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Designer Diary: Ace of Spies

Michael Fox
United Kingdom
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[A blank screen clicks on with a burst of static. An isometric view appears of a practically bare room, bathed in darkness. A shaven-headed man in glasses sits handcuffed by a table in the centre of the room. After a few moments, a grizzly looking man in a suit walks into view. In a gruff voice he identifies itself as Special Agent Drew Marshall of the CIA, Games Division.]

Marshall: Interview recording with designer Michael Fox, Sprocket Games, date [garbled by tape]. For the tape, can you confirm your name and occupation?

Fox: Michael Fox, game designer.

[Marshall laughs]

Marshall: Game designer, son? Well, we'll see about that. You want to tell me about this...what is it, "Ace of Spies"?


Fox: It all started with a Cadbury's Selection Box.

Marshall: Don't mess around with me, boy. What are you talking about?

[Fox clears his throat.]

Fox: A Selection Box. Back in England it's kind of traditional to get a box of chocolate bars at Christmas and a lot of the time the back of the box will have a little game or activity on the back to cut out and play with for about ten minutes. Then you forget about it as you gorge yourself on far too much sugar. Back in October 2010, at an event in London called GameCamp, a bunch of us were taking part in an open-to-all design competition. The task was to design a new game for the Christmas 2011 Box. The organizers were looking for something different, something new...something that could potentially hold kids' interest, really.

Marshall: Go on.

Fox: Plenty of people were involved – some in teams, some solo. I was in a group of four alongside my friend Chris O'Regen and some glorious random Internet strangers: Neil Meyer and Mark Rivera.

Marshall: [Interrupting] Yeah, we know about those guys. Had them on our radar for a while now. In fact, I've got a little surprise for you.

[A corner of the room lights up, revealing a broken-looking man. He looks tired and has seemingly been beaten. His mouth is gagged. Marshall walks over to the man and removes the gag.]

Marshall: See, we've already spoken to Mr. Rivera. We didn't much like what he had to say.

Rivera: [Gasping to get words out] Don't tell him anything, Michael!

[Fox looks at Rivera, confused.]

Fox: Dude, you do know that these interviews are done to promote the game we made, don't you?

[Beat. Rivera looks at Fox, also confused.]

Rivera: But still, don't tell him anything!

[Fox looks at the camera and shakes his head in a "really?" kind of way.]

Fox: Anyway, we worked well together. We toiled away for a few hours, ideas were bandied about, and eventually a game was born that we were actually pretty proud of. Not bad considering it was the product of only a few hours work. (There was a strict time limit that we had to adhere to.) The various games were tested by volunteers and eventually...well, we came second. For a bunch of noobs who'd never even considered designing stuff before, we felt it was a pretty decent result! And then we forgot all about it.

Marshall: Or so you thought.

Fox: Yeah. It seems that after that initial brush with designing something from scratch, we didn't stop thinking about how to take ideas from nothing to a playable state. A couple of months down the line, Mark got in touch and asked me a question that had been brewing in my mind for some time: Did I want to collaborate with him on the creation of a new game? Of course I said yes, and we began the process of throwing ideas together and seeing what we thought would work. Eventually, we settled on a game that we initially called Espionage, a glorious tale of spies speeding around the streets of Victorian London in horse-drawn carriages, delivering secrets and cutting their enemies down. Everything about it was brilliant, from the way that players collaborated to how the card actions worked. Immediately we thought we were on to a winner.

Marshall: A bit presumptuous, wouldn't you say, Mr. Fox?

[Rivera butts in.]

Rivera: Shut up! We're geniuses!

Marshall: I told you yesterday, boy – keep your mouth shut!

[Rivera is silenced with a slap from Marshall.]

Fox: Seriously, Mark, you're not making this easy for yourself.


Fox: Well, we know now that the damn thing was just far too complicated. In our excitement, we'd managed to create something that was so unwieldy, so ridiculous, that it was pretty much unplayable. Our worst fears were realized when we had a very rough prototype at the UK Games Expo in 2011 that sat there looking difficult and miserable. Mark and I had created this Frankenstein's Monster of a thing that was no good to anyone.

Marshall: You ever heard the Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler"? There's a line, "You've got to know when to fold 'em"?

Fox: Man, did we know that it was foldin' time. A couple of weeks after that weekend, we realized that this was something that needed to be put down – and quick. However, it wasn't all doom and gloom; we also knew that somewhere in this mess were some decent ideas, some nice concepts that could potentially rise like a phoenix. All we had to do was find them and so began the process of sifting through everything to discover what not only worked, but was also actually fun. By making Espionage so complex, we'd sucked out a lot of the enjoyment. We quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to simplify it – a lot – and make it more accessible to the players. Further discussions over Skype and via emails and texts eventually saw us arrive at the decision to develop a card game, still based on spies and their craft but now a lot quicker to play and, dare I say it...good.

Marshall: So what happened next?

Fox: The ideas came thick and fast. We eventually set on a game that's built around the concept of four separate decks of cards, three representing the European cities of London, Paris and Berlin, with a fourth comprised of missions that players would need to complete. By drawing cards from the decks, players would be able to collect the elements they needed to finish these tasks which would score them points. The endgame was still a little nebulous, but what would become Ace of Spies was finally born...and the hard work began.

[Fox pauses and takes a drink of water.]

Fox: Players essentially take on the roles of spymasters, collecting Agents, Tools, Intelligence and Locations to complete their Missions. Some require very specific elements from a certain city and as such are worth a lot more points than one that could be finished by grabbing cards from anywhere. Early builds of the game were kept simple – we'd learnt our lesson from Espionage! – but we soon worked out that despite the fact the engine was fine, it needed something a little bit more...

Marshall: There's always a little bit more, didn't you know that? Designers are never happy.

Fox: Yeah, well, I set about tinkering with the three decks. Mark was pretty busy at the time, but I was more than happy to throw myself into the project now that we had something we were okay with, and I eventually settled on rebalancing the deck contents; each deck contains eight agents and eight locations, but there's a different emphasis now for the three cities. One has more Tools, for example, while another has more Interventions.

Marshall: Interventions?

Fox: Yeah! I've not mentioned them yet, have I? These are cards that can be played whenever you like: out of turn, when it's your go, whatever. I wanted something in the game that would really reflect the nastiness of spycraft and so the Interventions came to be. After all, the world of espionage isn't all sunshine and roses; it's a hard job and I didn't want the life of the spies in our game to be an easy one. These cards allow you to screw over your opponents – stealing cards, destroying missions, that kind of thing. There are a few cards in there that can protect you, too, but a lot of the time you'll just have to keep your head down and hope that no one sees you when you're pulling into a lead. The best spies are always able to divert attention away from themselves, aren't they? Of course, you can always take a more aggressive path if you so choose, but that could really backfire...

Marshall: So, once the decks were done and you were happy with it, what was your next step?

Fox: Well, then we went into full-on playtesting mode. I'd been trying out things as I'd been going along, of course, but then I made a relatively decent set of cards on Photoshop for Mark and myself to use and we started playing games with friends. The feedback was good; people liked the game and offered up a few suggestions, some of which were incorporated into it, some that weren't... It felt like I was building a new version every couple of days at that time, taking out cards and replacing them with new stuff. Soon it was time to widen our circle of testers and we eventually ended up with twelve groups around the world who were playing it and reporting back with new issues and ideas. Again, some were considered and discarded, but a fair few have now contributed to the final version. Anyway, we settled on what we thought was a finished product and the time came to start shopping it around.

Marshall: Never an easy thing to do. How did you go about doing that?

Fox: Being total noobs, we of course decided that the best place to do this was Spiel – the biggest games fair in the world. Looking back now, I realize that this was utterly mental. Mark was only there for a day whilst I attended the whole thing...

Rivera: Ooooh, Germany. That was nice.

Fox: ...and in between recording interviews for The Little Metal Dog Show I was hawking the game to folks who were already suffering from game overload. Still, a few folks expressed interest, which was a lot more than I was expecting. The most positive was Colby Dauch from Plaid Hat Games; he's someone I've got a lot of time for. The guy built his company from scratch on the back of Summoner Wars and that's something I'd love to do myself one day. I played Ace of Spies with him in the Playdek booth, and he fired out a few ideas on where he thought it could be improved – it didn't take too long to see that he was right. At that point it was like a slightly undercooked cake, still a bit soggy in the middle but certainly getting there.

Marshall: Did you meet with any other contacts in Germany?

Fox: There was also Richard Bliss, known in the industry as The Game Whisperer, and it's safe to say that he's been a huge influence on getting the game to where it is now. He was incredibly supportive and gave us some great advice that both Mark and I are very glad we followed. It's always good to have experienced industry folks at your side. Sure, it's nice to learn the ropes but you don't want to have people take advantage of your naivety.


Marshall: So, do you believe the Essen trip was useful?

Fox: Yes. Definitely. It was around now the last major change was made to the game, the addition of a secondary ability for each of the Agents in the game that could be played instead of using them as part of a Mission. This was pretty much a direct suggestion from Colby, and I honestly reckon it adds so much to the game. That extra level of strategy that we were looking for to tip it over the edge was finally there – all we needed now was a bit more testing, so we passed the new decks out to the various teams and waited for their opinions.

Marshall: And what did they come back with?

Fox: Genuinely, the news was great. The game played well, people had plenty of options. The only problem was that some folks felt there could be issues with the endgame, so some tweaking was necessary. We eventually worked out that the best way to solve this was to finish the game when one player either completed seven missions or hit seventy points; this allowed people to take different approaches, either trying to complete a few big point missions or race to grab lots of smaller ones. Once we'd decided on that, Ace of Spies finally felt ready for the world – and a good job too, because people were sniffing around.

Marshall: And that would be Mr. White, your shadowy benefactor, yes?

Fox: Yeah. He keeps himself to himself, but he's been incredible. He came to us with his associate saying that he wanted to get the game out there so players could get their hands on it. Within what felt like no time at all, contracts had been signed, artwork samples were flying all over the place. It's all getting very exciting. It's strange. Everything felt very up in the air before but all feels very real. And a bit scary.

Marshall: Why scary?

Rivera: Because you beat me up and you are a scary man! [Spits blood and a tooth out on to the floor.]

Fox: [Stares at Rivera.] Well, it's going to be out there for all to see. It's like sending a child out into the world! This is our creation and we want people to like it! We know that we've got a game that plays great but also will look utterly gorgeous; we can only hope that gamers get behind us.

Marshall: Interesting. So what's happening with Ace of Spies now?

Fox: We're spreading the word about the game as much as we can. Folks can follow our reports from the Base of Spies by checking out our Twitter feed, and we'll also be shamelessly promoting the game on a few podcasts. There's the BGG page as well that we'll be keeping up-to-date with information on the game and Kickstarter. As we're going down that route, we basically won't be keeping quiet until that very last second and we plan of making sure that all of our backers are kept completely up to date with what we're up to. There's no point in hiding our light under a bushel. We've got a brilliant game that we want everyone out there to play. It's accessible to such a wide range of players from kids who just want to beat up on their opponents to adults who are seeking the opportunity for a bit of strategy in a middle-weight card game – we just need to get it into the hearts and minds of the community. Oh, and their hands, too. That'd be good.

Marshall: Sure it would.


Marshall: Right. That's enough for now, Mr. Fox. We'll be letting you go but be warned. We'll be keeping an eye on you and Ace of Spies. A real close eye. Understand?


Marshall: Nod all you like, I want to hear some words, son.

Fox: I understand. What about Mark?

Marshall: Him? We told him to leave three days ago, but he just won't go. Man's crazy.

[Screen returns to static. Tape clicks off.]

Addendum: Further surveillance has revealed that the Ace of Spies project has now gone live. Agents wishing to investigate further should begin at the game's Kickstarter page. Fox and Rivera are to remain under close watch until further notice.
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