A Conversation with…Seth Jaffee of Tasty Minstrel Games

I’m very pleased to talk to Seth Jaffee, head of game development at Tasty Minstrel Games and designer of Terra Prime and the upcoming Eminent Domain.

Welcome Seth.  Tell us a bit about yourself.

What do you want to know? My name is Seth Jaffee – I am a Structural Engineer, Game Designer, and Game Developer. In my spare time I go to Game conventions, play games, and also play Ultimate Frisbee. Games and Frisbee have been my biggest hobbies for a decade and a half, and about 8 years ago I started getting into game design. I spend a lot of time on the Board Game Designers Forum (www.BGDF.com) and BoardGameGeek (www.BoardGameGeek.com) – where I was “Geek of the Week” a few years ago (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/151433). That thread might make a good answer to this question!
Tell us about Tasty Minstrel. How did you and Michael Mindes get together?

I actually met Michael when he was 5 years old. In 6th grade I was in school with his older brother Jacob. I would go to their house to play Nintendo and eat pizza all the time. Jacob and I were friends for years, and when Mike grew up it turned out that he and I had more common interests, and we started to do stuff together – specifically we played Magic: the Gathering. So we’ve been friends for almost 25 years.When Mike decided he wanted to start a game publishing company, I was skeptical at first. I’m kind of a pessimist, and I didn’t think it would go over very well – it was a big risk after all. Of course when he moved forward with it I wanted him to succeed so I was willing to help any way I could. I had some game designs that I’d done, and I knew of some other good games other people had designed as well. It would be my job to find games that are worth publishing, and developing them. The good news is that that pretty well summed up my dream job! 

That is a great story.  Wow.  And that is a dream job.  Tell us about Terra Prime and Eminent Domain.

Terra Prime was not my first game design by any means, but it was one of the first ones I’d ever ‘finished’ and of course the first one I got published. I had actually set aside another design (about breaking traffic laws to deliver pizza) when I began working on Terra Prime, and for some reason, despite some setbacks, I kept working on Terra Prime until it got to the point I was happy with it. I always considered Terra Prime to be my “flagship game” because it was the best of my prototypes and the first game I designed all by myself that I though was worth being published. 

I think Eminent Domain has surpassed that now, I think it’s an even better game than Terra Prime. There are many ways to define “better” in a phrase like “this is a better game than that one,” it’s very subjective. I don’t know if Eminent Domain is really a higher quality game, or if it’s more interesting, or if it’s more accessible… but I’m very pleased with how it turned out, I am excited for its release, and I think it will be more generally liked than Terra Prime was. There’s already more buzz about EmDo than about TP, so I guess by default Eminent Domain has become my new Flagship title! 🙂

I like both games though I think EmDo is my favorite.  I can’t wait for it to come out.  TP is fun.  I need to play it more. Tell us about your current projects.
As I’m sure every designer does, I have a list of games and ideas in various stages of the design process. The ones that are most likely to be published anytime soon are…* A simultaneous action dice game called Dice Werx, where players grab dice (parts) needed to build whatzits, doodads, and thingamajigs (played the first draft a bit, making changes for second draft)
* Another deck building game called Alter Ego, where you are a Batman style crime fighter, but in order to fight crime you must neglect some aspect of your alter ego life – either your family, your job, or your community – and doing so makes you weaker in some aspect of the game (just beginning early playtests)
* An expansion for Eminent Domain (currently playtesting)
Each of those sounds neat.  Dice games seem to be surging right now.  There is an idea out there called ‘rich dice’ – where there are different colors or types of dice in a roll and you work off of combos and single die to get different results.  An example would be you have two red and a blue d6.   You roll a red 5, red 3, and a blue 2.  You can choose to use the two reds to get one action.  Or a red and a blue to get another actions.  The numbers may indicate the strength of the roll which would play into your action in some way.  It is a different way to use dice that I’m incorporating into a design or two of my own.  You’re lead game developer for TMG.  Tell us about that.

As Head of Development for Tasty Minstrel Games I’ve also been working on development for upcoming TMG releases. 2 games that are done already which I worked on are Belfort (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/50750/belfort), by Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim, which just went to print and should arrive alongside Eminent Domain for summer 2011 release, and Ground Floor (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/38765/ground-floor), by David Short, which should be ready for Essen or BGG.con later this year. The next big game I’m working on is currently referred to as Kings of Air and Steam, by Scott Almes, which we plan to release next year. It’s kind of like a cross between Railroad Tycoon and Roborally, and I’m enjoying it a lot.
I’m excited about Belfort.  I have an interview in the hopper with Jay and Sen-Foong that should drop soon.  What a great time for Tasty Minstrel to get two more really good games out this year!  Kings of Air and Steam sounds right up my alley. From what you’ve posted so far, it’s a steampunk theme.   I’ve been a fan of steampunk in rpgs for a while and it seems to be the next ‘zombies’ in terms of popular themes.  I look forward to more news about it.

That’s about it – never mind the back list of game ideas that has been building up since 2003! Sometimes I write about The List in my game design blog (sedjtroll.blogspot.com).
What is the hardest part of designing a game?

The hardest part for me is two-fold… creating the prototype is often problematic, from how it should look to physically creating the game, and getting it tested. It’s very difficult to get people to play prototypes, especially ones that are new and untested and might well suck! Those are the worst kind, because the few people you CAN cajole into playing a prototype could easily stop volunteering if you make them dredge through something that doesn’t work!  Oh, I guess I just answered that… finding people willing to test the game is very difficult. I envy people like Reiner Knizia, who have multiple teams of people who meet every week for the sole purpose of testing his designs!

Prototyping.  I have seen that with a game I’m working on.  What goes on the cards and where.  How many cards do you go with.  What does the board look like.  Throwing things away is really hard.  I’ve heard it called subtractive design.  Whittling down the design to only what is needed.  That’s hard. I can understand that.  Playtesting isn’t easy and often is not ‘fun’.  But it is neat to see games in their fledgling state and helping them grow.  Dr. Knizia certainly has a unique situation.  But is it actually helping him?  Have we seen anything unique from him in the last few years?  Back to playtesting.

I sometimes attend designer meetups, but those aren’t a whole lot better – it’s great to have people play and discuss a game, but the problem there is that they each have games of their own, and everybody wants to test their own games. I’m actually headed to Albany, NY, for one of those meetups next month.
This idea in rpg design is called gamestorming.  I haven’t experienced it yet but could probably use the feedback I’d get. What are some aspects of a good player?

I guess there’s some question of what one considers “good” in a player (and maybe that’s what you’re actually asking me here). When playtesting a game, a “good player” is simply a player who will play the game like it were any other game. They’ll learn the rules and make moves they think might lead to winning. It doesn’t matter if they make good plays or bad ones, so long as they are playing the game. I think that’s often more useful than a player who will purposely do something that won’t make them win, just to see if it will crash the entire game. That’s my job, not the players’. I also don’t think it’s helpful during a playtest to stop the game every 5 minutes to discuss what rules SHOULD be rather than play the game how it was explained or written. Commentary on changing rules is best made after the fact most of the time.
I totally agree with this.

As for playing games (not playtesting designs), “good player” has a different meaning altogether. I would say a “good player” is the type who is often successful at identifying strategies that are likely to work, and moves that will create an advantage and lead to a game win. This can mean quickly or properly evaluating the value of one choice over another, or more accurately predicting the consequences of choices made by themselves or other players. Another possible definition of “good player” is “good sport” – a player who plays to win, offers a good challenge, but is respectful and polite as well. I think “good sport” and “Good player” aren’t exactly the same thing, but there’s probably a lot of overlap.
This is an interesting answer.  I think you have hit on something with it.  Most people have gone with the ‘good sport’ definition when asked.  It is valid.  I agree with you that there is overlap with what you have stated as a good player and the good sport player.  But I’m pleased that you have identified aspects of good players from a strategy view.  I like this. What makes a good game? As a developer, what do you look for in a game?

I’m finding that the answer to this question depends a lot on the target audience, and it’s not as simple as I used to think! I think a “good game” offers interesting choices and is engaging for the duration of the game. I used to refer to something I called a “Work-per-unit-fun” ratio. If a games work/fun ratio was too high, then even though it might have fun aspects, I don’t feel like playing it because it’s just too much work. Twilight Imperium is like that for me – I like the idea of the game, and there are fun parts, but the physical work and time involved in playing more than counterbalances the things I like. So I guess I would say that a good game has an appropriate or favorable work/fun ratio.

What I’m learning from the publisher’s point of view is that not everyone is as tolerant or accepting of complicated rules or learning curves as I am. A game that *I* think is good will likely have a learning curve such that you cannot fully experience the game in a single play. Nowadays it seems that a lot of people won’t give a game more than a single play though. There are so many games out there that they’d rather just get a taste for a game and then move on to the next one. I fear that because of this, many games are coming out that, well, CAN be fully explored in the span of a single play or two, and since this is not the type of game I generally enjoy, I think that’s kind of a shame. I hope that Tasty Minstrel can provide games that are both enjoyable enough on first play that players will feel compelled to play again, and also interesting enough that they can stand the test of time and hold up to repeat plays. That’s the kind of thing I look for in a game.

I’ve heard the work-to-fun ratio before.  I think that is used a lot.  I agree that a game can be fun but the work of the game, either in set up or length of play, can be a barrier.  Descent is one of these games.  It take forever to set up and then is at least 3 hours commitment.  I like the game a lot but it doesn’t see the table much because of these things.
You’re correct that ‘good’ is relative.  I agree that those of us who are ‘gamers’ probably have different criteria from a casual gamer.
Your point about people just ‘tasting’ games in so very true.  I really do not like this.  Most games need to played multiple times to get them.  Personally I think I need at least three plays before I understand most Euro type games.  I agree with you that there are probably many good, underplayed or unappreciated games.  And that there are games coming out that, as you say, can be explored fully in a single play or two. I think too that this number is rising because there are more games being published and those games that require more plays are diluted out or not as available.  GamerChris had a big discussion about this and reviews on his blog recently (gamerchris.com).  You should check it out.
Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?

That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure I have an answer for it. I suspect you’re referring to published designers here, but I may give an unconventional answer here. Jay Tummelson comes to mind – not only did he help bring a lot of euro style games to the US, I like some of the things he’s said about the Spiel Des Jahres award, and how the tangible benefit of many, many sales helped increase the overall quality of games in general, and how he followed that up by sponsoring game design contests here in the states, committing to publishing the winner of the contest. I also admire some of the unpublished, amateur designers I’ve met on the Board Game Designers Forum – even without having been published (and in some ways maybe BECAUSE they haven’t been published) I really respect the effort and thought they put into their designs and commentary.
Jay is a fantastic, unexpected answer.  Very appropriate.  And thank you for reminding us about all he has done and is doing for our hobby.  He’s not only bringing us great games from Europe but ensuring that we see some excellent domestically designed games.
BGDF is a fantstic idea.  Having a community of like minded people to talk to and challenge you is necessary I believe.  Good games aren’t designed in a vacuum.
Of your games, which is your favorite?
Right now, Eminent Domain is definitely my favorite of my own designs.
What are you currently playing?

Lately I’ve been playing prototypes of all the games I mentioned above. In addition, I’ve been playing London, by Martin Wallace, which I picked up recently knowing nothing about it. Thanks to a particular friend who’s game night I go to every week, I’ve also been playing The Resistance lately, but I’m not enjoying it (nor Werewolf) as much as I once did. I keep looking at my shelf and wondering why it’s been so long since I’ve played some of my favorite games, like Puerto Rico, Railroad Tycoon, Goa, and stuff like that!

I’ve recently played Puerto Rico for the first time and really like the game.  I can see why it is rated so very high.  It is elegant.  I played Goa a few months back.  It too is a fantastic game.  I can’t wait for the reprint. What’s the coolest part of being a game designer?

It’s obviously the fame, fortune, and women… You wouldn’t believe how “I design games” will make a person swoon!

Seriously, I think the coolest part is really that I just enjoy doing it! I like the sense of accomplishment when an idea I had comes to fruition. When I sit down with an untested prototype and get someone to play it, and it works the way I wanted it to – that’s a pretty fun feeling. The absolute BEST part though is when other people, completely unsolicited, talk about how much they enjoyed playing a game that I created. When I went to BGG.con last November to find that before I even got there, people were already teaching and playing print and play copies of Eminent Domain (and liking it), that was really cool.

What an awesome answer. I’ve had a bit of that with some rpg work that I’ve done.  (http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/downloads/). I can’t wait until I get to experience that with one of my board game designs.  Let’s backtrack a bit. Tell us about the Board Game Designers Forum.  How valuable has BGDF been for you?
The Board Game Designers Forum is a website for aspiring designers to talk about their designs, ideas, game design in general, and to comment on each others games. I stumbled into it around 2003, soon after it was founded by Michael Dougherty. I really enjoyed the threads, and in particular something called the Game Design Workshop which was a chance for a designer to put one of their unfinished games in the spotlight for a week, and get a bunch of feedback from other members of the community. I spent a lot of time commenting on other people’s games in the workshop, participating in the forum threads, and chatting with other community members in the chat room. Over time I posted less, but always returned to BGDF chat, I met a number of people I consider good friends in there. A little while ago, Michael decided he wouldn’t be able to continue to run the site, and he asked me if I’d take it over – of course I said yes. Without BGDF I don’t think I’d be the designer I am today! I posted there recently saying that I have some plans to fix up the site and that I’d like it to be “the premier forum for amateur game designers” – one of the members replied that it already is. Still, I’d like to improve it some, and I still plan on doing so eventually (hopefully soon).

As you can probably tell, BGDF has been very valuable to me. My first published game, Terra Prime, was developed largely in the forums and chat rooms of that site. I found Josh Cappel, Ariel Seoane, and Gavan Brown – artists we’ve used for Terra Prime, Homesteaders, Belfort, Train of Thought, and Eminent Domain (and more to come) – right there at BGDF. As a small ‘thank you’ to the BGDF community I included a BGDF logo on the back of the Terra Prime and Eminent Domain boxes.

I would agree that BGDF is the premier site for amateur board/card game designers.  I am glad it is there and that people find it useful.  I really need to be more active.  In fact I have a question/request for help that I should post. Have any BGDF members games been published? How ‘successful’ has BGDF been?

Yes, several have. I believe there’s an old (out of date) thread in the BGDF archives about that (http://archive.bgdf.com/tiki-index.php?page=BGDF+Success+Stories&highlight=success%20stories). Since then there have been more, Terra Prime for instance. Nobelmen, by Dwight Sullivan, won the Hippodice contest in 2009 – a game I had the pleasure of playing (and contributing comments on) before he submitted it. Last I heard it had been picked up by a publisher as well.

I like to think BGDF has been VERY successful in that it offers designers the chance to talk about their games. I’m not sure “number of published members” is really a good metric by which to measure BGDF’s success. I do think for designers looking to be published, BGDF can’t hurt, and in fact is a very useful resource. Obviously simply joining the forum won’t magically get your game published, but I think there’s a lot of useful information and willing designers ready to help people interested in getting their game published.

I think BGDF’s strength is the community that it builds and as an extension, the resources it offers. I’m a member of BGDF, though not too active. There is a lot of excellent advice and links there. What is the most common question asked? What advice has been the most useful to the members?

I think the “most useful advice” will be different from member to member. Some people are looking for advice on self publishing, others on submitting to publishers, and others still on various aspects of design, or prototyping. There’s a variety of types of information available, and which is the best advice for you is going to depend on what stage you’re in in development and what your goals for the design are.

I’m not sure what the most common question asked is – again, there are many questions about many different things on there. People often ask about NDAs and patents/copyrights, and while everybody’s careful to preface their response with “I’m not a lawyer, but…” the consensus (and my personal opinion) is basically that stealing a game design in the hobby industry is just as much work as NOT stealing one. Ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s the development work that’s important. So I am not afraid to post about my designs on BGDF or my blog. In fact I see public posts like that as something I could point to if at some point there were some kind of dispute over whether Someone stole an idea from me or whether I stole an idea from someone. I believe that ideas and creativity foster in community and stagnate in isolation. If one of my ideas inspires another designer and they build a different game based on something I was considering for one of my games, more power to them!

“the consensus (and my personal opinion) is basically that stealing a game design in the hobby industry is just as much work as NOT stealing one. Ideas are a dime a dozen, it’s the development work that’s important.”  This is so true.  I agree with all you say here.  And need to act on it.   Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

Here are some designers’ blogs that I think are interesting:
Jay Cormier’s From Inspiration to Publication (http://inspirationtopublication.wordpress.com/)
Gil Hova’s Fail Better (http://ingredientx.wordpress.com/)
Michael Keller’s Game Designer Wannabe (http://www.gamedesignerwannabe.com/)
Scott Slomiany’s Meeplespeak (http://meeplespeak.blogspot.com/)
Matt Worden Games (http://www.mwgames.com/)
Brettspiel (http://www.brettspiel.co.uk/)
And for those with predilection toward 18XX games and how they work, JC Lawrence’s Other Wise (http://kanga.nu/~claw/blog/)
Thanks Seth.  This is one of the best interviews I’ve had on Go Forth And Game.  It has caused me to think about what do I mean when I say ‘a good player’ or ‘a good game.’  And I was inspired to post on BGDF.  I really appreciate your time with this.  I look forward to Eminent Domain, Belfort, and many more great games from you and from Tasty Minstrel Games.