Dice Tower West 2020 was held in glorious Las Vegas, Sin City, at the Westgate Resort, and I had the tremendous honor to hang out with Emerson Matsuuchi, designer of Century: Spice Road, Reef, Specter Ops, and many more. Emerson and I had lunch in the homey Sid’s Cafe, where we discussed everything nerdly and lovely. Emerson had just asked me how I go from audio recording to this lavishly transcribed text.

DTD: Alright, we are going. When I first started doing this, I looked into a lot of different ways to do transcription. And I have Google connections, so I did a lot of Google A.I. stuff, and it made mistakes; We use a weird vocabulary. We talk about a lot of words that come up a lot and it would make mistakes a lot. And it’s really kind of ridiculous because a lot of times the words and phrases we used for board games would come into these colloquial dirty phrases using the Google A.I.

EM: Really?

DTD: It was, it would talk about farts and things, when we are talking about mechanics and passing and stuff. It made judgement calls that were always wrong.

EM: Oh, I see. Maybe if you say “chit” it might confuse it with some other words.

DTD: Every time. So, there was one that was kind of tricky for me, that had a high noise level. Actually, it was Frank West when I was in Essen, and he has a thick… No, it was Friedemann Friese I think. And he has a thick accent.

EM: And green hair.

DTD: And green hair! So, I did the outsourcing thing where I hired people to do the transcription, and I think it saved me time, but I still had to double-edit in there.

EM: Right, right. You still gotta go through with the..

DTD: Yeah, but I think Otter is one of the ones that uses that A.I.

EM: I can see the dilemma though, because it’s never perfect.

DTD: I’ve actually gotten pretty good at doing the transcription. I got myself a nice little pedal, so I can push the pedal and it runs the audio, and every time I let go of the pedal it backs up 5 seconds.

EM: Oh, interesting.

DTD: It works pretty good for me.

EM: Is it kind of like a guitar pedal?

DTD: It’s bigger, it’s like this wide [hands about 8in/20cm apart], so it’s wider than a guitar pedal, and the very right edge, it’s backwards, and I don’t know why. I think it’s some sort of convention. But the very right edge is reverse, and the very left edge is fast forward.

EM: That is kind of “counter”, isn’t it.

DTD: Isn’t that bizarre?

EM: That is a little bizarre, yeah. Now, because we are so used to forward being on the right and backwards being on the left.

DTD: And I double checked, every transcription pedal had this backwards element to it. But I love my transcription pedal. It makes life easy, especially since I’ve had some 3- or 4-hour recordings. So, nothing I get is going to set off your belly at all or anything, right?

Unfortunately, poor Emerson had a rough night. Something had disagreed with him pretty aggressively, putting both his talk yesterday evening, and our lunch at risk. However, as I found out, he is a superhero, and committed to both events with gusto. Perchance, not “eat a big greasy cheeseburger” gusto, but gusto nonetheless.

EM: No, no. Absolutely not.

DTD: Just wanted to make sure. Because I eat absolutely anything.

EM: I think I’m OK, because I had some almonds, which are a little bit harder on the stomach because it’s got all the…

DTD: Fibrous stuff.

EM: Yeah, fibrous stuff. But the thing is I was drinking so much water, I was saying, “I need salt, some form of salt.” So, I ate the almonds mostly to get the salt. I was actually contemplating just sucking on the almonds, but I was actually kind of hungry too.

DTD: [laughing]

EM: So, I said, “Let me just risk it, let me push my luck.” And I was OK.

DTD: I feel so bad for you. I have been at conventions, I’ve been at veterinary conventions where that’s happened.

Being ill at a convention where 90% of the talks revolve around poop is not the finest experience.

EM: It seems worse when you go to a convention that you want to have fun at. If it was a work convention, it’s like, “Well…”

DTD: It’s more than that, because you are doing panels and you are doing things at the convention, so.

EM: Well, thankfully I didn’t have anything scheduled yesterday except for that panel, so I was, I basically just slept as much as I could.

DTD: That’s cool. And you weren’t the only one on it, so the panel went forward, and you did OK on the panel. That’s awesome.

EM: I think the panel went really well.

Thursday February 27, 8:00 PM: Panel Discussion (Designer Panel) Emerson Matsuuchi, Mike Fitzgerald, Anne-Marie & Justin Dewitt.

I think it went swimmingly.

DTD: Good, I heard other people talking about it and saying they had a really good time. Actually, Tom [Vasel] said the panel went well.

EM: So, chicken noodle soup and matza balls. I would love to have creamy tomato bisque, but I think the cream is probably a bad idea. Usually dairy doesn’t sit well when my stomach isn’t doing so well.

All of my ancient relatives agree strongly with this lunch choice. The original healing potion.

DTD: No, I get it. You should get loaded southwest nachos and just a big bowl of raw onions. I think that would be perfect.

And now, my ancient ancestors simultaneously slap their heads and groan a simple, “Oy.”

EM: [laughs]

DTD: I have been terrible today, because Suzanne [Sheldon] actually brought me a caramel banana pie, first thing this morning.

This is true. I went out to the Cornish Pasty Company in Las Vegas with friends, then later told Suzanne, lover of pies, about their amazing caramel banana pie. I may have rubbed it in more than necessary. Suzanne was so entranced by my story, that she convinced the same friends to go out again, and even brought me back a pie. Just because she is amazing. And I ate it. For breakfast. All of it. Because I am amazing.

EM: That sounds great

Waitress: Just water, or do you need something?

DTD: I’m good with water, I think. Actually, iced tea? Do You have iced tea? That would be wonderful.

EM: Oh, I’m still working on my tea.

Waitress: Are you ready?

DTD: Are you good? Do you need a minute?

EM: I think I’m good. I’m sorry, if I could get a bowl of the chicken noodle soup.

DTD: French Dip, please.

Waitress: And your side?

DTD: Oh my. What are the sides?

Waitress: French fries, steak fries, fresh fruit, cole slaw.

DTD: Let’s do fruit. Thank you so much. [To Emerson] So, how did you get started in the whole board game stuff? What led you into it?

EM: OK, well I was a consultant. I had quit my full-time job as a software developer. At that time, I think my title was Software Architect and Innovation Technology. Some fancy thing.

DTD: So, you stopped that before doing the game design stuff. It’s usually the other way around.

EM: Yes, I quit that, but I chose to go into doing consulting, so I’m still in software development, but I wasn’t… I didn’t have a salary anymore. Now I’m just charging on an hourly basis. So I was a consultant. And I had worked with some folks that were from the same company, and our first set of projects was to develop software for like the big companies – Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch. Which, coincidentally, they all don’t exist in the same capacity anymore.

Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008, but technically, Merill is still around, having been purchased by Bank of America during this time.

DTD: So, successful consulting.

EM: Yeah, Successful consulting. I think because of that, we started to get a reputation for being the harbingers of doom, because every company we sold our products to, they tended to go under.

DTD: Oh, no.

EM: But we were doing quite well with other industries. We initially focused on the financial services industry, because that was where our background, our development background was in. But we branched out to architecture, to health care insurance, and so forth. And we were sort of the guys who would just come up with solutions to the problems that other development teams kind of struggled with. Because we had quite a bit of experience and I was a cocky programmer back then. I was like, “I can program my way out of anything.” So outsourcing was also becoming a very big thing at that time, so a lot of the contracts were going to outsourcing development houses in China, India, Mexico, Canada and so forth.

Our waitress arrived with our drinks. I think she ran. I’ve never known such fast service.

EM: And in the beginning, the number of projects we were getting was, we seemed to have a steady stream of projects. In fact, sometimes we had overlaps. I was working 40-hour weeks, working on 2 different projects.

DTD: This was just consulting?

EM: This was just consulting. But as more and more companies were choosing the offshore options, or outsourcing options, we noticed that the number of projects we were getting was steadily starting to decline. And I would have these long gaps between projects now. So sometimes there would be a few weeks, then it started to span into a couple months. And I thought, “Well, what am I going to do in these couple months?” And I thought, I had this brilliant, brilliant idea, that I would get into the industry that I always was passionate about. So, I decided I was going to start a game company; I will be a publisher.

DTD: Really?

EM: Because I wanted to do something, I wanted to be kind of productive in the times we didn’t have contracts. So, I started a publishing company, which is Nazca Games, that was my company. I self-published my first 2 designs, mostly because I thought no self-respecting designer is going to come to an unknown company.

DTD: A company with no designs?

EM: Right.

DTD: I love it, because it’s such a different entry story than ones I’ve heard before. This is great.

EM: It is a little bit unique in that respect because I actually didn’t see myself as the designer. I see everything as a discipline, and I knew that I wasn’t trained in the discipline of game design.

DTD: But you had some of that business background.

EM: I did. So, I thought maybe I am better with the business than I am with the design side.

DTD: OK, so what were the first two games?

EM: Oh, the very first one was Tricks and Treats. It’s a small little card game.

DTD: I know Tricks and Treats.

EM: If you go to enough Dice Tower conventions, you might get a copy in your goody bag.

DTD: I think I got my copy from a goody bag.

Dice Tower East, 2016.

EM: My second game was Volt, which is a robot combat game.

DTD: Yes! OK, OK. I thought Volt was later.

EM: It was republished by HeidelBÄR, so it got picked up. That’s why some people think it’s a newer game. But it’s actually one of my first board games.

DTD: That’s awesome. So, Nazca was born off of those two.

EM: Yes. I was about to publish my third game, and I started to realize I kind of like this process of designing a game. There’s something incredibly fulfilling, and it brought back those memories of when I was 6 or 8 years old and I would make my own robot games back then. I thought, “Hey, I kind of like this.” I was about to publish my third game, which was called Cipher Ops. It was a hidden movement game.

DTD: [laughs] yeah…

Oh, I know where this is going…

EM: That had a very Metal Gear or Splinter Cell aesthetics.

DTD: Which we will get back to… [laughs]

Emerson may have a board game version of one of these two famous video games. It’s a mystery.

EM: Especially Splinter Cell. But that one never never saw the light of, well I should say that version of it wasn’t produced, but it was very, very close. The files were already at the printer. But I met Colby Dauch from Plaid Hat and he convinced me that I have a talent in design, and he would like to work with me as a publisher.

DTD: And this was before Plaid Hat was absorbed.

In 2015, Plaid Hat Games was acquired by Canadian publisher F2Z Entertainment, themselves a merger of Filosofia Editions and Z-Man Games.

EM: That’s correct. So, Cipher Ops then became Specter Ops.

DTD: Which I absolutely love. The whole idea of having a duplicate of the board on a pad of paper, and planning it all out on paper. Exactly like you said, it reminds me of pen and paper games I played when I was a kid. In high school and grammar school there were a lot of these bizarre games that would just pass around the different students. You had a piece of paper; you had a pen. One person would draw aliens on their side, another person would draw ships. And the ships would move. And to shoot, you would hold the pen on the paper, and let it slide off, and it would make a line. And it had that feel.

EM: Oh, that’s interesting, yeah.

DTD: And so, the paper would end up a mess, but you would do this thing where one person was trying to make more aliens. The aliens would replicate. Every time you drew new aliens, as they were moving, they would duplicate. And the ships just made paths, but it was one ship. So, it was replication versus firepower is really what it was. But Specter Ops – I think that was the game where you really came on the map very strong. Because I know that was a very popular game, everyone was talking about it. I was playing it and loving it. And that made me look back at other games; who is this Emerson guy?

EM: I definitely think that was the game that drew attention to my name. Like you said, it’s the game that put me on the map. So, after that, I started to do more designing work, and I basically worked with publishers from that point forward, so Nazca Games ceased to exist as a publisher, and more as just like a design house.

Next time, Emerson and I discuss video game aspirations, bad boys bad boys, and the story behind an unnamed “soulless, themeless cube pusher”. Actually, we name it – It’s Century: Spice Road.

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