Cryptid: Urban Legends designers Ruth Veevers and Hal Duncan join Diagonal Move to talk about their approach to abstract game designs.
DM: Thanks for joining us today, Hal and Ruth. You are known for your game Cryptid, which was a big success a few years ago. Can you tell us a bit more about yourselves and how you got into gaming?
Hal: I got into hobby board games roughly when I started university in around 2005. Before then I’d played roleplaying games and some Magic, and have faint earlier memories of leafing through the glossy board games pages of the Argos catalogue each Christmas. When I started at uni I recall playing a lot of Zombies!!! and Illuminati, enjoying them but wanting something shorter and with a bit more control. I played Citadels at a university club, and soon after that Power Grid, Puerto Rico and so on. There’s a long running games club in Norwich, I think the first game I played when I joined them was Brass; I did miserably at it, but it’s my favourite game to this day. I started designing games when I was working night shifts, and would have lots of time to think about games, but time for playing games didn’t line up with others very often, and eventually one of them was Cryptid.
Ruth: I started at the same university in 2008, and I’d wanted to give Dungeons and Dragons a try so I went along to the university’s game group. By then Hal had become the president and had started up weekly society board game nights, which were a bit of a revelation for me – I’d known I loved playing games like Scrabble and Cluedo, and finding out that there was a whole world of modern games to jump into was great. Developing a massive crush on Hal also inspired me to go every week…
DM: Can you describe how you create games as a design partnership?
Ruth: I think my first attempt at game design came in around 2009 after I misremembered Agricola so badly that I had in effect created a completely different game. I filled in the gaps and put together a hand-drawn prototype named Peachtree Hill, and forced Hal to play it. To this day I maintain that it was actually quite good, although I will not be replaying it to confirm.
Later Hal started coming up with more deliberate game ideas and talking them over with me. I think we spend so much of our lives talking to each other that it was just quite natural to discuss the ideas and develop them together. We both enjoy developing and discussing games, but we’re quite anxious about the process of actually releasing a game. This means we’re quite happy to shelve a game if it’s not perfect – we have a prototype graveyard of projects that are Absolutely Fine, but I don’t really want to release anything unless I’m super excited about it. I think that takes a bit of pressure off when it comes to differences in opinion, as we have as much time as we need to try out different versions, discuss them, and ultimately end up with something we both like.
Our roles within the design partnership aren’t super strictly defined, although Hal tends to handle the social side while I prefer working on any computational requirements. Hal is really good at identifying interesting new mechanics that work as a great launching point, so most of our games start life as one of his ideas. He’s also very open to suggestions, even if those suggestions are a massive shift in direction. I’ve proposed a few new games, but I usually playtest each one once or twice and then decide it’s mediocre. I’m trying to find a nice way to phrase “I’m very opinionated and critical, and really enjoy dissecting prototypes looking for ways to improve them” but I’m afraid I might just be a nightmare.
As an example, Urban Legends started as a ghostbusting game proposed by Hal before Cryptid came out. It started as a more traditional hidden movement game played on a grid, with a team of ghost hunting players moving different coloured sensors around the points on the grid. A hidden ghost player would be secretly positioned in the squares of the grid and would report back about the adjacent sensors. That core puzzle – arranging the sensors to make their possible outputs more informative, or trying to position yourself to make your location ambiguous – was really neat, but the surrounding game had some issues. I love hidden movement games, but my least favourite point (at least when Hal and I play) is when the detective player draws up massive logical trees of possibilities based on where the hidden player came from and where each position can lead to. This game in particular led to a lot of agonising over the board and drawing up trees for the detective player and a lot of sitting about for the hidden player. I proposed a version where a similar sensor system is used, but the game itself is played directly on such a tree. The slight hitch was that the board would immediately become massive and stretch off the ends of any gaming table. We didn’t work on the game any more until a couple of years later, when Hal thought up a really clever system of simulating a growing tree by moving backwards and forwards between just two layers, which is the core part of Urban Legends’ gameplay. From there we worked on the project almost daily, identifying the experience that we wanted players to have and trying variations of each mechanic until it all felt right.
Hal: I handle most of the playtesting with people outside our core group. There are great events under the Playtest UK banner in both Cambridge and London, which I went to semi regularly at different stages. I try to kind of process and gauge feedback from those sessions down to the bits that would be useful for Ruth and I to puzzle over together. One of the things I love about working with Ruth is that I find she is great at identifying what the core appeal of a game is, and keeping us focused on emphasizing those parts, and trimming ancillary bits of the game. In terms of making mechanical decisions, that’s collaborative. I feel we often talk over the issue, and if a solution doesn’t arise from that, let it stew until something bubbles up for one of us. It can mean we’re a bit slow, with things on the backburner for long periods, but we’re both happy to wait for a good solution rather than slog out an acceptable one.
DM: Cryptid is a deduction/puzzle game. What is the appeal of designing a puzzle or abstract game and how does Cryptid differ from other games in the genre?
Hal: I have a love of games which have a win condition other than the accumulation of points, where you have to accomplish some task in order to win. Puzzle and deduction games provide a clear focus and objective: solve the puzzle. It’s a boon for design, as when considering how something should work you can ask yourself “how is this about solving the puzzle?” to guide your choices.
Within the deduction genre, the most direct influence on Cryptid is Zendo, and the lineage of induction games like Eleusis. Both of these have a core asymmetry, having one player who knows some hidden rule, which the others are trying to divine. Perhaps against the then emerging trend for increased asymmetry, we wanted to flip this into a symmetric experience. A key challenge in doing that was developing a game structure that can arbitrate when a final solution has been reached, without one player having sight of all the knowledge. One of the unique things in Cryptid is that all that work is pushed into the setup, and the identification of a unique space fitting all the players rules. Recent games, like the excellent Search for Planet X, have had an app take on that role, but we wanted it so that the app was only needed in setup which multiple clues leading to a unique space allowed.
Ruth: I think there’s an element of designing a puzzle-y game that itself feels like a bit of a puzzle. I found it quite enjoyable to work on trying to find the parameters and thresholds for clue generation that would make the game feel fair. I also really enjoyed working on the clue generation algorithm itself. I’d finished university and gone to work as a programmer when we started working on Cryptid. Some of the questions the design brought up, about sets and information, felt related to but not exactly the same as known problems in computer science and maths, and it was really interesting to think about how to approach these questions in those contexts. It was partly why I then went back into academia to do a PhD – I had found that I really enjoyed working on a problem without knowing whether a solution even existed.
DM: Can you tell us about the design and development process for Cryptid?
Ruth: Cryptid came out of a discussion we’d had after an extremely long and frustrating game of Zendo – we wondered whether you could get an experience that felt as satisfying as solving an induction problem like Zendo but without requiring a human to set the puzzle. We quite quickly settled on spaces on a map as the setting, as you have a lot of potential clues built into that such as terrain types, distance to landmarks, and so on. Hal manually created a map and put together the first set of clues which seemed like an absolute nightmare, so I threw together a bit of code that would generate a hex map, pick a hex and then generate some rules to uniquely identify it. Within a week we had this working, and as soon as we played it we could see that there was something really neat about it.
Hal: Theme was irrelevant for the longest time. We knew the game, mechanically, was about finding something within a space, so initially had it as a generic finding buried treasure theme. We weren’t particularly attached to it though. When the mechanisms were pretty stable, we started trying to find a story which provided an adequate excuse for why the game worked like it did. For instance, it’s slightly tricky to explain why treasure hunters are sort of working together and discussing things, but it made more sense if you were scientists discussing your research about a creature. Currently, one of the features I like most about games is that like music they can function without representing anything at all, or representing it only very vaguely.
DM: Cryptid has quite distinctive artwork. What impact do you think artwork and graphic design have on an abstract game and were you able to have input on the artwork for Cryptid?
HD: I’m really happy with how the artwork on Cryptid turned out, Kwanchai and Osprey did a terrific job. My sense for art is not particularly strong, I’ll default to a sort of austere black and white look most of the time, partly as it’s cheaper to print. We were asked about what artists or styles we would want, but I don’t think it was an area where we had a particularly strong vision. Duncan Molloy at Osprey was really great at ensuring there was a balance between art which would pull people in, and maintaining the readability of the game state. Because one of our core aims for the game was to have memory of all the answers stored on the board, making sure that is easily readable at a glance is vitally important to the game being playable. The boldness of colour and iconic texture on the different terrains really worked well I feel. It’s one of the appeals of working with a publisher, you get the benefit of people with much greater experience and taste in areas where you’re lacking. Plus, I can’t get enough of that little snake on the cover. I think, when we get deep enough in the ocean, we’ll find it.
Ruth: In general, we don’t bother to make prototypes look good at all – Urban Legends spent most of its development as printer paper glued to card cut from cereal boxes. The first time we saw Kwanchai’s art for Cryptid we were on a bus and I teared up in public about how good it looked. We’re both very happy he’s returned for Urban Legends and can confirm that everything we’ve seen of the new art absolutely slaps.
DM: How do you playtest a game like Cryptid with so many different possibilities?
Ruth: We spent a lot of time unsure about what the end product of Cryptid would look like. We considered the possibility of sending it out as envelopes which each contained a unique paper map and set of printed clues, where players would draw on the map instead of placing tokens. For a while it was essentially a print-and-play where each time someone printed the map it would be different. We also considered making the app or website required for all setups. For this reason, I focused on making the code generate one of the practically infinite solutions on the fly rather than starting with a bank of set-ups and playtesting our way through them. This also meant that when we made changes to the potential clues or map tiles they would immediately be incorporated in the clue generation rather than having to scrap and regenerate a large number of set-ups. Playtesting Cryptid became two tasks: making sure that our code was giving game setups and clue combinations that actually worked as we expected, and making sure that the game was enjoyable to play. Once we were completely satisfied that the code was putting out good set-ups, and Osprey had come up with the final booklet and card method of handing out clues, we manually checked each set-up but didn’t worry about thoroughly playtesting each one.
Urban Legends has the same set-up for each game, which was a nice change. That let us focus more on exploring the different directions the game could go from that starting point.
Hal: Beyond having a working algorithm, which generated maps with functioning sets of clues, we also had to identify what felt fair. If one player’s clue narrowed it down to 10 spaces, while another player’s to 40, did that feel fair? Were some types of clues just much harder or easier to guess? For instance, at one point we had directional clues, which said something like “North of the black shack”. I was loath to drop them, and we needed them to make it feel like there were enough possibilities, but they were so visually obvious on the board that people resented getting dealt one. Eventually we found a type of clue to replace them, adding animal territories (at the time we called them fissures), and later realised we could further split them into two types, giving us back the feeling of having enough possibilities. Once we’d got a sense of what felt balanced to players, we had to turn it back into thresholds and conditions which could be understood by the clue generation algorithm, and head back to another round of testing. As Ruth said, it has been refreshing to work on Urban Legends, with exactly and only one setup.
DM: Your next game is Cryptid: Urban Legends. What can you tell us about this new game?
Hal: It’s inspired by hidden movement games, but it isn’t one. There’s no mechanical relationship between this game, and the earlier Cryptid, but we hope that it retains a sense of feeling like a dynamic puzzle. Urban Legends is a two-player game, where one player takes on the role of a team of scientists, trying to capture the other player who represents an elusive creature fleeing through a city. The city is represented by tiles, and places where the creature could be by markers on those tiles. The goal of the scientists is to reduce the places the creature could be to only one (or zero) and thus capture it; the creature to make it such that they exist in a wide enough range of places to escape the scientists net to freedom.
The goals are asymmetric, but the way players interact with the game is less so. Both players manipulate the location of sensors, to make parts of the city more or less similar in terms of the sensors near to them. To my mind, the strongest similarity between Urban Legends and Cryptid is that we wanted to push the usually asymmetric way players interact with hidden movement games towards a greater degree of symmetry. Both are engaged in the same puzzle of arranging the sensors, but trying to achieve different goals, either expanding or contracting the places the creature could be.
Ruth: The games are using different mechanics to aim for a similar experience: we want players to be competitively engaging with a core puzzle, and we ideally want them to be approaching the puzzle without any need for note-taking.
DM: Did you learn anything from the design process for Cryptid that you applied to Urban Legends?
Hal: Perhaps the biggest one was something we failed to apply for a long time. The earliest version of the design was more akin to well known hidden movement games like Letters from Whitechapel, with the creature secretly writing down their moves, the scientist trying to arrange cubes (later to be sensors) on a squared board to best detect them. That puzzle, of arranging sensors on the board to get as much information about the creatures moves, has always been in the game, and has always been the core engaging part.
For the longest time though, it was only something the scientist player did. We tried to make the creature side more interesting by giving them a resource economy, access to powers, and some minor ability to manipulate the sensors. The game really started feeling special for me when we quite radically reworked it so that everything focussed on manipulating the sensor cubes, and it was the core concern of both players, it was basically all you did. One of my favourite rules of thumb that served well in Urban Legends is that, in this puzzle-y sort of game, players should touch the pieces as little as possible. The majority of the appeal is chewing over the problem, which is something that happens in the players head; the more we can keep them there, and the quicker we can get them back there the better. There’s definitely a bit more admin in this game than Cryptid, but a lot of times design seems to me to be making choices between mutually exclusive desirable properties.
Ruth: The Cryptid playtesting process, along with some of the responses it received, made me more sensitive to the effect of player error. I was so bad at putting out cubes instead of discs and vice versa that we had to add a rule to handle player mistakes, and some playtesting sessions failed because a tile was put out upside-down. Urban Legends is less fragile; there are no points that someone could give incorrect information that couldn’t be spotted by the other player.
DM: Urban Legends has a degree of secrecy about the upcoming release. How hard do you find ‘keeping a lid’ on the game?
Hal: We did have a smaller circle of playtesters for this game, partly because being a two player only game there’s sections of the development we could do primarily on our own, so there’s fewer people to talk about it online. We also finished it up during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, so there are people who playtested it online under its working name of Superposition, who didn’t know me personally and who I don’t know would necessarily link it to the current title. I haven’t personally made a particular effort to be secretive about the game. I think perhaps it’s a matter of temperament for me rather than a conscious choice. I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about our games beyond giving a description of what it is, it doesn’t feel like my place to frame people’s expectations or reactions.
Ruth: I’ve always struggled to talk or write about myself and especially things that I’ve worked on that I’m proud of. Every time I see Cryptid discussion in the wild I feel like I’ve just been poked in the intestines. I will, however, absolutely seek out all discussion of Urban Legends.
DM: Urban Legends is released in Spring 2022. Are other projects already in the pipeline? If so, can you tell us more about them?
Hal: We’re quite slow, so there’s nothing very developed currently. We’ve been noodling with another hidden movement type game, which is still hidden movement, but who knows what it might end up as. A while ago we finished up a traditional questions-and-notetaking style deduction game, which works well but maybe doesn’t contribute anything particularly novel, so we’re a bit unsure what if anything to do with that one.
Ruth: There are a few things that are stewing on the back-burner, waiting for some inspiration. There’s a game using Cryptid-style induction for placing dominoes that was progressing quite nicely before local playtesting sessions were stopped due to Covid. There’s also a different hidden movement game where everybody’s movement is hidden from themselves, which is interesting but doesn’t hold up to repeated plays yet.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a stage where Cryptid was a print-and-play game that would be different each time it was printed. That’s something I find interesting, and lately I’ve been playing around with developing something similar. It’s currently sort of a distribution method in search of a game though, as the games I’ve been playing around with for it haven’t been very inspiring.
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for designers looking to publish a puzzle/abstract/deduction game?
Hal: In a deduction game, you can consider information as a sort of currency. When other people reveal information to you, it’s a gain; when you have to reveal information to others, you’re spending it. Using information as rewards or penalties for actions will I think make a more focused feeling game, It keeps more of the decisions linked into the core puzzle. The risk with this is that players who are struggling with the puzzle may not perceive receiving information as a reward, if they can’t see how it advances their position. Using more explicit rewards, like handing out points, will make the game work for a broader audience, but I think you lose some of the intensity you’d get by keeping everything pointing back inwards at the puzzle.
Consider who gets to see information which is revealed. Keeping people engaged between their turns can be achieved by letting them see bits, or all, of the information which they can attempt to integrate into their understanding of the puzzle.
I mentioned it earlier, but consider how often you want people to be touching components. Solving the kinds of puzzles set by deduction games is mostly happening in a player’s head. We used the amount of staring and frowning at the board as an indicator of how well the game was working, jokingly calling the pose of looking down, head on fist, frowning “Cryptid stare”.
Ruth: My advice would be to back off, we don’t need the competition.
All images in this article were provided by Osprey Games, except those of the Cryptid prototypes which were provided by Hal and Ruth.