Joshua J Mills

#73 – Joshua J Mills

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 Josh Mills, who designed Big Easy Busking. Josh, welcome to the show.

Josh Mills: Thank you for having me, I'm ready to hear some more music.

Patrick: Yes, and your game is all about that, which we'll get to in just a moment. But I'd like to start with a lightning introduction round. Sound good?


Josh: Let's do it.

Patrick: All right. So, what is a game you play with someone every single time at a Con?

Josh: The only one that happens is Dare by [Matt Lavan], which is unpublished but I have played it at every Unpub for the last four years, and it's amazing. So if you have never seen us doing that, and you've been at an Unpub event usually on Saturday night, come running over because it gets weird.

Patrick: Awesome. Love it. What is your favorite musical instrument?

Josh: I played the trombone in baritone, but I can't really– You can't beat the electric guitar. You just can't. I'm going to go see Greta Van Fleet here on Thursday, and I'm pretty jacked about it.

Patrick: I will reveal to my audience that I have no idea who that is, but I'm happy for you.

Josh: I'm old too, so it's just rock and roll, but by 20 year-olds.

Patrick: Awesome. Then I have a question that I want an actual answer to, normally these are silly questions, but I have a serious question for you. How do you decide when to pay people who are busking in the street? In downtown Denver there's this place called the 16th Street Mall, there's always people singing or playing drums, or whatever. How many seconds do I have to listen to–? At what point should I pay them?

Josh: For me, because I can only answer for me, usually if I'm passing them and have money I will tip them some amount. Unless they're smoking, which I definitely won't tip them then. Or if it's just extra awful, but then I'd feel sorry for him and throw another quarter. But I'd have to have cash, and when do I have cash? Never.

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

Patrick: Right. Got it. All right. Yes. So you have to have cash, it can't be terrible, and it can't be smokers. Then you're good. Love it. All right, so first real question, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Josh: Way back when I was in daycare, like whenever– Eight, six. Who knows. I made some board games, mostly gambling games from old checkered boards from Walgreens, and I would spray paint them and do stuff mostly because I didn't know how to make videogames. But when I got back into it when Dice Hate Me did the 54 card challenge they did four or five years ago now, and that got me hooked hard. Ever since then I just have been going full tilt making board games and card games.

Patrick: That's awesome. So your game– I love talking about people's games. Your game is about busking in New Orleans. By the way, just side note, I only recently found out that New Orleans is The Big Easy. So, finally, the title of your game makes sense to me. For those of you who don't know, Big Easy Busking means “New Orleans busking,” awesome. Anyways, your game is about busking in New Orleans, where did the idea come from?

Josh: When I make– The reason why I make more games is because I would either, it's about things I romanticize, or I'm just envious of. I super romanticized busking and playing music for people, and especially New Orleans in general just as a city in a culture. So I gravitated towards that. Some of my other games like Ice Cream Trucks for Rocky Road a la Mode, those are romanticized in my mind.

Josh: You hear this music, you run out, you give some random stranger money, and you get ice cream back. That sounds insane, but that happens in life. Milkman is another one, just these certain concepts that I'm infatuated with. Me and [Matt Lavan] have one called American Steel about the steel industry, because in my brain like those gigantic huge vats of molted steel to me– Something attracts me to that. “Those guys were doing it,” Right? Like that's probably a crappy job, and you're probably burnt up all day long, but I romanticize it for some reason.

Josh: To me, it was natural to look at New Orleans because I'd been there a couple a couple times, and the first time I went, it made an impression of just like “We're in America, and I forget that America had a bunch of French people in it. It had all this culture in it that resulted in what New Orleans is. How can I make a game about that?” That's just there in the back of my mind, and then I wait for the right mechanic or inspiration to hit me to finally put pen to paper, as they say.

How Do You Combine Theme & Mechanics?

Patrick: I imagine you're one of those designers that has a list of neat game ideas written down somewhere, and as soon as a mechanic hits you pair them together and go?

Josh: Really what ends up happening is I figure out how we're a theme and a mechanic intertwined in a way that feels unique, or an interesting way for me to express the experience I want. In this it was Big Easy Busking, it's the energy coming from different band members to play a song. “This is a trumpet-heavy song, so this guy is going to have to wail. Meanwhile, the drummer is just back there hitting every second beat. Just because he's taking a break. So, that mechanic, along with that energy idea, thematically, is what drove me to do all the other hard work of actually figuring out how to make it a game. That's normally how I design, and I do have a huge list. A lot of times it's mostly themed stuff. But it's just random things that you would never think should be games that are just sitting there waiting for their moment to shine.

Patrick: I totally get that. I have probably, I don't know, I should look at my Evernote right now, but I bet I have 60 game ideas. Most of which are weird, but it's nice to have them written down so that when you do find the right mechanics, you can go.

Tell Me About the Resources in Big Easy Busking

Patrick: OK, so you did my segue perfectly for me. You talked about the different band members having their own energy level, and that was the one thing that  stood out to me about Big Easy Busking. I think a lot of games have– There's different resources, there's oil, and there's electricity, and they're very different resources to be used for different things. But in your case, they're the same exact resource, but just from different people. It's almost like the exact same resource in three different pools, and I was curious where did that come from–? Did you see that in another game, or did you–? Where did that come from?

Josh: I didn't see the energy in the other game, but what I saw is I played The Builders: Antiquity, or The Builders: Middle Ages. You would have a person that's a builder, but they contribute this amount of sand and this amount of stone, this amount– Your very typical Euro concepts. But I liked how the game worked, in figuring out the puzzle of what builders to put together.

Josh: That definitely came back into play when I started thinking about Big Easy Busking. The idea of energy moving around to me was more of a thematic one, because not only can you feed energy to each other both playing, but you can feed off the energy from the crowd. You'll see that when you're playing certain songs and you're really matching the crowd's mood, you could either pull energy back to your bandmates, or you could lay it all out there for the crowd. To me it seemed very appropriate in terms of the theme of the game, and changing it up in terms of resources because you're right, we do lock ourselves into wheat, brick and stone, and wood a lot of times. Not to say I don't like those games, I play them a lot.

Patrick: It's refreshing to see, instead of every– Instead of these resources being three completely different resources, you have three identical resources but just different pools to draw them from. Which is– It's just nice to see something different.

Josh: Yeah. Now that you bring that up, I did– I don't know how much it influenced me, but I literally just remembered this, but Sail to India has a similar concept where cubes just magically become other stuff. So your cube is this resource, now it's your ship, now it's a person, now it's representing a trade person in this location. So, who knows how much I borrowed from that. Because if I knew, then the magic would be gone.

How Long Do You Spend Designing Games?

Patrick: How long do you spend designing games? How long did Big Easy Busking take you to design and playtest?

Josh: I have no idea. Honestly. I know I took it to quite a few Unpubs and Unpub minis. We have Game Designers of North Carolina, who also has a podcast. You could check that out. Game Designers in North Carolina, we meet almost every week, so there was a good year there where that was the game I was hitting and playing all of the time. That adds up fast, and you might play it multiple times during one night. But I don't want to know how many hours I put into it, I really– I would probably be appalled by what the number is. But it didn't feel like very much.

Patrick: Yeah, interesting. I wish I had a number of hours for the games I've designed. I want to know, and you know what I mean? “Is it like 100 hours or 1,000 hours?” Maybe a better way of asking this is, how many months have you been working on this game?

Josh: It's been quite a long time, because– I'll give you a little backstory of how I ended up on Kickstarter right now. I had been working on it a long time, I got it in a pretty good state, and then I think I pushed it over the line, and then I submitted it to Cardboard Edison awards, and it was a finalist. This was the second year they were running– the first year they were running Cardboard Edison awards.

Josh: So, however many they've done, it's been that many years back. It was a finalist. It didn't win, but then I just– I felt like I had a– I was gratified by people being exposed to the game and seeing it and enjoying it. Then I just set it down and didn't touch it until last year's Proto Atlanta [aka Proto ATL] where I had printed up a copy from game crafter to learn component studio, and I was like, “I'm going to pick a game that I know works, and I like and enjoy, and then I have a nice copy for myself.

Josh: Then there's always that weird feeling when you walk into a room, and you gravitate on [due protos]. I have this when I know it's not ready, and this one's got these problems, I don't want to work on that right now. And I was like, “Let me just play this game again with some people see how it feels.” Turns out it was a lot of fun. I was like, “Why did I–? Why haven't I–? What have I been doing? Why am I not pitching this to people, what's wrong with me?” So that's when I started doing it right then, and by the end of the weekend, things were in good shape to get assigned and end up where we are right now.

Patrick: That's amazing. I made an assumption that someone noticed it at Cardboard Edison and reached out to you and wanted to buy it from you there. I didn't realize– I guess I sometimes– Maybe I romanticize contests, and how like if you get in the finalist stage publishers will notice, they'll reach out to you, and you become a mega-millionaire. Obviously, that's how it works.

Josh: Or like tens of hundreds of dollars.

Patrick: Let's say tens of dollars. That's–.

Josh: Tens of dollars. Yes.

Patrick: But it's interesting that you basically had a great game, it was a finalist in a very prestigious contest in the game design world, and then it sounded like a couple of months passed, and then you finally came back to it just as an excuse to print it up. Then that's when you–?

Josh: A couple years passed. Two and a half years passed.

Patrick: Wow.

Josh: A long time, and it was really because I was gratified with how the game felt when I submitted it. To be fair, I made a huge change two days before I submitted it, and it turns out that change was completely the right choice. I had forgotten how big of an impact that change had because I only had got a chance to play it a couple of times before I submitted it. Then two and a half years later, of course, you forget all the problems and issues because they'll come– They came back up when you start playtesting it a whole bunch.

What Big Changes Did You Make?

Patrick: What was the big change?

Josh: The big change came down to how you award tips at the end of the night. It's the threshold change, so to give you [an idea], it's area control, so you're trying to get the most tips from the crowd. There's two things on the on the crowds, and there's how much the payout is  and whoever has put the most energy into the crowd.

Josh: That's very typical. You get $3 dollars if you have the most energy. Cool. Then a lot of, like the way it was structured before was, if your second place you get this much and if you're tied you split it. All that nonsense. The change I made was a threshold payout.

Josh: So, if you have– And what that means is, really if you put at least three energy into this crowd no matter what, it doesn't matter what other people do. But if you put at least three energy into this crowd, it will pay out $2 dollars to you no matter what. Then if you happen to be first, you'll get this other payout, and if you're tied both of you get that bigger payout. That killed a lot of the crazy AP that was happening with some players because the stakes are a little– They can control things a little bit more.

Josh: You don't have to worry about Player B giving one more cube, and X and Y and all that stuff. It opened it up, and it flowed a lot better, and people could take two different distinct strategies. People could be like “I'm always going to make sure I get the threshold on every crowd there is. I don't care if I win, I control my own destiny, and I'm going to be super good about playing to everybody.”

Patrick: Cool.

Josh: Or I'm just going to make sure I win two big cards and not care about the other ones at all. Of course, most people are in the middle somewhere, but you get to decide where on that spectrum you want to fall.

Patrick: Cool. A friend of mine has an area control game that's coming out soon, and I think he has something similar, where you can win huge amounts of  victory points by going far away from the main board. But right close to the main board you can get these 1-pointers automatically. I think that is the exact same thing, and you think “OK. I'll get one or two victory points for sure this round, and there's a chance I'll get 20 victory points by going here. It's neat that you both have this– What do you think, do you think it's AP? Do you think it's just analysis paralysis? Do you think it's that some people want guaranteed points?

Josh: I think it's more fun because it opens up your strategies and decisions you can make right. So I think that becomes a lot more fun because what it does is it focuses on– At least in my game, it makes you focus on those head to head battles. It is very clear if two people are going to go after trying to win a thing. So then they can decide, because there is this nice mechanic of when you play a song, start playing a song, you put your energy on it and then you don't resolve and put in that energy in the crowd until the beginning of your next turn.

Josh: That seems odd at first because you're like “Why wouldn't you just– You're just going to play the song.” For one, it's the theme of you playing and taking the time to play the song, and for two if someone else starts playing to that crowd when you go to resolve and finish that song, you can change what your decision is. You can go “They're going to beat me in this,” or “I really don't– No one really challenged me, so I don't need to put all my energy on here. I can feed off the crowd and pull some of it back and put it to this romantic crowd over here, to maybe get tipped better.” It has all that mind above the table play, without that, “I have to figure out exactly what Player B is going to do for me to be able to make a solid, smart decision.”

What Research Do You Do?

Patrick: I love it. I am curious, with a game like this, did you do any research to make it happen? I don't know, music or genres or instruments, or anything like that?

Josh: I did a lot of research just on New Orleans in terms of like Royal Street, that was the street. To me, it was Bourbon Street, right? Like that's where it would be. But no, Royal Street is where a lot of people play and do a lot of busking and stuff. Of course, they do it all over the city. I did a lot of looking at different motifs and almost art boards, or mood boards, in terms of what the city feels like and what are different approaches to busking, watched some videos to give me a sense of what the game's experience should be. I do that with almost every game. Plus I like doing research and just learning new stuff, so I'll go from one Wikipedia article to the next, to the next, to the next.

Patrick: I hear you.

Josh: That's honestly the really fun part of game design, it's not trying to figure out if this thing should be four or five, for me anyway. It's “How can I capture the thing that's getting me to read this Wikipedia article in the game, so other people might go and be interested in this idea.

Patrick: Yeah, that's cool. It's funny, earlier this morning for one of my games I was looking up a whole ton of mythological creatures. I found this Wikipedia page, and I was probably reading that for 45 minutes, just clicking into just a bajillion different mythological creatures–

Josh: Do not link me that page. I do not want to see it. I don't have that  kind of time right now.

Patrick: There's an alphabetical list. There is a list. This list, it also is categorized by how it's mythological. This is like–

Josh: That's good.

Patrick: Dog related mythological creatures, this is like goat related mythological creatures. It is insane how deep down the rabbit hole you can go.

Josh: Unfortunately, I know myself, and I'm going to be looking at that tomorrow at lunch. I know I am.

What Resources Would You Recommend to a New Indie Game Designer?

Patrick: So, speaking of resources, are there any things or resources that you recommend to another indie game designer out there?

Josh: Whatever works for you, that's the real answer. For me what I did that's helped me the most because I just had to go back and take a really old design and morph it into the way I do things now, so it made me realize how many– How far I've come in terms of what I've decided. One is I have standard boxes. I have two box sizes for all of my protos because it drove me– I don't know why, but now that I have a big box and a little box I know which game goes into what.

Patrick: Yeah.

Josh: They're all the same, it's uniform. Then I have a very– I don't know, there's some fanfare for when I make a prototype. Like I do, “OK. Let me do the sticker of the name of the game, and I have to find a picture that represents the game, I put that on the front of the big box. This is what goes in it.

Josh: If I'm doing that at that stage, that means I have committed to making– Like, I'm going to make this thing fun until I feel good about it, and then who knows what will happen from there. But that's my commitment to this design to something. I recommend that because it also makes it real easy to know where all your protos are, and like grab them and go, and pull them out. Then I started using Component Studio with The Game Crafter, mostly because I wanted to get to a point where I could click a button, and the proto would show up. Because I had– I have a 7-month old and a 2.5 year old.

Patrick: Yeah.

Josh: So, it turns out like a year or two ago I needed to figure out, “I don't have time to just cut cards all the time. What could I do to make it show up at my house easier?” Component Studio is limiting, but in the way I need it to be. I focus on getting the prototype made, and then I can have print and play files, and all that stuff.

Patrick: With Component Studio, are you making all the cards and printing them at home? Or, you're not? You're getting them made at The Game Crafter and having them sent up?

Josh: I'll make them at home, but it's super easy because all I have to do is make a spreadsheet, upload it and print it. Then my wife– Get something that cuts cards super fast. That's the only real advice I would give over everything else. Because she bought me a cool roller cutter that does like I can do 108 cards basically just as a stack of paper with just one set of cuts and I'm good to go. Usually, I'm in a rush, and it's the day before I'm going to go to our meeting. I don't care how nice they look, I need them cut, and then I also started cutting them on card stock and putting them in sleeves, instead of trying to put them on normal paper with cards. Just trying to make the process faster and quicker.

Patrick: Awesome. That's funny. I love when people recommend simple things on the show, it's really fun when they're like “Just get a paper cutter.” It's so funny, and sometimes you need the simplest of tools. Part of me expected people would recommend apps or super expensive software as a service, or something. Often people are just like “Get a paper cutter, get card sleeves, you're good.”

Josh: Whatever the simplest thing is, get going.

What's The Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: That's awesome. So besides paper cutter, is there something you'd recommend spending money on as a game designer?

Josh: The paper cutter I bought was– That she got for me is like $110 bucks, it ain't cheap. But she also does crafts, and it's a nice piece of machinery. It's machinery, and it's not like a little– Whatever.

Patrick: Yeah.

Josh: In terms of the best money I ever spent on game design was a ticket to Unpub five, which was the first one in Baltimore. Nothing could trump just being in that environment, getting those playtests and meeting other designers. The best money you could spend is to put yourself in a position to talk to other people that are interested in doing what you're doing and give you an opportunity to play your game with people you'd normally not get to play it with.

Did You Learn How to Market Your Game?

Patrick: I love that so much. It's amazing how much community comes up on the show. People talk about “Get it and go out there and meet other game designers.” Love it. OK, so I saw Big Easy Busking a couple months ago on Kickstarter when it first launched, and it didn't fund I think because there's a lot of other things going on. It was a busy February or March, whenever it came out. I know you as the designer, you're not the publisher in this case, Weird Giraffe Games is publishing it. I'm wondering though, is there anything you learned about marketing your game that you might be able to share?

Josh: I wasn't the one marketing it, so hopefully Weird Giraffe gained some good knowledge there, because it's their money, it's not mine.

Patrick: So, you were hands off?

Josh: In that regard, yeah. In terms of the Kickstarter and setting things up and reviews, that wasn't my role.

Patrick: Yeah.

Josh: But I think a big takeaway is the market is getting competitive, so you've got to come in swinging. Weird Giraffe they– It wasn't even the first full, I think was just after the first 24 hours, where it still might've could've funded, but they thought they could do better. I would rather somebody say, “Let's give it another go. We have the opportunity to do that in this medium and get our ducks in a row and go after it again. From a designer's perspective, I was a little probably slightly annoyed, like “Great. Now I got to go through this again and see how it goes, and X Y and Z. But if they think it's the right call, they're the one with all the risk because they're fronting the money, then go nuts.”

[T]he market is getting competitive, so you've got to come in swinging

Patrick: I'm wondering as a designer, what is it–? How does it feel to have your game initially not fund? We're looking at right now on Kickstarter and it's doing very well, this is day one, and it's over 50% funded, so it's going to be great.

Josh: I did not know that because I have not looked today at all.

Patrick: Sorry.

Josh: I've been up since 9. Isn't that insane? No, it's fine.

Patrick: OK.

Josh: I don't mind knowing, I just haven't gone. I'm allowing this– This is a push, and I'm waiting for push notifications. I'm not going to go pull it, I'll just let people tell me, and I'll look at it. But that's awesome. That's good to hear. We're sitting in a good spot, at least there.

Patrick: Very good.

Josh: For me, that's the other thing. Once the game is like– Once I play it once, and I know it's pretty close, like pretty done, I'm real satisfied. But you want things to be successful, and you want them to be successful for the people that have made a bet on your design, made a bet on you. My day job is in video games, so we do a lot of releases and a lot of– So my perspective is probably a little bit different than other game designers. I look at it, and I probably have a little thicker skin of things not working out or people like trashing stuff. Because I'm in an industry where you're going to get a lot of that even when you succeed and do super well. So, I don't know. It doesn't, and it didn't bother me that much at all. Anything, as long as the end product is better, I'm happy.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Awesome. I like that. I think that transitions perfectly into my  last question here, which is what does success look like to you? What are you going for?

Josh: Thinking of the board game industry, success for me is really just having a good time making games, getting ideas and experiences in a state where I enjoy them, and then to me, that's the real success because then I'm pretty satisfied. Then the next phase of that is hopefully sharing that with other people. What I want is I want one copy that is completely arted-out, graphic designed. Like, someone's hit the rule book, and the publishers added their own 10% to it to take it to a different level, the next level. I have that product, and if I have it, then I'm ecstatic. I don't care how many copies it sells, or who buys it or who likes it, or who doesn't. I care that I get to have the thing.

Patrick: You just wanted–.

Josh: It was a little– Oh, finish your thought.

Patrick: No, I mean, you want it to be like a real product. It doesn't need to be a massive success, but you want it to be a real product.

Josh: I want it to be a massive success for everybody involved and don't get me wrong, I like money. Everybody wants to be a big success, but I'm most satisfied with just having that one final version that's polished and pretty and in my hands.

Overrated / Underrated Game

Patrick: Awesome. I like that a lot. Very cool. So, I like to end my show with a silly little game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Josh: All right, let's– OK. I'm scared of this one more than any of the other ones.

Patrick: No, it's very simple, I'm going to give you a word or phrase. So if I said, “Actually painting your miniatures from your board games,” you would be like “That's overrated. You don't need to do that. They look fine in gray.” Something like that. Got it?

Josh: Yeah. All right.

Patrick: All right. So, deck builders as a category of games. Are they overrated or underrated?

Josh: Overrated.

Patrick: Deck builders are overrated, got it. Any reason? Give me a one-sentence reason why, or two sentences.

Josh: Because they are basically all the same game. Xenon Profiteer though is not, it's underrated. So, a deck builder– A mechanic isn't a game. The experience needs a little bit more than just a mechanic. That's all I'm saying.

Patrick: Love it. I have not played Xeon Profiteer, but I've heard about it before, so I will have to check that out.

Josh: It's so good, you should get it. So, Mardi Gras, as in the actual celebration. Overrated/Underrated?

Patrick: In New Orleans? I'm going to go overrated, only because I went to St. Patty's Day in New Orleans. It was amazing. You could still walk around, and you could breathe, you didn't have people on top of you. But it was still big super party atmosphere, and you could still get food and beverages. I'm to say Mardi Gras is overrated. St. Patty's Day on Bourbon Street is underrated.

Josh: Love it. I didn't know you worked in games, so this next one will be fun.

Patrick: Mobile games, overrated or underrated?

Josh: Substain. No, I've made mobile games before. That one is impossible for me. I make console and PC games now, so we'll say overrated.

Patrick: OK. Awesome. Cool. Then lastly, beignets. For those of you who don't know what those are, those are like French donuts. Are they overrated or underrated?

Josh: They are underrated, and if you don't know what they are, then you haven't lived life. You've got to get it together. I had some during Mother's Day because we went to a French restaurant in Durham with my wife and my mom, and they were so good.

Wrap Up

Patrick: They are amazing. There's one good very small local chain of French restaurants here in Colorado, and they make amazing beignets and biscuits. I go there and get all the carbs. It's fantastic. Anyway, Josh, thank you for being on the show.

Josh: Thank you for having me, and hopefully, all the listeners have a decent insight into the brain that is Joshua J Mills.

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

Josh: They could find me @joshuajmills on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Google. Just Joshua J Mills and you'll find me. You could find Big Easy Busking on Kickstarter right now, go back it because it will make me happy and it's a super fun game.

Patrick: Yeah. We're recording this a little bit late because this is already on Kickstarter, but I've already talked about it just in case this doesn't come out on time there also will be late backing. I want to–Regardless of when this comes out, you can press a button and get it.

Josh: You could always send me some money and then maybe I'll mail you one.

Patrick: But you only have so many copies, Josh. You've got to [inaudible].

Josh: I didn't say how much money, I just said–

Patrick: Got it. Listeners, if you like his podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Josh said he would pass around the hats when you are busking at a Con, so that sounds pretty awesome. You can visit the site at You can follow me on Twitter, and I am @bftrick. That is all I got, so until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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