Occulites & Crokinole
An interview with Ben Boersma, Darwin Games
From the Darwin Games website
Darwin Games was established in 2011 by husband and wife team Ben and Shae Boersma, when their Occulite creations were ready to leave the comfort of their home and explore the wilderness. They are based in Australia and continue to work to develop and publish games that create memories and bring families and friends together around the table, face to face.
Inspiring fun and laughter, challenging the mind and engaging imaginations around the world. Evolutionary games design.
I recently connected with Ben from Darwin Games over Instagram after we had both posted images of Crokinole boards a few days apart mentioning that we were each waiting 30 days for the topcoats of polyurethane to dry. His board was one he had built himself and painted to look like a giant eyeball from one of the Occulite creatures that live in his tabletop universe. Mine was a less impressive resurfacing of an old hand-me-down I had received.
I grew up in Ontario, Canada, the birthplace of Crokinole, and have been playing for as long as I can remember. It was just always around. It is also one of the most popular dexterity games in the world and ranks in at 73 in the BGG top 100 (5 on the Family Game list) so while it is no surprise that you are loving it in Australia I was curious how Ben got into Crokinole. So that’s where I started things off.
The wait for the poly to cure is agonizing but so worth it in the end.
Did you grow up with Crokinole? What leads you to build your own board? How prevalent is it in Australia?
My wife and I had a Willard board many years ago after seeing it being played by a friend on Board Game Geek. We loved it, but due to needing to use some of our games collection to pay for figure sculpts and art, we regretfully sold it on a couple of years ago.
In my childhood, we used to play a dutch game called ‘Sjoelbak’ (Dutch Shuffleboard) every New Years’ eve, so that dexterity element has always been something I’ve enjoyed. Memories of this and a recent foray into woodworking prompted me to try and build a Crokinole board with my son.
I think Crokinole is played in pockets throughout Australia by people in the board game hobby, but certainly isn’t anywhere near as well known as in Canada. I think that Carrom is probably more widely played at the moment.
Your current board game project is something maybe a little beyond a passion project. You have been building a small universe for over a decade. How did you first “discover” the Occulites? Did it start as a game and continue to grow or did the lore come first and the games follow?
I discovered the Occulites through a game I was making called ‘The Grass is Greener’, where all the characters were made from Pom poms. These quickly evolved into the Occulites that you see today. Lots of story and lore followed and games have naturally sprung from that.
Dawn: Rise of the Occulites published on Eagle Gryphon seems like a pretty big undertaking. The game is enormous and besides the design and development, you did all (or most) of the artwork as well. Exactly how big an undertaking was that? Were you working on the art the whole time or did you finish the game up and then work on the art?
Dawn was a huge undertaking. The game was in development for several years as a miniatures game before evolving into a board game. I had done some artwork for the game before showing it to Eagle/Gryphon which I had been using in our playtesting, but my intention was to get an artist to do the artwork. When Eagle picked it up, they insisted that since it was my world and my artwork had a certain style to it, they wanted me to do the art for it. This was something that I was a bit surprised with but happy to have a crack at. It took me ages to illustrate the whole game and then when we had to cancel the first Kickstarter, I took the opportunity to continue to develop my skills and ended up redoing most of the artwork in between our first and second goes at Kickstarter. For someone that is not trained as an artist and doesn’t illustrate particularly fast, this was hundreds of hours of work. So much so that I lost count. I would wake up at 3 in the morning and sneak into the study to get illustration work in before work. It was rewarding work, but physically and mentally draining. I did learn a lot during that time.
One of the ideas I really like about Eye for an Eye is that you have worked simultaneous action into an arena skirmish game. When I think of this I picture my wife and her friends playing Dutch Blitz, which is utter madness. A bunch of moms who drop all civility and curse and swear at each other while they duke it out. It’s spectacular to witness and it’s about time that feeling was part of a skirmish game. How did this concept evolve into the game for you? Were you playing a lot of real-time games like Escape? Just how furious can the action get?
Haha! Dutch Blitz can be crazy! We had played a few real-time games in the past and always enjoyed the pressure and reliance on quick thinking that they brought. The game itself came about because of where I was up to with the story and lore. It leant itself to developing an arena skirmish game. Our initial efforts were centered around having a pool of stamina dice that were spent to do different moves, but a balance had to be struck between doing too much and conserving your energy.
After Dawn, my wife Shae and I got to a point where we needed to streamline our games a bit more than we had been and so we went back to basics and asked ourselves, ‘What are we trying to create and why should we?’.
Essentially we were trying to create an arena skirmish game. So what would that be like in real life? It would be intense, crazy and fast-paced where you had to make split-second decisions to stay in the game. This lent itself incredibly well to a realtime game. I’m sure other gladiators didn’t wait and say ‘Spartacus! It’s your turn.’ or stand there and let others beat them down. So the realtime version was born.
This also addressed the point of why we should do it. There are so many games out there about arena skirmishes, how could we do one that was unlike any other.
The action can get rather intense, but the way it is designed, there are little things to slow down the action just enough to make the whole thing work and not collapse in a heap. It is an intense game, but each round only lasts for, at most, five minutes, so its easy to get a breather in between rounds. It is a very fun game to settle challenges with mates and the trash-talking can certainly be entertaining to see.
The other side of that is of course that not everyone loves that kind of pressure. We have several players in our group that will avoid any real-time style games. How have the reactions been with your playtesting? I notice that you retooled the rules set to include a more organized turn order system for the KS relaunch, did this come about from player feedback?
Some of our first external playtests were with older primary school students and they took to it like a duck to water… and they were really good at it.
Our experience with playtesting and demos has largely been very positive. Even with those that do not normally enjoy realtime games. I think it has a bit of a stigma of people thinking ‘how could this possibly work’ and then after playing the game they are always surprised at how well it runs and how fun it is.
However realtime is niche and there will always be people that find the pacing far too fast for their personal preferences. In fact, some of our Occulite fans that have been with us for quite a while had the issue that they loved the theming and the Occulites themselves but didn’t want to play a realtime game. For these players, we developed the turn-based variant. Now, this didn’t work the first few times we tried and it wasn’t until we left the variant alone for a long period of time that we were able to come back to it and make it work. There is still some realtime aspect, but it is largely subdued, making it once again accessible for those that prefer to not be rushed when playing games. My personal favourite is still realtime, but the turn-based variant is a legitimate variant that works rather well in the end. We included it because we had fans that wanted to be able to play with the Occulites, but felt were obstructed by the realtime aspects.
Eye for an Eye looks spectacular. The miniatures, the colors, the artwork. With your previous games, including Dawn you had done a lot of the artwork yourself but for this one, you hired The Mico for the artwork. He is becoming a bit of a celebrity in the board game art scene. I have at least 6 boxes on my shelves right now with his art. How easy was it to book him for this? How was it working with him?
Thanks so much Mitch! We are very proud of how the game has come together and The Mico is a huge part of that. I think we caught him at a pretty good time. We had been playing the Valleria games and really liked the artwork in the game, especially the trolls and goblins. Shae and I thought that his style would suit our Occulite world really well, so we emailed him explaining what we were looking for and if he was interested in illustrating our world.
We received an email back with a sketch of an Occulite saying that he was keen and we went from there. The Mico is fantastic to work with and does an excellent job. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him and see how he put his own stamp on the world we had created to make it even better.
In an interview with the Cardboard Vault I watched you mentioned that Darwin Games already has 8 more games in the Occulites universe. The first of which is a trick-taking game. Are these games going to fill in the gap between the other two games; Dawn and Eye for an Eye? I assume there will be more of the Occulites story revealed with each new game?
Yes, we have a number of games waiting in the wings that are set at different points in the Occulites timeline. Each will be reflective of a different time and a different part of the narrative of the world. The games won’t necessarily be released chronologically, but each will see more story to flesh out the lore for when it takes place. Writing the stories is something that I really enjoy and something we will continue to do as long as we can.
Are there plans for Darwin Games to put the Occulites world and history into a graphic novel?
Haha! We have plans for lots of things! This is something that we would love to do at some point, but it would be finding the right time to do it. Definitely on our wish list that’s for sure!
One of my favourite things with the board game industry is just how small and family-oriented most of it is. So many of the biggest companies are still just one or two people doing what they love and I imagine Darwin Games is no different. Was Darwin Games a pretty natural evolution for you? Is Darwin Games working on anything outside the Occulites’ Universe?
You are right. Darwin Games is literally Shae and I. But we do work with others from around the world to make our games. We wanted to share the work we had been doing with the Occulites and hoped others would enjoy the quirky little world we had created, so Darwin Games was born of that.
We are doing some other things outside of Occulites, mainly in the environmental education sector. We helped develop a card game to raise awareness of endangered frogs in South Eastern Australia that we copublished with Zoos Victoria here in Australia. We are also doing some other work which I can’t talk much about yet in the conservation space which we are excited about.
Shae and I are both Primary School teachers, so it would be a natural evolution to get into the educational field at some point as well.
I can’t possibly forget the most important questions. What games are you playing right now? What upcoming releases are you looking forward to? And are there any standout favourites from the past that you continue to love?
Now that the Crokinole board is finished, a lot of Crokinole (probably just like you too), but also games like Dinogenics, Everdell, Claim and Power Rangers. We are looking forward to the new TMNT game coming out and a few expansions for games we already own. In terms of stand out favourites from the past that we continue to love… BattleLore 1st edition and Dungeon Twister are absolute classics, along with Blood Bowl, Lord of the Rings The Confrontation and PitchCar.
Your son is 6 right now, which seems to be a great age for board games. What games are you playing with your son now? What are some of his favourites?
He is loving Power Rangers, Blitz Bowl, Cheating Moth, Downforce (The Mario Kart modification), Pandemic Rapid Response and Memoir ‘44 at the moment. But he is also enjoying Fireball Island, Ghost Blitz and Meeple Circus.
We still have to help with some of the reading, but he’s been wanting to play games with us since very early on, so he just loves getting involved.
The board game hobby continues to grow and the industry keeps expanding and changing. What have you seen recently, game industry-wise, that you find exciting?
I think the games hobby is becoming bigger and less niche here in Australia which is exciting. At PAX Australia, they ran a Collaboratory where game designers in Australia could submit their game to demo to the public over the course of the weekend. This was a very exciting time for us Aussie game designers to be able to show what we can do and for us to also see the quality of games that will be coming out of Australia soon.