Welcome back to my luxury cruise breakfast with designer Glenn Drover. In this installment, I am force-fed many, many pastries, we discuss play testing and the victims thereof, and we deep dive into auction mechanics and the development of Raccoon Tycoon. Plus the gravitas of poached eggs.
GD: It’s OK though, because I can say we have a game group and we play a new game every week. So, we will eventually get to do the things I want to do. Just maybe not always when I want.
DTD: Are you the guy in the game group who always brings the games, who secures the new hot stuff?
GD: Not at all. No, there’s…what I love about our group, is that there are some really devoted gamers and they bring games, they Kickstart games, and they supply most of the games. I bring a game maybe 1 out of 10 times.
DTD: So, it’s not a designer group?
GD: No, I’m the only designer in the group. But they are really devoted gamers. And really, again, they are part of the play test group, too. So they are harsh critics, because they have so much experience with what’s hot, what’s popular, what they like. And they…if my new design doesn’t measure up, they hammer me.
DTD: They’ll tell you.
GD: They’ll hammer it. And they will say, “It should be more like this.” or “It’s not doing that.” Or…
DTD: It’s those golden groups, they are really…
GD: Really helpful. They have a lot of experience.
DTD: That’s really nice, because I have talked to a lot of designers who essentially say, “I don’t get to play games, because anytime I get a group together, I have a prototype that I want to throw in front of them.”
GD: That’s foolish. Because then you’re not…
DTD: You burn out, you lose touch.
GD: For sure. It’s not fun anymore, for your group. They’re like, ”Well, every time we are with this guy, we have to work, and I’ll play a game that’s not finished.”
DTD: Burning out your group.
GD: Because playing a game that’s not finished is not always fun.
DTD: No, because you are looking for…those are the most exciting playtests, are when this really didn’t work, let’s go back.
GD: Right, but I think people get frustrated, because they want to play a game to completion and win. If you don’t let them do that, because it’s not working properly, they get frustrated. So, that’s what I find when I put an alpha on the table for the first time. Even from my experience, I have to remind them. I go, “This is not finished! This is going to be broken. You’re not going to have fun today. Today is work, you’re going to play this through, and I don’t even know what the end condition is. We are going to play to see if this is a viable mechanism to go to the next level.”
DTD: That’s really cool. And if you have the right people doing that.
GD: They are willing to do it. They are willing to do it. And it isn’t fun for gamers. Because, I think what draws people to gaming, is they want to have a cool, fun, experience. And if what they are experiencing isn’t fun, or isn’t…doesn’t let them win…Because gamers want to win. My gamers, anyway. They’re that type of gamers.
DTD: I’ve talked about it a lot; there’s three real kinds of gamers out there. And I have been playing games since, well you’ve heard, since Avalon Hill. And a lot of games. I have a big library, and I do probably 3 weekly game groups; I play a lot of games. But I’ve always found that there are gamers who want to explore the game, and they will get lost in the mechanics and the exploration, and sometimes win and often not. There are gamers who want to win…
GD: All of our guys want that.
DTD: And a lot of times their judgement of whether they like the game is based on whether or not they win.
DTD: And there’s gamers who just want to socialize. And they will lose track of what going on in the game, and if your game is too dry or has too much tracking stuff, they will forget it’s their turn, and things like that. And it’s fun seeing how all these different gamers all do that. I was…one of these [interviews] that I did, I was talking to Matt Leacock, and he said that for his play tests, he videotapes all of them, and the biggest thing that he is looking for is not how did they play, how did the game run, did it fail, did it succeed? He just watches their expressions. Where did they have fun? Where did they show that excitement face? And it’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of video that he will play at double or triple speed. And just looking for excitement levels.
GD: Interesting. Sometimes, depending on the game, what I find is, if I am watching a bunch of tables of gamer at a convention or whatever, sometimes the people who are having the most fun are those that look like this [straight, bored expression]. You can’t tell by expression.
DTD: No, no, no. Some of these games, though are…
GD: Really brain burners. And if the gamers are enjoying the fact that there’s…that it’s really intense, and that they need to focus. You’re not seeing fun on their face. But it’s in here [pointing to head]. Their brains are loving it, they’re going “Woooo!” So, it’s an interesting idea, depending on what kinds of games you’re making. If you are making a party game, if you are making that, you can see the joy.
GD: And it surprised me, because this is the Pandemic guy. And those aren’t the party, screaming, jump up and down kinds of games. They’re pretty thinky.
DTD: No, but cooperative is more social, you can see more going on. Whereas a lot of these, call them “heavy” games, are…this [makes a dull, thinky face] is the most enjoyment you’re going to get. You’re not getting [makes an ecstatic face]. Well, maybe at the end, if somebody wins. But the games we are currently making are lighter than that. They tend to be gateway, and so there’s…Pirates, especially, has a lot of that. Raccoon’s some of it. Pirates has a lot of that “Oooh! Aaah!”, because they are having fun doing their stuff.
GD: And Raccoon I’ve had a great time bring that out with new gamers. They really enjoy… The auctioning and the buying is light enough, that people have fun with it. And it’s got, a lot of these auction games, I like to think about how much swing you have in the money. Do you have a very tight economy, where I’m auctioning with you and I know that I’ve got 6 dollars, and you’ve got 7. And we position it just right. But Raccoon you can blow up into quite a bit of money, so you get this bigger swing, and the extreme of that is going to be Q.E. where the money economy is just absolutely broken. But that makes it ridiculously, almost party fun.
DTD: I like auction mechanic in economic games, because…
My favorite waiter, affectionately known as “donut guy”, brings back the basket of breakfast pastries.
GD: Can I have the cinnamon roll? Thank you very much.
DTD: More. Yes, yes, yes. I will do the cinnamon roll as well. That looks great. Thank you so much.
GD: The reason I wanted it for that game was, and I didn’t totally appreciate the great player interaction part of the benefit, but the reason I liked it mechanically is, it’s a self-correcting mechanism for money supply. You don’t have to change the cost of things as the game goes on. Some games, they have one price at one part of the game, and then they change it as the game goes on, because the money supply gets so big. And if you don’t adjust those prices, then everything is too cheap.
DTD: Then you can control that either with controlling the money supply or controlling how many rounds.
DTD: You know, you have a four-round game, because in the fifth round everybody would have a billion dollars.
GD: Right, and auctions are self-correcting in the sense that the more supply of money, the higher the prices. So, it solves… it’s self-solving. And that’s why I put it in there, because I am like, “OK, as people are ramping up their engines and getting more money, it’s really… it’s very exciting and fun. But now you’ve got tons of money, and if the price is stagnant, nothing matters.” And so, the auction was the natural solution to that. But it also turns out that it’s really fun. Players love the back and forth, and force somebody to run the price up on that guy – he’s going to win, I don’t want that thing.
DTD: But I’m going to make him pay. And then you get that backlash on it, that I’ve driven it on something I don’t want to make you pay, and all of a sudden, I have to buy it.
GD: And that’s fun. And it’s tense. You get to that “Is he serious, is he not serious? Does he really want that?”
DTD: I love that. The other mechanism that’s in there that I really love, is the changing market with supply and demand. And the cards I think really deal with it nicely, but I’ve always loved these games where, the more you sell this good, the more the price drops. You wait for the price to get up a lot, then you dump a whole bunch of it, then everybody else has a cheap price on it. But it brings more of it back into the market. [Clans of] Caledonia has a wonderful little mechanism for that. Those are great for economic, stock market, resource collection games.
DTD: And Raccoon I think does it at a very nice level. And it matches all the rest of the game. And I gotta tell you, that artwork is absolutely gorgeous. You knocked it out of the park on that.
GD: Thanks. Her name is Annie Stegg, and I wanted the theme of the game to be anthropomorphic animals. And this was before Root came out, and it just so happens both of our games came out with those things similar.
DTD: But Anthropomorphic animals have been done for a very, very long time. And I never even thought to compare art style in Root and you guys.
GD: Well, they don’t compare, they’re very different.
DTD: You’ve got Victorian elegant animals, come on.
GD: Oil painting.
DTD: 1800s oil painting animals.
GD: But they came out in a similar time frame. And there hadn’t been a big anthropomorphic animal game I don’t think, in a bit.
DTD: Yeah, they have been a bit scattered about.
GD: Right, and so, I wanted that. I just had that idea right from the get-go, because I thought, “Oh that will just have such a nice look and feel quality to it, but it will also be approachable.” And the whole idea of all these games in this line is “gateway, approachable, but with some depth”. So, we wanted that, and I actually took it to Eagle, because I wasn’t going to start my own publishing company again.
DTD: Oh, I didn’t realize that Raccoon predated Forbidden [Games].
GD: It did. I mean, we worked on Pirates and Raccoon for 2+ years before we even started the company. I tried to license those games, so I offered Pirates to IELLO, and I offered Raccoon to Eagle, and they both liked them, but they were both very busy – they had lots of other things going on. And so ultimately IELLO, at the time though it had a Jules Verne theme, not a Pirates theme, and they said “Yeah, we just did a Jules Verne game, so no thanks.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you could change the theme!” They said, “No, we are good.” And then Eagle said, “We don’t like this theme. We want to put a space theme on it, and it will be like a Space Truckers kind of thing.” And I was like, “Ew, ick.” And so, neither deal worked, so I was like, “I guess I am publishing this myself.” Which is very doable these days.
DTD: And congratulations, I am assuming it was successful.
GD: Oh yeah.
DTD: I know lots of people who got it.
GD: We are still ramping up, because with a gateway product, the potential audience is very large. And those games aren’t really aimed target spot-on in a gamer community, because people feel they are too light. A lot of gamers are like, “Well that’s not for me. That’s for someone else. That’s for Mom and Pop, that’s for newbies.”
DTD: I think that market is changing dramatically. I think that gamers, as connoisseurs, are looking really hard at elegance.
GD: Some are, that’s for sure.
DTD: They’re looking for short, sweet. And those overlap with the gateway games of people who just want to have fun and have heard of this new boom of board games.
GD: It’s very true, but…and most people who have played Raccoon and Pirates have loved it. Even gamers. But there’s this group of gamers, that basically if you ask them, “Hey have you heard of this or played it?” They are like, “Yeah I’ve heard of it, but it’s not really for me. I don’t really like gateway games. Those are too fluffy for me.”
DTD: [laughs] Haven’t we gotten condescending?
GD: Right? But again, there’s so many games. If Raccoon had shipped 15 years ago, everybody would have it. Because there were fewer games.
DTD: I disagree. I think if Raccoon had hit 15 years ago, it would have had more backlash from the game community about the lightness. I think acceptance of lighter games…
Our waiter should be canonized for his constant offerings of coffee, toast, cake and pastries. I truly enjoy being fed and pampered. I would denote how many donuts I had consumed at this point, but honestly, I have lost track.
DTD: [through pastry laden breath] Like I was saying, I think acceptance of lighter, even gateway, is going up tremendously. I think that gamers were much more, I would say “snooty” about “I want a gamer game, I want complexity.” And that, I think is going down.
DTD: That’s true. And they were very good. You know, I hear that Carcassonne sold one or two. They should make an expansion or a sequel to that!
GD: Right! [laughs] Wouldn’t that be great?
Carcassonne has had some 50 expansions, both tiny and sizable, more than 10 base game special editions, and another score variant games.
DTD: That would be awesome. Maybe Star Wars.
Including that one.
GD: Looking for salt. I don’t think we have any cruets on our table.
cru·et /kro͞oət/ noun
1. a small container for salt, pepper, oil, or vinegar for use at a dining table.
How can you not love this guy? Every episode comes with a fantastic word!
DTD: It wasn’t in there?
GD: We will just wait until the guy comes forward.
I know you are concerned, dear reader, so I will let you know that we borrowed salt from some very kindly people at the next table.
GD: Did you want it?
DTD: No, no I’m good. I’m doing well. I really do think that gamers are looking harder at lighter games, and the market is kind of bearing that. There’s been successive… Century, Reef. Even look at Foundations of Rome. It’s an exceedingly simple game, but it’s got an elegance, it’s got a complexity through simplicity. I’m doing simple actions for a complex strategy.
GD: Right, the complexity is in making sure you’re maximizing your scoring.
DTD: And I think there’s a golden age of that now. And part of that I think is the competition. I apologize; I’ve thought about this a lot.
GD: Yeah, yeah. Interesting.
DTD: There’s so many games that the competition is driving out things that are too hard to learn, too hard to remember, or don’t give you that “Wow!” feeling. A simple game that does neat combos will definitely give you this mind-blown “wow” feeling. OK, we need to talk poached eggs.
DTD: It is the only way to eat an egg. Is a poached egg.
GD: It is, of course. A civilized man eats a poached egg.
DTD: A civilized man eats a poached egg. Because he’s a little tired of soft boiled, or his egg cups are all dirty. So, a perfect poach, though – slightly thick yolk. Solid, tight white. Don’t taste the vinegar from the boil. You agree with all that?
I am very serious about my eggs. This is important.
DTD: Have you gone to the sous vide egg?
GD: No, what is it?
DTD: Oooh, that’s the evolution of a civilized man’s poached egg. Sous vide is a way of cooking, where instead of time you use exact temperature. So, it’s a water bath set to an exact temperature. And you put food into it and just leave it for as long as you want to let it equilibrate. So, you set a sous vide to, I think it’s 145 degrees, put eggs in there and leave them for a couple hours. And when you pull them out, the entire egg is cooked at 145 [degrees F], which is kind of a perfect poach.
GD: Interesting, I will have to look into it. Because we have a microwave poacher, but I don’t like it very much. But it does it better than I can. It’s very challenging to poach an egg correctly.
No good egg comes out of a microwave.
DTD: I’ll tell you how I do it at home. Food is important to me [laughs]. Get a very hot pan, throw an egg into it. It will start to turn solid. Once the bottom has gone white, just a little, pour water next to it in the pan, and put a lid on it. I use a glass lid, and as soon as the top of the egg goes white, it’s done. So, it a cheater way but it takes 2 minutes and I’ve got a poached egg.
GD: If it’s working well. Because doing it the traditional way can be challenging.
DTD: Oh, swirling the water, and… I tend to just make egg drop soup.
GD: It happens more often than not. But this [pointing to dish] is a very nice poached egg. I like food, and when I go out to eat with my wife, I’ll almost always get something with a poached egg for breakfast. And she will just stare at me, and say “Is it a good poached egg…?” And give me a really patronizing look. Sorry, you’ve scored serious points by ordering a poached egg.
DTD: [laughs] That’s funny.
GD: Now if you had ordered it coddled, I would have sat up and taken notice.
DTD: I’m not that persnickety. As long as they make it well, poached is fine.
GD: That’s delightful. So, you play a lot of games, which I think is fantastic. I think designers should do that, like you said earlier. Has there been a recent one that has really just made you sit up and take notice? A recent mechanism or game that really excited you?
DTD: That’s a good question.
GD: I tell you, for me, it was a little under the radar. I have been following Cranio pretty closely; I really like their designers and I like their games. They’ve been putting out really neat stuff. They did Masters of the Renaissance, the Lorenza il Magnifico Card Game, and that is the full title.
Masters of Renaissance, to be pedantic. ‘The’ is overrated.
DTD: That’s funny.
GD: And a lot of the apps for tracking will take the full title and shrink it so it fits on the screen. It turns into a font so small you can’t even read it.
GD: That’s funny.
DTD: It sounded like it wasn’t going to be very good, and it sounded like the design…card game version of this really heavy euro, and sometimes those work and sometimes those don’t. But Ill be honest, it really impressed me. It has a couple mechanisms in there that are magnificent.
GD: I’ll have to find it.
DTD: It’s in the library. But that was one…
GD: Il Magnifico.
DTD: Well, he is Magnifico. It’s Lorenzo, but you know which one? The magnificent one.
GD: The magnificent one.
DTD: Yes. [laughs]
GD: So, of course, the mechanisms are magnificent.
DTD: They were! And it has marbles, come on. All of us kind of want to go back and play with marbles. Physicality, that’s the other big thing in board games right now. You want to play with something chunky, and physical and toy-like.
GD: Right, toys.
DTD: But we don’t want to be fooled. So, there’s always that game, where there are toys in it, and chunky bits in it…
GD: That don’t apply to the game.
DTD: That don’t apply to the game, and then you feel like you’ve been duped. So was there a newer game that you just found that interesting elegance in, or… I’ve been saying elegance too much.
GD: No, no, no. I think it’s a good word to describe something that’s efficient yet joyful. That brings you pleasure but is still simple. And there isn’t a better word to describe that. And I think it should be something that designers aspire to, because it’s not easy.
DTD: No, and the perfect game I think right now, what designers are looking for, is something you can put down, folks can learn instantly, and yet still have challenges while they’re playing it.
GD: Right, you are trying to play well.
DTD: I can tell you; I have this game and it’s, you play cards and the first one who plays a 3 wins. It’s simple, but it’s a terrible game.
GD: That’s funny.
DTD: Off subject, there’s a very famous game, I don’t know when it started, I think it started in the 50s or 60s. My dad played it with me, and I played it with my kids. And it was, we called it the fruit game, but it was originally done with subway stations in England. And what it is, is you and I will play this game and we will go back and forth naming different types of fruit. And we cannot repeat a name, so we go over and over and over. And the first person who says banana wins. That’s the whole game. And I thought it was such an amazing learning experience with my children, and I guess my dad did with me too, but he was just an odd man. But when you play it with a really little kid, 3 or 4 years old, they get so excited, vibrate and just scream out “Banana!”, and you say, “Yeah! You won!” and it’s a joy, they love it. But they quickly learn that it’s not fun. So, then they draw it out, and it turns into this battle of wills, you know. It shows this evolution of how we see games, it’s a challenge you want to overcome, but not too quick, and not too easy. And it’s kind of a self-designed thing. I don’t know how I got off on that tangent.
The original game, Mornington Crescent, came from a BBC airing of I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue on BBC Radio 4 in 1978. Interestingly, on my birthday. So, it started as a joke, and has since become more seriously discussed.
GD: No, it’s very interesting.
DTD: Simplicity. Talking about simplicity.
GD: So, I don’t know what the answer to your question is. I don’t know. I’ve been a bit frustrated by the game we’ve been playing recently. But they didn’t deliver to the level I expected. I didn’t like Scythe as much as the hype, I didn’t like Coimbra as much as the hype. The games that got hyped, I liked them fine, it’s not that I hated them. I just was not blown away. So, I enjoyed Trajan quite a bit, I enjoyed Kraftwagen quite a bit, so they become part of our group’s… We have 2 types of games that we play, which are the new game of the week, and a game that makes the list. We want to play this regularly, and we will mix it into our regular gameplay.
DTD: Trajan is delightful.
GD: And so, it’s funny, because it seems like every time I travel and miss a Thursday night game group, they play one of my favorite games. And I’m like, “You bastards! That’s my game. I put it on the list, you can’t play it when I’m not here!”
DTD: Motion to make an addendum to the bylaws.
DTD: You cannot play this game when Glenn is not there.
GD: Because I have to suffer through these big giant miniatures travesties and not have fun. I get to play a game I enjoy when I’m around. They can’t burn up that experience when I can’t be there. It’s not fair.
Join Glenn Drover and I next time as the breakfast parade proceeds, and we discuss heavy wargames, the role of computers in gaming, the borrowing of mechanisms from game to game, and the bubble. Oh, the bubble…