Hello again from Behind the Board.
It's nice that you've found your way to read about the latest news, because this time, we have board game designer Peter McPherson from New York State, USA, in our first Behind the Board interview. Peter is probably best known for his game Tiny Towns. The interview was conducted on Monday, May 8, 2023, via a video link in English.
First off, I ask Peter what life is like for him besides board games?
"Board games are my day job and I work from home. I live with my cats and my wife. My cats are Samwise and his brother Frodo, of course. My wife, Indiana, is a journalist for a local newspaper. Aside from board gaming, friends and family, I really enjoy frisbee golf.” Peter is well aware that Finland has some truly fantastic courses. Apart from tossing the disc, Mr. McPherson bikes a lot, and his hobbies of reading sci-fi and fantasy, as well as playing the occasional video game, likely come as no surprise to anyone.
Helmet on, into the deep end, what's your favorite treat?
"Ah, this is really a boring answer as I'm not much into treats, but I would say a healthy fruit smoothie."
My partner encouraged me to ask about treats rather than fruits, so I decide to rephrase my original question and ask for his favorite fruit. Without hesitation, Peter quickly chooses the versatile banana - it's hard to argue with that choice.
Once the obligatory food talk is out of the way, it's time for the first substantive theme question: if you were a board game, which would you be?
As expected, the question requires some explaining. After a long silence, Peter states, "Tiny Towns, because it's always on my mind. If I had to choose another one, and a game made by someone else, then maybe Uwe Rosenberg's Patchwork, because it's simple but puzzling... and I don't mean that I'm particularly puzzling or a simple character, but if you've played the game, you know what I mean." On the mandatory geography section, I ask Peter if he can name a Finnish-developed board game. To this, Peter states that he surely owns several, but he doesn't want to guess in case he might guess wrong. A very diplomatic answer.
Although Peter first designed Temple of Knowledge as an educational game, he agrees with my assertion that Tiny Towns is his first actual board game publication: "Temple of Knowledge is actually a game I designed for an EdTech company. It was released as a PnP version. Sometimes I even forget that we made a Board Game Geek page for this small collaborative game. Unfortunately, the company ran into problems, the game did not end up being widely distributed, and eventually, we lost our jobs." Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, as Tiny Towns is a very popular game. So how has its success affected Peter's design work? "The success of Tiny Towns was, in the best possible way, a truly astounding experience. Its positive reception was also a big surprise to me, a new game designer. I really enjoy puzzles related to the game space, and the success of Tiny Towns definitely gave me confidence that there is demand for this style of game. It was great to realize that others besides me enjoy slightly stressful, spatial puzzle games." Peter says he likes tight, visual games with their own game area. It's certain that in the future we will see more exploration of this mechanic: "I'm really surprised that no one had developed such a game before and that no such game has been made after Tiny Towns."
Much about the popularity of Tiny Towns is told by the fan-made solo challenges that have been published about once a month. At the time of writing, challenge 37 was underway. However, Peter has not yet participated in these, but notes that the top scores are quite fierce. You can check out the challenges here!
Tiny Towns is set to receive its third expansion, Architects, as part of AEG's multi-game expansion campaign on the Kickstarter platform starting on June 6. The idea is that the expansion will only extend the base game. "I wanted to create an expansion that you can just mix into the base game and never want to take it out." Of the existing Tiny Towns expansions, Peter would almost always choose Villagers first and then Fortunes, as Villagers adds more variation rather than new game mechanics, making it an easy addition to the base game.
Peter McPherson's second game, Wormholes, is a space taxi game. In it, you dive through wormholes, transporting passengers as optimally as possible to their destination somewhere in the corners of the galaxy. However, this time there are no animals involved. Peter says that at one point, space cats were indeed on the drawing board because, after all, you can't have too many cats in space. In the end, however, the vision of the game's illustrator, Caring Wong, prevailed.
The art of Wormholes has divided opinions in reviews, as the target cards depict the destination rather than the characters, and there are no pictures of passengers in the game at all. Peter definitely understands why this choice has divided opinions: “We were not building a new world or game universe with its various cultures and races, that's not the goal of Wormholes." Wong didn't feel that characters or different races were his strength, and at the same time, Peter states that the choice was difficult but correct. He is absolutely convinced that Wong's vision is exactly what Wormholes needed most in the end.
The spatial Wormholes shares some game mechanic DNA with Tiny Towns in terms of player interaction. "I found it fun to find a mechanic where you can certainly focus on your own actions, but if you refuse to use other people's wormholes, you will inevitably be slower. The hardest part was to enable this in two-player games because you are directly giving points to another player." It should be noted that Peter is not wrong: although Wormholes truly shines as a multiplayer game, this mechanic works brilliantly in two-player games as well. Peter likes the possibility of negative points a lot, but they simply did not fit into Wormholes.
In my opinion, Wormholes is extremely reminiscent in spirit of Becky Chambers' Wayfarers book series. Peter confirms that the series is very familiar, and he can even point to the part in the first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, that inspired him to develop the game. "Nice, homey sci-fi in a hopeful universe, which of course has problems, but the story is full of hope and inspiring characters. Becky certainly didn't invent this kind of wormhole, but their use as gates instead of random destinations inspired me. After reading the book for the second time, the first plan was almost ready." Peter would like to return to the world of Wormholes, but after planning a few expansions, he now thinks about them a bit differently than before and doesn't feel that Wormholes necessarily needs more. "We left some sections out of the game, but they were left out for a reason." Expanding the game is not impossible, but Peter wants a really good idea to return to Wormholes, although the idea of expanding space with its opportunities, of course, is tempting.
Peter's third game, Fit to Print, is just going into production, and animals are back. Peter says that this was not actually the first idea, but the idea came from the game's legendary board game illustrator Ian O’Toole. The original plan was to make a historical game set in the 1920–1930s. The game's publisher, Flatout Games, was also on board for a historical game: “Firstly, as soon as O’Toole showed the first sketches, we were sold. The more we discussed the era, the clearer it became that we would have to leave out the worst events of the era from the game. That would be wrong. The other option would be to include them, but we would really have to do a lot of background work and make sure we don't make mistakes. Even then, the theme of the game would be too dark compared to the game mechanics, so O’Toole's vision was just right.”
Fit to Print mixes anthropomorphic animals, the spirit of the 1930s, and good and bad news. Finding the balance of news is a big part of the game, and O’Toole's illustrations enable these themes to be seamlessly combined. Although O’Toole's influence on the final form of Fit to Print is undeniable, Peter didn't get to work with him much: “I think I only met him once in the form of a video meeting. Flatout Games maintained more exchange of ideas, but hey, he's Ian O’Toole, everything he suggested or drafted was almost instantly approved by us. He doesn't just succeed in those but gives them his own character. He's simply one of the best in the industry.”
Fit to Print is published by Flatout Games, while earlier games have been through AEG. Peter has enjoyed working with both companies, but at the same time highly praises Flatout Games' desire to focus solely on one project at a time and the attention it enables for the developer already in the early stages of the project. AEG, however, is publishing Fit to Print in some countries, so collaboration continues on this front as well.
With the release of a new game, the publication model also shifts to crowdfunding. "Kickstarter is the model that Flatout Games has been using, and it has worked brilliantly for them." This is true, as Calico, Cascadia, and Verdant have all been successful due to crowdfunding and are highly esteemed games. "Flatout Games knows how to create meaningful crowdfunding campaigns with exciting milestones." Peter really admires Flatout Games' style of adding achievements to games, which will also be seen in Fit to Print. "Oh wow, these are fantastic, and maybe every board game should have achievements and challenges."
Like Tiny Towns, Fit to Print is a real-time game. Peter had been trying ideas for a turn-based mode, but when Flatout Games suggested their own idea, Peter fell in love with it immediately. "I'm a big fan of real-time board games, and there are only a few games that I haven't enjoyed. Galaxy Trucker has been a major inspiration, but I wanted to make a tighter game that would also be shorter in duration and easier to teach." It's clear that Peter really likes real-time games, as he tells us he acquired a chess timer app. He uses it occasionally to create a sense of urgency in games, whether the time is running out or he wants a tighter experience. Each turn eats up the remaining time and thus forces the player to make decisions faster. Thanks to Peter for a great tip.
Thanks to Janne for a great reader question: How ready does Peter deliver the games for presentation to the publisher?
"Since I'm a slightly more experienced designer, I have the opportunity to present the concept to the publisher quite early on. This is good, as I now know how much the game can change during development from concept and evolve quite a bit along the way. Wormholes, for example, went through several different models before the release version was born. Fit to Print didn't change much from the basic idea, but for instance, the three-dimensional workbenches were Flatout Games' Shawn's idea. It's great when you can start bouncing ideas with the publisher at an early stage." Peter states that the development of one game typically takes about a year, and he has now adopted simultaneous development of several games. He has also invested heavily in solo testing and developed his own project management methods to speed up the process. Peter is confident that, if possible, development could be compressed to just half a year.
But can Peter choose a favorite among the games he's designed?
"That's hard to say. Wormholes is fascinating because it's aimed at a smaller audience than Tiny Towns and its atmosphere appeals to me a lot. Fit to Print, on the other hand, is definitely the boldest game I've designed, as it includes many elements that also punish the player. I really had to fight to keep the automatic loss due to too low advertising funding in the game. Fortunately, it made it to the final version, as many testers have said that it is one of the best features of the game. However, I have to choose Tiny Towns, because it has made possible everything that has happened after its publication, and the game constantly lives in my mind."
When asked about Peter's favorite board game designer, the choice is already mentioned Uwe Rosenberg. The Tiny Towns player boards are an inspiration from Agricola's boards, and negative points were inspired by Patchwork. Peter has enjoyed all of Uwe's games from Bohnanza to Feast for Odin. "He does something so satisfying with each of his games that they just really appeal to me." Peter says that when he bought Feast for Odin just over a year ago, they've tried to hold proper feasts three or four times a year, where they stack up a hearty feast and devote the entire day to Feast for Odin.
Our time is running out, but we must still ask, which one game is currently above all others for Peter?
"If I had to choose one that is personally the best for me, and I don't mean that it would be objectively the best game in the world, it's Roll for the Galaxy. Although it's mainly a solo game in multiplayer clothing and I lose to my wife quite often, I always have fun playing it."
Would Roll for the Galaxy also be the choice for a desert island?
"You know, it really could be, because it offers so much. If not Roll for the Galaxy, then Feast for Odin."
A humble thanks to Peter for the interview. Lastly, I ask what the future holds besides the Tiny Towns expansion. It's great to hear that Peter has many irons in the fire, even though he can't say much more about them now. The future looks very bright and Peter promises that we will also see more animals in some form.
How did I do in the interview? Send your feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org! Until next time.
Tapio Laudan Takaa