A Conversation With…Jason Kotarski, designer of The Great Heartland Hauling Company

This time I’m joined by Jason Kotarski.  Jason’s an awesome guest and the designer of The Great Heartland Hauling Company, coming soon from Dice Hate Me Games.

Tom: First remind us about yourself.  We all know that outside of a few ‘game rock stars’, everyone else has a day job.  What do you do to fuel your gaming habit?

Jason:  Sure. I live in Flint, Michigan and I’m the pastor of a new church my family and some friends started called Dwellings. Before this I was an assistant pastor at another church in the area for a few years and before that I was the shipping/receiving manager for a college bookstore for almost 10 years. I have a wife who teaches kids with Autism and a 3-1/2 year-old daughter who both love games. We’re about to have our second child in a few weeks so I’m looking forward to both growing our church and expanding our little family of gamers.

Tom: First, congratulations on the second one.  You know it is four times more difficult, not just two.  But Eight+ times more rewarding.  And you are a pastor.  That is one tough profession.  I commend you for following the call.  And I’m praying for you both.  (Pastors wives have just as hard row to hoe.)  Back to games, what was the catalyst game?  What game got all this started?

Jason: I really appreciate it. It’s  been a pretty wild year for us so we need all the help we can get. My entry into the game world was pretty standard. I had just left my punk rock band after spending a lot of weekends on the road and evenings away so I could be closer to home and my wife found a copy of Settlers of Catan at a mall kiosk on Christmas. She had played in college and told me we HAD to get it. After that I did some googling and came across Board Games with Scott and then started perusing the shelves of a local hobby shop where a friend pointed me towards BoardGameGeek.com. I was all-in after that!

Tom: Wow.  That’s the second ‘Christmas kiosk’ story I’ve heard in the last few months.  Now for The Great Heartland Hauling Company.  Tell us all about it, what is it about, how do you play?

Jason: Heartland Hauling is my first design that is being published by Dice Hate Me Games. It’s a game where each player is a truck driver trying to pick-up-and-deliver goods to earn cash. It’s essentially an exercise in balancing risk and reward, but fun! The game has a modular board made of cards that represent different location in the heartland. Each location specializes in a native good and has two other good in demand. Truckers fuel cards to move around the heartland to different locations. At each location players can discard Freight Bill cards to pick up Cargo Crate Cubes or the native good or play cards matching the in-demand goods to drop them off in exchange for cash (victory points). It plays with 2-4 players and last between 30 and 45 minutes. It’s a game that offers enough options and strategy to engage a gamer while being quick and easy enough to teach to the more casual gaming types. It also comes in a small, portable package so it’s perfect for taking on the road!

Tom: Dice Hate Me Games is publishing GHHC.  How did you guys get together?

Jason: Well, after doing really well at a regional event that was a part of the Rio Grande Game Design Contest, I decided to shop the game around and eventually signed with Cambridge Games Factory. I was helping out at their booth at Origins Game Fair this year and meeting lots of great people, including Chris and Monkey from Dice Hate Me. My game had been delayed and I was starting to wonder if I should consider looking for some other options to getting the game out there. I showed the game to Chris and Monkey and they gave me some great feedback and we talked briefly about self-publishing through Game Salute since they didn’t feel like they were in a position to pick up another game at that point. But they were a huge encouragement to me so I decided to go for it and I asked for the rights back from CGF. CGF was awesome about it and wished me luck in getting the game out. When I got home from the Con, I got a phone call from Dice Hate Me saying they changed their mind and wanted to release the game and move to the top of the queue since it was the only window they had available. They have been awesome to work with. For such a small company they are a class act and I couldn’t be happier to have had the chance to work with them.

Tom: I am friends with Chris and Cherilyn and remember them talking excitedly about the game when they got back.  I could see that gleam in Chris’ eye that says he wanted GHHC to be a DHMG game.  Where did the idea for GHHC come from?

Jason: Right, you have to watch out when Chris gets that gleam! As far as where the idea came from, I spent a lot of time working as a shipping/receiving manager unloading trucks and chatting with truck drivers so the theme was pretty familiar to me. It all clicked when a trucker brought some food to my old church. He wasn’t getting paid very well to bring this particular shipment to us but said it was worth it since he could drive across the state to pick up a load to haul South that paid really well. As he was telling me this story, I knew there was a game in there so I went home and made one.

Tom: Did anything change from initial concept to final product?

Jason: Well, when Chris and Monkey picked up the game they said they were especially interested in the game since it played like a finished game. But we spent quite a bit of time playtesting and tweaking the rules. We developed the Truck Stop Upgrades expansion that will come in the box as well as a Kickstarter exclusive expansion called Badlands. Chris reworked the art to feel more “Heartland” than the prototype art that felt a little more “Detroit”. He took the basic concepts and changed the feel of the game with the art. I think his touch really opened the game up quite a bit. For me the toughest part was balancing the costs of the goods and the card distributions. That took some fiddling but I just tried to follow ideas that were presented to me by the theme and it worked out pretty well.

Tom: This is a ‘pick up and deliver’ game.  What is unique about it?  What sets it apart from those other ‘pick up and deliver’ games?

Jason: I really don’t have a lot of experience with pick-up-and-deliver games so it’s tough for me to say how it’s different. From what I have heard from others, I seemed to have managed to boil it down to a simple, streamlined mechanic. It’s also not about trains…so that’s different. For me the uniqueness of the game comes from how much game is crammed into such a small package. With the modular board, cards, and variants included there is a lot of replayability in the box.

Tom: I think you hit it on the head. You’ve winnowed the ‘pick up and deliver’ genre down to its basics.  It’s a really fun, lightly strategic p.u.& d. that plays in 30 minutes.  That’s pretty unique.  Why are you Kickstarting it?  What are some of your supporter rewards and stretch goal bonuses?

Jason: Since Dice Hate Me is a such a small company it’s really the only way to get such a big project in production. Kickstarter both helps get the resources together to produce the game and it gets the people directly involved in the process of bringing the game to life. Having seen Chris and Monkey in action with their other Kickstarted games, Carnival and VivaJava, I knew I was  working people who knew what they were doing. They simple connected some ideas to their tribe and brought this thing to life. They communicated with backers every step of the way and offered some great stretch goals to encourage people to keep spreading the word. We started simple offering just a few tiers of rewards; the game with domestic shipping, the game with global shipping, and a couple of package deals that included their other games. From there we ended up adding an expansion in the box, upgraded components (wooden truckmeeples!) and another expansion adding a 5th player to the game.

Tom: The art is really nice.  Tell me a little about the artist and how you joined forces.

Jason: Thanks so much! I am in love with the look and feel of the art. My friend Brian Buckley helped with the original concept. He used to be a graphic designer building newspaper ads. and I approached him about working on getting the game ready for the Rio Grande contest I mentioned. He seemed to think it sounded found so we went to work. Then, once I signed with Dice Hate Me, Chris Kirkman took the reigns and reworked the style to better represent the heartland theme we were going for. Since, Chris owns the company he wasn’t too hard to get on board!

Tom: Have you had any problems with the game?

Jason: The only problem I can think of is my sore index finger. I spent a lot of time refreshing that Kickstarter page watching to see how things were going!

Tom: Who is producing the game?  Where are the bits coming from?

Jason: The production is being done by a company in Florida called Quality Playing Cards. It’s the same company Dice Hate Me used to print Carnival so we know they do great work. Since Heartland will come in the same size box as Carnival we were able to used a lot of the same specs so that has helped move the process along a little faster.

Tom: Ok.  Carnival was pretty nicely produced so that’s a good sign.  When do you hope it will be released to Kickstarter supporters?

Jason: The game should arrive by January of 2013!

Tom: What is next for you?  What else is in the que?

Jason: I actually just signed on with White Goblin Games in the Netherlands for my next project. I can’t share details yet but it should be out by the end of 2013! I’ve also got a few other ideas in the works but nothing really ready for playtesting at this point.

Tom: Standard GFG question time: First, what do you think makes a game great?

Jason: I think something that makes a game great is it’s ability to bring people together for a face-to-face experience that is engaging, fun, and memorable. For me, games are all about connecting with people and stretching our brains together a little. Any game that can do that is pretty great in my book.

Tom: Next, what are the aspects of a good player?

Jason: I like to play with people who don’t care about winning as much as they do about simply enjoying the people they are with and the experience itself. That must make me a great player since I rarely win!

Tom: Lastly, what is your favorite game mechanism?

Jason: I really dig card games so I’d probably say hand management. I like to see all the interesting ways people use cards and having to learn to work with what I’ve got in my hand…as long as the card don’t have too many words. Ha!

Tom: I like card games a lot too.  Hand management is in my top 5 mechanics I think.  Though I stink at it most of the time.  I read your interview with Theology of Games.  Star Wars? Really?

Jason: Oh yeah. I’ve got the tattoo to prove it.

Tom: The crowd is screaming for a picture if appropriate.

Jason: Haha. I’m afraid it’s too ugly, even for the small screen. It’s the Imperial symbol. It needs some bad guys added to it eventually. Maybe when all this game design dough starts rolling in!

Tom: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

Jason: I just I want to say thanks for taking the time to do the interview and share my game with your readers. I have been blown away by the generosity and community surrounding the board game community. So, thanks, to you and everyone else who has given me a little space in their worlds!

Tom: Yeah, the community is so super fantastic and supportive, for the most part.  How can people contact you?  Are there any links you would like folks to visit?

Jason: I occasionally blog about a hodge podge of stuff at www.thegreencouch.wordpress.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @jasonkotarski.

Tom: Want to come back to talk about that White Goblin game when you are able?  And btw, I’m available for playtesting for a very small fee. 😉

Jason:I’d love to come chat with you again. This has been fun!  Thanks again.

Thanks you Jason.  I had a great time talking with you.  I’ve played The Great Heartland Hauling Company and I look forward to getting it in my hands. I’ll keep checking back with you on what you have in the que.

Readers, I appreciate you joining me again for another conversation.  I’m interested to hear what you have to say about this interview or any other post here at Go Forth And Game.

Thanks and come back soon,

Tom G

After a hard day of fighting the forces of EVIL!, La Máscara Azul y Rojo relaxes with a rousing game of GHHC.