I am lucky enough to be eating at the Bimini Steak House during the GAMA Expo in Reno, NV, just days before the world became sick. With me is Colby Dauch, original founder and new re-owner of Plaid Hat Games. Food has started to come out, and I am hearing all the dirt about the early days in Plaid Hat – about Dead of Winter and acquisitions…
DTD: Tell me about Forgotten Waters. I know some, but I don’t know much.
CD: So, I got off track, but let me finish the Crossroads.
DTD: You’re driving the bus, man, you’re driving the bus.
CD: The idea was, it came from Isaac [Vega]. And we had had a session where a bunch of people had gotten together, and we were just playing Dead of Winter over and over again, trying to get it ready and get it done. And we were spending a whole day on it. And one of the things that was coming up was there’s too much downtime. And Isaac was like, “What if on your turn, the player on your left drew a card, and on the card it said if such-and-such happens…” And then he had written one out, then this story and then you have this choice. And it was like a way for the player to your left to have to have to pay attention to your turn. [laughs] That was like the initial seed of the idea. And when he said it, I was like, “Actually, that’s what this game is about now.”
DTD: If the player to your left yawns…
CD: And obviously all the rest of the mechanics work in conjunction, but that was the most original idea of the game.
DTD: And it’s awesome. That drew us in. I still remember the… You know, there’s been a lot of games. I have a big library, and I have gone to a lot of conventions. And I have followed games a long time. But there’s certain plays that really stick in my mind, and I remembered going to KublaCon in San Francisco, and someone brought out Dead of Winter and we played. And the guy who taught us was the nicest, most soft-spoken guy, wonderful to play games with, and he destroyed us.
I remember clearly, it was Memorial Day weekend 2015. Trevor seemed such a nice, unassuming person.
CD: Was he the traitor? [laughs]
DTD: He was the traitor. And he, in one round we went from like winning and happy and doing great, and it started with, “What are you… what are you doing? Oh no. Oh No. OH NO.” And in one round he destroyed us, and we could not come back. He played us so well.
CD: Oh man, I love it. I love the shell shock. That’s one of the things I really liked about the game, too. Not like, the story elements, the Crossroads; I felt that was the shiny thing that was easy to hook people on. But I felt it used the medium of board games well, and it was about the interactions at the table. An A.I. was not going to be able to do that. And so, in that case, I love that like, he’s teaching the game, and everyone is looking to him as the expert. He’s kind of guiding everybody. So, he builds this trust from everybody. And that’s how he pulls off the traitor win. [laughing so hard he can hardly speak.]
I cannot put into words how much Colby relished in my story of betrayal and defeat. I’ll just say “loads”.
DTD: And I won’t mention that his name is Trevor! All of my friends still remember that one play. And he still comes every once in a while, plays games with us. And he just gets this look. He played us so bad. It was amazing. So, I have to ask, with Dead of Winter, since we are on Dead of Winter, what do you think about the criticisms? And the big thing is that at any point somebody could just destroy the game. It’s like, “I’m not going to win. So, I’m going to make sure everybody else doesn’t win.”
CD: Yeah, that was something that people had criticized of it.
DTD: It’s tough because if you’re doing a both co-op and, you know, semi-coop… If you’re doing that type of game, it’s really hard to ride that line. Is it something that you would thought about, or tried to go into during development?
CD: It wasn’t something we necessarily recognized in development. This is one of those things that like you put the game out there, and then things happen you don’t expect.
DTD: See what people do with it.
CD: So like, I think that most groups… My experience with this is that for most groups…
We pause a moment, just eating the appetizers. The crab stuffed portobello mushrooms command an intense attention and reverent silence. Unfortunately before I could take a picture, all that was left was fragrance and a dirty plate.
DTD: Oh my god this is incredible.
CD: They fall in love with… Well, if they are human, like the main goal… I’ve seen plenty of, I’ve seen far more than that happening. I’ve seen people sacrifice their own win for the sake of the colony, and other peoples’ win. And I think that happens more often than the other way.
DTD: I think I have played with some pretty cutthroat gamers.
CD: Well, Jerry [Hawthorne] will always sacrifice for the group win. That’s his total style.
DTD: It strikes me that he’s a very thematic player. He’s into the story.
CD: Yeah, he’s cooperative, and like in the end, the self-sacrifice – he’s all about that. Bistro is at the absolute other end of the scale. If he can be a bastard, he’s going to be a bastard.
DTD: He’s looking forward to that opportunity to destroy you.
CD: So, if you’re with… if you’re gaming with that kind of person, either you need to kowtow to them, and their demands in order to get them their win, because otherwise you know they’ll sink the game. That’s a pretty effective strategy until nobody wants to play the game with them anymore.
DTD: I always thought, people talking about this and complaining about this, I think in the back of my head, “Well that’s kind of what makes it a great social game.” Is that you have to kind of think about this stuff.
CD: And it could make it terrible for some groups’ experiences. If everybody’s playing that way, especially if there’s a traitor, its going to be very hard to win I think.
DTD: Oh yeah, it’s a hard game.
CD: If they are only thinking of themselves first… Like, you have to look out for yourself, but if you are looking out for yourself first, from the beginning, that’s going to be very hard to win. But I also think that’s a really cool story to tell too. That, I mean, if everybody’s an a-hole, you all sink together. If somebody’s a mega a-hole, they’ll sink everything for everyone. Which could lead to an unfun experience, but I don’t know…
DTD: I guess it’s the equivalent that if someone just, any game you’re playing, if someone just gives up and says, “Well, I’m just going to play random cards.” Or “I’m just going to give up and let him win.” I think it’s the same thing. It can happen in almost any game. It just becomes more obvious in a semi-coop.
CD: Yeah, I think if it was a really endemic problem, Dead of Winter wouldn’t be the success it is today. I’m not saying that a designer shouldn’t try to avoid feel-bad moments…
DTD: Dead of Winter kind of invented that genre.
CD: I don’t know that you should do it at any cost.
DTD: Yeah, I get it. I definitely get it. It was a groundbreaking game. I had never seen anything with that kind of semi co-op thing. Dead of Winter was after BSG, wasn’t it?
CD: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: And I hadn’t played much BSG. But there were some comparisons for sure. The traitor system, things like that. But I thought Dead of Winter did it a little better. I mean each game has their absolute fans, who will beat you to death if you talk bad about their game.
CD: Yeah, I think they’re both really great games.
DTD: Very diplomatic.
CD: I think Corey Konieczka is a genius game designer.
DTD: Yeah, I was really excited when I heard he was making his own studio.
Master Koniecza has been putting out amazing games with Fantasy Flight for decades, from StarCraft (2007) and Runewars (2010), through Star Wars: Imperial Assault (2014) and Star Wars: Rebellion (2016).
Corey, call me. Let’s do lunch. I can guarantee I can pronounce your name. Well, your first name.
CD: I played the beta of his next game.
DTD: Oh my God, I am dying to see what’s coming out of his studio.
CD: So, his new studio is called Unexpected Games. The whole idea is he’s going to…
Our waiter quickly checked to make sure our state of bliss was sufficiently rapturous. This pulled our attention to fair division of the appetizers.
CD: Did I eat one or two?
DTD: You had one, I had two.
I am never hesitant to take more food.
CD: Because I didn’t want to over do it.
DTD: Don’t even worry about it. If you want something just grab it.
CD: So, the whole idea is he’s going to turn things on his head, and do something you don’t expect, and the game does not disappoint in that regard.
DTD: Very cool. You were impressed with the new beta?
CD: Yeah. There’s the game, and then there’s the game inside the game.
DTD: Oh awesome.
CD: It’s really clever. I don’t want to say much about, because I’m sure he wants to control the announcement and what it’s about.
DTD: No, no. I’m not going to push you. At least until I turn off the recorder [pretend to turn off the recorder]…
I was always curious, is Unexpected under the Asmodee banner? I was unclear.
CD: It is. So, Corey spun off his own studio and its being supported by Asmodee. He’s under the employ of Asmodee.
I just like hearing about Coreys far and wide.
DTD: I was never entirely clear about that side of it.
CD: And he’s like… One of the highest compliments I’ve heard about Corey from his superiors at, in the organization… Not even superiors, even just colleagues that have worked with him, was “He’s the only person I know that can take… that can do every bit, every part of producing a game.” Developing and producing a game. I don’t know that he can illustrate, but other than that…
DTD: The true renaissance man. I’ve been really impressed with his game design, so just really fun games. And plus his choice of first name is just extraordinary. The best.
CD: I’m pretty sure that was his choice too.
DTD: It was, it was. You know all the best are Coreys. So when did Plaid Hat sell to F2Z? At what point in the game process was that?
A little history refresher… In July 2015 F2Z Entertainment acquired Plaid Hat Games. F2Z itself was a gaming conglomerate owned by Sophie Gravel, that encompassed Z-Man Games, Plaid Hat Games and Pretzel Games. F2Z was then acquired by Asmodee in June 2016, becoming Asmodee Canada. During this merger, Sophie Gravel left with Pretzel Games to form the new Plan B Games. And most recently, Plaid Hat Games again became independent, purchasing itself from Asmodee in February 2020.
CD: It was after Dead of Winter, and then Ashes had just come out, and we were really struggling to make organized play work for Ashes. We just didn’t have the staff for it yet. And again, it was really growing pains of not being able to turn over ROI [return on investment] fast enough. Like, having all of our money in print runs and reprints. So meeting Dead of Winter demand, and then trying to have the staffing.
Late breaking news! Plaid Hat has just announced a new edition of Isaac Vega’s exceptional Ashes, known as Ashes Reborn!
DTD: Because I remember Dead of Winter was having a lot of trouble meeting demand. Which is both a good problem and still a problem.
CD: There was growing pains, there was stuff going on in my own life, and… that was pressuring me to make that move. It’s been 5 years now, I sold to F2Z. Then a year later they sold to Asmodee. Then Asmodee sold to Eurazeo, or whatever that investment group was. Then Eurazeo sold to PAI [Partners]. Then PAI sold Plaid Hat back to me.
Oh, yeah. More history. Asmodee was sold to two subsequent equity firms, Eurazeo then PAI Partners, but they weren’t really game companies, so not a lot changed other than money. Eurazeo paid $159 million, while PAI Partners wrote their check for nearly 10x that amount.
DTD: I’m going to have to make a diagram on the web page. But the good news is, I already diagrammed it all out.
The ruined remains of a once proud plate of portobellos are respectfully cleared by the wait staff.
DTD: No, one of my previous interviews, I had to write and diagram the entire “This is who F2Z was, and this is who Z-Man was, and this is where everybody connects. And Plan B popped out the side.”
CD: Plan B was Sophie’s exit plan.
It’s really interesting how many board game interviews reflect back on Sophie Gravel, F2Z Entertainment, the Asmodee acquisition, and the formation of Plan B.
Sophie, appelle-moi. Faisons le déjeuner.
DTD: Which is a great name.
Our waiter kindly offers more wine, which I accept. Colby is more reserved, wary of my expert interrogation methods.
CD: I remember when Sophie told me that Plan B was going to be the name of her new company, because I was still working for her at the time, about to transition to Asmodee. And I came back to her the next time we met, I was like, “You know Plan B is a birth control pill name?” She was like, “Oh yeah we are aware. We still think it’s a good name.”
DTD: [laughs] I didn’t even think about the timing of that name.
CD: So, it turns out people aren’t making that connection.
DTD: I never made that connection.
Then again, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. Bag of hammers comes to mind.
CD: Now you have, now people will have. Everybody’s going to after this interview.
DTD: You’ve ruined it for me. That’s true, everybody is going to now go, “Oh, Plan B…” So, when you joined the Asmodee gorilla, was it what you expected, or was it really weird, or? Did they kind of let you do what you had been doing?
CD: It was… They let us do what we had been doing, I would say, more so. It felt good, because with F2Z they were more of a Euro [game] brand, right? So, expectations for them were set around experiences that they had producing those kinds of games. And so, to come under Asmodee, specifically Asmodee North America, headed up at the time by Christian Peterson, who formed Fantasy Flight Games…
DTD: Your games seem more like Fantasy Flight games than euros.
CD: I felt like they understood better what we were trying to do. And we had to some degree modeled ourselves after Fantasy Flight Games. That was the target on the wall. We need to, when from the very beginning, it was like “Yeah, this is who we’re competing with.” The idea is that we’re going to have games on the shelves next to these guys. We really got to work to up our game, to be at their level.
DTD: I got to tell you, in the early days, and the late days too, but it struck me in the early days, the quality of the Plaid Hat games was a notch above. If you look at all these different companies, and everybody’s kind of making games, and The Plaid Hat games just looked good. They had a branding, kind of consistent art. The games played well. But they just had a professional, polished look to them.
CD: Part of that was Dave Richards, who is a brilliant graphic designer. And then Isaac coming on did really good things for us in that department, because he really pressed us to do a better job.
Much the harbinger of carne, large sharp knives and implements of destructions are placed in front of Colby and myself. Obviously the wait staff was unaware of the “incident”.
CD: He kind of took over as art director.
DTD: I was wondering about that, because Ashes, oh my god.
CD: Ashes and Dead of Winter are next level, right? They both are by Fernanda Suárez, the artist. I wish I could still get her.
DTD: Anybody talks about Ashes, instantly the next line is “Oh, that art!” The art is so gorgeous. And it’s kind of like “Magic but not Magic”, and the gameplay is so good.
CD: He had a better instinct for art. Like I always had the instinct for…
Waiter: Choose your weapons.
Maybe they had heard about the incident.
DTD: Now we have to fight to the death.
CD: Like, I had good instincts around graphic design. I wasn’t good enough to pull off what I wanted, but I had good instincts there. But Isaac just had so much better instincts around art, and kind of trained us up in what we need to be looking for, and that we should be investing more there. Until… that was another way in which Isaac influenced the company.
DTD: One of my, one of my other favorites from around that time is of course Crystal Clans. It is so good. My son and I will choose different factions all the time. We will fight against each other, we have such a good time with it.
CD: It never sold that well and I think it’s part of it was because we didn’t have an in-house marketing team at the time, and so I think we were getting a little bit lost in the shuffle.
DTD: I remember it having kind of a quiet release. And then I heard about it from other people who said, “This is really fun.” And then I picked it up and grabbed all of the different factions.
CD: It’s a really good, fun game. And I feel like we knocked out of the park on production.
DTD: It’s gorgeous.
CD: I love Martin Abel. I tried to get him for 2nd edition of Summoner Wars, but… he has other work now. I missed the boat on that. So Im in search of a second edition Summoner Wars artist.
CD: [long pause] Yeah, I mean, we’re trying to find somebody.
A pleasant surprise arrives in front of Colby and myself – a small sccop of ruby peach gelato in a martini glass.
CD: Palate cleanser!
Waiter: I can bring a new spoon for you as well. Sparkling wine on top?
DTD: Oh, thank you so much. I’ll have a little splash I think.
CD: I mean, seems like the thing to do since you offered it.
DTD: I know, awesome! And this was peach?
Waiter: Ruby peach.
DTD: Oh, this is delightful. This is an “intermezzo”. I know, it’s pretentious.
CD: How does that translate?
DTD: A palate cleanser in between courses, an intermission. Yeah, this is… It is a mid-meal amuse bouche.
CD: My palate feels really cleansed.
DTD: Does it? Does it feel good? I love the pretension. There’s something about going out to fancy meals and having, “This is a palate cleanser and you should smell this before you taste that, and you should have a bite of this to prepare you for that…” It is not me usually.
CD: Psychologically, it makes things taste better. That is a proven study.
DTD: That’s crazy. So, my children… I like food a lot, and my kids are older. And we would go out to some fancy restaurants, and they were absolutely fascinated with, they will set your silverware depending on what you order. So, you order, and then they bring the steak knife, or the fish knife, or the weird spoon, or the duck feeding hammer, or something. So, we used to have a game, where we would think of the most ridiculous item they can put down in front of you. You know, in response to what you ordered. And the current winner is putting down a fancy bubble wand for your soup.
CD: You want to blow bubbles and then catch them midair. [laughs]
DTD: [pretentious] Because the aeration of the soup intensifies the palette. Yeah, it was a it was a toss-up for a long time between Krazy Straw and bubble wand, But I think…
CD: Bubble wand wins.
DTD: It has an air of snootiness.
CD: Krazy straw is made for the consumption of food and drink. But bubble wand, that is an ingenious use.
DTD: It is. That is the most appropriate use I think.
CD: Yeah, Crystal Clans. I mean, it’s still flying under the radar. We still have too much stock of it. It’s a great game that people really didn’t play.
It really is an incredibly fun, 2 player miniatures skirmish type game played with card based factions. Much fun.
DTD: I’m really surprised. I think it really hits all those notes that people like with head-to-head battling, and things like that. And the factions are really interesting. They do really neat stuff.
CD: I think part of it is, I wonder how much people are looking for two-player competitive card games. I’m really hoping a year from now they are going to want one.
DTD: Oh-oh. Are we teasing?
CD: Well that’s Summoner Wars 2nd edition! I just have a feeling… Maybe it’s just like the Summoner Wars, because then that’s a lot of what we’ve got with Crystal Clans, too. And I think that hurt it a bit, too. Was there were a number of comparisons to make to Summer Wars, and most people making those comparisons would say, “Well, I preferred Summoner Wars.” or “I like Summoner Wars better.” Well, the comparison is that, you’re playing with cards that are kind of acting as units and moving around a board. That’s kind of where the comparisons stop. But it was enough to make the comparisons. And for people to say, “Well I prefer this other game.” And that hurt it.
DTD: I prefer this one to that one.
CD: But man, I love the art on that.
DTD: It was it was spectacular. Well, still is. It’s sitting on my shelf, I still play it.
It was at this moment that our main courses arrive. And this seems like a perfect break, as we fade out amid the lingering heady aroma of perfectly cooked steak. Next time, dinner proper. Plus discussion of game play styles, anger management, and the dividing line between video games and board games.