A Conversation With…Crash Games’ Michael Coe and Patrick Nickell

It’s my pleasure to welcome Patrick Nickell and Michael Coe to Go Forth And Game. Patrick and Michael are the guys behind Crash Games.

Tom: Talk about Crash Game a little bit. How did it come about?

Patrick: Crash Games formed back in September of 2011. At the time I was managing a FLGS in Mesa, Arizona and Michael Coe and his wife came in to see about demoing a game they were working on in my store. I was incredibly busy and didn’t really have the time to work through facilitating their request. We were both going to be at GenCon 2011 so I said we should meet up there. We exchanged cell phone numbers and that was that. That Thursday of GenCon, with 35,000 people wandering around I bumped into Michael and his wife Brittany by total accident and we ended up spending the entire convention together. We really felt this great creative energy so we decided to do something when we both got back to Arizona. We ended up deciding to create a board game company called Crash Games.

The Crash Games Gang

Michael: Crash Games is a passionate board game design, development and publishing company. Crash Games represents a crash of rhinoceros, we move full speed towards our goals and are unstoppable. We are dedicated to providing the highest quality games that will provide opportunity for friends and family to create fun and lasting memories.

Tom: Tell us about your games.

Michael: Our focus in our games is immersive gameplay and superior components. Our interest is to create games of all kinds. With all of us being diverse gamers we benefit from loving all sorts of games; from heavy strategy to press your luck to light party games. People can look forward to seeing an exciting catalog of games from Crash Games.

Patrick: Well currently we have one published game that was successful on Kickstarter called Rise!, it’s a two player abstract strategy game that Michael designed and I helped develop. We currently have our second game, The Lost Dutchman currently funding on Kickstarter, it’s a 2-5 player adventure/discovery game where players take on the role of prospectors trying to find the lost gold mine of Jacob Waltz. The Lost Dutchman is a very popular Arizona Legend.

We are also currently working with Tory Niemann, the designer of the smash hit, Alien Frontiers on publishing his next game called Pay Dirt.

We have some other games at various stages of development as well mainly Lords, Ladies & Lizards as truly versatile adventure game that’s unlike anything I’ve every played.

Tom: Rise! had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign. I’m sorry I missed out on it. I like a good abstract game. What do you think made Rise! so successful?

Patrick: First and foremost Michael design of Rise! is simply brilliant in my opinion. It has simple components, simple game explanation, simple setup and play yet Rise! has so much versatility and layers upon layers of strategy. I knew it was lightning in a bottle since the first time he showed it to me and I’m beyond thankful to have had a part in bringing it to the board game community.

Patrick in action!

Michael: I’m sorry you missed out on it too; luckily we had enough copies made for you to jump in on it now! *wink* I feel Rise! was successful because of a myriad of reasons. The first and foremost reason, honestly, being our fantastic supporters, they rallied together and spread the word of this great game at the time we most needed it! A big thank you to everyone who backed Rise! Second, solid gameplay, it was tested and balanced with precision over the span of hundreds and hundreds of playtests. Third, a dedicated, genuine and innovative publishing team that wouldn’t sleep until this game was made. I could go on with a lot more reasons but those are the first three reasons that stand out to me.

Tom: Let’s talk about your latest Kickstarter effort, The Legend of The Lost Dutchman. I’ve played it once. It plays like an rpg and I enjoyed it.

Hey! That’s Keith and I playing The Lost Dutchman. I’m on the right, btw.

Patrick: I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Several people have mentioned it has an RPG feel to the characters people play.

Michael: The Lost Dutchman has had tremendous and wonderful effects on people. It’s very rewarding to hear you enjoyed it because that was exactly our goal. It’s a delight to see gamers of all ages enjoy our games and I feel this one has really been a home run!

If you like games that play like an rpg just you wait… Lords, Ladies & Lizards is painted with rpg elements!

Tom: How did you figure out how many ‘Deplete Water’ cards to use?

Michael: We used a formula to nail down a starting number and then play tested it again and again to time the end game trigger. When adjustments were needed we visited the Water Level. This was a more adaptable game component that gave us the control we needed. We also incorporated the treasure map as an end game trigger. This was a very critical component in controlling the length of game play.

Patrick: Whenever you’re working on an end game trigger it can be quite difficult to refine it to work the best that it possibly can. It is a matter of play testing the game over and over and over and over making changes along the way and seeing how those changes play into the overall experience. With the “Water Level Drops” we have a sort of see-saw system. As more “Water Level Drops” are exposed the existing water level goes down. So we had to pay mind to not only the amount of “Water Level Drops” but also the volume of the Water Level. The funny thing is our first dozen plays saw the water level not coming close to dropping quickly at all, then we went to it dropping very quickly in the next dozen plays, then it reverted back to not dropping. The glory of random set up but I feel that the random set up produces a more dramatic experience and gives you great replay ability.

Tom: How do you prototype? How extensive?

Patrick: I prototype with materials I find at home in my game workshop. I’ve turned a room in my house into a game store/workshop and so I’ve got quite a bit of materials to start with. I’m always on the lookout for random good board game bits. In regard to play testing, over the last several years I’ve been fortunate enough to develop a very good network of play testers and rely on them as additional filters. First I always present the game to my wife and my business partner as his wife. We together make up Crash Games. I also have half a dozen various groups here in my home area of Phoenix including several other publishers. I also have a hard-core group of play testers in San Francisco who do a phenomenal job of discovering additional aspects of the game that may have been missed. Our process is to play test quite extensively with all of our groups. We also like to have each game at a major convention for the general public to try out.

Rise! prototype

Michael: Prototyping is very important and we spare no expense. We find the value of a professional prototype to be worth every penny we can afford to put into it. Games are very dynamic and to create a prototype that explores not only the mechanics but the theme and component quality allows play testers to truly wrap their mind around the game and product and provide more accurate feedback.

Tom: I’m very interested in movement mechanism in Dutchman. How did it come about?

Michael: The movement mechanic was part of Patrick Nickell’s original design of The Lost Dutchman and has served as a very fun and intuitive mechanic. Due to some changes in game components we will be altering the movement slightly. This change provides more strategy for players while still maintaining all the elements we loved from the get go.

Card layout for Dutchman. The cards have since been replaced by hex tiles.

Patrick: The movement actually came about in an earlier, different themed game that I talk about in my design diary on Board Game Geek; it was a game I had been working on with my wife. The direction die and movement die seemed natural. However we are at a point where a component change in the game is looking to completely remove the direction die which I feel will give players more freedom and hence more strategic choice.

Tom: What ‘baby’ have you had to throw out?

Michael: As the lead developer for The Lost Dutchman I am not as married to the mechanics and game elements as Patrick, the designer, is. I’m solely interested in refining, balancing and developing mechanics within the spirit of the original design concept. So I’m sure that Patrick feels the pain of baby throwing more than I do. I must compliment Patrick as a game designer; he has very rich and thematic ideas that translate naturally to board game design.

Patrick: In an effort to make the movement more intuitive and fluid and with our new component change I’ve had to throw out the movement restrictions I originally had in the game. It was difficult to do this, especially since I felt some of the restrictions were thematic. It was difficult but I knew it was very necessary to make for a better game.

Tom: Theme or mechanics first?

Michael: Honestly, I cannot choose one over the other. Sometimes I will have an epiphany regarding mechanics and must find ways to work them into my designs and other times I am burning with a theme that I simply cannot leave void and begin designing the mechanics. Game design is an organic process and every designer has a different style. For me, I currently have about 5 or 6 different game designs going on in my head and keeping them organized is tricky. I like to borrow some of my ideas from one design and mix it into another design that is further along in hopes that it will find a store shelf sooner rather than later. I love designing games; it’s my favorite part of what I get to do with Crash Games.

Patrick: For me personally it is theme first. I feel that if you start with a theme the mechanics will be intertwined that much more into the game. I do however have mechanics that I am quite fond of that sit on a proverbial shelf waiting for the right games for them.

Tom: Balance in a game – how do you get it?

Patrick: One of the best parts about having a design and development partner is that we have two very distinct filters that decisions pass through. I feel that Michael is very good at balancing games out and he is the first one to speak up if things are a little unbalanced. We sit down and look at the aspects of a game that is unbalanced and find a way to balance them, then of course comes the inevitable play testing of the attempted re-balance. The tricky part is the effect that one change has on the other parts of the game, that’s where a lot of work can sneak up on you.

Michael: I believe Game balance starts with formulas and is refined from honest and relevant feedback. I cannot stress how important it is that play testers are not agreeable and that they are as brutally honest as possible. When I’m designing games I develop formulas that may seem arbitrary to anyone that is not inside my head (that’s everyone) but they help me make sense of rewards and consequences. Let’s take Rise! for instance, in order for a player place a worker freely (breaking the rule of having to place workers adjacent to other workers) she must sacrifice two of her existing workers. So her decision process is such; “Is it worth it for me to lose not only two workers but the ground they possess? to gain possession of ground in my opponent’s territory?” The formula in Rise! is that you are typically accepting two consequences in order to break one rule. This makes it very important for players to take every action very seriously.

Tom: So you get balance in a game sort of ad hoc/ intuitive and then play with it until it works.

Michael: Yeah, pretty much. Regarding balance, sometimes it’s best to choose an arbitrary starting point that feels right and just play it. When determining how many suits, card types, tiles etc. it works best for me to ask myself “what percent of the game play would I like players to experience this?” In Lords, Ladies & Lizards players will be getting out of their seat to act out medieval concepts. So I asked my self how often do I want this occurring? I really enjoy that element of the game and it has gotten tremendous feed back, but L,L&L has a lot of elements to it so no one thing can be too common. So I decided on the acting element to be about 10-15% of the game. So about 12% of the tiles trigger the acting event. If it isn’t happening enough I increase that number and so forth.

Tom: How do you know when to stop designing? How much is too much?

Patrick: I’m not sure if there is ever a defined stopping point. I once heard a game design is never done, it’s simply published and to some degree I agree with that. There are always changes that can be made but the question I ask myself is “Is this being changed simply for the sake of change or does it better the game?” My design experience is very limited but I can say that there comes a moment when you find the game is playing right and the experience you desire for your players is happening and at that point I try to stop. That is what it comes down to for me, are my players having the experience I want them to?

Michael: I believe that’s a fine line that really determines the greatness of a game. I feel that, that is the true benefit of having strong synergy with your game developers and even sometimes your game publisher. Everyone seems to have their own opinion what games are missing or maybe have too much of. I suppose one could say that art in game designing is knowing when to stop. It’s a talent that must be possessed by everyone involved in bringing a game to market.

Tom: Top two tips for aspiring game designers?

Michael: Two!? Are you kidding me!? I feel so restricted. I’m going outside the lines here. Aspiring game designers, be passionate, be dedicated, be original, be creative, be inventive, be simple but be layered, be honest, be confident, be daring but be careful, be open but be focused and most of all be proud. It is the sparkle in your eye that will sell your game. If you don’t believe in it first no one will.

Patrick: One, have fun. Have fun during the entire process. If you’re not having fun it is going to be very difficult throughout the process and you will most likely give up.

Two, accept all feedback with a smile and thanks but be discerning enough to figure out which feedback needs to stay in your brain and which needs to keep on going right out the other ear.

Tom: What are your current top 5 games?

Michael: Just board games!? Hehe … I love so many kinds of games! My answer reflects no limit to the platform;

1st is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES Game)

2nd is World of Warcraft (PC Game)

3rd is Lords, Ladies & Lizards (shamelessly my own Board Game)

4th is Chess (Board Game)

5th is Carcassonne (Board Game)

Patrick: This is really difficult to choose because I like a lot of games. These are in no particular order or ranking.

Princes of Florence, Troyes, Rise!, Pay Dirt & Alien Frontiers

Tom: You recently announced that you would be publishing a game by Tory Niemann, of Alien Frontiers fame. It’s called Paydirt. How about some info on that one?

Michael: Pay Dirt is a fantastic euro style board game that’s mechanics are original and thematic. Players must manage a gold mining operation in the frigid climate of modern Alaska. Every turn players will face hardships and machine deterioration as they work hard to convert pay dirt into gold. Players compete with each other for area claim stakes, new machinery and better personnel. All while having to balance the duties of their workers. Do you have all your employees working the pay dirt? Should you spare a few to repair your equipment? How about making it into town to buy and sell? Well you better think fast, the temperature is dropping and soon you won’t be able to process any pay dirt at all!

Hoping for Pay Dirt!

Patrick: People have been chomping at the bit for info on Pay Dirt and we’ve been hard at work play testing the game. I play a lot of games, I own close to 300 and Pay Dirt is in my Top Five. I really enjoy the theme, especially how well the mechanics tie into the theme and are extremely intuitive. I really love the game. That being said I’ll share the basics with the game with you.

Pay Dirt is a resource management, worker placement, auction game for 2-4 players in which players are managing a gold excavation crew in the Alaskan Wilderness. Players start with some basic equipment and workers and throughout the course of the game upgrade their mining outfit with better gear, equipment and personnel to maximize moving pay dirt through their equipment. Players will have to manage the hardships that mining for gold in Alaska dishes out. The window for gold mining during the Alaskan Summer is short and players must pay attention to the temperature, when the temperature drops to zero degrees Celsius water can no longer exist is a liquid form so the game is over and the player with the most gold is the winner.

Tom: So, guys, what else do you have on the way?

Michael: Lords, Ladies & Lizards is a carnival of game genres wrapped with a rich medieval fantasy theme. It incorporates pen&paper RPG with classic board game elements. It features a full card game that can perform as a stand alone as well dice games and party games. The game focuses on two objectives providing players with numerous routes to victory, and minimizing player down time through several group gameplay mechanics.

Here is the synopsis of Lords from our website:

A one of a kind role playing adventure game set in a medieval fantasy world threatened by an all-powerful Dragon. Up to six Players get a chance to create and develop Characters through a complex journey that involves strategy, economics, politics and war! Over the span of many “game” years, players will face personal struggles with jealousy and greed, deceit and rage! They will travel across three continents by land, by sea and by air, clearing the way of treacherous monsters. Players must choose which path to take… the way of the warrior? Or the lavish life of the landlord? They can build wealth and recognition through Theatres and entertainment. Or buy and trade treasures and build kingdoms that will rise and fall! They will be forced into war against one other all for the right to reign supreme! But there will only be one winner and that is the one who defeats the Dragon! The next game for Crash Games is going to be Pay Dirt followed by a Rise! expansion in the works and Lords, Ladies & Lizards. We also have other submissions and more in-house designs we are considering for down the road. Patrick and I will be attending Gen Con and will be demoing Pay Dirt, Rise! Medieval Moats & Mortar and Lords, Ladies & Lizards.

Find the Kickstarter here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crashgames/legend-of-the-lost-dutchman

Tom:  Guys, thanks for the interview.  It was super fun talking to you and learning about Crash Games.  I’m excited about The Lost Dutchman and Pay Dirt.  Here’s hoping the Lost Dutchman Kickstarter is successful.  If you are interested in learning more or supporting The Lost Dutchman head on over here.  You only have two weeks.

And keep your eyes on Crash Games.  There are great things on the way.

Thanks for joining me on Go Forth And Game.

Tom G

Photos: Balancing Rocks is from Dakr and used under the Creative Commons License.

Other photos from Crash Games, Dice Hate Me Games, and Clever Mojo Games.