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Let me get this out of the way first: Mutant Meeples has, at its core, a similar mechanism to Alex Randolph's Ricochet Robots. Players try to move a meeple (or robot) to a location on a maze-like board, with the limitation that they can't change direction until they hit another object. I've been calling it a "pathfinding" mechanism.
The strange thing is that there aren't, to the best of my knowledge, any other games that have this mechanism in place. Even Randolph's precursor to RR, Die Verbotene Stadt, has only an inkling of this mechanism – and, as any RR fan will tell you, it's an excellent mechanism that requires a part of your brain unused by pretty much any other game out there.
Usually, in the world of board games that we live in, when there's a unique mechanism introduced in a game (particularly a successful one), game designers line up by the dozens (or hundreds) with games that use that mechanism in a similar fashion, with recent examples of this being Caylus (worker placement) and Dominion (deck-building). For whatever reason, this never happened with the pathfinding mechanism in Ricochet Robots. At least, not until now...
My History with Ricochet Robots
According to my BGG records, I didn't play RR until a little over two years ago, during the summer of 2009, and I was pretty sucky at it, with my wife crushing me in our first game. Over time, the game grew on me and I became quite enamored with it. In the summer of 2010, I thought it would be cool to make a giant version of RR with big plastic robots, so I started putting together the graphics for it in Illustrator and bought some cool Bionicle robots. Other things distracted me from that project, however, and I put it aside.
Earlier this year I thought it would be a fun project, but as I started getting things together again, I realized that something was missing. While I really liked the game, it wasn't worthy of a large version – I know that statement might be sacrilege for some – as I didn't care for a number of issues in RR, namely:
• Moreso than many other games, the person whose brain is particularly attuned to pathfinding would often run away with the game, collecting more discs than everyone else combined, leaving other players pretty much out of contention after four or five locations had been reached.
• There were really long periods of silence, especially when a puzzle was particularly difficult, requiring twenty or so "moves".
• In puzzles with more than ten moves, it was easy for someone to entirely forget how they got there.
• While the board was customizable, it wasn't really different.
• The robots were all the same (except for the colors).
Inspiring a New Design
I remember pulling out the RR game after thinking about these things and looking at it. And then it hit me. I could make a game that used that pathfinding mechanism but addressed all of these issues. Well, at least most of them.
Initially, as I went through the possibilities in my head, I conceived of something that was much more of a Ricochet Robots 2.0, kind of a sequel to the game as it is. Only when I sat down to flesh out the concept did inspiration hit me: What if each of the pieces had a unique superpower? And what if they were actually superheroes? And why would they be trying to get to a location? To prevent a crime from taking place! And it was pretty obvious why they could turn only when they ran into another object – they all had super speed, and it was hard to control, a la Ralph Hinkley's trouble with flight on The Greatest American Hero.
Armed with the excitement such an engaging idea can bring on, I went to work on a skeletal ruleset. Meeples were an obvious choice to use as the pieces, and as I was writing, I started referring to their mutant super powers. Naming them (and the game) Mutant Meeples felt SO right and provided even more inspiration. What was the player's role in all of this? To figure out which of the meeples were the brightest and best...so that they could form a super team!
Initially I had six super-powered meeples:
• DJ Yellowjacket (who is now M.C. Edge),
• Ozzi Mosis (she was red initially, as the internal "building" walls were red, but after a quick modification Ozzy became a guy and turned gray),
• Force Fence (initially green, he changed to brown and was renamed Shortstop),
• Blue Bouncer (who changed to green and became Forrest Jump),
• Ghost (he was white and his superpower allowed him to pass through other meeples, but ultimately he was the least useful of the group and was put aside), and
• Nudge (who was gray, but eventually turned red and became Sidestep).
Even with these six, I could tell I was on to something. It was exciting to use their powers, and when you used two or three meeples with their powers all in combination, it was really fulfilling.
Over time I added Skewt, The Blue Beamer and Carbon, removing Ghost from the lineup. Nacho Fast and Swapmeet, the two meeples in the Mutant Meeples: Sidekicks expansion, weren't even on my radar when I finalized the eight meeple line-up. More on those two later.
Initially each of the meeples were simply different colors. During early playtests, this proved to be a problem as players had a significant learning curve associating the colors with the mutant meeple super powers. When I added little stickers with each of their powers on them, that learning curve all but disappeared. Now I knew I had to have custom-painted meeples – which would be cool anyway, but now the designs on the meeples are an integral part of game play!
Design of the game board(s) went through several phases. The initial board was 20x20, and had a ton of walls and even corridors as I wanted the players to have a sense that they were racing through a city to get to the scene of a crime. Over months of playtesting, we discovered that more walls meant easier solutions – not necessarily "shorter" solutions (in terms of how many turns it takes to get to your goal), but solutions that were more obvious. Over time, I reduced the number of walls significantly, removing most of the "corner" pieces.
One of my testers commented that even then he felt it was too easy, as solutions often could be achieved by a single meeple in five or fewer moves. I found that it was too easy sometimes as well, though at this point I was becoming quite the expert pathfinder, so I was trying to keep my new-found aptitude at arm's length, so I wouldn't end up making a game that was too difficult for someone not versed in the ways of pathfinding.
The solution was to create TWO game boards: Meeptropolis, with its buildings and narrow corridors creating a more structured and discoverable "path" to solutions, and Meepville, a rural community with lots of open space that was particularly challenging for our super speedsters to navigate successfully. For your first few games, Meeptropolis is definitely the side to use, but once you become comfortable with pathfinding, you'll find yourself drawn to the wide open fields that make up Meepville.
Overviews of Meeptropolis and Meepville
You'll notice the board has two sets of letters, from A-R across and down. Initially it had letters and numbers, making it an Acquire-ish kind of board. That allowed for an even distribution of "scene of the crime" locations, with each letter and number making sure that the Scene of the Crime was always in each row and column at least once during the game (if you ran through all the tiles). But then I switched to letters, primarily for two reasons:
1) The large number of letter and number tiles were unwieldy. Using just letters meant half as many tiles.
2) Using just letters created a bunch of "free" spots in a diagonal line down the middle of the board, where the scene of the crime would never take place (AA, BB, CC, etc.). I could therefore use those spots for starting positions, ensuring that the first scene of the crime could never be where a meeple starts. (Such an occurance is relatively unlikely during the game itself as with each tile draw there's only a 2.6% chance that a crime will appear where a meeple already is.) I also used those spots for the four locations where The Blue Beamer can teleport. I removed the AA and RR corners (adding a bit of challenge, as corners otherwise were easier).
To make it easier to know which of the tiles was a column and which was a row, I added Street and Avenue names to the rows and columns, respectively, and created a small game board where you would place each of the tiles, with the board also having a key to the different mutant meeples and their powers.
While I did try to vary the core game play, the pathfinding mechanism would not be denied, and soon I found myself figuring out how to build on top of that mechanism rather than modify it. I wanted the game to have a rich theme, so I tried all sorts of things, including:
• A "Hall of Justice" style start location (really bad idea).
• A moving Supervillian target (a really frustrating idea).
• A modular board like Ricochet Robots (an unnecessary idea that just didn't work with my game's theme).
Outside of a few flashes of brilliance, the game play evolved naturally. One of the ways it evolved was to have each player have his own board and set of tokens to track the movements of his team members. Initially those tokens were to track which of the players' meeples had reached the Scene of the Crime so that meeple could be removed and the player could get closer to the end goal of having his final super team.
But then we started using the tokens to track which meeple was moving. I created a game board (similar to what the finished game ships with) with four rows and ten spaces on each row to help players do this. Then I made it mandatory that the player had to mark the meeples used before he could take a number, which served to ensure that he (1) took the right number and (2) had a workable solution.
The side benefit of doing this is that it's incredibly easy to retrace your meeples' steps when it came time to "show your work" on how you reached the Scene of the Crime. To further enable this, Mutant Meeples has a rule that limits meeples to a single set of moves; once you start moving another meeple, the first one you move can't be moved again. This "restriction" limits the decision tree for the player and (with the exception of those situations in which an experienced RR player would know it's useful) makes it easier to come up with a solution.
The Catch-Up Mechanism
One of the things players like about Mutant Meeples – and how the design totally differs from Ricochet Robots – is that it has an innovative catch-up mechanism. Not only is it innovative, but it feels natural, not tacked on like the penalty in Age of Steam.
I'd love to take full credit for the mechanism, but it happened pretty much organically. As soon as I tried having each player limit himself to moving meeples that were not yet on his super team, it suddenly became apparent that having fewer meeples made the game more and more challenging – and those players with a lot of meeples, even just one or two more than you, had an easier time coming up with solutions. I love this "feature", knowing that in many other game designs it has been incredibly difficult to get to that place after the rest of the game seems to be working well.
Kickstarter and the Sidekicks Expansion
As I developed Mutant Meeples, I realized that bringing it to market would be a challenge for Bézier Games, which up until this point has released mostly card games, expansions, and one semi-big-box game, Beer & Pretzels. I decided that this would be a great candidate to test out Kickstarter. After a successful campaign to publish my Board 2 Pieces comics in two books, I set to work on the Kickstarter project for Mutant Meeples. While the game was done and close to being ready for production, I had a lot of work to do to prepare it for Kickstarter as I was lacking in two areas: rewards (other than the game itself) and a video.
Initially I thought I would create several tiers, each of which would contain a new component; you could get maybe an extra meeple at the first level, the "modification tiles" at another level, and so on. I also seriously considered putting in an electronic timer as a reward, but unfortunately the economics of that just didn't make sense. (The quantities were way too high for something that wasn't going to be chosen by all backers.)
Eventually I settled on a single expansion: Mutant Meeples: Sidekicks, which contains two new mutant meeples and several tiles that can be used to modify the game board. The two new meeples are both great add-ons; fun replacement meeples that work well with other meeples, but not so much on their own. And the gameboard-modifying tiles were also very much add-ons. For people who really enjoy the game, they'll find that customizing the game board is a welcome way to keep the game fresh after dozens of plays (and make it super hard if they'd like, too).
The video was a task in and of itself. I spent about thirty hours on the video and hired The Dice Tower's Eric Michael Summerer to do the voice work. I'm super pleased with the result. (You can check out the final video on the Mutant Meeples Kickstarter page.
Mutant Meeples Takes on a Life of Its Own
As I started doing external playtesting, I realized two things:
1) Anyone who had played Ricochet Robots would immediately relate it to Mutant Meeples – but once they played, everyone said it's something they liked a lot better and thought they could get it to the table more than RR. Most people said it was just more "fun" than RR, and several of them really liked the catch-up mechanism.
2) Anyone who hadn't played RR just plain liked Mutant Meeples. The challenge of finding a path is engaging and being able to use the super powers is pretty compelling. There was also some strange satisfaction and pride when they found a solution that didn't require any additional super powers, too.
Mutant Meeples is now taking on a life of its own, and maybe it will even start a new wave of pathfinding games. I know I'd be first in line to try them out!