Board game design is an arduous business. It takes vision, creativity, and determination; it can consume your life, with spare time becoming a thing of the long forgotten past. On the other-hand, it can be the most rewarding of experiences; the pleasure and satisfaction gained from creating something that brings families and friends together can well be worth the hard work and sacrifice. Dan Hallagan is just setting out on that journey with the upcoming release of his first game – Obsession.
Obsession is a Euro Style game set in 19th and early 20th century England, and if your a fan of Downton Abbey, this could be the game for you.
The Solo Meeple talks to Dan about his new release, and we find out what it’s like to be a first time game designer…
The Solo Meeple: Dan, let’s get to know a little about you. Tell us a bit about your gaming history; when you first got into games, and what games you enjoy playing?
Dan Hallagan: In the mid-1970s as a young teenager, I began playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), a passion that continued for a decade. I credit a good deal of my creativity to those years (along with passionate reading), and I soon exclusively became a dungeon master, the person responsible for creating and conducting the D&D adventures. When I moved after college, my gaming stopped altogether. In the early 2000s, I decided I wanted to expose my three young children to the creativity of D&D, a project that never really got off the ground. They were too young and just wanted to fight “dudes” and build cool caverns with my Dwarven Forge pieces.
In 2012, a friend who knew my D&D history described a new breed of board game and encouraged me to try them. He recommended Dominion and 7 Wonders, and I was blown away! I began to voraciously consume board games (still a powerful addiction), gravitating away from fantasy and toward heavier and heavier Euro-games, which are my favorite. My top five (excluding Obsession):
- Castles of Mad King Ludwig
- Terraforming Mars
- Voyages of Marco Polo
TSM: In between playing all these games you became a published author, and now have three books under your belt. Is writing your first love, or has designing games taken over?
DH: That’s a tough one! I would probably say writing is my first love, but I think board games possess an extraordinary power for good far beyond their perceived humble purpose. As a parent raising young kids in an age of electronics, I fretted about the numbing and de-socializing effects of technology. Electronic screens became insidious babysitters, stifling creativity and transforming interaction with friends and family into an eye-rolling chore. I cannot count the times I growled, “Put down the phone!”
With the introduction of modern tabletop board games into my life, I saw a remarkable change come over my then 16, 14, and 12 year-olds: phones were dropped as they scrambled to the table to play everything I could throw at them, from Terra Mystica to Castles of Mad King Ludwig, from Tzolk’in to Bruges. Suddenly, heads are up, the family is laughing, brains are churning, imaginations are exploring and asking questions about Bavaria, Mayan civilization, and Belgium; how can it get any better? The mission of Kayenta Games is to promote this creative, social, and intellectual addiction.
To answer your question: let’s call it a tie!
TSM: Sentiments shared by myself, and with the growth of the hobby, it seems by many others too. Obsession is your first published game, but is it your first experience with games design?
DH: It’s my first full experience, but I attempted a fantasy game before Obsession. That progressed quite a bit, but in retrospect, it was a long, long way from being a real game. I still have it as a project.
TSM: It’s a big step to take, publishing your first game, where did the inspiration come from?
DH: A couple of very different sources: my wife and my brother. I play games every week with my brother Tim, a hard-core, talented gamer who is as happy herding Swarmlings as he is crossing a Forbidden Desert. My wife also enjoys games; she particularly loves Ticket to Ride, Power Grid, and Bruges, but she has zero interest in fantasy or science fiction. In my early game design days, my wife and I were fanatically watching Downton Abbey, and it occurred to me that such a wonderful period of British history (Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian) really hadn’t been addressed by the gaming world. There were some light treatments of the period, but even though my wife (and other ladies in my life) dislike fantasy/science fiction themes, they are fiercely competitive and challenging opponents; believe me, I’ve endured long winless stretches while gaming with family over school breaks.
My wife liked the idea, and the project began.
When my brother heard about the project, he immediately told me to drop the fantasy game and focus on Obsession; he was convinced it would strongly connect with a passionate niche of gamers and appeal to many non-gamers. He was right.
TSM: So, the theme came first; how did you decide what game mechanisms to use, and was it an easy decision, or did it take a lot of trial and error?
DH: So hard. So much trial and error. LOL.
The production version of the game in few ways resembles the original design. Here’s a comparison between the earliest player board and the final one!
The game changed with endless amounts of playtesting, mostly with my brother and children. The most challenging issue I faced was when I had to eliminate “events” from the game, which I felt were intensely thematic; events like illness, inheritance, war, favorable laws, fire, death, etc. The problem was they introduced too much randomness into the game; for example, the most skillful play could be devastated by a fire in the player’s manor house.
I feel that the game started to go from a fanciful project to a real game when I stopped taking major changes personally and focused on elegance of gameplay. I owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Ham (Rahdo), who pushed back on mechanics that he felt were “uninteresting.”
But the greatest design challenge was a graphic design one, not mechanics. During my Kickstarter campaign, the prototype reviewed by Rahdo was judged during the crowdfunding campaign to be ugly. This was a hard blow to my ego. I had been so obsessed (pun intended!) with making the mechanics as elegant as possible, I never thought to give my utilitarian design a facelift before the Kickstarter. After about 48 hours of denial, I reached out to the backers in the campaign and asked them to help me redesign the game completely. It was a difficult but powerful experience, and I owe a debt of gratitude for the support and advice from backers and for the refreshing optimism and sense of community one finds in the world of board games. In particular, I am grateful to Maricel Edwards and Mariya Meshcheryakova, who lent their time and substantial design talents to the project.
TSM: Having said that, the artwork is very subtle and fits the game perfectly, right down to the period wallpaper backgrounds featured on the cards. Who was actually responsible for the art and graphic design?
DH: That’s a complex answer. Kayenta Games is a massive towering enterprise of 1 employee. I do mop the floors and turn out the lights along with all other duties. So I am the origin of all design elements, but I did rely heavily on my crowdfunding backers to give thumbs up and thumbs down on all my whacky ideas. For any interested in that process, it is preserved on the Obsession BoardGameGeek page in the forum.
TSM: Just taking a peek at the games glossary gives the impression that some pretty in-depth research must have taken place of this period of English history. As a self confessed Fantasy fan, was this a step in a totally different direction, or were you already interested and knowledgeable about this period?
DH: I’ve always loved English history, Jane Austen (books and movies), Downton Abbey, Dickens, etc. but that makes me a fan, not an expert. I owe yet another debt of gratitude to three British gentlemen who saw my inexpert fandom and lent me their expertise to transform the material from awkward to elegant. Those generous gamers are David Buckland, Martin Joynes, and Guy Allen.
TSM: There’s a lot of background information and flavour text throughout the game – as an author, did you find it easy to write?
DH: The writing has always been easy for me, but I made yet another mistake; I was going to engage my book editor to proof the rulebook and glossary, and I decided not to because of time. I should have engaged the editor; a number of grammatical errors slipped through (into the 25,000 words that comprise the rulebook and glossary). Live and learn! I have corrected them online, but I forgot a cardinal rule of writing: never proof your own material
TSM: I also noticed, whilst watching your play through videos, that you’re very self critical, especially where component quality is concerned. Did this help/hinder the design process?
DH: Interesting question. I think that one of the magical aspects to the games I love is extraordinary component quality. I will admit that I spent no small amount of money upgrading components with the manufacturer because I couldn’t bear to put my name on poor quality components. I think that helped the process, because I never once had saving money in mind. As a result, the game feels luxurious. I do wish I could have done metal coins, though.
TSM: The game certainly looks good, and it’s also nice to see a game of this depth include a solo mode. Was it a conscious decision to include solo play from the start, or was it something added on as you developed the game?
DH: Honestly, it was added just before the Kickstarter campaign. I had no idea there was such a robust solo community out there, but I learned quickly. However, when I made a move to add it, it was a natural. The central gameplay mechanic of Obsession is the hosting of events, which is an action that takes place independent of one’s competitors. As a result, Obsession naturally lends itself to solitary play. And once I perfected that, I had a wonderful tool for playtesting; whereas I usually had to round up playtesters, now I could bang out a half dozen Solitaire games to test a variation.
Last weekend, I played five solo games, and the last two left me breathless at the tension and the fiercely tactical play.
TSM: I for one, certainly appreciate its inclusion. As is common with a lot of solo gamers, we like to push the boundaries of a game, forever increasing the difficulty and expanding the experience. In Obsession you choose a character to go up against, and can vary the difficulty of the game that character plays, so, is it possible to play against more than one automated player at a time, using different difficulty levels for each one?
DH: I don’t think that would work. I think it would be easy enough to create your own solo opponents to add variety (the base game has 12 opponents and the expansion 6 more), but I plan on routinely putting out more opponents online (print and play).
TSM: Talking of characters: You say yourself that one of the characters is homage to rock legend Pete Townshend, have you snuck any other references in there that you’d like to share with us?
DH: LOL, yes I have. There are other rockers (last name, anyway): Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Hayward, Pinder, and Lodge (Moody Blues) to name some.
Also, my mother-in-law’s maiden name, Blowers. Hastings was a lacrosse team I used to coach against. Bingly is stolen from Pride and Prejudice. Thatcher and Churchill after your famous PMs. Crawley and Barrow from Downton Abbey. And Austen after Jane Austen. I am sure I am missing others. It was a challenge to come up with 100 names!
TSM: I’ll be keeping my eyes open to spot any you’ve missed! Being a Euro-style game here’s a lot going on, play testing and balancing the game must have given you a headache, how did you deal with this aspect, and are you happy with the balance?
DH: I am very, very happy with the balance. In fact, I will admit a sort of out-of-body experience when I play a great game of Obsession. I have said, “Wow” many times during a game when a daring tactic unfolded or a gambit paid off and I had no memory of designing that. In other words, the sum is greater than the parts; I designed the parts but had no idea such a fascinating sum would result.
TSM: Was the decision to use Kickstarter an easy decision to make, or did you consider conventional methods of publishing?
DH: I had no other choice really. You have a big up-front bill with Panda Manufacturing, and I couldn’t risk not knowing if the game had a market. To be honest, crowdfunding is less about the funding and more about the crowd. Paying the bills is one thing, but having an audience? That is precious.
TSM: What made you choose Panda Manufacturing?
DH: I loved the games they produced. The quality thing again; I never felt any of their components were cheap.
TSM: Kickstarter is often a mixed bag when it comes to stretch goals, how did you decide what goals to offer, and the order in which to place them?
DH: I sort of bumbled the stretch goals and did a poor job with them. I’ve learned so much. I picked those goals rather arbitrarily. I ended up putting most of them into the game and even more (like custom meeples) for reasons discussed. Next time will be coherent.
TSM: And overall, how did you find the Kickstarter process; it sounds like you’ll be doing it again?
DH: It was a cataclysmic time. Highs and lows, the stress of presenting the work of two years to the world for critique, so many things to learn and fix. However, having been through it all once, my next project will be so much easier. It’s a good platform because I think the established publishers lack a lot of creativity and copy ideas. Look at all the derivative Mars games coming out. Look at all the mini-trash (sorry to use a derogatory description, but enough is enough). Kickstarter presents a lot of wild ideas. Most aren’t very professional or successful, but many innovations are coming from unlikely sources.
TSM: That’s very true, we see a lot of people pushing uninspired creations (not necessarily games) through crowdfunding, and then expecting the earth for them! As for Obsession, now that the game is about to reach fulfilment, it must be a very satisfactory time for you?
DH: I haven’t quite had time to sit back with an adult beverage and enjoy success. When the games are all delivered, the backers are happy, and the reviews are in, I will breathe easier.
TSM: And, as you look back at your creation, what has become your favourite thing about it?
DH: The Butterfly Effect. The first season is so, so critical. Small decisions have enormous ramifications later, expanding and limiting choices. Finessing a fast start while keeping an eye on Courtship is exhilarating.
TSM: You say you created the game to please the women in your life; so, what do they think; have you achieved this?
DH: Yes, I think so. It is definitely a game that comes out frequently. It is my daughter’s first request when she comes around with guests.
TSM: There’s already one addition to the game, the Wessex expansion, have you any other plans for Obsession, or is there something else in the pipeline?
DH: For Obsession, I have a plan for 5 players, to add back events (with risk modifications), and to create new tiles, guests, and solo opponents. I am very anxious to see feedback, however; that will define my next steps.
My second game is about to start playtesting (it’s a secret).
TSM: It sound like you’re going to be busy, and it’s been three years since you released your last book, has game designing taken over your life now?
DH: Yep. Writing is on the back burner for now.
TSM: For those who missed the kickstarter, how can they obtain a copy of Obsession?
DH: My website will always have the options; right now, pre-orders still can squeak in with the rest of fulfillment, and a shopping cart will appear within the month (after fulfillment). https://www.kayentapublishing.com/
TSM: And finally, for all those who want to keep an eye on what you’re up to, how can people connect to Dan Hallagan?
DH: BoardGameGeek (BGG) is wonderful resource, and it really has become a clearinghouse for ideas, questions, rules suggestions or clarification, etc. I expect that community to become more vibrant with the arrival of games at doorsteps all over the world, so I will continue to closely monitor BGG at all times. Great place to engage!
Also, my website has my contact information.
TSM: Dan, Many thanks for taking the time out to talk to us, It’s been a pleasure, and I wish you all the success with Obsession; please come back and talk to us again in the future.
So, there we have it, Dan Hallagan, a name for the future, and one worth keeping a close eye upon.
Dan Resides in Avon Lake, Ohio, is married with three children, and is a published author. His books include, the climber series – Serf, Peasant, and Squire.
He owns his own publishing company, Kayenta Games, formed in 2013, and, as you may have noticed, has a great sense of humour!
You can see his Obsession kickstarter page here, where you can still catch a late pledge (at the time of writing).
Rhado Runs Through, video review – HERE
Ant Lab Games video review – HERE
*All images ©Kayenta Games