The courses are flying past in this fantastic feast of the mind and the palate. In this episode, Rob tells of the later days at Hasbro, both the lows and his magnum opus conclusion at the corporate giant.
DTD: But that was my funny Star Wars story. We were talking about something…oh, other designers. The first one I did was John D. Clair, then Matt Leacock. I did Scott Caputo, did Whistle Stop, and at Essen I went crazy and every day I did an interview. I managed to get Uwe Rosenberg, Friedemann Friese…
RD: I know Friedemann, he is fun.
DTD: Oh, that was an incredible interview, that was so much. He is just a total goofball.
RD: I am much more sane.
DTD: And we had a good time with it, too. He basically told me in the interview that he makes games that he wants to see if he can make, and he doesn’t care particularly if they sell.
RD: That’s a good position to be in.
DTD: He just makes them for himself. Well there were a lot of people that I interviewed, who basically early in their career made a game that went nuts, and that gave a stable income that they could make anything they wanted to after that.
RD: I still don’t have that.
DTD: I think Legacy is your…
RD: Legacy, as a brand overall, does it. And I have to say that Pandemic Legacy, especially Season One, sells enough where in any given year I am going to… My Pandemic Legacy income in any given year is less than the household average for the United States. Which I think is $50,000. But it is not zero.
DTD: No, but you have got a couple of those adding up.
RD: Yeah, I have finally reached critical mass the past year and a half. I have enough titles making enough medium money, but I don’t have a Pandemic or a Ticket to Ride or Power Grid, or one of these ones that’s just going to pay my bills every year.
DTD: I was just kind of surprised at how often that popped up. – an early game. I mean Uwe Rosenberg did Bohnanza as one of his first games, and that is still his best selling in terms of number of units and money.
RD: Yeah, I don’t have that dependable nature.
DTD: You’ve got yourself spread out, too. You have got a lot of things in a lot of pots.
RD: I have a lot of nickels to make a dollar.
DTD: Which is awesome. I look around, and its like, “Well, that game was Rob, and that game was Rob, and that game was Rob.”
RD: Yeah, it’s a little tiring.
DTD: I just find it fascinating. Every time I find a new one that I think is just really cool, your name is on there somewhere.
RD: I would like to have that…I would like to take the worry of paying my bills away from my creative design, and it is lessened as I reach financial stability, but it is not gone. If I decided now that I am just making games that I want to make, and I don’t care about the money…
DTD: But do you think with your mindset and personality that you would ever be at that level? Because some of it is a mindset as well.
RD: I am a businessman. Well, I was trained at Hasbro to run it through the money filter. I was trained with my advertising background to run it through the marketability factor. I am working at Restoration Games, and I am thinking “What is our investment for our return on profit?” It would be very hard for someone to say, “Look, you have an unlimited income, or whatever. Just take money away. But you still want to work. What do you want to make?” It would be a couple of years readjustment, because I would fall into habits. And then I would say, “No, I’m doing this because its going to be marketable.”
DTD: That’s a pretty difficult thing to lay on someone.
RD: I don’t know if I could give it up entirely, and I don’t know if I would want to. When I give talks on game design, I sometimes say I consider myself a craftsman. Which is, I’m a professional artist. If you want to be an artist, there are plenty of design competitions you can enter. But it is not really a good way to approach things to make money, unless you get lucky. Unless you are very good, and you get lucky.
DTD: Well you have got to find that balancing point, because one of the big faults that a lot of artists have is that they never finish. It’s really hard to say, “This is done now.” And the longer you take to make it done, the more money you have spent, which means the less return you get. And I have seen extremes on both sides of that. I’ve seen some people that are all business, and some people that are all creativity. And it is just fascinating how board games, as a big scene, has all these ridiculously different people in it.
RD: Yes. Eric Lang once described a triangle of why people want to be game designers. He admitted this applies to other sort of creative jobs. But he talked about it in game design. Do you want to be a businessman – money is your primary interest. Do you want to be an artist – “I just make what I want to make.” Or do you want to be a personality – “I want to be a brand, and noticed, and get…”
DTD: I can totally picture spokespeople for all 3.
RD: And most people are not in one point, they float around, or they are on a line between two of them. There’s one that’s stronger, one that’s medium, and one that’s weak. And they go around. And right now in my career, I happen to be a businessman, which isn’t to say…
A large bowl of impressive food is lain before Rob. My bowl contains a delicately arranged bouquet of yogurt and vegetables, over which the waiter carefully poured a thick carrot soup.
DTD: That is an impressive bowl.
Waiter: Breakfast for dinner with smoked potatoes, purple potato chips, pickled onions, quail egg and a yuzu foam. Base for your soup: sumac yogurt, cashew and roasted rainbow carrot. Thai inspired carrot soup.
DTD: That’s beautiful.
DTD: Sumac is one of my favorite, nobody knows about it, spices.
Funny story – I have purchased sumac in bulk for ages. I put it in an old spice bottle with a handwritten label. My wife, from California, was initially very concerned this spice was related to “poison sumac,” a local cousin of poison ivy, so as a joke I amended the label to read “Sumac – Not Poison”.
Jump forward several years, and I have children who have been raised their whole life with this very label in the house. I only realized its impact when at dinner my daughter asked for the sumac, but quickly added “Not the poison one!” I guess she assumed since the label was so specific, there had to be a poison one around somewhere.
RD: I don’t cook with it often; I wouldn’t be able to pick it out. I taste the Yuzu in this.
DTD: I put it on things after the fact [sumac]. And yuzu can be intense, and yuzu can be lovely, and it can be anything in between. Like, I wouldn’t want lemonade made with yuzu. I got yuzu juice once, as a drink. Not something I want to repeat. I was about to… Oh, I was going to say even with game players, I have said for a long time, people who play board games include people who play it to win, people who play it to explore, and people who play it to be social. And I wonder if there is a correlation between that triangle and Eric’s triangle.
RD: Could be. There’s…Magic the Gathering has 4 archetypes.
DTD: Has what?
RD: Has 4 archetypes. And I am very bad at the names they gave people.
DTD: I am bad at following the Magic scene.
RD: Well, it’s interesting. There’s a person who wants to win. There’s the person who wants to make crazy decks and explore. There are 4 of them. I think Spike is the winner.
DTD: I’ve heard this, and they all have nicknames.
In the Magic scene, players talk about 4 stereotypical players with names. Johnny/Jenny is the combo player, who carefully crafts a plan and executes it. They are on a mission to show the world something about themselves. Timmy/Tammy is the power player, just looking to have a good time with weird, niche cards, creating cool moments. Spike is just looking to win and will play anything to do so. And Vorthos loves the art, lore, and flavor text, and may choose cards just because they make thematic sense.
DTD: It always reminded me of, in cryptography they named every person in the chain in cryptography. There’s the sender, there’s the receiver, there’s the hacker, but they all have names. And the names begin with A, B, C… Alice is the A, and that is the sender. But my memory is failing me what the others are. But when I was hearing about the Magic people, that same thing was running through my mind.
Cryptology people discuss the many people involved in sending a coded message so often, that they now have names for clarity. For instance, Alice is the sender and Bob is the receiver. Carol, Carlos or Charlie is a generic 3rd participant, while Chuck is a 3rd party with malicious intent. There are many, many more.
RD: And they all have different play styles.
DTD: When I started this whole thing, I sent out some test emails, and said, “Is anyone interested?” I didn’t want to start all this if every designer I run into is not going to want to do it. And I got just an incredible amount of positive feedback, which is just lovely. Eric [Lang] was on some of those early Emails. He told me at Essen that he was interested.
RD: He’s stretched thin.
DTD: Oh, without a doubt!
RD: I think I’m stretched thin. He’s more so. Every time I think I’m working too much, I think of Eric. He works about 30% more and travels 6x further, and I feel better. [To food] This is very good, but I have 3 more courses, so I am stopping.
DTD: Don’t even worry about it.
RD: You are welcome to any of it if you like.
DTD: I am not one to judge, and maybe I will steal one of those [potatoes].
RD: Smoked potatoes are good, just the right amount of smoke. It’s like a bacon kiss.
DTD: That sounds great. So, what made you branch out from Hasbro?
RD: Well, to be fair, it was probably time to go. And it had been for a while. So, I am working at Hasbro. I had started at Parker Brothers location, loved it. I said, “If I win the lottery on Friday, I am coming in to work on Monday.” Dream come true job.
DTD: That’s awesome. Everyone wants that job, where it’s not really a job.
RD: And I had it for a while. I started in November. The next September they announced, “Oh no, just kidding. We just moved everyone…” Honestly, they…at Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, they moved everyone from Milton Bradley to the Parker Brothers location; new management comes in and says, “No, no, we are closing this down and moving everyone to Milton Bradley.” So some people moved, got their kids in new schools, and then moved back like 20 months later. It was complete corporate [expletive] waving.
Milton Bradley was purchased by Hasbro in 1984. Parker Brothers was similarly acquired in 1991.
RD: And it was vile, and I continue to be deeply pissed off about it 20 years later. It didn’t affect me much. Well it did, because I ended up in Western Massachusetts for the next 20 years and counting, rather than the Boston area, which I really love. But for the people who uprooted their lives twice; actually, some of them made out like bandits if they didn’t have kids because they moved, bought a house, sold their house for 40% more and moved back to a cheaper suburb, western Mass. A lot of people made a killing in the real estate market, but its not worth the emotional trauma these people went through. And what happened was, some of the people from Milton Bradley didn’t move the first time, so you lost some cultural identity. Then when they moved the Parker Brothers plant to Milton Bradley, some of the Parker Brothers people didn’t move, some of the Milton Bradley people who moved, moved back. So, you managed to destroy…
DTD: You shuffled the groups.
RD: You ended up with like 30% of your cultural identity of the tribe in like 2 years over a corporate, you know, “who was right” in some C-suite argument.
DTD: So, things were weird. But I was also wondering around that time, were you seeing clique games really rising in popularity, as opposed to…I don’t know the proper words.
RD: Mass market?
DTD: Mass market. That’s the word I’m looking for.
RD: The designers did, but they wouldn’t listen to us. We were too fringy, we were too close to it. And to be fair, Hasbro makes a lot of money off of gift giving. Someone once described it as a gift-giving business, not the game business.
DTD: The person who buys it is not the person who wants it. I totally get it. At one point I heard that. I saw a list of the top money-making games, I believe it was out of Hasbro just a couple of years ago. They’re not good.
RD: They are gimmicks.
DTD: They are gimmicky stuff. The mouthpiece game, things like that.
RD: The idea is to maximize their shareholder value. They are doing just fine. If their point is making good games, they are not fine, but its very short term. Because they are not instilling a new generation of people to love games and buy games and go back. It’s all opportunistic.
DTD: It’s a different philosophy.
RD: It’s a toy philosophy shoved into the games world. So, I had been at my job about a year and a half when I moved to the Milton Bradley factory. And the good news is I got to buy a house, which I would not have been able to afford in Boston. I had had the job a year and a half, and I naïvely thought, “If I don’t like it, I will just sell my house and then move back to Boston.” Which it is harder to do when you start putting roots down, and selling houses, and what are you going to do when you now have a job making games. Like, what’s your next career move? So, I was a little more trapped than I thought. But the cultural difference was immediate. And whether it was the culture of Milton Bradley and their plan was different than Parker Brothers, or the honeymoon of a year and a half on a job had ended, and it was just a good delineation point for me, rather than gradually ending and I got jaded. At Parker Brothers, I got a second ending. I don’t know.
Interesting tangent – the double dot in naïve and noël is not, in fact, an umlaut such as those used in German writing. It is called a diaeresis, and it denotes that 2 vowels are separate, independent sounds as opposed to being a diphthong with a single pronunciation. The more you know…
DTD: You always wonder if the job you have now is the magic job. Whether you are satisfied or dissatisfied. And is everything worse, or is everything better?
RD: I like my job now a lot. I am not cut out for— [to waiter] I am finished thank you, I had a late lunch. So I am pacing myself for 5 courses.
DTD: [to waiter] That was great. That potato was amazing. There was something, a vinegrette or a marinade…
RD: It’s the yuzu.
DTD: Was it the yuzu?
RD: The yuzu was very tart, very acidic.
DTD: It was perfect, and that smokiness on it was great. It didn’t even occur to me it was the yuzu.
Man we said “yuzu” alot. It is really fun to say. Yuzu. Yuzu yuzu yuzu.
RD: It was that smoke and acid together. It was like a yuzu crème fraîche or something, or foam.
DTD: By the way, I have badmouthed foams in my previous interviews. I might have said “cat spittle.”
Yeah, I said that at lunch with Friedemann Friese. I really need a filter.
RD: I wouldn’t go with that as a brand name.
DTD: I would buy it if that was the brand name. That would draw me in.
RD: So, I don’t know, but I thought that immediately in 2000 Milton Bradley was not as fun. It was more like, it was a job. I also was a parent, I had a toddler. I got a big bunch of “grown-up” around then. So, its hard to differentiate what was the case, but this was when I started to realize I wasn’t cut out for corporations. I missed living near a city, I missed my D&D group and my friends in Boston.
DTD: Are you more of a city guy than a country guy?
RD: Yeah. I like restaurants. I like public transportation. I lived in Manhattan for a year when I worked at Letterman. That was too much. But something about the size of Boston, or Austin, San Diego. Like that size city. These are the city sizes I like.
DTD: San Diego is great. I am a suburb guy. But I was just curious about that. I don’t get the city mentality too much.
RD: I don’t want to live in the city. I thought I did, but fast forward a little bit—spoil a little preview coming up after the break, when I lived in Providence for a year at the end of my Hasbro career.
DTD: Well now it’s all ruined, I don’t want to hear the story any more.
RD: I actually lived above a restaurant where bars were letting out, and I couldn’t park, and supermarkets weren’t nearby, and I didn’t have a lawn. And I’m like, “Oh, I have gotten a little soft living in the suburbs.” I didn’t realize that happened. And that was 11 years in, and now its been 9 more years, so I’ve gotten a little more jaded about space, greenery.
RD: I really like Arlington outside of Boston. I have an expansion to Ignacy’s Detective game coming out that I will talk about, that’s set in Arlington. And I picked Arlington because I lived there, and I am going to pick Memorial Day 1977, because that’s when Star Wars came out, and then I wrote a story around that. People were like “Why here, why that?” I’m like, “I like that story, I lived there for a couple years, and I liked that space. Let’s see what story emerges from those two vectors.”
DTD: That’s awesome. So, did you go right into independent game design after you left?
RD: Yeah, we just skipped a decade but that’s fine.
DTD: Oh, that’s what I was asking! [laughs]
RD: So, its 2000 when I moved out to Milton Bradley, and I ended up working there through 2011. But realistically every year was less fun than the previous. We had the Avalon Hill line, that went to Wizards of the Coast. We were making some Star Wars games, those ran out. I had to start working on some, we did HeroScape, which was lots of fun, that kind of went away.
DTD: I saw that.
RD: It was mostly Craig’s thing. I worked on some DVD games which weren’t great, but they were interesting. And then by 2007 that had all run its course, and I was a little stuck and we had just formed a partnership with EA [Electronic Arts] to do licensed versions of our games, and I had moved over to the digital group at the beginning of 2008. But the job that I got, because they were just starting way below my level, it was like an entry level position, and I was 38 years old. And I am like, “No.” And when I would describe my position people would, like, dismiss me. And I went to the guy who had hired me, who I had worked with downstairs, and I said, “This job makes me…” And he was like, “Yeah, I know. It’s the wrong title. We don’t have a budget to give you a raise.” And I am like, “Well, I am leaving the company. I left downstairs.” So, I went to my boss at the time, and said “I made the wrong call leaving here, but I don’t really want to go back.” And he was like, “Actually I have an opening at a senior position. Would you come back at a promotion?” And HR really thought, “Rob did some fast one where he went to this job that he hated, and now…” Yeah, this was some cunning plan.
DTD: It was the long con.
RD: The long con. I knew if I went here, I would be overqualified, and when I went to leave, there would magically be an opening in my old department at a higher position. So I went back, and honestly I got a divorce in 2005, I had mortgages, I had child support payments, I had a job that gave me a 401K and vacation and a steady salary. I’m like, “I can’t go start up my own business.” So from 2008-2011 I was kind of stuck. The only game…I did 2 games that went to market.
DTD: Cars 2 Trouble edition?
RD: Cars 3. It’s a good one that you know that joke. And Risk Legacy. Which was my “I’m leaving the industry—”
DTD: “—So, I’m doing what I want.”
RD: So, I’m having that Punk Rock moment we talked about, where money and success doesn’t matter.
DTD: That’s awesome. It’s really funny hearing you tell the story, because when I’m looking through your list of games, I can see this—this wave through it. And its like, “What happened right there?” Everything is a low point.
RD: Well, it is also [that] Hasbro went into this toy mentality where everything had to be based on a brand. So what are we doing with Ouija? What are we doing with Operation? What’s the brand identity? So I did 8 Ouija games that never went anywhere. I did 5 Operation games that never went; they would just die in presentations. So, I kept trying to just, “Oh, you want things to be brands.” And then we build up games from them, but then you don’t buy any of the games. So, I am just spending my time pitching things that aren’t going to market. Instead of a game ending up on my desk, it’s like “Make this, make this, make this.” It’s “Create your own work and we are going to kill it.”
DTD: So, were the bosses not happy with Risk Legacy? Generally, you get push-back from your Punk Rock moments. But it seems like a brilliant idea.
RD: That’s a whole story that could take 2 hours in and of itself.
DTD: Whatever you want to say…I will leave it up to mystery.
RD: I basically pulled all of my knowledge of how to get a game through the corporation and leveraged, put all my chips in on that one. It was a combination of skill, bravado, tenacity and luck to get it through. I did the pitch of my lifetime to the…
DTD: Well done, sir.
RD: Thank you. The current president, I went and pitched the game. And I gave the presentation of a lifetime. When I got done, he was like, “Did anyone with marketing help you with this pitch?” Because he kind of oversaw marketing and wanted it to be true. And I’m like, “Nope.”
DTD: Advertising background.
RD: I said, “But I understand all the marketing concerns and parameters”. And he said, “I don’t fully understand what you are pitching here, but I am very intrigued at your level of passion for it and how much everyone around you seems, and the design seems passionate. So, I want you to go make this, and I don’t want anyone here to Hasbro-ize it.” And he just gave me this shield.
DTD: That’s awesome.
RD: Then he got fired. Not immediately, and not because of it. But within 6 months.
DTD: But that’s one of those hurdles in the road.
RD: And then new people came in, and I basically hid the project. I kept it off of line reviews.
DTD: “This was already going before you came in.”
RD: I said “Can you leave that one off—I’m selling it to Germany, they’re just going to kill it. Germany’s going to pick it.” I kept it off the radar; if they didn’t see it, they couldn’t kill it. I got a German market to agree to make it, which meant that we needed the English version done, but Europe was going to pay for the art, and then Germany paid for the tooling. So then, the game was complete because the art was done, and the English version was done, and it died in Germany but the tooling was done. So now I’m like, “We just have to get sales orders, and then we can make this game. There’s no development time left.” Because I had Europe do development. And then, this is the very short version, and then I went to every salesperson in Hasbro. But they all had big accounts and said, “I don’t want this.” So, I got in touch with someone in the toy group who was young and hungry, who said “I am kind of selling figures to hobby stores.” I went down and pitched it to her.
DTD: Hobby stores are your market.
RD: It was not even…she said “I don’t know games. I know how to sell G.I. Joes in a box. I don’t know what to say here to the buyers, to the distributors.” I said, “Let me solve that problem.” I went back, I made a video, I burned a DVD, I sent it to her, I said to her “When you go to a meeting, talk to this distributor—I have emailed them, said I want you to watch this. Tell them when it’s done they can have exclusive rights to this game for 1 year if they agree to sign it now, and they will sign it.”
DTD: How was the reception when it first came out?
RD: Amazing. I was on my honeymoon for my second wedding, and I was in Hawaii, and I was reading the reviews, and I was like, “Holy shit. This game was not a disaster.” That was SeaFall.
Next time Rob and I talk about the pain and lessons learned over SeaFall. Plus the Yiddish language, black garlic and newer legacy games.