Welcome back to dinner with designer Gil Hova, founder of Formal Ferret Games and designer of High Rise and The Networks. While munching on burgers of varying layered tastes, we also discuss games of varying… layered tastes. And perchance we touch on some interesting etymological philosophy along the way.
Gil: And I started working on games that I think were more towards my thing. And during that time at a local convention, people were playing this word game, not going to say the title. It’s not a well-known game. It’s a sort of an obscure word game from like the early 90s, I think. Early or mid-90s. And it has some really outdated mechanisms, like you play your word, but you wouldn’t score it immediately, until it came back to your turn. Because another player could cancel your word, if they had the right card.
DTD: This sounds very familiar.
Gil: Oh yeah, yeah, you may have played the game. I’ll tell you the game, but I’ll ask you not to print the name, OK?
Gil: OK, because I don’t want to be like punching down at a small game, but the game was called COREY’S STINKY POOPY WORD GAME.
I may have made that name up, at the bequest of Gil. Or maybe that was really the title…
DTD: Yeah, I think I might have played it.
Gil: Yeah, possibly. You know, it was really popular in the convention circuit, but it was one of the worst gaming experiences I ever had. But yet, people went crazy about it, because it was a word game that wasn’t Scrabble.
Gil: And I’m like “Well, you know, if this is where the bar is for word games, for modern word games, and I like words and I like games, but I don’t like word games… Well, what is it about word games that I don’t like?” So, I started studying that, and I realized that one of the things that I hated about word games is always being one letter away. Like one card away from the perfect word. And I was thinking, “What if I had a game that… that wasn’t a problem?” And that was the start of Prolix. And I was a young game designer. I had no idea what I was doing. There was, I remember I had this really, incredibly fiddly mechanism that moved the letters across the board, and people begged me, my testers begged me to remove that mechanism, and I insisted on keeping it.
Gil: Finally, when I removed it and just had all the letters slide over, it was like, “Oh, oh! This is so much better.”
DTD: This works now.
Gil: And I realized a big game design lesson about what a load bearing mechanism in your game is, and what “complexity budget” in your game is. And if you have any sort of complexity to your game, compared against the amount of complexity that kind of game should have, in the case of Prolix it had far more complexity than needed. And is that complexity really serving the design? So, when I went back to Wordsy… Wordsy is a far less complex game. It’s so much easier to understand. Like you play one or two rounds, you know immediately what it’s all about, and that’s it. There’s no surprises. In Prolix, you finish playing it, and you’re like, “oh, that didn’t go the way I thought it would.” And that’s bad, that’s really bad. It had this really awful interrupt mechanism, that I’m not proud of it all. And I replaced that in Wordsy with another mechanism that’s kind of real time, but people who don’t really like real time games, depending on the player, might still be OK with it. There are some people are going to be like, “No, I don’t do real time games at all”, and that’s fine. But I’d rather do that than have a game of Wordsy that just takes 2 hours, because people are trying to find the perfect word.
DTD: Well, the mechanism that you put in was the “first player who’s done flips the timer, and then everybody else has the timer”. Like Galaxy Trucker.
In Galaxy Trucker, the first player to finish grabs the timer and flips it. All of the rest of the players then have 3 cycles of the timer to finish up. Wordsy uses a similar mechanism, wherein there is no time limit until the first player finishes and flips a timer.
Gil: Yeah, a little bit, yep.
DTD: A little. And I find myself, you know, the stress of real time games can get to me, and I don’t care for it. But when there’s that timer mechanism, I like that. That really takes the burden of the real time off.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. And I intentionally put in a 30-second timer, because 30 seconds is actually not a short amount of time. Like people see the timer flip, they spend 10 seconds panicking, then they realize they still have 20 seconds to make a word, so a 30 second timer is not really that bad.
Gil: And there’s also a variant. I have a variant in the rulebook that lets you play without the timer, for people who can’t easily reach the timer. So, I wanted to keep those folks in as well. So, if you really don’t like the timer, you can play without it. But I really enjoy playing… I think it’s, I think the way I put it in really works. And it’s funny because originally, I had a different mechanism… I think I had, the way I did it was slightly different. I can’t remember exactly what my original mechanism was, but it slowly started moving towards that sort of Galaxy Trucker-esque mechanism. And I think it works really well for the game.
DTD: That’s very cool. So, here’s an introspective question for you. You said that you’re really not, you’re not happy with how complex Prolix was, and you made it simpler. Do you really think that it’s a product of the game and your ability as a designer? Do you think it’s a product of the times? Because I have always felt there was a demand for more complicated games, say in the 80s into the 90s, and in the in the early days. Games actually sold because they were more complex. People wanted more pieces and more rules and more everything. And the trend has been to simplify games, where now, the Golden Child Game is the super simple, elegant, you can figure it out without reading the book, game.
I tend to ruminate on this concept of games today being less complex than games 30 or 40 years ago. I try not to bring it up every interview, but I cannot help it. I am weak.
Gil: That’s a really interesting point, because I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I think it’s not just complex. I think people enjoyed, and like saw, counter-intuitive games back then, as a plus. Like if there was like a counter-intuitive twist in the game, people are like, “Oh, this is different. This is interesting.” I remember playing some… I don’t remember which game… But there was a Leo Colovini game we played at my game group once, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was so weird and different and nowadays it would be like, “well, what’s the point? It’s it just doesn’t make sense.” But back then, you know, that sort of like mind-twisting complexity was a positive. So, I think that there’s a bit of truth to that. But I think most of it is, I was a better designer. Like I was a far better designer when I made Wordsy, then when I made Prolix. I think Wordsy took me like six months to really put together all the rules. And then I think 6 more months to refine it. Whereas Prolix took me like, I think, three years because I was just chasing down so many wrong alleys and wrong tunnels. I had no idea what direction to take it, and by the time I was working on Wordsy, I was… I had an idea of, “OK this is the kind of game I want to make. This is where I want to go with it.”
Leo Colovini is best known for his magnum opus Cartagena (2000), but has hundreds of titles under his belt. Some pretty complicated.
DTD: Wow. Well, it certainly tells to the perseverance, working on it for three years. I mean, I’ve played with ideas and giving up on ideas and…
Gil: I mean, that’s one thing I am. I can be really super stubborn about stuff. so that can be a real bonus for, to be a game designer.
DTD: I was going to say, isn’t it all iteration after iteration after iteration?
DTD: Wow. It’s hard work, it’s hard work. So, Prolix, though you weren’t, you weren’t doing game design full time. It wasn’t Formal Ferret days yet.
Formal Ferret Games was founded in 2014, and the first game under the moniker was Bad Medicine in 2015.
DTD: So, what was the big moment that made you say, “Now I’m a game designer. Here’s Formal Ferret.” Was it Battle Merchants?
Gil: Well, it was a convention actually. There was a convention … It was my first year there, and I was pitching my television game.
DTD: The Networks.
Gil: Which turned out to be The Networks. And I had… One publisher rejected it. One publisher was like “Yeah, OK, yeah. We will publish it but will put it at the end of our queue.” They weren’t that enthusiastic about it. One publisher was like, “Oh, we really like this. This is really good. We just want to totally change the scoring to make it more interactive.” And I looked out, I remember at one point looking out in the ballroom, and being like, “Wow, there is way more designers than publishers here.” And then realizing, “You know, I don’t have to…” Back then, I didn’t want to be a publisher because I didn’t want a lot of the logistics. But then I realized there’s a lot of people who could do the logistics for me. Like, I can have people ship out the game for me, instead of me shipping out the game. Well, why can’t I do this? Why can’t I do it on my own? Because if I do it on my own, it’s going to be far better than if I let any of these people do it. Because Prolix, you know… I wasn’t really crazy about how it came out with 40 other games that year, from the same publisher, and it got lost in the sauce.
Prolix was originally published in 2010 by Z-Man Games.
Gil: Battle Merchants, you know, James Mathe was kind enough to choose to publish it. But that same year he announced that he wasn’t going to anymore conventions, so that didn’t get a push. And I was like, “I really… if the game is going to if my games are going to be promoted the way I want them to be promoted, I’m going to have to do it myself, you know. And if they want to look the way I want, the games to look, I’m going to need to do that myself.” So, I realized, Also… Another realization is that I could probably do it better than the publishers that people were trying to trip over each other to work on, and I’m like, “Well, maybe I should give this a try”. And I’m glad I did. I honestly do not think that I honestly don’t think that The Networks would have been as good if somebody else had published it.
James Mathe is the owner of Minion Games, publisher of Battle Merchants.
DTD: It’s [The Networks] got such a distinctive look and feel to it, that’s just wonderful. I have to tell you I’m a fan of it. The art style, the simple play, the play on words, everything about it is just delightful. It’s one of the family’s favorites. We’ve played it a couple times during pandemic.
Gil: Thank you, yeah. I’m really proud of it. It came together perfectly. And I’m very, very happy with that. But there is a… I remember there was a point when I was working with Heiko [Günther], the graphic designer. I work with Heiko all the time nowadays.
Heiko Günther’s art is feature on many highly ranked games, such as Glory to Rome (the black box), Burgle Brothers, and to bring things full circle from last time, the Korean first edition of Can’t Stop.
Gil: Phenomenal graphic designer. But he’d come back with his original graphic design, which involved having the scoreboard wrapped to 50 points. Like, you know how there’s 3 bits that make up the central scoreboard in The Networks?
Gil: His original try had only two. So, there was a left side and a right side. And the score track wrapped at 50.
DTD: Well, it’s such a high scoring game.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, and I had a prototype at one point, that the scoring track wrapped to 50, and players hated it. They were like, “No, It really should wrap at 100. So, I told him the scoring track should wrap at 100, and he’s like, “I think it’s better if it wraps 50.” And that was like one of the few times I had to drop my publisher hammer, and be like, “Nope, it’s 100.” Like, I have to make that fiat, it’s 100.
Gil: Yeah. If we had gone with 50, I don’t think the game would have gotten as good a reception. Sometimes those little things can sink a game like that.
DTD: That’s really funny, just a little visual thing like that.
Gil: Tiny little thing, but it would have really made the game far more annoying to play.
DTD: Especially if you wrapped 6 times, 7 times.
The last time I played The Networks, my wife beat me 214 to 160. Take homes – A) It is a high scoring game and B) my wife beats me at a lot of games.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so this the way we did it? I think was far better. So, but if another publisher had picked it up, a lot of times those publishers, like they’ll take the art from the graphic designer. They’ll take the files from the graphic designer. They’ll look at it on their monitor. They’ll be like, “Oh, OK, that’s good enough.” And then they’ll print it. With all my games, when I get something from the graphic designer, I actually test it. And then I come back to the graphic designer and I’m like, “This worked, but this didn’t work. This didn’t work. This worked. This didn’t work.” And we revise it. And we work on it, and we make it better. The Networks went through this process. High Rise went through this process. All of my games. Wordsy went through this process. Bad Medicine went through this process.
Gil: And it really makes the games better. You really need to do that in order to make sure that the game’s intuitive, and easy to understand.
DTD: Oh, sure.
I really appreciate this need to see the game in true, physical form now that the pandemic is rampant and online games are sometimes the only way to play.
Gil: I played a game that, some friends of mine had worked on for a while, and, the icons were impossible to read. They were far too small. And if the publisher had printed it out, they would have noticed that these icons just aren’t right. But they probably just saw the card images on their screen and were like, “OK, that looks good.” And then they finally get a proof copy and…
DTD: That’s a good-looking icon on my full screen.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, on my enormous screen, yeah.
DTD: It was just the other day I was watching one of Tom [Vasel]’s videos, and I think he said it best. He said Formal Ferret Games, you haven’t put out very many games, but every one is definitely worth looking at. There’s, you can tell there’s a finished quality. A well-produced quality. And you’ve got a, for a small publisher, there’s not many out there, for a small publisher, you’ve got a really good track record for your games. You can tell that these are, these are, you know passion projects, for lack of a better word.
Gil: Really important for me to have… That’s why I don’t publish other people’s games. I don’t feel like that passion would be there. I don’t think I could sell another person’s game. No way. Maybe someday I will. Maybe someday I’ll come across someone’s game, that’s like, “Oh, I want to publish this right now.” But that’s got to be the response. It can’t just be like, “Oh, this is good.” It’s gotta be like, “Oh, this is amazing. I don’t want to stop playing this.”
DTD: You have to be unable to not publish it.
DTD: Wow, have you had people offer? Have you had people present games to Formal Ferret?
Gil: Every so often, somebody asked that I tell him I don’t take reviews. I don’t take pitches, I mean. But that said, I run a play test group, so I do see a ton of prototypes.
DTD: Oh, that’s cool.
Gil: So, yeah. So, I do see a lot of prototypes. So, all those prototypes are like, “This game is really good. Um, I enjoy playing it. I hope somebody publishes it, but I’m not the publisher for it.”
DTD: That gives you a certain separation as well. Because you know, if you’re going to be a publisher for something that you’re playtesting, that puts a lot of weirdness in the middle.
Gil: Uh huh. Yeah, yeah, and I would change the game. Like I would really mutilate the game.
I feel that need to constantly change and perfect things. I get it.
Gil: And it wouldn’t be their game anymore, it’d be my game. And I just don’t feel right about that. Like the process I put my games through, like every game has to… Every mechanism in the game has to justify itself. I’ve gotta, I shake each one, to be like, “OK, are you a load-bearing mechanism? Are you a load bearing mechanism? You’re not load bearing mechanism. You don’t really belong here, so out you go.” And I think that’s important as a designer.
DTD: It’s that old adage that early designers add more and more to their games, and seasoned designers take away more and more.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, that’s a big part of it. Because when you make that first game, you’re like, “Well, this is a good mechanism, so obviously it belongs in the game”, but with any creative work, you can remove something good, and make the overall product better. It’s a, it’s a weird thing, but it works. There’s a saying in film that no line is worth a scene, and no scene is worth a film. And I think that’s great. You know that’s the same thing in board games, you know.
DTD: No mechanism is worth the whole game.
Gil: No mechanism is worth the game. Exactly.
DTD: Wow. So, when you’re making your games, are you starting with a theme, a mechanism, a concept, a feeling? What’s your starting point on these?
Gil: I mean, it really depends on the game. These days I usually start with a theme, but there’s a bunch of games that I started with mechanisms. Like, The Networks was mechanism first, which surprises a lot of people. But I don’t think it really matters whether you start theme or mechanism first. I think the important thing is you find a good join. You find a good way that the theme and the mechanism really interact nicely. And that’s what happened with The Networks. Even though it started as a mechanism first game. It wound up being… The join wound up being so strong that it really, really worked. And I think that’s, as a game designer, that’s what you have to do. Geoff Engelstein says that he’s experience first, and I really like that distinction as well. Like, Geoff starts just by writing down how he wants his players to feel. And then he designs boards that do that.
This Geoff Engelstein guy sounds great. Someone should interview him.
DTD: That sounds so vague. I’d have so much trouble doing that.
Gil: Well, I mean, what it is, is it becomes the North Star. Because there’s a lot of times during playtesting and during the design process that you’re like “Oh, somebody says, you know what would be cool? If the game did this.” And if somebody suggests, like an auction mechanism, and your game is like, this really tight war game, with a really strong narrative theme… Well, what’s an auction going to do for the game? An auction is going to abstract the game. So, if your design document says ,“I really want people to feel like we are there, then don’t put in an auction. Because that’s going to pull you away from that intended experience. So, it’s really more of like a guiding light, where if you have questions, you refer back to it, and be like, “Oh OK, this really wouldn’t do what I’m trying to do.” If you don’t have that then you get lost. That’s when you spend years and years and years working on a game because you put something in, you take it out. You put it in, you take it out. Because nothing really… You don’t really have a light. You’re guiding, you’re driving to. You don’t have a light you’re steering through.
DTD: Sure, you gotta step back. Be able to step back and look at the game again and say you know, “What is the goal? Where is this heading?”
Gil: Yeah, what am I trying to do? How do I want people to feel? And honestly, I feel like that’s one of the big changes with game design in the last five or ten years. A lot of designers, especially new designers, are understanding this. And I think that’s why a lot of games that are coming out these days are really good. Like the bar’s gone very, very high up. You look at games coming out, like… I think a great example is my friends at Galactic Raptor Games. Carla [Kopp] and Dan [Letzring], they released a game called Animal Kingdoms. Have you played Animal Kingdoms?
DTD: No, I haven’t.
Gil: It’s GREAT! I played it as a prototype, and I’m like “Oh my gosh, this is an amazing game.” and they published it, and they put in some absolutely amazing art.
DTD: Oh, cool.
I must admit, immediately after this interview, I ordered Animal Kingdoms. Gil was not lying.
Gil: I feel like that kind of game, from that kind of publisher – you would not have seen that like 10 years ago. 10 years ago, a publisher of that size would have been releasing games that were overly complicated, or like, overly simplistic. That just didn’t have the crunch that you want. And nowadays when you have Galactic Raptor releasing a game on the level of Animal Kingdoms, it’s really hard to compete. You know, people talk about the cream rises to the top. Well there’s a lot of cream these days.
DTD: [laughs] Well, that I agree with. Yeah, I agree with that completely. There’s an incredible amount of games. And I play a lot of games. I push probably six to eight hundred a year.
I exaggerated a bit. Maybe a lot. But I do track my plays. Thank you Board Game Stats.
674 plays in 2020. 198 unique games.
749 plays in 2019. 227 unique games.
626 plays in 2018. 201 unique games.
DTD: And I’m amazed, you know. And I I get grief because I rate games as I play them, to try to help my memory, and to figure out what I’ve played and what I haven’t. But almost everything gets a good rating, and people go, “Oh, you don’t rate well, because all your ratings…”
DTD: No, I play games that look good to me and they usually are.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s a perception that there is a lot of games, so therefore… What’s the The Law of…? I think it’s Masel… No, it’s not Masel. It’s like “90% of everything is crap.” What’s that rule called?
DTD: Oh!… I had it… I don’t have it.
Gil: I’m Googling 90%…
DTD: That’s OK, I know what you’re talking about.
Gil: I’m just looking this up… Sturgeon’s Law! That’s what that’s what it’s called. 90% of everything is crap. I don’t really think that’s a really good way of looking at board games these days, because that doesn’t accurately reflect what we’re looking at.
Coined by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon in 1957. Not named after the creepy prehistoric looking fish with delicious eggs.
DTD: I think “we”, as in me and you, are also very skilled at not looking at the crap.
Gil: Yeah, well, that’s… I mean, that’s possible, but it’s not like even if you…
DTD: Certainly not 90% though.
Gil: It yeah, if you look at games coming out at Essen for example, like most of those games are actually quite solid. Like, a lot of them are at best mediocre. But a lot of them are quite good and those quite good ones are still gonna wind up being culled; like, they’re not going to make it. And it’s a shame, because a lot of them are these hidden gems. Like, if Animal Kingdom would have come out in 2010, it would have set the world on fire. But the bar goes up and it goes up and it goes up, you know? Look at it. We mentioned Gloomhaven before.
Warning: objects are larger than they appear.
DTD: Oh yeah.
Gil: I don’t think Gloomhaven would have been possible without all of this sort of working towards expectations, so that when it finally did come out, it raised the bar even more, you know? That here’s a game that has this incredibly strong narrative campaign feel to it. But it’s pretty much a D&D campaign in a box.
DTD: Yeah, with an elegant card mechanism, that just makes… That works, it just makes sense. And at its heart it’s a puzzle game, more than a role playing game. It’s just… Tt was a neat blending of genres. It just, it worked out great.
Gil: Yeah, I remember wandering at the conventions and like you said everything was pretty good. I did a series for one of the podcasts, where I started looking at jobs behind the scenes in the production of a board game. And maybe it’s because I did that, and we always think that the thing we most recently experienced is the reason for everything in the universe.
Gil: You know, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
This phrase is known as “Maslow’s Hammer“, coined by Abraham Maslow in 1966.
DTD: But I think games are improving because of the preponderance of editing and developers now. It used to be that Bob, in his garage, made a game. And he said “This looks good. Nobody else has played it, but I like it”. And then he put it out.
Gil: Yeah. I remember when I was doing the convention circuit in the mid-aughts. These folks who published a cooperative game called Vanished Planet. It wasn’t a great game, unfortunately. It was very much a homemade game. And every year I would see them at a convention, and their game would be $5 cheaper. And in the next year the game would be $5 cheaper still. Because they had a garage full of these games that they needed to get rid of.
Gil: But that design nowadays, they would take it to something like a John Brieger, or they take it to someone like a Brian Neff. Or Daryl Andrews or said Sen-Foong Lim, or any of these people who do development, like really great developers.
Board game developers are like book editors. They take a game and do whatever is necessary to improve and finish it.
Gil: And for a pretty reasonable about of money, they’d be like, “Oh OK. Well, your game just isn’t hitting as hard as it could have because there’s so much math in it. Let’s start pulling out some of this math and make the game hit a little closer to home. And make you feel mistakes without having to do equations every turn.”
Gil: And things like that. And then they’d wind up with a far more effective game. That option just wasn’t around in 2005.
DTD: Yeah, you can’t have a job of “in-between middleman board game developer”, when there’s not that many board games, that aren’t making that much money. You know, if you’re kind of drawing them up on a sketch pad, and barely making ends meet, you’re not going to hire someone else to work on it.
DTD: So, I think that has contributed greatly to just the quality of board games nowadays. You can feel when board games had that extra hand in there, pulling things out and cleaning it up.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, and there’s some people, who just, development isn’t in their skill set. Like development is a different skill than design. It’s really interesting where the line is. Like, there’s some certain point, where it’s no longer about making things up out of cloth, but it becomes more about sharpening it. And being like, “Well, this will do what we’re trying to do, but better. Like we’ve established what the experience is. We’ve established what we want to do.” And I’m super lucky, in that I… I don’t want to sound like I’m really tooting my own horn, but I feel like I’m super lucky, in that I’ve got chops both as a designer and a developer. And I was talking with Cole Wehrle. He also is the same way. He, like me, prefers to develop his own games. He doesn’t want somebody else developing them.
Gil: And I think, to both of us, it’s like… We know the direction the game wants to take. We don’t want to, sort of, give that vision to someone else, and have them pull it in a place we don’t want the game to go.
Gil: So, there’s some of us that are OK with it, but not everybody can do everything. There’s always going to be something that you need help with.
DTD: Well, you’ve got to be able to separate yourself from the game. You’ve got to be able to throw things away, when you’ve worked really hard at creating them. So, sometimes that developer role is necessary, just to put someone in, who has no interest. No vested interest in the original design.
Gil: Yeah. And sometimes it’s not even a matter of not being reluctant to throw the game away, to throw a bit away. It’s just, even seeing it. Just saying that “Oh, this thing that you assume is a core part of the game. Well, let’s question it. Is this a core part of the game? What does, what would the game look like without it?” And that happens a lot. I feel like I can do that, I can do that pretty well. You know, even so, but with both The Networks and with High Rise, you know there’s small changes that I make to the game between printings, to be like… Well, there’s little things that I hadn’t questioned. But having played the game over and over and over again to demo it, I’m realizing, “Oh, the game would work better if I did this.” And just small changes. And so, like they say, a game is never finished. It’s only published.
DTD: Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with that, with any sort of creative, artistic job. Is deciding when are you done? Because I know when I work on things, I could sit and fiddle with them forever. I almost need a deadline to make me stop.
Gil: Oh yeah.
Come back next time for more bites of burger and bites of… knowledge. Gil and I talk about the classics of European board games, hot-patching a board game, and the meaning and implications of being really skilled at a game. Plus, modern role playing games – a topic enlightening to me, since my old rusty RPG brain is firmly stuck in the 1980s.