Interview with Sam Mercer and Matt Green, the Designers of Miremarsh

We caught up with Sam Mercer and Matt Green, creators of our two games, Miremarsh and Flicky Spaceships to find out more about their processes and where the idea for Miremarsh came from.

Matt: Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m an entomologist for Rentokil. I also write boardgames.

Sam: Hello, my name is Samuel, and I’m a Marketing Manager working in the financial services. I also also write boardgames.

Room 17 Games: So, forgive my ignorance, but what did you two boys do on Miremarsh?

Matt: We totally designed that sucker from nothing.

Sam and I were talking on Google chat about designing a new game and – over the course of the chat – we accidentally designed Miremarsh.

Room 17 Games: Just like that?

Matt: Just like that.

We got all the details on a Google doc, and they stayed there for a few years until we talked to Ricard, who was looking for a dice game pitched about the same level as Elder Sign. So we said that, in theory, we might have something.

Sam: We were like, “Ok let’s make a game with blah and blah.” We often make games and have about 20 under our belt so far. Some are partially finished, others are just ideas, and some are on the shelves. But the deadline for Miremarsh was tight as this game was partly ‘made to order’ for a certain niche that Room 17 wanted to fill. That was great for us, because we really enjoy designing to a brief.

Room 17 Games: And did you face any challenges in turning your Google doc into a playable prototype?

Matt: Not at all. We bought a couple of copies of the French edition of Dominant Species when they were reduced online. They included loads of hex tiles and counters which we used to build a swamp. We already had lots of blank dice ‘cos we both love making up dice games.

Room 17 Games: So it really is that easy to make a working prototype?

Sam: Yeah, making a working prototype is the fun bit.

Matt: Yeah, it’s fun. And I know Sam well enough to get where he was coming from and where I could go with it.

I then transcribed my scribbled rules into something presentable, we pitched it to Room 17 Games, they liked it.

The pitch was relatively easy: “You guys wanted a 60 minute dice game, right? Well, here’s a fully operational prototype you can take away.” Ricard and Graham seemed happy.

Graham demoing a prototype version of Miremarsh at the Dice Cup, Nottingham

Room 17 Games: So once you presented a working prototype to Room 17, what happened next?

Sam: Then Graham from Room 17 got hold of it (Graham is amazing by the way) and straight away saw what was cool about the game, and how it could be improved.

Matt: Confirmed: Graham is awesome.

Sam: So, working in concert with us and his team of playtesters , he tweaked the rules, added a board, fish, and some other stuff, and the game became much better for it.

This in itself highlights one important fact about developing games: playtesting is the most boring part of game design, but also the most important.

Matt: Sam is right about playtesting. Any designer that says they enjoy it is lying.

Sam: There is not a lot of creativity in playtesting, just lots of administration, repetition, and negative feedback.

The best way you can tell if a game has been playtested enough is if you have come to hate the game. If you’ve played this goddamn game so many times that the mere mention of its name fills your heart with despair…

…That’s when the playtesting is nearing completion.

Room 17 Games: And how did you feel about Graham coming in and suggesting changes to your game?

Sam: It’s always interesting when someone makes a really striking change to a game. You’re used to small tweaks here and there, but when someone (in this case Graham) comes in with a massive change … well, that’s a testing moment. Not testing as in, ‘I’m annoyed they changed my game,” but testing as in, “This … in all honesty … is probably going to be better, but I need to accept and reconcile myself to the change.” It’s quite an introspective moment. But, in my experience, these type of moments all seem to be very positive for a game’s development.

Room 17 Games: And how did the theme become so dark. Am I right in thinking your original pitch was a little lighter in its approach?

Sam: The theme was a kind of joint effort I think. When you design a game, you design the mechanics of the game. It has to first be a playable ‘toy’ (so to speak). Something folks can interact with. Sometimes the theme comes first, sometimes last. For this one it was a bit of both. We went in a high concept of adventurers adventuring in a swamp, which was a cool, underused idea. We went for a lighthearted approach and referred to the game as The Swampy Swamp of Deadly Death to get across the fact you’re going to die – several times – whilst playing it. Room 17, however, went for a darker theme to match the intended art style and named it MireMarsh, which we were happy with, ‘cos it’s very nearly Swampy Swamp, right?

Then we released the human heroes and adventurers were too likeable. We designed the game to be a boardgame take on a roguelike game. Modern roguelike games like Spelunky, FTL: Faster Than Light, The Binding of Isaac etc mean that a single player gets killed – a lot – advancing slowly in skill and levels each time they die. We wanted to replicate this into a boardgame somehow, as well as including more than one player into the mix.

However, you play roguelikes on your own, but you don’t play boardgames on your own. So now we had the mechanism of consistent character death. Everytime you died, you would get a new hero (with new dice) to play around with to keep it exciting. But players are very good at getting attached to certain parts of a game. I’m sure when you play Carcasonne, you have favourite colour to play. Or in a round of Smallworld, Spacecadets, or Santorini (see that hot alliteration? Damn!) you get drawn into liking your character or role.

But making a roguelike, we didn’t want to hurt any players by letting them comfy with or attached to their characters. We actually didn’t want them to be happy with their characters. That way they would be happy to see their own characters eaten by wolves or burnt by a dragon. So we decided to change the cute little adventurer characters into nasty goblins who players would be very happy to see die. So Matt then came up with a couple of theme ideas of these nasty, sick, evil swamp-dwelling goblins. This allowed Matt’s particular brand of English humour to shine, coming up with these whimsical – but hideously twisted things – which looked like something out of Grimm’s fairy tales … but a bit oilier.

Matt: I believe the genre is called Dark Fantasy.

Sam: Yes, Dark Fantasy, the bleak themes and moral ambiguity of which Matt is … erm … very good with.

Room 17 Games: I can’t talk about Miremarsh without mentioning the art. How did you feel when you first saw all that gorgeous artwork?

Sam: It’s always the same on whichever game or project you work on: when the art comes in from the illustrators … well, it’s a very heady moment. It can even be quite dangerous.

Room 17 Games: Dangerous? Why so?

Sam: Because the art is, without fail, always gorgeous. Someone has taken the time to draw beautiful art and colours for your game; it’s just so great to see, and sometimes this can very easily lead you astray.

For example, you won’t change any rules because it would mean losing that amazing dragon illustration card regardless of the fact that dragon is OP, so the game can actually suffer mechanically for having better art. But Matt and I have learned from previous mistakes here, so we were sensible enough to be sensible, and the result is a beautifully illustrated and well-balanced game.

Room 17 Games: Do you envisage designing more games together for Room 17?

Sam: Well, if Room 17 want more games from us, we certainly have plenty more in the locker! That’s the advantage of working with someone who ‘gets you’ in the same way Matt and I get each other. We’ve found such a rich stream of boardgame-designy-goodness.

Summary
In conclusion, Miremarsh is a great game with an equally great pedigree. Between them, the various writers, producers and artists have worked on a gamut of games ranging from kid-friendly games like Flicky Spaceship to Kickstarter stonker Hellboy, and from the fun boardgames like Museum Rush to the blockbuster skirmish game Test of Honour. The artwork is superb, the miniatures are stunning, and the game plays well; it’s simple to pick up, but that simplicity belies the subtleties required to beat the game. Playtests and demos show that choosing your quest wisely—taking into account your goblin’s strengths and weaknesses—is vital, but this can derailed oh so quickly by the alacrity with which these goblins die. In this regard it bears one of the hallmarks of the very best of boardgames; easy to learn, yet difficult to master.

In terms of the Kickstarter backer kit, there are a whole range of goodies available to suit all tastes and means, allowing you to just get your hands on those lovely resin goblins, buy only the core game, or grab those amazing Rock Goblins.

Engagement wise, the guys at Room 17 Games have brought their A game. They’re all over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and their interaction with backers on the Kickstarter’s comments page is exemplary. They’re also doing the hard yards demoing the game at various shops, boardgame cafes and shows. Not only that, but they’ve even invited fans into their studio to eat snacks and play Miremarsh!

So, find it, play it, watch videos and read reviews on it…or visit the late pledge/preorders right here.

Written by Kev Brett

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