I get nightmares. A lot. Some are even recurring nightmares. Some are one-offs. I suppose it makes sense – i spend my working hours immersed in Lovecraftiana, and much of my leisure hours are reading horror stories or watching scary movies.
Now, while I’m HAVING the nightmares, it’s not fun. When I’ve found my way into the secret room of one of my recurring dreams, thumbing through the yellowed papers and ancient books therein; and then IT comes … I’m petrified. Sometimes my wife shakes me awake, because I’m crying out as I sleep.
But – when I wake up, I think “that was pretty cool. I can use that.” And often the nightmare gets placed into an adventure or a game. A lot of my creepy ideas & revelations about Lovecraft’s monsters have come this way.
So I basically take the attitude that sleep-Sandy can suck it. Yeah, his dream life is awful, but waking Sandy can use it all!
I spend a LOT of time testing out my games before they get published. This is part of the legacy I inherited from the late lamented Ensemble Studios. I remember once attending a seminar at the Game Developer’s Conference with Greg Street (a fellow designer). The speakers were the designers of a popular and well-respected real time strategy game (like the ones Ensemble Studio produced). The following exchange happened.
Audience Member: Give us some tips on developing a real time strategy game.
Seminar Speaker: well it’s really important that you spend LOTS of time on playtesting.
(Greg and I look at each other and smile, sagely agreeing with the speaker.)
Seminar Speaker continues: we cannot over-emphasive the importance of playtesting.
(Greg and I nod vigorously in approval.)
Seminar Speaker finishes: In fact you may want to spend as much as THREE WHOLE MONTHS in playtest.
Greg and I stare at each other in disbelief and start to laugh.
At that time, our current game, Age of Empires III, had been in daily playtests for more than 18 months! So clearly our world view was far more playtest-focused than these guys.
And I’ve maintained that view since then. I playtested The Gods War for 18 months after the initial design (from January 2014 to June 2016). I playtested Cthulhu Wars for 14 months, Orcs Must Die for about 12 months, and over a year for Planet Apocalypse and Hyperspace, my most recently designed games. There are three different things I look for during my playtests.
Speed of Play
I always want to speed up gameplay. Partly this is selfish (I can get more games in), but also I just simply like games better that move faster. I remember when Cthulhu Wars came out, people openly mocked my estimated play time of 90 minutes, only to find that this was actually the case. Lots of games under-estimate their play time, sometimes grossly (I’m looking at YOU Axis & Allies 1914). I don’t.
I am looking at two factors for speed of play. One is that I don’t want people to have to wait to do something. I want a quick turn-around per player. Second, I want the game overall to be short enough that you can get to it, teach the rules, and finish a game in a single evening.
Gods War lasts about a half-hour longer than Cthulhu Wars, mainly because of the Council phase, which takes a few minutes of discussion and often negotiation every turn (in contrast to Cthulhu Wars’ Doom phase, which is lightning-fast). I don’t mind this extra duration, because it doesn’t increase the time between making decisions. Instead, everyone is doing stuff in the Council phase, and stays involved.
Why play a game that’s not fun? I am always looking for things to modify or change that make the game more fun. What is “fun” to Sandy? Lots of things. One obvious thing is “making decisions that matter”. The Gods War has a plethora of these. A typical game ends with the top two scoring players often only 1-2 VP apart, which means literally every decision these players made may have affected the victory. Another fun thing is exploiting abilities or game features. The Chaos player gets to lord it over everyone else during the Chaos Rift segment, and this is always super-fun for him.
The Earth Gift Extinction is fun for Earth. This ability lets you earn a Rune when a kill is scored in a battle containing her Behemoth. And if the Behemoth itself gets killed, you earn an extra Rune. This is fun not only because you often get to make a decision (should I kill off my Behemoth for an extra Rune?), but because you can make other players squirm. I remember in one closely-fought game when I moved my lone Behemoth into an area with an enemy Ziggurat. When I declared combat the other players shrieked in protest because they suddenly realized that my Behemoth was certain to die vs. the Ziggurat, and therefore I would earn 2 Runes, possibly giving me enough Victory points to end the game during the Action phase and win, before the next Council phase. Man that was a glorious day. Even though I didn’t get the 3 VP I needed, and lost the game by 2 points during the ensuing Victory phase, it was great.
In a highly asymmetrical game like The Gods War, keeping the various empires equal in power, while still differentiated, is key to making the game fulfill its promise. Therefore, when we play a sequence of games, and a particular empire seems to be struggling, or to be winning too often, we take steps to address the issue.
The Last Balance Change
The very last change I made to The Gods War, before considering it complete, was a change to the Moon empire. For a long time, the Red Goddesses unique ability was to advance the lunar cycle 1 step when she was in a battle. But this seemed like not enough. We also noticed that she often didn’t have enough units out and about, so we changed her ability so that she got to spawn a Selene when she entered battle. This was cool for a while, but then we wanted … more.
So we altered her ability (called Menses) to give her an interesting choice. When the Red Goddess enters battle, she can choose either to add an Assassin to her area pre-battle (so it participates in the conflict) or to add a Selene post-battle. The Selene is a more expensive unit (with a gift that makes it even better), but the Assassin can boost combat and possibly soak up a hit. It’s a real decision. It also bumps up Moon’s threat enough to make her a competitor, and Moon players have said it makes the Goddess seem way better psychologically.
Anyway, that’s how it works at Petersen Games. Now you know.
To design a game, you need more than a brain & some construction paper. You need a support system, to permit you to focus on the ideas & game at hand, to give you time to do your tasks. If you are constantly interrupted with brief tasks throughout the day, you will not be able to devote your attention for prolonged periods of time to solving design challenges or creating game elements.
In our modern world, we are probably working on a computer which, at a single click, takes us to vast realms to explore which have nothing to do with our game project. Plus we are carrying smartphones in our pockets which can do the same thing. A designer needs to have some way to be able to stay on target.
I am not saying you need to be a hermit. Every design – EVERY design – is improved by the views and suggestions of others. Even suggestions I reject are useful, because they cause me to consider my own solution carefully, and usually improve it.
Every designer has his own methods of staying on target. At this point I want to give full credit to my beloved wife, Wendy. I have been married to her since 1979 (do the math) and her unstinting support has been what enables me to be the designer I am. Quite literally, if I was not married, or married to someone less amazing, I could absolutely not have designed Cthulhu Wars.
Let me give an example. When I am working apace on some task, the outside world vanishes away. All reality is The Game. She knows this. So if she comes to me with something (important) on which she needs my feedback, sometimes I look up with a blank stare, my fingers still typing as my mind churns on The Game. Many a spouse would try to wake me up, or snap fingers before my eyes, or punch me on the arm, to call me back to reality to get that feedback. Wendy realizes I’m “in the groove” so to speak and unable to pay proper attention (and, if I did, it would probably ruin my train of thought on the project) and she departs quietly, and makes the decision herself. Or waits till later, when I get up to get a drink of water (or pee, or whatever) so I am no longer lost in my own private universe.
She always has my back and even more important, she has faith in me. This was particularly essential for Cthulhu Wars because I spent over a year with no pay working on it. We just lived off our savings, watching our nest egg shrink. That’s a hell of a thing for someone in their late 50s. You want your retirement money to GROW, naturally enough. Remember too, that I have a pretty stellar resume as a designer, so could easily have quit on Cthulhu Wars, and gone back to work for a game company at a decent salary instead of blowing the wad on this insane project that no one else would publish. But she felt that I had the skills & the talent & the will to do Cthulhu Wars and actually is my cheerleader and inspiration when my spirits flag.
Today I told her that we now have a fallback plan. If Petersen Games goes bankrupt after producing and shipping Onslaught Two, and all our money goes towards fulfilling the campaign, we have so many firm backers who love us we can basically travel the world, living and eating with them on a week-to-week basis.
Planet Apocalypse is the most complex and in-depth co-op game I’ve ever designed. If you’re wondering what other co-op games I can take to my credit, let me list a few:
Arkham Horror – yes, I know you’re thinking “Isn’t that by Richard Launius?” and of course it is. Richard is a terrific designer, and I count him as a friend. When he first wrote Arkham Horror, back in 1987, I had the privilege of being the game’s developer. As such I had to write the final version of the rules, design the monsters, tweak the areas, etc. etc. That’s what developers did back in the day.
Doom, Doom 2, Quake – yes I know that first person shooters are now famed as competitive duels, but when I worked at id Software, and we developed Doom, Doom 2, and Quake, we designed it as much or more for co-operative games as deathmatch. Try playing these games as a team and you’ll see. I did 20 of the 27 levels in Doom, 17 of the 32 levels in Doom 2, and about a fourth of the levels in Quake. I also was responsible for naming the levels, ordering the levels, figuring out weapon & monster stats etc. Of course, since this were computer games, they were a group effort. The Carmacks & Johns did the amazing work to create the systems and appearance, but it fell on me to turn their art & programming into a game.
Orcs Must Die: the board game – this was launched by us in a Kickstarter campaign back in 2015. It is a fully co-operative game in which you must survive against hordes of orcs and monsters. It is a much lighter game, strategy-wise, than Planet Apocalypse.
Why doesn’t Planet Apocalypse have a head to head version? After all, even Orcs Must Die and Doom had player-vs-player aspects. Why not Planet Apocalypse? Well, this may be one of my shortest design corners ever. The answer is simple – because by NOT letting a player be the demons, I could have the demons be as terrifying, as extreme, and as over-the-top as I wanted. It’s that simple. The demons in Planet Apocalypse have such striking designs I wanted their reality in play to equal the terror of their appearance. I think I’ve succeeded, and I hope you agree.
A lot of you guys have doubtless played Fantasy Flight games. For years, they have been one of the world’s premier game manufacturers. One game, Twilight Imperium, influenced Cthulhu Wars spiritually. I love Twilight Imperium. I am especially impressed with the way that dynamic imbalance flows throughout the whole of a given faction, and isn’t just something simple like “this faction gets +1 move” or whatever which is how many so-called “asymmetrical” games work. It incorporates their home world, their ability, their starting techs, and their starting fleet.
I wanted to emulate that aspect of Twilight Imperium in Cthulhu Wars (obviously very different games), but each part of a Cthulhu Wars faction is intended to combine into a greater whole. I accomplished this to my satisfaction. When I see online or hear discussions about how to play Crawling Chaos or Sleeper or whomever, the speakers have to range around between the faction ability, the Great Old One(s) ability, the monster stats, the numbers of monsters of each type, the spellbooks, and even the spellbook requirements. You can’t sum up a Cthulhu Wars faction with one sentence because they have so much depth to them. For example, it makes a huge difference that Black Goat has just two Ghouls. If she had three, it would greatly change her tactics and strategies. I know this for a fact because at one time Black Goat had four ghouls, and man the whole game was different. This was very early, when we were still feeling out how the game was supposed to work (it was even before Rituals of Annihilation!), and so no one was good at playing it. Nowadays a skilled player of Black Goat with 3 Ghouls instead of 2 would be an unholy terror. But the reason she would be an unholy terror isn’t just because 3 > 2, but because of the combination of Thousand Young, which makes ghouls free; Necrophagy, which punks attackers; and Fertility Cult, which lets Black Goat spawn many at once.
Another much played Fantasy Flight Game is Arkham Horror. I was developer on the old Chaosium version back in 1987 – had nothing to do with the FFG version though for whom Mr. Launius and their team get full credit. While I like Arkham Horror and Twilight Imperium much of Cthulhu Wars design is constructed as a reaction against them! They are complex games with giant rulebooks that take many hours to play. I wanted Cthulhu Wars to have much simpler rules (though of course there is depth in the interactions), and to play far more quickly. Not because I didn’t like the FFG titans, but because we already have those. We don’t need another one. Or at least I don’t.
I get interviewed a lot, and one of the most common questions I am asked is “what is your favorite movie/game/book/etc.” Of course this is a problem, because I don’t have a favorite, not exactly. I have several favorites among each category – sometimes dozens. Also the favorites change from time to time. Last night, for example, my producer texted me and said to do an update. I texted back, saying “I am watching Commando, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and so cannot be interrupted.” I doubt I’ll watch Commando again for years but last night, if only briefly, it rose to the level of a Sandy favorite. (Don’t worry – I obediently did the update when the movie ended.)
One of my favorite movies, and in fact I would classify it among the 10 most frightening films I’ve ever seen, is Suspiria. For me, one of the most terrifying moments in the movie is when Jessica Harper is talking to an old professor, an expert in the occult, and he says, “Magic … is everywhere.” In the context of the film, this is emphatically not a good thing, but it also places the creepy events throughout in context – this is not a film about witches casting spells – malign supernatural elements lurk ubiquitously, from rainwater running down the drains to stomping dancers at a bar to light reflecting off a knife blade. The influence is vast and formless and eternal.
Anyway, in my own life and my games, I can parody this quote by saying that “Lovecraft … is everywhere.” Almost every single game and supplement I have ever done (and there have been a LOT in my 35 year career) has included at least a homage to Lovecraft, though sometimes it has been invisibly small.
Sometimes it is obvious, as in Quake, which features a Gug-like entity named Chthon as the first boss, Dimensional Shamblers, and even Shub-Niggurath herself, (shaped like a Dark Young – the latter a monster I originally invented for Call of Cthulhu). Sometimes it is hard to spot, as in Age of Empires III, which is about colonization of the New World. Age of Empires III features native scouts who help you explore the land. These scouts come from a variety of Amerind tribes – and I was tasked (among other things) with creating the list of the native scout tribes. Well, one of the tribes I placed on the list was the Miskatonic. I actually almost got caught doing this. The design lead, Greg Street, was playing the game, and he noticed that his scout was from the Miskatonic tribe – which he had not heard of despite all his reading up on Native Americans for the game. So he asked me about it. I told him that it was a small New England tribe, and I doubted he would know about it. He shrugged and I got away with it. It’s not much, but at least it’s there!
Think on it – from 1988 through 2012, I was not able to work on one single Lovecraft-themed item! I was always working for someone else and Lovecraft was never deemed to be commercial. I had to create my own company and then create, as its flagship product, what I wanted to be my ultimate Lovecraft game. And of course, in doing Cthulhu Wars, I didn’t have to hide HPL away in a corner. I could trumpet it to the world. Man it’s refreshing. I love working on Cthulhu Wars. I love playing it, I love watching other people playing it. I love talking about it. I have been eating drinking and breathing Cthulhu Wars for three years now and it has not gotten old.
Now this sets me up with a new problem though. When interviewers ask me what my favorite game is, it’s too embarrassing to say Cthulhu Wars, because of course I am the designer and it makes me sound like an egomania. So I have to pick something else. But I’ll be truthful – if someone else had designed Cthulhu Wars, I think it would still be my favorite game. I’d be right in there with my $700 pledge just like many of you.
I think this is why I keep coming up with ideas for it, and why I seek to find things to gratify you, my fellow fans and backers.