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A design that came from the Aether: the story behind Diesel Demolition Derby

The origins of Diesel Demolition Derby (DDD) tell a somewhat different tale to a normal design diary. While it is a quite an old design (the first prototype files were made almost exactly 4 years ago), the game itself hasn’t changed that much in all that time, and neither did it take that long to make. There aren’t that many twists and turns that the design took, as you can see from the attached image which showed the very first prototype – you can immediately recognise a lot of the cards that made it unchanged into the final game. Rather, this story is more about finding the right home for the game, and the long journey games sometimes take to find a publisher.

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DDD started its life as a game intended for the Good Little Games line. Good Little Games was a concept pioneered by Brett J. Gilbert (of Divnare, Elysium and Costa Rica fame), and followed games like Love Letter that popularised the microgame genre. The idea would be to have a website that hosted a number of free print and play microgames, all of which could fit on two single sided sheets of A4 paper or less, a limit of only 18 cards. The concept proved quite successful, and within a year of making the site there were 11 games which had collectively been downloaded over 30 000 times. One of my earlier designs, Empire Engine, started life on this site before going on to be published by AEG. In fact, earlier this year Good Little Games was relaunched, funded though Patreon, with Brett and I aiming to release a new game every month.

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With this restriction in mind, in July 2013 I set out to design a ‘Role Based Drafting Microgame’, as I called it in my notebook. Each player would draft a handful of cards, which would have a rank and an ability that resolved when the card was chosen. At the end of the draft, whoever had the highest total of cards in front of them would win. I used a sort of rock-paper-scissors with the design, with rank 3 cards being strong with no ability, while rank 1 cards normally caused the stronger cards to be discarded. In between these were rank 2 cards that usually couldn’t be discarded, and would beat rank 1 cards. The theme was extremely nebulous, with these cards representing spirits or something like this (I never cared that much!). I called the game Aether Duels.

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Looking back I am honestly surprised how little changed from this initial design, and how many of the cards are identical to the final version. My recollections of playtesting is that the game generally worked well, with the very short playtime matching a rather fun and semi-chaotic gameplay. The really great thing that arose out of repeated plays with the same group in Cambridge was that how quickly a metagame evolved, where certain players were known for choosing certain cards first, and the other players would try and counter this strategy from the very beginning.

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Along the way I made the decision to try and get the game publishers through a normal route, and so gave up on putting the game on the Good Little Games website. With only 18 cards the game was only really good for 3 players, but I wanted to make a game I could pitch to publishers who would want something with a wider player range. With the restriction lifted, I went to 27 cards and had a game for 3-4 players.

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After this, the game quickly matured, and by Essen Spiel 2013 it was ready to pitch to prospective publishers. Unfortunately despite showing it to several editors there was no interest, and this pattern continued over the next 2 years, with the game travelling with me to many different conventions. There was never any feedback about something specifically being wrong with the game, but at the same time it didn’t catch any publisher’s eye. I was still playing the game from time to time and was enjoying it a lot, but by mid 2015 I had probably resolved to myself that it might be one of those games that never got published.

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Then came Essen 2015, and I had my first ever meeting with the Ludicreations team. Brett and I showed them a number of games, but they were particularly interested in this small drafting game, which in their words was the kind of game they wanted Sushi Go to be, simple but with more interesting interaction. Luckily for me they took the game away with them and quickly decided to publish it!

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From this point, the first major changes happened to the game since it was first designed, both thematically and mechanically. Ludicreations wanted the game to be able to be played at an even wider player count, which meant more cards to be designed for 5-6 players, and I also designed a new variant for the 2 player game. It was actually quite fun to come up with effects that would be impactful at larger player counts, especially as it is much harder to keep track of what your opponents can do.

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Thematically the team wanted to go for a dieselpunk feel, and at some point we landed on teams battling each other with mechs they deployed into an arena. The setting fit particularly well for the world that Ludicreations had already set Crisis in, and they hired Anthony Cournoyer to bring the world to life. He did an absolutely amazing job, giving an incredible amount of character to the different mechs, completing the transformation of Aether Duels into Diesel Demolition Derby. The journey was long, but at the end I feel incredibly fortunate to have found such a great companion in Ludicreations to bring the game to the world – I hope you will enjoy it!

By Matthew Dunstan

Photo credits: LudiCreations / Used with permission.



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