Today I had the rare opportunity to talk with Scott Caputo, master of tile-laying games, and designer of modern hits Whistle Stop, Völuspá , Sorcerer City and the upcoming One Hundred Torii. We met for breakfast, my favorite restaurant meal, at the delightful Stacks in Campbell, CA.
DTD: Hey! I hope you didn’t have to travel too far.
SC: I came in from Newark.
DTD: Always throws me; I grew up in New Jersey, so Newark has a totally different connotation.
SC: Newark, California.
Around 3000 miles from Newark to Newark.
DTD: There’s so many of them. There’s a Newark in Delaware, there’s one in New Jersey. They’re all over the place. I only knew that because I had a friend who went to University of Delaware, and they were in…Newark. This is a great place.
Ever vigilant, our waitress asks the all-important question at seven-something in the morning. Yes. I believe I will have some coffee. I think I love her already. I don’t know whether it is a flaw or not that I fall in love with anyone who brings me food.
SC: I’d like some black tea, please. You say you like breakfast, so…
DTD: I do. I’m actually really excited about this. It kind of fits; I don’t know if you got a chance to look at the webpage at all, but I kind of like having different kinds of foods featured in different kinds of restaurants. And breakfast, I think, is just exciting. I tend to be too excited about too many things.
SC: That’s the thing to do.
DTD: Yeah. Matt Leacock recommended giving you a ring.
SC: Oh really? I will have to thank Matt.
DTD: It was really cool, and I’m a little embarrassed. When [Matt and I] were talking about it, I went home, and I threw an email at you, because I knew your name. I know Whistle Stop. I know 100 Torii and Sorcerer City by reputation alone. Had not played any of them.
SC: That’s OK.
DTD: Knew of all of them, and I had written about them. I write for Dice Tower News, so I had written news stories about 100 Torii, Sorcerer City, even Whistle Stop, when the expansion came out. I actually went to Amazon and one-day ordered Völuspá and Whistle Stop with expansion. So I have been playing them for the past couple days. Now, Whistle Stop has been on my radar for a while. I heard so much good stuff about it, and I knew how it worked and how it functioned. I followed it since it came out with Bezier [Games]. I really enjoyed it. It’s really fun. I have played it a bunch of times now, and it’s always gone over really well with my groups. Just get my fan stuff out of the way there.
SC: That’s good to hear.
DTD: So, am I wrong? You started with the KublaCon ProtoSpiel prototype group, right? Is that incorrect?
For those of you out-of-towners viewing at home, KublaCon is the largest board game convention in California, being held in Burlingame (almost San Francisco) every Memorial Day, loosely since 1994. In 2019 there were almost 5000 attendees, including this tall drink of water.
SC: The KublaCon game design contest.
DTD: The game design contest, which is part of their ProtoSpiel group now?
SC: Yeah, but they didn’t have a ProtoSpiel group back then.
ProtoSpiel is a loose network of amateur game design groups around the country and the world, collaborating on designing, playtesting, and promoting their in-progress games.
DTD: OK, and I know the name ProtoSpiel is weird now. It’s all over the place, and there’s an official ProtoSpiel group, but everybody else calls themselves ProtoSpiel anyway. Is that the first, is that how you got started in all this?
SC: Yeah, I entered the game design contest at KublaCon. I think it was 2005?
DTD: 100 years ago.
SC: With Unearth. And I won!
DTD: That’s awesome, man.
SC: It wasn’t…I mean, back then people didn’t have as beautiful prototypes, it was much more amateurs.
DTD: I think it kind of still is. I got away with going to KublaCon on a press badge this year. That was too exciting for me. And I followed the ProtoSpiel stuff there, and it was just really cool designs, but still I like that a lot of them were Print and Play on white paper; still “here’s the concepts, here’s the designs.”
SC: Well, you can’t be a professional to enter, which I always liked about that. I won the first year, but I still didn’t get published. So I entered the next year; I didn’t win, but that game design, which was Kachina – one of the judges said “I know somebody who is starting up a company, can I show it to them?” And of course I said “Yes!”
DTD: Twist my arm.
SC: And they liked the game and ended up publishing it. Bucephalus Games out of Seattle.
DTD: And Kachina kind of turned into Völuspá? There’s a lot of the same stuff in there?
SC: Yeah, so, Bucephalus Games had big plans, but unfortunately they went out of business. So, I got the rights back, and I got an Email from White Goblin Games, and they said “Hey, we like Kachina, can we republish it?” But they did not want to do that theme, because Native American spirits doesn’t really play well in Europe. We talked about – they wanted to try Norse gods. And I had created an expansion for the game. Bucephalus had originally said, if Kachina does well, yeah, we want an expansion for the game. So when we released Völuspá, I said, I have this extra content, how about we put it in the box? Which they did. A little mini-expansion, 4 tiles, which was that expansion which never got published [for Kachina].
DTD: I think that’s awesome.
The waitress, or as I remember her, the goddess who brings me food, returned, presumably moments before my catabolic collapse. The entire multiverse of breakfast edibles lie before me in that vast catalog of calories, the menu.
DTD: Did you get a chance to look [at the menu]?
SC: Oh, I know what I want.
DTD: I’ll have the lox benedict. It looked really good out on the banner.
SC: Could I get a short stack of The Lumberjack with a side of sausage?
DTD: Thanks very much.
SC: What was I talking about?
DTD: Völuspá expansion. The one that came in the box.
SC: That was really fun to do: the re-themeing, and think about all those changes. Some things stayed exactly the same, like the wolf. There’s a wolf in each.
DTD: I haven’t played Kachina, but I read about it. Völuspá, I had a lot of fun with. It was a lot thinkier that I thought it was going to be. Especially towards the end. We sat there just agonizing over where is still available, where can still be played. Looking at every row, every column. It was really a blast.
SC: Kachina was just one of those things that came together pretty fast. There were only 60 tiles. I don’t think I have any games that have so few pieces now!
DTD: I have to tell you, I got a little bit of carpal tunnel punching out Whistle Stop and the expansion.
SC: Games have so many pieces now.
From the Whistle Stop rulebook: 78 hex tiles, 24 whistles, 20 gold nuggets, 100 lumps of coal, about 100 wooden components and 50 other bits. And that’s before adding the expansion.
DTD: It’s true. I brought Völuspá to two of my regular game groups. We had a really good time with it: the art, the tiles, just the thinkiness of it. And it threw me, because in the beginning, it seemed pretty straightforward. But by the end, we were agonizing over it. There was no talking at the table, everybody was just thinking super hard.
SC: There’s definitely some hand management to that. A lot of people think “Oh, you just put the best play on a given turn, and that’s all you do.”
DTD: Well, that’s what we realized half way through. It was worth it a lot of times to throw a turn, in order to have a much better turn later. Although we had to be really careful, if you threw a turn, that someone else didn’t take advantage of what you already did. Especially with the twos. We chained, I think, five or six of those in a row. Where we play a two and another two and another two and another two.
SC: Those are hard to place, but definitely there are tricks for how to place the Valkyries in a way where you can take advantage of it. You have to place it on a corner, where you get two possible ways that you can score. You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where there’s only so many spots left.
DTD: Oh, we didn’t get that good. But the Hel tile, that was the one that really threw me as well. In the beginning I couldn’t think where would be a good situation to play that. And by the end, it really was obvious there were really great places to put that, and take advantage of it later. It was really a blast. I had a good time with it, I’m glad that I picked that one up. I would recommend it, you should play it!
SC: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: So are you full-time game designer now? I mean, Whistle Stop did pretty well.
SC: I work for Playstudios. We make mobile casino games. I am a game designer for them and I manage game designers. So, yes, I am a full-time game designer, just not a full-time board game designer.
DTD: Well, there you go! Are you a software guy?
SC: No, these are like casino games, like slots. I come up with what is the game, the math behind the game.
DTD: Oh, that’s really fun.
SC: So, not really programming so much. Sometimes I do some programming to test the math. Most of it, a lot of it, is just “What are the mechanics?”
DTD: Seems like there’s a lot of crossover with IT or programming people, and board games nowadays. Seems like every convention, every group I go to, it’s about 60% of them are into computers.
DTD: Really interesting that the math, computer analytical brain tends towards it. I think it’s our way to let off steam, to go into board games.
SC: Well, I was kind of unusual when I went to college. I was pretty close to a double major in Computer Science and Creative Writing. Didn’t quite make it; ended up being a major in Computer Science and minor in Math and a minor in Creative Writing. I feel like I’m using all parts [of my brain] there.
DTD: That’s awesome.
SC: I still do creative writing. I am just publishing a second book of poetry.
DTD: I had read that you had published a book of poetry. I think that’s awesome. I really enjoyed poetry when I was in school. I was raised by Computer Science nerds, and I kind of rebelled against that, and went into Biology and Creative Writing. And ended up graduating Zoology. I’ve done 100 different weird jobs. Right now, retired veterinarian.
SC: Okay. And interviewer.
DTD: And interviewer! I don’t know, this is just for fun, for Dice Tower. I think we are going to be announcing the website on one of the video things. Breakfast or something like that.
SC: I listen to that. I like Board Game Breakfast.
DTD: Well, Tom asked me to do a video to announce Dice Tower Dish, so I can only assume that he’s going to put it on Breakfast. Emails from Tom tend to be about 4 words long. So that’s going, it’ll be fun, I’ve had a really good time. And I apologize, you’re still kind of guinea pig. You are in round one. I think this is 3rd interview.
I did, in fact, make the video for Board Game Breakfast. Any good reporter would link to it, however, I am neither a good reporter nor a good video maker.
SC: I’m honored to be number 3.
DTD: It’s fun, I’m having a blast with it. And if you bump into any friends, board game designers, who are hungry and want to get taken out to a meal, I’m an easy date. Write me and let me know.
SC: You said you travel?
DTD: I’ll go a pretty good distance.
SC: I would go hit up Luke Laurie, he’s in Santa Maria.
DTD: I know Luke Laurie, and he’s been on my shortlist. I’m friends with Peter at Breaking Games, and I know that Dwellings of Eldervale is really hot and exciting right now. So that’s pretty good idea. He’s been on the list, I’ve been watching for a little while.
SC: And he will give you a great interview. I always listen to him, and think, “Hey, I wish I sounded that intelligent.” He just knows what to say.
DTD: Have you always been interested in games, and design, and things like that? It seems like there’s been a path for a very long time.
SC: Yeah, I’ve always been doing creative things. I was definitely designing my own games as a kid. When I was younger, I thought I would design video games. So I had a program called Garry Kitchen’s Game Maker on Apple II+. So I just made all kinds of games with that.
DTD: Is it bad that I remember that?
SC: It was a really good little program; It got me started. I remember it let you make an executable so you could give it to other people. You could give them a disk.
DTD: I remember it had its own little runner, and then little data files it would make for the runtime.
SC: But yeah, mazes, puzzles, I was always doing that kind of thing. When I went to college I think I wasn’t as focused on that, but right after college I met up with some friends, who had a lot of games. And I got interested, and thought “I wonder if I could make one of these?” That’s how I came up with Unearth.
DTD: So, did Unearth go anywhere?
SC: No, I wrote an article about this on the League of Gamemakers blog. I submitted [Unearth] like 10 times. It was close sometimes, really far away other times. It just wasn’t quite what was needed. Maybe it was the kind of game that could have gotten published in the past, but not in today’s market. I could never figure out what kind of changes I would need to make to bring it up to the level where it could be published. At a certain point, I had to let it go.
SC: And I made the rookie mistake of paying an artist, because I thought “This is going to be great!” And I worked with him, and the artwork for the cards was pretty cool. But I did learn.
DTD: Ah, you never know. And that’s the one that won.
SC: Yeah, Seth Jaffe was in that same contest.
DTD: Really? Wow.
SC: He had a game called All For One, which was a three musketeers game.
DTD: Seems to be his go-to doesn’t it?
SC: Seth has gone on to do a lot of things.
SC: No, I expect it.
DTD: My big downfall as I’m always forgetting to do what I should be doing. Taking some pictures. I need to take it this way [portrait mode] just so people complain.
A plethora of steaming morning goodness arrives at the table. For a brief moment I consider stealing Scott’s food and my own, running to the corner and devouring the feast like a starved bear in a documentary. But luckily, I am a professional.
SC: You are welcome to try a taste of this if you want. Do you like pancakes?
I feel this is a test. Scott saw my desire for his food, and my fleeting glance to the aforementioned corner. Time to prove my mettle.
DTD: I do, but oh, I’ve got so much food now.
SC: Yeah, the food here is really good.
DTD: Wow, you have been here before?
SC: Oh yeah, I used to live in Santa Clara. My parents used to live in Campbell, so we would meet them here. This was a favorite place for a while.
DTD: My wife is a born and bred San Jose girl. East side San Jose. So I’ve spent a lot of time in San Jose and the outskirts. My parents actually live in San Jose now. My dad’s one of the Google people.
SC: I’m from Oregon, my parents just moved back to Oregon.
DTD: I absolutely love it. My daughter went to University of Portland, and that was one of my favorite trips. I would go up and visit her, play around in Portland, and eat the food in Portland, and just have such a great time up there.
SC: That’s a fun place to be. My wife went to University of Portland, my dad went to University of Portland.
DTD: The little Jesuit university up on the hill? Yeah, that’s where my daughter went. Most people haven’t heard of it. It’s one of, what, 30 colleges in Portland? I love that University; it is just a cool place.
SC: I have never actually been there myself.
SC: I don’t know exactly how it happened, but the BGG Geek buzz… it was number one that year it came out.
DTD: It buzzed really hard, and I remember writing news about it, and hearing about it, and it definitely was in the radar, and everybody was excited about it. Everywhere I read about it was positive. And having finally played it after hearing about it for years, I loved it. It was really fun. It had a combination of a lightness of putting the pieces down, moving the trains around, with that wonderful kind of chaotic spaghetti nature of everything leading everywhere. And that was delightful.
DTD: [laughs] I think the Tsuro comparisons are inevitable with all the little squiggly tracks.
SC: Well, I had played Tsuro and I had played Metro, so I was aware of those games. But I wanted to do something a little bit different, take those kind of tiles and see what else you could do with it.
DTD: And I think it works really well with the multiple trains. The tiles are really interesting in that a lot of times it was difficult to place them. It was hard to figure out how to make those paths work the way you wanted them to work.
DTD: And the turns are relatively long and involved. You can burn 4 resources, theoretically move a huge number of spaces on your turn. So you have a crazy amount of flexibility on what you can do on your turn. Which made it really thinky.
SC: My games tend to be very thinky. [laughs]
DTD: More than I thought it would be. Not a complaint. And it was meaner than I thought it would be. The blocking and the stealing of the upgrades was really delightful.
SC: Depends on the group, but yeah, it can be very mean.
DTD: We had a run on the coal train. Everybody wanted the coal car [upgrade card].
SC: Yeah, it’s a good one.
DTD: It [the coal car upgrade] got stolen from person to person to person to person. We were laughing because it was lucky if the person who got it got to use it. Because it would just keep getting stolen around the table. And the tolls, the train that the blocks off a place and makes you pay a toll to go through. And we played a full game; we played with 5. It took a little while, it was a long game. This was the most recent time I played. I’ve played it, I think three times now, maybe four. In a two-player game it worked really well, but the five player was a little long. We had a good time, it just was brutal.
SC: You don’t want people who are taking too much time, too much A.P. If you have players who normally play at a good speed, 5 works fine. And usually five [player] ends where someone gets all their trains off the end first. That can make the game a little shorter sometimes.
DTD: And that’s what happened to us in our 5 player game. One player, and it happened to be the last player, got 2 trains off in one turn. And just ended it.
SC: I’ve seen that before.
DTD: Yeah, it was done, and it was brutal. I actually hadn’t realized it, but I had written the news story about One Hundred Torii for Dice Tower News a while back. And after researching and writing the news story, I backed it. But it didn’t register that that was one of your designs as well, until I started getting ready for the interview. I’m excited about that. Torii looks really good.
SC: Oh, thank you. It is not as heavy as Whistle Stop. But there’s still a bit of thinkiness though. A lot of people get surprised. They are like, “This looks really simple.” And they start playing it, then they think “Oh wait a minute.”
DTD: It looks great, and I’m looking forward to that one. I am a backer.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of designer Scott Caputo, as we delve into the world of Sorcerer City, and the stories behind the development of Whistle Stop.