The state of my game is good. It has gone through several iterations in the past few weeks. I think the changes have been good and have improved the “fun factor.” After one playtest, I was sad to stop playing.
One part I’m thrilled about is the effects the changing of the seasons has on gameplay. When Spring arrives, you may think it’s time for planting. One card has a late freeze set in, thus making farming more difficult. Not only does the late freeze affect the current season, but in the fall, livestock won’t have enough food. This will affect their production. The game forces you to interact with the random elements presented by the seasons. It also makes you prepare for their future impact. This creates a density of important decisions that is satisfying.
One aspect that I’ve had to tinker with more than I had hoped is the building upgrades. Each city will be able to construct buildings that help them thrive in the new economy. I have waffled between two choices. One is for the playings to each have access to every building type. The other is a common building “pool” for players to choose from. With the latter, once a player buys a building, it is no longer available for the other players. Both have their advantages.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your input to help me make a decision.
Full disclosure: Rather than a traditional interview, I sent Geoff a list of questions. He answered them at his leisure. I also felt a bit starstruck by even contacting him. He was happy to answer my questions. Like me, he has a family that loves to play games together.
Geoff Engelstein is the designer of several published games, but my favorite of his is definitely Space Cadets. My friends and I have shared moments with that game that we still belly laugh about today. When I discovered that Geoff designed it with his family, I couldn’t wait to talk to him about designing with his family, and about design in general.
If you had to narrow it to 4 steps, describe your design process?
Wow – tough one. My process tends to wander around and loop back on itself over and over. But if I had to pin it down:
Inspiration – the core idea that you want to convey. For me it usually starts with an experience or emotion, and then I go from there. Sometimes I start with what I think is a neat mechanic, but not often.
Core mechanic – Identify the core mechanic to support the experience. Lots of rapid iteration to try (and usually discard) ideas.
Mechanic Explosion – Add lots of things to the core – effects, dice, cards, whatever. Use the ‘hooks’ that the core gives you to allow things to be changed. Then trim, trim, trim and get back to what really works.
Tuning – Final playtesting and tuning to tighten everything up, deal with balance, play time, etc.
How did your family become a part of the design process?
We always played together, whether it was board games, video games, or whatever. And we always talked about why we liked particular games, what worked, and what didn’t. So when I came up with the idea to take Starcraft (which we enjoyed) and turn it into a card game, it was natural that I would involve the kids in the process.
I also wanted to teach them that you could come up with an idea, and – with a lot of hard work – carry it through and actually see it on a store shelf. That creating things was not some mystical far off process that was out of their reach, that it was something that they could and should do.
What is an example of “kid advice” you’ve used in a game?
In “The Ares Project” we were challenged by Z-Man to come up with a fourth faction for the game. My son immediately wanted to do a giant robot. Because giant robots are cool. But we had absolutely no idea how that would fit into the framework. But we worked and worked and figured out how to do it, and it turned into one of my favorite things in the game.
I have not tried to design a game with my family. That isn’t to say I’m opposed to it. In fact, it is something that I plan to work on as a begin my new project, Lawn Mowers.
In an ideal world, designing a game with the family is a perfect storm. My family is my primary gaming group. They also know me more than anyone alive. It makes sense that they, the people closest to me, would make the best design team. We all have strengths that accent the strength of others. We help remove the influence of each other’s weaknesses as well. Again, in Eutopia, Chipman Family Design is a great thing.
We don’t live in Eutopia. What we might experience instead would be different than the ideal. There might be a clashing of personalities. Some of us are more interested in design than others. I might be the least motivated family member with the most passion for the subject. At the helm, I would make a bad captain. Anywhere else, I’d whine. Maybe Chipman Family Design Minus Dad would be a good thing? Though it’s something I’d like to do, I can see the possible pitfalls.
Geoff Engelstein has designed several successful games with his family. I decided to probe his brain on his success and what advice he might have for a family design team. Next week, I’ll feature my questions and his answers, along with my own commentary.
What questions would you like to ask a successful family design team?
I designed my first project – Heartland – theme-first. Theme-first design is the idea that you design the game’s story first. Next, you worry about the mechanics. Many games don’t need their themes to be good games. The designer or publisher pasted their themes onto a solid set of mechanics. In Heartland, I derived the mechanics from the theme.
Heartland is set in an alternate-history Mississippi-Ohio Valley. Heartland’s theme involves farming, gathering resources, and buying water. My first thoughts surrounding the theme were, “How can the players get water?” Since water is scarce, it will be a high commodity. I decided that is must be a regulated commodity. That is when I settled on a bidding mechanic. The players must bid on water rations to plant their fields and feed their livestock. Bidding makes you ration your money and plan well. That makes for some interesting decisions.
A second thematic decision had to do with how the seasons affect the struggle. In a world where resources are scarce, the events of the seasons would have a greater effect. They would affect all players, and the player that prepared the best would make it through. This is when I came up with the idea of season cards. The game lasts three years or three sets of seasons. Players draw the season cards during every round. They affect the game right then. There is also an effect that takes place in a later season. For example, a tornado is destructive at the time, but it could present a future opportunity.
Those are two mechanics in a game full of mechanics I’ve enjoyed from other games. I’ve also tweaked a few for my own spin on them. No matter what I add to Heartland, the theme remains at the center of those decisions.
How does theme affect your design decisions? How much value do you place on the theme?
I remember one of the first games I created. It was a game about professional wrestling. I used stand-ups from cut out from the back of a WWF action figure package. I made a ring out of a fancy old box I found in a closet. I had an “energy” counter made from legos. I had a Crown Royal bag filled with dozens of wrestling moves written on paper. I was 12-14 at the time and I thought I had created something amazing. Then it got thrown away. (by accident?)
I made games throughout middle school and even high school. I made them as a diversion the time during school. Another friend of mine also made games; his games were better than mine. We loved to play them. They were about everything from wrestling to Star Trek. We played other games together, but my best memories were when we played our own creations.
My own children have done this as well – but they’ve started earlier. My oldest started making games before she started school. They were simple “roll and move” games, but games nonetheless. They played them together and enjoyed the process. We even got them old games for Christmas one year, so they could use the parts and pieces.
Where does this inherent game-making come from? I think it’s in our nature to create. I also think we like to share the things we’ve made. You don’t have to teach a child to build things with blocks, nor do you have to teach them to show you when they’re done. They love to do both from birth. When my children finished their games, they wanted me to play with them.
Board games fascinate me with their intricacies. This fascination stems from my desire to create and show. When I play, I think about ways I could use that same mechanic in another game idea around a theme I enjoy. My current project, Heartland, is a mash-up of several games I like. I included ideas from Scythe, Cyclades, Stone Age, and a few more I forgot. The point: play more games. In turn, you’ll want to make your own games.
What creations do you have in your mind? What are your game-creating stories?