We are game designers that made a cross between a video game and a board game, ask us anything!
UPDATE: Sumer has reached its funding goal! The Kickstarter ends at 11 AM EST: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/studiowumpus/sumer-a-game-of-divine-strategy/
We are Studio Wumpus, four indie game designers with master's degrees from NYU.
For the past 16 months we have been working full time on Sumer, a board game-inspired strategy video game. We started out with the idea to explore the space between digital and tabletop, and ended up making this completely new kind of game. Sumer has the action and fast pace of video games but the elegant strategy and feel of modern board games.
Sumer will come out on Steam Early Access this summer, and if our Kickstarter funds successfully we'll take on the challenge of adding online multiplayer.
We’ll all be answering questions at different points tonight:
Sigursteinn ‘Sig’ Gunnarsson
Thanks for great questions everyone! It's getting late (especially in Iceland) so we'll probably call it a night. But we'll continue answering any questions we receive tomorrow.
Our Proof:: https://twitter.com/SumerGame/status/734867299732193281 More Proof: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/studiowumpus/sumer-a-game-of-divine-strategy/posts/1583808
To explain to everyone else: Goats are the currency in our game.
Short answer: Because they are charming as hell.
Long answer: They actually started out as gold bars which later evolved into silver coils. But we wanted to be as historically accurate to the Sumerian culture as possible, so we introduced the idea of trading goats. Goats were a lot more fun to explain when teaching the game, so we stuck with them.
Isn't this game more of a board game inspired video game rather than a cross between the two? I'd imagine a cross utilizing both physical and digital elements?
True. We typically call it a digital board game - we thought we’d mix it up a bit with the description here. The “board game” part isn’t just the mechanics, though - it’s also about the experience. Just like a board game, Sumer is about interacting with your friends. You’re messing with each other’s strategies, outsmarting each other in the auction, and so on. It’s a social experience.
If you’re interested in a game that properly mixes physical and digital elements, check out Fabulous Beasts: http://playfabulousbeasts.com/
We think they’re so cool that we’re actually doing a crossover with them! In addition to our normal set of more Sumerian animal icons, we have a new set based on the Fabulous Beasts. These icons actually come out of their frames, which was inspired by how Fabulous Beasts bridges the physical and digital worlds.
What kind of unforeseen problems have you run into in game development? Got any tricky problems or solutions that surprised you?
Most of our inspiration came from turn-based board games like Catan, Agricola, or Lords of Waterdeep--probably my biggest surprise during development was learning just how much making things real-time would affect the constraints of the design. Probably the biggest concept I’ve learnt from this project is the idea of thinking time as a resource--since Sumer is a strategy game it’s going to be the player with the best strategy who wins, but every moment you spend thinking during the real-time segments of the game is a moment the other players are getting a lead on you.
Our early builds of the game suffered from two main problems related to this: way too many moving parts and not nearly enough downtime.
The moving parts issue was fairly simple to handle--we just had to keep streamlining and streamlining the game until it was as slim and elegant as we could make it. Early versions of the game involved such elements as workers with different ability scores and talents or upgradable buildings. All this proved to be far too much to hold in your head in a real time game, so we took them out. Every game has a golden zone where there’s enough complexity that things feel rich and strategically deep while still being effortless to hold in your head and we found that for real-time games that golden zone was significantly more streamlined than in turn based board games.
The downtime issue was a little bit trickier--we found that people were having a lot of trouble thinking strategically while the game was running. Every second of thought you had was a second you were falling behind, and it just made the entire experience very stressful and made it way more important that you were always in motion than that you were thinking ahead. Our eventual solution was to break the game into ‘days’--during each day you get a certain number of actions you can take before you have to go back to bed and wait for the next day to start.
Each morning you would be able to look at the ziggurat and plot out your moves that turn without any time pressure on you. Then, once everyone confirmed that they were ready to start the day, there would be a mad rush to place all of your workers in the shops you wanted before returning to bed. This worked out great--the game still rewarded quick strategic thinking (inevitably your plan would need to be adjusted on the fly as the day played out and rooms got filled up), but also gave you times to clear your head and analyze the situation. By giving the players low-pressure downtime we let the intense moments be more intense without threatening to burn the players out and let the less intense moments be used for such vital activities as planning ahead and talking trash.
Few questions here:
1) What was the inspiration behind this game? Are there and games or ideas that helped to spur the creation of Sumer?
2) What exactly is the bidding process in the game and how is it kept anonymous if everyone is watching the same screen?
3) Why Lucina?
1) The game was initially inspired by our love of modern board games and local multiplayer video games. We saw that they had never really been combined into a single experience.
Our biggest inspiration was M.U.L.E., a game from 1983 by Dani Berry. It's an amazing mix of action and strategy that's just super different from anything we'd seen. We adapted our auction mechanic directly from there.
Our worker placement mechanic was most directly inspired by Lords of Waterdeep, a board game set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Another influence was Caylus, the original worker placement game.
As for video games, we found The Yawhg super inspiring in terms of just having a different take on local multiplayer. The aesthetics of 7 Grand Steps somewhat inspired our style. Indie games like TowerFall, Nidhogg, and more recently Duck Game got us excited about local multiplayer action titles in the first place.
2) Actually, the bidding isn't anonymous - the excitement comes from the fact that it's in real time. Players are constantly adjusting their bids. You change your bid by moving your head left and right across the screen. When time's up, the player furthest to the right wins the bid.
Because it's in real time, you can fake out your opponents. You can jump way out ahead at first, then suddenly drop back at the end to stick them with an item you don't want at a high price. Or you can hang back and surge forward. Or just move around rapidly to keep them guessing!
3) Good question :) The designer who's answering this, Josh, is a competitive Smash 4 player. Honestly, I just find Lucina the most fun character to use. I also usually feel like when I lose in tournament, it's because I was outplayed - not because it was unwinnable. If I felt like she was truly hindering me, I might eventually switch, but I haven't hit that level.
Lucina is generally considered a low tier character, though she's moved up since some recent patches. I think she's underrated. In particular I think she's very nearly as good as Marth, and there have been some quite successful Marth players (Pugwest and Mr. E come to mind). I think if someone equally skilled and dedicated played Lucina, they could achieve similar results. Hopefully I can be that person!
How do you deal with needle camping?
Um, I lose >.>
Probably the most important thing is just the stage. Narrower, more vertical stages with platforms like Battlefield are going to make it harder for them to keep running away, and give you more avenues of approach.
Otherwise, I guess just use full hops and have some way to land sort of safely - stalls, counters, etc.
There's really not much a Lucina can do though ;__;
What have you learned making a game in this in-between space that you think board game and video game designers respectively could learn from?
When we were originally exploring what we could do in the space, we thought we could make a complicated board game easier. We started out with four phases and rules that would need a 12 page booklet.
But it turns out board gamers and video gamers think very differently. Everything has to be very apparent and straight forward in a video game. Nobody likes to read the rules.
It's a little hard to translate the design lessons into the table top realm. Most of our challenges had to do with real-time elements. But for those making real time games, adding spaces in between rounds for players to breathe and strategize was one of the most important addition to Sumer.
The main advice I have for video game designers is to play more board games. There is a golden age of design happening in the board game world and so many cool mechanics that could be reimagined for video games.
It seems like making a game inspired by eurogames, which are typically very complicated, would pose a challenge in terms of delivering information to players. How have you managed to balance appealing visual design with the (necessary) delivery of tons of information?
There are so many different eurogames and they vary a lot in complexity. A lot of them definitely feel more complicated than they are because of all the information you need to memorize from the 4 or 40 page rulebook.
While getting all the information on screen was a challenging task (making sure everyone had access to the info they needed), being a video game was very helpful in some aspect.
We have the ability to enforce the rules and give players interactive hints as they play. Glowing the rooms when players are hovering over them or showing you exactly who got points for what.
It's definitely been a journey, before we were able to put in all that interactive feedback and tutorial, it felt like explaining board game rules, but now people don't have to listen to 10 minutes of explanation before jumping in on a game. -- Sig
I'm physically disabled. What is the control scheme like? Is it fully remappable?
Have you accounted for issues like colorblindness, and deafness?
Is the size of on-screen text adjustable? Is it color or contrast changeable? What font is being used?
Making the game easy to pick up and play for everyone is a huge goal of ours in the making of Sumer! A lot of the reason we'll be releasing Early Access first is so that we have a chance to get a bunch of these features in and tested before the game formally launches.
To answer some of your questions with more specificity, though--the control scheme will be fully remappable and only really uses a few buttons (jump and interact are your big two). We also have a few different control schemes--the game is playable with a mouse, if that's easier for a person. One of our teammates is very colorblind and we've been making a lot of our palette choices based around his feedback. Most of the game information is conveyed via iconography, with audio and text not really being vital (an option to increase the size/thicken the font of the few places text is important is a good idea, though).
are there dinosaurs in the game?
While Sumerian culture is the oldest culture known to man... It's not that old.
That sounds like one heck of a stretch goal. —Misha
What ideas that you thought were awesome at first did you decide to nix in the end and why?
p.s. hi Josh!
The original idea for Sumer looked literally nothing like the game we know and love now. Our first paper prototype was top-down and set on a radial board. Players moved around the circles and gathered different types of influence (political, military, economic, and religious) then spent them in various phases. All the players had to work together to keep the city from collapsing due to starvation, invasion, etc. while also competing to get the most points. It was a cool system, but the cooperation element kind of tanked it.
Part of the idea was that you started on the outer circles and moved toward the inner circles as you became more influential, particularly with political influence. This gave you access to better buildings, but the political actions were weaker in terms of getting you points, making it a short-term vs. long-term tradeoff. It was a neat idea but it implied that the city already existed and you were just moving through it, instead of what we have now where you're building up the city from practically nothing. Part of why we set the game in Sumer was to get that sense of building up the first city from nothing, so this mechanic had to go.
There was another interesting idea of "voting" in the original version. Some event would happen - say, a band of outcasts appears near the city - and everyone votes between four choices of how to handle them, with different (hidden) outcomes for each choice. The more political influence you spent, the more votes you could cast. This mechanic was kind of like a collaborative choose your own adventure, and it was inspired by 7 Grand Steps. It was neat but didn't work for a variety of reasons - the mix of narrative and mechanics was off (it was supposed to be narrative but would ultimately end up being handled systemically), it relied on the semi-cooperative structure we had at that point, etc.
P.S. Hi Ien!
Late to the party, sorry. As a developer currently porting a pen and paper RPG to digital, I would like to hear your thoughts on preserving analogue-specific aesthetics and thought processes when converting them to digital. You mentioned in other replies that you made use of the expanded digital affordances, to help guide the player for instance, but which thoughts have you had on preserving the soul of the boardgame? (Which imo is physical aethetics, interfaces and player-thought-processes)
Thanks for doing the this, and good luck with the game!
There are definitely lots of experiential bits from board games that we’ve tried to keep for Sumer. The game’s core design drew inspiration first and foremost from board games, and you can feel it when you play--the strategies I’m using and the way I’m thinking about things feels way more like playing a board game to me than any strategy game I’ve played. We wanted that social dynamic to really be there, too--some of the best parts about tabletop gaming is the face to face interaction, and we’ve found that Sumer does a really good job of blending that dynamic with the similar dynamic local multiplayer games bring.
When it comes to aesthetics, though, I’d say we’re half and half. Nobody beats board games when it comes to making breaking down complex systems into a bunch of simple easy-to-interpret cards and tiles, so when we were developing our visual layout for our shops, say, we definitely drew from the well of knowledge that is board game UI design.
However, one of our big goals with Sumer was to make something that used board game design but could never be a board game. Games like Tharsis and Armello will often include things like 3d dice that you roll in-game, and including that type of direct board game reference was not something we were especially drawn towards. We want Sumer to be inspired by board games and digital strategy games, but ultimately we want that fusion to become its own type of thing, taking those core values from board games and growing them into something new and exciting!
Who is the greatest Mesopotamian Goddess and why is it Inanna?
Inanna was indeed the most powerful Mesopotamian goddess. She ruled over several critical domains, including fertility, agriculture, and war. It’d be hard to come up with a list of three things more fundamental to the security of an ancient people.
She was specifically the patron goddess of Uruk. This was one of the first cities ever built, and it was the city that Gilgamesh ruled. This grants it a unique place in the history of human culture, since the Epic of Gilgamesh is generally considered the first great work of literature. Inanna herself appears in the Epic, sending the Bull of Heaven to rampage through the city.
The only male deity to possibly rival her in popularity and importance was Enlil, the god of royalty who provided counsel to kings. We originally planned to have four other gods in the game - Enlil, the mountain mother Ninhursag, the oceanic craftsman Enki, and the heavenly father Anu - but decided to cut it down to just Inanna to give the game a better narrative focus. Instead of pleasing an array of gods, it’s just Inanna.
What are some of the features you haven't implemented/want to implement?
The biggest of these would have to be Online Multiplayer! As much as all of us at Studio Wumpus love local multiplayer games, the fact that you need three friends and four controllers in your house to play them does limit the audience for them a lot. While we have an AI that we’re very proud of for people to be able to play against single-player, there’s no beating real humans when it comes to fun opponents. Getting a good online multiplayer mode built into the game makes sure that getting good games of Sumer in will be easy for anybody who owns the game, while also helping to make the competitive community that much stronger by letting people test their local metas against people from across the world.
Beyond that, we’re looking to add a bunch of fun little variants and new board layouts to the game. We have a few in already, including things ranging from Big Head Mode to different ways of calculating territory control, but making sure each variant is fun, easy to understand, and well-balanced does end up taking a lot of time. That said, they’re super fun to add and test out, so we’ll probably be patching the game with new variants for a long time to come.
From playing the game during its early stages, I noticed that each tribe played the same for competitive fairness. Are there plans to give each tribe and player a unique trait or ability to diversify the playing field?
Interesting! We have no current plans to include a unique trait for each Noble House, but that is something we’ll definitely consider if we ever venture into the territory of Sumer DLCs.
How did you all end up working together?
We met at grad school at the NYU Game Center. Misha, Sig, and Josh were getting MFAs in game design. Geoff was getting an MS in games for learning, and he took a ton of courses with the MFA program and was sort of an honorary member of our class. The four of us became friends and shared a combined interest in board games and video games.
Sumer was our thesis project. We started it in the fall of 2014 and graduated about a year ago, in May 2015. Hard to believe we've been working on it for a year and a half!
Did you ever play Baby Pacman in the arcade? That was the half arcade half pinball Pacman game.
None of us have, but it looks like an amazing example of a cross between the digital and physical!
One breed of digital board games seems to be evolving in that direction, with alternate turns on a physical game and on an iPad. We decided to try to find another direction, to merge the feeling of playing a board game into a single screen game.
Are there bots in the game? Is it in some way possible to play the game solo? I personally love to play board games but seldom find people to play with and would love this option.
There are! I’m actually super proud of the AI in this game--there are five different levels of difficulty you can set the AIs to, ranging from an extremely slow AI that subtly tries to help guide new players towards good play to blindingly fast bots that even the best players we know will occasionally lose to. It was really important to me that players of all skill levels have bots to play against that will be fun to play against.
We’ll also be adding online play, so finding people to play with should never be that hard.
Awesome! Love that there are so many levels of difficulty in this. Also love the online option. I don't use online options a lot though do to having small children that will snatch me from my game without notice and I don't want to keep other players waiting. So many levels of brightness in the bots is very exciting to me. Can't wait for my steam early access. Thank you for a quick response.
Big respect for being considerate about the kids thing, but one other cool thing about the bots is that if you’re playing with people (either online or locally) and have to drop out there’s a button that just turns you into an AI so the game doesn’t need to be scrapped.
(1) If Sumer were a bear, what kind of bear would it be? (2) Why? (3) What are your favorite games to play in your spare time right now? (4) Did they even have bears in Mesopotamia?
I think the bear questions have been covered pretty thoroughly, but as for what I'm playing...
- Smash 4 (watch me Tuesday nights at Xanadu on stream occasionally, I'm NSM | Nika)
- Clash Royale
- DomiNations (full disclosure: I recently started working at Big Huge Games, the company that makes it)
- Endless Legend
- Civilization V
If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly! We definitely want Sumer to be the grizzly of digital board games, paving the path for other bears to follow.
I think they had bears, though I’d have to do more research. But it seems the Sumerian word for them was ‘az’.
I’m personally mostly playing Hearthstone right now!
I'll back the grizzly train--we want Sumer to be what it is as hard as it can be. I'm afraid I have no insight on ancient Sumerian bears, though.
As for games, I'm super excited about Overwatch coming out. Nuclear Throne is probably still my go-to "I want to take a 5 minute break" game. For when I have a bit more time to spare, I've gotten obsessed with Stephen's Sausage Roll, Stellaris, and Kerbal Space Program recently.
There are too many good games coming out these days! I fantasize about just taking a month off after Sumer comes out and catching up with all the games I haven't had time to really explore during its development.
What were some of the immediate challenges this game had? I'd imagine trying to make a Eurogame-style platformer isn't intuitive from the get-go, but it's clear you've discovered a lot of insightful design.
Some of the immediate challenges we had was the flow and display of information. The nice thing about board games are all the components. It’s easy for someone to reach over and pick up a card to read, while someone else can be looking at the board position. Making a local multiplayer game where all information has to be available to everyone - at the same time - on the same screen - got complicated fast.
This gave us design constrictions that we had to work around. In the end I feel like that’s exactly what makes the game so “elegant” and relatively easy to pick up.
Another important factor is that it’s a platformer. We had to take really good care to balance the importance of being fast and being clever. Neither was allowed to be the dominant way to win the game and both had to be rewarded. Simple examples of how we balance this is that the fastest player to act out his turn gets a small goat bonus, and the fact that after every round people get time to plan out their strategy.
You mean like mario party? Yea real innovative
James's answer covers most of what I was going to say, but I can elaborate a little bit. I'd actually disagree on one point with him, though (sorry, James!) in that I think there is a thing that Sumer and Mario Party do share--both are board game inspired video games that could never be physical board games. One of our big design goals with Sumer was to make a game that used European board game design philosophy while also taking full advantage of everything digital games could offer. Mario Party does do the same thing. . .except with games like Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders.
So basically, Sumer and Mario Party do have that in common on a theoretical level, but they are as different in practice as Agricola is from Candy Land.
This is a serious question: is it true that you basically do the work that a smart 8th grader can do?
Don't get me wrong, you are still smart. I am just under the impression that basically anybody can do your work, except they didn't think to do it.
I want to add that doing this work isn't shallow or simple, at all. But I have the impression that a lot more games could be made if technology is available to more people.
What do you think?
I, for one, am all about getting more 8th graders making games.
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