Designer Interviews with Creators Tabletop Games

Interview with John D. Clair | Edge of Darkness

It has been a good while since my last interview, and I am excited to share my first interview of 2018 with you, to add to the excitement it happens to be with John D. Clair and we are talking a bit about one of my top five most anticipated games of 2018! If you don’t know the name, I am sure you know his games, as he is the designer of the ORIGINS award-winning Mystic Vale and the creator of the ‘Card Crafting’ mechanic.

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Chris Michelotti: I know you have been asked this before, but “card crafting”? How did you figure out this mechanic? Who came up with the name?

John D. Clair: The idea of card crafting originated with the idea of using card sleeves as a functional component in a game rather than a means to simply protect your cards. It occurred to me that I’d never seen a game that needed card sleeves in order to play, so I started trying to think of ways sleeves could be used as an interesting mechanism in a game.  The original prototype I came up with actually didn’t use transparent cards at all, it was just normal card-stock cards inside special sleeves.  It was later on during the playtest process (not too far in) that it occurred to me to try overlaying transparent cards inside the sleeve to “craft” the card.

 I was calling it “Card Building” when I pitched the game. There was a debate about the official name of the mechanism once Edge was signed with AEG.  We decided card-building was maybe too similar to the many other “Something building” mechanics; the concern being people might hear card-building as assume it’s just deck-building.  Card-Crafting sounded catchy, different, and described the system well enough, so we went with that.  

CM: I have learned that Edge of Darkness was actually the first game you were working on with the card crafting mechanic. You came up with Mystic Vale as a gateway game, so what was it like to put your first project on the back burner, and do you feel that this is a common practice for you? How many games do you have running in your head as a creator?

JDC: Bigger designs, like Edge of Darkness, often end up on the back burner for periods of time before reaching the “done” state.  It’s helpful to step away from a design a then come back to it after several months with a fresher set of eyes.  I think that Mystic Vale bumping Edge back in the timeline ultimately resulted in Edge being a better game. I was able to take a break and come back to the design later, which helped identified and refine some points I discovered I didn’t like.

I usually have too many game concepts running in my head at any given time. Staying focused on a design until completion is where the hard work comes in.  Getting a game to “decent” is the fun part, taking it the rest of the way to “good” or “great”, that’s the work, especially for more complex designs. 

CM: So with Edge of Darkness, you have called it a Medium weight Euro, where do you put emphasis on the “weight” of games? Are we going to see more games from this storyline, and do you plan on making heavier weighted games in this world? 

JDC: I usually set out with a weight, or “complexity level” in mind. I think of complexity as falling into two general categories; knowledge complexity, which is the number of rules and systems a player needs to learn in order to play; and cerebral complexity, which is the depth of options, permutations, special powers, and possibilities a player must consider while playing the game. With some designs I’ll more stubbornly try to keep one or both of these categories within a certain complexity range; other times I’m ok with following the design ideas toward something more complex, as long as the additional complexity is warranted.  

I’m working on another design right now that is meant to be set in this same universe.  Thematically, this is a broader scope game this time set on a map board. It’s a very political area control game, driven by card crafting, it will probably end up as a similar complexity level as Edge of Darkness, but certainly not a Euro-style game.

CM: Wanting to get a little more personal, when did you know you wanted to create games? When did you know that you wanted those games to be tabletop?

JDC: I designed my first not-terrible game when I was 9; a little card gamed called “Monster Cards”.  I was inspired by the Pokemon collections of my friends but wanted to make my own game.  It was a little dice chucking monster-battle game that was a lot of fun for my nerdy group of friends at the time. A number of my friends started making Monster Cards also and it became a thing we did for a while.  But Monster Cards wasn’t my first game, there were other pretty terrible little games I made when I was even younger.

I never really stopped making games, designing maybe a dozen more prior to college, some of which weren’t half-bad, a couple I co-designed with a good friend of mine. It was after college that I decided to peruse publication of games I designed.  I didn’t want to self-publish, so my intention was to make game I could pitch to publishers.

CM: A lot of creators aim to self-publish in the Kickstarter realm, what drew you to working with a larger publisher, and why AEG?

JDC: That was an option I figured I could pursue if I both failed to sign my designs with publishers and also still felt confident in them after getting a bunch of “no’s”. Initially I just wanted to pitch to the companies that were taking submissions. However, with Edge of Darkness, I felt really confident with the design, so I only reached out to a smaller set of the largest publishers. Nearly everyone was interested.  I ended going up with AEG for a number of reasons. They were the first to make an offer, they expressed a lot of excitement about the game and the card-crafting mechanic and were interested in partnering on additional games using that system.  Moreover, they were near Los Angeles, where I live, so I’d have more of an opportunity to work face to face with them developing Edge and other games. 

Getting a game to “decent” is the fun part, taking it the rest of the way to “good” or “great”, that’s the work, especially for more complex designs. 

CM: How do you balance your personal life and the creative life? 

JDC: It’s really a three-way balance, between my day job, my increasing time spent on designing games, and, of course, personal life unrelated to games. Games, however, are quite integrated into my personal life. A large portion of my friends I game with on a regular basis, frequently playtesting, but also just gaming just for fun. My wife enjoys a fairly large range of games and has had a significant playtest role in nearly all my designs. As I’ve gotten busier with game design though I’ve had a trim down on the other things I really like doing.  I used to sculpt miniatures, but haven’t done that in years; I would read more often, watch sports more often, and hike and bike ride more often. I still make sure I get some backpacking and camping trips in each year.

CM: If you could go back 5 years ago, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself? 

JDC: My advice would mostly be on the design front: First, spend less time making prototypes look good while they are still early in the design stage. This is an issue I’ve always had because I enjoy the process of designing nice layouts and constructing a nice package. However, working on 8+ games at a time, it’s just not economical.  Second, stop trying to have all your playtest enjoy the game and just let them play. In the past, I have tended to give my playtesters strategy advice far too much, which means I don’t get as clear insight into what a normal play experience is like, or the kinds of strategic blunders players make that might cause them an unfun play experience.  There is always a balance between wanting people to enjoy your prototype so they will be willing to test it again in the future vs. letting them make mistakes and getting higher value out of each test. I’ve leaned too much toward the first option.  

CM: Thanks so much for the time John and I wish you the best on the Kickstarter, I am really looking forward to it. 

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I hope you look out for the Kickstarter because this game is looking fantastic and I will make sure to highlight this one as a friendly reminder! Have you had a chance to play with the card crafting system? Let me know your thoughts about it in the comments!

Stay Foolish!

Chris

7 comments

    1. I haven’t made it out to Origins yet, I am hoping to soon! In your opinion, how does this compare to Mystic Vale?

      1. I don’t think they compare except for using the card system. Edge is a lot more of a worker placement euro. Feels like a heavier game with lots of options. I often feel like Mystic Vale is more of a one player game played with other people.

      2. That makes a lot of sense mechanically. When you got the chance to play at Origins, did you feel as if you were returning to the same world that Mystic Vale took place in? I am always interested to know how other gamers dive into the themes of the games they play!

      3. Actually, I don’t think I played Mystic Vale until after I played Edge. Theme doesn’t really affect me too much other than it can turn me off. Edge and Mystic Vale are both really beautiful though.

      4. The art is very beautiful! It’s also cool that you played the games in the order in which John designed them, I wonder if that creates a different response to the world he made.

        Personally, I love a good theme, as creators, we get to paint worlds and invite others into it. Like you already stated, sometimes the theme is a nice gatekeeper too… because it lets you know what to expect in the world and it isn’t for everyone!

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