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Designer Interview: Frank West, Creator of The Isle of Cats

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Board Game Designer: Frank West
[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos were provided by Frank West. —WEM]

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
An early press photo

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

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

DM: Can you elaborate on the design process?

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
An early photo of Survive!

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

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

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

Board Game: Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
A cover star in 1986

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

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

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

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

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

Board Game: Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
"Mammoth Mountain" prototype

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

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

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

Board Game: Survive: Space Attack!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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