Welcome back to breakfast with Burge Bros designer Tim Fowers. I am freshly fueled with coffee, but Tim is naturally caffeinated, so the conversation is fast and furious. Read on for discussions of music, mentorship, and mornings. Plus Kentucky!
DTD: So, how many game designs do you think you have in the air at once? Are you a person who gets one idea and focuses, head down, and finishes it? Or do you have a whole bunch of things running in parallel?
TF: I usually have one video game and two board games. And usually one board game is somewhere between Kickstarter production and shipping, and the other one is kind of earlier.
DTD: Oh sure.
TF: So, it’s… What do they call it? In video game studios they call it the “snake”, where you always have to eat another pig. While the other one is still digesting. But yeah, so I’ve always… I always probably got two of those. Also, because I’m on this like year-long timetable. But I kind of have gotten to the point where I’m not under a time thing, like, “I need to put a game out this year, what is it going to be?” I can just be open, and be like… And then, as I collaborate with different people, like with Skye [Larsen], he came back with this, he really liked, we did a digital… So, this is a case… So, like me and [Jeff] Krause made a Slay the Spire / Paperback game.
Tim has so many ides going through his head at once, being with him was exhilirating, like a rollercoaster ride.
TF: And it kind of worked, but we’re like, “Meh.” But then Skye’s like, “This is pretty cool”, and so he’s like, “Can I take this?” Until a couple months later, he came back with a physical prototype with the whole splay system that became Paperback Adventures.
Paperback Adventures, designed by Tim and Skye, was a successful Kickstarter in June 2021 with 4,916 backers pledging $326,773. The game uses the splaying of cards as a mechanism within the game.
DTD: That’s awesome!
TF: And then we’ll probably bring it back into digital with these new formats. So, for me, it’s two sides of the same coin, very often. We’ll have an idea. We literally won’t know what format is. Is this a video game? Does this want to be a video game? Does this want to be a board game? I mean, video games usually… Like tower defense. Tower defense is a good example of something that people think should work as a board game, but it doesn’t, because the bookkeeping is so high.
Tower defense games generally have the player set up an arena full of traps, guns, walls – you know, defenses. Then once a timer has been reached, enemies try to breach the arena. Successful tower defense board games include Castle Panic and Ghost Stories.
DTD: It’s hard. It’s fiddly.
TF: You’ve got all these related rates. You’ve got, like how fast is this tower shooting? Can you track hit points sufficiently?
DTD: Yeah, but now we’ve got Roll and Write games, which are essentially a way to keep track of all the fiddly nature of something that should be a video game.
Roll and Write is a very popular style of game, essentially like Yahtzee. A die is rolled or a card is flipped, and everyone fills in their paper, picking boxes to fill in.
TF: Yeah, fill in the spreadsheet.
DTD: Fill in the spreadsheet, yeah! And they are going hot. You get some really massive ones, your Fleet [the Dice Game] and Hadrian’s Wall.
TF: I heard about Hadrian’s Wall. I was just meeting with Steve Aramini. I had breakfast with him a couple days ago. I was over in Reno. And he’s got this one he made, a Roll and Write that uses a deck of playing cards. And he’s trying to figure out whether to Kickstart it, and kind of what to do with it. It’s fully formed, but he kind of wants to stay in this format of like… Kind of the Cheapass Games format, where it’s like you know, “Here’s…”
Steve Aramini is the designer behind many of Button Shy’s best microgames (see below). Notable titles are Sprawlopolis and Circle the Wagons.
Cheapass Games, founded by designer James Ernest, made a name for itself by selling black and white “instant game kits”, perhaps requiring the player to provide their own dice or markers. Good games. Pretty cheap.
DTD: Oh yeah. Here’s your pad of paper. You already have a deck of cards. You know what to do.
TF: So? But he’s looking at branching into the Kickstarter world. And I’m just there to help push him off the cliff.
DTD: Well, I mean, there’s definitely a whole breed of company that’s popping up now just to guide people through Kickstarter, and kind of act like game developers. Or low key publishing houses.
TF: Yeah, I mean, there’s the 18-card people.
DTD: Yep, Button Shy Games.
You may not know, but Button Shy Games makes a number of games (81 to date) that are composed of only 18 cards. And Steve Aramini is one of the top designers of said games.
I do need to note here that I completely misunderstood what Tim was saying. He was noting that Button Shy would be happy to publish Steve’s game for him. I totally missed the connection and started “gamesplaining” about publishing…
TF: Button Shy does that really well. Yeah, it’s interesting. Also, you know, so I helped found Tabletop Network.
DTD: Oh OK, cool.
TF: So that’s a conference we put together, based loosely on Project Horseshoe. Well, and GDC [Game Developers Conference]. But there wasn’t anything, where it’s like… Every time you get designers together, they are like, “Hey, let’s play prototypes!” And I’m like, “Can we just listen to a talk, or do a workshop, or something?” And so, we’ve done, we’ve done that. We did it once in Utah, and now we’re part of BGGCon.
GDC is a huge video game conference held each year in San Francisco, very useful for collabortions.
TF: And that’s sort of about me, Jeff Beck, and Jeff Krause. But we’re trying to bring, we’re partnering now with Tabletop Mentorship, which is a spin-off. There are people that went to Tabletop Network, and Tabletop Mentorships. It’s all online. And they do different sessions where they connect mentors and mentees.
DTD: OK. Is it part of the Protospiel group?
TF: No, no, no. It’s its own.
DTD: Its own independent thing.
TF: It’s not an event. It’s an association. So, three times a year, they’ll have an open call for mentors and mentees, and then they’ll try to matchmake as best as they can. And then for three months, you’re working with a mentor remotely. And then they also have micro-grants where you can apply, and get like $100 for supplies to make your prototype.
Tim has really done wonders in boosting new designers, through mentorship and just plain giving advice.
TF: It’s very, it’s very, it’s done a lot of good. They’ve done maybe four or five sessions of it.
DTD: It sounds fantastic.
TF: So now they’re kind of helping, they’re kind of folding back in and helping us with the Tabletop Network, which we’re going to be back this year. Because we were off for COVID. So we are going to be back this year as part of BGGCon. And they’re helping us run the online component, and helping kind of run things. So, I like to do mentorship, you know, and I help these associations. Because it’s like one of those…. It’s like, I believe that it’s not zero sum.
TF: So, you know, like Ryan Laukat, he’s been super nice. Like a couple of key breakthroughs on games, like Now Boarding and Burgle Bros 2 came from visiting him, and him pointing out something that I couldn’t see.
Someone should interview that guy, he sounds great.
DTD: You always benefit, just not even having a formalized thing, but just playing together. You know, ideas just pop up, when they’re fantastic.
TF: So, I like to collaborate. But at the same time, I like to keep it like a musician.
TF: When you collaborate, you don’t say, “Hey, you play the drums. I wrote a bunch of songs. Do you wanna play my songs?” You’re like, “No. Well, what kind of song can we make together?”
DTD: “Let’s play something together.”
TF: And then, so what I do, is I do revshare per project. If I work with somebody on a project, they get revshare. And that’s why I have all these other designers under my umbrella. Because there’s other games… You know, Jeff Beck has games in there, and Rob Cramer has got a game in there.
Revshare, or revanue sharing, is different from profit sharing, as all of the revenue taken in is shared among creators, not just the profit after costs.
DTD: That’s a really good… I mean, it’s the fair way to do it.
TF: Yeah. So then, it’s like everyone kind of is an independent entity. But as we… We don’t have the pressure, because a lot of game companies are like, “OK, let’s build up, and let’s get five guys, and figure out how to pay 5 salaries on this thing.”
DTD: And we got to be super-secret and not tell anyone, or else…
TF: But there’s a certain… But I want to keep it all at, kind of ad hoc. So people can team up, and do different things. And we have the infrastructure now, to get stuff made and shipped. And we have a website to sell it on. And I kind of run that back end. And so like, there’s a person I mentored in Brazil. And he can’t actually do Kickstarter in Brazil, so we’re trying to get him an account in the US. Or he might… I might run it under my account, but then let him sell it under my network. Because he can’t really do it there. But he’s got a great game.
DTD: Getting in on the logistics. Well, with all this stuff going on, do you find that you still get to play unassociated games? Do you get to play new games?
TF: Not much. I mean I, I kind of just… What’s funny is like, instead of playing new games, I just do comfort food.
TF: So, I’ll just, I’ll just play… For me, I always have a role-based multiplayer game. A video game. So it was like Team Fortress, and it was Natural Selection, and it was League of Legends, and then it was Overwatch. Something where I can have a job and be a specialist at something. And part of a team.
Diablo is my comfort food. Especially Diablo II. That and ice cream.
TF: And I’ll always enjoy that. And then I’ll also do something lighter, that’s usually card game. So isotropic Dominion. I played like 3000 games on that, back in the day. And now the new Dominion is coming out. Or I’ll play Hearthstone, or something lighter. But I’ll usually just have like 2 games. And most of my off time, that’s not you know family time, and kids and whatnot.
Dominion had one of the first digital version on isotropic.org back in 2011, created by Doug Zongker. Before it was shut down, isotropic had hosted well over 10 million games. A new version from Temple Gates Games has been announced, and is about to release.
DTD: Sure, you go into one of your comfort games.
TF: And so, I’ll research games. And I’ll read about games, and I try to force myself to play other games. And also with my family, try to introduce them to games. Or if there’s a campaign. I did make it through Pandemic Legacy Season One. But for me it’s more of a concerted effort, that I’m trying to, you know, keep up with games. And I enjoy them once I get going…
DTD: But it’s more “I should do this” in the beginning, rather than “I’m dying to do this”.
TF: Yeah, but when you legitimize your hobbies, you’d be surprised how it changes.
DTD: Yeah, I’ve definitely run into that.
TF: Because it’s like, it’s kind of a job. But it’s kind of not. I don’t know, it’s also that people make certain assumptions about whether… If I enjoy playing games, whether I would enjoy creating games. Because consumption and production are kind of different processes.
DTD: Oh, yeah. Very different.
Can you truly enjoy your work once it goes from hobby to work?
TF: And sometimes people think, people are like, “Oh, I’d love to test games all day.” And I’m like, “No, no. you probably wouldn’t.”
DTD: Pick one of the games you like, and play it 1000 times.
Our ever vigilant waitress swept in and offered to box up the copious breakfast dripping over the edges of the table.
TF: Yeah, I can’t eat too much in the mornings.
DTD: Oh, no worries. Thank you again for doing a breakfast. This is great.
For those of you taking score: 20 interviews, only 2 breakfasts. Unless you count those online meals which spanned multiple time zones. I don’t know how to count those.
Waitress: And I’ll take your dish here. Your plates.
DTD: Thank you so much.
TF: But so, so yeah, I mean I have other hobbies, too, like I play bagpipes.
TF: yeah, I mean just over the last three years, I’ve learned.
DTD: I picked up a pair of bagpipes, and have taught myself. I did the same with banjo.
To be fair, I learned well after the fact that the bagpipes I purchased were broken. So I did not do too well with that endeavor.
TF: Oh yeah?
DTD: Just picked one up, and just started teaching myself how to play.
Sounded much worse than a completely untrained person squeezing a bag of cats. The bagpipes. Not the banjo.
TF: I’ve been tempted by banjo. I lived in Kentucky.
DTD: It is really fun.
TF: Like, what style? Clawhammer?
DTD: No, no, I tried. I’m terrible at clawhammer, so I do Scruggs method, three finger bluegrass. Which I’m merely bad at.
Clawhammer and Scruggs are the two predominant ways of playing banjo. Clawhammer is a bouncing, chord-note-chord-note style, while Scruggs is a rolling finger picking method using 3 fingers. Scuggs was named for Earl Scruggs, while Clawhammer was named for Reginald Clawhammer.
I’m lying about that last one. Earl was real.
TF: Yeah, I lived in Kentucky, and there was… So when we when we went independent, me and my friend, we moved our families to Olive Hill, Kentucky. Middle of nowhere. Because it was cheap to live. To make video games.
Olive Hill, Kentucky is the birth place of country singer Tom T Hall, “The Storyteller”.
DTD: Yeah, I hung out quite a while around Louisville.
TF: Yeah, so it was an adventure. And now, our next adventure, we’re going to the UK.
DTD: Oh wow.
TF: So, we’re going to go for three to six months. Maybe see if we can get a visa.
DTD: That’s very cool.
TF: But yeah, during COVID, I’ve been going around. I would just post and say like, “OK, I’m going to be in your neighborhood. Anybody who wants me to come play bagpipes, I will come play.” So, I did. And around here, I also would do it on Sundays, because no one goes to church. So I know these LDS hymns on pipes, and people loved it! I did it, I did tons of it.
DTD: That’s awesome. I think every city that I’ve lived in has had a park or a corner or an area where you regularly could see someone just out there playing bagpipes on the weekend.
I vivdly remember a piper in the park along the Quinnipiac River in Fair Haven, Connecticut.
TF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because you have to get [out], because you can’t do it at home. It just goes right through the walls.
DTD: [laughs] Well, that’s the classic band to get a divorce, is you get the banjo player, the accordion player, and the bagpipe player.
The original power ballad.
TF: [laughs] Yeah so, but it really forced me to get over stage fright, get in front of people. And it forced me to practice. And I got tons of hours in playing, and I loved it.
DTD: I need to take that extra step. I just play at home. And I’ve tried a couple times to get a group together, but it’s never really worked out.
TF: Yeah, just find a place that, you know, that’ll force you to play. And then even if you’re bad, you gotta get over it, you know?
DTD: I know, I know. But I was a classically trained music kid, from a very young age. And I think all of that theory and training and reading music and all that is actually a hindrance to most banjo stuff.
Classically trained on recorder, clarinet, and bassoon. Note: Add bassoon to the power ballad trio.
TF: Oh yeah, because I never did an instrument.
DTD: I think that’s a better way.
TF: I was just like… Well, it’s also with entrepreneurship. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t… You can’t kind of over-analyze and sacrifice yourself.
DTD: Yeah, you won’t stop yourself just because it’s the wrong way to do it.
TF: But it helps get you out of a local maximum. You know, look at the situation where you’re like…
DTD: Oh yeah, that is awesome. So, you’re the crazy guy on the corner playing bagpipes…
TF: Yeah, yeah. It’s a good time.
We had been eating outside under an umbrella in the Salt Lake summer for some time now, and the sun was creeping around the umbrella right onto poor Tim. At first, I thought that we had grown closer over breakfast, as Tim kept scooting closer to me.
DTD: Oh, I’m sorry, the sun is creeping in on you?
TF: [sarcastically] Well, it’s nice and warm.
Much like the title in a Violent Femmes song.
DTD: You guys are going through a heat wave that’s just crazy.
TF: At least it’s, you know, at least it’s dry.
DTD: Yeah, luckily your heat wave is moving into my neighborhood, so as soon as I get back into California, it’s going to be hot.
Oh, it was. It was.
TF: Where at in California?
DTD: Around Sacramento, Napa Valley. Northern California.
TF: OK, yeah, well if you ever interview Ryan Goldsberry, an artist, he’s in Livermore.
DTD: Oh yeah, Livermore is close. And I, from computer connections and things like that, I know a lot of people working in Livermore. He’s at Livermore Labs?
TF: Well, so he was in video games. He did, he worked on like 3 Lara Croft games, while he was doing art for me on the side.
TF: And then he kind of got burnt out, and the commute was too bad. And so he ended up at Lawrence Livermore doing 2D and 3D simulations and stuff.
DTD: Oh my. Well one of my regular game group guys is in 3D visualization and graphics, Lawrence Livermore Labs.
TF: Well, yeah, he is probably his boss.
DTD: Wow. I, I know what I’m texting as soon as we are done…
TF: Yeah, but Ryan’s a really cool guy. I mean he’s not a designer, but he’s been in both worlds. He’s been in video games quite a bit, and then we’ve developed this whole style, you know, for all of my games. You know, the whole look.
DTD: So that minimalistic 2D flat style?
Anyone who has seen Harback, Paperback, Burgle Brothers, etc. knows the cohesive 60’s inspired flat 2D art that Ryan Goldsberry is famous for.
TF: Well, the characters. The character styles. So like, the look and the whole cast. I give him whole cloth. I’m just like, “…and here’s vaguely what they do. Make good characters.”
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome.
TF: And he just, he did the whole world creation. All my games. Fugitive, all the Paperback covers. So all those cheesy novel covers. All Ryan.
DTD: Wow, yeah.
TF: Fugitive, fugitive is a graphic novel. Like, if you… Every card, if you lay them out in order, it’s one big graphic. One through 42, or zero through 42, is one big story.
I did this as soon as I got home. It’s incredible. It’s a giant graphic novel.
DTD: It’s a panorama.
TF: And it took him a ton of work, but he did all those cards.
DTD: And I love when there’s little pieces like that in there. There’s… You could just see that extra step, that people are really getting into it, and they…
TF: Yeah, yeah so, I mean I have to, you know, I have to try to push boundaries, and execute really well, to be an artisanal game. I have to make something unique enough, that it is worth finding me. Because it’s like, if there’s too much… I have to overcome the friction of just picking up another game on the shelf.
DTD: Yeah, you’re running off of reputation.
TF: Well yeah, and just doing new things. Because I feel like I have to be new on three axes. I have to have new gameplay, so game mechanics or whatever. I have to have a solid theme. And then I have to have a unique art style to sell it. So, it’s not just the theme, but it’s also how it’s presented.
DTD: Sure. Well, your games definitely have a character to them. You look at the art, and you go, “Oh, yeah.”
Ryan gives a distinct cohesiveness, a branding, to all of Tim Fower’s games.
TF: And then, I’ve been trying to innovate with like the boxes and stuff. But it kind of came back to bite me on Sabotage and Burgle Bros, because it… They worked, but not as great as they needed to.
DTD: They’re cool, but…
Several of Tim Fower’s games may have sacrificed box function for form.
TF: Yeah, but so I’m just like, “But I had to try.” So, we’re actually going to, instead of instead of giving, instead of doing something else, I’m actually going to be sending out some updates to people that bought Burgle 2. Basically, free expansions.
TF: Here’s some, here’s some new ways to play it, and some different variants maybe. We might even send out some components. Just to be like, because this happened in video games.
Come back next time for further discussions about game design, including patching board games, creating a card game of a video game of a card game, and the logical connections between programming and game design.