In 2012, Spelltower
developer Zach Gage was asked to be part of the coveted No Quarter exhibition
at the NYU Game Center, alongside Vlambeer's Jan Willem Nijman, Hide & Seek's Margaret Robertson and Barabariball
's Noah Sasso.
But rather than create a video game for visitors to have a bash at, Gage asked himself the question: I've been given $2,000 to create whatever I like. What could I make that I wouldn't normally try out?
The answer, as it turns out, was to create a board game -- and after just a week of frantic designing, illustrating and printing, the No Quarter version of Guts of Glory
But the idea for Guts of Glory
didn't start with No Quarter. In fact, the general idea had been bustling around Gage's head for years before that -- this was simply a sequence of fortunate events that led to the next 20+ months of his life being filled with board game-based decisions to make.
It all started with The Last Man on Earth
"Back then, I had this bizarre notion that when I was doing freelance work, I would do some projects, and then when I got those projects done, I could add them to my portfolio," explains Gage. "Then I would be able to show that portfolio to more people, and then I could get more interesting, better paying work."
"But if I took too many projects, then when the better work came along, I couldn't do it because I was still doing all of the other work," he continues. "So doing freelance was more about trying to take just the right amount of projects so that when better projects came along, I wouldn't have to pass them up to continue doing the projects that I was currently doing."
Although he didn't realize it at the time, Gage's freelance balancing act lifestyle would eventually inspire board game Guts of Glory
. See, in the game, players take turns to remove food from the central plate and place it in their mouth. If you swallow food you gain points - but if your mouth is too full, you have to spew food out to accommodate the new stuff being rammed in there.
Hence, the game is all about balancing your food intake with getting the food chewed and swallowed. The base concept for Guts
actually surfaced at the start of 2011, when the Global Game Jam had an "extinction" theme.
"I was going to do a game called The Last Man on Earth
, and I was going to do it with my friend [Jess Worby] who actually ended up doing all the art for Guts of Glory
," says Gage. "That game was gonna be very similar, but it was single player."
"You were this guy walking along the top of a landscape, coming across things. You're trying not to die, and you're the last person in existence. The way you don't die is by eating things that gave you nutritional boosts, then another nutritional boost when you digested them, then some kind of magical power when they were in your stomach."
You would be able to see a square inside the survivor's stomach, and each bit of food you ate would be presented as a Tetris piece. If you were unable to fit any more pieces in your stomach and you ran out of nutrition, you died.
"I don't think I was necessarily prepared for how insane this whole process would be, but it was pretty cool that it was possible. It would have been totally impossible in any other universe without Kickstarter."
"But I didn't end up making it at all," notes Gage. "A year later Charles Pratt from the NYC Game Center got in touch, and commissioned me to do a game for No Quarter. When you get a NQ commision, they give you $2,000 to do something. The idea is to make a game that you couldn't have otherwise - that's their hope."
had just taken off on mobile, and he was considering how he could make a physical game this time around. That's when his original GGJ idea came back to him, and he wondered how it could be recreated as a board game.
"The first prototype just worked right away," he notes. "There were lots of things wrong with it, but very clearly it had something going for it. Then we created the whole game for No Quarter in a week. Most of the illustrations were done by Jess Worby in 2-3 days, and the entire game from start to finish was done in 5 days."
After Gage had shown the game at No Quarter and gauged the response, he knew that this needed to be a full game -- although he also knew that he'd need to find somewhere to pull the funds from to get the ball rolling. He brought Jesse Fuchs on to help him with the game's development, and then phase two of Guts of Glory
started: The Kickstarter.
"Back then, there were a lot less things on Kickstarter, and people were really excited about the very prospect of a Kickstarter," notes Gage. "But you really had to have some contacts to get press to post about your KS."
"It just seemed like the only option," he adds. Indeed, the designer had zero experience in creating a physical game, let alone shipping one to hundreds of people, but he did know that it would be very complicated, and that he'd need a lot of money to get it started. $25,000 seemed like the appropriate amount, and the Kickstarter began
One month and $41,144 later, and Guts of Glory
was definitely happening. Although Gage was aware that he'd come away in the end with little if any earnings from the game, his mantra was simply not to lose money over the venture.
"Kickstarter was really important for judging interest, and getting the money out there to at least fund that inital run of games," he says. "Then if nobody buys the rest of them, at least I hit a neutral point, and I got the game out to a lot of people. That was really cool. I don't think I was necessarily prepared for how insane this whole process would be, but it was pretty cool that it was possible. It would have been totally impossible in any other universe without Kickstarter."
He then spent the next 12 months piecing together the final addition, and preparing to ship. As is clear now, everything took just that little bit longer than he was hoping, and rather than hitting its March 2013 shipping goal, the game finally came to fruition last month. Anyone who's been following the Kickstarter updates -- or has put together a physical board game from scratch -- will understand why.
But what I really wanted to talk to Gage about was how he has so meticulously balanced the game to the most intense degree possible.
Anyone who has played Guts of Glory
will know that every single game ends with a tense race to the finish, as every player ends up within one or two moves away from a victory. It's remarkable that, regardless of whether you've played the game or not, you can still go up against someone who has played the game hundreds of times and beat them on your first go.
When it comes to the balancing of the game, Gage puts it all down to that original No Quarter gallery setting. He notes that every design decision was made with the idea that people would be playing it and spectating it in a public area, and hence the game needed to be designed around that.
"The balancing is the thing I did first, which I think is not typically what you'd do with a board game," he notes. "When you design a game for a gallery exhibition, there's a couple of things you have to do that are not what you'd normally do when designing a game."
He continues, "So the first thing that happens in a gallery exhibition is that people come in and they don't have a lot of time for every game. The first time people play your game, it has to be fun. That's not always true in a video game, but it's often not true in a board game. For a board game, the first time people play your game they have to understand the rules. That's also often not true in board games."
Secondly, says Gage, spectators have to enjoy the game too. In a gallery space there are far more people walking around and looking at games than playing them, so your game needs to be fun to watch.
And to wrap it up all, the designer knew that every card in play would have to be on show, such that every player could see every card on their first play, and that every spectator could look around the table and understand what was happening. This last point led to one of Gage's favorite design features of the game.
"You can say 'I'm gonna force-feed you these dentures so you have to spew either your fridge or your box of spiders' - it's a phrase you wouldn't hear in a lot of games, and if you were walking around the space and heard that, you'd say 'Wha?'"
"When you look at what somebody else has, instead of giving them the card that you don't want that they do want, you give them a card you really want that you know they'll reject so they won't get more points," he laughs. "I think that's my favourite thing that people do in the game. I always wanted you to have a terrible decision to make as often as possible, so you should always get to your turn and be like 'Oh come on!"'"
These set of rules, governed by gallery play, helped Gage to shape the final product. For example, notes the dev, "The reason why the themeing is so odd, and there's so much verbal stuff on the cards, is because I wanted to make the game interesting to people around you, and not just the players. You can say 'I'm gonna force-feed you these dentures so you have to spew either your fridge or your box of spiders' - it's a phrase you wouldn't hear in a lot of games, and if you were walking around the space and heard that, you'd say 'Wha?'"
But Gage also had another balancing element on his mind. Years ago the developer used to play a lot of Magic: The Gathering
and really enjoyed it. After several years away from it he decided to try his hand at it again -- and found getting back into the game incredibly difficult.
"What I noticed is that when I tried to play it, it was really complicated, and I had to know all of these cards just to be able to build a deck to play the game," he says. "And I didn't really want to learn all of those cards. Then it started making me think about Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer
on iOS, which I really like. It's a really great game, but learning all the cards was kind of a burden, and when I tried to play it with my fiancee, she doesn't want to play it because she doesn't want to learn all the cards."
For Gage, the real fun parts of these games isn't the deck-building, but the turn-by-turn tactical play. With this in mind, he set out to discover how he could take the deck-building out of Magic: The Gathering
, but still distill that tactical play into his own game.
"When I thought about how Magic
works, one of the things that hit me was that it doesn't really have a strong system underneath all their cards," he reasons. "Their system is really within the cards, and that's because it's a deck-building game. You build the system when you put your deck together - you build how your cards will interact, and what you're hoping will come out. That's all on you, and what makes the deck-building so powerful."
But the actual game system you're playing around is miniscule, he argues, and not all that robust. "I think one of the reasons why Magic
requires so much initial investment is because that system is meant to be small, so players can really change it with their decks. But that means you need to learn all the cards and what to expect."
So when he came to design Guts
, Gage aimed to bump up the underlying system, and instead create an intense ruleset that the cards would revolve around. It's the system itself that dictates the balancing and powers the game, rather than the specific powers of the cards.
"You only have five spots in your mouth, and you can usually only chew twice," he says. "That's the whole system that powers the game - it balances it for new players, it's very easy to understand, and you can be just as good as somebody who knows all the cards."
One interesting after-thought that came quite by accident from this approach to game design was the political clashes that occur towards the end of the game. Since everyone can see everyone else's cards, the last 10 minutes or so usually revolve around players bartering with each other, and trying to tell other players what they should do next.
"I really feel like when you play 2 player, it's this very intense tactical game," says Gage. "But if you play it 4 player, it's a lot more laid back even though it can get very political. There's a lot less pressure on you to do the perfect thing ever time, because there are so many other people making moves. I kinda like that it's sort of two different games in one box."
Expanding in the future
Now that nearly all the Kickstarter rewards have been sent out, Gage is eyeing up the 1,000 copies of the board game that he has left standing in his warehouse. The fate of these boxes will determine where Guts of Glory
"We really want to do an expansion, and we have this really cool idea for a new power," he explains. "The expansion would give you a bunch of new cards, but they'd be an entirely new type of power that's not an in-mouth or swallow power. It's something different, and because it's different, it wouldn't be super crazy to balance it, since it's a totally different type of thing that you're dealing with every turn."
But that won't happen if these 1,000 boxes don't sell. The team has just broken even on the game, and the cost of printing a rerun alongside an expansion isn't a possibility right now.
Regardless of what happens with Guts of Glory
Gage notes, "I don't think I'm done with board games."
"I've been doing a lot of work with dice stuff lately, and trying to design a game with dice, which is really complicated - much more complicated than I would have expected," he says. "I may be doing some dice stuff for a video game too, but that hasn't been announced yet, so I can't talk about it much. I'm definitely taking a lot of the experience that I had from doing this board game, and going forward with it with either more board games, or definitely some video games that may be board gamey in some way."
Building a board game has been quite the learning experience for the dev, and when he does put together his next physical game, there are plenty of lessons he'll be taking onboard.
"I both don't really want to make another one, because I know how hard it is, but also, because I know how hard it is, it wouldn't be that hard to do another one," he laughs. "Most of the stuff that went down on this one was, like, I didn't know how long something would take, or I was unaware of how much testing something would take, or I underestimated the amount of rule book testing we should do. Small stuff like that."
These first time errors were always going to happen, he reasons, and clearly he won't be making those errors again.
"I think I would definitely be a lot more open to having the game published for me if I did another game," he adds. "I think I would be a little more attractive to publishers because I know what goes into making a published game."
Guts of Glory
officially launched last week, and is available to purchase from the official website
. It will also be playable at the Doing it on the Table exhibit
at GDC 2014 in March.