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Designer Diary: Peak Oil Profiteer – Revealed†

by Heiko Günther

Most readers will probably remember how, a few years ago, a new game smashed all the records and constantly dominated the news*. Peak Oil had hit the scene like the landslide of boardgaming goodness that it is. It’s not necessary to repeat any of that crazy hype here as you probably know all about it anyway, and really, we don’t have nearly enough space.

In light of this remarkable monument to boardgaming history, an idea was born: What if there were an additional installment in this epic boardgame series? Another piece in the legendary Peak Oil saga? Was there any easier way to amass further fame and riches? (Rhetorical question: Nothing could be easier. Trust us.) And who better to design this new game than the original designers (us). Not surprising, therefore, that our greedy, Spaniard publishing team known as 2Tomatoes Games, otherwise a bit slow on the uptake, quickly latched onto this plan.

Thus, in the dark and stormy fall days of 2018 in the quaint German town of Essen, the 2Tomatoes approached us with a simple question: Can this be done? Is recreating such genius even possible? Immediately our brains set to work on this tricky task, and quickly, a conclusion formed: Yes, this is possible. So we did it.** And that is the story of how this game was made, how this shining beacon of hope in a sea of dross came to be.

The first priority was obvious. We needed a hex grid to move armies, nukular tanks, and little plastic pieces about on. Next, what should this game be about? “War” could work — but let’s cut this introduction, already three paragraphs long, mainly silly, and without really a lot of content (very sorry about that), a bit short. The actual designers’ diary begins below. Sorry for any inconveniences.

The guy on the left (not Travolta) also played in a lot of crappy movies

In the days before the oceans drank Atlantis…aargh. Sorry. Let’s try again.

In case you have no idea about the original Peak Oil (which, contrary to above claims, might have been less of a smash hit), in that game, the players, representing big oil companies, drill for oil, ship oil, hire agents, and do various other things in various countries all over the world. However, it’s never really spelled out what happens in detail when you take such action. This is, of course, nothing unusual for a board game at this level of abstraction, but we always felt that there were interesting stories to explore.

As a second aspect, somewhere along the many roads the development of Peak Oil took, it had been possible to trade in arms, to stabilize and destabilize countries. These things to us seem interesting, relevant, and wildly underrepresented in board games.

First, we tried to design a mini-game that could integrate with the original Peak Oil to play out the actions mentioned above, with the results carrying over back into the main game. Obviously and not surprisingly, this didn’t really work out too well. It took away from Peak Oil’s main focus, bloated the gameplay to unholy lengths, and generally was not really fun. So, after some to and fro, we settled on creating an entirely new game that only tied back to Peak Oil’s theme, but not its mechanisms.

One of the early prototypes

Fortunately, our corporate overlords — the 2Tomatoes — didn’t demand any specific design choices***, as long as there was a clear connection to Peak Oil. For this new game, we decided to zoom in on a country**** “affected” by the international oil trade and to play out the consequences of “Big Oil” taking an interest in the oil reserves there.

A few design choices didn’t change. We were sure from the start that there would be armies moving over the map. The players — representing amoral Big Oil corporations — wouldn’t have complete control over one faction each, but would be able to influence all factions and their armies to varying degrees over the course of the game. Each of the factions would get a number of leaders, which the players could bribe and take control of to steer the factions, increasing the corruption in the process. We wanted the game end to be triggered by the collapse of the country, that is, by achieving maximum corruption. To win, only your profit would count, with utter disregard of how you achieved it or what you did to the country to do so. Also, the smallest unit of money needed to be one million.

You want one of these

Other aspects changed considerably between the various versions. Tobias’ harebrained idea of a hex-based map was abandoned as quickly as possible — wait: Writing this sentence and discussing it, we just made up a really cool movement system that might actually work better than the one used in the published game, one that would use a hex-map and that requires only another five or six custom dice to work. Okay, but on the upside, it would give each of the three armies their own, very unique movement profile — which, admittedly, would be nice, but not really make the game any better. Okay. Let’s move on. So. All in all, the map got quite a heap of tweaks and adjustments, even after the switch away from hexes.

The pricing mechanism was introduced relatively early on, getting a few improvements and add-ons along the way. For a long time during development, influence over and corruption of leaders had a very strong narrative aspect to it, with little stories developing around all of them: where they would hang out, how you could blackmail (sorry, influence) them, and generally giving a very nice Junta vibe. Unfortunately, while absolutely charming, it was very clunky and fiddly to handle in practice, with a heap of cards and bookkeeping that we did not really care for a lot, so we removed all of it.

Of course, this rather broad description of the design process leaves out a huge number of tiny adjustments††. Game design, in practice, is an iterative process: implement a small change, play a number of test games, evaluate the results, and address the next tiny adjustment. Over and over. This seems like a good place to thank all of the people who had to play endless repeats of marginally different versions of Peak Oil: Profiteer with us. (You know who you are, and you have been paid well to keep shut, so better.)

Spot the difference

So, when after a few months of refining, we approached our publishers (you might remember them from above, the 2Tomatoes) with our “finished” game, we were quite confident that they would love it. And, of course, the first thing they asked was: Right. Does it play solo?. Hm. Yeah. That had been their only design specification, which we had conveniently “forgotten”. The game we had designed was an awesome, highly interactive piece of mayhem, but it didn’t have a solo mode, so we added a really good one — but why bore you with details?

Each of you, go out there and buy your own copy*†, so you can play it in the quietness of your peaceful abode by the lake, where none of your loud and meddlesome “friends” will interfere with your well-laid plans of how exactly to drive this poor country into total ruin and despair.†††† Enjoy!

Heiko Günther and Tobias Gohrbandt

Drain the oil before corruption ruins these lands


Written by Tobias and Heiko together, or rather against each other. This probably did not become clear from the above, we are indeed a bit proud of this game.

† One of the few advantages (apart from the stellar pay, of course) of working for such a big corporate publisher is the total lack of any quality management. “You there, here is a big wad of money, write a designers’ diary for your game, Rockodrommo, was it? Nah, just send it directly to print, no need for US to read it.” Harhar. Here you go:

* Undeservedly eclipsing many other, far better games, also hitting the market in 2018: Just One, CuBirds, Tokyo Highway, First Contact, and Decrypto

** Please imagine this read in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

*** At least that was what we thought then…

**** Let’s not try to narrow the location any further, shall we?

†† We could, of course, bore you with countless made-up anecdotes from the design process, bombard you with all the iterations and changes the game went through, explain why one of the consultants wears this really silly beanie, iterate all the nonsense we came up with, and luckily (for you), removed again, and and and, but why?

*† Or, if you are so inclined, download the free PnP and craft that.

†††Reading footnotes that are not referenced from anywhere in the text, are we? Terry Pratchett fan, eh? Who reads designer diaries anyway, and while we are at it, the really small print at the bottom, does anybody read that?

†††† Em, yeah, this sounds like the solo mode is easy to beat or lets you play out your “well-laid plans” undisturbed. This does not apply. Maybe your friends are easier to beat after all. Why not invite them to your cool hut by the lake, to play against you?


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