Well, Circus fans, I’m still fighting the good fight here, attempting in some small way to expose the great unwashed masses (which is a particularly appropriate statement given my GenCon experiences) to new, interesting people that are behind the scenes in the gaming world. Call it my personal contribution to gaming journalism.
Anyhow, today’s interview is with someone that you may not have heard of, but someone that deserves recognition. David is an incredibly talented graphic artist and game designer who has worked with companies such as Grindhouse Games, Stronghold Games, and White Goblin Games on games such as the prolific ‘Incursion’, the recently reprinted and updated ‘Survive!’, and the soon to be released horrorfest, ‘Dark Darker Darkest’. So, while he may not be a common name, yet, I feel that based on the body of his work, he sure as hell should be.
Based out of Belgium, he’s been in the industry for a great many years, but until I ran into him at Fortress: Ameritrash, I didn’t know who he was or what he was about. Now that I do, I’m happy to call him a friend and help you, my readers, get to know the guy. That, my friends, is what Conversation With A Gaming Innovator is about: bringing you face-to-face with people who you really need to know about.
Without further delay, let’s get to the interview!
SFC: Hey David, welcome to the Circus! First of all, I went to your website, and I was thoroughly impressed with your art…it is, in a word, outstanding. When did you start doing graphic design and how did you get into the field?
DA: Thanks. Glad to enter the Circus for a brief visit.
Well, after I graduated as a painter at the Royal Art academy in Antwerp, the same art school were Van Gogh once attended classes before cutting off his ear, I started working as a junior graphic designer at a company involved in website production. My boss simply told me I had to learn all the tools for graphic design in a month time in order to stand a chance of becoming a member of the team, so I worked day and night to get a grip on any software package that a respectable designer should know how to use.
I worked in the business for 6 years, before I called it quits. I just simply couldn’t bear to do another campaign for soft drinks or worse, online banking. At a family gathering one of the uncles brought a copy of ‘Risk’. Yes, I know…the devil for most respectable board gamers, but still…I was hooked and at that point my passion for hobby gaming started.
As a kid I had spent many hours creating my own board games; basic variations on roll & move stuff souped up with my obsession for everything macabre, yes…I was a strange kid way back then. This renewed discovery of board games also soon rekindled my interest in designing my own stuff. I was finally able to use all my gathered knowledge of graphic design for something I was truly passionate about. It was great to experiment with the form/function aspect of board game design. Learning how to design iconography that was crystal clear, how you optimally use the space of a board…all the basics a good graphic designer needs in the world of hobby gaming.
I think it was good to have started doing graphic design in a commercial context. After all, it is important to see a board game as a commercial product, despite its obscure nature. For me it is important when I do graphics I communicate both the theme and functions of the game in a way that is understandable for a wide variety of people, both hardcore hobby gamers and casual gamers, without losing character along the way. It’s all about balance. I find it a challenge to even make a niche-product about gritty zombie survival look polished and accessible, despite the graphical nature of the subject.
Furthermore I think my experience as a painter also comes in handy, because painting is above all creating mood, and I find it interesting to give all my board game graphics a painterly quality. For example, look at the cover for Rogue Agent. It has a lot of painterly aspects worked into it. I work these days on a digital painting tablet, and it is absolutely a joy. It feels like actually paining and I can achieve detailed stuff in a reasonable amount of time. These days, graphic designers are spoiled. My father, once a graphic designer himself, had to do everything by hand without any way to correct his mistakes. It was a once-chance-to-succeed situation.
No you add layer upon layer, and with a simple click you can correct ot remove an element that doesn’t work/look good enough. It feels almost like playing around for fun. But of course, it’s better to keep such a thought for myself. Some people in the graphic design business will want to scalp me for saying this, or at least ban me to Canada.
SFC: Ha! I doubt you’ll get banned; there are a lot of companies that could use a guy like you. Before I move onto Rogue Agent, which looks absolutely outstanding, let me ask about Stained Steel. I looked at the graphics on your site and they’re bloody brilliant. I mean, that’s one of the coolest looking games I’ve ever seen, at least in the Sci-Fi genre. It’s awesome. Can you tell me about that?
DA: Well, this might be my most ambitious project yet. It’s my take on an epic empire building game with all the bells & whistles and then some. The idea for this game came when I got this idea for an innovative action selection system that uses rotating discs that interlock to each other, creating an ever-changing turn system that renders a dynamic game world were a sudden sandstorm could completely mutate a safe action you did a turn before, now transformed in a dangerous endeavor. It perfectly simulates the uncertain aspects of resurrecting an empire in difficult circumstances.
But I wanted to do more than that. While I liked FFG’s Starcraft, I was missing things in the system that I so much hoped to find: the actual feeling of building your own home base with unique structures. In Stained Steel players actually build a home base from the ground up, and have to dig for resources on mining sites to be able to erect even more sophisticated buildings. The game also creates challenges that await you on every corner, like mutants roaming the surroundings, forcing you to create defense against outside threats. When the game enters the third age (the game has 3 ages with its own specifics) you are able to recruit soldiers to invade the base of your enemies and orchestrate planetary conflict.
In all honesty, I had to take a break from this project, because it was extremely exhausting. I started designing Rogue Agent as a form of design therapy to clear my head so at a later point I could approach Stained Steel fresh and with renewed objectiveness. I think it’s far too easy to develop a blind spot for a design.
But I will eventually return to this project, and I promise it will be breathtaking. It will be everything you can dream off in an empire building/dudes on a map game.
It has several boards: each player has a personal board were he develops his home base, which is almost a game in itself since every placement of a building matters, and there are mining sites in the center of the table were you move diggers in order to gain valuable material. There is also a black market with fluctuating resource prices were you can buy and sell resources. You can even stock resources in your depot in order to influence the market.
Actually, I think it really combines a lot of elements that could easily stand as a game on its own, but when interlocked creates this involving mix of epic scaled building and manipulating that gives you a true feeling of progression. And in the final turns you could see it all turn into ruins, when your enemies stomp all over your hard work!
Where the graphics are concerned, I worked together with a professional 3D model expert. I am no expert at 3D modeling and he did wonders in converting my sketches into 3D version. At a later stage I worked on them further, adding details and light-effects and a gritty look. It was a fantastic experience, and I am confident people will like the end result, which has so much rich detail and therefore creates a believable game world. And I definitely have a weak spot for that “withered” look. SF is often so sterile in look. In order to make things look real you have to simulate what things would look like when they are used. Stained steel is about rough terrain, so all aspects of the game must look rusty and somewhat decayed in a subtle way.
SFC: That does sound ambitious! I’d love to see it picked up by someone because from the sound of it, it could be a huge success. I love the dark, decaying look of the art, and now that you’ve explained the game, it sounds amazing. Now let me move onto another project I noticed on your site. What is Rogue Agent? It looks beautiful, with a dark, “Blade Runner” quality to the art, theme and overall feel of it. What’s the story with that?
DA: Rogue Agent started with the idea of working with icon-driven dice manipulation mechanics. Another idea I had was creating a game system that simulated a “living city”. Characters moving around, things happening…a dynamic game world instead of the static city often depicted in adventure games. Somehow I started combining both ideas, with a modular board were each location allowed players to control a specific combination of thematic dice. Soon the game however developed into so much more. When you start playtesting you immediately feel if there is more potential present or not. Sometimes you decide to keep the game small, sometimes it grows into something bigger and that is what happened with Rogue Agent?
One of the aspects that jumped more into the foreground during development was the hidden traitor aspect. Just before working on RA I had designed Panic Station, a game all about intense paranoia (due for an Essen release this year by White Goblin Games). I wanted to extend on this idea of unknown identity and the cyberpunk setting of Rogue Agent seemed a perfect marriage. In Rogue Agent you play a bounty hunter, working for a shady government run company called “The Agency” that tries to control the crime rate in Rain city, a futuristic world of neon and gloom. There are rumors that a group of androids is going to start a revolt and you must find out the true identity of your fellow agents, because one or more of them might be androids who will ignite the revolt. Furthermore, without knowing it, you might be an android too.
So basically, the game starts with players trying to gain power in the city by hunting after crime bosses who gradually get more value bounty-wise when the game progresses, confront assassins who roam the streets and neutralizing bombs placed by the crime networks that threaten to blow up districts. Players can also create a network of helpers in locations that protect them and help you gather information. You can even visit the Gambling hall to put money in the slot machines or rob the city bank.
While the game progresses, players will gradually gather more identity cues that can be revealed by others or in true Blade Runner fashion by self-explored. When the endgame triggers a race against the clock starts were one or more androids are up against the human agents, trying to reach enough power to win the game. They will try to destroy several locations in the city holding the android memory banks, while the human players will do anything to stop them.
I’m currently doing some last refinements to the system. I like the fact it always creates a lively experience at the table, creating some storytelling with people getting into character. One of the first sessions I playtested the system was with a group of RPG buffs and it was great to see how they completely jumped into the game world. Right from the start that proved to me this system had potential to be more than just an optimization exercise.
Currently I am developing an optional module that can be added to the basic game, consisting of a small deck of character cards. These are basically tormented Agent bios, with a thematically connected special ability for each of them and a personal mission to score extra power in the game. It gives Rogue Agent that extra bit of RPG feel that is so often overlooked in board games. For me games are all about the creation of stories. I love it when after a session people recall moments in the game that had some momentum. Eurogames just don’t seem to be able to generate these.
SFC: Speaking of Panic Station, I’ve noticed some commentary and interest about that project. It looks amazing, and I love the claustrophobic, tense feel of not knowing whom to trust. What is Panic Station about, in your words?
The idea for Panic Station came after watching a midnight screening of the John Carpenter classic “The Thing”. It was my favorite horror film of the past, and despite the fact that some of its visuals are a little outdated, the core of the movie still holds well after all these years: a group of people trapped in a location, confronted with the unknown, with the knowledge you can trust nobody: everyone could be a monster.
I wanted to translate this concept into board game form. A game that creates a high degree of paranoia so that during the final turns nobody trusts anyone, and yet to survive, players need to trust others in order to achieve their mutual goal: destroy the hive that is the root of a parasite infestation that slowly overtakes all characters.
The game uses cards, both for items, character cards and floor plans. As the game progresses the board is formed, a labyrinth of rooms were players can explore, use the terminals to gather information, perform heat-checks of the building to deduct who to trust and who is most possibly infected and gather equipment that will help them to stay alive and destroy the hive.
At the start of the game one player is infected, but he must keep this secret for the rest. This traitor role is subtle and players need to learn the timing to strike at the right time, in order to infect others. The goal with other words of the infected players is to gradually, in an exponential way, infect the rest of the team.
This is done during a blind trade action that always forms a nerve-wrecking moment in the game. Since this is a blind trade (cards face down) only the traders know what is happening. The rest of the players at the table have to carefully watch the behavior of the trading parties in the next turns to partly deduct the presence of the infector.
As if this was not enough challenge-wise, parasites roam the rooms of the base were the game takes place. These are controlled by the game system but if not taken care of could form a serious threat for the players. In order to win, players need to reach the hive room and gather 4 gas refills to load their flamethrower. But these cards are scarce and are also needed to fend off infections during trades, so players need to keep control of their growing paranoia. If they trust nobody, they will fail to keep enough gas refills to destroy the hive.
What I personally love about the game is that it packs a lot of punch and intensity in only a short game time: about 30-40 minutes. Each session is also different, given the modular nature of the board and the fact the core of the game is the psychological warfare between players, rather than the game itself. Each traitor will play the game differently, so more careful, some more reckless, and it will create a different story each time.
I will never forget that first session I did for the game. When you write down rules you are basically writing down something abstract with no certainty it will actually work in practice. But while the first playtest has some small tweaks, it was already apparent from the start the paranoia thing worked as I envisioned it, and possibly even better. By the end of the session everyone was nervously laughing, and the tension was so intense. I almost felt the urge to leave the table to get some relief from it. At that point I knew I was onto something.
I am hoping to also get a small bonus expansion ready for the publisher, possibly to offer as a goodie at Essen. It will add a game system controlled roaming infected guard dog to the base that forms an extra threat for the players.
As if that was needed ;)
SFC: That sounds sinister! I like it! Going back to what you said before, I think that the Eurogame audience isn’t looking so much for a story to tell as much as a “Mentat-like” experience where the object is to out-think their opponents where the Ameritrash audience is looking for that storytelling. I play both, and, at least in my experience, the level of interest is far stronger in a game where there are strong characters and a compelling narrative.
I know Panic Station is looking like it’ll be out by Essen 11, but what’s going on with the other two? Are we going to see them anytime soon? Is anyone talking to you about publication?
DA: I find it important to take time to let a project mature. It’s very tempting to prematurely get it out there and start contacting publishers once you feel the game works, but from experience I learned it’s better to let it rest a few months and give it a fresh look. That way you are able to approach it from a perspective of a gamer, not of a designer, which is a totally different view on things. People often underestimate the time commitment for designing a game.
They write down an idea on a piece of paper during a train ride home, start dabbling with self-cut cardboard tiles and glue spray and they feel they have a game half-ready. The truth is that this first sparkle is only a tiny fraction of the complete process. The real game development starts at the gaming table and will consist of an endless string of revisions and refinements. Sometimes I have to restart from scratch with some mechanics because in practice they just didn’t gel with the system, while on paper they look cool.
It’s a painstaking process of trial and error, and you need a perfect playtest team to guide you through. This team should consist of the most critical people possible with a good analytical brain. And believe me, this type of people are rare. And don’t forget the constant intoxication of glue spray shortens your life span with roughly 15%.
A publisher once told me that only 1 in 5000 game ideas they get submitted makes it to the shelves. Given the fact only 1 in 1000 game ideas get submitted to a publisher it might be a good idea to only start designing if you’re totally obsessed with it. When I’m working on a project, it is constantly haunting my thoughts. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and have to grab a notepad because the solution for a mechanical problem suddenly struck me. I have lost a lot of sweat, blood and tears over the design table during midnight creative sessions. But when you finally sign a contract…that magical moment just makes up for everything.
But to get back to your original question: I have some companies in mind for both games. Rogue Agent is definitely the first that is going to be submitted.
I think it stands a good chance on the market, because the cyberpunk as a thematic backbone is not over-saturated on the marker (unlike the 5678 auction games set in Egypt) and the game uses a modest set of components despite its grand scale game world. I just love there is a lot of game in a small box. I would describe Rogue Agent as a hybrid, combining the rich theme of true Ameritrash with the focus on a more elegant approach of Eurogames. It’s definitely no Carcassonne, but the rules can be explained in a fair timeframe and feel intuitive after a round or two.
SFC: Regarding the process, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve had a post-apocalyptic game on the shelf for months, and was ready to get it to a publisher…I even had a meeting set up. Then, a tragedy happened in my life that required me to spend some time out of town, and when I came back, the game didn’t look nearly as “ready” as I thought it was.
Let’s talk about one of your first projects: ‘Dark, Darker, Darkest’. I’ve been following your updates on BGG for a while now, and it seems that it’s going to be published sooner rather than later. For those who don’t know about it, can you give my readers the story and then let us know when you think it’ll be available?
DA: Dark Darker Darkest is my take on a co-operative survival horror-game. It is a mix between an adventure game and a tactical combat game. But it’s hard to pin down because it has several aspects that make it hard to describe. Basically, you control a character part of a team of urban survivors, trapped inside the house of Doctor Mortimer, a sinister character who has experimented with a serum that you are hunting after that could save the world from a vicious plague of the undead. The house is full of lethal traps and monsters, generated by the game system. These include a security camera system triggering doom-ridden events on the team, lurking creatures you need to sneak away from before they notice you (stealth element), hordes of undead approaching from all corners and larger beasts that form a serious opposition for the team.
The game uses some fresh mechanics for unit-forming, were every move counts. If you refuse to play in team and carefully plan your actions you will be dead within 2 turns. The reaction system that controls the creatures forces players to carefully plan were they take position. In order to reach their goal players need to gather items and break the security system to open up the hidden lab in the house. The whole game system fires up time triggers like crazy, creating an immersive experience were no turn is without tension, as a fire starts spreading inside the rooms of the house, threatening to block crucial paths towards the exit. Larger creatures use a unique targeting system that creates anatomical points that can specifically be targeted in order to influence the behavior of these critters.
Yes, the game has that degree of detail. Sue me ;) It’s an epic game and it lasts about 3 hours, with a climatic end battle were players have to confront either Mortimer himself or one of his family members, ranging from a pyro-kinetic girl to a knife-throwing maniac. While there is an element of luck, it is perfectly countered by the myriad of tactical decisions that need to be made during the game. Even the dice-based combat forces players to make decisions. Above all DDD is also a true horror game.
I don’t understand games that allow characters to resurrect. For me the essence of horror is the fear of dying. In Dark Darker Darkest you are constantly confronted with the unknown: a creature jumping out of the darkness, a suddenly appearing horde, an unexpectedly fast spreading fire rendered by a gas explosion…players always need to be ready to adapt to the worst case scenario. It feels a lot like running out of bullets and while you load that last precious bullet in your handgun a zombie dog suddenly runs into the room and targets you, lying on the floor wounded with no ammo to defend yourself. And with your last well placed 2 shots you slow down his movement, hoping a teammate 3 rooms away will save the day.
That is exactly what Dark Darker Darkest is about. At the moment it is in post-development at a German publisher. It’s hard to put an estimate on a release date, but I expect October might be reachable. I know, still a long wait, but if you know this game has been 4 years in development that doesn’t sound all that bad.
SFC: Well, I officially need a cold shower now! The art looks phenomenal, and your description is amazing. I can’t wait! Now that we know what you’ve been up to, I want to pick the brain of a creative genius for a moment. What is your take on playtesting? I’ve played many a game that appears that playtesting was not an important part of development, but I think that half of what a game evolves into is directly due to proper playtesting and blind play trials. What’s your take?
DA: I think 50% is modest. From experience almost everything a game evolves too is due to playtesting. It of course depends on the complexity of the design. But there is so much detail you simply can’t foresee and have to experience while actually playing the game. And there are also myriad elements that spring to mind while playtesting. Usually the first 5 playtests I don’t play myself and just takes notes. Sometimes 5 or 6 pages. This decreases after the first 5 tests, but I’m always surprised there is often still room for a lot of refinements beyond the point the game works in a balances way. The problem for me is finding the right group.
They have to be not too sensitive about criticism. Often there is somewhat a reservation for being very critical. My policy is: bring it on. I don’t want to hear what is good about the game; I want to know what people dislike about it. What they find fiddly. The things they don’t care about and find superficial. With such feedback I can a better understanding of what people search in games. That said, I don’t approach game design from a purely commercial standpoint like many designers do, designing with a specific target audience in mind. Above everything I want to design a game for myself. A game that I want to play and that the groups were I usually play with would enjoy.
I pretty certain you can feel that sort of honesty in design. At least, I feel it in other people’s designs. Take “Earth Reborn” as an example. I’m pretty sure that Chris Boelinger above all designed this game for himself. It is his game. Otherwise he would have made it much more commercial…less of a niche-product.
SFC: You’re aware of a project I was working on, and in my playtest sessions I found the best refinements came to light. Things that you, as a designer, don’t think about but someone else sees that could be better. To me, it’s about keeping an open mind. Now I know you did some of the graphic design for Grindhouse Games’ Incursion, which is one of my favorites as far as look, but what are your goals? Are you looking to mostly design games, or are you looking for more freelance graphics arts positions? What’s the end-game for you, so to speak?
DA: I actually like doing both, and if time permits I want to combine them to create a constant learning-process where I get more and more aware of the market and the connection between form and function. In a way, doing “only” the graphics for a game project is a good break from designing the whole system. But the goal is the same: create a game world were players can believe in and most of all, disappear in. Graphic design for me is creating the ultimate functional illusion. I try to combine an iconography/lay out that feels natural with rich atmosphere. It’s a balance thing. Go overboard in one direction and the whole thing falls to pieces or lacks character.
When people pitch me a project the first thing that makes me say yes is the feeling I can relate to the theme. For me it’s important I can relate to the genre and that it fuels my creativity. I love doing SF and horror and prefer it over historical stuff. I don’t see myself doing a game about ancient Egypt. I rather create something less obvious, were I have some freedom in creating a unique game world. For me the true creativity starts with imagining a certain uniqueness, a “look”.
If there are specific set parameters I have to work in that allow no freedom in filling in the blanks it often feels like “work”. For me it is important that I do a project as a dreamer, rather than an employee. The difference lies in the amount of freedom I get to give it a specific touch, something that sets it apart from other projects.
Take for example “Incursion”. Jim at Grindhouse games gave me a blank board and pretty much said: “Do what you want, as long as it feels like an underground network of corridors”. That comes very close to how I like to work. They have to trust me. Give me the freedom to create something from the ground up. That said, I am currently working on an indie-project that has been financed using Kickstarter.com (much like Alien Frontiers). They contacted me to do the graphic design for the whole project. They already had a series of illustrations but they needed a moody framework and iconography to form the components. I like the fact I can direct such a project and turn it into a coherent whole take makes sense, so that the theme is perfectly communicated to audiences. So in short: feel free to pitch me any project. I am open to a lot of stuff and always willing to take on a challenge.
SFC: David, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, and I really wish you all of the success in the world. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to seeing more from you in the future!
You can check out what David’s been working on at his site, here: http://www.ausloosdesign.be/