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The Secret Life of Farmers (an interview with Grant Rodiek, designer of Farmageddon: Farm Fresh Edition)

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I’ve known Grant Rodiek of Hyperbole Games through Twitter now for several years. There are many things I appreciate about Grant. He’s smart, funny, and full of good ideas. And he will answer whatever questions I ask him honestly, and it’s usually a good idea to pay attention to what he says.

Grant’s game Cry Havoc (Portal) recently debuted at Gen Con (and was #5 on Board Game Geek’s con hotlist). But before Cry Havoc, he published his wizarding poker game Hocus (which we previewed). And many moons before that, he published Farmageddon (first on Game Crafter, then through 5th Street Games), a frenetic card game of crops at the end of the world.

He has recently released Farmageddon: Farm Fresh Edition (which we also previewed) and is currently running a special in the month of August–$15 for the game (free shipping).

This seemed like as good a time as any to pick his brain about game design, Farmageddon, and publishing games as a small publisher.

 

First off, congratulations on the early success of Cry Havoc. How does it feel to be the designer of one of Gen Con’s hottest games?

It’s both really cool and a little nerve wracking. First and foremost, the Gen Con response is probably the best possible outcome for the game, which is very cool after 4.5 years of work! It could have come out to mild excitement, or no excitement, but to see it be such a big deal for many people was pretty cool.

Now, this also means I have more people yelling at me on BGG about rules or balance or whatever. That comes with the territory. And, now that it’s a few weeks later, you can already see people looking at the next hot Kickstarter, the Essen games, and more. Basically, it comes quickly and leaves quickly, and my takeaway is that I still have lots of work to do as a designer!

It’s good to get recognized, but it’s also good to reflect on the amount of work it took to get here. I’m pleased and ready to keep at it.

What have you learned from working with a larger publisher that you will incorporate in your operations at Hyperbole Games?

Working with Portal and looking to some of my other favorite companies as a customer, the key takeaways to me are to always create great games. Create polished games that offer something special. Plus, provide great customer service. Be a good communicator with your customers so they feel comfortable spending their hard-earned dollars with your company.

If Hyperbole Games published an identical version of Cry Havoc, it would have had a tepid reception. Branding and history go a very long way, and my hope with Hyperbole is to survive long enough to capitalize on my history. That’s what I look to with companies like Portal.

Earlier this year you released Hocus through Hyperbole Games, your first opportunity to provide a “history” for the company. What did you learn from publishing that game that has affected your approach to Farmageddon? How has Hocus paved the way for this new edition of Farmageddon?

I think Hocus is a good indicator of the types of experiences we want to provide. It’s a meaty lunch game with gorgeous art and a light footprint. I think this is potentially unwise from a commercial standpoint–hyper accessible games will always sell better.

But the hope is to make polished games that provide enough twists to be played for years, and I believe, based on my instincts and what people have said, that those who take a game or two to learn Hocus, or Farmageddon, will find a really enjoyable game that can sit in their collection for years to come.

With Hocus, I hope people saw that the game is polished, well-proofed, and well-balanced. I hope they really liked the visuals. And I hope people know that when they have a question, I’ll be on the forum immediately to respond and provide assistance. These are elements folks will find again in Farmageddon, and in 5-10 years I’d like to think it’ll move copies for us.

Let’s look at Farmageddon. What was it like to revisit an old design? What were your goals for the new edition?

At first it was very weird. Initially, I thought I’d take the core idea, but completely start over. But my distribution partner noted that people really wanted Farmageddon, so I took a step back and began discussing what I did and didn’t like about the original design. I tried to think honestly about what I really wanted a new Farmageddon to be.

In the like category, I loved the art, the style, and the brevity. I liked that the game was take-that, sure, but wasn’t too laden with take-that cliches. But there were some I really wanted to eliminate. I liked the card combos and the hand management. Unfortunately, when I dug back into the game, I recognized that what I thought was there was a bit of a shell. The game wasn’t doing the things I thought I liked about it, so I rolled up my sleeves, recruited a local core test team that played daily for months, and just got busy.

At the outset, my goals were to update and revise the graphic design. I felt the game could be more beautiful and more helpful when playing. I wanted to eliminate all confusing card edge cases and questions. I wanted to increase the amount of strategy and skill in the game. And, as I said, I wanted to remove the cliches, like having cards stolen from your hands.

Those goals really helped plot the initial direction, but then, as I normally do, we did a lot of exploration based on feedback from actually playing the game.

I played the 5th Street Games edition of Farmageddon when it was originally released and recently previewed the Farm Fresh Edition, and I was amazed at how differently the two games played, yet the new edition also still clearly feels like Farmageddon. To improve the game yet retain the feel is quite an achievement. Walk me through your development process. How did you determine what to keep–what was the core of what your audience wanted–and what merited change?

I had a few new secret weapons. First, I had Josh, my partner from Hocus, who is a natural developer, math nerd, and overall game geek. He brought a new perspective to the game and acted as a sounding board for me.

Secondly, I enlisted the help of 5 QA testers at work who play games like Farmageddon every day at lunch. They agreed to play Farmageddon, and play they did. Not only did they play, but they would write me daily briefs covering who won, how, why, questions, concerns, balance issues, and more. I never taught them the game, so it was like a recurring onsite blind test. As such, my rules, card text, and balance were put through an extensive ringer.

Finally, I had four years of BGG threads, emails from players, comments, and my own experience playing the game hundreds of time. I’m steeped in Farmageddon. Plus, I was able to peek in a little bit on Trefl’s development of the Polish version. It was a nice sandbox to see some of the early things I wanted to implement or avoid.

Those were my special weapons. Then, on top of that, I played the game a ton. I’m a brute force developer. Play, tweak, try, question, play again. I don’t think there’s a simpler way to do it, at least not with my mind. It takes time, effort, and testing.

I can imagine that most game designers would love to have a group of committed playtesters like the ones you had for Farmageddon (and I’ve seen you have for Solstice as well). First, what’s it like to design with such consistent feedback from the same sources?

In this case it was rather interesting, because we have a similar relationship at work. With Hyperbole, I was Producer/Designer and they were Quality Assurance. At work, I’m Producer and they’re Quality Assurance. They’re really good about giving clear feedback while trying to separate objective and subjective comments. They’re excellent at trying things to poke holes in it. They’re INCREDIBLY good at inconsistencies and loopholes that honestly plagued the original Farmageddon.

I’ve built up a pretty decent thick skin, and they’re also good at not being mean, just saying, “Hey, this didn’t work.” I’ve been making games with some of them for 8+ years, so it was a natural partnership.

Solstice has been different, and they haven’t been testing it. It’s a bit deeper, requires a bit more long-term planning, and as a group that’s just not really their thing. So I’ve mostly tested it with my core group that was also the primary group on Hocus. It’s confusing at times, because they have to focus on what the game is NOW and not get lost in the various changes. It’s like a time warp sometimes! But it also means that we’ve all played 70+ times now, so I can feel very strongly about the depth of gameplay, the balance, and seeing deeper strategies emerge.

Something that’s very scary and frustrating in finding testers is that it’s relatively easy to get first tests, and quite difficult to get a 20th test. With Hocus, Solstice, and Farmageddon, I’ve been blessed with a patient group of gamer friends who are professional designers, producers, and QA testers on digital games.

I’m impressed that Farmageddon–a game with a strong take-that element–has been tested so much, given that so many games in the genre seem underbaked. (I mentioned in my preview that this one is decidedly not.) How do you maintain the designer/tester relationship?

I think what is most important is always giving a game my best effort and actually respecting the feedback. I rarely bring them hand-scribbled prototypes. I do my best to write the rules, print out cards with graphics, icons, and decently written text, and bring a thoughtful prototype.

Secondly, I give them clear goals. I make sure they know what I’m looking for, so that when I say “no” to something, they know why. Thirdly, when they give good feedback, I take it seriously and show them actual effort. Whether it’s tuning, or layout, or exceptions, or bad rules, I treat their input seriously and give it my best. That keeps them coming back instead of saying, “No, I’d rather spend my lunch on a finished game.”

I also pace myself. Unless I’m working against a deadline, I try not to ask them to test a game more than 1-2 times per week. But some games are easier than others. Druids has been a huge hit with my friends, and it takes 10 minutes to play. We test it most mornings while enjoying our coffee!

The Farm Fresh Edition has received an art and graphics overhaul, which you mentioned was one of your goals. What does the new look for the game bring to the table?

For one, it’s just more appealing. The icons are crisper and easier to read. The cards let the illustrations stand out more. The card backs are illustrations as well, and they are just prettier.

Functionally, it provides several benefits. The back of the cards show fertilizer to provide a subtle reminder that “hey, this doubles as a fertilizer!” Cards with exceptions, like Mirror Bean and Riled Rice, have extra reminders on them to remove any memory component. The Farmer cards are all blue, with a sign in the corner, and the crops are all green, with a planter tag in the corner. These are little genius ideas Adam brought to the table. People historically were confused between Crops and Farmer cards, so this helps.

In some cases, icons were added to communicate, or remind you, of more complicated and passive effects.

A huge improvement is the rules booklet! The original one from 5th Street was basically a white background with Times New Roman text. The new one has outstanding layout and is full of diagrams to teach situations. I think it’s a world-class rule sheet, and much of that is due to Adam’s layout, better diagrams, and just making it more visually appealing.

Basically, the game has a much better wrapper for its gorgeous art.

You released a video recently detailing why you went the preorder route versus Kickstarter for Farmageddon. Can you summarize for our readers why you chose this direction? What does a small publisher gain from handling the costs up-front?

The hope behind this experiment (self-financing the publication and running a non-Crowdfunding preorder) was based on a few elements:

  • I do not have to pay 10% of my revenue for using Kickstarter.
  • People will be thrilled by receiving a game only weeks after paying for it (as opposed to months, years via KS).
  • I do not potentially anger Farmageddon backers from the 2012 5th Street Kickstarter, which has a semi-unfulfilled stretch goal.
  • I do not anger Kickstarter denizens for my lack of stretch goals.
  • I do not anger European backers, as I cannot ship to them. Trefl is currently releasing European-language versions of Farmageddon, and I want to respect our partnership.
  • I have over 1,000 newsletter subscribers, most of whom backed Hocus, and I can reach them directly.
  • I’d like to develop my direct sales business.
  • Farmageddon seemed like a good experiment.

Ultimately, and I will probably write a blog post, or a series of blog posts on this, I think the preorder has not been a success. We had just shy of 1,700 backers for Hocus, but we’ll have fewer than 100 for Farmageddon. The reasoning for this is broad, but ultimately, I think people just prefer Kickstarter. It’s familiar. It has that emotional hook of “I’m helping the publisher!” that preorder doesn’t convey. The sense of time pressure is more present as there’s a countdown clock. There are stakes on Kickstarter. We need your help to print. Here, I already printed Farmageddon. There are zero stakes…other than my success as a company!

It’s a good learning experiment. And, to be clear, there are definitely things I could have done better. Some things I wouldn’t have known about until I tried it, others are based on assumptions and observations.

Had we had 400-500 people preorder, which I felt was possible with ads, our newsletter, and my burgeoning reputation (Hocus did well, Cry Havoc is well-received), this would have been a huge success. It also would have meant we could have done Solstice in the same manner. $7,500 in revenue from those 500 would be MASSIVE. But we’ll get much less than that. This means I’ll need to wait for retail copies to sell, at a much smaller margin, which delays art production, and so forth. It’s fine, really.

2016 is a huge learning year for my little company. My hope is that these mistakes help define future success and don’t sink the ship.

Speaking of the future of Hyperbole Games, what else do you have in the works?

My hope is to publish Solstice in 2017. Solstice is a 2-4 player, 30-minute game of drafting and deception. It’s a deep little game with fairly simple rules but lots of strategy. It’s been in testing for quite a while, and I think the core is 98% finished. I’m now developing/testing an advanced mode that introduces a few asymmetric abilities for the different players, but that shouldn’t take too long to finalize. Once I gain a little revenue from Farmageddon and Hocus, I plan to hire illustrators and graphic designers. I’d like to do a Kickstarter for it around March or April so that it can be back [from the printer]in time for Christmas. Solstice is the big new game for 2017.

I’d love to redevelop the Livestocked and Loaded expansion for Farmageddon. But Farmageddon needs to sell. So, this one is on deck pending the retail response.

I have ideas for a standalone Hocus sequel, for which I had a breakthrough this morning. If I can get Josh interested, I’d like to work on that as well. Sales of it should bolster the base game as well, which is nice.

Finally, and this is more indicative of I think the newer direction of the company, I’ve started working on a new conflict Euro. Looking at Blood Rage, Kemet, Cry Havoc, Scythe, and more, I think there’s a real opportunity to continue combining more thematic and interactive experiences with smooth, Euro-style experiences. Right now I’m exploring worker placement. I think there’s only so much interest and passion from gamers in cards-only games. I don’t think my assertion of creating lower-cost experiences is helping people jump in with a game from my catalog. Therefore, I’m going to try to work on larger experiences in the more $50 range to see how that works for Hyperbole.

That means I’ve put Gaia on hold until I’m on more stable footing. It means Solstice may be my last “meaty filler” for a while. I have some other plans with Sol Rising, and I have a surprise tentatively planned for this October. Basically, I’m trying to keep at it!

Is there anything else that you want people to know about?

I really appreciate those who supported my little company by purchasing Hocus or Farmageddon. It helps immensely. Other than that, please ask me any questions on Twitter or BGG you have about any of my games or process. A lot of publishers helped me out when I was getting my start, and I always want to return the favor.

Farmageddon is now available via Hyperbole Games, and for the month of August, it is $15 with free shipping. (You can get Farmageddon and their previous release, Hocus, for $28 shipped.)

 

This article is a paid promotion.

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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