Emerson Matsuuchi, preeminent game design genius, is making incomprehensible noises and spitting crumbs, his mouth chock full of plain crackers.

EM: It’s hard to talk with crackers, but… I love the salty…

DTD: I think this is a challenge, don’t you? You know, shove a whole bunch of crackers in your mouth and then you have to whistle or something?

EM: But I realize that I am craving salt, so that’s what I think.

I slyly slid some saltines stashed serendipitously at my side, so sir Emerson should not suffer.

EM: Thank you.

DTD: I am here to provide.

The may have been a flourish or a slight bow. There’s no witnesses.

EM: I feel like there is a tremendous challenge trying to figure out where apps play the right role in the tabletop gaming environment.

DTD: I guess I felt the natural environment for it is DM’ing, being a dungeon master, being a referee. And there’s a lot of those role playing games that I think really work well because of those apps.

EM: I agree. Like Mansions of Madness is one of our game groups’ favorite games. And it does a great job.

DTD: Oh, it really does

EM: When I get a chance, I do like to razz the Fantasy Flight developers, and tell them, “Well, when are you going to implement a back button, or an undo?”

DTD: I have run into that a bunch of times, where it registers the wrong spot, you hit the wrong button. Now the other one that I always thought would be a really interesting place for apps, is constant variability and update. Take the things they do with online card games: you know, your Hearthstone and things like that. And implement them somehow into board games. This week, your game now has this card.

EM: Yeah right. That’s an interesting spin.

DTD: People have talked about it a little bit, but again, it’s hard to make that natural board game rather than a video game. But I think the video games have grabbed the board game/card game mechanic and just run with it. You get things like Slay the Spire and all those, and they have done a great job.

EM: I’m just letting Jason know we are still having lunch.

A little back story. The previous evening, myself, Emerson and Jason Levine were going to go to a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas, and possibly have this interview with all 3 of us. This was cancelled, due to Emerson feeling under the weather. Jason and I went to the restaurant, Best Friend, and it was amazing.

Emerson and I had arranged to get together Jason after this lunch, and of course, I am running late. I like to talk.

DTD: Oh, that’s OK. [laughs] Not a worry at all. Is he concerned? I actually, I’m kind of glad… Not that you were feeling off, but I’m kind of glad it didn’t happen, because the restaurant, when we went there, was the loudest place I have ever been in my entire life. Nothing would have been on the recorder. It would have failed completely. And I have been in some loud places. This is as if you took a Los Angeles night club and put a restaurant in it. They had a DJ; it was so loud. It never would have worked.

EM: A lot of trendy restaurants in New York are just like that.

DTD: I can’t take it. The food was very, very good. But man, it was not the right place to do something like this.

EM: I think I would much prefer an environment like this, where we can sit, and it’s not too loud, although it’s getting a little bit louder.

DTD: A little bit. We are doing fine.

EM: So, I mean your new one, Foundations [of Rome], it has done amazingly well. Congratulations.

DTD: Thank you.

EM: And it is, again, a fun elegant game. And the physicality with the different buildings, it’s really there. Was it in the original plans to have big chunky buildings on that? Because it feels like a more toned down, elegant, maybe fits on a board.

DTD: Yes. So, my prototype just had cardboard pieces, but when I showed it to Arcane Wonders, I said, “It would be cool if these were plastic pieces.” Now that said though, I wasn’t expecting the pieces to be that big.

EM: I don’t think anybody was, because nothing else has been like that. With the large cube box with drawers that pull out.

DTD: I’m excited for that, though. The fact that you can just take tray, take the lid off, and now you are ready to go.

EM: And they are gorgeous.

DTD: We were talking before about how the easier the game is to set up, the more time it is probably going to get played. I feel that’s a feature.

EM: Oh yeah, and it’s a really good feature.

DTD: And did that one go through any big changes? Did Foundations go through any big changes during that development process? Because it seems like it’s a really straightforward idea, a great one. You know, you’ve got the grid, you pick the spot. When you have enough spots, you put the building. Everything just lays in really simply and just works off itself.

To clarify my rambling incoherent blather: In Foundations, you accumulate cards laying claim to specific squares on the square grid board. If you own a group of connected squares that can accommodate a certain building, you can place that building.

EM: So, in terms of the rules, not too much has changed. I mean there are definitely some smaller details and smaller rules that have been changed. And I think we have actually streamlined it a little bit from the time that I showed them the prototype. So, it got a little bit of streamlining. But I think the one aspect that took the most time was to decide on a theme for it. Because it was a generic city building theme, and that’s why it’s on a grid.

DTD: Sure, and the Roman thing works, because then you don’t have to get too complicated. Because, I can see it getting crazy with water lines and electrical lines and grids and connecting things together. And when you go back to an ancient civilization like that, you just wipe the board clean. You know, we have money, we’ve got food, we’ve got buildings, we are done.

EM: Yup. Exactly. Maybe that’s why there’s a lot of games that are historically themed. Because you don’t need to deal with a lot of the logistics of modern day.

DTD: What, are you saying that there’s a lot of Roman, Mediterranean, Medieval aged games? I don’t know, I think it’s an underutilized theme. We need more…

EM: We need more trading games.

DTD: And if they traded somewhere in Europe, I think that would be delightful. That would work perfectly.

EM: Yeah, that would be great.

DTD: And Zombies!

EM: Yes.

DTD: We need zombie expansion for Foundations of Rome.

EM: I think we should definitely explore that idea.

You heard it here first. Zombie expansion, Foundations of Rome.

DTD: That’s it. I’ll be sending you a consulting fee.

EM: Bill it to Arcane Wonders.

DTD: OK, will do. I know the Arcane guys. I’ll tell them. So, what games have you been playing lately that have impressed you? Have you had time to go around and play the different games at the shows?

EM: Yes, actually. There was one game, it wasn’t at the show, it was with my gaming group. It was called Underwater Cities, which I know is a little bit older, but I guess I am late to the table.

DTD: Yes! I think it’s like a year. It’s a … I can never pronounce his name.

EM: Vladimír Suchý?

DTD: Suchý, yes.

EM: I wasn’t sure if it was Suchý or Suki, but that game was, I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed that one.

DTD: It’s fantastic. And so crunchy. Definitely. So, do you think as a game designer you have to play a lot of games to know the waters? To be better at your design?

EM: Yes. And also, it’s, for me it’s invaluable to play games, because it helps me get re-tuned to what’s fun. One of the things I enjoy. Because if I am constantly working on prototypes, I tend to lose that sense.

DTD: And that’s, some of the people I talk to have said, “Any time I play games, I just pull out one of my prototypes, and that’s the only time I get to play games, so I don’t know what’s out there.” And I’ve always kind of felt that you kind of need to at least know about all the other stuff that’s out there, to get ideas. Because every, it’s very rare that a game is truly unique. There’s ideas from this, and mechanisms from that. Everything is built on everything else, and it’s wonderful, because it’s making an evolution of games that’s giving us really, really good games. I think the only one recently that has just jumped out and been super unique has probably been The Mind.

EM: Yes

DTD: Nobody has made sitting around and doing nothing the main mechanic of a game. [laughing] Is that a terrible thing to say?

EM: Well there are still people who will argue whether it’s a game at all or not.

DTD: A game or an activity.

EM: Or an activity. Which, it’s a… I had this conversation with a friend of mine, he’s the designer of Pipeline [Ryan Courtney]. We came to the conclusion it doesn’t matter if people think it’s a game or an activity, as long as people are having fun, they are enjoying it, and they are playing the product. That’s what really matters.

DTD: There’s a whole bunch of them, that are just really fun, bizarre activities. And then at the end there will often be some points, just slapped on, to make it a game. And I think it was actually Friedemann Friese who told me, that the companies are forced to put points on it, because if there’s no points, it won’t sell in Germany. And these were things like Concept, Just One, Letter Jam, that kind of have a fishy point structure.

EM: I see, yeah. Because the acquisition of points is secondary to the goal of the game, which is to have fun.

DTD: And a lot of these things are just fun. Everybody has had the experience where they have played some sort of trivia game or something like that, and you end up just running through the cards. And nobody knows who’s winning. You did this with Trivial Pursuit in the day, Balderdash, even Cards Against Humanity. People would just run through the cards and just laugh and have fun. And you forget, it’s not even in their minds anymore that this is a game and we need to have a winner and we need to have a loser. Those are a blast. So, I’m cheating a little bit, and I’m going to ask you what you are working on now. But we played a prototype, so it’s OK to talk about that, right?

EM: Yeah, I think it’s OK to talk about that.

DTD: OK, so social deduction game. And that was really fascinating. I was reminded of it, because we were talking about Letter Jam. And part of the game that we were playing was having a card facing away from you, everybody else can see it except the one target person. That’s kind of the Letter Jam-esque aspect. But that was just a really neat idea. So, you could probably say it better than I, but it was really clever that 1) that you had this brilliant mechanism for dividing the group into bad guys and good guys, and all the bad guys know who each other are. The good guys had no idea who the bad guys were, and nobody had to put their heads down on a table and make thumping noises. And that was amazing. And I remember as a kid, I actually went to magic classes and magic camps, and we would make decks of cards that had an order to them, and you could let people cut them as much as they wanted, and the deck was still stacked.

As you can tell, I was very excited about this game. So much so, that I didn’t really let my guest, the designer, speak. I have apologized to Emerson for this; it really was rude of me.

In his social deduction game, the group was divided into good guys and bad guys. The assignment was done with a small deck of cards that had a repeating pattern of cards: if you cut this deck, the sequence was preserved. You just didn’t know where the sequene started. This means that good guys received a card that just said their role. But bad guys received a card that not only delineated them as bad, it also identified all the other bad guys around the table. No hiding your head. No table thumping.

EM: Yes, exactly.

DTD: I don’t know why that hasn’t come into it before. It’s a great connection there. So, it’s that stacked deck that you can cut over and over, and it has a repeating pattern, and it lets the bad guys know who all the bad guys are. That was great!

EM: Yeah, I think that mechanism should be used in all games, because I don’t personally like the whole close your eyes…

DTD: It takes away from it. And I think it’s historical. People have been playing variations of assassin, or werewolf or mafia, things like this, forever. And there’s always got to be some sort of hidden information, like “You guys look, you guys don’t” or “I’ll tell you a secret, but not you.” And that worked really well. And having it be a word game, a clever password, one-word clue, one-word answer, word game is great! In short, it’s bad guys and good guys, someone, whether you are a bad guy or a good guy… And please correct me if I’ve got it wrong.

EM: No, no, that’s fine.

DTD: Someone has a word in front of them they need to guess, and everyone else makes clue words. Any duplicated clue words are points for the bad guys. Correct guesses are points for the good guys. So, it’s got that wonderful Dixit element in there, that you want to make clues, but if you are a bad guy, you want them to not guess. So, you can’t look like you’re making them not guess. It was very fun. As you can tell, I’ve been rambling on about it. It’s got some great ideas in there, that was really cool.

EM: Well thank you.

DTD: Anything else about that one that I don’t know about, or that you want to talk about?

EM: No, the rules are very, very simple.

DTD: I like that, too, that it is simple.

EM: I think in this day and age, I’ve always wanted an Avalon type of experience, but nothing that took an hour-long endeavor. Or at least, it’s the group that I play with, that Avalon or Resistance takes an hour or so to play. And often times, we would spend the first 10 or 15 minutes, because we would mess up the setup somehow, because someone forgets to put up their phone, or …

DTD: Easy enough to do.

EM: So, I wanted sort of that experience, a similar experience, but also put it in a… condense the time to something much smaller. So, if I can get it within a half hour, which I think most of the games we played were within a half hour.

DTD: Yeah, it definitely didn’t feel long. I think the tough thing with the social deduction games in general is you have a grey zone there, where at one end, people would just randomly start nailing other people against the wall. They know no information; they are just looking to kill somebody. And at the other end, people are trying so hard to figure out who’s my friend, who’s my enemy, and it’s hard to get people engaged into it. And I think you did very well, especially with the bad guys all knowing who the bad guys are. That’s an instant engagement.

EM: And the fact that everyone is writing words all the time. You’re getting always a little information about everybody if you’re thinking about it. You’re focusing on trying to figure out who your teammates are, and who the enemy is. You’re always seeing the words, you’re hearing the justifications, you could say, “Well, I don’t see how that word fits in with the word that’s in question.”

DTD: “That person’s a little fishy.”

EM: Yeah, exactly, that person’s a little fishy.

I have been remiss in reporting on the exemplary job done by our waitress and ice tea supplier. I was never for want of tea. In fact, I just received a refill.

DTD: That would be great, thank you so much.

EM: And so, the aspect that I like is that it’s always interesting. When I demo this game I am always looking at both sides. So, I look at the word and the words that are out there. But usually I try not to look at this word, and just see what the words are that are out there, to see how difficult it is. When you don’t know what the word is, and you are looking at these clues, it’s incredibly difficult sometimes. But on the other side, you look at the word and say, “Yeah, that seems super obvious.” So, when the person can’t seem to guess it, immediately suspicion gets raised, because…

DTD: Are they not guessing on purpose, because they are a bad guy, because they want you to lose. That’s fantastic.

EM: So, I’m hoping it’s one of those social deduction games that keeps everyone engaged, not just the people selected for a mission, or… It’s always a subset of people that are engaged because they have some information. I’m hoping this will allow everyone to have at least a little bit of engagement each round.

DTD: I think it was there. I think everybody was thinking really hard about what kind of clue they wanted to give. They, both in terms of is it a good or bad clue for the guesser, but also in, “How is this going to look to the other people?” [laughs]

EM: Yes.

DTD: And I like the idea… I’ve always enjoyed games where there’s multiple rounds and sometimes you want to win it, and sometimes you really want to lose it. And you have to flip your strategy for how much you are trying to win or lose a particular little section of that game. And it has that. It has neat stuff. I think back to trick taking games. There’s a new one I’ve been playing, Nokotsu Dice. It’s a trick taking game, and it has some dice as well, but one of the big aspects in it, is you need to win a targeted amount of tricks. And the amount of tricks you need to win can change during the game. So, at some point, you might all of a sudden realize, “I am very close. I don’t want to win any more.” So, you need to change your strategy to all of a sudden lose them. And I love that sometimes aggressively need to win, and sometimes you aggressively need to lose. That, in a word game, really intrigues me. It was very fun. I’m looking forward to that one.

EM: I would love to get you to play it at the 5 to 6 player count, because it seems to work better.

DTD: We had a lot of people, and I think the biggest thing driving some of the imbalance was player count.

To be fair, Emerson did task me with gathering a large group to play the game…

EM: I did not anticipate, how likely to clue matches were happening at the higher player count.

DTD: You told me to grab more people, so before I knew it I had 6 more people.

EM: I could not fault you for that! This is why play testing is so invaluable, too.

DTD: It’s fantastic. Hey, I’m always available as a play tester.

Next time, Emerson talks about developing Reef, Metal Gear Solid, and his new Liar’s Dice Worker Placement game (really). Plus more iced tea!

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