Today, Carla chats with Randy Hoyt of Foxtrot Games and discusses the current Spy Club Kickstarter campaign.
Game Title: Spy Club
Launch date: September 20th, 2017
End date: October 11, 2017
Funded?: Not Yet
Cost for a copy of the game: $39
Published by: Foxtrot Games
Campaign Link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/foxtrotgames/spy-club
Carla: Hello! Welcome to Cardboarding with Carla and thanks for being on this interview! Could we start off with you telling us a bit about yourself?
Randy: Hello! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I’m Randy Hoyt, owner and game producer at Foxtrot Games. I’ve been publishing board games since our first Kickstarter campaign (Relic Expedition) back in March 2013. The most popular game I’ve worked on is probably Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, and the most recent one released is The Fox in the Forest. I live in Dallas, Texas with my wife and two young sons (10 and 5). For my day job, I work as a web developer, and I run Foxtrot Games on nights and weekends.
Can you tell us more about Spy Club?
Spy Club is our upcoming game, launching on Kickstarter on September 20. It’s a cooperative game for 2-4 players, and it takes about 30-45 minutes to play. In the game, players work together as young detectives to solve neighborhood mysteries, something along the lines of Encyclopedia Brown or Harriet the Spy.
Players have double-sided clue cards in front of them. On your turn, you’ll use actions to flip, draw, and trade clue cards, gain ideas, and confirm clue cards as evidence. Each case has 5 parts you are trying to solve (the suspect, the location, and so on), which you do by collecting a set of 5 clues of the same type. It has a light storytelling element: as you discover more and more of the solution, a story starts to emerge that the players can tell together.
You can play a single game of Spy Club, or you can play a campaign (a series of 5 games connected together to tell a larger story) using our new mosaic format.
Tell me more about this Mosaic Campaign Format.
I love that so many new campaign board games and campaign formats are coming out: legacy games have been such a huge innovation, and many other games are trying some really exciting things (games like T.I.M.E Stories and Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, just to name a few). We’re excited to add Spy Club to this list alongside these other great games.
A Spy Club campaign lasts exactly 5 games: you are solving 1 of the 5 aspects of a master crime in each game. You’ll unlock a new module with new rules and story elements every game that you play: the sequence of content you unlock isn’t scripted, so each campaign will unfold differently based on the choices you make. I see that as the defining feature of the format: the content gets unlocked in such a variable way that you can replay it multiple times, unlocking completely different modules in every campaign. Spy Club comes with over 40 modules, and you’ll only unlock 5 of them — just a small portion of the total content — in each campaign.
What are some of the design challenges of making a game with the mosaic campaign format?
With this format, any module can get unlocked at any time — and be combined with just about any other module. They each have to be standalone units of content. But for the format to shine, a unique story and gameplay experience has to emerge from any combination of them: a campaign shouldn’t just feel like a series of variants. (We chose the name “mosaic” because of this: a mosaic is an image made up of distinct pieces that have been combined together to make something new, something more interesting than any of the pieces.)
The very first modules we designed were too standalone: the effects would either last for just one game, or they would have very isolated impacts. But the more we playtested modules together, the more we found ways to get the new content to interact with core systems at a deeper level. It’s really satisfying when players use a bonus or ability they unlocked in one module to overcome an obstacle they encountered in a different module.
I was able to play a full campaign of Spy Club during GenCon and I was really impressed by how each game ramped in story and difficulty; there was something new to deal with but there was also something to help the players. Can you talk more about the design and playtesting process to get the game to that point?
Designing the modules has been quite a collaborative effort. I met John Shulters and Sarah Graybill at Gen Con 2016. (They were the first blind playtesters of a Spy Club campaign. They loved it, and we’ve all been working closely together ever since.) We’re all remote, so I set up Spy Club on Roll20 so that we could play together. We spent a big block of time together each week, playing Spy Club a couple of times and brainstorming module ideas together. We used online collaboration tools (Google Docs and Podio primarily) to discuss ideas, document our own playtest results, and keep track of all the modules. We’d each take the lead on specific modules, designing some elements on our own, pitching them to the group, discussing them in depth, and ultimately playing and developing them together online.
We’ve had two main approaches to playtesting the campaign content. (1) First, we playtest modules one at a time with groups at design meetups, prototype events, and open gaming at conventions: people are usually willing to play two games in those settings (the base game and then a second game with a new module). (2) Second, Foxtrot Games has a good playtesting network from fans of our previous games. We had many people volunteer to play full campaigns and record videos of their sessions. It has been really valuable to watch the campaigns unfold, to see how players perceive each new piece of content and how multiple modules interact in the real world. We’ve even had groups play entire campaigns at conventions with us watching and taking notes. I’m incredibly grateful to all these volunteers: we couldn’t have made a game like this without them.
It sounds like your approach to playtesting is solid! I hope to one day have as great of a network as you do. Do you have any advice on building up a good playtesting network?
Our network has grown organically, primarily from people on our main email newsletter. After our first Kickstarter campaign, I asked backers to sign up for our email newsletter. (Tip: ask in your Kickstarter backer survey if people want to be added to that.) When I had Lanterns ready to playtest, I created a separate list for playtesters and told the main list about it. After every project since, both lists continue to grow.
Besides that, I would say participate in game design communities, whether in person or online. Help other designers playtest at meetups and conventions. Create print-and-plays of your game that are easy for you to distribute and easy for playtesters to assemble. Don’t be afraid to tell people you are looking for playtesters: you’ll be surprised how many people are willing to help playtest, especially if they love something you’ve designed or published in the past.
The theme and gameplay worked together so well in Spy Club; was the theme always there or was there anything else the theme could have been?
The game did start with a different theme, though it got to the neighborhood detective theme pretty quickly. Jason and I were finishing the production files for World’s Fair 1893 and talking daily when the Meta Game 2 contest was announced — the one where the title of the game has to be the core mechanism. I joked that I wanted to design Set Collection: The Set Collection Game about Set the Egyptian god of chaos. Jason had been wanting to explore the idea of double-sided cards for awhile, and from that title idea he created a game with many of the core elements still there today. That theme didn’t last too long, though. Most of the development work, including all of the work on the campaign format and content, came after the theme change and the storytelling element was introduced.
Very Interesting! It does make sense that the detective theme was decided on early on. How many campaigns would it take to play through all the content in Spy Club? Is there anyway to guarantee that you run into new content in your campaign?
The game includes 8 smaller modules that can be unlocked in the middle of Case 1, and then 39 bigger modules that can be unlocked in Cases 2-5. If you do it just right, you could unlock the last of the big modules at the start of your 49th game, which would be during your 10th campaign.
The trigger for unlocking a module is pretty straightforward: if you choose to record the Librarian at the end of a case, you’ll unlock the corresponding Librarian module. So you just have to make sure to record a new clue card each time. The list of clue cards in the rulebook will have small checkboxes players can use if they want to keep track of which modules they’ve unlocked.
What do you feel was the most important thing you learned during playtesting with Spy Club?
When you teach someone a game, you generally want them to have as much fun as possible. So it’s really easy to step into the role of host or entertainer: remind people of the rules, give them strategy tips, tell them some fun history of the game’s development, and so on. But that really compromises the playtest. You can’t put a miniature clone of yourself in every box, so you need to see how players will experience the game when you are not there. This is something I knew before, but testing this cooperative game really helped drive it home. One core system in Spy Club is the movement deck, which determines where the suspect will move on each turn. I’m always tempted to handle drawing cards for the players, just to be helpful and to keep the pace of the game moving. But I found that when I do that, players don’t take into account the suspect’s potential movement as much. If I let them handle that themselves, they internalize more often how the system works, take it into account when they use their actions, and have more fun with the game.
Do you have any interesting stories to share about designing Spy Club?
At Gen Con 2016, we were testing the campaign system in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. I had designed the first 5 modules and played them in person with people using a handwritten prototype earlier, but right before the convention I had typed up and sleeved nicer versions of all the cards. Well, of almost all the cards. My friend Charles was running the playtest, and the players had an objective that would unlock card 51. I got an urgent text message: “Where’s card 51?” Panicking, I looked back at my notes and responded with something like the text for the card, and he quietly wrote it out and slipped it into the deck right as they were completing the objective.
Do you have any advice for other designers that want to design a game with a mosaic campaign?
No matter what kind of game you’re designing, the most important thing is to focus on the experience players are having. Everything in the game, every decision you make, should support that experience. You may not know that right at the start. But once the different pieces of the game start to gel, you’ll really want to hone in on that experience. For all our projects, I come up with a word or string of words that capture the experience. For Lanterns, for example, it was elegant (in a beautiful, serene way) and with World’s Fair 1893 it was wonder (in a grand, uplifting, inspiring way).
With a replayable campaign game like Spy Club, I would say embrace the emergent nature of it. Our word for the Spy Club experience was delight (in a surprising, creative, energizing way), and even I would experience that delight when I would playtest a new combination of modules and discover the unexpected ways that they interacted. Control what you can control: get a strong framework in place for unlocking content and connecting each game together. Design the modules as standalone units that deliver the experience you want on their own, keeping an eye open towards how everything might interact together. Playtest the whole campaign as much as you can, verifying that it’s creating that experience you set out to create.
I love the idea of capturing the experience of a game in a word or string of words! It definitely sounds like it’d help with developing the game in the right direction. What do you think was the most important thing you did to prepare for your Kickstarter campaign?
I never know if I’ve done enough to prepare. I’ve been demoing the game at conventions, talking about it online, posting images to BoardGameGeek, sending out review copies — all the usual things I’ve done on past projects. The one thing we’re trying new this time around is more Facebook ads. I’ve seen some first-time creators use Facebook ads to really build up an audience quickly. We’ve certainly seen more engagement, but I don’t know how that will translate into backers and pledges yet: I’m certainly no expert on what works really well on that platform!
Probably the most important thing I’ve done is deliver my previous projects successfully. I asked backers at the end of those projects if they wanted to join my mailing list, and I’ve been keeping them in the loop on our other new releases and on this upcoming project. One statistic I noticed on our last campaign (World’s Fair 1893) is that we had more pledges in the first two days than in the last two days: that wasn’t the case with the first two campaigns. I took that as a good sign that we had built up a good following beforehand, and that is giving me some confidence to run a shorter campaign (just three weeks) for Spy Club.
Do you have anyone that you’d like to give a shoutout to that gave you some really good advice? Feel free to list more than one, if you’d like!
I am so grateful to Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau for sharing as much as they have about their design experience with the legacy format. (I was already a huge fan of Pandemic, and Pandemic Legacy was so much fun and incredibly inspiring.) I’m so glad we followed Matt’s approach of having our campaign playtesters video record their sessions. I would also like to give a shoutout to J.R. Honeycutt. He’s a real smart game developer, and I think he’s officially worked on more legacy games now than anyone else. I’m learned a lot sharing experiences and talking about campaign games with him. (At Dice Tower Con, he did a panel on legacy games that I’d recommend people check out if they’re interested in designing any kind of campaign game.)
Thanks again to Randy for being on Cardboarding with Carla! Spy Club will be on Kickstarter until October 11th, so make sure to check it out before then!