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#76 – Jordan Sorenson

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 to Jordan Sorenson, who designed Muse, and he's working on a game about navigating by the stars. Jordan, welcome to the show.

Jordan Sorenson: Hello. Thanks for having me.

Introduction

Patrick: Number one, I researched you a little bit online. Number two, I met you at Protospiel Milwaukee just a short while ago. I know you, but the audience doesn't, so I like to start with a very simple lightning round game. Ready?

Jordan: Ready.

Patrick: Great. What is a game you play every single time at a convention?

Jordan: Twilight Imperium.

Patrick: So, you like the longer games?

Jordan: Would you believe me if I said I played it over 100 times, and sometimes even back to back in the same night?

Patrick: That is amazing. You played it back to back?

Jordan: Yeah. The right group and everyone likes it, yeah. We totally do it back to back.

Patrick: What is your play time?

Jordan: Nowadays it's more like three to four hours, but back then, sometimes when we were learning, it could be five to six. Ten-hour sessions, easy.

Patrick: I tried Twilight Imperium in college with friends, but no one did the prep. No one knew how to play the game, so you're reading the rulebook while you're playing it. It was an absolutely miserable experience. I think I might have liked that game if just one person knew how to play and could have taught it.

Jordan: If you're in my group, I teach rules in less than 15 minutes for that game.

Patrick: Fantastic. All right, the next time we're at some event, we'll pull it out.

Jordan: Sounds good.

Patrick: Because the game is about navigating by the stars, what is your astrological sign, and do you believe in astrology at all?

Jordan: I am a Sagittarius, and I think astrology is a fun and interesting lens to view your life through, but in the long run, I'm more of a fortune cookie guy.

Patrick: I like it. Besides the games, we played together at Protospiel Milwaukee, which one was your favorite at that event?

Jordan: Something called Night at Higsley Manor, it was a murder mystery kind of event. There was like 24 people, a lot of preparation was put into it. It wasn't even the best game I played, but it was memorable due to all the setup and what was involved, and in my book being memorable is all the matters when it comes to games.

Patrick: That's great. That is by my friend Heather, who lives here in Colorado. As soon as her game is being published or she's running a Kickstarter, I will absolutely have her on the show. I got to play in that as well. It was definitely memorable, right?

Jordan: Absolutely. I look forward to all the improvements she does, but already it was fun, and I can't wait to see what happens in the future with her.

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

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

Jordan: I was designing games before I was playing games. When I was young, I had this game called ‘The Animal Game' where me and my sister would set up our room with all our toys, like rubber animals. We'd basically draft the animals we wanted one by one, and we would set them up and stand them up, so they were standing. They were in opposing army formations, and then we would take beanie baby babies, and the object of the game was to knock down all the other person's animals, so they were no longer standing.

Jordan: That was my first foray into design. Then playing games, I played a little bit of Risk and Monopoly. Then what got me into actual design proper was– There's a variance of Risk called 2210 AD and it comes with a bunch of blank cards so you can make your own, and that's when I really started experimenting with computer programs to make my images the way I wanted them, and making custom cards. One thing led to another, and that's where I am today.

Patrick: That is awesome. I played Risk 2210 AD in college a little bit, and I'd say I enjoyed that over the regular Risk.

Jordan: For sure. Who doesn't love the moon?

Patrick: Yes. It's like “Earth is too crowded, I'm going to the moon.” It was fun to do that. Very cool. I like that story. What's funny is I didn't have the bug at the same time you did, I must have seen those blank cards, but I don't remember doing anything with them. I probably was like, “I'll save them in case another card gets damaged.”

Jordan: Which you can.

Patrick: Props to you for actually doing something with them. That's cool.

Jordan: It was a lot of fun. 

Tell Me About By Star and Sea

Patrick: I had a chance to play your game at Protospiel Milwaukee. Remind me of the name, because I forgot the name.

By Star and Sea setup on the table
By Star and Sea

Jordan: What it's called today is called By Star and Sea, that is the current iteration. It used to be called Bella Notte, which is Italian for beautiful night. A reference to Lady And The Tramp and that song with the Tramp, and Lady eating spaghetti. That's where that came from.

Jordan: It used to be– It's gone through quite a few changes, but it used to be– I had a whiteboard for each player and some black magnets. I'd have a bag of glass beads, mainly clear, but there is one glass bead of five different colors. Then you'd mix them up and dump them on the map, and each person was given a card secretly of what color they were trying to get other people to guess. Let's say there's one blue, one red, one green star out there. I got the blue card, secretly, and it's my job to get people to guess the Blue Star.

Jordan: The way I do that is I take out the magnets on the whiteboard and orient them in a way that match the constellation that the blue star was included in. That's what it was originally, and that was what I pitched heavily about half a year ago. I shopped it around, didn't get many bites, so that's the turning point when you put that much time. I went all out, and we're talking like Kickstarter-level videos to present this game.

Jordan: That's usually a turning point where you say “OK, no one likes it. Move on.” The concept of the stars and making a game about constellations, it's not been done at all. I know it's such a universal concept and it's such a universal design space, that I know there is something there. So I put a little more effort into it, and a lot of iteration happened through Protospiel, and I got it to a place where it is now where it is getting a lot better reaction.

Jordan: The problem is a lot of times, when you make games, is you will get great reactions from people for games. You can think they're done, but it's not always the case, and that's very confusing a lot of times. You have to stick with it, and you've got to believe in your product because if you believe in it, you're going to be able to have the strength to iterate it where it needs to go. Hoping this next go-around, I'll have a little better luck.

Patrick: Let me start by saying I think your game was literally the first game I looked at in the room. I walked into Protospiel Milwaukee Friday evening, and I think you were even playing the game. The table presence is insane. I will include a picture that you just sent me in the show notes, it's a dark mat, and there are these glowing cubes, and everyone rolls them out, and you get to move around and try to make them look like constellations. We can go into the mechanics of it later, but there's these glowing cubes on this dark mat, and it looks absolutely insane. I think even before someone plays it, all the publishers are going to look at that and be super interested. I think if you're ever in publishers speed dating, they're just going to crowd you. 

Jordan: I hope you're right. I'm always afraid the publishers are going to roll their eyes like “It's a gimmick. Look at that. I'll never be able to produce that.” But hopefully I will get a couple that say “OK, what could this be?” Because at first glance, it may seem gimmicky. What board game needs lights to work?

Jordan: The game doesn't need lights to work, but it's something that makes it shine. It just looks really good. A lot of the times our market is saturated with games, and the ones that have great marketing and look good tend to catch people's eyes. I wanted to incorporate that a little bit. I'm confident in the basic mechanics, so might as well dress it up and look good too. It's not just a pretty face, and there's something underneath it too.

Getting Publisher Feedback

Patrick: I can totally see a publisher being skeptical, where they're like “It has the table presence. Is there any game?” But me and a couple of my friends, we sat down, and we played it, and all of us enjoyed it. I think we gave you very minor feedback. Like “The first player advantage is this.” But very minor stuff that can all be worked out in development. The reason I wanted you on the show is I love that you went so far down the road with your original game concept, and then you basically talked to people who weren't your friends at game conventions, publishers, and you realized maybe there wasn't that interest you just kept iterating. Correct me if I'm wrong, didn't you say a publisher said it just needed a little bit more meat on the bones?

Jordan: Absolutely. I was talking to a certain publisher, and they gave me some pretty good targeted feedback through Reddit. All they said was, “We like this concept, but for the price point, we would release a game like this, we would expect a little more game in there.” Because basically all it was, as I described to you earlier, it was just a mechanic and there wasn't much around it except that mechanic.

Jordan: That's what they said, so I took it to heart and thought and started down a road of “What can I add to this without bogging it down with all this random stuff?” I wanted to keep it coherent to make sure that the theme was connected to what the base mechanic was. Feedback is great, and sometimes you have to ask for it. A lot of publishers will tell you, “Nope, we're busy right now. Thanks for your submission.” I was very fortunate that they did provide that feedback so I could make some changes and think about it.

Patrick: I would love to make a longer game, and my brain apparently does not work that way. For me personally, and maybe for any of the listeners who also have this problem, let's say you have a tight game, but some publisher or your players say “I want just a little bit more.” I don't even know how to conceive adding stuff to a game. I don't even know where to start. It's like “I built this game. It's done.” How do you add a whole new system to the game?

Jordan: That is tough because a lot of times you just necessarily can't add stuff. It's already– A lot of times you're told “Break it down. Break it down. Simple and elegant, that's what people want to see.” Honestly, a simple and elegant game, I think, is what publishers want to see. Because that base concept will tell them, “I can build off this. I can develop this into something great.” More and more these days, because the publishers are so inundated with submissions and stuff, it's no longer enough to give an awesome cool idea. Because they have to commission their developers to work on your game, and their time is money.

Jordan: People like to see a completely filled out product. As far as adding stuff to the game, that was a lot of trial and error. It doesn't work for a lot of games and almost didn't work for this one. It wasn't till a Protospiel that someone mentioned “What if there was a reason to go to certain spots on the map?” I was thinking about it, and I was like “OK, why would you go to places with constellations? Ships are using the constellations to navigate, and there's ports.” Basically, you've got to be flexible and be open to people's feedback to let little ideas that aren't developed seep through. It's your job as a designer then to make it into a reality, and quickly, so you can iterate and see if it works or not. Then move on to the next thing if it doesn't.

Adding 50% More Game

Patrick: What's interesting is the original Bella Notte version was just stars, and you're just guessing stars. Now with your new version, it's you guess these stars, then you have the ship, you can move a certain number of spaces, you can pick up goods, you have these cards, you can turn them in for points, or you can use their abilities. I almost want to say you added another 50% to the game, would that be accurate?

Jordan: You are correct, yes. That was hard because the original version, the mechanic of what it is now is just shaking up the stars on the table, and everyone tries to guess what you think it is. That in and of itself is like many games out there, like Cards Against Humanity or Impress the Judge or that kind of thing. It's a very common mechanic out there that is stand alone, but when you get that feedback and people see it, they're like “Yeah, it's a good game.” You got to pay attention to whether they're saying “Yeah, I'd buy it.” I wasn't getting that.

You got to pay attention to whether they're saying “Yeah, I'd buy it.” I wasn't getting that.

Jordan: When it comes down to it, you got to get that feedback. It had to be done. I'm hoping that it's arrived to where I want it to be. One of my biggest weakness as a designer is I'm not a huge euro gamer. It's a big part of the market. The mechanic of fulfilling contracts and getting goods, that's pretty much Euro 101. It was kind of an experiment, like “OK. This is a beloved mechanic, and it's simple still. Can it work with what I'm doing right now?” It does seem to work, and so hopefully that's growth for me as a designer. Venturing into the euro territory a little bit, even if that's not much territory. It's extremely basic, but it works for what's going on.

Making Changes at a Protospiel

Patrick: One of things I noticed, I think I saw your game on Friday. I think you were doing playtesting, or you were in the middle of the feedback, so I didn't interrupt. I think I took a picture just because it looked cool, but I walked away, and I think I came back Sunday morning. In that time, I saw a ton of– Literally, just the five seconds I saw before on Friday night, it worked completely different. Not completely– There were significant changes. Maybe just for people who have never been to a Protospiel before, can you tell us what game came in on Friday and what game left on Sunday?

Jordan: The game that came on Friday was a game where you have your glowing stars, and you roll them, and you have a ship. Basically, there's 12 spaces you're trying to cross and get to the end first. It's a race game. Basically, if you do well and guess a constellation, you earn two or three spaces, and your ship moves two or three spaces. Whoever gets to space twelve first, wins. That's what I brought.

Jordan: What came out at the end, Sunday, was a game where it was no longer a race. There was no longer one direction your ship could go, and you could now go in any direction you wanted with the spaces you earned through guessing constellations. All those spaces that were once step 1 through 12 to win, they're now all separate port spaces with different goods and different contracts. You can basically collect those goods and contracts when you land on them, or along your journey, you can pick up everything you go through.

Jordan: What turned into a pick up and deliver game, where you are trying to collect sets of contracts. There's different rarity of goods that you're trying to compete over. Mix that with a little speed, because whoever guesses a constellation first gets to move their ship first, which means they get access to the best goods and contracts. That's what came out. It took four iterations, from Friday to Sunday, to get where it was. That was all made possible through different groups coming in, giving their feedback, and trying to find what works.

Patrick: I think what's amazing to me– We have a playtesting group here in Denver, and it meets about twice a month, and I go, and I see very tiny changes. That's not universally true, there are some people who make huge changes, and they always bring in a brand new version. There are some people who bring in “We gave you a ton of feedback, and you changed one character.” I want to say it was refreshing to see that much change because you have access to game designers all weekend long.

How Do You Constantly Improve Games?

Patrick: I love that you took that feedback. I love that you made basically– You didn't have resources before, it was just a race game. It was just go around a circle. Then it was use the same circle, but there's four different beads. At least three or four different beads, and there's the cards, which are double sided which have abilities. Or, you score them for points if you hold onto them. Like, that is a lot of stuff. I rarely see that much change. I love seeing that. I'm just blabbing at you, and I don't have a question here. But how do I see more of that? How do I encourage more of that for other game designers? Go ahead and answer.

Jordan: I found out through many failures that I'm not the greatest game designer that there ever was. With that in mind, when you accept that, you're more accepting of changing things around, because you know that your initial stab at it wasn't great. Even though people say it's OK, that's not good enough.

Jordan: If you're OK with the fact that what you bring to people will probably be something no one's going to buy, if you go in with that, you can only go up from there. That's the way I think of it.

Jordan: Honestly, this game is getting to its last legs. Because as a designer you've got to know when, and everyone will tell you this, know when to let a project go. I've already put a lot of effort into marketing this or pushing it to publishers, so I don't know, it was on its last legs here.

Because as a designer you've got to know when, and everyone will tell you this, know when to let a project go.

Jordan: That was for me the realization that I had to switch stuff up drastically if need be. See if I could find something else I wasn't hitting before. It was out of necessity because I really like I told you before, I wanted this concept to work. Because I know if I don't do it, someone else is going to. I want to be the one to get it right first, just because it's such a universal truth that all of us look at the stars at one point. To make it a game, that's what I like doing as a person, making the mundane something fun and something interesting that people can do together. That's my goal when I design, and I've wanted to make this constellation stuff work. That's what that's all driving from.

What's Your Plan for This Game?

Patrick: Love it. What is your plan moving forward? Are you going to start pitching people in the next month? Do you have a list of people you're going to pitch? One last one, are you going to pitch the people who said they want a little bit more meat on the bones?

Jordan: The meat on the bones? I think it's about where I want it. I think there could be development stuff if I wanted to add stuff, I think there could be development stuff to remove stuff. I think it's very clear what the game is doing and who it appeals to, and I think it is sufficient for pitching.

Jordan: My pitching process is, I look at the convention coming up that I can get the most publishers all at once, which is going to be Origins coming up in June. I start compiling contact information well beforehand, and I try to work off existing emails I've acquired from previous pitches. Then I compile an Excel spreadsheet, and I start sending them out and putting the status of each pitch and who needs what. That's where I'm at. I'm in the pitching process, putting together another video because I find that tends to be the easiest way to convey a game. I'm not the best writer, so if I stick to just a sell sheet, I think I'm selling my game short. A video tends to be– It also leverages the game's strengths too, to see it rather than– 

Patrick: Of course.

Jordan: Yeah, so that's what I'm doing. I will pitch it in June and probably be done with it at that point.

Videos for Your Game

Patrick: Right. Awesome. Sorry, there's one point that I'm a little bit confused on. You said you're getting emails for publishers, you're going to try to see them at Origins, but you're also making a video. Is this “Come see me, and I will show you this game that's in this video,” or is the video for something else?

Jordan: My pitch process is, when I email people, I ask them if I can pitch them at Origins. I say, “Here is a video summary if you're interested. It's 90 seconds.” I find that they're more willing to meet with me if they can– Or say no right away, because they know it's a no for them if it's not going to fit them. But if I can wow them in a 90-second video and pique their interest, I like to think gives me a better chance of getting a sit down with them for a demo. Because I can skip to the demo, rather than the pitch.

What Resources Would You Recommend to a Game Designer?

Patrick: Fantastic. OK, I love that, and I am totally stealing that, so thank you. Very cool. Let me sort of transition to some of the non-specific to your game questions, and there's a ton of resources out in the board game design world. It seems like you have a pretty good grasp of what you're doing and how to do it. What one resource would you recommend to a game designer just getting started?

Jordan: The Adobe Student Software Suite, it's a great deal. It has all the programs you need. It's easy to learn, a lot of resources out there on the internet to learn Photoshop and video editing. I think those are skills that are great to have nowadays, especially if you're into pitching. Photoshop changed my life, and it made game design easy for me. It's just a lot of fun, so that's definitely what I'd recommend.

Patrick: It's worth learning, it's worth investing? Because they're not super easy to use.

Jordan: You're correct. There's easier stuff out there, but because they're so universal and a lot of the professional industry out there uses it, the support for it is amazing. There is tons out there. Most people learn new tough subjects these days by going online. It's just a bonus. Adobe is everywhere. Everyone uses it. Ton of tutorials.

What's The Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: Awesome. I'm a frugal person, so I have a hard time buying or spending money on things that are important to get game design done. What is the best money that you've spent?

Jordan: The best money I've spent? Probably an organizer for all the parts I have for all these different games. Basically, if I stopped playing a game, it pretty much goes to my parts bucket. It's like the graveyard for all the games that were.

Patrick: Did you say “Bucket?”

Jordan: It's like– OK, it's not a bucket. It's a big old shelf with a ton of organizational buckets in it.

Patrick: OK, good.

Jordan: A filing cabinet, basically, with organizational trays inside.

Patrick: Yeah.

Jordan: It just helps you. When stuff's organized, it helps you get in the space of, “OK. This is what I need, I can peruse, and this might be good.” That's the cheapest thing that was good for my money.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: That is awesome. I will have to invest in one of those because after so many prototypes, and I have so many extra components laying around. It's a bit of a graveyard. I need to do something with all those components. Very cool. What does success in the board game world look like to you?

Jordan: Very simply, a group of people enjoying your game, and they don't even know you're in the room. I think that's perfection right there.

Patrick: Awesome. Obviously, people being happy, but also being able to observe that experience?

Jordan: As a random, yeah.

Overrated / Underrated Game

Patrick: Cool. I like to end my show with something called Overrated/Underrated, have you heard about it?

Jordan: I have.

Patrick: Cool. Have you heard about it from this podcast, or from the podcast I stole it from?

Jordan: I looked over what you've done in the past to get an idea of what you do, so I know the process here.

Patrick: Since I've brought it up, the podcast I stole it from is called The Indicator. If you want to listen to a ten-minute podcast about economics, go do that. They had the great idea, and I'm just the stealer. 

Jordan: OK.

Patrick: Anyway, you know the game, great. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you say Overrated/Underrated. Here's the first one. Perfect information in games, is that overrated as a mechanic, or underrated?

Jordan: I have two very specific answers. Overrated, for any multiplayer game above two players. Perfect information yields these king-makey situations, which, oh my gosh makes me so unhappy in many games. When it comes to two-player games, perfect information is amazing. Because if you know what the person can do at any given time, you're second-guessing, you're trying to predict their prediction and work around that prediction. It is awesome. Underrated for two players. Overrated for three players and above.

Patrick: Love that answer, that is very specific. Awesome. As I mentioned before, we met in Milwaukee, which is in Wisconsin. Now I have to ask you, Cheese Heads. Are they overrated or underrated?

Jordan: Overrated. Seems kind of silly. I've never– I don't see people wearing them at all. I see tourists who wear them, but no one else.

Patrick: OK, but hold on. Do you watch the football games, though? Because they obviously wear them at the football games.

Jordan: That explains it. See, I love playing sports, but I do not enjoy watching them. So, I'm just not cultured in that regard. I've probably made a lot of enemies.

Patrick: No, watch a Packers game, and you'll see the Cheese Heads. But yes, you're right. Out and about, no one wears them. All right, I wanted to go for– Since you were talking about euros, I'm going to go with farming as a theme in games. Overrated/Underrated?

Jordan: Agricola is my favorite Euro game, so definitely underrated. There's something just really pleasant about growing your fields and breeding your pigs. I don't know. There's just something primal about that I love, so that's my one Euro vice. Definitely underrated.

Patrick: Awesome. I have two very quick follow-ups. Number one, have you played the two player version of that? All Creatures Big and Small?

Jordan: I have not. I've heard about it though, and my fiancee does enjoy that game, so I've been tempted a couple times.

Patrick: Give it a try. It's a lot simpler, but for me, it still feels like Agricola. Then a second one, do you think Agricola holds up? When I play– There's a couple of newer Euros that I think I like a little bit more. Do you think it still holds up?

Jordan: Yes. Mainly because the theme is so accessible to anybody, I'm comfortable bringing it to anybody and teaching it to them, and they'll get it right away. Because grow your crops, harvest your crops. Breed your pigs, eat your pigs. It's just very good for most people.

Patrick: Fantastic. Last one, Comedy Central. Overrated/Underrated?

Jordan: Underrated. Who doesn't like to laugh? I'm not going to be hating on them.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Awesome. Jordan, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you online?

Jordan: I am notoriously absent from social media, but you can always send me an email at JordanSorensen87@gmail.com.

Patrick: Awesome. Thank you again for being on the show.

Jordan: It was great. Thank you for the opportunity.

Patrick: So listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Jordan said he would give you an astrology reading, although as far as I understand he is untrained in that, so it's more of just an astrology guess, but that still sounds pretty cool.

You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter, I am @BFTrick. The last note I want to leave on is I am planning on going to Origins, so if you're planning on going to Origins, please hit me up on Twitter, and we'll try to meet up or play game, or something fun. So, shoot me a tweet if you're interested in that. Thanks, bye-bye.

Jordan: See ya.

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