An interview with the developer Behind Happy Meeple
Happy Meeple is a website which offers free-to-play digital versions of quick, two-player board games.
Happy Meeple (https://www.happymeeple.com) is a website which brings high quality ports of board games to your web browser. All of their games are two players and they specialize in quick-playing, relatively simple games. As you will read in the interview below with Nicolas, their emphasis is providing games that can be quickly learned and and played. Nicolas started the site back in 2012, launching with four games. Since, they have expanded up to their current catalog of ten.
Board game fans might be most familiar with Lost Cities. This is the card game version, often cited as one of the best two player gateway board games out there. True to Happy Meeple's mission, the game is simple to learn, but is also an extremely well designed game that holds up over many, many plays (Reiner Knizia is the designer). The game plays with simple, numbered cards and a few cards with $ signs for each of five different colors. Play the cards in order, gain points, avoid negative points, and try to beat you opponent. There is a nice risk-reward aspect to the game, knowing when to start playing cards of particular color, knowing that a poor series of cards will lose you points, is the key decision point.
It's easy to overlook just how polished these games are on the website. Look at the graphics on the screenshots, they look great. The controls are all really well done, I've found nothing that didn't work just how you would expect. All games include a quick tutorial, which must be completed before jumping into any game, that does a great job of explaining the game. Once completed, you may then play against strong AI opponents or against other players in real-time games. There is a lobby so you can chat with others to try to setup games.
The other game that really grabbed my was Hanamikoji. It is a, stop me if you've heard this, simple to learn, but fun two player game. You must win the favor of geishas, which are worth varying points, by playing more favor cards to them than your opponent. There is a clever mechanism for playing cards each turn, such that some cards are secret, some cards aren't played, some cards get used by your opponent, and so on. The game is a tense battle trying to gain favor and then making sure to keep it in future turns while gaining points from other geishas to earn the victory.
Circle the Wagons is the latest title to be added to Happy Meeple. The game features a clever drafting mechanism which rewards the opposing player if you skip over the current card to select a more desirable card. There is a fun spatial aspect of playing cards into your tableau. This all adds up to an incredibly clever puzzle duel.
One of the main contentions from Nicolas is that having a good digital version of a game is a great way to sell copies of a physical game. We here at PC wholeheartedly agree with this viewpoint. I had personally only played Lost Cities before finding out about Happy Meeple and now I'm definitely looking into adding some of these to my personal collection.
Without further ado, here is our interview with Nicolas from Happy Meeple:
Pixelated Cardboard [PC]: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. How long has Happy Meeple been around? Could you tell us a little bit about how it got started?
Happy Meeple [HM]: My pleasure. It is always great to see people noticing the hard work we put in the platform. Happy Meeple was launched with 4 games in 2012. The idea was to initiate what I like to call "Casual Board Gaming", a mix between Casual Gaming (remember FarmVille and similar games, they were a craze around 2010) and modern Board Gaming (your readers know what we are talking about: great modern games with clever designs, not old bad stuff like Monopoly, Clue). I thought if hundreds of millions of people were playing games like Farmville, it could be possible to get some of them to play simple well designed games like Lost Cities. But to do so, we had to offer games that could easily be learned and design tutorials for them. We also needed those games to be quick, the quicker the better. Of course, there could not be any waiting time, that's why we designed Artificial Intelligences for all of our games. Finally, we could not afford to overwhelm our new players with lots of features and decided to unlock features one by one. That's why, for example, you cannot access the market, the castle or the inn in the first place. They open quickly though.
[PC]: Are you a big board game fan that wanted to play the games digitally, or more of a video game fan that wanted to experience some board games?
[HM]: Never really a video gamer apart from when I was a kid for some periods. I was into the board gaming hobby for a few years already when the idea of Happy Meeple struck me.
[PC]: You make a point to assure users you have obtained licenses for all of the games on your site, is that a difficult process to go through or are publishers eager to let more people play their games?
[HM]: It really depends. Lots of publishers are eager to see their games promoted online because they think it will boost their sales: Days of Wonders sees big picks in physical sales each time they make their Ticket To Ride apps free and I am convinced this is the case for every game. You cannot sell any product if it is not visible. Having your game online in a very active and large community certainly achieves this. Some publishers on the other hand don't believe that or think it is too early for their game to be digitized.
What publishers really appreciate about our implementations is that we reach a very high level of polish with next to no input from them. They do check our work of course but most of the time, they have very little to say. Publishers are busy and they like that they don't have to invest time or money in the digitization of their game. I am sure lots of them have had less pleasant experiences with apps.
[PC]: You have an impressive array of games on your site. How do you decide which games to target for adding to your site?
[HM]: I have said a lot in my first question reply. Let me add that we always look for games that work well with 2 players (we only offer 2-player games for simplicity and speed). They must also have a mix of luck and skill. This last criteria is important. It is less fun when you know the result of the game before playing it (like it is often the case with purely abstract games where the best player always wins). Of course, we also make sure the rules are simple to teach and learn, that the games play quickly and that the AI can be developed within a reasonable amount of time.
[PC]: Are these usually games you have played in their physical form or do you learn about some of them as you port them?
[HM]: Most of our games have been published in physical form before we digitize them. Of course, we always play them before implementing them. We look and try many many games before starting work on a new one. Many early candidates are dismissed. We are quite tough in that regard. 🙂
Looking for new games is an ongoing process. We follow news and are always on the lookout for new opportunities.
At the moment, we are more and more looking at the opportunity to add some solo games to the platform. A few years ago, I designed a nice little dice game about fishing for the platform (my only good prototype I must say). I had a working online prototype of it so I know it worked well. It never got priority, but I think there is a chance that it will come to light soon.
[PC]: In addition to the games, your site has an interesting side feature of being able to develop your own little town area on a grid board. What was the motivation behind this? Do you find players engage in this feature frequently?
[HM]: The main idea of the meta-game was to link all games together. It is too easy to fall in love with one game and never look at the others. We thought that it was good to make everything blend together. The town building helps us reward players for their progress and gives them a long-term goal. By playing games, you earn meeples (which act like belts in martial arts). And new meeples give you new houses to build and customize. In the last few years, we have also had daily quests that reward players with King's favours. These are needed to customize your houses in various ways.
The FarmVille craze certainly inspired us. If people loved building their town, why would not they love to do it through playing quick board games.
It is difficult to gauge how important this part of the platform is. We know some players really love it, but that some others simply ignore it. It has not been developed to its full potential yet, we need to add a few customization options to decorate the landscape.
[PC]: One of the most interesting aspects of the site, to me, is that all of the games feature AI opponents. This is impressive for a free-to-play site, could you explain how you are able to develop AI for all of these games?
[HM]: I developed the best international checkers program (Buggy) around 2000 and organized the first man-machine match at the time (I played international checkers myself). And I have been in AI since then. The work I put into this project was huge. The game is very complicated and some of the code I had to write was very deep. So I knew that I could "easily" transfer that skill to card and dice games provided their complexity and depth was not too high. Lots of people wonder how we manage to program an AI for Lost Cities or Siberia Card, but this is way simpler, believe me, than an international checkers program. Don't get me wrong though! For some games (like Circle The Wagons our latest), it is still hard work.
Our bots are really appreciated by our players. They were originally mainly designed to solve the critical mass issue that so many board game apps exhibit (if there are too few players, it takes ages to find someone to play with, so noone stays and the platform never picks up). With AIs, there is always someone to play against. Job done. But besides that reason, players like the idea of training against bots before playing online for rating and also the challenge of beating the 12 bots one by one (from very easy to very hard).
[PC]: Having the site work well on mobile is also an impressive feat, was that a big challenge? Has it been worth the extra time and effort?
[HM]: The initial idea was to offer a compact version and a full version. On the mobile version, everything not so important was displayed below the game (chat, clock, options, etc). On the desktop version, everything was displayed as it is now, taking advantage of the screen width. But most of our users play on their desktop computer or tablets so we decided to stop the mobile-specific version and save some time for other developments. The platform works absolutely fine on mobiles, players just have to adjust the display by zooming on the game as needed. There is no perfect solution to this anyway. When you have a lot of information to display it is not really possible to make everything visible to the user without asking him to scroll or click. So even if we had a mobile-specific version, it would not solve everything.
Back to your initial question, Internet Explorer used to be the dominant browser and Microsoft abused that position by not complying to HTML standards. This made website coding very painful and prone to bugs. You basically needed to code the same things twice at that time. Fortunately, things have changed a lot since then and pretty much every piece of code now works on all browsers without the need to check. This does not make developing games super easy (it is probably much easier to make an app), but it goes a long way in improving things. Over the years, we have developed quite a few tools and libraries (for sound/music, animations, etc) so we can now produce great effects in a reasonnable amount of time.
[PC]: How long does it typically take for you to get a new game onto your site once you start porting?
[HM]: It is difficult to say as it depends on how much we can concentrate on it full-time or not, but I'd say between 3 and 6 months. The AI usually takes half of that time. It is pretty time-consuming and besides the sheer difficulty of doing it, it explains why no other platform offers AI.
[PC]: The site is free-to-play, is there a way for users/fans to support your considerable efforts in creating and maintaining Happy Meeple?
[HM]: The main way to support us is to talk about what we do (thanks a lot Pixelated Cardboard!). For some reasons, Online platforms get very little coverage within the board gaming community. I think it is a shame given the amount of work that goes into them.
The best way to support us is to review us. Bloggers are always welcome to look at what we do and let the world know. And we are always happy to answer questions.
Being a fan of the platform does not mean you are a blogger though, so sharing the occasional link in the appropriate place (Reddit, BGG, any board gaming website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) is the best we can hope for from most of our players. All links are valuable as they help a lot with search engine rankings. Some crappy websites still rate higher than Happy Meeple on important keywords. The community as a whole can help a lot in that regard by posting links to proper modern board gaming platforms, thus making search engines understand what sites should really represent the modern board gaming hobby.
[PC]: Is there any one dream game you would like to add to your platform at some point down the line?
[HM]: Yes, there are a few. But the publishers are not falling for our irresistible offers!! :)))