We have a lot of talented people working at Treehouse. Many of them have talents that extend beyond their job responsibilities here. Randy Hoyt, one of our web development teachers, is also a board game designer! His first board game is currently available on Kickstarter. (It’s 30% funded right now, with 22 days to go.) I spoke with Randy about his game, Kickstarter, creativity, and inspiration.
Randy Hoyt: It’s a jungle exploration game called Relic Expedition. Players are competing to find ancient relics from a lost civilization in a South American jungle. The jungle board starts small, but it grows organically and unpredictably as players explore the jungle.
Players carry the treasures they discover along with supplies like machetes and panther traps in their backpack, but they have limited space and have to make tough decisions about which items they need to carry. We have a couple of videos walking through it on the Kickstarter campaign.
JL: I’m curious why you decided to make a physical board game. Why not something digital like an iPhone app or an HTML5 game?
RH: I’ve been working on the web for a long time now, and most everything I have created personally and professionally has been intangible, just ones and zeroes encoded on a hard drive somewhere. I’m proud of those intangible things, but there was something compelling about the idea of making a physical product. I have board games in my closet now that are older than the internet, some of my grandparents’ old games that I played as a kid. It really inspires me to think of some kid finding a worn copy of Relic Expedition in his grandparents’ closet, fifty years from now, and having that ignite in him a love of board games. I just couldn’t imagine that happening if I created something like a Facebook game.
I have loved board games for as long as I can remember, and there’s still very little I’d rather do than grab a table and chairs and play a game with friends. I love the tactile feel of wood pieces in my hand, the sound of dice rolling on the table. Maybe I’m nostalgic about it. I do love how computers and the internet give us instant access to information and keep us connected across geographic distances in real-time, but I feel we real missing something when we only communicate with others while staring at bright screens. It just feels good to gather with friends around a table with bits of wood and cardboard.
JL: It seems like creating a board game would be really difficult. Where do you even start? How did you go about doing it?
RH: It requires lots and lots trial and error! I have played a lot of games and I’m a logical thinker … so I think some of the process just came natural. Once I had the basic theme and mechanics in mind – jungle tiles, collectible treasures, supplies, dangerous wild animals – it was incredibly important to get a version together that people could play. You can think and plan and analyze these things to no end, but you can’t get past those initial ideas and on to better ones until you get something in tangible form and play it. It took about two weeks from the initial brainstorming to the first time I played the game. I printed out paper hexagons, drew “dense jungle” on them with a green highlighter, and cannibalized game pieces from other games I could use.
The first game was kind of a disaster. There was a way too much dense jungle, and there was nowhere near enough strategy required to win. Two of the four players couldn’t make any progress at all. But everyone had a good time, and there was clearly a seed of something good in the game. It really helped to have those initial players be so supportive and encouraging. They continually checked in on the progress of the rule changes and asked when we could play again. That motivated me to keep working at it, and through many iterations the game started to take shape.
JL: I imagine creating a physical board game is a completely different kind of project than creating a digital game. What has the process been like for you?
RH: It has been painfully slow! After I felt the rules of the game were at a decent point, I ordered some higher quality components for prototypes: wood tiles from a crafting website, game pieces from The Game Crafter, and plenty of other supplies from various online retailers. Even making these low-fidelity prototypes was time-consuming. I bought label stickers for the treasures and the supplies, and I had to feed them manually through my inkjet printer. This would often jam or print out misaligned, and it would often have to be redone. I didn’t have the crafty skills to do all of the work for these prototypes, so my wife ended up doing most of it for me.
I don’t ever really print things, so getting high-quality proofs of the artwork has required countless trips to Fedex Office. I’ve had a good experience working with the manufacturing company and their facility, but it’s been slower than I would have expected. It took two months of back and forth and then waiting to get samples of the custom wood pieces (pawns, animals, and backpack trays) and dice. I love all the pieces, and it was so fulfilling when I held them in my hand after all that anticipation.
JL: The art for the game looks great. Where did you find the artist?
RH: Actually, the artist, Tyler Segel, found me. He’s my step-brother, and he and I both love strategy board games like The Settlers of Catan and 7 Wonders. We live on opposite coasts, but we get together for family events a few times a year. We were playing Citadels one afternoon, discussing game mechanics and game theory, and he said, “We should make a board game.”
He’s a graphic designer, and it turns out he had been wanting to create the art for a board game for some time: he just needed someone to create the game first. We spent a couple hours that afternoon brainstorming ideas for the theme and the mechanics, and that gave me more than enough material. I ended up cutting out a lot of our original ideas, but the game at its core is the same game we discussed originally.
JL: Why Kickstarter? Did you consider any other publication methods after you had finished the game?
RH: Kickstarter has done so much to fuel independent creativity and culture, and I’m a big fan. From the very beginning of the project, launching a Kickstarter campaign was always the plan. Most game publishers will receive something like my low-fidelity prototype and then hire their own artists – often times even changing the theme. That’s just not what we wanted to do. We wanted to work together on all aspects of the game.
I had thought about creating games at various times in the past, but I felt it would be more effort than it was worth to make a handful of games that only my friends and family would play. Kickstarter gave me the very real possibility of impacting a large number of families and board game groups around the world, and that was really motivating. I have found the process so far very rewarding in itself, and I’m incredibly glad I have created Relic Expedition. If Kickstarter didn’t exist, though, I doubt it would have gotten this far.
JL: The name of the game, Relic Expedition, references these elegant-looking treasures that players discover in the jungle. Was Relic Expedition the original name?
RH: Not at all! I have created a handful of apps and companies, and naming them is always the part I hate the most. It was called “Randy Hoyt’s Jungle Adventure” for awhile. The game is set in a South American jungle, and we did quite a bit of research on Incan culture. The artist found the name “Urcaguary,” the Incan god of hidden treasure, and that seemed like a really good place to start. We imagined the jungle had been named after him, then perhaps shortened and given a Spanish feel over time, and that led us to the name “The Jungles of Uguaria” for quite a while. But that name just doesn’t roll off the tongue, and I many play-testers strongly encouraged us against it.
The naming process for this game is an important reminder not to get hung up on following a linear path with creative projects. In all the prototypes, the “relics” were more generic treasures like crowns, rings, goblets, ancient coins, etc. We had a milestone on our project plan to pick a name for the game before the art was finished, which makes sense for promoting the game. These were the last pieces for which art was created, and based on the art we started calling them “relics” instead of “treasures.” But we couldn’t have possibly ended up with the name until after all the artwork was done: only then did a name like Relic Expedition occur to us.
JL: What has this taught you about the creative process? Anything you were surprised to discover?
RH: When you get inspired to do work on a project like this, you have to go with it. You have to follow your muse. Even when it is inconvenient and difficult. I had a newborn baby who wasn’t sleeping through the night, and I was up late cutting out hexagons and printing crowns on different colors of sticker labels in between feedings. I have found the popular saying “Strike while the iron is hot” to be especially true with creativity and inspiration. During the time I was working on the game, I changed jobs to start working at Treehouse and moved my family from Dallas, Texas to Orlando, Florida. It would have been easy to put the game on hold and wait until we got settled to work on it. But who knows how long that would have taken? And who knows how I would have felt about the game after taking a few months off?
JL: Thanks for chatting with us about the board game and for sharing what you’ve learned about inspiration and creativity from creating it.
RH: No problem. I enjoyed it!
Be sure to check out the campaign for Randy Hoyt’s board game Relic Expedition, now on Kickstarter.