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Designer Diary: Flash Point: Fire Rescue - 2nd Story

Lutz Pietschker
Germany
Berlin
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Primeval History

Firefighting and rescue is a topic that has fascinated me from childhood (a long time ago indeed). Nothing unusual there, but I did pursue it when I grew up and became a volunteer in civil defense (rescue pioneers) for more than fifteen years. I have also been a simulation gamer from my youth, and from time to time it occurred to me that firefighting and rescue should make a good topic for a simulation game.

In 1996, Kevin Anderson's Smokejumpers seemed to be a stab in the right direction, but it was not quite what I looked for. Shortly after that I made an attempt to create such a game myself but got bogged down in hexagonal thinking and irrelevant details.

With that background, I consider it a noteworthy achievement to have completely overlooked Kevin Lanzing's Flash Point, and I also failed to take note of Flash Point: Fire Rescue until it was almost too late. But when I (eventually) read about the game, I was hooked without having played it even once, and when I had made my prototype copy from the preview images I knew I just had to get this game. The problem of how to get a copy to Germany was nicely solved when Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Cards asked for German-speaking volunteers to present the game in Essen at Spiel 2011; I had not planned to go there, but now I would.

It was a whirlwind of a weekend, and even after about thirty demo games I could not help but break the box out again on the train back to Berlin. The simplicity of the game, the fast play, the co-operative style, and the solo suitability all were things I had looked for. It is true that sometimes I would have liked something more in the way of a real simulation, but I always found that I would trade this gladly for the ease of play.

Still On Ground Floor

But it was the "realism" thing that first got me thinking of what could be done to enhance gameplay for me; setting aside thoughts about a real simulation, there still seemed to be a lot of things missing I would expect to see on a real fire site: Water supply problems, ladders, realistic attack tactics, special equipment. Of course, the buildings on the game boards were also far from my own, middle-European experience: No basement, no second floor (we call it the first floor here), not even windows. And, as others also noted, some map details of the basic game suggest an architect with little love for the inhabitants.

You can do a lot in five hours on the train, and when I got out in Berlin I had a sketch of an additional scenario which I published two weeks later on BGG under the name "Oktoberfest", in honor of that Essen fair and because I thought it would be a term people would associate with Germany. I tried to include hints of things I saw as expansion possibilities: limited access for vehicles, special buildings (the tent), varying role availability, special victory (or defeat) conditions. To my pleasure I saw that some of my ideas were parallel to the scenario ideas published in the Urban Structures expansion which, I confess, I unwrapped rather late.

Oktoberfest

Over many plays in the winter of 2011 I began to better understand some of Kevin's and Travis' design decisions that restricted "realism". Some seemed to be driven by the goal of making the game suitable for family play, and thus for wide distribution; others were probably due to the fact that, for example, rules about water supply and realistic attack tactics would have made the game slow and boring, and thus unsuited for a fast, cooperative game. At least that was my conclusion when I tried to modify the game in that direction and (at that point) completely failed to come up with something that was better than the original.

Other things I did not quite like were easy to repair by house rules. For example, if I dislike the way the deck gun works, I can simply omit it from the game. If I like my hazmat to be less predictable, I just place more counters, but mark some of them as dummies. And so on. Part of the genius of the design is its incredible flexibility.

2nd Story, Chapter 1

Pre-Spiel 2011 I had already got into closer contact with Travis by proposing some rule clarifications and corrections of terminology for the German rules, with the help of some active firefighters. On November 6, 2012, I sent my first proposal for a two-story variant map to Travis. He was quite busy at the time, sending out pre-ordered copies and handling the U.S. and European distribution, but he encouraged me to continue the work as it was close to ideas of his own. And this was when I got a first glimpse of the difference in effort between having an expansion idea and creating a finished product. Being an engineer, this did not come as a complete surprise to me, but as far as game development is concerned I still had full amateur status.

By mid-January 2012 I had discarded my first board designs and replaced them with new ones that looked promising in playtests; I had also written a first version of the rules. From then until April 2012, I worked on the maps and on the rules and playtested them over and over; from May on, it became a process of fine-tuning them for publication as well as testing some ideas Travis added or modified. Travis also defined the content of the published product in May, which meant that some ideas and elements went to the shelf for a possible future expansion. I regretted that, but well, Travis is the one who takes the risk with production and sales, so I cannot really argue, particularly because I know from experience that I am a better engineer than businessman. (On the other hand, it gives you something to think about in terms of what a future expansion might contain, and what you could do to make sure you get it. Hints: Think "further up, and down, and hydraulics", and buy 2nd Story. Cute expansion name, by the way, thanks to Travis!)

2nd Story Develops

I will now explain how I developed the expansion. I knew that I wanted to have a multi-floor building, I wanted to have windows, and I wanted to have ladders. I also knew that I needed to keep the map to 6x8 spaces or 6x12 spaces to fit commonly available dice. Up front calculations showed that 6x12 would also be the maximum size you could play with the current rules as otherwise the board would become "diluted", i.e., the greater number of spaces would reduce the probability of rolling explosions; requiring more action points to move across two floors does not completely compensate for this. In other words, boards bigger than 6x12 would likely require different fire-spreading mechanisms, and I wanted to keep all the basic rules as they are.

I started the maps by sketching on a piece of paper and doing some basic calculations along the way: How many movement points would you need to get to certain points? How many damage cubes will be soaked up by walls, and how many by doors? You do not want a building that collapses after the first few explosions, but you need walls to prevent the fire from spreading through the house in a flash.

When I thought the map was okay, I designed the building in 3D with Google Sketchup.

Early 3D design of the villa

Sketchup Pro allows me to export views of the map into PDF format; I placed these PDF views in Adobe Illustrator and added artwork: Coordinate dice, door symbols, vehicle parking spots. This workflow allowed me to change the Sketchup design later and update the Illustrator drawing automatically.

I did not bother a lot with "interior design" questions like furniture, though I later added notes to the board about the functions of the rooms as I saw them.

Playtest map of a later villa design

2nd Story Architecture

The initial idea was to have a corner building that would be accessible by vehicles from only two (and possibly three) sides, and this plan remained intact through all the development. The first idea was simply an extension of the original boards: a small building with living quarters for a family plus an office on the ground floor, something a self-employed engineer or lawyer might have.

The villa, late version

For the back of the board I wanted to have something that looked and felt different, and after toying around with some ideas I came up with a small hotel building that would have two big rooms on the ground floor (lobby and dining room) plus a tiny office and kitchen, and the guest rooms on the second floor. This board has different access options from the street, and the staircase is also located in another place.

I tried to keep the buildings – well, maybe "realistic" is too big a word, but not too improbable, something you could imagine finding in reality.

For the hotel I imagined one of the small things you see in old, black-and-white French movies, with a private detective leaning over the receptionist's counter smoking and asking questions, while a shady character occupies a phone booth in a corner, and a stair to the second floor fades away in dark shadows. And who might be lurking in that broom cupboard under the stairs? But excuse me – I got carried away.

The hotel

The new equipment and building elements would be windows and ladders, and I re-used the thin walls from Urban Structures. I modeled the window rules as closely as possible to the door rules. For the ladders, the main decisions were how to set them up, and how many movement points it would cost to use them. Nothing very complicated, and the rules took a smooth curve from "basic ideas" over "now it's too complicated" to "this seems right". I definitely wanted to stay in the spirit of the original rules and anyway Travis would not let me get away with anything else.

Testing and Putting it Together

To playtest the board sketches I mostly played solo, using four firefighters and experienced game/veteran level rules. Since much of that took place in the night, I needed to cut down the noise so as not to provoke fire of a different sort from the family, so I replaced the dice with printed random number sheets. They also came in handy for writing a log and taking notes of new ideas and necessary changes. When I felt that the game worked, I forced said family to participate. This lead to some rule clarifications, but the main ideas got their approval. Playtests with members of the Spielbären gaming group by and large confirmed this result. Playtesting, even if mostly solo, was definitely one of the most time-consuming efforts in the design process.

Playtesting the hotel board (early design)

By mid-March 2012 Travis had sent the first reminder email, confirming that he wanted to get the expansion ready for Spiel 2012. We discussed some details and tested more ideas, but the basic design remained untouched. I signed the contract at the end of April, and Travis sent the first graphic renderings of the board by mid-May. It is impressive to see what a graphics designer can do to a board sketch!

There were discussions with Travis over certain design ideas and rules; sometimes my ideas prevailed, sometimes Travis'. In fact, at this time I do not know the result of the latest discussion that we had had about the placement of portable ladders; by the contract, the decision was his. In the end, I went through two major rule versions, with a total of ten revisions, and drew seven maps with a total of twelve revisions. I also supplied counter sheet proposals and notes for the graphics designer.
So here I am, waiting for the first box (well, shrink-wrap) with my name on it to be out there, facing comments from all of you and hoping you will enjoy the game. I know I did, but at this point this no longer matters a lot.

As a last remark, I am aware that designing an expansion is a lot easier than creating an original game, and without the previous efforts of Kevin and Travis I would never have had the chance to even start – but I can say that with the work came an appetite for more.

Lutz Pietschker
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