A Conversation With … Gavan Brown, Designer of JAB – Real Time Boxing

I’m joined this time by Gavan Brown, the designer of Jab – Real Time Boxing.  Jab is soon to be released by Tasty Minstrel Games.

Welcome to Go Forth And Game Gavan.

Tom: Well Gavan, tell me a bit about yourself.

Gavan: I’m a 31 year old Canadian parent of 4 amazing kids. I’m a graphic designer and web developer by trade,  but my true passion is for game design.   I’ve been designing board games for 5 years now, but playing games all my life.  The majority of my gaming experience is in the video game world (with a focus on real-time strategy games), which is apparent in some of my game designs.  I’m also fortunate enough to be a part of the amazing organization: Game Artisans of Canada.   

Tom: Organized game design groups is a fantastic idea. Several of the designers I have interviewed belong to one and find them extremely helpful. I wish I had one in my area. (Maybe I should float that idea to my local crowd. Guys?)

Tasty Minstrel is publishing your game, JAB – tell us all about it.  Where did the idea come from?

Gavan: JAB is a real-time boxing card game.  Where players play punch cards to their opponent’s boxer in real-time.  As in real boxing, there are 2 paths to victory:  winning 3 of the 5 possible rounds, or knocking your opponent out, resulting in an instant win.  The game is very different than traditional real-time board/card games because the game focuses on tactical play, and is not simply a measure of pure physical and pattern recognition speed.  The idea spawned from one of the my main goals in the field of board game design, which is to bring some of the meta game concepts and psychology of real-time strategy (RTS) video games to the board game world.  In JAB’s case, the game was inspired by one of the best fighting games I’ve ever played:  Fight Night Round 2.  Generally, I’m not much of a sports gamer, but I assure you, Fight Night is no ordinary sports game.  It is extremely tactical and intense to the point where I would consider it an RTS game, rather than a sports game.

But it wasn’t the mechanisms of Fight Night that I wanted to emulate with JAB.  What interested me was the emotions that a real-time strategy system generated in me as a player.  The feeling of urgency when you are trying to knockout your opponent.  The feeling of sheer panic when you are in danger of being knocked out, fighting to stay on your feet until the round is over.  A feeling of cleverness when you plan a series of maneuvers in real-time and they happen to work out perfectly.   Feelings of urgency and panic are emotions that are really amplified in a real-time system.  These emotions were the player psychology I wanted to tap into with JAB, and I’m extremely satisfied with the results.

Tom: I have to say, when I first heard the JAB was a boxing game I didn’t think much about it. I’m not into boxing. But after reading some early press and hearing you describe it, I’m very interested. The mechanics sound really fun. How did you hook up with Tasty Minstrel?

Gavan: Originally I wanted to publish JAB myself.  Being a graphic designer, I have ample experience in the print industry, along with my many years experience being self-employed, which made the decision easy.  I started heavily researching what was involved in getting a game produced.  I sourced out a factory in China, got quotes on shipping, talked to distributors… everything was good to go. 
I’d been on #bgdf_chat (Board Game Designers Forum) talking with Seth Jaffee, and he requested a prototype.  I had informed him that I was publishing it myself, but I would gladly welcome his opinion of the game.  I sent him a prototype and him and Michael Mindes played it at BGG.con in 2009.  Michael played it for many hours that night.  Michael absolutely loved it and asked if I would let TMG publish it.  At first I rejected him and kept pursuing my own publishing route.   

I found (and still find) Michael to be very supportive, and a great person all around.  In December 2009, Michael made me a final offer to publish the game.  With a new baby at my house and working a full time job, I really had to think about what was best for the game, and what was best for my future in game design.  Michael and I struck a deal, and it’s been an extremely positive experience.  TMG is a great publisher that really thinks out of the box.  Their focus on grass-roots / community marketing (such as BGG), is a core value that I share.

Tom: What a cool story. I admire you for wanting to go it on your own. But to impress Michael so much that he pursued you is very impressive. I want to play this game even more now. How much ‘influence’ did Seth and Michael have?  What about JAB changed from its initial inception?

Gavan: Fortunately, JAB was nearly ready for publication when TMG took the wheel.  But JAB has gone through countless iterations and changes.  In fact, the earliest versions of the game didn’t even function.  I was getting feedback like “maybe some things are just not meant to be made into games”.    A few prototypes later, there was a eureka moment, and the game started functioning… not only functioning, but functioning better than I thought possible.  After this miracle moment, the game then came together fairly quickly, but I spent an additional year streamlining and balancing the system.  One of the biggest changes over that year of streamlining, was the introduction of a tug-of-war health system, which determines how close you are being knocked out.

Tom: It can be so hard to get to those eureka moments. What is the hardest part of designing a game? What part of the process do you dread?

Gavan: That’s an easy one for me: challenging failure. The question is not “will I fail?” but rather, “how many more times will I fail before I succeed”.   Remaining confident that you will eventually succeed while facing failure after failure is I think the hardest part for a lot game designers.  But the moments I have succeeded with a design are some of the best moments I’ve ever experienced in my life, and has made every failure worth it.  I try to remember that each failure represents a lesson.  If something doesn’t work, you now know it doesn’t work and you’ve increased your knowledge of game design.  Learning something is never a waste of time.

Jab in action

Tom: That is the truth. I like how you phrased it – ‘“how many more times will I fail before I succeed”.   Remaining confident that you will eventually succeed while facing failure after failure is I think the hardest part for a lot game designers’. Oh, man is that great advice. Once you get the game to a point that you are comfortable with you go to playtesting. What is the hardest part of playtesting a game?

Gavan: Dealing with a train-wreck.  All game designers have them.  The session starts out with confidently, but gameplay slows down and eventually just turns into a discussion, and a feeling of devastation to the designer.  I’ve discovered the best thing to do in this situation is just let it happen.  I regularly ask during a session if people are still enjoying themselves, and if they WANT to continue.  There is no reason to force your playtesters to sit through a session they aren’t enjoying.  I’m extremely lucky in that I am able to playtest my early stage prototypes with other game designers.  I’ve discovered that the closer a game gets to being finished, the quieter everyone becomes.  

Tom: Thanks for sharing that. I like to ask these next two questions of all my guests.  First, what are some aspects of a good player?

Gavan: A good player is someone who adds to your game group’s game session experience.  This can be through humour, competition, or just plain old positive energy.   Any combination of these traits are people who I enjoy playing games with.  

Tom: Second, what makes a good game?  

Gavan: This is a great question, and one that I’m sure everyone answers differently.  In my opinion, a good game contains not one, but all of the following criteria:  innovation, replayability (depth) and elegance.  Theme and visual design, while I feel are important components to a game, I feel are secondary.   But an ideal game is one that fires on all cylinders.

More Jab Action!

Tom: Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?

Gavan: Martin Wallace.   This may sound weird from a guy who’s first game design is real-time boxing game.  I am a Brass player through and through.  Martin Wallace games generally do not focus on mechanism innovation, but rather on meta game innovation.  Recommending someone play Brass, is like recommending they watch The Godfather.  While I feel Brass is one of the greatest boardgames ever created, I would not recommend it lightly, just as I wouldn’t recommend The Godfather to just anyone.  Playing Brass for the first time can be painful, but playing Brass for the 20th, 50th or 100th time, is extremely rewarding.  There is an enormous level of depth to be explored in Martin Wallace’s designs and he is truly an inspiration to me.

Tom: You’re right. Wallace is known as designing deep games that take a couple of plays to grasp. And they can be brutal on first play. Of your games, which is your favorite?

Gavan: This a very Sophie’s Choice style question.:D  Well, if I had to choose right now, I’d say Hooch.  Hooch is a heavy economic euro-style game where players take on the role of one of the Five Families of New York City during the Prohibition Era.  I’ve been working on it for the last six months.  It’s probably my current favorite because I’ve put all the best of the ideas I’ve had over the last few years into the system.  The game features two completely new mechanisms that I’ve designed, and also evolves some mechanisms, using them in new ways.  I am very happy with the game so far.

Tom: This is one of the best parts of these interviews – learning about new games. Hooch sounds like a game I will enjoy. New mechanics, I can’t wait to play it. What are you currently playing?

Gavan: These days, most of my game time is spent playing prototypes of my fellow game designers, which I love doing as much or more than playing published games.  However I still play a lot of Brass online, Yomi, and a plethera of euros.

Tom: What’s the coolest part of being a game designer?

Gavan: The coolest part is being surrounded by a sea of extremely talented, intelligent individuals.  

Tom: Tell us about your current projects.

Gavan: Hooch is my main focus right now.  I also have another real-time game called YUM: Realtime Icecream, which is currently one of the 8 finalists of the Canadian Game Design of the Year Award.  I have others that are a bit to raw to mention at this point.

Tom: A finalist! Very cool. Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

Gavan: Game Artisans of Canada: www.gameartisans.ca– an organization of Canadian game designers who have been instrumental in me not jumping off a bridge in frustration.  They are all amazingly talented designers and I’m extremely fortunate to be a part of the group.

Tom: Well Gavan it’s been a lot of fun talking to you about your games. I’m excited to see that JAB will be out soon. I think it is going to be a big winner. Hooch also sounds like a lot of fun. Keep me posted on it. Thanks very much for being my guest on Go Forth And Game.

You can purchase Jab – Real Time Boxing here or at your local game store soon.  And thank you for visiting Go Forth. Please leave a comment for Gavan or myself.  Ask a question or tell us how you liked the interview.

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