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Talking Pack O Game with Chris Handy

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Talking Pack O Game with Chris Handy


1st interview in our Pack O Interview Series, with designer Chris Handy. Future interviews in this series (which will be featured this month) will focus on individual Pack O Game games, while in this interview we get to talk about the series a a whole, as well as get to know Chris a little bit.



Chris, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?

Chris: I’ve always loved games. I have memories of playing Scrabble Junior and Aggravation with my grandmother at an early age. I also had a knack for making up card games as a kid. I hosted game nights in high school…Taboo, and some of the other party games of that era. I got into MtG in the summer of 1994, and played/collected as much as I could. I didn’t get into Euros until 2000, the year I got married. Settlers, Corsairs, and Filthy Rich were the games I played most that year. Also in that summer, I designed my first “real” game: Long Shot (published almost 10 years later by Z-Man Games). I’ve been designing party games and Euros since then.

What are some of your favorite games to play currently?

Chris: Well, lately I’ve been playing my Pack O Game series a ton. One really great thing about them is they’re so small and portable that I have been taking them everywhere I go, and when I have 10 minutes to play one…I do! So, I’ve been getting much more gaming in than I ever have before, mostly because of these games. As far as other published games, I think Hanabi is one of the strongest designs of the last 5 years. I’ve been getting lots of plays in on AMERIGO and SPYRIUM too.

What, in your opinion, makes a game fun and what do you look for when buying a new game?

Chris: I think interesting choices and interesting/abundant interaction is what I look for most in a game. Games with tons of text and tons of options don’t interest me as much as games with narrower (but still interesting) and refined choices. When designing, I try to remove as much as possible and get mechanics out of the way so that players can jump into interesting decisions and interactions as seamlessly and quickly as possible.

What out of print game would you like to see come back into print?

Chris: I played a favorite last night at GatePlay…Zooloretto.” I was informed that it’s out of print and may be coming back to print very soon. I’ve also heard that Lost Cities is out of print. Both of those games need to be in print. Long Shot is also out of print, and I own all the art work and publication rights, so I may be rereleasing that in the near future, with improved components and maybe even extra horses as stretch goals on a Kickstarter. I can tell you that the digital version is already in the works.

What would you say is your biggest strength and your biggest weakness as a game designer?

Chris: That’s a tough one. I think one weakness is not always being willing to let games get big. I tend to want to refine aspects of games, and still maintain depth in gameplay. But, some gamers like all the little layers and “stuff” in a game. So, it’s harder for me to design that kind of game. I think a strength of mine is almost the same thing, the ability to refine and remove unnecessary aspects of a game and trying to keep the entry point low enough for a non-gamer, but keep the decisions and interaction interesting enough for gamers.

You are known for Long Shot (published by Z-Man Games, as mentioned ealier) and most recently Cinque Terre (published by Rio Grande). However, you decided to branch out on your own and make a new series of games called Pack O Game. What is Pack O Game?

Chris: What’s been difficult for me as a designer, especially in the last few years, is that I haven’t been able to get as many games to market as I’ve wanted to. And even in the case of Cinque Terre, it took several years. I’ve got nearly 200 games in my unpublished collection, all at different stages. I’ve considered launching a few of them on Kickstarter over the last few years, but haven’t been confident enough in any of them to actually do it. Plus, I think the current market is too saturated with middle-weight euros, which is what I typically like to design. So, I feel even good games in this category are getting lost as there are too many to choose from.

In thinking about this, I’ve been experimenting over the last few years with different card sizes and unique components to help push my games above the crowd and hopefully appeal to publishers. My first Pack O Game design was called “RGB” (now called “HUE”.) I wanted to make a tile laying game with small cards (1 in. x 3 in.) and just a few wooden pieces. In testing it with my wife, I challenged myself to remove everything but the cards, and try to score and provide long term goals and strategy with JUST CARDS. And in fact, I did find a way to do remove everything but the cards and we began to test and refine the game that way. Prior to a trip to Hawaii, I made a tuck box to hold the cards and make it easier to carry around. I took it to Hawaii and we played it on the plane, at restaurants and bars, in the hotel room, and even at the beach on a towel. What occurred to me was how unique the card size and portable tuck box was, and I began to brain storm other possible games that would fit this template. I can tell you that I came up with a ton of ideas, so many that I couldn’t print them fast enough. Even as the KickStarter launch approaches, I’ve had to discipline myself (and have been encouraged by others on the Perplext team) to stop making new games for a bit, and make sure the first set is ready to go. As I printed each one, I became more convinced and obsessed with how fantastic these small games were. Mostly because I genuinely saw them increase my own gaming habits more than any other games have. I mean, they’re tiny! But, they DON’T suck! Everyone one who knows me, and knows how hard I work to design games, said, “Chris, this is the project you need to Kickstart.” And after some consideration, I’ve decided that they’re right!

For those that don't know yet, over the coming weeks we will be giving many of the games in this current Pack O Game Kickstarter its own individual interview, so without going into too much detail, could you share with us what the 8 announced games (4 are stretch goals) and give a brief summary of the game?

Chris: The "Core Four" Kickstarter games are:

HUE - Secretly choose 3 colors and build the largest color sections in this fast-playing, tile-laying strategy game. Players build an area of color sections together. In the end, the winner is the player who chose the most valuable 3 colors.

TKO - Compete for the TKO Belt as you maneuver around the ring in this clever boxing game. You’ll need more than brute strength to get inside your opponent’s head. Choose from 8 different fighters and keep it clean out there! Fight!

GEM - 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.

FLY - Get swattin’ in this exciting dexterity, set-collecting game! Players take turns dropping the fly swatter card on the table to swat flies with like colors and symbols. You'll need at least 3 of the same color or symbol in order for a fly to count.

--- And the 4 Stretch Goal Games are:

TAJ- Players assume the roles of ancient rug collectors vying to display their collection in the Taj Mahal. Vote on proposals made by opponents to shift rugs in the display to gain prestige for rugs displaying your secret color scheme.

LIE - Be the last liar playing in this game of cunning speculation. If you get caught overbidding, you lose a card; but when you're caught telling the truth, your challenger pays!

SHH - Players cooperate as a single team to spell words in order to rid their hands of as many letters as possible. The catch? Silent play proves challenging when one doesn't know his teammate's hand. Shh!

BUS - You’ll need absolute efficiency in this quick, “Pick up and Deliver” game of balancing speed and maximum capacity. Don’t get too distracted dropping off passengers, because your opponents might beat you to the bus stop or change your route through road construction!

and who knows...maybe we'll see even more games unlock....

What is your mission statement for the overall Pack O Game series?

Chris: My goal with this line of card games is to create low-entry point games with high replay value across many themes and mechanics, for gamers and non-gamers.

How did you come to the decision that all the games would be exactly 30 cards?

Chris: HUE started as a 25 card game, but the tuck box fit about 30 cards with a rule sheet. Then, after designing a few more games I found that 30 was best and added 5 “Start Cards” to HUE. I’ve been working within the 30 limit since them. Occasionally I’ll think, “Dang, I should have made it 31 cards!” But, I eventually find a way to make it work. I want to keep the tuck box size and games uniform for the whole set.

What kind of games will we be seeing in the Pack O Game series?

Chris: In the first four games, there’s tile-laying, hidden goals, simultaneous selection, dexterity, set collection, and auction. As for the rest of the games, I hope we'll see a ton of different mechanisms and theme. In the 4 stretch goal games, there’s Pick Up and Deliver, Cooperation, Word, Bluffing and more. There are games for just 2 players, some are 2-4, and even 2-6. But, I’m probably even more excited about the games that are coming beyond this first Kickstarter offering.

The Pack O Game have a difficulty rating system of 1-3, which will be listed on the box. Could you explain the rating system?

Chris: In testing this line of games with gamers and non-gamers, I’ve found that there’s an expectation or “perceived experience” based on it’s size and appeal. Because of that, I’ve caught some people off guard with the depth of gameplay. I’m not interested in making simple games…like UNO for example. But, I do want to make games that have that kind of entry point: inexpensive, compact, unassuming. I found that letting people know a little more about what to expect from the game helps to prepare people for what kind of experience is in the tiny tuckbox. There are 3 levels of gameplay: 1. Casual, 2. Intermediate and 3. Challenging. Keep in mind, this is our rating system and it’s based on the expectations.



How many Pack O Game games have you designed so far?

Chris: 18 or so have been printed and tested as of now, and I've got many more that I’ll begin to work on after the Kickstarter campaign. Some are still being tested. I’ve got a REALLY long list of games and ideas I’d like to try for this series.

Designing games this size is a unique idea – I mean there are microgames, but this is taking it to a different level. Could you tell us about the component quality. Will the cards be like normal cardstock found in many Euro games or will it be thinner to thicker? What will we be getting at this size?

Chris: I’ve been getting bids for black core, linen finish “poker grade” cards. Basically, the best I can get. I’m used to playing with euro-style quality cards just like every other gamer. I want them to be as durable as possible. Initially, I was considering plastic, but paper is the better choice. Maybe we’ll do a “Special Edition” plastic card version some time in the future.

I’ve noticed that all the games announced so far for the Pack O Game series, have a name with exactly 3 letters. Is this done on purpose?

Chris: So far, yes, I’ve only used 3 letter names. It’s part of my “keep it simple” design aesthetic. Plus, a title like “REALLY COOL GAME SET IN THE WILD WEST” doesn’t look great on a box cover with only 1 inch by 3 inches of real estate. A couple other reasons: It’s never been done before. It helps me choose themes and mechanics. It’s a wildly insane parameter to restrict myself to… but I’m up to the challenge.
 

What would you say to someone that criticizes the idea behind this series as real gimmicky? How can you make a good game with cards that are only are so small?

Chris: 30 cards is more than enough to make a good game. If someone makes a comment like that…they’ve likely not played them.

When you sit down to purposely design a Pack O Game game - is there a mental checklist that you go through as the foundation work for the game?

Chris: Not really. But, I’m getting better at design within the parameters. I’ve found new ways to use cards and there are ways to make them multi-purpose. I’ve been forced to come up with new ways to use cards, and I think it has worked very well. When I’m running new ideas through my head, I do a mental count of how many cards are involved in making the experience happen. Then, I start using some of the work arounds and multi-uses to achieve what I want. I think gamers will be pleasantly surprised by what’s possible in this format.

Do you have any games that you never got around publishing and think “I can convert this game to fit the series?”

Chris: Yes! Several games have been converted/altered for this format. The only one I’m willing to mention at the moment is SPY. And, the card size has allowed the game to be more interesting and better.

A sort of follow up question on that – do you think that you could actually distill down some of your well known games like Long Shot or Cinque Terre to fit into the Pack O Game parameters that fans of those games would still find it fun to play?

Chris: I’ve already designed a great “Pick Up and Deliver” game for this series called “BUS.” I really hope the Kickstarter reaches the stretch goals and unlocks some of the “locked” games because there are some great ones! Also, I’ve have some ideas for a horse racing game in this format too. But, I’m not sure I can make it work yet. I don’t want to rehash old designs, but I do love “Pick Up and Deliver” and horse racing….so, who knows what the future holds.

One thing that stands out with having games this small, is not only it’s portability just for vacation, but everyday travel. Is that something you are hoping for – that the games will be taken everywhere, and do you find yourself doing that now? Do you feel naked if you go out without a Pack O Game game on you?

Chris: Naked, not quite…but yes, they really have changed my gaming habits and how often I play games. The thing about these games is that they need to be out and about in order to really shine! I keep some in my cup holders in my car, my coat pockets, and cargo shorts. I don’t bring “big” games with me much any more.

Speaking of travel games, what are some easy to travel with games do you like to play?

Chris: Prior to these Pack O Game, I didn’t travel with small games much. I think that Hanabi is a good travel game.

Do the restrictions on card size, help or hinder you as a game designer?

Chris: As a game designer is has been a surprisingly fun, easy, and interesting way to design. As a publisher, it’s been a challenge. I can’t just call up Cartamundi and say, “Hey, I need the 1 x 3 inch cards, and tuck box size: G6.” It’s new territory and very unique to the printers I've been talking to over the last 6 months. In the end, I’m confident it’s going to be a very compelling product and card game line.

What is the typical reaction when you pull out a Pack O Game game for the first time and someone sees it for the first time?

Chris: "Holy S***!"

Will you still be designing bigger games, or will your main focus from here on out be creating Pack O Game games?

Chris: I’m interested in these games for now, and have such a long and interesting queue of games for this line that it’ll be my main focus for a while. But, I have games in the hopper like a poker chip based Wild West “engine builder” with poker and money making game that I would love to Kickstart after I get some experience and get the Pack O Game line off the ground.

What has been your favorite part in designing this series?

Chris: Printing them quickly, playing them quickly, iterating quickly, and taking them EVERYWHERE.

If you were to give one of the Pack O Game game as a gift to a non-gamer, which game would you pick and why?

Chris: Great question! It would depend on who it was, and their age and interests. The first time I tested TKO with my niece and nephew, they loved it so much they begged me to leave it with them. I insisted that I kept it, so they made a crude version with pen and paper and kept playing after I left. So, if I had to give a teenager a game, I'd give them TKO. I'd give most anyone HUE. I'd give someone with a young family: FLY. And, I'd give gamers GEM and TAJ.

What do you think is the greatest game design lesson you have learned so far, in regards to Pack O Games?

Chris: I've learned to take risks and take things to the extreme. if you told me 2 years ago that I'd be playing 15 different games that are fun, interesting and even tense, but they would each be only 30 cards (1 in. by 3 in.), I'd say, "You're crazy!"

I know this must be like asking you if you have a favorite child, but do you have a favorite game in the series?

Chris: I’ve kind of been asking myself that, to see if I’m pushed towards one of others. I’ll talk about this a bit though, because I think it’s interesting. And, since I don’t have kids (only a spoiled chocolate lab: Rex…who will be showing up in one of the games, and will likely have a game based on him at some point too…) Printing a new game is always exciting, and there’s always a slight feeling of …”Oh…this one’s gonna be my favorite…this is brilliant!” But, if I really step back, and assess them for how much I like to play each one…it’s mostly about which mechanics/interaction I prefer, whether in my games or other published ones. I currently prefer to play: HUE, GEM, LIE, SHH and BUS. If I had to pick just one…I’d say: HUE. It was the first game I designed for the series; it’s abstract, but super elegant and simple looking. But, the gameplay is really dynamic, ever-changing and I think the “secret goal” and “cards only” aspect are really clever. I also win often.

I know we spoke about your overall mission statement earlier, but like me also ask – what is your ulimtae goal for the Pack O Game series?

Chris: I’d like to break new ground where portability and playability meet.

Finish this sentence in 12 words or less. The Pack O Game series is ________.

Chris: How bout 17 words….

Easily portable card-based strategy games in a gum-sized tuckbox with a variety of mechanics, complexity and theme.

Is there are 2014 game that isn’t out yet, but you are really looking forward to?

Chris: I haven't played Matt Leacock's new Pandemic game yet, but I'm excited to play it. Also, I really like Days Of Wonder's new "Five Tribes."

What one piece of advice do you have for aspiring tabletop designers out there, that may be reading this?

Chris: FUN, FUN, FUN. KEEP FUN IN MIND, when you design. It doesn't matter if the mechanics work, if it's not fun, it doesn't matter.

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

Chris: Yeah….I’ve got a list of Pros and Cons that I made for the Kickstarter page, but I’m not sure it’ll make it on the final page at launch. So, I’ll give it to you here….

PROS:

• PACK-O-GAME: Pack of gum sized games. Fresh!

• PRICE: You'll barely notice.

• PORTABILITY: Truly compact games that can be taken anywhere.

• PUBLIC: Playable anywhere means hobby-visibility EVERYWHERE.

• PLAYING TIME: Finish before your food gets to the table and feed non-gamers' appetite for more.

• PALTRY: No need to make room in the collection. Or just keep them in your coat or cup holders.

• PETITE RULES: A single 3 inch by 9 inch rule sheet, with streamlined rules that will be intriguing to gamers.

• POSSIBLE: If you're skeptical, you haven't lived with them yet.

• PITCHABLE: Be assured you can propose one of these games to non-gaming friends and family.

• PERCEPTION: Not intimidating to non-gamers. This aspect is what has surprised me the most!

• PUNCH: Familiar game mechanics to gamers, and refreshingly new and approachable to non-gamers.

• PROGRESSIVE: A numbered series of games with many styles of play and mechanics.

• POCKETABLE: No seriously, you'll forget you even brought a game to dinner.

• PIPELINE: 20 total games?!? Not really, we have MANY MORE IDEAS than that!

• PARENT APPROVED: Rejoice in the fact that your kids will spend less time in front of screens.

• POLISHED: Unique, well-tested gameplay.

• PLAYER RANGE: Games for groups of many sizes, not just 2 players.

• PRESENTS: Yes, now it's easier than ever to give the gift of strategy games. Why not give the gift of games instead of buying that large latte today?

• PRONOUNCABLE: Simple, 3-letter titles. Nothing like "CIN-QUE TER-RA."

• PLEASE... STOP with the list of "P's!"

CONS:

• PROBABLY: We'll likely see you at many of them very soon!

The Inquisitive Meeple would like to thank Chris not only for taking time out to do this series of interviews, but ALSO for sending free copies of the games. Coming later this week, will be the second interview is the Pack O Interview Series, it will focus on the game HUE.








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