A Conversation With…Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier, designers of Train of Thought

This time on Go Forth And Game I’m joined by Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim, The Bamboozle Brothers. They are the designers of Train of Thought from Tasty Minstrel Games. It is a pleasure having you both on Go Forth And Game. Tell us a bit about yourselves.

My name is Sen-Foong Lim – a happily married father of two awesome boys. I’m a Scorpio who is addicted to boardgames, making music (check out Pronobozo , Phantohms, and DJ DeepSix for some of my work), and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When not designing games, jamming on the one, or choking someone out, I’m a mild-mannered pediatric occupational therapist. I work at a children’s treatment centre in London, Ontario, helping kids who have difficulties with mobility and/or communication figure out how to use technology to accomplish their goals.

And I’m Jay Cormier – a happily single of one. I’m a performer (check out www.bertolt.ca for a character and show I invented and have performed in for over 14 years now!), and an aspiring comic book writer. Professionally I design training programs for a large international company. It’s kind of like designing games for the workforce!

Tom: I’ve checked out Pronobozo. Wow, you are not only a talented game designer but a talented musician as well. And a dad of two. Where do you get the time?!! And Jay, man, the Bertolt thing is awesome and must be a ton of fun. I’m impressed with you both so far. But what is this Bamboozle Brothers thing?

Sen: Bamboozle Brothers is the name that Jay and I go by. We never really use it formally, but now that we’ve been blogging more and more, we’re pointing people to a site bearing that name.

Jay: When our first game was about to be printed we had the option of using Bamboozle Brothers or our real names. How could we turn down the opportunity to see our names on a game box though?

Sen: We’d likely use that moniker if we were to self-publish anything. Who knows – we may start putting the logo on our games, to start the branding machine a-rolling!

Tom: Branding is an interesting idea. And I’ve visited the Bamboozle Bros. website. You have some interesting games there. I particularly am interested in Scene of the Crime, though all of them look fun. How did you hook up with Tasty Minstrel?

Jay: I met Seth and Michael at the GAMA trade show in Vegas. It was my second time attending the event in the hopes of making contacts and getting our games in front of publishers. Mission accomplished!

While I was there, I noticed a couple of people setting up a prototype of a game and I asked if they needed another player – and they said yes. I sat down and started playing Homesteaders with them. We chatted about why I was there and I showed them some Sales Sheets that we made up for each of the games we were showing. They expressed interest in a strategy game of ours called Belfort. It wasn’t until ¾ of the way through playing did I realize that I was talking to the publishers and not some other designers.

When we finished up Homesteaders, we all played a full game of Belfort, then another full game the next night – after which they expressed interest in publishing it!

It wasn’t until later in the development of Belfort did we show them Train of Thought! Due to the complexity of the art needed for Belfort, Train of Thought actually beat Belfort to market.

Tom: That is such a cool story. Homesteaders – I like the game a lot. Train of Thought – where did the idea come from?

Sen: Jay and I write a lot on a web-based forum that we use to work on our games. One section is called “Brain Farts” and we use that to come up with new ideas – we’ve actually challenged ourselves to post 1 new idea a day for the past few years. “Train of Thought” was born from one of those ideas, actually. I’m a very divergent thinker and tend to ramble on and on and on and … where were we?

Oh yeah! I wrote on the forum that I thought of one thing while trying to think about another thing and stated that it was a train of thought. I figured that was a good name and proceeded to make up the rules for a game to fit it!

But the game was really similar to other word games like “Password” until it hit us that the limiting factor for clue giving wasn’t just the number of words a player could use in his clue, but that the clue had to contain one of the words that the other players had just used as an unsuccessful guess.

This makes the game play out like a train going from station to station on the way to a final stop – at least it plays out like that in my head.

Tom: So you came up with the name and that led to the game. Interesting. Tell us about your current projects.

Sen: Other than marketing and publicizing for Train of Thought, our recent efforts have been focused on our second release – Belfort. The art files from Josh Cappel have just been sent to Panda Games Manufacturing, so we’ll hopefully see the game on shelves in late Q2 2011 or early Q3 2011. In the meantime, we’ll be working on the promotional videos, designer diaries, and other projects to generate pre-release buzz.

We’ve got a few games being reviewed by publishers currently. Z-man is looking at Akrotiri – a pickup-and-deliver game in which players are searching for the gateways to Atlantis. Gamewright is considering Jam Slam – a ear-eye-hand co-ordination game for kids of all ages. We’re also about to ship off a few titles to Asmodee including Lost For Words – a quick word-finding game with simultaneous play – and Junkyard – a strategic stacking game.

Jay: We have a ton of games in various states, but we’ve most recently worked on a party game called Cloonatics, a combative fantasy card game called RuneMasters, and a lighter card game called Lions Share.

Sen: Personally, I’d like to make more children’s games (being a dad and all).

Jay: And, of course, more medium- to heavy-weight “serious” games.

Tom: I’m excited about Belfort. I like what I’ve seen of it so far. Akrotiri sounds like my cup of tea. Atlantis, pick up and deliver, I’m there. RuneMasters also sounds interesting. I would welcome some more children’s’ games. I think that is a market that is under valued and targeted.  And of course ‘serious’ games. What is the hardest part of designing a game?

Sen: Hands down, it’s writing the rules. It takes a lot of effort to get a set of rules that not only enforces all the rules of the game, but does it in a readable manner. Even harder is ensuring that they are written! Using a lot of pictures and examples of everything is important, as we all have played games with terrible rules and we don’t want to be a part of that!

We’re not pros at writing rules yet. For example, in Train of Thought, we’ve been getting some feedback from players on BGG that the “Spirit Of The Game” section of the rules leave too much open for interpretation. That section was mostly penned by the developer, Seth Jaffee, but both Jay and I stand behind it as it makes for more fun and less competition when done right. Too much rules lawyering and the game bogs down. Too few and those that know the rules and play by them feel cheated.

Honestly, my advice to anyone who feels that the “Spirit of the Game” section makes the game “wishy washy” is to speak up and teach people the proper way to play – it won’t make the game any less fun to play for the people who didn’t know the correct way and it’ll make the game more fun for people who do.

So, yeah, writing rules seems to be the thorn in our collective side. We’re part of a Canadian game designer’s guild of sorts called the Games Artisans of Canada (GAC) and I’m sure that 9 out of 10 of our members would agree – writing rules is a) tough, b) no fun at all, and c) utterly necessary

Tom: I wasn’t expecting that answer. So the actual putting the words on paper is the hardest. Interesting. The ‘spirit of the game’ section is a neat idea. I interviewed Seth recently and I also playtested Eminent Domain and watched the rules evolve. So I know he is good with that type of thing. And being a part of a collective like GAC has to be a help. What is the hardest part of playtesting a game?

Sen: When it comes to finding people to playtest our games, we’ve been blessed. Through our relationship with the GAC, we’ve got access to some pretty intelligent people, such as Sean Ross and Graeme Jahns, who know how to analyze games and give feedback beyond “It’s not fun, but I can’t tell you why it isn’t…” Jay and I both have our own playtesting groups as well, many of whom are friends from back in the day when we met at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. While a lot of them aren’t as serious about gaming as the GAC team, they are still able to provide us with a lot of insightful feedback – some of it even more valuable as they represent the majority of the market we are targeting with some of our games (like Train of Thought).

So finding playtesters isn’t that difficult – it’s getting in enough “blind” playtest sessions (i.e. ones without help/interference/interpretation from one of the creators) that seems very difficult for us to do. That’s the primary area of our game development pathway that I’d really like to work on improving – getting more blind testing done and creating a good method to collect feedback.

Jay: We often will get a bunch of feedback from players after a playtest session. My desire to please everyone all the time tends to make me want to change everything. It’s key for us to remember though that we can’t please everyone all the time. While we’re very humble during playtests and listen to any and all ideas, we now make a concerted effort to apply only the feedback that ensures the core vision of the game remains intact.

Tom: I’ve heard from others that blind playtesting is difficult. Obtaining quality feedback in a form you can actually use is a feat too. But it sounds like you have the right attitude and mindset.

Sen: Players who are open to changes on the fly, players who can give constructive feedback, and players who are genuinely interested in bettering the games we make are just some of the things we look for when we ask people to playtest. We don’t want people who will just blow sunshine up our butts – we want people who will help us make the best possible games.

Playtesters don’t even have to be ubergamers that get every strategic nuance after a single play. In fact, too many of that type of player can skew your view of a game. We play with a mix of ages, genders, skill levels, and interests. I find that some of the best feedback comes from playtesters who don’t actually like the type of game they’re playing but are open and honest enough to provide meaningful feedback.

Jay: I think we’ve done a good job in not overusing our playtesters. When we request our friends’ time to playtest they know it’s really needed. Not only that, but due in part to how open we are to listening and accepting feedback, everyone seems to really enjoy trying to find solutions to known issues in a particular design. Sometimes brainstorming how to fix a problem in a game can be more fun than playing games!

Tom: Brainstorming is fun. I have enjoyed playtesting. And I volunteer to playtest for you out in the future if you need. Now to our next question: What makes a good game?

Sen: To me, a good game should:
• Be easy to teach – As the person who usually buys the games in my local group, if the rules suck or the game is too confusing to teach, it’ll sadly never get played as I will invariably fall back on something I know more intimately when push comes to shove.
• Play in a reasonable amount of time – There’s not a lot of time in the day with 2 kids, a day job, game design, and being a competitive martial artists. I gave up RPGs because I couldn’t dedicate weekly 7 hour sessions to gaming. I also don’t think many of the gamers I play with could handle the same game for 3 hours.
• Have multiple paths to victory – Strategy games with one clear way to win are actually not very strategic…
• Have as many players involved at once, interacting as much as possible – The less downtime, the better. The less multi-player solitaire, the better.
• A theme that I can immerse myself in, if warranted – I like to play in game worlds I find interesting. I guess that comes from my RPG days. Theme can also be a limiting factor – My oldest son loves games, but I’m sure his mother wouldn’t want me playing “Mansions of Madness” with him…yet.
• Support a wide range of players (age, number, skill level) – My gaming partners range from 6 and 7-year-old kids in a 2 player game to 7-8 players with grandparents involved. A game that can handle all that and in-between is a winner in my book. Scalability is a big plus.
• Have many meaningful decisions made throughout the game that impact on the end result vs. chance. If I lose a game because of a die roll, I am frustrated in a bad way. If I lose a game because of a poor decision on my part, I am frustrated in a good way.

Lastly, the experience of playing a game should live on after the last card is drawn. If there is no post-mortem analysis of the game you just played – not necessarily out loud – then there may not have been enough strategic or tactical decisions, immersion/involvement/engagement, or player interaction.

If a game is good, you should want to play it again immediately with the thought that you could possibly do better – even if you won.

Tom: That is an excellent answer. It is point for point what I look for in a game. I stink at teaching games so I like ones that are easy to teach. Multiple paths to victory is a must. For me, hard decisions is also something that I really like in a game. As a developer, what do you look for in a game?

Sen: I look for games that satisfy a few criteria

a) Is there enough that is novel about the game mechanics that it fills a hole in my collection?

Right now, I don’t have a deck building game in my collection – I’m looking at Thunderstone, maybe Nightfall to fill that niche. I really want to learn more about this kind of mechanic as well. I’m also very interested in using dice in new ways, so I may look at Troyes and Roll Through the Ages to see how they’ve used dice.

b) Are the rules well written? How long will the game take to teach others? To play?

I am always looking for new ways to present rules to players – for research purposes, of course. I look at how the rules are presented in ways that facilitate teaching – how are examples presented, how are icons used, how are appendices used, etc.

I also look at the board and other components to see how the graphic designers may have made playing easier – how are the cards designed for ease of use, how are icons used, how are player aides laid out, etc.

I want to figure out how games are designed such that time is shaved off each player’s turn without sacrificing the greater game itself.

c) Is the game part of a growing system / have expansions / collectible?

I’m a sucker for anything with expansions etc. so I try really hard to stay away from CCGs especially. I sold all of my MtG cards to a guy in Italy for $10,000 US. True story.

I want to see how other designers have made their game such that it is complete in and of itself, but can support add-ons, if so desired.

Jay: When I’m looking for a game to buy, I usually am interested because of hype online. Then the theme has to be of interest to me. I’m pretty interested in many themes, but some just don’t work for me – like space games, for some reason. Then I check out who designed it. Acquiring over 200 games (and playing many more!) gives one an insight into who designed which ones.

Tom: I don’t have a deck building game yet either. Nightfall is high on the list. And Eminent Domain is arriving soon. I like games rules that have good, clear examples of play with examples of how NOT to play also. Making play easier is a good and needed goal. Next question: Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?

Sen: Tough question. I guess if I have to pick one, it’d have to be Reiner Knizia – the man can make a game out of anything. He is utterly prolific. Sure, not everything’s a breakthrough, but when he’s on…he’s on! I think back to his games most often when creating our own. When I find myself in the design doldrums, I ask myself “What Would Reiner Do?”

Jay: have my favourites: Kramer, Knizia, Teuber and will look at any game they design!

Tom: Of your games, which is your favorite?

Sen: While it’s not even close to being done, I think Rune Masters has the potential to be something really special. But the one game I am dying to figure out is Scene of the Crime – it’s one of the first games we ever made and it has some really cool aspects in that it’s a logic/deduction game that requires no use of memorizing or tracking things like most similar games do. We’ve just never got it solidified. Maybe we’ll have some time in the near future.

Jay: My favourite game of ours is a game called Akrotiri that is currently under consideration with Z-Man Games. I am a sucker for tile placement games and we came up with something really new and special. Without giving too much away, we found a way to have players search for hidden temples based on map cards that they have – but in each game, the temples are located in different places. It’s really my kind of game!

A close second has to be Belfort. This one is coming out later this year from Tasty Minstrel Games and the art was done by Josh Cappel – and he truly has outdone himself here! Wait until you see some of the art he’s done for Belfort! Belfort is a worker placement, resource management and area majority game – three mechanics I really enjoy! I couldn’t be happier with our final product on this one.

Tom: How many versions of Train of Thought and Belfort did you go through before the finalized versions?

SEN: Train of Thought has pretty much remained true to the initial vision. A few additions and subtractions were made, but it didn’t change how the game was played, essentially.

Belfort, on the other hand, had a lot of changes. It started out, in all honesty, as a 24-card game that used paperclips to track resources. And the next day, there was a board (which has always been pentagonal, for some reason). And the next day, we added more cards. And then tokens, and then warriors. And then orcs. And then we took out the orcs. Which meant the warriors had no job to do. So they were fired. But then we thought about the buildings needing some more “jazzing up”, so we brought in the gnomes. Ha! At one point, there wasn’t even any gold in the game – it was all just wood and stone and metal! So, parents – if you want your son or daughter to be assured a job in a medieval fantasy game, tell them to be an elf or a dwarf. Don’t let your children grow up to be warriors, apparently!

JAY: We keep pretty much every single iteration of graphic file we’ve used in Belfort. I bet we’re up above the 62nd iteration!

Tom: What changes to each game did you make as a result of playtesting?

JAY: For Train of Thought , we originally played in teams with a stealing mechanic. While our playtesters enjoyed the competitive play, they liked it better when we changed it such that everyone was always involved. You wouldn’t need any other components to play the team version, so maybe we’ll release the old rules as a variant. We also used to have these ‘derail’ tokens that were used kind of like ‘mulligans’ when you needed to go back one spot, or change your destination word because you just couldn’t figure out how to get there. We took those out because none of our playtesters ever really used them. But, I suppose you could play with pennies or tokens if you wished to provide a bit of leeway for children playing against their parents, for example. One of the balances we did with playtesters was figuring out the best amount of time. 1 minute was too short for people to sometimes even get one train completed, while 3 minutes made each turn drag out a bit too long.

SEN: Belfort’s biggest change came when one of our playtesters asked “Why isn’t their any gold in this game?” Originally, we wanted the game to be about converting, trading, and using the raw goods but playtesters felt it took too much time and effort to always have to do transactions in their heads. So we added gold. Which lead to the taxation system that’s in place as a “leader balancer”. Having gold as a resource allowed us to do a lot of other things that made a lot more sense like paying gold to hire your workers vs. trading wood back to the elf village to take one of their sons to the city to work. Why would the elves need more wood?

Tom: Talk about the art and artists on each game a bit. I’d like to give them some spotlight.

SEN: Can I have a few pages here? I cannot stop talking about both Gavan Brown (Train of Thought) and Josh Cappel (Belfort). Both are Canadian and members of the Game Artisans of Canada (a group that Jay and I belong to). Both are game designers (Gavan’s first release, JAB, is coming out very soon; Josh’s Wasabi came out via Z-man and was well-received). And both are AWESOME to work with!

JAY: Gavan’s design of the box and logo have taken a lot into consideration. Everything from colour selection to the layout was done in a way that would attract people to look at the box. Take a look at the side of the box. He redesigned the logo so it would read out properly if the box is put on its side on a game store shelf. But what if the game is on a store shelf, spine out, but standing up? Gavan made the Conductor oriented so it would be upright in this scenario. Brilliant!

SEN: Gavan’s addition of the Conductor character to Train of Thought gave a nice, accessible, face to a game that originally didn’t have much personality. It actually changed how we wrote the rules for the game. I’m fairly technical (read: boring) when I write, so the rules as they were written, at first, did not fit at all with the graphics Gavan had come up with. So we changed the wording of the rules to suit the family friendly artwork. I am literally over the moon with how nice of a total package Gavan provided – Look! There’s even an ISBN code on the box so that Train of Thought can be sold in book stores straight away. That was Gavan’s recommendation, not our request!

JAY: Similarly, Josh was a very welcome addition to Team Belfort. His sense ofhumour pervades the game, now, injecting it with quirky anachronisms and “easter eggs” that you’ll have to look for when the game is released! His ability to both give and receive feedback is probably his greatest asset – it made working with him very enjoyable. Josh is actually credited as more than just the graphic designer on the back of the rules as he provided a lot of help with reworking the rules and clarifying the wording.

SEN: Oh yeah, and he also created a new race for the game – the blue Goons! Look for them guarding important places and enforcing the rules of the King throughout the castle. And, perhaps, look for them in a future expansion or totally new game set in the world of Belfort…

JAY: It is safe to say that both artists breathed life into paper and plastic bits to make the games more than what they originally were. Both artists are brilliant at what they do and we recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone who wants not just a pleasing graphic design, but to work with an artist who understands game design and game sales from a first hand perspective. The value both Gavan and Josh added to our games is truly immeasurable.

SEN: Please check out Josh’s work at http://www.joshuacappel.com. Some of the games he’s worked on include Terra Prime (designed by Tasty Minstrel’s head developer, Seth Jaffe), Wasabi (Josh’s own design), and the forthcoming Belfort. I hear he’s working on something involving dinosaurs or pirates or something…

JAY: And Gavan can be contacted through http://www.roxley.com – his artwork can be seen on Boardgame Geek for the games like JAB (Designed by Gavan himself), Undermining (Designed by fellow Artisan, Matt Tolman) and, of course, Train of Thought. Gavan has just finished Eminent Domain, so *definitely* check that one out – another fine Tasty Minstrel Games product!

Tom: What are you currently playing?

Sen-Foong:BattleLore and Runebound with my son, nephew, and friend’s 12-year old son. I just bought the Space Alert expansion and am eager to try that out – it just takes the right group of gamers to play that one though. Train of Thought makes frequent appearances at Sunday dinner with my in-laws and get togethers with my cousins. Like I said above, I don’t own a deck-building game yet but I just put a copy of Nightfall on hold. We’ll see how that one stacks up against Dominion.

Jay: I still haven’t burnt out on Dominion – love that game! Recently I’ve played London, Tikal 2, Saint Petersburg, Modern Art, Botswana and Poison. I prefer medium weight games that can be played in 1.5 hours or so. My favourite games would be: Tikal, Entdecker, Domaine, El Grande and Dominion.

Tom: Dominion hates me. I don’t know why but I stink at that game. I picked up London recently and really like it. It going to take a couple more plays to ‘get it’ but there is some depth and hard choices in the game. I recently played El Grande for the first time and I really enjoyed it. Ok, what’s the coolest part of being a game designer?

Sen-Foong: Working with skilled graphic designers who breathe an incredible amount of life into a bunch of numbers, dice, and cards. I’m not a horrible artist, but the creativity and skill that Gavan Brown and Josh Cappel (two fellow GAC members, I might add) have shown on Train of Thought and Belfort, respectively, is nothing short of awesome.

Jay: For me the coolest part was being at BGG.con last November and showing people how to play Train of Thought. Then, if they bought one, having people ask me to sign their copy. It’s definitely a weird feeling. “Hey, you know I’m just a guy, right?” But I get it – and I’d be excited to meet another designer too! Regardless – that was pretty darned cool.

Tom: Last question: Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

Sen-Foong: You can follow our blog at http://www.bamboozlebrothers.com where we write about our games and how we got them published in something like 27 or so easy steps.

Jay: And check out http://www.tastyminstrelgames.comfor information on our current release – Train of Thought – and our upcoming release – Belfort.

Tom: Well guys it has been my pleasure having you on Go Forth And Game. I enjoyed learning more about you and your games.

Thanks for visiting Go Forth And Game and join me again for more interviews and reviews.

(photos were sourced from BGG)

6 thoughts on “A Conversation With…Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier, designers of Train of Thought”

  1. Thanks for the interview Tom – twas a pleasure! If anyone has any questions about game design or whatnot – feel free to let us know either right here or on our website as referenced in the interview…we’d be happy to help other aspiring designers in whatever way we can.

    -Jay Cormier

  2. Excellent interview, Tom! You asked almost everything I wanted to ask – so you scooped me! 😉 I am really looking forward to playing Train of Thought this weekend, and I can’t wait to find out more about Belfort. It sounds awesome.

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