Our names are Pete Ruth and Mark Thomas, and we are the designers of SEAL Team Flix, a dexterity and tactical combat game published by WizKids. We think we have a pretty interesting story to tell, so we decided it would be a fun and potentially informative exercise to give those who read this an insight into how we went from design criteria given to Pete seven years ago to a fully realized board game concept.
In The Beginning
Back in 2010 or so, Pete went to an Atlanta Con with some of the best and brightest minds in gaming, such as Richard Launius, Zev Shlasinger, Frank Branham, and also, Stephen Avery. It was quite the multi-day adventure, and Zev having known Pete for a while, Zev asked him if he'd be interested in developing a game idea that he thought might be up Pete's alley.
What Zev wanted was a sort of "first-person shooter multiplayer" video game developed into a tabletop experience. Pete dug in and tried to come up with some key concepts that were crucial to successful video games in the genre, distilling them into a handful of mission-critical concepts: Urgency, Twitch Factor, Objectives, Buffing, and Enemy Intelligence.
From the start, we felt this would be best served as a cooperative experience. Zev wanted something scalable that could handle various player counts easily, something that would be played a lot, not played once and relegated to the shelf as the eternally dreaded Shelf Toad. He wanted a game that minimized opportunities for "analysis paralysis" and would feel fast-paced. His ultimate goal was to make a game that he loved so much that the ultimate payoff was to have a professionally produced copy to play at home.
Mark just got his first production copy a few weeks ago and he has been rubbing Pete's nose in it for the entire time. It's really, really good.
After about four years of working on this design, with Pete forcing friends, family, and random people at game stores to play several very bad versions, he finally had a decent product — or so he thought. Unfortunately, he was a little too close to it, and when he showed it to Zev at Origins, Zev very rightly told him to keep working on it, which he did.
Shortly after that, Pete took a new job, and his time was not as freely dispensable as it once was, so he decided he needed a partner. As a matter of pure coincidence, in short order we ended up discussing the lack of a good first-person shooter-type game, and we decided that we should work together on this project. As it turns out, not only did Pete gain a new partner, he gained a truly unique friend who ended up being an incredible collaborator who, like himself, didn't get married to an idea or let ego get in the way. If we could give anyone advice about developing games, it's that it's best done as part of a team because two minds are always better than one. The fact that we were so quickly on the same page from a design perspective is why it took only two years or so to get from Pete's concept to the final concept that ultimately became SEAL Team Flix.
Incidentally, the game was originally called "Warfighter: Quick Response Force", but the Warfighter card game came out in 2014 and quashed that pretty quickly, which broke Pete's heart a little, but eventually, when we came up with the final name, he realized that the name is just way better now.
First 3D prototype of the warehouse map,
which is made from foam core
Much of the original design concepts pre-Mark remained intact, but the mechanisms changed through a series of strange coincidences, epiphanies, and deliberation between Pete and Mark. The first one was going from a "dot-to-dot" AI movement system to a two-pronged behavioral system.
The game also started with a universal dice-based combat system, but Pete had an epiphany while playing crokinole and realized that rolling dice is exactly the opposite of "twitch skills", so the design had to be a flicking game instead. As a result, the combat changed to a kinetic disc-flicking one on the SEAL side and a dice-rolling one when SEALs are attacked. Once we got together on that, it was over; the decision was immediately made and we never questioned it.
Later came the idea of using 3-D walls to make the flicking more interesting and dynamic because few things personify gaming awesomeness as much as making a three-rail shot against a distant target. This all falls back to the idea of excitement and urgency; if you miss, you're in bad, bad trouble, but if you make it, your name will be echoed through Valhalla for all of time. If we had a dollar for every time someone playing this game spontaneously threw their arms in the air and cheered a shot, we'd have hired a development company and made this into an iOS app, and still have money for matching Ferraris. There's something tangibly exciting about flicking a little disc into a bad guy and watching him fly across the board — and something equally dread-inducing when you whiff all but the last shot, which ends up hitting the cover the bad guys are hiding behind, rendering that last fateful shot ineffective.
Originally, Pete's old AI system had the bad guys slowly plodding towards the nearest good guy, with a sort-of-complex decision tree that wasn't particularly clear and left a lot of room for interpretation. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it kind of sucked, badly.
After some thought, Pete decided that he would develop a better, simpler system of behaviors that are intuitive and make sense to the theme and setting, and with Mark's input and feedback, it became something unique and innovative. The way the AI works looks kind of daunting based solely on a reading of the rules, but the game can be literally played entirely off of the back page rules reference. We're both huge fans of Universal Head's rules distillations, and despite neither of us being nowhere near his level, Pete wanted to emulate him by distilling the entire rulebook's play flow into a detailed, but simple, one-page document. Not only does it work well, it reduces the amount of times we needed to look back at the rulebook for game flow and pocket rule reminders exponentially, especially as we kept it updated during development and the rules were changing often.
For an example of how robust the system is, we'd like to give you some background about the enemy forces and how they behave because it's one of the things of which we're most proud. There are, essentially, two main types of enemies: patrols mull around on a patrol path until alerted, and sentries stand in static positions and will move to cover only when threatened. Basically, until a patrolling enemy sees or hears something, he is predictably walking his patrol path which has been "verified by satellite imaging". When a patrol sees a SEAL or there is a gunshot or other loud noise, he radios in and all hell breaks loose; all of the patrols will run towards either the SEAL that was seen, or the loudest sound on the map until they make contact, at which point they will immediately seek the closest cover position from which to fire.
The system is designed to emulate logical combat behavior from the enemies, including a simple mechanism that simulates a Tango freezing up due to panic. The cover mechanisms are also robust and allow for simple understanding on how bad guys move to cover, such as around corners, with an easy-to-follow decision flow that is incredibly intuitive. Basically, the bad guys will always go to the nearest available space that will block SEAL fire while still allowing them to shoot at the good guys.
Speaking of cover, we had a strong desire to have destructible cover in this game, but we didn't want every game to have the same places to hide, so we came up with a system of cover that allows for big guns to destroy it and smaller guns to suppress — to "stun", in SEAL Team Flix parlance — people hiding behind it. Cover is placed pseudo-randomly based on die rolls in each room; each room has icons that indicate where and when to place the cover blocks, which are big, chunky wooden cubes that react really well when they're hit with varying disc sizes.
Different weapons available to SEALs have different capabilities and choices that emulate their fire rate and stopping power, so a small MP-5 submachine gun will spit lots of little bullets in a firing action, but they don't destroy terrain, whereas a sniper rifle will shred it with one big bullet and a 12 gauge shotgun will shoot a stack of small bullets that will destroy the cover as well as blow doors from their hinges. With so many weapons and items, such as remote bombs, hand grenades, breaching charges, and snake cameras, players have a huge array of options from which to choose when deciding on the best strategy for any particular mission.
Mark came up with some truly novel ideas that made the game SO MUCH BETTER, the most profound being the sideboard mini-games. He thought it would be cool to take the more trivial tasks, such as hacking electronic locks and defusing bombs, and move them from a dice-based system to a series of unique flicking mini-games.
We cannot tell you how remarkably this changed the feel of the game. The few rote, unexciting parts of the game became nail-bitingly intense, and when he said we should also have a sand timer for time bomb defusing that's when the game literally exploded, in our minds, from a really good one into an incredible one.
During the many (MANY!) hours of playtesting, we realized that some things like the way hostages were handled were very dull. We then came up with the idea of allowing snipers to have the option to use a sideboard, sort of like peering through a scope and going into "bullet time", which became the final two mini-games.
On top of all of this, there's also a game timer for each mission, which scales with difficulty setting, so this adds to the tension like the sand timer in that you have a finite amount of possible actions, and if time runs out, you lose. Even beyond that, when missions have time bombs, to add to the visceral and existential dread of a visible timer running down, we added dice to the bomb objectives that count down each round. You can literally watch your time running out, and this is arguably one of the more tense mechanisms we tossed into the mix, and one that we found to be one of the most compelling little fanfares in the production.
Once we had the meat and potatoes down, it was time for some garnish. Pete decided that, as a writer, just having a cool military miniatures game would be fun, but what would take the entire game into the realm of "narrative experience" was to create a campaign system that felt like a video game. Because Pete hates linear games, by and large, he developed a branching campaign that not only allowed for variation in objectives and set-ups, but told a story worth telling. The branches depend upon the outcome of the prior mission, so the story organically grows with your characters' progress.
We had originally looked at numerous types of enemies that pretty much everyone agreed were universally bad, but in the end we wanted zealots, specifically zealots with a pseudo-rational belief system. We went with eco-terrorists, populating the pages of the prototype rules with masked men stealing dogs from breeders and with apocalyptic images of a post-human world where "the real evil on Earth, Mankind, is extinct". Pete developed characters, the back story, and a narrative that makes sense and retains continuity no matter which branches players end up taking.
Prototype campaign map
Mark, very rightly, pointed out that the game should have both a branching story as well as a one-off skirmish mode that was just as much fun, so we incorporated that into the game system. It's not as simple to do as you might think, but after arguing our points, we came up with a way to solve this in a simple to understand way. As characters grow, they decide on a specialty field, and with that comes access to weapons and gear specific to that specialty. As they grow further, gaining ranks, their particular set of skills grows with their rank, and the gear available to them expands in kind. Each mission in the campaign book has a rank listed that indicates to what "level" players should equip before undertaking that mission.
If we do say so ourselves, one of the things this game does best is handle scalability. When you play with one or two SEALs, there's fewer enemies and objectives, and when you play with three or four, it expands the objectives and enemies. When you play on a harder difficulty, it does so again. Even the mini-games scale based on the difficulty level.
On top of the "pool of enemies" growing with higher player counts and harder difficulties, static enemies expand in number as well, meaning that your strategies must change when playing with more SEALs. In addition, we developed a blind-token system that distributes objectives randomly across the map (or maps, in the case of multi-map missions). What this means is that for every single game you play, the objectives' number and location will change based on the player count and the difficulty level. Between the two of us, we've played at least five hundred games of the final version of SEAL Team Flix and as far as we can recall with any accuracy, none ever played out exactly the same either from an initial set-up viewpoint or from a strategy standpoint. Quite simply, we've never quite played anything like this, a game with this much variation but that stays cohesive and makes sense within the framework of the setting and themes, and that is simple to understand.
It's worth mentioning that a disproportionate amount of time went into creating not only unique objectives, but unique objective items. The mechanism behind them is simple: You don't know what they are until one of your SEALs gets line of sight on them. The tokens are placed face down, so you know where they are from the beginning, but you don't know what they are. Some are bad guys, waiting to pounce. Some are alarms that create noise, which attracts bad guys. Some are time bombs, medical kits, evidence such as hard drives, or photographic intel.
The idea behind this was that we didn't want you to make a beeline for the objectives, knowing they were all precisely what you needed to win, but rather to spread them out and make them sometimes good, sometimes bad, forcing players to choose to stick together for more survivability, or break up into smaller squads, or go lone wolf. Even further, it added several layers of competing strategy choices, such as "do we stick together, or do I get slick and run over here behind the wall, have my buddies stir up trouble over there, then sneak past the melee unnoticed to go resolve an objective while my SEAL buddies are mowing down baddies?" Each of the six maps was meticulously designed so that no matter the set-up or mission, multiple paths and decision points will affect both the success probability and the individual survival rates of SEALs.
One of the prototype boards sent to Wizkids
Getting back to the publishing end, we finally got with Zev for the last time at the 2017 Origins Game Fair, with Pete's amazingly detailed prototypes (that Pete spent way too much time and money making). We played a match and showed off the "features and benefits", and he loved it, just as everyone else who played it had. Pete sent him the prototype copy for his team to evaluate, and he came back with some very granular suggestions about how his team thought the game could be improved. We made some changes, then it was off to the artists and graphic designers. It's worth mentioning that Josh Derksen is an incredible guy to work with, as was Zev. Josh "got" what we were trying to do and internalized our vision and made it come alive.
Final art of a map (art by Josh Derksen)
This was only Pete's second time working with a publisher, but the first time he's gotten a game to market. Mark has another published game, House of Spirits, and Pete took his wise counsel to heart when he said that a lot of compromise has to be made between the concept stage to the final product. SEAL Team Flix was always a miniatures game at heart. All of our prototypes used either 15mm metal miniatures or Roly pawns, and at the end of the day, we ended up with a game devoid of miniatures because, to be honest, they are incredibly expensive and we didn't have the budget for them if we wanted the game to be reasonably priced.
Progression of pawns from prototype to final
We also knew that we wanted six maps, and this wasn't really negotiable on our end because we wanted the full experience to be felt by owners of the game. Compromising on the miniatures was the best option, and as much as we would have loved to have wee bad guys feeling the full wrath of our flicks of fury, the standees do a fantastic job, look great, and are a little easier to knock over than the Roly pawns we had been using. In the end, we are incredibly happy with the way it turned out and glad that we kept a relatively affordable price point so that more people can experience the game.
One of the last things we did in the game was create the characters and their profiles. We felt strongly that women should be in the game despite the fact that women have been excluded from SEAL service historically. Pete has daughters who love to play the game, and we wanted them to be represented, but we also wanted different cultures and nationalities represented because as Americans, we are not homogeneous, just as our own families are not. We felt it was of paramount importance that as many different people and cultures were represented as practicable under our budgetary constraints, so our final version has a very diverse cast.
Thanks for reading, and we sincerely hope you enjoy SEAL Team Flix! Please feel free to contact Mark or Pete if you have any questions as Mark is very active in the game forums, and we will be sure to promptly help you out if we can.
When Osprey Games first contacted me to create the art for this game, I was in awe. High Society by Reiner Knizia, published by Osprey! They requested a game inspired by Mucha's art nouveau that would feature the dilettantes in blooming diversity. This project looked like it was made for me.
They provided a detailed briefing for the cover and every card. I had so much info and references, and they allowed me to spread my creativity in a nouveau environment. They answered any questions I had and were very patient in how long it took me to develop the artwork.
Lots of influence maps were given in the briefing to develop the cards. Everything was detailed and inspirational! Here are some of the style references from the briefing:
First, I started with several cover sketches as suggestions. Usually, my sketches look awful and may give the impression of not knowing what I'm doing. I like to do rough sketches to place the composition rather than taking the time to develop the details of each illustration.
These were my three first proposals for the cover. Osprey picked the first one, allowing me a lot of creativity in the process of decoration, so I set about working to develop it further.
This is the development of the cover. Fun fact: The first background I painted for the cover was a red to give a sense of luxury alongside the gold. They made some changes in the cover, including changing the background color to a royal green which fits PERFECTLY and makes the golden ornaments pop. Yeah, honestly, it works better.
Working on the cards, I started with the nouveau backgrounds to play with the frames in the composition of every card. Then I sketched each card over the several frames, adjusting here and there after feedback from Osprey. For long card deck projects, it helps to sketch all the cards to give a sense of homogeneity because the art and composition can sometimes evolve from the first card to the last. This way the client has an idea of what to expect of every card.
Once everything was in its place on the approved sketch, I started inking it. For art nouveau, I use several brush thickness to make the details pop, as with the silhouette of the main character.
I sent the inks for approval before I started the color stage. I always do this because it's easier to change stuff from the composition in the ink phase.
Once that was approved, I started to give the cards some color. I sent several screen captures and samples to the client to see whether we agreed on the color palette, which was inspired in the natural and washed-off colors of art nouveau paintings. I wanted all the colors to look washed-off and warm (with the exception of the disgrace cards, which had to look cooler).
This is an example of a color sketch in a cooler palette:
Other examples of work in progress! I was inspired by Oscar Isaac for this one. He's beautiful.
I love the color palette in this one, so warm!
Once the whole project was reviewed, fixed and complete, I uploaded the final files to the cloud so that Osprey could download them. They made some final adjustments to the files, then sent it off to the printer. It came out beautifully — no darker colors, and very accurate to the files I sent.
My name is Oliver Richtberg, and I have helped to release about a hundred games over many years, primarily in my role as art director of Zoch Verlag, but additionally thanks to my first and — as of now — only self-designed game: Menara.
This is the story how it came to take 23 years to publish this game:
My original idea for this game came in 1995, when I was working part-time for Schmidt Spiele on the German role-playing system Das Schwarze Auge. I had the idea of people playing pieces on a game board, "finishing" it through some kind of play, stacking another board on top of it (and on the pieces as well), playing on that board, then topping it with another board when finished, and so on.
Very soon I realized that all of this was much too complicated, so the rules for "finishing" a board were reduced to filling spaces with pieces, with the cards in your hand telling you how to set pieces on the board and with you earning points for doing so according to the level of the board on which you set a piece. You see, unlike today's Menara this game was competitive.
My cat Felina hadn't even been born when this proto was made
The pictures above, which I took recently, show the prototype of the game from the year 2000, which is pretty similar to the one from 1996, but that one does not exist any more. The shapes of the floors were very geometric (triangles, squares, hexagons, etc.), with only a few of them having experimentally odd shapes. The pieces were commonly shaped pawns with round heads and flat feet; a round top, of course, was much more unstable than the flat tops of the columns in today's Menara.
The artwork style was roughly influenced by a water-loving culture in a fantasy world that I had created in my spare time, and the color arrangement of the pieces (white, blue, green, black and purple) is reminiscent of that culture. (All of this was only for my own background in the game and not necessary for a release).
I showed this design to Schmidt Spiele. The editor was interested and he said it had potential, but unfortunately in 1997 Schmidt Spiele went insolvent, and was then sold and moved to Berlin. I searched for other publishers and found Hans im Glück, then they introduced me to Zoch and I began a practicum there aside from my studies. Albrecht Werstein from Zoch was very interested in my prototype, but he told me that there was another game — one they would later call Villa Paletti — they were working on that they would do first. (Villa Paletti looked totally different at that time.)
I turned my degree in graphic design on my own game, which I was then called "Pagode". It was in this version that I developed the concept of game boards in various shapes, while giving the design a Thai look and feel. Albrecht later admitted that my design influenced the look of Villa Paletti.
The 2004 version of Pagode
Some pictures from the 2004 version already show the delicately formed floors. Until that time, the floors had only one side, so you couldn't flip them for variety.
The wooden playing pieces came from the Zoch Verlag game Zapp Zerapp; Zoch gave me hundreds of them, and I painted and lacquered them one by one in the colors I chose. The overall style of the game comes from Thai decor and ornaments. All in all, the need to have a fully rounded concept when you do a graphic design degree is mandatory. (By the way, I got an "A"...)
I designed the box cover as if Zoch had already released the game, and strangely this cover found its way onto the internet, with claims that this was a real Zoch game. I do not know how that happened. The internet is always a fountain of wonders...
The game was driven by cards in a player's hand that would be played on their turn, with them trying to score as many points as possible. Some basic tasks on the cards still live on in today's Menara.
Then in 2002, Villa Paletti won Spiel des Jahres. I was really devastated and packed "Pagode" in a cupboard. I didn't touch it for ten years.
I think Albrecht had a bad conscience about that as he continued to ask me about "Pagode" from time to time, and after a while I gave in and started to think about the game again. Albrecht always was keen on releasing it soon as he really liked it.
The idea to do this design as a cooperative game came to me after I enjoyed playing Pandemic. I needed time again. In 2013 my father died suddenly, and then I needed a break. In this break I developed everything that is now released as Menara. Albrecht was very happy, and we signed a contract for the game. (This might be unusual because I'm part of the Zoch team, but he wanted it like that — and me, too.)
The release date was set for SPIEL 2018 — then in August 2017 Zoch moved from Munich to Fürth, where my new boss Ossi Hertlein saw the game, played it, fell in love with it, and gave the order that the game was to be released in January 2018. Wow! Suddenly, everything had to be done very quickly. I was lucky to find Sébastien Caiveau for illustration. (I didn't want to do it myself because I'm a graphic designer, not an illustrator, and my actual work on all the other Zoch games kept me absolutely busy.) He has done a great job!
Unfortunately in 2014 Pegasus had released a game with the title Pagoda, so my long-loved working title had to change. Still in love with far eastern cultures, I found the word "menara", which means "temple tower" in Malaysian. Now everything was complete, and so after 23 years the game of Menara has come to life...
Coal Country is the second prototype I developed, starting work on it immediately after the 2012 Origins Game Fair and first showing it at Gen Con 2012.
The first prototype I developed, the one before Coal Country, was intended to be my one and only game design, which I had worked on sporadically over the span of a couple years as a personal project. At the time, I was running our campus's gaming research group, which developed from an overwhelming number of students being interested in video game research in my popular culture classes. Upon forming the group, I made the decision to also open it up to board games as I was primarily a board gamer.
What we found was that the students interested in board games were primarily interested in designing board games, whereas students interested in video games were primarily interested in writing about video games. These two interests did not work with one another for a single meeting. As such, we made the decision to spin off a board game design subgroup where we would play prototypes. At some point, this first prototype of mine made an appearance and received a strong reception, which encouraged me to pick up the pace on its design and take it more seriously.
Eventually, I considered this design "finished", but didn't know what to do with it. It was very large, and I came to the realization that if I ever wanted to send it to a publisher, it would have to be broken up and pitched as a core game with a number of expansions. With that in mind, I remembered reading a post by Donald X. Vaccarino on BGG about his prototype for Dominion and decided to revisit the post for ideas. What really struck me upon revisiting the post was the process of showing a game to Rio Grande Games, specifically Jay Tummelson.
At the time, I did not understand how games were pitched and how meetings worked, but I really connected with the description of the face-to-face process; I felt as a first-time designer I could best explain my prototype and how it worked in that setting, as opposed to sending it somewhere unsolicited and not being able to salvage a decision with a properly explained answer. I was also a humongous Rio Grande Games fan and figured my sensibilities, which were largely shaped by their games anyhow, would jive with theirs. After some back and forth with myself, I decided to take the plunge and emailed Rio Grande about setting up a submission meeting at a future convention. Within an hour, which I eventually learned is par for the course with Jay's communication, I had a response and after a couple of more emails, a meeting was set for Origins 2012.
Why am I telling you about a game other than Coal Country? Well, one of the takeaways I hope readers get from this post is about the benefits of working with a publisher, or at the very least, taking meetings with publishers. For instance, the idea for Coal Country was born out of my first Rio Grande meeting. For that meeting, I knew I had thirty minutes, which at the time seemed incredibly tight. I worked out a much-rehearsed twenty-minute presentation and left ten minutes for questions and comments.
While waiting for my meeting, Walter Hunt (designer of Rails of New England) came over, chatted with me for a bit, and offered some pointers for meeting with Jay. First, he said that if the meeting was going well, Jay would interrupt and ask a slew of questions. I was particularly excited about this, as with all my prototypes I write a personal-use version of the rules that includes justification or support for every single inclusion and rule in the game. Second, he said that even if Jay was not interested in signing the game at the convention, I should ask him whether he would be willing to see the game again pending revisions in relation to his suggestions and comments.
Well, that thirty-minute meeting ended up going over two hours, with Jay asking his slew of questions and me responding with why X was this way or why Y was that way, and so on. Jay also pitched a series of ideas aimed at increasing player interaction and breaking up the certainty of results that the game's economy could possibly lead to amongst experienced players. All told, I filled half a Moleskine with notes from the meeting. Jay was interested in the design and wanted to see it again. Feeling particularly invigorated, and wanting to get to work on the game as quickly as possible, I set up a second meeting for Gen Con 2012, which gave me only two-and-a-half months to alter and test the game. After the RGG meeting and with encouragement from Jay to do so, I went about trying to show the game to other publishers at the convention, with a few taking me up on it, which produced even more notes.
That night in the hotel, I began going over the notes from these meetings, classifying them into what was useful for the prototype, what was not, and what was a great idea that did not work with the prototype, but was intriguing nonetheless. As it would turn out, that final category gave me enough material to flesh out a whole new game, which is now Coal Country.
I found that the third category could be broken down into two larger trends. First, there was some concern amongst publishers about worker placement games in general and how their sales had fallen off the cliff. I heard this at multiple stops. Oddly, I thought of my prototype as an area control game, not a worker placement game. Also, I was still purchasing a lot of worker placement games, so I was intrigued by this seemingly incongruent statement. Jay had mentioned that he, personally, was growing disinterested in games in which you simply put a worker in a certain area to perform a certain function, with nothing innovative beyond that aside from slight variations in goals and theme.
Second, there was some concern about my initial game's economy being too static, with everything costing a specific amount and taking a specific number of turns to build, and that experienced players would know the probable outcome too soon in the course of a game. (A very popular worker placement game at the time was used as an example of this issue by different publishers.)
The next morning I got up and started my very long drive back to Lincoln, Nebraska from Columbus, Ohio. With the notes still clear in my head, and with lots of thinking time ahead of me, I put a notebook on the passenger seat and would pull over to take notes whenever I had what I thought was a good idea.
It ended up being an incredibly long drive. I was particularly intrigued by the economic comments as I was growing increasingly bored with that first prototype's economy. The core of its mechanisms, I felt, were fresh and fun, but the economy was probably chosen because, well, that is just how the games I had been playing worked. I figured that was just what companies were looking for.
I felt that games are chiefly about social interaction, and we know that social interaction disrupts traditional social scientific notions of economic practices, so I had kind of told myself that if things went well and I could make a second game, I would want to make one that reflected a more humanistic approach to economics. I wanted to make a game that would embrace concepts that I, myself, found fascinating, such as Austrian economics, roundaboutness, dissolution of supply-and-demand relationships, etc.
I had also just come off the mountain of testing and spreadsheet work needed to accurately determine cost and build lengths of various building types, and I was mostly burnt out on it. For example, that first prototype's pitch binder contained over 75 pages of spreadsheets, charts, and visualizations of the balance data alone, which was the product of a pile of testing and modeling to determine the range of turn value against player interaction against game length. I am glad I did the work as I learned a good deal about game design and testing from doing so, but, man, it was certainly an endeavor for me at that stage of my design "career".
Being interested in developing a game that was about the manipulation of traditional supply-and-demand relationships, I started by thinking about real world influences on said relationships and their disruption. Growing up in Chicagoland, I always found the role that corruption played in infrastructure to be fairly fascinating. I decided that a good way of bringing this to life in a game would be to assign your actions differing levels of "influence", which would then disrupt pricing to varying degrees. I felt this idea worked best if the institutions charging you a price were also in on the corruption, with what they are charging being based on what they know you have. In this way, the corruption was a negotiation, not a one-sided affair.
Additionally, this pricing-based-on-earnings mechanism provided a natural comeback mechanism, which helped alleviate issues I was hearing about a game's economy inherently producing certainty of results. In regards to theme, the two that immediately came to mind were mafia and mining, two areas that we know utilized corruption to achieve various ends. Having had experience writing about the rhetoric of mine unionization in Harlan County, Kentucky, I went with mining.
The second obstacle to tackle was the whole "worker placements are dead" trend I was hearing. As a player, I was unwilling to accept the suggestion, so I set about thinking about ways to do something about the whole "put worker here, do this action" concern. I had already decided to make an economy that was tied more directly to player interaction and I wanted to allow players to interact with the economy, so I simply tied the degree of influence per action to the placement of workers. In this way, worker placement achieves two things: completes an action and disrupts the economy. I achieved this by assigning each worker a different strength, so you had to manage a workforce that was both limited and varied. The placement gave you the ability to act, and the influence level of the worker determined both the acting order and the degree to which you acted.
To up the ante on player interaction, I decided to make the influence level of a player's work force secret, with their influence number placed face down, only to be revealed upon action. Thematically, I rationalized this as, "Sure, you know where your competition is sending its workers, but you don't know the degree to which they are going to act until you get there". To fit with the mining theme, I converted "workers" into "foremen" and gave players the task of building and expanding a mine. Foremen could be placed on mineshaft tiles to mine an amount of coal tied to their influence level, on the brokers to sell their mined coal, or at the market to purchase mine expansions, utilities to increase the production of your mine, or buildings to provide special action opportunities.
By combining my solutions to these two trends that I was hearing at the convention, I was left with a worker placement mechanism that layered multiple workforce management concerns while also allowing me to include principles of humanistic economics in a board game. Furthermore, I had a game idea that reflected things a publisher — one I very much wanted to work with — told me he wanted to see in a game.
On top of these agendas, I also set myself a final criteria: The game needed to be played in under an hour. This came about as a result of three things. First, the previous prototype played at two hours, which was a concern for many publishers. Second, I knew I would be working a tight schedule if I were to get this new game ready for Gen Con, so a game that was shorter would get far more testing than one that was two hours long. Third, my favorite games are all generally under an hour long as they get on our table more.
Upon arriving back in Lincoln, I had almost the entire game and the game's general value pyramids journaled out. I spent the next day at the university library looking up 20th century coal-pricing data and its degrees of variation to help firm up the backbone of the game's economy.
A couple of days later, I had a playable prototype, and it was off to the testing races. Now, if you recall, I previously mentioned that my original intention was to have only the one game and be done with design depending on the results of that Origins convention. I certainly pitched it that way to my wife. So when I returned saying that I wanted to go back to a convention to show the game in a couple months, she was a little confused. My justification for that second convention was that, in addition to having a revised version of my first prototype, I would have a totally new prototype to show as well. That way, I could take even more meetings and make the cost of a second convention more justifiable. Since I was not teaching that summer, it was agreed that this was a generally safe way of keeping myself busy, and my "career" as a game designer (instead of "a designer of a game") had officially begun.
The initial Coal Country prototype focused primarily on the marketplace, with the only actions available to everyone every turn being selling coal and mining your mineshaft tiles. Everything else — from mine expansion, to utility acquisition, to special action building construction — was all achieved from a combination of a blind market tile draw every turn and the manufactured scarcity produced by outmaneuvering your opposition. In that configuration, the game played almost purely tactical as your best laid plans could be dashed from a poor draw or a singular misread of your opponents' goals. It was a game about making the best out of bad situations, which seemed to me to be a great fit for a coal mining game.
The second thing the Coal Country prototype did was it took its theme perhaps a bit too lightly. Listen, corruption in coal mining can be pretty bleak stuff. Moreover, while we know corruption existed, and we mostly know exactly where it existed, there are still very real people living in those areas that, perhaps, would not want to be painted with that brush today.
As such, I developed a fictional game world set in the Black Lung Mountains, which was sort of a compression of various moments of 20th century coal mining. The game initially relied on a heavy degree of dark humor to lighten the theme. I named the game "Black Lung", and pitched it as such. Unfortunately, both publishers I showed the prototype to did not care for the name. When the game went to art, RGG suggested changing the name and, perhaps, tightening up the location. Since mid-century Appalachian coal mining was always my personal mental touchpoint during design, and also an area of personal interest, we landed on that for a theme, while still keeping the exact location vague for the aforementioned reason. The name Coal Country was a natural fit and came about almost immediately.
At my Gen Con 2012 follow-up meeting with Jay on my first prototype, we wrapped up relatively quickly and he saw that I had another box with me. He asked me a question, one which I have come to regard as one of my favorite recurring Jay-isms: "What else do you got?" I showed him the prototype for "Black Lung". To my pleasant surprise, he immediately got what was going on, compared the game to a former "big deal" title, which I regarded as a huge compliment, while also commenting that it solved that game's "problems". I was over the moon — he liked BOTH my games!
Then he added, "I have bad news for you. I'm off this game (first prototype) and I'm now on this one (Black Lung)." He immediately followed that up by mentioning that the 30- to 45-minute playing time as a big plus as the marketplace was short of complex economic games that could be played in a relatively short period of time.
Since Jay had some time in his production schedule before he could get to the game, we started spitballing ways of firming up the mechanisms. During this back and forth, Jay wound up asking a question that totally reinvented the way it was played: "If I own a mine, why can't I just do whatever I want?" It was a fascinating question and was asked earnestly. What would happen if we just let people do whatever they wanted?
The conversation flowed from there, and it ended up with me flipping the script on the game. Why don't we make this about the mines instead of the market? Everyone could do everything; you were no longer simply cut off from a desired action by the game's mechanisms, as before. Whereas the original marketplace was largely metaphorical, we could now create direct marketplaces by shifting the focus to the mines. As such, foremen would now go to the construction company to build, to the utility companies for utilities, to the permit office to expand, etc. Everyone could do everything as long as they could pay for it and (in some cases) as long as supply remained.
This idea also reverberated with my interest in human irrationality disrupting economies. For example, what if someone overpays to expand their mine in some way and it negatively impacts their chances of winning? Oh well, it was their decision to do this. And you know what? Perhaps they got a feeling of satisfaction or completion from building their mine in that way. It is essentially impulse buying, but in game form. In this new configuration, the game did not govern those behaviors; the players playing the game did. Not only did this seemingly simple question change this game, but it changed the way I evaluate games that I play and design today. It was simply brilliant.
This suggestion also produced a couple of additional changes, both for the better. First, it placed a higher degree of emphasis on properly managing shifts in economic pricing. If I can do anything, I need to make sure I am managing affordable prices for those actions. This also placed more weight on the relationship of your company earnings to supplier pricing. Since players were no longer fighting primarily over individual tiles, the order of purchasing became even more tied to company earnings. In the initial prototype, company earnings were used to break ties. In the new prototype, ties became rarer, which gave earnings-tied pricing more influence in the game as it established the entire purchasing order, not just the overall purchasing winner and the price they would pay.
Second, the game developed a more even balance of tactics and strategy. You can plan long-term strategies now, but there will be turn-by-turn disruptions that require tactical navigation. Conversely, you can still play the game completely tactically and have a fair shot of winning. This grants a wider range of players, whether experienced and inexperienced, the ability to win a game of Coal Country.
After talking through this suggestion, Jay and I set a time frame for revisions. The revisions ended up getting postponed until the 2013 Origins Game Fair due to shifting production schedules. At that time, Jay took the game and the decision to publish was made shortly thereafter.
Now, you are probably saying to yourself, "Man, that was a long time ago!" or "What kind of problems came up in the game that delayed it so much?" There is a funny story about that. At Origins 2013, Jay and I had wrapped up our meeting and were chatting about this and that. Jay started telling me about a movie he had just watched and how he thought the theme might make a good board game as it had never been done. He wondered whether I had any games, perhaps even "Black Lung", that could use that theme. I spent that night researching the theme, but came to the conclusion that I could not fit it onto my then-current slate of games.
However, once again, I had an idea for a game that was a direct reflection of a publisher's stated interests. As such, I set about making a game based on that theme, which I showed Jay at Origins 2014. He liked that game and took it. Because the theme was new and unused, the decision was made to flip the publishing order of the two games and to get the new one to market before someone else used the theme. After some time passed, and after Jay had discussed this new game with his partners, the decision was made that it was "too controversial to publish". Now, think about all the games out there and how many have questionable themes or inclusions. I had somehow managed to make one that was more unpublishable than all of those!
As much of a bummer as it was to have the game dropped, I took solace in having achieved something so unique. Since then I have told a few people in the industry about this game and its theme, which I will not state here because it is still unused, and it produces the largest eyerolls ever. It is an extremely underwhelming answer to the question "What is too controversial to publish?" Still, everyone agrees they themselves would not touch it. So, after some delay, that game was dropped and "Black Lung"/Coal Country got put back on the schedule.
I hope in reading this diary that not only will players get a better understanding of what Coal Country is attempting to achieve, but also what confluence of events produced the attempt. It is a sophisticated economic game, in my opinion. It is a totally separate post, one that I may write someday, but the game is deeply steeped in economic and cultural theory at its core. It is also a product of a fair degree of historical research, even if we decentralized the final product. For instance, coal pricing shifts in-game in a manner that is generally historically accurate, while also fully embracing players' ability to influence and disrupt pricing. This is the product of some good, old-fashioned, dusty book research.
Furthermore, I hope readers who have themselves developed a household game will find the process of pitching games to publishers more approachable and, quite honestly, fun. By preparing myself, listening, and engaging with publishers, I have developed a number of games beyond what I originally intended to achieve. Coal Country is my first game on the shelves, but more are coming soon.
Current players may be interested in a set of supplemental variant rules we have posted on the Rio Grande Games website and on BGG. The game's boxed rules include two variants, one set in a world where mining is more highly regulated, and one in which mining is less regulated. Beyond those, there are number of individual rules that players can basically toggle on and off to adjust the game to their interests. These are listed in the online rule variants, and they have been arranged according to whether they add or subtract time from the game as we know for a lot of families and groups that playing time is a big concern when choosing games.
One variation I strongly encourage players to implement is the ability to store coal between turns. This adds money shortages into the game and empowers the village buildings. Coal Country's economy is fairly unique, so the boxed rules are presented in a fashion to help players dive right into the game, without too much added adversity. However, experienced players may enjoy the added intrigue and strategy that money shortages add into the game. For intermediate players, I recommend holding five coal; for advanced players, ten coal; for expert players, fifteen coal. I recommend it highly.
On a final note, I want to thank Jay Tummelson for, more or less, developing me as a game designer. The meetings described in this post came at a time in my life when I had deep reservations about the career that was basically chosen for me, and I had lost faith in my ability to perform in it while maintaining a balanced life. I was concerned with how I wanted to support my family, and with what kind of husband and father I wanted to be. I wanted to do something that I, myself, had chosen, something that made me a happier person. I would not have kept making games if that first meeting with Jay had simply been a ten-minute blow off session. I have had those since, and they hurt. Instead, Jay took the time to ask questions, learn about my game, learn about me, and learn about how I thought about games. He has made time for me at every convention and has responded to every email.
So while Jay and I are not close and I am probably just another designer to him — there are 500+ RGG titles before mine, after all — he has had a profound impact on me. This game has made a difference in my life. I hope you enjoy it.
I often like to compare the creation of a game to that of a living thing:
First, the mind of the game designer is inseminated by an idea, a feeling, a need; then, the idea gestates in the designer's head, and slowly but surely it's possible to discern a theme, a mechanism; eventually, provided there were no major problems during pregnancy, the designer gives birth to their idea as a prototype, not always beautiful but full of promise; much later, if the game survives childhood (the infant mortality rate of games is extremely high), it can finally be published and become an adult; finally, after some time, though unfortunately not that much in most cases, it dies, killed by neglect or lack of interest, and is buried in the stores' liquidation bins.
To continue the analogy, Decrypto's birthdate is pretty easy to determine: January 5, 2016. The final structure of the game suddenly materialized in my head as I walked on Jean-Talon Street, coming back from work, and an hour later the first prototype of the game was ready, the rules written. The game has changed relatively little since then.
As for the moment of conception, that I'm not so sure. The gestation of game concepts is often done over a long period of time in my head, and often unconsciously. It feels to me a bit like a watermill wheel that I would place over an invisible river. Sometimes I take control of the wheel, put it down in the water, and develop an idea consciously. However, when I take the wheel off the current and it leaves my consciousness, it continues nonetheless to spin for some time; each idea has its own inertia, which influences the persistence with which its wheel turns in the unconscious, and Decrypto's idea was particularly heavy.
Something like this...
I've always loved hidden messages and secret codes. My grandmother is a bridge enthusiast (the game, not the structure obviously), and I've always been fascinated by the stories of her games, especially when she spoke about the codes that could be sent between each partner during the auction phase. The basis for Decrypto's idea was the will to recreate part of that experience: to send coded messages to an ally without being intercepted.
There was at times the desire to do a more thematic game, with messages sent during a war of some kind, with a player who would attack regions on a board and another player who would try to relay information on the attacks to a third. I imagined different ways of communicating information — gestures, Dixit-like images, improv — but none of them satisfied me completely (at least in my mind, because I admit never having tried them). I even thought for a moment that players could send codes in the form of letters to their lovers.
And then the idea of the game's structure came gradually: We share a "key" with our teammates, allowing us to decode our messages, but the more we send messages, the more the opponent is informed on the nature of our key, until comes a time when they can intercept our codes. What made it all click in January 2016 was the simple realization that the key had to be words, and everything else fell into place quickly after that.
Your teammates may not always interpret codes as you do, even if they share your key...
As an aside, a game design element that I really appreciate, and that I tried to put in Decrypto, is what I call the presence of "natural" tensions, or "player" tensions. Players have a lot of freedom in Decrypto in terms of what they are allowed to communicate. They can say almost anything. However, in practice their communication is quite limited, not by the game, but by the other players because of the conflicting goals created by the scoring system. We want our teammates to understand us, but we do not want to be intercepted. It is the same kind of tension you'll find in games like Spyfall or Dixit, or in games with an auction mechanism (in the sense that auctions tend naturally towards an equilibrium that depends on the players).
First test of the game in January 2016 with my parents and my girlfriend;
at the time there were only three keywords but the digits on the code cards could be repeated, giving 27 combinations
Anyway, following the creation of the prototype, I quickly began to test the game with my family, my friends, and random people in board game cafés. Around mid-January 2016 — yes, less than two weeks after the creation of the first prototype as I was maybe a little too eager — I submitted my game by email to Christian Lemay of The Masked Scorpion. He refused, claiming that the game was too similar to Codenames. I decided to continue testing the game and presented it to other players, but also to other authors and other publishers.
Towards the end of February 2016, La Récréation, a board game café in Montreal, organized a prototype competition, which Decrypto won. The same weekend, during the Montreal Joue festival, I had the chance to present my prototype to a wider audience. Forgive me for erring into cheesiness (and for my wonky formulation), but I think that's when I understood what it looks like when people are genuinely excited by one of my games. I created three games before Decrypto, and although I think they were okay, it is clear, in retrospect, they did not produce the same "caliber" of feelings in players. During the first Decrypto tests, there was still a part of me that attributed the strong positive reactions of the testers to the fact that they were people I knew, that perhaps they were exaggerating their enthusiasm to please me.
But during the festival, observing the reactions of complete strangers, I realized that people were really interested in the game, that there was no room for doubt. This complete absence of doubt about the value of one of my creations, it's a feeling I think I had never experienced until then, and that had a great impact on me at the time.
Prototype, March 2016
Finally, in early March 2016, I contacted Christian Lemay to ask him to give a second chance to the game. I argued that the game had been very successful during the Montreal Joue festival and the Recreation's prototype contest (it was true), and that I had made several changes to the rules (mea culpa: it was mostly false). He agreed to reconsider and took a copy of the prototype to test.
During the month that followed, through countless email exchanges, we tried to find ways to improve the game. Christian had the great idea to go from three to four keywords and not have any repeating digits in the codes. This change slightly reduced the time to find clues (players theoretically need to prepare only four potential clues rather than nine), it improved the distribution of clues, and it added a bit of variety. The publishing contract was signed at the beginning of April 2016, and since then small additional improvements were brought by the Masked Scorpion team, particularly regarding the optimization of the action sequence, but also the components and the rules surrounding clues.
Final version of the game
So, that's pretty much everything. Well, at least the portion that may be put into words. Christian would obviously be able to add many lines to this text since he spent more time with the game than I did during the past year and would certainly have his own story to tell. I hope you enjoy the work that we did, and please let us know what you think!
Editor's note: For those not familiar with Decrypto, check out this rules video from Scorpion Masqué, which is possibly the best rules video I've ever seen. In just over three minutes, you get a good feel for the game and are pretty much set to open the box and play. —WEM
Some game designs come together easily, while others do not. For every back-of-a-cigarette-packet mechanism that just goes from theory to ironing out the details, many, many more are years in the making. Rather fittingly, I guess, Pioneer Days — a game about the long, hard struggle of winning out against adversity — falls into the latter category.
Fact junkies: Add two hundred years to the dates below for a more accurate reading...
December 1813 We first set out, from Australia and England, on a journey quite unlike the one that would shape our fate: to design a game about dwarves brewing beer. As with so many grand designs, our plans were dashed on the rocks and the expedition a failure. Over-complexity and ideas that didn't quite hang together saw us walk away from yet another promising adventure, but those initial dreams did bear fruit: a crumb of an idea in which dice were rolled, but no matter whether they were 6s or 1s, you'd have an advantage of one kind or another. Here, we had individuals rolling their own three dice, then using them to draft cards, each representing a worker dwarf: low rolls would get the first choice of cards, while higher rolls would use the cards they drafted more effectively. I still held some hope for the idea, but at the time it had too many issues. Hate-drafting was rife on low numbers, choices limited on high ones, and all 'round it was unsatisfying.
March 1814 Undeterred by our earlier failure, we set out with a new destination in mind. America! Matt laid out his plans thusly: Players still draft three cards each with their dice (lowest first), but now the cards bear a number of profession symbols (traveller, miner, farmer, etc.), and the dice give only a one-time bonus to the players, with the highest collection of each profession giving that player a bonus for the round — which meant that the drafting was also about long-term strategy with the professions rather than just short-term tactical play.
Actions saw players move caravans across the plains, mine the hills, build in new territories, fight off hostiles, and of course feed their hardy pioneers — but something still wasn't right. While we were now firmly on dry land and resolved to discover a new destiny, the dice mechanism still didn't sit well with us. Low rollers were still denying others the actions they wanted, and the compensation for the high numbers wasn't strong enough. Were we simply doomed to repeat our earlier failures?
May 1814 A breakthrough! Dysentery and terrible weather had laid us low, but the skies cleared and we could clearly make out the way ahead. Instead of having different colored dice for each player, the dice colors represent disasters that may befall all our pioneers. Players draw one more die from a bag each round than there are players, then draft one die each, with the leftover die moving that disaster one step closer to befalling those brave souls. Colors represent illness (medicine required!), raids (there goes your money!), heat (your cattle will suffer!), and terrain (say b-bye to your wagons, which were holding all your stuff!) — with the dreaded black dice seeing all four disasters moving ever closer.
The game has five turns, with each player taking five dice each turn, for a total of 25 actions in the game. Each die can be used either for money (where high is better, with the money being spent on wagons, specialist workers, etc.) or for an action (with better actions being tied to lower numbers). As an added twist, your final set of five collected dice creates a Yahtzee/poker-style "hand" that gives bonuses at the end of the round. We feel confident in our new-found mechanism — but will it be another false dawn?
August 1814 We spent the previous few months on the trail with a more singular purpose, and it finally bore fruit! The answer wasn't poker; it was people! While we fine-tuned the mechanical side of the game, we realized what it needed were the personalities that made the original idea so compelling — the people themselves, now transformed into pioneers. These hardy folk have added a whole host of interesting abilities into the mix, adding more interaction between players and making the base actions far more varied and complex.
In addition to adding color, these pioneers have brought two levels of mechanical progression that have sealed the game's structure. The poker idea is gone; instead, your pioneers offer a new option to think about when choosing a die, regardless of what the number is. More specifically, each die now has a person randomly drawn next to it each round, and by choosing that die you can add the person to your wagon train. Better still, the pioneers each have a way of scoring endgame points, which helps you choose a particular path to follow — assuming you can keep them alive to the end of the trail…
January 1815 An investor! Our very own Oregon Trail seems to have ended, in fact, in Utah — via Essen, Germany. In October 1814, we met with a character named Seth Jaffee who represented a company called Tasty Minstrel Games, a publisher we trusted to do the right thing by us and our game, then called "Frontiers". He took the game away to show it to his partners — and low and behold, we have ourselves a deal!
The difference between publishers is truly astonishing. Sometimes you can hand a game over and out it pops into the shops a year later with nary a detail changed, while with others you can be all but cut out of the development process. The game we gave them back then was rough around the edges, yet mechanically sound, and we'd spent the last few months going back and forth with them smoothing the edges — but if we thought we'd be able to hang our spurs up and relax this time, we were in for a shock! We were consulted every step of the way, with not a week going by without discussions of a particular pioneer's ability or the relative strength of a particular action. It's a long process, but worth every second because each week you know the game is getting better.
June 1815 While the trail was long and winding, and we often felt the end was in sight only to find another fork in the path, we continued to persevere. I was worried we may have taken too many rough edges away — this is the Wild West, after all — but in hindsight I can see the wisdom behind Seth removing some of the more trouble-making townsfolk. Who knows, maybe they can return one day?
Elsewhere, wagons now take damage rather than being destroyed by storms, which means you won't lose as many valuable resources! And as fun as some of the "take that" elements were, some of them were a little too crass for this style of Eurogame, especially when the key focus should be on the disaster track. You should be worrying whether bandits will take your gold if you let a disaster happen rather than worrying about another player sniping it from you. If I've learned one thing from all the game design blogs I've read and podcasts I've listened to, it's this: Find where the game is. For us, it is on that disaster board with the tension that it brings — that shouldn't be upstaged.
December 1816 The end of the trail cannot be far away now! Many months of further small iterations have seen us create themed decks of townsfolk, while working on individual player board abilities. The game is now called Pioneer Days, and artist Sergi Marcet has been brought on board to bring the game to life. He's done an amazing job, even bringing some of our family members and playtesters to life on some of the townsfolk cards. You may even recognize a few of our fellow Cambridge, UK-based designers. The different decks of townsfolk help make each game feel different as you can mix and match them, with some adding a bit of randomness, others interactivity, etc. The varied player board characters encourage different types of play style. You get two to choose from at the start of the game, but each also has a standard pioneer on the back (always a solid choice), so you can still opt for a balanced game if that's what floats your boat.
October 1817 A limited supply of final copies arrived at SPIEL '17 via an aeroplane. Opening the first copy to find a beautiful game — but no dice — was a little terrifying! Especially after we opened the next and the next to find the same thing...
A few phone calls later, and we knew (prayed) they'd arrive the next day. They did — and the few available copies soon sold out, leaving us waiting on the rest to arrive by boat, perhaps even in time for Christmas?
Once again, in a fitting nod to those hardy pioneers of old, transportation of the game across the seas hit rough waters. Despite what clearly must have been a succession of black-dice-level disasters, we never lost hope — and in April 1818 Pioneer Days finally completed its troubled journey to the USA. We hope you like it! (Much love to co-designer Matt Dunstan, who also wrote the original draft of this diary.)
Endless Pass: A Viking Saga is a competitive card game for 2 to 6 players inspired by Norse fantasy that releases in April 2018 from Wizkids (with art by Craig Petersen. To win the game, in short, you must be the last Viking standing or the first to earn 10 Glory, while surviving the turn. If none of the players survive, then the player with the highest Glory will be honored as the most worthy Viking in Valhalla.
Ragnarok approaches… and the Midgard Serpent, Jormungandr, is stirring. The spawn of the Serpent, a horde of serpentine monsters called the Endless, are now scattered throughout Midgard hiding in deep canyons and valleys, awaiting the final battle. While many Vikings have attempted to enter such places wishing to aid the Gods in their struggle, none have returned. The Endless Pass is one such place… will you enter the Endless Pass and emerge victorious?
In this designer diary, I want to give you some details on the idea behind the Endless and their gameplay, together with behind-the-scenes photos on the evolution of the design process.
Different board game designers point to different starting points for board game design; a theme, a mechanism, even the components themselves can spark the first game ideas. For Endless Pass, I really enjoyed tying a mechanism and a theme together to create the idea of the Endless. How they interact with the players, their name, and even the name of the game itself comes from the synergy between a game mechanism idea and a theme.
The serpentine Endless, which have not changed much visually
except for my awful (but practical) drawing skills
The Mechanism: Infinite Runner Video Games
When the first idea of creating this game came up, I was inspired by the movement of the characters and monsters in "endless" or "infinite" running platform video games. In these (usually single-player) games, the player can jump or attack monsters in addition to picking up treasure or health while always moving forward in a seemingly endless world and trying to survive the perils on the path. The player cannot stop; the character is always moving. As the difficulty of the game increases, so does the speed or the perils in the path of the player.
I imagined what would happen to the monsters that were left behind in these games. What happens when the player jumps them? Well, in those games, nothing; they are forgotten on the path and left behind. But what would happen if another player were also following that same path after the first player?
With this question, the idea that the Endless are persistent monsters came to life. If they are not defeated, the Endless will remain on the path and encounter the next player. Endless can be defeated by using Attack or Greek Fire cards, but any Endless that are evaded or defended against are still in play.
This creates a challenge for the player as she may encounter a lot of enemies on the path, but it also adds the ability for that player to use the enemies to defeat other players in this competitive game. If you are not able to or don't want to defeat the Endless, they will be passed towards the next player. Therefore, the name of the game is also inspired by this move as the Endless keep "passing" from player to player.
After the main game was designed, I added more challenge with the nine Endless Hunters
as they are harder to defeat
The Theme: An Endless Serpent and Norse Mythology
The ouroboros is a well-known symbol that represents the idea of infinity, a snake that bites its own tail in an endless circle. The idea of theming the Endless in Norse mythology came easily through the ouroboros connection. Who could these Endless be but serpentine creatures, the spawn of the most dangerous ouroboros of all, the Midgard Serpent?
According to the legend, the Midgard Serpent (Jörmungandr, World Serpent, Miðgarðsormr) will battle Thor during Ragnarök, the great battle of the gods that will lead to the inevitable destruction of the world.
Following this idea, the Endless are monsters waiting for the end of days in the dangerous mountain passes of Midgard, while the players are Vikings trying to prove their worth to the Gods and fight in the coming battle they know they will lose.
The cause the forces of good are fighting is hopeless. Nevertheless, the gods will fight for it to the end. Necessarily the same is true of humanity. If the gods are finally helpless before evil, men and women must be more so. The heroes and heroines of the early stories face disaster. They know that they cannot save themselves, not by any courage or endurance or great deed. Even so, they do not yield. They die resisting. A brave death entitles them — at least the heroes — to a seat in Valhalla, one of the Halls in Asgard, but there too they must look forward to final defeat and destruction. In the last battle between good and evil, they will fight on the side of the gods, and die with them. Edith Hamilton, Mythology, Grand Central Publishing (1942, 2011) pp. 442-443
The Vikings gain Glory by defeating the Endless and by battling other Vikings in the quest to claim Glory. The game has double-sided boards, so in addition to having everyone play under the same conditions, players can assume the roles of Viking Heroes with different player values and powers.
The evolution of the two-sided player boards, with one side for a nameless Viking,
the other for a Hero
These Heroes and Heroines were also inspired in Norse mythology. For example, Hervor, the spell-singer, is based on the practice of magic or shamanism called seiðr, a Norse witch or a völva. While this character is more versed on the art of casting spells with runes, I also designed a male seiðr who was a seer and another younger völva, a rune weaver. In addition to the Berserker, the bear warrior included in the game, I also explored the wolf and boar warriors from the shamanistic tradition. From the original twelve characters that we playtested, we included only six in Endless Pass, with an equal number of female and male characters of different ages.
Design Evolution: Norse Fantasy
While the first idea for the development of the game was related to the movement of the monsters (i.e., the infinite runner), I originally just placed the game in a generic fantasy setting. However, very early in the design process I established the connection between the infinite movement and the ouroboros, between the fantasy and Norse mythology. These thematic ingredients influenced the design not only of the Endless, as I've described above, but also of other aspects of the game. For example, following the Viking belief that victory is possible in death, in the game it is also possible to win after being eliminated (as you are the Viking with the most Glory in Valhalla).
In this Norse fantasy game, the thematic also influenced the types of items that are found in the Pass. For example, the Greek fire designs (which were originally just fire bombs) were inspired by Byzantine grenades. We incorporated this idea because Vikings knew about this technique and used it on their ships (Varangian Guard of Basil II).
The evolution of the Greek fire card, which was playtested as both an action and an item
The artist, Craig Petersen, took care to include some Norse fantasy details in the illustrations and the design of all the cards for the game, from the weapons, shields and helmets to the rune symbols used (except for the symbols of speed and actions, which are meant to be more helpful for the player than faithful to the theme).
The evolution of some action cards
Finally, in these pictures you can also see a bit of the evolution of the design of the Speed, Hide, and Attack Action cards — not only graphic changes towards adapting the illustration to the idea of the mountain pass, but also the evolution of the gameplay itself due to playtesting.
Aside from playtesting with friends, family, game design colleagues in Barcelona and board game clubs, I also playtested the game at conventions such as Protos y Tipos 2017 (Zaragoza, Spain) and UK Games Expo 2017. From these playtests, the Speed card evolved from two separate actions to one action with two options (speed up and slow down). Hide also evolved from two different actions (change direction and skip turn). Observing the players, it was determined that the merging of actions both gave more decision power to the player and simplified gameplay and rules.
I hope that you've found this behind-the-scenes tale about Endless Pass interesting. Let me know if you have any questions or comments regarding this design diary! If you would like to check the rulebook of Endless Pass, you can download it from the BGG file page.
I've written at length about the design process that led to The Sands of Time, which releases in late March 2018 from Spielworxx, so what I'd like to talk about here is the history of the idea of The Sands of Time. By this, I don't mean how I came up with the idea for The Sands of Time, but rather the process by which I came to realize that discovering a game's central idea is an important part of game design.
Let me elaborate a bit on this point. The idea of a game is what the game is all about, its focus, its beating heart. We can approach this, Zendo-style, by first identifying what it is not:
It is not merely the game's theme or subject. Sands is a civilization game, but it isn't about civilization-building.
It is not merely the game's combination of mechanisms. Sands features simultaneous action selection, but it's not about this particular mechanism.
It is not merely the game's premise or player representation. In Sands, you enter the role of a ruler of an ancient civ, but that's also not what the game is about.
A decent approximation might be to say that a game's core idea is the element of the game around which all of the player's decisions revolve. Perhaps it will become more clear as we walk through the history of this idea as it pertains to Sands.
First Era: Sands Is About Differentiation
I began working on Sands in 2003 when I first heard about Mare Nostrum from Bruno Faiduti's blog. I was fairly new to design and the idea of a "playable civ" sounded like a fun challenge. The game's early life began in sessions hosted by Ernestborg9.
In its early stages, Sands was about...well, it was about five hours, actually, so a lot of the design effort was focused on cutting length to realize that civ lite goal. To the extent that there was a central animating idea, I think it was that in Civilization, the different civilizations all ended up feeling monochrome (and admittedly, I played Civ only a couple of times, so this might not be a fair impression). I thought a more sandbox-style game in which you could diversify your strategy to emulate different historical civs would be fun.
To promote this, the game had four different scoring categories, each loosely based on a historical civ's grandeur: number of territories (Rome), cultural diffusion (Greece), cultural achievement (Greece/Egypt), and wealth (Babylon, or perhaps Israel in Solomon's reign, if you accept the Biblical text at face value). However, the scoring in each category was rank-based, so I was ironically working against my goal of avoiding homogeneous civs; the game's scoring system was telling everyone to try to compete in as many categories as possible! There's a design lesson in there about incentive structures, but we'll save that for another day.
Second Era: Sands Is About Dichotomies
One contributing factor to the excessive length was the action system, which was an old school Avalon Hill-esque bullet point list of phases (see the player aid to the above right). Each step prompted every player for a decision, and serial player decisions are a game length killer. It was many years later that, at the suggestion of P. D. Magnus I realized that the actual solution to this problem was to parallelize these decisions. But at this early point in the design and as a nascent designer, the solution seemed to be to make the actions shorter and punchier.
So I arranged the actions into a 4x2 grid, with each column representing a particular "prefect" that you could call on. (The player mat to the left shows this; also shown is a later iteration of an action selection board.) The catch was that each prefect could focus on only one thing, so your empire prefect could either go out and conquer new lands, or focus internally and reduce unrest, but not both. (In fairness, this wasn't a terrible way of speeding up decisions by reducing choice, since as the turn went on, you'd have fewer and fewer columns available to you.)
I realized that the action system was forcing players to make binary decisions: build or produce, populate or migrate, war or govern, chronicle or advance. Then I looked at the rest of the game, and there were a lot of other things that came in twos: two unit types, two resources, two types of structures. I had stumbled upon a game that was a study of dichotomies, and I realized that this was an overarching idea that lay behind the game's core mechanisms and that pulled them together in a unifying framework. I wasn't sure what to do about it and didn't necessarily build the design around this premise, but it was at least a realization that the game even had an idea.
Third Era: Sands Is About History-Making
Throughout the design process I had been struggling to get the scoring system right: When does scoring happen, and what authorizes you to score? In this era, we nixed the rank-based scoring and replaced it with "chronicle cards". A crucial addition to this idea was the somewhat later introduction of achievement tokens.
I had split things into three civilization categories — civil, cultural, and political — thereby quietly ending the dichotomies era of the game. This split imposed a nice overarching structure onto the game, with advances, buildings, actions, and chronicles all separated into these three categories. We added achievement tokens in these three categories as a currency that connected to the action selection system. There were cards that said, e.g., "If you win a battle this turn, you get two political tokens", etc. What I realized, though, was that these tokens could represent not just your achievements, but also (abstractly) your reputation — and that could connect to the scoring system; it could be that to score in a category, you had to pay a certain number of achievement tokens in that category.
This was something quite different from other games. In most games, you're told that thing X is worth Y points, and when scoring happens, you get all of the points you're entitled to. In Sands, chronicles represent boasts about your exploits, but what's important isn't only whether those boasts are true, but also whether people believe them, that is, whether you've established a reputation for the thing you're claiming to have done. Achievement tokens were the conduit for this, and this idea of needing to write your history and establish your reputation took center stage as the core idea of the game.
As I became aware that it was the game's core idea, I began building systems around it. For example, how do you build a reputation? Well, one way is through cultural exchange; your people carry stories of your deeds to foreign lands. Thus, trade routes entered the game as a way to capture this. Heritage was another, with the things you score for in one scoring round giving you an "achievement kickback" in future turns.
The culmination of all of this was the realization that Sands is a history-making game, a game about building and telling the story of a civilization as it unfolds. When I teach the game, this is always the first thing I say, and I hope that it comes through for the players as well.
The Idea of a Game
The aspects that became the ideas of Sands in the various phases were present in the game from its earliest time. The two-types-of-stuff that led to the dichotomy emphasis were in there all along, and so was the idea of history-making (originally in the form of a random event, the "historian" card, which triggered scoring).
The evolution of a core idea was in some ways, then, the moving around of a spotlight. My role as the designer was really to discover, over a long period of observation, where the game itself wanted that spotlight to be shined. It wouldn't have worked to have tried to impose a grand idea from the outset because that might have ended up suffocating the game. That's not to say it can't work this way. My good friend Seth Jaffee has talked about how Eminent Domain began as a study in letting the actions that players take directly improve their ability in that action henceforth, and TauCeti Deichmann (also a good friend) has talked in this space about how Sidereal Confluence (a.k.a. "Trade Empires") was his attempt to create a game built around positive-sum interaction.
But while it can happen that a grand idea is imposed from the beginning or discovered through iteration, I think what's probably more common is for a game to never quite find a central animating idea beyond its basic premise or subject or mechanical foundation. Of course every game has to start somewhere, and "I want to make a game about the westward expansion" or "I want to combine role selection with dice rolling" are perfectly good starting points, just as "I want to write a story about a young person who is given a strange ring by his uncle" is a good starting point for a book. But I think the games that go on to become classics may achieve that extra level of greatness and durability precisely because their designers found a bigger idea in the theme and the mechanisms that they were tinkering with, and that this enabled the game to transcend its theme and its mechanisms to be something bigger.
As I've worked on other designs, I've seen this same discovery process unfold, so:
A game "about" the Olympic downhill eventually became a game about risk management, specifically about modulating your exposure to risk as you traverse a course with easier and more difficult patches.
A game that began with "I wonder what a game with sand timers as playing pieces would be like?" ended up as a game about the temporal choreography between asymmetric roles (specifically in the context of a bustling French restaurant).
A game "about" the Thirty Years War became a game about conquest when the very act of combat destroys the territories you're fighting over.
And so on.
Finding the Game's Idea
If it's so important that a game have a central idea, how do we find it? The challenge is to be aware that focusing on a central idea is something that you want to happen. I can't prescribe a specific recipe or timetable for it to happen. It's a passive process, which is hard to accept as a designer, but I think two things can help.
First, it helps to listen to one's playtesters. What are they saying about the game? What are they reacting to most favorably? What are they showing the most excitement about? What about the game keeps them coming back to it over and over? When they say, "Ah, this bit here is very nice!", what is the "this" that they're pointing out? Playtesting is so important to the design process, not merely because it lets the designer see whether a game "works" or not, but because it allows for the input from the playtesters to shape the game. Listen to your playtesters' suggestions, but listen more carefully to their observations. They're watching the game's development unfold along with you, but they see it from a different vantage point.
The second thing is harder: Wait. So many posts in the BGG design forums read like, "I just had a great idea for a game that I'm hoping to Kickstart later this year." No! Give your games room to breathe — not just lots of playtests, but plenty of time, as in calendar time. There's really no rush. Plan on spending extended periods of time in which the game is marinating or sitting on the back burner. The perspective of time is important in articulating and clarifying what about the game is important or distinctive.
I've been told that in the automotive world, there are accelerated weather tests for paint coatings, but they are an imperfect substitute for the "Florida test", that is, putting the painted part out in Florida and waiting for several years. Game design is like that in many ways: There's no substitute for spending a long time working on a game, and doing so gives one the best chance of hitting upon a compelling central idea for the game.
I'm glad to have gotten to work on Sands, and despite its long development, it was time well spent. I'm appreciative of the playtesters and am gratified to see that the time we collectively spent on the game has come to fruition. I hope that our efforts will provide you who play it with enjoyment and perhaps some interesting stories that you can proclaim for years to come!
This designer diary may be unusual because it will have to cover a period of 41 years (1974-2015). On day one of the diary, I was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy serving in HMS Grampus, a Porpoise class submarine, as the navigating officer; forty-one years later, and retired, I could call myself a board game designer...albeit on the back of a single title.
1974: The theme and associated mechanisms — no dice! (Laying down)
The idea to devise my game came to me one evening while watching the local Portsmouth area TV news. The particular news item concerned a local man who had invented a board game which had just been published — sadly I don't recall its name — and his sage advice to others wanting to follow his example was "to choose a theme for your game that you know something about". I remember thinking "I could do that"; I knew about submarines!
My submarine experience at this point was purely in diesel-electric conventional submarines, but this was fine because they lend themselves well to a hidden-movement game owing to their limited submerged endurance. I wanted to devise a game that as far as possible removed any form of chance other than the luck that a player creates as a result of their decisions during the game. This was because in my younger days I had been brought up on a gaming diet of Totopoly, Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk, and I had bad memories, particularly of the latter two, when Lady Luck had failed to support my cause; either I had been heading for the library, or similar, to expose the murderer but found myself crawling along the "corridor" and always arriving too late...or I was holed up in Kamchatka throwing a succession of defensive ones — we've all been there!
So rule number one for my own game was that luck, and therefore dice, couldn't be used to resolve interactions between players or the movement of pieces. In this case the use of fuel, be it fossil fuel or battery power, was an obvious way to regulate movement around the board and I immediately realized that this could be done very nicely by using gauges. Being a game about submarines, it would also have to work in three dimensions and a depth gauge would work very nicely for that, too, as well as two boards to allow for hidden submarine movement.
Areas of different seabed depth would also be required on the boards so that the submarines could evade by using their unique ability. I decided on 250, 450 and 650 feet (the Royal Navy wasn't metric in those days) and for the submarines to operate 50 feet clear of the sea bed as a safety requirement. It was all coming together!
I also wanted the game to be interesting using authentic actions, but clearly it could never be a simulation and this meant that from the outset I decided that I couldn't include torpedoes. Torpedoes are, of course, a submarine's primary weapon system but to include torpedo attacks in the game would have meant resolving them with a probability matrix...and the roll of dice...and thereby breaking rule number one! So I looked to another submarine weapon — the submarine-laid mine — which could be a straightforward case of "If you run over the mine, you're done for!" No dice required. I then drew on another role of the submarine service for inspiration, that of inserting special forces to destroy facilities and shipping, and the aim of the game was identified.
For the surface opposition, the anti-submarine weapons of the time (1960s/early 1970s) were generally short-range lobbed explosives (but longer range than WW2 depth charges) set to explode at a preset depth — in the Royal Navy, these slightly longer range weapons were called mortar bombs — so I implemented this capability in the game.
1974-1980: Developing the early version — "Submarine" (Sea-trials)
Later in 1974, with the basic gameplay mechanisms worked out, I had the first version of the game drawn up under the (un)imaginative title "Submarine". It had two frigates (much later these were changed to destroyers to fit the Soviet setting) and two submarines vying for naval supremacy in a fictional setting on two hand-drawn playing boards. (The real-world setting would come later during the run up to publication.) One board would be used for actions at the surface and at periscope depth (i.e., the main board), and the other one would be for submarine actions in the depths (the deep board).
The movement of submarines across the boards was managed with both depth and battery gauges; a snorting move enabled battery charging and provided the opposition with occasional positional clues to ensure game balance. [Editor's note: See below for an explanation of "snorting". —WEM] To provide further balance, the submarines could operate at three possible depths on the deep board (200, 400 & 600 feet) depending upon the depth of water available. The frigates had both fuel and mortar bomb salvo gauges and, with the deep board concealed from their view, they tried to find the submarines using sonar search templates before delivering a salvo of mortar bombs set to the correct range and depth, three accumulated hits being required for a kill. In return, the submarines could lay a minefield each as well as trying to achieve their collective objective of destroying four out of the six enemy harbors by landing commandoes and destroying fuel and weapon dumps, and if lucky, a frigate alongside.
The game had successful outings beneath the waves during the mid-late 1970s, most notably in the SSN HMS Sovereign (78/79) where the main board gained a perspex cover and an aluminum base, and the game became a regular after-dinner pastime on patrol.
1981-2013: Further development (and further sea trials)
A few years later in 1981 while in a shore posting, I decided to inject further realism through the addition of the logistic fleet of three ships to enable a replenishment at sea option (RAS) as well as the ability to move fuel and weapons between harbors and regenerate them throughout the game.
In the original version of the game, the surface ship team started play with a finite number of fuel and weapon containers available to them which they placed at harbors of their choice during the game's set-up. The warships could then only embark fuel/weapons during a turn in a harbor, and once the fuel/weapon containers had been used, they were removed from play. This effectively imposed a time limit for the game because of the ever-dwindling resource pile, and although not necessarily a bad thing (particularly when playing during an off-watch period at sea) it also made survival rather tricky for the surface team, so the introduction of the logistic fleet improved the game in terms of realism and balance.
I also took the opportunity to redraw the boards in order to alter the shape of the sea areas of different depths. In the original version they were purely rectangular, so I now gave some of the areas additional sides in order to provide greater scope for tactical exploitation of the depths by the submarines and a further headache for the searching warships. In the 1980s, this updated version of the game received further testing ashore and at sea in a diesel boat, HMAS Oxley, and an SSBN, HMS Revenge, the latter during a number of Polaris deterrent patrols.
Apart from these improvements, the game remained unchanged...until December 2013.
December 2013: Developing the game for the marketplace and finding a new name (Refit)
It was after a chance meeting in December 2013 with a fellow villager while out walking our respective dogs that my game came to mind. He was telling me about an invention he had got into commercial production and as we later went our separate ways I was left thinking how satisfying it would be to have an invention that made it to the marketplace...and then I remembered "Submarine".
I retired from the Royal Navy in 1993 after 25 years service, twenty-one in the submarine service, but full retirement didn't come until 2012. Full retirement has the luxury of control over how one spends one's time. I immediately dug out my game and realized that, while it wasn't at all shabby, I could apply the benefits of age, wisdom, and a few more years experience under my belt playing board games to give it a facelift...and a new name because I didn't think that continuing with the name "Submarine" would be punchy or unique for the marketplace. After ten minutes or so of trying various words and phrases, I finally decided to simply give a minor tweak to the Royal Navy's Submarine Service motto — We Come Unseen — applying the third person to arrive at the title They Come Unseen. (I didn't feel comfortable using the motto verbatim.) Now to get it published!
January to May 2014: Getting help from the village and at the UKGE (Further "sea-trials")
An internet search discovered that a game expo (UKGE) is held each year at a large hotel on the Birmingham NEC "campus", and a quick email to the organizer, Richard Denning, not only advised me about how I could demonstrate my game in a "Play Test Zone" but also gave me a tip about developing a game for the marketplace: Playtesting a prototype game almost "to destruction" (to iron out any flaws) before showing it to a potential publisher — obvious really, but invaluable.
This exchange of emails took place in early January 2014, and the Expo that year was planned for 30th May, so a quick turn around was needed; armed with this information I doubled my efforts refurbishing the game. A game of Matt Leacock's excellent Forbidden Desert one afternoon proved to be a catalyst for one element of this refurbishment. After succumbing to the effects of the sand storm, I was hit by the sudden realization that if ever a game needed to include weather effects it was my game — life at sea is all about working with the elements — so I devised the "Weather" mechanism to include sea state and thermocline effects.
By early February I felt that I had a better product in hand, so I sent an email request around the village — there are only about one hundred adults living here — for keen board-gamers to step out of the closet to help me to playtest the updated version of my game before I took it to the Expo. Four volunteers stepped up, and I plied them with wine, beer and nibbles. They did "battle" on our dining room table while I observed and noted what needed tweaking before the next gathering. One early addition was the "Sonar watch" mechanism to provide some "between turns" continuity in a turn-based game.
In another test session I observed a tactic that had never been tried before. This was a very negative tactic employed by the Soviet team of simply sitting back and allowing three ice-stations to be destroyed by the NATO submarines while guarding the remaining three ice-stations and all their fuel and weapon resources so that NATO could never win...or would find it very difficult indeed. (NATO has to destroy four out of the six Soviet ice-stations to win the game.) I was rather taken aback by this development. My fellow gung-ho submariners and I had never considered this very negative tactic, and an effective solution was required swiftly to prevent anyone else trying this approach to the game. It was essential that the Soviet team could not stockpile resources and just sit back, so I introduced the fuel and weapon production and processing infrastructural links between ice-station Echo and the other ice-stations so that NATO attacks anywhere on the board would have an impact on the processing and production of fuel and weapons. This did the trick and highlighted perfectly the importance of testing no matter how long a game has been around.
With the UKGE fast approaching, I now duly booked a Play Test Zone session through Rob Harris of PLAYTEST UK as well as a hotel room close to the venue.
May 2014: Searching for a publisher (Squadron allocation)
My "zone time" at the UKGE was booked for Sunday morning, so I spent Saturday checking out the trade stands and helping to playtest other designers' games in the Play Test Zone; it didn't seem right to me to turn up to test only my game, then leave, but sadly none of the designers whose games I helped test on the Saturday shared the same view; none of them stayed on for the Sunday session! Unbowed, I laid out my game on a table in the Play Test Zone on Sunday for my booked test slot. While waiting for testers to arrive, I introduced myself to the man at the table immediately next to mine in the Play Test Zone to chat about our respective games; in a nice twist of fate, he turned out to be Matt Leacock. (His business card resides in my "Forbidden Desert" game tin.)
A game of They Come Unseen soon got underway, and two hours later with my "zone time" completed and a 10/10 review from the test game, I packed up and checked out of the Zone. As I did so, I was handed a business card that had been left by the game developer of a publishing company looking to start a range of strategy games that would suit the family market, a company whose offices, I discovered, are in Oxford just fifteen miles up the road from our village. What are the chances? The phrase "right place, right time" sprang to mind. The game developer was Duncan Molloy, and the company, of course, Osprey Publishing, which would soon release titles as Osprey Games.
June 2014: Contacting the publisher (In contact!)
As soon as I was back home from the Expo, I emailed Duncan and a day or so later he replied: "We'll have to get you in. In the meantime can you send the rule sets over for me to look at?" I duly emailed him my 42-page rulebook only to receive a few days later a kindly worded rejection: "Thanks for being so comprehensive with the rule sets you've sent through! I've had a look at the game, and unfortunately will have to pass on publishing." Duncan went on to say that my game appeared to be too complex to fit comfortably into their planned portfolio of family games; he added the kind offer that he would be happy to see any future games that I devised.
Undeterred I thanked him for giving it consideration, blamed the verbosity of my rulebook for hiding the simple game that lay behind it but said that having taken forty years to get this far, any future games were unlikely! I then asked him if he would be prepared to give me contacts for other companies whose portfolios They Come Unseen might match. I received a brief reply: "Give me a day or two and let me come back to you."
June to July 2014: Streamlining the rulebook (Essential maintenance)
I now set about streamlining the rulebook to make it more accessible to any other publishers that might ask to see it. I reduced it to 27 pages and included several diagrams of example moves. Two weeks went by and having heard nothing further from Duncan, I sent him the new streamlined rulebook as a way to re-establish communications, saying, slightly mischievously: "I'm not chasing you for a reply. [I was] Just for the record..." and went on to say that I wished I had had this more concise version of the rules available when he had asked to see them.
Within two hours I had a reply: "I haven't had a chance to look through the new rulebook you've sent through but I've been thinking a lot about the game and I'd really like to play it. I think there are problems with it as it was presented, but I suspect they're solvable. Are you free next week to drop into the office? Any day bar Thursday should suit."
July to October 2014: Demonstrating They Come Unseen (Work up)
I duly took my game along and Duncan enjoyed playing it. This demonstration took place on 11th July 2014 and I left my prototype with Duncan and his team for further analysis. Another three months would go by before I received news from Duncan: "I'm just writing to let you know that They Come Unseen has passed our internal publishing processes! I'm delighted to say that we will be progressing with the game as one of our flagship titles for our launch. Congratulations." In the hiatus that followed Duncan offered me the opportunity to add some personal and technical background about life at sea and submarine warfare strategies; this subsequently was published with the game as the "History & Strategy" booklet.
October 2015: Published (The commissioning ceremony)
And so, in October 2015 They Come Unseen was published a mere forty-one years after I had drafted my first set of rules for "Submarine". Osprey Games did a wonderful job bringing my prototype to life; I'm delighted by the finished product, and I hope that it brings tabletop joy to many gamers around the globe...when there should always be plenty of discussion about the weather!
An explanation of "snorting" for those unfamiliar with the term:
"Snorting" is the Royal Navy term for snorkeling, i.e., the process of drawing air into the submarine through a snort (snorkel) induction mast to allow the diesel generators to be run to charge the batteries while at periscope depth; the diesel exhaust gases are led outboard through a snort (snorkel) exhaust mast. The photograph below shows HMS Grampus snorting off western Scotland (c1974); I was down there and might even have been on the periscope!
The masts raised are (L to R): search periscope, snort induction mast, wireless mast, and (with its top hidden slightly below the surface) the snort exhaust mast. This example is a rather non-operational snort taken during aircraft radar trials; the wireless mast wouldn't normally be raised during a snort (it was here to talk to the RAF Nimrod crew taking the photo) and the boat would normally have been moving much slower to both maximize the battery-charging rate and to avoid creating such an obvious wake; also, the underside of the ball of the snort induction mast should be just skimming the surface to reduce detection opportunities.
I didn't know what I was doing. Oh, I thought I knew. I thought I was translating a rulebook for my friend Vláďa, but actually I was working on a game that would be Czech Games Edition's best-selling title and on a rulebook that would set the tone for what players expect from CGE.
The year was 2007, and Vlaada Chvátil had this game called "Rakety". That's Czech, but you can probably tell that it means "Rockets".
It was a silly game about building spaceships that got hit by meteors and fell apart. I had never played it.
It sounds crazy, but ignorance of a game can be an advantage when I am translating. It means I have to understand the game only from the rules, which makes it easy to spot places where a new player would have questions.
Nowadays, I get this information from the players themselves. Before I start a rulebook, I have explained it to other players at least half a dozen times. That gives me a chance to try different ways of presenting the game, and I can discover what works.
And that's the knowledge that Vlaada had when he sent me the Czech rules for Galaxy Trucker. At the time, I didn't realize that his approach was unusual, but Dave Howell has pointed out to me that it is pedagogically amazing: Vlaada tells you how to build your ship, then he says, "Go ahead and build it!"
Then he sends you out on a flight in which the deck is stacked so that you will encounter exactly one of each type of adventure. By the end of the first round, you have learned the basic rules of the game.
But Vlaada's games never stop at the basic rules, do they? There's always some little tweak that makes the game more fair, more interesting, more gamey. That's why you're allowed to look at 75% of the cards during building. Any less, and you couldn't make strategic decisions. Any more, and you would miss out on the spine-chilling consequences of flying through a sideways meteor shower when all your cannons point to the front.
His approach to explaining Galaxy Trucker was to make sure the players understood the basic rules, and only then would he explain all the little tweaks that turned a good idea into a solid game.
After working on a dozen more projects for CGE, I would eventually realize that a rulebook needs to do two very different things. When the game comes out of the box, the rules need to tell you how to play it; while you're playing the game, the rulebook needs to answer any questions you might have. The Galaxy Trucker rulebook focuses heavily on the first thing.
It's designed to be read linearly. If you want to look up a rule — about set-up, about the flight, about giving up on a flight — you have to remember whether it's a basic rule or one of those tweaks that Vlaada didn't mention until after your first flight. That can be inconvenient. If I were in charge of making this rulebook now, knowing all the things I have learned in the last ten years, I would do some things differently — and I would be completely wrong because the rulebook Vlaada wrote is the ideal rulebook for this game.
The rulebook is not just funny; it's funny for good reasons. The jokes are telling you how to respond to the game. They say, "Your ship will blow up. Don't take it seriously." And the jokes reward people who read the whole thing straight through.
Consider the running gag in the components section. Vlaada tells you, "You want to have as many cabins as possible", "You want as many engines as possible", "You want as many cannons as possible", "You will want as many batteries as possible", and then...
"Now, you are probably expecting us to say you want as many shields as possible. Of course not. You only need two shield generators. In fact, if you are gutsy (or suicidal) you can fly without any shields at all."
The humor is what made this rulebook stick in people's minds ten years ago. Paul Grogan (Gaming Rules!) told me it was a big part of what made him want to work with CGE. And it was a great reward for people who were taking the time to learn the rules.
However, Vlaada also took steps to avoid punishing people who need to look up a rule during play. Much of the humor is written as excerpts from "The Trucker's Guide to the Galaxy". These excerpts are confined to convenient yellow boxes that you can ignore if you are looking for a rule or read if you just want to skip to the funny bits.
My job, of course, was to take these funny bits and make them funny in English. I guess I did okay. The original rules are so funny that some Czech players have literally exploded with laughter, and the Czech government has been forced to classify the Galaxy Trucker rulebook as a controlled substance, but we got some positive reviews in English, too.
Vlaada even let me add my own jokes, like my suggestion for Abandoned Ship:
This translation taught me a lot about writing humor. It wasn't enough to just translate the meaning. I had to translate the timing. Honestly, I failed. Czech and English don't have the same rhythms, and Czech has a much looser approach to word order. Yeah, word order. That's important. Because when you're telling a joke, the punch line has to come last.
So in most cases, I translated the idea of the joke, then played with the English words until it was funny again.
Anyway, I assume you're reading this designer diary so that you can hear about the sordid squabbles we had during game production, so let me tell you about the great meteor controversy.
Meteors are shooting stars. That is, they occur only in an atmosphere. A lot of people think that a meteor is the big rock that burns up and makes a shooting star, but the big rock is actually called a "meteoroid". If there is no incandescent ablation, there is no meteor.
"Meteoroids" would have been a stupid name for the card and "Meteor Shower" is something that can happen only in atmosphere, so I was convinced the card should be called "Asteroids". Vlaada was dead set against that because asteroids are huge, much larger than a spaceship. We finally compromised on "Meteoric Swarm".
Honestly, I was taking the technical terms much too seriously. We changed it to "Meteor Swarm" in the app. It doesn't matter that the technical term is "meteoroid". "Meteor" is just a better name.
Speaking of names, do I have time for one last story? The name of the project was "Rakety", but Vlaada had already come up with an English name:
Spoiler (click to reveal)
I wasn't too keen on it, so I suggested these beauties:
• Galaxy Run • Galaxy Runner • Transgalactic
Eventually, Vlaada confessed to me that he really wanted to call it The Trucker's Guide to the Galaxy — sort of like "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" but from the other point-of-view. The yellow-box jokes in the rulebook were very much inspired by Douglas Adams, so we decided that The Trucker's Guide to the Galaxy would be a good title for the rulebook. However, the game itself needed something punchier. And so (after a few tense hours when it looked like we were going to mess the whole thing up and name it "Galactic Trucker") the Galaxy Trucker name was born.
CGE had good success with Galaxy Trucker right out of the starting gate, and the game continued to find new players, inspiring many expansions and eventually leading to the creation of CGE digital. For me, it was the beginning of a career working on rulebooks that are imaginative and engaging. It also gave me the chance to write voices for Vlaada's funny characters in the digital app, and it inspired my first science fiction novel, Galaxy Trucker: Rocky Road.
I told you Galaxy Trucker became CGE's best-selling game, but you probably know that status wasn't true after 2015. In that year Codenames rocketed past Galaxy Trucker's fame, and that game has established itself as CGE's brightest star — but Galaxy Trucker is the game that hauled CGE to the Codenames launch point. And ten years later, like the Little Rocket Engine That Could, Galaxy Trucker keeps on trucking.