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Designer Interview: Richard Breese, Creator of the "Key" Series

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]

Richard Breese, designer of Keydom, one of the first games to use "worker placement", and Keyflower joins Neil from Diagonal Move to look at how the "Key" series developed.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Over the course of your career, you have become well known for the "Key" series of games — but that wasn't how your career began. Can you tell about the early days of your career?

RB: Thanks for having me, Neil. Since my childhood, I have always enjoyed creating games. My first published game, Chamelequin, was initially inspired by games of Dungeons & Dragons. I attributed different movement abilities to the different character classes and eventually reduced this down to an abstract game which I thought was interesting enough to be published.

I promoted the game at the London Toy Fair where I met Brian Walker, editor of a UK boardgames magazine Boardgames International, and Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop, who suggested I should go to SPIEL in Essen. I hired a stand there the following year in 1991 and discovered the world of "German" games, or Eurogames as they are now referred to. The gaming world was a lot smaller thirty years ago, with only twenty or so new gamers' games launched at each year's SPIEL.

Having discovered Eurogames, I was motivated to try to produce games in a similar style myself. The first was Keywood, which I entered into a games magazine's design competition, which pleasingly it won. I then took Keywood to SPIEL in 1995 and have returned every year since.

Board Game: Keywood

DM: Your game Keydom is often cited as being one of the first (if not the first) worker-placement games. Where did the concept of using "workers" to take actions originate for you?

RB: Yes, you are correct in that Keydom is widely recognized as the first worker-placement game. The game was subsequently re-issued as Morgenland in Germany and Aladdin's Dragons in the U.S.

The mechanism idea evolved from my plays of Settlers of Catan. In that game, resources are obtained from you building adjacent to the terrain hexes containing different resources, but the resources are generated only when a matching dice number is rolled. I wanted to create a mechanism where resources were obtained through player choice — the worker placement — and not through the luck of a dice roll.

Board Game: Keydom
Board Game: Aladdin's Dragons

DM: How did that initial concept of worker placement develop during the following years within the Key series leading eventually to Keyflower, Keyper and Key Flow?

RB: I have used the worker-placement mechanism in several of the later Key games, but when I publish a new game, I want there to be something new and different in the game. To take three examples:

• In Keythedral, the workers (or "keyples" as I have called them in later Key series games) are placed in accordance with a player-selected numerical order, emerging from cottages or houses that the player has placed strategically at the start of the game.

• In Keyflower, which was a co-design with Sebastian Bleasdale, each player has an initial mix of three different colors of keyples. The keyples can be placed freely, but only on tiles which are unused or which have previously been used by keyples of that same color. This creates a nice tension of which colors to use, when and where.

• In Keyper, when one player places a keyple on a country board, another player can join them with a matching-colored keyple on that first player's turn to the benefit of both players. In this way, some players are likely to have played all their keyples before others, with all keyples having the potential to work twice. The tension is to play your keyples as quickly as possible, but also to use them to gather the resources which are most useful to you.

Key Flow is a card-driven game based on many of the ideas contained in Keyflower, but it does not use keyples and is really only a worker placement game by association with Keyflower. The game was co-designed by Sebastian and Ian Vincent and flows quickly over four game rounds, allowing players to develop their own unique village.

Board Game: Reef Encounter

DM: Each game in the Key series shares similarities thematically. Does creating installments within a thematic series offer freedom to experiment mechanically?

RB: It is the mechanisms that drive the game development for me. If these lead naturally to the medieval theme with the scale of workers and a landscape, then I will use it to expand the Key universe. Often the mechanisms don't allow this or more naturally fit a different theme, such as in my games Fowl Play, Inhabit the Earth and Reef Encounter, which all have animal themes.

The Key series was not pre-planned, but came about incrementally following the success of the previous Key titles. The Key branding certainly helps the game get more visibility on what is now a much more crowded market than it was when the series began in 1995.

DM: Worker placement is a significant feature in many of your games, often in combination with resource management. Since the release of Keydom, these mechanisms have become board game staples. How do you keep the concepts fresh?

RB: I enjoy playing worker-placement games and do spend a lot of time thinking about games and mechanisms. It helps to play a lot of other games to learn what mechanisms work well, although I would not use an idea without adding some new twist to the mechanism. Inspiration can also come from designing with others, for example with Sebastian Bleasdale with Keyflower, or from a new gaming piece, such as the folding boards in Keyper.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Keyflower is probably your most well-known game. Eight years after release, it is number 53 in the BGG rankings. What effect do you think this recognition has had on your career?

RB: Keyflower has undoubtedly introduced more people to R&D Games, so it is likely to have helped the visibility of the later games and also the demand for some of the earlier games, which are now out of print. It is nice to have had the relative success of Keyflower, however it was probably the positive response to the earlier titles Keythedral and Reef Encounter that gave me the confidence that I could design a polished game.

Regarding publishing, because I publish using my own R&D Games label, I have not needed to find publishers. It is nice to win awards, but I think the high rating in BGG probably has more impact. When new gamers discover the hobby, it is likely they will soon discover BGG and then, if they are looking for new games to buy, are likely to look at the rankings list to see which games are most highly rated by other gamers.

Board Game: Key Flow

DM: Several games in the Key series, including Keyflower, have been co-designed, most notably with Sebastian Bleasdale. How did this partnership with him develop?

RB: Sebastian, David Brain, and Ian Vincent were all part of a playtesting group run by Alan and Charlie Paull of Surprised Stare Games. With regard to Keyflower, Sebastian had a small bidding game called "Turf Wars" which I playtested and saw the potential for a larger game and asked Sebastian whether he would be interested in working together to develop the game further.

Similarly, David had a game called "Book of Hours". This was more fully formed than "Turf Wars", and when I suggested publishing the game as "Key Market", I said to David I would be happy just to be listed as the developer. Ian is a seasoned card player, and he approached Sebastian and I with the idea of a card version of Keyflower, which then became Key Flow.

DM: Board games are always the product of a team effort — the developers, playtesters, graphic designers and others that contribute to a game in addition to the person credited for the design? How does the process differ for a co-designed game?

RB: Being part of a team is one of the pleasures of board game designing. You get time to play games with your playtesters whose opinions you value and whose company you enjoy, and in addition you are creating something.

I don't notice a huge difference in co-designing. That is largely because I am in the unusual position of being the publisher as well as a co-designer, so I can if required insist on a particular approach if necessary. Although I think in every occasion I have reached a consensus on how to proceed with a design. However, that said, it is undoubtedly a benefit in having more than one person independently playtesting and exploring different ideas on how to develop a game.

Board Game: Keyper
From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: What is next for yourself and R&D Games?

RB: This year I hope to publish Keyper at Sea, which is an expansion for Keyper and also includes a Keyper solo game from Dávid Turczi. After that I will probably publish Keydom's Dragons, which is effectively a re-issue of Aladdin's Dragons (a.k.a., Morgenland) set in the Key universe and with illustrations again by Vicki Dalton. Then there is likely to be Keyside, a brand-new Key game which is a co-design with Dávid Turczi.

DM: Do you have any advice that you would like to share with aspiring game designers?

RB: Yes, firstly play as many different games as you can so that you can become familiar with what a published game feels like and what works for you.

Get as many people involved in the playtesting as possible, especially seasoned gamers. Make a point of understanding what they like and don't like about your game. Do take notice of any criticisms. Try to address these or alternatively be comfortable that your game idea is solid notwithstanding the criticism. Stay true to your vision. Continue playtesting until you play a couple of games where you can think of no more tweaks or changes that you want to make to the game.

When you contact publishers, try to select those who publish the sort of game you have designed. That should give you a better chance of reaching a publishing deal. If you decide to publish, don't commit more funds than you can afford to lose. There is a saying that the way to make a small fortune in boardgaming is to start with a large fortune. However with crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, it is now much easier to get your gaming idea published.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
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Sat Aug 8, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Interview: Rita Modl on Men at Work and Creating Family Games

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]

Rita Modl joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the development and publication of her hit dexterity game Men at Work and her forthcoming game King of 12.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Rita Modl with Men at Work

DM: Hi, Rita, thank you for joining us. How did you get started in the games industry?

RM: I played many games as a child and as a teenager, but as I grew up and started going to parties...eventually I just didn't know anyone who played games, so I stopped playing, too.

One day, about four years ago I think, I just felt in the mood to create a game — a flash of inspiration after going to a child's birthday party. Once I had a game in mind, I spoke to a friend who had contacts in the board game industry to find out how it worked, how to show prototypes to publishers, and so on.

As a result of those contacts, I had my first rejection from a publisher. That was okay though as the game was not very good. After that, I began to watch YouTube videos about new board games, and I couldn't believe my eyes. There were so many games that I didn't know existed.

I began to play games again, and as I played, I had new ideas. As these ideas began to improve, I put more time and effort into creating my own games, one of which was an early version of the game that became Men at Work.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Building instructions, probably not architect approved (image: Neil Bunker)

DM: Can you tell us more about Men at Work's route to publication?

RM: Men at Work had its origins in another "wooden stick" game. I took that game to an agency in the hope that they would help me present it to publishers. The agency told me that the game didn't work particularly well, but if I could improve it, I could present to them again.

I went home, sat at my desk, and...didn't know what to do. I got angry, threw the components onto the desk — then I looked at it and began to put figures on it and thought, "That looks...good?" So my disappointment at the rejection of the earlier game became the beginning of Men at Work.

When I returned to the agency with what was now Men at Work, they thought it was a big improvement on the original game and they agreed to present it to publishers on my behalf. Three months later, I had a contract signed with Pretzel Games.

Pretzel wanted to publish in time for the next major games fair, which meant that we had to work to a very tight schedule to ensure that Men at Work was ready. Normally, it takes a year to find and agree to a contract with a publisher, then your game is put in a publication queue. Once all the other games before yours are worked on, work will finally begin on publishing your game. This could take another year after the contract is signed, or even longer.

However, the time between signing with the agency and the release of Men at Work was only nine months. It was an intense experience!

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Men at Work in play (image: Neil Bunker)

DM: How did Men at Work change during the development process?

RM: When I create a game, I start with one of three things: the theme, the mechanisms, or the materials. All three of these changed during the development of Men at Work!

Once Men at Work was scheduled for release, I was given access to the large playtesting groups that the agency and publisher are involved with. The playtest groups would play the game and provide feedback, then I would work on it, then the playtest groups would play again. The game changed a lot during that process.

The theme changed completely. In the beginning, it was themed around balancing on tightropes in a circus, but that restricted what we could do. Once the setting became a construction site, we were able to add in new ideas, including cleaning up the mess the previous player has made and the site safety certificates.

In the beginning, the game was aimed more towards an adult audience. The wooden sticks were much thinner, which meant it was quite difficult to build with them. When I playtested it with my nephews, the youngest of whom was 6 at the time, it was difficult for them to use the components due to the size.

While it still isn't a children's game, it wasn't until we made the components thicker that it was possible for a younger person to play and Men at Work became a true family game.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Building success (image: Neil Bunker)

DM: How has the success of Men at Work affected you?

From gallery of W Eric Martin
RM: It has been great! In Austria, Men at Work won the "Spiele Hit mit Freunden" award, and it was nominated in the party game category in BGG's "Golden Geek" awards. It has also been a big success in terms of sales — particularly so for a first game.

Thanks to these successes, the process of demoing new games to publishers is much easier than it was — although the games industry can still contain a lot of disappointment. It takes effort to make a game. You spend an entire year making a game — you create it, then test it and test it until you are happy with it — then you show it to a publisher and they say, "No, it's not good enough." Argh!

Men at Work's success has helped me keep the motivation to create games during those difficult moments.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Hoppytop, Modl's game for young children (image: Rita Modl)

DM: Can you tell us more about your next game, King of 12?

RM: King of 12 is my second game for an older audience, but it's actually my third published game in total.

My second game was Hoppytop, published by Beleduc. It is a roll-and-move game for young children about getting sheep to graze in a meadow. It's obviously not as well-known to the wider hobby game community as Men at Work, but I am very happy it exists.

King of 12 recently [ur=]funded on Spieleschmiede[/url], a crowding platform in Germany, and is due to be released via Corax Games in October 2020.

It is a dice-based trick-taking game. All players have a D12 and play cards to manipulate the dice: reroll, change which die face is showing, and so on. Points are scored based on who has the highest unique number showing on their die at the end of a round. While it is a family game, the strategy is quite deep. To do well, players need to think ahead to the next round.

The artwork, by Robin Lagofun, is fantastic. It was his first board game art design project, and he has done a fantastic job with the illustrations.

As with Men at Work, King of 12 changed considerably during development. The central idea of manipulating a D12 was there at the start. However, it was originally more of a roll-and-write game, then I got rid of that. The round structure changed; the card effects changed. Sometimes you must reduce and reduce and reduce to keep a game on point.

Although I wasn't working on it every day — I'm a freelancer photographer and fortunate to be able to move between that and game design when needed — it took over a year to develop in total, a lot longer than Men at Work.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
The forthcoming King of 12 (image: Rita Modl)

DM: What advice do you have for designers trying to publish their first game?

RM: Consider using an agency to help find a publisher.

This advice does depend on the game. It is perhaps not recommended as much if you have a "hobby" game, but I would recommend considering an agency for a family game. Not only does this give you people to contact (game design can get quite lonely), it will also help with any language barrier, particularly for international releases.

The publishing contract for Men at Work was written in English. I am from Germany, and although I can speak English as a second language, without the agency I am sure I would have missed many details due to the language barrier.

I took both Hoppytop and King of 12 directly to the publishers myself. Both publishers are based in Germany, so there isn't the same language barrier. However, I have seven games currently under contract via an agency, plus another that is nearing publication. I just can't talk about any of them at the moment.

Watch this space!
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Sun Jul 12, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Interview: Matthew Dunstan on Game Design and More

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]

Matthew Dunstan, designer of Monumental and co-creator of the Adventure Games series, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his approach to game design:

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Celebrating the release of The Great City of Rome (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: Matthew, thanks for joining us today. You have created many games. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first started your game design career?

MD: I started designing when I was still in Australia, around 2010 roughly. Only the year before I had rediscovered board gaming. I was playing all these new games, and I guess I was inspired by that to begin making little prototypes, replicating things I had seen already.

There wasn't really a playtesting group in Sydney, so I tried to set one up. I went to the annual Protospiel event — I had one prototype to show people — which was where I first met Phil Walker-Harding.

In 2011, I moved to UK and met Brett Gilbert, who had just signed a contract for his first game. He also lived in Cambridge, and we started to meet regularly at a pub. We weren't part of Playtest UK then — in fact, that wasn't a national network at that time — but we did regularly go to London for the Meetup events that were taking place.

Through that frequent interaction, and from the benefit of Brett's experience, I was able to become more "professional" or, at least, finish a design. I find that finishing a game is the hardest part of game design.

Once I got a design to a point that I was happy with, I entered a competition called Europa Ludi. It was a combination of events usually held separately in France and Spain. I think 2012 was the only year that they held them jointly.

Both Brett and I were finalists. Neither of us won, but later that year I found out — I wasn't aware at the time — that my game had been presented to publishers. Shortly after SPIEL that year, Days of Wonder emailed to say they were interested in publishing my game, which they did under the name Relic Runners the following year.

I guess my route into the industry isn't the easiest to replicate. However, I do recommend entering design competitions. Publishers do get involved in competitions sometimes, and there are more competitions than ever before.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Evidence of international success (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: There doesn't appear to be a single mechanism, theme, or even degree of complexity running through your portfolio. What do you believe is the thread that links all your games?

MD: Ha ha, I really don't know the answer to that question!

I think, ultimately, I just don't want to make the same game again. Some designers do iterate on the same idea or concepts. Personally, I don't enjoy doing that. I enjoy the puzzle-solving involved in "finding" a game.

I'll have some idea of how I can manipulate pieces and I'm interested in how I can "crack the code" and make an idea work. If I have already solved a problem on a previous game — perhaps how a certain distribution of cards will work, for example — I'm not interested in looking at that same problem again.

Family: Series: Good Little (Good Little Games)
That isn't to say there are no linking elements in my games. The titles in the Good Little Games line are examples of an imposed component limitation — some cards and a few tokens.

There is also a series of games in which Brett and I took the concept of a classic 110- or 120-card game and added an element of geography. The games themselves were quite small, but through the placement of cards on the table, a board began to develop.

We kept coming back to that idea of combining cards with geography. How could we mess with it? How could it be different each time? In Pyramids, there are two decks of cards, and players make a pyramid over the course of the game. Raids came from the idea of arranging the cards in a circle, which made gaining cards a much more interactive process. The Great City of Rome used a grid of cards. We currently have a game in development with Inside the Box games in which cards are used in rows, almost as outer and inner walls.

Outside of those mini component-led challenges, I wouldn't say a specific driving force links my games together other than that I like to experiment. If I had to pick something, I guess it's the intellectual curiosity needed to answer: "How do I go about making this?"

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Chocolate Factory before... (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: Can you give us an insight into your design process?

MD: I'm a lot better at the start of the process than I am towards the end. I have a digital notebook that I'll write in at least once or twice a day — a theme, a mechanism, or one or two sentences outlining an idea. From those notes, there is usually an idea that sticks with me. It's not necessarily related to the act of writing it down, but something about an idea will capture my imagination.

Once I have that first idea, I'll start making a prototype. My graphic design skills are horrible, but I'm able to put something together quickly. I usually use a computer for that. Sometimes making a prototype by hand gets you more involved in a game, but for me, making cards on the computer is fairly easy. I'm quite good at churning through to the point where a game can be played.

Once I have a playable prototype, playtesting and iteration begins. Currently I have ten or fifteen games in development. These are actual playable prototypes, not just ideas. I have far too many games on the go...

I'm a lot less skilled at playtesting my own designs — which, I think, is why I enjoy collaborating with other designers. It's an excuse to playtest with somebody else right from the very start. It also means that I don't need to rely so much on my own judgement to decide whether a design is worth continuing.

I find it frustrating when my mind sees a game much further along than it actually is, and if I had to rely only on my own feelings in the early stages, I probably wouldn't finish many things. An idea always seems better before the first prototype is made.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Chocolate Factory after! (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: You have collaborated with many other designers. What is it about that approach that appeals to you versus a single designer game?

MD: Most of my games have been co-created with other designers. I find that being able to bounce ideas off another person in a collaboration really helps with the process of iteration.

Having two opinions makes it possible to identify what it is that is interesting about a design, not only to puzzle through the challenge of making a design work. Right from the start, there is feedback from the other designer who is saying what they do or don't like about the design. Maybe we keep this part, maybe we throw another part out. Just being able to talk it through is, I find, an easy way to move things ahead.

There are some ideas that I do keep for myself — Monumental, for example. These become what I tend to think of as my "style" of game. They take a lot longer to create because although I know what I want to achieve, I don't have the back and forth from a collaboration to help move forward.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Brett Gilbert, one of Dunstan's key design collaborators (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: The Adventure Games line stands out as being quite different from other games in your portfolio. What is unique about designing a story-driven, co-operative game versus a more traditional competitive game?

MD: It is both easier and harder. Often you just need one element that changes the structure of the experience, a mechanical twist if you like.

Maybe the structure changing element is more evocative of another medium. The Adventure series itself is inspired by the point-and-click video game genre. In that instance, it's a case of transferring the genre into mechanisms more suited to the tabletop.

Regardless of the mechanisms, narrative games quickly let you know whether they are working or not. Mechanically, they typically don't require as much playtesting as other designs. They still go through the playtesting and refinement process, but feedback regarding the nature of the experience they are delivering is quick to see.

Narrative games are ultimately about player choice. In that sense, they are not so different from a strategy game. A strategy game will present several different choices, and they need to be interesting choices. In a narrative game, those choices relate to the story being told, and that is where the difficulty increases.

The storytelling narrative side is not my forte. Narrative game designers are essentially authors, and that is an entirely different skill set. A game design approach doesn't necessarily lead to the best stories. I think that is apparent in the varying quality of narrative games on the market. They may have an interesting way to move through the story, of making the game mechanisms flow nicely, but the pedigree of the narrative doesn't always match.

The narrative needs memorable characters, the classic three act structure — this is where collaboration becomes important, so much so that future Adventure Games will be created in collaboration with published authors. It will vary by author; some are writing a synopsis, others are creating detailed text that Phil and I will weave the mechanisms around.

One criticism of the Adventure Games is that they have "game" elements — points scoring and so on — but a significant portion of the audience doesn’t care about the "game". They want it to be an experience, one that is natural enough that the game feels like you are exploring a story. To achieve that, the mechanisms, no matter how clever they are, almost need to be forgotten by the players.

This becomes even more challenging if the narrative game features a strong element of puzzle, that is, where there is an answer to find as well as a story to experience. Narrative game design is a unique skill set and one that I believe will eventually branch off into a new school of game design.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Monochrome Inc., one of the Adventure Games designed in collaboration with Phil Walker-Harding (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: Your current release, Monumental, has been a huge success. Can you tell us more about how Monumental was brought to life?

MD: Originally, Monumental was a card game. When I first showed it to Funforge, it was an entirely card-based deck-building game. Funforge, however, had a vision for Monumental that soon outgrew that format. It was such a large vision that Monumental spent a further two years in development before being announced.

We started with the map. As that developed, further ideas were incorporated resulting in the interesting hybrid that Monumental is today. The cards are what drives the game, the engine where the decisions are made. The map opens interaction between players and creates a sense of progression that would not normally be available in a card game. There is also a tactile and tactical side that, through the combination of cards and a map, is both more appealing and less fiddly than some other civilization-building games.

The action selection/activation grid was inspired by Innovation by Carl Chudyk, which is one of my favorite games. In that game, cards can be played in different positions relative to each other. This allows the cards to have variable and upgradable actions. I wanted to look at that idea of aligning cards to create combinations in an interesting way.

Eventually, I created the grid-based action selection system in Monumental, which I believe is quite original. Of course, nothing is ever truly original and independent co-creation happens all the time, which is why certain themes and mechanisms suddenly appear at the same time in games that were created independently of one another. Something in the water, I guess.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Playtesting Monumental (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: Monumental has several expansions available. In general, what do you try to do when designing an expansion? Is it more challenging to find something that works well with an existing design?

MD: I find it easier than creating a new game because there is an existing system to work with.

I love expansions that do not necessarily add more to a game but instead subvert existing mechanisms. One of my favorite examples of that is the changing use of corruption in the Lords of Waterdeep expansions.

In African Empires, the new expansion to Monumental, one of the civilizations subverts how an existing resource, gold, is used. Not only does this civilization have a new way to use this resource, it requires other civilizations to re-evaluate their use of gold to effectively deal with that change. By altering a single thing, all sorts of wonderful new decisions are now possible. It's a new way to contextualize the mechanisms without needing to add more "things" into the game.

Having said that, the introduction of new elements can be very satisfying. Magic: The Gathering does this extremely well. Each new card released may require you to re-evaluate how you are using cards originally introduced years before. It's a nice sweet spot where players can look at new ways to play within the framework of a game, without need to learn a whole new framework.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
"Polygonia", one of Dunstan's many prototypes (image: Matthew Dunstan)

DM: What games do you have in the pipeline?

MD: Being an independent designer is a funny spot to be in sometimes. I'm never quite sure what I can talk about and what should be left to the publisher. It's also quite difficult to know what is going to happen in a post-COVID world. Some games may get lost in the shuffle...

In terms of games that have been announced, Brett and I have a game called Web of Spies due for release with Pegasus Spiele later in 2020.

It is a game at the "Spiel des Jahres" level of complexity, for want of a better description. In many ways, family games, and particularly children's games, are hard to create because they have to be intuitive and simple to understand without you being able to keep adding more stuff. This will be my first game of this type as I'm typically into more complex card combos and so on; however, this is Brett's forte.

Web of Spies is a route-building game with an evolving network of routes. How your opponents place their spies will affect the cost of your route as it's more expensive to go to a location where someone has already been. It's a game I'm very pleased with as we have distilled the essence of it into a quick to play, simple to understand format.

Oh, I nearly forgot! The Monumental expansion, African Empires, is out on Kickstarter as we speak.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Professor Evil cards (image: Antony Wyatt)

DM: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to design a board game?

MD: Enter design competitions!

Seriously, though, at the beginning of your career, it is better to finish a design than it is to make a good design. What I mean by that is that the act of finishing one game will make you a better designer than a collection of half-finished designs ever will.

Game design requires a range of skill sets. Some parts you will be great at — maybe the graphics, maybe the playtesting — but other parts will need work. That may mean you spend more time working on those areas you are not good at, or it may mean collaborating with someone who is good in those areas.

It can be extremely frustrating to have a game that doesn't work, and you can't figure out why. Finishing a game will help you identify the parts of the process that you are not very good at. At least then you will know what the problem is.

Also, try not to be constrained by what has gone before. Don't be afraid to try something wacky or that breaks the rules. Design rules are a guide to making a game, but they are not a guide to making a great game. Breaking those rules results in innovation and drives the hobby forward.
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Sun Jul 5, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Interview: Hermann Luttmann on Wargames and the Zombie Apocalypse

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
Board Game Publisher: Victory Point Games
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Tristan Hall. —WEM]

Hermann Luttmann, designer of Dawn of the Zeds and creator of the "Blind Swords" wargame system, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his game design career:

DM: Thank you for joining us, Hermann. Please can you tell us how your career began?

HL: Thanks for having me, Neil! Like most wargamers (and especially miniatures gamers), I've always dabbled in design work. I was even able to develop and playtest some games for 3W and Clash of Arms, so I had that bug way back when.

My first honest effort at getting a design published happened around 2010. I was a huge fan of VPG's line of games. Alan Emrich, the founder of VPG, and I exchanged correspondence about various games in their catalogue. Somehow, we got onto the subject of GDW's old "System 7" miniatures line, which we both loved. I happened to mention that I had designed a set of ACW miniatures rules, and we both set about discussing how we could turn them essentially into a new version of "System 7". That brought about Gettysburg: The Wheatfield and with that my career began.

After that, I designed Dawn of the Zeds because I had just played Zulus on the Ramparts!, loved it and it "dawned" on me that this system would work great for a zombie apocalypse game as well. I assumed that the idea was so obvious that Alan had such a design already in the pipeline. I was shocked that no one had thought of it and thus was born (from the undead, apparently) my second, and by far my most popular, published design.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds (Third edition)

DM: Your games cover a diverse range of topics including the two World Wars, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, zombies, and sentient space rocks. What is it about those subjects that interest you?

HL: That's admittedly a tough one. Some wargame designers get locked in on a certain topic or period of time, and I didn't want to do that. For me, there's just too much interesting military history to be discovered to allow myself to be pigeon-holed like that.

So how do I pick my subjects? Well, it could be from a movie I saw, a book I read, a game I played, or another person's suggestion. For example, Stonewall's Sword came from a terrific post on the Obscure Battles blog by Jeff Berry about the Battle of Cedar Mountain. I knew nothing about the battle, but that article was so compelling that I just had to do a game design on it.

My interest in the Franco-Prussian War started when I played Rob Markham's Blood and Iron game by 3W. It made me realize that the fighting tactics and equipment of the two armies were so different that it had to be further explored in a game.

Invaders From Dimension X was designed on a dare! Jeff McAleer from The Gaming Gang was teasing me about my love for chaos and challenged me to design a game based totally on chaos and randomness. Well, to do that I had to venture into science fiction to justify a totally chaotic enemy — and thus was born the Kay'Otz from another dimension. The other games in that series are based roughly on science fiction movies: "Them!" and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman". You take inspiration from whatever sources you can.

Crowbar! came from a long-time mental note that I made after watching the movie "The Longest Day" and being struck by the scene of the Rangers climbing the cliffs. But it was reading an article about President Reagan's speech at Normandy — the "The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc" — that brought back that mental note I had made and turned it all into a game. These ideas do come from many different sources.

Board Game: Invaders from Dimension X!

DM: Many of your games feature chit-pull as a central mechanism and you have even developed a system — Blind Swords — based upon it. What appeals to you about this mechanism and how does Blind Swords adapt it?

HL: One thing you'll never see in any of my designs is the old IGO-UGO turn order sequence. That's because, in my opinion, not only is it one of most boring mechanisms for the players themselves; it is also a highly unrealistic simulation of command decision-making (at any level).

From the player's perspective, the chit-pull mechanism keeps all players fully engaged for the entire turn by randomly activating portions of their force. There is no situation (normally) where it's Joe's turn to go and everyone else can wander off for 30 minutes while he does his moves. It keeps players at the table and paying attention.

The other thing the mechanism does is challenge players to think on their feet. There is no pre-planning the perfect chess move. Players must be prepared for the unknown and the unexpected, which is certainly a more realistic simulation of what actual field officers and soldiers need to worry about.

Players must plan contingencies and be ready for anything — the player who is the most flexible and can take advantage of a good situation or conversely minimize a bad one — and those players who can think "on the fly" are rewarded.

The Blind Swords system doubles down on that general concept by including random events within the mix of unit activation chits. By doing this, it further adds the "historical chaos" elements of actual battlefield conflict by interjecting even more opportunities and problems for the players to deal with.

These random event chits are carefully constructed so that they reflect events and conditions that could happen not only on any American Civil War battlefield, but specifically at the battle which the game is simulating.

Through this mechanism, and without all sorts of special rules conditions or scripting restrictions, players will "feel" like they are fighting an accurate historical representation of that battle. At the same time, the system also makes sure that the game flow is variable and therefore interesting and different every time it's played.

Board Game: Thunder in the Ozarks: Battle for Pea Ridge, March 1862

DM: Thunder in the Ozarks, Stonewall's Sword, The Devil's to Pay, Longstreet Attacks, and In Magnificent Style are all U.S. Civil War games. Given the similarity in historical setting, how do you differentiate the games from each other and from the large number of other games on the subject?

HL: The one that stands out in that list is In Magnificent Style. That one is an example of a design that I wanted to do because no one would be crazy enough to do it. I specifically created a design to meet a challenge of making a fun game out of a seemingly impossible situation.

It is a solitaire, push-your-luck game in which the player is the hapless Rebel force launched against the strong Union positions on Cemetery Hill during Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It sounds very boring and one-sided. However, by using push-your-luck mechanisms, where bad things are constantly happening, you may — with proper management and timing — be able to pull off a victory for the Confederates.

Stonewall's Sword, Thunder in the Ozarks, and Longstreet Attacks are all in the same series — the regimental scale ACW (American Civil War) line by Revolution Games. These all share the same system with only minor variations amongst them. The goal here is to present interesting — but not always the most popular — battles from the ACW. This allows players to study how each is different using the same core system. Again, how we construct the various Event Chits for each game and how the scenarios are structured will normally bring out the uniqueness of each battle.

The Devil's To Pay was designed to repair a weakness in the regimental-scale systems. Those systems have a practical maximum-sized battle that they can handle and still be playable. Doing all of Gettysburg at regimental scale is not within the purview of most gamers, so TDTP was designed to upscale the system and make the mechanisms a bit smoother and simpler so that players can use the Blind Swords system for larger battles and still keep them manageable.

In fact, this system is getting another upgrade with the forthcoming A Most Fearful Sacrifice by Flying Pig Games, which is a design that will encompass all three days of Gettysburg. It is designed so that players can play any of the 13 scenarios in a reasonable amount of time, many in only an hour or two.

In my opinion, what makes these games different than the bazillion other ACW games is that they remain accessible and have a different feel to them. The one comment I get all the time about the Blind Swords series is that players say the narrative is really strong. Players say that they feel like they are playing a game that actually simulates real events that could have occurred on a Civil War battlefield, and for me, that's the perfect feedback.

Board Game: Crowbar!: The Rangers at Pointe Du Hoc

DM: Many of your games are solo specific or adapt well to a solitaire player. How does the design process of a solo game differ from that of a multiplayer game?

HL: Designing a solitaire game — a good, effective solitaire game — is one of the hardest tasks a designer can undertake. I believe every designer should try to create a solo game as it is a wonderful exercise in developing and fine-tuning your design skills.

Obviously, the hardest part is crafting the AI (artificial intelligence, i.e., the "opponent") to be somewhat intelligent and not totally random. Giving the AI a realistic set of parameters and getting it to act in an unpredictable, yet logical, manner is really hard. It's especially hard to do that and not burden the game with complex mechanisms that then bog down the player.

My #1 rule for solo game design: Don't give the player so much work running the AI's turn that they spend most of their game time resolving their opponent's activation. It must be done swiftly, easily and without decision-making by the player. That's the whole purpose of having an AI in the first place. There's nothing more frustrating for a solo player than to spend 15 minutes a game doing the AI moves and also being asked to make "judgement calls" on the AI's behalf.

Solitaire games also need to be hard to win. I liken this to a good video game, the one that beats you down the first time you play it, but you have that glimmer of hope that if you just do something different, you can make progress. It keeps you coming back for more.

A good solo board game should do the same and that's why, for example, I made Dawn of the Zeds so hard to win. Well, that and the fact that it is a zombie apocalypse after all — things are supposed to go horribly wrong!

With all that in mind, yes, designing a solitaire game, or even just a solo mode for a game, is a great challenge. I've tried to incorporate all the previously mentioned aspects into my games — a somewhat intelligent AI, fast-playing AI mechanisms, and a very challenging experience — to varying degrees of success.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Sample event chits from At Any Cost (image: Neil Bunker)

DM: The Invaders from Dimension X series are small-scale games playable in one evening. At Any Cost, in its campaign scenarios, can take an entire weekend. How does designing a game at one end of that time scale compare to the other extreme?

HL: The bigger games are a ton more work than the smaller ones. That might seem obvious, but it's actually worse than you would think.

The game's subject matter usually dictates to you at what scale and size the design itself will end up being. Invaders was always meant to be a small, fun, and honestly experimental little design. On the other hand, simulating the fighting around Metz in 1870 required At Any Cost to be a campaign-level game.

One reason for that is that it was an interesting military situation that any wargamer would want to explore. The other reason is that no previous game design had even touched on the idea of focusing on a specific campaign of the Franco-Prussian War (FPW).

Most of the few other designs involving the FPW simulated it at the grand strategic level (the scale that I find the least interesting, especially for the FPW) with a few battle-level games.

To fully capture the most interesting aspects of the Metz campaign, I had to go for a large, sweeping depiction of the fighting there, and thus was born At Any Cost: Metz 1870.

This led to the most arduous and time-consuming game design I have ever done. Not only are there tons of game mechanism details, but developing the right rules and procedures for a multi-day continuous-play campaign was a real grind.

The worst of it, and this is where the large-design workload geometrically shoots ahead of smaller designs, is the challenge of getting it all properly playtested. A designer can spend months crafting a wonderfully complex game design and think they have it all down perfectly, but one never knows until it is tested by an independent group of gamers (i.e., through "blind" playtesting).

Getting that large, complex, multi-faceted game design tested properly is where things really get challenging. It is an absolute nightmare to coordinate and manage and edit an ongoing playtest group that is desperately trying to test huge scenarios efficiently and in a timely manner. That aspect of designing large games — and designing them well — is the real difference between them and the smaller designs.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
At Any Cost (image: Neil Bunker)

DM: What general challenges are faced by designers of war or historical simulation games?

Well, if you have a solid wargame and want to get it published, there are plenty of wargame publishers out there, both large and small. Granted, if this is a first design, a really obscure topic, or a very small/very large game, certain companies will fit better with those parameters than others.

There are more wargame publishers now than ever before, and if you have a good game, it will get published. However, if you're thinking you're going to become independently wealthy from this endeavor, forget about it.

The wargame market is notoriously niche. Even the biggest and baddest wargame companies you can think of pale in comparison even to an average-sized Eurogame or general audience game publisher. The challenge is not so much getting the game published but rather getting the kind of decent sales figures that will get noticed in the general gaming industry.

If you're cool with that, then you can have great success within the wargame community. For example, Dawn of the Zeds has sold more copies than all of my wargame sales added together, three times over. That includes At Any Cost, which has sold out at GMT and therefore has sold about three thousand copies.

It is a true rarity that wargames get noticed outside of our zone, but it can happen. Obviously Twilight Struggle qualifies for such notoriety, without wishing to start a debate about whether that's a wargame or not. Also, David Thompson's Undaunted Normandy has made waves in the general gaming community.

It's the success of those games that keep wargame designers hopeful that more progress and exposure can be achieved some day.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Prototype of Beware the Shades (image: Hermann Luttmann)

DM: Final question: Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

HL: Ha! Well, I've been as busy lately as I have ever been. I'm retired now, and I just joked to my girlfriend Nancy that I think I'm actually busier all day now than when I worked for a living! So, yeah, it has been hectic.

The two big games I have cooking now are indeed huge. One is a co-operative horror game called Beware The Shades! for GMT Games. It will feature four asymmetric factions that are trying to co-operate with one another as they attempt to stop a monstrous outbreak of Shades, horrific mutated beasts that were once human.

The other project, for Flying Pig Games, is the aforementioned A Most Fearful Sacrifice. It will have two huge mounted map boards, over five hundred 1" counters, activation cards, over a dozen scenarios, etc. That should be on Kickstarter in mid-2020.

I just signed a deal with Worthington Publishing to do a new, updated edition of In Magnificent Style. That should also be on Kickstarter in July 2020.

Aside from those, I have to finish Miracle at Dunkerque for Legion Wargames which has been in limbo for quite a while.

Soon I need to start working on Hell's Half Acre for Revolution Games. That is the next Blind Swords game for them and is about the Battle of Stone's River...

...the next science fiction game for Tiny Battle Publishing called Planet of the Mossmen!...

...They March Against Us (Leipzig 1813), also for Tiny Battle Publishing, which will be the first Napoleonic-era Blind Swords game...

...and a new World War I series for Worthington...

...And...I'm sure I forgot something.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Prototype of A Most Fearful Sacrifice (image: Hermann Luttmann)
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Sun Jun 28, 2020 4:19 pm
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Designer Interview: Tristan Hall on Gloom of Kilforth and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
Board Game Designer: Tristan Hall
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Tristan Hall. —WEM]

Tristan Hall, designer of the Kilforth series and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the two strands of his design career:

DM: Hi, Tristan, thank you for joining us. You have designed a number of successful games in recent years. There seems to be two distinct strands to your work: dark fantasy and historical. What is it about those two themes that appeals to you?

TH: Thank you for having me. There is no single element of media that has had more of an enduring and positive influence on me than reading The Lord of the Rings. Revisiting this again with my son as bedtime reading has made for some of the most exciting and happiest moments of my life. Sharing and passing those stories on to him has been so rewarding. If I can contribute even a morsel of that sense of fulfillment to those who play my games, either alone or with their families and friends, then I'm delighted.

Of course, there is as much heroism and brutality and hope in our actual history as there is in fantasy. Trying to refract a sense of those epic historical struggles via the prism of gaming is a joyful exercise to me. And if people happen to learn something about these iconic moments in history in the process of playing a fun game, then that too is a pleasure!

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: 1066, Tears to Many Mothers is themed around the Norman Invasion of Britain while the forthcoming 1565, St. Elmo's Pay covers the Siege of Malta. Can you tell us why those two conflicts interest you?

TH: I suppose both conflicts are personal to me, in a way. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 is something that every school kid in the UK learns about growing up. It's such a tragically romantic story it stays with you forever.

This heroic warrior king, Harold, finally saves England from centuries of Danish invasions by destroying pretty much all of the Vikings in history — there are no Viking raids again after 1066 — only to be butchered by the Normans and have his throne stolen soon after, the Normans being Viking descendants themselves, of course, and led by Duke William, one of the most powerful and villainous leaders in history. The game gives you a chance to maybe redress that balance, or repeat history all over again.

The Great Siege of Malta — "The Greatest Siege in History" — captured my imagination when we visited Malta on holiday over a decade ago. To me, this battle — which determined the entire fate of the whole of Europe and the Mediterranean, and where a tiny army of Knights repelled an utterly overwhelming Ottoman invasion — just seems criminally overlooked by modern media, especially in gaming. It would make for an amazing movie or Netflix show.

It feels like shining a torch on these darker areas of history that some people maybe don't know as much about (including me). It also gives me the opportunity to bury my head in history books and geek out.

To continue this Historic Epic Battle System series of games, I'd love to alternate between lesser-known battles like Malta and more commonly known theaters of conflict, for example, our next game in the series — 1815, Scum of the Earth — will cover Waterloo.

DM: The card illustrations in both games depict historical figures and events. How closely does the art and the game design follow the history?

TH: Every design decision and piece of art behind the games is driven by the history. Every single card in each game is based on a real person, event, tactic, or unit that took part in the battle or events leading up to it. I spent years poring through history books with a highlighter pen and developing the flavor text for every single card, trying to pare its story down into a couple of sentences.

With the art, I gave strict instructions to our artists to follow the history. I bought and posted reference books to them to draw inspiration from. Occasionally I'd question the historical veracity of the artwork and be put in my place by our artists!

For example, in 1565, St. Elmo's Pay, one of the Knights is wielding pistols in each hand. I told our artist Arek that I thought it felt a little bit too "Hollywood action movie", so I asked whether he could replace the pistols with a more historically correct arquebus. He replied by email with a photograph of the same two dueling pistols from a Maltese museum that showed that they dated back to 1565!

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Why a hand-management/collectible card game type mechanism and not a more traditional conflict simulation mechanism such as blocks, hex and counter, minis, area control?

TH: Hexes, chits, and area control are fairly typical of war games, but I've never seen a history game presented in a beautifully illustrated Magic: The Gathering style. I wanted to employ one of our greatest assets — a team of world-class artists — to reach across the line and draw people into the history who might otherwise be put off by a heavy tactical game.

To that end, I aimed to deliver a super high quality, non-collectible card game on a visual par with Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars LCG, but with detailed flavor text on every card and hundreds of unique images to help immerse players in the history of the respective battles.

Board Game: 1066, Tears To Many Mothers

DM: Does the "timeline" of the games follow the historical timeline?

TH: The timelines of the games adhere closely to the history of the battles. The players must overcome a sequential series of historical objectives. The leaders they're playing as had to overcome these obstacles in order to reach their respective battles in the first place. For example, in 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, Harold has to defeat the Vikings in the north of England before he can march down to battle the Normans at Hastings.

In 1565, St. Elmo's Pay, Mustafa Pasha must gather his forces following the meeting of the Divan and successfully land his forces on the tiny island of Malta before the Great Siege takes place.

DM: Were mechanisms developed to reflect the historical position and strengths/weakness of the opposing forces?

TH: Being card games there is a huge degree of extrapolation in representing the history. Even so, each character or unit is richly researched and rated by their comparative influence and power over their battle.

For example, Robert Mortain is listed in the Domesday Book as having brought 120 ships to the Battle of Hastings. Statistically, that makes him one of the most powerful and expensive to play cards in the game. Whereas Remigius de Fécamp brought over one ship and twenty knights from Normandy, putting him much lower in the pecking order, which is again reflected in his game stats.

The Battle of Hastings was fought over three wedges of troops — each wedge card in the game represents several thousand warriors battling for that frontier — and players are rewarded for emulating the history by maneuvering their units into their respective historical placements.

Harold fought side by side with his housecarls in the front row, so the Saxon housecarl cards have an ability that increases their might if they're placed into the front row. Similarly, Duke William kept his cavalry in the rear flank, so if placed in the rear, cavalry units in 1066 earn a bonus, too.

Ranged units can be used to fire across the battlefield on either side, family cards make their brethren cheaper to play, cowardly units are easier to rout, and so on — every game ability is designed to follow the history where possible.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Moving to your dark fantasy work, the Kilforth games appear influenced by role-playing games (RPGs). If that is the case, why create a board game rather than an RPG?

TH: Until recently my role-playing days had long since expired. I still hold extremely fond nostalgia for my teen years spent role-playing and exploring dungeons and going on magnificent adventures with my friends.I wanted to harness and explore some of those moments once again.

When I originally designed Gloom of Kilforth, every fantasy adventure board game on the market was about killing monsters, stealing treasure, and leveling up. Whilst that can be fun, for me role-playing was more about exploring ancient shrines, encountering strange people, going on epic quests, and discovering beautiful fantasy worlds, with a sprinkling of combat thrown in for good measure.

Capturing those narrative moments was one of my key motivations in designing Gloom of Kilforth. Emergent storytelling is becoming huge in board games now, but games that require you to read out huge reams of text to your sleepy-eyed friends don't engage me in the same way as games that give me the narrative hooks to create exciting and memorable stories of my own. In that respect, there is still no game that creates narratives in the same way that the Kilforth games do, which I think explains why it's going into its fourth printing.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

What are the specific design challenges involved in creating a story-driven, character-based game compared to a historical game?

The Kilforth games took much longer to develop and playtest. They are much bigger games than 1066/1565. They have many more moving parts that need to knit together smoothly. For me personally, the mechanical aspects of game design go hand in hand with world-building and character creation.

A game's story — whether that's history, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or whatever — should absolutely feed into the mechanisms. The time spent on developing the "hands" of both mechanisms and theme should dovetail accordingly.

If you want a game that's great mechanisms with little theme, look to Reinier Knizia, and if you want a cool story almost to the expense of game mechanisms, look to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; for me, the best board games are balanced in the center of those two extremes.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Your latest game is the solitaire game Veilwraith. Please tell us more about it.

TH: Veilwraith is a fantasy card game that takes place after the end of all things! It plays in 30-40 minutes and has a multiplayer variant in which each player uses their own copy of the game. There is also a campaign mode where you string together a series of adventures or "vignettes" that you must complete in order. As the eponymous Veilwraith, you literally try to piece the memory of the world back together after it's fallen into absolute destruction and ruin.

I love and play a lot of solo games — and all our games are solo friendly. However, many shorter solo games have themes or art that I don't personally enjoy, so I wanted to offer something for gamers with similar tastes to me.

I have a lot of apocalyptic dreams, and several years ago I wrote a short story about the world ending and what might come after. I combined these ideas with the world of Kilforth and what would happen if the demons won, the heroes lost, and the world was destroyed.

DM: What games do you have in development?

TH: As mentioned, the next game in the Historic Epic Battle System will be 1815, Scum of the Earth, which covers the Battle of Waterloo.

There is at least one more Kilforth game in the works, as well as the small box New Tales expansion for Shadows of Kilforth that we're Kickstarting in mid-2020.

I also have a brand-new game, a horror opus called Sublime Dark that I want to share with the world.

And there are many more to come while our backers continue to join us in exploring strange new worlds and themes.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Finally, do you have any advice for budding designers and publishers?

TH: If I had to make one point it would be this: The difference between you having your first game published and your mate who says they have an idea for a game is that you went ahead and finished what you started, so see it through to the end.

If it stops being fun and feels like a chore, take a break. Come back to it when you're feeling it again. When you play a game, you can feel how much fun the designer had making it, so ensure that you maintain your own passion for what you love throughout the process, and most of all enjoy yourself, so you know that your players will, too.
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Sat Jun 20, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Interview: Frank West, Creator of The Isle of Cats

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: Gamer FamilyMicrobadge: I love solo gaming!Microbadge: Cycling fan
Board Game Designer: Frank West
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Frank West. —WEM]

The Isle of Cats designer Frank West joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss turning a hobby into a career and making complex decisions both on and off the game table:

DM: Thank you for joining us today, Frank. Your third game, The Isle of Cats, was released to retail in March 2020 and has been a great success. Can you tell us how you got started in game design?

FW: Game design is something I have always been interested in. As a young child I enjoyed video games, often thinking of how a video game of my own would look. This interest carried on into university where I studied computer science and programming. My final university project was to create an AI for a real-time strategy game, which I spent a considerable amount of time developing. After university, I was able to work on video game projects as either a contractor or as a volunteer.

As time went by, I fell in love with modern board games. I particularly enjoy complex strategy games, and one day I had a realization that everything I had been trying to do in the video game world was more suited to board games. Projects that would take hundreds of people and a great deal of resources as a video game, I could either do myself or complete with a small team as a board game.

This led me to begin work on a hobby project that, after a long period time, got to the point where I wanted to add artwork. I wanted to turn it into a game that I could have on my shelf at home and be able show the grandkids in forty years' time.

I felt that I was enjoying the process so much and had made so much progress that I began to look at how I could turn this hobby into something much more serious. Eventually, that hobby project became The City of Kings.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: The City of Kings is a large, complex, game. Can you tell us more about how the game came together?

FW: In some ways I was lucky to have come from a video game background. Creating a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) was something that I had always wanted to do. There had even been a period where I spent around six months working full time on a game like that, so when I began creating The City of Kings, there was a stock of ideas that had been floating around.

Board Game: The City of Kings
I started to explore how video game concepts, such as open-world adventures, could be developed into a board game. How would exploration and movement work? How could character progression — a relatively simple-to-explain concept in video games — be represented physically?

These questions led to more questions: What does a quest look like? What are players going to need on that quest. Discovering the answers to these questions led on to other questions, other ideas.

I like to give an example of a three-tier creation process. There are the visuals and artwork, layered on top of the characters and story that are themselves layered on top of the mechanisms — each layer feeding into the others.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

For example, when we created the imagery for The City of Kings, we used two colors for each character: a "core" color and a "secondary" color. The character Sesharra — who is a tribal warrior, a humanoid cat-like creature that lives in the desert — had yellow as her core color, but we struggled with the secondary color. It was quite a challenge from an artistic perspective.

We thought about the character, about the traits a stealthy character like her would have. It made sense that a stealthy creature would use poison as a weapon. This allowed us to explore the use of the color green as the secondary color. Not only did this character trait of "poison" give us an additional decorative piece, it also enabled us to explore unique character abilities that could be used within the game. Everything in the character design fed into other areas of the overall game design.

Bear in mind that this was just one character. The whole game design process took around four years, initially with that hobby perspective, then on a much more full-time basis as time went by. It was a very, very, long project.

This length was partly because of the size of the game itself and partly because it was my first game. There was a lot of learning involved. When you create a game for the first time, questions you may not think of as a gamer — "How do I create a prototype?", for example — need answering. There was a more staggered approach to the project than perhaps there has been with more recent games.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Your next game was Vadoran Gardens, which is a much smaller game than The City of Kings. Are there unique challenges presented by a small game design versus a larger one?

FW: Yes, there are. With a small game like Vadoran Gardens there is a focus on the core of the game. What is the one thing that makes the game work? While this isn't true of all small games, many do have one, maybe two, mechanisms that make that game special when compared to other games in that market.

Designing larger games, with their increased number of mechanisms, becomes less focused on one special element and more about what is special about a combination of elements.

I believe it is a lot harder to create that "one special thing" needed in a small game, but once you have it, it is then much easier to finish. Once you have that "thing", creating prototypes and iterating the design is a quicker, simpler process.

For Vadoran Gardens, we could look at the design and say: "This specific mechanism needs streamlining." In The City of Kings, it was more a case of: "This one area needs...something."

DM: Scale isn't the only noticeable difference between The City of Kings and Vadoran Gardens. Do they have more in common than it would seem at first glance?

FW: One of the things that people seem to find interesting about me as a designer is that I don't design "similar" games. Game designers tend to become known for creating certain types of games, and my games have the appearance of going against that trend.

Board Game: Vadoran Gardens
However, Vadoran Gardens, The Isle of Cats and The City of Kings have more in common than they seem to at first. I am interested in trying new and different ideas, but each of my games has a puzzle at its core — different types of puzzle, different ends of the puzzle spectrum, but that puzzle element is what ties the three together.

This stems from my enjoyment of thinking things through. I hate to use the phrase, but I am a big "Euro Gamer". I play a lot of heavy, thinky, themeless, cube-based games. The City of Kings and Vadoran Gardens were both my attempt at creating that type of thinky game inside a much more thematic package. I wanted to create visuals and stories as opposed to a spreadsheet with cubes.

Although The Isle of Cats was aimed at a wider audience, it took what I learned from the earlier games in terms of creating a deep, complex puzzle. Those lessons helped create a game that is, I believe, relatively easy to learn but hard to master.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: The Isle of Cats is a more complex game than it first appears. How do you layer that many moving parts into an accessible format?

FW: The Isle of Cats was designed to be an accessible medium-weight game — approachable, but with a nice degree of high-level complexity. Hence the family version that was included for the younger and more infrequent game-playing audience.

But it is a balance and, as with many things, it's a fine balance. While many mechanisms came and went, from day one I knew that I wanted The Isle of Cats to be a polyomino and drafting game. They were the two core things that I wanted in there.

The reason behind the drafting mechanism was that I like the concept of drafting potential scoring opportunities versus the things you need to do to achieve those opportunities.

The "basket" cards used to determine the number of cats a player can rescue are part of this draft. However, in a previous iteration the draft involved more of a blind-bidding system. It was in the game because it felt like the right mechanism, then a playtester commented: "I like the game and I like the idea, but I'm not enjoying this because I hate blind bidding." And I realized...I do, too!

So I took out the bidding and began to explore the idea of paying for cards and the optimal way to do this within the game. The fish tokens act as resources in the standard version, but they are not present in the family version. The fish add a level of economy and resource management that blends well with the drafting and the overall game balance, but this does represent a lot of additional complexity. The decisions are that much harder. There is a need to weigh how much to spend on one thing versus another, and this is a different mindset to that needed for the family game.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: What effect has the popularity of The Isle of Cats had on you?

FW: It has been a phenomenal success, and it's still climbing and racing beyond anything we expected. Surprisingly, it is a strange and quite challenging situation to be in.

I haven't created a game that has been anywhere near this successful before. This makes it hard to make estimates of how "normal" this is. I publish my own games, and distributors have told me that perhaps five games a year see this level of demand.

Board Game: The Isle of Cats
I'm quite literal in the sense that if we sell X many copies, we can cover the bills and have enough money left over to make another game. Fantastic — it's been a great success! But I'm now receiving emails from distributors saying that their 5,000-copy order needs to be increased. We have already printed over 50,000 copies and are beginning the fourth print run.

I'm looking at the calendar thinking, "It's June 1, and the game was released to retail on March 17. Two months into its life cycle, we are printing tens of thousands of extra copies." I'm not sure how to interpret this information. Should I be very happy, should I take it with a grain of salt? I have no experience in this area, so I'm having to learn as I go.

It's also where a significant element of risk comes in. If I order 10,000 extra games and don't sell them, in monetary terms, that's hundreds of thousands that I may lose.

I recall reading a blog post from Jamey Stegmaier about how he struggled to keep up with the demand for Wingspan and how he received comments saying: "Why didn't he predict the demand?" I feel like I understand where he was at now. I'm printing games in numbers that are multiple times higher than anything I would have previously considered, and it is still not enough.

I enjoy the business side of publishing games; however, it can be quite challenging. In a game, you can lose thousands of dollars and think, "Oh well". In the real world, I'm now having conversations with my partner about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to print more games, and if the games don't sell, we will have to sell our house. That's a complex decision to make.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Shared universes are increasingly common. All three games have been part of the same "City of Kings" universe. What is the appeal of creating games within such a system?

FW: So often when we are introduced to a fictional creation, it is at one point, in one state. I find it fascinating as a designer to be able to explore new directions with existing characters or visit places at different points in time. What was this creation like in the past? What was happening five years earlier or five hundred years later?

The main benefit is that a shared universe creates infinite possibilities. When I was first designing The Isle of Cats, there was no theme other than this concept of buying cats and putting them into a house.

I was uncomfortable with this for two reasons. First, I don't like the idea of "buying" cats. Second, most polyomino games at the time used square or rectangular boards. It is easy to put pieces on those shapes, and I wanted to experiment with a different shape.

Setting The Isle of Cats in the City of Kings universe allowed me to think more about why we were collecting cats, about what the story behind it would be.

In The City of Kings, there is an evil being destroying things, and I was more comfortable with the idea of rescuing the cats from this being. This concept led to the idea of an island and rescue boats and their naturally irregular shape. Within around ten minutes, this all fell into place thanks to the pre-existing City of Kings universe. Without the universe, the game would have probably had a more generic, bland theme.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Do you have any advice for new designers and publishers?

FW: I would suggest starting now. Get the prototype made and start playtesting. It is so easy to spend a lot of time not doing that.

When I first made The City of Kings, the only playtester for a year or more was my partner. It was never ready to playtest formally because this wasn't done or that wasn't finished. We wanted it to be finished before we showed anyone else. We didn't want to show it to someone and have them say, "That's rubbish."

Now I will playtest games that I began working on that morning. I'll have a concept that I like, so I ask people to meet for a playtest to see where it organically goes. It is much quicker to get to a point where you'll be able to see whether the game works. Often playtesters will give suggestions that will improve the game.

Unfortunately, too many people delay taking that step because they are afraid of the outcome. Getting a design in front of people early is a good idea. I can't emphasize that enough.
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Sat Jun 13, 2020 3:00 pm
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Designer Interview: Julian Courtland-Smith, creator of Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Board Game: Survive: Escape from Atlantis!
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]

Survive: Escape from Atlantis! designer Julian Courtland-Smith joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable forty-year career designing board games:

DM: Hi, Julian, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us how you got started in game design?

JCS: When I was a child I loved playing board games. After I left school, I went into catering. Didn't care for it so went on to art college. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, probably architecture. In 1965, whilst I was making up my mind as to what direction to go in, I read an article in a magazine about games. It was by Waddingtons, publicizing their new product Mine A Million. That was the moment I thought I can do that and become rich and famous! Ha! Easier said than done!

My first design was a world domination game, akin to Risk. Looking back, it was rubbish. Well, you have to start somewhere. I worked in retail management and spent my nights and weekends inventing numerous games. However, it was 17 years before I had a game accepted.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
An early press photo

DM: Survive: Escape from Atlantis! is your most well-known game. Where did you draw inspiration for the game from?

JCS: After I'd invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs I was looking around for another strong theme when I chanced upon a row of books in my local library all about the island of Atlantis. These inspired me to devise a game with a sinking island.

DM: Can you elaborate on the design process?

JCS: My first attempts at devising "Escape from Atlantis" didn't really work as I drew the island on the board. During play, the island was slowly covered by sea tiles to effect sinking. When tokens were moved across these tiles, they all shifted and knocked down other meeples like men in boats. It was two years later before it dawned on me to change the sea tiles to land tiles. That way the island could be removed piece by piece from the board during play to simulate it sinking. I called the game "Escape from Atlantis" as the title summed up the game's objective.

DM: How did you get "Escape from Atlantis" to market?

JCS: I took my 2D prototype to Graeme Levin, owner of Games & Puzzles magazine. He became my agent and showed it to Parker Brothers. They liked it and made it their lead game in 1982 in America. They changed the name to Survive! and altered the game in a number of ways. It was advertised coast to coast in the States and sold very well. At the time Survive! was selling 14,000 copies a week compared to Monopoly's 12,000.

Unfortunately, computer games came out and the winter of '83 saw a massive 80% drop in the board game industry as people were buying the new computer games. Board games bounced back a couple of years later but never recovered their dominance in the market. Parker Brothers dropped the game, and it dragged on until closeout a few years later. In 1986 Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was launched in the UK. It did very well, coming in at #2 to Trivial Pursuit in the bestsellers list. I remember saying it would never catch on. What do I know!

Waddingtons phoned and asked if I had another 3D game. I confidently said yes! I had two weeks to turn Survive! (2D) into a 3D game. I remember sawing up a wooden hoe handle to make the island's land-tiles. Waddingtons launched their 3D version of Survive! and agreed to call it Escape from Atlantis!

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
An early photo of Survive!

DM: Survive! has been an incredible success and is still available 38 years after its original release. What do you attribute this success to?

JCS: When Survive! was launched there was nothing like it on the market. Starting off in the mass market gave it great impetus. The turbulent years of the 1980s/90s when companies were either going under or being taken over meant I was constantly taking my prototypes from one company or another. I knew to be financially successful that I needed a major manufacturer to market the game, hence I only dealt with the top five companies in the world. I had many offers from smaller companies but decided to hold out for the big one. When Hasbro took over Waddingtons in the 1990s, I submitted my game to them and they relaunched Escape from Atlantis into Europe in 1996 under the Waddingtons brand.

The game ran until 2002 and was off the market for a number of years. Meanwhile, Survive! reached #1 in the secondhand board game market. Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games in the USA was looking to relaunch popular retro games. He saw copies of Survive! trading on eBay for up to $100. He thought if there was that much demand for this game secondhand, perhaps there's a market for a new product. He became my new agent, and in April 2010 announced that Stronghold Games would be reprinting a new version of the game called Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

Board Game: Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

The game was launched on October 10, 2010. In June 2012, Stronghold Games relaunched a new edition, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! – 30th Anniversary Edition, which is still on sale today. It included refreshed artwork and a slightly revised theme. Simultaneously, French publisher Asmodee licensed the EU languages and launched The Island, which is the same game as Stronghold's version but with a rebranded name for EU trademark purposes only.

Yes, my game has done the rounds with a lot of publishers. End of the day, it's the public who decide. I'm pleased and grateful that games players today enjoy playing Survive! I get messages from fans who say they enjoyed the game in their childhood and are now playing it with their children and grandchildren. I'm pleased Survive! has lived up to its name.

DM: What influence do you think the success of Survive! has had on the games industry?

JCS: Games evolve just as art, music and literature do. Each new artist, author, or designer is influenced by preceding works. Good games, popular games have always been copied.

There are a number of games out there which appear to be influenced by Survive! Catan (1995) comes to mind as does Forbidden Island (2010). I think the biggest change Survive! brought to the market was hexagonal spaces on the board, thus allowing tokens more efficient movement. Before then, you saw hexagonal spaces only in war games.

Prior to my games, there were countless Monopoly-style variants where you commenced play from one corner and went round the edge of the board or track rolling dice. This trend had continued from Victorian days. I wanted to break out of that niche and use the whole board in play.

I do believe the same level success can be repeated despite market saturation that has occurred following the advent of Kickstarter. Survive! has remained successful because the play mechanism hasn't dated. Being the first such game, this style of board game has endured. Someone will come along one day with fresh ideas and usurp the market, then we'll see a whole new trend emerge.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
A cover star in 1986

DM: Did the success of Survive! change your life?

JCS: Guess so. It was literally a rags-to-riches story. Prior to the success of Survive!, I was broke and unemployed, scratching a living doing odd jobs, but I persisted with my dream. Following the success of Survive!, I became a full-time designer and moved with my family from a three-bedroom council house to our five-bedroom country house. Whilst there, Waddingtons launched Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs, followed by Escape from Atlantis. The government wanted to tax me at 60% which was crippling, so we emigrated to Eire. We stayed there awhile, and in 1987 moved to the beautiful Isle of Man.

DM: You designed Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs before Escape from Atlantis. Can you tell us more about that game?

JCS: I invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs in 1979. I got the idea whilst standing on a London Underground station waiting for a train. On the wall was a poster advertising a dinosaur exhibition at the Natural History Museum. That was my eureka moment. I thought great idea for a game! I was highly influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World.

Inspired, it took me just two weeks to invent the game, six weeks to write the rules, and six years to get it to market. Before Waddingtons took the game I approached a number of manufacturers. I remember a Dutch company turning it down as it was "racist". At that time the men in the jungle were represented by small black Halma pieces, so I changed them to small white Halma pieces and called them Incas. Initially, the pteranodon in the game was a picture on a card. One day, I chanced upon a retailer selling small plastic pteranodons. I introduced that to the game as a playing piece. Waddingtons turned this bird into a moving toy, and it became a big hit with the kids.

Board Game: Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs

DM: How was the design process for Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs different from that of Survive!?

JCS: I was six years trying to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs. During that time the game was extensively playtested by my family and friends until it worked perfectly. There was no pressure back then to deliver another game as games contracts were always one-offs, unlike books. When new authors get their first book launched they will normally sign a contract to produce more. With games you're only as good as your last but your reputation does get you interviews.

Games manufacturers of old retained artistic control. You were lucky if you got your name on the box! The first print runs of Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis, which were 25,000 copies, did not give me any accreditation, even though it was written into my contract. Later, after a fuss, they agreed to mention me in the rules. Companies would, if they so chose, alter the rules or change components. The swirler dice in the Waddingtons Escape from Atlantis game was included by them, but to be fair, it proved popular with children.

By and large, Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis didn't differ too much from my prototype, but Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was radically altered. I was trying to break with tradition and designed the game with no dice. Waddingtons decided to include dice as they reasoned children like to roll dice. They also made a number of other changes, which is why I always say Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs is their version of my game.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Are there plans for a Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs re-release?

JCS: I have been approached many times over the years by companies wanting to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs (LVD). In 1987 I divorced. My wife and I agreed to split ownership of all the games I'd devised during marriage. Hence, she retains copyright to LVD whilst I own EFA. My ex-wife has indicated that she would be open to offers, but that she wants the game marketed as it was originally designed.

Publishers always want to input their creativity which can be an improvement or not. As I said, Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was nothing like the original. I tend to agree with her. Had LVD been marketed as invented, I believe it would still be around today as in its original form, it's better suited to the hobby gaming market.

DM: What other games have you designed, and do you have plans to release any others?

JCS: Too many to list here. I've designed well over fifty games to date.

I did produce a third game in my adventure trilogy called "Mammoth Mountain". The game has a strong theme which includes prehistoric animals of the period like woolly mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, and so on. The game involves armed conflict between tribes fighting for survival whilst the world is slowly freezing over. When I presented it to Waddingtons, the games industry was in turmoil. Waddingtons were facing extinction therefore weren't prepared to launch "Mammoth Mountain" or any other games.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
"Mammoth Mountain" prototype

In the intervening years I devised a number of products, including a debating game called "Controversy". I was turned down because it was considered too controversial.

Late 90's, I devised a range of 3D hand-held magnetic puzzles. Hasbro turned them down due to production costs. The magnets in my design precede today's neodymium magnets! Had I been able to acquire cheaper components, I believe they would have got to market.

When I took Escape from Atlantis to Waddingtons, I also produced a space theme of the game in case they preferred that. Years later Stronghold Games told me they were interested in marketing a space version of Survive! It was "re-imagined" by American designers Brian, Sydney and Geoff Engelstein and called Survive: Space Attack! I had very little input into the product; any co-developing by me was done via Stronghold Games CEO, Stephen Buonocore.

Board Game: Survive: Space Attack!

In recent times I have invented games for a younger market, for example, "Diamond Quest", a ludo-style game based in India of old which is enjoyed by my grandchildren.

Regards Survive!, a new Japanese version of the game was launched in 2020 and is doing well. Also, there are plans in the pipeline for another version of Survive!, hopefully in 2021. Watch this space!

DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?

JCS: Start with a good, strong theme. Once you have that, try to match the theme with a major mechanism as in the island of Atlantis sinking in Survive! From there have some rough ideas about minor mechanisms like meeple movement, die rolls, cards.

Maths must come into the game straight away. How many players? How many spaces on the board? How many tokens, cards, etc. All these need to "balance" so that play runs smoothly. Size of spaces and tokens is important. Make your game appeal to as wide an age group as you can. The greater the age group, the wider the audience, the bigger the market. 8-80 is perfect.

Make rules concise, to the point. Easy to read. Don't make the game difficult to play. It's easy to add a new rule to solve a problem in play. Much better to concentrate on getting the game play working smoothly.

The days of games lasting all day and night, like Risk, are long gone. Time each player's move, ideally making the game last up to an hour and a half. Try to build into the game a natural ending. Last, but not least, playtest, playtest and playtest. To give you an idea, Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was playtested over two hundred times.

Finally, can you think of a new way of playing a game? Hard ask I know, but try to break out of the mold. Break with tradition, start a new trend and with luck your game will be around for the next fifty years!
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Fri May 29, 2020 6:08 pm
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