I had the amazing opportunity to interview the board game designer that can do no wrong: Scott Almes. With titles like Loop inc, Harbour, Best Treehouse Ever and the amazingly popular Tiny Epic series just to name a few, he has become the King Midas of board games. Every game he designs turn to gold, some quite literally, most recently Tiny Epic Galaxies winning Best Solo Game of 2015 Golden Geek Award!
His latest creation is no different. Island Hopper, which still has 14 days to go on its Kickstarter (found here), has already funded and is looking like another runaway hit for the man that can do no wrong.
We’ll start with the obvious question most people probably want to know about. Can you walk us through how you design a game? How do you start, what is your process?
My process when I start a game always starts in a notebook, and will stay there for a while. Some designers need to get things to the table as quickly as possible, but that doesn’t work for me. I will sketch out a design in my notebook, and then walk away from it. If I’m still excited about it months later, that’s a positive sign and then I might progress to working on a prototype for the game and see if it’s viable. But, for me, that time when a design sits in a notebook is key. It lets the design age a bit, and when I come back I have a clear sense of what will stick in the players’ minds, and what is boring and unmemorable. Plus, when the design sits in a notebook, it’s still very fluid. So many things can change about it. Once a prototype is made it becomes more difficult mentally to make sweeping changes. If a prototype fails on too many levels, I’m likely going to scrap the project and put it on the shelf. It can be mined for mechanics later on. I have a prototype junk yard for this exact purpose. My goal is to have a prototype that has the soul of the game there – even if it’s completely broken – so I have something to develop from. If I have zero fun on the first play, then I’m just going to work on something else that does. My workspace is very busy, so there’s always something cooler to work on if something isn’t fun.
Do you follow the design philosophy of starting with a theme and building game mechanics around it or do you find it better to think of some great mechanics and find a theme to fit?
Ideas come in all shapes or sizes, so I don’t prescribe to one philosophy more than another. I tend to be theme first, but I’ve had plenty in my catalog that have originated by a mechanic that was in search of the right theme.
While you’ve designed a number of amazing games (Harbour or Tiny Epic Galaxy are my favourites), I’m guessing they don’t all make it to our tabletop. What is your ratio of games you’ve started designing to finished games that have hit the retail market? Can you tells us about one game you started to design that just didn’t make it?
There’s countless one or two sentence ideas that never go anyway, so I won’t include those. I wouldn’t count an idea like “I should do a game about X, and use tile placement!” as an actual design. So, for games that I actually design, as in planning out components and mechanics in earnest, even if I never build a prototype, I have a success rate of maybe one in twenty? Most don’t get to the actual prototype stage. I’m finding I’m pretty good at telling when there is a market for a game, so I have a pretty good ratio of games I’ve submitted to publishers to games that actually get published. About 50% eventually find a publisher, or maybe a bit higher. It’s getting higher as I get further into the career, because I have a good relationship with a lot of publishers and can sometimes pitch games earlier in the process. I’m pretty vicious when it comes to weeding out designs that might not make it. As a product development engineer by trade, I’m used to cutting out things fast when they don’t have good marketability.
How long does it take to complete a finished version of a game?
It’s completely different game to game. My process might take six months to several years. Some mechanics sit in notebooks for five or more years before they find a game that fits them, so it’s hard to even determine when a game begins. I wish there was a clear answer, but it changes rapidly game to game. I will say a lot of the obvious complications do add time. For example, my Tiny Epic series takes longer for the development stage because of the number of special abilities we have.
As someone that is drawn to the art of a game, how do you choose your artists? Do you look at their stylings and think they are a great fit? Also how much artistic freedom do you give them?
The art is nearly always selected by the publisher. Sometimes I’m asked for suggestions, but even that’s rare. My publishers are normally good to keep me in the loop, though, which is nice but not required. For Loop Inc, I had a short list and Kwanchai Moriya was on it. Luckily that’s who we went with. I did suggest to use him for our next game, Island Hopper, and I’m glad they obliged. He does such great work.
Is there a certain board game theme or mechanic that you feel is really overdone and perhaps should go on hiatus for a while?
Not really. I think every theme can be continued to be explored. People will complain about there being too many zombie games or fantasy games, but as long as there are new ways to explore that space it will never get old.
Now with your extensive resume for great games, you probably don’t have a favorite, but if you did, which would it be? When you retire from game designing what do you want your legacy to be?
For my legacy, I think it would have to be my Tiny Epic series. It’s the biggest thing I’ve done so far, and it’s really what brought me into the forefront as a designer.
What about other designer’s games? What’s one game that you love that you wish you designed?
Right now it would be Power Grid. That’s a game that stands head and shoulders above most games in my collection. I’ve had it for six/seven years now, and I’m still eager to play it. I hope one of my games gives a fan that much excitement.
So you currently have Island Hopper running on Kickstarter, tell us a little bit about this game?
Island Hopper is a game that’s a mix of both strategy and dexterity. In the game, players are delivery agents that all bought a plane together. Unfortunately, nobody has any money so the plane is absolute garbage. None of the instrumentation works and the windshield is cracked and covered in seagull feathers. So, whoever is flying it is basically flying blind. Literally. The main mechanic in the game is that the captain of the plane will pick up wooden tokens, close their eyes, and try to drop them on islands to make a successful delivery. Other players will shout and hint at how the captain should fly – for better or for worse. The captain is auctioned off each round, and then players will try to bribe the captain to fly to their island, because there isn’t enough time to get everywhere. The game is full of funny moments, but there’s some true strategy and economic decisions when it comes to the bribing and what islands to go for. It has a nice social aspect because of it. Super fun, and I’m very proud of it.
The crowd funding site Kickstarter has changed the landscape for getting games published. There are more games coming to the market now then we’ve ever seen. Do you think this is a good thing? How do you see Kickstarter affecting board gaming going forward?
I think it’s very much a good thing. The modern board game industry is still young and it just starting its leap forward. However, since it is a small industry there aren’t a lot of investors looking to jump in on a board game company. It’s not like the tech or video game markets where you can get somebody to bankroll a small project. Plus, printing a board game is expensive. Capital is and will always be a problem with an industry like this. Physical products with low print runs is a tough, tough business. Kickstarter is letting some of these businesses grow. Sure, not every Kickstarter game is awesome, but neither is every production game. Even a “big” gaming company might only have two full time employees. You’d be surprised with how little staff there is at some of these companies. So, I think Kickstarter is allowing some great companies to get off the ground, and that’s great in an industry that’s unsupported by traditional investment means.
Another nice side effect is that Kickstarter has a lot of community resources behind it. It’s a brand new community that’s getting excited about gaming. I think anything that grows our hobby is a good thing.
Any hints as to what might be your next Kickstarter game?
Oh, so many! The first expansion to Tiny Epic Galaxies, called Beyond the Black, is kickstarting on September 7th. Problem Picnic: Attack of the Ants is going on Kickstarter Sept 27th. Tiny Epic Quest is going live on October 28th. Then my biggest game ever, Heroes of Land, Air & Sea, will be launching in January. It’s a busy time right now, in all the best ways!
You have been a successful board game designer for over five years now. So lastly, the question you must get asked during every interview. Do you have any advice for up and coming or new designers that would love to follow in your footsteps?
Firstly, I would say don’t get discouraged. I’ve been a successful board game designer for about five years now, but I was a non-successful one for years and years before that. The hardest game is your first, for sure. Second, I would say take advantage of some of the great new designer programs that exist today that weren’t around when I started. Conventions like UnPub are fantastic, and they run prototype areas at most of the major conventions. Third, focus on the fun and not the money. It’s unlikely you’ll get a golden yacht, but you can have a lot of fun and meet some good people.
I would like to again thank Scott for chatting to us here at Australian Tabletop Gaming Network. I know I’m excited about all his new games coming out in the next few months. Not to mention, he has given us a great insight into his processes and some great pointers for people out there looking to break into the industry