Automania: Designers’ diary

The following Automania designers’ diary was originally posted on Boardgamegeek in August 2015.

Norway is a small country not far from the planet’s north pole, and just outside its capital city, Oslo, live two gaming enthusiasts. One is Kenneth Minde, now a first-time-designer, and the other is Kristian Amundsen Østby, a designer with a few games already under his belt. At Spiel 2015, they will release their new game, Automania, and this is their story of how that game came to be, as told from each of the two designers’ perspectives.

It all began one November evening in 2014, a couple of weeks after Spiel in Essen. I was hosting my regular board gaming night, and friends were coming over to play some of the new games from Essen. One of the people attending this evening was Kristian. I didn’t know him that well, but we had met in Essen a couple of times, and since he didn’t live too far from me, I had invited him over to play.

Kristian was a seasoned game designer with about ten published games, best known probably for Escape, but that night he came over just to play. Specifically, we were going to play Kanban, one of the new titles from Spiel 2014, and I was really looking forward to this. I loved designer Vital Lacerda’s previous games, and every new game from him is a must-buy for me.

Kanban is a heavy game about car production and comes with a monster rulebook. With him being a game designer, I was sure Kristian would enjoy complex games, and he smiled as I put the game on the table, so I was sure I had made a good choice. I was really looking forward to this. I am a huge car enthusiast.

I have attended Spiel every year for the past thirteen years, and each year I come home with a huge stack of new games that I try to work through in the following weeks and months. I go to Essen mostly for the games, I must admit, but also for the people — and one of the people I’ve met in Essen is Kenneth.

When I spoke to him at Spiel 2014, we discovered that we didn’t live too far apart, so when he invited me over to his game night some weeks later, I said yes. Whenever I go to game nights with people I don’t know, I am always a little worried that I might involuntarily end up in some monster game taking forever, and it would feel rude to turn down a game being suggested by the host.

Kenneth’s home was very tidy and neat, and we sat down around a huge pool table in his basement. It turned out that we were going to play Kanban. I smiled politely as Kenneth — the host — put it on the table. A suggested playing time of two hours usually means four hours in real playing time. Well, I do enjoy playing games I haven’t played before, and this one was also in my stack of still unplayed games from Essen. It was a game I had bought despite its theme. You see, I really hate cars.

The game night went well, and everyone seemed to have a good time, even though I had won, beating Kristian by a small margin. After the game, Kristian and I had a chat about the game and its theme. I had really enjoyed the game, but some of the other players had felt it was a little too complex. At some point during the chat, I joked about how Kristian should design a game of car production, and I explained all the stuff and cool features that I would like to see in such a game.

Kristian seemed to zone while I was talking, and I didn’t think he was too interested, so I had forgotten all about it when he called me on the phone after a couple of days. Apparently he didn’t understand my jokes.

The game night at Kenneth’s was nice. We played through Kanban, and honestly I felt a bit embarrassed to beat the host in a game he had been so eager to play. After the game, we sat around his pool table talking about games in general. Kenneth challenged me to make my own game of car production. He talked about assembly lines, various types of chassis, and how different models were sold in different markets, and I believe it was at this point I first started suspecting that the guy opposite me had a pathological obsession with cars.

But while he was talking, I zoned out for a second as I started thinking of a game prototype I had at home. It was a prototype about film production in which you produced films for different audiences and held screenings in different cinemas. The prototype had been put on hold as I had gotten stuck on some feature and didn’t know how to proceed — but maybe it would all make sense if you produced cars? I really love when games let me be creative and make me feel that I have designed and built a creation of my own. A factory setting, with assembly lines in which you put together the parts you like, could be perfect for this. I went home and searched my drawers for the old prototype.

Old filmmaker prototype

“Kenneth, I want to show you some ideas for the car game you mentioned”, Kristian said. We made an appointment to meet later that week, this time at his place. Kristian’s house was less tidy than I had expected. The only really orderly place was the game room in his basement. Walking into that room was like walking into the library of my dreams. Shelves upon shelves stacked full of board games.

Kristian poured a bag of cubes, tiles and other game material onto a large table. “See, I imagine we can have these intersecting assembly lines”, he said. “You collect machine parts and place them on your assembly lines. When you produce a car, the car gets the features of whatever machines are along its assembly line. You then need to try to make cars that meet the demands of the markets.”

The basic idea intrigued me. Kristian obviously had no knowledge of how cars were produced or worked, but the idea of intersecting assembly lines still felt right and thematic in a zany way. We played many games in succession that night. In the first games, we had only some tiles and our own assembly lines, but by the end of the night we were producing cars that were evaluated against the demands in various markets, and the cars were put on a ladder reminiscent of the ships in the final game. This was the very first version of Automania.

Producing a family car

Working together on a game design can be difficult, and in my experience one of the most important things to agree upon early on in the process is what type of game you are making. Are you making a light, fun, accessible game, or a more complex brain-burner? What “feel” do you want the players to get? With more than one designer, agreeing on all points can be a challenge, and I believe that’s a reason why so few new games are released as co-designs.

Still, when it all goes well, co-designing a game can be rewarding. I had previously experienced that when co-designing Doodle City with Eilif Svensson, and now I experienced it again. We were both determined to make a medium-to-high complexity Eurogame, with simple rules and lots of interesting dilemmas, a game that should be an elegant and streamlined design, but still offer never-obvious decisions to the players. We wanted there to be little randomness, but without the game feeling too heavy. We wanted to keep a playful atmosphere in which players could feel like they created something.

With Kenneth having showed so much interest in and knowledge of the game’s theme, I was relieved to see that he was also comfortable with keeping mechanisms in the game that weren’t strict representations of reality. We were making a game, not a simulation, and our goal was to make players have fun, not to teach them about car production.

Another benefit of co-designing is that you always have someone to playtest with. Kenneth and I playtested the game intensely every week over the following months. Usually, game design is a process of trial, error, and scrapping your ideas to start all over, but with Automania, things ran surprisingly smoothly. That is a really good feeling to a game designer because it usually means that the core mechanisms in the game are robust and solid. Also, in this case, new mechanisms grew naturally from the theme, like the introduction of specialists. It all came together very naturally, which is also a good sign, because it means the theme won’t feel pasted on.

After a couple of months of driving my chipped Ford Mondeo over to Kristian’s house, the game was nearing its final form. Kristian even dared to drive over to my place some evenings. Kristian hardly knows up from down on a driving wheel, and he handles the gearstick the same way stepmother treated Cinderella: No love, no tenderness. When I use the gearstick, it lays in my hand like a little puppy, but Kristian’s driving is not supposed to be the main topic here anyway…

After a couple of months of development, it was becoming clear to both of us that we had a really good game. Everyone we introduced the game to enjoyed it. They enjoyed being able to design their own cars: fast, safe, comfortable, spacious, or whatever they preferred. But even players who had no interest in cars enjoyed the game; they enjoyed making their own factory, hiring specialists, customizing their assembly lines, deciding whether to sell for money or for victory points, and all that. Seeing friends and test players having such a good time with something I made was very rewarding.

One of the design decisions I was most satisfied with was when we merged the actions of tile-picking and car production: When you pick a tile, the choice also dictates which type of car you produce. Already on your first action, you take a tile and produce a car, and — bam! — the game is rolling. Just seconds into the game, the first car has been produced and placed on a freighter ship, on its way to the coast of either North America or Europe.


Automania in a nutshell


One year earlier, Kristian had founded his own company, Aporta Games, together with two other guys, and I was eager when Kristian suggested we would try to publish Automania through that company. You see, I have a bucket list. A list of stuff I want to do. On that list you will find a lot of ambitious things, and it looks like this:

Kenneth’s bucket-list:
• Visit Australia
• Write a book
• Participate in Iron Man
• Buy a Tesla
• Solve the Rubik’s 7x7x7

And all the way down at the bottom of the list, there is a point that I never expected to happen. It is, of course:

• Design a game and get it published


After having read Kenneth’s previous diary passage insulting my supposedly “defensive driving” — a passage that felt part passive-aggressive, part oddly creepy — I started beating him a lot more in Automania and also became a much better person than him in general.

Anyway, after we had decided to try to release the design through Aporta Games, we also decided that we would try to release the game on Kickstarter. We wanted to have the game ready for Spiel 2015, so time was short. In April, I got Gjermund Bohne to start working on the illustrations. Gjermund had done the graphics for Doodle City, and we were very happy with his work back then. Both Kenneth and I wanted to have a friendly, “cartoony” style for the graphics, and Gjermund started working. For Kickstarter we knew we’d need a demonstration video, and my friend Jason Woodburn was kind enough to agree to put together a preliminary rules explanation video.

We also sent the preliminary rules to Richard “Rahdo” Hamm, who liked it enough to want to put together a playthrough video. From his video you get a good idea of what the prototype looked like at that point, and if you have read the final rules, you will also see that we have introduced a lot of changes to the game since then.

On May 1, 2015, we put Automania up on Kickstarter. Deciding on the stretch goals was hard. Very often, I find that stretch goals that add new stuff to a game doesn’t improve the game. There are, of course, games that improve from extra stuff, but more often than not adding stuff just makes the game more cluttered. Coming up with new and varied tiles for a game like this would be easy, but I see it as my job as a designer to make for the best possible game experience — and if stuff improves the game, it should be in the retail version; if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be in any version of the game.

However, after having put the game on Kickstarter, we both realized there was one additional feature that we did want to add: variable player powers. This is a feature both Kenneth and I like, and it can really increase the longevity of a game. So in the following two months after launching the Kickstarter campaign, we worked on balancing and fine-tuning four optional player powers. We wanted each power to feel unique, but not so strong that it would render any part of the game irrelevant to the owning player. The four powers we settled on were:

Elon, the factory with a special electrical car
Miao, the Chinese (?) factory that can copy other players’ cars
Sumato, a factory with a different assembly line layout, allowing them to pimp up their cheap city cars
Opo, the company with an open plan office, giving them room to hire a lot of specialists

For the Kickstarter campaign, Gjermund had made some preliminary prototype graphics for us. When we put this on BGG, some people mentioned that the box cover graphics reminded them of a children’s game. The characters did indeed have a cartoony, friendly style, but many games have this, so we thought that perhaps the yellow background color reminded people of HABA’s line of children’s games. On the original prototype box graphics, the general manager in the middle did also look a little too friendly, with her wide smile and pink dress, so we changed her into what can be seen on the final box image. Also, once people get past the game box and see the game board and the rest of the contents, I don’t believe anyone will mistake this for a children’s game.

Early sketch
  Prototype cover (childish)
Final cover — mature & sophisticated



Kenneth & Kristian:
We’re now in August 2015, and Kenneth claims to have gained three kilos just from the wine he has drunk during playtesting. Kristian doesn’t drink, but calculated that it would amount to about eleven liters of wine and thinks that seems like a realistic estimate of Kenneth’s consumption.

We also got some good news today: We will receive our Kickstarter funds after all. That’s right — we had not yet received the funds from the campaign. The money was supposed to be transferred in June, but there was a problem with the money transaction, and for a while we were afraid that the money had been transferred to the wrong account and was lost forever. That would have been bad because we’d still have to ship all the Kickstarter copies, covering the costs out of our own pockets, so we slept uneasy for a while, but now everything seems to be in order.

The other great news is that Automania will be printed by the end of August, well in time for Spiel 2015. That is a good feeling because a delay in production that makes you miss the Spiel fair in Essen is the nightmare of any small publisher. It’s also a good feeling to know that we have a product we are satisfied with. Automania is exactly the kind of gamers’ game that we enjoy ourselves.

That said, we are now ready and eager to hear what you people think, so if you’re in Essen in October, please come by booth 1-D109. Whether it is to give Automania a try, to just have a chat, to give Kristian a comforting pat on the back for his lack of driving skills, or to give Kenneth advice on how to deal with his newly acquired alcoholism, we will appreciate it!