Daniel Rocchi and The Artemis ProjectAugust 7, 2019
Interview with Daniel Rocchi, about his co-designed game, The Artemis Project
Thanks, Daniel, for timing time out to do this interview. We are here to talk about a game you co-designed that will be out real soon, The Artemis Project. Could you tell us about the theme of the game and brief how its played overview?
Daniel: In The Artemis Project, you represent corporations of Stabilizers, settling the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. You are going to excavate below the icy surface to collect the resources and bring them to the surface. You will build buildings, bring in colonists to man those buildings, and send them on expeditions. At the end of six years on Europa (six game turns) we will see who has built the most successful colony on Europa.
The Artemis Project is a dice placement game, where each round players will place dice to the main areas of the board in an attempt to gain resources, get workers, build buildings, and mount expeditions. At the end of the round, each area is resolved in order and players gain the benefits. What is unique, is how dice are resolved using the Exposure mechanism. Basically, you may hope to take six resources when you play your 6 die to an area, but subsequent lower dice may bump you out, leaving you in the cold, when the dice are resolved lowest to highest at the end of the round.
What is the story behind the creation of The Artemis Project?
Daniel: The Artemis Project started out as a game called Colonies of Venus. But before that, it was a little prototype called Outposts. In Outposts, players would send troops out to man various outposts on an island, in the service of the King. There was much about Outposts that I loved, including marauders that would attack outposts, ghosts that would make some outposts uninhabitable, and pirates that sailed around the coast, stealing gold from undermanned outposts. In essence, players would take turns stacking dice in the various outpost, and resolve them bottom to top and award majorities and rewards based on dice presence, with some players getting squeezed out for nothing, similar to the Exposure mechanism described above. The game has undergone an incredible amount of change and development, but this core mechanic has remained pretty solid from day one; we always knew it was the heart of the game.
I’m very fortunate to design and playtest with an incredible group of designers called The Game Artisans of Canada. GAC members work and playtest together to ensure that games coming out of the GAC process have been thoroughly playtested to ensure not only that games are the best they could be mechanically, but that the game delivers the best experience possible to players. I played Outposts with a bunch of other designers at a GAC playtest night, and as much as I loved it, the game landed with a resounding “meh”. By that I mean, it was one of those games that worked but didn’t come across as anything special, in terms of mechanics or experience… except for one thing. A friend of mine and fellow designer, Daryl Chow, who played Outposts that night said, ” It all kind of works, but isn’t really special. EXCEPT this thing you’ve got going on here, resolving the dice.” He said, “I’ve had a few ideas for a space exploration game that would go really well with the dice resolution, and I was wondering if you want to work together and co-design?” Most of the Outposts wound up on the cutting room floor, and we moved ahead, focusing on what was the most engaging part of the game for us.
Co-designing with a fellow GAC member, Josh Cappel, is what brought about my first published game, Bomb Squad Academy. Personally, I love the collaborative process; the opportunity to bounce ideas, spark creativity, and share the heavy lifting in game design. It’s also creative, mentally engaging, and highly social, which are largely the reasons why I play board games, to begin with. So Daryl and I started to work on the game. Even though he lived in Ottawa and I lived in Toronto, we worked online to share ideas and develop our game, and eventually had a rough game called Colonies of Venus, most of it handwritten on paper and cards. We brought this to another GAC weekend retreat and it got a number of tests that weekend, which set us on a very good road for our first sold iteration.
What in the gameplay makes this unique among dice placement games?
Daniel: The Exposure mechanism is something I haven’t seen in almost any other game. Players place dice from their dice pools one at a time in player order to various areas of the board, to gain energy, minerals, and colonists. Basically, the value of the die you place is the amount of resources you would like to take at the end of the round. When dice are placed, higher dice go to the right of any lower dice, and lower dice go to the left of any higher dice. Dice of the same value are placed after like dice, in the order played.
At the end of the round, when all the areas are resolved, the dice are resolved from left to right, lowest to highest. With limited resources, that 6 you placed early on, hoping to take 6 energy, could have been possibly squeezed out, or “exposed”, leaving you with partial resources, or none. As I said earlier, this has always been the heart of the game, and watching the placement unfold is very dynamic, as placed dice are susceptible to one or more dice shifting you along. Also, the use of Tools, tokens in the game that adjust a die up or down one as you place it, increases the possibilities.
So in the game instead of drawing from the bag, you can put the colonists in a ship and shake them out. Was this inspired by Camel Up? Did any other games influence you when it comes to The Artemis Project?
Daniel: Originally the game used different coloured cubes to depict the various types of colonists you can put to work for you; tan cubes for basic explorers, blue for tech engineers, red for military forces, and purple for administrative stewards. Different buildings call for different staffings of colonists to generate their ability. In the game, the supply of colonists coming in at the spaceport every round were all drawn at random from a bag. One of our Kickstarter stretch goals was to make the different coloured types of cubes individually shaped meeples. We worried that some players might be preoccupied with the possibility of “feeling out” the meeples when they went to draw them from the bag. Art director and developer extraordinaire, Joshua Cappel, came up with the Shakeship, a clever cardboard construction where all the meeples are loaded into the ship, and shaken out a few at a time when you need them. I always think of them as the new recruits, eagerly coming down the gangplank to their new home on Europa.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced in the gameplay once it quit being Colonies of Venus and more The Artemis Project and how did you overcome this gameplay hurdle/issue?
Daniel: As proud as Daryl and I were of Colonies of Venus, it became a much different, much better game as The Artemis Project under Marc. Remember how I mentioned the Game Artisans of Canada and their diligent pay testing? Marc Specter has his own local group of designers and playtesters in Grand Rapids, The Grand Gamers Guild. Marc took our prototype home to these guys and they did a bunch of testing. And they were thorough! When Marc sent me their feedback, he actually warned me that it might seem a little tough.,but it was actually all very helpful in guiding the next steps, and development of our game.
All of the Grand Gamers Guild feedback pointed to the steps we had to take to balance our game; ensuring that the game mechanisms gelled with the theme and story of our game, that the overall balance of resources and opportunities in the game were satisfactory, and that the game delivered not the same game, but a consistent experience with every play. CoV was also a much tighter and more punishing game, originally, but we listened and found areas when we could open opportunities within the game. Their feedback led to a better relief ship track, the training academy, and the opportunity to gain tools during the round. But we tried to keep our vision of the harsh environment of science and exploration on Venus and balance it with a challenging and enjoyable game. For example, when players told us they found the movement of colonists between buildings too restrictive, we stuck to our guns a bit on the rule of only one move at the end of each turn but offered other opportunities to move or place colonists through building actions or rewards of expeditions. Extra opportunities to do what you wanted were there, but the players would have to compete to get them.
I would also be remiss (and a big jerk) if I didn’t mention the incredible work done by Josh Cappel, as a developer on this game. Josh’s contributions to the discussions on balance were invaluable, but he was also responsible for most of the world-building and back story that fleshed out our new vision on the moon Europa. We all agreed that the title was a little trite, and it looked like Venus would be overdone as a game setting and not quite right for us. Josh suggested moving our game to one of the moons of Jupiter, and we tossed around Io, Ganymede, and Callisto, before settling on the icy setting of Europa as one that would support our story. One factor I liked about the Venus setting, was that all the geographical place names on Venus are named after female goddesses and deities from various mythologies. This might have led to the discussion of The Artemis Project, a real-life initiative to build a self-supporting base on the moon by 2002. It seemed to fit in so many ways and helped to solidify our vision for the game.
What has been your favorite part of working with Gamer’s Guild?
Daniel: I think the best part of working with Grand Gamers Guild has been the opportunity to work with Marc and be able to call him a friend. When I first met Marc, he was just starting as a publisher, with his first game Unreal Estate just about to be released on Kickstarter. I was headed to Protospiel Chelsea in Michigan, and Helaina Cappel arranged a meeting. Marc said he would was going and would give me twenty minutes for some pitches. Instead of pitches, we ended up playing full games. After an hour, I said. “We’ve kind of gone over our twenty minutes. Did you have another meeting?” Marc said, “Nah, I just set a time limit in case you turned out to be some kind of a jerk. What else have you got?” Colonies of Venus was the last game we played, and Marc really liked it and asked to take it home to play with the rest of the Guild. As I said, this was still early days for his publishing company, and all he could offer was “I really like this game, and I promise you, something really good is going to come of this.” I really liked Marc and was tired of trying to get my game in front of larger publishers who could be uncommunicative, and I went with my gut.
What I have learned about Marc, is that professionally, he gives his everything to your game. During the development, he was constantly suggesting tweaks to mechanisms and the theme. He sought out the author of one of his favourite sci-fi series, to see about getting the rights to set it in that world. He brought on the perfect team of Dominik Mayer and Josh Cappel to design and develop the world of our game. He gave Daryl and I lots of voice in the ongoing process of the game and had strong ideas which he always communicated well and put forward respectfully. Like me, he’s a big fan of bourbon, and just lots of fun to game with and to work with. I’ve been to a number of Origins and Gen Cons with him to promote the game and work his booth, and it’s always been a fantastic time. I would work with him again anytime.
What three adjectives would you choose to describe the gameplay?
Daniel: The three adjectives I would use to describe Artemis are developing, dynamic, devious. Developing because the game ramps up over the six rounds of play. Dynamic because almost every single dice placement can change the situation of play. Devious because there is some sweet delight is squeezing someone out of their place and reducing the number of resources they had hoped to take.
As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to share/say?
Daniel: Really, as a designer, I just hope that people enjoy playing our game. Who can say if it will become a huge hit, but I hope it is a favourite for someone’s group or family, and it gets pulled out and set up once in a while. With all the new games that are released these days, so many fall by the wayside and are forgotten. For all the work we have put into it, I still enjoy it playing it, and look forward to teaching it to many others.
Thanks again for taking the time out to do this interview.
The Artemis Project should be available to buy this Fall.