Jon Merchant

#102 – Jon Merchant

Patrick Rauland: 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'll be talking with Jonathan Merchant who designed a game called Squire for Hire, which is an 18 card 1-2 player game where you play a squire trying to shove the best equipment into your rucksack for your hero, which is a theme that I love. We are absolutely going to get into the theme a little bit later. But first, Jonathan, welcome to the show.

Jon Merchant: Thanks, Patrick, thanks for having me.

Introduction

Patrick: I'd like to start with some introduction questions, to introduce you to the audience. All right?

Jon: Sure.

Patrick: All right. So, number one. Are you a light or heavy traveler?

Jon: Light, for sure. I hate taking more than I have to anywhere I go.

Patrick: I love it. If being a squire was still a job, who would you squire for?

Jon: I think I'd love to be an Archer's Apprentice. Just learning how to do that craft, whether it's for hunting or whatnot.

Patrick: Is it like the mastery of archery?

Jon: Yes.

Patrick: Or is it like you'd like to make arrows or something like that?

Jon: Making arrows would be cool, too. I think all of the above.

Patrick: Cool. All right, love it. Then what is a game with someone you play every single time at a convention?

Jon: I would probably not pass up a chance to play Netrunner. I recently got into that, so I think I would be excited to find someone who's still playing that.

Patrick: Yeah, I have a couple of friends in Denver who are– I don't want to say “Obsessed,” but very big fans of Netrunner and I know they still play. So I'm sure you can find those communities out there.

Jon: Awesome. I'm still getting into it, so I'm hoping to learn the ropes.

How Did You Get Into Board Games and Board Game Design?

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

Jon: I've always been designing ever since I was a kid. I've always really been into video games and board games, growing up as a 90s kid I was always big into the typical Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo, and I would design my own custom Mario Monopoly or sit in front of my Windows 95 computer and draw and paint my own little custom Pokemon card set that I could print out and cut and paste onto the backs of other Pokemon cards. It's always followed me, and that's brought me to where I am today.

Patrick: It's cool to hear that you've been doing this as a lifelong passion since you were a kid.

Jon: Yeah. It's always been there.

Tell Me About Squire for Hire

Patrick: The reason I reached out to you is that Squire for Hire isn't your typical theme. I found your game on Kickstarter, and I think I saw some tweets about it earlier as well, but I primarily found your game on Kickstarter and the thing I like about it is instead of the hero kicking down the door and fighting the monsters, you are the squire helping them carry all of their equipment.

I love that it's this relatable theme, and by “Relatable,” I mean everyone's familiar with the hero kicking in the dungeon door and fighting the monsters, we've all played a million games like that. But the game where you're the squire having to carry their stuff, it's close enough that you understand the theme but obviously a very different game and it feels very different. So, where did that idea come from?

Jon: Yeah. Growing up, I used to play a lot of PC video games and stuff like Diablo, Morrowind, or Dungeon Siege. Those games were all about the hero kicking down the door and getting the rewards. But in the end, you are always managing your inventory, whether it was drag and drop inventory pieces that took up a certain amount of spaces.

That's where that core concept came from, but it didn't deal with “What about those characters, or what about that hero that has to lift that stuff and try to fit it into his bag?” That concept is what I thought was a little bit more unexplored. That opened the door for looking at “What do the squires do? What about the horse that carries all the equipment?” That idea.

Patrick: It's pretty cool. I like it. I think the thing for me is it's you're tapping into a theme that everyone can relate to, and I think that's the big thing, but instead of doing the exact same thing you're doing something slightly different. I think that's a really good angle to take, especially for your first game. Because some people, I'm sure, buy it just for that theme, which I think is cool.

Jon: Yeah, it's awesome. Once I knew I had the theme nailed down, I just ran with it.

What Design Challenges Did You Run Into?

Patrick: Then, I always like to ask people, “What design challenges did you run into?” And to be more specific, is the version on Kickstarter your first version, or is it completely different?

Jon: It's completely different.

Patrick: Cool.

Jon:¬†Yeah. Initially, I had this giant board game designed, and it was all in theory written down, but it was an entire board game laid out with player mats and tokens and the whole nine yards. I wanted to think about, “How do I boil down this experience of just adding items to your bag and managing your inventory?” I didn't think it needed to be this massive game.

So, “How do I fit it within the constraints of an 18 card game?” Originally the biggest task was really figuring out “How do I make it engaging for the player to not only make it fun and puzzley to fit these items in, but how do I also make it engaging that they know that they want to get certain items or build certain combinations to complete quests and keep that momentum going?”

Patrick: OK, I have a two-part question. Or just a clarification, and then a question. It sounds like you basically theorized this, you wrote it down in a notebook or something like that, and then you realized it was too much?

Jon: Yeah, exactly.

Patrick: OK, cool. Sorry. Why don't you– You're the guest, why don't you speak?

Jon: Fair enough. Being an artist, and I don't know if that's something to do with it, but I hash out endless ideas. I'm sure many other game designers out there have a notebook, or in my case, I have a OneNote account where everything is. Just hundreds of pages of game ideas and sketches. Squire for Hire started out as this multi-page endless list of paragraphs upon paragraphs of ideas of what could go into this game mechanics-wise or story-wise, and then at the end was this small blurb about what I boiled it down to.

What Was Your Note-Taking Process?

Patrick: This is something I don't normally talk about on the show, but this is my follow up question, what does your game idea, note-taking process look like? Just to set the context here, mine is a heading with maybe a couple bullet points, then maybe another heading and then bullet points. That's just how I think about things. But I'd love to know, especially since you're an artist, if yours is different. You said, “Multi-page,” how many pages?

Jon:¬†OneNote goes on as long as you want it to. It doesn't get separated into pages. It's my best guess that it's probably like, I don't know, five to ten pages. It's hard to say. In terms of formatting, everyone's got their thing, but it all usually starts off as a heading and then very formally broken down into “This is mechanics.

This is the story around the game,” but eventually it just gets sloppier from there. It ended up turning into me jotting down notes at midnight or later, going, “This is the right idea.” And I'd have to put asterisks and bold capital letters and say, “No, this is the right idea.” And then I do another one and say “No, for sure. This is the right idea now.” To remind myself that's the actual process I wanted to go with.

Patrick: Yeah, that's cool. I need to start asking other people about this, and I'm very curious because I've heard other designers– I want to say, Nicholas Yu who I did have on earlier in the podcast like 5-10 episodes ago. He talked about having a 10-page design document. That is just not how I design at all. It sounds like you do something similar, so I'm really curious how other people– Almost the initial note-taking process, how it works because I imagine it's very varied.

Jon: Absolutely.

How Did You Build Your Backer List?

Patrick: Very cool. So, this is your first campaign, and it seems like it's going great. It's been live for a little over a week now, and I think you have 19 days left as of our recording, and you've raised over $6,000 bucks. This is for, again, a tiny 18 card game. How did you build such a–? This is your first project, how did you build such a big audience? And I should say, also just under 500 backers right now in less than a week, which I think is fantastic.

Jon: Yeah, thanks. I can't attribute it to any one thing in particular, but I know since diving back into board game design a couple of years ago a little more full force that being part of the indie design community is important. When I joined up I would useРLooking for ways to manufacture a prototype, and that leads to looking at sites like The Game Crafter and stuff like that.

Joining a small community and seeing what other creators are doing, following people online, just being there and seeing what they're doing. I find that exposure helps you build at least your starting audience, but things like Kickstarter has a lot of eyes and it's all about doing your research to find out what are the best approaches to building your Kickstarter.

Just making sure you put that work into following the right process, or at least the best that you can figure out. Obviously, this was my first one, so I'm still figuring it out myself. I'm sure there's a little bit of luck thrown into that as well.

Tips for Growing Your Audience

Patrick: Yeah, totally. There's definitely luck. When I was talking with someone recently, and when you launch your Kickstarter, if someone else just launched or just wrapped up a bigger Kickstarter campaign, that'll obviously affect your numbers. But that's something you can't control, so it's not worth worrying about.

But I do want to ask you, let me rephrase the question if someone else wants to launch their first campaign where should they absolutely–? And I don't to say “Market themselves,” because I think you did a lot of community building, but where should they be so that when their game launches they have a community or an audience that that's following them and is interested in their product or their game?

Jon: Right. I found personally that Twitter is great. There's a massive Twitter board game community there. That's how I fell into the different groups and learning who's who, and who's designed what games. That's where I've learned the most, so that's where I would say is probably the best place to start.

Patrick: For those of you who– I've had a Twitter account for work reasons for a while, I know the gist of it, but for people who don't use this do you have to follow specific hashtags? Or do you–? I think you're on Craft Wednesday by Jackson Pope, which is an earlier episode.

Jon: Yes.

Patrick: Is it just that, or is it specific hashtags? Do you follow specific people? How do you make Twitter work? If that makes sense.

Jon: Sure. Hashtags could be great, Craft Wednesday being a prime example of that. That's been a big one for me, is to see if there's a big group already part of one and see if you can find a way into that. Other than that, hashtags I haven't found overly crucial. I'd say it's just about being involved and if someone's looking for feedback, make sure that you're putting out some ideas.

Or if you have something that you want feedback on, don't be afraid to throw it out there and see what people think. I'm guilty of not doing that myself because everyone has that voice in the back of your head telling you “Maybe you won't like it,” or whatever. But sometimes you have to do it, and that's how you start.

Patrick: Yeah. Listeners, Jackson Pope, was on episode 37, and we talked about Craft Wednesday. And Jonathan, I think that's actually where I first saw your game if I remember correctly. I think I saw some of your gif animations for the Kickstarter page and it was cool to see those 3-4 weeks before the Kickstarter campaign. I might have given you feedback, and I don't remember. But I was probably just like “Great job.”

But one of things I just want to say there is I think you did a very good job being involved in that community and giving feedback to people, because as soon as you launched on Kickstarter I saw that whole group on Twitter, I just happened to check, and all of them were like “I just backed it.” So, I think you did a really good job. I think you did a really good job making friends online. Like, if there's a secret to your first campaign, I'd say it's to make friends online and then they'll come out to support you.

Jon: Make friends. Exactly. Just got to make friends.

What Happens When Game Designers Have the Same Idea?

Patrick: Cool, love it. So there's one– I want to talk to you about the weird theme of your– Not weird, the atypical theme of your game. But I also wanted to talk to you about, I don't think it has come up on the podcast before, but I had a very similar game idea, and for one second I was like, “Did we talk about this? Did I share this idea? What happened?” Because I had a game idea called Hero Caddy and it's pretty similar where you are the caddy, like golf caddy, but you're the assistant to the hero, and you have to help them find the right item at the right time.

It's a slightly different premise, but again you're like the squire to the hero. I looked it up in Evernote, and I have a note-taking system like you do, and in December 14th of 2017. Now I never did anything with this game, I just wrote down the idea, and I wrote down a couple of bullet points, as I do, of how I think it would work. I never, I didn't do anything.

But I wonder what would have happened if someone put out a very similar game idea, like let's say you launch Squire for Hire, and then a month later I launch Hero Caddy. I've been working on it for two years, you've been working yours for however long, and they just happened to launch at the same time or shortly apart. What happens when people have those very similar ideas in the creative space?

Jon:¬†It's funny you say that too because shortly after launching I had someone message me or comment on the Kickstarter page going, “This is awesome. I love this theme. It's great. I designed one very similar myself, but it's so cool to see that someone beat me to it and already has it out there.” I've got probably two or three of those type of messages so far.

Patrick: Really?

Jon:¬†Yeah. So maybe it's not quite as offbeat of a theme as we thought, or maybe everyone just had that miracle moment where they thought “I want to design a game about the squires.” But I look at it like when two movies that are similar come out around the same time or whatever, each movie is going to stand on its own in the end and you're just going to have to roll with the punches.

Should Game Design Ideas Be Protected?

Patrick: Yeah. It makes me think that– I've heard this, so I work in the startup world and the IT space. In the startup world where you're starting new businesses all the time and pitching them to investors, one of the things that people say is that “Ideas are worthless.” I almost want to say that in the board game world, too.

I just looked, when I was looking earlier before our chat, I think I have 118 game ideas written down. I've only made one, and I made prototypes of maybe another 6-8. So that's at least another 90 games that I can work on that I've had ideas for, but I couldn't work on them because there's not enough time to work on all the games. I'm wondering how important are ideas? Should you protect them at all? Do you worry about your ideas being stolen on The Game Crafter or Twitter, or anything like that?

Jon: No, I'm not worried about that, I'd say. I'm typically a somewhat impatient person, so when I get an idea rolling it tends to go from 0 to 100 in about a month.

Patrick: Cool.

Jon: Even for Squire for Hire, the whole process was very quick in terms of getting it from the original prototype to fully finished and ready to go for Kickstarter in like two months. But just in terms of playtesting it and doing the whole back end work just went so fast.

Patrick: Cool.

Jon: But part of it is because people were excited about it and building that with me, so I don't worry too much about the ideas getting taken because I think everyone's got that page of 100 ideas. To always try to think about what's going to be on the cutting edge is great, but you're just going to have to go with your gut sometimes.

If you have a game that you know works, even if it's a theme that's been done 100 times, just you got to throw it out there and see how it does. Otherwise, people would stop making space games by now.

Patrick: Or zombie games.

Jon: Or zombie games, or whatever else.

Patrick: Very cool.

Jon: There's always a new take on something, and you never know if it might take unless you do it.

Patrick: Love it. Just to go back to the very original point, my game is very different in terms of you're the hero assistant. But in my game, you have to get the right item out very quickly, so in terms of gameplay, probably if I ever did anything with it, it probably would've been drastically different even though the theme is similar.

Jon: Exactly. Everything can stand on its own, it's just a matter of what you do with it.

How Many Hours Do You Spend Designing Games?

Patrick: Cool. So you mentioned going from 0 to 100, I'm curious how many hours a day do you spend designing games?

Jon: It varies, obviously. But it's become this obsessive passion where I come home from working my usual 9 to 5, and I'll sit there anywhere from an hour to sometimes four hours just hashing out ideas.

Patrick: Cool.

Jon: Coming up with a with a mock design of a new card, or illustrating a new character for a new game. That's part of being an artist too, and I'm always sketching and designing something. Whether or not I realize it at the time, I'll typically use some stuff for illustration as a backboard for an idea for a board game, maybe.

Patrick: Cool. It's neat to hear you say that you do an hour to four hours, I think I work best in small chunks. I will probably– It's much easier for me to work an hour a day than it is for me to work four hours on a Saturday and three hours on a Sunday. But it's cool hear that you might do that in an evening, 1-4 hours.

Jon: Yeah, it can be taxing sometimes, but it's ultimately what keeps me going.

What Type of Games Do You Like to Design?

Patrick: So what type of games do you like to design, and like to work on?

Jon: Lightweight games for sure. I'm not a typical gamer, in a sense where I have a solid playtest group or game group that I have a game night with every week. I have a couple of close friends that will hash out ideas together, but typically I stick with the lighter games. They're portable, they're lightweight, you can dive right in and teach them to your family or teach them to your friend, and it's something that's quick and fun, and you know you'll come back to it when you have a few spare moments when you're waiting for a flight.

Patrick: I noticed Squire for Hire is solo, do you like solo games? Or is that just something you did because solo games are hot right now?

Jon: No, I'm all about solo games. Particularly for video games, I love the whole single-player narrative experience. That's my go-to video game, and it translates over to board games as well. If I can play something like Jason Glover, he's got the Iron Helm and Desolate series. Those are fun, but that's what I'd like to try to incorporate for my games. I love the competitive two-player experience, but I like to incorporate that single player in there as well.

What Is Your White Whale of Game Design?

Patrick: I love it. Is there something that you've tried to design and you just haven't been able to figure it out? Is there like a white whale of game design that you just really, really want to get it to work, and you just haven't cracked it yet?

Jon:¬†There's a couple. I have some ideas, and I have some prototypes that are always on the back burner, waiting for that moment where the light bulb turns on, and I go, “That was it.” And up until now, Squire for Hire was that game. That was the one that was always bugging me, like “How do I fix it? How do I turn it into something that people will enjoy playing?” And one day the light bulb went off, and it ran from there.

What's a Resource You'd Recommend?

Patrick: Very cool. So I like to– Moving towards the ending questions here, I like to ask people the same three. I'd love to know what is a resource that you'd recommend to another indie game designer? And by “Resource,” I mean something free or cheap, like a blog post, podcasts not including this one, a book or something like that.

Jon: OK. The internet is this unlimited resource, and I found personally, do as much research as you can. There's so many articles and discussion groups and just differentРReach out to people in the community to put you onto the right track as to where to find the information you're looking for. But, just research, in general, is something you can dive into and not exhaust it. You might as well learn as much as you can.

Biggest Lesson Learned Preparing for Kickstarter

Patrick: Yeah. So let me ask you, maybe just since your ideas are just general knowledge. What was the biggest thing that you learned either A) designing the game or B) preparing the Kickstarter?

Jon: Definitely, I'd say more on the Kickstarter side is you make sure you have that list prepared of every little thing that you want to do to promote it to get the word out there, to make sure you have reviews lined up. Things like podcasts or different interviews, stuff like that. Plan for it going bigger than you originally intend because you never know what you might have to go back and try to set up afterwards.

What's the Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: Awesome. I'm a frugal person, and I try not to spend money if I don't have to. What is the best money–? Something that's worth every single cent that you spent as a game designer?

Jon: I'd have to say this is more maybe geared towards the designers in the earlier stages, myself included if you have an idea even if it's not fully done spend the money and get a small prototype done up. For me, a couple of years ago when I hadn't even really thought about moving more into the board game design space, I had a couple ideas and got a company like The Game Crafter to make up a prototype, and that changed my whole outlook.

That's what motivated me, to look at something that I could create, design, and manufacture and to hold it in your hands and to see the finished product is incredibly inspiring and motivating. So back then I think I got an 18 card game produced and that was the best $10 dollars I ever spent was to get myself into that.

Patrick: Yeah. Listeners if you've never done it before, I'll add that especially a micro game, something that fits in– The Game Crafter has this great thing called “The hook box.” Anything that fits in that hook box, 18 cards basically, is pretty darn affordable. It is not expensive for you to get a prototype made. I know I made a ton of 18 card prototypes for some of the games I've been working on. So, cool.

Jon: Yeah, exactly.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: It's good that you're [inaudible]. I always like to end with, what does–? You're flying through your Kickstarter, and you've already passed your goal, you've got almost 500 backers. What does success in the board game world look like to you?

Jon:¬†I know for myself, success is the measure of joy that you find in the process. For me, I love that creative process from start to finish whether it's coming up with a new idea or trying to creatively solve that problem of “This game isn't working, but maybe I'll sit on it for a while, or maybe I can do this to fix it.” That whole process is just very motivating to me, and if I could do that and if some people get the game and they enjoy it, and they tell me that, that's what that's all about.

That's the successful part to me. Things like seeing people download the Print & Play of Squire for Hire and play it and go, “This is cool. I like this game.” That feels good to hear that.

Overrated / Underrated

Patrick: Yeah. Absolutely, I love that. I like to end with something called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Jon: I think I've heard one or two on your previous shows, yes.

Patrick: So, great. I'm just going to give you a word or phrase, and you have to tell me if it is overrated or underrated. If I said, “Noise-canceling headphones,” you'd be like, “Those are the best things invented ever.” Something like that. Cool?

Jon: Right, yeah.

Patrick: All right. So I want to go with– This is all with the theme of your squire game. Bags that are specifically designed for board games, like the– You've probably seen them on Kickstarter or in other places, but they're literally meant to fit giant board game boxes. Are those overrated or underrated?

Jon:¬†They're maybe going overrated now because I think that there– I've seen lots of promotion for them lately. I don't know. Yeah, I'd say they're maybe a bit overrated. I still go to my friend‚Äôs house with a giant duffle bag, or I show up with them loose in my hands and go, “OK. Here we go. I hope I don't spill all the contents.”

Patrick: Yeah, I'd say for me it's like once a year where I want a board game backpack or bag, but it doesn't come up too often. I hear you. What about just the idea of golf caddies at all? So, just overrated or underrated on just having someone follow you around with a bag with your golf clubs.

Jon: Overrated.

Patrick: Overrated?

Jon: I don't golf, but I wouldn't want toРThe whole idea, I wouldn't want to have someone else carry all that stuff around.

Patrick: What about custom inserts for games? By custom inserts, obviously not the standard cardboard ones, but maybe the wood ones that you custom make that hold everything in its exact spot. Are those overrated or underrated?

Jon: The custom ones I've seen people make I think are underrated. Some people put some really hard work into those, and I think that there's some pretty cool ones out there.

Patrick: Yeah, love it. Then I noticed in your game you have these awesome anthropomorphized animals. Just for those of you don't know that word, it just means “Something that looks like a human.” So anthropomorphized animals, overrated or underrated?

Jon: I'd say underrated, and I know a lot of people won't agree with me on that, but I think that there is a market flood of the anthropomorphized animals lately with games like Root and a couple others. I don't think it's ever going to die, and I think there's something just about seeing the different styles that people will draw the animals in, they're an acceptable way or a really easy way to get new, especially younger players, into board games too.

It's not like playing a zombie game that may have typically realistic characters all the time. You're looking at a character that's always going to be fun, and chances are it's probably colorful. It's more inviting that way. Yeah, I'm definitely all about all of the animals.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Love it. Jonathan, thank you so much for being on the show.

Jon: Thanks for having me.

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

Jon: You can find myself on Twitter right now, handle is @jonmerchant21. And the game you can find on Kickstarter right now, it's Squire for Hire.

Patrick: This will likely air after your Kickstarter campaign has ended, will people be able to find out more information about either signing up for a newsletter or getting a copy later on the Kickstarter page?

Jon: I'll have an update on the Kickstarter page where you can click a button and find out more information that way, and that'll probably be in the form of a newsletter or something similar so you can keep in the loop.

Patrick: Awesome. Good, I want to make sure that people know they can still find you on the Kickstarter page later.

Jon: Definitely.

Patrick: Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Jonathan said he would tell you how to pack your bags for Gen Con. Since he is a packing master, that's going to save you a ton of space. Then I just wanted to say, and this is the first time promoting this, Protospiel Denver will be– Or, I should say the first Protospiel in Denver will be March of 2020.

I will be attending, and I'd love to play your game, so if you are anywhere near Denver, please stop by and I'd love to play a game. I'm giving you like five-month notice, or 6-7 month notice here. So if you're anywhere near Denver, please stop by. You can find it on tabletop.events, and I will also have a link in the show notes. I would love to play your game.

Hit me up, and we'll set up a time to play your game, otherwise, I'll be around and just hanging out playing games and stuff. But I'm excited that basically enough of us in Denver were– I don't want to say “Complaining,” but were like, “Who is going to set this up?” But finally, someone took the mantle and set it up. So kudos for the organizer who is awesome. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com. You can follow me on Twitter, and I am @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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