Final Frontier Games always make sure their products look the business. Having grown quickly as a force to be reckoned with in the board game world, a quick look at their back catalogue reveals a confident and beautiful streak. While their early games were designed in house, they are now branching out working with other designers. I spoke to Jonny Pac, designer of Coloma - due on Kickstarter February 20.
What is your background in gaming? How did you get involved with design?
I've been into modern board games, especially Euro games, since the mid-2000's. After being introduced to Carcassonne, Stone Age, Puerto Rico, and such, I was totally hooked. I tend to collect by designer more than any particular theme, brand, or genre. If Feld makes a game with Mancala in Rome, cool. And if he makes a game about robo-octo-pods doing who knows what on a submarine, well, why not!
That said, I admit to not having much interest in American games—besides those of say, Tom Lehmann, Seth Jaffee, Alan R Moon, who are designing with heavy European influences. This is probably because I didn't really grow up playing CCG's, RPG's, or a ton of video games. I was more into art, music, and outdoors activities like hiking and swimming.
I find something both childlike and adult in Euro games that resonates with me, with almost no callbacks to adolescence. At the risk of sounding sounding smug, I'd simply say that I'm not much of a geek in the geek-culture stereotypical sense. The things I "geek out" on are more along the lines of behavioural economics, psychology, science, jazz history, and music theory. Kind of a non-fiction guy, if you will.
My own journey into game design began in 2012 when I bumped into to some designers and saw a little of what happened behind the scenes. It was through those connections that I signed my first game—which unfortunately, as a product, suffered due to many "hiccups" outside of my control. Despite that, I decided to keep at it as a designer. Around 2014 I began to prepare my next game, Hangtown, for Kickstarter, and try my hand at publishing and the whole nine yards. After a year or so of work it made it into the wild, in what I might call a modest success.
After that, I decided the publishing and fulfilment side was too much work for one person, and that my real passion was designing and developing games. I began to go to every Protospiel and UnPub type event within reach, and network with other designers and publishers to test out my new catalogue. I found that the creative environments within the designer commodity are like none other: truly friendly, and deeply inspiring.
What are the key lessons you have learned?
I have become more and more sensitive to the subtle improvements that players have come to expect in their games—consciously or not. Ten years ago you could get away with making a game with bad UI or a dense rulebook with a fan-made PDF errata. If the underlying game was good, some people would fight through and sing its praise. But nowadays, a low barrier to entry, accessibility, and ergonomics are nearly as important as the underlying mechanical gears.
My early efforts really suffered from over-complications, exceptions, and "invisible" rules. Common mistakes. Now, streamlining has become my thing. And it never seems to stop! I'm streamlining designs I thought were already streamlined! I guess this could be my new tag line: "Make games as simple as possible, but no simpler." That said, I am not trying to make "filler" games by any means. Instead, I am trying to create what some call "power hours" or "one hour wonders": games that have the depth of two-hour games, without the rules and set-up investments commonly associated with them.
How did Coloma come into being and developed?
Coloma was built off of some elements from my earlier game, Hangtown. Coloma and Hangtown are both California Gold Rush boom towns located near my home in the Sierras, so they are not only mechanically, but thematically tied as well.
After publishing Hangtown, I was approached by a European company to license it. I liked the idea, but the game had a lot of rules text on the cards. I held off licensing because I wanted to rework everything to be language independent. This way publishers could just translate the rulebook and use the cards with the same icons. But after digging into it, I realised that some things really didn't lend themselves to that treatment. Thus, I decided to build a new game—a re-implementation as we call it in BGG lingo.
Long story short, I let the game unfold though a zillion iterations until I was introduced to Final Frontier Games and we struck a publishing deal. And of course, we have iterated even more since!
What is it like to work with a publisher like Final Frontier Games?
It's fantastic. The company is run by a team of extremely talented designers in Macedonia. They not only published Cavern Tavern, Rise to Nobility, and Robin Hood, but they designed them! Plus, they seem to have The Mico's beloved whimsical art on tap.
They have treated me with an incredible amount of respect and have pushed me to create a version of the game that is beyond what I had ever hoped for it. Which was a lot! The product development and art direction alone are on a knockout level, not to mention the care and detail they put in to play-testing and honing the game's overall experience. Working with them has been a true pleasure. I'm excited to see how the next stages shake out with the KS campaign and final production process.
What game do you wish you had designed and why?
Oh! I have not really thought of games in that way. I am so grateful when I fall in love with a new game that I never really want to "see how the sausage was made," as they say. Sometimes it is shocking when I learn through a designer diary that the part I enjoy the most about a game was an afterthought or came into the game at a late stage of development.
For instance, I would have assumed that the dice-moving mechanic in Santa Maria was the inspiration for the whole game. But it turns out that the game was in development for years before they introduced that part! I'm just glad that I get to play it the way it is. And yes, I would be very proud to have designed Santa Maria.