Brandan Parsons of Blue Orange Games is my guest this time on Go Forth And Game. Blue Orange has just jumped into the hobby/gamer games market with two Bruno Cathala games. I wanted to find out more so Brandan is here to enlighten us.
Tom: Hi Brandan. Blue Orange Games’ tagline – Hot Games for a Cool Planet – is fantastic. Who thought that up?
Brandan: Environmentalism has always been important for our company’s identity. We wanted something that represented that dedication to our planet. It’s also the same motivation behind the company’s name
Tom: Let’s talk about Blue Orange Games some more. Where did the name originate?
Brandan: It’s based on a poem from Paul Eluard, where he says “the world is blue as an orange”
We got out start with simple, earth-friendly wooden games. And we plant trees for every tree we harvest when making our games. Last year we partnered with the Save the Bay initiative to help preserve our local San Francisco bay wetlands. And even though nowadays, we mostly use non-petroleum-based resins for our components, remaining environmentally conscious is one of our core beliefs. And we try to have our name and practices reflect that.
Tom: I was not aware of this. It’’s a very admirable belief and it’s fantastic that you are able to carry it into the production of your games. Blue Orange Games is mostly known for producing high quality, fun children’s games. You’ve been very successful with that it seems. I mean Spot It! has been in kid’s meals for crying out loud. That’s very awesome. Give us some company history.
Brandan: In 1999 Thierry Denoual and Julien Mayot partnered to promote Thierry’s game Gobblet — a clever twist on the classic formula of Connect 4. The next year, in 2000, they created Blue Orange, and Julien embarked on a 3 month cross country road trip to sell the game. The road trip was a huge success — Julien visited 500 stores and sold 10,000 units of Gobblet. And the company was born.
Over the next 10 years or so, we focused mainly on our “Woody Goodies” — simple children’s games that made out of wood. They were mostly memory, matching, and coordination games. They were all cute and easy to learn how to play.
Tom: “Woody Goodie” is a great name.
Brandan: Yeah, it’s a great name. Technically, it only officially refers to a small subsection of our wooden games. But, I use it to refer to all of our wooden children’s games. They all feel part of the same collection. They built our reputation for making games with quality components. People started to recognize our products as great for families because we tried our best to not condescend to kids with gimmicks. Our games were became known for solid, high quality kids games, with an educational core.
Then in 2011, we saw a major shift in scale and scope. That was the year we first started selling Spot it! — which has been a huge success for us. We released several other similar games at the same time. And began to focus more on card games (in round tins) and party games with mass market appeal.
Then, just last year, with the creation of Blue Orange Europe, we began to dip our toes into more substantial games. We’ve made sure to keep components and rules clean and simple, but have introduced more opportunities for reflexion and nuanced play strategies.
Tom: Talk a bit about how BOG-Europe ‘merger’ , if that is the right word, came about. Why did that happen? How does it benefit you?
Brandan: The company that used to be known as Jactalea changed their name to Blue Orange last year. Up until then, Jactalea was making games with similar spirit to ours — they were easy-to-learn games with opportunities for deep strategy. While their games were a little more mature (four of them Bruno Cathala games), we both felt like we could mutually benefit each other. We function as separate companies, but we communicate daily on game development and testing. And Thierry heads up creative at both companies. We use the same pool of resources, and we develop our games in collaboration. Some games go to both catalogs, others are EU or US exclusives. We get BOG EU’s expertise in developing more complex gamer games, and they get access to all of Thierry’s awesome wooden children games that built our reputation over the past 15 years.
Tom: Tell me about your first game.
Brandan: MY first game? Well, the first games I MADE as a child were maze games. My grandfather would visit for a month each year between halloween and thanksgiving. And we would draw mazes together, and then complete each others. He was a retired architect for Chrysler, so his mazes were always these beautiful, elegant creations, and mine were more awkward messes. But it was fun, and taught me how to creatively build things with rules
.Tom: Wow, I used to draw mazes as a kid too. There’s hope for me yet!
Brandan: In terms of the games I PLAYED — my first memory of playing games is Mancala. Soon after that was Stratego, Chess, and Othello. Then in the summer of 3rd grade I watched a group of 4th graders play a game of Magic: the Gathering and I was hooked! Magic was the first game I fell in love with. I still play it to this day. And it is one of my primary motivations for pursuing a career in games.
Tom: You have two new games from Bruno Cathala that are creating a stir. Let’s talk about them. First, tell me about Niya.
Brandan: Niya is a 2 player abstract strategy game, where you are trying to arrange for your tokens together, by matching patterns on the garden tiles. The components are beautiful. The gameplay is simple. And the whole experience is overall elegant-feeling. Personally, I find it very relaxing to play. It’s the first game we brought over from the old Jactalea catalog. They called it Okiya in France, but when we brought it to the US, we changed the name and some of the art, to make it more appropriate for our fan base of family gamers (we got rid of the geisha references). The game is actually based on a different Bruno Cathala game called Kamon, where you try to arrange your pieces by matching patterns on the last piece chosen (just like Niya), but Kamon was on a larger scale and had no theme.
I have heard some buzz about Niya from GenCon. It sounds like a game I would enjoy. I think Bruno is a fantastic designer. I’m intrigued by Kamon. I’ve not heard of it. I will look them up on BGG.
The other is Longhorn. Pray, what is that one about?:)
Brandan: Longhorn is a 2 player strategy game where your objective is to become the best cow thief in the wild west by stealing cows worth the most money at the end of the game.
Longhorn is another game that is a direct result of our partnership with BOG EU. When I first heard of the game, we were leaning towards not selling it here. The theme was a little too off base. We have a strong anti-gun policy in our games, and Longhorn prominently features multiple gun-slinging bandits on the cover of the box. But when I heard that our European division was working on a game from Bruno Cathala, set in the wild west, with beautiful cow tokens (or “MOOples” as I like to call them) I didn’t need to hear anymore. I knew we had to bring this game to the US. (What could be more American than cowboys, cows, and Texas?)
To avoid diluting / upsetting our brand though, we decided to limit our involvement to distribution. So, if you look on the Geek, you will notice that Longhorn is technically a BOG EU only game. We just distribute in the US.
Tom: Staying true to your core. I can respect that. I hear very good things about this game. I can’t wait to play it.
Brave Rats is also a pretty hot game. I’ve heard some good things about it. Give us the lowdown.
Brandan: BraveRats is a 2 player card game from Seiji Kanai (originally published under the name “R”). In BraveRats, players use deduction, bluffing, and luck to try and be the first player to win 4 points. It’s a super quick micro-game with only 16 card. Both players begin the game with the same 8 cards (the art is different, but the cards play the same). The most common comparisons I’ve heard for the game are 1) Love Letter (another brilliant Seiji Kanai game all about bluffing, deduction, and luck) and 2) War because the higher strength card wins. BraveRats is a game that needs to be played multiple times in a row for full effect. Each time you play, you learn something new about how your opponent plays. It’s like that scene in the Princess Bride, with the poisoned wine cup, where Vizzini keeps second guessing himself based on information he infers about his opponent.
Tom: Kanai is probably THE hot designer right now. I love the games of his that I have played. It is great that you landed one of his games and that it is doing well for you. Bluffing games, you mentioned Love Letter also Coup, The Resistance, Suspense: The Card Game, and several others seem to be the hotness these days. Why do you think that is?
Brandan: I think it’s because bluffing is an easy-to-understand action/skill that is very difficult to master. There are nuances in bluffing games that change each time you play. It keeps things exciting and engaging without overly complicating things. That’s why a lot of them make great gateway games too. In most cases, you can quickly and easily teach them and get people playing and having fun. Because its not about how you can take advantage of or break the rules. It’s just about skillfully mastering a simple action. We have an AWESOME game coming out next year called WINK. It’s a bit of a bluffing game in that you have to keep your allegiances secret, but it’s also a great party game and ice breaker because you announce allegiances to each other by furtively winking at your secret partner — hopefully clearly enough for him to identify you without drawing too much attention to yourself. And I think the bluffing aspect is a big part of why families have responded so positively to the game.
Tom: I think you are spot on about bluffing games. Wink. I played something similar as a kid.
Dan Patriss of The Geek Allstars is championing Doodle Quest. It sounds super fun. Tell me about it.
Brandan: Yeah, it’s been great to have Dan’s support! Doodle Quest is a drawing adventure for 1-4 players. It’s a family-friendly party game that is more of an “activity” than a “game” because the fun is more in playing than winning. Basically, you’ve got three things: a pen, a quest card (with a big picture in the middle), and a transparent “doodle sheet.” and all you are doing is drawing lines and simple shapes based on the prompt of the challenge card at hand. (connect mermaids to their pet dolphins. draw eyes in sea creatures. fill in a shark’s missing teeth. etc. But the trick is, you don’t get to draw on the image itself. You draw on a separate transparent doodle sheet. THEN place that transparency over the image. It’s a deceptively simple game, and challenging for players of all ages.
Tom: That does sound fun party game. My kids would like that one.
How was GenCon for you? What was the one cool thing you saw and played?
Brandan: Gen Con was great. It was my first time there so I was definitely overwhelmed by the amount of people there. The first morning, I didn’t know I could use the side door, and I found myself stuck in the middle of the mass of people, having a mild panic attack. But it was great to see some friends I made at Origins as well as some friends from back home in SF. I quickly started to feel at home. I got to play a lot of new games (and prototypes), and meet some great designers like Charles Chevallier, Bruno Faidutti, and Bruno Cathala (all of whom have new games coming out for us next year). It was a lot of fun for me to just walk around and observe what people were playing.
Tom: What was your favorite non – BOG game of those you played?
Brandan: Well, I am a sucker for simple dexterity games. So, my favorites from the con were Coconuts and Rhino Hero. Coconuts in particular. I am addicted to that game. I take it to bars, game nights, everyone loves it. It combines so many elements of pure joy. Cuteness. Shooting. Bouncing. Squishing. Stacking. SPRING-LOADED MONKEY CATAPULTS?? Pure genius! Except for those special cards. I don’t play with that nonsense.
Tom: Rhino Hero seems to have been one of the giant hits of GenCon. All my friends are talking about it. You’re very well know as a publisher of educational games. Why did you go that route?
Brandan: Well, this is actually a tricky question that I think about a lot. It is true, educators and counselors love our games because they make excellent tools for learning scholastic and social concepts. But I try to avoid labeling our games as “educational games” because different people have different understandings of what that should be. Personally, I think anything that makes you think and consider should be called educational, but others believe a game is only “educational” if it adheres to the common core.
Tom: That is an excellent point. Any game that makes you think should be considered educational. And you are correct the term ‘educational game’ has a negative connotation with many people.
Brandan: Of course, educators are very important to us though. So we do keep educational value in mind when making our games. One of the questions on our game testing survey asks the families to rate the game’s educational value. So it’s definitely something we consider and is important to us, I just try to avoid that label so that players approach them with a more open mind.
Tom: You all have won a bunch of awards. Run a few down for us. Which one are you most proud of?
Brandan: Dr. Toy, Major Fun, Oppenheim, we’ve won a bunch. We always make it a top priority to have our games evaluated by judges, and panels and we are truly honored by the number of awards we have received. But personally, I’m most proud of the awards that our game Battle Sheep has won this year. It made the recommendation list for the Spiel des Jahres, and we took home the Finnish family game of the year!
If a game designer has a game they think would fit BOG can they contact you? If so, how can they contact you?
Brandan: When we were just starting out, Thierry would create all our games. But these days, the past 5 years or so, the vast majority of our games have come from independent inventors. And since we merged with Blue Orange Europe last year, most of those games have come from european inventors. We are always happy to play games from inventors. Any submissions can be sent to email@example.com. We ask that inventors include pictures and/or videos of their prototype, summary of gameplay experience, and a word document with the in-depth rules. But the best time to submit games to us is in-person at conventions. Because, unless you have a great video, it’s difficult to communicate your passion and excitement for a game.
Tom: It’s great to have that resource and contacts with the European designers. It seems that having a presence there would facilitate things greatly.How do you do playtesting?
Brandan: Playtesting is one of my favorite parts of my job! Every month, we invite our network of families to try out prototypes we are considering, as well as games currently in development. It’s a wild mass of barely controlled chaos, with kids and families laughing and playing games. And it gives us perspective on the game that sometimes we miss playing internally.
Before testing the games with the families, we make sure to play them internally. Gauge our feelings. Then watch the families play and evaluate how they engage with the game. Afterwards, we see how our feelings have changed.
Tom: It’s neat that you have a regular stable of families that playtest for you. Family playtesting is something every designer should do as that is a growing demographic. You mentioned that you ‘gauge your feelings’ on a game prior to those playtests and then see how your feelings have changed as a result of the playtests. What games changed significantly as a result of playtesting?
Brandan: Doodle Quest is a great example. That game was in development for over a year because the results from testing were not syncing with our love and passion for the game internally. Families were getting frustrated, and spending too much time reading the rules and being uncertain about how to play. (There aren’t many games like Doodle Quest on the market after all). So what we discovered is that the rules for each challenge needed to be quicker and easier to understand. So we cleaned up the design of the quest cards, and updated the rules and it finally fell into place and the testing matched our perception.
Other times, games that we love playing together just don’t go over well with families. It is very challenging to imagine how a child will react to a game. What is interesting and engaging to an adult might be offputting to a kid. And until you watch a child play a game, there is no way to know for sure if it really is “fun.”
Tom: Yes, I can see your point about some games not clicking with kids. My son (12) often doesn’t fancy some of the games I like. Though he is a fan of Manhattan Project. With the addition of two Cathala games, is BOG dipping its toe into the hobby/gamer market?
Brandan: Absolutely, yes. Next year, in addition to our catalog of family favorites, we will also have a separate “Blue Orange Europe Catalog” for hobby stores. These games will be direct from Blue Orange Editions in France, with no changes, (Just like Longhorn). The Europe catalog will include several offerings from well known inventors. We will have Dragon Run from Bruno Cathala, Attila from Bruno Faidutti, Wakanda from Charles Chevallier, as well as few others we haven’t announced yet.
Tom: Excitement! Dragon Run sounds great and I think I hear some whispers that Attila was going to be an excellent one too. No information on Wakanda.
Can you tell us a little about each of those games?
Brandan: Dragon Run is a dungeon-crawling push your luck card game for 2-5 players. You play as one of 7 unique adventurers, trying to escape the Dragon’s dungeon with your life and as much treasure as you can possibly carry. Each turn, you will flip over a location card that hopefully give you a bonus (usually treasure), but there is a 1/10 chance it will be the Dragon card which will burn you half dead. On your turn, you have to decide whether you will charge bravely through the dungeon and risk the wrath of the dragon, advance cautiously and hopefully pass its wrath onto the next player, or cry like a baby and give up some of your treasure. It’s also got beautiful art from Vincent Dutrait, who also did the art for Longhorn.
Atilla is light 2 player abstract strategy game. Your objective is to move your cavalry around the board, shooting flaming arrows at the ground in order to trap your opponent with nowhere to go. It’s quick. And the board is modular so it feels different each game. And it has that feeling of the mental workout you get from playing a game of Chess.
Wakanda is a 2 player strategy game where you try to build and claim totem poles worth the most points at the end of the game. It’s got elements of push your luck and drafting and hand management. But again, the rules are super simple. Each turn, you draw a totem into your hand, then you decide whether you’d rather build up a totem pole with that totem, or claim one of the existing totem poles for yourself. Until they are claimed, the totems are communal, both players are building up the same totems, hoping they can claim them at the perfect moment. But if you wait too long, you risk your opponent stealing your prize. The scoring is really clever. When you claim a totem pole, you don’t claim all the totems, you also claim the location tile which determines which type of totems earn you points (on ANY of your totem poles). Once both players have claimed 3 totem poles each, players add up their points.
As with the rest of our games, we want to keep our core-fan base of family gamers happy. So even if a game has a little more to chew through, it’s important to us that the rules and components are as simple and elegant as possible.
Tom: It would be great for more games like these. I really enjoy the heavier games but I play more of the types you mention above. Because I play with my family. And with my game groups we often don’t have time for the brain burners.
Do you have any other ‘gamer’ games in the queue? What’s next?
Brandan: Well, BOG EU has a big catalog of clever strategy games, that we are evaluating bring over to the States. — Peleponnes, Chicago Stock Exchange, and Gyges are at the top of the list. And there is a prototype that we are all super excited about, that’s pretty different from most everything else we’ve done to date. Scheduled for release at Gen Con 2015. But it’s still in the middle of development, so I’m supposed to stay hush on the details for now.
Tom: Peleponnes is a fantastic game. I would love to see a reprint of that. It is great that you have access to those games and that we may see some of them. Please let me know when you are able to talk more about the new game. Maybe come back on the blog to talk specifically about it.
Tom: Where can the readers find you?
Brandan: I’m Brandaniel on boardgamegeek. And I moderate our Twitter account @BlueOrangeGames.
Thank you very much for the interview Brandan. I enjoyed learning more about Blue Orange Games. It was a bunch of fun.
Readers, please check out Blue Orange Games. They make some good games and have quite a few on the way.