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Interview with Luca Caltabanio

United Kingdom
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A few days ago Luca Caltabanio got in touch with me to ask about doing an interview for my blog. He’s working on a game called Carmarace that will launch on kickstarter soon. I warned him that I’ve no experience as an interviewer and sometimes (often) don’t go about things in the most sensible way, but like all game designers Luca isn’t the sort to be put off by the notion that something might prove tricky.

I don’t have an established format for this sort of thing, so I guess that I’m in the process of establishing one right now. Maybe if it’s fun or well received or both I’ll turn it into a regular thing. I could email a pile of questions all at once, but if I learned one thing from teaching semi-structured interview design it’s that it’s cool and hard to be able to adjust later questions because of the responses to earlier ones. So we’ll bounce emails back and forth adding questions and answers and with luck we’ll have something that looks like a blog post sometime before the heat death of the universe (Edit: It worked!).

So, first question, what makes this game special? If you knew that someone reading this was only going to read your first answer how would you persuade them that this game stands out from the hundreds of others to be released this year?

Well first thing that comes to mind is our player interaction. The game is fast paced and when it's not your turn, you still have to focus on what you're doing and play cards if you want to. I designed the game but the game is really a labour of love from Board to Death TV. We, as a review team, worked hard on making it fun, balanced, and we made sure it's a game with would rate high on our site. After 2 years of development, playtesting, and art design, it's finally ready to launch on Kickstarter. We enjoy kickstarter but some games are way too expensive and have too many stretch goals which can delay the game for god knows how long. So what we did with our Kickstarter was to keep it simple, we have few stretch goals and the game is at a decent price. Kickstarter needs a break from all these crazy over priced games that we don't even know if they are good or not. CarmaRace, for us, is a game that everyone should have because it's quick to teach, fun for everyone, and will grow every year with expansions and new maps.

About the second question, it's hard to persuade people since every gamer is different, but when you see the videos and kickstarter we will post it will be hard resist playing a game where you can throw old ladies and moose at each other. It's a game that gamers know will grow and expand, just like Munchkin did. We wanted to make a game that was easy to expand and add new cards to. You can make house rules and customize the gameplay. The game was playtested by reviewers of Board to Death TV over the course of 2 years. Game reviewers like us play games for a living, we KNOW what works and what doesn't. We would not release a game which we did not think was worth it. I think that once people see the videos and and pricing, it's going to be hard not to back the game.

I'm curious about how being reviewers has affected the way in which you've developed this game. Anyone who's ever run a playtest is aware that there is a difference between the skills needed to identify a problem with a game and the skills needed to find a good solution to that problem. How have the skills that you've developed as reviewers helped to drive the direction of the game? Did they have any impact on how you addressed issues once you found them?

For the previous question, I notice some reviewers review games they bought, just to go on youtube. And most of the time they buy games they think they will like. Being a true reviewer like we are, we get to play lots of crappy games too and learn WHY they are not fun. Take World War Z for example. They told me that game was play tested for 6 months. I find it hard to believe because we would have changed the entire game if it was us testing it. Some games are just released for the hell of it and that`s not what we wanted to do. It was hard to solve problems since our mechanics are taken from TCGs and you know how those games are, sometimes crazy combos can come up. So we had to make sure the cards were balanced, yet when you draw a card like the ITALIAN CUSTOM, you know it`s going to be a good round for you...maybe...We never really had to change anything, because before something went into the game, we knew if it would work or not. We mostly just kept adding stuff to the game to improve it, and then tweaked it to fit in. but as reviewers, we also know what`s important, and we know what OTHER reviewers will be looking for. So we made a game that will be hard for other reviewers to rate badly.... almost impossible. The production quality will be top notch (Panda games) the artwork is fun and fits the theme perfectly. The Game play is quick and you`re never not doing anything. The rule book is short and sweet making it a great game for coffee shops with game rentals. We thought of everything. Some reviewers might complain that there is not enough variety of cards, but we have so many cards not published yet. These will go in expansions. Our artist can`t do all of them in one shot, she is working on doing the others. She also has to do the artwork for the 6 backers who will be in the GAME. But with over 200 cards, we think the reviewers should not be complaining about that, especially that we have over 35 vehicles to choose from every turn.

There are a lot of things in that answer that I want to ask more about!

Let’s start with the notion that a game can be irresistible to every player or every reviewer. It's generally been my experience that different sorts of games suit different sorts of players. A game that's brilliant for a deep thinker who likes spending hours developing the perfect grand strategy is terrible for a family gamer looking for something quick and thematic to play with their kids and vice-versa. I guess what I'm saying is that do you really think your game is going to appeal to everyone? If so how did you overcome the broad differences between different gamers’ tastes? If not what sorts of gamer will this game appeal to?

Even the most "deep thinker" gamer needs a break, you know what I mean?
But that doesn't mean shutting off completely. I’m not saying my game is a Mage knight type game, but it has elements which appeal to all gamers. It has a board to visually see where you are during the game and see how well you're doing. A lot of the strategy of CaramaRace is about making decisions. You'll have to make 3 to 4 choices during your turn alone. The first choice is from which deck to draw from, since there are 4 decks and your hand size is limited. The second choice is what mode of transportation are you going to use and will you play a Karma card with it? Or will you wait till everyone else plays a card first and hope that your transportation still has karma left on it when it comes to your turn? Will you play cards on yourself or use them on others? During your movement you can choose to stop whenever you want. Which means you can bluff and stop in front of an airport to make people think you have an airplane card in your hand. This will make them draw Plane karma. You can even let the driver choose where to bring you on the board or get off at the intersection and have the CHOICE on your next turn to go east or south. There is good enough strategy here for the hardcore gamers but when we played it with family and cousins; they just loved screwing with the other hitchhikers. Yes it made the game longer but they had fun doing it. We have a rule where you can look at a card your just drew, before deciding to draw another card from another deck. But you can play with the "Hidden Draw" variant where players MUST declare how many cards and from which deck they want to draw from and get all those cards at the same time. We are also adding Player boards with turn summary and Player Abilities which can be used during the game. CarmaRace is very customizable when it comes to variants to help all gamer groups enjoy it.

You seem to be emphasising choice a lot here, I'm all for the school of thought in which games are about choices (Sid Meire comes to mind) but they do come with their own sets of problems. Making a choice meaningful rather than automatic can be tricky, for instance in many games giving yourself a bonus is strictly better than giving one opponent a penalty so a choice of whether to play a card to give yourself +2 or an opponent -2 isn't a real choice. If enough choices are meaningful some players will have analysis paralysis and grind the game to a halt, to the point that it becomes a chore for other players. If players have free choice about who to play their worst cards against then you end up with kingmakers and all of the problems that come with that. With so much choice in your game how have you mitigated the problems that come with choices?

Well, yes I would agree but that all depends on how well you're doing. In a racing game like this one, you have to make sure you're playing it at the right time. The board also affects your decision; you might want to stop at an intersection or at a train crossing, so you have to calculate if it's worth going fast on your turn, just to end 3 spaces away. It's hard to explain in writing, we are working on a video to explain game play and everything we can about the game. To fix the problem that comes with choices, we made the hand size limited, but not so that you have no choice to play the cards, just a small hand size. You refill at the start of your turn, and if you were unlucky to draw crap cards, you can discard to redraw at the END of your turn, so you have a full hand during the other player’s turns.

Alright, that's plenty about the game itself, I'd like to wrap up with a broader perspective. Tell me about your dreams for the future. What do you want this game to achieve? On a grander scale, what do you hope to offer gaming culture in general by getting into game design?

I want to see this game grow like Summoner Wars did. Just keep adding small packs of cards that we liked and wanted to add in the base set but couldn't. We just want update the game as players play it. When a game starts to die out and lose its replay value, expansions always revive the game. We want to make one every 6 months. Also make bigger expansions like Stage 2 and Stage 3. Our goal to get funded and use the extra funds to make these expansions and also fund Board to Death TV at the same time (better cameras, bigger games, etc...) Personally, my overall goal is to see this game on shelves, played and loved by everyone. It's a way of supporting everything we've done for many gamers out there and getting a game in return. It's a win win for our fans and people who love racing mayhem.

Well, that about wraps things up. Thanks for popping by to talk about your game.

I love how visceral Luca’s passion for his game is, it’s clear that he’s been working hard on it and wants it to be the very best that it can be. There is an exceptional amount of ambition in the game, but when he talked about creating a game that appeals to everyone I was reminded of the proverb “The man who chases two hares catches neither”. I think that as the gameplay videos emerge we’ll start to get a picture of whether Carmarace will be able to meet such a challenging goal. My favourite line in the interview is “Personally, my overall goal is to see this game on shelves, played and loved by everyone.”, I think this summarises so much of what’s great about the game design industry. People like Luca (and me!) get into design, not because they want to make a huge amount of cash, but because they want to make something that will genuinely make people happier and be loved. That’s pretty awesome.

Carmarace is on kickstarter right now, check out their campaign here.
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