[SIC] Interviews with designers (english)

In this blog I'll share interviews that I made to famous game designers and other personalities of the board gaming world. Bear in mind that english is not my native language and it isn't for most of the interviewed people either. So don't be afraid of the orthography or gramatical horrors you may find in the texts.
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[SIC] 01 - Donald X. Vaccarino

Matias Saravia
Ciudad Autonoma de Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires
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In this first installment, I'll be interviewing one of the most well known designers of the last couple of years, that made his path to the game design hall of fame with a very original and revolutionary mechanic.

Puedes leerla en español en Geek Out o en la versión en español de este mismo blog.

Today: Donald X. Vaccarino

Curriculum Vitae:
* Was born in 1969.
* Worked as a programmer in the 80's and 90's.
* Collaborated unoficially with ideas and expansions of Magic: the Gathering.
* In 2006 started to design Dominion, his first game, which was published in 2008.
* His first two published games, Dominion and Kingdom Builder, won the Spiel des Jahres award (game of the year) in 2009 and 2012 respectively.
* With Dominion created the popular mechanic of deckbuild .
* Dominion already has 9 expansions and more than 236 different cards.

Prominent games: Dominion, Kingdom Builder, Temporum, Greed.

Matías: Which games did you play as a kid?
Donald: Mainly Dungeons & Dragons with homemade rules changes (I never knew anyone who played it by the actual rules back when). In my late teens I tried out a chess club for a bit. And I played arcade games and computer games.

M: Do you think that D&D and the arcade and computer games that you played as a kid had some kind of influence in your game design work?
D: I don't really see obvious aspects of either in my games.

M: What made you start designing games?
D: I designed games here and there in my youth, just as a fun thing to do sometimes. Mainly just my version of an existing concept. What got me to pursue game design as a career was Magic: The Gathering. I found out about Magic in 1994 and started seriously designing games in 1995.

M: What did you saw in Magic that sparked your game design career?
D: Interacting rules on cards! And the huge amount of variety of experiences.

M: In your own opinion as a gamer, what makes a good game?
D: I have enjoyed a wide range of games. I like to say, it has to be fun to lose. I like a variety of experiences, so if I play a game a bunch, that's something it offers.
It's a hard question. There are just so many things that can be what makes the game fun. I like solving puzzles, long-term planning, feeling clever; I like psychology, second-guessing opponents, bluffing; I like the ritual, seeing what happens like it's a movie, seeing unusual things happen. I like building something; I like watching things fall apart.

M: What kind of experience do you try to generate to the players with your games?
D: Ultimately you have to please yourself, or you won't work on the game, and you have to please your playtesters, or they won't want to playtest it. So really I make games for me and them, and then if the game seems publishable I worry about everyone else. This also pushes variety again; it's easier to playtest a game over and over if it's different every time.
I am usually going for games with both skill and luck, that are novel in some way, that have a lot of variety, that 3-5 can play, that take under an hour, that are fairly simple if you don't count card text. Usually I am aiming for something serious, where the focus is on thinking. I have made creative games though, and long games, and so on.

M: Do you find similarities, some kind of author signature in your games?
D: There are a bunch of things my games (including unpublished games) tend to have in common, though not all of my games do all of them.
- Cards with rules on them that interact.
- Playing time under an hour.
- Simultaneous decisions.
- High variety / replayability.
- Short rules.
Greed is the quintessential Donald X. game, having all of these features.

Kingdom Builder objective cards.

M: What is your game design process? Where do you usually get the ideas for your games and how do you transform that idea to a published game?
D: I have had so many ideas over the years that, if I need one now, I just look at a big list of them. The ideas come from uh thinking. I like to say, I don't wait for an idea to come to me; I hunt it down.
For me the biggest hurdle is convincing myself that an idea is worth pursuing. Once I've tried a prototype and it's promising, the rest of the design is easy - it's no trouble making cards and tweaking things, even if it ends up tweaked beyond recognition. Then later the other big hurdle is convincing someone else the idea is worth pursuing.
I spend time sitting at a computer or pacing, coming up with stuff for the game. Then I play the game some and then tweak things and add things and repeat. That is the bulk of it.

M: Do you often start with the mechanic, the theme, or it's a different start on each occasion?
D: I usually start with a mechanic, but not always. Gauntlet of Fools started with "I can do that with one hand tied behind my back." I had a lot of the flavor for Temporum before I had the cards, though in some sense it started mechanically, with the board.

M: With Dominion you didn't just create something novel, you created a whole new genre of games. What do you feel about that? Did you imagined the effect it would have on the gaming world?
D: I felt like, if I managed to get Dominion published, stores would have a whole shelf for it. I did not imagine that the shelf under it would be clones.
When people say "genre" here they are often talking about the clones, and well I have zero respect for the clones. It's cool that there are people who have made actual new games inspired by Dominion; it's great that people had the opportunity to do that; it's sad what so many people decided to do with that opportunity.

M: Today every publisher would love to publish Dominion, but back on the days, how did you found a publisher?
D: I looked around at the games I owned, and box after box had the Rio Grande Games logo. So I emailed them. Jay replied within 20 minutes, to say, I only look at games at conventions, I am going to these conventions this year. I said okay Origins and he said see you there. I went to that Origins (2007) and showed him some games and he took Dominion and Monster Factory. It was that easy.

M: Of which Dominion card are you most proud of or like the most?
D: My favorite Dominion card is Rats.

M: Being Dominion such a big success, did it put some pressure on your following designs?
D: I guess some. I try not to think about it, just make games I like making. I haven't shied away from trying to get games published that aren't at all like Dominion.

M: You didn't just won an Spiel des Jahres with your first game, your second game Kingdom Builder also won that award. How does it feel to won so many awards?
D: It's nice to win awards, to have some entity single you out for praise. I feel good about them.

M: A few years passed until you were able to publish Kingdom Builder, because of the Dominion expansions that you designed before it. What's your opinion about expansion?
D: I like them! If I like a game, I'm glad if it gets expansions. I like making expansions for games.

M: How is the process of designing an expansion different from designing a new game?
D: Well designing expansions is a lot easier. The game is all there, giving you stuff to play off of, providing a framework. You know there's an audience for the expansion; you know there's a publisher. The expansion is all about just making more content for the system; the main game is about the system itself.

M: What is the best part of being a game designer?
D: My favorite part of the work is the actual game design. Making up games, making up cards.
Being successful at it means setting your own hours and that's certainly nice. And I mean, not having to have some other job is great.

M: How did you felt when you realized that you no longer needed another job?
D: Dominion was my first published game and I make a good living off of just it. It was not instantly there, but then it won the SdJ and that sells a few hundred thousand copies for the next Christmas in Germany. So, 2009.
It's hard to pin down how it felt because I had already quit my programming job a few years earlier, hoping to do better. And then, how can I sum this up for you; it varies a lot with how good your other job was, and while I was happy to quit when I did, I got some good years out of programming. So I mean. It was great, but it's hard to compare to other things.

M: And what is the worst part of being a game designer?
D: Proof reading contracts and arguing about them is not great. In general I get no joy from the business side of it. I make up games, and play them a bunch, and if I never tried to get them published it would be 100% good times.

M: Do you have a favorite game or designer?
D: Outside of my own games, my favorite game is Magic: The Gathering. I am a big fan of Richard Garfield and Reiner Knizia.

M: Do you play games from other designers regularly?
D: No. Other people only have so much time to spend playtesting my games, and I have to try to use all of that time getting work done. I get in games from other designers when I'm between projects. I guess, what am I saying, I do play games from other designers regularly, with my kids. We play my games, but also King of Tokyo, King of New York, Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, and some others. Forbidden Island.

M: What is your vision about the present of the games industry?
D: I am really not in the loop. I think more games are being made than in the past, but really I'm not a good source of information here.

M: What do you think the future of the industry would be like in a couple of years?
D: It's just not something I have thought about. I don't worry about; I just make games.

M: Can you give any advise to rookie game designers?
D: That's a difficult one. It's just so broad. People do it because they love to, so it's not like they need encouragement from me. Look in your heart. And while you're doing that, I'll be eating your fries.

M: Thank you very much for your time and answers!
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