And now, it is sadly time for the last segment of my interview with tabletop game designer, video game designer, philosopher, Tim Fowers. We are both happily full, I am reasonably caffeinated, and the welcome warmth of the Utah sun lures me to ramble in streams of semi-consciousness.
TF: Oh yes. I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of Asmodee. It’s like, I even get approached by them for different licenses and stuff. I’m just like, “No thanks.” It’s like, I appreciate it, but it just seems like the… I don’t know, it’s like they don’t have enough. There’s enough transparency with the rest of the industry, but there’s an opacity with Asmodee.
Asmodee is a very large company, and like many other large successful companies, it has a reputation, warranted or not, of being almost a monster, absorbing smaller game companies in its wake.
TF: We don’t really know if they have our better interest at heart. And there’s nothing really to indicate one way or another.
DTD: Well, on the other side of that, it feels like Asmodee is [still] putting out quality products that are not 100% churned. There are other companies that I feel like the products are just churning out the “popular of the moment”, and that’s not great.
TF: Yeah, shovel-ware. And they have let the entities exist. But it’s just… they’re so aggressive. It’s like, what’s your end game here?
TF: It’s like, do you want to own the whole industry? Because it’s like, you know, just looking on the business end, looking at distribution and whatnot… And how they could squeeze all the other distributors.
Asmodee has also had numerous deals with distributors over the years, buying some outright, and making exclusive arrangements with other.
DTD: It feels like we’re getting a little bit of a backlash on that, now that several people are buying their way out.
TF: Oh, who did?
DTD: Well, Plaid Hat started it.
TF: Oh, they’re out?
DTD: Plaid Hat is out. They’re independent again.
Plaid Hat Games was purchased by F2Z Entertainment in 2015. F2Z was then absorbed into Asmodee in 2016. However, in February 2020, owner Colby Dauch announced that Plaid Hat had left the Asmodee group and was again an independant game company.
Colby sounds fascinating. Someone should interview that guy.
TF: Oh OK. I think I forgot about that.
DTD: This was, this happened at GAMA. And they did it right at the beginning of the pandemic.
TF: Oh yeah, yeah, I knew that. I forgot they now put Summoner Wars back out.
DTD: Yes, second edition Summoner Wars and… Now they’ve had a number of stuff. The new Ashes.
Summoner Wars, designed by Colby Dauch, was the game that initially put Plaid Hat on the map in 2009. And appropriately, the newly independant Plaid Hat Games announced their first game to be a second edition of this classic.
TF: Well, I even think that Asmodee is after CMoN, because they made that exclusive distribution deal.
DTD: My feeling is that CMoN was posturing themselves to be bought.
TF: Yeah, it didn’t work.
DTD: And if you look at all the stock market stuff, and everything. And it didn’t work.
Cool Mini or Not was temporarily removed from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in April 2020 for audit issues. The reasons behind this are mostly financial and complex, and ultimately unknown, but lots of guesses are out there. Asmodee made a deal to exclusively distribute games from CMoN in March 2019.
TF: Well, no, they said, “How about we do this? We’ll do an exclusive deal. Then we’ll really know your numbers.” And if it works out, then we’ll buy you.
DTD: And then the numbers became … unaccessible.
TF: So, they made a deal with the devil.
DTD: There was a lot of stuff going on.
TF: They made a deal with the devil, and there’s another company that did the same kind of exclusive distribution deal. I forget who it was. I don’t know, it’s all industry gossip.
DTD: I know. I do the news as well. I’ve got a news podcast, and written news. So, unfortunately, I try to dive into this industry gossip, and…
TF: Well, it’s just, so that’s the thing. I guess it’s just because… And the fact that Christian Petersen left at his four-year mark.
Boy, this Christian Petersen guy sounds really interesting. Someone should interview him.
DTD: But Peterson just bought back a piece of Fantasy Flight.
Christian T. Petersen founded Fantasy Flight Games in 1995. During this time, Petersen designed the classics Twilight Imperium and A Game of Thrones. Fantasy Flight was acquired by Asmodee in 2014, after which Petersen acted as CEO of Asmodee North America until 2018. In April 2021, Petersen purchased the Fantasy Flight Game Center, renaming it Gamezenter, a large game store and event center.
TF: What IP?
DTD: No, it’s relatively inconsequential. But there’s a big gaming building where they always played. He bought the building back.
TF: OK, I heard that.
DTD: So, we keep wondering, you know, is this a beginning? Is this a sign?
TF: Well, he’s not going to stop making games.
DTD: No, no.
TF: Yeah, but look, the timing was like, “OK, you had a four-year deal. It’s over, you’re out.” And then the new guys were just like, “OK, when do you turn the screws?” Just tell us when you guys are going to start squeezing everybody. And I mean, on the retailer end it sounds like it’s happening.
DTD: Yeah, well, they’ve got the new policies. They’re so big now, that there’s no replacement parts. There’s no, you know… Asmodee’s legally got themselves out of all of that.
Asmodee made a controversial policy in 2020 to not provide replacement parts for games directly. Consumers would need to return the game to its place of purchase.
TF: So, I don’t know. As much as, yes, I don’t argue that their games are good. It’s just that… I don’t have enough faith in them being interested in the long term health of the hobby.
DTD: Oh sure. Their number one interest is without a doubt the bottom line, rather than the hobby.
TF: And when they control that much of the industry, how much damage did they do, I guess is the question. Maybe not that much. Maybe because there’s enough other competition.
DTD: Well, there’s other copies going around, too. Like, for a while Plan B was snapping up everything, until Asmodee nabbed up Plan B. Part 2.
Plan B Games was formed by Sophie Gravel when Asmodee purchased Gravel’s other company, F2Z Entertainment. Plan B did very well, and itself purchased Eggertspiele, a euro game powerhouse, in 2017. Then Plan B Games was absorbed by Asmodee in March 2021, marking the second time Sophie Gravel sold her company to Asmodee. In an interesting endcap to the story, Gravel was made the head of Z-Man Games, an Asmodee property, in August 2021.
TF: [laughing] That is so funny.
DTD: That story is a soap opera. Yeah, the whole thing, from the early days.
TF: Well, so Sophie [Gravel]… So, I worked with her.
DTD: Oh, OK.
Sophie Gravel has been at the center of many board game stories and legends over the years, some good, some bad. For this reason, she has gained a somewhat infamous status as a businessperson. Like her or not, it cannot be ignored that Gravel is a powerful corporate figure in board gaming.
TF: So, Z-man had the license for Wok Star when Filosofia bought them. Because I was working with Sophie, and she came to me, and she’s like, “I really like Wok Star, but to appeal to the European crowd, we are going to make it all anime.” And I’m like, “You don’t understand my game.” And I walked.
Filosofia was Sophie Gravel’s company. In 2011 Filosofia purchased ZMan Games, Zev Shlasinger’s company, and merged to form F2Z Entertainment.
TF: And both her and Z [Zev Shlasinger] were just amazed that I walked. I’m like, “Well then you’re not going to…” First of all, they jerked me around for two years. Which was the limit of the contract. And at the very end, they’re like… I mean, I have a very distinct art style. The art was done! And this is like, “What? You don’t get it, obviously.”
DTD: You can’t do that, yeah.
DTD: Which is a whole other…
Game Salute and Dan Yarrington also have quite the reputation in board gaming.
TF: Another drama king. The thing is, with [Dan] Yarrington and Seth Hiatt. There’s different types of people in the industry, and because… This is what I tell new designers. I’m like, “If you could have a successful game, and you could jump three years in the future, but you could only keep the money or the fame, which would you take?” And it becomes telling, because you have the artist-type, that is like, “I want to share something with the world.” And that is what a lot of the industry is based on. The love of just sharing new experience, that type of thing.
TF: And then there’s people that like, they want to solve the problem. They’re an entrepreneur. They don’t really care what it is, and the metric of their success is money. So, your MBA types are these, are [Dan] Yarrington and Seth Hiatt. And so, they clash when they’re just like, “I’m just trying to fill a problem in the industry. I’m just trying to make a business.” And they’re not, there’s kind of unwritten rules, that everyone else is playing by, and that’s why they end up colliding.
DTD: But it’s almost universal that the designers will be on the fame side, and the publishers will be on the money side.
DTD: And that’s the warfare between them.
TF: And that’s the Asmodee problem. Is because a lot of us are playing by these “gentlemen rules”, by how we share IPs. Because we all want… You know, that’s why I help other designers. Because we’re going to raise all ships. And then someone comes in, and is trying to arbitrage their way through the industry, and be like, “OK, how much can I get out of this?” And we’re just kind of like, “You’re not really our tribe.” Everyone else is like, “We’re all here to have a good time, and to lift each other up, and be positive. And you just want our money, and that’s where the conflict’s gonna be.” And so, they’re always going to be the black sheep, because inevitably, they’re going to be like, “Ooh, I can make a lot of money in this”, and they’re going to try to get away with something.
DTD: Well, the thing is, a very good money maker can take advantage easily of a very good artist.
DTD: And it happens more often than we like to see.
TF: So, I’m just saying, like that’s the cultural difference. And so I know both of those guys, but I just know how to talk to them. Because it’s like they’re coming out from a different angle.
DTD: Expectation management, yeah.
TF: And they’ve both been super helpful to me, individually. Like, they’re actually really good guys. But I can see how they’re stepping in it over and over, because I’m just like, “You don’t understand. Everyone around you is just trying to be at summer camp. And we just all want to have a good time.” And so that’s my take on it.
DTD: Well, that’s… That was the dilemma with Google as a company forever, as well.
The google founders famously picked their company motto to be “Don’t be evil”. It was then philosophized whether a self-serving interest, like a company, could actually do no evil. In 2015, the motto was changed to the more vague “Do the right thing.”
DTD: It was nerd summer camp. And then it started making serious money.
TF: So, that’s my goal. Is just don’t make too much money. [laughs]
DTD: Perfect. [laughs] Isn’t that the old joke? “What’s the secret to making a small fortune in board games?”
TF: Yeah, yeah, “Just start with a big one.” So, I don’t know, we’ll see where it goes. But I mean, for me, it’s like things are good. For me, it’s just a lot of times it’s picking, “What is the best thing to spend my time on?”
TF: And being like, there’s different forces. And it’s just like… Like with this time game, it’s just like, it’s kind of self-indulgent. Right? I just kind of needed to do it, because it couldn’t be done, with really no… I don’t really think there’s any audience for it. Because almost everyone who tries it is just like, “What?!?”
We are talking about Tim’s recent brain-warping, time travel video game release, Chiasm.
DTD: Well, time travel to me is that kind of weird “Holy Grail” theme. In both board games and video games, it’s been tried a lot, and it’s [got] really cool ideas, but it’s so hard to pull off.
TF: Well and it’s… But it’s also just… yeah. I mean, I’ll send you the download so you can see it. But like it’s… And we tried to go kind of artsy with it. But it’s just one of those things where like, I kind of got to the point where it is kind of more an academic exercise than being a power fantasy. Because the best, like Braid.
TF: Braid is a power fantasy. It’s like, “Oh I found a… Oh, I’m back out of the hole!” And like, you feel… Portal, right? “I can go over there? Oh, it’s right here.”
Braid is a critically loved, 2008 platformer video game by designer Jonathan Blow that uses time travel elements.
DTD: “I can do anything!”
TF: So, my game didn’t come up with a really strong power fantasy. It didn’t make you feel stronger. It’s a lot of those like, figuring out timings. And having to think in reverse, is like, it’s a stretch, right? And so, I didn’t find that magic, and I kind of understand why, now. And maybe later I’ll figure it out. But for now, it’s just like, you have to not associate… You have to see games as a snapshot of you and the other forces at work. Because new designers get into this thing where they think it’s the last good idea they’re going to have, and they put all their eggs in one basket. You get your self-worth too attached to the game.
TF: And so, now I just realize that, like, “OK, that is a reflection of me, or a snapshot.” And I’m just going to kind of like… I’m going to back away from it, and I can critique it. And I can see what’s good and bad about it. And it’s going to have its own trajectory. It’s like a kid. It’s going to have it’s own trajectory. I influenced as much as I can, but I can’t… I gotta let it go. Because with Wok Star, I kept trying to fix it. And I had three different editions of it, and I think it just got worse every time. And so, that’s the thing. It’s like, learning to just be… But then, I’m going back and patching Burgle [Bros 2], so I don’t know if I’m learning any lessons.
DTD: Well, that’s always the thing. When you’re in a creative job, I feel the hardest thing in the world is deciding when something is done. Because you can always change it.
TF: Oh yeah. You can polish forever, until there’s nothing left.
This is a great line.
DTD: Yeah, and there’s the ninety-ten rule.
90% of the work is done in the first 10% of the time. Then, of course, the last 90% of the time is spent fixing the last 10% of the job.
TF: I mean most of my games were in two weeks. I get to 80 or 90% of the gameplay in two weeks.
DTD: And then polish for…?
TF: I mean balance is a big job, and getting all the numbers to really good places. But, like, Paperback [Adventures], Burgle [Bros 2], Fugitive. Those all, within two weeks were almost in their final form. And the ones I really wrestled with, were like Now Boarding, and Wok Star at different points. I guess, Sabotage and my most recent two are kind of in-between, where it’s… like it’s working. I guess they might have been two-week games. They might have been two-week games as well. I mean, when you think about how much of the core was there.
TF: And that is one of the things, is you have to be open to that. Because sometimes, there’s this low hanging fruit. You talk to video game designers, too. I’m like, you need to just be open to be like, “Oh, this is working really well.”
DTD: You have to be able to be impartial about it. Because that’s the whole saying, is that “first time designers are adding more and more and more, and late designers are cutting everything out.” You have to be ready to ditch that one piece that was your whole essence of being. The whole reason you did the game. You have to be ready to cut it.
TF: Well… And I mean, [Ryan] Laukat has got this whole story. He was trying to make Empires of the Void 2, and he kept coming up with mechanisms that ended up being whole different games. In an attempt to make this one game. You know, so it’s like, I tell people, are you like NASA? Where like it’s the moon or bust, and you’re going to make this magnum opus? And you’re gonna throw away anything that doesn’t get you there? Or are you like Columbus, where it’s just like, “Well… This is good enough. Let’s just go with what we found.”
This Ryan Laukat guy sounds fascinating. Someone should interview him.
TF: So yeah, and learning to… You know because the game is going to talk back to you, on what it wants to be, and what’s working and what’s not working.
DTD: Yeah. There’s the bullseye-barn analogy is always the one I like for design. If your goal is to hit a bullseye on the side of a barn, several hundred yards away. You can shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot until you’re good enough to hit the bullseye. Or you shoot once, walk up to the barn and draw the bullseye around it.
This logic is commonly known as the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. A possible history of this anecdote from John Venn to ancient Jewish teachings to Cicero is also discussed in this article.
At this point, our check arrives, and like a ninja, I swipe it from the waitress, nearly taking off her arm. Actually, she just handed it to me by coincidence. I am quite old and slow.
TF: Well, I can…
DTD: No, I got it, I got it. This way I can talk really badly about you, and I don’t feel guilty. Wow, so…
TF: I got a call. Probably customer support. One second.
DTD: Oh no worries.
So apparently, Tim answers the tech support questions on his games himself. And these calls come through on his cell phone. I found this both fascinating and endearing. So if you called about a Tim Fowers game on the morning of June 15, 2021, you have been immortalized in print.
TF: It’s really fun, but a lot of times I won’t tell them that I’m Tim. And so, like it’s funny to get to end of the conversation. “Now who are you? Can I get your name?” I’m like, “I’m Tim”.
DTD: THE Tim?
TF: It’s fun and then I’m like, “Oh, can I send you anything? Or can I, you know, do… whatever?” Because that’s the whole thing, is I like to be the guy that you call. It’ll be a little harder when I’m in the UK. I gotta figure out how to afford my phone.
DTD: That’s awesome!
TF: I don’t know, there was something else I was going to say, but… I gotta get.
DTD: No, no. Don’t even worry about it. I will talk forever if I get away with it.
DTD: Oh yeah. He was the World Computer Chess champion in the 80s as well!
I know. I talk about my father too much. But I think it’s pretty cool.
TF: Computer Chess? He programmed chess?
DTD: Yes, he wrote algorithms to figure out the chess endgames. So that got him into the gaming world, and the chess world. So, a lot of those chess people were people who hung out at the house.
TF: Well, the hardest algorithmic problem we’ve had, because we’ve done some Monte Carlo simulations and whatnot for games. But the biggest one is actually finding a word in the dictionary with variables. So you’ve got these 4 letters, and you’ve got 2 wilds.
DTD: It’s just a huge space. You can eliminate, and you know, narrow your space down to make it more efficient.
TF: So, my brother-in-law figured out a hack to do the proper thing, but with without bloating the memory. So, he’s able to keep the memory profile low, and keep it fast. Because it’s like, once we… Because you can just do a traditional search and stuff. It’s just…
TF: But it’s similar to chess, since like, it blows up. And so, but he was able to it. And so, we’ve got that in Hardback. And we’re re-coding Paperback. Because Paperback does not have good AI. But now it will have a really good AI.
DTD: That’s awesome. Very cool man. Thank you again. This really was a delight.
And so, another interview is in the books. Or the hard drive sectors. I cannot thank Tim Fowers enough for entertaining my desire to talk technology, game design, and computers – all subjects I could wax loquacious upon for eternities. I am really looking forward to cornering Tim at the next convention.