One of the Kickstarters I backed in August of 2013 was for a two-person card game called “Tessen.” I found out about it through a co-worker, James, who is friends with Chris and Suzanne Zinsli, the founders of table-top gaming design firm Cardboard Edison. Chris and Suzanne agreed to an interview in the fall, which I have long delayed posting due to various scheduling problems. Here it finally is, complete. Thanks, Chris and Suzanne, for being so patient. And folks, check out Cardboard Edison’s games! They’ve got lots of great stuff out there.
ANTHONY: How long have you been designing your own board and card games, and how long has Cardboard Edison been around as a company?
Suzanne: We’ve been designing games for about two and a half years. We sort of fell into game design accidentally. Chris was designing a website that would create alliterative phrases, and one day Purple Rain was on the TV. I put the phrase into the program and asked Chris if he could guess what I had typed based on the alliterative phrases from the website. We thought it was fun, and we had a few friends play the game soon afterward. Everyone was enjoying it so we decided to design a real game, which became our first design, a word party game called Skewphemisms. We’ve been designing games ever since.
Chris: We came up with Cardboard Edison about a year later. As we learned more about the board game industry and the whole process of game design, from prototyping to playtesting to publishing, we realized that there were a lot of new designers like us looking for information about the hobby. Board gaming is a niche industry and it’s filled with friendly, helpful people, so there are lots of resources for designers out there. The problem was that there wasn’t just one place for that information, and tracking it down took a lot of time and determination. So we decided to create a single place online where board game designers could find all the tips and resources they would need. We called it Cardboard Edison, a synonym for board game inventor, and we’ve posted more than 1,000 links so far.
ANTHONY: What’s the first board/card game you each remember playing, or the games that had the greatest influence on you?
Suzanne: As strange as it may sound, I think the game that has had the biggest influence on me as a designer is Triominoes. When Chris and I lived in an apartment in Bayonne, N.J., we would go to the laundromat on weekends, and we would bring games like Travel Scrabble and Triominoes to play in the coffee shop next door as our laundry was running. I really enjoyed those lazy Sundays. It was just a simple time, sitting together, playing a game, enjoying some coffee. As a designer I want to give other people that kind of experience.
Chris: The first game I remember getting into seriously as a kid was Phase 10. I would play it constantly and take it with me everywhere, trying to get family members to play too. It’s the game that taught me how to shuffle cards–and there were a lot of cards! I also think Phase 10 defined tabletop games for me for a long time. For the first year that Suzanne and I were designing games, pretty much every idea I had used cards with just one or two pieces of information on them. Now that I think about it, our first published game is also a card game with very simple cards.
ANTHONY: You recently concluded a successful Kickstarter campaign for TESSEN, “a quick-playing card game set in fuedal Japan.” What do you think are the key components to a successful Kickstarter campaign, specifically campaigns geared to kickstart games (versus books, music, etc)?
Suzanne: We were fortunate enough to find a great independent publisher for Tessen, A.J. Porfirio of Van Ryder Games. He ran an amazing Kickstarter campaign for Tessen, and he did all the right things to make it successful. For board game Kickstarters, you have to show people that you can create a quality product, you have to have the game’s rules available, you have to have outside reviews, and you have to be open and honest with your backers at all times.
ANTHONY: Walk us through the story and mechanics of TESSEN, if you would.
Chris: Tessen is a two-player card game that takes place in a mythical version of feudal Japan. The wise Shogun has declared an end to clan warfare, and he has come up with a clever way of resolving disputes, a competition he calls the “Tessen challenge.” Each clan’s warriors will hunt eight mystical creatures using only their Tessen, or war fan, and the clan that captures more animals will win the dispute. In the game of Tessen, each player controls a clan and tries to collect sets of animal cards. They also have warrior cards that they can use to try to steal their opponent’s animals. The game is played in real-time, so there are no turns. It’s a fast-paced game that takes about 15 minutes to play. It’s light enough that kids can play, but there’s enough strategy to make it interesting even to long-time gamers.
ANTHONY: So many card games (collector card sets, especially) feature text-heavy cards, and with TESSEN you went in the complete other direction. Why?
Chris: Maybe it’s the Phase 10 influence, but the cards in Tessen were always text-free. Since it’s a real-time game, it was important that players could recognize cards at a glance. Any reading would slow down the game.
ANTHONY: What were the challenges in designing a game with text-light / no-text cards?
Chris: A lot of games with text-heavy cards use complex card powers to alter the rules of a simple core game. Because we didn’t have that luxury with a real-time game, we had to make sure the core game itself was compelling and fun.
ANTHONY: How many “drafts,” for lack of a better term, did TESSEN go through before you finalized the design and play rules for the Kickstarter?
Suzanne: The core of the game hasn’t changed much since we came up with the idea, but we did play around with the number of cards in the decks. The theme did change from what it was originally: Christmas elves packing up presents on a conveyer belt. When we licensed the game to Van Ryder Games, A.J. led development to really polish the game. One of his additions was the “super warrior” cards, which add a lot to the game and bring it to the next level.
ANTHONY: Tell us a bit about the artist for the cards in the deck.
Suzanne: A.J. found the artist, Wayne O’Conner, on BoardGameGeek. He’s an amazing artist, and his work has exceeded all of our expectations. We love his work!
ANTHONY: You also offered, to backers of the Kickstarter only, a “TESSEN Classic” deck with different artwork. How did that come about?
Chris: Tessen Classic uses authentic historic Japanese artwork that’s gorgeous and evocative of the era of the game. We used that artwork for our prototype of Tessen, and everyone who played the game loved it. A.J. had the idea to offer the game with the classic artwork as a limited-edition pledge level on Kickstarter.
ANTHONY: Are there any plans for expansion decks for TESSEN?
Chris: As a matter of fact, the base game of Tessen comes with two expansions already in the box! There’s the Dragon, which protects the animals and must be fought off with your warriors, and there’s the Sacred Beast, which values one animal above the rest. We also have two other expansions ready to go in case the game takes off. There’s the Ronin, who sweeps across the table during the game, and The Walls, which can be built to protect the animals you’re rounding up.
ANTHONY: Where can people who missed out on the Kickstarter obtain their own copy of TESSEN?
Suzanne: From the publisher’s website: www.vanrydergames.com. You can order Tessen there now!
ANTHONY: What do you think are the essentials of board/card game design? What’s your development process like?
Chris: One big difference between board game design and most other creative pursuits is the ability to get feedback from your audience while you’re still working. Board games are designed, tested, redesigned, tested again, thrown out and started over, and tested again. The playtesting process is one big strength of this particular creative form. Designers who don’t make the most of it by getting their game to the table and learning from people’s feedback are missing a big opportunity.
Suzanne: Our development process varies with each game we design, and we’re still new to board games, so we’re also still figuring out what works for us. Chris and I approach games from very different directions, and that has turned out to be a big strength for us because I see things that he never would have, and vice versa. With Tessen, Chris led the design, and I suggested solutions to problems he was working on. But for our current game design, we’re working even more closely together. It’s a much heavier game than Tessen, so we’re spending almost all of our free time on it.
ANTHONY: Rumor has it your next game design is called “Cottage Industry,” and it’s aimed squarely at me … and my fellow Once Upon A Time fans. What can you tell us about the game?
Chris: It’s true! Cottage Industry is a board game about running a business in a fairytale land, so we’re taking a lot of real-world events and business concepts and applying them to fairytales. You know how Once Upon a Time cleverly puts fairytale characters into modern roles, like how Rumpelstiltskin becomes Mr. Gold the pawnshop owner? It’s kind of like that.
Suzanne: We’re still in the playtesting phase for Cottage Industry, but one aspect of the game that your readers might be interested in is the storybook. As you play the game, you get to tell a story about what’s going on in the kingdom. You decide what happens, sort of like in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Your decisions determine how the story unfolds, and what effect the story has on the game.
Chris: The game is set in a land called Fiscalia, and there’s been an economic crash and recession. The kingdom has implemented all sorts of new regulations to keep greedy businesspeople in line, but the business owners have found clever ways to live up to the letter of the law, but not its spirit.
Suzanne: We’re really excited about this game. All of our playtesting so far has been extremely positive! We recently took the game to Metatopia, a gaming convention in Morristown, N.J. We got some great feedback. A few playtesters stayed to talk with us after one session for two hours until one in the morning! One player stopped us later in the weekend to tell us he was excited to see the game published, and another player asked when she could play the game again. We were so honored that people were so generous with their time and so enthusiastic about the game!
ANTHONY: What other projects are you working on?
Suzanne: We have lots of other game ideas, but right now our energy is focused on finishing Cottage Industry. As for our blog, we’re planning to do some original interviews and previews in addition to the useful game design links we have always done.
ANTHONY: And my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
Chris: Gamers always have a hard time picking a favorite game, and choosing a favorite book isn’t any easier! I’ll go with Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. It’s a great piece of analysis with an amazing scope, moving from the specific notes The Beatles chose on particular records all the way through the huge societal shifts of the 1960s.
Suzanne: That’s a really hard question. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s my favorite book, the book that I’ve read recently that has stuck with me the most is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It makes me think about how I would react in some of the horrific situations it depicts. Any book that I can’t get out of my head like that is an amazing read.
You can find Chris and Suzanne’s work at the following links:
Cardboard Edison website
Van Ryder Games