Interview: David Turczi on Complex Game Design (Part 2/2)

In part 2 of our interview with David Turczi, he talks about the design and development of complex games including his recent designs: Perseverance, The Defence of Procyon 3, Excavation Earth, Tekhenu and Tawantinsuyu.

David Turczi
Promo shot of Perseverance

DM: Hi David, thanks for joining us again. You are known for designing complex games with rich themes. Which of those two elements do you typically start with?

DT: For me, everything has to fit into a system and that works wonderfully for 2-3 hour heavy Euro games. I am primarily a Eurogame designer. So, while I don’t really do ‘thematic’ games, all my games are ‘thematically inspired’. Of course, this has improved over the years.

I typically ask:

  • ‘Who are you?’,
  • ‘What do you do on your turn?’,
  • ‘How does that make sense?’,
  • ‘How does that generate conflict between players’ and
  • ‘How does that model the mechanism?’

Sometimes, it is the other way around. I see how other games have approached a mechanism and notice that, while some did ‘this’ and others did ‘that’, none of them have taken the unexpected third option.  I’ll look at the conflict that making that change models.

However, when I work with a publisher such as Mindclash, who have a strong theme focus and who build amazing worlds for their games, I barely try to theme the mechanism. It must make narrative sense, but I know that they will take the mechanisms and build an incredible world around them. 

Then I redesign and refine the mechanisms with the world they have created in mind. In that situation, it’s concept, setting, narrative and then the mechanisms. All parts of the process come back around on themselves.

Our forthcoming game, Perseverance, is a huge project that involved a team of designers. It’s about surviving and exploring an island, eventually becoming the leader of a city while fending off dinosaur attacks but it began as a game about Icelandic democracy.

I pitched it to Mindclash a few years ago, when four Viking games were released at Essen, and they said that “the Vikings have to go”. So, what other system did this democracy themed worker placement model?

We agreed that it had to be a closed community, big enough to be a mass of people voting and we thought of this idea of building a city on a deserted island. Then Richard said: Wouldn’t it be cool if there were dinosaurs on the island?”

That meant we had to take the ‘fill your boats with supplies’ semi-cooperative scoring – which made no sense without the Viking theme – and spend a full year redesigning a system based around the theme of exploring the island and riding dinosaurs.

Perseverance began with the mechanism – dice voting for area control – but once the world had been created the theme inspired many other mechanisms.

When done well, there is no ‘theme first, mechanism first’. Both enhance each other.

David Turczi

DM: The Defence of Procyon 3 is an ambitious game in terms of its design – four asymmetric factions, team-based gameplay with solo, co-op and competitive modes. Can you tell us more about the design and development process it underwent?

DT: Defence of Procyon 3 is my dream project. I didn’t do it because someone asked me, or for the money or because there is a market for it. The reason I did it was simply because I wanted that game to exist.

I had been in discussion with a publisher regarding a game in the Cthulu IP and I an idea where players were using tanks to fight the cultists. The publisher had just released a miniatures game in the IP and discussion stopped. But I had fallen in love with the concept and thought ‘what about ‘Starship Troopers’ as an alternative theme?’.  

This was around the time that I started working with PSC Games. I pitched the idea of a space battle where one player controls the land army and another the spaceships, with lots of minis and…they signed it straight away.  I hadn’t even designed it!

For the next two years, Procyon was the stuff of nightmares. I built a game and then scrapped it one turn into the first playtest. Then repeated that countless times.

I got to a point where 3 of the four factions were fantastic but the fourth was over complicated and lacked motivation. So, I allowed it some extra movement, a new way to attack and…that wasn’t balanced, this wasn’t balanced…we needed to burn the whole game and start over.

Eventually, through the process of iteration, the redesigns became smaller each time but even as late as August 2019 there was a hex map in there. I could not get the directional flying to work without taking five times longer than ground movement to resolve. So…scrap that version of the space map!

Procyon was totally redesigned, from the ground up, maybe four times in addition to the many small iterations. The game has a static set up and every card is drawn in every game which meant that there had to be diverse strategies or there was no replay value. If there was only one job to do, once you had learned how to do that job, there would be no point playing again.

The round volume shrank from 20 rounds, to 16 rounds, to the current 10 round format. Game end is usually in the seventh round due to a sudden death condition. It’s been three months since a playtest lasted to the eighth round.

Every single decision in the game had to be a fundamental choice. Players take eight actions in the game. A crunchy, heavy Euro has sixteen actions. In Procyon, players are constantly engaged because it’s not eight “I gain two wood” actions, it’s “I move seven of my units, deal 5 damage and use two special abilities”.

It’s finding the eight actions that will get you to victory, combined with the asymmetry, that engages the players.

David

DM: Excavation Earth looks like a fun sci-fi game; however, it has significant depth to it. Can you tell us more about the design?

DT: Excavation Earth had quite the journey. It began 4 years ago, when I managed to pass the design bug on to my now ex-wife, Wai Yee.

We were playing a lot of Glory to Rome at the time, so we wanted multi-use cards and so on. She came up with the idea of trying to convince local noblemen to invest in your unicorn training facilities.

It was not exciting enough for players, so she added unicorn-race betting. But, we didn’t want to create a racing game, we just wanted the feeling of excitement from racing. So, Excavation became, to use the Economic’s term, a ‘futures’ trading game.

The aim was to buy betting slips and then sell them based on the chance of the horse/unicorn winning at the moment of sale. This combined with a multi-use card draft and an area control for special abilities mechanism. It was very smart, but we found that pretty much nobody could play it.

Why? Because when you think of a horse race, you think of a fast moving, quick event where you want a specific horse to win. In the game, the horses moved through the racetrack in slow motion, constantly changing their values based on their positions. Players would buy a betting slip, make the horse move forward a little, sell the slip…the movements were not natural.

When we showed it to publisher, Mighty Boards, they said “We think it’s…smart, but no-one gets it. The unicorn theme is funny, but it is also a horrible mismatch for people expecting a crunchy euro from you”.

What else could we model? What could be an easy to access, hard to sell commodity with a fluctuating future value. So, we came up with…digging up artefacts! You know the artefacts are there, anyone can dig them up but they are hard to sell at the time when they have the most value to you.

My biggest contribution to the design came at this point. We were using the slow unicorn race to represent values – which made no narrative sense – however, once we changed theme to artefacts it became the number of people queuing at the museum that determined the value. The greater the number of blue meeples in the queue, the greater the value of the blue artefact. ‘Click’! The valuation mechanism now worked

Mighty Boards looked at it again and asked for something in addition to the ‘dig, advertise, sell’ mechanics. Ok…let’s add a black market so you can make profit from side deals.

“Could the game be made ‘cooler’?’ Ok…instead of travelling around the planet normally you use a hot air balloon.

“What does the hot air balloon do…not much.”

Then our lead developer turned co-designer, Gordon Calleja said: “What if we were aliens…?”

Ok…let’s introduce a Mothership…with special abilities.

The two big problems with the original game was that there was only one thing to do: buy and sell artefacts and it made no thematic sense.

As the theme was improved to make more thematic sense, we found more things to do.  At the end of this journey from unicorn breeding to alien mothership via slow motion racing and hot air balloons we had a game that players said looked like a fun, fluffy sci-fi game but is actually a super crunchy, heavy Euro, market-manipulation game.

We found, when talking to production partners, that we couldn’t compare it to any other game. It’s not an auction game or a commodity trading game. There is price manipulation and multi-use cards but neither of those describe what the game is about.

It has that ‘never quite enough actions’ feel, and I think of the ‘weight’ of the gameplay as being in a similar league to games such as Brass. But saying it is “like Brass” also doesn’t explain what the game does.

In the middle of the project, I was nearly hating it… and yet by the end, through hard work and co-operation, we found the unique and unexpected thing that I always look for in a game.

Turzci Tascini

Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun is a co-design with Daniele Tascini. How did you begin working with him?

Tekhenu has a very different background to Procyon and Excavation Earth. Development began when I emailed Daniele Tascini after meeting him for the first time at Essen.

The conversation went along the lines of:

 “Hey, shall we work together?”

“Sure, what do you want to do?”

“Something that goes around in a circle.”

“Such as…”

“Worker placement around an obelisk, with the shadow moving like in Photosynthesis!”

Two weeks later, I get an email from Daniele saying: “Not worker placement but dice-drafting and the shadow of an obelisk changes the value of the coloured dice. There will be six sections representing the Egyptian Gods, each will have a different action and each action feeds into the next one.”

My response was: “Shall I come to you next week?”.

This was over the Christmas holidays. On January 4th, I flew to Italy and the game was finished on January 7th.

In February we showed it to the publisher (Board & Dice) who asked if we could make the game 25% shorter. We said: “no”, they said: “yes, you can”.

Daniele and I played a game with 16 dice instead of 24 and realised the publisher was correct. We also tweaked the card offer and turn order balance. Design complete!

In total, I think I spent 10 days working on Tekhenu, including proof-reading the rule book!

In terms of gameplay, Tekhenu sits in between Trismegistus and Teotihuacan. Trismegistus is the obvious comparison due to the dice-drafting mechanics, but whereas Trismegistus is an engine builder, Tekhenu applies a similar ‘roughly fixed number of actions, points squeezing’ approach to that in Teotihuacan.

In Tekhenu players have a fixed 16 actions and need to use them as efficiently as possible. It’s ‘do as much as you can with very little’ powered by a dice draft mechanism.

It was an inspiring, back and forth collaboration. He is an inventor and I am a system engineer. Daniele shows me two mechanisms and I can see how they link. When I pose a problem to him; he creates a brilliant solution. We could work faster because he was solving the problems I posed.  I hope we can recapture some of that fire again in the future.

David Turczi

DM: Worker placement is a recurring mechanism throughout your design portfolio. Your forthcoming game, Tawantinsuyu: The Inca Empire, appears to feature it more than most. Can you tell us more?

DT: Tawantinsuyu is an Incan themed game, again published by Board & Dice, due out in October. Essentially, it is what I learned from Anachrony with the feel of what I learned from Daniele. Yes, there is a temple track and yes, you must feed your workers, yes there is a set collection element, but the mechanisms and the choice branching are closer to Anachrony.

Anachrony is a big game with many systems. I wondered what would happen if I took just the worker placement system from it. I then made the game as big and as deep as Anachrony is overall using only that one system rather than multiple systems.

There was no need to cater for the other systems, so I was able to make the worker placement system the most ‘choice rich’ that I have ever seen. One of the early reviewers commented that there are 88 worker placement spots on the board and “every single one matters”.

It’s not a soup of actions aimed at converting one thing into another. The cost, the place, the combo, the special effect, the restriction all matter every single time a worker is placed. I was able to take a system that I knew worked and deepen it. At a high level it feels like an Italian Euro game with tracks and set collection and so on but it’s actually a deep dive into what I like.

On your turn you either place a worker or take two of four secondary actions. One choice spawns’ multiple others, that each spawn further choices and so on. I had to have game mapped on the wall to keep track of it. There were originally four more resources than it currently has. These were removed once I could no longer justify their existence as a separate entity. “Why do I need silver, if gold does the same thing?”.

Despite its complexity, it only took about a month to design. One of the benefits of being a full-time designer is that I can dedicate myself to a project. Although I rarely have only one project because I tend to start scrolling through social media every time I am stuck. Having multiple projects allows me to change focus while I consider the reason why I am stuck in the background. The answer usually occurs while I am in the shower or when I am falling asleep. I always have my phone and notebooks nearby so that I can quickly make notes. That is essential.

DM: Do you have any advice for new designers?

DT: I’ve got to where I am through luck, shamelessness and sheer powering through.

When I started, I didn’t have any ‘great ideas’, I was assertive enough to stand my ground but humble enough to learn from others. A little luck and a degree of shamelessness helps. I punch above my weight because I can stay visible and don’t mind expending the effort to stay visible. The rest is people skills.

Nobody cares about ‘great ideas’. Anyone can have them. It’s the ability to follow through, to improve an idea by working with others, that counts.

Even now I have a ‘here is my opinion…but what if I’m wrong’ moment. Board gaming is very social, and we all want an experience while playing a game. It doesn’t matter what I think of the experience, I may have a vision, but when the developers and playtesters offer their opinion, I have to listen. Being able to work with people is more than half the battle.

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