Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 1: Rob Daviau

Rob Daviau (along with Craig Van Ness) of Hasbro has designed several games that, despite their mass-market heritage have become instant classics--many of them featured right here on Fortress: Ameritrash such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroscape, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Risk: 2210, and many others. Rob graciously agreed to give an interview for Fortress: Ameritrash, to find out what makes the mind of an AT-oriented game designer tick.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview, Rob--you've got a lot of fans on Fortress: Ameritrash, myself included. First of all, can you give us some background of your gaming history?

I was always a gamer but primarily a role-playing gamer. I discovered D&D while at camp back in 1981 and was hooked. I was 11 at the time so it was a nice segue between my kid days of gaming into my teen days of gaming. After that it was always and off and on affair with games (again, usually rpgs) up through my late 20s when I got this job.

How did you come to work for Hasbro, one of the biggest gaming companies in the world?

A little bit of "right place, right time" and a little bit of being the right person for the job. Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers had just been merged into one location and there were some openings. One was for a designer with a writing background, which was me. I had been an advertising copywriter for 5 years, had written some rpg articles, but also had a board game design aptitude. I was originally hired to work primarily on the adult game line (Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, etc.), games that had a lot of copywriting to them.

Who are some of your favorite game designers? What games are you playing now?

I'm always reluctant to name designers as I don't want to offend anyone I accidentally leave out.

I like a variety of Eurodesigners, roleplaying designers, and Ameritrash designers. I find that Eurogames tend to impress me in a "why couldn't I think of something that elegant" sort of way but Ameritrash games move me in a "wow, that was a rush" sort of way. My head is Eurogamer and my heart is Ameritrash.

In the past month I've played... Crokinole, Pitchcar, Bonkers, Game of Thrones, Ursuppe, El Grande, History of the World, a variety of standard card games, some games I'm working on here, Heroscape (testing new scenarios), Guitar Hero II, Candy Land (with my 3 year-old son), and Carcassonne. Probably more but that's all that comes to mind.

Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, published under the Avalon Hill brand in 2000, is absolutely one of my all-time favorite games; it really captures its theme very well, better than many, many other games. Can you give us some insight on what was involved in the development of that game?

This was primarily Craig's game. I was around for some playtesting and I think I came up with the Jedi splitting their attack dice idea but it was almost entirely Craig's. I get flattered yet embarrassed that this gets attributed to me as I love this game but had so little to do with it. Oh wait, I came up with the name (I think my favorite name I've come up with for a game.)

You were also involved in the development of both Star Wars Risk games,and both are easily among the best of the Risk variants. I especially like the thematic elements that were grafted on to the system and more importantly, the much cleaner and shorter playing time. Can you talk about what went on during the development of those games, and your goals for each?

Sure. This is where my rpg background comes in handy. I always like games that tell a story, where, the next day it almost sounds as if you are recounting a movie or a tv show or a book.

That's why I like Ameritrash games; they tell a story. So the goal was to tell a story, a Star Wars story. A "what if" Star Wars story. There were a lot of questions at the start as to which trilogy was going to come out first (or if they were going to be one giant game) so we sort of worked on them at the same time, going back and forth. The first thing to establish was whether it was going to be about land battles with a space battle accent or about space battles with a land battle accent. Since it is easier to understand owning planets rather than owning a section of space, we went with the former.

At that point there were several rounds of trying to figure out how ships worked. At first they were abstract things that just came in for one invasion or one battle but it was hard to understand, not very powerful, and just not worth the card spend. Eventually we went to the physical representation of the ships and that started to make sense.At this point we focused on the Clone Wars version for release with the film.

Given the timeline it was easier to balance the game to always have four armies (plus it was a new thing for Risk). This game was being designed in the year before Revenge of the Sith came out. At this time, movies can change quite a bit so having four armies in play gave us the easiest route to rebalance things if we had to make a change because the movie changed. It was a tremendous relief to see the final movie and realize that what we had put into the game really matched what was on-screen. (That is one small reason why The Queen's Gambit works so well - it came out a year after the movie so it could match the feel shot by shot.)

The hardest thing to wrestle with was Order 66. We went through a lot of iterations on that before settling on the final version.

What are some of the challenges involved in working with licensed properties?

As I said above, you are sometimes working on a game at the same time the movie is being shot so there is a little guesswork in determining what the final movie will be. But, for the most part, games are abstractions that high the key points of a movie or TV show and those key points usually don't change much during development.Personally I like working with licenses as it lets me know the narrative tone and theme that I should be hitting.

Many of the games you've been involved in designing have featured what I like to call "asymmetry"--whether it's variable player powers, or starting positions, or something similar. How much more challenging is it to design these games with an eye on balance than one where all players start out equally? Do you feel that asymmetry increases replayability?

I think that asymmetry increases narrative. If everyone is playing a slightly different role or has slightly different powers or has slightly different goals then a story more naturally develops as you have character, motive, enemies, etc. It probably is more of a balancing issue but its just the way I approach things.Again, my goal is to create little stories/movies that are driven by players and their goal to win.

That is why I love, love, love reading Betrayal at House on the Hill game sessions on bgg. Most of those are little short stories that are only vaguely related to the gameplay. I think that Betrayal at House on the Hill is my favorite creative project that I've ever worked on. It came from the inventor, lived with me for about two years, and then went on to WotC.

I didn't realize you worked on Betrayal! When you talk about games that are "dripping with theme", Betrayal at House on the Hill is as 'dripping' as it gets. Can you tell me about your involvement with that?

House on the Hill continues to be the single-most satisfying creative project that I've ever been part of. I worked on it, in various ways, for almost two years and loved every minute of it.A lot of the mechanics of the game are know I feel odd claiming anything about that game because I was so impressed (and still am impressed) with Bruce Glassco's original vision.

It's a game that has to be played by the right people -- if you are too competitive you'll get frustrated with the inevitable rules/rooms/haunt holes that will arise. The game went to WotC just as I was about to get into some major playtesting. I wasn't surprised that the haunt books had be published twice; it is just too much to test and get right the first time.

My favorite thing that I put in (except I think there was a typo in the final game on these cards or they weren't written as I first had them or something...) were the two event cards where you give and receive an item through a mirror. They were two different versions of the same event. In one, you lose an item card back to the deck as you pass it through the mirror. In the other, you can an item card from the deck as you get it from the mirror.

I don't remember if that's how the final cards worked.I knew that, in most games, one or the other card will show up, but not both. And if it is both, it is likely to be different players. And if it is the same player, it is highly unlikely the cards will come out in the order that I wanted (lose an item, then gain an item). And even if that worked, it is highly unlikely that the same item card will be returned to the deck and drawn again.


I knew that there could be one game, somewhere, somehow, that a person loses an item to the mirror. Then, later in the game, just when they need that item, it get returned to them by their past self. And if that moment happened, the players would never, ever forget that gaming moment. Ever.

Both you and Craig did some great designs under the Avalon Hill brand, and I think that the line suffered once you guys were no longer involved with it. Was there ever talk of your working again on any of the newer AH titles?

Avalon Hill went to WotC back in 2002 (I think) so its been a while since we've worked on it. WotC is on the other side of the country and have dozens of talented designers. I mean, when you have Richard Garfield designing your games, you're in good hands.

Can you give us some tidbits about some upcoming projects from you? What's the "next big thing" from Hasbro?

I can't talk much about what I'm working on but let's see if I can talk in a general sense. I've been working with some of our big family brands and seeing what can be done with them. I did Clue DVD last year (and Trivial Pursuit for Kids DVD) and our Monopoly Tropical Tycoon DVD game will launch later this year (or maybe in 2008). Not all of this work will involve DVDs but I'm playing around with some classics, which is both daunting in some ways and rewarding in others.

Rob, thank you for your time. Both you and Craig have brought American-style gamers a lot of great games to enjoy over the past decade, and we look forward to more!

Look forward to making more.


Ken B. said...

Rob will likely be checking out the Comments section for feedback, so if you have additional questions feel free to post them.

Keep things nice and constructive, though, or Mike Barnes will punch you in the money sack, and that will be the end of that.

P_J_Keller said...

It's great to hear from Rob. We don't hear from him enough. I didn't realize he worked on Betrayal, I love that game even though I don't get to play often. I wish he could have given us more info about upcoming Heroscape product but I realize that company rules probably prevent him from doing so. Anyway, thanks for the interview Rob and thanks for the great games

in closing:


Mr Skeletor said...

So I can't swear in here? =(

Ken B. said...

Nah Skeletor, not what I meant...

Ken B. said...

I accidentally culled the question about Heroscape--essentially Rob said he was no longer heavily involved with its development and pushed the question off for a future interview with Craig Van Ness. So (hopefully) look for more details on Heroscape when I do the interview with Craig.

Michael Barnes said...

Can I punch Mr. Skeletor in the money sack anyway?

GREAT interview- thanks so much, Rob, for stopping by and thanks for the great games. I think you've definitely earned a place in the Ameritrash Hall of Fame and that puts you in some pretty awesome company. I'm completely on the same page with you in terms of narrative and storytelling in games.

One thing I'm particularly interested in, if you can talk about it Rob, is how the European-style "family game" is percieved behind the scenes at a company like Hasbro. Eurogamers always want to give the impression that "Hasborg" (hardee har har) is completely oblivious to this supposed Shangri-La of Eurogames and continues to crank out Monopoly variants. Yet you're clearly an aware and savvy gamer and I'm sure many of your peers are as well. Is there an intitiative, or at least an understanding, of European style games in the upper echelons of Hasbro? Further, I firmly believe that the appeal and and market for Eurogames has been grossly overstated by overzealous hobbyists. Do you feel that the American board game marketplace, such as it is, responds better to games like HEROSCAPE or even the Fantasy Flight titles?

BTW- it does my heart good to hear industry folks using the term "Ameritrash".

Jack Hill said...

Another famous game designer (works for that Barbie company in LA) keeps telling me that his favorite thing about Betrayal is the mirror card, and that only Daviau would do something like that.

Nice to see it confirmed.

Juniper said...

I firmly believe that the appeal and and market for Eurogames has been grossly overstated by overzealous hobbyists.

I have no idea what I'm talking about, but that won't stop me: Hasbro has a huge stable of widely-recognized brands and trademarks. These are legally enforced, while game mechanisms cannot be protected unless they're patented, somehow.

It seems to me (and I stress here that I don't know what I'm talking about) that if Hasbro wanted to start doing Euros, and wanted to sell them to normal (i.e. non-hobbyist) consumers, they would tie those games into existing brands -- a Monopoly-themed Carcassonne, say, where you're building Atlantic City and the meeples are metal wheelbarrows, tophats, racecars, irons, and scottish terriers.

I suspect that one of the many hurdles to the introduction of any game (and have I mentioned that I know nothing, and that I'm typing this with my ass?) is the knowledge that most folks don't like to read rulebooks. Hasbro's classic titles, like Monopoly and Scrabble, are ideal because everyone already knows how to play them, or knows someone that can teach the game to them.

So here's where I actually ask my questions. Sorry for the long and self-indulgent (and probably factually incorrect) build-up:

1. You seem to have been working on several DVD titles lately. Does Hasbro have a specific preference for introducing new games in this format? If so, why? Is it because they're cheap to manufacture? Or because they occupy relatively little retail shelf space? Or because the DVDs often explain gameplay, so that no rulebook is required? Or is there some other reason?

2. When will we see Monopoly Carcassonne, or some other Hasbro-branded-but-licensed-from-Germany title at WalMart? Settlers of Candyland?

Pat H said...

Great idea Juniper. How about this also...

Meeplescape - The collectible wooden battle royale.

Wooden board, multicolored and multishaped meeples each with their own stat card. The board of course is made of cardboard stackable hexes.

New weapon upgrades would be centered around saws, hammers, nails and of course the super creature which would be a giant beaver.

In keeping with the roots of eurogames - no dice. A clever "Rock, Paper, Scissors" mechanic to resolve combat will be unveiled and take the gaming world by storm. None of the eliminated meeples are actually eliminated but ground into pulp and turned into one page rulesheets for use in expansions.

Pat H said...

Damn job getting in the way of posting... I meant to say wooden bits, the board of course is made of cardboard.

Shellhead said...

My favorite quote from the entire interview with Rob: "asymmetry increases narrative." Straight to the point, but very insightful. Certain aspects of this interview confirmed my suspicions, especially the near impossibility of completely playtesting Betrayal at House on the Hill while maintaining reasonable development costs. I love those mirror cards, and the very first time we played, the same player drew both of them. Despite the flaws, our group loves to play House on the Hill.

It would be interesting to hear about the challenges of doing creative work for a big corporation, but I can understand that Rob still works there and may not be able to speak freely about that aspect of the process.

gary sax said...

Shellhead--Even though he obviously can't talk about them, I would be interested in hearing the constaints as well, I agree. I was glad to see that the FT interviewer probing lightly into this question. Going through a lot of the online hobby boardgaming scene it's all about hobbyists doing whatever they want with no market research or anything--a success is getting enough other elite internet posters who love the game and selling a few thousand copies.

It'd be very interesting to get insight into the pressures of an actual big company that does market research, expects to sell a lot of copies and has to professionally market games--a far different designing situation that probably has negatives but also has positives in terms of budget and resources.

gary sax said...

Also, my last post in no ways was meant to slight professionals who work for big game companies like FFG or big Euro gamers. But we're talking about a different level of big here with Hasbro, I think.

Mr Skeletor said...

Betrayal was, to me, a great idea for a game that just didn't work in it's execution.

All this talk about it makes me think I should maybe give it another go.

433 said...

Great interview! I can't wait to see more of these!

Matt Thrower said...

And if that moment happened, the players would never, ever forget that gaming moment. Ever.

Not a question, but I just wanted to comment that the sentiment behind this design decision virtually defines what Ameritrash is. This sort of thinking is exactly what Euro games are lacking in the drive to attach meaning and importance to every single element of the game. I'm pleased to see that someone's still doing it!

Pat H said...

I'll take some somewhat irregular mechanic moments that provide lasting gaming memories anytime, so long as they cannot be exploited as gamey in the future.

Betrayal has been on my radar since returning to the hobby for some time now. I have all of the necessary figs that I have collected over the years to substitute for most of the monsters, as I think the counters are lacking for the immersion (understandable considering the scope of foe's and production).

This is the sort of game that deserves a makeover just from what I've read about it. A mass produced game that has found it’s place in the niche market.

Ken you are a sleuth.

Michael Barnes said...

You know, I'm not crazy about BETRAYAL as it stands...I rated it an 8 back when I was writing for GI but that was after six or seven plays...I still think it's OK, and at least fun and memorable, but it just doesn't work completely for me and I feel like there's a lot of missed potential in its execution. I hate the first half of the game, I think some of the stories are really lame (while others are really cool) and there's so many variables that can completely screw up the game so that your hour or two was pretty much wasted.

At my store, I think I had more success introducing folks to gaming with BETRAYAL than even SETTLERS. It got played ALL THE TIME. And bought by almost everyone who played it. Playing it so much really pointed out the things I _didn't_ like about it and it made a lot of its shortcomings more egregious.

I think if the game had been released as a mass-market title (with less stat-juggling) and specifically marketed to a mass-market audience it might have been pretty successful beyond the hobby business. It's immediate, easy, and accessible and it's also got a theme and atmosphere that people can really get into. Plus it has a sense of novelty- it's "that game" people remember, enjoy, and want to own for themselves to share with other friends.

ubarose said...

I could easily envision a mass market DVD version of BETRAYAL. When I was kid, my friend had a horror themed game that came with a cassette that was supposed to be played at certain points in the game. When we play BETRAYAL, and the haunt starts, someone always comments, "Time to play the cassette."

Anyway, I find BETRAYAL amusing. We laugh a lot. When the haunt is lame, we just laugh harder.

Shellhead said...

Betrayal at House on the Hill is unreliable entertainment, but our group plays it anyway on a semi-regular basis. The map tiles* and the character 'sheets' are great. The characters figures are good enough. The counters are unsatisfactory, and the alternative counters available as downloads at BGG aren't much better. I ended up sorting my counters in alphabetical groups in little baggies, to minimize the search time for appropriate counters each game. I agree that miniatures would enhance this game considerably, but it's probably not worth the trouble for most people.

I have never understood the criticism of the first part of the game. My group loves the sense of discovery, exploring the house room by room, revealing a different layout every game. The events can help build the theme, although it is jarring when most of those events are ghostly, and then the haunt turns out to be a mutated plant or some aliens.

It's the second half of the game where Betrayal often fails us. Given the great variety of potential conditions at the moment the traitor is revealed, the scenario can often be very unbalanced. And some of the scenarios just aren't much fun to start with. And even with the latest errata, there are still some lingering ambiguities that can cause problems.

*(I firmly believe that the Underground Lake was not mis-printed. The lake is clearly displayed as far below the level of the entry doorways, indicating that the entrances to the room could indeed be on the second floor while the lake itself is way down there and separate from the other floors of the house.)

Casey said...

I played Betrayal once. I liked the modular board and building the mansion as you play. I actually enjoyed the first half of the game quite a bit. It was when the haunt was revealed and we had to search through the scenario booklet, check the faq, double check the faq to see what was supposed to happen that things bogged down.

If the time had been available to playtest all the scenarios I think it could've been a great game. Instead my group found Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula to better fit our horror gaming needs.

Ken B. said...

Well, Rob said he would be pretty busy so I guess he hasn't had time to check out the thread for feedback just yet. If he does, there's some good info in here I hope Hasbro can use. Rob was a very cool guy for participating, and it's good to know Hasbro has at least a few hobbyist-minded gamers working there.

In two weeks I've got a KILLER interview lined up with two game designers in a joint interview, and they have indicated they'll be on here looking for feedback and possibly answering some questions.

robdaviau said...

Hey, I'm reading, I just wanted to let the comments build up before answering. And, yes, I'm busy.

Ken B. said...

Cool! I invoked The Rob! My gaming powers grow each and every day.


dougrayscott said...

Rob, since heroscape has been successful does that mean hasbro might go after gamers again with new products??

Pat H said...

Hello Rob,

There are many questions that I'd like to ask but I'll keep it short.

Are there plans to keep producing gamers games and target the gamer market or to concentrate on the toy market. I've seen many good games get scrapped by Hasbro even though they could continue in the niche market that most game companies thrive in. With the production capabilities that Hasbro has they could easily afford to make high quality gamers games.

What sort of pressure does this place on a designer to get the "homerun" game out as opposed to designing a great "game"(that sells of course - just not in the gazillions model). What are the balances that you deal with in this process or does it just pay the bills.

And no, I'm not looking at anyone's money sack...

Aarontu said...

"And if that moment happened, the players would never, ever forget that gaming moment. Ever."

This basically happened on my first play of BaHotH. My character went upstairs and saw himself in the mirror and received an item. After using it for a short while, he came across another mirror and saw his past self and gave himself the same item, causing one of those time-loop things that hurts your brain if you think about it too hard. The item wasn't particularly useful at that point in the game or anything, but it was still awesome and became the topic of conversation for some time.

warmonger said...

Any plans for Hasbro to publish some of these games they're sitting on?

Citadel said...

Great interview. I have enjoyed all the recent AH titles I have played.

Two things I would be interested to know about:

How do you feel about the ability of the games you put out to be accepted by the mainstream? Is this an important consideration to you? Do the games get tested out on non gamers? Have you considered doing anything to make this easier like putting the rules on DVD?

What do AH think about Catan on Xbox360? Is it possible we might see something like this with any AH titles?