Colby: I’m 28 years old. I live in Ohio with my wife and daughter. I am a top-level assassin working for the US government. I hunt polar bears with nothing, save a small pocket knife. I like board games.
Tom: Naked polar bear hunting can be dangerous. You should design a game about that. Summoner Wars was a huge hit out of the gate. It continues to roll along and always gets good press. Tell us about it. What is it about?
Colby: Summoner wars is a battle card game where players have a deck full of unit cards, and event cards, that make up their army. The battle takes place on a grid with players moving their cards about and treating them kind of like one would treat minis in a miniatures game.
Colby: The idea was the result of my mind stirring right before sleep. The sky is the limit. As long as there are enough people playing Summoner Wars and wanting more we will keep innovating on the line.
Tom: Let’s talk about expansions. You’ve been very consistent with the release of expansions. How vital are expansions to Summoner Wars or to an expandable game?
Colby: Expansions are part of the fun with this kind of game. Playing with new units, coming up with new strategies, expanding the number of match-up possibilities, are all part of the lure with this kind of game. That said, if you are the kind of player that wants one box and not have to feel like they’ve got an incomplete game, then I highly recommend picking up the upcoming Master Set. It comes with nice components and 6 factions, which comes out to a lot of different match-ups to fiddle with.
Tom: I know I learned about you through The Dice Tower. How important have podcasts been to you?
Colby: Things like podcasts are very important to the little guy. If you create a good product that nobody knows about it doesn’t do you a lick of good. Fortunately there are guys out there like Tom Vassal who have dedicated a part of their lives to telling people about board games. The internet has been my best friend. In a market that is still this niche, things like podcasts provide a way to hit some of your very small target demographic.
Tom: How important has BGG been to Plaid Hat? What about Origins and GenCon?
Colby: The answer here is very similar to the one above. The conventions also have the added benefit of getting to meet fans and demo the game. Not everyone is going to be convinced by the press, and not everyone keep their ear close to the ground about new board games. Conventions provide me the chance to play Summoner Wars with these people, showing them exactly what it’s all about.
Tom: How did your company come about?
Colby: I started off as an uber-fan of Heroscape. Eventually I ended up working on that line and working with Hasbro in general doing game design projects. It was a natural next step to work on a project that was mine from conception. Once I had Summoner Wars I showed it to Hasbro, but didn’t market it to another game company very hard after that, because part of me just wanted to start a game company. I’m glad I did. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and the excitement.
Tom: That is an interesting history. I knew that you had worked with Hasbro but didn’t know in what capacity. We love Heroscape and are sad is no longer supported. Regarding Plaid Hat, what problems, if any, have you had with production?
Colby: You can’t do everything yourself. At a certain level you’ve got to rely on some people that have the talents you don’t and you have to rely on a printer. This has been the hardest part for me. At these times in production, when it is taking longer than it is supposed to, you feel pretty helpless with only the ability to prod them along. At some point, in order to promote your game, you’ve got to give the public some sort of release date. I very much dislike missing these release windows. It irritates fans, and nothing irritates me more than an inability to meet a fan’s (reasonable) expectations.
Tom: What is the hardest part of designing a game?
Colby: Getting discouraged when you have an idea that you bring to a prototype level just to find out it’s not working. You can’t get married to following through on your ideas, but you have to be dedicated enough to get your ideas to a point where you’ve explored them enough to make a decision on whether they are good enough to move forward with.
The other hard part for me is rules writing. It is a very precision craft. You have to be clear, concise, and avoid holes in your rules. I have trouble with concentration and rules writing requires a great deal of it as you must consistently challenge yourself as you write about whether this is the best way to say what you are trying to say. Does it affect any other part of the rules adversely? Is the way it is worded consistent with the way other parts of the rules are worded? In what ways is it likely to be misinterpreted?
Tom: I’ve heard a lot of different answers to the next question. What is the hardest part of playtesting a game?
Colby: Finding dedicated testers. Playtesting a game by yourself is not only boring, but it is slow and doesn’t bring new minds to the table that think differently than you do. So it is important to find other playtesters. There is no lack of people who think that seeing units first, and helping shape a game they like, and being an insider, is alluring. But many of those people find out it is work and requires that you stay updated on changes, and that you play the game on purpose, and that you report in, and they quickly stop being active.
Tom: Finding reliable playtesters is THE most common answer to that question. That is very interesting. You are right about the allure and rush you get from being a playtester. I have felt that myself. But it isn’t about that to me. I feel that playtesting is an honor and an obligation to the designer/developer to give honest, concise, and useful feedback.
Next question: What are some aspects of a good player?
Colby: Know the enemy. Know what your opponent’s summoner brings to the table and be prepared to counter it. Be perceptive. Don’t just see what the current situation is. See what situations your moves open up. Be a creative thinker. I’ve seen plenty of unconventional stratagems arise and continue to. Some people see a short rulebook with straight forward rules, play the game once, and decide the game is too simple. Those people haven’t tried to beat James Sitz – my lead playtester.
Tom: What makes a good game? As a developer, what do you look for in a game?
Colby: So these two questions belong together, because the things that I believe make a good game are going to be the things I look for in a game. First and foremost is fun factor. It’s not always easy to breakdown why a game is fun, but it has to have that fun factor when it is played before it is even worth breaking it down any further than that. A good game offers decisions to the players that are interesting and have multiple solutions with varying risk, reward and results. I do not like a game where the optimal moves are often clear or mathematical, which brings me to the next thing I like it a game – drama. I don’t like a game where it is decided by luck, but a game completely devoid of any chance lacks a certain sense of drama. I also like story in a game. That drama should help tell some sort of story. The players should have a chance to come together and imagine out the scenes that are taking place in the game. They should be able to tell stories afterwards with big hand gestures as they get excited about how things unfolded.
Tom: You are not only a game designer but publisher as well. That’s a very tough row to hoe. Why did you choose the self publishing route?
Colby: I like it. I like leading. I like challenge. I like hard work.
Tom: Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?
Colby: This is an easy one – Craig VanNess. He’s a mentor of mine. He’s brilliant and modest and he’s just plain ol’ good people.
Tom: Craig VanNess. I didn’t know who that was until you mentioned him. So I looked him up. Designer of Heroscape! Wow! As I mentioned, Heroscape is my son’s favorite at the moment. It is good to know who is responsible. Of your games, which is your favorite?
Colby: I could say it depends on which games are counted as ‘mine’. I’ve worked on a number of games that I haven’t been there to influence the basic concept for. But I guess I don’t really need to ask that question, because the answer is the same either way – Summoner Wars. It is my baby. It holds a special place in my heart. Even after hundreds of games of it I still enjoy playing it.
Tom: What are you currently playing?
Colby: A little game I like to call – Answer the interview questions from Tom Gurganus
Oh! You don’t mean literally RIGHT now. I haven’t gotten much of a chance lately to play anything that I’m not working on. I still have a day job at this point, which means I need to exploit my free time as best I can. We’ve got a sci-fi game in the works that I’ve been playing a lot getting it though its early development stages. I’ve been playing Mice and Mystics, and adventure game by Jerry Hawthorne that I will be publishing. I’ve been playing some Battleship Galaxies scenarios that are going to be released via different means after the game is published. I’ve been playing with some Master Set reinforcement units for Summoner Wars.
Tom: Boy, do I know about that. Free time is an issue, even for bloggers. You have a lot in the pipe. That is exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing these ideas from Plaid Hat. What’s the coolest part of being a game designer?
Colby: Heh. You don’t really design board games to be cool. There was that time when I was speaking to a group of teenagers about setting goals and dreams, and I went over my own to do list on my phone as an example of creating a to do list… and they laughed at the extreme level of foreign sounding geekiness contained within that list… oh right, that wasn’t cool at all. What is my favorite part of being a game designer? Hearing feedback from people who have received real joy from something you crafted or helped craft.
Tom: Tell us about your current projects. Any non-Summoner Wars things in the pipeline?
Tom: Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?
Colby: www.plaidhatgames.com We’ve got all sorts of stuff up there including a weekly podcast and Summoner Wars forums. You can ‘like’ Plaid Hat Games or Summoner Wars on Facebook. Check out www.smallboxgames.com. The guy who runs that show is a friend of mine, and he creates a new game like every 5 minutes, so if you like to play a lot of different stuff and you like having some indie publisher stuff in your collection you should be on board that train. (John Clowdus of Small Box Games was the most recent interview on Go Forth And Game.)
Thank you for the interview Colby. It was great talking to you and learning about you. I look forward to playing Summoner Wars and all the other games from Plaid Hat. Plaid Hat also has a podcast. And the BGG link for Summoner Wars is here. Check them out. Good luck going forward. Thanks for being on Go Forth And Game.
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