Tuesday, February 18, 2020

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 211: Dave Dobson

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:Dave Dobson
Email: dave@planktongames.com
Location:North Carolina, USA
Day Job:I teach geology, environmental studies, and computing at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. I also write novels and perform improv comedy, neither of which could be considered a day job. Yet. Dammit.
Designing:Over ten years!
Facebook:Dave Dobson
Find my games at:Amazon, PlanktonGames.com, TheGameCrafter
Today's Interview is with:

Dave Dobson
Interviewed on: 8/21/2019

This week's interview is with Dave Dobson an author, board game designer, video game designer, and more. He's been designing games of one sort or another for over 40 years! He may have even designed some games you've played! Read on to learn more about Dave 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?
I've loved designing games since I was a kid. I love the process of design, balance, creativity, and paper and glue. One of my earliest games, circa 1979, was a roll-and-move called the Roy Rogers game, based on the TV show. It had an unfortunate spot on the board where if you didn't roll two specific numbers on consecutive rolls, you got sent back to the ranch, i.e. start. My family gave up on it after about twenty minutes, but I learned a valuable lesson about broken designs.

What game or games are you currently working on?
I'm working on the third Doctor Esker's Notebook game, which is about 80% done. I'm also working on a game called The Treasure of Mag Mell, a card collection game where you are competing against other factions in a college of magic to gain enough control over the school to be awarded magical artifacts. I've done a lot of playtesting, and I'm working through the art and publishing parts of it now. I also have a game called Wrath about a doomed island nation trying to curry favor with vengeful gods so as to avoid being destroyed. Still in the design phase on that one. And I have a roll-and-write that I kind of like based on asteroid mining, called 97 Klotho.

Have you designed any games that have been published?
Diggity, a mining game, has been available on TheGameCrafter since 2009, and it's also been published by SugarDice games in Israel. I've also published (through my company, PlanktonGames) a game called Doctor Esker's Notebook, a puzzle card game that's been well reviewed, and a sequel called Son of Doctor Esker's Notebook. A while back, I wrote some pretty popular computer games, including Snood, Centaurian, Snood Towers, Chowder, and Snoodoku.

What is your day job?
I teach geology, environmental studies, and computing at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. I also write novels and perform improv comedy, neither of which could be considered a day job. Yet. Dammit.

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

Where do you prefer to play games?
At home, my favorite place is the kitchen table. It has good light, lots of seating, and is close to snacks and drinks. I have a semi-regular get-together with friends where we play either at people's houses or at work, and that's a lot of fun too.

Who do you normally game with?
Family, friends from work, sometimes friends from the comedy club where I perform.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
Usually I put out a stack and let people choose. I'm happy playing nearly anything. I love it when people are willing to try out my designs, but I also enjoy lots of other kinds of games. Recent faves include Scythe, Bloodrage, Twilight Struggle, Splendor.

And what snacks would you eat?
I have a weakness for salty stuff, but most of it gums up game components. At our regular game meetings, I usually go for grapes, Reese's Miniatures, and wheat thins and pimento cheese, a southern specialty which this Iowa boy has grown to love.

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
Not usually - I find it gets in the way of conversation.

What’s your favorite FLGS?
My favorite was The Games People Play in Cambridge, MA, where I shopped from my college days through a couple years ago. Sadly, it's closed now.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
Lifetime favorite is the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game (1978). I've played that literally hundreds of times. Seven Wonders I can always come back to. Really great game, particularly for larger groups. I also really like Race For The Galaxy. Least favorite that I still enjoy is probably Munchkin. I don't really know why it has such legs. Worst game I ever played - that's a tough one. So many of my early designs were bad - probably that Roy Rogers one I mentioned earlier.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
I really like games where you have to choose a small number of a broad set of actions, as in worker placement games. Least favorite is hidden traitor, like Werewolf. Just doesn't do anything for me, and I don't like lying to people.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
Not a lot of people around here interested in Agricola, but I enjoy it a lot.

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, RPG Games, Video Games

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
Had a good time with friends with it when it first came out, despite it being ethically problematic and a kind of rip-off of Apples to Apples. Haven't played in years, and no real desire to return.

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?
It's almost always mechanics first, then theme. I am a better engineer than storyteller in games. But I've also had those two parts trade off during the design process - e.g. in my Wrath game, I had the idea of sucking up to angry gods first, and then built mechanics around that, and then saw that there could be another story component I could add that boosted the mechanics (a mysterious trickster being that gave out silly quests).

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
Entered a number of them, won few, although I did win one on BGDF one time.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
Antoine Bauza, Tom Jolly (for Wiz War, one of my favorites of all time)

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
A lot of my game ideas have started as scribbles in the margins of my notebook while at tedious meetings.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
Inflicting them on family and friends, primarily.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
Nearly always alone. If I feel a game concept is worth pursuing, I'll often invest in some better art than I can produce on my own and see where that goes.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
Opportunities for iterative and thorough playtesting. I don't always have as many opportunities to test as I'd like.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
That's a tough one. I usually find games with big IP ties aren't so great as games. Something based on the Barsoom books, maybe? I loved those as a kid.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
You'll be worse at it than you think you are for a long time, until eventually you'll realize how bad you were and still are.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
It's a lot harder to come up with something really new and different than it is to borrow mechanics and ideas from other games. Both paths can produce good games that are fun to play, but the former path can be a lot more rewarding.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Published games, I have: Diggity, Doctor Esker's Notebook
Games that will soon be published are: Son of Doctor Esker's Notebook
I'm planning to crowdfund: The Treasure of Mag Mell
Games that I'm playtesting are: Wrath, Return of Doctor Esker's Notebook

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
I've been active on BGDF in the past, not so much now. I'm in a number of Facebook groups.

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 ST & SW - they feed different hungers. Trek's always been richer and deeper for me, though. Diet Mountain Dew. Nobody really used Betamax.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
Improv comedy, writing, tuba playing.

What is something you learned in the last week?
They're making a Matrix IV. That shouldn't be allowed after Matrix III.

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
Movie scores. Fantasy and sci fi, plus thrillers, for both books and movies.

What was the last book you read?
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Do you play any musical instruments?
The tuba, pretty well. The piano, badly.

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I've played the biggest tuba in the world in concert (back in 1991). I wrote Snood, a shareware game that was pretty popular back in 1998-2005.

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
Lost my wallet while changing clothes to defend my Ph.D. in Ann Arbor, MI, in 1997. Got a call from Boston Logan airport police in 2005 saying they'd found that same wallet inside a wall in the airport (in MA) during demolition for remodeling. They sent me back a picture of my daughter that had been in it. Super, super weird.

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
Said no when my kids wanted to adopt a third cat. Caved when my son accepted my decision, but then I heard him softly crying in his room and I felt like a grade-A schmuck. Now, it's my absolute favorite cat, and the kids have left for college.

Who is your idol?
That is a strong word. Not many folks are worthy of that level of worship. I greatly admire folks who stand up for the oppressed or stand up for their culture, including many in the civil rights movement and the Native American community.

What would you do if you had a time machine?
Visit medieval Europe and the Roman Empire for my own kicks, then head to the future to find us some clean cheap energy.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
Introvert mostly, but one who sometimes does extroverty stuff.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
The Tick (the animated one - he's the best version)

Have any pets?
Two cats and a dog.

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?
As a geologist, I find the scenario you describe not to be very plausible. To keep: art, music, poetry, computers, the web, clean energy, medicine. To lose: income inequality, racism, bigotry, poverty, and pineapple on pizza.

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

Even if you think my games suck, please have a look at my novel, Flames Over Frosthelm, a comedic yet heroic fantasy adventure, kind of CSI meets Princess Bride. Also, be excellent to each other.


The original Conan the Barbarian movie with Schwarzenegger is an under-appreciated masterpiece.

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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