We're all stuck at home and unable to travel. Perhaps now is the best time to reminisce about the times that we did have the liberty to go around the world and visit places that fill you with awe and wonder, or at the very least give you a different frame of reference from the four walls around you. It's times like these that give us pause, and let us take a brief moment to remember.
Last year, I had the pleasure and honour of being able to travel to Kyoto to work with one of my favourite game designers, Saashi. Though that seems like an eternity ago now, some of the memories that we created together remain as fresh as though I just cycled back from his house. Saashi and I met for the first time almost exactly a year ago, during the spring Game Market in Tokyo. I had previously stopped by his booth to buy his latest game In Front of the Elevators, but had an excuse to walk back over with my friend and GameStart representative Reuben to see if Saashi (and others) were interested in getting a booth at GameStart.
When we made our introductions, I was about to say that I was a big fan of his when Saashi suddenly interjected and asked if I designed the game Overbooked. Apparently his wife Takako-san and him were big fans of the game and he had wanted to contact me for a while to see if I wanted to work together. You already know the answer to that question - and the rest, they say, is history.
We hit it off spectacularly despite the language mismatch and coming from very different backgrounds - it felt like we were friends for ages, even though we hadn't met for very long. Our design approaches, although different, dovetailed neatly in our expectations of the final product. It helped that soon after Tokyo, we were both coincidentally signed up for booths for a board game event in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. In the short time there, we developed the framework for Remember Our Trip - again, despite the communication barriers and wholly different design backgrounds. I had to brush up on my Japanese game design vocabulary in a hurry - we were only there for the weekend - and somehow, by the end of the three days, we had a pretty solid skeleton for the game despite spending our days at the convention and our nights at the night markets.
It helped that we had a tangible concept to start with, which was to combine the puzzle pattern-forming mechanics of Overbooked with the interactive map-play of Let's Make a Bus Route. We would use the card-flip mechanic in Bus Route, which simultaneously gives all players the same pattern to build from. That pattern then would be filled in by selecting tokens to fill into a grid just like in Overbooked. Somehow, like our disparate personalities, these two distinct mechanics fit each other seamlessly, and provided a fun and unique foundation from which to build the game from. The fact that players were building both on their own board as well as a shared board was a facet that was rarely seen in other spatial games and allowed the game to be puzzly yet interactive.
We weren't done yet, of course. Although we started off with a city-building theme, which honestly did fit the pattern-fitting mechanics, we didn't really want to make just another city-building game. With the framework that we had, we knew that we had a functional and interesting game, but it wouldn't be a Saashi game if it was just a standard city-builder. The third chapter of our story took me back to Japan, where I spent a week with Saashi in his house in Kyoto. In Kyoto, we finally had time to sit down and really get into the teeth of the design, despite the fact that the beautiful gardenscapes of Kyoto were beckoning just minutes away. One of the things we realized was that the players who were able to build their buildings first on the shared board benefited disproportionately. In order to fix this, we made it such that other players who were able to match the buildings on the main board by the end of the game would also score the same amount of points. It was through this notion of trying to create yet match the main board that we came up with the theme in which players were trying to 'remember' a place that they went to, and the central map was the 'real' map while players' boards were their 'memories' of their trip.
This theme felt unique and fit right into the '日常 (nichiijou)' or 'everyday' Saashi universe of games, games that took inspiration from everyday life. Everyone knew what it was like to travel together to somewhere with friends or family, and then get together to reminisce about the trip. The concept of travel nostalgia feels even more poignant now, in a time when we fear that we may never get back to the days when we can just hop on a plane and be with your friends in a different country. Being able to get together and recall a fond memory of time spent together in a wondrous place could be the best antidote that we have for the foreseeable future.
The title took an alarmingly long time for us to come up with. We came up with the English title before the Japanese one, and we took so much time to think about a name that would accurately convey the theme and feeling that we only came up with it the day before I left Kyoto. The downside to trying to play up the theme in both the title and the description of the game meant that probably some people thought that the game had a memory component - and as a veteran gamer I know that gamers and good memories rarely go together. So for those of you who are avoiding the game because you think that this game tests your memory skills - it is not a memory game!
What is, however, is an interactive spatial puzzle game that feels very different from any other spatial or puzzle game you've played. To play the perfect game, you not only need to fit your tokens on your board masterfully, but you have to be on your toes at all times and pay attention to the development of the other players. You can play the game aggressively, or you can play it generously (people who have played will understand this), suiting many different types of gaming styles. Your decisions or side decisions will have an impact on how the game unfolds for yourself and for other players.
But perhaps above all of that, it is a game that is a marriage of two cultures and design styles. Nowhere is that more apparent than the fact that you can play on the Singapore board or the Kyoto board, an obvious reflection of the cities we are from. Both maps have their own personalities and play-styles as well as artwork, courtesy of Takako-san. Singapore is illustrated as a city of the night, with its illuminated futuristic monoliths juxtaposed against colourful and intricate Peranakan motifs. Kyoto is the epitome of Japanese culture, with its awe-inspiring traditional temples against a backdrop of a sunny and harmonious natural landscape. No matter which city you are currently in, you aren't whole again until you can revisit the other one.
There will (hopefully) be a time when we can get back to the long distance connections we are so used to in our globalized age, back to the collaborations and relationships that changed your life and opened your eyes to the existence of worlds beyond your four walls. But until that time is back, and until we can continue writing more common chapters in our lives, perhaps the best thing we can do is to appreciate the times that we had and shared, and to humbly and meaningfully remember our trip.
(Check out Saashi's version)