On Making Swamped and That Good Old Creative Drive

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I was recently asked why I decided to make games in general, and Swamped in particular. There’s the short answer – I love table top games. RPGs, board games, card games, and I love toying with things that make them work too. Then there’s the long answer.

The Long Answer

Way back in 1986 I was a high school freshman. I was hugely into D&D and Palladium RPGs. Then a mutual gamer friend introduced me to this thing called Talisman. It was love at first sight. I played and then owned all of Talisman 2nd edition. After that I got into first Blood Bowl and then Dungeon Bowl. Warhammer was around back then but the price was a bit prohibitive for me, so I purchased a few of the chit and paper map type war games that were available in the late 80s and continued my love affair with RPGs.

College happened and the RPGs were easier to pack so with the exception of Blood Bowl and Talisman, my board game stayed at home. There followed a long period where I was mostly an RPG player, only dabbling occasionally with board and card games.

Back in 2008, I launched this blog, based almost solely on table top games with a slant of course towards RPGs. That was the tipping point. I ‘published’ a number of Pathfinder and system neutral RPG things, along with a few small, self enclosed systems. I loved and still love RPGs but I found myself with two kids, my wife, a full time job and a long commute. My time to play RPGs kept getting whittled down.

So I glanced around my shelves, dusted off a few of the board games I had and promptly and instantly fell back in love with the hobby board game scene.

I’ve always enjoyed creating things, so after a year or so of doing research (which thankfully translates into playing a huge amount of board games) I started toying around with some design ideas of my own. They were, quite frankly, crap. Poor implementation of mechanics, way to much reliance on luck and things that had been done before without much of a change in how they were implemented.

The Inspirational Bit

Here’s the thing though – having written fiction and poetry in college and afterwards, having made a few low-end RPGs, and having read quotes on the internet, I knew one special fact. Here’s a quote from Ira Glass explaining that fact. It’s a little on the long side as far as quotes go, but it will be worth your 30 seconds of reading.

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 its 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.

Knowing that and also knowing that many of the design ideas implemented in newer games came from ideas from older games, I started experimenting with Old vintage cards on a white background isolatedold (19th century) card games. I’d start with a simple re-theme, get to a theme that I enjoyed and then start adding/taking away mechanics until I had something that was similar but hopefully better.

It didn’t always work. But it worked enough that I was encouraged by my own designs. So I showed a few to other people and they were also encouraging, in the best way. That is, they like what I had done but found the flaws and pointed them out to me. A few of these I liked enough that I started making them available as Print and Play or Print on Demand titles.

Around about this time I also decided that since I couldn’t always find enough folks with enough time to play these games I loved so much, I’d do the next best thing, talk about them! So I launched a podcast and started interviewing game creators. I did about 50 episodes of that, which was an immense help. Nothing informs people on how to create games more than talking to people who create and (important point here) sell games.

By this time two years ago I have about 200 game ideas, ranging from a catchy title to a fairly well fleshed out prototype. Of those, I’d found about 30 that seemed like they might be viable games – have something that’s both fun, interesting, new and not boring. Of those, I found that about 5 really, honestly did have something to them. They were fun, engaging, with a neat twist on a mechanic that wasn’t everywhere else in the board game world. Swamped was one from that batch, although it wasn’t called Swamped then, and it was a bit of a lesser game than it is now.

On Pitching a Game

Holy Stock Photo BatmanIn my course of shopping titles around… well hold on a second. Let me touch on that briefly too. In my Game School articles, I talk a bit about finding new games from the publisher’s perspective and publishing new games from the creator’s perspective. I gleaned this information from two sources. First was talking to publishers and creators. The second was my attempts to put these ideas into practice.

Those 5 titles that I thought had some real potential, I shopped them around via email and my podcast connections and just plain old blind selling to perhaps 20 publishers, big and small. I consider myself lucky to have 2 publishers be very interested. One took a design (not Swamped), did a bunch of development on it, play tested it thoroughly and then did the dreaded cost analysis. They just couldn’t bring out ideas to a point where they felt it would be cost effective. They had some great ideas, and did a lot of work which I appreciated. Then, they turned over the work and ideas to me and said “Thanks! Hit us up if you have anything further!” and that was that.

The other was Bellwether Games.

Dennis from Bellwether was interested enough in my not-quite-Swamped that he asked if he could toy around with it. I said yes and he took me up on this. He came up with some cool ideas for this little game that I hadn’t thought of and we agreed to move forward. This was approximately 11 months ago.  We had a video call, exchanged some emails and suddenly this contract arrived, was amenable to both of us and I signed it.

Making a “Nice” Game into a Great Game

More development on Bellwether’s part, more emails, a few more video calls, some online testing, ideas flowing back and forth, collaboration that worked and suddenly… quite suddenly (a mere 2 years after I had initially come up with the idea) there was this game and it worked and it was new and packed more game into it’s tiny little structure than some $60 games I owned. This part was also quite fascinating to me and reminded me why I enjoy degrees of openness on a creative project.

With just me working on the original game, I came up with a fun, quick and interesting little game. Once Dennis came on board and got his folks play testing this though, he came back with some different ideas that just wouldn’t have occurred to me. We talked, the ideas go developed and test and the entire project began to evolve into something better.

The part in all this that keeps me going personally, that keeps my interest in this project high and my enjoyment in seeing it completed is that I had a major part in making it. The part that gets me excited about this game from a fan of the hobby in general aspect is that Dennis from Bellwether also had a major part in making it better. That means every time I played a newer version, it may have moved in a different direction than I had anticipated but it got closer to my vision of making a great game.

In short, I was and am very excited about this game. It’s moved from the sometimes drudgery of play testing before I even sent it out to Bellwether to a game I really, honestly want to play, even though I have a ton of other games in my gaming library. I still had one problem though.

I’m a pretty open person when it comes to development of things like this when I’m working on my own. I love to talk to everyone and anyone about my latest ideas, what worked, what failed awfully and everything else. When you’re working on a game for someone else however, there’s an expectation that things not get blurted out as soon as they occur. So after nearly a years worth of development this press release was made. Partly I’m convinced because I was about to explode from excitement and I think Dennis didn’t want a death on his hands.

There’s still lots of information about the game I’m ready to go on about. Mechanics, more on the theme, which bits have teeth and which bits require some subtle manipulation of the other players. But I must end this now as my wife has challenged me to another game of Swamped and she won the last one!

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