"Just one more trick..."
That's what I convinced myself as I took flight in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 during the summer of 2001. My best bud Gary had bested me in every competitive mode the video game offered. If I could nail just one last 360 Benihana over the Carlsbad Gap, my combo would take him down. I didn't even finish the thought before we both watched my digital Geoff Rowley face-plant straight into the pavement.
There's an undeniable thrill to pushing your luck. I often had more than enough points to defeat Gary, but lacked the discipline to cash out. It was simply too much fun to keep skating. The scuffed rails, graffiti beaches, and punk music all worked in tandem to create a world I never wanted to leave.
Fast forward: Years later, I'm holding a pen and some paper. I decided to take everything I loved about skateboarding and capture it in a board game. Of course that would prove easier said than done.
A few early design choices crept into my head. I wanted dice for the risk of bailing and skatepark paths in which to place them. I tested a dice system using several route-building games, but it didn't feel like skateboarding.
My initial resistance to cards held me back because skating is all about tricks and their unique names. I implemented a novel method to draft trick cards. It was inspired by the rondel mechanism from a game called Seeland in which you spend coins to draft further tiles. Instead of a circular arrangement, my cards would be curved along a halfpipe. A player would spend "momentum" to slide a skateboard and select their card, then roll dice to attempt that trick. Recharging momentum cost a die, so dice management was key to extending your combo.
The halfpipe rondel was an interesting foundation for many iterations. I sought assistance from my college friend, Tony, and we used our engineering backgrounds to design and print a 3D ramp that held the cards and sliding token. We also printed skater meeples to move around the board.
These physical components got me excited enough to take Skate Summer on the road. My first playtest at an Unpub Mini event provided invaluable feedback. The game had a "rich get richer" problem and bails felt devastating. Developing a satisfying bail mechanism would continue to haunt me for the next two years.
Constant playtesting opened up new ideas. My Gen Con 2019 prototype saw increased player interaction and dice manipulation. Trick paths were gone in favor of an open world skatepark, complete with a gear shop for upgrades. Player mats were designed with skill attributes and trick multipliers. Skills were spent to re-roll, and upgrading meters would unlock additional dice. This system worked fine, but often a new player would get stuck as their opponents grew way too powerful. Balancing the pace of upgrades became a top priority.
Trick multipliers also saw an evolution. Initially, you could multiply card values by attempting a higher roll. This changed into gear tiles that slotted under each completed trick. You earned gear by matching symbols on neighboring cards, thus giving more to consider when drafting.
I split the cards into three sliding halfpipes based on trick variety. For example, your dice had to beat the yellow value to draft a grind card. The pipe token then slid to your rolled number, making subsequent grind cards harder to draft. Player interaction was heightened because sliding the tokens changed your opponent's options.
As this iteration unfolded, more homages from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater were sprinkled in. Cards now had S-K-A-T-E on them for a collectible endgame bonus. Secret tapes were hidden under gap tokens. The card chaining system would activate one of three bonus paths: (1) special tricks, (2) gear multipliers, or (3) stat boosts.
Skate Summer was complete enough to bring to PAX Unplugged, where all my "clever" systems came together to produce one unfortunate conclusion: The game was slow.
Due to the pandemic, Tony and I worked with our friend George to recreate Skate Summer digitally. I commissioned a few pieces of concept art to give the game flavor.
The virtual Skate Summer was playtested at Gen Con 2020. I had added thematic goals like spray paint and smashing boxes, but mostly it was the same lengthy experience. Each player took their slow turn and waited for the next player to take their slow turn. My frustration reached a boiling point, leading me to trash the whole design. It was time to take every lesson I learned and build Skate Summer for real.
Sliding a token back and forth was still fun, but skating is more about performing tricks than drafting them. I converted the sliding track into a personal balance meter. Staying balanced in Tony Hawk games was always exhilarating, so that became my primary focus.
Tavarua is a great surfing game with a balance mechanism. In Tavarua's system, ocean waves affect your balance through a deck of cards. I considered what felt unique to skate combos. I wanted your first few tricks to feel easy, then escalate in risk. I stuck with dice, but made them a universal balance roll affecting all skaters simultaneously. Each trick added another die to the pool which increased tension. Players would need clever cardplay to pull their meters back toward center.
The balance meter became the glue for each subsystem. Gear was moved to the skatepark and upgraded your meter for better combos. Trick values could score more points by raising your skill with flames. These flames were earned through balance arrows, adding extra consideration for which direction to choose. Simultaneous play felt compelling. Bailing made more sense since players had agency with their cards. Special tricks were earned on the player mat through long combos, offering greater rewards to risk-takers.
Using inspiration from Viticulture's wake up track, I developed the "landing track". Now when stopping your combo, you'd get first choice of a landing bonus. This proved a critical decision point because a flame-starved combo would make certain spots more tempting.
You also entered the movement phase based on landing position. Turn order mattered in the race for skatepark goals as they were scored for endgame majorities. Big Air, Revert Ramps, and Manuals added faster board movement. Skate Summer finally had action and energy.
Player scaling, upgrade balancing, and game length were the last screws to be tightened. Different player counts affected the landing track. Gear upgrades were tweaked to ensure they felt equally enticing. A score target marker was created for adjusting game length.
Finally, I was ready to show the game again. I pitched to several publishers during a virtual Unpub event and Pandasaurus Games clicked as a great fit for Skate Summer. Developer Alex Cutler and owners Nathan McNair and Molly Wardlaw had exciting ideas on how to merge my design with their top-tier production.
Since teaming with Pandasaurus, additional development elevated Skate Summer to incredible new heights. Alex cleaned up remaining rulebook issues and handed the game to Pape Ink for art design. Pape crafted a skate world so detailed it left my jaw on the floor. All the elements were in place to form the experience I had been chasing.
It had taken countless late nights cutting tokens on the floor to build Skate Summer. Whenever I got lost or frustrated, I tried to clear my mind and focus on one single goal at a time.
The key to moving forward was always just one more trick.