Welcome back to an amazing breakfast with designer Luke Laurie and publisher Peter Vaughan. The chaos of KublaCon has just about ended, and the three of us are at Pete’s Cafe (no relation) in Millbrae, California, talking deeply and metaphyscially about game design.
PV: The first time you put a prototype to a table, you find out it was great in your head. And then when it hits that table, and it doesn’t quite work, so there’s still sparks there. But it’s that moment where you could very easily give up because it’s too hard to see how you’re going to persevere through that to get to where you want it to be.
PV: Because you’re shocked that, “Oh that didn’t work like I thought.” I imagined this other experience and then you don’t get that experience. A lot of designers will have amazing ideas. But they’ll get so excited by the next shiny idea, because it doesn’t have any work yet. It’s just in their head.
DTD: I think I sit there. I think a lot of us do.
PV: I sit there too all the time. Now that I, you know, publish, I don’t get to design anymore. But part of me is relieved, because I know what that grind is. It’s actually amazing that Luke can pull through and come out with these huge ones.
Before running Breaking Games and later founding Cardboard Alchemy, Peter Vaughan started as a designer, and created What the Food, Cafe Chaos, as well as many others.
DTD: Well, even at this convention, in the Proto Room, I was in a playtest with a very well known designer, and it was… It was going kind of badly. And one of the players was very much having a terrible time and was just complaining brutally and endlessly or for a good chunk of the playtest. And I felt awful. I’m like, “This designer must feel so bad.” And at the end I felt obligated just to send an email and say, “Oh man, I’m sorry this went so bad.” And he was like, “No, it’s all good. This is what it is. And you know, it’s feedback, and all feedback is good, and you know, I’m going to change this, this and this.”
This is a true story, and no, I will not name the game or designer. However their name contains vowels. Which rules out many Polish designers.
LL: So for a lot of years, I ran those Protospiels in the Bay Area cons – KublaCon, Celesticon, Pacificon.
Many conventions will run Protospiel, an organized area for the public to test out works in progress for board game designers.
DTD: Yeah. Good old Celesticon.
LL: And one of the, one of the like key factors in whether or not those events, and whether or not any given play test is successful, is… It’s a very particular social interaction. And the norms to it do not include being yourself or expressing your own personal emotions. Because, yes, as a designer, you want to witness and experience someone’s emotional response to a game. But players need to acknowledge that they’re playing something unfinished. They can express the emotional response, and then move on to “How can I help this?” So, like, if you’re sitting at the table and you’re…
DTD: Agreed. They need to know this is not “fun”.
LL: You’re lamenting about the painful experience. That’s one thing. I’ve played in plenty of playtests where… With really veteran kinds of play-testers, where you watch it collapse, and everybody just keeps going, kind of laughing at how bad it is.
DTD: Which is a fun experience. Yeah, but this was just an exercise in frustration. I apologize.
I know, I just said playtesting is not “fun”. I should clarify – playtesting is hard work. And sometimes the games are frustrating, or just do not work. It is not a traditionally “fun gaming experience.”
LL: You realize the kind of the cracks in the design, and from there, you can start to move on and say, “Look, this part isn’t working.” And also, if you are the designer, and it is absolutely catastrophic, it is your it is your moral obligation to end that experience. [laughs]
PV: Yes, you have to say, “We’re gonna skip this part. We’re gonna actually just pretend that that card’s not there.” We have to do that.
DTD: As we enter the 5th hour of this light game…
LL: Especially if something is really rough. You know, maybe it hasn’t gotten a lot of tests, or maybe it’s at a point in iteration where it’s pretty experimental. You speak to the players ahead of time. You go, “Look, I don’t know if this is going to work. If it falls apart, we’ll just… We’ll put the brakes on it. I’ll get some feedback, and we’ll move on with life.”
LL: I’m not going to take time away from you. We don’t owe the game anything. The game’s there for us.
DTD: Yeah. And I guess I’ve seen my share of play-testers who come into it thinking, “Wow, I’m going to play a great game that no one else has played. It’s going to be amazing.” And a share of play-testers who come into it going, “My job is to criticize this, and destroy it. To point out all the flaws.”
LL: My… This varies from time to time, and interview to interview, but I think I estimate my fail rate is about 80%. If your fail rate is 80%… Now I try to make them fail before I put them in front of strangers.
There are several activities where I have an 80% fail rate. None are productive.
LL: That’s a factor. And you gotta acknowledge that. You don’t want to be putting strangers in a situation that you haven’t, kind of, you know, vetted sufficiently to know that it will at least have some degree of promise. But it’s happened to me! It’s happened to me, where we start playing and I’m like, “Sorry guys. Here, I’ve got another one…” Or “Hey – Let’s play a published game.” [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] You look tired. Let’s move on.
PV: Actually, if you think about Andromeda’s Edge, we played a version at Pacificon last year.
LL: Yeah, 2021.
DTD: I think I was there.
I remember looking for Luke to try and convince him to do an interview with me. I saw him playing Andromeda, and watched for a while, but I didn’t want to interrupt.
PV: And It wasn’t working. And a really great thing that Luke did at that moment; we were in the playtest, where the Raiders… When people get used to the game, they’ll know how much the Raiders come in. The Raiders were unlimited, so they were all over the board. And we were being destroyed by them. And we just stopped. We said this is not going to work. And then the next day, what we did is we started with Dwellings of Eldervale in the morning, because we wanted to remind ourselves. Because we had finished the puzzle on that one. We wanted to play that one, and find out what was the magic inside that, those mechanisms. We wanted to see that again, so that we could go, “Oh yes. This is why this has to change, and this has to move.” But you have to, you do have to step back for a second. You can’t go solid, and then come to the answer. You definitely benefit from showers, tries, and time. Right?
DTD: [laughs] Yes.
Dwellings of Eldervale successfully crowdfunded in July 2019 for $542,794. I remember playing with an early prototype with Peter at the GAMA trade show in March 2018. The title delivered to backers late in 2020.
LL: And that’s key. I’ve done the same thing, too. Where… Then the next con I was at, at DunDraCon, I went out of my way to play the Manhattan Project: Energy Empire over again. Because it is, to this day… It’s my snappiest design.
LL: Where the logic of the game, as it is, does have some degree of complexity. But the logic of the game inspires the… Kind of the quickest turns of any of my other designs. And I was trying to recapture what makes that possible. That isn’t always your desire in a game. Some games, you want people to brain burn, or at least brain burn for a chunk of the game.
DTD: Oh yeah.
LL: And in that game… You can go back and read the rules, you can just go back and look at the game, but unless you actually sit down and you re-experience what it feels like, you don’t have that true sense for “What are the things that make it feel like…” And “How can I carry that over to another project?”
DTD: Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Energy Empires was one of your first, wasn’t it?
LL: It is. It was my second design, co-designed with Tom Jolly. And it was absolutely derivative. And I think all of my work is, to a degree, derivative.
The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire released in 2016. Luke’s first published title was Stones of Fate in 2015.
DTD: But really, how many absolutely original games can you name for me right now?
PV: That’s tough, right? Yeah.
DTD: I was asked that on the spot and I came up with The Mind, and that was it.
The cad game The Mind by Wolfgang Warsch uses waiting around as an actual game mechanism. My kind of game.
PV: The really funny inside, about the fact that it [Energy Empire] was one of his first ones, is that he had already written articles for the League of Game Makers – “And this is how you design a worker placement game.” [laughs]
DTD: Well, that’s why you knew! [laughs]
The League of Gamemakers was an online blog started by Luke Laurie, Peter Vaughan and others, for open discussion on how to design games. We talked about it a bunch in part 3.
LL: So, I was doing the homework on designing this game, and playtesting it at the same time. I was essentially writing articles that mirrored my thought process in delving deeper. What works, what doesn’t? What are some games that you should play to familiarize yourself with this, this type of game. When you’re considering how to design actions, what’s the math? Or if it isn’t math, what’s the heuristic that you’ve got to go on?
LL: And yeah, it was… It definitely paralleled my arc at pushing that game forward, and then the rest is history. Energy Empire has… It’s remained just as popular as when it came out.
Energy Empire ranks #264 currently on BGG’s best games. Which is quite a feat in the 80,000+ games catalogued.
PV: You’ve gotta mention its original name, “Drill Baby Drill”.
LL: Drill Baby Drill!
PV: That’s what we played at KublaCon. I mean, it was a fun… That was a fun match.
DTD: How cool! And the expansion’s just come out, right? Finally.
LL: Yeah, it’s finally shipping.
The Cold War expansion for Energy Empire released after several delays in 2022.
DTD: That’s awesome. And that… I mean that had a bit of a drama, there. It’s a…
James Mathe, the owner of publisher Minion Games, passed away unexpectedly in June 2019. This was one month after the Kickstarter Campaign for Cold War had concluded. Unfortunately, access to many aspects of the project became entangled in probate and legalities, and it took years to complete the project. Minion Games has since closed its doors.
PV: Well, there’s no guarantee they’re going to come out the other side. This is the other really tough thing for designers, is you could sign a game, and you can go through all of this process. And then, it’s like a movie. If it’s greenlit, that’s a great sign, but that still doesn’t mean the money and the actors… It doesn’t mean it’s all going to come together.
DTD: Anything can go wrong at any point.
PV: Anything and everything will.
LL: This is almost even more true of expansions. Some people think that, “Oh, you’ve got a game. Well, now you can just put out an expansion.” The challenge of an expansion is, you can do all of that design work, and the publisher can make the decision not to move forward with it. And you can’t just take the expansion to an existing game, and shop it to another publisher.
DTD: Oh, that’s true.
PV: You’re locked in a dance.
LL: It’s dead. And your work is lost.
DTD: I hadn’t even thought about that.
LL: You may be able to transfer that over into some other work, some other design. And you might not.
DTD: I mean, I could see, you could gut pieces and mechanisms. But then it would take a whole bunch of work to make it into something unique anyway.
LL: Right. But for me, the thing that I tried to instill… So new designers are constantly asking questions. “How do you get started?” You know, “Where do you…?” And so on.
LL: You have to be in love with the discipline. With the craft. Some people are not. They’re in love with their, their beloved first design. And they really will not stop until that design is published. And I try to get people to let go of that idea, and be focused on learning the craft, and learning the discipline. And being OK that your failures will inform your future work.
The Zen of board game design.
DTD: Well, there’s the whole concept of…
LL: And keep your day job, as a result!
DTD: The whole concept of being willing to kill your darlings. People get so attached to that bit they thought of first.
When designing anything, the first pieces of inspiration often hold a special place, they retain the identity of the project. And late into design, that initial bit, even if its holding the whole project back, becomes incredibly hard to let go of.
DTD: And more often it doesn’t even seem to be the bit that’s best. It’s the bit they thought of first, and they won’t let it go. And it might be the anchor that’s dragging you back, and holding you down. And it’s… Yeah, someone described game design to me as basically hitting your head against the wall until either the wall or you wins.
LL: Well… And I think fortunately to this… So, I’m not really a high risk person. I like to, you know, find something that works and I kind of stick with it. That said, you know experimenting on a game design is a fairly safe activity. You know, no one is going to be permanently, irreparably harmed.
DTD: If you keep your day job. [laughs]
LL: As long as you keep your day job, yeah.
Peter recently (well a few years ago) founded Cardboard Alchemy, hence losing his day job… But he seems to be doing well.
LL: But along this path, I’ve been fortunate that other folks along the path, like Peter and other designers that I’ve had the pleasure of working with, they feel similarly. They’re committed to the craft, and they’re committed to the discipline. And they’re not about like, you know, making a quick buck.
DTD: OK, do you think… Here’s a question for you. Do you think game design is for people who are incapable of doing anything but game design?
LL: Absolutely not. In fact, what amazes me is when I go to Protospiel events, is you find out a lot of folks, their day job is creative, too.
LL: They’re taking a break from something that might be an incredibly complex, a difficult job, to go and do a discipline, as a hobby, that’s also incredibly difficult. Super common. I’m not saying teaching junior high is necessarily the highest level of sophistication.
Luke Laurie is a junior high school teacher. One I wish I had in my teen years.
DTD: I think it is. I could not do it.
LL: The vast majority of junior high teachers don’t make it three years.
DTD: Oh, those kids are evil. [laughs]
LL: You know, I do that challenging job, and then I go do this other one. And I find a lot of folks do that. Around here, in the Bay Area, there’s a lot of people who their day job is tech. And they might even be coding and…
DTD: Oh, I’ve seen… There’s a huge preponderance of it. You know, you walk into KublaCon and just… You stand on a chair and say, “Hey, how many people here work for Google?” I think Google actually notes the KublaCon weekend, and says, “Well, we’re going to be down on staff.”
LL: So my thought on who becomes designers, is frankly the opposite. Yeah, there’s some people who are like, “I’m going to go all-in on design, and that’s my passion, that’s my love.” But the vast majority of people that I’ve met, who really do it and stick with it, could do any number of things. But they choose to design.
DTD: I guess what I was getting at, is do people do it because they’re incapable of not doing it.
LL: Hmmm, so you’re asking about the feeling of necessity?
I have asked this question of being incapable of NOT designing games several times over the years. It’s one of my go-to thoughts. And I suspect other people have kind of ignored my admittedly pretentious query. But Luke seemed genuinely interested, piecing apart my meaning. To the point where I was questioning my own line of inquery. What did I mean by this…
DTD: Yeah, is it a driven thing? You know, someone might think, “Oh, maybe I’ll design a game, and work at it for a bit. Maybe succeed, maybe not.”
LL: So like, is it a calling? Or is it an addiction?
DTD: I think that’s it.
DTD: Because they’ve said that… So yeah, I mean, you always talk about what you know. And from Graduate School, the vast majority of people in Graduate School were there because they could not conceive of not being in Graduate School. It was thankless, it was hard, it was brutal. But they could not… Not do it.
LL: I think there is some degree of that calling. But like I said, for me, I could be building with wood. I could be doing Lego robots.
LL: I could be learning more about coding and those sorts of things. I could be doing music. But I found that game design is the one that does connect me more with the most people. Like, I made a whole album of music that nobody’s ever heard.
DTD: That’s awesome!
What is lost at this point in the transcription is the absolute stunned silence at the table. I have so many more questions just about the music. For later, for later.
LL: And I’ve made board games that 10’s of thousands of people played. So, I stick with the one that kind of makes the world a better place.
DTD: You’re turning into the modern Renaissance man.
LL: “Estuche de monerías” is what my mother-in-law says. It means a chest of many treasures.
DTD: That’s perfect.
I just want credit for figuring out a colloquial spanish phrase from a low quality audio recording. The phrase actually translates to “a box full of nice things”. It is the rough equivalent to a Jack of All Trades. I love the sentiment.
LL: Yes, it’s a kind of, not what I aspire to be. It’s just kind of what I opt to do. I mean I couldn’t pick a major in college. Liberal studies, not because I wanted an easy route, but because I wanted to do everything. But I didn’t want to just do one thing?
DTD: I understand that so completely.
Speaking as one kicked out of college for having too many credits…
PV: I think that’s why I was, you know… It’s hard to hold a steady job when you just… You like the variety of the spice of… Working on different games is also giving you that, right? It’s like, “Now we’re going to dive into this world. Now we are going to go to that world.” As opposed to the monotony that sometimes jobs could feel like. Or activities with your life.
LL: Oh, and that’s it too. Is… Like, working with Peter. Peter and I both have that combo of the arts and the sciences, and the… When you’re building a game, whether you’re the designer, the publisher, the developer… You’re thinking about the math and the art and the social experience. It’s like every discipline comes together to create that work. It isn’t just a mechanical design, and it isn’t just a work of art, and it isn’t just a product. It’s all of those things, and people have to be able to connect to it.
DTD: It’s definitely an artistic medium with a whole bunch of different angles. I mean there are people who play games because they want to solve the puzzle, and it’s the math and the logic. And there’s people drawn to the look of it, the aesthetics of it. “I want to just pick up the FlameCraft mini and just touch it.” And there’s people who just want the social experience. It’s an excuse to break down the barrier, and just visit with a whole bunch of people because you can’t reasonably just call up and say, “I just want to come over and sit in your presence.” And it’s all of that’s gotta come into it, when you’re figuring it out.
LL: Yeah, you said it exactly. It’s almost like the games kind of become a very sophisticated centerpiece.
DTD: Yep, Yep.
LL: There it is on the table, and this is what we’re going to talk about. And we are going to use it as an excuse to get to know people, and to spend time together.
DTD: It’s like meals. It’s an excuse to get together.
LL: And get, you know, tasty food.
Come back next time for the final chapter, the breakfast dessert so to speak. And fitting as the gustatory climax, we talk about the upcoming Andromeda’s Edge – how it came to be, development problems along the way, and where it is going. Plus some talk about Whistle Mountain, and the inevitable drive back to the con.