Join us, dear reader, in a surreal world of french fries and goop, surrounded by a fake eastern cherry tree orchard, as we further discuss the true business of board game design with Frank West, premiere world builder from City of Games publishing.
DTD: So, is Isle of Cats on a boat now?
Get the pun? The game takes place on a boat! You don’t just get wit like this for free.
FW: Yeah, soon. We are hoping within two weeks. We are very ahead of schedule at the moment, really ahead of schedule. It’s been going very well.
DTD: That means you planned extraordinarily well.
FW: My strategy, along with everything else, is I’m someone who really considers every single option. Because I come from a business analysis kind of background.
DTD: That’s awesome, because I think there are a lot of game designers who don’t consider [everything], and then they go a year late. And that’s kind of the norm now.
FW: My manufacturer, I remember last year I think it was, might have been the year before, I had a meeting with them, and we went through everything. It was at the end of the meeting; obviously I only meet with them in person once or twice a year. I always say to them “This is my feedback to you, is there anything that you want of me? Is there anything that you want me to change, anything to make it easier, because I want to work with you long term, how do we do this?” And they said “The only thing we find difficult with you is that with all the people we work with, you’re the only one who always delivers everything on time. Normally if someone says a date, we book it in for a week or two later, because we know it will never come through.”
DTD: So their automatic, pre-installed delay is actually mean to do to you.
FW: And they know, so now they are aware of it. But its funny, because when they send me a sample… If they send a production sample to someone normally, they expect it to take them a while to go through it, check off all the pieces, test it all and check it all. For me, I always say to them, “Tell me when it’s going to come.” And whatever day it turns up, I book that entire day off of everything. So, it turns up at 11am, and by 4 in the afternoon, it’s all open, I’ve gone through the whole lot. By 8pm, I’ve played it with a few people, checked all of the stuff. And by midnight, I’ve fed back every single bit of feedback to them so when they start, because they are about 6 or 7 hours ahead of us, so at that point it is 7am their time. They start at 8. So, by the time they get into the office, they have all of the feedback and they can start making changes.
DTD: You’re insane, man.
FW: Normally, that would be a week-long process. So, we save off weeks and weeks, because I dedicate myself to those bits. And it makes it so efficient. So at the moment, the estimated shipping date we have on Kickstarter is the end of March. And I feel like we might get most of it done by the end of January. Obviously, I am not telling backers that yet, because who knows what will happen in shipping and taxes and whatnot.
DTD: Mental note — write in the article “All backers will get it on exactly this day…”
FW: Well with the City of Kings we told people we are ahead, it will come in early. And then when they opened all the containers, they had all collapsed, and they had to restack them all, and it delayed us by like 6 weeks.
DTD: Never say you are ahead.
FW: Until we get to that final bit. But it’s cool.
DTD: So, was City of Kings your first game? Almost everybody had a couple games they played around with that didn’t go anywhere.
FW: Yeah, it depends on how you define ‘game.’ So, The City of Kings is the first physical board game that I have created and gone through the process of wanting to sell. I have worked on plenty of digital games, and I have worked on physical games for fun for many, many years. When I was 16 years old, which was over half my lifetime ago now.
DTD: Don’t talk to me about things like that. When you were 16, I was still old.
FW: [laughs] I did a graphics course at school. And the final project I actually had to do for that was to design a board game. And even back then, I didn’t even know about modern board games. So, I did an Egyptian themed monopoly hybrid, where it was a bit crazy. You know in Monopoly, you buy houses, then you upgrade them into hotels. So, I had this concept of, if you own both of the properties on the corners and they had hotels, pyramids, you could then upgrade them into great temples. So, it was just ridiculous. So that was a board game that I designed and physically made and played like 17 years ago.
DTD: So even as a kid, you played around with stuff like that.
FW: At University, I did Computer Science, and the final project you have to do, which is worth about 40% of the entire degree, the brief explanations is ‘do something that no one has done before.’ And you have 6 months to do it.
DTD: Yeah, I had one of those courses.
FW: I love it. So, for me, I developed an AI system for strategy games. And that’s what I worked on. So that was all video game based, and I did a lot of kind of digital stuff, because I come from a programming background. So, I have worked on other games, but The City of Kings, I would say, is the first game where I’ve done artwork and I’ve really pushed it, and invested in it.
DTD: And it did so well. City of Kings was just a magnificent Kickstarter. It was well-produced. It came back really well, and people liked the game.
FW: And we still sell countless copies every week now. It is still being purchased, it is still selling. And it is a couple of years old now. So it is that nice feeling.
DTD: Well you have backed yourself into a corner a little bit, naming the company after it. I mean, you’re going to have to change so many things…
FW: The whole goal for me from day one, and it is one of the few reasons why I did this all myself, my entire concept is everything is within one universe. So, all of our games within that. And what I think is going to start kind of surprising people hopefully in the coming years, is the games to date have been…I mean, The City of Kings is a big fancy event. Vadoran Gardens was the back story of one of the character races. The Isle of Cats was a little bit off, where there’s an island, and the same bad guy, and it’s the same world but not so much connected. But some of the games we are working on now are really not what people would be expecting. So, for example, this isn’t one, but to give you an idea of what I mean by how different it would be, could you imagine in this fantasy world going back 2000 years to pre-civilization and it being a caveman based game within that world? So, it sets the foundations of things that happen thousands of years later.
DTD: I’ve always found it fascinating that when you have a world-building event, when someone makes a fantasy world, they will talk about something thousands of years ago, and it is in exactly the same time state, it’s just different people.
FW: We have just over 10,000 years of narrative now from the things that happened at different points, so we talk about the three different ages. So, there’s the age of the race called The Fallen, that currently no one knows anything about, and they were the people who gave life to the world and created the first city. And they started the evolution of all the other races. Then we have the era where all those races kind of came to be, and where they built up their civilizations. And then the third era is where the great war started, and everything started to get destroyed, and all of the fighting happened. So, it’s really nice to be able to play in those different directions. And there’s no reason we can’t have a boat-based trading game, or there’s no reason we can’t have an 18xx game, where actually you are dwarvish miners and it is the tunnels of all the coal carts going around, you know. So, I see it as an endless world.
DTD: I am guessing you are a fan of these authors that all of their novels share a world, and they will pass over to each other. It’s a great idea for board games.
FW: It gives you infinite potential, and it gives you so much inspiration. So, for example, when we worked on Isle of Cats, I always had this idea of you putting these cat tiles into ‘something.’ We started off with a house, and the house had different rooms. And when I was working on it mechanically, I was thinking to myself, “Well, the problem is, all of the polyomino games, pretty much they are square or rectangular boards. And in your head, it is very easy to connect pieces to create a square or a rectangle.
FW: And I love the idea of having a really awkward shape where it’s kind of zig zagged edges, and it’s very different.
DTD: You have got to have that one square sticking in a corner.
FW: And I’m thinking, “How do we do this?” And then I thought, the current main story line we are talking about is this world being attacked, and things being destroyed. So what happens if we make it, rather than you’re going and buying cats to put them in a house, why don’t we make it that you are rescuing cats and you are trying to save them, which is a much nicer story. And as soon as we got to that, it was like “We are actually rescuing them. We can save them from an island, and then you’ve got a boat!” And of course, a boat is not rectangular, it is kind of awkwardly shaped, and you have all sorts of shapes of boats. So that mechanical requirement became so inspired by the theme of the world, they just naturally pushed each other into what we created. And if I didn’t have that world, and I wasn’t thinking along those lines, I don’t know what that game would have become.
DTD: I think it’s great. I like that everything was cohesive, it had a reason, it had a theme. Everything was sharing these lines. And the strongest point of City of Kings was the world. Every character had that big long back story, and there was so much story to everything.
FW: And the weird thing, we wrote a short novel. So it was about 25,000 words, which kind of told all of this. And I have still not released it yet, because it is a whole other process to be releasing books and narratives, and all of that. But there’s so much depth behind all of this.
DTD: People like that. Just look at Warhammer. Warhammer has all this backstory novelization. I think there’s 60 or 70 of those books now. And people go nuts for them.
FW: And we will do it. We are working on another big game at the moment. In my head, I see it as a similar size to City of Kings. It is actually not finished yet. I am not sure if it going to be bigger or smaller.
DTD: Are we talking about Rising Blades?
FW: No, this is something else. So, this is what I refer to as “Project Honey” at the moment.
DTD: I love code names! They just make me feel like I’m sneaking around. It’s great!
FW: But one of the things I have said with that is, as we start building up the story, I actually do want to write another kind of book around it, so that—and again, not necessarily to release, but just so that we have got a true written story of this. I love the concept of being able to take events out of this, and just thinking purely of the narrative that’s happening on these bigger scales, because then the game can start to make more sense. And the story within the game can become more interesting, because you know the beginning, the middle and the end from day one.
DTD: That’s awesome! And that’s the big push now? That’s the one currently in progress?
FW: One of the advantages that I have in board game publishing is I am completely independent. So, I work for myself, I don’t have any paid staff. I very much have people who I work with, contractors who I bring in to do different things with. So, if I wanted to tomorrow, I could say “I am not doing this anymore,” and no one…there would be no—
DTD: No big dramatic consequences. Except to you.
FW: Obviously I’m not going to do that. But what that means is that I don’t have to rush to release a game. Because I don’t have salaries to pay, I don’t have this constant overhead.
DTD: Also, City of Kings is—there have been a lot of companies in the world that have done something that generates a fairly predictable cash flow. And then, the smart ones will turn to kind of R&D. Because there is cash flow, you can afford to fail. Or you can afford to re-do.
FW: And that is exactly what is happening.
DTD: I didn’t want to assume, but I’m glad to hear that it is. Because City of Kings, it looks like it’s done well enough that you can do what you want.
FW: Strangely enough, in a good way, the Isle of Cats is already—
The magic food-detecting beeper chose just this moment to go off in a whirlwind of red lights, vibration and alarms.
DTD: I think we are beepifying!
Our delightful angel of a waitress handed us our skillets of french fry nachos with loving small talk, although I could not really tell what she said. I’m pretty sure she wished us well at the convention, and made some comments about how extraordinarily wonderful I was, but as I said, my German is sub-par.
FW: The Isle of Cats has done extraordinarily well.
DTD: I think it hit a nerve. People were really excited about it. I can’t tell you how many—I’ve become the reference, I get texts, I get questions, “What do you think of this one [Kickstarter]? Are you going to get it?” Isle of Cats was a real boom when it was on Kickstarter, and I got asked so many times about it.
FW: And the thing about it is that this means I feel fairly confident that the next 12 to 18 months’ worth of income is going to be stable and reliable. And that means that we can now—I always say “we”, because my partner Sara, my girlfriend, who I have been with for many years, we truly do work together on all of these things. But from a company perspective, it’s kind of me, but in my heart every design, everything I work on, it’s all through her.
DTD: You bounce it all off of her, and she’s actively involved.
FW: So we can very much now play around with many ideas. So Rising Blades is a game we’ve been working on for about 2 years now. I’ve invested about 20-25 thousand pounds into it. But a couple of weeks ago now, maybe a month ago, I actually sent out an announcement that I’m putting that project to the side now, and I don’t know if it’s going to happen. And that’s because I have—you know, I have hugely invested into it, and the game’s really close to being basically done. I could put it on Kickstarter tomorrow, and I think that the average board gamer would look at it and think “Great, let’s go.” But for me, there’s still a box it doesn’t quite tick. And I can’t really say what that is, and I hope to eventually come back to it, but what I want to do now, is I want to explore other ideas. So, Project Honey is something I’ve been working on kind of in the background for a good year or so. And then there’s another 2 or 3 games, which are smaller games that I have been playing around with as well. And all of this is just—I can create any of this.
DTD: I’m going to take a picture of you.
FW: No worries.
DTD: I’m sorry, I try to warn people, and I was told that too often I say “I’m going to be really mean now.”
FW: Any of those could become the final game, the next game we release. But at the moment I couldn’t tell you which one. It could be the big box game, it could be one of the smaller ones.
DTD: I can’t tell you how happy I am that you are willing to not publish. I think some of the really great companies, and I’m thinking mostly in board games and video games, are the ones that are willing to take a far along design project, and say “You know, not exactly what we wanted yet. We can work on it later. Not now.” And all of the companies are saying, “There’s too many games. We are going to put out less games.” Everybody says it, but who actually does it? It’s a few.
FW: The thing, for me, I take a lot of my goals and stuff from Blizzard, who are a big video game company. I love their video games, they have these 3 major IPs.
DTD: When I said video games that was who I was talking about!
Blizzcon happened. Diablo 4 was announced, Diablo 2 reboot was not.
FW: Which is great news. I am so excited by that. And a lot of my games are inspired by those games, but I always remember they created a game that had the codename of “Titan.” I don’t know if you are familiar with Titan?
DTD: Yes, of course. It was going to be the next MMO.
FW: And this was the big MMO RPG, they spent fortunes. I always remember, I think it was the CEO, standing on the stage that the key thing for them is a game has to be fun. It doesn’t matter how clever it is, it doesn’t matter how special it is, but in its heart it has to be fun. And to me, I will never release a game—My general standing is I go to conventions, I go to one convention a year, Essen, where I do not exhibit. All the other conventions I go to, generally I exhibit at. When I exhibit, exhibiting to me is me at my booth, standing behind a table, presenting my game to people, and I will never have a game where I do not truly believe that it is something that someone would want to buy. I don’t want to be stood there trying to sell you a game because I need to make money, when I don’t believe that that game is something special. And that’s my equivalent of Blizzard’s “It has to be fun.” For me, I have to be able to stand in front of you and believe that it is actually a really great game you would enjoy. And if that means scrapping some things, if that means changing things, then that’s what I do.
DTD: And I have to give you the highest honors and kudos; that is the best way to do it. It’s also the hardest way to do it. But one thing that has been coming up again and again as I do these interviews, as a recurrent theme, is this is a passion industry. People do it because they love it. And you can’t do it for the money, and you can’t do it for the glory. You only do it because the thing you are working on is something you really truly believe in and love. It’s a passion industry. And some people fail.
FW: I always look at it as 90% of the professionals in our industry are hobbyists who have turned professional. And there are a great deal of people in our industry who have come from more of a business background, or they come from less of a gaming background, and they see it as a potential or actual benefit. And that’s good, right?
DTD: I think we often need a businessman behind our shoulder, saying “You know, this is not smart…”
FW: Exactly, but equally there are a great number of smaller independents. And having that mix is really good. And that’s why we are also keen to share, and talk, and discover. And people iterate on people’s ideas, and kind of grow them. People do expansions over people’s games, and they have guest designers in and stuff because it’s all about everyone working together for the greater good.
DTD: It’s about the love. Show me the love. So, City of Kings, more expansions, more goodies, all that is still in the works?
FW: Yeah, it’s stuff that’s still being worked on.
DTD: Are you delegating that out, or is it all still you?
FW: It’s all me. Every game design I release for the foreseeable future will be purely me. With that said, obviously there’s a huge amount of impact from people I talk to, there’s a huge amount of impact from playtesting.
DTD: You’re not an island.
FW: I recently sent out a survey to all of our backers saying “Tell me the top things you hate about the game. Tell me the top things you love about the game.” And that was painful to read, but it was the only way you can do that.
DTD: Don’t ask if you don’t want to hear it.
FW: And that way you can see what kind of things can be created and change it. Because its easy to say “Add more characters. Add more narratives, add more this, add more that.” But that’s not always what people want. What I’ve learned over the years is an expansion that changes a game isn’t necessarily a good thing. It is for some, [and] it isn’t for others. But an expansion that adds more content again isn’t necessarily a good thing, because all it is doing, is it’s saying “Now rather than playing a game 50 times, you can play 100 times.” And for most people, they are never going to play it 50 times in the first place. So, its finding that balance between how do you add in more, without changing that core experience? And unless you understand what the core experience of the game is, that isn’t something you can do.
DTD: How do you make it fresher? Not necessarily bigger or changed, but fresher.
FW: Yeah. If I was the designer of Monopoly, and I was releasing an expansion for it, and everyone said the thing I hate the most about it is “roll and move”, then perhaps in that expansion I would look at additional ways that you can move. And not strip that out but add that into it. Because that way, you are starting to refine those negative areas. I think there’s a really important thing to explore and understand in all games.
DTD: I think you’re totally right.
Next time, Frank expounds further about the design details behind City of Kings – how does one introduce variability, how does one make games easy and accessible, and how does one do this without losing everything in the process?