Life could not be better. I am on a cruise liner, being inundated with a cornucopia of breakfast goodness. And my guest is Glenn Drover; if not a founding father, then at least a well-known cousin, in board gaming history.
DTD: From the background, I would always picture that you are the heavy wargamer, an 8-hour game type of person.
GD: I do those solo on my computer now. I don’t think they are fun [in person]…
DTD: Computers are perfect for tracking all the bits and bobs.
Random fact: A bit refers to any British coin of less than a shilling value, a bob is vernacular for a shilling coin. So, bits and bobs are small change.
GD: Right! I think I enjoy a 1 to 3-hour game in person. When you are playing with people, I don’t want to play a 6- or 8-hour game. I mean, I will, if it’s really exceptional. If there’s an amazing strategy game, and it takes 4, 5, 6 hours, Ill do it. If it’s good. If it’s really chock full of gamer goodness. Like maybe a Hannibal, or … what’s the cold war driven card game?
GD: Twilight Struggle.
Twilight Struggle, a 2-player cold war board game by designers Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, and published by GMT, was notorious for sitting at the BGG #1 position for many years, until it was usurped by Pandemic Legacy in January 2016. As of this writing, it is at #8.
DTD: It seems like Twilight, it’s an amazing game and it had its peak, and then it kind of came down a little. And right now, all of these “almost-Twilights” are coming out. 1960, Watergate, a lot of almost… I found that interesting, this kind of call back.
GD: Well I think that’s what great about our industry, is we are building on the shoulders of innovation.
DTD: “Shoulders of Giants” I have said that so much.
GD: Right. So, there’s lots of innovation that goes on, and then you’ll have a bunch of, not copycats, but things that draw on what was good about the innovation.
DTD: Yeah, inspirations, homages, tributes, whatever you want to call it. So, what do you think about “credit where credit is due”? There’s obviously a grey zone; not every deck builder is going to put Vaccarino as a designer. But if you made an absolutely pure deck builder in a medieval age that dealt with making buildings, you’d better at least give him a call. So, do you have any strong opinions on where credit lies? Because it seems like right now it’s a little bit of an old west attitude.
GD: It’s a great point. I think if you come from a literary background, it’s a cardinal sin to not cite your sources.
DTD: Well, academic background and a little literary, so bibliographies are sacred.
GD: Required. Right, sacred. In our industry, because it is an entertainment industry, people steal relentlessly.
DTD: And I think the legal side of it has almost encouraged that a little bit. I know about the lawsuits that happened with Bang! and some other similar things, and it’s pretty well known that art is a little untouchable, but everything else is “wild west”.
In summary, Yoka Games in China published Legends of the Three Kingdoms (2007), which was a copy of the popular board game Bang! (2002) by dV Giochi, replacing only the art. In 2014, Giochi went to court, and the ruling was that nothing illegal was done, as game mechanics cannot be copyrighted.
GD: Yeah, I think it’s a great question. From a business man’s point of view, I would draw the line at: you should not copy someone else’s work and throw a thin veneer of art change over it. And essentially have it be the same game. Age of Empires III was borrowed from when they made Dominant Species. Have you ever played Dominant Species?
DTD: Of course.
Our neighbors to the west, the kind people who lent us a cruet of salt, finished their breakfast and wished us a good day. Such nice people. “Salt of the earth” – I know you were waiting for that.
GD: So, on the right side of the board is, down the row exactly the same sort, you place all your workers, then you execute down. And it’s the tracks.
DTD: You place all your workers then you do all the actions in the order of those. Carson City, Dominant Species, Empires.
Just to get the chronology right, Age of Empires III was released in 2007, Carson City in 2009, and Dominant Species in 2010.
GD: I haven’t played Carson City, so I didn’t realize that also maybe was similar.
DTD: Very similar.
GD: And I don’t mind that. That is an homage to the fact that…
DTD: Had you talked to Chad [Jensen] when the game was in design?
GD: No. And haven’t heard anything since, and I haven’t said anything because I don’t care. Because it’s not the same game. It just has the same mechanic.
DTD: I never… I didn’t draw the connection.
GD: Right, it has the same mechanic. I did, because it’s my thing. I’m like, “Hey, this is exactly like the game I designed!” And it plays differently because of how the board works. And each specific action on the right isn’t the same as the ones in Age of Empires III, but there’s some real similarities on a few of them. But that’s fine, I don’t mind that. And so, being borrowed from is in a way one of the highest forms of flattery. You’re like, “Hey, you did something really perfect and cool. I want to do it. I’m going to use that.” So, if I don’t mind, I think that other people shouldn’t mind.
DTD: Well, people are people. So, you will get famous fights, and there’s a couple out there that have been going on for years and years. And you could probably think of the same couple that I’m thinking of. But the reason it’s fresh in my mind, is one of the interviews I had done not that long ago, it came up. And the consensus from this designer was that everything should be cited. It was a very extreme on that end. And they wanted a, not governing body, but someone kind of overlooking and just kind of pointing fingers, saying, “you know, you should cite that, and you should credit that.”
GD: I think it would be possible.
DTD: They actually wanted the media, because it’s becoming such a powerful force, to be that overseeing body. You know, have Dice Tower or any of these media groups. I guess it’s a form of public shaming.
GD: And again, it would be shaming if it was wrong.
DTD: And I can’t decide where it is. Because I’ll be honest, I don’t think there’s that many games. If you’ve played a ton of games, there is almost no true originality. Because your definition of originality gets smaller and smaller and smaller the more you play.
DTD: The Mind was pretty darn unique. Is it a great game? That’s up for argument. But nobody can argue it’s really different. Which thrills me no end. Those things, like 504 was incredibly unique. Commercially it was poor, it didn’t sell well, and nobody says, “504 designed the best game I ever played.” But everybody says, “How did he do that?” I’m sorry, I interrupted you in the middle of saying something.
Just as a reminder, 504 by Friedemann Friese is a board game construction kit. By combining smaller modules, one can create 504 very different board games. It’s a testament to the disgner’s skill, and a bit of a miracle that it works, and works well.
GD: Nope. I’m just eating. But yeah, I think you shouldn’t steal something holistic. You shouldn’t just take a game and change a few things and slap your theme on it. That would be what I would consider plagiarism. And while it’s usually not actionable, because of the way that the…
DTD: We are an honor system market.
GD: Right. I recently saw on Facebook a publisher who was complaining that someone had literally lifted his whole game including his rulebook. And I spoke to him offline, and I said, “Here is how I handled a similar thing back in the Eagle days. Here’s what else I would do if I were you. Here’s like 4 or 5 things you can do to push back.” Because clearly that person was stealing his intellectual [property], his work product. And competing with him with it directly in the marketplace. And I said, I see that as wrong. That rises to the level, definitely to the level of plagiarism and theft. And I said, “OK, here’s what I would do to solve this.” Because I wanted to help him. Because even if the law won’t protect him, certainly there were paths he could take to protect himself.
DTD: Forums, communities.
GD: Actually, I’m a little more hard-core than that. And he… It’s a business that was owned by his parents, and so they were very nice people, and they didn’t want to get into dirty fighting. I said, “But the guy is doing this to you. And he is stealing money.” And also, when he was approached, he mocked them, and said “There’s nothing you can do. Piss off.”
DTD: Just malicious and blatant.
GD: Yeah! Not a nice person. And so clearly, they knew they were guilty and didn’t want to admit it. But in a way did admit it and said, “What can you do about it? Piss off.” And so, I wanted to help him push back. But I gave him some, I think, real viable strategies. One, especially, that could work well. And the answer is, if someone is going to do that to you, do the same back to them. I said, “Do they have a product line? Do they have games that you could knock off?” And he was like, “Oh my gosh yes. He’s got a game that does really well for him that is really ugly.” I said, “Great. Make a game that is almost identical, and improve the art, and put it out on the market and see how he likes it. And then maybe go and have a conversation with him – OK, I’ll take mine off if you take yours off.” Because a person like that will only respond to strength.
DTD: That’s really tough. Luckily, I really, really do believe that our industry is good people.
GD: Almost entirely.
DTD: And it is rare you find someone doing something a little underhanded. I mean, we have squabbles. You hear this guy is a little grumpy, and this guy’s a little this. But it’s so rare, and I’ve only been kind of watching how the sausage is made, maybe the past 5 years or so. But I’m always surprised by how nice everybody in the back scenes is.
GD: It’s really true. It’s a small community, and almost entire made up of people that are really good natured, want to help each other, feel like it’s a camaraderie instead of a competitive environment.
DTD: It’s a passion industry. People do it because they love it.
DTD: And if you wanted to get into an industry to make a kajillion dollars, this is not really your top choice.
GD: Usually not. Very true. That’s why I have to always keep bouncing back to the video game industry. [laughs]
DTD: There is a lot of money in the video game industry.
GD: There was. Not when I joined it, there wasn’t. It was like this. In 1989 when I joined that industry, it was very much like this business.
DTD: And let me tell you, in the 70’s… [laughs]
GD: It didn’t exist. There was no video game industry.
DTD: It was there.
GD: Well, I guess. SSI did some stuff, and there was some…
I just squeezed in on the hairy edge of truth. SSI, Strategic Simulations Incorporated, started in 1979.
DTD: Early 80s was the Infocom boom. Oh, I followed them so much.
RIP Infocom (1979-1989). That company truly knew what was west of the mailbox.
GD: I remember as a kid I got a Dragon magazine. There was an ad, I think on the last page on the inside back cover for 3 strategy wargames or adventure games. I think it was Temple of Apshai, and then Nuclear War…
Temple of Apshai, again released in 1979. What a magical year. A great time to be 11.
Let me explain my seemingly random outbursts of company names. Temple of Apshai was originally made by Automated SImulations, which became Epyx in 1983. Nuclear War (1965) was a famous card game made by Flying Buffalo.
GD: And I’m just like… But it wasn’t the card game, it was a nuclear war [computer] game that this company was selling.
DTD: There was a video game very early version of his card game if I remember right.
GD: But that wasn’t this. This was a game where you were building nuclear subs. It was very much like the game that what’s-his-name found in…
His name was David Lightman, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. Probably still is.
GD: Yes, WarGames. It was very much similar to that or inspired by that. And that was probably, I don’t know, I was probably 13, so 1978.
Well, 1983. Memory is a fickle thing.
DTD: I think we are [mumble mumble] about the same age.
GD: Similar. There were video games you could buy, but the industry was nascent, it was completely…
DTD: It was dudes in a garage.
GD: Yes. Completely.
DTD: And it was a really fun time. Really strange things happened. And I love that feeling that we’ve still got in our board game thing here. You buy a game, and it’s well-produced and it’s pretty and all this stuff. And then you contact them, and you find out this is a guy in his basement.
GD: Yea, for sure.
DTD: “Wait, let me ask my other employee…” [mimes holding the phone for a minute]
GD: And it is. In a way it is a beautiful thing. But the trouble is, it leads to over production, too much product. It makes it hard for everyone to make a living, because the pie is sliced so many times.
DTD: The competition for the product by the market is savage.
GD: It’s savage. It’s very, very oversaturated at this point. So, it’s good and bad. It’s very much a good and a bad mixture right now.
DTD: So how do you feel about the companies publicly making these commitments to make less games? [laughs] Because that’s the trend now. Is most of the big companies will make some sort of a press release or some statement saying, “You know, we’ll make less games.” I haven’t seen it follow through.
GD: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s the right idea. Markets cannot be manipulated unless you have a monster sized player. And so, these tiny, even larger players are tiny by market share. They’re not going to change anything. So, if it’s not in their own self-interest, they shouldn’t do it. If it’s in their self interest to make fewer games, fantastic. And I agree that is the case. You should only do 2 or 3 games a year.
DTD: Oh sure.
GD: Because otherwise how do you market them properly? How do you lavish the resources and the art and the beauty on the game?
DTD: Especially with the cult of the new. How do you build hype for something that is released, and then your sales are then dictated by that first month.
GD: Right. And then you’ve got a new game every month. You can’t focus, especially with a smaller staff. So, it’s in their self-interest to do that, but I don’t think it’s going to change the market. What is going to change the market is a blood bath.
DTD: Do you think it’s coming? Everyone argues back and forth whether we are in a boom, and it will burst.
GD: We are definitely in a bubble, and it will burst. The only thing, it’s hard to tell is what follows.
DTD: What happens after.
GD: What happens after. How much will it deflate?
DTD: Very unlikely it’s a true video game destruction, where nobody has any product for years.
GD: Oh no, of course not. No, no, no, no. Not at all.
DTD: Very unlikely. That was a series of circumstances in the 80’s that I think, knock on wood, never will happen again.
GD: And I think back then it was because there were only a few players, and when they were disrupted, when commodore was disrupted, and these other game… Activision, and these other.
GD: Right. And so, there was a massive impact on the market. But this is so decentralized, that couldn’t happen. But what could happen is that everyone struggles to be viable, and maybe the economy tanks. And it’s just enough of an impact on what a Kickstarter can raise, and what you can put in the market, that all these companies that were operating on the fringe just go out of business.
DTD: So, with the Kickstarter thing, it seems like there are a growing number of companies who are kind of realizing that Kickstarter is their middleman. And if I want to make a product, but I want to generate the funds ahead of time, why don’t I just put up a website where I preorder and market heavily. Why do we need Kickstarter?
GD: Yeah, that’s been discussed. The challenge with that is… We do because it’s the, it’s become the place where people number one go to, to look for things. So, it’s a destination, a marketplace. People know it’s there. But also because of I think convenience and trust. If I go to your website, and you are Joe Blow, and I don’t know who you are, am I going to give you my credit card?
DTD: Let’s say you’re Asmodee.
The 800 pound gorilla of board game companies.
GD: They’re more likely to succeed doing that. Because they have the credibility, they have the scale. But the challenge is, again, habit. People are creatures of habit. Why does Amazon sell better than target.com? It’s convenience, it’s habit. Why wouldn’t I feel just as comfortable going with Target‘s web store if I’m going to order something from Target? It’s just a matter of convenience. I can go to Amazon, because I know they will have it. I go there, I type in what I want, and I just push a button. And my credit card is already there, it’s going to show up at my door in two days. It’s fire and forget, it’s impulse. A lot of purchasing is impulse purchasing. If I have to jump through a couple of hoops, you’ll lose me. If I have to go downstairs to get my credit card from my wallet, eh, don’t feel like it. [great face]
DTD: If I see it, I’m going to snap another one. This is kind of the after shot. Part of me wants to do some candid shots and just get you with faces. But I know that’s mean. [laughs]
GD: I don’t have any vanity about it, because I look like this most of the time.
DTD: Because we are gamers. You can tell, I worked very hard today to make sure I made a good impression. This is my dining out fancy look.
A few quick points: One, I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I am not sure if my rat nest hair is combed. Things may be living in it. Two, we were just freshly supplied by the ever-vigilant wait staff, so I am positively impertinent with pastry.
DTD: So, do you have favorite games at this point? A lot of times if you play kagillions, you kind of lose where your favorites are.
DTD: Crunchy euros.
GD: Yeah, I like a little bit heavier games. I don’t like it when the designer goes way off the deep end, and it’s a lifestyle. We tried to like Lisboa, but it’s just so much going on.
DTD: In my head, I was thinking about Vital [Lacerda].
He’s the Lisboa guy. Well known for complexity.
GD: Yeah, and I love him personally, but I just think…
DTD: I love Lisboa, but his games to me are hit and miss. Because it will take me so much prep, even if I have played it before. So much prep to play the game, and yes, I love it. But then I tend to forget it.
GD: Right! Because there’s so many details.
DTD: Like Le Havre, I played it once, and I was like, “I know how this game works”.
GD: Right, it’s intuitive, it works. And so, there’s a limit, but yes, I like the heavier, thinkier strategy games.
DTD: How about the Pfister games? Alexander Pfister.
GD: Which ones?
Alexander Pfister is one of my very favorite heavy euro designers. Call me, Alex – let’s do lunch.
GD: I haven’t played any. I’m so looking forward to that one [Maracaibo]. I’ve seen people here playing it, and I’m like, “I want to play that.”
DTD: I’ll tell you, my little sneaky Essen game that I am in love with, which is in your ballpark I think, is Cooper Island.
GD: I’ve heard good things.
DTD: I brought a copy and there’s one in the library.
GD: Yeah, I would play that. I really want to play Maracaibo.
DTD: Maracaibo is delightful.
GD: I hear Underwater Cities is good.
DTD: Oh, so good. Absolutely.
GD: I haven’t played any of those. So those are in my list of “Have to get them into the group, have to go acquire them and play them.”
DTD: I would agree with all of that. It sounds like our tastes in games are fairly similar.
GD: Probably almost exactly, with the wargaming background.
DTD: The wargaming stuff, I got into it a little bit, and I played some heavy wargames, but I kind of backed off into euros.
D: Yeah, I don’t actually play wargames anymore, except maybe some block games. Like I’ll play Julius Caesar or something like that. But I do play a lot of strategy wargames on my PC. If I can find a good, even hex based wargame, I’ll play it on PC.
DTD: I miss turn based, hex based, both fantasy and strategy games. Where the computer takes care of the minute by minute chunking, and I’m doing turn based stuff, and I don’t need to panic about my reflexes going down in the past 5 years.
GD: I still play a lot of that. And as you say, there’s not a ton of good ones out there. I follow Matrix [Games] and Slitherine, and so I buy a fair amount of those a year and play through those. So that’s my wargaming fix.
DTD: And with the age of Steam and independent games, you can find anything now. Someone has made it. It’s just a question of…
GD: Is it any good?
DTD: You don’t know, because there’s a little bit of a backlash there into two guys in their garage.
GD: Right, and sometimes you’ll be like, “Wow! That was amazing!” And I found this developer, he did a version of Hannibal that he, I think just he calls it Hannibal. And you can find it on Slitherine’s website, and it’s excellent. It’s not pretty, but it’s excellent, and the AI is really tough.
DTD: If I get lost in the game I don’t need pretty. And if I get lost in the pretty, sometimes I don’t need the game.
GD: [laughs] But yeah, you should look for it. Because it really has, it’s a fun, and it has a little bit of a tactical battle module, where if you get into a fight, you pick the units you want, and you can only have so many on the front line. And then you reinforce. But it depends on what types you are putting against their types. Has some real good, it’s simple and very abstracted, but fun, and has a real sense of war gaming.
Next time is sadly the end of my breakfast with Master Glenn Drover. We finish up discussing when a game is not a game, the story behind Age of Empires, what’s new with Forbidden Games, dissecting a great expansion.