Join us as we welcome Jay Cormier and Sen Foong-Lim to the interview table. Collectively Jay and Sen make up the Bamboozle Brothers board game design team responsible for Belfort, Akrotiri, Orphan Black, Junk Art, and now Godfather: A New Don.
MM: Hey you two, what games have you been playing lately?
Jay: I just played Scythe for the first time this past week. It was definitely a lot of learning. I made a lot of mistakes and a lot of strategies based on misunderstandings of the rules. That colored my enjoyment of it. so I’d need another play to understand it.
Sen: Games that I’m working on I’ve played lately. Other than that, Mechs vs. Minions, Mystic Vale, Clank.
Jay: Is Mystic Vale any good?
Sen: Meh, it’s okay. It’s an intriguing system and I’d love to see more of it. I’m not sure if they presented their best game the first time around. The card crafting is really cool. It’s just a race to get the most points out of a pool until there are no points left. It’s interesting mechanically, but not a tense game. I hear with the expansion that’s already out that it improves the game.
The same thing happened to us with Tortuga. The rules weren’t…as we intended them to be. They made a bunch of changes and we didn’t have the ability or time to test the changes. It ended up kind of messing with the game.
MM: Tortuga was fairly early in your career. Do you have anything in your contracts now that can help prevent that from happening?
Sen: Written into our contracts? Not really.
Jay: The publisher literally has last rights. We’re not really powerful enough or popular enough to have veto power. I don’t even know if Eric Lang or Reiner Knizia has that or not, or at least to that degree.
The Design Process
MM: The two of you have designed some really notable and distinct games. Belfort, Akrotiri, Orphan Black, Junk Art, and now Godfather: A New Don. Can you talk to me about your design process?
Jay: I think you mean amazing games.
Sen: With most of the games on that list, or half of them it was “can you make us this game in a month and a half?” Those are weird ones, good but weird because the pressure comes from a different place. When Jay and I are working on an original project, like Junk Art, it’s a longer development and design process. We use our own forum where we collect information and data. We have reams of ideas where we’ll write an idea a day and then from those ideas little things would spin off that would eventually become big things. If only one of us is interested in an idea, it tends to die. So we focus on the ones that we both like. If Jay likes an idea and I don’t, then it doesn’t get done…and the reverse is true as well.
Jay: But if one of us feels really passionate, then we might prototype it and try to convince the other person.
Sen: The other thing we have to do is to really articulate our ideas well because we’re rarely face to face. Neither of us will sit there and go along for the ride. We’re very open with criticism and comments. “I don’t get what you’re saying, teach me…or use your webcam and show me.”
Jay: I think the key thing is that Sen and I were friends first, for over 20 years, and then we decided to make games together. And also we both have the same goals. We both want to make games, any kind of games. The fact that we were friends first makes everything else smooth.
MM: That makes sense looking at the list of games you’ve published. So many different sorts of games, from card driven games, to dexterity games, games with modular boards, and everything in between. You care about “games”, and not just a specific type of game.
Jay: Back in the early days when we first got started, I would take a bunch of sales sheets to publisher booths at conventions, before I knew you should contact publishers in advance. We realized that we should be prepared…we should have a dexterity game, and a kids game, and a euro game so that we have something for everybody.
Microgames and Design Constraints
MM: I’m gonna hit the wayback machine and ask you about “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us”. I played it recently with some friends and really enjoyed it. I find the concept of microgames fascinating; the design constraints, personal choices, etc. Can you tell me how that game came about?
Jay: It actually came about before we went to our first convention. We were so new, that we wanted to send letters to publishers and also include a little game that they could have. We’re not pitching the game, we’re just giving it to them.
Sen: Like our calling card, like a business card.
Jay: We decided to give ourselves a design constraint of 25 tiles. One of the trips I had coming home from Sen’s I started jotting down a bunch of notes about more of these 25 tile games. One of them ended up becoming “This Town Ain’t Big Enough”. I don’t even remember how we came up with the name.
Sen: It was right after decided that the theme was fences and cowboys.
Jay: Right. Both Belfort and Akrotiri started as 25 tiles. So there’s a lot of ideas that stemmed from this constraint of 25 tiles, but “This Town Ain’t Big Enough” is the only one that stayed that size.
MM: You work with a lot of different publishers. When you shop games, do you have a specific publisher in mind for certain games? Or do you design a game and pitch it to anyone who might be interested?
Sen: A few of our games are requests from publishers so that’s a little bit different. Generally speaking we make a game, but then we do a lot of research into which publisher this would fit with best. What does their back catalog already have, what is their biggest success, or what is the hole in their catalog.
Jay: I’ve shot ourselves in the foot a few times with that. We sometimes have 5-8 games that we’re pitching at a time. I remember pitching our list of games to a publisher and I’d go “this one’s not for you because it’s a party game”. And I just assumed that since they’d never done a party game that they wouldn’t be interested. But they asked us to show them, and they signed it.
Sen: Just knowing who to go to, and who does what, and what they might like. It’s something I do a lot of when I’m researching the companies. Because we’re a team, Jay does some things, and I do somethings. We each have our own speciality, which is good because there’d be too much overlap.
Jay is the one who usually does the verbal pitching and then I’ll usually feed Jay the ideas. It always works quite well. Jay has experience as a salesman and has a good “patter” which gives him good face to face sales skills. While Jay is talking I’ll set stuff up, when he’s done I’ll clean up, I’ll hand the forms over.
Jay: You only have so much time with the publisher usually. So if we’ve got 8 games that we want to get through and we think there are 6 games that might be good for the publisher. If I get a hint that they’re whiffing on this I’ll ask them. “Do you want to know more about this, or do you want to move on to the next one?” I don’t want to waste time on it either right?
There’s some publishers that are super blunt and I love them for it. Some might get defensive about it, but I think it’s cool.
MM: That makes total sense. You’re there to pitch games, not waste time.
Godfather: A New Don
MM: You just released another new game called Godfather: A New Don. This game could have had just about any theme, why The Godfather?
Sen: We were asked to make it! [laughing]
Jay: We were literally asked to make The Godfather and we said “yeah that’s awesome, what are you looking for?”. The publisher said “either a dice game, or an area control game”. At first we thought of dice and “make me a offer I can’t refuse”. So you’d offer dice to the Godfather.
Sen: We actually made two prototypes.
Jay: There were just tracks, you’d roll and get sets and move up tracks. Eventually we thought this was silly, it should be maps. It’s so not thematic. Then slowly we realized that we were merging the two mechanics together. One of our biggest goals was mitigating luck. We just wanted the players to have as much agency and control over the outcome as possible. Every single roll in The Godfather will do something for you, nothing is garbage. There’s some take that, but even in the take that you get a little reward. You can get sent to sleep with the fishes, but even in the river you get a special power that you can use later.
MM: Did you have anything to do with the licensing for the game from Mario Puzo’s estate, or did your publisher handle that aspect?
Sen: The publisher almost always takes care of that, we just hear about the end result. We’re actually sitting on a couple of things right now that are waiting on licensor approval. That’s probably the worst part of the whole thing. We’ve had projects which got axed completely because of licensing.
Jay: What I like most about licensing is when the publisher gives us specific things we can and cannot do. With our upcoming Godzilla game for example, Godzilla can never talk, Godzilla can never be shown killing a person, ever. He can smash buildings and tanks but you can never show people dying.
Sen: Yeah, like Godzilla will never have people in his claws or mouth or shoot people with radioactive beams.
Jay: With Godfather we were only allowed to use Marlon Brando’s silhouette. So that limited things quite a bit, but we were fine with it.
Sen: It [The Godfather] is a neat design. It’s not dripping in theme, but that’s okay. It’s got enough theme that everything makes mechanical sense. It’s a really neat game because with 4 players you can knock off the game in 45 minutes, easy.
MM: That’s my sweet spot.
Sen: There’s a flip side of the board so it can handle up to 6 players and only takes 10-15 minutes more. So with 6 players you can play it in an hour. It’s fast, it’s furious, and you’re guaranteed to want cannoli after. If you like area control, and you don’t mind dice, this is a great game. The dice aren’t really dice, I mean they don’t work like dice. There’s so many ways to mitigate. There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of jockeying for position.
It’s a really good dice game for the length of time, for the depth of play. It’s not like any other dice game that I know of.
Jay: You can start playing within 10 minutes. It’s easy for newbies to get started but it also has a lot of depth for gamers.
MM: Sounds right up my alley. Dice, area control, dice that aren’t used as dice, and games that are under an hour! Quality is important, but I’d rather play two or three one hour games rather than 1 three hour game.
New Games on the Horizon
MM: You’ve got some solid games that have either just released (D&D: Rock Paper Wizard) or are coming out soon (Powers and Godzilla), plus more lined up for 2018. What can you tell us about these games?
Sen: Rock Paper Wizard just came out. Wizkids did a bang up job getting it printed and released.
Jay: And it’s a D&D game. We got a D&D game!
Sen: Our Bamboozled “cousin”, Josh Cappell, was our 3rd designer on Rock Paper Wizard and also did the art on Belfort. We’ve been friends since Belfort and we finally got to design a game together.
Jay: Rock Paper Wizard is such a great social party game where it gathers people to your table because they’re wondering “What are you guys doing?” You’re casting these hand gestures at your opponents trying to do damage to them, or steal their coins and whoever ends up with 25 gold pieces first wins. Every round a new spell goes out of the of the deck and a new spell comes in. So there’s deduction because you’re trying to get into people’s heads and figure out what they’re doing. It’s a terrific stocking stuffer for people who like games.
MM: So tell me about Powers.
Sen: Powers is a hidden movement game, one against money. Think Letters to Whitechapel, Nuns on the Run, Scotland Yard except it’s based on detective police procedural comic where superpowers are illegal. It’s actually based on a comic by Brian Michael Bendis. It’s one of my favorite comic series. Critically acclaimed but not as widely known as Spiderman or something.
The story is that you’re detectives trying to find a villain moving around on a map, committing crimes. The police will get information as the game goes on and the villain is trying to make it to the end of the turn track. As they commit crimes the number of turns they have left reduces. So they’re really motivated to commit crimes. There’s a lot of bluffing and second guessing.
Jay: What’s great about it is that the detectives don’t even know what super power you have.
MM: And tell me about Godzilla.
Sen: It’s a card dueling game. There’s some really cool stuff in it based on how cards link up and how battles are resolved. We have a mechanic called the “battle line” where all the cards go into the battle line and are linked to each other by these icons on the side of the cards. Depending on the combinations of the icons, different things happen. So if Jay plays a card I might be able to block him based on how our icons connect, or I might be able to get a secondary attack.
Jay: Basically I would play Godzilla and you would play as MUTO or Rodan or one of the kaiju. Your deck is your health and if you can’t draw cards then you lose. But there’s also another win condition called dominance, which some of the cards provide. At the end of a battle if you get three supremacy tokens based on dominance then you win the game.
Sen: You can also evolve your kaiju so you can level up and get new powers.
Jay: The same cards in your hand become more powerful as you evolve. So there’s a lot of decisions on when to evolve.
MM: I’m a big fan of games which force you to choose when to use cards, or when to spend cards. You literally agonize over a 5 card hand. I want to play this one, AND this one, but I have to spend this to get that!
Sen: Have you ever played Magic?
MM: I haven’t.
Sen: Are you serious?
Jay: How did you avoid that?
MM: I didn’t really get into board gaming until about 3 or 4 years ago. I played all the time as a kid with my parents, but not really again until just a few years ago.
Sen: In some games once your cards are discarded you never really get them back. There’s a few cool cards in each monster’s deck that represent their very coolest attack and really characterize that beast. We wanted to make sure players got to use those cards, giving them the ability to fish them out of their deck later in the game. And it’s just a card game.
The Speed Round
MM: Sounds great. Okay, we’re going to try something new called the speed round. I’m gonna ask some questions. You answer them in as few words as possible, without thinking too long. These are all about getting to know you two! Answer the following questions as fast as you can, in as few words as you can. No going back and changing your mind! 😀
MM: What’s the best thing about your city?
Jay: Weather. Beach. Mountains. (Vancouver, B.C.)
Sen: Really flat. (London, Ontario)
MM: What country in the world would you love to visit?
Jay: I’ve already visited all of the ones that were on my bucket list.
Sen: Germany. Japan. Brazil.
MM: What artist would you most love to work with? Doesn’t have to be a board game artist.
Jay: Drew Struzan (illustrator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie posters)
Sen: Geof Darrow (comic book artist)
MM: What’s in your pockets right now?
Jay: I’m at home so nothing.
Sen: I’m wearing a jacket, so gloves and earbuds.
MM: What historical figure (living or dead) would you most love to play a game with, and what game would it be?
Jay: Any party game with a young Steve Martin.
Sen: I don’t know!
MM: What game most made you want to become a game designer?
Jay: Car Wars. It was such a print and play game. You had to cut things out, and move things around on a grid.
Sen: I have no clue. For me it would be a combination of D&D and Magic the Gathering.
MM: What’s your favorite thing about working with your partner?
Jay: The proliferation of ideas. It just never stops with Sen.
Sen: Jay is an action guy. He takes action which is great because I usually just sit and think. We literally complete each other in a lot of ways. I’m the small spoon, he’s the big spoon.
MM: If you could live in any era in time, when would it be?
Jay: I want to keep living the 80s over again.
Sen: Same here!
MM: What’s your favorite game of all time?
Jay: I used to say Tikal. It literally might be Time’s Up because I play it so much.
Sen: For me, it would be Basari. It’s an amazing negotiation game. If not Basari it would be Out of the Box by Sid Sackson.
Thanks to both of you for your time. We loved chatting with the two of you and getting to know more about you. Check out Part Two of the Bamboozle Brothers interview where we zoom in on Junk Art and find out just how old that game is!
What do you think about Bamboozle Brothers Interview – Part One? Give us your opinions in the comments below!