Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Tony Boydell

Tony Boydell is a board game designer and developer, and part of the publishing team at Surprised Stare Games. He is best known for designing the hugely popular worker placement game Snowdonia, alongside the likes Guilds of London and Ivor the Engine.

This is the third in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.

1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
I am a Business Analyst who emerged, butterfly-like from a Unix/RDBMS administrator pupa and tend to work on small, but successful, Governmental IT projectzzzzzzzzz. Other than boring mortgage-feeding office work, I used to draw cartoons and cartoon strips a lot – which is now subsumed in to the game design process – and wrote short stories for my children when they were young…which most of them aren’t any more.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
It’s no secret that I am mostly in love with Carl Chudyk for the twin gifts of Glory to Rome and Innovation which, for me, epitomise big ideas and ambition in efficient, lean packages; they’re just combo-bonkers and I love him for it.

I have to admit that Alexander Pfister has leapt right in to the Top 2 thanks to one of the most prodigious 18 month periods in gaming EVER (am I right?): two Kennerspiel des Jahres, a shelf-load of fat IGA and DSP trophies and – with Great Western Trail – surely even more to come? He, and co-KdJ hogger Andreas Pelikan, are also two of the nicest people you could ever wish to have lunch with – it makes you SICK, doesn’t it? I should also name-drop Ignacy Trzewiczek because he is brilliant, hilarious and unashamedly self-confident.

3. What drew you to game design?
I’d always scribbled notes on school books and did a lot of RPG-ing in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until I was lured in to Magic: The Gathering (1997) by some workmates on an IT project (!) that I met Alan Paull (City of Sorcery, Siege, Confucius) at a pub in Cheltenham. In between drafting and trading Unlimited cards, we talked about old favourites like Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords and Diplomacy; knowing that Alan had ‘designed stuff’ got me to thinking about turning my cartoon strip ‘The Black Overcoat’ (a spy) into a board game and within about six months I’d also knocked up a design about clearing the world of pollution (eventually re-engineered as Ivor the Engine) and the bare bones of what would become Coppertwaddle. That was quite a fecund couple of years for someone who sort-of-drifted in to the hobby!

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
It’s been mostly mechanisms but, very early on, a theme is essential to keep momentum going (for me, at least); I’ll get a little stuck unless I can, for example, make sense of ‘draft cards from a central line’ (Fzzzt! has robots rolling off a conveyor belt) or the ‘draw X cards and assign each one to a specific purpose’ (Lux Aeterna, my 2001: A Space Odyssey solo game, forces you to pick how bad two out of three actions will be each round).

I’m currently noodling about with a set of miscellaneously-shaped pieces (the same set for each player) and have come up with a “tech tree” to link them; however, it’s flopping about like a landed sea bass at the moment because I haven’t attached a theme to bring it properly to life. Pure theme can sometimes kick the process off; for example, the Ivor the Engine stories suggested that it should be ‘pick up and deliver’ and Snowdonia would obviously need to be ‘worker placement’, but these are rare successes amid a shed full of many, MANY more failed ‘theme first’ prototypes!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
Generally, I love all the aspects of the design process. I have noticed a significant reduction in actual local playtesting time, though; while I was working in London (2005-2012), I got a LOT of different types of player involved with Snowdonia and Guilds, for example, because we were gaming three nights a week; now I’m reduced to just the one (Friday) night and can intrude on ‘real games’ only occasionally – that slows the whole process down.

Building prototypes can also be a bit irksome; I like multi-function cards and the mental turmoil they generate. I also like lots of them and I want them to look fantastic for playtesting; preparing these can be a Sisyphean endeavour! It’s my own fault, I know: Guilds of London had 120 such cards, Lux Aeterna has 100 or so (as does my air race prototype): that’s a lot of cutting, sleeving, calluses and blisters!

Perhaps the worst aspect is when a design is obviously going nowhere and has to be ‘shelved’; they’re never permanently written-off, though, as something is always salvageable BUT going from that excited enthusiasm of the first rush to the tummy-aching disappointment of a dead-end is a blow.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
All of them are of equal hardness; whether a filler or something meatier, they have their own challenges and constraints.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
This is an oddly-contradictory one: “If you have lots of cards with effects and icons, make sure you have plain text explanations to assist the testers” – this worked a treat for Snowdonia and is an essential part of the final product. Believe it or not, Guilds of London cards all had brief ‘this is what I do’ help text right up to final layout design. Generally, though, I’d say don’t introduce a design to playtesters unless it looks pretty damned good – otherwise you’ll spend the first hour listening to moans about ‘lack of clarity’ and suggestions on how to lay everything out better rather than playing the actual bloody game!

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
It was a mixed experience: I was playing my home-made & painted prototype of Totemo (a three-dimensional stacking game using the artist’s colour wheel as a central mechanic) in the Hotel Ibis in Essen (2008); it was the night before Day 1 (Thursday) and a random punter popped over and asked if he could join in. We played and he was VERY enthusiastic at the end – so much so that he immediately called his friend who worked for a big German games publisher! Gushing with praise, he booked me a meeting for the following morning (the first meeting of the show for that company)!

I delivered a positive demo and left my only copy with them for follow-on evaluation: three months later it came back with a short letter that said “It’s not for us because we don’t see a unique selling point.” – that was it! No further hints or tips? No ‘things we DID like’? From such high hopes to bland dismissal; a few years later Qwirkle won Spiel des Jahres… I can’t help thinking MY blocky, colourful game could’ve gotten there first!

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
At the risk of sending readers away to another website, it’s Ivor the Engine by a country mile (see the Designer Diary on BoardGameGeek!). Getting Snowdonia co-published with my favourite game publisher, Lookout Games, is a VERY close second but how can one compete with a childhood dream?

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love worker placement games (Agricola, Le Havre, Pillars of the Earth, Snowdonia, Lords of Waterdeep) and I love games with multi-function cards (Glory to Rome, Royal Goods et al). Auctions also tickle my fancy, if done right, which is why Princes of Florence is so beloved – mind you, that’s ALSO the dynamic of the group that plays it the most (me, Boffo, Smudge, Jobbers and A.N.Other).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I don’t know, to be honest. I love what the UK Games Expo is doing – with the help of organisations like Imagination Gaming – to promote more family involvement: the more people we can bring in to the hobby, the more it will grow and the better it will be for everyone. The UK has forgotten how great board games are: Trivial Pursuit and a million franchised Monopoly editions in the 1980s have erased the memory of the rich selection that was there before. It’s a crime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
One of my favourite albums of all-time is “Guilty” by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb.

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