Words by David C. Obenour
To seek the secrets of the great Spirit Animals, you must first gather their ancient stones – smoothed and formed from their ages here on Earth. However seekers must lookout not only for each other but also for the trickster Coyote who would block those trying to discover these precious stones.
Gathered around a table, two players set off on this quest in Spirits of the Wild. Turns are taken through exhaustible Action Cards and triggered Spirit Power Cards that fill and allow players to draw Stones from the communal bowl. Drawn Stones are placed and scored on Player Boards as dictated by the different five Forest Animal night sky constellations. After the last Ancient Stone has been taken from the bag, the game is over.
Quick to play, though filled with meaningful “give and take” decisions, Spirits of the Wild is a beautiful and imaginative game.
Off Shelf: Can you talk about what initially got you into gaming?
Nick Hayes: I suppose my story isn’t that different from many other game designers these days. Games, both traditional and digital, were my number one pastime growing up. I spent a disproportionate amount of time with games that allowed you to create your own adventures, games like HeroQuest and World Builder, an old Mac game. When I didn’t have access to those, because I was at school, for instance, I would find a blank notebook and fill it up with choose-your-path style side-scrolling adventures. As technology improved, this sort of hobby grew with it. I would build RPGs spanning multiple memory cards in RPG Maker for PlayStation and invest countless hours designing and tweaking maps in TimeSplitters 2 (PlayStation2). The medium didn’t matter – I just liked creating games.
OS: Working at Mattel as a day job, do you ever face that concern of having your hobby as your career? Is it hard to keep the joy in it alive some days?
NH: I’m sure we’ve all heard the warning to avoid making your hobby your job because you will end up hating it. But there is a competing maxim out there that goes something like: “If you do what you like for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life.” In my case, it was definitely the latter.
Designing games as a full-time job has been a dream. Even the mundane business tasks aren’t enough to make the day-to-day unpleasant. I’ve never once woken up and not wanted to go to work. You should have a frame of reference though. Before I got into this field I spent six years in the U.S. Army doing essentially heavy manual labor in some pretty dangerous environments. So, through that lens, no amount of emails or paper jams could take the luster off designing games in an air-conditioned office in Southern California.
OS: I’m always interested about the start of an idea for a game, can you tell me about how Spirits of the Wild started to take seed with you?
NH: We were looking to launch a line of two-player games and I was responsible for designing one of them. So aside from player count, I pretty much had a blank slate. I didn’t have any specific mechanics in mind to start with, so I began by picturing two people sitting across from each other at a table and then imagining what kind of game they were playing. I liked the image of a bowl on the table between them, and the players are taking turns selecting stones from the bowl. That was the seed; the rest just grew from there.
OS: While there are definitely exceptions, an enjoyable two-player game can be hard to find. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of a two-player game?
NH: The strengths of a two-player game are not that different from any other game. You want players to be invested in the game. You want them to agonize over their decisions, and you want them to ask to play again as soon as the game ends. If either player feels like they are out of the running, or like they don’t have any control, then you lose that most important last part. I think the test of any game is whether or not the players want to play again once the game ends.
OS: I find the direct competitive nature of a two-player game to be something of a weakness, at least to me. With three or more players, there’s a winner but not really a loser. Is this something you thought at all about Spirits of the Wild?
NH: There is sort of a social contract with two-player games that both people knowingly enter into as soon as they sit down to play: one player will win and the other will lose. So, I was not worried about someone feeling bad for losing. My hope was that the game played fast and was fun enough for the losing player to enjoy their time and want to play again. In any game, losing does not feel bad if you feel that you lost because of mistakes you made and will hopefully not make again. But if you felt you lost due to inherent randomness built into the game, or some other reasons outside your control, then the desire to play again is severely lessened.
OS: More known for children’s games, party games and longstanding classics, can you talk about Mattel’s initial response to Spirits of the Wild?
NH: Mattel has been making modern strategy games since 2013 with the launch of Bania and Geister Geister Schatzsuchmeister (Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters) in Germany. Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters was awarded the Kinderspiel des Jahres in 2014 – arguably the most important award given to a children’s game – and since that time, we have continued to launch a small but steady stream of modern strategy games. Spirits of the Wild launched as part of a four-title line of two-player games, the others being Blokus Duo, Voltage and Trailmazer. Since its release, Spirits of the Wild has been very well received. I think this is due to the wonderful artwork and simplicity of play.
OS: Can you talk a little about the playtesting for Spirits of the Wild? I imagine balancing out the action cards and spirit power cards took a lot of work.
NH: Playtesting is a long process for any game. With Spirits of the Wild, I think I got about 60% there with the first prototype, which is fairly uncommon, at least for me. From that foundation, it was mostly tweaking the action cards and spirit power cards to make sure they felt different enough from each other. When you think about it, there are only so many ways you can interact with the stones. Either you’re taking them out of the bowl, moving them around, or putting them in the bowl. The trick was finding the right six abilities and making sure none of them were redundant or overpowered. The other half of the equation was determining the point values for the five scoring sections. I would say most of the playtesting involved making sure those sections scored roughly equally.
OS: A beautiful game, how did you connect with Syd Weiler as the illustrator?
NH: For Spirits of the Wild, we wanted a style that was raw and naturalistic, but also cool and modern. Our graphic designer David Tucker, who is a fan of Syd Weiler’s art, showed us her style and we all agreed it was a perfect fit. David and Syd then worked together to develop the fantastic look that has drawn so many people to the game. Spirits of the Wild would not be the same without their vision.
OS: $15 is a remarkable MSRP for a game these days, especially with the type of quality components that you have for Spirits of the Wild. Can you talk about the work and decisions that took place with game design as it relates to the final cost?
NH: Each game in our two-player line has an MSRP of $14.99, so I knew that going in. The challenge was to design within that price range. My initial design called for more stones than the current eight of each color, but that turned out to be too expensive, so I had to redesign. Sometimes cost reductions like that can hurt a game’s design, but in this case, it actually helped tighten up the system.
The other thing I would have liked was to have the Coyote made from a heavier, dense resin. I wanted him to have some heft. However, this would not only have made him too expensive, but it also would have had trouble passing toy safety regulations due to the Coyote’s pointy ears.