November Guest Interview – Tom Lehmann

Written by Alex Harkey

rftgThis month we’re extremely excited to be joined by Tom Lehmann who joins us to chat about his design philosophy, collaborations with other designers and a few of his upcoming projects including Roll for the Galaxy. There is so much I want to cover so let’s jump right in.

Games Precipice: Welcome Tom, thank you for taking the time to join us. I’m curious, what initially sparked your passion for board games?

Thank for asking. I grew up overseas (Tunisia, Indonesia, and Korea) and around DC. We had very few board games, so we played them to death and invented house rules for them. This segued naturally into designing games when I was 14.

GP: What were your initial steps into a career in designing games? How did you transition into designing full-time?

Initially, I tried to be a publisher/designer, with Prism Games back in the 90s. I was a better designer than businessman, so I shifted to free-lance design, working on games one day a week while working 80% in high tech. With Race for the Galaxy‘s success, I became a full-time designer in 2008.

GP: How many projects or designs do you prefer to work on at once?

I think of designing/creating prototypes, testing/submission, and readying for publication as three separate “tiers” of activity. I usually have 2-4 games in each tier at any given time. Ideally, as a game comes off one tier, another game enters it, so I have a steady flow of games through my “creative pipeline” and entering the market, to earn royalties and pay bills.

GP: With so many creative endeavors, managing your time is probably a game in itself.  How would you describe your typical work process?

As a full-time free-lance designer, my time is split five ways:

  • Assisting publishers in readying games for publication: proofing, commenting on artwork/theme, and discussing test results and whether play changes are needed. Publishers vary in whether they include designers in this process. Responding quickly to proof requests is a good way to get a seat at the table.
  • Testing games and readying them for submission. Once a game works, there is balancing and streamlining to do, as well as improving the graphics and writing — and rewriting — rules and player aids.
  • Actually designing games. I sit in a tea shop, stare blankly out the window, and evolve ideas on my clipboard. That’s fun, so I try to do this at least two afternoons a week. One measure for how well I am doing is if I can make it to the tea shop to work on a design I am excited about. That’s my reward for getting other tasks done.
  • Creating prototypes. I slave over a hot computer creating dice icons, cards, counters, boards, etc. I turn my design sketches into reality, revising for consistency and cross-checking balance, terminology, and layout as I go. I then print this on label stock, cut the sheets up, and mount them as needed.
  • The business side: presenting to publishers, reviewing contracts, fielding inquiries, creating and mailing submission copies, answering questions online, doing interviews, etc. Consultants say that only half their time is spent doing work, while the rest is drumming up new business. The ratio isn’t as bad in the games industry, but it still takes 1-3 hours most days.
GP: You’ve been designing games for over 20 years. How has your design process changed?

My first version still has bone-headed errors, but these days, most games snap into focus after one just major revision. This often surprises my testers, to see a game go from an unworkable mess to 90% done in the span of a week.

This is where my years of experience counts. I catch many errors on my clipboard or when creating the first prototype that would have taken me five iterations in the past.

However, I still can’t avoid that first messy playtest where I realize I got something wrong or that something is missing. It’s why my first questions to testers are still: “Is there a game here?” and “Did I find it?”

GP: That efficiency is certainly on display in both 2014 and 2015. How has your schedule been unfolding and what new games can we be looking forward to trying in the near future?

Ciúb and Roll through the Ages: Iron Age both premiered at Essen this year. Next is Roll for the Galaxy, a co-design with Wei-Hwa Huang, followed by Xeno Invasion and State of Emergency, the next Race for the Galaxy and Pandemic expansions, respectively, in early 2015.

GP: What were some of your highlights from Essen this year?

cuib

Doing the live preview of Ciúb with my Amigo product manager, Christian Hildenbrand, and Beth Heile from BGG; a signing session with Matt Leacock for Roll through the Ages: the Iron Age at the Pegasus booth, and teaching RTTA: IA to some gamers at the Eagle booth.

In all three cases, we actually played the game (or part of it), instead of just explaining it or sitting around between signings. There was laughter and fun, which is important to maintain amidst all the business at Essen.

Similarly, I spent two evenings testing my latest prototypes with European friends. I value the chance to get their reactions.

GP: You’ve collaborated with several designers, including Matt Leacock in recent years on several Pandemic expansions (On the Brink, In the Lab, and now the upcoming State of Emergency). What interesting differences have you found from working with a co-designer versus your other projects where you’ve been the sole designer?

pandemicotb

I’ve done games with Jim Hlavaty, Matt Leacock, Joe Huber, and Wei-Hwa Huang so far. Each was different.

Wei-Hwa, for example, wanted to do all the work himself, so I functioned as an “editor” for him on Roll for the Galaxy, critiquing his work, serving as sounding board, and helping solve problems that arose.

starshipmerchants

With Pandemic, that’s Matt’s “baby”, so he called the shots for its On the Brink expansion. 2038 with Jim and Starship Merchants with Joe were much more collaborative, where we sat down together and created those games.

For me, the best thing about co-designs is the opportunity to learn.

Matt cares a lot about verbs, nouns, and actions. We spent a lot of time honing and simplifying the actions for In the Lab: Sequence a Disease, Process a Sample, Test Vaccine, etc. If your language is clear, it helps players visualize what they are doing. I’ve since paid more attention to this in my own games.

pandemicitl

I’ve also adapted systems from other designers, such as Francis Tresham’s 18xx for 1846, Matt’s RttA for the Iron Age, and Bernd Brunnhofer’s St. Petersburg for its New Society expansion. Here, I do my best to honor the essence of the original design, while extending it in new directions.

Sometimes, compromises are involved. For example, in RttA:IA, I wanted a larger scale, so the disaster dice come with 1 population (refugees) and 1 good (what they salvage and bring with them), instead of the Bronze Age‘s 2 goods.

That’s slightly messier from a UI/UX perspective: you can’t collect the goods on a die, resolve disasters, and then set the die aside; instead, you must retain it until you spend your population. I believe this is ok for a better “story” and to ensure a trickle of population into empires. Matt would probably disagree.

GP: Speaking of On the Brink, how did you arrive at its “modular” design?

pandemicsoe

It came naturally from the ideas we started with (new roles and events, a fifth disease, extra strength diseases, a bio-terrorist, etc.). We had more ideas, but we removed them from OTB as Matt wanted a very clean expansion structure.

One idea pulled from both OTB and ITL will be finally making its appearance in State of Emergency, where we have an appropriate place for it.

GP: Roll for the Galaxy has been on our wishlist since we first heard about it. What was the inspiration behind developing Race for the Galaxy into a dice game?

Someone submitted a prospective RFTG dice game to Jay Tummelson. Wei-Hwa and I played it, looked at each other, and said, “This is nice, but it isn’t the Race for the Galaxy dice game.”

I was busy on other projects, so Wei-Hwa started working on his version.

GP: I would have never guessed that was the case, how did it develop in the early stages?
[Editor’s Note: Check out Wei-Hwa’s designer diary on BGG if you missed it.]

rftg

After Wei-Hwa got something working, I stepped in and noted that the first several turns were all spent doing the same thing: bootstrapping your dice pool. I asked Wei-Hwa to chop these turns. After some heated discussion, we put our heads together and came up with the faction tiles, so players hit the ground running.

Later, Wei-Hwa got stuck. Settling lots of cheap worlds was just better than settling expensive ones (given that they take fewer dice, don’t have powers, and their costs and victory points were the same). I suggested adding rebates to expensive worlds. Rebates reduce the expensive worlds’ effective cost per VP, but not the dice needed to build them, creating an interesting trade-off.

GP: One of our upcoming article series is going to deal with pacing and downtime in games. How did you balance RFTG pacing in terms of both how long you wanted the race to be and how fast you wanted it to be run?

Race for the Galaxy

That mostly came from the Puerto Rico card game prototype that I did (at Alea’s request). For it, I developed a lot of mechanics that Alea used in San Juan and which I reused in Race: the scaled down 1-6 cost structure, discards being face down, cards as goods, etc.

Late in RFTG‘s development, we double-checked the pacing. We tested ending the game at either 10 or 14 card tableau sizes, to see if it would play better. We found that 12 was the sweet spot. Often a player can catch another player who would have won if the game ended at 10 cards in tableau, but the game lead rarely changed after the 12th card in tableau.

I believe in erring on the short side. Keep your players wanting more. Too many games overstay their welcome. Instead, add replay variety to encourage players to play again.

GP: It’s always frustrating in strategy games to sit and watch other players take their turns, but RFTG does a great job of avoiding this inconvenience through simultaneous actions. What are some considerations when designing a game with overlapping, rather than sequential, actions?

You need to eliminate open but mostly unimportant information that some players might stare at forever, halting play. Similarly, you need to collapse sub-steps. If you don’t, some players will insist on serializing them as it might possibly change their plans. This is why in RFTG, discards are face down, goods come from the deck unseen, powers don’t take effect immediately, and takeovers can’t affect newly placed worlds.

Combat is quite tricky, as players want to react to each other. However, this really slows down play in a 4 or 5 player game, especially if you have multiple battles going on. Players who mostly play 2-player have a hard time understanding and accepting this, but takeovers need to work as they do for the game to scale well.

When designing simultaneous systems, you need to identify your synchronization points and put your options and reactions there. In Race, the main synchronization point is when the selected phases are revealed. So, calling Settle effectively threatens an attack, while calling Develop and placing a development that increases your Military is a defense (that may dissuade a player from attempting a takeover when Settle occurs).

Adding more options to the actual takeover sequence would mostly just slow down play, without altering this fundamental threat/defense interaction. Why do this?

GP: One of the different mechanics between RFTG and Roll for the Galaxy is the addition of workers, in the form of dice. Would it be fair to consider Roll a “worker placement” game?

rftgdice

No. Even though some of your dice can get locked up when building an expensive development or world, it’s really a worker efficiency game.

You want more of your dice to do something constructive for you every turn by correctly anticipating your opponent’s phase choices. If you don’t, they go back in your dice cup unused until your next turn, instead of doing something and then possibly being recruited back into your cup.

GP: What are some changes that longtime Race fans can expect to see in Roll for the Galaxy?

Military is highly abstracted via the red “Military”dice. The ability to produce and then ship in a single round leads to lots of interesting guessing games. Much deeper exploration is possible by churning tiles in successive Scout actions.

GP: As a seasoned designer what inspires new game ideas?

Ideas aren’t the problem; I have over 50 game ideas in my ideas file, many of which are partially sketched out. The tricky thing is finding time to do them.

Generally, I don’t start detailed design until I have a theme or title, some visual image, and a core mechanism.

GP: Do you use any shortcuts or identifiable factors to help you determine whether an idea is worth pursuing?

I like variety and have a wide range. If I’ve done some card games recently, then I’m more interested in a board or dice game. Same for complexity levels.

Another factor is if a company is actively interested in doing a game with me. Then I’ll pitch some ideas. If we find one that’s mutually interesting, it’s likely to make it onto my todo list.

Conversely, if a company keeps rejecting games — say, they’re not willing to invest in the artwork needed for a game or try something risky — then I’m less likely to do games for them.

Since publishers don’t pay true advances (before a game is done and accepted), I bear most of the risk if a project falls through, so I’d rather work with someone willing to share those risks and believe in me (as Jay Tummelson did with Race for the Galaxy).

Games that push design boundaries are always interesting. Sometimes, the mechanism part of a game will emerge from me thinking about a general design problem: for example, how to make varied cards equal in power without using a cost mechanism.

Once a year, I try to do a game (such as an abstract, dexterity, party, or physical game) not within my usual range, just to stretch my skills.

GP: Can you share with us anything about your other upcoming dice games, Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age and Ciúb?

Dice games are a hard sale since many strategy gamers don’t take them seriously, due to their inherent luck. They play them only as fast fillers. So, do you cater to these gamers by just designing a filler or do you put in more strategy and then hope that enough gamers will actually engage with it?

Ciúb had a further challenge since it must also work as a family game. I believe its core tension between building your future dice pool vs claiming a card this turn is compelling, while its options to reserve, block, or discard cards, and hoard or “repaint” dice give gamers lots of interesting decisions.

rttaia

Roll Through the Ages: the Iron Age was a real design challenge, given that the Bronze Age is in print and a heavier version already exists in its print and play Late Bronze Age expansion. I decided to contrast the various ways empires were built during the Iron Age: Roman military expansion vs Phoenician/Carthaginian trade empires vs the Greek mixture of both.

For more details, see my kickstarter article for RttA: IA and my BGG Ciúb designer preview.

The Precipice of Conclusion: The Lightning Round

  • Which of your games do you play most frequently?

phoenicia

RFTG, The City, and Fast Food Franchise. I wish I got to play Phoenicia more; I think it’s a really good 75 minute auction/expansion game for 4 skilled players.

1846 is played frequently by 18xx players. I like it, but now I get my butt kicked, as everyone is so much more experienced than me!

Often when I do play one of my games, I remember what I liked about it when I developed it and then get all excited again. This happened the last time I played Age of Exploration or Suzerain.

Among my older games that haven’t found a publisher yet, I play Cards on the Table and Winter Court a lot. I understand why CotT hasn’t got published — it’s tied to a licensed property — but Winter Court is one of my more frustrating no-sale games.

Winter Court is a 2-player game, which is always a hard sale. When I play it with someone or couples borrow it and play it, they tell me they like it, but I keep having product managers turn it down. Ah, well. Someday…

  • Aside from Race for the Galaxy, of course, what’s the best space-themed game out there?

I haven’t found one I like. Eclipse‘s system design is far better than my earlier Throneworld. However, I think Throneworld does a better job handling the player dynamics. By Eclipse being a fixed length, instead of dependent on player actions, players can be efficient and then have nothing to do but tit-for-tat attacks for the last half of the game. Bleah.

  • Well now I want to know more: what are some recent games that you’ve liked?

I’m always behind on the latest games… Navegador (75+ plays) and Russian Railroads (25+ plays) are favorites. I enjoyed exploring Hansa Teutonica‘s first expansion (much better than the base game, imo), Sekigahara, Tzolk’in, Lewis & Clark and Concordia. I loved Netrunner, so I’d play Android if I had more time.

Terra Mystica is unbalanced, but it’s the best “bad” game I’ve had fun playing in a while (before it, Shipyard headed this category). I’m curious if Fire and Ice [expansion] will help matters.

  • What are some older titles you enjoy?

Can’t Stop, Tichu, 6 Nimmdt, Great Dalmuti, Air Baron, Ave Caesar, Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, Princes of Florence, St. Petersburg, Thurn & Taxis (Princess expansion), Attika (3 only), Caylus (3 only), Qwirkle (2 only), Ingenious (3 or 4), and Dominion all get played regularly.

  • When an aspiring designer approaches you, what one tip you could give that has helped you reach your immense level of success?

Immense level of success? I think of Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, Alan Moon, Wolfgang Kramer, Donald Vaccarino, Matt Leacock, or Susan McKinley Ross, all of whom have had more success than me, either via one very successful game (and expansions) or many successful designs.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’m extremely happy that I’m able to make a living doing creative work I enjoy. But, I think of myself as plugging away, improving my craft, mostly breaking even each year, and slowly creating a body of work.

Back to your question, I believe aspiring designers should hone their craft by first actually finishing several games for practice and playing them with strangers. The feedback you get will be invaluable. Don’t worry about these first games being derivative; this is just to get actual hands on experience.

After doing this, they should follow their passion by creating a game that they love and which others enjoy. Pitch that game to publishers, as their passion and enthusiasm will come through.

  • What is one idea you feel is underutilized in game design?

Hmm… how about if I flip this question around?

I believe VPs are overused. If, say, the theme is to build a kingdom, then why not make that the winning condition? Why surround it with a bunch of “point salad” scoring?

VPs are useful when trying to balance disparate play actions. For example, in American football, VPs balance running, passing, and kicking. But, the moment you introduce VPs, players concentrate on them, not the underlying activities they reward. This can result in very “gamey” behavior.

Let’s say you have a game connecting cities into a transportation network. Why not make its goal to be first to connect either 12 cities or 3 of 5 major cities?

On the other hand, if you are trying to balance long-haul and regional networks, along with passenger service vs industrial freight, then VPs could make sense.

I’m not saying VPs shouldn’t be used. They are often the correct tool. But, when you do use them, you should first ask yourself, “Are they really needed?”

  • What is the most recent game innovation that made you say “Wow”?

Mike Fitzgerald’s action/reaction system in Baseball Highlights 2045.

  • Do you have any designers in mind you would love to work with in the future?

At one point, Reiner and I discussed doing a game together. That would have either been great fun or a horrible experience, I don’t know which. Reiner wisely chose to not find out and to concentrate on his own designs.

I’d love to do a game with Richard Garfield, Vlaada Chvatil, Friedemann Friese, William Attia, or Mike Fitzgerald. In some cases, I believe I’d learn a lot and, in other cases, just for the fun of it.

I’d also like to actually do a game with Matt someday, starting from scratch. Mostly, we’ve either worked separately or I’ve been extending his systems.

Working together is harder than it looks, especially for experienced designers, as designers — like authors — over time develop their own “voices” and design styles. It can be tricky to meld two different voices into one harmonious result.

For this reason, most of the above probably wouldn’t work if we did try to do a game together. Most of us have distinct styles.

When designers test each other’s games, they can often use shorthand, like “uneasy co-operation” or “the voting problem”, and know that the other designer “gets” what they’re saying.

I’ve tested some of Friedemann’s designs. I’ll bring up an issue, Friedemann will say, “Yes, yes” and point out something that produces a counter effect. I’ll suggest a way to balance these effects differently and reduce the issue that’s bugging me and Friedemann will respond, “Yes, that would work, but I want this effect instead.” In these cases, it’s a judgement call. It’s Friedemann’s game, so he’s the judge.

In some fantasy world where I spoke fluent German, I’d love to do a game with Wolfgang Kramer, Karl-Heinz Schmiel, or Bernd Brunnhofer. Bernd and I would argue endlessly and we’d probably end up each designing a half-dozen games by ourselves to prove the other wrong, but we’d have great fun doing so! ;-)

Alex: We want to thank Tom again for providing us his time and providing remarkable insight into his thoughts as a game designer. It is a privilege to learn so much from an established designer and I am extremely appreciative of Tom’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness throughout our interactions. We’re excited to get his upcoming games to the table in the months ahead. For more information, clicking on each of the images in this interview will take you directly to the game pages on Boardgamegeek.
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