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Designer Diary: 1902 Méliès

by Eloi Pujadas

Diary by Eloi Pujadas and Ferran Renalias

Initial Project Approach

We are both catalan designers and have worked together on several games. In the second half of 2021, just after the development of one of our games, we tried to start a new game with a different initial point: table presence.

We explored a game prototype centered around the concept of placing cards in standees that portrayed individuals posing for a group photograph, each with unique conditions or preferences. However, as the development of this prototype progressed, the game titled Picture Perfect was released, featuring a strikingly similar concept. Consequently, recognizing the substantial overlap, we chose to set aside the prototype for the time being.

Georges MélièsBut we still liked the idea of having a bunch of people in front of a camera, so we switched from using a photo camera to a vintage film camera. We thought it would be cool to explore the kind of movies that were popular in the early 20th century, and that’s when we stumbled upon Georges Méliès’ 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon”. It totally caught our attention and inspired the next steps.

Georges Méliès was an illusionist who, fascinated by the possibilities of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, became a pioneer of cinema. In 1902, he filmed his most famous work: “Le Voyage dans la Lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”), the first science fiction film in history and one of the most complex of its time due to its duration, visual effects, and boundless imagination.

Approaching a Publisher

“Hugo” filmArmed with this concept, we excitedly brought the idea to Looping Games during SPIEL ’21. This publisher has released a series of small box games about 20th-century events, with each game being titled “19xx” (with the x’s being a specific year). We totally admire the series, and Ferran had co-designed a game in the 19xx line that was set to be released in 2022 — 1998 ISS — so we had a close and strong relationship with the publisher.

We thought, hey, a game about making “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902 could fit right in. Ferran took the lead in pitching the idea to Pedro Soto, who is both an illustrator and one of the publishers at Looping Games. And guess what? Pedro was into it from the get-go! He even gave us a movie recommendation, “Hugo”, which is about Georges Méliès. The film showed us how Georges Méliès lived and how he filmed scenes using the first rudimentary special effects. Totally recommended!

But there was a “tiny” detail to take into account: At that point we didn’t actually have anything in terms of game design — just a bunch of ideas to pitch! And we had convinced them with the pitch alone that this could be a great game. It was time to start working on the design process.

Theme Implementation

We kicked off by diving into serious research. We wanted to grasp how Méliès pulled off making that movie in the early days of cinema. We’re talking about understanding the nitty-gritty details: the special effects he used, the set-ups he had, the people who performed in it, and so on. Our aim was to soak up as much info as possible. Why? Because we wanted to take all that knowledge and somehow weave it into different parts of the game.

Once our research was in the bag, our initial meetings were all about hashing out the game’s theme. We sat down and brainstormed which concepts could make the cut and which ones we might need to toss out the window. Amazingly, one of the first concepts that popped into our heads stuck with us until the end. Picture this: players craft sequences of the film right on the tabletop, and when the game wraps up, ta-dah! There’s this satisfying moment when you can gaze down at the table and see the entire film sequence you’ve pieced together. There’s something oddly satisfying about slotting together a sequence of pictures to craft an entire film. It’s like a puzzle with a perfect little sense of completion.

Frame sequences prototype

As we dug into our research, a fascinating nugget surfaced: Méliès actually painted every single frame by hand. He, along with a group of 21 women, worked in this synchronized assembly line, meticulously hand-coloring each frame of the film. Imagine, they employed these super fine brushes and aniline dyes for this seriously delicate and oh-so-tedious task. The result? The movie transitions from black-and-white to this vibrant burst of color.

Taking inspiration from this painstaking frame-by-frame transformation, we had a lightbulb moment. Why not capture this essence in our game? And so, the idea was born: frame cards. On one side, you have the classic black-and-white frame, and upon flipping it over, it transforms into a vibrant display of color. It’s like holding a little piece of history in your hands, watching that same transformation unfold.

Front (B&W) and back (colored) side

As we assigned numbers to each frame, the puzzle aspect emerged. We envisioned players grappling with these numbered frames. Just picture Méliès at his desk, slicing and dicing these frames to piece them together. It’s like this tangible connection to his creative process.

And then we delved deeper into Méliès’ bag of tricks. We found out that he was quite the master of the split-and-join technique. This technique was his secret weapon for making stuff appear and disappear in his films. This technique slid into our game concept like a missing puzzle piece. It’s like everything just clicked into place — Méliès’ frame wizardry and our game design. Perfect match.

Main Mechanism

Our next big challenge was nailing down the heart of the game, the core mechanism. After brainstorming, we settled on the idea of a worker-placement mechanism. It seemed to click perfectly with the notion of players taking on the role of assistant directors to Georges Méliès. Initially, we toyed with the idea of each player embodying Méliès, but it felt a bit too out there to have four Méliès figures floating around the board, so we pivoted and found a more fitting role for players as the assistant directors.

We also wanted to add a little twist to the traditional worker placement vibe. Instead of slapping on the classic restriction of not allowing workers where others were located, we decided to flip the script. Our approach was all about allowing players to pick any available worker spot and if someone had already beat them to that spot, the first player would get their worker back. It was like a positive spin on restriction because your move would be great for your opponent. It also stirred up this vibe in which players hesitated to copy each other’s moves, which was a dynamic we enjoyed playing with.

As we kept diving into our research, we stumbled upon another gem: Méliès’ studio was actually set up in a greenhouse to make the most of that natural sunlight — and from that historical tidbit, a whole new layer emerged. The greenhouse was where your workers could dive into and get busy with specific actions. Each compartment became a little hub of activity, offering players a diverse range of options.

Méliès’ greenhouse, and…

A prototype of the game board as Méliès’ greenhouse

We were well aware that the actions in the game needed to be intuitive and feel like second nature to players, as if they were right there on set, directing the film. That’s why we carefully selected actions that just made sense, actions that would be no-brainers for anyone imagining themselves in the filmmaker’s shoes. Writing a scene, getting the performers all dolled up, shuffling them around, capturing a scene on camera, snipping and coloring frames – these actions flowed seamlessly and felt like the most natural choices. By keeping it straightforward, we made the game much more accessible and easy to teach, making sure players could jump right into the director’s chair without any hitches.

At the heart of our greenhouse concept was the stage where the performers took center stage in front of the camera. A little tidbit from Méliès’ playbook: He cleverly utilized the same group of actors and actresses to portray various roles, simply swapping out their attire to transform them. And from this little idea, sprouted another game mechanism: We introduced performer tokens, each with a twist – two sides, two distinct outfits. It was like giving each performer a double life, and players had the power to decide which role they’d play by flipping their tokens.

A frame of the film with several performers, and…

The prototype of the stage with performer tokens with different dresses

The greenhouse concept had another exciting component: the scenery. We decided to divide the film into five distinct scenes, and we wanted the assistant directors to be responsible for arranging these scenes before filming commenced. The concept was to create this circular scenery, featuring five positions in total, with two of them being the active ones at any given time. This set-up injected a dose of tension into the gameplay.

To take things up a notch, we decided to introduce another layer of depth with the lab cards, which are now known as “shooting journal” cards. These cards served as a set of mini-tracks, injecting a dose of strategy reminiscent of pulling off those satisfying combos. It was like adding a secret ingredient to the mix, allowing players to string together actions in a clever sequence for a more impactful outcome.

Playtesting and Presenting to the pPublisher

After a few playtests with external testers, we started to see the game’s gameplay taking shape and feeling solid. At this point we felt confident enough to present the design to Looping Games. We scheduled a meeting and showcased the game using Tabletop Simulator (TTS). They genuinely enjoyed playing the game. In fact, their enthusiasm was so infectious that just a few weeks later, we found ourselves signing the game in Protos y Tipos prototype convention in Zaragoza, Spain.

From left to right, Ferran and Eloi sign the contract with Paco and Perepau from Looping Games

Working with a Developer

Combinations of shooting journal cardsEnter Perepau Llistosella, a fellow board game designer and publisher at Looping Games, who stepped in with his expertise to take on the role of the developer for our game. Perepau’s input proved invaluable as he fine-tuned certain aspects of the game that required a little extra polish.

One of the standout changes he introduced was the idea of incorporating hidden information to keep players from accurately calculating each other’s scores throughout the game. The result? The birth of the “Star Film” share cards. These cards held secret scoring points that revealed their worth only at the end of the game. This twist added a layer of suspense and strategy. Players couldn’t simply calculate their way to victory; they had to consider their moves carefully and factor in these hidden points.

Perepau’s impact extended further as he delved into the scoring intricacies, conducting an extensive array of tests with diverse groups of playtesters. He balanced and limited the endgame scoring, one of the main problems that the prototype had. He found the right balance in scoring and truly shone through, ensuring that the game’s mechanisms meshed seamlessly and that no aspect overshadowed the others.

He also transformed the lab cards into the aforementioned shooting journal cards, which are artfully divided into three sections: pre-production, filming, and post-production. This wasn’t just a mechanical change; it was a conceptual one, too. Each set of cards aligned perfectly with one of the three stages of the filmmaking process, mirroring the actual workflow. At this point we developed a set of six cards of each type, generating 27,000 different combinations to enhance the variability of the game.

The Final Game

As the finishing touch, Pedro Soto, the game’s illustrator, embarked on a deep dive into Méliès’ life and career. His goal was to capture and convey all of these intricate concepts through his illustrations on the cards, the game board, and the cover.

Pedro’s commitment to authenticity led him to uncover some remarkable insights. For instance, the scenery on the board remained in black and white, mirroring Méliès’ practice of using black-and-white sets because the camera of the time could shoot only in black and white. Pedro wanted to preserve this concept, maintaining the black-and-white essence of the sceneries within the greenhouse. Pedro’s illustrations are a visual marvel, exceeding all expectations as he consistently does.

Final game board

The Film Premiere

The anticipation is real – we’re on the edge of our seats, eagerly awaiting the first copies from the factory. Soon enough, we’ll witness players diving into the world of 1902 Méliès, experiencing the efforts we’ve poured into the game. It’s been a journey filled with creativity, collaboration, and a shared passion for game design. We can’t wait to see the game come to life in the hands of players, knowing that every piece of it tells a story, encapsulating the spirit of Méliès’ legacy.

Eloi Pujadas

Ferran Renalias


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