I’ve been designing games since I was kid. The first one I can remember creating actual components for was a board-based wargame for my Battle Beasts; the rules are long gone, but I still have the board somewhere. I designed a massive game of Clue with dozens of rooms and characters and weapons (and motives and accomplices, etc.) which was specifically intended as a joke and was, as expected, completely unplayable. When I realized that the Reading merit badge for Boy Scouts had a requirement that could be filled by designing a game I created one based on Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently series–that was a weird one–and somehow I talked my sixth grade teacher into letting my final project on Central America be a board game about Manuel Noriega. I’ve designed roleplaying games and miniatures games and collectible card games and just about every kind of game you can imagine, all mostly just for fun and just for myself.
I consider game design to be very similar to fiction writing, at least in terms of why I do it and what I get out of it. Both are creative outlets that let me tell a story and craft an experience for my audience. If I can get you to feel something while reading my books or playing my games, I’ve done a good job; if I can get you to feel something specific, I’ve done a great job. Both have a bit of a puzzle-solving vibe to them, as you attempt to use a limited amount of resources in different permutations to create a desired outcome. My various notebooks and computers are as filled with notes for game ideas as they are for novel ideas. And most of them are just as untenable
One thing I eventually started doing was, instead of creating new games from scratch, just modifying the games I had. This is especially prevalent with games that didn’t work right to begin with, like Marvel Heroes, but sometimes I do it with games I love, like Hollywood Blockbuster, which had great gameplay but not nearly enough theme to go with it. I wrote all over my game pieces for that one, and in the process realized that it could be rethemed to make an awesome Star Trek game: instead of collecting actors and directors and effects and such to make a movie, you could collect captains and science officers and so on to complete missions in space. With that, the wheels were turning, and I drafted up long lists of crew members and ships and on and on until suddenly the idea crashed into another idea in my backlog of “use this someday” files, and I realized I had a much bigger opportunity here.
As it accrued new ideas, the game I was designing diverged massively from Hollywood Blockbuster, becoming different enough that I realized it was actually sell-able as its own game. It was also, in my opinion, good enough to actually sell, which is important. It was not, however, sell-able as a Star Trek game, because I didn’t want to mess with the licensing issues that would require, so I re-themed it once again into its current form: Heist, a game about crews of thieves and hackers and masterminds carrying out elaborate capers and cons. The basic mechanics are the same–you recruit specialists, form them into teams, and perform missions (now called jobs)–but the flavor was new and unique. I chose Heist movies as a theme partly because I love them, and partly because it’s not a theme I’ve ever seen in a game before, which struck me as a great opportunity. (There may well be other heist games out there, I just haven’t seen them.) As I transferred everything to the new theme I tweaked it here and there to make sure it felt right, so you were legitimately playing a heist story and not a Star Trek story in a costume, and then I was done, and it was pretty good, and…what now?
I’ll tell you what now: I don’t have the time or the resources for a what now. Producing games is very, very different from designing them, and while Kickstarter has made the idea a lot more approachable than it used to be, that’s still not very approachable. The sheer investment of time, not even counting the money, would carve months off my writing, and I have so much writing these days that I start to drown if I miss a week, let alone months. So once again, the idea was shelved. I had vague plans of someday writing a heist book just so I could sell the game as a tie-in, but if that ever happened it would be years in the future.
This is where AEG comes in, a game company I’m already a huge fan of (they publish Legend of the Five Rings, which you may have heard me proclaiming as my favorite roleplaying game ever). They had a massive booth at the Essen game fair, where I went two weeks ago with a friend, where they were debuting a new line of shared-world games that I’d heard a bit about, and was excited to try. The shared world is called Tempest, a kind of renaissance-era city-state in an imaginary (but non-fantasy) world, and they were using it to tie together a bunch of political and economic games. I was a cool idea, and I was excited to see if the games were as interesting as the concept behind them, so we hung around the booth and waited for an empty table and ran through a quick demo of both Courtier and Love Letter. They were so awesome I bought them both instantly, but more than that, the Tempest setting itself was great: it’s very character-based, full of plots and schemes and underhanded deals. And here’s the key: they were actively looking for new game ideas to expand it. My first thought was “My heist game would be a pretty good fit for this.” My second thought was a slightly more excited “that would actually work out great, because they’d take care of all the artwork and production and distribution and advertising that I don’t have time or experience to do.” My third thought was basically just “ohmygoshthiscouldactuallyworkIcouldpublishagamethiswouldbesoawesomeohmygosh.” The friend I was with was obviously thinking along the same lines, as the first thing he said when we walked away from the booth was “The Tempest world might be a really good fit for that game you were telling me about.” Yes. Yes it could.
AEG has a neat Tempest development site set up to work with prospective game designers, which I applied for, and when I got into that I used their submission system to pitch my heist game. This was pretty much exactly what it felt like back in the days before I published any books, sending out queries and desperately hoping somebody liked them enough to ask for more. A few days later AEG asked for more: they want a full prototype of my game, and think it would be a great fit for Tempest. But they were careful to say (and wise to say it) that I should playtest it and polish it and hone it to a killing edge before sending it in. “We’d rather have one great game than ten good ones,” the letter pointed out, which seems awesome to me. This is essentially the same thing as an editor saying “I loved your pitch for this book, please send me the full manuscript but make sure it’s as good as possible first.” So on the one hand I have to make it clear that I have not as yet sold anything, and this is basically just an editor reading a manuscript to see if they like it. On the other hand, as you aspiring writers out there can attest, getting an editor to request your full manuscript is a huge deal, and you get very excited, and you feel like jumping up and down and celebrating like a crazy person, never mind the fact that it doesn’t technically mean anything will ever happen and you’re still more likely to get rejected than sell the story. That’s where I am with this game design: it doesn’t really mean anything, but at the same time it means everything.
I’ve already had this game designed for months, like I said, so it was relatively easy for me to print it out and and play a few rounds with my family. My wife and two older kids loved the basic version, and I was delighted to see that the pacing held up and the game was fun to play. When we tried the advanced version it kind of fell apart, though, which sucks because that’s the version I was really excited about, but that’s what playtesting is for. So here’s what I’m going to do: once I get this prototype a little prettier (there’s a lot of post-printing work my kids and I had to do, that I can do a lot more simply digitally), I’m going to post it here in full and let anyone and everyone download it, print it out, and play it. I’ll keep a running commentary on the known issues and design goals, and as I get your feedback I’ll tweak the game and put out new versions. I want you to tear this game apart (lovingly) so we can make it as awesome as possible. That will take me a couple of days to set up, though, because as I mentioned, I have tons of writing to do and no time to waste. Contracts I’ve already signed come first, and Heist will remain, for now, an after-hours hobby.
But if we can make it as good as it is in my head, oh baby.