Adventure Games: A Choose-Your-Own Designer Diary

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by Matthew Dunstan


You find yourself back in Sydney, Australia, around Christmas in 2017. You enjoy being back home and escaping an English winter, as well as seeing your family. You have some spare time one day and are wondering what to do.

If you want to design a game by yourself, go to [5].
If you want to try to find a co-designer to generate some new ideas, go to [8].


In return for meeting up to discuss designs, you offer Phil a veritable horde of riches and wealth, an offer that in reality amounts to paying for a few drinks. Phil, being the extremely kind person that he is, turns the table and in fact invites you to his house to work — no bribes necessary! Go to [6].


Considering the rough state of the game, you decide to show the game to only a few publishers in Nürnberg. You get some interest — and even play a full scenario in one meeting — but no one quite sees the promise in the game that you and Phil see. That’s not surprising considering how new the design is!

One of the final meetings you have is with Wolfgang Ludkte from KOSMOS, someone you have been meeting at fairs for the last eight years or so. It is always a pleasure to meet with Wolfgang, especially as he is particularly willing to be shown absolutely anything you are working on. He always wants to see designs — even if he will quickly say it is something KOSMOS is not interested in.

Brett Gilbert (center), Wolfgang Ludkte (right), and I at SPIEL ’18

This is key as you had not really considered showing the Adventure Game to Wolfgang. KOSMOS publishes the already hugely successful Exit series, after all, and isn’t this game just a bit too close to it? What do you do?

Leave the prototype in your bag — better not to risk it. Go to [17].
Take Wolfgang’s encouragement and show him the prototype. Go to [15].


It starts with Phil’s desire to make a system for an open adventuring game, something that acts as a scaffold for any type of story or mechanism, while offering interesting yet clear decisions. You quickly think about the old point-and-click video games — games, puzzles really, that relied on the myriad possible combinations between a few simple elements. Going straight from this inspiration, you think about having a deck of actions — Search, Talk, Take, or Use — and a set of cards laid out that represent different locations where you can perform these different actions. Players have a hand of action cards, and on their turn will move to a location and use a specific action there. Then they would draw a new card, and the game ends when the deck of actions is depleted.

Because each of the locations potentially has five different results based on which action you choose to use, we needed an easy way to access these results – it would be too difficult to list them all on the back of the card! Sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, so in the tradition of games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, we turned to a paragraph book. Each action card has a specific number, as do the location cards, and to show the interaction between the two, you would simply add one to the other (a lá Unlock) and turn to that entry in the book. For example, you encounter a knight at a crossroads. Do you…

Search him? Go to [18].
Talk to him? Go to [16].

Cards from the first prototype; I’m not known for my artistic skills!


You enjoy some alone time, but can’t seem to get any new ideas brewing. It’s hard to concentrate when the weather is so good! But you still really want to make a new game, so you reach out to some friends. Go to [8].


One hot December day, you trudge through suburban Sydney to Phil’s apartment. Once there, you undergo the usual meeting of design minds: seeing what each other is obsessed with playing at the moment, which games are in your collections, what it was like to work with publisher X. But the question that propels the discussion is this one: “What game are you really itching to make?”

“I want to make an easy-to-learn family game, maybe something with brightly colored pieces?” Go to [14].
“I want to make a crazy ambitious open-world adventuring game!” Go to [4].


You try to get started on an idea based on a deserted island and pirate treasure, but in the meantime Phil is so productive that he manages to finish a scenario with that same theme in only a few days! Cyberpunk it is, then! Go to [10].


While you haven’t lived in Australia for almost ten years, you reach out to Phil Walker-Harding, having only met him a handful of times — fun side fact: you were the very first distributor of Sushi Go! in Europe, which in reality means posting a lot of parcels to the original Kickstarter backers — to see whether he is open to working on a game with you.

If you want to try to convince him by flattery, go to [13].
If you want to try to convince him with a bribe, go to [2].


This is the option you should have taken. It is certainly not recommended to show games to publishers that you haven’t had time to playtest and iterate extensively. You don’t want to waste their time, after all!

But in this case, well, you and Phil just instinctively know you have something here, even if it is still rough. You decide to show it to a few select publishers anyway. Go to [3].


You want a scenario that is a bit more sinister and dark. What better than a shadowy corporation in the near future that has developed a new wonder drug? And while Phil’s excellent graphic skills are on display in his scenarios, your meager artistic skills lead you to rely on images from computer games with the required look. It’s a tough slog, building a scenario from scratch, but you eventually have a first draft ready to send to KOSMOS.

Initial prototype location card from what would become Monochrome Inc.

But this is only the start. Over the coming months, you and Phil work with Ralph and Michael Sieber-Baskal, a role-playing expert at KOSMOS who takes the development lead for the project, going through iteration after iteration to find the best experience and story for the two scenarios. A lot of work is done to remove any elements not absolutely essential to telling a compelling story, and to reduce any overly mechanical experiences. You know that you couldn’t have done it without Michael and Ralph (and indeed the rest of the KOSMOS team), and when the final product is ready to go to print, you are all extremely proud of what you’ve accomplished. Adventure Games: The Dungeon and Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. will launch in German on May 16, 2019, and in English in October 2019, and you and Phil can’t wait to see players making their way through the adventures!

The launch is imminent, and you consider writing a designer diary for BoardGameGeek. Do you…

Write a conventional kind of story, with a linear narrative? Go to [12].
Do something a bit different, more befitting the adventure games? Go to [19].


This system worked well and allowed a lot of surprising results, often from the fact we had to choose relatively generic actions that could work with people and inanimate locations — although even then it stretched logic a bit! For example, what would you happen if you “Interact” with that knight? What happens if you “Talk” to a lake?

But we also wanted a sense of progression, of discovery, of finding that key interaction that suddenly opens up all of these new options. Again turning to the source material of point-and-clicks, we remembered that these usually allowed you to pick up various items along the way, with these items then becoming a new way to interact with locations. It was relatively easy to implement new numbered items that you would receive at different locations, such as gaining an empty bottle when you Search the tavern. A player would keep items in front of them, and on their turn they could combine these with a location, or another item, again looking up the sum of the two numbers in the book. We also added new locations that were revealed if the players did certain actions, again opening up new options. Here we reached the same complexity of combinations from a small number of components that we were looking for!

You meet Phil a second time to work on the scenario in early January 2018, and before long it is time for you to travel back to the UK. With a little bit more writing, you have a full playable prototype, and Spielwarenmesse — the annual toy fair in Nürnberg — is only two weeks away! What do you do?

Work more on the game. After all, it’s only about a month old and has barely been tested! Go to [9].
Playtesting — who needs that? Show it to publishers in Nürnberg! Go to [3].


Hasn’t this story taught you anything about following your gut and taking a chance? Obviously it hasn’t. You lose. Go back to [10].


You wax lyrical to Phil about the elegance and simplicity of his designs, from the moorish Sushi Go! to the chunky decision making of Imhotep. Despite him being extremely modest about his accomplishments, you sense your words have convinced him, and he invites you to visit him. Go to [6].


Phil takes out his enormous box of many colored cubes, and you start randomly moving them around on a piece of paper. Then a kind of slot machine mechanism starts to form, with you dropping pieces into different chutes and trying to get them to match colors where they land. Maybe the pieces are differently colored candies? But most importantly — there is something here with this idea…

You have designed a different game than what you were destined for. This is the end of this story, but it will be continued…! Go back to [6].


Here goes! You set up the game and start explaining it to Wolfgang. Within five minutes, he gets up and gets a colleague to join you at the table. This turns out to be Ralph Querfurth, the person at KOSMOS who had the original idea for the Exit series. Immediately they are both extremely excited by the game and start thinking about possibilities for the system. Rather than this idea competing with Exit, they think it could be a new line to follow it! They ask to be able to take the game back to their offices and test it further.

In the meantime, Phil has been working on another version of the system called “Trek” in which there are no specific action cards; instead the location cards simply show a series of numbers on different features of the card, and players can choose which thing they want to interact with by turning to that number. If, for example, you are in a dungeon, you can examine the window or the door, or perhaps look under the bed, and in each case you turn to a different number. You still have items, and these can be combined with any number present in a location or with another item; to do this, you place the smaller number in front of the larger number, then to that combination. In the example below, if you turn to entry 1011 this details your success in using the can opener on the can of cat food, and it gives you item 12 — an open can of cat food!

An example of how combining items works in the Adventure Games

Seeing as the game is still progressing, we send this version to KOSMOS as well, and they begin testing both versions. It is quickly apparent that the Trek system is superior. Gone are the strange combinations of action and place, and it more closely resembles the adventure games: You can look at a location and directly decide what you want to investigate more closely. Furthermore, you can control the rate at which new location cards are added to give a better sense of pacing. Finally, the game is simple. On your turn, you simply examine a location or use an item.

KOSMOS agrees as well, and within two months they sign the game for publication! But the work is now only just beginning: KOSMOS wants new scenarios to test, to see what works and what doesn’t. Phil continues to work on his dungeon concept, as well as [redacted] and [redacted] scenarios. Now you get a chance to write your first scenario with Phil’s new system — what type of story do you want to tell?

Pirates! Go to [7].
Cyberpunk! Go to [10].


(Real entry from the initial prototype) Hello, stranger! I am afraid I cannot let you pass. But I am extremely thirsty and would happily share a drink with you if you had one.

Hmmm…where will you find a drink for him? Go to [11].


In some adventures you have to take a chance…but this is not one of those times. You leave Nürnberg with no interest in the game, and your adventure ends here. Go back to [3], and maybe try taking a chance this time!


(Real entry from the initial prototype) “What are you doing?” The knight doesn’t take kindly to a stranger attempting to search his person, and he “thanks” you with a punch to the head. Discard all of your action cards, then draw three new action cards at the end of your turn.

Well, that didn’t go too well! Go to [11].


I hope you enjoyed your adventure! You have made it the end of this designer diary, and the Adventure Games have become a reality. You win!

Matthew Dunstan

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