Joe Huber is a familiar name to followers of boardgame mailing lists, and a familiar face to Gathering of Friends, Gulf Games, and Unity Games attendees. Scream Machine, published by Jolly Roger Games, is his first published design. In this interview Joe talks about his enjoyment of the game design process, how many more games he's got in the works, and some particular opinions about the hobby.
Mark Johnson: Joe, you're now a published game designer (more on that later) but you started as a boardgame enthusiast like the rest of us—
Joe Huber: No, no, no—I'm still a boardgame enthusiast, just like the rest of us. That hasn't changed in the least; while Stephen Glenn has claimed to be less interested in playing and talking games since he got into design, I've not really noticed any difference—my interest in playing and writing about games hasn't lessened.
—only not quite the same, since you were one of the "early adopters" in our hobby, playing imported games before Rio Grande and others, maybe even before Mayfair brought Settlers of Catan over here.
Yes (re Settlers), but not by much. And I don't think of myself as a particularly early adopter; maybe earlier than many, but I wasn't one of those such as Alan Moon or Bob Scherer-Hoock who were in it from the start.
Though I didn't actually miss by much—I visited the North Shore Game Club, which Alan ran, back in late 1990 or early 1991. But it was a long enough drive that I decided to try to find something closer.
Do you ever think of that as a missed opportunity?
What ended up happening is I got together with another DECcie in Hudson, Massachusetts. We played Axis & Allies, Illuminati... not a whole lot else. But it was local, so I got hooked up with them. The guy who organized it left in '92, and the group stopped meeting. It restarted when he came back in '94, but when he left again, I determined I needed to lead this group or it would disappear again.
Not particularly a lost opportunity. It would've been nice, I would've had fun with it... Might've been nice to go the Gathering earlier, might've been nice to have a game group to go to in '92... I don't tend to dwell on the past as much as I used to.
This was also in the days before internet mailing lists and major websites devoted to boardgaming. How did you come to discover these sort of games so early, and what were you playing?
A fortunate alignment of rec.games.board (which had enough raving about Settlers even before Mayfair as to be noticeable) and hooking up with then-fellow DECcie Michael Tsuk, and through him with Bill Masek at Joe Rushanan's game group brought me my first opportunity to play Die Siedler von Catan in 1995. My father, who was regularly traveling to Europe at the time, then bought me a copy at Just Games in London; about the same time I made my first trade with Manu Soeding in Germany.
What was in that trade?
It was Quo Vadis, Auf Achse and I believe Kuhhandel.
The German games I found in 1995: Die Siedler von Catan, Banana Republic, Hol's der Geier, Keywood, Santa Fe, Auf Achse, Elfengold, Quo Vadis, Kuhhandel, Adel Verpflichtet, Master Labyrinth. The same year, Joe Rushanan's group introduced me to 1830, 2038, Outpost, The Great Dalmuti, Air Baron, and Time Agent, making it an awfully good year overall.
Boston had one of the very few importers of European games then, the "brick & mortar" store Games People Play. Did you go there much in those early days?
Not much, but sometimes I'd go there to see what was new, what looked interesting. I also bought games from Ray Pfeifer and the European Game Source.
How'd you know what to ask for?
Mostly from The Game Cabinet, reading old Sumo magazines, rules translations, and Siggins' Essen reports. Mostly I would get a list of available games from my trade partner, Manu Soeding. I had no idea what the value of the games were, so I'd ask him what I could offer in comparable trade value. I helped fill some holes in his personal collection, like Wabbit Wampage.
Did you always play games? Were they played by your family, growing up?
Yes; we never had a regular game time, but would nearly always play games at holidays, and not infrequently the rest of the year. I got into Dungeons & Dragons in Junior High, and then in high school played Acquire, Civilization, Risk, Mr. President, Titan, and with less frequency a variety of wargames.
What about now? What opportunities do you have to play games, and how many do you play?
Let's see—how about in order of frequency...
I play games at work at lunch about four times a week; about half of that is Bridge.
My family plays a game (sometimes two) every Sunday night.
I host a gaming Saturday once a month; I also get to Joe Rushanan's game group about once a month.
A number of times each year I play games when visiting family or when family is visiting.
About four times a year I travel on business, usually to Silicon Valley. While I'm there, I visit a couple of weekly groups and try to visit other friends in the state (such as you and Mark Jackson) as possible—which usually results in more gaming.
I have attended the last three Gulf Games; while I don't expect to make every one, I am seeing how long I can continue the streak . . . Gulf Games meets consistently twice a year.
I've made all but one Unity Games, which are held a little bit less often than twice a year.
Last but not least, I attend the Gathering of Friends every April.
Adding it up, I've played around 1000 games this year and last.
Your comment about playing games with your family every Sunday reminds me of an Alan Moon interview I read long ago. Growing up, his family reserved a day for them to do things together, and it was often games. As a parent, is this something you're trying to do, too?
Yes and no. Finding something to do together was intentional, but it didn't have to be games. My son Ben happens to enjoy playing them, so it was a good choice.
What are some of your current favorite games?
My current favorites don't change quickly; my top 11 listed at The Apples Project hasn't changed: 2038, Bohnanza, Bridge, Civilization / Advanced Civilization, Euphrat & Tigris, Freight Train, Frisch Fisch, La Citta, Res Publica, Schnaeppchen Jagd, and Die Siedler von Catan. I've had a few changes a little further down, though.
When's the last time a game climbed onto that list?
La Citta and Freight Train were the last two, a couple years ago.
If your favorites are so dominated by older games, why do you keep playing so many new ones?
There's favorites and then there's favorites. Some become among my top 100 favorites right away. Others I enjoy a little less, and due to limitations in space I may not own them, but have a good time playing them.
Some of my favorite 2003 releases are King's Breakfast, Schwarzarbeit, New England, Amun Re, Light Speed, and Queen's Necklace.
Others... I haven't made up my mind yet about Raiload Dice. Die Ritter von der Haselnuss is a very clever game of its type. Banditos is a new discovery. Cubus (Rheinhold Wittig) is game that a lot of gamers wouldn't enjoy, but we're enjoying it so much I picked up a second copy for work. Zwergen Ziehen is another new discovery.
A few years ago you produced some detailed examinations of notable German game authors. You obviously pay close attention to them. Which authors that weren't in your articles before would you now wish to include.
Not many—one of my key criteria was having played enough games by the author as to be able to say something meaningful; another was having multiple games that I'd definitely recommend.
I could definitely write articles on Michael Schacht, Bruno Faidutti, and Richard Borg. Aaron Weissblum is a difficult case, since I haven't played enough of his games not designed in tandem with Alan Moon. I'm about one good game shy of being able to write an article on Reinhold Wittig.
I haven't given up on updating and expanding the series, by the way. Just haven't found the time to get it done...
But games aren't your entire life. You've got a family and a day job, right? Any other hobbies or interests?
I've been married to Megan for 12+ years, and we have two sons: Ben (7) and Ethan (4).
I don't have a "day job" so much as a job-designing games isn't my job, and I don't think I'd enjoy it as much if it were. I work for Intel on Itanium microprocess design.
Other hobbies and interests: let's see... I enjoy classic videogames (Atari, ColecoVision, and so on). I'm also quite fond of classic handheld videogames. I'm a big fan of character-driven Science Fiction, particularly Lois McMaster Bujold. I enjoy puzzles—particularly the 3-D puzzles, because there's more of a feel of having created something when one is done. I love Amusement parks, particularly roller coasters and classic rides. I collect patches and shot glasses I still have my stamp and coin collections, though they are only very rarely added to. In general, though, I'm less of a collector and more an enthusiast—I don't generally keep games or books or patches or puzzles that aren't of personal interest. Last but definitely not least I'm a Deacon at the Presbyterian Church in Sudbury (MA).
Are you considering or aspiring to leave that job behind and pursue a livelihood as a game designer?
(snicker) (snicker) (snicker) (laugh) (guffaw)
No. While I'm old enough to have learned never to say "never", there are four reasons I consider it a near-uncertainty:
1) I really, really enjoy designing games—but it's not always what I'm in the mood to do.
2) It's really, really, really difficult to make a living as a game designer. It's not, in general, a reasonable career choice. Sure, you get the occasional Reiner Knizia who can do so—but he's a rare exception.
3) Unlike Knizia, I don't design games to make others happy. I design games because I enjoy the process—there are wonderful problems inherent in game design, and the engineer in me loves them. Doing it full time would require two concessions that I'm just not willing to make: (a) designing based upon what can be sold, rather than what I want to design, and (b) spending far more time selling my games to publishers, which isn't the part of the process I enjoy.
I design games for myself. Now, I certainly enjoy it when others get pleasure from them, and I do go through the process of working with the publishers in no small part so that others who enjoy the game can have copies, but what drives me to keep designing games is the fun problems it offers.
4) Again, saving the most important for last—I enjoy my job. A lot. I was fortunate enough to find a job very well suited to me a decade ago, and can't imagine giving it up. Some people dream of winning the lottery so that they can quit their jobs; I'm not leaving mine regardless.
With one game, Scream Machine, on sale already, and at least one more on the way, you're taking the path of an independent game designer making deals with different publishers. Have you considered publishing these designs yourself?
Not really. I have considered self-publishing a game, and may still do this at some point, but not until a few things happen. (1) I'm ready to throw the money away. I look at it very much like the approach many take to Las Vegas—you decide up front how much you're going to lose, and anything better than that is gravy. (2) I've got a game that I don't think a publisher will produce and for which either I want a quality copy or I want others to be able to have nice copies. I'd rather the publishers make money on games I design than I do, to be honest—it means I get to play more good games from other authors. And (3) I have the space to store the games.
Ever considered putting some of your games on the web?
It would be great, I'd just need to find the time to put up a web page. I've been saying I need to do this for almost a decade, but I'd rather spend my time working on more designs.
How many other game designs are you working on? Are any in the final stages of polishing or already under review by potential publishers?
Including Scream Machine and Corporate Beehavior, I've designed a total of 45 games.
Wow! 45 games?! How long have you been doing this?
[consults his spreadsheet] I did 1 in '97, 4 in '99, 6 in 2000, 7 in 2001, 12 in 2002, and 15 in 2003.
That's an upward trend.
Yeah, it didn't really start until '99. One part has been that I've discovered I enjoy it more. The second thing is that I've done designs with absolutely no commercial thoughts. I'm having fun without restrictions. Hey, that gives me a thought... want to include the rules to a game?
Now, many of these have either been bad (my first game design as an adult, Curses, was awful—I appreciate Michael Tsuk and Ruben Castelino all the more for trying another design of mine after living through that) and many others have been throw-away designs (I design a game to give away at each Gulf Games, and have put together a number of others either for my own pleasure or for a friend). There are 27 games I'm working on or consider finished—for-now. (I always leave open the possibility of returning to a design—I believe there are many possible valid "finished" states for most game designs, and sometimes reaching a different state is needed for publication.) Of those, 5 are currently being reviewed; another 5-10 have been reviewed by a publisher (or publishers) without being picked up.
Describe your design process. Do you start with a theme you'd like to see, or some game mechanics you'd like to explore?
It starts all over the map. Among the places it's started: manufacturing sweet spots, pieces or components, random inspiration, something that did work from a design of mine that otherwise didn't, the name of other published games, a song, a theme, trying to think what a particular designer might do, a parody game name, a friend's favorite movie, the letter J, and a particular mechanism I think might be interesting. Theme is always very important, though—if a game feels too abstract to me, I won't keep working on it.
Is that more true for you own designs, or games that you also play?
There are very few games that feel abstract to me that I enjoy. I do play some... I think of Euphrat & Tigris as a strongly themed game. I know not everyone agrees with that. The waxing and waning of civilizations on the board really works for me. The way I look at theme is I don't want anything in the game to distract from the theme. I don't want actions that are illogical within the context of the theme. I want some rational reason for doing what I'm doing.
For example, Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence... very "gamer-y" games, but they're ones I play with my wife. What makes them very reasonable is that their "game logic" is strong. It makes sense in Puerto Rico that you have to both grow the goods and have a factory to process them. That logic makes it much easier to learn a more complex set of rules. It makes it easier to play the games yourself and to find other players.
Africa, on the other hand, has actions and scoring that don't really make sense in terms of the theme. You have to get past that to enjoy the game. It's one of the reasons I don't think it's a particularly appropriate family game. It doesn't help sell the rules.
Looking at German games, all of them have a strong abstract base to them. Some of them, though, the theme is well-integrated with the mechanics. Whether that happened in the beginning or later doesn't matter, it just makes the game more playable.
How do you playtest or otherwise develop your games? Is "blindtesting" part of the process?
While I occasionally have a feel for how a game will work, I often don't, and don't even have the rules completely hashed out. Playtesting is critical to taking often rough ideas and allowing them to develop, not to mention discovering if there's enough to an idea to work it through. I have a tendency to underutilize blindtesting—while I don't believe it's particularly important elsewhere, I believe it's incredibly valuable for cleaning up the rules. What I find more important is playing the game with a wide variety of groups and individuals—one definite advantage of playing with lots of different groups.
How much playtesting do your games get?
It depends. Bad ones get about two tries. The second game is when I discover whether I'm interested in continuing work on this, or not. At the moment I've got 29 games in my spreadsheet that have been played an average of 10 times. For finished games, it's five playtests if everything happens to work right on the second play. Upwards of 30 playtests each for the rest.
I fine-tune a game for my own purposes, and when it's under evaluation I may fine-tune it further for someone else's needs. My basic requirement for any game is testing in about three different groups, sometimes more. I'm careful not to wear out my welcome by having people playtest games that aren't close yet.
There are some informative resources for game designers out there, a couple books and at least one internet mailing list. Do you find any of that particularly useful, or have a recommendation for amateur designers?
Yes and no. I never read Peek's book, since it didn't seem relevant to what I was doing. I did pick up the Game Inventor's Guidebook, and it's a fun read but didn't really tell me anything I cared about but didn't know. The various web resources have some good advice, but again seem to attract those with different concerns.
About the only recommendation I have for amateur designers that might have any use is: know your objective. My objective is to have fun designing games. I don't care about making money; even getting designs published is secondary for me to enjoying the design process. Given that, I concentrate my energies appropriately.
Actually, there are two other things I'd say. (1) Don't be paranoid. You can drive yourself crazy trying to keep your designs secret, and you can prevent your own success by assuming the industry wants to rip you off. It's far easier all around to assume that everyone's honest—and it will make for far better relationships. (2) Make contacts within the industry. Authors, publishers, reviewers—any and all. Scream Machine came to be published because Frank Branham took it to Jolly Roger Games. The more contacts you have, the better the chances that your game will find a publisher.
Being both a boardgame and roller coaster fan, Scream Machine has an especially apt theme for your first published design! Tell us about its history. Did the game change substantially in mechanics or subject matter during its development? How long did it take to go from first playtest to publication?
Scream Machine came about from a combination of the theme (which I'd been mulling on for a year or more) and a mechanic I enjoyed in a published game which I thought would be interesting to modify and reuse in a very different form. The initial version of the game was actually very similar to the published version. The cost of attractions, the number of categories, the turn order, advertising—all this was there from the start. During playtesting, many of the other single-per-turn actions came about, primarily on the basis of comments from playtesters.
The game itself developed very quickly; it was first playtested in January 2001, and I showed it to Frank plus a couple of publishers at the Gathering that April. I spent most of the rest of that year focusing on bringing down the number of cards required from 194 to 120. During 2002 the game was reviewed by a number of publishers before finally reaching Jolly Roger at the end of the year. Early in 2003 I worked with Jolly Roger on publication options (we looked at an 180 card version, but it proved to be too expensive). From first playtest to publication took a total of about two and a half years, with four other publishers having turned down the game before Jolly Roger picked it up.
Your next published design should be Corporate Beehavior, produced by Plenary Games. What can you tell us about that one?
It's a tile laying game inspired by issues at work with not having enough offices and trying to keep a bunch of picky engineers happy with their location. I started playtesting early in 2000, and again it reached it's final form rather quickly. For no particularly good reason, all of the characters were not office workers, but bees—a fact that Plenary Games has picked up on and themed the artwork around. When Angela announced she was looking for designs for Plenary, I sent her a list of completed designs—and Corporate Beehavior was the one she wanted to look at.
I'm really thrilled that Angela decided to publish the game—while I've learned to make very usable cards, I'm awful at making tiles, so I can't wait to play the game with nice components.
When your second game is published, the most exciting part it having nice tiles for yourself?!
Yeah! From my point of view that's a big benefit. I'm not aiming for fame or fortune. Having nice copies for myself and my friends. It works for me.
You're known for having strong opinions about certain subjects in the hobby without being argumentative about them. Let me ping you on a few of those to see if anything has changed... You draw a distinction between card games, and what you call "games played with cards."
You know, the funny thing is that I don't draw that distinction for myself so much so as for others. I've found many people who don't enjoy "card games", but do enjoy "games played with cards", my term for games which play like boardgames—but just happen to be played using cards.
What makes a game "broken," and what do you think of Modern Art?
I've tried to be more specific about this of late—while some games are truly "broken", they are almost never published. But there are many, many games that are "broken" for individuals. Modern Art is "broken" for me—I find that an inexperienced player frequently has too chaotic an effect upon the game for my tastes—but of course many people love the game.
From a practical standpoint, it doesn't matter if I just don't like a game or if it's "broken" for me; since "broken" is a loaded word in the gaming community I try to avoid the topic where possible...
Often our more serious gamers don't agree with the Spiel des Jahres selections, such as Mississippi Queen over Löwenherz. And you?
I think the Spiel des Jahres is an award that knows what it wants to honor, and I think they do an excellent job given their criteria. Many other awards seem to have a less clear notion of what they are trying to honor or what falls within their guidelines.
What do you mean? What's the problem or limitation?
For example, while the International Gamers Awards has a wonderful purpose in wanting to promote games and gaming, their choices seem a bit odd. I think they're trying to highlight "gamers" games, but if so the inclusion of games such as Coloretto and TransAmerica seem odd. It also happens that the Spiel des Jahres happens to pick a higher percentage of games I consider worth honoring than the IGA, which may play into it.
Do you think that "hardcore gamer awards" and promoting the hobby might be inconsistent with each other.
Not at all. Being able to say "this is a list of some of the best heavier games out there" is particularly valuable in building upon initial enthusiasm. SdJ has the advantage of a very defined focus, with a professional jury, and as a result tends to make selections I find interesting. They may not always agree with my choices, but they do choose fine game. Like Mississippi Queen...
What of the Games 100?
I don't know... it's struck me that if you look across the whole list, the whole 100, they've done a remarkable job of getting all the highlights. I frequently don't agree with particular picks for Game of the Year (except this year—New England was a fine choice, though I'd have picked King's Breakfast) or picks within a category, but across the whole list they do well. They pick things outside of the mainstream, and can include it on the list because of the context. They include a brief description to help people sort out if it's for them or not.
You're a big fan of some games that don't get much attention from others, titles like Res Publica, Africa, Timbuktu, Spacebeans, and Quacksalbe. What's behind that?
Quacksalbe I think is just largely unknown; if it were more widely available, I think it would be more popular.
Spacebeans is an odd case of being enjoyed by my gaming groups because we play it differently. We usually play it with three players (sometimes four), and play in 10 minutes. If someone pauses during our games, we'll usually harass them; we often play ahead (once the player ahead of you decides to draw or not, you can decide... ) to the point that it would be hard for an outside observer to tell whose turn it is. I think the game is very enjoyable played that way...
Timbuktu appeals to my love of brain burners. I'm also a fan of Fresh Fish, Ricochet Robot, Bongo, Cubus, Black Vienna, and many more. Timbuktu is a really brilliant design—to play well, you need to read the actions of the player two to your left effectively and balance that against how strong they are at the game. I find that most people don't want to put as much thought into the game as Timbuktu requires; as a result, it just doesn't go over particularly well with many.
Africa starts at a good spot for me (an exploration game), and supplements it by offering a variety of play choices every turn. I actually don't think it's a good family game, which is how many who do defend the game describe it. I tried it that way, and it went over like a lead balloon. As a gamer's exploration game, however... well, the best measure is that I've played it 10+ times each year, which is almost unheard of for me.
Res Publica again has a great start for me (a trading game), and from there offers a fascinating communication game. I think it appeals to me in much the same way Bridge does—I enjoy puzzling out how given many restrictions to make everyone aware of what I need to.
The way you can instantly produce a list of favorite games beginning with the letter "U," or compute a "Happiness Quotient" to rank your games, it's clear that you maintain statistics on your gaming.
You didn't ask, but my favorite games starting with a "U" are Ursuppe, closely followed by Um Reifenbreite and Ur 1830 BC.
And it's actually Happiness Product—I prefer the name Happiness Quotient, but there just isn't a divisor...
Okay, then, how do you compute a game's Happiness Product?
It's very simple:
(My rating-5) x Amount of time spent playing the game = Happiness Product
For instance, I've spent an estimated 140 hours playing Bridge this year, I rate it a 9, so its Happiness Product for this year is (9-5) x 140 = 560. Typically a good score is anything in double digits. Bridge is off the chart.
With this calculation, if you rated Bridge a 6 it would still be off your chart.
Yeah, but if I rated Bridge a 6 I wouldn't play it that much.
What are some other games that have a high Happiness Product for you in 2003.
The ones above 15 are Advanced Civilization, Puerto Rico, Fresh Fish, 2038, Foppen, Ricochet Robot, King's Breakfast, Africa, Merchant of Venus, Fast Food Franchise, and Amun-Re.
What sort of statistics do you keep, which do you purposefully leave out, and how do you use all this data?
I have a spreadsheet where I track how many times I play each game each year.
I keep a list of additional information for each game—the author, publisher, theme, whether I played it before publication / as a prototype, the number of players, the time it takes to play, the first year I played it, the year of publication, my rating, whether I own it, and whether I own a spare copy at work. I've also started tracking a few things such as how many games I play each month.
From this, I calculate statistics such as how many games with a given rating I've played in the current year, the happiness product, how many games I've played by each author, and so forth. The Excel file runs about 2 MB.
I don't track anything that's not of interest to me or anything that would be more bother to me than it's worth. As an example of the former—I don't track who won or even whether or not I won any given game. While I always play games to win, I don't really care whether or not I do win. I also don't track who I play with. I also don't track what I play in a given month, something that seems to be gaining in popularity.
Living in the greater Boston area, you're in what appears to be the most active and organized boardgame communities in North America. Is it really like that, and why do you suppose that's true?
I don't have enough experience with all of the country to say definitively; the Boston area definitely does have a very large and active gaming community, however. I'm certain that Alan Moon, Games People Play, and the variety of colleges and universities in and around Boston have all contributed.
The speed with which you play games is almost a running joke in some circles. Amun Re in 45 minutes, Puerto Rico in 30, and Spacebeans in 10... One speedy person alone can't do that—how does your group manage to be so fast? Do they still think and talk during the game? Do they breathe?
I play with a number of speedy players, and as I tend to play fast regardless I try to make sure the mechanical pieces of the game don't slow us down.
Thinking—usually. Well, not for Spacebeans, but in general yes. No micro-optimizing, though.
Talk—absolutely. Though sometimes there's more of that during the break between games.
Breath—well, we haven't lost anyone...
If you (and your group) are that fast, how do you feel about slower players?
It's something that used to bother me, but I've mellowed over time. If someone takes a long time, and then makes a very dumb decision, that can be annoying. If they're going to spend all that time, I want to see the results of their analysis. It still can bug me if a game feels like it's been going on far, far longer than it should. For the most part, though, not a big deal.
Thanks for your time, Joe. Best of luck on all your designs, and I hope we'll be seeing more of them on game store shelves.
- Mark Johnson