Welcome back to virtual vittles; I am lucky enough to be having a delightful virtual cajun meal with board game expert and designer Geoff Engelstein. I have admired Geoff’s designs and books for ages, but I am even more in love now that he let me chat about retro video games and pinball machines. In this segment, we discuss early gaming influences and Geoff’s entry to publication. Plus Alan Turing, the father of modern computing.
DTD: It’s funny, the stories you are telling, I keep thinking in my head “there’s a connection to that, and a connection to that, and a connection to that.” So, I played some of my first heavy games when I was away at band camp.
GEOFF: OK. So, there you go.
DTD: And it was someone who came up to me, and we played Freedom in the Galaxy.
GEOFF: Oh my god, I was just talking to somebody about Freedom in the Galaxy but go ahead. Tell your story, then I’ll tell my story.
DTD: That was one of my first ones. It is such a neat game, but such a blatant ripoff of Star Wars.
GEOFF: Yeah, it’s supposed to be Star Wars.
DTD: That’s what it was. Yeah, it was that, at sleepaway camp in Vermont.
Camp Point CounterPoint on beautiful Lake Dunmore in Brandon, Vermont. 1981-83.
GEOFF: That’s funny. I was just talking to somebody who’s a pretty big video game designer. I don’t remember how we started chatting, but we have now a secret plan that we’re going to try to redo, redesign, Freedom in the Galaxy, with more modern sensibilities.
GEOFF: Oh, really? Okay. Okay.
DTD: He told me that. I didn’t see the connection, but that’s what he said.
GEOFF: I mean I think probably Star Wars: Rebellion is the closest thing to it, at this stage.
DTD: Oh, it needs to be much, much more complicated. I agree, though. That’s cool.
GEOFF: [laughing] Sure.
GEOFF: Oh sure. So, you coded early versions of Hack?
DTD: Moria, mostly.
DTD: If you have ever played a version of Moria that had a Paladin, that was me. Because I was a D&D buff, and I wanted a Paladin.
GEOFF: I have not played Moria, I have to say.
BRIAN: I’ve played the spiritual successor.
DTD: When Rogue evolved and split, it turned into the more comical NetHack and the more serious Moria. And then it kept going on from there. I played a lot of… You know my background, my history, right?
GEOFF: No, go ahead. Tell me.
DTD: I played a lot of mainframe games, because… here, I’ll give you a hint…
GEOFF: Yeah, I didn’t I didn’t do any research for this. Just for the record.
DTD: You didn’t do any research? Guess what this is. Do you know what this is?
GEOFF: No, no.
DTD: This is the 1983 Turing Award.
GEOFF: Really? Okay.
DTD: So, my father created UNIX in 1969.
GEOFF: Oh, I did hear that. I did hear that your father did UNIX.
DTD: And he’s a big chess buff, so that’s my chess link. My dad worked on some versions of the ELO scoring system. And the newer versions of ELO.
GEOFF: Okay, he probably knows Mark [Glickman] then.
DTD: He probably does, if they are both heavy in that chess thing, they probably know each other.
GEOFF: Yeah, Mark 100%. He wrote all the new papers on ELO and all that stuff. So, yeah, he was heavily… he’s the guy, he’s the ELO guy.
DTD: That’s awesome. I need to ask my dad about that.
BRIAN: So, it’s your fault for why all of my weekends suck.
GEOFF: Yeah, I actually interviewed him for… Mark, for a Ludology, er GameTek. When I talk about ELO and stuff like that.
DTD: Wow. Well, Dad did work on ELO, and he did work on endgames.
GEOFF: Oh, that’s not who you are, that’s who your father is.
DTD: That’s all my Dad.
BRIAN: I wouldn’t know anything about that.
DTD: I’m a veterinarian.
GEOFF: So, what is the Turing Award? What is the Turing Award given for?
DTD: The Turing Award is the IEEE biggest award for advances in computer science. It’s kind of the Nobel Prize for computers. Japan gives the Japan Prize, which is up there, and… the Turing Award every year.
BRIAN: Could have worked a little harder on that name.
DTD: Turing was kind of a big guy.
GEOFF: Brian dressed as… Brian went in costume as Alan Turing for career day at school one year.
BRIAN: I did do that, yes.
DTD: Did you carry around an apple?
BRIAN: I don’t believe I did. Did he do that? That wasn’t in the book I read.
DTD: That’s the sad part at the end.
Alan Turing was found dead at the age of 41 with a half eaten apple by his side. It is widely believed that he took his own life, ingesting a letal dose of cyanide while re-enacting a scene from Snow White and the 7 Dwarves.
GEOFF: Yeah, we didn’t do the chemical castration, suicide part. We left that out. Because, you know he was in middle school.
Turing was a homosexual during a time in England when such things were illegal. He had been arrested for “indecency”, and given the choice of incarceration or probation with chemical castration. He chose treatment with the estrogen derivitive diethylstilbestrol.
BRIAN: I was in fifth grade. I actually read about that part. I decided to keep it out of my report.
DTD: But the famous statue of Turing at Bletchley Park, he’s got an apple.
Although Turing did most of his work in Bletchley Park, and there is a statue of him there, the statue with the apple is 150 miles away, in Manchester.
GEOFF: The food is excellent, by the way. In case I forgot to say this.
DTD: Good, I’m glad. I polished off my gumbo. It was really lovely. I’ve got to grab some red beans and go to town on that.
GEOFF: Yeah, I’ve been kind of moving back and forth here.
DTD: So, you did a little bit of video game… you did video game design, you were published, you did all that. But what moved you more into board game stuff?
BRIAN: [to Geoff] I’m surprised you didn’t bring up the college video game that almost killed someone.
GEOFF: Video game where I killed somebody?
BRIAN: Almost killed somebody.
GEOFF: What are you talking about?
BRIAN: In college, when you worked on educational games.
GEOFF: Oh, yeah. I didn’t kill her. Just would have been… severely harmed somebody.
DTD: That’s all the difference.
GEOFF: He’s just telling the story. So, one year, in… a summer, in college, I stayed on campus and I worked for a company called Spinnaker Software, which did educational games. And I translated a game for the Commodore 64; it was on the IBM… no, it was on the Apple, and they wanted it on Commodore 64. So, I did the whole port, and after you finish certain activities, you needed to… there was like a reward screen. There was some cute little animation or something. But the graphics were very rudimentary back in the day. But one of the things that the Commodore 64 could do, is it could very quickly show different background colors, and stuff like that. There was just some bits you could flip and change background color. So, one of the things is I did this whole big flashy thing of all these different colors, and then I brought it in, and showed it to the QA person. And it turned out she was an epileptic; she had epilepsy and she was like, “This… we can’t ship this. You need to change this.”
Photosensitive Epilepsy, wherein a person has a seizure induced by flashing or strobing lights, only really came into the light when an episode of Pokemon caused hundreds of children to seize in 1997. Excuse the pun.
DTD: That was really early for recognizing that. Because a lot of the Commodore 64 games used that—they do the strobing and flashing colors. That was the glitz.
BRIAN: Oh, I forgot to say happy 25th anniversary of Windows 95.
GEOFF: [laughs] Thank you. We are all very excited. You want more Gumbo?
BRIAN: Not right now, but thank you.
GEOFF: So, I played games all through… so after college, I used to play super heavy games. We would play World in Flames and Empires in Arms, I mean, Freedom in the Galaxy, Advanced Squad Leader. So, doing all that. And then when Brian was born… I mean when Susan was pregnant actually with Brian, we started going with another couple. We went to Origins, used to be in Baltimore. First, we went to the game conventions. Then we started getting into euro games at that point. But that was when they were first imported into the US.
DTD: So, mid 90s.
GEOFF: So, this is like 1994. 93-94. We started moving to a lighter fare. So, we just played with friends and stuff all through that time. And for my business, I would go overseas. We did a lot of business in Asia. So at least once or twice a year, I would make a trip to Hong Kong, China and Korea, Taiwan, Japan. And on one of the trips I reached out to Tom Vasel, who was still over in South Korea at the time, and said “Hey, I listen to the show and enjoy it. Enjoy your work. I’m going to be in Seoul. I’ve got a couple of free nights. I would love to maybe connect. I’ll buy you dinner, buy you a drink, whatever. Maybe we can play a game.” And so, he ended up coming down to Seoul the first time, and we went to a board game café they had in Korea at that time. And that was how we became friends. And every time I would come to Korea, I would take the train up to his apartment. Which was completely freaking out… we have an agent over there. My father started the business, and the agent knew my father. And so, he was super protective of me. And I told him, “I’m taking the train to, up north to this area where my friend lives.” And he was like, “I’ll come with you. I can show you the train. We can do this.” I’m like, “Really, it’s going to be fine. I’ll be fine. I can tell when to get off the train. It’s going to be okay.”
DTD: I had that when I went to Germany.
DTD: Yeah, Joe Steadman.
GEOFF: I think I played T.I. with Sam when Sam came up. At one point he mentioned to me, “Hey I’m looking for new contributors to the show.” And so, I was thinking; I felt this kind of feeling like I wanted to get more involved in stuff. And so, I came up with this idea of GameTek. I like science, I like math, I like psychology. Maybe I can talk about that. I put together 3 demo segments for him, sent them over. He said, “This is great. Let’s do it.” And that was it. I really figured at most I would be able to have like 10-20 ideas. At most.
DTD: I think you’ve gone beyond.
GEOFF: And I’ve done like 300 of them. It’s been really crazy.
DTD: And they are some of my favorite things. I love learning about… because I love collecting a lot of those stories as well. You hear about the really bizarre, interesting things out there related to games or decision making. GameTek really sums it up great they’re fantastic.
GEOFF: Thank you. I appreciate that. So that’s kind of, you know… and actually and then, the game design from that was, so I was doing that for a little while. And then one time when I was visiting Tom, was actually, when I was in Korea, we played the Starcraft game. It had just come out, so… Whatever year that is.
It was 2007.
BRIAN: The FFG [Fantasy Flight Games] coffin one. Giant box.
The infamous “coffin box”, so named just because it was pretty darn big. This box size was additionally used for Twilight Imperium (3rd edition), Descent, Tide of Iron, World of Warcraft, Runewars, and several others.
DTD: [snarkily] Yeah, the first deck builder.
GEOFF: Sort of… not really.
DTD: Well I mean, you’re no expert on this, come on.
GEOFF: [laughs] Yes, don’t talk to me about mechanisms.
Geoff literally wrote the book on board game mechanisms, Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design. There is no bigger expert in the field.
DTD: I think I have your book right there.
GEOFF: And when I was, when we played, I was really excited. I love Starcraft, I love real time strategy games. And we played it, and I don’t know, have you played it?
DTD: Yeah, once.
GEOFF: OK, but it doesn’t feel like a real time strategy game in any way, shape or form.
GEOFF: So, I mean, I enjoyed the game, but I was just… I didn’t feel like it really did what I wanted it to do. So, on the way back, on the flight, on the 20-hour flight, I was thinking, I was like, “What would a game feel like, that was like that?” And by the time I landed, I had kind of an outline of what would become The Ares Project. And so actually, so Brian and I had always kicking around ideas. So, at that point, I went to him. I was like, “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” And he thought it was pretty cool. So, we started making some prototype cards and things like that. And kind of went from there.
BRIAN: If I recall, when you came to me after the flight, you said “Alright, I thought of this idea. We can do it with cards.” And I said, “I’ll do it on one condition. And that condition is we call it The Ares Project.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’ve been wanting to call something The Ares Project for like two years. So, we’ve got to call it The Ares Project.”
DTD: I love it. It is a great name.
GEOFF: And so that was kind of it. So, we were kind of off to the races from there.
DTD: Wow. I thought for sure, talking about real-time and things like that, I thought it was going to be Space Cadets, and things like that.
GEOFF: No, that was our first game.
BRIAN: And Ares was forever ago.
GEOFF: We had designed a game before that. Well, I don’t know if you were involved in that. It was called Horde.
BRIAN: I was totally involved in that. Which I would like to bring back at some point. But it never totally worked.
GEOFF: The idea was you would build up cities and stuff like that, and then at the end of the game, a barbarian horde would rush down from the mountains and destroy things in their path. And you would score points for stuff that was left. So, you could build cities close to the mountains, and they would give you a lot more resources, but the chances were pretty good that…
DTD: But they would get trashed first.
GEOFF: And you could like, even like, build things that would, like deflect barbarians towards you. Or you could put expensive artifacts in other people cities to try to draw the barbarians towards them, or stuff like that. And then, we went, I don’t think you were involved in that.
BRIAN: I was. I was there. I remember this vividly. I was like 9, I remember this vividly.
GEOFF: So, Zev, he was running Z-Man Games at the time, so he lived in… he was at all the New Jersey cons. He actually lived just over the border, he lived in Rockaway, or that area. But he was down here. So, we knew him. I was friends with the circle of people that he was coming with, the design mafia around here, with Andy Parks and all those people. So, I was like, “I got this idea. I would love to show it to you.” And I knew it wasn’t totally finished, but I was super excited about it, and I thought it was really cool idea, and stuff like that. We went and gave the demo, and it just completely fell apart.
DTD: Oh no!
Zev Shlasinger founded Z-Man Games in 1999, hence the name, but moved to WizKids in 2016.
GEOFF: I mean, he got… I don’t think we even played. But like, everybody’s city on the entire board was completely destroyed.
BRIAN: But that was always kind of the problem with that game, was the balance on The Horde, the rampaging force, was unbalancable. Either nothing happened, or everybody’s city was destroyed, and the game ended.
GEOFF: But it was just completely embarrassing. And it just didn’t… It was just fun up to that point. And also, later, that kind of spun into my interest in, you know I have the books that I did about loss aversion, and psychology and stuff like that. And that game feeds into that 100%. The whole game is building stuff up, and then you lose everything you built.
DTD: And watching you lose it.
GEOFF: Right? It’s just not a feel-good ending.
And remember, this comes from the author of Achievement Relocked: Loss Aversion and Game Design. Geoff knows about the consequences of feeling loss in a game.
DTD: That’s like Galaxy Trucker.
In Galaxy Trucker by Vlaada Chvátil, players work in real time to assemble a massive starship out of tiles, adding engines, living quarters, cargo space, lasers, etc. In the second part of the game, these starships race to their destination, picking up cargo to sell, all while rogue meteors continually destroy the ship.
GEOFF: Yeah, kind of. But that does it in a more humorous way, I guess. And it also does it repeatedly, you know in different sections. So, it’s not as, like…
DTD: But I know people who will not play Galaxy Trucker just because they hate the idea of their baby getting destroyed.
GEOFF: Yeah, I could kind of see that. Anyway, so that was just super embarrassing, and the lesson I took away from that is never pitch a game that you’re not 100% confident, is like really ready to go. It may change after you pitch it, but…
BRIAN: I mean, Ares did.
GEOFF: I mean, I just figured I’d walk in there, and Zev would, even if the game didn’t work, Zev would just naturally see the genius behind the design.
DTD: Well, of course.
GEOFF: And he did not see the genius. [laughs] There really was no genius behind the design in retrospect.
BRIAN: I still think there are parts of that game that could work, if we went back with, you know… What is it, at this point: 15, 20 years design experience that we have on them. I think we could do it.
DTD: See, its ready now.
GEOFF: I mean, to Zev’s credit, a year, 2 years later, we went back with Ares Project. He was like, “OK, I’ll take another pitch from you guys.” And we did that one, and after the pitch, he was just like, “Okay, I’ll sign it.”
BRIAN: Though Ares, when we did the pitch for Ares. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Ares?
DTD: I have not.
BRIAN: But it’s very dice roll heavy. You roll dice, and your goal is during combat to roll under a target number.
GEOFF: It’s like Axis and Allies combat resolution.
BRIAN: You can see, if you cut open our games, you can often times see what we were playing at the time. And Ares comes out of a very Warmahordes [a term encompassing Privateer Press’ miniatures games War Machine and Hordes], 40K, Axis and Allies-y place.
DTD: I think it was a product of the time as well. So what year was Ares?
GEOFF: Ares was 2009. It was actually published in 2011, but the design was finished in 2009.
DTD: I felt for a while that in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, games sold on complexity. When you shopped for a game, you looked for a game that was bigger, had more rules, more pieces and took more time. Kind of the antithesis of what we’ve got now. You wanted big, huge, elaborate productions.
GEOFF: Yeah. I mean, that was the whole thing with wargaming. Is that was what the wargaming, the vocal fans, wanted: more complexity, more fidelity, and stuff like that.
DTD: The Avalon Hill spirit, yeah.
GEOFF: And eventually I feel like that led to the collapse of the wargaming industry, because they were just catering to a smaller and smaller and smaller minority. Because how many people can play a 200-hour game, right? Empires in Arms is an amazing experience, but it’s got a very limited audience.
Empires in Arms is listed on BGG as having a 120-12,000 minute play time for its 2-7 players. Twelve thousand minutes. Two hundred hours. More than eight days nonstop. Sounds like the lyrics to a broadway musical.
DTD: You gotta be ready for a whole weekend, and somebody is going to sleep in the middle.
A little more than one weekend. If you could pull off 18 hours each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it would still take 4 of these weekends.
DTD: I just find it fascinating that the evolution of the entire industry has gone from this worshipping of complexity all the way the other way now, to the worshipping of simplicity. The perfect games I think people are looking for right now are super elegant, simple games.
GEOFF: Well, I think actually it has swung a little bit in the other direction. Because I feel like the pinnacle of that was when Love Letter came out.
BRIAN: Which is still my favorite game of all time.
GEOFF: Which was, I forget what year that was, maybe 2015. I don’t know.
It was 2012.
DTD: 2015, 2014. Somewhere around there.
2012. Read the comments, DTD.
GEOFF: But I mean, I remember when that came out, and all of a sudden was, “Oh my god. 16 cards. Let’s do this.” And all the microgames came out. And I was pitching at that point, I was like, “Everything has got to be super simple.” But now I feel like, you know, you look at the success of Gloomhaven and Kingdom: Death Monster and, you know. I mean there’s a whole new slew of very complex, maybe not very complicated rules-wise as much, but certainly long, drawn out, serious games that people are playing that are still popular. A lot of the CMoN stuff.
DTD: But don’t you feel like they are more outliers?
GEOFF: So, I feel like it’s… I feel like there’s both extremes now. I feel like it’s at midrange, I feel like that has kind of fallen away. That it used to be like a 3-hour Euro game, was like everybody was on board for that, right? And now you can’t pitch a 3-hour Euro game to anybody, right? It’s gotta be 90 minutes tops, or bottom end of the scale. Or it’s got to be like an 8-hour epic kind of a thing. I think that midrange is kind of what’s fallen out. Because I was a little gratified to see that upper end coming back a little bit.
GEOFF: For sales numbers for sure. If you are looking for ratings and reviews, it’s not necessarily. But, yeah, certainly the games that are really good, that are in that shorter frame, are going to sell more. 100%. And that’s why I’m hoping that, like… I mean, that’s the issue that I’ve been struggling with Super Skill Pinball. That’s got a real lot of entry level appeal, and I’ve been already working on… I mean, I haven’t signed a deal or anything, but I’ve been working on expansion tables for it.
DTD: Oh, sure. It is primed for that.
Stay tuned next time, when Geoff and Brian talk about their next big game. Full of incredible table presence, chaotic electronic action and special ability laden, science fiction themed team sports! No more spoilers – check it all out next time, along with red beans and rice.