Designer Diaries: Don Riddle

Article

Article
Posted by:
Andrew Birkett
Date Published:
Sep 16, 2019

Designer Diaries

For this designer diaries we were lucky enough to talk with a designer who we’ve been very fortunate to work with on our upcoming game, Ruins of Mars. Don is a super talented designer with several incredible games that we hope the world will get to see shortly, including a swell game coming soon from our friends at Quick Simple Fun Games. We’re excited to be bringing Ruins of Mars to Kickstarter September 24th. Without further ado, here is our interview with Don

What is your favorite thing about the tabletop games industry?

What I love about our hobby is that it is filled almost entirely with good, decent, smart people. People who are still willing and even eager to learn.

What are your top 5 favorite published games?

This is hard. It will change after I write this but for now my answer would be, in a non-ranked 5 (I’m citing them alphabetically): Castles of Burgundy, Concordia, Dogs of War, Endeavor: Age of Sail, Templar: the Secret Treasures

What is your favorite gaming memory (question taken from the Cardboard Herald)

I was playing as one of the detectives in a game of Letters from Whitechapel. My friend playing as Jack the Ripper had eluded us the whole game and was close to winning. I suddenly had the realization that we had never looked at the spot in front of us for the whole game. We had always moved and then looked. I was convinved he was hiding right under our noses waiting for us to move past him. But it wasn’t my turn. I had to convince the player whose turn it was to take an action to look before she lept, which to the other detectives seemed like a dangerous waste. She did it though… and yes, he was there! We had caught him! As it turns out, that was the *only* time in that game which he had taken the risk of lurking so close to us ;p

Is pineapple an acceptable pizza topping?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t always have said so, but it only took once trying it to be convinced that not only is it acceptable but it is awesome! (Though I prefer it with BBQ sauce instead of marinanra so am I even eating “pizza” at that point?!)

What is your favorite movie?

Willy Wonka (the original, not the Burton/Depp abomination, please)

Let’s Talk Ruins & How You got Here:

I’ve been designing games seriously now for about 15 years, though I’d been fiddling with game designs for some time before that as part of a general interest in expressing myself artistically in various ways. Back in 2004, Wizards of the Coast ran a contest of sorts for a job opening they had on their creative team. I had been playing the game for several years and relished the opportunity to be a part of creating it. They had over 600 applicants… After 3 rounds of creative challenges, I made it to the top 4. Unfortunately, they gave to a job to Matt Cavotta, who was already employed with them as an artist. I got so close and had really begun to realize that game design was my future. So, while I didn’t get that job, I couldn’t turn myself around from where I felt myself now headed. Instead, I started to pour all my free time and artistic energy into my new passion. Flash forward 15 years, and I’m still at it. I’ve learned many lessons along the way, mostly of the embarassing “duh” type stuff that I won’t bore you with. Instead, I’ll just talk specifically about my experiences surrounding Ruins of Mars’ development.

So, there are many contests which game designers can enter to challenge themselves and try to garner some attention. A few years ago, I got interested in the micro game trend and decided to try to create one to submit to Button Shy who had put out a call for design submissions. The challenge was to build a game using 18 cards and nothing else. I actually created 3 games, all of which were passed on. One of the games, called Primary Go Round, featured a “card-mancala” mechanic that I just loved and couldn’t stop thinking about. The idea was that you chose one group of cards to use and then played them to the board one card per site in a mancala fashion, which resulted in shifting the card offerings for the next player. I knew there was more there. I created a 2ndgame using the mechanic called Mancala Island, which is actually a lot of fun and I hope to publish one day. But there was still more to mine from the idea and I went deeper with my 3rdtry. I wanted to add a 5thsite to place cards at to increase player’s options and I had already begun to think about the idea of mining. In my search for a theme, all of this plus the rondel aspect of the game which made its nature circular, led me to the idea of mining a planet. As with the original game, which had each of the site’s associated with a color, I wanted each of the sites of the new game to have a unique aspect which influenced which card pile you would take. This was obvious for the mining-resources aspect but I wanted to make the choice more interesting. I had played a few games of T’zolkin and liked how the Religion tracks were used in that game. This is where the idea for “Languages” was born. So, now each icon would be associated with two different aspects of the game: resource collection vs. skill acquisition. The “story” of the game which flowed from this idea was elegant and made sense: an ancient city uncovered below Mars’ surface which had the remnants of not one but *several* alien civilizations; players having to decipher languages (skill acquisition) and then (collect resources) to replicate the alien technologies they learn of.

When I had this framework, Ruins of Mars was born truly, in its 1stiteration. In fact, this is the game which I pitched (successfully) to Andrew Birkett of Atheris games. Andrew and I had met at a gaming convention and had become fast friends. He was looking for a larger game to bring to kickstarter to increase his company’s profile and to challenge himself. It seemed after a few meetings to playtest Ruins that the game would fit the bill. I was happy to get onboard with an up-n-comer who I admired and saw bright things ahead for, and a friend who I felt would listen to my concerns while developing the game.

So, we began playtesting the game more seriously with others and over a period of a few months, a problem started emerging. The game was too long. Like, way too long. Though players found the mechanics and setting interesting, the “analysis paralysis” of both choosing the card pile to pick up and then in which order to play them, made turns drag on forever, and actually got worse as the game went on. This had us worried and we tried several solutions involving simplifying the cards. Because we *loved* the cards. The card-mancala *was* the game, as far we understood then. But nothing was really working; we were going to cross our fingers that the market was ready for this super-crunchy game (heck, it’s worked for Underwater Cities, right?) which we loved despite its overstaying its welcome. But then, at Dice Tower Con 2017, I had an inspiration. Literally, out of nowhere, I saw a path forward. But now, I had to convince Andrew that it was the right path. The idea was this: take the actions off the cards and put them on the Sites, and take the all-important dual-nature Icons off the Sites and put them on the cards! Effectively, flipping the game on its head. This was a radical solution. But I felt with just the Icons to contend with on the cards (which became simply tiles), players could simply choose the Site for the Action they wished to perform, interact with the tiles there, and have the tiles shifted automatically by a game rule, still mancala-style but without player decisions to bog it down. Andrew was skeptical but I was adamant that we try it, while promising to revert back to the cards if it didn’t work.

It worked. Like a charm. Game turns were quick and the game length went down dramatically. And yet we missed the cards. Still do, to be perfectly honest. There’s probably another game there down the road. But for now, Ruins of Mars was solved (mostly). The flip-flop of action/icons on the cards/sites fixed the time problem of the game without losing anything essential from its mechanical structure or thematic impact. It also opened up other design space, for example, allowing us to make the Sites themselves more thematic, and adding into the mix the “Research” aspect of the game which essentially allows you to “bank” actions for later use. There was still another year of tweaking and development to be done, but the core of what Ruins of Mars is today was discovered. I hope you’ll join us for its kickstarter debut on September 24th

Get notified about the launch here.

Designer Diaries: Don Riddle

Article

Designer Diaries

For this designer diaries we were lucky enough to talk with a designer who we’ve been very fortunate to work with on our upcoming game, Ruins of Mars. Don is a super talented designer with several incredible games that we hope the world will get to see shortly, including a swell game coming soon from our friends at Quick Simple Fun Games. We’re excited to be bringing Ruins of Mars to Kickstarter September 24th. Without further ado, here is our interview with Don

What is your favorite thing about the tabletop games industry?

What I love about our hobby is that it is filled almost entirely with good, decent, smart people. People who are still willing and even eager to learn.

What are your top 5 favorite published games?

This is hard. It will change after I write this but for now my answer would be, in a non-ranked 5 (I’m citing them alphabetically): Castles of Burgundy, Concordia, Dogs of War, Endeavor: Age of Sail, Templar: the Secret Treasures

What is your favorite gaming memory (question taken from the Cardboard Herald)

I was playing as one of the detectives in a game of Letters from Whitechapel. My friend playing as Jack the Ripper had eluded us the whole game and was close to winning. I suddenly had the realization that we had never looked at the spot in front of us for the whole game. We had always moved and then looked. I was convinved he was hiding right under our noses waiting for us to move past him. But it wasn’t my turn. I had to convince the player whose turn it was to take an action to look before she lept, which to the other detectives seemed like a dangerous waste. She did it though… and yes, he was there! We had caught him! As it turns out, that was the *only* time in that game which he had taken the risk of lurking so close to us ;p

Is pineapple an acceptable pizza topping?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t always have said so, but it only took once trying it to be convinced that not only is it acceptable but it is awesome! (Though I prefer it with BBQ sauce instead of marinanra so am I even eating “pizza” at that point?!)

What is your favorite movie?

Willy Wonka (the original, not the Burton/Depp abomination, please)

Let’s Talk Ruins & How You got Here:

I’ve been designing games seriously now for about 15 years, though I’d been fiddling with game designs for some time before that as part of a general interest in expressing myself artistically in various ways. Back in 2004, Wizards of the Coast ran a contest of sorts for a job opening they had on their creative team. I had been playing the game for several years and relished the opportunity to be a part of creating it. They had over 600 applicants… After 3 rounds of creative challenges, I made it to the top 4. Unfortunately, they gave to a job to Matt Cavotta, who was already employed with them as an artist. I got so close and had really begun to realize that game design was my future. So, while I didn’t get that job, I couldn’t turn myself around from where I felt myself now headed. Instead, I started to pour all my free time and artistic energy into my new passion. Flash forward 15 years, and I’m still at it. I’ve learned many lessons along the way, mostly of the embarassing “duh” type stuff that I won’t bore you with. Instead, I’ll just talk specifically about my experiences surrounding Ruins of Mars’ development.

So, there are many contests which game designers can enter to challenge themselves and try to garner some attention. A few years ago, I got interested in the micro game trend and decided to try to create one to submit to Button Shy who had put out a call for design submissions. The challenge was to build a game using 18 cards and nothing else. I actually created 3 games, all of which were passed on. One of the games, called Primary Go Round, featured a “card-mancala” mechanic that I just loved and couldn’t stop thinking about. The idea was that you chose one group of cards to use and then played them to the board one card per site in a mancala fashion, which resulted in shifting the card offerings for the next player. I knew there was more there. I created a 2ndgame using the mechanic called Mancala Island, which is actually a lot of fun and I hope to publish one day. But there was still more to mine from the idea and I went deeper with my 3rdtry. I wanted to add a 5thsite to place cards at to increase player’s options and I had already begun to think about the idea of mining. In my search for a theme, all of this plus the rondel aspect of the game which made its nature circular, led me to the idea of mining a planet. As with the original game, which had each of the site’s associated with a color, I wanted each of the sites of the new game to have a unique aspect which influenced which card pile you would take. This was obvious for the mining-resources aspect but I wanted to make the choice more interesting. I had played a few games of T’zolkin and liked how the Religion tracks were used in that game. This is where the idea for “Languages” was born. So, now each icon would be associated with two different aspects of the game: resource collection vs. skill acquisition. The “story” of the game which flowed from this idea was elegant and made sense: an ancient city uncovered below Mars’ surface which had the remnants of not one but *several* alien civilizations; players having to decipher languages (skill acquisition) and then (collect resources) to replicate the alien technologies they learn of.

When I had this framework, Ruins of Mars was born truly, in its 1stiteration. In fact, this is the game which I pitched (successfully) to Andrew Birkett of Atheris games. Andrew and I had met at a gaming convention and had become fast friends. He was looking for a larger game to bring to kickstarter to increase his company’s profile and to challenge himself. It seemed after a few meetings to playtest Ruins that the game would fit the bill. I was happy to get onboard with an up-n-comer who I admired and saw bright things ahead for, and a friend who I felt would listen to my concerns while developing the game.

So, we began playtesting the game more seriously with others and over a period of a few months, a problem started emerging. The game was too long. Like, way too long. Though players found the mechanics and setting interesting, the “analysis paralysis” of both choosing the card pile to pick up and then in which order to play them, made turns drag on forever, and actually got worse as the game went on. This had us worried and we tried several solutions involving simplifying the cards. Because we *loved* the cards. The card-mancala *was* the game, as far we understood then. But nothing was really working; we were going to cross our fingers that the market was ready for this super-crunchy game (heck, it’s worked for Underwater Cities, right?) which we loved despite its overstaying its welcome. But then, at Dice Tower Con 2017, I had an inspiration. Literally, out of nowhere, I saw a path forward. But now, I had to convince Andrew that it was the right path. The idea was this: take the actions off the cards and put them on the Sites, and take the all-important dual-nature Icons off the Sites and put them on the cards! Effectively, flipping the game on its head. This was a radical solution. But I felt with just the Icons to contend with on the cards (which became simply tiles), players could simply choose the Site for the Action they wished to perform, interact with the tiles there, and have the tiles shifted automatically by a game rule, still mancala-style but without player decisions to bog it down. Andrew was skeptical but I was adamant that we try it, while promising to revert back to the cards if it didn’t work.

It worked. Like a charm. Game turns were quick and the game length went down dramatically. And yet we missed the cards. Still do, to be perfectly honest. There’s probably another game there down the road. But for now, Ruins of Mars was solved (mostly). The flip-flop of action/icons on the cards/sites fixed the time problem of the game without losing anything essential from its mechanical structure or thematic impact. It also opened up other design space, for example, allowing us to make the Sites themselves more thematic, and adding into the mix the “Research” aspect of the game which essentially allows you to “bank” actions for later use. There was still another year of tweaking and development to be done, but the core of what Ruins of Mars is today was discovered. I hope you’ll join us for its kickstarter debut on September 24th

Get notified about the launch here.

Ruins of Mars

$ 34.99 USD

In Ruins of Mars players are explorers who seek to decipher various alien languages and discover alien technologies on the now desolate planet. Ruins of Mars is a strategic action-selection game with a unique shifting resource mechanism that makes actions vary turn-by-turn.