The first hidden movement game I ever played was Letters from Whitechapel. I fell in love with the mechanics and style of play. I decided I needed a hidden movement game for my own collection. When I started looking into which game would be best there was much consensus from game reviewers and friends alike, Specter Ops designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. Since adding it to my collection over a year ago I have played it many times and it is still a game I am eager to get to the table whenever I can, I love it. When I heard that Emerson had designed a trading game that utilised a hand building mechanic I was both intrigued by the idea and confident in his ability to deliver a great game. With little need for further consideration, I went ahead and preordered my copy of Century: Spice Road. I was not disappointed. Neither, so it seems, were the majority of board game reviewers. Century: Spice Road was met with a wave of support from the gaming community and has been so popular that it has recently been reprinted with a new theme Century: Golem Edition. With two sequels already planned and a list of other games on the horizon, Emerson is making a huge splash in the hobby. We reached out to Emerson who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Thansk for taking time to share with us. Can you share a bit about yourself for those who may not be familiar with your work yet?
I run Nazca Games, a game development and design studio. We primarily focus on game design for tabletop games and apps, but we have also done 3D modelling work for other companies and have consulted on projects with other publishers. My history, I’m a software developer and started developing software professionally since 1998 (almost 20 years). I have always had a love of games of all types. I started playing board games and RPGs at a young age. I first started making my own games at the age of about 8 or 9, when I created a giant mecha-robot RPG game. I don’t recall any of the details, but I just remember thinking how cool it was and how fun it was to create it. I had attempted making other games at various points in my life. I made a roll and move game for a school project in elementary school. Then I created a very very rudimentary text-based computer game in middle school for another school assignment. Through high school, I had dabbled in trying to make abstract games on the computer. It was only recently, well relatively recently that I pursued creating games in a more serious capacity. In 2012, I self-published my first game. It was a very small Halloween-themed (the holiday, not the horror movie) game that consisted of a deck of cards. I wanted to start small and build from there. And I have continued to pursue the craft since.
It is clear that games have been a big part of your life. What a great way to cultivate that love from your childhood into a profession. What would you say is your favourite game/s and why?
That’s not an easy question to answer as I have had many games that I have loved throughout the years. Nowadays, what I crave to play changes with the mood and the company that I’m with. I know that doesn’t answer the question, so here are the games I have spent the most time playing in order of time spent:
3 – Magic: The Gathering
2 – Dungeons & Dragons
1 – World of Warcraft
If I were to rank my current Table Top cravings, I may rank them:
Robinson Crusoe (by extension, First Martian)
Star Wars Rebellion
But they could change the following month, week, day…
That is a wonderfully eclectic list. I am pleased to say that I have spent much time playing many of those game myself and share in your appreciation of them. What genre of game/s do you enjoy playing and designing?
I enjoy many genres of games. I have prototypes for party games, light to mid, to heavy euro-style games, highly thematic games, dexterity games, and a couple of solitaire puzzle games. Perhaps the one genre that I haven’t dabbled in is the “Take-that’ style of games.
I am sure your experience with the breadth and depth of gaming genre only aids in your innovation and creation process. What is your pet hate at the gaming table?
I hate it when pets jump on the table and scatter all of the pieces in the middle of the game, although I notice I’m not as annoyed when I’m losing the game terribly.
HA! That is the most literal interpretation of that question I have had. A wonderful response and one I can wholeheartedly agree with. If you could have anyone past or present at your gaming table who would you like to game with?
I am on board with this decision. Sid Sackson was one of the great designers of the 20th Century, I love Can't Stop and Acquire. Yet I think one of his best contributions was to the academic study of games. I have many of his books that have helped me be a better gamer and appreciate the hobby more fully.
You started with abstract games as a child, what have been some of the major developments in board games since your youth that have improved the hobby in your opinion?
This question alone could justify many pages of discussion points. There have been so many developments and paradigm shifts in game design and production, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Games have gone from activities to pass the time to become a lifestyle. Game designers have abandoned the notion of letting chance determine a player’s fate and instead place great importance on giving players meaningful and impactful decisions. Game publishers and manufacturers are constantly pushing the envelope on what cool things can be put into the box. A good game is no longer good enough. A game, or more accurately, a product needs to be great in order to keep up with the ever growing expectation of the consumer.
That is a real development in gaming worthy of note. As much as chance still plays a part in making a game interesting I still feel cheated if my decision-making is rendered useless or ineffective. Century: Spice Road provides a great balance that allows me to manage the randomness of the cards with how I build my hand and play it.
This is the first in a trilogy of games, can you give us a taste of what is to come with the next two?
The theme and timeline for the next two games have been established. The second game in the Century series is titled “Eastern Wonders” and is set in the eastern spice islands. The trading mechanics will be very familiar to those who have played Century: Spice Road. The third game in the series is titled “New World”. The game is set in the America’s during the rise of the fur trading industry. Again, the trading element will be familiar.
Hearing that it was the first of a trilogy reminded me of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling's Mask trilogy. I am excited about these sorts of concepts being revived and developed. What appealed to you about the idea of a trilogy and what will set your collection apart as a series of games?
Creating a trilogy of games is a challenge, especially since the first game was not created with a series of follow-up games in mind. The Century series of games will introduce standalone games that are mechanically different but will allow the players to merge the gameplay elements of, for example, Spice Road and Eastern Wonders together to, hopefully, give the players a new experience. I don’t know of another series of games that have done this before.
That's exciting to hear that there will be some solid game experiences with innovations to look forward to. Yet not all games can be innovative. There are lots of good and great games that do not seek to push original mechanics but really connect with the gaming community. Considering this, what are the elements of a good game design, in your opinion, that helps a game feel new, fresh, or impacting?
It’s more a matter of what can be taken out of a design. There were many euro games that I enjoyed over the years. Many of them had common mechanics of trading in resources for victory points with various mechanics related to acquiring and converting those resources. Century started as an experiment to see what would happen if one could distil just those elements which I found enjoyable in a game, and strip away anything that didn’t add value to the core experience.
That sounds like a decision process that takes time get right. If you could share top 3 things that are central to good board game design, what would they be?
That makes a lot of sense to me hearing you say that. And when you consider how much you value stripping away unnecessary parts of games it seems reasonable to assume that having depth and meaningful decisions do not require a lot of processes or design features to do effectively. To guide your thinking on the design process what are some of the key questions you ask when designing a game or working with playtesters and prototypes?
Most important question: Was the game fun?
Next question: What was (or wasn’t) fun about it?
Simple, but effective. I guess that is the ultimate end, that if the game isn't fun, no one will play it. Can you briefly describe some of your process of moving from inspiration to product?
In order for any idea or concept to have a shot at becoming a product, it must be created into a functional prototype. Very few ideas make it from initial idea to finished product. Therefore it’s important to quickly create proof-of-concept prototypes to validate the idea. If the initial proof of concept has potential, then that design will go through a process of playtesting and iteration. The design may stagger and lose steam at this point in the process. In which case, it will get shelved. If it continues, then the design is refined and tweaked until it is ready to be presented to a publisher. It’s important to know what publishers are looking for and whether your game is a match for their product line. A game may get turned down by the publishers you had targeted. At which point, you could choose to keep pushing the game and pursue other publishers. Or (as I often do), work on the next idea.
That is a huge risk. Spending a significant amount of time to only shelve an idea or get rejected. How do you deal with the emotional ups and downs of game design, and what motivates you to get through challenges to see a game brought to life?
The process of creating a game isn’t unlike the process of, say, developing software. Much of the process involves testing, iterating, and incremental improvements. I don’t find that I put a tremendous amount of emotional attachment into any one game. While games are my passion, the process of creating a game I treat as I would any professional endeavour.
What are some of the challenges facing board game designers in the industry today and how do you work to overcome those challenges?
With an incredible number of new games released each year, the most daunting challenge is how to get your game to get the consumers attention in a sea of hot releases. There’s no silver bullet advice here. And I’m fairly confident that I don’t do anything different to try to overcome that challenge other than trying to create the best games one can.
You have gone from working with Plaid Hat Games to a smaller publisher Plan B Games, what influenced your decision and why was this better for you and the game?
I’m still working with Plaid Hat. In fact, Crossfire was released at Gen Con 50 and the Specter OPS: Broken Covenant was just announced. I hope there are no rumours out there stating that Plaid Hat and I have parted ways as that’s far from the truth.
Having been at both the Plaid Hat office and Plan B office, Plan B is the larger company as they occupy a larger building and have a much larger staff. While I totally understand why folks would assume that Plan B is a small company as it’s a new company, but Plan B is a major player in the industry. The staff at Plan B are industry veterans. And their market reach rivals that of companies like Asmodee and CMON. The Century game going to Plan B was part of the negotiation during the Asmodee acquisition of F2Z Entertainment (who acquired Plaid Hat the previous year).
Thanks for clearing that up. We're excited to hear about Broken Covenant, it's on my chase list for the coming year.
What do you love doing to blow off steam when taking a break from work, design, and other stresses?
Play games…. (you had to have seen this coming from a mile away)
I really should have seen that coming! Ok, self Promo time, what can we look forward to in the next couple of years?
Century: Eastern Wonders will be released in 2018 with Century: New World releasing in 2019. ☺
Of course, we will add Specter Ops: Broken Covenant to that list as well.