'Small Ocean, Big Wave' interview
I was lucky enough this week to be interviewed by Paul Bedford for his great blog series 'Small Ocean, Big Wave'. Paul is a designer and blogger based in Australia and he's started interviewing as-yet-unpublished designers to find out more about what they do and how they do it. Paul's blog is published on BoardGameGeek here - do check it out and subscribe to his content, it's always a great read as he interviews a new designer each week.
Here's how to find out more about what Paul is up to:
BGG:Paul Bedford (@DesignerOnaMap)
Board game (Hunted By A God):
And here's what he (and I) published this week:
Ian Walton and I are in a race... the first to a nervous breakdown wins!
You see, we are both dads, work full time, design games and while I run these interviews, he writes a blog. May the best man collapse!
Before either of us keels over, I thought it best to get the interview done. Ian has many interesting things to say (his blog is certainly worth a read), he is set to launch a Kickstarter in early November (so give him a follow), and he is (virtually) attending Spiel.digital (https://spiel.digital/en). Please put your hands together (until you need one to scroll down, that is) for Ian Walton!
What was your favourite card game growing up? Do you think it influenced your taste in the games you play now… or even the design of Ukiyo (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/316085/ukiyo) or Take the Kingdom (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/232656/take-kingdom) ?
Well I was much more into Fighting Fantasy and D&D growing up, they just seemed so much more absorbing than the mainstream games that were always advertised on TV. But I think I was probably in my twenties before I came across any kind of ‘custom’ card games. What I love about card games is that you can play them anywhere, and I’ve long felt that we need more quality games that you can just pull out of your pocket when you’ve got a spare 20 minutes while you’re waiting for the train, waiting for the pizza to arrive, or whatever.
Pitch us! Why would we open our hearts (and wallets) for Ukiyo and Take the Kingdom?
Okay, here goes – Ukiyo is a puzzly card game that can be played solo or multiplayer. It’s about building a unique tableau of Japanese symbols, to achieve the goal on the last card in your hand, and trying to achieve your goal while working out what your opponents might be trying to achieve. Each player has a different set of goals but everyone’s working from the same tableau of cards and symbols. It’s quick, portable and really easy to learn – but with almost infinite card combinations, it’s different every time you play.
Take The Kingdom is a medieval-themed card game in which you build and defend your Fortress and Kingdom, while attacking the kingdoms around you with siege weapons and trying to influence your fate and everyone else’s. The last kingdom standing is the winner – it’s a relatively light battle game that’s great for families and ‘gateway’ gamers.
And they’re both very reasonably priced, so you hardly need to open the wallet at all…
What kind of playtesting did you do for both games? Did the pandemic hinder their progress with regards to game design, playtesting or release/Kickstarting?
I feel bad saying it, but I’ve probably managed to get more done as a result of the change in working - I’ve been working from home more so the commute’s gone, and obviously the social life’s gone too, so in spite of the homeschooling and everything else, I’ve been able to get more design time in. Plus, the family are constantly under my feet so I can easily rope them into playtesting.
The helpful thing about Ukiyo being small and solo-playable was that I could get in hundreds of tests before starting blind playtesting, so it was quite well developed before it ever left my house – but of course, real playtesters still immediately found things that could be improved, which is the whole point.
What was a main weakness in both games that arose during playtesting? How did you overcome them?
Well in general, my own biggest weakness when it comes to playtesting is feeling defensive when people tell me something’s wrong. I know you have to put yourself out there, listen and learn, and try not to cry over Discord as that’s really bad form. I think with Ukiyo, some people struggled to get their heads around a game that only takes a couple of minutes to play – the idea is that you play multiple rounds, but I think those used to heavier games thought there should be more to it. Both these games are firmly and deliberately at the light end of the scale.
For TTK, the initial problem was working out who it was for – when I was first working on the game, I thought it was a heavier, more ‘serious’ game than it actually was. The more people played it, the more it was apparent that this was really for families, or as a game night filler in between bigger games.
Ukiyo’s artwork is beautiful. Finding the perfect artist can be difficult. How did you come across yours?
So the credit for the Ukiyo artwork goes to Janette Ramos at Imaginaires, who I found via these very forums – Janette has posted some of her wonderful work in the Board Game Art & Graphic Design group. I really liked the look of what she’d done and I approached her off the back of that.
Working with illustrators might just be my favourite part of game design, as it’s the bit where your ideas really come to life. You have to take a bit of a chance, because you never quite know how someone else will interpret the brief you give them, but every time I’ve worked with an illustrator, I’ve been blown away by what they’ve come up with. I think the key is to be clear about what you want (and don’t want), but try and leave them as much room as possible to show off their skills and express themselves. I’m always amazed at how a good artist can seem to reach inside your head and produce what you were imagining, even when you’ve not been able to explain it very well!
What is it that you tried to make different from similar games already published? Were you at all deterred from creating your game by the presence of others of a similar theme?
It’s funny you ask about the theme – a couple of weeks ago I was almost completely derailed when I saw the wonderful game Philosophia: Floating World on Kickstarter (Ukiyo means Floating World). It’s a far more sophisticated and advanced game than mine, and in gameplay terms there are no similarities at all, but presentationally there was a similar style, and they’d even used the same font as me for the word ‘Ukiyo’. I reached out to the designers, Joe and Maddie Adams, and explained that I was planning to release Ukiyo and what it was, and they were lovely about it. Our games are completely different and, honestly, theirs is just a thing of beauty.
I don’t think the presence of other games with a similar theme should ever be a show-stopper, as long as you’re clear what’s different about yours. In the case of both these games, the themes (Japanese art and medieval siege) will be familiar to regular gamers, but I’m aiming for something that’s much more instantly accessible and suitable for a gateway gamer. Basically, if the grandparents are reaching for Ukiyo and TTK at Christmas instead of Monopoly and Articulate, I’ll be happy!
Ultimately, if you’ve been influenced by other games then give credit where it’s due, but I think we’re lucky to be in an industry that’s much more collaborative than litigious. I love how you can get in touch with just about any game designer, publisher or artist, even the ‘stars’, and actually get a useful, helpful reply. Can you imagine that happening in the music or film industries?
In the past you ran an unsuccessful Kickstarter, but are now gearing up to run not one but two more over the next year or so. They say failure is a great teacher (which I can attest to), so what have you learnt to give your games a better chance this time around?
I think one of the great things about crowdfunding is that you can learn by doing, and if you fail, it won’t cost you your house. But it still hurts to fail, and it’s a huge amount of work, especially if you feel like you’re back where you started. But with hindsight, in the six years I’ve been designing games, I don’t think anything I’ve done has been wasted – I’ve learnt from every mistake, and even if you shelve a game altogether it’s still there if you want to come back to it in future with a fresh pair of eyes. Quite a few of my earlier games have provided ‘spare parts’ for later games, where I’ve able to make better use of a theme, a mechanic or a ruleset.
Kickstarter itself has moved on a lot in the last few years - everyone knows you have to bring a crowd to a crowdfund, and great art is essential now in a way it wouldn’t always have been a few years ago. But I think the elephant in the room on first-time Kickstarter campaigns is – is your game actually good enough? I’ve been able to take a much more critical look at not just that failed game but everything I do, and there’s always something else you can improve. Which is why it’s so important to take your time and not rush to an arbitrary deadline. First time out, I rushed a game that still had plenty of room for improvement and it bombed. And everyone says it, but you can never have too many playtests!
You have been good enough to blog about the missteps you made during your KS so maybe we can avoid them. Having read them, I can assure prospective Kickstarters that they are worth their time. Things such as this reinforce my belief that interviewing unpublished designers is vital:
How important is theme in your designs? Does it take precedence over gameplay, or did you strive for balance?
It depends on the game, but I think in general it’s the theme that’s going to capture your imagination, particularly in a more complex game. You can appreciate gameplay and interesting mechanics, but if you want people to go to sleep at night with a head full of your game, the theme and art are really important. Some of the big narrative-driven games like Tainted Grail and 7th Continent have got this in spades – they’re creating a world, not a game.
This is even more the case with kids – mine don’t care if they’re card drafting, tableau-building, area controlling or whatever, they want to battle a kingdom, conquer a planet, climb a mountain or escape the dungeon! And the games they keep coming back to are the ones where they can immerse themselves. For my kids, that means Pandemic and Pokemon will grab them much more effectively than, say, Quirkle or Azul (great games though they are). Having said all that, a simpler game doesn’t need a deep theme, it just needs to be fun.
I see you have a TTS (TableTop Simulator) (https://tinyurl.com/yxop6fv3) version of Ukiyo as well as a free print and play (https://tinyurl.com/y55zv3ax). How has that helped with both the design and promotion of your game?
It’s been a bit of a life-saver, to be honest. Playing in person is the best thing, but I think for the next year virtual platforms are the only realistic way to get playtesting done (or playing games at all for that matter), and it means you can get some virtual games going whenever suits your schedule. Plus it’s quicker and cheaper than getting prototypes printed, which seems to take longer and longer.
I found getting games onto TTS to be a really steep learning curve; It was really interesting reading Dave Beck’s interview and seeing that he has skills in 3D modelling and video game design – that will have been a huge help in getting virtual models set up. I’ve not got that background so I found it hard, but it’s worth persevering – once you’ve done it, it’s up there for anyone in the world to play and that’s a fantastic opportunity for any designer. But I’m definitely looking forward to getting back around a real table with real people, whenever that turns out to be.
Why board game design? Why not RPG’s? Video games?
Yep, I like all of those. In the past I was super-addicted to strategic video games like Championship Manager and Civilization, proper life-stealers where you sit down for a quick round and then realise it’s seven in the morning and your legs have seized up. Although I just don’t have the time for those any more. I’ve dabbled with writing and I loved creating content for RPGs when I was younger.
But in terms of designing, I think board game design just felt accessible, and I love playing games so it’s nice to give it a go myself. My first proper idea was a board game, and the ideas seem to keep on coming. It makes no sense that cardboard and plastic should be more engaging than a totally immersive virtual world on screen, but generally I’d rather get a board game out than fire up the console. Plus I wouldn’t know where to start with designing a video game, although I’m completely in awe of those that can.
I had a read of several entries on your blog (https://www.walnutgames.co.uk/). Really insightful and useful info on there; it certainly deserves more eyes on it. How long have you been blogging? In what ways has it helped with game design, building a community etc?
Thanks. I’ve only been blogging regularly for a few months, but I do find it quite therapeutic to put thoughts down on paper/screen, and it’s helpful to read back over your own journey and lessons you’ve learned sometimes, because you can easily make the same mistake twice as time passes and you forget, or your perspective changes. I also feel a bit of an obligation to write my experiences down if I’ve made mistakes (or even if I’m just a bit rubbish at something). I’d feel really bad if someone made a huge error that I’d made already, because I hadn’t made my catalogue of errors available for all to laugh and point at...
I’m not sure how much it’s helped in community-building, and it might be too early to say, but I’ll carry on posting observations whenever I think there’s something worth saying. There’s certainly enough blog giants out there that have got thousands hanging off their words.
I’m nearly 50, work full time in a physical job, have two maniac children under 7, running these interviews and am trying to design a huge "dudes on a map" game. What I'm getting at is, Ian... I'm not getting enough time to drink beer and play video games. In return for interviewing you, will you please finish the design and run the Kickstarter for my game?
Well maybe – depends if it’s any good! But you can definitely have all the free consultancy you can eat, based on my limited experience so far. As it happens I can tick most of those boxes myself (apart from running the interviews) – life is super-busy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s great to be busy and better that than bored. And personally, if I’m doing stuff I like, I don’t mind being tired. There comes a point where the kids actually help – not so much with the beer drinking (mine are all about single malt), but my kids are definitely interested in game design and they love testing my creations and coming up with their own.
I think it’s worth remembering that very few game designers are doing this for a living – far more are juggling jobs and lives and are taking a hobby they love and hoping to make it into something more. But pretty much everything in the boardgame industry is learnable – and for the things you don’t have the time or inclination to learn, there’s hundreds of highly skilled people you can collaborate with that do have those skills.
And this is where collaboration becomes so important – I see hundreds of people trying to design games and then trying to do everything that goes with it, but I see far fewer people who can do all the KS campaign stuff, the marketing, the crowd-building and all that, and who are just looking for designers to collaborate with. There are certainly companies who will do that for a pile of cash, but I don’t see so many examples of the collaborative, skilled hobbyist when it comes to running crowdfunding. And if that’s you, o reader, I think you may find hundreds of potential willing partners within this community just waiting to work with you.
But do stick with it, Paul – this is a great thing you’re doing and I already look forward to seeing your weekly interviews. Plus you can sleep when you’re dead.
Thanks, mate! Will do. Happy to do my part in getting eyes on works by up-and coming-designers such as yourself.