It is one of my favorite times, a quiet lunch of simple comfort food with good friends. And even though I have just met master designer Emerson Matsuuchi, he has such an easy going “vibe” to him, that I feel like we have always been friends. Today we discuss influential games of our past, and the trend towards app-driven, video/board game hybrids.
EM: And I think that one thing that is understated in terms of importance, is how quick is it to get into the game. I think this is a huge selling point. I think the games that do really well are the ones that have the shortest barrier to entry to get the game on the table, and start playing.
DTD: It’s even to the point where several designers, most notably it’s been Friedemann Friese, wants to have games that have no entry point. As soon as you open the box, and you look at the first card, it tells you how to play. Which is a really clever idea. And that’s mimicked in video games really heavily. I mean, what video games do you buy nowadays that even come with an instruction book?
Most notably, Friedemann Friese made the Fast Forward series of card games: no instructions needed, just flip the cards. These started with Fabled Fruit, and led to Fortress, Fear, Flee and Fortune.
EM: Right, right. You never look at the instruction book anymore.
DTD: It’s funny, I look back at video games I bought in the 80s and 90s, yeah, they had an instruction book. You read it on the way home from the store, and you got excited about it. Or if you were really excited, you just started playing, you got lost and confused, then you went back and you read the book. So now, I think there’s nothing. They are made for instant entry, and it’s really interesting that our board games are mimicking that. Or trying to.
EM: And there are a couple ways that we are trying to incorporate… We are trying to make that barrier to entry as low as possible. One is we have a lot of these great content creators that create the how to play videos. So, we have Rodney Smith, he does Watch it Played, and does a phenomenal job. Was creating videos that will concisely tell you how to play.
DTD: And it’s an art form, they are doing so good. It’s really cool seeing the different people doing it. Because Rahdo is doing essentially how-to-plays, but he is playing through with just an energy and a vibrancy that you just don’t see. And then Rodney is the opposite, with his Mr. Rogers, mellow, “Let’s go through it and here’s how you play”, which works wonderfully. And you’ve got Paul Grogan in the middle, with Gaming Rules, who is doing really cool, both live plays and how to plays. I agree, the media is backing up the industry so much.
EM: And I do feel that because of the media, because there’s so much content out there, and there are people out there who are evangelizing this hobby, like yourself… It’s that energy that people see.
DTD: [laughing] I don’t think I’m evangelizing it as much as I’m documenting it and journalizing it.
EM: But people will see that and they get excited. Like, I am always forever grateful to Tom Vasel, because he’s the one who kind of got me back into board games. I was playing World of Warcraft, and there was someone in my guild who was also into board games. And he turned me on to The Dice Tower, and I started watching the reviews, and I remember Tom Vasel had me so much, enthusiasm. I went out, found my friendly local game store, bought a copy of Settlers of Catan, played it with some other friends who were also playing World of Warcraft. It was my wife and I and his fiancée and him, and we played Settlers of Catan, and after we were done, we said, “Wow, lets play that again.”
DTD: Wow. It really was a different world. I was in the hobby pretty early, and I remember absolutely scouring store, begging rides, and when I was old enough to drive, driving long distances to try to find places that sold weird board games. This is in the 70s and into the 80s. So, I plowed through the Avalon Hill games, went through some strange ones. I don’t know if you remember, at one point TSR had these plastic clamshell games that were…
EM: Like Chainmail? I never owned a copy, but I heard of it.
Gather around, children, and let me tell you of the days before Wizards of the Coast, where two gentlemen named Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren made a small medieval miniatures game called Chainmail. And the world changed forever.
DTD: Like Chainmail. Welcome to Pleasantville. Or a name very similar to that. [They’ve Invaded Pleasantville (1981)] Which was very interesting, it was an early social deduction game. There were players, characters that were taken over by aliens, tat were pod people. And other ones trying to figure out who they were. I remember in, I think it was 1983 or 1984, I picked up a one-publisher, one-game that was called Wabbit Wampage, that was one of our favorites, we played it all the time. It was an absolutely broken game, but it was a board game of Looney Tunes cartoons. And you would pick up the shotgun and the dynamite, and you would just blow each other up. It was fantastic, but it was so unbalanced and crazy. Which I think, by necessity it had to be. But it was cardboard and paper, and I think you even had to cut out some of the components yourself. So, were you in the board game hobby early at that point? Because you said that you were doing computer stuff, I am assuming you were a computer game guy when you were doing computer stuff.
EM: Right. But I did get into board games early on. When I was 5, 6, 7, around there I was playing things like Risk. And my favorite game at that time, it was called Shogun.
DTD: Oh, I remember, yeah!
EM: But it had several iterations and name changes. I think it was called Samurai Swords. I think the current one is called Ikusa. I think that’s the most current one. Yeah, I loved that game, so I was very much into board games at that time.
Milton Bradley produced Shogun by designer Michael Gray in 1986. It was then renamed to Samurai Swords in 1995, before becoming Avalon Hill’s Ikusa in 2011.
DTD: That was right in the Stratego, Axis and Allies, that kind of line. And it was, this is all Hasbro before they were all Hasbro, so some Milton Bradley and things like that. Big coffin boxes of various, kind of aggressive wargames. And there were a number of them, they were fun.
EM: I didn’t get to play many of them, because I only had so much money, so I had to pick and choose wisely, and that’s where the complexity and how long it takes were the selling points. If this is the only game I can buy for this summer, then I’m going to get as much playing as I can.
DTD: Get as much game out of it as I can. Well I remember back in those early games, I was, actually still am, an only child. I didn’t have siblings I could go grab, and friends… I went to a private school, so friends tended to live kind of far away, so I didn’t see them all that often. So, I would get big, complicated games, and I would just read them, over and over and over again. I think there were several of them I never even got to play; I would just read them. But again, those were the days where, like you said, the complexity was the selling point. More, more, more. And I got sucked into Talisman when it was early. The early GW Talisman.
Talisman was originally created by Robert Harris for Games Workshop in 1983. An agreement was struck for the 4th edition in 2007, and Talisman was then made jointly between Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop. In 2017 the two gaming giants severed their ties, and Talisman became hard to find. But fences were mended, axes were buried, and Talisman came back through Pegasus Spiele in 2019.
EM: I remember wanting Talisman. That was a game that I wanted and couldn’t afford.
DTD: It was hard to find. I think I bought it in the early 80s. Mid 80s – 84 or 85. And in college we played that over and over. We would drive 100 miles on the hope that we found a store that had another expansion to it. I think I still have all those early editions.
EM: Wow. Did you ever get into RPGs?
DTD: I did. So, I played a lot of D&D in high school in the 70s and early 80s. Back when you snuck into a back room and played D&D, and you didn’t let the adults know because there was always one parent or adult who would make you stop. We founded a board game and D&D club in high school, and didn’t really tell them what we were doing, but we got a room that we could use after school, and just play games forever. And then we would try to find all of… There was an explosion of strange role playing games at that time, when D&D started getting popular. So, there were Rolemaster and Gamma World. We played all of those. Were you a role playing guy, too?
DTD: It seemed to come off of the computer games, because a lot of the computer games were fantasy role playing computer games. And you wanted more of that.
EM: You certainly did. And I remember when I got the first red box version of Dungeons and Dragons, I thought, “This is amazing, because the amount of game you can get out of this is infinite.” You will never run out of game.
DTD: I remember it… It’s so easy nowadays, but I remember when I got the red box, it was so difficult for someone to explain to me what this actually was. It wasn’t really a game, but once you understood it, your mind just exploded. It was like nothing you had ever seen before.
EM: It was groundbreaking.
DTD: It really was, Just the whole idea that you could do anything. And there was a ruleset that kind of dealt with it.
Our waitress, sensing an emptiness deep in my soul, sated it the only way appropriate – more iced tea. She really was delightful.
DTD: No, it changed the world. I remember getting the red box on a trip when I was a child, and I read through all of it on a plane trip. It was a long plane trip, and it just flew by, because all I was doing was just reading those books. And then I wanted all the real, big books.
EM: I started that way as well.
DTD: So, we are reminiscing, sitting on a porch, just rocking back and forth. “I remember back in the day…”
EM: When I was your age, we used pencil and paper!
DTD: And we had to get up to change the channel on the TV. So, you did a soulless themeless cube pusher, after one of the most thematic games with hidden movement. So, it was originally in the plans to do multiple variants on Century: Spice Road?
EM: It was part of this idea to use more than one theme. Which I thought was really interesting. Let the customer decide what theme that they want for this game.
DTD: So, the Golem idea was an early idea in there.
EM: Yeah, it was very, very early.
DTD: Wow, OK. I kind of thought that Golem came out of the success of Century Spice Road, but I didn’t realize that it was one of the original ideas for it.
EM: When it was announced, they showed both covers of it, back when it was supposed to be from Z-Man. So, they showed both covers. So people knew that this artwork existed.
DTD: Really? Oh, that’s great. But then the idea of having multiple games that all linked in together with each other. Was that a later idea on it?
EM: That was a later idea. This was something that Plan B came up with. Sophie asked me, “Can we make this a trilogy of games?” And at that time, I really didn’t have other games to go with it. I just had an idea that maybe I can integrate a board. I just had some ideas floating around. Then she asked, “Well, can we make them mixable?” She was using the term “mixable”, which is not… I guess we had a different idea of what the term mixable meant. So, when she asked that, I said, “Yeah, I think it’s probably possible.” And things like that. Actually, I was working with some of the people in her staff on some of these ideas, so it wasn’t directly with Sophie. She was just asking those questions. And she kind of left the room, and then I was talking to some folks, and said, “Yeah, we have these ideas.” We went out to lunch, we drafted out a whole bunch of ideas. And so, I said, “OK, let me think if I can work the mechanics in, to make this work.” And I remember coming back from Montreal, from the Montreal area, because that is where they are based. And starting to write some notes and things like that. And then they had announced on January 11, they had announced as a trilogy they will be fully mixable. And I thought, “Oh, OK. Now I’m really committed to doing this.”
DTD: I guess it’s happening!
EM: When I met Sophie after that, I said, “I guess now I’m on the rope to do this.” And she says, “Oh, was that not what was agreed upon?” Because, I think something might have gotten a little lost in the conversation. Not that I was opposed to doing it, but she was incredibly apologetic.
DTD: But it worked.
EM: It did work. It really did push me to do something.
DTD: I mean the trilogy is done now. I need to tell you the third one [Century: A New World], I really like it. A really interesting mix of resource management, the little meeple people, and the board. I like it a lot, it’s very fun.
EM: Oh, thank you.
DTD: The second one [Century: Eastern Wonders], I mean I thought it was a natural progression and improvement on it, but the third one really blew me away. The combination of still being simple but having these neat extra elements to it. That was really good.
EM: Well, I’m glad you enjoyed those.
DTD: Oh yeah. All three really have that elegance to them, they are addictive and interesting and engine building, and it’s all the stuff I like. Today, talking about more and more games having this simplicity, but elegant simplicity coming to it. Today for the first time I played Fantastic Factories, and that has a simple engine building quality to it almost a Gizmos like… I think that both Century and Splendor broke open the market for those games. And they are still going strong. Building on the shoulders of giants. [laughs]
EM: I think the industry would have trended that way.
DTD: You think so?
EM: Because I think the games that are making to the table more are the games that are, have very short rules teach. More people are more inclined to be able teach it if the rules are simpler. And very easy, if it’s intuitive. Also, set up and take down. I mean, that’s one of the reasons that Arkham Horror, first or second edition, we had a hard time getting it to the table. Just because it took an hour just to set up the game.
DTD: Oh, and going back even further, Mansions [of Madness] first edition – it was a very fun experience, but that took forever to set up. And if one little element of setup was not perfect, it didn’t work. But it was a really cool idea. It was taking a role-playing game, basically, and putting all the physical elements in. It was taking the miniatures component that we all wanted with our role-playing games, and making it an integrates, essential part of the game. And I think that role, if we want to continue to do the trend of elegant, simple games, but we also want this total immersive, role playing, Arkham, Eldritch experience, I think that’s where the app driven games are going to take over. Are you thinking about going into the app driven games now? You’ve got a strong background in computers, and the game design chops.
EM: I have definitely been giving it a lot of thought and, when I think about app driven games, I’m always incredibly critical on whether the app is going to add the value it needs to warrant having an app. In people’s minds, an app could be a delicate part of the game that could break easily, if you run out of battery, or if the app crashes. Does it eliminate your entire game session? So those are always these concerns, so I feel that in order for an app to be integral, it’s got to add a ton of value, and it’s got to be something that is irreplaceable, for you to have a game that will require an app. Otherwise, I think there’s still so much design space that we have just in the physical components, that we haven’t explored. I think there’s many games that use an app, but I feel like most of them, they are not really utilizing…
DTD: They don’t need it?
EM: Yeah, they don’t need it. It’s not a necessary part of the experience.
DTD: It’s funny, because it seems like the early app driven games were very vocal about, “Here’s how you play it if you don’t have the app.” I always think back to Alchemists. The app was there to set up a random condition for you because it was deduction. It was clue, and the app picked who the bad guy was. And that’s a very good role for an app, it’s a neutral player who sets everything up and doesn’t tell you the answers. But there was a whole section in that rulebook about how to set it up and how to play if you didn’t have the app. And nowadays just kind of assume everybody has a device, everybody is going to run the app. And there’s no contingency, and it allows the app to do more things, so you get the Mansions of Madness 2nd edition, Journeys in Middle Earth. You know, these adventure style games where there’s a lot of little fiddly moving pieces that don’t detract from your game anymore, because the computer is handling it all. I think that’s a good role for apps, and it’s hard to do a simple, million detail role playing game, board game, without a computer sitting there handling the fiddly bits for you.
EM: Right. The other challenge I had when I was trying to think of ways the apps can really add value to it, is that I had an idea – the app is going to take care of a lot of the bookkeeping, things like that. I thought, “OK, we are still moving pieces on the board, maybe the board…” As I was putting more and more of the responsibility on to the app to do bookkeeping, keeping track of where the pieces are and so forth, eventually I got to the point where the best way to integrate, to implement this game is completely on the app.
DTD: Then it turns into a video game.
EM: And it turns into a video game.
DTD: And a lot of people have that argument. That if you have an app driven game, you don’t want it to be a video game where you happen to push one piece across the board. And you don’t want it to be a board game where the app sings songs in the background while you play. Two extremes.
EM: It’s a really interesting, and a very “wild west” area, as to how we are going to integrate these two types of components.
DTD: I feel strongly that people, people really love a physicality. They love chunky bits, moving things around. Things like, you know this little game you might have heard of, Reef. That’s got big chunky plastic bits that are just fun to grab and touch and move. No, I definitely get the feeling in a lot of your games, that you understand the physicality of them. [laughs]
That’s it until next time, when Emerson elucidates rhapsodic about Foundations of Rome, and I get very excited about his prototype social deduction word game.