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Matthew O’Malley Dishes on His New Classic Americana Game, Diner

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Matthew O’Malley Dishes on His New Classic Americana Game, Diner

In this our, 6 out of 7 interview for the Investigating Rabbit Interview Series, we talk with DHMG 54 Card Challenge Winner - Matthew O'Malley, about his winning game Diner.

Matthew, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you into board gaming?

Matthew: I live and work in Takoma Park, MD, with my wife and two kids. My wife and I have our own business developing websites for nonprofits.

My dad got me into board gaming. We played Backgammon, Othello, and Mille Bornes when I was growing up, and then my friends and I expanded into things like Dungeons and Dragons (which I learned from my older brother), the Lost Worlds books and Avalon Hill's Civilization. However, after college I took a bit of a hiatus from board games (with only the occasional weekend binge) until another friend reintroduced me to the hobby with games like Acquire, Carcassonne, Modern Art, and Settlers of Catan.

What are some of your favorite games?

Matthew: In addition to all of the playtesting of others' games and my own, I've been playing more short games lately, games that I can play with my kids or fit in after they've gone to sleep. Tessen, Jaipur, Macao, The Great Heartland Hauling Company, and Pueblo have gotten to the table pretty frequently.

Some of my all-time favorites are Carcassonne, Pandemic, La Citta, Civilization, Bridge (and Truco), Yspahan, and Biblios.

It seems the pattern in those games are, you like more simplistic games over more complexity ones. What attracts you to these type of games?

Matthew: Mostly I like how easy it is to get them to the table. Many of my friends enjoy playing games, but aren't as devoted to the hobby as I am. The game collection is mostly mine (other than when I go to the Games Club of Maryland meetings). So most game nights I need to teach the games as well, and the simpler games allow for every player to have more of an equal footing, which makes for more fun.

I enjoy more complex games when I can play them several times with other people who know the game well, and we can all get deeply into the strategy.

How important is theme to you in the games you play or design?

Matthew: Theme is incredibly important in the games I design - I'm definitely a theme-first designer. I don't think that I have many restrictions on what themes I would design. But I need to have a theme in mind when I start designing in order to figure out what mechanics to use and how to join them together in a meaningful way.

Theme is a little less important in the games I play, though there have been some games with themes that turned me off so much I wouldn't sit down to them. I think I'm very much like most game players - theme is what will get a game to my table, and mechanics are what will keep it there.

What theme (or themes) would you like to see in the board game world more that don't have a strong presence?

Matthew: Two things in particular. One is that I'd like to see far more women in games, both as designers and as characters. But I don't think that sets a specific theme, as they should be present in just about every theme.

The second is that I'm an old-school fantasy and sci-fi fan. I would love to see more games in which normal people do fantastic things (rather than unrealistic steroid-fueled heroes doing things they make look easy). And dragons have totally gotten short shrift. You shouldn't have games in which there's a dragon here, so you kill it, then a dragon there, so you kill it, and so on. One dragon should take up the entire game, and it should challenge you to your utmost just to hurt it the slightest bit. (I'm working on a few games that include those elements.)

Were there any games at UnPub this year that really stood out to you?

Matthew: I was only able to attend one day this year, but still got in some great games. The games that come to mind right away are Les Cartes Miserables by Nick Ferris, Xenon Profitier by TC Petty, Gothic Doctor by Meltdown Games, and The River Ancient by Daniel Solis.

What is your favorite Dice Hate Me Games game (besides you new game Diner)?

Matt: That's a tough one. I own almost every Dice Hate Me game that's been released, and I'm looking forward to the new games coming out as well (Belle of the Ball and Brew Crafters), but there's a special place in my heart for Belle of the Ball because of how easy it is to get to the table, and because I played it as a prototype before it was signed.

Your new game Diner is currently on Kickstarter, being published by Dice Hate Me Games. Could you give us an overview of what the goal is and how you play Diner?

Matthew: In Diner, the players are all waiters competing to make the most money in tips one evening. To do that, you will try to get the highest tippers to sit in your section in the diner, and of course make sure to serve them their orders before the diner closes.

However, you do not take turns in Diner. Instead, whenever you have an action token in front of you (this can be anything unbreakable, but I prefer sugar packets), you can take an action. An action could be to take a plate from the kitchen, seat a party in your section, seat a party at the counter, or serve a table. Once you take your action, you pass the token along to the player to your left.

Each player starts with one action token, with one extra to the left of the dealer - so several players may be taking actions at the same time, or the tokens may pile up with one player until things start moving again. It gives the game a real-time feeling, but the tokens mean that each player will get approximately the same number of turns in the game, so the game won't necessarily be won by the fastest player.

Diner was entered into Dice Hate Me 54 Card challenge. Could you explain what that challenge was?

Matthew: The challenge was to create a fun and engaging game that would fit with the Dice Hate Me Games line using only 54 cards and minimal counters or other components. There were a huge number of submissions, and I got a chance to play some of the others during UnPub 4. It was great to see the incredible variety in themes and mechanics that people put together for the challenge, and I really enjoyed the games I played.

I hear there were over 100 entries - and out of all of them you won, even over some other known designers. That must have been a pretty awesome moment when you found out - what was your reaction?

Matthew: It was a huge thrill! My need to design games is something of a compulsion, and I'd been doing it for many years before I considered trying to publish anything. I was already really happy making it into the challenge finals along with some other great designs (many of which should see publication!), but the recognition of Diner in that company was a fantastic feeling.

Did you enjoy the challenge of having to make a game with just 54 cards? Do you think the restriction helped or hindered you in designing Diner?

Matthew: I love designing within restrictions, and I think it helped immensely in designing Diner. I've done a few of the BGDF contests, and I think I'd really enjoy the 24-hour challenges on BGG, but I rarely get a solid 24-hour period free. It's not so much the contest atmosphere that I enjoy, but I enjoy the idea of trying to create something with strict limitations.

I think that designing within those limitations often forces simplicity, which otherwise is one of the hardest things to focus on in a design.

Did the theme or mechanic come first for Diner?

Matthew: The theme came first, soon after the limitations from the challenge. The theme is what I used to build the mechanics - without it, I wouldn't have known where to start. As soon as I heard about the challenge, I started racking my brain for theme ideas that would fit well with theDice Hate Me Games aesthetic, until the moment I came up with Diner.

So how did you come up with the theme? And what made you think a game about a waitress/waiter in a Diner would make a fun great game?

Matthew: The theme idea mostly came from listening to Dice Hate Me's podcast, The State of Games. I knew that I wanted to create a game that would fit in well with the other Dice Hate Me games, and would appeal to the publisher. Having listened to the podcast regularly over the past year, I had a pretty good idea what topics would be appealing to Chris, and diners fit that as well as having a similar aesthetic to the other games.

As far as what makes a fun great game, I think you can get that out of just about any theme, as long as it's done well. I've played games about working in a chemistry lab, interstate trucking, and roasting coffee - none of which would seem like the most exciting topics on their own, but since they're done so well they make some great games.

By “similar aesthetics” you mean Dice Hates Me’s love of all things Americana?

Matthew: Not only Americana, but also the look and feel of the Dice Hate Me games.

Did Diner Dash or any of those other fast food management flash games influence you at all in making Diner?

Matthew: They didn't, as I haven't played those games. I'm generally in favor of playing as many games as possible, particularly games similar to those I'm designing, but I'm not a huge fan of fast-paced computer or mobile games.

Are there any tabletop games that inspired you in the making of Diner -Wok Star or any other game perhaps?

Matthew: The most direct inspiration is probably Tessen. I backed Wok Star but I haven't had a chance to play it yet.

Diner uses not only the front of the cards, but the back of the cards as well. Could you tell us how that works and why you chose that mechanic?

Matthew: The way this works in Diner is that one side of each card is a plate with a particular entree, like pancakes or a hamburger. The other side of the card is a table with 2-4 plates on it, along with the tip value for serving that table. If a plate is on one side of a card, it is not on the other side.

When a card comes out in the game it will be used as either a plate or a table. Players gather sets of plates to deliver to the tables that they have seated in their section (to make those tips) - and if any of their tables haven't been served by the end of the game, they complain to the manager (and that tip counts negative).

I've designed several games that have information on both sides of the cards, so it doesn't feel particularly unusual to me. Many games allow you to use cards for several purposes (Fleet immediately comes to mind, as does a game being designed by Seth Jaffee), but the information on the Diner cards is so similar that it wouldn't work if it were all on the same side of the card, and it would look too cluttered.

In addition to allowing Diner to have "more" cards in a 54-card deck, it also prevents card-counting, because if a card has come out as a table then it can't come out as a plate, and vice-versa. This means that the game can have some uncertainty without needing to remove a few of the cards from the deck each game (which is another common design ploy to achieve the same effect).

I really like it when games use the "cards can have multiple purposes" mechanic be it Fleet or Knizia's Money. What do you like about it that you put it not only in Diner but other things you are working on?

Matthew: What I like about it in most games is that it gives you more decision points. In Ben Rosset'scard game version of Brew Crafters (which will be another of the rabbit games in the Dice Hate Me Games Kickstarter), you choose to use each card as either a beer ingredient or as a part of your brewery. This effectively doubles the possibilities for a single hand of cards.

In Diner, once a card is in your hand, there is only one use for it. However, there are several different decision points the double-sided cards create in the game: deciding which card to change from a plate to a table when hosting; deciding whether to push your luck at the end of game because you don't know which steak cards came out as tables, or which steak cards have already been scored and aren't available anymore. So it serves some other interesting purposes in this game.

So Diner sounds unique in that it isn't real-time - but has the feel of real time. What made you come up with that mechanic and was it hard to get working properly?

Matthew: The action tokens were actually Josh Tempkin's idea. We were playtesting an early version of the game, which included most of the underpinnings but didn't really have the feel of working in a diner. Josh suggested adding that, and it helped the game become what it is.

It took some time to figure out the right number of tokens to use in the game, but other than that I think most of the work was similar to work that would be required in any other real-time game.

Why did you choose this mechanic over an actual real-time mechanic?

Matthew: I've played Tessen (a great game!) by Cardboard Edison a lot, which uses an actual real-time mechanic, and I remember that after the first time I played it at UnPub 3, I asked Chris Zinsli (one of the designers) if it could handle more than two players, but it's strictly two-player.

My wife years ago introduced me to Pounce, a game she has played with her friends and family since high school. Pounce is a real-time game that you can play with any number of players. It's a bit of a multi-player solitaire: you each have your own deck, and build down on four face-up cards, trying to get rid of your pounce stack, while cycling through your deck and playing cards starting with the aces up in a shared central space (so you can play on each others' aces). It's a huge amount of fun, but slower players don't stand a chance.

The action token mechanic means that each player will get a roughly equal number of turns in the game. A player can't win simply by moving more quickly than the other players - you also need to have a good strategy to make your actions as efficient as possible, and there's also a little bit of push-your-luck at the very end to see if you can serve that one last table before closing time. This doesn't mean that speed doesn't matter at all - if you can see a good move or a good draw more quickly than some else, AND if you have an action token, then you can take advantage of it.

That's why I like this better than strictly real-time for this game - it gives everyone a decent chance to win. A side benefit is that the mechanic helps the game feel like working in a diner. There are times when you need to do several different things at once, and times when you can't do anything because you have to wait for someone else to get out of the way first, and times when you're all clamoring for one player to get a move on because you want to serve your customers!

With the semi-real-time mechanic - which I could see maybe being better with more players - how well does it work with 2 players? Are there any modifications to the 2-player game?

Matthew: The mechanic works really well with 2-4 players. The number of tokens in the game are the number of players plus one. This keeps the tension pretty high without getting out of hand.

With any set of players, the way the game plays depends a good bit on the other players. If they are mostly slow and deliberate, the game moves a bit more slowly, with brief moments of adrenalin. If they are mostly fast-moving, then it can be a race all the way through to see who can make the best decisions at that pace.

How long does it take to play a game of Diner - with 2, 3 or 4 people?

Matthew: A single game of Diner takes about 20 minutes, and the number of players doesn't change the time very much. The length of the game has much more to do with the players' strategy, because players can keep things moving very quickly, or spend more time figuring out the best possible actions.

How hard was it to get the game balanced?

Matthew: I took a very long time to balance the game with itself. Balance between players was pretty easy, since everyone starts in a similar position, and there aren't separate powers in the game. However, I spent a lot of time figuring out the tip values of different plates, the number of different types of plates and the quantity of each type, and the quantity and values of the different tables.

There is a bell-curve distribution of tip values over all of the tables in the game, And separately for each type of table (2-plate, 3-plate, and 4-plate), AND separately for each type of plate on the reverse of each table (so when you flip up a new table, you won't be certain that the value of the table on the back of pancakes is higher than the value of a table on the back of steak, or vice-versa).

Outside of the passing of action tokens - what kind of player interaction is in Diner?

Matthew: Player interaction includes:

* withholding or passing action tokens

* table talk, as players urge one another to get something done and pass another token

* taking a plate (that another player wants or needs) from the kitchen

* taking a table (that another player wants) from the lounge

* sending a table (that another player wants) from the lounge to the counter

* flipping a plate (that another player wants or needs) to the table side when refilling the lounge after seating a table

* hurrying the game toward closing time at the end of the game

Would you say there is a slight push-your-luck aspect to Diner - in that a player may want to try to get multiple tokens in a row before taking actions, but at the same time may miss out on the good stuff?

Matthew: I suppose it's possible, but most likely if a player has started collecting tokens, they'll use one of them when a good card comes up. There's more of a push-your-luck aspect to the end of the game, because when you seat a table in your section, if you collect all of the ordered plates and serve them before closing time you make the tip, but if you don't serve them before closing time it counts against you. So taking a valuable table is great if you already have the plates to serve them, but if you don't have the plates (which is more usually the case), you have to work to get the order filled before the end of the game. And this can be even more of a challenge if you take several high-value tables.

So, flash round - let talk some real diner food:

Onion Rings or French Fries?

Matthew: French Fries with Old Bay seasoning

Hamburger or Club Sandwich?

Matthew: Hamburger with ketchup, mustard, and pickles

Pie or Ice Cream Sundae?

Matthew: Pie! Pumpkin, Key Lime, Apple, Peach…

Do you have a favorite diner to eat at?

Matthew: Silver Diner, definitely. It has great food, and I've been going there since high school.

But also the Silver Spring Tastee Diner has a game night every Friday held by the Games Club of Maryland, and I try to make it as often as I can.

How do you teach Diner to new players, could you give us some tips

Matthew: I start by setting the scene: "You're all waiters in a diner and have set up a friendly competition to see who can make the most money in tips tonight."

Then I show the cards and state the game objective: "To do this, you'll collect tables in your section and collect plates to serve the tables. When you serve a table, you turn in all of the served plates and earn that tip. But be careful, if you have a table in your section that you haven't served by the end of the game, they'll complain to the manager who will dock your pay by the amount of that tip."

Next, I make clear one thing: "You do not take turns in this game. Instead, whenever you have an action token in front of you, you can take one of four actions."

Then I list the four actions with details, explaining how the action token is passed once you're finished your action. Then I go into how the game ends and how scoring works.

There are usually a few questions, and new players will be playing a learning game until everyone really knows the rules - but usually everyone has a good grasp on things about half-way through the first game.

What type of gamer do you think would like Diner? And why should we give the Kickstarter a look?

Matthew: I think the biggest fans will be players who like real-time games and fast-paced games. If you like Tessen, ERS, Space Cadets (and Dice Duel) , or Going, Going, GONE! you should definitely check out Diner.

However, even if real-time isn't your favorite thing in the world, give Diner a shot, because it has some good tactical play in a tiny package, and it has checks and balances to prevent the fastest player from always winning.

You should definitely check out the Kickstarter, because not only will Diner be there, but so will three other challenge finalists and two other games by great designers. I've played Brew Crafters Travel Card Game, and can tell you it's a great distillation of the full Brew Crafters game into a quick, portable game. I've also played Isle of Trains, and it's a great little euro card game.

Is there anything else we should be on the lookout for in the near future from you?

Matthew: Battle of Wits will be coming out soon in the Princess Bride series from Game Salute. I also have a game called Knot Dice which uses dice to create Celtic knot designs - it's currently with a publisher and I hope to have some news about that soon.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Matthew: Thank you for interviewing me, and putting the spotlight on Diner. I hope to get it onto a lot of tables, and that plenty of gamers like it as much as I do.

Thank you, Matthew!

What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?
You may want to check out these links:

Official Dice Hate Me Games webpage

Already a fan? Check out these microbadges:

Diner fan - mb

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