I had the rare opportunity to sit with John D. Clair, designer of Space Base, Mystic Vale, Edge of Darkness, and many others, at Tara’s Himalayan Cuisine on Venice in Los Angeles. The ambrosiac nature of the food was only matched by John’s warm and convivial nature.
DTD: I have to tell you – Downfall, out of all of them, feels the least like one of your games. It’s an odd thing to say, but I think I have played all of them, except KaPow, and Downfall just doesn’t feel like it’s part of that set. It’s got a totally different feel to it.
JDC: Of all the games I published, I started working on Downfall the longest ago. I started working on Downfall in 2009. Finished it in 2013, sold it to TMG. So if I were to redesign Downfall, I would do a lot of things differently. I think I’m a better designer now than I was in 2013.
DTD: A lot of people have said it’s the ‘feed your people’ mechanic turned into a full game. [laughs] It’s tough, it’s hard!
JDC: It’s designed to be a brutal game. I like it as a brutal game. I still really like Downfall, but one of the things I think I’m better at as a designer…
The food arrived in all of it’s heady glory. The smells turned my mind to jello, and luckily there was no video evidence, for both of us dove headlong into the feast. The German language has a special verb ‘fressen’ meaning ‘to eat like an animal.’ I’m pretty sure now that the concept exists in India as well.
JDC: One of the things I’m better at as a designer than I used to be is factoring in a wider variety of player types and experiences. Downfall is really good for a very narrow set of gamers. And it massively favors experience. The first time you play that game –
DTD: You get devastated.
JDC: You get crushed, usually. The fifth time you play it, it’s really interesting and deep. Most players will never get to the fifth game. Most players don’t get to the second game if they don’t like the first game.
DTD: That was something I was going to mention with that whole line. Nowadays it seems to be market of ‘buy a game, play a game, buy a new game.’ So how much thought goes into design about repeated play on games? It’s a little depressing and cynical, but I think repeated play is becoming a lost art. That’s why I think legacy has grabbed on.
JDC: I think that’s half-true. A really good game, the mark of a great game, is you like it the first time and it’s still really interesting the 20th time. It still has depth and strategy.
DTD: Especially if you’re still finding new elements.
JDC: Yeah, if there’s still discovery of strategies.
DTD: I’m going to be mean and take pictures because I am a cruel man. I know you’re never supposed to take portrait pictures.
I snap a few photos of John for the website, before any sauce-related mishaps can occur.
JDC: I think one of the failings of the design of Downfall is that it is completely unfriendly to beginners.
DTD: I get it.
JDC: A lot of people who would like that game the 5th, 6th or 7th time won’t like it the first time, and there are so many games they would like, they will just play those instead.
DTD: I’ve played it once, and it was someone else’s copy. I don’t own it, and I played it and it was brutal and it was frustrating. But I found myself constantly thinking about it after the game – what could I have done, where did it go wrong, and which part of it went wrong? I think that’s a good sign too – if it’s sticking in your brain and doing that earworm thing and making you reconsider.
JDC: If it can do that, but you have fun. I think plenty of people will play that game and think, wow, I would have done all this other stuff differently. I should have done that differently, and I didn’t think about that, but they didn’t have fun failing.
DTD: It also seemed to come in under the radar when it came out. It was a quiet release. I know it’s weird to talk about with board games, but there’s some that have big hype, and some that just sneak in and you go “Oh! John Clair, I didn’t know that was coming.” Edge was huge. Edge had a lot of talk and a lot of hype.
JDC: Yeah, it was a matter of priority. AEG has prioritized my games, which is awesome for me and I love working with them.
DTD: I like the way they are going now. They have changed their tack, and their new games seem to be better than they were.
JDC: Yes. They really become restrictive in what kind of games they put out.
DTD: Every company said “This year we’re putting out less games, and they’re better games.” But how many of them have done it?
JDC: Yeah, I mean, AEG basically has three retail releases this year and Edge. Three bigger box retail games. They’ve got three small games, they have Walking in Burano…
JDC: Curios. And then the one that really blew up – Point Salad.
DTD: Yeah, that was a cool one.
JDC: And then otherwise, it’s Tiny Towns, which is awesome.
DTD: And they’re such a nice company. A short aside…I’m sorry, I’m terrible in interviews – I keep interrupting you. Anyway, I went to GAMA and a friend of mine approached AEG about Tiny Towns because he was getting married, and he wanted to do a game involving everybody at the reception. But Tiny Towns was not scheduled to come out until a month or two after the wedding, then without thinking about it, AEG gave him eight copies of the game off the floor and said “Here, use them for the wedding.” I’m biased now. I love all the people at AEG. They do such a good job.
JDC: I’ve been super happy.
DTD: That’s good, but I know that the view from the back side is a lot different than the front side a lot of times.
JDC: Except for the good, nice people at AEG. They have been great. They don’t pretend to be nice; they actually are nice.
DTD: That’s a very L.A. thing to say. Is that terrible of me? I live in Northern California; we talk bad about Southern California all the time. Probably vice versa.
JDC: No, they really are great to work with.
DTD: So, you’re talking about design choices in Downfall, and that you would do it different now. It seems that older games and newer designers tend to be meaner. There’s more ‘take that,’ there’s more attack, there’s more ‘if you mess up you will die’ [than] newer games. And I see this in video games as well. You play a video game from the seventies, and it’s a 15 second life span. It’s Defender, you know, you die instantly. And new video games, there’s no count of how many lives you have. You die as many times as you want, as long as you continue to progress. And it looks like that’s happening with board games as well.
JDC: I think we’ve just discovered that more people like at least feeling like they’re doing well and struggling through difficulty. So some people, if the game is framed appropriately to me – I love a really challenging game, right? And I don’t know, I designed Downfall for the type of gamer I am. I like that game, it’s super challenging. You may start with as many people as you end with, right? You may start with more, but your civilization may be bigger at the beginning of the game then at the end.
DTD: You’re lucky if you end with anybody.
JDC: Now, when you get good at the game, that’s not the case. I will always end with more people than I start with in that game. But it’s still hard, like there’s going to be times in the game where I’m like, ‘those people have to die.’
DTD: I see. I like that in a co-op.
JDC: I like it in a competitive game. If it’s framed right.
DTD: It’s hard to do in a competitive game, really. If you’re spending all of your energy trying to keep yourself from dying, then the competitive nature kind of goes in the background.
JDC: So, I think I think the number of gamers who like that is a lot smaller, right? Like, there’s certainly people who don’t mind. But most people, it’s just not fun. I think, as designers, we know that. But I learned that, as a designer, to design games so that everyone will like them. I do want to design games that most gamers will enjoy, and Downfall’s not necessarily that kind of game.
DTD: Along those lines, are there games you’ve designed that you don’t particularly like?
JDC: No, if I don’t like a game. I won’t pursue it.
DTD: I always kind of assumed that you can only really design a game you would play. You design what you love, but I found that’s not always true. There’s some designers who really just don’t like their creations, and made it because that’s what the people want.
JDC: I don’t think it’s always true. I think some designers…I think it’s entirely possible to design a good game that you don’t like. I just have enough ideas for games that I do like.
DTD: I’m glad to hear there’s still a passion in it. Because it really is. I don’t have to tell you, preaching to the converted, it’s a passion job. You know? You can’t do it unless you love doing it.
JDC: Yeah, it takes too much time. I mean, I feel like if I were to design a game I wasn’t excited about, it would be like, I got hired to design a game on X, right? Like if I worked for Spin Master or Mattel, and I work in their games department, they might get an IP that I’m not excited about.
DTD: But you’re going to try to make a game for that.
JDC: But I would try to design a game I liked. For example, I don’t generally enjoy games like Hanabi. I think Hanabi is a brilliant game design. Codenames is also. I think they’re brilliant games, and I totally get why a lot of people enjoy them. I almost never want to play them. I don’t enjoy them. So I’m not inspired to work on those kind of games, right? But I could see a situation where I have a good idea that I think is one of those games. Like, actually, I think that it could be a good game. I don’t know if I’d end up pursuing it if I didn’t think I would enjoy it at this point.
DTD: Oh, sure, those games have that ‘flash of elegance’ kind of look to it. They – whether it’s false or not – they give the impression that the designer woke up at three in the morning and said, “You know, I’ve got a brilliant idea.” Wrote down two lines on a piece of a paper and the game was done. I know that never…
JDC: I don’t think Hanabi was that case. Codenames might have been.
DTD: Yeah, but then turning it around, Space Base gives that feel as well.
JDC: Well, actually, Space Base was that kind of game.
And on that cliffhanger we leave our intrepid heroes until next time. Whatever will become of Space Base? Was the game conceived on a napkin in an elevator? Tune in next time, true believers, for the continuation of the story.