Welcome one, welcome all to the final segment of my Caribbean Kaffeeklatsch with the wonderful Glenn Drover. We talk about how Age of Empires came to be, the convoluted history of worker placement and perchance something even newer from Forbidden Games.
DTD: Well, that’s cool. So, here’s a designer question for you. With today’s market being predominantly a one- to two-play and done, it seems like there’s a pressure to designers to make games inherently fair. If you have played it lots of times, and I have played it never, our scores will still be kind of equal.
GD: I don’t like that.
DTD: And recently, and I’d say that’s the past year, I’ve been seeing more of this, and it’s been bothering me in my head. I will play a game, and it might even be a first time for all of us. But I “get” the game right away, and I understand the mechanics. I know what they are doing. And I am playing with someone who has never played games before in their life and ends up fumbling around. And we end up about 3 points apart.
GD: That’s ridiculous.
DTD: And I can see that it was designed into it. And I se it as an extension of the “we want to make a video game with no instructions”. You know, it’s an extension of that, it’s a forgiveness in games.
GD: I don’t think it’s my job as a designer to make you feel good about playing badly. I want to make games that do the opposite – that actually reward you for making good decisions and the right decisions. And if you are in a group where you are way smarter than some other guy, and he’s frustrated, not my problem.
DTD: So, have you seen this trend as well, or is just me being kind of crazy?
GD: I haven’t. I haven’t seen it, but I would be annoyed by it if I had seen it. What’s an example of a game that does that?
DTD: It’s almost all of the newer lighter games. The games, they seem to be tight. But I can tell you the example in the other direction is anything by Splotter. They have publicly said, “If you cannot lose on the first turn, why have a first turn?” That is what they said.
GD: [laughs] Well, I don’t know if I agree with that either. Because who wants to play through another hour plus of a game when you know you’ve lost?
DTD: That is the biggest criticism that their games get.
GD: I think that’s a fair criticism.
DTD: But they are super hard, crunchy games. And people love them, and people get good at them. But I think there’s an entry point. I think designers are… and I hate to generalize like this, but I think a lot of designers are so enamored with the idea of drawing in gamers, that they will make a very forgiving experience, that is turning more into an experience and less of a game. So, everybody has fun, nobody knows whos’ winning. At the end, the scores are tight, but you have to have a winner. Actually, in an interview with Friedemann Friese, I was complaining about some of these games that are really fun experiences, but the scoring system is ridiculous. And he said, “Well, it wont sell in Germany unless it has a scoring system.” It’ll sell in France without a scoring system, but if you make a game that is really really fun, but in the end, no one can point to a number, it won’t sell.
GD: [laughs. That’s so funny. They have been trained.
DTD: Concept just won all these things. Their scoring system is [phtt]. They are almost non-existent, but they were thrown in at the last minute.
GD: And Just One I think is quite fun.
DTD: It’s ridiculously fun. But again, it’s the Trivial Pursuit concept. Everybody loved Trivial Pursuit when it came out, and almost nobody ever finished the game. You just took out the cards and read them to each other; it was an experience. The scoring and the gameplay was secondary.
GD: I think that’s true. We played it at a con last weekend, for gamers. And we were determined to have the highest score. So, we played through to, I think it’s 13 cards. So, it’s not that long, but we were like, “We are going to play, and we want to get at least 10.” And the first time we played it we got 4, and it was terrible. And then we replayed it and were determined to beat it.
This is why six cinnamon rolls is not a good idea: I am rambling on about Trivial Pursuit, while the discussion is clearly about Just One.
DTD: It’s so long, but if you remember when it first came out, everybody owned it and everybody loved it. It’s just the trend of the market.
GD: You mean Trivial Pursuit? I was talking about Just One.
DTD: Oh, Just One? Yes, Just One to 13 and all that scoring, and Concept has the weird scoring, and Letter Jam I think is really a fascinating game, done really well. Cooperative word game. But it has a scoring system at the end that makes no sense. But it’s so fun. Until you get there. And Concept with the cubes on the board and figuring out… Amazing ideas. The scoring is miserable.
GD: We like Dixit, too. And that I think has a really elegant scoring for a casual, social game.
DTD: And I really appreciate Dixit, it’s really fascinating… There’s incomplete information games, where I want you to guess something. Dixit really invented the idea of “I want you to guess it, but just barely.” And that is such a neat idea to play with. And that, I think has turned into all of these card games that have no communication, but communication. Like, I can’t talk to you, and the rules are very fuzzy about how we are allowed to communicate, but I can’t talk to you.
I think I am losing vocal skills under the tidal wash of glucose. And sugar. And glucose.
GD: Right, right, right, right.
DTD: But I love how people deal with these ideas. Again, The Game, The Mind, these things where you have to talk without talking.
GD: And again, building on the shoulders of things that have come before. You are like, “These kind of games are great, and here’s an example, or there’s an example of something that really fun.” But I can do it a little better. Here’s an innovation. Here’s a different way to do it. And I think that’s great. And that’s what makes what we are doing really vibrant.
GD: So, I wouldn’t want to take that away entirely. By forcing people to say, well if you copy this… Because sometimes you don’t even know you’ve copied something. Right, there’s cases where, like… Ill go back to Age of Empires III again. It was one of the first worker placement games. We came second to market, but we were developing our game probably the exact same time as… What’s the game?
DTD: Caylus? Usually credited as the first worker placement game.
GD: Caylus. Right, and it was. They came out before us. But it was so funny, I brought my prototype to a game store, in Downers Grove, Illinois. And they were playing Caylus, and I was bringing the Age of Empires III prototype so people could play it and try it, and that was the first time I saw Caylus. It had just been published, and people were in the store playing it. And they were like, “Hey this is a great new game, come play it.” And we had just finished doing the prototype and we played Caylus, and I was like, “Holy crap! This does what this does!” And it was completely coincidental. So sometimes it’s just an accident.
DTD: That’s very cool. But I still… I think Age of Empires does it in a different way, and you can tell it was a different path. There are variants you will see along the road, and you can say, “Oh I can see it came from this, it came from that.” But Age still used the “collect a bunch of resources”, of workers. Workers are resources. The more I have, kind of the better, but I can dump them in places and they are varied. And I think that, for the most part, has not been copied, and it still stands very strong today. In Age of Empires. It’s still, in my mind, a little unique. The worker placement thing, with Caylus, where I have this guy, he goes here, and I do “A”. That’s been done a lot. I’m not saying bad about that or anything, it’s a simple do it thing. But I was actually just talking earlier with some friends and gamers about Age of Empires, and I don’t think that has really been copied. Massive workers. And it’s only recently that worker placement games have gone back to different types of workers.
GD: Right. Well, that was definitely the first time that was done. But again, I was inspired by video games. I was partly inspired by two different video games that were colonial games.
DTD: See, you should have named it after a video game. Empires, Age of Discovery is not named after anything.
GD: [laughs] Right. But the thing is, Age of Empires III was not inspired by Age of Empires III .
DTD: Really? Not at all?
GD: Not at all. I was instructed… Because the first license we did with that company, with Ensemble and Microsoft, was Age of Mythology. And I was instructed at the time, “We want…” Bruce Shelley told me, he goes, “We would like a game that is reminiscent of Titan with lots of dice rolling and combat and different unit types, and mythological creatures.” And I was like, [sigh] “Alright, but I also want to do a euro game mechanic. Maybe I’ll do the economic part with the euro and then have cards and do that other thing.” It was a hybrid game. Euro-Ameritrash.
DTD: And I’ve actually heard Age of Empires III described as an American euro.
GD: Yeah, right.
DTD: One of the first American euros is what I heard.
GD: The first time it didn’t work. Age of Mythology was not a very good game in the end because you got sidetracks with all these big dice battles. And it took you out of the core game. And people didn’t end up liking it very much. And so, when I went back to them to do the second game, which was eventually Age of Empires III, they were like, “Do whatever you want.”
DTD: Oh, don’t tell me this!
GD: They are like, “All we want is a game that is a really good game. So, go make the best game you can make. We don’t care if it has anything to do with our video game, other than maybe just the theme.” So, I’m like, “Cool. I think the theme is really interesting. I think the Age of Exploration and Colonialism is phenomenally interesting. I’ll just go make a game about that.” And so, it wasn’t influenced by the PC game at all. It was actually influenced more by Sid Meier’s Colonization and…
DTD: Actually, I liked Colonization a little better than Civilization. It had a structure to it.
GD: And It had a lot of theme really worked into it. In a sense that, the one aspect that I copied, or was trying to emulate, was where they were lining colonists up on the dock. And I was like, “Oh, yes. That’s really cool.” And then I was like, “OK, that will be one part. And then there will be another part with the trade goods, another part…” It kind of flowed out of me based on that one little thing.
DTD: That’s fascinating.
GD: So, it had nothing to do with the video game it was licensed.
DTD: Oh, I love that. So, a couple designers that I have talked to have gone through this pathway, this arc. Where an early game does very, very well, and becomes an evergreen, and that becomes an income source to make what they want. Do you think that happened with you with Age of Empires?
GD: Not really, because I didn’t make much money on it. I had just sold Eagle, and I still had the license with Microsoft, and so I was like, “OK, I still want to do this game, because it’s a really good game.” And I ended up just doing it as a one off with the guy who produced our games, manufactured our games, with Eagle. And he and I just did it as a partnership, but I was already working at PopCap. So, I published this game when I was living in Seattle, away from my home for 4 months, starting my job with PopCap. And I did no marketing really, I did no company, there was no structure, we just threw it out in the marketplace.
DTD: So, was it a slow growth? Did the game kind of build up?
GD: No, because the market was different then. There was so much hype on BGG for this game, that…
DTD: I had the impression that it was very successful, almost from the get-go.
GD: It was very successful. It was, but then there was no follow through.
DTD: But it has a million little bitty expansion bits.
GD: Yeah, I don’t know. There was the big giant one that Eagle did years later.
DTD: Yes, that was quite a bit later.
GD: So, they bought the rights from me and then did that. Because they didn’t have the rights initially. It wasn’t published by them. And so, yeah it was this little print I had called Tropical Games, and it was just me. And I had no time or money to do anything with it, so I just threw it into the marketplace. But the market was so different then, it didn’t matter initially, but it had no legs. We only did two print runs. We did the first print run, sold out, then we did a second print run, and that sold out pretty quickly, then we never made it again. And so, there were only maybe 10 thousand, 12 thousand copies of this thing out there, ever. So, it was successful, but not really for me. Not financially successful.
DTD: It wasn’t your Agricola, or your Power Grid, or your…
GD: No. Had it been properly leveraged, we would have had it in multiple languages, European languages, we would have done 5 or 10 print runs. It could have sold for a decade. And it kind of just died.
DTD: It still has demand.
GD: Yeah, but only because I think there’s a lack of supply. There’s not that many copies out there.
DTD: OK. Makes sense.
GD: So weirdly, no. And if you talk to most gamers that have come along in the last 10 years, probably 80% of them aren’t even aware of it.
DTD: Really? That means I’m living in my own bubble.
GD: Yeah, it was drowned out by other things. Because Stone Age came out shortly after , and that became the worker placement game that most people know.
DTD: And it had that unique, put as many workers as you want. So it had multiple workers, but playing them off in a different way.
GD: Right, and it’s a great game. But it became what people think of when you say “worker placement” for many years. And then Lords of Waterdeep . And so those are the ones people know now.
DTD: They are the consumer firsts. Whereas you talk Caylus and you talk Age of Empires, those are the connoisseur…
GD: Caylus I think is even less known. Yeah, because it came out and was huge.
DTD: Hardly anyone knows Caylus. But those are the connoisseur firsts. That’s almost a test for “Is this guy…?”
GD: Has he been around?
DTD: Has he been around? Like, what’s the first worker placement? And then you do something like, what’s the first deck builder? And if they say StarCraft , then you go [ooooh].
GD: OK, you’re legit.
DTD: You back up, and go “OK, you know some stuff.” Don’t tell Donald I said that. Still trying to get him to do an interview. Are you short on time?
GD: Well, I’ve got to run in a few minutes. So, if you want to wrap up with a couple final questions? Let’s do it.
DTD: As you can probably tell, I’m not a well prepped, formal question guy.
GD: It’s fine, it’s been totally smooth. This has been very smooth, so I wouldn’t know it.
DTD: I totally just riff. And this is essentially just what I wanted to do, is just go out to eat, and it would be exactly like if we just randomly went out to eat anyway. You know, you said, “Hey, I’m Glenn, I design games.” And Id go, “Oh yeah, Age of Empires. I’ve heard of that. Let’s talk shop.” I’ve hit most of my major questions that I wanted to hit. Was there any, you never gave me an answer on a …
The waiter comes one final time, satisfied we are compliant and near comatose, his job done.
GD: Do you need us to sign something? No, we just get up and leave?
Waiter: No worries. Take your time. No rush.
DTD: Thank you sir. Hot new mechanic thing that blew your mind in the last, I would say, year. And you are on a different time frame than the rest of us mortals, that you’ve probably seen some stuff that’s been in design for a couple years.
GD: It’s weird, because there are many gamers that play a lot more games than me. Because I’m busy with making these things, and I’m focused on my thing.
DTD: You’ve got to put a percentage of your game playing into your prototypes.
GD: So, it’s challenging. And I also, like I said, I like computer games. I like other things. I’m not hyper focused on just this hobby. Which is weird, because this is where I’m making my living. It’s a weird thing. In a way I think it’s good, because I can get influences from other things.
DTD: Well do you have some up and coming stuff that you want to talk about from Forbidden? I know about Dungeon Party.
In Dungeon Party, players assemble and conquer a dungeon with coasters and a coin. A little dexterity and the world is yours. Dungeon Party successfully funded in February 2020, with $135,000.
GD: Right, that’s our Kickstarter right now. Beyond that, I have a game in development right now that’s the next in the Raccoon Tycoon line.
DTD: Nice. An expansion or just another “in the world”.
GD: Another game that’s meant to be similar, let’s say vaguely similar. Same artist. Same weight, but totally different mechanics, totally different… The rest of it is different. And it’s called Lizard Wizard. We are going to have a series of games that are alliterative and fun. Her artwork, and a gateway game.
DTD: OK. Well, you can say that Raccoon Tycoon is a gateway auction. Have you picked another mechanism genre, that this is the “gateway game”?
GD: It’s the gateway game for worker placement.
DTD: Worker placement, oh that’s awesome. I’m very excited about that.
GD: So, it’s not… the challenge we are having right now is streamlining and making it lighter, because we are crunchy gamers, so our tendency is to go, “Hey cool, worker placement. It can do this and this and this.” And so right now, it’s like, OK, we put three versions of it on the table. And every time we are like, “This is a fun game. But this is not what we are trying to achieve.”
DTD: That’s hard.
GD: It’s hard. It’s hard to, I don’t want to say dumb down a game, because you are not at all. To streamline it and make it more elegant, while retaining enough depth and game play.
DTD: This is the age of that. The age of complexity has come and gone. I mean, there’s still very good complex games, but this is the age of elegance.
GD: Elegance. And so, that’s what we are in the process of trying to do right now.
DTD: That’s awesome. Lizard Wizard. This is in development?
GD: It’s in development.
DTD: Is there any real time frame on this?
Of course, all things have been impacted by the current world situation. As of May 2020, Glenn has informed me that Lizard Wizard is targeted for a July Kickstarter.
GD: We are trying to target a May Kickstarter, and Annie is working on art. She’s got already I can show you her first piece of art for the game. Never seen by mortal eyes.
DTD: Ooooh. Well, you are making a lot of assumptions here.
Your guess – either others have seen it, I am not mortal, or I have no eyes. No clues except my poor typing skills.
GD: Except a couple of buyers maybe at Barnes and Noble. Here’s a side view of the mockup packaging. That won’t be the cover.
DTD: No, that’s not final or anything or anything. That’s beautiful.
GD: That’s mock. Just for, to use the art we have right now.
DTD: I’m very excited about that, because Raccoon Tycoon, really it hit some buttons. I think it did really well, and for an initial thing out of a new company, that’s important. That’s great. And Railroad, I really like that interaction between the tiles and rivals, that is really cool.
GD: We love that game. It didn’t sell as well as Raccoon did, I think again partly because of art.
DTD: Raccoon has the cutesy factor.
GD: Right. And art matters.
DTD: It’s really funny, because I see people fighting about the promos. And the promos are, they don’t add a lot of gameplay, they are just new art. Like, I want the new animal.
GD: And the Fat Cat is almost done, too. Both the Robber Baron and the Fat Cat are pretty much done.
DTD: I’m on both of those.
GD: You’ll love them, they are really… We made sure that the gameplay, even the expansions were balanced. And that was some of the delay, too, is yeah, we had everything done, but it changes the game in both cases so much, that we didn’t just want to vomit the thing out. Like, “Oh yeah, it’s done!” Because we finished the art and the text and files.
DTD: Well that’s the perfect expansion, is someone who loves the game will accept these little changes. And say, “Wow, that adds a little freshness.” But if they change the rules…
GD: Right, and in Raccoon we didn’t want to change the game too much, because there’s a nice flow to the game. You didn’t want to go, “Well now, you’re going to play this, too. And it’s a huge difference.”
DTD: By the way, now you can attack the other player.
GD: So, we actually scaled that down successfully. Like the first couple tries at that, made the game twice as long, and you were doing all kinds of different things, different actions. I’m like, “Wait, this thing should stay with 5 actions.” We will just change them slightly, and add to things, so that it’s still the same game, it just adds more content, slightly different strategies. It was I think a good expansion. There are good expansions and bad expansions.
DTD: Oh, there are. For sure.
GD: Sometimes you will just get content, and it’s crap. Or that it changes the game and breaks the game. And you are like, “Why did you do that to this game? Oh, because you could sell some expansions, I get it.” But they didn’t care.
DTD: And you can see a couple of companies out there that are milking expansions.
GD: Yeah, and we didn’t want to do that. So, we took a little extra time working on play balance.
DTD: It’s almost expected to have an expansion for a successful game.
GD: Yeah, I think it’s smart as a publisher to do that, as long as you don’t just throw it out there. Because some people are like, “Oh it’s just more stuff, what could it do?” And sometimes it radically changes the game. And you are like, “Ummm….” In Robber Baron, we put a warning in the manual: There are a few tiles that we added that are the stock shenanigans tiles, that do change the game. It makes it very, very different. But, we think gamers will like it, it just adds some variance. Because the game is very tight as it plays now. It’s all about being very efficient with your bidding and making the right decisions. It’s very tight. And the stock shenanigans kind of take it and go “Wheeeee!”, now this weird stuff is happening. So just be aware, if you don’t like a particular tile, just don’t use it. It’s modular, just toss it out.
DTD: Well, that’s cool. I’ve kind of felt that some of these modular games are, they are copping out a little bit. There’s a lot of games out there that are, “Here’s the game. Here’s 8 modules. Play whichever ones you want.” And it seems to me that someone couldn’t make a design choice. Someone couldn’t figure out, do I want to do this, or do I want to do this.
GD: I think that’s fair.
DTD: And I think there’s some that are good, and there’s a lot out there that are just kind of annoying.
GD: And again, for us on this particular game, it was… Because Raccoon we balanced, and we want you to use everything.
DTD: It doesn’t sound like your shenanigans thing is modular, as much as it’s, “Here’s some bits that might really throw things for a loop.”
GD: That’s the thing. So, we are like, “If you like the game as it is, all this other stuff works well with it. If you want to play something that takes the game, and takes it to a different place, use these.”
DTD: That makes sense.
GD: Or don’t. If you end up finding that you don’t like it. Because the variance I am talking about, is it can have a severe impact on the course of a game. Someone could be playing their perfect strategy, and you could play a tile that disrupts that. And they are like, “Hey I was going to win, and you [messed] me up” And I’m like, “Yes you got hit with the stock shenanigans.” And some people will not like that, because they want a tight euro that is in their control the whole way.
Yes, “messed”. You know what I mean. This is a family show.
DTD: I get it.
GD: And we get it. If that’s what you want, play that way. Don’t think that the whole expansion is disruptive, just get rid of the stock shenanigans, because they are very disruptive.
DTD: And I’ve actually appreciated, there’s been a couple euros out there… A lot of euros are multiplayer solitaire. And there’s been a couple euros out there where some cards are labeled with a little red dot or something. It’s like, “This is an interactive card. So, if you are that dude who doesn’t want to interact, you just want to play your solo game, take those out.”
GD: Right! And I think that’s perfectly acceptable. To have play tested and balanced it, but realized that some will like this one, some will not. And give them the option. Because sometimes a gamer will be like, “Well, now I hate the game.” And I’m like, “Whoa whoa whoa, don’t think that. It’s just this one little thing that’s changing things. And just take that out, and the game still works.”
DTD: This industry would be great if it weren’t for the gamers [laughs]
DTD: Alrighty, I’ll let you go. 10 minutes until your thing. I’m going to kill the recording.
The cruise has ended, and Glenn Drover and I part like ships in the night. It was extremely kind of Glenn to take time during this Caribbean vacation to break fast with me and help me ramble on about games old and new. Wait a minute – he was working, I was on vacation. Thank you Glenn for the grandest petit dejeuner and a most delightful vacation.