Going It Alone
The story of the design and production of 6 Billion, by David A. Coutts.
Monday, 20th September 1999
(An abridged version of this article appeared in Counter Issue 8 - February 2000)
The idea first came to me back in 1996. I'd read The Millennial Project (Colonizing The Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps) by Marshall T. Savage. This book presents a vision of a future where humanity spreads throughout the Solar System, and then our galaxy - The Milky Way. I couldn't get the book out of my head. I'd also read a number of books relating to population growth, most of which were very pessimistic about our future. Indeed, I'd previously written poetry depicting our sad but inevitable demise. But this book was inspiring, very respectful of life, and very positive!
Now by this time I had already set up my own company Board Not Bored Games Pty Ltd of Melbourne, Australia. We import board games and retail via the Internet and word of mouth - we don't have a shop. The reason for this is simple - I also have a full-time job. I'm in software testing, either managing a team or environments.
So the idea slowly grew until I decided to take a few months off work at the beginning of 1997. It was a big decision really as, being a contractor, I only earn when I work. As for Board Not Bored Games other source of income, games, that was minimal at this stage - beer money. So, my savings and my wife supported me whilst I worked on the design. It was summer time here in Australia, and it gets hot (up to 40° C). I literally sweated over the design.
Initially I toyed with facts and figures relating to exponential population growth, both historical and projected. I tried to map these to the vision of the book. It became clear that the scale of the vision of the book could not fit into one game. So, I decided to restrict the game to our Solar System. I began to read a lot about our planets. Now, The Millennial Project's first 3 steps are very Earth orientated, and step 8 was the big one - leaving the Solar System to colonize our galaxy. My focus was therefore on steps 4 through 7. However, in game terms, it was step 7 (Solaria) which focussed on exponential population growth. In particular, the predicted carrying capacity of the Asteroid Belt staggers the imagination. The Millennial Project predicts 950 billion by 2250!
Try finding a book on the Asteroid Belt - it's not easy. Eventually I did find one, Mining The Sky by John S. Lewis. The author is Co-director of the NASA/University of Arizona Space Engineering Research Center and Commissioner of the Arizona Space Agency. If that sounds impressive then listen to what the book suggests... 10,000,000 billion people living in our Solar System!!! Again it's the Asteroid Belt that is key to the whole thing - most people couldn't begin to imagine the resources available to us there. Space stations, Moon bases and terraforming Venus are all discussed. Uranus and Neptune also get a worthy mention, notably as the easiest source of helium-3 for use with terrestrial deuterium as a fuel for fusion power.
The other popular target for colonization is obviously Mars. Both books cover this in detail, but The Case For Mars by Robert Zubrin (with Richard Wagner) presents compelling arguments why Mars should be first. The Mars Direct, or Mars Semi-Direct, plan could become a near future reality.
These are the books that shaped the game, plus the wonderful Engines Of Creation by Eric Drexler on the awesome power of nanotechnology, Remaking Eden by Lee M. Silver on the divergence of the human species through reprogenetics and cloning, The Road To The Stars by Ian Nicolson on the technical feasibility of space travel (if we survive our near future...), The Population Explosion by Paul Ehrlich and Population Overload by A.J. Mitchell to remind me of the flip-side of my optimistic premise (hence my use of the Four Riders Of The Apocalypse - War, Famine, Pestilence and Death), and many, many more.
Armed with these visions my design grew. I decided that no planet should be excluded from human occupancy. Of course, nobody will be strolling on the surface of Jupiter for example - it doesn't have one, and if it did you'd be crushed to death anyway! But there are moons galore out there. Even little Pluto, sometimes derided as not really planet, has a moon called Charon only 20,000 kilometres from it's surface (almost a twin planet system!). And tiny, iron-fisted Mercury baked by the Sun would not be excluded either.
I designed my initial maps using Microsoft Publisher, one map per planet and one for the Asteroid Belt. I allowed for surface colonies (where appropriate) and orbital colonies in early versions, but in the end opted for just ... colonies. A friend gave me some out-of-date business cards and I used the blank backs to write my initial card designs. I found a toy shop which stocked plastic tokens and bought a large jar full of mixed colours.
I quickly discarded simulating the current political and demographic situation on Earth - it would date too quickly and would over complicate things. However, I wanted to focus attention on population growth through the little understood but rather simple mechanism of population doubling. All the predictions indicated that our population would reach 6 billion in 1999, double that of 1960. This was far enough in the future at the time (early 1997) to set as a useful target. 6 Billion it was! The mechanism of population doubling led to the idea of a game turn being the amount of time it takes a population to double. That way, I wasn't predicting a definite time scale (neatly avoiding being quickly out of date). A turn can be decades, or even centuries!
As it turned out, the United Nations Population Fund issued a press release on 9 July 1998 which tied in with this idea beautifully. Apart from explaining the previous milestones in human population, they announced a Day Of Six Billion which was initially June 1999 then 12 October, 1999. Perfect. It was at this point I decided I would try to take the game to Spiel '99 in Essen, Germany. Make it there, you make it...anywhere!
Anyway, after starting back with my old project as Testing Manager, I began to involve playtesters in the process. This part of designing is crucial, I feel. I have playtested other designer's games, so I had a feel for what I would expect from my playtesters. Fortunately for me I was (and still am) a member of The Billabong Boardgamers. We play the German style of boardgame so much in favour these days. I wanted my design to be acceptable to these players. Also fortunate for me, I am a member of The Melbourne Science-Fiction Club. I wanted the game to present a vision that was acceptable to Science-Fiction fans. As a bonus, it happened that Aussiecon Three, the 57th World Science-Fiction convention, was coming to Melbourne (2nd to 6th September 1999). I would aim to test the waters there. And I am a member of The Living Universe Foundation, an organisation which has its origins with Marshall T. Savage and his inspirational book. I was looking for an endorsement for the game from this organisation. I had determined who my audience were.
As a note of caution to would-be designers, I wouldn't recommend this approach unless you - like me - know what you have to say and who you want to say it to.
Getting good playtesters is very hard, and getting any playtesters to commit their time to your idea is harder still. However, it's an absolute must. The other thing is that, once the game has gone through the mill with your friendly playtesters, you use blind playtesters and complete strangers. I also used complete novice gamers to a limited extent, even though the game wasn't aimed at them. Blind playtesters are essential because they have to understand the rules without you being there. Their feedback, which can be difficult to get, should be taken very seriously indeed. Complete strangers, encouraged to use the rulebook after your explanation, serve a similar purpose. Listen to them carefully. And never pay anyone - that would change the relationship for the worse, I believe.
Take notes, record the time to play, record the scores. Don't try too many new ideas at once, especially with the card mix - you'll never know which elements made it work, or fail. Don't be afraid to stick to your guns - it's your idea, your game. I had one player who thoroughly enjoyed the game, so we played again immediately, and a few days later had suggestions for how to turn my game into yet another space empire game! I play those games all the time, but I didn't want to design one! Other players wanted to include alien invasions, super-plagues and so on. No - those are other games, and that is not what 6 Billion is about. However, if the suggestions made are in line with your design intent then try them. My playtesters made some excellent suggestions. Or, if a complaint is consistently made, do something about it. Don't just dismiss it. The inclusion in my Optional Rules for a way of manipulating the otherwise random turn order is the result of a complaint for which I came up with the solution.
Playtesting therefore defines your own views on what you want your game to be. I wanted a game that lasted about 2 hours (it takes 2-3 hours, including rules explanation). I can enjoy shorter games, and longer games, but around 2 hours is just right for me. Sometimes, a diet of shorter games feels like eating a couple of entrees - just not satisfying! Sometimes, a long game can drag interminably (especially if you're losing with no way back) and feels like either you've over-eaten, or you just ate a meal that's gone cold. I also included a mechanism in the game whereby the player with the least to do gets to control the Neutral(s) for a turn, and to allow the players to manipulate the Neutral(s) to their own advantage. The other thing I wanted to try was to present players with the option to score points for helping each other. I knew this would be difficult, and most new players steer clear of these cards until they see what a hindrance this "help" can be in game terms.
The free population doubling limits are a little subjective and arbitrary, though the exclusion of a limit on the Asteroid Belt quickly became a determinant in ending the game. The game also ends when all population tracks are colonized, and it frequently occurs that either could happen on the last turn (this was not by design, but chance, and works well). The special rules to make Pluto and Mercury harder took some refining, as did the use of the Discovery cards for the minor planets. Different map configurations were tried, which caused minor changes to the rules (mainly terminology). The mechanism of using face-up cards to draw from is probably the only game mechanism I borrowed from other games. I like it because it reduces the luck factor and increases choice in which cards a player draws.
I maintained throughout the design an abstraction of the patterns of colonisation followed by migration. I think it works well, especially with the generation of the Neutral migrants each turn.
I dislike games where it is impossible peg back the leader, so I worked hard to allow the leader to be nobbled. But I also hate games where it is possible to calculate everything, and see precisely who is winning and (this is the critical bit) which of your many moves will maximise your points. Very skilful, but often way too slow and a big problem in a multi-player game. Hence, the face-down Hidden Agenda cards dealt at game start. Then again, I didn't want to restrict players to just those fixed goals, hence the Discovery Card rules whereby players can potentially work through the Discovery Deck and adjust their goals. With the Hidden Agendas and Discovery Cards it's hard to see who IS winning, but possible to see who MIGHT be winning. And I wanted players to be able to try different strategies, even in the middle of a game, depending upon the cards and options available.
But above all I wanted to present an optimistic view of our future, with humanity spread throughout the Solar System, in a playable and entertaining game.
There comes a point in the course of the design of a game when you start to think about production. What about graphic design? Who will manufacture the game? How long does it take? What will it cost? What standard of production am I willing to pay for? How many copies? What is my marketing strategy? That's just for openers!
Sometimes it's who you know that counts, and a good friend of mine is Julian Johnson of Ignition, here in Melbourne. He is an excellent graphic designer, and I approached him about doing the graphic design for 6 Billion. He is a full-time professional graphic designer, so it became clear that I would have to work with him in the evenings and weekends to get this done. We both have very high standards in our work, so I felt comfortable working with him, knowing that the game would come out looking very professional. In all he spent 138 hours officially working on the graphic design, and who knows how many unofficial hours! I was with him for much of that time. Naturally, we started with my map, my cards, my rules. When we started I was not yet committed to production - no contracts had been signed. So it was an advantage that Julian was able to give me his time in advance of any remuneration, but I insisted he record his time so that he could be paid if I went ahead, which I did.
I had to find somewhere to produce the game. My wife, and friends, got various quotes for me. The front runner was Henderson McPherson of Heidelberg, Melbourne. Remember, Australia is not like Europe or the USA. Australia is just as big, but only has about 17 million people living in about 5% of the land. It's a desert, and that applies to finding games manufacturers as well. As it turns out, Henderson McPherson are one of the biggest and best in the country and they were only 30 minutes away in the car! I arranged for a tour of the factory, and was very impressed. We talked quantities, and it became apparent that I was small fry. I've seen shipping containers destined for the USA, full of games made here. Their normal minimum run is 5,000 - I couldn't afford it. I had already decided not to take out a loan to fund this little venture - it was all earned company money. We finally settled on 2,500, for which I got a quote. No contract - yet.
Production is where compromises start to get made, and some of the toughest decisions have to be made. If I produce 2,500 copies in a box this size, it costs this much. A box this size costs this much. Cards come in these qualities, and are produced in sheets of 110. Plastic tokens cost this much. Using a mock-up provided by the factory I had to reduce my map to fit the mock-up board. This is why not all the planets are depicted on orbit rings, or arcs. Believe me, I tried. Still, you soon get used to it.
My rules book is longer than the usual family board game (it wasn't designed for families), and I had to fight to get it to 12 pages of A5. In the end my examples of play got amalgamated into an Example Of Play which I published on the Web. My only mistake here, having decided on this course of action, was not to refer to it in the rules booklet. However, I do list the Web Page address.
But, as a strategy for self-published games, I think it's a sound one. Publish your game in the usual fashion, but support it from the Internet. My 6 Billion homepage has an FAQ, Example Of Play, 2 Player Game reports (it was important to me that I advertise the fact that the game plays well with 2), a multi-player game report, Play Hints, Variants, a profile of the designer (why be shy?), photographs, and an article on population doubling.
I also intend to add translations into as many different languages as possible - German being the most important (Spiel '99 here I come!) Hindi, Mandarin, Spanish and French also being widely spoken. I will publish any that I receive. This can happen over time, through the use of enthusiastic volunteers (perhaps encouraged by a free copy). Hopefully, over time, this will encourage sales into heavily populated countries not known for this style of boardgaming (especially India with it's second language being English, and China).
The Internet is a good free way to publicise your game, too. I regularly post to the newsgroups dedicated to board game sales. Don't spam the pure discussion newsgroups - you'll get flamed! Via the discussion groups, and various web pages, it's also clear who should get review copies. The Internet is a very useful tool for game designers, and essential if your company (such as Board Not Bored Games) is Internet based.
Another consideration was getting American and British acceptance. The USA is THE target country for any game published in English, followed by Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It's not easy to sell a game to the USA before it's ready, especially if nobody has ever heard of you. So, I took the gamble to just go ahead anyway. I had an endorsement from The Living Universe Foundation at this time, though not on headed paper. Later, I decided not to use it, though their reaction to the finished product now sounds very encouraging! We'll see. In the meantime, I'm still looking for distributors.
Copies have gone to numerous reviewers. So far, on balance, the feedback is a thumbs up. I get to live! But the reviews aren't out yet... And don't expect favourable criticism just because you send a reviewer a free copy. Criticism is hard to take, but you have to learn to take it. I would say that criticism is easier to give than receive, and that it is harder to create than to criticise. After all, what does the reviewer risk compared to the designer or producer of a game? And how much effort does it take to destroy months, if not years, of design and production effort? "Very little" is the answer to both questions. So I for one will try to make them work hard to justify their opinions if I disagree. But criticism is a creation in it's own right, whether it is favourable or not! Criticism is hard work, or should be.
I would agree with those that say that the critics must have their say, but that won't stop me giving my twopennies worth in my own defence! It's hard not to take it personally, but I'll try not to.
A last minute hitch was the tokens - the supplier let the factory down! At one point they were talking bigger tokens, or nothing. In the end Henderson McPherson came through. Around the same time, because of the 10mm black border around the map edge, we had to reduce our map ever so slightly. The space for the tokens became restricted, requiring some last minutes changes to try and space out the tokens. I know it's not perfect, but it's definitely playable. Try staggering the pieces on the population tracks. And as for the holding boxes for colonies and migrants - it's rarely a problem in practice, so stop your whingeing! Actually, none of this is a problem for most players - you quickly get used to it.
I decided early on, because we couldn't manage orbit circles or arcs for all planets and the Asteroid Belt, that I wanted the planet names and numbers to spiral out from the Sun. the Asteroid Belt (No. 5) therefore spirals out to Jupiter (No. 6), and so on. I like it, but not everyone does.
Most of the playtesting was done on my initial colour maps, then black and whites of Julian's map designs. Julian, being a professional, insisted on colour prints as early as possible. This was good, and highlighted problems with the logo where the lines were too thin in colour, but came out well in black and white. This caused Julian and the film house some rework, as did constant proof-reading (thanks to Doug Adams, Roger Smith and Alan Stewart) of the rules and cards right up to the end. Another problem was the inner Solar System background, which had to be faded out more in colour than when seen in black and white.
Something I haven't mentioned yet is registration of trademark, which is a lengthy process, but a must. It's your idea, register it! This brought me into contact with lawyers, and this resulted in the way I have paraphrased the United Nations Population Fund press release, and the disclaimer. They also recommended getting something in writing from all playtesters and helpers, whom I wanted to credit on the rules booklet.
I wanted to highlight that the game is made in Australia. This is partly to encourage Australian sales, but also is a selling point overseas. There aren't many Australian boardgames that people could mention, so it's a novelty. The Australian Made Campaign was only getting off the ground at the time the graphic design completed, so I registered later and bought a roll of labels to apply over the cellophane. It's a distinctive logo, widely recognised here due to an earlier such campaign - I like it.
Making the commitment to a contract after New Year 1999 was a scary moment. Did I know what I was doing? Could my wife and I afford it? Was it worth it? In the end the answer was yes! I'm glad I did it - it proved to myself, if nothing else, that I could do it. I wouldn't have wanted to to look back at my life and regret not having done it.
The game was a modest success at Aussiecon Three, and people were only really there for the Science-Fiction. Now there are 300 copies on their way to Essen for Spiel '99. That will be the moment of truth. I fly on the 15th October, 1999. It'll be busy. The German translation is nearly ready. The reviews will be out soon, but I'm on my way regardless!
Wish me luck!
27th November, 1999.
Well, I've finally been to the gaming Mecca. If you'd like to read how Spiel '99 went, click here for the Essen report.
12th December, 1999.
You might also want to read a 6 Billion view of our Solar System - The Planets & The Asteroid Belt.
© 1999 Board Not Bored Games Pty Ltd
For a list of articles by me, see the Articles page.