Jay Cormier, one half of the Bamboozle Brothers designer team shares with us about designing games long distance.
Welcome to the final edition of Meeple Speak in 2015. This time we have designer Jay Cormier (Belfort, But, Wait There’s More) talking about what it is like to co-design his game with Sen-Foong Lim via long distance.
Designing Long Distance
by Jay Cormier
Designing board games is one of the most fun things I do, but it still takes a lot of persistence and motivation to do it. Let’s take a look at designing board games with a partner who doesn’t live in the same town as you do. Can it even work? Based on the games that Sen-Foong Lim and I have designed already, the answer is yes!
Sen and I have designed games like Belfort, Akrotiri, But Wait There’s More, Tortuga, Train of Thought, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of us, Orphan Black and many more coming out soon.
Sen and I live more than 4000 km away from each other (that’s over 2600 miles for our American friends). When we did live in the same town, we tried to design board games together but our energy towards it started to fizzle out. This can be mostly attributed to the phenomenon best described by Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
So, cut to me moving out to Vancouver and Sen and I decide to, once again, try our hand at board game design. Of course this is now more difficult right? Not really. Due to our distance apart we knew that we’d need some technology to help us stay connected. Sen recommended we start our own forum and so we did! Sen got it set up and we started ‘designing!’
It turns out that this forum was the magic ingredient that we needed to make it all work. Here’s my hypothesis on why:
The theory of reciprocity states that we tend to feel obligated to return favours done onto us. So when I wake up and see that Sen has posted on the forum – some idea about a game – well, I kind of feel obligated (in a totally non-pressured way) to reply to his idea and build upon it with my own ideas. Then when Sen reads my thoughts, he too feels compelled to respond and build upon what I wrote. This continues to happen until we get excited about an idea and someone has to make a prototype!
If all our communications were relegated to emails and social media, then we lose that sense of reciprocity, but more importantly, we lose the sorted history of all our discussions. Sen and I sort our forum to make it easier to find things.
We have a section for random brain farts – which can be anything from a cool title for a game, or an interesting mechanic that might work in a game. Once a year we go through our brain farts list to see which ideas we should mine to turn into a game. But throughout the year, ideas can get promoted into another section called Ideas in Motion. This is that fuzzy period of time where the game hasn’t fully caught on yet – but the discussions are heating up and we don’t want to flood our brain farts section with all these other posts.
One section is devoted to our To Do list. This is used more often when we’re planning on a trip where we’re going to meet each other. We make a To Do list of all the things we want to have done prior to that meeting – as well as a list of the things we want to do while we have time together. When you design long distance, any time you get together is golden. This is when you can cut through all the miscommunication that the written word provides and get to the point a lot faster. We are best when we are together and have focused time together.
Then each of our games in development has its own forum. Within each game there are subforums: Rule Design, Prototyping and Production, Playtest sessions, Files, What’s Next.
We use each of those subforums (with the exception of Files – more on that later). This makes it easy to post or find a post about a rule change, or questions about the prototype – and then it’s invaluable for our playtest reports. I’d recommend every designer to write up their own playtest reports – even if they don’t have a partner! It’s fascinating and valuable to review the various playtest reports as you progress through your design. Not only that – but if you’re working on multiple games at any given moment, then having your playtest sessions written down will help remind you where you left off and what things you were planning to change.
While our forum is our number one tool as long distance designers (and I would recommend a forum for even non-long distance partners too), we use a wide assortment of other technologies to help us.
Google Chat, FaceTime, Skype, Sococo, an actual phone: These have all been used when we need to hear the other person explain how something worked. Sometimes when we type on our forum, it’s a bit stream of conscious, so it gets a bit challenging for the other person to read it. That’s when we’ll revert to actually talking to each other!
Google Docs, Dropbox: We were using dropbox for everything at the start, but now we use Google Docs. All our rules are posted here as are our pdfs of our prototypes. We will also use this to share our spreadsheets that have the distribution of cards or pieces. Not having to worry about versioning is a very important thing when working with a partner. It’s also why you should change the version number of your file EVERY time you tweak it. You need to ensure your partner is playing with the same prototype that you are!
Facebook message: This is our main source of quick communication. Usually we poke each other when we’ve posted on our forum and want a response! Sometimes we get carried away and we come up with ideas for a game. If this happens then we copy and paste the conversation into our forum for posterity.
While it’s easy to see some of the challenges to working long distance when designing board games, there are a few benefits too!
With multiple designers in multiple cities comes multiple playtest groups! This is huge! The bottleneck for most designers is their ability to playtest their designs, so by having two totally separate groups, not only can we iterate faster based on feedback from our playtesters, but we get totally unique perspectives. Playing with the same playtest group forever can lead to games feeling kind of samey – so this helps ensure our games appeal to as many different people as possible!
Also, Sen and I are in different time zones and that has helped us from time to time when it comes to meeting publishers online – usually one of us can make the meeting. Also, when Sen wakes up he can read any comments I made late last night and then when I wake up I can see what Sen responded to already! Win win!
The final benefit is that each person as an individual will find their motivation come and go over the life of a project. By having two people working on a game means that it’s less likely that we’ll both be demotivated at the same time. So when one person is not feeling it – then the other person can step in and carry the load for awhile.
All in all, designing with a partner is a fantastic idea. You don’t have to let your distance between you stand in the way.