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Chris Handy on Being A Gem Dealer

The Inquisitive Meeple
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The Inquisitive Meeple
Chris Handy on Being A Gem Dealer

Interview #4 with Chris Handy in our Pack O Interview Series. This time we look at the third game in the Pack O Game series, GEM. It is a 2-4 player game, in which... "Players are jewel collectors in this tense auction game of asset leverage and wit. In the end, the player who is most effective with his money and cunning in his collecting, will amass the most prestigious and valuable jewel collection."

Note by The Inquisitive Meeple: Unlike most our interviews, in this one we will jump straight in to talking about about the game. This is something we plan to do with all the Pack O Interview series outside of the first interview. The first interview in this series, was the introduction interview (found here) with designer, Chris Handy, where we not only talked about the overall Pack O Game series, but got to know Chris a little as well.

The third game in the Pack O Game family is GEM. Could you tell us about the game and how it is played?

Chris: GEM is a strategic jewel collecting game in which players must use their money and collected jewels to collect even more jewels. The goal is to have the majority in as many jewel types as possible, but also to make sure they have been reinvested in (and aren’t leveraged) so that they can be counted for end game scoring. Each round of the 6 rounds has 2 phases.  The first is a auction of “1 time” bids.  The second phase is the “reinvestment” phase in which players must carefully decide which of their leveraged jewels they should reinvest in. A player’s money gets regenerated (unleveraged) at the end of each round. In the end, each player earns 1 point for each jewel (most cards have 2 different jewels on them), plus 3 bonus points for having the solo majority of a jewel type, or 2 bonus points for having shared majority.  HOWEVER, only cards that have been reinvested in count during scoring.
What is the story behind the creation of the game?

Chris: I wanted to create an auction game in which you had a limited amount of money to start the game with, but by inventing in jewels, your assets would grow, by leveraging your collected jewels to collect even more.  That’s about the only aspect that really stuck through the development of the game. GEM started out a little different in that the more jewels of certain type you had, the more each one was worth. It didn’t work that well in practice, and the scores and values became inflated too quickly.  So, my main play tester (Steve) and I compressed the numbers and figured out how to gradually increase player assets, and forcing tough decisions and tight bids in the auction. The “majority” mechanic was cleaner and easier to competitively track as well. This game has a lot of value and “meat” for it’s size.

Did any games inspire you where you were creating GEM?

 Chris: RA is in my top 3 all-time favorite games, and one aspect I love about it is the “1 time” bid auctions, with visible assets. I like that throughout a game of RA, players a differently motivated for auction lots as their collection changes/grows. I find GEM to be a very satisfying play, especially in the auction.

Before we get a little more in-depth with learning about GEM, we should mention there is an actual print and play (note: links to pnp at bottom of interview) for this Pack O Game. Why did you decide to offer GEM as a print and play?

Chris: Well, I would have liked to have offered more of them, but the others don’t lend themselves to standard card size PnP. I could have posted the 1x3 versions, but, there would be no way to sleeve them appropriately and would be awkward misrepresentations of the games.  I think for a PnP, GEM is simple to print and has a ton of value.  So, I’m glad that one is posted.
What makes GEM unique from other bidding games out there?

Chris: I’m kinda picky when it comes to auctions in games, and in fact, I think the auction mechanic is currently out of vogue in the current era of design. As I mentioned, I am partial to 1 time, visible asset bidding. The scores in GEM are very tight, and it’s not a very forgiving game if you make a really bad move.  That said, it’s difficult to  tell who is going to win until the last Reinvestment phase, because you’re not sure which cards players will reinvest in until then.  That also makes the last phase of Reinvestment extra important, because players reinvest in order, which determines majority scoring.
Let's talk about the bidding for a second. When you win a bid, you actually get to pick from any available card, instead of having to take a certain gem, due to order. What made you decide to use this mechanic?

Chris: All cards have positive value in that nothing (jewels or cards) can hurt you by collecting them. Also, other than the diamond cars, every other card has 2 jewel types on it.  So ultimately, you want every card you can get.  Sometimes, you’re more interested in winning an auction to select a card in order to prevent another player from pushing a jewel type to majority.  These factors make EVERY single auction extremely important.  The game doesn’t ramp up.  It begins with important auctions and ends that way.  And because of this, everyone is involved and strategically stressing on every single auction.  And this makes for a tense, tight auction game. The selection gives players an important choice and allows them to plan more and find the rhythm of their money usage and asset management.

What do you think a 1 time bid brings to the game that multiple bidding from players may not?

Chris: I much prefer the 1 time bid mechanic. The parameters seem clearer. The tension is certainly higher. And, for players that don't care for auction games, it's a faster, simpler way to do an auction.
Another feature of the game is when you win a gem, you still have to “invest” in the gem to active it (unless it's the last round). If it's not invested side up at the end of the game, it does not count in scoring. What does this bring to the gameplay, in your opinion as the game designer?

Chris: It absolutely brings intrigue, planning, tension and most of all: tough choices. Without it, this would be a stale game with very little replay value.

A follow up to that question – why did you decide to make the last round different, in that those gems, once collected by a winning bid are automatically active in a players collection?

Chris: The last round was less interesting when you had to bid on cards that you were likely not going to have a chance to reinvest in.  Because the 6th round cards are won with the “reinvested” side up, they have even more value as they can be used to pay for the remaining card in the auction, or to reinvest in leveraged jewels.
What made you decide to have two sides (upper and lower part) to the cards – the invested side and the leverage side?

Chris: I wanted to have a mechanic that allowed you to “leverage” your money and jewels to accumulate more.  And, since the parameters of the game are just 30: 1x3 inch cards, I had to use the cards themselves to show this.  So, in the game you use/spend assets by flipping them 180 degrees.  There’s a green number on the top of the card, and there’s a red number on the bottom.  On the jewel cards, the red number is exactly 1 lower than the green number.  I think it works very well and provides some interesting choices. 

Due to players only having $6 worth of coins (1,2 and 3 coin) at the start of the round, they may have to use a gem to win a bid they really want. That also means they are using possible end game points.  What inspired you to use this mechanic in the gameplay?

 Chris: The idea of having to make “tough choices” inspired me really. I wanted players to be forced to leverage assets, with the possibility of rendering them worthless if they weren’t careful.  This risk/reward aspect needs to be strictly balanced and lends itself to tougher choices and ultimately, replay value.

Was there ever a gem/stone type you were thinking of adding to the game, that just never made it in?

Chris: The game was tested with 6 types of colored jewels AND the diamonds being WILD. 6 different color jewels didn’t have as much tension because players didn’t fight quite as much for the same color. Also, the Diamonds being wild was actually kind of interesting, but the last round of reinvestment was heinous.  There were serious AP and hyper calculations that players had to do, because the wilds had to be allocated to a certain jewel color in turn order. This mechanic didn’t add fun or strategic value, and so I removed it. I have some neat ideas for some special expansion cards for this game though, so hopefully the KickStarter funds and some of my ideas can come to life.
Do you think that the 2-player game differs in “feel” compared to 4 -player game?

Chris: It is different.  I have played less 2 player games than 3-4. Certainly, players end the game with more cars, but they also have more of them leveraged at the end. I like the game with 3 or 4 a little more, because I like watching how players put just the right amount of pressure on the next player during the auction.

One change I made in set up was that round 1 has 4 cards (and round 6 has 2) to auction off rather than all rounds having 3 cards.  I found that the player that did not win a jewel card in the first round felt like they couldn’t win the game.  And, even though they could, that’s not a feeling you want to produce in a game. So, now there are 4 cards in the first round to create more balance and feelings of winning equality.  I’m very in tune with “how players are feeling” when I’m playtesting.  The game can be played with all stacks of 3 for the set up in a 3 player game, and it works great.

What was the best piece of feedback you received from a play tester when you were still prototyping the game?

Chris: The game was actually more difficult for a while.  It was more difficult (and one could argue: frustrating) because the reinvestment/leverage values were higher.  This meant that it was more difficult to reinvest in cards and produced a bit more frustration. There was even a rule that allowed players to reinvest in a single card for free, if they did not win a card in that round.  But, in the end I found the right balance of values and tension that created the right amount of reinvestment opportunity with fun and strategy and removed that rule.  Also, with the final values, if a player doesn’t win a card during a round, they almost always have more than enough to reinvest in their jewels. And if not, then I’m happy with how much tension it’s providing to the game.
Speaking of 2-player, there may be some out there that think an open bidding/auction game and 2-player, cannot work well – and yet with GEM you did a great job. Was it hard at all to get it to work in a 2-player setting? And did you purposely decide that this game has to be able to play with 2-player going into the design of it?

Chris: Yeah, some auctions in a 2 player game are lame. I didn’t alter the game to accommodate 2 players.  And, I’m always trying to accommodate the biggest player range as possible.  I don’t like to add rule changes for different number of players, though I’m willing to do it. I’m more likely to exclude a certain number of players from the range than accommodate them by changing rules for the different numbers.  It must be my streamline/elegance gameplay sensibility that pushes me that way.

What would you say the number one mistake you see newbie’s make when playing GEM?

Chris: You have to put the most pressure possible on the other players with your bid.  I’ve seen players bid very little because they’ve decided they’re not interested in the cards that are up for auction.  This is a mistake because they usually allow their opponents to take cards for less money than they should.  Every card is valuable to everyone, all the time. It’s a matter of deciding exactly how much you can possibly pay, without killing your investments for end game scoring. 

 What was your favorite part of designing GEM?

Chris: My main design play-tester has become quite good at knowing what I’m looking for in a game, and balancing interesting, tough decisions with simple rules and streamlined play with me in real time.  We were able to draw out the main ingredients and parameters in the game one day while we did one of our 8 hour testing/design sessions at a Starbucks.  It was thrilling to watch some raw, but solid game ideas and parameters turn into a very replayable, interesting auction/collection game.  Playtesing is one thing, but loose, liquid designing and testing is a whole different level, and I’m proud of how far my friend/playtester has come in this role.  Nice job Steve!
As a game designer, what would you say was the most interesting part of designing GEM?

Chris: Trying to balance the jewels with the number of cards available (18 cards, as 12 of them are used for coins) was a challenge.  I tried several different mixes and values before deciding on the final mix/balance.  

What was the most challenging part of designing it?

Chris: It’s was a challenge finding the right amount of punishment and difficulty in reinvesting.  A game should be fun, but I wanted GEM to be as challenging as possible, and still be fun. I think another really big challenge is preparing the new player/buyer of the game for what is inside the tuck box. I mean, this game is the size of a pack of gum, so…people are expecting something light, maybe even a game for young kids.  But, the game inside this box is actually quite involved, with phases, and difficult decisions.  This “perception of what’s in the box” is probably the most challenging part of marketing the Pack O Game line. The real challenge is informing GAMERS that these are actually playable, interesting games with strategy AND informing non-gamers that these aren’t going to be super-simple games that play themselves.  I’m hoping the rating system that’s printed on each game box will help this challenge.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed this game?

Chris: I’m pleased that I was able to pull off another game with a fairly simple rule set that has layers and strategy, long term planning, constant tension and close scores….all in a tiny, box with 30 cards.
A slight follow up to that question, as the series designer of the Pack O Game games – what in your mind, does GEM bring to the overall series? Also what would you say makes it stand out over the other games (what is its greatest strength)?

Chris:  I think there are several aspects that make it unique to the overall gaming landscape, as well to the Pack O Game series.  Obviously, the size of this game while packing a big punch brings a lot of value to the gaming public. But, the INVESTED/LEVERAGED “switch" aspect to the cards is unique for an auction game. Also, the aspect of leveraging one thing to gain another is unique. I’m excited that there’s a really solid auction game in the initial Pack O Game offering. I can’t imagine this game NOT existing, as we’ve gotten so much replay value out of it already.

Finish this sentence in 12 words or less.  ­­­GEM is ________.

Chris: a tight, tense, auction game of leveraging jewels, to gain more jewels.

Thanks Chris. Stay tuned for our next game in the Pack O Interview series (FLY) coming soon.

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