Several months ago, I came across a new up and coming designer by the name of Brian Kelly on Twitter (@BKGame) and instantly became interested in his games. My first interview with Brian covered his new game coming out on Kickstarter this year from Eagle-Gryphon Games called The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now he is back at it again and has signed another of his interesting looking games called Return to the Center of the Earth. Brian has done a great job of turning literary classics into playable worker placement games that look very interesting. I am pleased to be able to share with you some information regarding his newest upcoming game.
*** All graphics used in this interview are from draft pictures and rules. Nothing has been finalized and final art has yet to start. Brian is a great graphic designer and will make sure that the game looks great as well as plays great!***
Grant: I notice Brian that you like to do games based on great classic works of literary fiction, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Why is this the case? How much did Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth inspire this game design?
Brian: I love classic literature. Classic novels are called “classics” for a reason, because they tell a great story! Great stories can be re-told in a lot of different mediums, that’s why almost every classic novel has one or more movie and/or TV adaptations. Board games are just another medium to tell a story. If I start with a story that is already a classic, then telling the story through the board game becomes that much easier.
I will often ask the story to tell me what will happen in the game, such as what actions players take or what mechanics to use. For example, in a game about a follow up to Journey to the Center of the Earth, I don’t need to come up with a way for people to travel to the center of the Earth; Jules Verne has already given me the answer: through volcanoes!
I have also found that most people already know the story (or at least the general premise) of the classics. When people already know the story it helps them understand how to play the game (“Oh yeah, to get to the center of the Earth we go down through volcanoes!”). When the story is more familiar the gameplay is more intuitive.
Before I started seriously designing the game, I re-read Journey to the Center of the Earth to give me ideas. This game is not about the original “Journey” but about a “Return” to the Center of the Earth.
Grant: Tell us what the Return to the Center of the Earth board game is about.
Brian: After the explorers in Journey to the Center of the Earth return and report their findings to the rest of academia, there is a rush by the scientific community to explore the earth’s hollow inner core and find exciting new discoveries. Each player controls a different university trying to become the most prestigious scientific organization of the day. Each university has access to two volcanoes and sends scientists down the system of caverns to the Center of the Earth. The universities also have specialists who provide various actions and receive government grants to help them accomplish their goals.
Grant: What mechanics are used in the design? How do these mechanics help to reinforce the theme?
Brian: One of the unique mechanics of Return to the Center of the Earth is simultaneous actions. There is no turn order in the game, all players take their actions at the same time. There are interactions between you and the player to your left and right and with all players as everyone converges in the center of the Earth. 7 Wonders is a game that uses the simultaneous action selection mechanic very well. I wanted to design a game with that same type of mechanic, but that was a little heavier with more strategic decisions.
The other main mechanic is worker placement. As you run your university you are sending scientists down to the center of the Earth to make discoveries, then putting them to work in your university to accomplish other tasks. There is also an interesting area control mechanic that happens in the center of the Earth.
Grant: How are Dice used in the design? Does each color dice do different things?
Brian: The dice in Return to the Center of the Earth are used as counters, not in the traditional dice-rolling sense. Each die represents one of your scientists, and the number on the die represents the scientist’s “reputation”. The better the scientist’s reputation, the more the scientist can accomplish. At the start of the game you start with four active scientists in your color with the ability to “hire” more as the game progresses.
Grant: Why is there a privacy screen used to hide a player’s board from others? Is this strategic?
Brian: In the game you have access to two volcanoes. You share access to one volcano with the player on your left and one with the player on your right. There are several paths that scientists can take down the volcano to one of five different areas in the center of the Earth. The privacy screens allow you to strategically place your scientists on paths without being influenced by other players.
Grant: What components are used in the game?
Brian: Here are some shots of the various components in their draft form from the rules.
The above graphic shows the Center of the Earth Board and the University Boards as well as the various tokens, dice, markers and Player aid cards.
Here are draft graphics for the various tiles, including Cavern Tiles, Grant Tiles and Resource Tiles, as well as resource cubes, scoring sheets and the volcano boards.
Grant: I love the circular design of the board and player boards as it is very unique. What inspired this choice? How does it drive gameplay?
Brian: I have actually changed the design slightly from the original circular design so that the game would fit better on smaller tables. The original circular design was a major table hog. However, the design stays true to the idea that the player and volcano boards are out on the “crust” of the earth with the Center of the Earth board in the middle. During gameplay, all players feel like they are actually sending their scientists “down” the volcanoes to the center of the Earth. To get your scientists back up to your university, you must “lift” them out, unless the scientists are in the central ocean area in which case they come up on their own via an underground geyser (thanks Jules Verne!).
I should also mention that the current state of the game is a prototype only! The artwork will all be completely updated for the published version of the game.
Grant: The components look really good and you do such a great job with your prototype components. I think they look better than many finished games. Please describe the functions of the player boards? What are the available actions?
Brian: The player board represents the player’s “university”. There are nine main actions available in the game and several of these actions are available on the player board. Actions allow you to do things like upgrade the resources you can collect from volcano caverns, upgrade the reputation of your scientists, and fulfill contracts that give you more victory points. One of the actions on the player board includes a “custom work space” section where you can pick what actions you want to have available to your scientists.
Grant: What is the sequence of play?
Brian: The game is played over six rounds and each round has ten phases. Those phases include the following:
- Gain Opportunity Phase
- Explore Cavern Phase
- Place Scientists Phase
- Move Scientists and Take Resources Phase
- Discover the Center of the Earth Phase
- Increase Reputation Phase
- Place Scientists to Work Phase
- Resolve Work Spaces Phase
- Recruit Scientist Phase
- Trade Resources Phase
Grant: What are the differing abilities of the universities that players control? How have these powers been changed to maintain balance?
Brian: Because there are both set actions (called “specialists”) and variable actions in the game, each player may choose a different strategy. One player may try to gain the most points from discoveries and another may go for contracts. Contracts correspond with the nine actions, and players may complete up to five contracts – so each player can try to maximize points from very different activities. Through play testing I have been able to strike a good balance, so there are several viable paths to victory.
Grant: What specialists do each university have at their disposal? Are these standard across all universities? What advantage do the specialists provide?
Brian: Specialists act as a sort of “equalizer” in the game, since all players have access to all nine actions through specialists. And yes, the specialists are standard for all players. The disadvantage of using specialists is that they must be paid. It is more efficient to use actions on what are called “grant” tiles (like receiving a government grant) because you don’t have to pay to take the action.
Grant: What role does the government play in the game?
Brian: The “government” is only loosely alluded to in the game. Players may obtain “opportunity tiles” that have either resources or “grants”. As mentioned previously, grant tiles may be used to perform actions without paying for the action, similar to receiving a grant from the government. Also, you can think of contracts being between the university and the government. The university agrees to do some action (like research) and the government agrees to award the university (in the form of victory points at the end of the game).
Grant: What type of encounters are had while underground? Geological? Seismic? Or do players encounter huge iguanas with cardboard fins glued to their backs?
Brian: As the scientists move down through the caverns of the volcano they collect valuable resources. There are five areas in the center of the Earth which represent areas where potential discoveries could be made in botany, zoology, geology, anthropology, and of course oceanography in the big central ocean. The player whose scientists have the most reputation in an area will be the only ones to make a discovery!
Grant: How are Victory points scored? What are the victory conditions?
Brian: Lots of ways to score victory points. The player with the most victory points at game’s end is the winner.
Grant: When does the game end?
Brian: The game ends after you play through six rounds. Round numbers are tracked by the number of Discovery Tokens remaining in the blue Central Ocean area in the middle of the Center of the Earth Board.
Grant: What has changed in the design throughout the process? Please give specific examples. What has been the most difficult part to design? Why?
Brian: I will answer these two questions together because the most difficult part to design was also the thing that has changed the most – and that is the layout of the different elements. Since most of the player’s actions take place on their player board, each player board has a lot of elements. A big player board for each player, plus a big volcano in between each player, plus a big Center of the Earth board just took up a lot of space. I spent a lot of time moving, adjusting and re-sizing elements so they would fit in a reasonable size on the table and still maintain playability. Obviously the game is still in prototype form, so it doesn’t have the final artwork yet. However, I always make my prototypes as functional as possible, so the game is playable and easy to understand. I am happy with how it turned out.
Grant: What is the schedule for the release of Return to the Center of the Earth? Have you approached any publishers?
Brian: I showed the game to Eagle-Gryphon Games (the same publisher that is publishing my other game The Scarlet Pimpernel.) and they loved it! I have signed a contract with them, so they will be publishing the game probably some time in 2018.
Grant: Anything else you would like to share about the game?
Brian: I am really excited about Return to the Center of the Earth. There are some unique mechanics and the gameplay is very rewarding. I think gamers will really appreciate the simultaneous turn structure, which offers a medium to heavy weight Euro with little to no down time.
Thanks for your time Brian and I want to congratulate you on signing two of your games with publishers in the past year or so. Great work and I look forward to doing a demo of The Scarlet Pimpernel at Origins Game Fair in June and keeping an eye on Return to the Center of the Earth in 2018.