Greg Lam is another designer that I first bumped into in the Board Game Designers Forum web community (he posts there as “slam“). He’s from Boston and self-publishes his games via his company, Pair-of-Dice Games.
He co-founded the company with a couple of friends in 2001 and has run it independently since 2004. While their first hits were Knockabout and Warp 6, my eye was drawn to the game called Chopstick Dexterity MegaChallenge 3000 (it really is as fun as it look). I was able to play a few games of that at last year’s Protospiel get-together, where I also played a game of Greg’s Rock, Scissors, Paper (not the traditional hand-gesture game) and watched people play Restaurant Row.
The BoardGameGeek page for Pair-of-Dice does a nice job summarizing the published games and history for the company, along with a link to a very interesting list where Greg has written up the details behind each of the games. So, instead of rehashing the things you can find there, I wanted to find out a bit more about how Greg goes about designing games and what his influences are.
Here is how the Q&A went …
Q1> How long have you been designing games? What were your early games like? What was your first real success (measured however you wish)?
A: We started making games in 2001. My friend Luke Weisman decided that he wanted to try and make a game idea that he had, and I helped him to so. That game was “The Triangle Game“, a three player abstract. That was a game that we screenprinted and had sewn into a self-contained pouch. After that, Luke, myself, and another friend put out a few games, including Knockabout and Warp 6, two abstracts that use dice as pieces. Those were the games that first made Games Magazine, and gave us anything like a national profile.
A: Well, growing up I would tinker with tweaking games and making my own little sports games using chess pieces or making my own baseball simulation game using the charts from my copy of The Scouting Report.Later on in college, Luke introduced me to a game called Wiz War by Tom Jolly. The interesting thing about Wiz War is that people tended to make their own spells to add to ones already in the deck, and my group of friends in college would make in-joke spells that got added to our copy of Wiz War. An artist friend of ours would make beautiful tokens for it, and that was a game that we played almost every Friday night at college. It was the first time that I had rules debates with people, since the sheer number of different spells which had rules consequences would lead to odd gameplay conundrums which had to be ironed out. Also, there were questions of maintaining the game balance and such, which are important lessons for a game designer.
After that, the next time I remember doing anything with game design was for the first Pair-of-Dice Games.
Q2> You’ve had a number of your games listed in Games Magazine … how did that come about?
A: A friend of ours played Knockabout and Warp 6 with Games Magazine’s game reviewer John McCallion, who liked them enough to review them and put them into the magazine. Ever since that, whenever we put out a game I send a copy to him, and sometimes he puts them in the magazine, sometimes not.
A: Yes, I think it’s accurate. As I go on making games, given that I basically assemble them all myself rather than having them mass printed en masse, I have to figure out how to produce every component in a way that is affordable and easy to put together. At every point in making a game I have to think of my production limitations.
In the beginning I couldn’t figure out how to make anything but the simplest boards, and I couldn’t think of how to make things like tokens or cards at all. That’s what made dice with boards so attractive for the first games. Eventually, I’ve figured how to do tokens, dye wood, and make more elaborate boards. With that, my ability to make more complex games has come into play, and that has opened up different themes and a different scale of gaming.
Q4> According to your write-up about your older games, you originally collaborated with Luke & Brian, who co-founded Pair-of-Dice Games with you. Do you have any other designers that you collaborate with or exchange ideas with currently?
A: Right, both Luke and Brian left in 2004 or so. I’ve only worked on my own to design games, though I playtest with lots of people in the area and I’ve made my way to gatherings like Protospiel when I can to discuss game design with other designers. I also talk with a few other game designers here and there, though when it comes to designing games I usually do it on my own, since my design process is so idiosyncratic.
Q4-follow-up> Why do you describe your design process as “idiosyncratic”? Can you walk me through your typical approach on a game?
A: Every game I make has a different process, but something I’ve realized is that my design process is greatly informed by my production limitations. I know what I can do and what I can’t do in terms of production, so I concentrate on the things I can do.
For Restaurant Row, for example, I realized that I could make a sturdy, full color game board by using a restaurant menu cover. With that in mind, I explored the possibilities of that, and decided that a game about restaurants would be the most appropriate theme for that game. I know that I can make tokens by buying wood pieces and stickering them, and I know that making playing cards would be more difficult, so I explored ways to use tokens and ruled out anything that required a playing card. I realized that the plastic cover of the menu cover could be used as a writing surface for a dry erase pen, and so I added information tracking to the game. I figure out the components I need for each game as I design it, tracking their per unit costs in a spreadsheet to make sure that making each game is actually viable financially. The games I have for sale are non-assembled in a closet in my house, and the process for putting them together when orders come has to be as streamlined as possible.
Lastly, I have to find a box that fits the game, which is surprisingly difficult without custom ordering your own box in mass quantities.
At every point in the design process, I have in mind the fact that I have to put this thing together. Will this game be worth the trouble of offering it? To put games together, I’ve gotten components from places like dollar stores to restaurant supply places. Every game is its own learning process given the new components and problems that inevitably show up for each new game.
Q5> How many Protospiels have you attended? What do you get out of attending? What other designer-get-togethers or games-focused Cons do you attend?
A: I’ve attended Protospiel twice, the first time when I was getting Chopstick Dexterity MegaChallenge 3000 ready, the next in 2009 when I was working on Restaurant Row. It’s very useful when my game is at a stage that it needs other eyes to see it. For Restaurant Row, I brought in the rules and had people play it blind, learning it only from the rules as I watched, to see what problems there could be from learning the game only from the ruleset. Other than Protospiel, I always go to Unity, the local annual gaming convention. I’ve been to Origins twice, and BGG.con once.
Q6> What are you currently working on? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
A: Currently I’m working on a simple programming/fighting game with the working title RoboBocceBattleLeague. Also, I’m thinking of reprinting an early game with a different format. For both games I’m thinking of working with Blue Panther Games to order custom board pieces that are hexagonally shaped.
Q7> What types of games do you play? Are there any particular designer’s works that you keep an eye on?
A: I myself have a limited game collection, so when I go to friends who host game nights I play what they have and keep tabs of the latest and greatest there, though in these gatherings I’m always the guy who hasn’t played the hot new game as much as everyone else and finishes last. I keep an eye on the Eurogame sector and listen to many of the gaming podcasts, but really I play games to enjoy myself. I think you need to know generally what’s out there, that Reiner Knizia has done every auction system ever invented already twice, but you can’t know so much that you’re paralyzed by the thought of doing something different.
Q8> What other creative outlets do you pursue? Do they have an impact on, or intersect with your game design work?
A: Aside from game design, I also write plays and screenplays. Some of my short plays have been produced locally and published in collections, and for screenwriting I’m hoping to do film a webseries. I don’t think it has a direct impact on designing games, though writing for clarity is important in both cases. I also like to cook and to eat. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that my last two games have been food themed.
(I will on occassion discuss another board game designer or computer game developer with a “Fellow Designer” post. Also, watch for me to spotlight some of my own games with “Spotlight On…” posts, and look at games and creative works by other people with “Others’ Works” posts.)