Back in February, before the dark times, I was lucky enough to spend a fantastic lunch with designer Emerson Matsuuchi during the festivities of Dice Tower West. Certainly the high point of my trip, Emerson showed us some of his newer prototype games, which are always creative and amazing…
EM: Well, I do have another game which combines Liar’s Dice with worker placement.
DTD: Really? I can’t even picture how that would go. So, you can manipulate the Liar’s Dice by doing things with workers?
EM: Well, imagine you go to a spot to get, say wood, a resource. But you don’t know how much of that resource you’re going to get, because they are all based on the dice.
A quick refresher on Liar’s Dice: Each player has a number of dice hidden under a cup. You can look at your own dice, but you are purely guessing the values under other peoples’ cups. You then guess how many, let’s say sixes, are currently showing on everybody’s dice, including your own. If you personally have a ton of sixes, you may guess high. If you have no sixes, maybe not.
DTD: Oh, that’s kind of crazy. It reminds me of some of these games where everyone secretly decides what they are going to do, and in spots where everybody picks, it turns into a worse payoff. And in spots where you go alone, it turns into a better payoff. OK, it’s Liar’s Dice determining your result, determining what you get, your production, kind of. I’m assuming you can manipulate how many dice are in the cup and things of that nature.
EM: Yes, there are things that allow you to get more dice, more workers, and things like that. There are some things that allow you to manipulate the dice. But the main mechanic is that each resource track, or each track, has a series of numbers. Let’s say if you wanted to get 5 wood, you would have to put your meeple on the space that says 5. Now these are mutually exclusive, so as soon as one person puts it there, it’s taken. But let’s say the wood is based on the number two [on the dice]. So, it depends on how many twos are out there, but lets say that there was only four twos among all the players, only the people who placed it on the four and lower would actually get those resources.
DTD: Price is Right rules.
I’ll take the ceramic dalmatian for $100. I know, I know, that’s Wheel. I like the reference anyway.
EM: Yes, exactly.
DTD: Oh, that’s pretty cool. I like how that makes you think. So early on, the easy numbers would go first, and you might want to push your luck a little to go for the bigger…
EM: Exactly. But if say someone puts their pawn on the five, and you have several twos of your own, maybe you might put one on the six to get six wood out of it, and so forth. So, each time someone puts a worker down, you are getting some information.
DTD: And it has that Liar’s Dice element, where there are a number of dice around the table, and you know what yours are.
EM: And I would love for you to give that a try as well.
DTD: I’m all for it. I’m here to play games, and I will play anything that’s put in front of me.
I did play this prototype, and thought it amazing. Everything worked together quite well. It felt like next level push your luck.
EM: Are there any games that you refuse to play?
DTD: It’s weird to say it now, but I tend to not be a social deduction player. So, when you said you had a social deduction game, what sold me is you had a social deduction word game. I really love word games. But if someone came and said let’s play a game of Resistance or Coup or Werewolf, I might pass on that. The social deduction elements, party games can be fun, but they’re a mixed bag for me. I tend to be a crunchy, euro kind of guy. Engine building, that kind of stuff. I know, it’s the math nerd in me. So do you enjoy playing your own games?
Check out the previous segment for descriptions of Emerson’s prototype social deduction word game. Spoiler: it was great.
EM: Yes. I do. And the funny thing is, people often ask why I don’t put my games to the table. And it’s not because I don’t like my own games; in fact, I like playing my own games. It’s just that I feel awkward doing that. I don’t know what it is, but I have some reservations about putting my own games and asking people to play it.
DTD: I can get that. If you have got a whole bunch of games on your shelf, and someone is saying, “Go pick a game.” It’s weird to say, “This designer is really good.” [laughs]
EM: Yes. There are many times I… I enjoy playing Specter Ops. It’s one of the games I really enjoy playing. But it’s also one that it just feels weird asking other people to play with me, when it’s not in a prototype form. Sometimes I enjoy when it’s in the prototype form; I have an excuse to ask people to play it with me.
DTD: There you go. I always wonder though, if you are prototyping it like crazy, when it finally does come out, are you burnt out on it, are you sick of it?
EM: So far, no. So far, I have not been sick of any games that I have made. I am more than happy to play these games.
DTD: The other one that I always wonder about, is, you know, making a board game is an art. And one of the problems with art is you are constantly fiddling and changing and tweaking.
DTD: And it’s… Do you ever really feel you are done? Or is it just at a certain point, someone says, “You are done with this now.”
EM: I think so. For me, I do find there is a point where I say I’m done or close to done. And it’s all based on what my design goal was for that game. So, I have a goal, I’ll have some requirements, it has to fulfill these requirements. Most of these requirements are very broad. Like, it has to be as streamlined as possible, so it captures the experience that I want, and the smallest rule set possible. It’s got to be as intuitive as possible, so that you don’t have rules that are just very hard to grok.
DTD: If ten people guess what you are going to do with this, eight of them will be right.
EM: Right, exactly. What are some of the other general guidelines? Another would be that it has to have some sort of a hook to it, too. Like, what is the core engagement that is going to get people to want to keep playing this?
The inevitable reckoning for goods and service arrives, which I happily snatch up with a flourish. Emerson and I have been lounging for long enough for the shift change to occur at the diner. Our new waitress introduces herself with refills of tea. I like her.
EM: And thank you for lunch.
DTD: Oh, no worries at all. Come on, you are a cheap date.
EM: Did you pay for dinner last night?
DTD: I don’t remember, I think I did. But it’s not a biggie. I like doing it. When I started doing the website, it’s a big draw to be able to meet designers like you, because I just find the process fascinating, the end results are just fascinating, the whole artistic set up of it; I want to see how the sausage is made.
EM: Well can I tell you a little secret?
I think I squealed like a small child here.
DTD: Yeah, please.
EM: I know a lot of people do view games, there’s a quite of a bit of art involved with the entire process. But the more I work with game design, the more I find that my background in software development helps me.
DTD: And there’s actually a lot of that out there.
EM: If you look at some of the prominent designers, like Reiner Knizia, he’s a PhD.
Call me, Reiner. Any meal, any time, anywhere.
DTD: He’s a math PhD. Uwe Rosenberg is a statistics PhD.
Call me, Uwe. It’s been a while. How are you? Breakfast – on me.
EM: Exactly. Richard Garfield.
Call me, Richard. Let’s do lunch. My treat.
DTD: And a lot of times you can see the math in it. Century: Spice Road. I can see the algorithm math in there. The cards are conversions.
DTD: They go both ways, but you are always gaining a little bit. And you can math them out. You can add the values, you can say this is a one, two, four, eight. And you can start going binary on the cards and going crazy.
Our team of servers returned with the check, paid, sealed, delivered. And more tea.
DTD: [to waitress] Thank you, thank you. So I absolutely love that. I was going to say, so you think your computer background is influencing your games? Because it’s harder to see that in things like Reef, although that mismatch between what a card gives you in Reef, and what a card target is, that I can see some algorithm.
EM: Reef was tricky. A lot of times I was working with the developer from Eggertspiele on this at the time. And we, a lot of the cards had decimal point values. So this cards is a 4.35, we have to just round down, because we don’t want to… The other choice was to inflate all the values, so that we have a common denominator when we normalize all of the values, or we just round down. And we just decided, you know lets just round it. The cards aren’t going to be completely balanced, but it’s going to be too much of a headache to get the exact numerical values.
DTD: I get it. So, to bring it around to stuff we were talking about before, I actually at one point wrote a program for when I was playing Diablo 2.
EM: Oooh, OK.
DTD: Because of the rune collection. There were the lettered runes, and each one kind of got doubly good. And I had programs to figure out with the runes, what target words I could go for, what the numerical values of the runes were, and which were the best upgrades to do. So, that just reminded me, with you talking about numeric value of the cards, and grading the cards, and ranking them. There were a lot of games that I had, that had upgrade mechanisms and things like that, and I would write programs to figure out what am I after, what am I looking for, what is my best path. And numerically grading all of these things. [laughs] I can definitely see that.
EM: Can I ask what you programmed in?
DTD: I did a lot of it in Excel macros, and then I went back and just wrote a C program for it. So for me, putting it out into an Excel macro, and then seeing it live update and do everything, that worked for me. And then when I had it in my head what I really wanted, because it was all experimental, then I went back and wrote an actual program.
EM: Oh, I see. That’s smart.
DTD: No, it’s just that I’m not a programmer.
EM: Sounds like you are.
DTD: I can think in steps and in algorithms, but I’ve been out of the business for so long, that I can’t really… The macros and excel structure works for me, and then when I run into roadblocks of “How do I make Excel do this for me?”, then I can go and figure out something else.
EM: I think when it comes to programming, once you learn one programming language, learning another is just understanding where the syntactical differences exist, and maybe some unique mechanisms that that particular language uses. So, I find that after I learned a few languages, learning a new language there was very little barrier.
DTD: Exactly. It’s more being able to think in steps. Because when you are designing a program, you really want to know those algorithms. You want to know, “I need to do this, to do B, to do C.” And simplifying the thought process on it. A lot of the elegance of the programming is cutting out the dead wood, and figuring out the simplest way, and what is a repeated process that I can put aside as my own structure function or subroutine, or something like that. I love it, there are so many game designers with math or computer backgrounds. And you can see this crunchiness just come through. I want your crunchy euro game! Where is your big, convoluted, crunchy euro game, man?
EM: Well, I do have a 4X civ building game, which I think might be right up your alley. Because I think it does, folks say that I have a particular style when it comes to, I guess the simplicity of rules. And because I don’t like long turns, my games tend to not have long turns.
DTD: Well I really like that trend, too. A lot of, I don’t know if it’s a correct thing to say, but it seems like a lot of designers used to make things cool, but not really care if the turns take a long time or the game took a long time. And now down time and simultaneous play is a big concern. I love that trend.
EM: I agree.
DTD: That’s great stuff. Most of the newer games that I’m seeing have some sort of way to deal with that. But I’m still waiting for it to creep into the really crunchy euro market.
EM: I do love heavy euros, but I’m also very picky, because, I don’t know if it’s because I do game design now, that Ill see mechanisms and when it comes to a heavier game… I mean, I was designing a heavier game. I would always put a lot of thought into, “By adding this mechanism, is it supporting it’s own weight?” And oftentimes when I play these heavier euros, I like the core mechanics, and I find there is a lot of stuff that is unnecessary, or there’s mechanisms that don’t support it’s weight in actual experience.
DTD: Well, a lot of people have said that early designers add and add to their games, and late designers take away from their games. And I think the whole industry is trending that way anyway. Early in the industry it was all about adding to, and late in the industry it’s all about taking away. Making the simplest game you can make. Who was it, someone told me, I think it was Rob Daviau told me the best day he ever had was when he just obliterated half the entire rulebook.
EM: It feels good. When you can actually get rid of a paragraph of rules, it feels good.
DTD: Oh yeah, I get that even with writing. If I’m writing articles or things like that, it feels really good to be able to condense it down and have just a really nice chunk. That’s awesome. So, you had talked abou t inspiration from both Splinter Cell and Metal Gear…
The iced tea is just neverending. At this point I could have bathed in iced tea. A super kindly death by iced tea.
DTD: So, IP games. If per chance you were to make a game with an IP on it, what would it be [said in a very leading tone]
EM: Well, I think Metal Gear Solid, that was the quintessential theme and IP that I wanted. If there was ever going to be a Metal Gear Solid game, I wanted to have some involvement with it.
DTD: Is that a subtle lead-in or what?
EM: [laughs] It is one that I had incredibly fond memories of. Metal Gear Solid was a game that kind of defined a whole new genre of games. It was definitely a game changer in how, not just the stealth mechanics and stealth game play, but it was a game that had a story, and that story was just so compelling and so interesting. It redefined how video games are viewed as entertainment. Because it’s not just a game with twitch reflexes and crashing and explosions.
DTD: It was one of the quintessential milestones in that whole evolution of making games more story telling and thematic and engrossing.
EM: You could make cinematic games. I think that’s where it really started from that point forward. Making games cinematic.
I know it is very, very sad, but next time marks the conclusion of my meal with Emerson. Don’t cry, there will be more. We wrap it up with a short history of Metal Gear Solid the Board Game, some Magic the Gathering nostalgia and a little taste of what’s coming next from the Century series.