The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #26 – Jason Matthews

It is a long time since my last interview. More than 2 years ago I got my last interview with Paolo Mori. It is also a long time I’m not writing reviews, most due to Play – The Games Festival, that is absorbing most of my time. But I decided to come back to this web-site, both with interviews and articles.

Jason Mattews is a great game designer and Twilight Struggle is still #2 in the BGG rank. I have got the possibility to meet Jason in Modena, during the last edition of Play – the Games Festival (he was one of our special guest) and it is not only a great designer, but also a very nice person. In this interview we will discover that Jason like “games with tons of depth, situational complexity, and yet, relatively short rulebooks.“ and that the “downtime” is the things he try to avoid most!

Here my interview …

[Liga] Dear Jason, 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 craftmanship 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 designedfewer than 10 games, starting from Twilight Struggle in 2005, so you are really a young designer. On the other side Twilight Struggle is 1st ranked in BGG and also, in someway, refresh the 2-players wargaming scene much more than; I think, you was thinking about. Of course Twilight Struggle is your greatest success but is there a game you are particularly proud of ?

[Jason] Well, of course I am proud that Twilight Struggle has done so well — much better than either of us could have hoped. And all my games are special for one reason or another. But, I find myself most drawn to play Campaign Manager, to be honest. I think it packs the most punch in the least amount of time. And unfortunately, like many other gamers, time is a premium to me.

[Liga] I think that Campaing Manager (and 1960: The making of the President) have a theme much more “American” than Twilight Struggle and could be less appreciated outside US.
All your games seems to have really deep themes. What is the balance between theme and mechanic in your design, especially during the design process ?

[Jason] Well, I had a long discussion with the inestimable Mike Siggins of Sumo fame about this. He contended that there was an emerging hybrid in design. He called it “Atlantic style” and I guess it would lump me and someone like say Wallace or the Ragnar Brothers in the UK, together. At first, I thought he was wrong. There was no need or room for this style of gaming. But over time, I have become more and more convinced he is correct. I suppose the classical difference between the German school of hobby game design, and the American school, is that Americans start with a theme and try to find mechanics that fit. The Germans proceed in the other order. So this hybrid school is American in the sense that we start with the theme, but then we rely upon all the innovations in mechanics and approaches to play balance and play time that the Germans have taught for us. So to be sure, I try to find mechanics that fit the theme. That is key. However, I will abandon any element of a design that makes the game less fun, slower or too cumbersome. I don’t try to design “simulations” as some game designers in the 70s or 80s once attempted. I am a game designer, and to do that correctly, I try to capture the “feel” of my subject matter. The more that feel and game play mesh, the better the play experience.

[Liga] Jason, you touched an important point: the different between simulation and themed games. In the past it seemed that only “simulations” could be themed but now, many designers, thinks like you. I really like when you says “I am a game designer, and to do that correctly, I try to capture the “feel” of my subject matter.”. Of course capturing the “feel” is not always easy.
Can you please select one or more of your games and show us the detail of design process: where the idea came from? How long does it take to play-test a game?

[Jason] Okay, let’s take Founding Fathers. The idea for the game design is one of my oldest. I took a course in under grad, that was a day-by-day examination of the workings of the Constitutional Convention. It was an amazing educational experience, but the whole time I was studying it, I was thinking “there is definitely a game in here somewhere.” So, after the success of Twilight Struggle and 1960, Christian and I were approached by Jim Dietz of Jolly Roger Games. Jim is a history professor when he isn’t coaching volleyball or publishing games, so he had a natural appreciation for the stuff we had been working on. He asked us to design something, and I kind of pushed this topic. Christian generously agreed to work on it too and we were off. Christian and I very much work in a design session mode. We meet at one of our houses, sit down. At first, we will just shoot through ideas and make notes. Then, we will put together some sort of prototype and start testing ideas and changes. Ultimately we refine this prototype to the point we are ready to show other people, including the publisher. In this case, Jolly Roger did a bunch of its own playtesting, we were lucky to have a group of blind playtesters in Texas, and then Chris and I did our usual work at conventions with with groups, conducting playtests and working out the kinks. Altogether, it takes about a year for us to get a game ready for publication. Sometime the bulk of that is spent in playtesting.

[Liga] That’s great. Nowadays it seems that the need to be ready for the next Essen make the testing phase sometimes compressed and many potential titles are released still not enough tested. Do you agree ?

[Jason] Yes, I think there are artificial deadlines come into play. Essen has not ever affected my work that way, but I am not usually designing games with the European game companies in mind. Some of my games have been picked up by European companies, but mostly after they have already been successful in the US market. Anyway, the source of the problem is that there is not really enough money to go around in the gaming hobby. Ideally, you would like paid developers and playtesters who get some kind of compensation. But almost all of this work is either done by volunteers or done in-house. Which translates into the fact that errors crop into final products.

[Liga] Yes, that’s sadly true. I’m playing-testing for several companies for just a review copy. You have designed almost all your games with a coworker: is there any particular reason for that ? What do you think about team working ?

[Jason] Yes, its hugely helpful to me to be accountable to someone in the design process. It helps me move ideas to paper, and from paper to physical reality. I think it also shortens the playtest feed back loop, as we are able to quickly point out problems in our co-designer’s ideas, that would otherwise have to go out to playtesting and then ultimately need revision.

[Liga] Some other designers are talking to me of different “roles” in the team-working: creative parts, fine tuning, testing, mechanics … is there any part in the design process you feel more used to or something you really don’t like ?

[Jason] I hate actually physically creating prototypes. I have done it. I can even make them look decent, but I do not enjoy the process at all. Recently my son was assigned a school project to make a board game. We designed a variety of Quo Vadis by Reiner Knizia and Re-themed it to be about Butterfly Migration – a subject he studied this school year. In any event, the whole thing was a complete chore. In terms of the stuff I like, I always enjoy the background and historical work. I also love the brainstorming sessions with my colleague.

[Liga] Nice. So you feel much more involved in the creative part of the work. Of course Twilight Struggle has been an outstanding success and the start of your career. How is your designer life after that ? Is Twilight Struggle 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 ?

[Jason] Has been amazing in the sense that I have a lot of freedom now. Obviously, I am interested in history. But I like my history a little bit quirky and off the beaten track. I am never going to design a game about Waterloo or Gettysburg. I also have no plans for a game about World War II. That stuff has been done so well, by so many other designers, I do not feel like I have anything to offer. However, thanks to the success of Twilight Struggle and 1960, I can walk up to a publisher and say “Hey, I’d like to do a game on the Constitutional Convention.” and they will say “We’re interested.” So, that is really gratifying. I get to work on topics I like, and hopefully offer the gaming community games on subject areas that offer something a little different than the 123rd game on Stalingrad.

[Liga] Of course I can’t resit asking you if there are topics you are thinking about in these days.

[Jason] Well, I have a ton of notional designs to be honest. And there are several projects out there. I have something in the works with Christian on Zombies. Ananda and I have restarted our work on an Anglo-French rivalry game. I am looking at a project that would cover American history from basically the War of 1812 to the Civil War. But to be honest, the thing I have been THINKING about the most lately would be another Twilight Struggle follow up. I have been contemplating a game on Central America that would emphasize the impact that the Cold War rivalry had on individual countries. I want to dig a little deeper into the central dilemma of the Super Powers. They need and want friendly countries. But sometimes their friends repress their own people to maintain power. That repression leads to revolutions and counter-revolutions. And the whole enterprise of supporting regimes or insurgents has a bit of a horse race quality. You can make an educated guess, but its still just a guess.

[Liga] Great! I really would like to see what this will bring out. Now we are going into the central part of the interview where I try to find your style and sign. 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?

[Jason] I think first time game designers approach their efforts like artists. You are pouring your soul into it. Even if its not so great, you feel this tremendous ownership of the product. You can barely deal with a bad review, because it all seems so personal. Certainly by my third game, I hope that I have become more of a craftsman. I can more easily identify traps in the design process and game play. I know that no matter what I design, someone, somewhere is going to hate it, and that’s just fine. We’ve begun to craft a style of game, so that when people open a box with my name on it, they have a sense of what they are getting themselves into. I hope we still surprise them from time to time, but clearly people know we are going to try and put some history in the box, and we are going to take the theme very seriously.

[Liga] So you think the designers need to be really attracted by the project to have a good result ?

[Jason] I do. But I am not sure everyone does. My impression is that many Euro designers really attach themselves to a mechanism or a system. I have heard stories of German publishers ditching themes and replacing them wholesale. But Euro designers are not infusing their games with a lot of contextual research, so I doubt they need to be wedded to their subject matter. However, on the other hand, I think the enthusiasm that a designer has for a theme will bleed through to the players if he is attempting to impart his own appreciation of the subject to his audience.

[Liga] Actually there are many euro designers that are interested much more than years ago in telling a story to gamers: I think Uwe Rosemberg’s designs or Friedeman Friese or Ignacy Trzewiczek. You talk about “traps” and I know many new designers, with a lot of enthusiasm and really few knowledge of games, used to fall in. Can you please tell me which are the most common things to avoid designing a game ?

[Jason] Downtime, downtime, downtime. Time is a precious thing in people’s lives. I think it is sloppy craftsmanship for designers to waste it. I always start my game designs with a benchmark playing time. If the game is coming in too much longer, we trim fat and keep trying to make the game experience tight and decision points critical to game play. This is much harder in multiplayer games, and frankly, its why its so much easier to work on two player games. Founding Fathers really tackles some major design problems: For instance, how do you keep a text intensive, multiplayer game from draaaaaaaaging? We tried several things. First we limited hand size. You just have fewer choices which means less reading and less analysis paralysis. Secondly, we provide a draw with limited information. When you draw cards in Founding Fathers, you are not just picking at random, there is an element of strategy. However, you only know two bits of information – the delegates state and political affinity, but not the actual card text. So, we used the backs of cards to convey some important tactical information, without bogging down game-play by forcing every player to read every card. Finally, we also tackled the gang on the leader problem. Because Founding Father’s has a stock market-like element in the debate tokens, players can never be sure who precisely is winning until the final couple of plays. As a result, it can be very unclear and sometimes downright counter-intuitive as to who is winning at any particular moment.

[Liga] I agree with you about time but I’m not so sure cutting the playing time is the only solution. Some game, that will take long time to be played, let you the feeling of an epic adventure. Of course there is the need to find a good balance between letting players choices and cutting down the downtime. Many designers find the solution in making destructed turns, killing the monolithic turn of old boardgames and replacing with quick actions/impulses … what do you think about this design solution ?

[Jason] I find this can work quite well. I think of Wallace’s use of this technique for Age of Steam, which might otherwise test the patience of Eurogamers. That said, downtime shouldn’t be confused with game length. The fantastic thing about a game like Age of Steam is that you are also engaged during someone else’s turn, because their plans impact your plans. How many loans did my opponent take out, maybe I can afford one fewer? Did he just grab that cube i wanted? And then, of course, there are the auctions for position. All of this, and more, adds up to a design that engages the players throughout the entire experience. In that sense, it is like a two player game; your turn has profound impact on my turn. The real failures tend to be multiplayer games with a high tactical quotient. If the whole board is going to change before my turn, and there is no purpose in planning or watching until my turn, the odds that a game will run long with lots of downtime skyrocket.

[Liga] Do you think there is a common trait in your games ? Of course we already noted the deep connection with a theme.

[Jason] Well, so far, they have all used cards as a major component of game action. In and of itself, this is not so remarkable, lots of Euro games include them. But the beautiful thing about the way we are able to use cards is that we add enormous complexity and depth to a game without increasing the rule book. Basically, each card in a game like Twilight Struggle or even Campaign Manager is a little rule. In classical American game design, these would all be in a massive rule book and people would have to remember a thousand exceptions. Political games were almost impossible, because they were designed with static rules, even though politics is an inherently dynamic undertaking. So cards are magical. We can get players to play with a thousand little rules without every REALLY needing to commit them to memory. The results are games with tons of depth, situational complexity, and yet, relatively short rulebooks.

[Liga] Great! So, the first “mark” of Jason Matthews design we can note is use cards to introduce rules and make “games with tons of depth, situational complexity, and yet, relatively short rulebooks.“. On the other side it seems, like noted in the beginning of the interview, you are trying to keep the rules simple. So, what’s actually happening, is that if you need a “rule” or an “exception” you try to introduce it just only when needed, using a card ?

[Jason] Well, you are right, honestly it’s the exceptions that i am usually introducing by cards. Exceptions to the rules are usually what bog players down and virtually ensure that someone, somewhere is playing the game incorrectly, because they forgot an exception. But when the exception is staring you in the face, and then it goes away until its in your face again, that is the perfect way to handle exceptions.

[Liga] Using cards with text/special actions needs a real huge play-testing, since you have to consider the different combinations making sure all the possibilities/exceptions will be clear and tested. Do you agree ? Do you use special testing techniques for doing that ?

[Jason] Cards definitely add a layer of complexity to interactions that demand a lot of play-testing. With Twilight Struggle, we had a lot of time for play-testing. We used the five years between the time GMT greenlighted the project, and its final publication to play a loooot of games. The issue is, of course, every time you tweak a card it has a ripple effect on play-testing. There may be some new interaction that was unforeseen. Or perhaps you simply change the wording of a card – frequently we altered wording to fix one problem only to wind up with a new one. In any event, it is arduous. The fantastic development that we were able to use with 1989 is that there is now a hard-core dedicated group of CDG gamers, who are some of the best players of these games in the world, and they are all easily found on Wargameroom.com. So for both the most recent expansion of Twilight Struggle cards, and 1989 overall, we were able to put up the prototypes on-line and playtest them very, very thoroughly with intense gamers. I hope that this will sort of be the future of play-testing these kinds of games. It has some expense associated with it, and margins in the gaming industry are slim, but the results are well worth it, in my humble opinion.

[Liga] Jason, you are mostly a 2-players games designer. This is not so common (it seems that most designers and publishers are trying to make multi-player games). Is there a specific reason why you are preferring 2-players games ?

[Jason] Well, as I alluded to early, two player games, all by themselves eliminate a big chunk of the downtime problem. Every move matters to all players. But Founding Fathers is multiplayer and the zombie design that Christian and I are working on will also be multiplayer. Other than that, its been necessitated by topic. Weirdly, there had been many multiplayer games with a Cold War theme, but no two player game, and yet, if ever a topic screamed out for two player treatment, it was the Cold War. Similarly, many US election games were designed as multi-player experiences, but honestly, US Elections are between two sides, two candidates, and should be in a two player game.

[Liga] So in the future I have to immagine Jason going to chase two-players situation in history not yet been explored by games! Many designers seems to have no more times to play other designer games. Other seems playing games is an important part of the work of a designer: what doi you think about ?

[Jason] I totally love to play other designer’s work. I think it is an important element to keeping track of the state of the art. But I can also understand how it gets hard and life begins to intrude on game time and design time. So something has to give. But I was a game player looooooong before I was a game designer, and I will keep playing other designer’s games looooooong after I stop designing games.

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

[Jason] Well, I learned something about game design by being a playtester. I suppose it was more like being an apprentice to extend your analogy. Ultimately, correcting the errors of other designers convinced Ananda and I that we could design our own game. So, we were kind of upstarts. That said, we have always stood on the shoulder of giants. CDG’s were really the invention of Mark Herman. His game We The People had such an impact on me, both Ananda and I took that game as our goal post. We wanted to design something of that weight, that complexity, and we did. As a personal mentor, I would have to say that Alan Moon provided me with a lot of excellent advice when I just started out. He looked at my first contract, and provided great insights into how the industries in the US and Europe work. He was extremely generous with his time, and I will always owe him a debt for that.

[Liga] So Mark Herman was your inspiration and Alan Moon the one that helped you to enter the market, is it ?

[Jason] Yep, that pretty much sums it up. I have met Mark, he lives and works in the DC area, like me. But I do not know him that well. But his game was hugely influential on me, and basically reignited my interest in wargaming. Alan, I have had the opportunity to get to know. He really was a huge help to me when I was starting out. He is funny and engaging, so you would be hard pressed to find a better source for mentoring in the gaming community.

[Liga] Is there a game from another designer you would have really liked to design ?

[Jason] I’am Michael Schacht’s number one fan boy. I tend to enjoy almost anything he designs. Since Zooloretto is one of my daughter’s favorite games, I wish I had designed that.

[Liga] Wow! Also my daughter awe Zooloretto. It is really strange because Shacht seems really far from you in the style. In the interview we made he told me that “Nowadays i rarely start with a theme. But as early as possible, I try to find a fitting theme, usually when the main mechanism is basically set”. So, can you tell me what really you like in Shacht designs ?

[Jason] What I greatly admire about what Michael’s designs are the decision points. he infuses little binary decisions with incredible depth of meaning. Its true in Zooloretto – take a truck, or place an animal – but suddenly that little dilemma has a thousand ripples and variables if you are paying attention. Paris Paris, is the same and California. Its all genius. The truly great thing about them is how superbly they play with families, because an 8 year old and a 40 year old can both make a binary decision. You hope the 40 year old’s analysis is more thorough, but in my case, it never is.

[Liga] Yes! I also find difficult to win against my sons in Zolloretto! If you have to describe Jason Matthews with just 3 Jason’s games: which and why ?

[Jason] 1) Twilight Struggle, because it shows that I am a child and product of the Cold War. I still sometimes slip up and call Russians, Soviets.
2) Founding Fathers, because it illustrates my love for history.
3) and 1960: Making of the President, as both my occupation and personal interest, I am a political hack.

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

[Jason] My grandfather always wanted me to be a writer. When I was a little kid, I would copy articles out of the encyclopedia to put together “my book” on the US Civil War. Well, that book never got written. But in a weird way, game design scratches that itch for me. I still get to explore topics that capture my interest. I also try and impart some of the things I know and have learned through my designs. I sort of hope that my games are effortlessly educational in that way. I kind of think of games like stories, and I think there are still some interesting stories to tell via games. So, I will keep trying to tell them, as long as people are interested.

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

[Jason] Yes, first don’t get too wedded to your ideas. Listen to people’s feedback. Secondly, design for yourself. You will find your audience and be happier. I know some designers that keep aiming for the Spiel des Jahre. I think that would ultimately drive me insane. I am not Alan Moon or Wolfgang Krammer and cannot pretend to be. So, ultimately, I feel better knowing I designed something that was fun to me, and someone published it. And that is all that matters. Finally, play other people’s stuff. I am constantly amazed by how far behind the state-of-the-art designers can fall because they end up too consumed by their own work. Game design evolves like all other forms of creative endeavor, and I think its important to know what has been done and what is happening now.

[Liga] Thank you for your time and kindness. Good Play!

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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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3 Responses to The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #26 – Jason Matthews

  1. Dale Yu says:

    Liga – well worth the wait. glad to see that you’re back in the interview business!

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Jason, I hope that since your son’s Butterfly Migration game was based on Quo Vadis, it prominently featured Monarch butterflies.

    Great interview, guys. You had some wonderful follow-up questions, Liga. And Jason, as usual, your answers are thoughtful, incisive, and very interesting. I trust your future zombie game won’t just be about undead, but zombies signing the Magna Carta or something! Looking forward to it and all your future projects.

  3. Jacob Lee says:

    Jason’s advice at the end of the article seems like it would bring out the best designs in people. Thanks for doing sharing this interview!

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