The top person I wanted to interview for solo month was Morten from Automa Factory. Back when this month was nothing but a distant idea, I knew this had to be one piece of content I fought hard to earn. Luckily for me, Morten is a fantastic guy and was more than happy to answer a few questions!
- Tell us about your earliest experiences with solo gaming. What were the first games that really hooked you on playing solo games?
When my son was born and my friends were also having children I found that it became hard to get the gaming group together. Since I loved board games I wanted to find a way to still get to play and even though I thought solo gaming a bit weird, I gave it a shot and bought Lord of the Rings LCG.
To my great surprise I loved it.
My next game was Dawn of the Zeds and it was even better because of it’s tension and gameplay that nailed the feel of being in a zombie movie.
After those two I was hooked and have played around 140 solo games since then with thousands of plays total.
- Your first game design, Endless Nightmare, is a game that cannot be won by the player. What inspired that unique approach?
It was a purely thematic design decision. Nightmares can often have a feeling of despair and I tried to convey that feel by letting the player know that no matter what he’d be caught by the monster.
- Board Game Geek has several print and play contests that are held annually. The early days of your blog covered the contest – what inspired you to cover the contest? How has it changed over the years, from your perspective?
I participated in the 2013 contest with my first public design (Endless Nightmare) and I loved participating. The community was fantastic, even though we were competitors, the feeling was one of camaraderie and we spent tons of time helping each other. I learned a lot from that (and got my BGG avatar).
That great experience and all the contest games I played made it a no-brainer to write about the contest. This included blog posts about specific games and I also did a series of interviews with designers from the contest.
After the first two or three years lack of time made me stop playing the games from the contest, but I continued doing a series of semi-standardized interviews each year and I plan to do the same in 2018.
From my perspective the contest hasn’t changed all that much, which in my opinion is a good thing, since it does what it should do very well: It builds a great community and, helps enthusiasts do what they love and become better at it. It also produces great free games for the rest of us. I think that the contest has been an important step for many to go from gamer to having their work published by a publisher.
People who’ve followed the contest more closely than me in recent years, might very well disagree with me, though, on whether it has evolved significantly.
- What are some of the entries, over the years, that have stood out to you? I’m sure there are readers who would love to check them out!
Maquis is my favorite. It’s a great and tense worker placement game built from the ground up for solo play. It was the first time I saw that and I think it’s still rare.
It has a novel system where your workers must be able to get back to your base at the end of the turn, which enemy patrols can prevent. You can make a (almost) safe path back by forming chains of workers, but that restricts your options and the amount of useful actions you can do each turn, which is a problem, since you’re on a tight clock. This creates agonizing decisions where you must decide between risk and efficiency.
Crafting the game is easy: Print one A4/legal page with the game board, print and cut 16 cards (if I remember correctly), and add in some meeples and cubes.
As it happens, Maquis was a core inspiration for my first solo mode (Viticulture Automa).
Next on my list is X-Hour: Xenostrike. It’s a study in efficient game design. It takes the put-out-the-fires-while-accomplishing-your-overall-goal genre (e.g. Pandemic) and condenses it to its core without compromising the fun and tough trade-off decisions of that genre.
X-Hour is even simpler to craft than Maquis: Print a single page and add some meeples and cubes (if I remember correctly).
- Let’s talk the Automa. How did that design get started? How has the process in designing an Automa changed for you over the years?
During the playtesting of the Tuscany expansion for Jamey Stegmaier’s Viticulture some playtesters suggested that the game should have a solo mode. Jamey and I had exchanged something like a thousand emails, since the Kickstarter for Viticulture, so Jamey knew me and from those mails and my blog he knew that I was into solo game design.
Because of this, he asked me whether I wanted to have a go at a Viticulture solo mode and as someone who dreamt about getting involved in the industry and loved game design I jumped at the chance.
As mentioned when I talked about Maquis, that game was an inspiration for the solo mode bot (called “the Automa”) I made. I also got inspiration for how to handle the game’s turn order system from one of the playtesters, Todd Schoening, who was one of those who suggested making a solo mode.
As anything I’ve done in game design the Viticulture Automa was a team effort, not only in the sense of getting inspiration from other people, but also in the sense that I had Jose Manuel López-Cepero and Jamey Stegmaier as advisors.
As to how my approach has changed over the years, it has been a process of gradual refinement, where I’ve striven to become more and more clear on what I think is important for solo mode bots instead of going by gut feeling.
Three years ago I had gotten to the point where I could formulate my design approach (https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/37830/automa-approach-i-method-making-solitaire-modes-mu) as a few core ideas such as making the bot mimic the core interactions of the game and nothing else.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve started phrasing the approach as building an empty shell that the player bumps into in the places where he would bump into another human player. For a human player there’d be a lot of stuff behind the shell, but for an Automa, the shell is empty.
Apart from that the main evolution of the Automas has been in expanding our toolbox. The Viticulture Automa didn’t really play the game, but introduced the idea of an “Automa Deck” of cards, where you draw one card per turn which decides one or more actions for the Automa.
The next Automa we worked on was for Euphoria. For that one, we had two Automas at once and they played the game to a small extent, including scoring when taking the same actions that makes a human player score.
Before finishing the Euphoria Automa, we got derailed by making a dual Automa for Between Two Cities. The Automas played the game but in a simplified manner and the actions specified by the Automa deck were more varied and complex.
Scythe led us to make a standard pattern for the Automa’s actions, which we extended in Gaia Project. In the latter we introduced a dual card system where one card determines the action taken and the other provides the tiebreakers needed so that we can have more variation in a small deck.
For Gaia Project we also created a system where the Automa deck increases over time, but never includes all the cards in the game. This creates a feel of the Automa gradually formulating a strategy during the game and that strategy varies from one game to the other.
Another development in our approach is that we’ve added support for using the Automas in multiplayer games and allowing multiple Automas, so that players can get the game to the player count they find ideal.
Based on this evolution and a gradual crystallization of the Automa design principles I’m working on a new guide to what Automas are and how to make them.
- What has been the most challenging Automa design so far? What made it tough and how did you overcome those obstacles?
I think that the Automa for Scythe was the hardest one. Coming up with a system for moving the Automa’s units around the board in a sensible manner, while keeping it smooth for the player running the Automa was a huge challenge and took a lot of iterations and playtesting. Apart from our own playtesting we had more than 300 external playtests to help us get the Automa right.
- What can we look forward to seeing from Automa Factory in the rest of 2018 and/or 2019?
In the last few months we’ve finished the Automa for the third Scythe expansion, The Rise of Fenris, as well as Automas for two other games from Stonemaier Games, which I’m not allowed to talk about yet. In case you follow the Stonemaier newsletters it’s the codenames “Peregrine” and “Eat a Shoe”.
Right now, we’re working on an expansion for Euphoria, which will include a dual Automa system that allows solo play and boosting the player count for two human players.
We’re also work intermittently on a game I’ve designed (Forest of The Shadow) which mixes Endless Nightmare, Onirim, and some new stuff. This takes second seat to our solo modes, because the latter pays while it’s uncertain whether the former will ever get published and since I’ve gone part time in Automa Factory I need to earn money from my design work to get the bills paid.
Apart from that we hope to have a Patchwork solo mode released as a promo and we’re working on or are in talks about solo modes for three other games, that would likely be released in the first half of 2019. We have the luxury of being asked to do more projects than we have the time for.
- What advice would you give to board game designers when looking to come up with a solo variant for their game?
My own approach to solo modes can be condensed to:
- Make bots that mimic the core interactions of the game,
- but does nothing else. E.g. in Viticulture the Automa blocks action spaces which is a core interaction in that game, but it doesn’t build structures or make wine since that isn’t a point of interaction.
- Never require the player to make decisions on behalf of the bot.
- Retain the core game experience.
It’s important to consider that the human player has to learn the solo rules in addition to the game rules, which means that the solo rules should be as simple as possible. Similarly, the player has to spend time to handle the solo mode and since most players prefer to spend time on their own turn instead of that of the bot, the bot needs to be as streamlined as possible without sacrificing the feel of the game.
I’ve written a guide to my approach for making solo modes (https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/37830/automa-approach-i-method-making-solitaire-modes-mu) as well as several accompanying posts (https://boardgamegeek.com/blogcategory/3785).
- Where can people go to learn more about Automa Factory, the man behind the Automa design, and the blog you operate?
I keep meaning to make a home page for Automa Factory, but I also keep failing to find the time for that and I’ve only got to the point where automafactory.com is a single page with a signup box for a newsletter i recently set up.
The main source of information is my blog Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged (boardgamegeek.com/blog/2414) and the interviews I’ve participated in (https://stonemaiergames.com/about/morten-monrad-pedersen/) – this interview is of course the best source of info 😊.