The path of game design and development is rarely a straight one. From the first spark of an idea, to the finished product that hits your table, there are a lot of twists and turns. Some can be very predictable, like the addition of new mechanisms or the development of thematic elements. Other obstacles you just don’t see coming. In Too Deep is launching on Kickstarter next week, but it has certainly come a long way on this journey. We took a look back at the process with designers Josh Cappel and Daryl Chow.
“I first designed the game in 2006 as an entry for a game design contest on the Board Game Designers Forum; the theme was ‘secret agents’,” recalled Cappel. “My entry (which in fact won the contest) was called Raid on Omnitech and the current design still retains the central feature that made that game unique; all players working with the same set of pieces to try to solve competing secret puzzles. Daryl soon joined me to bring his strengths to the continuing development, and we were able to polish the rough idea into a fun and working game that we called Agent Orange.”
“We playtested Josh’s design for Agent Orange at a convention,” remembered Chow. “I loved the concept of the game and the puzzle of it, and literally couldn’t stop thinking about the math. I really liked the idea of being able to plan out different paths to get the board to an end state, it makes you feel great when you are able to ‘solve’ the puzzle. Until now, I don’t know of any game that allows you to experience the feeling that Agent Orange (and now In Too Deep) does. So I mustered up the courage to offer him my services to help him redo and simplify the missions and work together on the game design.”
Cappel and Chow worked together on Agent Orange for a while. At the time, they were both living in Toronto, and getting together for development session was an easy proposition. Before long they had a game they were ready to start shopping around.
“It was signed by a publisher years ago (might have been the first game that I got signed), and so because of that, we didn’t touch it for a long time,” explained Chow.
“The game never was actually produced, and the contract eventually lapsed with the rights reverting to us,” said Cappel.
It was right around that time when the Burnt Island Games team was on their way back to Toronto from Gen Con 2019 and they were discussing the next game they would bring to Kickstarter. Josh started describing an old secret agent game he had in development with Daryl and the rest of the team were really intrigued.
“Once Helaina (Burnt Island Games’ owner) realized that the rights were available, she immediately jumped on it and asked us to take the design to the next level.”
By the time they had arrived home, the basic outline had been discussed and the name In Too Deep was proposed.
The project was still a long way from completion. One of the nagging mechanism problems was the ‘flux’ that players would experience between turns.
“Too much stuff was happening between turns, so that anything you accomplished on one turn had been erased by the time your next turn came around. We worked tirelessly to make it possible for players to achieve progress on their own turns without messing things up too much for other players incidentally. It’s a fine balance, but I really think we have nailed it, explained Cappel. “There are a ton of tools in the toolbox for a creative player to make things happen and get around obstacles now.”
Burnt Island games are layered, with lots of different elements to consider. Cappel and Chow were satisfied with the puzzle on the game board, but they wanted to have another mechanical layer that would challenge players and offer difficult decisions for them to make.
“It was important to work in the corruption/dilemma aspect of the game,” says Cappel. “It has been a real adventure trying to develop a system that pushes player motivations into places that all feel like they make sense. Our goal with this was to create a system where players all start with good intentions, but over the course of the game the lure of reckless behaviour gets stronger. It’s very interesting watching players grapple with their moral condition and the surrounding factors.
The goal was to launch on Kickstarter in early 2020, but like so many plans for this year, adjustments had to be made. For one thing, Daryl had moved to Singapore with his family, making play testing the game much more difficult. Further complicating matters, the COVID-19 global pandemic made it impossible for the development team to meet in person, even if they all were located in the same place.
Burnt Island turned to technology for the solution. Tabletop Simulator has revolutionized the approach and saved the timeline for In Too Deep. On TTS they have been able to meet on a regular basis, under safe conditions to play the game. With so many online plays and discussions under their belt, they were able to advance the process dramatically. With the cancelation of major gaming events, they’ve even had to resort to digital previews to ensure board game media and fans in general were aware of the game and the upcoming campaign.
“So far the response from previewers has been extremely gratifying,” said Cappel. “We’ve been showing the game mostly over Tabletop Simulator which makes the game more difficult and longer to play. But still all players are always engaged, they love the innovative mechanisms we’ve developed, they feel like the incentives push them into interesting decisions, and it has been just generally extremely well received. I am very happy with that, because sometimes you just never know!”
Sean J. is a member of the Burnt Island Games team and was able to share this behind the scenes look at the design process for In Too Deep. This article is meant to share information about that process, rather than as a traditional review or endorsement.