Wednesday, November 27, 2019

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 199: James 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 and fill out the questionnaire! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples. Support me on Patreon!

Name:James Johnson
Location:Houston, TX
Day Job:I am an Administrative assistant for the University of Houston's College of Education. I work with students, but I mainly assist with R&D and design work-flow systems to improve daily operations. If Shardforge and other graphic design and game designs could become our day job, that would be a dream -- a dream which could come true with the community's support.
Designing:Over ten years!
Find my games at:You will find news and links about how and where to play our games at Skyfall.Design as soon as they are available. Information about Shardforge, the Card Game will be available at
Today's Interview is with:

James Johnson
Interviewed on: 8/15/2019 (updated 11/27/2019)

Here we are, a day and a half late this week due to some computer issues, but ready to meet James Johnson. James is a designer from Houston, TX that is working on Shardforge, a new story-driven trading card game that should be coming out next year some time. Read on to learn more about James, Shardforge, and his other 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?
I used to design games with my brother with legos and a 3 subject notebook. We'd fill it with rules and just make up these sort of turn-based RPG combat games but we were just kids so I imagine there were some design flaws :)

Later in our mid-late teens I created an entire Dungeons and Dragons world and wrote a narrative that included world lore that was at minimum a subtle influence in the sessions, depending on how close the players traveled to a major, planned event. The world was constantly evolving.

We really got into large scale game design when I was 19. My father started a paintball business and I used to help him design these in-depth outdoor scenario games. We would get around 200 people and they had to last usually around 5 hours. We designed the objectives, specific rules and a narrative for each event. We also designed competitive team games and fields for faster-paced competitions.

I always look back at those times fondly. I think that they were my favorite memories of my father. Now I live for design. I'm designing all the time, whether it's workflow systems for the University of Houston or systems for the card game we're designing, I just love designing. It's hard work, but it's my passion.

What game or games are you currently working on?
I have a small team working on a card game currently called "Shardforge." Sign-ups are currently open for early alpha testing at We have some deals pending already with some stores and plan to self-pub our card game, though we would love to work with a publisher.

Have you designed any games that have been published?
We have some deals pending with retail stores and plan to self-publish our card game, though we would love to work with a publisher if there is interest.

What is your day job?
I am an Administrative assistant for the University of Houston's College of Education. I work with students, but I mainly assist with R&D and design work-flow systems to improve daily operations. If Shardforge and other graphic design and game designs could become our day job, that would be a dream -- a dream which could come true with the community's support.

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
The Houston Hobbyist Guild holds board game nights in the Student Center I building on campus every Thursday night, or at my friend Mark's house. (in the middle of our street.) - He'll get the joke.

Who do you normally game with?
The Houston Hobbyist Guild, currently. I used to game with my friends in New York, and I plan to do a lot more gaming with the Tavern Brawlers on Tabletop Simulator.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
Right now? I've been dying to play Twilight Imperium lately. (Whisper: Long live the Lazax Empire...)

And what snacks would you eat?
Ohhh, I'm supposed to be on a diet. But.. if Mark has pizza rolls in his freezer...

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
I remember hearing a variety of music during club nights. From show tunes to modern rock. We often listen to old-school video game theme songs and remixes.

What’s your favorite FLGS?
In Houston: Halycon Games In Ohio: First Strike Gaming In New York: Flipside Gaming

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
My favorite game might be Merchants and Marauders. I wish combat was a little more interactive though. Munchkin is the least favorite game I have that I still enjoy (in moderation.) Monopoly is subjectively the worst game I've ever played. It doesn't end when it's supposed to and the reward loops don't scale to the duration of the game.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
My favorite mechanic is worker placement, but there's a lot more to it than that... that's a story for another time. My least favorite might be the rondel (which is weird because it is almost my favorite.) I think the rondel is a very cool mechanic, but in studying it, it seems restrictive without creating redundancy. I'd like to work more with it in the future though, as I have some interesting ideas based on the concept.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
No one will play one deck dungeon with me. It's only 2 players. Why will no one play? :(

What styles of games do you play?
I like to play Board Games, Card Games, Miniatures Games, RPG Games, Video Games, Other 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?
Not personally, but I would love to add faction identities and mana costs to this game.

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 based Shardforge on the theme, but as we got deep into the design, we started changing the theme and design to work together. There is some integration of lore into the mechanics we've designed, which is one advantage of working with your own IP.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
I entered Magic's Great Designer Search 3. I didn't win, but I learned a lot by studying for it.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
I read and watch a lot of fiction, and sometimes consider how the way that world's magic might look as a game mechanic. I also get a lot of ideas while I'm designing the UI elements of a game, or from studying the UI of other games or products. Game mechanics and UI are pretty reliant on each other.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
There are parts of our process that I am not allowed to discuss, but a mentor of mine told me at one point that one of the best methods is to dramatically announce your plays like you're on an episode of Yugioh so you can improve these great "wow" moments that are indicative of the reasons people play the game.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I think the quality and efficiency that team-work can accomplish is amazing, though some projects or phases of design I just need a quiet space to work alone. It depends on the task at hand.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
I think worrying about too much too early is a huge challenge. I intentionally surround myself with people who can challenge me and keep me on task. I want to know my team is capable of changing my mind when necessary and they keep me focused on the short-term goals we have set, because I constantly have the big picture in mind, and that gets overwhelming.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
If I can't completely redesign Yu-Gi-Oh!, then I'd love to do a Dragon Quest card game. (Or Secret of Mana... hey Square Enix, wyd?)

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
I wish someone could have told me twenty years ago that if I was interested in designing games, there might be routes to take which could lead to it being a career.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
Create a game design document, create 3 or 4 design pillars, and work off of checklists. It's easy to start jumping from task to task if you lack a point of focus. The game design document helps give you that.

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: Shardforge, a card game for 2+ players. We're looking to publish the beta version by 2021.
This is what I have currently crowdfunding: We're crowdfunding organically through retailers right now. Retailers may contact me directly by email if they are interested in pre-alpha Retailer exclusives.
Currently looking for a publisher I have: We would be thrilled to work with a publisher if one should be interested in discussing options.
Games that are in the early stages of development and beta testing are: Shardforge is in the pre-alpha playtesting stage in which the rules change to accommodate mechanical issues, after which begins beta testing, where we focus on individual card designs more. We are looking for playtesters to sign up and playtest on Tabletop Simulator.
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: We have two other tabletop games on the backburner at this time. One is a parody and the other is a hyper-casual modern adaptation of a classic card game.

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Tabletop game design open discussion, Card & Board Game Designers Guild, art & graphic design for tabletop games, Board Game Revolution Community and more

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?
Easy. Star Wars (Unless it's the new Star Trek), Coke (Unless it’s the new Pepsi) and VHS (unless it's the new... ohhhh, you got me.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
Digital strategy games, reading, music & watching videos about game design/UI or economics.

What is something you learned in the last week?
I learned how to design interviews for prospective game designers. This helps you learn everything you need to know about prospective job candidates for designers/playtesters.

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Music: Real alternative rock, Book: Morte, Movies: The 2000's X-men movies with Patrick Stewart as Professor X.

What was the last book you read?
If you don't count math textbooks, then Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Do you play any musical instruments?
I play guitar just well enough to make children cry, and I am pretty okay on the keyboard/piano.

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I used to work as a promoter for a night club and I met Zach Braff. I sarcastically said "I loved you in 'Friends'," and he didn't hear me. I didn't have the guts to repeat the joke.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
When I was about 22, I was at a bar in New York. The comedian was late to his set, so I jumped on stage. There was a bar stool on the stage, and Ijust moved the stool around very slowly for a full 2 minutes, intermittently stopping to look at the crowd as if I were going to say something, and then going back to moving the stool again. I got some laughs before I got kicked off stage. It was worth it.

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
At a previous job, I needed to order 20 new office chairs. I wrote " Order 20 chairs," very quickly, on a post-it. I gave it to one of our back-office interns who read it as "Order 20 cheese" and proceeded to order 20 cheese pizzas. We had an okay office pizza party. The next day I ordered the chairs.

Who is your idol?
Mike Fitzgerald, Daniel Felder, Richard Borg and of course Richard Garfield are a few my game design idols. My father… and last but not least, Robin Williams.

What would you do if you had a time machine?
I would just go back to when I was twelves years old and tell myself exactly 11½% of everything I know now.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
I used to be an introvert before a near-death experience about 4 years ago. I did the Meyers Briggs test before and after, and now I test as an almost full-blown extrovert.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
Oh, definitely Superman, but only for 40 minutes so I could teach him how to actually use strategy. After that I wouldn't mind being me again. If you think about it, modern-day Superman would be an internet blogger by day.

[GJJ Games] Shhh…. Don’t tell everyone!

Have any pets?
I really want a doggo, but no, not right now.

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 hope Settlers of Catan survives and they write all of their history books about us based on that game and call the planet Catan.
I hope Monopoly takes the brunt of the asteroid for the most dramatic table-flip ever performed, and then no one ever has to pass go again.

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):
Shout out to Dan Felder from Electronic Arts in Sacramento, for always offering kind words and sound wisdom and generally just being a great friend. And to my fiance, Sammy, who has been supportive of my decision to design/develop and soon publish this game (and hopefully many others in the future). I would also like to thank Arjay Schmollinger, Mark Montemayor, Kelly Victor and Andrew Jabs for the hard work they've done with me on this project. I also want to give a shout out to my friend Stourmy Meshaun Wolff, an amazing cosplayer and one of our new team members. She has been undergoing chemo-therapy treatments for HER2+ breast cancer, and has been an incredible soldier and source of inspiration. She recently joined our team as a playtester and designer despite her medical problems.

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

I just want to say the GJJ Games and the other influences in this profession that I look up to have literally saved my life and I want to thank them for their passion in the industry and giving so much to the gaming community.

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:

Did you like this interview?  Please show your support: Support me on Patreon! Or click the heart at Board Game Links , like GJJ Games on Facebook , or follow on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

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