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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 Kevin Russ, who designed Calico, and a game that should be on Kickstarter when this episode airs, Tumble Town. Kevin, welcome to the show.
Kevin Russ: Hi. Thanks, Patrick, for having me on.
Patrick: So we're going to start with a lightning round. Cool?
Patrick: All right. Besides Calico, what is your favorite cat breed, if that's the right word?
Kevin: I would say the orange tabby, my cat [Rheumy], is an orange tabby, and he's a good cat.
Patrick: I know you're a traveling photographer. Do you bring your cat with you?
Kevin: No, I wish I could. He doesn't do too well in cars, but I've got some housemates at the house that watch him when I'm gone.
Patrick: Very cool. Then if you had to exist in an old western town, which is what your upcoming game is about, what would your profession be?
Kevin: I would be the town photographer. Photography is something I do when I'm not doing board game stuff.
Patrick: Would you be OK with– Back then it was like, you get one photo. Would you be OK with that? Nowadays, you can take 100 photos in a second and just pick the best one.
Kevin: I recently switched to film photography, so I feel like it's a little in that range of each and every photo counts.
Patrick: Very cool. Then last one, what is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?
Kevin: Any game by Michael Kiesling. He makes puzzle-y, midway-Euro games like Heaven and Ale, or Miyabi, or Azul. Anything by him, I'm down to play.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: Very cool. First real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Kevin: For board games, a couple of my housemates got into it, and that's how I learned about the hobby. Then I just started buying games of my own and went down that path. But then for board game design, it was listening to podcasts. Hearing interviews from other board game designers and realizing these games are designed just by anyone. I decided to get into it. I was just looking for a new creative outlet, and it seemed like a fun challenge.
Patrick: Did you–? OK, so then I have to ask, did you–? In my case, I looked for board game design podcasts. Were you just looking for a generic board game podcasts, and you accidentally stumbled over board game design podcasts?
Kevin: Yeah, I was just looking forward to hear people talk about games and things they like about them and stuff, and I stumbled into the one with Tony and Gil. Breaking into Board Games.
Tell me about the design process for Tumble Town. How did that go?
Patrick: That is cool to accidentally discover this because I don't know how I heard about it, but I remember looking for board game design podcasts, so it's cool that you just stumbled upon it. OK, so let's go forward. You do have an upcoming game which is called Tumble Town, and it should be on Kickstarter when we're talking about this or when this episode airs. Where did the game come from? Tell us about the design process, how did it all go?
Kevin: It started out pretty simple, I feel like a lot of designers are just messing around with some components, stacking some cubes, and then they start to look like little buildings. So eventually, they all pretty quickly turned into stacking dice, and then once I was doing that, it was just a natural progression to use different colors of dice, so each building has different colors and then using the values on the dice as well.
It became about rolling dice, building a little western town with the dice, and that's how it started. Then after it was picked up by Weird Giraffe games, it went through the development process where they would be play testing, and I would be play testing, and we would compare notes and make changes, and so on.
Patrick: This is funny, I've seen some pictures of this, so I think I have an idea of what this game is like, but the way you just described it makes me think of those people who when they're playing Catan they play with all the pieces and they stack them up. Is that basically a part of your game?
Kevin: Yeah, there is dice stacking, and it's not dexterity that lets your buildings fall over, you can just put them back up. But it's made to give some table presence and also different spatial parts. They interact with different spatial parts of the game as well.
Were there any design challenges?
Patrick: Very cool. I always like asking, were there any design challenges? Was there anything that you ran into that took you a while to figure out? And then, how did you figure it out?
Kevin: Yeah, for Tumble Town, it was the randomness of the dice. It was the first game that I designed that had dice in it. As we know, they're pretty random, so trying to make it so if you rolled a bunch of 1s or sixes that it didn't hurt you or help you too much. One of the things we did was trying to figure out the balance of how much dice manipulation or mitigation players would have access to, and too much it feels like you could do anything, and it doesn't matter what you roll.
But then too little, the game can be too difficult. So it's balancing that plus the requirements of the buildings and things like that. So we had some ideas of pre-roll dice in this thing called the Dice 9., so some of them you would roll and some of them you could count on the number, but that changed for other reasons. And then there were some other ideas with some one time use dice powers that were on backs of cards, and those ended up going away. But yeah, just a bunch of iterations till we landed on something that felt like the right balance of all that stuff.
Patrick: One of the things I like to bring up, I'm pretty sure I saw this– You were actually in Denver about a year ago, something like that. If I remember correctly, didn't you bring this game to the Denver Prototopia where we have our monthly game test?
Kevin: Yeah. I had spent a little time in Denver, that was end of summer 2018, I believe. But that was my first actual designer meetup. I was still pretty new to the whole design thing, and since I travel a lot, I don't have a dedicated group or anything. But yeah, I felt good enough about the game to bring it out and show people.
Patrick: Did you already–? I could have sworn you said it was already signed or was it under consideration or what was going on there?
Kevin: I think I had just been signed. I showed Weird Giraffe Games at GenCon that year, I think that was early August, and I think it was end of August or something, or maybe early September that I showed up at your design group.
Patrick: It's super interesting when one of the, I'd say, the overall message of this podcast is people talk about having a local play test group all the time as a resource, or as a thing you should invest in and spend time and money in– Or maybe not money, but effort to get to and to participate. You went through the entire process, and you signed a game without having a regular play test group. That's cool. I don't think too many other people can say that.
Kevin: Yeah, I don't know. I think it does help having that. But at the same time, with my travelling lifestyle, I'm able to go to a lot of conventions and meet a lot of people. That's also helpful, too, for getting your game out there.
How does your day job as a traveling photographer affect game design?
Patrick: I think it's a great time to transition into that. You are a traveling photographer as your day job. By the way, I've seen some of your photography. It is absolutely stunning. You should definitely plug it at the end of the episode. I want to ask, how does being a traveling business person, a traveling photographer, affect game design? You mentioned conventions. Do you go to a ton of conventions? Because I probably go to 2-4 a year. Do you go to more than that? Is there anything else going on?
Kevin: Yeah. I started going to conventions in 2018, and I hit the circuit pretty hard, I guess. I don't know how many, but it was over eight, I think. But being in the– I travel and live out of a van, so since I'm used to that lifestyle with the photography, it was easy to just go from Con to Con and find the ones that are close enough together. I'd do some photography in between, and it keeps it cheap, because I sleep out in the van in the parking lot oftentimes, and I was able to meet a lot of people and do a lot of Cons. That definitely helped with design and getting my games out there and stuff.
Have you thought about making a game about photography?
Patrick: Have you thought about making a game about photography?
Kevin: Briefly, but it would need– Whenever I think about it, I just think of photographs in games, and typically I never liked that look. It could work if it's something about– Or if there aren't actual photographs in the game. Maybe some people don't mind it as much, but.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching?
Patrick: Do you do any research before you start designing games, do you–? For example, before Tumble Town, are you looking into old Western stuff for inspiration, or did all that just come later, and you didn't do any research? Just used the tropes that we know and are familiar with?
Kevin: Yeah, most of my designs all start with something I know a little bit about, just to get the game going. If I feel like it has some promise, then I'll dig a little deeper into the research. But for Tumble Town, I travel around the west quite a bit, so I'm in my zone, and I started with the standard buildings, and I still have a lot of those in there.
What type of games do you like to design?
Patrick: It's funny. I'm looking at pictures of the game, and the first building I see is the outhouse. If that's your standard building, it's still a little– I'm glad we've upgraded since then. Changing topics, how about this? What type of games do you like to design?
Kevin: Ones that don't take very long to teach, but can also offer some depth. Those are hard to come by, but that's what I strive to do. Stuff that's intuitive. Sometimes if I am opening a game for the first time, sometimes you can look at it and figure some stuff out, and that's kind at I want my games to be somewhat. Or, also have themes that are approachable too.
Do you have a white whale of game design? Something you try to figure out, but you haven’t quite cracked it yet?
Patrick: There is something very nice about intuitive games, and I'm pretty sure it was Rob Cramer who I'm pretty sure is in episode 2. I'll have to double-check that, who talked about wanting to make a game where you just pull out it out of the box, you shuffle the cards, you deal them out, and you're done. Because if you don't play a game in two months, three months, six months, whatever your timeframe is, you very quickly forget how to play the game, and you have to read the rulebook, and it slows everything down.
There is something so nice about having an intuitive game to do that for you. Just to correct myself, Rob Cramer was on an Episode 1, so I was wrong about that. Very cool. Do you have, or is there a thing you've been trying to design, but you just haven't been able to? Do you have a white whale of game design, something that you've tried so hard to make, and you just haven't been able to put it together?
Kevin: Yeah, I've wanted to make a game with the polyominos, and that was– I started thinking about that early on, but I never made one. Then lately, the market seems to be a little flooded with those, so I've pivoted and put that on the backburner. But maybe after things settle down, I'll try and do a game with those.
What are some fun ideas or mechanisms that you’re looking into?
Patrick: I have similar thoughts with roll & writes, where I do enjoy roll & writes, but there's so many out there right now. I think I'll just wait a couple of years, and then it'll probably come around again, and it won't be as popular, won't be everywhere. So, are there any–? Besides polyominos, are there any fun ideas or mechanisms that you're looking into?
Kevin: One thing I saw last week, I started co-design that has– I don't know if it's just an idea or it's becoming a magnet, but it's kelp. The theme is you're growing a kelp forest for fish to swim and hide through. So, that's the basis of it. That's been pretty fun, working on that one.
Patrick: I can see that having been very pretty visually, there's a couple of tree games now, and they all look great. I think people enjoy them, and the theme is different, and underwater forest sounds great.
Kevin: Yeah. That's what I was thinking.
Does game design energize or exhaust you?
Patrick: Does game design energize and build you up and give you more energy, or does it exhaust you and drain you, and you need to have excess energy before you even start?
Kevin: No, I would probably fall under the energize. Solving small little problems is interesting to me. I need stuff like that to do, so game design does that for me.
How many unpublished and half-finished games do you have?
Patrick: I like to ask this, but I haven't asked it in a while, and I need to get back to asking it. But how many unpublished and half-finished games do you have?
Kevin: At least six or seven. Five or six?
Patrick: That's not so many. You have two published games and six unpublished, that's pretty good.
Kevin: Not too bad. Yeah, I don't always have a ton of ideas.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: All right, so then let me go into some of my favorite questions that I just I have to ask everyone. I think you have a unique perspective because you're traveling in addition to doing all the cool game design stuff, so what is a resource you would totally recommend to another indie board game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Kevin: Yeah. Just to hear from designer, or even just to learn about games. They're free.
Patrick: I'm very happy to mention other ones on my show, besides my own, are there any that you'd recommend?
Kevin: Breaking into Board Games and Board Game Design Lab.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: Yes. Both good. I think they're both still on my– I think I still listen to both of them. I need to check my phone, which isn't right next to me right now, but they're both great. Then what is some of the best money that you've ever spent as a game designer? What's worth every single penny that you've put into it?
Kevin: Either a rotary cutter or just spending money and going to conventions. They are both for different reasons, but those have both helped me quite a bit in different ways.
Patrick: Your episode might come out before the other person, but the person I interviewed last night, they also mentioned rotary cutters. That one's coming up, and people mention it time, and time again, the simple cutting devices make their lives so much better. So, let me ask this. Your first game came out, it was earlier this year, right? Calico?
Kevin: It's not technically. It was on Kickstarter last year, and it will be out probably in the summer.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: Great. Very recently, though, within the last year, your first game was on Kickstarter and is being fulfilled now, Tumble Town is coming out. What does success look like to you?
Kevin: It keeps changing. For right now, it's just seeing people playing a game that I designed and having fun with it, and I think that's all I'm looking for at this point. Earlier on, it was just design a game and then get it signed, and then it keeps changing a little bit.
Patrick: Let's move into the Overrated/Underrated game, which you've listened to the show before, so I think you're pretty familiar with it.
Patrick: OK, great. First one, and this one's a little weird. The BGG top 100 games, just as an institution. Does that make sense? Like, people look up to the top 100 games as the place to be. So, is that overrated or underrated?
Kevin: I would say overrated. Just because BGG users feel like it is just a small percentage of the board gamers overall.
Patrick: Have you seen that recent image going around where people are ranking their top 100 games? On Twitter, and stuff like that?
Kevin: Yeah, that was interesting.
Patrick: Listeners, I will have a link to that in my show notes. I have an image of which of the top 100 games I've played, which is cool because I think it's only about a third for me. No, maybe even less than that. I think it's like 30 games out of the top 100, so I got some work to do. Moving on to the next one. We're recording this before Valentine's Day, but we'll see when this episode comes out. Valentine's Day, overrated or underrated?
Kevin: Overrated. Just because it seems like another holiday that, at least here in the US, is marketed to make you buy more stuff.
Patrick: I get that. Let's go with multi-use games. Now, that's a term I made up. Here's my definition for the term I made up, a product where you can play multiple games with the same components. Does that make sense?
Kevin: Yeah, I would say underrated. Anything multi-use seems like a good idea, and more bang for your buck.
Patrick: So, OK. I'm going to take a detour here. My assumption, which can be disproven, my assumption is that a game that is multi-use, will not feel very thematic. You'll just have beads instead of money, or little wooden cubes instead of stone pieces, or tokens that look like stone that you're harvesting from the quarry. Do you think you would lose a little bit of– Immersion isn't the right word, but the thematics of the game?
Kevin: Sure, yeah. There would definitely be a trade-off there.
Patrick: Then last one, late-night comedy shows. Overrated or underrated?
Kevin: I would say underrated, just because it's healthy to laugh.
Patrick: Makes a lot of sense. I do sometimes use that as stress relief, like when I've just had a long day. It's nice to just listen to, and I don't know, other crazy nonsense that's going on in the world. So Kevin, thank you for being on the show.
Kevin: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Patrick.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your–? I will preface this by saying the Kickstarter link I will obviously include in the show notes, but other than that, where can people find you and your games online?
Kevin: On Twitter, @KevinTRuss. Then on Instagram, I have a different name, @GorgeRiverGameStudio is what my Instagram game account is.
Patrick: All right. Perfect. Thank you again, Kevin. I appreciate it. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Kevin said he'd visit your old western town if you happen to live in one, so that pretty dope. Protospiel Denver will be March 13th through the 15th, and I will be attending. I would love to play your game, so if you're anywhere nearby just, please stop in, I'd love to play your game. Again, I'll have the link in the show notes. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I am @BFTrick on both platforms. That's all I've got, everyone. Until next time, happy designing. Bye-bye.