Interview with Nat Levan

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Interview by: Nat Levan and Grant Rodiek

I’m fascinated by weird and unique themes and historical takes on games. I’m also interested in how we can use uncomfortable topics as a teaching opportunity. Even better, an entertaining one. I asked Nat Levan at BGG if he’d be interested in an interview. Avast! He was!

Nat Levan is the designer of New Bedford, which is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.

My questions will be prefaced by Hyperbole Games (HG), with Nat’s responses as Nat Levan (NL).

Hyperbole Games: Hi Nat! Introduce yourself. Who are you and what should we know about you? What’s a good northeastern greeting for us west coast types to latch onto?

Nat Levan: I’m Nat Levan. I’ve been into board games for about 4 years. I started designing about 2 and a half years ago. I work as a structural engineer by day, so I fit one of those game designer stereotypes. I live in the Philadelphia Suburbs. Is that Northeastern to the rest of the country?

HG: East of the Mississippi, so…yes! You’re here, obviously, to discuss New Bedford. This is your midweight euro published by Dice Hate Me Games. Give us the high level rundown.

NL: New Bedford is my first complete game design. It’s set in the mid-19th century at the height, and center of the historic whaling industry. The base mechanic is worker placement, but the initial pool of actions in the town is small. Players develop the town by adding buildings with more powerful actions, so the town actually grows as time passes. The new actions become available to everyone, at a slight cost.

You can also launch ships to go whaling, sending them out into the ocean to slowly collect whales each round via a draft. But as the game progresses the whale population declines, and you’ll encounter more and more empty sea. Eventually the ships return, and you need to make enough money before then to pay the sailors a share of the profits. You need to balance building, earning money, and whaling to win.

HG: What is the coolest part of New Bedford?

NL: Well, first, the whaling is the part I’m most proud of. It’s actually been almost untouched since the very beginning. I love the subtlety of deciding when to whale. If you go too early, other players can launch later and have better choice in the draft. To late and you won’t have time to collect enough whales. Drawing whale tokens naturally reflects the effects of over-harvesting, and becomes a big element in later rounds.

For me, the coolest part is seeing how the buildings all work together to support the town. You’re building up the entire industrial base. Developing all these buildings that work together, and making sure they are not only tempting to build and appropriately expensive for their value, but also thematically appropriate has been a long but fun journey.

HG: What are some of your favorite euros or like games? What inspired New Bedford? What were your goals?

NL: I’m so glad you asked the question like that. I found Agricola and Puerto Rico pretty early in my gaming history. I still really admire them, but don’t get much opportunity to play. I took what I really liked about them as inspiration for New Bedford, with the goal of making something I would play all the time. Both games have lots of replayability, but can take a while to set up and play, so I made New Bedford easier to pull out of the box. It also plays a bit faster.

I liked the more direct interaction from Agricola, but I didn’t like how limiting it felt for someone to block the space you need, so in New Bedford, you always have access to the basic actions. I liked how combinations of unique buildings help guide your strategy in both games but didn’t like how exclusive building felt, so buildings become available to everyone while rewarding the builder.

HG: Let’s move past New Bedford for a second: do you have a favorite theme? Or mechanic? What’s your ideal game to play?

NL: I don’t have a specific theme, but I seem to find myself drawn to themes of industrialization and growth. Especially the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. I love being able to grow something small into something productive, so it should be no surprise that engine-building is my favorite mechanic. I like worker placement because it gives you that freedom of choice while tying your personal actions directly to actions within the theme.

HG: What drew you to the story of New Bedford (the town)? I’m intrigued by the premise of a town that used to be enormous and booming and is now a quaint portion of what it used to be. I imagine people never thought it would dwindle in the past.

NL: Well, Moby Dick is one piece of it. It’s a fascinating, incredibly important but largely ignored piece of American and world history. New Bedford’s story fits in perfectly with the industrialization I was just talking about. As late as the 1830s, New Bedford was still this fairly small and unimportant town, but in less than 20 years, it became, without exaggeration, one of the most important cities in the world. Then, in the same period of time, the industry fell apart due to over-harvesting of whales, the discovery of oil and invention of Kerosene, and unfortunate luck. People sort of forget that it was ever so important. The story would feel at home in ancient legend or fantasy, but it’s well documented history.

HG: I think games should teach and being up topics of history. I love Combat Commander, and I’m so excited to see the discussions Freedom have brought forth. I especially love the game documentary Dune. What is New Bedford teaching us? It’s about whales, so why does that matter?

NL: Some of the response to New Bedford has been negative due to the inclusion of whaling, which we expected. But the act of whaling isn’t depicted in the game at all. It deals with the industry on a higher level, and the historical impact. It’s interesting to see how the town grew to support the whaling industry. But what I really wanted to show, from the very inception, was how the industry grew too big without considering the effects of whaling, many of the whale species on which the industry depended almost disappeared. What makes whaling so insidious is that it the participants didn’t want the whales to disappear, but they couldn’t figure out any other options. The history and environmental lessons are one and the same.

HG: What else do you have in the works?

NL: Right now, I’m working a handful of small designs, because it’s a lot easier to playtest them. I don’t have anything in the pipe officially, but I’ll have a pile of games to take to UNPUB 5 in February in Baltimore. The most complete are a trick taking game about tailoring suits, and a 15 minute wonder building game that fits in a small bag. I’ve also got a couple of micro-games based on New Bedford and Brew Crafters (also from Dice Hate Me Games) that I’d like to show off for fun.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

NL: The last thing I want to say is that I feel really lucky with New Bedford. The response has just been overwhelming. I’m excited about the extras we have planned for the game, so I really hope we get the opportunity to put them in.

And a big thank you to my wife for putting up with all my traveling and talking about the game for the past few months. She loves games, despite the fact that I’ve been a pain to deal with. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about New Bedford!

New Bedford is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter

Josh and I Discuss Collaboration in Design

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Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Introduction

Josh and I have been working on Wozzle collaboratively for months. We’re so pleased with this initial experience we have even begun working on other designs (yes, plural). Josh lives in Seattle, WA, and I live in San Francisco, CA, so we had to figure out how to design together over distance. Thankfully, it’s easier than dating over distance.

We wanted to write about our experiences with collaborative design, our relationship, tools, and processes as we thought it would be interesting for other designers.

Vision.

Grant: I’m surprised we’ve never had a conflict of vision. That always seems to be the death of any design partnership. Perhaps it has to do with our origin story? Josh came in as an enthusiastic developer and before too long it was clear we were partners. I guess he just knew, “signing up,” what the game was and he agreed with that?

Josh: It helps a lot that it started a solo design. From the beginning, I think the vision for the game was pretty clear, and it hasn’t strayed from that original vision much. The mechanics have changed a lot, but it’s still recognizable as the same basic game. It also helps that I’ve been the developer on several designs in the past, and have tried to find ways to work with other designers. What got me into the project was the essential appeal of the core idea, and since I’ve been happy with that idea, it’s made it easy to stick to improving the game.

I think it also helps that we’re both apt to use persuasion as our primary tool in interactions. At no point have either of us ever tried to resort to any kind of coercion to get our way. The dynamic is one of trying to convince the other that something is a good idea, which is a good intellectual exercise and keeps conflict to a minimum.

Grant: Yeah, the persuasion note is a good point. It ultimately feels like we’re pitching to each other. Which I think is good, because if it makes it past that first hurdle, and not all ideas do, it must be at least somewhat better. Right? Right?

Josh has done a lot of professional development work with GMT Games and that can’t be overlooked. And, it should be noted, on way bigger games. I remember when Josh first started helping me on Brigade’s rules and I thought he had an evil knack for finding every problem in a rules document.

Let’s talk about our communication methods.

Grant: Fundamentally, our relationship exists in 3 places: through comments in our Rules and brainstorm documents, using Google Drive, through Gmail conversations, and via Google Talk instant messenger. We’ve been very dedicated to having up to date, central documentation. Our rules are always current. I think that helps keep us rooted so we always know what we’re discussing.

Josh: I think working in technology, like we both do, really helps us out here. We’re both comfortable with these sorts of digital tools and have no trouble with a conversation distributed across several channels like this. Having it all be available and searchable at all times of course is really important.

A useful working habit here as well is that we’ve gotten pretty good about responses in a timely fashion. Not necessarily instantly, if we have stuff going on, but most documents, changes, suggestions, and other pieces of correspondence usually get a look within a day or so. That keeps thoughts fairly fresh and keeps the number of confusing “didn’t we already discuss that” conversations to a minimum.

Grant: Come to think of it, this is a reason some of my past tries with collaboration have failed. We have a similar work schedule and ability to spend time on the project. It doesn’t help if one person works on it daily and the other only has time to do it weekly.

We also both work as managers with teams ranging from 5 to hundreds of people. I can’t help but think that’s made us generally good at written communication. It’s important to be precise and concise when using written things to discuss design or anything really.

Josh: Essentially, forcing ourselves to have all of our thoughts written down between each other has made the translation into actual user-facing rules a much easier transition. No video chats! We’re working in what is essentially a written medium, so writing should be more than enough for our collaboration as well. I only know what Grant sounds like because of his gameplay videos. He hasn’t the foggiest what I sound like (but will at some point).

Grant: I enjoy the mystery.

One thing I think has helped us a great deal is our weekend schedules. Josh is never around his computer on the weekends. He is out and about with the kids, etc. I’m sometimes glued to my computer, other times also bumbling about with my dog. I think we’ve done some of our most creative work over these weekends. I remember the weekend we switched to the new deck format and came up with Arcana we had a 90+ email thread. Just short quips and notes back and forth from our smart phones.

I’m not sure if it’s exactly something others could engineer, but I think having that “away time” to think in brief has been very useful for us.

Josh: Yeah, I spent most of that weekend at a BBQ or at the park, watching my kids run around, typing stuff on my phone. I can’t really emphasize enough how important being able to usefully contribute on my phone is. It really does help that you’re able to translate some of my more scattered thoughts into a more permanent document on these sorts of occasions.

Grant: Some of our best brainstorms have been triggered by quick throwaway notes. Just a short sentence with the base question. That “fire and forget” lets the other person do a little imagination their end and, as you discuss it, you meet somewhere in the middle.

Josh: We should show the email where I started floating the idea of a tarot-inspired special suit. Looking at it, it’s downright incoherent, but it got the wheels spinning, so it did the job.

Grant: I remember it made zero sense, but Josh was really into it. I think I asked in 2 or 3 replies, “Okay, but what are you talking about?” We’ve gotten better at prefacing nutty ideas with “this is nuts” or “Just tossing this out,” and also setting up for things that actually matter. I knew Josh was trying to get to something important with the Tarot, and he was.

One thing I think has been both a challenge and a sign of our maturity is that there are times when one of us has a really stupid idea, but within that is a kernel of genius. Upon reading it, the first instinct is “no this is dumb.” But, in most cases, we’ve said: “go on, explain what you’re talking about.”

Letting the other person get the idea off their chest and past the knee-jerk has led to great stuff. It’s hard to do but you really have to actually discuss every idea until it’s clear it’s awful or good. It has to have time to breathe.

Granted, there was this one idea Josh had that I just did not like. I couldn’t get over it. I can’t even remember what it was specifically, but I compared it to Fluxx and felt really terrible afterwards. It was a dire insult.

Josh: Yeah, that one hurt. I’m still smarting. It was some spell idea way back that involved some crazy rearrangement of the table. Maybe some endgame condition.

Oh! It was my idea for a “0” Arcana card. I think it allowed an upgrade on your hand. Some half-baked thing.

Grant: Funny enough, we actually have the upgrade card IN the game, just not with the 0. So I guess we both did a Fluxx-ish thing?

Josh: If one goes back far enough, they’ll find me beating the drum for that idea a long, long time ago. Grant rightly resisted it in a bunch of its more lame iterations until it finally found fruit. Again, a sign that there are very few ideas that are so bad as to be worthless.

But at any rate, there has to be a lack of fear in any kind of creative collaboration. When I’ve had one of my brainwaves, the reaction cannot be “that’s stupid, you’re stupid, and you should feel bad” even if that might be the truth. Some of those ideas really have been rotten to the core, but a number of them have led to a useful conversation and some nice features. Even ideas where one of says “I know this is crazy…” are still worth having. A certain unfiltered brainstorming feel should be maintained at all times.

I’m not sure how often it’s happened on Grant’s end, but there have been very, very few things where I’ve just been totally repelled by an idea out of the gate. I might think one was kind of daft, but it doesn’t hurt to talk about those.

Grant: Well, a good thing in design, solo or otherwise, is to ultimately think about the end result. Sure, the method to achieve it might be silly. But, if the end result behind it is solid and it improves the experience? Well, then you have a great talking point. If you know where you’re going, you can identify the right steps to get there.

With Arcana for example, Josh said that it would be cool to have special cards, based on Tarot, that let players do neat things from their hand. That seemed like a good idea to add a significant element to the game. Now, it was a bit far out in that it added a lot of complexity to the game, but it was the right complexity and we had to discuss it.

I think the right way to go about it, which we more or less do, is say:

  • Here is the high level idea
  • Here is the problem it’s trying to solve or the opportunity we can take advantage of
  • This is how it fits

It’s then on your design partner to seek understanding first, before anything, THEN begin to discuss, evolve, and debate. Always make sure you critique from a standpoint of understanding. A phrase I’ve used often is: “can you elaborate further.”

Josh: That’s probably because I have more of a habit of dashing off a half-formed thought and then filling it in later.

There have been a few explorations that led nowhere, and most of those have been because they didn’t really fulfill a mission. It was experimentation for the sake of it, but it didn’t really serve a goal for the design, so it led nowhere. I’m thinking here particularly about some of the thinking about scoring systems, although that might still turn into some interesting variants.

Grant: I think we can provide cool variants for Wozzle for years.

Josh: That Arcana path came from a thought experiment, which has been a handy tool during the project. Essentially, we imagined what it would look like to pitch the game to a few publishers, and what they might think about the project and what we’d have to change. The end result isn’t necessarily where we thought it would have gone, but Grant proposed the idea of thinking about it and it spawned a useful discussion.

Source Control.

Grant: I think source control is really important. Having one person who actually makes the changes seems to have helped us keep things straight. In our current setup for Wozzle, I actually update the documents, Josh comments. However, on our other projects, there are some things Josh has the “lead” on and others where I have the “lead.” Basically, it keeps things sane and prevents them from getting out of control. You don’t want to have to worry about the “right” version or what you both agreed upon.

Josh: I’ve been a little surprised at how un-restricted that setup has felt. At first, I was itching to just make some of the changes directly to the rules document, figuring that would be more efficient. But it’s just not, at least for a game of this size. Putting my proposed changes in comments allows us to have a discussion (if one is warranted) or at least lets Grant see those changes before they go in. It means he doesn’t have to worry about looking at a diff to see what has changed between two revisions of the rules.

One area that I wish we had a better tool on is around cards. Currently, I have to just send my comments on card wording in an email. That works, but it’s out of context, and it’s not as easy for me to do quick reviews of that text.

Grant: The card stuff IS a bit slow. I don’t mind doing the card work and it’s very quick for me now. But, you don’t have an easy way to comment and it really helps seeing it on the card. I wish Google Drive had a graphics program that actually let you make stuff you can use. As it stands now, Drawing is basically good for mock-ups and not much else.

Josh: Even just annotated screen shots might help. Actually, maybe I should try Skitch?

Grant: That looks nice. I’d be fine with that. You could theoretically take the PDF and just write over it, yeah?

Josh: I think so, yes. I’ll give it a try as we work on new Arcana suits.

Another area where things have worked out well is bringing some disciplines from our day jobs back into the project. I’ve worked on a simple simulator for us to use to evaluate changes, while Grant has been doing much of the project management. That division of responsibilities has worked well here.

Grant: That simulator has been fascinating and so useful. It’s helped us do some quick, gut check simulation (or hundreds of thousands of simulations) on probabilities. It really helped identify the Crossways, which we may have tossed out without data to back us up.

In my day job I’m a producer on a very large team. My job often consists of tracking items in spreadsheets, talking to developers about issues, sending emails, hosting meetings. Doing projects like this lets me use those skills, but in some ways it gives me a chance to do things like I wish I could at work.

Windmills.

Grant: Something we’ve taken turns on lately is asking really tough, vague questions of the project. Asking how we can go to the next level, typically when we’ve just hit a nice smooth point after solving the previous problem. I’m curious how you feel about some of these when you get an email from me that says something like, “how can we make Wozzle more like a game Gamewright would publish?”

Josh: Those have been great. I think it’s easy to get complacent in a design. You’ve played it a bunch, your friends all seem to enjoy it, folks who are friendly to you are encouraging, and you start thinking that it’s pretty locked up. Having another designer there to ask questions, to keep the team restless, has been handy.

I think we could have stopped a month and a half ago and had a game that people would have enjoyed. It would have been a perfectly good, solid game. If it was just one of us alone on the project, it might very well have stopped at that point. But the continual questions have kept us honest, kept us focused on which are the worst parts of the game at any moment. “What if?” has been a great start to many of these conversations.

Grant: I definitely hit that point working on York by myself. I distilled it to this one precise thing. But, it clearly wasn’t ready at that point. Without a partnership it would have lingered.

Josh: What about content? I feel like it’s been much, much easier to fill out our needed content in this project than other, similar projects. I’ve been struggling on some of my solo projects to generate everything, but that hasn’t been much of an issue here.

Grant: I feel like we were born for the content here. I’m an action card fiend. Farmageddon has actions, York has Tactics, Sol Rising has 55 Unique ships. As a designer I’m obsessed with them.  This was just sorta my deal. And you are a poker expert and dear god have 3000 games. You know every poker variant and then some. I just think we have the skills needed to think of ways to manipulate cards.

Perhaps it’s also just the simplicity of the premise? Wozzle doesn’t really have much theme. If you’re making a card for your dungeon crawler it has to be rooted to the experience mechanically and thematically. For Wozzle, our only gate is answering the questions:

  1. Is this fun?
  2. Does it fit our game?

Josh: It did feel like, at times, we’d sort of reached the limits of design space for spells. I sometimes thought that there were only so many ways you could manipulate the cards within our rules set, and that we’d more or reached the limit of the good ideas. I was wrong, happily, as we were able to break into some new ground in a couple different ways by manipulating the costs of things.

But that’s again an area that I might not have broken into on my own. I might have seen the diminishing returns on spells and thought that the space was pretty much used up.

Grant: We go in cycles, for sure. I think we use a key term, exhaust it, then move on like barbarians to the next idea. We used to never do stuff with discard, now it’s here and there. We fully explored show, interaction, theft. I definitely think it helped, whether we intended to or not, to explore each one in a focused manner. But, yeah, I’m surprised we kept coming up with ideas. I remember after we cut spell 4 or 5 (now on 23+) thinking how I hoped we didn’t have to come up with too many more.

Graphics and Key Terms

Grant: The other thing that helped is we established a graphic design early. We knew we wanted big, chubby text and we worked really hard to identify key terms. That gave us not only a language to use between ourselves, but helped us frame the box, so to speak, on card content. That was a place you really helped, identifying key terms and forcing us to use them better.

Perhaps that’s another good bullet: identify key terms and a language for your project. It’ll frame the discussion.

Josh: It’s such a programmer thing. I think of a game term as nothing more than a macro, a subroutine. The game says “Add”, but in reality that expands into an entire sentence. My day job has me thinking in those terms all day long, where I can re-factor and pull things out, so it’s natural for me to extend that discipline in my hobbies. But it has been a solid area of collaboration, having a set of agreed upon terms and a sort of implicit working language. It’s made it possible for us to both think in Wozzle terms, which is useful.

Here’s another place where I think having two people on the design helps, which is that it gives a safety net. It’s unlikely that we’re going to accidentally screw up the design, because there’s another person there who understands things just as well. In order to drive off a cliff, we have to both not be paying attention

Grant: I think another benefit of remote collaborative design is that we have two core groups with whom to test. I have about 10 people that have played the game at last 5+ times each. But, my core group is different than yours. They have different tastes, preferences, and play styles. In a way, it’s like I’m blind testing for you and vice versa.

Josh: That’s a great point. I’ve got a core group of a half-dozen or so people that I’ve been gaming with on a weekly (or more!) basis for 18 years. These are folks that play huge, long games with me as well as a bunch of smaller games. It’s a pretty picky, analytical group, which is great for a lot of things but can sometimes get down in the weeds. Having another core group balance that out has been really handy.

Key Points to Summarize

  • Make sure you both agree to the goal of the design.
  • Take advantage of good software to work together. There’s no excuse.
  • Use careful source control so that changes don’t get lost in the mix-up.
  • Always discuss ideas from a point of understanding. Make sure you understand before you say “no.”
  • Challenge each other, to keep the design moving forward. Even if it seems stupid, ask “what if”
  • Create a glossary of terms to frame the discussion.

If you have specific questions we didn’t address, ask them below! We tried to pursue this topic conversationally, so at times we meander or jump from point to point. Apologies!

Interview with Jerry Hawthorne

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When I began working on Sol Rising, I knew I wanted to make a game with a strong narrative component, more randomness than York (my previous design), and a fun take on scenarios. One of my biggest inspirations is Mice & Mystics, designed by Jerry Hawthorne and published by Plaid Hat Games

I’m a big fan of the game, which you can see in my review of Mice & Mystics. When I found out Jerry was taking interviews for the new expansion, Downwood Tales, I immediately contacted him. Here is the result! 

My comments are preceded by HG, with Jerry’s preceded by JH.

Hyperbole Games: For those who don’t know who you are, give us a quick introduction. What makes you tick? What’s something we should know about you?

Jerry Hawthorne: My name is Jerry Hawthorne and I am 46 years old. I have a lovely wife and two awesome kids. I work full time as a busy hair stylist, but I also design board games in my spare time (if you can call it that) as a freelancer. My games are visual, very story focused, family-friendly, and usually involve a healthy amount of luck. That’s just how I roll.

HG: Around 2012 you released a little game called Mice & Mystics that was a huge hit for you and Plaid Hat Games. I finished the first book, Sorrows and Remembrance, earlier this year and it was just a delight. I played it with a friend on lazy Sundays. He’d send me a text and say “bring over Rat Zelda.”

Give us the super quick explanation of what Mice & Mystics is so we’re all on the same page.

JH: Sure. Mice & Mystics is a story that you can play like a game. During the game, you will be playing the role of a human that has been magically transformed into a mouse to escape a treacherous sorceress who has placed your King under a spell and usurped his throne.

Play revolves around completing chapters in a bedtime style story book. As you play, you will also read from the story book and discover the unfolding events which will affect your game. The game was designed to give players a unique experience, and has random elements that ensure no two sessions are the same.

HG: To toss in my perspective as a player to complement your note, in addition to all of that, the game is a light, scenario driven dungeon crawler. Scenarios feature unique, thematic experiences driven by the story and these moments are strung together with a dicey combat mechanic.

Heart of Glorm, the first expansion, came out last year. It’s a great, small box with a few characters and a few new chapters. I’ve heard Downwood Tales is WAY bigger. What can we expect for this new expansion?

Jakobe

Jakobe

JH: The new expansion really adds a lot to the game. You get three new characters: A gecko named Jackobe who is hired to guide your mice through the forest. Ansel, a pure hearted warden sworn to protect the forest creatures. And Ditty, a shrew scamp who strums her magical fiddle to help the party. There are new bad guys to fight and new devious bosses, including an arrogant aristocratic bullfrog and a predatory snake named Hesster

The story is somewhat more involved, with an even stronger emphasis being placed on campaign play. There are branching story arcs and many twists and surprises, but it continues the story of Collin and gang as they are strangers in this new land. The heroes bring courage and correctness to a forest filled with dangers and double crossers.

The box is stuffed with 8 new 2 sided outdoor tiles depicting the forest floor, the burrows and tunnels under the forest, and also the trees and branches where the mice will need to go to traverse the terrain challenges in their path. There are also a bunch of new figures, 60 new search cards, and about 30 new abilities.

HG: Can you comment further on the branching play, perhaps with a tiny example? This was something I sought to do with Sol Rising to try to address the comment that scenario games are only fun once. But, also, I wanted to give players a little agency over their story.

How did you tackle this challenge?

JH: It was very challenging because the story has to come around to the same place eventually. I’ll give an example: At the end of chapter 1, there are two possible outcomes. The story splits and there is a chapter 2a and 2b. There are also two possible outcomes for chapter 2a, one will have you playing 2b, the other allows you to advance to chapter 3.

Wow, that sounds more complicated than it is. Anyway, these were very difficult to write because the events have to feel as though they fit story wise. I think we accomplished it quite well.

HG: As a designer and player I love expansions. They are a great opportunity to explore new avenues. What was the number one thing you wanted to do with Downwood Tales?

JH: With Downwood Tales, I wanted to give the players a more epic story that would seamlessly continue the adventure. I wanted to provide more bad guys with challenging abilities. I also wanted to take cinematic game play to the next level.

In Downwood Tales your party might come to an impassable chasm in the forest. There could be a variety of options the players would need to discuss. Do you go around by exploring to another tile? Do you climb a nearby tree and use a leaf to float down to the other side? Or do you have a wild figure in your party who knows which vines might allow you to climb down into the chasm and continue in the tunnels known as the Underwood?

HG: I really like this opportunity for group discussion. It definitely has that “Lord of the Rings” element of “where do we go from here?” Could you give an example of the more challenging enemies? How did you up the challenge with the bad guys?

Fearie

Fearie

JH: Sure! We have frogs that leap around, newts that shoot flaming arrows, fearies that fly and they can curse you, bullfrogs who can zap you with their tongue, weasels that clobber you, and Hesster the snake who is this story’s equivalent of Brodie.

HG: I prefer cats to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones.

Hesster

Hesster

Expansions are also a great way to address rough spots or merely improve things that, in retrospect, you wanted to be better. Did you have any of those? Does Downwood Tales really improve something from the base game?

JH: I’m not a person who dwells too much on past failings or tries to use expansions as fixes. Mice & Mystics has resonated with its fans because it is an approachable game that really puts the story first. I wanted to give more of that stuff. The game is the same, the environment has changed for the mice. There are a lot of things to discover.

HG: How did you want to advance the story? Was there anything in particular you wanted to accomplish?

JH: I wanted to tell a story about growing up, rising to your expectations, the weight and responsibility of authority. These are very much a topic in my household, but can be applied to global events as well. As always, the story is light and filled with the same silly humor that you come to expect from jokers like Nez and Filch. But there are tender moments and contemplative moments as well.

HG: I’m trying to estimate the percentage of tenderness that came from Lord Bistro…

You have some really clever story and mechanical moments in Sorrows and Remembrance. I loved gambling with the rats and trying to keep Vurst on my side as we went through the sewers was really neat. Do you have any really cool set pieces in Downwood Tales?

JH: Yeah, this is just something you all can expect from Mice & Mystics. Each chapter will have a completely new and different set of challenges, and not all of them will involve fighting. There is an entire stealth chapter that the playtesters were raving about. There is a “Last of the Mohicans” style ambush chapter that is a lot of fun, and even a race down a babbling brook on boats made from fallen leaves.

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HG: I like the idea of the ambush. It’s such a unique element to warfare games often miss. It’s usually just a straightforward fight. Finding ways to spice up every battle is really appreciated.

Different games need different testers. For something like Summoner Wars you want someone like James Sitz who is incredibly analytical and competitive. Mice & Mystics is such an experience though, if that makes sense. Yes, balance is important so it isn’t too easy or difficult, but I feel like you’re testing its soul more than its stats. Have you found it difficult to test the game and find the right people?

JH: For Downwood Tales, I gathered a small group who I call my ‘creative core.’ These guys helped me ensure that the chapters had the same compelling quality as the base game and that they offered a play experience that was cinematic and charming. The second playtest phase involved a huge group of volunteers who put in about 500 tests. This helps balance the challenge level. Some chapters may be harder than others (that’s just the nature of designing around a story), but none of them are unfairly tough.

HG: I spent the past year working on a story-driven tactical game, which was greatly inspired by your work on Mice & Mystics. Working on the narrative in a way that made sense and paired with the game was really difficult. What is something you’ve learned working on Mice & Mystics about story-driven games? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JH: Well, I’m glad you see how tough it is. I really have to say that it was an exhausting, grey hair inducing roller coaster. But I have gotten better at it. The trick is to portion out your story beforehand in equal chunks (chapters) that each rise and fall like an independent story within a story.

As an example, the first chapter of Downwood Tales has the mice traveling from Barksburg to a town called Headfall Hollow, that is located deep in the Downwood. This is rather easy. The story starts at Barksburg and ends at Headfall Hollow. What happens in-between gets filled in like using crayons to color the stuff between the black lines of a picture in a coloring book.

HG: I agree to this approach. With Sol Rising I created mini-arcs of about 3 missions apiece that contributed to the entire story. Thinking about the big points was not too difficult, but coloring in the spaces? Not so easy.

What are some of your favorite games to play? How, if at all, did they inspire you?

JH: Everyone knows I love Heroquest, and that Mice & Mystics was heavily inspired by it. Heroscape also holds a prominent portion of my heart.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to play the finalized version of Dead of Winter. I can’t wait to play it again. It is a game that offers an experience so incredibly close to its aim, that I can’t imagine anybody ever getting tired of it. It perfectly creates the same emotional response from players as you’d expect from a real desperate group survival scenario. Every choice seems so important… It’s blissfully agonizing.

HG: I played an earlier version of Dead of Winter when Colby and Isaac visited San Francisco. Pretty entertaining! The pre-order is still available, actually.

This just occurred to me writing the questions, but would you ever want to create another experience within the Mice & Mystics universe? For example, managing the mouse city and the goings on, or playing the game from the perspective of the bad guys. Would that even appeal to you? Have you thought of something like this?

JH: I’m actually currently working on another game in the Mice & Mystics world. I can’t talk about it yet, but I am very interested in exploring the potential of the Mice & Mystics world.

HG: Excellent! Some of your first design projects were on Heroscape. Mice & Mystics has a similar heft – simple combat, clean abilities, simple movement. What are some of the most important things you learned working on Heroscape?

JH: I learned that theme can be supported with simple game mechanics. As an example, Jackobe the gecko in Downwood Tales uses a boomerang. To convey the odd way that boomerangs work, I wrote an ability for it that allows it to curve around and hit an enemy from behind should he miss with the initial throw.

Simple but thematic, and that is exactly how Heroscape is.

HG: Are you able to comment on when we can expect to purchase, approximately, Downwood Tales?

JH: I don’t have that info yet, but I should have a better guess in a few days.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JH: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A. Also, thank you for your fantastic blog. I really enjoy reading your thoughts on game design. I find myself needing these perspectives from others who enjoy the thematic game sub-genre as much as I do. Most blogs on game design are directed at the more structured nuts and bolts stuff that I find so dry.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

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. 

Interview with Maverick Muse

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oddball Aeronauts by Maverick Muse is on Kickstarter now. This clever 2 player game requires no surface to play, has gorgeous art, and has been in development for 2+ years. I really wanted to ask some questions of the lads who made this thing possible. 

My questions will be preceded by HG, with their responses as MM.

Hyperbole Games: Nigel — Welcome to Hyperbole Games!

Maverick Muse: Thanks Grant and thanks for this opportunity.

HG: Tell me about yourself, your brother, and Maverick Muse.

MM: Maverick Muse is actually 3 people. Myself – primarily game design, my brother Ash – primarily artist, and Debs our Creative Director. Between us we do everything including website design, fulfillment, administration, branding, legalities, accounts, customer service. Everything. I haven’t worked out yet whether we’re gluttons for punishment, stupid, or inspired? But we have a lot of fun with all of it.

Obviously, Ash and I grew up together and we’ve played and designed games together, as well as created worlds for those games, for as long as we can remember. As the game designer and artist you really get to see what we do – it’s right there in your face.

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Debs, my wife, grew up playing lots of traditional card and board games, but she’s really embraced modern games. As Creative Director, she’s our designer and graphic designer. She looks after the brand which means she’s had a major input into the look and feel of the world, the game, the company and, well, everything. Her contribution isn’t always so obvious as Ash’s and mine but no less impactful for that. We work really well as a team and without each of our contributions, oddball Aeronauts wouldn’t have been half the game it is. So it would have only been 23 cards . . . hehe!

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HG: Your first game, oddball Aeronauts, is currently funded (past its goal!) on Kickstarter. The most important question on all of our minds, firstly, is: Why don’t you capitalize the “o” in oddball?

MM: Because keeping it lowercase is in keeping with the world itself. It’s oddball. It’s a bit maverick. Simple as! It’s one of those branding thingys!

HG: Now that that’s out of the way, tell us about the game?

Right – oddball Aeronauts is a light strategy, play in the hand, no surface required, card game of dirigible dog fights in an oddball fantasy, steampunk-esque world for 2 players, ages 9 and beyond. A game takes about 15 to 20 minutes to play, but don’t be fooled into thinking there’s no depth to the game. A lot of reviewers and gamers have been happily surprised on this score.

Yep, you can say all of that in one breath! Test it for validity!

HG: Many Kickstarter games get the reputation for being under developed. I was really impressed by the fact that oddball has been in development for over 2 years. Walk us through your process. What was your inspiration for the game?

MM: I don’t think we do anything too different to other designers. The idea first, work out some rules, create a very rough prototype, play it a bit in house, fix any broken rules and smooth out the rough points as much as you can, then take it to beta testing and through blind beta tests polish the game off. As simple as that really. I know I can say that to you jokingly as it’s never that simple in practice but maybe one day, for one of our projects, it will be!

In all honesty, I don’t know how any small or start up publisher can bring a game to market in less than 2 years. They’re obviously doing something we’re not and I’d sincerely like to know how they do it. It’s the number of beta tests which are absolutely needed that takes the time. There’s a lot of back and forth in that period. Once we’re more established we’ll be able to get a lot of beta testing going at the same time, and so reduce the time it takes to thoroughly test games but until then its a slow-ish process. If you want to create a good game you can’t skimp on the beta tests unless you’re very lucky.

When it came to oddball Aeronauts, I grew up playing Top Trumps as a kid. It’s an incredibly simple game and really only suitable for very young gamers. I used to play it in the school yard a lot. Then a few years ago I stopped doing that and I thought it would be great if there was a game with more depth that kids could get into but with the same play in the hand, no-surface dynamic as Top Trumps. That was the impetus and when I nailed the core mechanic the gameplay slotted into place quite quickly. Then it really was a case of testing, testing, testing. Plus a bit of testing as well. Along with some testing that is.

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HG: What were some of the early problems you faced with the game? How did you solve them?

MM: The biggest issues have been around balancing the two factions. When you’ve got a primary and secondary stat on each card – the Skill Level and Skill Bonus – and one of those stats comes into play twice as often as the other, it makes it a bit trickier. We had to look at all 24 cards of a single faction as a whole and ensure that in their entirety these 24 cards balanced out with the other faction’s 24 cards. Solving it was a case of 1 part maths and a lot more parts trial, error and testing. We’re back to that testing thing again.

HG: What would you say are the top things that make oddball Aeronauts a must-own game? Who would love it?

MM: oddball Aeronauts is an incredibly portable game and can, literally be played anywhere two people can get together. It’s a fact. I’ve even seen someone play it on a ski lift. And up a tree. It’s the start of ‘extreme oddball Aeronauts‘!

So it’s an ideal travel game and great for “killing time” – say in a convention queue. Also, its so quick to play that you can play it in between long games or, with some of the games out there, while you are waiting for your turn to come around. You can also easily pause a game of oddball Aeronauts and come back to it later – simply put your deck away mid-game and get it out again later – it’s easy to carry on from where you left off.

As for ‘who would love it?’ Tough question. We know it goes over really well with kids and its great for parents to play with their kids as the game has enough depth to keep us oldies interested. So, we’re thinking anyone!

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HG: When did you decide to publish oddball yourself instead of using the traditional method of finding a publisher?

MM: Right from the start. As a studio we’re more than just the game design. We really enjoy creating worlds for our games and so with an artist, game designer, graphic designer, writers and world ‘builders’ between the three of us, we decided from the outset to publish our own games.

What’s fascinating is that we’ve found the game adding elements to the world and the world adding to the game. It’s an interesting experience. For example, we’ve been working on the ‘of Shot & Blade’ adventure game and from a game perspective have a number of skills that are used to overcome threats and obstacles – think scouting or sneaking – and so worked out all the different combinations of those skills. Then we look at the world and see if there is an obstacle or threat that would match the different skill combinations. Let’s say you’ve got scouting and sneaking as your combination and the obstacle is an enemy patrol – you can get by the patrol by either scouting a route, or sneaking by. For some skill combinations there just wasn’t an obvious world threat or obstacle to use so we had to get imaginative and create one. The result, we hope, is a game that fully complements the world and vice versa.

HG: You are both designers and artists, correct? Tell us about your art background.

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MM: I used to draw reasonably well when I was younger but never pursued it. Debs is an artist herself and uses that skill with the graphic design and so on. Ash is the illustrator and is mainly self-taught. He’s become as good as he is through hard work and a lot of practice plus innate talent.

I like to think game design is part art and part craft. Then I can say I’m an artist and use that to excuse my eccentricities and oddballnesseses.

HG: How did you pick the theme for oddball Aeronauts? The art is outstanding. It’s an 18th century steampunk style thing with animals. It’s really fantastic.

MM: Thanks. Ash has done a great job of visualizing all our oddball Realms ideas. And Debs steered it in the direction of steampunk. I just sat back with my feet up and cracked the whip!

The world of the oddball Realms came first. We all had a hand in creating that and still do. We wanted to have a setting that would have as broad an age range appeal as possible and so using anthropomorphic characters was ideal. Then we fleshed the world out (to a point) and established its look and feel. So the world building came first. We’ve got several ‘worlds’ created specifically for backdrops to our games.

So when the game design for oddball Aeronauts came to me, we looked at what would best suit it. We wanted this game to have a broad appeal as possible and so the oddball Realms was the ideal world fit. And as any reasonable person would do, we decided on the specific theme of duelling dirigibles. I mean, who wouldn’t?

HG: What did you learn through iteration with the art? What were some of the challenges you faced?

MM: We’ve got a big advantage in that we have both an artist and graphic designer as part of the company. This means we can all work very closely together to ensure all aspects fit. The challenge was working out how to produce the art in such a way that all three of us were happy with the results. Over the course of this project we’ve learnt to take the art in steps just like you do with game design. We start by going over a concept – or concepts – Ash then starts with concept sketches and runs these by myself and Debs. We then tweak the look and firm up the sketch before moving on to line work and finally colour with input from Debs and me at each point. We’ve streamlined this process along the way and the results speak for themselves.

Another great advantage we have with an in-house artist is the ability to tweak and adjust at any point. For example, during the Kickstarter, one of our backers had the idea to put a monocle onto one of the bots. We thought this was really cool and relatively quick for Ash to add the monocle in, so in it went! We’ve really enjoyed this kind of interaction with our backers and want to keep going with this after the Kickstarter when we start work on the expansions. So you can expect monocles on everything!

HG: What are some of your favorite games to play? Did they influence oddball in any way?

MM: We definitely prefer games that can be learnt easily. That’s a primary factor as we don’t have a lot of time to game. And we play the same games a lot before getting new ones. Recently we’ve been playing a lot of older games – Ghost Stories, Elder Sign, Blood Bowl Team Manager, Escape: Curse of the Temple and The Hobbit. None of them directly influenced oddball but you’ll see some key elements in common – player choices, random elements, easy to learn, different characters or factions, special abilities, variety and replayability. We definitely aim to include all of these elements in our games.

HG: What are your plans for oddball, aside from the obvious of publication? Is this a game that’ll work with more players? More complex deckbuilding? Peel back the curtain and tell us how the sausage will be made, if you don’t mind.

MM: Well, we’ve tested out a 3 player version and some of our backers are currently testing 4 players. In fact, one of them came back with a great suggestion that we need to fully test that I’m excited about. So, oddball Aeronauts does work with 3 or more players but we’ll always market it as a 2 player game with rules available for 3 or 4 players. The main reason for this is that you’ll need 2 sets to play 3 or 4 players and we have no plans on creating a version with 3 or 4 factions in the one box.

As to the future, we have 6 factions already worked out that need to get beta tested fully. These will be the first couple of expansions. We’ve also been playing around with Upgrade and Damage cards. Basically, the concept is that if you’ve got an oddball Aeronauts session going, after each game in that one session you play you select one Upgrade Card of your choice and add it to your deck. However, you also randomly pick one Damage card that you also add to your deck. There will also be Trophy cards to represent the winning of a game. It’s just a little thing but your deck changes over the time of the session which is fun – a ‘flash’ campaign almost.

And we’ve got ideas for giant dirigibles. These would be twice the size of regular dirigibles and so the 24 cards representing them would have higher stats and so on. You could play giant dirigible vs. giant dirigible or you could have 2 players with regular dirigibles go up against 1 player with a giant dirigible – 2 versus 1.

As you can see we’ve got a few ideas we’re working on and it’s possible that not all of them will work out. When it comes to more complex deck building I’ve been thinking about deck ‘rigging’ where players can decide the exact order their faction cards are in at the start of the game – so there’s no shuffling. This is literally just an idea as I haven’t even tried it out myself. The question is what to do with the Event cards? Maybe still pick 2 randomly but, again, you can put them anywhere you like in your deck? If someone out there wants to give it a go and let me know the results that would be great.

HG: Do you have any other games you’re working on? I remember you had a few when you contributed to my community preview article. I’d love to know what else is coming from you guys.

MM: Yes we’ve got quite a few games lined up in various stages of design. Some are just pure concepts whereas others are on the verge of going to beta testing.

We’ve got another 3, play in your hand, surfaceless card games. These all use the same core mechanic that’s in oddball Aeronauts but do provide different experiences in different worlds to the oddball Realms.

Then there’s the oddball adventure game where up to 6 players split into 2 teams of up to 3 players in each. Each team then takes on roles of officers and crew of an airship and the two teams race across the oddball skies from air island to air island in search of fortune and glory. It’s a modular board game that allows for many different adventurous scenarios and a lot of variety. I don’t think I’ve seen a game like it and that’s why we’re creating it. We’ve got a similar game to this called ‘of Shot & Blade‘ but set in our own fantasy world of Edath.

Those are ones that are closest to beta testing.

We’ve also had a request to produce an RPG in the oddball Realms and I think role-playing in the oddball Realms would be a lot of fun. Ash and I were RPGers before we were board gamers. I’ve got ideas on how to make it a bit different to other RPGs…but our focus right now is on our board and card games. If there’s enough demand though…

HG: Where do you see Maverick Muse headed as a company? Focused on your own games? Do you see yourselves taking submissions? What do you think defines a Maverick Muse title?

MM: We’re definitely focusing on our own games and the worlds they’re set in. We’ve started discussing the idea of taking submissions but haven’t decided on a policy as yet. If we did take submissions then those games would have to fit into our studio criteria and that leads nicely into your last question about what defines a Maverick Muse title.

Our worlds are designed to be adventured in and so our games are designed around the fundamental themes of adventure and action plus we aim to instill story and narrative into them. If our games can get players groaning, fist pumping, moaning, cursing, laughing and celebrating then I think we would be very happy.

HG: Anything you’d like to add?

MM: 3 + 3 ?

I just wanted to thank you for this opportunity and say that I’ve been following your blog for a while – your posts on game design are always interesting and get me thinking. So thanks for that as well.

I want to thank the folks at Maverick Muse for helping me with this interview. If you’re interested in oddball Aeronauts, it’s on Kickstarter (already funded) for another week!

Interview with Danny Devine

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Danny Devine is a great guy and a really smart designer. I had the pleasure of meeting him in person in the Summer of 2013 and again at an UnPub event in Sacramento. He’s got a great sense of humor and a great design sense. I have played his game Ghosts Love Candy and loved it. When I found out Mob Town was coming out on Kickstarter, I knew I had to interview him.

Hyperbole Games: I’m looking up my police file on you. Danny Devine of Reno. Introduce yourself — who are you? What should we know about you?

Danny Devine: Well, my name is Danny Devine…and I’m from Reno NV… (dang it Grant! You stole my well crafted intro!)

I am happily married to my beautiful wife Rachael, we have a rambunctious 2 year son and a dachshund that is somehow more rambunctious than he is. When I’m not working at my day job or chasing the family around the house, you can usually find me at the kitchen table with a new game prototype or in my office working on some art for said prototype.

Hyperbole Games: Your first published game, Mob Town, is now live on Kickstarter for funding. Your publisher is 5th Street Games, the kind soul who saw fit to publish Farmageddon. Tell us about Mob Town. 

Danny Devine:  Good ol’ 5th Street Phil, he sure knows how to pick ‘em.

Mob Town is a 2-4 player area control game that features secret agendas, set collection and a little dash of take that. Every round starts by building out a randomly generated town that is different every time you play. Players play as rival Mob families competing over limited space in order to earn the most points before the Law shows up and ends the round. The game takes between 30-45 minutes to play making it a great game to play during lunch, which is when I usually play.

Hyperbole Games: What is the origin of Mob Town? How did it come about? 

Danny Devine:  The very first thing was the core set collection mechanic. The main deck has 5 suits each of those suits is helpful at taking control of exactly 2 types of the 5 different areas you can control. The theme was a basic medieval theme, really pasted on and dull, but it gave me a place to start. Once I had that I built, I added on from there. I had created the Map Building mechanic for a game called “Space Thingz from Space.” That game was terrible, but the Map mechanic had real promise.

It was literally the same week that I had added that to the game that the Game Crafter announced their Map Building Design contest. It was too perfect to pass up. How could the contest be based around something I just started working on? As dumb as it sounds, it felt like more than just a coincidence to me. I had never entered a design contest before, nor had I ever released one of my games into the wild. All I knew is that if I didn’t try it, I would regret it.

Hyperbole Games: Who would love Mob Town?

Danny Devine:  I would say that Mob Town is for people who like fast paced gameplay, simple mechanics with plenty of decisions and options, and people who don’t mind sticking it to their neighbor when they get too big for their britches.

The theme is friendly and inviting enough that you could play this game with Kids or Grandparents and no one will be offended.

Some of initial rules go a little beyond really casual games, but if you have played games like Ticket To RideCarcassonne or any of 5th Streets other games, you will have no issues here.

Hyperbole Games: You’re also the artist for Mob Town! Tell us about your inspiration for the style, which is cute, anthropomorphic mob animals.

Danny Devine:  The look for the 5th Street redesign was definitely inspired by the movie Roger Rabbit. We needed a way to make Mobsters family friendly to match 5th Streets line and that was the way to go. Artistically the look for the game was inspired by the load screens from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. They are clean, simple, gritty and appealing all at once.

Hyperbole Games: I had no idea, but the connection really makes sense. I LOVE Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Brilliant film.

What are some of your favorite games? Did any of them influence Mob Town?

Danny Devine:  My favorite genre of game currently is deck building; I am in love with TrainsMarvel LegendaryPathfinder Adventure Card game (that one is pushing it, but it still has a semi deck building feel to it). Unless I’m thinking of someone else, you’re a little “meh” on deck builders right Grant?

Hyperbole Games: Not necessarily. I love Ascension and have played it almost 2000 times. And, I think Dominion is brilliant, though I don’t want to play it much. I guess I find many of them very same same, so I lose interest. That being said, one of the prototypes I have in mind next uses a deckbuilding mechanic at its core with some other innovations. So…who knows?

Danny Devine: As far as the influence for Mob Town, I can definitely pinpoint the main 2, Ticket to Ride and Small World. The suit matching set collection aspect and idea of 5 face-up cards to trade with all came from my love for Ticket to Ride, along with the 1 action allotment per turn. Having only 1 action per turn makes your decision harder and makes downtime between turns almost non-existent. With Small World I loved the idea of everyone competing over cramped quarters and the aspect of things getting harder and harder to take from people as time went on.

Hyperbole Games: Do you have any expansion ideas for Mob Town? What do you think about expansions, in general?

Danny Devine:  We are actually including the first expansion “Mob Town City Limits” in the Kickstarter campaign, so for $35 you can get the base game and the expansion straight away.

The cool thing about the expansion is that it really feels like 3 mini expansions that you can mix and match or use all 3. We have City Cards, which have “clever” animal pun names like Beaverly Hills & Clam Francisco that not only name the city each round, but alter the gameplay that round as well.

Landmarks are shuffled into the property deck when you build the town, controlling these spaces gives you a special ability on your turn or bonus points. Finally we have my favorite, The Professionals, these are for-hire characters that grant you a powerful ability to help turn the tide in your favor, things like taking over certain properties for less or getting and extra turn when the Law shows up.

We also have a solo/co-op variant in which players take on the role of the Police trying to run a powerful Mob Boss out of town before he completes his operations.

I love expansions! When there is a game I really like, I want more of it especially if it adds new mechanics or shakes up gameplay. The only problem I have with expansions is when I can’t play with them because its someone’s first time playing. My game group ruined Carcassone and Small World for a couple of our friends because we gave them too much at once…oops.

I know you are a fan of them in general as well, and you’re working on a fantastic one that I got to play last year for Farmageddon. What is your favorite expansion, what about your least favorite? Why?

Hyperbole Games: My favorite expansion is probably Kaispeicher for The Speicherstadt. It’s a very smart way to expand the game that still feels core to the experience. I played Leaders for 7 Wonders the other day and thought it was brilliant. I also own and love tons of expansions for Memoir ’44 and Summoner Wars and Netrunner that are basically more stuff.

My least favorite expansion is probably the one for Alien Frontiers. It added a lot of stuff that didn’t feel necessary, greatly slowed the game, and made it too complex. We stopped playing with it pretty quickly and never looked back. Ultimately, it felt like it wasn’t needed.

You also have an adorable game called Ghosts Love Candy, which I played last year at GaymerX. That is a delightful game. Tell us about Ghosts Love Candy and the schedule for it.

Danny Devine:  Ghost Love Candy is a quick playing cardgame (about 20 minutes) for 2-6 players. It’s based upon the common knowledge that Ghosts absolutely love candy but can no longer acquire it. However, on Halloween, rules are off! Ghosts have learned that they can temporarily possess trick-or-treaters and eat all the candy they can get their invisible hands on. The mechanics were inspired by games like Get Bit and Smash Up. It’s really light-hearted easy to teach and play but still offers plenty of room for strategy.

Ghosts Love Candy is currently scheduled for a Kickstarter launch in late June early July.

Hyperbole Games: Will you also do the art for Ghosts Love Candy?

Danny Devine:  That is the current plan; I already have some art styles in mind for it that I can’t wait to try. I currently have a LOT of art to do for the Mob Town expansion and we have the talented Derek Bacon on board to help out there. I’m running a tight deadline to finish art for Mob Town and get Ghosts Love Candy rolling, so we have polished looking review copies to send out, but I am looking forward to the challenge. Having a finished game designed and Illustrated by me is truly a dream come true.

Hyperbole Games: When you generally begin work on a game, what is your process or approach? How do you create something?

Danny Devine:  Theme or mechanics, theme or mechanics, that’s what people always jump between. I am no different; it really depends on the situation. A lot of times my ideas for mechanics will come from games I’m currently playing that I mash together until something new and interesting emerges. That was the process for Mob Town, mechanics were in place before the theme emerged. With Ghosts, the complete opposite. I had an idea that I wanted to make a game about ghosts possessing people at a party, I mentioned it on Twitter, and it eventually evolved into a Halloween inspired game. The mechanics fell in place shortly after I realized I wanted it to be more chaotic free for all like Smash Up, instead of a Mr. Jack like deduction game.

In general, I design games that fit in the medium to light category and can be played during lunch (under and hour).

What about you Grant? Based on your games that I have played, I get the feeling theme is really important to you up front when designing.

Hyperbole Games: I design for an experience and bring in thematic and mechanical pieces as I satisfy that. For York I wanted an attrition heavy, aggressive war game that used technology from about the mid 19th century. I didn’t want to use dice and I wanted it to play in an hour with 4 or fewer players. That drove a lot of ideas. For Sol Rising, I wanted space ships and fleets. I wanted you to be an admiral. For Flipped, I wanted a light euro first and came about a light city builder thing as a follow up.

Two published games is a big deal. But, I have to ask you what’s next? Any other ideas you’d love to pursue? Themes that interest you? Mechanics that are exciting?

Danny Devine:  Too many to list! I can’t possibly make them all, but I am certainly going to try. I will give you 2 quick examples of the front runners right now. Keep in mind, they are basically both in brainstorming states right now.

Monkey Fruit Farmers: 2-5 Player worker placement game. Players take on the role of a fruit farmer that hires local monkeys to pick fruit for them in order to sell them to the market or fulfill the endless amounts of orders flowing in. There is going to be a fluctuating economy based on the demand of each fruit. Sometimes bananas are worth more than apples. The monkeys you are hiring must be paid in fruit, and they want what the people are eating, which means you have to decide when to feed your monkeys the top dollar fruit, meaning more monkeys but less profit, or throw them the leftovers and watch as half of them go on strike.

I don’t have a name for this other one yet, and it’s pretty ambitious but what I want to achieve is the overarching character development from the Pathfinder card game or how Risk Legacy changes from game to game, but make the experience more compact and easy to play. I want something that can be played at lunch, and the whole campaign takes 5 playthroughs allowing for a week long lunch campaign. I love how dice games like King Of Tokyo or Bang the dice game play, so if I could fit a dice and card game as the core mechanic I would love to. And to top off this pile of random, I want players playing as Super-Hero Vigilantes, not with super powers, but like Kick-Ass or Batman. I would love to figure out a way for you to start the game day 1 as your origin, and by day 5 you are battling your arch nemesis that developed along with you in a glorious final battle!

I want to thank Danny for taking the time to conduct this interview. Check out Mob Town on Kickstarter now!

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

An Interview with Ty Franck

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James S.A. Corey is the writer of The Expanse trilogy of sci-fi books, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, continue with Caliban’s War (my personal favorite of the trilogy), and ending with the recent Abaddon’s Gate. I recommend these books as strongly as I am able. If you love great stories and characters, read them.

The problem is, Corey doesn’t exist for me to interview. It turns out, Corey is the pen name for a duo of writers, one of whom is Ty Franck. Franck is not only half the writing team for one of my favorite books ever, but he has experience writing for games.

One of my goals for Mars Rising is to create a narrative for two friends to enjoy together. Franck’s experience with both games and stories made him someone I very much wanted to interview.

My questions are marked by Hyperbole Games (HG), with Franck’s responses following (TF).

Hyperbole Games: What do you think of the current use of story in games, print or digital? Have you encountered any that are particularly impressive to you?

Ty Franck: I think digital gaming is experiencing a golden age of storytelling. Gamers have told developers, with their buying dollars, that graphics and game play are less important than a compelling story.

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Telltale recently won pretty much every game of the year award there is for a graphically primitive media tie-in game entirely because the game had an incredible story.

My favorite games of the last few years were Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and Last of Us. All games with strong narratives and powerfully told stories with great characters.

HG: I haven’t yet played Last of Us, but I have played Naughty Dog’s other PS3 titles and I think they are masters of interactive fiction. I’ve enjoyed most of Bioware’s efforts, as well.

The key element that distinguishes games from other platforms (books, movies) is interactivity. Do you personally prefer to experience a game story that is told to you (ex: Call of Duty), or do you prefer to affect and create your own story (The Sims, Skyrim)?

TF: I don’t like sandbox games. Never have. Honestly, after a few hours playing I get bored. I need a compelling narrative to truly engage with a game. If a game tells me I can do anything I want, it has also told me that nothing I do actually matters. Now, if a game can match a strong narrative to a feeling of making important choices, like Dragon Age did for me, then I’m hooked. That’s the perfect structure for making me love a game.

HG: In my prototype Mars Rising, I’m trying to provide some narrative for each scenario to set the scene for the players. What are some of your preferred methods to quickly establish a scene?

TF: Sensory details and familiar situations.

A man walks into his dining room. His wife is sitting at the table, a cup in front of her and the bitter burnt smell of coffee that’s gone cold filling the air. Her eyes are red, her face tracked with tears that have long since dried. She says, “We need to talk.”

Four sentences, a bit of sensory detail, a situation we can all relate to, and the reader will immediately fill in all the bits you left blank with their imagination. No matter how outrageous the setting, anchoring it with the familiar engages the reader. If the dining room above is the galley of a space cruiser, it doesn’t change the familiarity of the moment or the tension of the scene.

HG: That’s fantastic and simple, thank you! One of your main characters in Caliban’s War, Chrisjen Avasarala, is such a rich and hilarious character. What makes a great character for you?

TF: Honestly? It’s pretty simple. They want things. The things they want are hard to get. They work hard to get them, in spite of all obstacles. Along the way, they act like real humans act.

HG: The execution required for that seems quite difficult to pull off, but the guiding note is again, quite simple. Thank you.

You write collaboratively with a partner, which to me doesn’t seem terribly common. Could you briefly describe your process?

TF: Short version is, we plot together, we outline together, we split the actual writing with each person doing half the book, we edit each others work along the way.

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HG: You and your writing partner chose a technological level for The Expanse that seems “realistic.” Far more so than the more fantastical technology of Star Trek, for example. Why?

TF: Because we wanted to write stories that focused on the humans, not on the tech. And if the setting is incredibly exotic, it’s easy for the human stories to get lost in it.

HG: Do you have any favorite stories from other mediums that you’d like to see as games?

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TF: If somebody figures out how to do a Jack Vance Dying Earth or Roger Zelazny Lord of Light game that respects the original source material, they can have all of my money forever.

HG: I just bought both of these as I realized I’ve never read them. Who knows, maybe I’ll earn all of your money forever?

The Expanse trilogy is full of so many experiences. In Leviathan Wakes (the first novel), we read about shoot outs, limited ship-to-ship engagements, some sci-fi horror, some detective business, and even a love story. Do you have a particular element you would want to play as a game?

TF: We’ve had lots of space flight games, including some great ones. We’ve had lots of SF RPG games. I want to play a game that does both well. I want to fly my spaceship from planet to planet, getting in space battles with pirates, then get off the ship and walk around having adventures. I know for a developer it’s like making two completely separate games, but I’d love to play it if someone does it.

HG: That would be very fun. I have friends who play the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG, but when they are in space they use the X-Wing Miniatures game system.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?

TF: Thanks for the Mars Rising game. We need more space battle games.

HG: I certainly hope I can find a publisher who shares your sentiment! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.

An Interview with Colby Dauch

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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.

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HG: Dead of Winter (Pre-Order Here) is a game that, due to its social mechanics and theme, really provides a platform to tell stories. What is one of your favorite stories from the game?

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.

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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.

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That said, if you are asking me what my dream video game license is, it’s either Final Fantasy Tactics or Final Fantasy 7. They both had a huge impact on my development.

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?

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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?

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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.

Interview with Byron Collins

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I have a lot of respect for Byron Collins and I saw his recent Kickstarter project as an opportunity to interview him. Byron is the type of scrappy entrepreneur I would like to be myself. He sets high standards, goes above and beyond to support his community (check out all the post-release content!), and has great ambition. 

His recent Kickstarter project is for Eastern Front, a standalone addition to his Spearpoint 1943 game. Spearpoint is a great entry-level war game for folks interested in conflict. It’s portable, plays quickly, has tense, exciting dice rolls, some historical elements, as well as deckbuilding at the outset (like Magic, not Dominion). I own a copy myself and recommend it.

Below, my comments are labeled HG. Byron’s are BC

HG: Tell us about yourself and Collins Epic Wargames. What do we need to know?

BC: I am a 1 man company and have been from the start.  I am solely accountable for anything that is related to my company or my games.  I treat that responsibility and our fans with great respect.  The only thing I do not fully do is some of the artwork for some games (others I’ve done all the art except the cover).  I rely on some great artists like Marc von Martial and Mark Mahaffey to carry me through on some projects.

While I will accept any failure or shortcoming I may have, I will not take credit for all of the successes.  Without great fans, these projects I’ve so enjoyed creating and bringing to this niche market- would not exist.  What you need to know?  3 things:

  1. I stand for a quality made-in-the-USA product.  Everything is printed stateside.
  2. I strive for bringing you the best possible games I can.  My heart is in them.  It’s my passion.
  3. I help others.  I’ve been a presenter at the GAMA Trade Show regarding self-publishing and I’ve blogged on it and helped many in the Board Game Design forum over on BGG.  Gaming and creation of games is much bigger than my little 1 man company.
Spearpoint 1943

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HG: Can you walk us through Spearpoint at a high level? Describe the game and if you would, give us a little history on the franchise.

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The Expansion

BC: Spearpoint as a system plays in two ways- one is as a fast, tactical, abstract, quick-and-dirty, portable filler wargame– when played with just the cards.  Two is as a boardgame when played with the optional Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion.  The two ways feel completely different, but have enough crossover in the rules that it’s easy to transition from one to the other.

Where the original Spearpoint 1943 is all cards (Editor’s Note: And dice for combat resolution), the Map Expansion takes those same cards, adds a few rules, and turns it into a full-on board wargame with a miniatures feel.  In fact, you can replace the cards on the terrain map with miniatures.  The line is growing.  Spearpoint 1943 Eastern Front, on Kickstarter at the time of this writing, expands the system further to a different front with all new cards and the addition of the Red Army.

HG: What inspired you to make Spearpoint?

BC: Spearpoint came about when I was demonstrating combat from my first game- Italian Campaign Introduction- which is a very in-depth game.  The combat portion was quick enough to demo at conventions to get people interested in the full campaign game.  While sitting there doing a demo, some friends in a neighboring booth said “those combat demos are working great- people love the quick combat.”  The idea to turn that portion of a larger game into its own standalone game was sparked right there.  I believe it was Historicon 2009.

HG: How is Spearpoint unique from other war games?

BC: The original has a single sheet of rules that’s really easy to pick up yet offers enough of a tactical flavor to feel like a much heavier game.  Where it really succeeds is telling a good story.  When you play the game, you will remember the “oh YES!” and “oh NO!” moments.  You remember exactly what led up to your victory – or defeat – and you can quickly relay that over a beer with friends.  A lot of wargames are “fun.”  This one is fun and accessible to the intro-wargamer.  It’s a great gateway wargame.

HG: Why did you choose to take Spearpoint to Russia? Why the Eastern Front?

BC: By popular demand.  A while back, I polled my e-mail list subscribers on “where to go next?” with several options— Eastern Front, British / Commonwealth Forces, Pacific, etc. and the fans we love chose Eastern Front.  So it’s a direct result of that poll that drove the line this direction- and I think it was a good choice.

HG: I’ve been reading more about the Commonwealth forces – they did some incredible things throughout the war. I’d love to play that expansion at some point. I agree with the vote though – the Eastern Front is the obvious next step. What is different about the Eastern Front version?

BC: The system rules are very similar to the original Spearpoint 1943 with a few tweaks.  Also by demand we’ve included tracking counters with the Eastern Front version.  The cards are all new- though some German units must repeat because to exclude them would not be very realistic (such as the Tiger I, Panther, etc.).  There are some major differences with Infantry and Crews.  Infantry and Crews are not all the same.  Before, a Tank Crew was a Tank Crew.  Now, a Tank Crew may be Green, Regular, or Veteran.  With more experience comes more ability, but at an added cost to your Reserves deck build.

HG: Those counters will really improve the experience. Great idea. Do you have any favorite movies or books that cover this aspect of the war? Did any of these inspire you in creating the game?

BC: The Rick Atkinson books are great.  Some of the US Army pubs are also inspiring.  You can find a lot of those online (if not all) such as Fifth Army at the Winter Line.  The Scenario “Man vs. Beast” in the Spearpoint 1943 Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion was inspired by Saving Private Ryan (the scene where they take on a Tiger Tank in the middle of a village).

HG: Saving Private Ryan is my favorite movie. I’ve watched it so many times. The film scene I want to capture (at some point) in a board game is Easy Company taking that battery of German .88s from Band of Brothers.

What do you think is the right balance between historical accuracy, simulation, and fun?

BC: If you are not having fun playing whatever game you’re playing, what’s the point?  It must be fun first.  It must have enough historical accuracy to feel real and be plausible.  And last would be simulation.  In my opinion, a game that tries to simulate every single aspect of every minute in a soldier’s life drowns players in those details.  I try not to do that.

HG: What are some of your favorite war games?

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BC: Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel by Academy Games is a great game.  I also like games in the World at War series by Mark Walker and Lock N Load Publishing.

HG: I’ve only played my copy of Storms of Steel a little bit, but it’s such a well-designed, fun game. I’m going to look up World at War.

I really hope to I can’t help but ask you about Polyversal by Ken Whitehurst. What can you tell us about Polyversal? When can we expect to see this game?

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BC: Yes, that’s correct.  Polyversal is a huge leap for me.  Stepping out to publish a 6mm sci-fi mass combat game is quite a departure from light card wargames.  What’s great about Polyversal is the Poly in the name is really an applicable term.  In boxed sets of the game, we’re working with multiple miniatures manufacturers in the range of 6mm to supply minis for the boxed games.  Bringing together at least 5 manufacturers at the moment is not an easy task.  The core of the game is easy to pick up and teach.  It’s a lot of fun.

And working with the concept artist, Bruno Werneck, who did concept art for Tron: Legacy, Thor, the new Star Trek, and other movies, has been amazing.  We’re going with top notch artwork for this game and it’s gorgeous so far.  While we continue to develop the game, you may very well see a two-phase Kickstarter approach to Polyversal:

  1. To help fund artwork
  2. For production of the game itself

Why?  We want to break up the project into smaller chunks.  We need funding to afford Bruno’s services.  And, we don’t want to keep people waiting on a game while we rush to get artwork done as part of a production Kickstarter. That’s just not cool.  More info about the game is available at www.polyversal-game.com.

HG: Wow, really cool! Bringing in such talent must be incredibly exciting. I love hiring my favorite artists. Anything else you want to add?

BC: Yes, we have a current active Kickstarter project for our next game AND a current Boardgamegeek.com contest going for it.  Go help us out and pledge to get a great standalone card wargame, Frontline General: Spearpoint 1943 Eastern Front.  The system is fun and is getting high marks as it gains momentum. The second game in the series (Village and Defensive Line Map Expansion) is also nominated for a 2013 Origins Award in the Best Historical Boardgame category.

Some Helpful Links!

I want to thank Byron for taking the time to talk to me. If you have any questions for him, post them in comments below. Check out Spearpoint!