I spent my twenties without very many useful skills, but with an abundance of creative energy that I applied in many different directions, trying (sometimes quite desperately) to find something that worked. Film, novels, comics, video games, even music, despite the fact that I am by all accounts quite tone-deaf. I wasn't necessarily bad at all of these things, though in some cases, in retrospect, it felt like I was working against the format rather than in or with it. But all of my work was idiosyncratic, even aggressively weird, off-putting, and extremely personal - and so it utterly failed to connect with much of anyone. I was quite cognizant of this, and knew to some degree that this was the problem, but at the same time, no matter how I tried, I was completely unable to do something that was "normal". Structurally, the narrative work especially was at once too digressive but also overly schematized and formal. No matter what I tried, nothing seemed to click.
And then I discovered board games, and started designing them. The great thing about board games is that an overly schematized and formal structure is an asset instead of a detriment; in a way, board games are all structure. The great thing about board games is that, by their very nature, there wasn't any room for me to digress or veer violently into a completely different direction at the end. The great thing about board games is that something, at long last, clicked, and that, at least potentially, I'd be able to create something that would actually connect.
Of course, my first game didn't actually come out until 2012, and the first one to really rack up a lot of plays on BGG (Northern Pacific for Winsome) wasn't released until the year following. So back in 2010, 2011, when I was first starting out and shopping designs around, I had no clue if this would pan out, or if it would be the same old story all over again. It certainly didn't feel that way - I felt more confident that I was really onto something for the first time in my life.
But with that came a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to make this work, and to consciously avoid any errant impulse to do something that might be weird and uncommercial. I was aiming my designs quite squarely at the medium-weight euro market. I failed pretty miserably in that aim; no one quite wanted what I was selling. The games were too similar to what was already on the market. This wasn't deliberate, however, but a function of the fact that my limited financial resources and social circle prevented me from getting really familiar with everything that was out there, and so I kept "inventing" mechanisms that someone else had introduced a year or two earlier.
More than that, though, it was aiming so deliberately for middlebrow, for games that were for the broadest possible taste on the broadest possible themes, that held back the designs both commercially and artistically. This is only really clear now, and in retrospect, because at the time, I couldn't stop myself from designing a couple of weird and uncommercial games, and nobody really seemed to want those either.
One of these was Supply Lines of the American Revolution, which was my fastest-selling design up until Table Battles came out earlier this month. I pitched Supply Lines to publisher after publisher, many of whom turned it down without looking at it. One publisher did get it on the table, and wasn't impressed. And I don't blame him, because it not only doesn't sound commercial, but was in need of an overhaul. But I had no way of knowing if it was a case of "the game is weird but it will work if you fix it" or if it was "the game will never work because it's just too weird". And not having a lot of luck selling much of anything, I didn't have the confidence to figure out that it was the former.
And then there was For-Ex. In early 2011, I happened to read about how currencies are traded on the foreign exchange, and I thought it might make an interesting game. I then immediately thought, there's no way anyone would ever be remotely interested in this, and immediately pushed it away. It's not going to sell. I need to do a game that will actually sell. I need to actually sell a game to a publisher, and this sure as heck won't be it.
But the idea wouldn't leave me alone. I kept coming back to it, and kept pushing it away, and kept coming back. It was frustrating. I even thought of ways I could re-theme it to make it more palpable - what if we're bartering spices in the Mediterranean? what if they're alien or fantastical substances in a cashless sci-fi or fantasy world? - but none of that seemed to take hold of my imagination like trading United States Dollars for Japanese Yen. Like with film and the rest, I could not for the life of me even fake doing it as a "normal" game on a remotely sellable topic.
Finally, Mary said something along the lines of, "You keep talking about this game like you want to do it, so why don't you just do it?"
"Because no publisher would ever want to touch it."
"Then stop thinking about it."
"I'm trying. I can't."
"Look it," Mary said. If you've never met Mary, then you can't possibly know what a symphony she can perform with those two words in tandem. How the words simultaneously mean "here's my advice" and "this is the way it is" but also "shut up" and "I'm not putting up with your nonsense", only the word is a lot stronger than nonsense. When I hear her say look it, that's my cue to listen, or else.
"Look it," Mary said, and then she followed it up with, "Just do the game. Just get it out of your system. Maybe you'll never sell it. So what? Get it done and then you can move on to something else."
And so I did. It actually came together very quickly. I didn't need to grope around for mechanisms that would do this and that, or sit on the design while I tried to get the pieces to fit together. It came more or less fully assembled, the mechanisms as well as the relationships between them being fully formed. And all of this would remain pretty much intact. The game was smaller in scope, having five instead of seven currencies, and there were a couple of rules that would get tweaked after the initial playtests. There was also a slightly fiddly bit that saw China acting as a currency manipulator, something that was truer at the time I was putting together that first prototype than it is today. But generally, other than making the game a little smoother, everything that was there in the first iteration is still there in the published game, making for an incredibly stable design.
At least initially, that stability was due in part to my uncertainty about whether or not the game worked, or whether it was a game at all or just some kind of contraption that generated butterfly effects. It was and is an extremely opaque design in which everything you do subtly touches everything else, but in a way that's largely indirect and sideways. A common refrain at the playtest table was that they didn't understand how to play the game. Not that it was mechanically difficult, but that the strategy and the tactics were hard to grasp. When someone won the game, they seemed genuinely surprised that they had done so, and couldn't offer up any explanation for their victory. When someone did something clever and cutthroat, fatally damaging another player's position, they had usually done it by accident.
Whether I was playing the game, or just observing as it was put through its paces week after week, I really couldn't comprehend if the things that happened were features of the design, or if they were bugs. You did things, and things happened, which let you do other things, and caused these things, but what all those things meant, or if those things actually meant anything, I really couldn't tell.
But partially this is because I'm absolutely rubbish at opaque, nerdy, butterfly-effect games in general, including and especially the ones that I've designed. I remember playing Northern Pacific at a game gathering Mary and I were invited to, and I made an end-game move that was absolutely, positively bonkers - completely amateur hour. One of the other gamers looked at me and said, "Are you sure you're the guy who designed this?" He really couldn't believe that the game's creator could make such an idiotic move. (Believe it, buddy.) And that's a game that, as Winsome's John Bohrer once told me, only has two rules. For-Ex had more than two, and it was by and far the most opaque thing I had ever seen. Also the driest, and the nerdiest, and the least likely to ever find a publisher.
I did try, though. When I felt that the game was more-or-less finished, I tried pitching it to publishers of all shapes and sizes, basically anybody who had ever done any kind of heavier economics game. One publisher told me that the game looked amazing, but that there was no way he could ever publish it. I went after one of those 18XX specialty outfits and, as I've said more than once over the last few months, he basically told me that it was too nerdy and niche even for 18XX gamers. (Which, thanks, that's been a great bit of marketing!) Most publishers just ignored me though, and none of them wanted me to come and demonstrate the game at a convention.
Which was fine, because I was and am terrible at that whole part of the process, and also because I had no idea how to explain the game. I could tell people how the mechanics worked, and I could tell them I was pretty sure there was a game there, but I couldn't find a way to articulate how to play the game well, or to describe the ramifications of this decision or that one.
Eventually I gave up trying to sell it to a publisher. As I packed up the prototype and put it away, I discussed the game with Mary. She had really liked the game every time it got on the table. She won more often than the others, but often said that she never remembered how to play the game until half-way through. "It was fun every time, though."
"It's such a weird game," I said. "I don't know why I designed this."
"To get it out of your system," said Mary. "And you did. Time to move on."
And so I did.
See Part 2 of 2