Tuesday, November 21, 2017

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 96: Johnathan Ness

Welcome to People Behind the Meeples, a series of interviews with indie game designers.  Here you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know about the people who make the best games that you may or may not have heard of before.  If you'd like to be featured, head over to http://gjjgames.blogspot.com/p/game-designer-interview-questionnaire.html and fill out the questionnaire! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples. Support me on Patreon!

Name:Johnathan Ness
Location:Pinehurst, TX (near Houston)
Day Job:Financial Analyst
Designing:Five to ten years.
BGG:hyraxwthaflamethrowr (stupid character limits)
Facebook:Hyrax With a Flamethrower Games
Find my games at:They're not currently available for sale. Of course, for anyone willing to massively overpay, I'd make an exception. :D
Today's Interview is with:

Johnathan Ness
Interviewed on: 8/1/2017

While John Ness hasn't published anything, he's a frequent participant in several of the game design groups on Facebook. He has a bunch of projects in various stages of completion that sound pretty interesting. So read on to learn more about John and his projects and keep an eye out for him to hit the big time soon!

Some Basics
Tell me a bit about yourself.

How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Five to ten years.

Why did you start designing tabletop games?
I had a tight-knit group of friends that enjoyed Fluxx, so I worked up a version of it that had our group, hangouts, etc. in it, along with some fun new rules. I then expanded to designing my own simple games with an emphasis on humor rather than deep, strategic gameplay.

What game or games are you currently working on?
I have more ideas for games than current projects. I eagerly get started on an idea when I have it, play with it for a few hours or a few days, have another idea, and leave the first. There are a few, though, beyond the fledgling stage. One is called Villainous Plots, in which everybody is a supervillain trying to collect the 5 necessary components to build their superweapon. They do this by completing villainous plots, which require the use of henchies (our gender-neutral term for henchmen), not-so-super-weapons (one-time use gadgets), and mad skillz. They also have to fight the resident superhero, aptly named Sue Perhero. The game is filled with puns and jokes, as every card has flavor text. This one is pretty nearly done as far as gameplay and has been tested on various groups, though never blind-tested. It needs a massive upgrade to its graphic design, though, before it's marketable. The second one is a party game called Trade-offs, which is like Cards Against Humanity (except way more family-friendly) meets Would You Rather? Each player gets 5 green cards that start with "You could..." and 5 red cards that start with "...But". The green cards are good things that can happen and the red are bad. The mechanics are similar to Cards Against Humanity, except that the players must match a green card with a red card for each topic, with the bad always triumphing over the good. I have a third one in the early stages in which all of the players are trying to grab each of five gems from a mage in a cave. Each gem has its own negative effect and with each one a player takes, the mage sends out more monsters and traps to hinder them (these are placed by the next player in any cave that has at least one gem in it, but not at the end). There's also an economic component, as a player's meeples can be sent into the cave or put to work to earn money to buy equipment that will help them explore. They can upgrade their income capability or their hospital to care for injured explorers. It'll be my most complex one yet...provided I can get the mechanics to work.

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Not yet. I've improved a lot over the last year in terms of game design, but graphic design, artwork, and especially marketing are way beyond me. Plus, with the crowded market, limited time, and dubious likelihood of a profit, I'm still deciding whether I want to do a KS or try to sell my games to publishers, which I know has its own challenges and drawbacks.

What is your day job?
Financial Analyst

Your Gaming Tastes
My readers would like to know more about you as a gamer.

Where do you prefer to play games?
People's houses. I used to play Monopoly Deal a bit at restaurants with friends while we waited for our food or after we ate, but I generally don't like the idea of eating while playing.

Who do you normally game with?
My wife and I play games at home, sometimes with our renter, 3-4 times a week. I'm also a member of 2 game groups that meet monthly and occasionally have smaller gatherings during the month.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
Anything I haven't played yet. I'm pretty open, so long as the theme isn't horror or overtly sexual.

And what snacks would you eat?
Chocolate chip cookies are my favorite, especially if they're cool enough that chocolate doesn't get on my hands. Basically, though, whatever won't cause me to make a mess on a game.

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
No, I prefer it to be quiet to allow for easier interaction.

What’s your favorite FLGS?
The Gaming Goat, easily. Other stores may have a larger selection, but none that I've been to can compete with them on price. Plus, if I ever do get a marketable version, they're willing to let me blind playtest it on their customers and might even buy some copies for the store, which is really cool of them. [GJJ Games] Yes, The Gaming Goat is an awesome chain! I have one just down the street from me and it’s my FLGS of choice. I love the fact that they’re spreading across the country (the flagship store is about an hour away from me).

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
Current favorite: Pandemic Iberia. It's just such a tough co-op. If you waste one turn, you could lose. I love a good challenge. Least favorite that I still enjoy: probably Smallworld. It's hard, though, because 2 of the 3 times I've played this have been with fewer than 4 players, and I think this game is best with 4 or more. Worst game: The Oregon Trail. Just flat broken. With their rules, especially with losing supplies while trying to ford a river, I don't see how you can possibly win with 3 or fewer players.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
Favorite: either co-op or deck builder. Naturally, this makes Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle another favorite, though it is a little too easy. Least favorite: Hidden identity or card drafting, but that could be because I suck at both. :)

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
Through the Ages, just because it takes quite a while to play. Very in-depth and we still haven't played with the military aspect of it.

What styles of games do you play?
I like to play Board Games, Card Games

Do you design different styles of games than what you play?
I like to design Board Games, Card Games

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
Occasionally, but the shock value gets old quick.

You as a Designer
OK, now the bit that sets you apart from the typical gamer. Let's find out about you as a game designer.

When you design games, do you come up with a theme first and build the mechanics around that? Or do you come up with mechanics and then add a theme? Or something else?
It depends. Sometimes an idea just hits me; I've even dreamed up an idea for a game (still in my list of unstarted projects). Usually, though, I start with a theme and try to develop my mechanics around it. I do my best to make the rules intuitive, so that by the time everyone's had 2 turns, most of them know what they're doing. I think it adds to the experience more to have mechanics that fit the theme and make sense for the world I'm creating.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
Not yet.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
Not really. I don't mean disrespect to anyone, but I try to view each game as a different offering. Vlaada Chvátil, for example, did Codenames and Through the Ages. They're both good, especially the latter, but they're so different I was surprised when I found out the same guy did both. It's like movies in that, even though I may like most of what a given actor is in or most of what a director has done, there are still movies I may not like or parts I'd have done differently. Who's to know what the next one will be like? Besides, with a limited budget, I can't afford to get too many games from a single designer; I like to experience a broad variety of games.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
Sometimes, I base an idea for a game on a game I like, but think could be improved. Castle Panic is fun, but very simple and too easy, so I started designing a game that would be more in-depth and difficult. Usually, though, my best ideas just hit me out of the blue when I'm focusing on something else.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
90% of it is done with my endlessly patient wife. We do try to be methodical, though, altering our personas to be aggressive, defensive, shunning "take that", and trying to find different ways to win. The rest of our testing is done with our gaming groups or at our FLGS, though the latter's only happened once.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I design the game, bouncing ideas off my wife as I go. Then we playtest a few times, work out most of the kinks, then take it to our gaming groups for feedback. We haven't really tried to make the games marketable yet, so we haven't paid for graphic designers, artists, etc.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
The market is so crowded with talented people that it's hard to stand out, especially since I don't know how to market. There's also the time issue. I could pour in all my spare time into this, but with little chance of being able to do this for a living, it feels like I'd just be banging my head against a wall.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
Probably Game of Thrones. So much complexity in the books, and so many characters...I think you could make an extremely challenging and fun war and diplomacy game out of it. It'd be difficult to make, but would be one of those massive epics if done right.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
Dig deep and play lots of different games so you can know what works, what doesn't, and why. My first few games were based on my sense of humor. My friends liked them well enough, but (and I'm embarrassed to admit this) my first entirely new game was a roll-and-move. At the time, Catan was the most complex game I'd played. With each new game, I'd introduce a mechanic I'd not seen yet, but the games were still very simple and light. It's not that there's anything wrong with that market, but unless they're party games, they're not the games people are often that interested in.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
1. Don't do it for the money. There are a few dozen people who are famous designers or own a publishing company and can do this for a living. Most of us would be thrilled to not lose money on a funded Kickstarter. If you're not in it for the love of games and to make others happy, you're not going to be happy yourself. 2. Find people who will give you honest feedback without being jerks about it. In the early stages of one of my games, I took it to a group that absolutely shredded it, offering lots of insults but next to no constructive feedback or ideas. Thankfully, this has only happened once. You'll need a thick skin as a designer, but you also need people to give you constructive criticism, people who won't just tell you your game is broken right now, but will offer their thoughts on how to fix it. 3. Be prepared to hate your game. To get all the kinks out of any game of appreciable depth, you'll have to playtest it til you're sick of it. And then playtest it some more. My wife and I have played Villainous Plots with each other far more than any other game we have. And we had to keep testing it, trying new ideas out several times a week, until it was balanced and worked.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Games that will soon be published are: Hoping to get Trade-offs published first. As a party game, there's a ready market for it, considering that it seems many people have cooled to over-the-top shock humor, but still like the base mechanics.
Currently looking for a publisher I have: None yet. Trade-offs needs an upgrade in graphic design that I'm debating whether or not to invest in.
I'm planning to crowdfund: If I was going to crowdfund, I'd probably do it with Villainous Plots. With my weak marketing skills, though, it's probably not going to happen.
Games I feel are in the final development and tweaking stage are: Villainous Plots is very near completion; there's just one more thing I need to add (all game designers have said this, I'm sure). Trade-offs is done, though I may try to make just a handful of the cards funnier. Both need graphic design and art upgrades, but since I can't do that myself, my part in their design is nearly done.
Games that are in the early stages of development and beta testing are: The game about gems in a cave is starting to take shape. I need to print off and cut out the pieces and start testing it this weekend.
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: Too many to count. :)

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
On Facebook: The Boardgame Group; BoardGameGeek; Kickstarter Boardgames,Wargames and other Geek stuff; Tabletop Game Kickstarter Advice; Card & Board Game Designers Guild; Art & Graphic Design for Tabletop Games.

And the oddly personal, but harmless stuff…
OK, enough of the game stuff, let's find out what really makes you tick! These are the questions that I’m sure are on everyone’s minds!

Star Trek or Star Wars? Coke or Pepsi? VHS or Betamax?
Star Wars (except for the prequels and episode VII), Pepsi, and VHS

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
Reading, flash games on the computer, writing, and baseball

What is something you learned in the last week?
It was just a thought that struck me, but if Kermit and Ms. Piggy had kids, they'd be hamphibians. [GJJ Games] HA!!!

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Music: eclectic. Books: sci-fi / fantasy. Movies: sci-fi / comedy

What was the last book you read?
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Do you play any musical instruments?

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
Kind of an odd question, since few people have ever heard of me. How would they know enough to be surprised? Ummm, my favorite thing about myself, though, is that my sense of humor never dies. I was in the ER once and while they were still trying to figure out what was wrong with me, I was cracking jokes. Life is too short and too dark to not laugh when and where you can.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
Got stung by a scorpion and then went to a concert instead of a doctor. Some friends from college were playing so I figured if I had a bad reaction or passed out, they'd take care of me. As it turned out, I was fine, just the initial pain and an upset stomach for the rest of the night.

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
Dropped my dorm room key down the elevator shaft on accident freshman year. After a week, my roommate demanded I get a new one rather than keep leaving the door open, so I did. Next year, I'm in the same room, but work a part-time job on the other side of campus. It was in the basement (A/V Dept.), a labyrinth that few non-science majors ever went. One day, the key I'd lost just showed up on the computer in the office. Nobody who worked there had put it there and I hadn't mentioned it to anyone since over a year before.

Who is your idol?
Don't have one. There are people who I respect a great deal, but I want to be my own person. Everyone else is already taken, after all.

What would you do if you had a time machine?
Assuming it wouldn't muck up the current timeline too much, go back in time and tell myself to invest in Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Google at the right times and give myself other stock advice for when a company was about to double overnight. Once I was set for life, I could design games full-time. I'd also like to go back to various events in history and just be an observer.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
Introvert, but playing games helps me socialize.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
Thor - extraordinarily long life, can go toe-to-toe with Hulk and live, no major weaknesses (unlike Superman and kryptonite), and still looks like a human. Wonderman is also cool, but not having kids and being immortal might suck after a while.

Have any pets?
A year-old golden retriever named Gypsy. She's a beautiful klutz.

When the next asteroid hits Earth, causing the Yellowstone caldera to explode, California to fall into the ocean, the sea levels to rise, and the next ice age to set in, what current games or other pastimes do you think (or hope) will survive into the next era of human civilization? What do you hope is underneath that asteroid to be wiped out of the human consciousness forever?
Baseball has a depth of strategy that few casual fans seem to appreciate. I'd also want a variety of board games to last. As for what I'd want to be wiped out forever, the man bun and skinny jeans.

If you’d like to send a shout out to anyone, anyone at all, here’s your chance (I can’t guarantee they’ll read this though):
My wife, though she probably won't read this. A few people on BGG helped me come up with the title for Villainous Plots. The game groups at the Tomball Lone Star Library and the Spring Young Couples Game Night meetup for playtesting my games and giving me helpful feedback. The Gaming Goat for letting me test my games their on unsuspecting customers.

Just a Bit More
Thanks for answering all my crazy questions! Is there anything else you'd like to tell my readers?

Three horses were talking before a race. One says, "I don't mean to dash any of your hopes, but I've been in 19 races and won 10 of them." Second horse says, "Not bad, not bad, but I've been in 25 races and won 17." Third horse says, "You're fast, but I've been in 42 races and won 37 of them." Just then a greyhound walks up and says, "Overheard you guys talking and just want to say that I've been in 104 races and won them all." The horses' mouths drop wide open. They look at the dog, then at each other, then at the dog again. Finally, in unison, they all say, "Wow...a talking dog!" [GJJ Games] I love this joke! I used to tell it, but extend the horses’ conversation to about 10 minutes before getting to the dog and the punchline. People hated it! :-D

--- EXTRA ---

One billion dollars (you said to put anything I want, and I want that). [GJJ Games] Fair enough...

Thank you for reading this People Behind the Meeples indie game designer interview! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples and if you'd like to be featured yourself, you can fill out the questionnaire here: http://gjjgames.blogspot.com/p/game-designer-interview-questionnaire.html

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