Friday, January 23, 2015

Faculty Lounge: Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games (formerly Fail Better)

I first started reading some of Gil Hova’s blog work because Gil had left some insightful comments on a post I wrote on prototype problems and gave me great advice on whether or not to include play money in prototypes I send to publishers.  Gil Hova…

Gil Hova: Who is also a game designer.   I've been designing games for over a decade. My games from 2000 to 2004 were pretty horrendous, but I slowly got better; I had a game make the Hippodice Recommended list in 2005, and my first published game, the word game Prolix, came out in 2010. My newest published game, the economic strategy game Battle Merchants, came out in September 2014.

Dr. Wictz: Thank you Gil for finishing the into for me.

Gil Hova: I blame the parasitic worm that is now controlling my brain who also has decided I need to self-publish my own games. I'm releasing them as Formal Ferret Games. My first self-published game, the party game Bad Medicine, will have a Kickstarter that should begin on February 12.
Dr. Wictz: And has that parasitic worm explained to you why you are going to take on all the extra work of self-publishing your own work?

Gil Hova: For years I told myself I'd never do it. But times have changed, and so have I; I feel that my work style is better with me controlling publishing, instead of letting someone else publish my game. Don't get me wrong, having someone else handle publishing has some incredible advantages! I just don't think they suit me anymore.

Dr. Wictz:  Let me redirect your energy to your blog because I really want to focus on your writing, but before we get into too much detail, can give people not familiar with it a quick run down.

Gil Hova: So, the blog. I've had the blog for awhile now. It was originally called Fail Better, after the Beckett line "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Which I think suits the iterative nature of playtesting. I renamed it a few months ago to line up with what I'm doing now. And if I don't make it as Formal Ferret, then the name will be even more apt!

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with Formal Ferret Games as the name for your blog?

Gil Hova: I've owned ferrets for 20 years. Yes, I'm one of those people! They're my favorite animals in the world; not as needy as a dog, not as contemptuous as a cat. They love to play, they're affectionate, they're fun to be around. Imagine an animal that has the exuberance, energy, cuteness, and gracelessness of a kitten or a puppy, and keeps it for almost their entire lives!

For a long time, I had an avatar of a ferret wearing a bowtie that I "borrowed" from a now-defunct ferret-focused webstore. But it was pretty pixelated, and I didn't really have rights to it. As a personal avatar, that's not a huge deal, but since most of my online friends knew me as "ferret with a bowtie guy", I figured I'd keep things consistent. And so... Formal Ferret Games.

Fellow NYC game designer and artist extraordinaire Scott Hartman drew the logo for me; he's also doing art for Bad Medicine. I'm really happy with how it came out!

Dr. Wictz: Why did you start blog for Formal Ferret Games?  What led you to talk about board game design in general instead of just focusing on your own work?

Gil Hova: I think one of the things that makes the board game design community so amazing is its transparency. I've been lucky to meet all these amazing designers, these people who have mentored me and inspired me, and they're all so easy to approach! There's a lot I've learned about game design simply by reading and listening.

So blogging is a way I can pay it back, and maybe forward. I hope my rambling about game design helps in some ways.

Dr. Wictz: If you were introducing someone to the Formal Ferret Game blog what would you recommend?

Gil Hova: Probably my post about Transparency and Opacity. This is something I struggled with a lot as a young game designer, and I wish I could have read it back then. I've learned so much since then about how a simple mechanism that gives players meaningful decisions is so much better than a gimmicky mechanism that matches the theme but obscures any real choice.

Dr. Wictz: You took a three year break from blogging, how do you feel the blog is different after the three year break from before the three year break?

Gil Hova: A lot happened to me in that time. I got divorced, I took a step back from game design to try comedy out, and I moved a few times. I had to find myself again, as clich├ęd as that sounds.

I feel so much better as a person these days; I feel like I've really gotten my mojo back. And I feel like I'm a much better game designer.

Of course, in three years' time, I will be even better still. The moment I stop improving is the moment I should hang up my rotary trimmer!

Dr. Wictz: You hit on a variety of big topics on your blog (Party game design, Women in Board Gaming, Tips for play testing etc.), what inspires your divers set of topics?

Gil Hova: I blog about the things that strike me in board gaming. They're generally things I don't feel are discussed enough, from competitive imbalance to what I feel keeps women from being more present in the gaming scene.

What helps is that I don't just design games, I play them. Like crazy. I'm a huge fan of games, so they really occupy a central part of my life. So this is stuff I am genuinely passionate about.

Dr. Wictz: How did you first become intrigued about the lack of women in board games?

Gil Hova: Someone once told me that he wanted to keep a 75% ratio of men to women in his game art, because it reflected reality. I wasn't sure he was right, because I felt like I played games with a lot of women. But I didn't know exactly how many. So, I started logging it.

It turns out in 2014, 26% of my opponents were women. So it seems he was pretty close. But interestingly enough, if I played games in private (like someone's house), or if the game I was playing was published, that number rose to 31%.

But if the game I played was in public (like at a game store or a convention), that number dropped to 21%. And if I was playtesting a prototype, it plummeted to 17%!

Of course, these numbers don't prove anything other than whom I get to play with; I'd expect they'd be wildly different for other people. But it feels much better to know them, for some reason.

It also opened my eyes to the subtle things that keep women from our hobby. Not big offensive things, but tiny behaviors that don't do anything in and of themselves, but added up, from a bunch of "invisible ropes" that can wall some women off.

It's a very strange subject, of course, because I'm not a woman. Sometimes I feel unqualified to even bring the subject up; what the hell do I know about any of this anyway? And is my focus on women pulling away from gamers who don't identify with binary gender? And what about race and gaming? None of this is easy to talk about, and I feel so unqualified bringing it up.

But the conversation has to start somewhere. All I know is that I see exclusion a lot more than I used to, and I feel like someone has to bring it up. May as well be me.

Finally, even if only 26% of my overall opponents were women, I feel that sticking to a 75/25 male/female split in your game's art is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You're telling women that they don't really belong in your game's worlds. I'd like to keep art in my games closer to 50/50. Representation matters.

Dr. Wictz: I notice your series on women in board game has inspired you to change how you play board games with people; has it also change how you want to design future board games as well?

Gil Hova: In terms of mechanical design? No. I play with too many women who play crunchy games like Arkwright and Aquasphere to believe some inane generalization that "women like lighter games". It really depends on the woman.

I'd rather focus on a game that's fun and interesting to play, where players can easily imagine themselves in the game world, regardless of their gender.
Dr. Wictz: If you were to hold a podcast round table talking to others about women in board games, who would you invite and why?

Gil Hova: A bunch of women. I would want them to talk about their gaming experience. Specifically, I'd want to have everyone who commented on my women in gaming posts. They've already taught me so much.

I think it would be good to include women who are non-white and non-binary. Those are important but rarely-heard perspectives.  My role would be to shut the hell up and listen.

Dr. Wictz: I have a soft spot for market mechanics and I also know you have played a number of Michael R. Keller's games, so I wanted your thoughts on what you see as the future of market mechanics in board games?

Gil Hova: I remember a notable designer speaking at a Protospiel a few years ago, promising us that the age of the cube pusher was over, and people would be sick of playing Euros with weird mechanisms and bland themes. This was a few years before Agricola and Dominion came out, though! So I'd rather not make blanket statements about the future of any kinds of games. I don't have that kind of precognition!

That said, I'm really happy to see market-heavy games staying strong in popularity. They're my favorite kinds of games; they tend to involve snowballing mechanisms and really fascinating game arcs, which I enjoy greatly. And I don't think I'm done designing them yet!

One thing I will say: I think you'll see more games integrate apps into their gameplay. I don't think it's ever going to take board gaming over, but it's going to be a definite genre, like co-ops and deck builders. The only issue with that is playing them in 25 years is going to prove tricky.
Dr. Wictz: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  You can read Gil’s writing on the Formal Ferret Games blog and you can also follow Gil Hova on twitter.  (Warning-Gil tends to be more verbose on twitter)

1 comment:

  1. -Chip Beauvais ‏@the_FlyingSheep

    "I see exclusion more" - do you think there's more exclusion, or you're more aware (or both?)

    -Dr. Wictz ‏@drwictz
    The full quote from Gil Hova "All I know is that I see exclusion a lot more than I used to, and I feel like someone has to bring it up."

    -Gil Hova ‏@gilhova
    Yes, I’m sure it’s happening just as much as before, but I’m a lot more sensitive to it now.