Interview: Frank West, Designer of The Isle of Cats

Frank West, from City of Games, joins Diagonal Move to discuss his career in game design and the extraordinary success of The Isle of Cats.

Thank you for joining us today, Frank. Can you tell us how you got started in game design?

Game design is something I have always been interested in. As a young child I enjoyed video games, often thinking of how a video game of my own would look. This interest carried on into university where I studied computer science and programming. My final university project was to create an AI for a real time strategy game, which I spent a considerable amount of time developing. After university, I was able to work on video game projects as either a contractor or as a volunteer.

As time went by, I fell in love with modern board games. I particularly enjoy complex strategy games and one day I had a realisation that everything I had been trying to do in the video game world was more suited to board games. Projects that would take hundreds of people and a great deal of resources as a video game; I could either do myself or with a small team as a board game.

This led me to begin work on a hobby project that, after a long period time, got to the point where I wanted to add artwork. I wanted to turn it into a game that I could have on my shelf at home and be able show the grand kids in 40 years’ time.

I felt that I was enjoying the process so much and had made so much progress that I began to look at how I could turn this hobby into something much more serious. Eventually, that hobby project became The City of Kings.

The City of Kings - from hobby project to Kickstarter success
The City of Kings – from hobby project to Kickstarter success

City of Kings is a large, complex, game. Can you tell us more about how the game came together?

In some ways I was lucky to have come from a video game background. Creating a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game was something that I had always wanted to do. There had even been a period where I spent around 6 months working full time on a game like that.  So, when I began creating the City of Kings, there was a stock of ideas that had been floating around.

I started to explore how video game concepts, such as open world adventures, could be developed into a board game. How would exploration and movement work? How could character progression – a relatively simple to explain concept in video games – be represented physically?

These questions led to more questions: what does a quest look like? What are players going to need on that quest. Discovering the answers to these questions led on to other questions, other ideas.

I like to give an example of a three-tier creation process. There are the visuals and artwork, layered on top of the characters and story that are themselves layered on top of the mechanics. Each layer feeding into the others.

For example, when we created the imagery for City of Kings, we used two colours for each character: a ‘core’ colour and a ‘secondary’ colour.  The character, Sesharra – who is a tribal warrior, a humanoid cat-like creature that lives in the desert – had yellow as her core colour, but we struggled with the secondary colour. It was quite a challenge from an artistic perspective.

The City of Kings: Characters and Monsters
The City of Kings: Characters and Monsters

We thought about the character, about the traits a stealthy character like her would have. It made sense that a stealthy creature would use poison as a weapon. This allowed us to explore the use of the colour green as the secondary colour. Not only did this character trait of ‘poison’ give us an additional decorative piece, it also enabled us to explore unique character abilities that could be used within the game. Everything in the character design fed into other areas of the overall game design.

Bear in mind that this was just one character. The whole game design process took around four years. Initially with that hobby perspective and then on a much more ‘full time’ basis as time went by. It was a very, very, long project.

This length was partly because of the size of the game itself and partly because it was my first game. There was a lot of learning involved. When you create a game for the first time, questions you may not think of as a gamer – ‘how do I create a prototype?’, for example – need answering. There was a more staggered approach to the project than perhaps there has been with more recent games.

A puzzle in a box: Vadoran Gardens
…And now for something completely different: Vadoran Gardens

Your next game was Vadoran Gardens, which is a much smaller game than City of Kings. Are there unique challenges presented by a small game design versus a larger one?

Yes, there are. With a small game like Vadoran Gardens there is a focus on the core of the game. What is the one thing that makes the game work? While this isn’t true of all small games, many do have one, maybe two, mechanics that make that game special when compared to other games in that market.

Designing larger games, with their increased number of mechanics, becomes less focussed on one special element and more about what is special about a combination of elements.

I believe it is a lot harder to create that ‘one special thing’ needed in a small game but, once you have it, it is then much easier to finish. Once you have that ‘thing’, creating prototypes and iterating the design is a quicker, simpler process.

For Vadoran Gardens, we could look at the design and say: ‘this specific mechanic needs streamlining’. In the City of Kings, it was more a case of: ‘this one area needs…something’

Vadoran Gardens: a think-y game in a thematic package
Vadoran Gardens: a think-y game in a thematic package

Scale isn’t the only noticeable difference between City of Kings and Vadoran Gardens. Do they have more in common than it would seem at first glance?

One of the things that people seem to find interesting about me as a designer is that I don’t design ‘similar’ games. Game designers tend to become known for creating certain types of games and my games have the appearance of going against that trend.

However, Vadoran Gardens, The Isle of Cats and the City of Kings have more in common than they seem to at first. I am interested in trying new and different ideas but each of my games has a puzzle at its core. Different types of puzzle, different ends of the puzzle spectrum but that puzzle element is what ties the three together.

This stems from my enjoyment of thinking things through. I hate to use the phrase, but I am a big “Euro Gamer”. I play a lot of heavy, think-y, theme-less, cube-based games. City of Kings and Vadoran Gardens were both my attempt at creating that type of think-y game inside a much more thematic package. I wanted to create visuals and stories as opposed to a spreadsheet with cubes.

Although ‘The Isle of Cats’ was aimed at a wider audience, it took what I learned from the earlier games in terms of creating a deep, complex puzzle. Those lessons helped create a game that is, I believe, relatively easy to learn but hard to master.

Herding cats in The Isle of Cats
Herding cats in The Isle of Cats

The Isle of Cats is a more complex game than it first appears. How do you layer that many moving parts into an accessible format?

Isle of Cats was designed to be an accessible medium weight game. Approachable but with a nice degree of high-level complexity. Hence the family version which was included for the younger and more infrequent game playing audience.

But it is a balance and, as with many things, it’s a fine balance.

While many mechanics came and went, from day one I knew that I wanted the Isle of Cats to be a polyomino and drafting game. They were the two core things that I wanted in there.

The reason behind the drafting mechanism was that I like the concept of drafting potential scoring opportunities versus the things you need to do to achieve those opportunities.

The ‘Basket’ cards used to determine the number of cats a player can rescue are part of this draft. However, in a previous iteration the draft involved more of a ‘blind bidding’ system. It was in the game because it felt like the right mechanic. Then a play tester commented: ‘I like the game and I like the idea but I’m not enjoying this because I hate blind bidding’. And I realised…I do too!

So, I took out the bidding and began to explore the idea of paying for cards and the optimal way to do this within the game. The fish tokens act as resources in the standard version, but they are not present in the family version.

This is because the fish add a level of economy and resource management that blends well with the drafting and the overall game balance. But this does represent a lot of additional complexity. The decisions are that much harder. There is a need to weigh how much to spend on one thing versus another and this is a different mindset to that needed for the family game.

A fish based economy - The Isle of Cats
A fish based economy – The Isle of Cats

What effect has the popularity of The Isle of Cats had on you?

It has been a phenomenal success and it’s still climbing and racing beyond anything we expected. Surprisingly, it is a strange and quite challenging situation to be in.

I haven’t created a game that has been anywhere near this successful before. This makes it hard to make estimates of how ‘normal’ this is. I publish my own games and distributors have told me that perhaps five games a year see this level of demand.

I’m quite literal in the sense that: if we sell ‘X’ many copies, we can cover the bills and have enough money left over to make another game. Fantastic – it’s been a great success!

But I’m now receiving emails from distributors saying that their 5000-copy order needs to be increased. We have already printed over 50,000 copies and are beginning the fourth print run.

I’m looking at the calendar thinking: ‘it’s the June 1st, the game released to retail on March 17th. Two months into its life cycle we are printing tens of thousands of extra copies.

I’m not sure how to interpret this information. Should I be very happy, should I take it with a grain of salt? I have no experience in this area so I’m having to learn as I go.

It’s also where a significant element of risk comes in. If I order 10,000 extra games and don’t sell them, in monetary terms, that’s hundreds of thousands that I may lose.

I recall reading a blog post from Jamey Stegmaier about how he struggled to keep up with the demand for Wingspan and how he received comments saying: “why didn’t he predict the demand?”. I feel like I understand where he was at now. I’m printing games in numbers that are multiple times higher than anything I would have previously considered, and it is still not enough.

I enjoy the business side of publishing games; however, it can be quite challenging. In a game, you can lose thousands of dollars and think: ‘Oh well’. In the real world, I’m now having conversations with my partner about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to print more games and if the games don’t sell, we will have to sell our house. That’s a complex decision to make.

Becoming a universe – The City of Kings

Shared universes are increasingly common. All three games have been part of the same ‘City of Kings Universe’. What is the appeal of creating games within such a system?

So often when we are introduced to a fictional creation it is at one point, in one state. I find it fascinating as a designer to be able to explore new directions with existing characters or visit places at different points in time. What was this creation like in the past? What was happening five years earlier or 500 years later.

The main benefit is that a shared universe creates infinite possibilities. When I was first designing The Isle of Cats, there was no theme other than this concept of buying cats and putting them into a house.

I was uncomfortable with this for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t like the idea of ‘buying’ cats. Secondly, most polyomino games at the time used square or rectangular boards. It is easy to put pieces on those shapes and I wanted to experiment with a different shape.

Setting ‘The Isle of Cats’ in the City of Kings universe allowed me to think more about why we were collecting cats, about what the story behind it would be.

In the City of Kings, there is an evil being destroying things and I was more comfortable with the idea of rescuing the cats from this being. This concept led to the idea of an island and rescue boats and their naturally irregular shape.

Within around ten minutes this all fell into place thanks to the pre-existing City of Kings universe. Without the universe the game would have probably had a more generic, bland, theme.

The City of Kings – prototype and final tiles

Do you have any advice for new designers and publishers?

I would suggest starting now. Get the prototype made and start playtesting. It is so easy to spend a lot of time not doing that.

When I first made the City of Kings the only play tester for a year or more was my partner. It was never ready to playtest formally because ‘this’ wasn’t done or ‘that’ wasn’t finished. We wanted it to be finished before we showed anyone else. We didn’t want to show it to someone and have them say: ‘that’s rubbish’.

Now I will playtest games that I began working on that morning. I’ll have a concept that I like so I ask people to meet for a play test and see where it organically goes.

It is much quicker to get to a point where you’ll be able to see whether the game works. Often playtesters will give suggestions that will improve the game.

Unfortunately, too many people delay taking that step because they are afraid of the outcome. Getting a design in front of people early is a good idea. I can’t emphasise that enough.

Note: all images in this article were provided by Frank West and City of Games

Leave a Reply