A birthday for a specialist gaming store in Reading gave MyM’s David Axbey the chance to sit down with two Titans of the industry: Pandemic designer Matt Leacock and Z-Man founder Zev Shlasinger.
Reading’s Eclectic Games turned 10 last month, and two board gaming big shots were on hand to mark the occasion – top designer Matt Leacock and prolific publisher Zev Shlasinger.
Leacock is best known for classic games such as Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island. Last year saw his co-operative game Thunderbirds released to celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary, but it was another co-op game, Pandemic Legacy, that really captured gamers’ imaginations. Co-designed with Rob Daviau, the smart, story-rich Pandemic Legacy: Season One took top spot on many people’s 2015 Game of the Year lists.
Meanwhile, Shlasinger is the founder of Z-Man Games, the US publisher of iconic titles such as Pandemic, Agricola, Carcassonne and Merchants & Marauders. Recent hot titles from Z-Man include English editions of Bruges, Robinson Crusoe, Glass Road and Terra Mystica. Having sold the company in 2011, Shlasinger stayed on as a consultant until earlier this year, when he joined WizKids to head up its expanded board games division.
Last year’s big hit Pandemic Legacy was teasingly sub-titled Season One. Can you tell us anything about Season2?
“I can tell you that Rob [Daviau] and I are working on it, and I can tell you that playing Season One will not be required… but that’s all I can say!”
Are there any new games you can talk about?
“Knit Wit will be on the shelves any time now. It’s a social word game where you all work together using yarn and spools to make overlapping circles with adjectives in them – think Venn diagrams – and then come up with witty answers that correspond with the regions of the game. You can play it with two to eight players in about 15 minutes.”
What’s your process when you’re designing a game?
“Typically, I think of some sort of novel mechanism first – that’s the hardest thing to come up with and also a good way to differentiate a game. I’ll also think of some sort of theme to explain why the mechanisms work the way they do. I use a sketchbook to come up with ideas, but very quickly you need to get the game to a prototype stage. If I can find a hook, I’ll develop it further. But that’s the key moment; trying to find that core game, that simple kernel that I can build on.”
Is there a game mechanism you’d like to use, but haven’t yet had the chance?
“I’d like to come up with some sort of dexterity game. That’d be really fun and I think there’s a lot of untapped potential there.”
Are we going to see apps and videogame technology play a major role in board gaming?
“Possibly. When you put together a board game you’ve got a social experience but you’re also creating something with a puzzle-like nature; something that the players are working out. If you put all that thinking into a black box, I’m not sure exactly what the players are doing. And if you make it more of an experiential thing, where you’re getting all the visual glitter off the user interface of the application, then it takes away from the people.
“Apps are great for offloading crunchy, bookkeeping tasks that are kind of a pain, but I’m not a big believer in this wonderful untapped potential. Ultimately, we’re going to see some sort of integration that’s fantastic, but I don’t think anybody’s cracked the nut yet.”
Another recent development is the rise of Kickstarter. What effect is that having?
“Kickstarter has lowered the barrier for entry for a lot of designers and publishers, so the number of titles is increasing at an alarming rate. Generally speaking, that’s a good thing – as a consumer you need to be a little bit more educated about what you’re going to try, but I really like that there’s so much innovation and experimentation going on.”
Is there a board game that you wished you’d designed?
“Civilisation from Avalon Hill made a tremendous impact on me as a kid, with all those interlocked and interweaving mechanisms. It just blew my mind when I played it and made me a diehard gamer. I’m not sure I’d say that I wished I designed it, but I’ve got huge respect for that design and it really pulled me into the hobby.”
How would you sell modern board gaming to someone who’s new to the hobby?
“The variety of games that they may not know about! Everyone has Monopoly, Cluedo or Risk in their closet, but just opening the door slightly wider will reveal a whole new universe for you to explore. It’s like in the old days when you only had a few TV channels, then all of a sudden there’s all these other channels to watch.”
How did you get into the industry?
“I got into Magic: The Gathering in ’94 and played many of the collectable card games that came after. By ’98 or ’99 I was demoing CCGs for companies and I fell in love with a game called Shadowfist. The firm that made the game went bankrupt, but my friends and I still played it at shows in the evenings. People would come up and say, ‘I didn’t know Shadowfist was being played; I’d have brought my cards!’ Enough people said it that I thought, ‘What if we tried to bring this back?’ And that’s how Z-Man got started.”
You’ve recently moved to WizKids to head up its board games operations; can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
“I’m starting to get games to test – there are some games we’ve found interesting and will probably pursue, but there’s still a lot more that I haven’t even gotten to yet. As the convention season starts for us – which will probably be Origins in June – I’ll be able to see a lot more games. By the time Essen comes around in October, I think I’ll already have a nice catalogue of prototypes to look into. There are also some licenses that WizKids hold that I’m currently pursuing board games for, so that’s exciting.”
How has the industry changed over the years?
“The barrier to get into publishing has lowered. If anything, it may have changed more for designers because they have more outlets for their games; they can try a bunch of companies and if that doesn’t work they can Kickstart it themselves. There are also a lot of conventions geared for designers where they can playtest their games and maybe even show them to publishers. The lower entry has also led to an explosive publications schedule for a lot of firms, with many, many new games coming out. So now you have to find games that will rise above all the others.”
Is there a danger that the bubble will burst?
“If it does burst, I don’t think it’ll be like the real estate market where you lose money like crazy. It’ll just mean that there won’t be as many games coming out. But as a form of entertainment, I think board gaming is always going to be around. Why see another movie? You’ve already seen pretty much every story… and yet movies keep coming out. It’s the same thing with board games – there’s always going to be something new that people want to play with.”
If you could only play one game for the rest of your life, what would it be?
“It’d be between the two games that I play the most: Tichu, which I love, or Axis & Allies.”