A Cosmic Chat with Seth Jaffee

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 this interview, Tom delves into game design with Seth Jaffee, designer of the smash Eminent Domain. 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: It’s good to talk to you again Seth. Thanks for joining me. I want to talk about how you design games. Let’s get right into it. How do you create various mechanisms? For example, how did the “Follow” mechanic in EmDo come about?

Seth: I generally try to choose or invent a mechanism that feels appropriate. If there’s an existing mechanism that I think does a great job of handling a particular part of a game, then I’ll use that (or some variation on it). I’m out to make a new game experience, and for that it’s not necessary to invent every mechanism in the game. Some people look at games with familiar mechanisms and call them “derivative” – but I don’t think that’s accurate if the combination of mechanisms provides a new and unique game experience. That’s how I feel about Eminent Domain.

Tom: I like the idea of creating a new gaming experience. That, I believe, is the goal of the game designer. Pulling together existing mechanisms in a new way to create a new experience is a fine way to design a game. I agree that you do not have to create a whole new mechanism with every new game.

Seth: In the case of the “Follow” mechanism in EmDo, I was thinking along the lines of a card game version of Twilight Imperium 3, so role selection made sense. Like any role selection game, the crux of that mechanism is that other players get to perform the role as well. Most games don’t give a name to that, but Glory to Rome does… they call it “Following” because you’re following along with the leader’s role. Since that’s what you do in EmDo, it seemed appropriate to call it that as well. I think the reason GtR and EmDo have names for that is because unlike most Role Selection games, in those 2 players are given the option NOT to participate. In Puerto Rico for example, if you choose not to build anything when someone calls Builder, then you get nothing. For EmDo I wanted to create the dichotomy between ‘many small actions’ and ‘one big action’ – if you follow other players, you do more stuff, but each one is less intense than if you skip following and just draw cards, giving yourself more options on your own turn.

Tom: EmDo is a very hot game in my groups right now. It is getting a ton of play. Congratulations. I’ve heard EmDo compared to Puerto Rico a lot. The option of not participating and dissenting was a good choice. Any way to cycle cards into your hand for possible use is nice. Do you subscribe to the ‘pare it down’ model or the ‘additive’ model of building a game?

Seth: I think I subscribe to both of those models. I usually begin by adding a bunch of stuff a game, and then I test and pare that down to only the stuff I think works the best.

Tom: Ok, I tend to like to add everything I can think of and then throw out what doesn’t work(either theme wish or mechanically) or is inelegant. How do you prototype? How extensive?

Seth: There’s a rumor amongst amateur game designers that a prototype does not need to look good, even for submission to a publisher. There are stories of well-known designers submitting an idea or game design on a napkin… Well, I’ve got news – unless you’re a well-known designer, that is unlikely to work. I cannot speak for all publishers, but as someone who has trouble convincing people to play prototypes I can tell you that it’s much easier to get the game to the table if it looks good!

Tom: I would agree with that.

Seth: Now, this doesn’t mean a designer needs to pay a fortune for a professionally produced prototype, but it’s a really good idea to put a little time into Google image search for example and add some graphics. It makes the game easier to play when you aren’t looking at a bunch of plan white cards with nothing but text which all look the same. This will help you find players, and it will help players enjoy the game. Use this information as a guide to decide how extensive your prototypes should be.

Tom: That is very good advice. Saving money is a good idea but you can take it too far. You need something to catch the eye and say ‘Play me.’.

Seth: My typical prototype techniques are:

  • Cards: Cardstock and sleeves – with clip art icons or images

    Early work on the Dr. Mayhem's Weapon Emporium card

  • Tiles: Print on cardstock, affix to Chipboard.
  • Wooden bits: I have spent far too much money on hundreds of wooden eurogame bits in 10 colors – meeples, roads, discs, cubes…

Tom: How about places like The Game Crafter for prototyping? Any opinion there?

Seth: I have not used The Game Crafter myself, but I have seen the results where others have, and they look good… for cards anyway. I can’t speak to anything else. When I do prototyping, I pretty much have to have the final product right then or I lose momentum. I don’t think I could send off files and then have to wait for the results to come back. Also, I frequently make small changes as I go, and that would get expensive and time-consuming if I used TGC for each iteration.

Tom: How do you handle play testing?

Seth: I generally beg people to play, and sometimes they say yes. It’s tough to get testing done, and I feel like I never have enough time or willing play testers. Whenever I do get a test in, I try to take notes about whatever aspect of the game I’m most interested in fixing, and I always ask questions at the end of the game (in fact, I try to encourage any and all feedback to be held until the end – I’d prefer the players just play as if it were a normal game). One question I always ask is this: “Was it fun? Did you enjoy the game? Would you want to play it again?” I also like to ask if the players thought the game felt like something they’d find in a box they took home from the store (assuming production quality graphics) to get an idea of how the game feels compared to published fare.

Tom: I do some play testing for a couple of companies and it is hard to get people to play test. Time is precious and they want to spend it playing a finished game. Recently, those of us in my area who design games have banded together to form a guild, similar to the Utah group, so that we will have people to play test and brainstorm games in design. This is going to be very helpful I believe. I have a questionnaire that I use for play testers to fill out after a game. I know Stratus Games does this as well. That question “Was it fun?” really is the key one isn’t it?

Next question, What ‘baby’ have you had to throw out?

Seth:  In Terra Prime, one of the cool mechanisms that I started with was a Demand track – a variable price track for the different resources that worked a little bit like the resource market in Power Grid. Originally, players would deliver goods to “ships” until those “ships” filled up and the goods would be transported back to Earth – like in Puerto Rico. Players would be paid for their goods according to the current demand, and when a ship filled up, the goods cubes would move onto the Demand tracks and the price would decrease for those goods. Thematically, the more of a good that Earth already has, the less you get paid for delivering that good. Over time, Earth would consume those goods, so their prices would rise again.

The purpose of this mechanism was to model supply and demand, and to drive the players to find, pick up, and deliver a variety of goods rather than the same ones over and over. I liked the sound of it, but in practice there were problems that I just never found a way to solve. In the end I finally ditched the whole mechanism in favor of the current Demand Tiles system, which works MUCH better for that game.

Demand Tiles from Terra Prime

As it turns out, the demand tiles do sort of model the same thing, as the cubes delivered stay on the tiles, and it’s possible that all the Bluium demand will dry up and nobody can deliver Bluium for a while until the tile is completed and replaced with a new one.

This is a great example of a mechanism I really liked, one that was originally core to the game, which I had to throw out because it was not working. Maybe one day I’ll be able to use that Demand Track in some other game.

Tom: I like that mechanism a lot. I can visualize it and see how it would work. It is so hard sometimes to ditch a mechanic that you KNOW is a good one. Sometimes it’s just not the right game. The good thing is it doesn’t go away. It will be there for another game. Here’s a good question – theme or mechanics first?

Seth: I’m sure there are some designers that always start with a theme and try to find mechanics that fit, and other designers that start with a mechanism they find interesting, and later look for a theme as a convenient source of nouns and game terminology. For me it depends – sometimes one way, sometimes the other, sometimes both!

Tom: Balance is essential in most games. It’s hard to think about it, how one part of the game works with another and then another. How do you get it? How do you find it?

Seth: I usually try to achieve balance by careful thought and math, as well as trial and error.

Tom: When you are designing a game, how do you know when to stop? How much is too much?

Hypermind Board Gamers enjoying Eminent Domain

Seth: It’s hard to know when to stop working on a design. Nothing’s ever “perfect” – so it always seems like there’s something that could change, and I always wonder if there’s not a better way to do certain things. The real question is “what does ‘good enough’ look like?” I don’t know the answer to that yet…

Tom: You’re the ‘Game Developer’ for Tasty Minstrel Games. What is different about designing a game and developing a game?

Seth: In my opinion, there’s not much difference between designing and developing a game. When you’re developing somebody else’s game, a lot of stuff has been done already – you can change things, but you have a baseline of the game and the basic building blocks are all there. Designing is tough because you need to create those building blocks from scratch. That’s probably the biggest difference, I think.

Tom: Let’ s talk about Eminent Domain for a minute. It’s a fine game by the way. You talked about the ‘Follow’ mechanic. How did you figure out how many of each card type to use?

Seth: I started with an arbitrary number of cards for each role that I thought sounded reasonable (20). In development I imposed a total card limit of 162 to fit on 4 sheets (54 cards per sheet) for manufacturing efficiency. I had to adjust the number of cards so that would work out.

Of course, then the publisher decided to print the Prestige and Utopian planets at the same time anyway, so maybe that limit wasn’t so necessary. Luckily there were a total of 9 Bonus planets, which divides evenly into 54 so we were able to maintain some efficiency there.

Originally each starting deck had 2 of each card (there was no Politics card). Warfare proved to be too strong, so I tried removing them from the starting deck. I liked that thematically as well, as if you wanted to be a warmonger, you’d have to go out of your way to do it. I wanted a 10 card starting deck (or at least I thought 8 cards were too few) so I added the Politics cards to the game (I had wanted some form of Politics anyway). The original Politics cards had no action and just had 1 of each card icon on them. The problem with that was that it effectively put the Warfare cards back into the deck! Oops! I didn’t like that version of Politics, so I changed to the current version which was better, but in the end having 2 of them wasn’t great. The final setup of 1 Politics and 1 Warfare card really did work the best.

Because players only started with 1 Warfare card in their deck, I was able to reduce the Warfare stack to 16 without really affecting the number of cards in the stack during play. That helped me respect the 162 card limit.

Tom: So the production of the game dictated some of that.

Seth: The Produce/Trade card stack is also reduced to 16 cards. I found that the VP counters ran out before the stack ever did, so I tried playing some games with only 16 cards in that stack. Now it seems that most of the time the VPs run out either just before or at the same time as that stack runs out, so that’s about perfect. 4 more cards cut!

The double-sided permanent techs were not so much a way to reduce card count to stay under 162, but rather once I had the right number it occurred to me that I could add techs to the game without increasing the card count by using the back side of the permanent techs. Originally Imperialism and Fertile Ground were placeholders, but I liked how they worked with all those icons on them so I kept them.

Tom: I was involved in some of the play testing and saw one or two minor changes. What about EmDo changed from the original idea to the finished product?

Seth: Very little changed in the grand scheme of things, but many details did. One of the major changes was combining Produce and Trade into 1 card. Originally there were 6 stacks of cards, one for each role… but there was a big problem with Produce and Trade. In order to pursue a trading strategy, you had to load your deck up with several copies of 2 different cards which were fairly useless most of the time. That was simply not good enough. I played around with things like how many points you get per resource traded, but I wasn’t happy with any of it until it occurred to me to just use 1 card for both producing and trading. That cleaned up the game rather nicely, and it started working just the way I wanted it to.

Even before that, my very first prototype cards had many of the abilities (now found on the tech cards) on the planets. I didn’t like how that worked – the planets were supposed to be incremental benefits, and the tech cards were supposed to offer abilities. At the same time, the tech cards I had were largely just symbols and victory points, without very cool actions. It didn’t take long to realize that I had those backwards. I much prefer the planets providing an Icon to boost roles with, and tech cards providing cool abilities.

One of the awesome Tech cards

Speaking of the Tech cards, I originally had 3 decks (1 per planet type), but they were face down, and you’d draw from them at random. That was horrible though, because adding a card to your deck that you don’t want is actually worse than not adding a card to your deck at all, so if you Researched hoping for a good card, you’d run a decent chance of actually making your deck worse. Since the Tech cards give the player an avenue to pursue their chosen strategy, it’s important they’re allowed to choose the tech card they get. And so that each strategy is on equal footing, it’s important that players have access to (and foreknowledge of) all of the tech cards, not just some subset or random assortment. Some players have suggested that only the top Tech card should be available, or that only some random subset of the tech cards should be available each game – but that would just arbitrarily diminish certain strategies each game.

This game is not Dominion. It’s not about figuring out which strategy to choose based on the cards available – it’s about which strategy to choose based on the planets you have and the actions of the other players. It’s more like Puerto Rico that way. Really the only thing EmDo shares with Dominion is the idea that cards go into your deck over the course of the game. I knew there would be comparisons to Dominion, but the degree to which EmDo is compared to Dominion is higher than I expected, and in some cases I think that’s too bad – I’ve seen people sit down and basically try to play Dominion with a set of EmDo and afterwards say “That wasn’t like Dominion at all! That game is terrible!” Hopefully most players won’t make that mistake!

Tom: I like that the Action phase is optional. Again, you are giving players options. This builds a lot of variability and re-playability into the game. The Cleanup Phase is pretty cool too. Dumping cards and being able to draw back up to the hand limit is nice. These set this apart from the other deck building games. How did you come up with that?

Seth: The Action phase HAS to be optional, because it’s possible that a player will have no cards in hand during their Action phase! Also, while rare, it’s not impossible that a player would WANT to skip their Action phase in order to use all of their cards for their Role, or save some for next turn. I don’t see why a player should be forced to play a card if they don’t want to.

As for holding cards from turn to turn… when I first played Dominion, one of my first comments was “How come I have to discard my hand every turn?” In that game, nothing ties your game together from turn to turn except for the overall contents of your deck. I wanted to save cards for later and manage my hand. I decided right away in EmDo I would allow players to hold cards over from turn to turn, because EmDo is more about building up to a big turn than Dominion is. Dominion is all deck building, so it makes more sense that the thing that ties your turns together is just your deck. EmDo is not just about building your deck, it’s about managing your Empire.

Tom: I don’t consider EmDo a deck building game by the way. It is different from Dominion as you have said. You’ve talked about the Kickstarter campaign for EmDo a lot so we won’t go into it much. But I did want to ask, were there any negatives to Kickstarting? Other than the obvious, what would you do different?

Seth: I was very happy with the support that EmDo received via Kickstarter. If I could do it again, I’d have probably done more with the high-end “name a card” rewards. I liked the reward levels that we used, and they seemed to work out for a lot of supporters. Michael might have more info in this regard, since he had to deal with all of the logistics of dealing with the fulfillment company who was fulfilling the rewards.I don’t think there are any negatives to using Kickstarter, really. It was neat being one of the ‘trailblazers’ so to speak, but it was also somewhat painful in a lot of ways. I am glad that other KS projects were able to benefit from EmDo’s experience in a “what not to do” sort of manner as well as being able to model their projects after what worked for us. If I had it to do over I would have liked to be able to allow Kickstarters to pick the game up at GenCon, and I would have preferred not to have to create exclusive game content. Knowing what I know now, I would have preferred to include the Bonus Planets as stretch goals rather than any sort of limited exclusive, and I would have liked to know that ahead of time so that the rules for the Bonus Planets could have been included with the cards.
Tom: What else have you been up to? What’s coming up from Tasty Minstrel Games?

Seth: I just got back from NYU PRACTICE – a brand new Game Design Conference. I wrote a recap on my http://sedjtroll.blogspot.com/. In short, it was heavily geared toward digital game design (which was a shame), but I was able to take away something from each session that could help make me a better board game designer. Tasty Minstrel Games just started a new Kickstarter campaign for Kings of Air And Steam– a route planning, pickup/deliver game with a rich Steampunk theme in which you will fly your airship to factories to pick up goods, drop them off at depots, and deliver them to cities using your train network. The airship movement is partially pre-programmed (like in Roborally), but only the amount of movement, not the direction – so you have room to change your mind if an opponent messes up your plans.

Each turn after you move your airship you get to take 1 action as well – delivering cubes, building depots, or upgrading your airship or trains for example. It’s a fun game, and the project is off to a good start. TMG is using “overfunding goals” to encourage pledges in order to upgrade the production for the entire print run rather than exclusive items for supporters only. I think that’s a better model, as only a few hundred players will ever be in on the kickstarter project, while THOUSANDS of players will purchase and enjoy the game over time. The incentive to pledge is still there though, as you’ll get a discount on the game, and with enough pledges, your copy will be upgraded (along with the entire print run). We hope to be able to provide custom molded plastic airships for each player, custom molded plastic crates in lieu of plain wooden cubes, and an extra set of 2 characters (and their airship).

Oh, did I forget to mention characters? There are 12 characters in the game (6 teams of 2) of which you’ll choose 1 each game. They each have unique abilities that will make the game a little different for you depending on which one you have. The bonus characters are Mafiosos who, maybe this goes without saying, don’t like to play fair

In addition, TMG also has art underway for another 2-6 player game – an economic strategy game called Ground Floor. Ground Floor features worker placement and resource management as you use your employees’ time to gather Money and Information, and use those to add Floors to your building. There’s a lot of stuff to worry about in this one – do you advertise to improve your turn order? Do you produce goods to sell? Will there be enough consumers, or should you price your product lower to make sure you’ll make anything at all? Their economic model is ingenious, and really models a shifting economic climate, modeling Depression, Recession, Stable, and Boom economies.

I’m happy to report that both of those games support from 2 to 6 players, and they both scale very well, providing an excellent experience at each of those player counts!

Tom: I’m really looking forward to Kings of Air and Steam. I like the steampunk theme. And from what I’ve seen of it so far it shares some of the mechanics or ideas of a crayon rails game. That’s neat. And Ground Floor sounds very interesting. It will be fun to see how it mimics real world economics. I can’t believe I just said that.

That’s great for TMG but what does Seth have in the queue?

Seth: In addition to the TMG submissions I’m working on, I’ve also got the following going on:

  • Eminent Domain expansion material – I have somewhere between 2 and 3 expansions planned, and am in the process of creating cards and content for each, and deciding which parts go with which expansion.
  • Alter Ego – a Vigilante Hero themed cooperative (and possibly also competitive) deck building game. You’ll have to manage ties to your Family, Job, and Community while you spend more and more time fighting crime… This one borrows some ideas from Eminent Domain, as your deck represents your “hero,” and you train different Hero aspects in order to be able to better catch criminals.
  • Exhibit: Artifacts of the Ages – a set collection game with a unique auction mechanism based on Liar’s Dice. This game is basically done.
  • Dice Works – a real-time dice drafting game. You roll a bunch of dice, and grab them one at a tie (no turns!) trying to build up your player board. This game is pretty much done as well, but I’d like to try a modification of this which uses Martian Dice instead of standard d6s.
  • Wizard’s Tower – a fairly abstract game that I have done with a local friend of mine, I’ve been bringing it to conventions for about 5 years now, and it nearly won a game design contest at KublaCon a few years ago. It’s a solid game, but may

    not be the type of thing Tasty Minstrel likes to publish, so if any publisher is interested in that, feel free to email me!

  • All For One – An old favorite… the first real game I ever worked on. This one with David Brain from London. I haven’t worked on it in a while, and last I checked I was unhappy with it… It would make me happy to finally see that one (started circa 2003) finally finished and published one day!

I occasionally blog about game ideas on my blog, Cumbersome, so if you’re interested in what I’m working on or thinking about at any given time, feel free to drop in and read that. Please leave comments, they let me know people are actually reading!

Tom: Thanks for joining me again Seth. This was very fun and interesting. It was cool talking about how you design a game and what went into Eminent Domain. I’m excited to see Kings of Air and Steam as well as Alter Ego, Exhibit, and Wizard’s Tower. Congratulations on the success of Eminent Domain. It is a really fun and unique game. I wish you continued success. Let me know how I can help in the future.

And thank you for stopping by Go Forth And Game. I hope you enjoyed this interview. Please visit Seth’s blog to stay updated on what he is doing. And leave a comment of any kind here to let me know you are reading.

Go Forth And Game!

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