Inspiration, Kickstarter, and Rocket Science: Chewing the Fat with Game Designer Gary Chavez

Interested in board game design, navigating Kickstarter and where game ideas come from? Check out the second half of our interview with game designer Gary Chavez!

Gary Chavez is an aerospace engineer by day and a board game designer by night. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife and two daughters, enjoys salsa dancing and writes tips about game design (you can check out Gary’s articles here).

Gary’s upcoming game Saints & Scoundrels is a pulp era detective themed bluffing card game for 2-6 players and is currently live on Kickstarter here. In the second and final part of our interview, Gary discusses designing board games and the Kickstarter process. If you haven’t already, check out the first part of our interview about Saints & Scoundrels.

You were an aerospace engineer in the Air Force for 20 years, how do you think this has impacted on your approach to game design?

There’s a concept in the military called the OODA Loop – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – and it’s a concept that means you see something, then you process it and decide what it means, then you decide what to do and then you move forward with the plan. It’s very good for war strategies, but it’s also very good for games. Say you’re playing chess, someone makes a move, you observe it, you figure out what it means for your position and then you decide a move and act. It goes for all games – every time someone makes a move they change the state of what you observe and you are constantly going through this OODA loop and with game design you can improve the game by improving the OODA loop.

I’m a big fan of being able to understand instantly the state of the game and where you are. For instance, I really like the game Coup but one of the things I don’t like is the use of the coins. When you’re deciding who you are going to attack or question, you’ve got to look around and count who has how many coins – it takes a while to process. What Saints & Scoundrels does is use the evidence track so you can see the relative positions of the players and you instantly know who’s ahead and who needs to do what to catch up. Using the OODA loop really helped me understand and develop that aspect.

I tried to introduce the OODA loop to some of my game design friends and they just waved it off, but for me having that experience of the military has really helped with the design and also there’s a lot of networking that happens in the military too and using those skills to network among other game designers has been very helpful.

How important is having a network of other game designers?

It’s very nice. We all support each other, every time one of the designers comes out with their own Kickstarter I’m always supporting it. There have been times when I’ve pitched a game to a publisher at a convention (my previous game Battlecats). That game plays best at 3-4 players so I was able to grab one of my design buddies and he was willing to spare half an hour to help me pitch to the publisher. It was great that I had a network enough to support me – the general community of game designers is very supportive.

I also interviewed a lot of fellow designers on the GC Rocket Science YouTube channel. I think having them say ‘here was this obstacle and here is how I overcame it’, it’s important to let people know that every designer goes through this. Eventually if you just keep at it you’ll figure out a way.

What about at home, what do your wife and daughters think of your hobby designing games?

My 5 year old, she knows what’s going on and we’ve ‘played’ Saints & Scoundrels by just looking at the cards and moving pieces but the 9 year old, she can play it properly. My wife has been extremely supportive, she knows she married someone who has very creative tendencies, and she’s been very supportive and very interested in all the stuff you have to do as a designer – networking and marketing etc. I’ve always been very careful that this is just a hobby and family comes first but at the same time there’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen for marketing. But she’s been very, very supportive, I’m very lucky to have a wife that understands what I need to go through to make Saints & Scoundrels a success.

How has the process of setting up the Kickstarter page been for you?

Note that this interview was conducted 2 weeks prior to the Saints & Scoundrels Kickstarter launch

I’ve been looking at my pledge levels – for Saints & Scoundrels there’s a basic pledge where you just get the game, but there’s also a premium level where you get the game and some extras: an upgraded game board and a new expansion. And then there’s the level where you can get your picture in the game. I wanted to offer that, there are so many people who asked me about it so I figured out a way for how to do that and that’s going to be the $150 level. I’ve already had someone approach me at a convention last year and ask me if it was possible to reserve a spot at the $150 level to get their picture in the game and my response was ‘if you’re willing to commit $150 now, a year before my Kickstarter, we’ll figure a way to make it happen!’.

It’s so competitive these days, you have to make a great Kickstarter campaign page engaging so I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to figure out how to make the page interesting. Then there’s the legal things you’ve got to do – I’ve just applied for an LLC – Limited Liability Company – to make sure legally that my finances for my family are separate from my finances for the game. Those are basically the 3 big things I’ve been working on, plus the video.

What was it like filming the video?

That was so much fun! A lot of the stuff for Saints & Scoundrels I’ve been doing on my own but I knew that the video itself had to be done professionally. People immediately know how much time and effort went into the campaign when they see a Kickstarter video and if you don’t have something that looks professional or semi-professional that’s just going to lower expectations and lower your audience numbers.

I approached some good friends of mine who are also fellow designers Danny and Elyse at  Polyrhythm Studio. I didn’t have anything big in mind but they came up with the idea of having something quite dramatic. I trust them completely so said ‘if you feel inspired by my game and want to go crazy with it then let’s do it!’ So they brought me to this unused jail (they swore me to secrecy about its location!) and found a friend of theirs who had a shaved head and they got the clothes for him so he looked like Dr Zyko and they found someone to be the detective and we spent a good 3 or 4 hours in the jail making the video. It was as creepy as you’d expect an unused jail to be, with all sorts of unsettling sounds. I was amazed and creeped out at the same time, it was a great experience!

Obviously you’ve got the expansion for backers at the premium level, are you planning any stretch goals or add ons?

For my first Kickstarter I’m trying to stay away from the stretch goals, that’s one of the dangers as a designer, you offer this and you offer that and you get a great response but now you gotta make it happen and that just adds more risk to the fulfilling of the Kickstarter. So my campaign is really built around low risk. I want to convey that to people – yeah, I’m a new designer and it’s a new design but I specifically chose the path of low risk to make sure that everyone is going to get what I tell them they are going to get, what I promised them.

So no stretch goals but I might offer other stuff – the game will be manufactured on Game Crafter so I might offer more stuff that will be on Game Crafter. In the game there is a deck of cards called the Case File Cards, which change the game up a little bit and give you bonuses. It’s basically 5 cards, 4 copies of each. But you can replace that deck with another set of 5 cards and change the game even more and so I’ll probably offer that on Game Crafter. I envisioned having 2 or 3 of these decks and so it’ll change the game just slightly, add a bit more variety. So no stretch goals but definitely future plans for expanding the Saints & Scoundrels game universe.

Talking about risks – I was wondering how you feel about the risk of launching a game on Kickstarter? Even if you’re confident and you’ve done all the groundwork and got really good responses it’s still a risk going onto Kickstarter and putting a game out there. How are you feeling about that? Are you nervous?

Oh sure, I’m nervous. Mostly I’m worried about over promising something. The reason that Saints & Scoundrels has come this far is that there are a lot of people supporting me who like the game and are looking forward to getting the game. The thing I would hate is to disappoint them, to not give them what they were promised so I’m always scared of that. Although I think the way I’ve managed the run up to the campaign and having this great network of people who’ve had successful Kickstarter projects – I’ve stacked the deck so that that won’t happen but it’s always in the back of my mind. That’s the last thing I want to do is disappoint the backers and disappoint the people who supported me this far. Anything could happen but I think I’ve done enough research and the game is made for low risk and the goal itself is low risk so I think I’ve done a lot to minimise the risk but the risk is still there.

I don’t envy you for when that first day comes around and it opens and you’re just waiting. What strategy have you got for maintaining momentum going through the campaign?

One of the great things is that there’s going to be a convention in Cincinnati during the mid-point of the campaign, called CinCityCon. Saints & Scoundrels was at the same convention last year and they’ve been very supportive of the design community in general. It’s a great convention to show Saints & Scoundrels off at mid-campaign. I also have reviews lined up and I have a live game play video on Unfiltered Gamer in advance of the campaign.

I’m hoping people will be supportive and there for me. I guess the best way to say it is that I’ve been trying to pay it forward, trying to be there for other people so that they’ll be there for me. But we’ll see, it’s going to be fun to roll the dice, the risk is part of the fun of this, you work so hard to line things up and you want to see how well that works out. So I’m excited to see it happen, a little scared too. I certainly have enough people in my corner to help me out if I need it.

Saints & Scoundrels is inspired by The Silence of the Lambs, does popular culture often inspire your game designs?

The theme of Battlecats was inspired by Thundercats. I originally conceived of it as having a cyber-punk theme with hacking but as I was doing the art they looked more like futuristic mug-shots, it was completely unexciting! My next thought was what art looks exciting and samurai cats came to mind – you’ve got claws and swords and jumping all over the place. The word Battlecats flashed into my head and it had such a nice ring to it. A lot of my games seem to be related somehow to Saturday morning cartoons – an important part of my childhood! I’m still looking for a publisher for Battlecats, I think it’s more a case of trying to find the right home for it. I’ve met a couple of publishers and they’re looking into it right now. We’ll see what happens.

Aside from Battlecats, are there any other games currently in development that you are excited by?

That’s a great question! After my experience with Saints & Scoundrels I’m starting to think that smaller games are probably what I want to go for. The smaller I can make a game and the wider the audience I can get for it the more chances I have of success.

So one game I’m thinking about is also inspired by a movie: Master and Commander with Russell Crowe. There’s a line in there where Russell’s character says ‘the lesser of two weevils’, which is a play on the saying ‘the lesser of two evils’. And I’ve been trying to figure out a card game where you give a choice to a player of two bad things that can happen and they have to decide on one. It would have a weevil theme to it and be called The Lesser of Two Weevils. It’s a funny line and immediately when you hear that you kinda understand that ‘oh, this will have me choosing between two bad things’.

As a designer you’re always coming up with game ideas. I was at lunch the other day with my co-workers and someone mentioned that they’re going to a tractor pull. If you don’t know, that’s where you have a tractor and there’s a huge device behind it, this piece of machinery that applies more resistance to the tractor the further it goes. So the contest is who can get their tractor to move the furthest. And apparently there’s this big community built around this kinda event and I started thinking ‘I don’t think there are enough tractor pull games, there might be some potential here for a game about tractor pulls!’ So every once and a while you hear this unique idea and you start thinking ‘maybe I can make a game out of that’. Inspiration can hit at any time.

It sounds almost like as a designer you’re more thematically-lead rather than coming up with a mechanic and trying to fit it to a theme?

It happens both ways. With Saints & Scoundrels the push your luck mechanic was there, and for Battlecats the mechanic was there first. But sometimes you hear the theme and you just think ‘hey, that could be something’. It just all depends, I don’t think there’s one set way. It’s the wonderful thing about being a creative person, sometimes an idea just hits you and you realise you can make something out of it.

You can be inspired in other ways too. On Game Crafter they’re offering a ‘Mint Tin Box’ – it’s an aluminium tin that you’d normally have mints in. I would love to put a game in one of those. The cost would be very low, but it would have a wide audience and it would be a very simple game. So I’m starting the thought process for how to make this, what game mechanics would be useful and in my head counting how many components I can use and still have a 2-4 player game. That’s an inspiring challenge!

You met your wife whilst you were teaching salsa dancing, are there enough games about dancing and are you tempted by the idea of a 2 player game about salsa?

I never thought about that before but that’s a terrific idea. It’s really not a theme that has been explored enough. You know, some of the most interesting conversations about dance I’ve had have been with martial artists. There’s actually a lot the two have in common – understanding on which foot your partner/opponent is carrying their weight, understanding how fast or slow your partner is moving and where they’re moving to, even understanding the emotional state of your partner. The major difference, of course, is martial arts is competitive while dancing is cooperative. It would be interesting to take a fighting mechanic and try putting a cooperative spin on it. I wonder if you’d get something that feels like a dancing game. You’ve got me thinking all kinds of stuff, now!

You’re company is GC Rocket Science Games, I’m assuming the GC is you, Gary Chavez, but what about the Rocket Science?

I had the GC Rocket Science domain purchased a long time ago, before I started designing games, just because as a creative person I always was doing something so wanted a website for it. Before this I was doing motion comics so I had those on there. I was also into role-playing games and I kinda wanted to make my own role-playing game world and I had it on my CG Rocket Science website. So when I started making games, since I already had the domain I figured I’d use that for the game stuff. The rocket science part – as an aerospace engineer that’s basically what I am so it seemed fitting!

I’m always interested in the type of game someone designs and the games they like to play, what’s your all time favourite game?

Oh wow, I grew up playing a game called Nuclear War with my cousins. That was probably my first exposure to modern gaming, I mean, of course, I played Monopoly and everything but Nuclear War was a fun game. It’s a game about blowing each other up with nuclear weapons and at the end of the game it’s possible that no one wins because everyone blew themselves up.

Right now my all time favourite game, as both a designer and as a player is King of Tokyo – I like games that you can play with any audience and it’s easy to explain. I mean nothing can beat the narrative and the colour of King of Tokyo, it just captures the imagination. You show people that it’s giant monsters and they’re fighting for the city and everyone understands what that is immediately. And then when you tell them that the mechanic is basically combat Yahtzee people get it.

The tactile feel of rolling dice is a wonderful thing. And the clacking… Sound in games is under appreciated. When a game makes a sound it adds to the enjoyment of the game. I have a friend designing a game about alien abduction and when you abduct a person you take one of their meeples and you throw it into a UFO container. It’s a plastic container so it makes a noise every time you throw it in. I said ‘do you understand how wonderful that sound is?’ Because when people hear it, they know they’re scoring, that’s the great part of the game and I don’t know that my friend had recognised it before it was pointed out. So clacking dice are great, anything with dice is going to get my attention. On the designer forums, it’s so funny, there are people who ask ‘should I use 1 die or two?’ and my philosophy is never use 1 die, you want the sound of two dice hitting each other! So that’s one of the reasons I love King of Tokyo, there’s’ just so many things as a designer and as a player that I love about it.

So, are you planning on having any games with dice in?

Yeah, I would love to design a dice placement game, although that’s sort of getting away from my simpler game designs. I mentioned before that I was making motion comics and I had made this comic called Omega Force, it was basically a take on GI Joe. As a military guy I’ve always liked the series and I don’t think there are a lot of cartoon military-type games out there. The good guy soldier vs. the bad guy megalomaniac I think is a really nice theme and you have dice placement games like One Deck Dungeon which has loads and loads of dice that you have to roll and I love that. So maybe I’ll get there at some point and merge that theme with dice placement but I’m focusing more on the smaller games right now.

I guess all your attention really at the moment is on launching Saints & Scoundrels?

Sure, but as a designer you’re always wanting to move onto the next thing, you’re so eager to move onto the next creative endeavour. So I have to discipline myself and say ‘ok, I know you want to make a new game but you have to focus in on your activity right now, you’ve got 2 weeks left’. It’s always very tempting to just grab the toolbox that I use for making prototypes and start playing around with dice and cards but I gotta fight the urge!

Finally, people only tend to spend 15-20 seconds on a Kickstarter page if they’re just dropping in, what’s the one key bit of information you want them to take away from the page?

Saints & Scoundrels is a great way to introduce modern gaming to non-gamers, it’s simple to learn, a lot of fun and it’s a great way for us to expand our gaming community!

Thanks Gary, it’s been fascinating talking with you. Gary’s upcoming game, Saints & Scoundrels, is live here until the 24th October 2019.

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About the author

Andrew Holmes

Andrew Holmes is a husband, father, scientist, poet and, of course, gamer who lives in Wales, works in England and owns a Scottish rugby shirt. He has never passed up a challenge to play Carcassonne.

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