Iron Game Designer 2015 – The Games

“Home Is Not Safe” was the theme. Chairman Kaga said “I hope it pulls people in different directions…and I hope we see vastly different games that divide the judges”. While filming all the action I didn’t get to play any of the games so I’ve cobbled my descriptions together from observation, interviews and judge comments:

Table Tyrant Games (Dylan Shearer and Aaron Sparke) with After Earth

One of our professional teams decided the home was earth and the solution to it being unsafe was to take to space exploration. Little ships move out from the centre, drawing from a deck of cards to explore the galaxy, most depicting planets with die-roll/result tables on them, and tracking quantities of fuel, ore and food on player-cards in front of them. Familiar mechanics of tile flipping, rolling to produce and resource balancing with added spice of the win condition depending on establishing colonies, but the more you establish the more food you must provide. Judges and players found it easy to jump into and engaging, and it only lost points for a floppy end game that might never come and for not being enough about homes being safe. The Tyrant team were keen to fix these issues and develop this with lots of ideas to come – hexmaps rather than cards, a larger tile deck and random events.

Team Two Games (Sam Piaggio and Jackson Blair-West) with Home Intrusion

The intruders are coming into your house. You’re safe in the panic room but the goal is to stop the intruders with your Home-Alone kind of traps. Players randomly assemble the house on a 9×9 grid around the Panic Room, then work together to place trap components in what they hope will be the ideal places. Traps need a Trigger, a Trap Type and a Modifier and the wrong trigger will prove defeatable by some intruders, and the wrong modifier will depower or even nullify some traps. Spikes work in a pit, but not with a net trap, for example. This virgin game design duo perhaps took too long thinking and picked an idea too big to accomplish in the time left so were nervous at the end but the judges enjoyed the directness of the theme and loved the basic mechanics, even if some of the math didn’t (yet) work. Tagged for great potential and new ideas.

The Die of Horus (Christy Dena and Ralf Muhlberger) with Home Is Not Safe

Die of Horus are super confident!

The Die of Horus are super happy with Home Is Not Safe!

Taking the theme as their title this was another very literal reading. Kids left at home were battling growing threats (in the case of the first and so far only deck, creepy crawlies like snakes and spiders), with the enemies being generated with constant turning decks of cards that get progressively worse. In a lovely twist, however, the kids can’t fight the threat, but only contain it or direct it. Only able to move slowly and open and close doors they need to work together to drive monsters towards each other – and figure out which will cancel out and which will get worse. This is determined by a five-way scissor-paper-rock system which judges feared might be too complicated to solve especially for the family audience the theme suggested. Like Home Intrusion, the designers felt they may have lost too much time to the tyranny of cutting and pasting, but also like Home Intrustion, the literal, immediate and relatable interpretation won points and captured imaginations.

Rule and Make (Allen Chang, Alistair Kearney and Matt Parkes) with Spooky Sleepover

Like Home is Not Safe the kids were the focus here, racing along the upstairs hallway to be first back to bed, despite the floor being covered in lava and such. This professional team focused on making the game small and the cutting out minimal – focusing mostly on a lined piece of paper and pack of regular playing cards, which meant they were able to get three full playtest games in before judging. The theme was there to be added though, and the judges could see the potential for great art to come, and meanwhile the race-lane mechanics seemed different and fairly solid apart from edge cases like an early leader or everyone bogged down going nowhere. Probably the most complete game of the set and people could visualize everything it could be with art added.

Motivated Meerkats (Darryl Greensill and Mungo Rundle) with Motivated Meerkats

Like After-Earth the distance from theme may have cost these guys but it was wonderfully different: here the home was a colony of meerkats. Using a deck building mechanic to collect tunnel cards from a central deck and a worker placement mechanic to move meerkats through those tunnels, players competed to have the most thriving population of desert mongeese. Poor planning will see you run out of food but not all family members can gather because guard meerkats help protect against hawks and jackals. Full of educational value and lovely theme, judges saw potential here but not enough robustness – as it was it was still luck-based and low on meaningful choices. But it could be a strong seller in the educational market if those things were fixed and it moved further along its burrow.

Team Bellpepper (Jason Kotzur-Yang and Brendan Evans and Michael McIntyre) with MegaJustice

Bellpepper included some seasoned game designers (look for Jason’s Ragnaroll on kickstarter soon) and they had perhaps the most playable game after Spooky Sleepover, again cleverly narrowing their focus down to a short beer-and-pretzels card game that had player knock-out but it didn’t matter because it only lasted fifteen minutes. The tongue-in-cheek theme was adored by judges and players alike: players are rival megacorps assuring the world (through owning the media) that your home is not safe, then releasing terrorists to drive up panic and thus sales – more panic justifies more brutality, but too much panic will lose sales just as much as too much brutality. This tied with Spooky Sleepover in third place and probably was the fan favourite of the day because while still too random to have solid choices the theme was unstoppable.

2 Men and A Baby (Sam Macrea and Alex Butterfield) with French Resistance

Again, small focus helped this game be the little engine that could. As one judge put it “it was obviously a Werewolf derivative but it was a Werewolf derivative that brought two brand new ideas to the table”. The designers took the home to be a villa in occupied France and the safety threatened by a mole. WIth only five minutes the loyal resistance (who all know the code word) must figure out who doesn’t know the code word by talking about it in hints…without giving it away. If the time runs out without a consensus, the mole wins, so you must hint fast and decide faster. Finishing mechanics early gave these guys time to develop their theme hard, writing spiels for the first player to read aloud and evoke the strong theme with visuals like the bullet of accusing and opportunities for roleplaying.

Something about French accents and French wine and the clever word-hiding mechanic in this caught all three judges’ minds and in the consulting period they kept talking about what could be done with this. Which is probably why it was the winner! Second place went to Home Intrusion, a big surprise for Sam and Jackson too.

But winners aside, everyone I talked to was happy and even surprised by what they had created, and almost everyone had plans to take their games further, even to publication. People who had never designed a game in their eyes had words like “kickstarter” and “art submission” on their lips. Of course, after two hours of pumping energy, that’s to be expected. The danger now is not to LOSE the energy. I saw some games in 2010 go on shelves and be forgotten – it happens after every contest like this. The chefs faced an incredible challenge in two short hours, but now the challenge begins anew: to keep the energy and carry it forward, and get these games to blind testers, to publishers and to stores!

Iron Game Designer 2015: The Rundown

Chairman Kaga takes the stage

For GenCon Oz 2009 I tried to get four people to design one rpg in 3 hours, and it sort of worked. For 2010, I knew I had to up the ante, and by that I mean “steal from a brilliant television show”. This Iron Game Designer was born, although sometimes called Iron Chef Game Designer because otherwise people don’t know what the Iron means. It works exactly like Iron Chef, of course: tabletop game designers are given a theme ingredient, a bunch of materials and two hours to build a board game entirely from scratch. While more and more game design competitions have sprung up over the last few years, this one still feels pretty unique, because of that tight time scale and the lovely pageantry we adopt. We do have our own Chairman Kaga, you see (see figure one, from 2015).

GenCon 2010 ended up being cancelled so we ran it at Uprising, the con that sprung up to replace it (and would late become the now five-year running amazing Go Play), and were able to harness some of the GenCon sponsors to give us prizes. It went spectacularly well for a teeny tiny con event for eleven people. The theme was “The End of the World” and four teams made four vastly different but amazing games. Nathan Russel was part of a team that made the winning game “Come With Me If You Want To Live”, but it doesn’t appear to be on his site any more. It was so successful we thought we might do it every year, or take it on the road, and I even set up a website for it. But life, as they say, finds a way of interrupting those plans of men and mice.

But a good idea never dies so in 2015 we came back to Go Play. Five years has changed the game-designer environment entirely in Brisbane, and the game-player one as well. Board games are now ten times more popular, and we have cafes and clubs and companies and events showing off our new products from our own game designers and publishers. And with them also came newbies and beginners and computer game designers and all sorts of people, driven to test their mettle, and surprise themselves.

I lucked out with my judges: none my celebrity guest judges (such luminaries as local federal member Graham Perrett and author John Birmingham) but that produce a triumvirate of awesome that spanned three different kinds of brains and kinds of gamers. Kevin Lowe is a rules maestro who sees solutions quickly and demands perfection, Sarah Smith is a professional game designer who lives and breathes her passion from the first idea to the game hits the shelves, and Jess Wheelock is a newbie with little experience in games beyond social fun like Cards Against Humanity. Each would be using my scoring system, over four categories – Robustness, Engagement, Ingenuity and Use of Theme. Chairman Kaga announced that the theme ingredient was “HOME IS NOT SAFE” and the time began.

2015-03-29 17.00.07

Suddenly, deep thought broke out. Chins were rested in hands across a wide area.

Instantly I learnt something: one of the most important factors is what is available. Last time I had placed A2 and A3 sheets of cardboard on every table; everyone made a board game. This time I left those sheets at home by accident and everyone made a card game. The Great Black Box has many things in it though, and the cute rubbers the Rule and Make guys grabbed for game pieces may have influenced their choice of theme; I know the (fake) bullet casings certainly influenced the idea of French Resistance’s setting (see below). The contents of the Great Black Box plays a part as much as the theme, sometimes. Which is why I put more into it than just cardboard, dice and pens.

With their stuff and their ideas, they began beavering away, or in one case, meerkating away. Ideas formed quickly; as Chairman Kaga remarked, the beauty of the short time limit is you can’t get too attached to anything that doesn’t work, and you also never lose energy. Longer time periods mean the fire drops off but two hours doesn’t allow for that. Before the first half hour had passed, the scissors and tape had come out, and the felt pens were marking index cards. Prototyping and design had to happen in parallel, driving each other. By the second hour, another limiting factor appeared: playtesters. One group of two made a social game for six or more and had to beg in neutral observers to test it. Others designed games for the number of players equal to their team size. The much discussed Wooden Geese came in threes, after all…

Without chins, how we would design games? We couldn't, I feel.

Without chins on hands, how we would design games? We couldn’t, I feel.

Unlike last time, these designers knew very well the importance of playtesting and review and before the last half hour the games were being crunched as competitions, and over the hubub of design came the yells of success and the curses of low die rolls. Cards were sleeved. Decks were shuffled. I tried to scare them by telling them they had fifteen minutes left but they were beyond such things now. The adrenaline was up. The finish line emerged. The confidence in the room was palpable. Where there had been nothing, there were now games.

Time was up. The judging began. With just ten minutes to pitch to each judge, the teams learned some new lessons: not about design but about the art of pitching, and tailoring those pitches to different audiences. Exit interviews expressed the confidence I had sensed, and encounters with judges raised that further – the games had met other people, and the games had survived that contact. Food and drink was brought in – and people began to share their games with others while they waited. Money was collected allowing us to cover all our costs, which ensures there will be a next Iron Game Designer – The Great Black Box doesn’t fill itself.

At last the judges came forth with their scores tallied and their decisions final. But what games were made and who took home the title will be in my next post. And following after that, I will be cutting together the fifty-something short films, interviews and mid-design conversations to make something that actually looks like Iron Chef. Exciting things still to come!