Game Designer Interview: Donald X. Vaccarino… Again!

It seems my previous interview with Donald X. was ill-timed, as not long after his three of his upcoming games were all announced: Nefarious from Ascora Games, Monster Factory from Rio Grande Games, and Kingdom Builder from Queen Games. Now that he’s free to talk about them, Donald was gracious enough to do a second interview about those topics and more.

In some ways, Hinterlands seems like the craziest Dominion expansion yet, even more so than Prosperity. Was that intentional with the order of the releases, and does that mean we’ll see even weirder things in the upcoming expansions?

Actually I struggled to make Hinterlands a simpler expansion. The general pull is towards more complexity, because you use up the simple things. So of course the earlier expansions are simpler. But Hinterlands was going to be a standalone for a while, so I tried to keep it as simple as possible. I feel like overall it is more complex than the first three sets, but less complex than Prosperity. There are some complex cards, but a lot of cards are very easy to understand and execute, even if they may not be straightforward strategically.

I think Dark Ages is about in line with the complexity of Prosperity, and then Guilds is more complex.

How did you end up talking to Ascora and Queen?

Scott, the Ascora Games guy, played Nefarious at Origins in 2007. He liked it then – “I’d buy it” was his way of putting it. Last April I bumped into him at the Gathering of Friends, and it turned out he had his own company now.

I went to Essen in 2009, and Queen’s Rajive asked to talk to me. He wanted me to offer him some prototypes then, but I’d already given away all the ones I’d brought. I kept them in mind though.

You mentioned last time that Monster Factory and Nefarious were older designs of yours. When designing Kingdom Builder, Dominion was already a phenomenon. What were your thoughts then (and now) about trying to get your next releases out of Dominion’s very large shadow?

Well my thought at the time was that Monster Factory would be the second one published – RGG took it at the same time as Dominion. And that would have been perfect – you can’t really compare Monster Factory and Dominion, since Monster Factory is a kid’s game.

Meanwhile Kingdom Builder started out as a deckbuilding game, so it wasn’t exactly trying to get away from the shadow of Dominion.

I’m not sure I will ever worry about it in the future. If every game I made had to be Dominion then I’d be done, since I already made it.

Can you tell us about designing Kingdom Builder, and the general feel of the game? Who is the target audience?

Originally it was going to be a deckbuilding game! I decided it didn’t need the deckbuilding, and replaced that with drawing a random terrain card. The piece placement mechanic came from an old game of mine, Baron Lite. I felt like I would use that rule for certain kinds of games, but these days I’m thinking maybe Kingdom Builder is enough for it. The variable boards also came from Baron Lite. Baron Lite was a bidding game from 1999; you’d bid on a [card, such as] four of deserts, and if you won the bid you’d put four pieces on desert. It had seemed promising but I switched to other projects back when. Kingdom Builder did not start out as a descendent of Baron Lite, but ended up related.

In 2010 I made the modern Kingdom Builder. Between the initial design and showing it to Queen, the things that changed were the scoring cards and the abilities. I fixed them up.

Kingdom Builder is a game of putting pieces on a board in order to put pieces on a board. Your pieces do three things: they gain you abilities, they score points, and they limit where you can go in the future. You want to pay close attention to all three things.

I don’t really make games with target audiences in mind – I make a game because I have an idea, I work on it more if my friends and I want to play it, and if it’s good enough then maybe I get around to showing it to publishers. However Queen wanted the game to be more for families than for gamers. I mean we would like gamers to play it too, but you know, it seemed like a game that could click with families. There was a more complex version I made at one point – basically just four random abilities per board instead of two matching abilities and a castle – and it seemed like that was too complex for families. We went with the family version.

What would you say to the criticism that the one-card hands in Kingdom Builder make it too light and random?

Well multiple people have posted that complaint, but, speaking as someone who’s played Kingdom Builder with two cards, I don’t think that’s what to change if you want a heavier game. You just need more abilities per board, well, and possibly more pieces per player. Abilities let you manage your luck; with enough abilities the random draw becomes less important.

Having a choice of cards makes managing your luck less important – it reduces strategy rather than adding strategy. People are still welcome to play that way if they want; we certainly thought that some people might, but declined to include it as an official variant.

With Nomads already on the way, what’s the long-term plan for Kingdom Builder? Should we expect a long string of expansions like Dominion, or is Kingdom Builder more self-contained?

My personal plan is two expansions, counting Nomads. They are both done from my end except for proofreading, and I am working on other stuff. If there’s a significant demand then conceivably I will make another expansion later. The expansions have a mix of things that could have made the main game, and things I made afterwards.

Although it’s been a while, who and what did you have in mind when you designed Nefarious? Now that the game is released, who do you think the game will appeal to?

I made the game in 1999. It was the simpler version of a more complex game from 1998. I had no one in mind but my friends. I guess that’s not quite true; at the time I was showing off games to Wizards of the Coast, even though they weren’t accepting submissions. Just showing them how great I was. So for all games from that time period, I was also thinking, will this impress Richard Garfield.

Nefarious is a light game. It should do well with families, if they find out about it. In my experience it has been popular among gamers too, for some as an easy game for the end of the evening, but for others as a full-on main course to play five times in a row.

How do you feel Nefarious holds up, being an older design, compared to similar, recent card games like Race for the Galaxy and 7 Wonders? What makes Nefarious different?

It’s a bummer that the world marches on like that. It would have been great to have some of my old games come out in the 90’s, especially my drafting games, but I wasn’t submitting games to places so it’s no surprise that they didn’t. I feel like Nefarious holds up fine though; I don’t feel like it’s really been done, and people who have played more recent games still want to play it.

I have a lot of older games that will be compared to Race for the Galaxy or 7 Wonders. I have a bunch of games where you acquire cards somehow; play simultaneously; the cards have rules text on them; negative effects either hurt everyone but you or else hurt adjacent players, rather than letting you pick who to hose; and the game takes half an hour. And sometimes you acquire the cards via drafting. If you had played my prototypes prior to Dominion and had to single out a common thread, “simultaneous decisions” would probably be number one.

Nefarious has a very unique, appealing theme, while Dominion was often criticized for having a weak, common theme. In your opinion, what’s the importance of theme in a game, and just how important is it?

The first thing is to realize that a game designer doesn’t necessarily have any control over the theme. That said, Nefarious and Dominion do have the themes I gave them. I didn’t name either game, but I did name all of the cards, except for a few that used playtester suggestions.

Dominion‘s theme is less strong than some, simply because theme came last there. There are three main pieces to a game: mechanics, flavor, and data. Normally I pick those things in that order, which lets you tie in the flavor with the data, making the game feel more thematic, while keeping the mechanics as the most important thing. But for Dominion the data came first – it’s a game where everything about your position is in a deck. So flavor comes last and you do see that. Nevertheless I like the flavor, and while an effect like “+3 Cards” didn’t have much I could do for it, some cards are very flavorful. The upcoming Dark Ages expansion is the most flavorful of the expansions.

I do not think that a common theme is so bad. As one of my friends who hoped Dominion would keep its theme said, maybe there are people who are like “oh no not another medieval game,” but there are also people who are like “yeeha another medieval game.” The theme is common because people like it.

I think having connections between theme and functionality is important. I think it’s okay to have abstract games too, but if you want flavor, you get it by tying it to functionality. Smithy does not really have any flavor, just a name, but Thief, he steals your treasures. It helps you learn cards and makes you feel more like something is happening.

I like having an exotic theme like Nefarious‘s mad scientists, but I bet that the more exotic my theme is, the more likely the publisher is to change it.

How did designing Monster Factory come about, and what were the challenges you faced designing a children’s game instead of a gamer’s game or a family game?

Nina had some tiles she’d made, called Optical Confusion tiles. Each edge was either blank, or had six line endpoints. So you could combine the tiles to make pictures that sometimes had optical illusions. She wanted to make a game out of it and get it published. I made a game that wasn’t very good and she showed it to a publisher that didn’t want it. Then I suggested having the tiles make monsters. We brainstormed some art concepts and she added more and drew the art. I made a game that she thought was too competitive, then one that she thought was okay. I think she showed that one to a publisher, I’m not sure. Then she went back to the original game and changed it to give each player their own grid (rather than a common grid like in Carcassonne). This all went down in 1995.

I showed it to Wizards of the Coast in 1997. They liked it and seemed eager to do it, but then stopped doing games other than collectible card games. I didn’t manage to show it to anyone else until 2007. At the time, you stopped playing and waited when your monster was finished, and RGG wanted me to change that so you could keep playing, which I did. That is most of the history of it in two paragraphs.

We were not specifically trying to make a children’s game, so there was no special challenge there. The game was just clearly appropriate for kids. If you aren’t old enough to play, you can still make monsters out of the tiles. It has it all! It’s the classic kid’s game that you don’t mind playing with your kids. And I know some adults who have played it on their own.

All of your games seem to have a common thread, where some of the major elements of the game are randomized for each play. Do you think this is necessary for a game to have high replay value? What are your goals with this design element?

This is certainly something I do a lot of. I’m not sure it’s essential for replayability, but it’s a way to get it. Nefarious‘s Twist cards are a basic approach that I used for a few games back when; it’s just instant replayability for any game. Dominion and Kingdom Builder use different approaches. For games with enough cards with text on them, where you get somewhat random cards, like in Race for the Galaxy, I don’t necessarily do anything else to get replayability. You get a lot from not seeing all of a big deck.

I like replayability because I get bored otherwise. Also, playtesters get bored; if you want to really get some playtesting done, you want to be able to play a game five times in a row, and that’s easier if it’s different every time.

The key to the replayability elements is to have them actually shake things up. Like, changing the map for Kingdom Builder is good for preventing you from learning the board, but it doesn’t really give you much replayability; it doesn’t change the experience. Varying the scoring cards gives you a lot or replayability though (and varying the abilities is in-between).

What board game designs, other than your own, have impressed you in recently?

I almost never play a game that isn’t mine these days – basically since I made Dominion. If you want to be a game designer you need to playtest games a lot, and time you spend playing something else is time you aren’t spending playtesting. I think the only new game I’ve played in the last few years is the Race for the Galaxy dice game that Wei-Hwa Huang made. I liked it!

Among post-Dominion games I haven’t played but have at least read about, Galaxy Trucker and Innovation are two that caught my eye. I like that Galaxy Trucker has you build something in real time, then watch it be destroyed. Innovation looks like one of my games before the changes that make it not too complex for humans.

From back when I played other people’s games, the big one was Magic: The Gathering. Dominion‘s deckbuilding was not actually inspired by Magic, but Magic inspired me to pursue game design at all, and introduced me to interacting rules on cards, and drafting.

Where do you see the hobby heading in the next five or ten years?

This is just not something I’ve thought about. I think board games are getting a little more popular now in the US? Which is good for people who like rules on cards that interact.

7 comments to Game Designer Interview: Donald X. Vaccarino… Again!

  • Great article, but I’m not sure what is meant by “data” with regards to the three main pieces of a game.

  • Derek Thompson

    I didn’t either, so I asked him. I didn’t include it because I thought maybe it was just me. He said,

    “Mechanics are what you do, and flavor is, you know, the flavor.

    Data is all of the information tracked by the game.

    Compare Puerto Rico and San Juan. They have the same base mechanic, the same flavor, and much different data (which in turn leads to some differences in mechanics). Flavor ties into functionality better in Puerto Rico, which is another thing; flavor/functionality connections tend to have a cost in complexity. San Juan is simpler and gives up some resonance to get there. In neither game does “pick an action, everyone does it” have anything to do with the Caribbean. So that mechanic came first, then flavor, then data, is my guess, and hey that’s usually how I do it.”

    Hope that helps.

  • Nick


    This is one of the better interviews involving board games I have read in a long time. The subject is an excellent one, but more importantly you asked great questions that aren’t covered in a million places elsewhere. I hope to read more excellent interviews like this from you in the future.

  • Derek Thompson

    Hey, thanks! I really appreciate it. My last interview with Donald X. was terribly timed, as within a few weeks he’d announced three games he had to still be mum about. I do try and read every other interview with a designer that I can find before writing my own, and I hope it pays off somewhat. Thanks again for the kind words.

  • Blondebunbun

    Nice to know there will only be 2 Kingdom Builder expansions. dominion went too far in my opinion meaning good expansions won’t be bought as had purchased the previous ones and have to draw a line somewhere.

  • Derek Thompson

    Ah, just saw this last comment. Yeah, it is good to know. As for Dominion going too far, everyone has their own line… to Magic: the Gathering players like me, Dominion’s rate of expansions (and foreknown contents) is a fresh of breath air!

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