Charlie McCarron

#152 – Charlie McCarron

Patrick: 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'm going to be talking with Charlie McCarron, who designed Four Humours, which we're going to talk about a lot today, Dragon Insurance, Alphabet Sloop, and he also worked at Fantasy Flight and helped with Star Wars: Destiny, if you've played that game. Charlie, welcome to the show.

Charlie: Thanks, Patrick. Thanks for having me.

Introduction

Patrick: Yes. We talked a little bit by email and on Facebook, but the audience doesn't know you, so I like to introduce you with a lightning round. Ready?

Charli: I'm ready.

Patrick: All right. Favorite Star Wars character?

Charlie: I have to go with Chewbacca. He's loyal, and yeah, he's great.

Patrick: Yeah, he's absolutely great. Do you–? So, it's obviously not the dialogue that impresses you.

Charlie: Maybe it's more of the feeling of him as a dog. Like, you just appreciate him at all times. That reminds me that my parents bought me a Chewbacca card for– I don't know if you remember the old Decipher CCG, but it was one of my favorite games as a kid growing up. For some reason, people would pay $20 dollars for a Chewbacca card, and now it's worth 50 cents, maybe. It didn't quite age like Magic.

Patrick: Yes. Man, I remember buying some Magic cards back in like '95, or something. I remember getting a Shivan Dragon or something online, and I'm sure now it's like– I think I've seen them recently, and now it's gone up $500 or $5,000, whatever it's gone up to. I should have invested in Shivan Dragons and not in stocks, that's what I should have done.

Charlie: That's amazing.

Patrick: That is crazy. So, second question. What is your favorite pandemic activity?

Charlie: My friends and I invented a new game called Soccer Tennis. I love playing soccer, and I'm sad that it's a little bit too close contact, so we started thinking, “How can we play and keep each other away?” So we go on to the tennis court and basically play tennis with a soccer ball, and you can only kick it and head it. It's awesome. Highly recommended.

Patrick: Can the ball bounce more than once, or is that with tennis rules? Where if it bounces twice–?

Charlie: We're easy on each other, and we say you can get two bounces on your side.

Patrick: Got it.

Charlie: We've tried different ball deflation to see what's ideal, and then we tried it with a kickball for low-gravity mode.

Patrick: Low gravity mode?

Charlie: Yeah.

Patrick: That's great. You are– I think you might be the first person to make a physical game in addition to a board game on my show. So, thank you. Then back in non-pandemic times, what's a game you'd play with someone every single time at a convention? Like, what is something you just want to– You're exhausted, but you still want to play that game?

Charlie: I guess I'll have to go with a shout out to my favorite pandemic-era game, The Crew. My friends and I have been playing The Crew throughout all of quarantine, and it was just the perfect play it over and over again– I don't know if you're familiar, but it's like–

Patrick: No.

Charlie: It's a co-op trick-taking game. And I love trick-taking games, and I've never thought that “Let's have it be a complete co-op where we're all trying to do these missions.” The reason it's fun to play over and over again is you're going through these missions that make it harder each time. So, we'll see–

Patrick: That's cool. I'll have to check that out. I do love trick-taking, it's just– I think I played a lot of games as a kid that involved trick-taking games, but a trick-taking co-op game? I have not played one of those. All right, I'll have to look into it. The Crew.

Charlie: Love it, yeah.

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

Patrick: All right. So first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Charlie: Like I said, the Star Wars cards were really my intro, and I just loved the idea. I used to make my own illustrations, and I loved cartooning as a kid, so I'd make my own cards. I never actually played a game, but I'd always enjoy making stats for all these characters. That's where my love of card games came from. Boardgame design, though, came a lot later. I guess it came back around.

I always wanted to be a video game maker, so I would do calculator games, graphing calculator programming. Finally, years later, one of my friends, just out of nowhere, was like, “I want to try this game with you guys.” Just a very crappy prototype and I'm sure this is the case with a lot of designers where you see something that a friend made, and you're like, “I could do this myself.”

For me personally, once I get into something, I want to figure out how to make it myself. So whether that's music, I do music composition, art– I just love making things. So, once I started playing games on a weekly basis, it just had to be something I wanted to create myself.

You once worked for Fantasy Flight. What is the difference between working at a game company versus designing things on your own?

Patrick: I love it, I love the– This is one of my favorite things about humans. Just when we're like, “I can do that.” Just like, “I can– Sure. I'll try this new thing.” It's one of my favorite things about humans, so that's cool. OK, so in an email and I looked at your website, you worked– Or, maybe I should say you interned at Fantasy Flight, which must have been a very cool experience.

They make some of my favorite board games in the world. What is the difference between working at a game company like Fantasy Flight, where there's numerous employees? I assume they do different things, versus designing things on your own?

Charlie: Yeah, the main one is I'm probably not going to be working on an official Star Wars game by myself. That was the most fun; it came back around to my childhood love of Star Wars and the Star Wars card game. Suddenly I'm working on a new one, and it's just like my 12-year-old self would just have his mind blown finding that out.

The great thing about it too was that was my first time collaborating with other people on a game, so [Lucas Litzinger] was the designer, and I basically every day got to sit down with him, play through the game, come up with new ideas and test him right on the spot. The idea of just being able to do that as your day job is very fun.

Obviously, you don't have as much freedom as when you're an individual, and if you're an actual employee, you can't work on your own games at the same time for legal reasons. But as an intern, it was inspiring. I learned a ton.

Patrick: That's cool. Man, I wish. I'm playing a lot of this miniatures game right now called Marvel Crisis Protocol. It's all the Marvel miniatures, like Spider-Man and Wolverine is coming out, Iron Man and Captain America, all the bad guys too. It's so much fun to work with– Or to play with a big IP. I think that's hard to do unless you work at a famous– It's really hard to get cool IPs like Star Wars or like Marvel or like whatever unless you're at one of these big game companies. That's a cool, unique thing.

Charlie: There is the drawback to those too, where you have to fit everything into that world.

Patrick: Sure.

Charlie: Versus coming up with stuff from scratch.

Patrick: Sure.

Charlie: I realized myself, I'm probably more of a designer than a developer because a lot of Fantasy Flight, we were working on a new game. But if you apply for a position at Fantasy Flight, they'll put you in the developer role, which is helping with an existing game. So some people excel at that, like figuring out expansion ideas, new ideas. But I've realized myself, and I like coming up with the code of the game to begin with. Like, what is the initial design?

Patrick: Like the philosophy behind the game?

Charlie: Yeah.

Patrick: So, what is–? Is there–? Let me ask you the same question in just a slightly different way. What is something besides the IP, what is something you miss from Fantasy Flight?

Charlie: I miss being around people, as we all do. It was fun just being around a dozen designers and just getting that space, you can walk in the office and work on this. If it ever worked out that I'd get a job at Fantasy Flight, that's one of the few office jobs I would do. Since I'm a freelancer, my main job is doing film scoring. I do actually like working on my own at home, but game design is different. You got to be with people and playing around with ideas on the table.

You presented a very cool talk about the Building Block of Meaning. Can you tell us about that?

Patrick: I hear you. OK, so at your local game design group, you presented this very cool talk called A Building Block of Meaning, which, by the way, listeners, I will put a link to in the show notes. I just thought it was a cool lens to think about games and about how people look at games. Maybe you can walk us through the building block of meaning and give us the high-level concepts here?

Charlie: Yeah. So I obviously am a nerd about thinking about what makes a good game, and for me, it's like, “How does the meaning come through in a game? Like, why does one game mean something and then one prototype you make means absolutely nothing?” So I thought of this three-prong idea, and the– If you can think of or picture a cube in your head, there's three axes to this cube.

All three dimensions and the volume of the cube itself is the amount of meaning in a game. So what are those three axes? I was thinking, and I thought that, for one, having a challenge in the game is important. Sometimes if the game is too easy, no decisions, that is not going to give you any meaning out of the game.

Challenge Appeal is the other axis, so aesthetic appeal, is it bringing out fun at the table and provoking emotion? That's the second one. Then story, and when I'm thinking about story not just in a narrative sense, but “What is the overall arc of the game and why do you feel like there is progression in the game?” That's like the time aspect.

If you think about it, it's like the appeal is instant. You look at the game, “That's appealing.” The challenge is tactical in the moment, “What are you being challenged by?” And then, the story element is overall, “What is your plan throughout the entire game? And why are you doing this activity for an hour?” Or, “Are you just repeating the same thing and it doesn't have an overall arc?” So, that's my thought there.

Patrick: So, OK. How would you use this idea? The building block of meaning, how would you use it in a game design? Would you–? As an example, would you look at one of your games through this lens and then make a change to it? Like, how do you use this idea, this framework?

Charlie: Yeah, I think it sparks some really good questions to ask about your game. The challenge, for example. What are your choices that you're making? At any time, it's good to ask that in your game. What are the decisions people are making, or are they non-decisions?

Because if you're just doing something repetitively without thinking about it, what is that adding to the game? I love having tight design where everything you do has an impact on the game and everything. For me, that's the main point of trying to find what the meaning of the game is.

Is each thing I'm doing having an impact on the course of the game? There's other ways where the appeal comes in, sometimes it's not a strategic game but a party game, and sometimes that's the main reason there's meaning to it. It's just a fun activity.

Patrick: Cool.

Charlie: I'm not sure where else I was going with that, but yeah.

Four Humours will be on Kickstarter when this episode comes out. Tell us about the game?

Patrick: No, it's cool. I think it's always– The way I look at this stuff is it's always good to have new lenses and frameworks to look at your game, and not every game needs every lens, but it's just another way to think about it. I think I like story and appeal, and it's nice to think about games on those axes. That's cool.

OK, so basically, we got in touch because of your game that's coming out shortly and should be out when this episode comes out. It will be a couple of weeks from after we record it. But it's your new game called the Four Humours, which is not about or for comedians. It's about the Four Humours from the Middle Ages where– I'm sure you can give me a better description of this, but it's how they thought the world worked.

Can you tell us, I guess, tell us a little bit about the game? And actually, I think the thing I love from reading about the game is the work replacement system. I'd love to hear a little bit about that.

Charlie: I've had this theme for five years, the Four Humours. For people who don't know, the whole idea is that they used to think the different fluid levels in your body would change your personality, so if you had too much yellow bile, for example, that would make you choleric and aggressive.

If you had too much blood, for example, that would make you friendly and extroverted, creative. Too much black bile would make you melancholic, so introverted and perfectionistic, and too much phlegm would make you lazy and submissive. So I just love that idea, it's just such a weird concept and very hard to make into a game, it turns out. It took four years or something, and I don't know, probably seven totally different games.

Finally, I came to this idea of this secret work replacement, we were calling it. Overnight this came to me, and suddenly it just worked, but the idea is each card– There's four location cards out on the table at any time, they are little scenes from medieval times. Imagine the royal latrine where all the peasants are cleaning up, the dungeon, the battleground field, and each of the characters—

There's characters on the cards themselves. It's a little bit of a different style of work replacement where the characters are on the cards, and you're placing a token in their belly. The token you're placing is the humour, and each character has a dual personality that they could be.

So a peasant could be sanguine or phlegmatic, red blood or white phlegm, and you place your token down, so your opponents won't know which you've done. That's the core concept, it's binary work replacement. The way that the cards resolve has to do– There's a whole hierarchy of how you win on a card. But yeah, I just love that idea of secret work replacement.

Patrick: Absolutely. I like– Actually, what's great is you just corrected me. The thing I think is– The secret work replacement is amazing, and the scoring is cool. That was the part that I like.

So I think I was looking at it on the website, and maybe it was based on one location, but in this location– Or maybe it was for all locations. If you have one choleric humour, that that one wins. Or if you have the most blood humours, they win. Or if there's two black humours, that one wins. It's this crazy– It's complicated and really interesting. Just like choices, right?

Charlie: Yeah, and once you start playing, it's not too complicated. But the thing that works well, it's also a prisoner's dilemma. Each card has a different scenario on it, so the most– The easiest one to comprehend is the royal bedchamber. That's the true prisoner's dilemma, where if both players who play on the—

There's two nobles lying in bed together and they can either get along, or they can fight each other. So you're secretly placing on one of them, and if you pick choleric, you're going to fight the other player. If they also pick choleric, you kill each other. But if I pick choleric, you pick sanguine, the friendly one, then I just kill you, and I take the card.

However, if we both played sanguine, we would both win together. So if you can imagine those kind of scenarios but with more characters on them, that's– It's funny that prisoner's dilemma itself is kind of a boring game. It's only really got one outcome.

Patrick: Sure.

Charlie: But when you expand it out to multiple options, it's more about where you place on any of these cards.

What challenges did you run into and how did you solve them?

Patrick: It's really fun. I think what's fun for game design, in general, is taking a concept like work replacement and then go, “OK. Now there's secret workers.” They could either be option A, or they could be option B, and based on the location, B might win here, or A might win here.

I think it's just really interesting that there's just so many dimensions there. I think it's also going into hobby board gaming, like when everyone knows what work replacement is, it's really easy to explain your game. You're like, “Cool. It's like Agricola, or any of these other work replacement games, but here's the differences.” I think it's cool to build on these existing concepts.

So, I like asking people what challenges they run into in their game design, and I think I want to zoom into one that you just mentioned. You said you've been working on this for, I think you said 4-7 years or four-plus years?

Charlie: Probably like five years total, something like that.

Patrick: Right, and I hear this all the time. It's really interesting to me that you said, basically, you want to have this one idea. It clicked. My question for you is– I have many games that are pretty fine, and I know they just need something, but I don't know what.

They're definitely not good enough to publish right now, so how do you know when to give up on a game design? Because, how do I–? Because it seems like you were struck by a bolt of lightning, and maybe that's incorrect. Go ahead and correct me if that's wrong, but how do you foster those brilliant ideas that make your game design work or know when to give one up?

Charlie: Sure. So, I still have lots of games that are on the back burner from years ago that I'm not giving up, but I'm putting them on my shelf and my Google doc that has all these mechanics in it, and maybe I'll look back at them. But I think my advantage as a designer is I've been OK with starting from scratch if I need to, like rip up the game and start a new one.

If I love the theme, and because all these ideas will filter back in if they're still good, for me, one thing I like to do is I'm a very visual person. So for me, actually sketching out what the game might look like is very inspirational to how the design plays out. For this Four Humours, the current version of it, I wanted to have some work replacement where the characters are already on the card, and you're already seeing this fun, “Where's Waldo?” type scene.

Suddenly it just came to me that, “Maybe each of the work replacement spots on the belly is a dual nature,” and so I think just sketching it out, and it was– It felt like a bolt of lightning, but in reality, it was me one step at a time coming up with these concepts, and suddenly they merged together in a great way. So I had this concept of each of the peasant, the knight, the noble, all of these different factions had these dual personalities. But I just couldn't figure out how they played out and simplifying it into this simple work replacement thing just worked.

Patrick: Yeah, that's great. Just to be clear, I never want to– Like, when I say “A bolt of lightning,” that doesn't mean “Random.”

Charlie: Sure.

Patrick: I feel like you worked hard enough until inspiration came, and you thought long enough on it. I never want to take someone's hard work away from them.

Charlie: Oh, no. It's still a mystery to me. Sometimes I do songwriting too, and sometimes I just come up with a song in a dream or–

Patrick: There we go.

Charlie: Like, there is preparation behind that too, like I've been working at it. But I love when I get those bolt of lightning moments.

With this Four Humours game you were able to art direct for the first time. What did you learn about that?

Patrick: Very cool. OK, so something else I want to talk about is you said that in the Four Humours is that is the first time you were able to art direct a game. I would love, and I think a lot of the people here will eventually need to know how to art direct a game, so I'd love to know what did you learn about art directing?

Something, maybe just give us a very– I know what it is, but give us a very brief explanation of what art directing means to you. And then, what did you learn about it that you can share with another new game designer?

Charlie: First of all, shout out to my publisher, Adam Reyberg of Adam's Apple Games. He's also here in Minnesota, we met at a Protospiel, and that's where we started collaborating. But he's been so awesome about involving me in every step of the way, so art direction, what I'm doing is overseeing the illustration by our talented artist Shirley Gunn. She's working over in China, and so what I do is I will sketch something out for her, whether it's a card or my map, send it over to her, and then she comes back with a super awesome polished version.

It also involves word descriptions of scenes, but the thing I have learned is that having an ability to just do a sketch, even if it might look like a first grader sketched him out sometimes because I'm just quickly– Like, I can do a good painting or drawing if I want. But really, it's all about just getting something down quick that you can send-off.

The other thing I enjoy about it is that I can put in all these little Easter eggs on all the cards. Like for me, my goal was to make it a combination of a “Where's Waldo?” and “Monty Python” mashup. So I have all these little Monty Python references, like a swallow going through a coconut. So all these little Easter eggs are, I feel, what makes art in a game fun. Like, when you can zoom in on some details.

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

Patrick: Yeah, I love that. OK, so this is great. Because this is what I did when I art directed for some of my games, is I will draw horrible sketches, like stick-figure level sketches, and then point to something and be like, “Make this really long, or make this big, or it should look like this.”

It's cool to hear you have, I think, a similar experience. Where you don't need to make the illustration, you just need to get the idea across even in a silly stick figure, hand it off to an illustrator, and then they can do the actual work for you. But you've clearly communicated your idea, and they just implement it. I didn't do any Easter eggs in my games, so I feel like you just taught me something right now.

Next time I'll have to add some Easter eggs. That's awesome. So moving on, just to some of the– Boy, what am I calling these? The final approach questions, there we go. What's a resource you'd recommend for someone, an aspiring game designer?

Charlie: I would say the book Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Shell. That one and they have an app too, that you can have on your phone. It'll give you a random lens to look at.

Patrick: What?

Charlie: Yeah, it's great. The great thing about that book is for people who haven't read it, each chapter is dedicated to one lens you can look through your game with, so it's a little bit like my building block of meaning, where you see it from one point of view. Like, “What is the story arc of your game?” And then each of those questions will, I'm sure, inspire a different thing you can do to make your game better.

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

Patrick: That is very cool. Listeners, I put a link for that in the show notes just so it's easy for you to find. The official name is The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, but you should be able to find it. I did not know that there's an app, so I'm going to try to download that right now. But while I'm downloading that, what's the best money you've spent as a game designer?

Charlie: I would say Protospiels. It's like $50 bucks for the weekend. I haven't done the online ones yet, but at least when we get to do in-person ones, that's one of the best weekends of the entire year for me.

Patrick: Yes.

Charlie: That's actually where I pitched Four Humours to Adam, and it was the very last day, the end of the day Sunday when everyone's tired, and they don't think they're going to find anything else. But Adam stuck it out, and lo and behold, here we are getting the game published on Kickstarter here soon.

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

Patrick: Congratulations on that, that's fantastic. I miss Protospiels. I do miss them, and they are very fun. I miss– You know what it is? I think a Protospiel is, in addition, to obviously just getting your game– You get to meet new designers and get new feedback from people who are outside of your usual groups, and you also get to play other people's games, so that always inspires me.

But it's also a dedicated weekend to game design. Like, next weekend, I'm not just going to block off Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. If I'm going to spend the next 48 hours on game design, I need an event to give me that excuse. So, that's the other cool thing about Protospiels. That's great. So, this is one of my favorite questions here. What does success in the boardgame world look like to you?

Charlie: For me, I think success is getting this one game published. I realized now that I've done this, I would be happy even if I never got another game published. I can say, “Yes. I did this game.” That is not to say that I am not working on more game designs, and I'll continue working on it because it's super fun, but success to me is just getting to this point with the game.

Overrated/Underrated

Patrick: Fantastic. I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Charlie: Yes.

Patrick: Fantastic. So for new listeners, I'm going to give him a word or phrase, like “Coffee,” and then he's going to say if it's overrated or underrated. For coffee, he would obviously say, “Underrated. Because it gets you going in the morning.” Something like that. Cool?

Charlie: Except I would have to disagree with you because I just don't drink coffee. But yeah.

Patrick: Oh, boy. We'll have to talk about this later. First one here, Cones of Dunshire. Overrated or underrated?

Charlie: I will say overrated because I don't know if you've looked at the actual rulebook.

Patrick: I haven't.

Charlie: It is ridiculous, and obviously that is the intention, but imagining playing that game– It's yeah. I think games that have super simple rules like Just One or Codenames. Those types of games, as a design, I think, are underrated.

Patrick: Love it. Bob Ross, overrated or underrated?

Charlie: I think you can never have enough Bob Ross because his method and everything he would say, it's just such an inspiring message. I can't even imagine how many new painters he's inspired. Also, I went as Bob Ross for Halloween one time. I have Bob Ross hair, so.

Patrick: Fantastic. Third one here, Game Associations. Overrated or underrated? And by that, I just mean your chapter of game designers. In Colorado, we have the Colorado Game Designers Guild, things like that. So a regional or professional group for game designers.

Charlie: Underrated, because I feel like a lot of game designers maybe don't know these things exist. Any sort of organization where you're getting creative minds together just is awesome.

Patrick: Perfect. Last one, humorism. As in, “Humor is an ancient and medieval medicine.” Overrated or underrated?

Charlie: Definitely, underrated. Because everyone makes fun of it, and my game does also, but it was one of the first times– It started in Greek times, and it was the first time that people were like, “Maybe it's something inside our body that's causing different things to happen to us.” Versus like, the gods or something like that.

Wrap Up

Patrick: You know what? That is an interesting lens you just gave me, where it's a– Maybe obviously far wrong, very wrong with today's modern science, but back then, maybe it was a step in the right direction? I did not think about that. Very cool, thank you. And thank you, Charlie, for being on the show.

Charlie: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Patrick.

Patrick: Where can people find you and your game online?

Charlie: If you go to AdamsAppleGames.com, that's where we're having Four Humours up. For myself, personally, if you just look up my name Charlie McCarron, I'm on all the social media stuff. Happy to connect with you.

Patrick: And the game should also be on Kickstarter when this launches, right?

Charlie: Yeah.

Patrick: Perfect. Cool, so just look for the Four Humours on Kickstarter or go to Adam's Apple Games?

Charlie: Yeah.

Patrick: Cool, all right. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you hear this. If you leave a review, Charlie said he would help you find dragon insurance for your home just in case you want to buy that.

And then, instead of talking about my Patreon, I just want to mention that I am planning something for Black Friday. I am basically putting together a giant discount for Fry Thief. It's going to be something like, if you order ten copies of Fry Thief, I'm going to give you 50% off. So, if you want to order up a bajillion copies for you and your friends and your family, you can get 50% off of the whole thing.

So, I think that's it. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, 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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