This month in our Featured Designers segment, we caught up with Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim, designers of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us!” “Belfort,” “Tortuga,” and more…
Bellwether Games: A quick search on board game geek will show you have about a half-dozen published designs at this point. What does it feel like to be such accomplished designers?
Sen: A half-dozen is a strong start for us. Compared to some of the greats, though, it’s a drop in the bucket! I don’t feel like we have arrived yet; more like we’re the new kids on the block. I’d love to design games more full-time than part time in the future, and being prolific is the best way to make that happen. Personally, I’m not the type of person to rest on my laurels so I’m constantly trying to do more, better.
Jay: We have a couple more coming out later this year and a few more games being assessed at publishers still – so we keep the design machine churning! The one benefit of having a game or two under our belt is that we’re taken more seriously when dealing with publishers. They know our stuff and that we are of a certain quality.
Bellwether Games: Which of your designs is your favorite and why? How did this game come to be?
Sen: Of the games that have been published, my personal favourite would have to be Akrotiri, coming out later this year from Z-Man Games in their 2-player line. It came about from Jay’s love on tile-laying exploration games and this novel mechanic we had come up with some 11 years ago that we could never quite make work. Well, with more growth and experience, plus a lot of feedback from our playtesters and our colleagues in the Game Artisans of Canada, we eventually did! I feel like that kind of validates our original decision to go down this road – we weren’t so far off base, originally! I’m super excited to see this one in it’s final format and hope that people enjoy playing it.
Jay: Wow – I’m happily surprised that Akrotiri is Sen’s favourite as it’s my favourite too. I’ve always been a fan of tile laying games and I think we really stumbled upon a really cool mechanic that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. I just can’t wait for people to play this game! It should be hitting stores in May or June this year.
Bellwether Games: You seem to have a pretty good relationship with some publishers. Could you tell us how you went about developing these?
Jay: It started with me attending some conventions. I attended the GAMA trade show in 2009 and met Michael Mindes – owner of Tasty Minstrel Games. I didn’t know that at the time I met him though and I actually just came up to him at a table and asked if he wanted help play testing his game that he was setting up. He was happy to have me and we formed a friendship through playing this game. Afterwards I showed him our game, Belfort – and then learned that he’s a publisher! I think by being so friendly and open it made him realize that it would be fun and easy to work with this guy. Another example was when I attended Alan Moon’s The Gathering of Friends. I just finished playing Akrotiri with Z-Man and Filosofia and they asked if I could stick around to help them play test another game they were looking at. Sure – why wouldn’t I?! We played and I provided some really helpful feedback that improved the game a little bit – and this really impressed Sophie. She told me later that other designers wouldn’t do that. That surprised me, but she said other designers would see this guy as a competitor and would take the opportunity to disparage the game. So it’s just about being a nice person!
Sen: I think it’s about being genuine, being open to feedback, and being willing to work towards a common goal versus being possessive about ownership of ideas. Because Jay and I work together designing games almost exclusively and because of both of our day jobs, we’re very sensitive to the power of open communication and that has helped us in building positive relationships with publishers. We actively listen, make changes as necessary, and are involved as much or as little as the individual publisher wants. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing – to make an awesome game that sells well. If we can communicate well and respect each other’s areas of expertise, then we’re one step closer to making that happen. We strive to be good designers to work with by engaging with the publishers and really listening to their concerns and comments. After all, once they sign your game, you are now designing it to please them and the eventual customers, not yourself anymore.
Bellwether Games: In your opinion, what is the most important skill for a game designer to have? Do you have this skill?
Sen: To design games, the most important skill to have, in my opinion, is being able to ask for and accept feedback and then analyze it and take the necessary actions. The goal of our iterative design process is to make each new version just 5% better than the one before it. Without adequate and appropriate feedback, that’s almost impossible to do. Games are meant to be played, not to exist in a vacuum. So without feedback from players about their experiences with your game, making improvements would be difficult. Jay and I are pretty skilled when it comes to asking good questions to get good feedback from our playtesters, I think. Because we work with each other so much, we have to be aware of communication. We have each other as sounding boards and as a check and balance in situations were we need another’s point of view. We get a lot of practice at it!
Jay: I’m going to say communication. As a designer you need to be able to communicate to your players. This starts with a Sales Sheet – something Sen and I started way back in 2008. We would make a one page summary of each game we had to pitch and it allowed us to casually show our games to publishers without pulling out prototypes. This showed that we were professional and serious. But we had to figure out the best way to communicate what the game is about and what’s unique about it in as few words as possible. The next part of communication is the rule book – which is the bane of our existence some times – but this will probably be how the publisher will experience your game for the first time.
Then you have to communicate to the player in your game. Are the choices connected to the end goal? Does the prototype look good – which means that it’s purely a functional prototype with iconography when relevant. All of this is communicating to the player. You then have to communicate with your play testers. Like Sen says, you have to listen and accept their feedback and be good at getting the information you need out of them.
Finally you have to communicate with the publishers – either online or in person. We do most of our game pitches in person whenever we can. My background is in creating training programs and facilitating them, so I’m very comfortable in talking with publishers. Understanding what the publisher wants out of the interaction when you’re pitching is very important!
Bellwether Games: Regarding feedback: Was there ever any feedback you rejected at first, but then realized later on was actually good feedback? How did this impact one of your designs?
Jay: Good question…not sure if it was feedback or not – but I do remember a game of ours called Clunatics that involves giving the smallest of clues to the other players in order to get them to guess a common phrase. We had it that you got more points if you used less clues – which seemed to make absolute sense. You should get rewarded for being better at the game! However in our tests we found that it caused people to really stall the game as they tried hard to get more points and not use up extra clues. So we changed it such that you only ever got 1 point, regardless of how many clues you used – which seemed counter-intuitive to us – but it sped up the game and was more fun for all players!
Another example was for a new game that we’re working on with our friend Josh Cappel (who did the amazing art for our game Belfort), called Rock, Paper, Wizards. It was a bluffing game where you had to guess whether someone had the spell or not. We pitched it to a publisher and they liked it but had some issues with it. So we worked on it for months trying to figure it out. Then, during some brainstorming Josh actually said – what if the spells hit all the time?! Well that would mean that there was no bluffing – so we immediately ignored it – silly Josh. But then hours later Josh brought it up again (thank goodness) and we went through the process of seeing what that would do to the game. As we discussed it the game changed shape and became something better – and it allowed us to highlight the key aspects that we liked about the game – which never involved the bluffing part anyway!!
Sen: That’s right – I just liked pointing my fingers at people in odd wizardly gestures! Another interesting thing that happened was our initial desire for miniatures in Belfort. Originally, we had pawns that you could upgrade with hats and belts when they became Master Elves and Master Dwarfs respectively. The feedback from the publisher, TMG, was that it was too costly. Our dreams of 3D elves, dwarfs and gnome was dashed! But then we saw Josh’s art. And *then* we figured out how to make the flat pieces work to our benefit, as is specifically seen in how the Giant assistant grows in the Expansion Expansion. So, it was definitely a change that turned out favorable in the end, despite our reluctance at the start and people’s dislike of stickering the bits.
Bellwether Games: Do you have any guiding game design principles? What are they?
Jay: Sen and I share a private forum where we get to talk about all of our ideas. Sen is ridiculous at how many ideas he has – per day! So we have a section in our forum where we put our “brain farts” that is full of the tiniest ideas for a potential game. We make it a practice to go through this list to see which ideas are worth growing into the next stage. As for design principles specifically – I’m really only interested in making games that offer something new that I can’t get from another game. So I’m always trying to challenge us to figure out a new way to do something so that it feels different than other games. One good example is a game we have in negotiations with a publisher right now called Pop Goes The Weasel. We know that designers think that the lowest mechanic possible is the dreaded ‘Roll and Move,’ as there’s simply just no decisions to be had in that mechanic. So that was a challenge to us – how do we turn a roll and move mechanic into something interesting? And we did it with Pop Goes the Weasel!
“Until you have something that people can play without you being there to teach them the rules, you don’t really have a game – you have an idea. And ideas are a dime a dozen in this industry.” -Sen-Foong Lim
Sen: While I’m more of an ideas guy that gets caught up in developing tons of rampant and ever-mutating content, Jay is much more practical and grounded. He’s amazing at getting things from head-space to tabletop. I guess you could say that we have a micro game mentality in that we will usually test proof of concept as quickly as possible by boiling the game ideas down to their essence and trying them out is a 25-tiles or less format we’ve adopted. Some of our games start and end there, like This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The 2-4 Of Us, currently on Kickstarter, while others, like Belfort, quickly grow from 25 tiles into the big box game that it was destined to become. This micro game mentality is crucial in getting the game not only out of our heads, but into the hands of others – and that’s where the design truly takes shape because until you have something that people can play without you being there to teach them the rules, you don’t really have a game – you have an idea. And ideas are a dime a dozen in this industry.
This emergent design philosophy tends to pervades our more recent work. It didn’t at the beginning, when we tried to shoehorn things together because we thought it would be cool. Now, we have a much more organic process of development. We have an idea. We make a quick prototype. We push pieces around and then we “find the fun” – we identify the most entertaining / engaging parts of the game and we then build every other aspect of the game to highlight and support those parts. Effectively, we cut away anything that doesn’t do that and fill up the conceptual game space with so much stuff that positively synergizes with the fun parts that there is very little room to add in anything detrimental to the end goal of making a captivating game.
Versatility is more of a goal than a philosophy, I guess, but I’ll lump them together. Jay and I try to appeal to a wide range of publishers and players with our games. We don’t just make strategy games. We make party games and children’s games as well. In fact, our second party game, But Wait, There’s More, and our first children’s game, Pop Goes The Weasel, will be forthcoming in 2014/2015. This versatility has resulted in publishers requesting us to design specific games for them. They recognize that we can make excellent games across the different categories.
“Now, we have a much more organic process of development. […] We identify the most entertaining [&] engaging parts of the game and we then build every other aspect of the game to highlight and support those parts.” – Sen-Foong Lim
Bellwether Games: Is there anyone who has been a big inspiration or help to you in your game design endeavors?
Sen: Jay and I are members of a group of designers called the Game Artisans of Canada. The GAC is a nation-wide organization that has local chapters centered around geographical hubs. We meet locally on a regular basis and nationally on a yearly basis. We communicate daily electronically. There’s nothing like a bunch of intelligent, like-minded yet incredibly diverse people to get amazing feedback from and to help shape ideas or answer questions about the industry.
Jay: I agree with that! I love the GAC! If you’re a game designer then try to surround yourself with other game designers! Some people think that there’s a possibility of someone stealing your idea – but I’ve never heard of that really happening. Everyone has a hundred ideas and their ideas are way better than your ideas anyways! <icon_smile.gif>
Bellwether Games: You discussed not being afraid of people stealing your ideas. Have you ever had an idea that wasn’t “stolen” but that you found used in another game shortly after you thought you invented it? How did this feel?
Jay: Sure this has happened at various stages of developing a game. Sometimes we come up with a name for a game like “Pants on Fire” which sounded like a great name for a bluffing game – and we made a prototype and everything – but we saw a game come out with that same title. No idea what the game play was like but the title was used and so was our enthusiasm towards it.
One game that we have coming out soon is called But Wait There’s More, which involves pitching products to other players. We came up with the idea and made a prototype and were wondering what to call it and we thought a good name would be The Big Idea. So, step one in figuring out if it’s a good name for a game is to check boardgamegeek.com to see if it’s been taken yet! In this case – not only was it taken, but it was very similar! It also involved pitching products! Uh oh. We read further and found out that The Big Idea had other aspects to it that made it a bit gamey – with stocks and whatnot – and ours was a pure party game, so we felt like it was ok. But fast forward a couple years and The Big Idea gets re-released – but this time only as a party game! Yowza! We thought that meant our project was dead in the water after that – even though there were still many differences between the two.
Fortunately we still pitched it to Toy Vault because they loved it and knew that it could find its own audience. They’re going to release it using the Monty Python brand. We’ve added so much to the game that it really bares no resemblance to The Big Idea any more besides the fact that you’re pitching products made up, initially, of 2 cards.
Sen: I guess it is also similar in that way to Snake Oil, but I have it on good authority that our version is different enough and more than fun enough to warrant its existence! Another idea what wasn’t “stolen”, but is more of a case of parallel design, is a mechanic we developed over 12 years ago for finding a hidden item on a modular board. It was our failed first attempt at making a game, but we have been enamored with the mechanism so much that we used it in a game a decade later – that game is now Akrotiri. In between getting this game signed, developed and produced, Lost Valley and Tobago came out with similar systems, though Tobago’s is in reverse and Lost Valley only uses it in an expansion.
Most often though, it happens with names and themes – Flying Frog just released Shadows of Brimstone, a game set in the weird west where adventurers are fighting unspeakable horrors. Oddly enough, literally the day before it went live on Kickstarter, I was pitching a very similar idea to Josh Cappel with totally different mechanics. But that was enough to take the winds out of the sails for a bit and backburner the concept until I can retheme the game.
Bellwether Games: Why do you design games?
Sen: At first we started to design games to stay in touch. When Jay left Ontario to work in British Columbia, we thought we’d make a serious go of it in order to have a project to work on together. Now, though, I do it so I don’t go insane! I have all these ideas bubbling in my head and if they stay there too long… Who knows what would happen? Luckily, I have a very supportive wife and family (who all play games; my sons love designing games as well) who recognize that without this avenue for mental release, that I’d be pretty grumpy. So if you like the games that I’ve been a part of designing, thank Carrie, Ethan and Eli because without their support and understanding, none if these games would have seen the light of day.
“I have a history of being a performer so I get a huge kick out of entertaining people. I love the feeling that I gave some people a certain amount of joy for a short period of time. Game design is similar.” – Jay Cormier
Jay: I have a history of being a performer so I get a huge kick out of entertaining people. I love the feeling that I gave some people a certain amount of joy for a short period of time. Game design is similar. I have a great time playing a game that we made and I just want to share that with other people! Ah – so selfless! Well I guess there’s a lot of pride in it as well!
Bellwether Games: How did you go about designing games “long-distance?” I think most people would struggle to work on the same project without being in close proximity to their co-designers. Any tips or tools you used or would recommend?
Jay: Sen and I use everything the Interwebs has available! Dropbox, Google docs, Skype, FaceTime but most importantly – our own private forum that we set up and helps us keep our ideas catalogued and in order. It’s great to revisit ideas and discussions because everything is kept there forever! It is just too frustrating trying to communicate and brainstorm and build a game by emailing each other back and forth. I even find it motivating too. When I see that Sen has posted a comment, I feel like I ned to respond and give him my thoughts on what he wrote – which in turn makes him feel compelled to reply and so on. Eventually we have a game…or seven!!
Sen: With the power of the internet, there’s really no excuse. I’ve watched playtest sessions on my iPhone live, despite the 3 hour time difference. I’ve shot stop motion video of our testing sessions here so Jay can watch later if he can’t watch live. We edit the same Google spreadsheet simultaneously to prevent version conflicts. We’re trying to work out how I can access all the files on Jay’s hard drive remotely to get at the graphics files, but we haven’t sorted that one out yet. We also meet up about 1-2 times a year at game conventions like Protospiel North or the Gathering of Friends and then another 2-3 times at one of our homes for a few days at a time where we lock ourselves away in a room and come out with a whole whack of new games to playtest! It’s always a party when Crazy Uncle Jay comes to town!
Bellwether Games: How important to you is the game design community (online and in-person)? Where have you found the most support for your endeavors?
Sen: Immensely important. Jay and I are separated by 3 provinces, so online forums are our bread and butter. The GAC is an awesome resource and community that we access online and in-person. Without the GAC’s involvement, I can state unequivocally that our games would not be as good as they are as soon as they are. For example, our recently Kickstarted title, Tortuga was heavily vetted by the GAC members during one of our nationwide events called “Cardstock”. Some of the suggested changes were so very minor, but they affected overall game play and enjoyment in major ways. Sure, we might eventually get there, but we would take a lot longer to arrive at the same answer we got from effectively crowd sourcing from a very select focus group. As a group we become vested in each other’s success because we all feel like we had a part in the game’s creation. It’s a really amazing group.
Jay: I am pretty much dedicated to GAC. There are other resources out there like BGDF – but I don’t use them mostly because I have access to GAC! GAC is full of over a dozen game designers that have already been published as well as board game artists -all living in Canada. The opinion and experience of these individuals is so valuable!
Bellwether Games: Anything else you would like to highlight about your projects? Any other links/pictures you would like to share?
Jay & Sen: Our blog, at http://www.bamboozlebrothers.com, has detailed the steps we took to get our games published. For aspiring game designers out there, check out our site and click on the Steps link in the header! If you are a game designer – then we’re always looking for guest bloggers who have a story about the game design or publishing process. Let us know if you have something worth sharing!
Bellwether Games: Thanks so much to Jay and Sen for taking the time to speak with us and for sharing such valuable and interesting information! We’re looking forward to seeing all the great games you will design!
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