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Interviews by an Optimist # 93 - Chad Jensen

Chad says this about himself…

"I'm still on the younger side of 40, having been born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I hold no college degree but am still pursuing my Masters in Life.

In 1986 I began a 6-year stint in the Army National Guard.

I rode the coattails of early MtG and opened a game store in 1995 with two buddies. We closed our doors three years later, and I became manager of one of our competitor's stores for another three years.

Been married to a wonderful woman named Kai -- also a gamer -- for close to five years now. I have a 16 year old daughter named Sydney from my previous marriage, and an 11 year old step-son named Devon from Kai's previous."


Tom: Tell us a bit about the life of a game store owner...

Chad: Ha-ha! First, if you enjoy spending lots of time PLAYING games, running a game store is probably a bad decision. Luckily for me, however, my two partners (who both had full-time jobs in other industries) handled pretty much everything to do with the business outside of actual day-to-day operations, which was my job. Further, since our store -- Castle Games -- was about 50% retail space and 50% game tables, it ran more like a club than a straight retail outlet, which allowed for myself and our employees to
"work" via game demos or what-not -- in other words, one of us could man the counter and help customers while the other was running some sort of game, be it board, minis, roleplay or CCG.

I have never enjoyed a job so much in my entire life! Working 10-hour shifts (plus opening and closing duties) 5, 6 or 7 days a week for what amounted to minimum-wage would have killed me in any other field. But since all of this time was spent around my hobby and other folks who shared my hobby, the word 'work' never really entered my mind. (Okay; looking back, cleaning the bathrooms may have felt like real work!)

The one main mistake we made was that we were undercapitalized (never heard that one before, right?). Our store opened when Magic: the Gathering was in its early boom years, which allowed us to float for several years with minimal (or no!) cash-flow. Once the CCG frenzy died down, however, we were just one of several game stores in our area to go down. In fact, our city of Santa Rosa (pop. 160,000) had no less than six(!)game stores circa 1996. Only one has survived to this day -- Outer Planes -- which was where I went to work right after Castle Games closed its doors.

Tom: How did war games figure into your store?

Chad: While I cut my teeth on Avalon Hill wargames from about 1978 on -- and continue to play them as my mainstay to this day -- the wargame market was in a bit of a glut in the mid '90s. So while we carried a fair amount of wargames, they were a tiny proportion of our overall sales. Roleplay, minis and CCGs were our bread-and-butter items, with boardgames maybe accounting for 10-15% of gross sales -- and wargames maybe only a quarter of that.

Having said that, it was a rare day that we didn't have at least one war game being PLAYED at one of our tables -- often one of my early designs based around the Axis & Allies system.

Tom: So when did you start designing games?

Chad: Well, if tinkering with existing games counts, then probably 30 years ago! I would invent games using a simple deck of cards and parts from Monopoly or Risk, for example, and try them out with my friends.

When I began playing D&D in middle school, I was always the GM. I would make up dozens of monsters, weapons, magical items, etc. I also "designed" a 100+ page world including dozens of maps wherein a race of minotaurs had enslaved all the other intelligent races. The player characters in that campaign were never allowed to be the minotaurs: always one of the enslaved races!

I started "seriously" designing board games around 1995, concurrently with the opening of my game store. I was able to use the office as a design haven and the store itself as a test bed for what I had created. I had no shortage of customers who would come and spend an entire Saturday playtesting one of my concoctions. "Alliance: '39" was an 8-player version of "Axis and Allies" using cards. Another I dubbed "Dungeon Crawl" which used a series of hex-shaped geomorphic tiles and was filled with oddball humor. While fun, these weren't quite ready for prime time, so I evolved to more sophisticated designs such as my upcoming GMT release "Combat Commander" (as well as several other Euro and wargames that I have waiting in the wings!).

Tom: There's quite a positive buzz about Combat Commander. What can you tell us about the game?

Chad: Combat Commander is my take on tactical infantry combat in Europe during WWII. CC came about as a desire to incorporate those aspects of wargaming that I like while eschewing others. In short, it's close to my ideal wargame -- and it seems that a few other people happen to like it, as well!

CC stands out in a crowd of wargames for several reasons:

1. It is a card-driven game melded with the old-school hex-and-counter components, rather than the point-to-point mechanic of most modern CDGs.

2. It incorporates both open and hidden objectives for both players, so neither is entirely sure of what will win the game until the very end.

3. 40 different events that are triggered by certain die rolls add a large measure of uncertainty into both players' "perfect plans". These events also help to create a healthy sense of chaos and tension throughout play, and lend great replayability to each scenario.

4. While the game comes with 12 scenarios, there is also a 2-page roll-your-own scenario system that will generate a HISTORICAL situation in about 5 minutes, after which both players secretly choose from one of many historical forces of platoon-to-company size with which to fight.

5. A database of 230 playtest games has shown an average playing time of only 78 minutes! -- which INCLUDED the time spent rolling up a random scenario as well as set up.

6. The cards themselves hold much of the rules on them, so a player needs to memorize less of the rulebook ahead of time than in a game of comparable complexity. For example, in some games players need to remember all of the rules concerning machine gun rate of fire, or a squads smoke-making capability. In CC, you don't get rate of fire with your MG and you can't lay smoke with your squad *unless a card in your hand allows it* -- and that card effect will state the rule in a condensed form so that interruptions for trips to the rulebook are kept at a minimum.

7. It has a "sudden death" mechanic whereby the players do not know exactly when the game will end -- they only have a rough idea, which alleviates some of the silly "mad dash" tactics common on the last turn of other tactical wargames.

8. Each nationality in the game has its own 72-card Fate Deck, which allows for a good accounting of its historical and/or stereotypical strengths and weaknesses. Each nationality plays a bit differently as a result.

9. Each map in CC is a self-enclosed (i.e., non-geomorphic) 10x15 hexgrid and, most importantly, sports oversized 1.5" hexes -- no need to physically stack units! A fully "stacked" hex in CC still allows both players to see every stat on every piece therein at a glance.

10. There is almost no downtime in CC. A player's turn consists of discarding one or more cards OR playing one or more Actions -- each such action being fairly quick and/or involving the opponent directly.

Those looking for more info on Combat Commander (as well as some sneak peeks!) may wish to go to the GMT site at:

http://www.gmtgames.com/combatcomm/main.html

Or the Combat Commander page on Boardgamegeek at:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/21050

Tom: How did you go about choosing a publisher for your game?

Chad: Of the current crop of companies producing wargames, I would rank GMT as top dog as far as quality of product AND quality of service. So last summer, when I felt that CC had been developed enough to be in publishable form, I learned that Rodger MacGowan of GMT was going to be running a booth at the ConQuest convention in San Francisco the first week of September. My wife and I signed up to each run 8 hours of demos on Saturday and Sunday in the hopes that Rodger could come demo the game. Well, he couldn't, as he was alone save for his son and so got stuck in the booth all weekend long. However, most of the folks that DID demo the game went and gave Rodger enthusiast reviews, as well as hints that he "really ought to check it out" -- enough so that by the end of Sunday he sent word that he wanted to see me. I went to the GMT booth, and he basically said "we want to make your game" at the same time that I said, "I want your company to make my game".

So in the end I went through the normal channels of sending a prototype to GMT's Andy Lewis (who obviously approved it!) and then did an official demo session at GMT West weekend in October, to more fanfare.

One short month later and Combat Commander was officially added to GMT's P500 preorder program. Numbers rose quickly, and we passed the 500 mark mid-January.

Tom: What games and designers have inspired you the most?

Chad: As far as designers go, I like Alan Emrich ("Totaler Krieg" and "Modern Naval Battles") for having taught me the value of "design-for-effect". To me, this is the gaming equivalent of cause-and-effect: the cause is the game trigger and the effect is the end result, with the mechanism to get the player there being as simple and elegant as possible.

In the Euro field, I really look forward to every Martin Wallace game. He tends to make games that have me scratching my head during my first session ("what the heck do I do now?") but invariably leaves me wanting to play it again, when we're done. I think his games tend to be on the heavier side of Eurogaming, which is a better fit with my wargaming background. His designs seem to have great replayability, because you think you figured it out at the end of one session only to find yourself wanting to try out a totally different strategy the next time.

One important game for me was "Paths of Glory" by Ted Raicer, which was my first venture into card-driven boardgaming. PoG opened my eyes to the wondrous potential of CDG design, which I think has barely scratched the surface as far as where it can take our boardgaming hobby in the future. CDG's mix randomness with determinism: WHICH cards you draw is random (like a die roll) but what you choose to DO with those cards is usually entirely up to the player -- all with an added fog-of-war aspect due to your opponent not knowing exactly which cards you may be holding.

However, as far inspiration goes, "ASL" is likely the leader here. It has shown me that anything can be modeled within a game, with any level of detail desired.

Tom: What would be your advice to an aspiring game designer?

Chad: Design what you like, not what you think the market may want. Designing a game that *you* will love to play makes the process enjoyable and, odds are, if you like it, then others will too.

Tom: Do you think wargames are evolving? What changes might we see next?

Chad: Wargames are most certainly evolving. I have seen in recent years a trend towards more "Euro-friendly" wargames (Twilight Struggle; Hammer of the Scots; Memoir '44; to name just a few). And of course web technology has allowed for near instantaneous answers to questions as well as the ability to play over the internet for those wargamers that don't have ready access to face-to-face opponents.

I don't know about "changes", per se, but I do see the block games and CDG's becoming much more prevalent, both because design space for these two wargaming mediums looks to be quite large AND as a means to attract more non-wargamers into the hobby.

Tom: What is the best way to attract more non-wargamers into the hobby? Is the wargaming hobby growing at all?

Chad: The wargaming community is indeed growing -- rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated! I doubt you will ever again be able to buy a game like "Panzerblitz" at the local Toys-R-Us like twenty or thirty years ago, but the hobby's bounce in recent years has been encouraging.

I've seen many non-wargamers taking the leap into ConSims via simple CDGs like "Memoir '44" and simple block games like "Hammer of the Scots". These games provide good flavor -- a teaser trailer of what's to come, if you will -- then act as stepping stones to wargames of deeper strategy for those wishing to pursue further. So introducing a family gamer or Euro gamer to a wargame with both a smaller rulebook and friendlier components (cards; blocks; 3D pieces) seems to be the best way to wet their appetites.

Tom: What is your take on playtesting? How do you go about doing it for your game(s)?

Chad: Playtesting is extremely important. The first draft of rules for any game is only theory -- even though it may read like it's a finished product. It is not! Initial game mechanics that look good on paper can rip apart at the slightest tug when actually put to the test by pushing pieces around. To this end, I also try to make the physical components of my creations as attractive as possible in order to make it more enticing for folks to want to test it.

I ask testers for ANY feedback, obviously -- positive or negative. The one thing that I ask is that comments like "this mechanic sucks" be forbidden unless it is immediately followed with a fix such as "how about trying X instead". The former statement is useless to a designer or developer unless coupled with the latter.

I am also lucky enough to have a dozen different board gamers within a 1-hour drive of my home, so finding testers for face-to-face sessions isn't too difficult.

Tom: How many times do you a playtest a game, and how much of it changes the finished product?

Chad: For Combat Commander, we had a core group of 4 testers that played 232 test games over a 9 month span. Key elements of those test games were logged in an Excel spreadsheet to give us real-time feedback. In addition, dozens of demo games were played throughout 2005 at various conventions and hobby stores which gave us further feedback.

How much a game changes is a tough question. Combat Commander, for example, began life solely as a card wargame, which was tested dozens of times through 2003-04 but seemed to always lack a certain "oomph". In December of '04 I took the basic framework of this early design and "redesigned" the other 75% into what is now Combat Commander. Our first CC playtest game in January 1 of 2005 is essentially 80-90% of what will be published later this year. CC's basic mechanics never changed again -- it's simply been an exercise in fine-tuning.

Tom: For someone wanting to get into wargames, what initial games would you recommend?

Chad: "Memoirs '44" is a good intro into wargaming, even for non-Euro gamers as it is simpler than many Euro titles.

"Friedrich" by Histogames is one I would recommend to a Euro gamer, as there are no dice (combat is determined via card play); it's multi-player; the rules are short and concise; and game play can be well under 3 hours.

Simmons Games' "Bonaparte at Marengo" is another fan favorite that invokes a feeling of chess-like play while immersing the player in the flavor of Napoleonic warfare. It has short rules, no luck (zero dice or cards), nice wooden pieces and a mounted map, and short play time.

Tom: You mentioned in your bio that you "rode the coattails of Magic the Gathering". What is your opinion of CCGs and their effect on the hobby?

Chad: While CCGs are quite often looked upon derisively by boardgamers, I think that this view is mistaken. Magic and other CCGs easily attract young non-gamers into the hobby -- which then act as a huge stepping stone to explore other types of games. I have seen many Magic players move on to miniatures, roleplaying and boardgaming. I see part of the resurgence of "designer" boardgaming as of late coming from those folks who have migrated over from Fantasy-heavy genres -- CCGs especially.

Even if a Magic player doesn't end up playing "Die Macher" or "Paths of Glory" on a regular basis, the growth of the CCG market at least raises awareness of our hobby as a whole in the eyes of mainstream society.

Tom: As a former store owner, what is your take on the "online discounters vs. friendly local game stores" debate?

Chad: They both have their place. I shop both locally and online, simply depending upon my predisposition at the time I make the purchase: if I'm feeling particularly frugal and don't need the game NOW, online retailers will get my dollar; and when I want to feel supportive of local commerce and make sure that there is a place for people to play games and socialize, I'll pay a bit extra for that.

Brick-and-mortar shops will likely always remain more expensive than their online competitors, so to survive they are going to have to continue to make up the difference in the services that they provide to their walk-in customers -- free table space, tournaments, demos, the immediacy of the purchase, and so on -- things that an online retailer can't provide through the ether.

Tom: So what do you see in your future? Are you designing more games?

Chad: Oh, most certainly; more games are coming! I've been inventing games for many years, so I have a bunch of them filed away in various stages of development -- there ought to be one or two gems in there. And I have several Euro-type games also in the works, so it's not all fare for the wargaming crowd. Once Combat Commander is published later this year, if it is accepted as a positive addition to the hobby, then I'll begin casting my Euro-themes around and see if any of those publishers bite.

I think I'll be having far too much fun in the coming years.

Tom: How important has the internet become - to players and designers?

Chad: The internet has been a great facilitator of information for the prospective game buyer. As a consumer, I can see examples of play, components, reviews, etc. both long before AND long after the actual publication of a game.

From my perspective as a game designer, it allows me to communicate more effectively with both my prospective customers AND those in the industry who are helping to make Combat Commander a reality. With the principals spread all over the US, GMT Games, for example, can operate quite efficiently as a 5-man "national" company because of email and the internet -- their entire process of bringing a game to market is greatly helped due to internet exposure & advertising, their website and its use of the P500 system, as well as ease of communication via email rather than snail mail and long-distance phone.

Further, the advent of Cyberboard, Vassal, Aide de Camp and other programs that facilitate the play of boardgames via the internet (especially for those hobbyists living in remote areas) has only served to stimulate the growth of the very boardgaming hobby they serve.

Tom: Chad, thanks for all your insights! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Chad: hmmm...nope! (good gaming, all!)

Edited by Tom and Laura Vasel
March 6, 2006
"Real men play board games"
www.tomvasel.com

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