Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
This week, Volko Ruhnke, designer of Nevsky and Labyrinth: The War on Terror and creator of the COIN series, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move for a retrospective of his remarkable career.
DM: Hi, Volko, thank you for joining us. During your design career, you have created some of the most well-known historically themed games currently available. Please can you tell us how it all began?
VR: Hi, thanks for letting me join you! I started board wargaming as a grade-schooler, with Avalon Hill games in the 1970s. For the first decade or so, published games to me were received wisdom: I did not think to doubt what came in the box. The designers were professionals, after all! Then, as a college student on a trip to Europe that included visits to various battlefields, I noticed that some terrain was quite different from what I had grown familiar with on my most revered game boards.
That epiphany — that games could be wrong in some way, could be improved — was the start for me of tinkering with purchased games and ultimately designing new games. At first, I would just get out my pencil and mark up changes to rule books. Or I would take elements of games that I owned, the combat results table, for instance, and apply them to different situations on homemade maps. Eventually, I got involved in playtesting for my favorite company, GMT Games. I had that fan relationship with GMT for years — I even helped GMT president Gene Billingsley assemble game boxes in a convention hotel room once — before I approached them with a design.
DM: Your first notable success was Wilderness War, in which players vie for control of North America during the 1700s. It is still in print almost twenty years after its initial release. Can you tell us about the development of that game, and why you think it has had such longevity?
VR: In the 1990s, friends and I designed and ran paper historical campaigns for one another, homespun role-play campaigns with great attention to historical detail.
One of mine was set in the French and Indian War: We sought to recreate the year 1756 on the American frontier. That war was my greatest interest at the time as I live in Virginia. George Washington's early military career was as a Virginia colonel, and I had studied his history including from his papers in the nearby Library of Congress. When I complained to a friend that the none of the existing board games about the French and Indian War had all the elements I thought needed, he challenged me to design my own.
I designed Wilderness War in 2000 when card-driven games were still young. Mark Simonitch's Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage was a key inspiration. With Wilderness War, I tried to take the CDG form that Mark Herman, Simonitch, and Ted Raicer had invented and refine it to my favorite setting, one that happened to emphasize competing modes of warfare: European-style massed armies and fortifications on the one hand and petite guerre of frontier raiders and rangers on the other. I suspect that Wilderness War still gets played mainly because it tries to hew closely to the original power of CDGs while exploring an asymmetric contest.Image: Volko Ruhnke
DM: Labyrinth: The War of Terror followed in 2010. It depicts the struggle between the U.S. and Islamic extremism. How does making a game based on an ongoing or very recent conflict differ from one modelling events outside of living memory?
VR: A difference may be that more players already will have formed views of more recent history — or maybe not as hobbyists can be quite passionate and opinionated about whatever historical period fascinates them!
Regardless, history is always interpretation, and as a designer your interpretation is in there, no matter how objective you may strive to be. As professional wargamer Peter Perla wrote, game design is communication. So I did try with Labyrinth or in designing A Distant Plain with Brian Train about the still ongoing war in Afghanistan, to be explicit with myself about what we were saying to players about those conflicts.
However, whether it's about guerrilla warfare or Gettysburg, a wargame presents a designer's model that is necessarily simplified. The model can teach us something about past or ongoing affairs, but it only adds to the mental models that the players already bring to the table. My hope in game design is not to change anyone's position on anything, but rather to raise questions in players' minds and thereby perhaps to help them refine the understanding of events that they already possess.
DM: The year 2012 saw the release of Andean Abyss. What was the spark that turned a game about a relatively obscure conflict into a game that became the start of the popular COIN series?
VR: The idea for Andean Abyss sprung from my experience on Labyrinth and from my day job teaching U.S. intelligence analysts.
From the latter, I had become ever more interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) as a complex interplay of many actors and factors. A premise of Labyrinth was that jihadism versus counterterrorism was at core a global insurgency/counterinsurgency — and one, I think, valid criticism of Labyrinth's model was that it reduced a multiparty conflict to just two sides. Australian COIN expert Kilcullen wrote that all counterinsurgency is multifactional, and I wanted to explore that.
Colombia offered a rich story of at least four powerfully competing visions for the country's future battling it out, with a government facing down three insurgencies at once and coming out mostly on top. How did they do that? Only one other board game had taken on Colombia's war — Crisis Games' Colombia — and that game was published (out of my town!) years before the period that Andean Abyss would cover!
Finally, after facing the challenge of designing a solitaire mode for one side in Labyrinth, I wanted to see whether I could do the same for all four sides in a game, to mimic multi-side action for a single player, and Colombia's factional struggle offered that opportunity.
GMT President Gene Billingley's reaction to my proposal was hesitant; as he has since said, he did not think that he could sell a game about Colombian guerrilla war (until he got the chance to play it). He was right, in a way: Initial preorders were quite weak, especially within the U.S. But the promise of a series to follow buttressed the potential of the volume, Andean Abyss got made, and players reacted well. Other designers joined me almost at once for new settings, and the COIN Series was off!COIN Series games (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: The games that immediately followed Andean Abyss showed COIN to be a flexible system capable of depicting a variety of historical periods. Can you describe how the system developed during the first years and what you think makes it so flexible?
VR: The central design challenge in Andean Abyss was to effect as cleanly as I could the asymmetries among four factions in their ends, ways, and means (the classic components of strategy). Within that, I needed to show guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations as mainly a matter of initiative (as an abstraction of local information advantage) since the contest of firepower so important to conventional warfare is not really the determinant of victory. Out of those modelling tasks, I came up with the initiative-card sequence of play, faction-unique ops and special activity menus, and asymmetric victory conditions at the heart of the COIN Series.
Those game mechanisms apply well to such varied conflict settings, I think, because these asymmetric factional features of Colombian and other counterinsurgencies actually are true of all mass human affairs. All of us all the time have overlapping but not identical interests. All of history is factions, so COIN Series topics are to be found everywhere.
(Factions come to the fore especially in internal conflicts like insurgencies — which are abundant across the ages but deeply under-gamed. Yet they are there in classic, apparently two-sided wars as well. You need to see them to understand how the Wehrmacht acted in World War Two, for example, and there is some great boardgame design work underway now to explore that.)
DM: How does it feel for you to see the COIN series now being driven by other designers who are taking it into new and varied directions?
VR: It is the best part of it for me. I had originally envisioned just four COIN Series volumes, one per continent: Colombia, Angola, Philippines, Iraq. They would have very similar internals to Andean Abyss. But what we got from all the designers who stepped forward is a far more varied and higher quality exploration of factional conflict. We have non-violence as a tactic, raiding for plunder, tribal loyalties, and — to come — future conflict on another planet.
I certainly never would have thought of Brian Train's adaptation of the COIN Series sequence of play to a two-player game (Colonial Twilight), which gives the same — even amplified — struggles for initiative. Nor could I have foreseen Bruce Mansfield's rework of the Series' solitaire system from difficult flowcharts of limited variability to smooth and capable card-based bots in Gandhi, now in work for retrofit to earlier volumes. VPJ Arponen with this three-player All Bridges Burning and other designers have made their own, similar leaps within the system.
DM: Your most recent big game is Nevsky, which is set in medieval Europe and features logistics and operational issues affecting conflict during the period. Please tell us about the inspiration behind the design and its development process.
VR: The initial inspiration for a system examining medieval warfare at the operational level came from a college memory, a course called "English Constitutional History" that highlighted feudal service as a building block of law. To my wargamer mind at the time, the fact of limited military service ("show up with a helmet, spear, and horse for forty days") raised the operational question of how such time-limited duty affected military campaigns. What happened after the forty days ended and the war was still going on?
The next inspiration was from not a historical but a game-mechanical perspective. I loved the game Angola (originally from Ragnar Brothers, now in a beautiful MMP edition) designed in the 1980s but not really copied in the hobby. One fantastic mechanism in Angola is "column" cards that very smoothly model friction in communications and trust among allied factions, while in fact speeding rather than impeding gameplay. I wanted to steal this mechanism and apply it to some setting where the means of communication were uncertain and the command or alliance system rickety. Medieval warfare seemed a perfect setting for that.
The next step was to find a campaign in the Middle Ages that really interested me. There are not many wargames depicting medieval warfare at operational scale, so the field was quite open. My father's family was from the Baltic region. In the 1990s, I got to do a military history tour of Russia that really inspired me. I wanted my medieval operations designs to tour the cultural boundaries of Latin Europe, where I hoped to find more asymmetry and personality to two opposing sides' military styles. Teutons versus Rus in 1240-1242 offered me all that interest, and a classic motion picture to help excite players to the topic. Nevsky was born!Almoravid prototype cards (image: Volko Ruhnke)
DM: Nevsky is also the first in a new series, "Levy & Campaign". The next installment, Almoravid, is now available for pre-order. How does Almoravid progress the series, and what does the future hold for the series long term?
VR: Almoravid will take the Levy & Campaign series to the opposite end of medieval Europe geographically and with regard to its range of economic development — Muslim al-Andalus. Bigger armies, better roads, tougher fortifications across the countryside, and a more complex political environment as Christian kingdoms and duchies try to coalesce against even more fractious Muslim petty "taifa" states until a massive African Almoravid intervention force arrives to beat the Christians back. The core rules of levying and marching, supplying and fighting will be quite familiar to fans of Nevsky, but the physical and political environment will require different approaches.
For the future of Levy & Campaign, I am happy to report that I am enjoying a similar phenomenon to that of the COIN Series. Both new and experienced designers and researchers are stepping forward to create or co-design further volumes. Once again, my original concept for four volumes — one at each corner of medieval Latindom: Russia, Scotland, Spain, and the Holy Land — is superseded by opportunity for a broader array of settings. And the favorable reaction that Nevsky has received from designers, critiques, and most of all players now makes realization of a full series possible. Next up will be Italy, from a veteran Italian wargame designer. Designs set in Byzantium, Dark Ages France, and Scotland have begun. We shall see!Falling Sky prototype, now hanging on Volko's wall (image: Volko Ruhnke)
DM: Coming full circle now, your games are successful, both critically and commercially, and increasingly influential outside of the traditional war game audience. What effect has this level of success had on you personally?
VR: I am loving life, naturally! Game design is its own joy, related to but something other than game play. The widespread practice of players making their own games for themselves and their friends bears this out. A challenge, when our own designs go into publication, is that these two joys start to compete for what is already limited time in the week. "Design games, play games, have a life — choose two" as design teacher Alan Emrich once wrote. My great fortune, however, is that a few years ago I retired from a successful career in government service and can now delve fully into all aspects of my main hobby as well as enjoy my family and much more.Falling Sky retail (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?
VR: Follow your bliss! You are designing for your own entertainment, after all. (If instead you are striving for fame, fortune, or adoration, turn back now!) Borrow everything you can from other games — they are your toolbox — but mix them up, combine and change other's tools as you see fit. There really are no rules. Go new places. Experiment away: no lives will be lost.
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Archive for Neil Bunker
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Interview: Behrooz "Bez" Shahriari (Stuff by Bez) on Player Interaction and Where to Find Inspiration
12 Sep 2020
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos provided by Bez. —WEM]
Today Bez Shahriari, designer of Yogi and founder of Stuff by Bez, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss inspiration and player interaction in games.
DM: Hi, Bez, thanks for joining us today. You are the designer of Yogi, Kitty Cataclysm and the ELL Deck system. How did you get started in games design?
BS: I fell in love with video games at a very young age. One of my earliest memories is of the ZX Spectrum and being amazed that my siblings could affect what was happening on the television screen.
My love of video games eventually resulted in studying video game design at university. Unfortunately, during the second year the focus moved away from design onto programming. I failed that year and ended up going back to Glasgow, discovering BoardGameGeek and a local game group soon after.
At that point, I had been using packs of traditional playing cards as a tool to improve my general game design skills while creating video games. As I began to develop more of an interest in modern board games, I was inspired to turn my creative efforts towards physical games.
Initially I showed these only to friends. Then, about eight years ago, I moved to London and discovered Playtest UK, a national group of like-minded people that meet to help each other develop games. The members basically agree to play each other's games, discuss exactly why they are rubbish, then work together to improve.
I was able to get my first game, In a Bind, finished only due to Playtest UK and their willingness to work on my ideas with me.In a Bind was rebranded as Yogi
I wanted a game with chaos and silliness that lasted 20 minutes. There was card stealing, card swapping, scoring points — but I had this one card that said: "Stand up. If you have the card at the end of the game score 10 points; if you sit down, give the card to another player."
During a playtest, it was commented that this was the only card involving a physical action. It didn't fit. Either make a physical game or don't, so I went all out for silliness. I had people running around the table, spinning in circles, hopping, even doing sit-ups during playtests.
Gigamic picked up the design in 2016 and rebranded it as Yogi. It has gone on to be very successful, selling over 100,000 copies internationally. I'm happy to say that Yogi is currently paying my rent, and I can now concentrate on being a full-time games designer.The ELL Deck
DM: You have also designed a game system, the ELL Deck. Can you tell us more about that?
BS: My second release was the Wibell++ system, which has recently changed its name to the ELL Deck. This system is based around a deck of cards, with each having a pair of letters, border art, and a number on them. Some games use all these features, some use only one.
On release, it shipped with five card games in a tuck box. There are now over 26 games, with a new "headline" game added each Bez Day (1st August).
The original game was Wibbell itself. In this game the aim is to win cards by shouting out words that use letters from both cards in a central display and cards in your display.
I then used the same card deck to create Faybell, a storytelling game and [thing=230774]Grabbell[/thing], a dexterity/pattern recognition game. As I thought of more and more ideas for games using just this deck of cards, the concept of a system began to form in my mind.
The ELL Deck has very much become my life's work. I will release at least one new core game in the system each year until I retire. Since release, the system has had a deluxe edition, and I've recently finished a Kickstarter for Categorickell, a version with graffiti style art.
The system isn't just a means of publishing my own games. I also hold a design competition each year that allows players to contribute to the system. The only limit on entries is imagination.Kitty Cataclysm
DM: Where do you find inspiration?
BS: Inspiration can come from anywhere, from a game you like, a theme, a mechanism, a name, a design challenge or component limitation, or from any combination of these.
One of my prototypes is a party game called A game, wherein you blether (a Scottish word meaning to talk at length at a fast rate; ranting, hypothesising, narrating or speaking in some other manner, without necessarily making very much sense)… and then the title goes on for over two thousand words, covering the box.
It was inspired by a BGG GeekList that highlighted games with long titles. The intention of the GeekList wasn't to inspire a game, but it certainly inspired me. Now it's a ridiculous thing with 550 illustrations!
Coupell, from the ELL Deck, was inspired by the idea of being in a romantic couple. The aim is to achieve two scoring piles that have an equal number of points in them. It's a balance that can be achieved only through real co-operation.
I've also been working with Tiz Creel on a game called Seize the Power. It has a mechanism whereby each player has a set of individual rules to follow, but it is up to them if they follow those rules. If they wanted to, they could even give or sell their rules to another player. This mechanism combined well with its theme of discrimination.Seize the Power prototype
DM: Stuff by Bez games feature a high degree of player interaction. What is it about this aspect of game design that interests you?
BS: Interaction in games is a very interesting subject. There are still means to interact in even the most strategic games.
Think about a game like Go. That game is played in near total silence. All communication happens through the medium of the game. A full 19×19 game of Go is a huge strategic conversation. If my move doesn't result in a reaction from the other player, have I contributed sufficiently to the strategic conversation?
Some interaction is with game mechanisms more than the other players. I remember playing Bohnanza. It's a trading game where you would expect there to be high player interaction; however, much of the time is spent focusing on the cards, not the other players.
At the other extreme are large group or party games which are usually intended for seven or more players.
Kings College, in London, commissioned a piece from Sarah Jury and I for their exhibit "Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary". It's called Challenging Structures, and it responds to academic research that explores how changing views on gender and gender identity are reflected in law. What is the impact of changing the gender on your passport, for example?
The last playthrough had thirty people, split into four countries with different ideologies. It includes player characters that are written to be transgender or trans-phobic. Given the sensitive subject matter, we had to include a means for players to stop interacting if they wished. Interacting with my words and actual actions places these Live Action Roleplays (LARPs) and similar party games in a different category.
Physical and digital interaction are being combined by using in-game apps, and the boundaries of what even counts as a "board game" is being pushed by games like The Mind and Wavelength.
I think we are reaching a point where it's now possible to draw on game principles used in LARP or even sports and still be loosely within the umbrella of "board game".
DM: Any advice for new designers?
BS: Although it pains me to say this, any designers thinking about moving into publishing need to be aware that marketing and logistics are the most important factors in being successful. In this crowded world, you need to be able to make people aware that you exist and build relationships with retailers. You also need to do research into the marketplace. Are there games like yours available already?
Ask yourself: "Why am I creating this game?" You don't need to follow the standard path of design, pitch, publish.
There is massive value in making games for small limited print runs or even just a single copy given to a friend as a declaration of love.
Not everything has to be mass produced.
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This article is derived from an interview first published on Diagonal Move. Some of the games mentioned are self-published and available from the designer's website. —WEM]
Brian Train, designer of A Distant Plain, Colonial Twilight, and Brief Border Wars joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss simulating unconventional conflict in wargames.
DM: Hi, Brian, thank you for joining us. You have been a game designer for many years. Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started?
BT: Thanks, Neil. I had always wanted to design wargames because almost no one was publishing games about the kinds of things I wanted to play.
My first attempt at game design was a simple small game on the Pusan Perimeter phase of the Korean War in 1982; I typed the rules out by hand, hand drew the map on some photocopied hex paper, and made the counters by hand. It worked, but obviously only one copy was ever made!
Years later, in 1990, I was in Japan teaching English, and most of my game collection was on the other side of the ocean. I wanted to play wargames, but none were available — but this time I had a computer and a printer.
The first two games I designed were Power Play, about a coup d'etat in an imaginary country, and Civil Power, a tactical game about making and breaking urban riots. Funnily enough, the first was inspired by an old movie with Peter O'Toole and David Hemmings, the second by an essay by Hunter S. Thompson. I kept designing after I got back from Japan and in 1995 Kerry Anderson and I started the Microgame Co-op, later known as the Microgame Design Group.
Kerry Anderson and I co-founded the Group to make it possible for amateur designers to have their games done with some nice artwork (Kerry wanted to do the graphics) and distributed on a non-profit basis. We charged customers what it cost to print and mail these games, plus little to invest in new equipment (e.g., a color laser printer).
We were non-profit by intention, not by outcome! Surely that was unique... Production quality was strict DTP: an 11x17" map, one sheet of counters you had to mount and cut yourself, no more than 6-8 pages of rules and charts, packed in a plastic comic book bag. I found it an agreeable challenge to work within these stringent parameters; a lot of writers will tell you that it is harder to write a short story than a novel.
The MDG turned out almost forty titles in eight years. It suspended business for a while because Kerry wanted to go back to school and finish his doctorate. (He is a meteorologist who studies lightning and lightning-caused forest fires; one of his enduring bestselling designs is Smokejumpers, a game on fighting fires.) Kerry has recently started the Design Group up again to produce small quantities of some new and old games.
By about 2000 I was starting to get some attention from other small publishers; by 2005-07 I was publishing things with Fiery Dragon Productions, a small press company in Toronto. This let me out of the comic-book bag ghetto: these guys produced games in small tin boxes (and later, somewhat larger cardboard boxes) and could make die-cut counters. By 2010-15 my games were appearing in magazines and an even larger number of small press outfits.
In not quite thirty years of designing, I have published over fifty titles — but I still sell some of them with mount-your-own counters in a comic book bag!
DM: Your games tend to focus on modern-day, non-traditional conflicts. How do you choose a conflict to examine, and what is it about these conflicts that inspires you to them in a game/simulation format?
BT: I choose what I find interesting. It's a lot of work to design a wargame, and it takes a long time, so if I can't stay interested in the topic or the problem I want to solve, then chances are I will not finish it. For example, I once designed a game on the Battle of the Bulge called Autumn Mist, later redone as Winter Thunder. I was never very interested in the historical battle, but I wanted to use the battle as a setting for a corps/army level system I had developed.
Originally I wanted to use this system for the Manchuria 1945 Soviet offensive, but I haven't done that yet; instead the system has been used in Bulge 1944, Poland 1939 (Summer Lightning), and Yugoslavia 1943-45 (Balkan Gamble, an alternative-history game about the Allied invasions in the Balkans that never happened). One day I'll get around to doing it.
I don't care very much about whether a game will sell well — just that it explores an interesting problem in a way that players find absorbing. Games don't have to be finely balanced to be enjoyable, and a lot of simulations are not interesting enough when they are modeled too literally.
But at the same time you want your players to learn something about the historical situation, so you cannot turn it into too much of a game, so I guess playability is more important, but it can be taken too far.
Occasionally, a publisher will ask me for something on a particular topic — that's how I came to do Colonial Twilight.
DM: You have revisited certain conflicts (e.g., Afghanistan, Vietnam) several times during your career. How do you differentiate between games on the same subject?
BT: I suppose it's fair to say that I have spent a bit of time hanging around Afghanistan, Kandahar province in particular. I did A Distant Plain with Volko Ruhnke to cover the entire country, then four different games on the situation in Kandahar province using four different systems: a quite complicated development of an early guerrilla system; the "4 box" system I had used for other strategic level guerrilla conflicts but taken down to province level; a variant of the Staff Card system Joe Miranda introduced in Bulge 20 (and co-designed with Joe); and the District Commander system of diceless operational-level counterinsurgency games. Each system stresses different parts of the conflict and focuses on modeling different aspects of it.
I think that's quite acceptable. Look at how many different games have been done on the Bulge or Gettysburg, and how each one is different — though maybe it's unusual to have one designer go back to the same campaign again and again.
DM: Why do you think some conflicts capture the imagination of gamers more than others, and is there an underexplored conflict that you would like to work on?
BT: A bit over half of my games are about irregular or unconventional warfare. By and large this is not a popular genre among wargamers. Even though this is the predominant mode of actual conflict in the world today, and you might expect that wargamers might have more interest in contemporary conflict, this appears not to be the case. Wargamers are interested in history generally and can have intense involvement and knowledge of certain historical periods, but I am not convinced they are any more interested in current events than the general run of non-wargamers.
World War Two, Napoleonic, and American Civil War titles still dominate the market; they always have and probably always will, though there are many exceptions, and people seem more accepting of titles than they used to be; when I started wargaming in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were almost no wargames on the Vietnam War, but now games on this war appear regularly.
So I spend most of my brain cycles on irregular warfare topics, an underexplored field in itself, and go for underexplored conflicts within that genre and portray them at various levels.
Many of them are strategic level where an entire country is shown (Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes). The challenge here is to show the long-term, non-military effects of many small military and non-military actions; irregular warfare is a "strategy of tactics" in which there are very few climactic battles like Dien Bien Phu, so many of these games use the semi-arbitrary concept of "political support", measured in points on a scale of 0 to 99. When someone runs out of this support, the game is over, and they have lost.
Recently a few irregular wargames have appeared that have modern settings but show the action at the tactical level (Boots on the Ground, Phantom Fury). They may have a few special rules or restrictions in them, but essentially, they are games about tactical infantry combat, which has been largely the same for the last 75 years, just with more and more asymmetric technology and firepower between the two sides. I don't do tactical level games at all, except for Civil Power, a "sandbox" game on rioting and urban disorders (and another common contemporary event).
What is even more interesting — and much harder to do — is to show irregular war at the operational scale in between these two levels. This is where a player has to think in terms of connected battles as they contribute to campaign plans and the non-military effect of what is going on in the conflict, yet the player does not represent a national leader or government who can set policy or allocate resources on a large scale. They must do not only what they think is required to win the conflict; they must also do what their government tells them to. I started in on this with my game Kandahar in which the two players are regional commanders and continued it in the District Commander system.
I'm also really interested in the problem of urban irregular warfare. I've done about half a dozen titles on this topic (Battle of Seattle, Civil Power, Tupamaro, Operation Whirlwind, District Commander Maracas, Nights of Fire and development work on We Are Coming, Nineveh), and I am going to do more.
DM: You are perhaps best known for your entries in the COIN series. How do you find working within the constraints of an existing and popular system?
BT: In 2000 I designed a game on the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence. I had always been interested in this war, and this game was the first to be published on the war, in any language. In 2007-08 a professional colleague of Volko Ruhnke discovered the Fiery Dragon edition of the game, and together we worked out a simpler version of the game for him to use in his classes. Volko saw the game, and it gave him some ideas for what would become the COIN system; I helped playtest his Andean Abyss in 2010, and I could see he was on to something — then the game came out the following year and he name-checked me in his designer's notes!
A year or two later we met in person at a conference on professional wargaming, and we quickly agreed to work together on something... A Distant Plain was the result, in 2013, and what a privilege it was to work with him.
So, with Colonial Twilight, in a sense I'd come full circle, working on the third game ever published on the war, using a system partly inspired by the first. The most interesting thing about that game is that it was the first volume in the system for other than four players; cracking the "two-body problem" was interesting. Nevertheless, I have since made up a four-player variant of Colonial Twilight for those who can't break the habit.
The GMT COIN system is a really flexible one that lends itself to a lot of different kinds of conflicts. I've often thought that it might be a good one to try in a power-politics situation where there is no overt conflict or violence. I have managed to add something with each title, as has everyone else working in the system. One problem of doing things slightly differently within an existing system is getting players to unlearn certain habits or assumptions they have made in playing other games in the system!
There are a few other occasions where I have used all or part of someone else's system because I found it particularly useful or interesting to implement. One example is Joe Miranda's Staff Card system, which he introduced in Bulge 20 and which I have used since in BCT Command Kandahar (a co-design with Joe), The Scheldt Campaign and Third Lebanon War.
DM: Looking back, which game makes you think "I'm glad I did that" and why?
BT: I suppose game designs are like one's children: some disappoint less than others. But when I think about it, that's actually pretty easy to answer: Guerrilla Checkers, the simplest game I've ever done in terms of rules, mechanisms, and components, but one that cuts to the nature of asymmetric warfare so quickly.
I had been working with some other people on an Afghanistan design, and at about oh-dark-I-don't-want-to-look-at-the-clock one morning I was staring at the ceiling and thinking about how the insurgents and counterinsurgents there, while both occupying the same section of the world at the same time, approached the physical terrain (ridges, gullies, roads) and human terrain (villages, tribes, relationships) in completely different ways. Why not have an abstract game in which the two sides are playing with quite different pieces working in quite different ways, but are using the same board with the same ultimate aim of neutralizing the enemy?
The game uses mechanisms from both Draughts and Go, but the combination of the two systems makes for a completely different game experience. The rules are very simple, but strategy can be deep and while it is a perfect information game, it is highly asymmetric.
DM: Can you tell us more about your recent releases?
BT: I'm working on several things right now.
• Brief Border Wars, my attempt to revive the old SPI style quadrigame of four small, short games in one box that share the same rules system, came out in mid-2020. The publisher decided that it should have a sequel, and it's an interesting system, so the last month or so I have been working on Volume II with four new battles, each pre-1945. If I want to do a Volume III, they will be post-1945 situations.
• China's War 1937-41: a game using the COIN system which is somewhere north of 1,200 pre-orders on the GMT P500 system. I actually got this game to about the 50% done point in 2015, while I was working on Colonial Twilight, but I had to shelve it in order to finish Colonial Twilight off properly. The main mechanisms and victory conditions have been largely the same since then; I've been twiddling with a few numbers, and the Event Cards have been a lot of work and refining and tuning as they usually are in creating a COIN system game. It's about to start development and serious playtesting, but COVID-19 has derailed everything, of course.
China's War is the first volume in the COIN series to deal with any theater of World War Two. It's also a bit different in that it begins with a foreign invasion, where most of the other volumes deal with internal civil conflicts or insurgencies, or resistance to pre-existing occupations. Also, notably, where Andean Abyss had three insurgent and one conventional (non-insurgent) factions, this one is the reverse. The general situation is that one faction is invading China, and while the remaining three factions are opposing the invader, they all have their own agendas. They are mutually hostile but can't overtly attack each other; I joke that that might be a good game for four passive-aggressive types to play!
• Civil Power: a tactical "sandbox" game on urban rioting and disorders. This was one of the first games I ever designed, and it has always been available from me in one form or another, but finally it is getting a better-than-DTP treatment with Conflict Simulations LLC. I've taken the opportunity to update the style, organization and content of the rules (almost as much work as making an entirely new design!) and have updated and added quite a few new scenarios — from the last stand of the Paris Commune to this year's riots.
DM: Do you have any advice to share with aspiring game designers?
BT: Discard thoughts of riches. There are probably five people in the world who have made anything like a living from designing board wargames. However, if your ideas are any good, you may get some notoriety, along with some pin-money, and that's not bad. I have always treated this as a hobby that might pay for itself in a good year, and don't count on many good years.
Do what interests you. At least then you'll be making one person happy (or at any rate heartily sick of the topic).
Don't be afraid to be interesting, either: Do something different, and do it differently. As I said earlier, maybe half of my fifty titles belong to one or another family or system I have made, but the other half consist of games using systems I have never used before or since (though I have grabbed interesting bits out of them for use in other systems later).
Don't be afraid of doing things by yourself, for yourself. It's a lot easier than it was in the 1970s when there was no Internet and even photocopiers were hard to come by.
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
This week Cameron Art, founder of The Board Game Bulletin and designer of Vowl, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his board game career so far.
DM: Hi, Cameron, thank you for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little about yourself?
CA: Hi there! My name is Cameron Art. I am a full-time college student at New Mexico State University pursuing a bachelor's degree in accountancy. My wife, Jennifer, is also a full-time student, and we live in Las Cruces, New Mexico with our eight-month-old son. In my free time, I love playing, designing, and discussing all things board games. Some games I've been playing a lot of lately include Wingspan, Dead of Winter, and Root.
DM: Your first game, Vowl, was recently on Kickstarter. Please can you describe it for us?
CA: Vowl is my attempt to introduce a fresh take to the word game genre in which you are racing against both time and your opponents to recognize words that have had their vowels removed. While this may sound simple at first, with a few critical rules, you'll quickly realize it's trickier than it seems! The game includes more than four hundred unique cards, multiple game modes, and a unique, tiered scoring system.
DM: What was it about that combination of word puzzle and real-time mechanisms that inspired you?
CA: I've always been a fan of a wide variety of word games including Bananagrams, Codenames, and Quiddler to name a few. As Vowl continued to expand and change over the course of its three years of development, real-time play just felt like the most natural way to implement the game's base system. I wanted players to always be engaged, even when they weren't playing. Because of the game's real-time aspect, turns are not only short, but even when it isn't your turn, you can still feel the rush of racing against time as you try to solve cards that other players are working on.
DM: The scoring system is intriguing. Can you tell us more about how it was developed?
CA: I knew from the very beginning of Vowl that I wanted to create a word game that didn't feel like a traditional word game. My goal with the design was to try to bridge the gap between the classic word game genre and the more modern hobby. Part of the way I attempted to do this was through the use of a unique scoring system.
Whenever you achieve a success in Vowl, you get to choose how you score your points. You can either move your scoring token two spaces forward along the scoring track, or move it only one space while also lowering your victory condition and an opponent's victory condition by one. This is a critically important decision that you'll be forced to make each time you score because the scoring track is made up of increasingly difficult tiers that force you to draw extra and more difficult cards as you gain more points. If you charge full speed ahead, you have deal with more difficult cards. If you take it slow and lower your victory token, you'll be making future turns easier, but you're also helping an opponent.
DM: How do you overcome the challenge of replayability as presumably over time players will get to know the answers?
CA: What I discovered as we continued to record playtests of the game was that memorization doesn't play a large role in the game. As you play the game more and more, you will start to get better at the challenge of recognizing words. With more than four hundred unique cards, though, and a super tight time constraint each turn, memory doesn't factor in too much, and you will find yourself continually stumbling over and getting stuck on cards even if you've seen them many times before. I've been playing this game for three years, and I still trip over cards that I designed and have seen hundreds of times!
I will say that the slight advantage that comes from experience does have a built-in counter by means of the scoring track. Players who are further along in points have to deal with both a higher number of cards each turn and extra difficult cards each turn, which serves as a nice catch-up mechanism.
DM: What approach are you taking to the campaign? Are you learning as you go through a grassroots approach, or are you enlisting the help of experienced colleagues?
CA: I've done absolutely everything I can to prepare for the campaign ahead of time. Every single detail both on the financial side of it (I am an accounting major after all) and the design side of it has been carefully designed and thought out based upon reading dozens of blogs, books, and more about how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. However, reading can get you only so far, and I recognize that sometimes you have to make mistakes in order to learn how to do something.
So while I've done a lot to prepare, I would still say that I'm taking more of a grassroots approach to it. As problems come up and I make mistakes, I do my best to learn from them, remedy them, and try to make sure that they won't happen again. So far, I think the campaign is going great, and we haven't had any major issues that weren't fixable.
DM: In addition to being a game designer, you run an online gaming magazine, The Board Game Bulletin. Please tell us more about it?
CA: The Board Game Bulletin is a monthly, online magazine that I publish on my website. Each issue features interviews with game designers and content creators, recent game announcements, a look at upcoming Kickstarter projects, some sort of featured article written by myself, and a whole bunch of fun other stuff. The magazines also have absolutely gorgeous photography from Imagine All The Meeple (Todd Patriquin). I do all of the writing and design work for the magazine, and it's 100% free to read, download, and subscribe to.
DM: As if designing games and publishing magazines is not enough, you also run design competitions. How did you get involved with these, and what do you look for in an entry?
CA: When I started publishing the magazine in December 2019, I thought it would be fun to run micro game design contests and feature the winning design in each month's issue. When I first got it going, I had no idea whether it would be popular or not. Now, seven issues later, each contest tends to have anywhere from 5 to 15 fantastic entries!
Part of what I think makes it so popular is that I give constructive feedback on every single entry, regardless The three biggest things that I typically look for in the designs are how well you met the prompt, how well-integrated your game's theme is in the mechanisms, and how polished the gameplay and rules feel.
DM: What are your future plans, in terms of both the magazine and a career in game design?
CA: In terms of the magazine, I plan to continue producing and publishing it as long as I am able to! Right now, from both some small ad revenue and our generous Patreon backers, it does pay for itself. So long as I can keep it that way, I'd love to keep expanding it and providing it as a free resource for the community.
In terms of game design, my goal with Vowl — and the four other designs I have in serious development right now — is to create games that toe the line between accessibility and strategy. I want my games to feel unique and provide players with interesting decisions, while also being accessible enough that players who have only ever played Monopoly don't feel overwhelmed by the gameplay. I do plan to continue self-publishing through Cameron Art Games, and I am excited to keep sharing my designs with the hobby.
DM: What lessons have you learned from your time in the boardgame industry so far?
CA: This hobby of ours is so incredibly vast and supportive! Regardless of whether you are a designer or just a player, don't be afraid to ask for help. I never would have guessed how incredibly kind and giving the people in this industry are, and I wouldn't be where I am today without the support from so many different designers and gamers that I've met along the way.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move as the second part of a two-part interview. You can find part one here. —WEM]
Dávid Turczi joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to explore the design and development of complex games.
DM: Hi, Dávid, thanks for joining us again. You are known for designing mechanically complex games with rich themes. Which of those two elements do you typically start with?
DT: For me everything has to fit into a system and that works wonderfully for 2-3 hour heavy Euro games. I am primarily a Eurogame designer, so while I don't really do "thematic" games, all my games are "thematically inspired".
Of course, this has improved over the years. I typically ask:
• Who are you?
• What do you do on your turn?
• How does that make sense?
• How does that generate conflict between players?
• How does that model the mechanism?
Sometimes, it is the other way around. I see how other games have approached a mechanism and notice that while some did "this" and others did "that", none of them have taken the unexpected third option. I'll look at the conflict that making that change models.
However, when I work with a publisher such as Mindclash Games, who have a strong theme focus and who build amazing worlds for their games, I barely try to theme the mechanism. It must make narrative sense, but I know that they will take the mechanisms and build an incredible world around them.
Then I redesign and refine the mechanisms with the world they have created in mind. In that situation, it's concept, setting, narrative, then the mechanisms. All parts of the process come back around on themselves.
Our forthcoming game Perseverance is a huge project that involved a team of designers. It's about surviving and exploring an island, eventually becoming the leader of a city while fending off dinosaur attacks, but it began as a game about Icelandic democracy.
I pitched it to Mindclash a few years ago when four Viking games were released at SPIEL, and they said that "the Vikings have to go" — so what other system did this democracy-themed worker placement model? We agreed that it had to be a closed community, big enough to be a mass of people voting, and we thought of this idea of building a city on a deserted island.
Then [co-designer] Richard Amann said: "Wouldn't it be cool if there were dinosaurs on the island?" That meant we had to take the "fill your boats with supplies" semi-cooperative scoring — which made no sense without the Viking theme — and spend a full year redesigning a system based around the theme of exploring the island and riding dinosaurs.
Perseverance began with the mechanism — dice voting for area control — but once the world had been created, the theme inspired many other mechanisms.
When done well, there is no "theme first, mechanism first". Both enhance each other.
DM: The Defence of Procyon III is an ambitious game in terms of its design: four asymmetric factions and team-based gameplay with solo, co-op and competitive modes. Can you tell us more about the design and development process you it underwent?
DT: The Defence of Procyon III is my dream project. I didn't do it because someone asked me or for the money or because there is a market for it. I did it simply because I wanted that game to exist.
I had been in discussion with a publisher regarding a game in the Cthulu IP. I had an idea in which players were using tanks to fight the cultists. The publisher had just released a miniatures game in the IP and discussion stopped. But I had fallen in love with the concept and thought "What about Starship Troopers as an alternative theme?"
This was around the time that I started working with PSC Games. I pitched the idea of a space battle in which one player controls the land army and another the spaceships, with lots of minis and...they signed it straight away. I hadn't even designed it!
For the next two years, Procyon was the stuff of nightmares. I built a game, then scrapped it one turn into the first playtest, then repeated that countless times. I got to a point where three of the four factions were fantastic, but the fourth was over-complicated and lacked motivation, so I allowed it some extra movement, a new way to attack, and...that wasn't balanced, this wasn't balanced. We needed to burn the whole game and start over.
Eventually, through the process of iteration, the redesigns became smaller each time, but even as late as August 2019 there was a hex map in there. I could not get the directional flying to work without taking five times longer than ground movement to resolve, so...scrap that version of the space map!
Procyon was totally redesigned, from the ground up, maybe four times in addition to the many small iterations. The game has a static set-up, and every card is drawn in every game which meant that there had to be diverse strategies or there would be no replay value. If there was only one job to do, once you had learned how to do that job, there would be no point playing again.
The round volume shrank from 20 rounds to 16 rounds to the current 10 round format. Game end is usually in the seventh round due to a sudden death condition. It's been three months since a playtest lasted to the eighth round.
Every single decision in the game had to be a fundamental choice. Players take eight actions in the game. A crunchy, heavy Euro has sixteen actions. In Procyon, players are constantly engaged because it's not eight "I gain two wood" actions; it's "I move seven of my units, deal 5 damage, and use two special abilities." It's finding the eight actions that will get you to victory, combined with the asymmetry, that engages the players.
DM: Excavation Earth looks like a fun sci-fi game; however, it has significant depth to it. Can you tell us more about the design?
DT: Excavation Earth had quite the journey. It began four years ago when I managed to pass the design bug on to my now ex-wife, Wai Yee. We were playing a lot of Glory to Rome at the time, so we wanted multi-use cards and so on.
She came up with the idea of trying to convince local noblemen to invest in your unicorn training facilities. It was not exciting enough for players, so she added unicorn-race betting — but we didn't want to create a racing game; we just wanted the feeling of excitement from racing, so Excavation became, to use the economist's term, a "future's" trading game. The aim was to buy betting slips, then sell them based on the chance of the horse/unicorn winning at the moment of sale. This combined with a multi-use card draft and an area control for special abilities mechanism.
It was very smart, but we found that pretty much nobody could play it. Why? Because when you think of a horse race, you think of a fast-moving, quick event in which you want a specific horse to win. In the game, the horses moved through the racetrack in slow motion, constantly changing their values based on their positions. Players would buy a betting slip, make the horse move forward a little, sell the slip — the movements were not natural.
When we showed it to publisher Mighty Boards, they said, "We think it's...smart, but no one gets it. The unicorn theme is funny, but it is also a horrible mismatch for people expecting a crunchy Euro from you".
What else could we model? What could be an easy-to-access, hard-to-sell commodity with a fluctuating future value? So, we came up with...digging up artefacts! You know the artefacts are there, and anyone can dig them up, but they are hard to sell at the time when they have the most value to you.
My biggest contribution to the design came at this point. We were using the slow unicorn race to represent values — which made no narrative sense — but once we changed theme to artefacts, it became the number of people queuing at the museum that determined the value. The greater the number of blue meeples in the queue, the greater the value of the blue artefact. Click! The valuation mechanism now worked.
Mighty Boards looked at it again and asked for something in addition to the "dig, advertise, sell" mechanisms.
Okay, let's add a black market so you can make profit from side deals.
"Could the game be made 'cooler'?"
Okay, instead of traveling around the planet normally, you use a hot air balloon.
"What does the hot air balloon do?"
Then our lead developer turned co-designer Gordon Calleja said, "What if we were aliens?"
Okay, let's introduce a Mothership...with special abilities!
The two big problems with the original game was that there was only one thing to do: buy and sell artefacts, and it made no thematic sense. As the theme was improved to make more thematic sense, we found more things to do. At the end of this journey from unicorn breeding to alien mothership via slow-motion racing and hot air balloons, we had a game that players said looked like a fun, fluffy sci-fi game but is actually a super crunchy, heavy Euro, market-manipulation game.
We found when talking to production partners that we couldn't compare it to any other game. It's not an auction game or a commodity trading game. There is price manipulation and multi-use cards, but neither of those describe what the game is about. It has that "never quite enough actions" feel, and I think of the "weight" of the gameplay as being in a similar league to games such as Brass — but saying it is "like Brass" also doesn't explain what the game does.
In the middle of the project, I was nearly hating it...and yet by the end, through hard work and co-operation, we found the unique and unexpected thing that I always look for in a game.
DM: Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun is a co-design with Daniele Tascini. How did you begin working with him?
DT: Tekhenu has a very different background to Procyon and Excavation Earth. Development began when I emailed Daniele Tascini after meeting him for the first time at SPIEL. The conversation went along the lines of:
—"Hey, shall we work together?"
—"Sure, what do you want to do?"
—"Something that goes around in a circle."
Two weeks later, I get an email from Daniele saying: "Not worker placement but dice-drafting and the shadow of an obelisk changes the value of the colored dice. There will be six sections representing the Egyptian Gods, each will have a different action, and each action feeds into the next one."
My response was: "Shall I come to you next week?"
This was over the Christmas holidays. On January 4th, I flew to Italy and the game was finished on January 7th.
In February we showed it to the publisher (Board&Dice) who asked if we could make the game 25% shorter.
We said, "No", then they said, "Yes, you can."
Daniele and I played a game with 16 dice instead of 24 and realized the publisher was correct. We also tweaked the card offer and turn order balance. Design complete!
In total, I think I spent ten days working on Tekhenu, including proofreading the rule book!
Trismegistus and Teotihuacan. Trismegistus is the obvious comparison due to the dice-drafting mechanisms, but whereas Trismegistus is an engine builder, Tekhenu applies a similar "roughly fixed number of actions, points squeezing" approach to that in Teotihuacan.
In Tekhenu players have a fixed 16 actions and need to use them as efficiently as possible. It's "do as much as you can with very little" powered by a dice draft mechanism.
It was an inspiring, back-and-forth collaboration. He is an inventor, and I am a system engineer. Daniele shows me two mechanisms, and I can see how they link. When I pose a problem to him, he creates a brilliant solution. We could work faster because he was solving the problems I posed. I hope we can recapture some of that fire again in the future.
DM: Worker placement is a recurring mechanism throughout your design portfolio. Your forthcoming game Tawantinsuyu: The Inca Empire appears to feature it more than most. Can you tell us more?
DT: Tawantinsuyu is an Incan-themed game, again published by Board&Dice, due out in October 2020. Essentially, it is what I learned from Anachrony with the feel of what I learned from Daniele. Yes, there is a temple track and yes, you must feed your workers, yes, there is a set collection element, but the mechanisms and the choice branching are closer to Anachrony.
It's not a soup of actions aimed at converting one thing into another. The cost, the place, the combo, the special effect, the restriction all matter every single time a worker is placed. I was able to take a system that I knew worked and deepen it. At a high level, it feels like an Italian Euro game with tracks and set collection and so on, but it's actually a deep dive into what I like.
On your turn, you either place a worker or take two of four secondary actions. One choice spawns multiple others that each spawn further choices, and so on. I had to have the game mapped on the wall to keep track of it. There were originally four more resources than it currently has. These were removed once I could no longer justify their existence as a separate entity: "Why do I need silver if gold does the same thing?"
Despite its complexity, it took only about a month to design. One of the benefits of being a full-time designer is that I can dedicate myself to a project — although I rarely have only one project because I tend to start scrolling through social media every time I am stuck. Having multiple projects allows me to change focus while I consider in the background the reason why I am stuck.
The answer usually occurs while I am in the shower or when I am falling asleep. I always have my phone and notebooks nearby so that I can quickly make notes. That is essential.
DM: Do you have any advice for new designers?
DT: I've got to where I am through luck, shamelessness, and sheer powering through.
When I started, I didn't have any "great ideas". I was assertive enough to stand my ground but humble enough to learn from others. A little luck and a degree of shamelessness helps. I punch above my weight because I can stay visible and don't mind expending the effort to stay visible. The rest is people skills.
Nobody cares about "great ideas". Anyone can have them. It's the ability to follow through, to improve an idea by working with others, that counts.
Even now, I have a "here is my opinion...but what if I'm wrong" moment. Board gaming is very social, and we all want an experience while playing a game. It doesn't matter what I think of the experience; I may have a vision, but when the developers and playtesters offer their opinion, I have to listen.
Being able to work with people is more than half the battle.
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
Richard Breese, designer of Keydom, one of the first games to use "worker placement", and Keyflower joins Neil from Diagonal Move to look at how the "Key" series developed.
DM: Over the course of your career, you have become well known for the "Key" series of games — but that wasn't how your career began. Can you tell about the early days of your career?
RB: Thanks for having me, Neil. Since my childhood, I have always enjoyed creating games. My first published game, Chamelequin, was initially inspired by games of Dungeons & Dragons. I attributed different movement abilities to the different character classes and eventually reduced this down to an abstract game which I thought was interesting enough to be published.
I promoted the game at the London Toy Fair where I met Brian Walker, editor of a UK boardgames magazine Boardgames International, and Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop, who suggested I should go to SPIEL in Essen. I hired a stand there the following year in 1991 and discovered the world of "German" games, or Eurogames as they are now referred to. The gaming world was a lot smaller thirty years ago, with only twenty or so new gamers' games launched at each year's SPIEL.
Having discovered Eurogames, I was motivated to try to produce games in a similar style myself. The first was Keywood, which I entered into a games magazine's design competition, which pleasingly it won. I then took Keywood to SPIEL in 1995 and have returned every year since.
DM: Your game Keydom is often cited as being one of the first (if not the first) worker-placement games. Where did the concept of using "workers" to take actions originate for you?
RB: Yes, you are correct in that Keydom is widely recognized as the first worker-placement game. The game was subsequently re-issued as Morgenland in Germany and Aladdin's Dragons in the U.S.
The mechanism idea evolved from my plays of Settlers of Catan. In that game, resources are obtained from you building adjacent to the terrain hexes containing different resources, but the resources are generated only when a matching dice number is rolled. I wanted to create a mechanism where resources were obtained through player choice — the worker placement — and not through the luck of a dice roll.
DM: How did that initial concept of worker placement develop during the following years within the Key series leading eventually to Keyflower, Keyper and Key Flow?
RB: I have used the worker-placement mechanism in several of the later Key games, but when I publish a new game, I want there to be something new and different in the game. To take three examples:
• In Keythedral, the workers (or "keyples" as I have called them in later Key series games) are placed in accordance with a player-selected numerical order, emerging from cottages or houses that the player has placed strategically at the start of the game.
• In Keyflower, which was a co-design with Sebastian Bleasdale, each player has an initial mix of three different colors of keyples. The keyples can be placed freely, but only on tiles which are unused or which have previously been used by keyples of that same color. This creates a nice tension of which colors to use, when and where.
• In Keyper, when one player places a keyple on a country board, another player can join them with a matching-colored keyple on that first player's turn to the benefit of both players. In this way, some players are likely to have played all their keyples before others, with all keyples having the potential to work twice. The tension is to play your keyples as quickly as possible, but also to use them to gather the resources which are most useful to you.
• Key Flow is a card-driven game based on many of the ideas contained in Keyflower, but it does not use keyples and is really only a worker placement game by association with Keyflower. The game was co-designed by Sebastian and Ian Vincent and flows quickly over four game rounds, allowing players to develop their own unique village.
DM: Each game in the Key series shares similarities thematically. Does creating installments within a thematic series offer freedom to experiment mechanically?
RB: It is the mechanisms that drive the game development for me. If these lead naturally to the medieval theme with the scale of workers and a landscape, then I will use it to expand the Key universe. Often the mechanisms don't allow this or more naturally fit a different theme, such as in my games Fowl Play, Inhabit the Earth and Reef Encounter, which all have animal themes.
The Key series was not pre-planned, but came about incrementally following the success of the previous Key titles. The Key branding certainly helps the game get more visibility on what is now a much more crowded market than it was when the series began in 1995.
DM: Worker placement is a significant feature in many of your games, often in combination with resource management. Since the release of Keydom, these mechanisms have become board game staples. How do you keep the concepts fresh?
RB: I enjoy playing worker-placement games and do spend a lot of time thinking about games and mechanisms. It helps to play a lot of other games to learn what mechanisms work well, although I would not use an idea without adding some new twist to the mechanism. Inspiration can also come from designing with others, for example with Sebastian Bleasdale with Keyflower, or from a new gaming piece, such as the folding boards in Keyper.
DM: Keyflower is probably your most well-known game. Eight years after release, it is number 53 in the BGG rankings. What effect do you think this recognition has had on your career?
RB: Keyflower has undoubtedly introduced more people to R&D Games, so it is likely to have helped the visibility of the later games and also the demand for some of the earlier games, which are now out of print. It is nice to have had the relative success of Keyflower, however it was probably the positive response to the earlier titles Keythedral and Reef Encounter that gave me the confidence that I could design a polished game.
Regarding publishing, because I publish using my own R&D Games label, I have not needed to find publishers. It is nice to win awards, but I think the high rating in BGG probably has more impact. When new gamers discover the hobby, it is likely they will soon discover BGG and then, if they are looking for new games to buy, are likely to look at the rankings list to see which games are most highly rated by other gamers.
DM: Several games in the Key series, including Keyflower, have been co-designed, most notably with Sebastian Bleasdale. How did this partnership with him develop?
RB: Sebastian, David Brain, and Ian Vincent were all part of a playtesting group run by Alan and Charlie Paull of Surprised Stare Games. With regard to Keyflower, Sebastian had a small bidding game called "Turf Wars" which I playtested and saw the potential for a larger game and asked Sebastian whether he would be interested in working together to develop the game further.
Similarly, David had a game called "Book of Hours". This was more fully formed than "Turf Wars", and when I suggested publishing the game as "Key Market", I said to David I would be happy just to be listed as the developer. Ian is a seasoned card player, and he approached Sebastian and I with the idea of a card version of Keyflower, which then became Key Flow.
DM: Board games are always the product of a team effort — the developers, playtesters, graphic designers and others that contribute to a game in addition to the person credited for the design? How does the process differ for a co-designed game?
RB: Being part of a team is one of the pleasures of board game designing. You get time to play games with your playtesters whose opinions you value and whose company you enjoy, and in addition you are creating something.
I don't notice a huge difference in co-designing. That is largely because I am in the unusual position of being the publisher as well as a co-designer, so I can if required insist on a particular approach if necessary. Although I think in every occasion I have reached a consensus on how to proceed with a design. However, that said, it is undoubtedly a benefit in having more than one person independently playtesting and exploring different ideas on how to develop a game.
DM: What is next for yourself and R&D Games?
RB: This year I hope to publish Keyper at Sea, which is an expansion for Keyper and also includes a Keyper solo game from Dávid Turczi. After that I will probably publish Keydom's Dragons, which is effectively a re-issue of Aladdin's Dragons (a.k.a., Morgenland) set in the Key universe and with illustrations again by Vicki Dalton. Then there is likely to be Keyside, a brand-new Key game which is a co-design with Dávid Turczi.
DM: Do you have any advice that you would like to share with aspiring game designers?
RB: Yes, firstly play as many different games as you can so that you can become familiar with what a published game feels like and what works for you.
Get as many people involved in the playtesting as possible, especially seasoned gamers. Make a point of understanding what they like and don't like about your game. Do take notice of any criticisms. Try to address these or alternatively be comfortable that your game idea is solid notwithstanding the criticism. Stay true to your vision. Continue playtesting until you play a couple of games where you can think of no more tweaks or changes that you want to make to the game.
When you contact publishers, try to select those who publish the sort of game you have designed. That should give you a better chance of reaching a publishing deal. If you decide to publish, don't commit more funds than you can afford to lose. There is a saying that the way to make a small fortune in boardgaming is to start with a large fortune. However with crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, it is now much easier to get your gaming idea published.
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
Rita Modl joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the development and publication of her hit dexterity game Men at Work and her forthcoming game King of 12.Rita Modl with Men at Work
DM: Hi, Rita, thank you for joining us. How did you get started in the games industry?
RM: I played many games as a child and as a teenager, but as I grew up and started going to parties...eventually I just didn't know anyone who played games, so I stopped playing, too.
One day, about four years ago I think, I just felt in the mood to create a game — a flash of inspiration after going to a child's birthday party. Once I had a game in mind, I spoke to a friend who had contacts in the board game industry to find out how it worked, how to show prototypes to publishers, and so on.
As a result of those contacts, I had my first rejection from a publisher. That was okay though as the game was not very good. After that, I began to watch YouTube videos about new board games, and I couldn't believe my eyes. There were so many games that I didn't know existed.
I began to play games again, and as I played, I had new ideas. As these ideas began to improve, I put more time and effort into creating my own games, one of which was an early version of the game that became Men at Work.Building instructions, probably not architect approved (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: Can you tell us more about Men at Work's route to publication?
RM: Men at Work had its origins in another "wooden stick" game. I took that game to an agency in the hope that they would help me present it to publishers. The agency told me that the game didn't work particularly well, but if I could improve it, I could present to them again.
I went home, sat at my desk, and...didn't know what to do. I got angry, threw the components onto the desk — then I looked at it and began to put figures on it and thought, "That looks...good?" So my disappointment at the rejection of the earlier game became the beginning of Men at Work.
When I returned to the agency with what was now Men at Work, they thought it was a big improvement on the original game and they agreed to present it to publishers on my behalf. Three months later, I had a contract signed with Pretzel Games.
Pretzel wanted to publish in time for the next major games fair, which meant that we had to work to a very tight schedule to ensure that Men at Work was ready. Normally, it takes a year to find and agree to a contract with a publisher, then your game is put in a publication queue. Once all the other games before yours are worked on, work will finally begin on publishing your game. This could take another year after the contract is signed, or even longer.
However, the time between signing with the agency and the release of Men at Work was only nine months. It was an intense experience!Men at Work in play (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: How did Men at Work change during the development process?
RM: When I create a game, I start with one of three things: the theme, the mechanisms, or the materials. All three of these changed during the development of Men at Work!
Once Men at Work was scheduled for release, I was given access to the large playtesting groups that the agency and publisher are involved with. The playtest groups would play the game and provide feedback, then I would work on it, then the playtest groups would play again. The game changed a lot during that process.
The theme changed completely. In the beginning, it was themed around balancing on tightropes in a circus, but that restricted what we could do. Once the setting became a construction site, we were able to add in new ideas, including cleaning up the mess the previous player has made and the site safety certificates.
In the beginning, the game was aimed more towards an adult audience. The wooden sticks were much thinner, which meant it was quite difficult to build with them. When I playtested it with my nephews, the youngest of whom was 6 at the time, it was difficult for them to use the components due to the size.
While it still isn't a children's game, it wasn't until we made the components thicker that it was possible for a younger person to play and Men at Work became a true family game.Building success (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: How has the success of Men at Work affected you?
Spiele Hit mit Freunden" award, and it was nominated in the party game category in BGG's "Golden Geek" awards. It has also been a big success in terms of sales — particularly so for a first game.
Thanks to these successes, the process of demoing new games to publishers is much easier than it was — although the games industry can still contain a lot of disappointment. It takes effort to make a game. You spend an entire year making a game — you create it, then test it and test it until you are happy with it — then you show it to a publisher and they say, "No, it's not good enough." Argh!
Men at Work's success has helped me keep the motivation to create games during those difficult moments.Hoppytop, Modl's game for young children (image: Rita Modl)
DM: Can you tell us more about your next game, King of 12?
RM: King of 12 is my second game for an older audience, but it's actually my third published game in total.
My second game was Hoppytop, published by Beleduc. It is a roll-and-move game for young children about getting sheep to graze in a meadow. It's obviously not as well-known to the wider hobby game community as Men at Work, but I am very happy it exists.
King of 12 recently [ur=https://www.spiele-offensive.de/Spieleschmiede/King-Of-12/]funded on Spieleschmiede[/url], a crowding platform in Germany, and is due to be released via Corax Games in October 2020.
It is a dice-based trick-taking game. All players have a D12 and play cards to manipulate the dice: reroll, change which die face is showing, and so on. Points are scored based on who has the highest unique number showing on their die at the end of a round. While it is a family game, the strategy is quite deep. To do well, players need to think ahead to the next round.
The artwork, by Robin Lagofun, is fantastic. It was his first board game art design project, and he has done a fantastic job with the illustrations.
As with Men at Work, King of 12 changed considerably during development. The central idea of manipulating a D12 was there at the start. However, it was originally more of a roll-and-write game, then I got rid of that. The round structure changed; the card effects changed. Sometimes you must reduce and reduce and reduce to keep a game on point.
Although I wasn't working on it every day — I'm a freelancer photographer and fortunate to be able to move between that and game design when needed — it took over a year to develop in total, a lot longer than Men at Work.The forthcoming King of 12 (image: Rita Modl)
DM: What advice do you have for designers trying to publish their first game?
RM: Consider using an agency to help find a publisher.
This advice does depend on the game. It is perhaps not recommended as much if you have a "hobby" game, but I would recommend considering an agency for a family game. Not only does this give you people to contact (game design can get quite lonely), it will also help with any language barrier, particularly for international releases.
The publishing contract for Men at Work was written in English. I am from Germany, and although I can speak English as a second language, without the agency I am sure I would have missed many details due to the language barrier.
I took both Hoppytop and King of 12 directly to the publishers myself. Both publishers are based in Germany, so there isn't the same language barrier. However, I have seven games currently under contract via an agency, plus another that is nearing publication. I just can't talk about any of them at the moment.
Watch this space!
- [+] Dice rolls
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
Matthew Dunstan, designer of Monumental and co-creator of the Adventure Games series, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his approach to game design:Celebrating the release of The Great City of Rome (image: Matthew Dunstan)
DM: Matthew, thanks for joining us today. You have created many games. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first started your game design career?
MD: I started designing when I was still in Australia, around 2010 roughly. Only the year before I had rediscovered board gaming. I was playing all these new games, and I guess I was inspired by that to begin making little prototypes, replicating things I had seen already.
There wasn't really a playtesting group in Sydney, so I tried to set one up. I went to the annual Protospiel event — I had one prototype to show people — which was where I first met Phil Walker-Harding.
In 2011, I moved to UK and met Brett Gilbert, who had just signed a contract for his first game. He also lived in Cambridge, and we started to meet regularly at a pub. We weren't part of Playtest UK then — in fact, that wasn't a national network at that time — but we did regularly go to London for the Meetup events that were taking place.
Through that frequent interaction, and from the benefit of Brett's experience, I was able to become more "professional" or, at least, finish a design. I find that finishing a game is the hardest part of game design.
Once I got a design to a point that I was happy with, I entered a competition called Europa Ludi. It was a combination of events usually held separately in France and Spain. I think 2012 was the only year that they held them jointly.
Both Brett and I were finalists. Neither of us won, but later that year I found out — I wasn't aware at the time — that my game had been presented to publishers. Shortly after SPIEL that year, Days of Wonder emailed to say they were interested in publishing my game, which they did under the name Relic Runners the following year.
I guess my route into the industry isn't the easiest to replicate. However, I do recommend entering design competitions. Publishers do get involved in competitions sometimes, and there are more competitions than ever before.Evidence of international success (image: Matthew Dunstan)
DM: There doesn't appear to be a single mechanism, theme, or even degree of complexity running through your portfolio. What do you believe is the thread that links all your games?
MD: Ha ha, I really don't know the answer to that question!
I think, ultimately, I just don't want to make the same game again. Some designers do iterate on the same idea or concepts. Personally, I don't enjoy doing that. I enjoy the puzzle-solving involved in "finding" a game.
I'll have some idea of how I can manipulate pieces and I'm interested in how I can "crack the code" and make an idea work. If I have already solved a problem on a previous game — perhaps how a certain distribution of cards will work, for example — I'm not interested in looking at that same problem again.
Good Little Games line are examples of an imposed component limitation — some cards and a few tokens.
There is also a series of games in which Brett and I took the concept of a classic 110- or 120-card game and added an element of geography. The games themselves were quite small, but through the placement of cards on the table, a board began to develop.
We kept coming back to that idea of combining cards with geography. How could we mess with it? How could it be different each time? In Pyramids, there are two decks of cards, and players make a pyramid over the course of the game. Raids came from the idea of arranging the cards in a circle, which made gaining cards a much more interactive process. The Great City of Rome used a grid of cards. We currently have a game in development with Inside the Box games in which cards are used in rows, almost as outer and inner walls.
Outside of those mini component-led challenges, I wouldn't say a specific driving force links my games together other than that I like to experiment. If I had to pick something, I guess it's the intellectual curiosity needed to answer: "How do I go about making this?"Chocolate Factory before... (image: Matthew Dunstan)
DM: Can you give us an insight into your design process?
MD: I'm a lot better at the start of the process than I am towards the end. I have a digital notebook that I'll write in at least once or twice a day — a theme, a mechanism, or one or two sentences outlining an idea. From those notes, there is usually an idea that sticks with me. It's not necessarily related to the act of writing it down, but something about an idea will capture my imagination.
Once I have that first idea, I'll start making a prototype. My graphic design skills are horrible, but I'm able to put something together quickly. I usually use a computer for that. Sometimes making a prototype by hand gets you more involved in a game, but for me, making cards on the computer is fairly easy. I'm quite good at churning through to the point where a game can be played.
Once I have a playable prototype, playtesting and iteration begins. Currently I have ten or fifteen games in development. These are actual playable prototypes, not just ideas. I have far too many games on the go...
I'm a lot less skilled at playtesting my own designs — which, I think, is why I enjoy collaborating with other designers. It's an excuse to playtest with somebody else right from the very start. It also means that I don't need to rely so much on my own judgement to decide whether a design is worth continuing.
I find it frustrating when my mind sees a game much further along than it actually is, and if I had to rely only on my own feelings in the early stages, I probably wouldn't finish many things. An idea always seems better before the first prototype is made.Chocolate Factory after! (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: You have collaborated with many other designers. What is it about that approach that appeals to you versus a single designer game?
MD: Most of my games have been co-created with other designers. I find that being able to bounce ideas off another person in a collaboration really helps with the process of iteration.
Having two opinions makes it possible to identify what it is that is interesting about a design, not only to puzzle through the challenge of making a design work. Right from the start, there is feedback from the other designer who is saying what they do or don't like about the design. Maybe we keep this part, maybe we throw another part out. Just being able to talk it through is, I find, an easy way to move things ahead.
There are some ideas that I do keep for myself — Monumental, for example. These become what I tend to think of as my "style" of game. They take a lot longer to create because although I know what I want to achieve, I don't have the back and forth from a collaboration to help move forward.Brett Gilbert, one of Dunstan's key design collaborators (image: Matthew Dunstan)
DM: The Adventure Games line stands out as being quite different from other games in your portfolio. What is unique about designing a story-driven, co-operative game versus a more traditional competitive game?
MD: It is both easier and harder. Often you just need one element that changes the structure of the experience, a mechanical twist if you like.
Maybe the structure changing element is more evocative of another medium. The Adventure series itself is inspired by the point-and-click video game genre. In that instance, it's a case of transferring the genre into mechanisms more suited to the tabletop.
Regardless of the mechanisms, narrative games quickly let you know whether they are working or not. Mechanically, they typically don't require as much playtesting as other designs. They still go through the playtesting and refinement process, but feedback regarding the nature of the experience they are delivering is quick to see.
Narrative games are ultimately about player choice. In that sense, they are not so different from a strategy game. A strategy game will present several different choices, and they need to be interesting choices. In a narrative game, those choices relate to the story being told, and that is where the difficulty increases.
The storytelling narrative side is not my forte. Narrative game designers are essentially authors, and that is an entirely different skill set. A game design approach doesn't necessarily lead to the best stories. I think that is apparent in the varying quality of narrative games on the market. They may have an interesting way to move through the story, of making the game mechanisms flow nicely, but the pedigree of the narrative doesn't always match.
The narrative needs memorable characters, the classic three act structure — this is where collaboration becomes important, so much so that future Adventure Games will be created in collaboration with published authors. It will vary by author; some are writing a synopsis, others are creating detailed text that Phil and I will weave the mechanisms around.
One criticism of the Adventure Games is that they have "game" elements — points scoring and so on — but a significant portion of the audience doesn’t care about the "game". They want it to be an experience, one that is natural enough that the game feels like you are exploring a story. To achieve that, the mechanisms, no matter how clever they are, almost need to be forgotten by the players.
This becomes even more challenging if the narrative game features a strong element of puzzle, that is, where there is an answer to find as well as a story to experience. Narrative game design is a unique skill set and one that I believe will eventually branch off into a new school of game design.Monochrome Inc., one of the Adventure Games designed in collaboration with Phil Walker-Harding (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: Your current release, Monumental, has been a huge success. Can you tell us more about how Monumental was brought to life?
MD: Originally, Monumental was a card game. When I first showed it to Funforge, it was an entirely card-based deck-building game. Funforge, however, had a vision for Monumental that soon outgrew that format. It was such a large vision that Monumental spent a further two years in development before being announced.
We started with the map. As that developed, further ideas were incorporated resulting in the interesting hybrid that Monumental is today. The cards are what drives the game, the engine where the decisions are made. The map opens interaction between players and creates a sense of progression that would not normally be available in a card game. There is also a tactile and tactical side that, through the combination of cards and a map, is both more appealing and less fiddly than some other civilization-building games.
The action selection/activation grid was inspired by Innovation by Carl Chudyk, which is one of my favorite games. In that game, cards can be played in different positions relative to each other. This allows the cards to have variable and upgradable actions. I wanted to look at that idea of aligning cards to create combinations in an interesting way.
Eventually, I created the grid-based action selection system in Monumental, which I believe is quite original. Of course, nothing is ever truly original and independent co-creation happens all the time, which is why certain themes and mechanisms suddenly appear at the same time in games that were created independently of one another. Something in the water, I guess.Playtesting Monumental (image: Matthew Dunstan)
DM: Monumental has several expansions available. In general, what do you try to do when designing an expansion? Is it more challenging to find something that works well with an existing design?
MD: I find it easier than creating a new game because there is an existing system to work with.
I love expansions that do not necessarily add more to a game but instead subvert existing mechanisms. One of my favorite examples of that is the changing use of corruption in the Lords of Waterdeep expansions.
In African Empires, the new expansion to Monumental, one of the civilizations subverts how an existing resource, gold, is used. Not only does this civilization have a new way to use this resource, it requires other civilizations to re-evaluate their use of gold to effectively deal with that change. By altering a single thing, all sorts of wonderful new decisions are now possible. It's a new way to contextualize the mechanisms without needing to add more "things" into the game.
Having said that, the introduction of new elements can be very satisfying. Magic: The Gathering does this extremely well. Each new card released may require you to re-evaluate how you are using cards originally introduced years before. It's a nice sweet spot where players can look at new ways to play within the framework of a game, without need to learn a whole new framework."Polygonia", one of Dunstan's many prototypes (image: Matthew Dunstan)
DM: What games do you have in the pipeline?
MD: Being an independent designer is a funny spot to be in sometimes. I'm never quite sure what I can talk about and what should be left to the publisher. It's also quite difficult to know what is going to happen in a post-COVID world. Some games may get lost in the shuffle...
In terms of games that have been announced, Brett and I have a game called Web of Spies due for release with Pegasus Spiele later in 2020.
It is a game at the "Spiel des Jahres" level of complexity, for want of a better description. In many ways, family games, and particularly children's games, are hard to create because they have to be intuitive and simple to understand without you being able to keep adding more stuff. This will be my first game of this type as I'm typically into more complex card combos and so on; however, this is Brett's forte.
Web of Spies is a route-building game with an evolving network of routes. How your opponents place their spies will affect the cost of your route as it's more expensive to go to a location where someone has already been. It's a game I'm very pleased with as we have distilled the essence of it into a quick to play, simple to understand format.
Oh, I nearly forgot! The Monumental expansion, African Empires, is out on Kickstarter as we speak.Professor Evil cards (image: Antony Wyatt)
DM: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to design a board game?
MD: Enter design competitions!
Seriously, though, at the beginning of your career, it is better to finish a design than it is to make a good design. What I mean by that is that the act of finishing one game will make you a better designer than a collection of half-finished designs ever will.
Game design requires a range of skill sets. Some parts you will be great at — maybe the graphics, maybe the playtesting — but other parts will need work. That may mean you spend more time working on those areas you are not good at, or it may mean collaborating with someone who is good in those areas.
It can be extremely frustrating to have a game that doesn't work, and you can't figure out why. Finishing a game will help you identify the parts of the process that you are not very good at. At least then you will know what the problem is.
Also, try not to be constrained by what has gone before. Don't be afraid to try something wacky or that breaks the rules. Design rules are a guide to making a game, but they are not a guide to making a great game. Breaking those rules results in innovation and drives the hobby forward.
- [+] Dice rolls
first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Tristan Hall. —WEM]
Hermann Luttmann, designer of Dawn of the Zeds and creator of the "Blind Swords" wargame system, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his game design career:
DM: Thank you for joining us, Hermann. Please can you tell us how your career began?
HL: Thanks for having me, Neil! Like most wargamers (and especially miniatures gamers), I've always dabbled in design work. I was even able to develop and playtest some games for 3W and Clash of Arms, so I had that bug way back when.
My first honest effort at getting a design published happened around 2010. I was a huge fan of VPG's line of games. Alan Emrich, the founder of VPG, and I exchanged correspondence about various games in their catalogue. Somehow, we got onto the subject of GDW's old "System 7" miniatures line, which we both loved. I happened to mention that I had designed a set of ACW miniatures rules, and we both set about discussing how we could turn them essentially into a new version of "System 7". That brought about Gettysburg: The Wheatfield and with that my career began.
After that, I designed Dawn of the Zeds because I had just played Zulus on the Ramparts!, loved it and it "dawned" on me that this system would work great for a zombie apocalypse game as well. I assumed that the idea was so obvious that Alan had such a design already in the pipeline. I was shocked that no one had thought of it and thus was born (from the undead, apparently) my second, and by far my most popular, published design.
DM: Your games cover a diverse range of topics including the two World Wars, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, zombies, and sentient space rocks. What is it about those subjects that interest you?
HL: That's admittedly a tough one. Some wargame designers get locked in on a certain topic or period of time, and I didn't want to do that. For me, there's just too much interesting military history to be discovered to allow myself to be pigeon-holed like that.
So how do I pick my subjects? Well, it could be from a movie I saw, a book I read, a game I played, or another person's suggestion. For example, Stonewall's Sword came from a terrific post on the Obscure Battles blog by Jeff Berry about the Battle of Cedar Mountain. I knew nothing about the battle, but that article was so compelling that I just had to do a game design on it.
My interest in the Franco-Prussian War started when I played Rob Markham's Blood and Iron game by 3W. It made me realize that the fighting tactics and equipment of the two armies were so different that it had to be further explored in a game.
Invaders From Dimension X was designed on a dare! Jeff McAleer from The Gaming Gang was teasing me about my love for chaos and challenged me to design a game based totally on chaos and randomness. Well, to do that I had to venture into science fiction to justify a totally chaotic enemy — and thus was born the Kay'Otz from another dimension. The other games in that series are based roughly on science fiction movies: "Them!" and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman". You take inspiration from whatever sources you can.
Crowbar! came from a long-time mental note that I made after watching the movie "The Longest Day" and being struck by the scene of the Rangers climbing the cliffs. But it was reading an article about President Reagan's speech at Normandy — the "The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc" — that brought back that mental note I had made and turned it all into a game. These ideas do come from many different sources.
DM: Many of your games feature chit-pull as a central mechanism and you have even developed a system — Blind Swords — based upon it. What appeals to you about this mechanism and how does Blind Swords adapt it?
HL: One thing you'll never see in any of my designs is the old IGO-UGO turn order sequence. That's because, in my opinion, not only is it one of most boring mechanisms for the players themselves; it is also a highly unrealistic simulation of command decision-making (at any level).
From the player's perspective, the chit-pull mechanism keeps all players fully engaged for the entire turn by randomly activating portions of their force. There is no situation (normally) where it's Joe's turn to go and everyone else can wander off for 30 minutes while he does his moves. It keeps players at the table and paying attention.
The other thing the mechanism does is challenge players to think on their feet. There is no pre-planning the perfect chess move. Players must be prepared for the unknown and the unexpected, which is certainly a more realistic simulation of what actual field officers and soldiers need to worry about.
Players must plan contingencies and be ready for anything — the player who is the most flexible and can take advantage of a good situation or conversely minimize a bad one — and those players who can think "on the fly" are rewarded.
The Blind Swords system doubles down on that general concept by including random events within the mix of unit activation chits. By doing this, it further adds the "historical chaos" elements of actual battlefield conflict by interjecting even more opportunities and problems for the players to deal with.
These random event chits are carefully constructed so that they reflect events and conditions that could happen not only on any American Civil War battlefield, but specifically at the battle which the game is simulating.
Through this mechanism, and without all sorts of special rules conditions or scripting restrictions, players will "feel" like they are fighting an accurate historical representation of that battle. At the same time, the system also makes sure that the game flow is variable and therefore interesting and different every time it's played.
DM: Thunder in the Ozarks, Stonewall's Sword, The Devil's to Pay, Longstreet Attacks, and In Magnificent Style are all U.S. Civil War games. Given the similarity in historical setting, how do you differentiate the games from each other and from the large number of other games on the subject?
HL: The one that stands out in that list is In Magnificent Style. That one is an example of a design that I wanted to do because no one would be crazy enough to do it. I specifically created a design to meet a challenge of making a fun game out of a seemingly impossible situation.
It is a solitaire, push-your-luck game in which the player is the hapless Rebel force launched against the strong Union positions on Cemetery Hill during Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It sounds very boring and one-sided. However, by using push-your-luck mechanisms, where bad things are constantly happening, you may — with proper management and timing — be able to pull off a victory for the Confederates.
Stonewall's Sword, Thunder in the Ozarks, and Longstreet Attacks are all in the same series — the regimental scale ACW (American Civil War) line by Revolution Games. These all share the same system with only minor variations amongst them. The goal here is to present interesting — but not always the most popular — battles from the ACW. This allows players to study how each is different using the same core system. Again, how we construct the various Event Chits for each game and how the scenarios are structured will normally bring out the uniqueness of each battle.
The Devil's To Pay was designed to repair a weakness in the regimental-scale systems. Those systems have a practical maximum-sized battle that they can handle and still be playable. Doing all of Gettysburg at regimental scale is not within the purview of most gamers, so TDTP was designed to upscale the system and make the mechanisms a bit smoother and simpler so that players can use the Blind Swords system for larger battles and still keep them manageable.
In fact, this system is getting another upgrade with the forthcoming A Most Fearful Sacrifice by Flying Pig Games, which is a design that will encompass all three days of Gettysburg. It is designed so that players can play any of the 13 scenarios in a reasonable amount of time, many in only an hour or two.
In my opinion, what makes these games different than the bazillion other ACW games is that they remain accessible and have a different feel to them. The one comment I get all the time about the Blind Swords series is that players say the narrative is really strong. Players say that they feel like they are playing a game that actually simulates real events that could have occurred on a Civil War battlefield, and for me, that's the perfect feedback.
DM: Many of your games are solo specific or adapt well to a solitaire player. How does the design process of a solo game differ from that of a multiplayer game?
HL: Designing a solitaire game — a good, effective solitaire game — is one of the hardest tasks a designer can undertake. I believe every designer should try to create a solo game as it is a wonderful exercise in developing and fine-tuning your design skills.
Obviously, the hardest part is crafting the AI (artificial intelligence, i.e., the "opponent") to be somewhat intelligent and not totally random. Giving the AI a realistic set of parameters and getting it to act in an unpredictable, yet logical, manner is really hard. It's especially hard to do that and not burden the game with complex mechanisms that then bog down the player.
My #1 rule for solo game design: Don't give the player so much work running the AI's turn that they spend most of their game time resolving their opponent's activation. It must be done swiftly, easily and without decision-making by the player. That's the whole purpose of having an AI in the first place. There's nothing more frustrating for a solo player than to spend 15 minutes a game doing the AI moves and also being asked to make "judgement calls" on the AI's behalf.
Solitaire games also need to be hard to win. I liken this to a good video game, the one that beats you down the first time you play it, but you have that glimmer of hope that if you just do something different, you can make progress. It keeps you coming back for more.
A good solo board game should do the same and that's why, for example, I made Dawn of the Zeds so hard to win. Well, that and the fact that it is a zombie apocalypse after all — things are supposed to go horribly wrong!
With all that in mind, yes, designing a solitaire game, or even just a solo mode for a game, is a great challenge. I've tried to incorporate all the previously mentioned aspects into my games — a somewhat intelligent AI, fast-playing AI mechanisms, and a very challenging experience — to varying degrees of success.Sample event chits from At Any Cost (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: The Invaders from Dimension X series are small-scale games playable in one evening. At Any Cost, in its campaign scenarios, can take an entire weekend. How does designing a game at one end of that time scale compare to the other extreme?
HL: The bigger games are a ton more work than the smaller ones. That might seem obvious, but it's actually worse than you would think.
The game's subject matter usually dictates to you at what scale and size the design itself will end up being. Invaders was always meant to be a small, fun, and honestly experimental little design. On the other hand, simulating the fighting around Metz in 1870 required At Any Cost to be a campaign-level game.
One reason for that is that it was an interesting military situation that any wargamer would want to explore. The other reason is that no previous game design had even touched on the idea of focusing on a specific campaign of the Franco-Prussian War (FPW).
Most of the few other designs involving the FPW simulated it at the grand strategic level (the scale that I find the least interesting, especially for the FPW) with a few battle-level games.
To fully capture the most interesting aspects of the Metz campaign, I had to go for a large, sweeping depiction of the fighting there, and thus was born At Any Cost: Metz 1870.
This led to the most arduous and time-consuming game design I have ever done. Not only are there tons of game mechanism details, but developing the right rules and procedures for a multi-day continuous-play campaign was a real grind.
The worst of it, and this is where the large-design workload geometrically shoots ahead of smaller designs, is the challenge of getting it all properly playtested. A designer can spend months crafting a wonderfully complex game design and think they have it all down perfectly, but one never knows until it is tested by an independent group of gamers (i.e., through "blind" playtesting).
Getting that large, complex, multi-faceted game design tested properly is where things really get challenging. It is an absolute nightmare to coordinate and manage and edit an ongoing playtest group that is desperately trying to test huge scenarios efficiently and in a timely manner. That aspect of designing large games — and designing them well — is the real difference between them and the smaller designs.At Any Cost (image: Neil Bunker)
DM: What general challenges are faced by designers of war or historical simulation games?
Well, if you have a solid wargame and want to get it published, there are plenty of wargame publishers out there, both large and small. Granted, if this is a first design, a really obscure topic, or a very small/very large game, certain companies will fit better with those parameters than others.
There are more wargame publishers now than ever before, and if you have a good game, it will get published. However, if you're thinking you're going to become independently wealthy from this endeavor, forget about it.
The wargame market is notoriously niche. Even the biggest and baddest wargame companies you can think of pale in comparison even to an average-sized Eurogame or general audience game publisher. The challenge is not so much getting the game published but rather getting the kind of decent sales figures that will get noticed in the general gaming industry.
If you're cool with that, then you can have great success within the wargame community. For example, Dawn of the Zeds has sold more copies than all of my wargame sales added together, three times over. That includes At Any Cost, which has sold out at GMT and therefore has sold about three thousand copies.
It is a true rarity that wargames get noticed outside of our zone, but it can happen. Obviously Twilight Struggle qualifies for such notoriety, without wishing to start a debate about whether that's a wargame or not. Also, David Thompson's Undaunted Normandy has made waves in the general gaming community.
It's the success of those games that keep wargame designers hopeful that more progress and exposure can be achieved some day.Prototype of Beware the Shades (image: Hermann Luttmann)
DM: Final question: Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
HL: Ha! Well, I've been as busy lately as I have ever been. I'm retired now, and I just joked to my girlfriend Nancy that I think I'm actually busier all day now than when I worked for a living! So, yeah, it has been hectic.
The two big games I have cooking now are indeed huge. One is a co-operative horror game called Beware The Shades! for GMT Games. It will feature four asymmetric factions that are trying to co-operate with one another as they attempt to stop a monstrous outbreak of Shades, horrific mutated beasts that were once human.
The other project, for Flying Pig Games, is the aforementioned A Most Fearful Sacrifice. It will have two huge mounted map boards, over five hundred 1" counters, activation cards, over a dozen scenarios, etc. That should be on Kickstarter in mid-2020.
I just signed a deal with Worthington Publishing to do a new, updated edition of In Magnificent Style. That should also be on Kickstarter in July 2020.
Aside from those, I have to finish Miracle at Dunkerque for Legion Wargames which has been in limbo for quite a while.
Soon I need to start working on Hell's Half Acre for Revolution Games. That is the next Blind Swords game for them and is about the Battle of Stone's River...
...the next science fiction game for Tiny Battle Publishing called Planet of the Mossmen!...
...They March Against Us (Leipzig 1813), also for Tiny Battle Publishing, which will be the first Napoleonic-era Blind Swords game...
...and a new World War I series for Worthington...
...And...I'm sure I forgot something.Prototype of A Most Fearful Sacrifice (image: Hermann Luttmann)
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20 Jun 2020
first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Tristan Hall. —WEM]
Tristan Hall, designer of the Kilforth series and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the two strands of his design career:
DM: Hi, Tristan, thank you for joining us. You have designed a number of successful games in recent years. There seems to be two distinct strands to your work: dark fantasy and historical. What is it about those two themes that appeals to you?
TH: Thank you for having me. There is no single element of media that has had more of an enduring and positive influence on me than reading The Lord of the Rings. Revisiting this again with my son as bedtime reading has made for some of the most exciting and happiest moments of my life. Sharing and passing those stories on to him has been so rewarding. If I can contribute even a morsel of that sense of fulfillment to those who play my games, either alone or with their families and friends, then I'm delighted.
Of course, there is as much heroism and brutality and hope in our actual history as there is in fantasy. Trying to refract a sense of those epic historical struggles via the prism of gaming is a joyful exercise to me. And if people happen to learn something about these iconic moments in history in the process of playing a fun game, then that too is a pleasure!
DM: 1066, Tears to Many Mothers is themed around the Norman Invasion of Britain while the forthcoming 1565, St. Elmo's Pay covers the Siege of Malta. Can you tell us why those two conflicts interest you?
TH: I suppose both conflicts are personal to me, in a way. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 is something that every school kid in the UK learns about growing up. It's such a tragically romantic story it stays with you forever.
This heroic warrior king, Harold, finally saves England from centuries of Danish invasions by destroying pretty much all of the Vikings in history — there are no Viking raids again after 1066 — only to be butchered by the Normans and have his throne stolen soon after, the Normans being Viking descendants themselves, of course, and led by Duke William, one of the most powerful and villainous leaders in history. The game gives you a chance to maybe redress that balance, or repeat history all over again.
The Great Siege of Malta — "The Greatest Siege in History" — captured my imagination when we visited Malta on holiday over a decade ago. To me, this battle — which determined the entire fate of the whole of Europe and the Mediterranean, and where a tiny army of Knights repelled an utterly overwhelming Ottoman invasion — just seems criminally overlooked by modern media, especially in gaming. It would make for an amazing movie or Netflix show.
It feels like shining a torch on these darker areas of history that some people maybe don't know as much about (including me). It also gives me the opportunity to bury my head in history books and geek out.
To continue this Historic Epic Battle System series of games, I'd love to alternate between lesser-known battles like Malta and more commonly known theaters of conflict, for example, our next game in the series — 1815, Scum of the Earth — will cover Waterloo.
DM: The card illustrations in both games depict historical figures and events. How closely does the art and the game design follow the history?
TH: Every design decision and piece of art behind the games is driven by the history. Every single card in each game is based on a real person, event, tactic, or unit that took part in the battle or events leading up to it. I spent years poring through history books with a highlighter pen and developing the flavor text for every single card, trying to pare its story down into a couple of sentences.
With the art, I gave strict instructions to our artists to follow the history. I bought and posted reference books to them to draw inspiration from. Occasionally I'd question the historical veracity of the artwork and be put in my place by our artists!
For example, in 1565, St. Elmo's Pay, one of the Knights is wielding pistols in each hand. I told our artist Arek that I thought it felt a little bit too "Hollywood action movie", so I asked whether he could replace the pistols with a more historically correct arquebus. He replied by email with a photograph of the same two dueling pistols from a Maltese museum that showed that they dated back to 1565!
DM: Why a hand-management/collectible card game type mechanism and not a more traditional conflict simulation mechanism such as blocks, hex and counter, minis, area control?
TH: Hexes, chits, and area control are fairly typical of war games, but I've never seen a history game presented in a beautifully illustrated Magic: The Gathering style. I wanted to employ one of our greatest assets — a team of world-class artists — to reach across the line and draw people into the history who might otherwise be put off by a heavy tactical game.
To that end, I aimed to deliver a super high quality, non-collectible card game on a visual par with Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars LCG, but with detailed flavor text on every card and hundreds of unique images to help immerse players in the history of the respective battles.
DM: Does the "timeline" of the games follow the historical timeline?
TH: The timelines of the games adhere closely to the history of the battles. The players must overcome a sequential series of historical objectives. The leaders they're playing as had to overcome these obstacles in order to reach their respective battles in the first place. For example, in 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, Harold has to defeat the Vikings in the north of England before he can march down to battle the Normans at Hastings.
In 1565, St. Elmo's Pay, Mustafa Pasha must gather his forces following the meeting of the Divan and successfully land his forces on the tiny island of Malta before the Great Siege takes place.
DM: Were mechanisms developed to reflect the historical position and strengths/weakness of the opposing forces?
TH: Being card games there is a huge degree of extrapolation in representing the history. Even so, each character or unit is richly researched and rated by their comparative influence and power over their battle.
For example, Robert Mortain is listed in the Domesday Book as having brought 120 ships to the Battle of Hastings. Statistically, that makes him one of the most powerful and expensive to play cards in the game. Whereas Remigius de Fécamp brought over one ship and twenty knights from Normandy, putting him much lower in the pecking order, which is again reflected in his game stats.
The Battle of Hastings was fought over three wedges of troops — each wedge card in the game represents several thousand warriors battling for that frontier — and players are rewarded for emulating the history by maneuvering their units into their respective historical placements.
Harold fought side by side with his housecarls in the front row, so the Saxon housecarl cards have an ability that increases their might if they're placed into the front row. Similarly, Duke William kept his cavalry in the rear flank, so if placed in the rear, cavalry units in 1066 earn a bonus, too.
Ranged units can be used to fire across the battlefield on either side, family cards make their brethren cheaper to play, cowardly units are easier to rout, and so on — every game ability is designed to follow the history where possible.
DM: Moving to your dark fantasy work, the Kilforth games appear influenced by role-playing games (RPGs). If that is the case, why create a board game rather than an RPG?
TH: Until recently my role-playing days had long since expired. I still hold extremely fond nostalgia for my teen years spent role-playing and exploring dungeons and going on magnificent adventures with my friends.I wanted to harness and explore some of those moments once again.
When I originally designed Gloom of Kilforth, every fantasy adventure board game on the market was about killing monsters, stealing treasure, and leveling up. Whilst that can be fun, for me role-playing was more about exploring ancient shrines, encountering strange people, going on epic quests, and discovering beautiful fantasy worlds, with a sprinkling of combat thrown in for good measure.
Capturing those narrative moments was one of my key motivations in designing Gloom of Kilforth. Emergent storytelling is becoming huge in board games now, but games that require you to read out huge reams of text to your sleepy-eyed friends don't engage me in the same way as games that give me the narrative hooks to create exciting and memorable stories of my own. In that respect, there is still no game that creates narratives in the same way that the Kilforth games do, which I think explains why it's going into its fourth printing.
What are the specific design challenges involved in creating a story-driven, character-based game compared to a historical game?
The Kilforth games took much longer to develop and playtest. They are much bigger games than 1066/1565. They have many more moving parts that need to knit together smoothly. For me personally, the mechanical aspects of game design go hand in hand with world-building and character creation.
A game's story — whether that's history, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or whatever — should absolutely feed into the mechanisms. The time spent on developing the "hands" of both mechanisms and theme should dovetail accordingly.
If you want a game that's great mechanisms with little theme, look to Reinier Knizia, and if you want a cool story almost to the expense of game mechanisms, look to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; for me, the best board games are balanced in the center of those two extremes.
DM: Your latest game is the solitaire game Veilwraith. Please tell us more about it.
TH: Veilwraith is a fantasy card game that takes place after the end of all things! It plays in 30-40 minutes and has a multiplayer variant in which each player uses their own copy of the game. There is also a campaign mode where you string together a series of adventures or "vignettes" that you must complete in order. As the eponymous Veilwraith, you literally try to piece the memory of the world back together after it's fallen into absolute destruction and ruin.
I love and play a lot of solo games — and all our games are solo friendly. However, many shorter solo games have themes or art that I don't personally enjoy, so I wanted to offer something for gamers with similar tastes to me.
I have a lot of apocalyptic dreams, and several years ago I wrote a short story about the world ending and what might come after. I combined these ideas with the world of Kilforth and what would happen if the demons won, the heroes lost, and the world was destroyed.
DM: What games do you have in development?
TH: As mentioned, the next game in the Historic Epic Battle System will be 1815, Scum of the Earth, which covers the Battle of Waterloo.
There is at least one more Kilforth game in the works, as well as the small box New Tales expansion for Shadows of Kilforth that we're Kickstarting in mid-2020.
I also have a brand-new game, a horror opus called Sublime Dark that I want to share with the world.
And there are many more to come while our backers continue to join us in exploring strange new worlds and themes.
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for budding designers and publishers?
TH: If I had to make one point it would be this: The difference between you having your first game published and your mate who says they have an idea for a game is that you went ahead and finished what you started, so see it through to the end.
If it stops being fun and feels like a chore, take a break. Come back to it when you're feeling it again. When you play a game, you can feel how much fun the designer had making it, so ensure that you maintain your own passion for what you love throughout the process, and most of all enjoy yourself, so you know that your players will, too.
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