Welcome back to breakfast with Luke Laurie, designer of Dwellings of Eldervale and many others, and Peter Vaughan, founder of Cardboard Alchemy. We are at Peter’s Cafe in Millbrae, California. Mostly because Luke thought it was funny. The KublaCon convention has wound down in the San Francisco Bay area, and we are talking about legos, game design, and food.
DTD: You talked about Lego robots.
DTD: I was into that for a while in the early days of MindStorm.
LL: Like late 90’s?
DTD: I think. I would say late 80’s.
It appears my mind was mixing up events again. The Lego MindStorm was not released until September of 1998, however I remember a computer controlled Lego Interface earlier than that. It might be I was privvy to an early grey box version, or I might just be losing my mind.
LL: The early ones with the yellow bricks.
DTD: Yeah. Well, the technique yellow bricks in the 80’s, and then they integrated in the one little module in the early 90’s, late 80’s?
I certainly had many Lego Technic sets in the 1980s. I clearly remember the helicopter, the truck, and the go cart.
LL: It was… The original one that was called Mindstorms was mid 90’s around. And that’s when I started buying them.
DTD: I’m off a little bit.
Luke knows so much more about the Mindstorms product line than I do.
LL: And I outfitted my whole, Uh, my whole class. And then I got involved in grants with University of California Santa Barbara Mechanical Engineering Department.
DTD: That is so cool.
Go Gaucho Joe!
LL: And we outfitted about a dozen schools, and then we would hold annual competitions. So that was, that was my first experience with doing stuff like educational grant writing and coordinating. And we did that for… We carried on the robot stuff for like about seven or eight years, but I carried it on at my own school site for 25 years.
DTD: Ooah, I think that is so awesome. That would have… When I was a kid, agreed they weren’t around when I was a kid, but it would have dragged me in so much. It would have just grabbed me and never let me go.
LL: It does. It really, really does.
DTD: But I was… I was in academia, and grant writing and all that. Neuroscience. And what I was going to bring up, is there was a group that actually completely mapped the nervous system of one of the nematodes. C. Elegans. And they took that map and programmed a Mindstorm to have the complete neurologic make up of this worm.
LL: Nice. Nice. That’s fantastic.
DTD: And it kind of worked. [laughs] It was like a Lego worm.
I could not find the original from when I was in grasduate school in the mid0late 90’s, but here is a more recent group that did the same thing.
LL: So yeah, my robots are a little less informed, and they had a tendency to just fight.
DTD: [laughs] And you’ve talked to Gil [Hova], of course, right?
LL: Yeah, so I have talked to Gil. Gil and I both designed a game for Minion Games at various times, and we have friends of friends as well.
DTD: OK. I know he’s so into the BattleBots and battling robots and…
LL: He’s into BattleBots. So, I have several friends who do BattleBots.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome.
DTD: Oh wow, OK.
LL: And he’s one of the announcers currently on BattleBots. Or judges, whatever they call them for BattleBots currently. And he was a UCSB student, so he was actually tangentially involved with those grants that I worked on.
DTD: Oh, how cool.
LL: But he built Legos. He was really into Legos, so he actually prototyped some of his BattleBots in Lego form. And he would bring his BattleBots to events that I would bring kids to. And then some of my other friends were involved in RoboGames in San Francisco.
LL: Which was also connected with BattleBots. And I would go to those, and I competed in Lego Sumo, and some other stuff. All of this stuff was a lot of fun.
Lego Sumo involves essentially building a battle bot out of Lego and Mindstorms. The arena is standardized, and the first to push their opponent out of the arena or flip it over is the victor.
DTD: You’re just hitting every point, that is just making my mind spin in happy ways.
LL: So, at every at every given point in my life, there was some kind of side creative thing. And I really focused on that for about a decade. Doing my own building, and then also working on, you know, developing those techniques to better teach kids.
LL: Through a lot of that time period, because I teach Junior High… For a lot of that time period I felt like the work is not that deep, in terms of teaching actual physics, teaching actual engineering. But it is absolutely that spark. So many of my students, like at least 40 of my former students from these things, are engineers or physicists or mathematicians or college graduates in some kind of technical or related to technical field.
DTD: I love it.
I truly wish I had had the chance to have a teacher like Luke Laurie as a teacher in Junior High School.
LL: And this is in a community where a lot of people don’t even know our students go to college. And they do. They do all kinds of amazing things.
DTD: That’s fantastic. I was a serious Lego kid.
LL: Me too.
DTD: I had ridiculous amounts of them. Actually, one of the most exciting things that happened to me, is they made an official Lego minifig of my father. Uh, like a year ago.
DTD: Oh, I showed that off like crazy. That was…
LL: They made them of your father?
LL: Is your father a celebrity or is your father just…?
DTD: He’s a computer science guy. He made… He created Unix in 1969, and C in ‘72.
I’ve told this story before. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie created UNIX around 1969. Ken made a language for UNIX called bon, which turned into B, and was then made into the final form of C by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan.
LL: And Post-its, or is that somebody else? [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] I think that’s someone else.
Post-It Notes were invented by Arthur Fry in 1974.
PV: I based a lot of my jobs on UNIX. Wow.
DTD: So, it’s… It was a weird upbringing.
LL: That’s fascinating.
DTD: So I absolutely love these strange connections and all that.
LL: Well, I think a lot of folks were excited when Macs became Unix, and became more solid. That was a cool movement.
DTD: They always, I think they always had Unix in the background, and it got weirder when they went to the Intels. And then the ARM system. But, you know, all those people were always around. It’s, you know, I grew up with all the computer guys, and dad was really into Chess and things like that.
I am off a bit here. MacOS has been based on UNIX since Apple purchased NeXT in 1997. This was Mac OSX, released in 2001. Macs originally were based on the 68000 line of CPUs. In 1994 they switched to PowerPC CPUs, then started using Intel x86 in 2005. And in 2020 Apple started transitioning Macs to the ARM64 based Apple line of CPUs.
LL: So, did you ever go and like hang out with Woz [Steve Wozniak] and stuff like that? I’ve seen him a couple times at Concerts at the Shoreline.
DTD: Yeah. He’s… Yeah. He’s interesting. I didn’t, I didn’t get to meet Jobs, but I knew a lot of people at Pixar. But, I mean, I was always the spectator, just kind of watching, and checking stuff out. It was really cool.
LL: So, that’s a that’s a fun thing about designing games, is when someone who has those kinds of connections, who works in those kinds of industries, or is somehow semi-celebrity, reaches out to me and says “I love your game.”
LL: I would be like, “Wait, that’s what you do? You make Star Wars movies? Or “You’re an actor in this show?” Or “You’re the CEO of this and you play my game?”
DTD: That’s awesome. [laughs]
DTD: Should ask Glenn [Cotter]!
LL: Yeah, Glenn used to work for ILM. That’s really fun, because we’re entertaining people who make, like, some of the greatest entertainment.
Glenn Cotter is the designer of Fickle, and one heck of nice guy.
DTD: I love it. That’s very cool. So how did you get started making games? I mean you said that you’ve been a creative forever, and there’s always been outlets for that, but there’s… What was that breaking point, where instead of fooling around, it became “making games”?
LL: I’m super much an incrementalist. So, I’m terrible at the “What was that moment?” kinds of questions.
DTD: It was always there?
LL: Yeah. It’s like, you know, dabbling turns into something more serious. And it can happen semi- organically.
Piles of wonderful diner breakfast fare was just at that moment dumped unceremoniously on the table. I am always surprised how much more table space breakfast can take up than any other meal.
DTD: That looks fantastic.
LL: Smells nice and fishy.
In this case, a good thing, since Luke ordered the trout and eggs. And I ordered a smoked salmon benedict. I still believe seafood makes the best breakfast.
LL: Yeah, it’s hard to describe, but part of it just had to do with, as I got deeper into exploring games, it just stimulated different things, and thoughts of what I would create if I were to make them. And as my taste in games changed, my… You know, my work, and trying to create them changed. But I never, I never approached… There’s a lot of things in life, where you’ll go into it because you’re dissatisfied with the offering.
LL: You’re like, “Eh, I could do that better” or something like that. I never felt like that with games. I was always kind of amazed at how you could have a game that really could be so simple in concept. And you think, “Well, anybody could have thought of this. Anybody could put these few ideas together, and made this thing. And everybody wants to play it. And everybody’s buying it. And they’re spending all their time on it.” But the simplest things are some of the most difficult to create.
DTD: Oh, without a doubt!
LL: Not everybody can make one that people want to play.
DTD: I remember… I played a lot of games as a kid. And I remember all of us would fool around with modifying rules or making some other thing. But every kid who made a game, it involved a million strange rules, and a million exceptions, and random, wild swings. The part that none of us ever had, was the simplicity, the elegance, the hook.
I have been told many times that beginning designers add more and more rules. Experienced ones take away more and more rules.
LL: So, in that regard, I played a lot of D&D.
DTD: Oh yeah.
LL: In that Sense. And so, I mostly started with like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even though, like the box set kind of gaming was when I started. And those rules are terrible, in a lot of ways.
DTD: Oh yeah. They feel “very 80s”.
LL: They’re full of exceptions. They’re full of like…
DTD: Could I have the Tabasco…
LL: Yeah. They’re full of those, kind of that…
DTD: They’re punishing. They’re brutal.
The famous rescinded rule from the original D&D is the undead rule. Originally, undead monsters could drain your experience points, effectively permanently reducing your character’s level.
LL: They’re also there to reward the person who has the best memory for obscurities. And then they become the jerk who wants to remind everyone of the exception, and the kind of arbitrary terminology.
DTD: It’s true! We all strove to know those big fat books, the Dungeon Masters Guide. We would strive to know that better than our peers.
LL: Right. But that’s true in every field. In every field there is, there’s like the basic cursory knowledge, and then there’s that obscure, highly technical knowledge. And people love to… They like to show that they know it at a different level. I mean, this is true of wine, and beer, and all of these, you know.
Self described wine snob here.
LL: Like, anybody can drink a bottle of wine. But some people have like that… they have that terminology. They know the history, they know the years, they know that…
Waiter: OK. Here’s the waffle. I don’t know if there’s room left.
DTD: We’ve got room here for you.
PV: Thank you.
LL: It’s a good feeling to feel like you know something that other people don’t know. But it can also be a good feeling to like, be the person who informs someone else.
DTD: Oh, I love teaching things! There’s no better feeling than telling someone about something that you have a, you know, an exciting personal interest in. And them being interested in it. That back and forth is amazing.
I think we all just want to share the excitement we feel doing things we love.
LL: So, in an actual game, I think that takes place, too. Because when you’re in a game, if you have that feeling, that “I know something that other players don’t know”… You know. you’ve got that card in your hand, or you have that sense of a path that’s visible in front of everyone, but you think other people haven’t picked out the pattern.
DTD: [laughs] Oh yeah.
LL: That sensation of owning exclusive knowledge is a… It’s a driving, motivating thing, especially in some games of higher complexity.
DTD: Oh, yeah! One of my favorite gaming experiences – I don’t know if you remember Factory Funner, Cwali Games, Corné van Moorsel. It’s very, very, very puzzley. It’s a competitive game, but you are building machines, and they have to be connected by pipes. And you have to connect them in very logical ways. And it turns into a spaghetti system of pipes. It’s competitive, but every game of it I’ve played, one person or two might be having some trouble figuring theirs out, and the other people inevitably jump in to help them. And you just get this cooperative feel, even though it’s a competitive game. Of everybody helping everyone else out, in these complicated logic-type puzzles. So it’s that “passing on”. So, you played a lot of D&D?
LL: I mostly played D&D and other role-playing games until around the 90’s. I started… There were always board games, always some board games. But it wasn’t like the priority. Board games would be what you do when you couldn’t get an RPG session together.
DTD: [laughs] OK.
I started with RPGs as well, but migrated into games that felt like RPGs.
LL: But then I just got addicted to Magic [the Gathering]. Let’s see, that was late 90’s.
DTD: Yeah, ‘94 or ’95.
LL: And then from there, I did start exploring other games. And then I had kids, and then the kids, you know… You get into exploring all these kid games.
DTD: You get new adventures with kids.
LL: And the options for new kid games were growing, a lot. And so, then they crept into kind of the… There’s like an overlap between some cool and good euro type games, and then the games that were being marketed to kids at the time.
DTD: [laughs] That’s grown tremendously.
For anyone with kids, the leading publisher of kid’s board games is still HABA. Just look for those yellow boxes.
LL: Then I get together with friends, and I get together with these friends, and then they have even a deeper knowledge. And they might be playing some more of these higher level games. And I started getting introduced to euro games, and then we started having meetups. And gradually I got more and more into finding out that there’s all this amazing stuff. So, yeah, it wasn’t too long before I started dabbling, and making my own. And then it wasn’t that much longer before I was pitching, and working with a friend, and Kickstarter was young.
LL: So, other people were doing Kickstarters.
And the cavalcade of delicious breakfasty treats continued, with more and more plates of food arriving at the table.
LL: Thank you.
DTD: Thank you.
LL: And yeah, so here we are. I’m about something like 10 years into being a designer.
PV: That’s about the time that I’ve known you.
LL: So, we launched the League of Gamemakers something like a decade ago.
I have linked to the League of Gamemakers’ facebook page, since the original website seems to not be working any longer.
LL: It was around 2012… I can’t remember now. Peter, why don’t you tell the story of the League?
DTD: Yeah, I wanna hear about that.
LL: That’s a great story.
DTD: We touched on it a little bit the other day.
PV: Well, I had been making games, because of course I was trying to dabble as well. And I was at Disney. And I was a little bit frustrated with the fact that at Disney, I didn’t have control of the things… We were all making creative things, but I had no say in sort of the top creativity part. And I asked if I could be part of that, and they said “No… That’s got a small club, and we are full. So you can’t come in.” And it involved… Apps have this access to instant gratification. You could make something creative and see it right away, so I started taking my games into apps.
Disney is a small company of sort sort. It involves a mouse.
DTD: Oh, cool.
PV: I made my own Facebook game. I then was working on… I made an Amazon Kindle game. And then I was working on an iPhone game. And then I, I thought… Kickstarter had come along and a friend of mine who does films had thrown up a Kickstarter, and also thrown up his hands saying, “There’s no money there. I tried to fund a short film, it didn’t work.” And I was like, as a dare, I was like, “I think I could fund a game on that thing. I think I could do it.” And so I funded my first game on Kickstarter that way.
DTD: Was this before or after… They always talk about Alien Frontiers being that break open point? Do you remember?
PV: It was… Card Against Humanity was 2009 on Kickstarter.
DTD: I think Frontiers was before that.
Alien Frontiers by Tory Niemann is usually credited as being the board game that broke open Kickstarter. Alien Frontiers crowdfunded in June 2010, and raised $15,000. The game was published by Dan Yarrington’s company Game Salute. Cards Against Humanity crowdfunded in January 2011.
PV: Yeah, so it was right around that time, because I remember running into Dan Yarrington and I remember all of the… Game Salute at the time was saying you don’t go on Kickstarter yourself, we’ll host it for you. Or you host it, and then we’ll run the back end. There was all these people trying to figure out how to make it easier for people to do Kickstarter.
DTD: Or trying to establish their position in the Kickstarter business model.
PV: Correct. And if you look back at Cards Against Humanity, it only raised 15,000 total.
DTD: Well, all the numbers were…
What the Food funded on Kickstarter in June 2013 for $22,601
PV: And the convention… So, I did the… It’s funny that we’re here in San Francisco, with KublaCon, which is run partially by Aldo Ghiazzi, who at the time told me, you know, it’s all about… Everything is convention, convention, convention. So I was doing conventions to try and promote my game, to get it more backers, and get it going. And that is where I met Luke [Laurie]. At a convention where he was also involved, you know making a game with Jeff Cornelius. And the League of Gamemakers was this idea that we’re all small fish, and we are all in this big pond. Why don’t we collaborate a little bit? Why don’t we share information?
LL: And why don’t we write about things that we don’t know?
OK, some clarifications are in order:
Aldo Ghiazzi worked behind the scenes in board games for many years, and owned the publisher Impressions.
Jeff Cornelius owned the company Cosmic Wombat, who published Stones of Fate, Luke Laurie’s first game.
PV: [laughs] Sure. Right.
DTD: That’s what writing is, isn’t it?
LL: That’s what forced us to learn. We did our homework when we were in the League. And then we would create articles that were, basically… You know, we would do our research. We’d do our homework. And then we put out these articles that we really took a lot of time in the editing and putting these things together and making them readable.
LL: We gave it away. We gave away a lot of these secrets.
PV: Well, Jamey Stegmaier was giving it away at the same time, and I really respected and even… You could take Michael Mindes was giving it away. I read his blog that said, “Here’s how to do it. Here’s how to go to a convention, here’s how to do all stuff.” I was amazed that everyone would just tell everyone else what the deal was. And so, I asked Chris Strain, at the time had run Asking for Trobils. I don’t know if he had run that yet. He had run his first one, Evil Intent. So, I just wrote him, and I said, “How did you figure out this and that and the other thing…?” And he told me! And that was shocking. Like, here it is, everyone’s friendly and sharing information…
Michael Mindes is the owner and founder of Tasty Minstrel Games.
Asking for Trobils crowdfunded in August 2014, Evil Intent in March 2013.
DTD: That’s the impression I’ve always gotten from the game industry. Is that, no matter how high up you were, everybody was willing to talk about it. And I had come from a couple different industries where people were very, very hush-hush, and very private about stuff.
PV: Yeah, it was… It’s refreshing. Especially the League; I wrote to Jamey [Stegmaier] at the time. Jamie Stegmaier had done a blog for six years before he hit Kickstarter. And his blog was very transparent, and I wrote to him and I said, “I’m thinking about starting this thing where we write an article every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” And he was like, “Hold on. You don’t have to go that fast. You don’t have to write that much.” But, I already began thinking at least, at least back to Disney, I was thinking about how can we do the article faster? So I just thought, “Well, let’s get more people. Let’s get Luke in, let’s get Jeff in.”
LL: Flashback to Mondays when the article wasn’t ready. That was an interesting time.
PV: Luke ended up coming on as co-editor, because there was just so much content. We actually had a team, eventually, of twenty writers.
PV: And yeah, some of them were artists. Some of them were in publishing, had publishing dreams. Some of them had… Like Luke just said, “I just wanted to design. I’m not a stick in this wheelhouse.” And our idea was, “Oh, let’s have Kickstarter experts…” We eventually started getting guests, Gil Hova wrote an article. So and so wrote an article. We had a fun time, sort of starting to put it all together. And then there was a point where I think all of us landed games, actually figured out how to publish. I started my first, I think I was on to my second published game, and all of a sudden there wasn’t any time to write anymore. All those 500 articles are still up on a website.
LL: My guess is that because the industry and the production and crowdfunding is such a moving target, that those probably don’t hold up as well as some of the ones where they’re just focused on design.
PV: Right, there are some that were very timely to the moment. But other ones I still enjoy reading that… Well first of all there’s a Luke one that’s hilarious. It did one of the best out of all the articles, which was “Steal this game idea.” Where he just said, “I’m going to give you a game idea. You can take it, but the deal is, if you take it, you have to leave an idea.” And people were coming and going, leaving one and taking one. “That sounds great, I’m gonna do that. Here’s one I was thinking of.”
DTD: How cool!
PV: It was so awesome. It was that same collaboration, but in a blog form. People just… We have tons of ideas still on there, if anyone wants to go to steal your “steal this game” idea.
LL: What’s funny is, like this is that great example of people. Some people think like, “Oh, I come up with this idea… I did it! Now I’m a game designer. All I have to do is put this together.” And it’s like, you can just, you can just put the concept in front of someone, and that’s not the design. The design is all of that iteration, all of that troubleshooting, and all of that… kind of that detail work.
DTD: [laughs] Yeah.
LL: That takes the concept and turns it into how people interact at a table. And not as… That is, such an X-Factor, because you can have the most brilliant concept just completely collapse with the wrong kind of structure.
Come on back next time for discussion of design, iteration, playtesting. Plus some early ideas that can pop into crazy designers’ heads. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee.