Wednesday, January 15, 2014

UNPUB4 Preview: Josh Tempkin

Only a few more days till UNPUB4.  If you are on the fence about attending and have not picked up one of the free play tester tickets at then go to the web site, pick up your tickets and come back here, because after you see what Josh Tempkin is bring to UNPUB4 you will want to attend.  Plus, you will be able play games designed by previous interviewees, such as Alf Shadowsong & Kiva Fecteau, Charlie Hoopes, Paul Owen, and Nathaniel Levan.

Dr. Wictz: We are very lucky to have Josh Tempkin here today.  Due to misfortunes of epic proportions this interview almost did not happen.

Josh Tempkin: Sorry I missed the e-mail in the holiday rush.  I got seriously backlogged.  Currently, I'm sitting at 260 emails still unread.  :(

Dr. Wictz: Like I said, misfortunes of epic proportions.  So I heard through the grapevine...aka UNPUB4 event website…that you are demoing Lesser Evil at UNPUB4.  Could you give us a quick overview of the game?

Josh Tempkin:  Lesser Evil is a light dice game with some serious choices in it.  The basic idea is that on your turn, you'll roll a set of dice and then keep the highest die toward an end-of-round sum.  Higher sums at the end of the round are generally bad, however, so you want to manipulate your rolls using your tokens so that you can keep lower dice instead.  Getting rid of your tokens is especially good, because each unused token costs you points at the end of the game.  But using all of your tokens too early means that you'll be at the mercy of the dice (which, again, generally give you high rolls).  In the end, it's a game of managing the rate at which your tokens come in and then get used.

 I think you first saw Lesser Evil at Unpub South Jersey, back in April 2013, right?  I think you first played it, though, at Congress of Gamers in Sept 2013.  Does that sound right?  I actually had an early draft of Lesser Evil back at Unpub 3. 

Dr. Wictz: Almost, I actually got to play the game at the UNPUB mini at Games and Stuff in Glen Burnie.  I really enjoyed the tension generated in the game when I had to decide if and when  to use my tokens.  I must ask, having taken the game to numerous UNPUB events, how much has the game changed after earlier playtesting? 

Josh Tempkin: It's changed a lot!  Originally, I had oodles (yes, oodles!) of different manipulation abilities on the tokens themselves, and there could be as many as 7 different abilities in each game!  But the experience of teaching the game showed me that players were struggling to keep track of all of the special abilities.  We tweaked it many ways to try to make that easier, but honestly the big breakthrough came when we peeled everything away to make a bare-bones demo version.  We used just the core abilities on the tokens, and to our surprise, we didn't lose anything from the game play!  From that point on, we knew where we could add mechanics and where we couldn't.  The game got simpler and tighter, even as we began to expand it again.  All because we needed to make it easier to demo.

The other main trend in the game's evolution was that the cost of the tokens slowly increased from 1 up to 5.  I liked the original idea of having each token be worth 1 point, as it would keep the final scoring nice and simple.  But it became clear that we couldn't cost the other options properly unless we raised the cost of the tokens.  Interestingly (at least to me!), we played the game with tokens at each value 1,2,3 and 5, but never 4.  Once we got past 2, I felt that I didn't want an ability to ever cost exactly 1/2 a token.  Besides, the scoring arithmetic seems easier if you can multiply by 5 rather than by 3 or 4.  So, lots of reasons to skip 4.  I've been happy with the tokens costing 5.

Dr. Wictz: Lesser Evil is an abstract game, why an abstract?  Why no theme?

Josh Tempkin: It was always envisioned that way because the game is supposed to be about the choices you make during play.  Without an explicit theme, I hoped that the focus would stay on the choices themselves, which *was* the intended theme.  I have recently been thinking about "slapping" on a theme, but I have to find one that works with the mechanics that I've got.  "Trading in the Mediterranean" doesn't seem to fit.

More broadly, the game has its origins in some early passages from Reiner Knizia's book, "Dice Games, Properly Explained."  I took some of the games Knizia described in his first 2 chapters, and then blended and twisted them to fit my style.  I hope to move on to Chapter 3 someday!

Dr. Wictz: How did you get into designing board games?

Josh Tempkin:  I don't really know.  I remember designing games as far back as middle school and high school, though I was definitely doing more with computer games back then.  In grad school, I was introduced to Magic: The Gathering, which I played for several years.  Eventually, I got interested in other CCGs, too, and I started buying lots of cards from lots of different games.  I also liked to purchase the 2-player starter packs for any new CCG that came out, so that I could read the rules and play through a few games.  

The discussions around those games and their mechanics led to friendships that eventually turned into our game design group, Table Treasure Games.  We've met every month since about 2004, growing from an initial core of 4 people to over 50 currently on our email list.  The game designers and play testers we've brought together in this group are really fantastic, and they give great feedback!  I'm proud to say that several of our members have gotten published!  I've come to enjoy designing games more and more over the last 10 years or so, and I plan to keep doing it.

Dr. Wictz: Why do you love making board games?

Jost Tempkin: Good question!  There are so many things I would say about this!  To oversimplify, I love the creative process at the heart of game design.  But here's a little more.

I often have an "interesting choice" in mind at the start of the design process.  The design evolves as I explore how interesting that choice can become.  I often add context to the decision space (think theme), but that isn't my main interest.  I am fascinated by how a set of rules can lead to a set of experiences.  As players play a game, their choices will drive the "story" that they will experience.  Different choices will drive that story in different directions.  

In a good design, all of those possible directions will be fun and lead to good experiences for the players.  It's quite a challenge (and a very important one!) to build a system that is robust in this way.  Fundamentally, though, I look at the choices that the players get to make.  I believe that the harder the choice, the more memorable the consequences of that choice.  

So, what I love about game design is the process of creating a context in which players can make a series of interesting and memorable choices that will in turn create a memorable set of experiences (i.e., the story).  It's not easy to get right, but I thoroughly enjoy the process.

Dr. Wictz: You have attended a number of UNPUBs. Looking back, what do remember from past UNPUBs?

Josh Tempkin:  I've been to each of the annual Unpubs, right from the beginning.  I remember talking with John Moller and Darrell Louder at the first one, especially hearing about how Darrell had put together his first draft of Compounded just the night before!  And now I have that game sitting on my game shelf!  As I walked from my car to the front door of that first little church, I remember thinking that I had no idea what to expect, but that I was about to experience something special.  It was a great little event, very warm and friendly.  

Unpub 2 was also good, as it had gotten a little bit bigger, but was still as friendly as before.  I remember just missing a chance to play Ben Rosset's design for The Market, which recently came out as "Mars Needs Mechanics."  But I was totally blown away by the size of the room for Unpub 3.  It was huge!  It was incredible to think that designing games was becoming that popular.

Dr. Wictz: What do you keep coming to UNPUNB events?

Josh Tempkin: I love the Unpubs because they are primarily focused on the field of game design that I enjoy so much.  Getting to talk with other designers about their games, their processes, and their successes is fun!  And the other designers often give me a new perspective on my own designs.  

Of course, I learn a lot from the play testers that come, too.  Since they aren't in my usual group, I get to see my games working in different ways.  It's fun when it works well and instructive when it doesn't.  Finally, as the Unpub program expands, publishers are now joining in the fun.  I enjoy their perspectives, too.

Dr. Wictz: Any shout outs to your most dedicated game testers (cough  cough, wife, gf, etc.)?

Josh Tempkin: Sure!  Special thanks to Brad Lackey, my main collaborator.  I've been very lucky to work with Brad.   A fun process is always better when shared with a good friend!  We've been working together on a weekly basis for about 10 years now.  "My" stuff is better when it's "our" stuff.  

And, to all of the game designers and play testers in Table Treasure Games - you folks are incredible!  Thanks for coming over every month and being honest about what you see in the games.

Dr. Wictz: Do you have a website, twitter feed, etc.? 

Josh Tempkin: One of these days, I'll get my website up:  But, as that's not where my skills really lie, I tend to go back and design games rather than build the website.  Lame excuse, but it's true.  Maybe after Unpub 4 I'll have more time …

Dr. Wictz: Thank you again Josh for stopping by.  If you want to learn more about Josh Tempkin’s Lessor Evil you can follow its progress on the UNPUB Lesser Evil game page.

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