Welcome back to dinner with Donald, Dining with Dominion, Dishing about deck building. This week, we are talking about how Infiltration came to be, some publishing and contract stories, and of course Dominion.
DXV: But this was all just about… what? I don’t know what it was about. It started with me telling you the two big problems with Magic [the Gathering]. The other big problem is, you don’t always get to play.
DXV: And everyone knows this from day one, as “mana screw,” where you draw too many lands, you draw not enough lands, you don’t get to play.
DTD: Yeah, the order of your cards.
DXV: And Wizards of the Coast defends this. And I think some part of it must be toeing the company line, and some part of it may be Stockholm Syndrome at this point. Because it is very clearly, truly awful. And whatever you can point at it giving you, you can say “This does good things for the game.” It totally does do good things for the game. The game has a good path of building up, and it has a good amount of randomness. Or had at some point in the past; I don’t know what it’s like today. And you can point at the mana system as providing that. But it’s unacceptable in this day and age. And this was… This was not true in the 70s, right?
DXV: In the 70’s you could say, you know, you could have somebody skip turns. Whatever. and you could just eliminate a player – “You’re out, and we’re going to play the rest of this Risk game without you.”
DTD: That’s what I was thinking, yeah?
DXV: And you can go home, and then we can wonder why we’re playing Risk when our friends leave early. Maybe we can do better. But today, we do better, right? And you can… It’s very hard to eliminate players at all now. Even though it’s a fun mechanic when you can do it. It just has to be, you eliminate them with five minutes left to the game, and it’s exciting. So, they watch it. But you know, in Magic I can be sitting there, trying to… “Well, I drew land, I do nothing.” It’s just unacceptable in this day and age, and it’s not anything you need to make a good game. Endless games do not have this problem. [laughs]
DXV: So anyway, Magic has those two huge flaws, and yet was so good nevertheless. And I remember, this all goes back to… You were asking what other games did I like. You know, it was a great game. It was so huge for my life, and I’ve had so much fun playing Magic despite these two ridiculous flaws.
DTD: Sure. It changed gaming dramatically.
DXV: I mean, maybe? I don’t need to make that assertion. You can make it.
DTD: It’s what I do.
DXV: It was big for me. You know, rules on cards. And it wasn’t the first game with rules on cards. Like, it got the idea from Wiz-War. But it’s amazing. And yeah, I was a big Reiner Knizia fan. And I mean, he does make games that do not have the variety I’m looking for, where you play it, and you had the experience. And you can still play it once in a while. Like, one of my favorite games of his, it’s a completely obscure one called Clash of the Gladiators. It’s a dice game with drafting.
DXV: You draft teams of gladiators. Which are just chits, and then they fight it out in an arena. And the set of gladiators determines how the dice work.
DTD: I don’t know it.
DXV: And it’s very cool, and doesn’t have any variety to it, so you don’t want to play it very often. But once in a while it’s good fun, and it keeps everyone involved. And the kids can play it, because maybe they’ll get lucky.
DTD: I mean, the man has put out so many games.
DXV: Yeah. He did crank them out for a while there.
DTD: Still, I think.
There are 654 Reiner Knizia games listed on BGG presently.
DXV: But I was a fan. And we played a lot of Medici with an expansion I made for it. Which was just a deck of twist cards like Nefarious has. So, it’s just a rule that changes the game. Like, you know, “Remove your token from the grain pyramid at the start of each day”. So now you have to re-evaluate green because that token won’t last. So, it’s different from the other resources.
DTD: Hey, the rights to Medici are up in the air again now.
DXV: Are they? Every time it gets republished, I think “Oh, I could offer him this expansion.”
DTD: Grail Games had it for a long time, but no more.
Grail Games lost the rights to several Reiner Knizia designed games in June 2021, due to breach of contract according to the designer.
DXV: But I could also make my own game that used this concept, and I did. But I could also make my own bidding game that used this concept. It doesn’t need to be Medici.
DXV: Yeah, anyway. And I was a big fan of Richard Garfield, and you know, he didn’t just have Magic. I liked Netrunner a lot, although it had a few things you needed to fix. And my understanding is that Fantasy Flight fixed them, though I’m not really sure, and I never played their version.
DTD: I didn’t play it heavily, but I liked it. I played it every once in a while. I heard you had something to say about Infiltration. [laughs]
DXV: Oh yeah, I didn’t put up a… So, Fantasy Flight is one of those companies… I don’t know what Fantasy Flight is like today. And I should make that clear, right?
DTD: It’s Asmodee.
Fantasy Flight, founded by Christian T. Petersen in 1995 was, and arguably still is, one of the biggest players in board games for many years, publishing Twilight Imperium, Game of Thrones, and many, many others. Fantasy Flight merged with board game giant Asmodee in 2014.
DXV: Yeah, Fantasy Flight in in 2009 was one of these companies where you hand them your prototype and sometime later a game gets published, and you may recognize that it’s based on your prototype.
DTD: But very little input from you.
Sometimes when a designer submits a game, the publisher works closely with them, and sometimes they just purchase the prototype outright and do their own thing with it.
DXV: Yeah, the only input from me, was at some point they said they might want some more cards – Would I give them some more? And I made some more cards, and they didn’t use them. And, at some point I got to see what it was looking like, and I was not too thrilled. And I’m not quite sure what I said about it. But to their credit, the rulebook contains variant rules. And if you play with all the variant rules, you’ve got something a fair amount closer to what the game was as a prototype.
DXV: But they didn’t just change it. Like, they took out the core mechanic of the game. The game was based on one called Factory Job, a game about thugs robbing a bubble gum factory. Which is flavor that’s just too good for this world. [laughs]
I just hope it does not lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight.
DTD: All right. [laughs]
DXV: Maybe someday a publisher will want to republish it, because the rights are available. And that would be great, and we can have the game of robbing the bubble gum factory.
DTD: I would get it.
DXV: They’re not stealing gum. They’re stealing, you know, valuables. It’s just, it’s a factory – What does it make? Well, it makes bubble gum. So, every turn you pick an action simultaneously with the other players. You all reveal your actions. And then they go in order by what the action is. And if people have played items, which you can also play, they go in alphabetical order. And you want to number them or something. You can’t just go alphabetically. And so, it’s a dilemma game. Every turn you want to be alone ideally. And you can be alone by hanging back or by zooming forward.
DXV: But other people are trying to do that too, and sometimes you can screw people over, who or where you are. And every turn you’re trying to guess what the people will do. “Is he gonna loot here? Is he gonna move?” Turn one – How many people are going to stay here and loot, and how many people are going to move in? And you’re trying to guess that, to decide what you do.
DTD: Because you want to do different.
DXV: Right. And so, it’s a dilemma game. That’s the core mechanic. And they changed it to having a turn order. And so now, it will be like, “Well, I’m going last, so there’s no point doing this action, I won’t get to [do it]. So, I’ll do something else.” Right?
DXV: And so, again to be to be fair to Fantasy Flight, you know their contract lets you take your name off the game, if you want. Or their contract did in 2009. And I considered it. I played a version of my prototype, trying to work it to be like theirs. And I decided not to take my name off. But I don’t really regret it. From the cover it looks like the best bowling game ever.
It really does look like high tech, AI bowling robots.
DTD: [laughs] I love it.
DXV: And they butchered the flavor, and I don’t understand why. Like, OK, they wanted to tie it in with their other Android Universe [games], right?
DTD: Yeah, right.
The Netrunner Universe of games involve a dystopian cyberpunk future of computer hacking, and started with the 2008 title, Android. Fantasy Flight’s 2012 title Android: Netrunner is a re-implimentation of Richard Garfield’s Netrunner within the Android Universe.
DXV: To sell it off to people who like that. Which is a very pro-game company thing that’s also anti-game designer, unless the game designer owns this property. All I can sell you is Donald X. I can’t sell you Android.
DXV: But they can sell you Android, so they’re like, “Yes, let’s push this.” So, I understand them having that perspective. But I don’t understand why that meant that there would be cards like… I’m not going to remember this exactly. In the prototype, “lock picking tools.” And in their game, “phase shift” Or something like that.
Phase Flux. Very nice sci-fi words.
DTD: Generic science fiction.
DXV: Lock picking tools made it clear. You could have guessed what the lock picking tools would do in the game.
I’m guessing they pick locks.
DTD: But they have to put it into the cyberpunk universe, and use future words.
DXV: And instead, it makes no sense. And instead of stealing valuable stuff from a bubble gum factory, you’re stealing data, which is both the least exciting thing to be stealing, and makes no sense. Why aren’t you hacking in, like in Netrunner? Why did you have to [physically] go there?
DTD: Right, because it’s a push your luck, of how far into the building you want to go, because you have to get back out.
DXV: So, they made, you know, they changed it for the worse across the board, provided these rules variants that change it back some of the way. And I didn’t write a secret history at the time, because their contract says… I forget [exactly] what it says, but it says something about me not bad mouthing the game.
Donald X has written long essays about the design of many of his games over the years, calling them “secret history of…” For example, the Secret History of Dominion.
DTD: “Don’t talk bad,” yeah.
DXV: But it was a, it was a bummer. And I mean I appreciated… Their contract was very reasonable. Some companies want to own a game forever. And that’s bad. And you don’t want to do that. But when it’s your first game, what can you do, right?
DXV: And I got lucky with Rio Grande, who had a variation of the Knizia contract. Which Reiner Knizia had written up for one of his games, and then, you know, Jay [Tummelson] had just copied that, changed some words. Over and over. Everyone has this very similar contract. You know, the file name for the contract has “Puerto Rico” in it.
Rio Grande Games is the publisher of Dominion. I should note that Reiner Knizia is not the designer of Puerto Rico. That was Andreas Seyfarth. Just a coincidence that both names are associated with Rio Grande. I bet Andreas also got a “Knizia contract” when he signed Puerto Rico in 2001. Perhaps even from Medici (1995).
DXV: But anyway, the Fantasy Flight contract was, it was like for five years. And then, if it had sold at least a certain amount, for five more years. And that’s very friendly, because it lets them have the game, in the situation where it was doing well.
DTD: And it gives it back to you if it’s not.
DXV: And yeah, if it’s doing well, I’m probably happy with them having it.
DTD: Yeah, yeah. I did a series of interviews and things with developers and publishers, because I really wanted to get into, you know, how the sausage is made. The different styles of contracts, and the different… And it was just surprising to me how varied it was. So, I’ve definitely heard the stories about companies just outright buying a prototype, telling you to go away, and then whatever they do with it is their business. All the way up to really intense back and forth negotiation forever and ever, and everything in between.
My pieces about unsung jobs within the Board Game industry are on the Dice Tower Now podcast.
DXV: Yeah, one of the funny stories I like to tell, and to let you report it, I’ll just not name this company. Who had probably gotten way better in this particular regard, and I bear them no ill will. But I got to keep this game they did not publish, because of this contract. Because I had another offer, and I didn’t want to sit there negotiating this contract, it was so bad. But it was a very bad contract, and one thing it said, was… They had asked me some things that I wanted, to make sure they’re in the contract. And one thing I wanted was “name on the box.” And you have to have your name on the box, to be a brand. The name on the box does not make much of a brand. I’ve had somebody, standing there, holding Dominion, [be] introduced [to] me as “Donald X.” and say, “We’re going to go play Dominion, do you know it? Would you like to play?”
DTD: [laughs] “I have heard of it.”
DXV: That is how much people are paying attention to the name on the box, but it’s still something: that you have a chance to sell people your games, based on it being you. And I know I’ve sold at least some games based on, “Well, it’s him. Let’s try it.” And so, you have to have your name on the box. And their contract, they put it in – My name would be on the box. But if it wasn’t, that would not invalidate the contract. So, they’re willing to mention it in the contract, but not actually promise it to me. [laughs]
DTD: “But we might not do it.” [laughs]
DXV: A contract should not have a clause that says “ignore this clause” in it.
DTD: I remember a contract the that I had, that was really long and had a lot of details in it, and at the end there were lists of what could invalidate the contract. And they were very specific. But the last one was “Well, if anybody just wants it invalidated, it can just invalidate.” Which means the whole contract means nothing.
DXV: Right. I mean, some contracts it will be like, “Anyone can cause it to stop in six months,” or whatever. But it still lasts that six months. I mean the smaller the company, the more reasonable their contract language is, right? They’re not defining a term, and then you have to look up what it means, or whatever. They’re just saying, “Here’s the deal.”
DTD: Oh, and there’s some out there that are still just doing it on a handshake. Not many.
DXV: But anyway, that’s what happened with [Netrunner] Infiltration. And you know, it has sold OK. It didn’t quite sell enough for them to have it for the 10 years. And I think… I always go by this – it was an old, old article from Scott… [Tepper] I want to say “Leper”, but his name couldn’t be “Leper”. Maybe it was “Lepper” with two p’s or something. Anyway, he used to use to write articles for BoardGameNews. Do you remember BoardGameNews?
It was Scott Tepper. So, points for being close.
BoardGameNews was a great source for gamers, formed in 2005 by Rick Thornquist, and run in part by W. Eric Martin, news editor for BoardGameGeek since 2011.
DXV: In one of them, he estimated, he put forth some numbers, and one of them was: if your game sold 10,000 copies, you could consider it as success. Not a success you make any money from. I always say most games don’t make enough money to pay to go to a convention to promote the game. But you could consider it a moderate success. And this was all just a tangent on top of… Infiltration was a moderate success. It sold over 10,000 copies. Maybe. I forget. I could go look it up.
DTD: There you go.
I believe this is the article, pulled from old web archives.
DXV: But it did its mild business. That said, it wasn’t a complete dud.
DTD: I would be curious, and you might not want to say, and you might not know – how many copies has Dominion sold? Core game.
DXV: I don’t know. I mean, certainly over a million. I mean copies of not only Dominion, but Dominion and products.
DTD: OK. There’s just there’s so little back numbers available. I’m always curious about them.
DXV: [thinking] I’m trying to estimate it. I mean [thinking] let’s say it’s “that” much money per year starting in “that” year [counting on fingers]. Wait, not enough fingers. Huh, it’s been a while.
DTD: That’s OK. It’s a “moderate” success. [laughs]
DXV: I think it’s sold over 2,000,000 units of all products. But it’s not… You know, currently it certainly has fallen, and it used to be it would always be in the top 20 in Amazon. I haven’t looked in some years, so I don’t know where it is. But it would be fighting it out with Pandemic, and I bet Pandemic has clobbered it at this point. [laughs]
The ranking of games on Amazon is a tortuous and confusing place. Pandemic is currently #72 in Board Games (Connect 4 is #1), and Dominion 2nd Edition is #312.
DTD: Well, all the Legacy Pandemics have really pushed all of the Pandemic products up, and they are taking advantage of it.
DXV: But… Yeah, I don’t know where it stands on Amazon now. I expect a store is still stocking it.
DXV: You know, at the point at which… You know, the thing I used to say was, when people would ask me, “Did you think Dominion would be so successful?” And I would say, “Well I don’t know, I didn’t know if I would get it published, if anyone would publish it, if the world would ever see it.” But I thought if it got published, there would be a shelf of Dominion at a game store. What I did not anticipate would be, there would be a shelf of clones under it. But at this point I don’t think it gets a shelf. And I haven’t been to a game store in so long.
DTD: Well, you know, I’ve been to a game store not that long ago, and there were several copies of Dominion there.
DXV: I mean, some expansions.
DTD: And expansions, but several copies of the core Dominion.
DTD: It’s still, I mean, it’s still a significant game.
DXV: Oh sure. I mean, if you if you do look on Amazon a lot, you know, like the top 20 will include a bunch of games that aren’t games.
To be fair, most of the top ranked Boardgames on Amazon are classics and children’s games. Things like Sorry, Operation, Candy Land, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Clue, and Scrabble. There are a bunch of categories under “Toys and Games”, and those lists are all over the place.
DTD: Frustrating, yeah. Amazon is not my happy place, looking for games.
DXV: But in recent times, I mean, I would say that mostly it’s fallen. And the big thing is that foreign sales have fallen. That it’s being published in fewer countries, in fewer copies. And a lot of countries published it, but did not feel like they needed 14 expansions. And the countries that have really stayed with it are Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands.
DXV: And there are other countries that have done a bunch, but not everything. And some that have just done just a few. Just you know, the main set and Intrigue, or not much. And so, there’s a lot fewer foreign sales, but the pandemic caused online sales to shoot up, so that it is making real money online, like it never did before at all.
DTD: Oh nice. Very cool. So any hints what’s coming next? Or is there so many things?
DXV: I’ve got an expansion hoping to come out in October. But it may not.
DTD: But it may not.
The Dominion: Allies expansion is due to release December 2021 or the following month. The current shipping crisis is making all release dates unpredictable.
DXV: It’s a Dominion expansion. I don’t, you know, I leave things to the publisher for the most part. I do previews the week before the expansion was supposed to come out. And then it comes out online, and we’re sad if it’s not actually in stores. And I do a teaser the Friday before the week it previews. Usually we have it playable online during previews week as well as previewing it again. You don’t just have… You get to read about the cards, and you can play them!
DTD: It’s a generic question. [laughs]
Dominion.onine, run by Shuffle.iT has been up and running in some form since 2012.
DTD: App based. I actually I know the designers on the downloadable app.
DXV: Oh, you do?
DTD: Temple Gates, it’s Theresa Duringer. She’s awesome, yeah.
DXV: Yeah, that’s them. And they went public, so you can mention them. Yeah, she showed up at a board game cafe one night, when I was there. And chatted with me, and got this ball rolling.
DTD: She is really a spectacular person, a really talented programmer.
DXV: Well, we playtested their version a lot, and they’ve done a competent job, which I expect will only get better. And I’m pretty happy with it, except that I have yet to play multiplayer, and I don’t really know how that goes.
DTD: OK. I was excited, because their AI is a learning AI. It’s actually a…
DXV: I was anti-excited for that very same reason.
DTD: Oh, really?
DXV: I don’t think that’s the best approach to an AI for Dominion, but that is what they’re trying.
DTD: I’ve got the Geek Brain, so I get excited about all the techno stuff.
DXV: Yeah, so that’s coming out, I imagine before the expansion. But I don’t know when it will come out. That’s up to them, and how playtesting goes, and everything. They’ve got some people. They’ve got some beta testers now.
DTD: Yeah, I was offered beta on that.
Dominion was put into early access on Steam on October 7, 2021.
DXV: [sniffs] For some reason, this conversation is making me sneeze…
DTD: Oh. You’re allergic to the sun.
DXV: Yeah, you know, I’ve got stuff left over. And I’m confident there will be… I mean, obviously who knows what the future holds? I can only plan on there being another expansion after this upcoming one, but there will probably be one.
DTD: But also, at this point, if a new game comes out from Donald X, is this going to be one from the backlog, or is this going to be a new design that you’ve been playing with? Or do the two just blend?
Donald has previously talked about the vast number of games he has designed, but not published.
DXV: Oh, I don’t… No, I haven’t been showing backlog games to anyone in some time now. There’s a couple left that I could still show, but you know, there’s one that was a drafting game that’s my most popular unpublished game. Several people felt they had to print out their own copy, and went to the trouble to make it, so they would have it. And you know that’s gotten many requests.
DTD: That’s always cool.
DXV: And publisher after publisher rejected it, and I don’t especially feel like continuing to flog it. At this point maybe I would change a lot before I try it again, and make it less of what it was. Because it was a very pure drafting game, and now drafting has been done. I didn’t get to be the drafting guy. This was from 2003.
DTD: Drafting is kind of fading out.
DXV: Well, I mean, I still like drafting a lot. I mean it depends on how you do it. And I mean I still enjoy Greed every time I play it. There are some pitfalls to avoid to make a good drafting game. I don’t know what everyone did, and how they fared.
DXV: It does make for quieter evening. There’s something I always think of, it’s Battlestar Galactica, which I’ve never played. I would be playtesting some game of mine, and Battlestar Galactica would be being played at the next table over.
DTD: And that’s a loud one.
DXV: And they’d be all having an uproarious time, and I would just think, “I need to make some of these laughing games!” Not these silent things, where everyone is thinking hard.
Come on back next time for more Donald X excitement. We discuss changes Dominion went though during the design process, changes he would have made today, and Donald X’s opinions on other titles bouncing around today.