After a lengthy discussion with Nigel from One Free Elephant at Airecon 2018 about developing the solo variant for Carcosa…and then having taken it out of the library to take it for a solo test drive myself to find out what it was all about, I managed to persuade Nigel to make an appearance on BSoMT’s A Guest Knows Best…and so glad I did for he has, indeed, very kindly provided an increadible ringside view of the difficulties and demands made, nay, thrust upon designers by the solitaire element of the gaming world.
Oh God, they want solo rules!
By Nigel Kennington of One Free Elephant, March 2018
In retrospect, we should have seen it coming.
It was never an issue during ORE-SOME’s campaign (probably because of the “family game” target or the clear notes of “take that” and dexterity) but now when I am asked for advice on an upcoming kickstarter campaign one of my first questions is always “What are you going to say when the backers ask for solo rules?”
Let me be clear: in spite of where you are reading this I do not believe all games need or even should have solo play rules, but creators should be prepared to answer the question and justify it! We at One Free Elephant were not prepared at all, but I think we coped and learned enough from the experience to make it worth sharing (plus I’ve always loved the “mistakes” demotivational poster) so now’s my chance to live it!
I’m being dramatic – Carcosa has been a successful game by our tiny standards. The kickstarter brought in over £26,000 from just shy of 900 backers, German and Italian versions have been launched and of a print run of 2000 copies we have significantly less than 200 left to distribute. Not bad for what the Americans would rather wonderfully call a “mom and pop” operation who literally handled the UK distribution from their dining room table.
Running the Carcosa campaign and developing the solo rules “on the fly” has been an interesting experience. This article is a somewhat rambly post-mortem of what happened and what we did, but if you want to cut to the chase, here’s some of the “headline” things we learned:
- The solo play community is bigger than you think: Ultimately it’s a niche within a niche hobby, but if you can support solo play, it will broaden your target audience.
- Write the solo rules from scratch: Don’t assume that all solo players will be able to either play or just absorb the multiplayer rules and then apply the solo play changes on top of that.
- No matter what you change, someone will like the old way better: This isn’t specific to solo rules. In any kickstarter, someone will have liked the thing you want to change, so be damn certain what you’re changing is worth losing those people.
- Put your cards on the table: Related to the previous point, have a dialogue with your backers – let them see why anything is changing. They’re on board with you, treat them as such.
- Ask for help: The solo play community is very engaged. If they ask for solo rules, some of them will be willing to help playtest the same. This is invaluable.
Automata do not have to be complex to “feel” like an AI Actor: Indeed, I would say they shouldn’t be. We are naturally predisposed to anthropomorphize anything that makes a decision. Capitalise on that!
- Backers can be generous: Give them the ability to do that. Our “solo play bling pack” adds nothing to gameplay, but backers asked for addons to help support the campaign…
- Always test: You might get close, but your first shot can always be improved on.
Setting the Scene
Carcosa’s campaign launched on the 30th of May 2017. The first request for solo rules was on that day and was requested 25 times by different backers before the last week of the campaign.
I started researching the possibility when the second request came in on the 31st of May. At this point I had never played a solo board game and frankly didn’t really “get” them – so I set to “work” playing a bunch of them while Sarah investigated the practical concerns of all this.
Considering the Logistics
We’re really proud of the fact that One Free Elephant’s campaigns run tight. We get stuff done and we get people their games on time or near as damnit and it was important to us to maintain that.
The solo rules were originally suggested as a stretch goal but for that to work we’d have to start development after we hit that stretch goal. Rulesets are hard, even when you’re modifying existing rules, and to have sufficient time for testing and refinement and still get it on the boat on schedule we’d have needed to start development immediately. So this left us with some difficult decisions:
We could have developed it and only released it if the stretch goal was hit.
That seemed like a lot of time working on something that might not happen. Time that could have been spent finalising and refining the existing art and ruleset, communicating with the distributor, the manufacturer and the backers, both current and potential.
We could have developed it and set the stretch goal but plan to release it regardless.
We know this has been done in kickstarters before, but that seemed disingenuous. We want people to know that One Free Elephant say want they mean. We run very transparent communications and that would undermine it.
We could have done it as an addon?
Remember, this decision had to be made right at the beginning of the campaign and we weren’t sold on the addons at the time – we were still new to running kickstarters (as this was our second game) and it seemed like we were risking the reputation we’d built with ORE-SOME by experimenting with something so different without it being in the project plan from the beginning. We had no quotes, hell, we didn’t even know what would be in the addon to get the quotes, our artist was working on other projects, we were already tight on weight and space limits for shipping, etc, etc. This one was abandoned because KISS seemed to be the way to go.
In retrospect, I think this would have been a viable option, but due to the other stresses we had, I’m still happy with the decision that we didn’t do it.
So, instead of that we decided to just build the solo rules, but they would be limited to only using the components that were already in the box, be respectful to the setting and maintain the core game design mechanics so we can just add it to the box without extra cost to our backers.
Communicating the Intent
And then we told our backers everything. We laid all the cards on the table, including all the options we considered and reasoning above. I cannot stress enough how important this was.
Firstly, that’s what a great deal of backers want. The ones who take a risk on the Indie developers like us know this is not supposed to be a storefront, so want to be involved in the process – they’re your Board of Management and they want to know what’s going on – it’s silence that worries them.
Secondly, your backers will then feed back to you with their worries before they think about cancelling their pledges.
For example, some backers were concerned that this would “water down” the main game. Because they engaged with us first, we could explain how the solo rules would “fit” and their relationship to the rest of the game.
Another example: some other backers appreciated the effort we were putting in and asked if there was any addons or anything they could buy to enhance the campaign.
At the time there wasn’t (remember we were wary of addons affecting our delivery schedule) but if there’s one business rule we should actually follow it’s if people want to give you money, you should let them! Very shortly we came up with the Solo Play Bling Pack – a set of special meeples to represent the solo play factions, that wasn’t necessary to play, but would make the game prettier. This sold much better than we expected.
Scoping the Market
In any new game, it’s vital that you understand other games already in that segment. It’s tempting to think of this as “competitor analysis” but it’s misleading. The goal here isn’t to fight for audience, it’s to understand them.
A sizable chunk of your potential audience will have already engaged with these games and it becomes part of their game playing language. Your game is never really a unique experience, your players will seek familiar ground in your systems because it helps them learn but need both subtle and overt differences otherwise, well, why would they bother with your new game? If you do not speak that language – if you haven’t seen what a good chunk of your potential audience has seen, you will never be able to draw them in.
But with Carcosa’s Solo Mode, time was incredibly tight, so At the Gates of Loyang, Tiny Epic Galaxies, Burgle Bros, Deep Space D6, Castle Panic, D-Day Dice, Super Dungeon Explore and Suburbia got played multiple times in quick succession – selected primarily because I either already had them or could borrow them rather than any subjective evaluation of their quality or suitability to the project. On top of that I read a lot more rule books and reviews about other notable single player games.
This probably worked out as a good thing – the diversity I saw seemed to indicate that the major categories of solo games were either “optimisation games” (“Do A while constrained by B” – see what score you can achieve.”) or “survival games” (“Achieve X before you are overwhelmed by Y.”)
Theme to the Rescue
Carcosa has a very strong theme that I’ve talked about at length in other articles. This was a strong attractor for a a great deal of our audience so it was really important for us to respect it in both the base game and any of the addons we produced.
Carcosa is a game of tyrannical cult leaders, desperation and, ultimately, misguided goals – “Yay! You win! It’s the end of the world!”. It seemed like an “optimisation game” would run counter to that.
Equally, the multiplayer version’s dominant endgame goal – summon the King in Yellow by generating enough power to conduct a final ritual – was already a race, so a survival game (or more exactly some sort of survival race) seemed to be the way to go.
So what to race against?
It would have been the obvious choice to create an automata Cult, but that felt wrong. Automata never behave like human players, so I’ve always felt that for the game world to feel consistent, the automata should represent a different entity. With a thematic disconnect, it discourages players to think of the automata is a “stupid player” and rather anthropomorphize it in its own right.
We’d already taken a familiar setup and turned it on its head: usually in tabletop games and RPGs, the players are plucky investigators, working to prevent the end of the world. Here we are the doom cults competing to end the world – it seemed obvious that if there was only one cult, their opponents should be those very heroic investigators!
The solo mode would become Carcosa: The Investigators.
Systems to build fun
Fun is about choice, but choices need need to be meaningful otherwise they may as well just be a coin flip.
If you are in a very simple race, your only choice is “shall I go as fast as I can?”, which is boring. There must be the option to risk or even sacrifice something to take a different path, or some sort of secondary system or balancing act that must be monitored.
The player must have to keep an eye on the pace and judge how critical the secondary systems are at the current moment to decide whether they have to concentrate on the race, or to placate the secondary system, and they must never be quite certain until things resolve!
So we needed multiple investigator with different agendas to give that textured decision-making the player needs. Luckily again, the lore aids us: in Lovecraftian inspired adventures we often have strong detectives – fighting the cults with fists and boots; clever scholars – uncovering the truth in libraries and forgotten tomes and wily occultists dabbling with magical trinkets and skulking around places or power. (If you require another reference point I’m reasonably certain that these are the same sources as the teen horror tropes – the jock, the bookworm and the weird kid.)
The Scholar and their Assistant
In multiplayer Carcosa, players select tiles from a set of stacks. The tile is then added to the growing landscape of Carcosa and the stack they select from is then blocked until their next turn.
In Carcosa: The Investigators the Scholar also selects tiles from the stacks and blocks that stack. The tile that is taken isn’t added to Carcosa, instead it is given a score and that score
I realised that the scholar could effectively act as a proxy for the game’s countdown that the player would race against – but it was obvious to me that the scholar should move in the opposite direction from the player’s score counting Oracle. It worked out useful for a number of reasons later on, but fundamentally it was (and still is) that way to physically model the fact that the Scholar had the opposite goals from you.
In addition, the race needed to vary its pace – so a simple turn counter wouldn’t do. Think of a clock in a horror movie: It’s ticking towards midnight when the bogeyman will appear. That’s reasonably tense if it’s done well. But now imagine while we’re looking at it the minute hand suddenly skips two minutes. Your heart jumps with it! Why did it leap? Did you do something? How do you make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Having the Scholar “steal” tiles, and giving those tiles different values, meant that the player could manage the clock speed, but not stop it, at the cost of limiting their choices. They could also ignore the “clock speed” if they really needed to concentrate on other things. Now that’s an engaging choice for the player to have!
The Detectives I wanted to chase the cultists. That simple concept went through a many iterations that exemplifies the maxim: “the game is done when there’s nothing left to cut”.
For example, their movement was originally much more “in world” moving over and following features of Carcosa – which was more “realistic” but meant too much time was spent calculating and evaluating routes (which is dull bookkeeping) and so it was simplified and simplified until it was reduced to a 2 state automata that simply moved one tile each round.
It’s worth noting though that the Detectives are also affected by Theatres and Feasters that appear on the map. This should have been cut if we are rigorous about applying the above maxim – particularly because this happens so rarely in normal play. It wasn’t because I think it’s really important to maintain a world that is homogeneous: If something affects the player’s pieces on the board, they should affect every piece on the board.
The occultists answer the following question: If the detectives will hunt down deployed cultists, why deploy any until you are about to score?
When they deploy, they will claim the largest unoccupied feature in Carcosa – preventing the player (at least temporarily) from generating power there. Not the most exciting (or mechanically interesting) part of the game, but a necessary one to guide the player’s actions into conflict with the other parts of it.
And now test!
The solo rules were ultimately a variant of the main game, under a very tight schedule, so it was tempting to perform minimal testing. The combination of my inexperience of solo games and the fact that we’d said up front, if it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t release it, fought against that urge and (thankfully) won.
With no time to produce and distribute new prototypes to the usual places, we just asked backers. Specifically those who were very active participants or who had asked for solo rules. We already had the tabletop simulator version available and as there was no additional components, people with existing prototypes or access to that software could test the new ruleset.
Feedback types were varied, with some people playing and others proofreading the rules without playing – but all was valuable. Many changes came from this, the larger of which included revising the Scholars priorities and the “score” they got from certain types of tiles; the already mentioned changes to the Detective movement; the Occultists used to “feed” the assistant (this was revived for the co-op roles) and the priority icons on the tiles.
Without the testing and proofreading, Carcosa: The Investigators would have been harder (much harder), more opaque and with a higher learning curve and there is no way I would have had the objective perspective to fix that.
The kickstarter campaign finished at the end of June 2017 and the solo rules were completed along with the final art in order to hit production early in August – so the rules were written, tested and refined in two months. A very short period.
Although I believe the rules to be fun, there is a steeper learning curve than I’d like. Since the production, I have produced a set of rules for Carcosa: The Investigators “from the top” – that doesn’t rely on the player knowing the competitive rules as well as a currently draft set of co-op rules – Carcosa: The Conclave that build out from the solo that does require the solo play bling pack.
It would have been great to include those in the box, but ultimately that would have caused delays, pushed our game over it’s weight limit for shipping (as it was we had to argue with people over how much a shipping carton added to the weight!) and risked knock-on with our international distribution slots. If we had planned for it from the beginning, these features could have been added to the campaign without impact.
Ultimately we underestimated the size of the demand for the solo element. We sold nearly 200 solo play bling packs as part of the campaign. Given that we had nearly 900 backers, that means over 20% of our backers were interested enough in the solo game to pay extra for their copy. Now, we’ve already said that some folk bought the addon in order to support us (for which we love them dearly!) but equally, how many people remain unaccounted for that were interested in the solo rules but didn’t need the bling pack?
I’ve already listed the major lessons we learned from this project at the beginning of this article, but one final thought would be this: no matter what you do, your audience will surprise you and challenge you. You need to take this as a good thing and let it power you. That is what will make your campaign a success – regardless of what you decision you take from that point.
One Free Elephant website: http://www.onefreeelephant.co.uk/
One Free Elephant on Twitter: