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Interviews by an Optimist # 85 - Gordon Lamont
I am aged 38 and live in Scotland. My proper job is an advocate - yes, I do wear a wig.
I have been a board gamer all my life. Early memories include Waddington's Formula One and Buccaneer. My first big box game was at the age of 11 with Richtofen's War. Junta was a bi-annual favourite. In 1997 I discovered the German style games and was blown away by the production quality and design quality of the games now available. No looking back now...!
I am one of the founder members of the Scottish Board Games Association and have been its Chairman since its inception in 2001. Its goal is simply to promote our hobby. We run a (now) bi-annual convention called DiceCon (see www.dicecon.com for more details) - the next one will be in June in Glasgow.
I was also the board game convenor at Gen Con UK in 2004 and the main board games representative at World Con in 2005 (the science fiction convention). I occasionally write for Counter magazine. I regularly demo euro style games to any local groups that want a fun evening (you haven't lived unless you have seen Guides aggressively playing Egg Dance).
In 2004 my brother Fraser and I set up Fragor Games (FRAser and GORdon -
Gorfra sounded too much like a government agency !). We self-published "Leapfrog" at Essen in 2004. In Essen 2005 we released our second game "Shear Panic" and had a wonderful experience !
Motto : "Life is all about playing games - everything in between is just
waiting." I am not joking when I say that I want my ashes scattered in the Gruga Halle, Essen!
Tom: Why did you decide to produce your own games, rather than submit the designs to another company?
Gordon: The long answer to your question:
I had been to Essen twice before we launched our first game Leapfrog in 2004. Both times were very special experiences. I could see how a small publisher could publish a game at Essen and still compete beside more established games companies. In March 2004 our design of Leapfrog was completed. Our choices were either to submit it to a games company or to go ahead and self-publish. At that point we were unknown. A games company would have placed our game in a corner beside all the other unsolicited games. We would have had no control over the timescale.
We thought it a much better approach to publish the game in a limited edition at Essen. It would show that we were confident in the design and had backed that confidence up with both hard work and money.
Our plan worked in that we had a successful Essen 2004. It meant that we gained much greater exposure in a much shorter period of time than if we had just submitted our game to a company and sat back. We could show publishers positive reviews of the game coupled with actual sales.
We unashamedly copied the way in which the great Richard Breese had been operating. By producing a limited number of games we kept control of our overheads. By trying to produce 1 good game a year we hoped that eventually gamers would start looking out for what we were doing each year at Essen.
Essen 2004 meant that we made a great deal of contacts (friends!) and we got a bit of experience under our belts. Self-publishing is a great deal of fun but an ENORMOUS amount of work.
The short answer:
It's more fun ! You get to experience all sides of the games industry.
Tom: You have some really nice pieces in Leapfrog. How did you, as a small publisher, afford such nice components?
Gordon: My brother and I are gamers first and foremost. That means we take a large amount of pride in the components of our games. If a piece is right, it goes in the game (almost) regardless of cost. Once we have the design right we spend a large amount of time (months) trying to get the best possible pieces. To put this in perspective, some 20 years later I can still remember the disappointment of opening the Speed Circuit box to find those awful blobs of plastic which were supposed to be cars.
Our aim in publishing a game is to get it noticed, liked and hopefully then taken on by one of the bigger companies. We do not make a loss, but we don't arrive at Essen by limousine! We are lucky to some extent in that our purpose in producing a game is not to make money. Sure, we want to cover our costs and have a small amount towards our next game; but if we love a piece, it is going in the game. If this means we take a cut in our bottom line then so be it. For instance, in our new game Shear Panic each individual sheep piece actually retails for £1 each (there are 9 of them). Roger and the Shearer retail for more than that. We could have got away with not putting in either the Roger Ram piece or The Shearer piece. However, as gamers, we could not resist either of them. In they go.
You mentioned in Dice Tower episode 16 how good pieces help interest people in playing a game. We found that at Essen too. If you have a game that looks good, then passers-by are going to stop and look. We have had a number of people order our new game as soon as they saw the photos of it on Rick Thornquist's old site (give the man a medal for his Essen preview). I think Days of Wonder deserves enormous credit for raising the bar in terms of production quality (the bell in Mystery of the Abbey is one of my favourite
As a small company with a limited edition we can keep a close control our costs. We do not need to sell as many games as the bigger companies :-)
Tom: Where do the ideas for the designs come from? Will all your games be about moving animals around?
Gordon: If I can deal with the theme question first....no, our games will not always be about moving animals. With Shear Panic, although the initial idea came from watching a flock of sheep, we did briefly consider a number of themes which were non-animal related (e.g. cyclists, spacecraft, neurons.....!). The theme just fits with best with sheep. With Leapfrog, the theme came to me in the shower! I think a good theme helps players to understand what is going on in the game - the central mechanism of Leapfrog works well as a frog game because pieces jump over one another.
We have a number of designs, and I assure you they do not all have animals in them - although some do :-) It made sense for us to build on Leapfrog by releasing another game which people could relate to as being from Fragor. If our next game had been a 4 hour wargame we would have been starting from scratch. Our new game Shear Panic is much more of a gamer's game than Leapfrog but has some of the factors that made Leapfrog popular. This allows us to build on our success of last year rather than going out on a limb. Maybe next year our game will not have an animal theme; it depends on the design, the availability of pieces and what is the most fun!
It is difficult to say where designs come from - Fraser and I seem to have ideas out of the blue on a regular basis. Just going to the supermarket can have me designing separate games about car parks, produce on shelves, customer routes etc...! It is just part of our everyday lives. Once the basic idea takes hold, then the design will present a number of challenges which you try and overcome. Shear Panic took much longer than Leapfrog to design but was great fun. We try and have an idea of what we want to have as an end product in general terms and then design the specifics of the game around that. For instance, with Shear Panic we wanted a game that lasted about 45 minutes so that influenced the number of fields and the length of each field.
It seems to help with game design if you are working with someone - it means you can bounce ideas off of each other. Some of our best ideas have come when one of us misunderstood what the other was saying and jumped to an even better idea! As a sweeping generalisation, Fraser is usually trying to make our designs more simple, and I am usually trying to make them more complex. The final result is a balance between this. We work extremely well together and have a lot of laughs. If design was work, it would be hard going, but it is what we do for recreation.
Tom: Do you have another game in the works?
Gordon: At any one time we may have 5 or 6 basic designs which will require a great deal of work to be taken further. After Essen, we spend the time up until the end of December polishing 3 or 4 of them. By January, we need to have decided which one we are going to go with and we then do as much playtesting as possible in the next 6 months. From about March onwards we need to start thinking about getting pieces organised and from then on it is a blur as the game continues to evolve, pieces arrive, etc., etc. We try and produce 1 good game for each Essen rather than 2 or 3 mediocre ones.
The games we have kicking around (and which you may never see) include games based on animals, space, fantasy and football. They have a wide range of mechanisms.
It really does take us all year to design and produce 1 game :-) Each year we learn a bit more, and it becomes easier though.
Tom: How and with whom do you playtest your games?
Gordon: I tend to think of playtesting like ever increasing circles. To start off, Fraser and I will thoroughly playtest the game by ourselves. We like to have the design as near to completion before letting anyone else near it. The reason for this is it means that any comments about the game are more focused. It also means the designers have a deeper understanding of the game. Fraser has recently been working "on the bonny banks of Loch Lomond", and so we spent a large amount of time in very picturesque surroundings. Leapfrog was a much easier design than Shear Panic in that things came together very quickly. However, with Shear Panic, even after a long playtest session, Fraser and I would still feel like having another game of it just for fun!
After we have a design that we are satisfied with, we would involve a couple of our close gaming friends to try it out (Mark Higgins and Ellis Simpson). They are both excellent gamers and are not afraid to be "constructive" (!) in their criticism. Once we have taken their comments on board we would widen the circle to include our own games group for their comments. I am lucky enough to play in a group of 12, and the comments are very helpful.
After this, the circle would be widened even more to include gamers I know from around the world and those I meet at conventions. Feedback is welcomed in all shapes and forms at any time. Where I have modified a rule because of feedback, I like to let that person know about it to let them see that their comments are useful. With any comment, we may go back to stage 1 (just Fraser and I) and go through the process again. I try and monitor all feedback on our games and keep an eye on the BGG entries in case anyone has a problem or a useful comment.
I think you need to balance having the game playtested by those you know and trust in the initial stages (but may not be independent) with getting the game out there and seeing what the response is (in the latter stages).
The above process takes half a year, so it is funny to see it reduced to half a page! The important thing for any designer is to listen to the feedback you are getting. As an example, originally my brother and I did not think the sheep needed bases. As gamers, we could instantly see the lines of movement in the flock (e.g. diagonals). However, on playtesting with some of the more casual gamers, they stated they had difficulty in visualising the lines in the flock. We did not want to have the expense of a board and decided instead to mount the sheep on bases. The result was a much nicer looking game which was more user-friendly. A win-win situation (leaving aside cost and time considerations).
Tom: What games and designers have affected you guys the most?
Gordon: That is actually a very difficult question! I try to appreciate something from every game I play. For me, the games of Elfenland (breathtaking design and theme), Funkenschlag (how clever is the resource management?) and Turfmaster (simply fantastic) are amazing designs. Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence also stand out. My brother is a huge fan of Dragon Delta and would kill me for not mentioning it! In addition, we both regularly play a 2 player card game called Le Truc - it is a game of pure bluff and is very hotly contested.
In relation to designers, I think Richard Breese has blazed the trail for independent designers by having a long run of excellent games over the years. In addition, I love the refreshing originality of Friedemann Friese - every new game he comes out with is just great fun. Alan Moon is such a pleasant person and a great designer. Roberto Fraga with Dragon Delta, Egg Dance and Squad Seven must get a mention for showing that games can be quirky and fun. Finally, I doubt that any designer would not be influenced by the games of Reiner Knizia.
We will play almost anything at almost any time :-)
Tom: Your games could possibly have been released as abstract strategy games. How important is theme to you?
Gordon: Theme is important but not as important as gameplay. The phrase "abstract strategy game" would have me reaching for something else :-) A good theme should enhance the player's enjoyment of a game while also aiding with understanding what is going on. My brother and I knew instantly when frogs were mentioned that we were going to have a frog theme with Leapfrog - (We named it after the theming!). It fitted with what the pieces were trying to do but also meant that players could understand the game better by thinking in terms of a frog jumping. Anyway, I would much rather play a game about frogs racing than just an abstract theme.
With Shear Panic, the theme came first. We have never really thought of it as an abstract strategy game probably because of this. However, while the game is perfectly playable as an abstract, I think it is much more fun to have the story line and the theme. Sometimes the theme drives a mechanism in a game which might not have been thought of otherwise (e.g. the shearing in shear panic, the dinner plate in Leapfrog).
In addition, having a theme allows us to get beautiful pieces. The pieces and the theme are important factors in getting a game picked up and looked at. At Essen ‘04 the frogs caused a lot of oohs. You can multiply that by a factor of 10 for the sheep pieces and Roger Ram at Essen ‘05 ! It is shallow, but you are much more likely to play a game if it has a theme which you like and if you are attracted to the game components.
I think people play games to enjoy themselves and a good theme increases that enjoyment. Our hobby is great for variety - I love the fact that in the course of a gaming session you can drive a formula one car, rebuild some pyramids, battle with pirates, plant bean fields and still have time to control the fate of a banana republic!
Tom: You're obviously a fan of cool components. What are your favorite "bits" from other games?
Gordon: My favourite bits include:
The cars from Formula De
The submarines from Nautilus
The pyramids from Amun-re
All of Niagara
The bell from Mystery of the Abbey
The pieces from Memoir '44
The camels from Durch de Wuste
The press out ships from Karibik
Anything wooden like crokinole, carrom, carabande, weykick
The gems in Edel, Stein and Reich
The blocks from Pueblo
The bits from Shadows over Camelot
The horses and dice from Turfmaster
However, the best bit of all time is the event card in Junta which states "Students circulate petition condemning repression - No Effect".
Tom: What is the state of gaming in Scotland?
Gordon: Euro board games have still to hit the mainstream in Scotland. The public still think in terms of Cluedo, Monopoly or Scrabble.
However, in each of the 4 main cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen) there is at least one shop which sells euro board games (although you have to know where to look). There are quite a healthy number of small groups scattered across Scotland, and the gaming community is quite well known to one another (without it being a clique). There are also a number of groups (e.g. at the Universities) which meet regularly and also other groups which play everything including board games. If you are interested in euro games, you should be able to find a friendly group without too much trouble.
In addition, I am the co-organiser of Dicecon (see www.dicecon.com ) which is a bi-annual convention in Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of the reasons for doing this was to raise the profile of board games in Scotland. In addition, it provided a central point for gamers in Scotland to meet and to widen their gaming contacts. We have a day playing euro games, and it is great fun. The next one is in Glasgow in June, so please take this as a warm invitation to everyone to come along :-)
My own group meets once every two weeks with a maximum attendance of about 12 (although more usually nearer 8 or 9). We play a wide mixture of games depending on the number attending. It is very social and fun.
Tom: Tell us about your duties as organizer of Dicecon.
Gordon: As anyone who organises a convention will tell you - it is enormous work but enormous fun. In the months before DiceCon, Ellis Simpson and I will be making sure the hotel is booked and that they know what our requirements are (e.g. tables, chairs numbers, etc). The key to having a good venue is flexibility should you get more or less numbers than you have estimated. We will also spend some time with publicity such as posting to sites, newsgroups and Ellis does a great job maintaining our website. We are usually in touch with Days of Wonder, Esdevium Games, GMT games and our local games shops who have supported us from the very beginning with prizes and publicity. Non-computer publicity like posters and flyers are also prepared during the months beforehand.
As the day of the event approaches, our games group becomes more involved and we assign specific areas to individuals to help with (e.g. reception desk, etc). I try and keep myself available during the day to explain rules or to suggest games from our games library. I also try to play as many games as possible! DiceCon in Glasgow has some competitions - Official Settlers tournament, Galloping Pigs, Ivanhoe and Memoir '44 have all appeared in the past. Gery McGlauchlin ran a very successful Kniziathon this year for the first time. I usually run the Galloping Pig competition - it cracks me up to see 28 people all competing for the title of the UK Galloping Pig Champion!
Our Edinburgh event in November tends to have less competitions to free up the organisers to play the Essen releases! This has become even more important since my brother and I don't get much chance to freely game in the months up to and including Essen. The emphasis on both the Edinburgh and Glasgow DiceCon's is to provide a relaxed, friendly atmosphere for some fun gaming.
It is a lot of work, and I have skirted over the more mundane tasks which we do. However, it has been great to run a successful event and to bring gamers together a couple of times a year. It also has raised the profile of board games in Scotland to a limited extent. If any of your readers are thinking about organising one, then my advice would be to go for it!
Tom: When producing your games, you do very small print runs. With Shear Panic, the game sold out before Essen. Did you underestimate the demand, or was this merely a "taste" of a reprint?
Gordon: According to some on the web, we are either Machiavellian geniuses for creating "hype" or village idiots!
It is very easy to estimate the number of games you need after Essen :-) We are a small company with limited time and money. It is difficult for us to produce more than 1 game a year. In March, we had to decide how many games to make. Since we had not quite sold out our run of Leapfrogs at Essen last year (we sold 350 out of 500) the decision to make 550 seemed a reasonable one at the time. However, the demand was incredible and we were snowed under with pre-orders. As it turned out, we could have sold many times the amount we made.
If we had made 3,000 + games it would actually have been a lot easier for us - we could have had some aspects of the game produced by others with the benefits of economies of scale. However, we made as many games as we could, in the time that we had and with the budget we had. I am not kidding when I say that to get 550 Shear Panic's to Essen from design to production to selling out was a full year's work (in our spare time) for Fraser and myself. We are gamers at heart and really enjoy publishing our games - however, it is very demanding :-)
This was only our second year at Essen, and we were trying to build on our success with Leapfrog the year before. We are trying to walk before we can run! Next year we will re-assess the numbers we need to launch a game at Essen based on what happened this year. It is easier for us to consider larger print runs based on the level of pre-orders this time around and the demand for Shear Panic. I think the next runs will be more than 550 ;-)
Going back to your original question, I suppose the short answer is now "both"! Shear Panic will hopefully be reprinted in as short a timescale as possible.
Tom: So what factors contributed to Shear Panic's phenomenal sales?
Gordon: I think there were a number of factors. Firstly, Leapfrog had been well received the year before, and a significant number of people were very interested in our next game already. I think that publishing a second game meant that gamers knew a bit about us, and that helped.
Thereafter, in the weeks before Essen, we put out photos of the main components in the game (the sheep, Roger Ram, The Shearer). This meant that gamers could obviously see that the pieces were very appealing. This attracted a lot of attention on the web and resulted in a large number of orders (a thank you to Rick Thornquist and to Derk and Aldie at BGG).
Finally, we sent the game out to a number of people in the hobby to take a look at the game (including yourself!). The game was well received behind the scenes - this contributed to additional orders as a limited but significant number of people got a chance to play the game before Essen. We had regular pre-orders as those who we had sent the game out to play it with others.
The combination of all of the above factors meant that demand became high. All of the above were important in our sales. However, I think the most important aspect of the popularity of the game was that it was positively received in the gaming community. You can have wonderful pieces, but a game is no use if the gameplay is not there. We were very pleased to make the Fairplay board at Essen again this year, because it meant that a number of people who had bought the game without playing it had enjoyed it.
Tom: How are your games received in your home country?
Gordon: Errr.....not really received at all! We do have some Scottish orders and a fair number of UK orders. It is always a bit of a culture shock being at Essen and then returning back to Scotland. Euro gamers know about us, and we obviously meet people regularly at DiceCon. The main hobby shops know of us, because I spend as much spare time as I can buying games :-) However, beyond that no-one locally is really aware of Fragor Games. Last year our local town newspaper covered us after Leapfrog finished on the Fairplay board. However, the national press was not really interested. It is as if Fraser and I have 2 personas - the normal everyday one and the hidden games-designer one :-) We are better known in Germany and elsewhere than we are at home.
It is symptomatic of the fact that the publics' exposure to games is usually in Woolworths or Toys R Us. As I mentioned, it is a perpetual struggle to try and push our hobby into the public eye. I am hopeful that at some point we will have a breakthrough - the fact that there is a Scottish company producing German style games may help. Then again, we may still be having this chat in 10 years time. However, the longest journey starts with a single step.......... (luvvie alert).
Recently some euro style games have found their way into some of the bookshops (Borders, Waterstones, etc.) and I would really like to try and get Shear Panic in there to be available to the public. It would be great to demo games (Shear Panic or otherwise) directly to the Scottish public, as I think this would reassure them regarding buying games (hopefully anyway!).
I think it will be a few years yet before we are unable to walk down the street because of autograph hunters ;-)
Tom: What would be your advice to aspiring board game designers?
Gordon: Playtest, playtest and playtest. Make sure you play the game with a wide variety of people - not just your family and gaming group. Then listen! I have spoken to a few designers who simply gloss over things they do not want to hear. If you are going to go down the self-publishing route, then start out small. You will not get economies of scale, but if the game is a hit, it will be easy to expand. If you do large production run, then you are running the risk of being seriously out of pocket and having a large number of games
in your garage.
The Board Games Designers Forum at www.bgdf.com can be a very useful resource and the internet as a whole has a lot of useful information on it. New designers should think about their target market and why this group should buy their game. Finally, if you are submitting games to companies, then do not give up hope just because you are rejected. Listen and deal with any constructive criticism that they provide. However, your game may not be published simply because it does not fit in with the way in which a games company wishes to operate at that time.
One story which makes me laugh at least....! I once had someone write to me saying that they had designed a game which was a cross between Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. I responded politely as always confirming that it took us all our time to publish our own games, directing the person to the board games designer forum and wishing them all the best for the future. I actually thought it might have been somebody writing to me as a joke because of the wording of the e-mail. I then received an e-mail back suggesting that this would be a game that all gamers would love. I responded honestly saying that that a cross between Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit sounded to me like my idea of purgatory and that he should test it with people he did not know to see what the response was. I received a snooty reply back saying that the designer had never played my game called "purgatory" and had certainly not copied any thing from it!
Tom: Do you have other humorous stories from your experience in board gaming?
Gordon: Gaming can be great for laugh out loud chuckles! Recently at out games group we tried Robo Rally for the first time. One player (an experienced gamer who shall remain nameless) spent 2 1/2 hours on the one conveyor belt. He must have made about 8 complete revolutions. It was truly hilarious watching him get his turns, lefts and rights wrong continually. Finally something twigged with him and he "got it". His next move was a brilliant one - worthy of an expert player, involving not one but two conveyor belts and numerous twists and turns. It allowed him to land on the first flag ONLY for him to be immediately bumped off into the path of 3 lasers. Cue immediate loud explosion and the game being brought to an end due to the helpless laughter of players.
When we were selling Leapfrog at Essen, I was approached and asked how much it was for a copy of Leapfrog. "14 euros" I replied. Immediately I was asked what the price for 2 would be. I replied "we have a special price of 29 euros for 2". The money was almost in my hand until the prospective purchaser got his maths into action.
Another one that makes me laugh relates to Turfmaster. This is a group favourite although sometimes the rules are slightly unclear in special circumstances. In the final race, I had made a house ruling that you could not pick up your 2 bonus cards until that race had begun. This made sense to some extent, as the cards could be played "during the race" which I always took to mean after the start of it. For whatever reason, this particular ruling was the source of friction between myself and one other player. He is normally very docile but would always complain bitterly about this particular rule almost every time we played this game for a period of about 2 years. He wanted to be able to pick the cards up before the race began. Then one day........horror of horrors...in the middle of a game while checking for something else I came across the rule which said as clear as day that you could pick your bonus cards up BEFORE the final race began! I waited until we got to the final race and then announced in a loud voice that "as it clearly states in the rules, everyone could now pick their cards up and that that was the way we had always played it." The look of horrified indignant outrage on the other players face was something to behold. However, the others now have some ammunition when claiming that I have forgotten to explain an important rule.
Finally, at Essen we very nearly made some badges with the phrase "I've been Rogered" for those who we demoed the game to. This may still happen :-)
Tom: What game themes do you think are underused in board gaming?
Gordon: How about "Whitebeard Wheels" - a pirate Lord of the Rings train game?!! Watch out for the SuDoku expansion!
I think that sports games appear to have fallen out of favour a bit recently and could do with a modern touch. Football (ok, soccer) has some attractive possibilities - I did enjoy Streetsoccer by Cwali. In addition, Scotland has a very rich history and yet we have MacRobber, Schotten Totten and How Ruck with kilt graphics :-). There are also some superb fantasy and sci-fi books that would make wonderful games - I recently spoke at WorldCon and had the pleasure of meeting authors such as George Martin, Walter Hunt and Robin Hobb. Maybe the licensing part is too complex/expensive..........
I actually found this quite a difficult question to answer. It seems easier to point to what there is maybe too much of rather than what has been underused.
Tom: Gordon, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Gordon: A few :-) I now know that Shear Panic will be published by Mayfair in the US and 999 games in the Benelux region. Huch and friends will be our partners in Germany. Leapfrog should also re-appear shortly.
A big thank you to everyone who has supported us in the last 2 years. Your comments and enthusiasm really do spur us on. I hope we meet across the gaming table soon.
Finally, thanks for asking me !
Edited by Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
January 14, 2006
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wow, Tom, thanks for transcribing this - lots of work!