Interview: Tony Boydell, Designer of Snowdonia, Alubari and Guilds of London

Tony Boydell, designer of Snowdonia, Alubari and Guilds of London, joins Diagonal Move today to talk about his career in the board game industry.

Snowdonia Designer Tony Boydell
Tony Boydell

DM: Hi Tony, thank you for joining us today. You have been publishing games since the early 2000’s. How did you get started?

TB: It was in the early 1990’s. I was part of a group that would meet on a Sunday mainly to play RPG’s but we also played board games as a way of warming up for the role play.

We would play Blood Royale, Diplomacy, and other games of that ilk. Believe it or not you could get Diplomacy at Toys R Us back then.  Ikusa was a game that we really liked. It’s a fantastic game; similar to Risk but with extra stuff in it.

We played it so often that we began to get irritated with certain rules. For example, it was possible to move mercenaries from one Japanese island to another, but they landed in an odd space. It made much more sense to be able to land in the spot next to it.  So, we changed it and that led to many other tweaks. We made the ninja more ninja-y, for example.

The first prototype game I made was called ‘The Black Overcoat’ which was based on a comic strip I had written during my college days. It was set in a house where players would be hunting for treasure. It was heavily influenced by my time playing Magic the Gathering, however, it led to me collating ideas for other games. 

One of those ideas was for ecological game about saving the planet by clearing away pollution and ensuring putting animals back in their habitat. Pollution would need to be cleared from Alaska for the Polar Bears or the Southern Ocean for the Blue Whales, for example. Years later, that idea became the premise for Ivor the Engine.

I grew more and more interested in how games were put together. Eventually this culminated in the decision in the late 1990’s to co-found Surprised Stare Games with the aim of publishing some of the games that I had been working on.

Coppertwaddle Tony Boydell
Coppertwaddle – the first game published by Surprised Stare Games

DM: Can you tell us about the early days of Surprised Stare Games?

TB: Our first release was my card game, Coppertwaddle. It was a simple, fun, 2 player card game that we thought would be the easiest of our designs to start with. Alan (Paull, Surprised Stare Games co-founder) and I planned to take it to the Essen convention and see where things went.

When we got to Essen, however, our eyes were opened to just how much was out there. The sheer volume and variety of games that were being presented. I went to the convention with the background of a being mainly a card game fan and I was introduced to Goa and Caylus. These were a type of games that I didn’t even know existed, with themes that I didn’t know board games could cover.

We released a game every year after Coppertwaddle. In those early days, I was worried that if we didn’t have a new game each year, we wouldn’t be able to go to Essen.  If we didn’t go to Essen, would everybody forget who we were? Would we ever be able to get going again if we missed a year? This was pre-social media and you had to learn by doing. There is plenty of advice available now in the form of blogs and vlogs but we were too early for that.

Snowdonia SSG

DM: When you design a complex game like Snowdonia, do you start from the perspective of mechanics or of theme?

TB: Essen has an incredibly fertile creative atmosphere. It’s something in the beer, I’m sure it is! Everybody around you is so creative. You meet artists, designers, and manufacturers. It’s astonishing how much enthusiasm and energy there is in that environment.

In those early years Agricola, Le Havre and Age of Steam were all released. Much more complicated games than we were creating. I don’t have the mathematical, analytical mindset that designers like Joris and Jeroen from Splotter Games do…but, I do love theme.

If a theme engages me, I’ll want to create something that uses it. Board games are my hobby and I love playing games with themes that interest me.

In 2005, everyone was making train games. Age of Steam had been released and everyone was jumping on that bandwagon.

It was like a competition and I decided to be deliberately awkward and different. If I was to design a railway game, I would want one railway not many. I would focus on the guys laying the track not the shareholders and I would set it in North Wales where the weather is often terrible.

When I got home from Essen that year, I began to think more about this theme of building a railway on a mountain in Wales. What would be involved in a project like that?

Well, you would need to dig, you would need to move parts from the yard at the bottom of the mountain up to where the track was being laid. Bad weather would make the job that much more challenging.

I began to think about what elements I had seen in other games and how I could use or mould them to fit this theme.

The Snowdonia Railway itself was built in 9 months, an astonishing feat. To reflect that I wanted a game that didn’t outstay its welcome. In the early 2000’s it wasn’t unusual for a Euro game to take 3 hours to play and a game doesn’t need to take that long!

Worker placement was growing in popularity at the time and this was an ideal mechanic for building a railway. There are specific jobs that need doing and sending a worker to do those jobs fit perfectly. Of course, the weather can make certain jobs impossible on occasion.

The theme drives the mechanics for me and if I can’t find a mechanism that suits the theme, the design doesn’t go anywhere.

Snowdonia in play
A game of Snowdonia in play

DM: How do you layer multiple mechanics in a complex game?

TB: Initially there is a lot of thinking about what I want in the game. As a designer, the more games you play, the better armed you are because it’s possible to see some of the ‘gotcha’s’.

In Snowdonia, for instance, rubble is very lucrative because I wanted players to dig. If you don’t dig, the track can’t be laid which means the game doesn’t finish properly.  I didn’t want the game to be doing all the digging, so I valued it highly. Players don’t like to let all the points go to waste.

That needed balancing against the points for station spaces and the points for the actual track. I hedged my bets in a three pronged approached.

If players want to go for rubble, they can get lots of points, but they need to go all out for rubble. Otherwise the strategy falls flat. Track looks low value on the board, but the track cards are worth a lot at the end of the game. Again, players that go for track need to focus on it. Players who build will need to do a little bit of everything, which is where the contract cards come in.

The golden rule of worker placement is to focus on something that no-one else is. If you are the only player building track you will do well, but if two players are laying track already, leave it alone.  But what would happen if a player took a card to stop someone else from taking it. Would that be a benefit? I don’t particularly like that mechanic, but does that mean it shouldn’t be there?

I literally sat with a table with these ideas laid out in front of me, trying to figure out how it would all fit together.

Then, of course, comes the playtesting and that just takes as long as it takes.

Guilds of London
Guilds of London published by Tasty Minstrel Games

DM: Do you playtest specific mechanics to identify specific issues or is it more general?

TB: As you gain experience as a designer you begin to gain a feel for what needs the most testing. I take the approach now where I may or may not ask testers to look for certain things.

For example, playtesting on one of my current prototypes is focusing on the map. I feel the core mechanics are ok, but I want to make sure there isn’t a game breaking strategy I have overlooked.

Guilds of London playtesting concentrated on the costs of cards. I wanted players to be able to have big turns, but I didn’t want turns to be so big that other players may as well stop playing. Any card in Guilds that costs two coins costs two because one of the playtesters found an overpowered card combo.

We took the opposite approach for Snowdonia, which had the most wonderful playtesting group. They were all excellent board gamers with a Trading Card Game background. Most had qualified for various tours and Grand Prix’s. One had even been the UK Agricola champion. They knew how to abuse card combinations and were more than happy to try to break a game. So, we just gave them the game and let them loose on it.

It was brilliant when they broke the game because we hadn’t yet spent a lot of money releasing it. It was even better when they didn’t break it because I had finally foiled them!

Alubari by Tony Boydell
Alubari, published by Studio H

DM: Your most recent big box game is Alubari, a Snowdonia series game. How does Alubari differ from Snowdonia?

TB: The best way to think of Alubari is that it is both a reworking of, and an extension to, Snowdonia.

I liken Alubari to Brass versus Age of Industry in the sense that Brass was the standalone game that came first and then Age of Industry was the system that followed.

It’s the same with Alubari; in my case however, the system, Snowdonia, came first.

My approach to Snowdonia expansions is that they need a low component overhead, typically consisting of cards to put around the outside of the board. Alubari was originally intended to be an expansion but there was too much in it.

I decided to go back to the beginning and build the game as its own entity. The basic mechanics are the same as those in Snowdonia, although I did make a few changes that I felt needed to happen. For example, events take place before player actions in Alubari. It’s a simple change, however, it removes the possibility of a sudden end to the game.

I’ve added Chai and tea leaves. These run through every aspect of the game. While the action spaces are the same as Snowdonia you cannot ignore the Chai. Its not an extra thing to add in now and again. The Chai takes away the need for a third worker and trains are now worth points on their own.

Alubari is a much more open and accessible game than Snowdonia. I’ve seen Snowdonia players score in the teens and have quite a negative experience because it felt like a lot of hard work for virtually no points. Especially when the winner scored 95 points. In Alubari, you can have some wonderful turns using tea leaves and Chai.

Gruffalo Yay Games
A collection of games by Andrew Harman, Brett Gilbert and Tony Boydell

DM: You have also designed many simpler games. Is it more challenging to design a simple game than it is a complex one?

TB: Simple games are harder to design. Much harder.

In a complex game, there is the possibility of hiding behind the mechanics. Of having so many interlocking pieces that it’s possible to say: ‘if you aren’t doing well it’s because you aren’t putting the pieces together in the right way’.

Simple games have nowhere to hide. I contributed to The Gruffalo: Games from the Deep Dark Wood which was released last year by Yay Games. The challenge in creating a game like the Gruffalo was for it to be so simple that a 4-year-old can understand it and yet for it to be engaging at the same time. Anyone can create a game by rolling dice to move around a board, but it’ll probably be a terrible game.

If it were easy to design a mass market game, Codenames for example, we would all have done it. Instead we are thinking: ‘Vlaada Chvátil you clever…’.

Codenames underwent playtesting for at least 12 months before it was released. People hear that and think “why?”. 

Sometimes, it’s possible to create something that’s clever and engaging but that seems so simple. And…you just need to be sure that it is.

DM: Of all the games you have designed, which one do you look back on and think “I’m glad I did that”.

TB: Snowdonia. It started life as almost a joke conversation and then went through a pale, sterile imitation of a Martin Wallace game phase. When it did begin to come together, it came together quickly and changed everything

I remember showing the prototype to Hanno at Lookout Games. He agreed to take a look as he enjoyed going to Snowdonia with his family and was familiar with the railway.

A few weeks later he said: “the two player game is terrible and you need a solo mode”. Then we were discussing artwork and shortly after that I was given paperwork to print out for the UK Games Expo.  At no point did we discuss a contract.

When we arrived at Essen in 2012, five palettes of Snowdonia turned up at the Surprised Stare Games stand. I was suddenly on the other side of the stand with a company whose games I adored.

The previous year I had visited the Lookout stand to see if I could blag any promo’s. That year there was an Agricola promo card themed to me. I had expected Snowdonia to be 750 copy niche railway game for collectors but there it was. Translated into German and Italian and being produced in the thousands.

Tony Boydell prototypes
Games in development

DM: What do you have on the horizon?

TB: Race the Rails is due out this year. It’s a London Underground themed game to be released by Gibsons Games.

The history of games fascinates me and I’m something of a collector of vintage board games. Many of these games wouldn’t work nowadays but, some of them, had very interesting ideas.

Race the Rails is based on a vintage UPL game:  144 stations were listed on 12 cards that were hidden around the house and garden. Players had to hunt for them. There were no phones then; no pictures taken to remind people where cards had been left and what was on them. It must have taken days to find them all!

Race the Rails takes this basic idea and expands it to be an indoors, visual dexterity party game that plays in about ten minutes. Players are trying to find train stations on 36 cards laid randomly on the table: someone says “Go!” and there is a scramble to find them. When found, the station directs you to another – on another card, of course – and so on!

I have also added ‘milestones’: these are forfeits that need to be completed along the way (good and bad), such as complementing everyone on their dress or running around the table twice. They are there to slow down progress before you can look for your next card. It’s very silly but works really well.

DM: Do you have any advice for new designers?

TB: Play lots of games. See how other designers have solved issues of theme versus mechanics. Then do it: don’t just think about doing it. Put it together and play it; use old buttons or whatever is to hand – it will either work for you or it won’t but you’ll never know unless you try!