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Subject: Designer Diary - The Development of Root rss

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Cole Wehrle
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Throughout these diaries, I’ve offered some suggestions to new designers working their way through their own projects. This post won’t provide me much space to do that because of the great privilege I now have as an in-house designer and developer at Leder Games. Design has become my day job. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it is to come to work each morning, sit next to Patrick, and sort through the day’s design problems. When I get stuck, I can take a break or—post Kickstarter launch—knock off a few items on our marketing to-do list. It is a real honor and I plan on doing everything I can to keep this job as long as possible, which will mostly translate into trying to make really interesting games for you all.

This position has allowed me to give Root an amount of attention previously unimaginable. I’ve already spent more time on this game than An Infamous Traffic, and I likely will put in more total development hours on this one project than John Company, and I spent nearly a decade on that game! For this reason what I have to say about the design and development process of Root is unique to its creation and won’t be very useful to others who don’t have the benefit of supportive operations and sales team (Hi Jake! Hi Clay Hi Caryl!), a brilliant developer and manager (Hi Patrick!), and a thoughtful and talented artist (Hi Kyle!).

As I mentioned in my first post, the origins of Root date back quite a while. Like most of my projects, the game grew out of ideas that I had been stewing on for quite some time. I could probably date my earliest notes on the subject to that initial spat of plays of Andean Abyss shortly after that game was released in 2012. But I didn’t really know what I was doing back then so dating the origins of this project to that moment feels a little like a red herring. I suppose the design proper began in May of 2016 when Cati and I listened to that reading of Once and Future King I mentioned in my first post. But, after a burst of work that project mostly fell to the wayside so I could finish An Infamous Traffic.

Principal design for the current game began as I was finishing up John Company. Towards the end of working on any big project, I find I often have a whole bunch of stray ideas that clearly do not fit in with the rest of what I’ve designed. John Company had a habit of spawning lots of little games. One of those games was about Indian statecraft and I had intended it to be a supplement to John Company that would allow players to replace that game’s event system. We even played it a little last BGG con. It was my first effort to make a strategy game with low rules overhead and I think, if I’m honest with my own thinking, a lot of the ethos of Root’s design can be traced back to it.

So, as John Company’s development was ending, I found myself working on a bunch of little designs last Spring and Summer. These were originally intended as games of Hollandspiele or for Phil. And, mostly, they just weren’t going anywhere.

Then, about half way through the summer, I happened to apply for a developer job at Leder games. Like a lot of small companies, the interview process was irregular—dozens of small micro-interviews across the span of weeks as both Patrick and I slowly got a chance to know each other and learn how the other thought about game design. Normally, I don’t think I could have handled a process this long, but, with a dissertation defense scheduled for August and lots of other things to attend to in my life, I didn’t mind the pace too much. Mostly it was just nice to talk to someone else about games.


In the course of those conversations I quietly started rethinking some of my current projects through the lens of Leder Games—specifically Patrick’s interest in asymmetry, the audience he had cultivated, and the brand’s general aesthetic. In the same way that the production constraints of Hollandspiele had brought An Infamous Traffic to life, I soon found my projects starting to move forward again.

After a few weeks of talking, I decided to try my hand at taking one of those inchoate designs to a stage where it might be fully playable. I had several days free and worked like mad getting the game to work. At the end of the spree, Patrick and I got into a google hangout and played the game using a hastily made online playtesting kit. Though I wouldn’t know it yet for a few weeks, I think this may have been the moment I secured my job. The game wasn’t done, but enough of it worked to impress Patrick. Perhaps, someday, it might be publishable.

Well, we kept talking and I went on to help Patrick on other projects. All the while I kept poking at my design. Mostly this meant playing it a few times a week with close friends, adjusting the various systems to make up for the massive problems that constantly opened up from previously adjusting various systems. I didn’t know if the design would ever be published, but it was an interesting project and my friends kept asking to play it. In retrospect, those were both very good signs that there was something there.

In late August I officially got the job and the family and I moved up to St. Paul shortly thereafter. At one of our first meetings Patrick asked me about the status of the design he had played back in the summer. How quickly might it be developed into a finely tuned and polished game? I told him, as I often do, that I needed a little time to think about his question.

Though I had seen three projects to completion at this point in my life, I was unprepared for Patrick’s question about a timeline for Root. I had never done this full-time. My design work was relegated to after the kids were in bed or before they woke up on lazy Saturdays. During most of my games my amazing partner, Cati, would often give me a full day of work a week where I could just labor in peace during the critical times in development and publication. Now I was doing this full-time. I had lots of time. More importantly, Patrick made it clear that this project would be a studio priority, meaning that everyone in the office was working at the service of the project.

At moments like these, I started digging through my notes on my previous game designs. Not much helped. For one, my notes weren’t great. Usually I think about game development as a slow, organic endeavor. That was a dead end here. So, instead, I decided to think about game development the same way I think about research. Both journalism school and graduate school had taught me a lot about project management when it came to big research tasks. So, I opened up a spreadsheet and started breaking down the design into small chunks.

Now, design (sadly) isn’t as simple as just saying that you need to design 4 or 5 factions and then allotting a number of hours for each faction. The key is realizing that you are going to have to build time in to write and then rewrite over everything. What’s more, sometimes a design needs to be gutted and rebuilt from scratch. So, as I built my schedule, I had to give myself room to totally destroy the design so that structural problems could be fixed.

Then I started thinking about resources. First, I had Patrick, who is about as dedicated a designer and developer as I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Second, I had Kyle, who would allow me not to think about the art and the graphics. As someone who usually does all of his own icons and whatnot, this was a huge boon. I also had Josh, who would handle a lot of the editorial work that a good set of rules require. Finally, I had Clay and Jake who, while excellent in their own jobs, were also very sharp players of games. With Patrick and myself included, we had four playtesters in the office at any given moment.



As far as design resources go, this is a king’s ransom, and I budgeted accordingly. The game itself was already in pretty good shape by the time Patrick suggested we take it to publication. The core design was complete and I would likely only need to do two or three overhauls. Given the rate at which we could playtest, I could test, synthesize playtest data, and iterate weekly. It’s worth mentioning here that this is an insane pace! John Company’s major iterations were usually a month or two apart! But, given the resources at the projects disposal, this blistering pace was, in fact, quite manageable.

So, after taking a long hard look at the game and consulting with our director of operations, we came up with a timeline that put launching a Kickstarter in late-October and producing the game in time for next year’s Gencon. Throughout the process, I cautioned everyone that there may be development disruptions. Certain problems can be harder to fix than others and a big thorny puzzle could delay a project. But, I would keep people appraised and had very specific benchmarks that had to be met. If the development process started going off-track, we would know, and we had time to go off track if we needed to.

One of the other critical things that enabled this schedule was the time of our many remote and local playtesting groups. Before I committed to this timetable with Patrick, I asked a selection of my playtesters if they would be willing to help out with a project like this. I did my best to be totally transparent about the pace of development. We gathered about a dozen groups in this effort and without them Root would not be the game it is today.

By early October, we had already been through four design versions and one major overhaul. I had racked up over 30 plays and we had lots of groups around the country trying the design out. We gathered together and Patrick made the call: Root would be given a launch date. I spent the remainder of October keeping up with development and getting the rules into shape. By the time the game launched the design was stable and we had started principle balancing which tends to be the longest and least disruptive part of testing. But, the rules could be posted and we felt comfortable running game demos locally.


At this point the design was suggesting all kinds of extra material. With the design stable, new factions, scenarios, and modes of play were now possible to develop. We couldn’t include them in the initial offering on Kickstarter simply because didn’t yet know how well the Kickstarter was going to do. The better the Kickstarter did, the more development and production resources we would have to give to the project. So, to answer that most perennial of Kickstarter comments: yes, we did have all of those stretch goals in mind when we made the game, we just didn’t know if we could afford them. That’s the whole point of stretch goals!

Next week we will be releasing the game’s print-and-play kit along with an updated set of rules. Close readers of these diaries and of the game’s initial rulebook will note lots of little changes. The game is, after all, still in development, and it will keep being in development until the moment when it is done.

I should be clear on this next, final point: next week’s PnP release isn’t an effort to recruit play testers. I’ve got plenty, and I’ll ask if I need more. Mostly, this release is an effort to let everyone in on the process and to give them a chance to play around in a game that, while not yet quite done, is nonetheless compelling in its own right and very much on schedule. To help folks explore the game, we’ll also be supplementing the rules with at least one recorded play-through next week with an eye towards teaching new players how the game works.
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Jim Parkin
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adam wilson

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This is one of the best game designer series I have read. Thanks for letting us tag along during this process. Looking forward to the pnp.
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Joseph Bottoms
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Hi Cole,

I am really enjoying theese designer diarys, they are brilliant. ROOT looks like its coming along nicely on kickstarter and is shaping up to be a great game that I will definetly have to try. So my congratulations on this.

I am interested to know if you taking a job at Leder games will be putting any, lets call them 'real-world set' games a la Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic and John Company on the backburner for now?

I imagine you will be pretty busy with other projects for the foreseable?

All the best,
Joe
 
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Cole Wehrle
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morningview66 wrote:
I am interested to know if you taking a job at Leder games will be putting any, lets call them 'real-world set' games a la Pax Pamir, An Infamous Traffic and John Company on the backburner for now?



Nope. I've got a few underway, and I'll be trying to keep up my usual pace in terms of seeing them through to publication.
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Joseph Bottoms
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Great to hear Cole.

I have really enjoyed everything you have put out soo far. I expect Root to be no exception.

But I am excited to see you explore more interesting historical (or otherwise) questions in your game design.

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Arthur Cormode
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Very enjoyable. Thanks for that.
 
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Mark Turner
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I'm sure I could get a play test group together if you needed any more :)
 
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Ethan Furman
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MrMT wrote:
I'm sure I could get a play test group together if you needed any more

Sadly, it has been stated that they do not need any more play testers.
 
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Yongtae Park
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Hello. Can I translate your designer diaries for root into Korean to upload the Korean boardgame community(http://boardlife.co.kr/) and to encourage other Korean boardgamers to back your project?

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Cole Wehrle
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akasia0328 wrote:


Hello. Can I translate your designer diaries for root into Korean to upload the Korean boardgame community(http://boardlife.co.kr/) and to encourage other Korean boardgamers to back your project?



Sure.
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K S
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I must admit, at first I didn't think this game would be for me. But I noticed one of the design diaries by chance and got suckered in. Now, I think that this game is for me. Unfortunately, I don't think that I will be able to back it on Kickstarter, but I hope that I will be able to pick it up when it hits retail.

I see that Leder Games will be an exhibitor at PAX Unplugged, will this game be demoed there? And will you be there?
 
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Cole Wehrle
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wamsp wrote:
I must admit, at first I didn't think this game would be for me. But I noticed one of the design diaries by chance and got suckered in. Now, I think that this game is for me. Unfortunately, I don't think that I will be able to back it on Kickstarter, but I hope that I will be able to pick it up when it hits retail.

I see that Leder Games will be an exhibitor at PAX Unplugged, will this game be demoed there? And will you be there?


The game will be demoed at Pax Unplugged. I, however, will be at BGG Con.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
The game will be demoed at Pax Unplugged. I, however, will be at BGG Con.

Well, it's just become a convention priority for me! Shame you won't be there, I'd love to say hey.
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FullContactGEEK
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I hope you do more work with Hollandspiele!
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Cole Wehrle
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lsamadi wrote:
I hope you do more work with Hollandspiele!


I'm planning to
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