Patrick: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer and talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way.
My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I am going to be talking with Cameron Art, who designed Vowl. Cameron, welcome to the show.
Cameron: Thank you for having me, Patrick.
Patrick: I like to start with a lightning round set of questions. Ready to go?
Cameron: Let's do it.
Patrick: All right. Raincoat or umbrella?
Patrick: Umbrella, all the time? Or is there ever a time when you–?
Cameron: No. No raincoats.
Patrick: OK, favorite pandemic activity?
Cameron: Can I say board games? I feel like–
Patrick: Yeah. Is there– How about this–?
Patrick: Board games are totally viable. Is there like, in the pandemic, do you play more two-player games? Is there anything specific about board games?
Cameron: It's a lot more two-player games. It's just me and my wife and our eight-month-old son, so it's been a lot of two-player games lately.
Patrick: Got it. Back when we had conventions and things, what's a game you'd play with someone every single time at a con?
Cameron: I think any game anybody is excited to play. I'm pretty open to playing all types of different games, and I like playing lots of different things, so if somebody is excited to play something, I'm definitely willing to sit down with them.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: Cool, awesome. First real question, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Cameron: I got into board games about 4-5 years ago. My then-girlfriend, who's now my wife, her brother in law, introduced me to King of Tokyo. It was one of the first more modern games that I'd been introduced to, and it just spiraled out of control from there.
I fell in love with the hobby, and I was one of those people who didn't realize that more than things like Scrabble or Monopoly existed, so in terms of just playing games, it just spiraled out of control from there. I just kept discovering new things and content creators and everything.
How did you decide to add the scoring system to Vowl?
Patrick: Awesome. There's a million games when you get into it, and I love that about it. Sorry, I just realized I had moved my microphone away from my face. I wanted to talk to you about your game Vowl, and let me just give the listeners– It's a word game, which you can probably guess from the name “Vowl.”
It's about, just to summarize, you're trying to figure out what words– There's a word without Vowels in it, and you're trying to figure out what the word is, and you can get points. Now, here's my criticism of word games. They're almost always all about who is the best with their word or spelling skills, and that's just not a forte I have.
I noticed, just looking over your game, I think the coolest thing to me is you have this points tracker and you can– It looks like you're allowed to move your peg along the points tracker and choose if you want to get more points or if you want to get more cards, so just tell us about why you decided to add a points tracker?
First of all, maybe tell us a little bit about the points tracker, but then also like why did you decide to add one? Because most word games don't add this extra level of scoring complexity.
Cameron: For sure. One of my biggest design goals with Vowl was I wanted it to feel accessible, but also provide a nice level of strategy and a little bit of depth for players who are looking for something a little bit more out of games that they sit down to play. So you mentioned the scoring track, it's got this nice tiering system.
You'll start out by just drawing a couple of cards from the easiest deck of cards, but as you advance further and further along the track, you'll start having to draw more and more difficult cards, which provides this nice catch-up mechanic a little bit. But like you mentioned, the interesting thing about the scoring is it's not just that you succeed on your turn, and you get a point.
You'll get to choose whether or not you want to take two points or if you want to take one point and lower your victory condition, which is the number of points you have to get to. The reason you would do that is that then makes future turns potentially easier because now you're not going to have to do these harder tiers of the track.
The small little caveat to that, though, is that if you choose that option, you also have to lower somebody else's victory condition by one. It just was a way for me to provide a level of decision-making in the game. I wanted players to be able to strategize, at least to an extent.
Patrick: So, let me ask you. Because I imagine if you're the person who loves word games or spelling games and letter games, and I'm not, and I'm not used to a scoring system, you're basically breaking the archetype.
Did people push back on that at all? Are there people who traditionally like word games who go, “I don't like this.” Or do they still like it?
Cameron: Originally, when I set out to come up with a unique scoring system for this, it originally was a lot more complicated, and I did have a lot of pushback, not necessarily in terms of people not liking it but just having trouble grasping how it worked. In particular, people who are just used to playing things like classics like Scrabble or [inaudible] or things like that didn't have too much going on other than the word game side of it.
I did realize fairly quickly that if I wanted to add that extra layer of strategy to the game that it needed to be a very simple decision in terms of just what you're doing, so it's very straightforward in terms of how you choose. It's just sometimes a difficult decision to make.
It’s unofficial good practice to launch board games on Tuesdays. Why did you choose to launch on a Monday?
Patrick: Awesome. We're recording this right before your game launches, and your game is launching next Monday. Listeners, this will have been on Kickstarter about a week before this episode launches.
But I noticed you're launching on Monday, and there's this unofficial rule in the board game world to launch on Tuesday, so did you think about that at all? What was your thought process there?
Cameron: I did think about that a lot. I think what pushed me towards not launching on Tuesday was a blog post by Jamey Stegmaier, where he talked about why this unofficial rule has just become a thing, and it's based on statistics that aren't that strong of statistics. Like, it's very close margins that Tuesday projects do better than any other day.
He almost started to theorize that maybe now that's become a rule, that it might be more advantageous to launch on different days so that you're having– It's less crowded on the day you launch. You've got less projects also launching when you launch.
Patrick: Yes, I can totally see that. I launched mine on Tuesday because that was the unofficial rule, but I can totally see the advantage to launching on any day but Tuesday because there's just pages of games that launch on Tuesdays.
Cameron: Yeah. I've been looking at a couple, I've got several spreadsheets just around that you can find of upcoming Kickstarter launches and things like that, and there's like 6-7 game projects all launching on that Tuesday. That, combined with the blog post and what I'd been reading, made me lean towards trying something different.
Patrick: And those are only the games that are have announced that they're launching, there's. a bunch more that haven't shared that. So let me ask you this, I just haven't asked a lot of Kickstarter questions recently. Have you thought about–? How about this, what are you doing on your launch day? Do you have a list of tasks to do on your Kickstarter launch day?
Cameron: I've got a running list just in terms of things I know that need to get done on launch day. We're going to be going for a 48-hour flash funding goal, which I'm hopeful that we'll reach. I won't be too heartbroken if we don't, but I know a big part of launch day for me is going to be just reaching out to anyone and everyone who's played the game in the past or just people I know that might be interested in checking out the campaign.
I know that that's going to be a big part of it. I think I'm trying to keep my list of what I want to do on launch date to a minimum because I do think it's going to be more overwhelming than I'm anticipating. It's going to be a lot going on, so I'm trying to keep my schedule open so I can just handle problems as they arise and answer questions and whatever people need.
You created the Board Game Bulletin. How did that come about?
Patrick: That sounds pretty smart. Good choice. But the thing I definitely wanted to reach out to you about is the Board Game Bulletin. Now, this is, correct me if I'm wrong here, but this is an online magazine that's all about board games. There's really pretty photography on the covers, and it looks like there's six volumes that are out.
Patrick: How did you decide to make a board game magazine?
Cameron: It came out of– Originally for a couple of months last summer or fall, I started writing a blog, and I just found that blog writing was not my forte. It wasn't something that I felt like I– I didn't feel like I could express myself very well through blog writing, and I had a hard time keeping up with the– Trying to consistently put out blogs and things like that. Just to raise awareness of “I exist in the board game community.”
So I turned my eye towards, “I want to contribute to the gaming community but I need some different media to do that through.” I just started thinking about it and thought a magazine might be fun, and the more I looked into it, the more I found that board gaming magazines don't exist all that much in that great a capacity. There are a couple, but a lot of the ones that have existed have stopped fairly quickly after they started or they're really expensive, so I just went from there.
I thought it would be interesting to provide this resource as a free resource to the community and just as a way to consolidate. There's so much content out there, and just trying to consolidate some of that into one place, so people don't have to go so many places. You can just read the magazine, and there are interviews and articles, and we try to keep up with news and game releases and upcoming Kickstarters. Just a place to consolidate all that information into one area was really what I was going for.
Patrick: Have you learned anything by putting together this magazine?
Cameron: It is a lot more work than I thought it would be, I'll say that much. I am not the best graphic designer, but I've been doing all that myself. That's been quite the process, which I've gotten a lot of help. I've gotten a lot of great feedback from people about certain fonts to use and ways to make things clearer, and layouts, and all that sort of stuff.
A big help to the project has been Todd Patriquin. He goes by @ImagineAllTheMeeple on social media and things like that. He does all the– Not all, but the vast majority of photography for the issues. Which is great.
Patrick: I'm looking through this, and it's delightful. The one I picked up is 33 pages, which is a lot. I think it's super interesting that you don't want to do blogging, which is maybe two pages, like in a PDF. But then you write– Like, rather than blogging once a week, you decided to do a once a month 33-page thing. So it's interesting, but I think–
Cameron: I think it's just a better format in terms of how I function. I do a lot better at doing these bigger projects over a longer period of time as opposed to lots of small things regularly.
Patrick: Totally. I was just going to try to validate that exact thing, and I have a co-worker who– She does awesome stuff, and we normally ask her, or we've been asking her to write blog posts, but she's the type of person where she's like “Actually, I do not want to write one blog post every month for this marketing team.” She would rather do one ebook a year.
I'm like, “Thank you for sharing that. Yes, we will absolutely and totally work with you to find whatever format works best.” For other board game people, I think lots of people want to start a blog, or they want to start an Instagram, or they want to do this or do that or start a podcast.
If a certain medium doesn't work for you, there's a million other mediums out there. As you said, a lot of the board game magazines have stopped running, so you're actually– There's way more board game podcasts that there are board game magazines, so you have your niche, which is awesome.
Cameron: There's definitely not none, there are several that exist that are very good. But the vast majority of the free ones or ones that were just available online, they pop up and run for a little while and then disappear, which is unfortunate because a lot of them are fantastic, in my opinion.
How many hours a day do you design games?
Patrick: Got it. So let me ask you, how many hours a day do you put into both designing the game, like Vowl, and also maybe preparing for the Kickstarter? Do you have an idea of how many hours a day that is?
Cameron: That is a good question. I do my best, I definitely don't stick to it, but to try and take weekends to relax and not be working on game things. Both for my own sake and for my wife's sake, because I work on it a lot. I would say in terms of game design and working on the magazine, and it's probably somewhere around 20-30 hours a week, if not a little more sometimes.
Especially lately as we come up with a Kickstarter campaign. It sounds like a lot, but you also have to realize that I'm a full-time college student, so right now I'm on break from school and just stuck inside. I don't have any other– Too many other responsibilities going on right now, so I've had a lot of free time to be working on it.
Patrick: Take advantage of that free time. The world is stuck inside, and you don't have a job that you have to go to right now, absolutely spent 20-30 hours on your hobby project. It's great. Let me ask you this. If you're still in college, does this–? Do you plan to do anything with board games to make money, or is this a side hobby for you?
Cameron: I would love it if it made money, but it's not necessarily my focus. I would love for that to be the end goal at some point, but right now, I just want to get enough backers to have made a game and get it out there.
I would love to keep going, I've got a lot of stuff in the works, and I've got plenty of plans for games to release in the future, but I'm focusing more on the short term than the long term. It's just what I'm working on right now.
Patrick: I totally get that. That was 100% my goal for the first game I made on Kickstarter, where “I just want to fund.” Right?
Cameron: Yeah. Just hit goal, that's all I want.
Patrick: “I will figure out the rest of my whatever I want to do in the board game world after that, right now I just want to fund.”
Do you have a white whale of game design?
Patrick: Do you have a white whale of game design, something that you try to figure out, but maybe you haven't quite cracked it yet?
Cameron: I would say that I haven't necessarily cracked it, but for a while, I think it was about two years ago that I came up with what I think is a clever and unique main mechanic for a game. It's essentially dice placement with– I'm not even sure how to describe it. I think it's a really interesting mechanic, it's essentially like pool building but with dice and dice placement, and I have tried to no end to try and find a game that it will work for, and I have just not been able to do it.
It's been, I think it was two or three years ago that I came up with the mechanic, and I tried to implement it in six or seven different designs, and I just can't make it work. I love it, and the mechanic itself works smoothly, but I can't make it fit into anything.
Patrick: Huh. So, is this something where every time you have a new idea, you're like, “Can I use this mechanic in this new idea?” Do you try to place it in?
Cameron: I wouldn't say it's necessarily every time I have a new idea, but it's definitely fairly often. In particular, if I come up with something that I think might make an interesting theme, I tend to think about “I've got this mechanic on the back burner here. Will this work for this theme at all?” Like I said, I just haven't been able to make it work. Hopefully, one day we'll find something that's the right fit for it.
Does game design energize or exhaust you?
Patrick: Awesome that sounds cool. One of the questions I like to ask, but I just rarely get the chance to do so, does game design energize or exhaust you?
Cameron: I definitely think it's a combination of both, but I'd like to say, for the most part, it energizes me. I love sitting down and stretching my creative thinking to its limits and trying to just work out problems and create something interesting. I think it's a great– I'm not sure how to phrase it. I think it just really energizes me, I guess. But I will say that there are definitely times, like with working with mechanics that I just can't quite figure out, that it can get a bit frustrating.
Where I have to walk away and just not work on something for a while and come back to it later, because it's just– A lot of times, game design to me feels like almost a puzzle. Where I've got this concept, and I'm trying to figure out how to implement it, and I can get pretty frustrated if I am sitting down for a couple hours at a time, and I just can't seem to crack the puzzle.
Patrick: I don't know if this happens with you, because I have a background as a developer and I can write code to make applications, sometimes I'll be working on this thing, and there's some kind of bug. I'm trying to find the bug, I try for like two hours to find the bug, and I found an area maybe where the bug is, and I give up.
Then I come back the next morning, and I can find it in like seven minutes. Like, it's stunning to me how sometimes, even if I like I love coding, there's just certain points where you maybe you hit a wall and then you have to just come back the next day. So even if coding is [inaudible]–
Cameron: I just took a break.
Patrick: Yeah, take a break. For me, usually, I go to sleep, come back the next day, and then solve it in like 15 minutes. It's ridiculous.
Cameron: I have had that happen to me a lot with a lot of my designs. Ironically, I think most often what happens to me is I will just step away from it for the day and then a lot of my best ideas come when I'm trying to fall asleep, which is unfortunate because then I either have to get up to write it down or hope I don't forget it by the next day.
But a lot of times when I have an issue that I just can't seem to figure out in terms of a design or just a mechanic is not working right. Or, “How can I implement this theme better?” It's when I'm not thinking about it that I come up with a solution. Which I find fascinating, it's kind of interesting.
Patrick: There is a psychological term for this, so I can give you an example– Sorry listeners, you'll have to Google this. Or actually, I'll try to Google it while I'm describing it. But it's when Einstein got stuck on physics problems he would play the violin.
When you change the way your mind is thinking about physics all the time, you sometimes get stuck, so if you change the way your brain thinks in like a totally different– Not industry, but totally different fashion, then you can usually [inaudible] the original. There's a word for it. Sorry people, I could not Google it.
Cameron: Almost like tunnel visioning. Where you just get stuck looking at something in one way, and you need to look at it in a different way.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a new game design?
Patrick: Cool. So, changing gears a little bit, what research do you do, and how long do you spend researching for a game design?
Cameron: I think it depends. I appreciate games that have themes that have been very well thought out and very well implemented and that the mechanics make sense for what the theme of the game is, so it depends on the game I'm working on. But a lot of times, I will spend definitely a very good chunk of time doing background research on whatever theme I'm working on. At one point, I was working on, which didn't end up coming to fruition, a game on the Labyrinth of Crete and the whole mythology behind that. Which is fascinating. I highly recommend going into the background of that and just be– The history behind where the myth came from and did the labyrinth ever actually exist in real life? All of it is fascinating. That game never ended up seeing the light of day, but I probably spent a good 40-50 hours reading books about the Labyrinth of Crete and Greek mythology and all sorts of things, just trying to give myself good background information.
Patrick: That is awesome. I love when people dig that deep into game design. My friend Ralph Rosario, who was on about 5-10 episodes ago, he has this game called Alpha, which is about a wolf. It was fun to go to the game design meet up and hear him talk about wolf facts because he was researching wolves for his wolf game. Then you just get to learn all sorts of weird, cool stuff. I dig it.
Cameron: Yeah, I think it definitely it depends on what theme you're working on. If you're creating a fantasy game, you might not necessarily need to do very much research. If you're coming up with your whole universe yourself or whatever, I think that's been part of the almost emergence of nature themes lately has been part of that. It's just really interesting, people like learning new things. Games are a great way to teach people new things through themes.
What type of games do you like to design?
Patrick: Awesome. We've been talking about research and stuff, but just generally speaking, what type of games do you like to design?
Cameron: Generally speaking, that's a good question. I think I've found my own little sweet spot in terms of weight, where I feel like I have come to appreciate games that feel like they have a good depth of strategy but are also very accessible. I like games that can bring people into the hobby while still providing an interesting play experience for people who are very seasoned gamers.
That's a goal that I shoot for when I when I'm working on something. I like a nice midway, accessible, but with a nice depth to it. So I've found what I think is my sweet spot in terms of where I like to design as well, but in terms of theme mechanics, I don't tend to have a preference.
I like to explore a lot of different things, going forward I know that I don't want to get stuck feeling like I'm designing a lot of the same types of games over and over again. I want to branch out and design things that feel unique and different.
Patrick: So, let me ask you this. I know a couple of people in my local playtest groups, where they mostly design word games. Do you know what I mean? Like, are you going to design more word games, or do you think you're going to branch out and try one of each [inaudible]?
Cameron: [Inaudible]. I won't say definitively, “No,” I'd never say never, but I don't think I would want to come back to doing another word game unless I had a great idea that I felt just had to be explored.
I'm a big fan of word games, I love word games, and I'm very proud of what I've made with Vowl, but I don't think I'll be revisiting the word game genre unless I do some expansions for Vowl.
I've got a couple expansions in the works for just if I think there's the potential that they might do well, but it would have to be an idea that I think it's just so unique that I can't not explore it.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: Yeah, I get that. Awesome. So you've been doing this for a while, and I'm super impressed that you've been putting 20-30 hours in a week recently into board game design, which is amazing. What is a resource? A website or a podcast, not including this one. Or just something that's free or easily available that you would recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring designer?
Cameron: If we're not including this one, then I would definitely strongly recommend the Board Game Design Lab podcast. Gabe does a great work interviewing designers from all walks of life and not even just designers. I had listened to a recent one where he interviewed somebody who does accounting for a board game firm, which was fascinating.
Definitely, and in particular, if you're looking at publishing your own games, I think the Board Game Design Lab podcast is a fantastic resource. Jamey Stegmaier's blog is always a good one, in particular for Kickstarter creators. I will toss out that the Board Game Bulletin does feature Kickstarter previews totally for free, anyone can submit a Kickstarter, and it'll get featured in the magazine. So I'm going to just toss that out there, a little self plug. There's just so many.
Patrick: Sweet. I was browsing through the Board Game Bulletin, the one that I downloaded, and it's great. I think in the issue I looked at, there was 6-8 Kickstarters, and they all look cool. I think it's a great idea to put them in a magazine like yours. [Inaudible], [I dig that].
Cameron: I wanted to have a place that people could just get some extra exposure because I know firsthand how hard it can be to get the word out about a game launching on Kickstarter.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: I love that. Another question here is, what is the best money you've spent as a game designer? What's worth every single cent that you've put in?
Cameron: Surprisingly, I would say it was a couple of years ago when I bought a jumbo pack of wooden dice. I have been absolutely amazed by how much I've used them. I know that there's a lot of things you could spend money on to help with game design, but just prototyped components in general– There's so many simple things, just wooden dice and stickers have been so useful.
I also purchased a pack of shipping labels to use as stickers for all sorts of things, making cards on index cards or whatever it is I'm going to do. It's just been– I appreciate prototypes that are sturdy, so I think for me prototype components in general. Wooden dice, index cards, sticker paper, that sort of thing.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: Awesome. Totally, totally understand that, and I also used– I have blank plastic dice, but then I have these little stickers that go on them so I can make them be whatever I want. It is great for prototyping. So last real question is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?
Cameron: I know we touched on this a little bit, but I would love for this to turn into a career in whatever term, in whatever sense of the word you want to take that as. But I don't know if that's necessarily my goal, even particularly with launching Vowl.
I just want to get a game out there that people can enjoy. I don't care if I never make any money off of it, so long as I'm breaking even or not losing too much money, I'll count that as a success.
Patrick: I totally get that. All right, so I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard of it?
Cameron: I have, in a couple of past episodes.
Patrick: Great. All right, so for a listener who hasn't heard of this, I'm going to give him a word or phrase, and he has to say if it is overrated or underrated. So let's do this first one, tabletop stimulator. Overrated or underrated? And like one sentence describing why.
Cameron: Totally underrated, in particular with this pandemic. It's a fantastic resource for prototyping and testing with people when you can't get out to playtest with people in real life. It's totally underrated.
Patrick: Awesome. Let's go with, and I was just thinking [if we wanted to] [inaudible] animals, tigers. Overrated or underrated?
Cameron: Honestly, I'm going to say overrated. I know I might get some hate for that, I did like Tiger King, but I think the hype is a little too high.
Patrick: I love it, I dig it. How about this, games that release at conventions? Overrated or underrated?
Cameron: I'm going to lean towards overrated, and the only reason I would say that is I think from a perspective of somebody who's looking at publishing their own games, there have been a lot of games that have released that I haven't heard about.
Just because I feel like I just missed the announcement at a convention, or I just missed it because I feel like conventions are very targeted, and I think it's an interesting marketing strategy. I'm not sure how well it works for every game, but I think it definitely works for some games. I lean towards overrated.
Patrick: Perfect. The last one here is when people get engaged, and they usually have engagement photos, are those overrated or underrated?
Cameron: I would say underrated, but I think it depends. My wife and I had the engagement photos taken, and it was a lot of fun, so I think it depends on your photographer. If you've got a photographer that is willing to help you have fun, that leads to some great pictures, so I'll say underrated.
Patrick: I dig it. Cameron, thank you so much for being on the show.
Cameron: For sure. Thank you for having me.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your games, and your magazine, online?
Cameron: Pretty much everything you can find at CameronArtGames.com. If you want more information on Vowl, that's available at CameronArtGames.com/Vowl. Like you said at the point that this podcast goes live, Vowl's Kickstarter will be live so you can go to Kickstarter.com and just search for “Vowl” and it should come up. Yeah, like I said, I think pretty much everything from me you can find, or at least find a link to, from my website CameronArtGames.com.
Patrick: Awesome. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you downloaded this. If you leave a review, Cameron said he would help [inaudible] all those cool trendy names without Vowels for your board game.
And then I just want to share, I have a Patreon, and if you want to help me keep the lights on for the show, it would be great if you could chip in a couple of bucks. It basically pays for hosting, and it pays for transcriptions and things that go up on the website, and all that stuff. If you can kick in a couple of bucks, it would mean a lot to me.