Soak with a spy theme

I received the story script and several additional pages of rules for the game from Jakub Łapot and Przemysław Rymer. I read them and was really impressed by the new concepts. The idea of different zones where players could act, the exposure rules, and even the death of the agents! There was a ton of theme in that first draft.

I built the prototype and played it by myself to see how it all worked.

An hour later, I had my answer. None of these ideas worked—literally, nothing, not a single piece functioned as planned.

Was I devastated?

Not at all. That’s how it all starts. Every damn time.

***

It took us another few months of research to make a comprehensive list of ideas for the mechanisms of a spy game. I watched lots of movies and TV shows about spies. I read books. I read comic books. I did the same gig as always—I soaked with the theme. I had a notepad full of ideas.
What’s important for the spy theme:
– codes
– secret messages
– gadgets

I combined it all with the initial ideas from Łapot and Rymer. I was ready to build a set of rules that would work. Testing began.

***

Rymer wanted to use real code cards from the Cold War era. I was skeptical. I was afraid it would be too difficult for players to understand. But after all, it wasn’t that bad. And I admit, when I gave playtesters a real code card from the Cold War and told them it was real shit, they were ecstatic.

This is a real thing. We are receiving messages from the CIA. We need to decode them. We are spies.

I wanted players to also decipher KGB messages. That was, for sure, the task players would not be able to do. We had to come up with a supplementary idea, something that would feel like deciphering the message and yet, would be doable by a random geek who’s not working in secret intelligence. I bought Ken Russell’s books about puzzles and looked for some ideas. Few hours into reading, I had my first Soviet cipher. I used simple mathematical tasks and equations to challenge players. I tested this idea with the playtesting group a few days later. It worked awesomely. First try, the first score, touch down.

I also wanted players to look for the secret words and sentences in the intercepted messages and understand the additional meaning of what was said. This is yet another essential element of all spy movies. They always say something like: “King beats Bishop on C4,” which means that explosives are prepared, and assassination of the cardinal is in the works! Stuff like that is always a part of the spy movies! KGB agents don’t talk like that, but nobody cares—it’s the theme, it’s how it’s done in books and movies. We did the same in the game—players must intercept messages, listen to them, and then think about what was said and what each word meant. That’s silly fun, that’s us, geeks, being smarter than Soviets, that’s what being a freaking spy is all about!

***

Vienna Connection. Decoding real code cards. Deciphering secret messages. Reading between the lines. We put it all. We build the experience. We made you a spy.

Are you ready, agent?

***


More about the game: https://portalgames.pl/en/vienna-connection/

My vlog: https://www.youtube.com/c/PortalGamesStudio/videos
My Twitter: https://twitter.com/trzewik

Twisted mind

The movie starts. The title shows up. It’s called ICE. “Oh, it’s gonna be about hackers, network, very fast computers,” I think and got a little surprised when a few minutes later it turns out it was about actual ice. Winter, snow, ice, you know.
So I am sitting in my room and think what’s wrong with me.
Why when I see ICE, I think computer.
Why, when I see SAND, I think spice.
Why, when I see ACE, I think amber.
Why, when I see POTATO, I think Mars.
Why, when I see PIGEON, I think Rutger.
Why when I see…

So tell me… How twisted is your mind? 🙂

Photo by Michiel Alleman from Pexels

Time machine

George R. R. Martin, Robert Sheckley. Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, all those science fiction icons are renown for their great novels, but also for brilliant short stories. Today we live in an era of thick 500 pages-long books that always are the first part of long series. The market changed. Today no one sells a good idea in the form of 20 pages short story published in a weird fiction magazine.

It was different back then. The whole genre, the golden era of science fiction, shined with brilliant concepts about time travel, first contact, weird gizmos, and all different space adventures. I was first introduced to science-fiction in 1990 thanks to the anthology Rakietowe Dzieci (Rocket Kids) that somehow ended up in my hands. I was 14 year old and I was a perfect target of this book. It was 240 pages long collection of science fiction stories. The tome collected:

  1. Ray Bradbury – The Small Assassin
  2. Mark Clifton – Star Bright
  3. Fritz Leiber – A Pail of Air
  4. Jerome Bixby – It’s a Good Life
  5. Poul Anderson – Terminal Quest
  6. Theodore Sturgeon – Mewhu’s Jet
  7. Frederik Pohl – The Man Who Ate the World
  8. Gardner Dozois – Chains of the Sea

The stories sucked me. I wanted more. I started looking for more things like that. I discovered Sheckley, Zelazny, Silverberg, and all other great sf writers. It took me less than a few months to become sf nerd.

It was 30 years ago, and although I love some thick books of the size of the brick, although I love my Game of Thrones, Dune, and other epic novels, I kept in my heart this special place for a good short story. For the brilliant idea, for the gig you sell on 10 pages and close with a clever punchline.

I mention this to provide you some context to the shoutout I am going to give today. Shoutout to LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, the anthology of animated shorts that is a magnificent tribute to the golden era of science fiction, to the weird novels, pulp magazines, and the brilliance of the right punchline.

Do yourself a favor and watch the series. And if by any chance your story relates to mine, and you discovered sf through brilliant short stories from Sheckley, Silverberg, and Zelazny, I have good news – LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS is a time machine. Fasten seatbelts. You are going to be 14 years old again.

(Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels)

A good company

This Tuesday, just out of nowhere, two of our former employees decided to drop by and visit our HQ. One came around 10 a.m., the other two hours later. Still, the scenario was the same – quick chat with me, congratulations on the Robinson Crusoe campaign and growth of the company, then run around the office talking with old friends in the team, then some scavenging in the warehouse and grabbing some boxes, and then goodbye, thanks for dropping by, see you next time.

That two visits put me in a much better mood than you’d expect. Put a smile on my face for long hours. Because you know…

Money. I built a businesswise successful company. It started as a small project literally in my bedroom, with me dreaming about publishing the best magazine about RPG. Ended up with the worldwide known brand, 40 full-time employees, and solid revenue.

Games. I built a company that puts out year after year games that excites gamers all around the planet. We added value to the hobby publishing games like Robinson Crusoe or Neuroshima Hex, and managed to put our own stamp in board gaming. We have a great community of fans who love our games and follow our process and journey.

People. And last but not least – I built a company that people like to work at. The team that enjoys each other, the energy and craziness, the passion and dreams. Having my former employees visiting us regularly, having people who worked here still being engaged with the brand, and cheering for our success is something really exceptional. Our ways split, they left the company but never turned their back on Portal.

I built a good company. And that puts a smile on my face.

Uncharted territory

I met Joel in person for the first time at Gen con 2012. I was running demos of Robinson Crusoe. I knew him as a YouTube reviewer and was very excited when he came to the booth to learn the game. He didn’t say a word for the whole game, and frankly speaking, I was terrified. He was really silent during the game, and I was pretty sure he was bored to death with it. After the game ended, he said he loved it, congratulated me, and left. 

I think the word that describes my feelings at that moment is “perplexed.”

***

I met Joel the very same day, in the evening. I was invited by fans to play a football board game and when I came, I realized that Joel was invited too. I sat next to him. We played.

He was calm with his emotions again but opened a little more. And he regaled me with super funny comments about football and the game through the whole night. His sense of humor was right at my alley. That game night was a blast. It is still one of the highlights of all my gaming.

***

I mention Joel today because last week, he recorded a new episode of his vlog, a celebration video – it’s been 10 years since he started his channel. Quite the anniversary! It’s one of the most respected review channels in our hobby, with a great audience. Joel doesn’t go for clickbait content, doesn’t run to review all the hotness; he does his thing, deep, thoughtful reviews of games he plays. I respect that a lot and love the content.

In the anniversary video, he said words that struck me, and I wanted to follow up today on what he said – that is how discovering new games and genres is an important part of our hobby. It’s the search for the spark, as Joel said, it’s entering the uncharted territory as I’d describe it.  

I remember myself in 1993 when I read about RPG for the first time. Had no clue what it was, but it sounded so amazing and was like nothing I saw before. More than a year later, after long months of reading about it and trying to figure out how to play RPG, I finally played it, and it changed my life. I fell in love and became obsessed with RPG. And then I discovered something called Warhammer Battle, and that was a new uncharted territory. I discovered miniatures, terrains, rulers, and all that jazz. And then I discovered board games. And then I discovered historical war games. Each step in these unknown territories was like a beginning of an epic adventure, it was Sam leaving the Shire, it was the beginning of something new. 

You’d say I saw it all. You’d say there is no uncharted territory anymore. You’d say it is over.

You’d be wrong. 

The spark is here. It’s called Rangers of Shadow Deep, I discovered thanks to Joel’s channel. It’s called Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, I discovered thanks to Grant Rodiek. It’s called Risk Legacy I discovered thanks to Rob Daviau. It’s called The Mind. It’s called solo gaming and Arkham Horror LCG…

Been in gaming since 1993. Thanks to brilliant designers, I’ve been exploring uncharted territories for all that time.