For those just joining me, I am having a delightful three-course Cajun meal with Geoffrey Engelstein, one of the foremost academics in game design. OK, it’s over the internet, but we are truly eating cajun fare, the both of us. Come on, it’s a pandemic out there, and I feel that 3000 miles is appropriate social distancing. At the moment, we are deeply discussing pinball, but don’t worry, board games are coming…
GEOFF: Anyway, so I was looking at getting one of the virtual pinball machines.
DTD: Yeah, I was going to get into that, but…I kind of pooped out halfway.
GEOFF: Yeah, so, you know, we had decided—we will sell the Star Trek Next Gen [pinball table]. So, I reached out to VirtuaPin. You’ve seen them; they look like a full-sized pinball machine.
DTD: Yeah, they are basically a horizontal LCD display.
GEOFF: I was like, you know, “I really want to try one before I pay, you know, 4 or $5,000 for it.” Whatever it was. To see how it feels relative to the pinball. So, I contacted the company, and they said, “Oh there’s a guy in Scranton, Pennsylvania who’s like a rep, that deals with us.” So, my daughter had just started college. She went to college in Ohio. We actually dropped her off at college for orientation on the way back from GenCon. So, we all went to GenCon, and then we drove from GenCon to Ohio to drop her off.
DTD: [laughing] OK.
GEOFF: So, we were bringing all her stuff out. So, I said, “Susan, maybe we can swing through Scranton, and stop and see this virtual pinball machine.” And she, game as always, is like “Sure, whatever.” So, we go, and it turns out, we pull up to the address, and it’s this guy’s house, in just a suburban development. It’s a McMansion kind of house.
DTD: It’s such a niche business.
GEOFF: So, he greets us at the door. I mean, he knew we were coming. So, he brings us in, and he brings us into his basement. His basement is just filled with pinball machines, and every other kind of arcade game. He’s got a Skee-Ball machine. He’s got a Zoltan fortune teller.
DTD: Oh, I love it.
GEOFF: He’s got one of those old ones with like helicopters on a wire that goes around in the circles.
DTD: Yes! Vertibird! I want to go there.
Vertibird was a toy from the 60s and 70s that I was absolutely enamored with. Probably not related to the helicopter pinball machine Geoff is talking about.
[The DTD research department guesses it’s “Whirly Bird,” 1969. Click through for pictures and an astoundingly sexist sell sheet.]
GEOFF: Yeah. And it was actually an interesting story. So, he was telling us that his son had, what was it?
SUSAN: I think he was autistic.
GEOFF: Autistic or something. And one of the potential treatments was having him play pinball. For fine motor skills and stuff like that, eye-hand coordination.
DTD: So, a Tommy story? They should make a rock opera about it.
Tommy was a 1969 album and rock opera by The Who, in which the lead character, having gone deaf, dumb, and blind from abuse, heals through playing pinball. They made a movie of it in 1975. In it, you can see Tina Turner flail around in a room full of baked beans.
GEOFF: Yeah [laughing], so they got a pinball machine. And it became like their family thing, so they just filled the whole basement, expanded the house so they could fit more pinball machines.
SUSAN: Got a divorce.
GEOFF: His other son, non-autistic, became a pinball champion. Entered all the contests. So just, this guy was so…all the machines were so pristine, it was just, he was just…a phenomenal collection. Just seeing all of them. I mean, I played the virtual machine and it was fun, and you could bring up 100 different pinball machines. But just next to all of the other machines, it just wasn’t the same.
Interestingly, pinball was once considered a game of chance, and therefore a form of gambling. In May 1976, Roger Sharpe proved in court that it was a developed game of skill, and therefore not subject to gambling laws. He proved this by playing a perfect game, calling all of his shots, in the courtroom. Check out the story here.
DTD: The tangibility is kind of magic.
GEOFF: You know it’s just, they’re just such physical artifacts, you know. They just have such a presence to them.
SUSAN: They are pieces of art.
DTD: Oh, they are.
BRIAN: I still think you should have gotten the Skee-Ball.
DTD: I argue all the time. My father is a pinball guy, too. And my father goes for the solid-state machine, made in the 1950s – Gottlieb. And I go for “It’s a computer with a steel ball inside it.” And it’s the replayability. Like The Hobbit machine. It does a million different things. There is replayability in there.
GEOFF: I haven’t unlocked a fraction of the different modes and things in that.
If you get a chance, play The Hobbit pinball. It has a ridiculous number of “quests”, each completed by making certain shots on the pinball.
[What? Couldn’t be simpler. Note that this flowchart doesn’t even list the 31 quest modes, lumping them all under ‘Complete a Mode. -Ed]
DTD: I’ve made it to the Barrel Ride once.
DTD: That one is nice.
GEOFF: And so, we played that, and Susan fell in love with it. And she was like, “This really awesome. I love these next-gen machines.” And he was like, “Oh, there’s a Hobbit machine coming out next year. Maybe you would be interested in that.” So, we made a little deal with ourselves, that if we could find somebody to buy the Next Gen machine, we sell the Next Gen machine, then we can get The Hobbit machine. So, we did end up selling it, and then The Hobbit machine took another year. It was incredibly delayed. Took like 2 years to come out.
Next-gen as in ‘advanced,’ and Next Gen as in Star Trek.
DTD: It was. I remember that. And their new one is The Pirates of the Caribbean. And it’s getting OK reviews.
GEOFF: That one is supposed to be really good [Pinside #4]. I’m hearing good things about that one, but they are like completely sold out. They are impossible to get.
DTD: Yeah, you can get them. But they are up-marking them. So, it’s a lot of money. My cousin got one, because he played my Hobbit machine. So now, I need to go down to San Diego and play his machine.
GEOFF: Sure. So that was one of the things with…so, we actually had on Ludology, I had on…what’s his name…? I forget his name. Keith something or other, who is this super famous pinball programmer. He was actually the programmer who did The Hobbit. He’s done a whole bunch of stuff.
For those who want to dive deep into the nuts and bolts of game design, I highly recommend the Ludology Podcast. Geoff left the podcast in 2019, but it is still being hosted by Gil Hova and Emma Larkins.
GEOFF: And it’s just interesting to discuss with him, like…it’s still a game, but there’s design considerations of…you want people to be, you want it to be accessible when somebody just walks up to the machine, but you still want them to come back. And you want people who own the machine to have a depth of play, that they are going to want to spend $9,000 on a pinball machine.
DTD: Yeah, you want to see something new.
GEOFF: Right. Keith Johnson. Keith Johnson, I think. So, it was just a really interesting conversation with him.
DTD: That would be very…I gotta look that one up. I don’t remember listening to that one. But I have Simpsons Pinball Party, which is one of the ones famous for having a million levels and layers to it. And I had owned the machine for 5 or 6 years already, and it was still doing things I had never seen before.
GEOFF: Oh wow.
DTD: Quoting characters, every single little back character comes out and talks to you at some point. I really enjoy that one. That’s one of the best ones. I still play it quite a bit.
My favorite part of this pinball is the naming of the bonuses. Like most pinball games, this game scores in the millions of points. There is a bonus called “Big Points”, that scores a million or so, and another one called “Really Big Points”. Conversely, “Little Points” exists as a bonus, as does “Really Little Points.” I Think RLP scores you 10.
GEOFF: Yeah, so that’s why it was kind of such a treat to kind of, be working on this pinball game, you know the board game, and doing that.
Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade from WizKids is a roll and write that really captures the true essence and chaos of pinball. See, I knew we would come back to board games eventually. I forget the designer.
DTD: It’s just come out, hasn’t it?
It’s Geoff. Geoff Engelstein. Come on, you should know this.
GEOFF: It’s not officially. It’s actually coming out in September or October. Right now, it’s October 7th sort of, is the retail street date for it. But there’s the print & play is out. Reviewers have their copies and stuff like that.
DTD: I have the print and play, and I’ve played it. And I’ve seen a lot of friends, a lot of Dice Tower people, are showing pictures of the box.
GEOFF: Yeah. So, I’m waiting for the Dice Tower review. We’ll see how that goes. Tom usually doesn’t like my stuff, so we’ll see how it goes.
Tom reviewed Super Skill Pinball on September 11, and <spoiler> absolutely loved it. “Best roll and write ever.”
DTD: Ah, what does he know?
GEOFF: That’s true.
DTD: I enjoyed it. I had a really good time with it. I played the print and play, laminated it up.
GEOFF: Oh cool. Thanks for doing that.
DTD: I need to find a nice token, looks like a steel pinball.
GEOFF: Did you see the tokens that WizKids put in the box, that it comes with?
DTD: I heard you talking about it, and I saw a photo, but it didn’t really come through in the photo.
GEOFF: I can run out and grab them. They are just, they’re just perfect. They’re absolutely perfect.
DTD: But are they heavy?
GEOFF: They’re just these little half dome plastic pieces that are totally just silver electroplated. And so, they literally look like pinballs. You know, they are completely reflective and everything. They look great.
DTD: That’s fantastic. I tried to play with actual real pinballs, but they would roll away.
GEOFF: Yeah, that’s not going to work.
DTD: I gave it a good shot. I really did.
GEOFF: Okay, well that’s…
BRIAN: You need a mag safe piece of the board.
GEOFF: That’s right. A piece of clay or something.
DTD: Not at all the same. Not at all the same. So, how did you get into this crazy world of board game stuff? It seems like you’ve been doing something board game related forever, as long as I’ve known.
GEOFF: Yeah, well. My superhero origin story?
DTD: I don’t know this one.
GEOFF: [laughs] So, we… I mean I always played a lot of games growing up, but when I was in like, you know, 10th… When I was like 11 or 12 or something like that, and I was at sleepaway camp, I was… Two things happened in the same year. Actually, at Sleepaway Camp. It’s like “This year at band camp…,” it’s one of those stories.
DTD: OK, I have a couple of those.
GEOFF: Except this is the non-girl portion of the story. I had the reputation in my bunk of like “the smart kid in the bunk.”
DTD: [sarcastically] OK, I don’t know how that would happen.
GEOFF: Which I guess was not great, but it was better than having the reputation of “the kid that can’t throw a ball.” Which would have been equally deserved.
DTD: OK. [laughs]
GEOFF: But just out of the blue, and a kid from another bunk comes over, and he’s like… He throws this game at me, and he’s like “Here’s this game. Let’s play tomorrow. Read the rules. I’m coming back.” It turned out to be Panzerblitz.
DTD: Oh, my goodness.
GEOFF: Right? And I’m looking at this thing, and I have no freaking idea what’s going on. I’m trying to look at the rules. It was completely incomprehensible, in another language. And he comes over, and we play…
DTD: Typeset rules with 1, 1.A, 1.A.4, 1.A.4.1
GEOFF: Yeah exactly, it’s an old Avalon Hill game from the 70’s, or late 60’s early 70’s. I mean, now it would actually be relatively simple, but I mean at the time, for my first exposure to this kind of thing. And he came back to the bunk, and…
GEOFF: [to Susan] What’s going on with the rice?
SUSAN: Almost done.
GEOFF: OK, rice is almost done. Excellent. Shrimp was very, very good, by the way!
DTD: I dug into the gumbo.
BRIAN: Very good.
GEOFF: So, he plays me, and I get crushed. And he takes his game, and he goes, “Well, I guess you’re not that smart after all.” And he walks out of the bunk.
DTD: [laughs] Beginning of the end.
GEOFF: And then later in that same session… And then later I rediscovered the game. I didn’t remember the name, but then later I got my hands on an Avalon Hill catalog. And when I was playing Panzerblitz, I was like, “Oh, this is what that game was…” But then also later that same year, that same camp session, a friend of mine started going off, talking about this game, which turned out to be Dungeons and Dragons. But I had never heard of it, right? So, this is like, probably ‘75, ‘74. This is really early. Early D&D stuff. Probably before AD&D came out. So, this was still the introductory box with the light blue cover, and all this stuff.
BRIAN: Back when Elf was a class.
Yes, in the first editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the Elf was a class, not a race.
GEOFF: But he’s telling me all these stories about his character, because that’s what people do when they play D&D. And all the adventures they went on. And I was like, “What game could possibly be doing this?”
DTD: And you can’t grasp how that would be a game.
GEOFF: Yeah, It just totally blew my mind. And so, when I got home after camp, I was able to uncover what these games were. I got my hands on an Avalon Hill catalog. I ended up buying Richthofen’s War, was the first one I got. And I also got a D&D set, like a year or two later. It turns out there was a store in New Jersey called the Compleat Strategist in Montclair.
DTD: I’ve been there a lot.
GEOFF: Okay, so that was my big haunt when I was in my young teenage years.
DTD: I grew up in Scotch Plains.
GEOFF: And yes, I just got really into gaming, and then when I was like 14 or 15, like ‘77 or ’78. I guess it was ‘78 or ’79, I was reading the Dragon Magazine, and there was a… There was an ad for this convention that was going to be in Chester, Pennsylvania, called Origins. And it was the second time they had held it. It was being held at a college campus in Chester, Pennsylvania; whatever school is there, I forget the name of it.
Widener University. Go Chester and Melrose!
DTD: I have no idea.
GEOFF: And so, I had a bunch of friends, three or four friends, who like, we played all these games together. And so, we all went to our parents, and we were like, “We want to go to Chester, Pennsylvania to this game convention. We want to take the train. You can stay over in the dorms.” And of course, you know, there’s no cell phones or anything. We are just like, “We want to go to this game convention. We will be back in three days.” I was 15 or something.
DTD: And they were OK with that?
GEOFF: And they were like, “Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Have fun.”
DTD: [laughing] Wow.
GEOFF: I think they had just gotten divorced. So, they were all trying to, you know, cater to me. But all the parents said “Go. That’s fine.”
DTD: Here’s $200. Do you want my ID?
GEOFF: So, we went, and we had just, I mean we had such an amazing time. You know, it was just, it was my first time really being on my own. We were just, we were up till 4 in the morning every night, and just going to the convention hall and seeing all of this stuff that I never knew existed. You know, so it really just, that kind of just cemented it for me, of being into that. I designed video games in high school. I published a couple of video games, but I never really did any board games.
DTD: I didn’t know that. From what company?
GEOFF: We… a friend of mine… Ah, rice. OK, I’m going to take the bowl. I’m going to do this.
SUSAN: Here’s the stuff. I’ve got to go, I’ve got a meeting.
GEOFF: OK, Susan’s got to go. She’s got a meeting.
SUSAN: Bye! Nice meeting you! Thank you for the dinner!
DTD: Bye! Thank you. Thank you for letting me invade!
GEOFF: So, Yeah. So, I programmed for the Apple II computer. I did, I did… The first game was called Panic Button. Was published by a local company in Summit actually, called Spinnaker Software. So, they didn’t do too much. Sold that.
DTD: I remember the company.
DTD: I grew up in New Jersey and I was a computer nerd!
GEOFF: We did a game called Panic Button. And then a couple years after that we did a game called…
The Engelstein men paused a moment to pass cajun culinary goodness between them.
GEOFF: We did a game called… I’m sorry, the first game was Starblaster, and then the second game was called Panic Button.
I could not, for the life of me, find references to Panic Button.
[I found Geoff’s Twitter talking about it. That counts, right? -Ed]
DTD: Starblaster sounds very familiar, but there were a lot of games with almost exactly that title.
GEOFF: Yeah, I mean, that’s a super generic name. I mean, it didn’t sell very well, but actually I had just… It published like right around the same time when I finally got my driver’s license, and I got my first car and I was told, “Hey, you need to, you know, pay for your gas in it, get your insurance, and all that stuff.” So, I got a job at Burger King, and I worked at Burger King once, and it was just horrible. It was just a freaking nightmare. I was in charge of putting the frozen patties onto the conveyor belt, that took them through the oven. That was my job for 4 hours. And then, like the day after my job, my first day at Burger King, I got the first royalty check for Starblaster, which was like $2,000 or something.
DTD: That’s awesome!
GEOFF: And I went again to Burger King, like for my second time, and it was just as bad, and I was like, “This is stupid,” and I quit. I was like, “I’m not doing the anymore.”
Purely for research, I run Star Blaster with an emulator on my computer. Quite the fine 80s era video game. And I am fairly certain I played it in the 1980s.
GEOFF: Yeah so, then I went on to, you know, when I went to college I didn’t do any real game design. But we used to play constantly. I was the president of the MIT strategic gaming society and we ran cons, and we did all kinds of stuff there.
DTD: I just want to let you know that MIT rejected me.
GEOFF: Yeah well, that’s to be expected. Actually, they sent me your application to review.
DTD: Oh, they did? So, we are about the same age, so that would have been very odd. But MIT not only rejected me, but they sent me a rejection letter once a week for two months.
Go TIM the Beaver!
DTD: I kept getting the same rejection letter over and over.
BRIAN: That seems needlessly cruel.
GEOFF: Just, by the way, still rejected. Just in case.
DTD: Just in case you were wondering. Still.
GEOFF: My best friend, one of my best friends, Mark Glickman, who’s actually now a professor at B.U. for math [I found him at Harvard], and is also really super involved in chess, and he develops all the chess ratings systems and stuff like that…
Go John Harvard!
DTD: Oooh. Well, I got chess stories for you.
GEOFF: OK, we will come back to that. So, Mark Glickman, my good friend, sent me… [to Brian] I don’t know if you know this story… Sent me a fake rejection letter from Princeton. I applied to Princeton. He got his hands on some Princeton stationary,
DTD: That’s awesome.
GEOFF: And sent me a letter that says, you know, “We’re sorry to inform you that you’ve been rejected. In fact, we don’t even understand why you thought to apply in the first place. It’s just beyond our understanding.” But he didn’t put anything in there, other than that, that ultimately would say, like, it’s a joke or something. I was just… That was it, it was just a letter. And I was really upset. I was very unhappy over that letter. I mean, at some point he revealed, “Oh no, it was just me joking.” Not funny, dude.
DTD: I got into Princeton, but I ended up not going.
BRIAN: Kind of funny.
GEOFF: I did get into Princeton later, with the official letter, so there you go.
DTD: We had… I went to a snooty private high school. I went to Pingry in New Jersey.
Go Big Blue!
GEOFF: Oh, Pingry is right up the street from us.
DTD: That’s where I went to high school.
GEOFF: So yeah, OK, we are in Bridgewater. I drive by Pingry all the time.
BRIAN: Didn’t you say you grew up in Scotch Plains?
GEOFF: Oh right, I think we talked about this. My first house was in Scotch Plains.
BRIAN: My first house.
DTD: Really funny, I looked up… I was doing a little bit of research. And, well, I have to know something. And Mars International, their headquarters in Mountainside… My best friend in high school, where I spent 99% of my time, is actually on that little tiny map of where Mars International is, on their website. It’s literally 500 yards if you threw a rock. Right there.
Mars International produces red planetary bodies and gods of war. Actually, Geoff’s company are “Expert designers and mufacturers of mechanical and electrical assemblies”. So, yeah – planets and gods.
GEOFF: Oh really? Wow, OK. We actually moved from that place. We are in Piscataway now. We moved from that location.
DTD: I drove there, through the Watchung reservation, almost every day.
The Watchung Reservation is a pretty small protected, wooded area in New Jersey. It has one windy road going through it, which I would proceed to take much too quickly. It is also the home of Surprise Lake, which somehow always surprised me in that it was a small, damp bog rather than a lake.
BRIAN: I hope you didn’t throw too many rocks. Because the windows in that place are pretty brittle.
DTD: Oh, it’s a beautiful building. I remember it was really weird looking with pedestals, and then this really big top area.
GEOFF: Yeah, yeah. Yep.
Gumbo, Au Gratin and Nostalgia never tasted so good. Next time, Geoff and I discuss the good old days of complex games with 50 page instruction books that took hundreds of hours to play. Plus Geoff recounts first meeting up with Tom in Korea, and the early days of game design—warts and all.