Gil Hova Interview

featured designer

 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

game designer gil hova of battle merchants

Game designer 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?

prolix game by gil hova

Prolix by Gil Hova

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.

battle merchants board

Battle Merchants by Gil Hova

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.

cards for battle merchants game

Battle Merchants by Gil Hova

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:

Corey Young

Gregory Carslaw

Danny Devine

Bryan Tillman

Ed Marriott

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