Interview: Christopher Chung talks Lanterns: the Harvest Festival

lanternsWhen deciding what to review here at MeepleTown (beyond our review copies), we try to keep an eye on games where the public opinion is different than ours, or the game is underrepresented. And that often means we don’t get around to reviewing games that are so dang good that they’ve taken the world by storm before we’ve had a chance to sink our teeth in. Such is the case with Lanterns: the Harvest Festival by Christopher Chung, a game that’s recently won a MENSA award and been in the running for several others, with a TableTop episode on the way as well. Rather than tell you what you already know (the game is great!), we decided to interview Christopher and see what other tidbits he could leave for us. A lot of the “standard” questions I might’ve asked were covered in this excellent interview with The Inquisitive Meeple, so you should view this as a sort of follow-up to that discussion. Here we go!


1. I know you’re a recent university graduate and dove right into game design. Are you hoping to pursue game design full time? In the mean time, can you tell us a bit about family life, day job, other hobbies?

It’s funny that it’s actually turned out that way, but as for pursuing game design as a full time profession? I can’t do it. It’s one thing to really be passionate about your design career, and kudos to those who have made it a full-time gig such as Josh Cappel and Eric Lang, however I’m not at that level yet. There could be a possibility that I may have success down the road but I don’t want the design process to drive me crazy, knowing that they’d be the primary source of my income, it’s not enough to help raise a family on nor do I want my games to feel like they’re work. Its hard work to make a game, but I always want it to be a fun passion first and foremost.

As for family life, I live with my relatives, and I just got out of a day job working for a mutual fund company. I’m definitely looking for a career in the financial industry, non-profit sector, or public sector, but in the meantime I guess I’m a full-time game designer! Other hobbies include video games, watching Twitch streams, watching sports and anime, dragonboat paddling, and reading. Now I’m getting back into going to a gym regularly and trying to shape up to be healthier!

2. You mentioned that Lanterns originated at Bento Mise, a co-working space for game and web developers. How often do you interact with designers and developers in other spaces (web, video game), etc., and how does that affect your board game development? What lessons could board game designers learn from those areas?

**Bento Miso**

I often go to Bento Miso for their “Play Games with Friends” dates that open up playtesting opportunities for my games, and that opens up some conversations about what we play, in either tabletop aspects or video games. In terms of affecting my board game development, I’ve definitely seen how they’ve produced their games in terms of working in team dynamics, best practices when developing games, and finding sources of income from them as most of them are full-time video game designers. I think we can take a lot from what a lot of successful independent developers have done in regards to creating accessible games that combine hidden complexities in an inviting package that gamers would enjoy. The barriers of entering in video game or board game development have never been lower today, and that makes for a lot of cross-pollination opportunities that wouldn’t have existed before, and we can always learn best practices from collaborations, finding publishers and audiences for our designs, and design parameters that come with games we’ve enjoyed before.

3. You’ve talked before about how key the change to decreasing scoring was for the strategic depth of Lanterns. I’ve also noticed that the piles of cards can run out very quickly and can lead to some interesting – and cutthroat – moments. How intentional was that part of the tension in the design? How do you decide what level of interaction and “meanness” fits a game?

That’s a very excellent question. I wanted the game to feel tense from the initial design, and although the game naturally carries a very peaceful feel to it, the joy of being able to really hinder your opponent was a very intentional way of adding a level of competitive feel that when missing, would almost make the game feel trivial. When I design, I want to focus on tense game features such as limited supplies, and short-term opportunity losses for long term gains, and I feel the level of interaction melds with the nature of the gameplay. Players will step up to the plate if they get to hinder their opponent’s plans.

4. I’ve read the story of your introduction to Foxtrot Games, but can you explain a bit about the connection to Renegade Game Studios and how that affects you?

Funny story is that I heard about Renegade Game Studios through Corey Young, who designed Gravwell and is a great friend of mine. When we were playtesting a game at GenCon, he had mentioned that Scott Gaeta from Cryptozoic was re-publishing Gravwell as part of Renegade Game Studios and they were a new company to look forward to knowing. Long story short, Randy of Foxtrot Games and Scott had come together to partner on the publication of Lanterns during the Kickstarter campaign and I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Both companies are doing excellent with their games (World’s Fair 1893 winning a Mensa, too!) and I would love to work with Renegade on a game in the future.

5. Lanterns has been out for a while now, and has been racking up awards and nominations. This is your first published game, and the first time to see the reactions – not only the awards, but the variety of comments and reviews, both good and bad, on BGG. How do you process these praises and criticisms, emotionally?

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions really. To have your first game be in the limelight of some of the biggest awards of the year, and a soon to be Tabletop episode, it’s overwhelming, and I couldn’t possibly thank everyone for their support, but if you’re reading this and you love Lanterns, thank you! But with the good comes with the bad, and yes there have been really negative comments, and I try to not let them be in my head, because focusing on the positive is what I should keep on doing in game design and in life itself.

6. You’ve wrote eloquently on the idea of “Minimum Viable Game” and the great importance of simplicity and elegance in design, which Lanterns illustrates wonderfully. I can only assume that the success of Lanterns motivates an expansion or follow-up, and certainly we’ve already had a few promo tiles. How do you balance that game design philosophy against, on the business end, a desire to expound upon the game?

So in term of what we’ve accomplished of Lanterns’ success, the Minimum Viable Game really now plays a part in what we do, because from a business standpoint, I know that it makes perfect sense for us to design an expansion, and truth be told, a lot of fans of the game would probably want something to more to bite on, so fingers crossed that we can achieve what we’ve already highlighted in the base game with something that can bring a fresh take of strategy on the game.

7. This may be a strange question that others have figured out, but I have a strong dislike for Twitter because I simply find it too hard to manage conversations. What tips (apps, settings, etc.) do you have for budding designers (or reviewers) who want to start using Twitter to good effect for networking?

That’s fine if you do, it’s a very hard platform to keep track of where conversations go to, but for those who want to start using it, I highly do recommend so. I tend to pop my head in from time to time and jump into threads when I can, but often times I tweet nonsense or about game design. The latter got me a contract! I recommend getting Tweeten to manage your twitter feeds. I also have a column dedicated to Cardboard Edison cause they’re a wealth of knowledge that I constantly use!

8. During our games, a friend suggested to me that going first may be a small disadvantage, since the last player to go may even have enough cards to score by his first turn. Do you have any thoughts on strategy in the game and tips for new players?

I’ve had both argument of last person having an advantage and first player having an advantage, and quite honestly, the game is light enough that we did not feel a change in what we provided players based on their turn order really makes a difference in how the game felt to players in the end. Our playtest results signified that games were won by all players in relatively equal proportions. If there was a big enough disproportion we would’ve explored a change but luckily it didn’t have to come to that!

In terms of strategy, I often go for the 4 of 1 color Dedication tile if I can first. Yes it has the least amount of points provided starting out, but it’s the most efficient ratio of trading in cards for points at a 2:1 ratio versus everything else to start the game with. A good tip would also be paying attention to what your opponents have. Often times you can lay a tile down that gives your opponent what they need to make a combination on their very next turn. If you can help it, give them something they may not be able to use for another turn!

9. What games, movies, books, and music are you currently enjoying?

I’m in love with piano music right now. Marasy, Ludovico Einaudi, and Kyle Landry are few of the many new age composers I listen to every day. I’ve been playing quite a few board games more recently, when I actually have time to get together with folks, and I’m really loving Above and Below and Mission: Red Planet. I’m currently reading Console Wars by Blake Harris and I have an overdue fine on that so I better get on that straight away! And finally I just watched Big Hero 6. Great movie.

10. What’s next (that you can share)? Anything you’d like to add?

I’m currently working on a comic book-inspired game where players will be superheroes and choose panels on a comic book page to fight the evil-doers or rest, in which they will create tension that will hinder their success. The villain will be a semi-controlled AI where they will deploy henchmen to fight and they will fight as well however they may end leaving themselves open for the heroes to counter attack! I hope to be able to work on this more with my team and be able to pitch this by the end of the year. I’d love to be able to transfer this game to an existing comic book license. Hopefully we’ll a home for it because I know it definitely has a lot of potential!

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