Techlandia: The Art in Kickstarter #8
Editors Note: With all of the tech scandals of the last few years the idea that a secret evil is lurking behind the scenes pulling the strings, seems less like fiction every day. When I heard about Techlandia, a game that takes the premise of Silicon Valley corporations and spreads supernatural horror on top like a thick lovecraftian marmite I had to know more. I got in touch with the creator Dan Ackerman and you can read our conversation below.
If you like what you see Techlandia is on Kickstarter until September 5 2019.
Today I'm joined on the site by Dan Ackerman. Thanks for stopping by! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I'm probably best known as a tech journalist, and I've been with CNET, the technology news and reviews publication, for about 14 years, covering everything from social media and hacking to laptops and games. I'm also a pretty regular TV news talking head, mostly on CBS This Morning, and even found time to write a book. Naturally, it was game-related. The Tetris Effect is the nonfiction real-life story of the classic game Tetris, which was created in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and eventually escaped to the West. Fun fact -- not only am I a New Yorker, I'm a native one at that -- born and raised here.
You've got a brand new tabletop game on Kickstarter called Techlandia. Now before we get into the game itself, after years as a journalist covering tech and videogames, why make your own board game?
Over the past several years, I've seen a lot of innovation and interesting storytelling coming out of the tabletop community. It reminds me a lot of the late '90s and early 2000s in the indie video game scene. So, when I had an idea for a story I wanted to tell in an experiential, interactive way, my first thought was: "This should be a video game." About five minutes later, I thought, "Wait, this should be a board game!" Precisely because it was about technology and technophobia and high-tech gear, I loved the idea of presenting it in a very analog way, with cards and map tiles. It made for a very interesting juxtaposition, high tech and low tech at the same time.
Alright, elevator pitch time, what is Techlandia and what's interesting about it?
Techlandia combines some of my favorite things about board games with some of my wish-list must haves. It tells a dramatic narrative story with some Douglas Adams satire vibe, it has cool characters on a hex-based map, some exploration, some combat, and the two big things that were key for me -- it fully supports solo play (or up to 4 players), and it'll fit on a normal, human-sized table. As an apartment-dwelling New Yorker, I'll tell you that's a big plus.
It's a modern-day dungeon crawl, where as heroic (but unknown) tech bloggers, you have to sneak into the massive headquarters of Techlandia, the world's biggest tech company. Their CEO is announcing a brand new smartphone on stage in a few hours, and you suspect he's going to use the power of millions of connected new phones to open a portal to another dimension and summon various Eldritch horrors. I pitch it as "Silicon Valley meets Lovecraft."
Just to put on your journalistic hat for a second, tabletop gaming has seen amazing growth over the last decade or so. Why do you think board games and RPGs have seen such a rise in popularity and do you think this will continue?
Part of the rise, or re-rise of tabletop gaming has to do with people being burned out on digital. From non-stop news to the negative effects of social media, to harmful "blue light" from laptops and phones, it's become trendy to take time away from screens, and recapture some real-world interactions. The ongoing popularity of vinyl records confirms this, and physical book sales are outpacing digital books again. For games, do many video games are big-budget cookie-cutter affairs that lack any real imagination or originality. They're like blockbuster movies -- all focus group and no inspiration. Tabletop is in a unique position right now where it's big enough to be sustainable and have a decent economic footprint, but still small enough for auteurs and indies to compete .
First time designers often find projects change more than anticipated during their development. Thinking back to your first concepts for the game, how has it changed since then?
If anything, my concept became larger and more in-depth as I went along. The entire thing started as an idle thought after a particularly grueling tech industry press conference. "This should be a video game!" And I brainstormed briefly on the idea of an 8-bit-style narrative adventure. Then, like lightening it hit me: "This should be a board game!" I had been playing a lot of Mansions of Madness and similar games, and a dungeon crawl to escape a terrible tech company was such an amazing idea, I got to work sketching it out on hex paper immediately. It really started to come together when I flipped the narrative -- instead of escaping the tech company, you were trying to break in.
I've got to say, it's a great narrative concept. So how did you look to marry that theme to the art?
Techlandia is a satire, in the mode of Douglas Adams or Brazil. But satire works best for me when everyone involved plays it totally straight. The art for the game box, the hex tiles, the various cards and the characters all play it close to the vest. Dark, foreboding, creepy. But when you combine that with the text and the scenario, the humor comes out. The key for me was not to just have a guy in a suit with a Cthulhu head, but to have the guy in a suit with a Cthulhu head be just another cog in the corporate wheel. The ridiculousness and the horror work hand-in-hand, and frankly, except for the actual evil magic stuff, it's not that divorced from the real tech industry.
Where did you find your artist(s) for Techlandia and were there any challenges in communicating your vision for how the game should look?
I've worked on print magazines and websites for many, many years, often very closely with designers, so I brought a pretty solid mainstream media understanding of design to this project. That comes along with respectable skills in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and the like (I mean, back in my print days, it was all Quark...). For Techlandia, I used three main artists, although I had preliminary discussions with many more, though the Board Game Geek forums, Fiverr and ArtStation. One artists did background and environmental art, another did all the characters, and a third did a single concept piece I had in my head and really wanted to include.
How long did you spend playtesting the game and at what stage of the project's development did you begin?
For me, development, playtesting and even art and design are all part of an organic whole, and you can't separate them. So, I was designing, testing, and sketching concept art from day one. For a narrative game like this, so much of the story is told visually, so if that doesn't work, the entire idea falls flat. One of the very first elements I designed was the player dashboard, which looks like a life-size iPhone. It's something I put together in one afternoon in Illustrator, and it's remained almost exactly the same ever since. Other elements change constantly, including all-new character design reasonably late in the game, when I wanted to shift gears a bit.
Playtesting is often where board games graphic design elements are pulled into focus and refined. Did you find this was the case with Techlandia and what did playtesting make you more mindful of?
I'm not much of an artist, in that I provided original very rough sketches for a lot of the art, but they were really just pencil roughs. However, my long media career has given me many opportunities to work on page layout, UI and information design, so I'm a bit of a nut for that stuff. After the illustrations were ready, I laid out everything from the box to the rule book to the cards to the online ads. My design philosophy is all about clarity, purpose and narrative. Is the meaning of each design element clear? Does it serve a purpose? Does it advance the story?
Through playtesting, that led me to eliminate gameplay and design elements that did not advance those goals. By doing so, the writing became tighter and more focused, fiddly busywork elements were eliminated, and the visual design hewed towards minimalism wherever possible.
What are some non-game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
I'm a big reader, as many writers are. Some recent reads I'd highly recommend include Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and Fall by Neal Stephenson. I'm really into authors like Walter Mosley, Richard Price, and Elmore Leonard. But I also love hitting up used book stores for classic mid-century sci-fi and always look for stuff by Frederik Pohl, J.G. Ballard, etc.
Do you have any recent projects, or upcoming that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Before Techlandia, my big project was The Tetris Effect, a non-fiction book from Hachette/Public Affairs. It's a real-life high-tech thriller about how the video game Tetris was created by a Soviet computer scientists in the 1980s, then essentially stolen by western software companies, leading to a huge international battle for the rights to the game. You can find it on Amazon or anywhere books are sold, and it even got reviewed by the New York Times.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I am very easy to find. ;) You'll see my work on CNET just about any day of the week, where I've been reviewing gadgets and giving tech advice for the past 14 years. I'm on Twitter as @Dan Ackerman Instagram as @danack and I keep track of all my various projects at danackerman.com. Oh, and I do a semi-regular podcast where I interview authors, called CNET Book Club , and that's here:
And before I forget, the Kickstarter page for Techlandia is right here!
All images supplied by Dan Ackerman
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