Interview with Artem Safarov – Unbroken

Unbroken was one of the hits of Kickstarter this year and with it almost ready to come out, I was given a great opportunity to speak with it designer, Artem Safarov, about him and the process that led to Unbroken being made.

Where did you get your start in the board games industry, are you aiming for this to be your sole job or is this a role that you would like to keep in addition to other roles?

I first entered the industry when I have successfully funded Cauldron: a board game of competitive alchemy on Kickstarter more than 3 years ago. It was really a labour of love for myself and a group of friends who provided invaluable help doing art and graphic design. We were thrilled that the game found its audience and that were able to successfully get it to almost a thousand backers. It’s been such a great feeling that I never looked back, besides – the board game industry has such an amazing community that it’s a pleasure to be a part of it.

I wish I could answer the second part of that question with any certainty. There is so much riding on ability to provide for a family that even with the incredible success of Unbroken – it’s a tough decision to make. The goal of doing board games full time is such an attractive ideal for me because I would love to be invested in my job so fully, but I have always been a fan of small responsible steps to get you where you’re going. So, for now I think I am staying put in my day job and enjoying the games business as a fulfilling side venture.

Unbroken was a standout of this year on Kickstarter, what do you think that it was that drew people to the game in particular? Do you think that the solo component has a lot to do with the success?

I think there were several reasons for the success that Unbroken enjoyed.

The decision to commit to the solo-only mode is the biggest factor. I mean, Kickstarter is so saturated with a multitude of all kinds of games these days that the number one requirement for success is the ability to stand out. And solo-only was definitely an underdeveloped niche with a big unmet need.

I’ve spent a lot of time on social media groups discussing different solo games that people enjoyed (and contributing my own experience as a passionate solo gamer of course). There is just really a big desire to have more of this kind of gaming and to not have it as a tacked-on solo mode or a jerry-rigged way to play something solo that really should not be.

Unbroken never settled for its solo nature – it celebrated it and was built entirely around that premise. I think this well-defined unique vision helped it stand out.

Another factor, although less important than the solo component is the fact that Unbroken takes 20-30 minutes to play. It offers a lot more than it asks for from the players. Talking to people about solo games I felt such an overwhelming desire of being able to fit more gaming into one’s life and not everyone has 3 hours to burn on globe-trotting in Eldritch Horror. There is a reason people still love Friday after 7 years – it’s a tight design that is super easy to bring to the table. So, I made sure to position Unbroken as a game that you will always be able to play and that won’t contribute to the pressure of unplayed games judging you, sitting shrink-wrapped on your wall of shame.

Nice art and affordability helped too :).

What was the process for Unbroken for you as a designer, did you come up with a theme first or did the theme fits the mechanics? Do you have a formal process for design/development?

I am a huge fan of the work that Ignacy Trzewiczek does both in terms of designing games and teaching others to do so. In his book, Board Games That Tell Stories, Ignacy lists a concept that I really took to heart in my own creative process. It’s not theme first or mechanics first. It’s the experience that you want the player to have. You have to settle on that and then layer everything else on top of that core, making sure that everything that you add contributes to this central vision. That’s the philosophy I tried to pursue with Unbroken. I wanted to tell a story of survival and staying strong despite being in terrible circumstances. I wanted to impress that dungeon-delving is not cutesy fun and real sacrifice and failure always loom. So, I tried to make sure that every thematic and mechanical decision that I made creating the game helped this vision and I am very happy with the result.

I certainly do not have anything close to a formal process – while there is a flexible central mathematical system holding everything together, there was a lot of tweaking as I went, especially as I have received some exceptionally useful feedback from the solo player community. It’s very much touch and go for me with periodic checkups on whether the game performs as I would like it to and making adjustments to refine it.

As my collaborators in Golden Bell can attest to – some of the tiny mechanical tweaks were being made just before submitting the game files to print, so it’s a constant living process. Just need to know when to say stop and move on – can’t spend an eternity chasing elusive perfection.

You mention your son, Alan, on your website are there any games that you play with him, or are looking forward to playing with him?  

Oh boy, I can write a whole blog post about my experience with teaching Alan games and enjoying them with him. He has taken very well to the gaming hobby – he was playing Hoot Owl Hoot before he was 3 and moved on very quickly to My Firsts of the genre staples – Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Stone Age – all of these have seen a lot of play time at our table. Alan is such a little nerd that he even has a favourite designer – Scott Almes, the man responsible for some of Alan’s favourite games – Best Treehouse Ever and Harbour. Games have been a big help in honing his numeracy and literacy skills as well as teaching lots of the social lessons like being a humble winner and a gracious loser (still working on that one). Forbidden Island/Desert series provides us with lots of cooperative adventure and Dixit is a family favourite to exercise some imagination.

I look forward to playing some more advanced and story-focused games with him when he’s older if he’s up for it. I have a copy of Legends of Drizzt patiently waiting its hour. I also think he will really enjoy Lords of Waterdeep in a year or two.

Oh, I also have a younger son, Ian who is 11 months old. We are working on rolling dice in Dungeon Roll without eating them.

What can we expect next from you Artem, Altema or Golden Bell Studios?

I am very excited for our collaboration and I think it comes as no surprise that the most immediate new venture that we have is an expansion for Unbroken that is going to broaden the player experience with new monsters, new characters, new strategy options (magic!) and the much-requested option for a co-op mode combining two copies of Unbroken.

Titled Unearthed Remains, it is about to enter design and development stage and I’m sure my Golden Bell friends will agree with me that we cannot wait to share it with the community and bring it to Kickstarter and eventually to players’ tables!

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