Frank West and your humble author are sitting in a broken multiverse of french fries and cherry trees, discussing the world all of his games occupy, and how to best introduce it to others.
DTD: I always think about games in bits and pieces. “This bit would work with that bit.”
FW: And one of the great things about having everything in the same world is the way you can connect narratives. You can connect things. I have kind of joked around the idea of “Wouldn’t it be really cool to create a game where, within that game, you have to play a mini-game. But that mini-game is a completely self-standing game you could play elsewhere.”
DTD: That’s never worked. Lots of people have tried.
FW: Exactly! The only time I have ever seen it work is in a video game called Final Fantasy, where they had a mini card game. You could actually play through the world, adventure and collect cards and then you could just go around with this card game.
My research department tells me it was Final Fantasy 8, ca. 1999, and the collectible card game was called “Triple Triad.” They even did a very limited, very rare physical release of the card game.
FW: There’s lots of video games that kind of do it. But I do feel like it is something one day I’d like to explore more. But at the moment—
DTD: Well I’m picturing a big epic 4X game in your world, and then there’s a little boat going by with all these cats hanging out the edges.
FW: Right? We have talked about, well, now we have introduced people to the Isle of Cats, and that kind of narrative. Maybe we can do an expansion for the City of Kings where those cats are now back in The City of Kings, and they’ve turned up. Because a lot of those cats are lion-sized. They’re big cats.
DTD: Massive and magical and all that.
FW: So maybe one of those becomes a playable character in the City of Kings expansion or something. There’s a lot of cool things. Or maybe we can make a completely new game with pets. Or we make a completely weird game where its more of a Uwe Rosenberg game about ‘how do you feed all these cats in your city?’ And you have to go and work.
DTD: Have you thought about going the other way and playing the bad guys and doing the more evil things in the world?
FW: So, Rising Blades is ‘you are the bad guys.’
DTD: I thought ages ago you had told me something like that.
FW: That is the main reason it frustrates me [that] I am not going ahead with that game. Because I really want to have games where you are playing the bad guy.
DTD: You could have a reverse tile placement game, getting rid of the cats. [laughs] You would get some backlash. A lot of cat lovers out there.
FW: One of the things we talked about was what would happen if—because obviously, the main story of The Isle of Cats is there’s this bad guy in a boat coming after the cats. So I said to Sara, “What would happen if we released an expansion to City of Kings where you fought that guy, and he was wearing cat skin rugs and had a skull of a cat on his head, and he was the guy who went there and killed them?”
DTD: Lots of teeny little heads all around his belt.
FW: I would either get hung up [or] shot somewhere. [laughs]
DTD: You would get a lot of hate mail, that’s for sure. You don’t get between people and their cats.
FW: And that’s where it’s fun, right? Because you get to try these different things, and you experience these different things. And there’s so much potential continuously. I mean, The Isle of Cats—going to this island and rescuing these cats? That’s potentially only the first type of animal. I mean, if you saw my T-shirt, Yanna [Stormtree] is all about the animals of the world. Doesn’t care about the humans and the humanoids. Yanna is much more about the nature and that side. So we could create a whole series of games where Yanna is going off to different places to try and save different creatures and do different things. But for me, its about doing things that are different, and I want you to— every time I talk about a game, and say “I am working on this” or “I am working on that,” I want you to have no idea what its going to be. I want you to be—I worked on a, and I don’t think it will ever come out, but I worked on a kind of 20 player party game for quite a long time. Again, it was set in the City of Kings universe. So this was a—Vesh, who’s the bad guy, who came and destroyed everything, so this was the idea that before he came and destroyed everything, people kind of had rumors that something was happening. And the idea of this was you each played the leader of one of the different races, and you are all in a great hall. And you are having a discussion of do we need to go and seek out Vesh and go to war, and find him? Or do we not; do we believe that? And its these two sides fighting with each other over “Is he a threat?” There’s the peace lovers, who are “We don’t care.” And, also within that, there are spies who are people who do work for Vesh, who know Vesh. And I love the idea of exploring that, and that kind of party game.
FW: But this is the thing, right? It’s endless what kind of games can be created with any game.
DTD: I am always fascinated with these really out there, bizarre games. It tickles me to no end when a game does something that really, really surprises me. Like when Itten put out a Kickstarter for a game where you had to mount a large pendulum to the ceiling. Stonehenge and the Sun.
FW: I absolutely love the concept of it.
DTD: I mean, I didn’t buy it.
FW: Because it’s not practical for my lifestyle. And it’s probably not practical for most people.
DTD: But I am so fascinated with it!
FW: I would love to have it. Do you know what I mean? If I had infinite money, I would make a house, a room in a house, just for that.
DTD: Well I would have a giant pendulum this big, just to do the old experiments to watch the earth rotate. You have no idea the things I would do. Those bizarre ideas! Talking about Essen again, I was tickled by Friedemann Friese’s new game.
FW: The sloth game?
DTD: The sloth game. It’s a pick up and deliver, but you are picking up and delivering yourself. And coaxing other critters to come over and move you. I just, the idea just tickled me.
FW: It’s fun, isn’t it? It’s interesting. You get so much creativity, so much room.
DTD: That’s what I love. And the changing of preconceived ideas. So Garphill has always, Raiders of the North Sea and all that, they’ve always taken worker placement and done one little twist on it that is totally unexpected, yet really simple, and just makes you smile.
FW: What’s so cool about it, is we were talking earlier about Maracaibo, and how I feel like it has real strong elements from Great Western Trail and Blackout: Hong Kong. And for me, of all of the game he [Alexander Pfister] has released, this is the one where I most see all of his other games coming together as one. And that’s really cool, because when people are creating so many games, and each game is doing something new, to be able to sit there and go “These are all the things I would, not necessarily improve, but I would like to explore slightly differently about all of their systems.” And then bringing that together, it’s how you create something amazing.
DTD: Oh yeah! And that’s what makes it feel like a Pfister game. It’s like Feld has the million little things, but somehow, they all work with each other. And they shouldn’t.
FW: I love it. And for me, I feel like my game style at the moment is completely unexpected for what its going to be, but you probably know its going to be puzzley and challenging.
DTD: Very thinky. And I can see kind of a programming background in there. A very logical mindset. I found out the other day that Friedemann Friese is a math guy. He went to school all for maths, and graduated with a math degree.
FW: That’s interesting.
DTD: And you look back at his games, and think “Oooh, Power Grid, man, that’s mathy.” And that’s why. Bringing it full circle, that’s another guy who had an initial game—one of the initial games—did very well. And it allowed him the creativity to do whatever he wants, and his games are all over the place! It’s crazy. But it’s that base to be able to do it, and you have it now with City of Kings.
FW: When I talk about the user experience and all of that, this is that core thing. If you go to Amazon, and you go onto the website, and you go to a search box, and you type in ‘socks,’ and you press ‘go,’ that is such an easy process. But what’s happening behind that is reasonably clever. But then you add it to your cart, and you buy it. When you add it to your cart, and you press buy, that process is so simple. Nowadays you do it in one click if you have your account set up. From the moment you press go, the amazing amount of stuff that happens in the background for that order to get to your house.
DTD: Oh, I absolutely love it.
FW: And for me, being a programmer, more and more now, I think about how in physical form can you make something that is so simple for a user to do, but somehow in the background this huge amount of complex stuff has happened to create an experience. And in computing, that’s really easy, because you have all of this hidden stuff.
DTD: And the analogy goes further, because you are working, you are standing on the shoulders of giants. You said it earlier, if you say “hit points”, you don’t have to explain that concept. People know. And for board games, if you put in deck building, or you put in a rondel, you don’t have to really explain it. Have you read instructions to Dominion lately? It’s really long, because nobody had heard about deck building.
For example: Each player has his own Dominion, which he builds from cards in the supply. During the game, a player’s cards are usually in three parts: his Deck (which he draws cards from), his hand, and his Discard pile. The player draws cards from his own Deck and discards cards to his own Discard pile.
FW: And that level of refinement…
DTD: So, all of this is adding up, it’s a modularity that now in games we have bigger puzzle pieces. And we can make more complicated things in an easy way.
FW: But you still have to be careful because—if I say to you “Card drafting, I am going to give you 7 cards, I have 7 cards, you take one, pass them on, and so on.” You get it, I don’t need to tell you anything else about that.
FW: But The Isle of Cats is designed for a much more mass market audience, and therefore you cannot assume they know what card drafting means. And I actually was—simply writing how a card draft works without having any exceptions is not easy. And it is actually 3 paragraphs of text, it’s half a page of text with a diagram to make sure people get it, because you’ve got the different phases. You have the start where you are dealt the cards, you’ve got the first card, you’ve got the passing, you’ve got the direction you pass.
DTD: You pick one, you pass the rest.
FW: You’ve got the option of ‘do you keep all of them, do you discard them, do you keep going, is there odd amounts, is there even amounts?’ Next time you do it, does it go the other way or does it keep going the same way? All of these things that you have to do, and this is where there can be pros and cons to rulebooks, because I think some people, especially when they are creating these bigger games for hardcore gamers, they just think those assumptions that people understand, or people do by default.
DTD: But see, the same thing is happening with deck building too. Because the newer deck builders are doing things like, when you buy a new card you can either put it on the top or the bottom, wherever you want. When you discard a card, you can either put it on the top or the bottom. So, you are playing with the preconceived ideas and just tweaking them a little.
FW: And this is where you have to work out your audience. If you are going for mass market, you need to make sure that everything is still in there. You need to write that old school rulebook that explains every core system. But if you are going for this much more hardcore, for want of a better word— And I sometimes sit there and think it would be really interesting to write 2 rulebooks for a game. To write a rulebook that is designed for my mum and dad, and a rulebook that is designed for the most experienced gamer.
DTD: Doesn’t Uwe kind of do that? There’s the simple side, and the more complex, more detailed side. I’ve seen things like that.
FW: Some people have done that kind of stuff, but its interesting, because its so much simpler to—one of the questions I get asked sometimes for the City of Kings, and it blows my mind even today, is that people will go to it, and they will finish the first story, and then they will message me and go, “How do I remember my character stuff? How do I remember this, how do I remember that?” And I always then say, “You don’t. It’s a game where everything resets between.” And despite nothing in the rulebook saying it is legacy or campaign or things continue, there’s this preconception that that’s what it’s going to do.
DTD: An assumption that it is an ongoing adventure with the same, building character.
FW: And then you need to start asking yourself, does that mean when you write a rulebook, or even on the back of the box, you need to start writing it isn’t that. Because if someone buys a game assuming it is that, and then it’s not, then that’s not great. But you can’t even begin to predict what all of these pre-assumptions are going to be. And those are the levels of doing this, that I find particularly interesting, because you can never get it perfect, but you can try really hard to do it.
DTD: Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. So, I need to ask you, when people play games, its been said now that there are people who play competitively, I am playing the game to beat you. There are people who play exploratively, I am playing to figure out how this game works. And people who play socially, I am playing, and this is just an activity that is an excuse for me to get to know you. Where do you think you sit on those? I think you have said that you are more of an explorative player, you want to check all the corners, and look under all of the rocks.
FW: I think different people would answer it differently, if you asked them about me. I think different people would say different things. It’s really interesting, because let’s say for example, I played Maracaibo last night for the first time. It took us a long time, because we were doing it from the rulebook and stuff. And after the first five or six turns, I got really frustrated. Not in an aggressive way, or big public way, but if I was playing on my own, I would have reset the game at that point, because what I play for—I love the social side of it, I love the exploration side of it. But one of the things with big euro games that I play for, is I want to feel I am competitive with myself. I don’t care if I beat everyone else, but I want to feel like I have a plan, I build up this concept, and I achieve it. And I want to feel like I have done better than I expect myself to do. So, I am not competitive with “Am I beating you? Am I winning?” I am competitive with “Am I playing optimally with myself?”
DTD: Do I feel I did well?
FW: And with that game, I realized after about 4 or 5 turns, that I literally had completely misunderstood how some of the core things worked. And not through anyone’s mistake, and not through rules. I understood the rules. But I didn’t understand how they joined together within the game.
DTD: I think the word is “grok.”
OK, “grok” means to fully and completely understand something in a natural and intuitive manner. It comes from the classic science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1961. In the book, Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by martians, and “grok” is a martian concept he adopted. In martian, it literally means “to drink.”
FW: And it really frustrated me. Because for me at that point, because of how I am, I knew that I would not be happy with what I did at the end. Because I knew that I couldn’t do some things, I couldn’t build up and create this perfect thing, because in the first 20% of the game I didn’t effectively do anything. And yes, OK, you could say, well from that point on, do something. Which is obviously what I did. And that was fine.
I recently played Maracaibo as well. I did exceedingly poorly on the first play through, but found the game utterly fascinating. I did not “grok” it.
DTD: But you cannot build a gorgeous mansion on a mud foundation.
FW: But it was still—all I felt at the end was still the frustration of my mistakes at the beginning. So, I would say that I love to explore, I prefer in more theme driven games, I love the exploration side of it, I love to do the more silly stuff. But for the big heavy games, for me its about feeling happy with what I have achieved.
DTD: So, after Maracaibo, the big question is, did you give up on it? You went through the whole game and all that, but after the game was done, were you thinking about “Next time I could do this, and I could do that, and man, that’s interesting, and I wouldn’t mind doing that again.” Or was it like, “I need to give a rest to this.”
FW: So for me, it was a—
DTD: Ignoring for a moment that it was 2 in the morning.
FW: 4 in the morning! I should put it out there, I still ended up winning the game.
DTD: Oh, I didn’t need to hear that—you are one of those players.
FW: And that’s the thing. Its important for me to get it across, because again, me winning or not was not a relative part of that for me. Because of how the beginning went, I saw my personal execution of that game as a failure. So I didn’t look at it as a “Next time I play, I could do this different, or I could do that different.” All I did is I looked at it, and went, “Next time I play I won’t be an idiot and I will do it properly.” And it is quite a crude thing to say.
DTD: It makes perfect sense.
FW: I didn’t feel like there was any point in looking into the minute details of what I did, because I knew the whopping big mistake I did at the beginning. And I think if I had corrected that mistake at the beginning, then everything else would have played out so differently, that my learnings potentially would not have been that useful. But I can assure you that the day I get back from Essen, it will be the first game I play, because everyone will know that I want to play it. And even though I have picked up 25 games here, and so far I have only played 2 of them I think, I will still that one again before I play the others I expect.