Mary Russell

Before I made board games, I made video games. And long before I lived, breathed, and ate board games (and there's less fiber in that diet than you'd expect), I lived, breathed, and ate video games.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with video games. I was also obsessed with books, and with the Bible, and I'm not sure if all of those obsessions were necessarily healthy. Whenever I wasn't reading a fantasy novel, or reflecting on how I was a sinning sinner who had committed unforgiveable transgressions (I was maybe six or seven), I was playing video games. There was a while when I was keeping a little diary, which I used only to record my "health" and "gold" (quarters), which I'm sure scared the heck out of my parents.

I made video games on sheets on paper, scrawling out level layouts like I had seen in strategy guides and issues of Nintendo Power. I would finish one game and then immediately, the same day, start scribbling its sequel. I had whole franchises of terrible, derivative platformers. But hey, I was a kid, and not an entirely bright one at that, so I'm not going to be too hard on myself there.

As I entered my early teen years, I had access to a computer, and started to grapple, mostly unsuccessfully, with various iterations of BASIC. I think the first game I actually "made" was a text-based adventure about goblins in a garden labyrinth. I must have spent a week or more on it before I abandoned it. The first block of text asked if you wanted to go left or right, which took you to another block of text. There was a similar binary block of text for each of those, which I want to say was some kind of puzzle, but was more likely a really obtuse riddle. And then I think there was another branching path for each of those after that. That was as far as I got. I don't think any goblins ever showed up.

It was immensely frustrating. Further experimentation over the course of that summer confirmed that I just could not wrap my head around anything but the most rudimentary code. Attempts to implement more complex things like an inventory system just caused the whole thing to crash. I just didn't have the capacity to really understand programming. I had an easier time using Visual BASIC, but only just, and my experiments there - taking the form of "click objects in this static picture and they do things" - were just as rudimentary.

When I was in my mid-twenties or so, I stumbled onto Game Maker Engine, which seemed to be more my speed. The drag-and-drop, object-based environment allowed me to make what I considered to be "actual" video games, i.e., platformers. I did a number of games in quick succession, many of which were lost to the ruins of time, never to be seen again. There was Orfee Firewalker, an Orpheus-inspired "downscroller" (in much the same way my beloved Kid Icarus was an "upscroller"). Umbrella Action took the pogo-jump mechanism of Duck Tales and added the ability to float, Poppins-style. Macaroni Rescue was mostly an experiment in animation, as little macaroni men flailed their arms madly about while you tried to rescue them. Soccer Bear was a top-down game where you kicked a soccer ball that bounced off walls at ghosts.

The problem with all of these is that they were pretty much terrible, and I knew they were terrible. Any of them would have been okay and oh, that's cute if it was something a twelve-year old had done. But as a full-grown adult person, it was a little embarrassing that the best I could come up with were these goofy little games that weren't really much more than an ugly and rudimentary proof of concept.

And the thing is, I wasn't just tossing these off or anything. Every one of them was a struggle. The most frustrating thing about working on video games is that I would spend hours putting together some tiny aspect of the game, and when I started it up to see how it worked out, it would go agley. Something would crash, or there was some variable I had forgotten to switch off, or maybe everything "worked" but not the way I wanted it to, and so I would go back in and tinker with it, only to find that something else had gone off as a result.

I briefly tried reaching out to some of the more talented designers for help. Some of the answers were friendly, others less so, but the general message was the same: to make it do the things I wanted it to do, I would need to go beyond the drag-and-drop and learn the programming. And I figured, well, I'm not a kid struggling with BASIC anymore. I can learn some programming.

The problem is that I couldn't. For whatever reason, the parts of the human brain that can comprehend how to program just don't exist in my noggin. I continually stumbled around even the most basic concepts.

I still kept at it - this is before I got into board games, remember - but it was like pulling teeth every time. The games did get better, though, and a handful of them are still available online all these years later.

Side Saddle was a shmup where you controlled the shorter horizontal rather than longer vertical plane, with an intentionally homemade feel.

Its sequel, Side Saddle 2, is a different animal entirely - a boss battle bullet hell puzzle shmup where it's impossible to lose but can be difficult to win. It's probably the best video game I ever did.

It even came with a second unlockable/secret shmup, Metal Nautilus.

I was, incidentally, insanely pleased that someone thought the game was good enough to record some video of them playing it. See it here.

In between the two Side Saddles, I spent a fair amount of time working on a mostly harmless, though often frustrating, platformer called Run Jump, which no one paid much attention to, but had its moments. See it here.

And then...

Then there was Sequence Breaker.

Sequence Breaker was a game I spent eighteen months working on. It looked like this:

It was the first game that felt like a proper game, like a complete experience. Or it would be, anyway; after eighteen months, I was still working on the second level. It had an inventory system. It had exploits -the whole game was about sequence breaking, and therefore about exploits and "bugs". I was immensely proud of it.

And then one day, my antiquated computer stopped working, and when I got it working again, the game and all its files were gone. I tried to open it from my back-up, but when I did, the back-up file disappeared.

I'm not going to lie, guys; it kinda broke my heart, and it was the last time I worked on a video game. (Brief post-script: years later someone who had been following the development of the game approached me about working together to complete it, and they had the programming chops to make it work. But our "creative differences" were insurmountable.)

By the time Sequence Breaker had crashed, I had started to throw myself into board games, so I took some consolation in that. (I still get upset about the game, though, and looking at those screenshots after all these years has got me weepy-eyed.)

So, how did video games get me into designing board games? Well, while I was working on Sequence Breaker - you didn't think I was going to work on only one project for eighteen months, did you? - I hit upon the idea of a semi-abstract turn-based combat game, but was struggling mightily to make it work. I was bumping up against the same old problem of struggling with the programming aspect, and I realized that I could spend a couple of months getting it to do what I wanted it to do, and then and only then could I actually start playing the game and seeing if it was worth doing. Since it was turn-based, it occurred to me that I could prototype it physically and play the game that way first. Once I had gotten all the bugs worked out in that sense, I could start worrying about the digital bugs.

And so I did, and I played it, and I made changes later that same day. From version 1.0 to 1.1, it was a matter of minutes, not hours or days. And I marveled at that, and I kinda fell in love with that. My very first board game wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good either - it was clunky and maybe a little boring, but no worse I suppose than Macaroni Rescue or Soccer Bear.

Around that same time, a bunch of other threads in my life came together, all pointing me toward board games. As I said, this overlapped slightly with the work on Sequence Breaker. And if that hadn't gone up in smoke, I might still be trying to split my energies between board games and video games - between a form I have some aptitude with and another where I'm a hopeless amateur. With board games, I just have to focus on actually designing the games, without worrying about finding the secret incantation that will bring it to life. In retrospect, the sudden end of my last video game project is what freed me up to refocus my energies on designing board games, and I think that's partially responsible for the success I've had as a designer.

Sometimes I still mourn Sequence Breaker though.

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