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Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indy Board Game Designer's Podcast where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single week. We talk about their game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. My name is Patrick Roland. Today I'm going to be talking with Jay Little who's designed a ton of games.
Patrick Rauland: He's probably most well known for working on Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. Then, he's also worked on several Games Workshop intellectual properties, including Blood Bowl: Team Manager – the Card Game, and Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 3rd Edition, and a bunch of other games.
Patrick Rauland: He also teaches game design at University of Wisconsin – Stout. He helped found Geekway to the West. That's a lot of stuff. Jay, welcome to the show.
Jay Little: Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.
Patrick Rauland: Cool. So, I know you a little bit because we met at Protospiel Madison. Also, because we emailed back and forth a little bit. But the audience doesn't know you, so I like to start with a little game just to help people get to know you. So if you can pilot one ship in the Star Wars Universe, which ship would you choose?
Jay Little: See that's kind of a loaded question, because who wouldn't want to pilot the Millennium Falcon? So that would be choice A, but if Hans Solo is a little bit busy, then I would go with the Houndstooth.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, what is the Houndstooth?
Jay Little: So the Houndstooth is one of the bounty hunter ships. The Houndstooth is the name of Bossk's ship.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, cool. I vaguely know Bossk. Very cool all right. I'm learning nerdy stuff, great. Do you go to any other nerdy conventions other than the board game ones?
Jay Little: Predominantly, it's board game ones. Every once in a while, instead of more of a nerd pop culture convention, I'll go to one that's a little bit more education oriented. I'll go and talk about integrating games into a classroom setting.
Patrick Rauland: That's really cool. Like, how … do you go to one of those a year? A little bit less than that? More?
Jay Little: A little bit less than that. It kind of depends on my teaching schedule. I also go to some conventions that are focused more on the video game side, because the program that I teach at UW-Stout is focused on video games. But then, I bring my board game and table top expertise to that, so we get a good blend of both.
Patrick Rauland: Nice. Then, you're in Wisconsin, so how did you survive the polar vortex a couple of weeks ago?
Jay Little: Actually, I'm in Minnesota. I actually commute back and forth to UW-Stout when I teach.
Patrick Rauland: Oh wow.
Jay Little: It's like an hour and a half. During the winter it's almost two hours each way. So this Spring, I took off for my health. I'm glad that I did because the last few weeks have been nuts and some of my colleagues have been saying, “You took a good time for Sabbatical. This is crazy.” So I've survived by basically bundling under a lot of covers and not leaving the house. Lots of Netflix, lots of Hulu.
How Did You Get Into Board Games & Board Game Design?
Patrick Rauland: Love it, love it. All right, so first real question is, I love asking people, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Jay Little: So my entry into board games, I think, is most people have the same way in and that is through Dungeons & Dragons. I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons when I was eight years old. My older brother, he's four years older than me, so he was 12, was my first Dungeon Master. It blew my mind. It was one of the most exciting, engaging things that had ever happened.
Jay Little: That led directly into my game design. In fact, I have kept prototypes from grade school and high school. So I have a prototype for the very first games that I designed where the cards are cut out of old thick matte board of different colors and all different sizes, because they were hand cut. All the cards are hand drawn. You can tell it was from the '80s because the cards are like references to the Ghost Busters and Michael Jackson's sequin glove. It's terrible, but I love it. I still have that part of me.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, that's really cool. I think a lot of people talk about getting into games themselves when they were younger. But I don't think a lot of people on the show talked about getting into game design when they were younger, so that's really cool. To hear that you started game design way back when.
Jay Little: Yeah. I think I really started … anytime I would play a game, and my parents were pretty good, especially with my mom. We played a lot of word games, so Scrabble, and Boggle, and things like that. But whenever we'd play a different game, Stratego or Risk, whenever I encountered a rule I didn't like, I'd try to figure out, well why did they make the rule this way and let's see if we can find a better way to play it.
Jay Little: So probably more than anybody else, our house had more house rules than you could … So we're gonna play where this rule is in, but not that rule. Remember, if this happens, and you roll doubles, and yeah. It was crazy, it was nuts.
Patrick Rauland: I love that and I do wish … you know, this is a side tangent here. But I do wish more people started by like making house rules for some of their favorite games. Making up … like polishing the house rules and making them work really nicely and then trying to design their own game. I think that primes you and it's not nearly as big of an investment. You know what I mean?
Jay Little: Yeah. I think, probably, in role playing, you're seeing that more. They'll [inaudible 00:05:04] to a system that they really like. For example, Third Edition D&D led to Pathfinder, which was really successful. So people already have this affinity with Pathfinder, and then they customize it, and home brew the setting and the campaign that they have.
Jay Little: So it's that easy first step into doing something yourself. From there, they might try to get that published or go, “You know what? We really like the home rules that we have, which is our setting. Maybe we've got some mechanics to go around with it, let's see if we can do our own thing with it.” So I've actually heard quite a few people come in that route, as well.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, very cool. So, Jay, honestly the main reason I wanted to invite you on the show is that I talked about your resume at the top of the show. You have so many accomplishments, you've worked for really cool big publishers, you've done a lot of stuff on your own that's really, really awesome.
Patrick Rauland: When I saw you at Protospiel Madison, what was amazing to me was I saw you struggle with the same questions that every other game designer goes through. I think we only, sometimes, see someone's success. We only see like the finished game, you know what I mean? We don't see the blood, sweat, and the tears that go into making the game.
What Was Going On With Your Game?
Patrick Rauland: So can you tell us about your game, The Wrath of Vesuvius and maybe what you were working on and what your thought process on was that? Especially, back at Protospiel Madison.
Jay Little: So first of all, absolutely agree with you about the struggle. I struggle with this just like anybody else. I suffer from imposter syndrome, where I feel like my work isn't good enough, just like everybody else. In the particular game that you're talking about here, Wrath of Vesuvius, is a tile placement game. Where it's a two part game where you are building and then destroying Pompeii.
Jay Little: It's tile placement where the information is hidden and then you start to reveal it as the game goes on. I was trying to figure out the game works and people have enjoyed it, but it's just not appealing to publishers. It had been signed once, but it had two failed Kickstarters. That's always a kick in the teeth, right? Few things are harder to overcome than this big failure in front of thousands of people on Kickstarter, so that's tough to deal with, too.
Jay Little: I'm trying to put my finger on exactly what is it about Wrath of Vesuvius that is not hitting. Is it the design? is it the publisher I was working with? Is it just that this is the wrong game at the wrong time? What's funny, I don't know if you were involved in this play test or maybe it was one of the other ones I had. But one of the people who frequencies Eric Jome, he's a really, really good game designer. He played it and he just looks at it. I'm like, “Oh, my gosh, he's gonna rip it to shreds.”
Jay Little: He looks at it and I'm like, “Oh, here it comes.” He goes,
“This is a great game […] for ten years ago.”Eric Jome
Ah. There it is. But the more we talked about it, the more I realized that he'd right. I think I designed a really, really good game that just isn't what the current market is looking for. Now, I'm stuck with this really, really awkward decision of, do I invest more time and more resources into a game that I think is a good game, but maybe could not get published without me being the one to publish it? Or do I shift my focus and my attention to something else? That's always a tough position to be in.
Patrick Rauland: Yeah. So I was sitting down at that play test. I think it was me, Eric, and Heather, and yourself and we played a game. I think a lot of us said the same things. Like, this would have been epic 10 years ago. There's something about it now where it maybe just doesn't have enough uniqueness, but this is the struggle that every … and I don't even know right now what the right answer is. I have a couple of ideas, but I don't have a definitive answer.
Patrick Rauland: I think this is really where a lot of game designers get stuck is they have something that's pretty darn good. But getting it over the finish line is a whole different ballgame.
Jay Little: A lot of it also depends on whether … like, what are your long term goals for this. When I teach, I usually tell people that there are only three reasons people get into game design and want to publish something. The first, is that they want their idea to be a real live thing. Like, Pinocchio, they want to be a real boy. It's easier now to do than ever before with Indigogo and Kickstarter, and places like The Game Crafter. That you can go out there, build games, make them look nice.
Jay Little: The second reason is people want to get a game to market. That's also doable, but it's really hard. It requires a lot of work. It requires a lot of networking. It requires a lot of face time, and contacts, and things like that. But it's still achievable. Then, the third reason is people want to make money and they want to turn this into a living. I'm like, “Ha, ha, ha. That's something I'm still trying to do.”
Jay Little: I know very few people who can make their living off of just designing. I mean, there are Eric Langs, and Kevin Wilsons, and Mike Fitzgeralds, and there are these other people who can do it. We see them and we're like, “Gosh, that's what I want to be like.” That's what I want to be like, too. But I just haven't figured out how to do that, yet.
Where Did You Land After Your Playtest?
Patrick Rauland: I hear you. So I just want to go back quickly to the Protospiel thing. I guess, could you tell me, like did you … after playing that … after going through … after playing it at least once, maybe more times at Protospiel Madison, did you get … like, what did you land on? What did you decide? What are you gonna do after testing this?
Jay Little: So I took it to Protospiel in the Twin Cities, which was at the end of January. I played it one more time and I got very, very similar feedback. Going, “Oh, you know, it's a good game and it's solid. But there are so many games coming out now that it doesn't do anything to set itself apart.” So I just put it aside and I decided I'm not gonna invest anymore time on that.
Jay Little: I've refocused on … I've got three different games that I've really been focusing on now. One of them is being looked at by a publisher and the other two, I feel, are probably have a two year design window. That if I can get them nailed down and really, really solid within the next two years, that they would still be relevant and have a place in the marketplace. If the development cycle or finding a publisher takes longer than two years, I'm worried it might fall into the same kind of rut that Wrath of Vesuvius is and I just missed the window of opportunity for this game to have a meaningful presence in the market.
How Do You Get The Most Out of Playtesting Events?
Patrick Rauland: Got it. So it seems like you go to a lot of play testing events. We've mentioned at least two. I would love to know … I've actually only been to two total. How do you get the most out of play testing events like Protospiels and Unpubs?
Jay Little: So I go to quite a few … as many as I can. It's at least two a year. I usually try to hit two or three more. Then, whenever I go to another convention, whether it's ConnectiCon, or Con of the North, or anything else like that, I get play testing in there, as well. No matter where I go, whenever I'm play testing, what I need to get out of it is to understand what information I'm looking for from the players. Just asking, “So, what do you think?” Is not the most helpful question for me as a designer.
Jay Little: Sometimes, it's nice to get a broad overview, especially early on in the design process. But for a game that I've been working on for a while, hopefully, I've narrowed it down to a few things that I'm thinking about. I have those written down in front of me and I usually go through them. Such as, “How do you feel about the balance in the game? Were the decisions that you made interesting?”
Jay Little: I try to avoid simple yes or no questions because I'd like to have a conversation. The great thing about these prototyping and play testing events is, I'm not running from event to event. I'm not running to go give a lecture. I'm not running to a booth. But I am there to play test games with other people. So I can get into conversations and I can answer their questions on their games. Hopefully, we get into a conversation about my game.
Jay Little: That is a lot more meaningful to be able to really, really dig into it. They might mention something that I want to follow up on, then, and follow up on that. I'll take some notes, but I don't hand out like a form and ask them to fill out from one to ten this, that, or the other. Because, while that is a metric and that gives me something to measure against, it's also a little bit impersonal and I don't get a better idea of how they felt during the game. What the experience was like. That's really what I'm looking for.
Patrick Rauland: Sure. One of the things I think surprised me when I started going to these is I realized that I might spend just as much time, if not more, talking about the game than actually playing it. It's like I might play a game for a half an hour or an hour and we might talk for like 45 minutes. Or maybe more, if the conversation just keeps going. Like, there is a lot of richness, I think, when you talk with game designers.
Patrick Rauland: When I play … like, when I do a play test with a like a friend who kind-of likes games, it's like five minutes of feedback. You know what I mean? Like, there's no depth. So it's really cool to hear your take on that.
Is There Some Feedback You Can Only Get at a Playtesting Event?
Patrick Rauland: I guess a follow up that I just want to ask on this is, is there … yeah. Are there questions that you can basically ask at a Protospiel that you probably can't ask with like your local play testing group? Is there something different about them? Or I mean, maybe, if you have a really, really, really good weekly prototyping meet up or monthly prototyping meet up, maybe you don't need to go to these?
Jay Little: Oh, I think there's always value in going to one of these. Even if, you've got a regular group, because that's the thing. That's your regular group. You're gonna get consistent feedback from those people. They play a certain way, they have a certain bias. They know you to a certain point, so they're trying to … even if they don't want to, they often end up kind of filtering their feedback. Or they're gonna play the way that they think you intended the game to be designed.
Jay Little: But playing it with complete strangers is always fresh and valuable. Or people that you only see at these events. So you mentioned Heather, Heather Newton, I only see her at these Protospiels, so I love sitting down to play a game with her. I haven't seen her in six months, probably. We sit down and we game, then we have a conversation. Even though she and I have known each other now for a few years, I know that she's always gonna be candid and very, very upfront.
Jay Little: But I know her well enough, now, that it's always couched in, “I care about you and your game enough that I'm gonna give it to you straight.” Rather than, just being somebody who's like, “I'm at a play testing event. I can dump on everybody's ideas with no repercussions.” Like, that is not what it is about at all.
Jay Little: But the real value for me is, you're gonna get unvarnished feedback. That is good, bad, and otherwise. That's really why you go there. So if you're gonna go to a Protospiel and if you are going to release your baby out into the wilds and send it out into the world, you have to be prepared for the feedback. Or you need to let people know up front, “I am looking for this sort of feedback on balance and parody. I am not looking for feedback on the individual player powers or the amount of time that it takes.”
Jay Little: So if there is some part of the game that you feel is locked in, you can let people know that that's kind of out of balance for the feedback that I'm looking for. That helps people go into the game with a better idea of what to pay attention to.
if there is some part of the game that you feel is locked in, you can let people know that that's kind of out of balance for the feedback that I'm looking for. That helps people go into the game with a better idea of what to pay attention to.
Request Specific Feedback
Patrick Rauland: Jay, that is so, so, so important. I think early on, like I think my very first like The Game Crafter prototype that I made. You know, like the icons weren't pretty, this wasn't pretty. I got a lot of feedback on the graphics. That was like the very first prototype. I knew it could get better, that was just like the bare minimum. It took me a while to realize I can say, “Just you know, these are just like play testing graphics. You know, you can give me some feedback here, but I'm really looking for feedback on blank.” That really-
Jay Little: Yep. You did that when you showed me Fry Thief. Like, my mind is just … I immediately go to the graphic design and where is information and how is it laid out. I made some comments and you steered me back to what it was that you were looking for, which I was like, “Oh, okay, great.” I can go back into the rest of this game now and I'm not gonna be constantly thinking about this. I can look at the interactions and how these other different game play elements work.
Jay Little: So that was really, really interesting to me. I ended up, I think, after you kind of told me that the rest of this was locked in and here's how the look was. Was there was one thing graphically that didn't make sense to me and once you explained to me, I'm like, “Ah, now I see why you did it the way you did.” But, it was really helpful to know up front, or at least once I made the comment first, you're like, “Well, I appreciate that, but that's not what I'm looking for out of this play test.”
Patrick Rauland: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It's probably best … So that was, I think, a decent response on my part. But I think the best case is, “Hey, here's a … we're gonna do a play test of this game, here's what I'm looking for.” Before they even start to give you feedback, is like, yeah. I think, the best option is to lead with, “I'm looking for blank.”
Jay Little: Well, it's interesting, too. I think one of the reasons why that probably didn't happen is you and I also experience one of the other cool unique things about these Protospiel events. That is this whole quid pro quo. You sat down and played my game and immediately afterward, I sat down and played your game. Right? Sometimes, you'll find a group of three, four, five people and that's what they'll do for the weekend.
Jay Little: They'll all sit down with their games and it works best if people have games that are roughly the same lengths, right? If they're all 30 to 45 minute games, whatever it might be. They'll just sit there as a group and they'll just rotate person's game to person's game. They start to get a better feel for each other. They form some friendships and they know that they've got a committed group to play throughout the day. That's something that you really don't get with your normal play test group or your normal gaming group.
Patrick Rauland: Yep. That's a great point. Actually, just one … you just reminded me at my play test group, we kind of limit to you to like about an hour. Otherwise, some people come and never get to play their games, because it's on like a week night. So but at a Protospiel, you can do more, right, if you talk about that ahead of time. So, cool.
Jay Little: Another thing though about play testing that I'd like to mention is, people forget that they don't have to play the entire game through. I think a lot of people, especially with a longer game, they want to get the whole game completed. But if after 15 minutes, you've gotten the feedback that you need, stop.
[A] lot of people, especially with a longer game, they want to get the whole game completed. But if after 15 minutes, you've gotten the feedback that you need, stop.
Jay Little: So when I sit down, whether I am the one play testing somebody else's game or whether somebody is sitting down to play test my game. I set my timer for 45 minutes. I say I'd like to play for 45 minutes and at that point, stop and talk about the game. If we want to continue, we can, but at the very least we have a stopping point that we've all agreed on and we can discuss your game. Let them know up front.
Jay Little: One, it keeps us from getting stuck there all day. But really, it keeps me from getting stuck in a game that I'm not enjoying, but I can still provide feedback that's useful. At a Protospiel event or something like this, it also makes sure that I'm being more dynamic with my schedule. I'm getting around and playing with more different people. Rather than, getting locked up in two or three hour blocks of time.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, absolutely. Totally agree, wow. This is great. Yeah, if you've never been to a Protospiel, I think all of Jay's points here are fantastic. I think you will get a lot out of it, or Unpub, or any other event like that.
What Are The Differences Between Working at a Large Publishing Company and Working For Yourself?
Patrick Rauland: So, Jay, I want to shift a little bit because you have experience working at a large publishing company and now, you're on your own. So I would love to know. Like, what are the differences when you are at a big publishing company and you get to work on Star Wars: X-Wing, The Miniatures game. Then, now, you're on your own. I'm sure it's different. What is it like?
Jay Little: Yeah, well actually before I even started working at Fantasy Flight Games, I worked at WizKids for a while. That was during the height of their clix phase with Mage Knight. They had a whole bunch of different clix names like, [Fear 00:21:04] Marvel, Game HeroClix. That's the first exposure that I got to working with a license. I got to work on a major league baseball game. That was my first insight into all of the restrictions that come with working on somebody else's property.
Jay Little: With major league baseball, things had to follow a certain style, colors had to be exact. Things had to look a certain way. So I had some design constraints with that. While, a lot of those were visual, the game play also had to support a certain feel. But it was also my first experience with having other people that did parts of my job for me.
Jay Little: For example, there was a graphic design department. There was an advertising department, there was a marketing department. Right? There were other people that did these things that I didn't have to, so I got to focus on game design. Then, I did freelance for a while, mostly role play games. Especially, when Third Edition D&D came out. I did a dozen or so modules working with different companies, especially the guys who did Dungeon Call Classics.
Jay Little: Then, an opportunity came up to work on Games Workshop licenses like Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 with Fantasy Flight Games. I snapped at the opportunity. I'm like, this is too good an opportunity to pass up. It was amazing, because I had worked at WizKids a few years earlier, which at the time had been a very big company. It was going from the triple A system, up to the major leagues.
Jay Little: Just because the quality of the components, the resources they had at their disposal. But it also kind of blew my mind, I was only employee number 42 when I started at Fantasy Flight Games, which was on the large size of one of the game studios at the time in the United States. I think people outside the industry have this misconception that a lot of these games and studios are designed by teams of hundreds like video games might be.
Jay Little: But some of the large studios in tabletop design are less than 10 people. So FFG was one of the larger with me being number 42. But I had a marketing department who would write marketing texts for me. If I had an idea for a design, I could turn my [inaudible 00:23:19] on to talk to a guy, Dan Clark, who was my co-designer, my partner in crime. We could bounce ideas off each other. I could grab some people and play over lunch. I could stay late after work with some people who wanted to sit around and play test for the company.
Jay Little: Then, at a convention, they had a huge booth experience. They had a huge footprint there where they had one of the larger booths. Where I got to sit down and run games. I got to do events. It was great. Then, I had some health issues and I had to leave Fantasy Flight Games. Started to work freelance and it was like being left out in the cold, I was not prepared. It really made me appreciate how much work all these other people did. I did not appreciate it at the time.
Jay Little: So now, I always make sure to thank all the fantastic people who are there. From payroll to make sure that I got my check, to advertising and marketing to make sure that this game got out. To the licensing people who did all of the hard work to make sure that the people at Games Workshop or at Lucas Film were happy with the products that we were delivering. It really blew my mind how many other people contributed to the success of the products.
Jay Little: I am very, very fortunate that I get my name in the credits or I get my name on the box. I do feel like I did the work to deserve that. But I am certainly not the only one.
Patrick Rauland: Yeah. I don't think you real … I love what you just said there, Jay. I don't think people realize how much work goes into things like marketing until you have to do it yourself. I think if you're in the board game world, you probably know what a Kickstarter page looks like. But when I was designing the Kickstarter page for Fry Thief, like I probably started designing it like two months before I launched.
Patrick Rauland: I like, wrote all the copy, I wrote it several times. I got feedback from people. I added this, I took this out. I converted this into a graphic, I did this. Then, I knew I had to have headers, but then I had to like … you know, it took me like two days to decide on like what do I want my headers to look. So I came up with like four options. You know, like I shared them around a little bit.
Patrick Rauland: It is just a lot of work and you don't … You always see the finished product, it's … I would say marketing and graphic design is just like game design. Where people see the finished product and like, “Cool, did you design this in a day?” You're like, “No, no. Took me a year.” But the marketing and graphics take just as much work, so.
Jay Little: Kickstarter is a huge investment. It really concerns me when people say that they're gonna launch this week. I'm like, “Oh, when you did you get started?” “Oh, last weekend.” Right? So Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games is a guru on Kickstarter. He's done a number of very, very successful games. [inaudible 00:26:04] the 1.8 million dollars a few years ago. He has written this blog and if people do not read Jamey Stegmaier's blog before they do a Kickstarter, they're really doing a disservice to themselves.
Jay Little: He has this blog that has probably thousands of dollars worth of information available online for free. He just puts it all out there for free for people to read and share. It's all indexed and bookmarked. You can find information about whatever part of Kickstarter you don't understand or you're trained to learn about. Whether it's how do I prepare my page, how do I set backer levels, how do I get this thing fulfilled and into the hands of the people who back this product?
Jay Little: It's fantastic, but it's also daunting. Every Kickstarter that I've worked on has failed. Right? So even though people have looked at me and said, “Wow, you're a successful game designer.” On the other hand, I look at it going, “No, I'm not.” Every single Kickstarter that I've been a part of has failed. Whether it's been one that I've tried to run myself, or whether it's a game that's been picked up by a publisher and run by someone else.
Jay Little: Often, I think it's because they did not take the time to prepare. Or they did not treat it like a job once the Kickstarter launched. It takes time, it takes maintenance, it takes a lot of effort and I was not prepared. I did not fully understand what a commitment doing a Kickstarter and doing it well was.
Patrick Rauland: Just to that point, Jay. I am … every day when I wake up, because my Kickstarter is still going on. Every day when I wake up, I am just taking some notes about what I did, basically, the previous day. It's not terrible, but it's several hours. I have a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny Kickstarter and it's probably like an hour to two hours a day of updating it's graphic, and responding to these messages, and stuff like that.
Patrick Rauland: So it is … I can't imagine when you get to Stonemaier Games' scale where you have thousands of backers. I think I have close to 300 and it's a lot of … it's work.
Jay Little: Jamie basically treated it like a full-time job. Where he was devoted to his Kickstarter nonstop throughout the day. He didn't have time to do anything else. For [inaudible 00:28:17], since it was such a big release and it hit such a huge funding level, that … I don't remember if it was … if he was Swedish or Finnish but he found somebody who had loved Stonemaier Games in the past and who had worked on play testing.
Jay Little: He hired him to basically be Stonemaier Games and manage the Kickstarter so Jamie could get some sleep at night. So that, here during the sleeping hours, there was somebody over in Europe who was awake who was answering questions. Who was compiling feedback. I mean, he took it that seriously because it was that important to him and that important to his backers.
What Advantages Do Freelancers Have?
Patrick Rauland: I love it. So I just want to go back to the question about large companies and working on your own. Because, there's obviously advantages to distributing the work to specialists, but are there advantages that a freelancer has that they might not realize they have?
Jay Little: Oh, yeah. That's the [inaudible 00:29:16] you can work on whatever you want. Right? When I worked at Fantasy Flight Games, I was told what to work on. So I'm fortunate that I was next up to design X-Wing. But it's not like I got to go up to them and say, “I like to play this game and I'd like to design this dog fighting game in Star Wars. Let me do that.”
Jay Little: No, no, no, no, no. They've got the schedule mapped out sometimes years in advance. Some companies two, three, even four years in advance. It takes such a long time, especially with a licensed game, where it might be an 18 month design and development process before it even gets into production. Right? So I'm told what I need to design. Fortunately, I was told to design stuff that I love to work on.
Jay Little: But as a freelance designer, you get to work on what you want. Now, that might vary based on whether your goal is you're making it for yourself or you're trying to get a publisher to look at it. The other advantage is, sometimes you can work on things that the big company might not want you to or might not let you to. For example, when I was working at Fantasy Flight Games, they had certain licenses which was great. But they didn't have a license like Marvel, which is something I've always wanted to work on.
Jay Little: They didn't have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is something I've always wanted to work on. So while I got to work on a lot of great licenses, I could not work on others that were important to me and I could not pursue my own freelance work. So just the freedom as a freelancer is great. The fact that you can work with whoever you want to as a designer, as a graphic artist, if you don't have those skills yourself. All of that is available to train yourself if you want to using videos on YouTube et cetera.
Jay Little: But it can also be a little intimidating. One of the things I didn't appreciate and it would sound silly is, deadlines. I realize that I needed somebody else to give me a deadline and say, “You've gotta get it done by this date.” Otherwise, as a freelancer, I coast, I wait. I let myself say, “You know what? Not today. You worked really hard yesterday. Give yourself a break. You know what you haven't done? You haven't played Xbox in a while. Today you should play some Xbox. You'll get the work done tomorrow.”
Jay Little: Tomorrow, I'm like, “You know what? I'm a little bit tired today. You should rest and recuperate so that tomorrow you can really hit the ground running.” Next morning, “Well, you know what? I played Xbox, but I haven't played on the PlayStation or I haven't really checked Facebook. Maybe I should go onto YouTube and watch some …” It's really, really hard unless you set yourself some firm deadlines or you have somebody else who can help keep you accountable.
Jay Little: So it's a two edged sword. For every great opportunity and advantage that the freelance life gives you, there's also a drawback that working full-time can apply. But it's hard to appreciate one or the other unless you've been able to work both.
How Do You Set Goals & Motivate Yourself?
Patrick Rauland: Yeah, I love that. Is there … I mean, so now that you do work by yourself, how do you … I mean, maybe how do you set goals? Can we talk about that for a second? Like, how do you … Do you set deadlines? Do you use a to-do system? Or …
Jay Little: So I set myself a number of goals and deadlines. I'm a lot more organized now than I used to be because I've worked with other people who are organized and I see, wow, they're professional. They get stuff done. I have not been getting stuff done. Maybe I should follow what people are doing who can get stuff done. So lots of spreadsheets, I set myself a lot of reminders.
Jay Little: I use Google Calendars, Google Sheets, Google Docs, the entire integrated Google system so that I can work on that. I can share documents with other people if I'm working with artists or graphic designers. They can help keep me accountable. One of the other things is, I've been teaching part-time and designing part-time, which has been great because teaching has inherent deadlines. I have to have things graded by a certain time, I have to have a lesson plan by a certain point.
Jay Little: But when I was not teaching, since I was already use to these deadlines, on the days that I didn't teach, I was able to still stick to a routine and hit goals like that. I think it's also … you've gotta be tough with yourself and set some tough goals. Give yourself some tough love and say, “You know what, I really need to get this done before I take a break for lunch because otherwise, it's not gonna get done today.”
Jay Little: I know a lot of writers who set themselves word counts. They want to get so many words done on a given day, so that they can stay on track. Otherwise, it's very, very difficult to do. So that can be hard, but a lot of times, my kids are great gamers. My kids are great, too. They kind of keep me accountable, because my younger boy loves play testing and he's one of my best fans and critics.
Jay Little: He'll come home from work going, “Oh, gosh, I can't wait to see what you did today.” If I haven't done anything, he's like, “Ah, come on, dad. It sounded so cool.” Like, ah man. All right. I've gotta get something done because he really wants to try it out.
Patrick Rauland: All right. So what I'm getting out of this is if you want to make a board game, have a kid.
Jay Little: Maybe not. But if you want to make a board game, make the darn game.
Patrick Rauland: Love it.
Jay Little: Right? If you want to be a writer, you need to write. If you want to be a painter, you need to paint. If you want to design board games, you have to actually spend the time and put in the effort to design it. A game that is still kicking around in your head is not a game it's just an idea.
Patrick Rauland: Love it.
Jay Little: So, I tell this with my video game students. A game that is 90 percent done, is still not done. It doesn't matter how close to being done you are, if you are not actually fully done, especially with a video game because stuff can break. But that board game that's 90 percent done, if you never do that last 10 percent, if you never finish it and push it across the finish line, that's really tough.
Jay Little: That's actually a part … working at Fantasy Flight Games, that was a different discipline called development. They split design and development up separately. There's some designers who are great at the first 70 percent of a game. But they cannot do that last 30 percent to save their lives. Right? They will spend as much time trying to do that last 30 percent as they did doing that first 70 percent. It's agony for them, because that is not their skill set.
What Resource Would You Recommend to an Aspiring Game Designer?
Patrick Rauland: Love it. So what … I mean, so getting close to the end here. What sort of resource would you recommend to an aspiring game designer?
Jay Little: Well, first of all, do a lot of reading and do a lot of playing. There are dozens and dozens of fantastic books out there by game designers who have talked about their experience. One off the top of my head is Characteristics of Games. I can't think of all of the authors, but one of them is Richard Garfield who designed Magic, The Gathering. There are quite a few games out there.
Jay Little: There's a fantastic resource called the White Box, which is a workshop kit in a box. It is a box filled with prototyping components and a book filled with essays by designers talking about how to market a game. What to put on your game box. How to describe and pitch your game to others. How to worry about balance, how to play test it. There are 24 different essays from different designers. It's available from Atlas Games.
Jay Little: So I plugged it a little bit because I wrote one of the essays. But it's also a product that I believe in. I use it as the text book, if you will, for the Winter Board Game class that I teach. Also, just listen to Podcasts like this one. Follow the designers that you like. Do they have a blog? Do they have a Facebook page? Do they do Podcasts?
Jay Little: If you like the work that Eric Lang does, find out where Eric Lang hangs out online, read his work. Read about other people talking about him on forums, on Board Game Geek. That talk about his games, that talk about the games that he's designed. I am not encouraging you to stalk Eric Lang. Let me make that clear. But if there are designers that you like, play their games, figure out what it is about them that you like, go to the places where their content exists online.
Jay Little: A lot of it is social media, a lot of it might be forums or places like Board Game Geek, and find out how their games are appreciated by others.
Patrick Rauland: Love all that. I just want to go back to the White Box. I interviewed Jeremy Holcomb, I think his name was.
Jay Little: Yes, yes. Yep.
What Does Success Look Like?
Patrick Rauland: I interviewed him in episode 39. So yes, if you want to hear more about the White Box, go listen to that. Love all the suggestions. So, Jay, what does success look like in a board game world to you? Because, it feels like you've already done a lot.
Jay Little: It's interesting because to me, success always looks like what the other person designed, not what I've designed. It is really hard for me to take a look at anything other than X-Wing and feel like it's a success. Because to me, it doesn't matter how many units it has sold. It has to fulfill some sort of emotional goal for me. So the fact that all of these Kickstarters have failed, to me, success right now would be a successful Kickstarter.
Jay Little: As much as I am proud of some of the work that I've done, I got to work on Cosmic Encounter, which was great. I got to work on [inaudible 00:38:58], which was great. I got to work on [WazeWar 00:39:01]. Those are all great things and those were fun things. But those were still a job. So if people want to look at doing your job as success, then I guess it was success, but I was just doing my job.
Jay Little: For me, success would be taking a game that is my own idea to a publisher that I haven't worked with before, so it's not relying on the success of X-Wing. It's not relying on the fact that I know somebody who knows somebody. Right? It doesn't feel like nepotism. That's what success would look like to me. Is taking one of my games and really feeling like I got it out to the marketplace because of the work that I did, not because of just the people I know.
Patrick Rauland: Love that. That's a really high bar and I really like it. Because, I think sadly, though, the way the world works, it does often matter like what your connections are. Because, when you have the right connections, you know who's looking for what at the right time.
Jay Little: Exactly.
Patrick Rauland: It's really-
Jay Little: So my idea of success may never be achievable to me. But that doesn't mean I won't get games published. It's just that it's so easy to look at what other people are doing and going, “Gosh, if I could just design the game like Kevin did.” Or, “If I could just design the way Corey [Conesca 00:40:17] does.” Or something like that. But it's really hard to always look at your own work and feel like it's a success because you always second guess yourself, or think it could have been better, or you could have done something differently.
Jay Little: So for the people who are out there who look at their own games and can feel that swell of pride and feel successful, I envy you. Make sure that you appreciate that feeling. It's fantastic.
Overrated Underrated Game
Patrick Rauland: Love it. So I like to end with a game called overrated underrated, have you heard about it?
Jay Little: Yes, I have.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, excellent. That means you get the airhorn.
Jay Little: Woohoo. What do I win, what do I win?
Patrick Rauland: Just the airhorn, sorry.
Jay Little: Oh, okay.
Patrick Rauland: So I'm gonna ask you a word or phrase and you are going to just tell me if you think it's overrated or underrated. So the first one I think I already know, Protospiels, are they overrated or underrated?
Jay Little: They are completely underrated. Go attend some.
Patrick Rauland: Love it. Solo, the newest Star Wars movie, is it overrated or underrated?
Jay Little: [Lana Coruzzian 00:41:17] is underrated, the rest of the movie was overrated.
Patrick Rauland: Okay, I like that. I like that. What about sports themed board games, overrated or underrated?
Jay Little: There are very few what I would consider good ones, so I think the genre is underrated. But the vast majority of sports games are overrated.
Patrick Rauland: Okay, cool, love it. Last one here, healthcare in the US, overrated or underrated?
Jay Little: The healthcare system is vastly underrated. I get that some people are annoyed by it or think it's too expensive. I have had four heart attacks and a stroke. I literally would not be alive today without the current healthcare system in the US, regardless of how complex and awkward it is. So it is vastly underrated in my opinion.
Patrick Rauland: Love it. Thank you for being on the show, Jay.
Jay Little: Thank you so much for having me, I appreciate it. For those of you out there, if you haven't checked out Fry Thief, make sure you do. I had a blast when you showed that to me at Protospiel. I wish you all the success in the world with it.
Patrick Rauland: Oh, wow. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. I'd love to ask you, where can people find you online?
Jay Little: So you can go to my official website, which is www.paintedthumb.com. That's because I always paint my thumbs. That's the name of my company. So paintedthumb.com. Or you can follow me on Twitter @ynnen, that's @ Y-N-N-E-N, which is also my user name over on Board Game Geek.
Patrick Rauland: Love it. By the way, listener, if you like this Podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Jay said he will name a villager in the Wrath of Vesuvius after you. So that villager can burn-
Jay Little: Absolutely.
Patrick Rauland: Burn in a horrific lava flow.
Jay Little: He will definitely burn to a crisp in the second half of the game.
Patrick Rauland: So you can visit the site at indyboardgamedesigners.com. You can follow me on Twitter @BFTrick, it's B as in board game, F as in fun, and trick as in trick taking games. That is all I got. So until the next time, happy designing. Bye bye.