Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in March 2021. —WEM
Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, King of Tokyo, KeyForge, and many more joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable career in game design.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Richard. What inspired you to become a games designer?
RG: I find games fascinating and full of possibilities — like an exciting and largely unexplored land. It helped me understand the world and other people in a way that nothing else did. When I first got into games, I was amazed how little there was known about them relative to, say, books or movies or music.
The key moment for me was learning Dungeons & Dragons. That game broke all the rules for game design that I knew and thrust both the game master and players into the role of game designer to some extent. I figured if something so incredible existed that I had never heard of before, surely games were filled with many treasures to be discovered or created.
DM: You are probably most well-known for Magic: The Gathering, which has been a phenomenal success. Can you tell us the story of how Magic came to be, and at what point did you realize just how popular Magic was?
RG: Magic came about because I couldn't find a publisher for RoboRally. When I showed it to Peter Adkison, the head of Wizards of the Coast, he said he would publish it but needed something cheaper and fast-playing first to get started.
Soon after that, I had one of my few "flashes of inspiration" moments — most of my design is slow, intuitive, and experimental. I realized not all players had to have the same deck. I was swept up in all the possibilities for game play that had — and wary of the many problems it posed. It is sobering to think back to that time and remember — that amid the excitement — I told Peter that it might not be possible to make such a game. After all, Scrabble where you choose your pool of letters or Poker where you choose your deck are not necessarily good games, let alone better games. They are likely at best interesting puzzles. It was a matter of several weeks before I had a prototype that looked like today's Magic; it was built upon the framework of one of my many designs that I had enjoyed playing with, but didn't think was finished yet.
Looking back, it is easy to see that for years I had been fascinated by games where many elements of the game allowed the player to "break the rules". This interest first got kindled with Cosmic Encounter — and the spirit carried through many of my designs and was fully a part of Magic. My ideal was a game that was simple, but endless complexity was introduced through different cards. Anyone who sees the early magic rules knows I fell short of the "simple" goal, though probably not as far as it looks. 99% of Magic could be learned easily — and players could learn that fast and play a long time based on it. The remaining 1% was a nasty mess though.
There was no particular point that I realized how popular Magic was. I was perpetually surprised during the first few years, and honestly its impact on game design still surprises me from time to time. I knew Magic was a special game — the playtesters' passion was a testament to that — but I also knew many of my favorite games were not "smash hits", so I didn't think that meant Magic was destined for big things.
DM: Magic was followed by other well-known card game systems: Netrunner and KeyForge to name just two. How did you approach those designs? Was there pressure to repackage Magic, or were you free to experiment and take the designs into new directions?
RG: Usually I have been free to experiment with my designs, and that is what really keeps me interested. My first and second post-Magic trading card games (TCGs) were Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and Netrunner. With those, I was trying to figure out what mechanics worked well in this new kind of game. I learned many things about TCG design back then; for example, prior to V:TES I used standards that I had developed in board and card games, so I thought nothing about having a trading card game that ran for two hours with four or five people. After V:TES, I realized that so much of a TCG's value is in replay, possibly with a new deck or different tweaks to the old deck, that making the game short enough to allow for replay was a really good thing. Fans of V:TES either liked it as a TCG despite its length, or often liked it as a boardgame experience more than a TCG experience.
With Netrunner, I tried a lot of new things and I ended up with a game that I was really pleased with — but also learned some hard lessons. While Netrunner was in some objective sense simpler than Magic, the fact that everyone by that time knew Magic meant it was in fact much more difficult to learn than a game that was more like Magic would have been. I realized then that novelty in design comes with a cost, and as a designer it was my responsibility to make sure that novelty carried with it a payoff that was worth it for the player. For this reason BattleTech — my third TCG — was intentionally designed to be close enough to Magic to allow players to learn it easily, while being different in enough ways to make it interesting to them.
Fast forward twenty years and we get to the design of KeyForge — which was a game concept I wanted to explore for a long time, but couldn't because printing technology wasn't up to the challenge (or at least it would have been prohibitively expensive). With KeyForge I was trying to get the variety and uniqueness back into the game form which is diminished, if not destroyed, by players playing constructed decks with access to all the cards they need. For years I have been dissatisfied with that point in trading card games where one finds themselves removing cards they like from their deck because they just don't pull their weight. My preference is to play decks that are not honed to a razor's edge, but to play decks with more variety. In the TCG culture this is simply playing bad decks — and a player who does so is viewed as casual at best, and probably a bad player. But these decks, they can be very challenging to play and there is a great deal of skill to playing them well. I don't want to play casually — I want to play seriously with interesting decks. That is what KeyForge is about.
DM: In addition to creating your own "worlds", you've also designed within existing IPs — Star Wars and BattleTech, for example. Can you describe how the design and publication process differs for these compared with your other games?
RG: Yes, I have done a number of licensed games, and the experience varies widely with how appropriate the license is for the game and how flexible the licensor is so that the best compromises between good play and best reflection of the world can be made. Working with a supportive licensor can be marvelous; it was that way with Star Wars, for example. Working with the other kind is soul killing.
I quite enjoy the exercise of figuring out the best way to frame a game within an existing world. There is a special pleasure to be found with a world elegantly reflected in an appropriate game. However, I will always lean toward making my own world since I know that I can do whatever I think is best for the game in that case.
DM: From a design point of view, how does iterating within a Living/Collectible System differ from designing expansions? Are there specific challenges that need to be overcome?
RG: Designing massively modular game expansions and expansions for a board game each carry their own challenges. In some ways, the massively modular games are easier to expand because that is what they are designed to do. Expanding a board game often involves challenges associated with adding complexity without a good enough value to the player, or the expansions undermine appeals the unexpanded game had. There are many times I have played board games and liked the base game — but then played expansions of it and for all the added variety the aggregate experience was worse, sometimes much worse.
A particular example from my own work is King of Tokyo. The success of the base game lead us to think about an expansion — but the challenge soon became clear. The easy expansion of "just adding cards" is not satisfying because cards are only a part of the game experience; some players play an entire game without getting any cards. Just adding cards impacts only some players, and the more cards added the less they each mean to the overall game.
So then let's explore another common request: monsters get unique powers. On the surface, this is an easy and obvious thing to add — but it turns out to be quite difficult to add without making the game worse. To see this you must understand that the basic game is a dice game with three principle strategies: attack, get VP, or get cards. A more casual player might pick a strategy and run with it, but a player who plays well will be adapting their decisions to the circumstances and the dice rolls they get. Being a dice game, either approach can win — but the "serious" player will win more often, a characteristic I really like in games.
Now if powers are added in a straightforward way and a monster gets, say, an advantage in attacking, suddenly the "pick a strategy and run with it" approach becomes stronger, and the player doesn't even have agency in that strategy since it is defined by their monster. The simple solution will be satisfying for a certain audience of very casual players, but many players will have the feeling that the expansion isn't as fun — even if they can't always put their finger on why.
Expanding a massively modular game is far easier in this regard – there are usually many different mechanics to explore, and even when there are limited mechanics, there are essentially infinite environments of mechanical combinations.
The challenges facing expansion of these games, however, in their own way can be quite difficult. As an example, let's talk about game balance. The stakes are generally much higher in balance, and the massively modular nature of the games usually make that balance much harder to gauge. To see why the stakes are higher, you have to understand the promise these games make to the player is endless variety and personal customization. A card that is too good must be in every player's deck, which makes both those promises less maintained. A card that is too bad shouldn't be in any player's deck, which does the opposite — which isn't quite as bad but still undermines the game's promise. Some degree of that is okay, but the more the expansion strays, the worse the overall experience becomes. And the more cards there are in the environment, the harder it is to manage that without making the game changes very conservative.
There are many reasons this is often not as big a problem in board games. Some of that is cultural; boardgame players typically have an easier time getting their group to not play an expansion they don't like — or even just play part of the expansion, or they modify it to their taste. The massively modular games tend to have massively modular playgroups — which makes that much more difficult.
Another reason is that often the imbalance in a game impacts all players equally, so going back to King of Tokyo, a card can absolutely be too powerful, but the system is much more forgiving since all players have access to it. A card that costs 0 and makes you win the game would ruin the play experience since the players' strategy would almost certainly be simply to collect energy and use it to sweep the board until they draw the game-winning card. However, a card that costs, say, 5 and was twice as good as another card of that cost? It would make collecting energy more appealing certainly, but is unlikely to break the game in the same way. That is a really large range of "error" one can get away with, especially if as a designer you aim for about 25% difference in power being acceptable rather than 100%. But in a game where players choose their own cards? This would be a "must have" card and make the play experience noticeably worse since every player would feel they have to have it.
DM: You have also designed some hugely popular board games. Most well known is probably King of Tokyo. Can you tell us the story behind this game, and why you think it has been an enduring success?
RG: King of Tokyo came out of a thought exercise around Yahtzee. A friend of mine was doing some serious analysis of Yahtzee at the time, so I was reflecting on how strong a design it was in that fashion that I really like: excellent play gives you better chances, but casual play can win. I wondered that if I were to try to design a game with the same principles, but interactive: what might it look like?
Interactivity in games can be tricky; done carelessly, it can involve a lot of "take that" political decisions which I am not fond of. I don't mind directly affecting another player, but I don't want to be in the position of choosing which player to affect, at least not often. The usual way to solve this issue is to make the interaction indirect, which, of course, can make an excellent game — but often one that feels "passive aggressive" rather than directly interactive.
My solution here was to make a "king of the hill" structure to the game. Being on the hill was rewarded, but carried with it risk in that you were the target. This made players in some sense in control of how much damage they were subject to and had a feeling of "low politics, direct interaction" that I often like in games.
Later came the flavor of "the hill" being Tokyo and monsters. I often design my mechanics first with some fairly generic theme, then completely redesign once I settle on what the theme should be. Once the theme has been picked, if you fail this redesign, it will feel much less integrated into the game play. For the record, I do design in the other way as well — where I have the theme first and build a game to that theme.
My own guess as to the enduring popularity of the game is a combination of the direct, yet low politics interaction — which is really pretty rare in games — and the cartoony and playful theme which IELLO managed to create around the concept.
DM: Staying with your board game designs: King of Tokyo sees players fight giant monsters, in RoboRally they control robots while Bunny Kingdom is an area control game about rabbits. These are thematically and mechanically quite different games. What do you feel is the thread that connects them?
RG: Mechanically I am driven to explore different areas of design, so I am likely to move to something new once I have gotten what I want out of a particular space. Sometimes it doesn't appear that way; in particular I had a number of drafting games (Treasure Hunter, Carnival of Monsters) come out shortly after Bunny Kingdom, so it may have looked like that was "my thing" — but actually they were all part of the same exploration at about the same time, and they were made in part because I was having a lot of difficulty getting a publisher to see them as interesting game space. Before 7 Wonders came out, they weren't really enthusiastic about it, and after 7 Wonders there was quite a stretch of time where they seemed to think there was no point in doing another because of 7 Wonders. Then there was a shift, and suddenly it was a class of game that could stand on its own.
A mild thread of mechanical connection, which is really more of a design style, is that all of these games can be played casually with a chance of winning or with great thought for increased chance. I tend to prefer games the casual and serious player can play together.
Thematically there is a strong connection between these games and most of my games which aren't made for existing properties: a sense of humor and playfulness. I like that more than "dark serious" game flavors because I think serious players can get past it if the game mechanics are worth it and the players are more playful with it when learning the game — which allows them to take the swings in the game a little less seriously when learning it. There is kind of a toxic "rush to judgement" with some players these days, and I believe this helps mitigate that just a bit — and if they stick with the games a bit longer because they don't take them seriously, they might actually get good enough to see how to play well and have fun with the mechanics.
DM: How has the huge success that you've enjoyed changed your approach to game design during the course of your career?
RG: I would guess that it is mostly the amount of time I can spend designing, playing, and studying games. The nature of my interest hasn't changed; I don't design more or less publishable games these days except insofar as my practice has probably made me better. Most of my designs are just for my own interest and that of my friends, and that has always been the case. Sometimes that leads to something I think other people will like — and then I look for a publisher. I have been in the fortunate position of never having to design to make ends meet, which might have lead me to working on games that didn't interest me or that I thought wasn't servicing the players enough to warrant.
Certainly, looking for a publisher is much easier than it was before Magic, and I do take pleasure in the fact that if I have a game that I think players will like, I can get a publisher to look at it and consider it seriously. That doesn't always lead to a product — or sometimes it takes a long time as it did with my series of drafting games — but that process of presentation and consideration always leads to improvement in the design, or at least the presentation.
DM: Is there a game you would like to revisit and do differently if given the chance and why?
RG: Hah. Every game I have made I want to redesign at least in minor ways. I am known to be reluctant to play any game of my own design once it is published — and I think the reason is that I get frustrated when I can't fix something.
For a major case of that perhaps I would go to SpyNet — which weirdly I would actually change very little about except for the messaging. I am disappointed that it barely got noticed after publication, yet find it one of my favorite two-player games. I think the decision to promote it primarily as a team game made people not give the two-player game a fair shake. Also, I think the special cards in the game gave a sense of "wackiness" to the play and players didn't take it seriously because of that — despite the fact that once you know what is in the game, there is a lot of interesting play dealing with that. I had some luck with friends incorporating a small card reference, I believe because it showed the players that they were supposed to anticipate the possibilities rather than just be surprised by them — which, of course, is common in first plays of any game.
DM: Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
RG: Roguebook is a digital game I worked on with the folk who made Faeria. It is a deck-builder in the same family as Slay the Spire. One of the key things we aimed to do was make constructing a big deck — a "tower deck" as we call them — a viable strategy. Most deck-building games are as much, or more, about removing cards than adding them. This is an interesting and skill-testing characteristic, but it is not logically required of the genre for an interesting game.
Personally, I like adding cards more than subtracting them, and I am particularly pained by removing cards that are fun to play but aren't quite worth playing with. The resulting decks are more challenging to play because the decks are less reliable and generally more flexible. One way we went about this was by adding a bonus that is unlocked for getting your deck to particular levels, so adding cards gives a bunch of cool powers to your deck over time. Of course, you can still play a lean mean deck if that is what you want.
Half Truth is a trivia game that I made with Ken Jennings, and I am really pleased with how it turned out. My inspiration was Ken's book Braniac, and I resolved after reading it to try to make a trivia game that could be played by a broad audience that wouldn't feel like the trivia nerds would always win. When I first shared the design with Ken, in fact, he played two games and lost the second one. (Not to me — I wrote the questions!)
The way it works is each question is multiple choice, and half the answers are correct. All players secretly make 1, 2, or 3 guesses. If a player misses any guesses, then they don't profit from the question at all. The players get only a small advantage for getting the second and third answer. Each question is a little minefield, and you can definitely get by with always just trying to get one answer correct. A lot of the fun comes from the really random and silly questions that are sprinkled throughout. One of my favorites was written by Koni, my wife:Quote:Is a poisonous mushroom:Here I guessed Destroying Angel with some confidence, but I wasn't sure about the others. When the answers were revealed, it turned out all the bad answers were Magic cards! I saw the Thallid but missed the other two — but this opens up a really interesting characteristic of the game: You can have questions that you have no idea about but can still get a good guess in — occasionally even getting all three — if you can recognize the fakes.
• Fool’s Webcap
• Blinding Angel
• Destroying Angel
• Deathspore Thallid
• Deadly Galerina
• Night’s Whisper
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
RG: Play lots of games, even games you don't care for. Learn what players like about them. Getting those qualities into other games where possible, ones you do like, will make your games better. Also, you will get more pleasure from games in general. Often a game I didn't like, once I really took the time to understand it, I not only understood the appeal but I acquired the taste.
Get a playtest network that has both casual and serious players. Listen to both. One common development standard that I regard as a mistake is just listening to the best players and looking to them for data. This is natural as a single group plays the game through many iterations over months or years. The problem is that game balance that is ideal for beginners and casual players is not the same as that for experts. One that seriously considers the former will often be much more exciting the first few times it is played and that is critical these days since there are so many other games to play. Development that relies too much on the latter can look very same-ish to the beginner — as if it doesn't really matter which strategy is chosen and the expert will always win by their 2% advantage.
If you use Kickstarter or some other method of self-publishing, get some playtesters outside your bubble, playtesters in particular that you don't teach the game to. One very important thing a publisher provides is an experienced sanity check on the game play and rules. I have many games that profited from their insight that I would have published on my own without hesitation. Sometimes that insight leads to improvement in mechanics; at other times it leads to improvement in the way the game is presented — both are important.
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Archive for Interviews
01 May 2021
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on January 29, 2021. —WEM
Ted Alspach, the founder of Bézier Games and the designer of Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and many more games joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss game design and publishing.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Ted. Please, can you tell how you how your journey in the games industry began?
TA: I had been designing games for a long, long time, but didn't take it seriously until about 2005 or so. One of my designs, Seismic, was picked up by Atlas Games. At about that time, I started publishing Age of Steam expansions. Our very first game was Start Player, a card game to determine who goes first. Shortly after that, I published the very first Ultimate Werewolf game (now known as the "whitebox" edition), making 800 copies by hand until I manufactured the first "real" edition — Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition. Ultimate Werewolf has the distinction of selling more games each year than the previous year...for the past fourteen years!
DM: One Night Ultimate Werewolf has been a big success, spawning a host of other themes and a word game (Werewords), plus associated merchandise. Can you tell us the story behind your involvement with the game and your thoughts on what makes it so popular?
TA: The One Night games have been a very successful series for us. There are two things that have made it successful: The variety of roles combined with easy-to-learn gameplay, and the integration of the app into the game, which provides it with a way to reach gamers who normally wouldn't touch traditional board games.Are you the werewolf? (Image: Bezier Games)
DM: One Night Ultimate Werewolf and its related games are quite different experiences to the likes of Suburbia or Colony. What design elements contribute to a great party game versus those for a great strategy game, and which is the more challenging to design well?
TA: For a party game, there has to be high interaction among the players, and a super short initial rules explanation, and a variety of things to do each game. We address the former by limiting the amount of time players can discuss roles, the second by making most of the rules specific to cards which are then explained by the app, and the latter by including more roles than you can possibly play with in a single game.
For strategy games, it's about making meaningful decisions that make you feel like you are doing something better (or at least different) than your opponents, and having enough variability that each game will be different than the last. That's why the information in strategy games we publish is mostly open (except for end game secret goals), and why there are always a lot more tiles/cards/etc. than you can play in a game. Think of all the extra buildings in Suburbia, rooms in Castles, or cards in Colony. Even New York Slice has a large number of "Today's Specials" to keep the game fresh.Castles of Mad Kind Ludwig
DM: There is a vein of humor running through many of your well-known designs, including some of your more strategic games. How do you think a light-hearted touch enhances the game experience for players?
TA: These are *games* after all, so taking them too seriously doesn't work for me. I like that players can find fun situations through the various combinations in our games. In Castles, building a kennel next to the meat locker is either very efficient to feed your dogs, or it's super creepy because of where the meat might be coming from!
DM: Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig are both much loved games. Suburbia has seen a "Collectors Edition" reissue, and Castles is soon to receive the same. As a designer, how does it feel to have created games that have clearly resonated with the board game community?
TA: Some of the best experiences I've had are when someone comes up to me at a trade show and tells me that Castles/Suburbia/One Night/Werewords/Silver/etc. is their favorite game. Or that Castles is the game that got their spouse into gaming. Or that the only non-video/mobile game their kids will play is Ultimate Werewolf, and they want to play it all the time. Seeing people having fun playing your games is incredibly rewarding!Suburbia
DM: Moving to your experiences as CEO of Bézier Games, what do you feel makes a game stand out in a crowded industry? Is it a unique mechanism, distinctive graphic design, a combination of things?
TA: Our tagline for Bézier Games is "The New Classics" because we want every game we publish to be a game that players play years from now. We don't always achieve that goal, but when we do it's really exciting.
In order for that to happen, more than anything, the gameplay itself has to be compelling. There might be a component or set of mechanisms that's new and grabs people's attention, but the gameplay has to be good enough that they're willing to play the game several times, which is where you start to see more and more people exposed to them, and that results in more sales of those games.
There's also a huge dose of lucky timing that goes into any game being successful. If you have a game that comes out at the right time, when players are looking for that kind of game, your game ends up doing well, as long as the game itself is a solid game.Suburbia: Collectors Edition (Photo: Antony Wyatt)
DM: Board games typically undergo a lengthy development process before publication. Can you provide a publisher's view on this process?
TA: For us, the number one thing that influences the time it takes is playtesting. We typically playtest games hundreds of times, both internally and externally. After playtests, the game is modified in some way, then more playtesting occurs. This can take months or in some cases years.
Games evolve over time quite a bit until one day you simply realize it is finished. Additional playtesting continues at that point to ensure there are no weird edge cases, and that the final art and components work as intended.
DM: In addition to your own games, Bézier also publishes other designers' work (Favor of the Pharaoh, Whistle Mountain). As a publisher, what is the one thing you wish aspiring designers, and the game buying public in general, knew about the industry and why?
TA: The amount of influence a publisher has on any game varies significantly. That first game of my mine that was published wasn't changed at all by the publisher, much to my surprise. They even used the art that I had come up with. Bézier Games tends to rework most aspects of games into something that feels more like a game you could expect from us. We typically add some sort of long-term variability, like the "Today's Specials" to New York Slice, which makes games more replayable, especially in the short term when you're excited about a game and playing it a lot.
Designers shouldn't spend a lot of time or effort on artwork either because it will almost always be replaced by something that the publisher wants to use. Sometimes that can get in the way of a publisher figuring out whether the game is right for them.New York Slice (Image: Bézier Games)
DM: From a publisher's point of view, is there a game you consider to be the "one that got away"?
TA: Anytime I play a game I really like that's similar to the kinds of games we publish, I always think "What would we have done differently?" and "Could we have made this game even better had we published it?"
In 2020, my favorite non-Bézier Games game was The Search for Planet X by a big margin. The gameplay is amazing, and the integration of the app is perfect for a deduction game, which removes the problem with many deduction games of a player giving wrong information accidentally, and wrecking the deductions for the other players as a result. I would have loved to be involved with the publication of that game!
DM: What is next for both yourself and Bézier Games?
TA: For 2021, we have several giant releases: a Collector's Edition of Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Ultimate Werewolf Extreme, and Maglev Metro!
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Jan 2021
first published on Diagonal Move on January 15, 2021. —WEM
For today's interview Shem Phillips, designer of Raiders of the North Sea and founder of Garphill Games, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the West and North trilogies.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Shem. Can you tell us how your career as a game designer began and what prompted the decision to found Garphill Games rather than seek an established publisher?
SP: It started out by me simply wanting to make my own game. I had no knowledge of the modern board game market or any prior experience in game design/publishing, so I set out to create my own simple, roll-and-move family game. It was after producing this game that a friend introduced me to Catan. From there I rushed out to my local toy store and picked up Carcassonne and Family Business. Later, I was invited to a local board game convention, and I've been discovering more and more great games ever since.
DM: Garphill Games was founded in 2009. It was some years later that your games began to receive notable public attention. How were those first few years as an independent publishing company?
SP: The first six years were purely run as a hobby. I wasn't aiming to make money or even turn it into a business. I was just designing games and printing small print runs for friends and a few loyal supporters. It was very boutique back them.
DM: You are most well-known for your two historical trilogies, the first of which — The North Sea Saga — began with Shipwrights of the North Sea. How did this game develop, and what was the initial reception like?
SP: Shipwrights started with me wanting to make a game about building ships. I already had some mechanisms in mind, including using only three resources to construct the ships. Through some research, this led me to discover that Viking longships were predominantly made of wool, oak, and iron. After delving more into the theme, I knew that Vikings were the right fit for the game. The initial reception was far beyond what I had ever expected. This was my first Kickstarter campaign. I had an extremely low funding target, and planned to print only five hundred units (hoping to sell at least two hundred of those). A lot of the buzz was generated from the artwork. This was the first time anyone had seen The Mico's art in a board game, and it seemed that the large majority of people who saw the campaign loved the art.
DM: The trilogy continued with Raiders and Explorers, which are both playable as standalone games. What prompted the decision to turn the games into a trilogy, and how did you strike the balance between the new and the familiar from a design point of view?
SP: That came from a lot of Kickstarter comments. People liked the idea of building ships, but felt like they wanted to use them for something once the game had ended. This sparked the idea of creating a second game, this time focusing on raiding. In my mind, doing a trilogy just made sense, which is why I committed to designing Explorers before Raiders even went to Kickstarter.
DM: The West Kingdom games (co-designed with S J Macdonald) follow a similar pattern — a trilogy of standalone games — and incorporate multiple layers of mechanisms in each game. What is your approach to this layering of mechanisms?
SP: We always start with the general setting, perhaps a title or at least some sort of story that we want to base the game around. Then we do a lot of brainstorming on how the game could look visually on the table, and also how it might work mechanically. Sam and I both love games that have interconnected mechanisms, which is probably why you see that a lot in our own games. I'm not sure we ever set out to mix mechanisms. It's more likely that it just comes out of the development process.Image: Jon Burgess
DM: The trilogies are both themed around turbulent historical periods. Is this something that you are interested in, and did you try to reflect the historical period within the game mechanisms? If so, can you describe how you approached this?
SP: I'm a big fan of Age of Empires II on PC. In fact, so is Sam Macdonald. I grew up always wanting the more medieval LEGO sets over the sci-fi or trains as well. I guess there's just something about the swords and shields period that interests me. While our games are set in history, we still like to give them a little twist of fantasy and fiction, so don't expect too much historical accuracy. Hah. I love the setting, but I'm not so particular on every little detail.
DM: Like many more complex games, North Sea and West Kingdom lean heavily on iconography to aid players during play. What challenges do you face when developing this aspect of a game? How tricky is it to get the balance right, and what are the implications for the success of a game if this aspect doesn't work?
SP: There are plenty of times where Sam might think up a new card ability, and my answer is simply, "How would I show that with icons?" So they can be quite restrictive. You really need to approach each game separately. Sometimes using text is actually better for the gameplay. Icons are often better when there are a lot of cards on the table, and players need to quickly decipher them without trying to read text upside down on the opposite side of the board.Image: Jon Burgess
DM: With numerous award nominations and three games currently in the BGG top 100, you've clearly achieved a certain level of both critical and popular success. How does that feel, and was there a point when you first realized that you had "made it"?
SP: It's still hard to believe, and it's an absolute privilege and blessing to have received so much recognition for our designs. I suppose the first time it really hit me was receiving the Kennerspiel nomination for Raiders of the North Sea. That was a huge shock and honor.
DM: Now that you have achieved that certain level of success, has your design and publishing career become easier or have the challenges also grown?
SP: I definitely trust my gut a lot more than in the past. The more you design and get positive feedback from players, the more the imposter syndrome begins to fade away. It took a long time, though. I'm a lot busier now than I've ever been. It's still just as fun, but there is a lot more responsibility and expectation to keep delivering quality games. I'm not complaining, though — I'm up for the challenge!
DM: What's next for yourself and Garphill Games?
SP: 2021 will see the release of three expansions for the West Kingdom trilogy. We also have the second part of our Circadians universe coming to Kickstarter later in the year, along with an expansion for the first title. We're also well into the designing process for the "South Trilogy", which should debut in 2022.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on December 1, 2020. —WEM]
Automa Factory founder and lead designer Morten Monrad Pedersen joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his take on solo game design.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Morten. You are the founder of Automa Factory, a design company specializing in single-player versions of multiplayer games. Creating solo modes for other designers' games is an extremely specific niche. Can you tell us your design background and the story of how you discovered this niche?
MMP: It is indeed an extremely specific niche, and if you had asked me some years whether one could make a living making artificial opponents for board games, I would have thought you crazy.
My journey started when my son was born and many of my friends were also starting to get kids. Suddenly we found ourselves very limited in how often we could find time to sit down together and play games.
I knew that solo board gaming existed, but it had always seemed a bit weird to me. I mean, why not just play a video game? I found out, though, that for me video games didn't scratch the itch I wanted scratched, so I gave solo board games a shot while expecting them to miss their mark. After trying Lord of the Rings LCG and Dawn of the Zeds, I was sold. They had given me some of my best board gaming experiences ever.
After playing solo games for a while, I started a blog about solo games and participated in a print-and-play solo game design contest.
In parallel with this, I got to know Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games by random chance because my family and I came home from a vacation where we had visited a vineyard in Tuscany just as Jamey started a Kickstarter for a game about running a vineyard in Tuscany. The sheer coincidence of that made me check out the game, and I ended up chatting with Jamey and giving him input.
During the development of the Tuscany expansion for Viticulture, some playtesters requested a solo mode for the game and not being a solo gamer himself he turned to me. The Viticulture solo mode became a success, and from then on Jamey started asking my team and I to make solo modes for all his games either in the core box or via expansions.
We've also started working for other publishers: Feuerland (Gaia Project and Terra Mystica), Funtails (Glen More II), Van Ryder Games (Hostage Negotiator: Circle of Automa), and a promo solo mode for Lookout Games (Patchwork).Viticulture
DM: Which solitaire games, whether specific designs or multi-player variants, inspired your own design career and why?
MMP: As mentioned, I participated in a print-and-play solo games design contest. One of the games in that contest was a game called Maquis that had a worker placement system in which enemy workers were placed via cards draws. That system inspired the worker placement system of the artificial opponent in Viticulture, which is also a worker placement game.
On a tangential note, Maquis has gone beyond its print-and-play roots and was published by Side Room Games a couple of years ago. I recommend checking it out.
The bot in Anachrony and other bots by Dávid Turczi have also inspired me without me actually knowing the rules. That may sound weird, but I've heard other people talk about them. One feature that has been mentioned repeatedly is that his bots work in ways that give players some insight into what they might do, just like you can guess at what a human opponent might do.
That's a feature that wasn't present in our first Automa. We've worked on replicating it in later Automas, but I'd like to go further than we have. It's a tough balance to strike, though, because too much predictability will make the game boring.
Other than that, I can't come up with other games or variants that have inspired my own ideas in ways that I've noticed directly, but I'm sure that I've been inspired subconsciously and my team has been very influential in our work.Scythe
DM: Did you ever consider creating Automa-based original designs rather than adaptations?
MMP: I'm working on a few full games of my own, but until I got one signed with a publisher a few months ago they took backseat to my solo mode work because that's what pays the bills and the deadlines are usually tight.
Jamey Stegmaier has had a major impact on the design of the games I'm working on, and for one of them my favorite solo game designer, Shadi Torbey, has been a huge inspiration.
The games I'm working on myself tend to be designed with solo play from the ground up, so there's no need for an Automa to take the place of a human player. The type of decks could, of course, be used for other things, but so far, I haven't done so. After having worked with such decks in more than 25 games and expansions, it's nice to do something different.
DM: Can you describe your process for designing an Automa? What is the decision process for keeping, amending, or discarding part of the original game?
MMP: My process is guided by six design principles for making solo modes:
1. Use an artificial player (Automa) that takes the place of a human player.
2. The human who plays the game must do so by the same rules as in the multiplayer game.
3. The player must face the same decisions as in multiplayer.
4. The important player interactions must be simulated. This includes keeping the win/lose criteria.
5. The player must not make decisions on behalf of the Automa except in rare cases where it makes sense because of a co-operative element or for thematic reasons.
6. The Automa rules must be as streamlined as possible while achieving the above.
When I start work, the first item on the agenda is to identify the core player interactions in the game. Next is figuring out how to simulate another player's impact on those interactions in a way that stays true to the game (principles 2-4).
Then the goal becomes streamlining and homogenizing the interaction simulation rules while working to remove everything from the Automa that isn't strictly needed. An example of this is the player mat in Scythe, which doesn't directly impact other players, so the Scythe Automa doesn't have one (principle 6).
The actual process is, of course, not as clearly defined in steps like I describe, and the process goes in circles with entire subsystems being tossed out and replaced several times during the process.
To ensure the quality of the solo mode, we have external playtesters who put our work through its paces with the average numbers of tests by them probably being a few hundred. That number varies a lot with the game; we've just passed 700 in an ongoing project, and we've probably done 500 on top of that ourselves.
The playtesters are also instrumental in the decision process for what should be tweaked and what should be tossed out. For our Euphoria expansion, Ignorance is Bliss, we more or less scrapped everything we had made and started over seven times because the playtester feedback wasn't good enough.
On a smaller scale, playtester feedback is also instrumental in identifying parts of the rules that are either explained badly or easily trip up players. We work to smooth out such rough edges or remove the offending mechanisms.
Of course, we also work to find rough edges ourselves, and I sometimes spend days working to reduce five rules to four that in effect do the same and can be explained clearer with fewer words.
As to discarding parts of the original game, that's something we rarely do from the point of view of human players. We want to the whole game to be there for them (principles 2-4). Sometimes we add to the game, though, and in Tapestry: Plans & Ploys we made a five-scenario campaign that's only playable solo.Tapestry (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: How has the design process developed over the years? Can each new Automa design be considered both an iteration on previous Automas and an adaptation of the multiplayer game it is designed for?
MMP: We always try to stay as true to the multiplayer game as possible. We're guests in the designer's house, and it's not our place to redecorate their house, so we always adapt our solo mode to the multiplayer game. (See design principles 1-4 in my list above.)
We also try to use our experience from previous Automas to improve new ones, so it's both iteration and adaption. An example is that in our first Automa (Viticulture) there was no progression in what the Automa does over the course of the game. In Scythe, we made a two-stage Automa that partway through the game modified its personality to fit the endgame. The next step was Gaia Project, where the Automa has a gradually evolving strategy.
Euphoria could be seen as the most current iteration of that idea because its deck is evolving in a manner that's more tightly controlled to reflect the progression of the multiplayer game. Similarly, we've had an evolution in the action selection system that can be seen from Viticulture to Between Two Cities to Scythe to Gaia Project.
DM: At what point in the multiplayer game's development do you begin work, and how much do last-minute changes to the multiplayer affect your design?
MMP: When the game is still in development but no longer undergoing major changes, we get prototype files from the publisher. Based on this, we make a rough framework for the Automa. As the game's development progresses and the rate of change goes down, we turn the framework into a fully functional prototype and invite the first few external playtesters.
Once the game is almost done, we gradually ramp into full scale external playtesting and aim to deliver our files when the publisher's graphics designer is done with the core game's files.
The impact of changes to the multiplayer game can vary a lot, but since we try to mimic the multiplayer game our systems are sensitive to game changes. During the development of Between Two Cities, the scoring system was unexpectedly changed significantly and since that Automa was heavily dependent on the scoring system, we had to redo a lot of work.
The worst case has been Viticulture Essential Edition where changes in which expansion modules were to be included meant that we had to remake a nine-scenario campaign twice after we were done making the first version.
As it happens, I spent every waking hour last weekend scrambling to figure out how well a solo mode we were working on could handle a last-minute change from the publisher. Luckily it worked out well.
DM: Some of the games you/the team have worked are asymmetric, have legacy elements, or are widely considered to be "complex" games. What has been the most challenging game to adapt and why? Has there been a design you started but had to admit defeat on?
MMP: Asymmetry hasn't been as much of a problem as one might have suspected because we try to insulate the Automa from such mechanisms from the beginning of its development.
That said there have been cases where it has caused us trouble. In Tapestry, for example, some of the game's sixteen asymmetric factions have mechanisms that would require us to add significant complexity to the Automa to support one aspect of one faction out of sixteen, so we chose to simply remove those factions. This left twelve different factions for the player to use and three more that could be used if the player is okay with the game being less balanced.
We also have the advantage that it doesn't matter as much that all factions are equally powerful in solo as it does in multiplayer. In solo it just works as slightly different difficulty levels while in multiplayer it can feel unfair and frustrating. That's not to say that we don't care about balance; we playtest a ton to get the balance right, but a bit of variation between factions is okay in my opinion.
The legacy aspect of Charterstone was definitely challenging because we had to make an Automa system that could deal with a wealth of different rulesets and game configurations. This was made worse by the fact that we wanted the Automa to be useful for non-solo gamers who're normally not willing to run artificial opponents. That meant that we had to make it very streamlined.
The greatest challenge for a solo mode has probably been the free form board movement in Scythe, both because it is hard to make a simple cardboard bot handle that and because we weren't very experienced back then. That one took a ton of work, but its reception by players made all the work worth it.
We've never given up and not delivered a solo mode. The closest we've come is for a game I unfortunately am not allowed to talk about yet. For that one, we midway into the project tossed out all our work and started over from scratch because a significant fraction of the playtesters didn't like what we had made well enough. This is not counting Euphoria: Ignorance is Bliss, where we had seven restarts, but those were unrelated to the solo mode.
We also have two solo modes in development where we quickly realized that Automas weren't the right way to go, which is a first for us.Charterstone (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM:: What games are on your "bucket list" of games that you would love to create an Automa for and why?
MMP: While I haven't tried Keyforge, it sounds really interesting, so I'd like to try my hand at that. A somewhat related game is Warhammer: Invasion, which I love but which doesn't have an official solo mode. My usual approach to solo modes very likely wouldn't work, though.
Next, and I hope this doesn't come off as offensive, there are several of Uwe Rosenberg's games, such as Agricola and Nusfjord, for which I'd like to make Automas. Contrary to Keyforge and Warhammer: Invasion, most of Uwe Rosenberg's games are ideal Automa material. Those games already have solo modes, but they're of the "beat your own high score" type. I much prefer artificial opponents that carry the game's experience over into solo.
This is not said to offend Uwe Rosenberg. I stand in awe of him; he's in my opinion one of the greatest game designers of all time, and I have three of his games in my top 10 solo games, so it's not me saying that I know better than Uwe Rosenberg or that I'm a better solo mode designer. Instead I'm simply saying that my taste in solo modes differs from his.
DM: What can we expect from Automa Factory in the future?
MMP: We have solo modes coming out for Terra Mystica, Glen More II: Chronicles, and Between Two Castles. Additionally, we have four Automa projects in various stages of development that I'm unfortunately not allowed to talk about.
Outside of our solo mode work, I've got a game, ForeShadow, that I have designed from the bottom up signed by a publisher. There's still a lot of work on it, so don't expect to see it anytime soon.Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig
DM: Looking back, is there anything that you wish you had known at the start and would this have affected your game design career?
MMP: It would, of course, have been an advantage to have my design principles as well developed as they are today, as would knowing what I've learned about game design in general. There's no one specific thing that stands out to me, and I have enjoyed the journey and wouldn't want to have missed it by starting with all the knowledge and experience I have now.
Careerwise, I brought a lot of relevant experience with me after a fifteen-year career being a programmer, supporter, team leader, and project manager. All of that has been a great help to me.
What I would really have liked to have known from the beginning is how to control my workload, but I still haven't learned how to do that...Tapestry (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: Do you have any advice to share with aspiring games designers?
MMP: The first thing you should do is ask what your goal is? Do you want to have fun and feel the creative rush? In that case, don't aspire to get published but start projects, stay with them until they're no longer fun, then move on to the next. This will give you the awesome creative rush again and again without all the boring work.
If you want to get published, you must give up on the idea that game design is all fun and rainbow unicorns. Those are there, but most of it is work.
Neither of the two paths is right or wrong; they're simply different. If you decide to go for publication, then the most important thing I have to say is: Tenacity and hard work beat talent every day of the week. You don't need to be the most talented game designer in the world to make a great game, and even if you are, you won't get anywhere without tenacity and hard work.
Keep at it when the project becomes boring work. Stay at home to work when your friends go to the beach. Get back up after each of the failures you'll inevitably have. Analyze those failures. Read/watch/listen to everything you can about game design. Analyze games you love and games you dislike to understand what makes them tick, what makes you like them, and what doesn't.•••
Morten's general blog can be found here. Further insights into the "Automa Approach" can be found here.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on October 19, 2020. —WEM]
Tom Russell, co-founder of independent publisher Hollandspiele, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss her unique take on game design and publishing.
DM: Hi, Tom, thank you for joining us. You are known for three things: unique takes on historical war games, train games, and co-founding publishing company Hollandspiele. Can you tell us the story of how you got to where you are today?
TR: Well, what it ultimately comes down to is, I'm the luckiest girl in the world.
It's not that I didn't work hard because I did, and not that I'm untalented because I do all right for myself, but there are plenty of folks who work a lot harder and are a heck of a lot more talented who don't get the same traction that I did.
Mary (Holland-Russell, co-founder of Hollandspiele) and I get to publish board games for a living, as our full-time gig. More than that, we get to do it while making very weird, very niche games in a very weird, very niche way — and that really comes down to one lucky break or coincidence after another.
For example, one of the earliest games I had published was Northern Pacific through Winsome Games. That game brought my work to Cole Wehrle's attention, and so years later as we were prepping to get Hollandspiele off the ground, I could write to Cole and ask him whether he could do a game for us, and he would have some idea who I was.
That game was An Infamous Traffic, and it brought our company to the attention of a wider audience, which ultimately made our model sustainable as a full-time endeavor.
Now, we stumbled upon that model because Mary and I worked for a publisher who had a somewhat similar model, which ultimately came about because of a magazine wargame I had done for another publisher.
One thing lead to another, and I can trace similar interweaving chains of coincidence and cause-and-effect all leading up to the present moment. I will say that I tried to position myself to take advantage of those opportunities.
By being interested in a lot of different things, I increased the probability that those opportunities might arise.
Our work with the other publisher gave us the model, and Cole's game gave us a head start, but we needed to put in the work and have the skill-set to grow our business and its audience.
DM: Your historical wargames cover a wide range of eras, game mechanisms, and player count. Can you describe your process for developing these three strands within a single game?
TR: These historical designs start with the history and with research. Most of this research is "passive", in that I'm not reading up on a topic trying to make a game.
If I go into it with my game designer hat on, I'm going to be looking for mechanisms or chrome and what-not, going to be focusing on the details, but what I'm looking for is the big picture, a general understanding of the topic so that I'm reasonably conversant in it.
Maybe this turns into a game, and maybe it doesn't. It helps that I'm interested in a lot of different things, so I read up on a lot of different things.
Once I decide to do a game on a topic, my research gets a bit deeper and more detailed — then I wait for the idea to fully form in my brain.
I don't start making counters or writing rules or any of that, not until I have a complete, coherent, and cohesive picture of exactly what I want the game to be, what I want it to feel like, what I want to look like, what tensions I want to be present, what thesis I want to express.
When all that is clear in my head, then I start working on the game, and I keep working on it until it looks like that picture. Sometimes that picture forms very quickly; sometimes it takes a while.
For example, in 2019 we released both The Toledo War and Westphalia. The Toledo War took maybe two or three days to come together. Westphalia took ten years.
Regarding the question of player count, it's actually pretty simple. I tend to think of player counts as falling into three buckets: solo games, two-player games, and games for three-plus.
Each of these to me suggest a very different space to explore. A three-plus game is a game about alliances and shared incentives. A two-player game is very much about direct and bitter conflict, control of tempo, control of the balance of the game itself.
I wouldn't be comfortable calling a solitaire game a "puzzle" or an efficiency game, but there are elements of that in my solo designs.
You'll likely never see me do a game these days that scales from one to six or from two to five because each of these experiences are so distinct that for me there isn't really much overlap between these kinds of games.
DM: Your games share many mechanisms with other games within the historical wargame genre, yet will often have something that sets them apart (a stack of steps, three draw cup system, a focus on logistics). Are these "twists" born from a desire to innovate, to better reflect a historical period, personal design challenges, something else?
TR: Honestly, it just feels natural to me to do it the way that I do it. I like having clever mechanisms, of course, and am reasonably proud of some of the things I've come up with, but I'm not necessarily trying to be "twisty".
I do feel like a good historical game needs to have a thesis or view its subject through a lens. It's not enough, I think, to have a game be "a game about the American Revolution", but "a game about the function of logistics during the American Revolution" is worth doing.
In the end, it's a matter of what you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it.
DM: Complex historical train games are another niche genre with a devoted fan base. How would you describe their appeal to an interested passerby?
TR: Well, I don't know if I'd call train games "complex". Most train games are actually very simple. Even something like the 18xx, which has a daunting reputation, isn't usually very complicated in terms of rules overhead.
I also wouldn't call them "historical". At least personally I don't approach the train games in the same way as I do the wargames. I'm not expressing a thesis, but creating a sort of a mechanical exercise to explore player dynamics.
That's probably the key I would zero in on: the interaction between players. Sure, I'd talk about building the track and investing in stocks, but I also know there are people who couldn't care less about that.
These are very competitive, very interactive games in which each player's portfolio gets hopelessly entangled with that of other players; everything you do to help yourself has the potential to help someone else, everything you do to hurt someone else might hurt you.
Every action matters, and if you make a mistake, it can sink your position and make it irrecoverable. That kind of experience isn't for everyone, but I think the people who would be into that would recognize that if you described it to them.
DM: When creating a series of historical train games, are there specific issues that you model with each game and how do you reflect these in a design?
TR: I've done several train games, of course, and in a way many of them are iterative, expanding upon what I did the last time. But each game is generally its own thing, conceived for its own reason and with its own emphasis.
Northern Pacific was intended to focus on shared incentives and chains of "if I do this, she'll do that".
Irish Gauge was, I think, an attempt to create a simple, streamlined, introductory take on Winsome's action selection-style cube rail games. I say "think" because unusually the entire game sprung forth fully-formed like Athena over the course of an hour while I was stuck in traffic, so I didn't so much go into Irish Gauge with a goal in mind as I decided that was the goal after the fact!
Trans-Siberian Railroad is a messy sort of game in which I was trying to do something heavier and a bit more capricious. This introduced the "track-leasing" mechanism that ran through my next three games. Those next three games are also interested in exploring more co-operative rather than destructive play patterns in the context of a competitive game.
Iberian Gauge has numbered shares, and players who are invested in a company build one track per share according to the order in which those shares are bought.
London & Northwestern is unique in that you can invest only in other player's companies and that their stock values only go up, never down.
The Soo Line is the last of those track-leasing games, and it's the weirdest of the bunch. It very deliberately breaks some of the "rules" of "good train game design".
For example, in games where majority shareholders make all decisions for a company, you want at least as many companies as you have players. Well, this is a game for up to five players with only three companies, which means that some players take a less active role, having to make their fortunes as pure investors.
Asymmetry is common in train games, and sometimes some companies are kinda rubbish, but here the three companies are rubbish in wildly different ways.
Some people like it. Some people hate it. That's to be expected as it's a deliberately abrasive game.
The newest choo-choo game that I have pulling into the station is Dual Gauge, and this is a multi-map train game system. How this happened is that Mary told me I needed to do a new train game every year, and I thought to myself, "Wow, that sounds like a lot of work — but if I do a system, I can do the base game this year, then just do a couple of maps every year to fulfill Mary's requirement."
Well, Mary was really happy to hear about me doing a system that could have expansions, but she told me that this didn't cut the mustard, and that I will also be on the hook for new standalone train games each year.
Dual Gauge borrows some elements of the 18xx — track shared by all companies, blocking by way of placing stations, buying trains and running routes, some of those trains become obsolete, and a two-dimensional stock market — but it's very much a cube rails game at heart (despite not having any cubes). It is, I think, its own thing, and the system is robust enough that each map should have some unusual tweaks and fresh challenges.
DM: Do the train and military game strands of your design career have more in common than meets the eye at first glance — simulation concepts, for example?
TR: Not really. The historical games are built to explore or express a thesis through a model. Sometimes this is a very serious subject where what I want to express is very important to me; This Guilty Land is about the complicity of compromise in oppression. Sometimes the subject is less serious, or at least less immediate: With It Or On It is a coarse-grain model of the advantages and disadvantages of hoplite formations.
The train games, on the other hand, are purely about mechanisms and player dynamics, and playing with genre conventions and expectations.
DM: Hollandspiele is a small, independent company in a crowded field. How do you manage to stand out from, and compete with, other companies?
TR: Well, the secret is that we don't really "compete" with anyone. We're off to the side of the market proper, catering to more adventurous tastes.
We use a print-on-demand model: You order the game from us, pay us for it, we turn around and pay our printer, who manufactures and ships you the game. So these games are essentially made one at a time. We never "over-produce", never have any inventory to sell off.
We don't deal with distributors, don't sell games at conventions. We're completely insulated from all the hubbub, and our model allows us to tackle more unusual and less commercial topics and approaches.
There's an audience for that which has traditionally been underserved, and I think that's a large part of our success.
DM: In addition to your own games, Hollandspiele also releases games by other designers. From a publisher’s point of view, what makes a game stand out from the masses? Are there any games that you are particularly glad to have been able to release?
TR: We're mostly looking for a game with a point of view or a strong authorial voice.
We're proud of all our releases, but the jewels in the crown, as it were, have been the aforementioned An Infamous Traffic, which went out of print last year, and Erin Escobedo's Meltwater, which we're still printing.
Both games were strong sellers, which is always nice, both were well-received critically, and both expanded our audience, bringing eyes to our other titles.
DM: What do you think the future holds for niche historical games? Do you feel they will remain in a niche genre, or will they become more (or return to the) mainstream as their mechanisms and design ideas become more frequently seen in popular games?
TR: I mean, "niche" games are gonna be niche games. That's not to say that historical games don't have broader crossover appeal, and there have definitely been strides toward making historical games more approachable to that wider audience.
I'm sure that this will continue to be the case. It's just not something I'm particularly interested in, and I have the luxury of just doing whatever the heck I want.
DM: Do you have any advice for aspiring designers and publishers?
TR: I make weird, brittle, abrasive games that alienate and frustrate people, so I'm not sure if anyone looking to be successful in this field should be listening to my advice.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on September 25, 2020. —WEM]
Phil Walker-Harding, designer of Sushi Go!, Bärenpark and Gizmos joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to look back on his career to date.
DM: Hi, Phil, thank you for joining us today. You are one of the most successful game designers working today, with numerous commercially successful titles and many critical awards to your name — yet you started by selling small, self-published card games. Please can you tell us about those early days of your career?
PWH: When I got into modern board games, particularly those coming out of Germany like Catan and Carcassonne, I immediately wanted to design my own! I played lots of games growing up and had even tried making my own as a child, so it was quite natural to take it back up as a hobby.
Way back before Kickstarter revolutionized the way games are funded, marketed, and even produced, self-publishing was a very different thing. My first few releases were hand-assembled in very small print runs. I sold them online and at small local conventions, so it felt like a very small DIY beginning!
Archaeology: The Card Game was picked up by Z-Man Games, and I gradually built up my name from there. Around five years ago, I decided to fully focus on designing and working with other publishers.
DM: Sushi Go!, in 2013, was your breakthrough game. When did you realize that you had a hit, and how did it feel to achieve that success?
PWH: It was a bit of a gradual thing because the first edition of Sushi Go! was self-published, so there wasn't a big audience right away.
Gamewright signed the game a little bit after that, so I knew it would be marketed far more widely, but you never know how successful a game will be out in the market. I suppose I realized how well it was doing about a year after it was out and I saw a whole lot of people playing it all around the world on social media.
It was a great feeling as it had been a real aim of mine to create a popular family-friendly little card game.
DM: Cacao followed in 2015. It features a combined tile and worker placement mechanism. How did the mechanism and the overall game develop from the initial idea to fully formed game?
PWH: Cacao evolved from another design — a card game all about surrounding scoring cards with your cards in order to achieve majorities, so very much like the temple tiles in the finished game.
At some point I tried having your scoring cards trigger immediate actions. This worked so well I made this the whole focus of the game, and the rest of the design followed quite quickly.
I then entered the design in the  Premio Archimede competition, and from there it found a great publisher in ABACUSSPIELE.
DM: Imhotep was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2016. What effect did this have on your career? Did you experience an increased sense of expectation for the releases that followed?
PWH: I did feel that more people knew who I was after the nomination, although probably more within the industry rather than general gamers. It did lead to new contacts and relationships with publishers. I am sure it did help my recognition generally as a designer, but this is something that has slowly grown since I began, I would say.
DM: Many of your games, including the popular Bärenpark, incorporate mechanisms seen in far more complex games, yet are accessible to players of all ages and experience. Is this accessibility intentional and, if so, how do you achieve this aim?
PWH: Yes, it is definitely an aim. One of the best things about our hobby is that it can bring people of all ages and backgrounds together around the table.
I try to make my designs as easy to approach as possible. How exactly you achieve this is a hard thing to quantify exactly, but I do have a few principles I stick to.
For example, the game should take five minutes or less to teach, and the results of the players' actions should have immediate feedback so that they know and feel what they have achieved.
Theme and graphic design also play a big part, so I try to make this a priority in my discussions with my publishers.
DM: Gizmos was another big success. Do engine-building games — with their multiple layers, effect combos and variable routes to victory — require a greater degree of development than some other genres? How do you approach this from a design perspective?
PWH: Engine-building games like Gizmos do have certain complexities about them, yes. Because the powers that the player gains persist for the whole game, balancing them against each other becomes very important.
In Gizmos, it was important that each card was costed correctly so that all the different paths to victory remained viable. I was greatly helped by Marco at CMON in this area. He has a background in collectible card games, so had lots of great insights about balancing and costing cards.
DM: For all the success that many of your games have seen, some games remain less well known (Gingerbread House, Silver & Gold, Pack of Heroes). What factors do you think have contributed to the success of some games over others?
PWH: It is a hard thing for me to have full insight into! Some games are just better than others, but also there are all sorts of factors in the market when a game is a released that can factor into its success: Did the game stick out as different and original when it first came out, or did it get lost in the crowd? Was there good early buzz about the game, or did the marketing not quite land with the right audience?
With so many games being released each year, it is getting harder to stand out. Personally, I try to release fewer games that I am really happy with, but of course even then they can't all be hits!
DM: You have had the opportunity to revisit older games including Archaeology and Dungeon Raiders? How do you feel when revising past projects with the benefit of experience, and is there one that you would like to revisit if you could?
PWH: It was a great opportunity to revisit both of those designs for new editions. I was really thankful to be given that chance by Z-Man Games and Devir.
I definitely felt my experience gave me some ability to knock some of the rough edges off my older designs, so in both cases I felt I could clean them up a little. However, both games already had a bit of an audience and a core mechanism that was working, so I didn't want to completely overhaul them.
Also, it was interesting to see which design choices I made back then that I would not make now that were actually probably the right fit for the design.
DM: Which game do you look back on and think "I'm glad I did that" and why?
PWH: Designing all the different types of cards in Sushi Go Party! was a real challenge, and at points I was not sure if I could make it work, but I am really glad I kept at it and finished the design. I think it was a great learning process for me as a designer, and the game has really helped keep the Sushi Go! line going.
DM: Do you have any design or publishing advice to share with readers?
PWH: I often say to new designers to just get your first design out there. Making your game available through print-and-play, GameCrafter, or an online design competition is a great way to get a whole lot of eyes on your work.
And it is okay if your first designs aren't fantastic because you will learn from each game you make, and the feedback you get from players will be invaluable as you progress!
- [+] Dice rolls
26 Sep 2020
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move on September 9, 2020. All images were provided by Gemma Newton. —WEM]
DM: Hi, Gemma, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us a bit about yourself?
GN: Hi, Neil, thanks for having me. I'm Gemma Newton, the founder of Moonstone Games and designer behind a little game called Plotalot. I live in a quaint village in Berkshire in the UK. It's pretty idyllic, lots of walks and green space which I love, with my husband and cat. Besides making games, I am a freelance copywriter, writing for technology, food, and nutrition industries mainly.
I grew up five minutes from my current home on a farm where my parents worked with horses. I moved away to the bright lights of London for a while to study and start my career in marketing but inevitably returned to my countryside roots to live and work. I think growing up in such an agricultural environment has fueled my love of nature and being in nature, meaning I now spend a lot of time walking, climbing, and gardening as hobbies. I find the natural world my biggest inspiration for ideas and that shows in the first game I've published.
DM: Your first published game, Plotalot, has a horticultural theme. What do you think it is about that theme, and themes involving the natural world in general, that makes them perennially appealing to gamers?
GN: I think we're all drawn to the natural world; after all, in the grand scheme of things we haven't been living in urban spaces for that long. It's in our DNA to want to experience and to some extent maybe even control the wildness of nature, and this makes for some compelling mechanics and gameplay when it comes to designing a new game. Nature is also beautiful — the most beautiful place you can be in my opinion. Since the start of civilization it has inspired art, literature, and science as we try to mimic, capture, and now protect it, so it makes sense that designers and players feel comfortable working with this broad theme.
DM: Despite the "gentle" appearance, Plotalot does contain a significant "take that" element. What inspired this combination of theme and mechanics?
GN: Plotalot was created out of a desire to build a game which my family would play. I had started to get into gaming myself, but my family just didn't get the bug. I was desperate to find something other than Monopoly to play with them and so out of my brain came this vegetable-themed game.
At the time of developing a theme, I had just planted my first vegetable patch and my Mum was a keen gardener, so I knew it was something she would like. As I watched my vegetables fail and succeed, I took inspiration from the real-life pests I faced such as aphids and caterpillars. I learned about the benefits of a polytunnel and decent fertilizer and weaved those lessons into the mechanics. I struggled with having such a small patch, and this really informed the main mechanism of managing space.
I didn't intend for it to be so "take that", but as I started testing different actions, it was the more interactive cards that made the gameplay between players so fun and special. Over the years, I've balanced the decks carefully so while you can be attacked and take a hit, you also have plenty of opportunities to turn the game back in your favor quickly, too.
DM: Plotalot remains a family-friendly game. Was that an intentional design choice, and how did you achieve it given the take-that aspect?
GN: I wanted a game which a group of adults could play but that kids could get involved with, too. I tested it with children as young as eight, and while they might not have the deeper tactics nailed, they loved the fact that they could play a "take that" action on their parents. Children tend to play the game harsher than adults I find — they'll choose to cause havoc over scoring points any day.
Not only that, the theme also lends itself to families, and I had fun creating family-friendly artwork which would appeal to all ages. I wanted to create a game which, while not deeply educational, could get families interested in having a go at growing their own, knowing from their plays of the game that aphids are bad and bees are good for example.
DM: Plotalot features bright, colorful art. How important do you feel artwork is to the overall experience of playing board games?
GN: For me, it's so important. I love good board game artwork as it enhances the experience of playing a game and is a real testament to why modern board games have made the hobby so popular. No matter the style, I believe the artwork should be just that: a piece of art that helps tell the story of the game and immerse players in the experience.
In Plotalot, I was lucky enough to find an incredible illustrator who characterized my horticultural heroes and villains in a way I could never have imagined. I went through several artists before we met — some so bad that the game nearly never came to life — but Miriam Hull took it to a new level. The style she went with can be appreciated by adults but appeals to children, too, making it a more universal experience.
DM: You decided to publish Plotalot yourself via your company, Moonstone Games. What prompted this decision over seeking out an established publisher, and how has the experience been so far?
GN: I pitched Plotalot to a few publishers but nothing stuck. At the time, the game was still in its early stages, and the rejections were important lessons in how developed games need to be to hit the mark. I was naturally hesitant to go it alone — after all, it's a big ask for one person who already has a full-time career — but I wanted to prove to myself and my family that this idea could be something more. There was also a large part of me, the artistic and eco-conscious part, that saw this as an opportunity to express myself in areas such as sustainability and design which appealed.
So I went it alone and started properly testing and refining the concept to what it is now. Taking it on myself meant taking on the expense, but it allowed for ultimate freedom as well. With this, I was able to control the look and feel, as well as the single-use plastic used in the game which was important to me.
Right now, I would say the experience has been one of steep learning, challenging myself in both a creative and business capacity. It's certainly giving me more confidence in what I can do now and in the future.Plotalot prototype cards
DM: The Kickstarter campaign for Plotalot was successful, and you are now releasing to retail. Can you describe the differences between the two sales outlets? Are there unique challenges to each outlet?
GN: Kickstarter is a scary prospect for a newbie such as myself. It used to be a space for small designers to put their ideas out there, whether fully formed or just as a concept. Nowadays, everything is very polished with huge amounts spent on graphics, videos, and photography. It's a hard place to stand out on a small budget. Despite this, if you produce an honest product that is genuinely unique, it is a fantastic platform for getting your idea to as many people around the world as possible — a truly supportive community of new ideas which is fantastic.
Getting a retailer onboard has been a challenge. I am an unproven designer up against some big names and budgets in the industry. I found it tough to work out the margins so everyone gets a good deal, but this is the nature of selling any product, not just a game. When it comes to Plotalot and getting retailers on board, I have managed to find a compelling price point. Not only that, gamers are charmed by the visual appeal of the game, which really helps a retailer get behind it as they know people will pick up or click on the box. Behind the artwork is a lovely little game that is easy to explain and sell, but first impressions are important in piquing that initial interest.
DM: Moonstone aims to publish board games using eco-friendly manufacturing methods. How are you achieving this, and is achieving it bringing its own set of challenges?
GN: I've always been passionate about creating something that doesn't impact the environment. Growing up on a farm, I learnt the value of the land and nature from a young age, and this has stuck with me throughout my life.
My initial plan was to produce Plotalot 100% plastic-free, but when I went into mass manufacturing, this didn't turn out quite as planned. I was set back in my quest to source plastic-free laminate, which while in existence, just isn't durable enough to last the length of time people keep board games. It biodegrades after just a few years, which is fantastic news for some products, but which means my beautiful game, designed to be played again and again, would deteriorate and only add to the waste problems we face.
In the end, I settled for no single-use plastic, so whilst the cards and box are laminated for long-term durability, there are no components or shipping materials made from plastic anywhere. This leads to a more expensive product to produce and smaller profit margins, but it's something I feel is hugely important. It has also lead to a tighter specification, which in the end has made me more creative with how I get around plastic usage.
To keep the game even less impactful on the planet, I have also worked hard to source UK suppliers and manufacturers rather than defaulting to larger companies in China or Europe. I want to support British business where possible and limit the miles my products travel before they hit people's tables. To top it all off, Moonstone Games also works with Ecologi, offsetting business activities by supporting reforestation projects across the world. As you can tell, being eco-conscious is pretty important to me!
DM: Although you are still relatively new to the industry, is there anything you wish you had known at the start?
GN: There are so many things I wish I knew then that I know now, and I'm sure this pattern will continue — you are constantly learning. One of the key things I wish I'd done earlier was to integrate a pledge manager into my Kickstarter planning. Right before I submitted the campaign, I decided to go with BackerKit, but I should have done it earlier as it would have helped me with managing my shipping costs more efficiently. This was a huge learning curve and next time, I'll get them involved much earlier.
I think the other thing I wish I'd known at the start was just how supportive and generous the board gaming community can be. As a creator, I obsess over the details, but the board game community just love games no matter their shape, size, or theme and avidly support new ideas. Whether you're a big name publisher or a one-woman band, there is a huge amount of support for everyone releasing games at the moment.
DM: What's next for Moonstone Games?
GN: I can't wait to see Plotalot being played around the world by my backers and buyers. From here I have plans to develop an expansion for the game if there's demand for it, which add new mechanics and components to expand the gameplay.
I also want to develop more games beyond Plotalot and have some concepts already in prototype form for testing. Wherever I go, I observe real-world situations and twist them into game mechanics which I've not seen before; it's becoming quite an obsession. One thing that I know for sure if that my style is very much themed around nature, animals, and farming as it's where I'm most inspired, so you can look forward to some more games along these lines.
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
This week, Volko Ruhnke, designer of Nevsky and Labyrinth: The War on Terror and creator of the COIN series, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move for a retrospective of his remarkable career.
DM: Hi, Volko, thank you for joining us. During your design career, you have created some of the most well-known historically themed games currently available. Please can you tell us how it all began?
VR: Hi, thanks for letting me join you! I started board wargaming as a grade-schooler, with Avalon Hill games in the 1970s. For the first decade or so, published games to me were received wisdom: I did not think to doubt what came in the box. The designers were professionals, after all! Then, as a college student on a trip to Europe that included visits to various battlefields, I noticed that some terrain was quite different from what I had grown familiar with on my most revered game boards.
That epiphany — that games could be wrong in some way, could be improved — was the start for me of tinkering with purchased games and ultimately designing new games. At first, I would just get out my pencil and mark up changes to rule books. Or I would take elements of games that I owned, the combat results table, for instance, and apply them to different situations on homemade maps. Eventually, I got involved in playtesting for my favorite company, GMT Games. I had that fan relationship with GMT for years — I even helped GMT president Gene Billingsley assemble game boxes in a convention hotel room once — before I approached them with a design.
DM: Your first notable success was Wilderness War, in which players vie for control of North America during the 1700s. It is still in print almost twenty years after its initial release. Can you tell us about the development of that game, and why you think it has had such longevity?
VR: In the 1990s, friends and I designed and ran paper historical campaigns for one another, homespun role-play campaigns with great attention to historical detail.
One of mine was set in the French and Indian War: We sought to recreate the year 1756 on the American frontier. That war was my greatest interest at the time as I live in Virginia. George Washington's early military career was as a Virginia colonel, and I had studied his history including from his papers in the nearby Library of Congress. When I complained to a friend that the none of the existing board games about the French and Indian War had all the elements I thought needed, he challenged me to design my own.
I designed Wilderness War in 2000 when card-driven games were still young. Mark Simonitch's Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage was a key inspiration. With Wilderness War, I tried to take the CDG form that Mark Herman, Simonitch, and Ted Raicer had invented and refine it to my favorite setting, one that happened to emphasize competing modes of warfare: European-style massed armies and fortifications on the one hand and petite guerre of frontier raiders and rangers on the other. I suspect that Wilderness War still gets played mainly because it tries to hew closely to the original power of CDGs while exploring an asymmetric contest.Image: Volko Ruhnke
DM: Labyrinth: The War of Terror followed in 2010. It depicts the struggle between the U.S. and Islamic extremism. How does making a game based on an ongoing or very recent conflict differ from one modelling events outside of living memory?
VR: A difference may be that more players already will have formed views of more recent history — or maybe not as hobbyists can be quite passionate and opinionated about whatever historical period fascinates them!
Regardless, history is always interpretation, and as a designer your interpretation is in there, no matter how objective you may strive to be. As professional wargamer Peter Perla wrote, game design is communication. So I did try with Labyrinth or in designing A Distant Plain with Brian Train about the still ongoing war in Afghanistan, to be explicit with myself about what we were saying to players about those conflicts.
However, whether it's about guerrilla warfare or Gettysburg, a wargame presents a designer's model that is necessarily simplified. The model can teach us something about past or ongoing affairs, but it only adds to the mental models that the players already bring to the table. My hope in game design is not to change anyone's position on anything, but rather to raise questions in players' minds and thereby perhaps to help them refine the understanding of events that they already possess.
DM: The year 2012 saw the release of Andean Abyss. What was the spark that turned a game about a relatively obscure conflict into a game that became the start of the popular COIN series?
VR: The idea for Andean Abyss sprung from my experience on Labyrinth and from my day job teaching U.S. intelligence analysts.
From the latter, I had become ever more interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) as a complex interplay of many actors and factors. A premise of Labyrinth was that jihadism versus counterterrorism was at core a global insurgency/counterinsurgency — and one, I think, valid criticism of Labyrinth's model was that it reduced a multiparty conflict to just two sides. Australian COIN expert Kilcullen wrote that all counterinsurgency is multifactional, and I wanted to explore that.
Colombia offered a rich story of at least four powerfully competing visions for the country's future battling it out, with a government facing down three insurgencies at once and coming out mostly on top. How did they do that? Only one other board game had taken on Colombia's war — Crisis Games' Colombia — and that game was published (out of my town!) years before the period that Andean Abyss would cover!
Finally, after facing the challenge of designing a solitaire mode for one side in Labyrinth, I wanted to see whether I could do the same for all four sides in a game, to mimic multi-side action for a single player, and Colombia's factional struggle offered that opportunity.
GMT President Gene Billingley's reaction to my proposal was hesitant; as he has since said, he did not think that he could sell a game about Colombian guerrilla war (until he got the chance to play it). He was right, in a way: Initial preorders were quite weak, especially within the U.S. But the promise of a series to follow buttressed the potential of the volume, Andean Abyss got made, and players reacted well. Other designers joined me almost at once for new settings, and the COIN Series was off!COIN Series games (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: The games that immediately followed Andean Abyss showed COIN to be a flexible system capable of depicting a variety of historical periods. Can you describe how the system developed during the first years and what you think makes it so flexible?
VR: The central design challenge in Andean Abyss was to effect as cleanly as I could the asymmetries among four factions in their ends, ways, and means (the classic components of strategy). Within that, I needed to show guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations as mainly a matter of initiative (as an abstraction of local information advantage) since the contest of firepower so important to conventional warfare is not really the determinant of victory. Out of those modelling tasks, I came up with the initiative-card sequence of play, faction-unique ops and special activity menus, and asymmetric victory conditions at the heart of the COIN Series.
Those game mechanisms apply well to such varied conflict settings, I think, because these asymmetric factional features of Colombian and other counterinsurgencies actually are true of all mass human affairs. All of us all the time have overlapping but not identical interests. All of history is factions, so COIN Series topics are to be found everywhere.
(Factions come to the fore especially in internal conflicts like insurgencies — which are abundant across the ages but deeply under-gamed. Yet they are there in classic, apparently two-sided wars as well. You need to see them to understand how the Wehrmacht acted in World War Two, for example, and there is some great boardgame design work underway now to explore that.)
DM: How does it feel for you to see the COIN series now being driven by other designers who are taking it into new and varied directions?
VR: It is the best part of it for me. I had originally envisioned just four COIN Series volumes, one per continent: Colombia, Angola, Philippines, Iraq. They would have very similar internals to Andean Abyss. But what we got from all the designers who stepped forward is a far more varied and higher quality exploration of factional conflict. We have non-violence as a tactic, raiding for plunder, tribal loyalties, and — to come — future conflict on another planet.
I certainly never would have thought of Brian Train's adaptation of the COIN Series sequence of play to a two-player game (Colonial Twilight), which gives the same — even amplified — struggles for initiative. Nor could I have foreseen Bruce Mansfield's rework of the Series' solitaire system from difficult flowcharts of limited variability to smooth and capable card-based bots in Gandhi, now in work for retrofit to earlier volumes. VPJ Arponen with this three-player All Bridges Burning and other designers have made their own, similar leaps within the system.
DM: Your most recent big game is Nevsky, which is set in medieval Europe and features logistics and operational issues affecting conflict during the period. Please tell us about the inspiration behind the design and its development process.
VR: The initial inspiration for a system examining medieval warfare at the operational level came from a college memory, a course called "English Constitutional History" that highlighted feudal service as a building block of law. To my wargamer mind at the time, the fact of limited military service ("show up with a helmet, spear, and horse for forty days") raised the operational question of how such time-limited duty affected military campaigns. What happened after the forty days ended and the war was still going on?
The next inspiration was from not a historical but a game-mechanical perspective. I loved the game Angola (originally from Ragnar Brothers, now in a beautiful MMP edition) designed in the 1980s but not really copied in the hobby. One fantastic mechanism in Angola is "column" cards that very smoothly model friction in communications and trust among allied factions, while in fact speeding rather than impeding gameplay. I wanted to steal this mechanism and apply it to some setting where the means of communication were uncertain and the command or alliance system rickety. Medieval warfare seemed a perfect setting for that.
The next step was to find a campaign in the Middle Ages that really interested me. There are not many wargames depicting medieval warfare at operational scale, so the field was quite open. My father's family was from the Baltic region. In the 1990s, I got to do a military history tour of Russia that really inspired me. I wanted my medieval operations designs to tour the cultural boundaries of Latin Europe, where I hoped to find more asymmetry and personality to two opposing sides' military styles. Teutons versus Rus in 1240-1242 offered me all that interest, and a classic motion picture to help excite players to the topic. Nevsky was born!Almoravid prototype cards (image: Volko Ruhnke)
DM: Nevsky is also the first in a new series, "Levy & Campaign". The next installment, Almoravid, is now available for pre-order. How does Almoravid progress the series, and what does the future hold for the series long term?
VR: Almoravid will take the Levy & Campaign series to the opposite end of medieval Europe geographically and with regard to its range of economic development — Muslim al-Andalus. Bigger armies, better roads, tougher fortifications across the countryside, and a more complex political environment as Christian kingdoms and duchies try to coalesce against even more fractious Muslim petty "taifa" states until a massive African Almoravid intervention force arrives to beat the Christians back. The core rules of levying and marching, supplying and fighting will be quite familiar to fans of Nevsky, but the physical and political environment will require different approaches.
For the future of Levy & Campaign, I am happy to report that I am enjoying a similar phenomenon to that of the COIN Series. Both new and experienced designers and researchers are stepping forward to create or co-design further volumes. Once again, my original concept for four volumes — one at each corner of medieval Latindom: Russia, Scotland, Spain, and the Holy Land — is superseded by opportunity for a broader array of settings. And the favorable reaction that Nevsky has received from designers, critiques, and most of all players now makes realization of a full series possible. Next up will be Italy, from a veteran Italian wargame designer. Designs set in Byzantium, Dark Ages France, and Scotland have begun. We shall see!Falling Sky prototype, now hanging on Volko's wall (image: Volko Ruhnke)
DM: Coming full circle now, your games are successful, both critically and commercially, and increasingly influential outside of the traditional war game audience. What effect has this level of success had on you personally?
VR: I am loving life, naturally! Game design is its own joy, related to but something other than game play. The widespread practice of players making their own games for themselves and their friends bears this out. A challenge, when our own designs go into publication, is that these two joys start to compete for what is already limited time in the week. "Design games, play games, have a life — choose two" as design teacher Alan Emrich once wrote. My great fortune, however, is that a few years ago I retired from a successful career in government service and can now delve fully into all aspects of my main hobby as well as enjoy my family and much more.Falling Sky retail (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?
VR: Follow your bliss! You are designing for your own entertainment, after all. (If instead you are striving for fame, fortune, or adoration, turn back now!) Borrow everything you can from other games — they are your toolbox — but mix them up, combine and change other's tools as you see fit. There really are no rules. Go new places. Experiment away: no lives will be lost.
- [+] Dice rolls
Interview: Behrooz "Bez" Shahriari (Stuff by Bez) on Player Interaction and Where to Find Inspiration
12 Sep 2020
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos provided by Bez. —WEM]
Today Bez Shahriari, designer of Yogi and founder of Stuff by Bez, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss inspiration and player interaction in games.
DM: Hi, Bez, thanks for joining us today. You are the designer of Yogi, Kitty Cataclysm and the ELL Deck system. How did you get started in games design?
BS: I fell in love with video games at a very young age. One of my earliest memories is of the ZX Spectrum and being amazed that my siblings could affect what was happening on the television screen.
My love of video games eventually resulted in studying video game design at university. Unfortunately, during the second year the focus moved away from design onto programming. I failed that year and ended up going back to Glasgow, discovering BoardGameGeek and a local game group soon after.
At that point, I had been using packs of traditional playing cards as a tool to improve my general game design skills while creating video games. As I began to develop more of an interest in modern board games, I was inspired to turn my creative efforts towards physical games.
Initially I showed these only to friends. Then, about eight years ago, I moved to London and discovered Playtest UK, a national group of like-minded people that meet to help each other develop games. The members basically agree to play each other's games, discuss exactly why they are rubbish, then work together to improve.
I was able to get my first game, In a Bind, finished only due to Playtest UK and their willingness to work on my ideas with me.In a Bind was rebranded as Yogi
I wanted a game with chaos and silliness that lasted 20 minutes. There was card stealing, card swapping, scoring points — but I had this one card that said: "Stand up. If you have the card at the end of the game score 10 points; if you sit down, give the card to another player."
During a playtest, it was commented that this was the only card involving a physical action. It didn't fit. Either make a physical game or don't, so I went all out for silliness. I had people running around the table, spinning in circles, hopping, even doing sit-ups during playtests.
Gigamic picked up the design in 2016 and rebranded it as Yogi. It has gone on to be very successful, selling over 100,000 copies internationally. I'm happy to say that Yogi is currently paying my rent, and I can now concentrate on being a full-time games designer.The ELL Deck
DM: You have also designed a game system, the ELL Deck. Can you tell us more about that?
BS: My second release was the Wibell++ system, which has recently changed its name to the ELL Deck. This system is based around a deck of cards, with each having a pair of letters, border art, and a number on them. Some games use all these features, some use only one.
On release, it shipped with five card games in a tuck box. There are now over 26 games, with a new "headline" game added each Bez Day (1st August).
The original game was Wibbell itself. In this game the aim is to win cards by shouting out words that use letters from both cards in a central display and cards in your display.
I then used the same card deck to create Faybell, a storytelling game and [thing=230774]Grabbell[/thing], a dexterity/pattern recognition game. As I thought of more and more ideas for games using just this deck of cards, the concept of a system began to form in my mind.
The ELL Deck has very much become my life's work. I will release at least one new core game in the system each year until I retire. Since release, the system has had a deluxe edition, and I've recently finished a Kickstarter for Categorickell, a version with graffiti style art.
The system isn't just a means of publishing my own games. I also hold a design competition each year that allows players to contribute to the system. The only limit on entries is imagination.Kitty Cataclysm
DM: Where do you find inspiration?
BS: Inspiration can come from anywhere, from a game you like, a theme, a mechanism, a name, a design challenge or component limitation, or from any combination of these.
One of my prototypes is a party game called A game, wherein you blether (a Scottish word meaning to talk at length at a fast rate; ranting, hypothesising, narrating or speaking in some other manner, without necessarily making very much sense)… and then the title goes on for over two thousand words, covering the box.
It was inspired by a BGG GeekList that highlighted games with long titles. The intention of the GeekList wasn't to inspire a game, but it certainly inspired me. Now it's a ridiculous thing with 550 illustrations!
Coupell, from the ELL Deck, was inspired by the idea of being in a romantic couple. The aim is to achieve two scoring piles that have an equal number of points in them. It's a balance that can be achieved only through real co-operation.
I've also been working with Tiz Creel on a game called Seize the Power. It has a mechanism whereby each player has a set of individual rules to follow, but it is up to them if they follow those rules. If they wanted to, they could even give or sell their rules to another player. This mechanism combined well with its theme of discrimination.Seize the Power prototype
DM: Stuff by Bez games feature a high degree of player interaction. What is it about this aspect of game design that interests you?
BS: Interaction in games is a very interesting subject. There are still means to interact in even the most strategic games.
Think about a game like Go. That game is played in near total silence. All communication happens through the medium of the game. A full 19×19 game of Go is a huge strategic conversation. If my move doesn't result in a reaction from the other player, have I contributed sufficiently to the strategic conversation?
Some interaction is with game mechanisms more than the other players. I remember playing Bohnanza. It's a trading game where you would expect there to be high player interaction; however, much of the time is spent focusing on the cards, not the other players.
At the other extreme are large group or party games which are usually intended for seven or more players.
Kings College, in London, commissioned a piece from Sarah Jury and I for their exhibit "Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary". It's called Challenging Structures, and it responds to academic research that explores how changing views on gender and gender identity are reflected in law. What is the impact of changing the gender on your passport, for example?
The last playthrough had thirty people, split into four countries with different ideologies. It includes player characters that are written to be transgender or trans-phobic. Given the sensitive subject matter, we had to include a means for players to stop interacting if they wished. Interacting with my words and actual actions places these Live Action Roleplays (LARPs) and similar party games in a different category.
Physical and digital interaction are being combined by using in-game apps, and the boundaries of what even counts as a "board game" is being pushed by games like The Mind and Wavelength.
I think we are reaching a point where it's now possible to draw on game principles used in LARP or even sports and still be loosely within the umbrella of "board game".
DM: Any advice for new designers?
BS: Although it pains me to say this, any designers thinking about moving into publishing need to be aware that marketing and logistics are the most important factors in being successful. In this crowded world, you need to be able to make people aware that you exist and build relationships with retailers. You also need to do research into the marketplace. Are there games like yours available already?
Ask yourself: "Why am I creating this game?" You don't need to follow the standard path of design, pitch, publish.
There is massive value in making games for small limited print runs or even just a single copy given to a friend as a declaration of love.
Not everything has to be mass produced.
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This article is derived from an interview first published on Diagonal Move. Some of the games mentioned are self-published and available from the designer's website. —WEM]
Brian Train, designer of A Distant Plain, Colonial Twilight, and Brief Border Wars joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss simulating unconventional conflict in wargames.
DM: Hi, Brian, thank you for joining us. You have been a game designer for many years. Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started?
BT: Thanks, Neil. I had always wanted to design wargames because almost no one was publishing games about the kinds of things I wanted to play.
My first attempt at game design was a simple small game on the Pusan Perimeter phase of the Korean War in 1982; I typed the rules out by hand, hand drew the map on some photocopied hex paper, and made the counters by hand. It worked, but obviously only one copy was ever made!
Years later, in 1990, I was in Japan teaching English, and most of my game collection was on the other side of the ocean. I wanted to play wargames, but none were available — but this time I had a computer and a printer.
The first two games I designed were Power Play, about a coup d'etat in an imaginary country, and Civil Power, a tactical game about making and breaking urban riots. Funnily enough, the first was inspired by an old movie with Peter O'Toole and David Hemmings, the second by an essay by Hunter S. Thompson. I kept designing after I got back from Japan and in 1995 Kerry Anderson and I started the Microgame Co-op, later known as the Microgame Design Group.
Kerry Anderson and I co-founded the Group to make it possible for amateur designers to have their games done with some nice artwork (Kerry wanted to do the graphics) and distributed on a non-profit basis. We charged customers what it cost to print and mail these games, plus little to invest in new equipment (e.g., a color laser printer).
We were non-profit by intention, not by outcome! Surely that was unique... Production quality was strict DTP: an 11x17" map, one sheet of counters you had to mount and cut yourself, no more than 6-8 pages of rules and charts, packed in a plastic comic book bag. I found it an agreeable challenge to work within these stringent parameters; a lot of writers will tell you that it is harder to write a short story than a novel.
The MDG turned out almost forty titles in eight years. It suspended business for a while because Kerry wanted to go back to school and finish his doctorate. (He is a meteorologist who studies lightning and lightning-caused forest fires; one of his enduring bestselling designs is Smokejumpers, a game on fighting fires.) Kerry has recently started the Design Group up again to produce small quantities of some new and old games.
By about 2000 I was starting to get some attention from other small publishers; by 2005-07 I was publishing things with Fiery Dragon Productions, a small press company in Toronto. This let me out of the comic-book bag ghetto: these guys produced games in small tin boxes (and later, somewhat larger cardboard boxes) and could make die-cut counters. By 2010-15 my games were appearing in magazines and an even larger number of small press outfits.
In not quite thirty years of designing, I have published over fifty titles — but I still sell some of them with mount-your-own counters in a comic book bag!
DM: Your games tend to focus on modern-day, non-traditional conflicts. How do you choose a conflict to examine, and what is it about these conflicts that inspires you to them in a game/simulation format?
BT: I choose what I find interesting. It's a lot of work to design a wargame, and it takes a long time, so if I can't stay interested in the topic or the problem I want to solve, then chances are I will not finish it. For example, I once designed a game on the Battle of the Bulge called Autumn Mist, later redone as Winter Thunder. I was never very interested in the historical battle, but I wanted to use the battle as a setting for a corps/army level system I had developed.
Originally I wanted to use this system for the Manchuria 1945 Soviet offensive, but I haven't done that yet; instead the system has been used in Bulge 1944, Poland 1939 (Summer Lightning), and Yugoslavia 1943-45 (Balkan Gamble, an alternative-history game about the Allied invasions in the Balkans that never happened). One day I'll get around to doing it.
I don't care very much about whether a game will sell well — just that it explores an interesting problem in a way that players find absorbing. Games don't have to be finely balanced to be enjoyable, and a lot of simulations are not interesting enough when they are modeled too literally.
But at the same time you want your players to learn something about the historical situation, so you cannot turn it into too much of a game, so I guess playability is more important, but it can be taken too far.
Occasionally, a publisher will ask me for something on a particular topic — that's how I came to do Colonial Twilight.
DM: You have revisited certain conflicts (e.g., Afghanistan, Vietnam) several times during your career. How do you differentiate between games on the same subject?
BT: I suppose it's fair to say that I have spent a bit of time hanging around Afghanistan, Kandahar province in particular. I did A Distant Plain with Volko Ruhnke to cover the entire country, then four different games on the situation in Kandahar province using four different systems: a quite complicated development of an early guerrilla system; the "4 box" system I had used for other strategic level guerrilla conflicts but taken down to province level; a variant of the Staff Card system Joe Miranda introduced in Bulge 20 (and co-designed with Joe); and the District Commander system of diceless operational-level counterinsurgency games. Each system stresses different parts of the conflict and focuses on modeling different aspects of it.
I think that's quite acceptable. Look at how many different games have been done on the Bulge or Gettysburg, and how each one is different — though maybe it's unusual to have one designer go back to the same campaign again and again.
DM: Why do you think some conflicts capture the imagination of gamers more than others, and is there an underexplored conflict that you would like to work on?
BT: A bit over half of my games are about irregular or unconventional warfare. By and large this is not a popular genre among wargamers. Even though this is the predominant mode of actual conflict in the world today, and you might expect that wargamers might have more interest in contemporary conflict, this appears not to be the case. Wargamers are interested in history generally and can have intense involvement and knowledge of certain historical periods, but I am not convinced they are any more interested in current events than the general run of non-wargamers.
World War Two, Napoleonic, and American Civil War titles still dominate the market; they always have and probably always will, though there are many exceptions, and people seem more accepting of titles than they used to be; when I started wargaming in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were almost no wargames on the Vietnam War, but now games on this war appear regularly.
So I spend most of my brain cycles on irregular warfare topics, an underexplored field in itself, and go for underexplored conflicts within that genre and portray them at various levels.
Many of them are strategic level where an entire country is shown (Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes). The challenge here is to show the long-term, non-military effects of many small military and non-military actions; irregular warfare is a "strategy of tactics" in which there are very few climactic battles like Dien Bien Phu, so many of these games use the semi-arbitrary concept of "political support", measured in points on a scale of 0 to 99. When someone runs out of this support, the game is over, and they have lost.
Recently a few irregular wargames have appeared that have modern settings but show the action at the tactical level (Boots on the Ground, Phantom Fury). They may have a few special rules or restrictions in them, but essentially, they are games about tactical infantry combat, which has been largely the same for the last 75 years, just with more and more asymmetric technology and firepower between the two sides. I don't do tactical level games at all, except for Civil Power, a "sandbox" game on rioting and urban disorders (and another common contemporary event).
What is even more interesting — and much harder to do — is to show irregular war at the operational scale in between these two levels. This is where a player has to think in terms of connected battles as they contribute to campaign plans and the non-military effect of what is going on in the conflict, yet the player does not represent a national leader or government who can set policy or allocate resources on a large scale. They must do not only what they think is required to win the conflict; they must also do what their government tells them to. I started in on this with my game Kandahar in which the two players are regional commanders and continued it in the District Commander system.
I'm also really interested in the problem of urban irregular warfare. I've done about half a dozen titles on this topic (Battle of Seattle, Civil Power, Tupamaro, Operation Whirlwind, District Commander Maracas, Nights of Fire and development work on We Are Coming, Nineveh), and I am going to do more.
DM: You are perhaps best known for your entries in the COIN series. How do you find working within the constraints of an existing and popular system?
BT: In 2000 I designed a game on the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence. I had always been interested in this war, and this game was the first to be published on the war, in any language. In 2007-08 a professional colleague of Volko Ruhnke discovered the Fiery Dragon edition of the game, and together we worked out a simpler version of the game for him to use in his classes. Volko saw the game, and it gave him some ideas for what would become the COIN system; I helped playtest his Andean Abyss in 2010, and I could see he was on to something — then the game came out the following year and he name-checked me in his designer's notes!
A year or two later we met in person at a conference on professional wargaming, and we quickly agreed to work together on something... A Distant Plain was the result, in 2013, and what a privilege it was to work with him.
So, with Colonial Twilight, in a sense I'd come full circle, working on the third game ever published on the war, using a system partly inspired by the first. The most interesting thing about that game is that it was the first volume in the system for other than four players; cracking the "two-body problem" was interesting. Nevertheless, I have since made up a four-player variant of Colonial Twilight for those who can't break the habit.
The GMT COIN system is a really flexible one that lends itself to a lot of different kinds of conflicts. I've often thought that it might be a good one to try in a power-politics situation where there is no overt conflict or violence. I have managed to add something with each title, as has everyone else working in the system. One problem of doing things slightly differently within an existing system is getting players to unlearn certain habits or assumptions they have made in playing other games in the system!
There are a few other occasions where I have used all or part of someone else's system because I found it particularly useful or interesting to implement. One example is Joe Miranda's Staff Card system, which he introduced in Bulge 20 and which I have used since in BCT Command Kandahar (a co-design with Joe), The Scheldt Campaign and Third Lebanon War.
DM: Looking back, which game makes you think "I'm glad I did that" and why?
BT: I suppose game designs are like one's children: some disappoint less than others. But when I think about it, that's actually pretty easy to answer: Guerrilla Checkers, the simplest game I've ever done in terms of rules, mechanisms, and components, but one that cuts to the nature of asymmetric warfare so quickly.
I had been working with some other people on an Afghanistan design, and at about oh-dark-I-don't-want-to-look-at-the-clock one morning I was staring at the ceiling and thinking about how the insurgents and counterinsurgents there, while both occupying the same section of the world at the same time, approached the physical terrain (ridges, gullies, roads) and human terrain (villages, tribes, relationships) in completely different ways. Why not have an abstract game in which the two sides are playing with quite different pieces working in quite different ways, but are using the same board with the same ultimate aim of neutralizing the enemy?
The game uses mechanisms from both Draughts and Go, but the combination of the two systems makes for a completely different game experience. The rules are very simple, but strategy can be deep and while it is a perfect information game, it is highly asymmetric.
DM: Can you tell us more about your recent releases?
BT: I'm working on several things right now.
• Brief Border Wars, my attempt to revive the old SPI style quadrigame of four small, short games in one box that share the same rules system, came out in mid-2020. The publisher decided that it should have a sequel, and it's an interesting system, so the last month or so I have been working on Volume II with four new battles, each pre-1945. If I want to do a Volume III, they will be post-1945 situations.
• China's War 1937-41: a game using the COIN system which is somewhere north of 1,200 pre-orders on the GMT P500 system. I actually got this game to about the 50% done point in 2015, while I was working on Colonial Twilight, but I had to shelve it in order to finish Colonial Twilight off properly. The main mechanisms and victory conditions have been largely the same since then; I've been twiddling with a few numbers, and the Event Cards have been a lot of work and refining and tuning as they usually are in creating a COIN system game. It's about to start development and serious playtesting, but COVID-19 has derailed everything, of course.
China's War is the first volume in the COIN series to deal with any theater of World War Two. It's also a bit different in that it begins with a foreign invasion, where most of the other volumes deal with internal civil conflicts or insurgencies, or resistance to pre-existing occupations. Also, notably, where Andean Abyss had three insurgent and one conventional (non-insurgent) factions, this one is the reverse. The general situation is that one faction is invading China, and while the remaining three factions are opposing the invader, they all have their own agendas. They are mutually hostile but can't overtly attack each other; I joke that that might be a good game for four passive-aggressive types to play!
• Civil Power: a tactical "sandbox" game on urban rioting and disorders. This was one of the first games I ever designed, and it has always been available from me in one form or another, but finally it is getting a better-than-DTP treatment with Conflict Simulations LLC. I've taken the opportunity to update the style, organization and content of the rules (almost as much work as making an entirely new design!) and have updated and added quite a few new scenarios — from the last stand of the Paris Commune to this year's riots.
DM: Do you have any advice to share with aspiring game designers?
BT: Discard thoughts of riches. There are probably five people in the world who have made anything like a living from designing board wargames. However, if your ideas are any good, you may get some notoriety, along with some pin-money, and that's not bad. I have always treated this as a hobby that might pay for itself in a good year, and don't count on many good years.
Do what interests you. At least then you'll be making one person happy (or at any rate heartily sick of the topic).
Don't be afraid to be interesting, either: Do something different, and do it differently. As I said earlier, maybe half of my fifty titles belong to one or another family or system I have made, but the other half consist of games using systems I have never used before or since (though I have grabbed interesting bits out of them for use in other systems later).
Don't be afraid of doing things by yourself, for yourself. It's a lot easier than it was in the 1970s when there was no Internet and even photocopiers were hard to come by.
- [+] Dice rolls