The Burning Question!

Ok, so the Question of the Month has actually been more like the Question of the Whenever I Can Get Around To Posting It. Therefore I’m changing it to The Burning Question that is not time bounded so much.
So the first Burning Question is…What is your prediction for gaming in 2013? What big thing is going to happen to or in gaming this year? What will we be talking about in January of 2014? Let me know what you think.

A Conversation With…Paul Owen of Paul Owen Games

I’m very pleased to have designer Paul Owen of Paul Owen Games as my guest this time.  Paul has one published game – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles from Blue Square Games.

Tom: Hi Paul. Tell us a bit about yourself Paul.

Paul: Well, I’m a middle aged white guy, happily married for over 20 years, with three sons, living comfortably in northern Virginia.  Obviously, among my hobbies is boardgaming and boardgame design.  (I’m also a baseball fan and lover of classical and jazz music.)

Tom: I’m in the middle aged white guy with three kids club too. And in the boardgamer/designer club. I’m surprised I haven’t seen you at the meetings.:) What do you do for a living?

Paul: I’m a systems engineering technical advisor (SETA) on a government contract.  Not very exciting, but it pays the bills.

Tom: What game got all this started?

Paul: Well, I suppose you could say that it goes back to when my Dad taught me chess when I was about four years old.  I was terrible at it and always have been.  But it set the bar for gaming as an intellectual challenge as well as an engaging pastime.  As I got older, we’d play family games of Clue, Monopoly, and Mille Bornes, among others.  But the game that really got me hooked was Avalon Hill’s Midway.  I first heard of Avalon Hill games through an advertisement in Boy’s Life and was immediately intrigued by the idea of wargames that were so much more historical and realistic than Stratego.

Tom: I still haven’t played Mille Bornes. And I stink at Chess too.You have one published game – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and another in the pipe. Talk to us about them.

Paul: Trains Planes and Automobiles is a family game for two to six players aged eight and up who travel around North America as news correspondents trying to beat each other to the next big news story.  Movement by three modes of travel – rail, air, and highway – is driven by a deck of cards that includes not only mileage cards but obstacles that players can play against opponents, like bad weather to prevent air travel.  Players can choose between two “assignments” – cities where news stories are breaking.  One is private, known only to one player (an “exclusive”); the other is face up, and the first player to arrive there gets the “scoop.”  The first player to complete seven assignments wins.  TPA was published by Blue Square Boardgames, the family game subsidiary of Worthington Games.

Tom: That sounds fun. My kids would probably like that.

Paul: My big design project now is “East India Company,” an 18th-century game of maritime commerce.  This is a much meatier project, something I’m really sinking my teeth into.

Tom: Yeah. East India Company. There’s buzz around it. I’m hearing very good things about it. What’s it all about?

Paul: Players run European merchant companies that send ships overseas to purchase commodities and then sell them back in Europe or at other colonies around the world.  The market prices are subject to supply and demand, however, so if your ship is the last to arrive in Europe with tea after your opponents have saturated the market, your profits will suffer.  More than just a pickup-and-deliver, “EIC” is a game of speculation, risk management, competition, and pirates.  It was very well received at WBC last August, at the UnPub Protozone event at Congress of Gamers last October, and most recently at UnPub 3 in January.

EIC by Ben R

Paul: Well, the theme changed drastically.  The initial concept was an interplanetary mining game that I called “Gold on Mars.”  But I kept getting hung up on the spaceship movement mechanics.  My wife suggested I look for a historical setting rather than a science fiction theme, and that’s when the whole “age of sail” idea came in.I’ve also completely re-vamped the turn sequence a couple of times.  I have learned a lot about how the order of actions and decisions can affect game length, and I think game duration has been my biggest challenge in this design.  My current turn sequence has pretty much fixed that problem.

Tom: What is unique about it? How is it different from other games?

Paul: I think the price movement mechanic is a little different from anything I’ve seen elsewhere, but perhaps the most unique element is a tile-draw method that I use to determine which commodities a colony is buying or selling.  Each tile has two sides, and which side goes face up depends on how many tiles have already come up for that colony.  It has really worked out pretty well for having the market unfold in the way I intended, plus it makes for a lot of variability and replayability.

Tom: That market mechanic sounds really interesting. I like the tile pull idea. I really looking forward to how it was received at Unpub3 and eventually playing it.

Paul: Overall, I got a lot of positive feedback at UnPub, with two potential issues that I need to polish.  One is a question of whether a scoring track that allows players to pay for bonus points (at the expense of investing in ships or goods) is worthwhile from a gameplay standpoint.  The other is whether one particular market (spice production in China) is so profitable that it creates a guaranteed winning (and therefore degenerate) strategy.  Those are the things I need to investigate before I go to blind playtesting.

Tom: Standard GFG question: What are the aspects of a good player?

Paul: You know, I’ve seen you ask this question before, and I keep coming up with different answers, but the answer I keep coming back to is good sportsmanship.  A player with an attitude problem takes the fun out of a game.  In my mind, having fun and enjoying each other’s company transcends winning and losing.Beyond that, when I think about the people I play with, well, they’re all good players, but there’s one fellow in our group that I’ve played with for a long time that has always been good, no matter what game he plays.  Grant has what I think of as “game vision.”  He grasps what a game is about, seizes on the important points, and capitalizes on them.  He’s not a “paralytic analyst.”  He just, you know, “sees it.”  So I guess “gaming sense” is a kind of intangible quality that a really good player has.

Tom: Those are both really good answers. Good sportsmanship is essential for a good gaming experience no doubt. I am glad you brought out that ‘gaming sense’ idea. There are a couple of guys I game with who have that. It’s uncanny some times. Next question. We’ve had zombies, pirates, city building, deck building. What’s the next hot theme in board games?

East India Company

Paul: Eighteenth-century sailing ships.  😉

Tom: I see what you did there.

Paul: Seriously, the theme that I think might be emerging is the Cold War.  Twilight Struggle was the one that really blew the doors off people, and since then I’ve seen Confusion: Denial and Deception and 1955: Espionage, which I really like.  The Cold War has made that transition from “current events” to “history” in the last twenty years, which I think makes it more available for tinkering.  I feel as though there’s a lot of untapped potential in that theme.  My wife Kathy is actually playing around with a game design based on a spy theme, with gadgets and traps.Another theme that I think is already growing is the steampunk/gaslight/Victorian science fiction kind of thing.  It’s gained a lot of popularity in miniatures gaming, and recently Ben Rosset re-themed  his “Market” boardgame into Mars Needs Mechanics.  I think he’s on to something.

Tom: I’ll agree with the steampunk theme. It’s pervasive in literature and to some extent in movies (Hansel & Gretel most recently). It’s been an undercurrent in rpg’s for years and somewhat in boardgaming. It’s bound to bubble to the top soon.  I like the Cold War as a theme for movies and novels.  I’m glad you mentioned it here.  I would be very interested in your wife’s game. If you need a playtester….  It really looks like steampunk may be the next big theme. Good call.

Ok, You’re very active and plugged into the game design community. How did that happen?

Paul: I have my wife to thank for that.  She is a writer preparing to release her first historical murder mystery, with a second book on its heels.  A few years ago, she got some great advice in the writing community on creating a social platform and media presence, and that advice translates nicely to game design.So I started by searching for boardgame blogs, started following them, then followed their links to other boardgame blogs, … then came Twitter … Before I knew it, I was part of a virtual community of people with whom I shared very strong common interests.  Meeting designers and publishers at conventions then magnified those relationships by tying faces and personalities to names and blogs.

Tom: Let’s get a plug in for your wife. What book should be keep our eyes open for soon?

Paul: Oh, she’ll love that!  Her book will be titled Dangerous and Unseemly.  It is set at a women’s college in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1896.  The protagonist is a young professor by the name of Concordia Wells.  She has all kinds of information about the mystery genre, the historical period, and the writing process at her website,

Tom: Ok, folks. Look for Dangerous and Unseemly at your favorite book outlet soon. Get Paul’s wife your support. So Paul, what’s your favorite unpublished game right now?

Paul: I’d say it’s a dead heat between two games that were at UnPub 3.One is “Post Position” by Aaron Honsowitz and Austin Smokowicz.  I first saw this game at Congress of Gamers and just flipped over it.  The game centers on a horse race during which players buy and sell shares with each other speculating how the horses will finish.  The players also secretly vote on which horses advance, so there is some limited inside information on which each player can base his speculation.  It’s like those stock market floor scenes you see in the movies, with people yelling offers trying to make a deal and not lose their shirts before the market closes.  The game is crazy exciting; I think Aaron and Austin have something brilliant here.The other is “Brewmasters” by Ben Rosset.  Each player runs a microbrewery in which he or she tries to produce and ship the highest total production value of beer.  Products can be easy-to-produce staple beers like porter, stout, and ale, or they can be high-scoring specialized recipes like pumpkin spice ale.  The game runs on a worker-placement mechanic with a factory production line element as well.  The theme is strong and consistent; I think it actually improves on everything that Agricola does right and adds its own pipeline management flavor as well.  “Brewmasters” could move the whole worker placement game standard up a notch.

Tom: I’ve not heard anything about Pole Position. It sounds interesting. I hear very good things about Brewmasters. Worker placement is probably my favorite mechanism so I bet I’ll like it. What are you currently playing the most?

Paul: By far, I am playing two-player games with my wife the most.  When I get home from work, we like to unwind before dinner with a cocktail and a game.  Our favorites are Jaipur, Citadels, some version of Fluxx (when we don’t have a lot of time), Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League, and Agricola.  We also like a two-player variant of Puerto Rico that I found on

Tom: I played Jaipur this weekend and enjoyed it a lot. Puerto Rico is fantastic and I just picked up San Juan. I haven’t jumped on the Agricola wagon yet. I’m interested in Perry Rhodan because of the theme. How is it?

Paul: We like Perry Rhodan because it is such a tight pickup-and-deliver.  There’s no mapboard, exactly.  Instead, the six planets of the fictional solar system are laid out in a row, and players move their spaceships onto the planets (when landed) or in the spaces around them to represent being on orbit or in transit.  Cards representing available goods are lined up alongside each planet.  Action cards expand the options for players to upgrade their ships or mess with each other (although the “take that” factor is pretty low).  The turns are quick, and the gameplay is fun.  Because we like this game so much, I want to explore the other two-player games in the Kosmos series.

Tom: It sounds like a game I would like.  I need to look it up. What game surprised you and how?

Paul: In the unpublished arena, “Post Position” was the one that surprised me the most.  The prototype wasn’t much to look at in its first iteration, but the actual gameplay is a blast.Among published games, I think the biggest surprise game for me was Chicago Express.  It wasn’t until near the very end of  my first session that I realized that there is absolutely no luck in that game.  Everything that happens in the game is the result of a player decision.  From what I understand, it is an accessible version of the more elaborate 18xx genre of railroad games.  Oh, and I was also surprised to be beaten in the 2012 PrezCon final by a nine-year-old girl.  All of us middle-aged guys at the table were surprised…

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

Paul: Well, interestingly, designer Josh Tempkin approached me about collaborating on a project with him.  It’s still very much in the early, sketchy stage, so I don’t want to go into details.  Suffice it to say that I consider Josh one of the most innovative designers I know, so I’m anticipating that this is going to be a really fun enterprise.Beyond that, I’m not sure.  When I get focused on a project as I am now with “EIC,” I tend to bulldog that one project and don’t let go until I’m done with it.  So other ideas don’t even go on the back burner; they go in the refrigerator in the Tupperware until I’m ready to start something new.I had one idea that started as a mechanic inside another game but I thought might stand alone as its own game.  It’s called “Supply and Demand,” and is based on the idea of a futures market in which players buy and sell contracts speculating on the future price of a commodity.  There’s a set of supply and demand cards that affect the final value of the commodity, and players get to see some but not all of those cards in the course of making deals with each other.  At UnPub, Aaron Honsowetz suggested that I need to wrap the mechanic in a more compelling theme, and I think he’s right; the current topic is too dry.  But I also just read a description of Divinare that suggests that game already has a very similar mechanic.  I think I’ll put “Supply and Demand” back in the Tupperware, at least until I get to play Divinare and compare it.

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

Paul: One phenomenon that puzzles me is the gender profile in our boardgaming hobby.  Many women like boardgaming a lot, and many are very good at it, but at any convention, the disproportionate ratio of men to women is undeniable.  The difference seems even more stark among designers and publishers.  There was quite a storm of discussion on Twitter under the #1reasonwhy hashtag about why women game designers seem to be the exception; although the focus was on video game design, it got me thinking about why such a strong disparity is so persistent.  It might not be a big deal; people don’t agonize over why more men don’t do needlepoint.  But I might spend a little time researching this topic and perhaps post an essay on my blog at some point.

Tom: I would be really interested in what you find out. It would be a fantastic discussion for Go Forth and Game if you are willing. Maybe several of us could ‘get together’ virtually and talk?

Paul: That’s a cool idea.  I’ve never done a podcast or videocast; it sounds like fun.

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

Paul Owen small

Paul: My primary social media presence is on my “Man OverBoard” blog,  I can also be found on Twitter as @PaulOwenGames, and I am on as pdowen3.

Tom: Any final words?

Paul: You know, I feel as though we are living in an exciting time for boardgaming.  At one point, people may have believed that the rise of computer games marked the decline and fall of boardgames as a pastime.  But a couple of other factors might explain the growth and innovation that we’re starting to see.  People may be looking to get away from computers for some forms of social engagement, since computers so dominate our communication in the workplace.  There’s actually a bar in Washington, D.C. now called The Board Room that rents boardgames on the premises for people to play while they socialize.  Europeans have blazed some new trails in game design, and as Americans start to discover the rich potential and approachability of those games, American designers have more of an opportunity to develop and expose some fresh ideas in the boardgame marketplace.  The technological innovations of on-demand publishing, crowd-sourcing, and social media put the industrious designer within reach of getting new games into people’s homes.

So over the next decade we may continue to see an explosion of new titles.  There were 65 different unpublished designs at UnPub, and that’s just a little weekend convention in the mid-Atlantic in its third year.  The problem will be that no one can appreciate even a fraction of all the games in the market (though Tom Vasel seems determined to do so), and the volume may become unsustainable.  So the arc of the business may be that after the exploding nova of titles and new independent publishers exploit the opportunities that technological innovations have opened, the market realities of finite entertainment dollars and consumer attention will see many small enterprises burn out while a few new stars emerge out of the coalescing multitude.  We’ve seen it in other sectors – the dot-coms, phone companies, even railroad companies back in the day – and I can imagine that we’ll see the same thing in our little hobby, just on a smaller scale.

It will be interesting to sail by those new stars and see where they take us. I agree. It is an interesting, exciting time.

It will indeed be an interesting voyage.  Thank you very much Paul. I enjoyed talking to a kindred spirit. I’m excited to play East India Company soon.

Folks, check out Paul’s blog – Man Overboard. There’s a lot of good stuff there. And remember to look for Dangerous and Unseemly, Paul’s wife’s book.

I’d love to know what you thought of the interview. Please leave a comment. Thanks for joining me at Go Forth And Game.

Tom G

A Conversation With…David Gregg, the designer of Nightfall

Welcome back! This time I’m pleased to have David Gregg as my guest. David is the designer of the Nightfall deck building game from AEG. He’s also a great guy. See for yourself.


Tom: David, I know you are a fellow North Carolinian but what do you want to tell us about yourself?

David: I actually moved here at the start of high school and well, I’m quite upset that sweet tea and banana pudding weren’t shared with us northern folks sooner…

Tom: What do you do for a living?

David: I’m the trainer and junior IT guy for a plastics manufacturer called Starpet. I work on pretty much anything computer related from fixing our network to web development for our laboratory and plenty of the more boring stuff such as typing and reformatting our training documents.

Tom: What game got all this started?

David: I first got serious with gaming with Chess in high school and quickly found out about Magic: The Gathering. I competed with both MtG as well as the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG (I even ran a league out of our local mall), but starting a family made all that near impossible to maintain. That’s when I found out Board Game Geek and just how vast the world of board gaming had become.

Tom: You have one published game – Nightfall from AEG. I’ve played it and enjoyed it. Tell us how if came about.

David: Shortly after finding BGG I heard about Dominion and really like the deckbuilding mechanic. My family enjoyed the game immensely and we even got some of the expansions. Unfortunately, it was missing that direct player conflict that I enjoyed so much from my MtG days. So I decided I’d take a shot at merging the ideas into a game of my own. The first few iterations were more like Magic and did not mix well with the deckbuilding mechanic… not at all… What really got the game going was when I created my mechanic. After that develop really picked up and my friends got excited to resume playtesting.

Tom: How did you get it picked up by AEG?nightfall3

David: I was posting my progress on the BGG forums, getting feedback and a ton of help with ideas from the users there. As I was nearing completion with the game, Todd Rowland contacted me via a geekmail. Turns out that AEG had been seeking out a deckbuilder with direct player confrontation and were watching the forums for people like me, hoping to run into something that would fit their goal. Not long after that geekmail we spoke via phone and then a few of them even flew out to playtest my game in person and discuss things.

Tom: So first game out of the gate gets picked up by a major publisher. Man, you can’t complain about that. Did anything change from initial concept to final product?

David: Everything. The deckbuilding and combat bits of the game used to be separated into their own phases. Your money used to be separated from your deck and built up as the game progressed, ramping up what you could buy into the late game. Your deck used to be your life and you lost cards as you were injured. The starting deck used to be a combination of money cards and “shields”, which are essentially the yellow starter minions now. Those shields used to be sent to your discard pile to reappear later, so a slim deck could maintain an impenetrable defense. The chain mechanic was developed mid-way through the game’s development. The starters themselves along with the wounds weren’t even added until after I was picked up by AEG!


Tom: How was the interaction with AEG?

David: They were really easy to work with. We quickly exchanged email addresses and got in a quick phone call to discuss some early options. When they visited me in person they started out all business, wanting to dig into testing, but as we played they quickly livened up and we all had a good time. Contract was pretty straight forward and they even added some perks for me when I asked for them. Now we mostly communicate via email, IM or Skype and there’s nearly always someone available within a reasonable timeframe if I had an important question.
I’ve interviewed and interacted with Todd Rowland and found him to be a fantastic guy.

Tom: What is unique about it? How is it different from other games?

David: The chaining mechanic is a biggie here. Instead of the standard “play 1 card” type deal you can now play as many cards as you want, so long as you deckbuild well. A poorly built deck won’t be able to play as much while a well-built deck will empty their hand often. You can also build differently as to whether you want to aim for playing huge chains on your own turn or just drop smaller bits of chains attached to the ends of your opponents’ chains. Using wounds as a both a negative point system as well as the comeback mechanic seems to be unique among deckbuilders. And of course the others tend to lack any direct conflict, making Nightfall the more aggressive of the bunch.


Tom: The chaining mechanism is very interesting. Understanding it is key to playing well. How did you come up with that?

David: I hit a wall in development when I was first trying to merge the deckbuilding and actual playing of the cards into a single phase vs. being separated. I knew that I wanted to get away from limiting players to a single turn and I wanted to reward players who deckbuild well. What first came to mind was the 5 color system back from Magic: The Gathering. I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to do things, but I knew it had to be as even and balanced as possible, so I chose to go with 6 colors instead of 5. After buying a large dry-erase board and a ton of sticky notes, I went to drawing various patterns, assigning characteristics to the colors ala Dungeons and Dragons as well as lots of other little ideas. What emerged was a system that had 3 primary win condition colors and 3 supporting colors that actually made it really simple to work with. In the base game, I simply created 4 cards from each color with 2 linking clockwise and kicking counterclockwise and then 2 linking and kicking in the opposite direction. Initial tests of the system worked so well that all that remained to do was simply balancing the effects and perfecting the supporting mechanics.

Tom: That is a great development story. I’m working on a card game myself and am interested in how you went about balancing the game. Would you speak to that?

David: Well I like to start with balancing things as mathematically as possible, having cards with numerical effects having very direct cost-to-effect ratios. Unfortunately it takes a lot of iteration to perfect those ratios and even more iteration to find the “sweet spot” for non-numerical effects. In short, find a bunch of family and/or friends who don’t mind bashing their head into your game for a while.

Tom: Standard GFG question: What are the aspects of a good player?

David: Players don’t win a game individually. Rather, everyone wins or loses based on whether everyone had fun or not. With that definition of “winning” in mind, a good player plays to win.

Tom: We’ve had zombies, pirates, city building, deck building. What’s the next hot theme in board games?

David: Deckbuilders saturated the market extremely and people got sick of seeing them. I think we’ll first see more games using deckbuilding as more of a side mechanic to control smaller aspects of play and then we’ll likely see other standard mechanics such as worker placement make a comeback. Of course I wouldn’t mind seeing newer mechanics such as chaining end up in some other games.


Tom: What’s your favorite unpublished game right now?

David: I don’t spend much time with print and play or other unpublished games, so can’t really answer this one.

Tom: What are you currently playing the most?

David: Just received Gosu 2: Tactics from my BFF for Christmas and have been enjoying it immensely. For Sale and Love Letter are also played frequently as we don’t often have time to play the longer games and they’re just excellent games in their own right.

Tom: For Sale is a big hit with both my family and my game group. I so want to play Love Letter. I hear such good things about it. And it’s sold out! (I have played it since the interview and enjoy it.)

David: Yeah… I really wanted one of the Japanese art versions, but for now I’m settling with a set that I made myself after digging up all the card text. I’ll still acquire an official copy of course, just as soon as I can…

Tom: What game surprised you and how?

David: From recent memory Gosu 2 was a huge shock. I hadn’t thought that such a small box would contain so many tactical decisions or be such fun to play. Go was also a big shocker for me, not so much in the game itself, but in how hard a time I had finding people willing to learn it. Describing it as a game beyond Chess just made people cringe and back away… I certainly hope that unwillingness to apply one’s mind doesn’t become a trend.
I don’t know much about Gosu but I would love to learn how to play Go. Maybe at one of the local cons.
So long as someone has a set I’d be happy to teach anyone that’s interested in learning. It’s been a long time since I’ve played, but the rules are very simple and even the basic strategies are fairly easy to grasp. Janice Kim put out an excellent 5 book series that are enjoyable to read and will get you advancing in skill quickly.

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

David: I have a cooperative time-travel themed game being reviewed by a publisher now. Beyond that I have a couple ideas floating around in my head that I’m waiting to “gel” into something playtest-able.

Tom: Time travel is one of my favorite literary themes so that game has me really intrigued. And let me know when those others are playtestable. I volunteer.

David: I don’t read many novels, but I do much enjoy time-travel themes in movies, etc. It was The Time Traveler’s Wife that actually got me motivated to make this one! And I’ll certainly take you up on that volunteering; I can always use more members in my group.


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

David: Board Game Geek hasn’t been mentioned nearly enough. Both the staff and users are amazing people and one of the best internet communities I’ve ever had the good fortune to spend time with.

Tom: Thanks for that. You are right. BGG staff deserves a lot of kudos from us all. So a big THANK YOU to Aldie and all the rest of the folks over at!
How can people contact you? Are there any links you would like folks to visit?

David: I go by S3rvant on BGG, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and others. Feel free to message me anytime.

Tom: Any final words?

David: My church uses the motto “Love God, Love People”. I think BGG does a good job with the 2nd bit and a lot of the community also has the first part down. I’d like to see more of both, not only on BGG, but in other online communities as well. I’d love to see 2013 become a year characterized as such.

Tom: That is a good subject for a future Go Forth And Game post – a multi-person conversation about Christian gamers. I know Tom Vasel addressed it in a couple of podcasts called ‘The Dice Steeple’ earlier this year. But I know several local Christian gamers and would like to link us up a bit more.

David: Absolutely. Just let me know when. I have a very in-depth study on biblical love here on Google Docs if you’d like to see it:

Thanks for the interview David. It was fun to learn more about Nightfall and you.

Since the interview I’ve had a chance to meet and game with David as he is local. He is a great guy and a really smart player. You can see his mind working out strategies quickly as he plays. I’m looking forward to more gaming with him.