A Conversation With…Grant Rodiek, the designer of Farmageddon

It is a pleasure to welcome Grant Rodiek to Go Forth And Game.  Grant is the designer of the Kickstarter hit, Farmageddon.

Tom: Welcome to Go Forth, Grant. First remind us about yourself.

Grant: My name is Grant Rodiek, I’m 29,  and I live in foggy/sunny/foggy/cold San Francisco. I live with my girlfriend Beth and corgi Peaches.

Grant and Peaches

Tom: 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?

Grant: I’m a game designer for Maxis. I’ve been professionally developing digital games for over 7 years now.

Tom: What’s your gamer cred?  What was the catalyst game?  What game got all this started?

Grant: I’ve been really into digital games for a very long time. After many years of developing them professionally and playing everything, I grew a bit tired of them. People will cringe, but I bought a copy of Munchkin while traveling in Australia and we thought it was really fun. The week I returned home I began working on my first board game design and I’ve never looked back. I also played a LOT of Heroscape in college, but it didn’t actually get me to design, so credit goes to Munchkin.

Tom:  You are an anomoly.  Usually Munchkin chases gamers away. Man, my son and I love Heroscape.  Now for Farmageddon.  Tell us all about it, what is it about, how do you play?

Grant: Farmageddon plays with 2-4 players in about a half hour. It’s a highly interactive take-that. The core of the game is calculated risk: How much to plant, what to plant, and which cards to use and when.  It’s not a super deep game, but there are some choices and the better player tends to win. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Tom: I finally got to play it at our Extra Life event recently.  The highly interactive part is aimed right at me.  Now, Farmageddon started out as a game you could order from The Game Crafter, kind of a semi-self published thing.  How did that go?

Grant: It went really well, actually. Before I took the game down for additional polish, Farmageddon was the #1 selling game of all time on TGC. I thought that was pretty cool. Putting it on TGC gained me some exposure (that didn’t ultimately go anywhere) and provided me with a lot of early, brutal, and enthusiastic feedback. Getting that feedback from so many people helped me turn it into a good game.

Tom: Number 1 seller!  That’s sweet.  I’m interested in hearing some about TGC.  What has your experience been with them?

Grant: I still use TGC as a resource for printing fairly solid prototypes to send to publishers and playtesters. However, the site is pretty expensive (especially when you make a game as big as Empire, which costs $60 if you include S&H). I will probably use TGC for quite some time for prototypes, but I’m not sure I’ll ever sell a game on their store again. My goal is always to find a publisher, so selling the game before it’s publish ready isn’t really what I want to do. Plus, with Empire, I feel really bad selling people a game that costs that much when they can hopefully one day buy a much better published version for less.

Tom: 5th Street Games picked it up.  How did you guys get together?

Grant: Phil and I followed each other on Twitter and would chat from time to time. Phil would provide some feedback on Farmageddon, then I’d provide feedback on one of his games. One day he emailed me with an offer to publish it and we took it from there.

Tom: Where did the idea for Farmageddon come from?

Grant: Farmageddon was the second game I designed. My first game was basically a really (really) bad version of Ascending Empires (minus the dexterity) and I decided to start smaller and design something simple, quick, and light. Farmville (the Zynga Facebook game) was absurdly popular and I thought “I can make a better farming game.” Farmageddon is the result. Having to wait before you can harvest is an abstraction of Farmville’s time-based harvest mechanic.

Tom: What, if anything, changed from initial concept to final product?

Grant: The crop side of things changed very little after the second playtest. The harvest value of the 4 crops, the distribution of the 4 crops, and the fertilizer requirement of the four crops literally didn’t change for a year and a half. However, the 12 Action cards that shipped with the final game changed constantly throughout development. I’ve cut so many, added new ones, and completely revised cards. In addition to that are many “tiny” rules tweaks with big implications for the game. Initially, you could play unlimited Action cards. In the final game, only 2 (adds way more strategy and reduces the chaos). Plus, I worked with blind testers to tweak and improve the 2 player experience to shift from “tacked on” to “fun.”

Tom: You had a very successful Kickstarter campaign.  Tell us a bit about that.

Grant: We were very fortunate and a bit lucky. I think a few key things worked for us. The game has amazing art, which gets people “in the door.” The game had a really low price-point ($12, $15 MSRP), so making the purchase wasn’t that difficult of a decision. Me and Phil had been on Twitter building relationships with our small design and publishing community for quite some time, so I think people were okay helping us out. In addition to that, we just did the basic smart things. We had a lot of bloggers and reviewers write great things about the game after playing it. We sent out a lot of copies and PNPs. We shared rules and were VERY transparent and communicative with the backers. We had a very active group and we tried to be there to respond to every question. Basically, we followed the standard best practices and had a good little game and I think that carried the day for us.

Tom: You guys did a fantastic job of keeping everyone in the loop and disseminating information about the game and campaign.  I agree it was part of the su

ccess.  You mentioned the art.  It is really nice.  Tell me a little about the artist and how you joined forces.

Tom: Art was and is really important for me. I worked at a small mobile game startup called Booyah a few years ago. There were a LOT of outstanding artists there and I asked one if she’d like to work with me on Farmageddon. Unfortunately, she was booked solid with side projects. However, she showed me Brett Bean’s website. I loved his work, emailed him, we finalized a contract, and he got started. I provided him with high level direction and reference art for everything after giving him a clear list of assets and sizes/templates. I loved everything Brett made so it worked out really well. When we added the Frankencrops just before publication, I asked my friend/former Co-worker Erin Fusco if she’d like to imitate Brett’s style. She did and they looked fantastic.

Tom; Have you had any problems with the game? In what way?

Grant: I’m 99% very pleased with the final version. There are ALWAYS better ways to write card text and always rules that can be optimized. If we get to do a second edition print run, I’ll be tweaking just a few words to improve things further. There’s always the issue of people who buy a light take-that card game and seem to expect a super deep, solitary Euro. I don’t get that, but hey, that’s humanity. If you mean design problems, yes and no. I made the decision early on to allow for flexibility in how and when players plant, play action cards, and harvest. This gives players far more flexibility and combo capabilities, but adds a lot of complexity. I stand by the decision, but it’s definitely made it more difficult for VERY casual players.

Tom: Let’s move on for a minute.  I know you have at least two games in the works.  I’ve read the beta rules for Empire and am REALLY intrigued by your alternate history game.  Talk about those please.

Empire in the making

Grant: I love war games. Not so much the 6 hour, intense simulation highly realistic war games, but games like Risk, Stratego, Memoir ‘44, and 1812: Invasion of Canada. Games that let me control and fight with armies without having to forfeit an entire weekend. I wanted to take a stab at the genre and I challenged myself to create a game that doesn’t use dice (as so many war games use dice so heavily). Empire is the result. The game features 4 unique factions, entirely card driven gameplay (both in battle mechanics and broader strategy), and a flexible and simple Action system. It plays with up to 4 players in right about an hour. I have only worked on the game for about 6 months, but it has been tested and iterated upon very intensely in that time. The primary reason for this was that I wanted the game to be good for GenCon. It was, and I spent 14 hours testing it with many different people, including a potential publisher. I then spent another month or two refining the graphic design, the rules, and the mechanics to have better pacing and better accessibility. I think Empire is my best design to date. I submitted it to a publisher a few weeks ago and I hope to hear back from them after Essen. I’m optimistic, but then again, you have to be. My alternate history game, tentatively called 1901: Invasion of America, is a “version 1.5” of Empire. I plan to use a round framework, action system, and card mechanic for the game similar to Empire. The premise of the game is that in 1901 the German Imperial Army invades America. Madness!  I was reading Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris and I came across an event in 1902 known as the Venezuelan Blockade. Long story short, Roosevelt and the Kaiser came very close to going to war over this incident. Upon further inspection, people discovered the Imperial German General Staff had detailed plans to invade America. Why? To force America to give up her newly won colonies (Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba). I thought the historical element and Empire mechanics combined could make for a really compelling experience. The initial response has been strong, which is a good sign. The game will be for 2-4 players and will be a team game. Players will control the German Navy and Army versus the American Navy and Army.

Empire of York

Tom: I’m glad to hear that playtesting went well for Empire.  It looks interesting.  I’m not much of a wargamer but the theme for 1901 is right up my alley.  I’m going to keep close tabs on that one.

Grant: For the longest time I referred to it as a war game. After all, the theme, inspiration, etc. are all predominantly war-focused. However, it isn’t really a war game per se. I think it would be less fun, but you could strip away the theme, and then you’re really just manipulating each other’s cubes in an Area control game. I think it’s more accurate to call it a hybrid area control/war game. It’s a light, euro-ish game that’s inspired by war games, but became something else.

Tom: After that what is next for you?

Grant: I’m in a weird period of busy, yet not. I’m testing the expansion for Farmageddon, called Livestocked and Loaded. It’s in what I’d call a beta phase and is very close. I have Empire in a holding pattern while I wait to hear back from the publisher. This publisher is my super ideal, hail mary pass, so if they pass on the game I’ll need to re-examine the potential publishing landscape, optimize the game as needed, and try again. Typically when I “finish” a design (I used quotes as we’re never finished), I go through a meandering period. I’m crawling out of that now from Empire and have begun work on 1901 and a co-op game. I don’t really enjoy co-op, but I really want to be the type of designer that constantly uses different mechanics, themes, and play-styles. So, instead of casting aside co-op, I want to lean into my fears and dislikes to see if I can design a cooperative game I like. I’m actually really excited about it and I hope it goes well.

Tom: Regarding Empire, here’s hoping you’ll get an email/call from them with lots of money attached.  I commend you for tackling new areas and challenging yourself.  That will be rewarded in many ways I think.  You posted on the co-op recently and it sounds like a lot of fun.  Talk about your blog, Hyperbole Games.

Grant: I have noticed that people don’t really pay attention to you online if you have an amatuer looking site. I also have ambitions to one day publish board games. Therefore, I worked with a longtime friend/great graphic designer to design a site and logo that looked great. For now, Hyperbole Games serves as a place for me to write about my games and design process and feature similar posts from my peers. I believe in open development, primarily because I’m a relative nobody in this space and I feel it can only help me find publishers and players by writing about my games. Long term, I hope to use Hyperbole Games to market games I publish and sell them directly to customers. I’d love for the logo to be on a game box someday.

Tom: The logo is pretty awesome.  Way to work Peaches in there!  I really need to nail down my logo for Go Forth.  I need to make the site more professional so I can catch and keep readers.

I can work Peaches in also.

Grant:  I think it’s important for a logo to be personal and recognizable. People who follow me on Twitter or know me in person know that I dearly love my corgi, Peaches, and spend a lot of time with her, talking about her, etc. I asked my design friend to help me create a logo with her. Our first few efforts were a bit generic, but he had the inspiration for what ultimately became the logo. I really love it and I don’t know anything quite like it.

Tom: Back to Hyperbole. The first article there is by Ray Mazza, whom you call your game design mentor.  It talks about ‘the holy grail of game design’.  Let’s talk about that.

Grant:  I’ve worked with Ray for years at Maxis on The Sims games. At one point on The Sims 3 he was the lead designer and I the lead producer, so we worked very closely on a daily basis. Ray taught me a great deal about the player experience, that emotionally driven, gut feeling feature or mechanic where you draw the line and say “No this matters!” It’s the fuzzy side of design that the really great, brilliant designers have. I’m definitely more on the other side of design focusing on iteration, testing, etc. I’ve improved as a more innovative designer (I think Empire is unique!), but it’s not my strength. Ray is just super creative. He recently self-published a science fiction novel, he’s been published as a board game designer, and he has worked on so many amazing digital games. He’s a good friend and someone I look to constantly for advice and inspiration.

Tom: I’m going to chase the idea of a holy grail and new mechanisms for games in an upcoming Question of The Month.  Keep your eyes peeled.  You also talk there about inspiration and inspiration vs. implementation.  I’m great at inspiration. Not so much at implementation.  You say you are opposite.  How do you find inspiration?  What is your secret to implementation?

Tom: I believe my inspiration comes from my love of  history and fictional stories. I love history and read it like other people read fictional series. For Empire, I thought of moments throughout history that I wanted to abstract into a game: Waterloo, the Alamo, Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign, the Vietcong, the Indian Wars in the American West, the Franco-Prussian War, and so forth.  Same with 1901. My cooperative game will be a dash of Lewis and Clark with a hint of Lost in Space, some Robinson Crusoe, and a bit of Dune (a favorite!). Once I find a premise that interests me, I spend days, weeks, or months stewing over how to deliver it as a game mechanic. I think about design when I’m driving (2 hours per day for my commute) or walking my dog (an hour every morning). It’s a lot of time to think and eventually I arrive at something neat. I’m obsessed with accessibility and simplicity, so I often curtail myself, perhaps prematurely, before I go too wild on new mechanics. It’s something I try to balance, but it’s never easy. I believe my secret to implementation is that I love playtesting. I love it. I’ve learned a lot about this from my professional experience and as a result I’m very good at knowing what feedback to incorporate and what feedback to ignore. I love watching 4 people play my game…I just furiously take notes and constantly strive to improve. I’m open to feedback, I know what to take in, and I know when to stick to my principles. I think I do a solid job of setting aside my ego and focusing on the game. Ultimately, I want to create something outstanding that brings people joy and that somebody wants to publish. My ego won’t help me with those goals.

Tom: I find inspiration in history too.  I’ve written a playset for Fiasco that is set in the Reconstruction Era.  A Lewis and Clark game is one of the ideas in my ‘idea machine’.

Grant: One of my failed designs from this year (or late last year?) is a game called Frontier Scoundrels based on Lewis and Clark.

Tom: My dad is a huge Teddy Roosevelt buff and he has gotten me interested too.  A game about him and that era would be fun.  1901 tickles that spot some.  I like the post you have from Todd Edwards “The Idea Machine” about how to capture inspirations/ideas and that they are everywhere.  I try to do the same.  It does help.  You have a TON of guests posting on your Hyperbole blog.  Most of them are game designers and the posts are fantastic.  First,  thanks for doing that.  There are some super articles there.  Second, I’m gonna steal the idea of having guest posts.  Last, how the heck do you know all these folks?

Grant: I really appreciate that! When I created Hyperbole Games, I noticed that there were TONS of review sites (with more every day), lots of publishers talking about publication, but, at least within our Twitter circle, not enough people writing about the craft of design. I wanted to a.) talk about design for design’s sake and b.) highlight friends who are smart and clever. I would LOVE for a publisher to sign a game because they read about it on my site. Please steal whatever you want! I’ve been on Twitter for a few years now and I’ve been actively participating with the board game community for well over a year. I try to be reasonable, responsive, and interesting and I think, slowly but surely, this has helped me meet a lot of great people. I have developed actual friendships and met many of these people in person. I guess I just follow the golden rule and I tend to meet more good people than not!

Tom: I’m really digging your blog now that I’ve started exploring it more.  There are a bunch of good, interesting articles there.  Everyone should go read it right after you finish reading this one.

Grant: I would love more readers. It’s difficult getting guest writers these days. Folks are busy and it takes time. If anyone wants to write a guest column, email me!

Tom: I want to come back and have a longer discussion(s) on several of the posts at some point.

Grant:  All day, every day.

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

Grant: Focus. The designer should pick a goal they want to accomplish. Everything in the game should focus towards that point. I

Terry is focused.

t’s easier to do one or two things incredibly well than fifty things, plus, focused games are easier to learn. This means more people can play it and you can expand our hobby!

Tom: Focus is something no one else mentioned.  You bring up very good points.

Grant: It’s the #1 thing I’ve learned after years of working on digital games. Every problem we encounter is always a direct result of a lack of focus.

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

Grant: The best players are ones who approach the game with a desire to have fun. So many people approach games purely as a critic or cynic, or they want to WIN!!!, or something else that’s less important. I try my best to primarily play games with people who come to the table because they want to have a great time with friends. I design games for people who want to smile, laugh, and have fun. I want to create table talk and memories.

Tom: We agree that a good player is there to have fun.  Winning is icing on the cake.  Lucky for me that I’m this kind of player cause my winning percentage is pretty low.  Though I kill at Reverse Charades and Sagefight.  I lose all the time. I think my win percentage at my game group is 0.02% for the three years I’ve been there. What do you think is the next hot game theme?

Grant: Orcs and spaceships will always be popular. I’d love to see a really killer alternate history/steampunk execution, but I don’t think it exists yet and I don’t think it’ll take off if it does. History is somewhat nerdy. Honestly, I think there’s a great opportunity to take a fresh look at old favorites. Instead  of generic, scantily clad women exploring dungeons, how can we take that beloved premise and apply a new coat of paint? That’s the opportunity. I’d love to twist the classic war game aesthetic with Empire.

Tom: There have been a couple of good steampunk games (Mission: Red Planet, Red November) and Mars Need Mechanics looks like it could be the start of a trend.  Let’s hope so.  And Kings of Steam and Air has a steampunk theme.  So maybe they will be the start.  Alt history would be super.  Your

Now that’s a President!!

idea of revamping dungeon crawling is intriguing.  You should chase that a bit.

Grant: I looked at the BGG Hotness the other day and it seemed like 5 of the games were dungeon crawlers. I feel it’s really saturated and I’d be nervous about tackling it.

Tom: I will agree with you there. There are a LOT of games being published now, in most part to Kickstarter.  But there have been several discussions in various places on the Internet that these games aren’t bringing anything new to the table.  That they are just re-themeing or remixing old mechanics.  Why aren’t there any new game mechanics?

Grant: I’ve been critical of Kickstarter for a while, but honestly I don’t think the Kickstarter publishers/designers are really much worse than the traditional publishers. There are a few things at play here. New mechanics, truly innovative things, are really difficult to execute. These ideas are risky in how difficult they are to craft AND explaining them to customers. Remember, people love familiarity like a warm blanket. New is scary. I think with Kickstarter in particular you have a lot of designers taking beloved pet projects to completion and, from my experiences (both personal and observed), pet projects from novice designers are often imitations with a twist. These are born of the “This game would be so much better if it just added X!” My first design was Monopoly with Munchkin and a dash of Catan in space. SO BAD. New mechanics will come and are coming out. Risk Legacy is absurdly innovative. People are (hopefully) finished copying Dominion and will soon integrate the deckbuilding mechanic in completely new, fresh ways. Drafting is really popular right now, so I expect to see some cool stuff there. Innovation is difficult, but when visionaries come along with good publishing partners who know how to sell it, you’ll see great things.

Tom: Kickstarter has been a boon for board gaming for the most part.  But there have been some failed campaigns too.  Where do you think we are on the curve – growth phase, plateau, or decline?

Grant: I don’t think Kickstarter is going anywhere. Crowdfunding is a natural extension of the Internet age and it’s here to stay. I think it’ll be in a growth phase for quite some time. You have some veteran expert publishers on Kickstarter who have a big audience and know how to use it well. You also have new people trying it out daily. I think the best thing for Kickstarter to remain viable is that people need to stop flooding the channel with half baked ideas. This hurts all of us in the long run as reviewers fail to take our games seriously and backers go elsewhere. Kickstarter isn’t going anywhere, so take your time, create quality, and give backers a reason to be thrilled and passionate.

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

Here goes Peaches in the other direction! Go Peaches Go!

Grant: I feel like I’ve taken up so much of everyone’s time already. I’ll talk as long as you’ll let me, but I feel like you’ve covered everything. Thank you so much for the interview!

Tom: How can people contact you?  Are there any links you would like folks to visit?

Grant: People can email me at grant@hyperbolegames.com. I’m on twitter at @herrohgrant (personal account) and @hyperbolegames (typically used to share blog links). My site is here with lots of solid blog posts and games listed: http://hyperbolegames.com/

You can learn all about my latest game Empire on its game page: http://hyperbolegames.com/games/empire-of-york/ You can read about the game, the rules, and more, here. Finally, I’ve released a Print-n-Play version of Empire on Board Game Geek. You can find that here: http://boardgamegeek.com/article/9987962#9987962

Tom: Thanks for the interview Grant.  It was really interesting.  I like what you have to say about new mechanisms.  I’m looking forward to the 1901 game and would love to be in on the playtesting if possible.

Thank you again readers for joining Grant and I.  What do you think?  Where are the new mechanisms?  What makes a great player?  Tell us about it by leaving a comment.

Steampunk Lincoln from http://nvate.com/3074/why-is-steampunk-so-popular/