Joe Slack and the Relics of Rajavihara Board Game
Joe Slack is a professional board game designer and author of the #1 international best-selling book, The Board Game Designer's Guide, along with 2 other books on game design. He has taught Game Design and Development at Wilfrid Laurier University and runs the Board Game Design Course, an online course for new game designers. Joe has many games at various stages, from development to Kickstarter completion to signed to published.
JF: When I first saw Relics of Rajavihara, I was expecting a temple crawler a la Tomb
Raider. However, Relics of Rajavihara is a solo puzzle campaign game, which is a
refreshing take on what is typically expected from the theme. What inspired you to go
with the puzzle direction of the game?
JS: Actually, this game is a case of the mechanics coming before the theme. At first, I was just calling it something like “that puzzle cube game”, then I tried to introduce a story about the player being a knight trapped in are magician’s castle. At the time, I called it Montalo's Revenge. It was only after I did some brainstorming and ran a poll in the Solo Board Gamers Facebook Group that I found the right theme - an adventure game in the style of Indiana Jones -not too far off from Tomb Raider. 😊
Relics of Rajavihara was actually inspired by some of the old NES puzzle games like Adventures of Lolo, Kickle Cubicle, and Fire & Ice (one of my personal favourites). But it was also inspired partially by a game called River Crossing by ThinkFun that my nephew used to play.
JF: When I saw the box pushing and climbing mechanics from your promotional video, I was extremely excited because for whatever reason, pushing blocks is one of my favorite puzzles from the Legend of Zelda series. What drew you to make a game with these mechanics in mind?
JS: It's funny you should say that. I've had a couple other people compare it to some of the puzzles in the Legend of Zelda games. I've only played the originals on NES and other than that I’ve only seen clips of some of the other games in the series. I've always loved puzzle games, but I’d never seen one done in a 3D tactile style. So, I set out to make that game.
JF: I’m in the process of developing a solo game myself, and something I struggle with is how much I should add/remove from the game. When you were developing Relics of Rajavihara, did you find yourself adding or removing things from the game?
JS: Initially, I didn't give myself too many restrictions. I wanted to keep the mechanics and rules simple, but make the levels challenging.
The original 8 x 5 grid I came up with survived all the way through. I started by making levels with just the crates, but quickly realized that there was only so much I could do with them, and that the levels might become boring and too similar. So, I started coming up with new types of blocks that all acted differently. This really added a new dimension to the game. With these additions, the game naturally flowed into sets of floors, where each new floor would introduce a new type of block. Then I came up with the idea of introducing each floor in a separate envelope or tuck box, almost like a legacy game, but without ripping up or modifying the components.
Some levels just weren’t good enough. Or they required too many components. Or the setup was too long. They all had to go. New, better levels replaced them.
As I got further along, I had to put on my developer hat. I had 52 wooden blocks, which would cause the production cost to be much higher than I wanted. So, I needed to ask myself, “are they all needed?” I started to streamline the levels down to their bare bones and tested them thoroughly. By the end, I was able to reduce this to 38 wooden blocks, which brought the manufacturing cost down just enough, while still making for a great experience. This actually tightened up some of the levels, making them even better.
JF: For you personally, what are you looking for from a solo board gaming experience?
JS: Honestly, I hadn’t played a lot of solo games prior to creating Relics of Rajavihara. In fact, I originally thought it might work as a co-op game, but the first few playtests showed that it really was best as a solo game. So, I embraced this and put all my effort into making this a great solo experience.
I had played Friday previous to this, which I love, and I have played many other solo games since I started working on Relics of Rajavihara. What I look for personally is a game that is quick to set up, plays in a short time (30 minutes or less), makes me think, and when I finish playing I want to play it again immediately. That’s the sign of a great solo game to me, especially wanting to play it again right away.
JF: There are over 50 levels in the campaign and a repayable adventure mode. What was the process for designing each level, and did you have a firm number in mind from the beginning or did the game drive itself towards that number?
JS: I didn’t really have a set number in mind from the start. I just began creating levels. Then more levels. Eventually I must have had 20 or 30 levels, and that’s when I thought to myself, “I’ve got 5 different block types. I think I can come up with 10 levels for each block type, which would give me 50.” It sounded like a good number of levels for the game.
I started with just the crates, then added various other types of blocks to keep the levels constantly changing. I wanted to create a sort of progression. The first few levels of each floor would give you a feel for the game and the new block types, almost in a tutorial fashion, then the challenge escalates quickly. For each new level I created, I tried to have some purpose or something different about it. It might have been having fires in the way of accomplishing your goal, using a block in a way you’d never thought of, or adding a red herring to throw people off.
JF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about Relics of Rajavihara?
JS: Just that the game doesn’t end when you have completed the 50-level campaign. I didn’t want people to play the game just once and then have it end up on their shelf. So, I developed a new challenge system, which allows you to play some of the levels from the campaign over again, but with all new goals and obstacles. You can increase or decrease the difficulty level, and there are over 2,000 different combinations of challenges you can tackle.
JF: Relics of Rajavihara is just one of the numerous projects I see you’re working on. How do you juggle your time when you develop a game?
JS: Well, I like to stay busy and I love having multiple games on the go. I’m doing this full time, so I can’t rely on making only one game. Besides, I love the challenge of working on many unique games. I try to focus my time on whatever the priority is. If I’ve got a Con coming up, I will prioritize the games I feel will be ready to pitch to publishers at that time. If I’ve got a playtesting night in a few days, I’ll work on whatever prototype needs playtesting the most. In the case on Relics of Rajavihara, I knew I’d have to put a lot of work into running the Kickstarter campaign, so I tried to dedicate as much time as I could to this project. It’s all a matter of prioritization.
JF: Indie publishers wear many hats, which one is your favorite to wear?
JS: I love pretty much all the aspects of designing and publishing. Working out the numbers, seeing the art and design come together, working with partners… but I’d have to say I still love the design process the best. Coming up with an idea, making a prototype, playtesting, iterating, and seeing a game evolve from a concept to the final version. That’s why I got into this.
JF: What advice would you give young designers looking to make their way into the board game industry?
JS: Get involved. Be active in the community. Learn from others and don’t be afraid to share your idea and your game with others. The only way your game is going to get better is from playtesting it with other people, getting feedback, and continuously making improvements. No one designs alone.
JF: I’m pretty stoked about the release of the game on July 7th. Until then, where can we learn more about you, your games, and Crazy Like a Box?
JS: Thanks, Jonathan!
I also run the Board Game Design Course, with lots of free resources for board game designers, along with game design books and my course.
JF: Thank you so much Joe! 😊