And so here it is, the final installment of dinner with Christian T. Petersen during GenCon 2021. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous having a meal with one of the biggest influences on the hobby, the personification of boardgaming buisness. But Christian was affable, charismatic, delightful, and well… downright goofy. I truly hope we can get together again for more food and wine.
DTD: So, here’s a question for you, and it’s completely off subject. It feels to me like between the 70’s, 80’s, and today, there’s been a trend in gaming to be more simplified, to be more elegant. Smaller games. It felt like in the 80’s, games were sold on complexity. The bigger games with more rules and more pieces and bigger boxes sold better. And now it looks like everybody is looking for the Point Salad, the Azul, the elegant little tiny game.
This is a current obsession of mine – the simplification of the ideal game over the decades. And I certainly do not mean “simplification” in any negative context. The example I usually use as a “complicated” 1980’s game is Freedom in the Galaxy by Avalon Hill.
DTD: I was wondering if you had thoughts about that, on the on the industry as a whole?
CTP: I think the industry… There’s enough of us to be able to float all the ships.
DTD: You think there’s just more genres and…?
CTP: Yeah, I don’t know why everything has to appeal to everybody. That’s my, you know… A lot of times… We don’t have to agree, you know we don’t all have to be the same.
DTD: No, and I’m not saying that, you know, everything is doing this. But it feels like that’s been the trend, regardless of people’s intentions.
CTP: I agree with that, and that’s also a little bit where I’m coming in. So, saying, “What is the tabletop gaming industry? What is it, how is it defined?”
DTD: And that’s what made me think about it, was you saying that.
CTP: Is it more toys? You know, is it more… Is it family entertainment? Is it… Because you streamline, simplified is great; it appeals to a bigger subset of people, by its very nature.
Don’t even get me started on the difference between a toy and a game. I was told once that toy companies produce something your relative buys you, not knowing what you like. It is ultimately more appealing to the purchaser than to the end consumer.
DTD: Yeah. Maybe it’s just a newly growing hobby. There are more beginner gamers.
CTP: Yeah, I think maybe… I may be an old curmudgeon in some ways, but I think that’s great. I don’t have any problem with it, but I do worry a little bit about tabletop gaming losing its “identity” by trying to appeal to the greatest possible base. Nobody, nothing… Everybody is welcome to join in.
“Curmudgeon.” Another word which makes me very happy to hear in an interview. I feel a personal connection to this one.
DTD: Oh sure.
CTP: But I think the industry, and even the audience, is demanding, you know, universal accessibility and everything should be done. I think it does a disservice. I think, and like I said, I’m in a luxury position.
DTD: It’s certainly putting more constraints on it.
CTP: I can just make… Yeah, you can put more constraints, and make all the games, and that’s great. It’s wonderful that people like it. But there’s a lot of other great games to be made. And when you add one dash of complexity, it blooms into a lot more exciting things. It can. But that said, I mean the German… There is a grain of advancement in all this stuff. I guess the German games, when they first came in, inspired me to splice, at least what I could… To sort of splice two philosophies together, and create kind of a new plan.
Christian has often spoken of merging the Amerithrash with the Euro mentalities when he first started Fantasy Flight. German games, the quintessential euro philosophy, are about planning, determinism, mechanisms, and cube pushing. Amerithrash titles traditionally embraced theme, story, randomness, and combat.
DTD: Oh sure.
CTP: So, there is that. But I do think there’s something special about the tabletop game industry. And I think part of it is its complexity.
CTP: Part of it is that we’re aiming for new ground, and growing new things that people will come to appreciate. I think there’s been a lot of… I just wrote a big thing about this, and I think it’s called… I don’t know a term for it, but the world has really improved, when it comes to its absorption, its ability to absorb complexity. And I use a different industry to describe this. If you look at TV shows, for example, and even movies – There was this demand in the 80’s, early 90’s, that every episode of a TV show really needed to be for everybody.
CTP: Because you couldn’t… Otherwise somebody couldn’t turn a TV on and be entertained. It would be too complicated, too weird, too sophisticated, too…
DTD: But isn’t that just the product that we have so many shows, that you can niche them out.
CTP: But I think what actually happened that allowed it, because the problem is back then, even if you liked what you saw, but didn’t understand it, you couldn’t go back and see the other ones. Now you can say, “Hey, this is really cool.” I can immediately go back…
DTD: And watch them.
CTP: And watch them all, and get it. And so, and now I have a complex story. I remember I had a big argument a long time ago with Ryan Dancey. He was in charge of D&D at Wizards of the Coast back in 2000, 2001. And he didn’t believe Lord of the Rings would possibly make it as a movie.
CTP: He said it’s too complicated, too many characters. It’s just, it’s just too hard. People don’t have the attention span. It doesn’t work. And I said, “No, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.” But they did it over three movies, which was crucial.
DTD: And it was perfect.
CTP: But it became, they needed that time to create a narrative complexity. And people were willing to absorb it. They were willing to sit through it, and they found in that complexity, they found riches.
DTD: Oh, and the proof of the pudding there, is this mass grab of every famous, long running, classical story book. I didn’t say that right, but every classical famous book series has been grabbed up by some media group.
CTP: To be a TV show, now.
CTP: There’s another famous example of, I think, of attention growth. Which happened in the younger generation, which was Harry Potter. The thing about Harry Potter, is it’s enormously long, relatively complex, lots of characters, expansive series of books that somehow got really popular. Pokémon a little bit the same way. A lot of people got into Pokémon, which inherently is not a simple game.
Waiter: Gentlemen, I’m sorry but the card was declined.
DTD: Was it? Let me see if this text message is from the bank. It’s a travel thing I bet. Yep, right there – bank security.
Apparently travel confounds credit card companies. The bank was fine with my purchasing dozens of board games, but one steak dinner really threw them for a loop. Luckily, the bank texted me at the exact minute our confused waiter approached.
Waiter: Oh yeah, yeah.
DTD: Alright, it should be good. Sorry about that.
Waiter: Alright, I’ll go run it again.
Don’t worry – it worked out just fine.
CTP: I guess, here’s my point. I think I would argue that the complexity was a good thing. In fact, Game of Thrones, for example, is a very complex, heavy character TV show.
DTD: Right, that’s a perfect example.
CTP: That got enormously… Nobody would ever predict that a show that complex, with that many characters, would ever become popular.
DTD: I think that was the breaking ground for all the others that happened.
CTP: But it did. And it was, people realized that, “I’m really into this.” And the more complex it is, in fact the more rewarding it is, because there’s so many most facets to it, and interesting things that are happening. So, when you’re saying “these moves towards simple games,” I think there’s nothing wrong with a TV show that every episode is pretty much ready. And then maybe they’ll come back that way. But I don’t think that games of high complexity…
DTD: You don’t think they’re going away?
CTP: Can’t bring us a really rich thing that some people will really appreciate, if they have the attention span for the complexity. Like Magic the Gathering is incredibly complex.
CTP: And it’s the biggest game ever, by a long shot.
Waiter: There you go, my man. There you go. All set!
I do have to say, our waiter for this dinner was one of the most jovial and amusing characters I’ve ever experienced.
DTD: Thanks a lot.
CTP: A lot of energy in that guy! So, the way I see it, is that you know, I don’t think… And everytime I say this, I am self-conscious of what the comparison is. And the comparison is not intended, other than the analogy in which it is said. Which is that Lawrence of Arabia would not be the same movie if it were short.
DTD: Oh, you’ve picked like one of my very favorite movies.
Really. I freaking love that movie. I have trouble using the word “epic” for anything else. I’m looking at you, Mark Streed.
CTP: There is an intention in the pauses, and that’s the same way… I don’t think you can make, and people have tried over and over again, to make Twilight Imperium short. Maybe somebody will succeed someday, but I think it’s the intention in the duration, and maybe in part, the complexity, that is part of it. And I mean, Twilight Imperium sells well – It’s no Catan, or any of these others…
DTD: No, but it’s an evergreen, and everybody knows it.
CTP: It’s intentionally long, intentionally complex, because that gives certain rewards. If you have developed your empire over the course of hours, and role-played it or whatever, you’re going to care a lot more about it than if you’ve developed it in five minutes, and you can play it again another 10 minutes later.
DTD: That’s true.
CTP: And so, the emotional engagement, the immersion of having an experience, feeling like you’re a galactic empire. It’s very hard to just click on and off with a few buttons. It needs time to breathe, and it needs… If you can keep people invested is the problem, because too long, and then people just get bored and walk away.
DTD: Well, that’s what I was going to talk about is…
CTP: That’s also important, but if people play a really long game, and had fun the whole time, what does “long” mean?
From Miriam Webster:
3a: extending over a considerable time, a long friendship
b: having a specified duration, two hours long
c: prolonged beyond the usual time, a long look
d: lasting too long : TEDIOUS, a long explanation
DTD: No, it’s totally true.
CTP: Long, as a fact, is true. But in the… I would argue that maybe that word has been used as a negative. “Oh, it’s long. Oh, that’s no good then.” I don’t think long, there’s any issues with long. Or complex.
DTD: If it fits the game.
CTP: Just if it fits the audience and the game. And some audiences are going to love it, and some are not.
DTD: And I’ve certainly played games where everybody at the table said “This game overstayed. This game was too long, for what it did, what it set out for.”
CTP: That’s interesting, because the… That might be true. There’s some movies that are too long. They overstay, themselves.
Not Lord of the Rings. That one is perfect.
CTP: You have to try, and sometimes you miss. One of my critiques of Corey [Konieczka] was always that he ended his games too soon.
DTD: Huh. OK.
CTP: You know, because he was very, very good. He made a game RuneWars, which is excellent, but it always ended too soon. And it was just like, “Corey, you’re falling in between the cracks, I feel. You have everything in there to get that investment, and that thing. But then the end game… It’s just, you have done all the work and then it just ends. You don’t get the third act. You don’t get the catharsis of making it work.”
DTD: Like a sudden ending.
CTP: It’s too soon, yeah. But I think part of that is, you know, the younger the game designer you are, the more you feel like you have to be “modern.” Which is a disaster.
DTD: And that crossed my mind, that there’s this conception of the newer generations having a short attention span, which leads into… If you’re doing a long, complex television series, it works, because you can sit for a half hour, but you can do it 20 times in a row.
CTP: Right, right. I don’t mean it necessarily as generational. I think it’s maybe more “fashionable.”
CTP: I think there’s just as many people that are, you know, your and my age, that want shorter games. You know, maybe because we have to pee more or something.
DTD: [laughs] That’s a whole new genre.
Not interested in exploring this thought any further.
CTP: So, I’m not sure it’s necessarily age, but when I say, you know, “The next generation of games” is because all the new games have found out they have to be short and sweet and simple…
DTD: Well, there’s certainly some odd limits in there. Over two hours, and people immediately put up barriers, and think “That’s getting too long”.
DTD: There’s this arbitrary “movie length.”
CTP: There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with people who don’t want a two-hour game. But that does not preclude that there’s a lot of people that really love a 5- or 6-hour game. As long as it gives them the rewards they need.
Complete and utter world domination. Why is it that all “long” games seem to be about world domination?
DTD: Oh yeah.
CTP: When we first put out Twilight Imperium for 80 bucks, which was, like I said, it was heresy. Everyone said it would fail.
CTP: Most of the things that have been really good, have been all said to fail by the industry at large. Speaking of which, when I did… When we first did Game of Thrones, we had a retailer call us up, or on one of the big message boards, or whatever. And said that we were ruining the industry by our vanity-fanboy publishing, by making games based on IPs no one cared about. Or nobody knew.
DTD: Oh, my. [laughs]
Yup. That story will never catch on.
CTP: Anyway, famous last words for me.
DTD: You have that letter on the wall?
CTP: No, I didn’t save it. But yeah, I was kind of grumpy at it. The point is not the price, or the length. It’s the value. And we all are different people. We have different capabilities, and we have a different sense of what’s valuable to us.
DTD: I actually, I did an interview with Isaac Childres, and we were talking about Gloomhaven basically doing everything contrary to the fashion of the day. It was too complex, too big, too expensive, and too long. And too this, and too that. And it seems to have done alright, I’ve heard of it once or twice.
Now that’s a true “coffin box.” Such a good game.
CTP: Oh, it’s great. No, he’s done a great job. I mean I can’t believe how much work that must have been. To put that out, you know, basically by yourself. You know, that’s a huge amount of work. A daunting amount of work.
DTD: It’s a tremendous project. The creativity in there is, you know, mind-blowing.
CTP: Yeah, it’s a real achievement. And the fact that it actually succeeded is just so great. It means that somebody else will probably do a similar achievement in the future, and we all are richer off for it.
DTD: Yeah, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.
CTP: So, I guess, I feel there’s this… The industry if anything has become too focused on…
DTD: Meeting expectations, maybe?
CTP: No, I just… I guess we get into this, we all talk about diversity, and that’s all great. But what it really means is everybody should have what they want. Everybody should be included. And sometimes that’s not good, because then we start gaining a certain amount of homogeneity about our products, and about what we do. And in fact, we all love different things, and that’s perfectly fine. You know, I mean, as a business, you’d like to have the biggest market possible.
DTD: Of course.
CTP: But I would argue that the biggest market possible, probably is… It makes it almost impossible for you to make a product that’s worthwhile. Sometimes you do it – lightning in a bottle, right? But I think it’s perfectly… I mean there’s some businesses out there that do really, really well, focusing on a very, very narrow niche of people. And the worst thing you could do to them, is say, “Oh, you should really make it more simple, and expand, and broaden your audience.” Because they’re just going to dilute themselves, and they’re going to lose their identity, lose what they do, lose why they’re valuable.
Advanced Squad Leader (1985) by Avalon Hill seemed to be the most niche, most complex, yet most popular game I could think of. That would only be degraded by simplification. Trivia Fact: The Avalon Game Company was founded in 1952 by Charles S. Roberts in the Avalon neighborhood of Cantonsville, Maryland. The name had to be changed in 1958 because of a conflict, and Charles’ house was on a hill, so…
DTD: They’re going to lose their core fanbase.
CTP: Right, so I hope we’ll get back to more of that. But the big thing… There’s a lot of money in the business now. And the business is, specifically the top-down [business], I’m talking about. The ones that come from the toy industry.
CTP: They want the biggest positive fat vein to aim for. And so there’s a certain desire to have something that everybody can enjoy.
DTD: They’re tapping a new market looking for money, rather than designing a game out of passion.
Never discuss “designing for money rather than designing for passion” with a businessman.
CTP: I think all businesses ultimately look for money in some degree.
DTD: Oh sure. To survive.
CTP: Well, I think that this qualifier of “money” is too strong, that there’s this unsaid negative attitude towards money in the industry, that I find distasteful in many ways. Because there’s this sense that you’re doing this “to make money.” Well, what does that mean?
DTD: Everybody does it.
CTP: Well, you do it, because… Well, I want to do it to make money, because that means that I can be around to make more. And I don’t… Nobody that I know of makes games – maybe a few are out there, who look to exploit people by it. Because what they want is for them to have a successful experience, so they can pay for their rewards. So you can make more. Every trade, which just happens to deal with money these days, and not with bartered goods. Happens to be, because we add value to each other. The economy… I’m an economist. That’s my education.
Barter for board games is a lost art. Except in math trades, which I simply do not understand.
CTP: You know the idea that when we trade something, what comes out in the end, is we’re better off, both of us. Which means that we grew something. It’s the microcosm of an economy.
DTD: Actually, the best man at my wedding is the head of the economics department at Allegheny [College]. So I get into… I know nothing about money, so we get into arguments about economics that I lose miserably.
CTP: Yeah, yeah. I’m an economist, and I think there’s this unfortunate… Not that there isn’t guilt on both sides, but there’s an unfortunate demonization of profits, and Wall Street.
DTD: I totally get it. When I was a veterinarian… I was a veterinarian for a long time. There was a distrust of any company that was successful. You know, “I won’t buy food from Purina, because they’re a big company and they’re just…”
CTP: “They’re probably going to cut and kill my dog with their chemical additives…”
DTD: It went so much further than that. They felt that, let’s say, for example, Dow-Corning made a dog food. Every consumer with their puppy would think it would not just be not a good food, but they think it would just downright harm their dog. Which is a very strange belief. Why would you, what possible motive would there be, to make a dangerous dog food for profit?
I always called it the “Sherpa effect”. People wanted to purchase food made by two sherpas up on a mountaintop, who mixed it in their yurt. Any successful companies were looked at with suspicion.
CTP: Oh, there’s not. There’s not.
DTD: No, it is that distrust.
CTP: It happens when we drive ourselves by emotion more than reason, and that’s my biggest concern with the industry in general now, is it almost seems like, you know, that emotions about what I like, and where we should be, are higher than that. We should be more free to make the games we want, and to play the games we want.
CTP: And out of that I think will grow more innovation. But if all the publishers feel like, to have an audience they need to cater to, you know, what everybody thinks they have to do.
CTP: Then it’s… They’re not going to succeed. They may survive, but are they really, they’re not really going to make something that’s…
CTP: That was with 504 games, right?
DTD: It was a box system where you could merge things together, and it would make 504 different games. And it was a brilliant proof of concept. I’m amazed he could do it. But all of the games were incredibly mediocre. There was no “spark,” because they were all made to work together perfectly. That’s always what I think about when homogeneity seems to take over in the industry.
Don’t get me wrong – I own and love the game 504, and am endlessly boggled at its jigsaw-like perfection.
CTP: Yeah, I think the fact that he did that is pretty innovative. It’s too bad that the games weren’t as exciting…
DTD: Oh, it’s unbelievable that he could make that product.
CTP: But there may be, yeah. There’s different strokes. And so, I definitely have made peace with the the concept that any product I make, is not going to have everybody love it. And frankly, if I wanted everybody to love it, it probably wouldn’t be a very good product.
DTD: It makes sense. So, have you, I think you answered this earlier, but have you gotten a chance to play many games going on? I mean, a sense of what’s going on in the industry right now?
CTP: Some. I mean, some I have.
DTD: Has anything jumped out at you, like “This mechanism is amazing,” or anything like that?
DTD: I mean, deckbuilding kind of blew up everything.
CTP: Yeah, that was the last big one, I think. I think the last really innovative thing… In this case I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think the last thing I was really excited about was KeyForge.
KeyForge used digital printing, and was able to print incredible unique decks of cards. In fact, every deck made had a different name, printed on the cards.
CTP: As a concept, but that’s more of an expression of a product, and it’s not really a mechanic.
DTD: Oh, of course. But it was really, really unique. But I mean, the board game side of it, it didn’t seem to do as well.
CTP: You mean board game, what board game side?
DTD: The board games that were made, each board game was individual, done with the printing style after KeyForge.
CTP: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That was just one of them. I wasn’t involved in that.
DTD: I feel really terrible that I can’t come up with the name of the game.
I am a bad, bad man.
CTP: It’s… Lands Unknown…? Discover! Discover Lands Unknown. Honestly, my sense about that game, is that Corey [Konieczka] made it. And I think… I just felt that, and this was after my time, I wasn’t really involved in it. I felt it was just kind of dull. The graphics were dull, and the theme was maybe not super riveting to me.
DTD: Well, I was really excited about the idea of taking the KeyForge “modular idea,” and putting it into a series of board games. I thought that was a really neat idea, but…
Using a similar algorithm and printing technique as KeyForge, every copy of Discover Lands Unknown was unique. There was of course a standard rule set, but each copy had different land types, different tiles, different cards. However, it felt as if the game were just there to exploit the new technology, and it was not itself exciting to play.
CTP: Yeah, but that was very, very hard to do. It was very expensive to make.
DTD: Oh, certainly.
CTP: We had to make a lot of games to make sense. It wasn’t done the same way as KeyForge, because many of the things, components, that go in there can’t be digitally printed.
CTP: So, they had to do it in a different way. Which was quite cumbersome, but I… That was what was done. That’s what they did, and it didn’t succeed.
Discover: Lands Unknown currently has a BGG ranking of 5875, and a rating of 5.9.
DTD: Yeah, of course.
CTP: I think it succeeded, maybe more because of the theme and the visuals and the energy that it portrayed.
DTD: It was a neat idea for a game, but you always kind of looked… You always had that FOMO of, “What if I had the desert one? Or what if I had the forest-y one?”
Those of us with completionist issues, the all-in crowd, could not wrap our heads around a board game we could not own in its entirety.
CTP: It’s just me, I’m more, like I said, I’m more your Jerry Bruckheimer of games, than your…
DTD: [laughs] I thought you were the James Cameron?
Check out last episode.
CTP: Yeah, both. Whatever one. I would love either of them. That’s fine.
CTP: But that’s kind of more where I’m at, you know – big, epic, story.
DTD: Rolling water wheels with sword fights on top.
Intentional Pirates of the Caribbean reference. I’m not sure if Christian caught it. He probably just didn’t feel it warranted acknowledgement.
CTP: Yeah, I mean, just I love that stuff. Just the bigger we can make it.
DTD: Of course.
CTP: And so, I would probably have, if I could decide the theme on that, it would probably have been something much more rollicking and visually my style.
“Rollicking.” I love the vocabulary on this man.
DTD: Sure, I get that.
CTP: But that’s, but then you have to leave the next generation to figure it out.
DTD: Of course.
CTP: But far from all of my games that I have done have been successful. There are many that have not.
DTD: Oh no, no, no. You’ve done so many.
CTP: Well, I’ve published so many games, and then not all of them successful. Even the ones that we thought were, you know, slam dunks, that were not.
DTD: Once again, you can’t predict the fickleness of the consumer.
CTP: No, you can’t. It’s just impossible.
DTD: So, did you have any, I don’t know the tactful way to say it… Do you have any ideas or guesses or anything about the current roadblock on KeyForge? “The algorithm is broken” is a very vague statement.
In September 2021, Fantasy Flight announced that the deckbuilding algorithm for KeyForge was broken, and the game would be put on hiatus until it could be fixed.
CTP: Yeah, I do know what happened there, and I think this one, I just I think I have to just plead the 5th.
DTD: I totally get it.
CTP: Yeah, I consider the programmers did a great job, but there were issues that that were very unfortunate. And it’s really a tragedy that it had to stop like that, but I I’m pretty confident they’re going to try to get it back as fast as possible.
DTD: Oh, of course. And the press release gives that sense of, you know, despair that it happened. Something very unfortunate happened, that won’t be talked about. And it’s coming back as soon as they can.
CTP: That’s exactly right.
DTD: Yeah, that’s how it reads to me. So, was there anything else that you wanted to talk about?
CTP: No, I mean, I think we can traipse back. I don’t know what hotel you are in.
Traipse! He said traipse! I got to end my interview “traipsing!” O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
DTD: Oh, I’m good at traipsing. I’m just at the Hyatt, so super easy.
CTP: I’m at the JW [Marriott].
GenCon is such an enormous convention, attendees are scattered among dozens of hotels surrounding the convention center.
DTD: Oh nice. Cool, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the dinner.
CTP: Oh, you’re welcome.
DTD: This is awesome.
CTP: Hopefully we talked enough about game design, I guess. We kind of blew off in every direction.
DTD: Oh yeah, it was great. What do you think of the wine?
We had decided to order California wine from my home county of Yolo. And it was… special. Napa county makes great wine. Yolo is also a county.
CTP: It’s OK.
DTD: Yeah, mine was… It’s real strong and peppery, and it’s not usually the thing that I want in a cab. Very forward. And it’s got a little, a little something in the back there, that I just don’t like.
CTP: I think it’s just a mass produced wine.
DTD: Yeah, it’s harsh.
CTP: It’s a bit tannic. But we can’t… That’s one of the things I spend money on, is wine.
Mark my words – all wine connoisseurs use the word “tannic.” And it tends to not be a good thing.
DTD: Yeah, you gotta have a vice.
CTP: Yeah, that is my vice. For sure. That and my hobby game store. [laughs]
DTD: Well, I mean everybody needs a hobby game store in their back yard.
And so, the humble ex-CEO of Asmodee went back to the selling floor at GenCon, anonymously shilling the wares from Gamezenter, the customers none the wiser of who was nonchalantly stocking the shelves. A very heartfelt thanks to Christian Petersen, for tolerating all my excitement fueled tom-foolery, and ironically creating one of my most comfortable interviews!