Welcome to another mealtime chat at the Dish. I am currently lounging at Eggs in the City, a wonderful breakfast joint in Salt Lake City, Utah. I arrived early and have just been sitting outside, sipping coffee, and enjoying the morning breeze. The best is yet to come, as I am meeting Tim Fowers, designer of Paperbakc, Hardback, Burgle Brothers, and countless other board games I can only describe as unique and “artisianal”. Maybe even “hipster”.
DTD: Kind of crazy. So, thanks so much for joining me for breakfast. This is awesome. I know I kind of sprung it on you last minute.
TF: Oh, no, no, no. I’m happy to. I always like to chat. I don’t type a lot. I always cut conversations online really short. And then in person I talk a lot, so…
DTD: Well, we’ve kind of crossed paths a bunch of times at conventions and things, but I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and talked or anything like that.
TF: Sure, yeah, I’m happy to. So, you’ve been doing… What’s the format? Is it just like you do interviews and write them up? Or is it more of a podcast, or…?
DTD: No, it’s interviews and write them up. I like written word better than than the audio stuff.
Waiter: You made it man! Can I get you something to drink?
I had nothing in particular to do that morning, so I had been hanging out at the restaurant for a while. I just want to be clear – Tim was not particularly late. I was quite early.
TF: What juices do you have?
Waiter: Orange, apple, cranberry, or grapefruit.
TF: Oh, grapefruit.
Waiter: Large or small?
DTD: Can I get a grapefruit juice as well? Small. Yeah, that would be great. Thank you.
I feel grapefruit goes so well next to strong flavors such as coffee. I love the constrasts of sweet with sour and bitter.
Waiter: You got it.
DTD: Yeah, what I’ve been doing. It’s kind of a crazy project, is I do this. Just go out to a meal, record it, and I’ll transcribe almost word for word. And it ends up being kind of long…
DTD: But at the same time, it has this casual nature to it, of just going out to eat.
TF: Well feel free to edit or whatever. Oh, you know who lives right near here, is Space-Biff.
DTD: Space-Biff, really?
Space-Biff, aka Dan Thurot, is a long time board game reviewer with an excellent, intelligently written blog.
TF: Yeah, yeah. Dan Thurot. He’s like just a couple blocks over.
DTD: I had no idea. Wow. Well, you’re gonna be my… I think if I counted right, my 20th meal.
Meal, interview, victom… Whatever.
TF: Is this part of The Dice Tower thing, or did you start it on your own, and then…?
DTD: It is. It’s Dice Tower, but Tom [Vasel] kind of lets me do what I want. It’s kind of how he runs a lotof the Dice Tower stuff, is you go up to him and say, “Hey, can I do this?”
TF: “Here’s the pitch.”
DTD: And he went, “Yeah. Just don’t get me in trouble. And if you do, I’ll stop you.” [laughs] He’s so easygoing about it.
TF: That’s nice. Well, yeah, and most of the people in the network that I’ve met have been fantastic.
DTD: Oh yeah, I’ve been doing it a couple years. And it’s just, it’s just fun. I mean, the pandemic was rough.
TF: Have you done any like journalism before that or…?
DTD: Writing, here and there, but nothing dramatic. Nothing paid.
Our fine waiter pours out some more coffee for me, as I’ve already spent a good hour sipping arabica. It matches perfectly with the grapefruit juice.
DTD: Thank you.
Waiter: Sure. You guys ready?
TF: Oh, I should… Yeah, with some suggestions.
Waiter: I like Huevos Rancheros a lot, and chicken and biscuit. I’ll give you a couple of minutes.
TF: Oh OK, thank you. Yeah, I’m a Benedict fan.
DTD: Oh, me too. I’m going crazy over the Benedict menu.
Eggs Benedict is by far the king of breakfasts. Perfectly poached egg on top of an english muffin, a slice of ham, and hollandaise. Variations abound – the classic uses ham, but I’ve seen smoked salmon, pulled pork, crab cakes. They are all … transcendent.
TF: Yeah, there are too many options here.
DTD: I’m flopping between a crab cake Benedict and the pulled pork.
TF: Oh yeah, I’m an asparagus fan.
DTD: The crab cake’s got the asparagus.
TF: Yeah, there’s a really good Jewish deli right over here, too, we go to. It has a really good Reuben.
A traditional Reuben is a sandwich of corned beef, swiss, sauerkraut, and russian dressing on toasted rye bread. A creation born of of love and heartburn. Interestingly, it exists on many a Jewish deli menu, but it is not Kosher. My mother actually sent me all of the ingredients from Katz’s deli in New York for my birthday this year.
DTD: Really? I think I can count on one hand in all of California, how many good Jewish delis I’ve been to.
I gre up outside of New York. I know I can be a bit snooty.
TF: Yeah, this may be the only one in Utah. [laughs] But they do this one well. It’s more of a hipster Jewish deli, but they do a lot of traditional things. We’ve got a friend who’s Jewish, and… Well, I think she’s a “they” now. So, I have to use a “they”. So they were telling us about how, you know, like even some off-menu stuff, like latkas and kind of these different things… But they’ve got this this thing called “the Cowboy”, which is… Because, you know, there’s like the Reuben and then the Rachel.
TF: The Rachel is the Turkey one. They got this new one is called the Cowboy – no, the Sloppy Joe! That’s what it’s called. Because normally I go to a menu, I go to a place and I want to try everything, eventually. This is the only place I just go and I get the same thing, because it can’t get any better.
To give credit where credit is due, I believe Tim is fantasizing about Feldman’s Deli in Salt Lake City. The “Sloppy Joe” is Corned beef, Pastrami, thousand island and coleslaw on Jewish rye. The “East Side Sloppy Joe” is the same but with Turkey and Roast Beef instead of the Pastrami and Corned Beef.
DTD: Oh man. That’s awesome.
TF: It’s just phenomenal.
DTD: But do they have the black and white cookies?
For those who do not live near New York, a true Black and White cookie is a confection of god. Without this experience, one has never truly seen joy. Feldman’s does not carry them. My recent care package from Katz’s, however, did include them.
TF: No. We always get the New York cheesecake. So I don’t know, I don’t know if they’ve got cookies, but…
It’s not “a cookie”. Much like Cookie is not “a monster”.
DTD: That’s good stuff.
TF: And they’ve taken some of the things off. I don’t know if they’re really trying to stay super traditional, but they’re popular, so…
DTD: It sounds awesome. Sounds like I have to hit it.
TF: So, what are you in town for?
Yes. I pretty much traveled to Salt Lake City solely to interview designers.
DTD: This is… I did a couple interviews while I’m in town. And I came in to do a little visiting and a little sightseeing. And I got a new car recently, so I’m playing with the new car; I drove. It’s just a lot of fun. Mostly, I’m very excited that I can have in-person meals again.
Waiter: Are you guys ready?
TF: What’s the best Benedict?
Waiter: Either the traditional or the pulled pork.
DTD: I’m gonna go crab cake Benedict.
TF: I’ll go traditional, sure.
Waiter: Tradional, sure. Hey, that comes with potatoes here.
TF: Hmm… Breakfast potatoes…? I’ll do a pancake.
Waiter: I’ll get that started.
DTD: Thanks so much!
TF: So, what do you work in?
DTD: I have done a little bit of everything. So, I’ve retired now. I was a veterinarian most recently, and did that for about 15 years. I was a scientist in academia doing research before that.
TF: Oh, what field?
DTD: Neuro. It was Cell Biology and Neuroscience.
Forscher, P., Lin, C.H. & Thompson, C. Nature 357, 515-518 (1992).
TF: I had friend doing that in UCSD. He got a degree in that, and one in computer science. And he’s trying to do neuro-like modeling. You know, spike trains and stuff like that with computers.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome. I did some computer things before I did academia. I was born into that one, so I did computer history and things like that.
TF: Well, have you seen that LPT3 stuff that’s been going on?
TF: Yeah, and also just like the different training models. Where, like, they train. Like the hierarchy, where these are training, these to do things all automatically.
DTD: It’s so complicated, and one of the big fields now, in most of the Cell Biology stuff, is not so much to isolate and explain what every little piece does, but to try to model it in a big computer automaton, and see how it functions.
TF: Yeah, just like what is the game of life, Conway’s game of life.
This is an amazing analogy. Conway’s Game of Life, created in 1970, is a simulation using a grid of squares. Each square has a set of simple rules if it tuns black or while, depending on how many squares are lit around it. But these simple rules create a chaotic, insane behavior – chaos from order so to speak. I encourage everyone to get the program and play with it.
DTD: It’s crazy.
TF: Where you start getting this emergent… I mean, that’s the rabbit hole that, what’s his name, [Stephen] Wolfram went down. Where he’s like, “The whole world is 2-dimensional automata” And cellular automata. And he went… like I don’t know, it’s a little out there!
I honestly cannot do credit to Stephen Wolfram’s theories, which are wooly and wild. Worth a read, but it takes quite an investment to understand them, and I’m not there yet.
DTD: Personally, I think it’s a little too complicated to model in any way, but I remember when the original computer program Life, the dots that would self replicate…
TF: That’s Conway’s Life, right?
DTD: Yeah, when that very first came out, I played with it like crazy. Figuring out every repeating pattern and gliders and sliders. My dad was one of the bigwigs in early, early, early computer science, so I had mainframe access when I was like 4.
A Glider is a pattern in Life that just moves across the screen, mostly retaining it’s shape. A lot of the patterns in Life inherited names over the years – Gliders, Sliders, Spaceships, Blinkers. Its a whole thing.
TF: Oh wow.
DTD: So, Life was one of the big things I would play with a lot.
TF: Well, that’s fun. You’re all over the map, then.
DTD: I… Yeah. [laughs]
TF: Well, I mean, so I’ve dabbled in… I’ve kind of… Because I do video games and board games.
DTD: Oh wow, OK.
TF: So, I’m on both sides of the fence. Since about 2005.
DTD: I didn’t know that, about the video games.
TF: Yeah, I’ve always got a video game project going on.
DTD: That’s awesome.
I have now become 12 years old again.
TF: I just don’t really know how to make money off of them. But board games are working out.
DTD: Video games are tough. My son is in video games right now, which means that he’s doing a lot of demos and making no money.
TF: Where’s he?
DTD: Recent graduate from UC Santa Cruz.
TF: Oh well, it’s one of the better programs.
TF: I think Robin Hunicke is still there.
DTD: The name sounds very familiar.
Robin Hunicke is still at UC Santa Cruz, and has worked on video game projects such as Journey, Boom Blox, MySims, and TheSims 2.
TF: Yeah, she did Boom Blox and she does… She’s really cool. She’s been helpful over the years. So the thing is, I’ve kind of bumped into the video game designer world. So there’s a thing called “Project Horseshoe”.
TF: Have you heard of that?
TF: It’s a, kind of invite-only, designer conference, where they’re like, “Hey, we’re going to do… We’re going to sit down.” It is like a think tank style, where it’s like, “We’re going to get together and form groups and do little white papers over like 2 days.”
DTD: That’s awesome.
TF: Just do a white paper. It could be a taxonomy. It could be best practices. Something to help move the craft forward. Or science, whatever it is.
DTD: So, more structuring it, than actually creating product or things like that.
TF: Yeah, but also because everyone is just heads down in work all the time. But, you know, you get together, and there’s a lot of camaraderie. Like designers tend to be pretty social. I mean not all of them but…
DTD: Well, I’ve run into my share of designers.
TF: And it’s got this really great vibe. It’s down in San Antonio and It’s fantastic.
DTD: That’s very cool.
TF: And through that I bumped into a lot of “design bumping into other sciences”.
DTD: Oh cool.
TF: So, you know, through people like Jason VandenBerghe, and he’s done a bunch of GDC [Game Developers Conference] talks. Or Daniel Cook; there’s different people that have taken different thoughts about game design in particular directions. And so, you should go to their website, and they’ve published white papers about… A big one that hit recently was “cozy games”. The idea of like… a cozy game is something that’s not necessarily like, you know, domination and competitive and what not. It’s more just like, “Here’s something comfortable”.
DTD: Like Tokaido.
TF: Or Animal Crossing, I mean it is in the video game space.
DTD: Oh, sure.
TF: But I mean James Ernest is the only other board game designer that goes to it.
DTD: He’s been doing amazing stuff for so long.
TF: So, but with that, I mean, I was able to bump into, to learn about like… Figure out that I’m a systems designer. Because there’s different types of designers.
TF: Like the difference between like, whereas you know… Ryan Laukat, who is also local here.
DTD: [laughs] I went to dinner with him last night.
Someone should interview that guy!
TF: Yeah! Good, good. He’s more narrative driven. And I’m not as interested in that.
DTD: I really… Yeah, I tend to be focused on mechanisms and algorithms and things like that myself.
Come back next time for more deep designer talk from Tim Fowers. Spoilers: Breakfast arrives, I learn what sokoban is, we postulate on time travel, deep dive into design theory, and talk about straddling video and physical gaming. And that’s only part two!