Interview Jul 23, 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 Silas Molino. In his own words:

I am 32 and happily married to the most beautiful woman. We have four incredibly energetic kids. I live in Southern California and work for the County of San Bernardino. I have a Masters Degree in Political Science/National Security Studies from Cal State San Bernardino and received my Bachelors Degree in European History from the University of California Riverside. My favorite book is 1984 and my favorite movie is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have a natural talent for research and enjoy learning about the world around the people and governments that inhabit it.

Silas Molino - Far From Home

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

Silas: Far from Home is a two player symmetrical war game designed for ease of use and quick play. It pits two Capital Ships in space intent on destroying one another for survival.

It is a classic hex and counter war game but with a SCI-FI theme.

Both players acquire Energy Points (Action Points by another name) which are used to perform nine different actions during their turn, the most prominent being deploy, move, upgrade, attack, and repair. The game ends once a player’s Capital Ship is destroyed.

A turn consists of one player spending action points, performing actions, engaging in combat, and earning action points.

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

Silas: As far as innovation goes, it is surprisingly quick for being a hex and counter war game. It was designed to be quick and simple without losing some of the depth that makes war games so fun. I noticed a missing niche in war games: tactical sci-fi combat involving ships and plays in less than one hour. Often war games are bogged down with charts, modifiers, and complex rules with hundreds of counters covering the board; and anything less lost a lot of depth and thus replay value. Far from Home is quick and involves simple modifiers based on acquisition of technology and upgrades. The rule book makes sense and the rules are easy to grasp. Far from Home also only uses a handful of counters for both sides which make managing your fleet a breeze. The quick play time and the retention of depth of game play makes the game fun to replay over and over again.

One thing I love about the game is that the combat only involves one die, only one modifier is used for every attack, and every ship can only attack once per round. This makes combat resolution quick and easy to read.

Another thing I appreciate in the game is that the Capital Ship you are trying to protect is moveable. Your base from which your fleet is deploying can (and probably should) be moved throughout the game.

One final thing I wanted to add is that with the game I have written a short story that sets up the protagonist and antagonist of the game. With the story I am attempting to convey a sense of empathy between the players and the game. Call it a study in game design, but I was curious as to if a sentimental relationship could be made between player and board game that equaled the sentiments made between player and video game without going the route of creating an RPG.

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

Silas: I was perusing through some war games looking to buy something that would scratch an itch for quick competitive combat for two players. I wanted something that would play in less than one hour and was science fiction themed. I was able to find a print and play post card game akin to what I was looking for but it lacked the depth I was craving. All the other war games I found, while epic looking, had too long of a play time and were mainly focused on Non-Fictional warfare. And most Sci-Fi games close to what I was looking for were 4X in nature. I only wanted one X: extermination.

I thought to myself, why don’t I just make the game?  So I did.

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.

Silas: Oh goodness. This game started out as a Print and Play post card game. The pieces, map, tech tree and rules all fit on a post card! I did prototype it and played it several times, but the pieces and map were too small and the actions too few. It only had 3 ships to use and there were all pretty straightforward and boring.

I eventually expanded it to all fit (map, pieces, tech tree) to fit on a sheet of 8 ½ X 11 piece of paper with a rule sheet on another piece of paper. I believe that PNP version can be found on BGG. I added another ship which is only used as a support to the other ships which are designed to attack.

There was an interesting mechanic in which either Capital Ship could warp off the board and clear the map of all ships while taking a hit in its defense, basically starting from scratch. But during play testing it was rarely used, and when it was, it was frustrating to remove all the pieces and redeploy them again. It was like playing a brand new game every round. It just didn’t work. So I scraped it.

Finally, there are two mechanics in particular I am especially proud of, and special mention to my play test group belongs here. The retaliation mechanic and the shield mechanic both add some operational risk to combat.

I am a strong proponent for risk/reward as a core philosophy when developing rules to games. I want my players to feel tension when making a decision and to feel that huge payoff from making a calculated risk. It is also careful to not make the random payoff from too much risk the norm during game play as that will frustrate players, especially if they are losing. The end result is a game in which the player is forced to make carefully calculated risks which, when implemented successfully and is tactically superior to his opponents, will have the player feeling like he actually won the game on his own merit.

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

Silas: The most grueling part of the design process was creating, trashing, re-creating, designing/redesigning, and refining the technology tree. Each ship has its own technology tree (it’s actually a pyramid in the game and that plays a special role in upgrading weapons). The difficult part was finding a balance in the strength, accuracy, and special abilities of each ship. I wanted each ship and each upgrade to be worth the purchase price. I also wanted each weapon to be balanced and not too overpowering. A lot of play testing and rewriting went into making sure this aspect of the game worked.

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

Silas: The answer to that questions begins with when did I start getting into board games. About a year and a half ago I ditched PC gaming to spend more time with my wife and kids. But the competitiveness in me was itching and board games provided both satisfaction in competition and the social requirements of my family.

Not long after I started board gaming I started thinking of how these mechanics I became familiar with could apply to other themes. There are no games (that I could find) on the Syrian Revolution that encompasses the nuances and nature of the battle there. So I started designing one based on some Card Driven Games I have played and read about. There are no games about the English POWs who escaped a NAZI train in Italy and headed for the Vatican for Sanctuary. I thought of some great mechanics and started designing that also.

I Suppose I’m driven to design games because there are no games based on any of the themes I am creating with the mechanics I think would fit that theme.

I also really enjoy rule writing and that the problem solving that comes from making many different mechanics work together and fit a particular theme.

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

Silas: Having the publisher sit across the table from me after playing Far from Home and saying  “I love it”.

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

Silas: I am a full time employee with the County of San Bernardino. I have been married for nine years and have four children. Outside of board gaming and board game design, I write and produce music, reading Science Fiction and Western novels, and working out in the yard.

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

Silas: Yes! I believe I mentioned it before, but I am designing a games based on the film Scarlet and the Black. This is a true story of WWII English POW’s who escaped to the Vatican for sanctuary, and the Irish Catholic Priest who got them there. The mechanic is, in my opinion, a perfect fit for the theme. One player represents the Priest, and is tasked with moving POWs toward the Vatican before being caught by the other player, the Nazi general.

The biggest game  I am working on is based on the Syrian Revolution, the working title being Syrian Spring. It will be an abstract war game in the vein of 1812: The Invasion of Canada but more complex and a Card Driven Game; more complex because the Syrian Revolution has a lot of nuances and leadership issues I will be trying to capture in the game play.

The latest game I am actually play testing at the moment is Rolling Westward. It is a four player filler with custom dice that are used to build train tracks, towns, hire sheriffs and bandits, and explode opponents railroads.

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

Silas: My current playgroup is playing a series of Dominant Species. We just finished a yearlong series of A Game of Thrones the Board Game which we all loved. I could lose over and over in that game and never get tired of it.

My wife and I occasionally get together with friends and play Resistance, which is by far the favorite of the group.

When alone, my wife and I (and the seven year old) play Pandemic or Dominion, and in a long while will play Twilight Struggle. My favorite games have a lot of interaction with other players and a healthy amount of strategy that diminishes reliance on luck to win.

GDC: Tell us about a game you would like to design.

Silas: I want to design a game that fits the theme and feel of Homeworld for the PC. For those familiar with the game, imagine playing as the Kushan with the ship Hiigara against the Taiidan fleet, controlled by another player. Mining minerals would be important along with research and upgrading your fleet. Perhaps even having a mechanic illustrating the importance of formations would be neet.

I believe that my game Far from Home in a very minor way successfully grasps the feeling of space combat that Homeworld did. But the scale of space combat possible on the PC would be challenging to convey in the restrictive form of boards, cards, counters. But it’s a challenge I look forward to meeting head on.

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

Silas: My favorite game at the moment is Twilight Struggle. It is incredibly balanced and very immersive. I love the theme and the time period it covers. The mechanics work very well and more importantly, very well with each other. It is also educational: a social study on power and the struggle to maintain the status quo. The zero sum scoring mechanic is spot on in capturing the feeling of the cold war. The design is a shining of example of mechanics coupled perfectly with theme.

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

Silas: Play test your games. The feedback, information, and experience you gain from play testing is invaluable to the success of that game and the designer.

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

Silas: My wife Anne and my son Xander were integral in making sure my games worked for a larger audience. My Dad, close friends, and friends of theirs were also important in play testing and collaborating.

The communities at both the Board Game Design Forum and Board Game Geek were critical to getting me through drafting the rule book and understanding mechanics.

And finally the artist, Dustin Glauser, who did a great job with the box cover and Capital Ship design which really rounded out the ambiance and mood I was going for in the game.

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

Silas: The website for Far from Home can be found here:

On BGDF I am knows as silasmolino

On BGG I am known as blankvanish

I just recently joined the Board Game and Game Design forum on LinkedIn.

 GDC: Thanks Silas! I expect we will be seeing Far From Home and some of your other titles soon on store shelves :)

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