An Interview with Colby Dauch
Colby Dauch is the owner and chief game designer of Plaid Hat Games, one of my favorite companies that has created two of my favorite games: Summoner Wars and Mice and Mystics. In just a few years, Plaid Hat has grown from a single game company to one with a huge booth at GenCon, two games in Barnes and Nobles, and a legion of fans, err, Dougs.
As an aspiring designer and entrepreneur, I really wanted to interview Colby for this blog. He kindly set aside time to answer my 10 questions. My questions are marked with HG, with Colby’s questions noted by a CD.
Hyperbole Grant: You are overwhelmingly a theme-first designer, which means you approach your games from that of story, the experience, and, of course, theme. What is the most important element in making a game thematic?
Colby Dauch: Keep the theme in high regard throughout the design process. I once heard that a company I won't name will strip all theme out of a game they are interested in publishing. If it is still a good game, then they will publish it with whatever theme they like. That's so against my sensibilities that I find it shocking. I feel like a game that does a good job of transporting you into its world is just doing it right.
CD: I'm not blowing smoke when I tell you every time I play a new story develops. It is hard to pick a favorite, so I'll just tell you about the last play I watched. I took the game over to a family Christmas.
I had a full crew of 5 family members playing so I sat out and taught. I watched my family generally work together to overcome adversity -- that is until Rod (one of the game characters) had a heart attack. The players decided they couldn't risk the exposure of carrying him to the hospital where they thought they saw a defibrillator. They instead let Rod die.
My stepfather, who was playing Rod, was not cool with that (Editor’s Note: Players control multiple characters throughout the game). His reaction was that every time someone needed his help, he would ask them where they were when Rod had his heart attack. Morale (a game stat) started to quickly take a dive and they lost that game. I was very intrigued by the drama that played out there around the dining room table. It’s interesting to watch people who you've seen interact many times before thrown into a situation where you are seeing a whole new side to their interactions. And all in the relative safety of a board game.
HG: Bioshock Infinite: Siege of Columbia really opened a lot of eyes to what a video game conversion to board game can be. What are some of your other favorite video games that, due to their themes or mechanics, would also make great board games?
CD: This is a tough question. I think it could be the case that if a video game's mechanics transition neatly into a board game, then there may not be much reason for that board game to exist. Because you are just giving fans an experience they've already had. This is something we didn't want to do with BioShock. So I think theme holds precedence here for me.
HG: Having played a significant amount of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I feel that’s a game that’s right in your wheel house. Speaking of…
Heroscape is your favorite game and the one that brought you into this hobby full steam. As a side note, it had a huge impact on me and my college friends as well. What are your favorite things about it?
CD: The game is gorgeous. Its visuals alone pull you in. Put on top of that a fun game and the community that formed around that game and generated so much content and formed so many connections and relationships for me. It was just all consuming for a period of my life. I never had that experience before or since as a fan, so it remains my top game and I can't imagine it ever being dethroned. It wasn't just a game I played, it was a game I immersed myself in even when not playing.
HG: Listening to your podcast, you really seem to be able to have a vision for the early prototypes you are shown. Mice and Mystics is one of my favorite games, but your first viewing was, from what I understand, a bit rough. What did you see in Jerry’s early prototype that led you to devote years of development and a lot of money on the project?
CD: Easy. I saw Jerry. I believed in him.
HG: I finished the base game over my Christmas break and plan to begin Heart of Glorm shortly. The tidbits you and Jerry have hinted about the next big box expansion sound incredible.
What were some of your favorite games of 2013?
CD: If I can cheat and do a video game, everyone should play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It was a powerful experience for me.
HG: I didn't specify, so the judges have ruled this a perfectly suitable answer. For those curious, Brothers is only $15 on the Steam platform for your PC.
2013 was a big year for your company. Summoner Wars Master Set and Mice and Mystics are both located in Barnes and Nobles. You added your first full-time employee (the charming Isaac Vega). Seems you’re working to add a second (graphic designer). You attended Essen, plus a huge Gencon booth. For you, what was the biggest “holy crap!” moment of 2013?
CD: Watching the Mice and Mystics fan base have fun with and spread the word about that game.
HG: Having a full-time staff member must be one of the biggest changes to your company ever. What opportunities and changes have come about by adding Isaac to the staff?
CD: People bring with them ideas and experiences and talents all their own. People, not one person, make a company. I have long dreamed of having a community of people working on games together in the same place. Isaac was the beginning of that and I'm looking forward to where it leads.
HG: You guys are testing machines. Summoner Wars has always had a steady testing team (and it shows in the product) and Dead of Winter had a small army of testers, which Isaac covered on the Podcast. What tips can you provide to aspiring publishers to create such an infrastructure?
CD: It’s hard to do for an aspiring publisher. Prospective testers need to be excited about what you are doing. With so many aspiring publishers and prototypes out there, it is hard to do unless you've got some kind of track record that has created a fan base you can tap into. When I started out, I was just relying on friends and there was no real infrastructure to speak of. You've really got to keep your nose to the grindstone and find ways to keep your friends interested in continued playtests. Because friends and family are the ones who believe in you at that stage. It also helped that I was so involved in Heroscape. I had made many gamer friendships through that. Heck, I turned my local friends into gamers though that game.
HG: You've surrounded yourself with a great team of frequent freelancers who almost seem to be family. As an outsider, that team really seems to be one of your competitive advantages. What advice do you have for hopeful entrepreneurs to create and foster such a team?
CD: Much of that team comes from the Heroscape days I've mentioned multiple times here. I guess I mostly feel lucky. Fostering it comes pretty naturally if you are working together on great stuff and everyone's doing great work then the projects themselves are motivators. You keep being excited about the project and let that rub off on others. It is a lot of work to publish a game, but in the end, you are bringing something into the world that a group of people will really appreciate and enjoy. Hearing those stories from people motivates the team on the next project.
Be passionate and when you attract passionate people, appreciate them. I guess that's my formula. Or, like I said, maybe I just got lucky.
I want to thank Colby again for taking the time to answer these questions. Good luck in 2014. If you’re curious about Plaid Hat and their games, visit their website. I also recommend their weekly Podcast.