Monday 2 May 2016

Talking cover and game design with Ricardo Victoria

We welcome regular visitor and guest blogger Ricardo Victoria for a Q&A. He's been by before of course but this time around we're focusing on his design work.

Welcome back, Ricardo – now, this time around we're talking design. You have a background in sustainable design – which first time you told me, I had no clue what that was. Give us the quick over-cocktails-and-chat version of what that means.

Ah, you open with tough questions already, considering that there isn’t even a consensus of what design is: is it art, engineering or a mix between them? I would say, drawing from my personal experience as academic and designer, that design is the action of solving a need through the creation of an object, be it a poster, a cover, a car, a catscan or a building, in order to improve the lives of people. I think that Dieter Rams, former head of design of Braun gives a better summary of what is design and what should be when he talks about his ten principles for good design (

Now, sustainable design would be the act of solving those needs through an object, framed within the sustainability context. In sustainability, a word that sadly has become a buzzword in inexperienced hands but must remain german for the future of the planet and human civilization, there is something called the ‘triple bottom line’. That ‘triple bottom line’ is three spheres of basic action and effect that surround any human activity: ecology, society and economy. Only through the balancing on each of these spheres, with mindful decision making, can we talk that something is sustainable. If you want a better definition of what is sustainability, look up at the Brundtland report, which provides the most agreed upon definition of what sustainability is: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Thus, sustainable design would be the act of solving needs through objects or systems that are mindful of current and future needs with a minimum negative impact on the environment and generating positive societal change whilst at the same time helping the people behind that solution to generate enough revenue to keep doing so. There is more technical aspect to it, but this would be a primer. If any of our readers want to know more on the topic, I can’t recommend enough a book called ‘Design by Sustainability’, by Drs. Tracy Bhamra and Vicky Lofthouse at Loughborough University. It’s the book I use for my lectures and was written by my PhD supervisors. (Incidentally, I did the illustrations for the first edition).

I personally believe that sustainable design IS the future of my field and should be implicit in any design we make.

What project have you worked on in that field that gave you the most satisfaction?

To be honest, until a few months ago, I haven’t been in charge of my own project, rather just collaborating with others. While those projects carried out at Loughborough University were great, the ones here at my day job haven’t been particularly exciting. Thus now that I’m in charge of my own project, one where I’m putting one of my hobbies, board games, together with my field of study, it feels more rewarding. Teaching sustainability through board games is fun and intellectually rewarding.

That said, I have certain fondness for my PhD project. Whilst I admit it wasn’t the best (maybe I’m being too critical of myself), I love it because it proved to my current employers at least that you can do and research sustainable design in Mexico.

Stepping on from there, you've moved into doing cover design work – having designed the covers for the Inklings Press books so far. Three of those are under your belt now – what have you learned as you've been making that move into being a cover designer?

That cover design is 30% inspiration and 70% hard, structured work. Most people think that cover design is easy: you just get an idea and put it together and voilá, a cover is done without regard to certain basic design principles. That’s why you end with horrid covers; mainly on some self-published books whose covers look like cheesy 90s video film covers. No offense, but my designer sensibilities hurt with them, so I apologise if I come across as a snob.

To do a good cover, you need to have a good sense of spatial and editorial composition, good use of colors, be aware of current design tendencies, know the content of the book so it can portray it as accurately and respectful as possible. A cover should hook the reader long enough so they can read the blurbs on the back and then give it a chance.

Knowing how to use the basic software, such as Photoshop, is essential as well, especially when you are editing an image.

But there is a rule that applies to any design, including cover design that anyone wanting to enter the field should remember: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The more elements you add, the more garish and cheap will look. And that is a killer for your book hopes.

Do you have a favourite of the three covers? I'll confess I like Tales From The Mists most of the three, with the merging of the face with the trees, think it's very sinister. If you do have a favourite, what makes it stand out to you?

You are making me choose between my children, you monster. I think Tales of the Universe is my favorite right now because it looks like a good cover should look and gives you a decent idea of the content inside the book. It’s clear and allows reading the name of the authors and the image is just inspiring. Just a side note, as I saw that mentioned on some reviews: I did not draw the art used in the cover (I’m a lousy illustrator, as Herc’s portrait shows). I got the image from a website that offers free for commercial use images and as such is a Creative Commons object. I don’t like to claim work that is not mine. I did design the layout and aesthetical composition of the cover.

Are you planning to branch out and do more cover design work?

It wasn’t on my original plans but sure, it’s being considered. It allows me to stretch my designer's muscles (albeit I’m a product designer, I like graphic design as well and have taken courses on the subject. And my wife, a graphic designer with editorial and publishing background, keeps teaching me how to do it). I do it for the art, man.

Does this kind of work vary substantially from the sustainable design work – do you exercise different creative muscles?

The core muscles are the same, creativity, design layout work and inspiration. However the external muscles vary. With cover design, I get to explore my aesthetical sensibilities and experiment, it offers me more freedom. My work on sustainable design tends to be more academic and thus a tad rigid in terms of methodology and results showcasing.

You also have your eyes set on game design, I understand – what's your gaming background?

As a gamer, I started with D&D 3rd Edition and Magic when I was in school. When I went to Loughborough for my PhD, I joined the Game Society (back then it was RAWS) and thus I was introduced to a plethora of games by the people there. It was there where I met Matt (of Save Sekhmet fame), playing with him Bureau 13, Exalted and Big Eyes, Small Mouth. I also started playing Legend of Five Rings, several board games courtesy of a friend named Jules (he is one lab accident from becoming Dr Doom), who also introduced me to one of my passions: Heroclix. That game did wonders for my math abilities, my strategic thinking and also allowed me to meet Stephen (who beat me graciously on several occasions and even gave me free figures) and Brent (who as a good American, never wins graciously, is a sore loser and still owes me a rematch, the bugger). Right now I play with my wife and my high school friends the occasional game, including but not limited to Carcassone, King of Tokyo, Flashpoint and I’m trying my hand at Arkham Horror (once I decipher the rules).

Ricardo, at the right of the gaming table, in action playing Heroclix at a competitive tournament

A game designer, well that’s another matter. I started designing board games during my first year at my undergrad, with an educational collectible card game (I did everything, from rules to illustrations under a week for 60 cards). I also designed a tridimensional, 360° tic tac toe out of recycled cardboard and a miniature game based in Mexican mythology. That game's a funny story, the teacher of that course thought my original ideas were crap and forced me to make changes to his liking (which is crap and he is a lousy designer to boot), despite the fact that my research showed otherwise. Cue a year later, I’m in the UK and I found that Wizards of the Coast released a miniature game with similar ideas to mine. I didn’t get angry, on the contrary, I felt vindicated as it showed me that I was on the right track.

Later in the UK, once I got tired of the competitive scene of Heroclix, I got the chance to became a playtester for Wizkids and got to work with a couple of sets, including Monster & Mutations (that rookie Jean Grey First Class with quake as power was a change suggested by Jules and myself) and Arkham Asylum. That allowed me to learn a lot of the playtest process for any game as well as peek behind the design choices for rules and mechanics that most player overlook or complain about. Trust me, it is not easy to balance a figure, even less almost a hundred. But I love the challenge. Right now I’m reading a lot of books on game theory, game design and world building.

The Jean Grey figure from the Monsters and Mutations set that Ricardo helped to playtest.

What was the first game of that nature you remember playing? For me, it was original D&D.

D&D 3rd edition, Magic and a similar game called Animayhem, where you used ADV and Manga licensed characters from the 90s to play. I always used Goku.

And what do you want to do in terms of game design?

Games that are fun, easy to play with high replay value, with streamlined rules and when possible, versatile. And if they can be used to teach something, well, I will consider it a good job. I also dream of creating my own RPG core system mechanics and maybe a miniature game.

What makes your game design different from others on the market?

The topic. So far, there are only two games that tackle directly the sustainability-related issues, CO2 and an new Kickstarter called ThinIce, which I really want to buy.

How do you begin to design a game? What are the building blocks?

You need a core concept, an idea that can be developed into a game. Then you need to start working and tinkering with game mechanics, rules and playtesting. Forget the fancy models and coloured printouts. That’s the last part to do. First, focus on the game mechanics, which is the main objective of your game, how the players will achieve it. Matt Forbeck, on the Kobold Guide to Boardgame design, says that: “[Game name] is a [category of] game in which [the players or their avatars] [do or compete for something] by [using tools the game provides them]” Without that, you don’t have a game.

You need to consider which type of game you want. José P Zagalin, in his paper Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games, published in Simulation & Gaming, offers this classification:
  • Competitive games: Those that require developing a strategy opposing the actions of the other players in order to win. They range from the simpler,  such as Monopoly and Risk, to more complex games, such as Magic the Gathering.
  • Co-operative games: Those that while allow only for a winner, they require that players have at some stage of the game objectives that are compatible or allow for trade and alliances, even if is only for a round. Usually these games have a developed ‘economy’ system that allow for negotiation and resource management. A good example of this kind is Settlers of Catan.
  • Collaborative games: Often seen in horror-themed games, these require that all players agree in coordinating common strategies to win, since the rival is a ‘virtual’ foe (or in some cases a single player opposing the rest in a different role). Either all of them win or lose (albeit some games allow for acceptable ‘losses’). Examples are: Shadow of Cthulhu, Mansions of Madness and Fury of Dracula.
But the most important thing you need is to have fun. To love fun so you can design games that is fun for others. No one wants to spend 30 minutes of their lives with a boring game, or a random one (I’m looking at you, Monopoly). Fun is the key word here to develop the mechanics. The looks and name are just mere window dressing.

Are there any games you've played where you look at them and think there's a fundamental mistake in their design that you think undermined them? You don't have to name names if you don't want to offend but how did that misstep affect the game?

There are a couple that could do a better job in streamlining the rules, instead of offering you a massive rulebook. I get that due to the topic of the game such precision is needed, but it kinda detracts from the experience and have scared many of my regular players. Alei Kotdaishura is great with board games and she helps me to set them up and she has struggled with those games too, so it’s not just me. Also I hate, but that is a personal pet peeve, games where players have to invest hefty amounts of money just to be midly competitive and don’t be trounced by min maxers. I get that is a common risk in collectible games as well as the source of revenue, but it really grates me as you end with a smug elite that kill the fun for new players. Brent and Stephen know what I’m talking about as they suffered it as well during our tournament days, Stephen less so since he is a great player. (Editor's note: I hear Stephen uses hypnotism to win)

Any other projects that you have worked on that stand out?

Inklings Press, of course.

Thanks for sharing that different strand to your life, Ricardo – now, we haven't had a Q&A with you this year, so we get to ask our regular closing question. What are you reading currently, and what's the best book you've read this year?

Right now I´m reading Darth Plagueis by James Luceno, who i think is a great author. I haven't read many new books this year, mostly rereading a few ones to get inspired for my novel. That said, the newest book I read that I enjoyed thoroughly was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

Ricardo, many thanks!

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