Jeep Barnett is a Valve programmer from the original Portal team. He’s worked on the Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, and Counter-Strike series, but accidentally created a few board games too.
The following interview is about Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game, a board game he designed.
Jason (GameGobble): First, Portal was a successful video game series. Then came Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game which was a board game. What core elements from the video game appears in the board game?
Jeep: Portal takes a minimalist approach with its mechanics and characters, and builds complexity by recombining those elements in level design and writing. Since board game players will naturally remix these elements as they play, including only main characters from the games seemed ludicrously inadequate. So we pulled in absolutely every deep cut from Portal expansions, comics, and trailers for the most hardcore lore fanatics. Nearly every Aperture Science apparatus appears in the board game with a few notable omissions such as Hard Light Bridges and Mashy Spike Plates. The true core that bonds the board game with the series is its dark humor and crumbling retro aesthetic.
Jason: A fascinating tension of Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game is that players always have to be aware of when the game could end, so that they can be in the winning position if it does. What did it take from a design perspective to achieve this dynamic?
Jeep: The way that the board game ends is key rule from the very first iteration that survived through its entire development! This came from the frustration in some games where a player can be eliminated early and has to sit out for 30 minutes or more. As a hard solution to that problem, the game immediately ends when any player is eliminated. Very quickly we realized that eliminating ourselves was a strong strategy and it fit perfectly with Aperture’s disregard for human life. When we watch new players, their first game is usually 40 minutes, but their second game is only 10 minutes after a clever player realizes this twist. From there it becomes a mental tug of war as players juggle taking the lead and ending the game.
The reason this design works is because having more Test Subjects gives you more power to influence the board state, but less possibility to end the game. Similarly, have more Cake gives you a winning position, but makes you vulnerable to losing it. This creates a natural rubber-banding that keeps players of all skill levels in a tight competition. And if a player manages a significant lead, it’s to their advantage to end the game before the other players are suffering or bored in a losing position.
Jason: You’re also an experienced video game programmer. How did that experience affect your perspective when developing Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game?
Jeep: Tuning the feel of a video game can come down to very small algorithmic tweaks. The way that your perspective reorients when exiting an upside-down Portal, how the projectile arcs to land at the adjusted Portal position, the sound of wind as you fling through the air, the time it takes for a Turret to lock on and fire — the way all of these moments feel is crafted through programming.
For board games the feel comes from players moving the components and the way they communicate their intent to other players. There’s endless way to reveal a card, from nonchalantly turn it over to glaring across the table and slamming it down. Tuning the feel of a board game is about watching how players interact with the components and encouraging those tactile moments. For example, the Cake Incinerator afforded players a moment of dramatic flair while communicating that the piece is removed from play.
Jason: Ideas in game development can come from many unexpected sources. Can you share an interesting story about one of those ideas used in Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game?
Jeep: The idea for the game itself didn’t come from wanting to create a game, but wanting to create a double-sided jigsaw puzzle. While talking through the concept someone pointed out that flipping over pieces could create a dynamic board for a game. For many months we experimented with shapes similar to jigsaw puzzle pieces, but eventually realized that an isometric cube creates a perfect hexagon.
Jason: What is one thing you want gamers to know about Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game?
Jeep: The free Steam key in the box isn’t for you. It’s for your friend who comes to board game night but hasn’t played Portal 2. Share the love!