How a board game gets born

Jack Jaffe

By Jack Jaffe

May 28th 2015 at 12:30PM
UPDATED May 29th 2015 at 3:22PM
How a board game gets born

Veteran board games inventor Jack Jaffe reveals the origins of some of his creations, including Libido, In The Money, Save The President and his latest title, Velodrome.

Over the years – and during publication of five board games – I’ve often been asked “How did you come to produce a game like that?”

Sometimes the answer’s been simple: there’s been a gap in the market, as with Libido (the very first UK game on the subject of sexual attitudes and experiences) and Velodrome (ditto Cycle Racing). Or a game that was  commissioned, like In The Money. Then there was a game I had to do, on a subject that consumed me – Save The President! – after my first visit  to Washington DC.
Libido was easy to do because it was a ‘throw the dice and move your counter’ game. Persona – likewise, with dice movement – was much harder because I had to do extensive research on people’s attitudes. After lots of playtesting, I realised that players would not respond to a direct question which asked ‘What do you think of him?’ but they would respond to a question which asked ‘What do you think the player on his right thinks of him?’ I’m sure that you realise that the responder would then give his own view.
My In The Money game, commissioned by a City banking house, had to encapsulate some of the City’s poaching of able personalities – ‘stealing’ best experienced employees from the other players, to build your strongest team.

Chances are, you haven’t come across it because said banking house insisted on doing its own marketing. Eg, hiring a platform on which commuters could play the game in Liverpool Street station. Something commuters didn’t wish to do as they scurried to catch their homeward trains.
When I first visited Washington DC, I was struck by the layout of the city. Streets in numerical order on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue and the route taken by the President for his inauguration, from the White House to the Capitol. Could I design a game to be played on a representational map of central Washington, involving the President’s inaugural route and the constant danger to the Pres?
Obviously I did, but only after five years of playtesting. And, let me add, I decided that it would not be a throw the dice and move game. In fact, dice are used – but only for direction and probability. The former dictates the route taken by the President and the latter determines the success or failure of any shot at him – the closer of your agent to him, the higher the probability that he will be shot.

Let me mention that at game-start, each player (three to six) is dealt an ID card in secret, telling him whether he’s an assassin or a US agent and these IDs are not revealed until the game is over. So you can’t tell your friends from your enemies and you don’t know who’s winning until the game’s over.

Each player has control over six agents (move one per turn; each moves one to three intersections) and points are scored by wounding or killing the President and also by capturing or killing an enemy agent. But you won’t know if a captured agent is an enemy until the game is over.

In the two-player game, IDs have to be known – one assassin, one US, but each player moves two agents per turn, so capturing or killing an enemy agent is a quicker process than in the multi-player game. Time taken to play is two to three hours (multi-player) or up to one hour (two-player).

Oops! I’ve forgotten to mention that a US controller can turn traitor and that I later designed an additional scenario which uses much the same components but changes the game completely and in which the President doesn’t get shot but is photographed in a compromising situation: The Odd-Ball Scenario.
Save The President! is a complex game because when it’s your turn to play, you have many options, but it’s not complicated. Fortnum & Mason’s then chief buyer described it as ‘easy to learn.’

But its unique claim to fame lies in the letter I received from composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote to me after buying and playing the game in NY.  He invited me to dinner in Oxford, where he was ‘Visiting Professor of |American Music’ so he could discuss the game! That was an invitation I could not refuse and I spent a fascination evening in his presence. I later discovered he and his friends, from Broadway, had been playing the game for six months.

I think you’ll agree that that was a remarkable tribute to the game. Sadly, however, US companies subsequently rejected the game because of its theme. You may be aware how venerated the President is in the US. But this attitude has meant that US board game fans have been denied the opportunity to play ‘one of the best board games I’ve ever seen’ according to US games inventor Sid Sackson.
I’m contemplating relaunching Save The President! via crowdfunding. Please drop me a line if this could interest you.   
My new (and probably last) game is Velodrome, a two to three player game based on cycling. Each player has four cards in hand from his pack of 24 which contains 14 power cards; there are no dice in the game.

The power cards move the cyclists twice around the four tracks on the board. The total movement using the cards is the same for each player  - but the distribution varies. There is a structure I’ve not seen before. On turn, each player adds the power his opponent has just played. The obvious objective is to be first past the winning post but players can slipstream or block opponents and must play a negative Quadrant card in each of the first four quadrants. The tracks increase in length as you go around the corners, the inside track being shortest. It takes 15 minutes to learn and some 45 minutes to play by two.
If you plan to produce a game, it should have a unique element and also player interaction.

My preference is to exclude dice in favour of a strategic game but if dice are involved, make sure that all players may benefit. You can never do too much playtesting and it has to be done not just by family and friends.

And if you decide to produce the game yourself, don’t miss my next piece on this channel.