Salmon Run: An Interview with Jesse Catron

Almost a year ago, Jesse Catron mailed me a prototype for a game then called Pond Farr. It was a very clever, well-designed, and highly entertaining game about Salmon Racing. He told me in confidence then that the game had been picked up by Gryphon Games and it'd be on Kickstarter. Delays unfortunately occur, but, the wait will have been well worth it. The Kickstarter launches August 15.

I told Jesse months ago I would do what little I could to help him promote his game. This is the first of two posts on the subject; an interview with the designer. Learn about the game, Jesse, and his development process on this really fun game.

Hyperbole Games comments are noted with HG. JC is from Jesse Catron.

HG: Introduce yourself!

JC: I’d be glad to! My name is Jesse Catron and I live in Maryland with my fantastic wife, Eileen, our 6 dogs (sorry no Corgis!), and various other pets.  I love to play board games, but I love to design them even more.  The upcoming game Salmon Run (formerly known as Pond Farr) will be my first published game.

HG: Tell us about Salmon Run. What is the game? 

JC: Salmon Run is a race between salmon to swim upriver past waterfalls, rapids, and hungry bears to reach the spawning pool. The game is for two to four players and usually takes 20-45 minutes, though I have seen a few particularly contentious 4-player games last an hour.

The game uses a path-dependent deck-building mechanism. You start with a swim deck of basic movement cards.  As you use these movement cards to progress upriver, you may add more powerful cards by landing on special hexes.  The deck you build depends on the path you choose.  The added cards include enhanced movement cards like Double-Swims and Wild cards or interactive cards like Bears, Eagles, Rapids, and more.

The game also has a fatigue mechanic using cards added to your deck to slow the salmon down if they overexert themselves or encounter bears.  The river uses modular boards so it can be different each game and can be customized by difficulty and length.

HG Note: The fatigue mechanic uses a negative feedback loop as wonderfully explained by Jesse in this guest column about positive and negative feedback loops in game design. 

HG: How long has Salmon Run been in development?

JC: Though it sometimes seems like forever, in truth it has been in development  for two years.  It has gone through a lot of refinements and a lot of testing.  The original version had a fixed board and simultaneous turns! This didn’t work well at all.  Fortunately, I was able to work these issues out and make a fun and balanced game.

HG: What was the initial inspiration for the game? Why Salmon racing?

JC: While working on another design, I started thinking about all the good times I had playing board games with my brothers in my youth.  I wanted my nephews and nieces to have a similar experience.  I stopped working on my medieval siege warfare game and started to brainstorm for a theme that both they and myself would enjoy.  I looked to nature and animals.  I figured there had to be a compelling and unique theme in nature that could make a good game.  Firstly, I thought about migrations. Then for whatever reason, salmon came to mind.  Perhaps because I had made an abstract game with fish and a shark a few weeks earlier?

Nevertheless,  salmon swimming hundreds of miles against the current, most of them dying along the way via bears or exhaustion,  seemed like a compelling theme to me.  While salmon may not be the coolest animals, you have to admire their persistence!  Plus, bears and eagles are awesome.

HG: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced developing the game? How did you solve them?

JC: One of the biggest design challenges was balancing the power of the current. For those who haven’t played, there are a series of arrows on most hexes of the board representing the flow of the river. When the current is activated, all salmon must move backwards in the direction of the current arrows.  I always knew I wanted to simulate the power of the river and the struggle of the salmon against it.  I really wanted the current to be a major factor in the game.

In early versions, the current would activate after each round, sending all the salmon backwards. This made for a very slow and frustrating race.  I tried a few tweaks, but nothing really worked. A race shouldn’t feel like running on a treadmill.  Eventually, I decided to put the power of the current into a card and put the current card into the starting deck.  This both lessened the frequency of the current and gave players some nice decisions on when to play it.  This was a tremendous improvement but not a perfect solution.  With everyone having a current card in their starting decks, the game was still too slow.  Players were getting sent over waterfalls repeatedly, gaining fatigue card after fatigue card.

The final solution was to remove the current from the starting deck and to enable players to counter the current by discarding a current card of their own from their hands.  Players now have to acquire the current cards over the course of the game by moving over special hexes. While the current is not as much of a factor in the race as it once was, it is still a very powerful card both offensively and defensively.

The current card itself led to another design challenge.  Sometimes solutions to one problem lead to a new problem! The special cards that you can add to your deck often come in balanced pairs and the board often offers a choice between them.  For instance, the Double-Swim card represents speed while the Wild card represents maneuverability.  Because the current was now a card, I needed a card of similar power that would be a viable alternative.  I came up with the Rapids card, but it was a real struggle to match the power of the current. The Rapids have gone through more versions than any other cards combined!

At last, I decided to yoke the power of the rapids with the number of current arrows on the board.  This gave it the same situational feeling as the current;  the timing of when the card is played is important.  Stifling the players options via discarding cards from their hands seems to be a viable alternative power to the current.  It also can make a nice combo with the Eagle card.

HG: You use modular boards, which is a feature I and many other gamers love. Did any challenges come with creating a modular board system?

JC: Absolutely!  Like I mentioned earlier, early versions of the game had a fixed board.  From the outset, I knew a modular board would be better, but I was unsure how to properly make one. I wanted to first focus on the basic mechanics. 

The foremost challenge in designing modular boards is deciding how they will connect.  Each board must be able to seamlessly connect with every other board.  Each board's exit/entry (i.e. edges) needed be compatible, especially with the currents of the river.  Being a race, the size of the boards was also a big factor.  Too many large boards would make the game too long, too few large boards and there wouldn't be enough variability.   Short but wide boards made the most sense.  Because they are wide, it gives me enough space to make interesting features and build in spatial decisions.  Because they are short vertically, I can use a higher number of different boards to increase the variability of the river’s set-up.

The other challenge in using modular boards is balancing how the features of each board affect the system as a whole.  When the board is large and fixed, you can balance its elements over the entire span of the board.  You can more easily balance the number of special hexes, left turns, right turns, the spacing of the bears and waterfalls with a fixed board.  With modular boards,  I found it necessary to somewhat balance each river section individually while still keeping in mind how it will affect other river sections.

For instance, the numbers of each type of special hex should be similar across all boards. However,  it's not possible to achieve the same degree of control over the boards’ features with modular boards as you can with a fixed board.  Invariably, some board combinations will be better than others.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just something you have to accept in using a modular boards.  In fact, I think it is desirable.

Another great thing about using modular boards was the ability to rate the difficulty of each river section.  Players can customize the game by difficulty as well as length.

HG: How did you come up with your Action cards? What was the mix of mechanical and thematic inspiration?

JC: You may be surprised to hear that the Jumping mechanic came first.  I borrowed the idea of combining two vectors into one movement from the abstract fish game I mentioned earlier.  I knew that’s how the salmon would get over waterfalls. Consequently, the movement for the game would use cards and the cards would indicate directional movement.  The race is linear, so the movements would be forward, right, and left (though right and left are really diagonally right and left).  I really wanted to simulate the long enduring struggle of the salmon upriver, so the movement system needed something more.  I wanted the players to have to choose not only the direction they swim, but also the pace at which they swim.  Usually in races there is only one speed: go as fast as you can.  Salmon are not in a sprint but in more of a marathon.  I needed a way to reward pacing and punish overexertion.  The answer was Fatigue cards that would accumulate in the player’s decks and make a  deck less effective as the race goes on.  This necessitated individual player movement decks and deck-building.

I always knew bears would be a large part of the game.  I wanted them to be a threat on the board and a way for players to interact and affect each others’ progress.  It seemed natural to make the bears add fatigue to the salmon.  I’ve already mentioned the Current and Rapids cards.  With the Eagle,  I really just thought about how eagles catch salmon.  They just swoop in and snatch them out of the water.  It's very quick and precise.  I thought the best way to emulate this in the game was to have the Eagle card pluck a card from the  targeted opponent’s hand.

HG: Now that you've designed a game with a deckbuilding mechanic, what are your thoughts on the mechanic? Would you create another game with deckbuilding?

JC: I am quite enamored with the deckbuilding mechanic. I know there is a lot of deckbuilding fatigue out there right now from gamers.  Perhaps it's justified with all the Dominion clones out there? However, I believe there is a lot left to explore with the mechanic.  The key is to see deckbuilding as an integral mechanic and not as the core of the whole game.

Deckbuilding allows the players to build an evolving engine and to receive nearly immediate feedback on how well they built it.  The power of the deckbuilding engine grows depending on the input you put into it. I find this positive feedback system fascinating.  I believe there are many  innovative ways it can be used.  Just look at games like A Few Acres of Snow, Mage Wars, and Eminent Domain.  These are games that utilize deckbuilding as a mechanic for a greater purpose and not as the game itself.  I see Salmon Run as a racing game that uses deckbuilding rather than a deckbuilder with racing.

I would absolutely create another game with deckbuilding.  In fact, I am currently working on two different deckbuilding games!  One is a sci fi game about smugglers in space.  In it, your deck represents your ship and its different weapons and systems.  It's basically a pick up and deliver game that uses deckbuilding for ship upgrades, combat, and navigation. HG: Several months ago I worked on a ridiculously similar design about smugglers in space. It used a deckbuilding mechanic as well. I shelved the game for various reasons, but I'm glad you're doing it. I'm sure it'll be a superior game!

My other deckbuilding game in the works is called Strangemare.  In Stangemare, players are trying to wake up from the prison of their own nightmares. The player’s deck represents his or her mind and is riddled with nightmare cards that he or she must purge.  Both are early in development.

HG: These ideas both sound excellent. Feel free to write about them here. One thing I always loved about the game (Salmon Run) is just how accessible it is. Was this a goal for you at the outset? 

JC: Yes, this was a goal and it was something I had to keep in mind throughout its development. As a gamer, I have a natural tendency to want to ramp up the complexity to make things more interesting. At least for me, it took a concerted effort to resist that urge and keep it simple.

I really wanted Salmon Run to be a game that non-gamers and gamers would enjoy playing.  It can be a tricky line to walk.  You have to keep it simple and engaging enough that non-gamers can grasp it, but have enough depth, tactics, and choices so that gamers will find it interesting.  I believe I have succeeded in this regard.  I remember demonstrating the game recently with a family of four at a convention.  It was pure joy for me to see a gamer mom, a gamer dad, a teenage son, and a preteen son all having a blast playing my game.

HG: This is a very difficult line to toe and it's one I foolishly take on for every game I design. My randomly determined turn order mechanic for Empire Reborn raises eyebrows from many core gamers, including you!

Did you have a difficult time finding a publishing partner for the game? Orcs and space marines are so typical that it's delightful to see a game about salmon making a...eh hem, splash.

JC: I feel very fortunate to have found a publisher as quickly as I did.  I submitted Salmon Run (then called Pond Farr) to two publishers, one of which was Gryphon.  Gryphon contacted me a few weeks later asking for a prototype.  They conducted their own testing and a few months later offered me a contract.  I believe the key was having a well-polished and tested game with some unique attributes both thematically and mechanically.  I have a feeling that the bizarre theme of salmon racing may have helped catch their attention!

The other important aspect was choosing a publisher that was a good fit for my game.  I looked hard at what type of games different publishers put out and who their target audiences were.  I made my pitch accordingly, emphasizing what set my game apart and why it would be a good fit for their company.  I am very pleased to have partnered with Gryphon.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JC: Foremost, I would like to thank you for a great interview and especially for all the playtesting and feedback you have given me.  It really was invaluable and helped immensely.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. This is a good game and people need to play it! 

JC: Secondly, the Kickstarter Campaign for Salmon Run starts on August 29th and is sponsored by Gryphon Games.  Please consider supporting my game.

Note: The game is available on Kickstarter now if you're interested. I dove right in, myself!