Life Among The Leaves – A Conversation With … Scott Almes About Best Treehouse Ever


This time I’m talking to Scott Almes again. Scott has like 60 games in the queue right now. We’re talking about his latest, Best Treehouse Ever. It’s coming out from Green Couch Games and is on Kickstarter right now.

Tom: Welcome Scott. You are the most prolific game designer in the galaxy right now. How the heck do you do it? Do you have elves? That’s it isn’t it. You have game design elves.

Scott: Ever since the game design elves went union, it’s been harder to keep them working – so I’m on my own for the moment.  In all seriousness (I’m generally pro elf-union) my secret is just that I do a little bit every day.  I work for a solid 1-2 hours on game design/development every day, and then in between the cracks I’ll finish the business side of things like answering e-mails, keeping track of rules questions on BGG, and doing interviews 😉

Tom: This ‘an hour a day’ idea is one I need to implement. I’ve at least three designs at various stages and need to get something to playtesting stage. Tiny Epic Galaxies was amazing (again) on Kickstarter. It probably would have set a record if it hadn’t been for those exploding kittens. How are you feeling about that?

Scott; I’m completely, 100% thrilled about how TEG went on Kickstarter.  In my mind, this is the game that really turned Tiny Epic into a series of games.  TE Kingdoms was the first game, and TE Defenders was a sequel… but, as soon as you get to three you have a series.  So, TEG was critical to see how the Tiny Epic brand would fair going forward, and I’m happy to say it was a fantastic success.

Tom: What’s next for TEG? What do you have to do now that the KS is successful?

Scott: We had a little bit of development work to do on the Solo Game, which is just about complete now.  And we’re proofing all of the files.  Michael Coe’s plate (owner of Gamelyn Games) is more full than mine with TEG because he’s now working with the manufacturer to get everything set.  My focus is assisting with the development work and helping to proof the files.  And, I’m gearing up for the next one – which has already been in development for over a year.  There’s no rest for us after a KS – in fact, we just get busier!

Tom: Since the great success of the series many people are poking fun at them, making up “Tiny Epic” game titles. Tiny Epic Epics is my personal favorite. What other “Tiny Epic”’s are you working on?

Scott: I wish I could tell you!  But, we haven’t announced them quite yet.  I expect we will soon.  For the next stand-alone Tiny Epic game I can say that it’s been guessed in the BGG forums… but that’s all I’ll say about it 🙂

Tom: It’s Tiny Epic Ponies isn’t it. Instant billionaire idea. I had an idea for Tiny Epic Epics. It’s a legacy game or LCG type game that adds onto TEK. What do you think?

Scott: Haha, I can neither confirm or deny that it’s TE Ponies.  (Alright – it’s not Ponies)  As for Tiny Epic Epics, I can say we’ve built expandability into the Tiny Epic series, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if you see something that takes expandability to a new level in the future.

(Actually they announced this just before this was posted.)

Tom: I’ve played TEG (and backed it) and own TEK. How are they different from each other for those who might be considering purchasing either or both?

Scott: All the Tiny Epic games are completely different than one another, which is a staple of the series.  We don’t keep re-skinning the same game over and over again with a different theme.  Each game (and theme) will bring new mechanics.  Tiny Epic Kingdoms is a 4X conquest game, that’s driven by an action selection mechanism that keeps everyone involved at all times.  Players play unique factions, which gives them a special tech tree to advance during the game.  Tiny Epic Galaxies is dice-based, and is driven by a dice-comboing system.  In TEG you colonize planets, collect resources, and race against other players to the endgame.  The planets you colonize will give you special powers, making the game different every time.  And, while we’re at it, Tiny Epic Defenders is a cooperative game, that uses a cool turn-deck mechanic to keep players guessing as they fight off the Epic Foe.

Tom: Let’s shift gears. Green Couch Games recently announced that they are publishing your next game, Best Treehouse Ever. Tell me about it.

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Scott: Best Treehouse Ever is a card drafting game where players compete to build… well, the best treehouse ever!  Players collect cool rooms (such as a rock-climbing wall, pizza parlor, water slide) and add them to their tree, all while making sure colors are grouped correctly and you don’t tip your tree over.  The game is played over three rounds, and at the end of each round the players get to choose how much their trees score – as well as how much!  It’s very dynamic, as you must try to benefit from the other players decisions.  At the end of the game, players get bonuses for having the most of a certain color, and then the most points win!  And, even if you didn’t win, you get to look at the cool treehouse you just made.

Tom: How did Green Couch snag Treehouse?green couch 2

Scott: Jason Kotarski put up a call for submissions, and he was specifically looking for family filler-style games.  I jumped right on it, because I’ve been trying to think of a good home for Best Treehouse and it seemed like a great fit.  Jason had done a great job with Fidelitas.  The landscape for Kickstarter is very interesting right now – a lot of publishers are not looking for filler-style games.  They are looking for something more flashy, I guess.  I  have a hard time imagining a company putting up Coloretto on kickstarter, because it’s not that flashy.  BUT, the game is fantastic, and it has a great sales record to prove it’s worth.  I’m thankful that Jason knows that there needs to be more of these family-friendly filler games in the market, and he’s making it happen.  So, I’m very happy to partner with him for Best Treehouse.  I think we’re filling a void that a lot of small publishers are ignoring: good little family games.

Tom: That’s a really great way to think about it. I’m planning on having Jason on Go Forth soon and we will address this idea. I’m glad of it too because most of my designs are in the filler category. So, Best Treehouse – Where did that idea come from?

Scott: BTE came from a desire to make a game about treehouses, and I’m sorry to say it wasn’t much deeper than that.  As a kid (and into adulthood) I’ve always been fascinated by treehouses.  Ever see that show Treehouse Masters?  It’s fun, right?  Anyway, I think treehouses are very cool – so I wanted to make a game about them.  This game was certainly theme first, then mechanics second.

Tom: Who is doing the art for the game?treehouse6

Scott: The amazing Adam McIver.  He is doing an AMAZING job on this game.  And, if you need proof, almost every piece of art we’ve posted to BGG has skyrocketed to the hotness page and stayed there for several days.  The game looks absolutely beautiful.

Tom: Adam is so amazing! What do you look for in a game?

Scott: It’s kind of a lame answer, but I’m looking more and more at approachability when I buy a game.  I unfortunately don’t have the chance to get other designer games to the table multiple times in a short time period, so most of the time I feel like I’m playing the game for the first time.  (And the same with who I’m playing with)  So, something I can dive right into after not having played for maybe a year is great.  I also try to find things that can be played under an hour.

And, I think those tastes have been reflected in my designs as well.

Tom: I’m hearing that a lot these days. People want a game that is easy to learn, easy to teach, and sets up quickly. I have that same criteria most of the time. What are some of your favorite games?

Scott: Bohnanza is my favorite card game and Roborally’s my favorite board game.  I’m a big fan of Snow Tails, Metropolys, Isla Dorada, Pandemic, Hive, and basically every dexterity game ever made.

Tom: I LOVE Hive. It was one of the first gamer games, if you will, I played. You can play it right here. http://en.boardgamearena.com/#!gamepanel?game=hive

. Metropolys is a secret gem. Fantastic game. What is the least fun part of designing a game?

Scott: I feel like there are a couple of rules in every game that… well, don’t have a clear right or wrong way to go.  For example, in Tiny Epic Kingdoms, you can take a Trade action which allows you to swap one type of resource for another.  Well, in some iterations of the design, the trade action let you gain a bonus good when you did this.  And, guess what?  They both work.  They both work fine, in my opinion.  Some playtest groups liked one, and some liked the other.  I always overthink these decisions… the game plays so well with both versions I never know which one to go with.  I can point to a rule in every game where there’s a tweaked version that still fits all the design goals.  I find these agonizing… because I feel like there is a correct choice, but truthfully there isn’t.  I just need to choose one and move on.

Tom: What is the best piece of feedback you’ve received from a playtester?treehouse2

Scott: The first thing that pops in my mind is actually one that Michael Coe gave me on the next standalone TE game.  The game needed something a little bit extra… and he said something along the lines of, “One of the cool things about Tiny Epic is that all the resources have multiple uses.  In TEK, you spend stuff on actions or on war.  In TED, you can use health to defend or to take extra actions.  In TEG, you can expand your empire, or you can use them to reroll or follow.  How to spend your resources that you have is just as tricky as decided which ones to gain.  In this game, the resources aren’t dual-use… but if we did….”

…and, we went on to add just that.  And the game is amazing for it.

Tom: What makes designing games so fun?

Scott: I like everything about it.  It’s fun to have the initial idea and really explore it.  It’s such a wonderfully creative experience to design a game from the ground up.  And, when you are done, you get to play it with friends and family!  Which, is about the best reward you can get.

Tom: Are you a ‘pare down’ or ‘add to’ designer?

Scott: I’m kind of both, but I tend to be an ‘add to’ more often.  Which, I guess is funny since I do so much with small box games.  But, I try to start with the barest number of components possible, and then start to add mechanics from there.

Tom: Mechanics or theme first? Which is most important?

Scott: Best Treehouse Ever was theme first.  Tiny Epic Defenders was mechanics first.  I have games that fall on both sides.  As far as importance… it’s both.  Even if it’s an mechanical abstract, I want there to be some kind of flavor, whether it’s art or components.  Like, for example, Hive. Hive is almost completely mechanical, but the insect theme gives just enough flavor to the components and the pieces’ movements to make the game perfect.  On the flip side, a game like Betrayal at House on the Hill is almost completely theme, but the mechanics fit together well enough to carry out the theme of the game.

Tom: What designers do you admire?

Scott: Friedeman Friese, because he has designed so many different kinds of games, and so many of them are fantastic!  He’s done light fillers that are fantastic, as well as games for gamers that are now considered classics.

Tom: How do you decide when a game is done?

Scott: I still don’t know the answer to this question.  To me, I guess I send it to a publisher when I’m no longer worrying about mechanics, but rather agonizing over whether this card is worth 2 points or 3.  A little past that point is when I start talking to a publisher about it.  And then they tell me when I’m done 🙂

Tom: That’s an excellent answer. Do you have a favorite mechanic?

Scott: I think route-planning has to be my favorite mechanic, followed closely by simultaneous action selection.  (It’s no coincidence that both showed up in my first game accepted for publication, Kings of Air and Steam, although Martian Dice would be published first)

Tom: Have you been rejected by a publisher? Is so, how did you handle it?treehouse4

Scott: Oh, I definitely have.  You just have to shrug it off and move on.  If possible, I like to ask if there was a particular reason for the rejection, or if they can give some guidance on the next submission.  Some won’t respond, but some do.  As far as handling it, it also helps if you have multiple projects going at one time.  If you have several, then having a setback on one doesn’t hurt much.

Tom: What are some things that you have learned about playtesting?

Scott: Everyone has different likes and dislikes.  Playtesting is important, but realizing what to listen to – and what not to – is essential for playtesting properly.  I’ve been blessed with a lot of great friends and family who are actually very great playtesters, and aren’t afraid to hack at my games when needed.  As a rule, I think close family and friends don’t give good advice – but I’m lucky to have an exception.  Plus, I know them well enough to get their thoughts on a game almost before they open their mouths.  Blind playtesting is essential – but there’s also a bit of art for it.  If you assembly a random group, who knows what types of games they like.  You need to make sure that you are catering to your target audience, but you also want your game to be enjoyed by the fringe groups, too.  It’s tricky, and not an exact science.

Tom: What games have you admired or researched in order to understand game design better?

Scott: I think Power Grid is a great game to look at different aspects of game design.  It had a lot of features in it that are interested to designers.  You have an innovative market mechanic, that keeps prices for the resources fluctuating in an interesting way.  The turn order changes round to round, as well as what direction the phases are resolved.  Digging into WHY this is in the game sheds an interesting light on balancing games and avoiding runaway leaders.  It also has some (somewhat unwieldy) rules for how power plants come out during the game, which you can look at as a way to script the progression of the game a bit.  The inclusion of Steps, which changes the rules slightly as the game goes on, does this as well.  It has a lot of features that are very well thought out and have a definitive game design purpose.  It’s a very interesting game in that regard.  And, it’s one of my favorites!

Tom: What has been the hardest lesson for you to learn as a game designer?

Scott: Game publishing runs on it’s own schedule.  Just because you are planning for a X release, doesn’t mean it won’t slip to Y or even Z.  Sometimes things take longer than you want.  Or, sometimes things get rushed and you have much less time to get something done than you have planned!  As a freelance designer, you need to go with the flow.  Keep the publishers schedule, no matter how hectic it can be.  Make yourself easy to work with, help them where you can, and you’ll hopefully have a chance to work together as planned.  There are so many things that delay a game, and the designer should never be one of them.

Tom: Any last words?
Scott: Thanks for having chatting with me again, Tom!  It’s been great, as always.

Tom: Thanks Scott. I always like talking with you. Let’s talk again when your next game is ready.

Readers, thank you again for joining Scott and I at Go Forth And Game. Please visit the Best Treehouse Ever Kickstarter page here. You only have 3 more days left to snag your copy.

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Thanks again!

It’s Knot Just A Game – A Conversation With … Matt O’Malley & Knot Dice


This time Matt O’Malley is back to talk about Knot Dice, his latest project that is currently on Kickstarter.

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The nice building bits in Between Two Cities

Thank you for agreeing to be a guest on Go Forth And Game, Matt. It’s great to talk to you again. Tom: Between Two Cities, the game you co-designed with Ben Rosset, did super fantastic on Kickstarter.  I imagine that feels pretty good right?

Matt: The campaign was a huge success, and I can’t wait to go to Gen Con and Essen later this year to play the game with backers and introduce it to more players. The backers were so active and engaged – I hope I can develop that kind of support for Knot Dice.

Tom: Jamey is one of the best people in the business and community. I can’t say enough good things about him.I’m very excited for the game. It’s unique and at $29 it’s a no brainer to me. We talked a lot about BTC in an earlier interview. Is there anything new to add?

Matt: Just that we’re making great headway on those stretch goals and I hope we can knock them all out by the end of the campaign. The backers have been so active and engaged – I hope I can develop that kind of support for Knot Dice.

Tom: Knot Dice.  That’s what we are here to talk about most.Tell me about Knot Dice.

Matt: Knot Dice is a box of custom dice that form Celtic knot designs when placed next to one another. There are a bunch of games and puzzles for them, with more to come. But they also look and feel great just playing with them on a table or displayed on a shelf between plays.knot dice 2

The Kickstarter’s focus is a box containing two sets of 9 dice each (total of 18 dice) which is enough to play all of the games and puzzles in the box. And backers can add on additional sets of 9 to increase the size of the designs they can make and the number of players for some of the games. I’ll also have a smaller backer level for those who just want 9 of the dice to play with.

Tom: So it’s really a game system. That’s cool. If you back it then you actually are getting more than one game, correct?

Matt: Yes. The boxed game will include the rules to several games, by a number of designers (including myself), and I will also continue to post new games to the Black Oak Games web site. The boxed game also includes a number of unique puzzle types, with numerous puzzles of each type.knot dice 4

I also enthusiastically welcome everyone to design your own games and puzzles for Knot Dice and post them to BGG and otherwise make them available to players.

Tom: Those dice are amazing looking. What are they made of?  Who made them? How can I get some?

Matt: The dice are plastic, though they have a nice heft to them (and many people think they look like stone). At 20mm, they are much larger than typical 16mm dice. After several years of searching I finally found a manufacturer in China who can produce them at the quality I want for a reasonable price. If you want some, just back the Kickstarter!

Tom: I would not have guessed plastic from the pictures. They look like they are made of stone. Really awesome.knot dice 1

Matt: I wish I could get them made of stone, but I have no idea how much that would cost. Anyone out there a stone carver? My other concern with stone is the possibility that a piece of the die could chip off, since the lines extend right up to the edges. That said, if the Kickstarter does really well and there is a lot of demand, I might make a limited run of Knot Dice with some crazy materials.

Tom: What do you look for in a game?

Matt: Right now I’m really interested in games that produce interesting, complex interactions between the players. But I admit to having a weakness for shiny things. Games that just look fantastic have a very strong appeal, but I’m also usually looking for games that I can play in a relatively short amount of time now.

Tom: Short game play is a trend I’m seeing too. What is the least fun part of designing a game?knot dice 2

Matt: For me, it’s asking people to play those really early iterations of the game, when I know it’s full of flaws but I really need feedback. I feel very awkward asking people to donate their time because I know how precious it is.

Tom: That’s me too. I am very reluctant to ask people to playtest unless that’s the goal of our get together. What are some of your favorite games?

Matt: Some of my favorites right now are Finca, Jaipur, Yspahan, XCOM, and Eight Minute Empire: Legends. All great games.

Tom: Those first three games are so fantastic and under everyone’s radar. Finca is so under-appreciated. I really like it and need a copy of my own. Yspahan too. Sweet games.

Matt: Yep. What are a few of your favorites, maybe others flying under the radar?

Tom: Favorites: Most Felds, most Dice Hate Me Games, Memoir ‘44, No Thanks. Under the radar – The Little Prince, Farmageddon (Grant has a very fun game there.). Games from 5th Street and Small Box Games really need more exposure and press. John Clowdus makes good gamerly games and Phil at 5th Street did a fantastic job on family games. Mob Town is not out yet but it is super. I’m really sad to see 5th St. go away. Oh, all of Daniel Solis’s games are great and need more people playing them.

Mechanics or theme first? Which is most important?

Matt: Neither. Both. I think I’m a theme-first designer, but I frequently find myself working from a core mechanic initially and then finding the theme to flesh it out. As for which is most important, a game will rarely survive without both. Theme gets it to the table the first time, mechanics keep bringing it back.knot dice 3

Tom: Yeah. That’s pretty much what everybody says. I think it’s hard to divorce the two. At least for me. What designers do you admire?

Matt: Eric Lang, Alan Moon, and Uwe Rosenberg for making a career of it. Vlaada Chvatil and anyone who makes really varied games. I have so much respect for anyone who has gone through the entire process of designing, playtesting, and developing a game all the way through the process and finally gotten it published. It is a huge amount of work, and it takes a lot of dedication to see it all the way through to the end.

Tom: I’m starting to recognize Rosenberg as one of my favorites too. I agree with you. Just working on my own game I see how hard it is. How do you decide when a game is done?

Where did the idea for Knot Dice come from?

Matt: A friend of mine, Campbell Maloney (http://alphabetgallery.com), designed an alphabet that uses repeated designs oriented in different ways to form the letters of the alphabet. Inspired by that and by Celtic knot designs, I wanted to do something similar in a game format. We talked about it for years, and eventually I designed a puzzle app called Celtic Knots (which is still available on iTunes). It was a wonderful experience (though a complete financial failure), but rather than continue to develop applications and games in my free time (which is so similar to my day job developing web sites), I wanted to create something physical.knot dice 6

My first thought was to create wooden puzzles with flat square pieces similar to the faces of the Knot Dice, but unless you had a lot of puzzle pieces the designs would always be the same. Next came the idea of flat wooden puzzles with designs on both sides of the pieces…which eventually brought me to blocks.

I was still thinking puzzles here, and imagining a 3x3x3 cube, with 3×3 celtic knot designs visible on each face (including the interior faces if you slid one 3×3 wall away from the other two). While I still think it would be a fascinating puzzle, it would be maddening to many people, and the designs on the different faces of the cubes wouldn’t match up over each edge. That plus at the time getting someone to produce it out of wood was financially out of reach. So I let the idea stew.knot dice 8

Meanwhile I was also designing board games in my free time. Nothing noteworthy, just playing around with ideas. At some point (I don’t remember when exactly), the idea grew to get the cubes made in plastic, and suddenly they were dice! Dice that were still great for puzzles but would lead to puzzles that were solvable in a much shorter time than the 3x3x3 cube.

The original dice had 4 different designs, but the cost of molds and the expense to produce a single die is as much as I can take on at the moment. Eventually I hope to get them all made via future Kickstarters if there is enough demand.

Tom: What was the most challenging part of designing Knot Dice?

Matt: Figuring out when to stop. Most games I’ve designed have had a pretty definite end point, but there’s no sign of that with these dice. I still haven’t stopped working with them, designing and tweaking games and puzzles, but I have decided that it’s time to get them manufactured and out into the world so more people can play them and design with them as well.knot dice 7

Tom: That’s a good problem to have. Most of the time it’s pushing past a block not turning off the idea spigot. Give us the elevator pitch for the game.

Matt: Knot Dice is a box full of games and puzzles that create art while you’re having fun!

Tom: Have you been rejected by a publisher? Is so, how did you handle it?

Matt: Of course! It’s always a letdown, but I don’t take it to heart. The publishers I’ve dealt with have all been really great to talk to, and will explain if they think that something about the game needs work (they’re usually right), or if the game for some reason just isn’t what they’re looking for right now. The trick is to figure out what went wrong with that particular pairing of game and publisher, and work hard on making the next pairing better. All the while honing and playtesting your game.

Tom: What has been the hardest lesson for you to learn as a game designer?

Matt: To start playing a game as soon as possible. I frequently sit down and do tons of work on icons, making huge sets of cards, balancing, and so on before I even get to the first playtest. If I could teach myself to start playing sooner, with some minimal version of the game, I could cut out a huge amount of development time and figure out which games have serious flaws much more quickly. Fail faster!

Tom: I have that issue too. My big roadblock is playtesting. I find it really hard to ask people to play my game.

Thanks Matt for being my guest and giving us the lowdown on Knot Dice. It sounds pretty awesome.

Readers, you really should check out Knot Dice right here. And you can find out more about Matt and what else he is up to at Black Oak Games.

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