Monday, September 13, 2010

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal(l for one) lobotamy

I didn't start this blog until 2007, so while my few readers have surely read about All For One, even the most faithful probably don't know the beginnings of the story. 7 and a half years ago I came across a game design about the Three Musketeers on the Board Game Designers Forum which sounded just awesome. The game was called All For One, and the designer's name was David Brain. Since I thought it sounded so cool, David offered to send me a prototype - I expected files to print and use, but lo, in the mail I received a full set of bits! The board was small and paper, and the plot tokens were tiny paper squares, but the player pawns were wooden bits and the cards were printed and sleeved. I was impressed that David would send that kind of a package all the way from London!

Reading through the rules and solo playing the game I had an avalanche of ideas about things I thought should be different in the game, but I had promised to play the game "as-is" before trying any changes. So I gathered some friends and gave the game a try... and it went over like a lead balloon! My friends were not at all impressed with the game, but I knew the core of the game was good. So, having played by the original rules, I made a number of significant changes and convinced my friends to (grudgingly) play again. It was better, but still a long way from anything we would consider truly "good."

After much development by both David and myself, working together via chat room and email, All For One became much more streamlined, and much better. I started bringing it with me to conventions such as BGG.con and KublaCon, entering it in the game design contest at the latter, and finishing 2nd (would have been 1st except for a penalty for being 'late' - it's a long story). Through several different versions, the reception I got at the cons was overwhelmingly positive. The contest judges at KublaCon insisted that the game should be published, and the head judge even expressed interest in showing a copy to a new publisher starting up in Seattle (which you now know as Bucephelous Games). All For One was the first game I tried to submit to a publisher, and I didn't really know how to go about it.

First, I cornered Mark Kaufman from Days of Wonder at KublaCon, just after the results of that contest, and told him I had a game I thought was perfect for Days of Wonder. I knew DoW never takes submissions from just anyone, but I told him about the contest and he said to send a 1-page description of the game! Excited, I did that, but in the end they told me "Since we do so few games each year, we don't like to revisit themes, and we've already done a game loosely based on the Three Musketeers." I was pretty bummed by that news, especially considering that Queens Necklace was only barely themed after the Three Musketeers, and was a card game whereas All For One is a full board game - a completely different genre. At the time I even thought "hey - they could re-use some of the artwork if they wanted!" But alas, that was their decision.

The next thing I did was send the game to New York for a Spielbany session which Zev Schlasinger was attending, and some of my friends from BGDF (Jeff Warrender, Gil hova, and others) were going to play the game with Zev and see if he was interested in it. Zev did play the game, and was not interested - he gave me some feedback though, and said he'd be happy to look at the game again if his comments were addressed. So some time later, after a version change which I thought addressed most of Zev's concerns, I sent the game home with him at BGG.con 2007, hoping he would like the new version and decide to publish it. Sadly, it sat on his shelf for a full year, and when he did finally play the game again, his summary comment was, for lack of better terms, "It's too Euro for a theme that screams Ameritrash." I completely understand his position, it's like the difference between Pirate's Cove and Winds of Plunder. I suspect that when Zev thinks of the Three Musketeers, he imagines a game more like Pirate's Cove, with lots of 'exciting' dice rolling... not a deeper euro-style game like Winds of Plunder. He's welcome to his opinion, but I don't see why a Three Musketeers theme has to imply "ameritrash" or whatever.

Zev was nice enough to ship All For One directly to Jackson Pope in England, who expressed an interest in seeing it. In retrospect though, I wish I'd not bothered to send the game to him, as he didn't have the capitol for a game of that scope, and I would have preferred to have my prototype back. When Jackson had finished with the prototype, since he was in England, it seemed to make sense to have him send the prototype directly to David, so he could compare it with his and make sure we were both using the same game.

Unfortunately, that's the last I heard of the prototype. David has commented a number of times that though he can't seem to find some parts of the game, the nice painted miniatures I used as player pawns are safe and accounted for. However, the more important part of the prototype is the hand changes to the board and cards that represented a lot of development work and balancing!

Sadly, not much has happened with All For One since 2008. Not having a copy of the game, it was difficult to play it further or do any more development on it. I heard that David was working on a spin-off game with similar mechanisms about super heroes - something we'd discussed long ago in the chat room, however I still prefer the Musketeer theme. Frankly I've always been amazed that there isn't already a musketeer themed euro game - the theme is so strong and the story so well known. Well it turns out that not 1 but 2 Musketeer games have come out in the last year - and I just heard there's another Three Musketeers movie coming out next year starring Orlando Bloom and Mila Jovovich.

Neither of the recent/new Musketeer games sounds anything like All For One, and I still think All For One delivers an experience that's unlike other games out there - a mix of euro mechanics with a thick, American style theme. Be that as it may, even as head of development of Tasty Minstrel Games I cannot seem to get All For One published. I know, it sounds weird to me too... but based on some lessons learned from my first outing as a published designer, I have been thinking about the following strategy to make All For One somehow more accessible, or otherwise acceptable to a publisher:

I'll start with an analogy. Are you familiar with Queen Games' recent release, Fresco? It has been fairly well received (average rating of 7.53 at boardgamegeek, currently ranked #167), and is a very nice looking, decent eurogame. In what I can only assume was an attempt for the Spiel des Jahrs award, Queen did something interesting with Fresco - they took a complete, decently interesting game, and then stripped away several chunks of it. They referred to the lobotomized version as the 'base' game, and included those chunks as 3 'expansions' which you could optionally add back in. The first time I played the game, I played with all of the expansions, and found the game fun and enjoyable. The second time I was teaching some new players and thought "why not try just the base game?" - it was alright, but fairly boring and more straightforward than the previous playing. I understand that I'm not in the target market for the 'base game' - I'm among the category of people for whom the expansions were included (rather than cut from the game altogether), and I see why they chose to lobotomize the game the way they did. And it worked! Fresco was on the short list for consideration for the SdJ!

That said, I wonder if All For One doesn't need a lobotomy. I could see removing some of the things that are more fiddly to explain, and leaving a much simpler game, about as complex as Ticket to Ride. For example, the Horse movement could be stricken altogether, and the swordfighting duels. The algorithmic guard movement could be removed, or possibly replaced with a simpler mechanism for placing guard 'roadblocks' such as "place a guard where the card says to whenever a mission is completed." (this could be where the required/bonus tokens for that mission reside, so as not to require further information on the card). These aspects could however be included in the game by way of 'built-in expansion,' bringing the game back up to it's full glory when all of the expansions are used.

The theory is to simplify and focus the game into a light, fun pickup/deliver route planning game without fiddly rules to try and strengthen the theme, but allow players to add some of those rules back in once they're experienced with the game. I particularly like the "voting" swordplay mechanism and would hate to lose it forever.

I'll put some more thought into this lobotomy, and hopefully I'll get a chance to give it a try. Of course I'll post my findings here - hopefully that the simplified 'base' game is easy to learn and fun to play, and hat the add-ons work well as expansion or optional rules.

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