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Interview with Mice 'n' Men designer John Buenavides

Not long ago, posters on BoardGameGeek participated in the Quick Print and Play Design Challenge, a friendly competition that featured the following rules/constraints:
  1. No more than 6 sheets of card stock (A4 or Letter) may be used for game components. One sheet of card stock can be used for other game materials besides cards (game board, player boards, player aids, markers, etc.)
  2. Cards must be the predominant feature of the game.
  3. No duplex printing required. However, different sets of cards can be specified to be on different colors of card stock.
  4. Rulebook can be no longer than 10 pages in length of A4 or Letter paper. Font can be no smaller than 8 point font.
  5. Cards must be rectangular or square (but see below). No hexagonal or irregular tiles.
  6. A reasonable number of cubes, discs, dice, markers, poker chips, winks, checkers or chess pieces may be specified by the game to be provided by the players. One sand-timer may be specified. Stickered dice are prohibited. Standard playing cards are also prohibited. 
Contestants were encouraged to design their entries in view of the BGG community, and John Buenavides did just that. What was unique about John's game concept - Mice 'n' Men, a colonization/survival game - was that it started out as a multi-player game, but, after soon playtesting among the BGG community, it became a solitaire game!

Now, after all of his weeks of hard work, John's feeling like the design of Mice 'n' Men is where he wants it to be. So, Solo Nexus cornered him in his burrow in the northern meadows and asked him a few questions.

Solo Nexus: The genesis of Mice 'n' Men was rooted in your RPG experiences as you struggled with resolution mechanics that nagged at you. How did the shift from making your own RPG to creating your own board game occur over time?
John Buenavides: In some strange "evolutionary" process, this game really started 2 years ago. I was looking for a different way to run a roleplaying game. I've gotten burned out on d20's and rolling dice in general, and I felt that having some kind of "finite set" of random results -- such as drawing from a deck of cards -- would be better than the "infinite set" of dice rolls.
     While playing around with that idea and running simulations to compare the results of 2d6, d20, and 52-cards against each other ... well, that's when I ran into Mouse Guard RPG, which led me to looking at the other game systems that Luke Crane had created.
     The Mouse Guard RPG pretty much opened up my eyes to what I really didn't like about the d20 system. I thought my problem was with mechanics, but my real problem was with how a ROLE-playing game had turned into a ROLL-playing game. The game that I loved involved imagination with player-and-gamemaster collaborating to form a story; the d20 "movement" in the late 1990s and 2000s had essentially turned the game into a miniatures wargame, and the story was no longer in the hands of the players, but rather in the hands of the game designer. Luke Crane and Mouse Guard reinforced the idea of storytelling.
     Another thing that Mouse Guard showed me is that conflicts of any type can be abstracted and treated in similar ways; and the same system can be used for any conflict, instead of having a separate one for combat and for non-combat.
     What I didn't appreciate in Mouse Guard is the "count successes" on dice -- both sides of a conflict rolled dice, but there was no relative comparison being done. Instead, each side counted their successes independently, and then compared the counts against each other.
     And that's where I started playing around with the idea of directly comparing the individual dice paired up against each other. It's a Risk-like mechanic. (Should I come up with a name for this? Dice vs Dice? DvD?)
     That's where I was last year. Having decided on a mechanic, I was then looking to apply it to an RPG. As I had spent so much time with d20, I was still somewhat influenced by the miniatures-gaming style, so there was a focus on combat. I also have a rather large collection of Mage Knight, so I wanted to recycle the Mage Knight miniatures to be useful in the RPG.
     I had decided early on that trying to invent a Magic/Sorcery system to fit into the RPG would be very difficult; so I had focused on a mundane (no-magic) world. I also wanted to have a very colonial, wild-lands, or wild-west world ... essentially a game where there are no political and economic superpowers. That led me to researching Colonial America.
     And eventually, I found the story of Roanoke Island and the Lost Colony of 1587. I've been playing around with various ideas for that game since September / October last year. I finally settled on a set of rules for a combo-boardgame / RPG early this year. But it was pretty rough.
     This is where Mice 'n' Men comes in. It's a distilled version of that Roanoke Island game. I turned Governor White's colonists into mice, and simplified the list of statistics of each colonist into the far simpler list that the mice tribesmen now have. Much of that re-working was due to the constraints of the contest ... so the constrained environment that these contests put on the game design process really do work!
     And strangely enough, I've come full circle in one sense: I've come back to playing cards instead of dice. I can imagine that I'll eventually return to the Roanoke Island RPG, but it seems fruitful to continue refining Mice 'n' Men in the meantime.

SN: Though the origins of Mice 'n' Men come from such a personal place, you readily embraced developing the game on the BGG message boards, welcoming commentary. How did such "open" designing benefit your creative process?
JB: I received two primary benefits to opening up the development process: (1) Positive feedback; and (2) Challenges to the design. The Roanoke Island game was largely a solo-research project. Most of the time, I simply simulated ideas and scenarios using a spreadsheet and a set of "programmed" players. When I started working on Mice 'n' Men, I wanted and needed other heads to give me their opinions on "what worked" and "what needs more work".

SN: About two weeks into the design process you noted that "Many of the playtesters were also running the game in solitaire, so the decision was made to focus on that aspect." How did the solitaire experience differ from your initial concepts for the game?
JB: The initial concept was really just a run-over from the Roanoke Island RPG: a multiplayer game. At the time, I was also already playing cooperative games like Pandemic and Forbidden Island -- and since both games were popular with my non-gamer wife and relatives, I had a personal goal of inventing yet another multiplayer cooperative game. I wanted a game that would play well in a 3 or 4 player setting, with options for 5 players (harder scenarios) or variant/twists for 2 players (one or both players would play "double-handed")
     Playtesting a multiplayer game that "requires" 3 or more players, however, is pretty hard when you don't have a consistent pool of players. And even if you have a pool of players, it takes a rather special group to really play a game with a critical eye and provide meaningful feedback. Most of my playtesters had that problem -- they didn't have a good group of people to play with; at best, they may be able to pull one friend (usually their wife or girlfriend) into a game. Going into the Mice 'n' Men project, I had already decided to zoom down to a 2 player game to allow for easier playtesting.
     From a 3000-ft view, Mice 'n' Men doesn't really have a concrete number of players -- there are plenty of mice to go around and perform the tasks for survival, and it didn't really matter whether one player made all the decisions, or if the decisions were made by several players. However, zooming down to the 10-ft view, the number of players were crucial to the mechanics that governed the difficulty level of the game. I had to adjust the scenario that was built for 2 players, and make it playable for 1 player.

SN: When you hit a few snags during the design process, one of the message board participants suggested that if you could not find an appropriate solution to your issues "there is more honor in withdrawing an entry from the contest than in submitting something sub-par." What kept you persevering through the tricky parts?
JB: Well, it made me think about "honor". For many people, honor is something you earn within a community: it answers the question, "are you being true to your community?" For other people, myself included, honor is something far more than that: when I think of honor, I think of personal integrity -- so now it answers the question "are you being true to your community AND to your self?" One of the primary considerations that I had to think about while designing the game in the context of the contest was: is this the game that I meant to design, or is this a game crippled by the contest constraints? In other words, "am I being true to my game design?"
     What kept me going was the fact that I haven't really seriously considered the components I needed for Mice 'n' Men. So in a way, I wasn't being honorable to the game components aspect of the game. The game I had designed so far existed in an abstract form in my head, and in order for me to be true to delivering the game to everyone else, I had to produce physical components. And it couldn't just be a random collection of components, it had to be components that make the game work well.

SN: You shifted from a dice mechanic to a card mechanic. How did the need for that change become apparent to you?
JB: I waffled on that a lot! One of the things that led me to this journey of game design was a desire to avoid rolling dice. As I was researching game designs, it became apparent that kids love to roll dice -- and I have a 4 year old son with whom I'd love to play games. It was in the course of playing games of Risk with my son that I had decided to adapt that dice mechanic into my game. Later on, as I tested the game, it became rather obvious that the Risk mechanic (3 dice vs 2 dice) worked well because it was easy to sort a set of 2 or 3 dice.
     The game I had designed would quickly have each player rolling a set of 10 dice and sorting that set, and comparing it against a separate set of about 6 to 8 dice. That's a lot of dice sorting ... which made the game too "fiddly" and slowed down the pace. On the other hand, I've never had a problem sorting a large hand of cards. Games of Bridge, Hearts, and Social Order convinced me that card sorting was a lot easier and accepted.
     I had to perform a few thousand Excel simulations just to compare the results of rolling 6 sided dice against drawing from a fixed set of cards. There are a few differences, but they were not significant enough to rule out the mechanic. In fact, the differences turned out to be positively driven to how I wanted the game to work, so I was happy with the change. In particular, I would have had to use a special set of dice to indicate "north" or "south" for one part of the game; that's a lot easier to adjust and manage when the "north/south" is actually indicated as part of the cards instead.

SN: How did the limitations of the contest's restrictions actually aid you in the game design for Mice 'n' Men?
JB: The contest's restrictions really forced me to look for a compact solution. Can you imagine a roleplaying game with only 10 pages of rules? How about an entire scenario that fits within 6 pages -- including the characters, the maps, and the encounters? As I mentioned before, a lot of the research I had done for the Roanoke Island game was in my head -- and my imagination has some pretty vast boundaries.

SN: Of all of the elements of your finished product, what aspect makes you the most proud?
JB: After I had been writing and re-writing the rules, I went back and dug up what inspired me to call it "Mice 'n' Men". The title really had nothing to do with the plot line of John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men". My appreciation of David Peterson's Mouse Guard and Luke Crane's subsequent RPG had inspired me to take the human experience of the Roanoke Island colonists and turn it into mousie roleplaying game scenario.
     So it wasn't until much later when I wanted to add some kind of backdrop to the game that I did some more research. At first, I wanted to just re-tell the story of Walter Raleigh, John White, and that tragic colonial history. But when I found Robert Burn's poem "To A Mouse", I was surprised by how fitting it was to the game! I've hinted at that poem in the rulebook, but any player who manages to read the entire poem will get a very nice surprise.

SN: Can we expect more scenarios for Mice 'n' Men in the future?
JB: Definitely, although not immediately. The current version that I submitted to the contest ("Feb 28") was really limited down to "what was absolutely needed for the game to work." I had set aside a few mousey-types, and I also genericized the Colony Leader. I'm thinking of updating that release to include the Foreman, the Adventurer, and also give the player(s) an option of several Colony Leaders -- like The General, or The Mason, or The Nobleman.
     The "Feb 28" version is really specific to the Winter 1584 scenario. And I like the idea of continuing the story on a season-by-season basis; much as both David Peterson and Luke Crane structured their creations. Each season brings its own set of threats and challenges, and the cast-of-characters will fluctuate as time marches on. Can you imagine pirate rats (hmmm Pie-Rats!) ?
     I'm even toying around with yet another RPG-turned-boardgame that is set in the Spring 1584 season of Mice 'n' Men; but where Mice 'n' Men had the players managing an entire tribe of mice, this new game will be more along the lines of a traditional "dungeon crawl" or "questing" game. Hold on ... lemme copy-and-paste the blurb I've come up so far:

This past winter, you and other members of your tribe of mice
arrived on the vast farmlands and fields of the New World.
Struggling through the perils of Winter 1584,
your tribe has established a thriving colony.
However, there are still many dangers in this new land;
and your colony leaders have seen fit to send out
small groups of adventurers such as yourself to investigate.

Game Overview
In this game for 1 to 3 players, each player takes the role as the leader of a small group of adventurers. Your task is simple: eliminate some of the dangers in the wilderness, and win fame, glory, and influence for yourself!

The adventuring party starts with just two or three members; but you may find allies along the way. During each round (also called a “day”), the party will travel, face challenges, and make plans for the next day. However, do not dawdle in your explorations, for each day also adds to the strength of that final threat for each scenario!

Thanks, John! Good luck on all of your endeavors, both big and really, really small!

Want to play Mice 'n' Men? Just follow these links:
The Rules
The Board & Cards
The Board & Cards (no graphics)

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