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How do you top a board game that was already larger than life? (update)

A look at the design of Fireball Island’s sequel

Fireball Island - close-up of board with gaping maw Restoration Games

Update: The Fireball Island Kickstarter was fully funded within two hours of launching.

Board game designer Rob Daviau and the team at Restoration Games faced a huge challenge when they decided to update Fireball Island, a classic board game from 1986. How the hell do you re-create a game that is remembered for being so much larger than life?

“The board was 95 percent of our effort to get this going,” Daviau admitted to Polygon. The issue was that no one remembers Fireball Island as it was — they remember how it felt at the time.

“People have this very fond memory of this game, people remember it being even bigger and even taller and even faster,” Daviau explained. “So we had to somehow make it bigger and faster without making the box bigger. That was the first problem; it was an engineering problem.”

The goal in Fireball Island is to steal a jewel from an unexplored island defended by a stone sentry, and the hook was the ability to roll marbles down the three-dimensional board to knock other players off their paths. It was a toy as much as a game, and that board seemed massive at the time, with a verticality that was missing from most board games.

Restoration Games ran into other issues while adapting Fireball Island for a new era. The marbles rolled down a very predictable path, and you had very little control over what your character did once you rolled the dice. It was a fun kids game back in 1986, but the market in 2018 wouldn’t be children; it would be children of the ’80s.

“Our goal is to capture the memory and the feeling but definitely modernize it,” Daviau said. “People have grown up — they want a little more out of a game. Gaming tastes have changed; [people] want a little more control of their games now.”

Keeping the joy of the original Fireball Island while making the game itself more fun, and improving the physics of the original board, was a huge undertaking.

“Our job would be much easier if we were a retro company and just put out the exact same thing again,” Daviau said, sighing.

This is how they did it.

Avoiding the chaos engine

The project began with making a two-dimensional version of Fireball Island with some rough ideas of how the marbles would roll, so the team could adjust the rules. Players needed to have more control over their actions so winning the game would feel earned, but there couldn’t be so many rules that people would have to take their eyes off the board itself. Those rolling marbles were the reason people still remember Fireball Island, and that had to be the focus of this new game as well.

The next step was to create a digital version of the board once the rules were hashed out, and to figure out how to improve the marbles’ path. That was one of the surprises that Restoration Games found when it went back to playtest the original: Those marbles felt slow.

“I don’t think that’s what the commercials were promising,” Daviau said. Speeding up the marble without having it jump off the track was a priority. And doing so on a digital model was a slow, laborious process.

Restoration decided to go back to basics and work with another company to create a clay model of the board, something that could be adjusted in real time and tested over and over.

Daviau would visit the clay version of the board a few days a week, continually rolling marbles to test the paths and speed. Adjustments could be made on the fly, which was a huge advantage.

It took around four weeks to work out a version of the board that was close to complete.

“I thought that digital was going to solve everything in the world,” Daviau said about the early decision, against much advice, to stay away from practical models before returning to clay.

“But it’s better to see physics in real life,” he continued. “It’s definitely faster. It was better for us. [...] Otherwise our Kickstarter and our development would have been almost a year later, I think, just because of the limitations of working in the digital space to do this refinement.”

Fireball Island - clay prototype of new board
A clay prototype of the board.
Restoration Games

Spinning trees with visible “root” structures that would change the path of the “fireballs” also afforded players more control. The marbles could now roll faster than they did in the original game, with a much more chaotic feel that still didn’t send the marbles flying off the board.

The developers were able to solve the issue of scale by creating a board that actually consists of three interlocking pieces, but can be broken down and stacked inside a “reasonably” sized box. The new board is actually twice as tall as the original, preserving the sense of wonder that players felt as kids. It’s a board that looks, and feels, huge.

Fireball Island - rotating animation of new board Restoration Games

Giving the players more control was key, but it still had to be simple. “The temptation was to add more game to it, but I kept saying it’s about knocking your friends over with a marble or a tiger,” Daviau explained. “This is a Looney Tunes cartoon kind of feel.”

Fireball Island - ball rolling out of stone sentry Restoration Games

And once those design pillars were in place — that the game should give the player a bit more control than the original, while still focusing on the fun and physical interactions on the board — Restoration Games was able to build on the idea for its Fireball Island expansions.

Why not add a bunch of smaller marbles to represent being swarmed by bees?

Fireball Island - a swarm of bee marbles coming out of the sentry
Restoration Games

How about doing battle on the deck of a pirate ship?

Fireball Island - firing a cannon at the helm of a pirate ship Restoration Games

Restoration Games has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Fireball Island and its three possible expansions, but the game’s new design and updated rules already feel like a success. It wasn’t enough to solve all the design problems; the trick was to make it all look easy by the time players got their hands on the finished game.

“We want people to be playing in this amusement park of marbles and trees and getting knocked over without ever thinking about how this will fit in the box,” Daviau said. “It was a strange sort of toy engineering puzzle that is very different from games I’m usually designing.”

The next level of puzzles.

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