If you’ve played any board game involving a world map, you’ve probably noticed it. If, like many Kiwi kids, you grew up with Risk, you’re bound to have seen it. If you’ve played Twilight Struggle or 2009 Spiel des Jahres nominee Pandemic, it can’t have gone unnoticed.
For the record, I’m referring to the country you call home – or, rather, the omission of it on board gaming maps. Of course, this brings with it some benefits. For starters, we’re not perceived as territory worth attacking by some megalomaniac with his army of plastic men, horses, and cannons. And our borders are obviously so tight that no fatal disease can affect us.
But isn’t it about time our existence was highlighted by a top quality Euro game? Wellingtonians Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray have done just that – albeit metaphorically – with their new Z-Man Games title Endeavor.
Sure, New Zealand isn’t actually on the game board, but this is a title which is really turning heads amongst the international board gaming community, with it sitting comfortably inside the top 100 on BoardGameGeek.com’s rankings.
SeriouslyBoard sat down with Messrs de Visser and Gray just days before Endeavor‘s New Zealand homecoming to have a chat about the game…
SeriouslyBoard: This has been your first published game, and Endeavor seems a fitting name for such a pioneering effort. Does the title hark back to Captain James Cook and his efforts to expand the British empire?
Jarratt Gray: Not exactly. Cook is certainly something that happened in the 18th Century, but his efforts aren’t really dealt with in Endeavor. The name comes more from the verb, and as such we didn’t mind the change in spelling from English to American with an American publisher publishing the game. The fact that Cook’s first ship was also the Endeavour was not lost on us, but the game isn’t about his voyages.
SeriouslyBoard: When and how did the idea of creating Endeavor first come to you?
Jarratt Gray: Carl and I were both independently working on projects and during lunch one time we decided to work on something together. Carl pitched some ideas about a game he wanted to make, I threw in my thoughts about what I wanted, we discussed some rudimentary design goals, and away we went.
Carl de Visser: A lot of the theme from my original ideas is there, but not much of the details. Originally, buildings were much more complex. I had the idea that you could build ministries, which would have other buildings attached. So for example, you would activate your war ministry, and it might have several attached buildings that allowed different attacks and other related actions, such as draws from an espionage deck.
SB: How long did the design and production of Endeavor take from initial concept to seeing it on a game store shelf?
JG: Well, I haven’t exactly seen it on a store shelf yet, but it has been about 3 and a half years.
CdV: It was about 2 years from initial idea to a prototype we felt comfortable submitting. After acceptance, there was still a reasonable amount of redesign and testing, but mostly from that point it was waiting. It looks like it could take between 6 and 12 months from acceptance to publishing, but we had a few delays related to marketing timing, foreign editions and printing.
SB: Which part of the design process took the longest?
CdV: That is something that is very hard to assess, because when the design process goes well it all seems so quick – and when not, it doesn’t. The longest feeling part for me was the gap between our first initial attempt at the game, and when we started looking at it again and breaking it down into the core mechanics we liked. Once we got past that part, everything seemed to flow.
JG: Publishing was delayed, so the game was released almost a year later than it should have been. Working with the second prototype and getting it to the final game probably took about a year, although it was submitted about three quarters of the way through that process. We added a fifth player and balanced the game to that after it was submitted. It was originally intended as a 3-4 player game, but Zev [from Z-Man Games] play tested the prototype on our 4 player board with 5 players so we thought it was worth expanding the game.
SB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your Endeavor experience?
JG: Working with Carl. Ideas tend to develop slowly when you are working by yourself. You become more attached to them. With a team you sometimes fight for stuff but in doing so you get to really understand why you are fighting for them. You also get many more ideas to work with as well as well intentioned criticism.
CdV: Right now, the rewarding aspect is that we were right that we could do something as good or better than many of the games out there. We pretty much nailed our design goals with Endeavor, and the elements I am less happy with were elements outside of what we were trying to achieve.
SB: One of the aspects of Endeavor that seems to appeal to so many gamers is that there are many paths to victory. How did you manage to achieve such a difficult balancing act?
CdV: Very early in the process, we came up with some rough stories of what a game could be like, and what different strategies could be employed, even before we had the mechanics that fleshed out. Both Jarratt and I tend to search for extreme strategies and exploits in games we play, so through play testing we tended to explore quite a lot of options. Rather than quash these, we tried to make them fit in with the game, and if they became too strong, strengthen up other known strategies rather than try to weaken the degenerative one.
JG: It’s really to do with the types of games that we like and something that was an original design goal. It was hard to balance at first in our original prototype, but as the second prototype took shape, the game itself seemed to balance itself. The engine is really the combination of the action mechanic with the token management of the scoring tracks. Once we had that working, balancing was relatively straight forward. We found that the mix of trade tokens was the thing that could easily sway one strategy over another, which means with a random set up, sometimes some strategies are more viable than others.
SB: What was the biggest learning curve you experienced between concept and completion? How would you incorporate it into a future design?
JG: Actually, concept was so long ago that I’m struggling to remember the steps I took to get something out of my head and onto paper. I have a few games right now that are in the concept phase that I just can’t figure out how to implement because I have sort of lost that skill.
CdV: It is amazing how many skills are involved in designing and developing a game. And I am amazed at those who self-publish, (and that is most other New Zealand designers), as that is a whole new set of skills to throw into the mix. And most of it is hard, too.
I think the bit where we really learnt a lot – and really were able to develop some skills from – that helped the design a lot was in play testing. I know for both of us, our self testing skills improved a great deal, as well as getting information of value from live and blind testing.
Another element we learnt a great deal from was about how game mechanics are structured. How some mechanics are more core and are harder to change than more peripheral mechanics, which can be messed with a lot more. During the design process, we discussed a lot of other games by a lot of other designers. And we really discussed the mechanics in some detail.
SB: Z-Man Games have done a stellar job with the production quality of Endeavor, but the big unknown was always going to be how the average punter took to the game. Did you ever imagine the game would generate such a positive response?
CdV: Yes, I absolutely imagined such a great response. My imagination has also covered bigger responses, as well as much worse responses, and disasters like some horrible flaw being discovered within five minutes of release. I guess I have an over active imagination!
JG: I think we were both pretty positive about the game we had created. I always expected the response would be positive. Most people that play tested it for us enjoyed it, so you kind of have an idea of what people will think about it.
SB: Do you have any plans for an Endeavor expansion?
JG: Yes, assuming the game sells and merits some expansions. Something that we wanted in the game but ended up taking out was Cook’s exploration of the Pacific, so we’d like to get that back in, as well as a few other ideas from the period.
CdV: There are probably more ideas that we can use.
SB: If you could offer just one tip for budding board game designers in Aotearoa, what would it be?
JG: I think it’s probably important to have a passion for the game you are making. If you don’t want to play it a hundred times, other people probably won’t either. I think the hardest thing is finding a community to test games with as much as possible. Having a nice prototype can really help get your game played at your local gaming group. And if some ideas in the game aren’t working, don’t be afraid to edit them out.
CdV: Don’t be afraid to design a lot of bad games first. Make sure you make your ideas concrete in some fashion. While you may think you have something solid in your head, it could turn out to be a lot weaker than you think when you try to make that idea real. Put stuff on paper, make notes, make prototypes. I just realised you said one tip!
SB: What do you do when you’re not playing or designing board games?
JG: I’m an Editor and Director, and I like roleplaying and playing video games.
CdV: I am a Systems Engineer in a systems integration team, which generally means making computers play nicely together. I also have two kids, aged 6 and 3. With what little time I have left, I use for hobbies.
SB: What’s next on the design front?
CdV: I have a lot of ideas, a few of them slightly developed. There is one design we have done a lot of talking about that I think we could do something good with. I have a couple of independent games that I have been working on, but the one that seems to shine, I really need help on to develop, so I’ll have to try get Jarratt interested in that one, also.
JG: I’ve got a couple of prototypes that need some work. I want to design something with Carl again. And we are both throwing around expansion ideas for Endeavor.
SB: Thank you for putting New Zealand on the board gaming map!
Endeavor is due to arrive in New Zealand in the next few days. make sure you beat the crowds by purchasing your copy here!