I was priviledged to hang out with an old friend and designer, Luke Laurie, the mastermind behind Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, Cryo, Dwellings of Eldervale, and the upcoming Andromeda’s Edge. I met up with Luke during KublaCon, the largest board game convention in California. The plan was to go eat with Peter Vaughan, owner of publisher Cardboard Alchemy, so Luke and I were waiting in the hotel restaurant area.
DTD: I had a good time. It was weird, I didn’t play all that many games. And I’ve been finding that, like after pandemic… I know we’re probably not after, but these few that I’ve been to, people are just enjoying being around each other more than playing the games. It’s not that obsessive “grab to play, you know, as many games as you can and in as short a period as possible.”
LL: You know, that’s an interesting thing. Is sometimes there’s… I think there’s an assumption in this field that people who play a lot of board games might be antisocial. And that they escape in games to somehow escape people, or something like that.
LL: And that may be true for some folks. But a lot of the people who come to cons, a big part of it is that social experience. And with a couple years off, and so forth. I think that people might be craving more of that social experience, then the games. And I think that might be what we’re seeing.
I know in the many cons Ive been to recently, people are absolutely desperate to get out and socialize. KublaCon was the first con where I felt this sense of gamers putting friendships and socializing first, the actual games second.
DTD: I was surprised by how many people I bumped into, who said this was their first con. This was the… ever. You know, not just for two years, but this was the first one they’ve ever done.
LL: I’m also noticing, so this is like their first con… Like, are these younger people? Are these people of all ages?
DTD: All ages. My age to 20’s.
I have become the measuring stick for “old.”
LL: And then… Yeah, I’m also noticing that there are folks that… Because we’ve been online so much these last few years, some people have fostered new relationships, met new people online, and then they’re connecting for the first time at a con.
DTD: Oh, yeah.
LL: Or maybe it’s somebody, maybe it’s somebody you knew in passing before, but for whatever reason connected with, over these time periods online.
DTD: Yeah. I know I’ve met, or at least I’ve become closer with a whole bunch of people just on Discord, and playing and stuff.
Greetings to the Pandemic Happy Hour crowd on Zoom.
LL: In fact, you reached out to me right about the time the pandemic started.
DTD: I know – it’s been like a year.
LL: And then we were like trying to make a connection. And it’s like, “Well, forget that. We’re not going to get together.” And then…
DTD: I know!
LL: And then, various other circumstances. And here we are.
DTD: Yeah. And during… When the pandemic started, I was doing a lot of these dinner/breakfast things online. I did a lot of Zoom meetings. You know, kind of took advantage of, “Well, I guess I’ll reach out to Australia and New Zealand and places I’m probably not going to go.”
Thank you to Shem Phillips, Phil Walker-Harding, and all my Australasia connections.
LL: And that’s crept into lots of aspects of the industry, too. So a lot of pitching of games is happening online now.
DTD: Oh yeah.
LL: And that that would have been unheard of a decade ago.
DTD: I think it brought TTS [Tabletop Simulator] and Tabletopia to a really, a forefront of game design. Which is why we’re going to see so many dexterity games coming out in the next couple years… [laughs]
Digital board gaming is nothing new, and the two premiere online gaming platforms, Tabletopia (2016) and TTS (2015), certainly outdate the pandemic by quite a few years. But during pandemic, designers and developers were forced to playtest online, which certainly caused a paradigm shift within the industry.
And you cannot simulate or test dexterity games well online.
LL: Huh. That’s sarcasm, right? It’s a… The dexterity of an online game is a completely different dexterity, right? It’s like…
DTD: I don’t know there’s any way to do it.
LL: You know, you grab the object, and it randomly flips and reorients itself. And then pretty soon you have impossible stacking that couldn’t occur in nature.
DTD: I know!
LL: Objects get stuck inside of other objects.
Anyone who has done extensive playtesting online knows the pain of accidentally flinging all of your pieces off the table into space.
DTD: I’m trying to keep an eye out now for the new games that start coming out, that you know were designed during pandemic. Are there hints that they were made on TTS or Tabletopia? You know, the things that you don’t really find until you have a physical copy in front of you. Did people worry about limitations of how many pieces you have on the board, rather than an infinite bucket? Or space, or visualization?
LL: That’s a super good point, because you know I find as I’m doing my work, there are situations where I can give an instruction that says, “Well, draw this card. Take this little bit, move it up that track. And then grab a little token from over here.” And it’s like, in the real world, that takes you a couple of seconds. And then in online, it’s like, “Where are those tokens? Oh, it’s over here.” And, “OK, I gotta move the thing on…” The scripting can take care of some of that if you’ve got that kind of stuff loaded in.
DTD: But then, the scripting can falsely help you, and make you forget that people need to actually do things; How many times you shuffle, and reloading and set up, and…
LL: That’s a good point, too. Yeah. I play a lot of Hearthstone online. That’s kind-of like, my zone-out app thing, when I don’t really want to do anything else. And Hearthstone is full of things that are beautifully implemented, instantaneously as triggers and responses to other things.
Hearthstone is a digital deck-building card game published by Blizzard Entertainment in 2014.
LL: And if you were to implement that, some of those mechanics in tabletop, it would be just egregiously, overwhelmingly cumbersome.
DTD: You would be designing a video game.
LL: To carry out the shuffle, to count this thing out. To look for this, to constantly be checking for those conditional… Like, the Boolean logic of when this thing triggers. And instead, it just does all the math for you. And so, you can make different kinds of games with those scripts, then without them. And yeah, it does change the design constraints for sure. For me, I’m not leaning into the online stuff, though essentially all of my recent games have been ported. And so, all of my games are absolutely designed to be played, you know, in person with real bits, real physical manipulation.
DTD: You started with physical prototypes, and how does it feel to see it, to move it, to…
LL: Every time, yeah. And I’m into that tactile experience, so I’m into that spatial side of things. I’m into how it fits on a table.
LL: And I find that some of those things really, kind of inform what makes the game fun. So, they may or may not translate as well to those online versions, but we were super lucky with… A lot of this kind of ramped up about the same time that Dwellings of Eldervale came out.
Dwellings of Eldervale was a successful Kickstarter from Summer 2019, raising over $500,000. The game delivered right smack in the heat of the pandemic, in November 2020.
LL: And Dwellings of Eldervale had a solo mode. And so, it was like – pandemic hit, and there are a lot of games that just like, they didn’t get released. Or they were released, and didn’t get noticed.
DTD: Delayed forever…
LL: My other game, Cryo, may not have got noticed as much in in all of that, but Dwellings of Eldervale, there was a whole lot of people who just started playing it solo. Or were interacting with it on Tabletop Simulator.
DTD: Oh yeah.
Cryo released to retail in April 2021.
LL: And so, that created a buzz out there, that was really surprising. And it didn’t take a hit at all from the pandemic.
Luke and I had been hanging out in the Atrium of the hotel, waiting for Peter Vaughan to arrive for breakfast. Sure enough, Peter and his son James came up the escalators right at this moment.
DTD: You guys are good being on an interview? [laughs]
LL: Good morning. I’m going to drive, take us over to Peter’s Café, and we are going to finally experience that.
PV: So, we’re not going to go to Stacks?
LL: Apparently it’s pretty crowded.
DTD: I gave them a ring, and they said it was really crowded over there.
The original plan was to eat in the breakfast restaurant near the convention hotel, for convenience. Unfortunately, this was every else’s idea this morning as well.
LL: So, we’re going to go to a place that I have a fondness for, and it may not be special at all to you, but it’s…
DTD: I’m excited about anything!
PV: It’s my café!
DTD: Yeah, we better get a discount. I hope you don’t mind, I’m recording. So, if you’ve got any issues…
PV: It’s fine. No.
DTD: And that’s usually my jam, is I end up with a big old recording, and then I transcribe it and maybe I edit it, maybe I don’t.
LL: So, this is actually going to be my first actual meal since I got to San Francisco. I have not eaten food in a restaurant.
PV: Just been… Oh, wow.
LL: Well, it’s a little bit of a slam.
DTD: I think I had just a breakfast in this little cafe every morning. And then just usually didn’t eat the rest of the day. Found something, snacked on something.
James: Yeah, I had breakfast…
LL: I had crackers, peanut butter, etc. all weekend.
James: We did go get a burger once. It was good.
DTD: That’s cool.
PV: In future years, our budget will include bringing food directly to the designers. [laughs]
DTD: Ah, so mental note – Cardboard Alchemy does not feed their talent.
James: The FlameCraft Dragons eat for themselves only.
PV: Yes, we had a great time hearing about dragons who roast food at the table.
Flamecraft was originally Kickstarted and published by Cardboard Alchemy.
We were all walking out of the hotel, and Peter, ever the gentleman, held the door for us.
DTD: Thank you, sir.
PV: Thank you.
LL: Yeah, it’s warm.
DTD: It’s so hot over by me…
PV: Yeah, California doesn’t know much about weather differences.
DTD: No, no. We usually joke about the LA weathermen.
PV: Yeah, like, “Today… It’s about the same as it was yesterday.”
While Luke is from Santa Maria in Central California, Peter is actually from LA, so the weatherman joke was definitely aimed at him. I stole it from the 1991 movie LA Story.
DTD: I think you could pre-record a couple weeks in advance.
PV: Yeah. It’s funny there, for a little bit it was… It’ll do the… One week it’s like 90 out of nowhere, then it’ll go back to 60.
DTD: Oh yeah.
LL: Snag – I don’t have my key.
PV: Oh, beautiful.
DTD: Oh, not a worry.
For reference, we are currently standing in one parking lot, staring impotently at Luke’s car, while my car was in another parking lot on the other side of the hotel.
LL: Your car is over on the other side? And you have your key?
DTD: It’s by the pool, yeah.
LL: Let’s go, we’ll just head to your car.
DTD: Oh sure.
LL: My apologies.
DTD: No worries at all.
LL: This is going in the recording, right?
Oh, it’s going in.
DTD: Oh, it’s going in. That’s all right. I… Where was it? I did an interview with Tim Fowers.
PV: Oh great, yeah.
DTD: And we were talking and chatting and having a great old time, and we wandered out, and got him in his car. And I realized I had dined and dashed. I never paid. I just wandered out, talking.
PV: Oh wow.
DTD: And I was in my car and starting to leave, and I panicked and ran back out to the restaurant to pay the bill.
I am not a very competant criminal.
PV: I don’t think I’ve had one of those, but that sounds nerve wracking.
LL: You’re making me think maybe I have at some point, and… don’t even know it. So across the pool?
DTD: Yeah, you know where the pool and the fitness center are? See, we should have just walked to the restaurant.
LL: It’s 2 miles. It’d be a 40-minute walk.
Luke knew of Peter’s Cafe because he would walk around the convention center every morning. So a 2 mile walk to Pete’s was no big deal. I, however, am old and sedentary.
James: Sounds good to me. I can walk that far.
DTD: Oh, this is killing me.
What was actually killing me here was a broken escalator. Right in the middle of the convention space. Unavoidable.
LL: You don’t like, the trampoline? The bouncing up and down?
DTD: Mostly it bugs me that the broken escalator is not just stairs.
James: They should make this one way.
DTD: That would be good.
LL: Maybe it’s a big gaping hole.
James: Or a slip and slide.
PV: Different time for sure.
LL: So, I think there may be one more game of Andromeda’s Edge at 11.
Andromeda’s Edge is Luke Laurie’s new title, described as Dwellings of Eldervale in space. It is a worker placement game, where players put their shipos into space to collect resources and defeat enemies. Upon recalling the ships, they can activate various space station modules. Luke has been demoing the game at many conventions, and KublaCon is no exception.
PV: Oh yeah?
LL: Got somebody from up here, who’s a big fan of Dwellings, who wants to play. But we’ll see if it connects.
PV: Did you want to get the… Did you want to have the key to go in that same room, or do you want to do it somewhere else?
LL: The key might be good. You’ll be going by then, probably?
PV: Yeah. We’re leaving right after this, so I’m going to give you the banners. And I could give you the banners and the key if you like.
LL: I’m sure there’s going to be flexibility, but I’ll take the key in case.
DTD: Do you have a full table?
LL: I don’t have a plan, so there’s no full table. But if you want to get in on that, you’re welcome.
DTD: I’d love to join if you’re not worried about time. Because I know the time will go up the more people you put in there.
I was able to play that game of Andromeda’s Edge, and it was epic.
LL: It’ll be, it’ll take a good three-hour chunk inevitably, combining teaching and playing.
LL: I’m not terribly worried about the time. You know, once you commit for 2 1/2 hours, you’re committed for three hours.
DTD: Oh, of course. I’d love that.
LL: So yeah, we are finding first place, especially, longer on this game. Because of the weight. But, let’s see… different.
DTD: Yeah, there’s that weird little wall, walking around the pool.
We had made it back outside, walking through an outdoor patio area, on the way to the parking lot.
LL: Are they still using this pavilion for something? They can put the Protospiel out here. All the designers would be in the tent.
Protospiel is a commonly used term for a semi-public showing of prototype board games at a convention. There are a lot of different Protospiel groups around, some related, some not.
LL: Yeah. Well, it’s this [pointing]. The pavilion right here.
Passer By: Where the auction was.
DTD: Oh, the auction was there?
PV: There’s lots of parts of this convention I missed!
DTD: Oh yeah. I ran into the LARPers yesterday.
LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, is something I am fascinated with, have never tried, but always kind of want to get involved with. Maybe I just want to scream “Fireball!” and whip a tennis ball at someone.
PV: Oh wow.
LL: It’s an interesting space.
DTD: It’s a neat hotel. They’ve been in it a long ole time. But I’m afraid they’re outgrowing it a bit.
For years KublaCon has been held in the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, which is a cool hotel with a large open central courtyard. However, the convention has gotten large enough that two extra overflow hotels have been used in the past few years.
PV: Yeah, I felt bad for the last couple years, when we… Couple times ago, we had to stay in the fair plus hotel. And I was like, “Yeah, this is getting too big for this.”
LL: OK, are we good without masks at this point? We are going to be eating next to each other.
DTD: Sure. This is it. [my car] Should be open when I’m standing next to it.
PV: Alright dude.
DTD: You got the handle? You just push and then…
PV: Oh, nice. Do this side?
The door handles on the Tesla tend to throw people off. They usually require a little instruction.
DTD: I apologize for my masks laying around.
LL: This is my first ride in a Tesla.
DTD: Oh, it’s like a bad video game.
LL: I know all kinds of people have Teslas, and I’ve never ridden in one.
DTD: I’m very happy with it. Pretty easy to find places to charge, I’ve got a good range on it.
LL: Alright, I’ll get the navigation here going, and I’ll try not to lose us.
DTD: I got it.
LL: Oh, yours can just drive us there with telling it.
DTD: Yeah, just fall asleep, let it go… No, it’s not that good.
On my drive to GenCon from California, I let “TesLarry” drive most of the way with minimal input from me.
PV: Oh, that’s funny. I just typed in… So, we’re going to Peter’s Cafe. I type in ‘Peter,’ and right away it says Peter Vaughan, and it shows me somewhere in Burbank. [laughs]
DTD: Are we driving Peter’s house?
PV: I mean, we can drive to the new Cardboard Alchemy studio.
DTD: I think I’m not quite prepped for that drive.
Approximately 400 miles. I mean, I was ready to do it, but it was going to take a few hours.
PV: I’ve done the drive up a couple of times, and I have done it with James, too. He greatly prefers the flight.
PV: But I like the driving. In fact, I’m going to do the drive, the same distance, in a week. I’m going to fly into Origins [Game Fair] early, then drive the distance of San Francisco [to LA] to Noah Adelman. Have a meeting. Play a couple Andromeda Edge [games]. Then drive back to Origins. Right, you know, he’s like, “Why? Are you crazy?” I was like, “I Actually I kind of like the drive.”
Noah Adelman is the owner of Game Trayz and lives in St Louis. Origins Game Fair is held in Columbus, Ohio, 417 miles away.
DTD: I’m driving to GenCon.
DTD: I’m going to pick up Mark Streed on the way.
PV: Oh, that’s awesome.
DTD: Looking forward to it. We’ll take a couple days, take it slow and easy.
I can report that Mark and I did drive to GenCon, and it was amazing. We even saw the world’s largest ketchup bottle in Collinsville, IL.
LL: I’ve always wanted to do that, but Gen Con is right when I start school.
DTD: Oh yeah.
LL: On the on the best years, I have a week off after Gen Con before school starts. But the worst years it’s the week after I start school. And those ones are the worst, because I have done it, and it’s, you know, it’s red-eyes both ways. It’s taking a couple days off. Very tricky.
LL: But yeah, this year it’ll be… I’ll fly back and then I’ll be working that day.
PV: The trickiest part, Luke, is someday we need to figure out how to get you to… Gotta get you to Essen one time. But that’s going to require a substitute.
LL: A sabbatical.
DTD: Yeah, I love Essen. I really do.
PV: It’s the best.
The Internationale Spieltage in Essen Germany is widely considered the largest board game convention in the world. The show itself centers around shopping and new releases, with plenty of food and demos.
DTD: GenCon I really don’t like. It’s really stressful, and I don’t enjoy it.
LL: But you’re going to drive all the way there, to something you don’t enjoy?
PV: That’s more relaxing than GenCon! [laughs]
DTD: Yeah, yeah. And the driving is more relaxing than the flight.
LL: Yeah, that flight can be a little tough. Though, I don’t find those airports to be particularly bad.
PV: With the price of airline tickets now, because I had to look at Origins and GenCon and so forth… I started wondering if there will be a trip where I just do a train and get some board games out…
DTD: Oh, that would be cool.
PV: Right get some board games out on the train? And then just take the time.
James: Train and Board!
DTD: That would be awesome.
LL: Play train games the whole way there!
DTD: That’s it.
James: Ticket to Ride on Ticket to Ride on a train.
DTD: Ticket to Ride, First Class, Pacific Rails. Can do the whole gamut.
LL: I love trains, and I would love to take a ride on a train.
DTD: It’s on my list. There’s a real nice… Well, I mean you’re relatively close to it, too. There’s the Starlight Express, goes up and down California. I’ve been wanting to do that for so long.
The train in California is simply known as the Coast Starlight, and it does have amazing views. Starlight Express is a long running disco rollerskating broadway play.
James: What if there was like a convention on a train for multiple days.
LL: We’ve got the Surfliner too.
LL: What if it went all the way around the equator, just again and again and again? Just to keep moving so it wouldn’t freeze? [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] There’s a book there somewhere. Not a movie, that would be crazy.
LL: I’m still confused by the science of that, but oh well.
PV: And a silly movie…?
LL: Yeah, Snowpiercer.
DTD: Yeah, the movie is insane. Have you heard the spoiler backstory with Snowpiercer?
LL: Wait, you’re going to put this in your recording?!?
Oh yeah, it’s going in. Last spoiler warning everyone.
DTD: Maybe! I don’t know… If you don’t want to hear it, then…
LL: Spoiler backstory…’
James: I want to hear it.
DTD: It’s the sequel to Willy Wonka.
LL: Fair enough.
DTD: Every character in Snowpiercer is one of the kids. And the big W on the train. And there’s a lot of strange hints… He talks about, “He used to have small people who would crawl into the engines and keep them running for him. Wizards with technology, but they only survived in warm climates, so they died off.” There’s a lot of that in the movie. It’s too much to be coincidence.
James: Yeah, wow. It’s Willy Wonka. You’ve convinced me.
The theory was originally put forward by Rhino Stew in this youtube video. It is worth a watch.
DTD: It’s so bizarre.
LL: That sounds fascinating and wrong.
DTD: It is fascinating and wrong, but I think it’s one of the only selling points for the movie.
PV: I know. I kind of now want to see all the different train cars again, and go “Oh, OK…”
DTD: Yeah, the assassin is Mike Teavee. They all match up really well. It’s very strange.
Come back next time for some hearty breakfast at Peter’s Cafe, where we talk about Santa Maria, Luke’s early history in politics, and of course games. Tidbit 1: Peter did not get a discount. Tidbit 2: There is Spam involved.