 4 squares. And, what is most important, we introduced the mechanics of activating and blocking, the very thing that makes our game unique among all other tile games we have ever played. That is how Cloudcatchers, a younger brother of Viculus, was born.
Coming back from vacation was particularly enjoyable. We had a game that we worked on, tested and changed for the last two weeks. We were coming back to our regular duties happy with the results. After a few more days we were ready to present it to the owners of GF: Piotrek, Bartek, and Kuba. We had tested it before so we were sure there would not be any unpleasant surprises in terms of mechanics. We were right. The prototype was working. In fact, it was so good that it was immediately added to the schedule of games to be published in 2018.
Ever since Cloudcatchers became a Games Factory project, I worked on it not only as a designer but also as the publisher. And all this time I remembered what I learned while working with Ignacy: that being an author and publisher is almost always a terrible combination (Ignacy was probably one of the very few people who were able to mix those two roles). As a publisher, I must optimize the costs and do not destroy the game if it is good and if it is bad –not to publish it until it would get better. As an author I have to stop improving the prototype at some point and hand it over to the publisher and, by doing it, limit my influence on any future decisions.
This is how I started working on Cloudcatchers as a publisher. It turned out to be the beginning of an adventure that lasts until now.
Marcin Senior Ropka
It's realated to Solar City - a brief history how it was created
Love, love for board games. Each and every one of us fell in love with board games thanks to a different title, each in his or her own pace and with different intensity. We all have our own top 10 favorite games that we can play again and again.
For me, for years it has been Lords of Waterdeep – a groaner, sure, but the best one, full of vibe. I have adored the superbly designed worker placement ever since the first time I played and it has been an unchallenged leader for a few years now. Admirers of this game (myself included) play the parts of lords of the Waterdeep city: they hire cutthroats, priests, and warriors, who in the name of law and order (or, to be more clear, personal interests) endanger their lives to see their missions done. People who don’t like the game (burn them at the stake!) say all they see are colorful cubes and victory points.
For Viola the best game ever is Orléans, a simple yet genius strategic game, loved for its mechanics and graphics. Despite the mixed opinions they received, the illustrations, baring a strong resemblance to medieval murals or hand-written manuscripts, does not only contribute the game’s leader position in our personal ranking but also harmonize excellently with the game’s mechanics.
And although both of these titles are our personal best ones, we constantly battle over the rest of our rankings. I prefer card games in every form and will always prefer them to even a good Eurogame. Viola likes to chill with a Eurogames and deck-building games. The exception that we both enjoy is Gingkopolis, a game by Xavier Georges (greetings!). Georges created an ideal game: excellent in terms of rules and gameplay, a benchmark of strategic games, an outstanding example of the simplicity of rules. And, above all, it is a great mix of a city building game (my favorite type of computer games), and tile placement games (Viola’s favorite games’ element). From our point of view – and the point of view of a game designer – it is a Holy Grail of board games. And the only reason why it is not my number one game ever is that ever since I was a kid I played D&D games and thus the world of Forgotten Realm will stay forever in my heart.
Now you are probably thinking that the inspiration for the Solar City were dozens of games of Gingkopolis. Well, no…
It is quite a different story…
One day, during cross-testing of Alien Artifacts, we were so tired of shuffling the cards that I proposed that we should create a game with tiles. This is how in our designer heads the seed of Solar City was sown. It the beginning – and this is how it usually happens for us – we tossed around ideas about theme, mechanics, and the general gameplay concept. We started to discard worse ideas, think about the others than finally implement some of them. We are lucky enough not to have to look for a game partner who would talk us out of certain stupid ideas and that spares us a lot of time during the process of game designing. We gladly talk each other out of those ideas, sometimes using arguments and sometimes with… other means of persuasion.
Viola and Marcin:
When we got through the first stage of designing the game we wrote down the draft of the rules and drew a board that we threw away after testing it twice and then brought back after a few more tests. We decided that we will use buildings’ tiles and boards on which we would build the cities. Starting with an empty board the players would step by step create their settlements in which every building “works” with others. Or at least that was the idea. The interesting thing is we designed this early concept pretty quickly – it took us only two evenings. It was January of 2017.
For the next two weeks, we tried to clarify our concept. We realized that we want our game to resemble the development of a small village from whatever period of time – not unlike the development of a settlement in Settlers computer games series. The city seemed too universal, and, frankly, we thought that every fan of Eurogames would prefer to gather wood and stone than bricks and cement. We thought of sawmill, tavern, windmill, and smithy – all those basic structures you would expect to find in that kind of games.
We designed a new, double-sided board, adjusted to the number of gamers (there was side A and side B). There were areas on the board that would determine the type of building one was able to build. You could, for example, build a woodcutter’s hut in the forest or a fisherman’s hut at the coast. The only possible place for town hall was in the vicinity of two other buildings.
We designed a quite interesting way to draft buildings’ tiles. One would arrange them in 3 rows, each consisting of 9 tiles (27 buildings altogether), starting with the lowest level (I) until you reached the highest (III). The builder’s pawn of each player would stand on the left side of the chosen row. At the beginning of his or her turn, a player could move the pawn any number of tiles to the right and build the tile on which it has ended its movement. One could not move backward, so the faster the player built a high-level building, the sooner he or her would lose the chance to build low-level but otherwise important ones. We also added the necessity of feeding the villagers, mostly to make the players’ idyllic country lives more miserable (we blame Rosenberg’s influence).
Within the next two weeks, we made the fully illustrated prototype. We even prepared a box and give our prototype a risky name of Viculus. Thus prepared we went to gamers event called Boardmania to present our game to our friends. We always believed those early tests to be a fascinating experience and we both waited for the moment of confronting ourselves with opinions and remarks of the players. We considered the criticism and players’ reviews to be the best way to motivate ourselves.
It was February of 2017. And, as you can probably imagine by now, the game was completely unplayable.
We managed to draw conclusions from our little adventure, one that would be useful to other designers as well. We committed a common sin of ambitious game designers: we tried to create a prototype of a game with beautiful illustrations, pretty board, cardboard elements, and round tokes and yet we forgot to try and play it before we present it to other players. Do you have any idea how hard it is to cut out round tokes from a cardboard? We spent a couple of evenings working with the graphics editor, then several more on cutting and gluing the elements, and yet it did not prevent us from facing the catastrophe. We just wanted to finish it in time for the Boardmania! And we did. Well, kind of. We went there with a game that gracefully ‘crushed’ in front of everyone. It was a lesson of what not to do at the early stage of designing a game. Here is a handful of advice for you (we will remember them forever): be wary of the ‘form over content’ case, even if you feel confident about your project. Before you start creating your pretty prototype that would surely bedazzle the players, make sure to test it at least a dozen times. You really don’t need beautiful prints and wooden pawns in different colors. A sheet of paper with hand-written notes, pawns borrowed from other games or buttons or anything you can get your hands on – that is all you really need. You don’t need a fully prepared prototype that you would show to your publisher, to test the game, both internally and externally. Spend your time playing, not decoupaging. First tests will almost certainly make you change your ideas and game mechanics. And that means changes in your files and reprinting the board, cards, and other components. The simpler the prototype the easier it will be to prepare its new versions. In our case, it is always at least a few of them before the game begins to take its shape.
Back to the Boardmania. We played with our friends from the biggest gaming channel on Polish YouTube Game Troll TV (Carlos and Marek) and with Michał Szewczyk a.k.a. Windziarz (Elevator Operator), who is currently a board game editor for the Nasza Księgarnia publishing house. As we mentioned above, the mechanics of our game crashed. It was boring, schematic and led to nowhere. There was no point whatsoever to build the Viculus (village). The cost of buildings was unbalanced and the feeding thing took the entire fun out. It seemed that everything in the game was wrong and completely opposite to what we had planned. All except one thing we cared about most. To build a building the player would place his or her tile on a chosen space on the board and, if certain conditions were met, he or she would be able to activate all of the buildings placed in the same row or column as the newly placed one. The more buildings you had in your village the more there was to be gained from the activation. If you planned your infrastructure carefully you would get more bonuses thanks to the synergy between your buildings. The game would reward a strategic attitude to planning your village. We were beyond happy when we realized that despite many drawbacks in the game mechanics this element turned out to work perfectly. So perfectly in fact that we decided it should be the base for our new game, Solar City.
And although we came back from Boardmania on the shield rather than with it, we would swallow defeat and start again with a new found enthusiasm. We wrote down conclusions, players’ remarks and our own ideas and start setting the direction for our future game. And than… we stopped working on it for the next four months. The idea of a tike placement game about building a village (or a city) would slowly grow in our heads until we were finally ready to take it to the next level.
Marcin Senior Ropka
„I’m in the middle of the game and suddenly my thoughts fly off to an entirely different orbit”. Do you know this feeling? I’ll bet any game that at least once during the game session you felt the need to sit down with pan and paper to deliberate upon more new interesting solutions.
Yes, the familiar feeling, irritating the synapses around frontal lobe. The tickling, clearly pointing at the need to upgrade, change, add or substract. For some, it’s a wonderful feeling. For others a bit irritating. Whenever I talk with people about boardgames, about what do they find attractive in them, at some point the conversation will reach the subject of game creation.
Our geek Wikipedia – Boardgamegeek, lists more than 94000 games and expansions. Our drawers contain probably ten times more ideas, prototypes and parts that, in designers’ minds, will at some point spontaneously transform into a published game and land on the tabletop.
Every boardgamer at least once attempted to create their own personalized version of their favourite game. How many versions of Eurobusiness or Monopoly have been created, how many supplements for legendary Talisman?
How many times we’ve been adding additional army tokens to one of the many of the Dragon’s wargames? And now? How many times we’ve been thinking over the board “I’d do this better/differently”? Naturally, the time passes and board games change and evolve. Once, they’ve been an eccentric pastime of a few friends from the neighbourhood. Now it’s a huge business involving quite large, for such a niche market, sums of money.
Additionally, possibilities opened by the internet, logistics and printing are infinitely broader than 10 years ago. You’d think everyone is now able to think up a game, illustrate it (or hire an artist), create the rules and publish it on their own accord. There’s kickstarter.com, Indiegogo.com and many local crowdfunding platforms and sites where you can show your project to the world and hope it gathers funding. I won’t tell you if it’s better to publish the game on your own or to chat up a publisher. The answer to this question will come later in time. I will, however, return to the one magical word that’s been used a moment earlier.
The magic word is the design. Everyone who had on any occasion participated in creating a game knows, how tedious the process is and how much time and work is required for satisfactory results. The design is everything you need to start with and everything you need to finish. It binds together every expectation about what the game will be, how will it compare to the others, how much profit will it generate for both the author and the publisher? When it comes to designing, testing is an essential part. Not testing among friends, family and colleagues.
Not with girlfriend (or boyfriend), patient wife (or husband) or soulmate. You need to test with people who have arrived to the convention and are now standing in queue to the games room. Test with people you leave with the box and words ‘play it, I’m back in 30 minutes’. And you know what? That’s the exact moment where we reach the second magic word: impression.
Impression is just as important as the design is. Maybe even more, because you only have one chance to make it. On the ones whose opinion you care about the most: your publisher, testers, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, family or even random people. Remember that you will not enchant them with the mechanics and description… not at the beginning at least. You will, however, make an impression with a neat prototype. Understandable rules. Clear board design. Tokens that are not crooked pseudo-squares cut out by hand from notebook. Cards that can be shuffled without problem. Wooden discs that are not remains of a wooden broomstick…
Everyone has their own designing style. Some prefer pen and pencil, others commission graphics before finalizing the rules. Every style is different, and thanks to that, good, because it’s fitted to this particular designer. I, myself, think however, that the good prototype is one that’s clear and readable. One that doesn’t cause problems during the testing. One that stimulates the feeling of playing the boardgame. That makes an impression of tidiness and order.
Because if the designer prepared it this way, it means he had an idea for the game since the beginning. That he gathered his best ideas and then invested time into making the prototype that will make playing this one game with a publisher easier. I’ve spent too much time looking through badly written rulebooks and wondering “what did author have in mind when he put those colourful beads in there”. And if I have a questionable pleasure of spending my time with those pseudo-prototypes, what of the other publishers?
Board Game Creative Kit, has been designed to make creation and testing of prototypes much easier. It contains more than 750 elements that can be used in almost any way in any type of game. Among its content there are two boards (one folded into 4 parts, other, smaller, into 2), 4 player screens + 4 player boards, 6 punchboards with tokens useful for modular boards. Additionally, inside you’ll find 36 dice (including 12 blank white ones), 24 plastic pawns, 12 bases (that will work great for basing miniatures), more than 260 wooden elements, a fabric bag for randomizing, set of 4 card decks (2x solitaire size, 2x poker size) and a code allowing you to download 5 pdf files with additional digital materials helpful in prototype creation and other useful things. All this packed into a large, elegant box with removable sleeve on which you’ll be able to proudly sign your name and title of freshly created game.
Some of you might think – "why would I need such a box if I can take out parts of any other game and make them suit my prototype?" You can, of course destroy and disassemble your games (I am, to this day, missing my Carcassonne meeples I needed for another version of game X…) but I’m a supporter of using right tools for the right job. And Board Game Creative Kit has been designed as a tool. A tool that will be useful in creating a prototype that makes an impression. And do you know what else? It’s a box of endless inspiration. Just put a few tiles together and the mechanics are already emerging. Throw small and large wooden cubes into a bag and check if an idea for a game with random resources will work. You can write three rules or so on 12 cards, shuffle them and be surprised that you’ve just created a neat idea for a draft mechanic. And did I mention 204 stickers added to the blank dice you can write on?
You can design your own six sided die!
Creativity is The Key