During my last year in Chicago, I was finding myself creatively unfulfilled. My job at a large Chicago running company was leaving me exhausted on weekends (I was getting up for work when everyone else was stumbling back from the bars), physically worn-out during the week (from working at the company’s warehouse), and a combination of the two while working our events (my longest work day was 18 hrs).
Coming home from that sort of job, all I wanted to do was either sleep or play video games. My creative passions were still there, but I had to put them on hold in order to keep myself sane and healthy. Eventually, I made the decision to move to Seattle. Chicago wasn’t working, and I needed somewhere I could get outdoors and breathe. I knew an artist who I got along with and who I knew I could find creative inspiration from. We made plans, and I began packing my things.
During those last weeks at the running company, I decided I needed to stretch my creative muscles. I downloaded Minecraft and began to play with Garrett every night, using the game as a platform for mindless, fun creativity while chatting about our future living situation. In the course of our conversations (and excavations) we started discussing a science-fiction universe he and his older brother had begun years earlier, and which he was eager to start doing artwork for again.
I was planning to return to school in Seattle to study Creative Writing. I figured this might be a good opportunity to practice my writing. We could begin work on a collaborative project utilizing our skills, but without the pressure of needing it to succeed. Just a creative project for fun. After watching the team I assembled for SomeFriends Studios flounder and break apart, something this lighthearted felt like the perfect next step.
Fast-forward. I am now living in Seattle with Garrett, and everything about our living situation is working out perfectly. I’m sitting around the apartment, waiting for school to start, and feel the urgent need to refresh my game design skills, which had been poorly neglected the year I was working at the running company. I think back to the beginning of school in Chicago, and how the instructors required us to abandon computers for a couple weeks in order to focus our design skills on board games.
The idea was/is that board games utilize most of the same design skills that one needs when creating a video game. Systems and mechanics (rules) are extremely important for crafting the sort of experience you want your players to have. Playtesting is extremely important. Keeping your designs simple and focused… everything you learn from designing a board game builds on skills that will absolutely be utilized in video game design.
With the breakdown of the SomeFriends team, I learned an invaluable lesson about over-reliance on others. Although video games were my passion, a lack of programming knowledge and a desire to delve more into systems design led me to undertake the task of developing a board game as practice. Like my writing for Garrett’s scifi universe, it would just be for fun.
A coworker at the running company in Chicago had introduced me to some more complex board games during my last year there (he was the only other nerd at the company), and I found myself compelled by the complexity a lot of those games exhibited. In particular, I was drawn to a game I played only once during that last year, but which managed to entirely capture my imagination.
This is A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. And what I love about it is that it the game functions beautifully as simulation.
When you play Game of Thrones, you feel like you are sitting in a war room, leaning over a map of Westeros and planning out the movement of your armies in response to enemy advances. Much like chess was an analog for war, this game attempts to achieve the same metaphor, but bring it closer to reality by removing a lot of the symbolism. As a result, the game is massively complex… you must balance resources for your armies, plan movement by water, foot, or horseback, and even engage in diplomacy and subterfuge with the other players through conversations and debates occurring above the playing field. In short, the game requires you to step into the shoes of a leader of one of Game of Thrones‘ various houses.
I loved the feeling that came from that. With a little imagination, it was very easy to believe that somewhere in the world, real men and women were battling and dying as a result of your unit placements and tactical errors.
This was the feeling I wanted to achieve with my board game.
This is what we call “mechanics as metaphor”. Game mechanics that are designed to provoke the player into thinking about their actions as representative of something else. Another favorite game of mine, FTL: Faster Than Light achieved the same result for a different situation. While Game of Thrones simulated medieval tactics and politics through the movement of pieces across a board, FTL simulated the feeling of sitting on the bridge of a starship, hunched over a computer monitor showing positions of crew members and the status of the ship, while exploring the galaxy and being attacked by hostile alien ships. And it did it all through the mechanics of clicking on different tiles (rooms) on your ship to send your crewmates (basically little dots) there so they could automatically complete certain actions (or clicking on tiles on the enemy ship in order to target it with your weapons).
The question I then asked myself was, what mechanics could I reasonably simulate? Because I was living with Garrett and had been working on his universe with him–and because he had consistently said he would love to see his universe realized as a game–I decided to go back and take a look at the core of what made his universe unique. Even in some of the awful sketches I had done to help myself visualize the layout of the location the story was taking place in, I saw the beginnings of what could potentially lead to a good board design:
The premise was that there was a galactic peace-keeping force (Wardens) who went around the galaxy helping others do good. They were guided by an alliance of alien races working through a centralized Council.
Right off the bat, I recognized a few central themes which stood out as prime candidates for a board game: politics, morality, and the balance of peace.
I started concepting the game in one of my sketchbooks:
I chose hexagons for no discernible reason other than 1) other games used hexagons, and 2) hexagons look like a cool scifi shape. The notes I scrawled in as I began thinking about how players would interact with this board. Some were abandoned or altered over time, but the core of the game remained the same from then on:
“Using Diplomats, establish Embassies in other Territories to gain political control of the region.”
A couple weeks later, one of my friends hopped off of a pirate ship (no, seriously) after sailing up from San Francisco. With a similar interest in game development (he was doing a paper prototype for a game similar to FTL but focused on naval battles) and a notebook full of design ideas, we sat down in my living room for a full day and got creative. I busted out my recently-made prototype of the sketch from my notebook, and we playtested my game for the first time. The game pieces were cut up scraps of leftover plastic from a modeling kit, thumbtacks, and pocket change.
In spite of its early state, my friend kept using some key words to describe the game as we played: “cool”, “fun”, and “awesome”. That was enough to inspire me to keep at it.
As the game developed, I kept iterating on the designs and playtesting with different people. Eventually, I added Military to the game, as well as a resource (Morality Tokens). Adding a Diplomat to the board gains you more Morality, but adding a Military means you lose Morality. Diplomats are necessary to win the game, but Military impede the progress of other player’s Diplomats.
At one point, I even went out and bought A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, cannibalizing its pieces so I would no longer have to use found materials as playing pieces and adopted some ideas from it that I felt worked very well. Most importantly, I added an Event Timer (based on # of turns taken, not on actual time), which required players to work together to stop disasters from affecting everyone on the board, all while they were working to further their own goal of winning the game. So in essence, the game becomes a balancing act, where your ability to win by competing against other players is constantly checked by your need to cooperate with the other players to stop disasters from occurring. This has led to some really cool scenarios reminiscent of political debates, with players arguing over how best to work together.
To date, there have been 10 playtesting sessions held with family and friends. I just held the 11th this past weekend, at Mox Boarding House, which was my first public playtest.
There was only one taker (I’m going to try a different venue for the next public playtest). But he enjoyed the game, and didn’t have any trouble comprehending the rules. We had to order him a Cherry Coke instead of a beer.
Work continues on the game. I’ve managed to get the rules worked down to a highly stable set of core mechanics which haven’t changed across a lot of recent playtests. All the changes being made to the game at this point are small details, to reduce complexity and streamline comprehension.
I don’t know where my time spent on this board game is going to take me, but I’m excited by the positive feedback the game has received, and eager to explore the possibility of getting it published. Regardless, if there is no way I can move forward from where I’m at, I’m still happy because I’ve already achieved my goal: Have fun making a game that I will continue to enjoy playing with my friends.