I am currently driving through Alameda, California with the legendary designer of Dominion, Donald X Vaccarino. We are in search of Ole’s Waffle Shop, a fixture here since 1927. To be fair, we found Ole’s without problem. Now we are searching for parking.
DTD: Do you have any clues on parking? Is it…?
DXV: Yeah, if you can park, park.
DTD: [laughs] OK. There’s no lots, though?
DXV: No. Well, if you can’t find parking, there’s often some by a library near here.
DTD: No, I am excited. I was looking at the webpage for Ole’s. It looks great. Oh, I see one there. I wonder how much trouble I get in for parking here?
DXV: I have no idea but I’m hoping to get a ride home. [laughs]
DTD: Oh, I know. So, no making fun of my parallel parking.
DXV: I wouldn’t know how.
DTD: [laughs] That’s why I thought it was a safe bet.
After successfully, but not aesthically, parking in a non-perpendicular manner, we exit the car and enter the streets of Alameda, California! My first obstacle to valiantly overcome is a modern parking meter. It’s been a while.
DXV: [looking at meter] 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. [looking at phone] 4:30. I did not think to bring park meter change.
DTD: Oh, don’t even worry about that. This is on me. You know, all of it. So, you don’t even need to worry about it. I could do this. That will save some, this would be a better way to go.
The parking meter may have taken some time. It was pretty high tech. Also, I might have paid to park there for a few months.
DTD: All right. It just took forever to decide that that was OK. So where are we relative to Ole’s?
DXV: I think we take this alley.
DTD: Oops! Hang on one second, I apologize.
In all my meter-related excitement and confusion, I actually left my phone in the car, and so made a mad dash back.
DTD: Sorry, too much to think about all at once. So how did you get started in the whole board gaming thing?
DXV: Wait, are you still recording now, in the street?
DTD: Yeah, why not? I usually end up with one long recording. Throw it to some computer things I know. Get it transcribed. Edit it down. And it’s a reminder, if I can’t figure out what we’re talking about. Sorry.
DXV: Well, I can totally answer that question. But I’m just a little, I’m just a little involved in the moment. It’s the experience of being out in the world.
DTD: Has it been a while?
DXV: Well, no. I mean, I go for walks every day, and I’ve actually been to Ole’s. I mean, I checked it out to make sure it was actually open.
DTD: Oh, that’s right. You told me.
DXV: It was scary there. You know, they had an answering machine that kicked in, and said it was full of messages. So, it’s like, “Oh, they’re just closed.” But, repeated attempts got through, and here we are. So now… Yes, it’s this way.
And so we entered the hallowed halls of Ole’s, greeted by the sounds of 50’s music and fryers bubbling. We grabbed a table at the back of the restaurant, away from the hustle and bustle of the street.
DXV: Best table in the house.
DTD: This is awesome. I feel obliged to get waffles.
DXV: Well, here’s my advice, and it’s that their meat is really good.
Waiter: Here’s some water. Do you want something else besides that?
DXV: Just water for me.
DTD: I’m just good with water, thank you.
DXV: That’s it. Otherwise, they’re just, you know, some diner. But the meat, the meat is quite good. Bacon, the best bacon. But, I mean don’t let me dissuade you from whatever.
DTD: Oh, no, no, no.
DXV: I’ve never had their waffles, of course. Can’t have them.
DTD: My kids are Celiac-Sprue. They can’t have gluten. They’ve had it forever. So, I don’t eat bready stuff often, because they’re usually around. Oh, I cannot decide. That biscuits and gravy always sounds good. But I know it’s just terrible for me. Cool, I think I’m going with Tammy ‘s omelet.
DXV: Does the music mess you up?
I actually quite liked the background music at Ole’s A nice mix of 50’s and classic rock. At this exact moment, they were playing “Splish Splash” from Bobby Darin, 1958.
DTD: Not at all. It’s going to end up just text with comments in. If we’re talking about a game, or we’re talking about something.
DXV: I looked at one of yours. I mean, I looked at your website.
DTD: Oh, OK. I hope it wasn’t horrifying.
DXV: No, I mean, it’s weird, right? But I mean… Follow your muse.
Waitress: Are you pretty much ready to order?
Donald X ordered a fantastic breakfast-slash-lunch of pork chops, soup, bacon and eggs. No potatoes or butter in there. Not to be outdone, I ordered that “Tammy’s Omlette,” a classic 3 egg omlette with spinach, ground beef, mushrooms, onions and cheese. With rye toast. Come to think of it, none of us ordered waffles. Certainly a missed opportunity.
DTD: Sounds good.
DXV: I don’t think it’ll even be… You know, I weigh myself every day now. I had big plans to get to the point when I could eat more food. And I got to that point where I’m eating more, but it was like, “Well, maybe I’ll lose a little more…” Because a doctor friend of mine said, 175 was the top end of the range of acceptable. You know, not overweight. So it’s like, why not go a little further. So, I switched to eating more, but not eating maybe as much as I would have liked. But my weight goes down tiny, tiny amounts. And the big problem is that once a week I have pizza. And, you know when you order a pizza with no cheese and then put cheese on it, no one really wants to split that with you.
DTD: [laughs] I get it.
DXV: But now, you must ask me at least some, one question, about gaming.
DTD: Well, I mean, if you twist my arm.
Donald’s bowl of soup arrived, and instantly I regretted not getting something a bit … meatier. The odor was intoxicating.
DXV: Thanks. Free crackers?
DTD: [laughs] Maybe later.
DXV: I like putting crackers in my soup, but they have soy bean oil.
DTD: So, how did you get started in board games?
DXV: It was all Magic the Gathering really.
DXV: I played games when I was a kid, like anybody. And I got heavily into D&D at some point. Played a lot in 6th grade.
DTD: I went through that.
DXV: And I did make a few games. But they weren’t really… They were just like, you know my version of this existing thing.
DTD: Changing the rules on something you like.
DXV: And they weren’t really anything to speak of. And then I played Magic, and it was two things. It was that Magic introduced me to interacting rules on cards, which turns out to be the big thing I like. So, I’ve done tons of that.
DXV: And at the same time, it introduced me to people who played Magic who also played German board games. And so, it introduced me to all those.
DTD: Saw all the other stuff that was out there.
DXV: Right. Prior to that, there were just the American games, which were bad for the most part.
DTD: It’s really fascinating that Magic came out at about that same time, where the German board games were just trickling in. I hadn’t thought about that before, that it all happened at once.
DXV: I mean, yeah, there’s no connection, but Magic debuted in 1993, and Settlers of Catan is right around there.
DTD: It’s ’94, I think.
Wrong, Corey. Wrong. It was 1995.
DXV: Yeah, and I’d also… And so, I read a book on game theory right around this time. And game theory doesn’t much have to do with games. And I thought, “I’ll make a game that’s got game theory in it.” And I made that game, and you know, then made a million more. I made games at a ridiculous pace through the 90s. Uh, you know, I would make a game a month.
DXV: But I mean, all these games. And I, for a while, tried to get Wizards of the Coast to hire me. And eventually, they had a position open. And they did decide to hire me, and they didn’t actually hire me for a reason that maybe doesn’t want to go into an interview. [laughs]
And so, it doesn’t.
DXV: So, I did not did not get my job at Wizards of the Coast. But I don’t need to be bitter, because you know, I got my own successful game. And can, you know, work from home and sleep in to whatever hour, and so on. It’s probably a much easier time, with me having way more control over it, than if I had worked at Wizards of the Coast. You know, that would just be a nine to five job, and it wouldn’t have paid as well.
DTD: I’ve certainly talked to a lot of people who’ve worked for the big companies, and you know, they’ve had good and bad to say. So, you were making tons of games. Did these come out, or were they on your own pile at home?
DXV: Right, so I made all these games. And eventually, I decided to… Eventually I gave up on this Wizards of the Coast dream, as you know. But I still visited them sometimes. I had a friend who worked there. He was the head of the DCI for a while. And so, he didn’t work in R&D, on games. Well, I think he may have worked on something at some point. So I came up and played my games with the Wizard of the Coast guys, and showed them off. And initially it was just to…
DCI stands for Duelists’ Convocation International, an early name for the Wizards Play Network, the official sanctioning body for competitive play in Magic.
Plates of breakfast and lunch fare start to arrive, steaming eggs, seared meats, and wonderful, wonderful coffee.
DTD: Oh, thank you so much.
DXV: And initially, hoping that they would hire me. And later on, I knew they weren’t going to. But I went up for some trips, anyway. And I decided to try screen writing.
DTD: Oh, cool. Wow.
DXV: And screen writing has a really big problem, which is that at some point you need to send the screenplays somewhere. And while this seems difficult with novels, it seemed even harder with screenplays. So, I wrote some screenplays, but did not manage to send them places. And so my rate of designing games in this period, which is the early aughts, was very slow. But occasionally I made one. And finally, in 2006, I made Dominion, as the story goes.
And the rest was history…
DTD: Was that your first game that was published? It looked that way on BGG.
DXV: That was the first published game, yeah. But not my oldest game that’s now published. I’ll get back to that.
DTD: OK. I was gonna ask that.
DXV: One weekend I wanted a new game to play on Monday. New games are really good, because everyone can agree to try them. Whereas maybe you’ll argue over what to play otherwise. And I wanted a game to play on Monday, and I had this idea in the file that’s been sitting there for months. And it was something I could just whip out, so I whipped it out and we tried it. And it took over my life instantly. You know, I had a game night and a Magic night, and they both turned into Dominion night. And no one was willing to play anything else. And inspired by making Dominion, I made a couple more games, and no one wanted to try them. And so, I made Dominion expansions instead. And it seemed like, “Well, if any of these games can get published, this one can.”
DXV: And I looked around at all the boxes of games I had bought. “And let’s see – Rio Grande, Rio Grande, Rio Grande. Well, I’ll try Rio Grande.” I emailed Jay [Tummelson] and he replied within 20 minutes to say, “Oh, I only look at games at conventions. Here are some conventions I’m going to.”
More plates full of delicious protein and carb descend upon us. Plus, the waitress left some cookies.
DTD: Thank you.
DXV: And so, I said, “OK, I’ll go to Origins.” And he said, “See you there.”
DTD: Wow. That’s Jay Tummelson, right?
DXV: Jay Tummelson. He’s certainly, well, made things easy in a lot of ways.
DTD: I have a lot of people talk to me about Jay, and it’s always positive. I’ve never met him.
Jay, call me. We will do lunch.
DXV: You know, he’s also the guy who got Settlers [of Catan] to the United States.
DTD: Yeah, I had heard that.
DXV: So anyway, I did… So yeah, all these games I made in the 90s, a few of them have been published now.[more food]
DTD: Can I take a picture or two?
I always forget to take enough pictures. I need to prove I didn’t make all this up.
DXV: You bet. Maybe, I’ll not wear this shirt.
DTD: It doesn’t matter.
DXV: No, no. I want to look my best. [laughs]
DTD: Oh, OK. [laughs]
DXV: I don’t know how to do that, except to not be eating. So meaning, I will not look my best.
DTD: I have no idea how to look my best. I’m just getting some pictures of food and stuff. “B roll”. Alright, one more. Cool, thank you so much.
DTD: I always forget. That’s my biggest problem, is I forget to take pictures. Then I talk about something on the webpage, and there’s no picture for it. So, I’m guessing…
DXV: Oh yeah. These older games.
DTD: The “90s games”.
DXV: I mean, the oldest one would be Piña Pirata.
DXV: Which is, you know, it started out as just crazy crazy eights. Which other people have made independently.
DTD: Yeah, variations of that.
DXV: But it’s a set of rules, and a special deck that changes things a little. And you know I played crazy crazy eights in the early 90s, and made a version of this maybe in 1995, but I really codified it in the later 90s.
DXV: Yeah, I’ve written this Secret History essay on each of these games, except Infiltration.
Donald X has been very good about writing “a secret history of…” detailing the development of most of his games.
DTD: Oh, I was actually going to ask you something about Infiltration.
DXV: Well, that’s OK. I can tell you whatever, and it can be on the record, even.
DXV: Well, it’s been years. So anyway, that one is pretty old. And Monster Factory is from 1995.
DXV: I made it with Nina Paley, who I met through a personal ad in San Francisco.
DXV: At the time, she ended up going out with a friend of mine for a year. She’s mostly famous now for an animated movie – Sita sings the Blues, I think it’s called. But at the time, she was mostly famous for her comic strip Nina’s Adventures, which was in the [San Francisco] Bay Guardian.
DTD: That, that’s where I knew her.
DTD: Yeah. That’s so strange, because I think of them… Yeah, I think of Nefarious as being very recent, and I think of Greed as being just post-Dominion and…
DXV: Oh man, Greed!
DTD: “Oh man, Greed”?
DXV: You know, my… My first game of drafting was in 1998, a game where every turn you drafted a card and played a card. Greed is from 2003. And you know, when 7 Wonders was announced, Greed was at one publisher not getting played, and I immediately switched it to another publisher that never played it. And when Greed finally came out, it wasn’t even… It wasn’t not just after 7 Wonders, it was after games that were cashing in on 7 Wonders had already come out. And so, I feel like I totally could have been the drafting guy.
DTD: OK. If it had come out earlier?
DXV: I had a bunch of drafting games, and at this point it doesn’t even seem… You know, I’m not even motivated to try to get them published.
DTD: Well, the audience, that is so fickle, too? The trends come and go.
DXV: I don’t know. I’m not up on those things.
DTD: I don’t know. It seems like certain mechanisms and certain types of games become very hot, and then become very passé. And they get a feel to them. What sort of games were you playing when you were a kid? You said you played games. You said D&D.
DXV: Nothing, yeah. I mean D&D was the big one. You know, I played Chess and…
DTD: Well, D&D changed everything.
DXV: You know, I have all these hard words for Chess, but I played it some.
DTD: I was never good at Chess. There was a lot of Chess in my household, but…
DXV: I wasn’t so good, but I would intimidate people. They would think “He’s smart. He’s going to be good at Chess.” And so they would just, if they weren’t good at Chess, they would just be reacting to me. And that makes it easy to beat them. But actual people who could play Chess, no. I was, you know, not completely awful.
I think my business card has “not completely awful” printed on it.
DTD: I was three steps further into completely awful. But all I ever played against were people who really knew how to play Chess.
DXV: And at this point I would talk about how, you know, you really want to “un-Chess” games. I’ve used this word “un-Chess”. You want to un-Chess games. It was a big thing, you know. In the 90s, I was trying to figure out, you know, what made games worked and what made for good games and all these things about games. What could you do in a game? And I put all this work into it, and I wrote a lot of essays.
DTD: Yeah, I read some.
DXV: You read some?
DTD: Well, stuff that’s on BGG, or that I could get to from BGG.
DXV: Oh, I see. No, all these other essays… All this stuff, no, it’s never been posted. I don’t think so.
DTD: Oh, OK. Wow.
I looked back, and yes, I was mistaken. I have read a lot of things written by Donald X, but I cannot find the “un-Chess” essays anywhere.
DXV: Richard Garfield read some of it, when we were… I saw him, played my games with him when I went to Wizards of the Coast.
Richard Garfield, of course, is the designer behind 2006’s Rocketville. Oh, and Magic the Gathering.
DXV: And we chatted over e-mail some. We had big plans to co-design a game someday, and I don’t need to rule out that ever happening, but it would take one of us really pushing for it.
DTD: Well, I was wondering, because Dominion has to have some influence from Magic. It’s often been talked about that Dominion…
DXV: It doesn’t, really. I mean the influence from Magic, is that Magic got me into making all these games. And it got me into cards with rules on them.
DTD: Seeing what could be done with cards?
DXV: And in that sense, it’s all about it’s all about it. But the idea of like, “Let’s build a deck while we’re playing” didn’t come from Magic.
DXV: It came from… I made a game in 2003 called Spirit Warriors. And in this game you had a fantasy hero who went on quests, on a big map of a fantasy Kingdom. And you rolled lots of dice. And built up your guy. And a couple years later, I decided I would make a sequel that was as different as possible, but was still that flavor. So instead of one hero, you had a party of heroes.Spirit Warriors and the proposed sequel were never published.
But Donald has told the story of their influence a few times.
DXV: Four heroes. Instead of being lots of dice, it was going to be cards. And this was just…
The waitress came by to check on our progress, and much impressed by our consumption prowess, left the check.
DTD: Thank you very much.
DXV: My chance to eat… This was just because the other one had been dice. It was just, you know, “I am going to make this one cards.”
DTD: Sure, switch to cards. But like you said, Magic kind of shows you what can be done with cards.
DXV: The initial premise was that you would draft a team of four heroes at the start. And each one would have a little pile of 10 cards, and you would shuffle those cards together. And that would be a deck. And then if you drew one of your paladin cards, that would be something your paladin could do. And this may immediately remind you of Smash Up…
DTD: It had crossed my mind…
DTD: Oh sure.
DXV: And way before Smash Up! [laughs] All there. So you shuffle these piles together, and you use the paladin card for something your paladin could do. So, as as I worked on this game, I realized the math was going to be too hard. What it was going to be, like I built my paladin sword skill up to Level 3, and I’ve got a card and it says “do two damage per level of sword skill.” So, I look down, what’s my level of sword skill? It’s three. 3 * 2 is 6. This card does 6. But wait, that’s what my paladin can do. What can my ranger do? Look at the card, look down at the table. Remember that number, look what my wizard can do.
DTD: Too much bookkeeping.
DXV: Now, this time, at the end of this, do I even want to go on this quest or whatever? Am I happy with these numbers that you had to keep in your head? And I made up an example situation to just show people on a screen. And it took forever for them to figure it out, and they all got the wrong answer. So it had to be instead, that somehow the card just said “do two damage,” without you having to look back and forth.
DXV: But I wanted to be building up the characters. Aha! It could just be that we added cards as the game progressed. And so, when my paladin goes up in level, I get a new sword card that’s better than the other sword cards.
DXV: And now I could draw that. And once I thought of that, I realized I can make a whole separate game that was just building the deck, and had none of the other elements of Spirit Warriors 2. And I typed up some notes, and put them aside, and went back to look at Spirit Warriors 2, which I never finished. It was a behemoth of a game. Spirit Warriors had 500 unique cards, and Spirit Warriors 2 was on track to have the same. And it was just a ton of work.
I would love to get ahold of Spirit Warriors. Sounds right up my alley.
DXV: And yeah, one weekend, it was like, “Well, I could whip out this other game.” So the deckbuilding part came from that. It didn’t come from, “Oh, what if we did Magic…”
DTD: From a way to bookkeep, without having to bookkeep.
DXV: Yeah, it wasn’t… And that’s really the big trick it does too, is that you could have a game… You can have a game like Race for the Galaxy, where you gain abilities, and they’re all laid out in front of you. And as the game progresses, you have more and more things. And in the meantime, instead you’re shuffling them into a deck. So, you don’t need to deal with what they all are. Except to the degree that they come up. And so, that is just a big thing the mechanic gets you.
DTD: Oh, it’s yeah, it’s fantastic. And I don’t think it would be a jump to say that the mechanic has changed the industry. I mean you look now, deck building is in so many games. And I think it’s really finding its niche as a side mechanic, driving other games. And right now we’re in this bloom where everybody is making a game of “deckbuilding plus this”.
DXV: I don’t know about that. I’m not up on these things. In the early days of games inspired by Dominion, lots of people copied Dominion in its entirety, as if all of the decisions that I made after I started with “you’re building a deck” could only go one way. And I have no respect for those [laughs]. And there were some people who made actual new games. The ones I always liked are Scythe or Eminent Domain, and A Few Acres of Snow. That start with “We’re going to be building a deck” and do something else.
DXV: And it was sad that so many people decided to just clone Dominion instead of doing a new thing. I mean, it’s great that people got that opportunity, and sad what they chose to do with it. But I have no idea what people are doing with it now.
DTD: Are you not following modern board gaming too much, or do you just play occasional games?
DXV: Well, I play new games some, at board game cafes. Or that friends bring over. But would you believe, for like a year and a half there, there was none of that!
Snarky COVID comment approaching…
DTD: Wow. I wonder what could have happened in that year and a half? That’s really strange. [laughs]
DXV: And it varies based on how much I’m play testing, because the people I play games with only have so much time to play games. And if I need playtesting done, we have to be playtesting then. But in periods when I don’t need playtesting done, I try new games. The last new game I bought was Gizmos. And I don’t know when it came out. But I played it a couple years ago.
DTD: It’s been a while. It’s really funny because the last interview I did was Phil Walker-Harding, and we talked about Gizmos quite a bit.
DXV: Well, it’s very much a “Donald X” kind of game. Usually if I was talking about a game, someone else’s game, there would be so many things that would change. Big list of “Here’s all the problems with this game”. But really, with Gizmos, it’s just that I would add more variety to the abilities.
DTD: Sure. I think it was targeting a very simple level. It’s elegant, it works. But I know what you mean. More variety would be really cool.
DXV: Yeah, I mean, it’s great to be able to do everything with icons if you can. I can understand it ending up like it did.
Come back for the next installment, when we dive deep into Dominion design and development, and explore its excellent expansions. Plus, Corey’s favorite question of current complexity. Alliteration!