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Interview with David Somerville, co-designer of VAST: The Crystal Caverns

David SomervilleThe co-designer of the asymmetric adventure-strategy game VAST: The Crystal Caverns, David Somerville (DS), is riding a wave of attention after the game’s buzz from Gen Con. Even as the game is shipping to Kickstarter backers, he took some time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions from Controlled Area Gaming (CAG).

CAG: What game ideas do you have in the works and where did those ideas come from?

DS: I have a few! My next game is coming to Kickstarter this year—it’s a dice-rolling, mountain-climbing game of certain death called Die Trying. It’s going to be published by Jason Anarchy, of Drinking Quest, with art by Kyle Ferrin, who did the art for Vast. Die Trying started when I was musing on mobile games, especially endless runners like Temple Run, and wondering if it would be possible to create that satisfying solo experience as a tabletop game (turns out it is… Die Trying is super fun and addictive). I’m also polishing a game called Moku, which is the Hawaiian word for “land” or “island.” It was inspired by trips I’ve taken with my wife, as well as the desire to do something celebrating life and beauty—and also, a profound curiosity about making a 3D landscape out of diamond-shaped tiles. Aside from a cooperative rock band game called Triple Platinum (born out of reading a massive Beatles biography and wondering what themes might appeal to non-geeks), I’m really interested in a game that feels a little like Dead of Winter that I’m calling Alternis, Indiana. That one comes out of watching Stranger Things and Pan’s Labyrinth within a month of each other, and a lifelong interest in surrealism and hidden worlds.

I have others, but those are the ones on the front burner. 🙂

CAG: You seem to really enjoy games with asymmetry. Are there limits to how far asymmetry can be taken in games?

DS: It has to end when it gets in the way of the fun. That said, the modern tabletop market has a profound tolerance, even appetite, for complexity, so Vast works by embracing that and letting each role be as different as possible.

I think the really interesting question is, can you have a very simple game be totally asymmetric, and still work. Could you make a totally asymmetric game for kids? How about for kids and parents to play together, each at their own skill level?

Asymmetry is just a lens for looking at game design, really. Like Rob Daviau’s “Legacy” mechanic or the Crossroads cards from Plaid Hat, it’s more a question of where they add to the experience than anything else.

CAG: Are there certain themes that work better for asymmetrical games?

DS: My theory of asymmetry is that it tells stories. Look at Hamlet. There’s an asymmetrical play. No two characters want the same thing (okay, except Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but they’re dead, so that doesn’t matter). Nor do any of the characters have the same means of achieving their ends. That makes for great drama. On the other hand, stories where all the characters behave in the same way and chase the same goals aren’t really stories—they’re competitions. Still engaging, but in a different way.

I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying that asymmetry works best when there’s a story to be told, because asymmetry implies dramatic tension. So I’d imagine it wouldn’t work as well for games about evenly matched opponents, sporting events, merchants, or farmers, when the excitement itself is drawn from the competitive challenge of taking the exact same set of options and exploiting them as efficiently as possible.

Vast The Crystal Caverns BoxCAG: VAST: The Crystal Caverns has almost a 1980s adventure game feel but told from many sides. Can that multiple point of view ever make a game feel like it’s different things to different people?

DS: I hope so! That was our goal with Vast. I really WANT the dragon player to feel wronged and wrathful. I want the knight to feel hemmed in and heroic. I want the goblin player to feel omnipresent, and the cave to be slyly smiling as everyone else runs around. Each player should feel like the hero of the story. Originally, the knight was called the hero, and changing that was a conscious choice—if the goblins slay the knight, they’ve defended their home and should feel heroic.

I think this actually drives at the core of asymmetry. At its best, it can create compassion and empathy for people very different from you. Maybe if a regular knight player sat in the dragon’s chair one evening, it’d make her think differently about the game. Or even, ideally, the world.

That’s probably too grandiose. But it would be nice.

CAG: When designing with asymmetry in mind, do you complete a structure for one side’s actions first before taking on a second or does it depend on the type of asymmetry?

DS: No, in my experience they absolutely have to be designed in tandem. With asymmetrical gameplay, everything has a waterfall or butterfly effect on anything else. (A waterfall of butterflies?) The best thing is to start with something rough for both sides, get a sense for where the fun is, and then optimize for that simultaneously in both roles.

CAG: Can a game with asymmetry be truly balanced?

DS: Can any game be truly balanced? In Chess, someone moves first. But I think an asymmetric game can be very well balanced. To take an example from video games, look at StarCraft. Those games work despite profound asymmetry, because Blizzard, the developer, took its time—years and years of time—to polish that balance. It takes a lot of work, but it’s possible. Also, sometimes things are less asymmetric than they appear. With a little math you can set an amount of damage either side should be able to deal within a given unit of gameplay, and then make one side hit once for the full amount and the other side deal each point separately. The balance comes from the math underneath, and the means and feeling are where the asymmetry comes in.

CAG: As a designer, what kind of games do you seek out to learn from?

DS: I like time-tested games, new hotness, and terrible prototypes.

Time-tested games have a reason for being great, and will almost always expand your horizons. If everyone has agreed for decades that Catan is great, I need to pay attention to that and look at it deeply and respectfully.

New hot games are rarely as instructive mechanically, but they’re creating excitement. Why? Is it the art, the theme, the buzz around the publisher or the designer? Any of those are still worth learning from, as a student of your industry. What do people like about that designer and why? How do you politely steal what’s great about them?

And as for terrible prototypes… It’s just good to see a game fall apart. It’s in the seams of seeing something that didn’t work that you learn how to build something that does.

CAG: As a gamer, what perspective do you use when playing games? Is your inner designer constantly working or do you simply play and let the game show itself?

DS: I like wonder. My happy place is getting lost in a game, or movie, or TV show or song or whatever. If I can, I’ll switch my “inner designer” off and just be in the moment—and, in my case, usually lose the game. Afterwards, sometimes days later, my mind will travel back to the game and I’ll remember a feeling that I had… Something that made me especially happy or excited or anxious-in-a-good-way during the game. And I’ll start planning a heist of that feeling for my next design.

CAG: Are there themes for games that you’d love to explore in the future?

DS: Hidden worlds, both internal and external. My whole life I’ve been intrigued by the idea of another world just out of sight. I’m tackling it in Alternis, Indiana and am really happy with my progress so far. Also, pacifism. I’m interested in the idea of a game where violence exists, but it’s really shocking. I’ll probably take a swing at that soon.

CAG: What is one game you would like to redesign and give it your own style or revision of rules?

DS: Candyland. There’s an interesting story there that’s waiting to be told.

Controlled Area Gaming wants to thank David once again for his time. Keep a lookout on BoardGameGeek for his upcoming Die Trying and Alternis. Controlled Area Gaming’s editor, Tahsin Shamma, is a backer of the VAST: The Crystal Caverns Kickstarter.