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Interview with Nick Hayes

Chris Hansen
United States
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If given the option, I would prefer to play with the green pieces, please.
I have two new 9 Card Games: 300 Spartans and Franky's 1st Christmas
Welcome to the PNP News and to the first post of 2016! I wanted to kick off the year strong and I'm incredibly excited about this post. If you're a PNP designer who dreams of getting published someday, this should be very inspiring for you.

Today I'll be interviewing Nick Hayes. Nick is well known in the PNP community for designing classic games like Jasper and Zot, Utopia Engine, and Chunky Fighters. Nick and I talked about his history as a PNP designer and his new role designing strategy and mass market games for Mattel. I had a terrific time doing this interview and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

Nick Hayes
United States
Los Angeles
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"Gargoyle's Quest" Gameboy, 1990

For my take on a few of Nick's games, see my reviews here:
Know Which Way the Wind Blows - A Review of Djinn's Game
An Arcade Game on Your Table - A Review of Jasper and Zot
All the Fun of the Board Game with A Few Original Twists - A Review of Stratego Battle Cards
Paw Patrol is on a Roll... er Spinner - A Review of Paw Patrol Adventure Game

Chris Hansen: You've been active in the PNP community for a long time. How did you first discover PNP games and what got you interested in them?
Nick Hayes: I discovered print-and-play games just about the same time I joined BGG. Prior to that I was really into papercraft, which are paper models and toys you can print at home. I immediately fell in love PNP games because they are like a spiritual cousin to papercraft toys.

CH: What is the most recent PNP game that you've built?
NH: I built Roll Player just yesterday. It was a very quick and dirty build I threw together just to see if I would like the game play.

CH: How many PNP games do you think you've built?
NH: Oh that's hard to say. So many. Over a hundred for sure.

CH: What is your favorite PNP game?
NH: Can I list three? Silk Road Maker, Castle Builders, Utopian Rummy.

CH: Very nice choices! What are your top three non-PNP games?
NH: Tobago, Wiz-War, Euronimoes.

CH: Do you remember the first PNP game that you built? If so, do you still have it?
NH: I think Island Trader was one of the first PNP games I built. I still have it, it's a great game.

CH: You were my Secret Santa target in the first PNP Secret Santa exchange back in 2009. Do you still participate in the PNP Secret Santa exchanges?
NH: I do. I love the PNP Secret Santa event. Although starting this year I believe I will only give games. I don't need to receive them anymore.

CH: The artwork in your PNP games is always phenomenal. Did you train as an artist?
NH: I did have a lot of art training - the majority of my schooling was focused towards art.

CH: What tools do you use to create your artwork?
NH: I primarily draw in Photoshop or using pencil and pen and ink. I do all of my color work in Photoshop.

CH: You've designed some of the most well known games in the PNP genre, such as Chunky Fighters, Utopia Engine, Jasper and Zot, and No Good Gremlins. Do you have a favorite PNP game that you've designed?
NH: I would say my favorite is Djinn's Game. I just wish more people would play it!

CH: What about Djinn's Game makes it your favorite?
NH: I like it because it's very simple to learn and also fun to play. It's a good filler, especially if you're waiting for your fourth player to show up. I also had a lot of fun creating the artwork for the game.

Djinn's Game in play

CH: What are the pros and cons of releasing your games as free PNP games rather than trying to publish them? Especially for a new designer?
NH: I would tell any new designer to design PNP games first. Get the first 10-15 games out of your system. Get feedback, learn your trade. As you do you will become a skilled designer. Then, as you wisen up to what is good and what is not, you will see which of your designs are worth showing to publishers. You do not want to pitch your first design to a publisher because either a) it is not good, or b) you don't have enough experience, or c) both of those things.

I can point to two designers who exemplify this advice: Todd Sanders and Daniel Solis. When Todd began designing PNP games, and he designed a ton of them, not every one was something to write home about (no offense Todd!). But with each new release his game design skills grew and grew. Now he has games in the works from a number of known publishers who recognize and desire his abilities. Daniel Solis, another accomplished hobbyist designer, has found the same thing. In fact he recently wrote a blog post where he talks about learning to take his designs in a more publishable direction.

The cons to releasing PNP games are minimal in my opinion. Some companies may not want to consider your game for publication if it was once a free PNP title. Your idea may inspire another designer who later releases a game with a similar theme or mechanic. For the new designer however, none of these frankly rare possibilities come close to cancelling out the sheer amount of skill building you will gain from just practicing your craft.

CH: Do you plan on releasing more PNP games or participating in PNP design contests in the future?
NH: I really wish I could but it's just not in the cards at the moment. I am currently working at Mattel, and one of the conditions of my employment there is that I am not allowed to do outside design work anymore. That means no new PNP games and no updates to my existing PNP games for as long as I work there. It is frustrating, but what can you do? I have a dream job - it's my hobby and I get paid to do it.

CH: Do you think that your experience designing PNP games has helped with your career as a professional game designer?
NH: Without a doubt. You don't become a professional in any field without first learning the trade on your own. But game design aside, the experience of building PNP games helped out in other ways. For instance, when I have to build prototypes at work for playtesting, that's PNP right there!

CH: Have any mechanics from your PNP games made it into a published game?
NH: Does Chunky Fighters count? I can't think of any instances where I've purposely reused mechanics from my PNP games in a published game.

CH: You've designed board games for several television shows and movies, including Paw Patrol (which my daughter enjoys), Storage Wars, and even Star Wars. How did this come about? Were the producers familiar with your previous PNP work?
NH: These were all games I designed while working for Spin Master, a major toy company. In these cases our company would get the rights to produce games for the specific license and then the games team would design the appropriate games.

CH: You've recently designed updates for some very popular board game titles, such as Battle of the Sexes and Stratego. How did you approach designing for such well known games?
NH: When designing for a known brand the first thing you need to do is understand what makes that brand. What is the core of the game? For Stratego it's all about hidden units, capture the flag, and piece rank. If you design a Stratego game without those things, it's arguably not a Stratego game. There are other things that go into it, like understanding the target audience, but making sure that you don't stray too far from the source material is key.

CH: I received Battle of the Sexes for a wedding gift. Were you a fan of that game when you worked on Battle of the Sexes Toplist card game? (I must confess that I didn't particularly enjoy the original...)
NH: I'm not really a fan of Battle of the Sexes either but I am proud of the Toplist card game. It's actually a great party game mechanic that is suitable for any type of content. It is easy to understand and plays well with any number of players.

CH: Did you want to work on new games in these franchises or did the company ask you to create them?
NH: Sometimes I get to choose the projects I work on and sometimes I don't. In any given year the games team decides ahead of time how many games it will publish, in what category, and at what price point. At that point we divide up those projects between the available designers and go from there. At companies that have known brands, often a designer is assigned an entire brand. When I started at Spin Master for instance, I was responsible for Stratego. I was tasked with inventing a card game, a dice game, and a four-player "Risk killer" board game. I also designed two games for The Hobbit which never saw print. So sometimes you get to choose what you work on and sometimes you don't.

CH: For that project, you designed the Stratego Dice Game, Stratego Card Game (also known as Stratego Battle Cards), and the multiplayer Stratego Conquest. What are the similarities and differences between these games and classic Stratego?
NH: The Stratego Card Game takes the essence of classic Stratego and distills it into a quick playing card game. You still get all of those things that are core to Stratego but you get them in a smaller footprint and shorter play time. Stratego Conquest is a four player game that really ramps up the tension and speed of classic Stratego. Classic Stratego is a steady game of attrition where you can feel safe for a long time and watch your strategy play out slowly over a number of turns. It's built on defense and probing. In Stratego Conquest, the game begins with you facing danger on all fronts right out of the gate. You are never safe. Your safety only comes through attacking and defeating your enemies before they do the same to you.

CH: In the BGG forum, there is a new rule for Stratego Card Game that says you can keep attacking as long as you were successful. Did the publisher eliminate this rule from the game or is it a rule you thought of after the game was published?
NH: This is a rule that Royal Jumbo removed from the game before publication. It was in my original submission. The funny thing is, during testing we played the game quite a bit without the "press your attack" rule and found that without it, it is not much of a game at all. When you only have to replace one card each of your turns, there is no incentive for you to place your flag on the battlefield early. So every single match will end the same way: you will keep your flag in your hand until you are forced to play it as your last card. Then your opponent will attack that card and win the game. When played with the "press your attack" rule, you can sometimes force your opponent to put his flag out early, making him sweat for a turn or two and giving you a chance to end the game early with a surprise win. This makes for a much more exciting game.

Stratego Card Game

CH: Have you played Hera and Zeus? That game was originally designed as a Stratego Card Game but was rethemed before publication (or so the story goes).
NH: I have heard of Hera and Zeus but I've never gotten the chance to play.

CH: How have fans of the original Stratego reacted to your new versions?
NH: I am very excited to see how players react to Stratego Conquest. It has only just been released though, so there aren't a lot of reviews yet.

CH: My children really enjoyed your Paw Patrol Adventure Game. Did you enjoy designing a game specifically for young children?
NH: I do enjoy designing games for young children. With Paw Patrol Adventure Game I really didn't have enough time or resources to design a great game, we were in a rush to get it out the door. I later designed a better Paw Patrol game (Paw Patrol Beach Rescue Play Mat Game) and I am more proud of that one. It is for very young children though.

CH: You've recently worked with Chris Taylor, the designer of Nemo's War, Legions of Darkness, and a few PNP titles on a project for Star Wars called Box Busters. How did you and Chris start working together and how did you get involved with the Star Wars license?
NH: I've known Chris for a number of years now. We met at Strategicon, a game convention that happens three times a year here in Los Angeles. So I was familiar with his work. At the time I was working on Box Busters at Spin Master I also had a number of other games to design and carry through the development process. I didn't have enough time to do it all at once so we hired Chris as an outside designer to finish up Box Busters. The Star Wars license was something Spin Master had the rights to at the time.

CH: I noticed that you were not credited as the designer in the rulebook for either Paw Patrol or Stratego Card Game. Why do you think mass market games don't credit the game designers in the rules?
NH: Games designers are only really named by hobby and specialty games companies here in the U.S. Mass market companies don't do it as a general rule. I don't know why, it's just always been like that. Part of it may be that it's difficult to trace who exactly "designed" a particular game. In many cases the games began as outside submissions - sometimes designed by a single person and sometimes designed by an outside design house. And those games are often heavily modified far beyond their original forms on their path to publication. Even internally designed games are usually the result of a team effort. Another thing to consider is that designers move around a lot inside large toy companies and projects can end up passing from person to person, each adding their own touches. In each of those cases, who can be said to be the game designer?

CH: You are credited as the designer of your mass market released on BGG, but the average person who buys the games in Walmart will never know your name. Is that frustrating for you? Do you think that will change in your future designs for Mattel?
NH: It doesn't bother me that the average consumer doesn't know who designs their games. We're not at a point yet where game designers are as popular as movie directors. There are signs of it happening though. I know of at least two publishers - Peaceable Kingdom and Educational Insights - who sell games at mass market retailers and who make it a point to name their games' designers right on the box. They even go so far as including a photo and a short bio. It's a great practice that I hope the larger toy companies adopt. Incidentally, I am only credited on BGG because I made it a point to add myself as the designer of those games. I usually try to do that with as many mass market games as I can, especially now that I am working on the inside. I can ask around to find out who designed what and add that info onto each game's entry. BGG is an amazing resource. I like to think of it as a historical record of the tabletop games industry, so the more complete the data, the better it will serve us and future generations.

CH: I know that Brian Yu has worked on bringing Strategy Games to Mattel, such as Voltage. Are you involved with that? Would you say that you are you working on mass market style games or deeper games for Mattel? Are you working on any brands we'd recognize?
NH: Brian Yu is still at Mattel but he no longer works on the games team. I took over the strategy game segment when I was hired on, but that is just a part of my job. I am responsible for designing both traditional mass-market games and strategy games. You may know that Mattel has a line of strategy games for the German market, Bania, Kronen für den König, Geister, Geister, Schatzsuchmeister!, etc. I am working on those in addition to the standard fare like UNO, Pictionary, and Scrabble.

CH: Can you talk a little about some of the upcoming games you're working on for Mattel?
NH: Nope!

CH: Fair enough. I was in Walmart the other day and saw several of your designs on the game shelf. It must be fun to have your work presented to such a large market.
NH: I do have a few games out in the mass market. These are games I've done as a part of my day job. One thing I like about having games out in the mass market is that you can check the reviews on Amazon to see what the average consumer thinks of your game.

CH: Do you feel mass market games get a bad reputation compared with designer titles? Are there any "Walmart games" you particularly enjoy? I'm a big fan of Stratego myself and also playing games with my kids such as Ants in the Pants and Don't Break the Ice.
NH: Mass market games are much simpler than any of the kinds of things you'll find at hobby game stores, but even still you will find that there are a lot of people out there who cannot grok new game mechanics or lots of rules. This is why mass market games are often so dreadfully simple. We have to design to the audience.

On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to design well for the mass market. Designer games can use complexity to provide an interesting play experience. For the mass market, games must be simple as well as compelling. Most of the time the game's rules have to fit all on a single page.

But there are a number of good mass market games out there. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites are Blokus, Yamslam, Tapple, and Boggle.

One of Nick's mass market releases, Paw Patrol Adventure Game.

CH: In addition to your mass market games, you've also had Chunky Fighters published by Robin Red Games. Did you send the game to publishers or did they contact you?
NH: Chunky Fighters is the only game I released as PNP that went on to get published. I was contacted a few times by small publishers interested in publishing the game but none of them had the capabilities to do it justice. That was until Robin Red inquired. They're a very small outfit, but it was clear they had the skills to pull it off so I agreed to license the game to them.

CH: Are you happy with the published version?
I am very happy with how the game turned out. They had been big fans of the game and knew it very well. The rules they added or modified were fantastic and make the game that much better. The artwork is top notch, too. I always thought that the artwork should be redone for publication and Pascal Boucher did a great job.

CH: Robin Red Games is based in France. Is the game available to English speakers?
The rulebook is actually in French, English, Spanish, and German and there are both French and English cards in the box. So it's completely playable in both French and English right now. Unfortunately it is only for sale in France I believe. I know the company would love to distribute the game in the US, they just don't have the means to do so yet. They need to find a partner willing to help them with access to the North American market.

The Robin Red Games edition of Chunky Fighters

I’d like to thank Nick for his willingness to discuss his games and experiences transitioning from a PNP designer to a game designer at Mattel. We emailed back and forth many times and Nick was very patient with my many followup questions. Nick's PNP games are all available here on BGG (including the original version of Chunky Fighters) and his published games are available everywhere from big-box stores to specialty board game shops. I'm sure that Nick will be around in the comments section if you have additional questions for him.

That's it for now. I will be posting the regular PNP News in a few days and an additional interview. Thank you for reading and thanks as always for your thumbs and geekgold tips to the post.

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