Interview: A.B. West and Dan Schnake Discuss Wizards of the Wild

wizards_boxHere at MeepleTown, we don’t talk about Kickstarter much as I’m pretty cynical on the whole thing, but sometimes a project comes along from people I know and trust. The campaign for Wizards of the Wild is in full swing, and this is coming from guys with a lot of experience and talent. Adam and Dan created Z-Man’s super-cool ninja worker placement game Ninjato; you can see our review here and our previous interview with Adam here. I’ve gamed with Adam many times (I actually used to live in his neighborhood) and can attest to the fact that these guys are for real. Adam and Dan were kind enough to take some time away from running the campaign to answer a few of our questions. If you like what you hear, don’t forget to back Wizards of the Wild!


The last game you guys did was published by Z-Man and other publishers in other regions, though you’ve self-published before. What’s the reason for going back to self-publishing with this design instead of shopping around for a larger publisher?

Adam: Well, publishers are really loaded up with games for one. Also, there’s just not as much motivation to go with an established publisher this time out. The work to get the game ready is pretty much the same in our experience. Certainly a publisher can off set the risk financially and can generally reach further in retail distribution, but you also get a significantly smaller return.

Publishers help with logistics too which is a huge headache when you self-publish. But with Kickstarter, you can offset the financial risk – although KS itself is quite risky as there are no guarantees you’ll make your funding goal. But if you do make your goal (and you set it right!), the return is just greater and more direct. Logistics are getting easier and easier as companies are forming to help out KS campaigns. Don’t take me wrong: working with Z-Man, IELLO and White Goblin have been great – they really are professionals who know what they’re doing. So maybe we’ll go back to them at some point in the future.

Dan: We like having control over everything. If a publisher brings something to the table for a future game, it could work out, but we’re comfortable where we are.


wwcards1How did you come up with the animals-as-wizards theme? How does it to tie to the gameplay? Could this game have a different theme, or are the mechanics intimately tied together with the theme?

Adam: Theme is very important to our designs. This game had wizards since the beginning, but having *animals* as wizards came later. We wanted a magic vibe to the game – it gives us a lot of room to explore with powers which is nice. Anything can happen with magic! We were very deliberate to make this game as approachable as possible – and that drove us toward animals. I don’t think the mechanics are intimately tied to the theme, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine any other theme for this game. It feels right to have animals casting spells in this strange world where humans no longer exist. And of course, it’s great fun and very friendly for everyone!

Dan: The initial idea was inspired by some art with fantasy animals. You might notice that we constrained ourselves to woodland animals rather than just any creature. That was also very deliberate because if possible – if the Kickstarter does well – we’d love to extend this animal wizard idea in a few other thematic areas. Maybe even during the campaign? It’s something we’re still thinking over. I would love to make this into a series of games where the cards are compatible throughout.

Adam: Another bit that was very deliberate in the theme was separating ‘pets’ from woodland creatures. The ‘pets’ run the entire contest thematically – and that gave us a fun thematic moment. So dogs and cats (and whatever other pet comes up!) are dressed up like aristocrats – a bit of a nod to Animal Farm maybe where [SPOILER] the pigs eventually become more like humans again [END SPOILER]. Hmm. Maybe you should mark that one as a spoiler for those who haven’t read Animal Farm :).


When I look through the pictures, it seems to me a game in the vein of Magic: the Gathering, Epic Spell Wars, etc. (except with animals). What about the gameplay of Wizards of the Wild makes it unique from others in the genre? It seems that dice are more central here – what’s the reason for mixing dice with cardplay instead of just using one or the other?

Adam: MtG makes it very difficult to design a card game! Every card game is compared to it. Certainly we know Magic and how it works. It’s incredibly admired and really an amazing design in itself in a number of ways. There’s been many others for sure – and really right now there seem to be just a ton of card games being made. Wizards has cards and they can combine to create new effects – but this is only slighly like MtG I think.

Wizards is a lot more focused on creating direct ‘engine’ mechanics where one card helps another. Also unlike MtG and more like Deck Builders today (or any number of other games with a display), you acquire cards while you play. That creates a bit of the interaction between players – squabbling over this card or that. You don’t have a hand of cards in the sense that things are hidden – everyone is getting and putting cards face up to create open information. That means I know what my opponents are working on and I can work against it – I call this “open planning” in game design and I really like it. So just fundamentally things are different from MtG.

Dan: And of course, MtG is based on direct conflict between cards, and ultimately the “health” of the players is at stake. It’s a battle game. Wizards of the Wild has some conflict, but the focus is far more on creating an elegant “engine” out of the various powers you acquire.

Adam: And there are really two major types of cards – Spells and Challenges. Spells are more engine components that you can use every turn in the game – even the turn in which you acquire them. Whereas Challenges are more a one-time benefit, but worth more victory points at the end of the game. So there is a bit of building up and then churning out things to get more points. Since every single card is unique and you only see a few in any one game, there’s really a huge amount of things that can happen in any one game – lots of replayability.

wwdiceNow about the dice. It’s just a fun thing for the most part – rolling dice and using them to acquire cards. Dice are fun! These are custom dice – really nicely engraved dice with unique faces on them. Then you spend time in the game trying to control those dice – to enable you to not really care so much what you roll in the game because you can use results to create other results. That’s what spells often do. A good example of that are what we call ‘skulls’ in the game which normally you want to avoid a roll of those and as a result it curtails re-rolls in the game. But then there are these spells that let you convert or leverage skulls to benefit you. Things like that are really fun – it makes a player feel clever while playing.

Dan: The game plays fast which was very important to us. And the way that’s controlled is you flip over an ‘acolyte’ card (those pets mentioned before). Anyhow, these acolyte cards control the penalty for skulls and establish an exchange rate for ‘gems’ in the game – another line of strategy to get points. So that’s an interesting idea too I think – having some slight changes to each round of play that is different every game.

Together, I think having dice and cards in Wizards create original feelings while playing. Yes, it has cards with powers like so many games. But it’s very cleanly designed and integrated with dice to generate resources – a bit like Roll Through the Ages in that regard. It’s a bit like King of Tokyo in that all dice results are useful. And a bit like Seasons in that you have engine cards you build up while playing. Package that up with a very approachable and family theme – and you have Wizards of the Wild.


I know you and Dan have been working on other prototypes. How did you decide to go with this one next, and how did you realize that it was a finished product amid all of your playtesting?

wwcards2Adam: Yeah, we have a few other games in the works! I suspect that any designer has a number of things going at the same time. I think I have about 7 designs right now in various states – some pretty close, others pretty far away yet. So Wizards of the Wild is primarily a Dan design. We were working on Deadline (I think you played that a few years back at GenCon?) [Derek: Yep, I did!] and it’s just a really difficult design to pull off right. I’m hammering away at this Deadline game and Dan was building up Wizards with his son Abe who was in from college for a few summer months. It just came together pretty quickly.

Dan: Wizards is in a lot of ways an easier design. I mean the mechanics are not too troublesome – it’s pretty straightforward without a lot of moving parts. Except of course for the variety of cards! So that’s a lot of what we’ve worked on over time – getting those cards priced right and playing right. So we decided that Deadline could wait a bit (might even benefit from some time away from us) and move toward Wizards which we felt had a much better chance to get us into Kickstarter – lower price point, broader appeal, cheaper shipping, etc. We were then spending time trying to tighten the play and make it faster and faster. Just cleaning everything up and trimming it down.

And that’s the one aspect that made Wizards easier to finish: the speed of play. You can get a game done from start to finish in 20 minutes or less. So you know – that’s like 3 or 4 times faster than our other games!

Adam: So how did we know it was done? It’s a good question with any design. You’re always looking for fun. That’s the main quality. I remember one play tester said, “It’s kinda bland” and that’s really great feedback! It hurts a bit, but it’s reallly helpful. We went back and spiced up combos and continued to steamline and simplify. We brought it back later and he really liked it – it was just so much improved! “This is way better!” So you could see improvement like that through play testing. Eventually, you keep playing and tweaking and then just find there’s very little to change that improves the game. We’re still playing by the way – so there might be some more tweaks to card powers here and there – continuing to clean and polish is something we always do right up to sending it off to the printer. Also since we have a PnP out there now, anyone can pitch in and help us out! I’d love to hear more feedback.


As experienced designers, I’m sure you’ve become more and more disciplined as you think of new ideas to incorporate into a game. What kind of things did you come up with in development that you had to scrap? What new ideas snuck into the game during development?

wwcards3Adam: What’s most important is knowing your target with a game. In this case, we wanted a fast game that had engine building. And we wanted something really friendly that just evoked fun by looking at it – to get people engaged and interested – and gamer parents who want kids to get involved in the hobby have a great path to do so. And we wanted a smaller game – not a big box game. So originally, you can put things together that add up to that. But Wizards started with more complications – I think that was the largest change from initial design to now. There was another resource involved for example. And a lot of spell types as well. Overall, the cards were more complicated. So we were trimming things down after that – removing resources, making cards more obvious to play because we wanted speed. The thing that snuck in was the idea of animal wizards.

Dan: The thing that can be hard is cutting out something that’s fun and clever. Designers can especially become attached to clever parts because we want to do really original mechanics. But you have to be ruthless. If it slows the pace of the game too much, makes things too confusing, messes up other parts of the game somewhat, or anything like that — it’s a candidate for the chopping block. A good pace is a virtue unto itself.

Adam: And the way that the acolyte cards work which was a continual reduction in design: to get a single card that works as the round marker, start player marker, start impact, turn impact and end of round impact – that’s compression in design and streamlining. Another bit that was there and later removed was storing cards. Some games let you pick a card off a display and pay for it later – Wizards had that for a time. We ditched that to keep it simple. Or an effective card limit per player – which we did originally to keep the game tight, but then ditched because of simpler rules during play. Everything was bent on keeping the game light and fast – but with these interesting combo situations.


Kickstarter seems to just be overrun with new board game projects. And yours doesn’t even have zombie miniatures! Why should KSers back Wizards of the Wild over the many other projects vying for their wallets?

Dan: That’s the multi-million dollar question! It’s boxed awesomeness, for one thing.

Adam: I’d say we’re hoping folks are now more discerning of games with good designs. I think it’s clearly true that KS backers are more discriminating and some see that as constraining games on KS. But it’s also an opportunity for higher quality to rise up and stand out. If you look around KS right now, you’ll notice that campaigns with lower quality illlustrations or pricing that’s too high or a message that’s too confusing – these just don’t fund as easily any more.

Dan: In the end, we know what it takes to compete with the best game projects. Go check out Wizards of the Wild on Kickstarter and you’ll see our real answer to this question. We make the best case we can with that page.

Adam: We’ve really watched KS since it started and I think we have a compelling campaign. Our price point is very good – very competitive and in the sweet spot I think. We’ve got a ton of great art in this game – just very fun stuff. And it’s an easy message: it’s a game with cards and dice that plays fast. And we’re good designers with experience from start to finish – not just design, but we’ve self-published before when it was much more challenging! Moreover, we’ve offered everything up – the game is out there right now as PnP. So you can see everything we’ve got at this point. So all of that makes us trustworthy I hope.


The concept art seems proof that components really do make the game, despite all the wargames that seem to insist otherwise. How central do you consider the components and art to the actual enjoyment of the game? Do you consider them part of the game itself, or is the game merely the rules?

Dan: Depends on the game, of course, but we obviously obsess about art. Great images and components draw you into the game. A designer cannot control what kinds of moods the players are in, what their personalities are, their preferences even, but we can go all out to make the experience as engaging as possible. I love the idea that fellow players can get together and the right game can make an awesome evening.

Adam: Art is an enormous part of a game without a doubt. Even the war gamers – their art design is evocative of a cold, calculating war game: numbers and information on a map. Personally, I love great art. I also want to get more great artists into gaming. I feel there’s no reason to have poor art in a game any more. There’s just too many fantastic illustrators out there in the world. I even make ‘pretty’ prototypes because I truly believe that the way the game appears is critically important to the design – things like how easy is it to understand when playing? This goes way beyond rules. Can you tell what you do next while playing? A game is a message to the players and you want to clearly communicate. Folks who say don’t waste time on a prototype – that’s true maybe for a first rough cut – but after that, art is everything. Yes, it takes time. But that’s what it takes to make a game.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Adam: I’m sweating bullets over our KS campaign! We’ve really put alot of time and money into it and I hope we are successful. It’s funny about game design: each one is so stressful! But then you go make another one anyhow. If we are successful, we have several other designs coming along that I *really* want to finish. Hopefully, gamers will agree and get us funded. If we are well funded, we of course have stretch goals – but more than that, we’ll be able to go faster on our next games!

Dan: Yes, Kickstarter is an intimidating process. It’s like having a play open on Broadway. I fret about every detail.

wwwandsAdam: Oh! I do want to say one thing more. Our Collector’s Edition of Wizards of the Wild. It has a wooden box and this hand made wooden wand. Truly beautiful! I’m not saying everyone will want that, but if you *do* go for it, you won’t be disappointed. It will look like a family heirloom at that point – and maybe that wand *is* magical. Who knows?




Thanks again to Adam and Dan. Like what you hear? Check out Wizards of the Wild on Kickstarter!

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