Interview: Geoff & Sydney Englestein on Space Cadets: Dice Duel

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Dice Duel at Gen Con
Ready, set, roll! An 8-player game of Space Cadets: Dice Duel at Gen Con 2013. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

At Gen Con 2013, one of the big hits was Space Cadets: Dice Duel from Stronghold Games, which sold out during the weekend. A stand-alone sequel to last year’s Space Cadets, Dice Duel pits two teams of spaceships against each other in a mad race to shoot down the other ship. This time, instead of a series of mini-games played against a sand timer, it’s all about rolling dice against the other team.

Dice Duel was designed by Geoff Engelstein and his daughter Sydney. I asked them both a few questions about how the game came to be and what it’s like working with your dad or daughter on game design.

Geoff and Sydney Engelstein
Geoff and Sydney Engelstein, the father-daughter team behind Space Cadets: Dice Duel. Photo provided by Geoff Engelstein

GeekDad: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. I got to try out your latest game, Space Cadets: Dice Duel, at Gen Con, and had a blast. It’s easy to see why it sold out so quickly. Were you expecting this sort of reception from the game?

Sydney: You never know with a game how it will be received, but we had very high hopes. Just about everyone who tried it out really enjoyed it, and because it was so unique we hoped many would find room for it in their collections.

GeekDad: What was the inspiration for Dice Duel? Is it something that came out of designing the original Space Cadets game, or did the idea come later?

Geoff: The original idea came during some of the late playtesting of Space Cadets. Someone suggested changing the Helm cards to be square instead of rectangular so that they could be rotated to more visually represent the heading of the ship. We thought it was a good idea, but the publisher decided it was too late in the process to make the change. Later, after publication we thought that using dice instead of cards would have been another way to go, and started a thought experiment about converting all the mini games to dice games.

At the same time we were working on a way for people to play Space Cadets head-to-head, and we realized that the dice-based version would be a fun way to go.

Geoff Engelstein teaches Dice Duel at Gen Con
Geoff Engelstein teaches Dice Duel at Gen Con. Photo provided by Geoff Engelstein

GeekDad: Were there any particular games that influenced you in the creation of Dice Duel? When I was playing it reminded me a little of Escape (one of my favorites), and also a little bit of the iOS game Spaceteam, where you’re shouting instructions at each other constantly.

Sydney: We only recently tried Escape, well after the development of Dice Duel was complete. But I think perhaps it was better just hearing about the game was better than playing it, as it got us thinking in a particular direction without being overly influenced. The buzz around Escape made us realize that just the act of rolling dice could act as a timer of sorts, and that we didn’t need a sand timer like in the original Space Cadets. However we wanted a little more control over the dice rolling, and came up with the Engineering system, where engineering passes dice to other stations to activate them, allowing them to roll their special dice. That idea really unlocked the whole design, as well as having the advantage of being really thematic.

Spaceteam is awesome, and we still play it a lot. But it wasn’t really an influence on either design.

Sydney Dice Duel prototype
Sydney playtests a prototype of Dice Duel (then called Warp Duel). Photo provided by Geoff Engelstein

GeekDad: How much evolution and rewriting did it take from your initial idea for Dice Duel and the final game?

Geoff: Our other designs took years of design and refining, but Dice Duel hit us like a bolt of lightning. There is very little difference between the original concept and what eventually was published. We did simplify the systems, and simplify some more, as we tend to design things that are overly complex at first. And Dice Duel really benefits from being simple, as it allows the players to get into the speed aspects while still preserving a lot of tactical options. The first prototype game of Dice Duel was in August of 2012, and the game was finalized and in the hands of the artist by January, and at the printer in May. That’s a very quick turnaround time, at least for us!

GeekDad: What’s it like designing a game with your dad/daughter? I know you’ve written a little bit about designing Space Cadets (along with Brian), but I’d love a peek into the process. Do you think it’s easier or harder than working with somebody you’re not related to? Is there ever any tension because of the parent-child relationship?

Geoff: It’s been very fulfilling. On a design level there are both advantages and disadvantages. One big advantage is that we’re all in the same house together. So when someone has an idea it is really quick to just throw it out there. When I’ve done designs with non-family, the communication needs to be a lot more formal. You have to set up a time to talk, or put everything together in an email. You’re much more likely to verbalize those crazy ideas when you can just shout into the next room. The disadvantage is that you don’t want to get into big disagreements. The game shouldn’t get in the way of the family. For us, fortunately, we didn’t run into too many of those, and most were easily solved by playtesting and seeing which works.

I think it’s really exciting for the kids to realize that they can do something creative and have it become real. It’s not just some crazy dream. At the same time they see the work that is required to go that ‘last mile’ to get something really ready to be produced. I hope they carry that with them for the rest of their lives.

Sydney: I love working with my dad. It gives us something to talk about on long plane rides and we spend a lot more time together. My dad talked about not letting the game make arguments between us, and that is the best part in my opinion. He’s so careful to not get into a heated argument that I can be as blunt as I want about when something needs to go and he doesn’t put up as much of a fight. It’s totally great. It would be hard to work with someone who wasn’t related to me, because I’m often so busy with school that I don’t have a lot of time to devote to the game but my dad is there to bang out ideas and then just bring them to me for comments and refining. It helps me deal with my academic schedule versus designing. I assume he is driven by not wanting me to fail all my classes.

Dice Duel Prototype
According to Geoff, early prototypes “had cutouts for the dice, and looked cool but worked poorly in practice.” Photo provided by Geoff Engelstein

GeekDad: One of the things that I found fascinating while playing this was that because you’re working against another team of players, there’s no need for a timer or an artificial way to build tension: the other people do it for you. Did you plan that from the beginning? Did Dice Duel ever start out as a fully cooperative game before you made it a team-vs-team game?

Sydney: Originally the concept was to make a fully cooperative game like Space Cadets, but we quickly switched to team-based. Later we thought about putting in some missions that would have you work cooperatively to complete a mission. But it’s really hard to create an automated opponent like enemy ships that work in the real time genre. Escape does it by having an ultimate time limit and forcing you to do certain activities during the game, like head back to the central room. But it’s hard to do that for fighting enemies. But after watching the intensity that arises when two teams battle against each other made us realize that we should stick with the competitive game, and not try to make it cooperative.

Plus team-vs-team is such an underused style of game that we were excited it worked so well with Dice Duel.

GeekDad: Any other genre-busting ideas or Space Cadets sequels in the works? You’ve set a pretty high bar for yourselves!

Geoff: We’ve got some expansions for both Space Cadets and Space Cadets: Dice Duel in development, some other games in the Space Cadets universe, and some crazy ideas to take existing genres in new directions. So hopefully those will hit a store shelf near you soon!

GeekDad: Thanks again for your time, and congrats again on a fantastic game. I can’t wait to break out my copy at my next game night!

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