This month’s featured designer is Brian Suhre, an upcoming game author with an innovative new time-travel game!
“Balance is for fairness, not fun. I want to see if [a game] is fun first, then start working on the balance.” – Brian Suhre
Bellwether Games: We played your (Title Pending) game about time travel at Milwaukee Protospiel in September and can honestly say it was a blast! Could you talk a little bit about what inspired this game and what your next step is in the process?
Brian Suhre: I am glad you enjoyed the game. We have been internally calling the game Paradox. Paradox is one part space/time travel, one part emergency response and one part Candy Crush. Deep space and time travel have become a reality, and with it, mistakes were made. New universes and worlds have been discovered, each with their own unique resources and technologies.
Competition was fierce among teams of scientists, who had hoped to make a name for themselves. The race for resources, wealth and prestige erupted a massive time quake, fracturing the connections between time and space. Scientists must now repair and protect these connections in order to maintain a path towards existence.
The core of the game is something I’ve been working on for almost five years. I was laid up and fresh out of surgery, so I figured what better time than now to start working on a new game. At the time I had little to no mobility and spent most of my time playing video games. Puzzle Quest was a match 3 game where matching three or more like colors would trigger affects to defeat AI opponents. It had managed to add depth to a match 3 game by mixing roleplaying with a strategy puzzle game.
I wanted to make a match 3 game as epic as Puzzle Quest that you could play at the dinner table instead of the computer. I had struggled to think how it could be done without some “behind the curtain” algorithm controlling the game. I grabbed my poker chips and did some gorrilla math in order to balance the distribution between the five colors. I threw some chips into a bag and started with a 8×8 grid of randomly drawn chips in the center of the table.
Each player has 3 actions to exchange any two orthogonal chips. Once the player had matched 3 like colors, he would collect and score the chips and new chips would be drawn from the bag to refill the board. Playtesting revealed the shared 8×8 grid was making for some odd back and forth exchanges among players. Also, there wasn’t much pre planning as the board was always changing before your turn. I then decided that each player should have their own 5×5 grid, that way they could plan out their board and strategize between turns.
I was also working on a new way to allow players to exchange with chips anywhere on their board instead of just orthogonally. I had a huge stock of fluorescent Avery stickers, green, orange, yellow and pink. I again used some gorrilla math and evenly distributed these stickers on all the poker chips. The new mechanic allowed players to exchange/swap two chips anywhere within their grid as long as they shared the same inner sticker color. You are still trying to match the outer poker chip colors, but you are limited on what you can move depending on the inner stickers. This change really improved the tactics and overall gameplay.
Another year of testing and balancing led to reducing the stickers to just three colors, and requiring either a match of 4 or 5 to collect resources. For example, a match 4 in blue earns you one blue resource, while a match 5 will earn you two blue resources. Resources are spent on cards that require either one, two or three resources of a specific color to be completed. Once I had this core mechanic of making matches to earn resources to score cards, I was able to start shaping the game into something of an adventure.
The core of the game is based on set collection. You’re trying to collect sets of world cards in order to score points. There is also a deeper layer of set collection using the fifteen resource icons that are disturbed among all of the world cards. Currently the game was all about gobbling up points and the only interaction or threat to ones game was during the drafting phase.
Earlier this year I had read this article about loss aversion. It got me working on ways to drive players into making decisions based on losing points as well as gaining them. This is where I added the time quake mechanic. There are 15 time quake tokens randomly distributed in a line or a circle on the table. Each time quake token is associated with one of the 15 worlds in the game. Each token has a stabilized and a fractured side. When any player completes a world card in the game they must move the time quake marker the number of spaces indicated on the card. If the time quake marker lands on a stabilized token, it is flipped to the fractured side.
During the game players can spend resources to flip fractured worlds back over to their stabilized side. They may also spend resources to place a cube on a stabilized world in order to protect it. When the marker lands on a world token that has a cube, the cube is removed instead of flipping the token. During end game scoring, any worlds that are fractured will not score points. The more technology icons a player collects, the more worlds he must protect in order to score big at the end of the game.
Before time quakes, players were never emotionally attached to their score piles. Now you can really feel the pressure as the game comes to a close as players scramble to save what means most to them.
Our next step is blind playtesting. We are currently assembling playtest kits which should be ready by January 2014.
Bellwether Games: A quick look at your blog will show a couple other games you’re working on. Anything you would like to highlight?
Brian Suhre: I have been working on a few smaller games. I haven’t decided what i’ll do with them yet. My most recent games are Zero Day, Crimson Xpress and Point Pleasant.
In Zero Day, the same day security vulnerabilities are discovered, hackers try to exploit them before any fixes or patches can be developed. This is called… A Zero Day attack. Player’s will be hacking large corporations in order to obtain trade secrets, credentials, passwords and credit/debit card numbers. They will have to effectively disable or bypass developer patches and countermeasures.
It’s a 2 player area control game where players will be trying to complete countermeasures in the center of the table in order to set up a way to bypass and directly attack corporation cards. The winner of the countermeasure card earns the points for end game, while the loser can add one of the tool cards from the supply directly into his hand. Each player starts with a 12 card deck consisting of 4 types of tools. It’s a quick 20 minute game with plenty of tactical decisions.
Crimson Xpress: Murder Party was my attempt at a micro game, just 24 cards. A mysterious man named Mr. X has given you free tickets to ride his luxury train. Little did you know it was a trap. All passengers are required to track down and murder another passenger. If you refuse, Mr. X will throw you from the train.
Each player is trying to murder his quarry (the player to his left) and defend himself against his own hunter (the player to his right). Players are trying to guess which train car their quarry will be in for the round, while at the same time, setting traps to kill their own hunter.
Each player is dealt 5 cards and after examining them, they pass them to the left. Players now have the knowledge of where their quarry is heading, having already seen the cards they hold. Players also know that their hunter knows where they might be going. Each player plays 1 card a turn and play continues for 4 rounds. The game ends when a player has 10 points or after 12 rounds.
Each kill earns you points to move up the leaderboard. You can also earn additional points for using Mr. X’s weapon of choice for the round. But be careful, Mr. X doesn’t like sloppy kills, you must try and murder with style or you will be punished.
Point Pleasant is the game I’m currently working on. Each player is part of a neighborhood watch program, where they compete for the coveted “Village of the Year” award.
Bellwether Games: All of your games sound interesting and unique! How important to you is a unique theme to your game design process?:
Brian Suhre: I tend to focus more on unique gameplay or mechanics during the design process. Frequently used themes can still feel fresh to me as long as it fits into the types of games I like to play. Everybody is different when making decisions on whether to buy or play a game . Some are attracted by the box cover and others will immediately flip the box over. If I worry too much about who will or won’t like my theme during the early stages of design, that’s when the doublethink begins and my progress tends to suffer.
Themes tend to change and evolve, just as gameplay does when playtesting. I like to think I’m playtesting the theme just as much as the mechanics. You need to get feedback on your theme and expect to make changes. Paradox started off as a mining game and from there it progressed into a superhero game before settling into a space/time travel theme. With each theme change I made, new mechanics evolved. Paradox wouldn’t be the game it was today without each of those theme changes.
Bellwether Games: How have you gone about prototyping, playtesting and promoting your game designs?
Brian Suhre: I like to think I’ve up’d my prototyping skills over the past few years. I tend to start prototyping very early in the design process. I’m also a sucker for a pretty prototype. I know all the pitfalls for going to pretty early, but there is something to that process of jumping into Photoshop or Indesign that helps me discover new ideas.
I’m very blessed to have a large group of gamers who have been willing to help out when I need some crucial playtests. In the early stages of a game I like to test within my close friends who tend to appreciate the design process and can surf with any new rule changes made on the fly.
Promoting? Whats that? This is a skill I’m working on. I’ve been designing games for 7 years and I just started bringing my games out of the basement and putting them in front of players this year. For me, promoting has been one of the hardest facets of game design. There is so much to learn from reading other game designers blogs and tweets, and because of this I’ve slowly been learning the steps to promoting myself.
Bellwether Games: You’ve made a great step toward promoting yourself by agreeing to be interviewed. Thanks for giving us the opportunity! Do you have any guiding game design principles? What are they?
Brian Suhre: My first thought was, nope. After thinking about it for awhile, I realized that maybe I do have a few. I tend to tell myself, not to get too mathy in the early stages of game design. I’ll use some quick guerrilla math to get the game prototyped and tested before melting my brain over spreadsheets.
“A game needs to provide hope or give the feeling that something different is going to happen if they keep playing.”
I tend to think balance is for fairness, not fun. I want to see if its fun first, then start working on the balance. Sometimes I can find that balance through iteration and save myself some time.
Another thing I tend to do is, scrap it! If something just isn’t working, I’ll scrap it, put it in a box and hopefully label it with a detailed description. If I dwell too long on a problem, I tend to lose momentum. I noticed if I scrap it and try something completely new, somewhere in that process I tend to find something that keeps me pushing on.
Bellwether Games: You gave a very interesting thought about balance versus fun. Are there any unbalanced games on the market that you like to play? What makes a fun game to you? Is balance a close second to fun in terms of importance?
Brian Suhre: I definitely don’t think a game has to be balanced to be fun. It’s the asymmetry that drives decisions and sparks emotions during game play. A game still needs to be fair or give the illusion of fairness. Ascending Empires is a mashup of dexterity and empire building in space where players start the game on equal ground, but that all begins to change once they make decisions and deploy strategies. The game is perceived to be unbalanced when playing against players that are better at dexterity games and certain tech tree’s or strategies are arguably stronger than others. With all that being said, I will never turn down a game of Ascending Empires.
What makes a game fun to me? That’s a tough question; each game can trigger something different in a player. In order for a game to be fun for anyone it must continuously challenge them and keep them engaged from start to finish. You could really enjoy train games, but what’s fun about knowing you lost on turn two of a 90 minute train game? I think a game needs to provide hope or give the feeling that something different is going to happen if they keep playing.
It seems to just get muddy when I start thinking about balance, fun and fairness. Early in the design process I tend to think about symmetry/asymmetry for the structure of the game. I have no idea if it’s fun until I begin testing it. After that I shift my gears towards making the game fun and fair. Players aren’t defining games on whether they are symmetrical/asymmetrical. I might just be double talking myself into a loop, but all three elements are different and at the same time, tied to together.
“People around me tend to say they aren’t creative enough to design games, and I tell them, ‘It’s just another skill that can be learned.'”
Bellwether Games: In your opinion, what is the most important skill for a game designer to have? Do you have this skill?
Brian Suhre: Persistence! Persistence! Persistence! A designer must persevere through many roadblocks and obstacles such as design failures, creativity blocks and negative feedback. Persistence for me also applies to learning the craft. People around me tend to say they aren’t creative enough to design games, and I tell them “It’s just another skill that can be learned.” When I first started designing games I had so many “I have no idea what I’m doing” moments that I would get frustrated and my creativity would come to a halt. That is when I started scrapping ideas or projects that forced me to take long breaks.
I’m always working on something to keeping my mind moving. For me, persistence converts into experience. I’m not learning anything new if I’m on a break pouting about something not working. I won’t lie; I’ve had many aha moments during breaks, but I like to think that “aha” moments come from all the work I had previously put in and not from sitting around doing nothing.
Bellwether Games: Is there anyone who has been a big inspiration or help to you in your game design endeavors?
Brian Suhre: The game design community as a whole has been the biggest help and inspiration for me. There’s an endless stream of information out there to learn and grow from. It’s weird, I tend to think, “who would want to read about my game designs?” but really it’s been the other game designers blogs and updates that tend to recharge my creative battery so that I can keep on working.
My local gaming group Atomic Squash has been a huge help with the growth of Paradox this past year. So a big thanks to them!
Bellwether Games: Why do you design games?
Brian Suhre: My wife asks me that same question everyday. When I first started playing board games, every game felt different, each game introduced a new mechanic or gameplay. Soon everything started to feel the same. I wanted to design something different again. I was no longer entertained by the pipe and monocle euro games I once loved. My taste for board games shifted from heavy euros to more light/medium weight games that didn’t leave me so drained afterwards. If I play a two hour game, I don’t want it to feel like a two hour game.
So, in the beginning I wanted to create something different and I still do, but now I’m motivated by people playing and enjoying the games I have made.
Bellwether Games: How important to you is the game design community (online and inperson)? Where have you found the most support for your endeavors?
Brian Suhre: It was crucial in my early stages of game design. I had joined the Board Game Designers Forum in 07 I believe and it was like a manual to game design. Everything just snowballed from there.
We all want to be able learn more about the things that interest us, and now more than ever you can read article after article from other designers who share their experiences and wisdom.
Bellwether Games: Anything else you would like to highlight about your projects? Any other links/pictures you would like to share?
Brian Suhre: Paradox has been moving along nicely and I’m very excited that it’s now in the hands of the publisher. Feedback has been positive and I can’t wait to see what happens in 2014.
Congratulations! We look forward to seeing Paradox on Kickstarter and other Brian Suhre games in the future!
Want to hear about future featured designers? Sign up for our monthly newsletter: http://bellwethergames.com/the-bell-newsletter/