Making a game of it
Board game design a fun activity that pays poorly
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 06:00 am
The puck drops. Dick Tansey wins the faceoff and skates down the ice.
He’s weaving, dodging and passing. He’s past the blue line. He’s in the slot! He shoots! Does he score!?
He will if he rolls a four.
Tansey is demonstrating Play 2-in-1 Hockey – a board game he designed and is now selling in St. Albert.
If he rolls something besides a four, the other player gets to roll two dice to determine what happens to the saved shot. The goalie could retain possession, put out a rebound that’s retrieved by his own team or release a rebound back to the shooting team.
“(The shooter) can get maybe two or three cracks at it before he loses it,” Tansey says.
His game is meant to capture the fun and excitement of real hockey, says Tansey, who also chairs Seniors United Now in St. Albert. You’ve got faceoffs, passes, breakaways, penalties, overtime and shootouts – all reproduced using dice and a hex-based grid.
It doesn’t simulate fights directly, but you might get one if one player tries to run out the clock deciding his or her next move, he jokes – the game is played in real time.
After working on it for about 20 years, Tansey says he decided to market his game last winter.
He doesn’t know if it will sell, and isn’t worried that it won’t.
“It’s been fun creating it, and it’s been fun talking about it,” he says.
Roll for initiative
Tansey joins a select few Canadians that have discovered the magic of tabletop gaming and decided to create some of it themselves. (Insiders use the term “tabletop game” rather than “board game” because some games don’t have a board.)
Games designers Rob Bartel and Mike Kollross meet at Roberta Taylor’s home in Edmonton one sunny afternoon for a game day. They’ve got potato chips, cookies and drinks, plus a prototype game about garbage collection to play test.
They take their jobs very seriously.
“This guy wants to drive this truck,” Taylor says on her turn, as she places a worker token atop the driver’s seat of a cardboard garbage truck. “But he doesn’t know the city so he’s going to go in the back.”
She moves him accordingly, and makes “beep, beep, beep” sounds as the truck rolls out.
Kollross draws a card on his turn, only to discover it (and the next five) have accidentally been left blank.
“Who designed this game?” he says, in mock disgust. (Answer: he did.)
Bartel, Taylor and Kollross are all members of the Game Artisans of Canada – a group that aims to help game designers make better games.
All three played classic games such as Risk in their youth, only to be reintroduced to gaming as adults through modern games such as Settlers of Catan and gaming websites like Boardgamegeek.com.
“When you build a board game, you’re creating from nothing a world people can explore and enjoy,” Kollross says, explaining the appeal of game design.
It’s great for tinkerers, Taylor adds, as there are many aspects to consider, including rules, themes, artwork, economies, playing pieces and player psychology.
Bartel, Taylor and Kollross have collectively designed and published about 10 games, including Octopus’ Garden (Taylor), Two by Two (Bartel) and Godzilla: Stomp! (Kollross).
Store owner John Engel has most of these for sale at St. Albert’s Mission: Fun & Games, in addition to about 4,000 other titles – a fraction of the growing mountain of tabletop games now on the market.
“It’s safe to estimate that there are about four to six new title releases every week in North America,” Engel says.
There are twice that many if you include expansion sets.
It’s a massive change from when he opened his store in the 1990s, when the games market was much smaller.
Most games in the 1970s and 1980s were roll-and-move types – you roll, move, and do what it says on the game space, the gamers say. These games required little skill, offered few options to the player, were usually winner-take-all and were targeted at kids.
That all changed when the German game market took off in the 1990s, Bartel says.
Led by the smash hit Settlers of Catan, these games emphasized strategy over luck, co-operation over conflict, and history and whimsy over sci-fi or horror. They also featured beautiful boards and playing pieces that could catch a customer’s eye.
Most importantly of all, they were short, simple to learn, and open to all ages – games that could appeal to both casual and serious gamers, Bartel says.
These European games took off in North America and triggered a burst of innovation, Engel says.
Today’s gamers can find games that are co-operative, team-based, free-for-all and everything in between, with themes ranging from the serious (Twilight Imperium) to the silly (Unexploded Cow). Some are over in seconds (We Didn’t Play Test This At All), while others might last for weeks (Descent: Journeys in the Dark).
“There are so many more games out there that it’s so much easier to find a game that does push your buttons,” Engel says.
Making the game
Game creation starts with an idea, Bartel says. You might start with a theme, an interesting mechanic, or a cool playing piece, and you build your game around it.
Tansey used to play hockey and says he was inspired to try and make a hockey game when he saw a soccer-themed card game during a trip to England. The card concept didn’t work, but he eventually hit on a grid-and-dice system that did.
Kollross used to work for the City of Fort Saskatchewan and was inspired to make a sheep-herding game to promote the city’s famous lawn-mowing sheep. The publishing company loved the game but hated the sheep and wanted to adapt it to fit one of its licensed products.
“The only one that really fit was Godzilla,” Kollross says.
So the sheep became buildings, the shepherd became Godzilla, and the game became Godzilla: Stomp! – a game in which players play giant Japanese movie monsters and compete to destroy a city (presumably Tokyo).
Once you’ve got your idea, you create a prototype and start play testing.
“What we’ve learned from other designers is to get it to prototype fast,” Kollross says, as many flaws aren’t apparent until you actually play a game.
Since you’ll often throw out whole elements of a game at this stage, prototypes are often intentionally ugly. Kollross’s garbage-truck game is made out of cardboard and graphics from Microsoft Excel, for example. Taylor knew of one prototype from a famous designer that was done in crayon on the back of a placemat.
“At this stage, it’s really about finding the fun,” Bartel says of play testing.
Testers want to find the fun bits (if they exist), refine them and ditch the rest. They also want to find any systemic flaws that make the game unwinnable or frustrating – some designers simulate whole games on spreadsheets to do this.
Play testing continues, often for months, until you run out of reasons to change things, Bartel says. At that point, you’re ready to publish – either on your own or through a big company.
It can take years to develop a finished game, Taylor says, and even longer to get one published. Expect to get about as many rejection letters from publishers as you have submissions.
Taylor says the crowd-funding site Kickstarter has helped some designers get published more easily. It doesn’t guarantee success, though, as you need a lot of work to build the necessary fan base for your product.
It’s very tough to make a lot of money designing tabletop games, Kollross says. There are maybe six people in the world that make a living off it.
But you don’t necessarily need a bestseller to be a success, Taylor says. She felt Octopus’ Garden succeeded after she saw a YouTube video about a six-year-old giving it a glowing review.
“Someone out there saw my vision and appreciated it.”
Human interaction is a quintessential part of our existence, Engel says. Games give us a chance to have a common experience and share a few laughs.
Tansey laments that families do not socialize much together anymore, but says games can bring them back together for some fun.
“It’s more than a board game. It’s a social experience.”