Welcome back to our usual booth at Ole’s Waffle Shop. I kept the booth warm for you. I am lucky enough to be chatting with Donald X Vaccarino, designer of Dominion and Kingdom Builder, two time winner of the coveted Spiel des Jahres. And the conversation has turned to Chess. Don’t worry, we are going to hit Checkers as well.
DXV: Oh, my. So, Chess. You want to un-chess games. I did not give you that speech. Chess is so bad, you want to un-chess things.
DTD: You led in to it.
DXV: Yeah, I just mentioned “unchessing” then we switched topics.
DTD: I do that. [laughs]
DTD: Yeah, a combinatorial game.
DXV: Yeah, that’s fantastic.
DTD: So, Dominion is just Chess?
DXV: I used to describe Magic to people as saying, “Suppose we were playing chess, only I brought half the board and half the pieces, and so did you. And you’ve got Knights and Bishops, but I’ve got Cannons and Archers and part of my board is underwater.”
DTD: And there’s 6000 different pieces I could have.
DXV: And then eventually I thought “I need to make that game.” And I did. It was Toy Bug Machine Wars, and it’s not a game that’s ever getting published. And it had the Chess problem that I’m about to mention. There are two big problems with Chess, I guess, [that] I’m going to cite that I strive not to make in other games.
DXV: One is that Chess tells you that you’re dumb. It says, if only you were smart enough, you could be looking 10 moves ahead, but you’re not that smart. And no one enjoys that. And no one can actually look 10 moves ahead. It’s ridiculous. And you need it to be. Most games really want some form of randomness, and that isn’t the only solution, but it is a good solution. But you want some solution to this problem. This is what I refer to as un-chessing. You’ll make a game, and you’ll realize, “oh, you could potentially look 10 moves ahead. That sucks.”
DTD: So, you worry about perfect information, and people feeling obligated to know how to take advantage.
DXV: Yeah, I mean it’s not that perfect information is necessarily the problem, because we can probably make a perfect information game that’s fine. And the solution isn’t always randomness. Because obviously, for example, you can have hidden information that’s not random. But it is that you, in a situation where you could be predicting 10 moves in advance, where it looks like you could. That’s very bad and you need to fix that. And that is, and I refer to that as “un-chessing” the game.
DTD: It’s true, I’ve never felt good playing chess.
DXV: The other problem is that is there is this huge barrier to entry. That new players can’t tell, not even what the good moves are, but what the moves are. And that’s just so hideously poor.
DTD: I mean, this is a game that’s been around for 1000 years. And has been redone 100 times.
DXV: Well, tell that to Go, which does not have that problem. I mean, Go doesn’t have either problem. Because it doesn’t have… knowing your legal moves is trivial in Go. There’s just one stupid fiddly rule to learn.
DTD: Yeah, but you play against someone good and you feel really stupid.
DXV: Oh sure.
DTD: And they are predicting many, many moves ahead. They are pattern recognizing.
DXV: But they’re not planning exact moves ahead. Because that isn’t how Go works. I mean, in a little neighborhood, there’s knowing one move ahead.
DXV: Or maybe, you know, recognize some little pattern that has a thing it does. But it’s not about… It’s too complex to actually be looking ahead like that. In terms of precise moves, I think. That’s my opinion. Chess versus Go.
DTD: Go is super complex. But it’s kind of been solved now.
DXV: Has it?
DTD: Well, there’s been computer learning simulations of Go, that beat human players now. And that was a big marker for computer learning software. Alpha Go.
AlphaGo was an AI learning computer from Google that played Go. Very well. In 2015, AlphaGo beat Fan Hui, the European Go Champion. AlphaGo Zero was a later machine that was completely self taught. This became AlphaZero, which learned Shogi and Chess. A generalized program, MuZero can learn games without being taught the rules. And then SkyNet became sentient.
DXV: I remember when it was really a thing that people had not managed to do Go well, but it always seemed like they would crack that. Like Go was really amenable to analysis.
DTD: Well, Go had a magical fine element to it. Like you said, it’s so complex that it almost had a magic feeling. Not Magic the Gathering, like actual FM. [laughs] Do you know the Checkers story?
DXV: Not necessarily.
DTD: So, there’s championship Checkers. And it’s been going on forever.
DXV: I know at some point, they had all… There was an interesting moment where they had all but solved Checkers. And so that you could play a game for 2 moves, and then – OK, it was solved.
DTD: Close, but there was one guy in professional championship checkers. I believe his name was Tinsley. And he would win every championship. And not just by a little. If you looked at scorings and rankings, he’d be like 5-10 times better than #2.
Marion Franklin Tinsley was world champion 1955–1958 and 1975–1991 and never lost a world championship match. In total, Tinsley only lost 7 games from 1950 onward. Tinsley expressed a desire to play the reigning computer checkers Champion Chinook in 1990, but it was forbidden for a computer to play for the title. So Tinsley resigned his title, then played the computer. He won.
DXV: I see.
DTD: So, it got to the point where he would actually go to the championships, play the first couple games, and then drop out. And the winner would always be the person who would have been number two. Tinsley just wouldn’t play until the end. And then when they started doing computer Checkers, trying to figure out the ins and outs and everything, Tinsley would beat them pretty consistently. But it was a huge learning experience for the computers, and unfortunately I think he passed away right when the computers were hitting this magic mark where they were getting better than any people. But it was a really interesting story. That this guy was just so fascinating.
DXV: It is a… I mean, there’s a lot of obscure games very similar to Checkers. There’s a whole family of these games. And they’re really so dull compared to Go and Chess, you know. [laughs]
DXV: Chess is cool because all the pieces move a different way. And of course there’s a family of those, but you know that’s interesting. It’s something fun to wrap your head around when you, if you get into it, in the world where there weren’t better games in the 70’s. And Go is very interesting because it’s so…
DTD: What about Monopoly?
DXV: Monopoly, people just took the wrong lesson from. It was a very successful game that’s of course usually flawed.
DTD: It still outsells everything.
DXV: And everyone took the lesson away from it, “Oh, what’s good is rolling the dice and moving around a board,” and so there were a million roll and move [games]. And rolling a die and moving around a board is fine. It’s sad that it’s a blacklisted mechanic, because you could totally make a decent game that has that mechanic, and it is fun.
DXV: And the sad thing is, that it’s associated with all these execrable non-games, and so you can’t do it.
DTD: It became the defining feature. It wasn’t just popular, it was like the definition of a game in 1970’s. It was: you rolled a die. You moved a piece.
DXV: Yes, it was the quintessential game mechanic. Even though there were games without it. And instead, you want to look at Monopoly as… Sure, it’s this awful game because you could be eliminated with four hours left to go, and it takes forever to determine a winner, and you’re making decisions that super don’t matter, and it all comes down to trading, which is just political. So it’s just a bad game eight ways from Sunday.
DXV: But you should look at it as being, “It’s this successful game and why is that? Look at what fun it gives you. And it gives you several things that are fun. It’s fun to roll the dice and see what you get. It’s fun to acquire properties and then they pay off. Somebody lands on your property and it pays off. And then you build up your property, so it gets more stuff on it. And in the end, Settlers of Catan is really Monopoly.
DTD: Yeah, it’s very close.
DXV: Because it’s, I roll the dice every turn and everyone else can get paid. Even though I’m the one who rolled them. And I take over properties that will pay off on die rolls. I feel like there’s another… And there’s trading. And so it’s like the “fixed” version of Monopoly. Settlers sucks so bad, and it’s because of politics.
The European American Euro.
DXV: Like, I’m super anti-politics in games. Where politics is essentially any situation where you can try to influence another player to do something beneficial to both of you. You know, “We’ll trade and that will be good for both of us, and it’s bad for Tom.” And that sets you up for a whole evening of whining, for a whole evening of “Don’t trade with Tom. He’s winning. Look, he’s just about to get the longest road. Put the robber on his bricks, why don’t you?”
DTD: And then the people who play it a lot are always, you know, “You have to screw this guy because he’s in the lead.” It turns into a kingmaking, diplomacy game.
DXV: Yes, it is all a game of voting on who wins. With some nice bits below it, that you don’t really get to do.
DTD: The bingo mechanic I love, and is underutilized.
DXV: You can change the rules… The bingo mechanic?
DTD: Bingo mechanic – you know, you roll and everybody gets paid off if they have that.
Geoff Engelstein refers to it as ECO-12, random production.
DXV: Oh, I see. No, that’s totally fine. And it’s fun to build your stuff on the board, and it’s very difficult to make a game where you build on a board, and it’s not political. And I struggle, and this was the premise of Kingdom Builder, was: How can I make this, so we’re putting pieces on the board, and it’s not constantly about, “I’ll cut you off because you’re winning”. And it isn’t. And there are moments where you get to decide who to hose, and what would it take to decide to hose somebody or not, which is much better.
DXV: And of course, the game pushes you heavily in the direction of “Do the thing that’s best for you”. It’s hard to talk somebody into making a “king making” move. But also, cutting them off helps them in many situations, instead of hurting them. You can cut them off from connecting two places that were going to score. But if I block you off somewhere, you’d be like, “Oh, now I can teleport over here.”
In Kingdom Builder, you need to place tiles next to where you already have tiles. If this is impossible, you get to place anywhere.
DTD: Ha ha ha!
DXV: And so, you don’t. And that’s fine. But it is very difficult to do that. So, I haven’t put in the work for Settlers [of Catan]. How do you do something like Settlers without politics on the board, in addition to the trading politics? The trading politics is easy to address, and some of the… Like the robber is trivial.
DTD: It’s just a random event.
In Catan, if you roll a production roll of 7, the player is allowed to inflict the robber onto any player, blocking them from producing until the robber is moved again.
DXV: I played a few games of Settlers with these fixes, right? Where you say, “OK, the robber always goes to the hex you’ve not built on, that has the most points of buildings on it. Ties broken by the most commonly rolled number.” And that’s where you would have put it most of the time anyway. But now we don’t have to argue over where it goes.
DXV: And then you say, “Oh, on your turn, you can only trade with the person on your left.” And that reduces the politics of trading a fair amount. Though it doesn’t get rid of it.
DXV: Because no one can say “Don’t trade with him.” He’s the only one I can trade with. I trade with him.
DTD: It takes away the decision of who to trade with, but not the decision of how do you trade?
DXV: Anyway, now I have badmouthed Settlers, and I stand by it. And people had lots of fun playing Settlers.
DTD: I’ve had fun playing. It’s not my favorite, but like I said, hey.
DXV: I like the expansion with the flip book. That is such a nice mechanic.
The Cities and Knights (1998) expansion to Catan, published in 1998, is the one with the delightful flipbooks. Different aspects of the game can be upgraded by paying costs, and flipping the book to the next page.
DTD: I do too. And that’s one of the least loved expansions.
DXV: Oh, is it?
DTD: Yeah. I dislike the expansion with the boats and the islands. And that’s the one that people usually just flock to.
Seafarers of Catan is the boats and islands expansion.
DXV: Well, I got that one. I never played it. [laugh]
DTD: I don’t play Settlers much, but I really do like the mechanism of “everybody pays off.”
DXV: I mean, it was very important. It was a very important game.
DTD: Oh yeah. Hugely influential.
Settlers of Catan is generally considered the first euro game to achieve popularity in the US.
DXV: And yeah, it’s a very nice step from Monopoly.
DTD: I had never made that connection, though, of how similar to Monopoly it is. It really is crazy similar. But yeah, it led to things. It led to Machi Koro, which led to these other “bingo mechanic” games.
DXV: Machi Koro? That’s a Dominion spin-off.
DTD: But Machi Koro has a bingo mechanic on it. You roll the dice, and everybody pays off if they have this card.
DXV: No, I played Machi Koro. I’ve had big plans to make a dice version of Dominion. And you know, I would have made it in like 2009. And I had a premise, and I told it to a friend. And he said, “Oh, like Roma?” And my game wasn’t much like Roma, but it did have this thing in common. Where Roma associated a die roll with an ability. I don’t know if you played Roma, and I haven’t.
DTD: I have not.
Roma, designed by Stefan Feld, was published in 2005.
DXV: I just read the rules for it. You know, it looked nice. Never got around to it. Busy playing some Dominion. You would pair a die roll, like 5, with an ability card from your hand. And that meant you could do that thing when you rolled a 5. And my game had that, even though it was not much like Roma otherwise.
DXV: And this just turned me off on it for years and years. And at this point many people have made dice games that are trying to cash in on Dominion. And, you know Machi Koro even has, without expansions… Machi Koro is unique in that it starts off like Dominion when you have no expansions, and then turns into Ascension if you add expansions. Is what I am told.
DTD: I see less of a connection. It’s not really a deck-builder. You buy cards. They’re in front of you. You have a tableau.
DXV: It’s a way to do a dice Dominion. Yeah, there are other people, who were like, “Let’s have a bag of dice.” I don’t know what they were thinking, because then they always try to make the bag imitate a deck of cards.
DTD: Well, deck-builders have definitely led to bag-builders, yeah.
DXV: Machi Koro was a direction I was going to go in with rolling dice, a dice version of Dominion. For me, dice Dominion was: there was no deck. I didn’t want a deck and dice. The dice were going to replace the deck, but try to be like Dominion. And so, you have a tableau of cards to buy from, like Machi Koro. And then when you buy one, it’s going to go on a number, like “When you roll that you’ll get this.”
DTD: OK. I hadn’t made as close a connection there, but I see it.
DXV: Well, I’m not trying to badmouth them. But I could do a better Machi Koro. And I typed up some notes even for that at one point. Like, do I just try to pitch these things to the Machi Koro people? But I just want to make my own Dominion Dice game.
DTD: Machi Koro also acted as a focal point, and lots of copies came off of that.
Machi Koro, published in 2012 and designed by Masao Suganuma, is a simple city building game. Players roll dice each turn, which allow their building cards to generate money. Players then use money to purchase new building cards. Each building costs a certain amount, and will pay off on specifc rolled numbers. Machi Koro inspired Machi Koro Legacy (2019), Machi Koro 2 (2021), and Space Base (2018).
DTD: And they’re all better. Machi Koro is clunky.
DXV: Oh. Well, I did like Space Base even though it needs work, too. [laugh]
DTD: Space Base might be the best. I thought it was a good game. It was designed by John D Clair down in L.A.
DXV: Oh, you know the guy?
DTD: Yep. He was the first one of these dinners that I did, was John Clair.
We went to Himalayan food! It was magnificent. Way back in September 2019. We were so young and innocent then.
DXV: Yeah, it’s a good Machi Koro.
DTD: I like Space Base a lot, and with new groups of gamers, it really seems to be a game that grabs a good crowd of people. And then there’s so many of the bag builders where you put something into a bag, and then you pull them out randomly, and they’re… It’s a way to do deckbuilding with a bag. You can do it with dice, do it with cubes.
DTD: So, here’s a question for you. I did an interview thing with Uwe Rosenberg. And he had a very strong opinion that mechanisms are magic and invariant. And he’s worried…
DXV: Magic and invariant?
DTD: Well, what he’s worried about is that people steal mechanisms, they just do it. Well, mechanisms are special. And they should be protected. He was worried that people will steal mechanisms. But they’ll feel bad about it, so they’ll change them.
DTD: So, you’ll take, you’ll take the deckbuilding mechanism, and change it a little bit, and then say “This is the new one.” And it only worsens it. So Uwe wants… In games he feels strongly that mechanisms should be “stolen” absolutely unchanged, but full credit to the person who made the mechanism.
DXV: It certainly would be nice if people gave credit. I like to think, as I put it earlier, it’s great that people got to make their Dominion inspired games, and sad what they chose to do with the privilege. And I don’t know that we had any chance to legally go after anybody. I think there may have been somebody with the…
DTD: I think it’s been proven you cannot.
There was a famous case in 2014, in which someone made a direct copy of the game Bang, just with different theming. The publisher sued, but lost the case. The conclusion was that games cannot be protected – art, however can. My apologies to the lawyers out there for my vast oversimplification.
DXV: I think there may have been somebody who went too far with the digital version or something, and maybe then they took it down or something.
DTD: Code has more precedent. Digital stuff you can sue over. But there’s been so many lawsuits on board games that just fail.
DXV: But really, it’s all stupid anyway, right? It’s fantastic. It’s important that society provide a way for people to make a living creating stuff. And it would be great if society could get rid of all the people who make a living doing stuff they hate. That would be great. But the mechanism that society uses for doing this is very poor and stupid. And it’s, you know, you make a chair, and you can sell it to one guy. And you make a song, and you can sell it to a million people. The limit is just the size of the audience.
DXV: There’s no… It’s fair to say that the song is contributing more. That there’s more net happiness due to the song, because a million people want to listen to it, than to the chair. But that doesn’t mean that we want the songwriter to get paid a million times what the chair guy makes. That isn’t necessary to our society. Most of what people need, they could have, if we just spread it out. And I’m not trying to bite any hand that feeds me. It’s great to be in this situation where I make a living. I like to say… Sorry, I want to get this right.
DTD: No, that’s OK.
DXV: I like to say that I make a living designing board games, and as a hobby I write. But really, I make a living collecting royalties on Dominion. And as a hobby, I make board games and write. Most of the games made no money. My second biggest success is Kingdom Builder, and it had its big year, the Spiel des Jahres. And it doesn’t make enough money to survive, to not have a day job, since then. Only Dominion does.
Dominion won the Spiel des Jahres in 2009. Kingdom Builder then won in 2012.
DXV: And everything else, we could pile it all together and be real sad at the total amount.
DTD: There’s been several designers who are in the same situation. They usually talk about “This early game I made funds all the other cool games I like to make, that people don’t buy.”
DTD: I mean, that was almost a direct quote from Friedemann Friese. He said, you know, “I made Power Grid, and that means that now I can make any game I want to make, and I don’t care if they sell. It’s what I want to make.”
DXV: Well, and he publishes some of them. We had a couple of nice conversations at Essen and The Gathering of Friends.
DTD: He’s a strange dude. I had so much fun hanging with him.
Friedemann Friese is known for 1) beginning all of his games with the letter F, and 2) always wearing green, including green hair. I had a wonderful lunch with him at Essen in 2019.
DXV: I was supposed to make a Dominion promo that celebrated Power Grid’s 10th anniversary, but I could not manage it. And instead, we did Puerto Rico’s [anniversary], which I did manage. And that’s Governor. Which just has the Puerto Rico mechanic on a Dominion promo.
DTD: Oh, cool.
DXV: I had that mechanic independently. I also had a nice long chat with the Puerto Rico guy [Andreas Seyfarth], and he was totally… I don’t drink, but he was totally someone to have some beers with, let me tell you. I mentioned how, “Oh, you know, I had that idea, but hadn’t made a game.” And he was like, “Oh, make it, dude. Whatever.”
DTD: I haven’t met him.
DXV: And I was like, “Oh, maybe someday.” And he was thinking about making a board game, Dominion-type thing, and I guess he never made it. I don’t know. I haven’t heard of it.
DTD: I don’t know. He hasn’t made a lot.
DXV: He was very friendly guy. He was the… Yeah, they were the two I chatted with, the two game designers I chatted with the most, at that Essen I went to. I met [Reiner] Knizia, but he just showed up to shake hands and ran off.
Now, the good Dr. Knizia has over 650 games to his credit on BGG.
DTD: I’ve tried to get a sit down meal with Dr. Knizia, and it’s… Yeah, it’s probably not going to happen.
DXV: Anyway, we’re going back to some point. Uwe said this thing.
DXV: And it is very important. So, I was saying how bad copyright is. And so it’s just really a very poor system. And especially, the details of the system, where it’s like, “Yeah, why would Walt Disney have bothered making Mickey Mouse cartoons, if they weren’t still paying off today?” And it’s like, I don’t know who believes you, but clearly this is just trying to fund middle men who own rights, and not artists. The artists were plenty paid off in the 1st 20 years. And copyright is bad for society, except to the degree that it that it lets us… That it supports us having these artists, and getting them to publish their stuff, instead of keeping it private.
Walt Disney is an apt example, as American copyright laws have famously extended further and further over the years to keep Mickey Mouse under protection. Steamboat Willie (1928), the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, is currently scheduled to enter the public domain on Jan 1, 2024. And Mickey Mouse will lose copyright one year later, in 2025.
DXV: And so, the whole system is super messed up. And it’s not that I’m turning down the money. I’m happy to be being getting paid, so I can live the life of leisure, and design games, and make Dominion expansions. And I do it.
DTD: Sure. And you like doing it.
DXV: I like doing it, and I put out the product so the people who want them can have them. And I have fans, so I feel like I’m doing some good for these people, that are having some fun.
DTD: Hey, I’m a fan.
DXV: Thanks! But when I started seriously trying to design board games, it was like “Here’s the million and one things no one has done.” And there were big lists, and I haven’t gotten to them all. I don’t know how many they’ve done now. And some of them were so basic. Like I said, Puerto Rico, the mechanic of, “We will pick an action and everyone will do it” was just one item on a list of all the related things, right? You’ll pick, we will all pick an action at the same time, and you’ll end up with the Race for the Galaxy mechanic. And we’ll do everything everyone picked. And we’ll all pick a mechanic at the same time, and you’ll get a bonus if no one else picked your mechanic, your card.
DXV: And so on. You can just run through the list – “Here are all these possibilities, and they all make a game.” And I don’t know how many of these games people have made. And I’ve stuck them in as elements. Like in Nefarious, some of the twist cards are like… One of them I named after Race for the Galaxy, because it’s the Race for the Galaxy mechanic. Even though it’s also the Puerto Rico mechanic. But Race for the Galaxy was better for the name of the card.
Race for the Galaxy (2007) by designer Thomas Lehmann is an influential card tableau game with, as Donald X said, game phases that occur only by player selection. Mechanism ACT-02, Action Drafting, according to Geoff Engelstein.
DXV: There’s a lot of good stuff to build on. Like if somebody comes up with “Oh, you could hide information away from … in a deck.” Yes, let’s do that. To the degree that it’s helping our games.
DTD: And it definitely should be more credited.
DXV: It’s not that I feel like the clones – I have no respect for the clones because they just didn’t innovate. They just cashed in. You didn’t need to innovate much, Damn it. [laughs]
DXV: But anyway, in terms of what Uwe [Rosenberg] is saying, for me deck-building isn’t Dominion. Deck-building is “We’re going to build a deck of cards while we play.” And Dominion is “OK, and here’s how the economy will work. And here’s how the victory points will work.” And these were decisions I made for Dominion.
DTD: Oh sure.
DXV: Those were all decisions I made, and they’re not packaged with “build a deck while playing” to me. And if you package that all together, which it sounded what Uwe wanted…
DTD: No, no no. But the primary mechanism for Dominion was deck-building. And Uwe wants to protect that deck-building mechanic.
DXV: Oh. Well, people don’t treat it like that. They treat it like the mechanic – There’s the whole game. And we’re going to have our money work like that. Even though it could have worked all these other ways, and so on. But if what Uwe is saying in this case is that whole game, then I don’t like that. But if he’s saying just…
DTD: No, it’s just for mechanics.
DXV: But if it’s “you build the deck”, then I don’t see what there is to, how you were going to try to change it. I mean, the way to change it is to make some new mechanic. Right? We’re going to do it with dice, it’s a new mechanic.
DTD: Well, even straightforward card deck-building. There’s so many variations on it. It could be that you don’t have to play the cards if they come up in your hand. There is you don’t have to get rid of cards you don’t play. There’s when you shuffle. There’s how the shuffle is done.
DXV: Yes, but these are all… But, are these what Uwe was talking about?
Uwe Rosenberg commented during a wonderful little interview that when designers “borrow” a mechanism from another game, they tend to change the mechanism a little just to make it their own. Uwe felt it was better to preserve the mechanism by crediting the original designer.
DTD: He’s talking about… Let’s say someone makes a game, and part of the game is deck-building, done like in Dominion. Uwe is worried that if they use that mechanic, they’re going to change it just a little, only to have it changed. Solely to say it’s different from Dominion. Whereas the deck-building in Dominion is a great mechanic, it should not be changed. He wants, actually, the mechanism preserved through credit.
DXV: Yes, I see. I understand. But the problem is the sucky games that we can just forget about, and they solve themselves. They solve the problem themselves by “We don’t play them, and learn who to avoid.” And it’s great to take a mechanic, and change it. And change it for the sake of finding something new to do. And which is better – the best thing or the newest thing? The best thing is better, not the newest thing. You can only maximize one variable.
DTD: I totally agree.
DXV: But all good new things are new. We need to come up with new things, in order to get good new things. And so, I’m totally in favor of messing with that mechanic, having no respect for it, and just twisting it in whatever way, and seeing what you get.
DTD: In order to make something better.
DXV: Yeah. But if you’re just cashing in, then yeah – just give the guy credit, dude. And you know, better yet, get a different job. You don’t need to cash-in on board games. Why in the world would you? It’s not the best field for doing that.
DTD: Exactly, you don’t join it for the glory, the water skiing, or the royalties. What’s the old saying? “The best way to make a small fortune in board games is to start with a large fortune.” I don’t know who said it first, but I know a lot of board game publishers say it. [laughs]
DXV: Right. Well, I mean, like I said, they’re low risk. But I was really surprised. You know, I thought after Dominion was published, that publishers would just publish a game of mine. It would be like, “Give us a game. We’ll publish it.” Because, why not? They’re low risk. They probably will be a dud, but who knows? And no one wanted to do that. It was hard to get publishers to even play my games, when all I had to my credit was Dominion.
DXV: After I had Kingdom Builder, and won the Spiel des Jahres a second time, publishers said, “OK, you know what? Give us the game.” [laughs] Maybe this is worth something. And of course those are my only two successes. I mean, I’ve got, I’ve got a couple of moderate successes. Nefarious has done OK. And [Android] Infiltration did OK.
DXV: Nefarious was actually like in Barnes and Noble; kudos to that publisher. But yeah, mostly they were duds. And, you know, we had a blast. And looking back at them, like you can go through them, and like in some cases there’s nothing I would change. Monster Factory I thought would be a big hit. It’s a very, very simple game. It’s from 1995, so it’s not like it’s trying to rip off Carcassonne or something. It’s a very, very simple game for kids, that you can play before the kids can play games, because it’s just a toy. And you can make monsters out of the tiles. And then you can learn, “Oh, there’s a game.” And play the game. There’s not a lot to it, and it’s very repetitive. This is the experience. But I thought it would be a big hit, and it was a complete dud. As somebody in Games of Berkeley opined, that people hate their kids, and we’re not going to pay that much for a kid’s game. And it was expensive because you have to get lead testing for your kid’s games. Because of the time that Mattel…
Donald X has talked about having piles of finished but unpublished games. To be a fly on the wall…
DXV: Do you not know about Mattel and the lead testing? Mattel had some games made in China that had, or some toys made in China that turned out to have lead in them. And both parties in Congress could get behind requiring lead testing on products for kids that would not possibly have lead, like books. So, if you want a game… So this is why Dominion, when it was published, said 8+. And today says 14+. Because if it says 14+ you do not need to get lead testing.
DTD: I had no idea about that.
Mattel was hit with a class action lawsuit in 2007, which ended up over the next few years costing the company over $50 million. On August 14, 2007, Mattel recalled over 18 million products.
DXV: It was a strictly negative thing for the game industry, that didn’t actually protect kids. And was not a sufficient step to actually address the real problem. Anyway, big tangent about why games say 14+ on them. And if they don’t, they were lead tested, and probably made in China. Because it’s cheaper.
DTD: Oh yeah, the cost of shipping containers has gone through the roof.
DXV: But there’s not as much shipping trouble from Europe. I don’t know if it’s still, that the games will all be more expensive, but man, it’s not as bad as China.
DTD: Well, with the added shipping charge now, I think the prices are evening out. I know especially on Kickstarter people are losing their jobs, because they just can’t afford the shipping. A $3000 shipping container last year, is $10-15,000 now.
DXV: Jay [Tummelson] moved printing of Dominion from Germany to the United States, not because he was dissatisfied with the German printers, but because he wanted to be able to say… I mean, it makes a lot of sense to print in the United States, if you’re selling it in the United States. Why not print it where you’re selling it and ship it a shorter distance. This is amazing.
Jay Tummelson is the founder of Rio Grande games, and one of the most responsible people for bringing early euro games to the west.
DTD: Of course. And use it as a selling point. There’s a lot of people will be excited about that.
DXV: Uh, it was on the boxes, but I always hated that. Because you’re not more deserving due to which side of the river you were born on. There are no magic rivers that know how to separate the deserving from the undeserving people.
DTD: I know people who look for it. And yeah, if people are looking for something, why wouldn’t you advertise it?
DXV: Yeah, but as an environmental move, it’s very nice to make things in the USA, and sell them in the USA.
DTD: To not have to ship them across the ocean.
DXV: Yes, and spend the Earth’s resources doing that. But really he moved shipping because he thought he could get stuff faster. He could say, “I need a thousand of these”, and he’d get them because he was in the same country. They didn’t need to cross the ocean. And it did not work out, he didn’t actually get stuff faster. It cost more, but he was willing to pay a little more. And they made endless mistakes.
DXV: And so, shipping went back to Germany. And he didn’t have a second option in the United States, or he would have taken it.
DTD: I was going to say, I don’t really know anybody regularly printing out of the US.
DXV: I mean, Rio Grande will tell you upfront… You know, that he only sells games to the masses, if gamers buy it. If gamers buy it, it will get to the masses. But he doesn’t promote games in a way that will get it to the masses without going through gamers. And so, if you have a mass market game, you may want to take it elsewhere, if gamers aren’t also going to play it.
DXV: I know Target tried Dominion a couple times. I don’t know what’s happening there. I know they tried it.
DTD: I know a lot of designers who have gone there. They get approached by someone who says, “If you make a game, let me see it.” But I’ll be honest, not a lot of them have good things to say about going through the big box stores.
The waitress came by, and no doubt slightly concerned we were still sitting in the same booth after 4 to 5 hours, just did a little gentle checking up on us.
DXV: I hope we are not taking up too much space.
DTD: Thanks, thanks for letting us hang out, sorry.
Waitress: They are almost come to clean the carpet.
DTD: OK, OK.
Waitress: Yeah, thank you. OK.
DTD: Not a problem.
At this point I managed to move my very sedentary form into a slightly more vertical position, but there was A LOT of noise involved.
DXV: Yeah, should have stretched a little.
DTD: My body was not thrilled about sitting down for so long.
DXV: Oh man, oh.
DTD: Yeah, I feel ya.
DXV: Alright, in a second, I’ll just…
DTD: Has the world stopped wobbling?
Waitress: Do you want the cookies?
No doubt a consolation prize for leaving so easily.
DXV: I could give them to my kids. I’m sure I can’t have them. I mean they probably have milk.
DTD: You’re more than welcome to take them. I’ve got my phone. I’m good.
I cannot lie. I really wanted the cookies.
Waitress: Thank you!
DTD: Thank you. Thanks so much.
And with that, Donald and I started the walk back to my car, seemingly so much farther away now that we were full and relaxed. The fact that it turned dark did not help one bit. Come back next time for the final installment of my long lunch with Donald X, with some final musings about games, life, and the universe. You know, things one talks about in the car.