Interview Jul 9, 2013

Today is Designer Interview Tuesday! Every Tuesday we will interview a game designer – from amateurs working on their first game to published designers of multiple titles. Today’s designer is Grant Rodiek. Grant is the designer of Farmageddon his first published game (presently ranked 1980 on BGG). He blogs regularly on game design at HyperboleGames.com. Today, he speaks about his next two designs: Battle for York, a light wargame about to be published as a print-on-demand title, and Blockade a space combat game using capital ships made from blocks.

Grant Rodiek - Battle for York / Blockade

Game Designer Chronicles (GDC): Give us an overview of your games and how they are played.

Blockade

Blockade

Grant Rodiek: Blockade is a 2 player (or 2 team) game of tactical combat between space fleets. Each player controls a few squadrons, represented by 3 rectangular blocks, and a few fighter wings, represented by wooden cubes. Players maneuver and shift their squadrons into position to attack, all while re-arranging the position of the blocks (like Tetris) to use powerful lasers or protect weak sports. It’s a fun, tactile game that involves a unique octagonal board that resembles a spider web, a pile of simple custom dice with an easy-to-learn damage mechanic, and fun, decisive action cards.

Battle for York is an asymmetric, area-control war game that plays in an hour for 2-4 players. It features no dice. Instead, players carefully manage their hand of simple cards and limited actions to maneuver their units and fight battles advantageously using their unique, faction specific tactics and abilities. The game is lighter than most war games and, as it features no dice, is more driven by player decisions than luck.

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

Grant: For Blockade, it’s the combination of the block components and the gameplay that is derived from spatial manipulation.

For York, it’s the fact that it is a war game that plays with up to 4, in only an hour, with no player elimination, all driven by a simple card based mechanic.

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for your games.

Grant: When I began creating Blockade I was reading some excellent science fiction, most notably The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, the Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi, and the Dread Empire’s Fall series by Walter Jon Williams. I wanted to create a simpler game than my previous game, York, so I began thinking about ways to simplify and distill the experience. One night when pondering how I could use the 3 dimensions of space, I thought about how blocks are stacked in Jenga. That led me to think about arranging blocks to create formations and I ran with it.

When I created York I was dying to make a war game. I love the genre, but hate how the games are often so complex and so long to play. Many of them only work for 2 players and are based on player elimination (which is fine with 2 players). I challenged myself to create a game that played with up to 4, in an hour, and as a twist, featured no dice. I love the Napoleonic period of warfare and history so I used that as my primary inspiration and ran with it.

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

Grant: I spent over a year developing York, so I’ll focus on that game for this question. Blockade has seen about a dozen tests and has been sent to peers for blind testing, but it’s still young.

Battle for York

Battle for York

York had many problems to solve. I had to design a balanced map that worked with 4 players. Originally the map had objectives on the outside and obstacles in the center (like lakes). This led to players moving outwards and away from each other. Not great in a game about conflict! I inverted this such that there were no obstacles, objectives on the inside (with players beginning on the outside), and I gave players ways to move around the map quickly…for a price.

I needed to design a battle system that was flexible (for the four factions), easy to learn, and provided enough variance without the use of dice. Initially players only attacked. Then I added defensive abilities, but needed to reduce their cost. Then, of course, all of the battle abilities had to be tuned, balanced, and refined dozens of times after numerous playtests. This was very difficult.

I had to figure out how players take actions in the game. Originally players chose one action: move or attack. They decided this simultaneously then sequentially executed their move. This was awfully binary and boring. I created an action system where you could choose one of a few actions. Players would pick two, fight their battles, then play would pass to the next player. Unfortunately this overwhelmingly favored the first players to take their turns AND took too long. The pacing was awful. One of the game’s biggest moments was when I redesigned the rounds so that players took one action at a time, 3 total for the round. Then, after all actions were concluded, players fought their battles. I shaved about 30 minutes off the play time, improved the pacing exponentially, and strengthened the strategy and balance of the game.

A final mechanic I’ll mention is that I changed how turn order was decided so many times. I began the game where players would draw a chit numbered 1-20. The lower your number, the earlier you took your turn. There was supposed to be a deduction element. There wasn’t and it was bad. I introduced a simple mechanic where turn order shifted. However, it led to an overly predictable game and a boring play style. I created a system where players could purchase their turn order, but it was awfully cumbersome and still boring. Finally, I did the simplest thing — every round, turn order was determined randomly. I loved it! Some gamers shudder at this notion, but it works really well in York. For one, everyone only takes one action at a time, so it’s not too much of an advantage. Secondly, in a game without much randomness, it adds a great deal of much needed variance. Finally, you never fully feel secure in your position. Things might change and you need to make decisions (which are possible) accordingly.

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing your games?

Grant: I don’t think I’ve hit the “biggest challenge” for Blockade yet. I don’t think the game is perfect, but I’m awaiting additional feedback before I really know how to move forward with the design. It’s definitely been an issue figuring out how to present all the components really simply.

As for York, it’s the biggest, most complex game I’ve ever created. It was a significant challenge to massage all the mechanisms into a smooth, cohesive experience. Aside from a few failed prototypes, the biggest game I made previously was Farmageddon, so taking that next big step was a really big move for me as a designer. If nothing ever comes of York, at least I learned a great deal. I’m a better designer because of York.

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

Grant: I’ve always been into writing. Through writing in college I was able to get into game development in the video game industry. I’ve been a producer (and at times a designer) for almost 8 years now. About 3 or 4 years ago I decided to start working on my own creations outside of work. I needed to create something that was mine on my terms. Board games were a natural fit and I got busy. Now, years later, I rarely play video games outside of work. Most of my free time is spent designing games.

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

Grant: When Phil told me Farmageddon had all but sold out of its first print run I was pretty elated. It hasn’t even been on the market a year and we’ve sold just about 2700 copies (our first printing). I honestly thought Farmageddon would sell, at best, 200 copies on Kickstarter and maybe a few hundred afterwards. The fact that it sold over 1500 copies on Kickstarter, then continued to sell afterwards, is a great feeling. Awards and good reviews are awesome. But, the best thing is knowing that other people are recommending your games to friends who buy their own copy.

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

Grant: I’m 29 years old. I live in San Francisco with my girlfriend Beth and corgi Peaches. We spend a great deal of our time trying new restaurants in San Francisco or driving around wine country in Napa. As I noted above I am a professional video game developer for my day job. One of my favorite things to do is read history and great fiction. Both are huge inspirations for me and infinitely fascinating. I also spend a great deal of time running, though it doesn’t seem to do me much good.

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

Grant: I’m teaching a class about card game design on Skillshare at the beginning of August. I’m working to design a simple game to use as a demonstration for that class. Ideally it won’t be terrible so I can do more with it! I feel it’s premature to discuss the game, but it’s a card game (with some minor tracking tokens), uses a popular mechanic, and a tried and true theme.

I’m also trying to design a game using the inspiration of a helix or genetic molecule. I had this idea that I could take circular punchboard tokens with straight cuts in the sides. Players will collect these tokens (somehow), then twist them and slide them together. This will form a really cool, three dimensional collection of genes. I’ve gone through a few iterations that I must sadly throw out. I’m going back to basics with this one.

Otherwise, my focus is on preparing Blockade for pitching at GenCon. York is more or less ready, I’m just awaiting my copy of the game from <a href=”Print and Play Productions.

GDC: Share with us about the Prototype Penpal Program – what is it? who is it for? how does it work?

Grant: I create the Prototype PenPal Program to give board game designers easy access to blind testing. I recruited a network of approximately 50 designers from around the United States (plus 2 in Canada and 1 in Hong Kong). The gist is that you submit a built prototype to someone in the network (I provide the addresses). They play your game, provide feedback, then pass it along to the next person. It’s like Netflix for board game testing?

I think it has worked relatively well so far. I try to take a laid back approach and keep it simple for folks. We’ll see how it grows and develops over time.

GDC: Take a minute to tell us about Skillshare and your game design class.

Grant: Skillshare is a really cool website where creative people can teach classes via pre-recorded videos about very specific topics. I’m teaching a class on card game design that goes live August 5. In the class I’ll cover the basics of card game design, brainstorming, and putting your mechanics together into something cohesive, playable, and fun. It’s a bit of an experiment for me.

You can read more about the class on my blog. If you’re interested, use this link to go to the page. When you check out, use the discount code “D20SIDED” to save 50% on the cost.

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

Grant: My favorite game lately is Ginkgopolis. It is a beautiful game that features drafting and city building that plays with up to 5 players in only an hour. It is a very good design that is incredibly inspirational for me. I highly recommend it. The pacing is superb as it uses a drafting mechanic. On your turn you pick one of 3 actions, but the actions can have a variety of tactical and strategic consequences. The game also features some area control mechanics, so it’s quite interactive in a fun, non-aggressive way. My group really loves it.

I also played Libertalia for the first time the other day. I very much look forward to future plays. It’s again a very creative, quick playing game in which players pick one of their handful of cards. The order in which the cards execute and their ability matters a great deal. As you learn the cards, and know what your opponents have, the amount of options really opens up. Libertalia is a great example of packing a LOT of game into a small amount of time.

As for dislike, I was disappointed by Quarantine. The game moves really slowly and never seems to get going. Choices often seem obvious and I rarely feel like I do anything fantastic on my turns. I gave it two plays and it fell flat both times. I also played Terra Mystica, which most people love, and was just overwhelmed by it. The game has too much going on and a few mechanics that just didn’t seem necessary. Granted, I don’t really enjoy games of this heft typically. There were some parts of Terra Mystica I really loved. It’d be great if someone made a smaller game out of just those aspects!

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

Grant: Ascending Empires will always have a special place in my heart. For one, I love it and think it’s delightful. However, it’s VERY similar to the first board game I designed. However, unlike Ascending Empires, my game was boring, broken, tedious, and not interesting. When I played Ascending Empires I thought “ah ha! They made my game much much better.”

I also wish I designed Dixit. The game is brilliant and beautiful and creative and so inventive. It’s simple and pure and full of imagination. I really want to create a party game of some sort.

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

Grant: Work hard. Take it seriously. Create the games you want to play and be passionate about everything you do.

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

Grant: Three of my fellow designers in particular: Chevee Dodd, Matt Worden, and AJ Porfirio. These three guys are great friends and really supportive. I’m really looking forward to seeing them again at GenCon. Also, my friend Cole Medeiros who lives here in SF with me. He just joined the online board game community, even though he’s been at this longer than I have. Folks should check him out on twitter at @TheGubsGuy.

I also want to thank the publisher of Farmageddon, 5th Street Games, for generally being great.

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

Grant: I’m on Twitter daily via @HerrohGrant. Say hi! I blog regularly on my site at HyperboleGames.com. I’ll be at GenCon in August with Blockade and York to share.

GDC: Thanks Grant! Grant recently posted gameplay videos on youtube for York and Blockade. Please watch to get a more in depth look at both of these great games!

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