Fantastic Factories: The Art in Kickstarter #3
Editors note: Fantastic Factories is on Kickstarter until June 29th, 2018. It's already nearly at 500% of its initial funding goal after only the first few days, so if you are curious then go check out the campaign. The interview below is with Joseph Z Chen the designer and artist on this project (co-designed with Justin Faulkner) who was kind enough to drop by to tell me more about it all.
Hello Joseph, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I live in Seattle and have lived in this area for my whole life. I've always been a gamer at heart, although not a big tabletop gamer until right after college. During that time I really got into some of the classic gateway games like Settlers of Catan, Dominion, and 7 Wonders. I had a couple of really competitive roommates and we would play the same games over and over again. Just to give you an idea of how dedicated we were, sometimes we would set up Catan and discuss what the optimal placement of all the starting settlements were for half an hour. Once we agreed, we would reset the board and do it all over again.
Eventually, a group of us decided that we wanted to make a board game, combining the mechanics of some of our favorite games. My particular design took off, and I kept working on it week after week with the help of others. At one point I decided I was tired of staring at blank cards so I started making placeholder art, which turned out pretty good. My only prior experience with art was dabbling in graphic design in high school, but with the help of my wife and other graphic design mentors, I was able to create the art for Fantastic Factories!
Like many game designers, I work as a software engineer for my day job.
So, can you describe your Kickstarter game to us and what makes it interesting?
In Fantastic Factories, players race to build the most efficient set of factories. You must carefully manage your blueprints, train your workers, and manufacture as many goods as possible in order to achieve industrial dominance! It's a dice-placement engine-building game. It's all about trying to find the best combinations of factories and figuring out the puzzle of where and how to place all your workers.
There are a few unique aspects to the game. Much of the game is played with players taking their turns simultaneously, which cuts down heavily on player down time. The game also has a lot of interesting options and different strategies. Often in games with dice, a larger roll is better. However in Fantastic Factories, every roll has its advantage in the right situation so the game is less about depending on hitting certain rolls and more about how you can leverage those rolls to your advantage. A huge feature of the game is the many ways you can manipulate the dice rolls in your favor, so each turn is a satisfying puzzle of how to alter and assign your workers.
I also think the art and overall aesthetic is really quite fantastic! So many games are fantasy or space themed and use serious and monotonous colors. I wanted to make a game with bright colorful art. I aimed for simplicity and elegance throughout the art, graphic design, and game design. Together, I think it makes the whole package stand out and feel approachable.
How long have you been working on this game? What made you launch the campaign now?
My team and I have been working on Fantastic Factories for about 2 and half years at this point. It's been a slow and steady process with a lot of playtesting. I would say that under normal circumstances, it wouldn't need as much time as it has had, but we underwent a couple major redesigns to really nail down and tighten up the gameplay. One of those redesigns came after we won a regional game design competition (NW LUCI Award) that was judged by industry experts. At the time we felt the design was complete and while we did win, they had plenty of constructive criticisms for us. This challenged us to do better and revisit parts of the design. After the redesign, it meant a whole new round of playtesting. It really is a labor of love.
Over those 2 and a half years it was a continuous iterative process of design, playtest, prepare for a convention, and then starting all over again with all the new feedback. All the while, working on the art and graphic design as well. Things take a little longer when you have to split your time between game design, art, and community building. Oh, and my wife and I had our first kid in the middle of it all that!
I'd like to say we had some grand plan with the timing of the campaign launch, but really we just gave the game as much time and love as we felt was necessary. Once we felt the game design was complete and the majority of the art was complete, we set a date a few months away in order to prepare review copies, figure out manufacturing/logistics, and plan our Kickstarter campaign.
Having taken the game through a few redesigns what are some of the biggest changes you've implemented? What do you think you've learned from this feedback loop creative process?
With any game design, before making a big change, you have to understand what the problems are that you are solving. My process is to find what's fun about the game and design everything else around it in support of that fun. With that in mind, it's unsurprising to see that the soul of the game has remained consistent and largely unchanged since the very beginning. For Fantastic Factories, that core fun comes from two angles -- discovering cool combinations of factories that work well together and solving the puzzle of where to place all your dice to maximize your output.
One problem I had was the way buildings were built. Building a blueprint used to require two matching dice. This was problematic for a number of reasons. While rolling a pair of matching dice with 4 dice is a likely 72% chance, there is still a decent chance you won't roll a pair for a couple turns, which really can set you behind. For a while, I used a single die double build cost solution, but it was clunky and complex to explain. Another issue I ran into was that using half your dice to build a factory is quite costly, and newer players often were building cards they didn't need just for the sake of building.
This is where things get a little interesting. In a neat and ideal world, you solve each problem with some design solution. Or even better, you solve all your problems with a single design solution. In this case, I ended up with a solution that greatly simplified a number of mechanics and solved a series of problems but had a dramatic cascading effect that touched almost every part of the game.
I ended up changing the way building cards worked. I introduced four new tool symbols. Each blueprint would have one of these tool symbols. Building no longer required any dice but instead required that you discard another card with the same matching symbol. This created a card-as-a-resource mechanic that really helps players sift through the deck finding the engine pieces they need and also providing an outlet for cards they don't want to build. This also created more tension in the marketplace draft since there would be multiple reasons why players would want a particular card.
However, this created a gaping hole with the basic actions where you used to use dice to build, the choices when using the basic actions were no longer interesting. My co-designer, Justin, solved that problem by introducing a matching bonus, which ended up being a very satisfying mechanic. The use of the extra dice and the matching bonus ended up infusing the game with a lot more resources so all the cards had to be rebalanced. These game systems did not exist in a vacuum so for each design change we made, it would affect another part of the game, which would then need further patching or adjustment. It was a lot of work, but in the end every change made to fix an unintended side effect left the overall game design even better.
Before we made all these changes, I had developed this somewhat irrational fear of making big changes. Sometimes we get attached to a particular design and grow accustomed to the shortcomings and flaws of that design. Making big changes is exhausting and time consuming, and can entail throwing away a lot of previous work. However, I've learned that great design can often require dramatic changes and that we shouldn't be afraid to pursue those changes if it will make your game better. I only wish I had made that leap earlier. I think being willing to make that kind of leap requires a receptive ear and a great community of people around you who are willing to point out the flaws within your game. That's why I think having a co-designer is so important. They are there to keep you accountable and honest.
As you've stated, you didn't necessarily have much experience in the artwork department before beginning this project. How do you think this shaped your choices when creating the aesthetic and how has guidance from others helped bring the game to where it is today?
My lack of experience with creating art has definitely influenced the aesthetic direction of Fantastic Factories very heavily. I've always been somewhat interested in visual design, and I'd like to think that I know what good visual design looks like when I see it, but actually creating the art is a whole different beast. The largest source of inspiration from early on was Tim Moore, a graphic designer and illustrator who I worked with at my day job. His illustrative style is very clean, colorful, and minimalistic. When I saw how strong of a visual impact he was able to make with such simple shapes, I felt inspired to imitate it.
Ultimately, the illustrations in Fantastic Factories do not require much technical ability. The secret lies in the simplicity, consistency in style, and a little creativity. I have picked up a few skills here and there from Tim, my wife, and online tutorials, but for the most part, all the shapes are quite basic. There's actually a lot of vector factory art out there, and I studied a number of those examples to develop my own style. As a engineer, I started deconstructing the characteristics of the factories I was illustrating. I defined rules and developed a certain visual vocabulary. For example, smokestacks are always red. Buildings in the backdrop have a gradient shadow. Most buildings have these particular ornamental decorative bits. The color palette is limited, which forced me to keep things simple. As I created more art, I developed a richer and deeper visual vocabulary to use within the world of Fantastic Factories. Sometimes I would go back to older pieces of art and add in those elements.
In a way, I took my limitations as an artist and used it as a strength to create a colorful, minimalistic, and creative feel to Fantastic Factories.
In terms of your playtesting, how did feedback guide your graphic design choices in terms of iconography and positioning?
The iconography and positioning/layout of the cards has always been on the forefront of my mind when designing Fantastic Factories. The goal has always been to make an approachable and intuitive game so before I made the card layout, I studied the design of a bunch of different games. I even wrote a blog post about it. Some of the ideas are very basic but some people don't give it enough thought. The trickier thing about Fantastic Factories is that cards exist both in hand and on the table. Designing a layout that is effective for both requires some consideration.
For the most part, playtesting has gone well in terms of the iconography and card layout. Occasionally I've received feedback about the size of the icons, which is challenging because a lot of times the usability of a card is at odds with the aesthetic and artwork of the card. Striking that balance is important. The key thing when playtesting for iconography and card layout is that players won't always identify the issue. Instead, you have to observe when players are either having trouble interpreting a card or are simply missing important details. The root issue may or may not be the iconography and/or layout.
For example, I've received a lot of feedback that new players don't hire the contractors. At first I chalked that up to unfamiliarity with the cards, but now I realize that all the text on the card can be intimidating. I'm now playing around with using some new iconography on the contractor cards. Icons are less intimidating and can be identified more easily once learned but do require learning so there's a tricky balance there as well.
The game has always had color blindness in mind as well. Every element of the game that is functionally colored also has a visual indicate either with a shape or text to distinguish between elements. The only exception is the dice. The dice colors are player colored and don't interact with any other player dice so they provide only aesthetic appeal. I've had a few colorblind players play the game with no issue. I also have a nifty phone app that I can use to analyze the color palette, which has been very helpful.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to launch a Kickstarter game?
Do your research. Immerse yourself in the community. Build connections. Support each other. Don't go into it for the money because this is an industry of passionate people and being anything else will become apparent. Don't ignore feedback from others, especially if you hear it multiple times from multiple sources.
Honestly, you could fill volumes and volumes with all the Kickstarter advice that's out there. It's endless and can be intimidating. But if you're having fun doing it and connecting with people you otherwise wouldn't have met then it becomes second nature to be a giant knowledge sponge for Kickstarter advice.
The few places I would start are Stonemaier Games blog, James Mathe's blog, Tabletop Kickstarter Facebook groups, and Twitter.
Are there any artists and designers in the community whose work that you are inspired by?
Yes! So many. Beth Sobel (Viticulture, Herbaceous, and tons more) is an inspiration. Herbaceous is so gorgeous. My vector art style was inspired by Tim Moore, who isn't a tabletop game artist but is still a talented illustrator. I also love Kwanchai Moriya's colorful style (Flip Ships) and J. L. Meyer (Fox in the Forest). I'm not sure if I could ever do what they do but I love the bright refreshing look they bring to tabletop games!
As for designers, I'm mostly inspired by local designers who are somehow able to pump out such great designs with very functional and elegant graphic design. Shawn Stankewich, Randy Flynn, Dawson Cowals, and Chris Glein just to name a few.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Sometimes I'll put on a board game podcast or a tabletop youtube variety show but when I really want to concentrate I usually work in silence. When I'm not actually doing art, I try to soak in everything I can. I subscribe to more podcasts than I can handle and constantly browse Twitter and Facebook for the latest tabletop news and advice. Some of the podcasts and youtube videos that have been helpful include Ludology, Board Game Design Lab, Breaking Into Board Games, and Daniel Solis' video tutorials.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I don't have a site specifically for my art, but you can visit www.fantasticfactories.com to find out more about Fantastic Factories. You can also find me on social media: