The wild ride of church director turned indie board game designer Colby Dauch through the city in the skies.
Early in 2011, Colby Dauch was sitting having lunch with his family at a McDonald's when he got the phone call. Living in Fremont, Ohio, a little town of just 16,000 a bit south of the turnpike, he tends not to get calls from numbers he doesn't recognize.
"It was Tim Gerritsen," Dauch recalls, the director of product development on BioShock Infinite. "And he said, ... 'I work for Irrational Games and we're wanting to do a board game for BioShock. Wondering if you're interested.'"
Dauch paused as his mind turned over. He looked at his wife with a suddenly blank expression. She looked back at him, worried. Their daughter munched on her fries, oblivious.
Of course he was interested.
Not long after, he was in a conference room in Boston pitching Ken Levine, the creator of the BioShock series, on his vision for a board game set in the floating city of Columbia, a city Dauch had never seen.
That's because BioShock Infinite wasn't finished yet. When it releases in the next few weeks, Dauch's board game, BioShock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia, will be the first licensed board game ever created simultaneously to its source video game. And, like other licensed products in other media, it runs the risk of feeling like a trite cash-in on the popularity of a franchise.
Irrational came to Dauch because it wanted this board game to be something more, something exceptional. Before he and his family had finished lunch that day, the clock had already started ticking.
In 2007, Dauch worked as the media director for his church. It was a big church, and its services had high production values. There was sophisticated print material, video work, sound engineering and computer graphics. Dauch even had one entire person under him responsible for nothing but lighting. It had all the trappings of a modern Christian megachurch, and Dauch pretty much built it himself.
And then he began to tire of it.
"Once it came to maintaining it, I was doing everyday work with the same graphics over and over and over again. It started to bore me and I started to look elsewhere for work that would entertain me. And along comes this [board] game ... that I get totally into, fall in love with."
That game is Heroscape, published by Milton Bradley. It combines pre-painted miniatures with an interlocking plastic terrain system. It looks a bit like Q-Bert, but plays like XCOM. By 2007, Heroscape has already been out for a few years. Milton Bradley's giant terrain installations have been at the center of multiple industry conventions. The franchise is even beginning to pick up steam beyond the hobby community, at traditional retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.
Dauch was late to the party, but he learned fast. Instinctively, he went to the internet to find a mature community to play with. There, he found a thriving fan site and jumped headlong into the forums.
"I noticed that somebody on there was designing ... for the game, just a fan as a hobby. They were developing their own fan-made cards and using miniatures from other games and bringing them to pure Heroscape. I had never seen that before." The game's universe encourages this sort of engagement, its core conceit being that mighty heroes are being thrown into combat against each other across space and time.
Dauch went out to his local comic shop and found a cheap pack of miniatures from a completely different game system. Opening it up he found a random Vulture model, the little-known villain from the Spider-Man universe. He tinkered with the mini's base a bit to make it compatible, then designed a card containing rules for how it fought.
"I don't know if that's the first one I am proud of," Dauch laughs, "but that was my first. I put it up on the internet and people give you feedback and, man, the races were on! I was building cards and it was a kind of work that I really enjoyed."
Eventually the Heroscape license went to Hasbro. And when the community began to sell unlicensed collectibles in order to keep the website running, Hasbro became concerned. Through back-channel conversations, it pressured the site to shut down.
Overnight, the hardcore Heroscape community was homeless.
"I think he wanted to get me paid because I was doing so much for Heroscape just out of fandom."
"I kind of took up the reins from there," Dauch says. "There was this intermediate site for a while, and then I launched a site and then everyone kind of came over to that. ... That ended up leading to a playtester position for Heroscape."
After the furor it had caused, Hasbro did a 180 degree turn and enlisted its fan community to playtest the expansions. Dauch eventually began doing freelance work under the direction of Heroscape's lead game designer and project manager, Craig Van Ness.
"I think he wanted to get me paid because I was doing so much for Heroscape just out of fandom."
That small playtesting role eventually led to more opportunities. In 2009, Van Ness invited Dauch to co-design the last large release in the Heroscape product line, Heroscape Master Set: Battle for the Underdark, a joint license between Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast. Hasbro discontinued the franchise not long after.
But that wouldn't be Dauch's last game. He had broken into Hasbro's stable of freelance game designers, a junior member of an elite group. Hasbro asked him to work on other projects outside of the Heroscape universe, even invited him to help reboot the venerable Battleship franchise with Battleship: Galaxies.
The next phase of Dauch's career would involve creating a new universe, his own game property. And it would be a step he would have to take alone.
Plaid Hat Games
Late one night in 2008, in between freelance gigs at Hasbro and the full-time job at his church, Dauch jumped out of bed with a vision for a new kind of game.
"Why not do a battle game, like a miniatures [wargame] — moving units around — but do it with cards. So you can have a whole army for pretty cheap. Your army would be a deck of cards."
He showed it to his colleagues at Hasbro, but they balked at the idea. There was no license that customers at a Wal-Mart would be attracted to, and there weren't a lot of plastic doo-dads in the box that would get people excited. It was just a bunch of cards. Other, larger hobby game publishers gave him the runaround, never truly responding to his pitch.
Board games are fairly expensive to produce, and operate on thin margins. Once you complete the design, the art and the playtesting, it still takes months for the games themselves to be manufactured and packaged by hand in China. The production cycle is plagued with communication problems, and there is always the risk that entire batches of product, hundreds or thousands of units, could need to be modified or re-manufactured entirely.
Big publishers see licensed board games as an easy way to move a product. These games have a good chance of selling through, even if the underlying game isn't that good. Their licenses can also grab players quickly and get them into the game without first having to teach them a sophisticated ruleset. New IP, just like in video games, is risky.
But Dauch believed in his game. He printed out his rough draft on his home computer, slapped the hand-cut cards into plastic Magic: The Gathering sleeves and set off for the hobby game market's biggest convention — GenCon, in Indianapolis, Ind.
There, at "the best four days in gaming," Dauch discovered that his game mechanic was a hit.
"I had probably 15 guys in my hotel room, all playing [my game], all playing at the same time. There were guys who camped out in that hotel room for three days until the convention closed."
Dauch decided to move forward without a license, and without a publisher. He gambled that his game was good enough that he could concoct his own universe to go along with it. This was it, his ticket out of his church job. A chance to be his own boss.
In 2009 he launched Plaid Hat Games with the purpose of publishing his game, called Summoner Wars, on his own. The game was a huge success, and is now in its fourth printing and was recently ported to iOS. The game still consistently ranks among the top 30 games in Board Game Geek's all-time top 100. Other, larger publishers even began to clone his invention, stealing the cards-as-units wargame mechanic Dauch created.
Fueled by the popularity of Summoner Wars, and the sales of multiple expansions and an iOS version, his company began developing a following among hobby game enthusiasts. And all of the games that Plaid Hat published were based on fresh IP, set in new worlds with unique mechanics. Finally, in 2012, Dauch quit his job as church media director. His idle passion became a full-time job. He was an independent hobby game designer and publisher, and it would require all his energy.
The BioShock board game he signed on to make would be the first licensed product he had ever made at Plaid Hat. Instead of succeeding at making his own world, he was tasked once more with adapting someone else's.
A city in the sky
Dauch grew up with video games, and had fond memories of the System Shock and BioShock games. Being invited into the Irrational studio in 2011 was a treat for him. As Ken Levine dimmed the lights that first day, Dauch and his team were force-fed as much art and information about the Infinite world as they could handle.
Dauch was among the first people in the world to meet main characters of BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt, to learn about Songbird and the Boys of Silence, to discover the points of friction between the Founders and the Vox Populi.
"[Levine] starts having them pull up early visuals of the Motorized Patriot and we all went nuts."
Dauch wasn't alone. He brought with him his own cadre of freelance designers, a team of creatives that had helped his company grow. It was Dauch, the mind behind Summoner Wars, Isaac Vega, the creator of City of Remnants, and a man with the pen name "Mr. Bistro," who designed Dungeon Run. All of them had cobbled together their own different prototype games, which they had brought with them to Boston and secreted back in their hotel rooms.
After his team spent the day learning about Columbia, it went out and celebrated.
"Being a young company, you can imagine how exciting this was. ... And then we played each other's prototype games and, um ... " There's a bashful pause, a nervous chuckle.
"We discovered that they weren't any good. ... None of us had had a chance to run through [them before] ... None of them had the spark."
They only had about one year to create, design, publish and ship the BioShock Infinite board game. It wasn't the most suicidal timeline, but it was close.
There was some flexibility in when Dauch could release his board game, but if Dauch waited too long after BioShock Infinite came out he would lose marketing momentum, and an otherwise-brilliant game could be banished to the discount shelves of hobby stores around the world, where it might linger for years unrecognized, unloved and unsold.
Dauch was short on time, and the design process was already off to a bad start. The trio spent the next day developing a new prototype together, and then took that hybrid game to their separate corners of the country to playtest. Over the course of three long months, and eight different iterations, they still couldn't get it right.
It was a difficult decision when Dauch decided to throw everything away and start from scratch.
"We hadn't landed on it," Dauch says. "I just had to make that call. And that's tough to do, when you spend so much time on something, to say 'This isn't the idea.' But I think you have to be willing to throw something away in order to get something great."
Two days later, Vega came back to him with a breakthrough.
"When you're talking ideas for board games everything sounds good," Dauch says. "It's tough to tell if something's good until you play it."
Vega's idea was to take just a few of the concepts that made BioShock: Infinite, the shooter, so unique and use them as the central strategic elements for the board game. Just as Levine's team took the traditional shooter model and made it something fascinating, Dauch and his team would take a standard territory-control game, like Risk or Axis and Allies, and turn it into something special.
First, the setting was hammered out. Plaid Hat's game would take place during the civil war that breaks out between the Vox Populi and the Founders. It's a series of battles that occurs mostly outside of the timeline shown in the video game, so it was a period that gave the team the freedom to improvise. Second, the skylines that served as a transportation system in the world of Columbia would be used to allow unprecedented freedom of movement over the game board. In the same way that players are able to fly around levels in the video game, players would be able to move units rapidly across the map in the board game.
Imagine Risk where armies march from Australia, through South America and Europe, in order to attack Africa in the same turn. The dynamic way Vega allowed units to move across the map changed everything. Almost immediately Dauch was able to look past the rough-cut paper cards, the mismatched miniatures looted from other games in Vega's collection. He wasn't playing a prototype anymore. He was playing The Siege of Columbia.
There was only one thing left to do: make the game board. Unfortunately, the flood of information from Irrational Games began to turn into a trickle.
When Dauch first started talking with Levine, it was clear from the start that BioShock's creator knew board games well.
"They made it very clear that they weren't interested in a cash-in. It was clear to me that this was kind of a prestige project for them. ... And the fact that these people thought it was cool to have a board game out speaks to the kind of people that they are."
But after that initial info-dump in 2011, when he and his designers had gorged on all the inside information about Columbia and its inhabitants, Dauch began to see less and less of Levine. He would come by mostly to inspect the miniatures.
There came a point in the summer of 2012 when there was no new information on the game, on the art, on the story available to share with the Plaid Hat team. Dauch and company realized that they still didn't know what Columbia looked like.
Area-control games are very much about the board they're played on, and playtesting could only go so far without one. Vega's combat and economic systems began to gel. The fiction of the board game was able to take, at times, a different path than the fiction of the video game. Handymen, turrets and upgrades worked elegantly in ways that mirrored how the video game played. But there was still no board.
Dauch and his designers were reduced to picking through video game news sites for information, taking screenshots from trailers as they were released to the public.
Not long after, Irrational announced that BioShock Infinite would be delayed. It was a shock for fans of the series, but for Plaid Hat it was a blessing. There was more time now to finish the game board, and it allowed Dauch and his team to release their game during the biggest weekend in the hobby games calendar, the weekend of GenCon in August 2013.
In the end, Dauch convinced Irrational to let him, along with Vega and Concept Artist John Ariosa, to come into its studios to play an early beta of BioShock Infinite. In December 2012 they were finally allowed hands-on time with the game.
The three met before the play session in Boston at a coffee shop outside Irrational's studio.
Retelling the story, Dauch lets go of a nervous laugh. "I had very much prepped [Ariosa] for the worst, saying 'I don't know what we're going to be able to look at. ... Whatever we go in there and see you've gotta make a board out of this; this is what it comes down to.'"
They were lead into an empty playtest area, under continuous supervision from Irrational staff. Even their trips to and from the bathroom were escorted.
What they saw surprised them.
Dauch's team could only laugh. Columbia, for all its richness and immersive quality, was actually paper-thin.
"They didn't have ... a map of Columbia," Dauch says. "They just built [levels]. ... And the halls [were] just built from the point of view of Booker. There's no master layout and plan and size, even for the first BioShock to this day."
With developer debug codes turned on they were floating above what looked like a Hollywood backlot. The facades of buildings existed, the shells of their main rooms protruding behind them, but with nothing more. There wasn't even a logical connection between the various areas. Where was Finkton in relation to Battleship Bay? No one could tell them.
Dauch's team could only laugh. Columbia, for all its richness and immersive quality, was actually paper-thin. All this time they'd been waiting for the answers to their questions, when in the end they could have their game board pretty much however they wanted.
They spent their time capturing the landmarks of Columbia, with Ariosa making colorful sketches on his Wacom tablet as they went. Dauch had just been to Walt Disney World a few months before with his family, and the parallels to the way Levine's team had designed Columbia jumped out at him. He and Ariosa began to work on a game board that looked a lot like the map visitors get when they first arrive at the Magic Kingdom.
The missing multiplayer mode
As this feature goes live the first shipments of Plaid Hat's board game are on a literal slow boat from China.
BioShock Infinite launched to critical acclaim in March of 2013, and was quickly devoured by a mass of gamers across multiple platforms. It remains one of the most highly rated shooters of all time, without including a multiplayer mode.
Months after the release of the video game, a final proof of the board game was shipped to Dauch in Ohio. Dauch approved the design and released the final orders for manufacturing. Based on Plaid Hat's track record, and the BioShock brand, fans placed pre-orders for The Siege of Columbia in record numbers.
By and large, the game is financially successful, and yet few people have actually played it.
But board games, especially good ones, have a much longer sales cycle than video games. Thousands of units will be traveling with Dauch to Indianapolis, Ind. for GenCon. There, over four days, Dauch will sell his games personally, face-to-face with his customers and wearing his trademark plaid hat.
Behind him at his booth will be a handful of demonstrators, friends and employees of Dauch's, who will be there to introduce anyone willing to the only existing multiplayer mode set in Ken Levine's city in the sky. Time will tell if Dauch's board game will live up to the license it shares.
Images: Plaid Hat Games, John Ariosa, Paul Guzenko, Peter Wocken
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan