January 2017. I am not a board games published designer yet. I just finished writing a book about geek culture and while waiting for my next project, I work on personal remakes of renowned board games. For fun. Unique pieces, not for sale. After developing a Guess who? Your favorite heroes—80’s Edition, I turn my attention to an Operation Megaman. But I want something else. I want a game that would do honor to a cartoon I have always loved and have never found well transcribed, nor in a board game or video game way: Wacky Races.
So I begin to think about it. I wonder how I can make this a fun experience, enjoyable with friends. I do some sketches, some gameplay tests and a lot of research on the different vehicles from the cartoon. Quite soon, I have my first character cards, with special abilities reflecting the ones in the series, and a simple yet enjoyable gameplay. Then I ask myself: Why make only one piece? Why wouldn’t I make it a REAL game?
Dead to Rights
Right away, the licensing problem arises. As I said before, I am not a known board game designer, let alone publisher, nobody knows me in the industry. I don’t imagine myself going to Hanna—Barbera’s office, all smiles, saying something like: “Hi, I have a great game idea, could you sell me the licensing rights for Wacky Races for cheap, please?” So I decide to drop the Wacky Races theme, but not its atmosphere. And I’m going to tap into one of my favorite fields: the 80s.
What if the drivers and their vehicles reminded us about the movies and TV shows that people now in their forties grew up with? What would happen if the legends of our childhood afternoons were to fight each other racing through completely unrelated movie sets? It is settled. THIS will be my game. And it will unfold in a dystopian future in which any form of art has been banned. Hollywood is nothing but a vestige of the past and many legendary cars are gathering dust in the parking lot of a big Hollywood studio.
The Death Race… where no one dies.
I still have to find a name for this game. I decide to give it a long, tongue-in-cheek name. A tribute to all these movie rental films whose names and covers were great… but had little to nothing to do with the content. My game is going to be called Hollywood Death Race 9000. Hollywood obviously for the location, Death Race because… well… it’s a race (even though no one can die in the game, but I liked the absurdity of the concept) and 9000… as a tribute to a certain prince from a certain planet where people with monkey tails have a tendency to turn Aryan when they get a little bit angry. The 9000 will later be dropped, but the absurd long-ass title has remained all along, and I’m pretty proud of it (he says, grinning). Hollywood Death Race will mix iconic heroes of TV series and movies as well as famous film sets. All while using the right to parody because, let’s face it, I never really wanted to end up in jail. Promiscuity and meals at fixed hours were never things that fascinated me.
Art is vital
I’m sketching several boards. The core of the game is here, but now the design has to be at the same level. I have ideas, but I am not an illustrator. So I put an ad on social media, looking for an illustrator who would agree to work with me on the project while not being paid right away. I don’t have any money at the moment and cannot invest in this game, so the illustrator has to believe in me and in this project. The catch? Work with me and I’ll make sure you get properly paid when we get published. The publisher will have no choice than to give you a contract as illustrator for the game. Because yes, I intend to be published. If I don’t believe in myself, then who will?
Two illustrators agree to try it out. Two professionals. Franck Barré and Antonio Vizcaino. We talk a lot, and we agree on how things are gonna go. Franck will take care of the characters and vehicles, and Antonio will illustrate the boards. They agree to make only some of the illustrations for the game, so that I have something to show at conventions. We’re starting to paint a picture (ha ha ha).
Hollywood Death Race’s universe gives us infinite possibilities, but we must first define the basics. How will the races unfold, what special attacks will the cars have, how much fun is the game gonna feature, how much chaos, etc.
Saying development was hard would be a lie. Nevertheless, as it is not then my only professional activity, and I’m also developing another game, it takes time. Plus, Franck and Antonio favor paid contracts (which totally makes sense) and are not always available to work on the game. Still, I keep on developing characters, vehicles and boards. I do some more sketches that I send Antonio and Franck. We take our time. Meanwhile, another of my games gets signed with another publisher (Hashtag, published by Mango, which comes out in October 2018) and I’m starting to get more and more invested in the board game industry.
Come the first conventions. Hollywood Death Race is playable, and gets warm welcomes, people have fun, they get it quick and most of all, they have a good time. It’s encouraging, but I don’t really grasp what is happening just yet.
By this time, I’m operating the most changes in the game. No more laps system, it will finally have a starting point and a finish line. Plus, to prevent a player from racing straight to the finish without having any interaction whatsoever, I decide that from now on each player will play two vehicles and will have to put both through the finish line to win. This completely rebalances the gameplay and brings even more chaos to the game. Perfect. That’s the spirit of the game. I wanted this game to be at a crossroads between Wacky Races, Mario Kart and Mad Max, and the test sessions confirm that it it. And the players get it. But most importantly, I see people laughing. It’s a good sign. I like when people laugh. Except at a funeral. It’s weird to laugh at a funeral.
I post some pics and info about the game on social media, and the curiosity of some is piqued. I’m getting some questions, people want to know where and when it will be playable, whether it will be kickstarted or store published, etc. Each time I pass the feedback on to Franck and Antonio and each time we realize a little more that something special is going on, that it’s not just a fun project that will not necessarily succeed. This is then that, basically by the same period, Franck and Antonio decide that they will now be at 100% on the game and draw all the illustrations necessary so that it can be fully presented at conventions and gaming clubs. I get it. There is something special. This game federates something truly positive. And then comes September 21, 2017, 9:21.
“You are with Phil’s answering machine, he is currently in space and cannot answer…”
On that morning, like every other, I turn on my computer. But this morning, I got a message from Julien Charbonnier, author, publisher, and founder of Mangrove Games. In essence, he tells me that he digs Hollywood Death Race a lot, and that he would like to try it out, in the hopes of publishing it. I’m ecstatic. I email him back. We get on the phone. We click instantly. I get the feeling he completely understands what I want to do with this game. Plus he’s a game designer too, so I know he will understand where I am and where I want to go. I update my rulebook and send it to him. Upon reading it, he tells me about his urge to… play Hollywood Death Race (what were you thinking? at the moment I barely know him). Lucky for me, I happen to have two copies of my prototype. I send him one and he gets back to me a few days before the Utopiales de Nantes (a growing convention, here in France) where I’m going to meet for the first time with both my illustrators. In his feedback, some remarks, some notes, and many things that I had already corrected which confirms that we have the same vision for this game. But above all, it is now a certainty, Hollywood Death Race will be published by Mangrove Games. I’m doing backflips in my head. Of pure joy. The great thing about doing it in your head is that you never miss and you do not have to smile with missing teeth. I call Franck and Antonio, and tell them everything Julien said. General jubilation the likes of a world cup victory, less the beers and the ugly scarves. And via Skype. And without any screaming. So completely different, actually.
The only thing is we can not talk about it yet. Not until it is officially signed. OK. So I go to the Utopiales knowing that the game will be published, but can tell no one. Talk about pressure. Especially since a couple of CWOWD (a huge KS-related website in France) members come to play HDR and ask me lots of questions. But my will is unbendable.
“There’s one thing I want you to do for me…”
2018 comes and with it a pretty big change in my life, driven by the promise of two published games on my first year as a boardgame designer: I decide to do it full-time. I move my stuff in a workshop, create Cosmo Duck, my designer studio, with the will to bring finished games to publishers, and to present the community with pretty prototypes. Some of my games are sent to other publishers, and my projects multiply. Meanwhile, I’m finalizing Hollywood Death Race for the Kickstarter campaign, set for October. Releasing a game takes time, but it is a beautiful adventure.
We set the contents of the game box with my publisher, according to manufacture and costs constraints. We are going to Kickstarter, as we feel it’s the best way to really pay tribute to the game and its numerous possibilities. The game will be released in both French and English. Given the number of additional vehicles and boards that I have in mind or already tested, this is indeed the ideal platform for such a project. Hollywood Death Race even has its BGG page, now.
There comes the last adjustments, we spend numerous hours playing HDR with a bunch of friends, testing every possibility, leaving as little room as possible for the unexpected. The game keeps getting better, we abandon the adjacent square system that was in place since the very beginning for a system of connected dots. This is much more fluid. Some rule points are simplified, so that the players can only focus on fun instead of going back to the game manual every two minutes.
I see something that was just a dream in my head a year ago, becoming a reality.
I see more and more players eager to play it, post encouraging comments on social media.
I see that I wasn’t wrong to dream, or to believe in my dreams.
I see we’re going to have molded figurines, and burst out laughing with joy.
I see my racing game being born, and it’s a very strange feeling. A really nice one.
And I don’t even own a driver’s license.