Thursday, August 03, 2017

Ask a Developer (Joshua Buergel, part two)

What is your design process? What would you consider the foundation of your process?
Is "haphazard" a process? All of my designs have started with some central idea that I wanted to explore. Foresight began from the notion of "what if a deck of cards also had information on the back?". Hocus was "could you make Poker work with spells?" Fox in the Forest, somewhat strangely, started with "can I make a modern take on Cribbage?" It wandered very far from that starting point, having basically no Cribbage left in it at this point, but that's where I started.

From that origin, I spend a lot of time thinking. Most tabletop designers will tell you that they try and get something to the table quickly, to try and test and iterate fast. I mostly do not do that. Instead, I spend a long time just considering the system in my head. Where will be the key decision points? Where's the central tension? What's the objective that players are going to pursuing? I don't really concern myself too much with genre, or by sticking to particular mechanisms. What I'm seeking is the ability to think through what a game might look like, and what kinds of decisions players are making. The specific details are fuzzy, but I'll scribble a lot in a notebook in this stage. I'm trying to just sketch what the game might look like in progress. At some point, the game kind of works in my head. It's at that point that I'll put together a prototype.

For a prototype, it depends on the complexity of the design. But I'll usually whack up some cards in InDesign, print them on paper, cut them out and stick them in card sleeves, usually with a Magic card. That makes a perfectly shuffleable deck of cards. For tokens, printing on 110 lb card stock works fine for prototype purposes. Boards, I'll usually just hand draw for a first cut. After I've got it assembled, I'll play it solo. Just set up the game, and play each position. Am I seeing interesting decisions? Or is everything obvious? Does it work at all? You can't really judge fun this way, that ephemeral quality that's difficult to predict ahead of time. But you can judge mechanical soundness. Specifically, while you can't be sure if a game is good at this stage, you can sure tell if it's bad. At this point, either I'll have a bunch of small changes, or I'll have to go back to the drawing board.

I'll keep in this cycle, of thinking deeply and drawing, then solo testing a prototype, until I have something that feels non-trivial. It's at that point that I start torturing my friends. They've been playing tabletop games with me for more than 20 years (some much longer!), so I trust them to let me know if the game has some legs or if it's a woofer. Again, a cycle of iteration ensues, where I take the notes from the last playtest, make adjustments, and try again. Eventually, the game either needs to go back in the shop for major retooling (restarting the cycle), or it gets to the point where I can take it to strangers. I'll then troll my social networks for testers who are willing to have a look, and send them prototypes to try out.

The truth of blind testing is that most testers don't help you. Most of them, you'll never hear from again. Of the remaining, the majority will play it once, and therefore you're getting pretty shallow feedback. A small minority, then, play the game more than once, and can give you deeper insights. But what I'm looking for in blind testing is pretty simple: did the players have fun playing the game? And were they capable of learning it on their own? Hoping that blind playtesters will be able to spot major design flaws is foolish, you should be treating them mostly as a confirmation that your design work is sound.

After blind testing, if things have worked out, I'm close to being done. I can tinker and tune forever, and at this stage, I've got to decide what I'm going to do with the game. That gets into publishing, which I'm not sure is really the focus of this series, so that's good enough for now.

How do you handle design paralysis? What do you do to move forward?
As someone with three kids and a full-time job, keeping momentum is a real challenge. I really only get to spend concentrated design time in the evenings, when the kids are in bed, and sometimes I'm pretty worn out. By far the biggest thing is to just make at least one chip in the design every night if possible. Change the wording on a card, scribble a diagram, take an edit pass at the rules, whatever it is. As long as you're still moving forward, even if you need a time lapse camera to spot it, you're doing great. I'm not really in a position where I can crunch on a design and make big leaps forward. I have to be happy with making slow progress. The advantage of that approach is that I do spend tons of time just thinking about my games - during lunch breaks, during boring meets, during my bus ride into work. That thinking can't really be accelerated, and by putting in all that thought, hopefully it's helped me to make some polished, unique games.

How has the game changed during playtesting? How long did the playtest last?
This game has been in progress since February of 2014. It started as a companion piece to Hocus, and while we decided not to proceed in that direction, I kept chipping away at the design. I did blog about some of the changes (, but briefly, it started out as "Cribbage with spells". I tested variations on that concept, and it wasn't going anywhere, so I retreated into my design bunker (my basement). After a lot of thought, and inspired by games like Écarté and Piquet, decided to strip a bunch of cards from the deck and focus on a trick-taking game instead of a riff on Cribbage. That version proved to have legs, especially as I added some special abilities to the cards to liven things up. From there, the key challenge was to figure out ways to stop one player from gaining control of the game and just throttling their opponent. After adding some tools to the deck for the player who is off-lead to combat that, the game was feeling good. At this point, the game had a draft phase, where players who won tricks also got to select a card to add to their hand. The cards also had goals on them to modify scoring.

At this point, I reached out to Randy Hoyt of Foxtrot Games, knowing that he enjoyed classic games and thinking he might be open to looking at it. I sent him a prototype, and it didn't take him long to decide that he wanted to publish the game. Working with him and his team, we made a number of changes to the game to make it more accessible while still keeping the heart of the game. We dumped the draft phase as being more fiddly than it was worth. We dumped the goals from the cards for largely the same reason, replacing it instead with the scoring system in the published game which adds a ton of great tension. At that point, the blind testers were enthusiastic, and I was still having a great time playing it. It was ready to ship.

How did you handle the process of getting your game to market?
For this game, I wanted to work with an established publisher for a few reasons. The first is to help increase my profile in the hobby. Future publishing efforts of mine will go easier if I have more of a track record. It will also be easier to work with other publishers if I've already had a successful design with another publisher. The second reason is that I knew that Randy, as a lover of these types of games and having a similar history with them, would be able to help me make the best version of the game. Having a great developer on your side makes such a tremendous difference to the final product. With Hocus, working with Grant Rodiek, we could perform that function for each other. On Fox in the Forest, Randy and I were on the same page, and were able to really get to a great final place.

After signing the game with Randy, he took care of all the nitty-gritty details of publishing. Tracking down an illustrator and graphic designer, wrangling layout files, dealing with pre-press and everything else, that was all him. I've been through that stuff before on my own, and it was nice letting somebody else drive the bus on this project.

How do you handle marketing? How much time have you devoted to marketing versus design/development time (in hours, if you know)?
This is another tremendous advantage to working with an established publisher. It's actually another step beyond that, because they're working with a publisher called Renegade Game Studios. Having those publishers on my side means that they're handling marketing for me on this project, which is amazing. For Hocus, we had to do the marketing ourselves. We reached out to reviewers, tried to line up interviews, talked about the game on social media, and purchased advertising on hobby sites. In the end, we're not sure how much those avenues really moved the needle. In tabletop, as with any other type of games, it's hard to gain attention in a crowded marketplace. I wish I had tremendous advice on this front, but I do not. I can say that if you're independent, Kickstarter itself is a tremendous marketing platform, and the 5% we paid to them (plus 5% for credit card fees) is easily the best marketing money we ever spent on Hocus.

What is the release date of your game and the price? Where can people buy it?
It released everywhere on July 19th with an MSRP of $15. Renegade has strong distribution, so it should be available in basically any tabletop hobby shop. It's also available online through the big online retailers, like Cool Stuff Inc., Miniature Market, Amazon, and others.

What is your next project?
I've got several designs in various stages. A game I'm calling Killing Monsters and Taking Their Stuff is probably the furthest along. It's been about four years in development or so, and I think I've finally gotten a system that will be worth showing to other people. There are various other games in a conceptual stage, including a dice game on the French Revolution, which I'm excited to really dive into shortly. Beyond those, there are an assortment of games that have hit the tabletop in prototype form and gone back into the garage. It's never entirely clear when I'll have a breakthrough on anything, so it's hard to say what the next game that will come out will be.

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