One of our initiatives at Games Precipice is to learn from established game designers and learn from their design decisions and thought process as their latest work achieves publication.
This month we’re excited to bring you an interview with a game designer that has stood out to us for his work with interesting themes. Vital Lacerda has emerged in recent years as a designer of heavy Eurogames with the published success of both Vinhos in 2010 and CO2 in 2012. Vital invests a great deal of time into each of his designs and so I was thrilled when he agreed to my interview opportunity in advance of the release of his title Kanban: Automotive Revolution from Stronghold Games next month at Essen.
Vital lives in Oeiras, Portugal with his wife and two daughters and has been playing games all his life. He works as a freelance graphic designer (he does the amazing 3D artwork for Kanban and his other projects).
Games Precipice: Welcome Vital, thank you for taking the time to join us. For those who are not yet familiar with your published and upcoming work, who is Vital Lacerda?
Thank you, I’m glad to talk to you guys; and I thank you for all the support.
Most of all, I consider myself a gamer. After that I’m a wannabe designer, who had the luck of having a few publishers who believe in my games. I published Vinhos in 2010 and CO2 two years later. Both games were well accepted by a few gamers, so two years later I’m releasing Kanban. It will be my 3rd game in the complex games line and its official presentation will be in Essen.
I have a tendency to design complex thinking games, because those are the types of games I love to play. My favorite game is Brass. I love Imperial, Die Macher, Age of Steam and Terra Mystica. My top games. My designs are greatly inspired by those great games.
GP: How did you get started as a game designer? At what point did you know it was something you wanted to pursue?
I always knew that somewhere in the middle of the gaming world, designing would be my path. I designed games in my childhood; I often changed the rules for games I did not like; but I never thought that someday a great industry would be created around boardgames, and that I would be a part of it. Before 2006, I did not even know that this industry existed.
Eager to place Portugal on the “map” of boardgaming, I designed a Portugal map for Age of Steam, my favorite game at the time. I really enjoyed designing it and my friends seemed to appreciate the effort. One year later I was researching my first game, Vinhos. I remember very well my first playtest of Vinhos. Four guys around a table — our gaming group — all expectant to see what would happen and, one hour later… nothing had happened. The playtest did not even get past the setup. Apart from that false start it was a very enjoyable evening, with lots and lots of laughs and comments, discussions and ideas. Really cool.
GP: You’re known for your heavy-weight game designs with Vinhos and CO2, what do you enjoy in particular drives you toward more complex structures in your game designs?
The challenge, the deep thinking, the control you may have over things, and the competition under heavy strategy. Those are the games I love to play, so I had to design something like that. I always loved the way one move will influence a few moves later in Chess, but since I’m not a fan of abstract games, I always look for a theme to be the foundation of the game. Strategic thinking inside a game that is supported by a strong theme is my main challenge when designing a game.
I like interconnected mechanisms a lot — pursuing strategies, different complex paths — but I also love to adapt, make tactical moves, and have some randomness in games. I try to avoid luck in longer games. I believe luck should not be delivered by the system, but by player decisions. For me, luck in long, heavy games must be possible for the players to mitigate, manipulate, and curb by the use of good strategy and tactical moves.
I also love to move pieces on a board. I can understand when some players complain about games with lot of moving pieces. Sometimes is difficult to keep track of it all. But I can’t avoid it: That is precisely one of the things I most love in games. I find that gorgeous and appealing; I love moving wood and cardboard pieces all over the board. For me, it makes the game much more dynamic, colorful, and fun. The tricky part is to design something with a lot of moving parts but easy to track. And, I think I nailed it with Kanban.
GP: We’ve been thrilled with the number of Portuguese readers of our blog. Can you give us any insight into what has been steering the growth of the game design community in Lisbon and around Portugal?
Yes, its a great, but small community, and I’m proud to be part of it. But Lisbon is not the only place where the action happens. We also have weekly and monthly meetings all over the country. We have a site Abreojogo.com that we use to schedule meetings, playtests, and events nationwide.
There are not a lot of gamers in Portugal, we are a small country after all, but gamers are growing in numbers. There are a few conventions already, which are creating a lot of new gamers and educating people about gaming. Some of them garner international attention. The largest ones are LisboaCon in Oeiras, InvictaCon in Porto, RiaCon em Aveiro, and LeiriaCon.
LisboaCon is the biggest one, organized by the group of boardgamers of Lisboa, headed by Helio Andrade, Tiago Duarte, and Nuno Silva. The Con is directed at families and casual gamers, which is a great way to bring new people into the hobby. If you came to Portugal someday, just go and search abreojogo.com and leave a message. I’m sure you will manage to play some games at any one of our meetings.
GP: What makes an idea intriguing enough for you to start a game design? What fuels your design process?
As a creative type, I’m always looking for ideas; they come from everywhere. It can be from a book I read, a film I watch, traveling, or a simple chat with somebody — or even a dream. I sleep with a notebook next to my bed. I have done that for a couple of decades already. I have a folder in my computer where I keep most of my ideas, and the ones that I think it worth working on.
In the beginning, I usually worked on only one design at a time. But the ideas keep coming, and I end up to working on more than one project at the same time. Occasionally I realize that I need to take a break from designing a project for some time, like a year or so, and then come back to it later. I’ve realized that when I start to work on it again, the ideas are fresh and they flow a lot better, and some initial ideas that I thought would work well at the time are totally discarded. At this moment, I have one game which I started playtesting in 2009, working on it, off an on, once or twice a year, and it is still on the shelf, but I keep thinking and playtesting it once in a while, and I believe it will see the light of day in the next few years. Maybe this is because it’s a light design.
Its a big point to me that all my games must be very well tested, because they are not easy to balance. That why need to do a lot of development and lots of testing, since they are complex, and everytime you change something in the game, you need a lot of time to balance everything again, because many results need to be checked. Kanban was like this. I had to go backward and forward with the numbers many times.
GP: Earlier this month we looked at theme and mechanics as starting points in game design. What sparked the ignition for the original idea of Kanban?
I always start my game design from theme, then I do a lot of research on the topic. I like to know everything about it. Then I begin to imagine that universe in a game and how I can translate it into a game. I create mechanisms to fit with the theme as that is what makes sense to me.
I found Kanban’s theme while I was watching Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Modern Times. I thought it could be fun to make a game about mass production. So, I started my research, as I always do, and ended up reading everything I found about Henry Ford. So, the progression from his manufacturing process, to the evolution into lean production, created by the Japanese, as Toyota was trying to eliminate inefficiency and waste, was a natural flow. Especially because Toyota began thinking of what is known today as the kanban process after visiting Ford’s manufacturing industry at the beginning of the century.
The theme sounded very cool, very modern and appealing to me so I kept going. Of course, Kanban the Automotive Revolution is not an educational tool to teach kanban, but it uses some kanban features, like testing, innovating designs, training, assembling different models on the same assembly line, and it even uses kanban cards to manage stocks.
GP: Just from reading over the rulebook, every decision in Kanban appears to be a pressure gauge, from battling over turn order to progressing advanced skills. Players have to position themselves wisely to bring up their accomplishments during performance goal meetings. What is the primary source of tension you wanted to retain during the development of Kanban?
All the game mechanisms you just named in your question relate to one pressure point: managing time. This game is all about timing. A round represents one day, your actions are called “shifts”. The factory manager, Sandra, and her department evaluations, the planning you need to do to be in the right place at the right time, and the two timers that trigger the end of the game — both of which can be manipulated by the players — all deliver a lot of tension and big decisions in the game. The end of the game approaches very quickly, increasing the tension right through the end. It accelerates toward the finish, and never drags. That is one of the best kanban features to me and I hope you guys like it.
GP: I’m always curious about the on-going development process. Once you’ve completed the initial design and playtesting, how does the pre-publishing process start rolling?
After I pitched Kanban to Stephen Buonocore, the head of Stronghold Games, he immediately asked Paul Incao if he wanted to work with me to develop the game, which we did from January through last month, when we sent the final files to the printer. I was impressed with Paul’s work on the details. Stephen really believed in the game, and immediately shifted all the gears for it to happen this year, and he immediately gathered a great team, having Nathan Morse as the rules editor and Naomi Robinson to make the illustrations of the game. But even better, he trusted us all, giving us total freedom with the game development. Stephen was amazing in assisting us, and that made our job very rewarding and pleasant. I’m eager to have some beers and a nice chat with him during the release of the game in Essen.
Many of the most innovative mechanisms in the game, like the pushing mechanism on the assembly line, the innovative scoring in meetings, the way the turn order changes from one turn to the next, were all improved with great detail. Paul is a great guy and if the game is solid, very well tested, and fully developed, it is due to his work. We had great times discussing challenges, and finding solutions to make it enjoyable and more fun. Rolling the freshly assembled cars onto a test track with a pace car, was one of the most interesting discussions we had during the development.
GP: How do you continue to stay true to your theme when making revisions or changing gears during development? Did you have any challenges while integrating the theme of Kanban?
We noticed after some additional playtests that players didn’t have any incentive to increase their knowledge after getting a certification, so beside creating more incentives we needed to maintain the tension to maximize the fun.
This improvement was really hard to get, but, in the end, and after many attempts and discussions, the solution was very simple, and was the result of a little detail. The last player to reach the highest position will be considered most advanced in that training. This makes sense thematically, because the last person getting information is more up-to-date, and this grants the player more points in the end. As a result, it makes the player try to wait until the last minute to advance in the track one last time, in order to grab the higher scoring position. To me details like this are very important to a better game experience and Paul’s work was great in that direction.
GP: Were there any interesting ideas for Kanban that unfortunately ended up getting left in the garage?
Yes, a lot. But I don’t mind taking ideas out; it’s part of the creative process. Sometimes I recycle those ideas; other times, just drop them. I remember one system I designed for kanban warehouses in a very early stage of the game design, with different tiles that could be rotated to receive different types of car parts. Another one was the first approach to the assembly line, where instead of cars, you had tiles that could be stopped at crucial points, and you get some resources. I’m sure I will use those ideas in some of my future projects.
GP: You’re literally filling my wish list lately as you’ve also got The Gallerist on deck with a potential publication in 2015. Are you able to share anything under the hood with this project?
The Gallerist is a medium-heavy game. Players are gallerists and must find a way to manage everything in their own gallery, from managing assistants and foreigners’ influence to their gallery’s notoriety. You will deal with artists, education, works of art, visitors, exhibits, and sales. As a player, you will have a lot of things to take care of in order to make your gallery the most prestigious of all.
Mechanically, I think I found a very fun way of giving players actions even when it’s not their turn. And I’m working in development right now to make the game last under two hours, with a very fast pace. The game has a game clock based on box office tickets, and the faster they are used, the quicker the game plays. Players will also be able to choose between longer and shorter games. As you may imagine, this is something that requires work, and is not easy to balance. So a bit of work in the few next months must be done to get the game where I want it. Now that the design and development work on Kanban is complete, Paul Incao is joining me on the development of The Gallerist.
The Precipice of Conclusion: The Lightning Round
What popular game are you most embarrassed to say you have not played?
- I have a lot on my list and I’m working on it, but 3 come to the top of my head:
- A Study in Emerald from Wallace, Robinson Crusoe from Ignacy, and Caverna from Uwe.
What is the most recent game innovation that made you say “Wow”?
- Most mechanisms that make me think, “Why did I not think of this?” But the power bin in Terra Mystica is awesome; I love it, but there are a lot more.
- Martin Wallace always has at least one original mechanism in each of his games, such as the action system in Conquest of the Empire, or the auction to make a team in Struggle of Empires, or the simple delivery system from Age of Steam, or the cooperative mechanisms of Brass.
- Stefan Feld also has a lot of mechanisms that are “Wow” in almost all of his games. He is a master at creating those. The guy is a genius.
When an aspiring designer approaches you, what is one tip you could give which helped you reach your level of success?
- Oh, thank you, but I don’t think I’m a successful designer, at least yet, or if I will ever be; I still consider myself a wannabe designer. I still have a long road to run. But if I could give someone advice I would say:
- Just love your project, put all your passion into it. Work a lot, breathe and dream with your design and believe in it, really believe in it. There is nothing worse than a design which is not loved by its creator. I still love to play all my designs. And still I think they are great at least for me and my friends.
- During the creation and development process, don’t hesitate to change it if it is for the best, and refine it the number of times you feel it needs.Talk to people about it, and change it until it clicks. It will, don’t worry. You will know when it does.
Which of your designs has required the most development time?
- I think all of them. I’ve never taken less than 3 years to finish a design. Kanban proved very demanding. The game is big and the balance was not the easiest to accomplish. I’m sure it is my best and most solid design. I hope you guys will enjoy it.
Many people have a dream car. If you owned an automotive factory, what type of car would it produce?
- Well, I think my fantasy would be a really fast, non-pollutive car with great autonomy, designed by Pininfarina. Wouldn’t that be great? :)