Interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, Part III: Other Boardgames

This is Part III of a three-part interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, covering the future of Dominion, other boardgames, and Donald X. himself. Questions and answers are collected from this forum topic.

The Future of Dominion

Insomniac asks: “Any hints or tastes of what we can expect in Guilds?”

It’s a small expansion (150 cards). It’s the most complex expansion, and is more skill-based than the other expansions. Jay has the files and art is being made, so it’s on track for getting pushed back from early spring to late spring.

theory asks: “You’ve said many times before that Guilds is the last of the “standard” Dominion expansions. Have you given any thought to what you want to do with Dominion after Guilds?”

I would like to do spin-offs that have “Dominion” in the title. Not unrelated stuff like Cardcassonne, but clearly related games which nevertheless are different enough to not just be expansions.

For Dominion itself, probably there will be a promo or two, I think Jay would be interested if I handed him one now. Also probably an online-only promo that couldn’t exist irl. Some kind of “treasure chest” small expansion in the future, with 1-2 cards for each existing expansion, sounds more doable than any other new Dominion expansion, but has the issue that it would appeal to a smaller audience than a more normal expansion. Also it has the issue that Jay would note this. At one point I was considering doing a Seaside expansion in place of Guilds (not having come up with Guilds yet). And Jay was like, isn’t a new thing better than more of an old thing? And it was, it was better.

Other Boardgames

GendoIkari asks: “What is your favorite board game that you didn’t design?”

Magic: The Gathering, by a mile. If again it has to really have a board, then I’m not sure I have a clear favorite. I have more games by Knizia than anyone else, and like to single out Clash of Gladiators as a favorite that people don’t seem to know about, although probably I played Medisci more, but that doesn’t count because I made an expansion for it to give it variety.

DG asks: “What problems found in other games are you most happy to have avoided in Dominion?”

The most ubiquitous problem of other games that Dominion solves is politics. You generally can’t get rid of politics in interactive decision-based games, but you can dial it down, and Dominion does a good job of that. That’s just something normal for me though, I am always looking at that, and so Dominion doesn’t stand out in that way for me.

A way that Dominion does stand out is, it has a good solution to the tableau problem. You have a game where each turn you play a card, and they have abilities that do things for you. There are four players. After six turns there are 24 cards in play and it’s impossible to make sure everything happens that’s supposed to. Dominion solves this by hiding your abilities in a deck, so we only have to worry about a few things at a time. I am not sure if too many games are affected by this problem, but I have faced it a bunch, being fond of games where you get lots of abilities.

DG asks: “If a friend has a newly released game and puts it on the table, who’s name as the game designer would get you most eager to play?”

In the 90s, Reiner Knizia and Richard Garfield were the two I was most likely to buy new games from. These days I might pick Vlaada Chvatil; I do not have much experience with his games, so this isn’t due to that; but from reading the descriptions, they are the ones I am most interested in.

Tables asks: “Have you played any of the various other deckbuilder games (e.g. Ascension, Thunderstone, Legendary etc.) and if so, do you enjoy (m)any of them? Do any have mechanics that you’d have liked to use?”

I have not played any of the various Dominion-based games. I have zero interest in the clones. Of the actual new games, I would try Friday or A Few Acres of Snow sometime, if it came up. The only game that has stuff I might have done, or might still do, is Mage Knight. Dominion started as a solution to a problem in a game of building fantasy heroes and going on quests, and I still feel like I’d like to make that game someday. And the way I would handle hit points is the same as Mage Knight (iirc) – you just get Curses weighing you down, so you don’t have to track hit points separately.

theory asks: “If you wanted to brag — what do you think separates Dominion from other deckbuilders?”

Well you can mean this question two ways.

What separates Dominion from the Dominion clones? Man. They are clones. I haven’t played them so really this is a question for the people who have. In some cases the answer is just going to be, they aren’t balanced as well and different people get paid for them. For others it will be, that plus they added something bad or pointless. Some people will prefer them anyway though, just as I know of someone who intentionally saw the Asylum version of something.

What separates Dominion from the actual new deckbuilding games, such as A Few Acres of Snow and Eminent Domain? Well they are just different games. They are different in all the ways they are different.

We can make a special case for Ascension. When I typed up my original notes for Dominion, I was going to have multiple resources, and have a small number of cards available, where buying a card would cause it to be replaced. Ascension seems like a reasonable thing to try, but I liked my choices for Dominion better.

Piemaster asks: “In previous answers in this thread you have expressed a preference for fast games and also a dislike for games that eliminate players ‘with hours to play’. Are these two philosophies related?”

They aren’t.

Fast games are good because there are more opportunities to play them, players get more of a chance to win a game over the evening, and you get more variety of experiences over your evening.

Eliminating players with a substantial amount of game left is bad because you leave them with nothing to do. I guess it’s getting kind of late. Maybe I’ll just go home. It’s fine in an online game, where I can just go off and start another game somewhere; it’s awful for anything to be played at a kitchen table.

I obv. don’t think player elimination is always bad; I think it’s fine if there isn’t much game left. It’s entertaining seeing how things play out in Gauntlet of Fools, and doesn’t take long. And the threat of elimination can be a fun thing. In Risk though, well, thanks for having me over. I’ll see myself out.

Piemaster asks: “Are there any ‘long games’ out there that you think successfully walk the fine line between giving players meaningful strategic choices all through the game, while at the same time keeping as many players as possible ‘in contention’ until the later stages?”

Staying in contention isn’t an issue. It has to be fun to lose! And if it is then it’s okay not to be in contention. You can start a game of Scrabble knowing you have no chance of winning – the other player is just way better at anagramming than you. That doesn’t stop you from having fun anagramming though. That would be true even if Scrabble took twice as long (although, being so homogeneous, it’s just as well that it doesn’t).

Some people may make games faster as a way to avoid eliminating players while minimizing how much time you spend knowing you’ve lost. I just make fast games because I like fast games.

WanderingWinder asks: “What are your thoughts, if any, about “classic” board games (chess, go, or even things like risk, stratego, monopoly)?”

I will just cover those five.

Chess: Chess has two huge flaws. First, for new players, it’s hard to even see what the pieces can do. You have to remember how all the pieces move and then consider how they would all interact with any potential move. Second, you can potentially see many moves in advance, perfectly. Only, you personally, you cannot do that, because it’s too hard. You aren’t looking ten moves ahead and therefore you’re playing suboptimally. I guess you’re just stupid, Chess tells you. Chess magnifies this due to the way the game works; it’s not just perfect information, it’s perfect information and small differences can get blown up. At one point I made a game in the Chess family. People would ask me about Magic, and I would say, well suppose we were going to play Chess, only we each brought half of the board and pieces. You’ve got knights and pawns and so forth, but I’ve got archers and pikemen, and half of my board is under water. After using this analogy a few times, I thought, I should make that game. And I made a game and well, it was way too hard to even see what the pieces could do.

Go: Go is also perfect information but somehow does not seem as flawed in that way as chess, in addition of course to not making you remember how the pieces work and stuff. I’ve barely gotten to play it. It was interesting. I guess I’m more interested in it in terms of implications than as a game to play. It’s cool that like a piece in the middle of nowhere is doing good work for you.

Risk: Risk (the old version, not whatever goes by that name today) is perhaps the game I most often use as a bad example. In Risk, the better you’re doing, the more fun you get to have; the worse you’re doing, the less you get to do. It’s like if in Scrabble, the player in last place only got 3 letters to work with. In Risk all losers look identical – they all have nothing. No-one has any interest in seeing that position but the winner. Risk eliminates players with hours left in the game. It’s heavily political. Having a map of the world with armies in the countries is great, but that’s all it’s got.

Stratego: The premise is cute. I’ve played but don’t really remember it.

Monopoly: I think people take the wrong lesson away from Monopoly. Monopoly is a bad game, because it gives you pointless decisions and lasts a random huge amount of time and eliminates players with hours left in the game and is political. But Monopoly is also a successful game, perhaps because it’s filled with fun things – you roll dice and draw cards and see what you get, you get stuff that’s yours that goes in front of you, you build up your stuff. On anyone else’s turn you might get paid. People focused on cashing in on Monopoly by making more roll-and-move games (yes they predate Monopoly but don’t you think?), so that roll-and-move (a completely reasonable mechanic) has all these negative connotations now, when the real direction to go in was more games of building up your stuff. Settlers is more or less a fixed Monopoly – you roll dice and draw cards, you get stuff that’s yours, both on the board and in your hand, you build up your stuff, you trade, you get paid when it’s not your turn. But it’s fast and doesn’t eliminate players and isn’t full of pointless decisions. It’s still political of course.

The Person

HiveMindEmulator asks: “What are your interests besides board games?”

I am a big music fan. 2012 has not been a great year, but the Guided by Voices album Class Clown Spots a UFO and the Amanda Palmer album Theatre Is Evil were stand-outs.

I have written a bunch of very short stories and also some normal-length screenplays. I’ve written some songs but don’t really play an instrument. Wait, did you say board games? I also like video games. I made the best computer game ever, Dudes of Stuff and Things (my take on Heroes of Might and Magic III, which was the best computer game ever in its day).

werothegreat asks: “What’s your favorite color?”

Green. Since no-one would ask this question without thinking of Monty Python, I will mention that my favorite Monty Python member is Cleese, although, what, most people probably pick Cleese.

Powerman asks: “Do you consider yourself more of a BM-ish player or an engine player?

What’s your favorite type of pie?

How did you decide on the artists for the cards?”

Engines, apple. I don’t have any input into who does the art for what card. I do get to see some of the sketches sometimes, in which case I comment on them, but that’s about illustrating the correct thing (and not having anachronisms or what have you) rather than say quality of art.

Polk5440 asks: “How has your life changed now that you are rich and famous?”

I spend a lot more time reading about myself on the internet. I get to make games for a living, so that’s nice. I want a nicer house than I might have. It’s probably easier to get new games playtested.

The particular degree to which I’m famous is roughly this: a guy can show up to play games at a local game store, be standing in front of me holding his own copy of Dominion, be introduced to me as Donald X., and have no idea I’m anyone. The exception is German gamers, they recognize the name immediately.

theory asks: “If time and money were no concern, what would you most like to be doing right now?”

Well they aren’t really a concern, and here I am. Money hits these thresholds; if I had twice as much money I would get a nicer house but that might be the only change. I would like that nicer house, don’t get me wrong, but you know. I don’t like to travel, I don’t want a boat. There aren’t activities that are expensive that I want to do; there aren’t material possessions I want that I can’t have. At some level of wealth I might hire people; I dunno, that’s a job, interacting with those people.

theory asks: “Did you ever imagine an alternative career for yourself, outside of ability? Like becoming a rock star, or an astronaut, or football player?”

As a kid I wanted to be a writer; then I wanted to be someone who worked on D&D products. Then I wanted to design computer games. I seriously pursued screenwriting at one point, if it counts as serious if you don’t submit stuff anywhere, and I’ve written songs, although a whole rock star career, I dunno. Hunter / gatherer doesn’t sound so bad; the hours are short, and you can pee almost anywhere.

Polk5440 asks: “Sort of a follow up: What is your favorite charity or cause that you like to (financially) support? If there could be a Donald X Fund for X, what would the second X be and why?”

We donate some tiny amount to utterly conventional charities. My interaction with it is just recycling the junk mail they then send you. If one of them doesn’t mock your contribution by spending some of it on junk mail, I pick that one.

This isn’t the forum for political talk, so take it there if you must, but one cause I especially care about is uh well it might be called “voting reform,” although if you’re doing it right it’s not really “voting.” Voting is a poor way to get from “what people want” to “what they get.” “Choosing” is much better. [Consider 10 friends who get together once a month and eat out; how should they determine the restaurant?] Voting reform is top-level for me because so much other stuff that you might try to accomplish goes through governments. So I want to fix that system first.

^_^_^_^ asks: “Of the great multitude of questions you have answered throughout the wonderful Adventure Dominion has Tunnel ‘d you through, which was your favorite question about Dominion?”

Well, the first question in my first interview was “what question do you get asked the most often in interviews.”

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8 Responses to Interview with Donald X. Vaccarino, Part III: Other Boardgames

  1. Hks says:

    This is part III.. not II 🙂

  2. nightwishpt says:

    Well, the way he referred to Dominion-inspired games certainly made the respect I had for him take a big notch.

    • Sooty says:

      Came here to say the same thing. It was just openly disrepectful to say so much crap about it after he admitted to not ever trying them before.

      • Anonymous says:

        So he’s pretty full of himself. But guess what, he’s also right. Every “Dominion-clone” is pretty much god-awful in comparison. They might be decent games in their own right, and might have been able to be viewed somewhat favorably if they had come first, but they didn’t. A bunch of people jumped on the band-wagon and made money basically because Dominion had a great core idea that could be implemented many ways, but none of the other ways made money for their creator. He has pretty much every right to rag on them as much as he wants.

        • Jesse Fuchs says:

          I thought it was pretty funny, though a telling contrast with Richard Garfield’s own “Let a thousand flowers bloom” vibe. Especially since Vaccarino has always studiously denied that Magic was an influence on Dominion, despite it being his favorite game and Garfield being the game designer he’d been actively trying to impress in his salad days.

          I actually prefer Dominion to Magic (though perhaps not Netrunner, though I haven’t played enough of the new edition to know,) and find Vaccarino’s Secret Histories as valuable as Garfield’s podcasts, but as someone to emulate in terms of attitude, make mine Garfield all the way. I’ve been lucky enough to talk/hang out with him a few times, and the man is somewhere between mensch and boddhisatva. Maybe if Vaccarino makes a second great game, he too will ascend.

  3. Pingback: News Bits: 12/24/2012 | iSlaytheDragon

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