Tom: What do you want to tell us about yourself?
Jay: I’m a game designer building a home for myself in the industry by providing advice, playtesting and feedback while I work on improving my games and getting them published.
Tom: I’m alway interested to hear what other gamers do for a living? How do you support your gaming habit?
Jay: I’m a flash developer for an ad serving company. I create dynamic systems for clients like Ford and Walmart to help them serve the right creative at the right time.
Tom: What was the gateway drug? What game got all this started?
Jay: While my youth was full of D&D, Cosmic Encounters and Hero Quest, I think the game that helped me realize that game design wasn’t just a passing interest for me was Magic: the Gathering.
Tom: You have several designs in the works. Talk a bit about them?
Jay: Assault on Khyber Station is SciFi co-op where the players coordinate their unique abilities to try and escape a failing space station being boarded by ravenous aliens. It’s the sleek descendant of a dicey dungeon crawler originally inspired by a clever tile-based dungeon generation mechanism on a napkin at Chili’s.
Tom: It sounds pretty interesting. I would guess the tension can get pretty high. What’s next?
Jay: Intrigue is a trick-taking cardgame where the players are spymasters in Renaissance Venice. You deploy your own agents and manipulate enemy agents to fulfill your agendas… agendas that you share with your enemy. A big part of the game is choosing which opponent to work with at any given time and how to read and manipulate them.
Tom: I am very interested in this one as I’m actually playtesting it. The cooperating with you enemies against the others is pretty cool.
Jay: My newest baby is Draw! A Western gunfight built off of five-card draw poker, inspired by a kick-ass cowboy dream I had two weeks ago.
Tom: Oh, cool. We need more cowboy games.
You’ve stated that Assault on Khyber Station is your most advanced game. What is unique about it? How is it different from other games?
Jay: Players in Assault share no common abilities (other than movement) and so collaboration isn’t merely a good idea, it’s an absolute must. The different roles appeal to different kinds of players, so those that enjoy puzzles and spatial reasoning can share an experience with players that just want to fight or loot. The tiles that represent the space station aren’t just there to form a random map, you actively reshape the board by turning and swapping tiles to form rooms and reach the information that will help you find the location of the escape teleporter. Every game is tense because your goal isn’t in some random space you might stumble onto; it’s always in the last place you look.
Tom: I like the ‘swapping tiles to form rooms’ idea. Modularity is a really good aspect of a game if you can get it. It adds replayability and variety. Now let’s talk about Intrigue.
Jay: Intrigue is descended from a game idea that’s at least 12 years old. I wanted to make a playing card game where each player owns one of the four suits. It’s evolved into its own thing since then. It became a Fantasy battle and stagnated for a long while until AEG’s Tempest IP got me thinking about a new theme that works so much better. Since the gameplay is about forming temporary alliances, cunning moves and devious plans, intrigue makes much better sense.
Tom: I’ve playtested Intrigue and it’s pretty good. The forming of temporary alliances really comes through. The Last Planet LOOKS really cool. How did you come up with it?
Fast pieces are longer and so traverse the board more quickly as they progress. Wide pieces have a larger area of effect, but are also bigger targets. Using different connectors allows only the correct pieces to spawn from an origin and so on. Read more about it here:http://hyperbolegames.com/2013/01/16/away-to-the-lost-planet
Tom: Daniel Solis calls that idea of the pieces/components reflecting the mechanics/theme a mechaphor. It’s a really powerful idea I believe. I saw the Hyperbole article but haven’t read it yet. I should do that. Do you have a favorite design element?
Jay: I love cards and dice (though I have yet to complete a good dice game design) but ultimately the crux of any good tabletop game is enabling novel and interesting interactions between players. Whether you’re making them jockey for position, outthink each other, cooperate or question the very nature of competition, finding new ways for friends to enjoy each other’s company is a noble goal.
Tom: What inspires you?
Jay: Beauty. In the world, that usually means wonderous sights; In life, it means unflinching kindness; But in design, it’s elegance: How much impact does any given design choice have relative to the cost to include it? How inherently interwoven are the parts that make up your game? When a game is more fun than it is work, when there’s nothing you can strip from it without destroying its identity, then it is beautiful.
Tom: Why are you designing games?
Jay: I’ve tried to stop, but it’s in my blood. Game design hits all the sweet spots for me: Math, Philosophy, Creativity, Writing, Perfectionism, Joy-Bringing…ness-osisity.
Tom: You’re pretty active on Twitter and in the design community. How helpful is that to you? How important is this community to you?
Jay: The Twitter community is wonderful. I went to GenCon two years ago as an unknown and only got one major publisher to consider my games. A year of Twitter later and GenCon 2012 had me meeting with multiple publishers and numerous peers. The Twitter community is great because everyone is so supportive and enthusiastic, not to mention just plain fun.
I observed not too long ago that networking in the game industry isn’t work at all because it just requires meeting amazing people and playing games with them.
John Moller’s Unpub program has also been a massive boon. Being able to connect with local designers to share critical advice has improved not only my designs but my design ability. You might think the optimal use of Unpub is to get as much feedback as possible, but I’ve benefited immensely from setting my games aside and diving head-first into other designers’ games. Analyzing their work and giving them useful observations and feedback has directly improved my own designs.
This community is more important to me than actually publishing a game. And that’s a big deal.
Tom: I agree 100%. John’s program is becoming invaluable for designers. I had my first game at an Unpub Mini at Atomic Empire, my FLGS, on March 2. It was very exciting.
Jay: Excellent! I’m eager to hear more about it. At least tease the name!
Tom: Duck Blind. It’s a set collection/auction game about duck hunting. Theme or Mechanic. Which comes first for you?
Jay: I was about to say theme comes first, but actually thinking about all the designs I’ve started, I realize that mechanics come overwhelmingly first. Interesting. I value theme dearly, but most of my games started with either an interesting interaction or a clever mechanism.
Jay: I took Assault on Khyber Station, Intrigue and The Last Planet.
Tom: Was it helpful? Did you get a lot of good feedback?
Jay: I spent a lot more time at other people’s tables than my own (and that was totally worth it—see 11), but the feedback I did get was very helpful. For example, the core gameplay of Intrigue is in a great place, but the scheme cards keep getting better as I determine what players enjoy and what holes the game needs filled.
Tom: Any major changes because of it?
Jay: The Last Planet will likely be changed significantly if not revamped entirely. That’s not particularly odd since the design is so new that Unpub was only the second time it was played for real.
I’m a big fan of ripping things apart and rebuilding them from scratch. Starting a design again means you have all the experience from your previous attempts with none of the baggage. Don’t worry about forgetting good ideas. If your game really needs them, they’ll return organically. Even if the new design is a flop, you’ve still gained perspective that will inform your next attempt.
Tom: That’s a great attitude for a game designer or any creative person.What were the best two games you playtested there?
Jay: That’s a tough question, as there were some real gems. Jason Tagmire brought Maximum Throwdown which was definitely my favorite: a gamer’s card-throwing game. For second place, I’ll give Mike Young’s Meteor the edge over Dan Cassar’s Great Bricks of Giza game since it was further along. Meteor is a real-time cooperative game I personally enjoy more than Escape: The Curse of the Temple. Great Bricks is a very Euro game of building pyramids… using Legos!
Tom: I’ve heard good things about Maximum Throwdown. I am interested in trying it and I need to get Jason on for an interview. Dexterity games are hard to pull off well. Meteor has some good press so I’d like to see that one. I don’t know anything about Giza. I should head over to the Unpub site to check it out. And maybe get Dan on for an interview.
Jay: Dan had his first game published by Rio Grande this year: Cavemen. Great guy too.
Tom: Standard GFG question: What are the aspects of a good player?
Jay: A good player prioritizes the fun of the group above anything else. If you can win, but you have to make everyone else miserable to do it, just point out the strategy and laugh about what a d#$% move that would have been. You’re still clever for spotting it, but the other players won’t suffer as you methodically grind them out.
A good gamer is patient. Gamers need people to play with and should introduce non-gamers to fun games. But if you choose a complex game, teach poorly or berate them for suboptimal or slow play, they will never try another game again: Everyone loses.
Tom: That is so true. I’ve actually had that experience myself. It is very discouraging and makes you not want to play that game again. Is one play enough for a review?
Jay: Not really. If you caveat your review by saying that you only played once and you only describe your experience rather than drawing conclusions, I’m fine with it. A proper review requires multiple plays with multiple groups for a properly informed conclusion.
Tom: Microgames like Love Letter seem to be the hot new topic. Do you have one on the design board? What is your take on this? Fad or legit? Have you played any?
Jay: Microgames are legit because they fill two spaces that are historically sparse for gamers; interesting filler between games, and gateway games to entice new players. I’ve played Love Letter, Daniel Solis’ Suspense and older games that predate the term, like Falling. I haven’t designed any and feel no obligation to do so, but if I come across a microgame idea in my explorations I certainly won’t ignore it.
Tom: I had forgotten about Falling. It’s definitely one of the first microgames. I would say that several of James Ernest’s games are in that category.
I should interview him. What’s your favorite unpublished game right now?
Jay: Assault and Intrigue are both really solid, but Intrigue appeals to me more as a player; There’s just nothing out there that makes you work with and against the other players the same way.
Tom: What are you currently playing the most?
Jay: I prize variety over consistency, but I have played a lot of Maximum Throwdown recently, Hanabi in the past two years and Werewolf variants (including my own—Invasion of the Body Snatchers) since forever.
Tom: What game surprised you and how?
Jay: Risk: Legacy? It was a pretty brilliant leap for Rob D’aviau to realize that even though many gamers are compulsive about keeping their games in pristine condition that most games get played maybe a dozen times before they’re retired to the bookshelf forever. Capitalizing on that by making a self-destructing game was bold. That he sold his corporate overlords at Hasbro on the idea is perhaps even more impressive.
Tom: Yeah, Risk Legacy is pretty groundbreaking. I’m waiting to see who will follow in his footsteps with something similar. I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen it yet.
Jay: I’ve heard Rob talk about making a new “Legacy” game from scratch, as well as a couple other designers on Twitter. I’m sure it will happen, but it may be a while. Sounds hard.
Tom: What is next for you? What else is in the queue?
Jay: I’m not sure yet whether Draw! is going to be a standalone card game, an RPG combat system or some impossible hybrid, but it’s based off five-card draw poker so that players can jump in and start shooting almost immediately. It’s very young, but already showing great promise. It’s an unusually asymmetrical game for me, which drives the theme but is a challenge for sure.
On the horizon, two games I’ve been meaning to make for a while are Hollywood Disaster—in which wannabe producers compete to fix a terrible film; and Black Hills—a “Shared DBG” where siblings lead the village against encroaching demons in order to inherit their father’s headdress.
Tom: Each of those sounds pretty cool. You said Draw! was asymmetrical. That intrigues me (pun intended). Can you talk more about that?
Jay: An unspoken rule in the vast majority of modern games is that the game is fair; that each player starts the game with an equal chance of victory. There are exceptions, of course (and they tend to be multiplayer games with politics where such imbalances are self-correcting). In Draw!, I’m embracing the no-railing attitude of the Wild West: Players flip playing cards at the beginning to determine which weapons they have. Any face card is a rifle but a king is almost strictly better than a jack, and rifles play completely differently from shotguns. They’re not balanced and that’s intentional. For me, that enhances the Wild West feeling.
Tom: I’m a movie buff, especially B-movies, so Hollywood Disaster appeals to me on a few levels. Playing a ‘Roger Corman’ would be fun.
The idea/theme of Black Hills is cool. And ‘Shared DBG’ sounds like a really interesting mechanic.
Jay: I enjoy the creative challenge of mixing two ideas or twisting one. Sometimes it leads to a dead-end like “Drafting DBG” did, but sometimes it leads to unexpected ideas like Black Hills. A quirk of the game I’m enthralled with is that players can work together or betray the group as they see fit, which is great for players who hate being assigned the traitor role, and also simulates a real moral decision absent with assigned-roles.
Tom: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
Jay: Choose to be happy. Hate, greed & despair will get you nowhere and the only true obstacle is yourself.
Tom: How can people contact you? Are there any links you would like folks to visit?
Jay: Follow me on Twitter. I really need to make a website dedicated to my games, but you will find non-Magic links at the website I made for Magic players: Wizards Familiar. You can read about tabletop game design at Hyperbole Games and about Magic design at Goblin Artisans.
Tom: Grant’s Hyperbole Games is a hugely helpful site for game designers and gamers who want to see behind the curtain of game design. I really am glad that it’s out there.
Jay: Definitely. It’s an honor for me to be a small part of that.
Tom: Any final words?
Jay: Designers, set your ego aside and get your stuff out there. Meet people and let them rip your ideas apart. It’s hard, but you’ll never get there otherwise (and it does get easier). Rip their ideas apart too (politely, but honestly) and you will both grow and make better games as a result.
Thanks for the great questions, Tom!
Thanks to you Jay! I’m looking forward to seeing some more of your games soon.You can find out more about Assault on Khyber Station here. Jay is a frequent guest writer at Hyperbole Games. It’s right here.
And thank you for joining me for another awesome interview on Go Forth And Game.