Interview with tabletop game designer Geoff Engelstein

I first encountered Geoff Engelstein while listening to the Dice Tower Podcast. Geoff presents a 5 minute segment called Gametek where he dissects and analyses games, game design, and gaming. Geoff's contribution soon became my favourite part of the show and led me to his podcast with Mike Fitzgerald. I am slowly working my way through the 150 episode catalog. I was also pleased to learn about his impressive list of popular games that includes The Expanse Board Game, The Areas Project, Pit Crew, The Dragon & Flagon, Fog of War (on my order list for next month), and Space Cadets. Geoff is impressive as a designer, as an academic, as a teacher, and as a gamer, yet he is a very down to earth and humble man. I was honoured that he agreed to an interview when I reached out to him.

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Let’s get to know you a little. For those who are unfamiliar with your work can you share a little about your background and journey into gaming?
I’ve always played games with friends and family. In the 70’s, when I was around 11, I began to play 3M and Avalon Hill games, and then the early versions of Dungeons & Dragons (Advanced D&D back then). I continued to be deeply involved in gaming. In college I was head of the Strategic Gaming Society, which played serious wargames. When I got married and had kids we switched to Euro games, which were just starting to be imported into the United States. Back then everything was in German or French, and we had to find translations and do our own.

In the 2000’s I traveled to Korea on business a few times a year, and became friends with Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower, who was gracious enough to take time to meet with a random listener, and when I learned he was looking for new contributors to the podcast I developed GameTek, which first aired in 2007, and continues today. Talking about game design led me to try my hand at my own designs, and I now have a bunch of published games, including The Ares Project, the Space Cadets series, Fog of War, and the upcoming Pit Crew and The Expanse.

What is your favourite game and why?
That’s a really tough question that I get all the time. My pat answer is Through The Ages, from Vlaada Chvatil, but it really depends on mood and who I’m playing with. But I’m a fan of civ-building games, and TTA really does a great job of it, primarily by so brilliantly getting rid of the map, which never would have occurred to me when designing a game like that.

Can you discuss some of the games you have designed that you are most proud of and what you enjoyed about bringing those games to life.
I am proud of all the games I’ve designed (seriously). They all had different challenges to overcome, and because I design on the side, and not as a full time job, I can pick and choose the projects that interest me and that do something novel – either in the game design space, or for me as a designer.

I will say that I am incredibly proud of my war game The Fog of War, released late last year. It does something no other wargame has tried to do, by focusing on the intelligence and planning aspects of war in a very novel system. While there is a map, you don’t actually move pieces around on it like a traditional war game. Attacking and defending is abstracted, and forces players to plan turns ahead about what they want to do, and work to disrupt the plans of their opponents.

I first started working on the game about 14 years ago. It took a long time to figure out how to make all the parts work together smoothly, and simulate World War II in a way that follows history but allows the players to explore different strategies. I’ve been very gratified at the positive reception it’s been getting in the community.

You are a professor and lecturer in game design. At the end of the course what do you hope your students understand about game design or about being designers?
I hammer on three key points:
Give your players interesting choices, and incentivize them to do fun stuff. Don’t make the boring thing to do the best thing to do.
Board Games are fundamentally tactile. Take advantage of the physical nature of tabletop games to draw in the players.
Tabletop Games are fundamentally about creating rules of social interaction for the players, and ways for them to interact with each other. Focus on the experience that you want the players have and the stories you want them to tell after the game.

Which game designers do you feel have influenced you in your journey as a game designer?
I’m a huge Vlaada Chvatil fanboy, going back to his earliest designs of Graenland and Prophecy. He is so diverse in his designs, from heavy strategy games to party games, and he makes it all seem so easy.

You have been playing games since your youth beginning with war games then moving Euro games before more modern lighter games. In your opinion what have been the most significant developments in the hobby and some of the games that had the biggest impact?
I do a whole course on this! And we did a three episode series on Ludology discussing the most influential games of the 20th century.

But if I had to boil it down and pick a few, I would say Dungeons & Dragons, Cosmic Encounter, and The Settlers of Catan. The legacy of those games has lasted for decades.

What are the most exciting developments in modern gaming and how are they changing the hobby for the better?
I am very excited about the use of narrative and story in games. From Legacy games, to episodic games like Time Stories, to the recent Longsdale expansion for Oh My Goods, designers are finding really creative ways to incorporate story into games, which amplifies the experience.

While it is a fast growing hobby, board games sell a small fraction of what video games and smartphone games are making. What challenges are facing people wanting to get into board game design? What opportunities are there to be exploited?

It’s hard to make a full-time living doing board game design. Most print runs are around 5,000 – 10,000 copies, and designers get about a $1 royalty per game. So you need to have a number of titles out in order to make a reasonable living. You can’t count on that monster game that takes off.

On the other hand, it’s a great time to design because there are so many avenues to getting published. Crowd-sourcing, the rise of so many small publishers, the expansion of the audience, all make it easier to get your game out there. Of course, more games being published means it’s harder to get noticed!

Can you tell us about your podcast Ludology?
In 2010 Ryan Sturm invited me onto his How To Play podcast to talk about Through The Ages. I After doing the GameTek segment on the Dice Tower for years, which are limited to five minutes, it was a pleasure to be able to stretch out and spend an hour talking about a game. We decided to turn that into a podcast about game design in general, and called it Ludology. We’ve now put out over 150 full-length episodes – over 300 if you count the shorter supplemental materials we also release.

How has doing the podcast shaped, challenged, or developed you over the years?
There have been a few instances when discussing a specific aspect of game design has made me change direction. We were discussing endings, and how important it was to have a strong ending. And I realized that our game Space Cadets did not have a great ending when you lost. It just sort of fizzled out and ended. We needed even losing to be exciting. So we retooled and ended up with the Core Breach mechanic, which I think is the best part of the game. I love it when people talk about how much fun it was even though they lost!

I was sad to hear Mike was leaving the show soon. Can you share what you appreciated about working with Mike the most and what the future holds for Ludology?
My favorite part of working with Mike was his insight into the early parts of the CCG world. Hearing his stories about Magic: The Gathering, Wyvern, and the explosion of CCGs in the 90's is always fascinating, as well as his remembrances of Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias, and the rest of the group at Wizards of the Coast.

I am very pleased that Gil Hova has agreed to join the show. I’ve known Gil for years, and been on some panels with him, and he’s a very deep thinker about game theory. In addition, he has also been running a publishing company for a few years (Formal Ferret Games), so he brings that perspective to the show. I think all the listeners will enjoy his insights.

How do you manage a family, business, lecturing, podcasting, and board game design? What lessons have you learned on your journey?
Careful scheduling! I have things slotted out each evening, and make sure I stick to that. I will also be found doodling game designs during meetings at work.

In terms of game design, my biggest lesson is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Don’t be afraid to throw things away, as it will always be more complicated than you think once it gets into the hands of the player.

Shameless plug time. Tell us about what projects we should check out and what we should be keeping an eye out for?
I’ve got two new games coming out over the next few months. Pit Crew, published by Stronghold Games, is a real-time game where teams of players try to get their race cars back out onto the track as quickly as possible. It plays from 2-9, which is a great range, and only takes about 15 minutes to play. It’s my simplest game to date, and has been getting a great reception at conventions, so I’m excited for it to be released.

I also did The Expanse game for WizKids, which is my first licensed game. I love both the books and TV series, so being able to work on this was a real treat. It was also the first time I had designed a game under contract and under a deadline, which was an interesting personal challenge for me. As I mentioned earlier, The Fog of War took fourteen years to design, which you can get away with as an individual just designing something for yourself, but not when a publisher hires you to do something specific.

In the end having a deadline really sharpened my design process, and I think The Expanse is one of my strongest designs. I am very happy with it, and can’t wait for this one to get out as well.

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I want to personally thank Geoff for sharing with us. He is a treasure of the gaming community and I recommend checking out his podcast or following him on Twitter. If you can't wait for me to get my copy and review Fog of War you can get your own copy from our site sponsor.