September 20, 2017

Black Box Games interview part II

Read part I here

 

You’ve talked about narrative in games and about creating a Lords of War fantasy universe. There’s even original fiction about the races and characters on the L.O.W website that you’ve penned yourself. What was the motivation behind that? 

MV: There are a number of games already out there in the marketplace, which all have an extended universe. For example Pokemon, which was a cartoon series and a video game. But that was a marketing ploy from the very beginning, with the trading cards and the toys and the lunch-box and the duvet cover with matching pillow-case and what have you. Yu-Gi-Oh is of course an older version of that. There’s a big franchise there and I think people want to have an emotional engagement with a collectable card game in particular because it makes the cards and the characters on them feel special. With Magic the Gathering, although ostensibly the MTG universe has a story, I think it’s a weak one, in that I don’t think there’s much you can engage with, apart from knowing the cards and knowing the spells and what they do. Coming back to our universe, I’ve always dreamed of writing a long epic fantasy series, a long epic science fiction series. I like periodic story lines. I like the idea of the Victorian penny dreadful, that you’d clock in with a short story every week when you bought one. I like Dickens’ storylines where you have lots of characters weaving in and out of a narrative that had an overall shape that was hard to judge. Tolstoy did the same thing where you started with a few characters and then it would open up and turn into a really epic tale before starting to tie itself back in again to find some resolution and ultimately a moral. And I thought, no-one’s ever combined that idea for a narrative structure with games. What normally happens is you get an origin story and a game that’s attached to it and it very rarely has a satisfying conclusion. Then when it comes to launching a new line of games, you just create a new set of origin stories. Absolutely, we are creating origin stories for our decks when we launch them, but if there is enough proven appeal in the market for us to release more games, then what we can do is take that story on a step and conclude it. We have a set structure in mind. For our core decks we would like to release two expansion packs per fantasy army so you can then have a five act structure. The first act is the storyline you read on the website, the second act is a battle, then the third act storyline which leads to another battle, then fourth act which leads to the final battle which is the last expansion pack. 

Nick, when you originally conceived the game, I’m assuming that it wasn’t from the point of view of an epic fantasy narrative in your head. How did the game come about?

NS: It was about fifteen years ago. Being a wargamer, we would play with hundreds of figures. I wanted to create a game that used cards instead of figures. So that was the primary idea, to replace the figures with cards. So then I thought, well we move the figures around the table and the figures have to fight each other so I’ve got to think of the simplest mathematical system that will allow me to move or place these cards and a system that will let them fight. And then it happened straight away. I just put some pointers on a card, some numbers as a shield value and that was that. The basic mechanism was born from that: just trying to find the simplest way to do it all with numbers.

Did you realise the mechanic was going to work so well, so cleanly, so elegantly, straight away?

NS: (Long pause) Yes.

That’s a bit of a trick question. Because my next one is, why did it sit in your bottom drawer for fifteen years then?

NS: Because it needed to mature! 

Was it a confidence thing? Were you just not sure how to proceed with it?

NS: No, I knew it was a good idea, but I had lots of ideas. At the time it was just one idea out of many.

Why did that one rise to the surface out of the many?

NS: Because years later I met Martin and we put all of our ideas down and that one seemed to have the most potential for a simple card game that wouldn’t cost too much to make. There were a couple of other board game ideas but the reason Black Box started with a card game was that the manufacturing cost is so much lower. 

In the very early prototype you showed me, (from before Steve Cox came on board to do the artwork), the rather basic illustrations on the cards were largely just convenient and actually the focus was really the numbers. Nick, are you surprised by the direction it’s taken, by the fiction component coming in? Because it’s blossomed. 

NS: I’m surprised that Martin’s got the time and energy to write the stuff! Yeah, the game has become rich now. It’s got this rich background so that when you pick up a card, it means so much more, especially your named leadership cards.

MV: That was part of the objective. But also, when we dusted off the prototypes, I knew immediately that there was more potential than just the arrows and numbers that were on the cards. But before the fiction could come about there was a massive shift that had to take place. We had months of arguments over it! Because originally, in Nick’s mind, each card represented a unit of a hundred or two hundred fighters. But now what we have are individuals engaged in a skirmish fight on a battlefield. The warriors that are in your hand and in your deck could be anywhere on the battlefield as part of a more massive war and what you are doing as a commander is orchestrating just a part of the mayhem. 

NS: Having the cards now as individual characters makes it possible to have a storyline for each warrior. And having the stories does mean you can develop a sense of connection with the fighters you are sending into battle. In fact, I’ve started to notice that not only do people favour certain decks, they also seem to form connections with certain characters and will try and save that character even if strategically it’s not a good move. So it’s a good thing really that Martin took away my nice, clean concept and ruined it! 

MV: There are plenty of times I took it off in directions where it was too complicated. 

NS: Which is why the expansion packs exist, albeit at the moment in prototype form. 

It sounds like there are additional mechanics within the expansion packs.

MV: Right from the beginning we developed so much more stuff in the form of additional mechanics that we could have included in the game from day one. But we knew from play-testing it that people need to get the rules quickly; they want to understand the game in five, ten minutes and get playing. And we’ve had players as young as 5, 6 and 7 years old pick up the game. It’s half an hour to forty five minutes to play a full game of Lords of War. So if you’re spending fifteen to twenty minutes just learning to play the game, you’ve probably lost it by then. So we needed to get players engaged with it within the first ten minutes so the penny really drops about fifteen minutes into their first game. Then they’ve got the rest of it to figure out how they’re going to win and then hopefully they’ll want to play it again. That’s really the objective of the game designer; to make the player want another game. So many games I’ve played, I’ve played just the once. Also, because we’ll be releasing the core decks as two armies in one pack, it’ll hopefully encourage a player to think, okay I’ll try playing as the other side now. Over time, with all of the mechanics that we’ve held back to release in subsequent decks and expansion packs, there’s always going to be more variety for people to experience. The hope is that someone looking at a new Lords of War product will always find something fresh and unique. One example is that as yet we haven’t released units that can move on the battlefield or aerial units but these are all planned. 

You recently won the UK Games Expo 2013 Best New Strategy Card Game Award. How did that feel?

MV: Very gratifying. It made me incredibly happy.

NS: It was strange. It still feels very strange. It’s nice to have that confirmation that it is a good game and that people do appreciate it.

MV: When you get an award like that, it’s saying one of your ideas is actually good. And also because it’s the one idea out of all our ideas that we chose, it’s the one that will be our flagship. Because there were loads of other games that we could have pursued and worked with publishers to try and get out there and not do independently. But we said, no, we’re going to try and do this by ourselves and its going to be a mechanic that people haven’t seen before. It’s not going to be a clone of a different game with a new skin on it and it’s going to be boiled down to the level of simplicity of something like Chess or Go. We knew it was brave and difficult and stupid because, on paper, anyone who’s going to try and run a games company has got to be a little bit crazy. It’s just such a flooded market place. So with all of that risk and fear and all of that work, because it’s been so much work, to then get that award felt very satisfying. After all, how did you feel about the other people who were in our category, Nick?

NS: Well, Martin, I felt very sorry for them! 

MV: (laughing) What I meant is, we both knew we were up against some seriously stiff competition. When I was looking through our category, it struck me that I owned those people’s games! I liked their concepts and trusted them to provide me with interesting entertainment that would stretch my brain somehow. So now there is also for me the hope that other people may in due course see us in that way. In the end, time is the most valuable thing anyone has and quality time with one’s friends is so hard to come by. So, by buying your game, someone is actually saying, ‘I’ll give you a part of my life, represented by money that I’ve taken time to earn, and I invest in you and your product and trust you not to waste my time in return’. That exchange for me is incredibly satisfying. For us, selling games is not a get-rich-quick scheme. If it was, we’d be mad. There are much easier ways to make money. What we’re doing is trying to add value to people’s lives in some way.

NS: While Martin is trying to add value to your life, my kids need clothes, so please just buy the game! 

On that note, talk about creative risk, or rather about risk when trying to realise creative projects.

MV: I’ve felt for the last two and a half years just constantly uneasy and excited.

NS: Yeah, both at the same time.

MV: I’m scared. All the time. But there are few things I can imagine doing that if it goes right, I can be really proud of myself. If you take the risk, for example, to write a novel, that is an enormous amount of time, an enormous amount of love, of care and attention that you put into it to make it a good work, to put it out there into the universe. And that’s a huge risk. Money is really time crystallised, whether it’s someone else’s or your own, and once you risk that time, well you may not get it back. So you’ve got to have courage and confidence in your ideas before you embark on any kind of creative enterprise. Either that or you’ve just got to be stupid. Maybe we are just stupid.

NS: A bit of both probably. The effort is really invisible in most creative endeavours.

MV: Yeah, the months of testing that game, the months of coming across a random Lords of War paper version with just coloured crosses on it floating about the house. Or persuading your friends to have just one more game, a four player game, maybe try a six player one with just bits of paper with squiggles on it! And the number of cards I decided after a while that I just didn’t like, because they didn’t have enough personality. All around our flat I’d constantly be finding screwed up little reject cards. 

NS: I think Martin came up with three times the amount of cards that actually made it into each deck. 

MV: There were cards that just didn’t work well enough within the context of their army.

NS: The other thing is once you start down that road, the ego means you can’t stop. You have to keep on till the very end because you don’t have the balls to say to your friends and family, ok I’m just giving up now! 

MV: But also, there’s a risk, a cost, in not doing something. And that applies to anyone in any walk of life. If you wait, you’re just gonna die with your ambitions unfulfilled. Cleaning the house, for me, just doesn’t even exist as a goal! There are too many other more interesting things I want to do.

NS: (looking around) And you can still just about walk around in this house. Just about. You don’t have to get out the snow-plough attachment just yet. 

MV: You figure out ways of saving time. We got really efficient at deciding how many cards you can get onto an A4 piece of paper that would mean the least amount of cutting out.  

NS: My favourite was learning to shuffle cards made of copier paper!

MV: I think creative risk is really a hundred thousand tiny creative risks that you take a few at a time. You’re constantly risking and constantly prioritising and you’ve got to trust in your own judgement.

Is the process made easier by being part of a team? Would you have done it on your own?

MV: I’d never have done it by myself.

NS: To be honest, to start with it wasn’t easier. 

MV: Because we did argue a lot. When I say argue, it’s not like we were effing and blinding at each other. But there was a lot of spirited debate!

NS: It was about reaching compromises and letting go of some ideas of what you thought the game should be.

MV: A perfect example was with the artwork. When Steve Cox, our incredibly talented artist, sent the first few pieces through, I’d ask Nick for feedback and he’d send me messages like, ‘I just don’t think there’s enough detailing on those boots’! Or, ‘I’m not sure about that fur, maybe we should have some kind of plating’…

NS: I had to tell Martin that if I go too far, just tell me to shut the f**k up!

So how many coins were in the swear jar?

MV: I think we’re probably still under ten.

NS: He didn’t actually say it but I could pick up when he meant it! So when he said, ‘Nick we’ve got to look at the bigger picture’, I knew he meant ‘shut the f**k up, it’s great as it is’. It took time just learning how to work with one another. For me, the thing I had to come to terms with about the creative process is that, when you’re negotiating with someone else, you’re thinking, no, my way is best. But if you stick rigidly to that you realise that the only dream you’ll have is your own dream. But if you’re willing to compromise and let some of your thoughts go and include someone else, then the dream becomes larger. Though you’ve had to compromise part of your own vision, the upside is that you become part of a larger dream. It’s hard to let go of what you truly think is best and let someone else step forward, but if you don’t your dream stays small. But it’s really hard to make those compromises all the time.

MV: It’s a particularly big thing for you because you’re a perfectionist. You’re very detail orientated. You know, I now have a little Nick that sits on my shoulder. I don’t know if you have the same. But when I’m working I’m always thinking, what would Nick think of this? It’s now part of my thought process. 

NS:  Yeah, when I was writing the product profile for retailers, I wanted to put a picture in and I was thinking, now where would Martin put this? Another good thing about working together is that we could delineate responsibilities. I could say, you’ll just have to do this for me because otherwise it won’t get done well enough. And vice versa. My wife, Brenda, said to me ages ago, can’t Martin do the accounts? And I just said no, because I’m not doing Facebook! Social media is just not me. I don’t have the enthusiasm for it. 

MV: Whereas I love it. I love talking to people. If anyone writes to me, I will reply to them. I love mailing copies of games out to people and writing little notes asking how they heard of us because they live in Indonesia or Brazil. 

NS: It is really great to get feedback from people actually playing our game. 

MV: Yeah, it’s good that someone has taken the time out of their day to put down in writing what they think of it. You know, one of the riddles for us at the moment is trying to figure out how to make aeroplanes in World War Two work for one of our core historical decks. Someone on our forum suggested that we just use them like cavalry according to our intermediate rules. The thing is, we haven’t really publicised the intermediate and advanced Lords of War rules. We don’t make a big thing about it when we go to game shows. But this guy must have gone away and looked up the cavalry rules on the website because he’d clearly been playing with them and it was awesome! Thankyou for letting us know that! As a creative, you don’t want to bug people to try out stuff so it’s really good to hear from people like that. 

NS: One email said, “My children love your game’ and another said ‘We’ve been playing it a lot in our house’. That was cool.

MV: You know, its funny, when I first met Nick, I thought here’s someone who’s got really great ideas and we can have a really good chemistry and conversation about these ideas. But then I also met your family and your children and that was the point at which I thought, right, I’m entering this family. Our families are combining now. Everyone is involved. You move beyond being just colleagues or business partners. You become a family unit where everyone is assisting each other. I think what you said about the bigger dream thing is very, very true and a very beautiful way to see it.

I value Nick’s thoughts and advice and his judgments and his way of looking at the world enormously. In many ways we’re very similar and in other ways very different. Nick’s quite an optimistic person. He likes to see the positive and the bright side. I tend to see everything that’s going to go wrong. Between the two of us, we come to a place that’s realistic. Because the whole thing is a game. As game designers and game fans, we’re playing an enormous game, which is called business. It’s a two player co-operative with many other characters also involved!

(I should point out here that Nick, the optimist, is wearing a Superman tee and Martin, the pessimist, a Batman Dark Knight tee.) 

Your artwork is by award-winning artist, Steve Cox, of Count Duckula fame. When you saw his work, did you know immediately that here was your artist?

NS: I’m not sure I did. I was expecting something grittier, more realistic. Martin loved it straight away.

MV: Yes, absolutely. Steve is a very, very talented artist and he seems quite intuitively to understand what I’m angling at. I’ll tell him what I want, then he’ll come back with an idea and we’ll discuss it till we find a middle ground. After that, we’ll get the first drafts. Every card starts as a black and white outline drawing which I’ll take to Nick. Once we’re happy, on we’ll go to the colour. Almost all of them have been redrafted a few times. Towards the end, there were some that were right first time but it took us a long time to decide on the right tone to strike, the right balance of reality versus fantasy. By which I mean that a lot of fantasy art is the air-brushed, almost realistic kind and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted something that was more cartoony, but not in a way that alienated adults. I wanted something that was fun and violent at the same time, but not exploitative in its fun.

NS: I think the artwork is friendly.

MV: Yes, it’s friendly but it’s still about fighting. Like, say, the Bash Street Kids, those thuggish Beano characters. What makes them fun? It’s also made a little more complicated by the fact that we want to do science fiction and steampunk versions of these races as new core decks. So I want Orcs in hobnail boots and hats. So you’ve got to create an Orc that’s not going to look ridiculous in hobnail boots and a hat. The idea is that the fantasy battle storyline will conclude with each race’s civilisation in a certain place. We’ll jump forward say 800 years and where are they now? They’re all living in cities together and their disagreements are not about the same things that they were. There’ll be political problems that will have evolved out of societal issues. It’ll be like an age of empire with airships. At the moment these are very much fledgling plans. 

Any final thoughts? Words of succour to budding game designers out there?

MV: In less than a year, Nick and I have gone from two crazy guys who’ve blown a lot of money on an idea to people who’ve managed to secure distribution in the UK, Europe and the US and win a national award. Who knows where we’ll all be in a year’s time? It’s all to play for.

 

More about BBG and Lords of War can be found at www.lords-of-war.com

 

 

 

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