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Cracked LCD- A Conversation with Brett Murrell, Duel of Ages II Designer (Part 1)


I made it abundantly clear, I hope, that I absolutely love Duel of Ages II in my recent review. I think DOAII is a brilliant game that manages to get at some very elemental concepts of play that reach all the way back to schoolyard games like cops and robbers while also creating a vast, “anything can happen” framework for players to create narrative. The designer, Brett Murrell, has been working on Duel of Ages for over a decade at this point, first releasing the game and a series of expansions back in 2003. The new edition arrives at a very different time in the boardgaming hobby, and at a time when I think it may just be the game that we need to cut through the crap and get back to old fashioned fun.

Mr. Murrell was kind enough to offer his thoughts up about DOAII and design in an interview, so over the course of the next two Cracked LCDs I’ll be presenting the results of this conversation that we held over email . I think Mr. Murrell has some interesting things to say and I hope you’ll enjoy his insights.

When Duel of Ages first released back in 2003, it was an odd time for an old school design with lots of stat-check dice rolling and hex-and-counter presentation. When I played the original game back then- which was around the time that I was first playing things like Game of Thrones, Age of Mythology, War of the Ring, and Heroscape-it didn’t register with me or my friends at all, although a certain cult developed around the game elsewhere. It also felt anomalous at a time when Puerto Rico was still held in many circles as the pinnacle of game design. Why is Duel of Ages back for a new edition in 2013, and an even better question is why do you think it’s still relevant given how much has changed in design paradigms and concepts?

Ah, “old school.” That’s a dangerous phrase for designers. I blame the blind avoidance of “old school” as the cause for Cherry Cola, Miley Cyrus, five thousand barely discernible worker placement clones, and East Asian landfills full of games stocked with plastic minis but missing the actual game.

Design – of anything – has one rule: use the best mechanisms for the targeted purpose. End of rule. There are no “best if used by” stamps on design mechanisms.

I totally agree, and to be clear I’m not using “old school” as a pejorative even though I think that the time, there was a pretty widespread agreement among hobbyists that the whole post- German games milieu was sort of the “new gaming” whereas the older Avalon Hill style titles, Games Workshop adventure games and so forth were old fashioned. It’s kind of ironic, I think, that those “old school” games in many ways have retained their relevancy long past Puerto Rico’s apparent expiration date.

Games like Puerto Rico are great designs for their target purpose – entertaining mathematically-minded adults whose primary goal in game play is victory. And that is the problem – not with Puerto Rico, but with the “many circles” who think of/promote these kinds of games or any game as THE pinnacle of game design. Tabletop gaming is a big universe. Calling one tabletop game as THE pinnacle is like declaring one of Michael Jackson’s hats as THE pinnacle of clothing design head to toe. Might be the greatest hat ever, but as a shoe it would suck wind. One design definitely does not fit the universe.

That’s a really great way of phrasing the appeal of the post-Puerto Rico Eurogame mentality. I had a somewhat hilarious conversation with a French guy and Arkham Horror designer Richard Launius sometime around 2004 or 2005 where we were talking about Puerto Rico and similar titles. Launius commented that he didn’t like stupid themes like counting bicycles or filling ketchup bottles. The French guy said (paraphrasing) “where is zee game in these? There is only mechanics.” And I think that at the time, back when DOA first appeared, it was almost like that was what a lot of people wanted out of hobby games, that sort of ultimate sense of balance and precision, clockwork mechanics at the expense of meaningful theme. And DOA felt like it was at cross purposes with that zeitgeist. Even today, the wildness and sheer humanity of this game seems in opposition to the almost fascistic over-valuation placed on balance, mechanics and process.

Zeitgeist! You’re pushing the right buttons. What a cancerous term as abused by zeitgeisters, and thank you for recognizing the opposition to it in Duel of Ages II. That opposition is built into the very theme of the game – an array of universally acknowledged Great Humans and others that demonstrate the traits that make humans what they are as individuals, for better or worse.

Duel of Ages II is focused on two different target purposes:

— Entertaining imaginative tweens and older whose primary goal is the experience

— Entertaining tactically-minded tweens and older whose primary goal is the tactical challenge

The success – and relevance — of Duel of Ages II lies in its ability to meld these two very different purposes.

I really like that you are specifically targeting younger gamers and not just middle-aged hobbyists- I think that’s something that has been far too often neglected in gaming and there again, this was something you really saw back ten years ago. It was when we really had all of the “scowling European authority figure” games, with lots of esoteric subject matter that would have no appeal to a modern “tween”. DOA strikes me as a game that would have substantial appeal to a kid raised on video games, literature, and history. But yes, I do think you’re hitting the older game player mindset as well with the depth of tactics and possibilities.

There are a lot of younger gamers that play computer games with sophisticated and complex rules and strategies and a wealth of information that must be tracked by the player – League of Legends, Guild Wars 2, Total War, Civ V. Not everyone is playing Angry Birds. These gamers have little trouble picking up a game like Duel of Ages II, especially if someone teaches them – like, say, a parent. I and my playtesters never have trouble finding new players because we just bring it out with the family kids or the youth groups. Duel of Ages II gets a super-high fan rate in that demographic.

Regardless, I think games targeted at tweens and younger audience – imaginative games – naturally flow into older audiences as well when done right. It’s the same for the Worldspanner books like the Spire Mystery Series. Make something that will challenge the imagination and wits of the young, and you’ll also get the many older players and readers that managed to hold on to that from their youth

When you first released DOA it was divided between a core set and a number of expansions (was it seven?), the new edition is a Core Set and a comparatively expensive Master Set. Thinking it over, I really like how you’ve released the products- you give more than enough of a taste in the Core, and then offer everything else in a single package for those that want to do the deep dive.

The original Duel of Ages sold a very high percentage of expansions, and buyers usually bought all of the expansions at once. Since multiple boxes costs a lot more money, we cut significant cost by combining the many expansions into just one. The version 2 Basic Set is a combination of Sets 1 and 2 from the first version. This is a much better mix, making the Basic Set a fully-powered game with a very long life span even without the Master Set.

It really is quite a package, there’s a tremendous value in just that basic set. When I first got the copy you sent me, I thought about just opening the base game and seeing how much play I would get out of it before cracking into the Master. But I just couldn’t resist. It’s the kind of game you naturally want more of. What was taken out of the game and what did you add?

Very few components were removed from the game compared to the first version. A lot was added – 32 characters, 48 henchmen, 70 treasures, 80 new Guardians and 104 Encounters. But even with the additions, the game came in $45 less than the original full series, mainly due to the two boxes rather than eight.

The most significant reduction was the streamlining of the rules – 6,000 words, or a third of the rules set. Version 2 allowed me to kill some sacred cows and prune heavily without harming the feel of the game.

I definitely think this rule set reads a lot better than the first edition. Something I think that really defines modern rules writing is a more editorial, direct style- which isn’t always easy to achieve. You want to write everything in there, cover every eventuality, but sometimes the better rules are those that give the player enough to be able to make good judgments.

Rules are extremely difficult to get right. You get very a limited window out of first-time playtesters and proofers, and you have to deal with global issues like second language readers. That is why an electronic living version is important. In DoA’s case, we also have a Compendium electronic version that formats the rules in a reference format rather than a progressive tutorial format. Both are important.

Your comments on not trying to cover every case are dead on. It is better to have a clarifications document than to bloat the rules with issues that most players will never see. Even the Catan rules set has seen the wisdom in that, giving a very short rulebook paired with a lengthy explanations document.

Are you seeing most of your sales of the new edition through direct sales or retail distribution?

It is nearly impossible for a truly small press, non-Kickstarter game like DoA II to pick up major distributors. Duel of Ages did have a history, however, and we picked up more distributors than we expected, especially internationally. We have been very surprised by the international response. Stores really don’t do small press very well, so we expect direct sales to be our bread and butter in the long run. It’s a mail-order world.

There it is, Kickstarter. Sign o’ the times and all that. Everybody is Kickstartering something, which as my readers probably know by now is a trend that I think is quite negative. I really appreciate that you have enough faith to back your product without up-front money, but did you consider Kickstarter at all to release the new edition?

I love Kickstarter. Kickstarter is competitive private-enterprise, and that’s where innovation comes from. That being said, Kickstarter does not fit my personality. I don’t like borrowing other people’s stuff, and with all of the challenges of production, I didn’t want a big hype campaign ending in a failed production run. I couldn’t think of a worse nightmare. Since I didn’t need funding to make DoA II happen, I chose not to use Kickstarter.


To be continued next week, but in the meantime, Mr. Murrell has agreed to make himself available for any follow-up questions, conversations, criticisms, or comments either here at or in the front page talkback for my weekly Barnestorming post at I get a sense that he has a lot more to say, so don’t be shy!

Talking About Television on the Ouya

YouTube video

As I mentioned on the podcast a few weeks ago, Clayton Grey, No High Scores reader and Don’t Shoot the Food Photoshopper extraordinaire is currently working on Television, an adventure game/WarioWare-esque mashup for the Ouya. Clayton and his partner-in-games Sam Strick recently took the Most Surprising award in the Create game jam sponsored by Kill Screen and Ouya. Clayton was kind enough to answer some questions via email and give a glimpse as to what life is like for independent developers looking to make a go on the Ouya.

Once you’re done reading, be sure to head over to their Kickstarter for Shift, a single card CCG currently in development.

You describe Television as a WarioWare meets Myst endeavor, and the trailer shows off a number of different games that would have been at home on my television during the 80s. Can you expand some on what the game’s about and how the adventure parts mesh with the mini-game parts?

The basic idea is that you can approach the game from a couple different angles: You can casually play around with a myriad of quirky short games, or you can dig in and “read between the channels” for a more complex adventure experience. You can procure items from shows and introduce those into other shows. There will be secret shows and secret channels. We enjoy games about exploration. The idea is to provide a meta-goal for those that pick up the scent. But there’s no hand-holding and no serious tutorials.

How did the idea for Television come about?
The idea originated during a brainstorming session. We had after the contest announcement to decide if we wanted to put down our current work and have a go at this contest. We had already kick(start)ed in for a developer kit, so it made sense from a lot of perspectives. I did some brainstorming about what we could do. We already have a lot of ideas for projects at various stages of development, and this was an opportunity to do something different.

I made some notes about some key ideas, and when Sam and I met up the next morning we started discussing things. We wanted to do something with exploration, something that wasn’t going to skew hard to a particular gender or demographic, and we wanted to do something non-violent. Why go to an console? What does that mean? What things work well on a console that won’t work well on a mobile device?

I had an idea that I had been tossing about for something called the “OUYA? Oh Yeah!”. It was an idea for something to put on a load screen or an interstitial between moments in a game. Totally random. The idea was that there was this weird insecure japanese gameshow host that keeps apologizing for how bad he is at his job. Players would see these questions cards that he would present, but they wouldn’t necessarily make any sense with one another.

We can’t remember the exact moment when it clicked, but once it happened, it just sort of flowered. We really hashed out a lot of the core game then and there. What are channels on TV? What kinds of shows are there? Which would work as games? Since then we’ve continued to flesh it out and nail down some of the core systems we need to make the games work.

What made you decide to switch from iOS development to Ouya development?

There haven’t been a lot of avenues open to independent developers, and that’s changing fast. We decided early on that we would make lots of game for lots of platforms – some of them analog. We’re doing digital games and boardgames. We think it’s important to be diverse. Mobile is a good starting point because it’s a big market, but we’ve never considered ourselves “mobile developers”. The OUYA seemed to have it’s ducks in a row, so we decided to spend the money and get a developer unit.

What kind of technical hurdles had to be overcome to switch development? How is the Ouya as a development platform?

We do our development using ActionScript and Adobe AIR. It’s easy for us to switch platforms from a technical perspective. The OUYA itself has very similar performance characteristics to a mobile device because it basically is a turbo-charged mobile device. Adobe as done an amazing job optimizing their virtual machine, and performance is great once you know what you’re doing! We used the Starling framework to get better performance for 2D on mobile platforms.

What have been the most challenging aspects of developing for the Ouya?

The OUYA team seems to have put a lot of thought into how to make working with the console as easy as they can manage. Right now I’d say the hardest part is waiting for the game data to install while you’re testing on the device. In short, it’s not a challenge, the device is a constraint. It’s not a desktop, and there are definitely things we’d love to do if we had more power. You make creative decisions around that.

Do you have ideas for expanding Television or are you more interested in taking the Create prize money to fund a different game idea altogether?

We’re very flattered to have won, and we’re excited that people were into the concept. The next step is planning. Kickstarter will probably be involved, so the prize money helps, but it’s really a good faith gesture. We’ll need to raise significantly a lot more to make it happen, as we will need to reach out to other tallent to do it in a reasonable amount of time. We’re having conversations.

Many iOS games end up being successful from a download perspective, but fail to make their creators any money. Is the same risk present on the Ouya or is the purchasing infrastructure more creator friendly and less reliant on in-app purchases to make money?

iOS has a known visibility problem. The key is getting enough awareness for your game. For our iOS game, we’re focusing on making a really premium game, because that’s all we can do. It really depends on your business model, and we’re hopeful but skeptical of iOS as a market for game developers. People like to talk about the outliers that made a lot of money, but that’s not an honest picture of what developers can expect. There’s no way to gloss over it. Making money on iOS is hard. There isn’t a single answer. Just make the best game you can afford to make, and really work to promote it and make people aware of it. No easy task.

The OUYA has some key differences. Firstly, the store is curated. That’s a big one. Secondly, they require all games to offer some part of their experience for free. Developers are given freedom to determine how they want to apply that to their game. So we have a lot of flexibility in determining how to monetize. For Television, we’re looking for inspiration from the concept. We’re looking at offering free “local channels” and then offering premium packages similar to cable or satellite. We’ll probably have Pay-Per-View content as well. ?? These are still just ideas, and we’re in the process of working that out. It’s still an in-app-purchase model, but that in app purchase can just be a license for the full game. We have total flexibility in that regard. Super neat.

Now that the Ouya will be available at Best Buy and other mainstream retailers, what’s the best strategy to make sure that Television rises to the top and gets played by all of those people picking up the console at launch?

We’re happy that they’re developing promising partnerships to sell the OUYA. That was a real question when we bought in, and they seem to be doing things right.

Television, like any piece of entertainment, isn’t trying to be for everyone. That said, we’re hoping to reach a broad group of people looking for something new. We feel winning CREATE will be a big boost to awareness. Keeping people informed about development, and telling your story is just as important. It seems the real key to indie game development is about persistence. Just keep making things!

What’s the best way for people to show their support for Television?

Television still needs support: follow us on Twitter and give us a Like us on Facebook. Everybody says that now, but that’s because it’s really important. It’s the best way for us to let you know what we’re up to, so when things happen, you’ll hear about it. We’re probably going the Kickstarter route for funding. That will probably happen in a month or so. So stay tuned!

Eador: Masters of the Broken World (Epic Sized) Interview

You may recall that of all of the games I saw at E3, Eador: Masters of the Broken World was the one that caught my eye despite the lack of a huge booth and go-go dancers. Of course I have no idea how the game will come together in the end but if Snowbird Games hits its target — this is going to be something special.

When you are developing a game and tossing about words such as Master of Magic, Civilization and Heroes of Might and Magic you immediately draw the usual cries of, “Oh great another attempt at a MoM sequel” but Eador has the foundation in place and looks like it just might pull it off.

I had a chat with Vladimir Tortsov of Snowbird to talk about the game, its design, and a host of other goodies.

This one is long. Bring a snack.

First off, can you clear something up for us? I read an article recently which describes Eador as a “real- time strategy game” and yet the demo I saw at E3 looked clearly like a turn-based game. Is Eador real-time or turn-based?

You saw it correctly, of course it’s turn-based. It was some kind of misinterpretation in that other article.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, can you tell us what Eador is all about? What exactly will you be doing in the game – how do you “win”?

From the very beginning of the game Eador poses a challenge: try to unify the shattered pieces of a planet under your rule, or lose. By invading the other shards (that’s how we call these pieces of firmament floating in the astral void) and conquering them, your alter-ego, the Master, becomes more powerful and better able to shape the world as he wants.

Thus, Eador. Masters of the Broken World is all about achieving ultimate power and using it to do good or evil, depending on the player’s choice. In this sense, it’s pretty similar to the idea behind Sid Meier’s Civilization, except that in our game there are concepts of evil and good and you have to make a choice all the time.

Technically speaking, the gameplay consists of three connected levels: astral, strategic and tactical. Having invaded a shard (the astral level), the players land on its surface (strategic level) and, after a series of battles (tactical level), they conquer the shard and literally attach it to their homeland. Add in diplomacy, army and hero management, internal affairs and moral dilemmas to the mix, and you get the game.

I came away from the E3 demo excited to see more because it looks like Eador is borrowing from so many turn-based strategy staples, but this is such a large game – how challenging is it to combine so many different gameplay elements into one package? It looks like there are so many moving parts with the design.

Yeah, it’s a clockwork with a huge number of details. I have to give the full credit for this amazing work to our lead game designer Alexey Bokulev, who is an extremely creative person and a huge fan of old-school strategy games.

In fact, Eador was born from Alexey’s wish to play a perfect strategy game combining all the best features from his favorite games such as Master of Magic, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Civilization. Designing that dream game was a very complicated task indeed, but he succeeded. You can check some screenshots from the 2D version of Eador (released in 2010 in CIS countries only) here: With this 3D remake we’re working on, we’re trying to introduce this extraordinary strategy game to the worldwide audience.

The combat model based off the E3 demo reminded me a lot of Heroes of Might and Magic and King’s Bounty. What makes Eador’s combat mechanic special? When readers see the screenshots they think, “Oh a HoMM clone.” Can you explain some of the differences between the two?

Yeah, it’s true – the tactical screen is the most ‘classic’ of them all. Well, the difference lies in the details. Our battleground isn’t just a field with a grid – it represents the real location with different types of terrain and obstacles. It matters a lot, because terrain affects the performance of your troops providing various bonuses and penalties. Unlike HoMM, our units don’t stack, so you couldn’t “cheat” by amassing a huge army of dragons on a single hex and eradicating all resistance. Finally, each unit has dynamically changing attributes like morale and stamina, which makes this combat system closer to the tabletop games with miniatures than to HoMM or King’s Bounty.

Can you talk a little about the various hero types that lead your armies? How do they differ fro one another and can you guide them down various paths by spending experience points?

There are four basic types of heroes in the game. They serve as generals for your armies and participate in battles alongside other units.
A Warrior is a strong melee fighter, relying on his physical strength and equipment. He is a ‘one man army’, requiring only limited support from other units.

A Scout is a skilled archer, also possessing a broad variety of non-combat utility skills such as a possibility to sabotage enemy army before the battle.

A Commander is weak in melee, but he can lead a larger army than any other hero of comparable level, granting an assortment of bonuses to his troops as he leads them into battle.

A Mage is, naturally, a very skilled spellcaster who can easily turn the tide of battle with a couple of powerful magic tricks.

Every unit in the game (including heroes, of course) gains experience points and progresses in levels. When a hero reaches level 10, he ascends to new class, either an advanced version of his initial specialization or a combination with any of the three remaining base classes. For example, our Warrior could keep his initial focus on melee and become a Berserker possessing some exciting new perks, or he can turn into a Dark Knight, able to cast deadly necromantic spells.

When you attack a shard, what sort of things will you have to manage? This “overland” portion of the game looked meaty at E3 but I was hoping to get some more information about some of the tasks and gameplay mechanics that are involved with it. What do you have to do to run your economy, for example? Do you obtain gold, wood, etc?

The strategic level is the most complex one in the game, as there is lot of stuff to take care about – economics, politics, warfare, etc. First of all, the players should expand their capital, which is their main base of operations on the shard. By choosing which buildings he needs most and constructing them, the player shapes up his strategy. Military buildings allow him to hire stronger troops; financial buildings help to increase his income, while entertainment buildings assist him in keeping the population happy.

Concerning resources, there are two basic ones: gold and magic gems. The gems are required for all our magical needs, while gold is needed for pretty much everything else. There are also nine rare resources in the game such as mithril or redwood lumber. Each rare resource has its specific purpose: for instance, mithril is used to create the most powerful artifacts with magical effects and lumber is required for the construction of some advanced buildings in the city.

What are some of the role-playing mechanics at work in Eador? I seem to recall something about hero quests during the E3 demo? Can you give me some examples of how that works?

Yeah, as I’ve said before – not just your heroes, but all units in the game level-up and get some new perks and abilities. For instance, your knights can acquire the passive ability to deal more damage to evil units starting from level 8, while your ogres may learn how to stun the enemy troops on level 3.

Speaking of quests, each hero can be assigned with an exploration task instead of a military one. It means our hero could spend his time in an allied province, wandering around and looking for places of interest. Each province has a number of dungeons, crypts, caves, magic shops etc., and our hero could visit all these beautiful places in order to gain some experience fighting the guardians and to plunder their treasures. Even if our hero was unable to find anything unusual during his search, exploration is a great way to increase tax income of that province (we can imagine that our hero is actually looking for more taxpayers to rip off, rather than for the monsters to slay?)

You mentioned unit stamina and morale? How do those affect gameplay?

Stamina represents the unit’s ability to carry out our orders – i.e. move or attack. Each action costs a specific amount of stamina points, and when the unit is attacked by the enemy, his stamina suffers as well. The unit with zero stamina is considered utterly exhausted and becomes completely useless. Therefore, the player should review the state of his troops and give his tired units a break to catch their breath.

Morale works a little bit different, but the effect is quite similar. The unit’s morale depends on many factors, including the general’s stats, magical effects, army composition and current battlefield situation. A demoralized unit cannot fight and will most probably try to flee the battle.

How does diplomacy work? What can be accomplished by talking to your opponents and not just stabbing them?

The diplomacy system is working on two levels – astral and strategic.

On the astral level, we can learn more about our competitors – the other Masters – by speaking to them. There is a strong chance that we’d want to ally ourselves with a fellow Master who shares our views and beliefs. These ‘astral’ alliances lead to different story paths, eventually providing us with different endings.

There is also a strategic level diplomacy, which takes place during the war over some particular shard. It is possible that some other Masters also chose this shard as their target during their turn, and in this case, diplomacy becomes a powerful tool of survival. Instead of fighting the war on two or more fronts, we can negotiate with some of our adversaries and convince them to leave this shard for good. We can also sign a trade agreement with other Masters and sell or buy resources.

What sort of creatures are you able to recruit in the game? Do you play a specific race such as the “Undead” or can you mix and match your unit types within an army or on various shards?

In Eador, you play as yourself – meaning that you don’t represent elves, orcs or humans when you’re hiring them. You’re the Master, a demigod, and these puny mortals are nothing but pawns in your great game. Thus, you can mix & match units from different races as you want, but you have to pay attention to the chemistry. Goblins and elves don’t really get along together, so you can expect a penalty to the troops’ morale on a battlefield.

The player may ally with any of the races populating a particular shard, thus gaining access to its warriors (but you have to construct a specific building in your capital before that). Alternately, some particular units may join your ranks as a result of a completed quest.

The game looked enormous at the show – how “big” of a game is Eador? Can you customize the options for a shorter game or is that set in stone?

If we’re talking about hours of gameplay, I’d say the first playthrough of Eador could take you about 60 hours to beat the game. Once you’ve learned the tricks and understood the basics, you can finish the game in half that time. Thus, the duration of the story-driven campaign is more or less set in stone, but in the ‘skirmish’ mode (strategic + tactical levels) you can adjust all the settings as you wish.

Let’s talk a little about the random events that pop up from time to time. How involved are these events and are there enough in the game that you won’t see the same ones too often?

According to our latest inspection, there are 1,264 different ‘event dialogues’, so there shouldn’t be a problem with their variety. Some of them are simple and last only for one round, while some others are more complex and may lead to unexpected outcomes a few turns later. Some of them are connected to your heroes, while others could happen anytime and anywhere.

Lastly, are you still on track for a 2012 release?

So far – yes, we’re still aiming for this year. Wish us luck with that!


I’d like to thank Vladimir for talking with us and you can hopefully grab Eador sometime in 2012 on a PC near you.

MechWarrior Tactics Gameplay Video and Info

YouTube video

Here’s a link to the website:

A PC turn based game in the BattleTech universe with custom mechs fighting it out on a 3d battlefield? Woo hoo. That’s the good news. The bad news? This is another Free to Play game with no single player campaign in sight with a ‘collectible’ feature. Those buzz words send off alarms in my head.

Sure does look neat, though.

Here’s a blurb from a recent interview:

Though they weren’t ready to talk prices, Williams and Cleroux stated that mech’s weapons and customizations will be distributed via booster packs, which can be bought with in-game currency or real-world cash. Items will come in common, uncommon, rare, and ultrarare varieties, just like Magic the Gathering. We were a bit confused when we were told that there wouldn’t be any item trading at launch, though Cleroux did hint at an auction house system to be implemented later down the line. We would’ve liked to see these kinds of systems implemented at launch – nobody wants to buy dozens of boosters in the hopes of getting the one item that they need.

Playdek Interview, Part 1

In part one of our interview, George Rothrock, Playdek’s Director of Product and Busines Development and Gary Weis, Playdek’s Chief Technology Officer talk about what was behind bringing Ascension and Food Fight to iOS, the joys of asynchronous play and why Agricola is so appealing. Come back on Friday for part two where we talk more about Nightfall and Summoner Wars, the importance of good tutorials and what’s up with the missing third AI notch in Ascension.

What’s the background on Playdek. You’re in Carlsbad, CA, correct?

George: Yes, we are in Carlsbad, CA near San Diego. We began life in 2005 as a console development studio with THQ and after a number of very successful titles, high quality titles for Xbox 360, PlayStation, Wii, went independent and now we’ve become a publisher. We do all our own development in house and we have transitioned to this space where we bring the best in hobby and table games to digital platforms.

Your first two iOS releases were Food Fight and Ascension. If you were to look at these games in terms of their popularity among the board gaming community, they’re well known but there are more popular games out there. What intrigued you about these games to make them the first Playdek games for iOS?

Gary: We started with Ascension because I had been a playtester on the WOW miniatures game that Justin Gary and John Fiorillo had designed for Upper Deck. So I knew them from three or four years prior. I had playtested that and then had tinkered with doing my own implementation of WOW miniatures on the PC. So when they broke away from Upper Deck and started their own thing, I had heard about that and so was kind of paying attention. I had just discovered Dominion and Thunderstone and we were playing those a lot around the office and I saw they were doing something similar so I kind of paid attention to what they were doing, and as I got information, kind of threw together a prototype that I was able to show them and having that existing relationship was the impetus for starting with Ascension. They were looking to find a way into the digital space and weren’t having much luck finding somebody who they were confident could get the job done and we were exploring the possibility of trying to do something independent of a large publisher contract.

So you approached them, essentially?

Gary: I approached them with a protoype and we spent a good two, three months discussing what do we want to do with this, where do we want to take it. Eventually we decided to circle around on iOS and make that our starting point and that launched the ball.

When you approached them, did they see the appeal of iOS as opposed to another platform, say a PC or XBLA or PSN game?

Gary: Obviously, coming from a console background, XBLA and PSN was something we were thinking of early on. We were aware of the success of the iPhone and the iPad wasn’t out yet. Actually, I guess it was. We had just started playing Small World on the iPad so we were aware of the direction that was going to take us but we didn’t have any experience developing for iOS. We considered Steam, there was a strong argument to take it there and then after much discussion decided that the iPhone was the place to start and I think that’s proven to be the correct decision for us at this point.

Talking about the iPad a little, I don’t have a strong board gaming background but what intrigued me about Ascension is that it seemed like the perfect platform to try out a game such as this. How do you feel the iPad has affected the adoption rate of Ascension and Food Fight?

Gary: It certainly gets the title in front of more people than having it on the store shelves in a hobby game store. Just having somebody who you know who might be interested in this, that maybe played Magic 15 years ago or has some experience with strategy type games, it just only takes one comment to say “Hey, you should check this game out. It’s only five bucks, If you’ve got an iPhone or an iPad you should give it a try.” We don’t necessarily have a distinction in sales data between iPhone and iPad so we can’t really put our finger on who’s buying it more for the iPhone or if the iPad is a large portion of our sales.

George: To follow along with that, the great thing about the iPad is it’s such a great platform to showcase these games on. There’s a lot of buzz around it and it commands a lot of attention when these games show up on it. Our guess is that probably more people play it on a day to day basis on their iPhone or iPod. We do universal applications so that you get it on both if you happen to have both devices. I play more on my phone than I do on my iPad, and I was kind of surprised myself at that but I have my phone with me all of the time. It’s a great focal point and it’s a great place to bring these games that are so well known for being laid out on the table and the tablet looks like that. Playdek is a publisher, we can take it to XBLA or PSN, any of these platforms, and we will consider them all for each game but we try to do the best for what the game itself wants, but the iPad has been very good for us. We went to Europe, we went to Essen last year, we had a booth at Essen, the big game show, and we found out there that the iPad is still very expensive in Europe, so not a lot of people actually have them yet, but everyone who came to the booth knew it and really wanted one and was very excited about it.

One of the things that I like about the iPad, is that you guys make some really slick interfaces and not just for Ascension. What is your secret to making these interfaces, because they are extremely well done.

George: While that’s a trade secret and we can’t just give that away in a interface, it’s equal parts, over a decade, 15 years of experience in high quality console game development here, both [Playdek COO] Jeff Garstecki and Gary and the developers we have here. Then it’s equal parts collaboration, playing the original game and discussing what is key about that game, working with the original designers and developers and it’s a process, it’s a lot of iteration and development and play time.

When you guys sit down to discuss bringing a property to iOS, what are the beginning questions have to be asked and the considerations that have to be made to determine if it’s something you can do, and if you decide you want to do it, to be able to tailor the table top experience to the iOS platform as well as possible?

George: For my part of it, we play it, we see how often Gary wins and, no I’m kidding, we play, we discuss, we talk about the different features that would make the game more accessible, that would make the hardcore fans really enjoy it. It’s a big Venn diagram and each title is a little bit unique.

Gary: Just to add on to that, we play the game in its physical form to see if there’s something there that we enjoy. We don’t want to spend four to six months working on something that we’re not going to enjoy when we do have a lot of properties that we can choose from. We sit down and we play it, I spend time to start out with, getting a prototype of the rules in place, trying to at least get the core gameplay elements in place so we can start to do a digital testing on that. Have that all in place, before we’re starting to work on the interface so we understand which effects and which cards are going to be the ones that are tricky, that need to be incorporated in in a special way so we can be sure that the overall design of the interface can handle the requirements for all of the things that need to be presented . Then we spend some time thinking about what’s it going to take to do an AI for this game, some of the stuff we have coming up, in terms of implementing a computer player is going to be a little more difficult than what we’ve seen with Ascension and Food Fight.

Speaking of Food Fight, what is it about that game that interested you in bringing it to iOS?

Gary: We had a connection at Cryptozoic through our agent and he put us in touch with them as soon as we knew we were going to be doing Ascension and that established a relationship. They were looking for someone to do digital versions of their upcoming stuff. Unfortunately, everything they had done previously was the WOW trading card game and I had implemented that five years ago, I did the base set as a digital version, but obviously, Blizzard isn’t going to be interested in moving forward on that at that pace and so working with them required us to work with their upcoming stuff, and Food Fight was the one that was closest to being ready when we were talking with them. So that got us to sit down and to start to playing that with them and discussing what would it take to get it on to the platform, what would we need to do to try and maintain the theme and the flavor of the game. It was a big step for us, in taking on the campaign mode just because one of the more attractive features for us of Ascension was the asynchronous play and that game laid down in a way that you could take your turn, I could take my turn and Food Fight required more micro decisions and an interleaving of decisions between players so we felt that it was important to provide more content for a player who might not find the asynchronous play in Food Fight as attractive.

Talking about the asynchronous play, the appeal there, is it as simple as being able to let people play the games on their own schedule or is there more there from a design and implementation standpoint?

Gary: There’s more to it on our end on the server side, to be able to track the state of every game and make sure that players, when they log in, they can download the current state, make some decisions, upload those to the server and have that reflected to the other players and get a push notification that it’s your turn to play again. When we were first looking at Ascension, we felt that was important because there were other games on the platform that supported it and we knew it was a mode of play that people wanted to use with this device in their pocket all of the time but there wasn’t an off the shelf solution that really worked for us. We talked, very early on, to OpenFeint but they only supported two people, and we knew that we wanted to do four for Ascension, and so we ended up having to implement our own solution and it was only as we were completing that, that Apple announced that iOS 5 would have the asynchronous play mode. I still feel like having done our own solution and having our own server in place now, will allow us to do more and take it beyond what is available in the Apple implementation.

Do you have a rough idea as to how many notifications you push out in a given day?

Gary: We don’t have that, but we have counts on other stuff that’s going on. We’re up to almost a hundred and fifty million moves submitted and about, I think we just ticked over eight hundred fifty thousand games that have been created on our server. There’s a lot of Ascension being played.

George: Just to follow on the asynchronous question, what we really love about what we do, is there are two things that we think that games on this platform do for the player. One, you get to play the game you really enjoy more than if you have to hit the table with your game group. I can pull the game out and I get to play. And it expands the number of people that you can actually play with. I actually love asynchronous play. There’s a guy, I don’t even know his name, but we both really like 14 day games, and so for how long now, I’ve had a continual game and every time it ends we immediately hit rematch and we play. We’re always with a couple of points of each other. For me, it’s been a really great way to play, and I do occasionally play games immediately with someone, in real time but we really like that asynchronous allows people to play more games.

One of the things that people I play with have wanted, is some sort of chat facility, either to send a message or be able to chat while the game is going on. Is that something that you would be interested in bringing to future games?

Gary: We realize how important that feature is, it was probably the most requested feature that we didn’t get in from our playtesters as we sent the game out of the door. Obviously it’s been a while now since Ascension came out and it has been continuously requested by the fans and we want to find a way to get it in. It’s part of a bigger server reorganization that we’re going through in order to be able to support four titles. So we’ll see it hopefully sooner rather than later but when it arrives we’ll do it in a way that makes sense and provides the feature in a way that everyone can take advantage of it.

I’d like to talk about the upcoming properties: Summoner Wars, Nightfall and Agricola. Let’s start with Agricola. If you look at the games that you’ve done and the games in the pipeline, Agricola looks like the odd man out. It’s a little drier than the other properties and has a longer playtime. What was the draw there?

George: Agricola is a fantastic game, in and of itself. It is certainly incredibly popular and a great seller, all of those kinds of things but for us, it’s a landmark game and we wanted to be able to do it. What we’ve announced, on our slate, does look very card heavy but we definitely have a portfolio of games that we’re going to be doing over this year and bringing out. We’ve only announced a small portion of our calendar, essentially the first couple of quarters and there will be more coming from us. But Agricola, first and foremost is a fantastic game and we’re really looking forward to bringing it out. It’s dry, I don’t know if I would say that, maybe compared to…

I don’t want to knock the game, but if people look at what you offer, you’re banishing demons, you’re fighting werewolves and then you’re farming, at first glance, without getting into the guts of it, it doesn’t seem as exciting.

George: Play it with my wife. (laughs) You’ll find yourself in a struggle for your life.

Gary: The majority of the people that are working here are board gamers, we like to pull something out at lunch time and get together and play for an hour and there isn’t one type of game or one genre of game we have a preference for, it’s just that we started with a card game and that attracted more of the same and that was easy for us to approach and figure out and you know once we got Ascension done, Nightfall isn’t that far off in terms of the mechanic that we needed to implement. Obviously, Agricola is a departure from that so we had to start over and implement from the ground up in terms of the game mechanics. We want to be in that space as well with worker placement games because there are others that we could potentially be doing that would build on and off of Agricola. Some of the other stuff that we haven’t announced is very unique from what we’ve done in the past and that will allow us to diversify in the types of things that we’re bringing out.

Which decks are going to be in Agricola?

George: We haven’t announced all of the launch features, we will definitely be supporting everything. We partner with these great companies and launch features will be set soon and we will be announcing what will be available then and either updated later or purchasable at launch. So you’ll here more about that but we will definitely support everything.

So is that the similar answer for the factions that will be available for Summoner Wars?

George: Yes, absolutely.

Summoner Wars has a number of faction decks, Nightfall has a number of expansions, Ascension already had one expansion and presumably you’re working on the next expansion. Is that true, are you working on bringing the next Ascension expansion out?

Gary: Yep

George: Yeah, absolutely.

A big thanks to George and Gary for taking the time to sit through my long winded questions. Again, come back on Friday for part two of our talk.