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, http://kbowenmysteries.com.

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 boardgamegeek.com.

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, http://paulowengames.blogspot.com.  I can also be found on Twitter as @PaulOwenGames, and I am on boardgamegeek.com 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

2 thoughts on “A Conversation With…Paul Owen of Paul Owen Games

  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.

    Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

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