We continue our conversation with Intrepid Games' Daniel Alexander. In part two, we discover more about Lander and its design. Read the first part of our interview to learn how Daniel became involved in the board game hobby.
I'm always amazed at how anyone can manage to create such an immersive and diverse board game experience. How do you go about designing, building and balancing such an exciting looking game?
The first iteration of the game (before I’d thought of the name LANDER) was for it to be a battling game, whereby you developed your crew with different skills and abilities to fight each other on a new planet. However, after six months of working down this path, Charles and I came to a point whereby neither of us liked what we had created, largely down to the fact that the backstory didn’t make sense.
We had spent time developing a 60-person crew and that you would stack cards behind them to enhance their abilities, which we liked, but the other game elements weren’t really meshing together very well.
I studied Geological Oceanography with Geophysics as my degree, graduating in July 2014. Everything I learned at university taught me about the science of our changing climate, the systems and processes, the forcing mechanisms and the sensitivity of Earth’s climate. I wanted to be able to tell others about what I had learned to spread the message and came up with a near future backstory, that could be one possible (and quite frightening) vision of our future, if collectively we don’t change our habits as a species.
The knowledge of how our world was put together, enabled me to then create a new world; a scene set on a planet exactly as ours would have been 500 million years ago, a point whereby humanity could have a completely fresh start, a better, more sustainable society perhaps? And so, the fictious Kaimas solar system was created, with the planet Kaimas-2 (the planetary body located second from the sun) being the destination for our new home.
We started exploring different ideas about the type of terrain and having different planetary effects making the start of life here more challenging. Due to the physical size of the cards, and available playing space on most tables, only a handful of crew could be used and so we came to the decision that every game would represent a parallel universe experience and that most of the crew had to die in a crash landing.
With these story telling elements being developed more and more, they all seemingly interconnected and improved how the mechanics were coalescing together too. We had some cornerstones: A diverse crew, crew development, an expandable board to explore, an Event deck and some missions to complete as the goal for winning the game.
It was roughly at this time, when the spreadsheet we were working in now had about 10 tabs in it representing the different game elements, that work on the balancing started to happen. I would spend hours playing the game with as many people as possible, observing where things were breaking in the game, and then hours in the spreadsheet trying to polish and refine the wording and the values of all the cards, to reduce the occurrence of ‘game breaking’ moments.
I'm amazed, but not surprised, at just how much thought and hard work goes in to creating a game with this level of immersion. How did you go about developing and perfecting the art and components for the game?
I spent a lot of time feeding back information to Charles. When I said; “the paper tiles we were using kept ‘pinning’ apart if knocked” he suggested a jig-saw puzzle, interlocking design. I was quite hesitant to have cardboard as a medium for something that would be very regularly pulled apart and pushed together, and so he suggested we look at 3D printing the tiles. We spent a little time on a design and made our first set, along with a ‘very basic first draft’ of printed cards.
Having this ‘plastic board’ set was the moment when things went from it being ‘kind of a hobby’ to something more serious. It was when I played the game with some friends and they said, “This is the best game we’ve ever played, you HAVE to make this!” that the commercialisation of it really came into question.
Charles and I had differences of opinion about this and came to an agreement for me to take the game forward. I asked my friend Sean if he wanted to try and make this come to life and with him agreeing, the next step was to find an artist.
I had such a clear vision for the artwork style I wanted for the game. Many people tried to suggest different styles, but I was very stubborn to find someone to work with, that could make my vision to come life, at a price I could afford. It took about 6-8 months of searching until I found Elias.
One of the first decision points was; a) should we paint the various cards or b) create 3D assets of everything to keep consistency? The first option was the quicker and cheaper option, the latter being exponentially longer and more expensive … we went for the latter, as we believed that a totally immersive experience required the time and energy to perfect.
The design and building of this world was done via Skype sessions with Elias, whereby I would draw stick figures in MS Paint and send reference images, and he would storyboard the ideas into the artwork you’ll see today in the game.
A philosophy of playing the game with as many different people as possible, as many times as possible, has enabled us to get to the point whereby we feel the game balance is now ‘perfect’. One interesting story in this process related to the crew. Through observing many games, I noted that when certain crew members were used as Leaders, the player would win. I ‘nerfed’ all of these to balance the game, and the game became no fun. I then did an overhaul of all the crew’s leadership abilities, making them all overpowered … and the game balances perfectly, as they effectively all cancel each other out in different ways.
From playing the game at the UK Games Expo in 2017, we quickly realised that people don’t go there to play deep dive ‘3-4 hour’ strategy games, and we had to make a ‘quick play’ version on the fly. This started a whole process whereby we investigated the significance of available time to play and devised three unique game styles to open the scope of the game to a wider audience.
After literally 10 iterations of the Event deck, seven iterations of the Mission deck, the development of the Accolade deck, the refinement of different game styles, the idea of Observations, a framework around trading and the Corporation Outbreak expansion, over a time scale of over four ½ years to date, LANDER is now poised to deliver some stand out moments to its players.
What are the stand-out moments in Lander for you? What do you think people will be talking about once they have played?
LANDER is more than just a game like Monopoly, whereby someone wins. It is an experience that gets talked about when your friend group meet the next time, as though what happened in the last game was real!
When I watch people first play the game, there is quite a lot to take in initially. However, once they realise the game is primarily just matching colours and numbers, they start to get it and you see them ‘click’ with what the game is about. Although, you can also see a realisation that in their first game, they are just scratching at the surface, the tip of the iceberg if you like, of the full depths of the game. The most common statement I hear is “When can we play again?”
The most fun aspect of the game is that there is no one way to play it. Every move you make is your own and I find that the conversation after the game from all people involved, revolves around all the things they learned and want to try next time. This conversation, in some respects, is almost as enjoyable as the game itself!
One key element of the game design is that the path to victory is ‘Non-Linear’. You can be in a position whereby you find yourself in last place at the start of the last round, vocalise “There’s no possible way I can win from here”, and somehow, against all odds, come from behind to win!
It is those moments that make the game feel special to me. Winning is no easy task either, so every victory has a real sense of achievement about it!
Another interesting thing I observe is that different people ‘fall in love’ with different crew members. Players seem to connect to them in ways that is almost beautiful to watch. After you’ve had your first win, the leader you used to achieve that seems to gain a special place in your heart. Thereafter, when you see that same crew member at the top of the stasis deck, and there are two players in front of you that could possibly acquire them, suddenly you start a whole inner dialogue along the lines of:
“I’m going to use every ounce of telepathic energy I have inside me to will the other players around the table to think ‘this is not the crew member I am looking for!" As you see your opponents tinkering with their resources, motioning toward their next move, sweat starts to form on your brow, your heart beats faster, your breathing is restricted. “YES!! They did an upgrade! Come on! Only one more player’s turn, come on, surely they don’t need them” and as if you’re in some kind of panic, you start looking over every possible reason as to why they might possibly, or might not buy the crew member … and then, as they start attaching some cards to their crew and announce to the assembled company “I’m doing my Private Mission”, you get this massive rush of energy, sheer elation!
Any second now, you’ll be reunited! There will be absolutely no stopping you now! Tears of happiness form in the corners of your eyes … wait what? Dammit! That mission has just put them in the lead! OK, breathe, breathe … with your favourite crew member about to be your new leader, there will be no problem getting the win back from here! And so you rather coolly announce “Oh I’m just going to buy a crew member” and as nonchalantly as possible, read their leadership ability out loud as you position them in your Leader Slot. “Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball! There is no possible way I can lo…” as the next player in turn announces that your new leader just drank some ‘Tainted Tea’ as is now dead as a result.
It is not just the game itself, but the journey through the game, the emotional rollercoaster of it that seems to create these stand out moments to discuss after each game. I’ve played around 700 games of LANDER over the last four ½ years. To this end I feel as though I’ve not seen the game ‘break’ in any of the games played of the most recent iteration but owing to the near infinite combinations of game components, I can’t be sure.
We want people to experience the different game styles and make their own stories as part of our Play Before You Pledge campaign and use it as a ‘blind play test’ to gain feedback for any changes we might need to make before we launch properly on Kickstarter.
I love the idea of the play before you pledge campaign, can you let us all know how it works?
The idea behind the Play Before You Pledge campaign was thought out over two ½ years ago. It came by observing a disconnect between the online world of Kickstarter and the real world ‘bricks and mortar’ gaming venues. When researching manufacturers, they all had Minimum Order Quantities of 500 – 1000. So, I flew to China to speak with three manufacturers to explain my vision. I chose GameLand as our partner as they figured out a way to make it work.
We've now ordered 130 copies of our "99% Prototype". They will be shipped to board game venues around the world. The idea is to bring the world closer together by encouraging a new paradigm. This is that players "Back" their "local" café/store and can go in and enjoy the game in their establishment.
This has many benefits! Firstly, people can play the game before they spend their hard-earned money. This is better than blindly backing a game on Kickstarter, on the word/review of someone else. I believe board games are like music, insofar as they are personal experiences to every individual. With the cost of making games to the highest quality, as demanded by the industry, the price tags are no longer insignificant. This way YOU can decide whether you like the game enough to make a purchase, based on your connection with it, and no one else’s.
Secondly, you will be able to make a pre-order in your local venue and (depending on demand) be able to take slight advantage of the economies of scale of delivering multiple units to a single destination.
Thirdly, sharing your fun at your local venue on your social media will mean more people will be aware of how the world of board gaming is changing, and hopefully bring more people together to enjoy the hobby. As a by-product, the venues themselves will be more sustainable, so it really is WIN : WIN all round!
Fourthly, as game designers we can have direct connection with you, the backer … not just from the perspective of ‘A poll that you decide whether a game component goes with one style of artwork or another’, but from the perspective of fully playing the game and being able to hear all the world’s feedback as a collective whole. This just helps us make it a better game through this ‘mass blind play test’.
Lastly, we get to build a lasting community around LANDER. So many games are being released each year. As a result, it's difficult for us in society to have those modern classics that we can reference and share. Our goal is for the game to be this generation’s Monopoly. To be a reference point to share stories of, with strangers and friends alike.
All you have to do, is click here, find your ‘local’ venue, go in and play the game! We’d love to see your pictures on social media. Please tag us @LanderTheGame, so we can share your stories! Then play a few games, rate us and feedback how you feel about the game!
I have just managed to start a game that has been on my bucket list for ages. What are the games that you have on your list that you would love to play but haven't yet?
One problem of making a game around your day job is that there is literally no time to do anything but work on and play the game. I’ve managed to keep updated by some of the new developments in the industry by watching YouTube shows, however. I’d say that from everything I’ve seen ‘Blood on the Clocktower’ would be top of the list. It seems to have had high praise so far!
Thank you so much for your time and the effort and love you have put in to developing Lander. I now want to get to play even more than before!