Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Five or So Questions on Bee Lives

Hey all, today I have an interview with Matt Shoemaker on Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer, a board game that's currently on Kickstarter! I learned some fun stuff about the game in Matt's responses - check them out below!

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A table with the Bee Lives board game spread out on it.

Tell me a little about Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer. What excites you about it?

Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer is a worker placement and resource management game for 1 to 4 players. I've been developing it for about a year now and the game play is heavily influenced by Euro games. Titles like A Feast for Odin, Carcassonne, and Clans of Caledonia (to name a few) have provided some inspiration for mechanics. 

The theme, however, comes from my experience as a beekeeper. I've been tending bees in urban Philadelphia for the past 7 years and have learned a lot about them in that time. When I did some research and found that no one else had done a worker placement style game about bees yet I decided that I wanted to be the one to combine two of my passions and create that game.

There are several things that excite me about this game. The first is how much I hope this will introduce people to the world of bees. I really wanted to design the game in a way that made people think like a hive does. The victory point conditions are set up to reward actions and behaviors that do well for the survival of your own hive. Some of them, particularly swarming, creates challenges for you as well. You can't just think about points, you have to also think about getting through the winter in order to win. 

This all really ties into how I learned to design games as a librarian. I've been making tabletop games for close to a decade as part of my educator duties, and I really like that I've designed a game that lets you learn while playing but does not have the objective of teaching. Bee Lives was made to be a game first, with the learning piece a side effect.

I'm also just really excited about this whole process of creating and publishing a game. It's great seeing the community response to the project and the positive energy that a lot of people are responding to the game with. I also loved bringing Helen and Alina onto the project and working with them. Alina captured the style I tasked her with through my art direction just how I was hoping. Helen has really helped tie the art and the game mechanics together with her graphic design. The graphic design in particular is so important for a game's user experience and I'm pleased with how it's all come together so far.

beehive tokens and cubes on the Bee Lives sheets

What is play like on an average turn in Bee Lives? What do you do?

In a turn of bee lives your primary task is decide how to most efficiently utilize the workers you have. There are 8 possible actions you can take, and each one helps your hive get to, and survive through, winter in some way. Do you need more honey and pollen so your bees don't starve and you can make new bees? Send a couple workers out to forage. Maybe your hive is getting too much disease? Send some workers to clean it out. Is your neighbor being aggressive? Perhaps it is time to put some bees on defense or even go out on a raid to rob some honey from those neighbors.

Once you've decided how you want to spend your workers you take turns with your opponents, be it real players or the AI driven wild hives, taking those actions. This can of course throw you off of what you were originally planning. Raiding can leave you with less honey than you need forcing you to compensate elsewhere. Someone can block you from accessing a specific tile you wanted to forage from, forcing you to forage elsewhere with extra workers you were not planning. Then there is the main puzzle of managing the space in your comb so you can balance having enough food for all the bees while leaving enough space for new workers to hatch out of, and also keeping some water on hand in case you need to cool down your hive. There is a good amount of planning you need to do each turn, and then hope it doesn't fall apart when it comes time to feed your bees and hatch out new workers in the upkeep phase between the 9 turns of the game.

The Bee Lives board with bee meeples on it, including the hexagons they land in and signs for swarming, scouting, requeening, and "cool hive"

How did you decide on the designs you use in the game for visual aid?

Helen and I worked pretty closely on this. We wanted everything to be attractive but functional and serve the player from a user experience perspective first. The graphics for visual aid are intended to be intuitive, and allow you to figure out what you need to do without having to look it up in the rule book each time. I also want to make the game language independent if we can. 

Right now the only part of the game (apart from the rule book, obviously) that needs words are the event cards. Before we go to print I am hoping we can make those language independent as well. We also took care to add symbols to anything where color may be important so anyone who is color blind can still play. 

This is most clear with the black and white icons we have added to the 4 different tile types that are in the game. It's possible we'll be having some of the actual art for the graphic design icons redone, but this is just for aesthetics if it happens. The symbols and why we chose them will remain the same.

Some hexagonal tokens with clear and solid cubes and a beehive meeple on top

How close to real life is the game in functionality - how much of a "bee life" are we living when we play?

Bee Lives is definitely an abstraction of what it is like for a bee hive in the Philadelphia area each ear. I've spent a lot of time with bees these past few years, and I wanted to really replicate what they need to do in this game without making a full blown simulation. The game doesn't reflect every nuance of bee life. 

For example, the bees don't collect propolis or make royal jelly, and disease is abstracted down to the Varroa mite only, when in reality there are several health issues that can affect them. I want players to experience what it is like to be a hive without making them micromanage every aspect of it, and I believe I have succeeded in doing that.
The game board with the seasons and months and cards laid down to activate bonuses

Bee Lives sounds like a really great experience! How did you make those decisions in what to include, what to design into the game to interact with?  That must have been challenging! What was most important to you?

This is where my experience creating games as a librarian really came into play.  It can be really tempting to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into a game. When you do that, though, you end up with a complicated simulation that makes sense to no one but the designer. You need to know what to trim and where to really emulate the real world experiences you want the players to experience through play.

When I did this for Bee Lives, I looked at what was important to understand about bees and what was needed mechanically to make the game enjoyable, competitive and balanced. I needed people to experience the difficulty bees go through in managing disease and resource gathering, so I made sure those were aspects that were included. I needed to balance those things with mechanics that would make the game challenging, which is where the main focus of resource management came from. Navigating these two pieces is a lot of what game design is, for me. It's a way to let people experiment with a system they otherwise have no real way of interacting with, and I think that is a special thing.

the Bee Lives box

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Thanks so much to Matt for the interview! I hope you all liked it and that you'll check out Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer on Kickstarter today!


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