Brent Critchfield

#122 – Brent Critchfield

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single week, and we talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Brent Critchfield, who designed Gruff, which is a living card game all about mutated monster goats, which we are definitely going to talk about.

And because this is literally day one of another Kickstarter campaign for him, I thought it'd be cool to get a guest on the show when they're literally on day one of their Kickstarter campaigns. We're going to talk about his living card game and what it's like to design one of those, and we're also going to talk about day one of the Kickstarter campaign and leading up to that. So with that in mind, Brent, welcome to the show.

Brent Critchfield: Hey, it's good to be here. Thanks for having me on.


Patrick: All right. I've got a lightning round to introduce you to the audience. Cool?

Brent: Yeah, sounds great.

Patrick: All right. If you have to have a mutation like someone on the X-Men, what mutation would you want?

Brent: This is the kind of thing I think about a lot, and most X-Men mutations are impractical. If you're Cyclops, you're going to get migraines. If you're Jean Grey, you're going to go insane. And Nightcrawler is the obvious one because it'd be convenient to BAMF around and teleport. But he leaves this cloud of sulfur smoke everywhere, so I'm going to go with Multiple Man. Do you know Multiple Man from X Factor?

Patrick: No.

Brent: Jamie Madrox? He can punch his hand and then split into another person, and all of his multiples have the same ability, so you'd be able to make so many games. Because you'd have your whole staff right there, it'd be great.

Patrick: Are they all him, or do they become their own person?

Brent: He can absorb them, and if they're left alone for long enough, they start to vary and develop their own personalities. So, yes. Be careful.

Patrick: OK, so you want it to just– It's a cool power, but you've got to manage it a little bit, so you don't have clones running all over the earth doing things in your name. Right?

Brent: Pretty much.

Patrick: OK, great. All right, so how about this? If you can choose between a Gloomhaven-size board game or a dozen smaller games–? Let's say you're stuck on a tropical island or something. What would you choose?

Brent: I was thinking about this. I think that I'll go with a dozen smaller games. I think that there's a lot of really elegant and tiny games, and I have a friend that just exclusively tries to design 15 card mini-games. I like those. Gruff is actually, we have a pretty tiny box version of Gruff as well. Games like Hanabi and Fugitive, Love Letter, all those games can fit into a tiny little package. So I think I would go with a dozen well-crafted, elegant little games.

Patrick: Awesome. And then let's say you're at a con, you're tired, you're exhausted, and someone says, “One more game.” What is that one more game that you'll play at a con?

Brent: That's a challenging question because, as a developer, you're at a con, and most of the time, you're just playing your prototypes. So I end up playing a lot of Gruff, and Gruff is running world championships and things like GenCon and Pax Unplugged. A lot of my time is eaten up with Gruff.

I would say that this is a cheesy answer, but the one game that I always play whenever I'm at GenCon or something like that with my booth friends is Pokemon Go. We like to whip out our phones and run around town to try to catch all our snorlaxes and whatever. Not a very sophisticated answer, but it's the one thing that at every show we end up doing is just going out and trying to catch them all.

How did you get into board games and board game design?

Patrick: That's super cool. I dig it. All right, first, real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Brent: That's an interesting question. I was a kid in the 80s, and in the 80s, we were not necessarily spoiled for choice on a lot of really good games, but I did play a lot of games. I remember playing Rook a lot as a kid, Rummikub as a kid. A lot of Risk, which is not necessarily a phenomenal game, but I definitely had a passion for it.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I– I was in my mid-20s or early twenties before I started playing Magic, and a lot of what I wanted to do as a game designer came out of playing games like Magic and thinking “I'd like to fix this about the system” and then knuckling down and doing it.

What is it like on day 1 of a Kickstarter campaign?

Patrick: Cool. Because I got into Magic pretty young, and that definitely primed me for other board games and other card games. Cool, OK. So you launched your new Kickstarter campaign, Gruff: Whispers of Madness. From what we were chatting about in the pre-show, all of your games, they are all living card games, but they're also stand-alone.

Meaning, I can buy it right now without having to buy all the previous stuff. But one of the things, before I– We have a whole bunch of questions about Gruff in general. But just before getting into Gruff, what is it like on day one of a Kickstarter campaign? What is that process like, what went well, and what didn't go well?

Brent: Day one of the Kickstarter campaign is like the culmination of a whole lot of stuff. Running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot like firing a bullet, once you push the button you've run out of options as to how you can control the trajectory of your campaign. So much of it is based on the month before and the year before, what you're doing to build up your audience.

But then there's a whole bundle of nerves that goes into pushing that button, it's definitely one of the– It's weird to say, but it's one of the scarier things I've ever done in my life. Because it's like, “I have this thing, and it's just part of my soul, and I love it so much, and I just want to share it with you.” And then you throw it out in the world, and you're like, “I hope you don't hate this, because I've got a lot invested into it.” It's a lot of those feelings, and part of it is like, “They love me.” And then 30 minutes later it's like, “I haven't had a backer in 30 minutes. Is this the end?” It's a roller coaster.

Patrick: How about this, what is something that went well? What's something that you planned for, and things went according to plan, and what is something that maybe didn't go well, and you're going to try to fix for your next Kickstarter campaign?

Brent: This is the first campaign that I've tried to do since the very original Gruff, where I'm doing it part-time. I have a job that I love in the video game industry, and I've been trying to do this– I had a little bit of a more minimal footprint than I normally do, and I've run across a couple things. Obvious things that I forgot, like one of the things I like to do, is try to arrange an AMA on the board game subreddit where I can just take questions and answers and stuff like that.

I realized today, “I didn't set that up. I didn't get that scheduled in time.” Same thing with the BoardGameGeek entry, I totally spaced on prepping my BoardGameGeek entry in time for this, but those are the things I feel like I misstepped. I think one of the things that is going well in this campaign and all of the Gruff campaigns is I try to treat the Kickstarter itself as a game. I basically threw a carrot out there, so what I'm doing with this campaign is there are two big bads that are fighting over the control of the world of Gruff.

It's a place called The Betwixt, it's a space in between different worlds, and these two big bads are fighting over the control of it, and I've run a bunch of little contests to see which of these two guys is going to win. So we've put up Facebook posts, and you can like one or like the other, and whichever one gets the most likes will win. I'm going to do a coloring book contest, and whoever gets the most entries from each of those will be a point in that monster's corner. I like to get the community involved and engaged along the entire process with actually determining the outcome of the narrative of the game, that's one thing that's been fun.

Patrick: That is super cool. I used to play a lot of Warhammer 40,000, and they sometimes have summer campaigns, and then each store reports all the games that were played and who won what game. They are supposed to affect the story, which is such a cool idea, but I like that you're doing it on a– When hundreds of thousands of people are playing a game, your individual game doesn't matter. But if I'm looking at your, for example, you have 161 backers as we're recording, and this is day one. Obviously, that's not hundreds of thousands, so I imagine anyone's input is bigger.

Brent: Yeah, it's huge. And you think of those 160 backers you'll probably be in the neighborhood of 1,000 by the time it's all done, probably 10% of them, maybe 50% of them are going to engage with the game. The people that do get engaged get engaged. Gruff is designed to be a what you would call “A narrow but deep” type of interaction with players, as opposed to shallow and broad. A game like Monopoly, we'll just use the game everybody hates, is a shallow but broad game.

You can have Simpsons Monopoly, everyone's going to play it, and we'll either hate it or like it, but they won't feel either of those things particularly strongly about it. A lot of games try to go for broad appeal across as many people as possible, but not necessarily going particularly deep on it. Whereas I have a couple hundred people that would kill for me, probably. No, that's overstating it. But they do like to get engaged in the world and like to sink their teeth into Gruff.

Patrick: Yeah, there's something about that. You can go for the– Let me take this out of the board game world, and you can go for the Miller Lite, which is a pretty generic beer. Then people don't love it, and they don't hate it, for the most part. Or you can go for something that has a very specific flavor, and then you're probably going to get people who go “I love that. I want to have it every night.” Or “Oh my God, that's the worst beer I've ever had, I never want it again.” So Gruff, is that second type?

Brent: Yeah, exactly. You need to be prepared for a game that a lot of people turn their nose up at, but the people that do get it are going to get it strong.

Patrick: Cool.

Brent: I think honestly, as a tiny developer that just lives basically on Kickstarter and at a couple of cons, that's definitely worth it. I'm happy being something that's highly engaging for the few people that love it.

What else do you do in the week before a campaign?

Patrick: Awesome. One more question on Kickstarter. I know what I did a week– By the way, listeners, I have an episode called My Kickstarter Audio Diary, which I did for my game of about a year ago. You have to go back a bit in the feed, but what did you do for–? What is that week before Kickstarter like? What is all the last minute things that you have to do just to make sure that it launches successfully?

Brent: Usually, in the last week, you're trying to corral your last minute reviewers, so a month before you launch your Kickstarter, you're going to want to send your prototype out to reviewers. You can find just an ocean of reviewers, and I use the Facebook page. There's a Facebook page of board game reviewers and contact some of those, some of them will want to be paid and some of them won't.

But at least a month beforehand you want to get those out to people, and then in that last week you need to follow up on everybody and poke them and make sure that they have review content for you because that ends up– Especially for a first-time reviewer, you want– Or, first time Kickstarter developer, you want to have good reviews up there because you are trying to convince people to trust you and that you're not going to make something that's garbage.

Reviews go a long way in that, so there's corralling that, and there's prepping media posts. Basically, the last week should, in theory, be just trying to prep marketing and drive up support for that first day. So much of a Kickstarter campaign is just “How much inertia can you take into day one?” A lot of what I do is leading up to having as big a day one as I possibly can. Honestly, it's even just the first couple hours that will set the trajectory. I was super lucky this afternoon.

The game got favorited by Kickstarter after it was just up for about four hours before it got favorited by Kickstarter, and that's what I'm talking about. You do the groundwork to make sure that you have a solid couple of hours, so I've been doing that. Prepping your emails, and that's again, something that happens months before as you take your game to conventions, you build up your mailing list, and then prep your big mailer out to your backers to get people to show up and support you on day one. But yeah, it's mostly marketing the week before.

Can you explain what makes a TCG and why Gruff isn’t one?

Patrick: One of things that's cool is I originally called it a TCG, a trading card game, and when we were e-mailing back and forth, you corrected me. So let me just start with, because I looked at it and assumed, can you explain what makes a TCG a trading card game, and why Gruff isn't one?

Brent: “Trading” is probably the operable word in there, Gruff is a self-contained box where you have all the components that you need in it, and then it evolves over time. Which is like, we'll add another set, and that set will give you more goats and more shepherds, but none of the components within the box are random, so there's no rarity to it.

There's no– If you want this goat, you just buy this set that has that goat in it, as opposed to Magic: The Gathering where you open a pack and you might get something valuable or you might not, and acquiring the things that you need requires you to go to a hobby shop and swap with people or go to a store online.

Patrick: I didn't do a good job, so let me explain why I think it's a TCG. It's because I, in my brain, I associate trading card games and very competitive card games. Gruff is a competitive card game, so you have a world championship, and not many games do. So you have a world championship for Gruff and people play it competitively, but it's not a game where there's rarities, and you have to get all the right cards, like Magic.

Brent: Yeah, that's exactly right. Mechanically under the hood, it is very much like a TCG, it's just a TCG that you're not going to trade. So you'll open up the box, and you're still going to customize your deck before you go into it, as opposed to a deck builder where it might evolve on the fly, you're going to make all those decisions beforehand. It is very much a competitive game, but initially, I tried to get it into an organized play system at hobby shops.

I just realized that was too tough of a nut to crack because trying to fight for that mindshare inside of the hobby game space is a real challenge that takes a whole lot of force behind you. So, I switched my mode. Initially, I was trying to go for hobby shops, and after the first expansion I changed years, and I created this program called Shepherds of Woe, that would have a set of promo cards that I would just directly mail you out in exchange for doing something that I called a Shepherds of Woe quest. Which would be like, “Play a game at a local hobby shop” or “Post a decklist online” or things like that. They ranged from being silly, like it could be just participating in a coloring book contest or something like that, to being something a lot more serious. That replaced my organized play system.

Did you try to get Gruff into regular card game stores? How did that go?

Patrick: One of things I think is interesting is I know you tried to get Gruff into little hobby shop stores, but I think, as you said, it takes up the same brain space as Magic: The Gathering. Did you have problems getting into stores because it was in that same lane as Magic, and Magic is just the– What's the expression, “The 800-pound gorilla in the room,” like you can't ignore it?

Brent: Yeah, absolutely. At least for the purpose of setting up organized play, that was the challenge. In fact, all of it is mostly mindshare rather than even shelf space. It's when you're trying to get into the hobby store space, even if the game does well, this is something I found a lot. The game would do well, it would sell out, and then the shopkeeper would just forget to reorder even though it was doing well for them.

Patrick: Really?

Brent: Because it doesn't occupy the main space in their mind, and they sell through six copies of the game, even financially, it doesn't necessarily make such a big impact on their life that they feel the need to pay attention to it. So yeah, it ends up being tricky to fight for that space, so I've retreated back from it a little bit and just focused on the things that I think I'm good at.

Patrick: I think it's really interesting that you might sell out in a store, and they just forget to reorder, whereas, of course, with Magic, Magic is so popular that players would demand their store would order the new packs. They'd be upset, and they'd complain. But I imagine a much smaller game that only has a smaller fan base, that's not going to happen, and a store owner just forgets, and it's gone forever. That's sad.

Brent:  Right, exactly.

Patrick: You can have an amazing thing, and it sells out, and then someone just forgets to order, and that's just it?

Brent: Yes. I think that's honestly not just going to be a problem for a competitive card game like Gruff, that's going to be a problem for basically any independent developer. You're going to run into the issue where they're going to constantly be thinking, “How do I restock the latest Asmodae thing? How do I make sure that my relationship with Wizards of the Coast is being maintained? How do I make sure that my organized play with these big dogs as being maintained?”

The amount of mindshare that you can occupy without having to constantly show up and nag stores to stock the game that is doing well for them, but honestly not at the volume that's going to keep the lights on for them.

Patrick: Right.

Brent: Even if you're doing as good as you can be and selling out, it's still a chore for them to restock, especially when you're– Even if you are in the Alliance Catalog or something else like that, it's still a real challenge.

Patrick: OK. So let's say you get your game into stores and it sells out, the game stores forget to reorder– That's a new sad reality I'm contemplating.

Brent: Sorry, man.

Patrick: No, this is good. I'd rather you tell me this now than for me to get my game into a store, and then they sell out, and they forget to order more. You're preparing me– You're vaccinating me against future disappointment, so thank you.

Brent: Sorry, man.

Patrick: No, that's good. But what do you do? What is your strategy when stores forget to reorder a game that is selling out? What do you do after that?

Brent: It can be a challenge too because if you're going through a distributor and that distributor doesn't tell you which stores they've sold to, they can sell out, and you can't necessarily follow up with the store individually because you have no idea who they are. My goal was to focus on just doing Kickstarters and conventions, so I don't know if I have a strategy that I think necessarily will work.

Because my plan was just to go the more independent route, and honestly, the tiny guys that I see that are making it work, if you go to GenCon and you see guys that are small but thriving they all have seemed to do the same thing. Where they basically try to get enough of a rabid fan base that the stores will have to start coming to them. That's what I've noticed with Tim as well, he goes the same route, but he has stores that reach out to him individually because he's become such a big deal.

Patrick: That is Tim Fowers, and I'm trying to look up the episode he was in. It was probably 115, or something like that. I'll try to find it– Oh, 114. So close. Tim Fowers–

Brent: Oh, yeah. Sorry. I should have specified, and there's a lot of “Tim's.”

After five years, how valuable has Gruff’s world building been?

Patrick: Yeah, there's a few “Tim's” in the board game world. OK, so Gruff has been out since 2015, and I know you designed this game to have its own worlds, and I think that's something you do in a videogame world as well, is you design worlds. But five years later, I've talked about world-building once or twice on my show, but five years later, how valuable has the world-building been? Was it a worthwhile endeavor?

Brent: Totally, absolutely. It's been extremely valuable, and I think it will be even more valuable going forward, but a lot of the impetus to follow the game and what drives the deep engagement is people wanting to know what happens next in the narrative. People are just very much story absorbing creatures. They get engaged in the stories, they care about the characters and the world, and they want to see what happens next.

But one of the other things I've realized lately is I've tried to start doing a couple little projects that are not necessarily card games, but with the Gruff IP, I made some enamel pins and put them up on Kickstarter. I just realized that the strength of the idea behind the IP and the strength of the art of the IP, which is my wife's amazing work, Virginia Critchfield, who is a phenomenal concept artist. That has a lot of pull for people that might love the theme of Gruff, but they might not necessarily be into this type of very serious tactical card game.

Patrick: Have you explored that? Have you tried to make silly little games, maybe more of a Love Letter version of Gruff? Have you tried that?

Brent: Yes, I got one in the pipe right now. It's too early to talk about probably, but I hope to do something with it in the upcoming months. I have a bad habit of talking about my prototypes early because I'm completely convinced that I'm going to do something with them immediately, but the process of finalizing something always takes longer.

You were at TTN with me the first time around, and I had two prototypes there that I was showing. Both of them I think I'm going to be taking into the Gruff universe and doing something with them.

Patrick: Very cool. That was the first Table Top Network.

Brent: Yeah.

Patrick: But sadly, I don't think I played any of your prototypes. I think we said “Hi” briefly, but I don't think I played any of your prototypes. I will have to be pleasantly surprised when you put them on Kickstarter in 4 months.

Brent: I'm not signing anything.

Patrick: It's cool that you're exploring that because I think I've talked to a few people about world-building at the time when their game was coming out on Kickstarter. But it's nice to hear that world-building, which definitely feels like a long term investment, is indeed that long term investment. You can make pins, you can make little games, and I think that's what makes your game deep, as you said. Narrow, but deep. Or however, you defined it–

Brent: Yeah, exactly.

How did you divide your time during the design process?

Patrick: You need that world-building to get that level of engagement from those people. Very cool. How about this, when you make a new game now you have an established IP, but you're obviously building on it, so what percentage of a– How about this? With your most recent project, what percentage was game design and development and mechanics, and what percentage was world-building and storytelling and things like that?

Brent: That's a challenging question because so much of the core mechanics of Gruff are built to express the world because even on a pretty fundamental level, each of the individual monster goats is designed primarily around “How do I express what I think their personality is?” So a lot of it gets tied up together, but I would say that the world-building problem tends to solve itself. If you listen to it, that might sound goofy.

But basically, you set the ball in motion, and definitely, after the second expansion, it wasn't so much of the question of like “OK, what do I want to do next with the world of Gruff?” As much as it was like, “What are the inevitable consequences of what would have just helped cause of what just happened in the game?” So where we're at right now with Whispers of Madness, there's an ecological balance in the universe of Gruff where you have monster goats, you have trolls, and you have these things called “Deep things” that are like eldritch terrors that live in the space between worlds.

Then the three billy goats Gruff, the shepherds, they make these monster goats, and the monster goats start killing trolls. Which lets them start crossing this void to skip between worlds quickly. They drive those trolls to extinction, but those trolls were keeping those “Deep things” at bay. Now, these eldritch terrors are spilling out, and the natural defenses of the world aren't there to stop them, and so they're overtaking the world. It became very obvious to me where this set needed to go just by thinking of like, “OK. Monster goats are attacking, and they are killing all the trolls, the trolls are gone. What does the world do at this point?” Whispers of Madness is about the mental breakdown that ensues.

Patrick: That's cool. It's like you're writing a story, and then you finished writing book one, and you're like, “What would happen in book two?” You're just continuing the story and just building on it.

Brent: Yeah. It's more a process of listening than creating, I think.

How do you make a living card game that is also stand-alone?

Patrick: That is fascinating. That's something I haven't been good at. My games are so simple and quick and easy, and maybe even Love Letter-ish. I don't want to say I'm quite as elegant as that because that's an epic game but along those same lines.

So I haven't done any world-buildings, but it's definitely something I want to tap into because I do think it brings you that deep appreciation for the world, and it helps you make these follow up games. Speaking of which, you have said all of your games are stand-alone. How do you make a game that is stand-alone, and yet is living with existing cards? Does that make sense? How do you do that?

Brent: Yeah. It's all about establishing a core system that works, and the core system of Gruff was the thing that I took the most amount of time on. It took me about five years to figure out how those core simple systems of like “This is how you attack with a goat, this is how you swing back.” It was stuff that right now would only take me like five minutes or less to explain, but getting those core things perfect— And they're not perfect, I'd like to go back and change them, but getting those things established and thoroughly tested to the point where it's just second nature for me to explain them, that's the key to doing that.

Then designing depth on top of that system and variation on top of that system is just the process of creating a set, so it's basically understanding content design vs. systems design. The systems design, if it's solid, happens first. Then the content design is what I do from set to set, and that's a good bit easier. There's a lot of content to design, but the system itself is created to self-balance a little bit, so it makes it less challenging.

Patrick: What does that mean, “It's designed to self-balance?”

Brent: I'd have to dive into the mechanics of Gruff in particular, but I'll do it. Gruff has a shuffle builder aspect to it, where each goat has a little mini-deck of 15 cards, and you pick 8 cards from each goat, and you shuffle those 3 decks into a deck of 24, and then you draw your hand from that. One of the systems that self-balances in there is that each of those ability cards are singleton. So if I make a really bad R&D mistake and make a card that's extremely strong, it's very easy to build counterplay into the system because they only have to be able to solve it 1/24th of the cards in the set.

Patrick: Sure.

Brent: A lot of the balance doesn't come in the perspective of “How do I make all of these different components equal?” It becomes “How do I create counterplay within the system? How would an opponent be able to solve the problem that their enemy is throwing at them?” Does that make sense?

Patrick: Cool. Yeah, that makes sense. I like that.

Brent: It turns out that the monster goat creatures are so much easier to design than the shepherds, who have so many fewer levers to pull on. Because there just aren't as many points of input. But that's how it becomes a self-balancing system.

How did you decide between pursuing this full-time vs. part-time?

Patrick: Cool, I like that. One of things you said earlier is you're trying to do this as a side job, but it sounded like earlier you might have been considering going full time. Is that–? Am I hearing that correctly?

Brent: I was full time for several years, I was an environment artist at Riot Games working on League of Legends. When I did the initial Kickstarter for Gruff and left, it became just my full-time thing for a while. Then I had a dream job opportunity pop up, and I was like, “OK. Let me see if I can turn the temperature down enough on Gruff that I can still develop on it, but that it doesn't derail my life while I do this other thing that I'm also really passionate about.

I'm working at a company called Airship Syndicate right now, and I worked on a game that came out recently called Darksiders: Genesis. I'm working on a cool game right now, and I love it. I found it's one of those prisms that lets you look at your game and realize, “OK. How much of the stuff that I'm doing do I absolutely have to do in order to create a product that I'm proud of?” It's been an interesting design challenge, just looking at the game that way.

Patrick: I think I've heard something along those lines before, where if you have 40 hours a week to do X and then all of a sudden you have 20 hours, number one you might get the whole task done in 20 hours. But number two, you might get the most important 80% of the task done, and you don't get everything you would have done in 40 hours, but you still get a very good amount done in 20 hours. Does that make sense?

Brent: That's exactly what happened.

Patrick: Cool.

Brent: Basically, I started doing it this way and then started seeing the things that– OK, what's absorbing too much of my time and too much of my resources? I started pulling all my inventory back from being held in offsite locations so that I could do my own fulfillment.

I stopped doing the Shepherds of Woe program that I was telling you about before, pulled back heavily on that. I cut a lot of marketing opportunities and almost every convention down to just the ones that are, I think, absolutely crucial to do. Then I focused much more on just doing the things about the game that I love the most, which is design and development.

How many hours a day do you spend on Gruff?

Patrick: Cool. It's nice to hear that because I think some people get so dragged into all the things they have to do and I'm sure me building up a Twitter following is definitely going to be somewhat helpful for Kickstarter, but if you don't have time to go to the Twitter following, then focus on your email list and focus on reviewers and you can still get 80% of what you need done without having to do everything.

It's cool to hear that you were aware of that and took steps to make that better. Awesome. Let me move on to some other questions here, I'm curious now that you're doing this part-time, how many hours a day do you spend on Gruff?

Brent: How many hours do I spend on Gruff? I try to put in a couple hours every night and every morning, but I'm also a dad, and I have a life beyond just working on Gruff. But it's about 2-4 hours a day that I try to ring out into there, and I usually take at least one day a weekend off completely to spend with the family and hold my head together. But yeah, that's where I'm at. Though, not all of that time is spent in design. In fact, just a tiny sliver of it is design because I'm a self-publisher as well.

What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?

Patrick: You've got to do all the marketing and all the other millions of things. Got it. Very cool. Let me move into some of these ending questions here, and you've been doing this for a long time. Your first– Gruff came out in 2015, what's a resource, like a website or a podcast or a book, something free or easily accessible that you'd recommend to other game designers? Excluding this podcast, you've got to pick out something else.

Brent: OK. I want to do my obligatory plug for Tabletop Network because I think that's extremely valuable. Lots of good connections that you can make there, and I want to throw a plug out for whatever your local convention is. I was developing this in California at the time and going to a strategic con, which isn't the hugest convention in the world, but going to that and being able to get lots of testing time on my game and also developing and starting that seed of a community there.

People that I met there that still show up every single Kickstarter to back the game, still like to give input on stuff, that was extremely valuable. Other things that had been good for me are– There's a website called The Noun Project that helps me prototype quickly. You just type in a word, and it gives you an icon for things. Definitely good for first draft stuff, you don't want to ship with anything like that, but it's a good first draft. Then if you can do it, I highly recommend just getting the entire Adobe CC suite. I did the first round of Gruff and designed it completely in Photoshop, so everything was utterly ineditable.

Then I finally learned InDesign on the second game, and it saved me so much time, but I end up using almost everything in Adobe CC. It's how I put everything together, especially as a guy that does everything in it. I edit my own video in Premier, and I lay out all my cards in InDesign, I paint in Photoshop, I design logos in Illustrator. I lean pretty heavily into that software package. I don't know how I could do any of this without it.

Patrick: That's very cool. I wish I was much better at the Adobe Creative Suite just because there's so much power there, and I'm very bad at it right now. I use other graphics programs for work sometimes, and it's one of those things we're I can probably ask my company to pay for Photoshop and Illustrator, and I haven't, and I just need to do that because I think it'll help my game design.

Brent: Yeah. Honestly, I felt the exact same way on Gruff. I was like, “It's just so much work to try to get Gruff done. I don't want to slam on the brakes and learn a new piece of software right now,” but I was totally wrong. I really should have done that initially and just put the energy into learning it. Because honestly, they're not that difficult to learn. I would highly recommend learning the right tool for the job you're trying to do.

What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?

Patrick: Perfect. How about this, what is the best money you've ever spent? What is something where you are like, “That was worth every single cent that I paid for it?”

Brent: OK. This is a weird answer, but those metal black binder clips that you can get at OfficeMax for like $3 bucks. I use these things for everything, but for anybody that's prototyping a card game using– I initially was using scissors, and then I was like “No. I need to upgrade. I'm going to get a paper chopper,” and then I upgraded to eventually realize, “You know what the right way to do this is? Get your giant stack of paper, clip it down a black slider clips, get a ruler, and an Exacto knife.”

It basically sped me up and shaved hours out of my week that I didn't need to be wasting. It made it so much faster and basically free. Probably the whole thing cost less than $15 to switch to this thing, and it was cheaper than the money I wasted on the paper chopper for sure.

Patrick: OK, so let me see if I'm envisioning this correctly. By “Binder clips,” do you mean they're very strong clippy things, and you can fold the top of it up or down? Like the top of each side?

Brent: They're not that big or that strong. I use them for everything. I use them to hold down my table cloths at conventions, and I use them to hold a bag of chips shut. It's a black piece of metal, and it's got two little wire things that stick into it, and you can pinch it, and you get your big stack of paper, and you put it in there, and you pitch it down, and then you can prototype card games quickly. Also, card sleeves. Grab some card sleeves from your local hobby shop, grab a whole bunch of trashy basic [lams] from Magic, and that's all you need to be able to prototype card games. That's my whole life. People try to do more complicated stuff with sticky, gluey, sticker things. Don't bother, just get sleeves and then just black slider clips, and a ruler and an Exacto knife.

What does success in the board game world look like to you?

Patrick: That's cool. So, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Brent: This has evolved over time, and I'm glad you asked. Because initially, it was very much an “OK, I want to make a million-dollar Kickstarter campaign.” Then I don't know if that was going through my mind, but the first time out, I was like, “I want this thing to be as big as it possibly can be.” Then it evolved into “I want to figure out how to make this be my full-time job,” and I had that goal for several years.

But lately, I've realized that I have a full-time job that I love and enjoy doing. So right now, it's evolved into just an artistic pursuit. I want to make a game that I love and that I'm proud of, and so for me right now, there's not any real external metrics as matrices of success. I just want to put something out there that I think is amazing, and hopefully, the world responds to it. But if not, I'm going to just keep doing what I'm doing.

Patrick: That's cool. I talk to a lot of people who– A lot of people just want to get their games out there, but then there's also a huge number of people who do want this to be their full-time job, and they want to have a bestselling game and stuff like that. It's nice to hear someone say, “My job is great. I'm very happy for this to be an artistic passion that hopefully pays for itself and makes a little bit of money, but is mostly an artistic passion.” It's cool to hear someone evolve their opinion on that.

Brent: That's where I'm at right now, and just enjoying the process of being able to create something that the people love. But then again, if there weren't any people that love it, I would still probably do it.


Patrick: Great. I like to end my show with a game called Overrated/Underrated. I think you've listened to the show, so if you've heard this before. Right?

Brent: Yeah.

Patrick: All right. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and it's going to be like “External monitor,” and you're going to say “Overrated” or “Underrated.” With an external monitor, you're going to say, “Underrated. Because they give you so much more space for a laptop.” Something like that. Cool, right?

Brent: Yeah, absolutely.

Patrick: All right. First one, and I'm hoping you know this, the Warhammer 40,000 universe, as in the intellectual property. Overrated or underrated?

Brent: Man, do I know this. I don't know if you know this about me, but I worked on the Warhammer 40,000 MMO for a couple years. I worked on that IP for a while. That MMO never came out, but that was a big part of my life for a while. I would say it's underrated, and I think about it a lot. One of the cool things that Warhammer 40K does about its world-building is, or at least they used to, is all the world-building they do they'd have it come from this specific character's perspective.

The reason why that's important is that all of it is deniable. You could just say, “That guy was wrong. That guy had a completely false perspective on stuff,” and it lets you be a lot more– It gives you so much more creative freedom to make sure that everything is coming from a first-person perspective. I learned that from 40K, I think it's a really valuable idea. I think that the universe is smart. There's a lot going on, but it's also very dumb. It's very smart and very dumb at the same time, but definitely underrated.

Patrick: Awesome. This next one. How about Fainting Goats? Listeners, if you've never seen these, I will include a YouTube video right at this section in the transcript in the show notes. So Fainting Goats, overrated or underrated?

Brent: Fainting Goats, overrated or underrated? I'm going to go ahead and go out on a limb and say– I'm going to call them overrated.

Patrick: Oh, no.

Brent: I'm going to call Fainting Goats overrated.

Patrick: All right, you've got to give me a reason why? Because I love Fainting Goats, why are they overrated?

Brent: Your social media posts are just going to be full of these things, they're fainting. But if you go to Gruff, these are goats that get scared easily when you make a loud noise, and they fall on the ground. OK, I've got goats that explode and that warp the fabric of space and time, and that can ram through brick walls. When it comes to, compared to all of that stuff, fainting goats or screaming goats, whatever. That's pretty tame source.

Patrick: OK, great. Perfect. How about a AI systems in board games? Overrated or underrated?

Brent: I'm going to say underrated, for a lot of different reasons. I have a board game system that I drive in Gruff, actually, so you can fight against trolls in the system. It's good because it opens it up, it makes it easier to bring to the table obviously, so for players it's good.

But I would do it just for me because having an AI system lets me test on my own, and it also lets me prep decks on my own. I can find out whether or not something is good in advance, so if there is any way that you could write up a couple rules to pretend to be another player as a new designer if it's easy for you, I would do it. Because it gives you another tool that you can use as a designer. I'd highly recommend it.

Patrick: Fantastic. Just because I know you're in Austin, I got to go with barbecue sauce. Overrated or underrated?

Brent: This is a bigger can of worms than you might have thought, too, because not only do I live in Austin, but I grew up in South Carolina, which is a completely different barbecue system. So, I have feels about this. But I would say that Texas barbecue sauce is super overrated and is basically garbage, but South Carolina barbecue sauce and mustard-based honey sauce is way underrated and should be put on all of the delicious Texas barbecue, instead of that horrible ketchup crap that they use.

Patrick: Listeners, please send all hate mail to– Great. I like people who have opinions. This is good.

Brent: Come at me, bro.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Brent, thank you so much for being on the show.

Brent: It's good to be here. Thanks for taking a minute to talk to me.

Patrick: Where can people find you and your games and all of your awesomeness online?

Brent: For the exact moment of now, you can find it on Kickstarter. It's live right now, just look for Gruff: Whispers of Madness. It'll be available for late backers after the campaign wraps up. Otherwise, find me at or Studio Woe on Facebook. Hope to see you on the internet, or find me at GenCon, and we can throw down with some monster goats.

Patrick: Or Pokemon Go, if I heard correctly.

Brent: That's totally true. We can go catch some Snorlaxes together.

Patrick: Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review. If you leave a review, Brent said that he would let you pet his mutated monster goat. Fantastic.

Brent: Sure, yeah.

Patrick: Then I'm still sharing all the progress for my games on Patreon, so if you want to follow along as I'm trying to pitch publishers for my games, then you can follow my process and see what I'm trying. Hopefully, you will learn the stupid things I do and don't do them, and learn the things I accidentally did right and do them even more. I'm hoping it'll be valuable. You can visit the site at, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I am @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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