Interview with Gil Hova

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Gil Hova is an incredibly smart, outspoken, twice-published designer who is quite active in our online community. I recently played his second game, Battle Merchants, which is currently funding via Kickstarter. I thought this was a good time to interview him about Battle Merchants, game design, and more. This is a GREAT interview with many morsels -- take the time to read it.

Bolded text is mine. 

Gil -- Tell us about yourself. What do we need to know to truly know you?

I grew up playing video games like crazy, so I always wanted to be a video game designer. In my early twenties, I decided that if I was going to do this for real, I would start by designing board games, because I figured it was a "purer" form of game design. The plan was that I'd move onto video games once I designed my first board game. A simple plan, right?

So much for that plan. Designing board games meant playing board games, and I discovered that I loved board games much more than video games. They got me interacting with other people (something I wasn't very good at doing at the time), and almost all of them emphasized strategy and tactics over twitch reflexes and muscle memory. I was hooked.

Your second design, Battle Merchants, is currently on Kickstarter trying to fund. Give us the essential details.

The game is about a war between a bunch of fantasy races (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Hobgoblins). You, as the player, don't care who wins or who loses. You're simply forging and selling their weapons, sometimes to both sides of the same battle. The richest player at the end of the game wins.

It's a strategic game for 2-4 players, playable in 90 minutes. It boasts simple rules but tough decisions, and a much more interesting theme than most economic games.

What was your original inspiration for Battle Merchants? Where did you get the idea?

I'd always wanted to design a game about the military-industrial complex. Not in a preachy way (simply because I strongly believe that games should be Fun, and preachiness is Not Fun), but in a gleefully amoral way.

At the time, I had an auction game whose whole was much less than the sum of its parts. I decided to save its auction mechanism (which was kind of neat) and move it to this game. Of course, when it came time to trim things, that auction mechanism was the first thing to go!

It's a good thing, too. Unusual auction mechanisms were really in 10 years ago, but I don't think people are interested in that like they used to be. My friend Kevin Nunn points out that we've figured out other ways of distributing resources among competing players (drafting, worker placement), so auctions are just not as interesting as they used to be.

Did you consider other themes for Battle Merchants? Why did you choose fantasy, or was that not your choice?

The game was originally about building and selling war robots. I thought it was a fantastic theme, but themes are funny things. They're the entry point to your game, so you have to make sure it fits your mechanisms. When people play a game about war robots, they expect laser beams and explosions. So when I asked people if they wanted to play my game about building and selling fighting robots, they'd answer, "Sure, I'd like to play your game about fighting robots."

See the distinction? People would be confused at first, until they figured out that this was an economic game, not a wargame. Once I noticed the dissonance, I realized I had to do something.

I tried giving it a generic Euro city-building theme, which reinforced my conviction that I will never design a game with a generic Euro city-building theme if I can at all avoid it.*

I eventually settled on a mercantile fantasy setting, which is perfect. There's lots of precedence for moneymaking in a fantasy world (consider the capitalistic subtext of your average dungeon crawl), so players know exactly what they're in for when they sit down.

*There's one important thing I should say here: a lot of Eurogames are about their mechanisms, not their themes. A game whose heart is an innovative, unusual mechanism should not have an innovative, unusual theme, unless the two are crazily tight. If you have an unusual mechanism mixed with an unusual theme, you'll most likely get a game that's distracting to play, because players don't know whether they should immerse themselves in the game's theme or try to figure out how best to exploit the innovative mechanism. In most games, those are two completely different lines of thinking. It's like wearing neon with plaid. It's distracting.

That's why Dominion works, despite its bland theme. You're focused on building your deck, and you can easily tear the theme away to focus on what the cards give you mechanically speaking.

What were some of the biggest problems you solved during its development? How did you do so?

There were a lot of little problems that I solved. Removing the auction was one thing. And of course, fixing the theme was a big deal.

The game had a lot of positive feedback loops at first, so installing a bunch of negative feedback loops was important. A good example is the reward for selling to a race. Originally, players kept track of which race lost battles. That race would spend more for weapons in the next season. At the end of the game, you got a bonus if you had the most surviving weapons on the race least advanced in that track (in other words, the race that lost the fewest battles).

It was thematically good, especially when I put a downward curve if a race lost too many battles. But it was quite opaque. You couldn't really tell who was going to get that endgame bonus, or even who was going to pay more money the next season. It was also difficult to keep track of. Players really didn't like it.

I didn't want to put in a system where players got a bonus from a race for selling to that race, because then players would just keep on selling to the same race, and that would be boring. That all changed when a player suggested that system, but with a limit of only one reward per race per season. Eureka, that was it! It was easy to grok, easy to plan for, and it still encouraged players to sell all over the board.

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Who would love Battle Merchants? Who is this game meant for?

This is a middleweight economic game, so it's in a lot of gamers' sweet spots. Of course, people who like economic games will like it. But people who get bored when playing dry, spreadsheet-y games will like it, too. There's a lot of interesting interaction, but not a lot of screw-you (which I hate in games), and it's much quicker to teach than your average economic game. Finally, the fantasy theme is fun, and I think that'll pull in people who like seeing a new spin on your average hack-and-slash thing.

I must say I was a little surprised that your game features so much interaction. The weapons I sell to the fighting armies can get destroyed by another player, which gains points. Thematically it's not direct conflict per se, but mechanically it is. Do you see it that way?

It's strange, because the armies are yours, and yet they're not. You get reputation points by winning battles, and the player with the most reputation points gets a money bonus at the end of the game. But it's still a game where the richest player wins, and you'll make a lot of money from a sale, regardless of whether the weapon survives. So a player who sells a lot of cheap weapons that keep getting killed may beat a player who sells fewer high-quality weapons. I've worked hard to keep that balance.

There's a bunch of cool implications here. A player who sells a lot of cheap weapons will see a lot of his weapons lose in battle... but that just creates new demand for those same weapons, which he can sell right back. Conversely, a player who sells a few nice weapons will have to create new demand elsewhere on the board, because his weapons lose so rarely, there won't be as much demand for them!

So a good Battle Merchants player is a one who sees a profit where others see doom. If you make a big margin from a sale, you may not care whether or not that weapon survives the next battle. In fact, you may want it to lose, because you have the next sale queued up. I've dubbed this the "spamming" strategy.

On the other hand, maybe you are taking the "specialization" strategy of a few good weapons. If you can rush to get a bunch of good craft early on and not go broke doing it, you might be able to get a special bonus action early on. Nice weapons have a bigger built-in profit margin than a single regular weapon, so you should make more money on a single sale. It will take you longer to build that engine, though, and the spammers have the ability to make the game move faster than you'd like.

All this is to say that the interaction in Battle Merchants isn't really direct. If one of your weapons leaves the board, you still have the money you made from its sale, so it's not nearly as devastating as in a game with proper direct interaction.

Battle Merchants has quite a few layers to it. There's the basic build and sell weapons. Then making better weapons in better places than your opponents. Then the cards, which are very powerful. Walk us through the development of this -- I know from experience such a rich game doesn't come about at once. 

Originally, when the game had an auction, everything was split into phases, like Power Grid. So everybody bid for turn order and power (Kingdom) cards first. Then everybody drew a craft card in the new turn order, then everybody built weapons, then everybody sold weapons.

The big change here when I removed the auction was to flatten out the turn, so now players could only choose one of those actions per turn. Upgrading Craft, drawing a Kingdom card, forging weapons, and selling a weapon are now different things you can do on your turn, and I've balanced those actions out so they're attractive throughout most of the game.

The Kingdom cards took the longest to balance. They serve a few roles: they make spamming or specialization more interesting, they add an interesting decision point every turn, they make each player's game path different, and since some of them give money to a player, they allow a player who can't afford to forge weapons a way to become liquid again.

I haven't had a chance to play 2 player, but I know you have a "dummy character" of sorts. Tell us about developing the two player variant. My new design features dummy characters throughout and I'd appreciate any insights, warnings, and more.

The dummy character is nicknamed Salesman Steve. In a 2-player game, he makes a sale to the board every time a player makes a sale to the board.

2-player games are very different than games with three or more players. First off, the game state doesn't usually change a whole lot in a 2-player game. This is usually good because it leads to longer lookahead and therefore easier strategizing, but if it makes the game too incremental, it can get boring. This was the problem without Salesman Steve. It was too blah and predictable. Salesman Steve is not random, because his moves are always theoretically predictable. But sometimes your action may change what Salesman Steve will do, which gives the 2-player game some excitement.

Second, every action you take is a net benefit to you, because it either helps you or hurts the other player. If it does both, even better! In a game with more players, you'll want an action that helps you most of the time, because that will distance you from all players equally. If you hurt Player A, you are not distancing yourself from Player B. That might be okay if Player B is far behind, but my point is that's a consideration you simply don't need to make in a 2-player game.

So you might be able to use Salesman Steve to your advantage. If you know he's going to sell a weapon to the Orcs after your sale, and you know your sale will force Salesman Steve to take the last Battleaxe spot on the board, and your opponent has a Vorpal Battleaxe he's trying to sell... well, you see where I'm going with this.

The rules for Kingdom cards and Craft cards are also different with two players. Taking a Kingdom card will cause a Craft card to get discarded, and vice-versa. This serves both purposes really well; it changes the game state enough to keep a 2-player game interesting, because otherwise, one player would take all the Kingdom cards and the other would take all the Craft cards and that would be dull. It also means that if you know a player really wants a certain Craft, you can take the corresponding Kingdom card and force the Craft to get discarded.

That mechanism wouldn't work so well in a 3-player game, because you'd be screwing over the player to your left much more than the player to your right ("left/right binding", as JC Lawrence called it). But in a 2-player game, it's perfect.

At one point we discussed the concept of a round structure (i.e. a round has these 3 phases) versus a turn structure (i.e. players take turns in order until the game ends). Battle Merchants is very smooth and well paced due to the turn structure. Was it always this way? Do you have thoughts to share on round versus turn order?

I already discussed the transition from a round structure to a turn structure above. I'll never say that one is objectively better than the other, but I will say that a turn structure generally offers a more interesting decision. That said, if your design is suffering from AP problems because players can't figure out what to do next, you may want to consider a round structure.

You're notorious for being somewhat anti-interaction in games on Twitter. Is that fair to say? Can you explain your point of view on this? What is good interaction in your mind? What is bad interaction?

Well, I'm glad I'm finally notorious for something! Well, look, it's a personal preference. I'll never say that direct interaction is bad game design, simply because too many people whose opinions I respect are fans of games with direct interaction. So I don't think I'm "anti-interaction," just a guy who prefers no direct interaction in his game.

Also, direct interaction in a 2-player game isn't that big a deal, since a benefit to me and a loss to you are similar (assuming that either one advances the game state). So it's really direct interaction in a 3+ player game that I really don't like.

Look, we all love games because we love making our brains glow. My brain is glowing when it's composing and executing a plan. "If I get these three resources here, and then these two other resources there, and then next turn I assemble this structure with it..." is my happy spot. If, the next turn, a player steals my three resources, or worse, destroys the structure I build with it, my brain is no longer glowing.

Again, in a 2-player game, that's not a problem. I grumble and growl, but I know that my opponent did that because it helped her. But it becomes a problem in a 3+ player game, because you have to choose the player who gets screwed over, and then it becomes a matter of meta-gaming and table talk. Some people like this, because it provides a natural balance to a runaway leader, but I don't like it because a) it shifts the burden of handicapping to the players, which might mean one player would have to "fall on the grenade" to benefit everyone else who isn't in the lead, and b) it discourages a player from getting out to an early lead, which I don't find interesting. I believe that if a player does much better than everyone else early in a game, he should be rewarded with a big lead. Why penalize him? Better to focus that the game has no fallaway trailers (opposite of a runaway leader), so that everyone else has a chance to be competitive for the rest of the game

Of course, the reason this is an aesthetic choice is that for a lot of people, that sort of interaction makes their brains glow. Fair enough, that's why those games are out there! But to me, if you ever repeatedly say "don't go after me, go after her, she's the real threat" while playing a game, then that's a game I will probably avoid.

So for me, good interaction...

  • is reasonably predictable.
  • doesn't completely undo what the attacked player did.
  • advances the game state.
  • makes the game more interesting for everyone.

One last thought on this: I've grown to dislike the term "multi-player solitaire." Just because a game doesn't allow you to destroy an opponent's assets doesn't make it MPS. I taught Race for the Galaxy to a friend the other day. That's a game with very subtle interaction, and it seems like MPS to a new player. But knowing how to parasite your opponents' actions separates the good players from the bad. You must pay attention to your opponents in that game if you're going to play with the best.

To my knowledge, the only family of games that are truly MPS are games in the Take It Easy family (Take It Easy, Take It To the Limit, Cities, etc.). In those games, your opponents' actions do literally nothing to influence your actions. And they're still a ton of fun.

What are some of your favorite games? Why?

I like games that reward planning, but that don't require a Chess- or Bridge-like time investment to master. I also like really innovative, unusual mechanisms.

One of my favorite games is Space Dealer, recently redesigned and re-released as Time 'n' Space. It's a real-time game where players use hourglasses to perform their actions. Once their hourglasses finish, their action is complete. The game is played to a 30-minute soundtrack. When the soundtrack is over, so is the game.

I love the game because it forces players to think across two threads. You'll want your first hourglass to do one set of actions, but your second to do another. No other game makes me think that way, and I love it.

Other games? I've played a lot of Ascension, and I think it's the current cream of the crop in terms of deckbuilders (or as I like to call the genre, LDBs - "Like Dominion, But..."). I don't think I can fairly say that Ascension is better than Dominion, because I think Dominion is an incredible design that I wish I'd made, and there's no Ascension without Dominion. But I will never turn down a game of Ascension at this point.

Navegador and Trajan are also two recent games that have floated my boat, so to speak. Galaxy Trucker and Agricola as well.

What's your favorite game lately? Something that you've discovered or just played recently?

My favorite game from Essen 2012 is Terra Mystica. Its replayability and depth are superlative. There's just enough space for you to plan ahead, but just enough interaction to keep things tense. It's an amazing, wonderful design.

Tzolk'in is also fantastic, and was my favorite Essen 2012 game until Terra Mystica came along. Myrmes and Copycat were also outstanding. Myrmes reminds me of Princes of Florence with its careful strategy and extremely limited number of turns. Copycat uses the primary mechanisms of three popular games, and yet feels nothing at all like those games.

Can you tell us about Prime Time? This is your new prototype, yes?

Remember that auction mechanism I built Battle Merchants around, and then removed from the game? I wanted to give it one more chance, so I put it in a new design. I originally had no theme for it (its working title was MacGuffin Market), but eventually put in a theme about TV networks acquiring programming.

Here's the funny part: eventually, my playtesters told me that the auction wasn't pulling its weight. Sure enough, I pulled the auction out recently, and it seems to have improved the game. So that's two games that have rejected the auction like a bad donor organ!

I'd like to set Prime Time in the early eighties, when cable programming was just starting to catch on. It's more thematic, it keeps the game from getting dated, and it gives me the opportunity to make each show a parody of a popular eighties show. I think that would be fun.

You're active in the New York City comedy scene, is that correct? Tell us about it!

I started taking sketch comedy writing classes in January of 2012, and I've met a lot of awesome people! I am probably going to slow down on the comedy front for the next few months, because I feel like I need to design more games.

Do you ever see your comedy and game design crossing paths, or do these occupy separate areas of your brain? I find all my interests constantly merging, personally.

It's funny, I wanted to try out sketch writing because I wanted an outlet that was less iterative and mathematical than game design. Of course, sketch writing turned out to be iterative (lots of redrafts and tweaking) and mathematical (a good sketch heightens its absurdity), so a lot of it felt familiar!

You've had Prolix published by Z-Man and now Battle Merchants with Minion. Do you have any advice to share with the other designers?

If you're a new designer, I urge you: don't overvalue your ideas. Ideas are worthless; no one cares about your idea. No one publishes an idea, no one plays an idea. We play finished games, not ideas. To go from an idea to a finished game is an enormous amount of sweat and work.

So: it's not enough to think of a great idea for a game. Playtest it like crazy, and be merciless slicing off parts of the game that don't work. You owe your original idea nothing. If it ends up that your game is totally different than your original idea, that's okay, as long as it's fun.

Don't be afraid to share your idea with other people. No one's interested in stealing ideas. There's so little money in board games, relatively speaking, that people who want to steal stuff go to arenas where they can steal something worth money, like finance.

Some other tips:

* Be careful when springing a raw, new design on other players. It's probably not going to be very fun. Try to playtest these early iterations with other game designers, or your most patient/easily bribed friends.

* Don't spend too much time on the physical appearance of an early-stage game. It is going to change a lot. Why spend a day on a card's layout, when your next playtest may tell you that you don't need the cards in the first place?

* When you are 80% done with the game, you are halfway there. The remaining 20% - going from a decent game to a fun game - is the other half of the work. Plan accordingly.

Thanks so much for giving me a place to speak, Grant!

My pleasure! Check out Battle Merchants on Kickstarter today!