The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Gamer's Journal: Board Game Designers Are Alive and Well and Living In Utah

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Being raised in New York and currently living in Los Angeles, I tend to think that the nexus of all civilized activity occurs in the big cities on the coasts. There is nothing better than actually getting away from the supposed center of things to open your eyes up to what the rest of the world is really capable of.

I recently had the occasion to travel to Salt Lake City (pop. 182,000, 5% of Los Angeles) on business and, being a gamer, part of my travel plans included locating a local games group. Some SLC expatriates directed me to the Friendly Local Game Store "Game Night Games".

I googled them and was immediately impressed with the website. Not only did they have the expected game search feature, plus an obvious focus on Eurogames, but also a detailed calendar of events, and even a forum for local gamers to communicate with each other. I knew I'd probably be free on the 15th. When I checked the calendar I saw the night was reserved for... the Board Game Designers Club of Utah.

Double take.

How many Board Game Designers can there possibly be in Utah?

When I arrived in town I called the store, and the man at the desk told me that, yes, I was welcome to just show up as long as I understood that I'd be playing prototypes but that "some of these games are actually pretty good." I was a little dubious, but the guy behind the desk seemed genuine. Any way, who cares. I was out in a new place and I HAD TO PLAY GAMES.

I arrived a teensy bit after the eight o' clock start. The front door said "closed" but the place was lit up and filled with about a dozen board game designers of Utah, and the door proved to be unlocked. Inside I was immediately impressed. The store was small enough to be cozy, but fastidiously organized, and entirely inviting. Shelves of games were carefully lined up and obviously dominated by Euros. The selection, it turned out ran really deep. There were of course the expected Settlers games and Tickets to Ride, and Puerto Ricos. This being Salt Lake City, I took a look over by the Settlers section and sure enough saw a sizable stack of the Mormon-themed "Settlers of Zarahelma". But in addition to the obvious choices, the catalog ran deep - into the old catalog of games like "Doge", a lone copy of "Himalaya", SEVERAL copies of "Canal Mania", and way on the top, a proudly displayed copy of "Roads & Boats"!

The store being cozy, I was quickly in the middle of the meeting being held. The dozen people were seated around on some nice, sturdy wooden tables in a section of the store clearly reserved for playing. From the warmth of the wood and the comfortable poses of the guests, any visitor might easily think he'd just walked into a coffee house - not a Starbucks, but rather one that encourages you to relax, sip leisurely, and stay a while. One club member was laying down the law - literally - to the other members, telling them about how they could go about submitting games to publishers. He talked about trust, legal copyrights, "poor man's copyrights", costs, and even the option of patenting. He also made a discouraging assertion to the effect that one reason not to worry about having your brilliantly original idea get ripped off is that it probably isn't all that original. Publishers get so many submissions that the chances are they've seen something pretty close to it already. He further warned his audience to expect waiting a long time, like six months, before hearing anything from a publisher.

The audience listened, asked questions, and offered their own perspectives. There seemed to me to be a fair amount of realism in the room. Everyone of course wanted that golden opportunity to be published, but there was no one there (I think!) with fantasies of getting rich, selling their home, quitting their jobs, and pursuing their game design dreams for the next twenty years (for that story, try seeing the story of Marc Griffin and "Bulletball", and bring your hanky.)

Then another individual opened his laptop and discussed a new website he'd designed for prospective game developers. Actually, he'd developed it for himself - as a way to present his own works - but he was presenting the site as something that could be shared by anyone else who was willing to help with the expenses. He was open to many ideas - one might post rules, or rules summaries, descriptions, pictures of components - whatever. It would be a way to give possible publishers a taste of your prototype and a way to introduce yourself. People seemed interested, but no one said "sign me up", at least not yet. It happened that this idea was remarkably similar to something I had been cooking up in my mind, and I said so. It seemed to me that maybe a site like this can be used as a way to find a large network of playtesters - people with a taste for new games who could download the rules and some basic components, try out the games, and share their comments with the designers and with other playtesters. A sort of Proto-geek. This was one of many ideas shared by the group, and the designer took note of the ideas as he considered where next to take his new web site.

All this time, I'm seated at a table with one other person who has got his prototype nicely boxed up and ready to go. While everyone is talking, I'm eying the first page of the rules book, which is formatted exactly like a typical rule book for a Eurogame. The components are all described and illustrated. There is an introductory paragraph about the setting and theme. It seems to take place in Africa, with elephants transporting different types of fruit, each of varying values, to sundry places. Players have "baskets" and there even seem to be some sort of baskets that the "chief" controls.

Of course, just glancing at the cover page of the rules, there is no way of telling whether the game is any good - but I'm immediately impressed. The thing seems to look, eat, and breathe just like a "real" Eurogame. The components stir up Eurogame feelings in me. Most telling - I want to play this game. I'm waiting for the group to end their administrative and educational schmoozing so that we can finally break into groups, and I can say: "I'm playing this."

The group doesn't seem in a hurry to get on with the playtesting. I'm getting nervous. Did I come all this way just to attend an administrative meeting? How much time have we burned? In time though, someone says exactly what I was waiting to hear. "Hey, why don't we get started playing soon?" A few more friendly grumbles get voiced. "Yeah, let's play." The people who have been running the meeting up to this point realize that their time is through. Bring on the games.

"Well, I'd be happy to try this game here", I quickly volunteer. Of course, since everyone knows that the evening is all about playing prototypes, everyone is shopping around for a game to play. To my surprise, there seems to be a good balance between people who have brought their own games, and people who just want to play something. I had expected twelve people, each with their own game, fighting it out to see whose games get played, but there seems to be no such problem. Several people swing over to my table and comment on how this is a good game and they'd like to try it again. Another player unfurls an impressive game that seems to be a wargame-Euro-chess hybrid. It has oversized hexes with no terrain detail and gorgeous illustrations of special powers - knights and dukes and other stuff - and everyone who sees the board and its illustrations "oohs" over the slick presentation.

The creator of the African-themed game that I've volunteered for introduces himself as "Alf", and he seems surprised that people want to play the game tonight. He was fully prepared to play something new, but as long as I've publicly volunteered, others soon come to join us, and we have four ready players available in a matter of seconds. The name of the game is "Tembo", which I'm told means "elephant" in Swahili. I've got high expectations, but also high doubts. From a glance at the rules and the overall presentation, everything looks authentically Euro. So it talks the talk, but can the game walk the walk?

The game has a lot of walking - most of it done by elephants. Tembo uses three hefty little elephant figurines, each of which has a colored platform on its back. All of the components are the sort of things Eurogamers love - squat, colored wooden cylinders signify different types of fruit that players are trying to collect; they are placing larger wooden disks of their color both to control the movement of the elephants and to claim the little fruit nuggets. My opponents and I are all trying to both control the direction and timing of the elephants in order to get the best fruit most quickly. A characteristic feature is that players may place their wooden disks either on the board, to direct the elephants, or onto the elephants, in order to capture fruit - and a series of rules make these alternatives nicely balanced and suitably "agonizing".

I think I'm doing pretty well right off the bat, being the first to snag a valuable coconut, but the guy opposite me seems to be getting lots of everything. A majority battle which I thought I had sewn up is getting threatened, and finally trumped when he makes one of those killer moves that ends the game. We can all see that this guy is king of the jungle. When we add up our scores, I come in third. Alf, the game's inventor, pulled ahead of me by focusing on a long term strategy of securing the most valuable majority fight. The player to my right came in last, a victim of more than his share of screwage - he picked up too much spoiled fruit.

Once the post-mortem begins, everyone offers some very specific criticism to Alf. Not too surprisingly, the fourth place player is not too keen on that spoiled fruit rule. Although I also was a victim of that rule, I want it to stay. It gives players that "do or die" moment when they know that they must control the game situation so as to avoid getting the dud.

What is apparent to all of us, though, is that the game absolutely works. All of our recommendations are intended to tweak and jazz up the game, not to fix it. My own opinion is that the game is in its "Geek Rating 6.5" stage, and the goal is to bump it into the "Geek Rating 7.5" stage that makes people not just want to play it, but to want to buy it - and play it a lot.

So how unusual is it to find such a solidly designed game coming from an unknown, unpublished board game designer, in a town that is barely on the map in terms of Eurogames? It turns out that Alf is not your typical unpublished game designer. While talking with him, I learn that he has had as many as three games appear as finalist entries in the international Hippodice games competition. In 2005, Alf Seegert had two games on the recommended list: "Ziggurat" and "Troll Bridge". In 2004, his game "The Vapors of Delphi" took second place, right behind "Harem" (later published as "Emira"). One prominent German game company had expressed serious interest in publishing it, but eventually balked due to internal problems, and perhaps also because "Vapors" was a two player game.

In 2007 - well, Alf tells me that the winners of the 2007 contest will be announced in just a few days, so anything can happen with his new entry "Mont Saint Michel". How often does lightning strike twice - much less four times - in the same place? It seems to me that one can always look back and find someone who has had a strong showing in any given contest, including Hippodice. The interesting question, to borrow a phrase from the world of mutual funds, is whether past performance is an indicator of future results.

Meanwhile, I have time to kill, and so I circulate around the store a little. The player to my right, Mike, has brought a prototype this evening that didn't get played, and so I ask him about it. He's not at all shy about pulling it out of the box and giving me a very full and enthusiastic explanation. He's playtested it something like a hundred times - many of them solitaire, but perhaps twenty five times with a full group. Another gamer walks over to hear the latter half of the explanation and he's hooked. They agree to try to pull in a couple of more players this evening to try it, but it's past ten o' clock, and I can't stay too much longer.

Before leaving, I get into a conversation with Gregory, a manager at Game Night Games. What is the secret of their success? Gregory tells me that the owners have full time jobs, including one who runs an advertising agency. The sharp look of the store, the appealing logo, and many other aesthetic touches are made possible because of the owner's own design talents. The store has been open for two and a half years, and its survival is possible because the owners do not rely on it as a source of income. During this time, the store has maintained ties with its customers, remarketing to them with discounts and special events throughout the year. The advertising agency knowledge helps the owners identify good advertising opportunities as they arise. Somehow it seems to be working, but it will take more time to determine whether this is just a beautiful avocation or a profitable business.

It turns out that, besides Alf and myself, the two other players at my table are both employees of the store. Their enthusiasm for games is evident, and so it is just as evident that any prospective customer coming off the street into this particular FLGS will benefit from the one service that such stores ought to be able to provide: helpful, knowledgeable (and cheerful) advice. I doubt that any of the "employees" were being paid for their overtime this evening. They were just game lovers like the rest of us.

Looking around the room, I see several boxes of prototypes. Some have been
played this evening; some will have to wait their turn. Some have very impressive art; some were just put together functionally. On one table, I see a stack of "parts" boxes - the sort used to hold hardware, only these are loaded with wooden bits for sale. There is a box chock full of meeples for 30 cents each, another box has settlers houses and roads in a variety of colors, elsewhere are the ubiquitous wooden cubes, as well as cylinders, and other familiar wooden shapes. The owner of Game Night Games obviously has enough interest in encouraging local designers that he has made available all manner of wooden pieces to support the development of quality prototypes.


This is what strikes me so forcefully about my evening spent with the Board Game Designers Club of Utah and Game Night Games. There is such a wonderful infrastructure in place to support their efforts. While many new board game designers fly around the country to meet once a year at Protospiel, or google the internet in search of a source of purple meeples, or set up websites and blogs to display their developments, here is a group of a dozen people in a city of 182,000, who all have the opportunity to get together every month to play each others' games, swap ideas, create and share websites, buy meeples and barrels and cubes, and to do it all in a comfortable and supportive setting. The best prototype of all the ones on display in Salt Lake City may be the club and game store itself - an encouraging prototype for future communities of new board game designers which may some day be replicated in cities from Boston to Los Angeles, and which could benefit everyone involved.

Post script: On Friday night I return to Los Angeles and on Monday I'm back at my desk at work. I do a routine check of Boardgamenews and see that the top story is an announcement of the 2007 Hippodice contest winners. Hey! I know someone with an entry! I click through to see if Alf's name is on the list and it turns out that his game Mont Saint Michel did not make it to the finalists, but did make it onto the Recommended List. So out of maybe 150 - 200 entries, Alf's game was in the top 15. Not neccessarily what anyone wants - but still impressive, especially considering his ability to so consistently place in the top tier.

I write to Alf and he tells me that he's still pretty happy with the results, and knew that the game needed more revisions - which he's begun. He's also developing the game that took second place a few years ago into something that can support four players, for wider appeal.

So for now, all we can do is keep our eyes open and wait.

14 comments:

Marc Gilutin said...

Great article, Jonathan.
I had the opportunity a couple of months ago to attend the first (of, hopefully, many) get-togethers of Protospiel West in Santa Monica.
The event, run by L.A. area game designers/developers Travis Ball and Michael Nickoloff, featured a half-dozen or so designers and at least 30 playtesters.
Everybody I spoke to had positive things to say about the experience.

Mark said...

I went to Manhattan on business recently and realized that NYC has nothing on Utah as far as boardgame stores are concerned.

It was a very city mouse/country mouse moment.

Corey said...

There are a very choice few board game establishments in the Phoenix area: most tend to focus more towards RPGs rather than Eurogames. The only place I have ever found where the employees were passionate about their jobs there was a little place in a mall in the suburb of Glendale. I stop by from time to time (to get my game fix) and to talk 'shop'. Many of them have aspirations on designing games and meeting other wannabe developers, but the management of the store doesn't seem to have an interest with that kind of interaction at the store...I guess Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments is where it stops =)

mike said...

Very interesting article. Nicely done!

sean said...

Dear Jonathan Degann,

Thank you for the kind words and support. I Hope to see you again.

Sean D MacDonald
Member of Board Game Designers Club of Utah

Alf said...

Yet another detailed and well-written article at JBD, Jonathan! It was very encouraging to meet you in person after having enjoyed your articles on "Game Theory 101" on The Games Journal several years ago (I'm glad you've re-posted them on JBD). Many thanks for your attention to the work of new designers like those at the Board Game Designers Club of Utah.

Alf Seegert

Christian Sinclair, MD said...

I too was in SLC recently and had a chance to get to Game Night Games on a Wednesday night for a game night. I brought along my friend was also in town for a conference. The store was great and the people were friendly, although upon seeing two strangers, I had the feeling no one wanted to play with us until we said we knew Puerto Rico is not only a place in the Carribean. After that things seemed to open up and the staff was very friendly. Bought a couple of games and wished I had a store like this back in KC.

Johnny GoTime said...

Great article! The Games Night store sounds fantastic, but I really liked your conclusion that it should serve as a prototype for other, similar incubators.

Cheers, and good luck to all the designers in the club!

Palm Springs Savant said...

well done piece here. I feel so inadequate with my post today on favorite board games growing up..oh well.

www.rickrockhill.blogspot.com

mchapman2000 said...

Just found your website and this inspiring article. I am also an amatuer game designer in Los Angeles, and I wonder if you'd be interested in trying to start a group like this here? I bet we could get space at Knight Ware in Studio City. You can contact me via

matt at chapmanN0SPAMmedia dot com

(removing the obvious bot blocker above.)

Phil Kilcrease said...

Oio. I am a member of the Utah Board Game Designers Guild. That was a well written article that accurately reflected the group. Also, we recently reached critical mass; we now meet *twice* a month. Holy fruits, I'm loving this. If you're a board game designer, SLC is the place to be... mark my words.

Shiggy said...

Jonathan,

Your JBD work is epic and exciting, thank you for the insightful and in-depth posts. After nearly one year from this post about Game Night Games, the Board Game Designers Club and Tembo, an epilogue may be in order. Alf's Tembo placed third in Hippodice 2008:

http://www.hippodice.de/oldhtml/download/awb_heft_2008_de.pdf

But ironically another similar game is being published by a different author and the resemblance to Tembo is uncanny (though presumably coincidental):

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/40214

Game Night Games is still a great little gem in our community, the club is now the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah, and Alf is working with Z-Man Games to publish 'Bridge Troll', nearly seven years in the making:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/40235

Shane, SLC

Jonathan Degann said...

I played Tembo and was very impressed with its fun and originality. I hope very much that it finds a publisher.

Bombay shares with Tembo... elephants, but I'm not sure it has much more than that in common. Heck, the games don't even take place on the same continent. Still, that tends to muddy the waters when it comes to the appearance of originality and can make Tembo more difficult to publish. Ultimately, publishers have no difficulty in retheming games, and Tembo can do well with its elephants... or something else entirely.

tom haile said...

Doesn't surprise me that Utah has a thriving board game design community. I feel like the state is packed with outdoorsy types that prefer direct human interaction vs video games. Nothing against video gamers - my own career is game design.