It’s a beautiful morning in the Caribbean as renowned game designer Glenn Drover and I break our fast off the coast of Cozumel on my private yacht. Well, to be honest, it is the Dice Tower Cruise, and I do not own this 4370 passenger cruise liner. The part about Glenn Drover, though is true. Glenn was the original founder of Eagle Games, went on to start Forbidden Games, and is the designer of classics Empires: Age of Discovery and Raccoon Tycoon. And he is stuck on a boat with me, bereft of escape.
The story starts with an enormous amount of grunting and complaining, as I lower my body into a chair at an obscenely early hour. When I finish settling in, Glenn looks understandably concerned I may not have the energy for the interview.
DTD: Yeah, I thought we would both just veg out at the table, look at the ocean, and maybe nap a little bit.
GD: Oh my gosh. Yesterday was a good day though. We enjoyed Cozumel, how about you?
DTD: I am terrible, I haven’t gotten off the boat yet.
GD: Oh, all right.
DTD: I’ve done the cruise a bunch of times, and I tend to just be the indoor gamer sort of guy.
Come on, I am on a floating, air-conditioned, luxury hotel with 24-hour food and constant pampering. There is a gaming room with an enormous library of all the new hotness. Why again would I go to a hot, humid, crowded coastal town in Mexico and walk around?
GD: There you go. That’s what’s cool.
DTD: Sun, heat and humidity. Not my favorite things in the world.
GD: Yeah, I live in Chicago, so getting away from winter is a big benefit.
DTD: The sun is this big bright one over here [pointing].
GD: We actually get the sun, and because there’s no clouds, all the heat leaves. And it’s freezing cold. But we have sun. It’s not like Seattle or anything.
My apologies, Seattle. We love you. Go Sea Hawks!
DTD: I’ve been in Chicago a couple times. I have a friend who went to graduate school down in Champagne-Urbana.
GD: Yeah, my wife went there.
DTD: We would hop up into Chicago. That’s what you did, where you went. Absolutely loved the city, but it was so cold.
GD: It is cold. It is freezing cold. And that’s why this time of year I’m like, “I can mix some gaming in with some sun. I’m good with that.”
DTD: That sounds great. That’s fantastic. And you guys, you sponsored the stingray thing.
Forbidden Games was kind enough to sponsor an excursion for many lucky Dice Tower cruisers, to pet sting rays. Freaking sting rays.
GD: We did.
DTD: That is awesome. That’s so nice of the company, of you guys.
GD: Well we love the Dice Tower, we want to support them, and this is one of their things that they need our support. We love Tom. I’ve been working with Tom for twenty, almost twenty years. In various ways. When he was just getting started, back from Korea, he was starting to do reviews. Actually, we shipped some early Eagle game things to Korea when he was still there.
We all love Tom.
DTD: That’s awesome, he talks about trying to get the games shipped out there. And they’re such great stories about what arrives, and what doesn’t, and how long things take.
GD: I’m sure it was crazy. Yeah, it’s been a long time. So, yeah. We want to support him.
DTD: So, you started Eagle Games. A day or two ago.
GD: I did. Yeah, a day or two ago. God, the entire lives of all my children ago.
DTD: That’s really weird to think about things like that. My kids are in their twenties, and I’m talking about games that came out before they were born.
GD: Yeah, totally.
DTD: So how did Eagle come about? What was the story there?
GD: So, I had… I was finishing a stint with Activision. I was with them for 5 years, from 1995-2000. And I was trying to think of what my next thing would be. And up to that point, I had spent my career on the business side. Even though I was a game designer, I had never gotten anything published. And I was like, “Man, I really would like to …”
DTD: But you were playing with making designs and playing with, “If I made a game, I would do this and I would do that.”
GD: Yeah, right. I had designs that I liked, and I was playing around with. And I was just like, “I am tired of sales.” Because it’s just the same cycle year in year out. You are selling someone else’s stuff, and I thought, I’m going to try something on my own. And video games has a huge barrier to entry. It’s millions of dollars to create a game. Casual gaming came about later, so that didn’t exist in 1999. And I wanted to do game design. So, I am like, “How would that work? I guess it would have to be board games. I’ve got these board games, how would… What does that business look like?” So, we were in Minnesota for a year, doing an office for Activision, and I knew of this company Fantasy Flight. And I was just like, “Ill just pop over there, and see what they are doing, and chat with them.”
DTD: I thought Minnesota was leading to that.
GD: Yeah, so Christian Petersen was nice enough to give me 20 minutes, even though I just.. I had contacted, I forget how, I think I called over. And he said, “Yeah, if you come by, we can sit down for a few minutes, and I will tell you what I know.” So, we sat in his office, in the lobby, for like 20 minutes. I think it was in Roseville, and he said, “Here’s a book, and a Games Quarterly. Here’s another publication, here’s all the distributors that are in the business. When you have your game published, just contact these game distributors, and maybe they will carry it.” And I answered, “OK, cool. That sounds reasonable.” That’s similar to how the video game industry worked 10 years ago, when it was younger. Where it was a lot of distributors, and I was like, “I think I can handle this.” And so, I worked on creating the game designs with a graphic designer I knew back in Chicago. We moved back to Chicago, and we went to GAMA with our early prototypes, and some over-sized maps. There weren’t that many publishers back then. It wasn’t like it is today.
Games Quarterly Catalog was the respected resource for board games, published by Matthews Simmons Marketing, until it closed shop in 2007.
DTD: No, it’s really exploded.
GD: And so, I got a room and we had some meetings in the room. The guys from Esdevium came. The guys from Alliance came. The guys from ACD came, and they said, “Wow this stuff looks really great.”
DTD: What were you pitching at that point? What was the first one?
GD: The first two games, we worked on two kind of simultaneously. One was War! Age of Imperialism, which was an overly complex, fiddly, 1980s style design. Was nothing like modern European gaming.
DTD: [laughs] I know exactly what you mean by 1980s style.
GD: Right, you know, kind of that Milton Bradley, Axis and Allies sort of thing. And that was the idea. I was trying to make, remake that product line with tons of miniatures, and lots of fun strategy, and conquering, and fighting, and dice rolling. Which was fast becoming antiquated at that point, in 2000. The euro game explosion was starting, and I was going the other direction. With dudes on a map, and dice, and all that stuff. But anyway, the games were pretty. We had a good artist, Paul Niemeyer, who some beautiful maps and some other great art. And that one, and The American Civil War. Those were our first two. And the distributors loved it. They were like, “These big box, lots of miniatures, this is cool. People aren’t really doing this too much anymore.” And so, we launched those two games, and partnered up with some of the distributors, and had some success. Gamers loved them, because there were still a lot of “old glory” war gamers, and people who like those kind of games.
DTD: It’s really funny when I talk with people who have been playing games for a while. If you bring up Eagle, or you bring up Eagle-Gryphon, depending on how long they’ve been in games, they’ll say “Oh yeah, those war games are great”, or they’ll say “Oh yeah, I played…” and they’ll name one of… The wargame image was so strong with Eagle at that beginning phase.
GD: Right, but I quickly learned that those games were too long, too random, too fiddly, and the new games that were coming out, the new designs that were jump-started by Catan and Puerto Rico, and all those games. You know, the influence from Europe. I was like, “Wow, that is way better. You can have a really great gaming experience in an hour to 2 hours instead of 4-6.” And it’s much more compact, much less random, and luck driven. And you still have a lot of fun and you’re making lots of good decisions that affect the outcome. So, I was really smitten by that, and my designs turned that direction.
DTD: That’s really cool. Yeah, the European influence was just incredible at the time.
GD: It was.
DTD: I’ve said it for a long time, and actually, I got an interesting thing on it recently. I’ve always felt that designers when they first make games, they tend to make bigger, bigger, bigger. They add more stuff. Early designers add to their games, and late designers take away from their games.
DTD: Make it short, elegant. But it’s just occurring to me that the whole industry has also gone through this. Early in the industry, everybody added to their games, and what you wanted was a big huge complex, more rules, more parts, game. That was what was exciting.
GD: Right, I call them “everything and the kitchen sink”.
DTD: And right now in the industry, what everybody is looking for is that 30 minute, so elegant, wow that’s cool, almost no rules, game.
GD: Yeah, exactly.
DTD: So, it’s like the whole industry is following the trend that individual designers have followed.
GD: Yeah, you could say that one follows the other, back and forth. It’s reinforcing each other. Designers will follow what the consumer wants, and the consumer will do what’s popular. They are like, “That was a really great experience. I’ve done a game like that now.”
DTD: Do you think it’s a pendulum shift? Do you think it’s going to go back to more complicated war games?
GD: I don’t know, because I think it’s, there’s so many games, we have everything now.
DTD: Oh, the market is so full that we have a picky public now. I don’t know if they are grabbing everything that’s out there.
GD: Right, because the pendulum has swung in the direction of tons of product, so you can’t differentiate. The market no longer has a trend other than what’s new is hot. Right?
DTD: And that is so overwhelmingly powerful. People are forgetting games from half a year ago, from 3 months ago.
GD: It’s crazy.
DTD: You have to hype it like crazy as soon as it’s brand spanking new.
GD: Absolutely. There’s an embarrassment of riches. We are in a golden age if you are a consumer or a gamer in a way, but there’s almost too much to ever enjoy, and good games are being missed. I found a game, I don’t know 6 months to 9 months ago, called Kraftwagen.
DTD: Yeah, I know about Kraftwagen.
GD: And I love the game. And no one’s ever heard of it. I’m shocked you have.
DTD: I’m not the average consumer.
Translation: I am a game hog.
GD: Right. But yeah, most gamers are like, “No, never heard of it.” And it’s really, really good.
DTD: Kraftwagen V6, right? And it had that elegant, kind of front of car black and grey cover.
And I wasn’t even cheating and looking at the picture above when I said this!
GD: Exactly, exactly right.
DTD: It’s a cool game.
GD: It’s a really good game. Great theme, great mechanics. Plays in about an hour. I just really like it. And it’s better than about 90% of the games I play now. At our gaming club we do that game of the week thing, bring in that big Kickstarter with lots of miniatures, or bring in the newest hottest game. And I like some of them. But 8 out of 10 I am just disappointed in.
DTD: It’s true, there’s a lot that I bump into that are… They are not memorable, they don’t have a soul. One of the people I was playing with was talking about, every time I would bring a game over and ask about it, or “do you want to play this?” And he would look at it and go, “soulless.”
Shout out to you, Ilja.
GD: Yeah, I think that’s true in one way or another. Unmemorable. Yeah, it’s OK, right.
DTD: But we are such a picky consumer market now.
GD: For sure.
DTD: We’ve got choices of so many kinds of food, why would we eat this one?
GD: True. In a way, like I said, it’s a golden age. We have such great choices. But it’s almost like a bacchanal, where there’s so much food, that you’re just like, “That’s pedestrian. That’s not good, that’s garbage. Bring me the next thing.”
Bacchanal bac·cha·nal /ˈbäkənäl,ˈbakənäl,ˈbakənl/
noun 1. an occasion of wild and drunken revelry.
Bacchanal and pedestrian in one sentence. I love this loquacious gentleman.
DTD: I might have said “pedestrian” once or twice. I don’t know. So, going along those lines, because we’ve got such a weird market now, where people own many games, and have choices between thousands of games, it seems like a lot people have given up on designing games meant to be played multiple times. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems like your average consumer is playing games a couple times, and then moving to the next hotness.
GD: I agree.
DTD: So, do you design a game that is only to be played once or twice. Is that in the design process, is that in the mentality now?
GD: I hope not. Frankly, I think what drives a good number of games is will it do well on Kickstarter. Because that’s what’s driving the economics of the space.
DTD: I felt that people were backing off of Kickstarter a little bit at this point.
GD: I don’t know. I don’t see it. I see everyone who needs to anyway. Some publishers are lucky enough to not need to do that, but a lot of people, and new designers are forced to go there. They need that revenue to make the next game. And, that’s why I found a lot of these games that come into the club, they were games that were Kickstarted. And they’ve got all kinds of stuff, and gorgeous art, and gorgeous miniatures, and soulless gameplay. Or broken gameplay. So, they get played once.
DTD: The plus and the minus of it, is they are skipping that middle step. They are skipping the distributor and they are skipping the developer.
DTD: So, they have a passion project, someone who made the game they love. But there was no one over their shoulder that’s not their friend, saying, “You know… people won’t like that. And they will like this.”
GD: Right! I agree. I think it’s definitely…
DTD: I think that role of developer is becoming incredibly important.
GD: Yeah, I agree with that. I think that you certainly at least need feedback from a broader audience than the people that are on the project.
DTD: And everybody play tests with their friends.
GD: Right. I mean, we do that to an extent, but our group has been play testing for 20 years. And they are brutal to me.
DTD: They’ll say, “you know, this is garbage.”
GD: Yes, brutal to me. But then we do bring it out to larger and larger circles, as we get feedback from the Kickstarter audiences. We get feedback from the previewers and reviewers. Because the good thing about Kickstarter is that you get a longer feedback process during the development of the entire game. So, we do designs that generally take 2 or 3 years, so they are very well tested. They are very well developed and streamlined. We don’t just “kitchen sink” stuff. We actually take things out and pare down.
DTD: When I talk about “kitchen sink” designs, again, this is the early stuff. And everybody was doing that. I grew up on the Avalon Hill games, which had that thick rule book that was “rule number 188.8.131.52. B.”
GD: One hundred percent. Me too.
DTD: And it was all type written.
GD: I had over 100 Avalon Hill and SPI [Simulations Publications Incorporated] games. And I probably still have some in some boxes somewhere.
DTD: Alright, my favorite one from back in that day. I don’t know if you remember, you probably do. Freedom in the Galaxy.
GD: I still have it! I broke it out about 6 months ago, and was just like loving all the theme.
DTD: It is so big, and the theme is just dripping off of it. And it’s, well it’s a blatant rip off of Star Wars. You’ve got the bad guys with all their ships, and I think they even had masks, and they looked the same.
GD: There was a couple, yeah.
DTD: Good guys – there was a rogue scoundrel and a princess. And a large furry animal.
The big dog-alien was named Barca. Really, Barca.
GD: Definitely. It was an homage.
GD: It was! Because those guys just at the time they designed it, I think only the first movie was out. I don’t think anyone realized that it was going to become a giant thing. And they were just like, “Wow, that was a great experience! I want to create a game like that!”
DTD: I was such a Star Wars freak as a kid, as soon as I saw it I bought it. I probably set it up, read it, and drooled over it a hundred times more than I played it.
GD: For sure. I played it solo only.
DTD: Yeah, it took forever. But man, it was fun. I remember that board was so enormous. Well, I was not as large. But the board was enormous.
GD: [laughs] It was. It was the foldout cardboard, not backed. It was just a paper mat. But yes, it was so much fun. I still remember the concentric rings around the planet.
DTD: And they weren’t full rings, they were little half things for the orbitals. And you could be on the planet, or in orbit, or doing a mission, or having a ship, or this or that.
GD: Actually, that game influenced a game that I did for Eagle. We did a game that was a space version of Age of Empires III.
Next time, Glenn discusses more things Empires, both Ages and Rebellions. Plus, we we discover that to eat breakfast, one must sit where they actually serve breakfast.