In which I am lucky enough to get the scoop on the new LEGO board games from Cephas Howard, the lead designer of all 10 games, and discover more about the games’ genesis and his own game design philosophy.
When I requested (in a fit of rhetorical whimsy!) that ‘the real Cephas Howard stand up and make himself known’ I did not for one moment expect him to do so. I am therefore profoundly grateful to Cephas for getting in touch with me after reading my earlier posts, and for subsequently being so open and generous in sharing his experiences and insights, thereby allowing us all a glimpse of the remarkable development program undertaken at LEGO.
Cephas is a British game designer who, for the past three years, has been leading a mammoth design effort at LEGO. The initial tranche of 10 games are available online now in the UK LEGO shop; they will soon be available more widely in UK and Europe, and will see a widespread international release in 2010. LEGO is a global toy brand and their bold move into the board game market is notable for many reasons. But who is Cephas, and how did he come to be spearheading such a remarkable endeavour?
Cephas describes a childhood experience of designing games to play with family and friends that I think will be familiar to many adult game designers, although even at that age his approach seems preternaturally rigourous: repeatedly playing and evolving the games with his two brothers before sharing them with their friends. However, few children grow up actively wanting to be game designers, even if the ‘bug’ is never lost, and though he continued to maintain notebooks of game ideas (a practice I would definitely recommend!) he otherwise pursued a professional design career within the publishing industry.
The roll of the die
The opportunity at LEGO arose at a time when Cephas was actively looking to self-publish two of his own games. He had quotes from manufacturers, he had a website, he had business cards; and then he saw an advertisement for the job at LEGO and events took an entirely unexpected turn. He says that he had always dreamed of working for LEGO as a boy and, as an adult, continued to admire the brand and the toys. Here, then, was his chance. He applied for the position and — to quote Cephas — ‘lo and behold’ landed the job based on his past portfolio, his enthusiasm and ideas, and what was perhaps a true meeting of minds with his future bosses.
And then the real work began, and for Cephas the ‘real battle’ was to convince LEGO to launch with many games, not just one. This is clearly a battle he convincingly won, and now, three years after Cephas designed his first LEGO game, the trademark ‘buildable’ dice and the entire range of 10 games is finally available for the public to play.
‘One of the aspects I believe is necessary for getting your games launched is to have a belief in yourself and your ideas, and the ability to convince others and make believers of them also.’
Many designers might have been humbled by both the scale of the project and the fact that the envisioned product range was something genuinely new to LEGO and therefore not without significant commercial risk. Cephas, however, gives the impression of a man both utterly undaunted by such concerns and incredibly eager to get going. In his first year alone he developed around 30 game ideas.
The deliberate focus of the launch range of games were children in the age range 6–10 years old, and from the outset the games were constantly being evolved and playtested with groups of children from Germany, the UK and the US. Cephas’ express hope is to encourage children familiar with LEGO but who do not have the ‘game bug’ to play, and that within the first 10 games there is a range of experiences that contains ‘something for everyone’, including the grown-ups.
Cephas describes LEGO itself as a great prototyping tool: fast, flexible and endlessly rebuildable. Most of his game ideas came to him without a preconceived ‘theme’, and were the result of exercises in investigating possible game mechanisms and different uses of LEGO bricks. These ideas could be quickly playtested in-house before being presented to the playtest groups. Only later in the process did he begin to try out possible ‘stories’ that could be applied to the games to create a sense of narrative play for the children.
Although Cephas has been the lead designer on the games it is clear that a large team of developers and designers within LEGO have been at his side, and that he and his team have wisely sought counsel from some carefully chosen experts. Of all the games, the flagship title Ramses Pyramid is alone in featuring a well-known designer’s name on the box: that of Reiner Knizia, who is very possibly the best known game designer at work today.
‘It was great getting to playtest my game ideas with Reiner and just tap into his huge vault of experience. He is a great character and a fantastic games designer.’
Cephas worked with Knizia on both Ramses Pyramid and Lunar Command specifically, but Knizia also acted as a consultant on the project as a whole and continues to work with LEGO on future games.
Cephas also has praise for Bernie DeKoven’s book ‘The Well-Played Game’. “I have also been inspired by the thinking of DeKoven, and his idea of the ‘well-played game’. He suggests you should be able to break or change the rules of a game if this is necessary to play it well together.”
Build – Play – Change
The concept of a breakable, changeable, rebuildable game is the central conceit of the entire range. LEGO’s tagline for the games is ‘Build - Play - Change’ and the game rules themselves contain an explicit challenge to players to do just that. The players are actively encouraged to change the board or the dice, to break the rules; to not just play the game, but to play with the game.
‘We give you the express permission to change the game we have designed.’
“First you build your game,” says Cephas. “This creates a bond and a greater sense of ownership, immersion and understanding of the game for the kids. It also gives them the confidence to change it later on.”
“Next you play. The games all have good, solid game experiences that can be played over and over, and allow kids to have fun with their friends and family while doing so.” Cephas points out that truly social play is something that LEGO has not always offered, but that these games allow parents to be genuinely involved in LEGO play with their children.
“Then you change. Now if gets interesting!” Cephas explains that each game provides new ideas for gameplay, including not just advanced rules but also the challenge to children to get creative, albeit with the wise suggestion to try out one idea at a time so that they can see what works and hopefully learn why.
“The dice we designed sums all of this up in itself,” says Cephas. “You build it, play with it, and can change it. And it creates the element of chance in all our games which means that any player has a chance of winning a strategic game.”
The dice is the one physical element common to all the games and its image is used across their packaging and as an icon for LEGO’s marketing of the new products. The notion of designing a ‘buildable’ dice for a line of new LEGO games may seem obvious, but the project began with the assumption that any dice used would be wooden. It was Cephas’ suggestion that just such a buildable dice was needed, although he freely admits that many people were involved in creating the final design, which took the company 16 months to perfect.
In addition the games demanded the design of a completely new LEGO ‘microfig’ that would occupy a single LEGO ‘stud’ when placed onto a gameboard. Given the importance of this component, its design, like that of the dice, was iterated extensively before the final production microfig was born.
Climbing the mountain
There is a story to be told about the genesis and evolution of each of the games, but to illustrate some of the ways in which individual games changed Cephas chose the example of Lava Dragon. The game is a ‘simple’ race game: the first player to reach the top of the mountain and command the dragon wins; along the way players try to block their opponents or even push them off the mountain with the special ‘lava stick’.
The game began as an Alpine adventure (photos 1 and 2). The very first prototype was not even a game, rather just a model used to illustrate the concept to the first group of kids the team showed it to.
“When I first test games they are very basic looking,” says Cephas. “Just a few bricks and a dice. The principle is to test the game idea; if that works then we start to dress and theme the game in stages, testing as we go, evolving the built set and the rules at the same time.”
Unseen in the photos, but part of the game from the beginning, is the dice. The game’s innovative core mechanism is that the coloured panels on the dice (which correspond to the player colours) are added to the dice during the game and so the dice configures differently each time. Players roll the dice in turn, but all of the players can move on any roll if their colour comes up. “You might end up moving with every roll,” expains Cephas. “No more waiting for your turn to be engaged in the game.”
As the game developed the setting was changed from an Alpine setting to a volcanic one (photo 3), and the game’s ‘trophy’ became a dragon (photo 4). Cephas explains that the so-called ‘lava stick’ both inspired and arose from this transition: “It gave the possibity to eject a player from the mountain back to the bottom in a very physical and rewarding manner. The players’ men really pop off nicely!”
The wisdom of children
Cephas describes an exhaustive program of playtesting the entire range of games. The team held weekly playtest sessions with groups of children, introducing new ideas to them at very early stages, often before any formal rules had been written. These groups included new children each week, so that each time even the experience of playing a board game using LEGO would be new.
“Playtesting with your friends is never enough,” observes Cephas. “You must have total strangers play your games and be brutally honest about them. Kids are good like that. They tell it like it is. Then listen to what they say and make changes. I don’t mean do exactly what they say, merely listen to what they are saying and why they are saying it. Usually you, the designer, will be able to fix any problems much better than they will, but you might never spot those problems if they didn’t point them out.”
‘Accept that some games just don’t work and can’t be saved; be prepared to let them go and move on.’
Cephas suggests that most game designs are unpublishable, principally because, in his opinion, the game designer designed the game that he wanted to play and did not give enough thought to what others would enjoy. “Don’t design it for yourself, design it for others to enjoy. This might actually mean you no longer really enjoy playing the game you designed, but as long as everyone else does then you have succeeded. Remember, if you are publishing it then it is work, it is a business; it is no longer about you nor about trying to design the perfect game for you.”
‘From the second you decide to publish a game it is no longer truly yours.’
Cephas highlights that the purpose of the playtesting sessions was never to simply ‘rubber stamp’ an already established game idea but to allow those ideas to evolve and improve as much as possible before they were made available to the public. Which, of course, is not intended to be the end of a process, but just the beginning.
“We believe it is truly bringing the LEGO experience to games in a way we’ve never done before,” says Cephas, whose personal wish is to see the games continue to evolve in the hands of everyone who buys them. “I am just trying to give them a solid starting point. Designing, refining and experimenting with games should be every bit as much fun as playing them.” And from everything Cephas has told me, it sounds as if he has indeed had a great deal of fun. Lucky him!
As for LEGO the die may now be well and truly cast, but given the care and creativity with which these games have been designed success seems assured; luck, I think, won’t come into it.