David Abelson

#99 – David Abelson

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single and 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 David Abelson, who designed WAYK for Fisher Heaton Games.

WAYK is a 1-2 player strategy game where players control robots on a ship whose task it is to awaken all the passengers, to usher them to escape pods before it explodes. David, welcome to the show.

David Abelson: Hi. Thanks for having me.


Patrick: I like to introduce my guests via a quick lightning round. Are you game?

David: Sure.

Patrick: All right. Favorite sci-fi movie of all time?

David: Stargate Universe.

Patrick: Stargate Universe, not the–

David: Wait, that's not a movie. I take it back.

Patrick: But, one of the Stargates?

David: Star Trek 4, let's stick with that one.

Patrick: Star Trek 4. Got it. Do you have a favorite game? In lots of sci-fi movies and TV shows, they have games. Do you have a favorite game from a sci-fi show?

David: They played Catan in the Big Bang Theory once. I like that game.

Patrick: Awesome. What is a game you play with someone every single time at a con?

David: Intelle, my first game design.

Patrick: Awesome. Cool. You haven't played out your game? You still find it enjoyable to play, even after your 200th play, or whatever?

David: At least that many, yes. I still find it enjoyable. Sure.

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

Patrick: Fantastic. First real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

David: In 2014, we moved from New Jersey to Charlotte and took my stepson with us, who now was far away from his dad for the first time. I didn't ever play board games prior to that, but he and his dad always had. I tried to ease the blow of moving 600 miles away by learning how to play board games. As soon as I got into it, I was hooked. He was not. He still liked games, but he didn't so much like playing them with me.

I had to find new friends, but I got to playing board games on a regular basis and enjoyed it. I liked that it got my brain moving. As it did, I got into game design. Because I thought, “Maybe this is a way for me to draw him back in? We'll design a game.” Our first game was based on Ascension. I think everybody's first game design is based on a design. I had played Ascension, I'm like, “I could do that.” I sat down with him and tried to do that. He wasn't interested in that either, but I couldn't stop.

Patrick: That's pretty cool. I love hearing people's stories about how they got into game design, and it's fun to hear that you got into it because of someone else, and you just kept going.

David: Yeah, I've always been creative, but the outlet for that has changed over the course of my life. This is my current creative thing. I don't see it disappearing anytime soon.

Why do you call this game “Abstract?”

Patrick: Awesome. In your game, you play robots moving around a ship and you have some movement restrictions, like if you're on a 1– if you're on a 2, you can go to a 1 or a 3, we won't go too much into it, because it's a little hard to explain on audio. You're basically moving around, trying to wake up more passengers than your opponents, and get them to escape pods.

I think my first question when I was reading over the game, and you set me up very nice how to play video, is, why would you call it an abstract? Because there's clearly this theme of robots waking passengers and ushering them to escape pods. Why would you call it an abstract?

David: I think there's some variety in terms of how we define what an abstract game is. For me, an abstract strategy game is a game that could exist without any theme and would still be enjoyable. There are some more specifics. The word combinatorial gets thrown around, which refers to some more specific parts of the definition, that WAYK does not fit the bill on– About 20% of that definition, because even though all the information is available and there isn't any randomness, those are some things you find in an abstract strategy game.

All the information is available. Each player has an identical movement set, decision set, and access to the entire board. The biggest one is that if I took the theme off, the game would play just as well. In fact, this game was designed with a completely different theme, and the theme WAYK, which I fell in love with, as soon as I heard it, was recommended by a playtester at a playtesting convention. It fit better, so that's why it has the theme that it does.

Patrick: How far did you go into the design process before having a theme?

David: This particular game is a funny story. This game was born out of the pieces of another game I was working on. I got frustrated. I had 12 hexagons that I was working on for this other game, and I just got frustrated with the game and threw all the hexagons together, in the middle of the table and made a shape.

I was looking through the shape, and I'm a very kinesthetic a person. I need to touch things and move them around when I design. I was doing that. The core mechanisms of WAYK materialized in all of that. The whole game was designed without theme. Then we put a blockchain theme on it, which did fit, in my opinion. But blockchains got a bad rap in the board game industry. It's very hard to make a good blockchain game that people want, so I wanted to stay away from that.

Patrick: Cool. It's neat to think about making a game and then going through the process and going all the way up to playtesting, and then people suggesting themes to you. I don't think I've ever done that. I don't think I can think that way. My brain doesn't work that way. It's cool to hear that you can do that.

David: If you don't start theme first, which I've gone both ways. If you don't start theme first, if you've got a mechanics-only game, for the most part, it's easy for people to suggest theme, because they long for theme.

Patrick: I guess it's also good to think about. There's some benefits to mechanics first and then getting the theme later, and then maybe tweaking your mechanics to fit the theme a little bit. Because then you know, at least, you have a super solid mechanics.

David: Agreed.

How many hours a day do you design games?

Patrick: How long do you spend designing games? Are you spending 30 hours a day, by taking all sorts of fun caffeine? Are you doing an hour a night? How much time do you spend designing games?

David: I would consider myself still a newbie at game design. I still do it very part-time. I am a schoolteacher, so that takes up a good portion of my day, during the week, ten months out of the year. The nice thing about being a school teacher is, I do try to fit in 5 to 7 hours a week of design, or other business as it relates to design. Then, in the summer, I have a cornucopia of time. That's when I usually fit in my longer trips to conventions and longer bouts of no sleep but only playtesting, that sort of thing. I like that time.

Patrick: I wonder, do you have to– I almost wonder if you have to get several game ideas teed up for the summer so that by the time this summer hits, you have something to run with. Does that make sense? Do you almost build up a couple of games that are ready to go through lots of iteration, or something like that?

David: Well, when I started all this, I thought, “I'll just design a game every year, and then the game will be ready for lots of playtesting when I get to the summer.” The problem with that is that I can't just design a game. You get a game to a certain point and then– I was saying this on Facebook, yesterday.

You get a game to a certain point, and then you get blocked, or you get sidetracked, or something. Then you go pick up another game, and you move that game to another point. By the time summer comes, I've usually got at least three games. This past summer, I had 7 I was working on, at one stage or another.

How did publishing your first game change your process?

Patrick: Very cool. I like it. I do want to ask you about– Your first game was Intelle, which I will link to in the show notes. One of things I'm always curious about is you've already made and published a game. Now you're working on future games, and you've designed some, and I know you're publishing others. How has your process changed? What did you learn publishing that first game?

David: I learned everything publishing that first game. I come from a background where I've done some custom work. I had some custom print work, background, and logistics and that sort of work so that I could at least touch on that history, in order to make this work. Other than that, game design and game publishing was brand new to me. I've learned everything, and I still have so much more to learn. One of the things that I learned was that Intelle was a very well-designed game. I'm patting myself on the back, but Mensa agrees with me.

Intelle was a very well-designed game, I was very proud of, but I made some mistakes in turning it into a product. As a developer– Maybe I'm not as good of a developer, as I am a designer. I probably should have put that in somebody else's hands. I learned some things there. I learned some things about building community for a Kickstarter campaign.

Enough that I funded a Kickstarter campaign, and I'm grateful for those backers. But we could have done so much more if I had been better prepared. As a designer, I think I've just been growing. Intelle was a design. We put out an expansion for Intelle because we realized after the fact it needed to solo mode. Now it has a solo mode. Now, I don't think I'll put a game out if it doesn't have a solo mode. I think they're important. People like to play games by themselves.

Patrick: Besides a solo mode, what is one thing– I think a lot of game designers get a lot of– I'm hoping lots of them go out to cons. Lots of them go out to playtesting events. Hopefully, some local playtesting events. I'm hoping they're getting lots of good design feedback, but I don't think people have access to good product design feedback. Was there a specific– Besides the solo thing, was there a specific product design decision that you learned? Something that you didn't do right that you learned?

David: There are some things I didn't consider. For instance, “How much table space does the game take up when it's laid out? Should it be bigger?” I think Intel could stand to be a little bigger and still be good. That's a little thing, but table presence makes a big difference. The box– This isn't a game design thing, but the box, I mean, nowadays with thousands, literally thousands of new board games being launched every year. How does your box stand out on the shelf, compared to all the other boxes?

I made some errors there, and I have a very dark box. Some people have said that the overall box product is less inviting than it could be. After comparing it with some of the new stuff we've got happening, I would agree. In fact, I've redesigned the Intelle box, and I'm hoping that, as a result of this next Kickstarter campaign, we're going to have new boxes for anybody who wants one.

Patrick: Very cool. It's nice to hear that you learned little, I don't want say unimportant things, but small problems that you can get over. As opposed to “Oh God, here is a huge problem, and it killed the game.” You did enough prep to only have a couple of small problems, which is good.

David: Yes. I'm excited to say that for my first design, and my first publishing experience, and my– Not my first Kickstarter campaign, but my first successful Kickstarter campaign, I would say everything went very well. I can't complain about any of that. I hope that this next one is going to go as well, if not better.

What kind of research do you do, before starting a new design?

Patrick: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before designing a new game?

David: Well, that's a good question. For WAYK, I didn't do a ton of research before I designed the game because, as I mentioned, it fell together. Maybe not quite that easily, but it did sort of fall together. I've been working on some other games that required a great deal more research. 

For instance, I'm working on a game with a co-designer, Lucas Wees, who the game is called– I don't know if I should let this cat out of the bag, but since I' m– The game is called “Whatever Floats Your Goat” It's a worker placement game, where your goal is to get over to an island and grab all the feral goats that live on the island and take them back to safety before the floods come. 

In order for that to happen, we thought, “Let's look around and see if we can find a real place on earth, where there's a real island, where there's real goats, and then we can build the whole game around that.” As it turns out, there is. In Jamaica, there's an island called Goat Island, and it's named Goat Island because there are feral goats living on the island. We've had to do– What's that?

Patrick: Sorry. This is fascinating. I'm fascinated by the feral Goat Island. To be clear, is this island– Do people live there, or is the island run by goats and there's a king goat?

David: Let's go with the second one. People don't live there now. There's two goat islands, and I believe one of them was turned into an airstrip because that's how big it is. Historically, I can pick a time in history where that wasn't the case, and we probably will do that. The game has as an island market in it. There's a lot that we were able to build into the theme and gameplay that were based on the Jamaican island presence. That wouldn't have happened had we just magically said, all right, well, this is an island and who cares?

Patrick: Nice. We mentioned something in the pre-show, and I was debating if I want to follow up on it. I think you mentioned– You talked about “How do I take stuff from the Jamaican culture without making them feel bad?” Basically, cultural appropriation. I'm wondering if you want to touch on that. Do you have any thoughts? Because I don't think there's a right or wrong answer.

Do you have any thoughts on how to– I assume you're not Jamaican. Do you have any thoughts on how to– The reason I'm asking this. This is an internal question I have because I'm always coming up with game designs for people or places that I do not belong in. So I would love to hear your thoughts.

David: I'm going to tell you what my common thought is, and I'll tell you what we did about this one. I usually– I haven't designed a ton of games, but as I consider designs, I usually will err on the side of fictional places. I think you still have to consider people's feelings when you're doing that, but not nearly as much. I mean, in a fictional place, anything can be true. When we were considering Jamaica, the first thing that we discussed was, “If we do this in Jamaica, we have to make sure, for starters, that we try and find somebody to do the art who is Jamaican.”

I thought that would be a good nod to the culture. I don't know that we're going to dig deep into Jamaican culture in the game, but I don't want to mess anything up. I do have friends who are Jamaican, and it is my intention to make sure that I get them to consult on the game, just in case I accidentally do something that is stereotypical or and shouldn't occur.

But the Jamaican culture, from what I've learned so far, is very interesting. I mean, there's Jamaican mysticism, and there's a lot of history in farming and of course, slavery. I mean, there's a lot of accidents that a person can make in design and there's also a lot of really good cultural tidbits that you can include. I hope that one, first of all, ends up becoming a game, and also I hope that we're able to do justice to the culture.

Patrick: to be clear, there is not still slavery, right? That's part of their interesting history because you said it was part of their culture.

David: I apologize. There's not still slavery, so far as I know.

Patrick: Great. I'm pretty sure this is a different Jamaica, that we're talking about. Do you have a type of game that you like to design? Are there things that speak to you that you like to work on?

David: I don't think the answer to that question is “Yes.” I'm still so new at designing games that I have liked to stick my finger in a lot of different waters, or my toe, I guess. I designed a trick-taking game. I designed a roll and wright game. I'm working on a deck-building game. We're working on this game in Jamaica, that's a worker placement game.

I like to play abstract strategies and euros, for the most part, but I also enjoy a good card game. I'm not limiting myself. I will say that I have a struggle with deduction, not only as a player but also as a designer. I might not jump to point to making a deduction game anytime soon, but again, it's a challenge.

What games inspire you?

Patrick: I know I struggle with anything to do with words or letters. I'm just terrible at Scrabble, and I don't know if I would ever make one of those games, because I just don't– Those games do not come naturally to me. I can see your reluctance there. We had another thing that came up when we were chatting before the show. What sort of games inspire you?

David: I'm inspired by beautiful games. I know. Maybe it sounds shallow. A game where the– I'll take two examples and they really– I like how pretty a game like Wingspan or Tapestry are. You're drawn in by the art, by the production quality, by the box. If I design a good game and I put it in that level of production. How could it help but be a home run? I strive for that.

I think that comes from some experience in the industry, that I yet don't have, but I'm getting there. I think it comes from partners in the industry that know their stuff. Like your manufacturer and that sort of thing. I think it comes with partnering with great designers. Oh wait, I guess, yeah. It could be me.

Patrick: Yeah. You can partner with yourself. Something that I always wonder is– I thought a lot about this with some of my games and do I create– For me, I'm a tactile person. I love high-quality games. I love things like metal coins because they feel good in my hand. Obviously, not everyone feels the same way. When you're deciding on how do you– It sounds like you like a game with high production value.

Do you make the super simple version, that's just cardboard tokens and then have a premium version? Or do you only have one game, and it's only the middle ground? Or do you say, “I'm only going to make the high-end game, it's going to cost $300, but everything's made out of laser diamonds?”

David: Laser diamonds are hard to come by. Here's the thing. I think the game tells you what it wants. I'll give you an example. Intelle is cardboard and wood, and WAYK will probably be cardboard and wood. There's two reasons for that. The biggest is, I believe that an abstract strategy game, historically speaking, was cardboard and wood. I like to honor that. Is it possible that WAYK could be upgraded to have plastic components? Maybe. But I like it in wood, and I don't think that that's considered high quality, high production value by many people.

I think that for me, the game says to me, “I'm an abstract strategy game. Make me in cardboard and wood.” That's what I intend to do now. TANGL, on the other hand, which is the other game that's being published in the same Kickstarter campaign as WAYK. TANGL, when Christopher brought me that prototype, it was stainless steel. Stainless steel is amazing, but in spite of the game saying, “Please, make me out of stainless steel.” You can imagine how expensive that game would be for people to buy.

That's another thing that, as a publisher, I think you have to consider is “Are people going to buy this from me, for this price?” I say it that way because Tapestry is $100. If people say, “Will I buy this from them for $100?” I think the answer is going to be ‘Yes' a lot more often than it will be for me, because I don't have that track record, or that that pedigree that they've developed.

Patrick: I'm hearing a couple of things here. I think I'm hearing, number one, it depends on what historically games in that category have done. Abstract games, very typically wood, a board, and maybe some cardboard stuff. I get that. I'm also hearing it depends on the specific game. An individual game may need a specific thing. The third one, which is interesting, which I haven't thought too much about, is your track record.

Are you known for making high-quality games, and you can deliver them. I imagine– Because you need to get your name out there, you need to be recognized for something. It's got to be tricky. Is it tricky for you to release a game– How about this, if you were well-known for designing high-quality games, or let's say high production value games, would that change WAYK or TANGL?

David: I don't think it would change WAYK or TANGL, per se. Well, I like WAYK the way it is. I do. I don't think it needs to be changed. Again, if backers told me, by backing, that the game was worth some cool upgraded plastic pieces with some– Now I can't remember what it's called, engraving and that sort of thing on them, then I would go ahead and do that, because that's what the backers want. For me, I'd be just as happy with the game in wood, and I think it's lovely that way.

TANGL, on the other hand, I've got to consider longevity. TANGL is the kind of game, we're a little off-topic, but TANGL is the kind of game where you can play the game 40 times in an hour, and you would want to because it's that contagious. It just really is a lot of fun. If I make the game in cardboard, it'll be sturdy, but will it last a thousand plays?

I don't know. If I make it in acrylic, for instance, it will cost quite a bit more money to make and increasing its production value. It begs the question, “Will people pay more money for a game that's still literally takes five minutes to play, from start to finish? Or would they rather me give them something that they can feel comfortable about buying and then if it wears out, they buy it again?”

Does game design energize or exhaust you?

Patrick: Yeah, makes a lot of sense. You've given me a lot of things to think about. There's a question that I like, but a lot of other people don't seem to like it. Does game design energize or exhaust you?

David: Game design energizes me. It's not even a question. Sometimes I want to run home so that I can do game design. I like teaching. I'm in a school now, with some students that are just amazing. I like what I do. But I love to get home and uncork the bottle and dig into that puzzle, which the puzzle is different every day.

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

Patrick: Yeah. Love that. Going into our home stretch here. What is a resource that you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?

David: Unpublished game conventions. I've been to the last two Unpub conventions in Baltimore. They're amazing. I've been to the last two Proto ATL events in Atlanta. They are amazing. Be around designers, and let them play your games and tear them apart. There is no better resource that I've experienced.

Patrick: Awesome. First of all, did you hear there's a Protospiel Denver. I hear that's where all the cool people are hanging out and that you should probably come to that.

David: I'll put it on my list of things to look into. When is it?

Patrick: It's going to be in March. I will make a call-out at the end of the show. I'm just trying to get everyone I know to come, so I can have a million people there.

David: Cool, that'll be fun.

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

Patrick: Love it. What is the best money you've ever spent, as a game designer? What is worth every single cent that you put into it?

David: I don't know. I'm going to say a paper cutter.

Patrick: Great. No, that has come up a few times. It's one of those, and I don't know $10, $20 dollar tools that saves you hours and hours. Is that correct?

David: Oh, no. No, I'm not talking about $10 or $20 paper cutter.

Patrick: What are you talking about?

David: I mean, I've upgraded paper cutters twice now, and I'm looking at the third one. I mean, I want a paper cutter that I can cut chipboard with, don't you?

Patrick: I don't make too many games with chipboard, but I hear you. I understand the desire.

David: Oh. I just made a tile game that has 145 tiles in it. Every time I make a prototype, I think, “I wish I had a guillotine cutter.” Tools. I like having tools.

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

Patrick: Then my favorite question, what does success look like in the board game– What does success look like in the board game world, to you?

David: This. This is what it looks like. I didn't put a goal on it when I started. I don't intend to put a goal on it now. I look at it the same way I look at everything else. I consider success to be the journey, and this has been– It's just a cool journey.

Having to talk to cool people and learn new things, and you get your game published, and your name is on a box. That's all exciting, and I enjoy that, too. Don't get me wrong. It's just a great industry to be a part of. I'm already successful if you ask my opinion. A little money– Sorry, a little money would be OK, I don't mind that.

Patrick: Right. Like, if you happen to get to the number one spot on BGG and everyone's talking about it, and you go into distribution in Target, Wal-Mart, you'd be fine with that?

David: It would be OK. It would be a different problem.


Patrick: Yes, it would be. I like to end the show with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

David: I have not.

Patrick: Excellent. I like throwing people into the deep end. I'm going to give you a word or phrase. I'm going to say, “Legos.” Then you have to say if they're overrated or underrated. Got it?

David: OK.

Patrick: OK. Programming games, in general. Those games we have to do a certain number of actions in a certain order. Are they overrated or underrated?

David: Underrated.

Patrick: Oh, sorry. Give me a one or two-sentence reason why.

David: Oh, you forgot that part.

Patrick: I did. I left it out.

David: Underrated because I think they've been under-investigated.

Patrick: A lot more design space?

David: I've played KOI. If you haven't, you should try it. It's a good example of where programming games need to head.

Patrick: I will have to look into that. You're literally the giant goldfish, swimming around?

David: You're literally like the giant goldfish. It's a smirk and laughter game.

Patrick: OK, cool. There's a couple– Actually, it's funny, as I'm Googling it right now, there's a couple KOI games. I will find the right one and link to that in the show notes, listeners. The second one. Artificial intelligence, overrated or underrated?

David: You mean in board games?

Patrick: No. Sorry. In the real world, everywhere. But you could also answer it for board games. I would be curious what your answer is.

David: Underrated in the world. I would say underrated in boardgames, sure. I don't know much about real-world artificial intelligence, but I'm sure there's an awful long way for it to go up. In board games, I don't think we've scratched the surface. I think great solo games are built on AIs, but that doesn't mean that you can't have it in AI in a multiplayer game and still– I think there's a lot of room in that design space, as well.

Patrick: Love it. What's funny is now, based on our conversation, I think I know how you're going to answer this one, whereas I don't think I knew when I wrote the question. Games that have a custom d6, where you could have used a regular d6, overrated or underrated?

David: Underrated. I think you definitely want to have custom d6 as much as you can.

Patrick: I figured that be your answer. Since this is coming out shortly after Halloween. Halloween, overrated or underrated?

David: Halloween, overrated. Halloween games, underrated.

Patrick: Overrated? I've got to hear, why is Halloween overrated?

David: Just not a fan. Religious reasons, perhaps. Halloween, not my favorite holiday. I was saying it in school today, and I got looked at like I was– I'm just not a fan of that holiday. I'd take– Believe it or not, I would take Valentine's Day over Halloween.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Wow. That is a blow to Halloween. David, thank you so much for being on the show.

David: It has been my pleasure.

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

David: You can find me on Instagram @FisherHeaton, or on Twitter by the same handle. You can find Fisher Heaton Games on Facebook at Fisher Heaton Games. I'm on Facebook as David Abelson. Where else should they look for me?

Patrick: Assuming I get my scheduling correct, your game should be on Kickstarter when this episode airs. Just make sure to go to a Kickstarter, you can type in the name of the game and find it that way.

David: That's right, or it might be easier if you look it up under Analog Apps, which is the brand we're putting on these two games.

Patrick: There we go. Listeners, if you like the show please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to this. If you leave a review, David will send a robot to your home to wake you up, which could be nice or terrifying depending on what type of robot it is. Then my game, Mintsugi, should be in The Game Crafter Mint Tin contest (challenge) assuming I don't mess up the submission process. I would love for you to look it over and give me some feedback.

I think by the time this episode airs, probably the first couple rounds of the contest will be over. But still, give it a look. I'll have a link to the show notes. Then Protospiel Denver will be in March. I'm going there, so if you're anywhere near Denver, please come out, and I'd love to play your game. That's all I've got. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter, I am @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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