The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #19 – Donald X Vaccarino

I’m going close to the 20th interview but, luckly, there are still interesting designers to interview. Today I’m gone to interview Donald X Vaccarino, mostly know for his Dominion series but with a design history going back in the end of the last century. Donald X brings to my attention the fact that games are not only theme and mechanic, but also data “I think of games as having three main pieces: mechanics, flavor, and data. And usually I make them in that order. The mechanics are, you know, what you do, the main part of it anyway. Flavor is the theme. And then data is just the information in the game.”. During the interview we discussed about the meaning of art and Donald X cited Frank Zappa “art is what’s in the frame”. Now I think it is time to go on with the interview.

[Liga] Dear Donald, with this series of interviews I’m trying to explore the world of game designers with the idea that designing games is a form of art, no more or less than writing books or casting movies. Of course the boundary within art and craftsmanship is usually thin and some designers prefers to describe as good craftsman instead of artist. What we try to do together is, looking through your production, to find your style, your special sign … common traits in your games.

According to BGG you have designed less than 10 games, starting from Dominion in 2008, so you are really a young designer (I’m used to interview designers with something like 10 or more years of career) but since the effect of Dominion in the games designing scene I’m really interested to make you some questions.

The answer could be predictable but, there is some game you are particularly proud of ?

[Donald X.] Well I started seriously working on games in 1995; I just didn’t try to get them published until 2007 (except for showing some games to Wizards of the Coast in 1997, just as they shifted to doing nothing but trading card games). So to me, I am not a new designer. In fact Monster Factory, upcoming from RGG, is from 1995. Dominion is from 2006 and is what pushed me to finally try to get stuff published. Nefarious is from 1999 and Infiltration is from 2003; Kingdom Builder actually postdates Dominion, being from 2010, although parts of it go back to 1999.

[Liga] Great! Actually one is used to consider the release dates but sometimes there are several years of work behind a game

[Donald X.] My favorite game of mine is Dominion. A stand-out thing about it for me is that it lets you build a more complex tableau than usual, because the rules that would normally be on the table and being forgotten are instead hidden away in your deck where it’s okay to forget them. It has a great way to get its variety too.

For several years my most innovative design was Pirate’s Quandary. It would have been the most exotic game ever if it had come out when I made it, in 1998-1999. It would still be pretty exotic today, and conceivably I will get a publisher for it someday. Anyway that’s what my answer would have been pre-Dominion. I don’t really want to tell you its secrets so you will have to take my word for it, it is pretty exotic.

[Liga] It’s not fair: I really have to satisfied by “exotic” ? I hope you’ll get a publishers since new ideas are always welcome! Of course you are considerated the father of “deck-building” mechanism in the boardgame, so it could seems you are more mechanic than theme oriented. Is is true ? Which are the weight of theme and mechanic in your design ?

[Donald X.] I think of games as having three main pieces: mechanics, flavor, and data. And usually I make them in that order. The mechanics are, you know, what you do, the main part of it anyway. Flavor is the theme. And then data is just the information in the game. For example in Puerto Rico the mechanic is “pick an action, we all do it, it’s better for you.” There are other mechanics but they are secondary. The flavor is plantations in the New World, and then the data is, you have a certain amount of money and corn and indigo and colonists and so on, you have a certain set of plantations and quarries and buildings, and pairings of colonies with buildings.

The mechanic comes first because it has the most to do with how fun the game will be. Then the flavor tries to tie into the mechanic. Then the data tries to make the flavor feel more flavorful, to make it feel like you are doing whatever you are doing. The data matters the least so it’s last.

And this order is pretty meaningful. You can only maximize one variable. At some point you will have to make a decision that leads to better mechanics or better flavor; if you pick better flavor then the mechanics won’t be as good as they might be.

I do like good flavor though, I try to have good flavor, and in some games flavor comes first. I have worked out card names and so forth without having mechanics picked. In general though mechanics are first.

Dominion is a special case because of the premise. Data is first there – it’s a game about building a deck of cards, where everything goes in the deck. This puts flavor last. It is still possible to have good flavor there though, to have cards where the name really fits the functionality.

[Liga] “Mechanic, flavor and data”: I really like this way to break down a game. I’m quite sure I’ll use it in the next interview. I was used to think only to theme and mechanic but of course data is an important aspect. Can you please select one or more of your games and show us the design process: where the idea came from? How long does it take to play-test a game? I know Dominion play-testing has been really huge, isn’t it ?

[Donald X.]I will go over Kingdom Builder.

The big trick to ideas is to hunt them down. I don’t just sit there waiting for an idea to come to me. I narrow down where the idea can be until I’ve caught it.

[Liga] So I can say you are in someway to shrink the haunt. Friedemann Friese told us that sometimes imposing constraints to the creativity produce better results and, anyway, is a great challenge for designers.

[Donald X.] Mark Rosewater likes to go on about how “restrictions breed creativity.” Restrictions can inspire you, but that really isn’t what I’m talking about here. Let’s say I need to make Twist cards for Nefarious. I don’t just wait for ideas to come to me. Some ideas will just come to me, and I’ll write those down, but I also hunt out ideas. I look at everything I’ve got. Nefarious has action cards, so Twist cards can key off of particular actions – when you work, gain an extra $2, and so on. Nefarious has invention cards and they have particular data – cost, VP, abilities. So one Twist cuts costs in half, one adds 1 VP to each invention, one doubles abilities. Nefarious has minions and money and cards in hand and of course Twists muck with these. Then there are the rules. You play one action a turn; so one Twist makes that two actions a turn. It’s whatever action you want; one Twist limits your choice there. And so on. Some Twists are based on flavor, and some are just random ideas I had, but a bunch of Twists came from just looking at what they could possibly be, and covering all of the basics. I hunted them down. That’s what I’m talking about there. And it applies to broader situations too, where it might seem harder to box in those ideas.

Back to Kingdom Builder! I wanted to make Dominion-with-a-board. You would put pieces on a board somehow while building a deck. Since you are putting pieces on a board, the cards in your deck do that. To get the board involved, your piece placements get you cards. So you use cards to get pieces and pieces to get cards. A two-step process, unlike Dominion’s one-step process.

I looked at how this could work and eventually convinced myself that the deck part wasn’t needed. You could just be putting pieces on a board to put pieces on a board. A one-step process. I liked this better and didn’t need to make a deckbuilding game for the sake of making one. So I went with that.

The piece placement rule came from a game I made in 1999, which had a few later incarnations. That rule comes from wanting to minimize politics in a game where you have pieces on a board. I don’t want it to just not matter where your pieces are, but then you will naturally end up blocking someone, picking who to hurt. I don’t like games that are all about picking who to hurt. The piece placement rule addresses this by making it so that cutting someone off sometimes helps them. You still want to cut people off sometimes, but not as much. The random terrain picks up the rest of the burden of reducing politics – since I have to play on flowers this turn, it may turn out that I can hose someone but it probably won’t turn out that I can hose anyone. And hosing people is fine; it’s picking who to hose that’s bad. When it’s more opportunistic it’s not so bad.

The “turn over a terrain card” thing was just a very simple way to limit your turn. It’s good to have options but bad to have too many.

You gain abilities by placing next to buildings. This came from that 1999 game again. First the idea is that you aren’t covering up the building; we can still see it on the board. Second this lets more than one player get the ability.

To initially pick abilities I just go through the obvious possibilities. You can place extra pieces, you can move pieces. Those things can be limited various ways.

[Liga] And what about play-testing ?

[Donald X.] Playtesting varies in length depending on the type of game. There’s playtesting for fun and playtesting for balance. Some games it’s all about the former; balance may be somewhat built-in (as in a drafting game), or I may have been able to just do the math (as with Nefarious). In games with interacting rules on cards with costs that actually have to be balanced, you never finish playtesting; you hit diminishing returns but could always do better if you had more time. Dominion has had a lot of playtesting, yes. Kingdom Builder had a bunch, but it didn’t need anywhere near as much as Dominion did.

[Liga] About Nefarious (a game I really liked in Essen): do you know if Ascora Games will make it available again ? I really want it!

[Donald X.] My understanding is that it is available right now. If it sells out quickly I am betting they will get more printed, but that would take some months.

[Liga] You have designed almost all your games alone: is there any particular reason for that ? What do you think about team working ?

[Donald X.] I’m game for codesigning something. I design games alone because I am sitting at my computer and want to design games; there’s no mystery there. Designing something with just one other person sounds easier than working with a team.

[Liga] I’m not sure about it or, at least, other designers seems to think that the coordination strain not always is worth the results. Why do you think a co-designing could be better ? There is a part of your work where you think could be useful/important the help of another designers and play-tester/friends are not enough ?

[Donald X.] I wasn’t saying that co-designing sounded better to me than designing alone; I was just saying I was up for it. I don’t feel like there is some role I need filled; I’m doing fine. If someone I liked wanted to co-design a game though, I bet I could manage it.

[Liga] Of course Dominion has been an outstanding success and the start of your career. How is your designer life after that ? Is Dominion a cumbersome presence you have to deal with or its success is an help for you, giving you the confidence you are able to design something impressive ?

[Donald X.] Well I design games for a living now, so there’s that. Dominion still eats up some time, due to the remaining unreleased expansions and the online version, but not as much time as it was eating up when I was working on unfinished expansions.

[Liga] So Dominion’s story is already wrote ? At least on Donald X’s mind ? Or do you think there is still something to explore ?

[Donald X.] For a while I have been planning to stop after the next two sets (Dark Ages and Guilds). There are several reasons to do this.

There are only so many simple cards to make, without adding components. So the expansions get more complex over time. Many people would prefer them not to be more complex. At the same time a spin-off – a standalone game that has the same core premise but adds some components and rules – can have new simple cards that involve the new stuff. So it only makes sense to switch to spin-offs.

Later expansions, whatever order you buy them, don’t give you as much as earlier ones. The first expansion you buy gives you a lot more variety and whatever specific new experiences. The next one gives you some more variety and new experiences. Eventually you have got so much variety though that the expansions aren’t giving you that anymore.

Also some of the things that you can do in expansions are much better for a spin-off. The expansion adds some new element, but maybe only one card on the table has that element, and everyone ignores it this game. If that element involves a board or something that’s a bummer. But in a spin-off you can guarantee that the board is always relevant.

Finally, any time I spend on Dominion is time I’m not spending on other projects.

Still it’s likely that at some point the publishers will want another expansion and well I like to be friendly. So I can’t guarantee that Guilds is the end of the line, but you can at least think of it as a dividing point between regular expansions and occasional expansions.

I expect that Dominion’s success is helping me in terms of getting publishers to look at things. I don’t think there’s a confidence issue. I know any given new game is unlikely to be as influential, and if I make a new game that’s more successful it will probably just be due to being more mainstream; but I don’t feel like I have to make another Dominion, I am happy just making whatever games sound good.

[Liga] Good. When you designed Dominion and “invented” the deck-building mechanic, are you having the feeling you were building something great for the boardgame scene, something like the worker placement mechanism ?

[Donald X.] When I made the game I thought the idea was pretty cute but had no anticipations really. It was just a cute idea; I’ve had lots of ideas, and in general the more exotic stuff is more iffy as to whether or not it will work. It would not have surprised me if after the first game it was a dud, if my friends had been all, “why did you even think that would work.”

After we actually played it, it just dominated my gaming circle, and it was clear that here was a game that would really connect with gamers. I couldn’t have told you that it would also connect with more casual gamers.

[Liga] You talk about “circle” and gamers: so you are also a gamer/player ? Do you think is important for a good designer keep playing other designers games ? You says designing is now your work. How much time do you actually still spend playing games ?

[Donald X.] I almost always just play my own games these days, because I always need more playtesting done, and there is only so much time that other people have available to spend playing my games.

I spend two evenings a week playtesting, and then maybe an hour and a half each day total between playing games with my kids and playing computer games alone. When a game can be playtested online I get in more playtesting for it. This was the case with Dominion; when I was working on that I would play online several days a week.

I read about other board/card games people are making; I certainly hope it is not important to play them. I did get to play them for many years there, and from time to time may get to squeeze in a game or two of something.

[Liga] Now going into the central part of the interview … Do you think designing games is a form of art, like writing books or casting movies? Designing games do you feel like an artist creating a new work of art or more like an expert and skilled craftsman?

[Donald X.] I’m not sure if you realized that you said “casting movies” there. I’m sure casting directors think there’s talent to it, but it’s not something normally cited as being an “art.”

[Liga] My English is not so good. I was talking about “directors” that usually are considered artist since they are used to tell story with theirs special style/point of view

[Donald X.] The first thing is to clarify what you mean by “art.” I like Frank Zappa’s definition of art: art is what’s in the frame. A guy drinking carrot juice is just a guy drinking carrot juice. Put a frame around it though and it’s your piece, it’s art. Ready-mades are art because they have the frame; a urinal normally isn’t art though. By this definition games are only art when they are framed as such. Normally they aren’t.

So let’s abandon that and move on to, are games art in the sense that say songs are art, songs that aren’t framed that is.

I think a key thing to look at is the decisions the designer makes. Sometimes you are just solving a problem, or doing something the best way that you know of, a way you may or may not have worked out yourself, and which you would just replace if you knew a better way. Other times you are making decisions that could go any which way, it’s really just up to you. The more decisions like that, the more it’s art, is what I think. A song has certain things handed to it – we are using these instruments because it’s popular to use this set, and besides we have guys who can play them; we are doing verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus because that’s normal, and so on – but still has a ton of decisions that could go any which way – the melody, the backing tracks, the words, the backing vocals, do you have a sound effect at the beginning for no good reason, do you fade out or end with a bomp, and so on.

Games are part math; there are these problems with given answers, and there are things you just do the math on literally, like certain costing things. The cost for a particular Nefarious invention was not an artistic decision, it was just math. Nefarious has you do bad things to every other player, rather than picking a player; that was something I’d already hit on in other games, and which I automatically did to reduce politics. You can call it a stylistic choice, like deciding to do power pop rather than folk, but to me it was a given.

At the same time some games have many arbitrary decisions. The particular cards in Dominion could have been other cards; the twists in Nefarious could have been completely different. The boards for Kingdom Builder actually have visual art decisions – some things are where they are for gameplay reasons, but some don’t matter so much, and I just decided, let’s have a river, let’s put this castle by it, that looks nice.

So, part math, part art. Some games lean more on math – simple abstracts in particular – and some lean more on art.

[Liga] The classic definition of art is (Oxford Dictionary) “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. I’m not an abstract fan but abstract are sometimes a real expression of perfect synthesis and I think that sometimes the chase of balance and conciseness could bring artistic results.

[Donald X.] Sure, an abstract can reflect some real decisions on the part of the designer. But that’s the thing to focus on, those decisions. The more they really are decisions, the more the game is art; the more they lean towards just being math problems being solved, algorithms being optimized, the more they become that skilled craft.

This seems straightforward looking at craftsmen making other things. The skilled craftsman is making the same chair he always makes, with no decisions. When he makes a new, original chair, and makes decisions about how to do it, he’s being a designer there, not a craftsman.

[Liga] So Donald X, in his research of new design is working more as an artist of craftsman. I’m sure expanding, balancing Dominion’s set is much more a matter of skill but looking for a new mechanic that can twist with a nice flavor isn’t art ?

[Donald X.] I’m not sure if you’re saying there that I’m more of an artist or more of a craftsman. I went for both! I make aesthetic decisions but also do the math. I look at all of the basic possibilities, like in my explanation of hunting down ideas; that’s craft (in the sense we’re using the term). But of those ideas I then pick the ones I like, and do the versions I like the best; those are artistic decisions.

Balancing a Dominion card often involves aesthetics. Generally a card can’t be balanced by tweaking a number. Sometimes it can, when I guessed really poorly, but often not. A unit is just too large. Balancing the card will require a change to what the card does, and there may be multiple directions I could go there.

In the same way, looking for new mechanics can be both problem-solving and artistic. I can hunt them down like the Nefarious Twists, but then I have to pick which ones to actually do, and how to do them.

I am going to repeat my main answer to your art/craft question, because I think it sums it up well: the degree to which you are making decisions as you design is the degree to which you are doing art.

Now at the same time, games have a lot more math than say movies or what have you. Movies have say a small amount of math. There are certain things that people do over and over in movies and do not make decisions about; there will be a standard plot and conventional characters and the scenes will be reasonably well-lit and there will be certain kinds of camera shots. But a lot is up in the air, more so than in a game. I like to say, two people thought of calculus. Thinking of calculus is harder than thinking of a typical game. Whatever artistic decisions there are, you may end up with two similar games just due to two people thinking of the idea at once.

[Liga] Now we enter the second part of this interview with some questions I’m used to ask to all the designers. Almost all artists are used to have a Master. Who is Donald X Vaccarino’s master? The person that taught you most about game design?

[Donald X.] I am going to cite various people for various things, but the overall answer closest to what you’re looking for is Richard Garfield.

[Liga] You are not the first pointing out Richard and I also consider him one of the “great”. I’m trying to interview him for this series!

[Donald X.] The first thing is math. There’s this math thing, of trying to prove something using the minimum number of assumptions. It’s something that hangs over my game designs; I like to try to have minimal rules, to see what I can accomplish with less. I get that from math. Who do I credit that to? Euclid? I am tentatively going with Euclid.

I played D&D in my youth, as the first game I really devoted any time to. D&D was a poor implementation of a brilliant concept – having rules for make-believe. I was interested in rules both from the math angle but also the D&D angle; the idea that rules could show you a good time, could structure some activity in a satisfying way. So, Gary Gygax.

You can learn from mistakes other people made. Man should I cite something here? I will because I think it was a significant influence. I am citing Risk (the old one, not modern variants). I love having a map with armies on it, and it’s fun to roll dice. But I hate having a game come down to the players voting on who wins, and it sucks when, the worse you’re doing, the less you get to do (imagine a version of Scrabble where the player in last place only gets 3 letters). Those are significant lessons and Risk teaches them.

I played computer games before I got into board games. I could have ended up in computer games, it was a direction I was pretty interested in. Way back when I thought Ultima IV was the best thing ever, and Heroes of Might & Magic 2 and 3 loomed large in my life in their day. I couldn’t tell you the exact effect they had but they surely did something, so let’s have a shout-out to Richard “Lord British” Garriott and Jon Van Caneghem.

[Liga] Wow! Until now I have had a similar “career”: I played D&D (AD&D) a lot, I liked Richard Garfield production, I played videogames like Heroes of Might & Magic 2 and 3 and Ultima (Ultima IV was such a deep experience form me I still able to remember the name of the characters, the music and some city!)

[Donald X.] I designed a few board games in my youth, but what really got me into them was Magic: The Gathering. Magic introduced me to the whole idea of interacting rules on cards, and games that aren’t the same every time; it made me want to seriously pursue game design. From 1995-1997 I made a lot of games that really focused on figuring out just how you could make your game play differently every time; what works there and what doesn’t.

Then I played some of my games with Wizards of the Coast R&D people over several trips to Seattle, from 1997 to 2001. A significant focus for me in those years was, making games that would impress Richard Garfield. This meant trying to do novel things. And there are specific things I can trace back to either Magic or advice from those trips; I am going to cite, the importance of color, using color to indicate some important information so you can just see it at a glance, across a table. I spent a while trying to work out how to fix up Magic, and that also informed my own games.

When I started playing Magic, I made friends with other Magic players, and they had German games, which is how I found out about them. There were multiple designers with games I admired, but Reiner Knizia loomed large. Simple designs with tough choices.

[Liga] A great background and a really impressive set of “masters”. Is there a game from another designer you would have really liked to design ?

[Donald X.] Well I don’t think of things like that ever, but Magic was my favorite game for many years, and hey if I’d made it I’d have gotten to make lots of cards for it. Plus you make your fortune from it, that’s not bad.

[Liga] If you have to describe Donald X Vaccarino with just 3 Donald’s games: which and why ?

[Donald X.] Do you mean, describe me, or describe my games?

I am not sure my published games really describe me at all. Man I will go with Nefarious, because I am a mad scientist.

A typical Donald X. game takes about 30 minutes, has cards with rules on them that interact, has the players make decisions simultaneously, and minimizes politics by having attacks hit everyone else. There is typically a lot of variety, either from a deck of cards, or from some specific mechanic to add variety, like Nefarious’s Twists and Dominion’s varying kingdom cards and Kingdom Builder’s varying boards and scoring methods.

Which is not to say that I just make these San Juan / Race for the Galaxy games over and over. I have games that take minutes, and a game that takes four hours; games with boards and turns; I have creative games and trivia games, abstracts and games for standard playing cards. Still you see these same things always peeking in. Kingdom Builder has boards and turns and only a touch of cards with rules on them; but it’s still short and minimizes politics. Dominion has turns but hits the other things.

[Liga] OK. So Nefarious, Dominion and Kingdom Builder can offer us a persuasive portrait of Donald X. Vaccarino ?

[Donald X.] I still don’t know if you are trying to describe me or my games! And to describe my games in terms of three published games I would be forced to pick those three, since there are only those three. I think you can sum my style up better with just Nefarious and Dominion though. They both hit a number of things I tend to do, and then Nefarious has the simultaneous play while Dominion has more rules-on-cards. Kingdom Builder obviously fits in the ways I mentioned, but is less typical.

[Liga] Why did you start designing games and why are you still designing?

[Donald X.] In my youth I made D&D supplements because uh it was a fun thing to do? And then I designed a few games that were just fixed versions of existing games, or twists on existing games. I started designing in earnest after playing Magic, because, rules-on-cards, that’s where it’s at.

I enjoy designing games, and can conceivably get some of them published, and have more ideas saved up than I will ever get to. And I’ve got the time to work on games. So I continue designing!

[Liga] Is there something you would like to tell to new designers approaching this work?

[Donald X.] I wouldn’t put it like that. I never sit around thinking, “If only I could tell new designers things.” Sometimes I think, “I could sure fix up Skyrim,” or whatever, with no-one here to listen to my advice. But uh when called upon by interviewers to cough up advice for fledgling game designers, I generally just say, design a lot of games, you learn by doing it. Hunt down ideas, don’t just wait for them. When your friends play your game without you, that’s when you’ve got something. Then take your game to cons to show it to publishers.

[Liga] Thank you very much: waiting your next release

[Donald X.] Any time; I’m there for you! There are a bunch of releases on the way actually. Infiltration should be out soon, and then Monster Factory. I have two more games that might come out at Essen; I will know more as it gets closer. And then there’s a Dominion expansion coming at GenCon and a Kingdom Builder expansion that will hit the states in May.

About Andrea "Liga" Ligabue

Andrea "Liga" Ligabue is a game expert contributing to many games related international projects including Gamers Alliance Report, WIN, ILSA Magazine and Boardgamenews. Member of the International Gamers Awards Committee is coordinator of Play - The Games Festival and founder of the project Ludoteca Ideale.
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4 Responses to The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #19 – Donald X Vaccarino

  1. huzonfirst says:

    This might be your best interview of the series, Liga. Much of this is due to the thought Vaccarino put into his answers. I know he likes to show his wild and crazy side, but this article makes it clear he takes game design very seriously and is a meticulous and thoughtful craftsman. I have a much better picture of Donald X. as a game designer after this interview than I did before. Great job!

    • Thank you. I also think this has been a great interview. I’m also learning something each interview and I’m able now more than before to make the right questions. The concetp of mechanic, data and flavor was great (and I have already used it in the preview interview that I was conducing in the same time to this one).
      I hope the next one (the #20) will be better and than the 21 better and …

      I would like also to have time to make a sort of recap article but it really needs a lot of time.

      Best wishes and good play

  2. barbasol says:

    Thanks for another great interview!

  3. gamingleet says:

    Agreed, a wonderful interview. Thanks Andrea and Donald X!

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