Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Geoff Engelstein

Game designer, developer and podcaster Geoff Engelstein is an MIT graduate from Queens, New York.

His design credits to date include the popular Space Cadets and Space Cadets: Dice Duel, The Fog of War, Survive: Space Attack! and The Ares Project.

Many will also know him as the co-host of top board game design podcast Ludology, as well as for the insightful ‘GameTek’ segments he provides for The Dice Tower podcast.

This is the eighth 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?
Game design definitely doesn’t pay the bills. I have a company that does contract engineering design and manufacturing for a variety of industries. Companies and individuals come to us with product ideas, and we turn it into something real. I’ve got a team of engineers, covering electronics, software, and mechanical design. I’ve got a background in physics and electrical engineering myself, although I do a little bit of everything.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
I’m a huge fanboy of Vlaada Chvatil, going back to his earliest designs (Graenaland and Prophecy). His designs are so diverse, innovative, and seemingly effortless. My favorite would have to be Through the Ages.

3. What drew you to game design?
I’ve always loved to create, but within the context of making something functional. There are tremendous parallels between engineering and game design – concerns about achieving goals within constraints, etc – so it really fills the same need for me.

The immediate thing that made me try my hand at designing was a game that, although good, didn’t do what I wanted. So I decided to make it myself.

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?
Neither. I start with an experience in mind. I guess that’s closer to theme than mechanics, but it’s more about emotion and storytelling than those two terms cover.

For example, I would never sit down to design a zombie game. That doesn’t help it all. You need to bring in the emotion. A zombie game about being trapped in a mall, with the zombies pounding down the door? A zombie game where you play a world power trying to stop zombies from spreading across the globe? Those are experiences, and it’s where I like to start.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
That very beginning and the very end are the best parts – that first rush of ideas, and seeing the game on store shelves. Everything in between is tough – endless iteration, trying to convince playtesters to give it another shot, and more. Of course there are great moments during that in between period when a great solution snaps into place, but in general it’s hard work.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
I’ve tried to design a really simple microgame for years, without success. No matter where I start it always ends up being a hundred cards and tons of tokens.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Spend as little time as possible on your prototypes. Scribbling on index cards is a great place to start. I keep a stack of different colored index cards on my desk just or that purpose. You’re going to throw a lot of stuff away, so make it as psychologically easy as possible.

Then once things are a little more mature, if you’ve got a fair number of cards, learn how to use a card merge system to make it easy to make changes. I use Adobe InDesign and Excel, but there are many great solutions out there.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
I got Zev from Z-Man to look at my first ever design. I knew it wasn’t done, but thought it was pretty close, and that Zev would see the obvious genius of the design.

The playtest went completely off the rails, and the ending was absolutely horrible. And it was obvious there wasn’t any genius. I was horribly embarrassed, and actually shelved the game, where it sits to this today. Fortunately Zev was open-minded and ended up publishing my next design, The Ares Project.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
This is a tough one. Probably the mechanism I am most proud of in one of our designs is the ‘core breach’ mechanic in Space Cadets, which was designed by my son Brian. We needed a more exciting way for the players to lose, rather than just accumulating enough damage.

So we tried to figure out a way to have the game end with a bang – winning or losing. If the ship takes too much damage it doesn’t blow up right away. The next turn, while you’re doing everything else to run your ship, you also need to fix the core breach. You have 30 seconds to do it all, and the core breaches get harder each time they re-occur. It puts the players’ fate back into their own hands, and adds incredible drama.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love civ building games, like Through the Ages, Clash of Cultures, and the like.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I’m not sure on this one. I think it’s a pretty good place. However, I would love to see more diverse backgrounds of designers, in terms of gender, nationality, and ethnicity. It’s better than it used to be, but we still have a ways to go.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
My great-grandfather Samuel Engelstein started the Great Coney Island Fire of 1911, which was the beginning of the end for the amusement parks out there.

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