DTD: That’s one of my standard questions, and you’ve just ruined it for me. “Do you play your own games?”
DTD: Because you have already played it 1000 times?
RD: Well a lot of times there were games, like Trivial Pursuit, or legacy games, which I know all the twists and turns.
DTD: So, because I have a Jewish mother, she called today. And I told her I had to go, because I’m going out and I’m going to have dinner, I’m going to interview a designer. And she said, “What has he made that I would know?” And about the 10th game that I listed down the list was Trivial Pursuit.
RD: I didn’t make the original.
DTD: No, I said that. I had the ludology in front of me. And she wanted me to tell you that she likes it a lot. [laughs]
RD: OK, thank you. You tell your mother thank you from me. Because I usually don’t get any props for Trivial Pursuit.
DTD: In the day…everybody forgets, and everybody poo-poos it, but everybody forgets that in the day it was the best. Everybody played it, and people liked it.
RD: It created the idea of casual game play after dinner for adults that wasn’t parlor games. Where you stay at the table, you clear the food, and you put out a game board. That didn’t exist until 1982. We can look back now, and be like, “It’s boring, it’s this…” And I’m like, “Yeah, trivia is free now. I’ve got my phone here. I can just read trivia all day long.”
DTD: No, it was cultural. It was huge. Everybody had it.
RD: This is a good mole. Pumpkin mole. Wonderfully spicy.
DTD: OK, but I’m just going to steal this little…I want to see this mole.
RD: The first thing get is, “Oooh, pumpkin, like pumpkin pie!” And then it starts with the burn and the pepper.
DTD: That is really good. I never even thought about mole with pumpkin. I’m a sweet potato and pumpkin freak.
RD: Yeah, this is like an angry pie that I like.
DTD: That’s really cool. Once I, for Thanksgiving, I took a whole sugar pumpkin. I have just been fascinated with the idea of making a pie out of an actual pumpkin. But I took it and smoked it to cook it, and I made a pie out that. And it was terrible, just the worst thing I ever had.
RD: Smoke is going to be, “Pay attention to me! It’s about the smoke!” If you kiss stuff with smoke, it’s like “What’s that?”
DTD: I think that’s kind of what I wanted, is pumpkin mixed with savory in a good way. That’s impressive, that’s really good. When I owned the veterinary clinic, we would have this holiday party, and there was a Secret Santa just like every little business does, and there was this terror going around of who is going to get the boss. So, I made it very clear that if someone drew my name, what I wanted was something made out of either a sweet potato, or a pumpkin. And left it open at that. And it became a weird contest over the years. So, they would…one person grew a plant over the course of a whole year. It was a sweet potato grown into this beautiful flower, gave it to me. I got crock pots of soup, I got baked goods, they went just nuts.
RD: That’s nice.
DTD: It was a really fun group, I enjoyed that a lot.
RD: How long did you own that?
DTD: 15 years? Maybe a little longer. Somewhere right around there. And this is…I am really, really jealous that you’ve got the job that is the delight to do.
DTD: Sometimes. But I grew up, my dad never considered himself having a job. He would wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Because that was what he loved to do. And it didn’t matter if it was a holiday, or a weekend, or anything like that. It was just what he loved to do. So he did it. And that was the kind of job I always searched for. And certainly, in veterinary medicine, it was that for a while, but when it stopped being that, I kind of retired and did other stuff.
RD: My job flutters around that. The thing that gets in the way of that is monetization. Right, I got this Return to Dark Tower Kickstarter in 4 days. I am not sleeping well.
Don’t worry, naïve Rob of the past. It did well. It did very well.
DTD: I am sorry to hear that.
RD: Now on the one hand, if it totally bombs, I have serious doubts about the future of Restoration. Just because we have invested so much time and money into the game.
DTD: I have trouble seeing that.
RD: Right, I’m not saying it’s going to bomb.
DTD: But your definition of bombed might be different than mine.
RD: Right, there’s a gradient. It’s actually bombing, doing very well, or fine. The worst case scenario is it does just well enough that we fulfill it, pay back everything, then turn around and go, “Oh, we have $80,000 in the corporate coffers after 3 years of work. We would have been better off selling donuts.” That is the worst case scenario, is that middle ground.
DTD: Yeah, the grey zone answer is always the bad one.
RD: Like, I want this thing to come out and tank, or—I’m not saying I’m going to retire, but be like, “OK, now we are a real company. We got enough money in the bank.” Anything in the middle is just going to be like, “Well now what? Because that was exhausting. That was three years.” And to be fair, I love the game, and I didn’t love it for a long time.
DTD: Well that’s really good to hear. I have always thought it would be difficult to still love a game after banging your head against it for years.
RD: You go through a phase…I’ve learned, when you say, “I hate this f—ing game”, you are almost done. Either you’re going to punch through and love it, or you’re going to realize, “I am never going to get this done.” But either way, when you are like, “I hate this, this stupid game, it’s never going to work.” You’re like, “Oh! Here we are.”
DTD: Magic moment.
RD: There’s a magic moment sometime in the next couple weeks, because when you hate it, you start making more radical decisions out of spite, you stop being safe. “Lets get rid of all these cards; why do we even need that, anyway?” You start making very loud decisions, and you either kill it, or you go…you hit that magic thing where you go, “Whoah!” Just get rid of these things. Like that action system of what you chose to do in Return to Dark Tower vexed us for a year. And finally, I don’t remember what it was, October-ish, very recently…we had all the pieces, but they weren’t fitting. Its like having a jigsaw puzzle. You end up putting the same 10 pieces together and they don’t fit, and finally you realize one of them is upside down. It’s that type of thing. It doesn’t matter what you were going to do, you’re like “Oh!”, and then it just starts clicking.
DTD: Now it’s golden.
RD: And the action system was…I’m trying to think what we…there’s a couple things. One, we said there’s 12 doors, there’s 12 seals, a seal will break a month, we have 12 months to do it. That was too long. Each game month was taking too long. When you shorten a game month, and you can do less, people were like, “Well, that’s all I can do?” So, we wanted to do more in a month, but that’s what led to a long game. So then at some point we said it’s 6 months. Ta-da!
DTD: Why not?
RD: And we were like, why do we need it to be 12 months? Because there’s 12 doors? It was something that felt like it was a rule, and instead it was a…
The waiter snuck in to take the ruined carnage of our flatware, and hide the evidence of our gluttony.
DTD: Thank you that was incredible.
RD: This has all been very good. That pumpkin mole is amazing, do you know what’s in that? Pumpkin and spices, I know.
Waiter: I can ask the chef.
RD: I’m just kind of curious. I couldn’t figure out, on your turn we wanted you to be able to do certain things. But we kept struggling. And then we had action cards, which might have been if you played it, like at GenCon.
DTD: I think I had action cards.
RD: So, there were certain things, like are you going to cleanse skulls off the board, or are you going to fight. And you had a deck. And there was this fascinating thing where people would want to do something in a turn and not have the cards. We gave you an escape valve, because we said we don’t want it to be, “Oh there’s a monster that’s going to kill a building, and if it kills it, you’re going to lose.” So, we need a way to cycle your hand, but at a great cost. So, like a Hail Mary, like ‘we gotta, it’s worth it.’ And that kind of had to be in there, because we didn’t want people to go, “Well, we lost because I didn’t have the right cards, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
DTD: I can’t do anything, so it’s over.
RD: “I can’t do anything about it”—that’s a really dumb way to lose. So we put that in, and I noticed everyone who played, every turn, would cycle their hand two or three times to do the one thing they wanted to do. No matter if it was the right thing, no matter if it was the best thing.
DTD: There was one thing they wanted.
RD: There was one thing they wanted to do, and if they couldn’t do it, they were going to use the game to get to the one thing they wanted to do, even if it meant losing.
Ever diligent, the waiter returned from his life threatening mission, across enemy lines, and delivered the crucial information that could make or break our very lives!
Waiter: It’s going to be bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, onion garlic, pumpkin of course, and chocolate.
RD: And what’s the heat, though?
Waiter: The heat? That’s just…he didn’t tell me about the heat, he just said those ingredients.
RD: Yeah, those are all the warm spices around, which are lovely. It was like a pumpkin pie, which you described, but then dried peppers or fresh peppers…but thank you.
Bravely, the soldier returns to the field.
RD: And so finally, flipping the puzzle piece over and saying “I don’t care anymore”—
DTD: Let them pick?
RD: I’m like, “Here are the things you can do in a turn. Just do them. Pick one. You can do any of them, just pick them.” But it was interesting, because there were 10 cards, and each player had a different deck. And you were better at fighting, so you’re battle cards had like…one of your battle cards had this cool moment…
DTD: And when I played it, it ended up being very divided. There was one person who was fighting everything, one who was building everything.
RD: So, we just said, “OK, you can do anything on your turn, but you have a little power called a virtue, and if you do that, you’re better, which is your fight action.” So, every turn you can do your cool fight action. Once through your deck.
DTD: That’s your character, that’s your power.
RD: Because people were like, “I have this one cool fight card, and I’m going to cycle my deck so I can use it every turn.” I’m like, “Fine. Just do it every turn.” And I remember I…I remember getting very frustrated, getting a glass of wine. I went to start cooking, I started working with my hands, which would let me think in a different way, and then went back and suddenly just started putting up on the Slack—THERE ARE NO ACTION CARDS. You can do this, you can do on a turn anything, and the rest of them were like, “What is happening?” And then, “Are you sure?” And I said, “No. This is either going to kill it or make it great.”
DTD: At that point had you already set up the Kickstarter date? Because you were saying this was like October.
RD: No, we knew it wasn’t October. It had originally been October, and I said it is not ready.
DTD: No, you were saying you did this change in October.
RD: Yeah, the game we had wasn’t bad. It was fine. I don’t want fine. I don’t want to ask people to raise millions of dollars on “not bad.” So, one of the things I think Matt [Leacock] has said about me is I can be like a dog with a bone. When we are tired, and he is like, “It’s good enough,” I’m like “No it’s not. It is not good enough. There’s something missing.” And I will sit with it, and I will sit with it, and sometimes I am like, “OK, it is good enough.” But every once in while…
DTD: But then you will go back to it?
RD: No, sometimes I will let it go, and sometimes I am like, “OK, I finally, after weeks of kind of vaguely grousing, can articulate the problem.” And then when I articulate it, Matt goes, “Oh yeah, that is an issue.” But it’s one of those things that I can’t quite put my finger on until it happens.
Hail the conquering hero! Proudly he approaches the table, confident in the quality of his hard earned information, despite the high cost. Many Bothans died to bring us this information.
Waiter: It is ancho and guajillo peppers.
RD: There we go. Thank you. Appreciate it.
DTD: That’s the guajillo that was talking. Because the ancho isn’t too intense.
RD: Ancho will give you just that smokiness, and guajillo will give you the heat. And then its bay leaf, chocolate, cinnamon…?
DTD: [pointing to the recorder] It’s on tape…
Bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, onion garlic, pumpkin of course, and chocolate.
DTD: [laughing] Get in trouble for that…bay, clove…
RD: Yeah, its pumpkin pie with peppers.
DTD: Which is awesome! I love it.
RD: And pureed, not thickened with anything. No cream cheese, no…that’s pumpkin cheesecake; I make a great pumpkin cheesecake. Its just the Cook’s Illustrated one, but it’s good.
DTD: Now I’m hungry for pumpkin cheesecake. Oh, we were talking about the change in Dark Tower, but I think we came to the end of that story.
RD: I think we did. I mean, every game…
DTD: So, what recent games have you played that have really impressed you?
RD: So, it’s interesting, I don’t play nearly enough games, partly because I’m too busy.
DTD: Well, sure.
RD: Because whenever I have a free moment and people want to play a game, I am like, “Oh, I have a prototype.” Designer syndrome.
DTD: I hear this answer a lot. [laughs]
RD: I like to say that Santa’s elves work Christmas Eve. Like, someone has to not be playing the games, and working at games conventions. So that 100,000 other people can enjoy games. And I don’t mind doing it, because I’m not…I am compensated fairly well now.
DTD: But what are your thoughts on just plain research? Do you think that it helps the design process to be able to see the jillion weird things other people are doing?
RD: It does. Absolutely. Every time I play games, I am like, “Why don’t I play more games?” This is just feeding the toolbox of how to do stuff.
DTD: And some of the big German designers actually will send scouts to the meetings. And say, “Find me what’s interesting and then tell me about it.”
RD: I will do that with my friends. I will contact my friends who are bloggers, or who curate games, or who play a lot of games, and ask, “What are 10 games from last year I need to play?” And they will name them, and I’m like, “OK, I have played 2 of those. Let me order the other 8.” And even ones you think I wouldn’t like, but I should know about. Like, I still haven’t played Root. And it’s on my list. I need to play that one. Now I may play that one.
DTD: It’s a better Vast.
RD: Now, I loved Vast. Or, I liked it. I liked it a lot.
DTD: I really liked Vast after I failed to play it successfully about 5 times.
RD: Because you played poorly?
DTD: Its so hard to learn. It’s the learning curve. And I played poorly. But now I think its amazing, the way they all, all the parts work together.
RD: All the asymmetry and stuff. No, I remember when he did Vast, and I went up to him, and I played it. And I went up and I said, “OK, I know what you did, because I have tried to do this. And I recognize how hard it was. And I honestly think there’s not a lot of people on the planet who recognize what you just did, and it’s amazing.”
Vast is the board game equivalent of musical counterpoint. Every player is playing a different game with different rules and different goals. Yet they all work well with each other. Absolutely fascinating, and incredibly difficult to design. Hat’s off to you, Patrick Leder and David Somerville.
DTD: I have spoken to them about it, and just the amount of iterations and play tests he has done is mind-boggling, just to get the different systems to work. Just mind-blowing. And Root, I think, is a simplified form, which is a good thing. And a more competitive form. Because Vast, you can kind of play your own way, and if you play well, its not so much that you are playing competitively against the others, its that you are playing well. And Root is, I think, more inherently competitive.
RD: Its interesting, as I get older, I want less and less games that are like, “F you” to someone.
DTD: I don’t do take-that games anymore, and I really love the multiplayer-solitaire Euro games.
RD: I have loved multiplayer cooperative games and story games and games with a little bit of friction. I just played Lords of Waterdeep again, and I like the racing-is-rubbing in that. It’s a little of, “Oh, what are you…you need a lot of warriors? I could use warriors or clerics right now. I am going to go for fighters.”
DTD: It’s my wife’s favorite game. It’s just enough.
RD: It’s just enough where the other person, you can kind of cut into their lane and piss them off without it being…I did a lot of Risk, without a lot of…, “[mocking] What, are you crying? Are you crying, are you crying because I just did that?”
DTD: [laughing] I was always the quiet, introverted, not in-your-face person, so the super-competitive games didn’t do it for me. I didn’t want to be in your face, and I actually just got dragged into a game of the new Dune. Oh, and that is as in your face as you can possibly get.
RD: Yeah, I don’t have an interest in playing a game. I don’t actually like Dune as an IP.
DTD: I love the IP. The game…meh.
RD: It’s a love-it-or-hate-it game. But it’s long. It’s a long game to get in the middle and realize, “This isn’t the game for me.” Because you can’t just exit. Some games actually have an escape chute. Like there’s some games where if a player says, “I don’t want to play this anymore,” and they just leave the table, the game is fine. You could leave a Pandemic game, and say, “I’m going to divide my cards amongst you.”
DTD: And it will work.
RD: And OK, and it keeps going. But in a game where, like, it’s a 3-hour game and you’re 40 minutes in, and go, “This isn’t a game for me, but I’m going to ruin everyone else’s game if I leave.”
DTD: It’s terrible. I do a once a year little convention in Santa Rosa, usually about 30-35 people. And there actually…I’m getting old, I know I am. This year there were actually 2 games that I just left, I just quit out of, I couldn’t handle it anymore. That was Dune at the end, and another one, that 5 hours in it still looked like we were in round one. It’s like, “I’m done.”
RD: What game was it?
DTD: It was On Mars. New Vital Lacerda. Really heavy, and we were not playing it correctly. Its one of these games that relies on all the players doing the right things for the game to progress, and we didn’t. So, the game never progressed.
RD: So, it was just waiting for you to do it right?
DTD: The game was waiting for us to do it right, and we never did. There’s a market where you get items, and it had emptied, and there’s an event tracker that’s waiting for you to use the items, and we never did. So, nothing moved, and it went on and on and on.
RD: It’s interesting how much variance there is in games. How much is the designer going to control, how much is the player going to control? How much friction is there between players? I am giving a talk next week. I have it in my head; it’s a talk I gave at Hasbro, but I don’t have the…the presentation on a backup hard drive, I may have the presentation that I can crib from. Of all the steps between pure competitive and pure cooperative, and there’s like 15 to 20 gradients.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome.
RD: Like, Monopoly, would you say, what’s the competitive level?
DTD: On Monopoly, I’d say it’s about halfway, because you are mostly doing your own thing.
RD: Right, it’s a little isolated. But you have to trade; trading is cooperative. So, there it’s…individually, the actions I take don’t usually affect you. I can’t take an action that will directly affect you other than if I buy a property that you want. But when I land on a property, the smart move is to buy it.
DTD: Now, are you talking popular rules or auction rules? [laughing]
RD: Auction rules. Real rules. So, if I land somewhere, and I get the third thing [property], yes its going to affect you, but it’s a smart thing to do anyway to block you. Its not like I had 4 good choices and I picked…
DTD: You didn’t ruin my game.
RD: Well, and its not like I had 4 good choices, and 3 of them directly help me and are better, and the fourth one sort of helps me but screws you. Its like, “Do I buy this,” which is smart. Or do I put it up for auction, which is not smart.
RD: Right, so you are going to it, but then we have to cooperate and find common ground for the game to move forward, which a lot of people don’t do, which is one of the reasons it goes forever. Scrabble is actually more competitive.
DTD: I believe that.
RD: Scrabble is a territory acquisition game that happens to use letters for troops. If you are not playing the bonus points on the board, you are not playing right.
DTD: You have to understand Friedemann went on for like 20 minutes about how his trivia games were worker placement.
RD: What is his trivia game?
DTD: Fauna, Terra, and America. Those three he did with Bezier. And they kind of are.
RD: I didn’t know America was his game. It didn’t begin with an ‘F’.
DTD: Well those three don’t. Well, Fauna does, but there was Terra and America. I asked him about that, and he was a little defensive.
RD: Even Power Grid is FF in German.
DTD: Yeah, Funkenschlag. He actually, his very first game is called Landlord, and even in German it doesn’t begin with F. So, there’s a couple of outliers. But he doesn’t like to talk about it [laughs]. I tried to write my articles only using F’s for the interviews I did with him. It didn’t quite work.
RD: It’s tough.
DTD: My comments and my titles and my lead-ins only have F’s.
My hero returns with the spoils of war. The desserts.
Waiter: Corn clafouti and the kulfi.
DTD: Wow, thank you. Man.
RD: What is this again? Corn scented meringue, corn cream, yuzu ice cream. I don’t know what the red is. Looking for the clafouti in there too.
DTD: I’m not really sure what that is.
RD: What I’m eating?
DTD: No, the “clafouti.”
RD: Clafouti is like a cousin of a crepe. It’s a puffier crepe. Its traditionally done with cherries. It’s a central French dish. You take cherries and you put them in a batter, and instead of just frying like a really thin crepe, you put it in the oven, so it puffs a little bit, so its this thick, studded with cherries and sugar and stuff.
DTD: It’s a pancake, but slow cooked.
RD: It’s not quite a pancake. It has that eggy crepe taste that a pancake doesn’t have. There’s a mixture between dairy, egg and flour, that depending on the ratio will give you a cake or a clafouti, or the thickest one is like, something weird, like a pastry cream. But its not that. These three things, depending on how much starch you put in, to dairy to egg, makes it behave differently. Ooh, that’s good, I love corn as a sweet.
DTD: I was going to say, so the restaurant in…the house in Santa Rosa, in Napa Valley, we belong to a social club, an eating club that’s right next door. And they’ve done some really interesting things when corn is in season, when the summer corn is around. And my wife got addicted, they do for breakfast they do pancakes with corn in them, whole kernel, sweetened with the corn, and its…they are really delightful. We look forward to it each summer.
RD: Yeah, I’ve made corn ice cream.
DTD: I’ve had that.
RD: With a, what was it, not just a caramel, a toffee brittle. That’s just really…it’s weird for some people, but I love corn pudding.
DTD: Corn pudding is awesome.
RD: I like a really northern corn bread. I’m still trying to find the clafouti in here.
DTD: Or a corn pone.
RD: The southern corn bread, which is thinner and has less sugar, is more of a savory. The northern one which is sugary and raised and sweeter.
DTD: A spoonbread?
RD: Yeah, or even just a regular corn bread, but a spoon bread is amazing too. One of my favorite breakfasts, and I’m a diabetic so I can do it less and less as I get older…I couldn’t do it in general, but as I get older my metabolism slows down, it gets harder. Cut a piece of corn bread in half, pan fry it in butter and put maple syrup on it, on like a cold morning, like a November morning, October morning.
DTD: Just put some liver in there and you’ve got scrapple.
RD: I don’t make fun of your gods.
DTD: [laughs] So you’ve had scrapple.
RD: I used to live in Philly.
DTD: I thought Philly kind of poo-poo’ed scrapple, that it was more country, more Appalachia.
RD: No, they have it in there. I’m always like, it’s all the stuff that wasn’t good enough for sausage.
DTD: Put into corn bread.
RD: Or just as a patty or something. Its just like a hash.
DTD: A weird pâté. I’ve got, one of my best friends from high…
RD: I found the clafouti—it’s over here [pointing].
DTD: Oh, I see it.
RD: Like a thin little cake. It’s a little…I think clafouti is…its like they always bust people on Top Chef for something; if you call it something, you have expectations. It’s just a thin little cake. Calling it clafouti made me expect one thing that it’s not.
DTD: Whatever happened to Top Chef? It was so good when it started, and then every cooking show just turned to drek.
RD: Its OK. Its not as good as it was, but its OK. This season that is going to be coming out in a couple months is better. It’s a best-of. I can see the hands of the producers saying, “We need more bombast. We need more eyeballs. We need more hot reality TV moments.”
DTD: And that’s why I like the British Baking Show. There’s none of that.
RD: Oh my gosh, do I love that. No, its true. I put out a tweet this fall that said, “Future historians just watch Great British Baking Show. This is as good as we got.”
DTD: It is a great show. I look forward to it whenever it comes. I actually learn things from that.
RD: I learn things from a lot of them, but that one, that one is a mixed bag because it makes me want to go bake a lot, and I just can’t have that much sugar.
DTD: That’s tough.
RD: So, I see it and go, “Mmmrr, mmrr, mmrr, OK.”
DTD: Have you played with miracle berries at all?
RD: Once. It was fun.
DTD: It’s a blast, we do that…
RD: Do you want any of this? Its quite delicious. I’m just watching my insulin.
DTD: Not for me. I’m, this is an absolutely incredible, super dense…
RD: What is it?
DTD: It’s an Indian sweet with chocolate in it.
RD: Salted caramel, pistachio, caramel. Yeah, very different. The berries in this, I don’t know what they are.
DTD: I’ve got berries, too. They are just nice blackberries, looks like. Or are they Marions? We don’t do berries out here [California] as well as you do them on the East Coast.
RD: Yeah, we do berries very well, I can’t place what it is, because I don’t eat a lot of them. If its cherry, it’s a real cherry, a subtle cherry. Its not like a cherry cough syrup cherry.
DTD: We’ve got, in my yard, a weird plum tree that every Californian has in their yard. It makes these little cherry plums about this big [a few inches], and they tell kids all the time, “Don’t eat them.” So, we’ve all been around them, and think these are poison or something. Until the guy who does my yard asked me if he could take buckets of my cherries home. So, I started eating them, and they are super sour, little tiny intense plums. They are black. I looked them up and they are called “Thundercloud.” I love the names they have for cultivars.
RD: It sounds like some sort of port that the Macintosh just put on the side of their laptops.
DTD: But as I get old, I’ve started making jams and jellies and ice creams and sorbets, and all that fun stuff. So, what’s next for Rob Daviau? You said you’re not going to tell me any of your future projects.
Next time, on our final installment of “Daviau at Dinner”, we talk about hometown nostalgia, the stress of Kickstarters and some good old fashioned skit comedy.