For our second installment of this game design series we are lucky enough to have the immensely talented Artem Safarov, creator of Cauldron, who is now working on a new solo-only game, Unbroken. If you are looking for actionable insight to help you on your design journey, you have come to the right place.
1. How did you work to foster increased interaction in your game design and how important was interaction in your game development?
The current game I am working on, Unbroken, is solo-only so there isn’t much interaction to speak of, but my previous game, Cauldron was all about player interaction (to the point of being described as too confrontational) so I’ll reference that.
I think of player attention as one of the most crucial resources a game designer has at their disposal. I aim to make sure none of it is wasted – I want all players to be invested and watching what’s happening even when it’s not their turn. There are a couple of ways to achieve that:
a. Make “response” actions available to players. E.g. in Cauldron players can use Spells to interrupt the actions of others or sometimes benefit from these. The Tiny Epic series does a good job of giving players options – in both Kingdoms and Galaxies you can immediately repeat an action taken by another, forcing you to pay attention.
b. Make decisions of others directly impact your own options. This is most often done through a communal resources pool (like availability of action spaces in worker placement games) or drawing from a common pool of resources (like Jaipur. Same principle was used in Cauldron). It forces players to look what others might want and to plan their actions both for maximum benefit to self and inconvenience to others. It also encourages you to pay attention to what others are doing and be happy/sad when something you wanted is claimed by an opponent.
c. Several game mechanics like bidding are all about direct player interaction, however these sometimes require you to build the whole game around it. You need to decide early on whether player interaction is the key or one of many features in your game and work from that.
2. How did you consider replay value in the design process? What ways did you work to increase replay value?
Playtesting is key here, especially in the early stages when you are still heavily involved. You need to be on the lookout for any consistent patterns that emerge. If these show up consistently enough to be treated as a “no brainer” – a course of action that is always beneficial or always likely to occur – you have a problem. Uncertainty and absence of 100% correct answers is a big part of games and you have to course-correct if your game is getting too static.
You can throw wrenches at these overly certain moments by introducing exceptions – e.g. this is usually the best thing to do unless character X is in play or unless one of your opponents is collecting Y. If you find there are enough considerations to avoid these static patterns – you’ve done your job. Give your players a chance to be versatile and ensure the game contains enough options to let them come up with tactics that even you as a designer didn’t think of!
3. What was the most substantial change that happened during playtesting?
During the making of Unbroken I was aiming at an unusual take on the fantasy dungeon crawl. My “special approach” consisted of using different character abilities as resources – e.g. the ability to exert a small effort was one resource whereas a potential for heroic feats was another entirely. You could exchange one for another but had to think of these as distinct for planning purposes. This threw off some players who were more used either to the idea of action points or hit points but not this resource-style system.
In addition the game treated the ways to treat monsters in a similar way – you could either defeat them through a large number of small wounds or one large wound – and these wounds were once again distinct variables, not connected with each other. I was really into this idea of creating a novel resource system and using it to describe the familiar genre.
However I found that it confused players more than anything. So I went for a balanced approach, kept the system measuring the character’s abilities but reverted the monster wounds to a more standard “here is how many wounds you need to deal”. It immediately made the game flow much better, limiting the innovation factor but making the design as a whole much more functional.
My lesson there is to not let your ambition get in the way of the quality of your result. Cutting is a big part of the development process and sometimes the best thing you can do for a game is removing something clunky. Do not be afraid to do so.
4. How did you find the artists and graphic designers for your game?
I am extremely fortunate to have an “internal” graphic design team of passionate and capable individuals who share my enthusiasm for making games. So I never had to look for a graphic design contractors. The exceptionally professional Alina Marchewka
who just happens to be my sister in law does all of Altema Games design and video production. I wouldn’t be able to do this without her help.
Art is another thing entirely. My first project featured art from a friend who contributed to the project, however for Unbroken I wanted to solicit outside services. I went looking for artists using google and searching specifically Board Game Geek. It allowed me to come up with several options that I was very happy with. I then contacted the artists whose work I liked and laid out the project. This allowed me to select a small subset for a final selection. I gave each a description for a work from the game and asked to draw their take on it (for a nominal payment for their time). Then base on that I was able to pick the artist whose work was the best fit to the vision I had for the game.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of art in marketing the game so I think expenses on that are all justified if you’re serious about getting your game made.
5. What are the major dynamics that make your game unique? How did you brainstorm or come up with the original concepts behind those?
I think that this question is the first one that you have to answer as you are starting on a journey of making a game. What I am going to bring to the very crowded game market that’s not already there. Answering this requires a strong grasp of available options so I think a game designer absolutely must play a lot and be aware of current and past trends.
For Unbroken I wanted to hit a niche of a solo game purely dedicated to that experience that would not “settle” for the solo option but emphasize it with all its features. I also wanted it to be a very quick game so that it would ask for very little of the player (time, price, table space, # of players) but give a rewarding experience in return. I was only aware of a few games like that – Friday, Onirim and Hostage Negotiator. None of these scratched the fantasy itch (fantasy being my personal favourite theme) so I decided to pursue that experience.
Mechanically I also started from the concept of “micromanaging an adventurer as a system of resources” that I described above and pursued that. Initially I wanted to dive even deeper – having separate “stats” for every limb of the adventurer (e.g. wounds, armor, strength etc.) but that quickly got daunting – coming back to the willingness to cut that I described above.
6. How did you think about barrier of entry when you designed your game?
Unbroken is all about barriers to entry and shattering them. I thought about what usually prevents people from playing games and wanted to eliminate those. You will never lack players for a solo game. You don’t need to plan around for something that takes 20 minutes. You don’t need a huge table to get a card game out. A $25 purchase won’t send you hurtling towards bankruptcy.
I thought critically about factors that prevented me from playing some of the games in my own collection and looked at games that did get played regularly and learned from that.
Complexity and appeal to newer gamers is one I did not invest heavily into but that is not the market that I am after (those are unlikely to play a solo-only game). I was comfortable with making that concession and hope that the strong points described above will be enough.
For those who want to hit that “easy to get in to” target – it needs to be considered carefully in terms of rule complexity and ease of learning. If you succeed in making something truly approachable – it has to be really marketed as such but be wary to not make it sound too dumbed down for the veterans!
7.What is one piece of advice you would give to new game designers trying to get into this space?
Know what your end game is. Will you self-publish? Will you pitch? Do you even want to bother with all the stuff that’s involved in producing, marketing and selling games – or are you passionate about the design only? Know your strengths and weaknesses and play to these.
The same can be said about your game. Start with a mission statement – something that is distinct and unique from available options and pursue that. We are spoiled for options right now in the board game world and the ability to stand out is what will determine your success.
And most of all – make sure this is something that you really want to do. That way you’ll have fun doing it! Good luck!