Did you ever want to know what it takes to make a game? I know I’ve spent a lot of time playing them, in my spare time I’ve even outlined and toyed around with some game designs myself. There’s a lot more to it though than a quick idea and a few test plays.
We’ve announced and then reviewed the game Bridge Troll here previously. Now I’ve sat down with it’s designer, Alf Seegert and the fellow responsible for Bridge Troll’s wonderful art, Ryan Laukat. We passed a whole truckload of electrons back and forth and I ended up with an excellent conversation on what makes folks like Alf and Ryan tick and how that evolves into a game you and I can play on our dining room tables.
TC: When you designed Bridge Troll, what came first – game mechanics or the idea of a troll living under a bridge? Can you tell us a bit about your design process?
Alf: For me, themes almost always show up first—and they seem to find me rather than my finding them. I bump into something in a story or the real world and ask myself “how might that be turned into a game?” Even mundane things can evoke interesting game mechanics. My wife and I were walking Mia, a friend’s Great Dane/Labrador, and we noticed how deliberate she was (the dog, not my wife) about where she peed and where she didn’t. Before long I had a game design about rival dogs competing to mark their territory. I came up with what I thought was a clever little bidding system and used shiny little glass pieces as, well, urine drops.
Bridge Troll came out of encountering a statue in downtown Salt Lake City depicting a woman leading sheep across a wooden bridge. It struck me as (perversely) funny imagining someone putting one of those crazy-haired naked troll dolls under the bridge to extort and eat those above. That led me to ask the simple question “what would it be like to BE that troll under the bridge?” Stories about trolls tend to take the perspective of the Three Billy Goats Gruff or of Bilbo and the Dwarves in The Hobbit, or of some other outsider. But it’s a lot more interesting (I think) to consider how the miserable troll has to actually make a living! If you’re stuck living under a bridge, what do you eat? What use do you have for money, anyway? And if travelers crossing your bridge become your bread and butter, how do you decide which travelers to eat and which to extort? And how do you get travelers to cross your bridge in the first place? It’s those sorts of dilemmas that can suggest interesting game mechanics.
I guess I was aiming to do with Bridge Troll as a game what John Gardner did as a novel with Grendel, which takes the narrative point of view of the monster in Beowulf. (I should note that with respect to trolls, the Moomintroll books are a delightful exception to the “outsider” point of view, though these trolls are domesticated beyond all recognition. Both Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s independently crafted “Troll Bridge” stories do brilliant work making you see things from the troll’s point of view as well. And remember the vicious Cave Troll in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring? Peter Jackson actually felt bad for him, and imagined this poor troll was always mistreated by the Orcs and that his Troll-mum was waiting for him at home, cookies and milk awaiting, but after a nasty encounter with terrible elves, dwarves, and men, he somehow never makes it back….)
TC: Do you generally work on the mechanics of a game first and then fit that into a theme, develop the theme first or find some combination of the two at once works best for you?
Alf: Again, for me it’s theme that leads the way. So far, anyway. I’m a big fan of games that integrate theme and mechanics tightly. For me, mechanical problems in a game design are usually solved not by tinkering with the mechanics but by going back and re-examining the thematic elements. Sometimes an entire game can shift by re-theming it and closely inquiring into the new thematic elements (consider Richard Ulrich and Wolfgang Kramer’s game El Grande, which was originally set in the Trojan War). Certain designers can design a game purely with mechanics and then paste an interchangeable theme on top of it. Reiner Knizia, for instance, is good at this (his brilliant Through the Desert game with camel trains was, I believe, a hotel-chain game originally). I just can’t do that. To spur creative excitement I need concrete images and some sort of story. The particular theme and images sometimes do get discarded and replaced—but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need them in the first place to get me moving.
TC: While you were in Seattle, standing on the actual bridge troll, did you ever feel a moment of trepidation wondering if the universe was about to take you out in an extremely ironic twist of fate?
Alf: Ha! I love that Fremont Troll. I made sure to empty my pockets beforehand, and because I’m a skinny guy, I had to trust that I was worth neither extorting nor eating. But based on what that troll is grasping in his left hand, I am going to be particularly careful next time I’m driving a Volkswagen Beetle across a bridge.
TC: How long did it take for Bridge Troll to go from a twinkle in your eye to a product announced by Z-Man games?
Alf: It took a long time. I remember playing an early prototype of Bridge Troll while waiting in line for The Two Towers. That was 2002! Bridge Troll was a finalist in the German prototype design competition Hippodice in 2005 and spent a few years bouncing around from publisher to publisher before finding its true home with Z-Man. I’m not by nature a patient person, but stuff like this is training me to have to be!
Z-Man first expressed interest in Bridge Troll about two years ago, during which time they suggested further developments as I worked to tighten and improve the design. Some of that help came from fellow designers. Ryan Laukat and I are members of the Board Game Designer’s Guild of Utah (www.bgdg.info), whose members meet regularly to play and provide feedback on each others’ games. At one session, Dave Bailey pointed out that trolls are far less polite than I made them out to be, and suggested that the game involve throwing boulders somehow—which led to my changing the bidding mechanic from cards to wood cubes, which are “thrown” as boulder-bids. Mike Compton liked my die-rolling mechanic for determining the number of traveler cards each day, but thought it needed thematic improvement and suggested using weather—and voila, now we have a nifty weather die. Steve Poelzing, Shane Smith, Ryan Laukat, and many other members provided helpful feedback on my changes to the bidding system, my addition of the Billy Goat cards, etc., by playing and (in Steve’s case) attempting to “break” the game by invoking ridiculously unintuitive tactics. Ryan’s artwork is unbelievably funny and charming, so it felt great to work with him on this title. Being a member of the Board Game Designer’s Guild has been tremendously helpful to me as a designer, and I am very grateful to be a part of it.
TC: Can you tell us a bit about how the game works and why this particular title was appealing enough to you to develop into a game we can all play?
Alf: In Bridge Troll, players are bridge trolls who make their living eating and extorting the travelers who try to cross their bridges. Each day, depending on the roll of the weather die, a certain number of traveler cards are drawn. The players compete for first pick of available travelers by bidding boulders in a single color. After turn order is determined, each player has to pick one of the available cards. Each card has a toll value (used if you choose to extort the traveler) and a food value (used if you eat the traveler instead). Some travelers are cash-poor, plump, and tasty (for example, the “Monk” or the “Serf ‘n’ Turf” cards) whereas others are thin as a rail and better for turning over and shaking out their pockets (the skinny “Priest” for example). The “Fat Merchant,” of course, presents a dilemma because his pockets are filled with coins and his belly jiggles as he walks, so he’s good for both. But you have to pick only one action—eat OR extort—for each card you take. (I guess trolls actually have a sense of honor and will not eat someone they extort for cash?) You improve your bridge’s value (thereby scoring points) by trading in cards from both your food supply (energy for repairs) and tolls collected (building supplies), scoring the lesser valued set of cards you trade in. So to succeed, you have to keep your card supply well-balanced.
The card interactions in the game can get fairly intricate: what do you do with the Fat Princess? She’s worth 5 food if you eat her, but you can’t extort her for money without first claiming a Royal Messenger who brings a ransom. Do you risk someone else’s beating you to a Messenger or do you just eat the Princess? Do you close your bridge and collect extra boulders from the supply all in one color (good for bidding) or in different colors (good for driving off Billy Goats)?
The biggest catch, however, is that not all travelers are the kinds you want crossing your bridge in the first place. Bandits steal your money, knights rescue captives, and dragons are even worse. Billy Goats have to be driven away with boulders for you to avoid damage to your bridge (though you score points if you succeed in defeating them). If you bid, you must draw a card, and when your turn comes around the cards available might not include a card you want. Thankfully, a handful of special cards, ranging from Fortune Teller (who reveals hidden cards) to Garlic Merchant (who drives away Bandits, Knights, and Dragons) can help you succeed in your troll-bridge operation.
My first inklings of encouragement came from testing early prototypes with friends, who enjoyed it. My friend Shane brought his copy to campus (the University of Utah) where he shared it with student groups who much enjoyed it. With this encouragement, I tinkered a little further with the design and sent it off to the annual Hippodice game design competition in Germany, where it became a finalist. Such positive responses made me think that I might have a publishable game on my hands.
TC: In the spectrum between hobby and job, where does game design fall for you?
Alf: Right now I’m a doctoral student in English at the University of Utah, so game design is a hobby. But the amount of energy and time it requires to design and test games can make it sometimes feel more like a job (only with less pay!). But as a creative outlet, game design can’t be beat. Of course, if enough people end up liking my games enough to buy them, then maybe I’ll be able to make more and more titles. If that happens, designing might start to become a lot more like a real job.
TC: How has the publication of Bridge Troll affected your personal life? Do you find yourself receiving fan mail or being stopped in gaming shops? Does your voice now carry a certain weight of authority (both online and off) when speaking with other gamers? Has anyone bought you a drink yet?
Alf: Ha! Well, the biggest difference I discovered is that when you actually have a published, professionally-made, shrink-wrapped game on a shelf for sale, everybody who for the past ten years thought you were just some kind of abstract dreamer finally takes note and goes, “Hey–wait–you’re a game designer!”
Other publishers have taken notice as well (I was offered a contract on another game of mine yesterday; the timing to me suggests that publishers are way more likely to bet on a horse after they’ve seen it race.) All these things are, of course, welcome developments. As a failed rock star, I find it strangely gratifying to finally be signing autographs. But where are the groupies? (Yes, I’m being ironic.)
Fan mail? None so far, unless you count the generous souls who have posted comments and ratings for Bridge Troll on Boardgamegeek. If you like the game, please do visit there, rate it accordingly and give comments–game designers depend on such “word of mouth” to get their game noticed. If you don’t like the game, well, you’re still entitled to rate it and say what you will. But please check out the FAQ first! There are a couple ambiguities in the rulebook that can result in a much less enjoyable game if played improperly.
TC: At what point were you brought into the process?
Ryan: I started getting involved a few months before Zev at Z-man Games started looking for an artist. Alf told me that Zev had been looking at the game and was interested in publishing it. Alf and I are good friends and he did all he could to try and get me on-board for the art.
TC: How many pieces of original art did you create for Bridge Troll?
Ryan: I’m not quite sure but one of the things that was really fun about Bridge Troll is that there were so many fun characters to draw. The traveller deck is filled with every kind of character from billy-goats to royalty. I tried to make each character and troll unique. I love games where on the tenth time playing, I notice some new detail in the art that makes me laugh.
TC: Can you tell us a little of your creative process and how it meshes with designing art for a product with a set of preconceived images? Most of us know that a Troll may look like – how did you decide what these particular trolls WILL look like?
Ryan: The first thing I did was sit down and play the game with Alf. That was really helpful in determining the kind of feel the game had. Bridge Troll is a fun, light-hearted game meant to appeal to a wide range of players. Alf had used clip-art in the prototype so we knew we were going for a fairy-tale, whimsical feel. I remember looking at bunch of different styles of trolls to try and figure out what we wanted them to look like. Everyone seems to have their own ideas. I was inspired by what I thought would be the most iconic and fun parts of each.
TC: How long did it take you to develop all of the art used in Bridge Troll?
Ryan: The process from beginning to end took about three months. I started with sketches in December and did most of the painting the next month. It’s always a bit of a rush at the end to try and meet the deadline, and I was really happy with the final result.
TC: When I was last in China I witnessed (and subsequently purchased work from) a number of artists composing landscapes using only their thumbnails. Would you ever consider doing this and if so would that precipitate a move to China?
Ryan: Oh, I am definitely open to new types of art! :) And moving to China goes without question.
TC: Have you designed art for games before?
Ryan: It’s been my hobby from a young age. When I started, I was drawing with colored pencil and taping the drawings to playing cards. I liked to invent my own games so I could do the art for them, a practice I’m still doing today (when I have a spare minute.) Before Bridge Troll I had done work for Rio Grande Games on two projects: Dominion and Strozzi. I was extremely happy to work on those games.
TC: How did you and Alf come to work together on this?
Ryan: We met through the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah and soon became friends. Alf did all he could to promote my work and soon I was working on Bridge Troll.
TC: What’s next on your plate? Do you have other commissions or designs you’re working on?
Alf: I have several other game designs currently under consideration by publishers, so I hope you will be seeing more games from me very soon! I’m also working on two new designs, one with fellow Guild member Phil Kilcrease, that I have yet to submit anywhere.
A brief note to fellow designers: Bridge Troll, as well as two of my games that publishers are currently considering, are former Hippodice contest finalists, so I do recommend Hippodice as a way for aspiring Eurogame designers to get their games noticed. I have had a total of five finalists there: The Vapors of Delphi (second place 2004), Bridge Troll (finalist, 2005), Ziggurat (finalist, 2005), Mont-Saint Michel (end round recommended title, 2007), and TEMBO (3rd place, 2008). See http://www.hippodice.de/
Ryan: Recently I’ve been doing work for the new Dominion expansion. I’m also involved in some other projects but I don’t think I can talk about them as they aren’t announced yet. And then I’m always working on my own projects, hoping they’ll get published sometime soon. I’ve been thinking about putting some of them online for free print-n-play.
When you’re creating something and it’s just not going the way you had planned, have you ever considered breaking into song as a way to search for an answer through a different but equally valid art form of the musical?
Alf: I’m happy you asked this, actually. I play the guitar and write songs, so I must confess some temptation here of the very sort you mention. Your suggestion sounds like a solid Bollywood solution—virtually every film from India is a musical, so even the violent action sequences go from everybody fighting terrorists one moment to the next with everybody dancing around and singing in Hindi. On that note: one of my favorite Bollywood films, Main Hoon Na, is equal parts Die Hard and Grease (with a small helping of The Matrix)—highly recommended if such a wonderfully deranged masala of genres appeals to you. The films Lagaan and Dil Se are great, too. Very inspiring, though I have yet to come up with a game about them….
Edit: Alright folks. I’ve received a bunch of entries for which I’m very grateful. Thanks for entering! Even more interesting though, I’ve received a bunch of independent reviews and praise for the Bollywood title in question. I’ve now added it to the top of my Netflix queue, which will probably be a surprise to my wife.
Ryan: Definitely, I’ve been known to do so on many occasions. And actually, I grew up on musicals and am a big fan.
TC: What do you find least satisfying in the whole process of creating? What keeps you going when you have to make it through this point?
Alf: What keeps me going? You mean other than caffeine drips and sublingual infusions of chai? Yes, sometimes a game design will take years to develop and still seemingly go nowhere, publication-wise. Feeling “stuck” is, of course, discouraging. But in contrast, even one little victory like an actual publication brings about a huge improvement in morale (thank you, Z-Man!). I suppose that what keeps me going, even when working on an obscurely-themed design that might seem hard to publish, is the sense that a story-world is nevertheless “out there” waiting for players to breathe life into it, and that it’s my job to not get in its way. Beyond that, the long and short of it is that games bring me joy. My wife and I have enjoyed regular game nights with a close-knit group of friends for ten years now. With so much laughter and playfulness emerging from the games we play, I guess I can’t help but want to make some myself.
Ryan: For me, I love the initial, concept and creative thought part of the process. I’m a beginnings sort of person and endings are always a bit harder. When I find myself struggling, a little Oingo Boingo or maybe my favorite movie soundtrack helps. But just knowing how rewarding it will be when it’s all done is the real motivation to finish.
We’ve featured the game now on TC and we’ve got a great interview with the designer and artist. I guess the only thing left to do is give a couple of copies of this great game away! Z-Man Games have graciously given us two copies to hand over to our readers! We’ll be back soon with info on how to win them!
Bridge Troll is published by Z-Man Games (who have published lots of cool titles). You can catch up with other like minded gamers including Alf at the Board Game Geek Bridge Troll page. Also look there for some rules clarifications (under Files) and updated news.
[tags]board and card games, bridge troll, z-man games, interview[/tags]