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Patrick: Hello, everyone. Welcome to 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'm going to be talking with Rob Newton, who designed Sonora, Shuffle Grand Prix— Sorry, it's the end of the day here, and I'm stumbling on my words. Mixtape and a bunch more. Rob, welcome to the show.
Rob: Hi. Glad to be here.
Patrick: Great. I do have one more announcement listeners, this is the first guest on one of my episodes that a listener basically scheduled for me. A few weeks ago, I asked for some help, just helping me find guests or helping me in any way with the podcast, and a few people reached out and offered. I just want to say thank you very much to [Stefan H.] I appreciate the help in finding a guest and giving me some topics to dig into. So, with that, Rob, there's a lightning round of questions. You ready?
Rob: All right, yeah. We can jump into that.
Patrick: All right. You've got to choose one of these four. Convertible, SUV, minivan, or Jeep.
Rob: I'm going to go with the SUV. I guess it's been a few years, but that's what I chose when I bought a new car. Seems logical.
Patrick: Love it. They look pretty swanky, right? They can look pretty good.
Patrick: What is your favorite thing? Just literally a thing, as broad as you can imagine, in the desert.
Rob: OK, we're going to cheat here. Because I'm from Colorado and the eastern slope front range of Colorado is technically a desert, and a very common thing, there is green chili, and if I could eat green chili every day, I totally would.
Patrick: I 100% understand that. Listeners, it is nice to have another Coloradoan on here. Green chili should go on everything, and it's especially good on breakfast burritos. But this is not a breakfast burrito podcast. I wish it was right now because I'm hungry, but I totally hear you on green chili. Awesome. Then Rob, what's a game that you play with someone every single time at a convention? , you're exhausted, and you want to go to bed, and someone's like, “Wait. One more game of this.” And you say yes to it. What is that game?
Rob: It would always be Crokinole. All the dexterity games.
Patrick: What makes Crokinole good?
Rob: There's that idea of the [inaudible]. I think, “Shut up and sit down,” they got into it. They said, “You're playing, but you're not really mentally having to be there with it, you're just doing it and it works.” I don't know, and it's very satisfying.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: Perfect. That's a great answer. So Rob, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Rob: Board games–? I never really played a modern board game until I guess maybe 7-8 years ago, one of my friends had said, “I've got this great thing. It's about farms and castles. There's these little people, let's just try it out.” I was like, “OK. Sure, whatever.” Because at that point, I'd played Cards Against Humanity, and that was about it, as far as modern games went. So he brought out Carcassonne. We tried it out, and I got into constructing the perfect castle and the backstabbing nature of “This is my field. You add that piece there and it becomes even more my field.” Definitely got into enjoying playing them from Carcassonne, and then as far as designing goes, my company CoinFlipGames used to be for designing video games.
I have some games on PC and mobile that barely exist on the internet anymore, and I had a partner that I was working with to create these, but he decided he was going to go have a family, I guess. I don't know. It's like, priorities. But no, I'm very happy for him. He got married, and he's got kids, he's doing the family life thing. But he did not want to continue with the video game design thing, so I took a hiatus for a while, and that's probably when I had played Carcassonne. I tell stories out of order, that's always best for understanding. I was like, “No. I could design games, too.” So that's when I started working on Shuffle Grand Prix.
Can you tell us what “Flick and Write” means & how you came up with it?
Patrick: I see one of your games is a “Flick and write.” Can you tell us what that means, and how you came up with that?
Rob: Yeah. A “Flick and write” is a dexterity roll and write game. So if you're familiar with the roll and write genre that has everything from Yahtzee to Ganz Schön Clever, or “That's Pretty Clever.” It's basically, you roll dice, and you do something with the results of those dice. A dexterity game is basically, you are flicking or stacking or moving around pieces on the board in a way that requires dexterity. I took it upon myself as a challenge at one point to build a dexterity area control game, and some of that survived through all the way to Sonora, and it eventually morphed its way into Carcassonne plus That's Pretty Clever.
There are four different puzzles on the board that you're trying to fill in, each representing a different habitat or animal in the Sonoran Desert, and you are flicking discs onto a central board that have numbers on them. The discs are taking the place of the dice, so if you are particularly skilled and somewhat lucky, and your opponents aren't messing with you, you can flick a disk into the lizard section. At the end of the round, when all of the disks are out there, you will be able to use those disks, particularly the ones that you flipped yourself, to fill in your board in order to start racking up your score.
Patrick: I like it, and I could have sworn– I'm having a trouble finding it now, but I could have sworn for your game Sonora– There it is. I just found the link, listeners. I will include it in the show notes. There is a very cool Designer Diary for Sonora, which is the game about the desert, which is why I brought up the question about deserts in the beginning. It is super cool to see, it's very detailed. I love designer diaries, and I love seeing your first prototype of this abstract flick and write. It's very cool, and I think I also like that from your very first photo here of the first prototype, it isn't desert themed at all. It just started out as an abstract game, and then the theme came later. How did that happen? Was that the publisher or was that you?
Rob: It did eventually get a theme, but this game was totally abstract for a while. The shape, I had a triangle, square, a pentagon, and hexagon for each of the four puzzles. Those shapes held on for a lot longer than they had any right to, so eventually, when I had a theme, which was arthropods, and that's insects plus spiders. There's a few other things in there, but that theme was present in the game, and I had this nice scoreboard that was laid out for it.
The hexagon section with six sides was bees because they have a honeycomb, which has six sides. Aside from that, the shapes no longer had any relevance, but yet they stayed on the scoreboard for quite a while. The publisher, Pandasaurus, they eventually came up with this Sonora theme, and they pitched it to me right before they went to the author or the illustrator. I loved it, I absolutely loved the new theme. It fits just as well as anything else, as this is at its heart an abstract game. But the illustrations are wonderful, the colors are just so vibrant, and I'm very happy with what they did with it.
Are you mechanics first or themes first?
Patrick: It's great. I think lots of people have ideas for what they want their theme to be, or they have a theme in mind, or they've already decided on a theme, are you generally one of those? I think I have to ask the question now, are you generally theme first or mechanics first? Or was it just– Was this out of the blue and unusual that you started with a mechanic first?
Rob: I don't think I've ever been consistent on that. Shuffle Grand Prix, my first game, was 100% theme first. I wanted to make a racing game, so this one was very character-driven. Each of the different decks that you're choosing from in the game are different characters, which they have their own bit of personality. Then the game was formed around that. Sonora was the exact opposite, that was mechanics first, and I just lucked into a great theme that the publisher chose. Mixtape, my next game that's coming out from Talon Strikes, was again, that was theme first. I wanted to make a game about recording a mixtape, and that theme is going to stick through to the final product as well.
Patrick: I had Eric Alvarado on a few episodes ago, probably a dozen or so, I'll try to find the link and include it in the show notes. Did you happen to know that they already have vinyl and another music themed game, or is that just a happy accident?
Rob: I was aware of Vinyl, and yet somehow, I didn't make the connection until I was talking to Shawn from Flatout Games. He had mentioned, “Why don't you pitch Mixtape to Talon Strikes? They've got the theme match up already, I think it would probably be a pretty good fit.” So we got connected, and the rest is history.
Patrick: Do you think that helped? Because I recently made a game that I think would complement another publishers game, it just happens to be a complementary theme. Do you think that helps you, or does that hurt you?
Rob: I have to say, I think it depends on the publisher. If they have their own vision for tie-in products or additional games that they'd like to make within that universe, whatever you present to them that is similar might not match that vision, and they'd be less interested. But in this case, I think it was that this fits well, there's a bit of a gap in their portfolio when it came to, at the time, a two player version of Vinyl. Because it is an engine-buildery game themed around music. Now they've got Jukebox, which is a two player tie-in to that. But also Mixtape is no longer only two players, it goes 2-4. I think the theme tie-in was good enough that they were happy to expand the universe.
Patrick: Boy, I have to say I'm getting a lot of hope already. I like that you started with mechanics first and theme first, and both of them worked out, and you just happened– You made a game called Mixtape, and you happened to pitch it to someone who already has a music game, and they loved it. So far, listening to you, I think anything is possible in the board game world. That's great to hear.
Rob: I think you have to put yourself in a position to meet people. Being at the right place at the right time is a huge part of success anywhere, but in board game design, I think I have been super privileged to attend conventions and be able to meet all of these people. Ultimately, I am a very introverted person. I don't like putting myself out there, but I've forced myself to do it in a lot of cases when I need to. I feel like if I want to get my games noticed, there's a bit of a story in the Sonora designer diary about just happenstance meeting John Gilmore who was scouting for Pandasaurus. Go ahead.
You decided to run Playtest Co-op. Why did you create this service?
Patrick: I was going to say, I don't remember reading that exact part of it, so I'll have to go back and reread it. But there is a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and that's just life for the most part. I did want to go into something else, you decided to create this thing called Playtest Co-op. Why–? First of all, maybe you can explain what it is, and then why did you create it?
Rob: I will go in opposite directions. Motivation is a good way to explain what it is. When I was– Two years ago, I was living in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. In a town of 3,000 people and three hours from everything. There wasn't a big game design community. In fact, it was me and one other guy. We would meet maybe once every three months, and we'd try out each other's games, and that was about the extent of it. Making progress on a substantial basis on any of my games and getting enough play testing was difficult to do, so I am a software engineer, and I am able to create these services.
I put together Playtest Co-op as a way to do remote play testing. Again, this was two years ago. So it didn't super catch on up until a little bit more recently that people were doing remote testing, and the idea behind it is I will download your game as a print and play, and I will take it to my local test group, I'll collect feedback and then I'll send it back to you. Then they will do the same thing for you. So, it's like a playtest trade service. The initial buy-in was a little low, but we did get some good value out of it.
So a lot of people doing this testing and sharing feedback, and I have a lot of ideas for where I want to take this. I just need a lot more time in order to execute on this. I think overall, and I want this to be a way to make play testing more accessible for everybody. Right now, with everyone stuck at home and testing on Tabletop Simulator, it would be a really good time to create the tools that people need for their playtest groups.
Everyone's organized on Discord, and that's been great for handling the chat portion of these play tests. But as far as organizing, “OK. Whose game gets to go first in this list? We didn't get to play this one last week. What is the priority?” I think creating some sort of tool that can help facilitate that process would be super helpful.
Patrick: Sure. Did I–? Maybe I'm misunderstanding something, did I see something on your website about having to shut it down because of the data?
Rob: As it turns out, data is expensive. It is not shut down entirely, I've just reworked it. I made it so that the bulk of the data is stored on [Itch.io], which is a pre-existing platform that's primarily for indie video games. But the tabletop RPG community has adopted it pretty heavily, so you can jump on there, and you can search for tabletop RPGs, and there will be a million that show up.
Print and play games print and play board games are not as popular there right now. There are a few, but I wanted to make it, so there was basically this opt-in from Itch.io. You put your print and play on there, and you give it a playtest co-op tag, and it would automatically show up on the website. If you also make a login on the Playtest Co-op webpage, you would be able to access any feedback that people have sent about that game.
Rob: So I've been able to restructure this so that it is nearly free to run every month, and I need a bit more time and motivation to work on it further. But most of the rest of the work is basically making people aware that it exists.
Patrick: At least you're stuck inside for a few months. You have some time to work on this.
Rob: You would think you would definitely think.
Patrick: To be fair, on the other hand, it's also just a very stressful time, so we're all a little bit– We have fewer spoons or a lot less energy. Cool, I like hearing that story. I love the idea– I'm curious, I've had some thoughts recently about both Tabletop Simulator and print and plays in that when I go to my playtest group, sometimes there are many people at my physical in-person playtest group– Which I haven't done in many months now, but there are lots of people who are not tech-savvy.
Then when I think about Tabletop Simulator and I play, there's one game I enjoy playing on there recently. When I go on Tabletop Simulator, it's only tech people. It's only people who are very comfortable using technology, and I tried to get some friends on Tabletop Simulator recently, and I realized they don't have laptops, or they only have a work laptop, or they have a laptop that's eight years old. You just can't– There's only so many 3D models you can run on your laptop, and even my own laptop is two or three years old. It's not crazy old, but I cannot run Discord and Tabletop Simulator at the same time.
I have Discord open on another machine and connect my Bluetooth speakers to the Discord, and then have Tabletop Simulator– Anyways, sorry. Long rambling rants. My point being, do you think that Tabletop Simulator and print and play gaming narrows your audience to one type of gamer? I worry we're missing out when we test on these platforms, that we're missing out on the very casual gamer as opposed to people who have good laptops, who can run Tabletop Simulator. Or people who love cutting things out of paper, those are different audiences, aren't they?
Rob: Absolutely. The casual gamer is either playing games they already own right now, or they're just not playing anything. Because it's not at all accessible, you have to have a pretty hefty computer in order to run all of these things at the same time. I know a ton of people, even at the weekly Seattle playtest group, who run Discord on their phone while they play, and then Tabletop Simulator still finds reason to crash.
It would be great if we could get a lot more casual and even non-designers in to play, I know that there are other sites like BoardGame Arena, which is a lot less taxing on computers that is basically inaccessible to the average designer, so it's swung the other way. Where the average designer isn't going to be able to put their game in there, number one because I think they only want published games, but also it requires a knowledge of programming in order to add your game and script it so that it just works.
Patrick: Yeah, definitely. How are you getting your play tests in, then? If your own Playtest Co-Op is down, or are you just doing Tabletop Simulator? Or are you doing something else?
Rob: I no longer live in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, I live in Seattle now, and the group out here is good. We have been meeting every week for a very long time, and then once everything went into lockdown, we just transitioned to a weekly event on Discord. There are a bunch of other groups that do this, the New York remote playtest group, and there's one in Dallas and another one in California. I think almost every day of the week you could probably find something, but I tend to only go to the one on Wednesday because I need time to make changes and–
Patrick: Me too.
Rob: Act on the feedback that people have given me, so I feel like the weekly cadence is pretty good for me.
Patrick: I hear you. So you're working on some co-ops now, is that correct?
Rob: Yeah. A co-op, not in the sense of board game but a co-op in the sense of trying to come up with a formalized way that we can pool resources within the Seattle area. We've got a lot of very talented people here who have a lot of knowledge about different areas of the board game industry, so we've got people who know how to publish, and we've got very talented designers. We've got a lot of energy and just like I said, a lot of talent. I think there are ways to make this whole process a little bit more formalized, so I've had this idea of creating basically a cooperative structure around this.
There are a lot of different ways to approach it, but if you think of a farm co-op, a farm co-op has a bunch of individual farms. Jim's tomato farm and Jacki's corn farm, they can get together, they can sell their produce under one label with the farm co-op. If you want to get tomatoes or corn, you can just go to the co-op, and you can buy both. It helps the farmers because they don't have to worry about marketing and distribution and all of these things that they maybe don't know how to do, because Jim's been a tomato farmer and he knows how to grow tomatoes, so he doesn't know how to market them.
It's the same idea with this co-op that we've been considering, which is basically “I know how to design games, but I don't know how to contact a manufacturer in China, or I don't know how to get people to sign up for the Kickstarter preview page.” The idea is, “This other person in our group, and they have the knowledge to do that. What if we had this co-op structure, and it could basically co-publish the game?
I would release whatever game I'm working on as Coin Flip Games, and you have it co-published with Cardboard Co-op. We pool our knowledge, everyone is credited and paid equally and equitably, and I think it just ends up creating a number one better product because you have experts working on portions of the product that they are experts about. Also, I think it's just better to have more eyes looking at a product and making sure that it is as good as it could be.
Patrick: OK, so I understand the basic idea of a co-op where basically we pool resources. It's a little– I think one thing that's different about a board game co-op than a farmer co-op is it's not– Farmer co-ops, you'll put your food in one place. Whereas board game co-ops, everyone has different skills, and sometimes those skills have different values. Someone who– Like, I can play test for an hour but is that worth the same weight as someone who's good at branding, and they do a really good job coming up with a cool logo or whatever for my game?
Did you have to think about that at all, about different skills being worth different amounts, maybe? Or maybe not even worth different amounts, just in this one community, there's only one person who can make logos, but there's a million people who can help you create a Kickstarter campaign. Is there anything about a lack or a surplus of skills?
Rob: Yeah, that's one of the challenges that we're thinking about. There are fewer illustrators that are involved with the group than would be necessary for a traditional publishing company. A lot of publishers they contract out the art. Some other publishers do it in-house, we don't have a lot of those resources immediately available to us within our group.
Then to answer some of the other part of that, it's like “OK. Do we say an hour worth of play testing is equal to an hour of prototyping? Cutting out and sleeving cards, and all of that fun stuff that comes with prototyping?” I think it's maybe a bit of a radical idea, but I think you just say that, “Yes. It is the same. Everyone is putting in time on this product.” There has to be a bit of trust there to say, “Yeah. I did work for an hour doing this thing.” That is just going to go into the equation at the end of the project whenever that happens to be on how much you contributed.
Rob: I think that's number one, the easiest way to do it. But also I think it's the most fair way to do it.
Patrick: Yeah, I get that. First of all, I think there's a lot of space to explore here. I think there's a lot of new business. “Business models” isn't the right term here, but just organizational structures that people can use to make games because, as an example, I love art direction. I love going– I love thinking about “What should this game look like?
Even though I don't have illustrating skills myself, it's like I love going, “OK. I like this game and this game, but I don't like this. I like this, and this makes it seem more fun. Is it more fun or more scary?” I love that, and I would love to help other people in my community do that. You just got to move back to Colorado, and you can eat green chili, and we can form our own co-op here, and I'll help with some things, and you can help with others. We'll make a happy little game factory.
Rob: That sounds pretty wonderful. I think another one of the things, and one of the benefits of everyone being remote right now, is that the location doesn't matter.
Rob: If we know someone who is very much skilled in some area, we could just say, “Do you want to join this co-op and do you want to contribute to this project?” And then, we can ensure that they are protected by the structure of the co-op. Also, they get paid for the service that they're offering.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: I love it, this is great. Thank you, Rob. Boy, time is going quickly. Let me move on to some of my ending questions here. You've been doing this for a while, and I know we only listed three games in your intro, but there's a ton more that are in development. I've seen other pictures around, you have a lot of experience designing games. What's a resource you'd recommend to another indie game designer?
Rob: Resources for indie game designers, I'd say if you do know how to program, I can rapidly prototype a game, especially a card game, using a library called Squib. That's “Squib.” It's basically a programming library that spits out cards for me, and I just tell it where to put things on the cards. The nice thing about it is I can do things kind of like DataMerch if you're familiar with InDesign, or I think even Photoshop has a DataMerch feature. You can do that same sort of thing, but it's a bit more programmatic. I think a lot of people are familiar with– I'm forgetting the name of the Windows one.
Rob: Yeah, nanDECK. If you're familiar with nanDECK, it's very much in the same vein as that. I feel like Squibb is a lot more powerful, so that's the one I've been using for years now.
Patrick: So listeners, I have a link for this. It is Squib.rocks in your URL bar, which is a pretty cool TLD. Pretty cool, instead of a dotcom, dotrocks. Squib.rocks is the link there, and I'll include a link in the show notes. Love that. I think I have heard one other game designer mention this, so I think out of almost 150 episodes, I think you're the second person to mention this. That's great.
Rob: There are dozens of us.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: Yeah, dozens. What's the best money you've spent as a game designer? What's worth every single cent?
Rob: Honestly, in the pre-quarantine times, it was being able to fly or drive or pay for a badge for a convention. That was the gigantic leap forward in progress that I would get when it came to all of my designs. I think even if I sat down with a publisher if I got a pitch meeting, and they say, “No, this isn't for us.” It was quickly followed with, “But here's some things you can think about. Maybe you could talk to my other publisher friend and they might be interested.” I think just the networking opportunities at the in-person conventions was super valuable.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: I miss those in-person conventions, I'm missing GenCon right now. I love it. Great, what does success in the board game world look like to you?
Rob: I get a lot of satisfaction seeing people play a game that I've made, and just seeing people click with something that you created is super satisfying. Ultimately that is another reason why I got out of video games because you don't get that. You don't see someone playing your video game because you're not in person with that, but with tabletop games, especially when you're demoing something new, you are present. If you're play testing, a big part of that is just observing. You can see when someone understands, and they start to form a strategy, they start to feel clever, they feel sneaky. Being able to create those experiences are super satisfying. Success is just creating more of that.
Patrick: Love it. I love hearing that. I totally hear you on being able to see people use your thing because I also have background in software development, and I know there's hundreds of thousands of users that have used my software or software I've helped work on. But it's totally different seeing them use it in person, right?
Rob: Yeah. And a lot of times in software, the only users you ever interact with are the ones who found a bug and are unhappy.
Patrick: That's also true. All right, so I have a game that I like to end with called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?
Rob: I have not heard of it.
Patrick: Great. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you just have to tell me if it's overrated or underrated, and then give me a one sentence reason why. So if I said, “An overcast sky,” you would say, “That's overrated. I like bright, sunny days.” Something like that. Got it?
Patrick: All right. First one, I've been thinking a lot– Or, I've been playing a lot of miniature games. So miniature games, overrated or underrated?
Rob: I got to say, overrated. I just don't own nearly enough paintbrushes.
Patrick: Too many accessories to go along with it?
Patrick: I got it. OK, I dig that. What about happy hour with co-workers, overrated or underrated?
Rob: Man. Right now, I would have to say, “Super underrated.”
Patrick: “Super underrated.” Yeah, I miss them. My boss is trying to do some virtual happy hours, and they're fine, but they're not quite the same. I don't know if you've been trying to do anything like that or not.
Rob: Yeah, a couple of times. I agree that it's not the same, but at the same time, it's just about all you can get. Got to have that human interaction right now.
Patrick: All right. I was thinking, and just before we started recording, we were talking about things that people have strong opinions about in the board game world. I'm pretty sure this is one of the strongest opinions in the board game world, so you're about to upset one half or the other of the board game world. Are you ready?
Patrick: Card sleeves. Overrated or underrated?
Patrick: Overrated. OK, why is that?
Rob: I think games are meant to be enjoyed, and they have a much harder time fitting in the box. That's two different points, so I don't know. I feel like no card sleeves, and no food policy is better and less work.
Patrick: I think I can see that angle. Last one here, just fireworks. Overrated/underrated?
Patrick: What? Why?
Rob: I don't know who it is, but someone has decided fireworks at four in the morning is the greatest thing in the world.
Patrick: Oh, no. OK, that's terrible.
Rob: I have a bit of a bias against fireworks right now. Maybe next year.
Patrick: I haven't had a four in the morning firework experience, so I think we have different experiences here, which explains our different opinions. Rob, thank you so much for being on the show.
Rob: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your games online?
Rob: I primarily reside on Twitter, so I'm @CoinFlipGames. I have a Facebook and Instagram and everything else, that's also generally @CoinFlipGames. But if you want to interact with me, Twitter is the place to be.
Patrick: Got it. Sorry, you shared your Twitter handle?
Rob: Yes. That's @CoinFlipGames.
Patrick: Perfect. Rob, I super appreciate this. Totally dig it. I also want to give a thank you to [Stefan H], I appreciate the help, basically helping me find a guest for the show. It's one less thing I have to do, so thank you, Stefan. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Rob said if you get lost in the desert, he will help you get out. You just have to email him from the middle of the desert, and I'm sure he'll come running. Isn't that right, Rob?
Rob: That is absolutely true. If I don't show up, just follow your nose. The green chili is nearby.
Patrick: There we go, I dig it. Listeners, if you want to support the show, I would love if you could back me on Patreon. It keeps the lights on, makes sure that I have coffee to keep myself awake, and I try to record in the morning, so I don't have word slip ups like I did right at the start of this episode. But it pays for hosting costs and to make sure I can keep the episodes on the air and have cool guests all the time. Listeners, you can also visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, and you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I am @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.