Minutes to Midnight: how Brandon Tibbetts designs games

Brandon Tibbetts is the designer of the board game The Manhattan Project and its sequel, The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight, both published by Minion Games. The Manhattan Project is a resource management (or “energy builder”) tabletop board game for 2–5 players. You harvest resources, develop your economy, and manage your environmental impact in a bid for global domination. It was modestly crowd-funded in 2011 with only 143 but went to become a huge success — it figures in all its categories as one of the best games of all time by Dice Tower.

The stand-alone sequel, Minutes to Midnight, is on Kickstarter right now and it has attracted more than ten times the number of backers. Everybody wants a piece of the action!

So it came to pass that I had the opportunity to talk to Brandon over e-mail about his games, and I never miss the chance to pick a game designer’s brains. Here’s the interview:

Marcelo Ferrari: How long have you been designing games?

Brandon Tibbetts: As a child I designed simple tabletop games and later programmed simple video games. In my teen years these interests got pushed aside and finally re-emerged for me when I discovered modern hobby board games in 2009.

What did you do before you designed games?

After graduating from a 4-year university I entered a career of multimedia programming which gradually transitioned into web site and web application development. About a year ago I decided to take a long sabbatical from that career and focus a lot of my time into game design. I am still not certain if I am going to return to a career of web development or not.


The original game from 2012

The original game from 2012

I’m always curious about what comes first: theme or engine (mechanics). For The Manhattan Project, which did pop into your head first? How did you choose the other from there?

I’m strictly a theme-first designer. I think of a theme for a game first and then immediately begin working on mechanics to match it. There are times that I’ll be brainstorming about specific mechanics isolated from any design, but I’ll never start to actually design a game that way, thinking to apply a theme later. That process would be completely alien to me. When I think about mechanics on their own, they simply go in my “toolbox” so to speak.

How long it usually takes from first draft to a completed board game? Was The Manhattan Project any different from other games you designed?

Both the original game and also Minutes to Midnight took several years from start to finish to design. But that’s because I took many extended “vacations” from the work over those time periods. My most recent nearly completed project, tentatively called Death Race Arcade, took only about six months to get to a point to where it could be pitched to publishers. Yet it was roughly about the same amount of work if you were to total up the number of cumulative hours I spent on it.

How do you come up with ideas for expansions? Is it stuff you consider right from the get go but won’t fit in the “vanilla” game or is it stuff you think of way later, after the game is done and being sold and played?

It’s a mix of ideas that I had wanted to do all along and ideas that came later. And some that came from other people that perhaps I never would have had myself. Though I am personally not a fan of variable player powers in games, I knew early on with The Manhattan Project that many players would be excited to have “nations” with asymmetric abilities to play with. So that one was there in my mind from the start. Another one, the personalities, came from what I saw Martin Wallace do with real-world personalities in Automobile. It occurred to me at that point that it would be neat to apply that same idea to The Manhattan Project.

The Cold War can evoke some pretty strong emotions from people. Nuclear power too. Do you think tabletop games should be used to discuss hard topics or is just a game and no one should go deeper than that?

I don’t have too much of an opinion on that. I suppose some groups might like to discuss how their gaming activity relates to real world situations, and others might just want to get lost in the fantasy. As for me, a child growing up in the 80s during the last chapter of the Cold War, it was something I was born into. People my age never knew a reality that didn’t include the possibility of nuclear war. It was normal for us, or at least it was for me, from birth.

We’re on the final hours of The Manhattan Projects 2: Minutes to Midnight Kickstarter. What changes from the first game to this one? Should I have played the first one to “get” it?

You wouldn’t have to play the first game to “get” Minutes to Midnight. I designed it from the ground up as a completely new game. To those who have played the original, it will feel familiar in a few basic ways, but the details in Minutes to Midnight will quickly emerge and set it apart. It retains the same basic “place or retrieve workers” mechanic, but beyond that things are much different. Players will find familiarity with something like specialized worker types, but all worker types have changed. The Manhattan Project had laborers, scientists, engineers, and contractors… Minutes to Midnight has laborers (a different kind), politicians, generals, and spies. Whereas the original game was a fairly linear race to a clear finish line, Minutes to Midnight is a collection of several interrelated mini-games, with timed scoring events and a final scoring phase.

The stand-alone sequel to be published later this year.

The stand-alone sequel to be published later this year.

What can we expect in the near future from you? Are you designing exclusively for Minion Games?

I am not designing exclusively for Minion Games. Briefly, I considered self-publishing Minutes to Midnight as a different brand (which obviously many gamers would have seen as related, even as a sequel, anyway). But ultimately I felt the game would benefit too much from The Manhattan Project branding to go that route. I have a great relationship with Minion Games, and will for the foreseeable future keep them on my “short list” for possible publishers in the future, but I also have aspirations to publish at least one of my own games. I’m hoping to do that with Death Race Arcade, actually :)

I can’t wait to see what comes next from Brandon! If you haven’t backed The Manhattan Project 2: Minutes to Midnight yet, there’s till time! The Kickstarter drive ends on the 13th of June (this Tuesday), at 10 PM Estern / 7 PM Pacific.

You can find Brandon Tibbetts on Twitter and on Board Game Geek.

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