Spolight on – Richard Denning, Designer of The Great Fire of London 1666, and Medusa Games

Having reviewed The Great Fire of London 1666, I thought I’d catch up with Richard Denning, designer of this interesting board game…

Hello Richard,

Congratulations on the launch of The Great Fire of London 1666.

Many thanks.

Can we start by having you tell us about the game. What is the basic premise? Can you describe the general game play and objectives? Is it a family game or more for the hobby gamer?

In Great Fire, players are landowners around London owning houses in the city. They are trying to protect as many of those as possible. They are also trying to preserve some of the significant locations around the city such as the Tower of London and St Pauls. They earn points for all that. They also gain points from fighting fire. The twist is that the players each get a chance to move the fire and manipulate which way it goes. It is a light to medium weight game that can be played by gamers but also should be accessible to a wider audience.

It seems like you’ve been on a bit of a journey to get it published. Can you tell us the story about how and when the idea for the game came to you and the journey you have traveled up to the launch at Essen?

Late at night in a bar at Essen in 2007 several members of my club fell into a discussion common no doubt to the many gamers who attend – ideas for board games. Most of the ideas lead nowhere, but I had a beginnings of an concept for a game involving some disaster and trying to survive it. The initial idea was far from a game about the great fire of London – it was actually about British soldiers trying to escape the collapse of the army at Isandlwana on the eve of the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879. That game never seemed to work but whilst I was working on it the following year the Great Fire of London popped into my mind.

I actually had a prototype played on the boat to Essen in 2008 but it was June 2009 before a solid version of the game up and running and December 2009 before a final version was ready. By then Markus of what is now Prime games was taking on he production of the game. We had hoped to have it out at Expo but in the end took a bit longer and got even better artwork in the final version.

Why the Great Fire as a topic? Were you concerned that it might be a depressing topic?

The Great Fire has always been a subject of fascination to me. It features not only in my board game but in my Historical Fantasy Novel The Last Seal (in a major way) and in a lesser way in my Sci FI adventure, Tomorrow’s Guardian. (Which by the way is coming out in paperback in December) I guess a GP being fascinated by the subject might raise a few eyebrows. Mind you, the Great Fire was widely seen as curing the plague by virtue of exterminating the rat infestation that was rampant in London and had spread the contagion via the fleas that lived on them. Perhaps, however, I would have some difficulty prescribing a similar course of treatment today (Even with NHS funding under intense pressure!)

Seriously though a lot of games we play are about disasters, wars and strife just as many books and films are.

What kind of research did you have to do for the game? How historically accurate is it and what is the balance you had to achieve to be faithful to the historical events and making a fun, playable game?

I read two very good books on the subject, bought several maps about it and visited the London Museum. So as much as I could I tried to make the game mechanics truthful to the theme and also try and get the Geography correct.

What were the main challenges in designing the game?

Great Fire involves trying to simulate the way fire moves and behaves. That I think was the main thrust of the design. It had to feel chaotic and random and out of control BUT players had to feel they had some influence.  Once we had that correct I think the other time consuming bit was balancing objectives.

Any particular surprises along the way?

I think the way the fire can behave in totally different ways from one game to the next. That is quite gratifying.

How did you arrive at your design decisions in replicating the movement of the fire and how it could be controlled?

Really I thought what made the fire move – wind. So let’s have the players play cards simulating the wind moving. Then I thought how do we KEEP fire moving. From there the Fire Priority rules AND the intensify the fire rules came in.

What kind of feedback have you received? 

A lot more positive than negative. You will always get folk who like to knock anything just for the sake of it. You always get folk who don’t like a certain type of game. And you get guys who tend to pick on this or that aspect that did not go quite right with production and harp on about it. That is fine. That is the world. If a LOT of people say something you take notice. But if say ¾ of people you talk to like – or say they like – the game I am content.

How long have you been gaming yourself? How did you get started?

I started gaming having seen a American movie with a wargame in in 1980. I bought a couple of boxes of Airfix figures at the age of maybe 11 and have not stopped since. I have played Roleplaying games – far too many systems to count and many wargames. Board games started with Talisman and Diplomacy when I was about 16 or 17. But I think playing Settlers in the mind 90s started me on Euro style games. Went to Essen first in 2006 and that led to starting up UK Games Expo in 2007.
What type of games do you like to play? Any particular favourites? Any games or game types that you hate?

I have played many games and I will still play a wargame from time to time and love some roleplaying. But of late I would day 80% of my gaming is board games. Favourites might include Agricola, Coliseum, Age of Steam, Small World. I don’t like abstract games much. I like games with a strong theme.

How did you get into game design/publishing?

Following that moderately drunk discussion at Essen although I have tinkered with game ideas for years. Having run UK Games Expo and seen all the new games you think CANT I do that?

Do you have a specific design philosophy that you subscribe to?

I come up with a theme first and then try and make a mechanism to make that work. I like player choice, interaction to some extent and the ability to “do the dirty” on occasion.

Do you have any particular game designers and/or designs that you admire?

Any designer that can bring out new games every year like Martin Wallace has to be admired. But I also like to keep an eye on smaller companies like Fragor’s yearly offerings as Snow Tails was great fun. I find Days of Wonder produce gorgeous and fun games and usually enjoy all of their games. However it is more the case that if a game has good looking components, an engaging theme and is fun I will play it and so I am looking for that combination.

Tell us about Medusa games. What are your plans?

Medusa is a group of us in Birmingham who like to try out game designs. Some just don’t work. Some have promise. Great Fire was our first to move on to publication. WE are not tied to a specific publisher so we will find a publisher to fit the game and who is excited by it. We MIGHT produce our own at some stage.

Do you have any future plans for Great Fire or do you have any other designs in the pipeline that you can whet our appetite about?

Not as yet. Having hauled the game into production  I am recovering from the experience! I don’t plans for expansions as yet.
We have 3 or 4  in development but none are yet beyond the basic prototype stage. I would hope to have a couple of these at Expo in 2011.
Probably one of my designs and maybe one from one of the others if we can iron out the problems that occur with all games early in the process.

Any words of advice for others interested in design/publishing their own games?

You need to have a lot of patience. Designing games takes a lot of effort and time. Moreover you must grow a thick skin because in the play testing you WILL get negative comments. The trick is to listen and try and pull out the genuine flaws and problems from the random moans that happen when someone had a bad game! You have to play test a lot and that can cause problems because you can get mighty sick of playing the same games. Get the game to a convention like Midcon, Manorcon or Expo and get feedback. Polish it a bit and then get a publisher to have a look.

What is your view of the current board gaming scene here in the UK?

I think it is fairly strong despite the challenge from electronic gaming and the recession. We have some talented companies like Treefrog, Surprised Stare, Ragnar, Fragor, prime Games and some good designers. Expo was very busy this year especially on Saturday so I think folk want to play board games well enough.

What would you like to see done which could help board gaming become more mainstream amongst the British public?

This is hard. I think if schools can run board game clubs it helps to expose people to games that are not just on a computer. Gamers can help by having little local gaming events and of course coming to Expo, Midcon and Manorcon and the other convention helps to support the hobby,

Tell us about the UK Games Expo and perhaps about your plans for Expo 2011

It is early days in the plans but UK Games Expo is 3rd to 5th June. We will be at the same venue with open gaming on Friday all day and Saturday evening in the Strathallan and the main trade show sat and sun day time in the Clarendon. We have interest from most of last year’s traders and indication of possible new games from Treefrog, Games for the World, Cubiko and SSG and others. Medusa will have some new prototypes as well I hope. I am hopeful too that we will have some overseas companies along – interest was good at Essen. We are also looking to incorporate more talks and seminars – a feature that went down well. One way to support the hobby is attend and play and maybe buy the new games because that is what keeps the traders coming. If we get the crowds it gets easier to attract German, Italian, US companies etc.

Tell us where we can meet you this year. Upcoming public demos, conventions?

I am attending Midcon this weekend, Dragonmeet the Saturday after but as a gamer rather than with Great Fire. I may have a prototype of a game or two at Midcon.

I will also be at the Tolkien Weekend in Birmingham in May with the games and books, Expo of course, possibly Manorcon and the Essen. Keep an eye on the Medusa website. Those interested might also meet up with me at certain book festival events where I am happy to talk about games as well as my books. I will put up those dates also on http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/.

For more information about Medusa Games go to – http://www.medusagames.co.uk/

For more information about UK Games Expo go to – http://www.ukgamesexpo.co.uk/

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