For some of us, board games have been a staple of our households from the beginning. Who hasn’t found frustration playing Monopoly or ravenously devoured marbles in Hungry, Hungry Hippos? These games are absolutely everywhere, so it can be easy to forget that each of those games had to be made by someone or a team of someones.
Everyone’s favorite tabletop games started out as a glimmer in a creative person’s eye. It begins with a vision, a dream of a game that might one day become a reality. However, in order to become a game, it takes the extra motivation to begin creating. Writing out playing cards on scraps of paper, drawing up a comprehensive list of rules, sketching out a rough game board on a piece of card stock, all of these are important moments in the creative process. However, when I reached out to an indie dev who designs games for fun in his spare time, there’s much more to it than that.
Join me and tabletop game creator Kurtis Holme as we talk about how he found himself making board games in the digital age, the way he and his colleagues made Mario Kart into a working board game, and what it takes to finish a game of your own. You can listen to the audio interview or read a lightly edited version of it below.
So, who is Kurtis Holme? What do you do? How did you get into making games?
Okay, so I’m Kurtis Holme. I work in software […] and went to school for computer science. I guess, making games has been something that I have always kind of done, but I didn’t really realize it until later.
I think all kids kinda make up games; that’s not an abnormal thing, but maybe the extent to which I did it was? [laughs]
Maybe abnormal wasn’t the right word, but at an early age I was very into games. I enjoyed playing them a lot. I would play them by myself; I would create tournaments. I would have, like, a dozen different Magic: The Gathering decks, and I’d play them against each other until there was a winner. I never played Monopoly by myself, that’s for the truly insane. [laughs]
So, the earliest game that I remember where I was actually going about it with some sort fo active process in mind was with a game called MLB Showdown. I think this was in 1999 when MLB Showdown came out. This was Wizards of the Coast, and it was baseball cards, except you could play a game of baseball with the baseball cards.
It was SO much fun. I loved it. Baseball is one of my hugest passions, and this was when I was playing baseball all the time, six days a week for multiple hours per day. Yeah, MLB Showdown, I love that game so much, I am sad they discontinued it.
How does baseball work in card form?
So you have the players and they have a couple of different statistics on their cards. They're split into hitters and pitches. The hitters have an on-base number and the pitchers have a control number. To simulate a player at bat, the pitcher rolls a d20 and take the result and add it to their control, the batter rolls a d20 and they take the result and add it to their on base number. Whoever wins that roll has advantage. So that simulates a pitching count where a hitter will be at an advantage in “the showdown.” They also have a chart where you have different results that can happen. So both hitters and pitchers have different charts and their charts will be better the better the player is. The chart has a roll result for your action at that at bat; strike out, ground ball, fly ball walk single, single plus double triple homer, for both the pitcher and hitter.
So after you figure out who has the advantage, that player rolls the dice to see what happens for the at bat. If the pitcher wins, they roll the die, they take the result and look up on their chart what happens. So pitchers, everything below a 16 is usually an out; the really good pitchers, everything up to an 18 is an out. Whereas, if the hitter gets the advantage then it is usually 1-6 would be an out and 18 or higher is a homer. So you play out a game of baseball like that: Rolling a d20.
That sounds like an RPG system!
It is. It is an RPG system. It was actually my first introduction to an RPG system. I had never really played Dungeons & Dragons before that point.
You fell in love with MLB Showdown, so how did that roll over into creating your own games?
Right, so… Basically, I became so enthralled with this game that I wanted to do two things with it. One was that the rules didn’t encompass all of the intricacies of baseball like I wanted it to. It wasn’t just rolling dice, you also had a strategy deck and you would draw something like three cards per inning. The cards would be something like "steal a base" or "give a bonus to your swing if you have a lefty batting and a righty pitching," stuff like that. But because it was a deck, it was random. That didn’t make much sense to me. Like, if you are trying to play the advantage of having a lefty versus a righty, that’s something you plan in your lineup. It’s not a random thing that happens.
I built out rules for a lot of these things that weren’t in there. I had a whole bunch of stuff, like I added in a chance for an error or-
So you were modding this game, but in the tabletop sense rather than the digital one?
So then then next thing that happened was that the game was discontinued in... 2005, I think it was. Every year that the new set came out, I was always so excited that I would buy a whole booster box at a time to try to get all the players that I wanted. Not being able to do that made me so sad that I went online. I found forums dedicated to this game and people who had basically taken all of the stats for previous years and scienced that into the formula that Wizards of the Coast used to create these cards. I made some tweaks to that on my own for some of the stats.
I went out and bought the baseball reference almanac. This thing is probably 8 inches thick, it’s basically a phonebook. It has every single player that has played the game of baseball, their entire career stat lines from 2005 to the 1850s.
So, once I had my formulas, what I would do is every night before I went to bed I would just open to a random page and make that players card for at least players. [laughs] I guess that in and of itself it wasn’t very innovative, but…
You were making your own game! You saw this game wasn’t being made anymore and decided to take matters into your own hands. That’s awesome! You went about making this game; did you wind up with a handmade, functional deck that you could use to continue playing MLB Showdown?
So I just wrote them down on index cards, basically, so yeah I would play with the index cards when I had enough of my handmade cards to form a team. I never went so far as to try to print them out or get pictures of the players and put them on the cards.
I know right now that you develop tabletop games in your spare time. That’s not a very common hobby. A lot more people these days seem more interested in developing video games. You hear about struggling indie devs, but that’s almost always in the digital sense. So how did you go from being a kid making your own MLB Showdown to someone who does this more seriously?
Okay, so, I guess tabletop games are what I did growing up. We didn’t have video games in my house until… Dreamcast was my first gaming system. It was always board games and stuff first, that was what we did with family, you know? As I got older, I started shifting more toward video game stuff, especially when World of Warcraft came out. That was basically my life from 2004 until 2009. [laughs]
When I went to college, I didn’t really have a solid idea of what I wanted to do. Up until that point, it had always been, “I’m going be a baseball player!” and when reality set in that that probably wasn’t actually going to be a thing that was going to happen, I had to take a step back and decide what I was actually going to do with my life. I really had no idea, I feel like I still don’t.
We had to do this for a math class in high school. We had to pick out an engineering field that sounded interesting and do a presentation on it. The field I did was aerospace engineering and, yes, the list we were given was alphabetical. I pursued that my first year at college and didn’t really like it, so I was looking for something else to do instead.
I had computer science classes in high school; I didn’t do as well in those as I did in my other classes, but I still enjoyed being on the computer. I liked typing at the bare minimum. So I figured, well, okay, I like video games; maybe I could make video games. I’d need a computer science degree to do that, so I decided to give that a shot. I liked it better than aerospace, but I didn’t like it so much… I always felt a little bit estranged from the rest of my classmates in C. Sci. because they always seemed to be really into the theory of computer science programming. Whereas for me, it was more of a means to an end rather than an actual passion. I was considering switching again until I took AI 1, AI turned out to be the thing that kept me in computer science because it was such a cool application.
I was thinking that AI would be the path for me into making games. I applied for internships at Blizzard, Riot Games, a ton of places, but I never got any of those internships. That’s when I realized that I had picked something that is incredibly hard to get into.
That all got put on the backburner when I got done with school and needed to figure out what to actually do with my life in the immediate sense to survive. That’s how I got the job I have now. While I was there, some of the people I was working with, we became good friends – they liked board games and stuff, too.
I think I had brought Pandemic the board game to work, and we played it at work during lunch one day. [..] That got us talking a bit about games in general. They had been interested in making video games, as well.
I don’t know how we got onto this, but we started talking about Mario Kart as a board game. I was just… I dunno, the lightbulb came on and I was like, “This is totally doable. We should make this!” That’s how it started. We just sat down at lunch with a deck of cards and started trying to figure out what that would look like.
I really like thinking about those types of problems. Thinking about how something could be modeled as a game mechanic is really enjoyable to me. So taking Mario Kart and dissecting it to its smallest pieces and figuring out what that looks like on a tabletop – that’s basically how it began. How would items work as a game mechanic? Well, you could have decks of cards, maybe specific items, but then you start thinking about all the little things. Like, in Mario Kart, if you’re in last place you are going to get a better item than someone who is in first place.
We kept solving all of those little problems and eventually we had something that was playable. That was when we actually printed out- we found a picture online of an aerial view of a Mario Kart track and printed that out on a piece of paper at work. Then we went to a local game store and bought a random bag of random assorted shapes for pieces. We gave each piece a role in Mario Kart, like this is a banana, this is Donkey Kong, etc.
We made that, and it was a ton of fun. It was really fun to play. Eventually someone asked me, “What are you gonna do with this now?” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know. We were kind of just making it for fun, but it would be really cool if we could do this and make money off of it.” That’s when it became less academic and more what would it actually take to do this for real? That’s when I started getting more serious about it. Taking classes online, reading books, going to conventions, all that stuff.
Did you ever try to pitch Nintendo the Mario Kart game?
No, we did not. We never actually figured out how we should go about doing that from a legal standpoint.
So it seems like you got into game design because of the problem solving aspect of it; how you go about making mechanics that reflect the core conceit of a given idea?
Yes and board games in particular because I don’t love programming. As time has gone on, that’s become more and more true. Making a game, a video game, is such a large task. There are still some games that I would like to make that would be digital. However, ultimately one thing that I’ve realized is that board games can achieve something from a social aspect that I don’t think video games will ever be able to replicate. Maybe there’s a VR game in the future that can get there, but… it’s not the same experience. There are certainly things a board game can do that a video game can. I’ve found myself appreciating the social aspect of board gaming more as the differences between the two have become clearer to me.
So what are some things socially that board games are better at than video games?
Board games allow for a lot more creativity. It’s based a lot more on the people playing than the rule set. You can have the best crafted rule set and people will still tweak it to their own means, like I did. [laughs] That’s good and that’s fun. You can make it what you want to make it.
Video games, just by the way code has to exist for a computer to run a program. It’s very, very difficult to get that same sort of dynamic environment.
Just being able to house rule something – you can’t do that as easily in a video game as you can in a tabletop game.
What are some of the lessons you took away from building your own board games?
The biggest takeaway is that the first 80% is easy and the last 20% is nigh on impossible. [laughs] That’s an exaggeration, but getting that last 20% completed, polished and functional, is very hard and takes a lot of time.
By that do you mean the production end of things? Getting it a nice looking box and pieces, is that the hard part or are you still talking about the rules, mechanics, and systems?
The rules, mechanics, and systems. To get something that other people will like, you need to playtest it a lot. You need to playtest it with a lot of different people. Everyone is going to have different opinions on it; I’m sure it’s true of video game development, as well.
That’s something that we, as a group, have struggled with. We have never been short on ideas, but we have always had trouble taking something past iteration X.
What becomes the major stumbling block?
Part of it is the group of people that we have. We’re idea people, not get-it-done people. It’s hard to identify when something isn’t working- how do I describe this? When something isn’t working and you know it’s not working - a mechanic, a system, whatever. Is it an inherently flawed idea or does it just need tweaks? Because it if it is inherently flawed you should just scrap it and move on to the next idea or you just end up trying to iterate on this thing forever.
We did the latter the first time through, where we just iterated on Mario Kart forever, but never actually solved the problems that we were having with games taking too long. For a lot of the other games, we might have been too quick to throw out ideas without iterating on it. It’s a hard balance to find.
And it seems like it would be harder to playtest those problems outside of your development group without the resources of a publisher. It just seems like it is easier to find people to QA a game that’s digital.
Yeah, you can just release the code and have thousands of people who will playtest it. Whereas with me I’m basically begging people to please play a board game with me for an hour. [laughs]
What are a few of your other game projects you’ve been knocking around?
The other one that we got the closest to comple- actually it was a completed game. Our working title was Death Train. It was basically a train race. We had this idea where it would be cool to have this mechanic where you have a train and you are racing against other trains on parallel tracks. The mechanic is that you are physically moving your train along this track back and forth by adjusting your speed and how you align with other players on the tracks is how you interact with them. We had this thing were you’re building cars as you’re going – we called it a train builder as opposed to a deck builder – you are building your train as you go. Your cars would be anything from an extra engine to a tesla coil that zaps adjacent train enemies.
That one was actually really fun and it was pretty much working. The problems we ran into with that one were that we were trying to do a little bit too much. We didn’t want it to just be a race; we didn’t want it to be just a battle. We wanted there to be multiple paths to victory, kind of eurogame it. We added in victory points and all this other stuff that muddied the waters a bit too much.
Do you just then leave that entire idea behind and move on? Or what happens when you hit that 80% mark?
It goes on a shelf, basically. A lot of the things I’ve read in my pursuit of more knowledge of game design, I guess there are different schools of thought on it, but there are a number of people who like to have multiple games that they’re working on at the same time and advocate for that. […] The idea behind having a bunch of games that you’re working on at the same time is that you’d be working on Game C and you come across an idea that might be applicable to Games A, F, and G. Then maybe you can revisit those games and cycle along with it. I like that, but it’s a slow churn through that last 20% with that method.
And the alternative is trying to brute force your way through the last 20% which is also grueling, just in a different way?
You mentioned game design resources. In terms of books, lectures, forums, or whatever, what have you found to be the most helpful for designing tabletop games?
There is a specialization track on Coursera from the California Institute for the Arts. I took that, it’s four courses, four weeks each. That got me a lot more insight than I had going in. I didn’t start doing this until after we finished Mario Kart and kind of when we started hitting the first roadblocks on Death Train. That’s the point where we got to where we needed to take a step back and figure out what it was we were doing instead of Wild Westing it or whatever.
Coursera was one of the first places I went for that. I really enjoyed that specialization. It was really fun and I learned a lot from it.
The next best was probably a book, “The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design” by Mike Selinker. The book, specifically, is more of a book of interviews with a bunch of different game designers and taking their opinions on a bunch of different things. It’s cool to see what Steve Jackson is thinking when he’s starting to make a game. That gives you some insight into what you’re doing well or what you’re not taking into account that you could be.
Oh, and also, there’s a podcast that I also started listening to around the same time. That’s Designer Notes. Designer Notes was actually probably one of the most influential.
It might also be one of the most accessible of the ones you mentioned.
So having done all of this, having gained experience in designing these games, what would you recommend people do if they want to get into designing a tabletop game? What are your first steps?
Your first steps are to get something made and on a table in front of people to play it. The most progress that we as a group have actually made is just by actually doing. You learn so much more about what works and what doesn’t when you’re actually sitting at a table trying to play it. You can have what seem like the best ideas in the world, take it to the table, and they don’t work. Then you’re back to square one.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to get something to a playable form as quickly as possible. Even if it is absolutely horrible, as long as you can play it, you’re learning something from it. You aren’t actually learning what you think you might be learning until you’re actually playing it.
What does it mean to get something on the table when it is first draft of a tabletop game? I think some people struggle with that; how do you make a thing?
It depends on the game, it depends on so many things. Taking an idea and seeing if the simplest form of that idea translates to a board game or a card game or what have you. It could be taking random scraps of paper and finding out, “What’s an interesting way to have these things move around a track?” You’re just sitting there, literally rolling dice and seeing what is fun. That’s what game design is: It’s engineering fun.
What would you tell someone to do – they are getting their game past 80%, maybe they are even at 100% – how do you make this game into a sold-for-money board game?
That’s a part that I haven’t got to, so take my advice with a grain of salt. There’s Kickstarter, but that has a whole bag of intricacies by itself. You could write to publishers....
These are more advanced steps. I guess it depends on how you got to that feeling of 100% done. Have you had a whole bunch of people playtest it? And when I say a whole bunch, I mean hundreds of people playtest it, not just friends, but random strangers, people who had the rules and people who don’t have the rules. If you haven’t playtested the game, then I don’t think you’re at 100% yet. So playtest, playtest, playtest.
If you are truly at the point where it is as good as it can be and no more playtesting is going to help that, then I think your next steps are one of three things – at least things that I have been looking at doing myself.
The first is conventions. Here in Minneapolis, that’s Con of the North. At pretty much any tabletop convention, there’s going to be a space for playtesting, games that are known to be in prototype phase. People sign up to play knowing it is not necessarily a completed game. This is a great way to get more playtesters and feedback, but it is also a good place to make contacts and maybe run into a publisher that you might be able to pitch an idea to, stuff like that.
Speaking of publishers, pitching your idea to a publisher is an option. You have to do your research. You have to know what kinds of games the publisher has published in the past, what kinds of games they’re publishing now. It has to fit with their MO as a publisher and what they have in their pipeline already.
Then the last one would be Kickstarter. Kickstarter is the one that will make you the most money if it’s successful.... Probably.
All the caveats.
Yeah, I can’t say that with certainty. At least you are controlling that entirely yourself. You’re not selling your idea to a publisher. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through with Kickstarter to get that to work and it’s risky. One of the things we have learned from conventions is that to produce a board game at scale is very expensive. If you’re talking a medium sized board game with some components and a board, you are looking at $60,000 to get that game produced. If you are going to Kickstarter, you’re going to have to ask for less than that, significantly less than that, as your goal. People have done all kinds of research as to what your goal value should be to get people to contribute to your Kickstarter and stuff like that. If you end up going that route and it’s unsuccessful and already footed the bill for $60,000 worth of production, then you are going to be in trouble. You have to know what you’re doing with the Kickstarter.
Do you have any final words to add?
That kind of ended on a downer note. I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom, “oh, this is so hard, expensive, and risky.” Ultimately, I think it’s worth it, no matter what.
One of my favorite things that I’ve read in my perusal of these resources. If you make a game, that game is going to be at least one person’s favorite game. There is absolutely at least one person in the world who would consider your game their favorite. Just think about that and think about how happy you’re making at least that one person.
There’s nothing quite like enjoying your favorite game. It’s even better when you can see other people enjoying something to that degree that you have made.
Almost like you’re giving back to all the games that you enjoyed; putting your own little bit of that in the world.
The world can be a pretty crappy place sometimes, so if you can make it even a little bit happier sometimes, then I feel like that’s worth it.