Based on my personal experience in developing this game, I’d like to take you behind the scenes: Where does the idea for a game come from? What are the doubts and unforeseen events surrounding its development? This article is both an author’s diary and the advice I’d give if someone asked me for advice. Happy reading!
Birth of the idea: Often, my ideas for games come without warning. For Almost Innocent, the idea came to me after playing a famous deduction game with my niece and one of her friends, who were 9 at the time. We played it, and I won the game hands down…but I didn’t get any pleasure out of it as finding the solution seemed pretty straightforward to me, and the children were disappointed by this defeat.
Thinking back on my idea a few days later, I decided to create my own deduction game, but with one essential element in mind: It had to be a co-op game. My basic intention was that in this new game, I didn’t want the same players to always win/lose, which I think is quite common in deduction games.
I also wanted a game that simplified the material as much as possible, so that the questions between players would be at the heart of the gameplay. The foundations were laid for my prototype entitled “Who Wants to Kill Kylie B.?” It was time to move on to the first drafts of mechanisms and tests.
Tip #1: Be relevant in the choice of game experience you wish to give players. This means being critical of your own ideas in order to clearly define the purpose of your game. This way, you don’t get bogged down in ideas that don’t necessarily make sense in terms of the desired experience.
First tests: My wife is much less of a gamer than I am. She tests my prototypes more out of support for my projects than out of any desire to play (but she’ll never admit it).
As a result, her opinion is interesting: I know immediately when she doesn’t like one of my game ideas. In fact, she doesn’t hesitate to tell me, and that’s a great opportunity to move forward. I designed a first prototype with scraps of paper cut out in a hurry and illustrations drawn by myself. The idea was to test the basic mechanisms and get a first opinion. Once I’d finished testing my deduction game, I was amazed at what happened: From the first version, my wife immediately embraced the mechanisms! What’s more, she asked me to play it again several times in the same week.
I reworked a cleaner prototype using the photos and categorizing the different clue types using colors. I also redesigned the form for recording the information collected by the player. Afterwards, I realized that I’ve got a good idea and that I needed to develop it further…
However, I don’t make any further changes. In fact, as it stands, the game works and it’s popular, so why dig any deeper? All the more so as I show the game to a friend who works in game publishing and who is enthusiastic about it. He gave me advice on how to fine-tune it, and this enthusiasm gave me a huge boost in my game development.
At the same time, I joined a collective of amateur and professional game authors in Paris: the LEAF. The aim of this organization is simple: to organize evenings where everyone comes with their game prototypes. We play them, and everyone gives their opinion and advice on how to improve them. To my great satisfaction, my prototype received nothing but good feedback. Something’s definitely going on here; amongst a panel of twenty playtesters, I didn’t receive a single negative comment, and that was a first for me.
Tip #2: Make sure you’ve got a REALLY good idea by having your prototype tested by as wide a panel of players as possible, and if possible with people you don’t particularly know. This allows you to get external opinions, which are constructive. What’s more, even if it’s heartbreaking, you have to know when to abandon an idea you like if it doesn’t meet with the approval of the players.
Proposing the game to a publisher: As I know a few French publishers, I decided to show my proto to one of them to get their feedback and perhaps sign a contract with them. I’m hopeful that they’ll like the game, but after a few days of testing, the verdict is negative. For the publisher, the game’s central idea is very good, but it’s not at all mechanically ready: YES, it works, but NO, it’s not finished!
It hurts a bit, but this publisher has put his finger on a problem that nobody had raised until now: As it stands, my game isn’t co-operative enough! I freely admit to resisting this criticism at first, but it’s by far the best service I’ve received in the development of the game. Once I had assimilated his remarks, I had to admit that my game had to be remade to emphasize co-operation. I then decided to participate in the proto contest of Boulogne-Billancourt. It took me two years, but on the second try, my game became a finalist! I posted about it on Twitter, and less than six hours after that, a member of Matagot contacted me to obtain a sample of my game.
Tip #3: Question yourself. Not convinced by an idea your testers are asking for? Try it out with a detached eye. It’s important that you like your game, but it’s even more important that your game’s days don’t just end up in your cupboard. Keep an open mind!
Tip #4: Bring your prototypes to life through festivals and competitions: it’s a big spotlight, it’s a business card…even if you don’t win an award.
So, shall we sign? Barely had it been tested, and the publisher asked to speak to me by videoconference less than a week after receiving the proto. I knew he liked it! So that’s it, it’s in the bag!
The videoconference begins…and not everything goes according to plan. The editor lists everything that’s mechanically wrong with the game. In my head, it’s a turmoil — but I listen to his comments and find them devilishly pertinent. After all, my game is almost four years old. The force of habit has blinded me to details, trifles, which have their importance. In 90 minutes of constructive discussions, many solutions were found to the points raised. Finally, the editor concluded by asking me whether I had any questions. Yes, of course I have a question: “Are you going to publish my game?” The publisher gave me a stunned look and replied: “Well, of course, I’m e-mailing you the contract for you to read!”
Tip #5: A game is NEVER finished. However, it’s up to you to know when development is sufficiently advanced to stop and present it. What’s more, the advice of an editor (whether or not they publish your game) is often invaluable.
Arrival in the Oshra universe: For me, it’s just incredible. Matagot is the publisher of Cyclades by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, a game I played a lot, and of the lesser-known but excellent Cairn, which I played quite a bit with my wife, so I have the feeling that my game is in good hands. (Spoiler alert: It REALLY was!)
We exchanged a few emails about the game’s theme. In “Who Wants to Kill Kylie B.?”, players have to prevent the murder of a famous actress…but it’s too “heavy” of a theme for the publisher. I agreed as I understood that it would be a shame to cut ourselves from a large part of the public based on that criteria alone.
At first, we were going for a classic robbery theme, with the figure of Arsène Lupin in mind, but then the universe of Oshra came! It’s a world created by a young Austrian studio: BFF Games, with their game Hidden Leaders. No belle époque thieves or postcard Paris here. No, the island of Oshra is populated by characters straight out of an enchanted universe, with knights in armor, humanoid carpets, and warrior bears. You might as well say that Arsène Lupin is several thousand light years away.
I find out more about this theme, and I’m logically interested in the illustration work of Satoshi Matsuura, a Japanese artist with a unique graphic style. He illustrated Hidden Leaders. I immediately fell under the spell of his drawings. At this point, I don’t know how my game can relate to this universe, but one thing is certain: to have such an illustrator for my first published game is crazy!
Tip #6: Don’t stick to one theme or “vision” of your game. Listen to the publisher’s proposals. Even if, as an author, you can have a precise expectation of what you want the “final published product” to be, it’s the publisher who knows the board game market best. He knows what can slow down a player or what can help your game stand out from the mass of games offered every year.
Game development: Matagot completely redesigns the material of my prototype in order to send it to BFF Games for further development. The prototype sent is so graphically pure that it contains no photos or artist’s drawings. The aim was for the BFF Games team to have an almost graphically “blank” version, so that they could concentrate as much as possible on the mechanisms.
While I was convinced that I had proposed a mechanically “finished” game to the publisher — Ha! How young and gullible I was back then! — the BFF Games team reworked it in an ultra-professional way. Instead of trimming the fat and re-doing everything their way, the three people who make up the team (thank you, Markus, Andreas, and Raphael) created modules, each more ingenious than the previous one, that naturally added themselves to the basic mechanisms. In this way, players could add variants that simplify or complicate the game’s difficulty.
I’m consulted regularly to find out what I think…and what I think is very simple: I’m jealous that I didn’t have all of these ideas! The BFF Games team totally understood what I wanted to convey in terms of emotion with my game. Many thanks to them!
All of this is moving in the right direction, but all of these modules were going to be a bit of a “toolbox” once you’ve got the game up and running. The team’s ultimate ingenious idea is then to offer the game in the form of a campaign offering different scenarios that can be replayed thanks to different game boards. As a result, modules are logically and progressively added to the different stages as players advance through the campaign. The idea is therefore both consistent with the universe and greatly facilitates set-up: Almost Innocent is born!
Tip #7: Never forget the link between mechanisms and theme. This is often what keeps players from constantly turning their noses up at the rules during the game. This way, players make the game their own and have a better time.
The decisive role of Kolossal Games: The game was entrusted to Kolossal Games (responsible for the excellent Western Legends and Reload) because BFF had to concentrate on the first Hidden Leaders expansion. Kolossal Games is also in charge of designing the hardware and preparing the future Kickstarter.
To promote Almost Innocent’s crowdfunding, the publisher designed a mini-campaign entitled “Prologue” that presented three scenarios especially intended for the press. The aim was to showcase the game without revealing all the surprises of its final campaign. While I had the immense pleasure of presenting the game at Paris est Ludique! 2022 on the Matagot stand for just over two hours, Kolossal Games presented the game at Gen Con in Indianapolis, USA! Almost Innocent should now be available, and I’m so happy to see that the first public returns are really positive.
Tip #8: This tip is not from me, but from Bruno Faidutti, and frankly it’s probably the most important of all. Beyond the fine print in publishing contracts (which remains essential), the most important thing is to know who you’re signing with. In other words, is the trust there, and is it mutual? Being able to exchange with Matagot, BFF Games, and Kolossal Games with such freedom, mutual respect, and sincerity in the interests of the game has been a real pleasure.
Thank you for reading this article and thank you also to all the people who will discover Almost innocent.
P.S.: Before your first game, don’t hesitate to go to the BGG forum dedicated to the game to read my tips and have no hesitation about the rules.