A Conversation With…Superstar Game Designer Scott Almes

Scott Almes is THE hottest game designer right now. Tiny Epic Kingdoms from Gamelyn Games is probably his biggest so far. But he has been designing for several years. He’s responsible for Martian Dice and Kings of Air and Steam from Tasty Minstrel Games. And he has about a dozen games coming out this year. So I wanted to talk to him about his designs and how they come about.

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Tom: Ok, Scott tell us about yourself in case some folks don’t know you. What do you do to support your gaming habit?

Scott: By day, I’m a product engineer for a railroad company.  I focus on product development and manufacturing, and have recently submitted a patent through my work there.  I’ve always loved to see how things work – and design things myself – and I’m fortunate enough to have a day job that I really enjoy.

Tom: You’re the first railroad man I’ve had on Go Forth. And a patent owner too. Very Cool. You are like a superstar designer right now. You have, what, 56 games being published this year?

Scott: Haha, it certainly feels like that many.  I think this years kickstarters will total up to 9, at least at the moment.  This year I’ve had Tiny Epic Kingdoms and Bigfoot.  Of Mice and Lemmings is currently on Kickstarter.  And, in the very near future, you’ll see Harbour with Tasty Minstrel Games, Tiny Epic Defenders with Gamelyn Games, and Loop Inc with Gryphon Games.  Later on will be a couple that haven’t been announced yet, but hopefully will soon.

Tom: I think you are giving Daniel Solis a run for his money. I’m excited about these so let’s talk about them. Of Mice & Lemmings is your newest game. Let’s talk about it a bit. First, where did you get the idea?

Scott: It was actually one of my few games that didn’t start with a theme first.  I wanted to design a game for my friends and family, specifically for when we gathered in large groups and didn’t want to split up.  My family has always enjoyed card games – Oh Hell and The Great Dalumuti being favorites.  My friends have gotten a big kick out of hidden role games.  I love both genres, and I wanted to make a mash-up of the two.  So, the game started with that nugget of an idea.  Later on, when I decided I needed a theme, I just happened to be stumbled upon an internet list entitled something like ‘Lies Disney Told me’.  One of the items was that lemmings, in fact, do not jump off cliffs.  I’d heard this before, but as I was rereading it the idea struck me as an interesting theme for a game.  As it turns out, there are games with lemmings in them, and in the gaming world lemmings most certainly do jump off cliffs, but they are all very different than mine.  The mice just seemed like a natural enemy for lemmings, although nature doesn’t support that either.  Plus, the title ‘Mice & Lemmings’ – and later ‘Of Mice & Lemmings’ – is really catchy.

OML3Tom: It is catchy. The art is fantastic and will appeal to a big audience. I’m hoping to get a review copy from Michael. The interview we did recently was so much like we were actually talking, having a conversation face to face. He is such a great guy. It’s very easy to talk to him. I’m looking forward to doing more with him and Little Metal Dog and Sprocket Games. On to more OM&L. Next, what is game play like?

Scott: This is my take on creating a classic pub game.  You have crafty card play and a little bluff.  In the game, each player is given a secret role (either a Mouse or a Lemming) and a hand of numbered bridge cards.  Each round, players will play one card onto the bridge.  The mice want the bridge to have a high total, saying the bridge is safe and they can cross the river to the cheese factory.  The lemmings want a low total, making the bridge unsafe so it’ll collapse into the river.  The tricky part comes when, in every round, one player must reveal their rodent card.  When they do this, it means they are running across the bridge and may not play a bridge card.  Mice get points for getting across the river, and lemmings get points for falling into the water.  And, since you don’t get to play a bridge card, you are at the mercy of the other players.  You’ll need to have a good bet on who is a mouse or a lemming, or you could be putting your faith in the wrong players.  At the end of a hand, players also get points depend on how their team did.  For instance, if there were more splashes than cheeses, the lemmings get an additional point.  So, there is both individual and team scoring.

OML1Tom: The game sounds great. I know certain gamers in my group will eat it up. They love deduction and social gaming. What parts did you have to take out that you liked?

Scott: Special one-time powers that you could use to affect the bridge.  The game, which feels so much like a classic pub game, felt weird with those in.  A pub game has to be taught in two minutes and very streamlined.  So, special building rules were eliminated.

Tom: What kind of response did you get in play-testing? Any changes resulting from that?

Scott: The game tested surprisingly well from the beginning.  The rules didn’t change too much over the course of the game, but the card balance did.  Getting the right number spread on the cards that made sense and didn’t make the math unbearable was difficult.  Too much math wasn’t fun, but too little made it seem like a kids game.  This is a game for casual play.

Tom: I can see that. I’m working through that with University Labs right now. I’m pretty sure I have way too many cards in the game. But play-testing will weed that out. Why Sprocket Games?sprocket1

Scott: I’ve been a long time listener of the Little Metal Dog Show – in fact, I’ve worked with some publishers specifically because I’ve heard them on the show.  So, when Michael Fox started a publishing company I took notice.  What really sold me, however, was the art for Fox & Chicken.  It had the same style and sense of humor I was hoping for Of Mice & Lemmings, so I sent it over to him.  Luckily, he loved it, and the game is looking as fantastic as I hoped.

Tom: Let’s talk about Tiny Epic Kingdoms. Gamelyn Games is the publisher and the Kickstarter campaign blew the doors off. How did you come up with a micro-4X game? Talk man.

Scott: This was a personal challenge.  I love the micro game revolution that’s going on.  Although, truthfully, it’s settling into a focus on small box games, which I’m very excited about.  I like to travel a lot, and being able to throw a couple games in my carry on is a great thing.  I can’t bring Power Grid easily on a weekend flight, but I can bring Jaipur and Hive Pocket.  So, with the rise of Love Letter, Coup, and Council of Verona, I wanted to make my own mark in the new revolution.  So, then the challenge game.  What is the biggest genre there is?  In my mind, it’s 4X games.  They take 8+ hours to play, two hours to learn, and require more table space than a king’s banquet table.  So, I thought, if I could TEK1condense that experience into something small and compact, I could hit an audience that doesn’t normally get to enjoy 4X games.  I, personally, am in that audience, too.  I, unfortunately, don’t really have the time, although I want to play more of them.  I find the sandbox feel of 4X games very satisfying.

Tom: How does that huge campaign make you feel?

Scott: It’s extremely humbling, actually.  When a Kickstarter takes off like that, it’s because of the community.  Michael Coe had a plan to get the community involved right off the bat.  He sent out a print and play version, as well as a bunch of copies he made himself.  The community feedback was fantastic, and when we launched the campaign they were already there.  It was that initial community support through doing the print and play and writing reviews off of my artistically-deficit prototype that started us off so strong.  Even with a small game, taking the time to print and play a game is a big endeavor.  So, I’m flattered that people took the time to do so, and I hope they are as pleased as I am with the final product.  They really helped make it happen.  Well, them and Michael Coe’s tireless efforts on the game.  He was truly a dream publisher to work with on this project.

Tom: Michael does a fantastic job reaching out and building community. He fully devotes to every project. It’s a fun and well designed game. The 4X comes through well. I’m excited to get my copy and introducing it to friends. You have some other games too. Bigfoot is one. Speak about it some.

Scott: Bigfoot  just completed kickstarter funding about a month ago.  It’s two player, asymmetric deduction game. BigfootAlmes One player is a Cryptozoologist who is trying to find and trap Bigfoot in his lair.  The other player plays Bigfoot, who is trying to avoid capture through the game.  It’s central mechanic is a ‘I divide and you choose’ mechanic.  The Cryptozoologist lays out two rows of traps, and the Bigfoot must choose which one to trigger, giving the CZ clues.  It takes about 15 minutes to play, and is only a deck of cards and a few tokens.  Another great game for travel.

Tom: It sounds fun. I’m actually working on a cryptid game myself. I really need to work on it some more. Harbour is coming from Tasty Minstrel Games. I’ve played it and it’s fun. Give us the rundown. The art in Harbour is great. Who’s the artist?

Scott: I’m glad you liked it!  Harbour is another small box design of mine.  In many ways, it’s a love letter to Uwe Rosenberg’s design style.  The game itself takes place in a seaside town, much like Le Havre, except it’s filled with comical fantasy creatures.  Players will build buildings, send workers out to collect resources, and manipulate the market in order to gain an edge.  It’s very much a traditional euro, but will scratch that itch with a small footprint and short game length.  Plus, it plays very well with two players, which I always like.  The art is being done by Rob Lundy, who is doing such an unbelievably fantastic job.  Seriously, people could hate this game and still buy it for the art.  I’m so happy he’s working on this project, because he’s really bring the world of Harbour to life just as I imagined it.

Harbour - Quarry
One of the ‘building’ cards from Harbour

Tom: I’m glad to hear it plays solo too. TMG did Kings of Air And Steam too. I played a very early version of it and honestly didn’t care for it too much. But I understand it has changed A LOT since then. I’d like to know some more about the current version.

Scott: Ah, no worries, you can’t please everybody 😉 KoA&S was the first design I submitted to TMG – and my first design accepted for publication – and it was, admittedly, a little rough before Seth Jaffee helped develop the crap out of it.  We changed a lot, while keeping the overall concept of the game the same.  We simplified the route planning deck, added special characters, and revamped the whole economy.  For me, it was a great learning experience, and going through the exercise of truly developing a game has helped every game that has come afterwards.  Plus, Kings of Air and Steam is significantly better for it.  We also have an expansion coming out in the future, called World’s Fair.

Tom: Seth is great. I hope I’m able to work with him some day. I want to play the final version. I liked the theme and the route planning if I remember correctly. I need to find someone who has it. You have one more from TMG – Martian Dice. I’d call this a microgame myself. It’s a very good one too. I own it and take it on vacation often because it’s small. I have some pictures somewhere of us playing at Disney World somewhere. How did it come about?

Scott: In push your luck games, you are commonly fighting against getting a certain bad result.  In Zombie Dice you want to avoid shotguns.  In Incan Gold you want to avoid hazards.  But, for Martian Dice, I thought ‘what if you could fight back?’.  That was the initial concept of the game, back when it was called Cave Dice.  In that version, you had to fight off animals in order to collect fruit and berries.  I liked the dynamic of having to balance defending yourself with collecting points.

Tom: It’s a really good game and now that you bring it up ‘yeah, fighting back. Cool.’.  Talk about Artificers some.

Scott: Ah, Artificers.  I submitted that for a nestorgames contest when they released their nestortile sets.  This was well before Kings of Air and Steam.  I don’t even know if nestortiles are still around, but the game was kind of neat.  Certainly rough around the edges, though.  I don’t know if anybody other than me actually played it, which could be for the best.  I’m hoping to reuse the central bidding mechanic in another game down the line.  Something bigger and more modern.

Tom: I like auctions/bidding. That’s the central mechanic for my game Duck Blind. I LOVE No Thanks! and For Sale. Oh and Ra. Work that sucker up man! Can you talk about Tiny Epic Defenders?

Scott: Definitely!  Tiny Epic Defenders is the next game in the Tiny Epic Series.  It’s not a sequel to TEK, but it does exist in the same universe.  In TED, players must work together in order to defeat an Epic Foe.  It uses an action point selection mechanic that will be familiar to cooperative game players, but the most unique aspect is the turn order deck.  Each turn, a card from the Turn Order Deck is flipped over to reveal who will get to take their turn.  It could be an enemy, it could be a player.  So, you know what’s in the deck, but you don’t quite know the order.  Plus, after the deck is depleted, more enemies are added in – ramping up the difficulty.  For those players who like cooperative games, or those looking for a good introduction, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy.  Plus, it plays good solo!

Tom: THAT sounds really neat. I like the mechanic That tension ramp is cool. Can I get in on some testing/reviewing of TED? What else do you have in the queue?king AS

Scott: We can definitely get you on board for reviewing TED!  As far as other games, I can’t talk about everything, but here’s what I can talk about…  Harbour, with Tasty Minstrel Games, is up next on Kickstarter this May.  June will bring Tiny Epic Defenders, with Gamelyn Games.  Loop Inc., my time travel game with Gryphon Games, will be summertime… I think.  And, later on this year we’ll hopefully be kickstarting the expansion for Kings of Air and Steam, called World’s Fair.  I also have a project with Greenbrier Games and another with 8th Summit Games, and I think people will really enjoy both of them.  I can’t say too much about them quite yet, but I will say that they are on completely different ends of the game design spectrum.  Plus, next year, I’m sure you will see more Tiny Epic games…

Tom: Hey, yeah. Talk about Loop, Inc. I like time travel stuff.

Scott: In Loop Inc., the players all work for a time travel agency, called – well – Loop Incorporated.  Each player is working to earn the most money by sending customers on trips back in time.  Things get tricky when, at the end of the first day, all the players go back in time to retry the same day to earn more money.  This time they have two characters and two ships.  However, you must still perform the same actions you did the first day, or else you’ll cause a rip in the time space continuum.  Things get even more complicated when your two characters go back in time a second time, letting players run a third day with three characters, three ships, and a mess of actions that have to sort out.  The game feels like a time travel game, because the complexity folds over itself at the end of each round, making it quirky brain burner by the end of the game.  I’m very proud of how it turned out, and I’m hoping it will do well in the market. A time travel game is a niche that hasn’t been properly filled yet.

Tom: Oh man. That sounds REALLY cool! I agree that there are not enough time travel themed games. I do happen to know of another one in development though. So you may be onto something. Now a few general questions. First, what do you look for from a playtester?

Scott: I just want them to be honest.  I want to know if: A) They had fun, and B) If they felt like they had the ability to win.  Those are the two main goals for a game.  The rest is just nuts and bolts.

Tom: Good advice. I’ll add those into The Big Answer if you don’t mind. Do you start with a theme or a mechanic first?

Scott: More often than not, theme.  But, I’ve had a few games start with mechanics first.  Of Mice and Lemmings is a good example of mechanics first.

Tom: Do you have a favorite mechanic?

Scott: I like so many different styles that I can’t mention just one, so I’ll confess to three: Route planning, hidden roles, and unique market mechanics (like the power grid market).

Tom: How do you get through design block?martian dice1

Scott: I move onto another design.  Normally, I have different designs at different stages.  So, while one game might need an ingenious fix for a broken mechanic, some other game might just need a rules edit.  So, if I’m stuck, I just switch projects for a while and then come back to the first one.

Tom: I do the same. Move on to something else. Take a break. Play some games. Do you have a favorite designer?

Scott: Friedemann Friese.  He has an eclectic catalog, and I think that shows some serious talent.  Second place would be Uwe Rosenburg, both because of Bohnanza and Le Havre are among my favorite games.

Tom: I have never play a Friese game. I can’t believe that but it is true. I’m looking to pick up Friday very soon. I like Uwe’s games a lot but haven’t played Le Havre yet. I’m very interested in playing Caverna. Oh and Glass Road. I hear very good things about it. And Wurfel Bohnanza. Where can people find you?

Scott: I’m on twitter (@Scott_Almes) if you want to know what I’m up to.  If you have any questions about my games, feel free to send me a message there, or on boardgamegeek (scottbalmes).  I’m on both constantly.  I also have a blog, which I need to pay attention to more, at scottalmes.wordpress.com.  I’ll be updating that a lot more frequently in the near future.

Tom: Yeah folks. Scott’s all over Twitter most of the time.

Scott: And, of course, Of Mice and Lemmings is up on Kickstarter now and can use your support.  Sprocket Games is getting the game locally sources, and is promising a very quick delivery schedule.  I’d love if you’d check it out!

Tom: Yep, you folks should back this one right here. It’s fun, unique, and from a great bunch of gamers. I want to thank Scott very much for joining me. I look forward to seeing all your games that are on the way. It was awesome talking to you Scott. Come back any time.  Readers, let Scott know what you think. Leave a comment below.

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