Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of CreationIt’s been a several months since I last wrote a blog post, and so I felt it was time to dust off the keyboard, let you know about my progress, and offer an explanation as to why I’ve not written anything for so long. First of all, I am pleased to say I’ve finished closed playtesting on one of my designs (Flower Islands), and have now made the PnP files publicly available for open playtesting. It’s been no mean feat getting to that point, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done. However, all that hard work has lead to one major problem: Creative burnout.

It’s been a real shock for me because I just didn’t see it coming. I’ve been so happy getting to spend all my time doing something I love that the feeling of mental fatigue crept up on me unannounced. I’ve been struggling with it now for several weeks, and while I am certainly trying hard to keep up my work load, I’m finding it hard to concentrate a lot of the time, and ideas just aren’t flowing like they were before. I’m also finding that more tedious tasks such as rulebook writing just don’t hold my attention. It’s a problem because I have a second game that’s almost ready for open playtesting via PnP, but I can’t distribute it until I’ve got the rulebook fully written and proofread, and I’m finding it really hard to focus and get it done.

So where does that leave me? I wanted to try and be honest in this blog post, and I think that just coming on here and saying a few things about my process will help things. I think I also need to take a bit of a break and maybe focus my creative mind on something other than board games for a while. I’ve been doing some paid work here and there lately which has been good to break up my time, as well as help my pocket. I’m hoping that with a little bit of a rest, I can come back to my creative drawing board with a new found enthusiasm and energy. Let me know if you’ve experienced something similar, and share any tips you have for working through mental blocks in the comments.


Design Diary #1: Hopes, dreams, and (not) failing

In December I quit my job in order to focus full-time on board game design. Reading that sentence, you probably think I’m either rich or crazy. The truth is, I’m neither. So why did I take such a risk and give up the security of full-time work? How realistic is it that I can make a go of it as a self-made board game designer and publisher anyway? The decision to leave my old job wasn’t actually that hard. The job I had was a stressful one. I was working in supported housing, helping homeless people get back on their feet and find support and accommodation. It was emotionally and physically taxing and I was feeling burnt out. A change was needed, and in fact leaving was a huge relief. My wife has a good wage and so can afford the rent, and as long as I can pick up the odd shift doing some casual work to supplement our income we’ll get by financially. While I’d love to settle down out in the country at some point and start a family, right now we live somewhere cheap and have no responsibilities. If I’m ever going to make a go of becoming a game designer and publisher then now’s the time to do it.

So where am I now, and how do I get to where I want to be? Different people work creatively in different ways. Many new game designers seem to just have one grand idea. A single, epic project that they’re totally concentrated on. I’ve never worked like that. I always have several designs on the go at any one time. Some might see that approach as being too unfocused, but I actually think it’s a huge benefit. It means I don’t get as much creative fatigue because if one idea feels stuck I can just redirect my attention to something else and work on that for a while. It means I don’t have “all my eggs in one basket” so that if one idea seems to be failing, I can just re-focus my efforts on something more viable. Perhaps most importantly, it means I can give myself creative space to allow all my ideas and concepts to flourish and grow without feeling I have to stifle any of them. This is great for the creative process because those ideas often merge and flow into each other, and apparently unrelated designs suddenly fit together and bring new possibilities.

Ultimately though, there’s going to come a point where I have to become more single-minded about where I direct my efforts. That means I need to set some deadlines. My ideal is to have a game fully developed, playtested, and maybe even ready to crowd fund by summer (depending on external factors like artwork etc.). That’s five to eight months away (let’s call it six). There are of course lots of steps along the way to that point, the most time-consuming of which is playtesting, but I’m already well into that with one of my designs, and ready to start with two more. I’m not naive; I know that building a game to release standard is a drawn out process, but without the shackles of family and full-time work I know that I can achieve more in the next six months than most people could in eighteen. I’m attending two or three gaming groups a week, I’m days away from starting to release print and play versions of my games for online playtesting, I’m liaising and building links with artists, and I’m starting to get more involved with the online board gaming community. Maybe it still won’t be enough, but I’m not going to let that possibility stop me from trying. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who would hurry to try to burst my bubble and assure me it can’t be done, but sometimes it’s more important to just do it anyway. The main question I’ve had to ask myself is: does failure matter?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that there is no failure outcome to this scenario. That’s not to say I’ll definitely meet all my goals and be where I’d like to be in six months, but I’ll be further along the path than I am now, and I’ll have a wealth of experience to take into the next six months. I like to think I have a positive attitude, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the difficulties, it means embracing them and learning from them. Whatever happens, and whether I make it as a game designer or not, I’ll look back at this time in my life and be glad that I tried. I’ve no idea where this journey will take me, but I’m excited to find out.

Design Diary #1: Hopes, dreams, and (not) failing

Nothing in life is free (part 2)

With the growth of the internet, we’ve seen massive changes in the way information, ideas and creative works are shared. The number of works released under a Creative Commons Licence has increased from 50 million in 2006 to almost 900 million in 2014. Creative communities are increasingly moving towards sharing and collaborating their work more openly, allowing for rapid development of ideas and designs. This method of distribution also allows people to make use of creative works for free which increases choice and helps to link designers with end users more easily.

When I’m not designing board games, one of my other passions is making music. I release my musical work through Bandcamp on a “pay what you want” basis. So effectively, if you want my music for free you can have it, but if you feel it’s worth something to you, you can choose what that value is and pay it to me. Could a similar “pay what you want” model work for selling board games? There are thousands of free board games available to download in “print and play” form on the internet but that’s not the same as a fully produced, cardboard version of a game. Could such a sales approach ever really work?

First of all, we need to impose some caveats. The distribution of music or game files over the internet incurs little to no cost for the creator. Board games on the other hand are physical products and so always have an intrinsic cost to manufacture and ship. Above and beyond these material costs though, how do we value a board game? In his book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein suggests that by placing a value on our creative efforts we are essentially trying to place a value on our own passion and creativity; things which are beyond value. Equally, if we place no value on our work and give it away for free, we are denying any value it has to the person buying it and not offering a way for people to give us something in appreciaton for our work. One approach to these problems is for the amount paid to be decided by the person paying, based on a combination of how much they value the work and what they can afford to give. This brings us back to the “pay what you want” model.

Above and beyond the costs of manufacture are the other costs involved in producing a quality board game, most obviously the costs for illustration and graphic design. It’s almost impossible to produce and publish a board game single-handedly without outsourcing any of the process. However, if a small team of like-minded people worked together, each contributing a different skillset to the project then they could create something between them that they could publish. The funds to manufacture and ship the game could be raised through a crowd funding platform, with the option for people to give a payment above the cost of manufacture if they wish to or can afford to. A small print run could be manufactured and any extra funding donated to the project could be split between the team members based on a pro-rata basis agreed upon before the project starts.

Obviously, I’m vastly oversimplifying the costs and overall process here, but as a concept I think it’s at least interesting to consider. It would give real value to the money paid for games and it would allow people who can’t afford much to still be able to buy games. It would also allow people who really appreciate a game designer’s work to show their appreciation for their work in whatever way they choose to encourage them to keep creating games. With the music I’ve released through bandcamp, everyone who has downloaded it has chosen pay at least something even though they didn’t have to, and some people have been extremely generous. Would they perhaps have paid as much if I’d simply enforced a set price from the start? More importantly that that, on an emotional level there’s actually something deeply rewarding about someone giving you something because they choose to rather than because they have to, and to me personally that’s worth more than any amount of money.

Nothing in life is free (part 2)

Nothing in life is free (part 1)

I can still remember the first board game I ever designed. I was about 8 years old, and was inspired by the game Ghost Castle to make a game using the same mechanics but with a theme of monkeys, bananas and 3-D trees. Fast forward 25 years and I re-discovered a love for game design. Now, over 3 years later, I’ve amassed a box full of prototypes and countless pages of design notes. Looking back over these, I can see my progression as a designer. I’ve gradually refined game-play mechanisms, merged ideas, and pushed my work forward.

Like all of us, the main way I’ve learned is by studying the work of others. I’ve discovered so much just by playing other people’s games, or even just by watching other people play those games. Even that first game I designed as a child was based on a game I already knew and loved. This is an important part of how we create and learn. Our ability to take the knowledge and experience of the world around us and build on it is how we’ve come to be where we are today. This raises an important question though, which is: how much of our intellectual property can we really claim ownership of?

Anyone designing something like board games today is using ideas, mechanisms and themes that have already been seen before. Could we have fantasy themes without Dungeons & Dragons or Tolkein? Cyberpunk without William Gibson or Philip K Dick? Apocalyptic zombies without Night of the Living Dead? The answer of course, is “no”. As human beings we exist as social animals. We’re surrounded from an early age by never-ending societal and cultural influences. Creative expression lies in taking these influences and manipulating them, mutating them into new forms. This iteration of the past is how we grow and how we learn. It’s also how we design board games. Would we have deck-building games without Dominion? Would we have Dominion without Magic: The Gathering? Would we have any of the thousands of new board and card games that appear each year without the games that came before them? Everything we create is part of a bigger picture, so do we truly own our creations? Furthermore, if we can’t claim exclusive ownership over our creations then how do we calculate their monetary value?

The obvious answer is to look at the time investment. All creative expression takes time and effort. “Time” in the modern world “equals money” as the saying goes, and much as any designer would love to spend all their time creating things for the love of the experience, we all have to make a living. That means spending time to earn money, thus giving time value. So is it the time we spend creating something that gives it economic value? My own personal objective when designing games is not to make money, it is to make games for people to enjoy; to create something that offers an experience those that play it. In this case, should the value (and therefore price) of the games I create instead be determined by the individuals who want to own them?

In the next part of this blog I’ll discuss Creative Commons as applied to board games, and look at some of the potential challenges of applying “pay what you want” pricing strategies to physical board games.

Nothing in life is free (part 1)

It’s all fun and games…

Last year, Bruno Cathala released the hugely popular Five Tribes and received accolades and positive reviews from all corners of the gaming world. Not everyone was enamoured with the game though. For many, the inclusion of slaves in the game was a big turn off which made the game too unpalatable to play, no matter how fantastic the actual gameplay might be. The issue sparked some interesting and fierce discussion across the internet, but this is not the first time the subject of slavery in board games has come up for debate.

At the time of writing this post, the board game Puerto Rico is ranked as the fifth best board game in the world (according to users on boardgamegeek.com). The game is so popular because it hits the sweet spot of combining elegant design with deep strategy. For many people, it marks the pinnacle of Euro-style board gaming. However, it’s in the theme and narrative of the game that we find controversy. For those who are unfamiliar, the object of Puerto Rico is for players build colonies on the island of Puerto Rico, to grow and export crops, to make money, and to earn victory points to win the game. A key part of the game involves bringing “colonists” to the island to work on the plantations and buildings. Notice the use of the word “colonists” here and not “slaves”. That’s because slaves don’t appear in the game at all. So why the controversy?

The problem for many comes from the fact that renaming slaves to colonists doesn’t remove them from the game, or from the historical setting in which the theme of the game is firmly placed. Slave ownership was a reality in the colonial era in which Puerto Rico is set and so by trying to avoid the subject, the game simply draws attention to itself. There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate, but what the issue highlights is that many gamers feel uncomfortable with the honest portrayal of slavery in games.

In a recent blog post entitled Postcolonial Catan, Bruno Faidutti discusses how almost all board games with any kind of historical narrative offer a romanticised, caricatured presentation of their theme. But is this a bad thing? Bruno Faidutti says not, but Luke Turpeinen in his blog post Representation & Theme presents a compelling argument that board games are often culturally insensitive or outright racist because of the western / European viewpoint through which they tell their story.

There are of course games with historically accurate representations of theme, perhaps most notably Freedom: The Underground Railroad. In Freedom, players take the role of abolitionists and play cooperatively to try to further their cause whilst freeing slaves from the south and help them find their way north to safety. It’s a unique game, and a great example of historical honesty in a board game theme, but it differs from a game like Puerto Rico in that it’s narrative is firmly presented from the point of view of the slaves and abolitionists. You never get to play as the slave owners.

Bruno Faidutti discussed his ideas in more depth on a recent episode of the Ludology podcast. Here, he suggested that board games have a duty to be fun for players, and that it was acceptable to present a sanitised vision of the theme if it means keeping the game more fun for people to play. This raises some important questions though. Do board games always have to be “fun”? Other forms of creative expression such as art and music have long played around with ways to challenge people, and are often unafraid to make people feel uncomfortable in order to communicate a certain idea or concept, so why not board games?

The social, interactive nature of gaming means that we can really identify with the roles we adopt in the game. Playing a game as a slave owner could be a really powerful, if uncomfortable experience. It seems that we often want to shield ourselves from the fact that the people in history who committed appalling acts against their fellow human beings were people much like us. There’s a tendency to demonise them and to fail to see that any one of us is capable of barbaric acts given the right set of circumstances. This is an important fact to remember, it’s part of what makes us human, and an important part of how we can learn from history’s mistakes. If we dare to be more challenging and push players out of their comfort zones, games can play an important role in helping us connect with this understanding and give us a new perspective on both ourselves and each other.

It’s all fun and games…

Theme and emotion in board games

My game design process involves having several different game ideas that I’m working on at any one time floating around. I’m not great at being focussed so my mind tends to jump from one thing to another and back again as I’m in the creative process. An idea from one game will often find it’s way into another so that games get merged and evolve into whatever they’re becoming. Games come and go, but sometimes, one particular game idea will keep coming back again and again.

One such game, and one of my favourite game concepts that I’ve been working on for a while now, is a cyberpunk game. I love cyberpunk settings, and find that they’re often underused in board games compared to the fantasy, renaissance, and space themes we usually find. Perhaps because of my love for the theme, this game has become something of a grail for me. A magnum opus. It’s an ambitious game, certainly outside the scope for a first release, but one that I’m convinced I’ll see through to a final release one day.

To give a brief outline, the game is set in a future city full of the usual street gangs and megacorps. Each player controls a character who will travel around the city, completing missions, avoiding the authorites, and earning credits. I’ve designed the city to be modular so that the layout will vary from game to game, and each character will have different abilities that make them suited to different mission types. I’ve spent hours immersing myself in the theme for ideas. Anime, comicbooks, manga, movies, William Gibson novels, you name it. I keep a list of keywords and ideas on my phone that I add to when something comes to mind; a wealth of flavour and narrative ideas to build the game’s theme. But I’ve been hitting a brick wall with the overall design that I couldn’t quite figure out.

The problem has been that even with all the fluff I’ve been building for the game’s design, I still felt I wasn’t able to convey what I wanted to. Flooding the game with ‘biomorphs’, ‘hackers’ and ‘designer drugs’ is building the right atmosphere, but something is missing. Then it came to me. I realised that what has been missing is actual emotion, not just flavour.

A cyberpunk world is full of juxtapositions. Endless stimulation, entertainment and bright neon lights, contrasted with a dark oppressive society. When we think of cyberpunk there’s a flood of theme ideas that come to mind, but deeper than that are the raw emotions. What does it feel like to live in a dystopian cyberpunk world? More importantly, how can I make the players feel like this when they play the game?

My original idea for the mission mechanisms was that each mission would require the completion of a small minigame. For example, a ‘thief’ mission would involve a little ‘push your luck’ card game, and a ‘hacker’ mission would involve chucking dice to match symbols, Yahtzee style. I really liked this concept, but ultimately had to abandon it because (a) it made the game overly complicated and component heavy, and (b) because it was too hard to balance the different mission types. Instead, I streamlined the game to have a common mechanism for all mission types, but couldn’t figure out what this should be.

So the next question became, “what should the mechanisms in the game look like?” This is where I’ve been getting stuck for so long. Now though, I feel like I’ve finally turned the corner. Once I stopped thinking about theme and started thinking about emotion it all became a lot clearer. What I realised is that the theme will carry itself. Artwork, flavour text and the narrative of the mission cards themselves will provide all that’s needed. What I need to do instead is to use the mechanisms of the game is capture the emotions of the the setting.

So, how does living in a cyberpunk world feel? What are some key ideas that describe the mental and emotional state of a character in this game? This is what I came up with:

Competitive – Cyberpunk citizens thrive on competition, making deals, and stepping over each other to achieve their goals.
Fast paced – A world full of adrenalin junkies, tweakers and stim-heads, all amped up to give them the edge over the competition.
Paranoid – You never know who’s after you: the police, the megacorps, the cyborgs, the Yakuza, even the other players.

So, now I’ve worked out what I want the players in the game to feel, the next step is designing mechanisms that will bring out those emotions in the players. So to make players competitive, include PvP interaction that lets them take each other down and try to out-do each other. To make the game feel frantic and fast-paced, include some kind of timer to race against when completing missions. To make the players on-edge, include push your luck elements and hidden threats that can screw up their plans without warning.

By using the way the game itself is played to evoke the feelings of the players, I feel like I can now see how I want the game to play out, and I can move to the next stage which is actually designing and refining those mechanisms so they work together smoothly and in an engaging way. I now feel like I have an exciting direction to move forward in with this game and that’s a great feeling.

I hope some of the ideas in this post have resonated with you. Think about some of your game design ideas that you feel stuck with. Do you think this way of looking at your designs would work for you? What great ways of bringing theme out and engaging players have you found in your game designs?

Theme and emotion in board games

Taking a chance

After nearly six years of working for the same organisation, I recently bit the bullet and handed in my resignation. This was a big decision and I gave it a lot of thought, but now it’s done I can definitely see it was the right thing to do. I quit for a lot of reasons; the stress of  an increasing workload with reduced resources being one, but mainly I’m quitting so I can focus on my true passion: board games.

I’ve been designing board games for a couple of years now and really want shift my life to be able to focus my time and energy on my creative projects and get them out there to the world. I’m not sure where this journey is going to take me but I’m excited to give it my best and see what happens. This blog will be a space for me to share my experiences, feelings and ideas, and to hopefully connect with other like-minded lovers of board games. I’m looking forward to seeing where this adventure takes me, and hopefully getting to know some amazing people on the way. That includes you!

Taking a chance