The Case for Cooperative Gaming
I discovered cooperative board games fairly late, starting with Pandemic. After many years of gaming, here was a revelation: Players don't have to compete to have fun! I know that the gaming community is divided on cooperative games - many refuse to play these games, and some don't consider them games at all. On the other hand, there are as many people who refuse to play games because they are "too competitive". The last few years have been good for cooperative titles, but they are still massively outnumbered by their competitive brethren.
I settled on the theme of firefighting very early in the design process. It has everything: danger, strategy, heroism, and above all teamwork. Upon reflection I was surprised that this theme was not more popular. I've never particularly wanted to be an orc, or a paladin, or a space marine, but firefighters and police officers and doctors were cool when I was five and they're still cool today. That said, these professions are under-represented in the hobby today. The reason for this is that their roles are largely defined by teamwork. Most games choose to emphasize conflict over cooperation, making these professions a "bad fit" for gaming. That at least is the prevailing wisdom. I hope that this assessment is challenged by a new generation of gamers; I hate to see any kind of limitations imposed on what a game "can" or "should" be.
Defining the Game
The process of going from a concept to a working prototype is never without complications. That said, my first prototype of Flash Point: Fire Rescue (originally "Flashover") still closely resembles the game that has developed. My goal was very specific: Create a cooperative tactical interior firefighting game on the operational level – interior firefighting because that is the sort emphasized in so many TV dramas and movies. By "operational level", I mean that my focus was on a single firefighting operation in a small structure. This would enable the players to role-play as individual firefighters, rather than as squads or departments. Role-playing is important in a cooperative game. Players who can relate to their role will be more engaged with the game and their fellow players than if their role in the game were more "macro-level" or abstract.
Fire Is the Enemy
This being a firefighting game, of course the antagonist was the fire itself. Here again, I was taken by how simply and effectively Pandemic models the spread of disease. I'm no doctor, so I couldn't say whether the process is realistic or not, but as a game designer I am attracted to simple systems that produce elegant results. That said, fire does not spread like disease. Fire is dynamic: it creeps, it crawls, it smokes and smolders and dies back only to explode when resupplied with fresh air, fuel, or heat. Devising a system to model the spread of fire that was true to life but also simple to understand was my first and greatest challenge.
From research I learned of the dangers of a flashover, which is when suspended gases reach a critical temperature and explode violently. This was modeled very simply in the game. As smoke spread throughout the house, it became at first a nuisance, then a threat. By itself smoke was harmless, but whenever smoke came in contact with fire... vooosh! the entire mass caught fire. This led to some tense moments when a section of the house that was merely smoky suddenly transformed into an impenetrable wall of fire.
Another danger is the backdraft, immortalized by the 1991 film with the same name. A backdraft occurs when fire becomes starved of oxygen, sputters, and appears to die. But really it is only waiting for someone to open a door or window, at which point the oxygen-starved fire feasts and explodes. This was also modeled in the game, albeit crudely. Whenever a player rolls two dice to advance fire, there is a chance that the space they target will already be on fire. In which case the fire explodes, rolling over nearby fire and crashing into walls, door, people...and destroying anything it touches. In later versions of the rules the "backdraft" became the generic "explosion", mostly because this was easier to explain.
The decision to use dice to determine the spread of fire (rather than cards, or some other arrangement) was made for several reasons. One, it differentiated this game from other cooperatives. Two, dice are inherently unpredictable. I wanted players to always be on their toes, never knowing with absolute certainty that the fire might not spread in their direction. Third, dice are cheap, easy to handle, and take up little table space.
My original board was a black-and white rectangle composed of four sheets of cardstock. The board loosely resembled a house, with one door on each side and many black lines denoting walls. There were doors which players could open, and if necessary players could even destroy walls to open up their own path. The board today looks much nicer, but is not so different than my first.
Admittedly, there were some differences. I had this crazy idea where the four quarters of the board took fire damage independently, and collapsed when they took too much damage. Victims died, firefighters were buried, and the fire was smothered. The collapsed quarter was flipped over and replaced with "rubble", which firefighters could move through only with great difficulty. It was pretty neat in principle, but introduced some problems. The moment my playtesters realized the best strategy for attacking the fire was to isolate it to one quadrant, then destroy the supporting walls was the moment I decided to get rid of this element. Oddly enough, my research has revealed that in fact collapsing a building can be an effective approach for smothering a fire. Live and learn.
The game as it stood was fun, but I felt it would be better if players could better differentiate their characters. Many games, and especially cooperatives, allow each player to choose a unique role with distinct advantages and disadvantages. This makes every player feel important. So of course I went in a different direction, by introducing firefighting equipment. Players chose which two pieces of equipment they wanted to carry, and that equipment would define their role. The radio allowed players to command rescue vehicles from afar, while the proximity suit was fire-resistant, and so forth. Players could switch their equipment at will, but only in front of the fire engine. The concept was interesting, but after all there weren't that many combinations of equipment which were viable or interesting. Which is why I scrapped the whole idea and replaced it with (you guessed it) specialist cards. Sometimes backwards is the surest way forwards!
The Game Crafter
This was around the time I discovered The Game Crafter (TGC). This is a print-on-demand company based in the United States that will help intrepid game designers design prototypes and even publish their games to the Internet. There are some shortcomings to the service: a limited parts inventory, no folding game boards (yet), and a high per-unit cost. But the advantages are compelling: TGC will save you time slavishly printing and cutting things out of cardboard. It provides a community and a marketplace for you to sell your own games, even if you don't have connections in the board game industry. It allows you to retain full rights to your game. And it will do this without the high up-front costs designers would incur with conventional publishing. I decided that the pros outweighed the cons, and set about creating Flash Point on TGC. I published in July 2010.
I had a few initial sales, which soon enough dwindled to nothing. Let this be a lesson to all self-published game designers out there: You must be proactive and look for every opportunity to promote your product. Don't expect the game to speak for itself. You must speak for your game, and you must be loud. A good start would be to list your game on BoardGameGeek.
I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends
After toiling in obscurity for a couple of months, I had a wonderful surprise. A complete stranger on the Internet named Thomas Arnold sent me a geekmail saying he had coded my game in Java, and asking whether I was okay with him releasing it the public. I admit to having low expectations - free games are never any good, right? But I downloaded his game (by which I mean my game) and was floored. It's fully animated in 3D! I can rotate the table and zoom in and all my graphics are there and there are particle effects, and, and... oh my!It even has a German translation! Check it out!
(NOTE: The rules and graphics for the Java game are outdated, but this still gives players a feel for how the game works.)
I must give credit to Dan Brooke of TaDa Ministries, who offered to review my game and did a great job. And also Ward Batty, who runs Atlanta Game Fest and does so much for the hobby here in the American Southeast. And to Frank Branham, who brought my game to the attention of publishers I could never have reached on my own. Word of mouth was extremely important for this game because I had no marketing budget. The amazing thing about board games is that they they can only be enjoyed in the company of others. Good board games spread like a virus, as one enthusiast introduces a cool new game to his friends, who buy their own copies and introduce it to others, and so on. And so it was that the orders started to trickle in.
Finally, a Publisher
In the past I have sent countless emails to game companies, asking them whether they'd be interested in looking at my game. You have to have thick skin because 90% of the time your email will go unanswered, 5% of the time they'll say they're not interested, 4% of the time they'll look at your prototype but decide not to publish it, and maybe 1% of the time they'll make an offer. I'm sure games do get published this way, but it's very, very hard.
This is why it was such a pleasant surprise to be contacted by a publisher who expressed interest in Flash Point and asked for a playtest copy. That was Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Cards. I hadn't heard of his company, but soon enough began seeing his games everywhere: Haggis, The Resistance, Triumvirate – a small company, apparently, but one with a reputation for quality. About a month later, we had terms for publication.
The game has gone through many changes in only a few months. Most of these have been in the direction of making the game easier to learn, faster to play, and more exciting. I'll admit to having butted heads with Travis on a few issues, but only because we are both passionate about making a quality product that everyone can enjoy. If pressed, I might grudgingly admit that the game that has developed is more polished and playable than my own version on The Game Crafter – but don't tell him I said that!
The Road Ahead
Flash Point: Fire Rescue will be released at Spiel in late October 2011. Right now there is a Kickstarter campaign underway to help with financing. Kickstarter-exclusive content is available, including a secret specialist, a scenario booklet full of new challenges, and a second board. We've already reached our $5,000 and $15,000 goal, but why stop now? If we meet the $30,000 challenge we can all have FIREMEEPLES! Or... rescue meeples, or whatever they wind up being called. Maybe you can help with that too?
Above is one of several worthy candidates. It's shameful how much I want these. Less than a week remains to "kickstart", and if we reach our goal these too will be part of the package!
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Archive for Kevin Lanzing
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22 Mar 2011
Chimera Isle took going from concept to published game. Second, I'd like this to be a primer for other aspiring game designers who could benefit from my hindsight. Interspersed with this story are five hard-learned lessons which can be applied when designing any game, not only this one.
As themes go, natural selection is as ambitious as they come. All the elements are there for a truly epic game: growth, evolution, migration, domination, natural disasters, extinction. The magnitude of the theme is staggering, but therein lies the problem. How could any game hope to bring together all of these grand elements in a way that is coherent, playable, and fun? Many games have tried, with varying degrees of success.
All of that just made me more determined to put my own mark on the "natural selection" theme.
Lesson #1: Don't get married to your concept.
My first concept for what would eventually become Chimera Isle was hopelessly complex. Anything and everything you might expect to find was there. Evolution – check. Migration – yes, over a large board representing the entire Earth! Climate – but of course, and naturally the effects of long-term climate change would transform the board. My game also modeled a food chain, in which every creature had to eat a nearby plant or animal, or starve. It was an absurdly cluttered, mostly incoherent system that would have been a disaster to actually playtest. Thankfully, I came to my senses before investing too much of my time into what would have been a train wreck of a game.Had I seriously pursued my original concept, it would have looked and played a lot like Dominant Species – no offense intended to that game, which from what I hear is pretty good!
Especially at the start of any game design project, a designer must be flexible. Almost every game I have designed ultimately became something very different from what I originally set out to create. It is easy to start with one idea and let it snowball over time into something ponderous, technical, and dry. It's similarly easy to get attached to your game mechanisms, and forget that they are all more or less disposable.
I had to take a big step back and reassess where I was headed. Did I really want to create the last word on epic ecological adventures? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that natural selection is actually pretty straightforward. There are species, and there are stresses. The species best adapted to the stresses it encounters will thrive at the expense of others. To borrow a popular phrase, it's "survival of the fittest".
The first thing I did was get rid of the board – which was a hard choice, but most of the bookkeeping and component sprawl came from managing tiny bits and pieces on a gigantic board. To justify my decision, I chose to scale down my setting. Rather than a supercontinent (Pangaea Ultima, to be precise) the species of my game would compete for resources on a small island. Issues like migration, continental drift, and geographical separation wouldn't even be relevant on such a scale.
Even if I no longer had a board, I knew I had to model the environment in some way. I decided to make the many habitats of my small island the stresses that species would overcome. The struggle for territory would become the central conflict of the game. Species that failed to claim territory would decline in population and significance. Eventually, entire species might go the way of the dodo. I don't usually favor player elimination as a mechanism, but here it felt appropriate. Life is tough, and only the strong survive. No natural selection game worth its salt would accept anything less.
Lesson #2: The simplest solution is often best.
It occurred to me in a flash of insight that the game that was developing now strongly resembled a poker game. The species were the players, and their population the chips. When species risked their population for the sake of claiming a habitat, they were "anteing in". When one species claimed a habitat, it "won the pot". The analogy was solid, and I knew that this sort of conceptual overlap would help in introducing new players to the rules.
What about the species? They needed to be easily distinguishable and different. Early on, I considered an auction mechanism for "winning" genetic characteristics: things like spines, wings, claws, and fur. That was fine in theory and presented a good way to model evolution in-game. But by this point I was beginning to think that evolution added layers of complexity the game didn't really need. Anyway, the auction mechanism would only add play time to a game I was trying hard to shorten and streamline. What else was there?Apparently American Megafauna has already filled the niche for "auction-based evolution game" – I've been scooped again!
A childhood memory supplied the breakthrough. I expect almost everyone has seen this or something similar. A book of animals is split into three sections: head, body, and tail. By mixing up the pages, the head of the lion can be attached to the body of a hippo and the tail of an iguana. Kids like to mix and match the parts and laugh at the bizarre results. Like the best toys, it rewards creativity and can be understood immediately without explanation.
I could do something similar with cards. Not only would the art be fun to look at, but it would have a direct significance to the game. Creatures with furry bodies would be adapted to the cold, while creatures with long necks could reach fruit from the tallest trees. Forget climax communities and biomes; this was way more exciting. Upon making the mental connection between my own bizarre animal cross-breeds and creatures of myth, I finally had a working title for the game: Chimera Isle.This is completely ridiculous.
Lesson #3: Player interaction is the heart of a great game.
I presumed at first that some sort of symbology would have to be created to reflect the characteristics of the "chimeras". A cactus symbol in the corner would indicate fitness in desert settings, while a water droplet would indicate fitness in wetlands. This system was a sensible approach to the problems I faced. While it would have worked and was easy to read, it failed to leave much, if anything, to the imagination. If the game decided which chimeras developed and thrived, what was left for the players to do?
A game called Lifeboats supplied the answer. In that game, players are crewmen on a sinking ship who must escape to nearby islands on their leaky lifeboats. The tension and fun of the game comes from the voting mechanism it uses. Which boat moves forward? That depends on which one players vote for! Which boat springs a leak? Which crewman gets pushed out of an overcrowded boat? Vote! It's an exquisitely brutal game, for the reason that you must trust other self-interested individuals not to stab you in the back. I felt this was a nifty concept which could be effectively applied to my own game. Which chimera is the best swimmer: the one with the streamlined body or the one with webbed feet? Everyone votes, and the chimera with the most votes wins it all. It's a simple solution to a complicated problem. Rather than deciding myself which chimera is good at what, why not let the table decide?Don't let the art fool you: Lifeboats is a cutthroat game.
I'd like to say that the voting mechanism for Chimera Isle emerged fully-formed and perfect on my first try, but as you must know by now that never happens. Originally players used a regular deck of playing cards, in addition to a hand of color cards. Players would conceal one color card representing their choice of creature, and a second playing card representing the strength of their vote. A single player with a "10" voting green would defeat two players voting red with a "5" and "2", respectively. Except for the Ace (value: 1), all cards played were discarded at the end of the turn. Only players who voted for the winning creature would themselves win new cards and a point at the end of the turn. The King, Queen, and Jack had special powers of their own which I won't go into.
Suffice it to say that I went overboard again and added needless complexity to what should have been a straightforward voting process. I quickly learned my lesson and pared down. Now players get one colored card for each creature they can vote for, and each vote is worth one point. The lead player breaks ties. Simple!
At this point the players still more or less represented the chimeras in the game. Each player was the secret patron of a specific chimera. Players won points whenever they voted for the winning chimera (whether or not it was their own), but also when their chimera did well. It was fun in a light and fluffy way, but all too quickly players recognized who favored what and adjusted their strategies to compensate. The "secret patron" game lives on as an optional variant, for younger players and those seeking a fast and light party game.An early prototype of Chimera Isle – the game is starting to take shape.
Lesson #4: Nothing is ridiculous if it works.
By this point I was pleased with the direction of the game but dissatisfied with its depth. I tried all kinds of crazy things to make Chimera Isle both easy-to-play AND strategic.
Probably my craziest idea was to turn the game into an investment simulation! The points players won in the voting round were now a form of currency. Players could spend their points to buy "shares" of the chimeras, or even steal shares from other players. My chief inspiration here was Acquire, a game in which players influence and invest in hotel chains which they don't technically own. Does the idea of an investment game based around the animal kingdom sounds preposterous? Maybe so, but the mechanisms clicked right away and opened new avenues of strategic depth. I never looked back.Shareholding and the animal kingdom are kind of an odd pairing, but if the shoe fits...
Lesson #5: Collaborate with others whose strengths match your weaknesses.
Chimera Isle was quickly shaping up to be both playable and fun. One problem remained, and that was the art. I am no artist, and my prototype was literally completed with Sharpie pen drawings on a cardboard canvas. That's fine for a prototype, but if I wanted to share this game with the world I needed the services of a real artist.Don't laugh! The original art was serviceable, but nothing more.
A friend of mine introduced me to the work of "Bogleech", aka Jonathan Wojcik. He had a website showcasing strange things, creepy things, cute things, inexplicable things. Some of these were the product of his own imagination, such as his coloring book Old-Fashioned Nightmare Fuel for Children You Don't Love. His style could be described as "creepy-cute", sort of a "Tim Burton does Pokemon" kind of thing. It seemed like a good fit for Chimera Isle, but what sealed the deal were his articles on the many real-world misfits of the animal kingdom. An artist and naturalist all in one? He's like a John James Audubon who does cartoons! I sent him an email, he responded, and the result is Chimera Isle as you know it today.Original art by Jonathan Wojcik – only the strange survive on Chimera Isle!
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