One lovely Thursday afternoon, I found myself awash in the smells of cumin, coriander and clove, floating in the olfactory paradise that is Tara’s Himalayan in Los Angeles. By no means is Tara’s a big, fancy, or well-known restaurant, but the people who have been there always come back. And I was waiting for another person who had tasted the korma and was destined to return to this masala-soaked atmosphere.
John D. Clair is the designer of such lauded board games as Space Base, Mystic Vale, and the new hotness, Edge of Darkness. John is a delightfully unassuming, laid-back dude, just what you would want in this restaurant, off the beaten path from a more glamorous L.A. John and I nearly had Tara and her gastronomy all to ourselves, and we talked about all things tabletop, and several things not.
DTD: So I figure, you know, the whole time we would just talk about KaPow and nothing else.
JDC: Right. Yes. Correct.
DTD: Awesome. I think that’s the one I haven’t played.
JDC: Oh yeah? That was a while ago. That was 2012.
DTD: Yeah, was it your first one?
JDC: It was my first published game.
DTD: Wow. I was just, you know, I tried to do my homework. I was reading up on it. I didn’t even know about it until I started reading up.
JDC: Most people don’t. I love that game.
DTD: Well, sure. It looks frantic, crazy, and fun.
JDC: It’s kind of a kid’s game, it’s not really a gamer’s game, right? Every kid I’ve ever played it with loves that game. Pretty much every gamer I’ve ever played it with doesn’t like it.
DTD: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got some goofy friends I think would have a really good time with it.
JDC: Absolutely, so I said ‘pretty much.’ There’s like the 10% of gamers who don’t mind total chaos and franticness. But for the rest of them, you know, it’s too insane. I love that game.
DTD: Cool. Wow. So that was in 2012, and I couldn’t get a straight answer out of the website – it was published, right?
JDC: Yes, a little publisher called Goldbrick Games. And they didn’t – as far as I know, they didn’t go to GenCon. They don’t really have a presence on BGG in any way. They don’t run ads on BGG. So they’re a very small publisher. But they had their own channel, and actually sold a decent amount of copies of it.
At this point, discussion turned to the most important of topics – food. So as not to leave you in suspense, we went with a traditional Lamb Biryani, Chicken Tandoori and Chicken Korma. If there are errors in the transcription of the interview, it is likely from excessive salivation.
DTD: I haven’t been here in ages. I have a friend who works CGI in the area, and he takes me to the most interesting restaurants all over the place. This was one of the winners.
JDC: I grew up 3 miles from here, down Venice. Right where Venice hits the freeway. The 10.
DTD: I just drove right through there.
JDC: That’s where I grew up. Right near Hamilton High.
DTD: So what did you do with yourself before you were getting into board games, before you started designing? I’m assuming you are a full-time designer.
JDC: I am a full-time designer. There wasn’t a time before designing. Now, there was a career that had nothing to do with designing. The first game I designed, I think I was 9. But even before then, I was drawing mazes, and making maze books, from, I don’t know, 4 years, from when I could draw with a pencil I was drawing mazes and stuff.
DTD: I was an obsessive maze drawer also. Every page in my notebooks, I would fill the whole thing with compacted mazes, and making patterns out of the mazes. I feel that.
JDC: I loved art, and I am not good as an illustrator. I’m passable at cartoony stuff as long as it doesn’t have to look great. But mazes and sort of detailed abstract stuff like that – I did that a lot and really enjoyed it. I fancy one day trying to actually make a maze book, and trying to publish a maze book as a thing one day. Not high enough on the priority list.
DTD: As a 7 or 8 year old I bought every maze book that could be out there, and spent all my time filling big sheets of paper.
JDC: The maze guy I loved, I think his name was Dave Phillips. I’m pretty sure his last name was Phillips. He had a maze book called Monster Mazes which was the inspiration for all my mazes between the age of 6 and 10.
DTD: That’s awesome! I love that!
JDC: It was this book with different levels. It was a dungeon crawl maze book where [there was] a full-page maze, and there’s monsters. If you end up in a monster area you need to go back to the start.
DTD: So, maze with plot – hit a, then b, then c, but don’t hit here?
JDC: It’s just start to finish, but don’t run into these monsters along the way. So rather than dead end, it’s “you run into a monster!” Functionally it’s the same as a dead end, sends you back to start.
DTD: But more interesting.
JDC: But then, what he did is, you level up. So after you get through 3 levels you get to the second level, and now there’s more complexity. By the third level the new rule is you can’t retrace your steps, so it becomes really difficult and puzzley. Love it. That inspired me. So I started doing that kind of stuff in my mazes. I would have dungeon crawl mazes. I made this one maze book that was 12 pages long, where you would start on page one, and it finishes on page 12. From one page to the next there would be a passage. So on the first page, you need to get to the passage to take you to page two, then get to the passage to take you to page three. And sometimes you have to go from page three back to page two then go to page four. And along the way you pick up items and there would be monsters and stuff. But if you had enough arrows you would be able to kill the monsters, and you could get through the monsters. That was my first venture into games.
DTD: I would have been all over that when I was a kid. Unfortunately, I think you drew it when I was probably about thirty. So what was the path? You said that there was a path you were heading towards before games worked out.
JDC: I studied economics in school, in college. I got my BA in economics with a business management emphasis.
DTD: Oh, one of THOSE guys.
JDC: Yeah, I started off in litigation consulting, which I still do on the side now. As an hourly thing on the side. It was litigation consulting, but the data end of that. Working with spreadsheets and messy data and stuff like that.
DTD: I am a spreadsheet nerd. I was raised with computers. I actually bought Excel as a kid for fun, because it was my favorite kind of video game.
JDC: I didn’t go that far.
DTD: I was pretty nerdy.
JDC: After I did that for three years, I did marketing mixed modeling. I did the data management end for something called MarketShare, which does market mixed modeling, which is optimizing marketing budget for giant fortune 500 companies. I did that with that company for 5 years.
DTD: That’s above my head.
JDC: That was really interesting. What I say about that company, is it was super smart people working together to solve really difficult, interesting problems for a really uninteresting purpose.
DTD: There’s a lot of marketing that falls in there. I know exactly what you mean.
JDC: It took smart people, we had really interesting econometric models that we built. A lot of complexity, a lot of data inputs. So that we could get a client 3% better return on their billion dollar marketing budget.
DTD: I totally get it, I was raised with super genius computer people and they always had puzzles and problems, and now they’re with Google where they talk about 1% changes and 2% changes.
JDC: Which matters when you’re talking billions of dollars. The end result of that is some car ad, instead of being on a billboard, is on a TV commercial or something, because we optimized it that way. So like, who cares, except for the client. We’re not solving world problems.
DTD: I often wonder about stuff like that. If Coke all of a sudden decided to stop all advertising…
JDC: Would we forget about Coke?
DTD: Well, would they lose more money than they spend on advertising?
JDC: They think they would.
DTD: But it’s those questions that keep me up at night in weird ways. So KaPow was probably the moral victory, the first published, fun game out there, but I’m guessing Mystic Vale was the full time, become a designer, game.
DTD: I had read for a while that Mystic Vale was a trial game. Exploring how clear cards work, let’s see if we can we make a game? Is that true?
JDC: It’s a bit of a legend with some truth to it. I designed Edge of Darkness first. Sold it to AEG, and where the legend came from, I don’t know where it started. But the legend that people always say is, “Oh, I think is THIS how it went…” and it’s not exactly how it went. That Mystic Vale was designed to teach people card crafting…
DTD: They do talk about proof of concept.
JDC: Which is not true, actually. Mystic Vale was a game I designed after Edge of Darkness. It came together quickly, AEG really liked it, and they decided to publish it before Edge of Darkness because Edge was just a more complicated game to make and it would take longer. So they put Mystic Vale at the top of the timeline. They were [already] going to do Edge of Darkness.
DTD: They were all in process at the same time.
JDC: Edge didn’t need a proof of concept. Mystic Vale was just an easier game to make, so they decided to do it first.
DTD: I can see it with Edge. I’ve played my copy a bunch of times now and it’s a big bite. There’s a lot in there. And then, was Custom Heroes in that set as well?
JDC: So I did Custom Heroes next. I had actually been working on [a] game for a long time that used that descending-trick ladder-climbing [mechanic].
DTD: It’s a perennial favorite of mine; games like Tichu, Haggis, Gang of 4, and all those. And I’ve been waiting for the same thing to happen to trick-taking games that happened to deck-builders. Where they are used as an element of a bigger game. And deck-builders took to it like wildfire.
JDC: Trick-taking games are harder.
DTD: But I always thought Custom Heroes was right there on the path.
JDC: So, I think one of the reasons trick-taking doesn’t succeed in that realm as much as deck-building, is deck-building you have full agency over your cards. And it is engine-building effectively, whereas trick-taking is much more tactical. I got dealt these cards, how do I deal with what I have? Whereas deck-building is, I had these cards, now I just keep improving my deck, and use that deck to do something. And that’s where trick-taking has a hard time. It’s an interesting idea actually if you could somehow give player ownership within the trick-taking system.
DTD: That’s what your card-crafting does. That what jumps out of Edge of Darkness. There’s a shared deck and you’re claiming ownership. You’re marking cards. That’s just a brilliant way to use card-crafting.
JDC: There’s a ton of ways to use it. I’ve only just started.
DTD: I’ll ask you more about that… I was really impressed with the shared deck, where this is mine, this is mine, this is mine, and you can go through the neutrals and start claiming [them].
JDC: Interestingly, that’s really where the whole idea came from. Where the card-crafting concept originated was, for me, the idea of using the card sleeves as a necessary component of a game. So At this point in time in my design endeavors I published KaPow, I had been working on a few other games for fun, with the hope of publishing them.
DTD: Everybody has to do it for fun.
JDC: Of course. I had sold Downfall to Tasty Minstrel Games back in 2013. That’s how old that game is.
What is this Downfall game anyway? Where did it come from? What about Space Base? For these answers and more, tune in to John D. Clair part 2, or “Down Down Down we Fall”.