A Clever Conversation with David MacKenzie

Dice Hate Me and Go Forth and Game have joined forces to bring you some of the best gaming interviews on the web! That’s right, from time to time here on Dice Hate Me, Tom Gurganus will contribute one of his comprehensive conversations. In his Dice Hate Me debut, Tom sits down for a detailed chat with our good friend David MacKenzie of Clever Mojo Games, makers of Alien Frontiers. Enjoy the interview and be sure to let us know if there are other designers, artists or gaming insiders that you would like to know more about!


Tom Gurganus: David, welcome. Tell us about yourself.

David MacKenzie: I’m just an ordinary guy. I played Parker Bros. games as a kid, party games with the family as an adult, and, now that I’ve reached the half-century mark, my interests have turned to designing and publishing hobby games. Those are the phases everyone goes through, right?

Tom: Happy Birthday belated!!! I hear you brother! I’m almost 50 and I went through those phases. Risk and no one would play it with me. Though we did play a lot of Monopoly. Ok, so now for Clever Mojo Games. How did it come about? Why did you choose to self-publish?

David: In 2007, my brother introduced me to Settlers and Carcassonne, dragging me into the hobby game scene. By the end of the year we both had ideas for games in our head and a chance conversation brought us together to develop those ideas. We were originally going to try and license our games to other publishers, but after one deflating evaluation we said to heck with that, we can do it ourselves. We decided that I would create Clever Mojo Games as a sole proprietorship, but Fred has always been my not-so-silent partner in this endeavor.

Tom: Wow, you’re reading my biography (except for the game company part). Settlers got me into Euros at about the same time and I’ve never looked back. Back to you guys. Clever Mojo has a pretty large stable of games. Would you run them down for us, maybe with a brief description of each?

David: Ogre Castle was one of the two original game ideas that gave birth to CMG. Three players (knights) invade the castle to steal the treasure while the fourth player (ogre) defends his turf and jewels from the trespassers. Magic scroll cards let all the players get in each other’sfaces and it can become fast and furious fun. The other game that launched CMG was called Oubliette, but that has not been published yet.

Jin Li was our next game. It was simultaneously released for the iPhone and published as a physical game by NestorGames in Spain. It’s a two player game where you move your Koi through a pond trying to get close to other Koi to score points. Players drop stones in the pond as obstructions or as jumps to boost their Koi movement.

Taiji was an abstract board game that I licensed from Nestorgames to convert to iPhone format and boost our iOS portfolio. Each player piece has a light end and a dark end and, when placed on the playing grid, can advance you and your opponent. The player with the largest connected grouping of their color when all spaces are filled wins the game.

Jacked In followed that. It’s a solo player print-and-play game that is available for free download. You play an Internet hacker moving through cyberspace to crash an evil corporate computer. Along the way you gather tools and viruses to assist you and dodge the deadly attack programs, called ICE for Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, sent out to defend the corporate computer.

Alien Frontiers was our next published game and the first that was not designed by me. I think its success, as compared to the obscurity of the first three games, is a telling critique on my design skills. Alien Frontiers is best described as a scifi themed, worker placement, resource management, area control game…with dice.

Sunrise City will be published in March 2012 and is currently in the Kickstarter/Springboard phase gathering production funding. It is a role-selection, tile-laying, city-building game influenced by the SimCity computer games. It has a unique tactical scoring system that sets it apart from other “victory point accumulation” games.

Alien Frontiers: Factions is the first expansion for the Alien Frontiers game and it will be released in March 2012 as well. Designer Tory Niemann has developed a great variable player-power system for AF:F that adds lots of fun and interesting depth to the base game and allows for booster factions to be released on an ongoing basis.

Beyond those titles, we’re also developing five other titles that we would like to release later in 2012 and 2013: Swinging Jivecat Voodoo Lounge, Flummox, Princes of the Dragon Throne, Sailing Toward Osiris, and Hook Line & Sinker.

Tom: Wow! You have been very busy and have a lot in the pipeline. I’m looking forward to Swinging Jivecat Voodoo Lounge and Sailing Toward Osiris in particular. I really like Alien Frontiers. It’s a very good implementation of the dice mechanics similar to Kingsburg. But refined in my eyes. It’s the game that ‘put you on the map’ so to speak. It, along with Eminent Domain from Tasty Minstrel, is considered THE high bar for Kickstarter funded games. Talk about how you decided to Kickstart it and the results.

David: With 1600 backers and $73,000 in pledges, I think Glory To Rome has to be considered the King of the Hill for Kickstarter game projects, these days. AF and ED are “also rans” by comparison. Back in the dim dark past (April 2010) funding a board game project though Kickstarter was something new. “Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands” and “Inevitable” were the first that I know of, and “Triumvirate” ran a pre-order campaign through Kickstarter, but that was about it. When I suggested it to Tory (AF’s Designer) he was skeptical that it could work. We gave it a shot, though, and set a goal of $5000 in 60 days. We hit $5,000 in 10 days and by the time it was all said and done, we’d reached pledges of nearly $15,000. It was really quite humbling at the support we received for our unheard of game by an unknown designer from a start-up company.

Tom: Right. Glory To Rome is breaking all kinds of records. But Alien Frontiers is the first big Kickstarter board game success story. Thanks for relating the Kickstarter story. How did you find Alien Frontiers and what about it changed from initial concept to final product?

David: When my brother moved from the Seattle area to the Phoenix area he became acquainted with Tory Niemann. Tory was Fred’s son’s wife’s sister’s husband. It didn’t take long for them to discover they shared an interest in board games, and when Tory said he had a game he had been working on, Fred put Tory and me in touch with each other. Not much changed in Tory’s original design during my year of development and testing. The planet changed from 10 territories to 8 but nearly every other concept of the original prototype survived into the final product with only minor changes or re-naming. AF was a solid game right from the start.

Tom: How do you go about designing a game? What comes first, mechanic(s) or theme?

David: I can’t speak for Tory, but for me, it’s mostly theme-first. I get the idea for a theme and then I think about how to achieve that theme’s feel through game systems. The next game with my by-line will be Sailing Toward Osiris and that was the other way around, though. I wanted to create a game where resources started out being easy to acquire but became scarcer and scarcer as the game progressed because you were using all your land for other purposes. Then a friend showed me a game of his that used sailing down a river as a component. When he abandoned that idea I asked if I could use it and his river became the Nile in my game, where it serves as a timekeeper and land use constrictor.

Tom: That sounds like a couple of neat mechanics. Sailing Toward Osiris sounds like a game right up my alley – Egyptian theme, resource management. Sweet. Any relevance with the title – Sailing Toward Osiris – sailing toward the land of the dead?

David: The basic theme is that Pharaoh’s funeral barge is sailing down the Nile to its final resting place, and you, as one of the Governors, must build monuments to Pharaoh’s glory in hopes of being judged best suited to rule as the new Pharaoh. So, “Sailing Toward Osiris” refers to the course of the funeral barge’s journey and the decreasing time you have to accomplish your goal.

Tom: While we are on game design, what is the hardest part of designing a game?

David: The saying is that everyone is their own worst critic, so getting something that’s good enough to pass my own first muster is the hardest part.

Tom: Play testing seems to be a mixed bag. While absolutely necessary, it can be slow and difficult. What is your playtesting nightmare? Do you have a regular group that you with?

David: I created a group on Meetup.com called Clever Mojo Play Testers. When we were testing Alien Frontiers, we had a set group of four or five regulars who were involved in the entire process and that focus really helped refine the game before we sent it out for blind play testing. Since then, the membership has been very fluid, but we still have regulars who come to most sessions. As for a nightmare…it was when one new member said “I didn’t know that being a play tester meant play testing bad games.” Ouch. But it was also an inspiration to sharpen that “first muster” process I mentioned before.

Tom: That is a very deflating statement. I’m glad you turned it into motivation. Having a stable of play testers is awesome. Let’s turn to production for a minute. Who does your production and what problems, if any, have you had with production?

David: We use Panda Games as our manufacturer and the process has been great. Yes, there are little glitches in every projects—dice that aren’t square, wood with smeared paint—but Panda is really great about catching those problems BEFORE they make it into the game box. The only big problem was one of my own making. I did a poor job of proofing the components for AF’s second printing and the card backs came out a different shade of blue. Totally my fault.

Tom: I hear good things about Panda. It’s great to have someone looking out for you during that process. Panda seems to be the go-to company right now. How difficult is it working with a company 12 hours away and of a different language?

David: I specifically chose Panda because they WERE NOT 12 hours away and speaking a different language. Richard and Michael Lee are just across the border in Vancouver Canada. We’re practically neighbors. Yes, their factories and vendors are in China, and Panda is not the cheapest printer, but the quality of their product and the confidence of planning and working in my native language makes all that worthwhile. I could wish Panda was faster on the job quotes, but otherwise, I have no complaints with them at all.

Tom: Wow! I didn’t know they were in Canada. Is my face red. My mistake. Thanks for setting me straight. Sorry Michael and Richard. We should do an interview. Back to you David. Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?

David: To my undying shame, I know very few game designers by name and would fail miserably at a test to match names to games. As a group, the people I admire the most are the upstarts who have a great game idea and take the risk to put it out there for others, either on Kickstarter or as a print-and-play game. It’s a huge and scary step to go from being a closet game designer to putting your baby out there for others to love or hate.

Tom: Of your games, which is your favorite?

David: I’m too new in the industry to pick a favorite from my own catalog. Each one is a great game to me.

Tom: Ok, that’s a safe answer. What are you currently playing?

David: Scrabble and Ascension on the iPad late at night before I drift off to sleep. All my other free time is dedicated to CMG games in development.

Tom: I really like Ascension. I need to get a copy. More iPad games. I need one of those too. Speaking of iPad, you also create apps for iPhone and iPad. Talk about those a bit.

David: I discussed Jin Li and Taiji earlier. Sales of those two games have been disappointing, to say the least. Currently Alien Frontiers for the iPad is in development and we hope to see greater success with that. In addition, Mirthworks is creating a PC based version of Alien Frontiers as the anchor for their new social board gaming website www.Mirthworks.com

Tom: What is next for you? Tell us about your current or future projects.

David: I mentioned several games that we have in development for 2012 and 2013. Let me tell you a little more about them.

Swinging Jivecat Voodoo Lounge, designed by Seth Roback, has a trippy 1950’s & 60’s “Shag” cocktail culture theme. Players use voodoo spell cards to build cliques in four cocktail lounges, trying to make connections with the influential hipsters and jivecats to score points. SJVL has a lot of kitschy components like voodoo skull tokens, mini martini glasses, and cocktail monkeys, plus each voodoo card also has a cocktail recipe to add something special when adults are playing.

Flummox, designed by John Moller, is a card game where players use a team of hunters, traps, transports, and tactics to maneuver the shy and elusive Flummox, a large plastic creature figurine included with the game, around the circle of cards on the table. Sometimes a player wants to get the Flummox into their area and sometimes it’s best to send the Flummox to someone else.

Princes of the Dragon Throne, designed by Fred MacKenzie, is an area control and resource management game that uses a deck

Ice Dragons from Princes

building mechanic to power all of the action. Players take on the roles of Dragon Princes vying for control of the Kingdom of Loen as they build their deck of rebels. These rebels are then used to generate resources to recruits more rebels or provide influence to control the various districts on the modular game board.

Sailing Toward Osiris, designed by yours truly, is a game where players are governors paying tribute to Pharaoh as his funeral barge sails down the Nile. For five rounds, players draft workers, produce resource, seek favors from the gods, haggle and barter over anything within their control, protect the realm from invaders, and build monuments to Pharaoh’s glory. But as the monuments go up, the productivity of the land goes down, and time grows short as Pharaoh’s barge approaches his resting place with Osiris.

Hook Line & Sinker is a party card game designed by Tory Niemann of Alien Frontiers fame. Players are trying to create the best scam by using attention getting “Hooks” like “You’ve won a dream vacation…”, persuasive “Lines” like “…this is very common in Europe…”, and wallet opening “Sinkers” like “…a beginning investment is all it takes.” The more detail and comedy you can put into your pitch the better you’ll do in each round’s vote on the most outrageous con.

Tom: Swinging Jivecat Voodoo Lounge sounds so fun. I can imagine setting up the game, loading Esquivel on Pandora, and having a blast. I’m surprised by Flummox. I read the name in some announcements somewhere and it didn’t appeal to me. It sounded like a word party game to me. But your description really intrigues me.

I’m glad you brought Princes back up. I’ve been following its development some what on DiceHateMe.com and it is cool to see it evolve. Would you talk a bit about it?

David: Princes of the Dragon Throne started as a straight-up deck building game with two twists…you had to manage resources that carried over from turn to turn and you could place “agents” into other players’ decks to cause them troubles when those cards came into their hands later in the game. It was working just fine but Fred MacKenzie, the designer, decided that the world didn’t need “just another deck builder” so he took it all the way back to square one. What he’s come up with now keeps those unique original elements and builds a resource management and area control game around them that uses deck building as a mechanic to drive the rest of the game. Deck building has to evolve beyond the simply buying point generating cards, and we think Princes of the Dragon Throne is a step in that direction.

Tom: I’m very intrigued by this game. It sounds REALLY cool. If you need a play tester…

Let’s talk about your current Kickstarter projects – Sunrise City and Alien Frontiers: Factions. What is Sunrise City and what does the AF expansion bring to the game?

David: As I mentioned earlier, Sunrise City was influenced by the SimCity computer games. The designer, Isaias Vallejo, loved taking that initial starting capital in SimCity and building his dream city, but he wasn’t really interested in all the micromanagement needed to keep the city from sliding into decline. With Sunrise City, Isaias tried to capture that one aspect of SimCity that he enjoyed–building. Players begin by drafting three role cards at the start of the game, then use a different role each round to exploit a special bonus or rule exception. The number at the top of each role card is the Role’s rank, and after everyone reveals their Role Card at the start of a round, the player with the lowest rank will be the “First Player” for that round. From there, each round follows a zoning, bidding, and construction phase sequence as players build up the city–literally. One of the key features of Sunrise City is that you can build upper floors on existing buildings. By the time the game ends you’ll have created a city skyline to be proud of. But, this is a game, after all, so there must be a way to track who’s winning. Sunrise City uses a unique scoring system in which the points you earn through city growth move your token up a 10 point track. If your token exceeds 10 points then you get a benchmark token and wrap around to start a new climb toward 10. However, if your token lands on the 10 by exact count, you earn TWO benchmark tokens. The player with the most benchmarks at the end of round three is the winner, so Sunrise City is not a game about the gross accumulation of points, it’s about the skillful scoring of points to earn the most benchmarks and, because your plays can score points for both you and your opponents, it’s about the careful growth of the city.

Alien Frontiers: Factions

As for what Factions brings to the Alien Frontiers base game, I think the best answer is “more”. Almost from the beginning, there were requests for a fifth player, so Tory developed rule adjustments that would allow that. Similarly, players thought that the perfect-knowledge scoring made the game susceptible to king making, leader bashing, and analysis paralysis. We added the Agenda cards to allow some secret scoring potential so you can’t really be sure who to bash or who to crown. This may also take some of the pressure off of making “the perfect play”. The new Alien Tech cards included in the expansion continue the creative additions that we started with our previous promo cards. The Factions boards, for which the expansion is named, were designed by Tory to improve the re-playability of Alien Frontiers. Each Faction board gives the owning player a unique ability and presents a new facility power that any player can utilize for a price. The faction drafting system means that players will use different faction combinations, mixing up the options and strategies each time you play. Also, we plan to support the Factions expansion with ongoing Faction Pack boosters that will introduce new Factions, new Agendas, and more Alien Tech. Alien Frontiers will be a living and evolving game.

Tom: Both these sound pretty awesome. I like the drafting roles mechanic in Sunrise City. It’s similar to Notre Dame, one of my favorite games. The scoring system in SC is really neat. I’m looking forward to playing it. It sounds like Factions is going to add a lot to AF. The re-playability point is pretty huge in most gamer’s minds. I like the idea of the Faction packs and the idea of the game evolving. I’m excited about both of these games. Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

David: www.dicehateme.com — Chris and Cherilyn are good friends and great people. I first “met” them through their gaming news and reviews blog and got to know them through their “The State of Games” podcast. We finally met in person at Origins 2011 where we play tested each others game prototypes and just hung out having fun. Their own fledgling game company is going to be something special once their first title, Carnival, is released.

www.strongholdgames.com — I first met Stephen Buonocore at Origins 2011 where, through an odd set of circumstances, we were booth-neighbors and hotel-roommates. Stephen is an outgoing and entertaining guy and the quality of the games he’s putting out through Stronghold Games is amazing.

www.mirthworks.com — Mike and Jason approached me through Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower podcast. Tom had recommended Alien Frontiers as an ideal game for the new web-based board gaming community they were creating. Mirthworks will be a membership driven gaming community where people can play great games with each other all around the world. They’re getting ready to launch their beta site soon, so stop by their website and sign up for their notifications list.

Tom: You talked some about Sunrise City and AF:F already in the interview I know. Is there anything more you would like to say or add? And any last words for the readers?

Alien Frontiers: Factions bits

Just that these two game projects could not have happened without the support of our backers at Kickstarter.com. Much has been made lately of whether or not “established” companies should use Kickstarter at all. I think the people who feel this way just do not have any idea about what it takes to produce a board game. Everyone involved, from the designer, artists, and printer, to the shipper, distributor, and retailer, want full payment up front and product at 50% to 60% below retail. Often the publisher doesn’t see ANY revenue at all until months after the game has been released. From a strictly financial standpoint, a small publisher like Clever Mojo Games is literally balancing on a knife’s edge and Kickstarter is the only thing that makes financing the next new game possible. Please consider pledging your support in these last few days of our current projects and keep an eye open for new CMG titles coming to Kickstarter in the months ahead.

Sunrise City in action!

Keep gaming, keep having fun, and don’t be afraid to try something new from someone you’ve never heard of. It could be an amazing game just waiting to be discovered! Check Out My Kickstarter Board Game Projects: Sunrise City & Alien Frontiers: Factions http://bit.ly/rhCQ4F

Tom: I would add the Clever Mojo Games website of course –www.clevermojogames.com. Thanks so much for talking with me David. It was fun. I think Clever Mojo Games is poised to be one of the most important game companies of the next 10 years. You guys, along with Stronghold and Tasty Minstel, are going to give Mayfair, Rio Grande, and Z-Man/Filosofia, a run for the money. Maybe not in volume but certainly in quality. I’m very excited about each of Clever Mojo’s games. Thank you again, David. I wish you only the best.

Davd: That’s very kind of you to say and it’s a big burden to live up to. I hope we can do it. Thanks so much for inviting me for this interview.

Thank you readers, for reading Go Forth And Game and Dice Hate Me. Please visit your Friendly Local Game Store and purchase Clever Mojo’s games and lend your support to their Kickstarter projects. Until next time this is Tom G.

Related posts:

  1. The State of Games, Episode 15 – The One About Richard Launius
  2. Tequila Sunrise over Clever Mojo Games
  3. The State of Games, Episode 10 – The One About Origins
  4. Clever Mojo Games Gets Steamy
  5. A New Frontier for Alien Frontiers
6 Responses to “A Clever Conversation with David MacKenzie”
  1. tomg says:

    WooHOo! I’m happy to be joining the DHM team. Thanks to Chris and Cherilyn for the invitation and support of Go Forth And Game. I’m looking forward to the ride and promise to bring you all the best of the industry, whether from the big guys or the lesser known folks. Go Forth ventures into the gamescape to discover and bring back the gems you desire.

  2. AJ says:

    This is incredible!!!!! Two of my favorites joining forces. I could not be happier about this 🙂

  3. dicehateme says:

    Tom – Glad to have you on board! This is going to be great.

  4. John Moller says:

    Yes! My publisher is talking favorably of my game in the press…and the interviewer even likes it! Cool! Great interview!

  5. tomg says:

    Thanks John. Maybe an interview with you is in order?

  6. It’s a shame that their iPhone games aren’t doing as well as David had hoped. I know for one that Jin Li is a very fun game. I prefer playing it in person, but the iPhone version is a very solid adaptation, and I think it’s well worth $0.99!

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