Saturday, September 13, 2008

Prototype2Publisher: ZACK UND PACK

I met Bernd Eisenstein at our original gaming/playtesting group soon after he moved to Berlin several years ago. He had won the Hippodice design competition and his prize-winning design was subsequently published by Abacus as Maya. We enjoyed testing each others prototypes and often chatted about unfinished game ideas we both had. Finally, we met outside our normal group to brainstorm ideas we might like to do together. We poured prototype materials out onto the café table and brainstormed game ideas over a couple of Weizenbiers.

Then Bernd dumped a bunch of colored blocks onto the table from his bag. They were educational blocks he had picked up in a flea market, used to teach the idea of “units” in measurement (there were white blocks that were the base unit, then yellow that were twice as big, i.e. two units, red blocks that were 3 units in length, etc. up to the 6-unit blocks). He told me of his initial ideas for the blocks—that they could be distributed randomly to the players and then loaded onto trucks, and he asked me if I had any ideas how it could come together.

I was never able to give him any good suggestions, although that evening did begin a partnership on another game. But I was happy to see his finished prototype a few months later, and even happier to be able to demo the game for
TM-Spiele/Kosmos at the Goettingen Game Designer’s Convention, since he could not attend himself. They liked it right away, and I congratulate Bernd on his second published game! What follows is his development process for Zack und Pack, from initial idea to final published version, in his own words. - Jeff

The 10-Minute Shower Idea

The first idea for the game came quickly, very much a “10-minute shower-idea.” These kinds of ideas usually result in something ingenious or an absolute disaster. The idea was for players to roll dice that determined the number and size of blocks they would receive for that round, and then they would choose the best-sized truck in which to pack them. Too much “air” in the truck (unused space) or blocks that would not fit into the truck would penalize that player. Finding the right truck needed to have a “speed” element, but I did not want the entire game to be dominated by this mechanic.

What's In a Name?

It was more difficult to find a suitable name than expected.
Packesel (Pack Donkey) was already taken, and so I used the working title, Packesel mit Herz (Pack Donkey with Heart) in a nod to the shipping company. During a gaming week in Oberof, a test-player had the idea of naming it Speedition. The other players found the title perfect for describing the speed element of the game as well as its theme.

Flea Market Prototype

I looked into my box of materials and found wooden math blocks, which I had purchased once at a flea market. I found 6-sided dice in the same colors as the blocks, but I changed the values so that not every color went to 6 pips. There was plenty of math to do before the first test game, as all possible dice rolls needed to be calculated so that the loading space in the different trucks could cover the range of dice results. That was the most work… and all this before the first test!
For the truck tiles, I used a set a wooden children’s dominos, also bought at a flea market. The truck graphics, which included different-sized spaces for loading, were then pasted to the wood tiles, which were thick and easy to grasp.

To give the truck sizes more variance, a number was added to each truck showing how high the blocks could be stacked. Finally, I included numbered roulette chips to keep track of points, and the first prototype was finished (see prototype photos above).

The First Play-tests

The basic ideas were now manifested in a playable prototype, and the refinement of the design could begin with the first play-test results. At first I wanted to work with two different „ currencies “: one for unused space in the trucks and another for pieces of furniture which could not be loaded. But that was too complicated and inappropriate for this type of game. Of the proposals which I received, the variant I kept was that any remaining pieces of furniture counted double in minus points.

I wanted to specify the number of rounds so that the game would not be too long or too short. I varied it between 5 and 8. I first used a round indicator, and later simply placed a truck to the side each round.

Nothing has really changed in the basic structure of the game since the first play-test: Each player uncovers two truck tiles simultaneously, then he/she chooses one truck from those in front of the other players or a random one from the face-down pile, and finally he/she must load onto his/her truck the pieces of furniture he rolled. The slowest player in choosing a truck is required to draw one randomly, to prevent the players from counting their loading spaces exactly before deciding on a truck.

I was very satisfied and the game was finished, in my opinion.

Finding a Publisher

I sent the prototype to a publisher with whom I thought the game would fit, but it was turned down rather quickly. Kosmos was the next publisher to play-test it. I did not hear anything from them about it for almost one year, but that is not necessarily unusual. When I followed up, however, they promised me that they were definitely interested in the game. I was very happy, but not yet euphoric, since there was still too much that could happen. After two more months, I finally received my contract from the publisher. It was a giant step for me, a “small-time” designer who has only one other published game, and that from five years ago.

The Publisher Changes the Rules

Since the publishing house has many more play-test rounds with different people than the designer, certain preferences and/or dislikes are more easily noticeable. In their consultations with me, solutions were found: Each player was now given a number of points to start out with, which were reduced during the game. Thus, the number of rounds each game is variable. The best player of each round should be rewarded, so that the game has a more positive atmosphere.

Packaging Zack und Pack

The publishing house looked for alternative themes, but after many considerations, they kept the original theme. Since the game is targeted for families and children and needed to be whimsical in its packaging, the publisher decided on the name
Zack und Pack, since Speedition represents “anglicized” German too much. Great!

At first, they considered packaging the game in a tall box in the form of a truck. That is very original and funny, but the distributors were not too excited about the many problems in stacking and displaying them—much like playing a round of
Zack und Pack! So a standard format was used, but with whimsical graphic design.

--Bernd Eisenstein

Box and final game images courtesy Kosmos.  Prototype images courtesy Bernd Eisenstein.

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