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Designer Diary: Flip Ships

Kane Klenko
United States
Mount Horeb
Wisconsin
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Microbadge: Covert fanMicrobadge: FUSE fanMicrobadge: Pandemic: Rapid ResponseMicrobadge: Flip Ships fanMicrobadge: Proving Grounds
Board Game: Flip Ships
The Beginnings of an Idea

Sometimes mindless boredom is a good thing. In October 2015, I was attending a Protospiel event in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I wasn't planning to go until Saturday since I had to work all day Friday, but after work I decided to stop by and say hi to a few people.

Six hours later I was sitting around with fellow designers Keith Matejka and Ed Marriott, just chatting and half falling asleep. A random blank token was sitting on the table, and I grabbed it and started mindlessly flipping it off the edge of the table, eventually aiming for a cup that was sitting across the table. I remember saying, "You may not realize it, but this will be a great game." I'm sure they thought I was joking. In reality, that flippin' token would consume my thoughts for over a year.

I had a 45-minute drive home that night, so I thought about what the game could be. It had to be more than just flipping a token at a cup. I had started on a game several months earlier that was called "Flip Ships", but that idea never went anywhere. The previous idea had nothing to do with flipping tokens, but I decided this was as good a place to start as any, so this would be the new Flip Ships and I'd scrap the other game. I started with the theme of sci-fi spaceships attacking something. I thought it would be cool to have different levels of ships that could be upgraded or added to your fleet, and you would flip and land on different cards in order to get those upgrades.

The next day at Protospiel, I walked in and grabbed some of the blank components available from Game Crafter, and scribbled ships on discs and cards on which to land. The cards were scattered around the table and said things like "+1 ship", "upgrade a ship", and...I think that's about it. I didn't know what the game was, but I grabbed a few people and asked them to try it out. "Just shoot at that stuff. Let's say the first person to earn all their ships, then land on this tile wins", I said as I threw a tile on the table. I was winging it. All I knew is that I wanted to flip discs at stuff because that was fun.

Normally I wouldn't pull other people into a design so early (before there's even a game), but I was at Protospiel, so what the heck...might as well see whether people think the flipping is fun. I made a few adjustments during the game, including adding a cup to the table since that was fun to shoot at the night before. I didn't know what it was for, but hey, just shoot at that too if you want. That was all the direction I gave, and people started playing. And they had fun. And people started coming over to watch. And they wanted to join in. And that's why this idea consumed my thoughts for so long. Even before it was a game, people were enjoying it. I also knew that this couldn't be just another dexterity game. It needed to be different. Dexterity games aren't normally the types of games I play, so I knew that this had to appeal to non-dexterity game players. It needed to be more than just flicking discs at stuff.


From gallery of Favre4MVP

From gallery of Favre4MVP


Finding the Game

For the next two months, I thought about this idea constantly. I knew a great game was in there, and I just had to find it — but I couldn't. I built several large contraptions to shoot at, with different areas to land on and land in, but other than the basic fun of flipping the discs, the game was not there. It was frustrating.

We ended up going to northern Wisconsin to visit my wife's family over New Year's weekend at the end of 2015. It's about a four-hour drive, and on the way home I told myself that I had to figure this game out on the drive. It had been bothering me for too long, and I made it my goal to figure it out before I got home — and it worked. I remember the thoughts coming all at once while I was driving: "What if it's like Space Invaders?" "But cooperative?" "You're trying to defend your home planet by flipping discs while waves of ships are attacking you." I couldn't wait to get home and start making cards. My wife probably couldn't wait either because I'm sure I babbled on and on about it for the rest of the drive.

The first version of the game worked surprisingly well. I got too excited and made too many enemy ship powers and speed types, so I had to quickly scale all that back to make it more accessible, but the game was instantly fun and had a great tension.


From gallery of Favre4MVP


Okay, so now that we're at day 1 of having an actual game, let's take a quick commercial break so that I can tell you how Flip Ships works in its final form.

Flip Ships

As I just said, Flip Ships is sort of a cooperative Space Invaders game that uses the dexterity element of flipping discs at things.

Based on the player count and the difficulty level chosen, you deal out a certain number of cards from the enemy ship deck. These are the ships that will attack you and that you have to destroy. Ten are dealt out to start the game (with five columns of ships in two rows), and behind these cards you set up the mothership. The mothership is a 3D piece that you must also destroy (by landing in it) in order to win. Remember the cup?

On your turn, you take all of your active ships (discs) and flip them one at a time at the enemies or the mothership. Once all players have taken a turn, the enemies that weren't destroyed all move forward based on their speed value. You then refill the back two rows with ships, so you could potentially have up to twenty ships coming at you at once. Once an enemy has moved down past the fourth row, it has attacked your planet and will deal damage based on the attack value on the card. The card is then shuffled back into the deck, so it will cycle through and attack again, forcing you to destroy every enemy ship.

The thing that makes the game more interesting and the cooperation more exciting is that every player ship has a special ability. These are shown on cards randomly dealt out at the beginning of the game, so you always have a different mix of abilities. Some of the enemy cards also have abilities, so there are constant discussions about what the best course of action is. Some ships are slower but deal more damage, some are faster, some shield adjacent cards from attack, some need two hits to destroy, etc. Players make decisions based on the current game state and their special abilities rather than just mindlessly flipping discs.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled designer diary…


From gallery of Favre4MVP


Your Regularly Scheduled Designer Diary

For the next few months, I streamlined a few of the card types, but the game remained mostly unchanged for a long time. Overall I was happy with the game, but there was always something nagging at the back of my mind. It wasn't a 10 for me (probably an 8), so I knew that I could do better. I just couldn't figure out how to do that. There wasn't anything that I disliked exactly; it was just a feeling of something being a little off. When I tried to pinpoint things, I could see two main issues: The game lasted a little too long for the type of game it was, and there could be a big imbalance in the number of ships players earned depending on how good they were at the game.

In the 11th hour, it hit me, and that one major change late in development fixed both of my problems. Through the entire life of the game, some of the enemy cards had icons on them, and if you destroyed those enemies, you would earn new ships or upgrades for your personal fleet. The problem with them was two-fold. If in your random assortment of cards in the deck, you got a lot of those upgrade cards, the game would be easy; if you didn't, it would be hard. In addition, if you were good at the game, you would hit those cards and level up faster, making it even easier, while if you were new to the game, you were in big trouble. I had tried fixes for this issue before, but nothing I was happy with, so I had gone back to the standard rules that were at least working, but now I decided that those icons had to go. I didn't have a solution in hand, and I knew it would be a lot of work to change a major component of the game this late, but I knew it had to be done.

I went through a couple of new versions quickly, and they all had their merits, but like the previous rule they didn't feel right despite working fine. When I came up with what ended up being the final rule, I knew immediately that it was the way to go. Now it seems so obvious that I should have had it that way all along. The way it works now is that the players get ships added to their fleet as reinforcements as the team takes damage. Thus, as the enemy ships attack you and do damage, there are triggers along the way that add new ships to your fleet. This balances the game out nicely because if you're doing well with the ships you have, you won't get reinforcements, thus increasing the tension. If you're doing poorly, you'll get extra ships that should help you stay afloat. This system provides the perfect balance of tension, with you feeling like you're on the edge of losing, but always with a chance to pull out the win.


Board Game: Flip Ships


One other change I made late in development was the overall structure of each round. The way it works now is that each player flips all of their ships, then resolves them before the next player takes their turn. For most of the design process, a player would flip one ship at a time, then the next player would flip one ship, and so on. Once all ships were flipped, they were all resolved. This method had some merits, but overall it made the game drag on too long, and it made resolving all of the special abilities at once confusing.

My goal was to have a game that was accessible to non-gamers, and having everything resolve at once would trip up even seasoned gamers. It had to change. Each player flipping and resolving all of their ships keeps the game moving along, and it makes the special abilities fun and interesting, but not overwhelming. With that final change, I was finally completely happy with the game. I made new pieces for my prototype and sketched out how everything would lay out in its final form.

Components and Art

Up until this point, I had tried to keep all of the components minimalist and cheap. The board along the side of the play area was just a few cards, for example. That's why the "moon spaces" are the size of a tarot-sized card. My plan was to have an Onitama-type box, with the box bottom being the mothership.

All of this sounded great in theory, but as I got close to the finish line, I realized that a lot of those things were kind of annoying in actual play. The cards would slide around all the time, which messed up the spacing of everything. I knew it would bump the cost up a bit, but I decided that a puzzle-locking board covering the whole side of the play area was the way to go. This would also allow for one big piece of art and a nicer overall experience for the player. Having Renegade as the publisher, I knew this wouldn't be an issue since they're all about making a game and its components the best they can be.


Board Game: Flip Ships


With the game complete, we could start on art. I usually handle the art direction on my games these days, and from early on I had wanted Kwanchai Moriya to do the art. From the first time I saw his cover for Catacombs, I had been keeping an eye on his work. Looking at his website showed me that he had a very diverse style, and all of those styles were great. Most of the work he had done on board games had a very stylized digital look (like Catacombs or Kodama), but I saw on his website that he also had lots of portraits painted in this funky acrylic style. I thought that would be cool in a game, so I contacted him. I was nervous that the style would maybe be a slight mismatch to the light and fun gameplay of Flip Ships, but I had a picture in my head of what I wanted, and I thought it was worth a shot. I wanted something different, something that jumped off the shelf. Flip Ships was a different kind of game, and I wanted it to look unique, too.

What can I say? Kwanchai nailed it, and then some. I wanted the cover to be a little weird, and I kept telling him that our version of space is funky. His final product is even better than I could have imagined. The graphic design team of Jeanne Torres and Anita Osburn did a great job, too. From the beginning I had been saying that I wanted an ambigram for the logo, but I didn't think anyone would be able to come up with something that was an ambigram, was still legible, and fit the sci-fi theme without detracting from the cover. Again, they nailed it. As always, working with team Renegade has been awesome.


Board Game: Flip Ships


The Final Product

One of the things I love about Flip Ships is that people tell me that they don't like dexterity games, but they love Flip Ships. That's what I was going for. It crosses that barrier for people. Since it's a cooperative game, it's more about the communication between players, the cheering and groaning based on the shots, and the ever-rising tension that the encroaching enemies bring. I like to think of it as a cooperative game with a dexterity element more than just a cooperative dexterity game. I've even had people tell me that they don't like cooperative games or dexterity games, but they love Flip Ships. That makes all of the work worth it.

It took a lot of time and attention, but Flip Ships did end up becoming a 10 for me by the time I finished designing it. It is a game that we pull out in any situation, and it's always a hit. Lunch-time gaming, family get-togethers, game store events, conventions — Flip Ships is a game I'm very proud of, and it all started because someone left a random token on a table and I was too tired to play a real game.

Now I need to get going. All this Flip Ships talk gave me an idea…

Kane Klenko


From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Thu Nov 30, 2017 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: FUSE, or This Diary Will Self-Destruct After 10 Thumbs

Kane Klenko
United States
Mount Horeb
Wisconsin
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Microbadge: Covert fanMicrobadge: FUSE fanMicrobadge: Pandemic: Rapid ResponseMicrobadge: Flip Ships fanMicrobadge: Proving Grounds
Board Game: FUSE
One way that I think up new game ideas and refine game designs is to picture people playing a game and having fun. I try to picture different elements of the game and get a vague idea of what makes it fun. If I "see" something, then I get to work and figure out how to make that happen. At other times, I see something, hear something, read something, or discuss something, and I get the idea that the "something" would make a great game theme. In both of these situations I'll write that something down or store it somewhere in my memory. Sometimes I get lucky and these two parts come together to form a game. That is what happened with FUSE.

A long time ago, I had the thought that a fun game theme would be players acting cooperatively as a bomb squad to try to defuse bombs. "That's a cool idea", I said to myself — and then I put the idea aside as I was already working on several other designs.

In May 2014 I got a picture in my head of a group playing a game. I remember that I was driving on the highway after work, heading to my son's soccer practice. The picture was basically this: Players were sitting around a table, and several dice were rolled onto the table. They then discussed who got which dice. That was it. But for some reason it triggered an immediate recollection of the bomb squad theme: "What if they are using those dice to defuse bombs?!" This got me excited, and it became more than just another idea that I would write down or forget about. I needed to make this work.

My initial thought was that each player would have a player board with a combination that would defuse the bomb. There were five columns on the board, and each was a different color with a number at the bottom.
Players would roll dice, then take one to place on their board; a green die would go in the green column, etc. The object was to get the total on the dice pips in the column to have their last digit match the number in the combination, so if the number in the column was a 3, you could have a 3 or dice that totaled 13, 23, etc. This would "unlock" that part of the combination.

The idea was easy enough to scribble together a couple of boards and give it a shot — and within two minutes I knew it didn't work. I still liked the idea of players working out who took which dice from a single die roll, but the way I had the "bomb boards" set up didn't work.

One thing I always think about when working on a game is what I want the players to feel. With this game, I wanted tension between taking what you need versus giving it up for another player with a common goal. With the dice, I was going for the idea that some dice would work for more than one player, so it wasn't always clear who should take which dice. Sometimes you would really need something, sometimes you could take anything and give your teammates what they need, and sometimes you would be stuck and not be able to take anything. The combination boards didn't work because it was either obvious what you should take or, more likely, you couldn't take anything. The boards needed work.

The other issue I could see right away was that I had no idea what the overall flow of the game was. How do you win? Do you just need to get these few dice on your board to defuse the bomb and then you're done? What if the other players aren't done? I try to think about production costs when I work on a game, so I knew that I didn't want a bunch of these boards in the game.

That first two-minute test was done on my lunch break at work, and on the drive home I thought about how to fix the problems. By the time I got home, I had an idea that I thought would work. Instead of each column needing a specific number in a specific color, they would instead need different combinations of dice that were more open ended. So instead of needing a green 3, you would instead need a green die, any color 3, and something else. To keep the board from getting cluttered, I decided to split each column off into its own card. This also solved the other problem of game flow. If each combination was its own card, then these could be individual bombs and once you defused it, you would simply draw another one. I knew this was the answer, so I spent the next two days making bomb cards with different dice combinations needed to defuse them.

The first test with this revised idea was with my wife and kids. I knew I wanted the players to be up against a timer, and that I wanted the game to be short, but I didn't know exactly how short. I figured I'd go with five minutes for our first game. I also didn't know how many cards we would be able to complete in a game, so I made thirty or forty and put them all in the first game just to see how many we could clear. The timer started and we began playing — and it worked! As soon as the five-minute timer beeped, I knew that was too short, so I reset it and said to keep playing. When it beeped again, the game length felt right. Ten minutes. It gave me the quick game that I wanted, but also gave enough time to feel like we had progressed and accomplished something, and it wasn't over too soon.

Okay, so the core of the game was set. Now I needed to figure out the rest of it, namely how you win, what happens if someone doesn't take a die, how the game is set up on the table, and whether I wanted to add anything else to the core mechanisms.

From gallery of Favre4MVP
The first playtest of FUSE

In the first couple of tests we finished around fifteen cards, and that was with us having no idea what we were doing. It also involved me thinking through the design as we played, so I figured somewhere around twenty cards was probably about right. That would be the goal: Defuse twenty bombs in ten minutes. Easy to explain and exciting. I knew I had something, so I put aside all other designs to focus on this one exclusively.

Now, what to do about dice that the players don't take? My initial idea was terrible. Any dice that weren't taken were placed onto a track that would lock those dice up. The idea was that if you ran out of dice in the bag, then you would lose the game. As the track filled up, you could return the dice to the bag, but you would be penalized by drawing a certain number of time tokens that would cost the team from 0 to 15 seconds. If players defused all twenty bombs, they would stop the timer, then subtract their "time token" time to see whether they still won. For example, if we defused all the bombs with 33 seconds still on the clock, and we had drawn 30 seconds worth of time tokens, then we would have won the game with 3 seconds to spare. I liked the idea of the tension this might create — with you running low on dice, but not wanting to risk returning them and drawing time tokens — but the execution was convoluted and clunky. I wanted this game to be streamlined and easy to learn. I needed a new idea.

I decided to simplify and lose the whole idea of the extra track. If a die wasn't taken, then it should just be rolled and something happens. The next idea, which I stuck with for a little while, was that the die was rolled and on a 1 or 2 nothing happened and the die was returned to the bag; on a 3 or 4, it was returned to the bag, but you had to draw a FUSE Token (more on those later); and on a 5 or 6, the die was removed from the game and you had to draw a FUSE token. This was much more streamlined than the old idea, but the more I played it, the more I felt like it was still too clunky. It needed to be stripped down one more time.

The final rule for the game is that any dice that are not taken are rolled, then players must return a die from their bomb cards that matches the color or number rolled. Simple, easy to remember, tension-adding — just what I was looking for.

Board Game: FUSE

Okay, FUSE tokens. While I wanted to keep this game simple and not move beyond the core mechanism too much, I had always pictured tokens that would be activated throughout the game. The initial idea was that some tokens were good and some were bad; sometimes you were lucky in what you flipped, and sometimes you weren't. But I'm designing a cooperative game here, so why would I want to be nice to you?! Thus, all of the tokens are bad. If you need me to help you out by giving you aid tokens, then maybe you shouldn't be defusing bombs in your spare time.

The final issue was how all of this would be displayed on the table and how the game would flow. After the first couple of tests, I made a super fancy board by taking an old manila folder and marking twenty spaces around the outside of it. Some of them had spaces for FUSE tokens, and when you defused a bomb card, you would place it on one of these spaces (numbered 1-20), then activate any FUSE token there. If you filled the board, then you won. I liked this because it kept everything contained nicely and gave players a sense of accomplishment as they filled the board.

The game stayed like this for some time, but while thinking about the theme one day I decided to reverse it, filling the board with cards during set-up and having players take the next card in order from the board as soon as they defused a bomb. This still gave players the same sense of accomplishment as they emptied the board, but it seemed to fit the theme better since you were "finding" these bombs and defusing them. This is the version of the game that I played for a long time and the one that I showed to Renegade Game Studios — and then I changed my mind.

What if I made the game even more portable by getting rid of the board? The board doesn't actually do anything, and when watching new players play the game, sometimes they would be confused about which card to take next. What else does scrapping the board accomplish? It means we can make the game more portable, bring the price down, and make it look less intimidating to non-gamers. (Not that it was ever intimidating — I just needed a third thing to list.)

Now the game was only cards and dice — and tokens. Oh, yes, tokens. If I have only a deck of cards, how do I incorporate the FUSE tokens? I couldn't stack them in the deck...but I could turn them into cards. I really liked this idea because changing them from tokens to cards opened things up for more ideas to be added. I still wanted to keep the game simple and accessible, but with tokens becoming cards the design now had more room for different ideas and options for expansions.

Speaking of options, another later addition to the game was the point system. I had been thinking about a way to add a little more replayability and choice to the game, and the point system answered both of those issues. I decided that the set-up without the board would be the deck of cards with five face-up cards in the middle of the table, and when you finished a card, you could choose one of the face-up cards to replace it. This now gave you a choice of going for easier or harder cards. Why would you ever choose to take a more difficult card? Points. I decided to give each card a point value so that players could now not only try to win the game, but also shoot for higher scores, thus adding more choices and replayability to the game.

Board Game: FUSE

Board Game: Covert
That's the story of the design. I set out to create an exciting cooperative game that could be set up, taught, and played in just a few minutes, and I believe I succeeded in every aspect.

FUSE is exactly the game that I wanted it to be, and it came together quickly, too. I started working on it in May 2014 and was able to show it to publishers at Gen Con 2014 just a few months later. I had several publishers interested in the design, but I decided to sign the game with Renegade Game Studios. Although Renegade was a new company at the time, I was really impressed by Scott Gaeta, the founder and president. Corey Young (designer of Gravwell) introduced us at Gen Con, and I was immediately drawn to Scott's vision for games and the industry. Working with Scott and Renegade has been great — so much so that we've announced Covert for release in 2016 with more announcements to come in the future.

FUSE is one of those games that makes you say, "Okay, let's do that again. I know we can win this time!" I hope you enjoy FUSE as much as we have!

Kane Klenko

Board Game: FUSE
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Thu May 5, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Dead Men Tell No Tales, or Curse You, Kevin Lanzing!

Kane Klenko
United States
Mount Horeb
Wisconsin
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Board Game: Dead Men Tell No Tales
In 2010, I designed my first game, Pressure Cooker, and it got picked up by Rio Grande Games. That got me thinking...maybe I could be pretty good at this game design thing, so in January 2011 I started writing notes for a new game. I find inspiration for game designs in everything. Conversations that people are having, TV shows, commercials, seeing things out on the street, books, whatever — it always triggers a "what kind of game would that be?" question in my head. I live across the street from a fire station, so I had had the thought in my head for a while that a firefighting game would be fun. Of course, a good firefighting game would be cooperative, so I started the process of creating a cooperative firefighting game. Nobody's ever done that before (RIGHT?!?) and it's a theme that will draw people in.

From gallery of Favre4MVP
The initial picture in my head was of a building that players would explore and build out of tiles as the game progressed, and each room had a die in the middle of it that showed what the fire level in that room was. Players would use actions to lower the fire level and move around, and the fire would spread and explode in a random, but semi-predictable, manner. That set the groundwork for what would become "Backdraft".

My initial thoughts on what to add to the game got a little too out of control, so I quickly had to pull things back. I wanted players to have to worry about their oxygen level, water level, where the hose was going, their fatigue, and all kinds of other things. They were working together as a team, but had to monitor their own levels to make sure they weren't becoming a hindrance.

I liked the idea, but I prefer streamlined designs over lots of things to track, so I decided to combine all of that into one thing: fatigue. The way fatigue works is that if you move from a room into a room with a higher fire level, then you increase your fatigue by the difference of those two dice. For example, if you left a 1 and went into a 4, you would take 3 fatigue. In addition, triggers along the dial mark different fire levels; once you cross those thresholds, you can no longer enter rooms with that fire level or higher. Fatigue levels increased even faster when you were carrying a person to rescue them (or carrying loot as is now the case in the published design). This worked great from the first play and hasn't changed since.


From gallery of Favre4MVP

Fatigue dial


I designed several character powers as well as several other problems that players had to deal with, and everything came together just how I wanted it. It was time to show a publisher. I e-mailed a publisher and immediately got some interest. Woohoo!

Board Game: Flash Point: Fire Rescue
And then, days later, Indie Boards & Cards announced that it was releasing Flash Point: Fire Rescue, a cooperative fire fighting game. CURSE YOU, KEVIN LANZING!!! At that point, no publishers wanted to even look at my game. One publisher did get a chance to play it during this time and the comment was, "I'd sign this game immediately, but we can't do it right after Flash Point." Back to the drawing board...

I needed a re-theme. I spent some time thinking about the other cool themes that could potentially fit. Searching a cave for treasure was one that I really liked, but the fire was a big part of the game, and I couldn't think of anything else that would work the same way. The fire going up and down and players getting fatigued as they moved through it was the core of the game. I didn't want the theme to be such a stretch that things didn't make sense, but I didn't want to change the core of the game because of the re-theme. Luckily, I have a brilliant wife. "What do you think about pirates looting a burning ship?" BOOM. There it is.

At first I tried to get away with the re-theme the easy way: Keep the game the same and just put the pirate theme on it; rename everything, change the art, and POOF, a pirate game. But it wasn't that easy. It still felt like a firefighting game. I needed to change more than just the art and the names; I needed to piratize the game. And how do you piratize a game? Battles.

"Backdraft" had tokens on the board that you could pick up and combine in specific combinations in order to purchase cards that gave special powers. I liked the idea, but in practice it didn't flow with the game as nicely as I'd want. This was the first thing to go. I decided to replace the tokens with enemies. Instead of having random things you could pick up to buy cards, I split this idea into two parts. The first part was the tokens; these became enemies that the players would need to battle, and eliminating them would provide items that would help them in future battles. The second part was the cards. I decided to change them from being things that were purchased, and instead turned them into items that the players could carry. They became a secondary power that each player would have that could be swapped out depending on their situation. This combination both made the game more interesting and more piratey. ARRRRR...


From gallery of Favre4MVP


The whole theme change seemed like a let-down for me at first, but in the end I ended up with a better game because of it. And it's not like I ended up with bunnies searching for carrots or something; we have pirates looting a burning ship while fighting undead minions!

As I was putting the final touches on Dead Men Tell No Tales, I attended a Protospiel event in Milwaukee. This is a weekend when designers get together to play each other's prototypes and offer feedback. There are usually a few publishers around, too, including Minion Games. I was teaching a few people the game and had others stop by to comment on what a cool theme it was. As we were starting to play, James from Minion Games stopped by and said he'd heard good things about the game and wondered if he could join. I happily gave up my spot and walked him through the first turn since he had missed the rules explanation, and he was up and running. It was a tense game with players commenting on how they really enjoyed the tension throughout. At times they felt like things were hopeless, but they were able to turn things around and pull out the win.

Normally the process of signing a contract with a publisher can go on for months, but this was the first time I was ever offered a contract pretty much on the spot. Dead Men Tell No Tales was finally signed! The trouble of going through the theme change and re-working the game had paid off.

I'm a big believer in great art in games. For the players it makes the game more exciting and immersive; for the publisher it makes the game more marketable. As a designer, I'm interested in both of those things. So, whenever possible, I want to be involved in the art for my games. I talked to Minion about this before signing, and I was told that I would be involved.

As it turned out, Minion's normal artists were busy working on another project, so James was kind enough to grant my request to be the art director on the project. I was given full control, which included finding my own illustrator and graphic designer. This was a very fun process, but also a bit stressful at first because I knew how I wanted the game to look, and finding an artist to match that style, keep to our timeline, and stay on budget isn't necessarily an easy thing.


From gallery of W Eric Martin


Luckily, I found what I was looking for with Chris Ostrowski doing the illustration and Jason David Kingsley doing the graphic design. We worked very closely with each other, me telling them exactly what I wanted and them doing amazing work to bring it to life. I'm sure I drove them nuts at times as I pushed to get the logo and cover especially just how I wanted it, but hopefully it pays off in the end. I, for one, couldn't be happier with the finished product.

Note: No Kevin Lanzings were actually cursed in the creation of this designer diary.


Board Game: Dead Men Tell No Tales
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Thu Oct 15, 2015 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Mad City, or My Longest and Shortest Design Yet

Kane Klenko
United States
Mount Horeb
Wisconsin
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Board Game: Mad City
I guess it could be true for me to say that Mad City was the game I designed the fastest — and from a certain point of view also the game that took me the longest to design.

Around 1999 or 2000, my wife and I played Canasta a lot with my aunt. I enjoyed it, but I was getting tired of playing the same game over and over. I had not yet discovered the wider world of gaming, but I knew there had to be something more out there. Instead of researching other games — something I didn't do until 2003 — I decided to just make up my own game with a standard deck of cards. At the time I was a bank teller, so one slow afternoon in the drive-thru I figured that I'd try to make the game. An idea hit me quickly, I scribbled down some notes, and in literally ten minutes I had a game. That game was called GRIDS, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

GRIDS was sort of a mix between a speed game, cribbage hands, and scoring from the dart game Cricket. It was a numbers game, but it was a lot of fun and we played it for a long time.

Fast forward a couple of years and I discovered "German-style games", and GRIDS, Canasta, and the like were put to the side. I suppose I became a game snob. I couldn't just play a game with a standard deck of cards! Pffff.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was laid off of work. In 2009 I had started thinking about designing a game and had a bunch of different ideas written on scraps of paper, but nothing concrete. One day while I was jobless, I decided to focus on one of my ideas. It turns out that focusing is a good thing for me because that game turned out great and got picked up by Rio Grande Games. "Is that game Mad City?", you ask. No, that one is called Pressure Cooker and you'll have to wait until later in 2014 for the designer diary on that one. For Mad City we're going to fast forward one last time...

One day while going through old notes I found the rules for GRIDS. Oh yeah, that little card game I designed back when I didn't even know about games. I pulled it out and we played a few games. Hey! This thing actually holds up and is fun despite the hundreds of professionally designed games I'd played since. Maybe I should see what I can do with it and get it publisher ready.

I changed some of the numbers so that the game didn't use a standard deck of cards, I gave it a slapped-on city theme that was pretty much just pictures of buildings on cards for no real reason, and that was about it. It was a fun little numbers game, and I didn't think it needed much more, so I contacted a publisher that I thought it might fit. They were interested enough to ask for a prototype and put it through a few months of testing, but in the end they passed. They said they liked the overall feel of the game, but the scoring was a little too complex for what they were looking for and the theme was just slapped on and not exciting.

The scoring is not really complex, but it is different, so I can see how it might not fit their line of games. And they were right: The theme was just slapped on. It was just a numbers game. It was fun, but abstract — so I put it aside and worked on other designs.

Maybe I'm easily distracted, but that GRIDS box sitting on my shelf kept calling to me. I knew there was something to the game; I just had to find it. I thought about the game fleetingly here and there, but never gave it any focus — until one day in February 2013 when I was sitting in a meeting at work and got a picture in my head. (That's how most of my designs happen. I have a picture of a finished game being played in my head, then I have to figure out how that game is played. The people in my head are always having so much fun...) I started sketching on my meeting agenda and writing notes, and by the end of the meeting I had GRIDS 2. Clever name, I know.

From gallery of Favre4MVP

GRIDS 2 had the same basic mechanism and scoring as GRIDS, but the numbers were gone and the game was all about theme now. You were building a city. Quickly. Here's a quick overview of the game in case you don't know how it works:

Quote:
Players are dealt a hand of nine square tiles, and they have one minute to simultaneously arrange them into a 3x3 grid in order to build a city that scores them points by connecting or breaking apart different zoning areas. Scoring is similar to the dart game Cricket in that you don't score points in an area until you've hit it a few times. You can also score bonus points as you race against your opponents if you watch what they're doing with their cities.

I thought about the notes I had written, worked a few things out in my head on the drive home, and by that night I had made a prototype. Luckily the people at work enjoy my games, so I was able to talk them into trying a completely untested game. And whaddyaknow, they loved it. Two cards in the deck needed to change and a few of the scoring numbers needed to be tweaked, but the game was exactly how I wanted it from the first play.

From gallery of Favre4MVP

For the next few weeks my co-workers would ask me almost every day if they could play GRIDS; it was addictive. They even recruited other people in the office to try it out. I knew I had a winner on my hands.

I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a name for a city-building game with a speed element. My friend Espen Klausen gets the credit for the name Mad City. It's perfect as it fits the theme, the gameplay, and I'm from Madison, Wisconsin which is often referred to as "Mad City".

In March 2013, I attended my first Protospiel in Milwaukee. Mayfair Games was there, and they had interest in one of my other designs. We played it and talked through component costs and all of that, then we just sat around chatting with other people. I was hesitant to bring out Mad City because it was only a couple of weeks old, but we had six people at the table and I didn't want to miss the opportunity, so I pulled out Mad City and said, "Interested in trying a six-player game that takes only 30-40 minutes?" They were. We played through a full game and everyone had fun. I even got the comment from one player that I've heard many times since: "I don't like speed games, but I like this one." Alex Yeager at Mayfair offered up a number tweak in one area and said that he'd like something that kept players paying attention to the bonuses through the entire game — as at that time you were locked out of the only bonus after a certain point — but that he was very interested in the game, even more so than the game they initially asked to try.

From gallery of Favre4MVP

On the drive back home, I came up with a way to keep players engaged in bonuses through the entire game, but more importantly it kept them interested in what other players were doing, too, so it didn't feel quite as multi-player solitaire. I tested the idea and it worked, so after multiple testing sessions I sent a copy to Mayfair. Mad City made its rounds around the country for a few months, going to all of the Mayfair offices and getting play from all kinds of people. I was told that tests were going very well, but I didn't know how well.

I met up with Alex again at Gen Con 2013 to talk about Mad City, and he told me that the decision had just been made to publish the game. Woohoo! Even more, he said that every single person that had played it loved the game, and that was extremely rare. Mayfair was so excited about the game that they were going to fast track it and get it to market faster than anything they'd ever done before. Double woohoo!

Since then it's been all about figuring out components, and tweaking a few gameplay items to fit with the way the game needed to be packaged. Luckily I was able to sit down with Mayfair's development team at Gen Con and work through some of that and make it an even stronger game than it already was. They are hoping to push the game a little more mainstream, so we went with a box cover that will fit well in that space.

So that's it. Mad City was designed in a day, but in a way it was twelve or thirteen years in the making. I hope you enjoy it and find it as addictive as we do. Thanks for reading, and have fun playing Mad City!

Kane Klenko

From gallery of Favre4MVP
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8 Comments
Thu Mar 6, 2014 2:00 pm
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