Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in June 2021. —WEM
This month, Peter Hazlewood, founder of Board Game Hub, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss the ups-and-downs of being an independent board game publisher. All photos provided by Peter Hazlewood except where noted.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Peter. You are the owner of UK-based independent board game publisher Board Game Hub. Can you tell us about yourself, and how you got started in the games industry?
PH: Hi, Neil. Thanks for taking the time to interview me. I got into modern board games in 2013 thanks to a great guy from my church called Neil. I caught the bug very heavily, and it wasn't long before I was starting a local gaming group, then an annual gaming event in Worcestershire.
A few years down the line, another friend and I were discussing one day how we should start our own board game company. It would be called Board Game Hub and a place for people to find out about (and potentially buy) games from independent publishers. I worked on this venture but eventually came to realize that the concept was too big for just one person — my business partner had left to start a racing team — and the kind of funds needed to successfully launch an online retail business were beyond what I had available.
But in the meantime I'd stumbled upon a fairly obvious idea: that I could also publish games myself. And that's how I came to run my own little publishing company.
DM: Board Game Hub's most well-known project to date is Tranquility, which was a successful Kickstarter release. Please tell us about the design and development of that game?
PH: Yes indeed, and it was our first game! I'm friends with Richard Denning, game designer, game publisher (Medusa Games), and director of the UK Games Expo, and he very kindly offered me a place at the designer-publisher speed dating event at UKGE 2019. It's an incredible event in which a huge room is filled with tables of designers pitching their games to an equal number of publishers and rotating one-by-one. Every publisher sees every designer and the hope is that some of these designs will get picked up by publishers at the event.
I met James Emmerson who pitched his game, then called "Hush", which was a co-operative game played in silence about completing a grid of numbers. He sent me a prototype, and I felt the game had great appeal. After he decided that we were a good fit, he signed a contract with me to publish his game and the rest, as they say, is history.
The game was pretty fully formed by the time I saw it, so the amount of development from me wasn't excessive. James would be able to tell you more about the overall design concept, but it came out of him messing around with a copy of 6 nimmt!. My job was then more about taking the prototype and turning it into a viable product. The "tranquility" theme came out of Tristam (Rossin)'s artwork. I gave him some ideas and broad guidelines, then let him get to work, and thus the floating islands came into being. We themed the game around the sea, honed and refined the mini-expansions to the best they could be (and in keeping with the theme) and thus we had our game ready for Kickstarter.Image: Antony Wyatt
DM: How important did you find non-game elements — the art, marketing, social media, etc. — to the success of Tranquility?
PH: The artwork was huge in terms of putting Tranquility on the map, as it were. As a first-time creator, you have to earn the trust of backers by showing them a high-quality product. It's the only way to attract support when you don't have previous successes to point to. As such, the feedback we got for Tristam's artwork was both immediate and overwhelmingly positive. He'd post an image on Facebook that he was working on and phrases such as "insta-back" would come in. I'll tell you that's music to a publisher's ears!
As for marketing and social media, these aren't things that come naturally to me. I prefer for the qualities of a person or product to do the talking rather than it boiling down to whoever shouts the loudest. That being said, I'm not so naïve that I thought we could succeed without marketing, so I set about trying to grow awareness of the game, and Board Game Hub in general, by demoing at conventions and working with specific reviewers whose work I enjoy to help show the nature of the game in a natural and enjoyable way. These efforts undoubtedly played their part in achieving the level of success that we did.
DM: Other publishers have commented that once their Kickstarter campaign was over, the "real work" began. Did you find this to be the case also?
PH: This is a curious one, and for me I feel it would entirely depend on the game and campaign in question. For Tranquility, fulfillment aside, I'd say the bulk of the work was before and during the Kickstarter campaign. These days you can't expect to go to Kickstarter with a raw concept and gain a whole lot of funding. We worked hard making sure the design was rock solid as well as planning for the campaign process and what would happen post-campaign. Aside from adding in some promo cards with new artwork developed during the campaign, we didn't touch the game after the campaign. Everything was ready.
I'm not keen on publishers going to Kickstarter with an incomplete product. It's not fair on backers to expect them to stump up money for a game that isn't even finished yet, and how can a customer judge the quality and pricing for such a game? The other big problem with this kind of approach is that game development takes a long time — or it should — to ensure balance, find issues, and judge the overall gameplay over a period of time with different audiences. If the publisher does their job properly and the gameplay is as it should be, this is going to take time and therefore the project takes even longer to fulfill. Everything should come back to the customer. Don't ask them to back an incomplete game, and don't expect them to be happy to wait countless months or years after the campaign to finish the game when, in my opinion, this should be largely ready by the time the campaign begins.
Of course, there is plenty to do after a campaign has finished, but in my experience the hard yards should largely be completed beforehand.Image: Antony Wyatt
DM: What did you learn from your early Kickstarter campaigns that you wish you had known at the start? Is there anything you would do differently?
PH: Good question, and probably the honest (and unhelpfully broad) answer is that we learned masses during and after the Kickstarter campaign. I'm still learning things most weeks about publishing, game design, shipping, manufacturing, etc. The biggest mistake was assuming that I'd be able to easily handle the fulfillment of the project. To be fair, I suspect it's quite rare for a first-time project to get 2,400+ backers, but it was undeniably a mistake not to outsource it. We also under-charged; my priority was to offer the best quality product I could at the most reasonable price, but the shipping turned out to be more expensive than expected.
While I still aim to provide great value games, the lesson has been learned that we actually have to make some profit in future campaigns because otherwise there's no viable business there.
DM: The next Board Game Hub release is Tranquility: The Ascent. Can you tell us more about that game? How does it differ from the original Tranquility game?
PH: Tranquility: The Ascent takes certain core elements from Tranquility — it's a non-communication co-op for 1-5 players that involves completing a grid of numbers — but the gameplay is really quite different. With Tranquility, you had a 6×6 grid to work with and that meant that, in theory, players could play anywhere on their turn. The Ascent is much more restrictive, though in a pleasing way. The theme this time around is about climbing a mountain. As such, the players have to ascend slowly from the base of the mountain and can play only in specific locations. This generally results in players being faced with more compelling choices pretty much every turn.
Tranquility: The Ascent also adds in a major new feature, which is essentially three suits of cards. Each row is considered a separate entity from the others, but within those rows, you may not play cards of the same suit next to each other. It's another added restriction that forces the players to constantly adapt to the game in front of them but which allows them to make good tactical plays and keeps the game very fresh. You also no longer have the set formation in which players fill the grid from the lowest point to the highest. Rows can start with high numbers or low numbers, and it's irrelevant what has been played above or below.
The mountain develops very differently from game to game, and it's extremely pleasing to see the players battling against the game trying to ascend to the summit when it keeps throwing different challenges at them. In summary, on paper Tranquility: The Ascent may sound very similar to Tranquility, but the truth of the matter is that the overall experience is completely different. Indeed, Rahdo featured The Ascent in his May 2021 round-up, and his take was that the game is plenty different enough to justify owning both, and that he prefers The Ascent to the original!
DM: Various releases feature limited communication in a co-operative game. From a publisher's POV, at what point do you consider a mechanic to be over-saturating the market? How does Tranquility: The Ascent overcome this familiarity?
PH: That's an interesting question and a tough one to answer categorically. I can only answer this from my perspective and others may feel differently. Over-saturation is definitely a concern that I have considered before. We invited game design submissions on our website for a good while, and one of the primary reasons that I might turn down a game would be because I can't see anything new in it.
It's exceptionally difficult and very rare to come up with a brand new concept in board games, but what happened after everyone had played Dominion, credited with pioneering deck-building as an entire genre? Game designers and publishers went to work to explore this mechanism, refine it, combine it with other mechanisms in new ways, apply it to different styles of games, and ultimately create new gaming experiences that diverged a long way from the original inspiration.
Do we consider that the board game market is over-saturated with deck-builders or worker placement or area control? Can we say that there are definitely enough games now that feature farming or fighting or zombies or trains and, therefore, that there should never be any new games with those themes? Arguably, each person can decide that only for themselves. It's my job to publish games that are fun and engaging, and it's up to the customer to decide if they want to buy it. I don't think we've hit the saturation point for limited communication co-ops until publishers start releasing games that fail to provide anything new. I can rest easy in my mind that Tranquility: The Ascent feels like a very different game to Tranquility and indeed any other limited communication co-ops that I'm aware of; it's up to the gaming public to decide if they wish to buy it.
DM: Board game publishing is highly competitive. How do you stand out as a small independent publisher?
PH: I think if I knew the answer to this question, then Board Game Hub would a lot more successful by now! It does feel competitive and challenging to make yourself stand out. Small publishers don't have the marketing budgets that the major companies have access to — this was one of the reasons behind the idea of Board Game Hub, to provide a platform for those companies whose work we believed in to reach more customers — so you have to try to stand out in other ways. Some companies set their stall out to blow away customers by the quality or volume of components; others release games or products that are in a niche of their own; others have a specific target audience that they go after.
We're still finding our way at Board Game Hub, but there's one thing that we're consistently aiming for: high quality across the board (pun not intended!). That's high quality gameplay, high quality (but appropriate) components and artwork, and the best customer experience we can provide. I believe that if we achieve this simple (though demanding) aim, then eventually Board Game Hub will gain recognition for how we go about things.
DM: Despite the success of the Tranquility series, Board Game Hub has faced challenges. Can you tell us more about those?
PH: I've touched upon one issue that we encountered during the Tranquility campaign, that of the cost of shipping out orders going way over budget. Our profit margins were thin as it was, and those extra costs meant that we basically didn't make any money from the campaign. This obviously isn't viable in the long-term, and it meant that despite gaining a lot of backers and good will, the finances of the company didn't come out of it very strong.
Tessera, our third game, on Kickstarter in November 2020 with complete confidence in the game, but it failed to gain any momentum. There are several things we would've done differently, but it does feel like not being able to promote the game at conventions affected us badly.
With the campaign for Tranquility: The Ascent, we're in the process of trying to rebuild. If it's successful, then we're getting back on track. If the campaign really takes off then that should guarantee our short- to midterm future and it'll allow us to make more concrete plans for the multiple projects that we're currently working on and are excited to get in front of the gaming public once more.
DM: If you could offer advice to anyone wanting to start their own publishing company what would it be?
PH: I think I have to break this down into a few different answers. First, it's tough going it alone. I recommend finding someone to work with who provides different skills and expertise to you because there's an awful lot of different roles that a publisher has to fill. Second, have a clear goal in mind. Work out what you want to achieve, then plan how to make it happen. Third, I'd say don't be afraid to ask for advice or help. Speak to other publishers to gain the benefit of their experience; talk to designers to find out their perspective on the publishing process and game design.
Also, do your research. Many games are released every year, and there's little point in developing a game that's already been done. Find out what's out there, and this will help you identify what you could do differently or better.
Note from NB: The Kickstarter for Tranquility: The Ascent launches on June 28, 2021.
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Archive for Neil Bunker
26 Jun 2021
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Interview: David Digby, solo mode designer and developer for Undaunted: Reinforcements, Merv, Waggle Dance and many more.
12 Jun 2021
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in May 2021. —WEM
In this month's Diagonal Move interview, we take a look behind the scenes of board game development with solo mode designer and developer, David Digby.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, David. In recent years, you have developed a growing reputation as a designer of solo modes for games such as Dice Theme Park, Chocolate Factory, and Undaunted. However, you are also involved in the "background" of the board game industry as a developer and rule book editor. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you first became involved in the industry?
DD: Hey there, I'm David Digby, a board game designer and developer based in Essex in the UK. Outside of games, I work in theater as a technical manager, coach cricket, and play golf. Clichéd as it sounds, I've been playing games since childhood; my Mum was a keen board gamer and I took up the mantle. Typical story of family games, D&D, and Magic until I discovered there was a lot more out there at university. When I stopped playing cricket three years ago, I decided to get back into board games properly, joined Facebook groups and local clubs, and the rest, they say, is history.
DM: A rulebook editor is surely one of the unsung heroes of the industry. Can you describe the role in more detail, and what makes a good rulebook from your point of view?
DD: I was incredibly lucky to learn under Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules! I started just proofreading, then Paul started to ask me to edit rulebooks under his supervision, and then on my own. Paul is one of the best in the business, and I try my best to follow his methods and systems in the work I do now.
Most rulebooks follow a similar structure, and I've learnt the types of games I can do a good job of. Good rulebooks teach you the game and allow you to find things once you're playing. Sounds simple, and it really isn't. We start with the designer's rulebook as a Google Doc, hack it about, rewrite a lot of it, then it goes to a graphic designer for a layout PDF, then we go through it all with a fine-tooth comb, adding images and examples, etc. It can easily take 10-20 hours for the small-medium sized games I do.
DM: You have been a "developer" on games such as Villagers and Waggle Dance. Game developer is a far less high-profile role than game designer despite some similarities in function. How do the designer/developer roles differ?
DD: There are many definitions, and it very much depends on what the relationship is like between the designer, the publisher, and the developer. Generally speaking, as a developer I'm hired by the publisher to playtest and tweak an existing design to take it from whatever state the designer got it to to something that the publisher can produce. A developer will often change small elements of a game without making big changes to the core feel. Sometimes the designer produces only a cool idea, and the development work is very involved.
DM: How does game development differ from playtesting? Can you walk us through the development process for one of the projects you have been involved in as a developer compared to one where your involvement has been limited to that of a playtester?
DD: A playtester plays the game, often multiple times, to produce results and give opinions. The developer runs the playtesting process — collecting all the info and deciding what merits thinking about and what doesn't — and suggests changes to improve the game based on the playtesters' feedback. Development involves a lot of playtesting, particularly early on, and later involves it much more analysis and fine tuning.
A lot of the work I do for Dávid Turczi is playtesting. I'll play the solo mode a bunch of times and give feedback on what worked, what didn't, what was fun, how many points were scored how etc. Perseverance was a good example of that as I played that quite a lot, and my nagging won through in the end when Episode 2 got changed to asymmetrical AI opponents, but I didn't do much of the design work with that one.
Something like Merv for Osprey Games was more of a development job as I played the game a few times, then sent in a few small changes that I felt would improve the solo experience. I then played those changes with a few adjustments and that's what we went with. Like a lot of solo games, though, I must have got too good at it as a lot of people have struggled to win it since it came out.
DM: Gaming during the coronavirus pandemic has seen a growing focus on solitaire modes, digital versions, and online interaction. How has this altered the game design and development process in terms of both games scheduled for development and the process itself?
DD: Almost all of my work has moved onto Tabletop Simulator. Since March 2020, I have logged almost 1,800 hours on Tabletop Simulator! A large crop of online testing groups have sprung up; I moderate one of them, and they have built great communities for playtesting, but it's not without its challenges. Luckily I have a few friends who enjoy testing and don't mind playing the same things a lot.
Having previously had only my own Facebook page, I now run a Discord server which organizes all my testing and development. There's just short of one hundred people on it now, which is great. It can be really tough, though. Games are meant to be social experiences, and solo modes can make a nice change but spending all day (and I mean all day as my days are often 12-15 hours) on TTS can be very draining. I'm not that computer smart, but I can make my own mods, limited more by my infamously terrible graphic design, and it's the go-to for almost everyone now.
I think solo has been on the climb for some time, and hopefully it doesn't slow down anytime soon. Publishers are making more of an effort; more designers and developers are learning the skills; and players are still able to connect through social media.
It will be great to get back to in-person testing for a lot of games, but the way we work has changed forever.
DM: You have a growing list of solo mode credits to your name. What qualities do you feel a great solo game needs?
DD: I identify solo games into three categories: puzzle, challenge, and opponent. However, I see these as a Venn diagram with a lot of overlap. Only rarely does a design fall entirely into one category. Puzzles have a single solution that the player is tasked with finding. Challenges give the player a framework to see how well they can do. Opponents simulate another player or two that you need to beat. Designing the right solo mode for the right game is really key.
Undaunted obviously has to be an opponent. It is a very strong two-player experience with a lot of interaction, which is perfect for building an AI or bot or Automa. Chocolate Factory or Dice Theme Park are low interaction and the fun of the game is in what you do entirely independent from other players, so they require a more challenge style. I like operating in the grey areas or the overlaps between the categories as I see them. Whatever it takes to bring the best out in the game for the solo player.
DM: When designing a solo mode as opposed to a dedicated solitaire game, what process do you follow for recreating the multiplayer experience?
DD: I've never tried a solo-only game, so I'm not much use in comparing the two, but I imagine a lot of things are very similar. I did mentor someone who was designing a solo-only design and found a lot of the principals I use still apply. First thing I do is play the game a few times at two-player. Work out how strong that is, find the really important bits of interaction, and work out how to best abstract stuff out. It's a fine balance — you want most of the fun to be on the player's turn, which means simplifying things for the bot so you don't have lots of complex stuff to do is key. But abstract too much and it doesn't feel right. It's about finding the right bits to do and not do.
Dávid Turczi is the master of this; some games he can do after less than one play, which is bewilderingly impressive. It takes me a lot longer! Working with him on Undaunted was great. When I came on board, he had already built a core system based on a few scenarios. We talk a lot about flow charts in solo design; the more spatial or tactical a game, the more flowcharts you need, and Undaunted was a lot of little flow charts. If this is true, do this. If not do this, and so on. My job was to design all the little flow charts for all the troops in all the scenarios. I think there's around 36 scenarios, two sides in each, and on average around six troop types. That's around 432 flow charts to work out and test! Now a lot of them are the same, but getting them all right was really important. There's some pretty good fan-made solo modes out there, but because they don't change regardless of the scenarios, they aren't as smart or as accurate as the ones we created.
I played each scenario at least four times to get the instructions right, and some were harder than others. Spurred on by Anthony, a developer at Osprey, and Dávid saying that I didn't need to do them all from both sides if it was too hard, I finally cracked them all. Anthony then did an incredible job of fitting all my notes onto a card-based system, and the Undaunted solo was born.
There are never any shortcuts in solo design — you have to play the game a lot. Most of the time that means finding lots of testers, but on this one it was just me. Credit to Osprey for investing that heavily in the solo mode!
DM: In addition to the development and solo-mode design roles, you are working on several original designs. Can you tell us more about these?
DD: I can, but if any get published is a different question! I have absolutely no intention of self publishing anything ever, so I'm very reliant on a publisher picking up my designs. I am working on a few things directly for publishers, which I'm hopeful for, but it means I can't talk about them!
"The Seven Dwarves" was my first design, and I still enjoy playing it. It was popular at UK cons, but there's a few things stopping it being publishable right now. I've just re-themed my multi-use card drafting game to be about social media, so perhaps that'll give it a new lease of life. I've agreed to bring some co-designers in on some ideas, like "Rock Band", a real-time co-op, and "Theatre Land", a tableau builder, to try to take them to the next level. I think my gateway-plus "Octopus" game deserves to get made; it's about finding the right market for it. I have a design inspired by my work with Martin Wallace that's been going well, but that's quite early. There's a handful on my drawing board, too, but it's all too easy to get waylaid with development or solo design work.
DM: Can you tell us more about some of the forthcoming projects you are working on?
DD: Err, let me think what I'm allowed to talk about! The three titles from Alley Cat Games that have been on Kickstarter recently all feature my solo modes, and I was a lot more involved with Tinners' Trail. Bright Eye Games, an offshoot of PSC, are re-releasing Waggle Dance and publishing its new sequel Termite Towers, both by Mike Nudd, and I've done the solo for those. Scrumpy has just been on Kickstarter and Distilled is coming soon, two booze-themed games from smaller publishers. Two games that have just been announced are Ruthless and Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan. I don't think I can mention any others yet, but there's always plenty going on!
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for anyone looking to enter the games industry?
DD: Give it a punt, but don't expect to earn big bucks. There is an enormous variety of skills within the industry so you can probably find something, but it's really, really hard to make a living out of it. The community is extremely friendly and helpful, for the most part, and advice and information is everywhere, so use it. Much like theater, the industry is very small and pretty close; most people know most people, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Do the stuff you enjoy and see where it leads.
More details regarding David's design work can be found on The Games People.
- [+] Dice rolls
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in April 2021. —WEM
Nigel Buckle, designer of Omega Centauri, joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his career in game design and his 2021 dual-box release: Imperium.
DM: Hi, Nigel, many thanks for joining us today. You've been a game designer for a number of years. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a designer and about the early years of your career?
NB: I've been playing games for as long as I can remember — and back then there was far less choice, so if a game didn't suit my tastes, I'd come up with "house rules" to change it. Actually designing games grew from that. Of course having an idea for a game is the easy bit; turning it into a playable game others want to play is more challenging, and then actually getting it published is a whole different story.
DM: Your most well-known game is Omega Centauri, a sci-fi take on civilization building. Can you tell us about that design?
NB: Omega Centauri is my second published design. I've always enjoyed space 4X computer games, but the board game versions were all rather long and often ended at the point you researched all the cool stuff, so I decided to design a space empire game that plays in a shorter time and has a far flatter technology tree so that you can get to use the tech you research. To get the playtime down, a major part of Omega Centauri is deterministic combat; you can work out what the result of a conflict will be before fighting.
DM: Your latest games — the twin set of Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends — also have a civilization-building theme, this time centered around the civilizations of ancient history and myth. What is it about civilization building as a theme that inspires you?
NB: I have an interest in ancient history — and when I played Dominion back in 2008 I thought the mechanic of actually building a deck as you played was amazing. I was not so gripped by the theme or the rest of the game, though. I decided to try designing my own deck builder and to give it a civilization theme, so making each deck very asymmetric. Of course that is far easier to say than actually do — it's taken over a decade!
DM: Civilization-based games tend to focus upon the civilizations that bordered the Mediterranean Sea (Rome, Carthage, Egypt, for example). Imperium casts its net wider than this to include the civilizations of the Americas and Asia. How did you decide upon which civilizations to include? Were there any that you wanted to include but couldn't?
NB: My original design had four civilizations (Rome vs. Carthage and Greeks vs. Persia), and you played them in pairs as a two-player game. As I developed the game, it turned into a multiplayer game and I added more. To add a civilization, I researched its history, then thought about what mechanics would represent this civilization and at the same time give a new strategic puzzle for the players to solve.
I wanted each civilization to be unique, and moving beyond the Mediterranean Sea is certainly one way to do that. Furthermore there is a timeline in Imperium; the earlier a civilization comes in history, the more likely it will become an empire first in the game, so Egypt is the earliest civilization and thus has the fewest nation cards and most development cards. The Vikings, on the other hand, are the latest and never actually become an empire at all in the game.
The civilizations we've included all fit into the timeline — rise of Egypt around 3000 BCE through to the failed Viking invasion of Britain, 1066 CE — apart from the mythical civilizations, of course. I'm sure we could design more if publisher Osprey Games wanted us to.
DM: How closely do the play styles of the civilizations in Imperium reflect historical characteristics of the societies depicted?
NB: Obviously there are limitations. Each deck is around 23 cards, which restricts what aspects you can feature. However, we have tried to give each civilization a unique deck and link it to the history of that civilization. For example, with the Olmecs you'll find giant stone heads, step pyramids, stone masks, and cacao all coming together in a deck unlike any other. The Scythians are nomadic, and we've tried to represent that lifestyle in their deck. I think playing these two civilizations will feel very different — and for that reason we recommend players look through their deck before playing as a strategy that works for one civilization may well not work for another.
DM: You also include Atlantean and Arthurian legend in the game. What was the reason for extending the scope outside of a purely historical theme?
NB: Atlantis came about because we wanted to offer the players the challenge of a civilization that starts as an empire. This means, in our timeline, this civilization had to come before Egypt! That was a challenge, so we settled on a legendary early empire instead, which certainly offered more creative freedom. After some initial playtesting, it was clear some sort of personal trash pile — the "history" pile, even though Atlantis is not exactly historical — was needed and a twist beyond "start as an empire" was also needed to make them interesting. This was solved by replacing their history with a sunken pile and having the mechanic that Atlantis sinks its regions with some of the cards in its deck.
The development team at Osprey decided to divide the civilizations into two boxes rather than release a large game or remove half of the designed decks. There was some discussion over what split made the most sense, and eventually they settled on Classics and Legends. The problem was, at that point, the only "legend" we had was Atlantis, with a hint of legend with the Minoans and their Labyrinth.
So we set about designing two more mythical civilizations: the Arthurians and the Utopians. Being free of history meant we could push the design further than we had done with Atlantis. For example, the Arthurian deck introduces knights and questing and not wanting to continually cycle your deck. The end of the nation deck for the Arthurians means you are fighting Gwaith Camlan (The Battle of Camlann) and that's far from ideal. When playing the Arthurian deck, you want to complete your quests and find the Graal before that final battle starts.
We pushed this idea of not wanting to cycle your deck even further with the Utopians. When you play this civilization, every time you empty your draw pile you have to add an unrest to your hand — and unrest is bad, a junk card that scores -2 victory points. The Utopians have only a starting deck, so no private market of cards at all. Instead you have two double-sided journey cards representing your journey to the mythical city of Shangri-La. The Utopians are totally different in play style and goals from all the other civilizations in Imperium.
DM: Mechanically, Imperium is a deck-building game with both hand management and tableau-building elements. From a design perspective, how did this combination of mechanics evolve into the game we see today? Natural evolution or deliberate early design choice?
NB: My original design of a deck builder included a draft rather than tableau building — but as soon as I tried this out with players beyond my usual playgroup, it was clear the game was too difficult to learn. You had to know what you were doing to draft sensibly so that aspect was dropped and tableau building added.
Tableau destruction (either by opponents or yourself for the powerful fame cards) was added after I'd pitched the game to some publishers and the feedback was that the tableau needed to be more dynamic.
DM: There are sixteen civilizations across Imperium: Legends and Classics, each of which can be played multiplayer and solo. Can you describe the process of developing so many playable factions and modes?
NB: A secret to game design is using spreadsheets for tracking the results of playtests — which cards get played, which cards are ignored, what are the scores — but also for tracking the various decks and what the latest card text is.
I started with four civilizations and they became the baseline; any new civilization was played against the original four initially and adjusted as necessary.
The solo game included in the boxes came later. I had a solo mode for testing as I do not like inflicting prototypes on my playtesters when I know things are not working; I much prefer to think they work and my testers prove me wrong. My solo mode was fairly rudimentary. It worked for testing, but I certainly didn't give the same experience as you get playing against a human opponent.
When Dávid Turczi joined me as co-designer, looking at the solo game was one of his first priorities. David has an approach to solo game design: The game needs to work as a multiplayer game first, then you identify what aspects of your opponents actions matter to you and try to replicate that feeling in a simple-to-manage solo BOT.
DM: With the design challenges of a multi-factional, card-based game in mind, how did you find the design, developing, and publication process for Imperium as whole?
NB: It has been a very long road. My original concept is rather different to what has been published by Osprey. In the beginning I had no thought about publishing the game; I was designing a deck builder as a challenge to myself and to play with my regular gaming group. It's only after showing the game to others and the positive feedback I received led me to try to get it published.
That proved rather challenging as my initial pitches were unsuccessful, although I did get some helpful feedback. Eventually NSKN (now Board&Dice) signed the game in 2014. They had a full schedule, so it was not due to be published for a few years, which gave me time to make more changes and add more civilizations. They also brought Dávid Turczi on board.
They intended to Kickstart the game in 2018, but unfortunately the project did not get a good start and the campaign was cancelled. They gave the rights back to me and generously included the art they had commissioned for it and also agreed that Dávid could continue to work on the game with me in his own time.
We showed the game to Osprey, and they loved it and the art, so agreed to publish the game and keep the art and, in fact, added a whole lot more.Evolution of a civilization from prototype to finished design (image: Nigel Buckle)
DM: The civilizations in Imperium are available across two separately available boxes: Classic and Legends. Can you describe the differences between the two boxes and what players should keep in mind if they can purchase only one?
NB: Both boxes are the same game; they share the same rulebook. The differences are the mix of civilizations in each box and the common market cards. The two can be combined at a basic level by just taking civilizations from both and playing them. You can also mix and match the common cards from either box, too, for more variety.
All the civilizations are very different, so picking a box that includes the civilizations that appeal to you is a good start. The civilizations also vary in complexity, and we have included a difficulty rating for each civilization in the rules and the higher difficulty civilizations are definitely harder to play.
The Legends box has more of the complicated civilizations, so players seeking a more challenging game may want to start there. On the other hand, if you are less experienced with deck-building games or want an easier version to teach new players, then Classics is probably a better starting point.
DM: You've clearly had some success in designing an historical game. Do you have any advice for new designers looking to embark on an historically-themed game design?
NB: Research your history first, and have a vision about how you want to represent that history in your game and what role you are expecting the players to take. Then think about mechanics that will best reflect that vision. Otherwise you run the risk of people commenting your theme feels pasted on.
DM: One final question: Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline?
NB: I have thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process with Dávid. I am proud of the game we've produced between us, and I think it is better for our joint involvement. We work so well together that we're repeating the process, but nothing is at a point where I can say very much. I'm sure news about the next Turczi/Buckle game will be forthcoming when the publisher is ready to make an announcement. (Editor's note: That collaboration would be Voidfall, which publisher Mindclash Games announced in early May 2021. —WEM)
- [+] Dice rolls
01 May 2021
Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in March 2021. —WEM
Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, King of Tokyo, KeyForge, and many more joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable career in game design.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Richard. What inspired you to become a games designer?
RG: I find games fascinating and full of possibilities — like an exciting and largely unexplored land. It helped me understand the world and other people in a way that nothing else did. When I first got into games, I was amazed how little there was known about them relative to, say, books or movies or music.
The key moment for me was learning Dungeons & Dragons. That game broke all the rules for game design that I knew and thrust both the game master and players into the role of game designer to some extent. I figured if something so incredible existed that I had never heard of before, surely games were filled with many treasures to be discovered or created.
DM: You are probably most well-known for Magic: The Gathering, which has been a phenomenal success. Can you tell us the story of how Magic came to be, and at what point did you realize just how popular Magic was?
RG: Magic came about because I couldn't find a publisher for RoboRally. When I showed it to Peter Adkison, the head of Wizards of the Coast, he said he would publish it but needed something cheaper and fast-playing first to get started.
Soon after that, I had one of my few "flashes of inspiration" moments — most of my design is slow, intuitive, and experimental. I realized not all players had to have the same deck. I was swept up in all the possibilities for game play that had — and wary of the many problems it posed. It is sobering to think back to that time and remember — that amid the excitement — I told Peter that it might not be possible to make such a game. After all, Scrabble where you choose your pool of letters or Poker where you choose your deck are not necessarily good games, let alone better games. They are likely at best interesting puzzles. It was a matter of several weeks before I had a prototype that looked like today's Magic; it was built upon the framework of one of my many designs that I had enjoyed playing with, but didn't think was finished yet.
Looking back, it is easy to see that for years I had been fascinated by games where many elements of the game allowed the player to "break the rules". This interest first got kindled with Cosmic Encounter — and the spirit carried through many of my designs and was fully a part of Magic. My ideal was a game that was simple, but endless complexity was introduced through different cards. Anyone who sees the early magic rules knows I fell short of the "simple" goal, though probably not as far as it looks. 99% of Magic could be learned easily — and players could learn that fast and play a long time based on it. The remaining 1% was a nasty mess though.
There was no particular point that I realized how popular Magic was. I was perpetually surprised during the first few years, and honestly its impact on game design still surprises me from time to time. I knew Magic was a special game — the playtesters' passion was a testament to that — but I also knew many of my favorite games were not "smash hits", so I didn't think that meant Magic was destined for big things.
DM: Magic was followed by other well-known card game systems: Netrunner and KeyForge to name just two. How did you approach those designs? Was there pressure to repackage Magic, or were you free to experiment and take the designs into new directions?
RG: Usually I have been free to experiment with my designs, and that is what really keeps me interested. My first and second post-Magic trading card games (TCGs) were Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and Netrunner. With those, I was trying to figure out what mechanics worked well in this new kind of game. I learned many things about TCG design back then; for example, prior to V:TES I used standards that I had developed in board and card games, so I thought nothing about having a trading card game that ran for two hours with four or five people. After V:TES, I realized that so much of a TCG's value is in replay, possibly with a new deck or different tweaks to the old deck, that making the game short enough to allow for replay was a really good thing. Fans of V:TES either liked it as a TCG despite its length, or often liked it as a boardgame experience more than a TCG experience.
With Netrunner, I tried a lot of new things and I ended up with a game that I was really pleased with — but also learned some hard lessons. While Netrunner was in some objective sense simpler than Magic, the fact that everyone by that time knew Magic meant it was in fact much more difficult to learn than a game that was more like Magic would have been. I realized then that novelty in design comes with a cost, and as a designer it was my responsibility to make sure that novelty carried with it a payoff that was worth it for the player. For this reason BattleTech — my third TCG — was intentionally designed to be close enough to Magic to allow players to learn it easily, while being different in enough ways to make it interesting to them.
Fast forward twenty years and we get to the design of KeyForge — which was a game concept I wanted to explore for a long time, but couldn't because printing technology wasn't up to the challenge (or at least it would have been prohibitively expensive). With KeyForge I was trying to get the variety and uniqueness back into the game form which is diminished, if not destroyed, by players playing constructed decks with access to all the cards they need. For years I have been dissatisfied with that point in trading card games where one finds themselves removing cards they like from their deck because they just don't pull their weight. My preference is to play decks that are not honed to a razor's edge, but to play decks with more variety. In the TCG culture this is simply playing bad decks — and a player who does so is viewed as casual at best, and probably a bad player. But these decks, they can be very challenging to play and there is a great deal of skill to playing them well. I don't want to play casually — I want to play seriously with interesting decks. That is what KeyForge is about.
DM: In addition to creating your own "worlds", you've also designed within existing IPs — Star Wars and BattleTech, for example. Can you describe how the design and publication process differs for these compared with your other games?
RG: Yes, I have done a number of licensed games, and the experience varies widely with how appropriate the license is for the game and how flexible the licensor is so that the best compromises between good play and best reflection of the world can be made. Working with a supportive licensor can be marvelous; it was that way with Star Wars, for example. Working with the other kind is soul killing.
I quite enjoy the exercise of figuring out the best way to frame a game within an existing world. There is a special pleasure to be found with a world elegantly reflected in an appropriate game. However, I will always lean toward making my own world since I know that I can do whatever I think is best for the game in that case.
DM: From a design point of view, how does iterating within a Living/Collectible System differ from designing expansions? Are there specific challenges that need to be overcome?
RG: Designing massively modular game expansions and expansions for a board game each carry their own challenges. In some ways, the massively modular games are easier to expand because that is what they are designed to do. Expanding a board game often involves challenges associated with adding complexity without a good enough value to the player, or the expansions undermine appeals the unexpanded game had. There are many times I have played board games and liked the base game — but then played expansions of it and for all the added variety the aggregate experience was worse, sometimes much worse.
A particular example from my own work is King of Tokyo. The success of the base game lead us to think about an expansion — but the challenge soon became clear. The easy expansion of "just adding cards" is not satisfying because cards are only a part of the game experience; some players play an entire game without getting any cards. Just adding cards impacts only some players, and the more cards added the less they each mean to the overall game.
So then let's explore another common request: monsters get unique powers. On the surface, this is an easy and obvious thing to add — but it turns out to be quite difficult to add without making the game worse. To see this you must understand that the basic game is a dice game with three principle strategies: attack, get VP, or get cards. A more casual player might pick a strategy and run with it, but a player who plays well will be adapting their decisions to the circumstances and the dice rolls they get. Being a dice game, either approach can win — but the "serious" player will win more often, a characteristic I really like in games.
Now if powers are added in a straightforward way and a monster gets, say, an advantage in attacking, suddenly the "pick a strategy and run with it" approach becomes stronger, and the player doesn't even have agency in that strategy since it is defined by their monster. The simple solution will be satisfying for a certain audience of very casual players, but many players will have the feeling that the expansion isn't as fun — even if they can't always put their finger on why.
Expanding a massively modular game is far easier in this regard – there are usually many different mechanics to explore, and even when there are limited mechanics, there are essentially infinite environments of mechanical combinations.
The challenges facing expansion of these games, however, in their own way can be quite difficult. As an example, let's talk about game balance. The stakes are generally much higher in balance, and the massively modular nature of the games usually make that balance much harder to gauge. To see why the stakes are higher, you have to understand the promise these games make to the player is endless variety and personal customization. A card that is too good must be in every player's deck, which makes both those promises less maintained. A card that is too bad shouldn't be in any player's deck, which does the opposite — which isn't quite as bad but still undermines the game's promise. Some degree of that is okay, but the more the expansion strays, the worse the overall experience becomes. And the more cards there are in the environment, the harder it is to manage that without making the game changes very conservative.
There are many reasons this is often not as big a problem in board games. Some of that is cultural; boardgame players typically have an easier time getting their group to not play an expansion they don't like — or even just play part of the expansion, or they modify it to their taste. The massively modular games tend to have massively modular playgroups — which makes that much more difficult.
Another reason is that often the imbalance in a game impacts all players equally, so going back to King of Tokyo, a card can absolutely be too powerful, but the system is much more forgiving since all players have access to it. A card that costs 0 and makes you win the game would ruin the play experience since the players' strategy would almost certainly be simply to collect energy and use it to sweep the board until they draw the game-winning card. However, a card that costs, say, 5 and was twice as good as another card of that cost? It would make collecting energy more appealing certainly, but is unlikely to break the game in the same way. That is a really large range of "error" one can get away with, especially if as a designer you aim for about 25% difference in power being acceptable rather than 100%. But in a game where players choose their own cards? This would be a "must have" card and make the play experience noticeably worse since every player would feel they have to have it.
DM: You have also designed some hugely popular board games. Most well known is probably King of Tokyo. Can you tell us the story behind this game, and why you think it has been an enduring success?
RG: King of Tokyo came out of a thought exercise around Yahtzee. A friend of mine was doing some serious analysis of Yahtzee at the time, so I was reflecting on how strong a design it was in that fashion that I really like: excellent play gives you better chances, but casual play can win. I wondered that if I were to try to design a game with the same principles, but interactive: what might it look like?
Interactivity in games can be tricky; done carelessly, it can involve a lot of "take that" political decisions which I am not fond of. I don't mind directly affecting another player, but I don't want to be in the position of choosing which player to affect, at least not often. The usual way to solve this issue is to make the interaction indirect, which, of course, can make an excellent game — but often one that feels "passive aggressive" rather than directly interactive.
My solution here was to make a "king of the hill" structure to the game. Being on the hill was rewarded, but carried with it risk in that you were the target. This made players in some sense in control of how much damage they were subject to and had a feeling of "low politics, direct interaction" that I often like in games.
Later came the flavor of "the hill" being Tokyo and monsters. I often design my mechanics first with some fairly generic theme, then completely redesign once I settle on what the theme should be. Once the theme has been picked, if you fail this redesign, it will feel much less integrated into the game play. For the record, I do design in the other way as well — where I have the theme first and build a game to that theme.
My own guess as to the enduring popularity of the game is a combination of the direct, yet low politics interaction — which is really pretty rare in games — and the cartoony and playful theme which IELLO managed to create around the concept.
DM: Staying with your board game designs: King of Tokyo sees players fight giant monsters, in RoboRally they control robots while Bunny Kingdom is an area control game about rabbits. These are thematically and mechanically quite different games. What do you feel is the thread that connects them?
RG: Mechanically I am driven to explore different areas of design, so I am likely to move to something new once I have gotten what I want out of a particular space. Sometimes it doesn't appear that way; in particular I had a number of drafting games (Treasure Hunter, Carnival of Monsters) come out shortly after Bunny Kingdom, so it may have looked like that was "my thing" — but actually they were all part of the same exploration at about the same time, and they were made in part because I was having a lot of difficulty getting a publisher to see them as interesting game space. Before 7 Wonders came out, they weren't really enthusiastic about it, and after 7 Wonders there was quite a stretch of time where they seemed to think there was no point in doing another because of 7 Wonders. Then there was a shift, and suddenly it was a class of game that could stand on its own.
A mild thread of mechanical connection, which is really more of a design style, is that all of these games can be played casually with a chance of winning or with great thought for increased chance. I tend to prefer games the casual and serious player can play together.
Thematically there is a strong connection between these games and most of my games which aren't made for existing properties: a sense of humor and playfulness. I like that more than "dark serious" game flavors because I think serious players can get past it if the game mechanics are worth it and the players are more playful with it when learning the game — which allows them to take the swings in the game a little less seriously when learning it. There is kind of a toxic "rush to judgement" with some players these days, and I believe this helps mitigate that just a bit — and if they stick with the games a bit longer because they don't take them seriously, they might actually get good enough to see how to play well and have fun with the mechanics.
DM: How has the huge success that you've enjoyed changed your approach to game design during the course of your career?
RG: I would guess that it is mostly the amount of time I can spend designing, playing, and studying games. The nature of my interest hasn't changed; I don't design more or less publishable games these days except insofar as my practice has probably made me better. Most of my designs are just for my own interest and that of my friends, and that has always been the case. Sometimes that leads to something I think other people will like — and then I look for a publisher. I have been in the fortunate position of never having to design to make ends meet, which might have lead me to working on games that didn't interest me or that I thought wasn't servicing the players enough to warrant.
Certainly, looking for a publisher is much easier than it was before Magic, and I do take pleasure in the fact that if I have a game that I think players will like, I can get a publisher to look at it and consider it seriously. That doesn't always lead to a product — or sometimes it takes a long time as it did with my series of drafting games — but that process of presentation and consideration always leads to improvement in the design, or at least the presentation.
DM: Is there a game you would like to revisit and do differently if given the chance and why?
RG: Hah. Every game I have made I want to redesign at least in minor ways. I am known to be reluctant to play any game of my own design once it is published — and I think the reason is that I get frustrated when I can't fix something.
For a major case of that perhaps I would go to SpyNet — which weirdly I would actually change very little about except for the messaging. I am disappointed that it barely got noticed after publication, yet find it one of my favorite two-player games. I think the decision to promote it primarily as a team game made people not give the two-player game a fair shake. Also, I think the special cards in the game gave a sense of "wackiness" to the play and players didn't take it seriously because of that — despite the fact that once you know what is in the game, there is a lot of interesting play dealing with that. I had some luck with friends incorporating a small card reference, I believe because it showed the players that they were supposed to anticipate the possibilities rather than just be surprised by them — which, of course, is common in first plays of any game.
DM: Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
RG: Roguebook is a digital game I worked on with the folk who made Faeria. It is a deck-builder in the same family as Slay the Spire. One of the key things we aimed to do was make constructing a big deck — a "tower deck" as we call them — a viable strategy. Most deck-building games are as much, or more, about removing cards than adding them. This is an interesting and skill-testing characteristic, but it is not logically required of the genre for an interesting game.
Personally, I like adding cards more than subtracting them, and I am particularly pained by removing cards that are fun to play but aren't quite worth playing with. The resulting decks are more challenging to play because the decks are less reliable and generally more flexible. One way we went about this was by adding a bonus that is unlocked for getting your deck to particular levels, so adding cards gives a bunch of cool powers to your deck over time. Of course, you can still play a lean mean deck if that is what you want.
Half Truth is a trivia game that I made with Ken Jennings, and I am really pleased with how it turned out. My inspiration was Ken's book Braniac, and I resolved after reading it to try to make a trivia game that could be played by a broad audience that wouldn't feel like the trivia nerds would always win. When I first shared the design with Ken, in fact, he played two games and lost the second one. (Not to me — I wrote the questions!)
The way it works is each question is multiple choice, and half the answers are correct. All players secretly make 1, 2, or 3 guesses. If a player misses any guesses, then they don't profit from the question at all. The players get only a small advantage for getting the second and third answer. Each question is a little minefield, and you can definitely get by with always just trying to get one answer correct. A lot of the fun comes from the really random and silly questions that are sprinkled throughout. One of my favorites was written by Koni, my wife:Quote:Is a poisonous mushroom:Here I guessed Destroying Angel with some confidence, but I wasn't sure about the others. When the answers were revealed, it turned out all the bad answers were Magic cards! I saw the Thallid but missed the other two — but this opens up a really interesting characteristic of the game: You can have questions that you have no idea about but can still get a good guess in — occasionally even getting all three — if you can recognize the fakes.
• Fool’s Webcap
• Blinding Angel
• Destroying Angel
• Deathspore Thallid
• Deadly Galerina
• Night’s Whisper
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
RG: Play lots of games, even games you don't care for. Learn what players like about them. Getting those qualities into other games where possible, ones you do like, will make your games better. Also, you will get more pleasure from games in general. Often a game I didn't like, once I really took the time to understand it, I not only understood the appeal but I acquired the taste.
Get a playtest network that has both casual and serious players. Listen to both. One common development standard that I regard as a mistake is just listening to the best players and looking to them for data. This is natural as a single group plays the game through many iterations over months or years. The problem is that game balance that is ideal for beginners and casual players is not the same as that for experts. One that seriously considers the former will often be much more exciting the first few times it is played and that is critical these days since there are so many other games to play. Development that relies too much on the latter can look very same-ish to the beginner — as if it doesn't really matter which strategy is chosen and the expert will always win by their 2% advantage.
If you use Kickstarter or some other method of self-publishing, get some playtesters outside your bubble, playtesters in particular that you don't teach the game to. One very important thing a publisher provides is an experienced sanity check on the game play and rules. I have many games that profited from their insight that I would have published on my own without hesitation. Sometimes that insight leads to improvement in mechanics; at other times it leads to improvement in the way the game is presented — both are important.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on January 29, 2021. —WEM
Ted Alspach, the founder of Bézier Games and the designer of Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and many more games joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss game design and publishing.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Ted. Please, can you tell how you how your journey in the games industry began?
TA: I had been designing games for a long, long time, but didn't take it seriously until about 2005 or so. One of my designs, Seismic, was picked up by Atlas Games. At about that time, I started publishing Age of Steam expansions. Our very first game was Start Player, a card game to determine who goes first. Shortly after that, I published the very first Ultimate Werewolf game (now known as the "whitebox" edition), making 800 copies by hand until I manufactured the first "real" edition — Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition. Ultimate Werewolf has the distinction of selling more games each year than the previous year...for the past fourteen years!
DM: One Night Ultimate Werewolf has been a big success, spawning a host of other themes and a word game (Werewords), plus associated merchandise. Can you tell us the story behind your involvement with the game and your thoughts on what makes it so popular?
TA: The One Night games have been a very successful series for us. There are two things that have made it successful: The variety of roles combined with easy-to-learn gameplay, and the integration of the app into the game, which provides it with a way to reach gamers who normally wouldn't touch traditional board games.Are you the werewolf? (Image: Bezier Games)
DM: One Night Ultimate Werewolf and its related games are quite different experiences to the likes of Suburbia or Colony. What design elements contribute to a great party game versus those for a great strategy game, and which is the more challenging to design well?
TA: For a party game, there has to be high interaction among the players, and a super short initial rules explanation, and a variety of things to do each game. We address the former by limiting the amount of time players can discuss roles, the second by making most of the rules specific to cards which are then explained by the app, and the latter by including more roles than you can possibly play with in a single game.
For strategy games, it's about making meaningful decisions that make you feel like you are doing something better (or at least different) than your opponents, and having enough variability that each game will be different than the last. That's why the information in strategy games we publish is mostly open (except for end game secret goals), and why there are always a lot more tiles/cards/etc. than you can play in a game. Think of all the extra buildings in Suburbia, rooms in Castles, or cards in Colony. Even New York Slice has a large number of "Today's Specials" to keep the game fresh.Castles of Mad Kind Ludwig
DM: There is a vein of humor running through many of your well-known designs, including some of your more strategic games. How do you think a light-hearted touch enhances the game experience for players?
TA: These are *games* after all, so taking them too seriously doesn't work for me. I like that players can find fun situations through the various combinations in our games. In Castles, building a kennel next to the meat locker is either very efficient to feed your dogs, or it's super creepy because of where the meat might be coming from!
DM: Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig are both much loved games. Suburbia has seen a "Collectors Edition" reissue, and Castles is soon to receive the same. As a designer, how does it feel to have created games that have clearly resonated with the board game community?
TA: Some of the best experiences I've had are when someone comes up to me at a trade show and tells me that Castles/Suburbia/One Night/Werewords/Silver/etc. is their favorite game. Or that Castles is the game that got their spouse into gaming. Or that the only non-video/mobile game their kids will play is Ultimate Werewolf, and they want to play it all the time. Seeing people having fun playing your games is incredibly rewarding!Suburbia
DM: Moving to your experiences as CEO of Bézier Games, what do you feel makes a game stand out in a crowded industry? Is it a unique mechanism, distinctive graphic design, a combination of things?
TA: Our tagline for Bézier Games is "The New Classics" because we want every game we publish to be a game that players play years from now. We don't always achieve that goal, but when we do it's really exciting.
In order for that to happen, more than anything, the gameplay itself has to be compelling. There might be a component or set of mechanisms that's new and grabs people's attention, but the gameplay has to be good enough that they're willing to play the game several times, which is where you start to see more and more people exposed to them, and that results in more sales of those games.
There's also a huge dose of lucky timing that goes into any game being successful. If you have a game that comes out at the right time, when players are looking for that kind of game, your game ends up doing well, as long as the game itself is a solid game.Suburbia: Collectors Edition (Photo: Antony Wyatt)
DM: Board games typically undergo a lengthy development process before publication. Can you provide a publisher's view on this process?
TA: For us, the number one thing that influences the time it takes is playtesting. We typically playtest games hundreds of times, both internally and externally. After playtests, the game is modified in some way, then more playtesting occurs. This can take months or in some cases years.
Games evolve over time quite a bit until one day you simply realize it is finished. Additional playtesting continues at that point to ensure there are no weird edge cases, and that the final art and components work as intended.
DM: In addition to your own games, Bézier also publishes other designers' work (Favor of the Pharaoh, Whistle Mountain). As a publisher, what is the one thing you wish aspiring designers, and the game buying public in general, knew about the industry and why?
TA: The amount of influence a publisher has on any game varies significantly. That first game of my mine that was published wasn't changed at all by the publisher, much to my surprise. They even used the art that I had come up with. Bézier Games tends to rework most aspects of games into something that feels more like a game you could expect from us. We typically add some sort of long-term variability, like the "Today's Specials" to New York Slice, which makes games more replayable, especially in the short term when you're excited about a game and playing it a lot.
Designers shouldn't spend a lot of time or effort on artwork either because it will almost always be replaced by something that the publisher wants to use. Sometimes that can get in the way of a publisher figuring out whether the game is right for them.New York Slice (Image: Bézier Games)
DM: From a publisher's point of view, is there a game you consider to be the "one that got away"?
TA: Anytime I play a game I really like that's similar to the kinds of games we publish, I always think "What would we have done differently?" and "Could we have made this game even better had we published it?"
In 2020, my favorite non-Bézier Games game was The Search for Planet X by a big margin. The gameplay is amazing, and the integration of the app is perfect for a deduction game, which removes the problem with many deduction games of a player giving wrong information accidentally, and wrecking the deductions for the other players as a result. I would have loved to be involved with the publication of that game!
DM: What is next for both yourself and Bézier Games?
TA: For 2021, we have several giant releases: a Collector's Edition of Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Ultimate Werewolf Extreme, and Maglev Metro!
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Jan 2021
first published on Diagonal Move on January 15, 2021. —WEM
For today's interview Shem Phillips, designer of Raiders of the North Sea and founder of Garphill Games, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the West and North trilogies.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Shem. Can you tell us how your career as a game designer began and what prompted the decision to found Garphill Games rather than seek an established publisher?
SP: It started out by me simply wanting to make my own game. I had no knowledge of the modern board game market or any prior experience in game design/publishing, so I set out to create my own simple, roll-and-move family game. It was after producing this game that a friend introduced me to Catan. From there I rushed out to my local toy store and picked up Carcassonne and Family Business. Later, I was invited to a local board game convention, and I've been discovering more and more great games ever since.
DM: Garphill Games was founded in 2009. It was some years later that your games began to receive notable public attention. How were those first few years as an independent publishing company?
SP: The first six years were purely run as a hobby. I wasn't aiming to make money or even turn it into a business. I was just designing games and printing small print runs for friends and a few loyal supporters. It was very boutique back them.
DM: You are most well-known for your two historical trilogies, the first of which — The North Sea Saga — began with Shipwrights of the North Sea. How did this game develop, and what was the initial reception like?
SP: Shipwrights started with me wanting to make a game about building ships. I already had some mechanisms in mind, including using only three resources to construct the ships. Through some research, this led me to discover that Viking longships were predominantly made of wool, oak, and iron. After delving more into the theme, I knew that Vikings were the right fit for the game. The initial reception was far beyond what I had ever expected. This was my first Kickstarter campaign. I had an extremely low funding target, and planned to print only five hundred units (hoping to sell at least two hundred of those). A lot of the buzz was generated from the artwork. This was the first time anyone had seen The Mico's art in a board game, and it seemed that the large majority of people who saw the campaign loved the art.
DM: The trilogy continued with Raiders and Explorers, which are both playable as standalone games. What prompted the decision to turn the games into a trilogy, and how did you strike the balance between the new and the familiar from a design point of view?
SP: That came from a lot of Kickstarter comments. People liked the idea of building ships, but felt like they wanted to use them for something once the game had ended. This sparked the idea of creating a second game, this time focusing on raiding. In my mind, doing a trilogy just made sense, which is why I committed to designing Explorers before Raiders even went to Kickstarter.
DM: The West Kingdom games (co-designed with S J Macdonald) follow a similar pattern — a trilogy of standalone games — and incorporate multiple layers of mechanisms in each game. What is your approach to this layering of mechanisms?
SP: We always start with the general setting, perhaps a title or at least some sort of story that we want to base the game around. Then we do a lot of brainstorming on how the game could look visually on the table, and also how it might work mechanically. Sam and I both love games that have interconnected mechanisms, which is probably why you see that a lot in our own games. I'm not sure we ever set out to mix mechanisms. It's more likely that it just comes out of the development process.Image: Jon Burgess
DM: The trilogies are both themed around turbulent historical periods. Is this something that you are interested in, and did you try to reflect the historical period within the game mechanisms? If so, can you describe how you approached this?
SP: I'm a big fan of Age of Empires II on PC. In fact, so is Sam Macdonald. I grew up always wanting the more medieval LEGO sets over the sci-fi or trains as well. I guess there's just something about the swords and shields period that interests me. While our games are set in history, we still like to give them a little twist of fantasy and fiction, so don't expect too much historical accuracy. Hah. I love the setting, but I'm not so particular on every little detail.
DM: Like many more complex games, North Sea and West Kingdom lean heavily on iconography to aid players during play. What challenges do you face when developing this aspect of a game? How tricky is it to get the balance right, and what are the implications for the success of a game if this aspect doesn't work?
SP: There are plenty of times where Sam might think up a new card ability, and my answer is simply, "How would I show that with icons?" So they can be quite restrictive. You really need to approach each game separately. Sometimes using text is actually better for the gameplay. Icons are often better when there are a lot of cards on the table, and players need to quickly decipher them without trying to read text upside down on the opposite side of the board.Image: Jon Burgess
DM: With numerous award nominations and three games currently in the BGG top 100, you've clearly achieved a certain level of both critical and popular success. How does that feel, and was there a point when you first realized that you had "made it"?
SP: It's still hard to believe, and it's an absolute privilege and blessing to have received so much recognition for our designs. I suppose the first time it really hit me was receiving the Kennerspiel nomination for Raiders of the North Sea. That was a huge shock and honor.
DM: Now that you have achieved that certain level of success, has your design and publishing career become easier or have the challenges also grown?
SP: I definitely trust my gut a lot more than in the past. The more you design and get positive feedback from players, the more the imposter syndrome begins to fade away. It took a long time, though. I'm a lot busier now than I've ever been. It's still just as fun, but there is a lot more responsibility and expectation to keep delivering quality games. I'm not complaining, though — I'm up for the challenge!
DM: What's next for yourself and Garphill Games?
SP: 2021 will see the release of three expansions for the West Kingdom trilogy. We also have the second part of our Circadians universe coming to Kickstarter later in the year, along with an expansion for the first title. We're also well into the designing process for the "South Trilogy", which should debut in 2022.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on December 1, 2020. —WEM]
Automa Factory founder and lead designer Morten Monrad Pedersen joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his take on solo game design.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Morten. You are the founder of Automa Factory, a design company specializing in single-player versions of multiplayer games. Creating solo modes for other designers' games is an extremely specific niche. Can you tell us your design background and the story of how you discovered this niche?
MMP: It is indeed an extremely specific niche, and if you had asked me some years whether one could make a living making artificial opponents for board games, I would have thought you crazy.
My journey started when my son was born and many of my friends were also starting to get kids. Suddenly we found ourselves very limited in how often we could find time to sit down together and play games.
I knew that solo board gaming existed, but it had always seemed a bit weird to me. I mean, why not just play a video game? I found out, though, that for me video games didn't scratch the itch I wanted scratched, so I gave solo board games a shot while expecting them to miss their mark. After trying Lord of the Rings LCG and Dawn of the Zeds, I was sold. They had given me some of my best board gaming experiences ever.
After playing solo games for a while, I started a blog about solo games and participated in a print-and-play solo game design contest.
In parallel with this, I got to know Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games by random chance because my family and I came home from a vacation where we had visited a vineyard in Tuscany just as Jamey started a Kickstarter for a game about running a vineyard in Tuscany. The sheer coincidence of that made me check out the game, and I ended up chatting with Jamey and giving him input.
During the development of the Tuscany expansion for Viticulture, some playtesters requested a solo mode for the game and not being a solo gamer himself he turned to me. The Viticulture solo mode became a success, and from then on Jamey started asking my team and I to make solo modes for all his games either in the core box or via expansions.
We've also started working for other publishers: Feuerland (Gaia Project and Terra Mystica), Funtails (Glen More II), Van Ryder Games (Hostage Negotiator: Circle of Automa), and a promo solo mode for Lookout Games (Patchwork).Viticulture
DM: Which solitaire games, whether specific designs or multi-player variants, inspired your own design career and why?
MMP: As mentioned, I participated in a print-and-play solo games design contest. One of the games in that contest was a game called Maquis that had a worker placement system in which enemy workers were placed via cards draws. That system inspired the worker placement system of the artificial opponent in Viticulture, which is also a worker placement game.
On a tangential note, Maquis has gone beyond its print-and-play roots and was published by Side Room Games a couple of years ago. I recommend checking it out.
The bot in Anachrony and other bots by Dávid Turczi have also inspired me without me actually knowing the rules. That may sound weird, but I've heard other people talk about them. One feature that has been mentioned repeatedly is that his bots work in ways that give players some insight into what they might do, just like you can guess at what a human opponent might do.
That's a feature that wasn't present in our first Automa. We've worked on replicating it in later Automas, but I'd like to go further than we have. It's a tough balance to strike, though, because too much predictability will make the game boring.
Other than that, I can't come up with other games or variants that have inspired my own ideas in ways that I've noticed directly, but I'm sure that I've been inspired subconsciously and my team has been very influential in our work.Scythe
DM: Did you ever consider creating Automa-based original designs rather than adaptations?
MMP: I'm working on a few full games of my own, but until I got one signed with a publisher a few months ago they took backseat to my solo mode work because that's what pays the bills and the deadlines are usually tight.
Jamey Stegmaier has had a major impact on the design of the games I'm working on, and for one of them my favorite solo game designer, Shadi Torbey, has been a huge inspiration.
The games I'm working on myself tend to be designed with solo play from the ground up, so there's no need for an Automa to take the place of a human player. The type of decks could, of course, be used for other things, but so far, I haven't done so. After having worked with such decks in more than 25 games and expansions, it's nice to do something different.
DM: Can you describe your process for designing an Automa? What is the decision process for keeping, amending, or discarding part of the original game?
MMP: My process is guided by six design principles for making solo modes:
1. Use an artificial player (Automa) that takes the place of a human player.
2. The human who plays the game must do so by the same rules as in the multiplayer game.
3. The player must face the same decisions as in multiplayer.
4. The important player interactions must be simulated. This includes keeping the win/lose criteria.
5. The player must not make decisions on behalf of the Automa except in rare cases where it makes sense because of a co-operative element or for thematic reasons.
6. The Automa rules must be as streamlined as possible while achieving the above.
When I start work, the first item on the agenda is to identify the core player interactions in the game. Next is figuring out how to simulate another player's impact on those interactions in a way that stays true to the game (principles 2-4).
Then the goal becomes streamlining and homogenizing the interaction simulation rules while working to remove everything from the Automa that isn't strictly needed. An example of this is the player mat in Scythe, which doesn't directly impact other players, so the Scythe Automa doesn't have one (principle 6).
The actual process is, of course, not as clearly defined in steps like I describe, and the process goes in circles with entire subsystems being tossed out and replaced several times during the process.
To ensure the quality of the solo mode, we have external playtesters who put our work through its paces with the average numbers of tests by them probably being a few hundred. That number varies a lot with the game; we've just passed 700 in an ongoing project, and we've probably done 500 on top of that ourselves.
The playtesters are also instrumental in the decision process for what should be tweaked and what should be tossed out. For our Euphoria expansion, Ignorance is Bliss, we more or less scrapped everything we had made and started over seven times because the playtester feedback wasn't good enough.
On a smaller scale, playtester feedback is also instrumental in identifying parts of the rules that are either explained badly or easily trip up players. We work to smooth out such rough edges or remove the offending mechanisms.
Of course, we also work to find rough edges ourselves, and I sometimes spend days working to reduce five rules to four that in effect do the same and can be explained clearer with fewer words.
As to discarding parts of the original game, that's something we rarely do from the point of view of human players. We want to the whole game to be there for them (principles 2-4). Sometimes we add to the game, though, and in Tapestry: Plans & Ploys we made a five-scenario campaign that's only playable solo.Tapestry (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: How has the design process developed over the years? Can each new Automa design be considered both an iteration on previous Automas and an adaptation of the multiplayer game it is designed for?
MMP: We always try to stay as true to the multiplayer game as possible. We're guests in the designer's house, and it's not our place to redecorate their house, so we always adapt our solo mode to the multiplayer game. (See design principles 1-4 in my list above.)
We also try to use our experience from previous Automas to improve new ones, so it's both iteration and adaption. An example is that in our first Automa (Viticulture) there was no progression in what the Automa does over the course of the game. In Scythe, we made a two-stage Automa that partway through the game modified its personality to fit the endgame. The next step was Gaia Project, where the Automa has a gradually evolving strategy.
Euphoria could be seen as the most current iteration of that idea because its deck is evolving in a manner that's more tightly controlled to reflect the progression of the multiplayer game. Similarly, we've had an evolution in the action selection system that can be seen from Viticulture to Between Two Cities to Scythe to Gaia Project.
DM: At what point in the multiplayer game's development do you begin work, and how much do last-minute changes to the multiplayer affect your design?
MMP: When the game is still in development but no longer undergoing major changes, we get prototype files from the publisher. Based on this, we make a rough framework for the Automa. As the game's development progresses and the rate of change goes down, we turn the framework into a fully functional prototype and invite the first few external playtesters.
Once the game is almost done, we gradually ramp into full scale external playtesting and aim to deliver our files when the publisher's graphics designer is done with the core game's files.
The impact of changes to the multiplayer game can vary a lot, but since we try to mimic the multiplayer game our systems are sensitive to game changes. During the development of Between Two Cities, the scoring system was unexpectedly changed significantly and since that Automa was heavily dependent on the scoring system, we had to redo a lot of work.
The worst case has been Viticulture Essential Edition where changes in which expansion modules were to be included meant that we had to remake a nine-scenario campaign twice after we were done making the first version.
As it happens, I spent every waking hour last weekend scrambling to figure out how well a solo mode we were working on could handle a last-minute change from the publisher. Luckily it worked out well.
DM: Some of the games you/the team have worked are asymmetric, have legacy elements, or are widely considered to be "complex" games. What has been the most challenging game to adapt and why? Has there been a design you started but had to admit defeat on?
MMP: Asymmetry hasn't been as much of a problem as one might have suspected because we try to insulate the Automa from such mechanisms from the beginning of its development.
That said there have been cases where it has caused us trouble. In Tapestry, for example, some of the game's sixteen asymmetric factions have mechanisms that would require us to add significant complexity to the Automa to support one aspect of one faction out of sixteen, so we chose to simply remove those factions. This left twelve different factions for the player to use and three more that could be used if the player is okay with the game being less balanced.
We also have the advantage that it doesn't matter as much that all factions are equally powerful in solo as it does in multiplayer. In solo it just works as slightly different difficulty levels while in multiplayer it can feel unfair and frustrating. That's not to say that we don't care about balance; we playtest a ton to get the balance right, but a bit of variation between factions is okay in my opinion.
The legacy aspect of Charterstone was definitely challenging because we had to make an Automa system that could deal with a wealth of different rulesets and game configurations. This was made worse by the fact that we wanted the Automa to be useful for non-solo gamers who're normally not willing to run artificial opponents. That meant that we had to make it very streamlined.
The greatest challenge for a solo mode has probably been the free form board movement in Scythe, both because it is hard to make a simple cardboard bot handle that and because we weren't very experienced back then. That one took a ton of work, but its reception by players made all the work worth it.
We've never given up and not delivered a solo mode. The closest we've come is for a game I unfortunately am not allowed to talk about yet. For that one, we midway into the project tossed out all our work and started over from scratch because a significant fraction of the playtesters didn't like what we had made well enough. This is not counting Euphoria: Ignorance is Bliss, where we had seven restarts, but those were unrelated to the solo mode.
We also have two solo modes in development where we quickly realized that Automas weren't the right way to go, which is a first for us.Charterstone (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM:: What games are on your "bucket list" of games that you would love to create an Automa for and why?
MMP: While I haven't tried Keyforge, it sounds really interesting, so I'd like to try my hand at that. A somewhat related game is Warhammer: Invasion, which I love but which doesn't have an official solo mode. My usual approach to solo modes very likely wouldn't work, though.
Next, and I hope this doesn't come off as offensive, there are several of Uwe Rosenberg's games, such as Agricola and Nusfjord, for which I'd like to make Automas. Contrary to Keyforge and Warhammer: Invasion, most of Uwe Rosenberg's games are ideal Automa material. Those games already have solo modes, but they're of the "beat your own high score" type. I much prefer artificial opponents that carry the game's experience over into solo.
This is not said to offend Uwe Rosenberg. I stand in awe of him; he's in my opinion one of the greatest game designers of all time, and I have three of his games in my top 10 solo games, so it's not me saying that I know better than Uwe Rosenberg or that I'm a better solo mode designer. Instead I'm simply saying that my taste in solo modes differs from his.
DM: What can we expect from Automa Factory in the future?
MMP: We have solo modes coming out for Terra Mystica, Glen More II: Chronicles, and Between Two Castles. Additionally, we have four Automa projects in various stages of development that I'm unfortunately not allowed to talk about.
Outside of our solo mode work, I've got a game, ForeShadow, that I have designed from the bottom up signed by a publisher. There's still a lot of work on it, so don't expect to see it anytime soon.Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig
DM: Looking back, is there anything that you wish you had known at the start and would this have affected your game design career?
MMP: It would, of course, have been an advantage to have my design principles as well developed as they are today, as would knowing what I've learned about game design in general. There's no one specific thing that stands out to me, and I have enjoyed the journey and wouldn't want to have missed it by starting with all the knowledge and experience I have now.
Careerwise, I brought a lot of relevant experience with me after a fifteen-year career being a programmer, supporter, team leader, and project manager. All of that has been a great help to me.
What I would really have liked to have known from the beginning is how to control my workload, but I still haven't learned how to do that...Tapestry (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: Do you have any advice to share with aspiring games designers?
MMP: The first thing you should do is ask what your goal is? Do you want to have fun and feel the creative rush? In that case, don't aspire to get published but start projects, stay with them until they're no longer fun, then move on to the next. This will give you the awesome creative rush again and again without all the boring work.
If you want to get published, you must give up on the idea that game design is all fun and rainbow unicorns. Those are there, but most of it is work.
Neither of the two paths is right or wrong; they're simply different. If you decide to go for publication, then the most important thing I have to say is: Tenacity and hard work beat talent every day of the week. You don't need to be the most talented game designer in the world to make a great game, and even if you are, you won't get anywhere without tenacity and hard work.
Keep at it when the project becomes boring work. Stay at home to work when your friends go to the beach. Get back up after each of the failures you'll inevitably have. Analyze those failures. Read/watch/listen to everything you can about game design. Analyze games you love and games you dislike to understand what makes them tick, what makes you like them, and what doesn't.•••
Morten's general blog can be found here. Further insights into the "Automa Approach" can be found here.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move on October 19, 2020. —WEM]
Tom Russell, co-founder of independent publisher Hollandspiele, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss her unique take on game design and publishing.
DM: Hi, Tom, thank you for joining us. You are known for three things: unique takes on historical war games, train games, and co-founding publishing company Hollandspiele. Can you tell us the story of how you got to where you are today?
TR: Well, what it ultimately comes down to is, I'm the luckiest girl in the world.
It's not that I didn't work hard because I did, and not that I'm untalented because I do all right for myself, but there are plenty of folks who work a lot harder and are a heck of a lot more talented who don't get the same traction that I did.
Mary (Holland-Russell, co-founder of Hollandspiele) and I get to publish board games for a living, as our full-time gig. More than that, we get to do it while making very weird, very niche games in a very weird, very niche way — and that really comes down to one lucky break or coincidence after another.
For example, one of the earliest games I had published was Northern Pacific through Winsome Games. That game brought my work to Cole Wehrle's attention, and so years later as we were prepping to get Hollandspiele off the ground, I could write to Cole and ask him whether he could do a game for us, and he would have some idea who I was.
That game was An Infamous Traffic, and it brought our company to the attention of a wider audience, which ultimately made our model sustainable as a full-time endeavor.
Now, we stumbled upon that model because Mary and I worked for a publisher who had a somewhat similar model, which ultimately came about because of a magazine wargame I had done for another publisher.
One thing lead to another, and I can trace similar interweaving chains of coincidence and cause-and-effect all leading up to the present moment. I will say that I tried to position myself to take advantage of those opportunities.
By being interested in a lot of different things, I increased the probability that those opportunities might arise.
Our work with the other publisher gave us the model, and Cole's game gave us a head start, but we needed to put in the work and have the skill-set to grow our business and its audience.
DM: Your historical wargames cover a wide range of eras, game mechanisms, and player count. Can you describe your process for developing these three strands within a single game?
TR: These historical designs start with the history and with research. Most of this research is "passive", in that I'm not reading up on a topic trying to make a game.
If I go into it with my game designer hat on, I'm going to be looking for mechanisms or chrome and what-not, going to be focusing on the details, but what I'm looking for is the big picture, a general understanding of the topic so that I'm reasonably conversant in it.
Maybe this turns into a game, and maybe it doesn't. It helps that I'm interested in a lot of different things, so I read up on a lot of different things.
Once I decide to do a game on a topic, my research gets a bit deeper and more detailed — then I wait for the idea to fully form in my brain.
I don't start making counters or writing rules or any of that, not until I have a complete, coherent, and cohesive picture of exactly what I want the game to be, what I want it to feel like, what I want to look like, what tensions I want to be present, what thesis I want to express.
When all that is clear in my head, then I start working on the game, and I keep working on it until it looks like that picture. Sometimes that picture forms very quickly; sometimes it takes a while.
For example, in 2019 we released both The Toledo War and Westphalia. The Toledo War took maybe two or three days to come together. Westphalia took ten years.
Regarding the question of player count, it's actually pretty simple. I tend to think of player counts as falling into three buckets: solo games, two-player games, and games for three-plus.
Each of these to me suggest a very different space to explore. A three-plus game is a game about alliances and shared incentives. A two-player game is very much about direct and bitter conflict, control of tempo, control of the balance of the game itself.
I wouldn't be comfortable calling a solitaire game a "puzzle" or an efficiency game, but there are elements of that in my solo designs.
You'll likely never see me do a game these days that scales from one to six or from two to five because each of these experiences are so distinct that for me there isn't really much overlap between these kinds of games.
DM: Your games share many mechanisms with other games within the historical wargame genre, yet will often have something that sets them apart (a stack of steps, three draw cup system, a focus on logistics). Are these "twists" born from a desire to innovate, to better reflect a historical period, personal design challenges, something else?
TR: Honestly, it just feels natural to me to do it the way that I do it. I like having clever mechanisms, of course, and am reasonably proud of some of the things I've come up with, but I'm not necessarily trying to be "twisty".
I do feel like a good historical game needs to have a thesis or view its subject through a lens. It's not enough, I think, to have a game be "a game about the American Revolution", but "a game about the function of logistics during the American Revolution" is worth doing.
In the end, it's a matter of what you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it.
DM: Complex historical train games are another niche genre with a devoted fan base. How would you describe their appeal to an interested passerby?
TR: Well, I don't know if I'd call train games "complex". Most train games are actually very simple. Even something like the 18xx, which has a daunting reputation, isn't usually very complicated in terms of rules overhead.
I also wouldn't call them "historical". At least personally I don't approach the train games in the same way as I do the wargames. I'm not expressing a thesis, but creating a sort of a mechanical exercise to explore player dynamics.
That's probably the key I would zero in on: the interaction between players. Sure, I'd talk about building the track and investing in stocks, but I also know there are people who couldn't care less about that.
These are very competitive, very interactive games in which each player's portfolio gets hopelessly entangled with that of other players; everything you do to help yourself has the potential to help someone else, everything you do to hurt someone else might hurt you.
Every action matters, and if you make a mistake, it can sink your position and make it irrecoverable. That kind of experience isn't for everyone, but I think the people who would be into that would recognize that if you described it to them.
DM: When creating a series of historical train games, are there specific issues that you model with each game and how do you reflect these in a design?
TR: I've done several train games, of course, and in a way many of them are iterative, expanding upon what I did the last time. But each game is generally its own thing, conceived for its own reason and with its own emphasis.
Northern Pacific was intended to focus on shared incentives and chains of "if I do this, she'll do that".
Irish Gauge was, I think, an attempt to create a simple, streamlined, introductory take on Winsome's action selection-style cube rail games. I say "think" because unusually the entire game sprung forth fully-formed like Athena over the course of an hour while I was stuck in traffic, so I didn't so much go into Irish Gauge with a goal in mind as I decided that was the goal after the fact!
Trans-Siberian Railroad is a messy sort of game in which I was trying to do something heavier and a bit more capricious. This introduced the "track-leasing" mechanism that ran through my next three games. Those next three games are also interested in exploring more co-operative rather than destructive play patterns in the context of a competitive game.
Iberian Gauge has numbered shares, and players who are invested in a company build one track per share according to the order in which those shares are bought.
London & Northwestern is unique in that you can invest only in other player's companies and that their stock values only go up, never down.
The Soo Line is the last of those track-leasing games, and it's the weirdest of the bunch. It very deliberately breaks some of the "rules" of "good train game design".
For example, in games where majority shareholders make all decisions for a company, you want at least as many companies as you have players. Well, this is a game for up to five players with only three companies, which means that some players take a less active role, having to make their fortunes as pure investors.
Asymmetry is common in train games, and sometimes some companies are kinda rubbish, but here the three companies are rubbish in wildly different ways.
Some people like it. Some people hate it. That's to be expected as it's a deliberately abrasive game.
The newest choo-choo game that I have pulling into the station is Dual Gauge, and this is a multi-map train game system. How this happened is that Mary told me I needed to do a new train game every year, and I thought to myself, "Wow, that sounds like a lot of work — but if I do a system, I can do the base game this year, then just do a couple of maps every year to fulfill Mary's requirement."
Well, Mary was really happy to hear about me doing a system that could have expansions, but she told me that this didn't cut the mustard, and that I will also be on the hook for new standalone train games each year.
Dual Gauge borrows some elements of the 18xx — track shared by all companies, blocking by way of placing stations, buying trains and running routes, some of those trains become obsolete, and a two-dimensional stock market — but it's very much a cube rails game at heart (despite not having any cubes). It is, I think, its own thing, and the system is robust enough that each map should have some unusual tweaks and fresh challenges.
DM: Do the train and military game strands of your design career have more in common than meets the eye at first glance — simulation concepts, for example?
TR: Not really. The historical games are built to explore or express a thesis through a model. Sometimes this is a very serious subject where what I want to express is very important to me; This Guilty Land is about the complicity of compromise in oppression. Sometimes the subject is less serious, or at least less immediate: With It Or On It is a coarse-grain model of the advantages and disadvantages of hoplite formations.
The train games, on the other hand, are purely about mechanisms and player dynamics, and playing with genre conventions and expectations.
DM: Hollandspiele is a small, independent company in a crowded field. How do you manage to stand out from, and compete with, other companies?
TR: Well, the secret is that we don't really "compete" with anyone. We're off to the side of the market proper, catering to more adventurous tastes.
We use a print-on-demand model: You order the game from us, pay us for it, we turn around and pay our printer, who manufactures and ships you the game. So these games are essentially made one at a time. We never "over-produce", never have any inventory to sell off.
We don't deal with distributors, don't sell games at conventions. We're completely insulated from all the hubbub, and our model allows us to tackle more unusual and less commercial topics and approaches.
There's an audience for that which has traditionally been underserved, and I think that's a large part of our success.
DM: In addition to your own games, Hollandspiele also releases games by other designers. From a publisher’s point of view, what makes a game stand out from the masses? Are there any games that you are particularly glad to have been able to release?
TR: We're mostly looking for a game with a point of view or a strong authorial voice.
We're proud of all our releases, but the jewels in the crown, as it were, have been the aforementioned An Infamous Traffic, which went out of print last year, and Erin Escobedo's Meltwater, which we're still printing.
Both games were strong sellers, which is always nice, both were well-received critically, and both expanded our audience, bringing eyes to our other titles.
DM: What do you think the future holds for niche historical games? Do you feel they will remain in a niche genre, or will they become more (or return to the) mainstream as their mechanisms and design ideas become more frequently seen in popular games?
TR: I mean, "niche" games are gonna be niche games. That's not to say that historical games don't have broader crossover appeal, and there have definitely been strides toward making historical games more approachable to that wider audience.
I'm sure that this will continue to be the case. It's just not something I'm particularly interested in, and I have the luxury of just doing whatever the heck I want.
DM: Do you have any advice for aspiring designers and publishers?
TR: I make weird, brittle, abrasive games that alienate and frustrate people, so I'm not sure if anyone looking to be successful in this field should be listening to my advice.
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first published on Diagonal Move on September 25, 2020. —WEM]
Phil Walker-Harding, designer of Sushi Go!, Bärenpark and Gizmos joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to look back on his career to date.
DM: Hi, Phil, thank you for joining us today. You are one of the most successful game designers working today, with numerous commercially successful titles and many critical awards to your name — yet you started by selling small, self-published card games. Please can you tell us about those early days of your career?
PWH: When I got into modern board games, particularly those coming out of Germany like Catan and Carcassonne, I immediately wanted to design my own! I played lots of games growing up and had even tried making my own as a child, so it was quite natural to take it back up as a hobby.
Way back before Kickstarter revolutionized the way games are funded, marketed, and even produced, self-publishing was a very different thing. My first few releases were hand-assembled in very small print runs. I sold them online and at small local conventions, so it felt like a very small DIY beginning!
Archaeology: The Card Game was picked up by Z-Man Games, and I gradually built up my name from there. Around five years ago, I decided to fully focus on designing and working with other publishers.
DM: Sushi Go!, in 2013, was your breakthrough game. When did you realize that you had a hit, and how did it feel to achieve that success?
PWH: It was a bit of a gradual thing because the first edition of Sushi Go! was self-published, so there wasn't a big audience right away.
Gamewright signed the game a little bit after that, so I knew it would be marketed far more widely, but you never know how successful a game will be out in the market. I suppose I realized how well it was doing about a year after it was out and I saw a whole lot of people playing it all around the world on social media.
It was a great feeling as it had been a real aim of mine to create a popular family-friendly little card game.
DM: Cacao followed in 2015. It features a combined tile and worker placement mechanism. How did the mechanism and the overall game develop from the initial idea to fully formed game?
PWH: Cacao evolved from another design — a card game all about surrounding scoring cards with your cards in order to achieve majorities, so very much like the temple tiles in the finished game.
At some point I tried having your scoring cards trigger immediate actions. This worked so well I made this the whole focus of the game, and the rest of the design followed quite quickly.
I then entered the design in the  Premio Archimede competition, and from there it found a great publisher in ABACUSSPIELE.
DM: Imhotep was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2016. What effect did this have on your career? Did you experience an increased sense of expectation for the releases that followed?
PWH: I did feel that more people knew who I was after the nomination, although probably more within the industry rather than general gamers. It did lead to new contacts and relationships with publishers. I am sure it did help my recognition generally as a designer, but this is something that has slowly grown since I began, I would say.
DM: Many of your games, including the popular Bärenpark, incorporate mechanisms seen in far more complex games, yet are accessible to players of all ages and experience. Is this accessibility intentional and, if so, how do you achieve this aim?
PWH: Yes, it is definitely an aim. One of the best things about our hobby is that it can bring people of all ages and backgrounds together around the table.
I try to make my designs as easy to approach as possible. How exactly you achieve this is a hard thing to quantify exactly, but I do have a few principles I stick to.
For example, the game should take five minutes or less to teach, and the results of the players' actions should have immediate feedback so that they know and feel what they have achieved.
Theme and graphic design also play a big part, so I try to make this a priority in my discussions with my publishers.
DM: Gizmos was another big success. Do engine-building games — with their multiple layers, effect combos and variable routes to victory — require a greater degree of development than some other genres? How do you approach this from a design perspective?
PWH: Engine-building games like Gizmos do have certain complexities about them, yes. Because the powers that the player gains persist for the whole game, balancing them against each other becomes very important.
In Gizmos, it was important that each card was costed correctly so that all the different paths to victory remained viable. I was greatly helped by Marco at CMON in this area. He has a background in collectible card games, so had lots of great insights about balancing and costing cards.
DM: For all the success that many of your games have seen, some games remain less well known (Gingerbread House, Silver & Gold, Pack of Heroes). What factors do you think have contributed to the success of some games over others?
PWH: It is a hard thing for me to have full insight into! Some games are just better than others, but also there are all sorts of factors in the market when a game is a released that can factor into its success: Did the game stick out as different and original when it first came out, or did it get lost in the crowd? Was there good early buzz about the game, or did the marketing not quite land with the right audience?
With so many games being released each year, it is getting harder to stand out. Personally, I try to release fewer games that I am really happy with, but of course even then they can't all be hits!
DM: You have had the opportunity to revisit older games including Archaeology and Dungeon Raiders? How do you feel when revising past projects with the benefit of experience, and is there one that you would like to revisit if you could?
PWH: It was a great opportunity to revisit both of those designs for new editions. I was really thankful to be given that chance by Z-Man Games and Devir.
I definitely felt my experience gave me some ability to knock some of the rough edges off my older designs, so in both cases I felt I could clean them up a little. However, both games already had a bit of an audience and a core mechanism that was working, so I didn't want to completely overhaul them.
Also, it was interesting to see which design choices I made back then that I would not make now that were actually probably the right fit for the design.
DM: Which game do you look back on and think "I'm glad I did that" and why?
PWH: Designing all the different types of cards in Sushi Go Party! was a real challenge, and at points I was not sure if I could make it work, but I am really glad I kept at it and finished the design. I think it was a great learning process for me as a designer, and the game has really helped keep the Sushi Go! line going.
DM: Do you have any design or publishing advice to share with readers?
PWH: I often say to new designers to just get your first design out there. Making your game available through print-and-play, GameCrafter, or an online design competition is a great way to get a whole lot of eyes on your work.
And it is okay if your first designs aren't fantastic because you will learn from each game you make, and the feedback you get from players will be invaluable as you progress!
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26 Sep 2020
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move on September 9, 2020. All images were provided by Gemma Newton. —WEM]
DM: Hi, Gemma, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us a bit about yourself?
GN: Hi, Neil, thanks for having me. I'm Gemma Newton, the founder of Moonstone Games and designer behind a little game called Plotalot. I live in a quaint village in Berkshire in the UK. It's pretty idyllic, lots of walks and green space which I love, with my husband and cat. Besides making games, I am a freelance copywriter, writing for technology, food, and nutrition industries mainly.
I grew up five minutes from my current home on a farm where my parents worked with horses. I moved away to the bright lights of London for a while to study and start my career in marketing but inevitably returned to my countryside roots to live and work. I think growing up in such an agricultural environment has fueled my love of nature and being in nature, meaning I now spend a lot of time walking, climbing, and gardening as hobbies. I find the natural world my biggest inspiration for ideas and that shows in the first game I've published.
DM: Your first published game, Plotalot, has a horticultural theme. What do you think it is about that theme, and themes involving the natural world in general, that makes them perennially appealing to gamers?
GN: I think we're all drawn to the natural world; after all, in the grand scheme of things we haven't been living in urban spaces for that long. It's in our DNA to want to experience and to some extent maybe even control the wildness of nature, and this makes for some compelling mechanics and gameplay when it comes to designing a new game. Nature is also beautiful — the most beautiful place you can be in my opinion. Since the start of civilization it has inspired art, literature, and science as we try to mimic, capture, and now protect it, so it makes sense that designers and players feel comfortable working with this broad theme.
DM: Despite the "gentle" appearance, Plotalot does contain a significant "take that" element. What inspired this combination of theme and mechanics?
GN: Plotalot was created out of a desire to build a game which my family would play. I had started to get into gaming myself, but my family just didn't get the bug. I was desperate to find something other than Monopoly to play with them and so out of my brain came this vegetable-themed game.
At the time of developing a theme, I had just planted my first vegetable patch and my Mum was a keen gardener, so I knew it was something she would like. As I watched my vegetables fail and succeed, I took inspiration from the real-life pests I faced such as aphids and caterpillars. I learned about the benefits of a polytunnel and decent fertilizer and weaved those lessons into the mechanics. I struggled with having such a small patch, and this really informed the main mechanism of managing space.
I didn't intend for it to be so "take that", but as I started testing different actions, it was the more interactive cards that made the gameplay between players so fun and special. Over the years, I've balanced the decks carefully so while you can be attacked and take a hit, you also have plenty of opportunities to turn the game back in your favor quickly, too.
DM: Plotalot remains a family-friendly game. Was that an intentional design choice, and how did you achieve it given the take-that aspect?
GN: I wanted a game which a group of adults could play but that kids could get involved with, too. I tested it with children as young as eight, and while they might not have the deeper tactics nailed, they loved the fact that they could play a "take that" action on their parents. Children tend to play the game harsher than adults I find — they'll choose to cause havoc over scoring points any day.
Not only that, the theme also lends itself to families, and I had fun creating family-friendly artwork which would appeal to all ages. I wanted to create a game which, while not deeply educational, could get families interested in having a go at growing their own, knowing from their plays of the game that aphids are bad and bees are good for example.
DM: Plotalot features bright, colorful art. How important do you feel artwork is to the overall experience of playing board games?
GN: For me, it's so important. I love good board game artwork as it enhances the experience of playing a game and is a real testament to why modern board games have made the hobby so popular. No matter the style, I believe the artwork should be just that: a piece of art that helps tell the story of the game and immerse players in the experience.
In Plotalot, I was lucky enough to find an incredible illustrator who characterized my horticultural heroes and villains in a way I could never have imagined. I went through several artists before we met — some so bad that the game nearly never came to life — but Miriam Hull took it to a new level. The style she went with can be appreciated by adults but appeals to children, too, making it a more universal experience.
DM: You decided to publish Plotalot yourself via your company, Moonstone Games. What prompted this decision over seeking out an established publisher, and how has the experience been so far?
GN: I pitched Plotalot to a few publishers but nothing stuck. At the time, the game was still in its early stages, and the rejections were important lessons in how developed games need to be to hit the mark. I was naturally hesitant to go it alone — after all, it's a big ask for one person who already has a full-time career — but I wanted to prove to myself and my family that this idea could be something more. There was also a large part of me, the artistic and eco-conscious part, that saw this as an opportunity to express myself in areas such as sustainability and design which appealed.
So I went it alone and started properly testing and refining the concept to what it is now. Taking it on myself meant taking on the expense, but it allowed for ultimate freedom as well. With this, I was able to control the look and feel, as well as the single-use plastic used in the game which was important to me.
Right now, I would say the experience has been one of steep learning, challenging myself in both a creative and business capacity. It's certainly giving me more confidence in what I can do now and in the future.Plotalot prototype cards
DM: The Kickstarter campaign for Plotalot was successful, and you are now releasing to retail. Can you describe the differences between the two sales outlets? Are there unique challenges to each outlet?
GN: Kickstarter is a scary prospect for a newbie such as myself. It used to be a space for small designers to put their ideas out there, whether fully formed or just as a concept. Nowadays, everything is very polished with huge amounts spent on graphics, videos, and photography. It's a hard place to stand out on a small budget. Despite this, if you produce an honest product that is genuinely unique, it is a fantastic platform for getting your idea to as many people around the world as possible — a truly supportive community of new ideas which is fantastic.
Getting a retailer onboard has been a challenge. I am an unproven designer up against some big names and budgets in the industry. I found it tough to work out the margins so everyone gets a good deal, but this is the nature of selling any product, not just a game. When it comes to Plotalot and getting retailers on board, I have managed to find a compelling price point. Not only that, gamers are charmed by the visual appeal of the game, which really helps a retailer get behind it as they know people will pick up or click on the box. Behind the artwork is a lovely little game that is easy to explain and sell, but first impressions are important in piquing that initial interest.
DM: Moonstone aims to publish board games using eco-friendly manufacturing methods. How are you achieving this, and is achieving it bringing its own set of challenges?
GN: I've always been passionate about creating something that doesn't impact the environment. Growing up on a farm, I learnt the value of the land and nature from a young age, and this has stuck with me throughout my life.
My initial plan was to produce Plotalot 100% plastic-free, but when I went into mass manufacturing, this didn't turn out quite as planned. I was set back in my quest to source plastic-free laminate, which while in existence, just isn't durable enough to last the length of time people keep board games. It biodegrades after just a few years, which is fantastic news for some products, but which means my beautiful game, designed to be played again and again, would deteriorate and only add to the waste problems we face.
In the end, I settled for no single-use plastic, so whilst the cards and box are laminated for long-term durability, there are no components or shipping materials made from plastic anywhere. This leads to a more expensive product to produce and smaller profit margins, but it's something I feel is hugely important. It has also lead to a tighter specification, which in the end has made me more creative with how I get around plastic usage.
To keep the game even less impactful on the planet, I have also worked hard to source UK suppliers and manufacturers rather than defaulting to larger companies in China or Europe. I want to support British business where possible and limit the miles my products travel before they hit people's tables. To top it all off, Moonstone Games also works with Ecologi, offsetting business activities by supporting reforestation projects across the world. As you can tell, being eco-conscious is pretty important to me!
DM: Although you are still relatively new to the industry, is there anything you wish you had known at the start?
GN: There are so many things I wish I knew then that I know now, and I'm sure this pattern will continue — you are constantly learning. One of the key things I wish I'd done earlier was to integrate a pledge manager into my Kickstarter planning. Right before I submitted the campaign, I decided to go with BackerKit, but I should have done it earlier as it would have helped me with managing my shipping costs more efficiently. This was a huge learning curve and next time, I'll get them involved much earlier.
I think the other thing I wish I'd known at the start was just how supportive and generous the board gaming community can be. As a creator, I obsess over the details, but the board game community just love games no matter their shape, size, or theme and avidly support new ideas. Whether you're a big name publisher or a one-woman band, there is a huge amount of support for everyone releasing games at the moment.
DM: What's next for Moonstone Games?
GN: I can't wait to see Plotalot being played around the world by my backers and buyers. From here I have plans to develop an expansion for the game if there's demand for it, which add new mechanics and components to expand the gameplay.
I also want to develop more games beyond Plotalot and have some concepts already in prototype form for testing. Wherever I go, I observe real-world situations and twist them into game mechanics which I've not seen before; it's becoming quite an obsession. One thing that I know for sure if that my style is very much themed around nature, animals, and farming as it's where I'm most inspired, so you can look forward to some more games along these lines.
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