Meeting of Minds – Tony Boydell
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.
Tony Boydell is a well known name on the UK design scene and beyond. Potentially a time traveller, Tony has been designing games since the mid-90s with his first title coming out in 2003 (maybe 2000 depending on the time travelling). He’s the designer of the well regarded game Snowdonia and has revisited that title alongside a slew of other designs over the last couple of decades.
Tony was good enough to lend me some time to chat about how he got into the hobby, his early designs, what it’s like to come back to a design like Snowdonia, and of course whether or not he is a time traveller.
Can you give us a bit of background on your journey to becoming a game designer?
My awareness of gaming started in the 1970s – tabletop fare from MB, Waddingtons and Parker – but fizzled out when I discovered computers!
(Side note: running a Museum of Board Games has gifted me the chance to acquire all of these wonderful things again and lose myself in complete nostalgia)
Of course, the early 1980s gifted us home computers like the ZX-81, Spectrum and Commodore 64 plus the first Atari consoles. I missed most of the 1980s from a boardgaming perspective – apart from highly-competitive Trivial Pursuit sessions – due to being stuck in front of a screen.
While at Liverpool Polytechnic, I picked up on RPG-ing and less ‘mass market’ offerings like Shogun (Samurai Swords), Diplomacy and Judge Dredd: The Boardgame. The 1990s – married life and Fatherhood – saw me fleeing the house to play Magic: The Gathering OR salting myself away designing simply games for the children – in the mid 90s I met Alan Paull (my Surprised Stare Games partner-in-crime) and I really caught the design bug; Alan was a published designer (various games in the 1980s), so I looked to him for mentoring! We both got jobs as IT Contractors in the late 1990s which led to more ‘disposable income’ – we used ours to set up a Company and get Coppertwaddle printed!
My design story then progresses through card games – small, quirky and easy -to- manufacture – to more ambitious stuff when I’d become immersed in modern Euro games; in the mid-2000s, when I started working away in London during the week, I’d spend the evenings playing modern euros with local gaming pals and the more games you play, the more tools you gather in your head! Glory To Rome, Caylus, Through The Ages, Power Grid and Agricola were particularly important in opening my eyes to how games could be: those years were fecund: Totemo, Fzzzt!, Paperclip Railways, Guilds of London and Snowdonia were all born out of the variety and quantity of games I was playing.
Do you still have a desire to self publish games from time to time?
Well, Surprised Stare Games went a bit further than ‘self-publishing’ in the end but it was certainly the only way we would’ve got a game out into the world in the early 2000s – we didn’t have any industry contacts so had to make it up as we went along.
Nowadays, it’s a lot easier – in theory – to both manufacture your own game for a reasonable price (direct publishing OR via a crowdfunding platform) AND market it. Of course, you’re competing with 1000s of other folks (and professional outfits) all trying to do the same: great for the consumer but an absolute nightmare for a designer/publisher!
I am self-publishing currently; well, sort of – I’ve created a Museum of Board Games imprint under which I’m locally-producing and hand-assembling fillers for the gift shop and Patreon patrons (see https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/125188). I’m also working on a ‘big box’ design, with long-time pal Matt Green, called Jerusalem which we’re thinking of doing as a Beta release of about 50 copies ‘to get it out there’.
Would you have any advice for designers looking to go down that route?
There are plenty of good, independent people in the Industry who have already been through this kind of experience; I would suggest saying ‘Hello!’ to them at UK Games Expo (and other shows, of course) and just ask them about the publishing experience. I’ve always shied away from the actual publishing bit – that’s what Alan does so well at Surprised Stare – so I’m probably the worst person to ask!
Can you tell me a bit more about the Museum of Boardgames? It’s a museum and an imprint?
The last 20 years of attending shows, conventions and the like have led me to discover some old and VERY old games to add to my personal collection. After finding out about various museums in Europe, I noted that there wasn’t anything specific to our hobby in the UK – excepting a temporary exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood. The idea of running such an endeavour as I moved toward retirement/committing totally to the games industry became more attractive and I began to focus my collecting around that goal; in the end, Covid-19 gave me the time (and money) to accelerate the process! By early 2021, I had a spare room fit-to-burst with beautiful things from the last 200 years and the timely-availability of small (and cheap!) shop unit in my home town sealed the deal. I wrote about the process of setting it up in Tabletop Spirit magazine (no.18): https://bit.ly/TSM18_3t6ySDr
As for the imprint? Well, a Museum needs a gift shop and a gift shop needs gifts! What better souvenir than to be able to take away a small, exclusive game!
Looking at your game design listings on BGG one thing stood out for me. You have “The great game of time travel” first edition listed in 2027 and the second edition listed in 2000. Are you a time traveller?
I told you that the next time we will chat (and I don’t want to repeat myself)!
Snowdonia is a very well regarded title. What is it like developing a game that people keep in their collections for years and how does it feel to return to it from time to time?
Snowdonia reflects several aspects of the games I enjoyed the most in those fecund 2000s; worker placement being my favourite mechanism (Agricola, Caylus), a strong and integrated theme (Through The Ages, Race for the Galaxy), expansibility (like Power Grid had with all of its maps) – I designed it for myself, at first – it’s the game I want to play!
I, originally, expected it to be of interest to railway-obsessed gamers – the Age of Steam crew – but, of course, it’s really “a game with trains in it” rather than “a train game”. I’m not an uber-strategic gamer, so it’s lighter than a Wallace too. Because it’s a game I love, I’m delighted that people sense that and love it too; I think the Weather and Event mechanisms take it out of a generic worker placement design because it adds theme and planning and – most important – keeps the playing time right down!
The expansions are a positive feedback mechanism: the more I designed new ways of using the core game, the more I became obsessed with railways and railway history…and the more new scenarios I wanted to design! The Deluxe Set was a fabulous way for players – and me – to catch up, as well as the perfect excuse to add new things. The fact that I’m now working on a rather ambitiously-scoped expansion with Naylor Games shows that Snowdonia is in my blood: I’ll never tire of working with it.
How did the new collaboration with Naylor games come about? What made you want to put Snowdonia in the hands of a relatively new publisher?
I never stopped thinking about Snowdonia even after the Deluxe Master Set came out; I was glad of the break – focusing on Attention All Shipping and Aleph Null instead – a change is as good as a rest!
My lockdown notebooks were full of new scenario ideas and ‘other, cool things’ and it was inevitable, I think, that I’d come back to it. I guess my original plan was to go back to the small scenario expansion packs – 33 cards covering a couple of new railways – but it grew too big, too quickly to be something I could offer to Surprised Stare (who are now focusing on the excellent Pocket Campaigns series).
Then, in early 2022, I saw James Naylor posting about Naylor Games’ big plans (acquisitions and forthcoming products) and, since I had all the rights to my games back, I approached him as a potential partner for getting this big (too big!) Snowdonia project off the ground.
He was incredibly enthusiastic; our initial call showed we were of like minds about all sorts of things and the project basically kicked off at that point. He has the development team, the marketing nous and the publishing/crowdfunding experience that I just don’t have/have access to so it’s the perfect relationship! The Summer has been spent refining the concept, content and building first, phyiscal prototypes…
How did you get the opportunity to design promotional cards for games like Agriocla? Do you feel a weight on you as a designer when getting involved in such a well loved game?
My link with Lookout Games is an enduring pleasure; they were SO supportive with Snowdonia. Prior to Snowdonia, I would queue up at their Essen stand scrounging for the new Agricola L-deck cards/expansions – ever the fanboy!
It’s a great privilege to be able to contribute to an established game but it’s not a shoe-in: the original designers still need to approve my contributions; my ‘extras’ are put together with a respect for the source material…albeit with a sprinkle of Tony mischievousness (qv my upcoming Nusfjord ‘Visitors’ expansion). Working with games like this brings me much closer to them; it makes me love them more.
What game from a UK designer/publisher are you most looking forward to?
I’m a big fan of David Mortimer (Cousins’ War) and Alan Paull, so I’m always interested in what they do for the Pocket Campaigns series; Brett Gilbert is an absolute design machine – but a cuddly one – who has an innate sense for the straightforward and elegant. Ultimately, though, I always have an eye on what’s coming out of Germany ;-D