Designing The SPILL
The SPILL, the new co-op game from Smirk and Dagger Games, took years to develop and finally makes its debut in late August. Andy Kim, the game’s designer, discusses its creation and how it all began…
First, I love dice towers! I was driving home from a game meetup, dice tower beside me, when an idea popped into my head. “Would it be possible to create a dice tower where the dice would randomly fall in 4 different directions, instead of just one?”
As I got home, with the idea fresh in my mind, I got to work. I took out a full 12x12 inch sheet of chipboard and fashioned what I hoped would work as the first-ever “four-way” dice tower. My first test drop could not have been more perfect. Each of the four dice dropped out a different side of the tower. After successfully testing it out several times (and adding a few more runs just because it was so much fun), I started thinking about what type of game could be made with it.
But it was my wife who had the answer. After asking her what sort of things would spread out in this manner, she immediately thought of an oil rig. The dice could represent the oil spilling into the ocean and the players must work together to manage the spill. It was brilliant and we started to think further on the idea. With memories about sea life being coated in oil on the news, we thought rescuing them should be part of winning the game. The theme and the tower mechanic married perfectly - and so the idea of Black Waves (the original name of the game) was born.
This was the most complex board game prototype I had ever created, with 36 double-sided marine life tiles, a fairly large board and a new and improved cardboard, four-way dice tower that stood a foot off the table. (and I am not a graphic artist!) It was at this point, I also decided to add a few Specialists, with asymmetric player powers that would create unique tools for players in fighting the spill.
At this time, the End Game had just two losing conditions: If 4 or more marine animals of a given species had died (yes, they died in the original iteration) and/or if 10 Spillouts had occurred, you’d lose. The players would win if the players emptied the bag of 60 dice without a loss condition occurring.
It was time to playtest like crazy. I experimented with how many dice to drop every turn – and in the end, used all the models we tried as levels of difficulty. Resource cards were introduced to mitigate some of the randomness of the oil dice. Sometimes players were just in the wrong spot at the wrong time, powerless to do anything about it. While a natural part of the game, the Resource cards gave players a fighting chance. Player response was amazing. Though, people’s love of animals had us rethink contaminated animals, so that they went to intensive care (instead of dying) to soften the blow of their loss.
I felt at this point, it was ready to put it in front of publishers. I brought it to ProtoTO, Toronto’s board game prototype convention. It was there that Curt Covert, of Smirk and Dagger Games, discovered the game. The high drama of the game really resonated with him and he loved the table appeal of the tower. Curt made an offer to sign the game right there during the show.
Many changes came during development over the next few years, with Curt and I doing a lot of fine tuning and balancing. We decided that there should always be four Specialists in play. This had the benefit of feeling more like a full response team and made the number of spaces moved uniform across all player counts. It also made solo play more viable and interesting. The Spillout Track was added, ramping up tension as the number of dice dropped down the rig escalated over the course of the game – and provided a means of scaling difficulty by providing three separate tracks, each escalating more quickly than the last.
One of the most important changes relates to the Resource cards. Previously, they were randomly dealt off the top of the deck and instantly available to use. But when we decided to have players choose the four cards to start the game – and then have them earn activation cubes to utilize the cards – we added a lot of strategy and table discussion to the game. What Resources do we want? Which one should we power up first – and do we invest more cubes over time to get a better version of that ability? It created a much richer game experience.
Weather dice were introduced providing new challenges to overcome, further increasing the tension of dice drops. The tower became plastic for durability and ease of set up. But it was the win condition that still needed work in the final phase. Surviving until the oil drained out of the bag didn’t feel quite heroic enough. We’re here to stop the oil spill, not just contain it, right? The solution came in the creation of 9 variable win condition cards. Each would have three goals to complete, that if they could be accomplished, would stop the flow of oil and win the game. A far more satisfying win, but by no means an easier one. Finally, Black Waves took on a new name: The Spill.
What started off as an experiment, creating a multi-directional dice tower, ended with a compelling game about working together to battle an environmental disaster. Interestingly, the game has drawn the attention of professionals who work to prevent and respond to oil disasters in the real world. They have remarked how well the game simulates real world situations and their devastating impacts, while remaining light and approachable. That is one of the reasons we created a common core lesson plan for educators, so the game can be a jumping off point for in-class discussions. But mostly, the game is just plain fun. The conversation around the table is engaging as players work together to try to solve the puzzle. The drama ramps up immediately, continuing right to the last drop of dice. I am so glad to see it finally in the hands of players around the world and hope they have as much fun playing The SPILL as I had in creating it.