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Meeting of Minds – Michael Fox (Wayfinder Games)

One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles, interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

Wayfinder games may be one of the newer outfits on the scene but they come to it with some serious pedigree steering them. Michael Fox is a veteran of the UK gaming scene having previously worked at Hub Games.That company put out a wealth of diverse titles from Rory’s Story Cubes to Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr

Setting up Wayfinder Games towards the end of 2021 Michael and his friend Rain Watt were fast out of the gate with The Split, a card game about dividing the loot after a heist. Not resting on their laurels they secured the licence to publish a game based on the internet phenomenon Blaseball.

Michael was good enough to answer some questions about the formation of Wayfinder Games, production, sustainability, the pressures of adapting a beloved property, and teaching me what this whole Blaseball thing is all about.

How did Wayfinder Games come into being?

Rain and I first met a few years ago, not that long after my partner Steph and I moved to Belfast and I started working at Hub Games. We’ve played games for ages, and Rain was always interested in checking out what I was working on and getting to know about the design and development side of the industry. As time progressed, Rain started tinkering with game design, creating some really cool stuff (which I’m still hopeful the world will see one day), and the conversation just came up like ‘ha ha what if we had our own game company’.

We were bang in the middle of 2021, I was on furlough and Rain was kicking ass with the Blaseball music project, The Garages. However, once Rain gets an idea in its head, the possibilities just start sparking, so we sat down and had an earnest conversation to see if we could potentially pull it off. After agreeing to give it a shot, we sat outside a Starbucks in Belfast and came up with Wayfinder Games as a name, deciding that the first (and hell, at that point, potentially only) project would be The Split.

I’d been working on The Split as part of my Twitch channel, and felt it was pretty much ready to go. So, within a few weeks, we were up and running, the project was on Kickstarter at a very achievable goal, and we funded on the first day. We delivered it a few weeks later, and decided that it was a decent trial run. Now all we needed was more projects, and thankfully neither of us were short of ideas.

‘The Split’ riffs on pontoon for a game about splitting loot after a heist. It’s a game with a small footprint both in terms of production and shipping. How do you think the global shipping and production problems have affected the size of games that companies are commissioning? 

Honestly, I don’t think that it’s had that much of an impact for established companies. It certainly feels like the folks I know who have been part of the industry for a while are still ordering pretty much the same level print runs of big box titles – they’re just taking longer to arrive into distribution because international shipping is still rough. Not as bad as it has been, for sure, but still pretty challenging! And it doesn’t seem to have slowed down the parade of KS projects that come in seven separate all-in boxes full of plastic minis either?

Newer companies do seem to be taking things a little more… carefully, I guess? We’re smaller, so we have to tread gently, start off small. With The Split, we wanted to see if it would be possible to manufacture locally, and we managed to do so – it was all printed in the UK – but good LORD it was expensive to make. I hate to say it, because the final product was really good, but… I don’t think we’d be able to do it again for a bigger project. The per unit cost was frightening. There are definitely a whole bunch of companies who are working on projects with a smaller footprint though, like Snowbright who are currently funding Birds of a Feather (and doing great work) and Radical 8 who’ll be doing Damask later this year. Not everything needs to come in a crate, you know?

Snowbright’s game has some great sustainability credentials. How do you think environmental concerns are changing the way publishers approach production and design of tabletop games?

Again, it feels that a lot of the bigger players aren’t really considering it? If they’re able to make a bunch of money off the back of a big box of plastic (and have done so for several years) then why change the record? Smaller companies definitely seem to be leading the charge, ensuring that their games are made from recycled, sustainable elements. Give us games with standees rather than minis, give us well designed cardboard insert.

I’ve found personally that I’m really focusing on designing games that are pretty much just cards, with extra elements kept to a bare minimum. Now all we need to do is get local manufacturers to get a bit more competitive with their pricing structures, because without that, I don’t see a major shift away from production in China at any time in the near future. I guess all we can do is try and make that as sustainable as possible.

Your next game is about Blaseball. My limited understanding is that this is a Fantasy, with a capital F, Baseball game. However I know very little about it, so could you break it down for our readers? 

Blaseball is basically an in-browser sports simulation game that happens to have a good amount of absurdism stirred in. Designed and developed by the team at The Game Band, it follows the basic rules of ‘normal’ baseball – two teams in a game, a diamond shaped field with bases, pitching and batting, scoring runs… all that stuff. However, it also has seasons of 100+ games that take place over the course of a week with a game every hour, and a vibrant and creative community of fans and players. Throw in a few vengeful gods, the occasional sacrifice and a whole bunch of peanuts, and you’re like… 99% there? 

Boiled down, the actual sim part of Blaseball doesn’t do much more than play with probabilities and throw numbers out in a very minimalist format. The ridiculousness comes in when the community starts to interpret those results, creating histories for players, and epic tales of loss thanks to little more than a program glitch. Blaseball as a game is pretty simple. But Blaseball as a concept is joyously chaotic, freeform art expressed in countless different ways. 

Blaseball in action

Videogame tabletop adaptations have had a bit of a bad reputation over the years. How do you go about satisfying both the fans of Blaseball and tabletop enthusiasts looking for their next favourite game?

At the most basic level, we needed to make sure that the game was playable. I’ve been suckered a few times into picking up a title based around a video game franchise I love, then realising that we’re looking at a pile of frosting with not much cake underneath – Dark Souls, I’m looking at you! Before we showed Blaseball: The Card Game to anyone, Rain and I played the hell out of it. There was no way we’d put it in front of anyone before we had something that we both knew actually functioned.

The next step was ensuring the fun was there, and there’s only one way to do that – test the game with as many people as possible, as much as possible. Hell, we’re still testing now, and we’re prepping for launch! Thankfully, at this point we’re just filing off the final edges; upping one card stat here, dropping another, making an icon clearer, that kind of thing. But yeah, we have to give a huge shout out to our Discord server. We have a couple of hundred people in there, all of whom offer their time and their feedback. Honestly, we’ve been incredibly lucky. 

On top of all that, we needed to get the real flavour of Blaseball into the mix, so there’s a diverse mix of players from across all the teams with beautifully envisioned card art from our team of incredibly talented artists. The cards and abilities are also packed with little references that fans will be able to pick up on, but there’s nothing in there that will alienate people who have zero knowledge of Blaseball. Everyone can enjoy it, because at the end of the day, it’s just a bloody good game!

Art and graphic design have become a major focus for publishers in recent years with names like Ian O’Toole and Beth Sobel becoming household names. How do you go about commissioning artists on a project like Blaseball and do you have any artists you would love to work with? 

Rain handled that side, because Rain is just so damned personable. Basically, we publicly announced that the game was coming before we had a single piece of art commissioned. I think we got incredibly lucky; we had a combination of people coming to us, and Rain also approached a few folks it thought would really fit into the vibe we wanted for the Blaseball: The Card Game. Some folks said yes, some turned us down, some may appear in potential future sets… we’re pretty spoiled for choice. What was most important to us was having a diverse group of artists who’d be capable of giving the characters in the game our own spin, while also creating a cohesive set of visuals across all cards. They’ve been great, across the board, we’ve got this supportive little family in our Discord server, all cheering each other on when a new piece appears.

As for who we’d like to work with… I guess we’re pretty much open to anyone, but I’d personally really love to get artists involved from outside of the sphere of games. Someone like Jeph Jacques who does the long-running Questionable Content webcomic would be amazing. Also, I know PJ Holden, he’s an artist for 2000AD, and I really should get round to asking him his commission rates. I’d also be into getting other kinds of visual artists involved; Steph is an incredibly talented doll customiser, so I’ve asked them to create a figure that we’ll be able to use for a future card. Now, if I can find someone who can craft a Pitching Machine out of needle felt or build me a LEGO Gunblade Bat, I’ll be super happy.

Some of the wonderful art from the game

You’ve worked on a lot of boardgames Michael, how does making a game attached to a franchise change the pressures on you as a designer?

I think that you’ve always got to respect the fact that you’re working with someone else’s baby, so you have to make sure that you don’t do anything with a franchise that feels out of place. Blaseball, at its heart, is an absurdist delight that is pretty easy to get into if you want. To reflect that, we needed to make sure that the card game could be explained quickly, that it was relatively accessible from a rules standpoint, and that it felt like it fit into the Blaseball universe. I’d like to think that we’ve managed to hit all three of those pretty well? 

We meet up (virtually, of course) with folks from The Game Band regularly, but I’ll be honest – they’ve given us a lot of leeway when it comes to making Blaseball: The Card Game. I think much of that comes from Rain being a central pillar of The Garages, who are the 150+ person ‘band’ that have created a huge amount of Blaseball related music, with over 40 albums to their collective name. Rain’s reputation with TGB is incredible, it feels like the trust is off the charts, and I’ve somehow managed to ride those coat tails. I think they know that we love Blaseball as much as they do, and that we want to make the very best game we can. We’re treating that baby with all the respect!

Holding On, which you designed with Hub Games, was an ambitious title that told the story of a dying man. Do you think that boardgames can tell more ambitious narratives and are you working on anything like that for Wayfinder?

I do think that games can approach narrative in a very different way – hell, we wouldn’t have made Holding On if we didn’t believe that was the case. There’s certainly room in the game space for ‘heavier’ stories, but looking back, I think that the audience for them isn’t as wide as I initially hoped. I know that one of the main reasons people play is for escapism, so convincing them to try something out that comes complete with a deeper, darker storyline… it’s hard. I’d like to go back to the format one day though. Rory even has a story ready to go if we ever want to make another Holding On!

As for Wayfinder Games, we’re planning on smaller projects for our first couple of years. Obviously Blaseball: The Card Game is taking up most of our time at the moment, but there are other things boiling away. I have a couple of designs in testing now; probably the one I’m enjoying the most is Arcadia, where the players are building a giant arcade full of retro games, but also trying to play as many of them before anyone else. It’s quick, it’s fun, and it’s ludicrously neon! Meanwhile (and also very neon), Rain is developing what will be our first RPG, a GM-less game based on a skateboarding anime that doesn’t exist called LINE. It’s very cool, and has a great dice based system that I’ve never seen before. We’re hoping that both of these will release before the end of the year.

What game, that you aren’t working on, are you most excited about right now?

Uhhh… There’s never just one I’m excited for. I have a copy of Stardew Valley on the way, which I know has taken a bit of a mauling for being very chunky indeed, but I’m looking forward to giving it a shot. For Northwood! is an incredibly cute but puzzly solo game that’s on Gamefound at the moment, and it’s caught my attention completely. Oh, and I finally cracked and picked up a copy of 1830! Now I have to find a bunch of folks with eight hours spare to play our learning game…

Links

Wayfinder Games

Michael – @idlemichael

Rain – @ariskofrain

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