Antidote Print and Play: Available NOW from Bellwether Games!
For more information and to download your copy, go to the product page: http://bellwethergames.com/product/antidote/
For more information and to download your copy, go to the product page: http://bellwethergames.com/product/antidote/
Can you know if what I am saying is true?
Why a print and play?: We are so excited about this game that we cannot wait to get it into your hands! Don’t worry, there will still be a print edition you can get from bellwethergames.com, but we didn’t want to waste any more time keeping this game under wrap. For more information about Antidote check the product page or follow us on Facebook.
This month’s featured designer is Gil Hova, author of Battle Merchants and Prolix.
“I strongly believe that I am a craftsman, not an artist.” -Gil Hova
Bellwether Games: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! We’ve taken a look at Battle Merchants, which you’ve just successfully funded on Kickstarter, and Prolix, a game you already have published. Both look like great games! Could you tell us some more about how each of these came about?
Gil Hova: Thanks! I must admit that I designed Prolix out of spite. There’s a word game that’s popular in my area. I will leave it unnamed, but it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth, it got me thinking about word games in general.
I’m not a fan of word games. But this is strange; I like words and I like games, so why don’t I like word games? I thought about it, and I realized that most word games require players to memorize lists of arcane 2- and 3-letter words. Could I design a word game that would let a player drop really long words?
I’m happy to say that I think I succeeded. Prolix is an unusual word game in that there are letters out on the board that score you points for using them in a word, but you do not need all the letters in your word to be on the board in order to use it. This opens the door to those long words, and means that players who have memorized all those 2- and 3-letter words do not have any advantage.
Battle Merchants had an even weirder history. One of my first games was an auction/deduction game called Wag the Wolf. It was a collection of really cool and unique mechanisms that somehow never gelled together into the kind of game they promised. It’s not a bad game, but not a particularly good one, and it’s not really worth mastering its learning curve.
But its auction mechanism was really cool. Players were allowed to bid a little less than the high bid and stay in the auction. However, a new high bid would change the bid scenario, making the previous high bid an underbid and forcing all the players to raise their bids or fold. Players who folded would have to still pay money. The more your original bid, the more you’d have to pay when you folded. Finally, there were always one fewer bid spaces than number of players. So in a 4-player game, there would be one high bid space and two underbid space. This means one player would always be left out in the cold, which made things interesting.
I had a soft spot for this mechanism, and I also was curious about designing a game around the military-industrial complex. Not in a preachy, message-y way (I personally don’t believe that would make for a fun, replayable game, regardless of my political beliefs), but in an entertaining, gleefully amoral way.
So I built the game around the auction. As things went along, I started building up the non-auction elements of the game. Playtesters liked it well enough, until I noticed that a lot of them were telling me that they felt the auction wasn’t pulling its weight. The rest of the game was a whole lot more interesting.
I pulled the auction out of the game, and sure enough, it got a whole lot better. As a side note, I tried putting the auction into a third game, which rejected the auction as well! A lot of it has to do with the fact that weird auction mechanisms used to be really cool ten years ago, but players just aren’t into that sort of thing anymore. It’s one of those things that, as a designer, I have to keep an eye on.
BG: What is the best way to follow your progress, of Battle Merchants, or any of your future designs?
GH: That would be my Twitter account, @ingredientx. I talk a lot about my games in progress, games I’ve played, and general goings-on in the board game biz.
I used to blog, but I sadly don’t have time for that anymore. Perhaps one day, I’ll get back on that horse.
BG: Were there any “aha” moments you experienced designing games when you knew the game was ready for publication?
GH: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from over ten years of game design, it’s that I’m a terrible judge of when a game is ready for publication. I started pitching Prolix to publishers about two years before I should have. On the other hand, I only showed Battle Merchants to Minion Games on a playtester’s insistence. I wasn’t planning on pitching it for another few months! But the changes I made to it right around then turned out to be the changes I needed to put it over the top.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from over ten years of game design, it’s that I’m a terrible judge of when a game is ready for publication.” -Gil Hova
BG: How have you gone about prototyping, playtesting and promoting your games?
GH: Prototyping: I’m a big believer in rapid iteration of early prototypes. I don’t put a lot of work into presentation early on, especially because my first few playtests are always solo. At this early stage, I’m just trying to figure out if the game is fun or interesting at a high level, and if the fun is somewhere different than where I expected.
Once I feel like I’ve taken solo tests as far as I can go, I make a clean-looking version of the prototype and test it with fellow designers. I’m lucky enough to have a local group of game designers who meet monthly to play these early-stage prototypes. I much prefer taking these still-broken games to players who expect (and enjoy) playing raw, unbalanced games, instead of regular gaming groups who want to play something a little more competitive.
There’s a point where I feel that the game is 80% complete. At this point, the game is a good, fun game, but it’s usually missing the final polish to put it over the edge. That final tweaking and balancing is the last 20%. I think other game designers will understand when I say that the final 20% is about half of the work.
Anyway, at that magical 80% mark, I start bringing the game to gaming groups and conventions. I start getting feedback from non-designers. This is a lot more difficult; a lot of this advice will be about graphics, layout, and presentation, which usually winds up being up to the publisher anyway. For many non-designers, I have to read body language and nonverbal cues to figure out what they really think of the game. I’m not happy with “It’s good, I liked it.” That means I’m not done yet. I want to hear, “When is this coming out? I really want to buy this.”
For promotion, I’m pretty active on Twitter (@ingredientx is my gaming account), so I usually talk up my games there. I’m pretty sensitive to constantly being marketed to, so I try to not be too overbearing about pushing my own games. I must admit I’m not a great self-marketer. It’s one of the many reasons that I will never self-publish.
One more piece of advice: if you’re a new designer, get yourself to a game convention. A local game convention is a great place to meet fellow gamers, potential playtesters, and maybe even a lifetime friend or two. A national game convention is a great place to meet publishers and pitch your games. Both are great places to play games you wouldn’t otherwise get to play, which will be invaluable to you as a game designer.
BG: Do you have any guiding game design principles? What are they?
“First, play a ton of games. This will give you a toolkit of mechanisms that will inspire you. When you hit a roadblock, you can think about how other designers overcame similar problems. [...] Second, playtest a ton of games.”-Gil Hova
GH: First, play a ton of games. This will give you a toolkit of mechanisms that will inspire you. When you hit a roadblock, you can think about how other designers overcame similar problems. Also, it’s a good way to stay passionate about games and continually experience things from a player’s point of view.
Second, playtest a ton of games. This will give you insight into issues other game designers are struggling with. As you get better giving feedback on other designs, you will find yourself recognizing issues with your own designs more quickly.
The third note is a personal note, and may not apply to other designers. But I strongly believe that I am a craftsman, not an artist. I am trying to make something with a specific, utilitarian purpose: I am trying to make a game that is fun, and that people will want to play repeatedly. I am not trying to send a message, I am not trying to change the world, and I am not going to inspire the range of human emotions in my players. If I wanted to do that, I’d write a story or make a film.
To put it another way: an upside-down urinal may be a wonderful piece of art, but it’s a terrible place to pee.
Which leads us to…
BG: Do you think it is possible to communicate a message via board games?
“I strongly believe that I am a craftsman, not an artist. I am trying to make something with a specific, utilitarian purpose: I am trying to make a game that is fun, and that people will want to play repeatedly.” -Gil Hova
GH: If it’s a simple, objective message? Like how wargames can teach historical facts? Sure, that’s possible.
But deeper, more artistic messages? This will get me in trouble, but…
I feel that it’s possible to communicate a deep and possibly emotionally-nuanced message in a board game, but at an enormous price: you will not have a fun, replayable game. There’s simply too much process to go through. Board games are very repetitive, so there’s no way to repeatedly and reliably shock players the way that an amazing, well-executed plot twist in a movie or a book can. And by driving home a message, you will likely deprive players of the free choice that drives the whole idea of a game. And I think the fun of a recreational game is that you drop out of the very world that the very message is trying to remind you of. I don’t know how you can overcome that contradiction.
“I feel that it’s possible to communicate a deep and possibly emotionally-nuanced message in a board game, but at an enormous price: you will not have a fun, replayable game.” -GilHova
I know there’s a school of “transformative” games that, unlike the “recreational” games I love dearly, aim for ambitious messages. The classic example is Brathwaite’s Train, but I have extremely strong negative feelings about that piece as a game and a work of art. It gets its shock value from being a transformative game disguised as a recreational game, which to me is a sleazy suckerpunch. That reminds me of the kind of base, simplistic, obnoxious, college sophomore art that justifies its shock tactics by saying that it’s just shooting for a reaction, any reaction. Nope; artists are obligated to do better. If we wish to justify board games as art, we must aim higher.
Brathwaite designed another transformative game to teach her daughter about the horrors of the African slave trade, and that seemed a much better piece of art. But as a recreational game? How many times would you want to play a game where you have to throw unarmed, helpless people overboard to win?
A transformative game wants to tell you about the world you live in, to give you a new angle to see things. But a recreational game wants to obliterate the world. When I play a recreational game, even an economic Euro, I feel like I’ve dropped out of the world. I’m not thinking about my job, or my obligations, or my busy schedule. I just care about what I need to do next to win the game. It’s a wonderful feeling, and one that a transformative game will not give me.
I don’t mean to bash transformative games. I know that a lot of people are passionate about them. But my passion is recreational games. If you want to design a great transformative game, go for it! And if you can prove me wrong and make a transformative board game that sends a meaningful, emotional message and has enormous fun and replay value, then please do it, by all means!
But to me, I feel that recreational games, which must be fun by definition, are much more interesting and relevant than transformative games, where fun is merely optional, and all too often, inconvenient.
BG: Thanks for stepping out on the limb to give this response! Perhaps this will serve as a challenge to future game designers! Speaking of feeling good while playing games, what are one or two games that make you feel best?
GH: The games that make me feel the best are games that let me plan a strategy and execute it. I’m a pretty classic example of a Euro guy.
I think the first games that gave me this feeling were Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence. Recent games that give me that feeling are Terra Mystica, Tzolk’in, and Myrmes.
BG: In your opinion, what is the most important skill for a game designer to have?
GH: Extremely annoying levels of persistence. You have to survive people having reactions to your game ranging from frothing hate to complete indifference. You have to enjoy running face-first into a brick wall. You have to deal with sending your game to a publisher and waiting months for a final judgment, delicately weighing every month or two whether it’s worth it to send a ping email.
BG: Is there anyone who has been a big inspiration or help to you in your game design endeavors?
GH: If you are a designer, and you find a guy who can break your game in a matter of minutes, you hang on to that person for dear life. One of my favorite playtesters is Michael Keller (who is no slouch as a designer himself, as anyone who has played City Hall or Captains of Industry can attest). You cannot finish a game without their input.
Other than that, I really get inspiration out of the community in general. I’m lucky enough to have several publishers who are friends, like Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel and Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold. Also, there are lots of fellow designers around the country who have helped me greatly. Kevin Nunn is a fountain of insight and information. He was a huge help to me in my early days, and he continues to offer me great guidance to this day.
Man, I know I’m forgetting a ton of people here.
“If you are a designer, and you find a guy who can break your game in a matter of minutes, you hang on to that person for dear life.” – Gil Hova
BG: Why do you design games? What is next on your slate?
GH: For me, I feel like I don’t have a choice. I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious, but the game wants to come out of me. I won’t be happy until that’s done.
I am currently working on a game called Prime Time about cable networks in the early 80s acquiring programming. It’s getting really, really good. I’m also working on turning Prolix into an iPhone game, although I can’t promise a date when I’ll have it done!
BG: What do you think is the future of board game/tabletop game design?
GH: I’m not intelligent enough to answer this question. I can barely remember where I parked my car.
Seriously, I think prognostication is a difficult business. Of all the folks who insist they know how things will go over the next few years, only a few get it right, and you never know how much luck is involved there. I was at a game designer convention several years ago, where a noted designer of thematic games declared that the era of the cube-pusher was over, and that people were only going to be more interested in narrative games. That was a couple of years before games like Dominion, Agricola, and Castles of Burgundy came out!
I do know that in a few years, I will still probably love economic Euros. So my best prediction is that in a few years, I will still be designing them. Beyond that, the crystal ball is cloudy.
BG: Anything else you would like to highlight about your projects? Any other links/pictures you would like to share?
GH: Not really! Thank you so much for having me.
BG: Thanks again to Gil Hova for speaking with us and sharing his thoughts about his games and game design in general. We are constantly floored by our featured designers’ abilities to instruct on the discipline of game design and analyze the elements that make it unique. To read thoughts of our previous designers, check out our Featured Designer’s page or see those below:
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Two years ago we interviewed aspiring game designer Corey Young. At the time he was still unpublished in the field, but has since made some amazing progress! We caught back up with him this month for an update…
Bellwether Games: Last time we spoke you were working on two designs, Irish Shuffle and One Way Out. Could you tell us what became of these designs? What designs are you working on now?
Corey Young: These were my second and third designs. They ended up not being published. One Way Out was being evaluated by Mayfair, but it fizzled out in their blind playtests. It just doesn’t have a satisfying endgame. I still move it back and forth from front burner to back, but I’m not showing it again until I work out a few things.
Irish Shuffle went through several rethemes, but I’ve now scrapped it entirely. Its core mechanism is based on a classic solitaire game. I’ve found that I much more enjoy bringing entirely new mechanisms into my games.
I now have one published game and another due out in 2014. My first published design, Gravwell was picked up by Cryptozoic Entertainment and was available for purchase at Gen Con 2013. Academy Games will release Santorini early next year.
Gravwell and Santorini were my sixth and seventh designs respectively. I’ve been designing games since 2007. I started pitching to publishers at conventions in 2009. I found it to be much easier and productive than attempting to get their attention through email.
BG: Congratulations on your publications! I’ve heard very good things about both games so far (especially Gravwell). Could you tell us a bit more about each, including any significant challenges you faced in developing them?
CY: My biggest challenge with Gravwell was the draft. The game plays in 6 rounds. At the start of each round, players draft cards in order to build a 6-card hand. Originally, I used a variation on the hand passing mechanism found in 7 Wonders. It was actually more complicated than that, but not in any interesting way.
I took the early version to a meet up hosted by the Dallas Designers Group. They’re a great bunch of talented designers. They were gracious about Gravwell, but they made it clear that it was overly complicated. Based on their pushback, I scrapped the card passing and started thinking about new ways for players to select or build their hands. The draft I came up with wasn’t as simple as the one that ended up in the published game, but it was a great improvement.
The biggest challenge with Santorini was taking an interesting tile placement mechanism and building a thematically consistent game around it.
Santorini started out as a game for my daughters. After seeing me play many games with their older brothers, my older daughter asked me to make a game for her. I started thinking about how I could design a game that would appeal to girls. I was determined not to take just any game and simply “paint it pink.” After a lot of research, I came to the conclusion that there isn’t much difference between the genders when it comes to game preferences.
When my daughters were younger, I told them princess stories when I tucked them in at night. I made them up on the fly, but they always had the same characters, my daughters and their cousins, running around and having fun in fairy tale castles. I started thinking about making a game about building beautiful castles, room by room. I considered cooperative games. I thought about gardens and fountains and all sorts of thematic elements.
Around that time, I picked up some 25mm wooden hexagons at one of my trips to Origins. I started playing around with them, as game designers often do. I then started drawing on them. One day, I was experimenting with ways to cut the hexagons into regions. I drew a line from the center of a hexagon to one corner point. I then drew lines from the center point to the corners at the 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock positions from the first “noon” line, basically cutting the hex pie into thirds.
I started to work on something else for a few minutes. When I looked back at the marked tiles, I noticed that they looked like isometric drawings of cubes. I started moving them around and found that they lined up nicely with each other. Anyone who has ever played the classic video game, Q*bert, will recognize the pattern. I started to get excited.
I then started adding details – stairways, fountains, balconies and doorways. At the time, I was working on a flat tabletop. I found that the tiles kept shifting when I moved them around. It occurred to me that the game would make more sense and the tiles would stay together if I inclined the board. I built an inclined board with a zig-zag lip along the bottom to help align and hold the tiles.
Something, not quite a game yet, was forming. The tiles looked good together, but they were too “deep,” meaning that each tile appeared to be two stories tall in the scale of the board. Also, some people had trouble determining which way to align the tiles. With regular hexagons, meaning all six sides were of the same length, there were six possible ways to orient the tiles. You had to look for visual cues to figure out which way was up.
I found a simple solution to both problems. By elongating the hexagons horizontally, I was able to decrease the depth of the tiles and reduce the number of possible orientations to two. I experimented with various height to width ratios, and settled on 3:4.
BG: Both games sound like a lot of fun! Does Santorini meet your daughter’s approval as well?
CY: Yes, but more for its toy-like aspect. The pieces do lend themselves to just building pretty landscapes.
BG: Now that you have a couple published designs our readers may consider you a bit of an expert. What have you found is the best way to “pitch” an idea to a publisher? Any tips for the rest of us?
CY: I politely approach publishers during the two big conventions near my home, Origins and Gen Con. I walk up to the booth, ask whether anyone is looking at prototypes, then make the quick pitch to the correct person in the hopes of setting up a brief demonstration during the convention. My pitch always focuses on the features of my game that set it apart from others.
The biggest trap, and maybe the saddest, is the temptation to make the perfect game, the magnum opus, on the first try. I see designers show up at game design meet ups like Protospiel or UnPub with the same game over and over. Like any skill or craft, you get better at it by doing it repeatedly. That means every step, from initial inspiration, to working out the mechanisms, to playtesting, to development and refinement. Repeating the last few steps with the same game repeatedly doesn’t work out.
BG: What would the “perfect game” look like to you? How would you know if you’d designed it? Or have you already designed it?
CY: To me, cribbage is pretty close to the perfect game – small, replayable and with interesting decisions. My brother-in-law and I play almost every time we get together. It plays so well with 2, but also scales well to 3 or 4 players. I’ll let you in on a secret – Gravwell’s movement mechanism was inspired in part by the scoring track used in cribbage.
I don’t dream of creating the perfect game. If anything, I hope to introduce some new mechanisms into the hobby that get incorporated into other games.
BG: Last time we talked about what makes a game fun. Could you speak some more about what you believe are important elements in good game design?
CY: I still think the “Aha!” Moments are the key. I feel it’s my job as a designer to provide players opportunities to experience moments of insight, recoverable setbacks, fleeting victories and building suspense.
In my earlier interview I spoke of the importance of balance, specifically in terms of catch up mechanisms and the problem of runaway leaders. Shortly after that, I started experimenting with new ways of managing these problems.
When designing, I sometimes create what I call a “study.” I take the term from the field of fine art, where artists will make a smaller sketch or painting, practicing with one specific subject or technique. I created several studies while pondering catch up mechanisms. One of these studies became the core movement mechanism in Gravwell.
The third component that I value in games is a fresh game mechanism. My early designs were mostly mashups of existing mechanisms. Several of my games were simply the same game with a new skin. I’m a bit embarrassed by them now, but I had to go through them in order to learn the craft. One Way Out is the first game that I designed with an entirely new game mechanism. Mayfair was interested in it because of that, not because of the theme or overall game experience.
BG: In your opinion, what is the most important skill for a game designer to have?
CY: My answer for has evolved over the past two years. I see now that one of the most important skills or attributes for a game designer is the ability to listen to criticism and to change directions. I have to be ready to jettison any part of a game, regardless of how much I might like it, or how much time I spent on it.
Another characteristic is perseverance. Like any skill, game design takes practice. It takes hours at the desk, on the computer and in the game store playtesting.
BG: What game design opportunities have been afforded you by the online community? Or, how has the online community made you a better designer?
CY: Twitter is my favorite tool for networking within the game design community. I’ve made good friends and connections over the past few years. I travel extensively with my day job, and I often use Twitter to arrange meet ups with other designers in the cities I visit. I also encourage and am encouraged by other designers when we hit snags.
My Twitter handle is @C_M_Young. Feel free to browse through the list of people that I follow to find a host of other designers. I keep most of my tweets to game-related stuff. You won’t get any “what I’m having for breakfast” tweets from me.
BG: Now that you are officially published, what are your plans? Do you still have the same drive to get the third, and fourth games completed? Plans to quit your day job some day?
CY: Yeah, that’s the fun and scary part. My first and second games will come out within a year of one another. The temptation is to think that I should get another game in the pipeline right away. My creative process doesn’t work like that. I have some mechanisms looking for good homes, but it won’t happen if I try to force it.
I would love to get to the point where I could do game design full time. For now, I’m glad that it’s the kind of vocation that I can pursue while maintaining a full time “real” job. My day job involves project and portfolio management. I would love to do that for a large game publisher, but it would have to be the right position.
BG: Do you have any shout outs to people or groups that have helped you become successful?
CY: I have to list a few people who have been encouraging throughout: Michael Lohr, Patrick Hillier and Christopher Chung.
I also have to mention 3 places and groups that have been very helpful in supporting game designers:
Epic Loot Games in Dayton Ohio
Dallas Designers Group in Plano Texas
Snakes & Lattes in Toronto Ontario
The Board Game Designers Guild of Salt Lake City, Utah
BG: Thank you to Corey Young for sharing some great advice with us! If you are an aspiring game designer, don’t give up! Contact us if you’re interested in being our next featured designer (no published games required).
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