The Inquisitive Meeple
The Inquisitive Meeple
Sean Ross and the Haggis Memoirs
Interview 3 of 4 in our Modern Classic Card Game series. This time we speak with Sean Ross about his climbing-card game Haggis, published by Indie Boards & Cards
Sean, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you into the gaming hobby?
Sean: Well, I'm Canadian, soon to be 42 years old, living in British Columbia with my common-law wife, our 3 year old son, and two step-daughters. I have a degree in Computer Science, and spent a few years working in that field, but I currently work in a warehouse for a furniture company because it's just so much less taxing. I spend much of my time, when I am not working or looking after the kids, reading. Once or twice a month, I try to meet-up with members of the local Chapter of the Game Artisans of Canada to help play-test their games. I enjoy getting a chance to try fresh designs, offer feedback, and try to help develop the games as much as I can. I don't really get to play games very often, face-to-face, since moving from Ontario to B.C., and my day job is not mentally demanding, so these sessions I find give me a chance to exercise the little grey cells a bit, which is nice. It's also nice to just spend some time with creative, passionate, and intelligent adults, working in a field that captivates my interest.
My gaming background was relatively sparse, prior to joining BGG. I infrequently played many of the main stream board games (the usual suspects: Monopoly, Clue, yadda, yadda) but mostly I played standard deck card games (primarily Euchre, Cribbage, and Poker) and a fair amount of Chess. I had, and have, a fairly extensive knowledge of standard deck card games thanks to my obsessive scouring of Pagat.com over the years (and my more recent scourings of BGG), but my experience of playing the games was far less than I would have liked until after finding BGG and, subsequently, a wide circle of gamers in the Ottawa region I'd had no idea existed up to then.
I discovered BGG while trying to find more information about two player card games. I then did what I tend to call "a deep dive" into the hobby; when I find something of interest, I become very focused on learning about it and my deep dives are like dipping my mind into as much information on the topic as I can find and digest as quickly as possible and for as long as my interest sustains me. I tend to think of it like being a pearl diver: you go down as deep and as far as you can before your breath runs out. Essentially, I was doing a dive on researching card games, the tunnel of focus that led me to develop Haggis, and that led me into a tangential dive - this time into a much bigger pool than I had ever suspected. In fact, I'm still swimming in this research pool of hobby gaming and design, though I'm spending more time in shallower waters since I think I have a fairly good grasp of the past and current state of gaming at this point.
What are some of your current favorite games?
Sean: I actually have a geeklist of my Top 50 games. I just made it for myself, so never posted it to the front page, but for those who might be interested, you can see it here: My Top 50
For the most part, it's traditional card games (Tichu, Haggis, Watten, Scopa), dungeon crawlers (Descent, Pathfinder, D&D, Mice & Mystics, Runebound), and flicking games (Subbuteo, Elk Fest). Combining those last two categories, it looks like Catacombs will be a favourite for me, if I ever get to play it....
The purpose of this interview is to talk about your little game called Haggis and its journey from birth to now. For those that perhaps heard of the game, but have never played it, could you explain what the game Haggis is and give us an overview of how it plays?
Sean: Haggis is a climbing card game designed especially for 2 to 3 players. In a climbing game, the primary goal is (almost always) to be the first player (and/or team) to empty your hand of cards. Cards are played out of your hand over a series of rounds (tricks) where one player will lead one or more cards of a certain type of combination and the other players can play the same type of combination, if they choose, but it must be composed of higher ranked cards.
Playable combinations typically include singles, pairs, triples, four-of-a-kind, etc.; some games have sequences or straights (groups of consecutively ranked cards, e.g., 2-3-4-5-6-7) of varying length; some games have multiple sequences, straights made up of pairs or triples, etc (e.g., 2-2-2-3-3-3-4-4-4); and other games have some other special combinations, a subset of which can often be bombs. Bombs are typically combinations that can be played to beat any other type of combination. Haggis has all of these types of combination.
As examples of climbing games, you have titles like Asshole, Big Two, Tien Len, Great Dalmuti, Gang of Four, and Frank's Zoo. Haggis belongs to a subset of climbing games where players also compete to capture certain scoring cards during play: examples in this genre include Zheng Fen, Tichu, and (more recently) Clubs.
Probably the most common question you get, but still needs to be asked is why did you name the game Haggis?
Sean: A long time ago (over a decade ago, now), in a Province far, far away (Ontario), I went to a family cottage for a weekend where I played Wizard for the first time. This rekindled my interest in playing card games. Not having many friends who wanted to play along, I investigated two player card games and I wasn't happy with what I found, so I made my first, aborted attempt to design a two-player, exact-bidding trick-taker (think Spades for two). I called that game, 'Whisky' - a kind of Scottish- nod to other alcohol-named card games (Gin, Rummy). I tested this game with a friend who also has Scottish heritage. On occasion we would jokingly adopt Scottish accents in one of those "you had to be there" bits of fun, and there were frequent mentions of haggis. Sometimes, during these routines, we'd use it as a curse word, "Haggis!". It's just fun to say ―Haggis. After playing the game, and deciding it didn't really work very well, my friend asked what I called it. When I said, "Whisky", he said "The next time you design a card game, you should call it Haggis."
Fast-forward a year, and I have the early incarnation of the published game. At that time, it was called Zhubu Shengji (step- by-step raise-the-level). I was trying to tie the game back to its Chinese heritage. After a while, I got sick of how it sounded when explaining my game's name, and I had to say "jeeoo-boo sheung-gee-ee". I'm not Chinese, I'm Scottish, so it just seemed wrong to have given my game a name that wasn't from my own background and that I could barely even pronounce.
That's when I remembered what my friend had suggested, and decided to change the name to Haggis. I like the way it sounds and it's a pretty obvious nod to my heritage. I wasn't embarrassed to pronounce the name of my game when asked. Instead I was proud. It was fun. After you tell people the name, almost everyone says, "Haggis?!?", in a half-laughing, half-incredulous tone. I just say "Yep" and deal out the cards.
Looking back, the game's name turned out to be unexpectedly apt: it's essentially a design stuffed full of the guts (mechanisms and scoring) of all of the other climbing games (not just Tichu). Mix in some seasoning and oatmeal, cook for 4 years, and you've got Haggis...
In the game. you used the face cards as bombs. Why did you decide to add bombs to the game and what did they add to the gameplay?
Sean: Well, bombs were added 1. because Tichu had bombs and 2. because bombs are fun. But there's a bit more to it than that so, first, let me discuss why I gave each player their own set of wild cards and that should lead into bombs and what I feel they added to the gameplay.
One of the inspirations for Haggis' design came from a game designed by Larry Levy, that he called Teech for Two. You can find the rules in a PDF listed under Scum's game page. Larry gave each player two wild cards at the start of the hand, they didn't form a bomb (as they do in Haggis), but they did help add flexibility to your hand (they gave you more options and made it possible to respond to plays where you might not otherwise have been able to given the luck of the deal). I liked it so I stole it (with Larry's blessing) then adapted it to suit my tastes/needs. I added a 3rd wild card, to further increase the flexibility for card play but also to allow for more variety in the types of bombs that could be constructed using the wild cards.
So, the wild cards are there to try to help combat the feeling of helplessness you can get in a card game when you are dealt a bad hand of cards. When you are playing in a partnership game, like Tichu (or Euchre, Spades, and countless others), being dealt a bad hand is not so bad because you have another option other than just trying to win (or not lose so terribly) - you can play to try to help your partner win. In a trick-taking game, the rule of thumb is that you can typically expect your partner to be able to take at least one trick for you - so, if you have a bad hand, your goal is "Take one trick, or set up your partner to take it." It's similar in a climbing game likeTichu, though I think of it more as "you can rely on your partner to take the lead away from the opponents at least once.” This, primarily, is why the wild cards act as bombs in Haggis: you can sort of think of the wild cards as a substitute for your partner in Tichu - they are there to give you an extra play, perhaps that one crucial lead, that extra bit of power, that your partner might have been able to provide in a 4 player game.
The thing that the bombs add to the game play, beyond the elements touched on above, is brinkmanship and tension: lots and lots of tension. Haggis has been described as a sort of "Scottish Chicken" and it's true, to a great degree, the game is about the brinkmanship over when and how the wild cards will be played: Who will be the first to blink (shed a wild card)? Who will give up the power of having a bomb at the ready in order to play their hand with greater agility, or blow their bomb early to stave off a powerful charge by the opponent? Is it time to play a bomb? Can I give up the points it will cost me? Is the lead worth it? Would I be better off using the wilds to play larger combinations instead? If I play a bomb, will it destroy the rest of my hand making me less able to respond to plays in the future? What should I do?
The wild cards, and their acting as bombs, adds a whole other layer of decision making to the game that would be absent otherwise. It's a crucial element of the design. The game would not be nearly as fun or interesting without it.
Speaking of bombs, I know at one point during development you were thinking of naming the bombs. Did you have any favorite names for bombs (and if so what) – and why did you ultimately decide to not name them?
Sean: I mostly decided not to name them because I couldn't really decide which names I liked best. I also felt that, if the bombs were going to be named, then it might be best if it happened naturally - with the players deciding which names they like and the most popular ones becoming de facto standards over time. For instance, the Rainbow Bomb (3-5-7-9 in different suits) has become a standard reference for that bomb. Similarly, the suited version of that bomb has become, shockingly, The Suited Bomb (or sometimes The Flush Bomb - I use this one). I like both of those. There were a few names suggested for these two bombs but most of them feel forced in comparison to these names. I want the names to feel like they belong with the game, not like they were tacked on. I'm hoping someday the community of players will just evolve their own set of terms the way that Cribbage and Euchre have (I.e., "His Heels", "In the Barn").
Many of the proposed names can be found here: Naming The Bombs?
I actually think The Pinochle Bomb suits the J-Q bomb really well, but that might be obscure for people unfamiliar with traditional card games.
In the early days of Haggis you played with many bidding variants. Why did you add bidding to the game, and how did it evolve to what is now the published game?
Sean: To start out, I added betting to Haggis because there was betting in Tichu and the main goal of the design was to try to have an experience that was similar, if not identical, to what Tichu offered but with fewer players. Also, betting is fun! So, the original betting in Haggis was really just the same as the Tichu and Grand Tichu calls from Haggis' parent game.
After awhile, I began to realize that it's more difficult to assess a winning hand in Haggis than it is in Tichu: the wild cards and ever-present threat of bombs makes betting to go out first less predictable and, as such, much riskier. In level of uncertainty, I'd say a Big Bet in 2 player Haggis is somewhere between a Tichu and a Grand Tichu call; in 3 player Haggis, a Big Bet is at least as uncertain as a Grand Tichu call.
The risk due to uncertainty created a disincentive to betting in Haggis that I spent quite a bit of effort trying to overcome, generating increasingly complex systems of risk versus reward before I was made aware that I needed to keep things way, way simpler than what I was doing. Essentially, I was trying to create a system that gave you a reward for betting, so that you were encouraged to do it, but gave you less of a penalty if you failed, also to help encourage betting.
Early on, to make people want to bet, I felt it might be a big incentive to do so if betting meant that person would also get the first lead. Having the lead in a climbing game is an advantage, so I felt that reward would help drive the player behaviour that I wanted. But, then, I didn't want one player to bet and leave nothing for the other play to be able to respond with: no way for them to counter-bet and so take the lead for themselves. So, I went down a rabbit hole of trying to get a system of betting and counter betting that increased the risk with each counter bet, but not so much that players would be afraid to do it. So, at this point, the system had progressed away from simple betting into a twisted and complicated form of bidding.
Part of the decision for adding a bidding system to Haggis came from my awareness of this type of system in the 3 player climbing game called Fight the Landlord. In that game, there are 3 bets (1, 2, and 3) which set the reward level that the game will be worth to the winner. The player that bets highest goes first and plays against the other two players to see who gets the bid amount. I felt I wanted there to be more than 3 rounds of bidding. At the same time, I was thinking there ought to be some form of escalated risk attached to betting higher amounts, something beyond just increasing the end game reward.
I became fixated on the idea of tying the number that you bid to the number of cards you must leave your opponent holding when you go out. So, if I bid 4, and no one out bid me, then for me to succeed I must go out first but I must also go out while all of my opponents still have 4 or more cards in their hands. Riskier. But, I get the first lead and I get to make the value of the reward greater if I manage to succeed. I honestly believe that this may be the next evolution of climbing games; much as trick-taking games evolved to have auction systems in an effort to reward different levels of skillful play, I believe there is a similar area to explore in the realm of climbing games. Intentionally and successfully betting that you will go out first requires skill; doing the same thing but also predicting the minimum number of cards your opponents will be holding when you do it requires even more skill. To my mind, a theoretical game akin to an Auction Tichu, would quite likely be at least as skillful a game as Bridge, likely more so (yes, I said it).
The problem I had was that I was trying to bolt this system onto Haggis and Haggis, by the nature of its inherent unpredictability due to wild cards and cards set aside unseen, resisted. The game was just not suited to a precision-bidding system, you can't bid with precision with the amount of unknowns I'd built into the system - but I couldn't reduce the number of unknowns with making the game too predictable and boring. So, after much agonizing about not being the one to bring climbing games to the next level, I decided to just drop the bidding system and go back to a simple betting system.
This time, to help encourage people to bet who were too afraid to bet at a higher amount, I introduced a lower, less scary betting amount (the Little Bet) so that players that wanted to bet could do it and not face as much punishment if they are wrong. There are arguments around whether this bet is needed, I won't go into that. I think it helps to drive the player behaviour that I want the game to have, so it's there and I really don't see dropping it anytime soon.
Returning to the idea of bidding in a climbing game, I truly believe that avenue ought to be explored with a game having less uncertainty in its nature (just probably not explored by me, since I really don't have the resources available to make a proper go of it). Tying the bid to having the first lead (or deciding who will have the first lead) I think is a necessary part of that system (if you have the skill to predict that you will go out first and that you will go out with players holding so many cards, you likely have the skill to see if it makes a difference who gets the first lead - it does - so you'll want to be able to control that to your advantage ). I'll leave it to some one cleverer than myself to make this bidding system a reality. In the meantime, I'll remain satisfied with the simple betting in Tichu and Haggis.
So, Haggis started out as a “print and play” game that just used a normal deck of cards. It was designed specially with 2 players in mind. Why was it important to you to make a climbing game that played well for 2 players?
Sean: It was important to me for three reasons: the first reason was that I wanted to play it; the second reason was that it didn't exist; the third reason was that I wanted to see if I could figure out how to solve the problem of making it exist (despite the common belief, at the time, that it could not be done or that it was not worthwhile to try). I wanted to play it because I like the feeling I get when playing a climbing card game, the decisions I get to make, the variety of options available; I wanted it to be two player because I knew that this was the player count at which I was most likely to be able to get the game played. The game not existing and trying to show that it could be done, well, that was an interesting challenge!
To try to overcome - or maybe it was just hubris on my part - I believed it could be done, I don't think anyone had really made a great effort to to see if it could be, so I made the effort. I think it worked it out pretty well and quite a few people seem to agree with that which is nice to see (of course, there are also quite a few who don't agree - but what you gonna do? :shrug: C'est la vie)
The game first showed up on Geek in 2008 (as mentioned above as rules for a normal playing card deck) and was finally picked up by Indie Boards & Cards in published in 2010. Why did you decide to make it a commercial game and how did that come about?
Sean: Why did I decide to make Haggis a commercial game? Vanity, I suppose.
Haggis was available on the Geek, and on Pagat.com (the premiere site for Traditional Card Game enthusiasts) for 2 years, for free. I believe it had 17 ratings when Travis from Indie Boards & Cards expressed interest in the game. So, for two years, when the game was free, it cost nothing to play it but a standard deck of cards, very few people knew the game existed and fewer still were playing the game.
I felt like I had succeeded in making a very good game and I suspected that there would be quite a few people who would enjoy getting to play it - if they only knew about it....
I had been considering the possibility of doing a small print run on my own and I also sent out an email to Seth Jaffee, of Tasty Minstrel Games, to see if this was something they might be interested in (since they were publishing 3 games from some of my fellow Game Artisans of Canada at the time). But mostly I was just toying with the idea of publishing at that time, it wasn't something I was actively pursuing.
Around this time, I setup and ran a little design challenge on BGG, asking people to design two player games using a standard deck of cards. It got a good response and I enjoyed getting to see the design ideas folks came up with. After the contest, I got an email from Travis asking:
Was wondering if there were any games you've come across that should be published, I am looking to get a few more games to add to the ones I am looking to publish.
To which I replied: "You mean, other than Haggis ?" And the conversation went on from there.
We fairly quickly came to a publishing agreement and a first trial print run of the game came out in, I believe it was April of the following year. This was a 100 copy print run, mostly to see if there was interest but also to get in some final play testing and reviews before Travis committed to anything larger. Things went well and they've continued to go well since then. I've been very happy with the results and I'm glad I decided to try to get the game so much more exposure than it would have gotten otherwise.
One of the changes to the commercial game was that a 3 player variant was added. What is the story behind why this was added?
Sean: When I made my software to help me look at different deck configurations for the two player game, I did it with the intention of trying to get a sense of how the deck would play, the type and frequency of combinations it would provide and, depending on those factors, the speed with which I might expect players to empty their hand of cards (something I call "shedding potential"). As a baseline for comparison, I made my software so that it could handle generating a Tichu-like deck; while I was at it I figured I'd generalize it a bit to allow me to make decks with any number of suits (though I really only explored up to 8) and any number of ranks. I ran simulations for a few dozen different deck configurations, mostly ones for the two player game but also ones for climbing games that would support 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 players (with 8, I would split into two groups for Tichu). As with the two player game, I looked at the decks to get a sense of which ones would give the closest experience, the most similar "feel", to playing Tichu. At the time, I wasn't doing this in order to design a climbing game that would support these numbers of players, I was mostly doing it out of curiousity to see if it would be possible to support those player counts and still get a game that felt something like Tichu. The answer to that question, for those who may be wondering, is "Yes, or at least, very likely" but it will take quite a bit of effort and play-testing to make it so. I'm not sure I'll be the one who'll be able to pull that one off, but I do know that it can be done....
Anyway.... Three player. So, I found, using my software that simply adding another suit to the existing Haggis deck yields a deck with a similar shedding potential (slightly faster than 2 player, but slower than Tichu) and a nice variety of combinations to play. In theory, it looked like it would work. I was curious to see if it would work in practice, so I started bring a Sticheln deck along with me to game nights in the off chance that I might get an opportunity to convince two other people to give this game a try. A Sticheln deck, for those who may not know, has 6 suits with ranks that go up to 18 (more in some suits). It's quite handy for trialing card game ideas. And, since I had one of these decks along, I was eventually able to trial the 3 player version of Haggis that my software told me would work, and it did. Quite well, actually. So, that was nice. I knew I could play the game 3 player if I wanted to, but at the time I was really more focused on the two player game so I didn't give it much more thought after that.
When Travis expressed interest in Haggis, he mentioned that he wished the game wasn't only for two players (since only the two player game had been made available online at that time); I believe he felt that the market for a game that supports more players would be larger. So I told him, well, actually, it does play with 3 players but you have to add another suit - which, when I was designing a game to play with a traditional deck of cards, was not a great thing - but when the game was coming out as a commercial game, it was not that much of a problem at all. In fact, it would help allay concerns over why people would buy a game that they could just play with a standard deck of cards; the three player game could not be played that way (without modifying your cards in some way) - you need the fifth suit.
I did more play-testing and Travis got early copies of the game out to targeted groups of blind play testers (people who liked climbing games and/or trick-taking games). For the most part, I don't remember anything being changed (other than rules wording) until quite late in the development cycle.
Alex Rockwell pointed out that the 3 player game had a kingmaker issue in how the cards in a bombed tricked were captured. I let the bomber choose who the cards went to, so that most of the time the points went to the player in last place - a bit of a catch-up mechanism. I felt that keeping the games close was a worthwhile trade-off against the potential for a kingmaker situation - and, in a casual game, I think there a number of people who will agree with that - but for seriously competitive players, the kind of players who might want to play a game like Haggis in a tournament setting, I agreed that having a kingmaker situation would be unacceptable. So, very last minute, we decided to add in a set of tournament rules for how to handle bombs in a three player game. I think they work fine. I still use my original set of rules when I play games face-to-face, since those games tend to be casual; but the tournament rules are in effect on boardgamearena and I've had no problems with playing by those rules as well.
At some point, I would like there to be only one official rule for handling bombs in three player Haggis - I thought it would happen with this latest Kickstarter edition of the game, but no real changes were made. When the change does happen, the tournament rules will be the ones I'm adopting. They work, and they don't lead to complaints about king making, so that's a plus.
What are some of the bigger changes between Haggis 2008 and the final version of Haggis?
Sean: The scoring has been greatly simplified. The betting is astronomically simpler. The ranks in each suit have changed: originally I used 6,7,8,9,10,J,Q,K,A with 2's and Jokers as wild cards, this is closer to the traditional card ranking in climbing games. There were three wild cards but they were 2,2,Joker instead of J, Q, K; as a result, the old version had one fewer wild card bombs. There was a 7-9-J-K bomb (instead of 3-5-7-9), with any suits, and no suited bomb. The point values for the scoring cards were higher (but, then, all of the scoring was higher in the older version). The three player game went from being an abstract notion that, yes, it could work to a concrete acceptance that, yes, it does work. I think that's about it....
What was your favorite part working with Indie Board and Cards?
Sean: Well, other than getting to work with Travis Worthington (which has been an ongoing pleasure), I really enjoyed being part of the process while Gary Simpson was designing the artwork for Haggis. I am extremely pleased with the results. The look for the box cover, in particular, and the font chosen for the name are so perfect that I can't imagine wanting anything different.
What was your favorite part of designing Haggis?
Haggis gave me many hours of enjoyment just mulling over the options for its design, considering the decisions I would make or had already made, trying to solve the puzzle of making a climbing game work well for two players, appreciating some of the choicer bits of the design (the original scoring, the wild cards, the bombs, the suited-ness solution for staving off larger combinations) - sometimes its just nice to think that you're clever.... Haggis gave me something to think about, that I found fascinating, during long stretches of inactivity at work (this was when I was doing software development and was not permitted to begin working until the project had been approved, which often took months...). I would chew over the same design ideas again and again. I tended to think of it like chewing cud; in fact, the original file folder in which I used to stored ideas and data related to Haggis was named "ruminant". Yes. I'm a bit odd....
What we the biggest challenges you faced in designing Haggis?
Sean: Mostly, it was just trying to get the game play-tested to a degree where I felt comfortable enough to say it's "done" (it's done in the sense that a painting is done: there's more that you might consider doing but changing things at this point, even by just a single brush stroke, might just make it worse).
What was the best piece of feedback you got from play testers before the game became a commercial game?
Sean: Simplify. Primarily the scoring. Since I was designing the game mostly for myself (and for those I would be playing it with) I wasn't focused on making the scoring simple. I was focused on using a system that I thought was ingenious and ideally suited to scoring in the climbing game genre.
I still think that, I honestly do, but I also recognize, and was repeatedly told, that what I see as an elegant solution to a particular problem others see as a barrier to entry (like a 10 foot high bramble bush type barrier, with nasty thorns and poison ivy trimming). When it was just for me, I could be satisfied with being clever and enjoying how the system worked, but as soon as I wanted other people to play it I had to learn (or re-learn) that clever isn't always as useful as simple.
What traditional card games do you like?
Sean: I consider Tichu and Haggis traditional card games, and I think it's pretty obvious I like those quite a bit.... Climbing games, in general, are my favourites in this category. I'm a pretty big fan of Watten (using the variant I've outlined in my comments for the game) and Scopa. I love Poker and Mus is... amusing. I enjoy Mittlere Jass (the game Cosmic Eidex is based on), Spades, and Euchre. Cribbage and Gin Rummy are long time favourites. I like Indian Chief quite a bit (that's a game designed by a BGGer and, I think, is one that could be a classic). It's a nice light game with some interesting decisions. Oh. And I like Spite & Malice on occasion as well.
So, Tichu has been mentioned quite a bit in this interview. Why do you have such a love for the game? What makes it so special to you?
Sean: In many ways, it was love at first sight. It's hard to say why but I'll try.
I've been a person who has enjoyed playing traditional card games for most of my life. Although, really, I had only known about and played a very small subset of those games until the last decade or so (after having discovered pagat.com). My early playing experiences centered primarily around Euchre, Cribbage, and Rummy (in that order). I played other games occasionally, but far more rarely than these three; and of them, by far my experience of card games was shaped by playing hundreds of games of Euchre.
I enjoy the physical aspects of card games, shuffling the cards, sorting the hand just so, picking cards to play, shielding the hand from the other players to keep your power (or lack thereof) hidden, then unleashing that power when the moment is right. I enjoy the banter alongside the card play, the subtle friendly digs and teasing against the opponent, and the camaraderie, commiseration, and celebrations of partnership play.
Euchre provides all of this, in relaxed auto-pilot sort of game: the decisions are straight-forward, the rules light, but with moments of drama available thru "going alone". So, for casual play while having a beer with friends, it was just the sort of game that fit. But what I had been missing out on, until Tichu came along, was the depth of a game with subtle options couched inside a wide decision tree and a game with the high drama of large sweeping plays coupled together with the threat and pay-offs of betting. After you experience that, it's kind of hard to go back.
And I knew what this game would be like before I had even played! I read the rules and understood what awaited me if only I could find 3 other people willing to give the game a chance. I started working on Haggis directly after this moment, anticipating the need/desire to play this game but only being able to find one other player. It was several months later that I finally got to play Tichuand, yes, it was all that I'd anticipated.... This made the development of Haggis all the more imperative.
So, what is it that I saw in Tichu, and later experienced? Coming from a background filled with trick-taking (mostly Euchre, as mentioned, but also Spades, Hearts, and Oh Hell), I had become accustomed to sorting my hand, picking out an optimal path, then watching as this pre-programming played out almost always as expected. Playing one card at a time, always having to play, often having to follow suit, the constraints on play made all of this fairly predictable. With Tichu, and many other climbing games, it is still possible to do some planning ahead, but it's not quite as predictable. By their nature, climbing games offer far more options on how your cards can be played, be it a single, a pair, a full house (in some games), or a 14 card straight (I got that once, it was epic); just being able to pass (not play any cards) increases the flexibility of play all on its own.
Leaving bidding systems aside (for those are a game in and of themselves), the freedom and scope for skillful play, just from a pure card playing perspective, is simply greater in even the simplest of climbing games (say, Asshole, for instance) than it is for, well, any trick-taking game (yes, I'm including Bridge - but without the bidding, recall, so it's pretty much Whist at this point). It's really the scoring systems that elevate trick-taking games; and, in particular, the contract-based, or auction-based scoring systems. When we start to add in card capture scoring and contract-based play to the climbing game genre, as Tichu has done, well, we start to enter into a whole other realm of decision-making goodness.... And it's a realm, I now much prefer dipping into, over it's neighbour the trick-taking game.
Part of that preference is due to the possibility of the truly astonishing plays that can be made in many climbing games: the sudden and devastating appearance of the monster combination (say, perhaps, a 10 card stair) is in turn ecstatically thrilling or excruciatingly painful depending upon which end of the hammer you are on. I think of the card play in Tichu as if it were one of those high-wire, movie Kung Fu sequences with impossible flying kicks and acrobatics out the wazoo. It's all long range striking and dramatic flair, with the occasional flurry of punches and blocks thrown in for variety. By comparison, I often feel like Haggis is more of a grappling form of contest, with throws and holds and counters, punctuated by the occasional striking blow. Both games deliver drama; but the drama in Tichu just feels more effortless and flowing by comparison to the struggling sense that I get when playing Haggis. I like them both, but they are different experiences and sometimes I want one over the other. Most often it is Tichu, which is just a lighter game for me, less taxing and so more relaxing. The tension in Haggis can sometimes be more than I'm willing to get into on some nights....
And here I have said all of this and have barely touched on the specific aspects of Tichu that elevate it in my esteem over it's closest relatives; primarily the partnership play, but also the scoring system that underlies it, the betting that sits atop it, and the bombs that bring all of it up a notch in excitement. Still, partnership play is really the linch pin of this design....
Partnership play, by its nature, increases poignancy as you and your partner's fate become inextricably bound and you worry from beginning to end whether it will be your decisions that cost you both the hand; or, worse, the game. Almost all of your decisions are tempered by this consideration; not only how this choice will affect yourself, but of how it will affect your partner. And it begins even before all the cards are dealt, when you are offered the opportunity to gamble, on behalf of you and your partner no less, on whether you will be the first player to void their hand. It continues into the decision over which card should be passed to which player and what signal you wish to convey to your partner about the strength or weakness of your hand. Are you positive you want to pass them the Dog and help yourself but also risk destroying what might otherwise have been an overwhelmingly strong Tichu hand for your partner? Perhaps you should keep the Dog and pass that Dragon of yours over to your partner instead? This constant pressure, however, also serves to magnify the burst of relief or joy you will feel at the end of an especially well played hand. The scoring, in particular, is excellently engineered to sustain tension and drive players to shed cards throughout the hand. It is also tied into, and re-enforcing of, the partnership aspect of the game.
Regardless of whether or not Tichu has been called, having one member of your team go out first will always be paramount. The benefits for this include the obvious potential for making (or stopping) a Tichu bid and scoring any point cards collected in the tricks of the player who went out last, but, perhaps most importantly, it also sets your team up for the possibility of going out first and second (or, "getting a Slam"). Because of this threat, after one player has gone out the pressure to shed cards remains wonderfully undiminished as you must now concentrate on going out second to either make or stop a Slam as this can result in a huge two to four (if Grand Tichu was bid) hundred point swing in fortunes for one team or the other. And, finally, while the pressure does ease off when you get down to the last two players, the scoring incentives available for not losing the point cards you've collected in tricks still continue the drive to shed cards until the bitter end. All of these objectives combine to help make even a poor hand feel somehow worthwhile as you can gear your efforts to supporting the team, be it ever so humble or cruel a contribution as to hold the Phoenix in your hand as you deliberately go out last!
After almost 10 years of collecting and researching modern board and card games, I am somewhat surprised yet truly delighted to find that one of my absolute favourite games remains one that can be played with a barely modified standard deck of cards! If I had gained nothing else from my time here at BGG, it would have been worth it just to be aware of this game's existence.
A little bit lighter question here is do you eat haggis?
Sean: I have never eaten haggis. Yet. I feel like I need to, considering the name of my game, but I'm not actively seeking out the opportunity. I figure it will happen someday....
Do you think you will ever try to make another game like Haggis – a new “traditional” style card game?
Sean: Maybe. But it would take quite a long time. And that's said after taking close to 5 years developing Haggis to it's published state....
When I made Haggis, I actually didn't have a lot of opportunities to play games, but I did manage to get some tests in here and there. It was easier, because I only needed to get one other player (two, when I was testing the 3 player game). As I became involved in the gaming scene in Ottawa (where I lived at the time), my opportunities increased greatly (though, still fairly slow, until the game started to get a bit more known). Now that the game has done well, I imagine I could have had quite a few willing testers for new game ideas, if I'd stayed in Ottawa, but after moving out to BC, my opportunities for gaming having grown fairly sparse.
I do get out to monthly game design sessions with members of the local chapter of The Game Artisans of Canada, but I tend to focus on trying to help the other designers out with their games rather than trying to develop new ones of my own.
For the most part, the only game I'm really interested in seeing come to fruition is a Tichu/Haggis-style climbing game that covers the 5, 6, and 7 player count. In my mind, I call this game "Neeps & Tatties" I see it as being an expansion, of sorts, for Haggis so the traditional side-dishes for that meal seemed fitting as a working title.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, in theory I know it can be done and, in fact, for 6 player, in practice, I know it can be done. I have the broad-strokes for how to make it work churning on the back-burner of my mind, but the finer details are going to take more work and testing and, so far, I've only managed to do 2 tests at a very Alpha-level of design - and that has been over a 4 year period.... As long as it took to get Haggis out, it was a luxury to require so few play-testers per session to get the kinks worked out. It's harder to get tests when you need more than one or two people. It's also harder now that I'm a father and a husband (neither of which was I when making Haggis).
But, really, the big stopper for a project of this sort is the drive to do it. With Haggis, I was driven, to a very high degree, to think about and toy with and test ideas because I very much wanted to be able to play the game that I was trying to make. I believed I would get to play the game often because it was easier to get just one other player rather than three, so I really wanted to make this happen. Now, it's true that I would also like to see a game like this for 5, 6, and 7 players but I just don't see me getting to play a game with that many people often enough that I am passionate about making it happen (I make games, mostly, because I want to play them, but they don't yet exist).
I was also partially motivated, I must admit, by wanting to give a response to all the people in the BGG forums who would answer a request for something to play that's like Tichu but for fewer than 4 players with, essentially: "There is nothing. There never will be anything. Don't even try. Play something else. There are so many other good games for those player counts, why even bother."
Honestly, that kind of response really bothered me. For the most part, I don't agree that there are as many good games for 2 and 3 players as some others believe (it really depends on what you like and what you want to play). For me, there are maybe a dozen games that I passionately enjoy at two players, the rest that I like, I like; I don't love them. I want to find the games that I love to play because of the type of game that it is, the mechanisms within the genres I enjoy that generate the experience that the games provide, the very particular types of decisions, the specific feelings of tension, excitement, frustration, or joy that I want to get out of playing games of that type.
Some of those games don't exist yet. I want them to. Telling me it's not worthwhile to want these things is just a non-answer for me. Telling me it's not possible when it looks like no one has tried is kind of infuriating. Telling me something else will satisfy me is like trying to convince me that my craving for a particular flavour of ice cream will be satisfied by having some rice cakes, or some other kind of dessert that doesn't really do anything for me.
At this point, the only substantial driver I have for working on a Tichu-like climbing game that works well for more than 4 players (since I would rarely get to play it myself), would be to show the people who think it can't be done that, yeah, actually, it probably can - it just needs someone to try.... I'm just not sure that's enough of a motivation to get me to pursue that goal other than in the sporadic fashion I have been doing to date.
So, yeah. Maybe.
Are you surprised by the success that Haggis has finally found? Did you consider it a modern classic?
Sean: This will sound a bit conceited, but I truly believe Haggis is the second best traditional card game, ever (yes, I said it) - behind Tichu. In some ways, I think it may even be better, but I find it more mentally exhausting than Tichu and sometimes you just want to relax and play cards. Tense is good, but I need it in moderation. So, yeah, I really do think Haggis is a classic. But, that said, I am very pleasantly surprised to see that it is becoming known and played while I'm still alive to see it....
It really comes down to the effort that Travis Worthington, the publisher behind Indie Boards & Cards, has put into marketing the game and, I believe, a very large part of the game's success has come directly from the graphic design choices made by Gary Simpson. It's an attractive and classy looking presentation; I couldn't have imagined it before it came to be and I really can't imagine it being any other way now that it has come to be. Because of the efforts of these two, my little, obscure game that languished for two years with less than 20 ratings here on BGG now has over 2000 ratings, it's sold over 10,000 copies, it's online at boardgamearena (where some people have logged so many plays it's amazing), and there's an App. I'm still surprised to see all of this happening, and I'm grateful to all involved.
Now as you look back at the game, what makes you the most proud of Haggis, as its designer?
Sean: Honestly, the thing that makes me most proud of Haggis is that it is getting played and that quite a few of the people who are playing it truly enjoy it: it pleases me to know that something I've made has provided some moments of fun for other people, and it astonishes me that it has done so for people in places all over the world.
If you were hoping for an answer more related to the design, well, the funny thing is that the thing I'm most proud of in Haggis is the custom, curved scoring system I designed, but later dropped in favour of a simpler, linear scoring system. So, the thing I'm most proud of - it isn't in the game anymore!
Something still in the game.... I suppose people might think it would be the wild cards or the bombs, but I think I'm actually more proud of recognizing the need for restricting sequences to cards of the same suit (or suits). That was kind of important in helping to get the game to deliver the experience/feel that I wanted it to have…
In 12 words or less finish this sentence, Haggis is ______.
Sean: a connoisseur's climbing card game for 2-3 players.
Is there game in 2014 you are really looking forward to being released?
Sean: I'm interested to see how Chimera works in comparison to Dou Dizhu. I'm also interested in seeing Akrotiri, from fellow Game Artisans of Canada members, Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim. I helped play-test that one and I really like the art direction that Z-Man went with.
Is there anything you would like to add, as we wrap this up?
Sean: Thanks, mostly. To you, for the interest (and the patience) in conducting this interview, but also to those reading this who've enjoyed playing Haggis. Knowing that something I've made has given others moments of happiness makes my days a little bit brighter. Cheers!
Thank you, Sean, for agreeing to do this interview.
Note: Picture of the reference card was taken by user Endersgame and picture entilted "about to go out" was taken by user Manchuwok
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