Tuesday, June 12, 2018

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 124: Ryan Johnson

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:Ryan Johnson
Location:Clawson, MI USA
Day Job:My day job is a split between running GOB Retail Games and Comics, a game retail store owned by myself and wife and in running the Guild of Blades Publishing Group, the publishing company I have been running with my partner Bruce since the mid 90s.
Designing:Over ten years!
Webpage:gobretail.com & guildofblades.com
Facebook:Ryan Johnson
Find my games at:guildofblades.com and in select game stores.
Today's Interview is with:

Ryan Johnson
Interviewed on: 2/11/2018

Ryan Johnson is a man of many hats. Not only does he design games (mostly historical wargames), he also runs Guild of Blades Publishing Group (along with Bruce Dowrie) and GOB Retail and Comics, the largest game store in Michigan! He's been in the industry for over 20 years and has a number of game designs to his credit, plus a bunch of other designers' games that he's published through Guild of Blades Publishing Group. Read on to hear what he has to say about designing and publishing games.

Some Basics
Tell me a bit about yourself.

How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Over ten years!

Why did you start designing tabletop games?
I started designing games as a young teen. Mostly because I wanted to make improvements to or larger versions, with alterations of games I was already enjoying.

What game or games are you currently working on?
I am currently working on several projects. A multi-layer kingdom building deck building games, the 4th edition to Grunt Fantasy Miniature Battles, the Empires and Armadas box set for the Dark Realms Epic Adventure RPG and revisions to our World War I series of strategy board games in prep for big new edition of those games.

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Yes. Been publishing games for 24 years now. I think between core games expansions and accessories, our company has published over 250 SKUs.

What is your day job?
My day job is a split between running GOB Retail Games and Comics, a game retail store owned by myself and wife and in running the Guild of Blades Publishing Group, the publishing company I have been running with my partner Bruce since the mid 90s.

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
Depends on the kind of game it is. For role-playing games, nothing beats the comforts of the living room. But for card games, miniatures or larger format board games, I would prefer the gaming space at my store.

Who do you normally game with?
My close gaming group includes the same close group friends that I have been gaming with for the last 25 years. My business partner Bruce and some of our friends from way back. But it really depends on the game to be played. Some games you want to be able to play with new people, with different approaches and methods, to keep the experience as board as you can get.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
While I've personally tried my hand at gaming every major brand the industry has today, these days is exceptionally rare we get to play anything but our own games, as there is always something in the works that needs some additional play testing.

And what snacks would you eat?
Can anyone seriously game without pizza?

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
No not really. To me gaming is an opportunity to have fun playing game and to get together with old friends and just enjoying the Bsing. For me, music just becomes a distraction from those two things.

What’s your favorite FLGS?
Well, being the owner of the FLGS, I am pretty sure my opinion will be somewhat biased here. My wife and I own GOB Retail: Games and Comics, Michigan's largest game and comic store. Always wanted to own a game store, but of course, it takes resources to start one correctly, and back when I began publishing, those are resources i didn't have. Not that it's easy to bootstrap a publishing operation, but a publishing gig run part time can kind of survive, but retail needs to be open constantly just to survive, so just can't provide the same flexibility.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
My all time favorite game is a war game called A World in Flames (5th ed). Its long out of print, but was one of the greatest of its kind. It's only problem is, it takes so long to play a game (roughly 8-10 game sessions), I haven't had the chance to play in the last 15 years. For a strategy game I enjoy a lot that I can play in a session or two, our own The War to End All Wars scratches that itch. For RPGing, I love being the Realm Master in the Dark Realms. Though I have certainly played more than my share of D&D back in the day as well. And got lost down the tournament rabbit hole in Magic for a number of years.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
This is such a tough question. So many game types. Difficult to stack up the game mechanics from one game category to another. One game mechanic that I will call eloquent is the way they handled trench warfare in Axis & Allies World War I, in that they reduced the slow pace of trench warfare and simplified it by allowing only a single round of combat.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
A World in Flames

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

Do you design different styles of games than what you play?
I like to design Board Games, Card Games, Miniatures Games, RPG Games, Video 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?
Theme first. I know the kind of game I want to arrive at, then seek the mechanics that will give it to me.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
Not really.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
I think it's best to simply play lots and lots of games. You see what works, what works but only in a limited capacity, what you feel didn't work, etc. You can then shape your own game's play experience around those. Mechanics are just math or some process to get the player engaged into the experience.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
Depends on the game and its stage of life. Games that have been around a while with very stable core mechanics, our own play group is often enough to hammer things out. New games, with new mechanics, we'll test internally first, then turn lose among several outside play groups. We have a couple groups in other states that will give us playtest feedback in exchange for copies when the games release. I will also sometimes round up a group of players at our store looking for additional independent feedback.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I like to work alone on initial design concept stages. But am thankful for the feedback once its shown to others and start highlighting obvious defects that it seems should have been obvious to me. It's so easy for us to get blinders towards these defects. We need others to point them out.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
I find myself designing cards games for the first time in my career. RPGs design around math and concepts. Board games around the board and strategy games around the map, miniature games around the miniatures. But card games, to design them eloquently, means working with a finite number of cards that all have to achieve a lot. It's definitely a new design challenge.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
I would love to work with Robotech. To be able to expand upon that universe.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
When I was first getting into game publishing there used to be a trade organization named the Game Publishers Association (GPA). I joined that group and learned a wealth from veteran publishers like Chris Clark and others. The one thing I wished I had learned earlier is that you have to do you game, your way. Trying to conform to "industry norms" will typically do more harm than good. When a game is working well enough, people will adapt to it.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
As a publisher that publishes our own designs, the one thing we have learned is to create the finished package vision we see for the product. Have an idea what its final form will look like and how you would go about producing that form and its approximately costs. Nothing is worse than having a great game and absolutely no functional way to print and producing it would just be too costly or impractical. One of my best design sits unpublished after 22 years because there is no practical way to publish it. Maybe someday as an online computer game....but the paper option is out.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Published games, I have: Currently our print line has remained fairly stagnant for the last 5 years. Back in 2001 we ventured off the traditional path of game printing and attempted to bring as much of the production in house as possible. We focused on micro print runs of 50 to a few hundred copies at a time because that was what was most fiscally sound. We owned our own B&M printers, cutters, binders, laminators, etc. In 2008 when my wife and I began our retail store, we were half games retail, half print on demand services. Ever since then we have been on the quest to evolve a viable print on demand line for board and card games. So much of our own publications are in a holding pattern today, waiting for the POD operation to relaunch with that newest evolution in quality and process. 6 years ago the bottleneck in that process was a lack of a suitable card die cutting system. We began to develop our own, and this year, at long last, we hope to see it completed. In the interim years we developed a good means to do the 2 piece set ups boxes affordably. Most of our product lines are awaiting new editions or packaging upgrades when the new POD line goes live.
This is what I have currently crowdfunding: We don't currently use any crowdfunding platforms.
Games I feel are in the final development and tweaking stage are: One big evolution we plan to make to our Empires of History line if strategy games is to evolve them from using a type of wargame counters to using little plastic game pieces instead. It’s a challenging leap, due to the scale of the games and the number of plastics. For instance, The War to End All Wars, will take 9 plastic runners each with 119 little figures on it, so 1071 plastic figures per game. That means larger molds and bigger plastic runs to get prices down to a sane level. So the plastics will have a larger run, while the rest of the game will actually be done in smaller runs via POD.
Games that I'm playtesting are: I have a card game in the works, tentatively just titled the Kingdoms Deck Building Game. Its part of that challenge of card game design I have been facing. In it you build a kingdom, using cards both to tile the play scape and build villages, towns, cities, castles, and military and all the infrastructure to support it all. That is a lot to ask 54 cards to do. So the game mechanic allows for "sub decks"...additional decks with a specialization that only unlock when you have specific assets already in play.
Games that are in the early stages of development and beta testing are: A space strategy game where the galactic empires square off. Looking to provide two modes of play. One is where the fleets battle off against each other using our Empires of History dice combat mechanic (similar-ish to Axis & Allies), but where you can play the game in campaign mode in conjunction with the new Empires and Armadas miniatures game. So every time a battle would happen in the strategy game, players would grab their ships in the miniatures game and play a table top miniatures battle to see what survives.

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Yes. Many. Though mostly I just read and try and stay abreast of industry changes and trends.

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?
It’s hard to beat lightsaber duels. But on the "space" part, I have to get with Trek. Diet Pepsi for me actually....I am not allowed to have the sweet stuff. I am actually old enough to remember betamax, it was better quality. But of course, there were almost no movies made in that format, so that kinda sucked.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
I'm a workaholic. It kind of goes with the self employed thing. But I am a history nut, hence, the historical games. So my family and I travel every year, getting to see some new and interest place in the world and some old historical sites. I enjoy fantasy fiction. Movies

What is something you learned in the last week?
That in spite of the new tax law simplifying a few things, it's still massively and unnecessarily more complex than it needs to be.

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Favorite music is old 80 early 90s industry, but make sure to splash in some early Metallica. Favorite book series is the Black Company by Glenn Cook. Favorite movie Matrix Reloaded.

What was the last book you read?
Just recently began reading the Black Company series anew. This will be, I think, my 5th time through. Been about 6 years since my last pass through.

Do you play any musical instruments?
Nope. Not a musically inclined bone in my body.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
Went through 3 unique days of hell during bootcamp. They were trying to drum me out. You see, I've been a habitual smartass. They threw every form of physical punishment the system had at me. And the end of those three days, that night I was standing in the barracks, about half dead, and my commander asked "Johnson, you have fun the last few days". I gave him the best "I'm about to murder you" stare I could muster and said "Oh, yes, sir, can I do it all again?". At that moment, I am pretty sure they thought I was psycho. One thing's for sure, I didn't have a single extra push up left in me, much less 8 hours of rifle jacks on the blacktop in 90 degrees San Diego heat.

What would you do if you had a time machine?
So many people might say they would go off Hitler before his rise, but the butterfly effects from that could end up horrendous. I would use it to go explore periods in history, answer some many of the unanswered mysteries.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
More extro than intro, but I think I fall pretty squarely in the middle on this one.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
Batman. Because I like the brains and the bank account.

Have any pets?
None currently

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?
Role Playing. Its social and can survive with just the rules, assuming the survivors would have a hard time keeping cards or game board safe in the aftermath.

Thanks for answering all my crazy 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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