As part of our November Spotlight on Fantastic Factories, we strive to inform readers of little extra tidbits surrounding the game. Games are made by people, and one of those tidbits we enjoy is learning a little bit more about the people behind them. Some designers shy away from the public stage, while others enjoy being front and center.
One of our favorite activities is speaking to new game designers. They almost always bring with them an unwavering amount of enthusiasm and exuberance over their initial titles that is simply infectious to be around. There is both a starstruck newness to their place within the game designer collective as well as a charming inability to hold back their eagerness and willingness to talk about their creation. All of which makes sense: most initial games are borne out of a designer’s conceptual idea and fueled by their passion to bring that idea to life. It’s authentic and real and never gets old.
All of this is on display when speaking to Joseph Chen of Metafactory Games and co-designer of Fantastic Factories (alongside Justin Faulkner). An avid fan of engine building games in general but wishing to have a more accessible version of some of his favorite titles, Joseph set out to create a lightweight tableau and dice worker game that would fit the role. Fantastic Factories is the end result of those efforts. And like any person reaching the end of a long journey, Joseph was more than willing to tell someone all about it.
Honestly, the art alone had us curious.
Capitalizing on that desire to learn more about the game’s inception, development, and future, we took some time to sit down with him once schedules overlapped, the initial efforts of which came not that long after the announcement of the game’s announced partnership with Deep Water Games. Although we had to keep the conversation short due to a rather busy month, we nevertheless learned a good deal about the thought processes behind some of the game’s creative decisions. Today, we share the bulk of that conversation with you.
Round One Questions
CR: What was your Gateway Game?
I got my start the way many hobby gamers did – with Settlers of Catan. It’s crazy to think about now, but back then it seemed so normal to own two or three games and play them 10 to 20 times. I remember my roommate and I would set up a game of Catan, spend 30 minutes discussing the optimal placements of initial settlements, tear it down, and start all over again. After Catan, I got into Dominion and then 7 Wonders.
CR: What was the last game you really enjoyed playing (besides Fantastic Factories)?
That’s a tricky one. It’s hard to list just one! As a designer, I spend far more time playing prototypes than published games. The three unpublished games I’ve enjoyed recently and are really looking forward to coming out are Calico by Kevin Russ, Lands and Creatures by Randy Flynn, and Undiscovered by Chris Glein. As for published games, I’ve been enjoying Draftosaurus, a light dino meeple drafting game. Also PUSH, a fun push your luck card game.
CR: How big is your game collection?
It’s actually quite small compared to most. Maybe around 25 medium or large box games and then another 20-30 small games. Almost all my games fit on a 2×4 Kallax and a few dresser drawers. I don’t have a regular gaming group, and I’m surrounded by so many avid gamers that I often just play games they own.
CR: What is your favorite type of game to play?
I prefer medium-weight Euro games that play in an hour or less. I like a little bit of thinky-ness but also the opportunity to improve my play through repeat plays.
I also enjoy lighter party games like Just One and Deep Sea Adventure just because they’re so much easier to get onto the table and are great games to introduce to people who are new to the hobby.
CR: How do you feel about Monopoly?
Not for me, but I’m not about gatekeeping. If people enjoy playing Monopoly, more power to them.
On Fantastic Factories
CR: Okay, for starters, we are suckers for both a decent tableau game and dice worker games. Do you have any personal favorites in either category that may have inspired the design for Fantastic Factories?
Definitely! The idea behind Fantastic Factories was to combine all our favorite game mechanics while eliminating the parts we didn’t like. Specifically, I loved the dice placement puzzle from Alien Frontiers but didn’t like the long turns. I loved the engine building from Race for the Galaxy but disliked how complex the symbology was and the steep learning curve. I also loved how quickly 7 Wonders played and scaled with player count.
CR: Tell us about how the game’s playful art came about. While we see elements of Lego and 8-bit video games, we feel like there could be more of a story here…
There certainly is a bit of a story behind it. I did the art myself for Fantastic Factories. While I was designing the game I got tired of looking at cards with no art. I’ve had some experience dabbling in graphic design so I wasn’t completely new to it, but I didn’t consider myself an artist at the time.
I originally intended to make some temporary placeholder art, but after doing one or two cards and with some encouraging words from friends, I found out that I was actually somewhat decent at it. You could say that the particular art style is a product of my lack of skill in illustration. I focused on what I was capable of and good at, and the end result was the distinctive, clean, and colorful style of art you see now.
CR: Some in the gaming community have likened Fantastic Factories to games like Machi Koro or an entry level Race for the Galaxy. To that end, what do you feel is the most appealing aspect of the game to the tableau building genre?
Tableau building and engine building is all about progression. With each turn you gain more and more capability and more actions. You feel more powerful with each turn. Fantastic Factories takes that one step further and creates opportunities to feel clever while taking those actions as well.
CR: What do you feel is the greatest challenge in designing a title in the Gateway Game level of complexity, and how did you specifically address it in Fantastic Factories?
With a Gateway Game, you have so few levers to adjust and balance the game. Gateway gamers have very little tolerance for learning rules, so the key is to have as few rules as possible. Additionally, those few rules you have need to be intuitive. The design philosophy that I follow is to identify the fun within your game and to remove as many rules and moving parts as possible while still protecting that fun.
To be honest, I consider Fantastic Factories a Gateway Plus Game, with complexity just beyond a gateway game. I’ve had many people describe Fantastic Factories as lightweight and often even “filler” but the reality is when I show the game to people who aren’t within the hobby, even a “simple” game like Fantastic Factories can be a challenge. As designers and hobby gamers, we really underestimate what it means to make a simple and easy to understand game. Making sure that you playtest your game with players of all kinds of experiences helps to ground the design and provides perspective.
CR: The main part of each round is carried out simultaneously. Was the game always designed using that approach, or did you experiment with turn-based rounds?
Simultaneous turns has been part of the design from pretty much the beginning. When we set out to design a board game, simultaneous turns was one of the design prompts that we decided upon. That’s not to say along the way that we hadn’t considered removing it. In fact, the rulebook does suggest that for first-time players that you do play out each turn one at a time for the one or two rounds.
The simultaneous nature of the game has been by far the most challenging aspect of the design. There are obvious benefits to taking turns at the same time, but there are numerous, less obvious, disadvantages – one of which being there can be no player interaction during any simultaneous parts of the game. As a result, the game is often (accurately) characterized as multiplayer solitaire. We struggled with ways to introduce elements of interaction and actually spent quite a bit of time in development trying to solve this issue.
In the end, we realized that there were many successful games with similar levels of interaction and ultimately we decided that there was a sufficient audience for this kind of game. I think that was a key moment for us – realizing what the game was and who it was for.
CR: One of the excitable parts of Fantastic Factories is the number of card interactions that can exist in any given playthroughs. Do you have a particular favorite synergy or combo you like to pull off?
Megafactory + Manufactory is a good one. Megafactory requires 3 dice of the same value so you’ll often need some support from Training cards or hiring a Specialist contractor, but once you hit it, you can immediately make a matching pair with the extra die you gained to plug into Manufactory. Manufactory not only produces a good, but also nets you resources that you can then use to build Monuments at the same time you’re running your engine!
Also – maybe not the most efficient of combos – I always feel a little clever using a Golem to get a 1-valued die, then using Dojo to flip it into a 6 and plugging it into a Nuclear Plant.
CR: Right around the time of its selection for the Indie Spotlight, word came that (likely in part thanks to its decent Kickstarter success) Fantastic Factories was picked up for wider distribution with Deep Water Games. How did that arrangement come about, and had you considered such an outcome when planning your campaign?
We didn’t plan our Kickstarter campaign around it, but the reality is that this kind of partnership is one we’ve been seeking for a while. I don’t expect to replace my day job with a job within the board game industry. Instead, I create board games out of passion and as a creative outlet. While I believe we’re capable of navigating the complex landscape of distribution and retail sales, those relationships take time to develop and take away focus from the thing we want to be doing – creating games. This arrangement allows us to do precisely that.
It’s perhaps an unconventional arrangement. Oftentimes publishers will want to have complete control over the game. Some publishers have been known to pick up titles that have already been published, but it’s rare. Nolan [from Deep Water Games] and I have been crossing paths for the past couple years and with our latest meeting at PAX West this year, we got talking and discovered that our skills, expertise, and needs complemented each other well, and that we aligned on many things.
CR: Finally, since the premise of the game is abstracted enough as to allow for greater design space, has there been any thoughts for Even More Fantastic Factories in some capacity – and what would that look like conceptually in your mind?
Yes! We already have an expansion in the early stages of development. Some of the content is from cards that didn’t make the cut for the base game – not because they weren’t interesting or worthwhile but because they didn’t match the level of simplicity we were seeking. With an expansion, players will presumably be familiar with the base game, allowing us some flexibility to introduce more complex interactions.
I won’t give away too much because none of it set in stone, but the expansion’s focus may be around asymmetric player powers…
If the intent of Fantastic Factories really was to provide a lightweight and engaging gaming experience full of some of the designer’s favorite mechanics – all playable under an hour – it would seem that they accomplished their goal. Between drafting factory blueprints and chaining factory effects together, there are a lot of choices to be made in a rather short period of time. And yet factoring in their equally important desire of creating a game that provide all of these options while still being accessible to most audiences, the game never over-complicates itself. As far as games about industry go, this one is pretty easy to follow.
In honor of that straightforward blueprint, we figured that the best thing we could do to celebrate the designers’ vision is to provide one lucky person with a summer internship in this wonderfully eccentric factory setting. However, we ran into a series of problems with that approach. For one, it’s no longer summer. Second, despite some rumors to the contrary, we couldn’t have the position count towards student credit. Perhaps most challenging, though, is that the lawyers really didn’t want us to attempt this again. (While our current intern Claudius has proven to be incredibly resilient, his predecessor Thaddeus was not as fortune…or bouncy. But that’s another story…) So we had to go and scrap those plans.
Instead, we’re going to be doing something a lot less litigious, and probably more fun in the long run anyway, by offering up a copy of the game!
Photo Credits: Fantastic Factories cover and photos by Deep Water Games.