We like to support projects and friends in the industry when we can. The following is a conversation between publisher Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games and Ryan Cowler, designer of JurassAttack! (now on Kickstarter). Read on to get an inside look on the gentlemen making this game possible.
I’m curious about your design process. How does a new game start for you? And specially where did the idea for JurassAttack! come from and when did you know you had something special, what kept you going?
Welp, generally speaking, I alternate pretty steadily between starting design from a theme and starting from a certain goal or mechanic. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that there’s a “better” or “right” way to start a design, so for me it’s literally which mechanics/restrictions/themes I think of that resonate with me personally, and then I use that as the launching pad and I see where that idea takes me. Though lately I’ve been liking giving myself very strict component restrictions, then trying to figure out a theme or mechanic around that. For instance: JurassAttack for me started with my general dislike for trick-taking games. I was getting ready to take a shower one day (I don’t know about you, but I find showers and the minutes leading up to when I fall asleep to be some of the best times to brainstorm ideas or think things out, haha) and thought it might be a good challenge for me to make a trick-taking game that I would actually play and enjoy. That was it, the resonating thought.
During the course of that shower, I tried to think of a theme that fits some kind of trick-taking aspect, but that I could play around with. The very first thing that came into my mind was “Food chain”. So I thought about that, it made sense to me. You have trumps in trick-taking games, and those would fit the “top of the food chain” area, then everything else comes in below that. I thought at first of doing an animal food chain, but quickly dismissed it because that theme just didn’t resonate with me. The next thought was Dinosaurs! My wife and I love dino-anything, and that theme instantly stuck with me and resonated, so I explored it. Everything fell into place after that, all during the course of the shower. I knew that the Spinosaurus would be the apex trump card, and then I just started to think of dinos that would promote interesting powers or abilities that could change the way the cards interacted with each other. I thought of the draw mechanic where only the loser draws as a way of “self balancing” the game. Something like that meant that no one could have the perfect game or go on too long of a winning streak, it would also inherently bring in a hand management component and the idea of losing on purpose, so I fell in love with the idea and knew that would be one of the driving mechanics. I also came to the realization that the cards HAD to the tarot-sized…..because dinosaurs! I love psychological interaction in games, so the eggs were my way of upping the bluffing factor that’s dusted into the game. And all the other powers just kinda wrote themselves.
After I got out of the shower, I got some blank poker cards and wrote up the first prototype in 10 mins with a sharpie, haha. I recently found that first prototype deck and posted pics of it on twitter. You’ll see from that prototype that the game is pretty much 90% the same. The Sarcosuchus’s ability was the last power I came up with, because I intentionally left one card without an ability so I could fill it in with an ability that I felt was lacking from the game after I tested it a couple times. The very next day I took it to a monthly designer meet-up I do with Chris Handy (and occasionally Ben Haskett) and tested it with him, and he really dug it and said what I had was solid. So that was really all the motivation I needed to move forward head first into finishing the design, as I hold Chris’s opinion in such high regards, he doesn’t sugar coat anything.
About a month later, Shaz had all the art done and it was pretty much how you see it today 🙂
In the end, though, I think I pretty much spectacularly failed at my goal of making a trick-taking game, because there’s just so much going on and strategy to JA that I don’t think it even qualifies as that anymore, haha. I loved that it’s ended up the way it has though, the journey was worth it, so I guess in a sense I didn’t *truly* fail.
What about you? Like for Dead Drop, what was the catalyst there? Did you just “stumble” into the design like I kinda did with JA?
Sort of! My wife and I were just watching all of Alias on Netflix so I thought the idea of racing for a piece of hidden information, like spies are known to do, would make for a fun game. I was always blown away by the idea of super small games like Love Letter at the time. So I started there and grabbed some cards to play around with until it felt right. For that game, I was all about exploring the theme and then I came up with a simple additional mechanic that felt fresh and added an extra layer on top or simple deduction. Not only did you have to find out what number what hidden, you also had to get a hold of the right cards to grab it. So basically, my process was television inspiration and ham-fisted hammering until I had a game.
What are some specific games that you love that aren’t just fun to play, but have influenced you as a designer? At least 3 or 4!
Oh man, Betrayal at House on the Hill REALLY influenced me right off the bat in that it showed me how great of an “experience” a tabletop game can be. I mean I can play that friggin’ game every day and not tire of it. It’s definitely not perfect and sometimes you get that build up to the traitor, only to be stuck in a position where it’s an insta-win for either the traitor or heroes, but I still love that game. In my designs, I’m always looking for that immersion of theme in my designs, the way that game brings everyone together and it’s very light and fun until stuff gets real and the traitor event happens. I love that duality!
BraveRats is another game that really struck a chord with me. I love that every card interacts with another card or affects the next round in some way. I love that each player starts with all of the cards in their hands, no drawing to randomize things. It’s what I like to refer as “chess balance”, which I love. I love when players start off with the exact same symmetry, and it’s simply up to the player’s skill as to how to best play and react to the opponent. It’s “fair”. There’s no lucky draw or advantage in BraveRats and Chess….the only advantage is being better at the game than your opponent, and even then it’s moreso your ability to READ your opponent’s actions and getting inside their head rather than you “knowing” more than your opponent. BraveRats did that, but in a bite sized package, and I dig that. It’s quick, so even a defeat isn’t that worrisome, you just pick up the cards and try again. It also really opened my eyes to how awesome smaller, filler game can be. BraveRats really influences all my current designs by thinking about how I can elegantly make a cards react and play off of one another, how to create a tiny ecosystem of powers and abilities that interact with one another in interesting ways. BraveRats I’m sure has influenced more of my designs than I’m even aware of, haha!
Citadels is also an amazing game to me. It’s another game I can play everyday and never tire of it. I love the light social deduction aspect of it, I love how the way you play the game HAS to change the more you play it with a group. Like in Dominion, for instance, you can pretty much have your set strategy each game, and there’s really nothing your opponents can do to hamper that, short of curses, so after a while the only way that it can have true replay value is by just adding new cards. To me, that’s flawed, just my personal opinion. But in Citadels, if you keep going for the same 2-3 roles and everyone catches onto it, you’re going to get punished heavily by the assassin and other players hate-drafting the role they know you want. So over time, you have to adapt and zig when everyone else expects you to zag. I loooove that, it make the game “living” in a sense, because the social aspect of the game goes beyond just the cards and becomes something that you have to “adapt or die”, so to speak. I also dig that even the less “useful” roles in Citadels still have great strategic leverage if you can play them right. It greatly influences my designs because I strive for games that have that “living” strategy to them, where the replayability of it is much more than just “get new cards”, but hits more on a socially interactive level and gets the table talking to one another.
Okay, your turn! Given your love for the lighter filler games, I’m interested to know what kind of games inspire you and get your designs to tick!
Oh, man! I just like really clean, simple ideas that feel like I have choices to make. Stuff that is fun and reveals some depth over multiple plays is really fun. 6 Nimmt! by Wolfgang Kramer rocked me the first time I played it. Just numbers on cards but a fun experience that really clicked regarding a simple, engaging design.
Lately, I’ve been really digging a little betting game from Superlude called Kobayakawa. It’s numbers 1-15 and some chips. 2 choices, flip a card face up from the deck or draw a new card and choose to keep it or the card you already have! The player with the highest card wins but the player with the lowest card gets to add the face up card in the middle to their total. So much fun crammed into that little game. It really makes me want to explore that teeny tiny game space again.
Outside of the game space, can you point to life experience or interest that have also helped you as a designer?
Hmmmm…..that’s a tough one….Well, my pro-wrestling background has definitely influenced things at least a little bit, on a couple levels. First off, there’s an old saying in wrestling of “Work smarter, not harder!”, and I feel that simple mantra can permeate into a lot of different facets of life. In design, this translates into knowing when to move on, for me. If I have a mechanic or circumstance in my design that’s giving me trouble and I just take a step back and say to myself, “am I working harder on this than I need to be? Is there an easier, more direct approach?”. Usually this leads to me taking something out of the game because it overcomplicates something else, just keep it simple….work smarter, not harder. The second thing I learned from pro-wrestling that I think translates is “knowing the room”. In pro-wrestling, you often will (or SHOULD) adapt your style in-ring to the audience around you. There’s always a different way to think and interact with the audience depending on their age, city, country, etc.. Pro-wrestling is incredibly adaptive in that sense, you have to know your demographic, so to speak. I would wrestle a completely different style if I’m doing a show here in NorCal as opposed to performing in Memphis, for instance. In design, this viewpoint is always something I keep in mind early on of “who IS my audience for this game?”. Keeping that audience in mind will then factor into almost every single decision after that. It determines how much information each card can have, how many components I limit myself to, what kind of verbiage I use on cards….or should I use verbiage at all? Will the target audience think mechanic X will be fun, or will they find it frustrating at points? Will the target audience appreciate all the choices I’m giving them, or are there too many choices, or a choice in particular that they won’t connect with? All this stuff comes into play.
Just like in pro-wrestling, games, movies or any type of entertainment, enjoyment and fun are very much subjective. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, so to speak. So I always know full-well that each game isn’t going to be enjoyable or liked by everyone, but focusing the experience for a particular audience or range of audience will at least make the experience hopefully a little more enjoyable for that target. I might not be able to make everyone happy all the time, but at least I can focus on *this* type of person and really bring a smile to their face.
Speaking of which, did you punk rock background and interest influence your thought process? The punk community is a very DIY type of community, so has that kind of mentality been one of the driving factors that made you want to start Green Couch Games?
Totally! I used to want to run a record label. I learned in my punk rock days that I loved putting projects together: writing songs, recording, booking shows, working with folks to design merchandise. Running a game publishing company, and creating games, is a very similar experience. That “come up with ideas and share them however you can” punk mentality is totally present in the grassroots, gaming scene. I am just home more on weekends now!
With every new game/project there is always something to learn. What is something you learned with our experience so far?
Right off the bat, the first thing that comes to mind is simplifying card verbiage. When you first took a look at JA, the Discard Pile was called the “Exhausted Pile”, the Score Pile was called the “Dominance Pile”, and the Draw Deck was referred to as the “Prey Deck”. When you brought up just changing how those piles were referred to being direct and simple, it really hit home for me, for whatever reason. You were totally right! Why SHOULDN’T they just be called what they are? Haha! I was so wrapped up in making everything in the game thematic, that I ended up calling the piles stuff that would just complicate things….I WAS WORKING HARDER, NOT SMARTER!!! Switching the terms back to what they actually are, a Discard, a Score and Draw pile, there’s one less game-specific term the players had to learn, which makes the game just that much more accessible. I’m usually so wrapped up in making all card verbiage and terms so thematic, that I forget to take a step back and realise that it’s “Okay” to refer to a card as a “card”, and a discard pile as a discard pile, there’s no need to drip EVERYTHING in the game with theme. Immediately after you had me do that, I went back to my other nearly completed designs and simplified all their verbiage as well 🙂
Oh, and this whole Kickstarter process is fascinating to me! I love learning new things, and all the KS stuff and preparation is really eye-opening! All the numbers and math involved: it just confirmed my assumption that I could never have run my own KS campaign and NOT lost money by the end, haha!
Thanks for chatting with me, dude! This has been fun. Really excited to get to work with you on the JurassAttack! project. I hope others see the cool stuff that I saw in the game.
Thanks again for reading and remember to check out JurassAttack! on Kickstarter!