Welcome back to my light lunch with Emerson Matsuuchi. Emerson and I snuck off the casino floor of the Westgate Resort, and talked shop over soup. Today Emerson tells the story of Century: Spice Road, born during a tumultuous time in gaming.

DTD: OK. Is Nazca, is it just you and design, or are you having other designers come in through Nazca, being a funneling point for development and design?

EM: Actually, yeah. I was hoping that Nazca could be a collaboration of other designers, but actually I was refocusing it to be more towards digital development.

DTD: Really?

EM: I wanted to actually… Which is ironic. I was planning to do some apps that were kind of adjacent to board games, so it has a lot of the similar mechanics. But create some apps that people can play sort of like you would play the Stone Age app or the Agricola app, or play Star Realms on the app. So we would create those type of apps that use fundamental board game mechanics, but something that you can play by yourself just to kill time and so forth. So, I was kind of heading in that direction, and the ironic thing is that I was thinking of also outsourcing a lot of that development too. Which is part of the reason I got into this in the first place.

DTD: That’s really funny, because to me, Specter Ops feels like a board game that elegantly uses what computer games do. So, it seems like a regression from digital. It’s a weird way to say it. Both fields get inspiration from each other. You see computer games show up that are implementations of board games, doing what computers do better. And board games show up that are implementations of what the computer games did. Put into physicality. And Specter Ops has that feel.

EM: Yes. Which is interesting that you say that. Because when I was first working on this game, the idea of specter ops came from watching an episode of a reality show called Cops.

DTD: [laughs] really?

Bad boys, bad boys…

EM: I saw there were two policemen in a police car with a cameraman and part of the camera crew, and they were chasing down a suspect. So, it was one person who was incredibly limber; he was able to vault over fences and things like that. And this poor camera guy was just trying to keep up with him.

DTD: That’s what I always think about every time I see Cops. Is the camera bouncing up and down and trying to keep up with what’s going on.

Whatcha gonna do…?

EM: Yes! But this particular episode, I was working on something, and this just happened to be on TV, and I just stopped what I was doing because I was mesmerized by this. I could sort of sympathetically feel the adrenaline that the police have trying to keep up with this guy who is incredibly elusive.

DTD: So, that’s the source of “the car” in Specter Ops? The mobile home base car. That’s awesome.

EM: Exactly, and I was thinking, what kind of adrenaline is the subject, who is running away, what is he feeling? Just to get me to stop whatever I was doing, just to fixate on this TV, just for that moment…

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you!?

DTD: I think hidden movement games are hard to do. And the payoff is that tension. Specter Ops is nothing but tension. It’s that whole idea of hiding in a corner and deciding if you want to run out and make that move. Everybody is talking about what you may be doing, but you can hear them, so you do maybe what they are predicting, but not what they are predicting. Oh, I love it.

EM: Yeah, right! So, when I was first, when I wanted to capture that experience and make a game from it, I started with a video game first. I wanted it to be a first-person video game where one player is playing the suspect, and then the two or more people will be playing the police and you are on a map, it’s first person, or third person. And that’s sort of how it started. And then I was chatting with a friend of mine… He lives in Belgium, by the way. But I was just chatting with him, and kind of explaining, “Hey, I’ve got this idea, I think I want to do something like this.” And then he said to me, “You know you are really into board games, have you thought of making this a board game?” And I was typing to him, “No. I don’t think it will [abrupt stop]” And there was this pause, and then I backspaced everything I was about to type, and I said, “I am going to give it a try.” And that’s where Specter Ops came from. So, when you talked about the video games and the board games, this is an interesting…

DTD: That is really cool. And the pad is what really makes that. Is that duplicate pad. It’s off-tangent, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there is a solo hidden movement game, Black Sonata.

EM: I have heard of it.

DTD: It’s a clever, weird. It’s got a deck that is pre-programmed to move a hidden target around a city. And there’s a very unique way to check the deck, to see if you… You chase and you get clues, and you guess where they are, and there’s a unique way to check. And it involved cards with hole punches in them that shine through to clue cards.

EM: Oh, that’s clever.

DTD: And it’s all programmed in the deck, and that fascinated me. Just crossed my mind, the hidden movement things.

EM: I’ll have to check that out. Black Sonata?

DTD: Black Sonata. I don’t think they’ve done anything else. It was a Kickstarter thing. And I think it’s one designer, one company. Clever ideas for solo game stuff. So then, Specter Ops came out. Specter Ops is doing well. So then, what do you do next.

Black Sonata (2017) is by designer and artist John Kean. An expansion, the Fair Youth, was successfully Kickstarted in 2020.

EM: After that, the next one that I had shown… I had shown Plaid Hat a few more. I was developing a very strong partnership with Plaid Hat Games. And I had showed them, and it was very funny. After Specter Ops, Colby Dauch said, “Anything that you produce…”

DTD: Show it to us first.

EM: Yes, he said, “I’m interested in any new prototypes that you have.” And I had a themeless, soulless cube pushing euro game.

DTD: I don’t know what that could be…

Lies. I know exactly what that could be. But I won’t spoil it.

EM: And that’s exactly the way I showed it. Because in my mind, I had already resigned to the fact that this is not a Plaid Hat game, they are not going to want this. But I did want to respect his request and showed it to him. So, I said, “This is a themeless, soulless, cube pushing euro. Here are the rules.” And then after he played it, he said, “We can do this with the theme, we can take this particular art direction…” And I thought, “Wait, this is not the way I thought the conversation would go.” I thought they would immediately say, “No. This is not for us.” But I think he saw something in the design, and said, “We are interested in doing this.”

DTD: Well it’s got… Well, we are talking about Century.

EM: Century: Spice Road, yes.

DTD: It’s got just that addictive, mathematical, pure engine mechanics thing. It’s the Candy Crush effect.

EM: Yes, yes.

DTD: You are doing little tiny motions, that all add up, and they make you feel good. So, Century went to Plan B Games, right?

EM: Yes, eventually. But there were a few strange steps along the way.

DTD: Well I was wondering; somewhere in the middle was all the takeovers and everything like that, and Plan B was a product of that.

Quick recap. Sophie Gravel, owner of Filosofia Editions, bought Z-Man Games in 2011, forming F2Z Entertainment. In 2015, F2Z bought Plaid Hat Games and some others. Asmodee bought F2Z in 2016. But Sophie made a deal to leave Asmodee with a few select properties, forming Plan B Games. Phew.

EM: Yes, that is correct.

DTD: So, is that how it migrated into that area.

EM: It is. I had shown the game Century: Spice Road to Plaid Hat. At that time… I called it Spice Road actually, that was my original title for it. So Plaid Hat was interested, they said, “We are interested in this. We’d like to take this prototype.” And then, not too long after that, they were acquired by F2Z Entertainment, and during that transition it went from Spice Road to “Caravan”. And then Caravan had the two different aesthetics for the game, because that’s what Plaid Hat had envisioned, was actually doing two different aesthetics for it.

DTD: So still at Plaid Hat, but post-acquisition.

EM: Yes. They did decide it would fit better under the Z-Man brand. Even though Plaid Hat were the development teams that were doing all of the production and everything like that. But it will be branded with Z-Man on it. Then F2Z got acquired by Asmodee.

DTD: Right.

EM: And during that transition, the head of the company for F2Z Entertainment…

DTD: Sophie [Gravel].

EM: Yeah, she negotiated as part of the contract that… One, which I think is ingenious, is that she was able to negotiate out the noncompete clause. So, she can immediately start a company.

DTD: And she is such a brilliant businessperson. She has been a power player recently. One of the big ones.

The food arrives, resplendent in smell and presentation.

DTD: Oh, well thank you so much. Delightful. I’m going to take some pictures. Because I always, always forget to take the pictures, and I get in trouble later. And I end up reusing the same pictures over and over because I am a terrible person.

EM: [laughs]

DTD: Well, I’ve got you and your soup, so thank you. So, Caravan is with Z-Man, and Sophia is in there, but negotiating an “out”, during the takeover of everything.

EM: Well, she said she was only going to sell the company under these conditions. The conditions she specified were that she gets to… So, she negotiated out the noncompete clause. She gets to keep Pretzel Games and Caravan.

DTD: And your one game?

EM: Yes. So those were her stipulations.

DTD: And Plan B didn’t exist at that point yet?

EM: Not yet. So, it was at that time, which was an interesting first encounter with Sophie, is that I first, Colby had introduced me to Sophie and we sat down and we had lunch together. And she said, and at that time because of these merges and everything like that, I looked at my contract, and my contract for Caravan had actually expired. And I looked to see, I just made sure I went through all the legalese to see if there was any kind of retention, and I didn’t see anything. So, I… Effectively the rights came back to me. And I thought, at this time because I feel that with so many things going on, and Plaid Hat, as much as I really enjoyed working with Plaid Hat, but they were always going to have to answer to a higher authority [Asmodee].

DTD: It’s true. And things were, it feels like things were a lot less stable, a lot more unpredictable at that point. Because everybody was talking about mergers and acquisitions and what was coming next, and everything like that. It was an aggressive, absorbing market.

EM: And because I really wanted to get this out to market, because it is a game that I felt it wasn’t really breaking new ground, it wasn’t…

DTD: Along that line, I have to ask had you played and seen Splendor before.

EM: Not before the original prototype. My original prototype I had towards the end of 2013 I believe. So, this is before Splendor, or just when Splendor was coming out.

DTD: I know they were close.

EM: Yes.

DTD: What the other thing is, I think Splendor broke open the market for soulless and themeless. It created this market for entry level, very abstracted, but addictive engine builders. And you know, the comparison always comes up, between Splendor and Century.

EM: Right, yes

DTD: But I was just curious, because I think Splendor opened up this market, but my own opinion is that Century kind of blew it away.

EM: Well, thank you.

DTD: And the variations on it are just clever and interesting with the 3 different games.

Century: Spice Road has 2 sequels, each running with the cube collection and upgrade mechanic in their own way. First came Century: Eastern Wonders (2018), then Century: A New World (2019).

EM: Yes, that is sort of where we wanted to do something a bit different, was to actually create more value to the customer by having a series of games that then can then be interlinked. And I have a funny story around that as well, which I would love to share. But going back to the, at this period where my contract was up and I knew I had the rights back, when I met with Sophie, she said, “I am looking forward to working with you on this.” And I made that decision that I was going to publish it myself. So, I was thinking of resurrecting Nazca games as a publisher and publishing this myself. And when I told her that, I could see that she was… It was unexpected.

DTD: She was shocked.

EM: She was shocked. It was unexpected. But because she felt so strongly about this design, she made me a very generous offer.

DTD: That’s nice.

EM: Then it was more like the idea of having the trilogy of games and so forth.

DTD: In hindsight, I think Century kind of made Plan B. As a new publishing house.

EM: Yes, it was a very good launch title.

DTD: It was a wonderful launch title for Plan B.

EM: And then Azul just really solidified Plan B’s place in gaming.

DTD: Yeah, again, elegant, soulless, themeless, addictive. I’ve talked to a lot of designers about it, but it feels like the trend has been to simplify, and I overuse it all the time, but to create more elegant games. If you look… I remember back in the 70’s playing games, and you wanted the bigger, more complex, more pieces, huge rulebooks that all had rule a. And over time, it seems like everything has been going towards much simpler and much more elegant. And really clever designs. You agree this is the way everything has been moving?

EM: Absolutely. Like when I was a kid, when a box said this was a 6-hour game, this was a selling point to me. Because I wanted games to be long and involved. Because we had so much spare time.

DTD: And so many pieces.

EM: Yeah, and the more pieces, the more complexity in the rules was a selling point. We wanted that. We wanted as much of a simulation as we could get. It really was because we had so much time. We needed something to kill all that time that we had.

DTD: I hadn’t thought about it as being “we have so much time”, but I guess there is a lot of competition for attention nowadays.

EM: These days, absolutely, yeah.

DTD: There’s so many different things you can do with your limited free time. It just seems like the whole industry is moving that way, and I like it.  Because at the same time, we have an industry that is absolutely exploding. There’s so many games that are all competing so hard with each other. That we are getting new consumers, who want… They don’t want the 8-hour war game. And we have really fearsome competition among the games, so what’s rising to the top are the elegant little… And if you can put a theme on it, people get excited about that too.

Next time, Emerson and I wax nostalgic about games from the 70s and 80s, then flip 180 degrees and hash out the pros and cons of modern app-driven games.