When I stumbled upon Fantastic Factories some time ago I was immediately intrigued. The game looked incredibly well balanced, and having just finished my own game Trains & Cargo which goes in the same "light-hearted by deep" style I wanted to know how Joseph Z. Chen, one of two designers of Fantastic Factories, had done it. We had a great chat about nailing a concept, finding balance and launching your game on Kickstarter.
Joseph Z. Chen and co-designer Justin Faulkner began their journey several years ago. They have since taken their card and dice-rolling game Fantastic Factories from prototype to finished product, and are now preparing a Kickstarter launch on May 29, 2018. In this interview about their game we talk about the development process, marketing concepts and how you can succeed on Kickstarter.
Curious about the game? This excerpt from the official website of Fantastic Factories sums it up pretty well: "Who can build the most efficient set of factories in the shortest amount of time? Roll your dice, run your factories, and manufacture your way to industrial dominance in this exciting new board game."
Strackspel.se: Watching the overview video I get the feeling that this is a simple game with a surprisingly balanced level of decision making. Would you agree?
Joseph Z. Chen: Yes. My goal has always been to design a game that is approachable and simple in mechanics but with a lot of interesting depth and replayability. The iconography is simple and few, but the interactions between different cards form interesting outcomes. Nobody likes being dealt a bad card or to roll badly so I wanted every card and die value to have some utility in one way or another. There are no strictly bad cards or rolls — it's all about how you utilize what you are provided. Often times every player in the game will pursue a different strategy and still be within arms reach of victory.
Strackspel.se: Is this "everything must have a value"-approach key to all successful games, or are there exceptions?
Joseph Z. Chen: Not at all! Some games rely heavily on the fact that certain cards are just better than others. For example, Magic: The Gathering utilizes this heavily. There are many rare and uncommon cards that are strictly better than common cards. I think that card imbalance has its time and place and can create dramatic moments. It can also create more tension and competition between players if it's a heavily coveted card.
For Fantastic Factories I wanted to rely less on luck and more on strategic puzzle solving. I wanted less emphasis on whether a card draw was good or bad and more along the lines of "hmm, what can I do with this card?"
You can't publish a great game without playtesting and getting player feedback. You just can't.
Strackspel.se: In terms of game balance, what has the design process been like? What changes have you made along the way?
Joseph Z. Chen: At first, I took a shotgun approach of just designing all kinds of wild ideas for cards. Then through play testing, I got to see first hand what kind of strategies players gravitated towards and what cards didn't see any play at all. I believe in letting people have fun doing what they want, and I would tweak the balance of the cards to allow that strategy to be a competitive one.
For example, I prefer building small but tight engines that involve as few cards as necessary. However, a lot of players love just building as many cards as possible so I introduced more cards that were worth points simply for building them. I also added cards that trigger off of each build, creating a card-building engine strategy. Players also love rolling extra dice so I introduced more balanced ways of allowing players to do so.
To be honest, the core fun of the game has been present and stable for a long time. However, the weakness of the simultaneous turn design creates a fairly non-interactive game so the last 2 years of development have actually been dedicated to trying out different ways of introducing minor elements of interactivity and streamlining the turn-based market phase. So in a sense, the game was 80% done within the first year and the rest of the time has been perfecting that last 20%.
Strackspel.se: Two years is a long time... Do you feel that this is necessary to produce a quality game, or has it taken longer due to other factors?
Joseph Z. Chen: I don't think it's necessary, especially if you have a larger team of people and are doing it full time. It's been longer for me due to a number of factors. It depends on the weight and complexity of the game. Fantastic Factories is not a heavy game but there are over 40 unique cards within the game, and the more unique components there are, the more you need to playtest in order to see how each of those pieces fit into the ecosystem and balance of the game. Some cards act as enablers that create unbalanced situations but only in combination with other cards. I needed a large enough sample size to see all these situations play out multiple times.
However, that in itself was not the primary reason why it has taken so long. The game has undergone a few larger reworks to address certain problems. It's not too difficult to identify problems, but it's hard to know if a design is as good as it can be or whether a major change will result in a better experience and potentially solve those problems. And once you make that large change, you have to go back to playtesting and iterating all over again.
In total, I would say Fantastic Factories has had the marketplace and interaction part of the game reworked in a major way at least two times. With more design experience, the correct solution might have been more apparent and those reworks could have happened earlier in the process.
There was also a short period of time where we were in talks with a publisher but ultimately we decided it would have been better if we had full creative control over the game we had built. Being the artist and doing the marketing as well means less time dedicated to design. The game design has actually been complete for many months, and I've been simply preparing for the Kickstarter since then.
And finally, my wife and I had a baby in the middle of it all just a year and a half ago. I remember hitting the submit button for the PAX South Indie Showcase application right before driving to the hospital!
Strackspel.se: Congrats on the baby! What's his or her name?
Joseph Z. Chen: Thanks! It's Sammers, a baby boy.
Strackspel.se: Talking about design changes, what has some of these changes been? What did the very first prototype look like?
Joseph Z. Chen: Fantastic Factories really has come a long way in terms of refining all aspects of the game including mechanically, aesthetically, and graphically. Of course I started by seeing if there was a fun game within the design. But once I decided I had a real game on my hands I worked to cultivate the theme, the world, and overall aesthetic. I do the art and graphic design myself, and it's been a learning process. With the simple and colorful vector art I wanted the game to be approachable and simple to learn. Even though there's little iconography, it's still a great challenge to make sure every card is clear in what it does.
Strackspel.se: We'll get back to the art bit later. First, how did you come up with the idea for the game?
Joseph Z. Chen: Prior to designing Fantastic Factories, I had a number of games that I considered as favorites. However, in my mind, each game had its shortcomings. I wanted to combine the best aspects of each game and eliminate all the negative aspects of each design. I wanted the engine building and replayability of Race for the Galaxy but without the overwhelming iconography and complexity. I wanted the simultaneous play and high player scaling of 7 Wonders without the learning curve of knowing what cards are available with each age. I wanted the puzzly dice placement and manipulation of Alien Frontiers without the lengthy turns and player down time.
All I have to say is, WOW, if only it were that easy. It's been a long difficult journey but I'm very happy with how the game design has turned out.
Strackspel.se: Packing all these aspects into one game, what has been the hardest part about designing Fantastic Factories?
Joseph Z. Chen: One of the game's main features is the simultaneous play. However, I didn't realize how difficult it is to make a great game with simultaneous play largely because simultaneous play is at odds with player interaction. The game felt like solitaire and in some ways it still does but it's now designed to embrace it in many ways.
Like a unicorn riding a narwhale shooting rainbows out of its bellybutton.
Another difficult challenge has been the marketplace. In an engine-building game with a lot of discovery in it, you want to expose players to cards but not too many. And the marketplace has to remain fresh with cards that players want. Nailing this precisely has been tricky. It was solved with a couple mechanics, one of which was to utilize cards as a resource necessary to build other cards. The fact that you have to discard as many cards as you are building means you get to see twice as many cards. It also means there are multiple reasons why someone might want a card, and it also reduces the chance of a card being useless.
Strackspel.se: The simultaneous play is actually what caught my attention from the start. You said it was inspired by 7 Wonders. So this was a core aspect from the start, or did you add this element to speed up play?
Joseph Z. Chen: This has been a core part of the game from the very beginning. As I mentioned earlier, it was one of my design goals to reduce as much player downtime as possible.
Strackspel.se: So have you designed the perfect game, in your opinion?
Joseph Z. Chen: The perfect game doesn't exist. And these classic time-tested games that I've enjoyed have their flaws for very good reasons, as I've discovered. There are always pros and cons to each element of the design. Simultaneous play means less interaction. Fewer icons means less depth. Short games means players are less invested. But there are ways to achieve your design goals and still minimize the negative aspects of each element. The trick is finding the right mix of these elements that creates a satisfying and fun experience for players.
No one game can be for everyone, and I've discovered the niche of the audience in which Fantastic Factories sits. I've also discovered the likes and dislikes of all the other people within the board game community I've met along the way. Most designers will start designing a game that they would enjoy playing and I am no exception. Fantastic Factories is a game that I very much enjoy playing even after 200+ games. But at the same time I am eager to try designing the next game for a different audience to broaden my experience as a designer.
Joseph Z. Chen: There were initially four of us who helped create the game. For the first few months we met weekly to playtest. Once I decided it was an actual game, I found a local organization called PlaytestNW that I highly recommend. They host events throughout the greater Seattle area at local game stores that grant designers the opportunity to playtest. Since then I've attended many of their events as well as many local conventions. I've also put the game on Tabletop Simulator and have been playing the game digitally with some friends who live in different cities as well. All in all, the game has been playtested over 200 times at this point.
Strackspel.se: What has player feedback meant to you?
Joseph Z. Chen: Well, you can't publish a great game without playtesting and getting player feedback. You just can't. I've met some stubborn designers who just won't listen to feedback from their players. It's true that every player has a different experience and not all feedback is created equal, but I like to take the stance that most everyone's experience is valid. You might have intentionally designed a card to be played a particular way but if players don't understand that and can't figure it out, it's not the player's fault, it's the fault of the game design. It might be a one-off incident but with enough playtests, you can start sorting out what might be pattern or a real issue with the game.
Strackspel.se: Which is the most "fantastic" factory, and why?
Joseph Z. Chen: Concrete Plant for sure. Do you know what a concrete plant looks like? I don't think most people do, but this is what I'd like to imagine it might look like.
Strackspel.se: Alright, let's talk about art. You said you made it yourself. How did you come up with the art and theme ideas?
Joseph Z. Chen: It's somewhat of an interesting story. I'm not actually normally an artist, and this is by far the largest artistic undertaking I have ever attempted.
Before diving into the art, let me talk about the theme. At first, we wanted it to be a space theme because one of the original members of the team just loved space themed games. However, I found that it wasn't that easy to apply the space theme. Since the game was an engine-building game, I had already been subconsciously designing cards as factories. Later, we arrived at the name Fantastic Factories because it was alliterative and fairly unique.
Now how did I become the artist? There are actually a number of factors that led me down this road. First off, I was inspired by the vector art style of a graphic designer I know. Second, I wanted my game to stand out and be approachable as well. There aren't many brightly colored vector art games (as compared to illustrated high fantasy or gritty space, etc), so I thought it was a good fit. Third, I got tired of looking at blank cards so I just tried it, expecting to use it as placeholder art until it came time to hire an artist. But somehow... it worked.
Using Kickstarter I can estimate how much demand there is for the game.
Turns out there are tons of vector factory art out there. I simply gathered my favorite samples and made an attempt at imitating the style. I also had the guidance and help of my wife, who is a graphic designer professionally. I had actually wanted her to do the art for me, but turns out when you do it as your day job 8 hours a day, you're less inclined to also do it during your evenings. But throughout the last couple years I've been honing my skills as a vector artist. There are a few cards that I made earlier in my journey that I want to rework but in general I've been very happy with the results, and it seems to have been received well by players also.
Strackspel.se: You made it from scratch without prior experience as a vector artist? That's impressive!
Joseph Z. Chen: Yeah, I think this surprised everyone including myself. I dabbled in graphic design back in high school, so in a way graphic design has been a backseat passion of mine and something I've always enjoyed. It's great to apply it to an active project.
Joseph Z. Chen: Tricky question. I'm happy with how the final game design has turned out. So in that sense, I wouldn't have done anything differently. However, I wish I had arrived there much faster! This is my first design so there were a lot of lessons learned in terms of what works and how to iterate quickly.
If I were to impart my earlier self some advice, it would be to pursue a simpler game design first. It's amazing how quickly a game design can grow and the amount of complexity and necessary playtesting also grows nonlinearly with that larger design. I have some designer friends who are hammering out 54 card games weekly that are really quite good. I believe that would be an easier way to get into game design and one that would have allowed me to learn the same lessons with less effort.
Strackspel.se: What are the lessons? What advise would you share with other first-time game creator?
Joseph Z. Chen: It's challenging to convey everything I've learned. Some of the lessons are fairly specific to the situations I've encountered, but others are broader game design concepts such as how to solve the runaway leader problem. For the lessons that I think are useful to a broader audience I try to write about it in my blog. I've also learned how to receive and parse playtesting feedback. It takes experience to know what is actionable feedback and what may just be noise.
As for advice, there's a ton! During playtesting, focus on identifying problems and not necessarily solutions (unless it's a really early design). Players are good at identifying problems but often get carried away with trying to propose a solution that often times won't work. Instead, play other published games and study their designs for potential solutions and ideas to your problem. Chances are your problem is not unique and has been solved in a number of ways by other games.
Engage with the community. That means playtest early and often. Playtest other designers' games. Ask questions. Share knowledge. Build a network of designers, players, fans, influencers, creators, etc. Designing a game and bringing it to Kickstarter is a tough journey and the more support and community you can build around you, the more motivated you will be.
Strackspel.se: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the game hits Kickstarter on May 29th, right? How have you prepared for the launch?
Joseph Z. Chen: That's correct! I've got a massive Trello board to manage all the many tasks I need to do! I have a tendency to do the things I'm most interested in first, which leaves the least desirable last, but putting all the remaining tasks in one place has really helped me visualize the timeline. Once I believed the game design was 95% complete, I planned a timeline for a launch date, starting with tasks that would take the longest amount of time: lining up reviewers. I wanted to give reviewers an ample amount of time. I have 9 prototypes of the game being used for reviews, promotion, blind playtesting, and demoing. All of the main reviewers that I need already have a copy of the game, and I also have a secondary list of reviewers that will be receiving copies of the game as they free up.
I've been talking to manufacturers in China to figure out the costs in order to set the funding goal and stretch goals. My co-creator, Justin, is working out the fulfillment costs and logistics. I've got a video creator lined up. I've been very active on social media and sharing the game's progress.
Over the last two years we've been demoing and playtesting the game at conventions and have built up a good mailing list. There still seems to be so many things to do, though!
Strackspel.se: How important would you say that the reviews are prior to launch? To what degree are they important to get the word out compared to getting feedback?
Joseph Z. Chen: Reviews are quite interesting from a Kickstarter campaign perspective. I think different people have different philosophies on this. There are also paid previews vs unpaid reviews, but I won't go down the rabbit hole on that topic in terms of the ethics of it. I think that having at least a couple reviews is important to validate the game.
One surprising thing I've discovered is how different of a beast that Kickstarter games are compared to published games. As a consumer of board game media content, a review is a review. Or at least, that was my perception. But as I was doing my research, I discovered that many content creators don't do Kickstarter games. And those that do are quite picky about it.
I think that review and preview content first and foremost is a way to get a third party perspective on a game. Whether it's truly unbiased or not, it still provides some level of validity to your project and helps highlight what parts of the game are fun. You mentioned "getting the word out". I think this is a very secondary goal since the reviewers with the largest audiences (with the exception of Rahdo Runs Through) just don't do Kickstarter games.
What I've decided to do is a two-pronged approach. First, I have a couple paid previews in order to provide high quality video overviews of the game. What I'm seeking isn't necessarily their audience but their ability as a video editor and content creator. The alternative is that I create my own video, which is time consuming and requires some expertise. Second, I have a number of unpaid reviews to provide a relatively unbiased perspective.
Engage with the community. Playtest early and often. Playtest other designers' games. Ask questions. Share knowledge. Build a network of designers, players, fans, influencers, creators. Designing a game and bringing it to Kickstarter is a tough journey and the more support and community you can build around you, the more motivated you will be.
Finally, to answer your question about getting feedback, I don't use reviewers for the purposes of getting feedback. I welcome any feedback they choose to give to me, but when I send out a game to a reviewer, the game design should be fairly complete and the art/graphic design should be nearly complete. The stage to get feedback is during the playtesting stage. I seek reviewers for their content creation and ability to summarize a game and their thoughts about it.
Strackspel.se: We'e already touched on demoing, mailing lists and community, but how have you gathered a crowd to support the game once it launches? What other marketing strategies have you used?
Joseph Z. Chen: I've written a few articles on this [read them here and here, editors note]. Whenever I playtest the game, I gather emails from playtesters who are interested. I also do this at conventions. Many conventions will have opportunities for indie game designers to show off their games. Some of these go through a selection process, but I've pursued a lot of these opportunities, especially the local ones. In my opinion, this is the most effective way of getting high value emails.
Fantastic Factories was part of the Indie Showcase at PAX South in 2017. The traffic and interest level was incredible. Thanks to the short 10 minute demo I developed and running two demos at the table at the same time, I was able to get a lot of email signups and interest. Demoing is far more effective at building a large audience than playtesting, which is not the main goal of playtesting anyways.
I also create content in the form of a blog. I basically detail the lessons I've learned along the way. They aren't just about Fantastic Factories but rather topics of broader interest that people may find helpful. I've also been a guest on a few podcasts. I've been very active on social media. I've been attending a lot of meetups and just getting to know the tabletop and game design community around me. They provide me with a lot of support. I know I can count of them to promote my Kickstarter because I would do the same for them.
Ultimately, I try to get an email. If it's online, I funnel people to the website where they can sign up for the mailing list. I plan on doing some Facebook ads to build hype and pre-market the game as the Kickstarter date approaches.
Strackspel.se: So it's all about the people and making connections?
Joseph Z. Chen: When it comes to Kickstarter marketing and publishing? Yes, I believe so. I see other successful project creators doing the same things. It's about building meaningful connections and a network of people who are willing to signal boost. Find fellow designers, publishers, content creators, influencers, and super fans. Cultivate them, hang out with them, play games with them. Sometimes it feels like I'm just working an angle, but networking and having fun aren't mutually exclusive. I find it easy to connect with people because I just enjoy hearing about what people are up to and just playing games with them. If you show genuine interest in what people are passionate about then they will reciprocate.
Strackspel.se: The million dollar question so to speak... Do you believe that you will make any money on Fantastic Factories?
Joseph Z. Chen: That's a good question. This is my first project so it's hard to tell. I've done all my homework. I've checked all the boxes. But I've also been studying a lot of Kickstarter campaigns and you just never know how things will turn out until day one of your campaign. I've seen well polished campaigns fall to the wayside. I've seen seemingly haphazard attempts achieve great success. If there's one constant within Kickstarter, it is its unpredictability.
Even if the campaign funds or funds well, there's a good chance we will be pouring all of those funds towards manufacturing the first print run. Post-Kickstarter sales is where we get a chance of making money for all the countless hours we've dedicated to the game.
Strackspel.se: Why Kickstarter anyway? I mean, their fees add to the cost of the game, don't they?
Joseph Z. Chen: So many reasons. First and foremost, it allows me to gauge demand and reduce my financial risk. I don't know how many people want the game so I don't know how many to manufacture. Using Kickstarter I can estimate how much demand there is for the game. Second, Kickstarter has a great community around them. I would like to interact with backers and get their feedback on the game. Third, Kickstarter is a great marketing tool. Conventional wisdom says that you need to bring your own crowd to Kickstarter, but realistically that crowd accounts for maybe 1/3 of your backers. The other 2/3 comes from the exposure you gain from launching a project on the Kickstarter platform.
Strackspel.se: Do you mean that there's an automatic sparked interest just by adding "Coming to Kickstarter"?
Joseph Z. Chen: There certainly is a level of hype around a Kickstarter campaign. The funding goal and limited campaign length all play into the spectacle of it all and gives you and your fans a reason to rally together. But what I mean is that there are a certain number of backers you get that are simply browsing the Kickstarter site. Kickstarter will share with you data about where your backers are coming from. Savvy creators will send out tracking URLs. This data has been shared within a number of forums and it's fairly consistent that 2/3 of your backers will come from unattributed sources or people browsing the site.
Strackspel.se: Joseph, thank you so much for all your insights. I can't wait to play the game! Just one final question... How fantastic is Fantastic Factories?
Joseph Z. Chen: Very. Like a unicorn riding a narwhale shooting rainbows out of its bellybutton.
Don't miss out on future interviews! Sign up for the newsletter:
Enjoyed the interview? Wait, there's more!
STAY UP TO DATE WITH THE STRACKSPEL.SE NEWSLETTER:
An exciting and hilarious 2-5 player game, praised for its social aspects and card interactions. Comes in a variety of versions with different designs and rule tweaks including a Valentine's Day, a Seals and a Porn edition.
HIGHEST BIDDER AWARDS:
APPROVED by The Indie Game Report.
In recognition of a GOOD number of sales.
Some editions of Highest Bidder, including Seals of the Sea and Valentine's Day, have scored 80+ in a community art test.
A fresh and triangular take on traditional playing cards. Play a variety of games with this unique 90-card deck. Comes in a number of themes & designs with downloadable game rules to multiple games.
Collect cargo, load it onto your train and send the train off when the time is right to score points. Praised for its balanced game play and logical approach.
TRAINS & CARGO AWARDS:
STAFF PICK at The Game Crafter.
SCORED 80+ in a community art test.
Play as the Hunter or the Mammoth in this unforgiving two player game of survival. Hunt down your prey and your village will live to see another day. Fail, and it will slowly give in to starvation.
TRIBAL HUNT AWARDS:
SCORED 90+ in a community art test.