This second interview segment with game designer Rob Daviau is a perfect example of why I love doing Dice Tower Dish. The discussion just keeps organically bouncing between great food and Rob’s career journey – from a Dungeons & Dragons kid in Maine, to working for the biggest game company in the United States. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Rob is charismatic, fascinating and generally great to be with.
RD: I don’t know what I want. I kind of want everything.
DTD: That was the problem I had when I was looking online. Mushrooms are… mushrooms sound good.
RD: Do you know what Kampachi is? I am guessing it’s a type of fish.
DTD: I think so, but it doesn’t ring a bell for me. So, these are small [plates] on the left and large on the right, right?
RD: Right. I might have to only get 3, but I need to think it through. Just because I don’t want to leave a bunch of food on the table.
DTD: No, I get it, but if you want to taste a bunch of stuff, it is not a big deal. I have definitely done that.
RD: Maybe I will do that – taste it and go back and pick at it.
DTD: That is totally fine. That lamb does not sound bad.
RD: That looks good too. I can see what Kampachi is [looking up on phone].
DTD: [laughs] I think you beat me looking it up by about a minute.
RD: It’s a type of amberjack. [reading from Wikipedia] “The greater amberjack, also known as the allied kingfish, great amberjack, greater yellowtail, jenny lind…”
DTD: Sounds good to me.
RD: So, I think the crudo, the broccolini for me, maybe breakfast for dinner just because it has some mushrooms in there. The buttermilk fried squash.
DTD: No, you’re right – everything sounds fantastic. Wow. So, tell me how you got started on this crazy road. Was Hasbro the start, wasn’t it?
RD: My job at Hasbro? How I got into game design?
RD: Well with hindsight being 20/20, I basically was destined to be a game designer, because everything I had done was giving me the building blocks towards doing it, you just don’t realize it until you get perspective on it.
DTD: Well, sure.
RD: So, I was a D&D nerd, a comic book nerd. And was running my own table, running D&D sessions at conventions at age 13, just not even thinking twice about it. I go, “I have an idea, I’ll go run…” Now, they were small, but it was like high school kids and college kids, and I was just “whatever.”
DTD: If you have a passion for it.
RD: Yeah, but it wasn’t until I was older like, “Oh wow. No, I was in middle school, and I was running tables at a convention, taking tickets and prepping my stuff.” So, I had a passion for it.
DTD: That’s very cool. I was playing D&D when I was about that age, but I wasn’t going to any conventions at that point.
RD: These were little town conventions, few hundred people when it was at the height of it. Probably 3 years into it.
DTD: They were pretty few and far between, if this is in the late 70’s, early 80’s.
RD: Early 80’s. I’ll be 50 this year.
DTD: Oh, you’re almost… I’m a little older than you. I’ll be 52.
RD: Yeah, I was born in 1970. I was 11 when I found D&D in 1981, kind of carried it through the end of its big initial craze to ’83 and ’84, and I still wanted to play, but I was getting into high school and people were getting girlfriends, so I went more into just reading the stuff. I would get all the Dragonlance modules. Never played them but read all of them. I realized it was more the thing you did kind of in quiet, because it was nerdy.
DTD: Oh yeah, I would buy all the books and all the modules.
RD: Read Gord the Rogue.
DTD: Oh yeah! There were probably 20x more time spent just reading than actually playing.
RD: They are often better to just read and imagine what will happen than to run into the players and have them ruin everything.
DTD: I was an only child, and I was very into games, and would collect games and D&D, role playing games, anything I could find, and just read them and figure them out myself.
RD: Yeah, [looking at the menu] I’ve got my 5, so everything is going to be fine. We are all going to be OK.
DTD: It’s all going to be alright.
DTD: Very cool. So, we are each doing… that’s awesome.
RD: This is very reasonable, too.
DTD: Yeah. I’ve done French Laundry 3 times now, I think, and I was kind of in your boat once, that I went to French Laundry but had to have a very late lunch right before, and got so full at French Laundry, which was…
RD: I think I’m going to, I don’t remember if its 11 or 12 madison park [it’s eleven]. Like in New York, there’s a 3 Michelin star restaurant. I’m going there next month. This is a whole year of turning 50. I’m doing a jubilee of as many Michelin stars as I can.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome. That is very cool.
RD: But I’m going for lunch, because I will wake up in the morning and have…
DTD: Don’t eat!
RD: Just have like a fried egg. Just something to keep me from being ravenous when I get there and overeating on the first course. And then getting there for lunch. Then if I am really full and don’t feel good it’s 3 in the afternoon, and I can just walk around and walk it off and not be like 11 at night… So, for French Laundry I might propose lunch.
DTD: It’s a ton of tiny courses and it does end up filling you up. But it is incredible, the whole show of it.
RD: So, because we live in Hartford; because our airport is Hartford, we can’t fly anywhere directly. We might go to Chicago and go to Alinea. I am probably pronouncing it wrong.
DTD: OK. I know where you are talking about. I have only seen it written.
RD: It’s another 3-star restaurant. I don’t know how to say it, I’ve seen it written. So, go, eat there, stay over, fly to San Francisco, go to French Laundry. I mean, if you have to break it up, why not just do 6 Michelin stars in 2 days?
DTD: That’s awesome. Every time I go to one of the Dice Tower things, its usually Jason who grabs me up and drags me to some Michelin star restaurant.
RD: Jason, really?
DTD: He is way into food.
RD: I didn’t know he was a foodie.
DTD: Oh, big time. Big time. Its fun because he knows people, too. He’s in television. So, he got us into the Picasso restaurant at Bellagio the last time we were at Vegas. That was pretty good!
RD: Oh, this is going to be hard for you to edit if I keep interrupting myself.
DTD: I don’t edit [laughing].
I should edit this out. All of my secrets will be revealed.
RD: Oh, it’s literally a transcript?
DTD: It is literally a transcript. I do little edits. If we are talking about something that I am not supposed to talk about, or it’s getting too personal, or something that that, I’ll just take chunks out. But I want it to just be normal, casual conversation. Rambling all over the place. And its fun. I put in occasional images and little snarky comments, and things like that. It is pretty much as it is spoken. And people are digging it.
It was at this point that I discussed all of my children’s social security numbers and the name of my first pet. It was Bocephus.
RD: We will just let it wander!
DTD: Absolutely. So how did you go from D&D nerd to Hasbro?
RD: Then I went off to college and I was going to be a computer science major. Because this was 1988, and I said either computer games or special effects will probably be the next big thing in computers. And I was 100% right, but I didn’t like it. I think I kind of took the wrong courses, and I had an internship after my freshman year of college down with the state. I grew up in Maine. So, in Augusta, at the state house, that was really boring. I had no good experiences in computer programming, and that probably soured me to it a little more and a little earlier than I would have if I had gotten into the right program. I got into Carnegie Mellon and I didn’t go. If I had gone there, I might have…
Go Tartans! Go Scotty!
DTD: And they have a great program.
RD: They have a great program. My life might have been right now working at PIXAR. But at Tufts, where I went, there just wasn’t a connection. What I fell in love with at that time was television sketch comedy.
DTD: Oh, how cool!
RD: And I decided I was going to be television writer. And all of the threads that come back from my different careers is telling stories in bite sized pieces. And I am not a novelist. So, I was in comedy, I was in a sketch comedy group, I made sketch comedy videos with my friends. I ended up talking my way onto the sets of Saturday Night Live and visited the Kids in the Hall up in Toronto.
DTD: I had no idea. That’s amazing.
RD: And at the end of my last college career, I was an intern full time with Letterman back at his old show after Carson. Right when Carson was retiring. 1992. At which point I realized I don’t like New York, I don’t like LA, and I don’t like the television industry.
DTD: That kind of cuts into a lot of it.
RD: Yeah, so, again if I had caughten a break, caught a break? Caughten? I had gotten or caught a break.
DTD: [writing on invisible pad] I am going to transcribe it as “caughten”.
RD: Make sure it’s not like the fabric.
Only a rube would write that as “cotton”. A dull-witted rube.
DTD: No, no, no. It will be spelled with a “gh”. But it will be caughten. And I will reference the Old English and why that’s a proper conjugation.
In the 1300’s “caughten” was in fact used in literature, but the definition may have been “took” or “caught,” however ’tis unclear. You can tell I am serious and educated, because I used ’tis. Only recently, after 1994, have we begun to take this great word back, unfortunately in a hipster ironic manner.
RD: I might have been a television writer, but I sort of walked away from that. And I am like, “OK, I have a college degree in classical civilizations. I started out to be a computer science major and I walked away from that. I was going to be a television writer and walked away from that. Now what?”
DTD: I have been there. [laughen]
RD: So, I did the next logical thing, and became a prep cook for a caterer. And in retrospect, I probably should have stuck with that longer, but I was an oldest child. Still am. And I felt like I need a real job. In an office. Like my Dad did. I couldn’t quite abide.
DTD: There’s that sense of duty that I think people our age have, that is set into you.
RD: Yeah, like it could have waited a year. I was having a great time. I had a 9-5 cooking job which are hard to come by. Because as a prep cook, you would get there, and you would make everything 80%, then send it out to the catering event, and they had to finish it. So, you get there and there’s just a big punch list. And at 5 at night, or if you had to work late you had to work late, you got overtime. You were like “Oh, you’re done, we did everything for the events.”
DTD: This is the list of what you got to do.
RD: This is what you got to do to get ready for today or tomorrow.
DTD: I always kind of dreamed of having a job where you go in, there was a list of you-do-this, and then you were done.
RD: I had that! And I walked away from it after 2 months.
DTD: Man, that’s the dream I searched for.
RD: I got paid to go to cooking school. Because I would walk in, and they were like “Here’s a beef tenderloin. Here’s how you take off the silver skin, and you prepare it, and you cut it into steaks, and you do all this stuff. And they would watch me, and then say “Great, you do 20 of them.” And then I would be done at the end of the day. It was wax on, was off, like Karate Kid.
DTD: [laughs] I totally love it. Well that’s the foodie thing then.
RD: Yeah, and so I kind of started to fall in love with food working as a waiter. I really fell in love with cooking there. But it didn’t feel like a real job, and I’m glad I didn’t go into restaurants because it lets me enjoy them from the outside.
DTD: Sausage made, again. Have you fallen into the sous vide bandwagon?
Sous Vide is the greatest thing to happen to cooking in 100 years. Instead of taking a cold piece of food and putting it into a 400 degree fire until the food is exactly 135 degrees, why not just put the food into 135 degree water? It will never overcook. You now cook by temperature, not by time; time doesn’t matter. And it makes a damn good poached egg. See breakfast, below.
RD: I have come and gone on that. I was doing that 2009 to 2012.
Apparently, I am still very much on the bandwagon.
DTD: That’s when it first hit, and the things were these big tanks.
RD: I had a friend who was getting her PhD at MIT and we built…when I say “we”, I just fed her, and she built homemade sous vide machines, recirculators.
Go Tim the Beaver! Go Engineers!
DTD: Out of PCR machines! I tried to do sous video out of a PCR machine when I was in grad school.
RD: She bought a whole bunch of different components. She built three of them, all of them have slowly broken over time, because they were never really meant for much. I still have mine, but I wouldn’t trust it. The whole point is it’s supposed to hold it… I wouldn’t trust it not to give me a shock or to hold temperature. So I should just throw it away.
DTD: That’s what it should do. That’s my standard breakfast is a sous vide egg over rice.
RD: You know, I made steamed egg bites in my Instant Pot last weekend.
DTD: I’m just discovering what I can do in the Instant Pot.
RD: I made yogurt in the Instant Pot.
DTD: Did it work?
RD: It worked great.
DTD: Wow – I haven’t don’t that yet. It scares me. Anytime I see something that has a yogurt setting, I always get a little nervous about that.
RD: You’re just causing stuff to go bad on your terms. That’s what wine is.
Heretic! Wine is magic.
DTD: That’s a good point. I just starting cooking rice in the Instant Pot because it takes half the time as my rice cooker.
RD: Yeah, it’s funny, because its only 10 minutes of pressure cooking, but it takes 15 minutes to get to pressure and then you gotta let it depressurize for 15 minutes.
DTD: Ah, you just open it up.
RD: Well sometimes it wants to keep cooking in there. You can open it, but sometimes if you are holding it, you kind of want to keep the pressure on. So, its not as fast as I want, but its hands off. But I don’t like doing braises or soups in there, because the whole joy of making them is to smell them.
DTD: We just did, my wife and I just did chicken soup from scratch yesterday, all day long. Chicken soup in the house. It was delightful.
RD: Yeah, I love just “Oh, what am I making? Oh, that smells so good!”. And when you put a steam thing and then you, like, even if you are doing slow cooking.
DTD: You can smell it, but it’s not the same.
RD: Yeah, its hermetically locked.
DTD: It’s like if you make a spaghetti sauce; you want it to go all day long.
RD: Just walk by and stir it.
DTD: The room is filled with it. Yeah, its usually my favorite part after thanksgiving is, I’ll take all the bones and carcass and make that stock. It’s usually a steamed turkey, or a smoked turkey nowadays. So that stock is really intense. Its good stuff.
RD: Yeah, I made the yogurt, and it was regular yogurt consistency. I’m like, “Let me put it in a cheesecloth and see if I can thicken it”. And it dumped so much whey.
DTD: That’s my favorite, is getting it to that cream cheese consistency.
RD: It was, yeah, cream cheese consistency within two hours. I just put it in a strainer with cheese cloth and put a weighted, like “here’s a Tupperware of soup” and put it on it. I thought it would be all night. I came back two hours later, and all the whey was pressed out, and then I saved that whey, which is full of protein, and made pizza crust out of it. I’m like, “That’s it. I’ve achieved my goal. I’m like a Danish farmer.”
DTD: No, they have like 50 kinds of yogurt.
RD: Yeah, and dried fish and stuff, but I’m on my whey.
OK, I admit we were just talking, so I don’t really know if Rob made that pun. But he seems like the sort of person who would, so I am going to give him credit anywhey.
DTD: That’s awesome. I love that stuff.
RD: This has been the past couple of weeks. So, where were we? Oh yeah, I was a prep cook.
DTD: You were a prep cook and had not yet made it to Hasbro. You were a D&D nerd prep cook.
RD: I am 5 years away from being at Hasbro at this point. I am 23. And I start Hasbro at 28. So, I moved to Philly with my first wife, and I got a job in advertising as a copywriter.
DTD: That’s a hard job.
RD: Yeah, there’s a reason I only did it 5 years. My first job was the dream job, but you don’t realize it until you get other jobs and realize the first one was the dream job. Philadelphia Flyers was a client. Hersheypark amusement park, a jewelry store, a nice Italian restaurant.
Thank you Rob for giving me an excuse to post an image of Gritty. Surprisingly, it never comes up in board game interviews.
DTD: Nice and stable clients.
RD: All stable, all entertainment. I think there was a mattress one in there and stuff, but by and large, a good stable of clients. Father and son team that like to hire people really young and not pay them enough and give them too much to do. So, at age 23 I had a million-dollar budget, I was co-directing a commercial and I had an intern. And I did not achieve that level of…
DTD: You had minions.
RD: I had not achieved that level of authority until three years ago, and I still do not have a million-dollar budget for anything.
DTD: Now when I was in Connecticut, I knew a lot of people in advertising, and I would see them just get beaten down by it. And I was a graduate student, so I knew beaten down.
RD: Yeah. So, it was fun. Then I moved back to Boston, and I couldn’t get an advertising job that fit. And somewhere around then, I was getting back, I was playing D&D with friends, or people who are friends now. I met them through D&D. One of my best friends I met through usenet: rec dot games dot…
For those not yet blessed with age, in the early and lawless times of the internet, there was a corner known as usenet. These were areas to post messages, separated into nested categories. “rec” was a top category for recreational topics, such as games. So there was rec.games, and subcategories such as rec.games.monopoly
DTD: Yeah, I was on there.
RD: Announcements looking for D&D players in Boston. And that has formed my group. He and I grew a friend group around it, mostly him. He is good at collecting people. And that has been my social group for the past 20 years, out of answering a bulletin board ad.
DTD: That is awesome.
RD: You never know how life is going to throw things at you. So, I am back to playing D&D regularly, I am back in Boston, I am married. Work isn’t that satisfying. So, I am at work and I am kind of bored, and I see that Dragon Magazine lets you pitch article ideas. So, it was still a print magazine, but the internet was around enough to Email them and go to their website. So, I pitch a number of article ideas to a guy, and he says, “This one sounds pretty good, can you write it up?” I’m like “Wow.” So, I write it up, I send it to them, and they buy it. And that article in Dragon magazine was more meaningful to me than anything I had done in advertising, and I had won some awards. Even now, 23 years later, is very meaningful to me. Because I just got paid to make D&D.
DTD: That’s fantastic!
RD: So, I decide that I am going to leave my current job, do freelance advertising, but leave Fridays open to be a role-playing writer. Because I realize it won’t be much money, but I don’t care what I am doing Monday to Thursday, if Friday is my day to just make booklets and supplements and adventures and stuff like that. This was incredibly ill-timed in retrospect, because my wife was pregnant with my first child, and I decided I don’t need health insurance or a stable income. That’s when I discovered how to have anxiety attacks.
DTD: It’s a good training ground for it.
RD: It’s a good training ground for “You are a grownup now, and you have responsibilities.” Where I thought I was having a heart attack. And the doctor was like, “No, you are having an anxiety attack.” I’m like, “Oh, OK. Good to know.”
DTD: That is the worst.
RD: Yeah, they are not fun. So, around that time, my wife was visiting her parents and I look through the Boston Globe, back then was a print newspaper. And it is a Sunday Globe, a big thick Globe. So, I read the back, classifieds – let’s see if anyone is hiring copywriters, because I am a freelancer. And Parker Brothers was hiring for copywriters to work in the North Shore office. I’m like, “I kind of want to be a game designer, not a copywriter, but don’t turn down a job you don’t have.”
DTD: It’s in the right place.
RD: It’s in the right place, if I can get a foot in the door, maybe I can move over. And its like it’s freelance. I don’t even want a full-time job, but maybe they’ll hire me as a freelancer, and I can go up there, get to know them, start making connections. But what I didn’t know was that Parker Brothers had just merged with Milton Bradley up in their north shore office, north of Boston. So not only were they hiring, they were hiring a ton. And they had even hired an HR agency to outsource all of this hiring, so it was kind of a mess. So, I sent my resume and cover letter in, and I talked about how much I loved games, and how great games are, and I am a little snarky and tongue in cheek. Because it’s a copywriter, I might as well show I can have fun.
DTD: Write impressively!
RD: With the person who worked in the copywriting department got it and said, “Oh, Mike Gray…” – the guy I was talking about before – “is looking for someone in game design to work on things that had a lot of ‘cardware’,” as they called it at the time – Trivial Pursuit and Taboo.
DTD: I saw those on your ludology.
RD: Yeah, kind of a writer/designer hybrid. Walked my resume down, which no one ever does. Susan Nash gave me step one of my career. She walks it down, they decide to bring me in. Its been like 3 weeks since I sent it in. I haven’t even gotten the “We have your resume on file, thank you.” So, I had forgotten about it. Then I get a call, “We would like you to come in.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, that copywriting job.” But no one had told me it was for a different job, because they are so busy hiring.
DTD: So, it was the job you wanted.
RD: It was the job I wanted, not the one I applied for. But I don’t know that. So, I showed up that day, and they are like, “Here’s the people you are going to meet with.” And I start meeting with people, and I’m like, I’m listening and I’m going, “This doesn’t sound like the job I applied for.” So, I’m just asking questions, but thinking “Maybe I forgot something, but don’t look dumb on this interview.”
DTD: That’s fantastic!
RD: And I’m going around the designer part, and it is dawning on me it’s a job to be a game designer who can write. So, I start applying and interviewing for a job improv comedy, which I had done.
DTD: [laughs] You can think on your feet!
RD: I can think on my feet. Like, oh this is a “Yes, and…” “Yes, I can do that.”, “Yes, and this,” “Oh yes, have I told you…?”
DTD: Always “Yes!”
RD: Yes, yes, yes. So, it turns out they were looking for someone because Star Wars Episode 1 was coming, a new Star Wars. I knew it inside and out. They had a Trivial Pursuit NFL Football coming out. I am a big football fan. I understood game design, then pre-BoardGameGeek, I’m in a meeting with Mike Gray and another guy Jim Tinguely, who are running the department. And Mike is like, “Tell me about some of the games that you played growing up.” I know all the standard games; I’m going to skip those. So, I said “I have a real strong passion for Dungeons and Dragons and always have.” And Mike goes, “Oh, I worked at TSR for a while.” And kind of leans forward in his seat. And I go, “There are 2 games from my childhood that just always had a special place for me, and they are kind of obscure. One is called Pathfinder, and the other one is called Dragonmaster.” And Mike goes, “I worked on both of those games. When can you start?” He literally said that, and the other person said, “No, Mike, Mike, that’s not how it works.”
I should note that Pathfinder (1974) is definitely not the same as the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) we all know and love so well. Interestingly, Dragonmaster (1981) was one of the first games to be reimagined by Rob’s company Restoration Games. In 2017, it became the popular game Indulgence.
DTD: [laughs] That is so cool!
RD: And I got the job.
DTD: That’s amazing, that’s fantastic.
RD: It was a little bit of bluffing in the interview, but as I said earlier, I knew my stuff.
DTD: It sounds like the position was just made for you.
RD: It was made for me. I did better on my math SATs then my writing SATs and had no intention of being a writer. So, I had the whole math background, and probability background.
DTD: I got letters from colleges telling me about their English as a second language programs. Because my math SAT was tops, and my English was poor.
RD: I wasn’t quite that split.
DTD: No, I was… broken brain.
RD: So, all these things, running a D&D table, playing D&D, playing board games, being in advertising, because I could talk about Star Wars and I would be like, “What’s the brand here? What are you doing? How many games are you making? What do you need to do with these games to achieve success?” Like I was asking all of these things like I would have asked an advertising client.
DTD: What is your goal?
RD: What is your goal here? So, are they a client? How do the approvals work on this? So, all of these things I had unconsciously done enabled me to just glide right into that interview and get the job.
DTD: That is like the best story I have heard.
RD: Its long enough now, its like 22 and a half years, that I am telling a story that I saw a movie about, rather than me. You know, it has moved into a different part of my memory.
Next time Rob and I talk about fashion, fine dining and early Hasbro days. And our fancy food begins to arrive.