Rochester Institute of Technology’s role in the world of gaming got a boost in September. Students took home top honors—Best in Show and Best Student Game—at the Boston Festival of Indie Games.
The RIT game had an edge over more than 40 digital games, including indie projects created by professionals, officials say. Created as a capstone project by master’s students, the Gristmill is a digital card game. Using tactical strategy, players move Grists (soldiers) outside their fort to battle a forest of monsters. As war wages on and the numbers of wounded grow, players rely on various strategies to win.
“Winning Best in Show was a complete shock to everyone on the team,” says Tetyana Kolomiyets, a Gristmill creator. “There were amazing games at BostonFIG and to be recognized with such a title was not something I expected.”
BostonFIG, hosted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, isn’t solely focused on student projects. The festival showcases digital and tabletop games, selected from nearly 300 independent game developers.
“Because BostonFIG isn’t all student projects, winning Best in Show in the digital showcase is getting a stamp of approval that the Gristmill can compete alongside professional indie projects and win,” says Robert Bailey, a Gristmill creator. “It’s incredibly validating that we’re making something cool and that people want to play it.”
The Gristmill world is Bailey’s brainchild. He came up with the idea in 2016, during an undergraduate worldbuilding course. The idea became fully formed after he pitched it as a card game for a capstone project, a team experience.
“We wanted to see if we could create a polished card-game experience with interesting, fresh mechanics and in a world uniquely our own, while fitting the roughly nine-month time span of the capstone program,” says Bailey, who now works at Disruptor Beam, a developer and publisher of branded mobile and web games in Framingham, Mass.
He says a mixture of deck building card mechanics and traditional unit strategy gameplay makes the Gristmill stand out. Deck management is key because players have limited actions per turn.
“A player always digging through the deck for a better answer will have their units constantly pummeled, while one who runs over the entire board slaying beasts early will quickly find themselves without the resources to keep their Grists supplied,” Bailey says. “I think this type of intense management at all layers of the game gives it a unique feel.”
The team, whose members come from across the U.S. and around the world, worked on several prototypes and tested various versions of the game for feedback. Mechanics gave the monster an animalistic reality.
“This was my first opportunity to really do art on a major scale, since as a self-taught artist my exposure to different categories of art was limited,” says Kolomiyets, who is now a software developer at Scientific Research Corp. in South Carolina. “I got to design the cards and textures for pieces as crucial as the cards and maps themselves and as unnoticed as the table texture behind the gameplay map.”
The team expects to continue to work on the Gristmill.
“The team wants to keep developing,” Bailey says. “We’ve scattered all over the country, which is definitely an obstacle, but we’re looking at ways to stay consistently in touch and keep iterating.”
The success of the Gristmill is an illustration of RIT’s successful game design and development programs. The university has consistently ranked among the top schools nationwide. Earlier this year the program was ranked eighth at the undergraduate level and seventh at the graduate level by the Princeton Review. The survey found that 90 percent of RIT’s undergraduate game design students and 88 percent of graduate game design students gained industry employment upon graduation, earning an average salary of $70,000.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.