gil hova at origins

Gil Hova on Game Design Theory, Self Publishing, & Star Wars

RICHARD:        Hello, Richard Miles here for We have a pretty good show for you today. Our guest for this episode is Gil Hova and I’d like to start introducing our guests a little bit like this: [awesome Gil Hova intro] but we’ll see if that sticks. For now, I’ll probably just stick to letting the guests introduce themselves.

Today, we’re going to cover Gil’s philosophy of board game theory, what led to his decision to self-publish, why he’s not looking forward to the new Star Wars movie, and of course, we’ll talk a little bit about his upcoming Kickstarter campaign ‘The Networks.’ So today, I’m talking with…

GIL:                  Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games.

RICHARD:        Gil, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me today. I know that you are in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign that has 28 days left to go. It’s called ‘The Networks‘ and before we get into all that, and we certainly will talk a lot about that, I would like to, if you don’t mind, to begin our discussion talking about game design theory. Some people might not even know what game design theory is or that it even exists, but I would like to talk about game design theory and possibly your philosophy that goes into game design.

GIL:                  Sure, I think, for me, I can summarize it in three words and that is: Incentivize Interesting Behavior. I think that those three words sum up what good game design is. I think a good game designer it’s not just a matter of choices, it’s not just a matter of fun. A game designer wants to figure out what the interesting behavior is in their game and then arrange the game so that it incentivizes players to keep doing that interesting behavior.

RICHARD:        I think a lot of game designers, at least today with the rise of Kickstarter, a lot of game designers get into designing board games because they’ve played a lot of games. That’s their credentials, they’re: “I play a lot games, I love games, I want to make a game, I think I can do it”, but your take on it, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but is that there’s a little bit more to it than “you’ve played a lot of games”.

GIL:                  Yeah, I mean, playing a lot of games is very good. I think a good designer really should be playing a lot of games just like a good musician will generally listen to a lot of music and, of course, you always have your outsiders. You have your people who came in from nowhere and haven’t had a lot of experience, you know, someone they stumbled across something but that’s a really hard road to lead to.

You know, I would recommend that if you have the choice you’ll have a much easier time of it if you play a lot of games but that said, you know, perceiving a game as a player is not quite the same as perceiving it as a designer and there’s going to be a real difference in how the game plays when you’re just looking at it having never really been on that side of things before and it’s really, I mean, the incentivization is really an important part of that.

Now, I’ll give you an example: I was play testing a game this past weekend and that was actually a really nifty game but, you know, there were characters on a map and you had the option of either moving your characters or drawing tiles from a bag and nobody ever really moved the characters. On their turns everybody moved the bag and the designer said afterwards, you know, I asked the designer, “So do players usually move because it seems like we are pretty static?” And the designer answered, “Well, usually players move but I had one game where nobody moved and everybody lost the game because they kept on drawing tiles out of the bag.

And I pointed out, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got sort of an incentive of, “if you don’t move then you’re going to lose the game”, but if that’s not clear and the game doesn’t give that sort of feedback the fact is drawing the tiles out of the bag is more fun. The way the game is set up there’s a lot of drama that comes out of drawing tiles from out of the bag. So, there are a lot of incentives to draw from the bag and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of immediate incentives to move your characters’.

So, my suggestion involved creating some incentives to move your characters that go against, because the game was pretty, it was pretty one dimensional, because you were just reaching into the bag and, you know, while it was fun to pull out the right tiles, it wasn’t always, like it wasn’t particularly deep, like it wouldn’t be a game that would continue to last and continue hitting the table.

Whereas, now, if you’ve got one incentive, that’s the draw into the bag, you’ve got another incentive that happens if you move and, now, you’re weighing which incentive you want to take. Now, you’re talking about an interesting game and I really think that’s when you’ve started to look at games as a designer.

RICHARD:        Right, so, I actually am trying to come to terms with the whole ‘how do I incentivize players to take an action as well’. I believe you know but, I don’t know that everybody knows but, I am designing a game called “Armor and Ash”. One of the issues that I have ran into is that I want players to, without getting into the meat of the game, I want players to use their hero and one of the feedback that I’ve gotten time and again is ‘we don’t feel the incentive to play our heroes’.

They’re not incentivized to play the hero, they’re actually incentivized to kind of turtle up and not play the hero and that’s the opposite of what I want. So I’ve been trying to come up with ways to incentivize players to get that hero out. I think I’ve cracked the code but the incentivization part, that is important, and I don’t think as you’re mentioning, I don’t think you actually reach that point from just playing a lot of games.

Like that, you have to put on the designer goggles or look through a designer lens, if you will, to kind of reach that point of ‘What am I actually trying to get the players to do and am I incentivizing them enough to get them to do that?’

GIL:                  That’s right, yeah.

RICHARD:        And so the flip side of that, game design, which you’re now wearing kind of two hats, so you are the designer and you’ve decided to self-publish, go the Kickstarter route. And so the other side of that coin is looking through a publisher lens and so that has other choices, other items you have to look at, components, things of that nature to, to kind of weigh out the cost of that. So, can you go into how that might fit in to how you tackle designing a game from the publisher perspective?

GIL:                  Yeah, it’s interesting because when you’re looking at a game as a designer, you’re not really looking at it as a game. You’re looking at it as a product, you know, and that sounds kind of cold, and calculating, and cynical, but it really is how you have to approach it because people play games but people buy products and that, as a publisher you’re life blood depends on whether or not people will buy your products. Whereas, as a designer you’re really more concerned whether people will play your game.

So, as a publisher, you know, I’m really more concerned about a game that is appealing, you know. That when people look at it on a table, they stop and they take a look, and they start, and that the theme of the game is something that not only draws them in but when they start playing there’s very little friction. Like the theme of the game informs them of what the experience is going to be. Like, for example, if I have a game with a pirate theme and it turns out to be like a low interaction Euro drafting game that’s going to feel a little weird, you know.

If I’ve got a game with a stock market theme and it turns out to be a two player abstract that’s, also, going to be a little bit weird, you know. It’s, there’s all these things that you really have to be careful of as a publisher and that’s not even getting into like what kind of art you want for the game, what kind of components you want to make for the game, where to source the components, how to ship it, whether you’re going to go with Kickstarter or not, you know. Those are all different kinds of considerations that you make as a publisher that as a designer, I think, as a designer, there’s a little bit of a blur, like as a designer, you need to be a little bit aware of this stuff.

Like, for example, if you are working on a game and you have a choice between saying, between say, going with a deck of cards or going with a hundred custom dice and each die is completely different, like has totally different faces from the next die. As a designer you need to know that very, very, very, very, few publishers would even think about option two because it’s prohibitively expensive. Whereas, a deck of cards is a lot more realistic for a publisher, it’s a lot more affordable.

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  So, as a designer you really have to know, at least, a little bit of a lay of the land to know how realistic your game is to pitch because really you’re selling the game as the designer also, except you will only have one sell and that sell will be to the publisher, you know. So, you’re trying to make the game as attractive as possible to the publisher, then the publisher’s trying to make the game as attractive as possible to the audience, and, you know, that system works, sometimes.

Sometimes it doesn’t work so well and, for me, I find that I’m a lot happier making the calls that a publisher makes because I feel like there’s a lot more control than I wanted since I was just a designer pitching to publishers.

RICHARD:        Let’s talk about switching over to wearing the publisher hat. So, ‘The Networks’, which is currently on Kickstarter, this is your, is this your second self-published game?

GIL:                  That’s correct, it’s my second self-published game.

RICHARD:        And let’s talk about your decision to go down that road to self-publish.

GIL:                  I mean, for years, I said I wouldn’t do it, for years I said, “I’m never going to self-publish.” Why would I, why would I take on all this abuse and go down this really, really, hard road, you know? There are a few things that pushed me down, five years ago the business was completely different. Five years ago if you wanted to self-publish, you know, look at all the things you had to do.

First off, you had to reach out to a printer yourself, that meant you had to go to the plant yourself, and you had to request like 3,000 copies of the game and they wouldn’t really talk to you if you wanted fewer. There are creative ways around printing fewer than 3,000 copies of the game but they required a lot of creativity and, generally, a very, very high MSRP, which will turn off a lot of gamers unless you’ve established some sort of credibility already.

RICHARD:        Oh, yeah.

GIL:                  So, let’s start with that, then go to the fact that, alright, let’s say you had $30,000 dollars just lying around. I know somebody who did go down this route. Like well before the Kickstarter revolution and asked, I asked him, “Why did you do this?” And he answered, “Well, I was going through a mid-life crisis and it was this or a sports car.”

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  I don’t think it was never a good decision back then but you have to know what you’re going in for. Let’s continue down that road. Let’s say that it was still five years ago and you actually were crazy enough, you had the money laying around, and you’re crazy enough to spend it all, and then the plant delivers it. Now a lot of people think, ‘Okay, well, my games are going to come and there just going to be a bunch of boxes and I’ll put them all in my garage and that’ll be it.’

Well, it’s not like they’re going to come in loose boxes, they come on pallets, and you need equipment to move a pallet, you know. You need a pallet jack at the very least to move those things around, and I know someone who got games delivered to his house and he didn’t know what he was in for. And he saw those pallets, and he realized, ‘I’m not going to be able to move that,’ and thank goodness the driver of the truck, the truck driver had a pallet jack that he was able to move it in, otherwise, it would’ve been a very short load out.

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  That’s another part of it you know. So, then there’s the question of where you going to warehouse it and then there’s the question of how you’re going to ship it, you know. And, back then, you know, you were going to ship it to a distributer, which means you have to get a distributers attention, because selling it direct, you know, that just wasn’t something that happened back then. So, all these obstacles and some people did it, you know, they, actually, did self-publish a game.

They went through all of these obstacles and, then, they found out the biggest part of it, which is that they did all this and then they had to markup the game. You know, then they had to make people aware of the game and, you know, I would see people at conventions year after year and every year their game was five dollars cheaper and it was really sad and depressing to see. You know, to a point like a $40 dollar game eventually became a $15 dollar game and a $10 dollar game and I just shudder to think how many extra copies were lying around.

So, that was self-publishing, five years ago, and it’s why that a lot of people just gave you advice, ‘Don’t even try” because it’s not, it’s not like being in a band and making like 1,000 CD’s or even being like a roll playing game designer and making like 500 copies of like your ashcan and just having that in a box somewhere because that’s low risk you know. Worst case scenario you’ve got a box or two of the stuff lying around. You know, people kind of laugh at you at it but it’s not really, worst case scenario you’re down a couple of thousand dollars. You know, it’s not a small chuck of money but it’s not, it’s not life changing.

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  Whereas, with a board game you’re looking at $30,000 dollars or so of money that you have to pay. I’m assuming, I’m saying this is for like a game with fairly regularly sized box, a board, deck of cards, pawns, you know, those kinds of things. That’s about $30,000 dollars that you’re looking at in terms of both manufacturing and shipping. So, what changed? Well, a few things changed and, obviously, the biggest thing was Kickstarter because all those folks who made those 3,000 copies of the game because they did it, that they think that was the minimum quantity, part of the problem is they didn’t know how many copies they had to make.

So Kickstarter will tell you how much interest there is in their game and the worst case scenario with Kickstarter, this is something that I think is a really important thing about Kickstarter, if you fail to fund that is not the worst case scenario. That is avoiding a very bad worse case scenario, well, a worst case scenario by definition is very bad, but you get the point you know. Not funding on Kickstarter is way better than not going with Kickstarter, investing a bunch of your personal money, and then the game not selling.

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  So, Kickstarters and, then, of course, if you do fund and barely scrape over the funded goal versus if you do fund and ridiculously over-fund those are going to be two totally different plans that you make for manufacturing the game. So, knowing, getting a preview of what the demand for your game is, is huge so that is the first big thing that’s changed. Another big thing that’s changed are companies like Panda and Ad Magic.

So instead of going directly to a printer you go to an intermediary who finds a printer for you and they take a lot of that guess work out and a lot of them like Panda and Ad Magic can even handle shipping for you, which is really great especially if you’re a first time publisher like I’d even mentioned that back in my, in my last thing. You, you as the publisher, before had to figure out how to get your games from the plant back to your warehouse, or your garage, or wherever you were storing them and that is not small.

I mean, when you go with a shipping company or if you let your printer intermediary handle all your shipping that’s going to be much, much, easier so that’s a second thing that’s changed. A third thing that’s changed is printing in China has changed a lot especially because those printers are a lot more open to smaller print runs, still, you’re going to want to do, at least, 1,000 copies. Like a printer will, now, no longer just say, “No,” when you say, “A thousand.” They’ll say, “Okay, we’ll do a thousand”, then, they’ll give you a unit cost that, you know, is not great.

You know, it’s not horrible in terms of like well, at least, you can get it made and, maybe you cannot lose too much money, you know, with that high minimum, with that high, like with 1,000 copies. You’re looking at a pretty big unit cost and you’re probably not going to make, you’re probably going to lose quite a bit of money on it, to be honest, but some people, they say, “You know what? I’m going to make this game. If I lose like $5,000 dollars on it, well, in the end, after the Kickstarter, I’m still down $5,000, well, that game’s out and that’s what’s important,” and some people are fine with that. But even like going to 1,500 is like, ‘Okay, now, you’re looking at something where you might be able to break even, you know.

So, that’s another thing that’s changed and, then, the fourth thing that changed is fulfillment services and this, to me, is really what changed everything because I have a small one bedroom apartment in the New York City area. There is no way I’m getting a huge shipment of games. I can’t hold them anywhere, my apartments just too small and, you know, warehousing space around, near me, you know, that was such a logistical burden especially because I had to figure out how to package everything and, you know, and ship everything.

That takes time, and money, and is not easy to get right and, you know, you can easily make a mistake, and suddenly, you know, Amazon steps in and says, “Well, we ship all the time anyway, we’ll handle shipping for you.” So, they have a service called ‘Multi-Channel Fulfillment’ that Jamey Stegmaier, actually, as far as I know, I think he was the first game publisher to really embrace ‘Multi-Channel Fulfillment’. So, now, there’s the real big game changer because, now, you’ve got all these people working for you, you know.

You’ve got someone who is handling the printer and, sometimes, handling the shipping as well, and they ship to a warehouse, that’s not your warehouse, but a place that acts a warehouse, and that also handles all shipping for you. So, now, as the publisher, while you’re still doing a ton of work, but it’s no longer an insane amount of work, it’s no longer a ludicrous amount of work, it’s just a lot of work.

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  So, now, it becomes much more realistic.

RICHARD:        One question, if I may, and I know there are quite a few board games that have been digitized, and there’s quite a number of them, of board games that I can now play on my phone. So, how do you feel about that, I guess, digitization of the physical board game?

GIL:                  In terms of ports of board games onto video games, I think, generally, they feel different enough that they don’t cannibalize. Like you look at games like ‘Ticket To Ride’ and Days of Wonder have said over and over again that there iOS app is one big reason their physical sales remain strong because people play the video game and then they buy the board game.

So, generally, I don’t believe they cannibalize. I think there are exceptions, I think a good exception is ‘Ascension’. I know, personally, I am not going to buy any more Ascension products, physical Ascension products, just because I never really get to play them, but I play it all the time on my phone, and I love Ascension on the phone. But, I think, a lot of that is based on the individual design of Ascension, you know, Ascension, at this point, to play physically is a whole lot more fiddly in terms of set-up and actual game play than a game like Ticket To Ride and, I think, they’re, actually, starting to design with an eye towards digital.

You know, I think, the transformation mechanism they put in where you have one card that if you reach a certain threshold with a currency you actually remove that card and replace it with a different card and they suggest that there’s a few ways to do it. One way you could do it is have both cards on the same sleeve and you just change the order in the sleeve when you transform it but, you know, that’s something that takes a little bit of fiddling in person but on a mobile device it’s instantaneous.

RICHARD:        Right

GIL:                  Yeah, yeah, also, the fact that I like to play with as many expansions as possible and doing it on the phone that means I can have a portal deck with literally 1,000 cards and it’s not really a big deal. Whereas, you try to play with a deck of that size, I mean, what I was doing, when I was still playing with the physical game and I had only quote, unquote, “five expansions”. And, so, I left most of it in the deck and I just would take a small part of the deck out and shuffling that is, it’s really tricky to randomize a deck of that size, whereas, again, on a mobile device it’s very quick.

So, I think, that’s one of the edge cases where the digital sales do cannibalize off the physical sales but, I think for the most part you’ll see that digital sales do not cannibalize physical sales because they’re such different player experiences that people will, generally, go from one to the other.

RICHARD:        Let’s switch gears since we’re running out of time here and talk about ‘The Networks’. Tell us a little bit about that game and how you came up with the idea.

GIL:                  Okay, well, ‘The Networks‘ is a strategy game, a strategy tabletop game, for one to five players and it plays really well with all those counts. So it plays well with five players, but there, also, has a really, really, good solo mode. So, I’m really, actually, proud of how it plays at all player counts and the object of the game is you are a television network executive and you start the game with a little bit of money and three horrible public access T.V. shows and you are trying to get the most viewers over the course of five seasons.

So you’re going to be developing T.V. shows, so there’s going to be some shows that are on cards, so you pick up a card that way you’re developing a show and you spend a certain amount of money to develop the show, and the shows are going to need stars and/or ads, and a lot of them have requirements. Like, maybe, one show requires a star, maybe, another show requires an ad, maybe, another show requires a star and you may add an ad, if you want, and so on, and so forth.

So you have to have those, those things in place, you have to have the star if you want to pick up a show that requires a star. Now, the stars have their own little sets of conditions, they’re going to score you more viewers like, for example, one star wants to be on a drama. So if you put the star in a drama you’re going to get more viewers than if you put them on a sitcom and I should mention that the shows will score more if you put them on the proper time slot and there’s other kinds of conditions.

Like some stars want to be on a show with an ad, some stars want to be on a show without an ad, some stars want to be on a show in, well, some stars want to be picked up by the player who’s not in the lead, that sort of thing. There’s all sorts of little, cute thematic things I was able to put in based on what the condition is like whether the star will score you more viewers or fewer viewers and, then, you have ads. Now, ads are different like stars, develop, assigning a star will cost you money and some stars will cost you money every season because they’re especially expensive but ads will give you money because they’re ads.

So you, you land an ad and you get a certain amount of money and that’s an ad that you can put on a show and once again ads want to be on certain timeslots, they want to be on shows at certain genres, and so on, you know. So, you put these ads on and so it’s a question of juggling, you know, and saying, “Alright, I want this show but this show requires this kind of star,” and you only get one action per turn so, you know, which do you want?

Do you go for the show and put on a star that’s sub-optimal or do you sign the star now and hope that the show will be around next season? And, of course, there’s power cards, there’s these network cards that give you special powers in the game so you might be able to do something that’s really cool if you happen to save up with a network card earlier on. So, you know, it takes about 60 to 90 minutes to play, depending on the player count, it’s got a great flow to it, you know, it just, it, the rules are all very thematic.

So, and, it just flows, your turns go very quickly, and you’re always engaged, and involved in the game, and people are really, really, enjoying it. I think, it’s, it’s got a nice weight, it’s a middle weight game, I’d say it’s about the same weight as something like Stone Age or St. Petersburgh. I think our games are equivalent to weight, not necessarily games equivalent mechanisms but equivalent weight.

RICHARD:        Okay.

GIL:                  Yeah, and, so, and, the response on Kickstarter has been incredible, we are at $15,520 dollars, that’s 26 hours into the campaign so that’s way better than I expected. I’m really happy with the response, we’ve gotten over 400 backers and they all seem really enthusiastic to try the game. There is a print and play that I just uploaded this morning so people can try the game even without buying it, which, I think, is always a sign that the publisher and designer are really confident in the product and, in my case, I’m really confident in this game.

You know, I think, it’s going to be really great and if you go over the page you can see, I think, the artwork and graphic design is top notch. The art is, it’s light-hearted but it’s not childish and it’s a nice balance that it strikes, which, I think, plays really well because the shows, I wanted to make sure the shows had funny titles in them and so you start with some public access shows and the public access shows are all horrible, you know.

There’s like ‘Name That Stain’ and ‘Get To Know Your Lower Colon’, and ‘Let’s Pickle’, and shows like that. ‘Unlocking Your Cat’s Psychic Potential’ but, then, you get to the better shows and the better shows are all plays off of existing shows like ‘Criminal Mindfulness’ and, ‘Paisley Is The New Burnt Umber.’

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  And shows like that so you can see what, ‘Flee’, I think, is another show “Found”, you know, those are all shows that, that you can pick up so you can sort of see what show I’m kind of mocking there. And the stars, you know, have passing similarities though not really strong enough similarities to resemble, actual people but, you know, you might recognize an aspect of a few different stars in like one of the stars in the game. So, you know, there’s a really nice reflection of it and, I think, it’s a really refreshing theme.

RICHARD:        So, you touched on the, the slight humor aspect of it, that’s what’s drawing me in. I like the games that I can play and I don’t have to be super, I like the super serious games, also, but I’m finding, more frequently, I like games that are a little bit lighter. I can laugh and cut up with my friends and we don’t have to take it serious. We may be in competition to win but it’s a fun competition and we’re, we’re, laughing the entire time.

Those types of games are starting to appeal to me more than the meaty, we’re going to take two hours and, I’m looking toward those more light, fun, games that I can laugh with.

So, I’m going to ask you a few questions, this is kind of a “In the Designer Studio”.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how excited are you for the new Star Wars movie?

GIL:                  Negative five.

RICHARD:        Wow! Not the answer I was expecting.

GIL:                  I, I mean, I grew up on Star Wars, I have to say Clerks was exactly right, you know, Clerks was 100% on the nose when they had that exchange about what was bugging that character about Jedi and, then, he realized what it was. You know, with the first movie when the Death Star got blown up, you know, you knew there was just bad guys on there, but the second movie, when the second Death Star got blown up, sorry, that’s a bunch of spoilers, but I hope I’m not spoiling it for anyone.

RICHARD:        Right.

GIL:                  When the second Death Star got blown up, you know, it wasn’t completed so they’re all these contractors and, you know, all these builders, and all these chefs, and, you know, people who aren’t really involved in it who got blown up, also, and that was just something that didn’t really sit right and, yeah, I could sort of see that. Overall, you know, it just wasn’t something that compelled me so when the fourth movie came out, I think, and, yes, it is the fourth movie, it’s not episode one, it is the fourth movie, it had already started falling into that crater.

You know, at this point, I’m just, I know that J.J. Abrams is probably going to add a whole bunch of life to it. He’s going to make it, he’s hopefully going to make it interesting again. I really hope he does but it’s not something I’m any real desire to see.

RICHARD:        Alright, alright, if you had to take possession of the ‘One Ring’ or ‘Harry Potter’s Cloak Of Invisibility’ which would you choose and why?

GIL:                  Functionally, they’re very similar but as I understand it, the Cloak of Invisibility doesn’t really have a downside so, you know, it seems, to me, that the Cloak is a much safer investment.

RICHARD:        Agreed, agreed, I think, the Cloak would be a safe bet.

Monks take a vow, some monks, take a vow of silence as part of devotion to their creator. What would you give up in order to create a bestselling game? We’re talking ‘Catan’ or ‘Ticket To Ride’ in terms of sales.

GIL:                  A high paying job.

RICHARD:        You would give up a high paying job for that?

GIL:                  Because I already have. You know, in a way, I feel like I’ve already made, at least, that sacrifice and who knows, there might be other sacrifices I might need to make in the future. Give me one more question, one more question.

RICHARD:        One more question, alright.

GIL:                  Yep.

RICHARD:        Which accent do you find the most sexy?

GIL:                  Oh, my, God, where do I even begin? I’m going to have to say Irish.

RICHARD:        Irish, not a bad answer. I can get behind that.

GIL:                  That’s one possibility. Liverpool Scouse, I think is really hot, Australian, also, and, I think those are my top three. I don’t know how to rank them.

RICHARD:        No, all good, all good answers. Alright Gil, that’s going to wrap up our time. I appreciate you taking the time out of your day and your Kickstarter campaign for The Networks to talk with me, again, thank you so much.

GIL:                  Thank you, Richard

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