Today we are joined by Ayden Lowther, designer of Solar Storm and co-founder of Dranda Games, to discuss problematic solar flares, Board Game Geek competitions and first time Kickstarter success.
Thank you for joining me this morning. Can you tell us more about Dranda Games and Solar Storm?
Dranda Games and Solar Storm developed in tandem. They are the result of an entry into a Board Game Geek Mint Tin competition!
The aim of the competition was to design a game that would fit into a tin of mints. Simon Milburn (Dranda Games co-founder) and I both decided to enter. Simon’s entry, Tinmates, came sixth overall, but I couldn’t enter as my game would not fit in the tin! I tried desperately but it just wouldn’t work. Eventually I became so invested in the game that I decided to try developing it further. Over time that game became Solar Storm and Dranda Games grew with it.
Solar Storm is a co-operative survival game set aboard a spaceship that has flown too close to the sun. The Energy Core is offline due to solar flares and players work together to divert power from other parts of the ship. The aim is to get the Energy Core back online and escape.
However, if the ship takes too much damage, or time runs out before the Core is back online, the game ends. It’s a balance of using tools and resources to repair the ship while mitigating on-going damage.
The ship is divided into rooms that all have a unique effect. The player characters themselves do not have any special abilities, however, any player can use the ability of any room when in that room. This provides decisions around timing, what to use and when. The board is modular and, combined with the location asymmetry, this means that there is a different ship every time you play.
Solar storm has a dedicated solo variant. How does the solo mode differ from the main game?
Thematically the characters are drones and the player is operating them remotely to repair the ship. While you control multiple characters, you are playing as one.
There is a single hand of cards used for all drones, which minimises the overhead of running multiple characters. Cards are spent from hand each turn and, if you draw cards over the hand limit, you discard down. This forces you to make decisions quickly as discarded cards are wasted resources.
I can’t take much credit for the solo mode. I’m not much of a solo player at all, however, my colleague, Jason Broad, is. He has logged over a thousand solo plays of the games in his collection. He was kind enough to offer to develop a solo variant. It works so well. In feel, it doesn’t differ from the multiplayer game at all.
How did you find the design and development process? Did the game change radically during development?
Solar Storm was very different in the beginning. It was set in a war bunker. Literally every idea I had was in it. I became quite excited by the progress I was making with the design and, after two months work, I felt I had something I could show to other people.
At this point I had no experience in the games industry. I was completely fresh. I had met maybe one designer in the past but that’s it. I braved taking the game to a playtest meet up, where game designers show each other what they are working on.
Thinking back on it, they were very delicate with their feedback. They said, ‘think about changing these two or three things. What I think they were really saying, in a very polite way, was: ‘this game is awful’.
The great thing about the UK games industry though is that people genuinely want each other to succeed and the advice they provided was invaluable.
I have lost count of the number of revisions Solar Storm had. We were absolutely determined to have the game 100% ready before we published. The room powers had to be balanced, we reduced the number of resource types, there were special abilities that we cut completely. This development happened around the demands of my full-time job, meeting with Simon and others when we could. It took two years’ in total.
We decided the game was ‘finished’ in September 2018. Then we attended the convention circuit – UK Games Expo, Airecon, Handycon plus regular meet ups like the Birmingham Boardgame Bash. Through this we met many people in the industry who went on to help us with the Kickstarter.
Solar Storm was Kickstarted during 2019 and received pledges 11.5 times higher than the campaign goal. Can you tell us how you achieved that level of success?
We had a lot of great advice. Simon is part of the team at Alley Cat Games and has made many contacts during his time with them. Caezar Al-Jassar, from Alley Cat, reviewed our campaign and told us what was working and what wasn’t.
The advice Caezar gave as was very honest. For example, Caezar suggested that we change the box art. It just wasn’t ‘epic’ enough. A result of my art direction rather than the art itself. After 11 successful campaigns he knows what he is talking about and we listened 95% of the time.
If anyone reading this is thinking about their own Kickstarter Campaign, I would recommend seeking advice from experienced campaigners. It will add more to the cost if the campaign is successful, which can be an issue when self-funding, however, the result speaks for itself. Our campaign goal was £5,800, yet we received £68,000 in pledges.
Now that the game is designed and funded, you are moving into the fulfilment stage. Is it a case of ‘now for the hard part’?
The lead up to a Kickstarter campaign is a very uncertain time. With that uncertainty comes a great deal of stress and anxiety. We were completely self-funded. If it wasn’t a successful campaign, how would we deal with the financial loss? Half an hour before Solar Storm was due to go live Simon and I were still deciding what the campaign funding goal should be. That anxiety started to leave about an hour into the campaign!
Although the campaign has been successful, the workload hasn’t gone away. It’s a totally different ballgame and the focus is now on the practicalities of running a business. We are lucky to be in a position where we can seek advice from others in the industry.
We’ve moved away from game design and Kickstarter page creation. We are now talking with manufacturers and freight companies, reviewing postage weights and distribution schedules. Of course, we are also regularly communicating any issues with our backers. For example, currently we believe that there is going to be a four to six-week fulfilment delay due to the Covid virus but we are pleased to say that manufacturing will be starting shortly.
What lessons have you learned while Kickstarting Solar Storm? Anything that you will do differently next time.
I would ensure the rulebook is professionally written and completed during the campaign rather than after.
The rulebook we used during the campaign was one that I had created. It was ok but needed work. David Digby, who worked on solo mode for Chocolate Factory, agreed to rewrite the rulebook. Unfortunately, we were talking to him about this in October with Essen on the horizon. A very busy time for everyone including David.
We lost a lot of time due to this oversight. If the rulebook had been finished earlier, the fulfilment schedule would be much closer to completion.
Any other games in the pipeline – either from yourself or Dranda?
Speaking for myself, I’m pottering around with a few ideas. They are not currently the focus of Dranda Games, however.
What we would like to do next is publish a game by another designer. We are currently accepting submissions via our website: www.drandagames.co.uk
Do you have any advice for someone looking to get started in the games industry?
Make sure you are aiming to work in an area you enjoy.
I enjoy designing games, I enjoy the project management side of being a publisher. I absolutely love doing these things.
However, if someone was working in these areas but didn’t genuinely enjoy doing them…it would be like any other job. Eventually, it would grind them down and may even spoil the hobby for them.
Considering volunteering first, to make sure the work is what you think it will be. Simon and I both volunteered previously. It’s a great way to learn about the industry and make contacts with people already working in it.