Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Seth Jaffee

Seth Jaffee is a game designer and Head of Development at TMG. He has design credits on such games as Terra Prime, Eminent Domain (plus expansions), and Isle of Trains, with more on the way, and has had his hands in most of the TMG big box titles.

This is the second in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.


1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
I went to school for, and have a career in, structural engineering. I’m fortunate right now in that I’m only doing engineering part time, and I’m starting to make some money in the game industry as a designer and as a developer for TMG.

Before I got into game design, I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering, and I found the deck building there to be fairly creative. But that has given way to game design, and I don’t do much else creative anymore… though one might say I’m an armchair graphic designer on occasion 🙂

Outside of game design and engineering, I spend my time playing games, and also playing Ultimate.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
At times I’ve probably found different designers to be my favourite, and I admire different designers for different things. Antoine Bauza is consistently able to crank out quality games, and he’s a great, down to earth guy. I admire how humble he is when by all accounts he’s one of the superstars of our hobby.

Reiner Knizia is the most prolific designer I can think of, and while all of the hundreds of titles he’s done can’t be to my taste, he’s done a number of very good games (such as Amun-Re, Tigris & Euphrates, Lord of the Rings, Ra, etc). I admire his professionalism, his range of styles, and the meticulous, mathematical balance of his games.

Stefan Feld is also prolific, and also hit-and-miss, but has done a number of my favourite games (Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Oracle of Delphi). I admire his creativity in finding and using a central mechanism to drive a game, and the way the different elements of his games often inter-relate or rely on each other so deeply. I’m sure there are others too.

3. What drew you to game design?
When my friends all moved away or quit playing Magic, it left a hole in my life that was once filled with building decks. Looking for some other creative outlet to fill that hole, I stumbled across the Board Game Designers Forum (BGDF.com).

I found that designing a game was a lot like making a deck for Magic… instead of putting certain cards together in an effort to make the deck perform a certain way, I started putting mechanisms together in an effort to make a game perform a certain way. To me this was analogous, and it filled that hole immediately — I’ve been hooked ever since.

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
I used to think there were Theme-first designers and Mechanics-first designers, but nowadays I think that’s all crap.

Sometimes you start a design with a theme in mind, and other times you start with a particular mechanism, but even in the latter case, you pretty quickly have to find a theme to inform the rest of your design. So unless you’re specifically out to design an abstract game, then even Mechanics-first designers are also pretty much Theme-first designers.

I generally design with myself in mind. I try to make games that I, and people like me, would enjoy. I figure there are a bunch of people like me out there, that like the same stuff, and in the age of the internet it shouldn’t be too hard to find them!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect of game design is watching your creation come to life. In this case I mean watching players play your game and enjoy it. I love it when mechanisms and rules come together the way they’re supposed to and the game starts to really click and feel right.

The two worst aspects are…

  • Prototyping: There are certain humps that you need to get over in order to get a game to the table. Sometimes they’re physical – I’ve had a game stalled because I lacked the ability or know-how to really make a board for it. Other times they’re more mental humps, like trying to put together 100 tiles with info on them, without a good handle on what exactly the info should be…
  • Rules writing: Writing down how to play the game for a prototype isn’t so bad, but trying to write and edit final rules for a game can be very taxing and difficult.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
In general, the hardest type of game to design for me is one for which I’m not really the target audience. I never know when it’s done, or if it’s good. This is something I’d like to improve at.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
First of all, it’s great to get a prototype together as early as possible so you can try the game. I usually advise designers to be mindful of how the final game will look, and to think about layout and graphic design a little bit when making prototype cards and bits. This will not only make the game easier to play in prototype form, but will also help when it comes time to pitch to publishers in the future, if you go that route.

On that note, I highly recommend google image search, clip art, or using any free icons or images you can. The better the visuals you can use in the prototype, the easier it will be to get players to play the game, and the easier it will be for those players to concentrate on playing the game rather than trying to figure out the components.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
My first published game was Terra Prime, which was done by TMG. Before TMG existed though, I pitched the game to Jay Tummelson at a convention. I loved the games he published, and I really thought Terra Prime would fit well in his line. After my pitch, Jay just sort of shrugged and said “Eh, doesn’t excite me.”

I was prepared for a rejection, but somehow that hit me pretty hard. “It doesn’t excite me”? Not at all? Not even a little bit? Nothing?

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
My best moment as a game designer came at BGGcon 2010. My card game Eminent Domain was up on Kickstarter at the time, and this was back before Kickstarter was really a thing in the industry. We had offered Print and Play files for EmDo, and while many people had downloaded them, I was sceptical that many would print and cut 172 cards and try the game.

When I walked into the hotel on Wednesday afternoon, the day before BGGcon officially started, the first thing I saw was a room with 4 tables all paying PnP copies of Eminent Domain, and loving it!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love euro style games; especially ones that highlight efficiency. I also seem to have an affinity for Role Selection, though I am also a fan of Pickup/Deliver and Worker Placement as mechanisms. Some of my favourites include Puerto Rico, Railroad Tycoon, Goa, Brass, Shipyard, Lords of Waterdeep, Glory to Rome, In the Year of the Dragon…

I also like the idea of games that are built on a central mechanism that is itself a game, like Zooloretto is built on Coloretto. I’ve worked on one or two of those myself.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I hope this isn’t a politically incorrect answer, but maybe a little less complaining and less entitlement. I try to follow board games on a lot of different media, but it’s all on the internet, and no matter where you go on the internet there are whiners, complainers, and people who seem to demand a lot from other people when they may not have any reason to do so.

I feel like the landscape would only be improved if people just immersed themselves in the things they liked and ignored the things they didn’t. It seems like a win-win to me.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
At the ripe young age of 40 I got a full hip replacement. I suspect I had a thing called a slipped epiphysis, and all the cartilage in my hip had ground away. It got worse and worse until I was basically limping with every painful step. So I upgraded my insurance, made an appointment, and went in for surgery. I was worried that I’d never be able to run again (or play frisbee), but as it happens, my hip is pretty much 100%! I don’t recommend hip replacements in general, but if you really need one, it’s not all that bad… even if I probably will have to replace it 15 or 20 years down the road.

Also, despite never wanting to own a dog (in fact, I’ve always wanted to NOT own a dog), I recently got a dog. As dogs go, I think I got pretty lucky… Bella is very well behaved and doesn’t bark (thank goodness). But yeah… now I’m a dog owner.

A massive thanks to Seth for supplying such great and detailed answers. To find out more about future releases from TMG, visit the Tasty Minstel Games website.

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