Interview with David Chott

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As I often do, I encountered David Chott via Twitter and its growing game design community. David and I hit it off and began exchanging emails with some regularity. We even met at a small cafe near my home when he came to visit SF.

David has been working on his game, Lagoon: Land of Druids, for quite some time. In this period, he has quit his job and formed a publishing company, launched by this game. That seemed like a good interview. 

My questions are preceded by HG, with David's answers tagged with DC.

Hyperbole Games: David, welcome to the Hyperbole Games Hot Seat! That's a name I created just for you. Tell my fine readers a little about yourself.

David Chott: This heated seat makes me feel so pampered, thank you! I was raised in a gaming family and have played a wide range of tabletop games over the years. I started designing games more than a decade ago, but mostly just recorded my ideas in notebooks. I got serious in the fall of 2012. A year later, with Lagoon well along, I quit my job to become a full time board game designer and publisher. That might seem crazy to some folks. But I live in Portland, so I can get away with it.

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HG: Your first game is Lagoon. Before we dig into the delightful details, please give us the quick details.

DC: Lagoon: Land of Druids is a strategy board game for 2-4 players set in an unconventional fantasy world. It's a game about determining the fate of the world, with each player leading a circle of druids on a quest to bend Lagoon's destiny. Most games finish in an hour or less. Players build the world through placement of double-sided hexagonal tiles drawn from a bag. Use your druids to magically shape and redefine the world to bring about one of three possible destinies. The player who best masters the emerging destiny wins.

HG: What inspired you to make Lagoon? What was the spark?

DC: After hitting a wall as a designer, I read through all my old game design notebooks for inspiration. When I was done, I'd literally only found three ideas that excited me:

  • A scrap of paper I found with a sketch of hexagon tiles forming a landscape
  • Old notes about tokens that could share abilities
  • A recent idea for conflict between non-player entities being the focal point of a game

To my delight, I realized in a matter of minutes that I could combine all three elements cohesively. The idea with the tokens had players putting them on cards that conferred abilities to your other tokens. I thought it would be cool if instead the tokens were placed on hexagonal tiles to gain and share abilities from the hexes. Each hex would represent a different place in my world offering a unique power. The tokens, now druids, could then move around the hex-based world to do things and access different site-based powers. The scrap of paper with the hexagonal tiles called for them to be double-sided, which still seemed more interesting than single-sided tiles.

Lastly, I was obsessed with a particular scheme for non-player entities in circular conflict, and had been weaving it into each of my game designs for months. I decided to bring that in by aligning every site with one of the non-player entities and making sure the two sides of a site tile were always aligned with different entities. This would offer a choice whenever a player added a new site to the board. At the end of the game, the entity with the most sites in play would win the conflict. Players freely support or oppose any entity they wish, but the winner is the one who best supported the final dominant entity.

Amazingly, that's pretty much Lagoon right there. All the core ideas were in place right there at the beginning. Because I was obsessed with the scheme for non-player entities in conflict, I had actually already worked out thematically that the entities would be opposing energies in a fantasy world. Players would manipulate the world to support one energy or another. At the end of the game, one energy would dominate and the player most responsible for delivering that dominance would be the winner. In previous designs there had been four energies. I thought that would be too many different tile alignments to give players sufficient control, so I went down to three energies. That also happened to make for a much more balanced and interesting circular power dynamic as well: the familiar rock, paper, scissors. The only significant mechanic that was added later is rewarding a player for exploring a site with a seed token that matches the explored site's energy.

HG: What are some of your favorite games, and why?

DC: My taste in games has changed a lot in the past 5 years. I used to favor heavier Euro strategy games. Today, my favorite games include Liar's Dice, Innovation, Tash-Kalar, Netrunner, Hive, Jaipur, Tigris & Euphrates and Dominant Species.

But my hands down all-time favorite game has long been Magic: The Gathering, even though I haven't played very actively since the 90's. There is so much genius in that game, but perhaps what I like best about it is the wide latitude it gives players to express themselves. Being able to compose your deck from thousands upon thousands of different card choices makes it possible for a player to innovate something wild that's never been done before. It's a sandbox. You can build a deck that perfectly matches your personality, mood or preferred play style. Back in college, I could look at any deck in our large play circle and probably be able to guess which of my friends built it. Building decks can be a highly creative act, and in many ways building and tuning a deck is a form of game design. This experience influenced me as a gamer and designer more than all other games combined.

HG: Did any of those favorite games drive you towards Lagoon? Which aspects?

DC: I adore emergence in game play, and many of my favorite games have it in spades (Magic, Innovation, Netrunner, Hive, T&E). This was a goal for Lagoon from the beginning. I find emergent game play so deeply satisfying for several reasons. Games with a good deal of emergent mechanics tend to provide a richly complex universe of possibilities without necessarily being so complex to play. The depth of possibilities in each play of these games means they often have a higher order of replayability than games without much emergence. Emergent mechanics are also quite good at delivering surprising situations play after play. The range of things that can happen in such games tends to be wider than in more rigidly constrained games with low or no emergent mechanics. When all of these factors come together at their best, the game experience is something like exploring a living system whose mysteries and possibilities can never be fully grasped or exhausted even after hundreds of plays. To me, that's magic in a box. That's what I want most when I sit down to play a game.

So I'm delighted that even after playing or observing more than 100 games of Lagoon, I am still seeing interesting new situations and combinations emerge that surprise me. Lagoon offers tremendous emergent potential. The game includes 24 double-sided hexagon tiles, for a total of 48 sites that each have a unique action players can use. The "board" of the game is a constantly changing layout of site tiles whose spatial positions have tactical and strategic significance. Throw into that mix the ever-changing balance of power represented by the number of tiles in play aligned with each of the three energies competing for Lagoon's destiny. It's a recipe for a whole lot of variety and surprise every play. I think players will find Lagoon has an extremely high replay value without the aid of expansions. At the same time, it is imminently expandable and I have some exciting ideas about how to do that.

HG: Who would love Lagoon?

DC: Lagoon's fans like it for different reasons. There's the emergent game play, combo building, and puzzle solving. Many appreciate that Lagoon is both highly tactical and highly strategic. Lagoon tends to go over exceedingly well with Magic: The Gathering players. But I've also had train game players geek out over Lagoon because its scoring mechanic has similarities to scoring in stock holding games.

HG: You released a PNP (found here) some time ago. What did you learn from the PNP?

DC: I made the PNP because several people who played it at BGG.CON were asking for one. I was optimistic that many more would try it too. It was downloaded more than 130 times, but I only heard from a handful of people that they actually made a copy and played it. Maybe more did, but they didn't report back.

What I learned is that some Board Game Geek users are amazing people who are willing to invest a ton of time giving feedback on a PNP. I had one user create his own suggested iconography to represent a variety of the basic actions that might appear on site tiles. Another user went even further and completely recreated the PNP exclusively using beautiful icons he designed himself instead of text. I was floored by the energy they put into offering these suggestions for Lagoon, without really even knowing me personally. Our hobby is filled with so many wonderful people, that's one of the things I love most about it.

But although it would be great if a game like Lagoon could be made language-independent by using icons, it would require a large glossary of icons to achieve that. Which creates a learning barrier for many players. Considering my desire to expand Lagoon with new mechanics that would only expand the glossary of icons further and exacerbate the problem over time.

HG: Let's take it a step back. What were some of the key lessons you learned from testing in general?

DC: All the basic things you read about play testing and game design are true, but most of them you have to learn yourself the hard way before you really accept them. For example, less is more. Or a designer's job is done when there is nothing left to take out. Be willing to kill your darlings. Figure out which are the interesting choices your game presents to players, and strip away everything else. Know your target audience. And so on.

It's funny how, in retrospect, every single mechanic I pulled from Lagoon so clearly and obviously made a better Lagoon with their absence. But so many of them were darlings I fought and resisted removing even when my testing showed they were problematic and sometimes even when my players kept asking me to. This is a lesson I hope not to soon forget.

Lastly, players who get your game and like it are great ego boosters, but it's the players who struggle with your game that you really need to talk to. These players may not have much to say in a post-game debrief because they don't want to look dumb for not understanding aspects of your game if other players did. If a player struggles with your game, try to talk to them one-on-one where they may speak more freely. Try asking them to explain how to play your game, maybe even the day after they played it. You may be shocked at their understanding of how your game works, and then it's on you to make it easier and less confusing.

HG: I'm an absolute board game art snob. I buy, or don't buy, games purely because of their art. Lagoon's art is just astounding. It's gorgeous. Lay out for us the art direction points you gave to your artist. What was your vision for Lagoon's presentation?

DC: There's no substitute for working with talented people, so enormous credit goes to graphic designer Peter Wocken and illustrators Eduardo Garcia and Chase Velarde for crafting amazing visuals for Lagoon.

Doing the art direction for Lagoon has been one of my greatest joys in this whole project! I've invested a lot of time developing the story and aesthetic concept for the world of Lagoon, and have actually been working on this world for more than a year before this particular game existed.

I take my inspiration from nature. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and backpacking trips into our phenomenal forests are one of my favorite summer activities. I'm a forest person and Lagoon is primarily a forest world. The magical features and natural wonders depicted in the art are the sorts of things I would be delighted to stumble upon while wandering the forest, and maybe the sort of things as a kid I secretly hoped might lie around the next bend.

To convey my vision for the world's aesthetic, I wrote a fairly detailed artistic sourcebook for Lagoon that establishes a lot of the basics for the benefit of my illustrators. I cover things like what druids should look like, the kind of mood illustrations in each of the three energies should establish, and more. Then for each illustration I often provide a paragraph or two describing what I'd like depicted. But I also like to be vague sometimes and let the artist make most of the decisions. I love being surprised with something awesome that is outside my own imagination! It's a fun process, and I love it. I'm incredibly lucky to see my world come to life at the hands of such gifted and versatile artists!

HG: You recently quit your steady, paying job to become a full time game designer and publisher. Dear god, man. What is the reason for this? What do you hope to accomplish this year?

DC: I needed a change in career for a long time before making this shift. Frankly, I needed a change in my life even more. As someone in love with story, there's something especially powerful about taking responsibility for the story of my own life and setting a new course in the direction of my dreams. It represents a major shift in my approach to life, and it's the best feeling I've ever had. Staying true to that is more important than whether I succeed as a designer or publisher. If it doesn't work out, fine, I'll set a new course based on what I've learned and who I am at that point. I'm learning so much now every day and growing so much as a person, I have confidence that I can keep moving forward. I have a lot of exciting ideas for what I'd like to do after publishing Lagoon: Land of Druids, but the timing depends so much on the game's reception and other factors that have yet to unfold.

HG: What are the key elements of 3 Hares Games? What makes your company unique? What will make you successful?

DC: Three Hares Games will focus on developing a high quality library of games that collectively tell the unfolding story of a single world, Lagoon. My vision is to set every game I publish in the world introduced by Lagoon: Land of Druids. I think that's unique for a board game publisher.

I will strive to make Lagoon a unique and compelling world that players will want to revisit in a wide range of different games. I'm excited to dive deep into Lagoon's mystical landscape and share more of its lore, its mysteries, and its characters with every game I publish. You'll notice in Lagoon's art that the three hares motif that is my logo and gives my company its name is taken from the world of Lagoon itself, so I'm very committed to this vision.

As a person, I am extremely motivated by story. Perhaps more than anything else. Which explains why this approach to publishing makes sense for me. If the world of Lagoon resonates with players, I will get to tell more of its stories in the future. Nothing would make me happier. I believe this approach can contribute to 3HG's success, but no amount of story matters if the games are not fresh and fun to play.

I place a high premium on originality, and I like to think that shows in Lagoon. That's a quality I want to cultivate as a hallmark of Three Hares Games, and I'm willing to take some chances to do it.

HG: Do you see 3 Hares accepting game submission in the future? If so, what would you think would be the defining characteristics of a 3 Hares Game?

DC: With my plan to set all the games I publish in the world of Lagoon, that makes accepting game submissions trickier. Mainly that's because I'm unwilling to paste the Lagoon theme on a game that doesn't evoke the world already. And I wouldn't expect designers to invest the time to design something native to my world and thereby limit their chances for publication. I can envision collaborating with other designers though. Or potentially inviting a designer to make a game because I think it would work out well. As for defining characteristics, I address that to some extent in the previous question. I think it would also be safe to assume emergent mechanics will be an important characteristic.

HG: Lagoon is on Kickstarter RIGHT NOW. What were some of the most important Kickstarter lessons you took to heart before launching?

DC: This is hard to answer because there are so many lessons I tried to internalize and at the same time there were so many lessons available to me that I didn't have time to assimilate. I have tremendous respect for anyone running a board game Kickstarter campaign on top of a full time job, because it has been a mad dash for me to cover everything and this IS my full time job (just about every waking hour). Since so many more experienced and wiser folks than I have written volumes on this subject, I don't have a grand list of things to rattle off.

But here is what I can offer. The amount of time that goes into preparing a board game KS is mildly insane, so double or triple your time estimates. You'll still be scrambling. Also, realize that your development process to test and polish your game should be on a totally different timeline than your KS preparation schedule. Game quality is primary. Don't let the tail wag the dog and rush into your KS with a subpar product. It is a crazy amount of work to publish a board game using KS, so don't put yourself through that with a game that isn't your best.

My next lesson is that the board game community is filled with amazing people who are eager to see you succeed and often willing to help. Immerse yourself in the community on Twitter, go to board game conventions and make friends with other designers and publishers, help test other designers' games, and try to be awesome to everyone you meet. I have received more help, support, encouragement, valuable advice, introductions, and all manner of other useful assistance from so many fellow gamers, and I only really got into the community starting back in August at GenCon. Without them, my game would never have reached this point, it would never have reached this level of polish, and I may well have given up.

HG: Final question. I know your focus is on Lagoon. I have done enough interviews to know you’re going to say "my focus is on Lagoon being a success." But, can you hint at what's next? Surely you have some ideas (and revenue needs) lingering in your brain.

DC: I've already hinted at plans to offer expansions to Lagoon: Land of Druids. I think that would be the most natural next step, assuming there is demand for them. I do have a small handful of new game ideas I'm very excited about as well, but none of them has made it to the prototype stage yet. So they could totally suck for all I know!

I want to thank David for taking the time to answer my questions. If you're interested in Lagoon: Land of Druids, check out the Kickstarter page here

Comments

The other day, it occurred to me my following claim is probably untrue:

"My vision is to set every game I publish in the world introduced by Lagoon: Land of Druids. I think that’s unique for a board game publisher."

I'm actually pretty sure that Greater Than Games sets all of their games in the Sentinels of the Multiverse world. So not unique, but unusual!

Thank you Alex for commenting and saying so. I worried I was droning on at times, but Grant's questions really got me going. The process of responding to them helped advance my awareness and thinking about almost all the topics covered. So thanks to Grant for the invitation and the opportunity to gain insight!

This is a wonderful interview, I enjoyed the tremendous detail in David's answers.