F:AT Looks Back: This article was originally published June 7, 2007 in the Fortress: Ameritrash Blog.
Rob Daviau (along with Craig Van Ness) of Hasbro has designed several games that, despite their mass-market heritage have become instant classics--many of them featured right here on Fortress: Ameritrash such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroscape, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Risk: 2210, and many others. Rob graciously agreed to give an interview for Fortress: Ameritrash, to find out what makes the mind of an AT-oriented game designer tick.
Thanks for agreeing to do the interview, Rob--you've got a lot of fans on Fortress: Ameritrash, myself included. First of all, can you give us some background of your gaming history?
I was always a gamer but primarily a role-playing gamer. I discovered D&D while at camp back in 1981 and was hooked. I was 11 at the time so it was a nice segue between my kid days of gaming into my teen days of gaming. After that it was always and off and on affair with games (again, usually rpgs) up through my late 20s when I got this job.
How did you come to work for Hasbro, one of the biggest gaming companies in the world?
A little bit of "right place, right time" and a little bit of being the right person for the job. Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers had just been merged into one location and there were some openings. One was for a designer with a writing background, which was me. I had been an advertising copywriter for 5 years, had written some rpg articles, but also had a board game design aptitude. I was originally hired to work primarily on the adult game line (Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, etc.), games that had a lot of copywriting to them.
Who are some of your favorite game designers? What games are you playing now?
I'm always reluctant to name designers as I don't want to offend anyone I accidentally leave out.
I like a variety of Eurodesigners, roleplaying designers, and Ameritrash designers. I find that Eurogames tend to impress me in a "why couldn't I think of something that elegant" sort of way but Ameritrash games move me in a "wow, that was a rush" sort of way. My head is Eurogamer and my heart is Ameritrash.
In the past month I've played... Crokinole, Pitchcar, Bonkers, Game of Thrones, Ursuppe, El Grande, History of the World, a variety of standard card games, some games I'm working on here, Heroscape (testing new scenarios), Guitar Hero II, Candy Land (with my 3 year-old son), and Carcassonne. Probably more but that's all that comes to mind.
Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, published under the Avalon Hill brand in 2000, is absolutely one of my all-time favorite games; it really captures its theme very well, better than many, many other games. Can you give us some insight on what was involved in the development of that game?
This was primarily Craig's game. I was around for some playtesting and I think I came up with the Jedi splitting their attack dice idea but it was almost entirely Craig's. I get flattered yet embarrassed that this gets attributed to me as I love this game but had so little to do with it. Oh wait, I came up with the name (I think my favorite name I've come up with for a game.)
You were also involved in the development of both Star Wars Risk games,and both are easily among the best of the Risk variants. I especially like the thematic elements that were grafted on to the system and more importantly, the much cleaner and shorter playing time. Can you talk about what went on during the development of those games, and your goals for each?
Sure. This is where my rpg background comes in handy. I always like games that tell a story, where, the next day it almost sounds as if you are recounting a movie or a tv show or a book.
That's why I like Ameritrash games; they tell a story. So the goal was to tell a story, a Star Wars story. A "what if" Star Wars story. There were a lot of questions at the start as to which trilogy was going to come out first (or if they were going to be one giant game) so we sort of worked on them at the same time, going back and forth. The first thing to establish was whether it was going to be about land battles with a space battle accent or about space battles with a land battle accent. Since it is easier to understand owning planets rather than owning a section of space, we went with the former.
At that point there were several rounds of trying to figure out how ships worked. At first they were abstract things that just came in for one invasion or one battle but it was hard to understand, not very powerful, and just not worth the card spend. Eventually we went to the physical representation of the ships and that started to make sense.At this point we focused on the Clone Wars version for release with the film.
Given the timeline it was easier to balance the game to always have four armies (plus it was a new thing for Risk). This game was being designed in the year before Revenge of the Sith came out. At this time, movies can change quite a bit so having four armies in play gave us the easiest route to rebalance things if we had to make a change because the movie changed. It was a tremendous relief to see the final movie and realize that what we had put into the game really matched what was on-screen. (That is one small reason why The Queen's Gambit works so well - it came out a year after the movie so it could match the feel shot by shot.)
The hardest thing to wrestle with was Order 66. We went through a lot of iterations on that before settling on the final version.
What are some of the challenges involved in working with licensed properties?
As I said above, you are sometimes working on a game at the same time the movie is being shot so there is a little guesswork in determining what the final movie will be. But, for the most part, games are abstractions that high the key points of a movie or TV show and those key points usually don't change much during development.Personally I like working with licenses as it lets me know the narrative tone and theme that I should be hitting.
Many of the games you've been involved in designing have featured what I like to call "asymmetry"--whether it's variable player powers, or starting positions, or something similar. How much more challenging is it to design these games with an eye on balance than one where all players start out equally? Do you feel that asymmetry increases replayability?
I think that asymmetry increases narrative. If everyone is playing a slightly different role or has slightly different powers or has slightly different goals then a story more naturally develops as you have character, motive, enemies, etc. It probably is more of a balancing issue but its just the way I approach things.Again, my goal is to create little stories/movies that are driven by players and their goal to win.
That is why I love, love, love reading Betrayal at House on the Hill game sessions on bgg. Most of those are little short stories that are only vaguely related to the gameplay. I think that Betrayal at House on the Hill is my favorite creative project that I've ever worked on. It came from the inventor, lived with me for about two years, and then went on to WotC.
I didn't realize you worked on Betrayal! When you talk about games that are "dripping with theme", Betrayal at House on the Hill is as 'dripping' as it gets. Can you tell me about your involvement with that?
House on the Hill continues to be the single-most satisfying creative project that I've ever been part of. I worked on it, in various ways, for almost two years and loved every minute of it.A lot of the mechanics of the game are mine...you know I feel odd claiming anything about that game because I was so impressed (and still am impressed) with Bruce Glassco's original vision.
It's a game that has to be played by the right people -- if you are too competitive you'll get frustrated with the inevitable rules/rooms/haunt holes that will arise. The game went to WotC just as I was about to get into some major playtesting. I wasn't surprised that the haunt books had be published twice; it is just too much to test and get right the first time.
My favorite thing that I put in (except I think there was a typo in the final game on these cards or they weren't written as I first had them or something...) were the two event cards where you give and receive an item through a mirror. They were two different versions of the same event. In one, you lose an item card back to the deck as you pass it through the mirror. In the other, you can an item card from the deck as you get it from the mirror.
I don't remember if that's how the final cards worked.I knew that, in most games, one or the other card will show up, but not both. And if it is both, it is likely to be different players. And if it is the same player, it is highly unlikely the cards will come out in the order that I wanted (lose an item, then gain an item). And even if that worked, it is highly unlikely that the same item card will be returned to the deck and drawn again.
I knew that there could be one game, somewhere, somehow, that a person loses an item to the mirror. Then, later in the game, just when they need that item, it get returned to them by their past self. And if that moment happened, the players would never, ever forget that gaming moment. Ever.
Both you and Craig did some great designs under the Avalon Hill brand, and I think that the line suffered once you guys were no longer involved with it. Was there ever talk of your working again on any of the newer AH titles?
Avalon Hill went to WotC back in 2002 (I think) so its been a while since we've worked on it. WotC is on the other side of the country and have dozens of talented designers. I mean, when you have Richard Garfield designing your games, you're in good hands.
Can you give us some tidbits about some upcoming projects from you? What's the "next big thing" from Hasbro?
I can't talk much about what I'm working on but let's see if I can talk in a general sense. I've been working with some of our big family brands and seeing what can be done with them. I did Clue DVD last year (and Trivial Pursuit for Kids DVD) and our Monopoly Tropical Tycoon DVD game will launch later this year (or maybe in 2008). Not all of this work will involve DVDs but I'm playing around with some classics, which is both daunting in some ways and rewarding in others.
Rob, thank you for your time. Both you and Craig have brought American-style gamers a lot of great games to enjoy over the past decade, and we look forward to more!
Look forward to making more.