Over the weekend of the 26th to the 28th January, Malta participated for the first time in the annual Global Game Jam (GGJ). Held at the Institute of Digital Games, at the University of Malta, fifty Malta-based jammers met up to push the boundaries of their creativity together. The event produced eleven games in the space of just forty eight hours along the theme of “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Today I had the opportunity to speak to David Chircop and Yannick Massa, whose board game “…and then we held hands…” went home with the People’s Choice award.
Q: Some introductions first; tell me a bit about yourselves.
David: Full time UoM student, reading for a Master’s in Digital Games, but I manage a part-time podiatry practice, as well as acting on the side. Occasionally, I produce stand up and theatre events too.
Yannick: As for myself, I’m a QA Engineer professionally after studying ICT for two years at MCAST specialising in software engineering. Looking to get into the game development industry as a Unity developer, though I also act and role play a bit. I am also part owner of Mechanimus Studios, a small company focused on traditional pen-and-paper role-playing-games (RPGs).
Q: Theatre looks like a common interest, so I’m guessing that you guys knew each other before the game jam?
David: Yes. We met each other on Facebook, when Yannick commented on a photo of my playing Battlelore. He asked me where I found it, because the game is out of print and crazy expensive. Then a few weeks later, we met while working on Shakespeare.
Yannick: Yeah, on The Winter’s Tale. David, we still haven’t played Battlelore.
David: Planning to play it this week!
Q: Any previous game making experience?
Yannick: I published a full RPG with Mechanimus Studios called Sanctuary’s Edge. Other than that, I made a few digital games during a Unity course I did and a few for myself in my spare time. I’ve written a lot of adventure plots for different sorts of RPGs too, mostly dark fantasy or the sword and sorcery genre.
David: I’ve designed a few board games. One is called In Memoriam and another is Castille, plus I’m working on another card game project at the moment. I also made some video games as part of my M.Sc. one on sadness and suicide and another on abuse on Ask.FM, though Castille originated from the Master’s too.
Q: Tell me about your game. I’ve had the pleasure to play it with Yannick’s help and it was a unique experience.
David: The theme is a major part of the game. You can say it’s the selling point: It’s about two people in a broken relationship that have drifted apart. The goal of the game is to reconcile that relationship. It’s co-operative, so you either both win or both lose – you essentially play against the game.
Yannick: The player’s reality changes according to their position on the board. Changing perspectives is key to providing more options to yourself and your partner for navigating the board. Each player’s move has an impact on the other player’s next move and all of this is compounded because the players are not allowed to speak to each other when playing.
Q: One mechanic that stood out to me was the ability to use each other’s cards. How did you come up with that in particular?
David: Yeah, you don’t generally see that in board games.
Yannick: There’s a bit more to the co-operative element than winning or losing together; the core mechanic is empathy. Once we had the ‘theme’ of the board game, the mechanics developed on their own.
David: Yes, agreed Yannick. The way we worked is we started with the theme, then found mechanics that fit. We always start with what we want the game to about and how we want to make it feel. The mechanics are discovered as we explore that theme.
Yannick: About the cards, we figured people in a relationship aren’t only fuelled by their own emotions, but their partner’s as well. This naturally developed into using each other’s cards.
David: This lets you reach your own emotional goals by ‘using’ your partner, sort of piggy-backing onto his/her emotions, but you have to make sure you don’t block them by using up cards they’d otherwise need themselves.
Yannick: This also helped us realize that over-dependence on a partner’s energy is damaging to a relationship, so the balance mechanic was born.
David: Exactly. The balance, as well as the losing condition, are tied to using your partner’s emotions so much that they can’t move and you break up, representing one person sort of strangling the other in a relationship. You can use your partner to move, but you still need to leave space for them to move.
Q: The allegory behind the game sounds like an important factor to you then.
Yannick: Haha yeah, we developed metaphors for all the end conditions.
David: All the mechanics mean something, none of them are ‘just there’. They represented the dynamics of a relationship.
Yannick: In truth, making this game was a bit of a co-operative, synergistic game in and of itself!
David: So true, Yannick.
Q: Even now, I can see that you guys bounce well off each other. Is this why you stuck to just the two of you at the jam? You were one of the smallest groups.
David: Well, there was a guy who wanted to join us at one point, but he was a programmer and left when he knew we were making a board game.
Yannick: We were looking for artists mainly, though we could find one that was unattached.
David: To be fair, we didn’t look that much. We started talking and after about fifteen minutes everyone seemed to be taken, so we just did the art ourselves.
Yannick: Turned out to be an advantage though, because the minimalist style was popular.
David: We’ve had good comments on it, even on boardgamegeek.com. The URL is http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/153999/and-then-we-held-hands.
Q: Sounds like you’re going to continue working on the game.
David: Yes, we’re looking into publishing routes at the moment and we’re refining the artwork.
Yannick: Also cleaning up some of the loose ends.
Q: Did you guys expect to do so well? Quite a few of the jammers had to vote for you to win the People’s Choice.
David: Not really. I mean, I was quite happy with what we came up with, but we struggled to settle on something in the beginning.
Yannick: Yeah, as Dave said, I didn’t expect any of this. I mean, I went home on the first day feeling like a failure because after almost eight hours of brainstorming we hadn’t settled on an idea.
David: We came up with a lot of stuff, all of which was cool, but we couldn’t find something worked. We must have prototyped two to three games before we settled.
Yannick: I think by the end of the first night, all we had was a rough idea of the board. We were technically ‘done’ by Saturday night, but we still needed to print the cards and write the rulebook.
David: And polish out some things, but by the second day at about 3 A.M. we had a game and the art ready. The art took us a good amount of the last part of the second day and because we needed it finished to able to print. Then we went to three different printers on Sunday morning to find someone open to print the cards.
Q: So you practically finished it over Saturday?
David: Yes, once we settled on the concept things fell into place.
Yannick: Yup. That felt amazing. We went from vague concept to finished game in one day.
Q: Almost finished! Any tips for future jammers?
Yannick: Hah, personally I don’t think I’m very qualified to dispense advice, even at this point.
David: I think ‘do not be afraid’ is the best I can do. Just go for it, it’s meant to be fun so go in with an open mind and willingness to cooperate.
Yannick: Get excited, get making and get jamming I guess. For sure, fear really got us down at the start.
David: But, then we slept on it and went for it again the next day. Also, do sleep a little because it really helps to freshen you up, especially if you are designing.
Yannick: Yeah and stop and walk away from the game often. At least, that’s what we did; went out for walks or a beer and ate pretty often.
David: A lot of water too.
Yannick: And coffee.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yannick: You can find and download the game, for free, at http://globalgamejam.org/2014/games/and-then-we-held-hands. We’re always encouraging people to play and criticize. Please, if you don’t like something we want to know!
Amendment: A few days after the interview was done, …and then we held hands… exploded in popularity following a review and play through by popular YouTube board game reviewer Rahdo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpkjVknnVh8. Soon after, the game shot up to first place on the hotness meter at boardgamegeek.com, overtaking the immensely popular Android: Netrunner and remains there at the time of writing. The game was also highlighted on Shut Up & Sit Down another popular board gaming website: http://www.shutupandsitdown.com/blog/post/games-news-240214/ on the 24th of February.