A Conversation With…Charlie Hoopes

This is an recent interview with Charlie Hoopes. It is a very interesting interview and Charlie has some unexpected things to say. He is candid and there are some cool ideas expressed that I hadn’t thought of. Enjoy.

Tom: Welcome Charlie. Tell us about your gaming self.

Charlie: Today, it is just my twitter handle. Originally, HoopCAT Games was the name for the publishing company my wife and I wanted to run. I started as that new and idealistic designer who thought he could be both designer and publisher.  We did manage to self-publish my very first title, a family game called Fill the Barn. While there were several excellent reviews, I quickly learned it takes so much more than a fun design and great reviews to succeed in a market overcrowded with strong games. While self-publishing your first game takes a lot of work, that one game can be your sole focus.  Self-publishing your second game (and beyond) becomes far more challenging. Your time is now split between designing new games while also handling the promotion,distribution, warehousing, sales, accounting etc. for the game(s) you’ve already released. I have seen a few self-publishers (e.g. Gil Hova) who can succeed at both – I admire their energy and ability.  I quickly realized my games would fare better if I stuck to the design and left the publishing to others far more experienced and skilled in the everything it takes to make a game successful both during and after publication.

Tom: I sensed that you had decided this but wasn’t sure. Recognizing your strengths and inexperiences and the mountains facing an endeavor is important. Being able to choose the right path in light of those is wisdom and discernment. Bravo! to you for that. Refocusing on what you love is awesome.

I’ve been following Firebreak for a while now. I’ve even played the PNP and it’s a good game. You’ve been very open with its development. And it seems you have good news on it. First, tell us about the game then the news.

Charlie: Firebreak is a cooperative wildfire control game for 1-5 players ages 10 and up that plays in under an hour. Every turn you and your team can do various things  to control or extinguish the flames such as dig firebreaks, fly a tanker plane, or pump water from a lake. But at the end of the turn, the wind direction may change, and then the flames spread with the wind to any space you have not protected. Make it two turns without any spreads and you win, but run out of blaze markers and you lose.

Firebreak!

Despite an enthusiastic loyal Unpub following, it took some time to find a publisher. Until Origins this past June. Not only did I find a publisher, I found a publisher who shares the same enthusiasm as the Unpub playtesters!  While they’ve given me permission to disclose the publisher, I’d rather wait and let them announce when they think the time is best. So I will give a hint to any who are interested. This publisher has quickly been gaining a reputation for excellent art with a 1940’s-1960’s feel on every title in their growing product line.

Tom: What was the most difficult part about designing Firebreak?

Charlie: With competitive games, the other players provide the challenge. With a cooperative game, that challenge must come from the game itself.  I found the most difficult part was adjusting the balance to make sure it was never too easy, never too hard, just right every time.

Tom: You have signed Land of Oz and Sweet Success. Congrats!!!! Tell us about each and who picked them up.

Charlie: Sweet Success is a bakery-themed path building game that will be published by Mayday Games. Players are placing ingredients to build paths between different destinations, and you are allowed to pick up ingredients placed by other players to complete your paths. Completing a path can also block players from building paths through a location for the rest of the game, so paths become longer and more windy as the game goes on.  Sweet Success started as an abstract that some Unpubbers may have playtested under its original name of Attatat.

 

Tom: I really like that mechanism. I can’t wait to see it in action. How did you come up with it?

Charlie: The original idea was players would be building temporary bridges between islands, and as soon as somebody drove a truck over a bridge to make a delivery, that bridge would become unsafe and unusable.  I quickly dropped the theme because it just wasn’t quite working, yet loved the mechanic of building temporary paths that other players could use and destroy. So the “Bridge Out” game very quickly morphed into an abstract – which made things easier because I didn’t have to explain thematically why something happened.  So when Mayday told me they would sign the game but it would need a theme, I had to reverse the whole process. Finding a theme where players would build paths was easy. Finding a theme to explain why players would then destroy those paths and also make points inaccessible – that was far more challenging. Daniel Peterson (Mayday’s lead developer) and I brainstormed and tried a few different things before the final theme of collecting ingredients along bakery delivery routes.

Lands of Oz is a suit maximization card game that will be published by Escape Velocity Games.  The wicked witches are both gone, and now you are trying to attract as many of the heroes to your corner of Oz by playing the most of their suit – i.e. collecting the most hearts will bring Tinman to your land, while collecting the most diplomas will attract Scarecrow.  Lands of Oz is easily the most child-friendly game I have made. While playtesting under an earlier theme as Lady of the Diamonds at Unpub5, there were children as young as 5 at my table who nailed this game. Yet still enjoyable by adults looking for a light quick game.

Tom:  glad to see someone designing for children. I think they are worth designing for and I need to remember this. Thank you for reminding me.

What is your favorite game / mechanism and why?

Charlie: I like them all, and try hard not to use the same primary mechanic twice from design to design.  One that I have not (yet) put into a design is worker placement. Most of the worker placement games I have played tend to be heavier euros.  I would love to design a lighter casual game (an hour or less) that features worker placement.

Tom: I have the same goal. I’m hoping the newest one I have just started working on will satisfy that itch.

Charlie: If you succeed, I will buy it.

Tom: What mechanism can you just not get to work like you want it to?

Charlie: My biggest problem has never been getting a mechanism to work. The randomly changing wind direction at the core of Firebreak has been there with little change since the first public playtest. Likewise, despite several theme changes from the original abstract Attatat to its final Mayday version of Sweet Success, the primary mechanism of path building where you can score and remove paths placed by another player  has been unchanged throughout that game’s development.

Where I sometimes struggle is fitting the right game around mechanisms that playtesters love. For example, with my unsigned prototype Miner Rings (a 2016 Cardboard Edison finalist as Planet Movers), play testers have always loved the moveable destinations, shared dice rolls, and limited fuel. My journey with this design has been finding the right game to fit around those core mechanics. It started as an exploration race, then a challenge to complete the most lucrative delivery contracts. The version that was a hit at Unpub8 is now a much more flexible pick-up-and–deliver with an area control feel going on that reminds me of World’s Fair.

Playtesting Miner Rings

Tom: How do you recover from disappointment, be it a bad playtest or a rejection from a publisher?

Charlie: Public play testing. For me, watching others enjoy while playing one of my prototypes is the best cure to a disappointment.  That is what gives me the encouragement to keep pressing forward with a design.

Tom: That is a great and unexpected answer! Thank you for reminding all of us that this is a very good way to get the negative out of your head.

What advice from a fellow game designer or playtester has been the most valuable?

Charlie: I hate to give a weak answer on this one, because over the years I have received SO MUCH GREAT advice from designers and publishers both, that I’m not sure there is just one or two or three I can pick out.  Ask me the advisors I find myself going back to, and I will name Ian Zang, Luke Peterschmidt, Randy Hoyt, and Daniel Peterson at the top of my valued advisor lists. Yet there are so many more beyond those four. The board game design community is extremely friendly. Public playtesting and conventions are not just about all important feedback on your prototype.  It is about ever widening your network of advisors.

Tom: This is a super fantastic point. That network is invaluable for testing, reviewing rules, but I think most importantly for encouragement.  

Charlie: I also have to give a shout out to my friend Jeff, who has given me over 200 playtests of Firebreak over the years. His playtests were extremely valuable in helping me to get the balance just right in that co-op.

Tom: How do you deal with design block?

Charlie: If I get stuck on one design, I will set it aside and work on another.

Tom: Yep. That seems to be how most of us deal with it. How do you define ‘replayability’ relating to games?

Charlie: I enjoy games that are never exactly the same from game to game, where there is always a new or different wrinkle.  I like games that have different boards every game, or give players different starting positions or different starting resources every game. To me, replayability increases when there is a slightly different challenge every game that must be overcome in order to win.

Tom: What game do you wish you had designed?

Wow. Playtesting with Matt Leacock!

Charlie: I have no answer to this. Pandemic and Gravwell are towards the top of my favorite game designs. Yet when I think of those games, I wouldn’t have wanted to design them, the names Matt Leacock and Corey Young belong on those boxes.  By the way, did I mention that Matt made time at Unpub8 to play and give feedback on Firebreak, and Corey made time at an Origins years ago to play and give feedback on a very early version of Planet Movers/Miner Rings? I am not sure if that was name dropping, hero worship, or some of both. But now that I’ve given a long rambling answer that doesn’t directly answer the question, let me go back and talk around the question a little more.  My dream would not be to have been the designer of either Pandemic or Gravwell. Rather, my dream is that some day Firebreak or Miner Rings would be played on enough tables to be mentioned in the same sentence as Pandemic or Gravwell.

 

Tom: Nice! I look forward to the day when I have Firebreak right next to Pandemic and can’t decide which one I want to play more. What is the biggest, most impactful lesson you have learned through all this?

Charlie: Well there is the first and most obvious rule of game design – Don’t quit your day job. Assuming you still want to pay the mortgage, pay your offsprings’ tuition bills, and continue to feed your family.

Seriously, my biggest lesson is persist.  We are designing for a market that is overflowing with a ton of fun solid games. If your game belongs in that marketplace, persist until you find the publisher that says yes.  I had publishers turn down Sweet Success, Lands of Oz, and Firebreak before I found the right publisher for each. I still haven’t found the publisher willing to say yes to Miner Rings – and the only way that I won’t is if I stop trying.

Tom: Here’s a follow-up: Why do you thing the market is overflowing and do you think we are headed for a down-turn?

Charlie: That’s two questions, I hope you will take two answers.  First – why is the market overflowing? My opinion is the computer age has greatly contributed to the board game renaissance and the abundance of designers, designs, and publishers. Let’s go back even further then we need to – back  to Lizzie Maggie (the original designer of the Landlord’s Game that later became Monopoly). I don’t care what you think of Monopoly as a game. Stop and think how would you go about designing a game without a computer and layman-accessible graphic design software, without a printer, and no internet for you to research publishers and  email a pitch to a publisher you’ve never met in another city, state, or country? If I had born many years earlier, it wouldn’t have mattered how many great game ideas had popped into my head, because the barrier to entry would have been too high. Without the computer age, a non-artistic, non-crafty, person with poor penmanship like me would be challenged to simply make a playable prototype.

Will there be a down-turn? My opinion is “no”, and the reason why also goes to another way in which the computer and information age enable the board game renaissance. If you go back in history, there were several industrial age booms (railroads, automobiles) where a new technological breakthrough attracted  more new companies than the market could support. The most successful survived, while the losers were bought out or simply folded.. Yet I don’t think that will be the fate of designers or publishers in the current board game boom. Why? Because the information age makes the required effort so low that you and I can have day jobs that pay our bills, and still have enough time to design games on evenings and weekends.  

How many small publishers have day jobs that feed them and their families?  How many self-publishers and small publishers would have enough start up capital to publish a game without Kickstarter?  The point for both the publisher and designer side is that IF you rely on board games as your sole source of income, then you MUST achieve a certain level of business success. Else you are squeezed out and change careers to one where you can support yourself. But if you can have a regular job and can do the designing or publishing on the side, you can have a much lower level of business success yet afford to remain in the industry.

Sorry, that was a long answer.  Can I suggest a future interview for Go Forth and Game? Your question of “are we headed for a down turn?” Both members of Dr. Wictz (Aaron & Austin) have day jobs as professional economists. I think Paul Owen might be also.  I would love to hear their thoughts on the question of a future board game down-turn!

Tom: Those are excellent points. And I had not thought of any of those. You really make a solid ‘argument’ for the continued upward growth of the industry. Cool. The interview thing is a great idea. Thanks. Do you have a game design philosophy?

Playtesting Firebreak.

Charlie: Play test early, play test often.  Try to test every idea you have or changes that others suggest, because often the reality of how an idea plays out on the table can be quite different than the theory in your head of how you thought it would work .

Tom: How do you know when a game just isn’t going to work in its current state? When do you put it on the shelf?

Charlie: The point for me is if I find myself reverting back to old ideas I had already tested rather than coming up with new solutions to test. If I reach the point where I have no new solutions to test, I would rather take a break and work on another design and not waste thought and effort going in circles. The only design where I have ever had to set it on the shelf for a long time is my unsigned Planet Movers/Miner Rings design. When Richard Launius was the VIP at one of the Unpubs, he talked about putting designs on the shelf and coming back to them later. Until then, I was not familiar with the idea. I tried it with Planet Movers, and several months later, it worked (and thus the evolution to Miner Rings).

Tom: How do you maintain the excitement?

Charlie: Although I can be both patient and persistent, my excitement ultimately will fizzle out. What keeps me going is seeing playtesters enjoy one of my prototypes. When others enjoy a game I design, that is what keeps me going to make it as great as it can possibly be. And to persist until I find a publisher who agrees.

Tom: That goes back to playtest often. Something that I do not do enough. I find my enthusiasm for a game fizzles as I’m sure all of us designers do. I’ll either switch to a new design or take a break for a week. Ideas percolate and when I come back usually something has dislodged. I can see how playtesting would jumpstart that. I really need to do that on a more regular basis.

What’s in the queue and new?

Charlie: Very little.  I am still trying to find publishers for my space-themed Miner Rings and food-themed Chef’s Choice.  But very little that is new. I had started a tile layer called Doggerland where you can lay both horizontally or vertically (i.e. on top of other tiles). Doggerland was the land bridge that connected the British Islands to mainland Europe 10,000 years ago, as Earth was coming out of the last ice age. As the ice age glaciers melted, sea levels rose, and Doggerland now lies under the  North Sea. In my prototype, the sea is rising faster than the tiles are laid, so the playing area keeps shrinking smaller and smaller. I thought I’d be further along with Doggerland by this point, but it turns out instead my development time this summer has been going to making and testing some Firebreak modifications that the publisher wants. Not a bad problem to have.

Tom: Pitch Tag: Pitch a game about Space and food.

Charlie: That’s easy!  Here’s my two games. Miner Rings is a pick-up-and deliver space game that is the evolution of a Cardboard Edison finalist that features movable destinations,  circular motion, and shared dice rolls. Chef’s Choice is a non-party game that plays up to 8 in 30 minutes or less where you hand out food samples to increase customer demand for the dishes on your mealtime menu. No one player can single-handedly dominate the outcome, so this game is really about watching what samples your competitors hand out and matching your menu to what your competitors are doing.

Oh wait, you said game.  Singular not plural. Let me try again.  How’s this? Protoplanets is a game set in an early solar system where you are trying to eat up the most hydrogen, water, iron, and silicates from the gas/dust disk surrounding a newly-ignited star. Eat the most to build the largest planet and you win.  Now that I’ve pitched it, are you expecting me to make it?

Tom: This is a really great story of your journey. THANK YOU for taking time and thought on this. It means a lot to me.

Charlie: Thank you. My pleasure.

Readers, I hope you enjoyed this very informative and fun interview. I want to thank Charlie again for opening up about his game design work and the struggles and successes he has had.

I would love to hear from you. Please tweet me @tomgurg or @goforthandgame. Email at goforthandgame@gmail.com.

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