Words by David C. Obenour
No need to break that dollar because you are going to be feeding dice into your hands not quarters into a coin slot! In Retrograde, players grab and roll – and then grab and reroll – their way through this real-time analog adaptation of the golden era of arcades. Blast your way through these pipped space invaders to rack up galactic victory and the highest score.
Off Shelf: A fun and puzzley mix of real time set collection and push your luck, can you tell us about how you first developed the core mechanics that would become Retrograde?
Mary Flanagan: Max had been wanting to do a real time game, and we had been enjoying roll and write games, but we noticed those two things had never gone together! So I said “we can fix that.”
OS: Designed as an in-house staff, do you ever keep and then collage or Frankenstein together ideas that may not have fit for other projects? If so, were there any interesting roots to Retrograde as a game?
MF: Yes, in fact parts of Retrograde were originally part of a cooking game! We have a lot of ‘spare parts’ in the design garage, so to speak. There are always elements of games we like a lot but don’t end up using. I have to say we often forget about them until a situation arises where we’re like “Oh what about that storytelling game prototype we had…” It’s funny that some prototype mechanics stick around like that for a long time.
Max Seidman: We had called it “Slice and Dice,” but the relationship between the ingredients you were rolling and the dishes you were cooking never really fit right, or explained what you do in the game. After trying out many narratives to see what fit, we settled on retro arcade games because they capture the real-time pressure that Retrograde has!
OS: What do you enjoy about real time tabletop gaming? How do you think it changes the dynamics of strategy and play?
MS: I absolutely adore real-time tabletop games. When done properly, I think real-time games can have a very different feel and tone from turn-based games, and real-time mechanics can bring a lot to a game. For example, real-time gameplay reduces downtime, doesn’t allow for analysis paralysis, and prevents quarterbacking in cooperative games when one player tells the others what to do.
OS: Gaming can be many different things, entertaining is in different ways and for different lengths of time. What do you enjoy about light and fast games?
MF: In each of our games, we strive to create a unique mechanic while making the game still approachable to non-expert gamers. Most of our games are conceived of as family games, though we do have more crunchy things in the works. Some games are best for a planned game night, while others like Retrograde can be picked up and played where and whenever.
OS: Did you ever consider including a digital component for Retrograde?
MF: My background is in digital game design, actually, and I make a lot of technologically-driven art. When Max and I started collaborating over a decade ago making games with paper wasn’t a habit. But now I’m more interested in making analog games. In part it’s because to make an awesome digital experience you often need a lot of funding, people, and time. With analog games, I like that we can concoct a little world and get people into it really quickly. They come to life as soon as you playtest. That’s super fun!
OS: What do you enjoy about classic arcade games?
MF: I actually like their simplicity. They aren’t trying to be massive open world games that are all things to all people. They set up a scenario and you jump in, with only a few abilities. In a way they are really streamlined. If games were poems, classic arcade games would be like speed-haikus.
OS: How do you think you were able to capture that in Retrograde? What were you able to exemplify or vary in that style of play?
MF: I think Retrograde captures that frenzied “panic mode” from arcade-style gameplay. What’s nice is you don’t have to die repeatedly, but you do race to get the card you want first, and if it gets taken, you have to strategize on the fly. It’s mayhem!
OS: Were there any mechanics or additional considerations you tried to add but just ended up not fitting with the finished game?
MS: Oh, tons! The original version had these stacks of wooden blocks, and you’d grab them when you were done rolling instead of slapping the cards. Initially, the game was much more yahtzee inspired, with a lot of classic point tallying – rolling a 6 gave 6 points – and final scores were in the hundreds. But playtesting quickly showed that it was just way way too much math! Mary led the charge to boil the game down to its simplest components, and now final scores are 20-30 points. Almost no math at all! [laughs]
OS: A modestly priced game with sharp but simple components, could you envision doing expansions on Retrograde? What would you want to add to the core game if you were to?
MF: An expansion would be fun, to introduce new powerups and more sets of alien dice whose combos have different effects. Go aliens!
OS: Working with Ann-Sophie De Steur and Spring Yu on the art, what were you excited about what they were able to capture with your game? Did any of it go in a different direction than you had envisioned?
MF: I think the art captures the game mood perfectly! As soon as we settled on the theme, we all gravitated to the same color palette. That was easiest. There were some questions, like how much of the console to show on the front. Little things. It was an interesting challenge to combine Spring’s pixel art asteroids with Ann-Sophie’s vector art, but overall the art just came out great in my view.