That time that three guys from BioWare helped Withstand the Fury Dragon's Beaver Scout troops design their own board games.
Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix
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New Patrons & Shout-Outs
This whole episode is basically a big shout-out, but here is the official shout-out to Chris, Brad, and Jos from BioWare, and also to Ian Frazier (Tiberius Moongazer to those of us who know him as the project lead for Ultima V: Lazarus), who was instrumental in shopping Withstand the Fury's request for volunteers around BioWare's Edmonton office.
And a big shout-out to the Ultima Dragons, who recently celebrated their 24th anniversary.
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As will hopefully not come as a surprise to listeners, Withstand the Fury is — in addition to running the Ultima Codex — also quite involved with Scouts Canada, and in fact has been a member of the Scouting movement since the tender age of five (he first joined Beaver Scouts around twenty-nine years ago, and remained a member of the movement until the age of twenty-six, whereupon he aged out as a Rover Scout). Since leaving the youth membership of the Scouting movement, he has taken on a new role within it: that of a leader to the Beaver Scout group that two of his daughters are members of.
He also runs a Scouting-focused podcast, which may be of interest to some of you.
Scouts Canada places a lot of emphasis on youth leadership, even at the Beaver Scout level. Of course, kids between the ages of five and seven do require a lot more direct guidance from the adult leadership of the group, but where possible they are still given the opportunity to lead, which includes suggesting meeting topics and events for the group to undertake. And, indeed, the suggestion that the Beaver Scouts should design their own board game came from one of the youth.
Of course, not having much idea how to teach young children the basics of game design, Withstand the Fury did the first thing that came to mind: he emailed someone who did know a thing or two about game design. Ian Frazier, who (as noted above) led the Ultima V: Lazarus project (a remake of Ultima 5 using the Dungeon Siege engine), also worked as the combat designer — and later lead designer — for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. He is currently the lead designer for Mass Effect: Andromeda, and works out of BioWare's Montreal office.
Of course, Montreal and Edmonton are rather far apart (3,580 km, by road, or about 38 hours of driving), so Ian himself wouldn't be putting in an appearance. But, he did manage to find three volunteers from BioWare's Edmonton office who had experience with board game design, and who had the time and inclination to volunteer to discuss same with a room full of young, boisterous children. Or, rather two rooms full of children; Withstand the Fury oversees two different Beaver Scout groups, one that meets on Mondays and another that meets on Tuesdays.
It turns out that there are a number of resources available online (here's a good example) concerning how to teach kids the basics of designing board games, which — it turns out — can be a great vehicle for teaching other skills, such as numeracy. One particularly consistent aspect of the various guides and instruction booklets that one can find is that — unsurprisingly — the best way to start kids on the path to designing their own game is to have them play other, extant games first.
So, to get the Beaver Scouts thinking about board games, Withstand the Fury encouraged them to play board (and card) games at home with their families. Additionally, one entire meeting for each of the groups was devoted to playing different board and card games in succession. The Beavers were also encouraged to think about the games in terms of what was fun about them, what wasn't so fun, and also in terms of how they were represented in the game (e.g. were they moving a game piece around a board?).
On the evenings that Chris, Brad, and Jos showed up to talk to the Beavers, the three designers spent about twenty minutes discussing the different elements that make up a game, focusing specifically on categories of components (game pieces, boards, cards, etc.), mechanics (how the components are used or interact), rules (the regulations and guidelines that govern how the mechanics can — or can't — be used), and theme (the story or subject of the game). The talk had to be kept at a fairly high level, given the audience, but the kids digested the concepts pretty well...as we saw play out during the next phase of each meeting.
Afterward, the Beavers were questioned as to which games they had played, and which were their favourites. There were a few surprising entries on the resulting lists (one youth expressed a lot of enthusiasm for Carcassonne), but after a bit of polling the lists (one for the Monday group, one for the Tuesday group) were reduced to one game each: the Monday night group chose Candyland, and the Tuesday night group choose Chutes & Ladders. This accomplished, the three designers began walking the Beavers through the process of coming up with a new game using the chosen game as a basis or template.
At Brad's suggestion, the theme was chosen first. The Monday night group eventually selected a theme proposed by Withstand the Fury's eldest daughter: the player is lost in the solar system and has to find a way back to Earth. The Tuesday night group selected Star Wars as a theme, with the object of the game being to collect as many lightsabers as possible.
With the themes settled upon, the task of designing rules, mechanics, and components took off. The Monday night group were more orderly, it must be said, although that didn't really put a damper on their creativity. They were shouting out ideas — and, where necessary, voting between competing ideas — as fast as Withstand the Fury could write them all down, and by the end of the night had come up with a spiral-shaped board with Pluto at its outermost point and the Sun at its middle. Which made for an interesting victory condition, since the Earth ended up being about a third of the way along the spiral (moving outward from the Sun), meaning that the winning space is in the middle of the board...and that it was possible to overshoot it. They had also chosen to use a spinner to control movement, and some of the spaces on the spinner would in fact move you ahead to the next planet.
The Tuesday group, meanwhile, were initially a bit more disorderly, but this energy was quickly channelled into the activity at hand. Not content to simply shout out ideas, the Beavers themselves dived onto the large sheets of paper that had been rolled out for note-taking and sketching, and by the end of the evening had devised a diamond-shaped board (with an additional path between two opposite corners bisecting the shape, which in turn had a spiral-shaped path branching off of it, the end point of which was where the lightsabers that had been collected had to be deposited). They had also chosen to use a dice to control movement, had decided that if players bumped into each other that they should have to fight, with the winner taking a lightsaber from the loser. Additionally, they had settled upon having lightsaber collection handled by way of drawing cards (with certain special squares on the board being draw a card squares). Amusingly, there was not one chute or ladder to be found; that conceptual framework had been entirely abandoned.
On either evening, the eruption of creativity was just staggering to witness, and by the end of each evening, the Beavers had — by any reasonable measure — designed the foundation for a board game that could realistically end up being pretty fun to play. What was more, the designers from BioWare evidently felt the same way, and on both evenings spent a good deal of time after the meeting excitedly discussing ways to enhance the games that the Beavers had designed, or little changes that could possibly be made to tweak the pacing and fun factor of each.
The Beaver meetings held the week following the visit from Chris, Brad, and Jos ended up being outdoor events; the early onset of spring weather meant that opportunities to go sledding were rapidly drying up (almost literally, really). As such, it was only last week that the Beavers revisited the games they had designed, and — with the help of some feedback from Chris, Brad, and Jos — made some additional changes and additions to their games. They also had time to playtest them, which of course revealed the need for a few additional changes.
One example: the Monday night group decided that the spinner should have both positive and negative numbers, so that players could move forward or backward (which would be useful in case a player overshot the Earth). However, with the start point set at the outermost square of the spiral path on the board, there was an edge case that became starkly apparent when the first youth to take a turn rolled a negative value and wondered, aloud, where he should move his piece to. (Ultimately, it was decided that the spinner would just have numbers, and that players would be able to choose to move forward or backward. To further incentiveize moving in different directions, a series of wormholes were added to the board to move players between the arms of the spiral path; sometimes, a few steps backward will end up equating to quite a large jump forward!)
The challenge to Withstand the Fury, over the next few weeks, will be to take the hastily-drawn artwork from each group's meetings and come up with some better-looking artwork for each. The reason for this is that, at the end of the year, he would like to be able to present each Beaver Scout with a boxed copy of the game that he or she helped design.
Of course, there is the matter of the Star Wars theme for the Tuesday group's game. That being said, it's worth noting that given the mechanics, components, and rules that were set out for that game, the theme could easily be changed to be about beavers in a river trying to collect materials (e.g. sticks) to build a dam.
At present, Withstand the Fury is looking at using BoardGamesMaker.com to get the games printed and shipped, because that service — unlike many others that he found — doesn't impose a minimum order quantity of 500 units. That being said, he's open to suggestions, so if anyone has somewhere better to suggest — or finds a reason not to use BaordGamesMaker — please do get in touch.
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Ultima VI Gates of Creation by OC ReMix