Brendan Mills is a shining example of somebody who does not let obstacles stand in their way. People say necessity is the mother of invention, and Brendan took that idea and ran with it. With traditional escape room experiences shut down during the Coronavirus Pandemic last year, his core business was suspended.
Employing the problem-solving skills needed to beat one of his own rooms, he plumbed the depths of his memory and turned to tabletop gaming for inspiration.
Quickly converting concept into cardboard, Escape Plan Board Games was born. Designing, Kickstarting, and self-publishing their first title, Stop the Train! less than a year ago, their second game, Hit the Silk! comes hot on its heels. We tempted Brendan away from the drawing board long enough for him to tell us more.
Brendan, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Let’s start by finding out how you got into board gaming – what pulled you into our fantastic hobby?
I think I’ve dipped in and out of board gaming all of my life. As a kid, we had Escape from Colditz, Scotland Yard, and The Great Game of Britain out regularly. And I played quite a lot of Chess at school. On family holidays, we enjoyed Upwords. In my late twenties/early thirties, I enjoyed more social deduction and party games like Werewolf and Avalon: The Resistance. A few years ago, I discovered co-operative tabletop gaming after playing Pandemic – I began exploring more games when I realised gaming had moved on since the 1980s games I had experienced!
It sounds like modern board games really struck a chord with you! Tell me more about your inspiration to create Escape Plan Board Games.
It started with our first game, Stop the Train! We never planned to create our own publishing company, but one thing led to another. I am of the mindset that if you create something you love and you do it well, then interest in it will follow. I don’t really ever create anything trying to target a particular customer group.
The idea for Stop the Train! had been kicking around before the Coronavirus Pandemic hit last year. Originally, Stop the Train! was going to be a trivia game. The initial idea being that the speedometer would decrease if you answered correctly and increase if you didn’t. Add in a saboteur, and you have a bluffing game about your trivia knowledge. It obviously evolved from there!
From one-time live escape rooms to replayable board games is quite a leap in terms of production and platform – how have you found the transition?
I don’t really think of it as a transition, more a compliment to our escape room business. But there are definitely some key differences which we have encountered.
For example, we can tweak an escape room after launch; the experience is an organic process which is more forgiving. If feedback suggests something isn’t working quite as we had expected, we can change it for future experiences. But we can’t do that with a board game. We have committed to the art and game play, boxed it up, and sent it out. We therefore have to make sure everything is play-tested thoroughly before launch.
Also, funnily enough, what might break when people play an escape room is an ever present concern!
Commercially, our escape rooms attracted a quicker profit from set up, and back in 2015 that made them an attractive proposition. However, they have a lower ceiling than board games. After all, there are only so many guests we can host in a day, week, or even year. Conversely, there are fewer limits on who can buy and play our board games as we don’t have to physically provide a space for them. We entered the escape room scene just as it was beginning to become “a thing”, so the marketing challenge was easier than it has been entering the much more saturated tabletop games market.
Do you miss the interaction with your players?
It is definitely strange for us not to see people playing our board games (partly here in the UK driven by lockdown) – with our escape rooms, there is always a debrief and often immediate feedback.
Did you consider making a more single-use, one-play game more akin to the live experience you offer?
Yes! I wanted to but I kept coming up with other ideas.
Personally, I think play-at-home escape rooms are a shadow of the live experience. However, I’m beginning to see some really promising advancements. By way of an example, Spectre and Voxhave really raised the bar with their haunted house.
In the escape room world, replayability is the holy grail – play out the escape once, and move on to the next new thing. In the board game world, however, hobby gamers particularly like collecting and playing games over and over again. And that presents a challenge where single use could be seen as lower value for money than a game that can be preserved and played repeatedly. Legacy games are perhaps the exception.
Will you return to producing live events when the restrictions permit, or is this a permanent shift into at-home entertainment for Escape Plan?
We are going to do both! We lost one venue during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic, so the operation has scaled back to 2 rooms as opposed to 3. If you’re in London soon, though, come and see us! We plan to open again on May 17th 2021, all being well.
I’d love to – I promise I will try not to break anything! ?
Your latest venture, Hit the Silk, recently funded on Kickstarter – congratulations! You must be very relieved and excited! As a self-publishing designer, how do you find the campaign process?
Thanks! We’re happy to be funded – it’s a privilege to be backed by so many people who like our concept.
The campaign process is made much easier the earlier it starts and the more planning put into it. There weren’t as many surprises this time round compared to the campaign for Stop the Train! .That was a baptism of fire! Hit the Silk! went smoothly because of good planning.
I like communicating with backers and talking about the game. You do feel a bit on-call for the weeks it’s running though.
I think communication is the priority for most backers. With two successful campaigns under your belt in less than a year, aside from the benefit of thorough planning, did you learn anything from Stop the Train! which changed how you ran Hit the Silk!?
Yes. Pledge Managers are definitely worth the money. Fulfilment and add-ons are much easier to manage through services like BackerKit.
We also knew what the FAQs would most likely be and pre-empted them on the campaign page.
Our stretch goal approach was also different; offering a mix of component upgrades and game extensions.
Stop the Train! is doing well on BGG (7.6 user rating at the time of writing) – have you felt a “pressure to perform” on the follow up?
No. I think we knew quite quickly that we were onto a good idea and a good game. Trains are really popular with board gamers, so Hit the Silk! was a slightly tougher sell, but we knew the game was fun and anticipated that it would be attractive at some level.
Both of your current games are centred on social deduction and bring in a really interesting concept; “semi-cooperative” play – can you describe what that means and why it works so well in your designs?
The phrase semi-cooperative is pure magic to me. It means that the players have to work together in order to achieve a common objective, e.g. preventing the crash in Stop the Train! or getting the cash needed to pay off the debt in Hit the Silk!, whilst simultaneously pushing their own agenda i.e. moving towards an objective at odds with either the other players’ objectives or, possibly, the main team objective.
For example, in Stop the Train!, everybody needs to stop the train, and throwing off the Saboteur is helpful to achieve that, although not essential. But, by contrast, the MI6 agent wants to keep him alive and that rouses suspicion as to his motive for doing so. It brings tension and bluffing to the table, and requires players to apply their deduction skills.
The mechanic works well in Stop the Train! because the game focusses on social deduction. But, unlike Secret Hitler or Werewolf, there’s also some evidence-based deduction made possible from the cards actually played. I think that makes the experience closer to Avalon: The Resistance. Varying character objectives provides the essential conflict and tension.
The concept works equally well but somewhat differently in Hit the Silk!. Here, the deduction is occasional, and the semi-cooperative mechanic is played out through the negotiation process within the game/The social dynamics in the game usual punish aggressive play, but sometimes it’s a player’s only choice. There’s a bit more ‘take-that’ present and, as you might expect from a game about criminals, there is the chance to misbehave a little.
Permission to be naughty – that is going to be popular! Haha. An area where you are definitely not misbehaving, however, is the environment. Your campaign has made a point of highlighting eco-conscious game production – what does that mean for Escape Plan in real terms?
Yes! We’re committed to reducing plastic, supporting sustainable forestry, promoting short distance sourcing of materials to the factory, and using clean energy and carbon neutral delivery where possible.
It is a long-term aspiration which in real terms means:
1. Choosing an eco-conscious manufacturer which embodies our environmental values;
2. Choosing a distributor committed to carbon reduction or offsetting; and
3. Using wooden minis from sustainable sources instead of plastic minis
In fact, Hit the Silk! has just been given the FSC badge (Forest Stewardship Council) which approves the product as being sourced from a sustainable, responsibly managed forest.
Wow! A badge to wear proudly, and one that will hopefully quickly become a standard industry practice.
Having played Hit the Silk!, I found myself really getting into the mindset of a criminal looking to grab the chute and the cash! How important is role-play in your board games?
I like it to be an option, but not mandatory. For those who like to immerse themselves, it’s very accessible but the mechanics of the game work just as well without role play/acting. One of our reviewers described Hit the Silk! as being the closest game to role play without actually being role play, and I think that feeling is driven by having an inventory within the game scenario.
When you play, are you a deal maker or a double-crosser?
I’ve burned way too many bridges -nobody will strike a deal with me anymore! Haha. I’m therefore forced into the bad behaviour of a dastardly double crosser, which I clearly enjoy too much!
The last ditch (literally) chance to land the plane is a great little twist to end on, and raises the thematic stakes even higher – I admit that I crashed and burned when I tried it live on IGTV! Have you ever survived the touchdown?
Ha! Yes. And everyone hated it when I did. I spent most of the main game session embroiled in controversy, poison plots, gunshots, and lock-ups. When I successfully landed the plane and walked away with £20k, I won’t lie, it felt good! Although I have crashed into that lake, mountain and runway a lot as I prefer to risk it without the pilot licence.
Brave or foolhardy, I can’t decide!
Well, you’ve done trains, you’ve done planes. What’s next for Escape Plan Board Games?
You are tee-ing me up to say automobiles but it’s not that! In fact, we’ve been meeting as a team for a couple of months to discuss game number 3, and it’s shaping up to be a title with more puzzle elements. I can’t share much here, because it’s still being formed and we’re not entirely sure where it will land in terms of replayability.
Well, ok, I can reveal that we have got a few early concepts kicking around. A family dinosaur themed game with some push-your-luck and sabotage elements centred around a rucksack full of diamonds… or are they rocks? It’s shaping up to be a competitive game, but could easily convert to semi-cooperative or fully cooperative. Whatever happens in development, the cheekiness of Hit the Silk! Will definitely be present in it.
Another is a Prisoner Of War escape game – this one is actually the front runner to produce next, but nothing is decided. We’re costing up the project as it is artwork heavy and that has to be right. It’s actually the one I’m most excited about. It’s a slightly heavier game and has puzzle elements, bridging lots of skills. We have a feeling that it could make a good legacy game too.
Continuing in the war theme, we are also considering a game about finding an infiltrator and rescuing civilians set during the Blitz. This is a social deduction concept which is really interesting me, but I haven’t quite figured out the board landscape yet. I can see in my mind’s eye that each time civilians are saved, you will end up further compromising the structure of a bombed building. Furthermore, everyone will be tasked with rescuing specific groups of people, but players’ personal motives and goals will be unclear – are you trying to bring down the building or rescue civilians? It’s unformed and hard to explain, but I’d love to bring this to life if I conceptualise the complexities.
And there are more ideas in the melting pot… too many to list here!
Wowza – it sounds like you have an impressive catalogue of titles shaping up here! I’m looking forward to seeing more Escape Plan games on shelves and tables.
One last question just for fun. if you could play a board game with anybody (real or fictional), who would it be, what game would you play, and (perhaps most important of all!) what snacks would you choose?
What a question! I’d play a full season of Pandemic Legacy (season 0) with Jack Bauer to ramp up the tension. But, because Jack never eats, there would be no snacks….. “damn it!”
Haha – that’s the price you pay for playing with such a hero! I’m sure you can use your mischievous skills to smuggle in a little something to keep you going (and so long as you dial down the crunch factor, you should be fine!)
Brendan, thank you for a really interesting insight into Escape Plan Board Games! I wish you the best of luck with your re-opening later this month, and I am looking forward to seeing a lot more from you and your team!
Please click here to find out more about Escape Plan Board Games’ current titles, Stop the Train! and Hit the Silk! and to keep up to date with all of their exciting plans for the future!