Tuesday, April 2, 2019

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 165: Aaron Smith

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:Aaron Smith
Location:Los Angeles, CA
Day Job:Writing code for video games. Computer graphics is my specialty. Here's an old demo reel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz2dn8fOuE8
Designing:Over ten years!
Blog:http://sheeplethegame.com/ (pretty empty at the moment)
BGG:Aaron Smith
Facebook:Aaron Smith
Find my games at:They can feel free to email me. I also have some free games I'll be sharing to my email list. If they shoot me an email, I can put them on there.
Sheeple Late Pledge: jetbacker.com/sheeple
Old World New World - out of print, but could be bought secondhand via BGG
Today's Interview is with:

Aaron Smith
Interviewed on: 8/21/2018

Last year Aaron Smith successfully funded his first Kickstarter as a self-publisher for his game Sheeple (the pledge manager is open now for late pledges). He's also published a game through Victory Point Games and as a whole slew of titles he's working on. Read on to learn more about Aaron and his current projects!

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?
Overactive imagination as a child

What game or games are you currently working on?
SHEEPLE: The Best Game in the Ewe-niverse. And many other prototypes

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Old World New World (published by Victory Point Games)

What is your day job?
Writing code for video games. Computer graphics is my specialty. Here's an old demo reel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz2dn8fOuE8

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
Anywhere - brick and mortar game stores, at home, at a bar, at a gaming convention

Who do you normally game with?
Friends and strangers

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
Normally my games, to be honest. Playtesting is just so valuable to a game designer.

And what snacks would you eat?
Pizza and beer

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
Music is too distracting while playing SHEEPLE. If playing a war game, Ride of the Valkyries

What’s your favorite FLGS?
Paper Heroes Games in Sherman Oaks. Really cool gamer community there - who's down to play any type of game, try new games out, and invite other gamers to join their game. I like that kind of mixing and friendliness.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
Favorite: Avalon Hill's Civilization. Least favorite that I enjoy: Terraforming Mars. Worst game ever: Nuke War

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
Favorite: All of them, but if I had to pick one, Tile laying. Least favorite: Player Elimination

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
I'm really looking forward to playing Big Trouble in Little China. The challenge of the game designer is balancing playtesting and promoting your own games, with having time to check out new games.

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, Video Games, Other Games

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
Absolutely! My game SHEEPLE even has a CAH-inspired NSFW deck.

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?
Both, but mechanics first a little more than half the time.

SHEEPLE: mechanics first. It was originally going to be called What Were You Thinking? - but it turns out Richard Garfield had already designed a game with that name. The Sheeple theming was inspired by the book Animal Farm (animals walking on two legs), and my exploration of conspiracy theories at the time ("sheeple"), although I decided the sheeple world should be a positive spin on the whole thing - sheep thinking like people, instead of the other way around.

Old World New World: mechanics first. Inspired by Quoridor, but I thought, what if instead of labyrinth walls, pieces were constrained by the border between land and water? Crossing from one side of the board to the other led to the discovery theme, where the player crosses from the Old Word to the New World

Undisclosed word / strategy game: mechanics first. This was years before I had seen any other games combining word mechanics with strategy - although I'm starting to see more on the market now. I don't want to give too much away, but there will be a fast-paced, frantic part of the game, and a more Euro-feeling part of the game.

Undisclosed vehicle combat game: theming first. The cards were prototyped with playing cards, and the board was originally drawn with pencil and paper and Circus Maximum gameplay... and eventually a hexagonal card-driven movement system was added.

Undisclosed abstract strategy game: mechanics first. I was originally playing around with transitioning Go to a hexagonal board. The resulting game was terrible. But crossing it with Pente started to yield good results, and tweaking / simplifying the mechanics led to something good, with depth of gameplay roughly equivalent to chess, but with more emphasis on position and less on material.

Undisclosed horror game: theming first. I had an idea for a game combining the movies Saw and Cube, with both co-op and competitive gameplay modes. Who wouldn't want to be in the middle of a horror movie? I played around with the concept being a tile-based game, a tile-based game with intentionally-stressful party elements, and a video game. Nothing was really working. While I was travelling, I prototyped it with normal playing cards. A 20-year-old French kid came over and wanted to play. I told him I had no idea if it was any good yet, since it was literally the first playtest, and to my surprise, it worked out quite well. Of course, the playing cards will become tiles.

Undisclosed war game: mechanics first. Was looking for a game in between the complexity of two very popular war games - one that is low complexity and lets you do anything, and one that is medium complexity and locks you into a particular historical country and war. It's only been playtested once, but the results were promising.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
Two: * Hippodice - Old World New World was a finalist (top 10)
* Rio Grande Games Design Contest - Old World New World was a finalist (top 10). It turns out Jay Tummelson (the owner) hated the game from the very pitch. Since I had flown all the way to Chicago, I kind of insisted he play a round. He still hated it. To each his own, though. Jay's a great guy.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
Richard Garfield, though perhaps he's somewhere between someone I look up to as a game designer, and a rival, hehe. I've had a lot of fun playing Magic: The Gathering over the years, however I dislike that it's a money game; also, I had to change the theme of my game What Were You Thinking, as I previously mentioned... and he also game up with another party game involving puns that some people have compared SHEEPLE to. Well, I think I did the better job with the puns on this one. But he's definitely a very talented game designer. Any time I'm thinking along similar lines to Mr. Garfield, I know I must be on the right track.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
Every time I get an idea, whether I think it's a good idea or not, I write it down on a notepad app on my phone. I travelled around Asia for 16 months - that was an amazing source of inspiration. Playing new games is very important. As a child, I was an only child, so I think that was a positive in that inventing new ideas was key to overcoming boredom. I also dabble in multiple creative endeavors, watch movies, read books, read the news, check out the newest games on the game store shelf, etc. There's no telling where the next great idea will come from.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
1. Inviting friends over to playtest it. 2. Bringing it to family gatherings. 3. I belong to SoCalPlaytesting, a group of game designers in LA who playtest each other's games.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
Both. I've invented plenty of games on my own. There are also certain friends I've collaborated with to create games. SHEEPLE started as a collaboration.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
I have so many ideas, yet following through on one idea takes a lot of time. Working on a Kickstarter takes a ton of time. I plan on balancing Kickstarting with working with publishers, just so I can get more of my games out there.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
I haven't thought about it a ton. Probably Star Wars, MTG, or Game of Thrones.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
Put less work into the art upfront, and when looking for a publisher, hit up 100-200, then do some analysis and pick the best one. This is a great rule for business, in general.

I also had the idea that self-publishing makes more money than going through a publisher. I think, this is not always the case. Self-publishing requires a ton of time and money on the front end. Working with the right publisher could be a benefit in some cases - it just depends on the publisher.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
Before playtesting with your friends, you should auto-playtest (playtest with yourself). You can discover quite a bit this way, and playtests are a scarce resource, so you should try to get the most out of them.

You need to consider the type of game you enjoy designing, the game itself (whether it is fun), and your playtesters tell you, and what type of game the world is looking for. Definitely, browsing games stores, both the FLGS and Walmart variety, is a good idea.

For getting your game published, there are a few options, each with their pros and cons:
1. Work with a publisher.
2. Self-publish, via Kickstarter.
3. Self-publish the old fashioned way - print 500 copies of your game, and start selling it at gaming conventions.
4. Work with an agent.

So far, I've tried 1, 2, and 4. I'll let you know when I discover which is the best.

My take on each:
1. For working with a publisher, be picky - Try to find the best publisher for your game. Going with a publisher is not necessarily any better or worse than doing it yourself with Kickstarter. You're getting a smaller piece of the pie, but it could be a much bigger pie.
2. For Kickstarter - A big opportunity, but tons of work. And not all games do equally well on Kickstarter. I found out the hard way that party game are harder to sell. But a mega strategy game with tons of miniatures can do quite well.
3. have a designer friend who prints 500 copies of his game and sells it at conventions, and does quite well. Definitely something to consider, especially for card games.
4. An agent actually reached out to me after the success of the Sheeple Kickstarter. So far, working with him has been amazing, and has opened up a ton of new doors. Definitely something to consider. Great in general for party games or mass market games. Tons of potential opportunities are coming in - I'll keep you posted when something breaks.

In the video game world, I have seen a lot of rookie designers come up with a great pitch on paper, but they haven't thought through the core gameplay mechanics enough to actually turn it into a fun game. There might be enough art and music to distract from the game. I've also worked with some excellent designers. That's a difference with board games - all you have is the game, so it's either fun or it's not. There's nothing to hide behind. But on the plus side, prototyping a new game is a lot faster. A lot of video games I've worked on focus test near the end - it should be one of the first things you do.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Published games, I have: Old World New World - was published by Victory Point Games. May be republished by Queen Games, we're talking at the moment.
Games that will soon be published are: Sheeple: The Best Game in the Ewe-niverse. * The Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/asmithgames/sheeple-the-best-game-in-the-ewe-niverse
* You can Late Pledge here: https://www.jetbacker.com/sheeple

Currently looking for a publisher I have: * Sheeple - Though I'm self-publishing this, I'm also reaching out to larger publishers for this one. It's a great mass-market game, and I'd like to see it at Targets and Barnes and Nobles.
* Old World New World v. 2 - This is a huge update to the classic Age of Exploration / tile laying / abstract strategy / racing across land and water game, adding new mind-bending twists like diagonal movement, and more ways to shift the terrain on the board and change paths dynamically.
* (Secret name) - A fast-paced game involving trading letters with other players, building words, and scoring points. A little something for everyone from word freaks to strategy gamers.
* (Secret name) - A really crazy twist on charades, something that has never been done before.
* (Secret name) - A beautiful hexagonal abstract strategy game. Chess meets Go, meets Tic Tac Toe. With the depth of chess, but more positional.

Games I feel are in the final development and tweaking stage are: Too many to list!
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: Tons of games - one involving Mediterranean shipping, one involving zombies, another game inspired by Go, one involving Goblins, one involving space, etc.

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Tabletop Game Publisher's Guilde

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?
Used to be Star Wars. With some of the recent Star Wars abominations coming out, Star Trek is starting to look better. Coke; Pepsi is too sweet, although Cherry anything is even better. Betamax was before my time.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
Rapping (I made and will be releasing a SHEEPLE rap very soon), travelling the world, volleyball, skydiving, bungee jumping, scuba diving.

What is something you learned in the last week?
Octonions may be fundamental to understanding the fundamental forces of physics. Octonions are 8D numbers, the natural continuation from complex numbers (a + bi, where i = sqrt(-1), which are useful in physics) and quaternions (4D numbers, useful for blending animations and rotations in video games). It was a suspicion I'd had for a couple years, and physicists are pretty excited about it - it may answer some questions about the Universe. We'll find out. What an exciting time to be alive! [GJJ Games] - I was reading about these types of numbers a few weeks ago, too. Wow, they’re a challenging concept to wrap your brain around, but it’s fascinating how they can be used to help explain some of the universe’s greatest mysteries!

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Music: Rap, electronic, classic 90's / early 2000's.
Books: sci-fi, nonfiction
Movies: The Matrix, Princess Mononoke, Dark City, El Toppo, etc.

What was the last book you read?
A Beginner's Guide to Reality (a philosophy book deconstructing what you think you know about reality)

Do you play any musical instruments?
keyboard - a little, enough to read basic sheet music, or compose a simple A minor song
guitar - even less
rapping, if that counts as an instrument

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I was a play-it-safe introvert as a child, and only became a risk-taking extrovert later in life. The movie Fight Club inspired me to be more daring.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
Travelling across Asia for 16 months, including a 6 month motorbike trip across Vietnam.

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
Accidentally discovered an orphanage while I was exploring Vietnam, instantly bonded with these kids. I started both a fundraiser for them and a volunteer program. Big Family Orphanage is the name.

Who is your idol?
Elon Musk

What would you do if you had a time machine?
Prevent the burning down of the Library of Alexandria

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
Both. I can be super extrovert (and have to be to run a Kickstarter), but I definitely need to recharge and be an introvert at times.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
Magneto. When I watch movies these days, I'm finding myself rooting for the villian, more often. They're more interesting, more realistic, more human, less cringe-worthy. Don't get me wrong, I want to make the world a better place and all that.

Have any pets?
No, but I love both dogs and cats. My parents have a little 4-pound Yorkie, he's considered to be my little brother, and I have no problem with that.

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?
chess; cockroaches

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 dad

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

I'm going to be starting a creativity blog on my YouTube, where I break down the pattern behind all creativity. The method behind the madness.


Sheeple Late Pledge: jetbacker.com/sheeple

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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