Last year at Gen Con, Alexander and I played and fell in love with 13 Days designed by Daniel and Asger. We bought the game and have played it quite a few times since and really enjoy it. We call it Twilight Struggle Lite but that is not intended as a slight at all. The game has the same style and depth as that classic political tug of war but plays in 20 minutes as compared to 3 hours. So, imagine my delight when I started seeing information on Daniel and Asger’s next installment in their Cold War library Iron Curtain! I reached out to Daniel to get his take on the game, its mechanics and design. I also included Iron Curtain in my annual Top 10 List of Games that I am Interested in Trying Out at Gen Con 50.
Grant: Daniel, first off please tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design? What games or designers have influenced your style? What games do you regularly play?
Daniel: Let me start with the last question first. Having two young children, I don’t really get to play a lot of games these days. Hanabi is maybe the closest I come to a regular game. I recently scored a perfect 30 so we’ll see if it sticks around after that.
I get inspiration from all kinds of sources. Games I play, pictures of games, new mechanisms, real-life events, wandering thoughts while biking, and of course, also the work from other excellent designers in this industry like Bruno Cathala, Antoine Bauza and Phil Walker-Harding to name a few.
I think my story going into game design is similar to a lot of fellow designers. At first I began tinkering with existing games. Then had ideas of my own. Then met fellow local designers and suddenly I was at Spiel in Essen in 2013 with four prototypes in my bag and talking to heavyweights like Days of Wonder, Kosmos, Amigo, etc. None of the games were signed at the time – though one is still in development with a major publisher – but it was such a good experience that I never looked back.
Grant: You seem to have a pretty trusty design partner in Asger Harding Granerud. How did the two of you become partners and how have you worked so well together?
Daniel: When I went to Spiel in 2013 it was with my own designs. Asger was there as well to pitch Flamme Rouge. On our drive home, we sketched out what became 13 Days. It was our first co-design and was a lot of fun so why not do it again? We realized we had a similar drive and an unsentimental affiliation to our own ideas. And when we start on a project we can basically build a prototype and run a test by ourselves the first night.
We are based in Copenhagen, Denmark. The local game design environment was emerging and not very strong five years ago. It is a different world now. As soon as you begin looking for it you will see Danish game designers all over.
Grant: What aspect do you love most about design? Conversely, what is your least favorite part or the greatest challenge for you?
Daniel: Nothing beats that initial spark of an idea. At that point, it can become a great game or nothing at all but the spark is there to grab a hold just for a moment.
My least favourite part is waiting. Waiting for games to release, waiting for publishers to assess games, waiting for the right breakthrough that makes a game tic. All that waiting. I must admit I am really impatient.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Daniel: Most of my ideas begin as an idea for a mechanism but the mechanism in itself is not a game. To find the game I am always tracking the core experience. It can be in a mechanism, an interaction between players, an emotion or come from somewhere else.
Also, Asger and I design games for publication so we need to have a clear vision of the product from very early in the design stage. If that vision is missing it is as good a reason to put a project on hold as not finding the right mixture of gameplay.
Grant: You have kind of hit the Cold War hard with your most recent designs including 13 Days, 13 Minutes and now Iron Curtain. What is it about the Cold War that draws you in?
Daniel: History has always interested me and I studied Cold War politics a great deal during my years at university studying political science. For me, games and history is a great mix.
Grant: What is your new upcoming game Iron Curtain about?
Daniel: Iron Curtain is a short and brutal micro game full of tough decisions in a slight 20-minute time frame. You play as either the U.S. or Soviet Union and build the political world map as you go while controlling as many countries and regions as possible on your side of the Iron Curtain.
Grant: As you started the design, what was the great challenge you had with it? What opportunities did the subject provide you?
Daniel: In relative terms Iron Curtain was actually a fairly easy game to design. We incorporated a lot of lessons learned from 13 Days and 13 Minutes and applied them. I am really happy with what Iron Curtain has become and hope people will enjoy it as much as I am.
I believe we have accomplished a tense and interactive gameplay experience, a system if you will, that can be taken in other directions. We are currently considering expanding into non Cold War territory. I really cannot reveal more at this point because it could be amazing but it also may never happen.
Grant: Now to the meat of the design. What mechanics does Iron Curtain use?
Daniel: Area control and hand management are central.
Hand management is one of my favourite mechanisms and Iron Curtain is all about that. How do you string together your hand of cards to get the upper hand in the superpower battle but also to be able to react to what your opponent plays?
Area control because you are battling for control over regions and key countries from the Cold War era.
Grant: What is the makeup of the strategy cards? How are they used by players in the game? Is this a Card Driven Game? Can you provide a few examples of the cards with good pictures.
Daniel: It is indeed built on the prominent card driven genre where Twilight Struggle has been a beacon for more than a decade now. The core dilemma is that cards you play may benefit your opponent so think twice before playing a card.
The Italy card is a good example to understand the interaction in the card play.
If you are playing as the Soviets, you may play this card either to add 1 Influence cube to any one country or neighbour country to where you already have presence. Or you may just take the 1 Ideology point.
If you are playing as the U.S., you may only play this card to add 1 Influence cube. But now, the Soviet player automatically gains 1 Ideology just from you playing the card.
Grant: What type of events are included on the cards? Can you give us a few examples of these events?
Daniel: Events are there to spice everything up and break core rules of the game.
They may give you strong actions that are dependent on the board state like the Algeria card.
Or they may give you special abilities to employ like the Poland card (U.S. gains 1 Ideology point for each neighbor card to Poland they dominate).
In essence, the cards are used as the board to create the world landscape.
Grant: Why did you choose to go without a traditional board?
Daniel: Adding a board was never an option. The challenge we gave ourselves was to make a cards and cubes game only.
That being said, there are certain advantages to not having a static board. In Iron Curtain, cards are multi-use. Not only are they your actions. They are also used to build a political world map during the game. The world is going to look different every game, and that has important in-game implications. It provides an added layer of depth and more to think about when you decide what card to play now.
Grant: How does the aftermath phase work? Where did you get this idea from as I know it also appears in 13 Days? What is this supposed to replicate from the historical conflict?
Daniel: Good catch! The aftermath feature did indeed first appear in 13 Days. I do not remember exactly when and how that came about but the thinking was this: Sometimes there is an event you really do not want to play because you believe it will hand your opponent the game. The aftermath is a way to not discard it but to put it away for the end game scoring where it may hand your opponent some points anyhow.
In historical terms, this represents the fact that a crisis or struggle never exists in a vacuum. The actions you take and the actions you refrain from also impacts on the power balance between states in the years to come.
In Iron Curtain, it also serves as hidden information. When you discard a card in round one you know that a certain region won’t score until the end of the game. It will only score once and not twice in the game so it is of less value. Having that knowledge adds a level of interaction and doublethink.
Grant: Please describe for us the use of the Ideology track and how it works. What were you trying to show with this element?
Daniel: The Ideology track (or points track if you will) is working like a tug of war scale. If you ever lead by 8 points you win the game instantly.
Players can go for the instant victory at the cost of losing in the long run, or vice versa. At the same time it is a way of giving priority to some regions. At the end of the game all regions score, but in a specific order. Europe is first, and thereby, the most important region in the game in relative terms. South America scores last so is the least important region.
Grant: How does scoring work?
Daniel: Simple. There is scoring after the play of each strategy card.
Grant: How do these cards score? How is scoring done with regions?
Daniel: Not quite after each play of a card. You are correct that there are no scoring cards per se.
The first trick is that any card could be a scoring card but scoring only happens when all cards of a region are played. Let me give an example. There are 3 Asia cards in the game. When you or your opponent plays the third card, scoring happens in Asia. You score for majority on each separate card that represents a country in the region, and also a bonus for having majority on most countries in the region.
The second trick is that scoring happens before you use the ability of the card you just played so you better prepare for it.
Grant: The goal of the game is to control various region cards (to dominate) that represent major areas of the globe. How does this work? What is the necessary strategy in this phase?
Daniel: This is where we would all benefit from an in-depth strategy guide. I will leave that for anyone else to write. On the other hand, as a player I prefer to experience and experiment with the game itself. 😉
Grant: What has been the reaction of players to the game? What did you hope their reactions would be?
Daniel: I have had a lot of fun playing and creating this game. And we have been fortunate enough to benefit from very tireless play testers. A few of them got so smitten by the game they have now played an insane number of times. I am going to tell the story in the designer diary that should appear on the BoardGameGeek news feed very soon so consider this a tease only!
Grant: What has changed throughout the playtest process?
Daniel: Very little in fact. The initial idea dates back to the summer of 2015 at the time we began working on 13 Minutes. For various reasons, we didn’t actually start the design work and testing of Iron Curtain until a whole year later. At that point, the game almost made itself. The first prototype was 90% the finished game.
We have of course meticulously monitored every card’s value and reconsidered every single event. Several were adjusted just a little but it is basically the same game.
Grant: What is the schedule for the release of the game? What is the MSRP?
Daniel: Iron Curtain will have its first public appearance at Gen Con 50, so please consider visiting the Ultra Pro & Jolly Roger Games booth location #709 for a demo. And do share pictures if you go because unfortunately I will not be at Gen Con this year.
It should hit wider retail in North America and Europe during the autumn. The MSRP is listed at 20 USD.
Grant: The game is on my list and we will be sure to drop by for a demo. What other games are you currently working on?
Daniel: A lot. No really, A LOT!
Talking about games we work on is exciting on the one hand but not that interesting on the other hand. It is exciting for us because those games are what we are playing around with and talking to publishers about at the moment. But it is also rather uninteresting for a wider audience I assume because they are unlikely to release until 2019 – a few 2018 titles are still in development where we are also heavily involved.
So allow me to introduce two of the upcoming games I am very excited about where our job has been done for some time now.
A Tale of Pirates is an adventurous co-op with sand timers as crew where you collectively navigate a 3D pirate ship. The game has been in development for three years and Cranio Creations has even made an auxiliary app to support the experience. It is inspired by classic video games in feel and world building.
Cranio may demo the game at Gen Con but it will see international release around Spiel.
Panic Mansion was just announced last week by Blue Orange Games. It is a dexterity game for all ages where you tilt and shake your own haunted house to be the first to get out in time. It is releasing at Spiel and coming to US at some point after.
But as the curtain falls on this interview, I can also say that we have a new Cold War game in the works. We hope to kick off design on that project in a few months.
On my Twitter account @danielskjoldp I write about my game design endeavours and post pictures of prototypes so you will be the first to know more if you go there. I’d love to chat about games and game design and everything around it.
Daniel, thank you for your time and effort in this interview. I know that it was quick but I appreciate you getting it back to me so timely. I look forward to demoing this game at Gen Con and expect that many people will as well. I will need to make sure to get their early in order to get in line.