Thursday, February 27, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Gary Dahl of Sugar Pill Studios

Here in the faculty lounge I get together and talk to other board game interested podcasters and bloggers to learn a little bit more about what they do.

I was introduced to Gary Dahl’s writing when his article on how understanding experimental economics can help game designers was picked up by Cardboard Edison.  I pleasantly discovered that between updates on his own game designs he periodically blogged about understanding probability in game design.

Gary Dahl: Hey Dr. Wictz, thanks for the interest in interviewing me :).  It sounds like these articles on probability may have prompted this interviews, but I’m curious to hear if there were any other influences.

Dr. Wictz: I have to admit, you hooked me with your articles on probability and experimental economics.  I have a soft spot for writers who help bridge the gap between economic thinking and game design.  But before we get into too much detail, you should give a quick overview about Sugar Pill Studios for people not familiar with it.

Gary Dahl: Sugar Pill Studios is the game development company that I organized back in 2004 while living in Minnesota.  I’ve been developing video games under this moniker ever since.  However, about a eighteen months ago my focus began shifting toward tabletop games.

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with the name Sugar Pill Studios?

Gary Dahl: The name was inspired by the psychological phenomena known as the placebo effect: that we are so susceptible to the power of suggestion, that we can get actual medical benefits (objective and reproducible) from just believing that we are being treated.  In pharmaceutical research, sugar pills are often given to control subjects to convince them that they are being treated and provoke this placebo effect.

Similar to sugar pills, I think games can be seen as relatively inert collections of cardboard, wood, and plastic (or digital bits in the case of video games) that can provide players with all kinds of surprising benefits.  I also enjoy that the name sounds fun and tasty.  At this point, I honestly can’t remember any of the other contenders from ten years ago.

Dr. Wictz: What inspired you to write articles on probability and irrationality in game design?

Gary Dahl: I think it was a combination of wanting to sort out some of my thoughts on these topics, and wanting to share them with others in the process.  Part of this sharing was an effort to help designers with issues that I see frequently misunderstood, and part of it was to crowd-proof my own understandings.

I’ve really enjoyed writing the probability in games series, and I want to write some more of those soon.  If you or anyone who reads this has any requests or suggestions for topics, I’d love to hear them.  Tweet me @SugarPillStdios

Dr. Wictz: Has your article writing attracted people to check out the games you design?

Gary Dahl: That’s a good question that I don’t have any data on.  I suspect they might capture the curiosity of a few readers, but that hasn’t really been my objective in writing them.  I’m expecting/hoping that my first professionally published tabletop game will be hitting Kickstarter this summer.  And between my games and my articles, I think I’ll be more flattered to see the games raising interest in the articles than the articles raising interest in the games.

Dr. Wictz: If you were to introduce someone to your articles and you could only have them read one entry, which entry would you them read?

Gary Dahl: Without any more information on their specific interests, I’d probably point them to the first article in my Probability in Games series: “Why is the Monte Hall solution so counter-intuitive?”  I think this article does a nice job of shining some light on one of the biggest difficulties in understanding probability, and it does so in the context of a widely familiar and often misunderstood problem.

Dr. Wictz: I know you always had an interest in topics on video game design, when did you start getting into board game design questions?

Gary Dahl: I started getting into board game design about a year and a half ago.  At that time, I was really interested in designing a computer game about the influence of money on politicians; not about criminal scandals but about the routine and legal bribes of and extortion by our elected officials.

One of my biggest concerns was preventing players from thinking the simulation was rigged to make things look a certain way.  I eventually stumbled onto the idea of designing a tabletop game so that the players would have to understand and drive the simulation in order to play the game.  My hope was that this would help them see how a system of unassuming incentives could lead to many of the frustrations that people are having with their government.

The more I learned about modern board game designs, the more I was hooked.  Aside from working on some digital ports, my focus has really been on designing tabletop games for the past year and a half.

Dr. Wictz: Did moving from Minnesota to Maryland alter your design focus?

Gary Dahl: I think the biggest difference for me design-wise has been the network of people that I have been working with and soliciting feedback from.  Although I have reached out to and met with some local video game developers in this area, I have had much more contact with tabletop designers.  In Minnesota, just about all of my game design friends were working on video games.

Dr. Wictz: Do you have your students read your articles when you teach college computer game design courses?

Gary Dahl: I’ve never assigned any of the blog style articles that I’ve written to students, but many students have stumbled onto things I’ve written… mostly on which is a resource for video game developers.  Most of their comments have been short and positive, although a few have followed up with me in person to clarify some aspects of the article.

Dr. Wictz: Name a board game designer you want to have a discussion with on board games?

Gary Dahl: I enjoy discussing board games with just about everyone.  But if pressed to choose just one name, I’d probably go with an unoriginal choice like Dr. Knizia.  He’s been such a prolific designer who has worked on such an huge number of games spanning so many different types and styles.

Dr. Wictz: He has a PhD in mathematics, worked in the banking industry, has over 500 published games and has won a Spiel des Jahres (top award for a board game), who cares if he is an unoriginal choice.

Gary Dahl: I’d love to learn about what kinds of insights his experiences have left him with.

Dr. Wictz: You and me both.  Out of curiosity, what type of board games do you like?

Gary Dahl: My favorite is the type of games that surprise me: either by introducing me to an interesting new mechanic, or by presenting a system that leads to unexpected and interesting decisions.  I try to experience a variety of game types to learn what they have to offer to their biggest fans, but typically find myself most enjoying games on the medium-light end of the spectrum that play in 30-60 minutes, and that do not shy away from random elements.

Dr. Wictz: Thank you again Gary for talking with me.  If you want to learn more about Gary Dahl and Sugar Pill Studios checkout the webpage, like the Facebook page, and follow the Twitter feed @SugarPillStdios.  Also keep an eye on the events page for upcoming demos of Gary Dahl’s games.

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