Dinner is coming to a close – dessert is sitting nearby, the cajun fare is devestated, the wine is drunk. This is the penultimate segment of my pandemic-style meal with Geoff and Brian Engelstein. Today – tales of cold war iron curtain shenanigans. And games! Plus a brief lesson on theology terminology. Welcome to my world!
BRIAN: Russia in the ’80s. That was an exciting time to be teaching in Russia.
DTD: Oh, it was Russia in the ’80s. It definitely was. I feel bad, I don’t want to tell all the stories. I want to hear your stories.
GEOFF: No, go ahead. I mean, I can tell you my Bulgaria in the ’80s story when we’re done with that.
DTD: OK, ok, ok.
BRIAN: I wasn’t alive in the ’80s, so I have no good ’80s stories.
DTD: [laughing] It wasn’t worth it. Don’t worry about it. So, my dad got into computer chess and he was the world computer chess champion for a decade in the ’80s.
GEOFF: Oh wow. So, what was the name of the program that he did? I probably know it.
DTD: Belle. Out of Bell Labs, Murray Hill.
GEOFF: Oh, he did Belle? OK. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember that one.
DTD: He also was the referee for the Deep Blue matches with [Garry] Kasparov. Kasparov often stayed at our house. So, Belle was really hot, and the Russian government contacted Bell Laboratories and wanted my dad and the computer to go to Moscow and play the big grandmasters. [Anatoly] Karpov, [Mikhail] Botvinnik. This was in the early-mid eighties . So, dad went, and the computer did not arrive. And he waited in Moscow, waited, waited. Computer never showed up. So, he spent a week, week and a half in Moscow. They were very nice to him, did touristy stuff with him, which he hated. And then he left, because the computer never showed up. They had nothing for him to do if he didn’t have his toy. So he came back and couldn’t find the computer. Called everywhere, no one knew where the computer was. It was just gone. So, my dad was complaining about this to a friend, who was reporter for the Star Ledger, if you remember the Star Ledger.
GEOFF: Still around.
BRIAN: Still around.
DTD: There you go. I wasn’t sure. And he offered, he said, “I want to write a story about it.” So, he said, “Yeah, I was invited by the Russian government, blah blah blah. No computer, and its gone.” So, the Star Ledger article came out, it got picked up on the AP wire, then the Washington Post called my dad, said “Do you want me to look into this?” Dad said, “Yes!” He said it was only a couple of hours later, the Washington Post called back and said, “Well, the government confiscated the computer because they thought it was illegal military contraband being sent to Russia.”
BRIAN: I was going to say, this story ends with this being the reason for the increased US-Russia tensions in the mid-80s.
DTD: Oh no, it ends great.
GEOFF: So, did it ever get to…
DTD: So, he said, “I know the guy who has the computer, its being held at Kennedy and they won’t even admit they did anything. You broke the law, they’re undecided if they are going to send you to Guantanamo.”
GEOFF: Yeah, That’s funny.
DTD: So, the reporter asked my dad, “I have to ask you this. Does this computer have any military applications?” And my dad said, “If you dropped it out of an airplane, it would probably kill someone.” And they quoted him on it in the Washington Post that sounded really bad for the US Government. And about 2 days later, a plain brown box showed up on our doorstep in New Jersey, with the computer in it. We didn’t see who they didn’t ring the bell, they just left it and ran.
GEOFF: That’s funny. My story is actually in a similar vein, interestingly.
DTD: Oh, awesome.
GEOFF: So, we actually got a contract. I don’t even know how the hell it happened. But we were actually hired by the Bulgarian government to set up a factory outside Sofia to build injection tools. Injection molds.
BRIAN: We need an official company history or something.
GEOFF: I tried to do it in our 50th anniversary and your grandfather shut me down. Anyway, so, somehow we got this contract to do this, and so I was in charge of the CAD portion of it. So, they wanted to do…they wanted to bring in computers to do CAD and stuff like that. And so, yeah, I mean in those days, there was a…there were very strong restrictions on the level of computing technology that could be exported behind the Iron Curtain.
GEOFF: So, I went to all this stuff, and jumped through all these hoops. I’m thinking that it was called a CAPCOM regulation. But I know CAPCOM is the video game maker, and I may be confusing it with that.
We’re probably talking about COMECON, Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. I figured it out by searching “Twilight Struggle Card List”. -Ed
That’s the Konami code. Try telling it to Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant. -Ed
BRIAN: Actually, in the late 80s and early 90s there was a lot of CAPCOM behind the iron curtain. They recently made an interesting documentary about it.
DTD: This is true. This is true.
GEOFF: So anyway, there was some sort of regulation that I had to use. We ended up, finally as part of our pitch, because we were just kind of pitching the whole package to them. I guess at that we were still pitching what it was. We got hired to put together a whole package, and we got paid for that, and so we…I identified that for a computer from Unisys would be able to do it. And there was this software called Graphtec, and they also had a mold flow simulation type thing. They had some finite element analysis; they could do it. And I met with the state department, and all this stuff, and we got clearance that this computer would meet the, I’m going to call them CAPCOM regulations, because I don’t know what it was. Met the CAPCOM regulations, and were OK to be exported. I got it certified and everything.
DTD: So, I remember there were definitely specific chips that were not allowed to move.
GEOFF: Exactly! So, we go over to Bulgaria, and we go meet with them, and I have tons of stories from how crazy Bulgaria was.
DTD: I believe it.
GEOFF: But we lay out the whole thing, and they say “No, we want this other, I don’t even remember what the name of the software was. It was some really big software back then, that was this super popular 3D modeling software. And 3D modeling back then was all wireframe. It wasn’t like it is now. But there was one software and they say, “We want to run this software.” And so I said to them, I said, “Look, we looked into this really seriously, but there is no…we can’t export the computers that were able to run this software.” And they were super insistent, I kept going back, and finally I said to them, I said, “Look, they said if you get us licenses for the software, we’ll get the computers. Don’t worry about that. We’ll get the computers. You just get us somehow the software, and we’ll be able to run it. We will get something together.”
BRIAN: Turns out they were really eager to play King’s Quest.
1984’s King’s Quest is the seminal graphic adventure game by Roberta Williams and Sierra Online.
GEOFF: And so, we went up and back, and in the end, we decided I didn’t want to…even that was really kind of a violation of the whole thing in spirit, if not in letter. So, we ended up not doing the CAD portion of it. We told them we were not going to do it.
DTD: So difficult.
GEOFF: So, we cut that out. We actually got the contract for all the machine tools, the CNC cutters, and all that stuff. We did that part of it. But we ended up not doing the CAD part at all. Which was good, because I was supposed to go there for 2 or 3 months to train them on it; that was part of the deal.
DTD: Sofia is lovely.
GEOFF: Or bring some of them here, some of them were supposed to come here, also for training. But we just, we end up dropping the whole CAD portion, because it just…we were just, didn’t want to start screwing around with that, and ending up in federal prison for violating the rules.
DTD: Yea. Later they claimed that dad’s computer was confiscated not because of the actual custom hardware, but it was confiscated because of the HP printer that was sent with it.
Disclaimer: this is not the picture of the exact printer, but it’s pretty close.
GEOFF: [laughs] Interesting.
DTD: That’s where the chip was, that they said was the illegal chip. It was an insane time.
GEOFF: There was…the rules were very, very complicated, yeah. And they made very little logical sense, like most of these rules. So much stuff just kind of got into it, and it never got out, and all this other stuff.
DTD: Just two sides trying hard to piss each other off.
GEOFF: Exactly, yeah.
DTD: So, what games have you guys been playing lately? What’s caught your eye, what’s something that’s been exciting? I hear there’s this pinball roll-and-write thing.
GEOFF: Yeah, we’ve been playing a lot of that online. I’m ready for the cake. Should we cut the cake?
DTD: Oh, is it cake time?
GEOFF: What do you think [showing cake]?
DTD: I think yours looks better than mine did. Mine didn’t come out well. Mine looks gloppy.
GEOFF: Not good at piping?
DTD: I didn’t pipe.
GEOFF: Oh, you’re a huge disappointment to us, Corey.
I have often been a huge disappointment to a great variety of people.
DTD: I am, I am.
BRIAN: You gotta pipe.
GEOFF: I got no baby Jesus.
I should probably explain. This is not simply a plea to the heavens, not a testimonial wail. A traditional Louisiana King Cake is baked with a small baby Jesus somewhere in the cake. Whomever gets the piece with the baby is said to have a great year coming. It should come as no surprise that I chipped a tooth on the baby, about a month after the interview, in the very last stale piece of cake.
DTD: Are you sure? You won’t be the first one to swallow one.
GEOFF: I don’t know how big is…how big is the baby Jesus?
Don’t answer, Corey. Wars were started over this.
BRIAN: Does this cake count for transubstantiation?
Transubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine eaten during the Eucharist truly transform into the body and the blood. People have gone to war over this. Several times.
DTD: That is a very smart and leading joke that I will not answer. [laughs]
BRIAN: It’s mostly to justify the fact that I learned the word transubstantiation.
DTD: Oh, it’s an amazingly specific word that has started wars. I did a lot of research into transubstantiation. I think it’s really what you believe happens to the little plastic doll after you eat it. I don’t think I have one in my piece.
GEOFF: No? Well we could have a tie. That’s the thing, we could have a tie with the baby Jesus.
BRIAN: Well, yeah. You’ll get there eventually.
DTD: It could just turn into a horrible push-your-luck game, where we continue eating until somebody gets it. And that could end very badly.
As I said, I didnt find the doll until the very last piece of very large cake.
BRIAN: There should be more games shipped with a whole cake. I would probably play more games.
DTD: Games that shipped with food. Actually, I got one game that came with a bag of loose leaf tea.
GEOFF: Really, interesting.
DTD: Yeah, it was…
GEOFF: Please tell me the name of that game was tea-bagging.
No comment whatsoever. Not going there.
DTD: It was not. It had nothing to do with it.
The bag of loose tea came in the Kickstarter edition of Tribes: Early Civilization by designer Rustan Håkansson. Apparantly it was the designer’s favorite tea as well.
BRIAN: I did an escape room once, that had a drawer full of candy in different colors. And the colors of the candy were actually a solution to a puzzle, but when we opened the drawer, everybody I was with ate the candy, and we couldn’t finish the room.
DTD: [laughs] So the answer was gone. I love it.
GEOFF: So, we had the same thing; we went into a room once and there was some chemical formula written on a whiteboard. But you just walk in and it’s written on the whiteboard, and somebody just starts erasing the whiteboard! I’m like, “No, no, no! Stop!” But we would have been dead in the water if somebody had erased it. I don’t know what their out plan was for that, so I don’t know. Anyway, games we’ve been playing lately. So, we have been doing a little bit of stuff; I mean we haven’t been playing anything repeatedly really. I have been trying to get some stuff off of my unplayed shelf, which is ridiculously large.
DTD: I have one of those.
GEOFF: But we played Gil‘s game High Rise.
High Rise just had a second Kickstarter which finished successfully on October 29. Congratulations, Gil! Call me – let’s grab a meal!
GEOFF: I tried High Rise, which was good. We played Rap Godz finally, which was fun.
BRIAN: Rap Godz was extremely clever.
GEOFF: Undaunted: Normandy, which I liked more than Brian liked.
BRIAN: I liked Undaunted: Normandy.
DTD: I’m glad to hear about Rap Godz. When I first looked at it, it looked…it didn’t look exciting.
I have been proven wrong. Love the game! Omari, call me – Let’s do lunch!
GEOFF: Which one, Rap Godz or Undaunted: Normandy?
DTD: Rap Godz. When I first looked at it and started browsing through it.
BRIAN: Rap Godz has a couple of systems in it that are exceptionally clever. The whole system, where you either play a card or discard three cards to get a show card. At first, I didn’t think much about that mechanic, but after playing it for a little bit, it actually works super well. It actually really does a good job of limiting your options.
GEOFF: But it’s also, it’s not…it’s a social game. It’s like, its almost like a party game. It is a substrate for you to…it’s like…what was the other one? What was the game about when you live your life that was from Stronghold…? [long pause] Pursuit of Happiness.
There’s a reason I emphasized the long pause. Wait for it.
DTD: Oh, yes. Pursuit of Happiness – The Game of Life plus.
GEOFF: So, like, Pursuit of Happiness. I’m looking forward to seeing the transcript – “long pause.”
There it is. Just for you, Geoff.
GEOFF: Pursuit of Happiness: the fun part of that game is the story you get to tell of your character’s life, right?
In Pursuit of Happiness, you play cards, telling the story of your life, from education to jobs, vacations, possessions, relationships. Then you gain too much stress and die. Board Games!
DTD: That’s Aporta Games, isn’t it?
DTD: Artipia, yes.
Corey, you make so many mistakes…
GEOFF: And then Stronghold did it in the states. But, like, Rap Godz does the same kind of thing. Every card is a little event from your life. So, it’s just fun to kind of see that and how it progresses, and goes like that, and there’s three different decks, which are three different stages in your career. So, it’s just, you know. It’s that kind of a game, where you get to talk about your character.
DTD: You get the inevitable argument about is this what I really would do, or is this what I play because it’s a better play for the game?
BRIAN: But the more I play games, the more…and as I get older, I guess more jaded in the industry, the more I like games that are short, to the point and they get in, they do their mechanic, and then they go away.
DTD: And they don’t overstay.
BRIAN: And they don’t overstay. I’ve actually run into a problem with a lot of the designs I’ve been kicking around, where every single one, Ill show it to my father, and he’ll be like, “This is cool, but this is one mechanic and the game is 10 minutes long.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you don’t need more than that.”
DTD: That’s what you need.
BRIAN: Like, my favorite game of the past couple years was Quirky Circuits. I still think it’s genius.
DTD: That’s really good. Nikki Valens. That’s a great game.
Love your games Nikki! Call me – Let’s get coffee!
BRIAN: But one of the big advantages of Quirky Circuits, is it’s got its one thing. It’s not trying to be anything more than what it is. It gets in, it does its thing. Or Love Letter, which is my favorite game of all time. It gets in, it does its one thing, it’s like 15 minutes long. And then it’s done, and you can go do something else. And the more I play, the more I really respect games like that. And Rap Godz did something kind of similar. It’s like “Here’s my mechanic. Do my mechanic, and then you’re done.”
DTD: But do you think that’s also… The different generations have different concepts of time span.
DTD: And I’ve talked to a lot of people about this. And right now, the current generation is about getting things done quickly, short bursts, immediate gratification. Because everything is right there and accessible. And it sounds like this is a game…this is a concept of a game for that. I worded it terribly.
GEOFF: Yeah, yeah. It’s in that framework. I mean, just going back to Nova League, one of the things we are questioning, and when we had conversations with people, I mean our plan was, given it’s got minis, it’s got the big vibrating board, and stuff like that. Is [that] we were planning on an $80 price point for Kickstarter. Or at least for retail. Let’s see where the Kickstarter ends up. We are still pricing things, so it may end up being, I don’t know, but it’s around there. And we were talking to some people, and it’s like a 30 minute…20 to 30 minute game. Is all it takes. But we specifically chose that time frame. You could play to…we play to 3 points. You could play to 6 points, but…
Last time we discussed Geoff and Brian’s newest game, Nova League. Spoiler: it involves a vibrating table.
DTD: At a certain point it would overstay. It would.
GEOFF: If that’s what you want. Some people are like, “Do people want to pay $80 for a 30-minute experience?” I don’t know. That one being conceded, I think there’s a ton of replay. You can just jump right in and play again, and draft different teams, and other characters, and whatever. But that’s the flip side of the, the value argument of the time frame, that people want in their games. If I’m giving you $100 game, is 20 or 30 minutes going to be enough?
DTD: I don’t think people are equating length of game with price of game. And there’s more to it. There’s the toy factor, and the neat factor.
GEOFF: Yeah, I didn’t think so either, but somebody mentioned that to me, and it kind of made me think about it. But it could be wrong. I mean, you’re right, that could really not be a decision in people’s minds. Maybe they look more at just the components, and how cool it’s going to be, and how many times they think they are really going to be able to get it to the table and play it.
DTD: Yeah, and the toy factor is incredible. And a lot of games are doing really well with that kind of toy factor.
GEOFF: So, the game I probably played the most though recently is Pax Pamir.
DTD: I have not played it yet. It’s on my list.
GEOFF: It’s really good. It was fun, because we had a group… You know, it was with Mark Harmon and Uli Blennemann from Spielworxx, and some other folks. So, we had a weekly group, we would meet Wednesdays and play it on Vassal, so we play it online. And it got to the point where we were pretty quick with it. First couple of games took a while. But it was just fun. You know we had people from Europe, people from the US, all playing the same game at the same time. So, we played that 5 times in a row.
DTD: Do you think you are going to keep using the online platforms once the world gets more normal.
GEOFF: I don’t know. I hate Tabletop Simulator with the passion of a thousand burning suns.
DTD: I’m with you.
[Put me down for, like, two hundred burning suns. -Ed]
GEOFF: In fact, the programmer in me in particular gets offended by it, and is like I’m on the verge of just starting an open source project to “Let’s just make one done the right way, that doesn’t have all the stupid stuff that Tabletop Simulator has.” So, you know it’ll have network capability. You can just compile it, not all your playtesters…don’t have to own Tabletop Simulator. It doesn’t have the stupid “flip the table” button. If I want to make a deck of cards, I can click one button, and just say “show me where the images are” and it’ll automatically create the deck of card images.
DTD: Line ‘em all up.
GEOFF: I don’t know, I’ve got so much stuff going on, I haven’t really gotten it off the ground. I’ve even talked to…do you know Unity? Are you familiar with Unity?
GEOFF: Okay, so I’ve been talking with the folks at Unity about creating like a special boarding design plug-in, where as a designer you would have to download Unity, and install Unity, but then once you put in the plug-in, it would all be point-and-drag, and you know drag-and-drop, and point-and-click for all of your basic components. You can get your table, index of cards, and tokens and maps and all that stuff. Different zones where it would all just be drag-and-drop. If you want to do fancy scripting, you can. I mean Unity is…you can do anything in it.
DTD: Yeah, it’s diminishing returns. The more you do in Unity that’s not in Unity’s wheelhouse, the more it kind of drags down on it. Then you throw your arms up in the air, and you grab Unreal or something.
GEOFF: So, I don’t know. So, the idea is basically to hide all of that for just the everyday, for your run-of-the-mill designer. That they could just click a couple of happy friendly buttons, and just be able to do it. But I don’t know, I’m not a huge fan of the online tools. I like playing games face to face. The more I play games the more I think of them as means of creating social interaction.
GEOFF: Which is just harder to do online. Also, just playtesting online, it takes twice as long to play anything. When you are playtesting, it’s just hard to judge.
DTD: Well, a lot of people are really loving the prototyping online, because it’s not the…having to make a physical copy, and you can pass it around, and play test real easily. But I agree that the play spaces are brutal.
GEOFF: I like having a physical thing, because I like being able to scribble on stuff. And I feel like the physical act of passing stuff around, especially early on… Yeah, once you get further in, if you just want to test it with a lot of people, then having an online prototype can be useful. But, in the early phases, personally for me, I just think better with the tactile stuff. Just being able to lay stuff out and play around with it and stuff like that.
BRIAN: Plus, a lot of the fun is the…getting excited for the game, as you write up all the cards, and print them out, and start cutting, put them in sleeves. That’s exciting, and it builds up your expectations.
GEOFF: And then you play and it’s terrible.
BRIAN: Then you play it and it sucks. And you go and take it apart.
Come back next time for the dramatic conclusion of my virtual dinner with very Engelsteins. Much like Pliny, I am driven to call them “the younger” and “the elder”. Next time, we discuss new books by Engelstein the Elder, adventures at GAMA, and the wacky wonderful world of Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, NJ.