Monday, 13 August 2007

Interview: Jason Hill, Designer of "Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game"

After going over my list of "Games on the Radar" last week, I found myself thinking, "I wish I knew more about this new Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game."

Then, in a head-smacking moment, I realized I had something on my side--the power of the press, baby! A quick e-mail later, I was in contact with Jason Hill, co-head honcho of Flying Frog Productions. Jason graciously took the time to chat with me about his new game, despite a very hectic schedule with GenCon looming up ahead.


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F:AT: Jason, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. You’re something of a new face on the game design scene—what can you tell us about your gaming background?


Jason Hill: Well, on a personal level, I’ve been a hard-core gamer for as far back as I can remember. Like many other people, I started playing D&D with my older brother when I was young (actually when I was 5) and have never looked back. In my early teens I got into miniature games and more in depth board games, Warhammer, Battletech, the Game Master Series, and the like. I was the one in my gaming group who always read the rules and would run the new games and teach people how to play. I think that’s how most gaming groups work really, one individual who gets new games, devours the rules, and then sort of champions them to their friends. That’s when I first started to really play with design. Having read/played so many games, there was always a need for rules interpretations. It was then a natural progression to start changing rules here and there to fill in holes and change games to make them more fun for my group’s play style. After that it was a short road to designing games from scratch. It was a very organic process that has grown literally over the course of my entire life. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s really true - I eat, sleep, breathe games.

From a professional standpoint, I’ve been working in the games industry for about fifteen years. I worked for Games Workshop as an Outrider for over thirteen years, going to conventions and stores around the country running events and introducing people to the hobby. I wrote material for some GW magazine publications. I have also worked in some form or another with Wizards, Privateer Press, and a few others. For the last seven years or so, I’ve worked in the video game industry as an artist and designer. Most recently, I worked on the design team for FASA Interactive doing Shadowrun for the Xbox 360/PC.



F:AT: Most gamers like to think of themselves as “Jr. Designers”…sort of like everyone thinks they have the “Great American Novel” in them somewhere. What made you decide to pull the trigger and make those dreams a reality?


JH: When I was in second grade, they went around the room and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said, “Mad Scientist”. The response was, of course, “You mean a scientist… that’s great!” And I said, “No. A ‘Mad’ Scientist!”. To some extent, I think that’s what being an independent Game Designer is. You get to create all these really exciting things and you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.

Games have been such a focus in my life for so long that I really don’t think I could stop if I tried. When I finish a hard day at work, I go home, kick off my shoes and work on game designs – writing, refining, testing, polishing. The dream for me is being able to make a living at doing what I love (and frankly what I would be doing anyway).

To say ‘pull the trigger’ feels a little weird because it sort of is and isn’t accurate. I formed Flying Frog Productions in 1999 with my brother and long-time gaming partner Scott (Art Director for Flying Frog – Jack Scott Hill) and have been working hard for the last, what – eight years to build the company. Last Night on Earth, The Zombie Game was one of the very first game designs done under the Flying Frog banner so it’s been around for a long time. That being said, this year has finally seen some of that work pay off as 2007 is our official launch year.




A shot of the back of the box--note the very cool miniatures




F:AT: Theme seems to be important to you, if early signs from “Last Night on Earth” are any indication. What are your thoughts on how theme can add to a game?



JH: To me ‘Theme’ is king. A game is most successful when the theme permeates every aspect, not just the setting and the backdrop, but the way the game itself unfolds and how it plays turn to turn. If you have game mechanics that reinforce the theme you can take that game to a whole new level. What makes a game really fun and memorable is the story that you create as you play and being immersed into the genre.

With Last Night on Earth, we have worked hard to push the immersive aspects to give a very cinematic experience. All of the artwork is photo-based and, like all of our games, it includes a CD Soundtrack of original music to have going in the background while you play the game. This mixed with the way the game plays all come together to pull players into the story and the zombie movie genre.




F:AT: Do you find yourself trying to find a balance between theme and rules complexity? It's very tempting to throw yourself off the deep end, especially as you get deeper and deeper into the theme of a game.

JH: With any game I think balance is a key aspect; whether it’s the gameplay balance itself or finding a middle ground between the theme and complexity. It would be very easy to go crazy with detail and have a hundred little rules for a hundred specific situations, and although that would push the theme into the extreme (which many players would probably love) it would wreck the flow of the game and be a nightmare for gameplay balance. I’ve found that the ideal is to streamline the thematic elements not into more complex rules but rather into creating situations that the players find themselves in and intuitive game mechanics that lead players into making decisions that make sense in the genre. In this way you get the most ‘bang for your buck’ so to speak, without sacrificing the flow of the game or driving casual players away.



F:AT: Horror themes in particular have had a tough time being realized in board game form; after all, it's difficult to be terrified of a small two-inch piece of plastic. What have you learned from other efforts in the horror gaming genre--about what works, and what doesn't?



JH: I think that horror in a game and horror in movies are slightly different things. Many times horror in movies goes for the cheap scare. A loud sound is usually all it takes to startle people and make them jump. You can’t really do that in a board game and I’m not sure you would want to. That kind of scare feels cheap and is not what makes horror movies good. What makes a horror movie good is that feeling of intensity and anticipation, the ambiance of dark brooding environments and characters, transitioning into heart-pumping action of running, fighting, and generally doing anything you can to stay alive. This translates into a game as fast-paced turns, rules that flow well without getting in the way, and always feeling like you’re barely hanging on.

Also, like any good game/movie, Last Night on Earth has a slight tongue-in-cheek element of humor to occasionally lighten the mood.

A game that came out several years ago and is a fan favorite (for good reason) is ‘Betrayal at House on the Hill’. That game did a fantastic job of nailing the brooding exploration and mood of haunted house horror. Another game that is a bit older but a classic is Space Hulk by Games Workshop. I’m not sure most people would classify it as horror, but at its heart, that is exactly what it is. Moving through a maze-like board being hunted by deadly aliens that could jump out of the shadows at any time, with a heavy time constraint – the game creates a sense of overwhelming dread that goes above and beyond what you would normally associate with a board game.



F:AT: You've mentioned "Last Night on Earth" to be the culmination of eight years of work; there are a lot of zombie-lovin' gamers who are just itching to find out more about the game. We're looking for a "Fortress: Ameritrash" exclusive here...so now's your chance to lay the goods on us. What can you tell us about "Last Night on Earth, The Zombie Game?"



JH: Well, first off the game is head-to-head so some players take on the role of the small-town Heroes fighting to stay alive and other players get to play as the Zombies, sending waves of hungry dead to overwhelm them. The Heroes have to work together to survive which encourages careful thought and strong team strategy. Also, there isn’t just one objective to the game, but rather several scenarios you can play that change the victory conditions, feel, and pace of the game.

The Heroes play fairly differently from the Zombies in that they are pretty much always on the run (until you can find yourself a nice shotgun, chainsaw, or the like). Heroes have to search the town to find items, weapons, and events that can help them to win while the Zombies have a hand of cards that they play through, getting to draw back up each turn. This really keeps the pressure on the Heroes and forces them to carefully consider if it’s worth lingering in the old Barn to rummage around when Zombies are closing in and could be lurking in every shadow.

Like all good ‘Ameritrash’ games, Last Night on Earth is all about the theme and flavor of the genre and has a decent amount of randomness. The game uses dice, you draw cards from a deck, you have a randomly generated board. These elements don’t diminish the strategy, they just add to the excitement. There is always a chance of success, no matter the odds; this helps Heroes to be heroic and Zombies to be savage.

Last Night on Earth isn’t just a board game, it’s a starting point, a toolbox. It’s set up to be infinitely expandable officially and by the fan community. We already have several expansions planned for release over the next couple years as well as a plethora of new web content including new game scenarios, characters, and board arrangements.

And if you like Last Night on Earth, The Zombie Game, you’ll be happy to know that it is just the beginning. There are many more Flying Frog games that are waiting in the wings for their chance to go into full production. Last Night on Earth will be debuting at GenCon this year (2007) so if you make the trek to Indy, be sure to stop by the Flying Frog Productions Booth #2540 and say hello, play the game, and maybe pick up a copy early. You can find out more about the game on our Board Game Geek site and on the official site at http://www.flyingfrog.net/ over the coming weeks.



F:AT: Hey, hey, no shameless plugs--we're already on the payroll of SFR for Dragon Dice (sorry, inside joke). I think a lot of us are really curious about the combat system. Most of us have tried Zombies!!! and while it's good mindless fun, I doubt there are many of us who haven't tried sprucing up the combat system a bit. When it gets down to brass tacks, what is combat like in your game?

JH: Combat is fast and furious and can be a very dangerous affair for the Heroes unless you have a weapon of some kind or some other trick up your sleeve (usually in the form of a Hero ‘Event’ card). Also, some Heroes are better at fighting than others and have built in combat abilities. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will tell you that combat involves dice (hello,…’Ameritrash’!) and that it’s not too hard for a Hero to ‘Fend Off’ a Zombie, leaving them in your space, but killing them can be a challenge. This of course often leads to getting swarmed and potentially overwhelmed if you stay in one place too long.

One other thing that shakes up Combat and keeps players on their toes is that there are a lot of Combat-oriented ‘fast effect’ type cards that can be played after the dice are rolled to alter the outcome. Both Heroes and Zombies have these, so you can never be sure exactly what you’re getting into. This raises the tension and adds a lot of strategy as to when to play your cards, and when to hold them. Remember, Zombies get new cards every turn, but Heroes have to work for them by searching the town.

You’ll find that at face value, combat is fast and straight-forward, but a great deal of the strategy is when to fight, when to run, and how you use your cards (both weapons and Events). I don’t think players will be disappointed.



F:AT: Lots of games have a Zombie theme but fall short of actually realizing it well--take Mall of Horror, an excellent game but one that is easily re-themed (and in fact *was* rethemed from "Lifeboats"). Sounds like you're really trying to nail the zombie movie vibe. Are you a big horror buff?


JH: Oh yeah! When it comes to TV, movies, and comics, I’m a huge geek. Horror is no small part of that. I saw Friday the 13th part 2 on TV when I was like 4 or 5 and it scared the bejesus out of me. I’ve been hooked ever since. Really, all of the game designs I work on are based pretty heavily on strong pop-culture themes that most people know and can relate to. The games have as much theme and flavor as I can pack into them and are really a celebration of their genre. Last Night on Earth, The Zombie Game is no exception!



F:AT: The cheesy photo artwork seems to capture the spirit of b-level horror flicks perfectly. What can we expect from the music CD?


JH: For years we would always put music on in the background while we played games, usually movie soundtracks that fit the type of game we were playing (I think a lot of people do). It helps set the tone and get everyone into the mood of the game. Shipping with an official soundtrack takes this idea to the next step and not only encourages this notion, but also gives players music that was specifically designed for the theme of the game.

Because of the cinematic quality we were striving for, the music for Last Night on Earth is really like the soundtrack ‘movie score’ to the game. It ranges from haunting dramatic to heroic action music with somewhat of a techno sensibility. We have a really talented composer who’s part of the company (Music Lead - Mary Beth Magallanes) and heads up the music for each of the games.

Rather than try to describe the sound, you can check out some streaming samples of the music on our LNOE MySpace page at - http://www.myspace.com/thezombiegame.



A scenario from the published game



F:AT: You mentioned the game being a "toolbox"--how do you envision that expansions will be implemented in the game? Web-published scenarios? Expansions with more characters, cards, weapons, that sort of thing?



JH: We already have several expansions set for retail release over the next few years that are currently in testing (everything stays in testing until the moment it’s handed off to the printers). These range from full boxed expansions with new game boards, Heroes, cards etc, to card only or miniature expansions, and even a Scenario Book is in the works. We also have lots of Web Content planned in the form of new scenarios, strategy articles, and the like.

The intent is to really support the game’s community and create an ongoing sort of ‘living game’.



F:AT: Now as I understand it, you'll get a chance to show off the game at Gencon. Any chance gamers will get to meet "Jenny, the Farmer's Daughter?"

Actually, the actress who plays Jenny is going to be at the Flying Frog Productions booth (in costume), signing copies of the game and meeting fans.



Howdy, y'all




F:AT: If that doesn’t draw them in, nothing will! Any more tidbits you'd like to throw our way? What's next for Flying Frog?



JH: Well, the first retail release expansion for Last Night on Earth is scheduled for this coming spring. Also, our second full game hasn’t been announced yet, but it has already gone into art production and is slated for a Summer ’08 release. All I can tell you right now is that it’s not Zombie related. You can look for more info to start hitting the official website (http://www.flyingfrog.net/) over the coming months.

F:AT: Jason, I appreciate your taking the time out to chat with us. I know things must be pretty hectic with Gencon coming up. I wish you guys the best of luck, and I'm really looking forward to "Last Night on Earth."

JH: It’s no problem. Thanks.



(Note: All images provided for this article were provided exclusively for Fortress: Ameritrash. I will publish them myself to Boardgamegeek.com at the end of the week.)




38 comments:

Pat H said...

Another fine scoop Ken, these are easily my favorite parts of this blog. I would like to know if in expansions the monster theme would be expanded upon - including different threats other than zombies.

Rliyen said...

Excellent article! Something to give Zombies!!! a run for its money!

notbillysparkles said...

Boy oh boy this gen con is turning out to be saaweeeet!

First Joel Yoder has agreed to tutor me and a few other guys in the art of playing MR, and now I'm totally pumped about trying the demo for LNOE.

Hot booth girl aside (talk about your shitty-ass jobs: "stand here and look pretty... oh and remember to hide your disgust as best you can...), this game looks like it involves some seriously good times.

I'll definately be dropping by to check this out.

vandemonium said...

Great interview Ken. Awesomeness abounds. I do have a complaint though. If you keep up writing good articles on upcoming games, I am going to have to go get them and my wife will be unhappy with me. Good going! Jerk. ;)

Russ Fade said...

Great!! Ken, you're becoming the Barbara Walters of F:AT! Ok, cheap laugh, but great interview none the less. I'm actually looking foward to this game. Please, gods of gaming, let this be a zombie game that doesn't suck! Hear the cries of your people!

::Slaughters Sacrificial Hamster as offering to the gaming gods::

adrianbolt said...

Thanks for the excellent interview. LNoE's creeping up in my estimation of whether to buy. I suspect it'll become a no-brainer must have!

Pat H said...

As long as the accompanying CD is just background music it will be great , and not an attempt to garner a musical score Academy Award.

Play a few rounds of Defcon on the PC to see what just a little of the right music can do for immersion.

StephenAvery said...

Nice Interview Ken, it took me a while to sound out all them words but I think I got the jist of it...

I'm alooking fer this ta com out so I kin kill me some zombies ...

Steve"Yehaa"Avery

ubarose said...

Thank you Ken and Jason. I've had my eye on this game for a while. The artwork makes me laugh. So who is going to play it first and write the review?

Matt Loter said...

So first I get the heads up on this game last week, and now as if that first tidbit wasn't enough to get me set on buying it, this interview gets me beyond stoked to pick this up. Awesome.

Muzza said...

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

Good interview.

Michael Barnes said...

Ken can be the Barbara Walters of the hobby so long as I get to be the Hunter Thompson.

Well done, all parties involved...I've sort of been ambivalent toward the game due to low expectations but the interview definitely makes me more interested. I really like to see folks put their heart into something and it looks like Jason's done just that. More importantly, his heart looks like it's in the right place, making something fun, exciting, and rewarding rather than the usual Eurogame clone cash-in that's become too common in the industry.

I gotta say though, I'm not convinced by the photographs. A buddy of mine once said "no game with real pictures of anything is any good". With the notable exception being QUEEN'S GAMBIT, of course. I like art in games...and yeah, photographs can be art but I think high quality artwork is more evocative and is somehow more immersive.

As for the CD, it's going to be a tough sell to get me to replace Goblin's ZOMBI: DAWN OF THE DEAD soundtrack as the zombie game music of choice. But it's definitely a fun addition. I mean, can you imagine if a game like THURN AND TAXIS had a CD?

While we're on the subject...you know, I thought MALL OF HORROR was just OK overall despite some kickass graphic design and some fun mechanics...but it had something that I think is really special amongst horror games. It really captured the Romero-esque concept of the zombie holocaust occuring almost as a backdrop to human interaction and survival...and the attendant human badness that comes with that. That was pretty neat...definitely something more than the usual chainsaw/shotgun vs. zombies affair.

Pat H said...

Pop culture has served as propaganda for the zombie overlords. They would have us believe that this zombie scourge is a one off blight that has apparently started for no reason. Wake up people...there are plans underway and the mindless shambling horde is just the spear tip of a greater malevolent menace.

I must say that I'll be distracted by a checker-pattern, blouse clad country Femme just about any day of the week. What was I talking about?

See what I mean.

The soundtrack to The Thing also works well for a horror themed game night. Some people find it dry but it creeps along.

neonpeon said...

There's a band called Zombi that's basically a wannabe Goblin...They're pretty good!

I personally could listen to The Gonk on loop throughout the entire game. By the end of the game everyone will have gone mad...Works for me.

dan daly said...

A buddy of mine once said "no game with real pictures of anything is any good".

Twilight Struggle?

Michael Barnes said...

Ha! Good point, Dan. May as well add PATHS OF GLORY on that "good games with photographs" list.

Michael Barnes said...

Neonpeon- thanks for jogging my memory...I had heard about that band but I couldn't remember what they were called. I'll definitely check 'em out.

It's funny, the other day I was listening to Goblin's theme from TENEBRE and my wife said "Is this Daft Punk"? And I realized how it did, in fact sound like Daft Punk. Or that Daft Punk sounds like it. Either way, there's another current French band called Justice that does a song that's basically a hacked-up remix of "Tenebre".

Ken B. said...

Something I noticed was that the zombies appear to have at least two different sculpts, and probably more.

Zombies!!! is full of plastic zombies but they do look a little silly in a congo line with the "Heyhowareya?" handshake sticking out there.


"Hey! How are ya! I'm gonna suck your brains, dontchaknow?"

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