Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Ask A Developer (Joshua Buergel, part one)

Today is part one of a new Ask A Developer with Joshua Buergel, who has designed and developed excellent card games that have been talked about in this space before, notably Hocus and Foresight.

Describe your game in less than 100 words.
Fox in the Forest is a two-player trick-taking card game that tries to capture the feel of classic card games like BRIDGE, HEARTS, and the like, but in a modern package, and designed for just two people.

What were your objectives (three) with the original design?
Most importantly, I wanted to fill a niche that is very sparsely populated. There are some trick-taking card games that work with two, but they're rare, and I felt like it was a place I could do something new. Beyond that, I wanted to create a game that could stand the test of time, that could be played many, many times, the way people might play Cribbage or Gin. Finally, and a bit more nebulously, I wanted to make a game that would be enjoyed by couples.

What distinguishes your game?
Beyond the category itself, what I tried to do with the game was make sure that there was plenty of drama in each hand. In particular, the scoring system can have you desperately trying to win or lose tricks, depending on where you are in the hand and what your opponent is up to. Or what you think they're up to. It's not unlike shooting the moon in Hearts, as you can have success either by taking the majority of tricks or by taking very few. That push-and-pull is really at the heart of the game.

How long does it take to play?
About 30 minutes or less, usually.

What are your strongest gaming influences?
I've been hobby gaming since about 1983, with my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, so I've collected a lot of influences in that time. I try and take a very broad approach to gaming, where I look in as many places as I can. Just in terms of what I think about in gaming and how I spend my time, Dungeons & Dragons still probably is the most dominant influence on my hobby, with a nod to Magic the Gathering for an intense period in the 90s, and to Bridge and Pinochle for how much time I spend with them in high school and college.

But, to name some specifics: Sid Sackson is probably my most admired designer. Both due to his amazing body of work (Acquire, Can't Stop, Sleuth, and Focus, just to name a few), but also due to his ecumenical approach to games. He didn't just design brilliant games, but also took to cataloging extant games, in his books Card Games Around the World and A Gamut of Games. I'd consider both of those books to be essential to anybody interested in game design, and I often return to them and re-read them when I'm looking for ideas. I feel like not enough tabletop designers out there really engage with the history of the craft, and most would be significantly better if they did so. Add to that reading list David Parlett's magisterial Penguins's Guide to Card Games, which is another tome I frequently turn to when I'm looking for inspiration.

Another designer who has had a significant influence on me is Uwe Rosenberg, award winning designer of tremendous hobby games like Caverna (#10 all time according to Board Game Geek), Agricola (#14), and A Feast for Odin (#38), among many others. But what inspired me are not those big box designs, with their mountains of bits and wide sweep (although I do love them). Instead, I've found his earlier career inspiring, with his explorations of what card games can be. Games like Bargain Hunter, Bohnanza, Klunker, Space Beans, and Mamma Mia got me to thinking more deeply about what is possible with a simple deck of cards, and really helped me to try and find new types of game play.

There is a rich tradition of European game designers creating new trick-taking games which were also very inspiring for this particular game. Karl-Heinz Schmiel's Was Sticht?, Frank Nestel's and Frank's Zoo, Klaus Palesch's Sticheln, and Urs Hostettler's Tichu are all great examples of modern card games that have taken classic gaming concepts and still managed to create novel and fascinating games. I'd like to think Fox in the Forest falls into that same category.

What are your best gaming memories?
Well, it'll be hard to top the fact that I met my wife while playing Bridge in the hallway of her dorm. She was sitting out of her room working on her architecture project, and we were sitting in the hallway playing cards, because that's what we did. She was kind of fascinated by college kids who were spending their evenings playing a complex card game instead of going out and getting wasted, and took to regularly hanging out with us. When one of our group failed out of school, we taught her the game, and she hasn't been rid of me at any point in the ensuing 23 years (and counting!).

Even beyond that, hobby gaming has been central to my life for almost as long as I can remember. I used to bike to the public library on Saturdays to play in a public game of D&D, when I couldn't scrape up enough players myself. I would play endless games of D&D with my best friend Tim Hodler, just the two of us, to the point where his parents actually said that he had to spend less time around me, because they were worried about me being a bad influence. (The 80s, folks!) I would sit and endlessly read game rules and supplements, and try my hand at creating things, stuff I wouldn't show to anybody. Gaming became the glue that held together my social group in middle school and high school, with friends that I still play games with to this very day. And, as the story above shows, it has even shaped the most important relationship in my life. It's a hobby for me, of course, but it's an essential part of who I am and how I came to be the person I am today.

Who is your favorite designer, and why?
My favorite game design is Vlaada Chvatil, designer of games like Through The Ages, Mage Knight, Codewords, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and so many others. He's my favorite designer because all of his games are singular visions. Frequently, the only thing tying his games together is how brilliant they are. He can go from a weighty civilization game like Through the Ages (#2 and #18 on the BGG list, thanks to multiple editions) to a light party game like Codewords to a real-time cluster like Galaxy Trucker without breaking a sweat. His mechanisms are novel, the interactions in his games are always interesting, his themes are often very clever, and he even makes genuinely funny games to boot. If I design anything even half as good as Through the Ages in my time, I'll have really accomplished something.

What game have you played for the most hours? Why?
There are four games that are possibilities. D&D is a possibility, although given that I've experimented with a bunch of different RPG systems over the years, and indeed, D&D itself has been through five major editions in the time I've been playing, it's probably not the right answer. Up through college, the answer would easily have been Bridge, but I haven't been playing it much recently. I was deeply into Magic the Gathering at one time, playing lots of tournaments and spending tons of time building decks, even ranking pretty high in the sealed deck ratings. However, the king is probably a game I haven't mentioned yet: Warhammer Quest, the brilliant dungeon crawling miniatures game that I've been playing continuously since it came out in 1995. At this point, my group has developed a rich body of rulings, extensions, house rules, and traditions around it. We still get together every few weeks or so and spend a day playing it.

What makes Warhammer Quest still the standard for dungeon crawling board games is the extraordinary breadth. The different types of monsters you encounter, and the variety of abilities they can have as well as the variety of treasure you can find, gives you a never-ending parade of novel situations. Warhammer Quest also has what I think of as tremendous design space. Monsters and heroes are described by a wide variety of statistics, which are simple to apply, but give room for differentiation. But it's not just that, the combat sequence has enough steps in it that there are plenty of places for creatures to be unique. Think about the ability of a system to capture different archetypes: a heavily armored, slow warrior; a fast, lithe warrior; a ranger with a bow; a fire mage; a barbarian. How different does the barbarian feel from the armored warrior? If they do feel different, it's likely the case that the system representing them has enough degrees of freedom to be able to capture subtle shades between what otherwise might be similar melee-focused fighters. That strong universe of design space is something I admire about Warhammer Quest, and is something I've strived to replicate in other designs.

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