Others’ Works: Terra Prime

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Terra Prime CoverI’ve known Seth Jaffee for a number of years through our interactions at the Board Game Designers Forum (he goes by “sedjtroll” at BGDF).

A few years ago, Seth started posting and chatting about a game he was calling “Terra Prime” … which was a start on a space-based pick-up-and-delivery game with some adventure, exploration, discovery and — can’t forget to mention — hostile aliens.  Over those years, the game would come back up now and then, and I know he posted about it on his game design blog … but it seemed to fade from view until it popped up on Tasty Minstrel Game’s initial game offerings.

Now that the game’s been out for a few months, I thought I would send Seth an e-mail with a bit of Q&A about the design process that the game went through.  Here’s the way that exchange went …

Q: When/How did you come about the first nugget of thought that turned into “Terra Prime”?

A: The original nugget of thought that turned into Terra Prime was formulated in a phone call with Michael – he had been reading the rules for Roads and Boats, and we were talking about what “Roads and Boats in space” might look like. I had never even SEEN Roads and Boats, and Michael had only read some of the rules… so the design of Terra Prime was not really based at all on Roads and Boats, but the initial nugget of thought was based on what we sort of thought R&B might be like, and further, what it might be like in space.

Q: To whom/where did you first reveal the initial ideas about the game?

Seth Jaffee showing Terra PrimeA: After the phone call mentioned above I put some thought into how the game would really work. Digging through the archives at BGDF and BGG I see posts from as early as 2005 (!) about the game. At about that time I started up a Game Design Blog, where I like to post info from my game ideas – mostly for my own benefit, so I can revisit them later. I do like to pose questions there and I love it when people respond in the comments.

In addition to the blog posts, I discussed the game at length on the Board Game Designers Forum, a website I stumbled across in 2005 and have been a part of ever since. I recall posting Terra Prime rules to the Game Design Workshop there. I submitted the game to BGG in 2006 because I was playing it a lot and I wanted to separate my games played of Terra Prime from the Unpublished Prototype entry. Looking back I see that even before it had an entry I posted about the game in the BGG forums a couple of times.

Outside of a session report and a review or two, not much discussion of Terra Prime happened on BGG – most of the development happened in the BGDF chat room. For years I’ve been a regular in the BGDF chat room, and I’ve made some really good friends there – some of whom still lurk or chat now and again. I have spent countless hours discussing games in there, including not only Terra Prime, but several other games I’ve worked on as well as many games by other BGDF members.  (Matt’s Note:  This is very true!  Seth has a great skill for reading through a game idea and then coming up with a dozen quick ideas that would really open a design up and make it better.  He’s done it on a couple of my ideas and I’m always grateful for it.)

Terra Prime Prototype (2006)
Terra Prime Prototype (2006)

Q: Did you work on it constantly or did it sit on the shelf for periods of time?

A: Like most of my projects, and I’d guess most of many designers’ projects, Terra Prime did its share of time sitting on the shelf. The game inception happened sometime in 2005, after some initial design work and testing it sat on the shelf for a whole. Reviving it in 2006 I made some significant changes, played it some more at home and at conventions, and then again it would sit on the shelf for a while. I can look at my blog posts and see about when I picked the game up each time, because each flurry of design work and playtesting was accompanied by a flurry of blog posts! It appears the game sat on the shelf for 3 to 5 months at a time between peaks of activity.

Q: How much “brain testing” and solo-testing did you do versus group discussion and multi-player playtesting?

A: I tend to do most of my “solo testing’ in my head. Sometimes I’ll set up the board, but rarely will I go through the motions of playing a game, controlling each player myself. I don’t know if that’s because I find that somewhat tedious, or if I think I’m smart enough to see how the game will unfold… maybe I’m just lazy. Solo-testing is important, and I definitely recommend it as a way to get a game ready to play with actual people! Playtesters are fickle and hard to come by, and you don’t want to turn them off with a game that doesn’t work. I’ve had some success with my “in head” solo-testing, but there have ben instances where that’s backfired as well.

Of course, my mental image of the game is probably influenced by discussions I have with friends, either in person or on the internet. I get a lot more useful information out of a live playtest though. there’s no substitute for just trying something to see if it works or not, if it’s interesting or not, if it’s fun or not. As for how much of solo vs multiplayer testing I do – that’s hard to say. When I think about a game, I think about it pretty much nonstop, all the time. I discuss it with anyone who’s willing to, I monologue int he chat room about it, I post in my blog about it, and I go over it in my head while driving across town. Multiplayer testing is difficult because it involves other people, and more than that it involves other people being willing to try an unpublished game. I’ve had some success with my friends, and I’ve been pretty lucky that way. I have had less but some success getting my games played at a local game night, but that’s always hit and miss. I’ve had a surprising amount of success at conventions getting people to play prototypes – mine and others’! I have been evangelizing prototypes at BGG.con for years, and recently I’ve helped Gil Hova put together Proto Alley at the con.

Q: When did you know it was going to be one of the first games published by TMG and what did that change about the development of the game?

Terra Prime Command Ship BoardA: When Michael decided to start his company, I knew off the bat that Terra Prime would be one of the first games. I was however fairly skeptical at that time, because I wasn’t sure how serious Mike was about going through with the project! He had wanted to do it once before, but gave it up (for good reasons). also, Terra Prime was allegedly going to be published by another company, though they had been talking about that for a year but had made no actual progress – they had other priorities, so it wasn’t a surprise to me. When Michael did move forward with the company, starting to spend real money on lawyers and things like that, I started to believe it was really going to happen!

When I realized that publication was imminent, I really had to hunker down and make sure I was happy with every aspect of the game! I made blog posts listing all the things I wasn’t 100% happy with, and I rounded up some friends to play the game several times with various tweaks and changes. I played the game 10 times in 2 days last April to try and make sure I had things right! The last minute development drive saw a number of changes to the game, but that may be misleading because some of them were changes I’d already considered and thought through but never actually tried out. So to answer our question, when it came time to actually get the game published, I pushed development into overdrive to take care of all the loose ends I’d been unhappy with over time.

Q: Anything else that you’d like to share to other indy designers about lessons learned during this process?

A: The main thing I’d like to impress upon designers – the first thing that comes to mind anyway – is to be FINISHED with your game when you take it to a publisher. The last minute development on Terra Prime was interesting and fun, but much of it was stuff I should have had done already. When you submit a game to a publisher, it should be totally ready to go, you should be completely happy with it being released as-is (rules-wise). That said, yes – publishers may well want to change things. everyone has they’re own opinion about that. But if the game isn’t ready to go when the publisher first sees it, then it’s unlikely they’re going to want to commit to doing the work to fix what’s wrong. Do the work ahead of time – put in the time and effort to tune your game and play it – a lot – and finalize the rules. Then once you’ve done that, go over them and make sure you haven’t overcomplicated something. There could be a simpler way to accomplish some aspect of your game, and you are so used to the way you’ve been doing it that you don’t notice.

Which brings me to my other main lesson learned about designing a game. Don’t half-ass it. If there’s some part of your game that isn’t working well, find a way to fix it. If there’s a part of your game that is overcomplicated, find a way to simplify it. If you’re not happy with your game end conditions, try different ones – and keep trying different ones until you find something that  accomplishes everything you want to accomplish. In the end, after you get published there’ll inevitably be something you wish you did differently. Keep that in mind, and maybe you can fix it in a 2nd edition or an expansion, but take pride in the fact that you made your best effort to release the best possible version of your game.

(I will on occassion post about Others’ Works — a look at games and other creative works by other people.  Also, watch for me to spotlight some of my own games with “Spotlight On…” posts as well as my “Fellow Designer” posts, which will look at other board game designers and computer game developers.)

2 Responses

  1. Seth Jaffee

    Matt – I never thanked you for the interview! It’s neat to see an article about me on the internet… be it a personal blog, or forum post, or whatever – it’s still neat 😉

    I hope anyone reading this enjoys the thought process that went into the development of Terra Prime, and maybe someone down the line will learn from my mistakes or advice through reading this column. I love to read about other designers’ processes, I think it’s very interesting to see how games came to be.

    – Seth

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