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Michael Eskue on Council of Verona

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The Inquisitive Meeple
Michael Eskue on Council of Verona

The final interview (4 of 4) in the "modern classic card game series." This time we interview Michael Eskue on his Crash Games' microgame sensation Council of Verona

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

Michael: During the day, I play a 9-5 corporate drone who pretends to pay attention during meetings, but is actually thinking about designing board games. Seriously though, I do enjoy my job – I just make the best use of my mental capacity when it is not in use otherwise. I’ve always enjoyed traditional board games and remember playing the classics as a kid. I really liked miniatures and more thematic games growing up, but came from a small town and didn’t really have anyone to play with. One of my favorite games was Heroquest (which I still have) and have only played it a few times, unfortunately. After college I was introduced to Settlers of Catan and it became *the* game my friends and I would play all the time. I ended up playing it one too many times, but during that process I was introduced to several other games and my eyes were opened to the world of boardgaming. I’ve been addicted ever since and have met some very cool people along the way. I think it’s a healthy addiction and feel that it is a great opportunity for families and friends to spend quality time together.

What are some of your favorite games?

Michael: I tend to enjoy lighter games that are easy to teach to new players. Some of my favorites are: Summoner Wars, Dixit,Alien Frontiers, Stone Age, Shadows Over Camelot, Coup, Citadels, Mission: Red Planet, King of Tokyo, Quarriors, Belfort, and Lords of Waterdeep. I also enjoy Chess and other abstract games like Hive.

What 2014 game are you looking forward to the most?

Michael: Wow, sooooo many to choose from. Probably the biggest on my mind at the moment is Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men. My wife and I love Quarriors, 2-player games, and comic books (ok, the love for comic books is mostly mine), so this seems like perfect fit. I don't have anything against collectible games, but just have never jumped into them before. Something about this one really has my attention though and I'm very much looking for it to be released. Another game I'm very excited about is Kingdom Land, by Adam P. McIver. Adam is an amazing artist, but he can design a great game as well. I had a chance to try it out at BGG.con and it is right up my alley. Even in prototype form it looked great so I can't wait to see how the final version turns out.

What, in your opinion, makes games fun?

Michael: Working toward a goal is fun. However, it is the journey to that goal and the enjoyment of those I play with that makes the experience fun. I enjoy games with a good mix of solid mechanics and an entertaining theme. I’m competitive, but I don’t let that get in the way of enjoying the game for what it is and make sure that everyone playing can enjoy it as well. On a technical level, I think the gratification from games is fed by a sense of accomplishment. This can range from building something, forming a successful plan, defeating a foe, acquiring resources and putting them to use, and overall efficiency planning.

The big game you are know for is of course, Council of Verona. Before it came out, the microgame popularity was just picking up with the Japanese import Love Letter. Council of Verona, though, seems to help open the flood gates for microgame love. Why do you think gamers are all of a sudden falling in love with microgames? What is the attraction in your mind?

Michael: I think there are several factors in the surge of microgames. Smaller games have been around for a while, but the idea of minimizing something as much as possible is somewhat novel. I think gamers enjoy the idea of cramming as much game as possible into a small package. This way, it is portable, and you get more game for your buck. With smaller games, you can often get in multiple plays in the time it would take to complete one larger game. When time and money are limited, it’s handy to have alternatives that are still enjoyable.

Do you have a favorite microgame (outside of ones you designed)?

Michael: My current favorite microgame is Coup. I love the bluffing element and it is so easy to teach to new players. Pretty much everyone I’ve played with has enjoyed it so much that we play several games in a row.

For those that don’t know what Council of Verona is – could you give us an overview of the game?

Michael: To set the scene: the citizens of Verona have grown weary of the quarrel between the Capulet and Montague houses. As ruler of the region, Prince Escalus has proposed the formation of a council to oversee the mediation of the conflict. The goal of the council is to ultimately bring peace to the region by whatever means necessary before these quarrels escalate to tragedy.

In Council of Verona, the players serve as citizens of Verona and act either to add Characters to the Council or Exile them from the land. Through thoughtful hand management of their cards and clever placement of influence tokens, players gain victory points based upon the agendas of the characters at the end of the game.

To start the game, players draft cards and then take turns placing them on the Council or in Exile. Players also may place an influence token on the Agenda characters if desired. At the end of the game, influence tokens are scored for those characters who have met their agenda. The player with the most points wins.

What is the story behind the game? How was it born – did theme or mechanic come first?

Michael: The theme is pretty much what started it, but I did use some mechanic ideas from previous ideas. The original idea for the theme came after watching Romeo + Juliet with my wife and talking about the conflicts between the houses. I wanted to have a way to influence the difference houses or buy stock in their brand, per se, but from an outsider perspective. This is why the players don’t take on the roles of the characters themselves, but act as citizens of Verona who watch the drama unfold. Somewhere along the design it became a “restaurant” game which is an idea I was working with for previous designs before CoV. My wife and I play smaller games at restaurants while waiting for the food to arrive and I wanted to come up with something that is fast and has a small footprint, but isn’t just a regular card game. Here is a designer diary I wrote up a while back with more details.

You mentioned that it become a microgame along the way. When you were first thinking of the game, was the idea to make a full blown card game or an actual game with a board?

Michael: A few of the early designs were for a full sized board game. There were cards, tokens, and an influence track for the different houses. In those designs, there weren’t really character specific agendas, it was more about the agenda of each house.

Did any games inspire you when you were making CoV?

Michael: I believe it was more game genres that inspired CoV rather that specific games, but there are a few that stand out. I really liked the idea of a microgame that is fast, portable, and can be played by a varied number of players. Coup and Love Letter had some influence on this, but a key difference is that in those games you take on the role of a specific character, whereas in CoV, you are essentially putting stock in characters. I think that part of the game was influenced by different area control games. The earlier designs were somewhat inspired by Mission: Red Planet and games like Acquire. The final design is quite different, but some of the ideas, at least in abstract form, can still be seen.

Beside seeing the movie – did you read Romeo and Juilet when making the game for inspiration?

Michael: I read it back in high school so I was familiar with it, but that didn’t really appeal to me then. I think it was the artsy twist on the 1996 movie version that got my attention.

Do you think we will see any other Shakespearean games from you (or even ones based off of famous classic literature)?

Michael: Hopefully! Given positive reaction to the Shakespearean theme, I’ve started looking into the other dramas for ideas. I read Hamlet and MacBeth back in high school and there are definite possibilities there. I also ended up picking up a coffee table style book that has several of the popular plays in pictorial form – using LEGO (which is awesome). Since CoV, I’ve gone through a few different designs for other possible games for the Romeo and Juliet realm, but so far nothing has stood out. I may re-kindle those down the road once I get some other designs wrapped up. I did get pretty far into a Hamlet design where players are killing of the characters and essentially betting on which will be the last character standing. The working title is “Rotten State of Denmark” and I hope to get back to it again sometime.

Speaking of, what is your favorite piece of classic literature – Shakespeare or otherwise?

Michael: Good question. I think it would be Shakespeare at this point and probably Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet specifically. Part of this is likely based on familiarity because those are the ones we spent the most time on in school. I think Shakespeare is popular for good reason because the stories have a good flow and are entertaining.

What was the biggest challenge in designing CoV?

Michael: In some ways, the characters were a challenge because I took a little liberty with their agendas and motivations. Fortunately, Shakespeare did most of the balancing for me when he created opposing or mirrored characters on both sides of the houses. Finding the right modifiers for the agendas took a bit of trial and error, but because everyone has pretty much equal access to the characters, this was not a major issue.

What was your favorite part in designing Council of Verona?

Michael: I think the best part was when the mechanics and characters seemed to fall into place. We took a little liberty with the motivations of each character, but overall, the original characters in the story seemed to work out for what was needed.

How did you get hooked up with Crash Games?

Michael: I met Patrick at his booth at RinCon a few years ago. He was looking for playtesters for Dungeon Heroes, which was a perfect fit for the type of game my wife and I play. We talked back and forth after that and eventually he moved from Phoenix to Tucson. Later on, I came up with CoV and started looking for publishers to show it to. I had hoped to demo it for Patrick at a local gaming day, but we ran out of time so I just left him with the prototype and a copy of the rules. He called me the next day to say that he wanted to publish it and the rest is history.

You mentioned that you like play with your wife in the restaurant games. Was it important to you that CoV played well with 2 players and do you feel like you accomplished this?

Michael: This was critical. My wife is my #1 playtester and filters out most of my silly ideas before they get out into the wild. Because of this, it is rare for us to play games that require three or more players and it would be difficult for me to design a game that requires larger numbers. I have a few designs sitting on the back burner for that very reason. With two players, CoV is a bit different because of the way the card drafting is handled and because you have a better idea about the specific cards your opponent has. Even with those differences, I think the two player game captures the overall feel and I’m happy with how that turned out.

Speaking of playtesters. As you were playtesting the game, what was the best piece of advice you got from playtesters?

Michael: The best input from playtesters was about the modifiers for each character. Different players tend to gravitate to different characters and related strategies so it was important to get feedback on balancing the different modifiers based on the difficulty of meeting the different agendas.

How did you come up with council/exile part of the game?

Michael: The council/exile idea was pretty much from the beginning once it became a card game. I basically needed a good and a bad place for the characters to go. Even though many died in the story, it didn’t make sense to kill them off in the game because they can come back. The council idea stuck because I pictured Prince Escalus as a mediator and bringing the houses together in a formal setting seemed to make sense.

Adam P. McIver (creator of Coin Age) was the artist for CoV. What was your reaction when you first saw the art for CoV?

Michael: WOW!!! The first sample I saw was of a merchant looking guy that was drawn on the back of an envelope. This was just a small sample, but it was perfect. Seeing new images come in over the course of the projects was awesome. Adam is a super talented artist and if you look up his other work it’s interesting to see that the style in CoV is a bit different from what he normally draws. I got to meet Adam in person at BGG.CON after that and even got to play some of his game designs. He is one of the coolest guys I’ve met and hope he will draw up some purty pictures for my designs in the future.

What is your favorite piece of art that Adam did for CoV?

Michael: Lord Montague. I like all of the characters, but he just seems extra classy to me.

What was your favorite part of working with Crash Games in the publishing of the game?

Michael: I’d say I have two favorites. First, the communication with Patrick has been phenomenal. He has involved me with every part of the development and because he is in Tucson now, we’ve been able to meet several times to play CoV and other games. My second favorite is the dedication to quality. Any publisher can go with the bare minimum on component quality, but Patrick ensures that the components make up something we can be proud to have in our collection.

Outside of your games, what is your favorite Crash Games game?

Michael: Good question. I like Dungeon Heroes, but we’ve been playing a fair amount of Paradise Fallen recently so it is my current favorite. Rise is very clever and I’ve been meaning to snag a copy so I can play with my wife. I haven’t yet tried my copy of The Lost Dutchmen, but one of these days I’ll get Patrick to teach it to me.

Just as a Kickstarter add on, Crash offered dice with a Verona V on it. Have you given any thought in actually making a Council of Verona dice style game – maybe using both dice and cards that give you abilities?

Michael: That would be cool! I haven’t really given thought to that specifically, but I have toyed with the idea of using the characters in separate dice games. In those designs though, the dice would be custom so the dice from the Kickstarter campaign wouldn’t quite work. However, you’ve got my gears turning now and I’ll definitely give that some thought to see how using regular dice like that might work with possible expansions.

Council of Verona made 3X its funding goal when it was all said and done (and this was one of the first microgames on Kickstarter I believe). Did that surprise you at all. What was the moment like when the game funded?

Michael: It was pretty shocking to see it get so much positive attention. I had a good feeling about the game, the artwork and the components, but it was awesome to see other people get excited about it.

Was Council of Verona always the name, or was there other names that you were considering?

Michael: There were a few other names in the beginning, but that was when the game was a board and had different themes. The other names were variations of “Romeo and Juliet” for the most part. One idea that never went anywhere (thankfully) was about the two families as feuding cattle ranchers. It was a mix of Romeo and Juliet meets the Hatfield and McCoy feud. Because of the cattle theme, a name I toyed with was “Montamoos vs. Cowpulets.” Even at the time, I realized it was absolutely horrid, but it was fun to explore the possibilities. Once CoV became a small card game though, the name stuck.

What is your favorite “ability” out of the special ability cards and why?

Michael: Probably the swapping ability of Lady Capulet and Lady Montague. It can be very powerful when used at just the right time. When playing with the Poison expansion though, Count Paris’s ability to view influence tokens can be powerful too.

Why did you decide to use a drafting mechanic at the start of the game, when you choose the cards? What do you think it brings to the gameplay?

Michael: The drafting mechanic was added a little later in the playtesting. I was showing the game to some friends at Hat’s Games, a local game store, and the suggestion game from Dave Hat, the owner. Originally, I thought it may be too much to process when players are not familiar with the characters, but it ended up adding a key element to the game. By choosing your cards in the draft, you have some control over building a strategy and you also have a better idea about what cards the other player(s) have chosen.

When teaching new players, the draft part can be left out and the cards can be dealt instead. This simplifies the game some, but so far I haven’t seen people have too much trouble getting familiar with the different characters.

In the two player game, instead of using all the normal cards – you discard 3 cards without looking at them, however in doing so you can discard one or both of Romeo and Juliet. Did you ever think of first setting them aside, shuffling card, discard 3 and then shuffling Romeo and Juliet back in, so they are always in the game?

Michael: Interesting idea! There may have been something similar to that in one of the earlier versions (trying to remember), but it would certainly change things a bit. Part of the reason why Romeo and Juliet have the higher modifiers is because they both have to be in the game in order to be together. This does change the feel of the game with two players because there are three cards removed instead of just one. That said, this also gives more opportunity to bluff because trying to score points on R&J becomes more risky. It is also something to pay attention to when selecting which cards to give the other player. If you have Romeo and they give you Juliet, they don’t know that both characters are in the game so you can use that to your advantage.

The 5 player game uses some extra characters, is there a reason that they are only used in 5 player game (would they break the game if used with less)?

Michael: These characters were added to allow for more players. However, they could be used when playing with fewer players. I’ve played it that way a few times without any issue, but it wasn’t tested extensively because that wasn’t the original purpose. Players will end up with more cards so the drafting process would be a bit different:

With four players, you would still have one card left out and everyone would have four cards instead of three. With three players, you would need to leave out two cards at the end of the draft and everyone would end up with five cards. With two players, each player would end up with seven cards and three would be discarded as before. With two players, you would choose three of your seven cards to give to the other player and keep four for yourself.

With more cards per player, there will be more rounds and more opportunities to place influence.

There is already one expansion for Council of Veronathe poison expansion. Could you explain to us how it works, what it adds to the game and how it came about?

Michael: The Poison expansion is fairly simple. It adds two tokens for each player (Poison and Antidote), but the power in those tokens can make a huge difference. These tokens are placed as if they are regular influence tokens so other players don’t know if you are trying to kill off a character, or if you are invested in them and are trying to protect them. Characters that are killed by the Poison are removed from the game and their agenda is not met. This can have a ripple effect because some agendas are contingent on the existence or location of other characters who may or may not still be alive at the end of the game.

When you play CoV, do you play more with or without the poison expansion?

Michael: When I’m playing with those familiar with the game I usually add the Poison expansion. However, most of my plays are when teaching new players so I start them out without it.

Did you enjoy the challenge of making a microgame – and do you think it helped or hindered your design?

Michael: It was difficult to get started, but once pieces started falling into place it was very intuitive. Using the Romeo and Juliet story provided a great background and plenty of characters to work with. However, this is also a limitation to the design because there are only so many characters to use.

Another game that came out of CoV was Where Art Thou Romeo? Could you tell us how this game plays, for those that don’t know.

Michael: Where Art Thou Romeo? (WATR) is a super simple bluffing game. Players take turns being Juliet, who is trying to find her Romeo. The non-Juliet players take on the roles of the other characters and each has their own agenda. After a short discussion, Juliet decides who she thinks is Romeo and players reveal their true identity. Points are awarded for those who meet their agenda.

How did this design come about?

Michael: When discussing possible stretch goals for the CoV Kickstarter campaign, the idea of using the same characters in an even smaller game came up. We started talking about the smallest game I know, “Win, Lose, or Banana”(WLB) and thought about how we could expand on that. WLB is great for those times when you are waiting in line or waiting for your food at a restaurant. It’s also a great way to entertain your kids by playing “who is the better liar – mommy or daddy?” Of course this may come back to bite us later when we have to pay for counseling, but hey, it’s fun. With WATR, we wanted to give the players a chance to choose between two characters. They can be greedy and go for more points, or they can play it safe and choose the easier agenda.

After a few plays and tweaking the agendas a bit, we decided to make it available for backers of CoV. Because it is smaller than CoV, Jessica Nickell (Patrick Nickell’s wife) called it a “nano” game and the idea stuck.

I know that you guys are working on a new CoV expansion with Crash Games. Are you allowed to speak about it – and if so what is this expansion going to add to the game?

Michael: This is super top-secret to the max and I’d have my knee-caps busted if I talked about it. That said, I’m kicking around some ideas with Patrick at Crash Games to see what we can come up with. With a microgame, the idea is to keep everything to a minimum, but there is still some room in the box just begging to be filled with additional gaming goodness. We are still in the early process of this so I really don’t know how it will turn out, but it’s been fun just exploring different options.

When you step back and look at Council of Verona as a whole, what is the thing that make you the most proud about it as its designer?

Michael: I feel it is an elegant little game with much re-playability. However, it's more about being in the right place at the right time and somehow ending up with a team of great people who made it all come together.

Is there anything else that deals with CoV that we haven’t covered, but you think fans of the game would find interesting, that you can share with us?

Michael: It was recently announced that Ferti, the publisher that originally introduced Coup, will be publishing CoV in Europe in a few different languages. This has been a huge milestone and more than I had ever imagined for this little game. It is still early in the process, but I very much look forward to seeing how that goes.

Do you think you will ever purposely design a microgame again?

Michael: Definitely! I have a few ideas on the back burner, but am currently working on some designs that are just a notch or two bigger than a microgame. Once I get those rolling though, I’d like to pursue some of the microgame ideas. Like a lot of gamers, I really like the portability of microgames and the ability to teach new players a game quickly. I think microgames condense all the good parts to board games into tasty nuggets that can be enjoyed on the go.

Do you have any other games coming out in 2014-early 2015 we should be keeping an eye out for?

Michael: I don't have anything signed yet, but I've been working on a handful of designs that I hope to get published in the next year or two. The one I’ve worked the most on recently is a space themed worker placement game. It started off as a micro game with a single card, some tokens and a few dice, but then developed into a larger euro game. It is still fairly small, but has changed quite a bit along the way. I’m hoping to get the last of the playtesting wrapped up very soon and get it submitted to a publisher.

As we wrap this interview up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Michael: Thanks for the interview, it was fun to think back about how everything unfolded with this project. It's been quite a ride and I learned a lot. I met a several really cool people in the process and look forward to meeting many more along the way.

Thanks, Micheal

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