Words by David C. Obenour
The world has been ripped apart, reality unspun, and shards of land and sea torn from each other. But what has been undone can be done again once more. The old ones have assembled the cosmic rayna – two mile tall frog-like immortals – to amass the scattered shards and reform the world. Dimensions phase and aether fluctuates, as the glory of existence forms once again in your gullet.
Off Shelf: Cosmic Frog is a beautiful and psychedelic game, I was wondering if you could walk us through some of the inspiration behind Tani Pettit’s art work on the game?
Jim Felli: When we first started talking about the frog designs, the game was much more dark and brutal, and Tani’s initial sketches reflected that. The frogs had elements of dinosaurs and predatory reptilian creature. When the design drifted toward a more light-hearted and psychedelic vibe, I asked her to check out the old poster work by Peter Max and Rodney Matthews, and the album covers by Roger Dean, and to use those artists for inspiration for the frogs. Her own research brought her to the works of Richey Beckett, and she incorporated some of their style as well. The end result was a lovely set of frogs with colors, line work, point work, and common threads of cloudy mists and floating islands that not only showcase Tani’s outstanding talent, but also pay homage to those four amazing and inspirational artists.
OS: This type of abstract setting is also well-tred for music. Were there any bands you felt particularly inspired by either while developing Cosmic Frog or after it had started to come together?
JF: I enjoy quite a wide variety of music from classical to R&B to 80’s punk – although I could do without grunge – but a few artists and albums resonated with me during the design and development of Cosmic Frog. Probably my greatest emotive inspiration came from albums by Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Ummagumma, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells, Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygene, and Talking Heads – Remain in Light, Stop Making Sense. I’m old-school when it comes to music when I’ve in a creative mode in that I like to listen to complete albums rather than individual songs. I mean, how can one appreciate the emotional complexity of Rush’s amazing 2112 saga without listening to the A-side in its entirety?
OS: It’s also a very out there story. When you were universe building for it, what were some of your first thoughts that started to excite you and inspire further story telling?
JF: Originally, I was designing a game about giants roaming the world with hidden agendas, stuffing mountains and lakes and such into their enormous sacks and depositing their treasure in their gigantic vaults. When they fought, they would punch each other so hard they would send their opponent flying around the world! But movement was a problem. Giants could jump, run, walk, sneak, etc. and trying to balance those movement modes with distance, terrain damage, energy costs, etc. proved too much of a challenge. For a short time, I considered using dragons instead of giants, but that would cause more problems: in addition to the same movement issues – dragons can charge and walk and fly, dragons introduced a second combat mode – breath weapons. I found myself wishing for the simplicity of a single movement mode. Of them all, I felt jumping would be the easiest as I could tie the distance of the jump to the effort expended and not worry about terrain damage along the arc of the jump. That’s when the giants became frogs and the sacks became gullets.
OS: Were there any smaller details that really impressed upon you as you got deeper into the mythos?
JF: One was the unexpected simplicity of jumping. Not only did jumping eliminate dealing with the effects of terrain on movement, but the very nature of jumping implied movement along a straight path. This eliminated movement complexities associated with turning. Another was line of sight for targeting opponents. It was challenging at first to think about whether a mountain should block a frog’s line of sight… but when you make the frog’s two-miles tall, that problem vanishes. I think the other detail in the mythos that proved both interesting and valuable was making the frogs constructs rather than organic entities and powering each with a tiny star in their belly. This not only opened a design path for non-organic frog abilities but also solved the design issue of “What happens to lands in your gullet when you stuff in more than you can hold?”
OS: Were there any details that excited you about the universe building that didn’t find their way into the game?
JF: Yes, two: combat chips and psychic powers. Combat chips offered a combat system without dice that added a fun level of bluffing and meta-gaming to the battle. Psychic combat introduced new abilities, new strategies, and new ways to empty your opponent’s gullet. I’m currently working on an expansion that will bring both of those elements back into the game. The expansion will be compatible with dice or combat chips, depending on the player’s desires.
OS: The scuplts are very well made as well – can you talk about collaborating with Chad Hoverter? What additional value do you see them adding to Cosmic Frog?
JF: Chad was an amazing collaborative partner. As this was my first foray into miniature, I greatly appreciated his talent, patience, and open communication. Personally, I’m not a big fan of miniatures, but I wanted Cosmic Frog to have an “epic” presence on the table. Once I decided to use varying thickness of land tiles, it seemed almost unnatural not to have chunky miniatures for the frogs. By the way, Panda Game Manufacturers deserve a huge shout out as well: their design team helped modify Chad’s designs – reorienting some parts, thickening some parts – to reduce the chance of breaking and enable each miniature to be made as a single molded piece.
OS: Stripped of its theme, Cosmic Frog is a unique blending of mechanics. When you are designing a game how do you balance out how these different ways of play and thinking interact with one another?
JF: I design games that I find fun, so I really don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what other people want or whether everything is “balanced.” Quite a loaded word, by the way! I start with a story and setting that excites me, then try and create mechanics and mechanisms that support the story and maintain immersion in the setting. I think balance is overrated and can supplant fun. I mean, does anyone remember or care whether every frog ability offers the same procedural utility? Or do they remember that they punched you into Outer Dimension 6?
OS: What were some of your favorite ability cards for the frogs? Both in a playing and thematic sense?
JF: I have had fun with all of them and been completely ruined by all of them. I think Telluric is underrated because people don’t realize that you can relocate after combat is declared and escape a fight. I think Empyrean is overrated because people focus on the red die and forget to maintain their oomph. Mindborer is wonderful to soften up opponents by making other frogs attack them, and Voidshadow and Vampiric are just jerks… and sometimes its just plain fun to be a jerk. From a thematic perspective, the frogs are harvesting constructs and game is about harvesting and creating a valuable vault. Combat is an essential element, especially as lands become scarce, but overemphasizing combat tends to result in bellicose players constantly trading gullet contents while their opponents quietly build up their vaults or ruin the vaults of others by clever raids.
OS: Outer Dimensions are another interesting aspect of Cosmic Frog. How did those come about and evolve as you designed the game?
JF: The Outer Dimensions arose from knockback. Knockback was a natural consequence of physical combat on the Shard and plays a nice role in revealing fractures and accelerating land scarcity. These are real consequences. I wanted something similar for combat in the Aether. Since the Aether is essential all one “giant hex,” physical knockback is irrelevant. So, that’s the role filled by the Outer Dimension: a knockback effect in the Aether that carries a real consequence.
OS: The game also offers a Team Play mode. What inspired you to include that? Beyond the obvious, how do you think playing that way changes the player’s experience?
JF: There are a lot of people who find it difficult to get large groups together or just enjoy more intimate games with a friend or partner. I wanted them to be able to enjoy Cosmic Frog as well, so did two things: 1) I added rules for Team Play, and 2) defined the game setup in terms of the number of frogs and not the number of players. The obvious beauty of playing a team of frogs is that you not only come up with new strategies but also discover synergies among the frog abilities. The strategies and experience that come out of Team Play can also provide new insights into abilities that can be leveraged in normal play.