[Gregory Carslaw] Having established that I do interviews in this post I’ve been swamped by designers desperate for me to ask them slightly rambly questions and get distracted from my intended course of action. After applying a gruelling selection process and my patented ‘designer selection’ algorithm I’ve sorted the list and from a pool that contained ones of ones selected Jason Washburn to tell us about his new game.
Hi Jason, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up designing games?
[Jason Washburn] Hello, and thank you for speaking with me. I, like many, have been a gamer from childhood through my adulthood. While in the early 80's, video games were very limited and expensive, so we played mostly boardgames. This love for games is still very much a part of who I am. I designed my first game about 20 years ago and my mother helped me make 5 copies of the game which we gave out as gifts. After that experience, I was hooked. I have created many games but a few of the games I have designed over the years have made it to working prototypes and even to group play testing. Over the years as I grew through the process, I have self published games for friends and family. A few years ago, I met a a guy who also had the same passion for games. My talents are artistic based and his talents are writing based. We formed a company together and called it Talon Strikes Studios. We talked extensively about making a game and settled on an idea that Kyle, the co-owner of Talon Strikes, had been thinking about for many years. We got serious about making a game that we could release on a professional level and developed the card game Clique. The game was play tested, and well received, and we attempted to get it published. While that did not completely work out, the game was picked up by a small gaming company in Hanoi and we signed a contract to have the game made into an app. We fleshed the game out for a digital release and they are currently working on the coding and what not. So, while we never got to make a paper version of the game, it has been a blast developing that game with them. After that, we began work on our second title, Hooch.
[GC] That’s really cool, I hope that those five people still have their games! I’ll ask you about the ins and outs of Hooch in just a minute, but you brought up something that I’m curious about: What do you think about the relationship between board games and video games is? Do you think that if you were born into the current world of cheap, plentiful computer games you’d never have discovered the board gaming hobby?
[JW] I do think I would and I will tell you why. My major in college the first time around was Opera. I studied vocal performance. I was a theater kid and this continued when I became a young adult. I worked in the professional world for a brief shining moment. Board games and card games give you a social outlet that most video games do not. I think that if you are an extrovert you will find your way to this medium even in today's world of apps and video games. As a kid I loved the interaction that board games provide. I also know that table top games have a place in the world and have for many centuries. Cards and chess have been around through the ages and theses games along with other board games teach life lessons and experiences you can not get from the video medium. Still in today's world with all the technology we have, military leaders use sand tables and tactical board games to advance their military thinking and hone their battle computers. Table top games provide that outlet and source for many. This is why they will always be around and an important hobby. Call up your friends have them come over. Get some food together and a couple of great games. At the end of the night you will have had a great time and say to yourself, "This will be a day long remembered".
[GC] I think I know some computer game designers who might take exception to the notion that their medium can’t teach these things (maybe I should host a debate here someday), but I see what you mean about the longstanding tradition of board games, there are a lot of things that have been refined over centuries. I’m surprised to hear you talk about it as the extrovert's hobby, since the stereotype is the opposite, but the more I think about it the more sense that makes. So is Hooch an extrovert’s game? What’re the basics of how it works and what it’s about?
[JW] I would not say video games don’t teach that, just board games have been doing it longer. I would say that Hooch is anybody’s game. If you enjoy sitting with friends, having a good time and passing time playing a fun an interesting game then Hooch is the medium that will help you do that.
HOOCH is a resource management card game for 3-6 players set during Prohibition. Each player controls a Syndicate, groups of likeminded ne’er-do-wells. The object of the game is to be the player with the most Respect Points at the end of the game. But that’s easier said than done. First you’ve got to take control of a location, put up a still, and hire some muscle to defend it. The other syndicates are doing the same, but they’re also trying to stop you from becoming the most powerful crime lord in the city. They might go to war, sending their soldiers to take out your operation. Or maybe they’ll send a Button Man in to take out all your guys and then they can stroll in and take over the place themselves. Sure you’ll have your own Syndicate members to help you, but that won’t get you all the way. You’re going to need a public face as well. Maybe you should bribe a Judge. He can help you with all those pesky City Politics they might throw at you. Maybe a Mouthpiece to help the law bend your way. But something to keep in mind: you paid them off, maybe someone else might be able to pay more. Hooch is a game of alcohol, greed, backstabbing and violence. It’s the American way.
The base of your operation is set around your payroll. You will place Public Characters (Mouthpiece, Judge, Bookkeeper, Detective, Politician) on your payroll along with the characters from the syndicate (Capo, Madam, Smuggler, Grifter, Snitch). These 10 characters make up your payroll and this is the base of your operation. From there your Syndicate Characters can go on missions at Stores Fronts to further your criminal operation. Each round you collect hooch from Store Fronts or by means of cards from your deck. The hooch is used as a currency to buy what you need to help you. You have to make some tough choices from time to time with in the game. The hooch is very precious and it will be taken from you and you will have to pay others off with it. You do have to think about what cards you are going to play how you will run your syndicate and how you will grow your criminal syndicate.”
[GC] Sounds good! It’s a nice theme to work with, I’ve had a lot of fun with games (mostly RPGs) that used prohibition era America as a setting. Did the development of this game start from that theme? Or did it start with a good set of mechanics that the theme happened to fit? Or something else entirely?
[JW] It is funny to talk about. My partner Kyle and I were actually talking about another game entirely and someone brought up the word Hooch. Then a series of puns occurred using the term Hooch. For the next week it seemed funny to just call Kyle up on the phone and he would answer I would say “HOOCH” and hang up. So after about a week Kyle says that would make a great name for a game. We briefly discussed it and we tossed around a few things and let it simmer for a week or so.
About that time Kyle calls me I answer and he goes into a spiel. It is 1920 America and they just voted in the prohibition, your town is ripe for the picking because “The Don” just died…..GO! With that phone call I was off to the races. Over the last 2 years we have gone through many changes and adaptations as any game does. But we continued to keep it interesting and engaging for each player at the table and fun. The mechanics continued to evolve as did other parts of the game. There is something about this card game that sets it apart from other games. We were able to concept fresh ideas and card mechanics into a game where the feeling was landing in just the right spot.
The art is just as much a part of the development and feeling as is the play style and card mechanics. It took a few different looks but somewhere around December of last year I re worked the concept to the look you see now. I posted that on Board Game Geek and there was many who liked the work but felt it stopped just short of where I could take it. Then a game artist pointed out a flaw in my work, he said the art is awesome with color, design, and balance, but it needs to have the old feeling to it. Bam, a ton of bricks lands on me and I am able to take my art and elevate it. It was at the moment that the game snapped into place. The art popped and it matched the theme and concept of the game in a way that was very special. Each idea from there had a different feeling and it felt right and true to the base game and concept of what we were attempting to accomplish. It was at that time the game as you see it was born and things really settled in on every front.”
[GC] I love the idea of a game getting started that way, a plan coming together is always excellent to watch. What’s the name of the artist who had the old feeling insight? That’s probably a two word answer, so I’ll ask another: How deep is Hooch? Is it aiming at being a quick light game or is it something meatier with a bit of a learning curve?
[JW] Ian O'Toole Was the game artist that pointed out a thing or two. His push helped me to understand the Art Deco movement and what it represents. While I had a grasp on it his insight helped me to move to the next level which is the art you see now.
The game has a lot of action and has plenty of depth. While it is not to be a serious game, the play is very fun and fulfilling. There is so much to do in the game. One of the things I get back from gamers that play it is that there is always something to do even if it is not your turn. They also love the game play and how the mechanics work. As you dive into the game you really become connected to your syndicate and to the things that happen to your syndicate. There are times in the game you really have to consider what cards you will play and what cards you will discard for good. So you really have to consider your options and think ahead a bit in the game of what your enemies or friends might do.
Learning the game will take a bit yes. There are rules to the game and while most things are there on the cards in front of you, you do have to familiarize yourself with the ebb and flow of the game. I would say the rules are easy to grasp and understand. In the rule book there are plenty of visual elements to help you understand and I have written examples of mechanics and concepts so the player can grasp what is going on in the manual. With all of that said the turn phases are easy to understand and they are straight forward. So while it would take a bit to memorize everything about the game the basic rules as easy enough to recall if you take a look at the rule book.
The great thing about it is the fun and ease of the actual game play itself. I would tell you that the more you get into the strategy and the revenge you really want to play more and more cards on your opponents. The game presents itself with plenty of balance overall and this helps players to get right in there. For every action there is an opposite reaction in the game. This is felt by all players’ across the board. So as one thing happens to you as a player this affects how other players may choose to play their next turn and that is a great thing. Being able to engage all players each turn, keeps the game interesting and fun. So while you are digging through the meat of the game you have a wonderful time doing it.
[GC] That sounds outstanding, downtime can be a big fun killer in otherwise great games! I’m always a bit worried to hear about ‘screw you’ type mechanics for taking revenge or playing cards directly onto other players though. What’ve you done to avoid falling into the Munchkin trap of making a game where the first 90% of the game winds up being irrelevant as once someone approaches victory the other players are motivated to cooperate and trivially undo all of their hard work?
[JW] There are ways to harm another Syndicate but that is very well balanced. First of all the victory condition is to collect respect points. Once you play those cards they go to your respect point pile and continue to accumulate. Second, you have some of the same cards as everyone else and some cards that will be different. One Syndicate might be really go with one part of the game and not so good with another. There is no unfair advantage of who brought the best deck, or who as more cards that do X,Y or Z. You have to figure out with the 40 cards you have how you will make that happen.
By revenge I mean that if you buy a store front open it and run Hooch, there is a card in the game called “Button Man”, and this represents a demolition expert. He can come in a blow up your store front. However this does not remove the store front from the game. It simply resets the store front and you could pick it up on your very next turn again if you wish. It is a slowing tactic. The raids are all controlled by the action cards which no one owns, but everyone must play one each turn. So the “Government” is the entity raiding you if that card should come up.
I think there will be some motivation to hit a player who is controlling a bit more that other players, but then the is what the game is patterned after, real life prohibition. Put it this way, Al Capone was one of the biggest players in the prohibition world. He operated a huge criminal syndicate, but even the greater runner of Hooch had a whole in his plan and he was caught. So while you may be rolling and taking over store fronts and building an empire, so are the other players. You may not want to throw everything out there all at once.
While someone may wish to attack your crew or syndicate you can protect your characters and your syndicate, but it will cost you to employ bodyguards and protect your investments in and around the town. I have yet to run into a player that felt that they were totally screwed and had no way to win. On the other side of the coin in many of the games I have demoed with gamers in the stores, they were never able to pin point just who might win as there are some quick shifts in power that can occur within the game. So going for a balanced game was the goal as the game began to take shape. If you buy up store front and do not protect them, then yet you might feel that sting a bit as others move in and take over your territory. But if you protect your stores and your syndicate along collecting respect points to work towards that end goal then you will have a great shot and becoming the king of gangsterland!
[GC] Good stuff, virtual player elimination is so much worse than just plain old player elimination! Just one more question from me before we start wrapping up: I’m very interested in gamer culture, the way we treat each other and the messages we send to the wider world. Does this game have any particular message? Is there anything you’d change about the way board gamers are as a whole?
[JW] Our game does not have any special message or statement. It is a game for fun and entertainment. Although be it an era that we were very passionate about which is why we chose this topic for our game. There are so many things you can make games about. Using this time in our history we were able to make a very in depth game that skirts on the edge of our history as a country. That says something to me. Embrace our past no matter how crazy or tough it may be to do so.
The one thing I would change about gamers is to ensure that each of them has a copy of my game! I would say that gamers are a great bunch of folks. They come from all different backgrounds and they are accepting of all different backgrounds and there is a reason why. They have common ground in games. The love and passion the community feels for games and the playing of those games. it is funny to me because I was a gamer when it was not a cool or popular thing. I think that table top gaming is more accepted now as a form of entertainment. I also think there is a cross over for many folks from the video world to the table top world. Game companies are helping to make this happen. You continue to see things in a multilevel universe. it you can hit the tri-fecta of Movie, Video Game, and Board Game with a single idea, then I think you have arrived as a unstoppable force that the American public will gobble up.
Gamers fit into that world now. It is a wonderful thing to see. No sir I would not change who we are as gamers. We bear the the trials and tribulations of many gamers before us and we have an obligation to those that will follow. Gamers work hard to make the gaming world better then they found it. And you can't ask for much more than that. Board and card games are here to stay for a good long while. So pull up a chair crack open the lid on a game like Hooch and sit back and enjoy what those with the minds to do so have created. GAMES
[GC] That’s nice to hear, the world you describe is the one that I would like us to build, I don’t observe that we’ve got there yet, but perspective changes depending on where you’re standing. I should come and visit yours sometime It’s been great talking to you and I wish you the very best of luck with Hooch, your passion is evident, but more than that there’s a thoughtfulness of execution here that I suspect might make it a cut above the rest.
[JW] Follow your dreams and put passion into everything you do. I would like to thank Kyle Olson for the ideas he has presented and for his input.. I would also like to acknowledge Mike Whislter for his support of our project and continuing to work each day to make the game play to the best of our abilities. Both of these guys have been vital to making it work. Greg thank you for taking the time out of your day to spend a few minutes with me and for giving me the opportunity to discuss my greatest passion with you.