In June, Alexander and I made a decision to try to attend at least a few days of the World Board Gaming Championships in Pennsylvania. At that time, I tweeted out the following:
Although our plans for WBC have changed a little since the tweet (we were planning to attend on July 21-22nd but now are going on the 28-29th), the tweet gave us a few new contacts with designers, one being Ryan Heilman who is currently working on two games; Brave Little Belgium coming from Hollandspiele in 2019 and Space Race. I checked out his profile on Twitter and saw some pictures of the Space Race card game and thought that it looked interesting enough to try to bring some attention to it for our readers (Brave Little Belgium also looks intriguing and we are also working on an interview covering it for next month after we get a demo of the game at WBC). So, here is our interview with Ryan (who seems to be a really great guy BTW):
Grant: Ryan, first off, tell us a little about yourself. What games do you play when not designing? What are your hobbies? What do you do for a living?
Ryan: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up a few miles away from Avalon Hill. Growing up, I played lots of mass market games with my family and friends. When I was about 11 or 12, I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by a school friend of mine. I was quickly hooked and started playing lots of RPG’s and strategy games. Early on, I mostly played Avalon Hill war games and tons of Axis & Allies. In my teenage years after ‘discovering’ girls, I gave up playing games. I spent the next 25 years or so starting a career and a family. After changing majors several times and working several different jobs, I eventually found my calling as a history teacher. I taught history for 12 years and
just recently switched over to teaching technology courses. I am currently the chair of the Technology and Agricultural Education Department at Manchester Valley High School in Manchester, Maryland. Among other subjects, I teach Graphic Communications, Video Production, and Exploring Computer Science. About 6 or more years ago, I reconnected with several of my childhood friends through Facebook. They were all still into gaming and I quickly became immersed again in the hobby. I started out playing a real mixture of games: euros, Ameritrash, light wargames, etc. A few years later, my one good friend convinced me to play some classic Avalon Hill and S & T war games. I had a ball! I still play lots of different types of games but I now gravitate towards buying and playing war games.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it? What is something you struggle with?
Ryan: I have always had a desire to design games ever since I began playing D&D more than 30 years ago. I tinkered and toyed with some different concepts for both RPG’s and wargames but never really got very far. When I got back into gaming, I started getting that itch to design again. Also, I was teaching Graphic Communications at that time and one of the projects I would give my students was for them to design their own board game or card game. I thought that if I was going to ask my students to take on a project like this then I should be willing to do so as well. I thus started working on my first game, Space Race, about 4 years ago and my first wargame, Brave Little Belgium, about 2 years ago.
Grant: What attributes does it take to be a good designer?
Ryan: The most important attributes that a good designer must have are persistence, open mindedness, and a thick skin. Designing is not a quick process. To create each game takes a lot of research, a lot of design work, and a lot of revision. I have been working on Space Race for at least 4 years and on Brave Little Belgium for at least 2 years. You also must be open minded. Even the best designer in the world can create a game with flaws. You must therefore be willing to take the advice of others to heart and be willing to make changes to the game if warranted. Finally, you need to have a little bit of a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like your game and many people may trash it. Read or listen to what they have to say, use what you can to help you improve your future designs, and let the rest roll off.
Grant: What designers have influenced your designs?
Ryan: When I first started playing games, I never really paid much attention to the designers. Since I played a lot of D&D, I knew who Gary Gygax was but beyond that I did not really know who was making the games I played. It is only since I have gotten back into games that I have paid more attention to the designers of the games I was playing. I am not certain which ones specifically have influenced my designs as I find the design process to be very organic. Ideas for games and mechanics often come to me late at night when I am trying to get to sleep. I thus do not spend a lot of time thinking about which designers influenced which idea. I do know that I certainly enjoy buying and playing games by certain designers. Having just checked my BGG list, I was not very surprised to see that I had quite a few games by Martin Wallace. I really enjoying playing many of his games and especially like how he manages to seamlessly incorporate more euro-style mechanics into wargames. In addition, I also have quite a few Mark Herman games. Besides being quite prolific, he is a true genius in the gaming industry. His CDG games were quite revolutionary and have stood the test of time. Finally, I have been buying a lot of Tom Russell’s games. Even before signing a contract for my first game, Brave Little Belgium, with Tom’s company Hollandspiele, I had been playing several of his games and found the mechanics that he incorporates into them to be quite intriguing. Table Battles, for one, is a fascinating little game with tons of replayability.
Grant: What is Space Race about? What story is the game trying to frame up?
Ryan: Space Race is a simple, quick playing card game about the struggle for dominance in space that occurred between the Soviet Union and the United States between the 1950’s and the early 1970’s. I came up with the idea for Space Race about 5 years ago when I attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I was perusing the gift store at the US Space & Rocket Center and I noticed that there were no simple, educational, and fun games for people to buy. As I was already thinking a lot about designing my own game, I decided that the Space Race would be a good topic to use.
Grant: I see that it is designed for 4 players with teams of two. Why did you make this design choice? What advantages does the team approach have for the design?
Ryan: I decided very early on in the design of the game to make it a team game. The team approached worked very well with the card drafting and set collection mechanisms. Without communicating with one another, each person on the team has to put a lot of consideration into what cards to keep and what cards to pass. Since the players know a large portion of what the available cards are per round, each person on the team has to then think about the best way to play the cards so as to complete as many missions as possible.
Grant: Is there a 2-player variant? If so how does game play change?
Ryan: There is currently no 2-player variant to the game which potentially could affect the appeal of the game. The game works very well as a 4-player game and I really have not much of a desire to tinker with the core of the game to make it into a 2-player game. I could probably come up with something but it is going to greatly change the feel and play of the game.
Grant: Are there any particular challenges in designing a card game over other types of games?
Ryan: Card games, like Space Race, can require a ton of research and design. The major reason why I am only now after 4 years getting together a prototype for Space Race is because I spent so much time trying to research every launch site, mission, astronaut, and cosmonaut that I was including in the game. I was deep in the weeds of research that I had not given enough attention to making certain that the game was going to work as I envisioned it. I thus produced a scale back prototype version for playtest purposes and plan on adding back the historical research into the cards once I finalize a publication deal.
Grant: What do the cards consist of and how do players use the cards to their advantage?
Ryan: There are 5 types of cards in the game: launch sites, astronauts/cosmonauts, mission cards, disaster cards, and repair cards. Each side plays launch sites, astronauts/ cosmonauts, and mission cards to try to complete as many missions as possible and thus score the most points. Disaster cards are played on the opposing team’s launch sites or missions to stop their missions from launching and repair cards are played to remove the disaster cards and thus allow for the continuation of the mission.
Grant: How did you come to the conclusion that 96 Cards was the right number for the game?
Ryan: My decision to use 96 cards was partially made because of the number of missions, launch sites, astronauts and cosmonauts that I wanted to include in the game. I knew I wanted 4 major missions for each side. On the US side, I wanted to include the Explorer, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. On the Soviet side, I wanted to include the Sputnik, Vostok, Voshkod, and Soyuz missions. Although there were many astronauts and cosmonauts that took part in the Space Race, I knew I wanted to include about 8 major ones on each side. Finally, I knew I wanted to include 8 launch sites and bases, 4 on each side. Once I figured that out, and then started to consider the number of rounds I wanted and cards played per turn, the rest just fell into place.
Grant: I see that the game starts with a card draft. Why did you feel this was important to the design? Did this come about as a balancing effort through playtesting?
Ryan: The card draft concept was there since the beginning of the design process. At the time that I designed the game, I had just recently played the game Fairy Tale, which employs a similar mechanism. I really liked the concept and felt that it would work well with the Space Race game. I did not like the idea of the dealt cards being totally random but I also did not want to give the players complete control over the cards that they have in their hands. The card drafting mechanism provided a nice balance between the two.
Grant: How do players complete missions? How do they know how many astronaut/cosmonaut cards are required for each mission?
Ryan: In order to complete a mission, the player(s) must play the combination of the following cards: 1 launch site, at least 3 mission cards, and at least the number of astronaut or cosmonaut cards listed on the mission cards. All cards must match in color, red for the Soviet Union and blue for the United States.
Grant: Because players have to play four cards per round from their hand, what happens if all they have are cards that benefit their opponent?
Ryan: A card must be played by a player on every turn. If the player does not have a card that benefits his team, he must play a card that will benefit the other team. Part of the challenge of the game is thus to attempt to draft a deck at the beginning of the round that will benefit your team the most and the other team the least. It is one of the real challenges of the game. Every player gets to see a large portion of the cards that are dealt out every round. How do you then decide which cards to keep and which cards to pass? If you keep only the best cards for your side, then you are passing on good cards to the other side. If you hold on to all the good cards for the other side, then you run the risk of having to play cards that will benefit them during your turn.
Grant: How can they sabotage their opponents? What remedies are there in the design to deal with sabotage?
Ryan: There are 12 disaster cards and 12 repair cards in the game. On a player’s turn, the player may play a disaster card on a launch site or on any mission that is face up. To remove the disaster card, a repair card must be played. Any launch site or mission cards with a disaster card still on them at the end of the game will not be counted towards the score.
Grant: What led you to set the game at four rounds? Why was that the sweet spot for the game?
Ryan: I wanted to make a quick and fun playing game that would be appropriate for anyone 10 and up. I did not want to create a game with too many cards to play or with too many rounds. Once I figured out the rough number of cards in play, based on the number of missions, launch sites, and astronauts/cosmonauts I wanted to include, the math then worked out perfectly to have 4 rounds with 4 cards played by each person in each round. In addition, since I was trying to recreate a historical event, I liked the idea of 4 rounds mimicking the 4 major missions that each side launched during the Space Race itself.
Grant: How do cards score and what are the victory conditions?
Ryan: The team with the most points wins the game. Only missions that are completed count. Cards are scored as follows:
1 point for each astronaut/cosmonaut, 2 points if connected to a mission;
2 points for each launch site;
1 point for each card in Mission I;
2 points for each card in Mission II;
3 points for each card in Mission III;
4 points for each card in Mission IV.
The higher numbered missions score more points, as you need more astronauts or cosmonauts attached to each of them.
Grant: What tie breakers exist?
Ryan: So far in playtesting, there have not been any ties but I have still added a tie breaker just in case. The team with the most completed missions wins. As I continue playtesting, I may add additional tie breakers.
Grant: Who did the art? What style did you want to see and how did the theme come through in the look?
Ryan: Given my background in Graphic Communications, I decided to do all the artwork for the prototype cards and the prototype box. For the prototype, I was looking to create cards that are clear and easy to understand. I thus chose to only use two primary colors, blue and red to represent each side and used only one font for the text on the face of the card. I illustrated the cards using existing images from NASA and from the Soviet Space Program. Due to copyright issues, I anticipate in development that I will need to remove the photographic images and replace them with original artwork. In addition, I plan on making all the astronaut, cosmonaut, launch sites, and mission cards unique. Each will have their own unique artwork (bold and colorful) and will contain flavor text about specific astronauts, cosmonauts, launch sites, and missions.
Grant: What changes came about through playtesting? Please give a few specific examples.
Ryan: I am still playtesting and polishing the game but I have already made some changes to the game based on feedback and observations of game play. For example, initially the astronaut and cosmonaut cards were not connected to the mission cards at all. Each team could play as many astronaut and cosmonaut cards as possible and would score 1 point for 1 card, 4 points for 2 cards, 9 points for 3 cards, etc. There was no way for the other players to get rid of the cards and the scores were astronomically high. I thus revised the game to allow the players to play astronaut or cosmonaut cards individually or attach the cards to missions. Now, each team only scores 1 point per astronaut or cosmonaut card if played by itself and 2 points if the cards are attached to a mission.
In addition, initially each mission was limited to 3 cards. If a player played 3 mission cards, the player would immediately flip the cards and thus bank his or her points. Once I revised the game and attached the astronaut and cosmonaut cards to the missions, I also added a push your luck mechanic. Each team needs at least 3 mission cards and the listed number of astronaut or cosmonaut cards to complete the mission but the team can add as many mission cards and astronauts as they desire to the mission. The danger is that the other team can play disaster cards on the mission as long as the mission is face up.
Grant: What is your plan to bring the game to market? Kickstarter?
Ryan: My plan for Space Race is to finish playtesting and polishing the game. Once complete, I am hoping to get it picked up and published by a game company. I already have a few contacts that may be interested. While I like browsing Kickstarter and buying the odd game here and there on it, I am not yet comfortable enough with the production process to list my own game.
Grant: What is the game’s timeline for publishing and what is the estimated MSRP?
Ryan: There is currently no specific timeline for Space Race. I hope to soon get the prototype in the hands of some people I know in the industry to see if it is something that they would like to publish. If I can come up with a deal for publishing the game, then I will continue to do the necessary research to flesh out all the cards with the appropriate historical detail. Pricewise, I would assume it would be in the $20 range.
Grant: What is next up for Ryan Heilman? What other projects are you working on?
Ryan: Right now, I am mostly focused on the development, production, and marketing of Brave Little Belgium, which will be released by Hollandspiele in early 2019. In addition, I am working on a wargame on the Battle of Baltimore. It is a topic that is rarely if ever done and I hope to create the first ever version that covers both the land and naval aspects of the battle.
Thank you for this great look inside Space Race. I think that it looks really interesting and will hit that sweet spot for a light strategic card game with historical flavor. I will definitely keep my eye out for it. I am also very excited to meet with you at WBC to get an advance look at Brave Little Belgium.
Here is a link to the Space Race: A Card Game Facebook page to follow for updates on the design: https://www.facebook.com/spaceraceacardgame/