Deckchairs On The Titanic is the first game to be released by Silver Birch Games. In this post, the designer, Tom Holness, talks about the process of going from the idea to a first prototype. Future design diaries will cover playtesting, using AI to balance the game, artistic design and the decision to self-publish.
January 2019, my previous job had finished in December and I was at a loose end before my next job started in April. Chatting to my friend Becca, who writes the intros for our games, about how I needed something to do we got talking about some of the board game ideas and attempts I’d had. I was at an impasse with the game I’d been designing and wanted something new.
She reminded me of some of the game ideas I’d told her in the past and one of them jumped out – Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Just a title / theme idea, completely absurd and definitely unique. A game from the phrase that was actually about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic whilst it sunk. Every other Titanic based game is about trying to escape the sinking ship, this would be different.
Straight away the thought came to me that this could be a pattern matching game – start with pieces in one formation on the board and try to move them around to fit a pre-defined winning pattern, whilst being disrupted by the ship moving around and ice from the iceberg on the deck.
A couple of days later I sat down at my computer and made the first prototype. I had to make some initial decisions about player counts, board size and number of pieces.
The first one was easy – I would start with just a 2 player game but intending to scale it to 3 and 4 players at least.
Having made that decision, I knew that having a total of 12 player pieces would mean the game could scale directly with more players having fewer pieces. In my mind I was already thinking that getting the right ratio of pieces:spaces on the board would be crucial to having a game that really worked.
I decided to go for a 6×5 board initially but knew that I’d want to change this in playtesting.
The very first version of the game just had deckchairs and the ship’s movement. I wanted to get something on the table in as simple a form as I felt possible and see how it worked. I had two grids, one for the pattern you are aiming for (“the target board”) and one as the play board. At this point I was setting these up randomly by “rolling” the cube pieces onto the target board and the play board just because it was a quick, simple way to setup.
From this first play I knew that I had a game there. The apparently simple but actually confusing ship movement at the end of the round meant that it was a constant (if not overly difficult) mental challenge to get your deckchairs in the right place. The right place is not the square you want it to be on, because the ship will move and the deckchair along with it, so you need to place it next to the square you want it to be on, so it moves onto the scoring square. Which way you need to offset your chairs changes each round so you can never get settled.
I had in mind a co-operative game, which made sense with the story that you had been ordered by the captain to get the deckchairs in a specific pattern to stop the ship sinking, but it was way too easy to achieve. Playing competitively though was interesting but definitely not complete. I decided at this point to pursue this as a competitive game and come back to the idea of a co-op mode later.
I left the game overnight and came back to it the next day. It needed another element and I remembered the idea of there being ice on the deck. I knew the game needed a way for players to interact directly – using the deckchairs you could block your opponent from certain squares but you couldn’t move their deckchairs in any way. So I decided the ice block would be a piece that both players could control, that would move deckchairs. Being ice it made sense that you would push it and it would slide along the deck, moving deckchairs out of its way.
I tried a few different things with the ice block – my first idea was that it would slide to the edge of the board, knocking pieces sideways/diagonally out of its way, but this was too complicated to work out how deckchairs should move in a wide variety of edge cases. Second was that the ice block would push any chairs in its way to the edge of the board and this was great. The game was working well at this point, but I was finding the ice block to be too powerful. It was almost always the case that you were best off knocking your opponents chair(s) away from their scoring squares and to the edge of the board, and very hard to get away from this.
After sleeping on it, I decided what was needed was a defensive piece and realised this could be you, the deckchair attendant, holding on to one of your chairs to stop it from moving, either from the ice block or the ship movement at the end of the round.
This addition completed the game, and whilst there were clear issues – the pieces would bunch around the edges of the board, the board was too tight/small and the storing wasn’t great and I had no idea what other people would think of it!
The next step was to play it with some close friends and move on to wider playtesting. You can read about this in my next blog post.