The Inquisitive Meeple interviews TIGR writer and game designer, Steven Aramini on his new game, Tricky Tides. Currently, on Kickstarter from Gold Seal Games, Tricky Tides merges tricky taking with pick-up and deliver mechanics.
Steven, thanks for joining us today for a talk about Tricky Tides. Before we get to it, you have had several games that have come on to the market in the last few months – Circle the Wagons, Barker’s Row and Groves. You also have Coin & Crown coming out later this year. How do you find time to design all these games?
Steven: Thanks for having me! So, I mostly work on game design in the evenings. I can only watch so much television, you know, so I end up spending a lot of nights noodling with designs. I do most of my playtesting during lunches.
Having a lunchtime playtester group sounds like every designer’s dream. How did that come about? And do you feel like you have enough time to playtest many of the designs you or others make within that lunch hour?
Steven: Danny Devine and Paul Kluka (my co-designers for Circle the Wagons and Sprawlopolis) are the usual three for our lunch group. We just realized that lunches seemed to be the best time to sneak in playtests as we’re all pretty busy otherwise. Some games are just too long to squeeze into a lunch hour but most of our designs tend to be shorter so we can usually get a full game in.
Speaking of Circle the Wagons and Sprawlopolis, you have another game (besides Tricky Tides) that will be on Kickstarter this month. It’s the newest entry in the Circle the Wagons line of games called, well… Sprawlopolis. Could you briefly tell us about this new Button Shy game?
Steven: Sprawlopolis is a cooperative/solo card-laying game in which you’re building a city one card at a time. The game is made up of 18 cards segmented into four city zones – commercial, industrial, residential and park. Each game, you randomly flip over three cards (this is the same mechanism we used in Circle the Wagons) to get your unique combination of scoring conditions for the game. One game you may be trying to build a superhighway and a central park and a master-planned community, but another game could be completely different objectives. The twist is that each scoring condition has a numbered value from 1 to 18. Add up the three values to get your target goal to try and win the game.
And if all the above isn’t enough, you recently won the 2018 Cardboard Edison game contest with your game, Animal Kingdoms. Were you surprised that Animal Kingdom won and is getting a lot of talk and attention?
Steven: Definitely I was surprised because it’s such a crap shoot of what the judges might respond to and the range of games entered is so wide – from dexterity to deduction to heavy euro to family – that I really had no idea if I’d be a finalist, let alone win. It was a great experience, though, and hopefully, Animal Kingdoms will get picked up!
Steven: It mashes together two classic mechanics – trick-taking and pick-up and deliver. The first phase has each player playing a navigation card from their hand and comparing them, with the winner of the trick getting to be the new leader and sailing first. The second phase has players visiting islands to pick up goods or deliver them to fulfill orders, which earn you gold (the victory points in the game).
What’s the story behind the creation of the game?
Steven: I entered The Game Crafter’s trick-taking contest and they were looking for a “new twist on trick-taking” and I thought it would be interested to use trick-taking as a means for determining priority for something greater, in this case, it was to get to where you needed to go before your opponents. The game ended up winning the contest and the judge, Andrew Smith of Gold Seal Games, approached me about publishing the game and I happily accepted!
One of the things that stands out when you view the game is the sea monster standees. What do the sea monsters add to the gameplay?
Steven: The sea monsters were not part of The Game Crafter contest entry because I didn’t have enough budget (we were given a budget restriction as part of the contest rules) to include them, but I always wanted actual sea monsters and Andrew was on the same wavelength so we added them to the game really early in the development. The sea monsters give players the ability to manipulate the goods on the island in unique ways based on their powers. We worked really hard to not only balance their powers but also give them powers that were thematically appropriate. For example, the giant octopus with its long arms has the ability to steal a good from an adjacent island. And the player that activates the monster is the one who plays the LOWEST on-suit card during the trick phase. This adds a new layer of strategy as players struggle to decide if they want to try and win the trick to sail first or lose the trick but get to command the monster.
How did you come up with the idea of using the highlighted compass rose on the cards, telling the players which directions they have to move?
Steven: I had decided I really wanted the theme to be nautical/age of sail, and so I was trying to think of what purpose the suited cards should play in the game and why players should care about winning the trick. Being a pick-up and deliver, as well, it became clear that the most important thing in the game was to be able to navigate efficiently and beat your opponents to the best goods. Thematically I liked that you had eight sailing directions, so that dictated my values of 1-8. And then when I started putting limitations on sailing directions (i.e. a “2” value allows you to sail in two directions), it really became a fun puzzle of deciding how to navigate the seas.
Do you feel that this mechanic also makes it so you sometimes want to lose the bid, just so you can play a card that will allow you to move in a direction you really want to move in? Was that done on purpose?
Steven: Definitely, it’s the kind of game where having a bad hand, so to speak, isn’t crippling because of factors like the monsters (which awards the low-suit) and the compass, which allows players who are off-suit the freedom to go in more directions than even the leader, often times.
We’ve got to talk about that art. It isn’t something usually seen in a board game. The stippling was hand drawn by a local artist to you, Naomi Ferrall. How did you hook up with her for the art and what made you think her style of art would be perfect for Tricky Tides?
Steven: Naomi is awesome! She is not a gamer, but she is an artist and so I approached her about the game idea really as an opportunity for a cool art project, hoping she’d be willing to jump in. At the time, I had no set style in mind but I knew I wanted it to have that old sea map feel. She was excited to be part of it and insisted that stippling, although it would be a really time-intensive process, would be the best style to convey that feeling and support the theme. I am co-workers with Naomi; in fact, we work about 5 feet from each other every day, so we had a ton of collaboration throughout the process. I’m really hoping to work with her again on another project soon.
Did you or Naomi use any old nautical maps as inspiration for either the art or the gameplay?
Steven: The whole idea for me started with a National Geographic article about old nautical maps and the map monsters that were drawn on them. I’ve always been fascinated by that. My twitter handle is an old drawing of an octopus. I have an octopus as my phone wallpaper and one hanging on my office wall. I just told myself, “I have to design a game based on map monsters!” I believe Naomi researched a lot of vintage monster drawings as well, and did many sketches before arriving at the final art in the game.
Coming back to the Sea Monsters. Are you partial to one the sea monsters? If I had to guess I would think octopus just because of your love of octopuses, but I still have to ask.
Steven: Yes, the octopus is my favorite, but I think Naomi did a great job with all of them and I have heard people comment about their favorite monster being the shark, sea dragon or whale, too.
Players can also add to their games Event Cards, what do they add to the gameplay?
Steven: They add replayability and a little more variety. At the start of each round, you may optionally reveal a new event that somehow bends the normal rules and forces players to alter their strategy for the round.
Do you have a favorite event?
Steven: I think my favorite is “Edge of the World” that allows players to sail off one edge of the map and magically appear on the opposite edge of the map. It really makes you look at your navigation cards in a new way.
In Tricky Tides, players will be placing their good cubes on Ship cards. Was there ever any thought or discussion that each player has a different power/ability for their ship/captain card? For example, one has an extra good space, or one gets an extra sugar/tobacco cube somehow or one can always sail a certain direction or gets an extra anchor token, etc.
Steven: There was some early thought but we didn’t really pursue that angle for whatever reason. I guess I feel like asymmetrical powers always tend to feel over or underpowered to players, no matter how much balancing you try to do. We were content with just letting players pick their ship color and that there were enough other variables in the game to keep things interesting.
Gold Seal Games is the publisher for Tricky Tides, they are a relatively up-and-coming publisher. What has been your favorite part so far working with them?
Steven: Andrew at Gold Seal has been really passionate about the project and very open to all the suggestions, and has included a lot of great suggestions himself, so it’s been a great relationship! All of my game designs have been signed by indie publishers thus far and it’s fun to get to work directly with them, as I feel we’re all in the same boat, so to speak, of trying to grow our presence in the industry and turn our dreams into reality.
What was the hardest part of designing Tricky Tides?
Steven: Initially it was tough to balance the scarcity of goods. We wanted there to be enough stuff on the islands to make the game feel like it was progressing with each turn, yet we wanted there to be some scarcity and urgency in play, to give players the feeling that every turn was critical to winning. There are only 18 turns per player in the game, which isn’t a lot considering you only get to do one action on your turn: pick up or deliver. So you really need to be planning out your best routes and secondary strategies if things don’t go your way several moves in advance.
And your favorite part of designing it?
Steven: The table presence is my favorite aspect of the game, which is a huge credit to Naomi’s skills. When it’s laid out on the table it just looks cool and very different from any other game I’ve seen. I especially like the 2 and 3-player setup, which has players flip over certain islands to “open sea” cards, which not only looks interesting but adds a nice wrinkle to the sailing phase. My favorite part of designing it was working with Naomi and Andrew, who have both been really awesome every step of the way.
We’ve discussed that Tricky Tides uses two different gameplay mechanics (trick taking and pick-up and deliver) and meshes them together in an unexpected way. Are there any other mechanics not normally seen together that you like to take on as a designer or see someone else take on that you think could be interesting together?
Steven: I am always impressed when two different mechanics mesh and it just works in a unique way. A game like Tim Fowers’ “Paperback” comes to mind, which combines deck-building with word-building. You see something like that and go, wow, that’s so brilliant, why couldn’t I have thought of that! As for something I’d like to see, well, I’ll tell you that I’ve been really fascinated lately with the “I split, you choose” mechanic, and I think that would be fun to mix in an interesting way with another mechanic or in a new way we haven’t seen yet.
What has been your favorite part of this whole experience when it comes to Tricky Tides?
Steven: I guess the fact that we’re being rewarded for our efforts. Naomi and I spent a TON of time just getting the game in shape for The Game Crafter contest, and we were rewarded for that by winning the contest, which was a great feel and sort of validated our decisions throughout the process. Then that turned into a contract and we’ve spent the last year developing the game, and here we are finally getting to see it become a real product! Andrew has likewise spent so much time testing and developing and nurturing it to get it to Kickstarter, so it’s great to see his company getting rewarded for all of his efforts.
As we come to a close, is there anything else you would like to say or share with readers out there about Tricky Tides?
Steven: I hope that players enjoy it and know that they are appreciated for supporting the game!
Thanks again, Steven for taking time out to share with us about Tricky Tides.
If you would like to ask Steven any questions not answered here or just talk with him in general, he can be found on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/stevenaramini
Tricky Tides will be on Kickstarter until May 31, 2018 and has already funded. If you like to check out the Kickstarter, please click the link (picture) below: