And so we reach the end of the meal. All good things come to a close. Dessert is done, coffee is drunk, and night has a significant foothold on my consciousness. Trust me, I would eat more if I physically could. Colby and I are talking about complexity in games, a subject that has always fascinated me, and I am especially eager to get the opinion of such an avid Amerithrash designer.
DTD: Have you thought about making some gamers’ game that’s just insanely involved and complicated, just see what happens.
CD: I think Dead of Winter is really as complicated as we want to go.
DTD: And it’s not bad at all. It’s actually, it’s always been my daughter’s favorite game, is Dead of Winter. She totally digs it. And it’s the thematic thing. And before that it was Betrayal at House on the Hill.
CD: Yeah, I like Betrayal.
DTD: We played it so many times, I think we burned through all the missions.
CD: Betrayal is one of those “feel like stuff is happening to you” games that I enjoy.
DTD: Well you feel out of control. There’s so many unwinnable scenarios in that. But it’s still fun.
CD: Like, [Tales of the] Arabian Nights is not for me.
DTD: It’s kind of nuts.
CD: Lots of stuff happens to you in the game, that it’s like…
DTD: It’s a random story generator.
CD: But so is Betrayal, but for some reason it works in Betrayal. I think you have enough control, at least you feel like you have enough control, that makes it work.
DTD: I was just going to say it’s the illusion of control. Did you play Betrayal Legacy at all?
CD: No, I watched Geek and Sundry, I had that on in the background while I was doing some sort of mindless work. So, I got to see how that stuff unfolds by watching though Geek and Sundry’s play through. Never got a chance to play myself. It’s hard to play a Legacy game. I think that’s why they’ve fallen out of favor. I think it’s still a super clever thing, but having the same group committed and showing up long enough to get through the whole thing is hard to do.
DTD: It’s true. I’ve had the same group playing Gloomhaven for 70, 75 plays and it’s nuts, and they’re at like 2 to 3 hours per play.
Shout out Apathetic Gamers of Vacaville!
CD: How does that game support 75 plays?
DTD: We just never finished. There’s 90-something scenarios and then that little expansion came out with more scenarios.
CD: Who needed more scenarios?!?
DTD: Well that’s what I wondered. Gloomhaven opens this really weird quandary, that’s like “Here is a game that has a jillion scenarios, that if you played it all it takes hundreds and hundreds of hours.” So how many people have actually finished it?
CD: And it’s complex, right? It’s really complex? It’s intimidating looking.
DTD: It’s not that bad. In its heart, it is a puzzley card game at its heart, which is neat. And it’s got an internal timer that your cards get burned up as you play them, and when you are out of cards you lose.
CD: It is intimidating looking. Maybe its not intimidating, but with that big giant box with all those things in it.
DTD: Yeah, that is intimidating.
CD: But it is #1 on BGG, right? At least it was for a while.
DTD: And I love the game. I think it really plays very, very well. But I have trouble believing anybody’s finished it. It’s so freaking huge. And yet, when the expansion came out, it sold out instantly. I always wonder, what percentage of people that bought that expansion have actually finished the game? And then they are Kickstarting the next one, Frosthaven. What percentage of people that have finished both the game and expansion are going to get that? But it’s going to sell. It’s got love. It’s got weird love.
Exactly 50 days after this interview, on May 1, 2020, Frosthaven broke records and successfully funded when 83,193 backers pledged a total of $12,969,608. Congratulations Price, Isaac and the rest of the festive squiddy gang.
CD: At one point at Plaid Hat, I was shipped a prototype, and it was like a giant box, and it had hundreds and hundreds of cards in it. It had so much stuff in it. And this dude shipped this giant heavy box from the UK. I shipped it back. But I got this thing out.
DTD: This is an unrelated game; this is just one that was submitted to you.
CD: I don’t know. This is where this is going. It had so much stuff going on in this box and it was all cluttered because it got messed around during shipping. And I looked at that, and I thought, there’s no [redacted] way, I can’t.
DTD: Well you said earlier, you don’t like learning games. You don’t pass it off to someone else, like “teach me this”?
CD: Because the whole idea of a game that had this much in it. I was like there’s no way that people just don’t become immediately intimidated by this. I feel so intimidated by this right now. This just cannot be a game. And then Gloomhaven comes out years later, skyrockets to number one. And I always wondered, was that Gloomhaven?
DTD: Not from the UK.
CD: OK, good. I’ve always worried that I just out-of-hand rejected the next big hit [laughs].
DTD: No. No, no, no, no. He’s from Indiana I think. Rest assured, I don’t know what that was. Probably something wonderful.
Cephalofair is in Lafayette, Indiana.
CD: I could have been first to that mega-game.
DTD: The coffin box mega-game that you could kill somebody with.
CD: It was much bigger than a coffin box. It was the size of an actual coffin. [laughs] So wild. I mean, it was bigger than a current Gloomhaven box. It was packed to the gills with stuff.
A “coffin box” is a box size used by Fantasy Flight Games in the 2000s with titles such as Descent (2005), StarCraft (2007), Runewars (2010), and Twilight Imperium 3rd ed. (2005). The original coffin box was 23×11.5×4 inches, although now it can refer to any big, rectangular box.
DTD: So, are you getting a lot of submittals to Plaid Hat?
CD: Not really these days.
DTD: I mean, I guess that kind of stopped once Plaid Hat was acquired, right?
CD: Yeah, I might start to see them again. Not a lot since Plaid Hat was acquired. And then Kickstarter came out, too.
DTD: People are trying to be their own boss.
CD: So, I think there’s less, like “Let me send my game to a publisher.” Less find a publisher that wants to do that. More, “Let me Kickstart my game, because Cool Mini or Not made $5 million doing it.”
DTD: Well, yeah. Just on one game. There’s so much of that out there, like Dark Tower did really well.
Exactly 37 days before this dinner, on February 4, 2020, Return to Dark Tower received $4,054,744 in backing from 23,661 backers. Congratulations to Justin, Isaac, Rob and the repair gang. Yes, the same Isaac. Showoff.
CD: Yeah, Dark Tower is one by an established company – Now I understand Kickstarter and that, but even at the little project.
DTD: And nowadays, there’s actually whole businesses that support Kickstarter. Like, you want to get a video done? There’s a business that will do that for you for Kickstarter. You want to design your campaign? There’s consulting companies that’ll do that for you for Kickstarter. It’s fascinating, all the little ancillary businesses that have popped up around Kickstarter.
CD: Yeah, somebody in the industry had just said to me today, “You know, I’m going to be the guy in the Gold Rush selling shovels and pick-axes.” I’ll do a little bit of hunting for gold, but I don’t want to be the guy doing the shovels and pickaxes. And that’s exactly what those businesses cropping around Kickstarter are.
DTD: There’s a need, so I’m going to be there, and I’m going to help. It’s like the social media influencer. And I find it so odd how specific a job that is. It used to be that just people posted on social media, and said “This is cool, and this is what I think”. And now it’s almost a necessary job with companies.
CD: I remember at GenCon one year, seeing some of the ad buys, the big banners on the walls and stuff. It was a manufacturer that these ad buys were all like, “Make your dream come true.” Like, he’ll make your dream come true. And it felt so… It just felt so dirty to me. He was just praying on somebody’s hopes and dreams to get them to spend a bunch of money getting their game produced with no concern over whether they had any plan, or any big… It’s just no limit that you were going to make yours. I’m not saying that the people who did this had that intent, but that’s exactly how I read it.
DTD: Yeah. I think it’s kind of good that they’ve got at least sources to talk to. The board game industry is getting big enough, it used to just be people talking amongst each other, and comparing notes. But having consultants now…
CD: It might have just been the dark place I was in at the time, but it just seemed to me like they were trying to take advantage of somebody there. That’s what it felt like. Not that they were, but this idea that everybody who’s playing games has some big idea for a game and wants to see it happen.[waiter check up. Doing awesome]
CD: … And I print games, so instead of my ad campaign being about business-to-business, it’s going to be about Joe Schmo spending his life savings.
DTD: Let me fulfill your dreams. Yeah, I see that.
CD: And there’s been some Joe Schmo’s, including myself, who have made it happen.
DTD: It was Joe Schmo who made Summoner Wars?
And by Joe, I mean Colby. And by Schmo, I mean Dauch. Just to be clear.
CD: But it just felt predatory, I guess to me.
DTD: No, it’s a little scary. I’m waiting to see what happens when the rest of the world realizes that we are a relatively big industry. We still have kind of got that small feel, even at GAMA. I mean, one of my favorite things about the GAMA convention, is you can just kind of go sit on those couches, and whoever sits next to you is going to have a great story. And is going to be friendly. And it’s all good. But once corporate recognizes us, and lawyers recognize us…
CD: They’re starting to.
DTD: I know, I know. I want to pretend they haven’t. But how much is it going to change our little world and turn us into the big world, you know?
CD: The barrier to entry is still low enough, and the passion is there, that I think there’s going to be small companies. Like my goals with Plaid Hat now aren’t… they used to be around like, “Get big! Get big! Aim for the stars! Aim for the big dogs! Aim for Fantasy Flight!”
DTD: You were big. Big is hard.
CD: And now, maybe big happens, but my goals are much changed. It’s like, “Let’s do what we love, and find an audience that gets enough satisfaction from it that they’re willing to support us, spending our lives, doing what we love.”
DTD: That’s really good to hear, because for a long time, I very firmly believed that you could only make a game if it was a passion project, it was something you really loved. Because it’s hard. And all the iteration, and all the fine-tuning and everything, you got to really be in love with that project. But I think there are a growing number of companies that can churn out games that they don’t like. And just hope for that little bit of money. You still believe in the optimistic, naive approach, that you can only really make a good game if you truly love it.
CD: I mean, when you get investors and everything. But when you get investors and stuff involved, when you get enough corporate structure, like quarterly reports and stuff start coming in.
DTD: And meetings. [sarcastically] Meetings are the best part. That’s where you really shine, is in meetings.
CD: And meetings… [laughs] But some of that stuff, there’s some serious expectations there, and so I don’t know that people are setting out to make a game they don’t like. Some of it is like, “We said we were going to release a game quarter 4, and quarter 4 is here.” So I don’t know that it’s ill intent by the people that are actually in the trenches making it or anything like that.
DTD: No, I guess I did make it sound pretty malicious.
CD: Maybe there’s some of that, like “Hey, let’s go and get this license because it will sell to this crowd in this amount”, and it doesn’t matter if the game sucks, because…
DTD: Well, what do you think about IP games? Would you go for IP games, or would it not matter, like if you Like making a game, it doesn’t matter if it’s IP or not?
IP = Intellectual Property. IP Games refer to games that feature some already well established subject matter. Like “Snoopy” Monopoly. I actually just picked that out of my brain, check afterwards, and it does exist.
CD: I think it has to be the right IP, because I think for, I think its tough. I’d like to believe that just a really great IP would draw people in. But it seems to me that it just ends up excluding some people. It’s going to draw in certain people; it’s going to get the eyes. But now if we are looking at a Venn diagram, how many people are gamers and also know about and care about this property? Because it’s only the crossover that you’re going to get. So if you got Star Wars, like “Boom.” It’s 100% crossover, you got them.
DTD: So, if someone came to your door, and said here’s the Star Wars IP for free, you wouldn’t cry.
CD: If there’s a great amount of crossover, then great.
DTD: I guess that was kind of a naive question, because you already said BSG was pretty high on your list.
CD: At the time, that was a great amount of crossover. What I think can be true, or at least what I found with BioShock, there was a lot of people who had become fans of Plaid Hat, and now we are releasing this BioShock game. But the feedback was like, “Well, yeah, I haven’t played BioShock, so I’m not interested.” Because they weren’t video gamers, or whatever. They just weren’t interested.
Bioshock was a 2007 first person video game from 2K Boston/Irrational Games/Ghost Story Games, programmed by Rowan Wyborn and Christopher Kline, and written by Ken Levine.
DTD: That’s right, we didn’t even talk about BioShock. Yeah, it was a good video game IP, but it certainly wasn’t all invasive. I have a copy of BioShock.
CD: And that’s kind of where I developed my Venn diagram structure, was I love… It was a chance to work with Ken Levine; that was huge. I wouldn’t trade it. But you have to be careful that you aren’t making…
DTD: It’s way too specific.
CD: Or too much of it. Like, that you know what your audience is, and that you make the right amount of it for that audience. Because its not something that you can just expand to everybody.
DTD: I can’t believe it slipped my mind that Bioshock was there. Because that was a fairly early one.
CD: Oh, we did an IP in BioShock. We also did one for Video Game High School. We only printed 3000 of them, because that’s all I could do.
DTD: That was an IP?
CD: Video Game High School was a YouTube series done by Rocket Junk.
DTD: I didn’t know the connection.
CD: And it was just an opportunity to work with some people who impressed us, that I thought were cool. It was very much a “we are going to hit their audience, and certain people that will come with us.” So we printed 3000 of them, we sold 3000 of them. And it was a good experience. So with BioShock we printed too many of them, because we printed 10,000. We sold 9,000. It’s like, “We better get that [second] print going!” Then it’s like, “We should have stopped at 10,000.”
DTD: Wow. With Bioshock, did you have the game going first and then put the IP on it, or did you start fresh, with “We now have the IP, what are we going to do with it?”
CD: I got contacted out of the blue by Irrational, and it turns out its because of a mutual friend. But they’re like, “Hey we want to do a board game, and we like your stuff. Do you want to work together?” And it’s like, “Yeah! I want to work together!” And so we developed a few different games trying to make something that would be right for that IP.
DTD: That would feel like it. That’s awesome. It’s always kind of a crapshoot. You draw in people from the IP, and even there they may love it, they may hate it. They’re so protective of their IP.
CD: That’s the other thing. Even if I’m drawing in BioShock Infinite fans, if I just made a hobby game, how many of them are going to get and try to play it, and go “This is way too complicated.”? So in a way, it just doesn’t please enough people you’re trying to please.
DTD: I think it’s more that it insults the IP. So, IP people love their thing, and they get upset if you don’t do it justice. They get mad.
CD: I think we did a good job of that. I don’t think we got people mad because of that.
DTD: I have the game. I like it.
CD: I think the only reason for people getting mad was, some of the feedback on Amazon reviews and stuff, was like, “It is so complicated. I can’t figure it out.” Well, for a gamer, not so much. But for somebody who is just a BioShock fan and is a fan enough that they want this cool looking game with all these minis, they get it then realize its more complex than what they’re ready for. Which is more like Risk level. Probably would be better off if we were USAopoly and made BioShock game version of Risk.
DTD: They are now “The Op”. They are licensing everything.
USAopoly has rebranded into The Op. And they do tend to do a lot of licensed IP games. Including Risk.
CD: The Op. I saw that. It’s like Dunkin Donuts is now Dunkin.
DTD: I know. I love the rebranding in America. KFC. They’re not allowed to say the word “fried”.
CD: The Plaid. The Plaid. No, it’s only going to be one syllable.
DTD: You would be The Hat.
CD: The Hat.
DTD: Shortened to just “THat”. See, there you go. I’ll send you a bill for consulting, marketing, logo branding. I’m an influencer. I got to tell you, when I saw that you had broken away from Asmodee, I was excited. I want to see what’s coming out of the studio. I’ve always liked the stuff that’s come out. And I really appreciate it, that you guys were so open about it. Your posts about what was going on, and Jerry’s [Hawthorne] posts about what was going on. They are touching. I can understand all that; it’s tough. It was a high cost.
CD: One of the things we want to do with going independent, is have the ability to be more open. I feel like that’s where we started. I talked about my past and Heroscape, and the fact that a lot of people that formed Plaid Hat had come out of that Heroscape community. So that was part of our background, was building a community around a game.
DTD: And your blog posts and newsletter posts were always great.
CD: So that’s what we tried to do with running the company. We did podcasts and stuff like that as a way to try to appeal directly to a community. But that’s difficult to do inside of a bigger organization.
DTD: A lot of permissions, and…
CD: What was clear to us, is that there would be issues around discussing internal process, when we were working for a bigger organization.
DTD: A very big one.
CD: They are going to frown on that. So, we took the Plaid Hat podcast and we decided let’s just pull it back, and we’ll just play some role-playing games on there, and we will still have our personalities on there. And we could even do the Star Wars role playing game, because Fantasy Flight is now our sister studio and they make that. And so, it’s like a little cross pollination. And I’m feeling good about it. And so we were putting out some of those, and then one day I get a call from the licensing department at Asmodee, and they said “You can’t do this! If Star Wars listens to this, and they don’t like something you said, or a way they represented their characters, that puts our relationship at risk.” And so, I didn’t predict that. So that’s when I realized there’s too many things that you can’t predict when you’re not in control of everything. We are better off to become a little more corporate to not step in the wrong thing.
DTD: To be able to do what you want to do.
CD: Well I also that that’s hard to… the size that we were, I think that’s … It’s hard to not appeal to a particular fan base. Or at least support them in a way that they feel appealed to.
DTD: Well, I have to respect, it had to have been a ridiculously difficult move. And I’m excited. I want to see whats going on. Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about, any future projects or anything like that? You want to tell me all of your top secret things?
CD: I’ve told you all I can tell you about secret projects. I’d love to tell you more about Jerry’s game, but it’s too good of an idea, I don’t want someone to steal it.
We touched briefy on Jerry Hawthorne’s new game last time, in part 6.
DTD: I would steal it instantly.
CD: I mean your listeners, I’ve heard they’re creeps. Readers, I mean readers.
DTD: They are, they are the worst. I’m the only listener, so I can make money on this [pointing to recorder] as much as I want.
CD: I mean, Emerson [Matsuuchi] told me that your readers are creeps.
DTD: Well, he’s probably right.
CD: I want that to make the article.
DTD: I only went and interviewed Emerson a couple of weeks ago.
He sounds really interesting, someone should interview that guy.
CD: So, this will release soon after that?
DTD: I can make it right after Emerson.
I didn’t… I lied. I am a bad, bad man.
CD: [to the readers] Last week, or episode, or article, you listened to Emerson, and he really convinced you he is a sweet and nice guy. I want you to know, he called you creeps.
DTD: It’s true. It’s true. I edited it out. But now, I have corroborating evidence. So I can’t edit it out anymore.
CD: Well, I don’t know that he said it to you, but he said it to me. He said to me, “They’re all creeps.”
I have to interject that the reason this is so funny is that Emerson Matsuuchi is perhaps the nicest, most soft spoken, most delightful person I’ve ever met. It’s like saying a little fluffy puppy is a hellhound.
DTD: [laughing] I need to write Emerson and tell him. That’s awesome, thank you so much. I’m going to kill it [the recorder] if you’re OK.
Thank you so much to Colby Dauch for an amazing meal and great conversation. Plaid Hat Games has always held a special place for me, introducing me to the wonderful world of high quality, thematic board games, and meeting all my expectations all these years now. I couldn’t imagine a better last-outing before the pandemic hit. Be safe everyone!
Well, this is, as I’ve said, the last interview I did before our friend COVID changed the game. However, I have not remained idle – one must eat. Stay tuned for my feeble attempts at dinner over social media! Don’t set your expectations too high.