Ananda Gupta on XCOM and board game design

Ananda Gupta of Firaxis
Ananda Gupta of Firaxis

With the worlds of videogames and board games seemingly on a collision course, there’s no better time to speak to Ananda Gupta, a man who has had no small degree of success in both fields. In the world of board games his collaboration with Jason Matthews produced Twilight Struggle, a card driven strategy war game that shot up to the top of the charts at (the Internet’s largest community of board gamers) and stayed there… for years.

As a brief overview, the game sees two players taking on the role of America and Russia, fighting over a large world map and placing influence cubes in countries by using the operation point values of cards in their hand. The twist being that the cards have events that are either American or Soviet aligned, and if you play a card depicting your opponent’s event they can trigger it. This makes each turn a challenge to mitigate the damage the cards can potentially do to you, whilst also using them to capture key parts of the world, compete in the space race, and avoid the DEFCON track rising to the point that sparks a nuclear war (which unsurprisingly loses you the game).

After this success, and a stint cutting his teeth on Elder Scrolls Online, joining the team at Firaxis Games, a studio that lives and breathes strategy games, seemed like a natural step. His work on the systems of the recent critically acclaimed XCOM Enemy Unknown, and as lead designer of its expansion Enemy Within, saw him applying his board game design savvy to great effect in a videogame context.

With a foot in both worlds, Ananda has interesting insights into the relationship between the digital and analogue realms of gaming, but he is rarely interviewed about both. Until now. In a transatlantic call we picked the hybrid designer’s brains on the subject of making a successful board game, his love of spreadsheets, the use of tension in strategy games and the lessons videogame and board game designers can learn from one another.

The situation room, part of Ananda's contribution to XCOM
The situation room, part of Ananda’s contribution to XCOM

Let’s start with XCOM. This was your first project at Firaxis wasn’t it? I understand you worked on some of the systems for the base game before graduating to lead designer of Enemy Within. How did that come about?

First of all I should say that XCOM was not my first Firaxis project. I worked on Civilisation 3: Conquest, which was another expansion pack, and that was the very first project I worked on in the games industry. I wasn’t at Firaxis at the time, I worked for another studio that Firaxis had sub-contracted it to, but it was great fun to work on the Civ franchise as your first job. Then I went away and did other things, but I was very happy to come back to Firaxis and work on Enemy Unknown. The circumstances were very serendipitous. When Firaxis contacted me they said: “we have this triple A project we need to push through to the finish line”, and I said: “I’m listening”. When they said it was XCOM, I said: “well, I’m in!”

We decided to allow the ending to be about using all of the hyper advanced MECs and gene mods to steamroll all over the hapless aliens.

It’s kind of funny, my very first week on the job was the week that 2K, our publisher, had come in to give some feedback on a pre-alpha version of the game. I had spent that first week sequestered away – it was my first week so there was no way that I was talking to anyone from the publisher. I was playing the game, getting up to speed with everything, and then the Monday after 2K departed, Jake [Solomon] and the rest of the lead said that the main feedback from 2K is that we need to increase people’s emotional attachment to their soldiers and we need to improve the global feel of the game. So I said: “well, I just spent a few years working on an MMO [Elder Scrolls Online], so we’ll make soldier classes, we’ll make soldier abilities and for the global feel we need a room called the situation room. It’ll have a map, it’ll have all kinds of doodads on it to show what’s going on in the world.” So those were the systems I contributed most to on Enemy Unknown and things went pretty well with those. So at the end, when it was time to start thinking about the expansion pack, I’m very grateful that they entrusted me with designing it.

With Enemy Within we had to identify the areas that we wanted to improve and the new stuff we wanted to add. We wanted to have a very cohesive package and I think we did that, and the fact that it let us make robot suits was, frankly, almost a bonus. It’s very hard to go wrong with robot suits. I say that with a laugh, but of course it’s very easy to go wrong with robot suits, because we’re a turn based tactical game and the combat system heavily, heavily turns on cover and positioning. So getting an interesting set of tactical decisions for robot suits that don’t use cover was kind of challenging, and that was one of the many challenges with the MECs. Another one was the progression, for example when you’re doing an expansion pack, especially for a game like Enemy Unknown, you have to decide how to phase in what you’re adding. I mean, if you add too much stuff at the end then people will have to start a new play through and play for a long time before they get to the new stuff, and they’ll wonder what they spent their money on, but if you put it all at the beginning then the novelty will wear off as they get into the late game. So, we decided to have a slope where we put in a lot of stuff at the beginning, then we put in EXALT and some other stuff in the middle, and we decided to allow the ending to be about using all of the hyper advanced MECs and gene mods to steamroll all over the hapless aliens. Because that’s what I think the end game of Enemy Unknown was anyway, and we weren’t going to mess too much with that.

"It's hard to go wrong with robot suits"
“It’s very hard to go wrong with robot suits”

There was a lot of stuff added for the expansion. Obviously you’ve worked a lot on board games, and you’re very used to testing and tweaking mechanisms, so how did you go about fitting all that stuff in without unbalancing the game?

With great difficulty. Yeah, you’re certainly right to point out that we had a lot of new stuff and we turned it around very quickly. The schedule on Enemy Within was definitely a short one, but we managed to pull it off with a very high quality of life for the team, so I was very proud of that. But the value of the complete package is that we don’t break the game, except perhaps for mimetic skin. After a couple of months I’m wondering if mimetic skin is something I might want to have another crack at! It was very polite of you not to mention mimetic skin in your first question.

I think strategy games are in Firaxis’ blood, so the idea of iteration and balance is very ingrained in us, but I think another thing we do very well here at Firaxis is we don’t get too obsessed with the numbers in the spreadsheet. Now I’m a spreadsheet guy, I love spreadsheets. One of the main reasons I was brought on board is because I bring a certain technical rigour to the game data balancing. But because we’re a game where you fight primarily against the AI, although we have multiplayer of course, but the core experience as with Civ is about competing against the unknown, we definitely pick our numbers for feel and only then do we do hard balancing on them.

I love the novels of Carré and Len Deighton and other classic Cold War spy novelists, and so the chance to put in cloak and dagger, espionage, covert operations stuff into XCOM was really too much for me to pass up.

An example of that is on Enemy Unknown, Jake had a rough idea of the categories of damage weapons should do each tier. So when I came in I was able to pose questions like “so right now the way this is set up the worst hit from a laser rifle is not as good as the best hit from an assault rifle, is that what we want?” Or do we want the laser rifle to always feel like a completely unambiguous upgrade: the worst possible laser rifle hit is better than the best possible assault rifle hit. Asking questions like that is the kind of stuff we do second. I think that’s really helpful and it’s worth that to distinguish ourselves from other games that may have a much more competitive element to them, where they have to hit from the spreadsheet first or else they’re off the rails from the beginning. I think Firaxis is very good at that blend of finding numbers that feel good and only then do we apply a scrub, and make sure they don’t break the game.

So, apart from mimetic skin, which is the part of the game that you’re most proud of?

[Laughs] I’m obviously really pleased with the way the MECs came out. They were a very epic task, and they were touch and go for a while, about how they would all come together. But I think they turned out very well and players have had such great experiences and anecdotes with the MECs. It’s interesting you ask me that question now, because I would have answered it very differently at launch. At launch, what I’m most proud of is derived entirely from my own head, but now we’re five months out, what I’m proud of is coloured by what I’ve seen players have fun with, and so I’m definitely thinking: “wow, I’m glad we went the extra mile and put in some physics for the MEC’s Kinetic Strike”, because players have had a ton of fun with that and there have been some great youtube videos. It’s not that I wasn’t proud of it before, but I was definitely thinking about something else that I’m sort of proud of the cleverness of. There isn’t a lot of cleverness when I hit you with a giant MEC fist, but boy is it fun, right?


What would you have answered before?

I think on launch I was definitely most proud of and curious to see the reaction to the EXALT gameplay. You mentioned my board game Twilight Struggle. I’m very much an espionage, cloak and daggers fan, you know? I love the novels of Carré and Len Deighton and other classic Cold War spy novelists, and so the chance to put in cloak and dagger, espionage, covert operations stuff into XCOM was really too much for me to pass up. So I was very psyched about EXALT and I was very thrilled that EXALT and covert operations provided a really good way to modify the strategy layer.

With XCOM the strategy layer was definitely something we wanted to change in the expansion, but we didn’t want to completely redo it, because it’s just an expansion and we had a lot of tactical stuff already. But I think part of XCOMs fundamental appeal is this link between strategy and tactical. For a while there was this version of EXALT that had no tactical, it was all abstractly handled. You’d send your operative off to another country and it would run some algorithms and you’d get the result, and you waged the conflict with EXALT entirely on the strategy layer. While that was fun in an abstract sense, it was anti XCOM, because XCOM is all about the loop between strategy and tactical: I do things in strategy that help me in tactical, and in the tactical missions I can bring things back, or collect information in the case of EXALT, that helps me in the strategy layer, and that keeps me playing. Whereas having this system that only really touched one layer didn’t really work very well. From a game design and mechanical point of view I think it worked fine, but I played it for a while and I thought: “I’m the only one who’s going to find this fun!”

It certainly is another significant plate to keep spinning along with everything else. Let’s bring in Twilight Struggle a little bit now. You co-designed this with Jason Matthews. This was your first board game right?

twilight-struggle--boxIt was the first one that I’d designed. It was not the first one I’d helped out on. Just like in videogames, in board games there are ample opportunities to play test and join communities and so forth. That was a little harder back when I was doing it before the age of Internet fan communities, but I was definitely into testing and advising on board games in the days of Usenet and during the early days of a site called Consimworld, which is a very venerable board gaming community, which I have a great fondness for, that predates boardgamegeek by a while. That helped me get in touch with people and I just happened to get lucky that there’s a very good board gaming community here in Maryland. Maryland was the home of Avalon Hill [a company that defined serious board gaming in the seventies to nineties], so for example there was a big board gaming convention here every year called Avalon Con, which is now called the World Boardgaming Championships since Avalon Hill is no more. Although that’s now moved because the convention has far outgrown the facilities here.

So I was in contact with a lot of people and that helped me get, not just the opportunity to playtest board games and give feedback on them, but it was ultimately how I got in touch with Jason Matthews, through a university board gaming group. Though he and I were both alumni of different universities, we both used the university board gaming group to keep gaming alive as a hobby for us. And that was when he and I got together to design a board game. It’s funny, we sat down and said you and I should design a board game. Great, what do we do?

You hit it out of the park on your very first attempt, is what you did!

Yes, but it’s so funny how we backed into that. We basically thought: okay look, the problem is there’s this great new card driven system, where you have a core rule system and the cards provide interesting mutators or exceptions to the rules, so that way players don’t need to read a giant rule book, they just read a short rule book and the complexity of the game comes out in the card effects and interactions. This is a great system that we first saw in Mark Herman’s game We the People, which is about the American revolution, and then we saw it in Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory, which is about World War I, and both of those are brilliant games, I love them and I would play either of them right now. And the board gaming community loved them too, at least on this side of the pond they did. I know that the style of games in Europe and Germany is little bit different, but the UK has a huge board gaming and war gaming fandom.

Twilight Struggle simulates the global struggle of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, with cardboard and dice
Twilight Struggle simulates the global struggle of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, with cardboard and dice

So we were looking at some of the new games that were coming out and they were, in our opinion, not taking advantage of the system. What the system allowed you to do was simulate in a board game very complicated conflicts, with a small core rule set, and what we saw was that games were getting longer and their core rules were getting more complicated. In other words they were starting to use the cards as a little bit of a crutch. That is definitely going to appeal to a lot of people, especially hardcore war gamers who feel that Paths of Glory and We the People’s systems over simplify things, but we want to get the people who are like us; who are no longer in college and are not retired, who don’t have a lot of time to sit down and play games. Let’s create a game that takes it in the other direction and shortens the core rules and uses the card interactions even more.

I think the emotional feeling of crisis management is an incredibly valuable device in games and I think in strategy games it’s incredibly fun.

Once we were on the same page about that, we said ok, what topic shall we do? Ok let’s do the Spanish civil war, because it’s a fascinating conflict full of heroes and villains you’re never sure who’s who (well you’re pretty sure about a lot of the villains), and then we found out someone else is doing a Spanish civil war game and he was from Spain, so he was probably going to do a better one. And we thought shoot, what shall we do? And I said: “what about the Cold War? The Cold War is a two player game…” And Jason, who’s a real Cold War buff, gave me a sidelong look and said: “it really wasn’t”. Okay, but the two main players thought it was a two player game, even if the rest of the world raised their hands and begged to differ. The emotional mentality of it was that it was a two player game. “And furthermore”, I said this to Jason, “you know more about the Cold War than anyone I know. You’re a total Sovietology nerd. You studied Russian Studies at college because the Cold War was still going then. Frankly I’m surprised you didn’t suggest this to me!” So we worked on it and it seemed destined to fail. But it didn’t.

Were you surprised how successful it was, because it’s been the number one game on board game geek for three years?

We’re going on four now, it’s pretty impressive. I was massively surprised. What happened was Jason and I got it done and we showed it at conventions. We showed it to GMT, who publish Twilight Struggle, and they said: “yeah, this is a neat little game”. So I said: “what’s next”, and they said: “well, we’ve got this thing called project 500”. For those who aren’t familiar with project 500, it’s basically Kickstarter before Kickstarter. They said we can’t risk printing games that no one will buy; printing games is a huge risk, we’re a small company and we have no margins, what if we say here’s a game we’re thinking of printing, if it gets 500 pre-orders then we print the game. And we set that number at whatever it needs to be to guarantee we don’t go out of business. So they put it on the project 500 list, which was kind of a new thing at the time, they’re still using it now, and if it gets to 500 they said they’d print it, and I said: “really?” and they said: “well, you’re first time designers and no one’s ever heard of you, so maybe we’ll set it at 700” [laughs]. And I said “okay”, because what else was I going to say?

And it was a climb! It took eighteen months probably. I thought it was never going to reach it and GMT did not think of it as much of a potential game. They were obviously going to honour their contract. They are a wonderful group to do business with, I had no doubts that if it hit the number it would be published. But it inched up there and GMT, I think when they saw that it had finally hit the number, they said: “Okay, we’re going to publish this but we didn’t say how many we were going to publish”. They gave it their smallest possible print run of 2000 copies and then took 40 copies to a convention and they were sold out in twenty minutes. And that’s when they realised they had something else. When they told me that over email I was flabbergasted. I thought: “wow, okay, people like it!” It was literally not until that convention, it was PresCon the winter nationals in February of ’06. It was a huge surprise.

'Crisis management' is a vital part of XCOM and Twilight Struggle
‘Crisis management’ is a vital part of XCOM and Twilight Struggle

I’ve played it a few times and I’m not very good at it, but I was trying to think what connected it to XCOM and I think it’s this incredible tension; a feeling that something bad can happen to you at any moment. Would you agree with that?

Yes absolutely. I think the emotional feeling of crisis management is an incredibly valuable device in games and I think in strategy games it’s incredibly fun. Now that said, the feeling of Crisis management does die down in XCOM toward the end, where you start to surpass the aliens, and that’s largely out of service to the original game, the 1993 game, where I think there’s also this tremendously emotional charge from turning the alien’s technology against them, right? You start off hapless, out gunned, out classed in every way, but bit by bit you claw their technology away from them and you claw your way up the ladder, until finally you’re at parity and finally you’re better than they are. I think that is an essential aspect of the XCOM spirit, so marrying these to really fun strategy dynamics was something I think we were really able to pull off in XCOM and I’m very happy about that.

Some of those pesky cards...
Some of those pesky cards…

But yes, in Twilight Struggle Jason and I were definitely going for: when you look at your cards, you’re not looking at a bunch of things where you think: “Oh boy, I can barely wait to pull this off”, you’re thinking: “how am I going to avoid losing this turn given what I have just drawn?” And the fact that the other player is probably thinking the same thing is of very little consolation.

Was sharing the creative process with Jason much like working as part of a team designing a videogame? How did the two processes differ.

You’re right, It was similar, especially as Jason and I had such well defined roles on Twilight Struggle. We’re both history buffs, but he is a HISTORY BUFF, he knows so much about the period. When we were doing the event list for the cards he – granted we were spanning 45 years of history so we were spoiled for choice – but, oh my word, he just knew everything and he was very good at spotting mechanics that didn’t feel quite right in context of the different political theories in play. Like the idea of the domino theory, that’s a fairly discredited international relations theory and analysis of the cold war, but at the time it felt completely valid, so we wanted to make it valid in the game, right? We wanted people to be in that historical mentality, not in the hindsight mentality.

And then I was definitely bringing my game systems approach to it, so for example when we came up with the idea of what the space race should do, it was Jason that came up with the steps of the space race and the different events that would trigger it, but it was I who thought up how the space race would actually function in the game. The fact that you can throw away a card on it without it triggering its effect and the fact that only the first person into a box gets points.

The military ops track forces each player to make coup attempts
The military ops track forces each player to make coup attempts

So that was a really good division and I think on a professional videogame development team, having the design team in particular, but really everybody, being as the cliché in recruiting goes now a ‘T shaped’ person, someone who has knowledge of a broad spectrum of things but goes really deep in one area, those are very good people to have on your development team and it was nice that Jason and I were both that with respect to the board game. Because it’s certainly not the case that he is ignorant of board game systems, and it’s not like he didn’t design any systems. For example I think the military ops system was mostly him to capture the feel of the arms race. But he really did the heavy lifting on the events and on the historical background, whereas I did the heavy lifting on the game systems.

I heard that XCOM was prototyped at some point as a board game, and it does feel very board gamey in places. Is that true?

That must have happened before I got there. That’s a better question for Jake Solomon. I don’t know how much paper prototyping went on, but I do know they did a very board gamey electronic prototype. There was a time when the strategy layer was turn based as well as the tactical layer, and that felt very board gamey.

The board game industry is developing a huge amount of traction at the moment and is gaining more recognition from videogamers. What do you see these two industries learning from one another?  

Virgin Queen by Ed Beach, lead designer on the Civ series
Virgin Queen by Ed Beach, lead designer on the Civ series

I think videogame development teams can learn a lot from how board game rules are written, especially good ones. I mean look at the best examples of the genre. I’m not the only board game designer at Firaxis. Ed Beach, who is currently helming the Civilisation line and contributed very strongly on Civilisation V and designed Gods and Kings and Brave New World, is also a very accomplished board game designer with various civil war titles as well as Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, which are both very good games. His style of rules writing is incredibly procedural and clear. I use his rules now as a model for my own. He is doing games that are far more involved in terms of rule weight than mine are, but I definitely look to him as a great example, as I have throughout my career, because he was the one who first hired me way back in the day when we both worked for a different company.

So I feel like, if videogame developers and designers forced themselves to think as clearly about the gameplay… You have a computer that will enforce the rules of the game, but what if you didn’t? Because in fact the programmers that you are dealing with, they have to write the code. There is no game to enforce the rules yet, they are creating it. So I try to use my board game rules writing experience to fulfil my half of what I call the social contract, with engineering and with the art [team]. We designers are paid to really think things through and to make sure systems make sense and are consistent and clear. The best way to do that is to write them down in rules form and then engineers can very quickly grok that. I think that’s something a lot of developers could learn from board gaming.

I think a lot of board game designers don’t think about the literal moment to moment player experience, so they’ll design systems that require a huge amount of book keeping and counter shuffling, which would be better with a computer.

Going the other way, I think a lot of board game designers don’t think about the literal moment to moment player experience, so they’ll design systems that require a huge amount of book keeping and counter shuffling, which would be better with a computer. But you’re designing a board game! Are you familiar with the board game wilderness war? It’s a game about the seven years war in North America between France and England, with Wolfe and Last of the Mohicans and all that stuff. A friend of mine named Volko Ruhnke, who has published many more board games since then, designed it and he had this supply system where you had to go through all your units and roll a dice for each one to determine what their supply status was at the end of every turn, and the number one piece of feedback I gave him was that you cannot make your players do this. It sucks all the momentum out of the game, it’s very error prone and very repetitive. It’s breaking up the flow of the game. I mean if the turn ended on a dramatic moment, you’ve just killed the drama as players take 3, 4 or 5 minutes to roll these dice and implement the results. You need to do this in a way that’s much faster.

And that’s something that a videogame designer thinks of very instinctively because the moment to moment player experience is so central to how these things feel and the emotional state they induce. Board game designers kind of lose track of that sometimes. We make videogames so that the playing of the game is the learning, and I think the board game designer will sometimes wipe their brow in relief and say: “at least we can rely on the player to read the rules.” But it’s dangerous to over rely on that.

Some board games are starting to learn that lesson. There was one recently called Legends of Andor which had a tutorial game where you learned the rules as you played, which is a very videogamey thing as videogames have almost all gotten rid of their rulebooks in favour of in game tutorials.

One of my favourite board game designers, Vlaada Chvátil, he’s done many games, Galaxy Trucker is one of my favourites and Dungeon Lords, his rules are like that, they’re very modular in digestible chunks so you can play a bit, read some more, play a bit. They’re very friendly. I like that trend.

Vlaada Chvatil's Galaxy Trucker: FTL meets Fun House
Vlaada Chvatil’s Galaxy Trucker: FTL meets Fun House

Vlaada’s board games are very much about taking ideas from videogames and exploring them in a different format. Dungeon Lords is like a remake of Dungeon Keeper and Mage Knight is one of the best examples of translating an RPG levelling system to a board game.

He actually designed a much less well known game called prophesy, which I think was his first attempt at doing a level up RPG and I definitely don’t like it as much as some of his other efforts. I haven’t given Mage Knight a try, but I definitely think he has carved out a good niche there and the way that he writes his rules is a good example for videogame designers to follow. Not that I plan on following it completely on my next board game!

Ah, that was going to be my next question. Can you tell us about your new project?

Actually, I’ve already designed it and it’s in the hands of the publishers now. There’s still quite a bit of work to do, but it’s ready to be played by somebody that isn’t me, or while I’m not standing there. It is called Imperial Struggle. It is the global rivalry between Britain and France from 1697 to 1789, so it’s about almost the entirety of the eighteenth century. It’s another two player game like Twilight Struggle. It is about two great powers with different cultures and different world views attempting to further their goals on the global stage. And I hope people like it. I have to constantly remind myself that if it doesn’t get to number one, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure [laughs].

You’ll be dethroning your own game if you do get to number one.

That would be okay!

Will it be using a similar card system to Twilight Struggle, or something different?

There’s definitely some new mechanical approaches in it. One of my goals was to put some fairly substantial evolution into the system that Twilight Struggle uses, and that’s appropriate because whilst this is another story of two great powers going at it on a global stage, it’s very different from the Cold War. I mean, for one thing they fought four major wars involving soldiers in red uniforms shooting at soldiers in blue or white uniforms, right, so it definitely is a very different kind of game and it covers a lot more time than Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle covered approximately forty five years, this one covers almost twice that and so there are definitely a lot of changes that had to be made to the mechanics. So the experience is very different from Twilight Struggle, as well as the fact that one of my goals was, despite the fact that it is covering almost twice as much time and has a whole system to deal with the fact that major wars were fought between these two countries during this period, I still wanted the rules weight to decline. So I wanted this game to play faster and be easier to learn than Twilight Struggle, and we’ll see if I succeeded.

I look forward to playing it. Do you know when it will be released?

I don’t. So the way board games work often, especially with GMT, is that once the designer is done, they will pass it off to a developer who will provide a fresh set of eyes and coordinate play testing and will advise the publisher on how much work is needed and what needs to change. So GMT obviously has a fairly high comfort level with me at this point, and with Jason, but I think none-the-less we will wait for the verdict from the developer and that will determine when it will be placed on the pre-order list. I hope that the pre-orders will go faster this time!

I’m sure they will. Did you mention you were working with Jason on it as well?

Peripherally. Jason’s definitely taking a smaller role on this one than he did on Twilight Struggle. He’s got a lot going on in his life right now. Not in a bad way. I mean, his career has taken off and so he’s had less time. But he is always an incredibly valuable and candid source of feedback

He’s made some great games since Twilight Struggle. I played Founding Fathers recently and I thought that was great.

Yes Founding Fathers is a fantastic game and very underrated I think. He collaborated with another fellow, Christian Leonhard, on that. He and Christian have collaborated on, I think, three games now.

On the other side of your career are you working on anything new at Firaxis that you can talk about?

I am working on another project, but we haven’t announced anything about it yet. 2K has been very happy with XCOM and with the direction we’ve taken it. They’ve been very good to work with. I hope to talk to you again when we have announced something.


Leave a Reply