Tuesday, January 7, 2020

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 205: Aaron Franco

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 Franco
Location:Portland, Oregon, USA
Day Job:Museum exhibition designer
Designing:Two to five years.
BGG:Aaronaut and Hunker: Fierce Friendship, Frosty Fortitude
Facebook:Hunker Board Game
Other:I'm an IGA member!
Find my games at:The Game Crafter
Today's Interview is with:

Aaron Franco
Interviewed on: 8/15/2019

Coming in February, to Kickstarter, is a new game from Aaron Franco. Hunker will be Aaron's first published game, although he has several others he's working on. If you've ever wondered what it might be like to be a woodland critter preparing for winter, you'll have your chance! Read on to learn more about Aaron and his other projects.

Some Basics
Tell me a bit about yourself.

How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Two to five years.

Why did you start designing tabletop games?
I loved games, but some of the games I wanted to play hadn't been designed yet. :)

What game or games are you currently working on?
These days I'm primarily working on Hunker, a friendly-competitive game about woodland animal friends preparing for winter. It features asymmetric player characters, action points for lots of freedom, a friendship mechanic that encourages players to interact with each other for bonus points, impassable snow tiles that make the board feel increasingly claustrophobic as the game gets closer to the end, and multiple paths to victory. It's also simple enough to play as to make it a good gateway or family game, but with enough hidden depth to keep veteran players engaged (I really respect Pixar's ability to multi-layer their movies for different audiences).

I'm also working on another in the same universe, though it is not nearly as far along. It's called (tentatively) Scamper, and is about the great mammalian migration across the Serengeti, as animals chase the water. As it stands right now, it is a "side-scroller" design where players move across map boards that can be added at the front and removed from the back. The animals are asymmetric, which adds some fun as well.

Neither of these are published, though Hunker is very close. Planning to crowdfund in February 2020!

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Only one: self-published, available at a print-on-demand site. Not sure if that counts! :)

What is your day job?
Museum exhibition designer

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
I like playing at coffee shops, actually. And I'm late to the party, but cons are so great for meeting new people and playing new games.

Who do you normally game with?
Immediate family usually, though in my previous town I had a good core gamer group of friends I could count on.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
Depends on the group, but I really like worker placement games and coop games. If I had my wish, Pillars of the Earth followed by Pandemic.

And what snacks would you eat?
I actually like chili for my game nights, served with cinnamon rolls if at all possible (a Nebraska thing I guess?).

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
Something lively but that can fall to the background a bit. I like Sanseverino a lot. He's super upbeat and sings in French, which means the lyrics won't be too distracting. :)

What’s your favorite FLGS?
Having lived all over the place the last few years, I have several favorites... Gauntlet Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, The Portland Game Store in Portland, Oregon, and Labyrinth Games in Washington, D.C.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
I am super excited to play Root first chance I get. Least favorite that I still enjoy? Maybe Catan, but mostly because I've just played it so, so much (that said, I got the chance to play it the other day and still had a good time). Worst game? Haha, Hunker during its very first playtest probably (my wife was playing, and actually fell asleep mid-game)! ;) I think any game that made it through the publishing gauntlet has merit for at least some folks, so it's more accurate to say games I don't enjoy aren't bad games, but just have a different target.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
I really like action selection, whether it be simultaneous or otherwise. Take that! is probably my least favorite.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
Pillars of the Earth!

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

Do you design different styles of games than what you play?
I like to design Board 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?
I like starting with theme, then starting my design inspired by that. But over the design process I find I bounce back and forth between theme and mechanics, each informing the other. I've found that spending significant energy on theme facilitates learning the game, because the mechanics and systems of the game are bound in reality and are thus somewhat common sense.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
I've entered a few. Was a finalist for Cardboard Edison's design award in 2018, and won a Showcase spot at Boston Festival of Indie Gaming that year as well. I actually enter mainly for the feedback, which usually comes as part of the deal. I also work well when I have some pressure on me, so they make for some nice self-imposed deadlines.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
I really admire Ryan Laukat's ability to do basically everything. I'm a designer, but I'm no illustrator. His games are just so thematic, and the art and gameplay combine to make really memorable experiences. I also admire Elizabeth Hargrave a lot. She and I were in the same game design group near D.C., and all the success that's come to her in the last year is just so well deserved. Couldn't happen to a kinder, more genuine, just super talented person.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
My ideas usually come from observing the world around me. The inspiration for Hunker came while I was a grad student wandering around campus, and saw this super chubby squirrel. I think I actually called out, "Wow, you are winning at winter!" because clearly she had enough food, a warm shelter, and enough stored-up energy to be out and about in the snow. Later, I thought, could this be a game? I think it could! Wait, why isn't there a game about this yet??? The inspiration for my lone published game, Ideal Candidate came as I was on the job hunt. I thought, maybe there's a roll-and-move that could be developed about a job-seeker trying to navigate through a crowd of Other Applicants to get to an interview. My profs in journalism school always said to "write what you know," so I'm just repurposing that for games. :)

How do you go about playtesting your games?
Primarily, game design groups. Wherever I've lived, I've found these groups. Some are more active than others, but they're always a great way to connect with other designers and people who want to play new, in-development games. Cons are great, but I don't get to as many as I'd like.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I work alone, primarily, which means I need to be disciplined with my design time and really observant during playtests. That said, I do have some trusted friends I like to bounce ideas off of; they have a tall task to keep me grounded and focused sometimes, but they do an admirable job at it.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
Sometimes you get attached to an idea or a mechanic, but it just doesn't fit the game you're trying to shoehorn it into. Being able to let go of (sometimes long-held) systems or mechanics can be really important to stay true to your game's spirit. "Kill your darlings," as the saying goes.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
My brother-in-law and I had dreams of co-designing a G.I. Joe game. It'd be pretty rad, but it's just absolutely never ever happening.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
Designing a game can take a LONG time, especially if it's a hobby. If you can learn to enjoy the process, then no matter how long your game takes to be published (or even whether it's published or not!), you won't have wasted a single minute.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
Playtest, playtest, playtest, and playtest some more! It's the only way your game will improve. And while we're on the topic, if you have an idea, just work up a prototype with paper/markers/handwritten text and get it in front of some folks as soon as you can. It'll be bad, perhaps remarkably so, but you can't start making it better until it's out there.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Published games, I have: Ideal Candidate (self-published)
I'm planning to crowdfund: Hunker: Fierce Friendship, Frosty Fortitude
Games that are in the early stages of development and beta testing are: Scamper

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Break My Game in D.C., Stumptown Game Crafters in Portland, OR, and Spielmasons in Omaha, NE, and yeah, every facebook group that would let me join. :3

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?
Ha! I can actually say a few words in Klingon, so… ^_^ Hang on while I put on my santa beard and go hang out with some animated polar bears. Betamax was the superior format and I will die on this hill.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
I love biking, running, and composing mediocre new-age music on my piano.

What is something you learned in the last week?
I learned how to extrude objects into 3D in After Effects and play with their spatial positioning on the timeline! Kinda niche, but fun nonetheless. :)

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Anything upbeat!

What was the last book you read?
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I was late to the party, but man, what a trip.

Do you play any musical instruments?
clarinet, piano

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I am six years cancer-free. I feel extremely blessed.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
I once was dirt-biking with a neighborhood friend, and I tried an ill-advised jump and knocked myself unconscious.

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
Joining journalism class on a whim in high school, probably. I made lots of great friends along the way, and it set me up for some amazing experiences much later on, including meeting my wife in our journalism graduate degree program.

Who is your idol?
Fred Rogers.

What would you do if you had a time machine?
I'd go back and shoot some pool and do some baking with my dad.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
Definitely an introvert, although I can pretend to be an extrovert for limited periods of time.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
I'm often late to things, so if I had super-speed that'd probably cut down on that a bit… so I guess Flash?

Have any pets?
a little tuxedo cat named Maggie

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?
Sounds like there'll be lots of inside time, so I hope I'll manage to keep a handful of my favorite games. Pandemic, Letters from Whitechapel, Scythe, Pillars of the Earth, and Codenames. That should cover any other survivors' favorite genres and keep us occupied for awhile. Can the asteroid be targeted at the data centers for the student loan companies? That'd be neat.

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 late James Mathe. We never had any direct interactions, but through your blog, website, and facebook group you did so much to help budding designers navigate the confusing and sometimes treacherous path to publication. Thousands of people will use and benefit from your work even many, many years down the road. Thank you for all your work in making this field so much more accessible.

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

Whatever we can do to expand this amazing hobby that's so good at bringing people together, we should do. We need specifically more women, more people of color, more diversity in age. There are loads of games outside of the typical fantasy tropes just waiting to be designed. And the people who will design them might not be gamers, let alone game designers, yet. One small way we can invite people in is by, you know, literally inviting some new folks to your next game night. Or running a playtest at the local retirement home. Or inviting your niece or nephew to help you design your game. Or bring a light board game to the local coffeeshop and set up a sign that says, "Wanna play?" We need compassionate fellowship with other folks more than ever right now, and games can be the medium. Let's get on it!

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

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.

1 comment: