Welcome back to dinner with Gil Hova, a dinner I have wanted to have for a very long time. Just being able to pick Gil’s brain about game design, complexity, and player experiences is so engrossing, I completely forgot to talk about our food. Spoiler Alert – burgers. I can truly say that the things we talked about, especially regarding role playing games, blew my mind. Now, if I can leave the house safely one day, there are so many new games I need to try out…
In short, Castles of Tuscany has a player action to draw 2 cards. There is also a bonus tile which allows players to draw an extra card. The community feels that this bonus action is too powerful, since cards are so integral to the gameplay. Stefan Feld has changed the normal action to “draw 3 cards” in order to weaken the power of the bonus card draw tile. He has stated that the new rule will be included in the next printing.
Gil: I didn’t see that.
DTD: Yeah, he put out a post that said, “I’ve heard this issue, and seen this issue with the game. So I’m making a rules change. Here it is. Here’s a rules change.” And I sat there, and watched it on social media and said, “I think he just patched his game.”
Gil: Yeah. But you know that sort of stuff isn’t unprecedented. Uwe Rosenberg had to do that with a couple of his games.
Gil: Yeah, I think. I think it was Glass Road, that had this real edge case, that if you exploited it, you could make your turn last forever. So, he had to patch that after the game came out. Glass Road has so many combinations. Uwe’s [Rosenberg] games in general have so many combinations.
In 2013, an infinite loop was found with the Roofing Company (Dachdeckerei) building, so that particular building was removed from the game in an errata. Caverna had a similar infinite loop involving the Trader, directly addressed by Uwe on BGG.
Gil: That it’s really hard to test them all. So, it’s understandable.
DTD: And Glass Road has got a new reprint, just announced.
Gil: That’s interesting. That’s a good game, good game.
DTD: It’s one of my favorite Uwe games, actually. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s tight, and I love that simultaneous action play. And the wheel is just brilliant. The wheel is… Glass Road and Ora et Labora, with the rotating wheel. I just, I could fiddle with it for hours. It just makes me happy.
Glass Road and Ora et Labora both have resource management wheels with a rotating “clock hand” that automatically improves and keeps track of resources. Just delightful.
Gil: Yeah, the wheel is very clever. Carcassonne, people forget that Carcassonne had a similar thing. The farmer scoring for Carcassonne took like three tries to get right. And multiple printings.
DTD: Oh, it is ridiculously complicated, but so satisfying when you can do it.
DTD: But it’s also the most thrown-away house rule in Carcassonne. There is a ridiculous number of people who love Carcassonne, but they throw away the farmer.
Playing farmers onto fields effectively in Carcassonne is a difficult concept, one of the biggest scoring options, and very satisfying to do well. Many players just skip the rule.
Gil: That makes sense, that because the farmer makes the game far more confrontational. Like when you play with someone who’s really, really good.
DTD: Oh, they’ll clean up.
Gil: Oh yeah, and they’ll start laying those farmers down so quickly. Really intensely. it’s an intense game. But like it’s intense when you play it with people of a high skill. It changes a lot when you play it with people of a high skill.
Gil: Like when you play with people with low to moderate skill, it’s very chill and very relaxing, but so cut throat when you play it with someone who really plays it hard.
Gil: It’s fascinating how games can change when you, when you have a different magic circle like that.
DTD: Ooooh, “Magic Circle”. [laughing]. So, I’ve often heard that board games nowadays are designed, basically, to be played once. And this goes right into what you’re saying about people who will get very, very good at a game. And I’ve seen it with the beforementioned Puerto Rico, with Terra Mystica. With these more popular, a little bit older games. You know, you’ll do your first move in Puerto Rico and everybody else at the table looks at you like you’ve grown a second head.
Well established games, especially Puerto Rico, seem to develop a set of standard strategies. Very skilled players will often be visibly shaken if you deviate from the standard openings. They will, at the very least, think you do not know what you are doing.
DTD: “You obviously don’t know how to play.”
Gil: Yeah. You didn’t follow the script. Fist turn, Craftsman. Last thing they expect.
DTD: Exactly. So, when you design a game, is it crossing your mind, “This should be fun on first play, but I don’t know if people should be good at…”, or the other way around. Are you designing it to be something you get better and better at, or are you designing it to be a first-play fun? Where is your mindset when you’re making these games? Or is that not even there?
Gil: It’s a really, really, really interesting question. It’s such an interesting question. And the answer really depends on the publisher. Someone like Splotter, they’re gonna make their game play over and over. And if you have a tough time the first time you play it, well, so be it. You know they don’t really care.
DTD: Well, you know the quote, right? You know the Splotter quote, that’s always thrown around?
Gil: Oh yeah, yeah. That they’re perfectly fine with playing a game that you can lose on the first turn.
DTD: Yeah, “If you can’t lose on the first turn, why have a first turn?”
The actual quote comes from a YouTube interview with BGG in 2015: “We think that it is important that every single turn should matter. If you cannot lose the game on the first turn, then the first turn should not be played.” — Joris Wiersinga
Gil: Yep, yep. Uh huh.
DTD: Which is just, it’s crazy, but kind of true.
Gil: Well, I know what they’re saying, though, you know. They want stakes, they want the first turn to be meaningful. I mean I, I agree with the spirit, but I don’t agree with the exact quote. I think that first turn should determine direction, but not velocity. You can’t lose on the first turn, but it should impact the rest of your game. Like, decisions you make on the first turn should affect what you do in the second term, should affect what we do in the third turn, absolutely. But losing on the first turn, for me, I don’t really play games like that.
DTD: I play it with people who are not super competitive with it. I really enjoy Food Chain Magnate, but I do not enjoy playing it with people who are really ridiculously good at Food Chain Magnate.
To be fair, I don’t think I have ever won.
Gil: I like playing Roads & Boats, but only with people who have this explicit agreement of like, “Don’t use my stuff”. Because I feel like it gets super cutthroat if you do that, and then you know, we had we had Jeroen [Doumen] on, and he was like “That’s a valid way to play.” You know, you can say “Let’s play this game, and not mess with anybody’s stuff.” And that’s a totally fine way to play that game. And it works great, you know, but you kind of have to sort of announce it ahead of time. You know about Check-In Cards, right Corey?
DTD: Why does this sound so familiar? Was this…?
Gil: I released it last year just before the pandemic – great timing. The idea was, I was going to sell it at conventions, and like that’s when people are really going to notice it.
DTD: Yes. Were these the cards that had cats on them and cutesy art, but they were about, kind of, negotiating what sort of game, and what sort of energy level you were playing?
They were not cats, they were ferrets. I am ashamed, I should have known better.
Gil: Exactly, exactly. It tells you what energy level everybody at the table’s at, which is a nice way of knowing ahead of time, like “This person is totally spent, and they’re totally out of energy.” So, they might take a little longer on their turns. Don’t push them too hard because they could snap at you. That sort of thing. Like, treat them gently. And in that game of Roads & Boats, if somebody is playing at a four, and another player is playing at a two, that’s the point where, like, “OK, let’s talk about this.” The player playing at a two will not want their stuff taken. And let’s talk about this before we actually play the game. And I think it’s a nice way to at least get the conversation going. You know, it’s not foolproof, but it’s nice to have words for it, and terms for it in a rubric board.
DTD: Well, yeah, and it’s a great way to break the ice. You know, if I go up to you, and go into your face and say, “How much do YOU want to play THIS GAME that I really, really want to play?” There’s intense pressure there, but if it’s kind of this silent card, “Let’s now reveal them all and see where we’re all sitting.” That’s a much better way to approach it.
Gil: Yeah. It’s less labor.
DTD: Especially, you know…
Gil: I was looking at the role-playing game world, and I saw that they have a ton of safety tools, and they take player safety very, very seriously in role playing games.
DTD: Why am I thinking “safe word”?
Gil: Well, I mean, that’s part of it, you know. Because in a role-playing game, you can bring up stuff that can really hurt another player. Stuff that’s super traumatic, like you can really ruin a person’s day in a role-playing game. So, there’s some amazing safety tools like Lines and Veils, X-Card, Safety Flower, Open Door.
Role Playing Games have evolved far past my paltry knowledge of 1980’s Dungeons and Dragons, and a set of well defined safety tools have also become part of the genre. Lines delineate topics that are not crossed, no matter what, no questions asked; As an example, there may never be harm to children. Veils are topics that could come up or be mentioned, but will not be explicitly described.
DTD: Wow, I haven’t played role playing games in such a long time. We had a regular role playing group when, this was probably in the 80s till the mid 2000s, we had one group, 20 years. And it kind of fell apart when we all, you know, got old and grumpy and moved apart. And that happened at the best of us.
Gil: Yeah, that’s unfortunate. That’s a long… That’s a good run, though. That’s a really good run.
DTD: And we did the really high detail, we did Rolemaster, which is all tables and tables and tables. That was our game, with books and books and books, huge detail.
Rolemaster is a traditional fantasy hack and slash role playing game developed by Iron Crown Enterprises in 1980, with a focus on statistics, details and charts. Pretty slow moving.
Gil: Uh, huh, uh huh.
DTD: But I could see having some sort of reining in mechanism, of things that aren’t cool, and things we should watch. I need to look into that.
Gil: Yep, Yep. Especially when you’re playing with strangers. Like playing at a convention with people you’ve never met before. You want those safety tools in place.
DTD: I can’t even imagine playing role playing games with strangers. My social anxiety just would go into overdrive.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it can be really tricky. But I feel like role playing games or have a really good understanding of it, and it just comes down to whether the individual players are willing to implement it. And if players aren’t willing to implement it, it’s the kind of thing where it’s like, “Well, I’m not sure I want to play with you. I don’t know if I should try. I’m not going to trust you because I’ve never met you.” You could do something that’s really awful and heinous. And I want some way to be like “No, we’re not doing that today.” A lot of role-playing gamers are coming from this world of the “GM’s Word”, not only is #1, The GM’s word is the law. Like the GM is like final arbiter, but also the GM is an opponent of the players.
DTD: Right. And see I, I never liked that world. So, I’m coming from the viewpoint of 1970’s, 80’s role playing. And there were two kinds of games. There were the games where it was definitely the players versus the GM. And there were games where the players were going through a story, that was being dynamically crafted by the GM. The GM would roll, you know, fails 20 times in a row, but would never tell you. They would let things slide, and they’d cheat on the side, so that you had a better time.
I always preferred role playing games as a form of story telling, rather than a cutthroat competition.
Gil: Yep, Yep. A lot of us like puzzle design. My friend Errol Elumir is a puzzle designer and escape room fan and advocate, loudmouth. And Errol, he wrote a bunch of tips on puzzle design and escape rooms, and one of them has resonated with me ever since I read it. And that’s “The GM is on the player side. The puzzle designer is on the player side.” You’re not trying to defeat the players, you want the players to solve the puzzle, but you want the players to be challenged, solving the puzzle.
Hey Errol – dinner. I am thinking casino-style buffet.
Gil: So that old school, you know, the players… The GM is an opposition to the players, so number one, it leads to, I mean… I find, degenerate play. But second, I think it also creates possibly unsafe atmosphere, because you don’t have, you may not have, this environment where somebody can say “OK, hang on a second. I’m not crazy about where this is going.” Because if you feel like #1) the GM’s word is law, and #2) the GM is there to make the players’ lives miserable, the GM in both cases will be empowered to say, “Well, no, in that case, then it absolutely happens.” And that’s really bad.
DTD: Yeah, I’ve been fascinated with… I just started looking into role playing games again, and it never… Was probably a problem in my brain, but it never occurred to me that a role-playing game put could be anything but made-up characters against some sort of a quest, looking to beat things up, collect loot, and then do the next one. And there’s so many absolutely fascinating new role playing games now. And I still haven’t quite gotten the bravery to play one of these.
Gil: Yep. I would love to. Show one of them for you, to you. Because those are the kinds of games I really enjoy. I really like indie games that give players a ton of control. You know, Fiasco and Microscope are two of my favorites.
DTD: Fiasco is the one that’s on my list that I want to try.
I have heard about Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco so many times from so many friends.
Gil: Fiasco is phenomenal. It’s really, really good.
DTD: That’s all I hear, yeah.
Gil: The new card-based version is really good. And they have all these playsets now, that you can that you can use to modify the setting of the game. There’s one Fiasco playset that I really want to try called Alpha Complex. So, it’s Fiasco set in Paranoia.
DTD: Wow, OK.
Gil: So, and that’s really, that’s really fascinating to me. Because Paranoia is very much a “GM against the players” kind of game. In fact, the GM manual in Paranoia specifically says <quote> hose the players <unquote>. Like, that’s the idea – the GM is working against the players, is working to try to frustrate the players. Now, the rulebook also says, “Make it dramatic, make it interesting”, you know. But it’s not a game where the players are working together necessarily, because the players are all working against each other, also. They’re all trying to backstab each other. And it’s funny, I grew up reading Paranoia manuals, thinking that this was a game I would love to play one day. Finally, one day I played it, and I hated it.
DTD: Aw! [laughs]
I relate so strongly to this feeling. I read at least 10 times more manuals that games I actually played. And I vividly recall loving a manual, then consequently hating the game, and being surprised by it.
Gil: Because it is very backstabby, it’s very attack-y. The plans you make, like you have this great story in your head, and it doesn’t happen because the players thwart you. And it’s frustrating to me. Whereas in Fiasco, the players are all building the story together, but… So here’s another huge difference between Paranoia and Fiasco. In Paranoia, if the player is surprised, then the character is surprised. Like, in Paranoia, when a player uses a mutant power, they were supposed to pass a note to the GM. And if another player says, “Hey, I saw you passing a note to the GM. That’s a traitor.” You know, the GM will be like, “I’m sorry friend, the computer does not understand. What do you mean by ‘GM’? What do you mean by ‘note’?”
I cannot even conceive of a role playing game where the experience of the character is separate from the experience of the player.
DTD: Where is the fourth wall?
Gil: Yeah, and that teaches you that you have to pay attention to the character. But that’s the only sort of character-player separation, so that when a mutant power does happen, you’re surprised by how it happens. There’s supposed to be this expectation of shock and surprise. Paranoia doesn’t trust the players to separate themselves from the character, but that’s something players can absolutely do. So, I like role playing games where there are no surprises, where a player says, “Oh, you know what would be really good? If XYZ. And then everybody works towards that”. And I think that’s really, that’s such a cool way to play a role-playing game. I think a big example that changed a lot of peoples’ minds was in, uh, have you ever heard of the role-playing game Dogs in the Vineyard?
Gil: It’s by Vincent Baker. It’s about these quasi-religious figures who are in this sort of Old West post-apocalyptic setting, who are trying to clean up a town, you know. And they’re trying to resist sin. So, it’s like dystopian futurism. Dystopian Western, I guess is the way the way to describe it.
DTD: Religious dystopian western. It’s becoming popular now.
Gil: Yeah. Yeah, so the way that that Vincent Baker explained how the game can work in one of the examples, they go through an example where the players are talking to a bartender. The characters will talk to a bartender trying to get information, and the GM’s like, “OK. The bartender tells you this. Now the bartender’s totally lying, but the characters don’t know that”.
DTD: And just lay it all open like that.
Cannot. Process. Does not compute.
Gil: Yeah, yeah, so that the GM is sharing that with the players, and now the players are going to work the characters towards doing what they would have done, not knowing the information, but also knowing that there’s a betrayal coming to them. So, they can set the players up. Like they can put the players, and make sure the players especially trust in that.
Gil: But that’s such a big philosophical shift from the old Paranoia days of “You have to be surprised.” Like if the player’s surprised, the character’s surprised.
DTD: Yeah, not just Paranoia, but I think everything that I was used to.
Gil: Yeah, so Paranoia set in Fiasco I think is absolutely fascinating, because it’s going to be, instead of the GM hosing the players, the players all hosing the characters. Like the players, working with each other, to make the characters’ lives as miserable and funny as possible. And I think for me that will move far, far better.
DTD: Wow. It’s fascinating, but it’s something that I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around, just because I haven’t done it.
Player ≠ Character. Insanity.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’d love to show it to you one day.
DTD: Like I said, I’ve only recently started reading about these newer role playing games, that are just so divergent from everything that I’m used to. And I know that I just, I won’t get it until I actually try it.
DTD: So, it’s a date. We have to do this.
Gil: Maybe it will be my, the game I’m working on. I’m working on a game called Weird Stories.
DTD: I’ve heard a little.
Gil: Yeah, yeah. So, it’s a story game where weird things happen, but they won’t necessarily get fully explained. Those are stories that I really enjoy. I really enjoy those sorts of like, “Really strange things that never get totally explained away.” You never totally understand why something is happening. And it can come off as Twilight Zone, or it can come off as David Lynch. It really depends on the kind of story the players want to tell.
DTD: Well, that sounds great. Well, that’s fascinating. Next convention, whenever, you know, I’m brave enough to leave my house.
Gil: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: How are you holding up with pandemic and all that fun stuff?
Gil: I mean I’m… I usually don’t do very much going out anyway. So, it’s not like… It’s not a burden. Like I don’t get cabin fever the way other people do, so I’m totally fine holding up in my apartment for weeks. Like, honestly, if food just sort of showed up at my doorstep, and I didn’t have to worry about alternate side of the street parking, I’d just stay inside all the time.
Alternate side of the street parking is a very New York City thing.
DTD: I’ve got an app that brings food to my doorstep anytime I want.
Which I abuse mercilessly.
Gil: Yeah. [laughs]
DTD: And for entertainment I found out I could randomly send food to other people’s doorsteps. Which really confuses them, and it just delights me no end.
If my neighbors ask, I have never done this. Certainly never with Afghani onion salad. So delicious.
Gil: Yeah. Yeah, I like it too. But yeah, so that part of it hasn’t messed with me. The biggest social thing is that I used to play test twice a week. Like, I used to go to Manhattan, and meet with all my friends and we would playtest together. And now I do the playtesting online. Because of all the aforementioned mental struggles that I’ve had, I’m only playtesting once a week. [sneeze]
Gil: And I didn’t play test at all in December, which is a first. Like it was the first time in years that I didn’t do my testing at all, which is very strange for me.
DTD: That’s tough. I find that I derive a comfort from holing up, and not going anywhere, not doing anything. But it’s good for me to go out.
DTD: And so, I’m feeling the pressure of not going out for so long. I actually, you know, I’m in California now. And I recently got a house that is big. And I had gotten it to have conventions, to have people over and play games, and I had done two or three big conventions… Well, not big, but like 30 people, 40 people. Decent sized conventions, and I am just dying that I can’t do this. I am so ready. Because I was gearing up, and getting better at it, and… It just weighs on my mind. Soon, soon. If you’re up for about as much travel as you could have, you’re more than welcome to come to a Napa Valley Convention.
Shout out to Shiloh Con, soon to return.
Gil: Well, hopefully. We’ll see, but if I’m able to attend the BattleBots filming this year, then we can make it happen.
DTD: Oh, we talked about that at GAMA, right?
Gil was going to attend a taping of the premiere robot gladiator sport in California, and hopefully I would be able to steal him for a few days. We were actually planning on using this opportunity to do this dinner in person.
Gil: Uh huh. That was going to be the idea. I was going to…
DTD: That’s right.
Join me in about a week for more Gil Hova knowledge. Next time, Gil excitedly tells me all his love for professional robot deathmatches, and I grill him about getting involved in the Ludology Podcast. Plus we just randomly squeal like schoolchildren about impressive recent games. I love this man!