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 Ken Franklin who designed The Mansky Caper and Imagineers with Chris Leder, he was part of the design team for Tsuro: Phoenix Rising, and this coming summer a few other designers and himself are working on a new Back to the Future cooperative game which should be coming out by Ravensburger.
And just as a bonus fact, his son Matt Franklin illustrated Fry Thief and some of my other games, like Mintsugi. Lots of cool connections there. Ken, with that giant introduction, welcome to the show.
Ken Franklin: Hi there. I'm blessed to be part of this.
Patrick: I'm very excited to have you here. I met you at a few cons, or maybe just one, but you are a wonderfully friendly and happy person. I am very happy to have you in this world.
Ken: Everything I do well is thanks to Christ, and everything I mess up is my own fault.
Patrick: There you go. So, I like to start with a lightning round. I've got a couple, three quick questions for you. All right?
Patrick: All right, favorite rollercoaster ride?
Ken: The Hulk at Universal Studios, Orlando.
Patrick: What makes it the favorite? Is it a big drop or something?
Ken: I hate the “Chunka-chunka-chunkas” as you go up the first hill, and The Hulk just shoots you out of the gamma-ray gun and into the first spin.
Patrick: Cool. They skip that that warm-up “cachunk-ing?”
Patrick: All right. How about your favorite heist movie?
Ken: My absolute favorite is the Mansky Caper film that I keep running in my head and in my fantasies, but in real life, the Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, Ocean Eight trilogy of the last fifteen years is my favorite.
Patrick: Yeah, those are great. Then what is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?
Ken: There's not one I play every single time, because there's too many and I want to play them all, but my latest favorite is Just One.
Patrick: That's one of those games where I think I have to get a copy of that because I want to have it for my party game-like events.
Ken: There's a story about that. We took it to an extended family Thanksgiving, and it was the huge hit, so much so that one of my distant cousins says, “Could I please have this copy?” So I said, “Sure. Have it,” and I bought a new one when I got home.
Patrick: Wow, that's so kind of you. Great.
Ken: I call myself a “phil-game-thropist,” I give away games instead of money.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: Great. Speaking of games, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Ken: I started in board games when I was five. I watched every game show that was on the TV, and I loved the concept of games. My parents bought me a thing called a “52 game chest,” which was a pretty cheap box that had a lot of little wooden pieces and dice and other little components, and it had several boards, each of which had four to eight games on it.
That fascinated me, and the idea that the same amount of components could make different games inspired me to start making up my own games. I did that all through school, and I didn't realize it was something you could do as a living, so it was a hobby for me until I managed to make it to my first Gen Con.
Tell me about your first experience at Gen Con
Patrick: Fantastic. We talked about this a little bit before the show started, but you've got to tell me, how did you wind up going to Gen Con, and then what happened?
Ken: OK. The year after my first wife passed in 2010, Matt had scored a booth at Artists Alley at Gen Con 2011. He said, “Do you want to come with me?” I said, “To where?” He said, “This thing called GenCon.” I said, “What's this all about?” He said, “It's all about games.” And I said, “You're kidding me.” So yes, of course, I'm in. We booked a hotel room and drove down, and I was ostensibly going to be his booth partner to help him sell his artwork.
But because I found out that people designed games, I had been playing around with a design that eventually became the Mansky Caper. It was 16 custom cards and a bunch of poker chips. I had no idea what a sell sheet or a pitch meeting or anything was, and I just took my baggie around as I went around the exhibit, saying, “Have a look at my game?”
I got varying results, but the miraculous thing was Ray Wehrs, and Jordan Weissman were at the Calliope Games booth in the Family Fun Center, and they gave me a pitch appointment on Sunday. So, I pitched the game, and they signed it.
Ken: That began this amazing rollercoaster ride that I've been on ever since. I was working, and I was nearing the end of my 40-year career as a family physician. It was still a hobby at that point, but now I've retired from medicine, and I'm doing this gig full time while I'm living off my pension.
Patrick: Fantastic. You might be the first full-time game designer. Granted, I guess retired and has a pension, but you're still a full-time game designer. That's pretty awesome.
Ken: No, yeah. There's no way I would be able to use it to pay the bills by itself, but I get to make it the reason I get up every morning, and that is quite a ride.
Patrick: OK, I need to just highlight this GenCon story. You didn't know what it was, and you find out that there's a game convention, you just bring down a baggie with your components, and you walk around the convention hall saying, “Does anyone want to see this?” You get an appointment for Sunday, and then you impress them with your game, and then you get it signed. It was literally that fast?
Ken: That's exactly right. I was turned down seven or eight times, and I had one person try to con me into a subsidized publishing model.
Patrick: What does that mean?
Ken: That means, “Yes. We'll be happy to publish it if you'll pay for the development costs.”
Patrick: OK, all right.
Ken: Yeah, that didn't work. But I managed to get it with Calliope, and again I'm very grateful for that because I learned how to do game design from Ray and Calliope and the rest of his team, chief of which was Chris Leder, the designer of Roll For It and Calliope's director of fun. It was a start of a phenomenal friendship that continues today.
Patrick: Then I'm looking at your other games, at least two of them are from Calliope. This is obviously a long-lasting and ongoing relationship, which is great. I'm just looking at the dates here. Did you come out with other–? Even though you signed Mansky Caper, that took several years to come out. Right?
Ken: Yeah. Again, what I would do is I would volunteer at Origins and Gen Con at the Calliope booth, and later when Pax Unplugged came into being, I would volunteer there too. I also manned their booth at GrandCon for a while, and each time I would go to the booth, we'd spend some time working on Mansky and trying to make it better. It was just after GrandCon that we made the “A-ha” change that turned it into what I believe makes it a unique board game, and that is the introduction of the favor token of calling in favors.
For those listening who don't know what The Mansky Caper is about, it's set in 1925, and Al Mansky is this nasty mobster that nobody likes, and you and the other players are a gang of people who hold a grudge against him. While he's out of town, you're going in to ransack his mansion. A couple of things about that, first of all, Al doesn't trust people, so his entire security system is based on TNT. You're going to play it until the house is exploded in rubble. The second thing, though, is everybody is supposedly working together, but only the person with the most loot is the new head of the family. You want to get a little bit more than everybody else.
So, you're sort of working together, but you've also got your own self-interests at heart. The third thing is everybody has their unique special ability, but it's not classy to use your ability to help yourself. We struggled at this point. We had made a bunch of special abilities, but we just couldn't get it to balance. The games just were not a lot of fun. Then coming home from GrandCon, my God gift, my second wife Debbie said “What if you had to call in favors to use other people's powers?” And the light bulb went on, and that's the idea.
Everybody starts with a thing called “Call in a favor.” You give that to another player, and they have to use their ability to help you. That creates the player interaction that keeps people leaning in every turn, and causes the most laugh out loud moments.
What is it like to co-design a game?
Patrick: That sounds cool. First of all, this sounds collaborative, and then I'm just looking that you've co-designed so many games. You're co-designing Back to the Future, and you're co-designing Phoenix Rising and Imagineers as well. I've had some people who have co-designed here, but what is the dynamic when you're co-designing?
Ken: Co-designing makes every moment of the game process a playtesting process.
Patrick: OK. What does that mean?
Ken: When you're designing your own game, you come up with something in your head, and you put it down, and you look at it and massage it like “I think this is fun.” Then you pick it up, and you take it to a bunch of people, and they test it, and it either completely falls apart, or it's good. When you're collaborating with somebody in the design process, you are saying, “What about this?” And you're testing it in your mind as you're creating your prototype, so it truly accelerates the arc from a bunch of Sharpie marks on a piece of paper to something that is playable.
Each of us has our own perspective, but it's the difference between mono and stereo. I'm looking at one perspective, but when a collaborator comes in, they have a different perspective, and that provides much more depth and a much quicker realization of ways to improve. It's just a lot– A much more fun process.
Patrick: It seems like, looking at your list of games that have come out, you've had more co-designed than games of your own making. Is that something you want to continue? Do you enjoy the process of co-designing?
Ken: I do that. I have several games that I've designed myself that are being considered by publishers right now, but the projects that I've wanted to do I have found much more success calling in a collaborator to help me with. I have a game that is my brass ring game, the one that I want to achieve sometime before I die, is a playable prototype right now. It didn't get that way until I called in a great friend, Jason Slingerland, who was the one who helped a lot with Green Couch Games.
He happens to live here in Kalamazoo, and once we started talking together again, the development process sped up by a factor of five. Now we have something that we're willing to do some testing for, and we may have something pitchable before the end of the year.
What is it like to work on a sequel to someone else’s game?
Patrick: Fantastic. That's good to hear. Then I just want to go back to one other game. Probably one of the earlier games that I played in the board game world was Tsuro, so it's cool that you worked on a sequel, for lack of a better word. What is it like working on a sequel where you have to keep someone else's original vision in mind when you're working on it?
Ken: It's so easy when you have such a classic as Tsuro. [Tom McMurchy] came up with this brilliant game, and he published it with the help of Ray Wehrs. Ray has always loved it, and then they had Tsuro of the Seas, which threw a random element into it. But Ray has always had this dream of a tile-laying game where the tiles could be picked up and manipulated without disturbing the board. When you play Carcassonne, if you move a tile, everything is screwed up.
He described this 6×6 board that a mutual friend, Robert Oswald, came up with a 3D model for it, and it's the core of Tsuro: Phoenix Rising. You start out with half the board already populated with tiles, and instead of playing a new tile every turn, you pick one up and rotate or flip it. The board is designed so that all you have to do is barely touch one corner of it and the other corner flips up, you pick it up, and you haven't disturbed the board at all. It makes it a very smooth experience and a lot of fun. Calliope's going to be using that board in some future games that I can't talk about.
Patrick: That's cool. Also, I love that you created this nine-year-long relationship with Calliope based on just randomly walking around GenCon, and just being brave and talking to strangers. That's awesome.
Ken: My first wife, Terry, said, “Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.” So, I prefer miraculous more than just lucky.
What type of games do you like to design?
Patrick: Love it. You talked about, I think you hinted at this a little bit earlier, but I think there is a style of game that you like to design. What type of games do you like to design?
Ken: Yes. I am a believer in the non-zero sum game. I want to leave this world a better place than I found it for the sake of my kids and my grandkids, and so every one of my games has an intentional design element where you have to do something that benefits you and another player in order to succeed. In Mansky Caper, it's you have to share loot with people in the room, and you have to work with each other on the favors.
In Imagineers, you have various rides around the park, and the rides and roller coasters provide a monetary benefit for the owner and a happiness benefit for the rider, both of which score points. If you just try to stake out your own corner of the board, you're going to lose. But if you figure out the timing of working with other players, you can mount some real big scores fast.
Back to the Future, of course, is going to be a cooperative game but I have a game that's being considered that I call “The Everything Tree,” where the only way you can win is to make sure that at the end of the game everybody's win condition is met.
Patrick: What? That sounds cool.
Ken: There's an objective where everybody has to have met a certain monetary or a certain numerical goal or score, but if you at the end of your turn have passed that goal and anybody else has not, then you've been selfish, and you lose almost half your score. You have to be figuring out a strategy that benefits everybody in order to win. That, to me, is my reason for moving forward.
Patrick: So there's a mission behind the games that you design, there's a goal to bring people together rather than to tear them down.
Ken: There's a lot of people who pointed out that the current boom in the board game industry is because it is bringing people of massively different backgrounds around a table to have face to face shared positive interactions. Instead of talking smack across a headphone set on two video screens, you're face to face with people doing things together.
That's a wonderful way to change the world, is to say, “We can do this, we can coexist as people even though I like zombie games and you like unicorn games. We can still have fun.” If I can amplify that experience by providing the game rules in such a way that you can see the benefit of working together, you can see the benefit of mutual positivity, and that may translate over to how you get along with other people in real life.
Patrick: I'm thinking of– I'd say I've been dating someone for about a year now, and one of things I've noticed is she's very– If you play a card that negatively affects her, she gets very upset. What I find fascinating about this is I think I've started changing the way I design games, where because one of my main play testers doesn't like “Take that” elements of games, I've started designing all these games that are less direct.
So, if you want to mess with someone, it has to be indirectly messing with someone, and it's been this happy accident because I like that. But until I had someone in my play testing group who disliked “Take that,” I didn't take efforts to change it myself. I still feel like I get a lot out of my games, so I guess it's cool to think about it like a limitation like that isn't necessarily a limitation. It's just a different way of approaching the same goal.
Ken: Yeah, we have gone through this phase. Between 1980 and 2000, there were tons of tabletop games where it was “My big horde of miniatures and pieces are going to crush your puny watch of miniatures and pieces, and there will be the lamentation of your women.”
Ken: That's still Warhammer, that's still World of Warcraft. Lots of that is still around, and some people prefer that. OK, cool. They can do that. I'm not going to play those games, but if I can play a game where we're going to compete at being clever. If we're going to complete games where we're maybe going to work together for a while where most of the interactions are positive, I'm going to have a much better time. That's just how I roll.
What kind of research do you do before beginning a new game design?
Patrick: I dig it. OK, so someone gives you–? How about this, you get a new game idea, what kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before you start that design?
Ken: The first thing I do is write down some ideas. I have a pile of little books, each one with a name of a game, and sometimes I've crossed out two or three games that didn't make it past the initial idea. But there's one name on there of the game that is being considered, and I write some ideas down, and then I go to a con, and I look at games that are out there, and I look at mechanics.
I look at ways of approaching things, I think about what themes might be fun, and then I put something down, and I show it to a friend. We have a community game nights at my house twice a month, and we have 15 to 30 people show around five or six tables. Everybody brings food, I bring tables and open up my game collection, and we play. Some of them love to test, so I'll take something like that, and we'll put it down.
It'll either be terrible, or it'll be something that might have some promise, and that's how we get started with turning something into something more enduring. Now that having been said, there have been two instances– Three instances, excuse me, where the game started with somebody saying, “We need a game that does this.” All of these have included Chris Leder, and again I can't say enough about the man. He is a brilliant positive force in the game industry, and he and I had worked together on Roll For It.
We worked together a lot on Mansky Caper, we'd volunteered together and had a lot of fun at conventions, and at Pax Unplugged three years ago– 2017, he came to me and said “Ken. I have wanted to do a game about roller coasters, something like Rollercoaster Tycoon, forever. I haven't been able to make one work. How about if we work together and try to do it?”
This was like Albert Einstein asking the junior clerk at Starbucks for help. I said, “Of course. I'd love to do it.” We talked about some ideas, and it was astounding how it clicked. We had a workable prototype in three months, we pitched that prototype three months after that at Origins, and they signed it. That became Imagineers.
Patrick: I've been getting into puzzles, just as a consumer, doing more puzzle games. Which I really like, and one of the things I've learned about doing puzzles is you need to say things out loud.
Because I might be able to solve the first half of the puzzle, and maybe I'm working with someone, and a friend that I'm working with might be able to solve the second half. But if I never say the first half out loud, then he can never contribute the second half, and I wonder if designing games is a little bit like that, where–?
Ken: Very much so.
Patrick: Like, in an echo chamber. Let's say you say the first half, and you have the first half of a great idea. There's no one there to echo it and build on it, which is why I think several times I've talked to designers and they have a co-design, and they're working on it for five years on their own. Then they work with a co-designer and, as you said, in three months all of a sudden they have a working prototype that pleases both of them.
Ken: You have to get your egos out of the way and come to a mutual agreement that you both want to have fun at the table, and if you get those egos out of the way at the start, then amazing things happen. But if you say, “Wait a minute. This 49% is my idea, and this 43% is your idea, and my middle initial comes before your middle initial in the alphabet, so I'm going to beat the lead designer.” That will never work, that will just self-destruct. But if you're both saying, “Let's make something fun,” sky's the limit.
Do you have a white whale of game design?
Patrick: All right, so you've made a ton of games, which is very impressive. Is there a white whale? Is there some mechanic or some theme that you're just dying to get into a game, and you just haven't been able to figure out how to do it yet?
Ken: Yes. I haven't been able to get to do it yet was true until three months ago. My goal and I've written this down was called the Candle Light Project. The Candle Light project was my attempt to put into a game experience the goal of building community, and in Candle Light Project, the purpose of the game is to be the first to create twenty positive relationships with other people.
I now have brought Jason Slingerland, again from Green Couch Games, and we have come up with a card game that does that, and you're working side by side trying to build up this community of positive relationships. If I get that done, I will have achieved everything I want to as a game designer, and then I'm going to sit back and say, “OK, what's next?”
Patrick: That is super exciting.
Ken: By the way, it's still a competitive game, but you're both– Again, you're benefiting from what each other does at every step of the game.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer?
Patrick: Let me transition to some of the later questions here. As someone who got into game design in 2011, and the game design world looked very different than, what's a free or pretty affordable resource that you would recommend to another indie game designer?
Ken: The first thing I'd recommend is TheGameCrafter.com. JT Smith took a half of a basement and turned it into two full warehouses where you can make a prototype that you can be proud of, and that is a candy store that I can't stay out of. They have all sorts of different pieces, all sorts of different sized cards, boards, boxes, rulebooks. They have a thing called “Sanity testing,” and I happen to be a sanity tester for The Game Crafter. Where you can submit your written rule book, and somebody will look at it and say, “These are ways you can make it better. This works, this doesn't.”
It uses a very structured algorithm so that you can measure its improvement as a score over time. All sorts of resources and a community of fellow game designers, and then a network of cons called Protospiels, which happen all over the country where you can meet with other game designers and test your prototypes. Phenomenal resource and I think he's changed American game design in a huge way.
Patrick: My day job, I help people sell things online through their own website. I help people with e-commerce stuff, and when I chat to them, one of the things that every once in a while comes up is “I can get prototypes of my games made for–” Like, my prototype for Fry Thief was maybe $20 bucks or something, but in other industries, if you're going to get a prototype made– If I'm selling this water bottle for ten bucks a prototype is going to cost me like $100 or $200.
Whereas in the gaming world, if you're going to sell your game for $50 bucks, the prototype is $75. That is insane. People do not realize how blessed they are that resource exists and how affordable it is. I constantly forget how lucky I am.
Ken: The thing that took it another step forward was when they built and then got their 3D laser cutters. You can now make custom shapes in cardboard and in acrylic, 1/8 inch or 1/4 inch acrylic. Boy, I had a lot of fun with that.
Patrick: You will have to show me. I'm terrible at drawing cut lines in SVG, so you will have to tell me how to do that afterwards.
Ken: OK, I'd be happy to.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: Great. OK, the next question is, what is the best money you've ever spent as a game designer?
Ken: It's easy. That first trip to Gen Con, I bought a VIG badge for Matt and I, and I came home– There was barely enough room to see out the back of the car, I had bought so many games at that Gen Con. It transformed my life. Some might say it saved my life because I was pretty down after losing my bride of 32 years. But it gave me something hopeful to work toward, and it's been a great ride ever since.
Patrick: Is there something special about the VIG badge? Do you get to go into the hall early, or do you get free games, or what do you get with it?
Ken: I don't do the VIG badge anymore because I can usually get an exhibitor badge, but what I got back then was you got either a backpack or a rolling case or something like that, you got seven or eight free games, you got access to the VIG lounge which is places to sit and chill and free soft drinks, and on the first day of the show you would get an hour advance entrance into the exhibit hall. That was in 2011, and I don't know what's going on in 2020. But it's pricey, and the VIG badges sell out very quickly. But for me, it was like getting the golden ticket.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: I'm loving this story. I think I know the answer to this, but what does success in the board game world look like to you?
Ken: Success for me in the board game world is in my rearview mirror. I consider what I have success, but what I hope to contribute to the board game industry is, again, this sense of positivity and this sense to people that there is a value to sit down at the table with a stranger and have a mutual positive experience. The more I can stimulate that, the more successful I'll feel.
Patrick: I am inspired just chatting with you right now. I like to end the show with a silly game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?
Ken: I have not heard about it. I may not be a very good player because I'm not a good fan of building up or tearing down stuff. I'll do a lot of– I'll probably talk about a lot of “Underrateds,” but I'm not going to say a lot about “Overrateds.”
Ken: We'll see what we can do.
Patrick: Let's see how it goes. I'll give you an example here, if I said “Coca-Cola,” you might say, “Underrated because I love sugary drinks.” It's just that easy.
Ken: OK, got it.
Patrick: First one, Pax Unplugged. Overrated or underrated?
Patrick: Underrated? Give me one sentence why.
Ken: Phenomenal experience where the family and the individual gamer is more important than the business opportunities.
Patrick: I don't think I've heard anyone articulate it that way. “The family experience is more important than the business,” very cool. Let's go with Disney World. Overrated or underrated?
Ken: A classic that continues to improve.
Patrick: OK, all right. Let's go with– I just want to go with the concept of a weekly game night, overrated or underrated?
Ken: Underrated. Again, I live it. We have game nights at least twice a month, and we're going to have game tables set up during the Super Bowl. It's a great cheap social experiment where you meet new friends every week.
Patrick: Last one, we're coming up on Valentine's Day. Overrated or underrated?
Patrick: Overrated? All right, so there is one “Overrated” in you.
Ken: Overrated, because it says you can only be lovable if you've spent lots of money. No, sorry. I pick no. You can love people 365 days a year better than you can spend your way into loving in one day.
Patrick: Mind blown. All right, Ken. You have been amazing, where can people find you online? Because they will certainly want to talk to you.
Ken: That would be a blessing on my part. I'm on Twitter as @KenPlays2Grin, and I am on Facebook, you can get me at Facebook.com/DrKenFP, which stands for “Dr. Ken, family practitioner.” That was the kind of physician I was. You can also find me on Instagram, @DrKenFP.
Patrick: I love all of that, and I'm just looking at your notes here, I think there's also @ManskyCaper on Twitter.
Ken: It's @ManskyCaper because Big Al Mansky is the guy who is the mobster you see. He doesn't like that I've made this game about him, so he opened up his own Twitter feed @ManskyCaper as if you needed to be reminded of the illustrious Al Mansky's last name. If you want to raz him, or if you want to ask him any questions, Al will be happy to reply.
Patrick: Fantastic. Thank you again so much, Ken.
Ken: It's been my joy, thanks a lot. I appreciate it, Patrick.
Patrick: Listeners, if you like his podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Ken said he will let you test imaginary roller coasters with him, which sounds pretty great. At the time of the recording, I still don't have any sort of– I've no idea what's happening with Mintsugi, I'm still in the finals. I hate waiting for the end of game design contests. Or, I don't like the word “Hate.” It is frustrating how long it takes for game design contests to wrap up.
Ken: There's a little thing about that. There's also, I'd love to hear from listeners how they deal with publishers who wait to tell you if they're interested. Does silence mean they like it, and they're not sure? Does silence mean they're waiting for you to die, so they don't have to cut you down? I don't know.
Patrick: I don't know either, and now that you're saying this there's one or two publishers that have not gotten back to me in several months, and I've just been too busy. I need to get on top of that.
Ken: I do know that if you remind them too often, they will just say, “Go away,” and they'll hand you your prototype back. So, I tend to stay hands-off right now.
Patrick: There you go. So since I don't know what I'm doing with Mintsugi yet, I still have a landing page set up. I'll have a link for that in the show notes, so if I decide to self-publish down the line, you'll be the first to hear about it. And Protospiel–
Ken: Go buy it.
Patrick: Yeah, go buy it. By the way, Matt's art is in that game, and it looks really good. The first Protospiel Denver will be March 2020, and I'll be attending. I'd love to play your game, and I've already said this before, so I won't drone on too long. I'll have a link in the show notes, and please join me. I'd love to chat. You can visit this site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I'm @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.
Ken: Bye, God bless.