Interview Sep 17, 2013

For today’s interview we have one of the most industrious game designers around. Daniel is constantly developing new interesting ideas for games on his blog. His game Belle of the Ball is on Kickstarter now from Dice Hate Me games.

GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.

Daniel: The players are each hosting their own parties which have been scheduled on the same night. They compete for to invite the fancy guests to their party, each with a unique set of interests. The Belle of the Ball plays a big part, as she can help make your party more enjoyable or act out mischief on an opponent’s party. Players score points by grouping guests with similar interests and by clever use of Belle cards. The player with the most points wins!

GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?

Daniel: Belle of the Ball is what I call a “line drafting” game. This is a game in which there is a continuing line of cards from which you draft one on your turn, under certain conditions. Two notable examples would be Guillotine and faction-selecting in Small World. Belle of the Ball focuses on that single mechanic to make a fast and strategic game for the whole family.

And if you’re not interested in the whole mechanical thing, the game also has dozens of uniquely illustrated guests with ridiculous fancy names like Lady Pantspantspants Patchpaw, Lord Capable Canklerack, and FFFFFFFF Flippinbird. It’s strongly advised that you announce these names when you invite the guest. Naturally, using in your best hoity-toity accent.

You’ll laugh *and* think, which I always love to see in a game.

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.

Daniel: This game was originally inspired by the “Shindig” episode of Firefly. I loved the fancy costumes and I’m always looking for fresh themes for board games. I loved the idea of a fancy schmancy party continuing regardless of food poisoning, demanding guests, and underhanded bribes. The party must go on!

GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.

Daniel: Well, I usually come up with a mechanic first, then I’ll figure out what theme would go with that mechanic. Once I find a good match, I’ll use the theme to create secondary and supporting mechanics. So it’s not quite like a Euro game where theme is tacked on to an otherwise abstract game, and it’s not like an American game where theme comes first and all mechanics are designed to simulate at theme. I sort of design in a “mid-Atlantic” style, with a core mechanic first, then wrap that in a theme, then let the theme suggest secondary systems.

Belle was a little different in that I had a theme first, which made the design process pretty difficult. I struggled to design the mechanics that would accurately reflect “snobs & slobs” humor I was going for, but still have a solid tactical focus with meaningful decisions in play.

At first, I designed a tile-laying game, where the board represented a ballroom and each tile was a dancer on the floor. That designed ended up a dead end. I let the idea rest for about two years before I had a chat with Chris Kirkman about two years ago. Over lunch, I asked his advice on which of my dormant themes I should pursue for my first published card game. He really felt strongly about Belle, so I took his advice to heart.

In January of 2012, I started redesigning Belle as a card game. That was “Prototype A.” Over hundreds of playtests in the following year, I’d eventually end up at UnPub 2013 with “Prototype O,” which was pretty dang polished. After a few more tweaks, I unofficially debuted the game in its final structure at PAX East, where I got a lot of really positive feedback. It was done! Finally!

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?

Daniel: Designing to a theme, for sure. Designing to a theme is too nebulous to me, I need a more firm goalpost to aim towards when I design a game. I really prefer starting with a mechanic, finding the right metaphor, then seeing what the two can do together.

GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?

Daniel: You might say I started when I was playing chess with my stepdad as a kid. I could never beat him, so instead I’d just make up new chess pieces with weird movements.

Later in college, I discovered Pente, which really bit me with the game design bug. I loved how elegant that game was, yet it still had a lot of really interesting emergent decisions to make throughout the game. Then I found Carcassonne and that’s when it was all over for me. Yep, couldn’t stop designing after that.

I got into the *business* of game design through my other career as a graphic designer. I did lots of book layouts for indie RPGs and made some very good friends. Very wise, experienced friends. I asked their advice as I pursued my own game design ventures. Eventually I teamed up with Evil Hat Productjons to Kickstart a storytelling game called Happy Birthday Robot way back in 2010, then another called Do: Pilgrims of the Fying Temple in 2011, well before the big wave of board games came along.

GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?

Daniel: I think my proudest moment so far has come from inner-city teachers who have played Happy Birthday Robot with their students to teach writing. Having grown up in the city myself, it was nice to think that little game might have some positive impact in their learning.

GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?

Daniel: Well, I am an art director by day, as my bio says. My day job used to be in the ad business. For eight years I was at the same ad agency, where I learned the ins and outs of design for the retail market. I also picked up a bit of public relations, marketing, analytics, basically all the stuff that would be useful for running a Kickstarter campaign or three.

This year, I decided to resign so I could focus more on game design full time, supported by freelance jobs. Again, still in the game business. Now I’m the art director for the Firefly RPG, plus doing rulebook layout for several other card games and board games.

GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?

Daniel: Too many! You can follow all my ongoing ideas at danielsolis.com. The big ones I’m testing right now is Monsoon Market, a card drafting game with the twist that each hand of cards still belongs to the originating player, regardless of where it is in the rotation. I’ve also submitted Train Town to a Korean board game contest and I just learned that it’s a finalist. Woot! I just sold a Princess Bride bluffing game to GameSalute and I’m working on an espionage-themed game for a mystery publisher.

GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?

Daniel: I’ve recently played Gravwell by Corey Young. It’s a space-themed racing game on a linear track, escaping the gravity well of a black hole. Players draft hands of cards in turns, play one simultaneously, then resolve in the order indicated by the cards. The effects of the cards are generally to move your ship x spaces toward the nearest object. If you’re in the back of the pack, that means you’ll probably move forward. But if you’re in the lead, you end up slingshotting backwards while your nearest opponent pushes forward. It’s such an elegant, fun mechanic. I love games built around one system like that.

GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?

Daniel: Probably Carcassonne. It’s one of the first euro games I ever purchased, completely blind, and I loved it from the first play. My buddies at my former job would play at lunch. My wife and I play the iOS app all the time now. I think I just have an affinity for emergent complexity and spatial recognition. There are very simple actions but their consequences web ever-outward in unexpected ways. I love spotting sneaky inroads into an opponent’s farm or using probability to make certain cities difficult to complete.

GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?

Daniel: Playtest!

GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)

Daniel: I definitely want to thank my wife for putting up with my endless playtests and prototypes over the years. Also many thanks to the artists Liz Radtke and Mori McLamb who did early art for the prototypes. Thanks to all the playtesters over the years, who are too numerous to count. And of course thanks to Chris Kirkman at Dice Hate Me Games for guiding the development from the start. A special mention should go out to Jacqui Davis, who is the artist of the published version of the game. She really brought these silly characters to life.

GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).

Twitter @danielsolis
BGG: gobi
Web: danielsolis.com

I’ll also be at volunteering at SPX in September and moderating panes at Escapist Expo in October.

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