Pullin' an Interview with Dodd

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Chevee Dodd is a good friend and a designer I've known for about 3 years now. He's someone I talk to almost daily and share most of my design thoughts with. He's a clever, hardworking guy and I was excited when he finally decided to, eh hem, pull, the trigger on this project. Read the interview below, but don't forget to check out his Kickstarter page.

My comments are labeled HG. Chevee's are labeled CD.

HG: Introduce yourself, for the 8 people who come to my site and somehow don’t yet know about your charming persona. Who is Chevee Dodd? And for the kids at home, how do you pronounce your name?

CD: Hold up. 8 people? Do you really think it’s that high? Man. I need to spend more time in your comments section!

I am a 35 year old father of two little girls, from a small town, you've never heard of, in beautiful West Virginia. I’m an ex-Marine, ex-parts department manager, ex-mechanic, IT professional for the WV State Board of Education. I design games for fun but also enjoy motorcycling, woodworking, video games, and fishing. On a first date I enjoy long walks on the bea….. wait…

Oh, and it’s pronounced Chevy, like the car.

HG: Before we cover Pull!, let’s go over your resume. Tell us some of your other, favorite games you've designed. Personally, I’m a big fan of Scallywags (published by Gamewright) and Princess Rainbow Unicorns.

CD: Scallywags seems to be a popular design of mine, probably because it’s the only one that’s ever been mass-produced. I don’t really like it all that much and hope to one day revisit the design and clean it up a bit. Princess Fairy Rainbow Unicorn dice is certainly a design that I’m proud of. It began as a dice game for my two little girls but it has grown it’s own little cult following. A version of the game, Leathernecks ‘43 is available through The Game Crafter, but most people seem to want the princess version for some reason. Like, grown men. Who knows, maybe it’ll be next on my list?

I've been actively designing games since 1997. I really didn't start to get serious about publication until a few years ago and Scallywags is a direct result of that effort. I’m particularly fond of a dice and card design, Hedeby, that I worked on for most of last year. It’s currently being considered by Mayfair and I would simply be elated if they picked it up. Mayfair has been my dream publisher since I started this adventure.

HG: Give us the rundown of Pull! What is it, why do you love it, why should we care?

CD: PULL! is a non-traditional partnership card game based on traditional partnership card games. It takes heavy inspiration from classic trick-taking games such as spades, whist, and euchre, but I hesitate to call it a trick-taking game. That terminology brings with it some expectations that just don’t fit the game. There is no “trump” per-se, there is no “lead”, following suit isn't always necessary, and there are some oddities in the scoring. While it’s true that each person plays a card and the person who plays the highest value card will win, that’s approximately where the similarities end.

In PULL!, we are shooting at clay targets. Players are dealt a hand of cards and two targets are revealed. Targets are worth a number of points. Each player, in turn will play one card until all players have played a single card on each target. The highest card played on each target will win that target’s points for their team. If a team scores both targets in a round, that is called a Double and may be worth bonus points. The targets have two values on them, you score one value if you took it as a single and the other value if you took it as part of a double. Two more targets are revealed and the hand continues in this fashion until all players have played their 10 cards. Points are recorded and a new hand is dealt.

HG: It’s probably easiest if people just watch this 5 minute video you made.

CD: That’s certainly not a bad plan! Not only is it linked on my page, and the Kickstarter page, but I've included a shortened link and a QR code in the rule book to make the job easier for new players to find.

HG: How did Pull! come about? Your games always have an amusing origin story, like how Paper Route was the result of an off-handed Tweet from Cyrus Kirby.

CD: This one is no different. I already mentioned that I worked on Hedeby for most of last year. That was almost the only thing I worked on all year. It was a dark time for me and I didn’t cope with it well. Sometime last fall, I got fed up with it. I wanted to make a game that was easy to print and play and cheap enough to produce through print on demand. The only problem was, I had no ideas. So, I turned to Twitter. I asked for people to send me theme ideas and I’d pick one to run with. I received dozens of responses but one kept sticking with me: Clay Pigeon Shooting w/ Trick Taking. I had a working prototype a few hours later and I’ve been actively designing it since.

HG: How many clay pigeons have you killed in your life?

CD: Approximately zero. To tell the truth, I've never actually been trap shooting. It’s apparently popular at the range I shoot at as there is always orange fragments covering the berms. So, I often shoot those fragments with my rifles. Does that count?

HG: I’ll allow it. Why did Pull! become the first game you self-publish in a big way? You've been satisfied with Print-on-Demand publication previously, or pitching to AAA publishers.

CD: PULL! sits squarely between the two outlets. It is a game that doesn't sit well with AAA publishers because of the trick-taking background but it has a larger audience than what I can reasonably approach with a strictly print on demand strategy. Most of my print on demand games are similarly difficult for AAA publishers but are also difficult to self-produce because of component cost. This is the first game I've done in a while that I feel confident I could bring to market while still maintaining a relatively normal life.

PULL! has also been a community effort from day one. The inspiration, the rules, the graphics.  I've leaned on the community heavily to make it what it is today. It’s a perfect candidate for crowd funding because the crowd has already made the game. Going through this process myself will allow me to give back to the community through the lessons I’m learning and I like giving.

HG: What were some of the challenges you've encountered in the process up to pushing the “go” button on Kickstarter?

CD: Aside from the usual game design challenges, the Kickstarter process itself is a little awkward. For instance, I knew that I would have to set up an Amazon Business account to accept payment, but what I didn't know was that the type of banking account I had made that process very different. When I registered my LLC, I set up a business checking account. Because this was a business account and not a personal account, Amazon required me to send them a bank statement that contained the business name and address as well as the bank account information. I couldn't simply self-authorize as I would have had I used a personal account. Oh, and the only way they would accept this information is by fax. Yeah. A fax. I had to find a fax machine. I hope to write quite a few articles about the Kickstarter process after all is said and done.

HG: The first and last time I used a fax machine in my life was to buy a home. Strange how those things refuse to die in an age of scanning.

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CD: Yep. I’m an IT guy. This process actually baffled me. Five years ago, I could have scanned it and then plugged my computer into a phone line and sent it via my PC, but none of my laptops even have internal modems. So, not only was it difficult to find an actual fax machine, it was practically impossible for me to use the technological replacement because phone lines are a thing of the past. I’m sure I could have found a mobile app or an online tool for this, but in the end, I found an actual fax machine and sent it.

HG: What are some of your favorite games? How, if at all, did they inform your development of Pull?

CD: Some of my all-time favorites are Acquire, Settlers of Catan, DC Deckbuilder, and Tichu. I wouldn't say that any of them had a direct influence on the mechanics of PULL!

Tichu, being the only trick-taking game of the bunch, was a sort of point of reference for me. My group plays it many times each week and when I started looking at PULL! objectively to find some ways to inject fun into the game, I paid more attention to the mood during our weekly Tichu sessions. I analyzed why some moments were fun and others were dull and I tried to capture some of that fun in PULL!

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HG: Tell me about those moments. Walk us through them.

CD: I take trick taking games very seriously. Because of this, I enjoy them often for different reasons. I enjoy figuring out what each person’s cards. I enjoy calculating the possibility of strong plays that can break the other player’s strategies and swing the hand in my favor. I also enjoy how the deal has a strong effect on the game, but through perfect (or near-perfect) play, the stronger player should win through a series of hands. All this means that I, personally, enjoy the duller sides of the games.

I was prompted by Matt Worden to find the fun parts of PULL! and there weren't many. There was very little ability for the player to mess up their opponents plans. Watching my group play Tichu, I realized that those big moments when a player wrecks a Tichu is the most rewarding part. I needed to introduce some of those big moments into PULL! but it is difficult without a bidding process. Most popular trick taking games require a player to bid, or have a declaration mechanism, such as nil in spades or Tichu in Tichu. When one player declares their hand is strong, breaking that players hand is often some of the most fun in trick taking games. PULL! has neither bidding nor hand declaration mechanics. Introducing those sorts of moments needed to be on a round-by-round basis and they needed to be matter.

When I introduced the hidden second card, those moments were brought into the game. The change was suggested by Eric Handler, the person responsible for the game’s inspiration, and he suggested it after I had already sent review copies out! It’s such an important change for the game, however, that I could not ignore it. I immediately emailed the reviewers and told them I was changing the game. Nothing like developing mere weeks from the Kickstarter launch!

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HG: What are some of the “big moments” in Pull’s development? If it were a novel, we’d call them plot twists. What were the big shifts you didn't expect, or that were pleasantly surprising?

CD: I've been a fan of trick taking games my entire life. Some of my fondest memories revolve around playing spades and whist. When I was asked to design a trick taking game, I tried really hard to focus on those classics and force through some sort of derivative instead of a game of it’s own. What this meant was that the entire deck was dealt out and I minimized randomness as much as possible. I wanted players to be able to calculate the strength of their hand but I didn't reward that at all. I totally missed it. The game was almost 100% driven by the strength of the deal with little to no ability for the players to make creative plays that change the outcome of the hand.

When I finally listened to the feedback I was receiving, the majority of suggestions revolved around introducing more randomness. When I finally started loosening up the design it immediately became 100% better. Sometimes I am my largest obstacle.

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HG: In general, what are your thoughts on randomness in game? Without writing a full blog post, give us a quick rundown about how you like your randomness and where Pull! lies on that spectrum.

CD: I like a healthy dose of randomness but not so much that I feel powerless. Trying to put a figure on it, I’d say I like my games to be about 30-40% random. It gives me something to blame when I lose but also provides a great challenge. A better player should win in a random game through normalization over many rounds. That challenge is compelling for me and it’s part of the reason that random games are so fun.

Look at the massive player base that has built up around Magic: the Gathering. That game encompasses the 30-40% randomness that keeps people coming back. When you lose, you didn’t lose the game, you got screwed by your deck. When you win, however, it’s because of your superior skill at deckbuilding and play.

PULL! falls squarely in that window. The luck of the deal is certainly a big factor as it is with most trick taking games. Skilled players should win over a series of hands, but sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. At the same time, there is enough strategy and tactical thinking to keep it interesting. I’d like to think that I got the balance right.

HG: Anything else you’d like to add?

CD: I love you.

HG: I know.

I want to thank Chevee for the interview. Give PULL! a look on Kickstarter. $16 gets you the game.