In this episode, I continue to have breakfast with the tile master, the esteemed Scott Caputo. We regale about the paths that led to Sorcerer City, Whistle Stop and Völuspá. All over coffee and pancakes, which of course makes everything better.
DTD: And Sorcerer City. I remember when all the hype hit about Sorcerer City, and it looked really good then. And I would see it every time I would go to a convention recently. I saw it at GAMA, and saw it at the GenCon before. It looks really exciting. What is the story on Sorcerer City – is it out at this point?
SC: Not yet…
DTD: Because I saw conflicting things that said “Oh, it’s out,” and other things said “No, it’s not out yet.”
SC: It is not out yet. I think it is on a boat now. Within a couple of months it should be to backers. Maybe 1-2 months to get to backers, to retail a little after that. There’s been a little delay here, a little delay there. I think it was originally supposed to deliver in January; It’s been a while.
DTD: I was going to say, I remember the dates were a little bit ago. But I mean, that’s kind of a standard thing now. Everything is taking longer.
SC: I’ll take some of the blame, right. I think James [Hudson] didn’t realize that the game had so many tiles in it, that it was literally crushing the box.
DTD: [laughs] Wow.
SC: They had to design an insert that could handle that many tiles.
The waitress, undoubtedly alerted by sounds of delight and consumption (the food kind, not the tuberculosis kind – very different), checked up on us. Presumably she sensed I inherently needed help in many, many ways.
SC: Oh, it’s really great.
DTD: Very good, thank you.
SC: People are like “Why does this game cost so much? Why is it taking so long for the insert?” Carcassonne has like 50 or 60… it doesn’t have that many tiles. And we have 3 times, 3-4 times, more tiles than Carcassonne. It’s like… [glarg]!
At this point in the story, Scott made what I can only describe as an exhilarated but frustrated growl. I feel it was best expressed as “glarg.” Trust me, I’m a professional.
SC: And because it is a deck builder, you don’t want those tiles to be disorganized. You want them to be in very specific spots in the insert. I don’t know of any game like that. This is all custom, really, just to figure that out.
DTD: Figuring out how to store it and organize it.
DTD: It looks fantastic. It missed my radar when it was on Kickstarter, but getting ready for the interview, I’m excited about it. I’m ready for it to come out. I looked at some game playthroughs. I had looked at it briefly at GAMA and it looked good. But I’m really excited now that I have dived in depth into how it goes. the way the tracks work. I love the Wild Card mechanic on the magic track. I think that’s really cool. Everybody sort of figuring out on their own which wildcard they’re using, and it’s very dependent, because you might want that first player initiative track.
DTD: That’s really cool.
SC: I think it helps a game where I am building my own city, you are building your own city. The interactions could be who is getting the most influence, and what do I think you are going to do. Because I’ve seen lots of games where people make the wrong choice, they make the wrong guess, and they say “Oh no! If I had done the other thing, I would have done that!” Because there’s lots of cases where if we both go for it, you are still going to win, but if you do not go for it, I can win. So if I think you are going to go for it, I might as well go for this other thing.
DTD: I love that thought process. I don’t know if you have played 5211; it’s a recent card game. Basically the entire game of that game is that thought process. It’s all about secretly putting out cards, then everyone reveals. Then you look at majorities among all the players to see if things happen. So it’s a lot of “I think he’s going to put out green, but if I put out green, then there will be too much green, so maybe I don’t want to put out green.” I love that in a game.
SC: Yeah, I like that too. Anything James [Hudson] and Druid City [Games] got behind is good. They did a really great job of it. It looks really fantastic.
DTD: Oh, it [Sorcerer City] is really pretty. I love how it’s got a chaotic, cubist, modern art kind of look when you’re done with it. All the patches of color, which makes sense. Some of them count lines, some count groups. That’s really lovely. That one’s on my wishlist. I’m watching it.
SC: I think there’s a little Völuspá in that game with all of the different monsters that have the different tile effects.
DTD: They were pretty cool. The monster tiles, the skeletons blocking the passages, the ways to go. That was very cool. I only saw four monsters listed over and over. Are there more than that?
DTD: Fifteen? I thought so.
SC: James was like, he might back this up, “I want more, more, more, more, give me more.” So I thought “OK. More monsters, more tiles. More this, more that.” Of course, when there’s so many tiles, it is hard to keep it all straight.
DTD: Absolutely, but that’s the Kickstarter thing now, is the more, more, more.
SC: Yeah, but different publishers expect different things. One Hundred Torii, there wasn’t really any more [offered in the Kickstarter]. There was a little bit more. But Ed [Eduardo Baraf] is more conservative. He just takes the tack of “let’s just improve the components.” Maybe room for a little bitty expansion or two.
DTD: But let’s just make it the prettiest version of what we’ve already got.
DTD: I am curious how much these games change over the development process, once a publisher comes on board. Like with Whistle Stop; how much did Bezier’s input change things in there? It feels kind of like it has a strong Ted Alspach influence in there, with the shape of the tiles, the merging of tiles, and things like that.
SC: I wrote a pretty long commentary about things like that, but the game changed a lot.
DTD: Oh, sorry.
SC: When I first pitched it to him, it had what you may consider a bizarre theme. It had princes in India, called Zamindar, So it was like traders in India.
DTD: So you picked trains, as a theme that had never been done before.
SC: Well, it was Ted; He liked the game, he signed the game, and he said “You know, what you’ve really created here is a train game. You don’t know it, but its a train game.” It wasn’t too far to switch everything over to be the old west.
DTD: So another retheme, OK.
SC: There’s a lot of things that we changed. My project originally, the paths had a direction to them. They had arrows. Originally all the arrows were going either west or north-south, and you still kind of get that in the game, because you cannot go backwards. Because in the old prototype there weren’t any arrows that went backwards. You still kind of get that feel.
DTD: But it’s simplified now. It’s just the simple idea of moving in your column or the one after it.
SC: And I think originally I had squares. We tried rectangles. Rectangles was just too many paths.
DTD: Really? I would think the hexes would have more paths.
SC: Originally I had squares that had 2 paths per side. So we decided to do that. We did rectangles so there was more space for everything. Then we went to hexagons, and there was just one path per side. The two paths per side was pretty head explody. I mean, very thinky.
DTD: It’s a little overwhelming now, just with the hexes.
The waitress did her due diligence and checked up again on this obviously helpless man child. I won’t lie, I considered ordering more food; I should have eaten Scott’s pancakes when he offered.
SC: But there was definitely a point midway, and development went many years. We took it to a playtest at Yahoo, and it was a blind playtest. I was there, but I posing as another player. So I got to play the game and hear the feedback from the other people. And it was disaster. Really the worst feedback. They had a hard time staying with the game. I was shocked. Ted was still supportive of the game. He said “Wow. That was rough. Well, figure it out.” He wasn’t really sure what to do, so I had to go back into the wilderness and dig deep and figure out what were the good parts, to stay the same, what were the bad parts.
DTD: Was there constructive stuff out of that playtest, or was it just a lot of frustration?
SC: It wasn’t really constructive, but I was trying to listen to what were the parts that people were frustrated about, then going back and figuring out how to address them. So I think one really important idea, and I need to give credit to Teale Fristoe – he’s the guy who did Birds of a Feather and Trellis, and games like that. Originally the turn was, you had to play a tile, then you did your actions. And players didn’t like that, often said “I don’t want to play a tile. Sometimes I just want to move trains.” So it was this idea of only having to play a tile when you have to move. When you move a train and there’s nowhere for the train to go, only put your tile then. And that was really big. A small idea, but big changes.
DTD: And that really works because the board seems to fill up quickly and then go into this second phase, where you moving around the already created board.
SC: Players didn’t like being forced to do things that weren’t in their interest. So I think that caused a lot of the frustration in the playtest. The whole scoring system for the stocks was wrong originally. I noticed some people don’t like the all-or-nothing aspect of it now, but there used to be a flat first place, second place, third place. It didn’t matter what company it was, it was just stock in general. It just was very muddy with the scores – I got some points, you got some points. It didn’t seem to matter that much.
DTD: It evened out?
SC: I figured if we did a first and a second, I would get some points, you get some points. We will just compete racing trains across. I really liked, when I got onto the idea of what if it were the idea of all-or-nothing, because then you would pay really close attention to what other people are getting. And you want to beat them to that spot. If you get the first one, that’s a big difference.
DTD: It is battles. And it is a lovely way of doing the whole “the tiebreaker is whoever got there first”.
SC: And we did a lot of work on trying to balance those different approaches. It is always amusing. There was a guy on BGG who was convinced, and he had math to prove it, that stocks were always better. Unbeatable. And there was another guy who said that going out first was always better. Unbeatable. So OK, maybe we got it right, because there’s people on both sides who are convinced.
DTD: I was going to say.
SC: I have definitely seen people win both ways. And I have won with different strategies. Sometimes it’s a mixture of two. And that’s one of the things I like, is trying to understand. How valuable is it to get the train out versus get the stock? Some of the other things we added, we got to a point where it was really fun, but then Ted said “I still want more. What if there was…” He had some ideas, where I thought “Whoa, I’m not sure about that.” I think he wanted to spend resources to be able to do all these extra actions. But then I took it back and I thought about it, and kind of had a different approach to what it could be. And those ended up being the upgrades. Because those were a lot of things where you spend resources.
DTD: And what I really like is the simplicity of it. You’ve got 4 slots for your resources. Spend one to move, spend one on your upgrade. The fact that they all just dump into those 4 slots was wonderful, just a simplicity. To me, it was a very simple way to manage more advanced concepts. Just like the stock number. It was a concept lots of people had done, but it was a very simple way to manage it without a thought, which is wonderful. So those 4 resource slots really impressed me. I know it’s a weird thing to be impressed by. Just having the 4 slots for the resources, and the upgrades use them, and the movement uses them.
SC: Those were some of the changes. There were lots of others. There were a lot of waves of development. Then we did another blind play test, and that one went well, so I think we must have changed the right things. It was grueling, but I think I learned a lot with that. In the end, and I think Matt Leacock would say the same thing, in the end players want to have fun. And they get frustrated when they are not able to have fun. So you figure out what are the things that are frustrating them.
DTD: And we talked about that exactly when I went out with Matt. He said that his big thing now is, and has been for a while, videotaping people playing the games. And he goes through just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours. And he’s not really interested in did they win, did they lose, what strategy did they take, and the mechanics. He’s looking at the reactions: did they have fun, were they frustrated, did their face fall, were they elated? The emotional swings. I hadn’t thought about that before. People just want to have fun with the games.
SC: After I did Whistle Stop, Sorcerer City was almost the opposite. I was involved with League of Gamemakers, which is a site for writing different game articles, and a guy by the name of James Hudson was asking around.
DTD: I know James.
SC: He was asking “Hey does anyone have any games? I am looking to publish games.” So I talked with James. I showed him what was Torii at the time. He ended up passing on that, but he was still interested in working with me. I knew Whistle Stop was coming out. I think it was, like, March, and I thought “I need to get a game together.” And so I had a game in my mind for a long time, and I finally got a prototype together. I don’t think the first prototype hit tables until April. And I just playtested the heck out of it for the next four months, then pitched it, and he took it.
DTD: It was your whirlwind game.
SC: We ended up doing a lot more work on it, so that once he accepted, I did a lot more content for the Kickstarter. I think we did a lot more playtesting after the fact, after the Kickstarter finished. So it took a good couple years, but it terms of coming to a place where it was pitch worthy was really fast. So it is possible to go the other way.
DTD: Well I totally understand, having talked to a bunch of people now, there’s some that come together almost overnight. I think it was John Clair who said that Space Base was basically, wake up in the morning, ‘oh, I have a good idea,’ and it was nearly done. And then some are in development forever. Do you have trouble letting go of your games, deciding when they are actually done? Or does your hand kind of get forced by that?
SC: You know what? I thought that, when Torii was done, when I submitted it to Ed [Eduardo Baraf]. But then we ended up doing a lot more development on that game. You always think you are done, but you’re not really done. You are not really done until it is actually published.
DTD: I was going to say, I’ve seen some pretty significant rule changes just between close of Kickstarter and delivery.
SC: And its not like it changed a ton, but it still changed enough where I was like “Yeah, this was worthwhile. This really did make a difference, took it to the next level.” Now I just try to keep myself open to “I think I’m done, but not really done.”
DTD: That’s very cool. So what’s on the horizon, what’s coming next?
SC: Well, I am working on a game with Luke Laurie. I don’t know how much I can say, but it is a signed game. I think I can say it is signed with Bezier. The release date and name are still TBD. But basically Luke and I, we are trying to combine our two superpowers together.
SC: Luke is very much a heavy euro, worker-placement guy. I was a tile-laying guy. We were like, “Let’s put those two things together and see what we come up with.” So we created a tile-laying worker-placement game, which I really love. I think its pretty unique.
DTD: It sounds exciting. I mean, knowing what you two guys have done, I’m excited to see what comes of that.
SC: It is definitely the heaviest game I have ever done. I think it is definitely heavier than Whistle Stop, but still has a ton of spatial thinking involved. It has those pentomino pieces, and you are also building on top of them, so there’s layering, resource management. There’s a lot of things to think about. I think one person said, there’s two kinds of workers in the game. You are moving air ships around to gather resources, then you also have your workers. There’s a water bar that’s rising as it goes through the game. And if you don’t keep moving your workers up [above water] they will drown.
DTD: Wow, OK. A timed element.
SC: When people build above a certain level, that causes the water to move. There’s a lot of “I gotta save my people, but I also want to be doing some building.”
DTD: But at the same time you could force the water level to rise to hurt other people.
SC: You sure could. Luke Laurie likes to say that he likes having a third threat, or an outside threat, to all the other players in his games. Like in Energy Empire, that’s the pollution. Dwellings of Eldervale has the monsters. And this game definitely has that threat of the water rising while you’re doing everything else.
DTD: That’s really cool.
SC: Interesting idea. I think this could be, I mean Ted [Alspach] said, “This could be the heaviest game we’ve ever done.”
DTD: Well, Bezier is not known for super heavy. Suburbia maybe.
SC: We are still in development. Ted just asked for a lot more content and we are working through that. There has been some theming aspects which I wont get into yet, because its not final. But we are definitely working on maybe a different theme than Luke and I originally pitched, so there’s working through that.
DTD: I hear that zombies haven’t been done yet.
DTD: Not into zombies? Aw, OK.
SC: It was really fun working with another designer, and I would certainly would want to try that again.
DTD: It sounds like it’s a blast bouncing ideas off one another. At a certain point, you get good enough in your field that you can speak in another language. That’s very cool. Regarding Eldervale, the one complaint people had with it, is it was looking like it had too much. Too much stuff, too many things all going on at once. Is that something you guys have been battling with, with the new design? Because you said it was very heavy.
SC: I don’t think anyone has said that so far. I think it all flows pretty well together.
DTD: It seems like right now the market, my impression is that for a while the market was getting bigger, heavier, crazier. And now we are going the other way, where the market is looking elegant, simple. Those seem to be the games that are just catching fire.
SC: I don’t know. I think that each niche is just balancing out. It could just be that you don’t know where the hits are going to come from, which niche. One year there are more easier games that hit, Another year, more games that are a little heavier that hit. But I think the market has really got everything covered.
Join us next time for more coffee talk, where Scott and I discuss Sorcerer City, play testing and the making of an expansion. Little does Scott realize, I can eat breakfast all day long. If the coffee holds out.