Game Insider: Urban Insanity

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This year at Dragon Con we met up with the team behind the highly anticipated game “Urban Insanity”. The game is burning through it’s Kickstarter and we were fortunate enough to sit down with one of the creators to get the inside scoop!

What is your game? (name, theme, general idea)

My name is Larry Grayson and the name of the game is Urban Insanity. When Mic Mell and I came up with the name over 8 years ago, we wanted something that would convey both the theme and the experience of the game. It’s about building a city where the game board is never the same. It’s about rules that are both insane and make perfect sense at the same time. The theme, if there is just one, might be Chicago in the 1930’s with mob warfare and urban sprawl and rapid growth and mom-and-pop shops. But with a few unexpected modern twists, like aliens and helicopters. We wanted the game to feel ALIVE, something that people can get lost in and enjoy playing just for the sake of playing a game.

What was the inspiration?

We were inspired by some other tile-based games, e.g. Carcasonne™, which both Mic and I enjoyed playing. The problem we had was that after a while, the game seemed to lose its allure – we had the experience of the game not being as much fun to play as it was the last time. And, if you put in all the extra stuff that made it fun, it took too long to play. I remember saying something about how the game would be better if it had this or that and then Mic suddenly popped up and said, “Hey! We could absolutely design a game that is really fun! We really could!”

So, I went to my computer and knowing we wanted something a bit more modernized began designing a basic tile structure for putting the landscape of an urban city together. We tried it out and it seemed to work. We added some vehicles, which was new. We added aliens, which most definitely was new. We tried 18 different tile designs and over the next few years I personally hand-cut over 15,000 tiles while still managing to retain all of my fingers.

I designed boxes, pieces, and rules. We contacted a company in China, and came up with an initial amount we needed to self-fund. But, after about a gazillion hours of play-testing, we discovered that a simple tile-playing game was too mechanical and predictable. And it took way too long to play. We had created something that was definitely new, but it gave us an uncomfortable and very familiar déjà vu experience. We had designed a great game, but it did not have that magic thing we wanted: replayability. We had repackaged boredom.

I was in the shower one day (where most of my ideas come from) and came up with the action card mechanic. The entire flavor of the game transformed. Everything we could not seem to make work suddenly worked. It was amazing. The action cards gave us the ability to make the game live and breathe. It added what we experience in life and what has become the overriding experience of Urban Insanity – ever-changing landscapes coupled with unpredictable outcomes. After that, everything began to fall into place perfectly.

The last missing piece was finding the right artist. My limited artistic skills were fine for testing game mechanics, but we wanted the game to have some pizzazz. We interviewed several artists on Upwork and stumbled upon William Black (Black Draws Stuff). This guy is amazing! He took our vision and turned it into a reality. I simply cannot say enough about William Black.

What are some unique features/mechanics your game features?

There are a number of factors. I believe these are the top six in no particular order.

The first is the action cards, which provide the life-like unpredictability for the game and the ability to introduce some pretty amazing “twists” to what would otherwise be a simple “draw-and-play” mechanic.

Second would be how the features of the tiles (roads, buildings, suburbs, highways, and stadiums) interlock together to create an intriguing puzzle-solving experience and a game board that changes every time you play the game.

The third is the exponentially cumulative effect of mixing and matching six uniquely different expansion sets to provide over 120 different gaming experiences. For example, if you play with just the Aliens, you get one game experience; if you play with just the Mobsters, you get another game experience; and if you play with both the Aliens and the Mobsters together, you get a third game experience that is uniquely different than either expansion set by itself. But, and this is big, each expansion set is designed to completely interface and mesh with each other expansion set. Nothing breaks.

The fourth is that the game fosters a LOT of human interaction; most people find themselves very quickly being swept up in the game and there seems to be a LOT of laughing and yelling going on.

The fifth is that the scalability of the game allows you to control both its length and complexity.

And the sixth is that we have put a lot of thought into giving people a great game experience. Urban Insanity was designed by people who love to play games for people who love to play games. Like the tile tower that lays down in the box to store your tiles and stands up for easy tile drawing. Like the base game box with a magnetic lid that is designed to hold all six expansion sets. Like the storage bags for the pieces to keep everything from getting all mixed up in the box. We have tried to think of everything we would want in a game.

What is your favorite part of the game?

I love the human interaction that the game fosters. Urban Insanity brings people out of their shells naturally and lets them express their own unique game playing style. If you are a careful and methodical player, you can have fun and play the game AND win. If you are a wild and crazy risk-taker, you can have fun and play the game AND win. There is no special skill required or some winning formula or perfect strategy. And, you cannot tell who is going to win until the last tile is played and all the points are tallied. After all, it’s Urban Insanity. When we introduced this at Dragon Con, we quite frequently had four full tables running with 5 or 6 players at each table. It was chaotic. People were laughing, reaching across the table, slapping tiles down, yelling at their opponents and cheering each other on at the same time. I had so much fun just walking around, offering some strategic tips to people and enjoying the craziness.

My favorite experience was when I had just finished playing a game with a group of three people for their first time and we were stacking up the tiles. I asked if they wanted to play again and there was a unanimous “Yes!” About that time, another couple walked over and wanted to play. I was about to sit down and explain the game to them and one of the people that had just finished playing said, “No, we got this. We’ll show them how.” I remember walking away and watching in awe as someone started explaining a game I had created to someone else. For a games designer, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Can you tell us a little about the various expansions?

Everyone’s favorite part of the game is the expansions. The base game is complete in and of itself, but the expansion sets really add the insanity to the game and make it come alive.

There are three “destructive” expansion sets designed for people who like mischief and mayhem: Aliens, Mobsters, and Fire Engines. And there are three “constructive” expansion sets designed for people who like planning and strategy: Franchises, Gas & Go, and Skyscrapers.

The Aliens expansion set introduces a non-player character factor into the game. You can beam them down onto your opponents’ territory, abduct your opponents’ pieces, beam pesky aliens on your own turf back up to the mother ship, or transport them to other sections of the landscape. Aliens are designed so that you can throw a monkey wrench into your neighbor’s well-laid plans. But just when you thought you had control, an alien abducts your urbanite and all of your careful planning is wrecked.

The Mobsters expansion set brings absolute mayhem to the game. A well-placed mob hit can move your mob car through enemy territory and wipe out their entire crew in one turn. You can also use your mob car defensively to protect what you’ve worked so hard to build. A mob boss can suddenly infiltrate and take over your turf. Or your opponent can bribe the cops and have members of your gang thrown in jail until you bail them out.

The Fire Engines expansion set introduces fire bugs and professional arsonists who sneak around setting your city blocks on fire and even burning them to the ground. But you can call the local fire department to send a hook-and-ladder truck and put the fires out, or do some planning and make your high-priced areas fire-proof.

The Franchises expansion set gives players the ability to build a portfolio of companies. You can diversify and cash in for points or save up for a monopoly and score big. This set introduces the “tycoon” playing piece, who becomes stronger as you build your empire of retail stores and can even become powerful enough compete with the mob bosses for domination of the city.

The Gas & Go expansion set provides two additional sets of playing pieces so that you can play with up to six players. It also introduces gas stations which increase the value of roads and refuel your vehicles. And, if that wasn’t fast-paced enough, there are helicopters that let you air-drop one of your pieces right into the middle of enemy territory and take over.

The Skyscrapers expansion set is all about building HUGE cities FAST. Bridge tiles and huge skyscrapers link city blocks together, causing escalating battles that have control of huge pieces of real estate changing hands again and again. Just when you thought you had things under control, your opponent draws a Demolition card and rips up part of your construction to finish their own building project. And, in keeping with the theme of Urban Insanity, we also introduce a WILD TILE in this set.

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Pictured here is the base game with 6 expansions, all of which are available on the Kickstarter!

Where can we keep up with the game?

Right now, we have both of our URL’s www.xtilegames.com and www.urbaninsanity.games redirecting people to our Kickstarter page. We have quite a following on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/urbaninsanity/ and post updates there every day. We have advertising banners running on Board Game Geeks, Board Game Quest, and The Gaming Gang.

We launched at Dragon Con in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend and must have done something right because the guy that runs the board game room, Phil Collins, (not the singer) asked us to come back next year and set up in the game room again. We are traveling around Atlanta and demonstrating the game at local game stores like Meeple Madness, Giga-Bytes Gaming Café, Kapow Comics and Games, and Discover Games, to name a few. We plan to hit some more conventions once the Kickstarter campaign is over. We just opened up shipping to UK and Europe after finding the right fulfillment center and should be in Canada and Australia very soon.

We also have some sweet deals for game stores that want to support us and get a supply of the product for their shelves in March 2019 at 45% of MSRP with FREE shipping. That’s a much better deal than they will get from distributors.

We are setting up fulfillment and distribution centers in USA, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

What I want to leave people with is that Mic and I are completely dedicated to producing a game that people will love to play again and again. We have spent eight years working our butts off to make sure that this is the real deal. If people will support this game, they will not be sorry.

Oh, yeah. One more thing. We already have two more expansion sets in the design process: Dogasaurus Rex (a huge canine that romps around eating everything in sight) and Zombies. After all, what’s a game without zombies, right? We expect these two expansions to appear in late 2019.

Our Dragon Con video

https://www.facebook.com/urbaninsanity/videos/2037495163172558/?t=8

Our How-to-play video

https://www.facebook.com/urbaninsanity/videos/2659624450929501/

A review by D&E Miniature Games

https://youtu.be/hX1PTkG9R4Y

Game Night @ Barnes & Noble

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Come out Thursday August 8th from 6 pm to 9 pm for our fourth installment of the “Summer Game Night Series” with Barnes & Noble! We will have a collection of some of our favorite games and a friendly staff available to teach all of them!

You can RSVP for the event and get more info here.

Check out the gallery below to see some shots of the first 3 events!

 

Behind the Scenes: Twilight Struggle

 

Pictured here is the original prototype map with the published version.

 

By: Michael J. Gaynor

On a recent Monday afternoon, Jason Matthews, age 47, walks into Labyrinth, a board-and-card-game store on Capitol Hill. He sports a trendy blazer with no tie, a trim goatee and a well-groomed head of hair. Normally, the store is closed on Mondays this time of year, but he’s made special arrangements with owner Kathleen Donahue to meet me here. Matthews is a lobbyist for an anti-child-trafficking organization who lives in Alexandria. He’s also co-creator of Twilight Struggle — perhaps the greatest board game ever made. Today, he’s agreed to play the game against me.

As you may or may not have heard, we’re living in what many critics have deemed “the golden age of board games.” According to ICv2, a trade-news site for the hobby-games industry, board game sales increased from $100 million in 2013 to $305 million in 2016. Perhaps it’s the result of a backlash against our screen-swallowed, devoid-of-human-interaction modern existence. Or maybe it’s simply because the products themselves have gotten so much better, with engaging and sharp gameplay that’s a far cry from the typical slog of Monopoly.

BoardGameGeek.com, the hobby’s most prominent news hub and discussion forum, keeps a database of 100,000 games and crowdsources a master list of the best of the best. Twilight Struggle, released in 2005, spent five years at the No. 1 spot, longer than any game before or after it, save one. It’s since been dethroned by newer, flashier, flavor-of-the-month games, but still hovers comfortably around fifth place. “I play thousands of games and most are forgettable,” says Tom Vasel, host of a long-running board-game podcast and video series called “The Dice Tower.” “They’re fun for a while, but then they go away. Only a few games transcend that, and Twilight Struggle is one of them.”

The game — whose name is taken from a phrase in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address — is a two-player fight that simulates the Cold War, with one player acting as the United States and the other acting as the U.S.S.R. Across a map of the world, the two superpowers attempt to take and maintain control of the many individual nations that were caught in the middle of the conflict. Players do this by using their hand of randomly dealt cards representing actual Cold War events: Play a card called “Fidel,” and the Soviets will control Cuba; play a card based on Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, and U.S. influence in East Germany increases. Along the way, there is paranoia, brinkmanship and an overall sense of living through an alternate-reality version of history — one where Israel may turn communist after a poor showing in the Yom Kippur War, or Iran remains under the U.S. sphere of influence and the hostage crisis is averted.

In 2018, of course, Twilight Struggle — with its re-creation of a world in which the United States and Russia locked horns — is closer to describing current reality than at any point since it was released. “It definitely feels relevant now,” says Ananda Gupta, 41, who invented the game with Matthews. “All you’d need to do is add a few more cards and you could just extend it to today. … If I had a mind to, I’m confident we could do a Cold War game along the lines of the current one that’s happening.”

Indeed, in various online forums, fans of the game have taken to inventing their own contemporary cards, like one addressing President Trump’s abandonment of our European allies to court Vladimir Putin; that card removes the game’s blue-colored U.S. influence markers in Europe to provide an opening for Russian red ones. The anonymous fan who created the card named it “The Art of the Deal.”
Matthews used to work in politics — he was chief of staff for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — before becoming a lobbyist. He and Gupta — who once lived in the D.C. area but now lives in Los Angeles — met at a board-game group based out of George Washington University in 1998, though neither was a student there. They bonded over their zeal for war-gaming, a subgenre of board games that reenact battles such as Waterloo or Gettysburg. The most hardcore war games are astoundingly complex, and at that time, the genre was getting only more arcane. Matthews recalls a war game about Central American guerrilla revolts that required players to read three inch-thick rule books. Another notorious war game, the Campaign for North Africa, came with a 10-foot-long map and was said to take 1,500 hours to complete. Its level of detail was practically parodical, with a “macaroni rule” that forced the player representing Italy to reserve extra portions of water so troops could boil their pasta rations.

“War-gaming destroyed itself,” says Matthews, who watched his beloved hobby confuse complexity for historical accuracy, scaring away potential new players. Eventually, he and Gupta, working full-time jobs and beginning to start families, no longer had time for a typical 12-hour war game, much less a 1,500-hour epic, or the energy to memorize lengthy rule books. By then, Gupta had a side gig testing board games for a California publisher called GMT Games. Matthews would often help Gupta playtest, and soon, something dawned on him: “Playing some of the games, we were like, we can do better than this.”

So, the pair set out to create a new type of war game that could fit into their schedules. “We wanted to make a game that two people who know the rules can play in an evening,” says Gupta. “Something that people who are no longer in college could have the spare time to play with some reasonable frequency.”

They were interested in a scenario that could simulate the political aspects of warfare, not just the military side. Eventually, they settled on the Cold War — Gupta’s idea — and after many iterations, they built a prototype map and printed the event cards at Kinko’s. Matthews carved up a dowel to manufacture the red and blue markers that represent a superpower’s influence in any given country. And in the summer of 2000, they headed to the World Boardgaming Championships — held conveniently close that year in Timonium, Md. — to try to get the attention of players and publishers.

Their first choice of publisher was GMT. “It wasn’t a massively impressive prototype, physically,” says Gene Billingsley, co-founder of GMT, who watched Matthews and Gupta demo their game that day. Still, it took him less than 10 minutes to decide to publish it. He remembers a colleague asking him why he was so sure. “For once, I didn’t say anything about gameplay,” says Billingsley. “I said that it transports me to my childhood. To when the Cold War was hot. When kids would have to get under desks for drills. The game just has the ability to immerse you in its theme.”

But GMT was not sure it would be a hit. “They thought it was good,” Gupta recalls, “but they didn’t see the appeal. They thought a Cold War game was kind of a loser in terms of audience appeal.” GMT put the game on its “Project 500” list — a Kickstarter before Kickstarter that allowed fans to vote with their wallets on which GMT games should come to market. Once a game had 500 preorders, manufacturing would begin. “Twilight Struggle had a really slow climb up the priority list,” says Gupta. “It hung out at a couple hundred, but eventually it did crawl its way up there.”

The game finally debuted in December 2005. Matthews remembers it getting nice reviews, and it was making a dent in BoardGameGeek’s top charts. But sales figures left something to be desired. War-gamers “didn’t know what to do with it,” says Billingsley. The game was markedly different from what they were used to — streamlined instead of complex.

The turning point came that spring, at the Gathering of Friends in Ohio, a small, invitation-only event comprising board-game players, designers and publishers, all hosted by Alan Moon, a board-game icon and prolific designer. The Gathering of Friends catered less to war games and more to Eurogames — a different subgenre spawned from the German tradition of fast and uncomplicated board games emphasizing smart mechanics, while sacrificing most of the thematic and historical fidelity that war-gamers prized. Fortuitously, Twilight Struggle seemed to meet in the middle of these opposing styles. “I get to the Gathering, and everybody’s stopping me, and they’re like, ‘Alan Moon has done nothing but play your game the whole weekend,’ ” recalls Matthews.

Billingsley remembers getting a call from a colleague at the Gathering who told him that Moon had said it was the best game he ever played. “I said, ‘Can you please ask Alan if we can use that quote?’ ” says Billingsley. “By the time I’d sent that email, I went to BoardGameGeek, and Alan had already posted something very similar. All of a sudden, our phones were ringing off the hook.” Within three months of Moon’s Gathering of Friends, Twilight Struggle had sold out its initial print run.

It’s fun to be sort of geek famous,” Matthews says. “It’s just the right level of famous, right? No one really knows who I am. I can walk into any place and be totally anonymous. But when I go to conventions and such, people ask for my signature, they take pictures with me, and it’s all that kind of thing. My kids are weirdly proud of it.”

Twilight Struggle can now be played on computers and mobile devices against friends or strangers. A competitive scene also has sprung up around it, and the board-game conventions Matthews is talking about will sometimes host a tournament of players vying for the Twilight Struggle crown.

Matthews and Gupta have parlayed the success of Twilight Struggle in different ways. Gupta went the video-game route and has worked at a handful of major studios on critically acclaimed games. Matthews has created several new historical board games while keeping his D.C. day jobs. But what the two designers haven’t done is build a new board game together — until now. A few years back, Gupta, freed from a contract clause that claimed any intellectual property he developed, got back together with Matthews to work on a long-simmering quasi-sequel. Their idea was to translate their magnum opus to the 18th-century colonial rivalry between Britain and France. They’re calling it Imperial Struggle. It’s scheduled to be released by GMT next year. Preorders number in the thousands.

This particular afternoon, though, Matthews is focused on Twilight Struggle — specifically beating me at his own game. It’s been a year or two at least since he has played it, he explains, though he could still redraw every inch of the board from memory if he wanted to. Playing as the United States, Matthews ends up with a lock on much of Europe and Asia for most of the game. As the U.S.S.R., I keep a tight lid on the Middle East, which the Soviet side is favored to do. Africa, meanwhile, proves to be a tug-of-war.

About 2½ hours into the game, with annihilation staring me in the face, I manage to eke out a victory by playing a card called “Wargames,” a risky gambit that involves lowering the world Defcon status to just short of nuclear war. “Why did we ever make that card!” Matthews shouts as he lays his cards on the table in defeat. Throughout the game, he has been a deft trash-talker, well-experienced in the mind games necessary to imbalance opponents. But he’s gracious in his loss.

The two of us start boxing up the board and pieces. Matthews, organizing the deck of event cards, mentions that his game has become popular in the former Eastern Bloc states, with translations in Polish, Hungarian and Czech — and special, country-specific cards added to each. He says GMT will probably task him with writing a few new, Soviet-focused cards soon. They’re making a Russian edition next.

 

Want to play “Twilight Struggle”? Head over to our Hire Us tab and bring the Cold War to life at your next game night!

Michael J. Gaynor is a writer in Washington. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books and Board Games!

Our first event at Barnes & Noble was a roaring success! Thank you to everyone who came out and if you missed it, have no fear we will be back next Thursday!

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Memoir 44 was a crowd favorite!

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Emily walks guests through Ticket to Ride

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Josh guides some players through the jungle of Karuba

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The event had a total of 46 players and once the store closed, we turned away car loads of people!