Welcome to the final bites of my dinner with Dominion designer Donald X Vaccarino. We had an amazing meal and chat at Ole’s Waffle Shop, and now we are dragging our reluctant but well fed bodies back to the car, enjoying the cool Alameda night air.
DXV: But wait, there’s more. You’re interrupting something. Uwe [Rosenberg]… This thing, designer’s credit.
I had previously brought up a conversation I had with Uwe Rosenberg in 2019. Uwe felt that game designers will use other designer’s mechanisms, then feel obligated to change them, possibly to feel less guilty or to make the designs their own. Uwe put forth the point that designers should just use the mechanisms unchanged, making sure to credit the original creator, in part to protect the mechanism from change. This is what Uwe famously did with Nova Luna, giving Corné van Moorsel full box credit..
DXV: I’d launched into some stupid speech. This all relates to what Uwe was saying, though. It’s like, “Oh man, these people are sitting on my game premise, or somebody’s game premise, by making a rip-off that they feel has to be different.”
DTD: I just felt that Uwe’s thing was, it was interesting in that it wasn’t just, you know, “Protect and copyright them.” It was “Credit them so that people don’t taint them.”
DXV: Well plus, I mean regardless, I mean I had my whole speech about copyright. Of course, it’s fantastic if people can make stuff inspired by your thing.
DTD: Oh of course, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.
DXV: It’s really ridiculous when these things happen, like the Blurred Lines lawsuit. And you know, it’s just a chilling thing. It’s like, don’t put out songs. Like, no, please.
Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and rapper T.I. put out the song Blurred Lines in 2013, and it was a huge hit. Marvin Gaye‘s estate sued for copyright infringement in 2017, saying it was similar to the 1977 song Got to Give it Up. Gaye’s estate won on the grounds that Blurred Lines had the “feel” and “sound” of Got to Give it Up. An obscure but apt reference.
DTD: Well, and the Software industry has gotten insane too. All those companies are just collecting patents.
DXV: Yeah, I mean patents. I mean, they’re anti-humanity except to the degree that they promote the people doing the work and getting to have that job. And you don’t need much to promote that.
DTD: What I found scary is in the board game industry, there’s been several cases of lawsuits over blatent copies. And to this, they don’t win.
dV Giochi sued Yoka Games and ZiKo Games over a blatant copy of their game Bang! in 2014. They lost the suit, setting a precedent that game mechnics and play are not protected, only art.
DXV: Yeah, I’m not so concerned. Obviously, Dominion has been ripped off in China, is my understanding. You know, pirated. And I mean, just, without… Not like it’s been ripped off in the United States by awful game designers. Sorry. I always have to mention there some of these people who did a fine job of making, doing inspired games. It’s not all clones.
DXV: But you know, Dominion has been pirated, but I think you’re in a really good position when you’re first, even if you blow it. The example I always use is Dungeons & Dragons.
DXV: And Dungeons & Dragons was just such a poor implementation of the role playing game concept. It was so poor that I didn’t know anybody who actually played by the rules. I know the rules have changed so many times over the years, and I have no idea what they’re like now.
DTD: I know what you’re talking about. I played 1st and 2nd edition and it was insane.
My favorite rule change was that in the original D&D, any undead creature who scored a successful hit would drain experience from the victim. Your level 20 character that you nursed to greatness over years could be theoretically reduced to level 1 in minutes. No one used this rule.
DXV: Yeah, no one played by those rules. Everyone had something that they changed. Usually both spellcasting and combat would be much different. And yet it still was the king for forever, even as other people came out with Rune Quest and so on, that tried to… [coming to a busy street] Yes. And now we have to somehow cross this.
DTD: Yeah, and lots of copies did come up, but everybody still, you know, has that love for the first.
DXV: But the people who cashed in on D&D doing actual, you know, fixing it, didn’t do as well as D&D. Even though they were better. And it’s just, it’s… That’s how much you get for being first and…
DTD: Sure. Well, I don’t know if you heard, but it was just this week that several of the big players have started suing counterfeiters. Like going after them very strongly.
Asmodee and Amazon joined forces to go after counterfeiters in June 2021.
DXV: Oh, we have had… Rio Grande has taken action against counterfeit Dominion.
DTD: Oh, that’s good.
DXV: Oh man, there was counterfeit Dominion being sold through Amazon and some of our products didn’t have pages at one point because of it.
Rio Grande confirmed by purchasing them that counterfeit copies were being sold on Amazon in 2017. They then proceeded to take action. Jay Tummelson posted instructions on how to distinguish a counterfeit copy.
DTD: Yeah, well, Amazon was notorious for it.
We made it back to the car – a not insurmountable task.
DTD: I think it was this week Amazon and Asmodee together are going after Dixit counterfeiters in China.
DXV: But yeah, I mean it was it was bad that people were buying counterfeit copies, and the people didn’t want to get them. You know, because they’re not… They weren’t just making money from selling Dominion that we weren’t making. It was worse, you know? They had poor quality cards.
DTD: So, they hurt the brand.
DXV: So yeah, it’s the people buying it were getting something less good.
DTD: That’s really tough. I know that Amazon has a big problem that they don’t deal with their inventory well. So, you don’t… They mix from all the sources, and so it hurts everybody.
DXV: Yes, this was a big deal at the time. Yes, this came up with this. How Amazon couldn’t be expected to tell one box of Dominion from another.
DTD: Because they just put them all in one big bucket and you randomly get one.
DXV: I only just heard how Amazon stores things. Which is, they store them by filling space efficiently. And it’s all completely random otherwise. And the people who have to go get an item off the shelf have a beeping countdown of how long they have.
DXV: You knew all about this.
DTD: I know about the beeping countdown because I’ve read a lot of the articles about how poorly they’re treating the workers.
DXV: It’s a bummer because they’re such a juggernaut and they seem so good on the surface of just using their website.
DTD: Well, they’ve become a juggernaut by effectively cutting all of these corners. I mean everything they do is about saving the buck. And they’ve been successful at it. The fascinating thing I learned about Amazon is they constantly have shipping trucks and moving. All the time. So it doesn’t matter to them anymore whether you order something, they don’t send a truck because you ordered. They always have trucks going.
DXV: Uh huh. It sounds good.
DTD: So, if you browse. If you just go to Amazon and just look at stuff, it notes what you’ve looked at and moves those items closer to you. So, if you just look at items on Amazon, they will end up in a warehouse closer to your house, for more efficient shipping should you decide to buy it.
DXV: Plus, they probably can factor in an estimate of what are the odds – Is this guy really going to buy it? This guy seems to look at things and then buy them. This other guy does not.
Amazon has incredible amounts of AI programming dedicated to moving product, predicting sales, and suggesting purchases.
DTD: You know, I thought that was just insane. Because if you think about it, the shipping becomes a constant fee because it’s always going anyway.
DXV: You know people badmouth targeted advertising. But I think it’s really way better than UN-targeted advertising.
DTD: On the concept of it, I just love the fact that, you know, I don’t want to watch random ads. I love watching ads for things that that I like.
DXV: Yeah, I’d much rather if it’s a video game ad, maybe I’ll watch it. And if it’s a car, it’s like, I’m never buying a car. You don’t need to show me cars. Or whatever it is. And so, yeah, please figure it out. I’m a guy who buys video games, not cars.
DTD: This car is a video game.
I recently got an unnamed brand of electric car, and Donald X has found it fascinating.
DXV: [laughs] So the self-driving cars. Where does this one stand there?
DTD: It self-drives.
DXV: It self-drives. It’s just not legal.
DTD: It’s legal.
DTD: Yeah, there’s restraints on it. I have to be fully aware, sitting at the wheel, and I have to constantly be touching the wheel.
My car craves physical contact.
DXV: And have a license.
DTD: [laughs] And all that, yeah. But I drove the car to Utah not that long ago, and I had the car drive me most of the way. On the highways it does great, it’ll change lanes and keep speed and do whatever you tell it to do.
I had dinner with designers Ryan Laukat and Tim Fowers in Salt Lake City. Self promotion – gotta love it.
DXV: Change lanes?
DTD: It’ll take exits. It’ll switch highways. It’s a little scary. I have a setting in the car of how aggressively do I want it to switch lanes? And the highest setting is “Mad Max”. Which I am absolutely terrified of every using. Just not gonna happen.
DXV: [laughs] At some point… I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but if you have a lot of these cars, they can start to orchestrate things together for everyone’s benefit.
DTD: Oh, they’re already thinking about that quite a lot. Because you could essentially eliminate traffic, if everybody was in an automated car, and you let them all just talk to each other.
DTD: It’s the human factor that messes it up.
DXV: You could certainly do better.
DTD: It’s true, it’s true. I mean, is there a reason you don’t drive? Is it environmental?
DXV: Oh, it’s because… Remember how I told you I had a computer programming job when I was 16? Well, I didn’t have this portion of childhood where your parents are all, “Now I will teach you how to drive.”
DTD: I get it.
DXV: I had my own apartment and I missed this window for my parents teaching me to drive, and I lived in Eugene and then San Francisco, and I super didn’t need to have a car. And it was generally seen as a detriment. I mean, it’s nice for when you want to go somewhere far away, but…
DTD: Oh for San Francisco, definitely, a detriment.
Besides being notoriously difficult to drive in with traffic and steep hills, San Francisco has pretty darn good public transport.
DXV: But in San Francisco, yeah, you have to store the car somewhere. So, there was just no incentive. And then the years went by. And at this point, I would say for the last 10 years, it would have been nice to be able to drive.
DTD: At times, sure.
DXV: And so, I could be thinking about, “Oh well, maybe I should now get a license”. But I would be kind of scared to do it, even though I am good at video games.
DTD: It’s terrifying. It is.
DXV: I mean I’m sure it must be fun that you can just go wherever you want. You’ve got a car. This is amazing.
DTD: It’s a plus and minus.
DXV: You know mostly I haven’t been in a situation where it mattered. And when I finally was, you know, it seemed like too much of a hassle, and I have not gotten around to it. I would need to wear glasses, and the glasses give me headaches. I’m nearsighted and don’t wear glasses. And this was because I was a nerd, so I was nearsighted, and I had glasses as a kid. And then, you remember this bit where I was on my own at 16? So when my glasses broke, I didn’t get new glasses. I didn’t need them. I’m not that nearsighted, but I’m certainly nearsighted enough you would require me to wear glasses.
I am so nearsighted I cannot function without glasses. I wonder how this ranks our respective nerdiness?
DTD: But you got used to not wearing them.
DXV: And so, your eye muscles atrophy, and now you get a headache when you wear the glasses. So I’m not too keen on wearing them.
DTD: There’s a magic point in your 40s, where it gets very strange.
DXV: Oh yeah?
DTD: Yeah, your eyes change dramatically around 40 and at 50.
Or so I hear. At my youthful age, I wouldn’t know such things personally. I certainly do not wear trifocals.
DXV: I don’t feel like I noticed anything.
DTD: Usually, that’s when bifocals come into the picture. Because in your eyes, your lens is really flexible normally, and can change focus at the drop of a hat. But all of a sudden at about 45 or 50 you can’t change focus easily. You have a lot of trouble adjusting between near and far.
DXV: Well, I haven’t been doing that my whole life. So I might not have noticed when it got even harder. [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] As long as you could see the monitor, all is good.
DXV: I can see that monitor damn well. I do not need reading glasses.
DTD: I could just buy a better monitor. [laughs]
DTD: I’m pretty good video game guy myself. I mean I was born into it.
Video Games became a thing when I was about 10. Perfect timing. Of course I can’t compete nowadays – I am miserably bad at most new games.
DXV: I’ve been playing a lot of Hades lately.
DTD: I have not started Hades yet. I hear such good things about it.
DXV: Oh, I recommend it. Have you played rogue-lites? So, the thing about Hades…
DTD: Oh yeah, come on. I programmed on one of the original rogues as a kid.
Rogue was a fantasy game originally released on mainframe computers around 1980. The game was characterized by a few things – you were a warrior who fought monsters, collected loot, and leveled up. And if you died, the game ended. You were dead. Rogue-lites are a genre that use elements of Rogue, but often have progression between runs.
DXV: Oh, were you?
DTD: On Moria.
Rogue evolved along two paths originally. Hack (nethack) was very tongue in cheek. If you ate dead monsters, you gained their abilities. Your ghost would haunt you in future games. Character classes included the tourist and the caveman. Inside jokes were all over the place. Moria kept to a more traditional, serious Dungeons & Dragons theme with characters, items and monsters. I added the Paladin.
DXV: Man, I played Rogue when it was Rogue. And there were no rogue-lites. You know, I got killed by a “B” like anybody.
Monsters were represented by single capital letters in Rogue. Every letter was a monster, and there were only 26. The B was a bat, one of the first monsters.
DTD: Oh yes. Me too. Yeah, I played it on the UNIX mainframes in 79-80? That’s about when it came out. Rogue was nuts. It was so fun. I’m sorry – Hades.
DXV: Well, I do really appreciate the rogue-lite genre, because I was never a big one on the permadeath thing. And so, Hades… Hades, actually it has a few flaws, but it’s really good. And where it excels is you really build a lot on each run. Each run is like playing your game of Dominion. Repeatedly you get choices between three things that will make your guy better.
DXV: And you pick one. And now your guy is better in that way, and you build up a guy who can have combos with your abilities that will be completely different next game. You’ll have a whole different set of abilities. And it’s really focused on that. And it does have this issue where, I’m used to in the rogue-lites that you build up outside of the run, so that you’re better on the runs. And while Hades has that, it’s really muted, so you really feel like you’re not progressing at all that way. All your progress is in getting better at the game, and learning all the stuff.
DXV: And I mean, you do progress outside of the game, but again, you know, very slowly. And it also very interestingly has the most incredibly detailed story in which absolutely nothing happens. [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] I heard that the voice acting in it is just comic.
DXV: I mean, you’ll get a boon. And it’s from Aphrodite, and she’ll say, “Oh, I see you just beat the hydra with help from Zeus,” or whatever. It’s very specific. And it’s endless. It goes on and on and on. All this voice acting. But nothing actually happens in the story. Imagine if you used these powers for good.
DTD: I know what you’re talking about. I usually get frustrated by “too much cutscene, too much theming.”
Very short attention span. In a genre that already caters to short attention spans.
DXV: Oh yeah. I mean, you can just skip it every time they start talking. You can just press the button and skip it.
DTD: I tend to do that a lot.
DXV: And yeah, I have not read all this text. It is endless. But yeah, I mean it’s a really fun rogue-lite. Highly recommended. “Donald X approval.”
DTD: Good to know. Good to know. I’ll keep that in the notebook. So what does the X stand for?
DXV: It’s a variable. The unknown.
DTD: Got it. That makes sense. Didn’t miss a beat – you’ve heard that a million times.
DXV: Oh, that’s a point I was going to make long ago, for one of these conversations. Its that, why wouldn’t the game companies just publish my games? But I won the Spiel des Jahres. Probably has another good game, why not just publish it? And the answer is, why are they game companies? How did they get into the business? They got into the business because they like games. Most of the games don’t make any money. So of course, they’re making the games they want to make. That’s what they do. So, they didn’t want to make those games.
Donald X won the Spiel des Jahres for Dominion in 2009 and again for Kingdom Builder in 2012. The most Spiel wins goes to Klaus Teuber with 4 – Barbarossa in 1988, Adel Verpflichtet (Hoity Toity) in 1992, Drunter und Drüber (Wacky Wacky West) in 1991, and the biggie, Catan in 1995.
Call me Klaus, let’s do lunch.
DTD: It seems like a lot of the publishers are in it for the money.
DXV: Oh, well, maybe now. Or bigger publishers, or I don’t know.
DTD: I think small publishers are kind of disappearing. It’s a shame.
DXV: But I mean, all these people. It’s like, you know, they got in it because they liked games. It wasn’t a great business to try to get into, and you have to get lucky and get your hit. And some people got their hit, and so… OK. They got to make more games. But then, what games did they make? You know what games did Out of the Box make when they were successful with Apples to Apples? Or Indie Boards & Cards when they were successful with The Resistance? Well, they made the kind of games they wanted to make. They didn’t just make your game because you won an award.
Unfortunately, Out of the Box Publishing closed their doors in 2015.
DTD: And see, I’ve had a couple designers actually tell me they don’t make games that they like. They make games they think will sell. And that just blew me away. I mean big, big designers, big names.
DXV: I’m not doing that. Like I said, Dominion is a satisfaction cow. It’s great that it will make money. It would be fantastic to have a second hit game, but it would be… And I worry a lot about the audience at this point. But the first audience is me. I have to be interested enough in it, or I’m not going to get work done on it.
DTD: I really get that impression just talking to you, that you are still into Dominion.
DXV: Yeah, sure.
DTD: I mean, that’s a little different than most designers, I gotta tell you. Usually it’s a lot of energy. Put it out. Move on.
DXV: Well, I like to move on and make new games, but my games have a lot of variety, so making an expansion has a lot of the elements of making a new game.
DTD: Of course, especially with Dominion.
So far, with Allies, Dominion has 14 expansions, so the variety is certainly not lacking.
DXV: And you said these people making games to make money, right? You know my first audience has to be me. Then there’s my friends, who I’m going to playtest with. If I like it and they don’t, it still probably goes nowhere. There have to be some people who want to play it with me, or I’m not going to get it play-tested. And I’m certainly not going to have any confidence in it. And so then, at that point, I can start to worry about what will the public think of this. And mostly I’m just concerned if the game feels worthwhile. Like, it’s got something new to it. I want my games to be, you know, a new game. Not some game you didn’t need because you could just play it already.
DTD: It’s contributing.
DXV: And I want to feel like I haven’t blown it in terms of, “Oh, casual players will find this too complex”, or whatever. So, I’m certainly worried about that. And I’ve given a little thought to… To certain things, to certain details, as they relate to a game being commercial. Like the flavor of the game when it’s not a key part of my premise. Although my ideas there aren’t the same as the game company’s. Like the bubble gum factory. Seemed like great flavor.
DTD: [laughs] I love that.
DXV: Or, uh, I had some other good example of… What’s another good example of whatever it is I was talking about?
A gentle beeping and some display messages informed me we had arrived at our destination, and the prospect of ending the evening was nigh.
DXV: I know I shouldn’t keep you in the car.
DTD: That’s alright. We are not going to get in trouble or anything. I could just play Stardew Valley while you’re talking. [laughing]
I had called up the long list of video games playable in the car. Important features for an automobile.
DXV: Does it play other games? I’m not so interested in Stardew Valley. Is it good?
DTD: I don’t know. I’ve never actually played it.
According to every millenial I have spoken to, it’s good. Hey, they made a hot new board game out of it.
DXV: Well, that’s nice looking. This is what it comes built in with?
DXV: 2048 – we all had our turn on that. I used to play Centipede in the arcade, and Millipede.
DTD: I built an arcade emulator in the garage.
DXV: Centipede is Space Invaders. Right, so the Centipede marches left and right down the screen like the invaders do, and then sometimes a thing moves across that you can shoot.
Back in 1981, alongside arguing Atari vs Intellivision, we used to hotly debate Space Invaders vs Centipede. I must admit, the track ball and color graphics strongly put the argument in Centipede’s camp.
DTD: Yep. Well, I know they were trying to cash in.
DXV: The obstacles are the mushrooms instead of little things in front of you, but… Oh, you knew. Alright.
DTD: Oh, I’m a video game historian. [laughs]
DXV: You didn’t know that Settlers [of Catan] was Monopoly, so I thought, “Maybe he doesn’t know that Centipede is Space Invaders.”
DTD: I did not. That kind of that kind of blew my mind. That really… I had never heard that before, and I’m going to retell it.
We talked last time about the many similarities between the beloved grand-daddy of euro games and the most reviled title of the 1930s.
DXV: Anyway, what is this? It was this nonsense about trying to make games commercial. And I felt like there were a couple ways where I did consider it, aside from just like… I mean, trying to make your game accessible is just good for everybody.
DXV: Even the serious players will appreciate it, if it’s easier to get into your game the first time. But I have considered it a few ways…
DTD: Of course.
DXV: Oh, it was the roll and move example. Like, if I made a roll and move, I probably wouldn’t try to get it published. Because you know publishers wouldn’t want it. Because it was a roll and move. And if somebody wanted to publish it, it would be a failure because it was a roll and move.
DTD: There’s been one or two roll and moves that have published lately, and the big hot selling thing is, “Oh, it’s a roll and move!”
DXV: But anyway, I’ve given it a little thought. I mean, I don’t know how those guys do it. I need to… Well, I need to be into the project. And you know what it really means, “I have to be into the project?” Dominion being successful. Because there’s no one to whip me into getting these dialysis machines programmed, right?
Technically, Donald X Vaccarino’s day job is programming dialysis machines.
DXV: I’m not worried I’ll get fired, and I won’t get paid for the dialysis machines anymore. It’s… I can do whatever I want. So I better be interested in it. I mean… [laughs] Or how am I getting work done on it?
DTD: That’s true. Well, there’s lots of people who do stuff that they absolutely despise.
DXV: Yeah, I don’t know why you would do that if you had a hit game.
DTD: I don’t understand it myself. Then the opposite of that was Frank West. Who did Isle of Cats.
Someone should interview that guy. He sounds great.
DXV: I don’t know it.
DTD: And City of Kings. He’s only got a few games, but he basically said he takes his model after Blizzard Entertainment. After, you know, Diablo and all that. Their philosophy forever was, “If we don’t love it, we don’t release it.” And he said in his games, he has to be absolutely so in love with it, that he could play it every single day and be happy. Or he won’t release it.
DXV: It’s the ABBA thing of, they didn’t write their songs down. “Because if we can’t remember them, you won’t.”
DTD: Wow, that’s good.
DXV: I don’t really know ABBA. Just a few songs, but I’ve learned this this thing they said.
DTD: I’m not a fan, but I like that.
DXV: I mean, I certainly need to feel pretty happy with a game to want to try to get it published. At this point, especially. And it’s very sad to have had some duds. Like, “Oh, the publisher published this, and they didn’t make any money.”
DXV: Like, Gauntlet of Fools was a was a dud. And I can look at it, and I can say, like “Why did that game fail?” And you know what? It’s flavor. It’s because I had this cool idea of a game… I don’t know if you’re familiar at all with Gauntlet of Fools?
DTD: I am not. I do not know it.
DXV: It is obscure at this point. It is out of print. Indie Boards & Cards made it. There’s an unusual draft at the beginning. Are you familiar with Enter the Dungeon?
Gauntlet of Fools came out in 2012. The aforementioned Enter the Dungeon is actually Welcome to the Dungeon (2013). But we both knew what we were talking about.
DXV: Quite possibly inspired by Gauntlet of Fools, as you will see when I describe Gauntlet of Fools. At the beginning, we have a set of… We’ve dealt out some class cards and weapon cards, random pairs. And we draft them.
DTD: You have to take a pair.
DXV: Yeah, they’re stuck in pairs. The way you draft them is you can take one from the middle, or you can take one of somebody else’s. And if you take one from the middle, you can add a boast to it, but you don’t have to. Or multiple boasts. And if you take one from somebody else, you have to add at least one boast.
DXV: And the boasts are rules that will make the dungeon harder. Like “one arm tied behind your back”, which means that your ones and twos don’t count when you roll those.
DTD: And it’s a game of chicken? Whoever says stop…
DXV: We all do the dungeon. We all go through the dungeon at the same time, simultaneously. Which is much different from Enter the Dungeon. I played Enter the Dungeon once. Which is much better than Enter the Dungeon. Because in Enter the Dungeon, the rest of players just watch, and see how you did in the dungeon.
DTD: Right, it’s a game of chicken to see who’s actually going to go in. I think it’s Welcome to the Dungeon. It’s a IELLO game.
I may have mentioned this already, Corey. In Welcome to the Dungeon, players either weaken their character or strengthen the dungeon. Until all players give up except one, who then braves the more difficult dungeon with their wimpier character.
DXV: All right. But I mean, you know it’s got different classes, and you keep either adding a monster to the dungeon, or adding or taking a thing away from the class until someone does the dungeon. Right? So, it’s the same bidding premise from Gauntlet of Fools. And it’s also the same flavor. So I imagine they were inspired by Gauntlet of Fools.
DTD: It sounds very similar.
DXV: But anyway, I came up with this flavor of, “I can do that with one arm tied behind by my back”. And I thought, “this is fantastic.”
DTD: One upping with the boasts.
DXV: So, it really wanted to be this game of “Then we go into the dungeon and fight these monsters.” But the bidding mechanic would have been a better fit, in terms of players, in terms of the audience, for an economic game. There’s some bidding, and then an economic game – And that’s the kind of game that has bidding. The people who wanted to roll lots of dice and see who killed the monsters better were not the people who wanted to bid, and vice versa.
DXV: So, people’s experience with Gauntlet of Fools was, “Well, we didn’t know what we were doing, so we didn’t bid the first round. We just took heroes.” And that’s like saying, “We didn’t know we were doing the first game of Medici, so we just took everything with a bid of 0. And then somebody won, and wasn’t that stupid.”
Medici is a classic bidding game in which players bid on a lot of goods. Some may be good for them, some bad.
DTD: Then it was just random!
DXV: Well, it was a bidding game and you didn’t do the bidding! But it was a complete failure, and it’s clear what I should have done, which was to give up on my cool flavor of the “one arm tied behind your back” and so on. “And without breakfast.”
DXV: And instead have it be an economic game. And then I could have had a game that somebody liked. And you know, we had a blast playtesting it, though. And I play tested it with the publisher. He was there while I worked on the game.
DXV: You know, Travis was a regular at the local game group.
DTD: Actually, there’s like 3 Travises.
DXV: Travis Worthington III. Indie Boards & Cards.
DTD: I know that Travis. That’s who I thought you were talking about.
DXV: And so, he was a regular, and we played it with him as I worked on the game. We were all really happy with it, and it was a complete failure. But you know, I guess I was trying to consider this issue of, like, I’ve made games where it’s like, “Well, here’s what I would do differently”. And I’ve made games where I wouldn’t do anything differently, even though it wasn’t a success. It’s like, “Well, that was just my misevaluation.” Either, like Monster Factory didn’t get to its audience, or I misjudged that audience. In the case of Piña Pirata, which I thought could have been a big hit, IELLO really messed it up. Across the board, every step of the way, they made it worse, without really changing the game much. They added a mode, where you have a winner that’s no good. In mine, you just played a hand and won it, but they wanted a winner after all the hands.
DXV: And they had the art, so it was really hard to tell what the cards were.
DTD: Yeah, IELLO often focuses on art over design.
DXV: Which was very bad. And to their credit, they put out a second edition, where they improved the art. And I don’t know if the game failed because it was too late, or if the game was never going to be a hit, but it certainly seemed like, “This is great.” I mean, my kids still play it, man. Years later, it’s still a game I can get them to play. I mean, it’s just Crazy Eights with the deck of rules, and a different deck.
DXV: But, you know. And every hand you add a rule. Blah blah blah.
Donald X really did say “blah blah blah.” I’m not just tired of editing. I promise.
DTD: I think I’ve played it.
DXV: I wouldn’t know. You would have to know that.
DTD: Talking to myself. This sounds very, very familiar, and I think I did play it. I’ve played a lot of games.
DXV: [about car] This is amazing. It’s the future.
DTD: It’s the future, but it also… You can tell it was programmed by 12 year olds. They they put all this goofy stuff in here, just for fun. So this is “emissions testing”, where you can just make a fart noise come from any of the seats.
Another necessary feature. This is what computers were designed for.
DTD: There’s “Mars mode”, where your map is now the surface of Mars. Santa mode, where this screen over here, which shows all the other cars that are around, turns into elves and reindeer. Just so much really goofy stuff.
DXV: I mean, I know how some of this stuff… I mean, I don’t know this company, but there was a sound card that this company I worked for put out.
DXV: And I thought, “Well it will need some example programs to show you what you can do with this sound card.” And I made some examples. And this other guy got into it with me, who was an engineer. He wasn’t a programmer, but he was like, “Yes, that’s what we’re going to do. No, do this to make a better ocean sound.” And so we made 20 examples, and then we randomly found out, “Oh, they were shipping that…” And so, we quickly put our names on them. [laughs]
DXV: And it’s just an example, it’s the Hitchhikers Guide thing, right? Where a lot of the work gets done by people who wandered in off the street and saw something worth doing.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an amazing book by Douglas Adams. The creation of titular guide is described in the book as “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.”
DXV: And so, yeah, at some point, someone was like, “Well, I think I’ll add a fart mode.”
DTD: It’s crazy. This is Tesla, and you can tell it’s run by goofy software engineers. It’s computer programmers who are nerds and children. I kind of love it. [laughs]
DXV: Uh huh. I mean, the big thing about it… It’s kind of scary to me, like it’ll break, and something will happen. Not an accident. If there’s an accident, whatever. Your car is totaled. But there will be some lesser accident. But this will break, and now you’re screwed. But it’s so alien, that you’ve got this. And there’s nothing on it.
There’s a lot of pointing going on at this point. Mostly to the empty dashboard, and the single touchscreen mounted in the middle. It takes getting used to.
DTD: Oh, it’s so different from everything else. Being used to driving in a car, I’m used to all my controls being here. And still… I’ve had the car a couple months, and still to this day at night when I’m driving, I’ll glance down here and nothing is lit up. And I think, “I forgot to turn the lights on” or “Something’s wrong”. And then I see the screen. So it is very different or weird.
DXV: I mean, it makes sense. For a self-driving car, why do you have anything but a screen?
DTD: It’s true
DXV: Everything could be done this way. So, the thing is, like yeah, you can lean over and do this. Whereas in a normal car, you’re like, “No. Must grip steering wheel.”
DTD: Yeah, you can change options for driving itself.
DXV: So, you need your hands on the wheel.
DTD: It’s more than that. The wheel has haptic feedback. So the wheel controls what it feels like. I think the wheel is not actually connected to the tires at all. But it has force feedback, so it can make the wheel really tight, or it can make it really loose.
DXV: The wheel is not connected to the tires?!? So what are you doing?
DTD: No, this is a video game. This is an interface. I turn it, and a computer goes, “Oh he turned,” and then turns the wheels. I mean, there’s not a physical link.
DXV: Right. Oh, no. Sorry. Yeah, that is a connection. Yeah, sure, there’s no physical link. Yeah, so it’s a video game.
DTD: So, it wants force feedback. It doesn’t just want you to have your hand on the wheel. It wants you to be pulling on it a little bit. So it can tell you’re kinda yanking on the wheel a little.
DXV: In order to autopilot?
DTD: Right. And if you’re not doing that, it’ll complain at you. It’ll say “You need to have your hand on the wheel”. And if it has to yell at you twice, it turns off autopilot, and won’t let you turn it on again. Until you turn the whole car off somewhere.
Jut what I need – a back seat
DXV: Ah, damn.
DTD: And a new software update just went in, that there’s a camera up here [points] that will watch you. And if you’re not watching the road, if it decides you’re not paying attention…
DXV: But this is all… Like the Tesla people don’t want any of this. This is all to satisfy governments, right?
DTD: To satisfy the legal stuff, Yep.
DXV: Because we want a car that’s not, it’s not just autopilot. It’s autopilot, and we’ll turn this chair the other way. Because why do we need to go look at that, let’s face our friends.
DTD: And honestly, I feel that would work way better. All the problems they run into with these cars and autopilot is that people let the car drive, and their attention wanders. They look, they panic, and they jerk the wheel. And the car has to give you control. So, accidents in these cars are because people did it.
DTD: What we really need is a car with no windows, and you just tell it where to go, and it just goes.
DXV: No, I want windows. I just don’t want to be facing forward. I mean, it’s fine to face forward, even. I just feel like if you’ve put all that… If you put these two chairs facing those two chairs, then we’re having a more social interaction there, and it reinforces.
I actually like the idea of getting in a pod, typing in a destination, and blindly zooming off. Maybe taking a nap.
DTD: Oh absolutely. But then I’m not driving.
DXV: It reinforces that you’re not driving. It makes it clear.
DTD: But the American public wants to drive. But they also want to let the car drive. And the government doesn’t want to let the car drive.
DXV: Well, it’s a bummer. When people without a license can have these, that’s when I’ll get to get a car. They can sell me a car, it’s as easy as that.
DTD: I think it would be amazing. There you go.
DXV: And you can just put your dog into the car, and send it to the vet for you. And you don’t drive. Then somebody is at an intersection, and it’s like, “Oh, he cut me off!” And he goes to give you the finger, and it’s a dog. [Laughs]
DTD: So, this car, I can fetch it from a parking lot. I can be somewhere and say, “Come to me, car.” And the car will unpark and drive over to me.
I dont really say that, but I could. I think I will from now on.
DXV: And it’ll do that without you in it?
DTD: Supposedly, a future update will have, “Go find a parking spot.”
DXV: “Well, where did I find… Where did I park my car?”
DTD: But, what I found hysterical, like what you were saying, is I went to fetch my car, and it pulled out of the parking lot. And there were other cars in the lot. It drove over to me, but then it couldn’t figure out how to actually get to me, so it got really close and then it stopped. So, when it stopped people honked at it.
DXV: Yes. [laughs]
DTD: And there’s nobody in the car. And that was just hysterical. I ran over and jumped in the car, then I pulled it into a little weird spot.
DXV: I envision the problem, if you let it park for you, and it seems so nice to let it park for you, too. Why not? Just drop me off at the store, and you go park.
DTD: “You go park, and then come back when I call you.”
DXV: Well, it’s certainly a conversation piece.
DTD: It’s fun. I have a good time with it. And one of these days I’ll learn to use it.
DXV: Well, it was very pleasant chatting with you.
DTD: Absolutely, I’ve had a fantastic time.
DTD: So thank you so much for doing this.
DXV: And it’s so easy talking about me. And I got to have that delicious meal.
DTD: It was really good. Thank you for picking Ole’s.
It really was delicious. “Corey A approval.”
DXV: The bacon was a little cold.
DTD: Well, I kept not letting you eat.
DXV: I talked too much. I should have just said, “OK, I’m gonna eat the bacon, and then we’ll talk.”
DTD: [laughs] Which is a totally valid excuse. Bacon does win, yeah.
DXV: You were very restrained, didn’t order any meat.
DTD: I did! There was meat in my omelet. It was very good. I didn’t get another side of meat, but the meat in the omelet was delightful. It was really good.
I knew I should have followed Donald’s advice and ordered more meat.
DXV: Alright, excellent, glad you liked it. Because I don’t… Because I wouldn’t know. I’m not a connoisseur of fancy meals, and I knew that was the place with the best bacon. [laughs]
DTD: Not a worry, it’s my pleasure. That was absolutely a blast. I had a very good time.
DXV: Alright, excellent. Good luck with your article, and I’m not worried about it at all.
DTD: Thank you. Well, you know, it’s just going to be a whole bunch of lines that all say, “Donald X says this company sucks.” That’s just all it’s going to be.
DXV: I mean, I don’t even know that I would have to rule out [working with] Fantasy Flight or IELLO. I would be nervous about it. It would depend. Like if I was willing to just give up my game and not care what came out. That would be the issue. Or are they so interested in doing it, that I’d contractually limit it enough.
We discussed previously how Fantasy Flight used to just buy games outright from designers, then edit and develop them independently.
DTD: And Fantasy Flight is so corporate now. They’re just Asmodee.
DXV: Yeah. Now they’re just Asmodee, so whatever. They’re not really a place.
DTD: IELLO is still putting out some OK stuff, but their art over… Well, they are form over function, art over game.
DXV: I mean, I guess I would say that was my experience with them before working with them, but I didn’t realize it. Like, I’m thinking of Small World.
DTD: That was Days of Wonder.
DXV: Oh, Days of Wonder? In that case, Days of Wonder… [laughs] No, in Small World the board is so hard to look at it.
DTD: It is, it is. It’s a [Miguel] Coimbra art.
DXV: Alright, I think the only IELLO game I’ve played then is the two… King of…
DTD: King of Tokyo, King of New York.
King of Tokyo (2011) and King of New York (2014) are light, wonderful dice-driven, monster smashing, kaiju battling board games. Supposedly a third in the series is coming Essen 2022…
DXV: And while they were sorely lacking in templating…
DTD: Well, they [IELLO] did Bunny Kingdom. That’s the other Richard Garfield hit.
DXV: Oh, in that case, I played that one once also.
DTD: I thought it was good.
DXV: It was sorely lacking in the variety mechanic that I crave.
DTD: It was very busy, there was so much going on. The scoring was hard.
DXV: I was surprised that drafting things like “B-12” worked. I thought it wouldn’t work. That it would be, “Where’s B-12? OK, where is F-5? What was B-12 again?” But it actually worked fine.
In Bunny Kingdom, players draft cards with grid coordinates in order to build their bunny castles.
DTD: Well, that, that was a derivative off of Adventure Land. Which was drafting off a grid.
DXV: Oh, I don’t know that one.
DTD: And that one was a little more elegant. That was interesting.
In Adventure Land, players again work off of a labeled grid. But this time, movement on the grid is restricted to only going right or down – there’s no going backwards. Rewards and hazards enter the grid by card draw.
DXV: I have never heard of it.
DTD: HABA I think did it.
DXV: I enjoyed Bunny Kingdom, but it did not seem worth buying. And we’ve had a lot of fun with King of <place>, but I would change those games a lot.
Donald did not say “greater than” or “less than.” I added those. Call it poetic license.
DTD: Yeah, I thought King New York was better. I thought it was an improvement. But they abandoned the game. They’ve doubled down on King of Tokyo, and they gave up on King of New York.
DXV: Oh really? King of New York basically does all the things you want, after you play King of Tokyo. You’re like, isn’t it so stupid that we have these giant monsters, and they’re just in Tokyo or not? And then, “Oh, here’s a board.” And you’re like, “Why are the buildings that we smash in the deck?” Why isn’t there a board with the buildings?
DXV: That was very nice. And then the die changes were very nice too. Instead of the 123…
DTD: Because just to get a point, just get two points, yeah?
King of Tokyo had die faces for 1, 2, or 3 points. In King of New York those were changed to more active abilities – smash a building, get hurt, get a bonus.
DXV: Yeah, that’s dull. And then, “Oh, it’s three different symbols. Very nice.” And in the end with all of the fixes, it still needs a lot of fixes.
DTD: Well, it’s meant to be a super simple, approachable game. And I thought it hit that mark. But yeah, I don’t play it every day.
DXV: It is one the kids will play. But no, I’ve had a lot of fun with it despite its flaws. It does, in terms of IELLO, I would just say like, “Are they responsible for the giant dinosaur that means nothing? If so, then you know, a pox on it.” I would rather have a tiny chit that shows my character, and be able to see the board. And the other thing is just their templating is just so bad. And I know Richard Garfield has cited himself as being very bad at templating, so maybe they just used his wordings. I don’t know.
DXV: But it needed better wordings. But that is like a game designer complaint. [laughs] That is not a player complaint so much.
DTD: You’re allowed.
DXV: All right, I’m gonna really manage to get out of this car.
DTD: Alrighty, there’s a button right there. There you go.
It actually is pretty tricky to figure out how to escape the computer car.
DTD: There’s like three ways to get out. It lets you get out however you want.
DXV: Right, it was very pleasant.
DTD: Absolutely a delight.
DXV: And I hope it was, you know, everything you dreamed.
DTD: It was everything I had hoped for and more. I laughed, I cried.
DXV: All right, it was fun.
DTD: Thank you so much.
DTD: Goodnight, Sir.
And with that, my dinner with Donald came to a close. I really need to thank the incomparable Donald X for a fantastic day of deep game design chat, great food, and kidney advice. I hope to do it again some day!