Game Designer and Developer, President and Founder of IronWall Games
Conducted by Caitlin Dichter on March 3, 2016 at IronWall Games, West Longmeadow, Massachusetts
Interview duration: 1 hour and 53 minutes. Transcript length: 27 pages.
Caitlin Dichter (CD): It was fine. Thank you for taking time to meet with me.
RD: How did you come across my name?
CD: I was doing research for my qualifying paper on Risk and saw a blog post that listed your name as a designer of the later games. I had trouble identifying the designers for the different editions of Risk other than the original, Lamorisse, because they aren’t printed on the box or anything. Which is interesting because I know plenty of gamers who specifically say “I love so-and-so game,” and they will follow a specific artist or designer because they can tell even if it’s not publicly known or highlighted on the game, they can research it and figure it out.
RD: The smaller games the hobby market games, the European games, I like to think of it as an author culture. In Germany, it actually translates as “authors,” rather than designer. And it’s kind of like being a book author. Which is like, you are not a big deal unless you are like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but you are name they use to sell things because “you like this person’s work, here is another work from them.”
CD: The game mechanics, the artistry—
RD: Just the way they approach it. The bigger companies in the US, like Hasbro and Mattel, they are much more like session musician mindset, which is to put the focus on the product at the end, and a lot of people have their hands in it, so it’s not just one person’s vision, it’s a team.
CD: It is just interesting in thinking of games in terms of objects as something you experience, and not giving recognition to the person who made it.
RD: Yeah, and I can see their point. For example when I was at Hasbro, if I redid a Risk game, Risk was originally invented in 1959. It’s been around with slight tweaks; there was a difference between the European version and the US version. So if I’m asked to refresh it which I did three times when I was at Hasbro, the base game. Someone would ask me if I could refresh it, maybe make it a little faster. So they asked me to do it, so I would work to integrate ideas that already existed, like the strategy cards, and run them by my boss, and we play-tested with other designers, and they would add ideas. So at the end of the day, who designed that?
CD: So it is like a movie production.
RD: When it is a brand-new game, like Pandemic, Matt [Leacock] did that, he play-tested it, he finished it, and then he sold it to a company. It’s his final vision. I’m sure people along the way gavehim ideas to make it better, but he decided whether to put them in or take them out, just like an author decides when people give notes on a book. When you get to big companies with brands that have been around for a long time, it’s really hard to figure out who added what.
CD: And then, even in terms of play-testing, do you give that credit or do you not? For your book, you would thank your editor and people who helped you. And maybe they have given you brilliant ideas that you didn’t think of, but how do you do that for a game?
RD: You can. In the rules people say thank you to play-testers or "additional design by" or "developed by." I like to, as a designer, give credit, as much as I can, to people who helped along the way. I always feel bad if I thank five people and the sixth person who gave me ideas wasn’t listed because it was two years ago and I forgot. That is the danger of naming people, that you will miss one. So, what games do you play?
CD: So I play Magic: The Gathering, Pandemic I play a lot with my husband.
RD: It’s a good couples game.
CD: We bought it for our honeymoon—we got that and Carcassonne—except that we read the rules wrong, and we thought you had to completely eradicate the entire board. So we spent the honeymoon trying to figure out how to rework the game. It seemed like a broken game that couldn’t be beat, so how do we change it without making it too easy, less cards or more cards. And we finally figured out a perfect balance to eradicate everything before you ran out of cards.
RD: So when did you find out you had been playing it wrong?
CD: Around three to four years later. We played it many, many times, and we would play it with friends, and we would tell them, “Just so you know, we are not going to win, but just have fun playing.”
RD: So how did you find out? Did someone tell you? “That’s not how you play—"
CD: We were playing with other friends, and they had said “Oh we won,” and my husband and I were like, “no we didn’t.” They said that we had won, we had cured all the diseases. We said that there were still pieces on the board. They clarified that we didn’t have to clear all the pieces on the board, we only had to develop all the cures. It turns out we had been playing wrong for like four years—
RD: You were playing at a super-advanced level. [both laugh.] I had nothing to do with Pandemic.
CD: So Magic, Pandemic, Dominion, and Citadels. He is more into the Penny-Arcade card game. I guess we do a lot more of the card-based games. It’s easier to play with just two people.
RD: And it probably fits better in a small apartment. I can’t fit my games in a house. It's not a huge house, but it should be able to fit stuff. [both laugh.]
CD: I know my husband grew up playing a lot more Risk than I did. I played it a bunch in college; we went to Brandeis, which is a small school with not a lot of nightlife, so we would stay in with about eight people and play Risk.
RD: Did you like Brandeis? I’m only asking because my daughter is trying to figure out what colleges to apply to.
CD: Yeah, it was a really great school.
RD: Is it hard to get into Boston without a car?
CD: No, there is the commuter rail, and there is a stop at Brandeis. And it took maybe ten minutes to get into the city. It was very easy. We didn’t go in every weekend but we probably went once a month. And some people went all the time. Can you tell me some of your early experiences with board games?
Robert Daviau with his personal collection of board games, IronWall Games, Longmeadow, Massachusetts, 2016. Photo: Caitlin Dichter.
CD: Any authors in particular?
RD: Let’s see. Early to mid-eighties would be Raymond Feist, Piers Anthony, a lot of the classic older pulp stuff like Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia was in there, and other forgettable books I couldn’t even tell you now, just forgettable, disposable Tolkien-esque fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy. As I got a little older, the Dragonlance books came out when I was in high school. I read those for a little while, but was starting to become high school and, at least on the outside, too cool for a lot of these books. I read a lot of classic Isaac Asimov science fiction, and more fantasy than science fiction, in some ways. But I would pick up things here and there. I remember there was a summer reading assignment between sophomore and junior years in high school, where if you read five books and could tell the librarian that you had read five books, then you would get some advantage for your English grade. I wrote down every book I had read, and then a little sentence about what I had liked about it. When I put it down over the summer, I had read forty books, which is like one every other day, hundreds of pages. I put it down in front of him and said “any questions?” He’s like “no, no, no. You’re fine.” I kind of have this whole background of interactive fiction, like those old Zork games; I played a lot of those. Puzzler games, role-playing on the Commodore 64, Ultima 3, Ultima 4. Just this whole cross section of narrative and storytelling in gaming. And board games were a part of it, but they weren’t even necessarily the largest.
CD: When did you realize that you wanted to work on board games professionally?
RD: That’s a funny story. It was when I was interviewing for a board game design position at Hasbro that I didn’t know I was going to be interviewing for. I had been in advertising in my twenties as a copywriter, and I was twenty-eight, and I wrote an article for Dragon magazine. I had fun in advertising in Philadelphia working in some creative boutique, and then moved back to Boston, where I had gone to college, but was having trouble finding the good, or fun, ad agencies. I realized that I didn’t really care enough to make my portfolio better, but I wrote an article for Dragon magazine, which was the Dungeons and Dragons monthly magazine. It got accepted, and then it got printed. Somewhere around here is still my first check I got as a game designer, or a copy of it, for $122. It was more exciting to me than any ad or ad award or commercial that I had done. I didn’t like the ad agency I was at, so I quit and went freelance, and then Fridays I will write role-playing stuff. I didn’t expect to make money on that. It was articles, or adventures. I knew there wasn’t a lot of money, but if you were passionate, and I thought I had a shot at making interesting things, I could make just $1,000 a year, and be really happy with that. Around that time, almost by chance, I found a classified ad in the Boston Globe, that Hasbro, which owned Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, was hiring copywriters up in Beverly [Massachusetts], on the North Shore of Boston. I was living in Arlington [Massachusetts] at the time. I didn’t want to be a copywriter full time because it seemed like a lot of box-bottom copy and sales copy, and ad copy, but it's what I did, and I thought, “let me get in and try to move to design.” So I wrote a passionate cover letter talking about how much I love games, and what I didn’t know, and I’m still very thankful for the woman who did this, she was running the copywrite department and thought “this guy sounds like he wants to be a game designer.” I took my resume and cover letter, and they were hiring like crazy because they had just done a move, and they had dozens and dozens of positions to fill from the people who didn’t move.
CD: What year was this in?
RD: 1998. She brought him my resume and said “Oh, you’re looking for a designer who is also a writer, I believe.” I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to be a copywriter who lived in the design department, or a designer with copy-write experience. It was a little vague. They wanted someone to work on what Hasbro called "card-ware," which was Taboo, and Trivial Pursuit, anything where you have a box of cards, or a lot of writing. He got my resume and cover letter and said they were hiring like crazy, so went back to the company that was doing all these fillings and said “let’s bring this guy in for this design position.” I got a call around six weeks after I sent it in, saying, “Hey, we want to interview you” but they didn’t tell me it was for a different position. I’m thinking “Oh great, I’ll talk to them and maybe get a copywriting position and learn more about it, or just freelance.” I went in and started interviewing with all these people, and literally as I am interviewing I realized that they are interviewing me to design games. I’m thinking, “That sounds awesome. I’d love to do that. Let me do the best interview of my life.” And it turned out Star Wars Episode I was coming out the next year, so they were doing a lot with Star Wars, and I knew Star Wars inside-out. And in Trivial Pursuit they were doing an NFL [National Football League] version, and I’m a big football fan, so I knew that. And I could write. And there were two games I named in my interview, Dragonmaster and Pathfinder. That’s a childhood classic. The guy I was interviewing with had worked on both with Milton Bradley fifteen to twenty years earlier. And he had worked on Dungeons and Dragons first edition, and we just hit it off. That’s how I ended up getting the job. This was before there was any internet research. Now in 2016 you could probably come in with all these answers at your fingertips and look spontaneous. It was just kismet, luck, serendipity. But I did have to earn the job, once I got it. They were honestly like “well we don’t know if you are going to sit upstairs to the copywriting department, or downstairs in the design department.” I was sort of spending the first six months shifting my job over to game designer who specialized in writing, but my title was Writer/Designer, rather than Game Designer for the first three years there, until they switched me over and just kept me in Design. I learned on the job real fast. I guess I had an aptitude for it. I did a good interview, and then if I didn’t know what I was doing, I would have been out. I was sort of primed to do it, but I hadn’t been planning on board game design, but role-play design. My wife was away for the weekend, and it was just this pouring rainy day, and newspapers were still a thing, so I had the Boston [Sunday] Globe, and I just looked through the back, looking for a new job, and that was it.
CD: Was your early work part of a team, solo, or did it depend on the project?
RD: You are always part of a team at Hasbro. But there is usually like one designer, an engineer, and a marketing person, and a copywriter, a project manager. And it’s a bureaucracy, so there are layers and checkpoints. The bottom line matters and they put it front and center. They are not going to sacrifice a fraction of a percentage of profit, even if they love the game.
Risk Lord of the Rings. 2002. Created by Stephen Baker, Jean-Rene Vernes, and Barry Yearsley. Published by Hasbro. Photo: Caitlin Dichter.
RD: Oh absolutely, all the time. I can’t speak for the other big game companies, but Hasbro is definitely marketing driven. And as the years went on, more and more brand driven. You won’t see a game that they put out these days without it being tied into something. They expanded Monopoly to be anything with money. And for Clue to be anything with mystery. Risk to be anything with combat. Because of marketing and branding, it is easier to say here is another Risk Game, you like Risk, than it is to here is a new type of tactical combat game, for their audience. I don’t entirely blame them. I think they’ve gone a little overboard at times because they are applying the mentality of toys to games, like if you are into Star Wars, you will buy deep into Star Wars, and you’ll buy more Star Wars if you have a reason to buy. You don’t need nine Monopoly games. You might be like, “here is a two-player version, here is a thirty-minute version, or here is a license” but it is not like, “I’m into Monopoly,” so you are going to buy like you would with Star Wars or Transformers, and sometimes they kind of force fit those.
CD: Do you think that was something that became more prevalent with the boom of video games, when video games really started becoming much more prevalent? In the early 2000s pretty much everyone had a video game console of some form.
RD: Yes and no. Because this is something I have thought about and lived through, in a way. George Parker of Parker Brothers brought ping-pong into the United States, in the 19-teens? Because he was sure board games was dead. And he brought jigsaw puzzles in because board games were dead. And board games have been dying many, many times. Television killed them, radio killed them, movies killed them, Atari 2600 killed them. And I’m not going to pretend now that the types of games that Hasbro is making now aren’t smaller now than they had been a generation or two ago; that’s a fact. But I don’t think it is the console games. The way board games had positioned themselves as good wholesome family fun, that the parents, traditionally the mother, would say, “Hey let’s not put the TV on, let’s get together around the table and play a board game.” So, done wrong, it is like the vitamins of family gaming experience. Done right, it is a great family experience. The games need to be familiar because people need to know the rules and need to go through a bunch of different ages. There is big difference between six, eight, and ten in terms of knowledge. Consoles by and large, up until about 2008, which is the time when there was a real shift, were played by kids. Families were not getting together to play Rockband, or Halo, or Call of Duty. So a couple of things have happened since then, and a big one is this [taps his cellphone on the desk]. When the iPhone came out with all of their "snackable" games, and the parents had them and now kids have them at a very young age, it replaced the “let’s do something quick as a game” mentality for the mom. And I’m using mom because Hasbro uses "mom" and the industry uses "mom" as a stand-in for the caretaker. So I’ll use it as a shorthand. So mom’s going around doing errands with her kids all day. The kids being kids takes their phone and plays Angry Birds or does things. At night, they’re tired, “I want to play a game,” “But you’ve been playing games all day.” The parent feels like they don’t need to get people around the table to play games because the kids play games, and it is much more tiring to organize a board game, than to give him a phone. So in my mind, that was the real moment when there was a logical, if not better, replacement for the family board game. Which was the iPhone and then the iPad kind of doubled-down on that. And now there is much more casual games that people can play. And there is a generation of parents who are a little younger than me, a half-generation or generation younger than me, who grew up not “Oh wow, I got an Atari when I was eleven” but started with a Nintendo from the moment they were born. So the sense of cultural heritage of board games around the table is going away, and I can look back and say it was late last decade, so it wasn’t the Xbox that did it, it was the iPhone that really shook up the mass market game industry.
CD: And then you also at the same time have this explosion of the hobbyist games, and independents. It is about a twenty to forty-percent increase a year for the past five years.
RD: To me it’s a combination of a couple of things. The big game companies vacated the casual game space. If you look at Dragonmaster from the early eighties, that’s a relatively complex and incredibly nerdy trick-taking game. They would never ever do something like that now, but that would come out in the hobby market. There was a game called Bonkers, which came out in the 1970s from Parker Brothers, and in the eighties from Milton Bradley, it’s a wonderful game if you can find one on eBay. It’s blank-path game, so you roll the dice and go forward that many spaces. But when you land on a space that doesn’t have a power you take a power from your hand, like a tile, and put it there. Most of them are like "go forward five" or "swap two tiles." The goal is there are certain fixed spots on the track where you get victory points, so you are trying to create this sort of Rube Goldberg to get there. It’s not very complicated; it is eight and up, it is like, on your turn roll the dice, if the spot’s blank put one down, if it is not blank do what it says until you land on a blank spot or a scoring spot that doesn’t move you. I tried to bring that back like 2005 or 2006, and there was some testing. It was pretty much universal that this was way overcomplicated, and families wouldn’t play this. It is exactly those types of games that the hobby market, besides the more complex games, do. Pandemic is probably only a half-step above what Milton Bradley would have done in 1983. In my mind as Hasbro and Mattel and all these people went really super simple, there was this space for people who wanted an hour-long game with a little bit of thinking. I just think there have been enough good games and enough interesting and good games that are away from another version of Monopoly, that have just brought new people. So I think it is a combination of events.
CD: Also the import of all the German-style and Euro-style games.
RD: Yeah, the Euro-style games kind of in 1995, with Settlers of Catan, that kicked off a different way of thinking, because there were cultural and almost legal restrictions on how you could have competition of a game in Germany. If you think about Settlers of Catan, it is incredibly passive-aggressive. “I can’t take anything from you, but I’m sorry, did I build a road where you wanted to? Oh, did I put the robber on your land and denying you the opportunity to get something?” And so it just changed some design thinking and it was sort of like right place, right time. I’m happy to be riding that wave right now. It feels like sometimes in culture that "Oh I was born the week that the Beatles broke up and I missed that. That would have been cool" or, "Oh I was too young to really be working in the eighties when a lot of people made good money and could get a new house." You always feel like a little out of sync with some of the things that would have been cool to see or do or experience. But with board games I managed to kind of hit it exactly in the right spot.
CD: When you were there at Hasbro, do you know if they think about the global intake of the games, since they have a global market? How other cultures might approach a board game, versus American culture? Are they designing for other cultures or just America?
RD: Well I worked on the games they were putting out for the US so it looked very regional to me. I suspect that there were offices and things, but it was pretty much make it for us and export it like a movie. Export our culture. There was until today [March 3, 2016] a design office in the UK. Hasbro just shut it down. Either today or tomorrow. They would develop their own games for the European market, and they would be much more sensitive to using language for translation issues. I would see games coming out of England that don’t seem as fun as what we are doing, and we would send over games to them, and they would say “I don’t understand why you are doing this.” And this is just the US and England, this is fairly similar cultures.
CD: I know for Risk, they had Waddingtons, and Miro was the French company that was owned by Parker Brothers.
RD: Have you read the history of Parker Brothers by Phil Orbanes? You should because they talk about Risk or Clue in that. Clue was the first worldwide launch. Clue and Cluedo. I was responsible for redesigning Risk in 2008 or 9. There was one that came out that had arrows. That is a wonderful case study on how not to do something.
CD: It is like this outlier since I’m focusing mostly on the standard editions.
RD: We can certainly get into all the detail since I’m the guy that did that. I can tell you exactly how that ended up there.
CD: It’s interesting that one. The game was progressing, getting more and more graphically complex, just also a change in technology in graphic design. But the 2008 edition just plopped in there.
RD: They talk about how a camel is a horse designed by committee. That was a game designed by committee. Do you want to get into that now?
CD: If we don’t get to it today, that can be a follow up through phone or email.
RD: That’s fine. But that is the type of thing where we ran into some cultural issues. The cover and pieces were originally going to be soldiers and tanks to try to be more modern and more aggressive. But Germany is the second largest Risk market in the world per capita. As soon as we showed it to them at the eleventh hour, they said that they couldn’t show this. "We can’t put this out. People on horses is enough in the past that it is Prussia, before Germany even unified. I don’t know if you remember World War I or II but we were kind of the bad guys and we can’t put this on our shelf, because stores won’t take it and we will be eviscerated. You can’t do it." And we were ready to cut steel and make molds and be ready to go. So this is a case of cultural obliviousness. As soon as I head it I was like “Oh my goodness, of course." But it was very much being an American and thinking "A big tank coming at you! That is cool!" Because we have never had tanks on our soil rolling around, other than parades. And not even then. I’ve never seen a functioning tank. I’ve seen it parked somewhere. And it’s like “That’s cool. Look at the state fair. It has a tank."
CD: And you even have Saving Private Ryan and other war films glorifying it.
RD: That was a case where there was a global obliviousness. My boss was British and he didn’t see it coming. But I was the architect of it, and then I was like, "oops." Trying to fix that at the last minute was how we ended up with that game. Why there are spearmen on the cover, and air bases in the game, and kind of a World War II theme on the board, like a propaganda poster. It was a game that was more complex to play but took less time. All the advertising was written for "bros" to have bragging rights. Nine people all had an idea and they all go to put them into the game.
CD: Was it that edition that had dogs?
RD: Dog tags.
CD: No, some of the advertising had a dog urinating on trees.
RD: Yeah, like marking your territory. It was all very hyper-male bragging rights, which did not match the game I made. The graphics did not match the game I made. And their request was to make it shorter but they didn’t necessarily say to make it easier, so in order to make it shorter, it became more complex. I made it more of a hobby game. They also raised the price by $5, from $20 to $25, which is a huge difference in the mass market in terms of sellable and not sellable. Every single step was wrong.
CD: Was there anyone in the early stages of your career that mentored you in this new process?
RD: There are three people that I owe my career at Hasbro. There was Mike Gray, who was the person that hired me, who I talked about, who did Dragonmaster and worked on D&D. He still lives nearby and I see him from time to time. He is retired. He has played more games than I have had meals, and I’m only being slightly facetious. He absorbs games and is a real kid at heart. I wish he had been in a position to mentor me longer. He hired me but I worked—he co-ran the department at the time but I worked for the other person. Then we moved here from Beverly very soon after, and he ran the department for about two years, and then got edged out politically to be in inventor relations where he was collecting new ideas. I only had this very brief period where he was able to guide me, but he hired me and always gave good feedback. Here are his notes on Risk Legacy, and he said "I’m really proud of you." I always keep that up there. Then very soon after I started at Hasbro where I realized I was in over my head, there was a designer name Craig Van Ness, which if you dig around, you will discover he has done a lot of fantastic things, sometimes with me, sometimes on his own. He is still at Hasbro. He took me under his wing. We are the same age but he had been there a couple years ahead of time. He’s just a phenomenal natural game designer. We kind of ended up with a symbiotic relationship. At the beginning. I didn’t know at Hasbro you were responsible for the shape of the pieces. Anything that is not graphics is yours. So if I say I need a cool house for Monopoly Looney Tunes, so instead of houses and hotels there would be television sets and movie theaters. They said, "Great. What do the TV sets look like?" I said, "You know, like cartoony TVs," and they said, "No, give me a CAD [computer-aided] drawing that’s doable." And I was like, "I don’t know what you are talking about." So I found Craig then, and he agreed to do the CAD drawings, but he hated writing rules, so I would write his rules. We formed a bit of a partnership that continued by and large the whole time I was there. We sat across from each other, like me to that computer [gestures to secondary computer five feet away] for eight years. Then I moved to a different department briefly, but then I came back and I wasn’t across from him. He just molded me into a game designer in one direction. He is very blunt. You don’t go to him and get soothing advice. He’ll say, "This is broken. Fix it. Do this." You are like, "Wow you made that seem so easy." And I worked for, for about the same amount of time, a guy named Steve Baker, who designed HeroQuest and Battlemasters in the 1980s and 90s. He was my boss. He is a Brit, and he has a great, well-read, and nimble mind. He would guide me in different ways. Craig would find something broken and tell me how to fix it. Steve would be happy to engage me in a one-hour conversation of what design I was trying to do, and exploring different options to do it. It was like two different ways to learn. Between the two of them I really got the encouragement and the skills to develop into a game designer. They are both at Hasbro still. Steve I don’t think is in games anymore. Craig still is.
CD: Within the structure of Hasbro, is it common to just move between departments?
RD: Much more so now. Hasbro bought Parker Brothers in the—they bought Milton Bradley in 1986, and bought Parker Brothers in 1993. They are in Rhode Island, and all of a sudden they owned a game company in East Longmeadow, and a game company in Beverly. It took five years, from ’93 to ’98 before they merged them together. They merged them up at the Beverly location. Due to what I will freely call bullshit personal politics, they decided to move everyone to the Milton Bradley location, eighteen months after doing a corporate relocation. So they moved the company twice within like twenty months. It was petty, and it was nasty, and you can tell I’m not over it. [laughs.] Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, for like five years, were like friendly sibling rivalries, each trying to make a better line of games, and reporting in to the Rhode Island headquarters. Then they merged to the same place, and it was agonizingly just far enough away from Hasbro headquarters that they wanted to have active control, but it was an hour and a half away, whichever location it was in. There was a long period of time where I, as a designer, in the last decade from when they moved to East Longmeadow until maybe 2007, where I never went to Rhode Island, I never went to the headquarters. I know that upper management was reporting in, but it felt like a separate division, so then you didn’t move from games to toys or from toys to games. You might move from project management into marketing. Or from graphic design and art direction into game design within the company. There was a pretty good divide between the two divisions. Again, upper management would probably say "I was down there all the time," but I was so far down I wouldn’t notice it. Around 2007, 2008, corporate started to—I think sales dropped, like I was talking about with the iPhone, so they were putting more and more control over how to run their business. Sometimes it made sense, and sometimes it was applying toy logic to games, and it didn’t make as much sense. So then I was suddenly having a lot more meetings in Rhode Island and going down. People who worked in the game division could see the writing on the wall of the physical merger between them, and start taking jobs down in Rhode Island to get ahead of the curve, so they could have their pick of the jobs, rather than a corporate relocation. In 2011 they agreed that everything was merging, and now Games is literally another branch, like you would have Play-Doh and Sesame Street, and G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony, and Games. Now they move people all the time. Again a lot of it still is like engineering and project management, which is a very translatable skill. But I saw people with no game experience at all, get moved in to the game division for fresh blood in 2011, 2012. Although they could draw very well, or were excellent toy designers, they didn’t think at all about what you do on a turn. They would be like, “I don’t know. But here is a picture of an awesome piece.” It was like the pendulum flew the other way. It’s coming back now, where they say, "No, we need game designers. We can find someone across the hall who can draw a cool piece. But we need the people who understand what you do with it." But the 2011 move was a complete flushing of corporate identity from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. It was very difficult to live through.
CD: What influences your overall process when you are working on a game?
RD: Well, I’m still a little figuring that out. I’ve been on my own for only about three and half years, so I’m running a business. So what I’ve learned is there is a lot of stuff about running a business that I want to minimize or eliminate, so I can focus back on design. My process or my design? My process is how I structure my day to get things done. Influencing my design is what ends up in the final product.
CD: Focusing more on the design, but knowing that you do categorize them differently—
RD: The process is what I do during my day. I try to leave Thursdays open to just write and create without interruption because even if I have a half-hour phone call at two, it weighs on my mind that I have a deadline. So I make exceptions like I’m still learning to block Thursday out, but that was a recent invention. This is a Thursday, right? When we are done, I don’t have anything for the rest of the day, so I’m going to get a lot design done. It’s finding the clear mindset with no interruptions, but I’m sure when I look back here, because I run a business, I’ll have eight to thirty emails that will show up that need answering. What influences me as a designer? Well I did some work on Betrayal at House on the Hill, and I was influence by all the Stephen King that I read while growing up, because I’m from Maine. Pandemic Legacy was influenced by episodic television and Marvel movies. Like a summer action blockbuster movie, maybe Captain America level, where it’s got a little bit of thinking but you can pull it apart at a moment’s notice, but you are happy to just go along. Like the pacing of Captain America: Winter Soldier. You are always wondering what is going on, and you can’t quite catch your breath. You can kind of see that there is something bigger but you are only growing into the knowledge of what’s there. Risk Legacy was heavily influenced by the TV show Lost. Legacy games in general are influenced by a whole bunch of things including video games and comic books and Dungeons and Dragons. One thing people don’t know is that they were also influenced by my love of cooking, which is a consumable experience. If you want to do it again, you have to make it and do it again, and it is never going to be quite the same. It is usually easier if you name a game that I have designed and I can tell you what came from that, or just try to remember what was going on in eighteen years of doing this.
CD: As opposed to just grand scheme—
Betrayal at House on the Hill, 2004. Created by Robert Daviau, Bruce Glassco, Bill McQuillan, Mike Selinker, and Teeuwynn Woodruff. Published by Hasbro. Photo: Andrew Vorsanger.
CD: Now that you are running your own business, you don’t necessarily have a marketing team. Is that something you have taken on yourself?
RD: Well, it’s instinctive. Between advertising and Hasbro, I think about what’s the brand, and how is it sold, and what’s the message, and what’s the unique selling point. Not in some need to write up a piece of paper to present it at a meeting, but when I’m going to pitch a game, I had hundreds of pitches I had to make at Hasbro to people who weren’t necessarily gamers. I slowly evolved the style of capturing their attention and telling them not how to play the game, because no one likes to learn a game, even people learning a game don’t want to learn the game. But how it feels to play the game. With Betrayal at House on the Hill I would talk about, “Think of every horror movie you have ever seen, and if I can put every horror movie you have ever seen into one box, that is what we are talking about here. It all starts out the same: You are in a house, you have your classic cast of characters, and you are about to kick open a door. After that, every game will be so fundamentally different that you will never have anything the same way twice.” At no point am I talking about how to play. But I’m trying to sell you on the fantasy of how to play. I did a lot of things when I first got out of Hasbro across the spectrum of games, but I’m really focused now on designing games for the hobby market and being a professor. So as such. I don’t need much marketing right now, except marketing for myself. What takes up most my time outside of design is running a business. Some of that right now is getting rid of things I had agreed to in the past year to two years that are either taking longer than I thought, or aren’t related to what I want to do now. Its contract negotiations and certain obligations that if all goes well by the end of this year, I will have paired it down to only things I want to do and will be pleasantly busy.
CD: How do you get in the mind-frame of when you are approaching different types of games? Like when you were at Hasbro and working on Trivial Pursuit versus Risk, which are two different style of games. Did you find yourself really changing the way you approached them? Or were you still using the same set of tools?
Back of Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars Classic Trilogy. 1998. Created by Robert Daviau. Published by Hasbro. Photo: Andrew Vorsanger.
RD: It’s the same tools but I think it important to note, to me at least, who is playing it and what they want out of it. Sometimes when I’m teaching I’ll ask the students “How do you want me to feel when I’m playing this? Do you want me in my head crunching a lot of numbers and doing calculations? Do you want me nervous that you are about to betray me? Do you want me to feel like I’m on a ride and I can’t keep up? How much do you want my brain engaged?” A lot of times it will get people unstuck. I’ll say, “Right now I’m running eighteen different numbers of what to do on my next turn, but it’s a game about a marshmallow sleepover.” So, I sat down with one mindset, and I’m in a difference place a lot. When I’m designing a game, like Trivial Pursuit I pictured people not using the board, just reading the cards to each other. Trying to make the question interesting, like for Star Wars, not “What color was X?” which is just did you happen to notice it. But for example, in the classic trilogy, “How many characters touch a lightsaber?” because R2 stores it in Return of the Jedi. Now you have to have a certain amount of knowledge, so what’s the answer? Luke, Obi-wan, Vader, the Emperor, he touches it when he says, “You want this?,” Han Solo when he cuts open the tauntaun, Yoda doesn’t touch it, but R2 holds it, and one stormtrooper.
CD: When does a stormtrooper?
RD: “We found this on him.” And he gives it over to Vader. And the Vader says “You’ve constructed your own lightsaber.”
CD: And really it’s transporting, because while I’m thinking of it I’m watching the movies again in my head.
RD: Right, so I think it is around seven. But that to me is an interesting Trivial Pursuit question. I want people to discuss it, and then when they see the answer, have a conversation after. When it is Risk, I know it is going to be “rage-quit-y,” cutthroat-y. “Somehow I had all the odds but I kept rolling a four and you rolled a five. I’d roll a three and you rolled a four. I rolled a six and you rolled a six.” And it’s going to be up and down and frustrating, and stuff like that. How does it feel? How do I want it to feel? Then I just labor over the mechanics until how I want it to feel is how it feels.
CD: What are some of the challenges you face when you design games?
RD: Games are really, really hard. I could make a very, very bad game quickly. I could make a pretty good game with a lot of effort. But to make a very good game takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of organization, and a little bit of luck. The challenges are, right now I don’t have any play testers, and I don’t have any support staff. At Hasbro I would be able to say, “Hey I got this idea. Cut this out and make it.” And there would be a prototype department that would make it. Two hours later it was done and I could get some other designers and play it. And this was all me doing nothing, and within two or three hours I’d have a ton of feedback. That might take three weeks now, because I have to make enough time for me to print it out, or go to a printer, and then cut it out, and get people over, and explain the rules to them. Everything just takes forever. If all goes well, I’m going to hire my wife to work with me more often in the fall. We met at Hasbro, she’s a graphic designer and a production designer. She is good with her hands. A lot of stuff that I can’t get to right now because I’m not good at it, is perfect for her, but she works a full-time job. When she gets home, I’m not going to be like “Hey, spend six hours cutting thing.” But that would require some profitability that is on the horizon but is not here.
CD: So a couple times now, you specified designing games. Do you design other things as well?
RD: Meals? Which I actually—I do wider game experiences. I was just a GM [game master] for an online—GM for something all my friends played over Skype, which was part of a stretch goal for their online website, from their Patreon backers, which is being released as a ten-part audio play. It’s a role-playing game. Did I design a game? Did I run a narrative experience? Did I write a story? I design talks. I design curriculum. I’m a designer at heart. I like making something from nothing. If someone told me tomorrow “You can’t design another game,” within a year I’d be doing something, like writing a book. My goal is to think, “Here is an idea” and then find a way to make it a thing.
CD: Would you also include in the role of designer, artist and/or craftsman, or is it really self-defining?
RD: It’s self-defining. I avoid as much as possible the definition of artist because of my own personal approach. Sometimes I’ll do things and I’ll hear myself talking about what I’m trying to get out of a game, and I go, “Oh, I sound like an artist.” It’s not bad, but it surprises me. I consider myself a designer or a craftsman. And when people ask if game design is an art, I tell them it is a craft. It’s like cooking or music; some people have a natural aptitude, or a good ear or palette, but everyone gets far better just from spending thousands of hours doing it. You make mistakes, and some days are better than others. So I consider it a craft. I consider myself a designer. A joke I make with my students is “I’m a designer, not an artist, because I write contracts and get paid.” I know artists do that as well, but it feels a little bit different. There are some artists that really move the needle with their ideas, and you have to interpret their ideas, and I put that in some of my games. If I was just an artist I think I wouldn’t be running a business, which may just show my ignorance of artists. Because there might be artists going “What the hell man. I do everything you do but I’m an artist.” It is probably entirely a self-selecting, subjective term.
CD: You come from a history background, is that correct?
RD: I have a degree in classical civilization and a minor in medieval history, and I was going to be a television sketch comedy writer. Then I worked in advertising, but the main thread from just about all of these is a love of story. I say I’m a storyteller who works in games. Role-playing games, advertising, sketch comedy, it’s all, “Hey, I’m going to tell you an interesting story.” How am I going to do it is what changes.
CD: It’s getting now into Legacy. The more I’m learning about the different Legacy games and the overall system, the more I think it is this very important turning point in game design. You opened a door into something that may be very interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about Legacy and how you came up with the concept of these types of games?
Risk Legacy. 2011. Created by Robert Daviau and Chris Dupuis. Published by Hasbro. Photo: Caitlin Dichter.
RD: First of all, I had to be working in games for about ten years before I would allow myself to think of something like this without immediately dismissing it from my head. There is how I came up with it, and then the shorthand I started to use at interviews because it was easier to understand. And I don’t remember the real one now because that is the nice thing about memory. I know it is a mix of the two versions I’m going to tell you. I do remember where I was. I was over there at an offsite brainstorm at a house in a park in Forest Park. We were talking about the Clue brand. Hasbro at the time had this brainstorming technique where you talk about assumptions. And then you challenge those assumptions. Most of the time you realize that the reason those assumptions are there are good reasons. Occasionally you realize that something you treat as a fact is just a cultural assumption. Then it can be moved or changed without violating, or sometimes even improving the underlying structure. For example, the assumption about a gameboard in a board game: it’s going to go on a table in front of people, it’s not going to catch on fire, it’s going to lay flat, it’s going to be face up unfolded. You’ve never seen a game with a board that starts out folded and you slowly unfold it. There is no reason why it has to start unfolded, but every game up ‘til now has done that. Sometimes, you go, “What if it was folded six panels and as you go you kind of see it.” And you might think of that for a few minutes and think, “I don’t see the advantage, the second time you play you’ll know it’s there. It’s the same thing every time. Okay, there is nothing there.” That kind of happened with Clue. Either, and this is where I get fuzzy in my own head, I made the joke, “I don’t know why they keep inviting these mass murderers to dinner time after time.” And then put that down as a cultural assumption during a brainstorm session, or if I made the assumption that the game starts over fully each time you play it, as an assumption, and then made that joke. I can’t tell you how it all sort of happened, but it was somewhere in there. Steve Baker was facilitating, my boss, the British guy, and I could tell he kind of looked at me, because he is a gamer, and I put a little star next to it, and this is out of forty or fifty ideas that people were pitching at the time. I thought, “Why does that happen? It doesn’t happen in roleplaying games. It doesn’t happen in television.” Sitcoms do this thing where everything resets back to start, but there is sort of a general underlying progression. Dramas carry on. “What would it be like if you started game two?” Then we started to talk about Clue. I turned it into a pitch for Hasbro, like Clue with the usual suspects. In your game, Mustard always did it. He would be the first one, like he had a shady reputation. But for me it was Plum in my game. Our characters would start in the same place and you could get a nemesis. If you kill his henchman in the first game, then by game eight he would get his revenge, but if you didn’t kill his henchman he doesn’t need revenge. The game would have this branching narrative. I pitched it to Hasbro amongst other Clue games, and got the blankest of blank stares. It was kind of a radical idea, so I let it sit for six months. Again, Steve was trying to figure out what to do with the Risk brand. About the same time that Hasbro was finally noticing that some hobby games made it into Target, so wanted something with a little more depth. Hasbro is very good at being the leaders in following. When something gets in their radar, they go “Hey! We are the biggest game company!” But they don’t pioneer, they just react. This was a reaction. A bunch of us were into gaming and thinking maybe we can do something. These were all swirling around the same time. I brought back this idea of a game with some memory, for Risk. It wasn’t even the idea, it was part of ten ideas where we going to do this game, and a card game, and a game that time traveled through history. There was a whole of different ideas, so it wasn’t even like I even thought that this was the biggest idea. Somewhere along the line, the ideas got narrowed down, and this one sticking around. They were looking for a game and I said “I bet I could do this game and fill that need to get something on the hobby shelf.” I sat down and just tried to figure it out, and immediately made a whole bunch of horrible games. Then I started to get the hang of it, and played it with Craig, and he made a lot of good corrections. At the beginning, with Risk Legacy, if you rolled three sixes, a bomb went off, and I didn’t have enough control as a designer, and the players didn’t have enough control as players to know when this was going to happen. It could happen the first turn of the first game, or it could never happen. He was like, “No, you need to have stuff in your game where you decide when the changes take place because they are permanent.” More ownership. That kind of shifted my thinking from things happening to the game that you react to, and more that you had a direct cause and effect of what happens. And it’s a little but different in Pandemic. As I was working on it, I had all these great ideas, too many good ideas. I realized that if you gave people all of these fun, permanent stickers that they could use, as soon as someone used one in game one, all of them were used in game one. And then you get to game two you realize “What did we do? We made a mess.” I needed some way to give you only three stickers and then take them away for a game, and then in game three you get a couple more. I need to trade these out. I thought, “What if I put these in envelopes or boxes that you can’t get to until a certain point?” That was just a way to keep you from abusing permanent things all at the beginning, and to give you a chance to introduce new rules just when you need them. Then I went, “Wait a minute, there is a whole second thing I can be doing with permanent change, which is unlocking narrative.” It’s really two ideas on one box: permanent change from game to game, and content comes out and changes things out from underneath you. The game changes in two different ways. And so that became Risk Legacy, which I thought was going to be a huge failure. Then it came out and got really good reviews, and got some buzz, which is great for me. I ended up having to leave my job because they moved to Rhode Island within six or nine months. So it just worked out. No one has done a Legacy game except for me, and I’ve done two, with a third one coming out. With the success of Pandemic Legacy, I hear that other people are going to do it. I know more people are interested in it, but no one has done it yet. Like you said, it might be a big change, or change something. But right now it is just something I am doing.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. 2015. Created by Robert Daviau and Matt Leacock. Published by Z-Man Games. Photo: Andrew Vorsanger.
RD: Absolutely. Both Legacy games are role-playing games, and I am not there to DM in board game form. Episodic television is a big part of this. What’s a cliffhanger? You finish one game and open up a new package and a see new rules and stickers, and immediately, like Netflix, want to start fifteen seconds later. “It is only 9:00. We can get another one in there.” SeaFall, which is coming out later this year, is a longer game, so I am curious how this will work in a long form. It is like a two-hour game, so you are not going to do back-to-back games very often. I’m wondering how many people will get five or six or seven in and then lose interest, because you can’t binge on something that is going to be stretched out over a longer period of time, and like anything over a longer period of time people will lose interest. We will see how that goes. It is a meatier story and a deeper game. It takes longer to do. And if it turns out that is not what people want, I will make sure to make it shorter in the future, for binge playing.
CD: Listening to other lectures and podcasts you have given, you have mentioned this phenomenon with people putting plastic sheets over, and photocopying stickers. Treating board games as collector’s items with monetary value, versus an experience—
RD: Both are true. If you took the actual production value of any game, it is going to be about an eighth of what you paid for—no, less than that, like a twelfth of what you paid for. It’s a box of cardboard. It’s the type of stuff you throw away if you buy something, like a dehumidifier, and then you have all this cardboard and plastic wrapping left over. What you throw away are the actual components of a board game, but you don’t even think twice about it. What you are buying is design and graphics and labor and effort. We have been conditioned, and I think it is a wonderful thing, to treat them like art. It is sort of like the shift in comic books. No one thought of comic books as anything but disposable. It was like keeping the Sunday funny papers’ comics. Why would you keep that? You read it and you throw it out. You recycle it. It is exactly the same thing, panels with information. At some point, people wanted to find comic books, but everyone had thrown them away. The ones that were left were rare, so comics, as a physical thing, took on tremendous value, even though they have no value now, especially with digitalization. We can go back and find any comic book going back twenty to thirty years, no problem. Any physical copy now is not worth the paper it is printed on, for the most part. Games are sort of the same way. I don’t have any issue with people wanting to keep their games pristine. My games are all stacked up neatly. I am a little more cavalier because I cannibalize them for other parts. I can kind of see them as cardboard and plastic.
CD: You’ve seen behind the curtain.
RD: I’ve seen behind the curtain. I made the sausage. The difference is the games I’m making are meant to be consumed. The analogy I’ve made is it is like going to the concert instead of buying the album. You buy a ticket to the concert, you see the concert and you are done. If you want to see it the next day you have to buy another ticket, and the concert will be a little different. You will have a different seat, the singer will be off, and they will mix up the set list. You can’t be halfway through it and decide you don’t like the concert and try to sell your ticket face value. No, the concert has already started. You are buying a ticket to an experience, and it is a radical mindshift because it uses the same components as something where you don’t buy tickets to an experience, which is a perpetually replayable game. Some people have gotten on board with the new way of thinking about it. Some people don’t want to make that shift. I do question the people that spend a lot of time and effort to make it replayable, because most people don’t play a game eighteen times. I picked fifteen on Risk, and it is roughly eighteen for Pandemic because this is more that you get out of a game than you like, for the most part. But I’ve changed the decision making process. If you look at 7 Wonders and you love it, you could play that every day for the rest of your life. That is your decision, not mine. If there was 7 Wonders Legacy, where you could play twenty times, I’ve made that decision for you. That might be bothersome. If you actually look at gamers and the number of times they play games, for example I love War of the Ring up there and I’ve probably played six times in the past five years, but I love it. And it is my decision if I want to play it again, not theirs. But I haven’t played it eighteen times and I’m unlikely to play it eighteen times in my life.
CD: It’s still fairly new, from 2011. Have you heard stories from people going through the eighteen rounds and then buying a new game with a new group of people?
RD: Yes I have, and I’m absolutely shocked. I don’t know what the percentage is of people who play more than once, but I expected it to be zero. There are a lot of people who say that it is a marketing gimmick. The best description I heard was “Cardboard Rights Management,” like we are controlling the cardboard, and if you want it again you have to pay again. None of that was the case. It’s the only thing that I am adamant about. This was not a marketing or business plan, or a way to trick people into buying, or to create a disposable experience. It was, “I think I can give you an interesting and cool experience because the stakes are real.” Because I’m giving myself more control over your experience, I hope I can give you a more interesting experience. Not for everyone all the time, percentage-wise. The side effect of that is that it is a “one-and-done.” I expect that people will get done and be like “Oh I’ve done it. I’ve read the story. I’ve consumed it. I’ve been to the concert. I’ve gone out to the restaurant.”
CD: Or like a book.
RD: With a book you can actually give away to someone else. It is more like, “I went to the restaurant. It was great. It was a really nice expensive restaurant and I had a seven-course tasting, and I’m done. Maybe in a couple of years I will go back.” I don’t expect people to go back every night of the week with different people and do different experiences and compare and contrast. That was the surprise. A pleasant one.
CD: Was there anything else with the reception of the game that—I’ve seen images of people burning cards. Anything else that was surprising?
RD: The fact that people liked it. The fact that Pandemic Legacy is rated number one at BoardGameGeek. I would have lost a lot of money on a bet. As a matter of fact I’m losing a nice bottle of wine to Matt on it. As it came out and started to do good ratings, he said, “On January 1st, we will see where it is. It may end up higher or lower after that.” And I looked at all the games that are on there, and said it will be no higher than eighth, and I’m being incredibly generous to think it will get to eight. He said, “I’ll pick the under, that it is going to be higher than eight.” I’m like, “You’re crazy.” I woke up on January 1st with ninety-eight Twitter notifications. I’m like, “I think it got to number 1.” And I’m still blown away. You know, some other game will come and knock it out. That’s fine but it got to the top of the charts. I’ll take it.
CD: Do you feel a connection with all your games, or are some more special than others?
RD: There are very few. If I do a consulting job for a company that ask me to tweak a game or work on a game for a week and play test it, that is sort of forgotten after it is done. But if it’s a game that is my own design from the start, they are all children in their own way. Now, if it’s something I did in 2004, and you ask me to tell you what the tiebreaker rule is—that child is grown up. I don’t remember what their favorite food was. Baseball is my other big thing. Someone said you might bat .260 one year and .310 the next year, but you try the exact same amount. You have the same amount of skill, it’s just one year it broke your way, and one it didn’t. Sometimes games come together, and sometimes I feel right up until the end that it’s a B+. I’m not going to let out a B-, unless I have to. And then some games its like an A or an A+. It’s like taking a test in school. You study and prepare, but sometimes you still walk out like, “Nope, not my day.” Just for me, it’s not like studying and taking a test; it’s three to eighteen months of work before you realize how well you did.
CD: Do you have games that you would start, and it’s not going great, or someone decides to move in a new direction so it sits on the back burner until you pick it back up?
RD: Sure, all the time. I’ve got a whole bunch of games down here which are complete, I’ve got maybe fifteen to twenty games all various excuses, people weren’t interested, or I played it and it’s an idea, but I’ve got other stuff that is more of a priority. At some point I may get back to them or I may never do it. The tricky part is that some games are just not a good idea. Or how you are doing it is the wrong path. Setting it aside will give you a fresh perspective on it, but every game looks like it is one of those. Meaning that it is just stuck, or just needs some work. And the temptation is to be say, “Well, this isn’t working, let’s start a new one.” If you always give into that you’ll have a hundred games that never got past the first awkward prototype stage. But if you never give into it, you will be sticking with games that don’t deserve to be stuck with. One of the things, as a designer, that I think we all struggle with is, “Is this just stuck, but I still believe in it” or, “I had an idea and I tried it. I have some perspective now and it’s not worth pouring my time into. Maybe I could squeeze something out of it, but maybe not.”
CD: How does feedback from the public, critics, or play-testers influence work going forward?
RD: I’m sure it does, but I try to stay in the zone. Everyone said Pandemic Legacy was great, the ratings said it was good. It had some detractors, and I would look at reviews and say, "They saw what we were trying to do and agreed with it. They saw what we were trying to do and didn’t think it worked. These people didn’t understand what we were trying to do and hated the concept.” But you can go down the rabbit hole. It's like, “never read the comments on the internet.” Reviews are all just various versions of reading the comments.
CD: How far had you gotten working on SeaFall by the time Pandemic came out?
RD: SeaFall I started well before Pandemic. That mapped around. I started Pandemic a year after SeaFall, and it will come out a year before SeaFall. That’s because Pandemic started from a stable game, and it was two players. With SeaFall, I had to invent the whole game, and then invent the Legacy game. But we had started Pandemic Legacy 2 before 1 had even come out. It was good that we could get some feedback because there was definitely some stuff we did in the first season where we were like, “Okay, that didn’t work as well as we thought. Here is where there were rules troubles. Here is where people got most upset, or wished we had done things differently.” We know those would be in there but we just didn’t know where they were. So we integrated them in. But at the same time, I think we did a great job, at no point did we think, “Oh crap! What do we do next? How do we do this? How do we top this?” No, let’s just make a good game. Some people will like it better, and some people will like it worse. Let’s just do something we believe in, and not worry about how it stacks up to anything before.
CD: Have you incorporated any fixes to problems that people have mentioned, or that you realized after the fact, to SeaFall?
RD: Yeah, I picked up some things from—some of the things I had been working and gotten stuck on in SeaFall I had been able to apply to Pandemic Legacy. And some of the solutions we had in Pandemic Legacy I was able to apply to SeaFall. I’m working on another game now, Chronicles, which has a historical feel to it. I can say, “Here are some things that I learned from SeaFall that we don’t want to duplicate in Chronicles.”
CD: Now that you are over the bridge, two to three years out of Hasbro, do you feel that you have established yourself more as an independent designer?
RD: Oh yeah. I couldn’t have asked for or wished for a better first game than Pandemic Legacy. I’m unlikely to make another number one game on BGG [BoardGameGeek].
CD: You never know.
RD: Oh, it’s a goal. I’d love to knock myself out of the top spot, but I don’t expect it. I try to set realistic goals. I’d love for every game I make to end up in the top 100. They won’t all do it, but that is a more realistic goal. Well, it’s a realistic ambition, not a realistic goal. I feel like I’m coming out of a startup phase where I’ve been in hibernation. Now there is going to be fairly regular games coming out from me over the next few years until however many until I completely burn out.
CD: Do you ever see yourself doing something in a life after game design?
RD: Games are hard, and as I mentioned, I’m teaching. I only have a bachelor’s degree, so I don’t know how far I’ll be able to get along the professor route. I can see, after both my kids are out of the house, after five or six years, moving to Boston or some place. Then doing something like teaching, being a professor, and designing one game a year. I’ll be in my fifties and cut back the act of creating, which is tough, and do the act of teaching the next generation about creating. Let them knock me out of the top number one spot.
CD: We talked about the shift in play style and the audience has gotten older. Do you try to design more for adults or children?
Prototype game board of SeaFall. 2016. Created by Robert Daviau. Published by IronWall Games and Plaid Hat Games. Photo: Caitlin Dichter.
CD: Thinking of it like cooking and a meal. You need to know who are you cooking for. What are their preferences? Where are you eating this meal?
Bottom of unopened Risk Legacy box. 2011. Created by Robert Daviau and Chris Dupuis. Published by Hasbro. Photo: Caitlin Dichter.
CD: Once you’ve written your name on it, then the idea of putting stickers all over it is a little bit less daunting.
RD: I wanted people who are like, “I thought I was going to be okay with this, but I’m not,” to know that right away.
CD: For myself, I’ve talked about it a lot with my husband, and I’m a big watcher of board games. Game of Thrones and Risk gets too long for me, but I love watching people play board games and video games. It’s like watching a movie for me. So I’ve told him, “Maybe you can play these Legacy games, because I don’t know if I can put that pen to the board.” But it will sure be interesting to try. And then if I have to back out someone can take my spot.
RD: It’s a cultural aversion that we have been trained. You are not going to paint on the Mona Lisa.
CD: I have a museum background. My first master’s was in Museum Studies, so it adds a whole other layer.
RD: And games should go into a museum, but if you think about it, and this is going to be a horribly crass analogy, but the Hard Rock Café had things on the wall, not because it was a guitar, but because it was someone’s guitar. That guitar was worn in, and had writing and scratches on it. It was unique and interesting because of its history, not because of its construction. That’s how I approach it. I did a lot of study on Banksy when doing Risk Legacy, and tattoo cultures, and rituals of integration into societies. I kind of approach it to see when people are making, like when Maori warriors are tattooing their face. When people make these permanent changes, what are the cultural barriers to doing that? Why are we living in a tattoo culture now? What has changed? Why is it acceptable now? It kind of feels like a high-water mark, and I bet it’s going back down. You see models with full-sleeves and people in businesses with a neck tattoo. Neck tattoos were the thing you used to get to say, “I don’t ever want to get a W-2.” Now, that barrier has been crossed, and it’s a permanent barrier. I looked at how leather jackets have a history and the cultural identity of things because of their history, and not because of their pristine state. There were a couple months of musing around. This is where I’m becoming an artist as opposed to a craftsman. But there was some thought given to it. I’m asking people to perform a taboo. Why would they want to? Why would they not want to? What are going to be the aversions? What’s the endorphin rush they get out of doing the forbidden? Writing on the board is like skydiving.
CD: We said playing a game in general is a performance activity, but particularly when you become part of the game, in this very active, long-lasting permanent way. You are changing your personal commitment, your attachment, your experience.
Risk Legacy envelopes containing additional material to manipulate the game to be opened upon meeting specific criteria; ripped-up cards. 2011. Created by Robert Daviau and Chris Dupuis. Published by Hasbro. Photo: Caitlin Dichter.
CD: Though, we have paid money to destroy it.
RD: It’s like playing poker with real money. And it’s not destroying it. It’s interesting that you are calling it “destroy.”
CD: For some, you have to rip up cards.
RD: That is a very small thing, which has a very large discussion point around it. Most of the game is about creation. You are adding to it, adding stickers, adding names, customizing it. At the end, you have taken things from separate components and integrated them into a final art project to make it yours. Now, along the way, like the omelet-egg analogy, you had to get rid of a few things that fit into the final project. That is the natural part of design and creation, “I have eight things, these three come out, these five go on in this order.” It is just a part of my life, but it is hard to do when you are given the choice. I will get a bit defensive when people say it is a destructive experience. I’m like no, actually it’s a creation experience. And part of creation is destroying the things that don’t fit toward that creation. It’s like, “kill your darlings” in writing. “Get rid of that chapter. Get rid of that character. They don’t work.” That is editing. So you are editing your game, to make it your game. And then we can get into the whole power of naming, and how that makes a difference.
CD: That is very interesting. I was trying to explain Legacy games to my father-in-law last night. Like naming the continent and naming the city, and then changing, not just the mechanics, but also your focus and attention, and your experience in the game because it is like marking your territory. Like, “I like this half of the board” or, “Well, I always sit in this chair, and this is the half of the board where I’m sitting.” Then other people saying, “Okay, now we know we have to go after that.”
RD: It is all about the board itself. Points and counterpoints and territory and bluffs and counterbluffs. Hopefully it creates narrative. Did your father-in-law understand at all the concept?
CD: Yes, because my husband played a lot of Risk growing up, so he was familiar enough. I think he played with him sometimes. I don’t know if he quite understood the why. Why do this?
RD: It’s a good question. I don’t know why either. Because it sounds fun?
CD: Playing D&D and doing things where you can sculpt the experience to your own liking, people who enjoy that type of leisure activity, would transition much more readily to a Legacy style game. Returning back to Risk, it is interesting that sometimes the maps will stay the same, but the box will change. Or sometimes the box doesn’t change, but the inside holding system will change. It’s been interesting tracking these sometimes drastic changes, and sometimes something small like making it blue instead of red. Why even change the color?
RD: Changed the color of what, I can tell you why.
CD: So for the 1959 to 1968 versions, the box cover changed, but the insert stayed the same except they changed the color.
RD: Was it a plastic vac tray?
CD: It was cardboard.
RD: Cardboard? They changed the color to a different color cardboard?
CD: They changed the color and I think maybe the color of the cards.
RD: So you have to realize these decisions didn’t have a grand cosmic purpose.
CD: It was just to make it different for marketing?
RD: Sometimes for marketing. You know it needs a new story, it’s looking a bit dated. So let’s change the cover, right? So it doesn’t look like the game that’s been out there forever. And the people who are new to the brand, it will look new and fresh. You know, the photography is dated, or the art style is changed.
CD: It does seem that for at least half of the changes seem to line up with Tonka Toys merging with Hasbro, or—so each of the times the company changed that year, or the next year there would be a brand new edition of Risk.
RD: There is a very clear through-line. If you hire, if you change ownership, they want to justify their purchase, and they want to show that they are in charge now. Not in a mean way, they just want to make it their vision. And so, changing a line look, changing the number of skews, or what games you have is a wonderful way to do that. That same thing, if you see a new marketing brand manager walk onto a brand, it’s career suicide to walk onto a brand and say, “I’m the new brand manager. Everything you are doing is great!”
CD: Why are you here then?
RD: Why are you here? So then they immediately have to tell you what’s not great and what you can change to make you great, because that justifies their existence and they want sales to go up. And if what they do, sales don’t go up, they’ll very quickly find a different job, and the next guy or girl will come in. So sometimes these changes are not big reasons. Sometimes they are very personal. Like why the insert changed from blue to red might have been a conscious decision, like a designer saying, “Eh, I like red. I don’t like blue.” Blue as a color is a very soft color, it’s a very neutral, it’s a tranquil color. I want a fiery color. Or it could have been the factory saying, “We accidently [pause] this game we ordered all this red stock for got canceled. Do you mind if we switch it, just so we don’t have to buy new stuff?” And you’re like, “No that’s fine.” And when that runs out, they’re like, “Do you want to go back to blue?” And you say, “No, whatever is easier for you.” Right? So sometimes the reasons are little. Box covers get a lot of attention, so those aren’t going to be accidental.
CD: So 1975 to 1980 was the same box, it might be slightly different. I think the cannon might be a little bit bigger. But it’s basically the same cover. Which is interesting that there wasn’t a change between those two. But then once we get into the 1990s and 2000s, each one is very different. Did you do the box cover and the board?
RD: So the box cover is entirely overseen by marketing. Design gets very little say, and sometimes very little exposure. My wife, when she worked at Hasbro, started to do the ill-fated 2008 version. It’s one of the projects we worked on together. We were dating but not married at the time.
CD: Is the board designed independently, in terms of stylistic or—which comes first?
RD: So the box cover comes first. And perhaps eighty percent of the time of the art director will spend on the box cover. Which I think is crap, but—and then they will turn, after the cover is largely done, or they know which direction it is going in, they can work on the internal components. The game designer is probably done by then, and has given them a prototype board.
CD: You are working on the mechanics, the storytelling—
RD: Working on the design. Making sure the cost works, and what the pieces are going to look like. So that it all kind of comes together. And then the board and the cards fall from the box cover. Mostly, most of the time. And then everyone just dumps the rules at the last second, which is too bad, because that’s the only connection between the designer and the player. The actual rulebook, that’s like, nobody wants to do that. And in the last two days, they lay it out.
CD: And that’s, you’re holding that. You’re devouring that.
RD: It’s incredibly important difficult to do, and doing a really good rulebook will get you no credit inside a large company or at your next job, but doing an amazing box cover will. An amazing box cover is what everyone is judging. Remember it’s a toy culture. And the toy is the thing. So how it looks is the entire message. So when you get to a game and you are running it by toy management, they aren’t going to ask what subtle balancing differences you’ve done to try to alleviate the first player problem or something like that. They are going to be like, ‘That look’s great!” Just like they are looking at a Spiderman action figure or a Tonka Truck, how does it look?
CD: If they are thinking of a marketing standpoint, we need them to buy it, and to take it home. If they open it, play it once, hate it and never play it again, they are going to buy a different game, which actually then is profitable. Not that they want to make bad games, but—
RD: There are some medium to long term problems with that, which you can see. Like, you’re constantly fishing for a new audience. And if you buy two that are bad, are you going to buy a third? Are you going to buy from a different company? Or just say, “Board games are dumb.”
CD: True. But the nitty-gritty of turn mechanics is beyond their interest.
RD: You didn’t have to play the game with many people at Hasbro. They were like, “I’m sure it’s good. That’s what you do.” You would play up in design management, so they could stand by it in a meeting. And marketing would play it, and whatever you did, no matter what you did, it was too hard! Can it just be tic-tac? Do we need "toe"? Because they wanted simplification of how to sell it.
CD: Was that to reach a broader age range? Because that has something that has been very difficult for me to grasp, the seemingly arbitrary age application on the board. For Risk it keeps changing.
RD: Well, they want to make the lowest possible age where they realistically think the kids can handle it. And Risk is a tough one, because it’s the first game, I always say it’s the first real game you play or the last kids’ game, right? It’s like this milestone game. Or it has been traditionally for so many gamers now.
CD: It seemed kind of, they want to have lowest—
RD: The lowest age, and there was a department at Hasbro, I’m sure there still is, that has guidelines for how to grade things. Now some are very specific choke hazards. That can’t be to below three. You can’t market it to people on the internet unless it’s thirteen plus. There are some certain things, but there is a lot of stuff in between those. You can’t realistically expect any reading below six, and comprehensive reading below eight. And one thing that is interesting is that Clue is nine plus, and Monopoly is always eight plus, because there is no hidden information in Monopoly. And a parent can’t help a kid with their turn in Clue, because you can’t look at their hand. So there are guidelines, which are applied, somewhat subjectively, but it’s no different than applying law or something like that. Everyone kind of interprets it. And so, marketing might have asked for, or talked someone into, “So look, ten and up is fine.” “Nine and up is fine.” “No it needs to be twelve and up. I watched my cousin play.” Some guy might say, “I watched my kids play, and they couldn’t play this and they are ten. It has to be twelve and up or we are false advertising.” It floats because everyone is doing slightly different interpretations of guidelines.
CD: So for the 2016, for the regular edition it is still ten, but for the Castle, they are bringing back Castle Risk, and that’s fourteen. Which the original time they brought out Castle Risk, in the eighties, it was ten. So I thought that was interesting. And it doesn’t seem to be that much different, from what I can tell, it’s not out yet, but it doesn’t seem to be that much different in terms of mechanics, and the structure of the cards. We’ll see when it comes out, but it does seem interesting, other than versions like the Walking Dead, some that have more graphic content, the base material that something is pulled from—
RD: It’s not so much the graphic content, but it’s the ability to absorb and execute the rules without getting so frustrated that you get it all wrong. The ability to play. Fourteen is a weird one, unless again, they are planning to do some internet advertising or online league or something, because you need to be thirteen to have a Facebook account, or an Instagram account. That is the magic age for internet participation. So it’s possible, but I don’t know if it has something to do with that. I have no answer I can say for that, that would be definitive. I think they are going back to the early nineties version for the game play of the 2016 version. A lot of the stuff that I worked on is getting completely flushed out. Which is fine.
CD: It evolves.
RD: Well this they just went back to, what I heard from someone who still works at Hasbro, they told me, the ones that are rated most popular by people. And so whether that is accurate for the rule set, or they just happened to talk to a bunch of people who were kids in the nineties, I don’t know. But a lot of the stuff I put in there, which were requests from marketing and other people don’t make sense in this environment. Like the 2008 version with the missions and the objectives and such, makes the game much more complicated than it should be for the audience they are trying to get to. So I can absolutely see why. The thing that bothers me is that they are going back to Mission Risk, which I don’t like. Because if you don’t know the missions well, or even if you do, you can suffer from, it suffers from what I call, “I win” syndrome. Somebody takes a turn, does something, and says, “I win!” And you go, “Well, I had no idea you were going to win. I wouldn’t have—.” You have to somehow know all the possible objectives, and then be able to logically guess which one each player has, and then be able to stop them across the three or four people you can’t see. And it’s cool, but I don’t know if it’s cool for ten.
CD: And then, even when they would have ten or twelve, a lot of the marketing would be for eight-year olds. They would put in eight-year olds in the advertisements.
RD: That’s surprising. Because normally you market it to ten and then show sixteen year olds. And then the ten-year olds want to play because it looks like the cool olds kids are playing it.
CD: A lot of the commercials I’ve been able to find from YouTube, and some of the old print ads, from the fifties and sixties, show some very young boys. Ten would be pushing it.
RD: Things change. Right? In Risk now, like in the 2008, it didn’t work, but they had twenty-somethings, because they wanted to teenagers to play. They always wanted to be aspirational, look what the older people are playing.
CD: And they would often have a young boy talk to an adult, or pretend he is an adult, or beating his father. It is often a young boy playing at being an older man. That makes it aspirational. Last question, is there anything you hope to have as your legacy or lasting impression you hope to leave on the gaming industry? Or is it just project by project, enjoying it while you can?
RD: I think I’ve made an impression, which I didn’t realize until this year. Because I’m at a point now where I’ve been in it for eighteen years. So there are people now who are adults have grown up with games. So something that I’ve worked on, I wasn’t a major person, but I was third designer on Heroscape, and Betrayal at House on the Hill is still out, and Risk 2210. So there a generation of people who have grown up with games I have done or worked on, or Star Wars games, or Clue Harry Potter, which in my mind is like, “Oh I guess that is a while ago.” I haven’t really thought of it one way or another. But that was 2007, so that was nine years ago. So if you played that as a kid, you’re in college. I’m like, whoah! So the body of my work has added up. And now I’ve done a couple games that have really caught people’s attention in terms of critical success. So I could see myself over the next ten years, I want to top myself. But I’m not putting like a ridiculous amount of pressure. I want just like to be at the point where I have a profit stream from royalties, from doing good games. And that allows me the freedom to continue making games. I can see it on the horizon, but I’m still in start-up mode. It started with Pandemic: Legacy, but that’s only one. That’s one game in my portfolio of royalties. And it’s a big one compared to others, but it’s still one. Right? And so I need a few more games out there. So that’s a little bit of my businessman hat, I’ve got kids going into college, and things like that. So I’ve got to be practical. I can’t just be like, “Money’s no object! I just want to make great games!” Well, that’s not the life I lead. Money is an objective. I don’t need to own a boat, it’s not that kind of money, or I would have picked a different career. So to me it’s blending the mix between making fun games, enjoying myself, making new stuff, and then making a living at it. And then teaching other people how to do it. Like I said, I just showed up for an interview to be a copywriter and I ended up here, so this wasn’t all planned. I’m just surfing what life throws at me.
CD: Enjoying the ride.
RD: Some days. [laughs.] And some days I’m just answering emails.
CD: It’s a balance.
RD: It’s a balance.
CD: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
RD: Thank you for making the drive.
[End of interview]