Interview: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. Gilbert on Elysium

BrettGilbertMattDunstanI’ll never forget when Croc from Space Cowboys showed an early prototype of Elysium at Gen Con 2014, for only about five minutes. All it took was the Space Cowboys brand (I loved Splendor, and had just played Black Fleet), the designers (Matthew Dunstan, Relic Runners; Brett J. Gilbert, Divinare), and a very simple mechanism to have me drooling for 8 months. Fortunately, Elysium is coming soon (May 28th), and to help get your excitement levels up to name, Matthew and Brett have graciously agreed to answer all of my inane questions. Onward!



When we interviewed Matt previously, we got a bit of background, but despite Brett’s many blogged words, I can’t find too much of an introduction anywhere. Brett, can you tell us a bit about your history in gaming, why you became a game designer, your day job (I assume you’re not the orthopedic surgeon in Raleigh, North Carolina who even shares your middle initial), and any other fun facts?

Brett: As a child, I was always playing board games: with my sisters, my friends, my family. It was a special treat to play cards — for money! (albeit only pennies) — with my aunts and uncles at Christmas. We did make games of our own, and would often house-rule our favourite games. The instinct to design was there, but went forgotten for too long. I started designing games as an adult about 10 years ago, but only began to take the endeavour more seriously in the past 5 years. My own academic bias towards maths and sciences has got mixed up with time spent editing and designing in publishing and online retail, and that range of skills and interests have all made me a better game designer.


You’ve both written a lot about games, and as I understand it, have co-designed with others and belong to a larger consortium of designers in the UK. What’s your particular partnership like?

Matt: I don’t know how Brett would describe our partnership, but I think we work well together because we have different but complementary skills that are useful at different points of the design process. I usually have too many ideas, and so I’m constantly throwing them at Brett to see if any of them sound like they could work. I’m usually making the first prototype just to get it to the table and see whether the idea is worth following. Brett has a really great editorial mind (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this!), so he’s very good at taking in that first prototype and sorting it out into something sensible, and figuring out what we should keep and what isn’t working.
I think we also work well together because our co-designed games tend to take parts of each of our own distinctive design ‘personalities’, and fuse them together into something unique that neither of us could have done by ourselves.


Brett: I am in no way offended by Matt’s description of me as someone with an ‘editorial mind’! Games need both order and chaos; systems and surprises. Creativity is not, as someone observed, merely the finding of a thing, it is also the making something out of it after it is found. Matt and I instinctively come at the same problem on different vectors, and that’s enormously powerful, generating new insight and often shortcutting what might otherwise be a long process of iteration, discovery and (potentially) failure. And the quicker you can find out what you have (or don’t have!) the better.
Elysium is a great example of something that neither of us could have created on our own — and indeed, something that neither of us could have *expected* to create. It’s exciting to investigate ideas together and suddenly realise you’ve ended up someplace totally new.


relicrunnerscoverBoth of your initial ‘large’ releases, Relic Runners from Days of Wonder for Matt, and Divinare from Asmodee for Brett, have been out for a while now. What was it like, intellectually and emotionally, having a first ‘real published game’ out there for critical reception? What kind of lessons did you learn?


Matt: It was certainly quite the emotional rollercoaster! Looking back, I realise that I was just incredibly lucky to be working with a publisher like Days of Wonder for my first game – they poured so much creative and development work into it, and really supported the game at all parts of its life (before and after its release). I think I suspected this in some way at the time, but not as much as do now. Two lessons stand out it my mind: firstly, the lifecycle of the majority of games is very short, and you only really have a few brief months of the limelight before the next wave of games come out! It really is very difficult to get something that has staying power. Secondly, designing games that straddle the line between more casual family players and more hardcore ‘gamers’ is very difficult – more difficult than either end of the spectrum I would think. I think there were a lot of players who had the wrong expectations for the game – that either it would be lighter and a bit closer to Ticket to Ride, or that it was going to be a more deeply strategic game (like Five Tribes would be!), and so there was some disappointment when it turned out to be neither of these things. That being said, a lot of people have written really nice things about the game, so I am happy that some people are still enjoying it!


Brett: I felt very blessed: first to win the game design contest in Granollers, and then to have the prototype ‘spotted’ an Asmodee representative in Spain who took it to the team in France. They did such a beautiful job with the re-presentation of my utterly abstract prototype, and it’s still thrilling to read about people playing Divinare for the first time and enjoying it. But being published creates a curious combination of emotions: for one thing, the game is no longer “yours”; how can it be? Everyone who touches it — not just the publishers, but everyone who buys a copy and gets to take it home — inevitably claims part of it for themselves and becomes part of its story. This is just as it should be, but there is a sense of loss for the designer — at least for this one! — every bit as sharp as the sense of pride at having made something worthy enough of that attention.


elysiumboxLet’s talk about Elysium specifically. Matthew’s already explained that he sees games very mathematically, but Brett’s preview articles for Elysium on BGG have been written from a very thematic point of view. Brett also wrote a great blog post about Theme vs. Narrative. How did the two of you wrestle with the thematic side of the game? Did the game start with the Olympian theme or did that develop later? How has the narrative changed during development?

Brett: Just to set the record straight: Matt wrote the original drafts of all of the preview articles! We share the credit, but I applied my ‘editorial mind’ only after Matt had done all the hard work.
I definitely see a difference between theme (as gamers generally understand the term) and narrative, and to be honest, am generally not that excited by theme. If anything, themes are more likely to turn me off than on. Games tell stories, but the greatest stories are not about places and things or even people, they about ideas and experiences. Theme can be a tool for designers, a signpost for publishers, and a guiding hand for players — but it is a means to end.


Matt: To add to what Brett said, I think we wrestled much more with the mechanical side of the game rather than any sort of theme, and how to fit the mechanisms we had into some sort of narrative that made sense. I think the best example of this is the concept of the Elysium, and transferring cards into it. The genesis of this aspect of Elysium was mechanical – we thought that it would be interesting if you continuously had to break up the engine that you were building with the cards. Next came the narrative concern, where we tried to rationalise our mechanism, and in earlier prototypes (which were set in Ancient Rome) we saw this act as ‘promoting’ a card, and letting the person retire in the countryside somewhere once they had done their work. It was only much later, when the game was with Space Cowboys, that the thematic arc of transferring your cards to Elysium was added, but we’re glad they came up with a way to marry theme, narrative and mechanic in this way!


My hunch (am I right?) is that the game grew out of the “draft, then tell everyone what you can’t draft anymore” mechanism. Where’d you guys get this idea? Did you experiment with closed versus open drafting? What kind of emotions did you want this mechanism to cause in gameplay?

Matt: While I can’t exactly remember the sequence of inspirations and iterations for the game (Brett might be better!), I can definitely say that the game grew out of something that is not in fact in the game anymore – a set of dice. Now, these dice are similar to the column mechanism, but they added a second dimension, in that cards could require symbols from the dice, rather than just their colours. The mechanism where you had to discard one after each turn I think mainly came about to try and restrict the decision space players would have as they took their cards, but I can’t think of any direct inspiration other than that!
We never really experimented with closed drafting, as I think we thought that the system we had was very strong, and didn’t really need the added complication of hidden information.
From my point of view, I really like the intersection of the columns and the cards as a sort of mini-puzzle that you have to try and solve every round, with the added wrinkle that your opponents are trying to solve that puzzle at the same time (and in doing so are altering the puzzle!). It also allows different layers of emotion that comes with experience with the game; initially you really feel like the world is your oyster, until an opponent really screws you over. But with more plays, you start to see ways in which you can actually further your own cause and cause problems for your opponents, and I think this is the heart of the game.


Brett: To echo Matt, Elysium is not nearly as directed a creation as it might seem. Some games spring from very clear mechanical, emotional or thematic objectives, and some are lucky enough to follow very short paths to achieve them — not so Elysium! It was a long journey, with many missteps and experiments, and the only idea that threaded those many different games together, and took us from one to another, were our custom dice. The columns are an abstraction of those components, deliberately (and wisely!) robbed of their randomness by our friends at Space Cowboys.


That central mechanism is exceedingly clever, but wrapped around some classic tropes like differing styles of set collection, activated (‘tap’) abilities and the like – what do you have to do to keep those older ideas fresh? Is it enough to surround them with a new central concept? How do you make a cohesive, fun whole from these parts?

Brett: For me the key word there is ‘cohesive’: the best games have that quality, and one of the hardest parts of game design — perhaps *the* hardest part — is making something that doesn’t feel ‘constructed’ (and this will mean different things to different people, which only makes the job harder!).
You don’t want players to be always aware of the machinery. They have to understand the rules, of course, but, as British game designer David Brain once observed to me, games have both ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ — and the rules become obvious, invisible even, once the laws of your game make sense. The trick, then, is to question and understand your design at its deepest level, and then embrace the consequences of that understanding, even if it means ditching some of your favorite elements or ideas.


Matt: The one thing that I would add to what Brett has said is that I think the modular nature of the game actually has a much more fundamental impact on making the game feel ‘fresh’ than just giving players different setups for each game. Unlike many other games with similar abilities, each game of Elysium only gives players a subset of tools to play with out of everything that is possible in the game.
An important consequence of this is that in any particular game some aspects are going to be more difficult or easy to access, and this fundamentally changes the way you view the abilities. Changing one god for another has a much deeper impact on the feel and flow of the game than simply a cosmetic one, and I think this offers something quite fun and unique for well-versed players.


elysiumhermesThe basic design of this game opens up all kinds of possibilities for different abilities, decks, etc., but I’m guessing that the serious thought and discipline you’ve both put into design means that many concepts had to be discarded. What’s the coolest thing from development you really wish you could’ve snuck in?


Matt: The coolest thing from our design stage that we ended up cutting was a tricky family, that let you reuse other cards’ abilities, and use the abilities of cards that were in your Elysium. We ended up cutting these cards because we thought they would be a bit too difficult to use, but I secretly was very sad that they were going, as they definitely fit with my love of wacky combos.
If this sounds strangely familiar, that is because in development a new family had to be added to fill the hole left by the removal of our family that let players manipulate their own dice. Space Cowboys came up with the cards of the Hermes family completely independently from us — even if some of the functions were exactly the same as the cards we had previously discarded! Suffice to say, I was very happy to see the new family, and thankful that the team at Space Cowboys had found a way to make it work.


Brett: There were lots of nice ideas buried in all those prototypes that preceded Elysium, but the reason they aren’t in the final game is because better ideas came along to replace them. Design is making choices; although Hermes is a neat example of a different kind of choice: a really good idea that originally didn’t fit — after all, you can’t put everything in one box! I think you need to be fairly dispassionate as a designer, and remind yourself — which is hard to do, and very easy to forget! — not to cling too tightly to any one part of a game. In any case, the quality of an idea is as much about context as anything else, and just because something doesn’t fit in one game, won’t mean it can’t shine someplace else.


elysiumgameplayHow’d you guys hook up with Space Cowboys? (And how cool is it to have eight different artists in your game?)

Brett: Several of the Space Cowboys team are the very same people who produced my game Divinare, so I already had a connection with them through that project. We pitched our prototype — at that time called ‘Aurum et Gloriam’ — to Space Cowboys at SPIEL 2013, and sent them a prototype a week or two later. Very quickly we got an incredibly enthusiastic email from the team saying that they loved the game and wanted to publish!
Space Cowboys have done an incredible job with Elysium, and personally I love that each family has a different, and very talented, artist. How amazing is that!? Most designers have to settle for just one artist: we hit the jackpot!


Matt: Not much to add here, except to reflect on a sometimes forgotten positive to come out of collaboration – that is you are lucky enough to have a much larger pool of contacts and publishers to pitch to and work with on prospective games. Brett and I have been pitching together at Essen for 3 years now, and personally it is one of the most satisfying parts of working together (and yes, we have settled into different roles there too!).


Space Cowboys has exploded in the past year, particularly due to the award-laden Splendor. Are you concerned that people will see Elysium in comparison to previous Space Cowboys games and come away with the wrong impression, since this is more of a gamer’s game? Is there pressure to be as successful as Splendor or Black Fleet?

Brett: I am not worried one bit. Elysium is, of course, more of a “gamer’s game” than either of Space Cowboys previous games, but Splendor and Black Fleet could hardly have been more different. And that’s what so interesting about what the Cowboys are up to: they are not going to be pinned down! Each of their games is unique (just look ahead to other planned releases such as Time Stories, which is something completely new); if anything, this diversity can only help Elysium stand out all the more.


Matt: I perhaps am a little more wary than Brett, as I have seen what can happen when people have the wrong impression of a game. That being said, I really think Elysium should fare pretty well, as the game plays so smoothly (and quickly) that even players expecting a lighter experience can still enjoy the game. For players on the more ‘gamer’ end of the spectrum, I think they will enjoy the depth packed into a short play time and ‘simple’ rules, a depth of play that only increases (in my opinion) over multiple plays.
I also don’t think there is any pressure to be as successful as the other Space Cowboys games – I think what makes the team so great is their dedication to put out the best quality product, regardless of what has come before or comes after. If it is successful, great, but if not, at least we can all be proud of Elysium.


Maybe we could end with each of you sharing one of your favorite gaming moments, and why it was so special:

Matt: I can still remember playing Kakerlaken Poker (Cockroach Poker) at midnight with a group of people (including Brett!) at UK Games Expo about 2 years ago. It must have been one of the funniest games I have ever played, especially because most of the game was about us, rather than the cards or the rules. I think I would usually resort to my tactic of offering the same type of card to a player 4 or 5 times in a row, seeing when they thought I would finally change my strategy (hint: I am pretty terrible at this game!). But really, this moment was special for the same reason most gaming moments are special for me – the people I was playing with, and how the game was merely a way to have fun together, rather than something we had to grapple with for hours.


Brett: I very fondly remember playing a game called ‘Super Cluedo Challenge’ with my family. The game was a mid-80s attempt to soup-up the classic game, with a bigger mansion, and more weapons and characters (including the wonderfully implausible ‘Mr Slate-Grey’). We immediately — and fairly drastically — house-ruled it, creating a game that was, in our eyes, a more perfect union of its newer elements and the original. But we kept its most ridiculous mechanism: that every now and again regular play simply stopped, and all players joined in a whacky-races-style roll-and-move dash to a random garden ornament located somewhere on a track of spaces around the outside of the mansion. On top of this madness, we gave the rooms and characters silly mispronounced names, and all scrupulously kept detailed notes of everyone’s interrogations so that, more often than not, we could all come to exactly the same correct conclusion about who, what and where at exactly the same time.
To any rational outside observer this endeavour would have looked utterly inexplicable and completely absurd. They would have been right, and they would have missed the point entirely.



What a great note to end on. Thanks again to Matt & Brett – and check out Elysium when it hits U.S. stores on May 28th.

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