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#87 – Zach Horton

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.

Patrick: My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Zach Horton, who designed Mehen, which is a game played in ancient Egypt over 4,500 years ago. I played a prototype of this at Origins on an insanely gorgeous board, and I have a couple of photos that I took, which I will include in the show notes. In the meantime, Zach, welcome to the show.

Zach Horton: Thank you so much.

Introduction

Patrick: I have a very quick lightning-round introduction thing so that the audience gets to know you, answer these however you can. What is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?

Zach: I'll answer this by saying a game that I would play with anyone, anywhere is Carcassonne. That's for me, a perfect balance between utter simplicity of play and complex emergent strategy.

Patrick: I love it. It's such a good intro game too, so I like that answer. Now besides Mehen, are there any other ancient games that you like?

Zach: Yes. I have to admit that I am not a huge player of ancient games, but as an academic, I'm very interested in the history of games. I study these games often, and there are some that I quite like. The Royal Game of Ur is a fantastic ancient game, sometimes called The Game of 20 Squares. Senet, which is another ancient Egyptian game, roughly contemporary to Mehen and much better known, but also a fantastic game. I enjoy playing it. Maybe Go is another ancient game that I think is brilliant. I am far from a great player of Go, in fact, it's embarrassing to me how bad of a Go player I am, but I think that is an amazing game.

Patrick: I've yet to play Go, but it looks absolutely, fabulously, deep in terms of gameplay. If you had– So, I have a silly question. If you have to choose between taking care of giant snakes or a lion, which would you choose?

Zach: I have to say a lion, partly because I am a fan of Tippi Hedren. If you know the actress from The Birds who lived with lions for years and years of her life with her husband in the 70s, I believe. Literally, lions roaming around the house. Pretty amazing. She's a big fan of lions and then later created a little more sustainable wilderness refuge for lions that she runs today. I've been there and met her and seen her lions. She made a film in the 70s called Roar, it's a narrative film, but it's with her pet lions and a similar story. I recommend that. I don't know what my giant snake would be eating, I don't know what a giant lion would be eating either, but I think I have to go with the lion.

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

Patrick: I think that makes a lot of sense to me. I like it. So first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Zach: I've been designing board games since I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. I would say that began– I had no sophisticated introduction to board games. They just showed up from– Picked up at garage sales, or whatever. This would have been in the very early 90s, it was before the current boom in board games and before euro games, except for very early ones.

Zach: I remember Scotland Yard and getting a copy of Scotland Yard, which I still think is a great game. I just felt the desire to modify this thing, and it was such a cool system. All of these networks of roads and bus lines and metro lines all over the board, and these numbered squares, it had so much potential. You could do so much moving around London through all these networks, and I thought, “I could make a cool game out of this.” I started drawing my own lines and creating even more sophisticated of a game, and at some point, I gave that away, unfortunately. It was a one-off copy, and I'll never play it again, but I do still play Scotland Yard.

Zach: Also at that time, there were Avalon Hill games around, they're war games. I was also inspired by these hexagonal boards with all this beautiful terrain on them. It was a similar thing about potential, the potential of this landscape, and this board. I was less interested in actually playing the wargames themselves in their specificity, and more interested in this open-ended possibility of the board, so I just started creating my own systems. I should say, though, that I didn't design games for about two decades after that. I had a period early on, and only in recent years am I now getting back to that. Otherwise, I would probably have a huge string of games made. It was an early obsession, and now a new obsession again.

Tell Me About Mehen

Patrick: That's great. I really want to talk about your game Mehen, because it's this ancient game from roughly 5,000 years ago. No one knows the exact rules. The question is, why did you decide to explore this game and flesh out the rules? Or I should say, take your best guess? Correct me if I'm wrong, but work on the rules and make them more impressive, and you hinted at it in your intro or in the lightning round section. Professionally, what do you do and why is this related? That's a giant question for you.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/pandoragames/mehen-ancient-egyptian-game-of-the-snake/

Zach: Great. I'm happy to take on a giant question. First of all, I'll address this question of how to pronounce this game, because it's a strange one. This being a podcast is the perfect medium for this. The game– In ancient Egyptian, there are no vowels as such or not vowels as we have them in English. Transliterated the game actually would be spelled “M-H-N.” You don't pronounce the “H,” It's more of a slight pause, so it's pronounced “Men” like the word “M-E-N.”

Zach: That's an interesting aside right there, that is difficult for most people because you don't usually hear it pronounced. Most people probably don't even see it written, because the game is a bit more obscure than Senet, which is the most famous Egyptian game.

Zach: But at some point in just looking at ancient games, I came across this board, and the Mehen board is so beautiful. It's this huge, round board. It's one of the only prolific– Let's say, widely-played ancient game that I know of that uses a round board.

Zach: More importantly than that, it's a spiral. This is exciting. This is rare, even in modern times as well as ancient times in board game design, that you'd have a spiral as your area of play. The idea that there was something here– It's very unlike other ancient games, for instance, which often are played on grids. Those are the most common games of that period, of 5,000 years ago.

Zach: The Sumerian games and the Egyptian games of that time are almost exclusively played on grids, so the idea that you would have this strange spiral intrigued me. The board is just beautiful. There are only about 15 copies that exist that archaeologists have found from that time period, but they're stunning to look at, and that was what attracted me to the game. I thought, “How do you play a game that's so radically different from the way we think of ancient games, especially at that time? How do you play a game that's not on a grid, that's on a spiral, that's a snake?”

Zach: It also seemed like it had a really interesting theme, and to tie that into the other part of your question, I'm a university professor of literature, media studies, and game studies at the University of Pittsburgh. As a kind of media, as a form of mediation, a way of mediating dynamics between people and of course historically, as a form of media that develops over time. Over thousands of years, actually.

Zach: I'm very interested in contemporary board games, contemporary video games, and older board games stretching back a long time. This game is an anomaly actually, in the history of board games for a number of reasons, and that anomaly attracted me. I thought, “There is a mystery to this game. People don't know exactly how it was played.”

Zach: So, you're right. It is in some ways taking a guess, but there is evidence as well. In terms of regarding how the game was played, the game shows up and is referenced a lot in literature and poems. In some of the surviving texts we have, it's mentioned as being played a lot. There are images of it on pottery, and there's a famous tomb painting, an actual painting that was well preserved with all of its color and everything in a tomb of the game.

Zach: Of course, we have a number of boards and some pieces that have been recovered archaeologically. There is a fair amount of evidence about the game itself, but no rules. There's no writing and no explanation of the rules of the game that have ever survived to modern times. The game isn't played, it was only played for about a thousand years from about 3000 BC to 2000 BC. So there is a break, and we don't know how it was played, and that mystery excited me, so that's how I came to it and indeed had to figure out how it could be played.

Patrick: I love that answer. I also find it funny that you say the game was only played for a thousand years. What percent of the games that are being made now are going to last for a thousand years?

Zach: Absolutely, yeah.

How Do You Revive Such an Old Game?

Patrick: I wanted to comment on the board. I was walking down the hall of Origins, and I saw this cool wooden snake board, and I walked over, and I was like “What is this awesome thing? Tell me about it.” That's how this whole thing got started. It is stunning, so I am definitely including photos in the show notes to show people. I am really curious, there's hints, there's rules, and things of how the game might have been made or might've been played, but can you go into detail? How do you revive a game that hasn't been played in 3,000 years? How do you put together the rules? Did you–? Some sub-questions are, did you come up with a whole bunch of possible rules, and then you play tested them, and then you're like “No, those can't be it?” Or did you–? What is the whole process of recreating rules from three thousand years ago?

Mehen Board at Origins
Playing Mehen at Origins

Zach: Right. Great question. There are scholars who exclusively focus on ancient games, and some of them have speculated, a number of them have speculated about how the game might be played based on the evidence. I did my scholarly research there, so I know what other people have, in the past, thought about how the game might be played.

Zach: The game isn't played now, so in some ways, these are academic guesses. Let's say that academics aren't always necessarily the same or have the same minds as game designers. I happen to be quite interested in both, but not everyone is. The rules that have been suggested are not necessarily very playable. That might be one reason that the game has not been successfully revived, whereas Senet has.

Zach: People do– It might not be super common, but people do play Senet, a contemporary game that was roughly as contemporary to this one in ancient Egypt. But I looked at those rules, and I said, “This is not fun. This would not be a fun game as people are suggesting how it would be played, and it's also not very necessarily imaginative how people were suggesting it would be played.”

Zach: In other words, they were extrapolating from other games like Senet, games that were more grid-based games. Grid-based race games, I'll say, where you're trying to race from point A to point B. I think this is a race game, was a race game, but I think a far more interesting one and a non-linear one. That's the only thing that makes sense to me, otherwise, it would be designed like other race games of the time.

Zach: That was my first clue and divergence, is to say, “I'm going to take my inspiration from the boards that exist.” I looked at the existing boards, the archeological examples of boards. There's no standardization in this game on the board, unlike, for instance, Senet or The Royal Game of Ur, which generally have the same number of squares and the same orientation with only small variations.

Zach: This game, they're wildly different. Each board is different, so that's a clue. I was looking for clues like that. How could each board be a little different? Some are huge and have hundreds of spaces, some are small and have less than 100 spaces, but they all have this spiral shape.

Zach: We also know a few other clues, which are that up to six people could play. We know that from examples, images, that there were up to six sets of pieces. It's the only ancient game– every other ancient game we know of is a two-player game, as far as we know. This one could play, who knows how many? Up to six. That was interesting. We know that the pieces, each person has six pieces from this beautiful painting that show six of each color.

Zach: These are sometimes by scholars called “Marbles,” because in early versions of the game, the oldest versions, they were indeed marbles. Later they were not necessarily marbles. In our version, they're not marbles because we're going with a late game design from the 2000 to 2500 BC era. Later in the game's history, that's the era that we're– The game went through an evolution. But anyway, what I did is I said “OK. Look, we have this board, it's a spiral, it works a certain way. It's about God.

Zach: Mehen is a God to the Egyptians, and it's a Snake God, and the Snake God is a protector of Ra. I assume everyone knows that Ra is the Sun God, the most powerful and important God to the ancient Egyptians. Ra, of course, is all-powerful during the day but at night Ra goes below the earth. The sun goes below the earth and into the nether world, and then will rise again the next day. Ra is vulnerable during that period of time, and Mehen is the God that protects Ra during the nighttime.

Zach: Mehen, as a giant snake, is often thought of as wrapping its coils around Ra, forming this protective barrier against all of the evil spirits and things that will assail Ra at night. So, this is interesting. This is a fantastic story, and this is a fantastic theme for a game. We know from the surviving examples that this played out in a really interesting geometry. The spiral geometry of the board, which represents the coiled snake, or Mehen, and you move from the tail to the head. The object is to reach the head. Then there's some disagreement whether or not you're meant to also then get back to the tail or not. In my version, you don't go back to the tail.

Zach: But this is what we know, we know the story of Mehen, what role this God played in Egyptian mythology and religion, and we also know how the game looks, and we know the pieces. With a wealth of evidence, I could say, “That still leaves a number of possibilities, in terms of how this could be played.” That's why it was a creative process at that point, and it becomes a game design exercise at that point. Say, “OK, these are my constraints.” I kept to these pretty heavy constraints, in terms of how the game I think really could have been played, but within those constraints I played around with different mechanics, different possibilities, to say “What would make this a fun game?” “How do I approach this as a game designer?”

Zach: I can't say with any authority “This is how it was played,” but neither can anyone else. No one knows how it was played. We only have the evidence we have. I'll say that one other interesting piece of evidence, that a few revivals of this game in the 90s, there was a museum book published by the British Museum that included this game in a cardboard fold-out version. Irving Finkel, great scholar there, recently more also a YouTube phenomenon for his explanation and play of The Royal Game of Ur. But his suggested rules for Mehen were boring, no offense to Dr. Finkel, but I don't think that's the best way to play the game.

Zach: What was interesting is, ignored by him and other people who have tried to create little versions of the game in the past is the fact that there are lions in this game. There are regular pawns, and there are lions, which you alluded to earlier in your question. The Lions, very interestingly, are not in the evidence we have color-coded like the pawns. It's not like you have a set of pawns and then you also have a lion or a set of lions, or something like that. The lions are a neutral color, and the pawns are color-coded to the different players. This is a key piece of evidence that mostly people ignore, if they try to figure out how to play the game because they say “That doesn't make sense to our modern sensibility” Truly, there are two types of pieces that have different moves on the board, and you use them strategically with each other.”

Zach: There are scholars who have correctly said, “That can't be the case because you wouldn't be able to keep track of which one is your lion. They would simply be color-coded if that were the case.” The lions have to play a different role in the game. A previous suggestion was that “Maybe the first player who gets all of their pawns to the center and then back again, changes them out for lions?” Because we know that there were six in a full set of this game. There were six sets of six pawns and one set of six lions. That's suggests maybe that the pawns swap out for lions at some point, but only one player would do that. Then you would have one player who becomes lions late in the game and devours the other players, but at that point, that player would have already won the game. From a game design standpoint, that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Zach: The game only gets exciting when the lions appear, and that only happens after one player has won and then people are just vying for second, third place, etc. That doesn't seem likely, or if that was how it was played, it certainly wouldn't be the most interesting version. That key piece of information led me to think on this problem. “How do you–? how does this work? No other game does this. How would this mechanic work?”

Zach: Finally, I hit upon this idea that the lions are in play during the game, not just in a later stage of the game, but the Lions can be controlled by anyone. Any player can move the lions. That seems to be a solution that both makes the game work and fits the existing evidence. That is indeed how it makes sense in terms of how these are color-coded, that perhaps the lions could be moved by any player. That also makes sense thematically in terms of the story I just told you.

Zach: This spiritual story of Mehen, the God, which is to say that lions were protectors of Ra, as well. Allied with Mehen, in that sense. Lions were thought of as the warriors of Ra. It would make sense if perhaps pawns, which would represent people, regular people or humans, at some point become lions as they achieve a union with Ra or with Mehen and thus through Mehen with Ra.

Zach: In this game, we call it “Enlightenment,” it is a bit of an anachronistic term, but “Enlightenment” in this sense means “Union with Ra, the God of light and the sun.” It makes sense literally. In my version, pawns can, at some point, become lions when they achieve enlightenment, which means reaching Mehen, the center of the spiral. Once they become transformed into lions, anyone can move those lions and lions become hazards to all of the other pawns trying to reach the center.

Zach: The lions move in the exact opposite direction of the pawns. The pawns are moving along this spiral toward the center, and lions are moving from the center on a spiral outward and devouring, trying to land on and devour the pawns. When you combine these together with a couple of other mechanics that allow a lion to come out early so that they don't come up too late in the game, it becomes an incredibly fun game. That was the big eureka moment for me in playtesting, was “Oh my God, this works.” The game suddenly becomes far more than just a roll and move with a little bit of strategy, in terms of which piece you move at a time. Suddenly it becomes this cat and mouse game where you're trying to race to the center, but the center is dangerous.

Zach: Anyone can be moving these lions out, killing the pawns, eating the pawns. At that point, you have to create certain formations, move very strategically, and think about whether you're moving lions or pawns. There's an offensive strategy or defensive strategy. All of a sudden, there are many different strategies. We don't think of race games as often having allowing for that complex strategy, and this is exactly what emerges in this gameplay. We hit upon what is now my favorite ancient game, and it is incredibly fun to play. I'll be honest and say that when I started this process, I didn't know how fun it would be to play. I wanted to make it as fun as possible, but my goal was to revive this game. When it turned out to be an incredible blast to play, that was a surprise to me and a great delight.

Patrick: Yeah. This is such a great story. I didn't play the whole game, I think I maybe sat down for a half-hour because I had to go to a different event, but I got to play for a half-hour. The lions came out early, and it was such a fun– Like, “I want to get closer to the center, but if we get too close then my opponents can move the lion and eat my pawn.”

Patrick: It was this really fun– I forgot what I did, there's certain rolls– I should say not rolls, they're throwing sticks, but certain combinations of throwing sticks where you can jump into an inner ring of the spiral. That was how I was trying to avoid the lions. Oh my gosh, that was definitely really fun. I love your thought process on– There's six groups of six pawns or whatever, and each group of six has their own unique color.

Patrick: The lions are their own color, or a separate color, a neutral color. Clearly, it's not like chess where there's one special piece. That's pretty obvious when you look at it in hindsight, or when I've played a game, and I go, “Of course not.” I wonder if other academics or other professors didn't playtest the game? Or didn't sit down with the pieces and try to make the game work, because I feel like if they did, they might have discovered “We can't tell whose lion is whose, so that's probably not how that works.”

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: I love that very simple deductive reasoning. That's really cool. I normally ask a question near the end called “What does success looks like to you?” But I want to move this question up to the beginning and change it a little bit. What is your goal with the Kickstarter? The reason I'm asking this is– I'm not saying monetary goal, not what is your target goal, but why are you running a Kickstarter campaign? Because I think many people do it because they love games, they want to get their game out into the world, or they want to make lots of money, or they want to become a full-time game designer. What is your goal as a Kickstarter? Because I feel like you might have a different take on this than other game designers and publishers.

Zach: Great. Yeah, that's definitely true. It's partly because I am a professor and I have an academic interest in these things. My goal with this particular game is really to revive it. It's a game that no one plays, that hasn't been played really in thousands of years. I think it's an amazing game, whether you play with my set of rules or whether you invent a different one, or try to play with other speculated sets of rules. Which I don't think would be very much fun, but you could do it.

My goal with this particular game is really to revive it.

Zach: The game is incredible. Visually, it was an amazing game. It would take artisans– Clearly, the few boards we have in existence from that time. It's just this gorgeous work. Artisans would have to carve out of stone. Probably most of them were carved out of wood, that's the medium we chose. Those didn't survive because wood only survives so many thousands of years before it rots away, whereas the stone ones were the ones, of course, that did survive for thousands of years. They're incredible, and they look amazing, I've seen at least one in-person in a museum.

Zach: In some ways, it's a crying shame that this game isn't played. My greatest goal is to get people to learn about this game. Even if they learn about it, that would be some satisfaction for me. This is a forgotten game, I would love for people to see it and I would love people to play it.

Zach: That said, we're making a high-end version of the game. I mean, it has to be said that this is not a cardboard, mass-market version. I don't think the game would appeal to the mass-market anyway. I thought that if we want to reintroduce this game, a game that is so stunning visually, a game that is so interesting and unique visually, and such an artisanal game– For instance, many other games like Senet, there were fancy boards that artisans would create in ancient Egypt for rich people.

Zach: There were also soldiers or common folks who would scratch it into a stone, and you could scratch the rectangle with some lines to create squares. You can use rocks an just scratch it on to the street, or scratch it onto a monument which was often done, which we are horrified by now but it was common practice. Or draw it in dirt, anybody can do it and play it.

Zach: Mehen is a bit different. You could do that, but it'd be far more difficult to scratch spirals into a stone. In some ways, this was a higher end game, a more artisanal game. A game that was a challenge for artisans at that time to carve and make a beautiful set out of. It was important for me to capture that element of the game. There's the gameplay element, and there's the historic element, there is the thematic element.

Zach: All those are also really important, but the aesthetic element was also key for me. My attempt with the Kickstarter was to do something– I teamed up with an artist, Jeremy Boyle, who is capable of realizing this goal. My goal here was to create a version of the game that did justice to all of those different aspects of this ancient game — released it in its proper way.

Zach: Maybe in the future, we could do another less expensive version or something with different methods, but this is a three-dimensional carved board out of wood that does justice, I think, to the original game. It was really important for me. That really can only be a Kickstarter thing, and I wanted to get– Kickstarter helps get the word out to a lot of people. Get the word out to a lot of people even who maybe can't afford it, or can't pay $150 for a game, but they'll learn about it, and they could make their own version.

Zach: I want to get the word out there. Then I also want that first experience people have of the game, whether it's just seeing it online or getting a copy, to be one of craftsmanship that recreates the game and all of its artisanal richness. That's why we use these methods. It's not going through a factory, and we're producing it all ourselves in a studio, not cutting any corners at all. It's all hardwood. There's no veneer, no fake stuff, no particle board and there's no laser etching. It's all cut into the wood. That's how the game was made in ancient Egypt, so we wanted to make sure that people experience it that way.

What is the Audience for Mehen?

Patrick: I love it. Now I have to ask, and I love talking about marketing. I do that as part of my day job. Who do you imagine is going to buy this? Is this history buffs? Is this Egypt buffs? Is this people who like ancient game buffs? Is this, maybe not like your average gamer, but the gamers who are more collectors and they want to have all the cool games? Or, some other group of people? Who are you targeting with this campaign? Who do you think is going to buy this?

Zach: Egyptologists. Scholars of ancient Egypt. I figure there are about 15 of them out there who would be interested in the game, and that's our audience. No, I hope that they are interested, but I also hope that there are other people interested as well.

Zach: But History buffs, anyone interested in ancient games. For me, anyone interested in games as an artisanal experience, for instance, I think will be interested in this. Because I think the game is fun enough to play that no one will be disappointed, anyone who is interested in it as an artisanal thing would not turn it down because “It's not an interesting game. It just looks good.” It looks good, and it's a great game, so I think anyone interested in that. That's a kind of split.

Zach: We're used to board games costing $50 and maybe sometimes you can get someone to pay $100 or $150 for Gloomhaven or something that has lots of miniatures or whatever in it, but this is a little bit different in the sense that we're asking people, because we're not trying to make money, I'll say that right now. It costs us a lot to make these, and our margin is very thin, but our methods are high end, so the games are going to be more expensive.

Zach: Anyway, I think that this is a game, for instance, that I think any family would love playing. Anyone who can afford and wants a beautiful table piece game that is also great to play, I would love to see normal, just average people, casual, board gamers play this. It's great family game because you can play– Unlike most ancient games, you can play with four players easily. In fact, the game gets spiced up and is more fun, the more players you add, up to six. Anyway, I do hope to reach some normal people who have the budget for and are interested in a game that– Or let's say a table piece. If you're not playing this game, you could put it on your coffee table, and it would be an amazing coffee table piece. I'll tell you one other thing that you probably don't know is that we are cutting a keyhole into the backside of the board, so it can be hung on a wall.

I'll tell you one other thing that you probably don't know is that we are cutting a keyhole into the backside of the board, so it can be hung on a wall.

Patrick: Oh, that's cool.

Zach: It actually can be hung up as a piece of art. I think that as a piece of art, it's very inexpensive compared to what people normally pay for high end, hardwood, handcrafted wooden art. It fits in between, as a marketing standpoint, it's everybody's marketing nightmare because it fits in between existing categories. It's partly for gamers who have an interest or a budget for that high-end stuff, it's partly for people who are interested in high-end wooden art, but have an interest in games and it's partly for people who are passionate or excited about the history of games or ancient games, or etc.. Somewhere in between all of those. We don't reach a million people, and we don't have to reach that many people for it to be a success. I want a lot of people to see it and learn about it.

What Resources Would You Recommend?

Patrick: Very cool. In your game design journey, you must have come across some resources. Do you have any resources that you'd recommend to another indie game designer? A blog, a podcast– Not this one. A blog, a podcast, a book. Something like that?

Zach: Yes. I'll tell you that I'm a little skeptic– Personally, not to say it's not useful for some people, but I'm a little skeptical of the game design literature and books and stuff out there. I think that in some ways, game design is something that there aren't really that many secrets to it. You can't learn it.

Zach: As a professor, I teach games. I teach board games, even. I can't teach someone how to design a game. In my classes, sometimes we do have game design assignments, but I can't teach someone secrets to design a game. I don't think really anyone else can either. I will say that I think the greatest resources for game designers, especially game designers just starting out or thinking about why they might want to design a game or what's possible, is actually to play games.

Zach: Not to play the most popular games, but of course, you should do that too, and those are great. But it's exciting to think about “What are experiments people have done in game design, and does that spark something?” A very simple resource I would recommend is Sid Sackson's book called A Gamut of Games. Sid Sackson was a great game designer and designed Can't Stop. I mentioned another Sid Sackson game earlier, I can't remember now, but he produced a book in 1969 called A Gamut of Games. They're mostly abstract games, but they're games he designed himself, or they're games that he in his journey meeting game designers would meet them and learn about their games and their games and thereby by monks who had designed a game and Sid Sackson learned about the game and put it in the book, all kinds of things like that.

Zach: What's exciting about this is these are fairly abstract games. This is, of course, before the modern era of board games and certainly before euro games and etc. So it's somewhat different, but that's why it's exciting. You look back and say, “Here's somebody who's just thought about games his entire life, put together all of these games.” There's I don't know how many, but there are score dozens and dozens and dozens of games in there, most of which can be played with a pen and paper, or you make checkers pieces or a checker board and some pieces, or you make some pieces or play a deck of cards.

Zach: That, to me, is a playground for game designers. You look, and they say, “What can be done with very little?” That's where a game designer should start. “How much complexity can you create from something very simple? Instead of buying billions of little pieces and starting to create complex systems, how cow can you create a simple system that ends in or produces complex interactions?” That's my number one example. [Inaudible] copy of a Gamut of Games.

What's Worth the Money?

Patrick: Awesome. I will link to that in the show notes. I'm looking over at the Wikipedia page on it right now, and there's a lot of cool-looking games. Just in the description, there's a lot of cool-looking games in there. So, I'll definitely link to that. Is there something that's worth spending money on besides maybe that book? Is there something in the game design world that–? Because I'm a frugal person, so I try– If at all possible, I don't spend money. But is there something that you're like, “If you have this thing, this opportunity, this challenge– Definitely spend money on this? It's worth it?”

Zach: In my experience, there's almost– You don't need to spend any money at all. In fact, as soon as you're spending money on something, it's probably precious to you, and you're taking it too seriously or relying on it too heavily. So besides a good computer and you don't even have to spend money on software. Get Inkscape and design anything with Inkscape or Gimp or Photoshop if you get it. But honestly, I don't think you have to spend money on anything. You can go outside and scratch a game board into the dirt. As I mentioned that many of the ancient Egyptians did when they were passing time, and that's a great place to find inspiration. So, that's my answer there. You don't need to spend any money at all.

Overrated / Underrated Game

Patrick: Love it. So then the last thing I like to do is this silly little game called Overrated/Underrated, where basically I'm going to give you a word or phrase and then I'm going to ask you if you think it is overrated or underrated. If I said “The Women's World Cup soccer team,” you would say “Underrated. They are the best soccer team of all time.” Something like that. Got it?

Zach: Got it

Patrick: All right. The first one is throwing sticks. Are they overrated or underrated?

Zach: Definitely, underrated. Throwing sticks are amazing, and even in ancient times they coexisted with dice, and dice won out over time because they're simpler in some ways, but throwing sticks are definitely underrated. They seem like maybe they're too fiddly or complex of dice, but they are not. The probability distribution of throwing sticks is radically different than dice, so you might only have the same number of possible outcomes. For instance, if you have four throwing sticks but the probability distribution is non-linear, you have certain combinations that are really common and certain combinations that are radically uncommon, and that makes for really exciting– As a game designer playing and working with men, for instance. That's exciting because all of a sudden you can think about probability, whereas at dice are the same probability for each number that comes up. So, definitely underrated.

Patrick: Great answer. Love it. What about just snakes in general, overrated or underrated?

Zach: I have to admit that I find snakes– I've had some encounters with snakes in the wilderness in my life, rattlesnakes in particular, that make them a little terrifying to me, I have to admit. However, I think there's– I do think that they are underrated because most people are terrified of snakes and snakes are interesting. The way that snakes interact with other snakes is to coil around them, like when they're mating, for instance. That's really weird and exciting. It's a different way of being when the possibility of a snake, the idea of the coil, the line, the curve– It's a different way of being. I think that we could pay more attention to that.

Patrick: How about Origins, as in the convention where we almost met, but I met one of your associates who showed me the game? Is that overrated or underrated?

Zach: I don't want to make any enemies here, and I don't– I like Origins, so it's nothing against Origins. But I would say Origins, like all conventions, in my opinion, is a little overrated. But that's really to say that conventions are a bit overrated, because in some ways they– They're fun, they're great. You get to see new games. But they're also a very commercial outlet, and I know that's not– They're not only commercial, but it's really– They're commercial enterprises, and they're big advertisement. In that sense, I don't think we– I don't think they're as necessary to board gaming culture as maybe the role that they often seem to have. So, that's what I think.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Got it. Zack, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you online?

Zach: The best place is probably to go to our website, which is Pandora-Games.com. There's contact information there, that's the best play way to get a hold of me and learn more about this game or anything else we're doing.

Patrick: Listeners, this episode should be coming out when their game is on Kickstarter. It might have been out like a week, or so, we'll get the exact timing down, but this episode should launch when the game is on Kickstarter. So, you can also look for Mehen on Kickstarter and– Any other tips on how to find it? I think just that the title should be fine, right?

Zach: Yeah, I think it'll be very clear. It's the only spiral snake board game on Kickstarter.

Patrick: There we go. Love it. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave your review, Zach said he would throw some throwing six at you. So, that sounds fantastic. You can find the site IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter, I am @BFTrick. That's all, everyone. Have a good one and happy designing, bye-bye.

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