Designer Frank West and I are sitting in a strangely Japanese themed poutine restaurant, fervently discussing the business and stratagem of board game design. Today we dive deep into how to make, and definitely how to not make, fantasy board games.
DTD: So, I’ve asked a lot of people; nowadays in boardgame culture—and you touched on this a little bit— it tends to be “buy everything and play it a couple times.” Whereas 20 years ago, the boardgame culture was “I bought this one game, it is my favorite game, and I play this one game every day.” Do you think this has changed dramatically how you design games?
FW: I am a true believer that the board game industry is—and some say it has been like this forever—but I feel there’s been a real drastic shift in the last few years. If you go to the cinema, you might like sci-fi movies, and you may never watch anything else in the cinema. I might like fantasy, or I might like true life. But when it comes to movies and television, we all have the genres we like, we all have the certain things we like. And my understanding of board gaming is that in the last few years we have changed more from “every game is for everyone” to “there are sets of games.” And more and more we’ve got subsets and subgenres of games, that different groups want to play.
DTD: And a smart audience.
FW: Exactly. And there are groups of people who really want to play games hundreds of times. Look at the Gloomhaven expansion that is going to continue on after you beat the 70-odd scenarios already in the base game. You are unique in that.
DTD: The running joke is, how many people have done that?
FW: Exactly. And obviously, a lot have, because otherwise that thing would never be made.
I am currently 129 hours and 62 games into Gloomhaven, and have not finished the main story. One day I will, and don’t you dare judge me.
DTD: I disagree. I think that comes to the base of my problem. The basis of my question—I think a lot of people are buying the Gloomhaven expansion who have not finished the base game. Because it’s become almost a collector’s market. It has become “It is new, it is hot. I love it. I need to have it.”
I bought it…
FW: I certainly agree there are groups of people that work this way.
DTD: And there’s the whole thing about shelves of shame and all that business.
FW: I do agree.
DTD: Gloomhaven, I think, is played more than many other games.
FW: Yes, and for me, it’s more about understanding who you are designing the game for. If I want to design a game that is going to be played hundreds of times by one person, then in my head I’m saying that I’m designing that game for a very small audience. If I want to design a game that is going to be played 3 or 4 times, I’m designing that game for a much larger audience.
DTD: A huge audience.
FW: But at the risk [that] those people who want to play a game hundreds of times may be less interested. And I think that you can create replayability, and you can define different things. But then it comes down to the kind of game. Like, in The City of Kings, the obvious way to add that replayability is more stories, more campaign levels, more objectives to go through. Whilst the Isle of Cats is more about “How do you make it so that each time you play it feels different enough, that it is going to be replayed?”
Yes, Frank said “whilst.” I checked the audio. I love this man. I am going to use “whilst” all the time now.
DTD: Yeah, different shaped pieces, new kinds of cats, different boats. Dinghies that can drag behind the boats. One cat, just drag him through the water.
FW: Exactly. One of the ideas we had was buckets that hang over the side of the cabin that you put the kittens in. [laughs]
DTD: I like that. [laughs] So, I am a big fan of fantasy board games. And my fandom of those goes back to the 1970s. And it’s been an area where I think there hasn’t been a perfect game. And I have to put City of Kings in one of the really high columns of creating a randomly generated fantasy game. If you asked 10-year-old Corey “What game do you want to buy now?” I want a fantasy role playing game that’s randomly generated. And of course, they said “OK, here’s Dungeon!”, and it didn’t work all that well. “Here’s Talisman.” Which I still have.
Whilst Dungeon and Talisman are RPG board game classics, I feel Talisman provides more replayability.
FW: I mean for me, I will continue to go on record and say “I don’t classify City of Kings as a dungeon crawler.”
DTD: It’s very puzzley.
FW: I classify it as an open-world, puzzle-based game.
DTD: But with a very strong fantasy feel.
FW: Exactly. And I often say that a lot of these dungeon crawl games are what I refer to as “the penalty shoot-out in a football match.” You’re at the end, and everything is equal, and you take turns to take shots. And by that I kind of mean it’s the big fight. You’re just going in there and killing stuff.
DTD: They all generally suffer from power creep, is now the term for it. So, you have got amazingly powerful guys, and amazingly powerful bad guys. So, you roll 100 dice, and they roll 100 dice, and you see who wins.
FW: But the whole thing still just comes down to that fight. Well to me, I see the City of Kings more as “it’s the football match.” And it’s more about the exploration, it’s the questing, it’s the gathering resources. It’s how you build, bring everything together.
DTD: I can definitely see that.
FW: You know how you have different skills, like in American football, it’s not like you have one player that does everything. You have teams of different people, and it’s not just about how do you do that kick and get it over the line.
DTD: No, you have to do A before you do B.
FW: And in a very puzzley way. And it’s very much inspired by, again, my love of big RPGs like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and that kind of adventure. But also Diablo, and the fact that it generates stuff. Like, the creature system in City of Kings is totally based on the creature system in Diablo, where when you find creatures, they have a base set of stats, and then they are given a secondary set on top.
DTD: With add-on A, add-on B, add-on C, depending on how nasty they are.
Flashbacks to Multi Shot Lightning Enchanted. Shudder. -Ed.
FW: And that is the whole premise for me.
DTD: It came through, it’s beautiful.
FW: And equally, how do you make a game where you can sit down and keep playing it with different groups of people and it always feels different, it always feels fun, rather than being tied in with the same group and having to play through countless narratives just with those people? And that was one of my goals, was I don’t want it to be campaign based. I want you to feel that you can play any story at any time and then enjoy that story for what it is.
DTD: There’s definitely harder ones and easier ones.
FW: For sure.
DTD: And I think you have succeeded. I think it is the, I mean I won’t say it’s perfect, that would just be pandering—and I do that, but— [laughs] But I think it is the best attempt so far for a random, feel-the-fantasy, adventure game.
FW: Well, I thank you, and I appreciate that. And I can say that my current plans for Project Honey are to make a better iteration of The City of Kings. That’s what I, for the last 3 years, tens of thousands of people have played that game, thousands of them have left reviews and comments.
DTD: And that has to be endlessly useful.
FW: And I have spent hundreds of hours. I have read every one of them. Every foreign post, every comment on BoardGameGeek. Everything I’ve seen on Facebook, every video, I watch them, I listen to them, much to my own heartbreak.
DTD: I promised I wouldn’t make you cry.
FW: But I refine my learnings. The hardest thing was to get behind the difference between what is a problem with the game and what is an individual’s personal problem with the game. Because there are a lot of people who, they don’t understand the concepts that are trying to be achieved, and that feels bad.
DTD: The other thing I was going to say is, the game takes a lot of predetermined notions and does them differently, so people when they see it, they are expecting the dungeon crawl. They are expecting armor versus attack versus…, and it’s not. And this isn’t my idea; I think Rahdo said it. That it is much more like Andor, it is very puzzley. You know, you’ve got challenges and you need to figure out how, maybe I do not want to fight this one now, maybe I want to move here and hide there.
FW: Project Honey is very much about the whole—I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s the player, or purchaser, or whatever you focus on, the person who owns the game or is looking at the game. It’s what they expect versus what it is. And for me, that is why I am trying to get this game to be—when I say “The better version of City of Kings” or “Iteration of City of Kings,” it’s not changing the core concepts of the game, it’s changing how they are expressed to people. Changing how they are interpreted.
FW: So, when you look at it, you see some things that are more what you expect. Because as you say, everyone who looks at it [City of Kings] goes “Dungeon Crawl.” And I will say it is not. And you can argue that either way, but for me with this one I want people to look at it and go “It is [blah], and I know what that is.”
DTD: And I know what I am getting into.
FW: And when they get it, there are surprises because it is so different to what people have played before. But it will be familiar, and it will be more along the lines of what people expect.
DTD: So one of the, with City of Kings, I can put in my feedback here. The only thing I found that I wanted, is I wanted more character to the monsters. The name of the monsters, the picture of the monster seemed superfluous. You could play just with the status bar. So, is that something that you are thinking about? More character to the monsters?
FW: It is. And it is kind of, I personally still feel that the creature system in The City of Kings, in the War Banners, as I refer to them. Those creature factions dramatically make so much sense for the world and how it works, and also I believe that as a player—regardless of peoples’ feelings for them—I feel like they are the optimal experience to be able to play smoothly. And what I mean by that is, if you have ever played a game where there’s 20 different creatures on the board, being able to quickly recognize which creature is which and know “These are those, and these and these, these are hunters, these are skeletons…” becomes increasingly difficult because they are so similar when you have pictures of all these characters; they are all the same race, all similar sizes, all similar shapes. But by having effectively a banner that is an icon, it is iconography, it makes it so quick to know it is this one or that one. And what we are working on know is, how do you have a hybrid of the two? How do you have the uniqueness in there?
DTD: The character.
FW: But also there’s a financial aspect to it as well.
DTD: And this is the balance between being completely random and being completely deterministic. If you make completely random creatures and stats, you get a uniformity, you get a generic-ness. And the bosses break it up very well in City of Kings. And I think the status bars are genius, the whole idea that they do get progressively harder, yet they are predictable. And you know what’s going on, you know the order of them.
FW: Because it then becomes a puzzle you can start to solve and understand. That can move you to the next story.
DTD: It is, and my brain loves that puzzle nature.
FW: It is one of those things that, again, if you have a picture of a lion, then you draw an ability out of the bag, and it says it can fly and shoot fire and all of this, it straight away becomes less believable.
DTD: Yeah, it gets comic.
FW: So, what we are trying to do know is find how do you achieve all of this at once? So, for example, in City of Kings you have your easy bag, medium bag, and hard bag. So, a really simple interpretation of this, which I explored, but it’s not what we are doing, is—
DTD: Fire bag, air bag, earth bag?
FW: Whatever, exactly.
DTD: Lots of bags.
FW: And that’s one of the positives—lots of bags. And you also lose the ability to do difficulty, because you end up having to say “All fire creatures are easy, all ice creatures are hard,” and so on. Those are the kind of things I am exploring, finding how do we do something that’s more, kind of, set. Also, one of the things I have been doing is working really hard on the art side of things. Because the art side of it is a restriction.
The characters in The City of Kings averaged about 4 to 6 weeks each. In regards to day 1, saying we are going to create a character to understanding what they are going to look like, understanding their back story, understanding the narrative, to creating the sketches and the artwork, and all of this. It is 4 to 6 weeks. So if you think of the 6 characters we had in the City of Kings, that was a good 6 months of solid work to get them in there. So, the idea of creating 30 or 40 different enemies was just impossible.
So now we have started working on, how do we approach that differently? And we have got it down to a process where we can do each character in about 2 days. And that’s a very different approach to it. The end result I feel is just as good, but that allows us to look into creating, well, actually, if we can do it in 2 days, then maybe if we make 20 creatures, it’s going to be a couple of months at most to get that done. As opposed to 18 months beforehand. And that’s still a large amount of money, but it becomes more affordable.
And now, you said at the beginning, we have cash flow, we have a bit more stability, I can look into that. And where the question becomes for me, is how much to we invest? I said with Rising Blades, we spent 20 to 25 thousand on that, and we have kind of scrapped it. The Isle of Cats, by the time that released, I have spent a similar amount of money on it. And now we are growing and getting bigger, so I kind of sit there and go “Well, Project Honey, how much do we invest? Do we invest 25 thousand, do we invest 50 thousand? Do we invest 100 thousand?” Because the more that money number goes up, the harder it is to try to return a profit off it.
And I don’t want to continuously sit there and go, “Wow for us to break even, we need to get half a million on Kickstarter.” Because every time I run a Kickstarter, I am truly terrified that it is not going to do well. I am truly worried. For Isle of Cats, I had no idea how that was going to go. When I pressed “Go Live” on that, I was just hoping people would turn up. So the idea of saying “Well, how much more stressful would that have been, if I had spent 4 times more money on it?” And those are the risks of business, but its where we have to really try and make these key decisions. And then when you do invest more money, what do you invest it on? Do you invest it on marketing? Do you invest it on the video for Kickstarter?
DTD: Those things are getting very, very expensive.
FW: But for me, every penny I want to invest into the core of the game, and the experience of the game. And that means that artwork, components, mechanics, the refinement of these, playtesting, you know, every copy that I create to send out costs hundreds of pounds. So, if you are playtesting with hundreds of people that’s tens of thousands of pounds to achieve that. But I feel like that’s more and more important now. If I said to you, “If you were buying a game tomorrow for $100, what would you rather have—would you rather have a game that has 100 unique creatures for you to fight, but has been playtested by 20 people, or would you rather have a game with 10 unique creatures to fight, but has been playtested by 1000 people?”
DTD: It totally makes sense.
FW: Almost everyone will say, “Well we want both.” But that means paying twice the amount for it. And those are the interesting things I think about now. Whilst previously it was just, “Let’s do what we can.” But now, finding those balances becomes a much more interesting problem.
DTD: So, if I can ask, are you playing with this balance between procedurally generated versus purely creatively generated? Did I make up all these creatures, from scratch, out of my brain, and write down every weird thing, or do I have kind of an algorithm where I can have creatures dump out. Because honestly, one of the draws of, back to Diablo, is the absolute fountain of craziness. There are millions of things. So, if you had said, “Would you rather have the game that has 10 thousand unique creatures that nobody’s ever playtested,” I would buy that. [laughs] And I would fully accept that some of those are so broken, and so ridiculous. But I would still just enjoy the concept of it. I think that’s Keyforge.
FW: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: Sorry, my apologies, Mr. Garfield.
Really, Mr. Richard Garfield sir, I mean no disrespect. Love your work. If you want to do an interview, I would be happy to buy you a burger, or a car, or something. Honest.
FW: So, my answer to that would be, going to the raw system in City of Kings, you have one creature banner, which in your head can be multitudes of creatures or one creature. You’ve got one banner that has a number of abilities that come out of a bag and behaves as one unit.
DTD: So that one banner can be any one of those status bars, so it can be anything.
FW: Exactly. But what happens if you change that system to: rather than have a bag of abilities, we have a bag of creatures, and each of those creatures has one ability each, but when you go into that room, you don’t know which of the 50 different creatures you are going to get? And therefore if you get this combination of 4 creatures, or this combination of 4 creatures, the way they behave is completely different. Because they still have that whole set of abilities. But now you are talking about everything thematically making sense, because there’s a guy that does one thing. But you still have that generation of, how do these things interact?
DTD: I love the idea of modularity. How do you get these, because that’s what Diablo is, is modularity. And every time you find another way to insert modularity, more and more comes out of it.
FW: And this is for me, one of my favorite things for City of Kings, is the map tiles. You start in this corner, they are all face down, you go out and explore. When I look at dungeon crawls—and this is a personal taste thing, I don’t know wider reception—they’re nearly all, you’ve got like 50 big square pieces, 20 little rectangular pieces, and you spend the first 20 minutes trying to work out, “Have I got piece A, have I got piece B, how does it go?” You don’t necessarily know what’s going to be in the rooms, but it’s all kind of programmed out. And for me, one of the core parts of these games is exploration, discovery, and not knowing what’s behind the corner. I want it to be like a video game, where I go out into this world and I know this stuff is going to be out there, but I don’t know where it’s going to be. I don’t know the order I am going to find it. And each time I play that changes and evolves. And so, for me, that level of modularity is so important. So, one of the things I love with City of Kings was a couple of things people would say: “Well on this story, there are 16 map tiles. And if I don’t find the shop I’m not going to win.” Or “If I don’t find the quest location, then I’m not going to win.”
DTD: Is the goal the first tile played or the last?
FW: Exactly. Now the way that’s being designed, is its been tested and planned around the basis that you are always going to explore every tile. So, you can always find everything, but the mentality in people’s heads is “Oh well, its random, because I don’t know what I’m going to find.” And the idea is the puzzle changes, because if you find a shop early on, then gathering resources and getting equipment might be your option. Or the shop might be rubbish, so maybe you need to find quests. Maybe you are going to find a creature that you kill and then you gather stuff, but the idea is that you are meant to do things in different orders. But people have this mental structure of, “I want to go through a certain path. This is the way you play. You do this, then you do that, then you do this.” The City of Kings is more designed around “Use what you find and discover.” So, what I want to do with Project Honey is I want to find the hybrid between that system and what people are used to in a dungeon crawl system. And make it more obvious that you are expected to find everything. You are going to go through every room, but to still have it done in an explorative tile-based way.
DTD: There’s certainly enough of us completionists out there.
Next time, Frank and I discuss the importance of fast set up, fast learning in the design of elegant games. Plus, Frank delivers the best, most intelligent quote I have ever heard.