Artem Safarov on Remaining Unbroken and Looking For Redemption Through New Game Design (Plus an AMA with Artem)

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.

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9 months ago

Hi Artem! While you design solo games, do you enjoy two player games (co-op or not), and if so what are some of your favorites?

9 months ago

I love all games and 2p games are no exception. Ever since watching the fantastic Queen's Gambit on Netflix I rekindled my interest in Chess (it gets bonus points for serving as a great connection point with my father _and_ 8-year old son). I also love playing 2p games with my wife - 7 Wonders Duel is her favourite while mine is Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small. We also really like the simple and quick titles like Lost Cities or Patchwork.

9 months ago

Thanks for doing this, Artem! And thanks for making a comeback. I think it takes a lot of strength to come back into the lime light after such an incident. I'm looking forward to seeing your next game!

Would you say you prefer playing heavier games or lighter games? Likewise, do you prefer designing more complex games or simpler games?

I ask this because I really love complex games, but when designing games of my own, I tend to keep them on the lighter side. Curious to hear about your preferences.

9 months ago

Thank you, Benjamin. I'm excited for this new beginning.

Before I would say that I prefer heavier games but play lighter ones because with a busy schedule and two kids it's very hard to find time for heavy games. Now I think I played so few heavy games lately that I just naturally gravitate towards lighter fare both in what I play and what I design.

As far as designing lighter shorter games I think that gives them a much higher chance to be played. If you make a game that takes 60-90 minutes - it's up against some really tough competition for that playing time, it's much easier to get a 30-45 min game on the table that's more approachable. So I think it's a great call to err on that side - best of luck with your designs!

9 months ago

Thanks for the response! Very interesting and enlightening. I hear you about the competition for getting longer games to the table. While I do prefer heavier games, I generally play lighter/shorter ones, since time always seems to be against us, and my wife doesn't always want to play the more complicated ones after a long day (and I can't blame her in the least).

Moderator Level 19 months ago

Thanks for sharing Artem!  I am curious to see where you go with the bag building element.  I've only played a few games with this mechanic ( #Orléans ...hmm, I guess that's the only one?).  What games have you seen employ this mechanic the best?  What's the most creative iteration of this mechanic you can envision? (without giving anything away ;) )

9 months ago

I really like what Warp's Edge does with the bag-building - it's almost like deck-building but with a different medium, you really have this feeling of progression as you get better. Another (less obvious) example is the older game Yggdrasil where you manage the probability of pulling out "good" or "bad" tokens in multiple bags, very cool mechanics there! (also - vikings!)

Most creative use? Ok, we're going to go out on a limb and I'm going to say using the physical sensation of feeling around the bag as inspiration and mimicking searching for treasure in a jar / chest full of piranhas/spiders? Maaaybe even with small physical sensations if you grasp a "wrong" token? Maybe I went too far there :)

Moderator Level 19 months ago

Love it!

9 months ago

Thanks for sharing, Artem! I love that you also wanted to support KTBG with the giveaway. What is your favorite of their games and why?

9 months ago

My pleasure, thanks for reading. I have so much respect for the work that KTBG do - their campaigns and games are so uniformly excellent and appealing. My favourite of their game is probably the leser-known Haunt the House - I love the way it combines risk-taking and competition in an exiting, yet not too-cuthroat experience. Also, it has this mesmerizing finish on the box that I haven't seen anywhere else :)

Moderator Level 19 months ago

Thanks to Artem for sharing his story! 

Here's a question: have you ever thought about combining your hobbies, and designing a board game with geocaching as the theme? Perhaps that's not too different from "treasure hunting" themed games, but it could be fun!

9 months ago

Thanks so much for reading!

I must say - I'm still fairly new to geocaching so this thought never crossed my mind. I have a firm belief that you need to have a very intimate, organic knowledge of a theme before designing games about it to do it justice. So maybe once I up my geocaching game I can take a swing at this :).

9 months ago

Does this mean you have spent serious time trapped alone in a dungeon fighting for your life against various mythical creatures? Because I want to hear that story 😄

9 months ago

I just spent an entire Canadian winter entertaining an 8-year old and 3-year old mostly in our basement - does that count? :)

9 months ago

Haha, I think it does, although the question is which fantasy creatures do your kids best emulate?

Owner9 months ago

Thanks for the read everyone! As mentioned in the beginning of the article, Artem has opened up himself for an AMA/Ask Me Anything, and will be answering all of your questions this Thursday (4/15). Whether it's questions about his design process, favorite games, side hobbies/geocaching, his #1 food combination, or anything, feel free to take this chance to get to know Artem! And please remember to be respectful in your questions.

Plus, there's a giveaway! We will randomly select one of the participants in the AMA to give away a game by Kids Table Board Gaming (KTBG). It's run by a husband and wife team from Canada that Artem wanted to support in his own way. The winner will have a choice between #Fossilis, #Wreck Raiders, and #Haunt the House. Good luck and have fun! (Ends 4/16 at 6pm PST)

Moderator Level 19 months ago

I don't have a question for you Artem. I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after the issues surrounding #Unbroken. I am so happy to see that you have remained unbroken, and I trust that Redemption will be a good redemption for you.

9 months ago

My sincere thanks for your support.

9 months ago

I've enjoyed my plays of Unbroken.  What inspired you to make a solo game?  Are there any plans for an expansion,  sequel, or reimplementation?

9 months ago

So glad to hear you're having a good time with Unbroken. My inspiration first came from my experience as a new dad - I found it difficult to find time for multiplayer games and my time for solo gaming was very limited (mostly constrained to about 30 min during the all-too-short naps). So I thought that making a game that's dedicated to solo play in a short time frame would be a good idea. It's been awesome ot see so many more options like that pop up in the last few years!

There are definitely plans for more Unbroken content - a small expansion has already been designed (and is available in PnP format) - it's called Peril Pack I and features 8 new monsters, 5 new characters and a dozen new skills. Illustrated / printed version of it is being prepared by the publisher. A more substantive expansion, Unearthed Remains is in the works too which will introduce significant additional mechanisms to how the game plays.

I am not a big fan of re-implementations to be honest - Unbroken's mechanics were created to fit that narrative and theme very purposefully, so I think that's where that engine works best. Another theme / story would deserve its own unique set of mechanics :)

9 months ago

Prior to reading this interview I was unfamiliar with you and your trying experience with the previous project, but you come across as a great guy. You sound committed, determined, concerned, sacrificing and so much more. The best to you in your endeavors. Thanks for being a positive role model as you complete and overcome and jump back in again to what you clearly love and enjoy. And your idea of a game about a Hobbit Inn that serves many characters is very appealing to me. The thrill of adventure in the books is great, but the lure of the peaceful Shire is where I really belong. 🙂

9 months ago

Thank you so much for the kind words. This whole experience with the drama surrounding the KS really crystallized for me to an understanding that really all these things come down to individual interactions with people and kindness and understanding that we show to each other, especially in trying times.

9 months ago

You're welcome. Sounds like you know about redemption and character, among other things. 

9 months ago

What are some of the board games that have been your biggest inspirations during your career?

9 months ago

Viticulture as an example of Jamey Stegmaier's tenacity and dedication in building a community around his games, though that's probably more on the publisher side than as a designer.

Elder Sign has always inspired me in the way it marries an engaging theme with a completely novel mechanic that uses neat component.

Pandemic: Legacy Season 1 redefined what I thought a board game could do in terms of continuous narrative.

Lord of the Rings LCG (as well as Middle Earth Quest) continue to inspire me by bringing a world that is dear to me to life in a complex and satisfying way.