The Social Deduction Network (Discord)
Brendan Mills, Game Designer, interviewed by Dino on 13 Jun 2020
Interview with Brendan Mills from Escape Plan
Led by Dino Quaresma on The Social Deduction Network Discord
Support their Kickstarter for Stop the Train!
*Note: This is not a word for word transcript of the interview, some grammatical mistakes and other things of that nature were altered. For the full unaltered transcript, go find this interview listed under the interviews tab in The Social Deduction Network discord.*
Dino: The Social Deduction Network is thrilled to have Brendan Mills, the creator of Stop the Train! in its midst. This being an interview for the public, I feel that I have an obligation to ask the tough questions, so I will start with one. The title, Stop the Train! Is a bit rude, isn’t it? I mean, you don’t even say, “Please.” Are you trying to offend people, and what exactly do you have against manners and the magic word?
Brendan: There’s no time for manners. This is urgent. Lives are at stake!
Dino: Say the magic word! Oh… Irony…
Brendan: Why are you insisting? What are your intentions? Don’t you understand this delay is detrimental. Here, take the controls and hit the brakes!
Dino: I can see you have a thing to learn about politeness, but I digress… I am always excited to discover new ways of incorporating Social Deduction into games and you definitely came up with one here. In your own words, how does your game stand apart from other games in the genre?
Brendan: Primarily, it’s social deduction on a railway. The game carries with it a sense of motion and suspense, with a credible threat in the scenario we have created.
Dino: So, it doesn’t have a time limit like many social deduction games? Instead it has a train speeding towards a destination?
Brendan: Correct… you’re 40km away from Paris. So, it has a coal limit… if you exhaust all of the coal then the train runs out of steam.
Dino: So to speak? Or, I guess that would be literal…
Brendan: The coal limit in game is Effect Cards, which represent a max of 22 turns.
Dino: Ah. If the train goes faster than 88 mph, does it go forward in time?
Brendan: If only my conversion skills were sufficient to translate that into km/h. This is occupied France and my maths is found wanting because there’s more important things going on in the world!
Dino: Very true. What are some of your favorite Social Deduction Games, and were any of them an inspiration for Stop the Train? Or, are you a fan of social deduction games?
Brendan: I like them! I’ve only extensively played three or four though. My favourite amongst them being Avalon the Resistance.
Dino: That’s a classic!
Brendan: Stop the Train has one mechanic similarity with Secret Hitler, but it feels more like a light version of Battlestar Galactica in that you have dual objectives.
Dino: Could you talk a bit about the mechanics of the game for people who might not be familiar with it?
Brendan: This brings us back to the Effect Cards. You’ll draw three cards which have an impact on the Speedometer. You’ll discard one and pass two across to me. I’ll take a moment to work out what’s best for my character and either apply the brakes or potentially risk speeding it up… that’s if I am even given the choice.
Brendan: After I’ve played it, the train hurtles towards Paris at the new speed.
Dino: So, players have to make choices that might help them meet their agendas but have to do it cautiously for fear of raising suspicion? Some players might want to go fast for their objectives to be met, but this might convince people that they are the saboteur, yes?
Brendan: Precisely – those with a nefarious motive can adopt a variety of strategies to sabotage the train. And those with good intentions will draw suspicion because of their second mission. We have a Speedster who wants to break the rail speed record, an MI6 agent who needs the Saboteur to be kept alive. Even bad luck might mean the trustworthy ticket inspector forces the train to run full speed ahead.
Dino: Boy, oh boy! Very cool! I love that kind of balanced play.
Brendan: You do, until you are thrown off the train.
Dino: Not the way I play. It’ll never happen. In my thirty-eight years, not once have I been thrown off a train. You seemed to have some fun with the theme with this game. Why did you decide on the time period and on the train?
Brendan: I run an Escape Room in London UK. Everything we create exists in the 1940s world. It’s a period of history that has fascination for me and I enjoyed the aesthetics of. The train itself is another story.
Dino: Interesting! Yes, it was an incredible period of time, for sure. So you run an escape room? How did you get into game design? I notice that people tend to try to escape whatever room I’m currently occupying… Weird…
Brendan: Ha. I was wondering why your office was so empty. Escape Rooms ARE game design. You’re designing a cooperative game in the physical realm. Actually, escape rooms suffer where board games don’t – you have to control it a little more and the diversity of game paths are limited. That’s why I prefer to create board games, they play more to my strength – which is primarily to be curious about what could happen. And when you make them, you don’t have to worry as much about who will break it or get stuck in it.
Dino: I don’t know… my brother got stuck in Monopoly, once. But that’s an interesting comparison.
Brendan: I hope he secured a good hotel!
Dino: Yes, unfortunately for him, he had to pay me $2,000 a night to stay there. Did you take any of your knowledge of escape rooms and use it for this game? There are some roles who are trying to escape… like the prisoner of war? But it’s very different from an escape room, I would think…
Brendan: Yes… some. When we create an escape room, we always start with the scenario. Who am I? Where am I? What do I need to do? This gives you a sense of immersion, atmosphere and agency to do something. Stop the Train! is similar.
Dino: I get that. You definitely borrowed from the theme. Only difference being that Social Deduction has a hidden identity where you are probably open about your identity in an escape room.
Brendan: You’re on board the 1905 to Paris, there’s a bomb. Here is your role and your objective… that’s gaming generally beyond escape rooms and board games. Other than that, it’s trying to predict what players might do. There’s some overlap there.
Dino: Ever consider doing an escape room where one participant is secretly a saboteur? Social Deduction in an escape room might be interesting.
Brendan: I have considered that. My belief is that the audience is broadly looking for a cooperative win. There are less gamers and more families, colleagues etc. and the demand isn’t there for a mainstream game. Probably a good reason to create one. I daresay one exists, but I’ve only played about 150.
Dino: Yeah, people have a big enough challenge solving those without someone trying to thwart them, I guess. It would have to be with experienced players, and I assume there are a lot of novices coming to escape rooms.
Brendan: You’re threatening to steer this interview into a brainstorm session… my favourite part of the creative process where people sit around and dream “what if we…”
Dino: Sorry, sorry…. Let’s get this thing… BACK ON TRACK!
Brendan: We were nearly derailed there!
Dino: Yeah, I’d have to have a pretty Loco Motive to mess up my own interview… I really like the different roles you have for the game, and how I imagine they all balance out the game. Maybe besides the ones we’ve already mentioned, which is your favorite role?
Brendan: The Stuntman is the most fun. He’s the most satisfying to win with. My personal favourite is the Mi6 agent though. His dilemma of needing to stop the train and also keeping the saboteur alive is a tricky tightrope to balance.
Dino: And what is the objective of this stuntman?
Brendan: Like everyone, It’s a hidden role, but you want to be thrown off the train, which means masquerading as a saboteur.
Dino: Ha! Like the Tanner in One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Does he care if the train is stopped? The game does not end if he’s thrown off, does it?
Brendan: Yes, he still needs the train to be stopped. Whilst he is a self absorbed individual, he doesn’t want civilian casualties. He’s just dependent on the others to do it for him.
Dino: I see. That would be a fun role to take on. The one that intrigues me is the Ticket Inspector, who can only win if the train stops and no other player is holding onto a ticket of travel. This is important because, as I understand it, other players will be desperate to hold one of these in the event they are unable to meet their own objectives. I also like how many players besides the Saboteur have an incentive to take the fast track.
Brendan: We discovered whilst taking the board game on tour that there are two ways to play the ticket inspector: 1) Seek to gather the permits whilst speeding up the train – this is the kindly way. There were a few villains at the D20 board game cafe who also calculated that: 2) If the Ticket Inspector shoved a player holding a permit off the train, his job of rounding them up was easier.
Dino: Ha! So, if the Stuntman has a ticket of travel, does not get thrown off the train, AND the train stops, he still wins, right?
Brendan: That’s true.
Dino: And if the Ticket Inspector is holding one?
Brendan: He needs both! I like some of the subtle nuances about some characters. Some can survive being tossed into a ravine – for example the Prisoner of War is used to such hardened escaping. At home we have a house rule with the Speedster. If they break the speed record twice, they no longer need to stop the train, because their objective transcends into being immortalised in rail speed record history.
Dino: Oh! That’s not an official rule, though?
Brendan: No… but I might add it as a suggestion in the appendix.
Dino: He’d be more infamous than famous though, wouldn’t he? I mean, he hurt innocent people… in record time… One of those accomplishments would be glossed over, wouldn’t it? What are some of the roles you considered for this game but didn’t work or had to be revised?
Brendan: There aren’t many in my memory. We’ve had suggestions like Tea Lady, Train Driver, Gendarme, but we couldn’t work out meaningful objectives for them. Many of the existing ones have had a tweak.
Dino: Okay. The characters look like real people. Who is the artist? And how did this collaboration come about?
Brendan: They are real people – our graphic designer has worked heavily to posterise them. Our design guy also works alongside us in the Escape Room world.
Dino: So, someone posed for these?
Brendan: Yes, although sadly not exclusively for our game. As a first time creator, that was a little out of budget.
Dino: I see. They do look great. I noticed you used some old film clips in your promotional video, too. I saw 12 angry men in there, I believe.
Brendan: Yes and Strangers on a Train is there too. 12 Angry Men really conjures up that feeling of tension which you experience at the Emergency Meeting in the game.
Dino: I don’t think any of the characters in that film have a character name. Isn’t that crazy? Their personalities are all so distinct regardless. Anyway… I seem to have lost my TRAIN of thought, again… I know your game is set in the 1940s and that you are going for realism with the look and feel of the game, but is there any reason why the game does not include werewolves?
Brendan: I really want there to be, if nothing else for your sake.
Dino: My sake is always worth satisfying. I’m sure we can come up with a way to incorporate them.
Brendan: I like a bit of chaos, but if he eats a passenger, it kind of puts a damper on the signal box vote. Very well, if we hit our £50k train stretch goal, I will make a house rule for you!
Dino: Whoo hoo! We MUST get there, people!
Brendan: Something like – unknown Werewolf card.
Dino: Yes. YES!!!
Brendan: Not only do we have a Saboteur, but he could also be a Werewolf. Or maybe it’s the Photographer.
Dino: Now you are talking!
Brendan: Depending on the random assignment of the Werewolf sub-role, the outcomes change.
Dino: Sounds good. Keep those wheels turning! I really love how the game board pieces are train tracks that connect together like plastic train tracks many of us used to put together for our toy trains. What was the reason behind designing the game this way?
Brendan: Practically, it helps it fit in a box, but also allows us to have table presence. But mostly, for the reason you said… it’s fun constructing a track.
Dino: Yes. I think it takes people back to their childhood. My middle child LOVES building train sets. He’s going to like this game a lot.
Brendan: Does he also like deduction?
Brendan: Great. And how does he feel about launching someone off a train?
Dino: My children are forbidden from disliking it. I think his morals are not fully developed yet, so it shouldn’t phase him.
Brendan: I approve.
Dino: And by the time it should phase him, this game will have desensitized him. It all works out.
Brendan: We will break him in gently… get him to throw off the obviously guilty.
Dino: Through toys and board games; that’s the way to do it. I believe this is how the CIA does it here in the states.
Brendan: Ha – this conversation is turning darker than our tunnels.
Dino: Yeah… Sorry… It looks like you’ve already unlocked some awesome stretch goals including upgraded components and new roles. One of the stretch goals added a second train onto the game, correct? Could you tell us a little bit about how that works?
Brendan: Yes, that’s a really good gameplay extension. It puts pressure on the team trying to stop the train. Essential, the threat ahead of crashing into Paris is pursued by a second threat behind – the Freight Train. This travels at a constant speed. If you brake too early, you’ll be derailed from behind and everyone loses.
Dino: Scary! Maybe we should call it a Fright Train, am I right? Sorry… Ahem…
Brendan: We’ve never seen it’s driver – that is spooky now you mention.
Dino: Anyway, that sounds really cool, and a great thing to introduce after mastering the base game. I always thought it was weird that the trains on Thomas and Friends had drivers.
Brendan: Exactly – brings an element of push your luck as to how much you brake early on.
Dino: The trains were sentient. What did they need drivers for?
Brendan: For sassy backchat of course!
Dino: I suppose… Though the drivers never seemed to say anything… Anyway… Besides the werewolf, what are some of the upcoming stretch goals that you really hope we meet?
Brendan: All of the stretch goals are valuable to us. Even a box insert. The more we can upgrade the materials, the better. Sometimes that doesn’t seem exciting as an announcement, but I imagine they will be appreciated. It’s the £50k target we really want to hit… the presence of a wooden model train.
Dino: Wow! I don’t suppose the Freight Train would get the wooden treatment, too? Maybe at a higher stretch goal?
Brendan: No reason it couldn’t further down the line! We may well offer it as an add-on to buy.
Dino: For what it is worth, I do believe we’ll get to 50K, at least. An add-on for the freight train would be great!
Brendan: That would be magnificent. We don’t expect but we do hope for more support. It just makes it better for everyone.
Dino: This game seems ripe for expansions. Additions and variations to the path could be introduced, and more could be done with roles. Do you have aspirations for expansions?
Brendan: I do. I’d love to create variety in the track path and length. I won’t undertake it lightly – it needs to be well balanced with play testing.
Dino: Of course! Do you think about making the track longer, or about replacing parts of it with different tracks? Maybe both? Options? I imagine removing part of it would restrict some of the roles from play.
Brendan: Yes, all these ideas are on the table. There’s a fairly major variation we were thinking about, which is controlling a train to prevent a second runaway train – which is almost entirely a cooperative game.
Dino: Adding a second destination would open the door for a second saboteur. Each works together to keep the train moving quickly, but each has a different destination in mind.
Brendan: That’s a great suggestion. That will keep me awake tonight!
Dino: *Adjusts tie smugly* Well, everyone, I don’t think we could have a better note to end on! This is a game worth backing! We would like to thank Brendon Mills for being here. If you haven’t already, go to the kickstarter campaign page and… Back the game!
Brendan: Many thanks, it closes on Thursday, we’d love to have your support.