Much of this is paraphrased and dramatized for humorous effect… mainly because it was so long ago I just can’t remember exactly what we said or did.
Back in early 2019? 2018?… Collin and I were gaming at the biergarten and he said he wanted to ask me something. He seemed a bit nervous, maybe fearing rejection or perhaps ridicule for even suggesting it. Spit it out already!
“Do you think you and I could ever… umm… design our own boardgame, and if so, do you want to maybe.. umm… design a boardgame with me?”
- “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!”
- “Little did you know I was manipulating you into wanting to design our own boardgame together from the very beginning!”
- “I don’t know why we’re not making our own boardgame right now!”
- All of the above.
Why didn’t we mention it before?
Several times during the first year or so I was excited to write design diaries for this blog, but for naive reasons we decided to just keep the project private. Top secret stuff! Don’t want anyone to steal our idea and then invest thousands of hours of labor over years and years to bring it to market before we do! In hindsight, we should have been documenting the journey. It was fun, informative, and exciting. This post and the few that follow are my attempt to rectify the situation.
So we got to work.
The first step was lots of brainstorming trying to figure out what kind of game we were interested in designing. Most of the first year efforts were spent learning how to work together, how to trust one another with our individual ideas, how to not get hurt feelings, how to give and receive criticism, and how to find clarity on what the hell kind of game we’re trying to make anyway! I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say 90% of the work effort was just learning how to work well together. Once we got past those relationship hurdles we really hit our stride.
And then COVID-19 hit.
Alright. Ok. We’ll just adapt. No big deal.
Collin brought some structure to our design sessions, which helped keep us focused. We started using Trello to keep track of discussions around each idea. We met on Monday nights on Discord after my kids went to bed. We had short agendas detailing what we needed to talk about and always left with our own short list of action items to complete before the next meeting. We couldn’t playtest in person, so I learned how to create the game in Tabletop Simulator (and rejected it because running Steam on my computer is too slow), and then Tabletopia. Once we got things in Tabletopia, things sped up quite a bit.
You forgot to tell us what your game is about.
Right! So it took us quite a while to figure that out. Here’s the gist:
Hinterlands is a cooperative, Euro-style, resource-conversion, village-builder. Players are the leaders of a wilderness expedition tasked with establishing a thriving settlement (or restoring a ruined settlement to its former glory).
A variable setup allows the game to present a different strategic puzzle, different threats, a different landscape, and a different combination of player powers. Players need to work together to combat the threats against the village and complete projects and milestones before the onset of Winter.
That’s close enough. We’ve changed what the game is about several times and it’s likely to change again before it’s done.
Here’s a rundown of some of the cool ideas we had:
- each player is a combination of a trait and a role, creating different combination of skills and abilities each time you play. (The Reckless Shepherd, The Legendary Minstrel, The Rugged Smuggler, etc.)
- the map is modular so resources are in different locations and in different quantities each time you play.
- you can choose which threat you want to play against, offering different challenges
- you are given choices on how to resolve certain projects or events, which carry rewards and consequences
- we put a lot of effort into finding new ways to prevent cooperative game “quarterbacking” while increasing the sense of cooperation
Okay, it’s been over 3 years… are you done yet?
We got to a point where we thought we were close so we invited a couple friends to try the game out on Tabletopia. Turns out… we weren’t close, but we learned a lot from their input. So we went back to the drawing board and for the next 6 to 18 months we made revision after revision…after revision…after revision. We simplified a ton, streamlined a bunch, clarified a plethora. We wrote a rulebook. We rewrote the rulebook. We learned how to write better rulebooks. I changed the icons, made things more intuitive, streamlined the UI. Collin adjusted the balance, checked the math, kept me pointed in the right direction. We kept thinking we were one playtest away from showing it to the guys again, but each time Collin and I played to confirm everything was okay, we walked away frustrated and feeling like we weren’t quite there yet.
This went on for some time. We started thinking up completely different mechanisms.
“What about this? Maybe this will fix it.”
That sounds cool. Let’s try it.
“No. That didn’t work. Maybe this?”
“I know! This!”
Wow, great idea!
“That worked great, but it broke this other part over there.”
And on… and on… and on.
After doing this month after month it really started to wear us down. I started feeling like we were being reactive instead of proactive. I was throwing creative darts hoping something would stick. I just needed one magic bean to pull it all together into perfect cohesion. (Mental note: come up with better metaphors). I was starting to lose my footing. I was getting really upset. We had worked so hard for so long! We can’t stop pushing forward! We’re so close to finishing this thing!
A Difficult Decision
I’ve read so many articles that spout the “Top 23 things I wish I had known about game design when I first started“, and so many of them mention that…
You should work on multiple games at the same time.
But we love this idea! It’s our baby! This is the one!
Pro designers say that your ideas for one game will feed your ideas for another.
But that will just divide our attention. Better to see this through since it’s almost done!
That you should take breaks on a game if it’s not working and come back to it in a few weeks or months.
The time away will get you out of the weeds and give you a new, wider perspective, and you’ll likely be able to see the bigger problems because you stopped focusing so much on the minor ones.
Sounds like poor eyesight to me!
I read all this advice and I didn’t want to heed it. I was so certain we were on the threshold and just needed one more meeting and then we’d cross the finish line.
So Collin agreed and we pushed for another week. And another… and …another…
He knows me by now and how I tend to latch on to something and refuse to stop until I complete it. He was very kind and let me try. We had one more play test, just the two of us, with a really great idea that was Sure to Fix It All™… and the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction and the whole thing fell apart again. I probably woke my kids up with my loud expletive.
I took a breath and admitted defeat.
“I need to put this game on the shelf for a little while and come back to it later. This isn’t working.”
“I know. It’s okay. And I agree. We will come back to it. We’re not done here. How about we take a short break and start up a new game design project? Something much simpler with fewer moving parts?“
That was a hard night for me, but the longer we go not working on Hinterlands, the more cool ideas I have for it and I’m increasingly excited to return to it.
So what’s this new game about?
It’s a competitive tile placement game where players build a shared map. Imagine Carcassonne, but with quest cards you’re trying to complete. Each player has a small hand of cards with 2 different objectives on them. Do you want to go for the easy goal and get a 1 time reward, or do you want to complete the harder goal to get an on-going extra ability or victory points?
Thematically we’re keeping our options open. Maybe we’re Greek gods competing with one another to create or terraform the world. Maybe we’re landscape architects. We’ll figure that stuff out later.
How are you going to avoid making the same mistakes?
Good question. We made the same mistakes almost immediately… and then we realized what we were doing and stopped. We’ve met four times so far.
- Meeting #1 was our initial brainstorm. We were trying to find the boundaries of the design. What exactly are we trying to do here? What is the core concept of this game? What is the simplest version of this idea? What do we have to do to get this to the table as soon as possible?
- Meeting #2 was me being me all over again, pulling the design down a long and winding road of new and ever expanding ideas until we have a complicated mess in our laps with no idea how to untangle it. I’m a bit much sometimes, but in my defense, Collin came along willingly!
- Meeting #3 was me realizing what I was doing and suggesting we pull way back and return to the simplest version possible, skip Tabletopia now that quarantine times are over, and move into paper and pencils and scissors territory. Keep It Simple, Steve. Listen to the pros. Minimum Viable Prototype. Sit down and see if the simplest idea works before adding more.
- Meeting #4 was our first playtest to try to see if our core idea, or our core game loop, is fun, at all. Is there anything in here worth pursuing? I’m happy to say that it works great! We had a short page of notes and 2 tasks before our next meeting. I’ll tweak the landscape tiles and Collin will tweak the quest cards and rewards.
There’s no reason to make it more complicated until we get this core piece working perfectly. We both walked away feeling great. Maybe setting lower hurdles is a better overall strategy. If you clear the hurdle, awesome. If you don’t, you only had a few inches to fall.
We have a ton of cool ideas to layer onto this game (within reason!), but if the core isn’t smooth as butter, the rest is just going to be noise and confusion.
Are you going to post design diaries for the new game?
Yeah. Felt good to write this. Stay tuned.