Welcome to the second half of one of the most intelligent discussions about the business of game design I have ever heard. I would say “that I have ever been involved in”, but I’ll be honest – I don’t have a ton to contribute. Frank West, between mouthfuls of savory french fry nachos (Canadian translation: poutine), is the true master in this arena.
DTD: So, having the programming background, are you thinking about app-driven games and this big trend that’s going on now? Like Lord of the Rings and all this. There are some crazy app-driven games out there.
FW: I don’t ever want to say never, but right now I have a very strong mindset that I never want to do it. That’s not to say that we won’t do things like having print and play content and potentially even an app that just allows you to display that content in some form, but I don’t—
DTD: Or a map generator or something like that—
FW: But for me personally, what I love about board games is I enjoy the pure physical experience at a table, and of the app games I have played, I find that as a level of distraction. I find that it also adds restrictions because you go to a convention, you suddenly don’t have a battery on a phone that’s going to last long enough, or you don’t have a tablet, or not everyone can see it, or suddenly someone’s got to pass their phone around to everyone and not everyone’s comfortable with doing that. And you have all of these, kind of, things that can start distracting from “I want to pick something up, I want to touch something, I want to move something.” And again, as I said earlier with the genres of movies, I feel that there are people in different pools. Some people love that. Some people don’t. But coming from “I’ve programmed for 15 years—”
DTD: But the lines between them have just blurred so much. And if you have got a game where there is a million little “I have to track this hit point, and this hit point, and this monster, and his ability, and where he is and this and that,” apps are wonderful for just keeping all the ducks in a row. Just lining it all up.
FW: But having spent so much of my life behind a computer screen doing that side of things, it’s one of those weird things where you can argue that perhaps I am the best-placed person in the industry to make the perfect app-driven board game, because I’ve led teams doing that for so long.
DTD: But that’s precisely the reason you don’t want to do it.
FW: But it’s precisely why I don’t want to do it. Because for me it takes away why I fell in love with board games. It takes away from why I fell in love with this job, this hobby, this industry. And I think there’s a place for it, but I don’t want to be in that place.
DTD: [laughs] It’s not my place. No, I have been in that position a lot of times. You know my background, right? Yeah, I’ve been there a lot. So, I have to ask, with City of Kings, at one point in the iteration, were the status bars and the monster banners, were they one tile in a set pile?
FW: No. They have always been how they are. They have gone through many iterations how to work. For example, originally we didn’t have bags, and there was a grid, and you had stacks of tiles, and there was a 6×8 stack, and each one had 5 and you would roll dice and it would give you the coordinates of which tiles to take and stuff.
DTD: That would take forever to set up.
FW: It would take forever to set up. In these days with GameTrayz and things like that, there’s ways around it, but it adds expense. What I love is, I love certain feelings in games. And what I mean by that is, it is not a mechanic, but it’s an act. So, you and me are sitting at a table and we find a creature and we look at it and we go “Oh no, what’s this going to be?” And that feeling of anticipation, and then putting your hand into a bag, and people being like, “Don’t take this one out, make sure you don’t get this one! We really want this one next!” And that feeling of taking something out. I mean, it doesn’t change the game, it doesn’t change the mechanics, but the experience around it remains.
DTD: No, but that tension there, City of Kings has that, definitely. There are a few other crawls, like Sword and Sorcery by Ares Games. There’s a little of that with criticals, and the bad guys, and I’m revealing this one. There’s tension. That one I think would benefit from an app, its exceedingly fiddly. Whereas City of Kings is really just streamlined and nice.
FW: And, you know, that again is something I am pushing more and more. Is the streamlined-ness of stuff.
DTD: I think this is the age, I think there has been a pendulum swing. Where for a while we were at more complicated, more pieces was always better. And now we are really swinging towards very light, but not just simple, elegant games. And there’s some that you play them and you can explain them in 2 minutes, and they are wonderful. The elegance just shines out.
FW: And I think that I set myself unrealistic goals, and I love unrealistic goals, because I think an unrealistic goal is the best way to nearly succeed. And if you nearly succeed at something that is unrealistic, you’re still likely to have done something better than everyone else. And I set myself these goals.
This is one of the best quotes I have ever heard. And he just said it spontaneously over Poutine. In a British accent, even. Picture that in your head right now. It was even better than you imagine.
DTD: That’s great! I love it.
FW: So I set my goal for this new game, similar in size to City of Kings, Gloomhaven, all of these big box games, all of this stuff. But my fundamental goal is from the moment you open that box, obviously punched out everything, I want you playing in under 5 minutes. And I want you to be able to pack it away in under 5 minutes. Because that is such a horrific part of these games with so many people in it. It’s an hour of setup, or 40 minutes of setup, or as I said already, “Have we got tile A, and 12, and B, and 6C? And is it the right way up, and is it rotated? Have we got it right, and you move into a room, and suddenly that card does not make sense.”
DTD: And I need an organizer, and I need a labeling.
FW: Exactly. And I don’t want that. I want people to be able to have the same game experience, but without all of that overhead. And I have spent so much time, Sara hates me for it, because I will come up with a mechanic and I will be like “Oh I think that will be really cool.” And then the next day it has kind of disappeared, and she says, “Why is that gone?” Then I’m like, “Too fiddly. It takes too long. It’s not going to give the experience that I want. And we can do it differently this way.”
DTD: But it was fun…!
FW: A good example of that is City of Kings with the resource system. In City of Kings, if you go to a forest, you roll one die and then it will tell you how much wood you get. If you upgrade your gathering skill, you roll two die, or you roll three of them, and so on. And if you are rolling multiple dice, and getting the wood, you take it, you put it in front of you, super quick, super easy. Wherever the dice are on the table, you take them, you chuck them, you get the stuff and you are done. Originally, the game was based around a card-based system, so if you went there you would grab a card, and the card would tell you how much you get. And then if you got to level 2, you take 2 cards, or you get 3 cards. And they both do exactly the same thing. They are both giving you a random number within a set of parameters and probabilities of doing something. But the concept of “Every time I do this I am taking 5 cards, and I’ve got to grab those 5 cards, and then because I am taking 5 cards we have to shuffle the discard pile, we have to put the cards back here. We have to then shuffle it and go through it, and so on.” There are slight differences mechanically. Like, it’s more predictable, if you have gotten all ones, you know you are going to get a high number later. And its more consistent, but the interaction experience of the player is huge. Like, the first time I play tested the game…the game would take a good 4 hours to play. But the first time I changed from that system to the other system, it reduced the average game time by over 10 minutes. And it was just such a—no one felt like the game was any different. It just sped it up because it got rid of that whole continuous process, and I think that level of refinement is the kind of thing that a lot of people are not doing, and they don’t care about. But for me its critical.
DTD: There’s a lot of discussions out there about multiple ways to do exactly the same thing in a board game. And I love reading and hearing these discussions because they all feel different. Like cards versus dice. And there’s a whole bunch of these sets, where you feel like you’re doing something more, or you feel more in control, and it’s all a lie. It’s all an illusion. It’s always the same.
FW: But it’s the psychology, right? Game playing is so much about psychology, right? And for me, coming from my background, the user experience, the UX, the understanding of “should this be an icon or should this be a word?” At what points is that going to be more beneficial? Should this be a random thing, or should it be a fixed thing? Should this be over here, or should it be over there? Should the stat bars be connected to the creature, or should they be independent? And all of these things are things that I consider. They are all things that I think about. And as I said earlier, one of my strengths to my manufacturers, they say how I really think about all of the different things, and it goes so smoothly, because I plan it so much. But one of my weaknesses, and strengths, in game design is I do the same thing, and I spend so much time thinking into things that don’t really need to be thought into, but I feel like if I can optimize each fundamental little part of that experience, that even though no one will ever be aware, it will still provide a slightly more streamlined experience.
DTD: They will still enjoy it a little more.
FW: And that’s so important. People being able to do the same thing as they have done before, but enjoy it more and not really understand why, because the same thing. There are just those little changes that make it different.
DTD: Yeah. I love those trends too. Geoff Engelstein in Ludology is always talking about the psychology of it. Well, Geoff is not in Ludology anymore. It’s now the new crew. But they are always talking about how people feel good if you let them do this, but they feel bad if you let them do that. It goes all the way back to—well, the wonderful analogy was D&D; undead monsters in D&D used to suck away levels. And now they don’t, because nobody likes it.
FW: I’ve learned a lot with The City of Kings about how you can punish people in enjoyable ways. And that’s a really strange thing.
DTD: I think that’s what I’m getting at. Well there have to be rewards and there have to be punishments.
FW: It has to be a roller coaster. You have to feel the success, you have to feel the failure, because if you don’t, then the end result is not going to be rewarding. If you are constantly “I win, I win, I win, I win,” it would be dull. It’s not going to be great.
DTD: Oh yeah, boring game.
FW: But equally, if it is constantly “Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god, oh we won – yeah!” then the journey isn’t going to be an experience you enjoy. The end of it might be super happy, but it is finding that balance. It’s kind of like any good relationship. [laughing]
DTD: Yup, you are dead on.
FW: It certainly is, I think the psychology side of things is such an important part of the game design process. But again, isn’t considered by everyone like all the time. And I think that’s perhaps why perhaps sometimes games get released where you just feel they could be that little bit more streamlined. And you can argue maybe that’s a personal taste of that person, but at the same time maybe its just all those outside forces that haven’t been considered in that initial kind of thing.
DTD: Well, there’s definitely—you can play a game and say “You know what, this feels like a Reiner Knizia game.” Or “This feels like a Feld game.” And that’s for a reason. People have their own way to do the same thing, or similar things. And it gives it a feel.
FW: For me…obviously the number of games I have released publicly is only two. Isle of Cats will be out soon, will make it 3. But I think that, and Rahdo I think said it in one of his videos recently, that my games are also wildly different. That every time he gets one, he has no idea what it could be.
DTD: That is what I was actually just going to say. It’s hard to say what is a Frank West game.
FW: I would say, for me personally, I think that you can expect the game to be puzzley and challenging. And to have a ease of learning that you may not expect from that kind of game. I am really pushing the ‘how you get playing,’ the intuitiveness of it. And it one of the reasons that The City of Kings got into distribution. When, a couple of years ago, we were at convention, and—The City of Kings has been designed in such a way that if you are used to RPGs or those sort of things, there’s just so much stuff that just makes sense by default. You know what health is, you know what attack is, you know what range is. You may not have learned any kind of intricacies, but you get it. And the action system of how you do an action is really straightforward. And the way the game works, you turn over a map tile, and we say in the rulebook: the first time you do it, just look up the map tile when you find it. You don’t need to learn it all ahead. When you take creatures out of the bag, look them up when you get them in the quick reference guide. Because it is designed to give you an adventure. The game is designed for you to learn as you go as opposed to “Have you ever had this card?” And as soon as you have one person who knows how the game works, it is so quick to get going. So when we were at this convention, the distributors came over—
DTD: You are just doing mind control, aren’t you?
FW: Pretty much.
DTD: It is a cult. City of Kings is a cult.
FW: [laughs] They came over and I will always remember this, because they said “Can you send us a copy? Because we are interested. We will probably have a look at it.” And I looked at it and said “Oh, I am happy to quickly show you and go through it.” And they said, “We have another meeting in 10 minutes, so we are not going to have time.” And I looked at them and said, “I promise you that we sit down, in 5 minutes you will take your first turn, and you will know how the game works.” And they agreed. And they sat down at the table, and they put a timer on their phone for 5 minutes, and in 3 minutes 42 seconds, they were doing their first turn. And after they had done 4 or 5 turns, one of them got up and said “I am going to go and cancel my next meeting. And we are going to talk about this.” And that was the start of where I got into major distribution. But that confidence of a game that is a 10 pound box in weight, and being able to teach it in under 5 minutes.
DTD: I agree with everything you have said, and you are putting a lot of the credit on the game, but I have to tell you, it is you as well. Your passion and excitement and emphasis about the games is just infectious. You can see the crowds around your booth when you are doing your exhibits. And you said earlier, if you have a lot of money, do you put it in marketing, do put it in this? You put it all in the game. And you can just feel that overriding passion, you still enjoy these things. And this something you personally have played thousands of times, and you still can be animated and excited about it when you present it. It’s a rare quality.
FW: Which is exactly why I said earlier about pausing Rising Blades. Because for me, if I cant genuinely do that, if I cannot genuinely stand at that booth and do it 100 times a day, and still have that feeling that that game is still something that deserves that, then its not my dream, right?
DTD: But that is almost an unobtainable bar.
FW: And its why I only release only one game every 18 months. Because I don’t want to undersell, I don’t want to put it down on the low. And The Isle of Cats is a really scary game for me, because lots of other people have played it, lots of people love it. The early reviews, Rahdo, so many people who have played it have said its one of their favorite games of the year, and so on. Everyone’s been raving about it, but the thing that scares me about that game more than anything is, for me, right now—and its weird to say, because you feel like everyone would always say this, but I don’t think they would. But for me, if I was stranded on an island tomorrow, and I could have one game out of any game, that would be the game I would take. Even though I have played it hundreds of times now. For me, it is the perfect experience for that game. The solo mode, the multi-player mode, with both of them I am so in love with that experience now.
And I feel safe saying that, because it has had so many other people say how much they’ve enjoyed it. I feel that there’s no risk of people thinking, “Well, its not been play tested enough,” or whatever, and it’s just too much of me, because I do not think that’s the case. But I do feel that that game just ticks those boxes, and there’s been so much level of what it needs to do, the experience it needs to provide. I can’t help but love talking about it. I said to Sara after we finished changes on it, we got to the airport and I was like “I could do this presentation with my eyes shut. I could do the hand gestures of where I am moving the pieces to where. And I could do it nonstop. And yet, I wouldn’t be unhappy doing it.” Because it is so switched on. And that game is such an easy game to talk about.
DTD: It is easy and joyful to explain something you really truly enjoy.
FW: And that is the number one requirement for every game I make, is I have to be able to actually stand on a stage and present that game and believe every word that I say. And if I can’t do it, then the game isn’t going to be released. And it’s a hard goal.
DTD: You know there’s almost nobody who can do that. Almost everybody is tired of their game by the time it comes out.
FW: And I think that, I understand it. You know, I do. Because you do play games crazy amounts of times. Project Honey, at the moment it takes about an hour and a half to play the current iteration of it. And I played it 35 times in a 2 week period. Just before Essen. That’s a huge undertaking, that’s 50 hours of playing a game. And obviously setting it up and packing it away and stuff. 50 hours in two weeks of the same game, doing the same one thing. It’s not like we are playing different scenarios or different stories. It’s just doing the same one thing over and over. And yet, I am happy doing it, because I enjoy the game. And I think that, again that’s deep down, that’s probably one of the things with Rising Blades that kind of was one of the deciding factors. I think that game is truly innovative. And I really hope that one day I can get it out there. Because everyone who has played the latest version of it has told me that they love it. It is so different and so interesting, but my fundamental issue with it is when I play it, I don’t want to play it again then. I want to play it again the next day, the next week, but one session of it is enough at that time. And that’s totally acceptable for most people and most games.
DTD: I was going to say, yeah.
DTD: I was just thinking, in those super thinky euro games you get exhausted.
FW: But for me, City of Kings, Vadoran Gardens, Isle of Cats, I will happily play them 4 or 5 times in a row and keep wanting to play them. And it is an important thing for me to set myself. And I think that Rising Blades is close to it, but I haven’t quite figured out what those final changes need to be. And this is why I say I have put it to the side. Because its not like it is never going to happen. It’s more of a, I feel like I don’t want to work full time on trying to fix that issue, because what I feel is if I work on 2 or 3 other games, then the way your brain works, the way that encourages you to be creative and explore new things. That maybe in 6 months’ time, or a years’ time, I can go back to Rising blades, and go “Oh yeah, what if I were to do this?” And I think that’s a safer way.
DTD: “Now I have an idea!” Well that’s what I was wondering is, are you going to keep Rising Blades as something to work on in the future, or are you going to use pieces of Rising Blades to help future projects? They’re almost the same thing.
FW: Its definitely both. There’s 4 characters in Rising Blades, and one of those characters, which is a totally out there character compared to what anyone would expect, is—that character, which is a new race; in Project Honey, the entire core story line is based around that race. And all of the artwork of those characters is based around that race and so on. So that’s something that by default has been inspired through that. If Rising Blades comes out, then people will make a connection between the two. But if it doesn’t, then at least all the creation behind that narrative still exists. And because the art style is identical to the City of Kings, same artist, everything is the same, then again, if we do eventually say “Let’s just completely scrap Rising Blades,” then those 4 characters can be pulled into The City of Kings as bosses or enemies or characters you kind of experience in some way. So its very easy to cut it down and repurpose it.
DTD: Then, if everything is in the same world—
FW: Exactly. And I think that, and I might be thinking wrong these days, but my understanding was that Overwatch was created through the assets they had created for Titan from Blizzard, and that was kind of where that game came from.
DTD: I had heard the same thing.
FW: Because they looked at it, and when actually this part of it works perfectly, and let’s go with that. And maybe that’s what I’ll end up doing with Rising Blades. Maybe that unique mechanic that I love, and those characters can be pulled into a different representation.
DTD: Into something else.
Next time Frank and I discuss world building in Isle of Cats, writing rulebooks, and standing on the shoulders of giants. Plus we finish our fries.