Tuesday, April 9, 2019

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 166: Jonathan Woodard

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:Jonathan Woodard
Location:Boulder, CO based, but playing "digital nomad" in Europe in 2019
Day Job:Fractional CTO; I help technology businesses build strong engineering teams, software, and process.
Designing:Over ten years!
BGG:Jonathan Woodard
Other:I use a lot of those, but don't have public profiles on any.
Find my games at:GenCon, then Essen! Also online:
Potemkin Empire on Kickstarter
Potemkin Empire on BGG
Time Chase on BGG
Today's Interview is with:

Jonathan Woodard
Interviewed on: 1/14/2019

Jonathan Woodard has been designing games for a while now, and has his first two published games coming out this year. Right now, on Kickstarter, you can find Potemkin Empire with Indie Boards & Cards and later this year Time Chase will be available from Renegade Games. Be sure to check out Potemkin Empire right away; it only has a few more hours on Kickstarter!

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 recently found some of my earliest designs (~ late middle school / 1996), and I think it was because board games were just… what I was doing a lot of — Hero Quest, Dark Tower, The Omega Virus, and Magic: TG were a few of my key early inspirations, and I was just driven to *make something*, so that's what I made.

What game or games are you currently working on?
A tile laying game about Harris Hawks, a game called Weathercasters about meteorologists who are also wizards, a game about the destruction of Gaul during the Gallic war, and a few others still very early.

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Two games signed, releasing this year (2019… likely GenCon & Essen)

What is your day job?
Fractional CTO; I help technology businesses build strong engineering teams, software, and process.

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
With friends in someone's home, or at a bar!

Who do you normally game with?
I've got a group who played through all of Rise of Fenris together, and occasionally for stuff like Terra Mystica, also lots of exploring new games with my designer friends from Denver's Prototopia group, and some 2p stuff (Odin's Ravens, Fox in the Forest) with my wife at breweries.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
I've been really wanting to give "Root" a try.

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
A have a friend who always puts on "cinematic" movie soundtracks while we're playing stuff, which is rad, but I never think to do it myself.

What’s your favorite FLGS?
I love Vault of Midnight in Ann Arbor Michigan, but I'm struggling to find a favorite in Colorado.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
Rise of Fenris really let me connect with Scythe at a new level, which was great,

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
Flexible economies are 🔥— the resource tracks in Power Grid and Wealth of Nations are some of my favorite applications of real-world concepts in tabletop gaming. Also anything where there are clever side-effects of the primary actions you choose. I'd say I'm pretty shit at anything that involves linking a lot of complicated combos together; I might be the worst M:TG player I've ever met, so I get frustrated with those. Also anything where there's a lot of everyone-plays-on-their-own-mat… I like the interaction and verification that people (me, mostly) aren't making silly mistakes with their turns.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
I've been trying to get Wealth of Nations back to the table for almost three years…

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

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

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
How long of a response can Google Forms fit? My opinion on this game is incredibly nuanced — The game can be super fun in the right crowd, but I think the mechanisms and choices of what they include on some cards have set up a lot of people to express their worst selves and make all sorts of awful jokes during gaming, but I'm stoked about the pro-social efforts the company is backing with their money-printing machine. I also think that the fun this triggers is a really base dopamine hit, and it just presses that button over and over again, which makes it really hard to play anything more cerebral after — game night turns into that science study where the gerbil starves to death because it just keeps hitting the 'orgasm' button and ignores the 'food' button.

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?
I usually get inspiration for games from the world around me (real-life systems with interesting interactions, etc.) and I put them into my Catch Sheet (https://woodar.dj/blog/catch-sheet/) to let them stew while I work on other stuff. So a little bit like theme-inspired-mechanics, if you will. I also wrote an 8-part blog series on why it's more important to consider the Player Experience (https://woodar.dj/blog/player-experience-px/) rather than either of these approaches.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
I have! I submitted a design for the Letter Head contest with Atlas which won me a copy of one of their games and inclusion in the game's "DLC" if you will. My first signed game was also a result of entering the design contest at Geekway to the West last year. I didn't win, but the sponsoring publisher liked it enough that they chose to sign it in addition to the winning game.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
Tough to say! Sometimes when I see the clever interactions some of the 'modern legends' like Lang or Daviau or Stegmaier come up with, I just have to sit back in awe. I also have a ton of respect for Daniel Solis, and his commitment to designing and iterating in public via his twitter feed and Patreon. And I have to give a shout to Daryl Andrews, who hustles harder than just about anyone

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
Being out in the world, and observing how systems operate in and around each other; consuming a rich array of media and inputs, and just trying to keep my mind fertile enough to let the ideas settle and germinate.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
I have a mailing list of local friends who have expressed a willingness to try my unfinished crap; there's also an invaluable designers/testing group in Denver called Prototopia that I've been a part of for a few years now. But while I'm traveling this year, 'how I playtest things' is a bit of an open question at the moment.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I wish I could be a good co-designer, because I feel like some of the teamups we've seen recently have put out some really incredible stuff, but so far I've proven to be pretty terrible at it. Always something work on!

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
I struggle with cutting out cards… I find it so tedious and it drags me to a halt on almost every design that includes them, which is bad, because cards/decks are one of the most powerful components available to designers. I also find it really hard to ask people for things, so sending out a blast to my testers list to schedule things is sometimes a challenge.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
Been noodling recently on what a game based on two of my favorite 90s cartoons no one seems to remember might look like — either The Centurions or Dinosaucers. Or Captain Simian and the Space Monkeys. Really any television show that's been lost to time.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
Just f*ing do it, man. Build the prototype, get people to try it, keep iterating on it. And that publishers are very approachable if you just email them or attend a few conventions. If I'd actually gotten to the business of *designing games* instead of just scribbling in my notebook when I first started coming up with game designs… I'd potentially be a household name by now.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
Make sure you have a really broad gaming and media 'diet' — the games you design tend to feel like the games you have familiarity with, and if what you play/hear about/see is limited, your creative design space will be too!

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: Two in 2019! One should be dropping at GenCon, the other hitting Kickstarter in the next few months.
Games currently crowdfunding: Potemkin Empire for just a few more hours!

Currently looking for a publisher I have: Trying to find one my earliest and most ambitious designs, Valour, a home now going on about four years. It's a game chronicling the Gallic War, from the perspective of Gaul; it highlights some of the Celtic Gaul's interesting ways of interacting and governing each other, in the face of an insurmountable invading force of Julius Caesar's Roman armies. It's competitive, but many mechanisms require either explicitly or implicitly to help the other players out.

I also have a lighter all-ages tactical game I'm shopping around, called First Snow! Where players team up to wail on each other during a snowday; it leverages some of the interesting characteristics of a snowball fight: The battlefield IS both the ammunition, and also any hope of a defensive structure.

I'm planning to crowdfund: Never say never, but… probably never.
Games I feel are in the final development and tweaking stage are: A shorter tile-laying/area control game tentatively called Harris' Hawk Hunt, where players are a family of Harris Hawks out on a hunt. I wrote a design diary about this just this month where I go into a lot of detail about that idea I mentioned previously, where my best ideas come from interacting and observing systems out in the real world: https://woodar.dj/blog/harris-hawk-designer-diary/
Games that I'm playtesting are: A bunch of stuff swimming in this space: A suite of games that interact with each other and can be played simultaneously (working, badly on my end, with a co-designer), a Viking-themed trading/economic game called Thingvalley, a game using weather-map symbology where players are spell-casting meteorologists called Weathercasters.
Games that are in the early stages of development and beta testing are: Something really cool and genre-shifting that I'm not ready to talk about just yet!
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: Too many to list 😬

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Yeah, a bunch of those, but I try not to log into Facebook more than once a week or so.

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?
Both excellent franchises but when the battle lines are drawn I'm definitely bringing a lightsaber. Pepsi, but I don't drink pop anymore. Gotta go with Laserdisc.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
Writing; building software; is Crossfit a hobby?

What is something you learned in the last week?
Sparkling wines made in Spain are called "Cava" — but the term was only invented after they joined the EU and became subject to France's laws of appellation; before that they just called it "Spanish Champagne".

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
I like lots of music, but find myself drawn to metal a lot, it helps me concentrate. And since it's such a divided genre, more specifically symphonic and folk metal. The best show I've ever been to was an Eluveitie show. Most of my reading is fiction, sci-fi or fantasy. Movies, I'm sort of all over the board.

What was the last book you read?
Mostly an audiobook guy; the last book(s) I listened to were N. K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" books. Really incredible works.

Do you play any musical instruments?
"Rhythm" and "Pitch" are two of my dump stats, so everyone is pretty much better off if I don't.

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I did two "Ironman" races in my twenties. A lot of people I've met more recently don't know that.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
Broke into the Michigan Central Station (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Central_Station) which has been abandoned for decades; Climbed 17 flights of rotting stairs to the roof & took pictures all along the way. It's an amazing building, and was a relatively common "UrbEx" destination at the time, but still dangerous as hell.

Who is your idol?

What would you do if you had a time machine?
I'd see what humankind gets up to / looks like over the next 100, 1000, 10,000 years.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
I think the term is ambivert? Sometimes I get super amped being in a crowd, and other times I just need to get the hell away from everyone. Both kind of recharge me, but depends on my mood.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
Without dipping too far into spoilers, there's a certain appeal to Christian Walker from the Powers comic series, except that he seems to repeatedly forget everything. Otherwise, one who could read minds… Martian Manhunter or The Shadow?

Have any pets?

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?
Tribalism, and the fear and hatred of people who are "different" — I'd hope such a catastrophic global event would force us to realize that we're all the same species trapped on the same rock, and we should act like it. I think games that didn't require a lot of storage or were easy to cart around would stick around — card games, etc. I also think we'd revert back to our species' storytelling roots, perhaps storytelling games & RPGs would become a universal pass-time, or way to share history.

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):
Can't overlook BeBo, who provided some much-needed advice and encouragement at a critical time in my growth as a designer.

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

Be excellent to each other. 🚀

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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