Small city full of crime – Interview with Johannes Sich

MicroMacro: Crime City box front

MicroMacro: Crime City has been one of the weird highlights of the 2020. It’s a puzzle played on a big black and white city map, full of detail. There’s a bunch of cases, a crime mysteries you have to figure out. Who was murdered, who did it, what was the motive?

The key to these cases is the nature of the map. It’s not a single slice of time and space, but instead shows multiple snapshots of the people acting in the city. You can see the criminal perform the deed, then you can trace his or her steps back and forth in time – where did they come from, where did they go? With a keen eye, you’ll soon have the case solved.

I reached out to Johannes Sich, who is one of the designer trio Hard Boiled Games who made this game. The other members of the group are Daniel Goll and Tobias Jochinke. The three guys met during their studies in Düsseldorf and have been friends and collaborators since. The Hard Boiled Games studio label was created for publishing Sich’s game La Cosa Nostra. This time, they didn’t have to self-publish, as they partnered up with Edition Spielwiese and Pegasus.

The designers of the MicroMacro: Crime City in a studio
From left: Tobias Jochinke, Daniel Goll and Johannes Sich. Behind the guys on the wall there’s the MicroMacro: Crime City map and below it the first draft of the next map.

Coming up with the idea

The idea for MicroMacro: Crime City came up in 2016. As usual, the trio met at Spiel in Essen, as they live all over Germany. When they meet in person, it’s an intense exchange of ideas. The root idea for MicroMacro was using the smartphone camera zoom to create a game of searching for hidden things.

— This initial vague idea then matured over several months, during which we slowly refined the concept, Sich told me in email.

— It became ever clearer that the idea of “solving optical puzzles” would be best suited to a detective theme and the “detailed world” would probably be a city. This realisation then formed our vision — the game should be a large city in which players can discover clues and collect information from different locations while formulating connections and deriving solutions.

During the process, the smartphone was forgotten and the focus was to make a simple analogue board game. This proved to be surprisingly difficult.

– At first you normally playtest with very rudimentary prototypes that don’t require a lot of work to create. These first tests usually tell you very quickly that you need to change all your ideas anyway, Sich explained.

With MicroMacro this approach wasn’t possible. The core of the game is in the richness of the detail in a huge illustration. It just isn’t possible to test this idea with a simple, rudimentary prototype. Even at that level, an enormous amount of preparation was required, Sich told me.

— But the effort was worth it – test players where thrilled and soon we realised that this is gonna be a great game concept, Sich said.

Early draft of the city
A later draft of the city

Above you can see the same scene in two different versions from the development process. On left is a very early draft. On right is a much later version, where you can already see several cases you can recognise from the released version. Thanks to Johannes Sich for providing these draft images.

Building the city

As I sent my email, Sich replied promptly, just to let me know he would take a while to answer my questions. As he later explained, they’re currently working on a new city for the next MicroMacro box, which is of course the perfect excuse.

The first version of the city was very crude, just a very plain city of uniform housing blocks, cars and identical little men, Sich explained. In between these clones were added few different buildings and the scene of the first case, “Dead Cat”.

— Once the basic game concept had proven to be fun in initial tests, we gradually developed more and more cases. We developed the mechanics of the case cards at the same time as filling up the city with stories, characters and buildings, Sich told me.

Over a period of two years, the city got more and more detailed as more cases were implemented. It wasn’t easy, Sich explained:

— The sheer size of the map and the abundance of elements grew into an ever-increasing challenge. This was only possible because we worked in a team. Illustrated sceneries, individually designed characters, 3D-designed buildings and countless hand-drawn objects mix together to form a complex overall picture that has to work perfectly to ensure the exciting and at the same time easy-going gaming experience.

Sometimes entire blocks would have to be rebuilt (again and again), when problems were noticed in test games and things had to be changed. Like Sich said, urban planning and storytelling were mutually dependent on each other.

— From a technical point of view alone, the concept faced us with great challenges, Sich told me.

— We step by step developed a workflow system for the dynamic design of the game map, in which four different design softwares interlock. Last but not least, the product design is also crucial – the exact size of the plan, the folding, the intensity of the printing color and line widths, all details had to be thought through and tested.

Close-up of the map
Here’s the same hamburger stand from the finished version.

Moving on to new cities

The guys are already hard at work on a new map with new cases. I asked if they had considered different settings, like a fantasy castle, medieval town or a science fiction space ship. Sich told me their notebooks contain plenty of ideas for new themes and new features, but the next edition will be another crime city.

— We put a lot of effort into this city theme, it took us years to set up the structure and workflow, Sich explains.

— Now we’ll take advantage of that to create a whole new city in a comparatively short time – and we need to be quick, since people are already craving for new cases!

Indeed. The worst part of MicroMacro is that it’s over so soon. Going through the cases takes much less time than creating them.

I asked Johannes Sich about his favourites in the city, both favourite people and favourite places. He found it hard to name favourite people: all the nice people seem to get killed, and the all the main characters are nasty or unpleasant in various ways. The city isn’t a very nice place. (My favourite person is probably the baby who has such a good time in the city.)

Sich’s favourite places are Leo Mustache’s artist villa by the river, musician Ronja Romanski’s attic flat at the market square and the rooftop terrace of the squatted house. All fine choices!

If you’re not familiar with MicroMacro: Crime City yet, the best place to start is the demo version on the game website. It lets you solve a case and will immediately tell you whether this is something you might like.

Johannes Sich’s illustration work can be seen in Instagram @jojosich.illustration and on his website.

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