On a beautiful January day, I found myself at All Spice, a converted Victorian house with a magnificent Indian-inspired tasting menu. And the reason I am here is no other than the master of “legacy” games, Mr. Rob Daviau. Best known for the legacy half of Pandemic: Legacy, Rob has also done classic work with Hasbro, and is the Chief Restoration Officer at Restoration Games, bringing Stop Thief, Fireball Island and the Kickstarter blockbuster Return to Dark Tower to life. The scene is set outside of the house, just as they open.
RD: Well this is lovely.
DTD: It’s a neat little place, I’ve heard all sorts of good things about it.
RD: It’s very cool. The menu is great.
DTD: Yeah. Hey there! [to receptionist]
Reception: How are you?
DTD: Doing very well. Reservation for Corey Thompson.
Reception: And it’s for two?
Reception: OK, right this way.
DTD: Do you prefer a spot?
RD: Doesn’t matter to me.
DTD: So, you have been on the book circuit? Traveling all over the place?
RD: Not bad, this is the only major travel I’m doing for this. IGN just said “Hey, we’d love to do a video and a preview and a review of Return to Dark Tower.” And they’re putting the 5-minute preview up on Saturday or Sunday. So, “Hey, the Kickstarter is up on Tuesday!”, and then they are going to put it up again like Tuesday morning. “Kickstarter is live now, go check it out!”
DTD: It’s been really fun watching how the tower has been evolving over time because…
RD: Probably more fun to watch than to do.
DTD: [laughs] Well, I got to play with it really, really, early. I was at Dice Tower West about a year ago.
My befuddled mind played tricks on me and got some of the words correct, but the actual date very wrong. I played the prototype at Dice Tower East on July 3, 2019.
RD: Dice Tower West?
DTD: I think so, maybe it was East – I get them mixed up. But I played one of the first prototypes. So really early prototype I played with, and then.
RD: He was playing this summer, Justin [Jacobson] was playing at Dice Tower down in Miami, Orlando.
Yup, Rob is correct, I am wrong. This is when and where I played. With Justin.
DTD: And I saw that, but actually, I had played it with he phone app, before the tower. And then I saw the early tower.
RD: Probably a year ago.
DTD: I saw two versions of the tower.
RD: The first tower was at GenCon.
DTD: Yeah, that’s probably where I saw the first one. The second version was…
RD: Right, you came over. I was demoing it. That’s where you talked to me about doing this. [Dice Tower Dish! Tell your friends!]
DTD: About this, yeah. It’s just been fun watching how everything’s been progressing on it. Because, you know, that was my generation. I was a child of Dark Tower.
RD: So was I.
DTD: [laughs] I still, I might have told you this story. I still remember there was one Christmas where every nerdy kid had to choose.
RD: You had to choose, didn’t you?
DTD: It was Electronic Dungeons and Dragons or Dark Tower.
RD: Which one did you pick?
DTD: I picked the wrong one. I got Electronic Dungeons and Dragons, which I’m still a little bitter about.
RD: It shaped you, though.
DTD: It made me a stronger person, but I had a friend with Dark Tower, so I played it a lot.
RD: Dark Tower is interesting. Its always the game that someone’s friend had.
DTD: It was expensive! It was intimidating.
RD: It was the equivalent of $175 today, give or take. I mean, its hard to find out exactly how much it cost, because you need to find a newspaper from 1981, and maybe they had it on sale, or…
The elite Dice Tower Dish Research Team typed “Dark Tower Retail Price” into Google. The lowest price was in this image, from the Montgomery Ward 1981 catalog at $40 ($113 in 2020). The higher end came from this 1981 New York Times article, at $65 ($184 in 2020).
DTD: I know, I think I had a Christmas Sears catalog. I still have it away somewhere. With a Dark Tower in it.
RD: It was only one year. It was only out for one year, I think. Just 81. Well, there was a lawsuit.
DTD: Oh, I had no idea.
RD: The whole background of it?
DTD: No, I was a kid at the time.
RD: So, they put it out. I just thought you might have heard it since then. They put the game out, and there was a guy who worked there, Mike Gray. Do you know Mike? He’s now about 70, but he was the guy who hired me at Hasbro. I worked for him, and he still works in the area. And he was there, he was another designer. And so, he didn’t design Dark Tower, but he saw the design of it. And two inventors came in and said, “Hey, earlier we had showed you a game with a round board, and with an electronic thing in the middle.” Which, it was questionable that that influenced the design of the tower, and it was probably more influenced by a computer game at the time, which had a very similar sort of quest. But for whatever reason, I think Milton Bradley won the lawsuit, said it was unrelated. They appealed, and then the judge ruled in favor of the inventors, but while all this was going on, I believe Milton Bradley just suspended sales. Just in case. And then when they had to pay this whole back thing, and the investment and the price, they just said “forget it.” And then they…
This may come up in future discussions. Hasbro was founded in 1923. Milton Bradley, founded in 1860, was bought by Hasbro in 1984. Parker Brothers, founded in 1883, was merged into General Mills in 1968, then merged with Kenner in 1985, and was themselves bought by Tonka in 1987. However, our old friend Hasbro bought Tonka / Kenner Parker Toys in 1991, so now they are all one big, happy family.
DTD: Well it sold pretty well back in the day.
RD: For one year.
DTD: Because I know the hype was there as a kid. Everybody knew it was around. And everybody wanted one, and everybody wanted to play with it.
RD: Yeah, it’s interesting. It really had hype outside people who are now 50 plus or minus, who are still playing games, right. How many people who don’t have a game in their car, who are 50, remember Dark Tower? Maybe some.
DTD: Are you commenting about my trunk?
When Rob first arrived at the restaurant, he was dropped off by the kind folks at IGN. He had the Dark Tower prototype with him, so we stashed it in my car trunk, which may or may not have had games in it…
RD: Well, that was relevant, yeah.
DTD: Well you notice, it was relevant. There were extra dice for Cthulhu: Death May Die sitting in the back of that car.
RD: I did not see that. You needed extra dice?
DTD: Well, yeah. I always buy some extra dice.
Our amazing waiter came by, did the now-recognizable “confused double-take over grown men discussing kick-butt board games,” and explained our options. This was a tasting menu, so we could pick to either be served a 3-course or 5-course meal. The choice was obvious.
DTD: Well we have to go 5.
RD: OK. I’ll pick at it.
DTD: Whatever you don’t eat, I can eat. It’s really not a problem.
Really. I can always eat more. I have a very particular set of skills.
RD: I will muscle through it. Yeah, they served me a big enchilada at 2:30. I’m like, “I may not eat all of this.” But I was so hungry, I ate twice as much as I wanted to.
DTD: No worries at all, man.
RD: It’s all right.
DTD: When you’re traveling, you get what you get.
RD: Well, I have to be fair. I think it was very generous for IGN to basically pay for the studio time to do a demo of it, and then spend the afternoon playing it. So they could write an article.
DTD: And that’s very cool. That’s very cool exposure.
RD: Yeah, it’s a different audience than we would normally get. So, it was worth flying across the country for.
DTD: I’ve bumped a little bit into the video game, computer crowd. I cross a little bit into there. The guy you came with looked very familiar. I might have met him before.
RD: Maybe. He was playing the prototype today. He works in engineering as a QA person, and they kind of brought him in, like “Hey, we need a third person to play this.” So, we played, and then I said “I gotta go. I have dinner, I’m going down here. How far is it going to take me?” Then he said “Oh, I live there, I’ll just duck out a half an hour early and give you a ride home. Then I can be done half an hour early.” So it was Andrew, but until you introduced yourself, I couldn’t remember his name in the car, because…
DTD: I couldn’t remember it right now.
RD: Well, he sort of came in to play test. And he was like “Oh hey, this is…” and then he started playing, and my brain immediately forgot it. So then when he offered me a ride, I’m like “I don’t remember his name.” I knew the other two, because I had been emailing with them and talking with them.
DTD: What were we…? Oh, Cthulhu. Yeah, I played it for the first-time last night. It is an intimidating stack of boxes. But…
RD: Just the main game?
DTD: Just played the main game last night. Yeah, I was all in. So, I had everything. It is that CoolMini classic stack of boxes effect. It takes me a little while to dive into it. But I was really impressed. It is a simple design and it was really fun, and I had a really good time with it.
RD: Thank you.
DTD: But, yeah, I always get more dice. Rather than share them around.
RD: Return to Dark Tower ended up closer to that then I expected, because there’s now an adversary that is living in the tower, who is trying to pollute the world in a certain way. And then there is one of the allies around the kingdom, like “I have a plan to get into the tower.” I’m like, “Oh, it is sort of like a little bit like the scenario in the…” Hell, I’m fine ripping off myself. But I didn’t mean to. I was like, “Oh, I’ve got this formula…” and then 6 weeks later “This is like Death May Die.” And the rest of the design team said “Yeah, we thought you did that on purpose.”
DTD: I’m not upset about that.
RD: And I was like, “Oh no.” It just seemed like here’s the problem, and here’s one solution, and then you pair them up randomly, along with monster spawns. And you get a couple thousand different combinations.
DTD: Oh yeah. I’m excited about the combination—with Cthulhu [Death May Die]—the combination of the chapters with the monsters with the elders, and everything all coming together. It looks really good.
DTD: I can definitely see potential in there. And if that same thing is going on with Dark Tower, that’s really exciting.
RD: Yeah, Dark Tower I think has more decisions, because you have more things. You can basically, the way it broke down to, is on your turn you can do something, which is pretty straightforward. Fight a foe to remove them, cleanse a space from skulls or do one of the quests. So that’s pretty easy. But then there’s 4 buildings you can go to get something. And each building…
DTD: Are you still building the buildings?
RD: No. There are just 4 buildings, and each one has a free thing and something that costs some spirit. So you really have 8 things you can get on a turn. But realistically, some of them won’t be an option, like remove a corruption, which is an evil thing. I don’t have a corruption; I can eliminate that. Level up by getting another virtue; I don’t have any, I don’t have enough to get that. So, you are really only looking at about 4 or 5 things you can get on a turn. That’s just the combination. But then you get the treasures and you get the powers. So like, “Wait, I have this treasure. If I have this treasure and this power, then I do this. When I do this, I get a spirit. And I need to get these little combo engines”, and that’s how you end up doing well.
DTD: And while I was collecting this, this came out of the tower.
RD: This came out of the tower, but now when stuff comes out of the tower, because I have this, I get to do that, and every time I do that, I get to do this. So, you quickly, your engine gets ahead of what the game is throwing at you. But if you don’t build that engine right, you don’t. So, there is a little bit of thinkiness of “Wait, you’re going to be the person who does all the stealth and the fighting, so you should have this treasure. And I’ll get these potions.” And if you don’t coordinate that right, you fall apart. And if you do, you win, but you really have to think through how to win, and its probably 10% more thinking than I would like. I might go through it. Just streamline a few potions. Not because we have an advanced…
DTD: [laughing] I think my whole life has been about 10% too much thinking.
RD: We have an advanced pack coming out. That’s supposed to have more advanced potions and more challenging monster AI and stuff. So, I kind of want to make sure there’s space between our fastball and our changeup. Right, that the easy game feels easy and the advanced game feels advanced.
DTD: Is that all just going to be selectable in the app or the tower, things like that?
RD: You will tell the app, “I am playing with the advanced game.”
DTD: “Which way am I playing?”
RD: It’s really going to be two modes. Well, let me amend that. Even the main game has something that you can shut off to make it an easier game.
RD: Basically, you probably…I’ll explain it if you haven’t played it because so much changed.
DTD: I played it really early.
RD: The cards have these different levels. The virtual cards. Which is cool. Each character has a deck of cards. And each card has a setting from -3 to positive 3.
Our waiter returned to the table, but we were so comfortable that we just decided to order wine and chat. The waiter still seemed pretty amused by us.
RD: OK, so what’s your background? Your Dad works at Google. You own your house up in Napa, so…
I would like to give credit where credit is due. Dad, together with Dennis Ritchie, created UNIX in 1969. Dad then worked on a language called “bon” to use within UNIX, which evolved into B. Dennis Ritchie then created C from B in 1972.
DTD: So, I’ve got some computer background. And I am a veterinarian, retired at this point. I owned a veterinary hospital, and everything lined up just perfect, so when I sold the veterinary hospital, that house looked like just a perfect thing to invest in.
The wine arrived, which instantly made our waiter my favorite person in the world.
RD: Thank you very much.
RD: Thank you very much. [clinks glasses]
DTD: Oh, no worries, man. I’ve done a little bit of everything. I was a Cell Biology PhD, Neuroscience dude, publish or perish, academia for a long time.
RD: OK, then you became a veterinarian? You had to go back to school.
DTD: Well I hated research, so I dumped everything and went back to school, and became a veterinarian. So, I was in college forever.
RD: And your Dad’s still working?
DTD: He is a zero-pay employee for Google, so he can wander in and they love him, he can eat the food and visit all his friends. Its like a nerd camp, so all his friends are there. And they, every once in a while, call and consult him and ask him about stuff.
RD: Does he know, you may not know, a Bob Heile?
DTD: I can ask, but I don’t know the name.
RD: Bob Heile was part of the group that worked on the protocols and coined the term for both WiFi and Bluetooth [IEEE 802.15].
DTD: I think he does know of them.
RD: Then probably like a half-generation later, like a lot of stuff in the 70s through the 90s.
DTD: Well Dad did a lot of stuff through even the 80s. He was involved in Android kernel.
DTD: How fun! Cool!
RD: So, I’ve met him a few times and stuff.
DTD: It’s amazing how the worlds cross over. Especially going to Kubla[Con], and everybody there is I.T. or computers. Or Google, I mean, there’s so many Google people at Kubla. Dad, I think it was 5 years or so that he did this zero pay semi-retirement, where he is still with Google, but they call and ask him stuff, and he likes to talk about it. Now he lives up on the coast in Sea Ranch.
KublaCon, going strong since 1994, is the largest board game convention in California. If you are ever in the San Francisco area in May, I recommend it.
RD: So, he goes into the office once in a while, once a week?
DTD: Once in a while, just to visit. Visit people he knows and remembers. Because it was a weird little clique, back in the 70s-ish. The group that worked on UNIX really stayed kind of close, and they’ve spread out since, so the head computer guy from PIXAR is one of them, and there’s a Princeton professor, but they get together, and a lot of them went to Google.
RD: But do they get like a royalty off of everything sold on UNIX?
DTD: UNIX is non-royalty. There’s no money in it at all. And basically, the Napa house is the house that Google built. Stocks and things like that.
RD: Got it.
DTD: How did this turn into an interview of me? [laughs]
RD: You can ask me questions. I can talk about myself all day. But I’m just a little curious how I ended up at the table. So, I just wanted to know a little bit more about your story.
DTD: That’s awesome. I mean I like board games, and I have been very, very lucky in my life. I like doing this. Its just fun to peek behind the curtain and talk about the game design and hear what’s going on. I have gotten the opportunity through Dice Tower to go to GAMA and talk to people and see a lot of the earlier stuff and design work, and I just find it fascinating.
RD: How the sausage is made?
DTD: How the sausage is made! That’s it.
RD: Happy to talk about it all night. Talking about myself is not a skill I lack.
DTD: Well, me either, unfortunately. Makes for a poor interviewer.
Bad interviewer! Bad!
RD: This looks very good! [looking at menu]
DTD: The menu is impressive, it’s just cool.
RD: So, what do they say…for 5 courses…you know I am a type I diabetic. But that corn clafouti looks too good to pass up. So, I am going to lock that down for one of my 5. So we are each getting 5? This will be exciting.
DTD: I don’t know, honestly. We definitely can.
RD: We have to ask that, or is it 5 for the table? I’m fine with either. My whole day tomorrow is sitting on a plane, so I don’t have much to do.
DTD: Back to the East Coast?
DTD: I lived…I grew up on the East Coast. I was New Jersey born and bred mostly. And then I did graduate school and all that research stuff in Connecticut.
RD: Where in Connecticut?
DTD: New Haven.
Go Handsome Dan! Go Elis!
RD: That’s fine. I have a friend who’s a professor of robotics there.
DTD: Oh cool – that’s awesome stuff. I was Kline Biology Tower, on Whitney Ave, up on the hill.
RD: I don’t know the location that specifically. Well there’s two colleges in New Haven, and I was guessing it wasn’t the other.
RD: It’s not UConn, its University of New Haven or New Haven…does UConn have a campus there too?
Rob was correct – it’s the University of New Haven, founded in 1920 as a branch of Northeastern University. Interestingly, it is actually in the town of West Haven. UConn, or the University of Connecticut, has branches in Avery Point, Storrs, Hartford, Stamford, and Waterbury, but not New Haven.
DTD: I thought they had an extension.
RD: They might. But there’s another one, which is a completely independent one. I have a friend, or an acquaintance, who is a professor there. He’s like “I worked in New Haven as a professor. Not Yale, the other one.” It’s like his go-to now.
DTD: I really…disliked New Haven intensely.
RD: It doesn’t seem like a great city.
DTD: It’s really not. Connecticut is strange. There’s a lot of really nice towns, and a lot of really terrible towns. Right next to each other.
RD: Yeah, I mean the southwest corner is…crazy.
DTD: Yeah. I was just married. My wife and I lived in New Haven for years, and it was awful. And then we moved to one of the nice places up the coast and it was so cool.
To be clear, the city was awful, not the marriage. I don’t want to get in trouble.
RD: I only know New Haven because Yale is there, but I don’t visit. Most of the time it is where I park my car and get on an Amtrack and go to New York. But even now, I’ll just take the train down from Springfield.
DTD: Are you in New York?
RD: Near Springfield, Massachusetts. One town over. There’s a little bedroom community between the Connecticut border and Springfield.
DTD: There’s so many of those nice ones.
Next time, by carefully plying Sir Daviau with food and wine, we discuss the path that changed him from a Dungeons and Dragons playing kid in central Maine, to a game designer at Hasbro. Or maybe he didn’t really change at all…