I had the very great joy of eating a virtual dinner with Gil Hova, designer of Wordsy, The Networks and High Rise, as well as owner of Formal Ferret Games. I have known Gil for years, having seen him at conventions and gatherings. And I’ve really wanted to do an in-person meal together ever since I started Dice Tower Dish. But, the predominant microscopic cartel had other ideas, and I am just grateful to finally sit and chat with Gil, who is just a fantastic guy. Burgers are on the menu, and deep topics are in the air.
Gil: Hey, how’s it going?
DTD: Not too bad! Can you hear me OK?
Gil: Yeah, I can hear you great. Give me one second. I just wanted, uh, I wanted to change my background.
DTD: Oh yeah, no worries at all. I might take still shots just to add a little flavor to the text.
Gil: OK. Well, this is the one that I like. Here we go.
DTD: That’s pretty impressive. I gotta tell you.
Gil: Yeah, I like that one a lot, except it’s reversed, but let me see if I can… I know I reversed it. But this is far better than the one that… Then seeing my messy background.
DTD: [laughs] I’ve given up on messy.
Gil: Oh, that is so neat compared to me.
DTD: No worries. It’s OK if I record this, right?
Gil: Yes, absolutely.
DTD: I only use it to transcribe and you know, all that business.
Gil: Yep. No worries.
DTD: So, how’s it going?
Gil: Oh, you know. It’s OK. I’m super, super busy. Very distracted these days.
DTD: Oh, I’m sorry. Well, I hope this isn’t too much stress. This is…
Gil: No, this is this is something I was looking forward to.
DTD: Good, it’s meant to just be chill. And honestly, I’ve wanted to do it for a really long time. We keep bumping into each other at conventions and it just never works out.
Gil: Yeah, me too. And maybe Trixie will make an appearance. Who knows?
DTD: Oh, that would be cool.
Gil: I took a picture of my meal, so is it OK if I start consuming it?
Due to time zones, Gil was kind enough to wait for me to reach dinner time on the west coast. I’m sure the poor guy was hungry.
Gil’s burger came from the incomparable White Star Bar in Jersey City.
DTD: Yeah, oh absolutely. So, tell me about your burger. Did you get something crazy? Or are you a plain burger man?
Gil: So, I’m… I don’t know where I put my napkin. One second, let me get my napkin.
DTD: I cheated, I’m going knife and fork.
To be honest, my burger was a monstrosity. There was no attacking it without cutlery.
My thanks to The Burger Saloon, where a got a turkey burger with a fried egg, blue cheese and avocado. Plus fried pickles. phew.
Gil: All right, napkins acquired.
DTD: Always important.
Gil: Yeah. So, one of my big realizations about myself from last year, is a strong possibility that I’m autistic, which is something that, like all my life, it’s been a thing. But there’s never really been a word for it. You know, I was always different. There was always something strange or weird. I never really fit in, that sort of thing. And I know that doesn’t itself describe autism but all these other things, all my excesses and deficits… It’s one of, it’s just a lot of it lines up. I did a lot of self-testing. I can’t, you know it’s expensive to get professionally tested, unfortunately. And diagnosis a few thousand dollars at least, and insurance will cover it.
Gil: Which is bizarre. But one of the things I’ve always had was food sensitivity issues. There’s always been food that has been really, really hard for me to eat.
Gil: And that, combined with some other things that maybe should I shouldn’t really talk about it, meant that food for me is always been kind of a minefield.
DTD: That’s OK.
Gil: There’s a lot of food that other people like, that I don’t like. So there’s a lot of parts of the social experience that I just miss out on. Like, I don’t like the taste of alcohol, so I don’t drink. And that means I miss a lot of stuff.
DTD: I get it. My wife is just like that.
Gil: I don’t like coffee, so I have a hard time functioning in the morning, whereas other people can just drink their Cup of Joe. I can’t, there’s a lot of things. So, a burger for me is super easy. I realized a few years ago that I can eat Caesar salads. Like my body won’t protest if I try to eat a Caesar salad. So that’s what I have as my side.
DTD: Oh cool. My wife cannot stand the taste of alcohol. Cannot stand the taste of coffee. Have you checked to see if you’re a supertaster? Some people are in that category, and strong flavors just are unbearable.
Supertasters are just what the term suggests – they taste things much more intensely than average. Historically, two chemicals were used to test for supertaste – propylthiouricil (PROP) and phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Supertasters tend to react very strongly to these, whereas the general population barely notices them.
Gil: Yep, I’ve done that test. I’m not a super taster. I was so surprised. I thought that was the explanation for a long time.
Gil: And I did the test, and absolutely nothing.
DTD: Well. I’ve was diagnosed as autistic when I was younger.
Gil: Oh cool.
DTD: Before a lot of the categories were out there, but… Really, the biggest thing for me was a period of learning how my mind works, so I can get around things that don’t make sense to me. But when I was young, I couldn’t really understand facial expressions well at all. And I would read cartoon books, like Peanuts, obsessively. And try to equate facial expressions in those books to what was going on with people. It was really…
Gil: Yep, I would talk the way that people talked in books I read and shows I saw. So, I wound up with a really weird, affected way of talking. And kids didn’t like that, you know, that’s not the way an 11-year-old is supposed to talk. So that was the problem.
DTD: I get it.
I remember getting treated oddly for the way I talked as a child.
Gil: Yeah, I have this thing also where if I have like a bunch of things I need to do, and I in order to actually… Like even something simple as coming home. I’m outside, I’m coming home, there’s all these things I need to do. I need to take off my jacket. But in order to take off my jacket, I need to make sure that it’s unzipped first. So, I have to unzip my jacket. Now, I have to take off my jacket. Now, I have to hang up my jacket. Now, I have to take off my scarf. Now I have to take off my hat. What if I do it in the wrong order? Oh, it’s OK. This isn’t so bad either.
DTD: And you pre-plan it so that it works effectively, and in the right order.
Gil: Exactly, yeah, but it’s like, I have to go through this list and it’s kind of exhausting really to go to do all this stuff and then go through the list. And so, when other people can just do these things, you know without thinking. For me, it takes this conscious thought to be like, “Oh, I’ve got to do this and that and that and that and that.” And I can mask pretty well at this point in public. But, it’s exhausting. And I got almost done and I’m out.
DTD: You learn to… Are we related?
It was surreal how many life experiences Gil described that I vividly remember happening to me as well.
DTD: No, I mean, I worked with the public for a long time as a veterinarian for ages. So I learned how to put on that face, and make people comfortable. I learned how people work, and I fake it. And it’s been so long, I don’t know if I’m still doing that, but I’ve… I get it. I really do.
DTD: I really do, and the big one for me is always been motivation issues. It’s really hard to start doing something. Because there’s so many pieces of that puzzle that have to fit together, in the right order, in the right way. Even simple things.
Like writing interview web pages…
Gil: The thing I’m struggling with now. I’ve got like… If I have ten messages in my inbox, and I feel like only enough energy to answer five, I will answer zero. Because I’m going to wait for the time when I need to answer 10. So, I’m trying to get in a new habit of like, “Well, I just need to answer one today. And then tomorrow I will answer another one.” And then slowly get back into it. This past month or so was really tough for me. Actually, past couple of months. You know, I lost one of my pets, unfortunately.
DTD: I’m sorry.
Gil is well known in the game industry for having pet ferrets. He should rename his company to reflect this.
Gil: But she was sick for a long time, so it wasn’t a surprise. And towards the end she was in really bad shape, so it wasn’t… You know, it wasn’t the kind of thing where it was a shocker. Like it was quite expected.
DTD: It doesn’t really make it easier, but…
Gil: No, no, but well, I mean in some ways, I hate to say it, it did make it a little easier. Like if it was, just it came out of nowhere, that would have been really tough.
Gil: Like if Trixie, our current ferret, something happens to her, then it will be horrible, because we didn’t expect it. But we had like a year to say goodbye to Trillian, so…
DTD: All right.
Gil: It was, you know, it wasn’t easy. But it wasn’t as tough as it could have been. But there was that. There was the High Rise Kickstarter. You know, Formal Ferret hadn’t been doing that well until the Kickstarter. Now we’re doing a lot better. But still it was a lot of stress to make sure the campaign went off, because so much rode on it. Right? There was of course the election. There was, of course, the pandemic. There was, of course, the right-wing coup.
DTD: There’s so many “of courses” nowadays.
Gil: And then my girlfriend got sick with what we thought was COVID at first but turned out to be pneumonia. So, she’s doing better now, but she has a PICC line [Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter]. You know what a PICC line is, of course?
A PICC line is an IV line placed for easy drug delivery, usually left in for a longer period of time.
Gil: So, she has a PICC line installed. I just changed her medicine bag. She’s taking IV penicillin and the bag has to be changed once every 24 hours. You have to flush the lines. That sort of thing.
Gil: But she’s in much better shape.
DTD: She’s feeling better?
Gil: Yeah, she’s feeling much better.
DTD: Oh, I’m so glad.
Gil: But, you know, during November, December it was terrible because she was in awful shape. So, all these things were weighing on me, and you know I feel like it had almost a traumatic effect. Like it, almost… I hate to say “brain injury” territory, but that’s what it feels like sometimes. You know, I wake up in the morning. I’m like, “OK, well, how much do I have in me”, you know? So, that’s the yeah so.
DTD: Well, I apologize in advance, but you’re catching me on the end of a kidney stone.
Gil: Oh no, oh…
DTD: I mean. They happen… This isn’t my first rodeo. But I think today’s the first good day.
Gil: Oh, I’m glad today is a good day. I hope there’s more.
DTD: No, today is, you know, it’s more than that. It’s kind of an ecstatic day. It’s like going from slow and unmotivated to, you know, manic. Because everything feels good all of a sudden.
I guess it was really gone. Didn’t come back. I know this was an unanswered question.
Gil: I’m glad things are better there.
DTD: Absolutely. So, is gaming stuff your sole job, do you do something else?
Gil: I do other stuff here and there. Mainly converting other people’s games to Tabletop Simulator.
DTD: Oh, cool! I know who to call.
Gil: That’s one of my main things these days. But between that and Formal Ferret I’m doing OK.
DTD: That’s really cool. I was going back through your games, Formal Ferret’s games, and I was surprised. Some of the games that I know well, I never made the connection that they were yours. Like Wordsy. I never made that connection. That’s just terrible of me.
Gil: No, not at all. No, I’m really proud of Wordsy. Because Prolix was my first published game. And Wordsy is sort of my “go back” for it. It’s like, “Alright, Prolix was really important to me.” But there are a lot of things I think just didn’t work with Prolix. Or at least they didn’t work as well as they should have. I think Wordsy was the game I was trying to make in the first place. And it’s now on… I’m going to do a little plug here. It is on iOS, and it’s been on the App Store for a while. I’m sorry, been in the Google Play Store for a while.
DTD: Oh sure.
Gil: But we just hit the App Store this week. And the mobile version is so good. Mobile version is very, very good. So, I’m really excited about that. I’m enjoying playing it with other people.
DTD: Cool. Very cool. Yeah, I was looking, Prolix was a while ago. That was kind of in this resurgence of word games. I remember a whole bunch were popping up, of interesting word games, where you didn’t need to be a Scrabble genius and memorize the dictionary.
Skill at Scrabble is not at all the same as skill at language. The best example of this was in 2015, when Nigel Richards won a French Scrabble tournament without speaking any French whatsoever. He just studied a French Scrabble dictionary.
Huggermugger (1989) was designed by Diana Carlston, daughter of the then vice president of Sears. In the days before Kickstarter, she managed to raise $500,000 to self publish her game.
Gil: What’s that about?
DTD: It was a word game, but it was done kind of like Cranium, where there were different zones on the board.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: And each one did a different kind of word mini-game. It is one of my wife’s favorite games. She’s one of these horribly annoying people, who can look at a jumble of letters and just instantly know what that jumble is.
Gil: [laughs] Uh huh.
DTD: So, I don’t play that game with her anymore.
My wife also loves Wordsy, and for similar reasons, I should abstain from playing this game as well.
DTD: So how did Prolix come about? Were you always a game playing, game fiddling kind of guy?
Gil: How far back do you want to go?
DTD: [laughing] I don’t know you’re. You’re not as grey as me, so probably you can go back as far as you want.
Gil: So, I had like one or two of the West End war games. I had Paranoia. and then from Steve Jackson I had…
Gil: Illuminati. Ogre. GURPS. Car Wars. I had all those. All of those, sort of, those things. I had Battletech. I didn’t have anyone to play them with, so I just played them alone. But I still, I still really… It was really cool, just dipping into that world, you know.
Gil: And I wanted to be a video game designer. Like that was my dream growing up as a kid. So, in my early 20s I was like “OK. Well, if I’m going to be this serious, you know…” I started studying programming. I chose Visual Basic because, of course visual basic is an amazing language for video game programming.
DTD: Oh sure.
Gil: [laughs] And then I realized, you know, I need to learn a little more about the game design, side of things. Why don’t I look at board game design first, and that will help me be a better video game designer. So then, I started studying board games. I looked at what Steve Jackson was doing, they just come out with a game called Munchkin. So, I looked at that.
DTD: I might have heard of it.
Gil: I went to a board game convention, my first one. And I realized that I hated Munchkin. I played Catan, and Catan didn’t get me right away. I played the first time, and I was, “This is OK”, but it was only later when I was like, “Oh OK, this is really good.” But the game that got me was Puerto Rico, actually.
DTD: Oh cool.
Gil: I played Puerto Rico and I was just in love. Of course, you know, it didn’t really hit me, like all of the problematic subtext that the game has, you know. Details like the average lifespan of an Indigo worker, was like 7 years. You know, things like that. Really bad stuff. But that said, the mechanics of the game got me. And after that, I realized that I like board games more than I liked video games.
Puerto Rico (2002) by Andreas Seyfarth, although a foundational game in the new golden age of board gaming, has some very worrisome and much discussed thematic issues, aside from the obvious glorification of colonialism.
DTD: I remember having kind of a similar obsession with board games when I was younger, like high school. Even before high school. And I was always searching for that elusive role-playing game in a board game. That was kind of my Holy Grail that I would troll stores for.
Gil: So, it was like a hybrid?
DTD: Yeah, so I played Dungeon!. I played a lot of role playing games, but I was always looking for that board game that was a little deeper than Dungeon. And I’m not sure I ever found it when I was in high school, but that drove me to play just crazy amounts of games.
Gil: Uh, huh. You wanted Gloomhaven before it came out?
DTD: I remember that was the raging debate in 1980 whatever, is every kid compared, whether they got Dark Tower or Electronic Dungeons & Dragons.
Gil: Any Omega Virus for you?
DTD: I knew of it, but I didn’t play it.
Gil: When I was a kid, I actually wound up with a copy of Can’t Stop.
DTD: Oh wow.
Gil: And I’m not sure how. But it was… You know, I enjoyed playing it solo. Just take it on the different, like I’m going to play a four-player game, a four handed game, all by myself. And I really enjoyed that. So, imagine my surprise when I got back into board games, and I realized, “Oh, the guy who made it is sort of seen as a as an instrumental figure, like a fundamental figure in the board game world.”
Can’t Stop (1980) was designed by Sid Sackson, one of the great early contributors to the board gaming hobby. Sid also designed Acquire (1964), Sleuth (1971), Samarkand (1980), Bazaar (1967), and many, many others.
DTD: Yeah. I was an only child when I was, when I was… Well, I’m still an only child.
Gil: Funny how that works.
DTD: I know, I know, it hasn’t changed. But I remember I would get all these board games and be so obsessed and crazy about them. But like you said, I’d have almost nobody to play them with. I remember going through Avalon Hill Games, the really complicated bookshelf, Avalon Hill games in the 80s.
DTD: And just setting up these enormous games, you know some fantasy, some not.
Gil: Uh huh.
Gil: Uh huh.
DTD: But I know I set it up and played with the pieces and the rules myself hundreds of times, but I’m not sure I ever really played a game of Freedom in the Galaxy with another human being.
Man I loved the concept of that crazy game. It was Star Wars in a box to me.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. But it’s strange how those games could still be played solo, because so much of the focus of the game was on simulation, and on like feeling, on the emergent narrative, and feeling like you’re there. That it didn’t feel bad to play multiple sides, you know.
Gil: Yeah, so that was that was really cool. Anyway, so as I got more into games and game design, I realized that like early on I didn’t really understand game aesthetics. I thought either you like games or you didn’t like games. And it didn’t occur to me that there were games that you are more…that a person is more disposed to like than others, depending on that person’s taste. And when that lightbulb finally went off, and I realized, “Oh, I really don’t like Munchkin.” I remember going to Origins for the first time and trying Werewolf. I had read so much about Werewolf, and I was so excited to try it, and I hated it. I hated, hated, hated it. And I realized that I had been working on what I was hoping to be the perfect bluffing game. Then I realized I didn’t like bluffing games, so why am I working on this?
Come back next time when Gil talks about early designs, making word games, and founding mustelid-themed companies. Plus, I bring up my favorite flagellated equine topic, complexity in games. And in contrast to my usual blathering, Gil has very intelligent thoughts on the subject.