Ovation Design Diary #1
Do you design theme first or mechanic first?” That question seems to come up an awful lot, and I used to have a simple answer for it. However, as I've designed a few more games, the answer isn't as simple as it sounds and can vary quite a bit from game to game. Theme is always important to me, though, and it's what inspired me to try my hand at game design with Ovation.
When I was homeschooling my son, we were gearing up to attend a rehearsal of the Colorado Symphony in Denver. We had done lots of learning about different instruments and instrument families as well as listening to and watching music online. Since they were going to be rehearsing Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, we'd read that story, too. But I really like cross-discipline education, so I wanted something that covered some history. Any classical music history really. It didn't have to be Stravinsky or the 20th century era. I figured there must be a board game out there to enhance our learning, and I always managed to work in some kind of game, from Concordia to Mad Libs, from 878 Vikings to Quixx – playing WAS learning! Thus my quest for a classical music themed game began...
And then it ended. This was before 2018 when there was suddenly a boom with Symphony and Symphony No. 9 being released. If I had been searching during that unexpected banner year, I may well have bought one of those games and never taken the journey I'm on today. But by the time those came to life, I was already immersed in Ovation. Because when my search came up empty in the pre-2018 desert of classical music games, I started wondering what kind of game I wanted to play. And since there wasn't a game like that in existence already, shouldn't someone make one? Shouldn't I make one?
Full disclosure: I'm not an expert in music history. I've had to do a lot of research along the way, but at the beginning I managed to dredge up some memories from my junior college Music Appreciation class. Those memories brought me to the the patronage system which saw composers beholden to fickle aristocrats for their bread and butter. I also thought of Amadeus, Peter Schaffer's brilliant play and film about Mozart's life and far-too-early death. The struggle to eke out an existence while pleasing the wealthy and making some of the most amazing art seemed like good fodder for a game. Speaking of games, I was also inspired somewhat by Splendor with its accessibility, card market and engine building. The gears started moving in earnest, and the idea for Ovation was born...as a smaller and very different baby called Sonata. It wasn't a great name in terms of fitting the game play experience, but I had to call it something.
Back then, Sonata had money and inspiration as two different types of resources. There were patrons you had to please before you could put them in play which meant performing the music they loved first. Those performances cost you both money and an action, but you couldn't perform unless you had first composed a piece of music. Composing cost you inspiration. Fortune cards to hopefully help you compose and perform came from a luck-of-the-draw deck with rewards and pitfalls, and the game took place over a certain number of rounds featuring different conditions determined by Movement cards. It was relatively simple, and the highlight of every playtest was always the same - attending each other's performances and getting inspired by them. People loved that part and really got into it! Since attending performances was becoming such an important part of the experience, my husband suggested a name change: Ovation. It was perfect! So now I had the right name and was getting enough confidence to start sharing it in the wider board game world. Getting Ovation out there led me to meeting an unofficial mentor who would provide some of the greatest inspiration of all.
Eric Alvarado, designer of Vinyl and Jukebox with Talon Strikes Studios, saw my sell sheet in a Facebook group and reached out. I was able to pitch my game to him by phone, and we arranged to meet at PaxUnplugged in December 2019. Eric was extremely supportive, but in offering critiques he noted that as a musician himself, the thing that really stood out to him was how I was using inspiration. He thought I was missing a fantastic opportunity to highlight how people can be inspired by different things and have different feelings that translate into the music. I am so, so grateful to Eric, because he inspired me to create a huge new iteration of Ovation – one that emphasizes the tone of music and how composers use their inspiration to create works that make us feel.
Today Ovation features three tones of inspiration – joy, passion and sorrow. Combinations of those can be used to perform great pieces of music, and the tone of the music performed can inspire other players with those same feelings. Attending performances is still a highlight of the game, but it's even better now. The money is gone as are most of the specifics I mentioned above. Lots of things shifted on the heels of this key change (see what I did there?) for Ovation, all of them for the better. Three types of the primary resource led to new board game inspiration as well, this time with Gizmos. I actually haven't played Gizmos, but with an understanding of the basic mechanics, I could see how a chaining of actions could make Ovation even more fun. Composers exhaust the inspiration they use for music whenever they have to do other things to eke out a living - like schmooze with aristocrats or travel or take on pupils. But the more they perform their music, the better they get at using those experiences to stay inspired and efficiently work toward performing even more. It flows together and creates much more of the game experience I was looking for. Including the thing that has never changed: attending other players' performances and getting inspired. It's still most folks' favorite part. You might even say it always gets an Ovation (<insert chuckle or groan here>).
So to answer that theme vs. mechanics question, Ovation was definitely inspired and designed theme first. The mechanics are connected to the theme throughout the game, and while I certainly haven't invented any new genres in board gaming, the way the theme and mechanics come together gives Ovation it's own special space. It's so satisfying to see and hear players engaging with the music theme. Whether they're joking about how their opponent just performed the saddest symphony they've ever heard or pretending to conduct their latest concerto, it's truly fulfilling to see people enjoying Ovation, which has in turn inspired me to continue my board game design journey.
I'm not sure that Edison's math for genius applies to board games. For me, I'd have to give inspiration at least 10% of the credit...maybe more. But then I'm not a genius, just an inspired board game designer and mom who loves music and learning!
What inspires you? If you design board games, what are your thoughts on theme vs. mechanics? Reach out to me at my social media links to let me know. I'd love to hear from you!
Note: The card images are from prototypes along the way. I can't wait to share with you the final art and graphic design as it comes in. I'm so excited!