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Patrick: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer and we talk about the experience of game design and the lessons they've learned along the way.
My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'm going to be talking with Arif Nezih Savi, who designed Sinners, which is a game where you play the role of a preacher who made a deal with the devil to live a hundred more years, but in exchange, you have to bring them a hundred years’ worth of sinners' souls. That is an intense and awesome sounding game. It will be coming to Kickstarter in 2021, hopefully. Nezih, welcome to the show.
Nezih: Thank you, Patrick. Thank you for having me.
Patrick: So let's get started with a little lightning round, since you and I emailed back and forth, but the audience obviously doesn't know you. Your game is about sinners and sinning, and I was thinking about in Catholicism, there are the Seven Deadly Sins, which just as a refresher for all the listeners is: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. What of those sins is your weakness?
Nezih: Well, I think it's a good question. I love the seven evil sins, but now that I'm 33 years old at the moment, if you asked me this question, when I was in early twenties, I would have said lust, but now that I'm married, it's just gluttony.
Patrick: Just gluttony? Great. Is it food? For me, I have a sweet tooth. I will eat infinite amounts of cookies. Is it a particular type of food or something, or is it something else?
Nezih: I used to be a professional chef, and I cook pretty well. I don't just eat to get full. I just keep eating more, whatever. Just pizza, maybe one full 10 inches. I don't mind, just keep eating.
Patrick: Cool I dig it. I dig it. Then, less on the intense side, what's just your favorite design components, and that's literally anything that could go into a board game: dice cards, boards, cubes, pens, whatever? what is your favorite design component?
Nezih: Well, I started out with cards, and I love cards because cards are so versatile. You can use cards as resources. You can make a board out of cards. You can design a worker placement game with a card. Cards. I just need cards. I don't need anything else.
Patrick: I hear that. Love it. What is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention or– Basically, what I'm trying to say is, what is something that, even if you're tired, you're still willing to play one more time?
Nezih: Chinatown, I guess that would be my go-to game. Even with the new gamers that you just introduced to the game for about five minutes, and you learn the game, and you play the game. It's super easy and it's super fun.
Patrick: OK. II haven't heard of this game. I'm pulling it up on Board Game Geek. It looks like an older game. No, 1999.
Nezih: Well, it's a game that you just teach to a person in minutes. Then it's all about the person that you're playing, so every time you play with a different person and it's completely a different type of game. It's full of negotiation and you just play styles and just sell them back and forth. It's a great game and it's old, like 20 years old, and it's still great.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: Yeah. Oh, awesome. I will have to check it out. It looks nice. Listeners, I'll have a link to that in the show notes. First real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Nezih: Yeah, I've been expecting that question. I come from a family of gamers. Growing up, I used to watch my father and my grandfather just playing backgammon every time that they meet. I used to go to arcades with my uncle, played Street Fighter, and he used to just watch me play, beating adults as a nine-year-old kid.
He was so proud, but I would just play games and I was good at playing games. When I was in my teenage years, I think I started to house rule traditional card games, just play a version of UNO, but with a standard 54 card deck. Then I just kept house ruling all the traditional games, the Rummikub, Mah-jong, the Chinese chess.
Then I moved to China and I saw a whole different area of traditional Chinese games, an older version of the games that we had in Turkey. I kept house ruling all the games and I just started to design a game from scratch and just kept adding to house rules and all the rules that I came up with, I just put the games that I came up with a new game.
Patrick: Just like that? You just went from house rules to making your own?
Nezih: No, not just like. For example, I don't know. The most recent one is just, if I play a new game, like for example, Lords of Waterdeep, I really liked the game, but I really liked the game with the expansion. I just designed a game, a new board, and implemented the expansion and the base game together.
I didn't like some of the quest cards, which I think is overpowered. It just gives you 40 points. I just edited that to 33. I think these, changing the games, playing around the house rules, I think it's a good design practice, every time you change the game. I know what works better in my mind, so when I design a completely new game, I've got all the practice in my army.
Do you think an intense theme helps you get people interested in the game?
Patrick: Yep. I love it. That's cool. OK. Let me go into your game Sinners. Yeah, there's a link to it on BGG. People, if you can pull it up, the art's very cool. Sinner sounds very cool, and I think the word I want to use here is, it also sounds intense. I think by intense, I mean it's just a heavy theme. There's a lot of board games that are like, collect the most cherries and you win, or build the tallest house and you win.
Right? I think lots of board games are about positive things. In your case, Sinners is like you're, I don't know if you're tricking people or you're convincing them to come to your church, but they're sinners.
You're trading their soul to the devil so you can live longer. Here's the question. Do you think an intense theme helps get people interested in your game? I imagine, I think the word I'd use here is, it's very polarizing. I imagine people either love your game or they hate it. Does that sound right?
Nezih: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That's exactly what happened, actually. The first time I was designing the game and because it's the, religion is a sensitive topic to joke around or just make a game about. Growing up, I've been watching lots of horror movies.
All the games that I've played it's all about, Se7en, the movie, the teen slashers, the church bells and everything. These are all very intriguing to me. I just love the genre, the horror and the hard rock metal. These are the things that I like. I didn't design the game to be intentionally edgy or intense. This is just what I've been studying or researching all my life, and I just wanted to make a game out of it.
Patrick: Yeah. It's really cool. It's cool that it's your thing. This is the thing that you like. By the way, Se7en is an incredibly popular movie. I'm looking at it on IMDB and it's 8.6 out of 10 stars, which is very good. I think it's a really interesting, I don't know what it's called, but like fictional Catholicism. You know what I mean? They take stuff in Catholicism, and then they add. I'm thinking of like a Constantine, right?
Nezih: Yeah. Exactly, yeah. That's one of my favorite movies of all time. Keanu Reeves.
Patrick: Yeah. It's a great movie, and that genre is, that topic area is certainly super interesting to people. Let me ask you this, when you're play-testing the game, was it hard for you to get people to play-test it, or are people like, “Oh, my God, this theme is amazing.” I guess, “Dig a little bit deeper” is what I'm getting at here.
Nezih: Yeah. It's the first time. There's a board game cafe in the city that I live in, Ancora, and the first time is about three years ago, I think, the first time I took my game there, just because it doesn't really happen, playtesting things in Turkey, because it's not a design community. We lack that.
So I took the first prototype and I found some of the customers just getting into the cafe, and I just asked the owners, “Is it OK to get them to test my game?” And they were like, “Sure, just go ahead.” I just talked about the game, and as I was just introducing [inaudible 00:00:33], and they were really intrigued the first second.
Then I got them to play the game, and they really loved the game, and just wanted to purchase directly at that time. Oh, yeah. I was really happy. You created something and just people, two complete strangers playing with your game, with your creation, and they're just enjoying it.
Patrick: Yeah. That's great.
Patrick: So I'll go back. I have one more question I'll ask in a minute, but let me go into this because I wanted to talk to you about that. When you wrote me an email, you said, during your initial playtests, or maybe not initial, but during your playtests at this board game cafe, that people offered to buy it from you, which is amazing.
That is seriously the best. The best validation is when someone wants to buy your thing before it ready. That is great. But you also mentioned that, yeah, at least as far as I know, Turkey is not a design hub for board game design.
Nezih: Yeah, unfortunately.
You mentioned to me that you had a lot of success playtesting the game, but there weren’t any publishers in Turkey. Can you tell us about that?
Patrick: And I think you mentioned that there aren't even that many publishers in Turkey, so you had to get creative. So obviously for people in Turkey, this would be directly applicable, but for people outside of Turkey, if you can't go to a con and there's no board game publishers near you, what do you do? I think you had some really cool solutions, so can you tell us about what do you do when there aren't a million publishers around you?
Nezih: Yeah. When I was done with the first prototype and I got the feedback from the play testers, There was literally only one game publisher, publisher for adults, modern board games in Turkey. So I mailed them, saying that–
And it wasn't a pitch; I didn't pitch the game. I just asked the question, “Hypothetically, if I had a game and it was completely the Turkish, [inaudible 00:12:32], the designer is Turkish, do you think we could publish the game, maybe collaborate with you?” And the response that I got was, “There is literally no market in Turkey, so I suggest you stop wasting your time and just export your game to other publishers.” I was like–
Patrick: Oh, my god!
Nezih: But, yeah, that was the answer that I got.
Patrick: I'm flabbergasted.
Nezih: Yeah. Then it was like, “OK.” It was 2018 at that time. Then I checked. I was already a member on Board Game Geek, but I didn't get into forums and the design contests. Then I just got into the world of design contests. Some of them are just paid ones, some of them are free, the design community on the BGG.
And it was 2019, and the early prototype, not the current one, with the earlier rules and the cards, I just submitted Sinners in the 2019 Print and Play Contest. I got to say, it's a great design community, people just helping each other out to try and design the best game that anyone can.
I got some, like 50/50. I got some great feedback on Sinners, and I got no feedbacks. Some people is just honesty. They just look into the theme. “Ah, this is a Catholic church? I'm going to be empathetic, but I'm not going to play this game.” I was like, “It's OK.” I believe in my game and I really liked the theme, so it's not for everyone. The result was in, then I got, surprisingly, I didn't expect that, it was well-received. It won the second place in the Best Gateway Game category.
Nezih: And then the publisher in Turkey saw that, so then he was like, “Ah, OK. Would you be interested if we publish your game?” I was like, “Yeah.” Now that it is just well-designed game, so he believed in the game also. So we worked on it together for about a year, then it's recently published in the local market.
Patrick: Wow. OK. That's a really cool story. I think I love hearing that it's the same publisher who you reached out to initially.
What challenges did you run into, and how did you solve them?
Patrick: That's interesting. OK. Let me go into, well, I have a generic question, but I think it ties into your contest a little bit here, which is, I like to ask people what challenges did you run into with your game? Because I think all of us can–
What is something that got you stuck for maybe weeks or months, you're like, “God, how do I solve this problem?” And maybe it even ties in with some of the feedback you got from the contest, maybe not. But yeah, what are some challenges you ran into with your game and how did you solve them?
Nezih: Well, about the Sinners, mechanically, it worked pretty well because it's in all its essence, it's a set collection game and it's based on a Rummy-style game with lots and lots of special powers thematically. But finding the publisher, the designs finding the right home, was the biggest challenge that I've ever done in my life, not just the design version.
Because, from the day one, I designed the game and the theme, mechanics, they went hand in hand. Like normally, you draw two cards, but if you're greedy, if you have greed in your church, you get more. If you're like lust, you lure some other opposite gender from the other people's churches. I went through, worked hard to make the game thematic.
But most publishers that I designed, before the current publisher, they were like, “You have a really nice game, but could you change the theme?” I got offered some, the zombies, super powers, or [inaudible 00:17:17] as more friendly theme. But the mechanics and the theme works together, so I've been saying that all the time.
The current publisher also wanted me to change the theme, but in the end they gave up, and they also thought that, “Yeah, the actions that you do in the game, mechanically, they make sense.” So they just did the good artwork, actually. If I was going to self-publish, I would go way darker than the current artwork, but it's OK. I'm quite happy. It took me three years to finally get it published, you know?
How many hours a day do you design games?
Patrick: Yeah. It's a very cool story. And boy, it's funny. You're right. I'm looking at the cover, and if I just look at the cover, I'm like, “Oh, you could be a mage, you could be casting a spell.” But I think I looked at some of your images on BGG and there's also straight-up demons. You have a list of demons in some of the cards.
The artwork's great. So I love this whole story. It's super great. Let me just ask you some generic game design questions here. I know from start to finish it took three years, but maybe on average, how many hours a day are you spending designing games?
Nezih: At the moment, I spent almost, I don't know, eight to 10 hours. If I include just reading, researching, reading other people's rules and watching gameplay videos, if I include all of that in a design process, this is, I don't know, 10 hours a day, easily.
But when I started the designing Sinners first, I was working in a telecommunications company as an HR person, and during lunch break, my friends used to go out and just talk about lunch, just enjoy their free time. And I just take my salad, I just finish in 10 minutes, and I just kept designing, working on Sinners when I was working as a full-time HR manager.
Patrick: Wow. Something I want to touch on briefly, there is a surprising amount of time you can get out of your day if you prioritize it, right? Which is hard because I want to go out and I want to get a fancy burger from the restaurant down the street, or, if I can stay inside and just eat a little quick lunch, then maybe I can spend 45 minutes working on a game or working on whatever other project I want to work on. I'll take a little detour here. Where else did you find time? Where else would you prioritize time in your day, if that makes sense?
Nezih: About the game design?
Patrick: Yeah, yeah. If anywhere else. Are there any other places where, just with like lunchtime, you're like, “Nope. Everyone else does this. I'm going to do this instead.”
Nezih: I don't know. Let's say that we start to watch a movie. Halfway in, if I don't– If I just don't enjoy what I do, even if I cannot leave where I am, I just leave that place in my mind and just start designing games in my mind, you know?
What type of games do you like to design?
Patrick: Sure. I get that. Got it. So if you and I are watching a movie, and all of a sudden I see you have blank eyes, the movie's boring and you're designing games in your head. I love it. Cool. OK. So let me [inaudible 00:00:21:12]. I know you're working on other games. What type of games do you like to design?
Nezih: Look I'm not going to say it's the categories like worker placement or set collection or engine building or thematically, not really. I'm just going to say I like designing games that you can teach within five minutes, for even they're a non-gamer, maybe. And even after the first round of the gameplay, and they know they're in the game. So I just want to design and I just want to focus on those type of games. Ticket to Ride could be an example.
Patrick: Why is that important? Because I think I agree with you. I also like really quick games or really quick-to-teach games. Why is that important to you?
Nezih: I think being Turkish and living in Turkey, I think this is the reason why, because, as a nation, unfortunately, our people, they don't really like reading and certainly they don't enjoy heavy rules. I know that I don't mind. I read every day with the heavy rules, like On Mars, I don't know, 51st State, heavy kind of games.
And I don't mind learning them, just deconstructing the whole game, just because this is my obsession kind of. But a regular gamer in Turkey, they don't really like reading rulebooks. They want to be taught and they want to just play, just fast, just get into the game. “OK. Just what do I do now?” Those type of games. Even the board game cafes that we have here, I don't know what's the process over there, but we have dedicated game teachers to customers.
Nezih: People just go to a cafe and they just pay a little amount to get taught the games so they could play. So they just skip the whole rulebook thing. This is the one part that I was really struggling with because, as a designer, it's already hard to write a rulebook, and if you don't get enough blind testing, so you don't know how well-written your rulebook is, you know?
Patrick: Yeah. Well, first of all, let me say, I really want to go to a board game cafe in Turkey. That sounds great. There's actually one down the street from me, which I haven't been to since the pandemic started–
Does game design energize or exhaust you?
Patrick: I'm really hoping they make it through. But yeah, the board game cafe is great. You basically buy food and the food's a little expensive, but you can just come in and play games for free. No, it's actually, I think it's wrong. I think there is a $5 minimum, so I think you have to spend at least $5. But anyways, you go in, you play games, but you have to teach them all to yourself.
There's no one there to teach you, and boy, would I pay another $5 for someone to teach me a board– Depending on the game, I would. Right? There are certain games, you're like, “Please just guide me through the game. I will pay you so I don't have to spend half hour reading the rulebook.” I dig it. Does gain design energize or does it exhaust you?
Nezih: I think it energizes me. The other night, I went to bed at 12:00 AM. Then suddenly I have an idea for an expansion for a game that I was working on. And instead of just taking a note on my phone, I just got up, turned on my computer, and I just started designing the game. I was full of energy, not even one ounce of sleep. So I think that energizes me because probably it's an obsession, and I think it's not a healthy one.
Patrick: Boy, that's super interesting. I used to try to be very specific with my sleep schedules. And by the way, I love that feeling, that feeling where you have ideas flowing. I'll try to just like write them all down on a notebook and then go back to sleep, but even that's sometimes very challenging, right? You just want to design it right then and there, that second.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: Yeah, that's cool. OK. Let me move into some of the ending questions here. What is a resource that you would recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Nezih: Well, I think I first started on Board Game Geek. Board Game Geek is the huge pool of information and really nice people in the forums. It's a great database. If you design the card game, you just check into the similar card games, which publishers they publish those games, and you got to contact those publishers.
Similar game designers with the same theme that you've been working on, maybe you could meet those designers. I think it's the number-one source for new and established game designers, I think, the Board Game Geek. I just recommend just getting on the website. It's full, just don't get drowned in the information.
Patrick: Yes. There's a lot of stuff there. I find it a little hard to navigate, but it's unbelievable to just type in any game, in Google, just type in any game and then BGG, and you will just find it on Board Game Geek. And then you can find all the designers, the illustrators, the publishers. Yeah. It's obviously fantastic for that.
Nezih: Yep, yep.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: What is the best money you've spent? And by the best money you've spent, I mean what was worth every single cent? I don't know what the Turkish unit money things are called. What is worth every single unit of money that you put into it?
Nezih: As a game, the Turkish currency now it's Turkish Lira. And currently, the value, one U.S. dollar equals about eight. You buy games in U.S. dollars in Turkey, so the best, I think, as a purchase, I think it was the game designed by Jamie Stegmaier, Euphoria with the expansion.
I think it's a great, great game, and I don't mind spending that much money on a game if it's really good. That's a keeper. But usually, because of my prototypes, I just buy meeples and cubes in bulk, so I just make prototypes and send them to publishers. That's where I'm spending my money at the moment.
Patrick: Meeples and cubes in bulk, that is definitely a game designer. I love it. I'm just looking at Euphoria, and I'll link to it in the show notes, listeners, but what's interesting is that you, to me, in my mind, you've brought up one of Jamie Stegmaier's least popular games.
It's still very popular, right? Came out in 2013 and its rank overall on BGG is 401. Getting to position 401 on BGG is still insanely amazing. But it's interesting. Jamie Stegmaier has so many other games, like Wingspan or Scythe. Do those not do it for you?
Nezih: No. I played, I think, every single game until the last one, the Pendulum. I didn't play that one, but all the other games from his company, I played every single one of them. My wife really likes the Wingspan, obviously, because it's so cute and bird eggs, and the weird, and is quality.
As a game, that I don't really like Wingspan. And Scythe, I liked it until I played Euphoria, because Euphoria, it just takes way less time than Scythe. The player interaction is higher than Scythe, and Scythe takes a bit long for my taste. You can play Euphoria under an hour.
Patrick: Oh great.
Nezih: And the playing traction is higher.
How many unpublished and half-finished games do you have?
Patrick: Love that. Excuse me. Boy, I got up too early for this, and I'm yawning. So one of the questions that I missed before is how many unpublished and half-finished games do you have? How many more games are we going to see from you in the future?
Nezih: Well, I gathered all the games in a folder recently. I got the answer is currently 42 finished prototypes.
Nezih: It's just ready to play and just improve. That's, yeah.
Patrick: That's a lot.
Nezih: That's not just like an idea. They're all playable prototype, but I've got to work on them a little bit. And I just quit, OK, that's enough. So I jumped into another one. So then I just worked on that one a little bit more, just back and forth, jumping between my games.
Patrick: Yeah. That's great. In terms of finished prototypes, I bet I'm at like 12 or something like that. So getting up to 42 is very impressive, so awesome job of that.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: And then my sort of favorite question here is what does success in the board game world look like to you?
Nezih: That is really hard to define. I think, for example, I think recently I've been thinking like, because I've been designing nonstop games, and financially it's going lower. So I think, in my fifties, if I manage to get by just on the royalties, I think that's a success for me.
Patrick: Wow, that sounds great. I love, boy, if you figure that out, please let me know how to do it. I'd love to get by on royalties.
Nezih: I will, yeah.
Patrick: I have some book royalties, and I get a check every three months for the cost of groceries. It's not very much money. So if you ever figured that out, please, please email me. All right, so I like to end with a game called overrated/underrated.
And I know you've listened to the show, but for people who are new, what I'm going to do is I'm going to give the guest a word or phrase like let's go with morning coffee. And then you're going to say if it's overrated or underrated. With morning coffee, obviously you'd be like it's delicious and delightful, and it wakes you up, so it's underrated, something like that. Make sense?
Nezih: OK. Yeah, sure.
Patrick: Cool. All right. So first one here is any game that involves gambling. So gambling games, overrated or underrated?
Nezih: Hmm. I think it's underrated, because you can just take any game, any board game, and you can gamble with it, so in essence. Or you can take out the gambling thing out of a gambling game, so it's a game. That's it. That's my answer.
Patrick: OK. OK. So this one, the next one, I put in here because I wonder if there's going to be interesting differences in culture here. So what do you think of Christmas trees, because I imagine you don't have nearly as many in Turkey? Overrated or underrated?
Nezih: I think it's overrated, and I'm not saying that because I live in Turkey. It's just why? I'm not really into celebrating anything, because I'm weird. But the Christmas trees, you just take, just pick a tree. I think it's the culture thing, but it's just not intriguing to me as the religion.
Patrick: No, no, this is exactly why I asked the question. That's a great response, because everyone's culture is weird, and chopping down a tree and bringing it inside your house is weird. So it's fun to hear people from other cultures who maybe aren't as obsessed with Christmas as we Americans are.
Nezih: Well, especially because now we're living in like 2020, and you just cut off a tree and just take it home? And can you replant that tree? I don't know, how are you going to use that tree? If I got a tree at my house, then probably I'd just print and play some game with it maybe, that would put it to good use.
Patrick: Fun fact, you can recycle trees. Most big cities have a tree-recycling program. So I don't know what they do with the trees, but you can recycle them.
Nezih: I hope so.
Patrick: OK, so third one, third one. Just overall, the game design community in Turkey. And maybe overrated/underrated is the wrong word here. Maybe go, no, let's go overrated or underrated, the existing community in Turkey.
Nezih: I think it's underrated, because there are many– Not many, OK, just we are like a really tight-knit community, like everyone knows everyone else. Because I think as a total, the whole country, maybe there are like 5,000 gamers, I think, I believe. Because I know that, because I know the sales from the publisher, and even if they play games, they don't buy games.
They just go to, I don't know, just play some other people's games, or they just go to a cafe, because it's quite pricey in Turkey, because everything is imported. And the current currency, the economy, I don't want to get into that, but it's a really expensive hobby for Turkish people, so it's harder to spread the hobby.
Patrick: Boy, that's something we take for granted here in the U.S., is that we don't generally have to import games into our country. It's a huge cost, yeah.
Nezih: And that's the thing, that's another thing, another sin, that I have at the moment now, is I envy you, you know?
Patrick: I get that. I get that. All right, last one here is I'm personally thinking about making soup for dinner tonight. I can look out of my window, and there is snow outside, so I'm thinking about something warm. So just overall, soup, overrated or underrated?
Nezih: That's definitely underrated, because soup, you can make a soup out of anything in the kitchen. You've just got to know the base, how to cook it, just the flour and the butter. You just get the base, and then just add some stock, and just add whatever in your refrigerator. And there you go, you have something soup.
Patrick: Yeah. Yeah. Great. Great answer. And since you are a former chef, I will weight your answer heavily, and assume that I am correct that soup is a delicious meal. Great.
Patrick: Nezih, thank you so much for being on the show.
Nezih: Thank you for having me, Patrick. It was great.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your games online?
Nezih: If they could, I don't know, just search my name in Google, BoardGameGeek, Arif Nezih Savi. I know it's hard to type, so if you go to Instagram, you just type in #BoardGameInsane, so you can reach me that way.
Patrick: Oh, great. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes, or wherever you hear this. If you leave a review, Nezih will tell you which church you shouldn't go to, so in case there's evil preachers that are trying to steal your soul. As per usual, I have a Patreon, if you want.
I put some behind the scenes stuff in there. I actually am talking with a publisher right now about one of the games I pitched them over a year ago, so I'm really hoping that it comes to fruition. And I'll talk about a little bit more behind the scenes on Patreon, if you want to want to hear it there, and it also supports the show.
And then for everyone, you can visit the site IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek. I am @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye!