The Inquisitive Meeple
The Inquisitive Meeple
Hauling in the Heartland with Jason Kotarski
Welcome to part 2 of 4 in our "Modern Classic" Card Game Interview Series. This time we speak with Jason Kotarski on his Dice Hate Me Games game, The Great Heartland Hauling Co..
Jason, I know it’s the typical question – but could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you into gaming?
Jason: Alright. So I live in Flint, Michigan with my wife and 2 daughters who are 5 and 1 1/2. I split my time between being a husband and father, pastoring a small church, being a hospice chaplain, occasionally playing in a punk rock band, and designing and playing tabletop games. I got into gaming because of my wife. She played Settlers of Catan in college and convinced me to buy it one year when we were doing some Christmas shopping. I loved it and started poking around on the internet looking for other cool German board games and found the Board Games with Scott review show, The Dice Tower, and eventually landed at BoardGameGeek.com. I guess that's when I was all-in. I have always been interested in these strange niche hobbies and loved the creativity and variety I was seeing in board games. I also love face-to-face interaction with all kinds of different people. It's a great thing to connect with people around a table, have a laugh, and stretch our brains a little at the same time.
What, in your mind, makes a fun game?
Jason: For me, I love a game that is easy to teach, has lots of replayability, and brings something unique to the table. Every time you play should provide some new challenge but doesn't have to melt your brain to be enjoyable. And really it depends on what kind of mood I'm in. One night a fun games is a light card game I can play with my wife before bed and another night it's a flicking game that gets loud and rowdy. I guess it's kinda hard to pinpoint fun but as they say, "I know it when I see it."
What is your favorite part of designing games?
Jason: I'd have to say that I just love the opportunity to contribute to this hobby/industry that I love. I love playing games and there is something really satisfying about coming up with something that works and other people enjoy playing. So I guess that's 2 things; giving something back to the community that has provided so much enjoyment for me and putting ideas and mechanics together in a way that makes an enjoyable, engaging experience.
What is your least favorite part?
Jason: I'm a great starter. Like when I get an idea, I get to work right away. I have a slightly more difficult time as a finisher. But this is when it's good to have some friends around to help you find new inspiration and get you unstuck. For the most part I love all of it though, from concept to publication it's a super fun process for me. I like designing about as much as I like marketing. So I guess that's a good thing.
Before we get into games – lets talk about your podcast “20 minutes of filler.” What can you tell us about your podcast and why did you start it?
Jason: So, it all goes back to my desire to contribute something to the gaming community. I had the idea to explore the filler game space. I wanted to talk about those quick, easy to teach, replayable games that everybody brings to game night to play in-between the bigger games or while they wait on others to show up. These are the games that I love and they are usually treated as a side dish. So I wanted to do something to shine a little more light on these great games.The show is about 20 minutes an episode which I thought was fun because the games we talk about are quick so I didn't want spend 2 hours talking about them. I also liked that you can listen to each show in the time it take to make a trip to and from the grocery stores. A lot of the podcasts are longer shows and I figured why not go after 2 different niche's at once. I asked my friend Andy Lenox, who is also a solid game designer and playtester, to help out and once he got on board we went for it. The listenership took off really fast and we've been getting a lot of good feedback so hopefully we'll be around for a while. You can check it out in iTunes or at www.20minutesoffiller.wordpress.com.
What are your top 3 filler games and why?
Jason: That's super tough since most of my favorite games are fillers. So many great games. But I'll try.
6 Nimmt! by Wolfgang Kramer. I love this game. It's simultaneous action game where all the players choose a card at the same time and you place the cards in order at the end of 4 different rows trying to avoid being the sixth card in the row. I love this one because you can teach as you go and it has some great elements of sizing up your hand and the cards on the board and some great social elements of reading the other players. It's a game you can play with anybody!
Incan Gold by Bruno Faidutti and Alan Moon. Again, this one is easy to teach and has some great press-your-luck tensions. Do I go deeper into the cave to get more treasure or leave and take a chance that I'll have to share the treasure. Simple choices that can be agonizing. And I love the adventure theme.
No Thanks! by Thorsten Gimmler. These games is the essence of and elegant design. Take a card or pay a chip. Or use your chip power to muscle the other players out of chips and take the card anyway. So good. I hope I can design a game this simple and awesome one day!
Is there a hidden gem filler, that may be under the radar of a lot of gamers, that you would suggest them checking out?
Jason: A few games come to mind. Donald X did a game called Nefarious with a small publisher that has since went under. But it's a great, quick game about mad scientists trying to take over the world. The key mechanic is speculating what your neighbors are going to do and gaining benefits from being right. I hear that one will be back in print one day. Also, Biblios is a cool auction game about monks collecting the best sets of books using drafting and auctions. It has 2 distinct rounds like For Sale. It's really good and also coming back into print soon. Also, I recently discovered Knizia's press-your-luck dice game Pickomino. Really fun, light game about birds collecting worms.
Your first published game was The Great Heartland Hauling Co. For those that don’t know could you tell us what the game is about and give us an overview on how it is played?
Jason: The Great Heartland Hauling Co. is a pick up and delivery where players use cards to maneuver their trucks around a modular map representing different regions around the Midwest picking up goods and deliver them in order to earn the most money. The board is made up of 9-12 cards based on the number of players. Each location on the board starts with 5 cubes of a native good, an agricultural good that is produced in the region, and also lists 2 goods that are in demand at that location that you can earn cash for delivering there. On your turn you can spend cash or fuel cards to move your truck up to 3 spaces, then play goods cards to either pick up goods at that location or deliver good from your trailer for money. Then, you draw some new cards and end your turn. The game take about 30-45 minutes to play and it pretty easy to get up and running while providing a new experience every game due to the modular board.
What is the backstory on how Heartland Hauling was created?
Jason: I had been playing games for a while and kept thinking it would be cool to design a game one day but didn't feel like I had any ideas that felt original. But one day I was talking to a truck driver about how he drove to Michigan from somewhere down South to make a delivery that was losing him money since it was getting paid less per mile than what he was spending to make the trip. But then he told me that the reason he came up was because he knew that once he was in Michigan he could travel to the other side of the state to pick up a load that would pay him double what he needed to pay his expenses. So it clicked that trucking was like a cost/benefit exercise and I instantly saw the potential for a game. So I went home and rifled around in my components box that I had been putting together just in case I ever had an idea and started playing with some toy cars and a deck of cards until I had a solid idea. The first attempt took about an hour and turned out to be the solid core that I would build the rest of the game on. I kept playing around with it and saw that there was a game design contest coming to a local convention so I asked a graphic designer friend to help me put together a nice looking prototype so I could enter. And a month later I went to the convention, got great feedback from a bunch of playtesters, and scored a 2nd place victory missing out on first by a couple points. These gave me a nice little boost of confidence so I decided to start pitching it to publishers and ended up signing with Dice Hate Me Games in 2012. The game came out in January of 2013 and the first printing sold out in just a couple months. This was the first game I ever designed so I was very please that it has had so much success.
Almost all of the pick up in delivery games use boards, you went a different route and chose to use cards for the board setup. Do you remember why you chose did this?
Jason: When I first started working on the game, I knew I would want to make a decent looking version of the game so in order to make that affordable I knew it would be easier to create something using a print-on-demand service. It was the cheapest way I could figure out how to make a modular board so it would be a different experience each game. I also had the Kosmos 2-player games likeBalloon Cup and Jambo in mind. Those games are card games that feel like board games and that is something I set out to capture from day one. I'm really happy that it has such a small footprint. I think that has really helped the game gain some of the traction that it has.
The original name for Heartland Hauling was Over the Road. Why did you decide to change the name?
Jason: That was one of the changed Dice Hate Me wanted to make. My original prototype was a little darker in tone, probably due to my graphic designer living in Flint, Michigan. We know the automotive industry but it had a very gritty, working class feel. Chris wanted to brighten things up and bring it into the Heartland to give it more universal feel. My old version was "down and dirty" and it was a smart shift to go to "open road".
Besides the art and the name change, what were some other changes that DHMG asked you to make to the game?
Jason: Not a lot. We tightened up the end game scoring so the game length always felt right. So in a 2 player game you play until 50, in a 3 player game you play until 40, and in a 4 player game you play to 30. It was a straight 50 in the earlier versions. I had already been through one development cycle with Rob Seater from Cambridge Games Factory so the game was pretty tight. This allowed us to spend more time on the Truck Stop Inspansion that comes with the game as well as the Alternate Routes and other variants that are included. Those didn't exist before Dice Hate Me was in the picture.
Heartland came with something called the Truck Stop Inspansion. For those that dont know could you explain what an “inspansion” is and then how the Truck Stop inspansion actually works?
Jason: Sure. The Inspansion is the word the Dice Hate Me uses to describe and expansion that comes in the box. The Truck Stops add an extra level of replayability to the game. Each Truck Stop is an upgrade that players can purchase during the game to let you break one of the rules. There are 12 different Truck Stops in the game but you only make 4 available in each game. Once per game, instead of your regular action you can stop at a Truck Stop and purchase the ability for it's stated cost and you gain a special ability for the rest of the game. G.P.S. allows you to move diagonally, for example. It's another risk analysis situation. You have to decide if you want to hang on to your cash or spend a little to give your self an edge. They can be really helpful but if you don't use them well they can be a waste of money.
Do you have a favorite card in the Truck Stop inspansion?
Jason: Do you like one of your kids better than the others? Haha.
Another expansion was the Badland Expansion that added a 5th truck and two new tiles. Could you explain what these new tiles add?
Jason: The Badlands cards are food deserts. They do not start with any native good on them but you can drop off more food there, 3 types instead of 2, and on average they pay better since the goods are in higher demand there. They are places on the outside of the play area so it can take a little extra movement to get out to them.
Can you play the Badland Expansion in less than a 5 player game, substituting the tiles of course? Has this been tested?
I haven't played that way but I don't see why not. They needed to be added specifically for the 5 player game because the board gets a little too clogged up if there isn't that bit of extra space. I think it works pretty well to give that extra breathing room.
What is your favorite Dice Hate Me Games game, that you didn’t create?
Jason: I love Daniel Solis' Belle of the Ball. The art style and game play make a great combination.
Heartland Hauling is a pick up and delivery game – what are some of your favorite games in this genre?
Jason: To be honest, I hadn't really played any pick up and delivery games before designing Heartland. I had heard the mechanic mentioned and when I thought about what to put in a game about trucking it just seemed thematic so I made up how I thought it should work. But since then I've played a few other that I like. I really like Finca that has a bit of pick up and delivery in it. Flash Point: Fire Rescue is a get co-op where you pick up and deliver victims to safety, I guess. I guess I still haven't played a ton from the genre.
How did you pick the goods that are delivered in Heartland Hauling? What made you pick peas and corn, etc?
Jason: Get ready for my brilliance...I did a quick Google search for "top domestically produced agricultural goods" and pick the ones closest to the top that I could represent with cool colored cubes.. Thanks, Google!
Do you remember how you came up with the idea of using some of your VP as gas if you don't want to (or can’t) use gas cards?
Jason: I wanted to add flexibility in the system. Sometimes you don't like your fuel card options and would rather spend a point to get where you really want to go. So I thought it would add a more interesting decisions to the game along with some nice tension, just more of the cost benefit analysis in there.
In the game there, is a rule that you cannot park in the Distribution Center space. What does this rule add to the gameplay?
Jason: It was something to break up the board to make it more challenging to get where you wanted to go. And you have to start somewhere so a Distribution Center felt like it was thematic.
Trucker Flash Round
*Which is a better trucker song Convoy or On the Road Again?
Jason: Willie Nelson! On the Road Again.
*Would you rather haul- cattle or swine?
Jason: I have a feeling cattle would make less annoying sounds.
*Who would make a better trucker, you or Chris Kirkman?
Jason: That's tough, probably Chris since he has that sweet southern drawl.
*If you were a trucker, what would be your trucker nickname?
Jason: Honey Bear. I like honey.
*Could you make up some CB Slang for us for "Time to play Heartland Hauling"
Jason: Time to put the hammer down on some cubed steak. How's that?
*You pull into a greasy spoon type diner (maybe one ran by Matthew O'Malley) - what do you order?
Jason: 2 Flint-style coneys with light onions and mustard. Fries on the side.
*Ultimate Trucker Movie?
Jason: Over The Top
*Hans Solo is an intergalactic trucker - true or false?
Jason: A little bit true. He's got a little more depth to him than just "intergalactic trucker." Layers upon layers.
You think you would ever get a HH tattoo?
Jason: Maybe. I mean, I like tattoos but it's been years since my last one. All of my disposal income goes to board games! I can't afford body art anymore.
Who wins Heartland Hauling more - you or your wife?
Jason: Lisa for sure. She very much likes it that way, too.
What is the best game to play before or after Heartland Hauling - what compliments the game?
Jason: Maybe something like Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small. You have to do something with those animals you've been hauling around.
So, Jericho and Eureka? How did you come up with the names of the cities, are they influenced by the TV shows?
Jason: Credit for most of those go to Chris Kirkman. I contributed Flint since it's my hometown, but he just ran with the rest using special places and pop culture references. Just some fun Easter Egg-type stuff to give folks something to talk about.
There is a VivaJava Dice expansion coming out this year that will be featuring a Heartland Hauling special coaster. How does this coaster work and have you had a chance to play it?
Jason: I actually haven't played it yet but let me tell you, I can't wait for my Kickstarter copy of VivaJava Dice to arrive. That game is super fun.
Let's talk 18wheeples - originally the game was going to have punchboard trucker - do you think that the 18wheeples adds more fun to the game, even though it doesnt add to the gameplay?
Jason: Absolutely! I was hoping for those since day 1! Us gamers like our unique chunky wooden bits!
What color truck do you use, when you playing Heartland?
Jason: My color is usually yellow but since the corn is yellow we didn't want to have a yellow truck. I think I'm blue most of the time.
One of the really cool things in the game - though it doesn’t add to the gameplay - is the scoreboard and truck you store your haul in. Instead of putting cubes in front of you, you place them in a picture of the truck you are driving. How did you come up with this idea?
Jason: I knew I wanted to be able to limit the number of cubes you could have in your truck from the beginning so it just made sense to have a place to put them and an easy way to keep track of that. Plus, there isn't a huge narrative in the game so I think little touches that like that can really bring the theme through more clearly.
Heartland Hauling comes with a few advance variants. Do you have a favorite that you play with?
Jason: I like the Warehouse Mix-Up that changes up where the goods are placed at the beginning of the game. It's sorta like starting mid-game and adds another bit of tension.
Was it challenge to come up with the different layouts for different player number set ups.
Jason: That was a lot of fun, actually. I like shapes so I just moved the cards around until they looked cool and that added a neat challenge to the game play. I think Cherilyn and Chris came up with some of those, too. It was a whirlwind so I don't remember for sure.
What was the best advice you got when you were playtesting Heartland Hauling?
Jason: Chris Kirkman, my publisher, wanted the game to feel a bit tighter and a little more tense. So we came up with the simple ideas to lower the end game trigger point and lower the number of goods that could be on one location at a time and the number of goods that could be in your truck. These things seem really small but this kind of tweak can be the difference between a game over staying it's welcome and hitting the sweet spot. In the game, you always end feeling like you could do some awesome stuff if you just had 1 or 2 more turns. I hadn't really thought about that before but ending before everyone can do everything they want is a great thing to be aware of in game design. I'd much rather end it early and leave people wanting more than dragging it out long enough that folks get bored.
What was your favorite part of designing Heartland Hauling?
Jason: Probably that moment when I played with my wife for the first time and it felt like I had a game in there. And that it felt like it was something solid and unique. Lisa saw it right away, too. Impressing your wife is always a good thing.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in developing the game?
Jason: I think the biggest challenge was balancing the prices on the various locations. The prices are balanced against the number of cards of each specific goods in the game. For example, cow and pigs are generally more valuable than corn and beans, but there are less cow and pig cards in the deck. So this all had to be tweaked in small incremental changes until it felt right and this all takes math. And I don't like math unless it doesn't feel like math when I'm doing it!
What was the greatest lesson you learned when designing Heartland?
Jason: I learned a ton but the biggest thing I learned, which I think I knew on some deep level, is that I'm creative. I have to create and share my creations with people. It's just who I am. I love to make stuff and I want to be able to share those things with people, not just keep them for myself. I'm wired for this sort of work. It's very satisfying to take the blank page and churn something worthwhile out of it. So I guess it was a very clarifying, affirming thing for me to make a game and see it through to publication.
Are you surprised at all by the success that Dice Hate Me Games has had with Heartland Hauling?
Jason: I knew that I was going to have a great experience when I signed with Dice Hate Me since they had shown themselves to be great at what they do with their first two games up to that point. But it was a little strange to be the guy who designed the game that did so well. I am really grateful that it has been received so well. It is a blessing that this whole game thing is a part of what I get to do know.
When you look at Heartland Hauling now, what as the designer makes you most proud of the game?
Jason: For my first game, I got the whole she-bang! I mean, I got one of the best up and coming publisher to put out my game, great art and design, great reviews, a great Kickstarter games, and a quick sell-through at the distribution level. I'm just blessed to have been a part of all that. Again, it's so cool that my little creation resonated with people in such a big way. It's been a fun ride.
Before we leave Heartland Hauling, let’s talk really quick a game you tried out at Unpub 4 – Heartland Hauling Dice. What can you tell us about this game?
Jason: That's still in development without any publication plans at this point so I shouldn't say much about it. But I will say I think it's fun and it's both standalone that could be combined with the original game to change up the gears a bit.
After Heartland Hauling, your second signed game was FrogFlip. Could you tell us what kind of game it is and how you play it?
Jason: FrogFlip is a small dexterity game that I designed with my daughter Claire who was 4 at the time. The game included a Frog disc, 4 lily pad cards, and 8 bug cards. That's only 13 components so I'm pretty sure that makes it's a microgame, too. In the game, players take turns flipping the Frog disc like a coin towards one of the lily pads that are spaced out evenly across the table between 2 players. The target lily pad is determined by the number of the bugs depicted on the top of the Bug Score Card deck. The score cards either have 1,2,3, or 4 flies on them and the number of flies tells you which lily pad to aim for. If it's 1 you shoot for the lily pad closest to you, etc. If you are able to make contact with the target lily pad you get to keep the score card and it's worth points equal to the number of bugs. If you land on the lily pad and stay put your score for that target is doubled.
What is the story behind how FrogFlip was created?
Jason: I was out on a date with my oldest daughter and we made an origami frog out of her placement. She started pretending to roll dice and saying the dice told her what to aim for. She was making it hop around towards different targets on the table and that was enough to get my wheels turning. I went home that night and figured out how to use cards instead of dice and developed the scoring a bit and a game was born.
If someone is interested in FrogFlip, where can they pick up a copy?
Jason: Michael Fox of the Little Metal Dog Show put it out through his company Sprocket Games. So in Europe he's the guy to talk to about getting a copy. But here in the States, last time I checked Funagain.com still had some in stock.
What can you tell us about your game Camp Khaki that has been making its rounds at game conventions?
Jason: Camp Khaki is a new game I'm working on with Andy Lenox. He's a local guy I've known since my more active days in the music scene. He was a music guy, too. We didn't really start hanging out until we discovered we were both gamer geeks but since then we've been getting together regularly to play games and talk about game design. And one day he showed me an idea he had for a game mechanic. He picked up a deck of cards, cut it, flipped one half of if, shuffled it, dropped in on the table, and spread it around the table to make a big mess of connected cards. At first I laughed and then he said something like "I think there's a game about foraging in this." So we started spit-balling and within an hour we were throwing out some interesting ideas about manipulating cards and building up an engine to feed your stone aged tribe. We decided the ideas were worth exploring so we went for it. What's cool about Andy is that he's into mechanics when it comes to game design and I tend to be a theme guy so we have complimented each other well in that sense. He's also about making things big and I'm all about keeping things simple. It's been a nice push and pull.
But anyway, the game started out as Ohalo, a game about nomadic tribes starting to settle down in one location for the first time. And it centered on using various action to manipulate the cards in the Forrest. We set a goal of getting the game playable by Unpub 4 in Dover, DE so we would actually get it done. We made great progress and got to a great place to be able to take it out into the world for public testing. but about a week before the event, an idea struck me. I started to feel like the theme was a little too commonplace in the game scene and inspiration struck in the form of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom which is a movie that features scouts on an adventure to find a kid who ran away with his girlfriend. I love the Wes Anderson aesthetic and thought it would be neat to make our game into a game about scouting.
So now the game is called Camp Khaki and it's about scouts on a weekend camp out exploring the Forrest to show off their scouting skills and earn the most badges. The game is played in two halves; day 1 and day 2. And each day has 3 rounds; morning, noon, and night. Each player has 3 scouts in their patrol and they secretly choose from a handful of actions they can perform each round. You can gather berries, nuts, and mushrooms by searching through the pile of cards with one finger and placing one of your scout makers on a food source. You can track animals by picking up some cards and looking at what's on the other side and placing them back in the Forrest so only you know what's where. You can place a scout on an animal that's been revealed to take a picture of it. Photography is all about earning points through set collections. You can search the forest for wood to use later to build structures that lead to scoring options. And during all of this you are trying to achieve requirements to earn Honor Badges by pulling of sweet maneuvers that mostly involve manipulating the forest.
It's this neat mix of a dexterity game with a Euro engine/action selection component. We've been getting tons of great feedback and are still working on tightening things up. It's been a lot of fun to have new players what the messy set up and you can see it in their eyes they are wondering what they've gotten themselves into and then after a round or so it really clicks and people are having a blast moving cards around, digging through the spoils of the forest and earning Honor Badges. I'm really happy where everything is heading with this one.
You have 2 games this year coming out from Crash Games. Could you give us a quick overview of both of the games?
Jason: I've love to! One is called Dead Drop. It's a microgame inspired by watching Alias with my wife. The spies were always leaving secret information for other agents without meeting them face to face and blowing their cover. That gave me the idea to have several different covert agencies getting wind of this high value information and all going after at the same time. The game is focused on deduction, memory, and maneuvering cards around between players to discover enough information to be able to guess what the value of the hidden card in the middle of the table is. You trade cards with other players, you can force them to give you information by revealing two cards from your own hand and asking if they have a card with a matching sum, you can swap a card with an open cache of information on the table, or you can use the sum of two cards to guess the secret card in the middle. Each action gives you a little bit of info and hopefully gives you opportunities to set yourself up with the cards needed to guess the secret card. Agents with special abilities add some twists and are currently being tweaked and balanced.
The other one I signed with Patrick from Crash Games is called Sunset Showdown. It's a real-time, dice dexterity game about travelling the country with your family to capture the best spots on various beaches to get better memories than your friends who are trying to see the same placed you are. Each turn there are 3 beach cards revealed that are numbered 1-6. Everyone rolls 6 dice in their color as fast as they can trying to get pairs that match that spots on the beach. Players can place one pair at a time and are racing to be the first player to place all 6 dice each round. But the twists include a different wild number each round and the Life Guard dice that are passed around hot-potato-style that interrupt the flow of play. It's a silly, rowdy, party-style game that gets people laughing and sometimes even sweating. It's one of those games that usually causes a scene when it comes to the table. I am terrible at this game but I sure love watching people play it!
So we have talked Heartland Hauling, FrogFlip, Camp Kahaki, Drop Dead and Sunset Showdown. Are there any other games you can tell us about that may be on the horizon in 2014 - early 2015?
Jason: Well, this is a pretty big deal. This year, I'll be stepping up to the plate to take a swing at game publishing. I'm currently working on getting everything in order to launch the first title for my own publishing company, Green Couch Games. I'll be releasing a game I designed with Philip duBarry (designer of Revolution, Courtier, Canalis, Kingdom of Solomon, etc.) called Fidelitas. So be on the lookout for more about that in the coming months. But I will say this; it's a tight card game with hidden goals and I have lined up a fantastic team for art and design work. I'm really, really excited to take another step, deeper into the gaming industry.
As we wrap this up, is there anything that you would like to add?
Jason: Sure. I'll be at Origins and GrandCon later this year. So if anyone is interested in connecting or checking out any of the games I've mentioned please come say hello!
Thanks Jason, for agreeing to do this interview
Opening picture of Jason was taken by TC Petty III. Over Road picture was taken by Robert Seater.
What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more? You may want to check out these links:
• Jason's podcast 20 Minutes of Filler
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