The LOOP designer diary

Théo: Like all the best time travel stories, this story starts in the past. Not in the far, far past, but well before I wrote this sentence.

It all began on June 9, 2018 to be exact. I was at the Des Bretzels et des Jeux show in Strasbourg, France, and I had planned a short trip to Brussels with Maxime Rambourg.

In October 2013, I had moved from my hometown in Poitiers in the west of France to Nancy in the northeast to start my very first job at IELLO. I didn't know anyone when I moved there. Shortly thereafter, I became friends with my co-workers, and they took me to a local game bar: La Feinte de l'Ours. I met a lot of people there, including the manager of the bar who would turn out to be my co-designer: Maxime. At the time, I was still a newbie designer. My first game Shinobi WAT-AAH! had just released, and I didn't yet know that I would become a full-time game designer. At the bar, we talked a bit, but we didn't become especially close and we didn't discuss creating a game together. (Spoiler alert: That came later.)

By 2018, I had moved to Brussels, and Maxime passed through the city regularly to visit friends we had in common. With the big success of The Big Book of Madness, he was spending a lot of time on game design. That same year, I quit my job to focus on game design as well, and on forming Team Kaedama. During one of our conversations, we had the idea of trying to make a game together.

Anyway, back to Strasbourg. We had just finished some mediocre burgers, and Maxime offered to show one of his prototypes to me and the incredible Sébastien from Catch Up Games. It was a co-operative deck-building game in which players traveled through a timeline to stop a supervillain.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: After so much time travel, I really struggle to remember the order of certain events...

But one thing is for certain: I already had a good relationship with the guys at Catch Up and regularly showed them my projects. I wanted to get their feedback, but I also wanted to endear myself to them, hoping to work with them one day.

After playing the game together, Théo and I wanted to spend some time at his home in Brussels for our very first co-designing session. We didn't really have an exact project in mind; we just knew we wanted to work together.

Doctor Faux knew this was a pivotal moment because he smashed the passenger window of my car to try to stop us from coming together. Théo overcame that challenge, though, and endured a four-hour drive without a window. I think we spent the entire, blustery drive from Strasbourg to Brussels talking about The LOOP. When we finally arrived at his place, we set up the game and immediately started making changes to my little bits of cardboard.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: And that's how we started working together, sometimes on The LOOP and sometimes on other projects.

It was the first time we had worked together, and I wasn't sure of the dynamic. I remember talking about a prototype and feeling unsure whether I was giving advice to a friend or if we were truly working together — but little by little we clicked, and it became clear that we were a team. That's when the real work started.

In its current form, there was the hint of an excellent game, but there were still a fair amount of things that didn't work well. We specifically examined these aspects:

• Managing clones was done with health points, which was tedious.
• There was a thematic mechanism which was as cool as it was frustrating. Each player had three cards in front of them and would add a new one to the leftmost spot before discarding the (now fourth) rightmost card. Then the effects of all three cards would activate from left to right.

LOOPing back to our time in Brussels, we discussed these issues during that co-designing session and came up with two thematic solutions that made it into the final version of the game:

• Instead of using health points, clones would have an "original era". The goal was to successfully send them back to this era to create a temporal paradox and — BOOM — destroy them.
• At the time, I was still playing Hearthstone, and one of the characters had a power I really liked. Their deck was super unpredictable, but you could use their power to "go back in time and start your turn over". While we couldn't do exactly that, we talked about paying energy to create time loops and completely replay the cards in your hand.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: The Paris est Ludique! convention was coming up fast, and we planned to show those changes to Catch Up. They seemed to like it more, but not enough to jump on it. Admittedly, we knew there was still a lot of work to do to balance out the player experience — the joys of designing super niche co-operative games! — but I felt that by adding loops and destroying clones, we had made some progress.

The main concern at the time was the incarnation of Dr. Faux, who didn't yet have a time machine, but whom we were pursuing across the timeline. Movement, at times, felt cumbersome. There was sometimes a feeling of "I can't do anything satisfying on my turn", which we wouldn't shake for some time. We wanted players to have more control over the different events in the game.

We had another co-designing session in Brussels shortly after SPIEL where we played back-to-back games from morning to night, with no interruptions (except for takeout delivery). After each game, we spent a few minutes discussing what worked and what didn't. We would make changes on the fly, then immediately set up a new game. But during these games, one thing was clear: We were having a wildly fun time playing this game as we were trying to improve it. Ideas were flowing, and we were tossing them to each other, back and forth. When one of us would go in a random direction, the other would refine it. We had finally figured out our workflow, and it was amazing.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: We worked on The LOOP for twelve hours a day for two days straight. The mechanisms were reworked a lot, and the graphic design was completely redone until we were happy with the new version. Well, happy enough to have a nice box to take a photo of and post on social media.

A few days later, I was back on the road on the way to the Ludix show, which was hosting a big prototype competition. To make things simpler, I spent a few days in Valence with Team Kaedama before meeting up with Clément from Catch Up so that we could all carpool. In the car, I brought up our design session on The LOOP to Clem and told him we were going to start showing the prototype to publishers because it was good enough to show off now. Since only a couple of weeks had passed since SPIEL, he was slightly dubious; the prototype he had seen just a few days ago still needed a lot of work. But it was perfect timing since I had the prototype in my bag.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

That evening, I got a gaming group together, and everything went well. Clément made fun of me because I spent the whole time saying "This is my favorite card!" for...well, most of the cards.

On the drive home, we talked about the game again, and Clément had two differing feelings. On the one hand, he really enjoyed the game and wanted to play again. On the other hand, Catch Up was already developing another game by Maxime and didn't want to sign two games by the same designer. He ended up taking the prototype anyway.

I don't remember the exact timing, but we received a VERY long email from Seb (the second half of Catch Up) a few days later. They had played it again, they liked it, but... My first time reading the email, I thought they didn't want to publish The LOOP. (Seb loves to use parentheses between parentheses in very long sentences.) I read it again later and wasn't sure. I read the email out loud and finally understood everything. Catch Up wanted to publish The LOOP — hurray!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: I had a lot of conversations with Seb about their desire to publish The LOOP, but having another of my prototypes in the works caused a problem. The charisma of Dr. Faux was undeniable, and in the end we agreed to focus primarily on The LOOP.

We weren't done yet, though. The game had a linear timeline with nine eras — in the beginning, it was actually 11! — which meant that if a player in the distant past had to travel to an alien invasion in the far future... Well, suffice to say it was a long journey that was often impossible to complete. This frustration was felt too frequently, so we reduced the number of eras to seven. It was better, but it wasn't perfect yet.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo and Catch Up suggested letting players go from the furthest point in the past directly to the furthest point in the future, which would create a temporal loop. The first time we tried a "circular" board, it clearly addressed the need to move more easily and it aligned perfectly with the theme.

Dr. Faux was also causing problems; he was sometimes too chaotic, other times not evil enough. Moreover, his identity as an evil genius, superpowered enemy, and extremely annoying menace felt lackluster. By giving players more ways to counteract his plans, he had lost some of his threat.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

During our brainstorming sessions, we freely threw out ideas to see how others would react. We started looking for a way to add some chaos back to Dr. Faux. We knew we didn't want to roll dice, so Théo came up with a slew of ideas until he suggested this: "Okay, we're not going to do this, it's a terrible idea, but what if we had a tower to drop cubes in..." I definitely replied something like, "Wait, wait, that's actually not bad. A cube tower, huh?"

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We didn't take it seriously, we even joked about it, but the idea had taken hold. We quickly floated the idea to Catch Up to see their reaction, specifically on whether making a plastic tower was even feasible. They approved instantly, saying that it would be eye-catching. They were on board.

I dabble in 3D printing and started creating some designs for the tower. It was quite the process. I have no training in architecture, modeling, or physics, but I had to figure out how to make the cubes fall equally in three different directions. It took several weeks and about twenty different prototype towers in different shapes and sizes until we figured out a functional base. We sent this to a professional (Dominique 3DZeBlate Breton) to polish the rest and make it perfect!

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: We say this all the time: You don't stop working on a game when you sign it with a publisher. Oftentimes the opposite is true, and it was certainly the case with The LOOP. We doubled our development sessions with Catch Up and stripped the game down to its core so that we could build it back even better.

I confess, there were multiple moments where I thought we wouldn't be able to perfect every detail. We thought the end was in sight three different times, where all that was left was playtests to make sure it played as planned. But each time, we pulled back. Either the tests brought new kinks to light, or professional partners requested we make new changes.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

It was at this time that I showed the prototype to Simon Caruso to see whether he would be able to illustrate the game. He officially joined the team and a near-final version of the game took shape.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Max: With the base of the game finalized, we examined the replayability. Multiple characters and plenty of different cards and missions added variety, yet we wanted to give players a challenge that was balanced between the level of difficulty and the sense of accomplishment. We also wanted players to want to play again and again, even after beating Dr. Faux.

Without adding a true legacy element, we thought about adding content players could "unlock" by completing certain actions during the game. This unlocked content could be new characters, new missions, or new cards. We scrapped this idea pretty quickly as it seemed too overdone, so instead we dipped our toes in the temporal vortex to see how different game modes could work as a way to spice up the experience and gradually increase difficulty.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We came up with a dozen ideas and tried different directions, which we quickly pared down to four game modes. Then we tested, polished, retested, refined, and replaced aspects. However, it was hard to determine the perfect balance of difficulty since we had played so many games at this point. We needed the modes to be different enough from the beginning mode, but not completely convoluted, while still forcing players to use different strategies.

This meant we had to pour even more energy into creating these game modes, yet we didn't mind because we were still having so much genuine fun while playtesting. I felt excited each time we changed something because that meant we needed to schedule another playtest session. This all wrapped up with the solo mode that Sébastien came up with. It managed to keep the same play style of The LOOP, while being a fulfilling solo experience.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Théo: The game finally went into production and all we had to do was wait. This wait felt longer than normal. The game had become so much more personal to us than our other designs, so we couldn't wait to see the final product. The first bits of feedback we got from players and press were encouraging. We can't thank you enough for playing and enjoying the game!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Tagged with: Designer Diary

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