Battling bullfrogs vie for control of the swamp: A Q&A with the makers of “Bullfrogs”

Weapons clash, water splashes and the booming battle cries of armored bullfrogs ring out across the moonlit swamp. Amphibian armies leap from lily pad to lily pad in their desperate struggle to win control of the pond. 

So introduces a light, family-friendly game by Keith Matejka and Thunderworks Games that may find a place high among the ranks of highly-regarded filler games that average 30 minutes or less to play.

As of writing, Bullfrogs is set to go live on Kickstarter in early April 2014. But every game’s story starts somewhere, and that somewhere begins far before a Kickstarter campaign begins.

Illustrator John Ariosa, known for his work on games like Mice & Mystics worked with Matejka and graphic designer Luis Francisco who recently worked on the hugely successful Kickstarter game “Draco Magi,” to get the game ready before its crowdfunding campaign was to begin.

Before you read our review of the game, check out this interview with Keith, Luis and John:

bullfrogs box

 

What was the inspiration behind Bullfrogs for both the mechanics and the theme? What void does it fill in the tabletop game genre?

Keith: When I started putting Bullfrogs together, my goal was to create an quick game that I could play over a lunch hour that was component-light, but also had some interesting decisions on every turn.  I had games like Battle Line or Lost Cities in mind for inspiration.  They’re both great 2-player games that have that “play a card, draw a card” mechanic that I really like.  Bullfrogs is different here in that more players are supported and that all players have their own decks instead of one shared deck.  I think makes the game more balanced when playing with larger groups. These games are also more about set collection, where Bullfrogs is much more spatially tactical.

The frog jumping mechanic came later in the development.  Its use in Bullfrogs is reminiscent of how diseases spread in Pandemic, which I’ve always admired for its elegant mechanics, or how boats are distributed in Tongiaki.

For the theme, I had a handful of ideas, but wasn’t happen with any of them.  The working title of the game was “Cascade” for a long time.  For months, I gathered ideas and mulled them all around in my head.  In the end, a suggestion from my wife won, as it seemed to connect to the mechanics the most, and it seemed to have a lot of potential.

In tabletop gaming, there always seems to be a need for “meaty filler” games.  I think Bullfrogs falls into that category.  The decisions can be tough.  Setting up 2-3 turns ahead can really pay dividends down the road and clinch the victory for strategic players.  But on the other hand, the game’s only 20-40 minutes long, so the time commitment isn’t huge.  It’s great at the beginning or end of a game night, or between two heavier games.  I feel the theme is light enough and the rules are simple enough for a family game, but the game is also attractive to more “serious” games who like tactical “puzzle-like” games.

You already have a prototype and (at least some of) the artwork finished. What do you, Keith, think about the illustrations and graphic design? How did the partnerships with the artists begin?

Keith: I really wanted to have the vast majority of the game complete, especially when it comes to art,  by the time I launched the Kickstarter campaign.  Most of the more successful Kickstarters for games I’ve seen have been near complete, and as a backer, the more complete the game is when it’s on Kickstarter, the more confident I am in the project.  I wanted to make my backers as confident in backing Bullfrogs as possible when it launched.

Regarding the gentlemen helping me with artwork, I found the illustrator, John Ariosa, first.  I admired his work on games like Mice & Mystics, Summoner Wars and Tooth & Nail: Factions.  He seemed like a perfect fit.  By the power of the internet, I just looked him up and sent him an email.  A week later, we were working together.  A few weeks after that, the cover was done and we moved onto the card illustrations.  John’s a true professional and I’m honored to have his artwork in this game.

Luis Franciso was a find on one of the groups on Facebook.  He posted in the “Card/Board Game Designers Flavor Guild saying he was looking for opportunities.  I had been looking at different graphic designers and gathering cost estimates when I just randomly ran into him and sent him a message on boardgamegeek.com.  I think he wrote some post that said he was looking for work, so I sent him a geekmail.  He was busy and I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted just yet, but he was patient with me and after a few months of back and forth, we were rolling.  He won me over with his enthusiasm and passion for board games and this specific project.  He’s a talented guy and you can see some of his other work on the latest version of Coup for the US, and a new Brazilian version he is publishing as well as a recent project on Kickstarter called Draco Magi.  It’s good looking stuff!   The graphic designer is so critical to getting a game done.  He’s been a great partner on the project and has been critical in getting this project this far.

For John and Luis: what made you decide to come on board for the project and what’s your artistic process? What tools do you use to create your art?

John: When Keith contacted me about the project it sounded like something that was right up my alley theme-wise. The cover was the first piece of art created and after a little back and forth iteration on the sketch the piece really clicked and everything after just fell into place style-wise.

Keith had a very clear design direction for how he wanted the game to look and feel on the table from an artistic standpoint. His art direction to create a polytyptich out of the cards was a very interesting element that I had never done in a game before and I think it turned out great.

All of the illustrations were made in Photoshop with a graphics tablet, which gave a lot of flexibility on things like re-positioning elements in the artwork to aid the graphic and game design.

Luis: I’m always open to do work for board games, and when Keith showed me the theme of Bullfrogs I fell in love with it at the same time. It’s difficult to find innovative themes, and even more difficult to find innovative themes that matches the mechanic and everything feels right. That’s exactly what I found on Bullfrogs, so wanting to be part of it.  It was no brainer. The process for me to creating graphic design really changes from one game to another. Sometimes I receive all the illustrations already made and other times I need to work together with the illustrator and art direct him. For Bullfrogs it was the first option, as John had done everything before I came to the project. I love when I’m lucky to work with really talented illustrators like John and it really inspires me to do a better job! I create my graphic design mostly on computer, using Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, Cinema 4d… many tools together. But sometimes, when you can’t find a solution there’s nothing better than sketching some stuff on paper.

I love that the art is family-friendly and fun without looking too “cartoony.” How was this decision made?

Keith: Once I had decided on the theme, the art direction was pretty clear in my mind.  I wanted the look to be inviting and fun for families, but also something my gaming buddies would play too.  I told John specifically that I wanted “something colorful, but something that doesn’t specifically read as a kids game.”  The final cover he delivered was spot on.  Once the look was established, everything else just followed that aesthetic.

Luis: Regarding that, when we were doing the icons for actions and factions, we really tried to find how to communicate them in a way that wasn’t too childish, especially because we were dealing with flowers. The Factions symbols are the perfect example of how we mixed them with the tenderness of the flower giving a war crest feeling it. Also, we tried a lot of stuff to represent the Action Points like: Roman Numbers, Arabic Numbers, Battle marks… But when we finally come to Lily Pads icons, we knew we had a winner, as it would be easily identified by children to adults and totally sticks to the theme.

How do the theme and mechanics of Bullfrogs compare/contrast to other comparable card games?

Keith: Well, Bullfrogs has a nice mix of familiar mechanics from other game, but they’re all turned on their head a bit.  Placing the Lily Pad Cards to the table to create the playing area, can feel a little like Carcasonne, but Bullfrogs is much more interactive and much more puzzle-like.  As I mentioned earlier, there is a little Pandemic and a little Battle Line in there, but Bullfrogs is multiplayer and a competitive game, so the overall feel is a lot different from those games.  Setting up cascades of Lily Pad Cards to score feels a little like doing a big set of jumps in checkers.  Setting that up and then seeing it happen, scoring 2, 3, or 4 cards in a turn is super fun.  In terms of theme, there aren’t many “warrior frog” games out there.  The most common comment I get from people is “Dude!  Battletoads!” referring to the old NES games.  I didn’t have that in mind when deciding on the theme, but I always liked those games as a kid.  There are a handful of frog themed games for kids, but Bullfrogs isn’t exclusively a kids game.   I think Bullfrogs is positioned in a space where there aren’t a lot of comparable games, theme-wise.

Have you ever been involved in a Kickstarter project before? If so ,what was the experience like? What do you anticipate from the Bullfrogs Kickstarter?

Keith: This is my first project.  I’ve been a backer of many projects on Kickstarter, and I think it’s a really great platform for creative ideas to turn a dream into reality.  I’m stoked to bring this project to people and I hope people really respond to it.  I’d love to see the project fund well past it’s funding goal and see it get into the hands of gamers across the world.

Luis: I’ve been involved, but not directly. Many games I did graphic design only happened because of Kickstarter. and I’m really thankful for that! Although I’m currently doing a crowdfunding for my Brazilian version of Coup, it uses my own platform as we aren’t allowed to create projects on Kickstarter from Brazil without having an American address. I have no doubt Bullfrogs will be a success. It’s a simple, yet really strategic, filler that will please most of the gamers.

What has been the biggest challenge thus far in designing/producing Bullfrogs?

Keith: Whew! In terms of design, the tricky part is figuring out how to filter feedback and knowing when to trust your gut.  Once the game design is relatively far along and you’re starting to get a lot of playtesting going, there are a lot of opinions and comments to sort.  What do I take on and try to solve right now?  What do I put on the back burner and solicit  more feedback on before trying a change?  What do I dismiss?  Sometimes you dismiss a comment, and then you hear it a couple more times in playtesting and decide it’s worth investigating a fix/change for.  Different people want different things out of a game.  It’s important to have the core values of the game you’re trying to design in mind and vet all feedback against that, but man, it can be tough.

As for production, figuring out all the financials is the most complicated.  There are a lot of great resources out there for new project managers on Kickstarter, especially for board and card games.  Guys like James Mathe and Jamey Stagmaier are awesome for the community.  I own them so much.  I try to absorb as much as I can to avoid any pitfalls along the way.   Things like international shipping, and structuring stretch goals are all a little tricky, but I think I’m in a good place with Bullfrogs at this point.

How did you get a prototype made of the game? Do you recommend having a completed game before taking a project to Kickstarter?

Keith: The first prototype for Bullfrogs was a deck of standard playing cards and bunch of scratches I made on them with a pen and handful of cubes.  I just sat down at my kitchen table and started pushing things around to see what it felt like to do different actions.  For most of my prototypes, I cut paper cards and sleeve them with an old magic card or something and use that to playtest.  They feel more “real” and are easy to play for my regular testing group.  When it comes to design, you need to be able to make iterations quickly and on the fly.  For example, if something’s not working in a playtest, scratch out the value on the card and make it something else.

Before taking your game to Kickstarter, you need that thing to be 99.9% done – Playtested like crazy and a lot of the art done.  We’re visual creatures.  If you want people to get excited about a project, it’s got to look good.

What’s your personal favorite card from the game in terms of looks, play, or both?

Keith: Well, there’s isn’t a specific card, that I like, but I really like the Lily Pad Cards as a set.  They make a polyptych.  If a player takes all 10 of their cards and lays them out on the table in just the right way, they make a single large image.  It’s a cool little Easter egg for players.  Here’s a list on BGG that itemizes a bunch of other games that do this as well.  I like the set for Jamaica, personally, from other games that do this.

Do you have any advice for budding game designers?

Keith: 1. Go for it.  There’s no reason not to.  2. Test often.  Finding the fun is hard work.  3. Don’t fall in love with any single idea. It’s likely to be thrown out at some point.  4.  Find your own personal motivation.  Staying engaged over the longterm can be challenging.  5. Don’t wait around for inspiration.  Just start designing.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Keith: Thanks for the interest in Bullfrogs.  Feel free to contact me anytime with questions or comments.  keith@thunderworksgames.com

Luis: Thank you for the opportunity. And everyone… Back this game, you won’t regret it!

 

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