Zach Given

#118 – Zach Given

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 Zach Given, who designed Dragoon: The Rogue and Barbarian Expansion for Dragoon, Human Era, and Life Siphon. Zach, welcome to the show.

Zach Given: Good to be here.


Patrick: Yeah, all right. I'm excited. Are you ready for three lightning round questions?

Zach: Let's do it.

Patrick: All right. First is an opinion question. Do Dragoons have wings, like birds and bats? Where they are connected to their body? Or do they have normal arms, and then separate wings that grow out of their backs like gargoyles?

Zach: I've got to stick to my guns and go zoological answer on this fictitious animal, and go with their arms are part of their wings.

Patrick: That seems so much less cool than I imagine, but I think you're right. If you could go back in time to any one moment and just watch– You can't fix anything, but just to watch, what moment in time would you go back to?

Zach: I would do the moon landing because it happened before my time, and everyone who was there for it seemed excited. A lot of the younger folks on the conspiracy theory side seem to think it didn't happen, so I would love to just solve that big controversy. Either, “No. It didn't happen, definitively.” Or get in on the hype with all the people that saw it live and were so excited.

Patrick: Awesome, last one. What is a game you play with someone every single time, no matter what, at a con?

Zach: There's two games. One is Diet & Friends, and the other is a game that John from Lay Waste Games— I didn't realize this. I thought it was just a game he had, [inaudible] he made up, which is actually on Kickstarter now called Pineapple. It's just a truth or tell game, and it's more of a social thing to do. It always comes out between us and other game designers and other people at the convention, where everyone's tired and you only to hang out with them at a convention, so it's a special type of friend.

It's a game that's just about learning more about each other, so some people lie about some traumatic things, and you're disturbed. It's also hilarious, like “Are you a sociopath? Because that was a really convincing lie.” Or you learn some really beautiful truth about them, and you go, “That's interesting.” It's so easy to do, and then people just jump in and jump out. Between that and a game called–

Patrick: What's that game called again?

Zach: Pineapple.

Patrick: All right. I'm going to have to look that one up. That sounds fun. I don't even see it on BGG, and maybe you haven't even added it to BGG yet.

Zach: I guess not, no. I know it's live on Kickstarter through February 13th.

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

Patrick: All right. I will have a link to that, listeners. So let me ask you, the first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Zach: It was completely thanks to my brother Jake, who is my partner in game design crime, on all those games you mentioned. It was many years ago, and I think 2014 he was between two jobs and for no reason at all started to make a board game, really out of nowhere. Then he talked to me about it, and I was like, “Jake. That sounds cool. I don't know why you did that, but can I check it out with you?” And I did, and I was like, “OK. This is super fun. Can we work on this together?”

And for about a year, it was just something the two of us would do as brothers hanging out. We just worked on this game for ourselves, and we got to a point where we finished the rules. Like, “This game is done.” We showed our friend, John, like “We've got this game. We finished this game, do you want to play with us?”

He's looking at a chessboard that has a scarf wrapped around the seventh and eighth rows on two sides, and playing cards that have notes written on them and a bunch of garbledy pieces from other games. He was like, “You guys, that is not done. That is a mess.” At that moment, the three of us started to begin what would become Lay Waste Games and ultimately brought in Nick Bizzaro the artist not too much later on. That's the beginning of our whole story.

Patrick: That's cool. I like how many people have discovered game design by accident. Like, “You can do that?” And then you just start doing it.

Zach: Yeah. As a person who loves videogames, loves board games, I could never make a video game because I don't have an extra quarter of a million of capital and a team of software developers to try it out. But board games is just, “Do you have a piece of paper? Do you have a pencil? You can start trying to make a board game.”

How did your work with Lay Waste Games start?

Patrick: Very good point. One of the things I didn't highlight in your intro, but I think lots of people find interesting, because I think lots of my listeners are aspiring game designers and maybe they want to self-publish and run their own Kickstarter, or maybe lots of them probably want to pitch games to publishers. You're in a unique situation where all of your games are published through Lay Waste Games. How do you get a sweet job that? Where a certain publisher loved all of your stuff, and you just make it?

Zach: When you are judge, jury, and executioner– When you are a game designer in your own indie game company, it's all the magic ingredients in one spot, and it all starts with excitement. I'm the biggest hype man, and John is the biggest– Whatever the opposite of hype man is. So between the two of us on the extremes with Jake and Nick in the middle, we hash out a lot of ideas and leave a lot on the cutting room floor. But once we all are excited about a direction, that means we're all confident in it, and that's when we start to move out.

As opposed to, “It's my dream, it's my idea. We've got to make my game, guys,” it is a collaboration. Some of our games, like Human Era, that was deliberately a “We believe, for our indie company, we think that a social deduction game is the next thing that we should try and do.” So Jake and I were like, “All right. We haven't made one of those before, let's take it to task. Let's try to make a social deduction game.” That's when that one came about. It wasn't, “We've got this passionate idea.” That was like, “This is our responsibility, we need to come up with this.”

Patrick: That's cool. Basically, you're working, and it's you and your brother and, sorry. What was–? John, right?

Zach: Yeah.

Patrick: And you're all working together, all in this publishing company, just making decisions together and then just executing?

Zach: Exactly.

Patrick: That's cool. I wish– How about this, how do you find a “John” to work with? If you're a game designer, how do you find a “John?”

Zach: You go to “Other Stuff Games,” that's his consulting company where he does this for other people.

Patrick: “Other Stuff Games?”

Zach: Yeah, Other Stuff. I'm not sure if they're “Other Stuff,” or if they've changed it to “Other Stuff Games,” but Other Stuff is his consulting company where he does exactly what you're asking.

What did you set out to do in the beginning with your expansion for Dragoon, and what roadblocks did you run into?

Patrick: So, I just Googled it. It is “Other Stuff,” but you can see it at I did not know that existed, that is very cool. OK, so I got you on because I think Dragoon looks cool. Fun fact, I was working at a booth basically across from Lay Waste Games at PAX: Unplugged, so I saw Dragoon all weekend, and I saw a million people going up to the booth and playing it.

Then I think I talked to someone at the booth, and that's how I got in touch with you to do this show. But you're working on this cool– You're working on this expansion for Dragoon. So first of all, tell me what you wanted to do with it, and then the roadblocks that you ran into with this expansion.

Zach: So, we wanted to– The first expansion brought two new characters into the game, and that was great. Our goal was Dragoon is meant to be easy to pick up, light and fun with some actual gameplay there, and silly dragon romping and roaring. You can have high skill, medium, and low skill players because that's a big problem that gamers run into. You finally have enough people together, but they're a mixed group of interests and skill sets. So, what game do we do?

Dragoon is a nice gap bridge game for a mixed skill set, where we can all break this out and get up to speed and just have fun, because that's one of the big philosophies of my brother and I. Like, “These are games. All right? We're not solving world hunger, and we're not making high tech zombie drones that can do impossible things. These are games for fun, so let's focus on the fun piece. That's what we're trying to accomplish here.”

With The Rogue and Barbarian Expansion, we were like, “Let's increase, for the higher-skilled interest players, let's let them enjoy a slightly more skilled experience in Dragoon. So you can still play with a mixed group of friends, where the barbarian plays similar to the dragon, but more responsibility and how you win. And the rogue, the most amount of responsibility. Where if you're bad at the rogue, you're likely going to lose. If you're awesome at the rogue, you've got a fighting chance.” So we were happy with what we accomplished there. Then my brother and I just kicked around, because it was our first game, our little baby of game design.

There's been a lot of little things we've checked out to see, like “Does that have legs?” A lot of times, you're more excited about it than how good it is as an addition. If you want to add something in, it has to be good enough and worthwhile. We tried a handful of things, and one of the first ones that stuck out was these volcano lava tiles, and the thing that excited us about it is it brought the island to life.

So, we added extra characters to change up the diversity of how you play the game. But let's give the game, the island itself, a chance to play back and do something back to you and give you a new way to interact with players. One other function that the volcanoes allow for is teleporting from point to point in the map, simply if you step in lava or in a volcano then you're sent back to your cave, or you are removed from the map, and you've got to show up on the map again.

Which is a consequence, but also just a mechanic of teleporting to increase movement in a significant way along the board. So that was a nice thing we'd always been interested in adding into the game, but through this secondary effect of these cool volcanoes. You think, “What's the coolest fantasy creature? All right, dragons is probably one of the first things to come to mind.”

And then you think, “What's the coolest thing that the earth does? What's the earth parallel to volcanoes? That's the cool thing that the earth does that's the most similar to dragons.” Dragons and volcanoes just seem to go well together. It's like nice wine and cheese, and this is a good pairing.

Patrick: Awesome. OK, so correct me if I'm wrong, but it's called “Might and Magma,” right?

Zach: Yeah.

Patrick: Which, by the way, I think, is a cool name. That's a pretty good name. So, you guys– Correct me if I'm wrong, but we were chatting by email ahead of time. Weren't you–? You tried to just use the existing tiles or something like that?

Zach: In its current form, that Might and Magma expansion is some sweet volcanoes, some lava flow tiles that have goldmines on them, and a power deck that is a common access card for all three of the asymmetric character types, and these lava flow mechanic cards to help make the game function. It was originally, and the thought was, “Let's just do this micro little add-on thing, like just a pack of tiles. The volcanoes will be tiles, the lava flow things will be tiles, a totally tile-based little fun thing to do.”

The limitation was to convey the rules of how the lava flow worked using just tiles. We found a way to do it, but it was not intuitive, and it was like you needed a special lava flow tile. It's like “If the board stayed as this, use the top side of the tile. If the board stayed as that, use the bottom side of the tile.” Each side of the tile had arrows and directions and die rolls of, “If you roll a one or two, it goes left. Three and four, go straight. Five and six, it goes to the right.” It functionally operated, but it was a lot of die rolling to make little tiny steps. It was like, “This takes a while.” The randomness on one side– Sometimes you would make a super short lava eruption.

Like, “Boom. Straight line, right off the map, cool.” Other times it would snake around the whole board, and those moments were like, “This is worth it. Oh, my God, it's still going.” Like, “Don't go near me. Stay away from my city that will never get back to my city.” You set the volcano off, and it somehow snakes nine tiles around and comes all the way– Avoids your opponent and then messes up your own city. Those little moments were really fun and exciting and magical, and we wanted that experience, but it came at too high of a cost. We tried, “Maybe the game comes with a four-sided die, which is a pyramid die.

Like, “We can do something cool with that. Make it a volcano die that has the right numbers on it and simplify it from there.” It seemed like adding in new dice to do new types of rolling, “This is not the leap-ahead solution, and it doesn't totally fix it.” So I said to John, as our manufacturing person, “How much more would it cost to just add in some cards?” He's like, “Cards are not that expensive. How many cards are we talking?” I'm like, “I don't know. Like, 10?” He's like, “If you need cards to make that thing work, do cards.” I'm like, “OK. All right, if I get access to cards that changes everything. There is so much more I can do to solve these problems with some extra cards.” The cards are these lava flow cards that show a grid of what the next pattern of lava flow will be, and we decided to make that face-up. It's common information for everyone, so it's not random, and it's totally controlled. It's a matter of, “When do you decide to set that volcano off?”

Those fault lines let you move, swap the location of a volcano, and its corresponding fault line. You can set the board up to move the volcano, set it off from a different location, knowing exactly which direction it is going to go in to maximize the damage on your opponent. It might take your whole turn to execute that, but if the timing is right and the layout is right, you can do some really powerful moves. Then if that shared known public information is a cool strategic act on the information element, and it also makes the placement of the lava tiles unbelievably smooth.

It's thoughtless. It's just like, “Just like this. Donezo.” But it still retains the excitement of what the outcome is, especially if you weren't planning on that volcano going off and your focus was somewhere else, and you weren't planning on that volcano being in a completely different spot. Like, “It's over there. If it goes that zigzag direction, I'll be fine. But Oh, my God, I know what he's doing. He's moving the volcano over there, and this is going to completely wreck me.

How do you determine the right amount of play tests?

Patrick: One of the things I want to go back to for just a minute, one of the things you said that I think is interesting. With just tiles, there was the occasional game where everything was awesome like it snaked around, and there were cool moments where it missed your opponent, and it came back and blew up your own town. I totally see how that's a hilarious, awesome, fun moment. My question is– Because here's the thing, How many play tests did you do for you to realize that it wasn't often enough?

Zach: I'd say once you get to about 20, the themes emerged enough, and then you pair that with the individual's feedback. Because you might do 20 games, but sometimes one person comes and sticks with you. The tough job of the designer is like, “Is that just in my head? Or is there truth that I'm missing?” I think that is the most difficult part of the job of the game designer, is how to weed out a real critical judgment that's specific to a person or an individual, vs. “Are they seeing something I'm just plain missing?” Fortunately, the solution is easy. You don't just think about it, and you try it out. It's so much more efficient, so much faster just to try it out. Once you get used to that– Ego is a gross thing in every arena, and it's gross in game design as well.

It's OK if your idea wasn't good enough, and it's OK if someone else had a great idea. You want to make the best game and let the game– If you have an idea or a concept or direction, put it together and then let the game show you what it does best. Like, “This experience wants to be this other thing. OK. That's not what I had in mind, but let's enable that experience. That's the chemistry that's coming off the table.”

It just so happens that you try out all these different things and you hear enough times that, “In the case of the lava tiles,” after 20 or so games you see it enough times and you experience it in your own solo play tests when you're controlling a bunch of players. Like, “Yeah. I see it.” Also, by the nature of randomness, you know that the odds are that this amount of times it won't happen, and it's possible the whole game could go by with that low-odds strikes, and the weird, not good thing is happening a lot. Maybe the low chance that the un-fun thing happens is too much, like why have a chance for something not fun to happen? Get rid of it.

Patrick: I think it's really because– How about this, the way I design games I will first notice a thing and then I'll do another couple of play tests and go, “No. Oh, yeah. That's definitely a thing.” But it might take you like five play tests to realize what the thing is, and then another five playtests like “That does happen too often, or not often enough, or whatever.” It's cool to hear that you run into this as well.

Zach: Yeah. The other really interesting thing about when you're playing odds, literally, that the perception of those odds is more important than the odds themselves.

Patrick: Yes.

Zach: That you have to see in people's experiences that are not you. Here's a really good example, when we were doing base Dragoon in the beginning, we found that even when Tribute paid 50% of the time less than it does now, now it pays 2/3 of the time, and 1/6 of the time it pays extra. The majority, the vast majority of points in the game were coming from Tribute, even with it producing it at 50% of the time. But the experience of it not producing half the time is too upsetting, and we were like, “Technically balance-wise, it's already overproducing.

Technically, compared to what you get from destruction. But that's what we need to do. This is a game for fun, and it's not fun to not make your money.” What does it matter? You know, that's one of those examples where you can't be married to any one thing. You can't be overcommitted to balance when like “It's balanced, but they don't like it. It's not fun.” So, what's your thing trying to be? If it's on the zanier, “We're having a good time,” then enable the good time and do what it takes, even though it seems like it's too much.

On paper, if you're looking at all your tally sheets, “Yeah,” technically that's overproducing. But the experience is that you get way more points from destruction. That's the perception, that's the experience, and that's the soft tissue of game design that you have to pay more attention to than the black and the white on paper. Or, the abstract design in your head.

Do you have a favorite game that you’ve designed?

Patrick: I love all this. Not a ton of people on my show have designed many games, so that means I get to ask you a sneaky question. Do you have a favorite game you designed?

Zach: I think I'm going to have to go with Human Era, and that is for a few reasons. One, it's not our biggest game. I feel like, “That's my baby.” It's a better game than it's known for, in my opinion, and I think that might have something to do with just how hard it was for me to make it. But I was not a huge social deduction fan, not that I dislike the genre, but it just wasn't on my radar of games to play. But I know they exist, and I agreed, “Strategy-wise, let's try that. We can do another Dragoon game, or we can try to– Let's try to spread our wings a little bit.

Let's try to do something different and expand our audience to try to dip our toes in a different market segment, a different demographic of players.” That was what made that one so difficult. We thought it would be a lot easier to design because there's so few rules and so few components, the social deduction game. The problem is that the total experience of the game is in the social experience and social dynamics, and that is extremely difficult to pontificate on and philosophize on and predict because the ability for a person to lie and the ability for a person to be detected is such a subtle skill that you need to do a ton of play tests.

The real challenge there is it's hard enough to get a bunch of play tests in for a 2-4-5-6 player game, but if it's a game meant for ten people getting 7-9 people together a ton, that is what pushed our timeline. Because you do that play test, you see, and you try to change where it worked and where it didn't work, and what's left. An hour later, you're like, “All right. This is the next design change. This is the next thing to try out.” You wait a week, or you wait two weeks until you can finally get the next group together. That was so painful to just be like, “I know the next thing to try, and if we can just try it today, we can make this progress.”

I'm really happy with the end product. That's a game where I'll just be driving around, and it'll just pop into my head, “I'm glad that game exists. A time travel game with robots and dinosaurs and cavemen and cyborgs, I'm glad that's out there. Those are all a lot of exciting creative things to me, and knowing that it exists, I'm in.” So that's the game that circles back to me. It's feel-good, and I'm glad that one's out there.

What are your experiences with solo play tests?

Patrick: That's great. Let me ask a follow up there because I don't know what percentage of my audience does this, but there's lots of games where the magic is in the players. I think I was talking to Tim Powers a couple of weeks ago, and he talked about how Mario Kart might not be a great game, but it's great because of the interactions you have with other people. It's this game where it's just fun because of the player dynamics. You mentioned earlier that you did a solo play test for some other game, can you even do solo play tests for some of these games? Or do you just give up, and you just have to do extra work to find play testers?

Zach: I think there's a– Depending on the type of game and the type of tweaks you're working on, solo play testing works for a lot of the upfront design, getting the bones of the game together and seeing what's possible. Because you have to start from, you have to have something that's playable before you can bring it to people to get their feedback on it. I think one of the biggest tips for game designers is learning in your head when you have to stop going down a logic tree.

Because you could fantasize ten layers further down that path, like what could be, and you might play test and learn by the first or second logic point that it doesn't work anymore. So that was just a lot of sunk time, where if you can become familiar with “All right. I think that could work, but I don't know. I'm going to put a period on that idea and then just wait to play test it, then see that idea. If it works, awesome. We'll explore it. But if it doesn't, then I saved a lot of time.

Spending that precious time that you don't ever have enough of to explore other options, so for those solo play tests, it's great for bare-bones mechanics. You always need to keep your– The opposite of a blinder off. You always have to have this third eye, or extra sight, that “I can't know if this piece is good or bad. This, I will have to get outside feedback on.” It's just that mental discipline of “You always have to know your limits.” That can sound like a real bummer for a creative endeavor, but it's how you– You need to also be protective of your very limited resource of being creative, and the time you have to do it. Being more efficient with it definitely will help you get to your best product faster.

Do your group play tests ever result in false positives?

Patrick: So, one more follow up there. One of the things– I don't want to say “It did wrong,” but one of things that I found challenging with some of the games I've worked on is I would get feedback at a Protospiel or whatever, I'd make changes to my game, and I'd test it, and then it seemed to work. But they're all—

As we said before, sometimes it takes you a couple games to notice when something works and doesn't work. Do you ever–? I think sometimes it just worked by accident. How do you prevent–? Because one of the things I am getting from you is your style is to experiment and try this, and have a hypothesis and be ready to be wrong. But if I try it, and then it works, do I try it another couple times or do I–? Does that make sense? Sometimes you get false positives.

Zach: Absolutely. This is a pivotal memory of me with my dad as 

a teenager, we're going guitar shopping, and it was a big deal. I had played my crappy guitar long enough to show I'm committed, “Dad. I'm ready for the next birthday present. Let's upgrade the guitar. It's not just a fad, and I'm in.” The first store we went to, I saw this guitar, and I was like, “That's the one. We're done, Dad. We don't have to go shopping anymore.” He was like, “Listen. Before we spend that money on that better guitar, let's look at three more stores.

I was confused, because “Why even do that if you know, that's the right one?” And he was like, “Because you don't know it's the right one. You might see something better somewhere else. If you look at all those other stores and you don't find a better one, then you'll know that you'll have that much more confidence that this is the right one for you to get.” It's the exact same thing from your example, where that first try is like, “Is this awesome? Is this already ready to go?”

Be excited, 100%. What you'll find is when you've got all your independent variables, and you try different tweaks, when you tweak that thing that's awesome, you'll see that everything else gets less awesome. That's your confirmation. It's just the efficiency is there, and you can spend so much time thinking something could be awesome or probably won't work, or “That idea, I don't know.” Just try it. In maybe 20 minutes, you can get a ton of information that gives you the direction you need.

What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?

Patrick: I totally agree. I am such a big fan of– I don't understand how people can theorize about game design and like, “I think this works,” and then I'm wrong at least 75% of the time, or “This is definitely going to work.” No, it's terrible. I'm still developing my intuition, and I only figure it out by experiments, so it's cool to hear someone else echo something similar. OK, for an indie game designer, they are hearing your story, and they like what you're saying. They want to experiment, and they want to do cool stuff, do you have a resource for them? Something free or easily accessible or cheap that they can read or learn more about, or to do more with game design?

Zach: I would say that the best resource that you can get is slightly better play test components. It's a resource that's available like you can get a 50 cent piece or a 20 cent piece. Just spend $15 bucks on a website and buy the cool-looking pieces that look like the thing that you want it to look like. Because that little step, there's just something about it that lets– If it looks that much more correct, your other play testers, they can focus more on their experience than the components.

I'm not saying it's got to look awesome, and I'm not saying skip past the paper and pencil cutouts with little icons on them. But when you're ready to have it looks slightly cooler, you'll get way better feedback because people do judge your book by its cover, and it's inherent. Right or wrong, and it's wrong, but everyone does it, and you can't get past it. So if it looks slightly cooler, then they'll stop focusing on how bad your drawing is. It's like, “I know it's bad. I'm not a drawer. I don't draw stuff. It doesn't matter. It's an icon. It's a sword.” “It doesn't look like a sword.” “I don't care.” Those little things it helps you get into it more, and you might find that you wanted it to be this fantasy theme, and I got the pieces, but it just doesn't feel right.

There's a lot of little subtle things you can suss out from there, and you might change your theme entirely. There's just so many different ways you can be inspired or content. That's the other thing, you can be inspired with an idea, and you work on it, and it's not the magical thing you might have wanted it to be. That inspiration tanks, but you want to keep going with it. So this is just one of those engines or fuels, literally a resource that can gas your creativity back up. Where I'm tired of looking at this flat marble, like “This orange marble is supposed to be a wizard, and I just not feeling it. Investing the $10-15 bucks and just slightly cooler little pieces to help you and your audience get into the game, that's for me.

It also helps you feel like you're making the progress that you are making. When you're ready to upgrade your paper and pencil cutouts, do it. Spend it because it doesn't cost a lot, and you can get some cool-looking pieces to help you and your inspiration and creativity, and get feedback more focused on your actual game and not your pieces.

What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?

Patrick: Fantastic. OK. So, this is a related question. You may want to give the same answer, but what is the best money you've ever spent as a game designer?

Zach: It's the same, it is, absolutely. The best money is on those cheap little upgrades and cheap little pieces. As an indie game company, it's really expensive, relatively speaking, to make a good-looking prototype. It might be like $100 bucks to make one game. [Inaudible] making one, doing the 3D models, and printing them out. It's way more expensive to do that one game. But if you're ready to show it off and get that interest from people, that's when people get excited.

People love games, but a game is a thing that you can see and touch and pick up. You have to show up with that, and that's where people– Like, you have to get them excited. You want them to be as excited as you are, and hopefully, you're excited. If you're not excited about the thing you're working on, stop working on it and work on something you're excited about. But those dollars you spend to make it look that much more real and manifested, out from your idea to on the table where other people can interact with it, and they're excited to do it. That's money well spent.

What are some fun ideas or mechanisms that you’re looking into?

Patrick: Fantastic. So, what does–? Hold on, and I think I skipped one of your– I think I skipped one of the questions we wanted to chat about. What are some fun ideas or mechanisms you're looking into?

Zach: You mentioned, “What if that first thing is actually pretty darn good?” Something I'm working on now is where we're calling it Project Penguoon, or I'm kind of liking Legend of Penguoon. This is something that started from the very first Kickstarter, and it was an April Fool's joke. There was one person in the comments that said, “Your 3D models of Dragoon look kind of like penguins, LOL.” And we were like, “April fools. Let's just say, ‘There was an issue, a miscommunication with the manufacturer. The Dragons are Penguins, so we need to hard shift the theme, and this is a penguin game now.'” We made a whole bunch of terribly, exaggeratedly complicated rules and described them as absurdly simple, like fractions of points to do things with.

This theme of penguins popped up the next couple of campaigns, and over Christmas break, I was just like, “We shouldn't– Let's make Penguoon a real thing.” I know there was a petition that I think 20 or so people signed, which was amazing. But that was one of the most moving things I've ever seen, and it was like, “They are excited about Penguoon? Hell, I'm excited about Penguoon.” So I thought, “If it's in the world of Dragoon, and it's silly, adorable, derpy penguins, this should be an easy one to do. This shouldn't be that difficult. And if it's adorable and a fun game, this could be a quick win for us, maybe.”

So I conceptualize for a couple of weeks, put some notes together, and then a couple of weeks ago actually, I was like “All right. Let's try that concept out. Mockup, the pieces, cut out these squares of paper and use the Dragoon maps. I knew I wanted to try it on a 6×6 grid. The first game, it functioned, and nothing was broken, and it operated. I was like, “Oh my God. What a great sign that on our first pass, this is a functional thing. This thing here is overbalanced, this thing over here is under-balanced.” One thing I haven't even designed yet, I know I want to have this Ice Dragon. But I need to flesh out the rest of the game first, and then he'll fill in, this ice dragon in my mind will fill in the gaps, whatever gaps reveal themselves.

It was like, “Let's do the same design process for Dragoon. All the other games that we've made since then were not Dragoon on purpose, so let's just have some fun. Let's lean into what we know how to do. Let's do this Dragoon tile-ish game, start with the rules, start with the tiles. In this case, start with the penguins and then figure out how the game works, what the engine is, and then add in cards. That was definitely the plan. Then after play testing was a friend of mine, we played one game, and I was like, “OK, Before you give me feedback, just let– We're going to ultimately add-in cards. But with that said, what do you think?”

He's like, “I don't think you need cards, man. I'm having fun now. There's enough information here. I got my player board, I'm looking at your player board, and I'm looking at where your penguins are on the map and what they're producing, where my penguins are on the map, what they're producing. That's a ton of information. From there, I base my decisions, and this is a real simple– Like, lots of easy decisions and lots of information that accumulates a meaningful strategy.” And I was like, “Oh my God. If this is truly just building out an island of ice tiles and an army of penguin meeples and resource production and resource management, this could be–” And I haven't stopped being excited about it for the last couple of weeks.

Patrick: That's fantastic. I also totally think that penguin meeples will sell.

Zach: They have, from the life Kickstarter. We were like, “It seems like everyone likes penguins. If we get this next stretch goal, we'll throw in a penguin meeple for no reason. It's just–“

Patrick: What?

Zach: Yeah. So we did, we made the awesome backers, and now every game of Life Siphon moving forward just comes with one penguin. It's totally off theme, and it has nothing to do with the game. There's no rules for it. It's just like, “Man. Check it out. You get a penguin. Awesome.” There were– “If you guys are really into this penguin, we can sell a pack of 12 of them.” Because in Life Siphon, there's 12 dreadnoughts, 12 witches, and 12 imps.

It's a communal pool of mantras you can all summon from, and we were like, “If you want, as an add on, you can buy a pack of 12 penguins. Then how about this, we'll make this be. So many gamers are interested or are game designers, so ‘Hey guys, homebrew rules. Penguins. You know what the format of the game is so you can make up your own attack power, make up your own defense, make up your own cost for the penguin and make up your own special power. Submit it to us, and once the game is fulfilled over the next couple of weeks, we'll open up submissions for people to submit their penguin rules. We'll curate them and talk about it, and whatnot.’”

So a lot of backers bought these sets of 12 penguins, and we're going to a manufacturer like, “Are we ordering a thousand penguin meeples for no reason? Awesome. Let's do it.”

Patrick: That is great.

Zach: To have actual penguin meeples, a combat penguin, and a medic penguin, and you get two baby dragons as well. This is a very adorable experience.

Patrick: Super. I cannot wait to see what you do with Penguoon. So, I will stay tuned.

Zach: Awesome.

What does success in the board game world look like to you?

Patrick: OK. Last real question is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Zach: That's a really good question. Everyone's going to have their own answer, but for me– This is also my guidance to folks. Success is seeing something that you really care about happen, and it's going to cost you a lot of something. It's going to cost you a lot of time, and it might cost you some amount of your own money to do it. It might cost you giving up something about the game that you thought was the best thing about it, and that could be one of your biggest roadblocks.

That's the problem here. This isn't taking off because that thing that you want to be in there, it's just not meshing. It's not functioning. I know it would be a huge bummer to take it out, but you're creating something that's not for you, it's for you and strangers. If you're in it for the money, then go get a part-time job doing anything, because, over a couple of years, that part-time job will put more cash in your pocket. If that's your reason, then I wouldn't recommend it. You certainly can make money, but success is being excited about what you're doing, and you can't go wrong.


Patrick: I like that. All right, so I end my show with this game called Overrated/Underrated, where basically I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you just need to say if it is overrated or underrated. So if I say “Thanksgiving,” you're going to be like, “Underrated because you get to eat as much food as you want.” Something like that. Cool?

Zach: Totally. That's the correct answer, yes.

Patrick: Great. So, I'm going to go with rogues. Specifically 

in role-playing games, are they overrated or underrated?

Zach: Oh, my God. I'm going to go underrated.

Patrick: Underrated? Give me one sentence why.

Zach: They are supposed to be underrated because they're sneaky. They want to be underrated, so they should be underrated because that's their job to sneak through under the radar and then slice and dice for the win.

Patrick: I like it. Let's go with time travel as a storytelling mechanism in TV shows and movies.

Zach: Man, underrated.

Patrick: Underrated? OK. I feel like every time there's time travel, I'm like, “They didn't do enough time writing the show.” But you dig it, and you want more of it?

Zach: Because it gives you so much to troll on because it's usually done terribly, and that's the best part. Because like, “What a terrible use of time travel. This is great. Let's talk about how bad it is.”

Patrick: Fantastic. OK, great. I'm just going to go with cyborgs, and I'm not going to qualify it at all. So, cyborgs. Overrated or underrated?

Zach: I'm going to stick with the underrated. Cyborgs are awesome. Just absolutely awesome. There's so much you can do as cyborgs, and then cyborgs can do to you. I'm in on cyborgs.

Patrick: We're recording at the end of January, and the reason I'm saying that is New Year's fitness goals. Overrated or underrated?

Zach: Overrated simply because everyone fails at it. So it's like, “Let's just skip it. Let's just skip the discussion. I don't want to hear about it because you're not going to do it. I'm not going to tell you about it because I'm not going to do it. Next conversation piece. Let's talk about games instead of these New Year's resolutions that no one's going to do.”

Wrap Up

Patrick: Fantastic. Love it. Zach, thank you so much for being on the show.

Zach: Patrick, it's my pleasure.

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


Patrick: All right, that was easy. Great. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Zach said he would show you how to take care of a baby dragon. So if you happen to have a baby dragon, he'd be more than willing to show you how to take care of it. Which is pretty great.

Then Protospiel Denver will be March 13th through 15th, and if you're anywhere nearby, please stop. I'd love to see you. You can visit the site at You can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, and I am @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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