Artem Safarov, designer of Unbroken, is making a return with a game themed around redemption. This could be the greatest comeback story in the board game industry.
Hey Artem, it’s been a while since we last talked! Could you briefly share about yourself for those who might not know you?
Hi everyone. My name is Artem Safarov, I’m a game designer from Toronto in Canada, where I live with my amazing wife and our two boys. I designed and Kickstarted a light competitive potion-brewing game called Cauldron in 2015, but my big “claim to fame” is the solo-only game called Unbroken that was Kickstarted in 2018 and then faced a great amount of difficulty and delays due to underestimated shipping costs, to the point where even now, almost three years after the campaign, the fulfillment is unfortunately not completely finished. That hasn’t stopped me from being passionate about the board game industry that is full of amazing people creating fantastic games.
It's great to have you back. We'll get to Unbroken in a moment, but how has COVID been influencing your day to day life lately? Are you working mostly from home?
My full-time job has been completely remote since last March with no plans to return to the office until at least October. So I think I’m in the same boat as many remote workers, having to balance work and kids, finding things to do outdoors (easier now that it’s warmer!). As for me personally - let’s see, I haven’t had a haircut in so long I now have a bit of a man bun going, I started running and completed my first half-marathon last November and I got really into geocaching (a wonderful way to make your walks in new places interesting and purposeful).
Here is us on one of our geocaching expeditions.
Have you had a chance to play any of the newer solo board games? Which was your favorite?
I think I’m actually lagging behind some of the latest hotness in terms of solo play. One of the reasons is that I pretty much stopped buying games as all of my disposable income goes towards fixing that whole Unbroken business nowadays. But I did get some exciting new games as gifts recently! My recent solo discoveries are Cartographers (it is a remarkably calming experience to actually draw as you play) and Coffee Roaster (another tranquil game with interesting mechanics) and my favourite new-ish game is Warp’s Edge. I’ve been a fan of Scott Almes’ design (Tiny Epic Galaxies, Harbour and Best Treehouse Ever) and this latest one just gets so much right with lots of innovative mechanics. It is better known around the house as “Pew Pew Pew”, betraying the fact that there’s a lot of improvised sound effects when that gets played :).
I often lurk around the Solo Board Gamers community on Facebook, and saw your announcement that you’re stepping foot into the industry again. I’m glad but this seemed unlikely when we last talked. What caused the change of heart?
The last interview we did was at a very difficult time for me, probably around the lowest point of this whole Unbroken saga. I think it was for that reason that I doubted if I would want to set foot into the spotlight again - I was struggling in terms of mental health and overall well-being and wanted nothing more than to be left alone. The past year and a half did see some steady (though slow) progress and generally I hope I was able to demonstrate that I am committed to finding solutions and making things right, even if it takes a while.I had significant amount of support to see me through this, both from my internal circle and from some of the board game community folks, some of whom I consider role models. As a result I feel more comfortable being out there and pursuing new opportunities, though right now it’s purely as a designer. Besides, not to sound cynical - but it’s an additional way for me to make money and that helps a great deal in finding solutions for Unbroken backers.
Having prior experience working with a publisher (Golden Bell Studios), what gave you the assurance that TGG Games would be the right partner to work with?
There were several factors leading to my decision to work with TGG. One, they collaborate with major designers that I look up to like Steve Finn and Bruno Cathala. Two, they really dig solo games and seem genuinely interested in having quality solo titles in their catalogue. For instance - they publish Black Sonata (that I was honored to lose to by a lot in the now distant 2017 Print and Play Contest on BGG). Finally (and somewhat pragmatically) - I could really use the funds to help moving the remaining Unbroken deliveries and the folks at TGG offered terms that allowed me to have a significant advance that I will be happy to put towards the Unbroken shipments, moving that along and getting it closer to final resolution. A final reason to work with TGG was the fact that they will be able to collaborate with an artist whose work I adore for our joint project - more on that later!
You mentioned before that your family served as a strong pillar when talk around Unbroken reached its peak. How did they respond to the idea of you making a return? How receptive does the online board game community seem about your comeback?
The fact that in the last year or so I did have more time and mental energy to dedicate to my family has been incredibly important. They know that creating games is meaningful and valuable for me, so they have been very supportive of this new endeavour. On my end I am very mindful of setting boundaries too - participating in this new project only as a game designer will definitely limit demands on my time and energy - that’s one of the reasons I am grateful to TGG for this opportunity - it offers a low-intensity, low-risk way for me to get back into the the game industry. One member of my family - my very capable sister-in-law and my primary collaborator who did all the graphic design for our previous games, will be joining the new project as well!
As for the online community - the reception overall has been very positive, at least in groups where I interact with folks. It’s exciting and uplifting to read people wishing me well with this new project, offering to playtest and be involved.
There is also certainly a subgroup of people who are less than thrilled with me as a person and as a creator following the controversies, difficulties and delays of Unbroken. I completely understand if that turns them off from any future projects that I work on - the amount of troubles that Unbroken faced does not come without a price for all involved. While I hope that can change some of their minds over time - I learned to live with the fact that for some my reputation will be irreparably damaged.
You could have walked away from all of this but you didn’t. How does it feel to start designing again?
Exciting and scary. Over the past couple of years majority of the design work I did was around a pretty established and solid core of Unbroken, so going out on a limb to create something new comes with a fair share of doubts and anxiety. Will it live up to what I was able to do in the past? Any time you put a prototype together for the first time and get it to the table - you’re in for a rough ride and this new game is no exception. I do know that with time, testing and input from others it will get to where it needs to be, but now and again the doubts start creeping in. All a part of the normal creative process as I learned.
All in all - I am excited to create something entirely new and hope it will be a meaningful and engaging experience for folks who will get to play it.
I love that your upcoming game is themed around redemption. Could you share some details about it?
Game themes to me have always been very meaningful, beyond just creating the trappings for an engaging mechanism to entertain players. Unbroken was a game about perseverance and overcoming adversity - topics that played an important role for me personally. However, the dangers and hazards of Unbroken are mostly external in nature. With this new game focused on redemption I take that theme a step further and focus on the experience of overcoming challenges and difficulties that are self-inflicted, resulting from flawed decisions made by the protagonist. It builds on the narrative that it’s never too late to try to repair the damage you’ve done, even though it’s no guarantee that your efforts will lead to true redemption. That is going to be the core of the game and I hope it will lead to some interesting introspection for those who play it.
I’m not going to go into too much detail on how it will work mechanically, but you’ll notice from my earlier responses that I’ve been exploring games that use bag-building (Warp’s Edge, Coffee Roaster) - I’ve been really intrigued by that mechanic and the new game will feature it as a component, mixed with a healthy dose of die-rolling and manipulation. Here’s a little teaser preview of a (very rough) prototype :)
What were some unique challenges behind designing this game? How about your favorite moment?
Most of the challenges come from the usual growing pains of working from a blank slate, especially in the early stages where I haven’t shown the game externally yet. Lots of impostor syndrome happening that will be addressed once the game will get mileage with playtesters. Sometimes I worry if a game about a more out there concept like redemption will not grab players’ interest as much as some of the more familiar themes. But oh well, not all games can be about farming and dungeon crawling, can they now? :)
My favourite moments are always those when you play the prototype and get ideas for mechanics that just immediately click and feel like they’re so obvious they should have been in the game since the beginning. It feels very organic and already happened with this one a couple of times.
Who would you say is the perfect audience for your game? Who do you think won’t like it and why?
A good friend from France I got to know during my work on Unbroken refers to short solo games as “daddy games” (the term is not meant to be gender-restrictive, but is mostly used to reflect on our own experience as parents and we happen to be dads - a more inclusive “parent game” would be more appropriate). It’s a good fit for people who love games but due to circumstances find themselves with only a small amount of time and no peers to play with. Or people who can and love longer games but enjoy mixing these up with shorter filler options.So in that sense, the new game will most definitely be a “parent game”.
In terms of mechanics - I think it will please people who appreciate an optimization puzzle with multiple different distinct resource types to manage (in terms of quantity, spatial spacing and probability) and several sources of uncertainty/challenge to mitigate. The combination of the dice-rolling mechanics with the bag-building is fairly unique, so players looking for something new won’t be disappointed.
Players who enjoy a more swashbuckling dice chucking experience, traditional theme-first dungeon crawls or dry euros are unlikely to enjoy this one (all those genres already have so many exceptional options!). Regardless of that I think the game will be appealing to a large audience. I am proud that focusing on short duration and rules that aren’t overly complex allows me to make games that are welcoming to all potential players.
What’s the estimated timeline? Will it be launching on Kickstarter?
That’s still being finalized, I think we’ll be finalizing the design over the rest of this year and will aim for a Kickstarter towards Q2-Q3 of 2022. Want to make sure it’s in great shape before launching that.
If you could have complete freedom on any designer, artist, or IP of your choice to collaborate with, who or what would they be and why?
What a delightful question! I had a ton of fun thinking about this one.
There are many artists whose work I adore that I would love to collaborate with. The work of Jakub Rozalski on Scythe is so wonderfully evocative of Russian Impressionist paintings. Pieces that Magali Villeneuve creates for Lord of the Rings LCG are masterpieces. The art of Beth Sobel has an otherworldly calm and tranquility about it.
But the artist that would top my list would definitely be a French painter Jean-Baptiste Monge. His depictions of Celtic folklore are so wonderfully full of life and character that they leap off the page. The works he creates are so tangible, so sweet and imaginative that these creatures leap off the page. Making a game with that art would certainly be a dream come true.
Having said that - I am very excited for the upcoming announcement of the artist for the Redemption project as his work is also stellar and I am thrilled that his art will be featured on the future game.
In terms of working on IPs - I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan. Now I’m pretty sure Fantasy Flight has that license locked up pretty tight, but if we’re imagining things - I would absolutely love to create a game about some of the more peaceful aspects of Middle Earth - further away from the bloodshed. Perhaps something focused on the many journeys described in the books? Or running a hobbit Inn serving all kinds of travelers?
Thanks for mentioning that artist! Looks great and it actually reminded me of my days of reading Harry Potter.
Anyway, I’m excited to see you making a comeback. Will we see more games from you in the future?
I’m excited too. Excited and nervous. I will be honest, the ordeal that Unbroken turned into is really difficult to deal with day and day out. But ultimately I feel like I have more to contribute to the hobby - this is my creative outlet and something I live and breathe. I definitely have more games I wanted to explore in the future. One idea that I am very much looking forward to is a game that would delve into the dark horror-based roots of Slavic folklore - there is such a rich lore to explore and be profoundly disturbed by.
I also keep toying with an idea of an entry-level game that would be aimed at kids, allowing board game fans another option to get their little ones into the hobby. Or maybe I just played too many games of Sneaky Snacky Squirrels and want more variety in that category :).
I will be paying close attention to how things wrap up with Unbroken and how my experience with the next game is. Maybe my future will be solely as a designer. Maybe I will take another swing at self-publishing (that would only happen once the Unbroken saga is complete one way or another). Time will tell.
Looking forward to seeing more. As we close, what’s the best way for us to stay updated on what you’re up to?
The most straightforward way to get updates would be to sign up to the Altema Games newsletter - I share major updates there through (very) infrequent messages.Otherwise - I’m mostly back on Twitter and will certainly post there as the new game is going to be shaping up. Facebook and Instagram are options too, though I don’t use these too often nowadays.
Thanks very much for inviting me to do this interview - it’s been a pleasure. Thanks to all the Board Game Atlas readers who made it through -I hope this was an enjoyable read and that everyone is staying healthy and safe.