Words by David C. Obenour
You’ve been to infinity, now it’s time to go beyond! Lightyear gave us the origin story for Andy’s beloved Toy Story science fiction action figure and now it’s time to form those bonds with our own toys. In Lightyear Blast-off Blitz players race to collect fuel cells while dodging giant hostile bugs and an equally hostile competing team. Flick to finish, flick to deflect, and command your team to be the first to achieve blastoff of the XL-15!
Off Shelf: How did the idea for Blast-off Blitz originate?
Keith Bahrenburg: I’ve been inspired by skill-and-action games and have always wanted to design one. Puck-flicking on its own is a fun activity and is a game-type I’ve enjoyed playing over the years. When I was given the opportunity to design a kid’s game for Disney Pixar Lightyear, there were a handful of different ideas I considered: motor-driven toyetic designs, outdoor physical games, and even puzzle-based games. The idea of a puck-flicking game kept bubbling back up as the strongest contender. As we developed the idea further, the concept of flicking pucks to simulate a team-based struggle seemed like a fun way to tell the story and to tee-off a big moment like Launching Buzz’s ship.
OS: Dexterity games are a fun added dynamic for tabletop play. Can you think of some of your favorites – either growing up or currently?
KB: I remember there was a golden moment as a kid when I was lucky enough to choose any toy from a toy store to take home for myself. A dexterity game called Crossbows and Catapults handily won the draft. The game featured Vikings and Barbarians in a castle-building, puck-launching battle. It came with mini-figurines and working siege weapons – I was in love. Some other dexterity game classics I’ve enjoyed include Rebound, Carrom, Crokinole, and Pitch Car. Some great recent favorites include Ice Cool, Klask, and A Game of Cat & Mouth.
OS: When making your own dexterity based game, what did you want to be sure you included or added to this kind of play?
KB: To start, I liked the idea of adding an element of “zone control” to this type of game, which in the end boiled down to the struggle you engage in over collecting the fuel crystal pucks. Flick too lightly and you won’t collect one for your team, flick too forcefully and you may miss it completely. The tension of having to play it “just right” or the other team could swoop in and take it from you was a fun feeling I wanted to convey. The big payoff of launching Buzz’s ship was also a must-have and made for a satisfying finale to the team-based competitive nature of the game.
OS: I imagine sourcing components is a painstakingly complicated and tested process – making sure the plastic slides on the board correctly, that the discs aren’t too light, that the ship actually launches when the trigger is struck. Can you talk about that process? What was some of the hardest things to get right?
KB: You are exactly right. Early on, the ship would not launch occasionally, even if the puck squarely hit the launcher. I tested a few different puck prototypes and recorded “successful launches” versus “failed to launch” data for each puck weight, while our production team was doing the same and comparing notes. Finally, we got it dialed in only to have two different game-board prototypes produce drastically different results, which began a whole new round of testing. The Lightyear story was all about Buzz repeating his task, ad infinitum, until he got it right – and just like Buzz, I couldn’t have managed it without a dedicated team.
OS: I was really surprised with how effective the blocking actually is for the game. Did that take playtests and design consideration to get right?
KB: The first time we tested this idea was in an online boardgame simulator. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and we were trying new ways to play and test games with the team. The feeling of allowing the other team to take their winning shot uncontested didn’t feel incredibly fun. We tried out the “blocking concept” where the defending team gets to flick their pucks to intercept the other team. It turned out to be a great way to turn the tables and we knew we wanted to keep that aspect. When the game was tested again in-person, it was working well and didn’t present much of a physical problem. The primary design considerations were focused on the rules to make sure the timing worked out and that the moment was balanced fairly.
OS: Were there any elements of play or rules that you tried to get to work but ended up not making it into Blast-off Blitz?
KB: One idea, was to have players get “trapped by a Giant Bug.” The idea was that if you knocked your puck into a Giant Bug, you would put the bug figurine on top of your puck and another player would have to knock it off to rescue you. It was a fun idea, in theory, but in practice it just did not gel well with the flow of the game. You never want young players to get penalized in a way that may not be recoverable. Also, adding rules for it further complicated the gameplay and drew focus away from the fun parts that were already there. In the end, the idea had to go. The components, however, are still sized to work for that idea. If you place a Giant Bug onto any of the Character Pucks, it nests perfectly into place.
OS: Can you talk about collaborating with the team at Pixar? How involved were they in the process and sourcing of art and component direction?
KB: Pixar was a great partner and they had eyes on the concept and components throughout the entire process. We had some early development insights about the Lightyear project that helped us dial in the right theme and gameplay. Once we proved we had a game that made sense for their project, they trusted us to make it as fun as possible. Their primary focus was on how well the game’s art represented the movie they were making, and they provided us with much of the art used in the film. They were also great about allowing our team the creative freedom to illustrate custom art like the cool top down T’Kani Prime terrain you see as part of the gameboard.
OS: Can you talk about the fun you see in taking an established intellectual property like Toy Story and adding interactive games for fans to actively engage with?
KB: For me, the fun comes from the way that toys and games can extend the experience of a good story. As a kid, I used to buy toys and games to keep engaging with the stories I loved. I didn’t want the fun of experiencing those worlds to ever end. I think being lucky enough to create new toys and games for established worlds like Lightyear and Toy Story is just a whole new way to keep playing in those worlds. To imagine that there might be kids out there enjoying Buzz’s story in new ways in part because of me makes it that much sweeter.
OS: Pixar movies are a great example of modern family entertainment – being focused on kids but making sure to include elements for entertaining adults as well. When you were making Blast-off Blitz, were you trying to think of that multi-generational appeal still?
KB: There may have been some cross-generational appeal already baked into the project in a variety of ways. Lightyear has its origins in Toy Story, which came out about 27 years ago. Blast-Off Blitz, as a puck-flicking game, requires a level of manual dexterity that skews a little more toward older kids. The roots of this type of game harken back to some classic games like Pitching Pennies, Air-Hockey, and Shuffleboard. If there is cross-generational appeal to the game, it may already lie in the sum of its parts.
OS: What do you find most meaningful about a family playing games together? Is it different from the benefits of groups of friends playing together?
KB: The goal of a game is to guide you through a specific experience of having fun. When you engage in that goal with your family you are suddenly working together, even when competing, to find those fun moments and lean into them even more. For a time, you can all let down your guard, be more present, and share joyful moments together.
One chooses their friends because they feel a sense of comfort and naturally have fun together. Playing a game with friends may help you focus on those aspects even more or provide a fun excuse to get together to keep those good times rolling.