As all good things must eventually come to an end, my GAMA lunch with Eric Lang is coming to its scheduled close. Eric told me at the start that he had an appointment, and we are cutting that time limit pretty close. Eric had just been talking about forming strong bonds with early members at Cool Mini or Not, and forming a super team to eventually create Blood Rage with businessman David Preti and artist Adrian Smith.
EML: But that relationship, that is very much a… Wow. Pretentious. Super-group type of arrangement.
DTD: No, that happens, I mean…
EML: We’re all in different bands. We are just like, “We’re going to collaborate on these three games.”
Blood Rage was of course the first in an eventual trilogy from CMoN.
DTD: That’s just awesome.
EML: Over time. I mean, we didn’t know we were going to do a trilogy. But when the next, when Rising Sun came up, there was no question who was going to be the producer, no question who was going to be the artist.
DTD: You already had your group.
EML: We had the group. Don’t want to work with anybody else. That’s right.
DTD: That’s so cool. No, you can feel it. You could feel that it was the same team, doing the different angle.
EML: Yup, first album, second album, third one. That’s right.
DTD: Well, it sure felt it. That was very cool.
EML: And I’m really, really glad. Like, they were a little upset when I told them Ankh [Gods of Egypt] was going to be the last one.
EML: They were a little upset. I’m like, A) So these mythologies, this was not… Those mythologists were not chosen at random. They were chosen because I grew up with, same grandmother, with a book of folk tales and legends. It was a German book of folk tales and legends for children.
And B) this interviewer tends to interrupt quite a bit.
EML: And I obsessed over it for years. And of course, it was a German interpretation of it, so it was really f—ed up.
DTD: I had a similar obsessive set of books.
EML: And my memory, right? My memory of those books, I never took it home. My memory ended up editing those even more.
DTD: Of course.
EML: And I was obsessed over four of those mythologies, right? I was obsessed with the Egyptian, the Japanese, and the Viking ones. To a degree, I was also semi-obsessed with the Knights of Round Table one…
EML: But I was never into… Not the Knights of Round table stories. Like, never Merlin. But it was always like Siegfried and Kriemhild, or Beowulf and Grendel. Like I was into the micro-stories.
Siegfriend and Kriemhild are main characters from Germanic folklore, as in The Song of the Nibelungs. Siegfrieg is promised the princess Kriemhild’s hand if he can get the warrior-queen Brünhild to marry his buddy Gunther. but then Kriemhild and Brünhild get into a big fight, and Siegfried is killed by one of Kriemhild’s people. Oh, and there’s a dragon. Just like soap operas.
DTD: I’ve got this giant German book of Ring of the Nibelung, that’s all the paintings, and it’s got the mythology.
The Ring is a series of Wagner operas based on the story.
EML: That’s right. That’s right, so that’s not going to be a mythic game. And I was also obsessed with Greek mythology. The reason I didn’t go… Greek was going to be the first game, honestly. I’m sorry, the second game, after Blood Rage. But like, when I looked out there, I looked at my game shelf, and at the market. And there’s so many games about Greek gods. And I mean, I was a big fan of Cyclades. So, I’m like, “Nah.”
2009’s Cyclades by designers Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc is a fantastic area control game driven by a simple auction mechanic in which the players bid for gods’ favors. Interestingly, Cyclades is considered the first in its own loose trilogy, followed by Kemet and Inis.
EML: There’s too many good ones [Greek mythology games] out there now. Plus I had this really nice… I knew what I want to do with Rising Sun. I was like, I’m going to make a Diplomacy…
Eric has stated that Blood Rage was his take on the clasic Risk, while Rising Sun was inspired by Diplomacy. I pressed Eric some years ago as to the inspiration for Ankh, and he told me then that there was, in fact, no classic game in the background that time around.
Waiter: Excuse. I’m sorry. Are you doing OK?
DTD: No, we’re good. Thank you.
Waiter: I’m only checking. Take your time.
DTD: OK, thank you.
EML: Oh, you can take this by the way. [offering plate] It was good, I’m just pretty full. Thank you.
DTD: Sorry, I make you talk the whole time.
Definitely a failing of mine. Doing an interview over meals reinforces the fact that you cannot eat and talk at the same time.
EML: Oh, no worries. That’s not your fault at all. I never finish lunch because of this. I knew Rising Sun was going to be “Diplomacy in Japan,” right?
DTD: And the Japanese mythology and the art meshes with that game structure so well.
EML: Right, right, Exactly right. And it has to. It wasn’t super deliberative… Sorry, it was deliberate, but it wasn’t deliberated, right?
EML: There was no… Like, I knew what Blood Rage needed to be immediately. And I never went in any other direction. Rising Sun – immediately, no other direction. Ankh was a different story. Ankh I actually went through several different versions. And it was…
DTD: There was a bigger time gap there, too, so you could kind of feel that.
It felt longer, but like with so many things, I was completely wrong. Blood Rage released in 2015, Rising Sun in 2018, and Ankh: Gods of Egypt in 2021. 3 years each. Like clockwork.
Editor: Actually, if you look at the Kickstarter Campaigns, there were 748 days between Blood Rage and Rising Sun, then 1127 days until the Ankh Campaign. A 50% longer gap. Vindication.
EML: Well, it was probably… I didn’t have, like I didn’t have… I didn’t even have the “Oh, obviously you’re the Gods,” until like the 4th version of it.
EML: Which is why I threw the other versions away. The other versions were basically “Rising Sun with pyramids.” Which was like, “fine.” But Rising Sun exists. I don’t want to do another Diplomacy game. I don’t want to compete with the other two games.
EML: Anyway… And Ankh kind of broke me partially, because A) I wanted to do the third act twist, and make it a little different from the other two.
And B) Did I mention this interviewer interrupts the flow of consciousness much too often?
EML: I wanted a slightly different approach. And it was the 8th big box board game I designed or co-designed in three years. After that, I was like, “I’m done. I’m done, man.”
DTD: You were cranking them out.
EML: I’m intensely proud of all the work we did, but we’re at a point now, where I’m like, “Ugh, another game… Alright, what do I do?” Like, I never want to do that.
DTD: So, it seems like right now you’ve gone more to an administrative, mentorship kind of position. Is that part of getting burned out, on just cranking so many games, or am I totally off?
EML: No… Well, I mean it must look like that, right? So no, I’ve always been doing mentorship. I’ve just never formalized it.
EML: And of course… Well, and also I wasn’t doing the work of specifically looking for… I’ve always wanted to mentor. Well, not always, but like the last 10 years. I want to mentor diverse artists and stuff. But I didn’t, I made the mistake of like, “Alright, come to me, and I’ll mentor you.” That’s not how you do it. Because you’re not going to get diverse, marginalized community members. In a field where they’re looking around, going like, “We’re not welcome here,” I had to go out and find them. And actively search for them, prejudicially search for them. Spend years establishing trust in communities, like a general sense of trust. Like, “I’m a safe person to mentor you. I will work with you.”
EML: So, I’ve only formalized that recently. And part of that, is like several of the mentees that I’ve had over the years, have now… Like Omari [Akil] and Fertessa [Allyse] and Eric Slauson, Jay Bell. They’re becoming superstars now, so it’s highly visible.
DTD: Yeah! But that’s what you want. You know, you want them to move on.
EML: That’s what I want. But it’s honestly… I do it part time. I’m still a game designer. I’m still primarily motivated to make games. With Exploding Kittens…
Eris has been working with publisher Exploding Kittens wince leaving CMoN in 2020.
DTD: And see, it felt like you were on more of an administrative role, overseeing other productions.
EML: As a creator. As a creative.
DTD: But maybe that’s just the silence.
EML: Yeah, it’s the silence. Exactly. Every game that Exploding Kitten has worked on in the last two years, I worked on. I do design on them all. I’m not the lead designer, but I work on them. I have a stable of my own games, my own family games, that I’ve been pitching quietly in the background. I can’t talk about them.
DTD: Oh, sure, sure. I liked Sidekicks.
Disney Sidekicks, published by Spin Master, is a cooperative title where the players are famous sidekicks from the movies, working to become heroes in their own right.
EML: I will have… Yeah, Sidekicks, phew… That’s a… [looking at watch] S–t, I can’t, I’m going to have to go very soon.
DTD: Not a worry.
EML: I’d love to talk about SideKicks. I’m very proud of what I did, but I think… That’s one of the few projects I wish I could do over from the start. Because there was a lot of miscommunication about what that game… That game has the biggest identity crisis I’ve ever seen, and it was 100% based on miscommunication between creatives and myself.
The game was not well received, and generally critics thought it could not find its own identity. It appeared to sell to children, but was maybe too difficult a coop title for that audience.
DTD: Oh man. Well, if you’ve got to go, I am totally fine with that, because that’s an excuse for me to have a part 2 at some point.
EML: Sure! Hell ya.
Quoted here! I have it on tape! I’m holding Eric to this. It will hold up in court.
DTD: And then I can just go from, “OK, now we’re at Exploding Kittens.”
EML: Oh yeah, and depends on when part 2 comes. But I, a bunch of the family games I’ve been working on might be coming out. Which would be really cool. I don’t think I have any games coming out this year, unless it’s legacy games from CMoN, but like… I’ve worked on, like 6 titles that have not been released or even announced yet.
EML: So, I don’t know if they’re going to get announced. Maybe they got canned. Oh wait, no, no, no. We announced… No, they announced Cyberpunk [2077: Gangs of Night City]
DTD: Yeah, OK.
The Kickstarter Campaign or Cyberpunk 2077: Gangs of Night City occurred between this interview and now, and the campaign raised $886,783 from 6,345 backers. Credited designers are Andrea Chiarvesio, Eric M. Lang, Alexio Schneeberger, and Francesco Rugerfred Sedda.
EML: So, I was the lead on Cyberpunk for years.
DTD: Oh wow, OK.
EML: We just, we back-burnered it for a while, because… for external reasons.
EML: So maybe that’s coming out. I haven’t worked on it in a long time. Like it was in the can.
DTD: How about taking more pictures?
EML: Sure. These new family games. They are the product of where my thinking is now.
EML: The kind of games… Marvel United is a pretty good window into the way I think about family games.
DTD: Yeah, and I was leery, but I thought it’s a really nice, elegant, kind of play-well game.
Marvel United, co-designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Eric M. Lang, is a fairly light, family level, cooperative game utilizing a jillion of the Marvel Characters. The origina Marvel United currently ranks at 345 on BoardGameGeek, and the followup Marvel United: X-Men ranks at 1011.
EML: I wanted to, like I wanted to pull CMoN in that direction, and they weren’t ready.
Marvel United was Kickstarted by CMoN in March 2020 and there was some pushback regarding the cute, chibi-style art used in the title, plus the lightness of gameplay. Regardless, the campaign earned $2,866,168 from 21,290 backers.
EML: And honestly, they were right. Like, they’ve got, they have a wheelhouse. They have a core competency. Of course, they should be doing that.
DTD: They’ve got an expectation. They’ve got a brand.
EML: And I thought, I think Marvel United fits in that brand. But it does sit somewhat askew.
EML: But that’s what I want to do. So we split amicably, right?
DTD: Of course.
In August 2020, it was announced that Eric Lang would be stepping down from his executive position as Director of Game Design in order to focus on design and activism. As Eric had been very vocal online for some time, and people being people, rumors abounded. Both CMoN and Eric have insisted the split was mutual and amiable.
EML: Like, I want to do these kind of games. And I want to do more games like Gizmos, and that I brought in, and co-designed. So, ironically, all the designers whose games I’ve worked on, I’ve now collected like Pokémon. I’m now co-designing games myself, with them. So, I’ve got a game with Phil Walker-Harding coming at some point.
DTD: Well, Gizmos was also with Phil [Walker-Harding], right?
EML: But that was a Phil Harding design. I did not…
DTD: Yeah, because I talked with Phil, and we talked about the whole history behind it, and all this stuff.
Phil and I ate sushi over zoom. Cause, you know, Sushi Go… I thought it was clever…
EML: OK, good, yeah. So, I did a lot of development work, and all the product design. But the, like… Well, he came to me with this clever little card game. And I was like, “Yeah, it’s not bad. I love the game, but no, no, it’s this.”
DTD: He said it was a monumental civilization-building, too many details… And it kept getting stripped and stripped and stripped. It was a great story.
EML: Right, I love that. And I love Phil. Phil’s amazing. But I’m also doing a lot more games… [looks at watch] S–t. Do you mind if we…? We can walk and talk, if you don’t mind going to registration. That’s where I’m meeting…
Phil Walker-Harding was amazingly friendly and convivial. I highly recommend dining with him.
DTD: Not in the least little bit. I don’t want to keep you, but I will keep this running.
EML: Almost there, yeah. [Looking at phone] He’s telling me, “Let’s not be late!” That’s a very polite way of saying “Hurry the f— up.”
DTD: Don’t even worry about it.
EML: We’re off to get, I have to get my antigen test at the airport.
DTD: Oh, to get back in?
EML: Yeah, he actually told me we are all set. But then he got me the wrong kind of tests. So like, “Alright well, so let’s go do it at the airport.”
DTD: Yeah. I have run into that as well.
Ah, modern problems in the age of pandemic. Right tests. Right times. Right places.
EML: Anyway, it’s… There’s a lot of cool s–t coming.
DTD: Well, I’m glad to hear that.
EML: But I think this is going to be a slow year for me, to the outside world. But, I mean 2023 is going to be huge!
DTD: Well, we all know you’ve just been sitting around and doing nothing for years and years.
EML: That’s right.
DTD: That’s what we all assume. Are you going to the Gathering [of Friends]?
EML: Oh yeah.
The Gathering of Friends is an invitation-only convention run by Alan R. Moon, the designer of Ticket to Ride. It is mostly populated by people in the industry, designers, publishers, industry professionals, and it is a hot bed of game testing, prototypes, and deal making. I have no idea at all why they let me in.
Short summary – I went. It was great. Eric was there. I may have gone to dinner with my next guest there…
DTD: So, this will be my first year at Gathering, so I’m excited.
EML: Sweet! Oh, I didn’t know you were going. Ohmygod, it is my most productive 10 days of the year.
DTD: That’s awesome.
EML: For a lot of reasons. One of those reasons, is because Niagara Falls, USA is a piece of s–t. It’s awful.
DTD: [laughs] Every person has told me this. I’ve heard “desert of humanity.” I’ve heard, “No restaurants, no food.”
Honestly, I kind of liked the town. It was small, cold, and somewhat northeast-industrial, but I quite liked it.
EML: [working on phone]
DTD: No worries.
EML: I was going to try to alter the plans, but that never works. That never works.
DTD: [laughs] Certainly never comes back.
EML: I have got to meet Tony by registration. I hope I don’t… I hope it’s not a repeat of what we did!
I was supposed to meet Eric in a specific location at a specific time during the GAMA Expo. And I waited. Somehow, we ended up completely missing each other until Eric called me from the restaurant. So, if not for my inability to find the only person at GAMA that looks exactly like Eric Lang, the meal may have been 20 minutes longer. But I wouldnt be able to tell this story!
DTD: Oh, my goodness. Well, I got to you first, so I come out ahead.
EML: [laughs] That’s right! Oh yeah, this way. I know where we are.
DTD: And to the right, isn’t it? Very cool. Well, if I don’t get a chance to say so, this was great. I really appreciate it.
EML: Oh good, I’m glad. I love “more conversational.”
DTD: Oh, and I could talk all day. I’m the same.
EML: But it’s not about that. So, to me, this wasn’t an interview. This was just a fun conversation.
DTD: And that’s what I aim for.
Corey Thompson. “Not-Interviewer.”
EML: I love hearing your point of view, and it was actually back and forth.
DTD: Oh sure. So, I’m going to go ahead and stop this, then.
And so ends another not-interview with a wonderview not-interviewee. A huge thank you to Eric Lang, who I know is extremely busy. We had been trying to make this happen for years, and it was well worth the wait. I will do everything in my power to try and make it happen again for a part two. I hear Exploding Kittens headquarters is drivable from my neck of the woods…