Written by Jay Little | Layout by John Kimmel
In addition to my freelance game design, I also teach game design at UW-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Back in January, I had the opportunity to teach a brand new class I had pitched to the curriculum committee – Board Game Production & Processes. It was an intense, three week course that was a hybrid between traditional methods and a mock studio experience.
We met 8 AM to 5 PM every day. After a morning of lecture, assigned reading, and research, we spent the rest of the day working in a design studio / prototyping lab. Students were assigned roles in different departments and that part of class worked on projects in an environment trying to model an actual small size publisher in the tabletop industry.
One of the key projects was to fully develop a game from start to finish over the course of these three weeks. While other students were charged with marketing, production, distribution, and other tasks, I tasked two of the students with the game design itself.
Lucas Zerby was a senior in the video game design and development program who had a lot of experience with hobby games and was a regular gamer. Dylan Shepherd was an incoming freshman who hadn't declared a major yet, and was a video gamer who didn't have much experience with tabletop gaming. Lucas was able to tackle design leveraging his personal gaming knowledge and preferences along with four years of study in the game design program, while Dylan offered fresh perspectives and creativity that wasn't influenced or limited by existing games or what may have previously been done.
Given the time available, I set some constraints and guidelines for the game:
- It had to accommodate 2-4 Players
- Have a play time of 30-40 minutes (a "lunch time" game)
- Feature "two phases" of gameplay that offered different types of strategy
- Use a relatively small "footprint" in terms of size and components
They had a few other games to use for comparison and reference, butI left it up to them to figure out what "two phases" of gameplay meant. That first week, the class worked out a project proposal, outlined a production schedule, and developed a budget. Then design began in earnest.
The game went through a lot of iteration and prototyping along the way, from dry erase markers and whiteboards to cardboard cutouts and sticky notes. The game was playtested by the entire class over the course of its development, and the core concepts and mechanics started to come together. I steered certain decisions, offered feedback, and gave approvals along the way.
The original theme tossed around was using life and the afterlife as the two phases of the game, but then they focused on the idea of creation and destruction, which offered a lot of interesting interpretations. Eventually, they settled on building a city that got destroyed. One signature feature of the game was a set of stacked districts that formed a triangle, suggesting a pyramid or a mountain... and mountain lead to volcano. Which lead them to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius.
We were getting close to the end of our three weeks as Lucas and Dylan went through one last flurry of playtests and development to refine mechanics and devise a scoring system. What they had at the end was really impressive, especially given the timeframe.
It was still rough around the edges, but I saw something special about the game and felt that with additional work and development, it could definitely be a viable strategy game for the tabletop market. So with their approval, I stepped in to use my industry resources and experience to continue the game's design and development.
We created a paper prototype drawn on posterboard using bits scavenged from other games. I codified the rules and scoring. And I took it to a local Protospiel event. Even in a fairly rough, unbalanced state, players really liked it. And wanted to play again.
Based on that Protospiel feedback, I redesigned the mechanics and revamped the scoring system. I also created a better prototype, printing everything out on my own printer. I took a color version with improved layout and components to a convention in Denver – and people loved it. When I got back, I spent a week with inDesign to create a professional looking prototype with packaging and custom components using TheGameCrafter.com. And I took took that prototype with me wherever I went.
In May, I took it to Geekway to the West, a convention I founded in St. Louis twelve years earlier. It's grown into a huge four day gathering of gamers from across the country, and I was able to get a ton of plays in. The game was a hit and I decided it was time to start looking for a publisher.
Well, as it happened, on the last day of the Geekway, while vendors were taking down their booths and everything was wrapping up, I saw a few guys hanging out at a table laughing and drinking coffee. I asked if I could join them, and after a while chatting, I asked if they had 30 minutes to spare to show them this game designed by me and some of my students.
I had no idea when I sat down, but that's how I met Jesse Bergman and John Kimmel from Punch-It Entertainment. They enjoyed the game. We talked about it for a while. And then they asked if they could take that prototype back with them to show the rest of the crew.
I never had to go look for a publisher – I had just found one by sitting down at a random table to hang out with some random strangers!