Christopher Chung and the Glowing Lanterns
Interview with designer, Christopher Chung, on his tile placement and set collection game, Lanterns. For 2-4 players Lanterns is being published by Foxtrot Games and is currently on Kickstarter.
Chris, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?
Chris: I’m a game designer by hobby, and I’m a recent university business graduate from Toronto, Canada. When I was younger, my cousins and I would play the classics quite a lot, mainly Monopoly and Scrabble, and I’ve had a Texas Hold’em phase when it was the big card game to get into. I’ve received Catan as a Christmas gift one year, but I was never into tabletop gaming until I had a dream that I was playing a game that I had designed and all my friends and family were enjoying it. I woke up the next morning, wrote everything down that I remembered, and prototyped it over the next little while. Flash forward to now, and that prototype is long gone, but I’ve accumulated a large collection of games and prototypes that are needed to be played! I’m now a member of the Game Artisans of Canada, and I’m often playtesting with them as they’re a great source of advice. Shoutouts to Snakes and Lattes and Bento Miso for being awesome places to help get me playtesters!
What are some of your favorite games to play currently?
Chris: Parade (Naoki Homma), Gravwell (Corey Young), Las Vegas (Rudiger Dorn), No Thanks! (Thorsten Gimmler), Coloretto (Michael Schacht), Ticket to Ride (Alan Moon), Pandemic (Matt Leacock), and Lost Cities (Reiner Knizia) are a few of my favorites. All of them happen to be light games with enough depth to keep me satisfied, kind of like how Lanterns turned out!
What do you look for when you are adding a game to your collection? Do you have criteria for what you buy?
Chris: I have a huge collection that I’m currently trying to cull, but it’s so hard to! I have a few criteria: The game must not play longer than two hours or else my attention drifts elsewhere, and it must be simple to understand yet deep enough to keep me wanting to play. If the game feels like work, I’d rather actually do work and attempt to have fun at it. I also put a lot of weight into what my gaming friends recommend to me, and if I actually know the designer in some capacity, it’s definitely on my radar to check out.
I know 2014 isn't over just yet, and Essen releases are around the corner, but what would you say the best 2014 game release has been so far?
Chris: Without a doubt, Five Tribes from Days of Wonder and Bruno Cathala. Although I'll be the first to admit that I suffer from "analysis paralysis" and this breaks the trend of lighter games I tend to enjoy, when I played this at GenCon, I was smitten with it with the first play. All the mechanics are interwoven so nicely, and there's no one dominant strategy you can rely on. With the Days of Wonder signature production quality, this was an instant winner for me and I'm glad to have it in my collection now.
Your game, Lanterns, is currently on Kickstarter. Could you tell us a little bit about what type of game Lanterns is and give us an overview on how it is played?
Chris: Lanterns is a 2-4 player game that plays in about 25-30 minutes. Players are artisans who are decorating a lake with floating lanterns in time for the harvest festival and dedicating their lanterns for honor. Players will be placing tiles in the middle of the table, and every player on every turn will receive a lantern card corresponding to the color of the side of the tile that faces them. The active player has an opportunity to score bonus lantern cards for matching sides and favor tokens to exchange lanterns as the game progresses. Players will utilize their lantern cards to score dedication tokens in three different combinations, and the score for each dedication token decreases as they are fulfilled. The player with the most points after all tiles have been played is the winner and the most honored artisan of all.
What is the story behind the creation Lanterns? Was the theme always about water lanterns?
Chris: Lanterns was conceptualized at a Game Jam last year in August at Bento Miso, a co-working space for game and web developers. One of the prompts we were to incorporate into the game was “perspective.” Rather than using it to convey a theme, I used it to convey the mechanic, and as such, the core concept of Lanterns was born there. The game was first called Blossom, and it was about planting and harvesting flowers to create bouquets. I wanted a game to be as simple and approachable as possible, and from the first playtest on, players were captivated by the way the game worked and although the theme was not the strongest attraction, the game flourished with the flower theme and I decided to continue working on it.
How did the Harvest Festival lantern theme come about, since the flower collecting one didn’t work?
Chris: That was Randy's suggestion, and he said the scene in Tangled where the royal family holds a lantern festival to honor Rapunzel really emphasized the experience of simpleness and elegance that the game provided. He said playtesters found it calming and relaxing, and the lantern festival was truly a good theme to develop. I'm also Chinese, and we have a large family get-together to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, so it was a nice coincidence. I hope playing Lanterns will be part of that tradition for years to come.
What makes Lanterns different from other tile placement games?
Chris: What’s unique about Lanterns is that all players receive at least one lantern card when the active player places a tile down, and the color of lantern card you receive depends on where you’re sitting, hence the use of “perspective.” This mechanic makes for an engaging game because players are always strategizing based on what other players give them and also what they can play to give themselves.
One of the things that stands out is that tile placement is important in where you (and your opponents) are sitting at the table. How did that idea come about and what does this orientation mechanic add to the gameplay?
Chris: That came about in the Game Jam where Lanterns was born. “Perspective” as a theme could mean your point of view of life, your current situation, many things, but I decided to go outside the box and think of it from how players see the game in its current state. Players orient tiles to benefit themselves or block players from certain lanterns, adding the strategy of seeing what your opponents need to create combinations to score, and denying them the opportunity to score for more points on their turn. I wanted to explore the concept of going beyond what the game provides beyond the box and play with how the game is experienced. Hopefully, I will be able to design more games that play with this concept in the future.
The way you score (outside of Honor tokens) is through dedicating sets of lantern cards (which players get for placing tiles) to the Emperor – four of a kind of one card, three pairs of two or seven different colors. Why did you decide this was the right way for scoring in a tile placement game?
Chris: I decided to create simple combinations that were easy enough to understand, and yet not as simple to create. Four of a kind is tough to achieve and it became more of a defensive combination, to create something out of a tough situation. Three pairs was easier to achieve than four of a kind, but at the cost of two more cards. Seven unique colors was the most desirable as you would gain the most points, but at the cost of using the most cards and most turns to generate. The one problem that Randy had fixed was the point distribution of the combinations. With the new scoring mechanic, it’s arguably more desirable to gain four of a kind, as it has a 2:1 point per card ratio versus a lower ratio for the seven unique.
What games influenced you when you were creating Lanterns?
Chris: Ticket to Ride was my largest influence. I love the game because it’s so simple and fun, yet tense at the same time. You have three options to choose from on your turn, and you can only do one of them. The race mechanic of trying to complete routes is absolutely fantastic, and the way that cards are the means to the end, but only having the option of two cards per turn creates a nice tension point. The aspect of keeping a game as simple as that and yet provides an amazing amount of depth is what influenced the development of Lanterns the most. I knew I couldn’t replicate what Alan Moon had developed, but what I kept in mind was the experience that I wanted to recreate that I loved so much.
We have to talk about art – Beth Sobel has done an amazing job, the lanterns have this glowing effect to them. What was your reaction when you started seeing the final art?
Chris: As soon as I signed the contract and it was made official, Randy had sent me a sketch of what Beth was working on, and my initial reaction was one of amazement. I saw the potential of what this game had to offer thematically, and I was sold that I had made a great decision. Randy then forwarded me more and more pieces, and when I finally met him at GenCon and saw people playing it for the first time, it all felt real. The glowing lights, the vivid colors, it reminded me of the Mid-Autumn Festival and my heritage. Beth did a fantastic job with this and Randy made an excellent choice. Thanks to Michael Iachini as well for making the connection!
Foxtrot Games is a relativity young publisher, with one published game under their belt so far. How did you get hooked up with them and what has been you favorite part about working with them so far?
Chris: We connected on Twitter, and I have heard about Relic Expedition and its success on Kickstarter. I tend to follow a lot of people within the board game industry, and Foxtrot Games (and Randy) happened to show up in my “suggestions.” I was working on a game called Full Metal Contact, a two-player real time dice rolling combat game, and I was at the point of looking for publishers, so I decided to send it out to my followers for a blind playtest. I’ve entered the game into a 2P game contest on BGG, and with the changes made from feedback and more playtests, the game was solid enough to pitch. Full Metal Contact has few components, but it had custom dice, which prevented some people from trying it out, but not Randy. He wanted to try it out and give me feedback from a designer’s perspective, but he had let me know that he was a publisher as well and soliciting submissions.
Randy had played Full Metal Contact with one of his sons, and he told me it was a great game, and his son wanted to play consistently. I then asked, as a designer to a publisher, if he wanted to publish it. He declined, and told me he was looking for games that would fit within Foxtrot’s mission of creating beautiful, approachable, engaging games. It turns out that Blossom was sitting on the shelf, with no publisher interest, and I formally submitted to the game to him. It was to my surprise Randy had downloaded the rules to look at it before, but never made it past the first page. As soon as he did, within two weeks he replied with his offer to publish the game.
My favorite part of working with Randy has been the level of communication he and I had shared over the process. He has run countless suggestions by me, and we’ve playtested a few times on Roll20.net with a module he had created to playtest with other designers. To paraphrase, Randy said he would never publish a game that I wouldn’t publish myself, and from then on I knew that he was the perfect publisher to work with. Keeping me involved throughout the process, and sharing the rewards of creating this game has been such an enlightening journey and I couldn’t have asked for a greater experience.
How important do you think Twitter is to a board game designer? If there are aspiring designers out there reading this - would you tell them it’s a good idea to make a twitter account?
Chris: It’s highly important! I would recommend you do it right now! Twitter has not only helped me find my first publisher, but it allows me to solicit feedback in real time, connect with well-known designers, and gives me an avenue to talk about board gaming without annoying all my Facebook friends. I can share all my ideas in cryptic mode to start, and then as I start developing prototypes, I can link a print-and-play to my followers, and I usually have a few people interested, and that's how I connected with Randy, so you'll never know who you'll be able to find. I've also gotten to meet a lot of my mutual followers at GenCon, and that was really awesome. Go do it now!
How does the 2-player game of Lanterns differ in rules or overall feel compared to the 4-player game?
Chris: The 2-player game becomes more of a race and you’re more focused on blocking your opponents from gaining certain colors whereas the 4-player games becomes more about engagement and efficiency and trying to maximize what you can accomplish on your turn. There are less chances of certain lanterns to appear in a 2-player game as a lot of tiles are removed from the game before play, but in a 4-player game, there are less lantern cards available for players to acquire. Both versions provide a more strategic experience and a more engaging experience, and I like being able to play in either style. A lot of people have said this game would suit both gamers and “non-gamers” alike. (The conception of non-gamers is weird to me because in my opinion everyone is a gamer, they just haven’t been exposed to the games that best fit them!)
What was the best piece of feedback you received from a play tester when you were still prototyping the game?
Chris: The best piece of feedback was to change the shape of the cards that you received. I liked that the tiles remained squares, but from a production point of view, costs would be much lower if the cards themselves were square shaped and thus only square cards would needed to be printed. Randy had changed the lantern cards to mini-euro cards and it’s also a great change that reflects the new theme. The theme of flowers was good, however players would have to remember the names of flowers, whereas now players only need to remember colors, and what they need to complete combinations.
What would you say is the biggest change from early prototypes, to what it has becoming now?
Chris: The largest change is the scoring mechanic. The core concept of matching tiles and receiving cards was developed from day one, but I had the most trouble with the scoring mechanism until Randy had made the change to decreasing point values, and all players found it to be a nice change as it adds another level of strategy that the game lacked before.
You are a member of Game Artisans of Canada – did your fellow GAC members help any with refining Lanterns?
Chris: I couldn’t name all the ways that the members of GAC helped me. A lot of them really enjoyed the game and helped with the balance of points and resources, and more importantly, they helped me with contract negotiations as this was my first time in dealing with a publisher past the evaluation process. Big shoutouts to my sources of inspiration: Stephen Sauer and Daryl Andrews (The Walled City), Josh Cappel (Wasabi!), Sen Foong-Lim and Jay Cormier (Belfort), and Daniel Rocchi (Bomb Squad Academy). Game design can be a lonely experience, but fear not! There are a lot of like-minded people who'll open up to you if you open up to them. My design philosophy has changed since I joined GAC and now I believe my craft has leaped miles ahead from when I first started. It's not entirely about what you know, it's about who you know, too.
What is your current design philosophy?
Chris: Great question - I design with fun and simplicity in mind first and foremost. That seems like an all too obvious answer, but what makes it unique to how I design is because I primarily play with crowds that cannot handle complex games for various reasons. Because of what I tend to play and who I tend to play with, that influences my designs quite a bit. I've tried designing more complex games, but I find that my lighter games have carved an identity for me.
To part some advice, start with what I call my MVG: Minimum Viable Game (often entrepreneurs know this to be your Minimum Viable Product or MVP). Playtest it as early as possible, and then try and get a feel for what players are experiencing in terms of what feedback they provide and how they're enjoying themselves. Then add if need be, but simplify whenever you have a chance to. Finally, if your gut instinct tells you that your game is missing something, it usually is. Your playtesters can give you all the advice in the world, but it's your game at the end, so what you finish is what you're most proud of, and hopefully a publisher eventually takes interest.
What was your favorite part of designing Lanterns?
Chris: My favorite part was playtesting the game, as it gave me a chance to show people that I could actually design a good game! I’m kidding, mostly. But in all seriousness, Lanterns was the first design I was proud of from the very first day and it was just a matter of fine tuning, balancing, and making it presentable for publishers. All of my playtesters, even the ones who disliked the flower theme, said it was a good game, and that was satisfying.
What was the most challenging part of designing it?
Chris: When there’s only positive feedback, you start to lose sight of the flaws in your game. I knew there was a factor of a dominant strategy with scoring the seven unique lanterns, but I overlooked it because I didn’t have a good way of fixing it at the time, and I could chalk it up to how each game plays out. When Randy had playtested the game, he wanted to take the scoreboard out, and therefore that changed how scoring needed to work so he developed the decreasing score mechanic you see now, and I’m glad that it’s changed for the better.
What was, in your opinion, the most interesting design choice you had to make when you were designing Lanterns?
Chris: I loved the core concept of everyone receiving a lantern card on any given turn, therefore players are always engaged, but the one choice that I had to decide was to keep a scoreboard and constant points for each of the combinations. The dominant strategy up until Randy had suggested the change was to trade seven unique lanterns for nine points, and the other combinations were afterthoughts. Randy had implemented a Jaipur-like scoring where points decrease as combinations are scored, and Jaipur happens to be one of my favorite games for the unique scoring mechanic. Now Lanterns has a nice point of tension where players are aiming to collect the same colors of lanterns to score the most amount of points for the least amount of cards, providing a whole new strategy to players.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you Lanterns?
Chris: I’m most proud of designing a game that could find a home in anybody’s collection. I had set out to make Lanterns an homage to gateway games and I believe I achieved that.
Finish this sentence in 12 words or less. Lanterns is ________.
Chris: An approachable, engaging, and elegant game that everyone can enjoy.
Say someone is learning about Lanterns for the first time or maybe they have been on the fence about pledging on Kickstarter and they’re reading this. What would you say directly to that person?
Chris: I’d appreciate any level of support, even if they can just spread the word about the campaign. Lanterns is my first published game, and I’m so elated that it has garnered lots of positive reviews from backers and reviewers alike. One supporter has even considered this a Spiel des Jahres candidate, and that’s truly flattering. I would tell this person that if they enjoy light games that provide some strategy and that looks beautiful that they should consider taking a longer look at it. I recognize that there are a lot of great games entering the market through Kickstarter, so Lanterns has some tough competition, but Randy and Beth had helped etch a unique identity for this game, as it’s become engaging and beautiful, and can satisfy a lot of gaming audiences.
What is on the horizon for you design wise? Will we be seeing more of Christopher Chung in the coming year?
Chris: Maybe! I have one game under review by a publisher and I’m just waiting to hear back from them, and I’m always working on new games that fit within my design philosophy. I have about 5 ideas that I’m working on concurrently, and hopefully I can get them all to a finished stage to begin the search for the right publishers.
As we wrap this up, is there anything else you like would to add?
Chris: You can find me at in person at Snakes and Lattes’ at Designer’s Nights so come and say hi, and I’ll treat you to a prototype that needs your help! You can also find me on Twitter at @flashforwardco. Thank you for the superb interview, and I look forward to seeing Lanterns funded and in stores next year.
Thanks Chris for taking the time out to do this interview.
***Picture of Lantern tiles at GenCon 2014 is by BGG User Epsilon_Balls***For those interested in Lanterns, you can find the Kickstarter by clicking on this link.
What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?You may want to check out these links:
• Foxtrot Games' Official Website
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