Welcome back to a classic pandemic-style meal and virtual get together. I was lucky enough to spend an evening, albeit over many, many miles, with board game experts and designers Geoff and Brian Engelstein. In an ill-thought-out turn of events, we are both halfway through the same cajun meal of red beans, gumbo and shrimp, although neither of us is anywhere near Louisiana (I win at 2250 miles, Geoff comes in a close second at 1275 miles). The conversation has ranged nearly as far, covering pinball machines, 1980s computer programming, and of course, board games. Currently, the topic is Geoff’s new roll-and-write pinball game, Super-Skill Pinball 4-Cade.
GEOFF: So, Zev [Schlasinger] and I have been working on some stuff, but I try to add a fun little tweak to each one. A toy, what we consider a “toy” in pinball parlance. But I just feel like I’m adding more complexity, just for the sake of something different. And Zev plays them, and he’s like, “Yeah, this is really cool. But it’s not… It’s moving away from kind of that somebody-describing-it-and-sitting-down.” And I was in Target the other day, and I was thinking, looking at the stuff on their shelves. Now I’m thinking, maybe I need to go the other way, and do like a dumbed down…
DTD: Definitely Target is lining their shelves with that.
GEOFF: Well, maybe that’s not the right term, but a simplified and entry level version of that, that you can grab and play with a 7, 8, 9 year old, that just eliminates some of the more complicated features. And they could just sell it in Target for $20, and you know, “Hey, play Pinball, this could be fun.” I think that would sell, so I don’t know. I mean I’m kind of going… I struggle with that. Every time I sat down to try to design a game in the Love Letter format, it ended up having 300 cards and it never worked.
Love Letter is famous for being a very popular game consisting of only 16 cards. Hence, a “microdeck.”
DTD: [laughs] “Microdeck.”
BRIAN: I designed a game with one card a while back, basically on a dare.
DTD: I love it.
GEOFF: So, we do have our new game coming out, though. We have a top-secret design, which we can let you in on.
DTD: Oh, OK! I’m ready, I’m ready.
GEOFF: Well, I’m sure he knows it. I’ve mentioned it on occasion, so maybe you’ve heard of it. But we haven’t really started publicizing it yet, but we’re planning on Kickstarting in, probably February, March, something like that. And I’m really excited about it, because I feel like we’ve designed something that’s… This is super simple again; I can explain the rules to this in like 4 minutes.
BRIAN: And even if you don’t understand the game, because you are a 4- or 5-year-old, it’s got a phenomenal toy factor.
I just want to point out here, that I am significantly older than 5. In theory.
GEOFF: So, do you remember Electric Football, vibrating Electric Football?
DTD: Yes! [making buzz noises]. And they did the bug game version for kids a while back. HABA did that. [Bugs in the Kitchen, and it was by Ravensburger].
One more point – when I made the remarkably accurate buzz noise, I also held out my hands and shook them violently. No one would mistake my inference.
GEOFF: Yeah, so we’ve done a… We’ve re-done vibrating Electric Football, but with actual real strategy and tactics and stuff that you can use.
GEOFF: So, every character… We made up a different sport, to try to make it work, so like both sides are playing offense and defense at the same time. Both teams have a ball.
BRIAN: We built all these things in, to make sure the game actually ends.
GEOFF: Right, both teams have a ball. It’s five on five. Every character is a different sculpt and has a special ability that they can do. And we’re super excited about it. We have actually partnered with Tudor Games. They’ve been making the Electric Football since 1947. This is like their first real new game, and they’re very excited about it.
DTD: That’s fantastic!
GEOFF: And it’s really simple to teach. Even though you have got to learn the special abilities of your characters. Basically, the way it works, is you do stuff with your characters alternating, without the board vibrating. So, you pass the ball, both teams have a ball. You pass the ball, you do your special abilities, you can turn somebody into a frog, you can put a wall in the middle of the board, you can shoot missiles at another guy, or whatever. You do all that, and then you push a button and the board vibrates for 5 seconds.
DTD: And you see what happens.
GEOFF: And if the guy who has the ball crosses the goal line during those five seconds, you score a point and then reset back to the 20-yard line. And the first person/team to get to three points wins the game. If nobody scores on the 5 seconds, then the field shrinks, you move the end zones in by 10 yards on each side. And then you do the special abilities again, except you know, it uses energy up. Every character has a certain amount of energy. So that limits the amount that you can do. When both sides are done doing their stuff, throwing the ball around, shifting, whatever, then you push the button for another 5 seconds. And that’s the whole game. So, it’s super simple, but it is tremendously fun. It’s very easy for people to get into. So, we’re doing it on Kickstarter. I think it’s going to be a big Kickstarter thing for us. We are pretty excited about it.
BRIAN: Plus, it’s a fun one to bring to cons. Because when that thing vibrates, you can hear it from 20, 30 yards, in the dealers’ hall.
DTD: And it will draw the people in to see what that is.
GEOFF: You talk about table presence; it’s got tremendous table presence. It’s a 24×13 inch board.
DTD: That’s awesome. And you’re going to bring in the nostalgia from the old game.
GEOFF: Right, yes. We are doing the nostalgia. So, yeah, we are very, very excited about it and we got very cool sculpts. So, they are all individual little sculpts, and there are different sized bases. So, we have physics with it. Because there are some characters that move slowly, but are extremely powerful. And there’s others that move fast, but can’t, like, break through stuff. There’s a lot of physics that come into it as well.
BRIAN: I think that was a new experience for our sculptor.
DTD: I was going to say, the sculpts are kind of predictable in how they move and how they act on the board when the vibration turns on? To an extent?
GEOFF: Not really, but we’ve got some. There’s different types of bases. So basically, the bases are extrusions, plastic extrusions that, like, slide on to the bottom of the things. And they have ones they called “fast” bases. They already had this, so we are just using their same technology. So, they have “fast” bases, which are just two little skids, two little sleds on either side of the mini. And that was “fast”. Then there’s what they call “normal” bases, or “power” bases I guess they call them.
BRIAN: No, they call them “strong” bases.
GEOFF: They call them “strong” bases. But it’s like the width of one mini. So, it’s just the part that contacts it, instead of just being four little touch points, it’s like rails that touch it. So, the more surface that touches the table, the slower it goes, but the more powerful it is. Then we introduced, also what we have, a double character. So, we have double wide characters now, that are the equivalent of two football players together.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome.
GEOFF: And so then, you have to put a full base on from either side, to do those guys. And those guys move super slowly. So, we’ve actually got three different tiers of bases. But it also matters… Like, we got some guys that have their arm sticking out, so they clothesline other players as they are going by them. We’ve got some guys, the center of gravity is adjusted, so that depending on where the center of gravity is on the base, it affects the speed of the characters. There’s all kinds of different characteristics.
DTD: Do you know about Brownian ratchets and that physics? This was my biophysics when I was doing cell biology and motor engines.
A previous life…
GEOFF: Oh, cool. No, tell me about that.
DTD: So, Brownian ratches are basically something that vibrates randomly with Brownian motion, because it’s small stuff, molecules. But it has a stop. So, it is vibrating randomly, but it can go forward, but it won’t allow it to back up. So Brownian motion will power a directional movement.
GEOFF: Okay. Don’t flagella move like that? Flagella, do they move like that, or is that a different thing?
DTD: Everything in cells moves like that. Your muscles in your arms move like that.
BRIAN: May I just say that “Brownian Ratchet” is a phenomenal name for one of our characters?
DTD: But I think you could make a base that is a texture, a series of triangles, that will slide easily one way and not the other.
GEOFF: Well, they’re all that way. They’re all angled so that they only go forwards, but they don’t go backwards.
BRIAN: Unless they fall over.
GEOFF: Right. They’re all kind of directional.
DTD: OK, they are 5 steps ahead of me, then.
And I thought I had invented something new for the game. I really should have known Electronic Vibrating Football was pretty worked out. I mean, it’s been made since 1947.
GEOFF: Yeah, so yeah, so I’m super excited about that. And from a game design standpoint, we did actually, you know it sounds simple, but I mean, we put a lot of effort into making it simple, and making it… But making it fun and exciting. The big, kind of the golden rule that we ended up instituting, which made a huge difference, although it’s one of these things in retrospect that sounds really obvious. [laughs] But as we mentioned, you can like throw the ball, and stuff like that when the board isn’t vibrating. But we added the absolute ironclad golden rule of this game, is that the ball is only allowed to go into the endzone during a 5-second vibration period.
GEOFF: You cannot just like point to one of your guys, is in the end zone, and I mean the guys go in the endzone all the time, and we have an action – you can spend energy to just reset all the way back to your own endzone from the far end of the board. But, you know, you can’t just… originally, you could just throw it to somebody in the endzone.
DTD: And then – Yeah!
GEOFF: And then roll a die to see if they catch it. It was like the least exciting thing in the world. So then we were like, “No, this is no fun.” The whole game is about the vibration. And you need to end in the endzone. You don’t have to just cross it. So, we have had some guys, we like push the button, and they go in the end zone, and then they go back out. And you go, “Nooooo!”. And then it cuts off.
BRIAN: Or someone getting pushed out of the endzone. That’s always fun to see.
GEOFF: So, there’s just a lot of cool fun stuff. And because it always happens during that 5 seconds, there’s always that stand-up, screaming, exciting moment.
BRIAN: Because neither player is doing anything during those 5 seconds. Everyone just gets to watch the game.
DTD: Just watching to see what happens from what you set up. And hopefully you set it up right.
BRIAN: It’s basically the world’s fanciest random number generator.
GEOFF: It’s basically, we just treat it as a chaos generator. That’s all it is. But because we have in between, you have that time where you can set up your plays, you can try to, you can do clever stuff. You can play the odds. I mean there’s never any guarantees you’re going to score or whatever, but you just set yourself up for it, and then you basically “roll the dice” by vibrating the board to kind of see what happens. So, we are excited about that.
DTD: I love it. I’m picturing players with magnets in their hands…
BRIAN: We’ve had an ability that one of the characters had, which we called “guidance”, where you would push with your finger on the board. Because when you push on the board, it warps it, and everybody moves towards…
GEOFF: All the characters tend to move towards your finger.
BRIAN: But we removed it on account of the fact that it seemed incredibly dangerous.
GEOFF: And everybody was breaking the board. Everyone was denting the board.
DTD: Yeah, you don’t want people sticking their finger in the middle of electronic devices.
GEOFF: Yes. Anyways, we’re giving you the official exclusive, so when you… I don’t know when this interview is going to be posted. How soon it is.
I predict it will be posted around October 25. But that’s just a guess.
DTD: It has a delay to it.
61 days, apparently.
GEOFF: Yeah, I know you’re going to do it.
DTD: But it’s a month-ish. Maybe two.
GEOFF: OK. So, we are probably within about 3 weeks, we’re going to be posting more information about it. So, this will be the first more detailed information about it. So, there you go.
BRIAN: But its super fun. We are excited. And full credit to my father, when he came to me, we were talking. And he said, “What’s the craziest idea you have for a game?” And I said, “Vibrating electric football.” And he said, “OK. Sure, let’s do it.” Not the reaction I was expecting at all.
GEOFF: Constraints are your friend.
DTD: I love it. I’m thrilled to death that games and ideas from when I was a kid are coming back in a more thought-out form. Instead of coming out of the gift-giving Hasbro engine, they are actually coming out with thought behind them. Which excites me no end.
It has been said that Hasbro is not in the game business, they are in the gift-giving business.
BRIAN: Tudor has got some fun stuff, too.
GEOFF: And it turns out it’s a father and son, they just bought the company, too. So, the son’s about Brian’s age, and the father’s about my age, so its interesting.
DTD: That’s really amazing. Because I remember those things were everywhere when I was a kid. And its almost like they were a half generation older than me. So, I looked at it as a slightly older thing, but it was really cool, and I wanted to play with it.
GEOFF: Oh yeah, they were huge. Yeah. I think the sixties was really kind of the heyday of it. But I feel like all of us that grew up in the 70s, you know, and into the 80s all knew it. Everyone either had one or knew somebody that had one.
DTD: Oh exactly. It was in the basement behind the train set.
It’s funny. I can still smell Electronic Vibrating Football, from a set I played with when I was maybe 10 years old.
BRIAN: And they are still in production.
GEOFF: And everybody always says, “Oh, it just doesn’t… Oh yeah, you would just play it and the guys would just run in circles, and nothing would ever work.” It was just fun to mess around with.
BRIAN: We have three or four goals deliberately to alleviate if the player just runs around in circles.
GEOFF: The 5 seconds is one of that. So, we actually did a lot of experiments, and by limiting the vibration to 5 seconds, that’s about when they start the curve off, so that gives you the best chunk of directional action for what you thought you were going to do. After that, after 4 or 5 seconds, things start to go kind of squirrely.
DTD: Because the big thing is trying to inject some sort of agency, some sort of illusion that you have control.
GEOFF: Exactly. Yep.
DTD: I’m going to grab… I’m grabbing red beans.
The red beans had anduille sausage in it and was just delightful on rice.
BRIAN: Have we said the name?
GEOFF: By the way, the game name of the game is Nova League. That’s the name of the game. It’s got a science fiction theme to it.
The Nova League official website is up and teasing!
DTD: I got that from…either science fiction or fantasy, it sounded like. Because you were talking about walls, and guns and spells.
GEOFF: Yeah, we pitched a… We looked at couple different themes, but…
BRIAN: We were briefly seriously talking Cuphead-style 20’s cartoons.
GEOFF: We were also thinking of doing Cryptids. Like Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster, and stuff like that. Which would have been fun also.
DTD: Well, that’s Restoration’s ballpark there.
Restoration Games is known for taking older board games and giving them new life, reimagining and redesigning the game for the current gamer.
BRIAN: I’m really happy with the sci-fi. Also, I believe we are the first ever happy, sci-fi sports game.
GEOFF: Yeah. It’s not a dystopian future. Yeah, it’s all bright in colors, the characters are all kind of cartoonish. They are all cartoonish, cartoony kind of characters.
DTD: Have we had enough of that now?
BRIAN: I had to keep saying that to the artist. I was like, “No, no, no. Everything’s fine.”
DTD: [laughing] Everything is happy in this future. Take a minute, its hard to imagine. It’s out there somewhere.
GEOFF: Yeah, I know.
DTD: That’s fantastic. So, I ask everybody, but I think I know the answer already. You guys, you’re still playing lots of games, right? Because a lot of designers, it seems a majority of their time is taken up with testing and prototyping, and they lose some of the playing of other peoples’ games.
GEOFF: I don’t play as much as I would like. I really don’t. I mean, I get to play maybe once every couple of weeks. I mean, it’s also been hard, because I used to have this game group that I would go to, like once a month, or once every two weeks. And you know, obviously, that hasn’t been meeting.
DTD: Well, the timing is really terrible.
BRIAN: You also used to have my sister and I in the house.
GEOFF: The big thing is, when Brian and Sydney were home, we used to play stuff all the time. But now that they are… It’s just Susan and I. Susan, I mean she’ll play occasionally, but she’s not a big gamer, really. But she’ll be up for stuff. But it’s not the same kind of thing. So, yeah, when Brian’s over, when Sydney is back home, we will play a lot of stuff.
DTD: Sounds very familiar. My son is 23. So he’s home, because he’s just out of college, and he was home before that because colleges were virtual. So, we have had a more full house recently.
Go Sammy the Slug!
GEOFF: Right. Yeah, and that’s why I say… I know this has been just a pain in the ass, terrible situation for everybody, and certainly for us it hasn’t been any fun. But I just feel like so many people have things so much worse than we do here.
DTD: I was going to say, I feel guilty about complaining that the bad thing about the pandemic is I don’t get to play my games.
GEOFF: Right. We don’t have any kids in school. Our parents, although elderly, are healthy and in good situations; they’re not in nursing homes or anything like that. I’m not happy that our kids are both in their own apartments, they’re living by themselves, and they are kind of isolated. We tell both of them, “Great time. Come back. You can stay here. Your rooms are still set up.” And they were both like, “I would rather be bricked up in a room for 5 months straight with no human contact, rather than move back home.” I was like, “We have a pinball machine!”
BRIAN: Well here they make me play board games.
GEOFF: We got 2000 games, they got a pinball machine. We got all this stuff!
DTD: Well I remember when I applied to college, I specifically applied to schools that were as far away from my parents as I could possibly go. Without learning another language. That’s how I ended up in California.
GEOFF: Yeah, yeah. That was actually one of the reasons I didn’t go to Princeton, is I didn’t want to be too close.
BRIAN: I did the same thing.
GEOFF: I wanted to be within, you know, somewhat driving distance. I didn’t want to have to get on a plane. Although that would have been fine, if I had done it.
DTD: Oh, I wanted a plane.
BRIAN: When I went to college, my parents said, “Where do you want to go to school?” And I said, “I want to go to a school outside of Minneapolis.” And they said, “No one in your extended family has ever been to Minneapolis.” I said, “That’s exactly why I want to go.”
DTD: Definitely want that. Well, my parents one upped me. My parents were living in New Jersey, and I moved to California and went “Ha ha ha, man I’m far away.” They moved to Sydney.
GEOFF: Wow. Yeah.
DTD: That was just about the right distance for my parents and I.
GEOFF: Wow. OK. What precipitated that?
GEOFF: What precipitated that big a move? Did they know people out there? Did they just really like the city, or was it a job opportunity or?
DTD: My dad got constant offers to teach. And every once in a while, he would pick one up and say, “This sounds cool.” And he would disappear for a couple years. Sydney – taught at University of Sydney.
GEOFF: Oh fun, OK! Cool. Very cool.
DTD: And he taught in Berkeley in the 70’s because that sounded cool. And he did some stuff in Brazil, not for as long. Did some stuff, even in Russia. He just does that.
Come on back next time, when the traditional New Orleans King Cake makes it’s appearance. Who will find the baby in the cake? Lord knows we need omens and portents for a better year! In addition, Geoff and I talk about cold war Russia, transubstantiation, and current board games we are playing. Come on back now, ya’ hear?