Tuesday, May 29, 2018

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 122: John A. Bertolini

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:John A. Bertolini
Location:Orlando, FL, USA
Day Job:During the days I work for CoolStuffInc.com at the main headquarters in Maitland, Florida. My current position is in the Purchasing Department, so I'm constantly surrounded by my favorite hobby and by like-minded individuals.
Designing:Five to ten years (about 6 years to be more precise).
Facebook:John A. Bertolini
Find my games at:Prosperity Boardgame FDG Boardgame Shadowrun Doublecross BoardGame
Today's Interview is with:

John A. Bertolini
Interviewed on: 2/10/2018

Today we get to hear from John A. Bertolini, a designer who is one of the fortunate few with a career in the industry, too! John works at Cool Stuff, Inc. (I'm sure you've heard of them) and also designs games in his spare time. John has three games he's working on, including Prosperity, which is currently entered in the Board Game Design Lab 2018 Design Challenge. Good luck John!

Some Basics
Tell me a bit about yourself.

How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Five to ten years (about 6 years to be more precise).

Why did you start designing tabletop games?
For as long as I can remember, I've always loved games and sports. When I could hold a pencil, I started by writing house-rules to improve the rules of the family board games (monopoly, risk, clue, stratego, etc.). I learned to read with D&D books and soon started creating characters and worlds and yes, always writing mods to improve the rules systems. So I guess I've always just felt a need to contribute improvement to the hobby that I love most. I wanted everyone else to love games as much as I did, so I tried to make games as great as they could be.

I would consider my ‘real' amateur leap into designing board games as starting when I finally realized that Game Designer is an actual job and that getting published wasn't just a fantasy. I'd finished up graduate school for Video Game Design and Production and since I couldn't create a video game on my own, I started spending time and energy to return to my childhood love of tabletop games.

What game or games are you currently working on?
Three games that I've been designing seriously on and off. The earliest of those is called Fate, Deeds, and Glory (working title). I started that one for my son who was much smaller than he is now. The second is called Prosperity. The idea for it (building up a city) stemmed from a long-running role-playing game I'd been playing with a group of friends, but it's evolved a quite a lot since its initial concept. The third was called Shadowrun: Double-cross but that title will need to change.

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Not yet.

What is your day job?
During the days I work for CoolStuffInc.com at the main headquarters in Maitland, Florida. My current position is in the Purchasing Department, so I'm constantly surrounded by my favorite hobby and by like-minded individuals.

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
Ideally, at my home or the homes of friends. I like the quiet, comfort and intimacy of familiar surroundings.

Who do you normally game with?
My son and my girlfriend, and our regular group of friends.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
It's rarely up to just me, but we try to mix it up a lot. When we have to compromise, it's usually something like Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Among the Stars, or Star Realms.

And what snacks would you eat?
We don't usually do snacks. Rather, we usually meet around dinner time and grab something on the way. So probably WaWa hoagie bowls.

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
Some thematic music on low volume is great. We usually try to choose something instrumental and thematic to what we're playing, and that usually ends up being generic fantasy or sci-fi movie/video game soundtracks or something similar.

What's your favorite FLGS?
CoolStuff Maitland is both the biggest and the best FLGS.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
Charterstone is the one that pleasantly haunts my dreams at present, so I'd consider that my favorite for the past 2 months. My long-standing favorite has been Cosmic Encounter. Least favorite that I still enjoy is a difficult one – maybe Heroica because my son enjoys it and I enjoy playing anything at all with him. The worst game I've ever played is definitely Quelf.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
Variable Player Powers is something I love when done well. Honorable mentions to Deck Building and Legacy mechanisms. Least favorite is Player Elimination. Unbalanced Take That is almost as bad.

What's your favorite game that you just can't ever seem to get to the table?
Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization

What styles of games do you play?
I like to play Board Games, Card Games, Video Games, RPG Games, Other:Sports

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

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?

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?
For the three games I've designed, my initial thoughts were:
1) "I want to create a family-friendly fantasy adventure game that's as easy to understand as Monopoly but deep enough to be fun for adults also."
2) "I want to create a medium-weight tableau-builder based on multiplayer alliances and rebuilding a magical frontier town."
3) "I want to create a character-centric worker-placement game with lots of dice-chucking and Shadowrun seems like a really cool setting to."
So I guess my answer is ‘something else' because when I design a game I'm truly chasing a feeling (the user experience). The mechanisms (at least the core mechanisms) usually come next, but not always. Overall, I think that mechanisms are the heart of the game but that theme must always influence every mechanical decision.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
I'm currently in the midst of my very first attempt at a competition: the Board Game Design Lab 2018 Design Challenge. The summary video for Prosperity is at https://youtu.be/4mH-sEFiHZo.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
Joe Dever gets most of the credit for getting me into gaming (and reading) when I was like 5-6. His Lone Wolf series was my bible for years. Similarly, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for creating D&D, my favorite tabletop pastime of them all.

Sid Meier was the first designer whose name I learned. He's responsible for me spending countless hours (days/weeks/months) of my life playing Civilization games. And also for my love of history and all of the humanities.

Geoff Engelstein was always a favorite of mine when I listened to a lot of the Ludology podcast and was first getting serious designing board games. I love his way of thinking and he reminds me to try to be more scientific about my designs, so I'd consider him an inspiration and an idol.

Jamey Stegmaier is recently blowing me away, both with his games and with his dedication to the fan communities. I seriously don't know when he finds time to sleep and I only wish I could replicate that. Honorable mention to Richard Garfield and Vlaada Chvátil and probably a dozen more I'm forgetting currently.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
Usually when I'm at work, between the hours of about 10:00am-2:00pm. That's the time when my mind is fully awake and the ideas I'm getting aren't just nonsensical. Occasionally I'll get that flash of insight right as I finally find a comfortable spot at bedtime, but usually my brainstorms come when I'm most alert and had some time to really challenge the creativity with sober consideration.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
For me, playtesting has been the single largest challenge for my designing. I currently do most of my playtesting alone since my friends and family don't really have an appreciation for works in progress (or for playing the same thing over and over). I've never found time to do enough external playtesting to really get my games off the ground. I've considered hiring one of the companies that will playtest for you, but money is also a factor so that hasn't happened yet.

When I do playtest my games, I tend to adopt different approaches as the game develops. At first I'll just try to see if my concept has any legs at all – I'll seek to find out "is this idea fun?" After that, I try to hone in on what exactly is most fun and how those facets of the game could be improved. Eventually, the testing gets more specific to the point where I'll examine specific player strategies or specific elements for balance. I'd love to be more scientific about my testing, but with how little time I have to do so, I can't properly gather many data points.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
When designing video games, I loved being part of a team. Of course, I had to be because I can't code and I can't art. I started designing board games for exactly that reason – because it is something I can do without relying on anyone else. I do think it would be interesting to try designing a board game with another designer, but that opportunity hasn't come up yet.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
My biggest challenge is having enough time and money to do the job of a designer the right way. I'm fully aware of the work involved (and much of it is indeed not fun work), but due to real-world commitments I can't devote as much time or money to my designing as I'd wish to. If I could playtest more, I feel I could get over the wall I'm currently struggling with on all three of my games.

Secondarily, I think all but the most established and famous of designers struggle with the challenge of being noticed in an ever-growing field. With so many new titles being published every year, board games are truly experiencing a golden age. But that just makes the competition that much more fierce. Publishers have only so much time and money, so many designers (even great ones) might never get their shot.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
Well, Shadowrun: Double-cross was designed specifically with the Shadowrun IP in mind and was pitched specifically to Catalyst Games. Not counting what I've already tried though, I'd say either Final Fantasy or one of Jim Henson's worlds (Fraggle Rock, etc).

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
I wish that authority figures (parents, guidance counselors, etc.) would have told me that Game Designer is an actual job that I could have aspired to achieve. I honestly never knew how actually possible it was to chase that dream and possibly make a living of it. Like many creative types, I was encouraged only to pursue more respectable careers like medicine or law. Creativity was something that was seen as nice to have, but not something that would pay the rent. But as most designers know: it is, in fact, a real job that demands real hard work and commitment.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
#1) You have to actually do it. I've heard a lot of people say they have ideas for a game or a book or a movie or whatever… well that's great, but I advise all of those people to give those ideas legs. The most important step is writing down that first idea and making it real. Of course, it's also the easiest because actually seeing a project through to the end takes a heck of a lot of hard work and sacrifice. So the follow up advice I'd give is, don't give up even when it gets difficult.

#2) Share your design with as many other people as you can. Get involved with other designers in a local community, go to conventions, bring your prototype to your FLGS, start a game night meetup and introduce your designs occasionally. I'm not sure that any great designs were created in a vacuum.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Currently looking for a publisher I have: 3
Games that I'm playtesting are: 3

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker's Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Digital Tabletop Gaming
SUP Guild
STARTUP Board & Card Game Designers
Card & Board Game Designers Guild
Tabletop Simulator / Tabletopia Playtest Group

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?
I do love them both, but if pressed, I think it has to be Star Wars. Neither Coke, nor Pepsi – they are equally bad. VHS and Betamax are pretty much the same aren't they? Betamax are physical smaller though, so I guess they win this round.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
I used to try to stay active with sports like Soccer and Tennis, but getting older I've mostly stopped those. I guess what I do most now is helping my son with his homework, playing whatever video games he wants, and negotiating with him to watch good movies.

What is something you learned in the last week?
I learned that "The Black Cauldron" (the 1985 Disney movie) is based on the second book of the Chronicles of Prydain, book a series by Lloyd Alexander. "What," you say, "there's more?" My mind was blown at least.

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Music: Progressive Rock, 90's Alternative Books: As a child, the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever (mentioned previously). As an adult, I tend toward most things by Michael Crichton. Movies: I love movies, so there are far too many to list: The Dark Crystal is probably my #1 if I had to choose.

What was the last book you read?
"Nightmares & Dreamscapes" by Stephen King

Do you play any musical instruments?

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam for almost a year while working for Gameloft as a video game Producer.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
I got married once.

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
I had a kid once.

Who is your idol?
Marcus Aurelius

What would you do if you had a time machine?
Try to fix history and invariably create a paradox where I cease to exist.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
So ‘being' a superhero would normally involve possessing their mind and their thoughts in lieu of my own. So I normally pass on questions like that because I'd want to remain myself. I did figure a way around that though, so my answer is Thor. That is, if I could wield Mjolnir, I could ‘be' Thor - a superhero – with the mind of John A. Bertolini. Sure, the powers of the god of thunder could come in handy on occasion, but that's secondary. So yeah, final answer.

Have any pets?
Currently I have ½ a share of each my son's cat and my girlfriend's cat.

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?
I think that tabletop role-playing is indispensable as a pastime. Sure, humans have been storytelling creatively for millennia, but I think that modern structured roleplaying in all of its glory is just about the pinnacle of our evolution in that area. I'd want future eras of humans to not only continue to roleplay, but to pick up where we left off and continue to improve.

I'm not sure that I'd like to see anything at all buried forever. For good or ill, I think just about everything we've accomplished as a culture can be educational, even if it serves only as a reminder of what not to do.

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):
"To the folks that keep calling me looking for money for any reason, the check is in the mail." I'm sure that will work.

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

I'm not particularly fond of very open-ended questions.

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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