Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Designer Spotlight: Jay Meyer of Great Northern Games

Poison!: “When a 5 of a kind is rolled [in Noble Treachery], it is called, ‘Poison.’ When a player rolls Poison, he or she can poison another player and take all of his or her alliance tokens. Each time it happens, everyone yells.”

Jeffro: Your 17 Game Design Principles are superb. #7 “Don’t Play Against the Board” is brings to mind the “Multiplayer Solitaire Games” from the past decade that go out of their way to eliminate direct conflict. Indirect conflict emerges when the players become consumed with accusing each other of kingmaking (#4!) Table talk then becomes the true playing field of the game as players strive to keep a low profile while telling everyone else what the “right” thing to do with their turn is. Have you observed similar dynamics at the game table or did some other experiences drive you towards clarity on these two items of your design principles list?

Jay Meyer: I think kingmaking is one of the most difficult issues to overcome in game design. There are no “game theory” systems in nature that optimize if one participant does not care for his or her well being. The math just doesn’t work. I find it particularly difficult to eliminate in multi-player games where players can specifically target another player. A few years ago, I developed a “card draft” game where player’s bid at the start to acquire lands, legions, lords, and magic…  then the battle royale would begin. After two months of playing and ten rule revisions, I was not able to stamp out kingmaking completely.

The “don’t play against the board” principle is actually in reference to those games where a player can win without ever really interacting with other players. Especially if players spend three hours building a character/kingdom to get to the final 20 minute battle/challenge. It certainly is not as important as eliminating kingmaking. Case in point, I LOVE deck building games. The concept is brilliant. Deck building games for me are a classic exception to this rule. The one thing I don’t like about the base deck building format is when I watch a large group play, there is one person drawing, buying, taking another turn, and shuffling while the rest of the players are just looking at their hands. For the most part other players are not engaged in the active player’s turn. That weakness is overcome by several design factors:

  1. The turns are fast.
  2. You draw a new hand at the end of your turn so you are occupied for awhile deciding your next move.
  3. The game plays differently each time and each time you draw, it’s lottery time.
  4. There is typically enough hidden information about who is winning the game.
  5. You don’t spend 2 hours building, building, building.
  6. There is some competition for available cards.
  7. The games are fast.

We just don’t allow table talk in our gaming group. “Table talk” as we define it is pointing out weaknesses of one player to other players who did not see or know about the weakness, talking about what cards have already been played or who has what cards in their hand or deck. Pointing out who is public enemy #1 and smack talking is acceptable and just plain fun. In my gaming group, if someone starts talking smack about how we should all “attack” a certain player, the smack talker gets a bulls eye painted on his forehead. It’s so hard when I play with other groups and all through the game, players are openly talking to other players about “game secret” information but from what I can tell it’s more the rule than the exception.

Jeffro: I’m not a game designer myself, so I’m honestly a bit mystified by people like you.  I mean, I can see how one might take mechanics from this game and that game and glom them together, but beyond that…? Can you give me any practical details on how you work your way to a prototype that is worth developing? (I can’t seem to do it without either a major flash of inspiration or else penciling in a “and then a miracle occurs” step into my to-do list.)

Jay’s makeshift game design lair.

Jay Meyer: The physical medium for most games already exists: boards, cards, figures, spinners, dice etc. So almost everything you design has some roots in a previous game. If you watched the old PBS science series called “connections”, you find that every great invention in the history of history was a result of assembling things that had already been invented previously in a different way. So, given both of these, creating a game that is void of some elements of a previous game is probably impossible.

In some cases, I’ll play a game and think about the five things I love and five things I don’t like about the game and start from there by trying to amplify the good and eliminating the bad. Then I’ll merge that with my genre passion. For example: if I was to make a deck building game, I would try and force more player interaction. I could add a board with pieces and allow the pieces to interact with opponent’s pieces. Is the board a Monopoly type board, a Risk type map, a Stratego type board or a Candyland map? Let’s pick a candyland map for argument sake. That rules out the pieces being armies in a Risk type mechanic. Since I love fantasy, I’ll make the Candyland trail into a quest in a dungeon and each player’s piece is a different character, thereby bringing in my love of RPG character play.

Now: “What is the point?” A race to the end of the quest while everyone is playing leap frog and fighting each other to…..defeat the pit boss. [You can try to] go fast [and] attack the pit boss first, but you may get booted back. [Your other strategy is to] go slow [and] pick up more stuff to beef up your character, [so] when you finally get there you have a better chance of defeating the pit boss.

This was just an example– make a prototype. Play it yourself ten times. Test it against the seventeen principles and adjust. Bring your friends in for the alpha test. It plays and looks different from any game you’ve played, however, the whole thing just came from different combinations of: Candyland, Dominion, Ascension, Dungeons & Dragons, Cribbage, and Magic!

Jeffro: Now… once you’ve designed, I dunno… 30 games or so… and your friends are all telling you that you should really try to get published… what is the next step? Some people toss their designs into a PDF and give it away as a print-and-play game. Other people put it up on Lulu for a modest fee. Philip duBarry hand crafted his prototypes and demoed his game until he was discovered by Steve Jackson Games. But where he kept his costs as low as humanly possible– he even made his own game boxes– you’ve already hired artists to give your game a truly top notch look. How did you come to the conclusion that Kickstarter was the best way for you to get your game into print? Did you consider any of these other options for very long…?

Jay Meyer: The next step… sit and talk about it for years and do nothing. Then a little over 3 years ago, my dad died of cancer. I found out that he had always wanted to be a teacher. (??)  I had never heard that before. About the same time I saw a quote in the top banner of my gmail. I followed the link and found it was made by W. Clement Stone who wrote a book in 1960 called, “Success through a Positive Mental Attitude”. In their research from the 1920s through 1950s they discovered that most very successful people exhibited two traits: aPositive Mental Attitude and a Definitive Purpose.

I thought about it for a few days trying to figure out “what is my definitive purpose?”. Then it became clear– I have dedicated most of my spare time and personal focus in my life to making games and watching my friends enjoy them. Eureka! I found my definitive purpose. That combined with the fact that my Dad never became a teacher made me come to the conclusion, “In the end, I don’t want to regret that I never tried.” So I went off to publish a game.

Jay’s first game publishing project is currently on Kickstarter.

I had never heard of Kickstarter three years ago. I didn’t know anything about publishing a game. It took me 3 years to learn how to buy artwork, hire a graphic designer, learn about distribution, get a website going, a business etc. It was a twisty journey with more than a few pauses along the way, but I finally ended up with 10 prototypes and several thousand dollars sunk into the project.

I had a design; I had quotes on how much it would cost to print; I had been told by some in the industry that most new games only sell a few hundred copies and I didn’t know how to market/sell a game. All that combined caused me to step back for a few months and think about my path. Should I step back, keep making games for my friends and enjoy myself or sink several more thousand dollars into a life dream that may go nowhere?

I went to Gencon this past summer with a friend just to have fun and luckily I got into a conversation about my prototype with Eric Salyers from Break From Reality Games. He asked to see it and was blown away by the prototype. He asked if we could play it later after gencon closed. I came back, we played it and he loved it. He said, “you have to do a Kickstarter on this!” And that small accidental meeting gave me the spark again to keep going.

Jay Meyer’s “Noble Treachery” is currently on Kickstarter. See here for complete details.

For more information on how the game plays and how it was developed, please see this post over at the Margin of Victory blog.

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4 responses to “Designer Spotlight: Jay Meyer of Great Northern Games

  1. Pingback: Designer’s Edition: The Game | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  2. Pingback: The “Learning Game Design” Online Course from Lewis Pulsipher | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  3. Pingback: Your First Task: Deconstruct Monopoly | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  4. Pingback: Mathscades… and the Nine Structures of Game Design | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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