I have an interview for you today with Liz Spain, the designer of Incredible Expeditions – a steampunk themed where players lead airship expeditions to fantastic places. Incredible Expeditions is on Kickstarter for five more days (as of the time of this post) and you can pick up a copy of the game at a $50 pledge level.
GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.
Liz: In Incredible Expeditions, you lead an expedition to find the Drowned City of Atlantis, which, mysteriously, is trapped in the ice of Antarctica. You’ll hire Crew aboard your fantastically steampunk exploration vessel and gather Resources for your ship. To get to Atlantis, you venture forth to discover uncharted Locations and use Heroism and Skullduggery to face the terrible and wondrous Encounters there.
Incredible Expeditions combines deckbuilding, resource management and exploration in a race against the other players or in a cooperative struggle to reach the far corners of the earth.
GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?
Liz: There’s a number of deckbuilding games out there, but they tend to play like multi-player solitaire and your end-goal is just to build a victory-point engine. Incredible Expeditions takes the mechanic of deckbuilding, but adds a rich, theme-driven goal and a lot more player freedom. With Crew cards that are always at your disposal and the freedom to choose which Resource cards stay in your hand at the end of each turn, the result is a game that is much more strategic.
It’s also not a “safe” game. You don’t just sit back and take on the monsters you know you’re prepared to face. The world of Incredible Expeditions will do its best to tear your carefully-constructed expedition to pieces. You’ll get blindsided by encounters, you discover too late, you’re entirely unprepared for. It’s up to you and the strength of your planning to persevere.
GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.
Liz: I wanted to a way to put the aesthetics of steampunk, the themes of discovery and ingenuity, and all the amazing stories that get told into a box. Something almost anyone could pick up and play. With all the creativity at my disposal in the steampunk community, we could make a beautiful game, but it also needed a strong core of dynamic strategy to drive the story.
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.
Liz: This game literally started as a fever dream. A little over a year ago I caught the flu and finally had enough time to write down all the card ideas that had been in my head for god-knows-how-long. The first version of the game –the Alpha- was typed out in word tables from my original notebook scrawlings to make the first cards. To my surprise, this game actually “worked” the first time. The basic mechanics worked together well and my husband and I were able to complete a couple games. It worked, but it wasn’t fun enough yet.
After a lot of revisions to balance, ninja-curve modeling and turn order to tighten up pacing, I created some basic card layouts to playtest the Beta version with friends. The Beta of the game went through about 6 major revisions in all before we decided we had the rules hammered down.
We’re now in the “Playtest” version of the game, which we’re starting to send out to blind playtest groups all over the country. At this point, we’re hunting down wording on cards that need clarity, making teeny balance adjustments and making sure the rulebook is easy to understand and use.
GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?
Liz: Staying confident. When you’re working so hard on a game for months, it’s easy to get your head stuck so far into it that you can’t remember why. But that’s when I’ll stop to play my game just for fun, or watch strangers having a fantastic time playtesting it for the first time. That’s my motivation.
GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?
Liz: I’ve been designing Lovecraftian and steampunk live-action role-playing games for years; I contributed a lot to developing the Rise of Aester game (that’s me on the back of the book) and I’ve run my games for hundreds of people at Gen Con. After moving to Seattle, Flying Frog Productions (makers of Last Night on Earth) hired me to make costumes for them and playtest. Watching them go through the design process is really amazing; Jason C. Hill is a really creative guy and seeing how he creates mechanics for a board game to evoke an aesthetic experience is what helped me see “the matrix.”
Mechanics in-and-of-themselves can be rewarding (see Euro games) and so can storytelling, but using one to create the other makes a game that seeps into your bones, makes you feel like you’re living out the adventure. Steampunk is a lot more than clockwork and sepia tones, and I needed to create a game that embodies its ideals.
GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?
Liz: If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have said it was watching people playtest it for the first time and have tons of fun. Now, I’d say it’s having my game project up on Kickstarter and seeing strangers from all over the world putting their faith (and money) in supporting getting it printed. Ask me again when the game is on store shelves next spring.
GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?
Liz: Before becoming a game designer/publisher, I ran my own business designing and selling steampunk clothing. I still do a bit of freelance costuming and clothing design for friends in Seattle working on things like short films and calendar photoshoots. At the Seattle Humane Society animal shelter, I volunteer as a Dog Behavior trainer, helping troubled dogs learn to work with humans so they can be adopted. My own dog and I also volunteer as a Therapy team, visiting nursing homes, schools and hospitals (my dog is very soft and people love to pet him).
I’m also an avid snowboarder, a moderately good yo-yoer, a passable stilt-walker, a novice mushroom-hunter and a terrible gardener (I keep trying, but the backyard chickens aren’t helping). If you win at life by being an interesting person, collecting hobbies is a great way to build up victory points.
GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?
Liz: The next game I want to do is a small card game (about 100 cards). Simple and fun with great artwork and a low price point. Not everyone can afford $50-$60 hobby board games, but a lot of great game design can be packed into a small card game. My husband and I actually have several ideas that we’re starting to develop. We’ll decide which to publish after casting them out into the wild and seeing what sticks.
GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?
Liz: I’ve been trying to pick up more indie games and games from Eastern Europe lately. Sometimes the big names feel like more of the same and I’ve been trying to find inspiration outside the mainstream. Pret-a-porter is a worker-placement game that I really like –I’m normally ambivalent when it comes to cube-pushing (though I’m sure I’m less skeptical than most about its theme). There’s no runaway leader problem, the competition is fierce and every mechanic is thematically spot-on.
GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?
Liz: Gloom uses what seems like a gimmicky game component (transparent plastic cards) in a really clever way. Not only is the card-stacking mechanic interesting, but the game encourages absurd and morbid storytelling. Plus, I’m a sucker for Edward Gorey-style art.
GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?
GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)
Liz: I’d like to thank all the backers of the project on Kickstarter, and especially everyone working hard to get the word out. I’d also like to give a shout-out to all the artists, makers and generally creative people who’ve contributed to Incredible Expeditions. It takes a village, and with about 2 dozen contributors so far, this is turning out to be one heck of a fat, shiny baby.
GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).
Liz: You can check out Incredible Expeditions on Facebook. My BGG username is voodoobunny (old nickname, long story). And my husband and I will be at Gen Con and PAX with prototypes of the game to play.
GDC: Thank you so much Liz! Be sure to check out Incredible Expeditions on Kickstarter!