Others’ Works: Pocket Civ

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Pocket CivScott Slomiany is another Board Game Designers Forum regular (he posts there as doho123) that I’ve known for a while.  I always enjoy seeing what he submits to that site’s Game Design Showdowns, and read his “MeepleSpeak” blog regularly.

He is the designer behind Pocket Civ, a viral print-and-play hit.  The player response to this game has been quite cool, and I wanted to ask him some questions about what went into designing it.

Here’s the Q&A …

Q1> When/how did you first come up with the initial idea for “Pocket Civ”? What was your original intention for the design?

A: Due to the wonderful world of blogging, this answer is fairly easy with a bit of research.

The roots of the project started with the about.com’s game design contest that included dice. I don’t think that the contest was ever completed or judged, but I managed to whip up a little Civ-style game using dice and chess parts, which I called Cradle:  http://meeplespeak.blogspot.com/2006/05/aboutcom-contest-cradle.html

Now, I had never playtested it; primarily I was off having little kids, and I didn’t have any time to play games, and the sleepless nights really prevented any desire for that to happen. But I submitted it anyway.

One of the blogs that I read (at the time) was Greg Costikyan, who I find to be pretty interesting. He’s worn a lot of different types of hats across different types of games. Designer, portal-master, publisher, video, tabletop, whatever, I think he’s done it. I’d still read a blog of his if there was one, but as far as I can tell, it kind of morphed into playthisthing.com (for various reasons), which right now is basically a review site for independent games.

Anyway, the other spark for PocketCiv came from this post on his site, back in July 2006: http://tajmahalfred.blogspot.com/2006/07/unknown-civ-true-to-my-word-i-printed.html

…which leads to this game: http://www.angelfire.com/games2/warpspawn/Culture.html

…which leads to my blog post about it: http://meeplespeak.blogspot.com/2006/07/inspirations.html

And that’s pretty much the whole history of it. I was already in a Civ-style mind frame from the About.com contest, and then the idea of trying to create an “epic” game that was also portable and playable enough to play on an airplane became an interesting design challenge.

Pocket Civ ExampleQ2> What mechanics were in the design from the start? Were that any significant parts of the game that were removed as you worked through the design?

A: Obviously, when you start with the idea of a Civ game, there are certain mechanics that required just because that’s what defines a Civ game. You need to have some representation of little guys running around in the world. You need to have some challenges for the little guys to overcome, whether its random disasters or the environment of the world in which they are in. And then you need to have some kind of representation of how your civilization is growing and advancing, and how those advancements are making life “easier” for your little guys for dealing with those challenges.

To my knowledge, there was nothing really removed from the game; sure, things were altered as the design went forward. But the skeletal structure of the game is actually pretty light; most of the game involved hanging more stuff on the bones to flesh it out than trying to build a complicated structure that need to get weeded out.

Pocket Civ CardsQ3> There is a lot happening in the multiple uses for the cards … how did you develop that part of the game?

A: The multi-use card idea is just a solution to a problem of dealing with all the wacky random events and things that you need to resolve in the game is a simple, compact manner, without having countless lookup charts. The first pass of the game actually all the descriptions of what each Event did in tiny, tiny text underneath the heading: “VOLCANO!!! Do this, and do this….” But that was pretty harsh to read. I just had to move all of that stuff to the rules. Granted, this ruined a bit of the portability part, but at some point I realized I probably wasn’t going to be doing EVERYTHING on the cards anyway, and that a player would be needing some amount of reference sheets.

And even though I’m quite fond of dice, at least I still didn’t need to be rolling countless amounts of dice everywhere on an airplane.

Q4> What other parts of the game are you particularly proud of as a designer?

A: That’s kind of an oddball question. (Matt’s Note: Um, thanks, Scott!) But as a game designer, there are really only a couple of moments that I think one can be happy with.

The first is when “the game works.” A game is just a collection of data, components, and rules, all of which can be combined in 99,999 of different ways that don’t work. But that last single time when it actually does work is a pretty defining moment, where you just stop for a second and say “hey, ok, this works.” That’s pretty special. At that point, it feels like you’ve stopped banging your head against a wall, and then you can start refining it.

The second time would be when other people, people who don’t really have any vested interest in the game itself, play it and enjoy it.

But as far as individual parts, I don’t think there’s anything really special about those in this game. Maybe the fact that I was able to come pretty close to making the epic-game-in-a-tiny-package-come-true part. But then again, I like wacky design challenges. I’d rather try and create a wholly new experience that’s flawed than try and create simply a more refined game than what is already available.

Q5> When did you first reveal the design to others?  Who were the early audience members and what sort of feedback did you get from them?

A: I don’t really remember having a “reveal” moment at any given time. Luckily I was in the process of finishing the game up when a now-defunct gaming blog (Gone Gaming) had a contest for “best of year” submissions. I submitted the game for “best print and play game,” and then it won. At which point, the game got put on the radar by several people.  http://boredgamegeeks.blogspot.com/2007/01/gone-gaming-2006-board-game-internet.html

Example of a homemade Pocket Civ SetAt this point, I didn’t even put it up on boardgamegeek yet, so it’s not like it was a known entity or anything. Also, I’m not sure how many other entries were involved, so it might’ve been one entry out of two.

Really, aside from various “bugs” in the game, the only major thing I’ve changed in response to people’s comments was what happens at the end of an era. In the previous version, the game would just kill you if you didn’t have the right requirements at the end of an era, which is pretty mean if you get sucker punched by a bad event to end your current era. That got updated to a scoring round at the end of every era, and a screw at the end of an era just means you don’t score points, but at least your game continues.

One other thing regarding the point system. Initially, I didn’t really have any points in the game. It just seemed kind of silly to be awarding points to a solitaire game where you can “cheat” a bit here or there. The game pretty much existed as a Civ experience; your “score” was building your little world and surviving all the way through 8 eras.

At the end, I decided to add some scores, “just because.” In the end, I was surprised to see how many players took the scoring to heart as a rating of how well they did in the game. So, when I went back and changing to the scoring system, I was a bit more careful with how the scores were balanced.

Along the lines of what kind of feedback I really wanted, I was sort of hoping that the game would take on a certain life of its own, with people creating their own scenarios for it, and let the game be very open source (much like a train game system), and have the game thrive somewhat from a community based around it,; creating new technology type, new maps, goals, etc. Alas, that hasn’t happened.

Q6> What was the path for the game going from being posted on your website to 300+ BGG Ratings?  What sort of feedback have you gotten from the gaming public on it?

A: I’m not sure that there is an easy path, aside from trying to scratch an itch that the community has. In this case, a quick playing Civ game. Clearly, one of the keys is that the game in its most basic form doesn’t take a lot of work to build. Then if you like it, you can build a nice set of parts for it.

As a comparison, with a totally different design goal, but also following the “less is more” approach to print and play, I’ve posted this game (Epic Solitaire Notebook Adventures) up:  http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/51199/epic-solitaire-notebook-adventures

Example of a Deluxe Set of Pocket Civ…which I think is much more of an interesting design. But, it doesn’t get the eyeballs, and it doesn’t get posted into any list or anything (seeing that PocketCiv gets posted once in a while to the appropriate list). Not that I’m complaining as I really don’t “market” either game. I guess it just doesn’t scratch an itch that’s been missing. Or I lucked out on PocketCiv popping into the geek consciousness at the right time.

Otherwise, the feedback has been great, otherwise the game would’ve disappeared into the musty halls of the database there. Unfortunately, I don’t reply back to all of the comments I get occasionally. But the fact that there’s a whole line of “…In My Pocket” games that, while not wholly inspired, but that genetically trace back to PocketCiv is pretty cool.

Pocket Civ Computer VersionQ7> How did the computer version come about?  Did you have much interaction with the Jack Neal (the author of the computer game) about it?

A: I had no interaction with him whatsoever, (well, aside from granting him the ok to do it). That was done all on his own. Surely, a brave project to work on.

Q8> Are you continuing to develop the game, or planning anything about it for the future?

A: No, I’m not developing it anymore. There’s a couple of reasons for that.

One, I’m lucky enough to be paid to design games at work. And this has taught me that constant development and tweaking and “trying to get it just right” is a chore. The fun part for me are the first few steps in design: the initial concept, and then getting it to a point where it “works.” In other words, getting it to a point where whatever goals you’ve set are finally playable and you can see the monster you’ve created come to life. So, my limited hobby game design time is spent on that part of the process.

Additionally, I have all these other little design ideas I want to work on, and I’d rather spend my time bringing those to life than trying to perfect or expand on something previously created. Again, I had sort of hoped that a community would develop around the game due to its open- ended-ness.

Of course, if someone came along and said “Hey, we’d love to publish your game if you made a few changes!” I’d probably go back to it and see what I could do.

Q9> What did you take away from the experience that will stick with you in your current and future game designs?

A: People care more about points and a gauge to determine “if they won” than I thought they did. My mindset is more about the exploration and the narrative I guess when I play games. “Winning” is secondary for me.

That’s something I’ve gotten away from a lot with stuff I’ve been prototyping now. It’s easier just to award everything some amount of victory points, and then balance a game that way. I’m really into trying to come up with more thematic ways and conditions in game designs now. So while they might not actually end up that way, at least I start from a position that “this game isn’t about a random collection of victory points.”

Actually, a game that I’ve been working on for some time now, I’ve removed the whole victory point collection aspect of it, and refocused the game into a “first player to get condition X” and its made the game much better.

Q10> Anything else that you would like to share about the game?

A: Not really. I mean, it’s almost a four year old game at this point. It’s kind of impressive that I get an email now and then about it considering that there’s no real hype or marketing behind it, it’s a print-and-play game, etc.etc. How many real published games were there in 2006 that have pretty much faded into obscurity at this point? The internet is a funny place how things are kind of stuck there forever if you poke around enough.


(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.)

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