Today’s interview is with Chris & Suzanne Zinsli. This husband & wife duo are the geniuses behind the Cardboard Edison blog which aggregates the best game design content across the web. They are also avid game designers with their first game Tessen (presently on Kicstarter) being published by Van Ryder Games.
GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.
Chris: Tessen is a two-player card game that’s compact and plays in about 15 minutes. In the world of the game, the Shogun has decreed that disagreements between the clans will be resolved through a competitive hunt for eight mystical animals. Players try to collect sets of animal cards and use their warrior cards to steal their opponent’s animals. The game’s main mechanisms are simultaneous real-time play, set collection and hand management. There’s also a bit of push-your-luck and plenty of opportunities to psych out your opponent.
Suzanne: We’ve found that different types of people all like the game. There’s enough strategy and interesting decisions to appeal to hardcore gamers, but it’s light and quick enough to appeal to casual gamers, and kids and teens like how fast it plays.
GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?
Chris: Tessen will feel familiar to anyone who grew up playing speed games like Spit or Dutch Blitz, but what separates Tessen from those games is the decision-making players have to do on the fly. It’s about more than rapid pattern matching. That’s important, sure, but in Tessen you have to decide what to do with your cards–there’s usually no “correct” place to play them.
GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.
Suzanne: Tessen was originally going to be the sequel to another game we were designing. When we played both games, the original didn’t really work out, but we kept playing the sequel. We realized we had something special, so we put the other game on the back burner and focused on the game that became Tessen. The game’s original theme was about Christmas elves packing up presents, so it was quite different from what it has become!
GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.
Suzanne: We tried different combinations of animal cards and warrior cards to find the right balance, and we found the samurai theme, which fit the mechanics of the game really well. A.J. Porfirio from Van Ryder Games has done a great job developing the game and bringing out its best parts. One of his additions was the “super warrior” cards, which we love.
Chris: The super warriors add some exciting–and excruciating–moments where players have to decide in a split second what their best course of action is.
GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?
Suzanne: We’ve actually been lucky. Things have gone surprisingly smooth for us. But the biggest recurring discussions have been about the game’s theme. We spent a good amount of time dissecting the game’s dynamics at two key points: during the original retheme early on and during development with A.J.
Chris: For a long time, the animal cards were a little odd. What does collecting animals have to do with a samurai battle, right? But A.J. is a master of theme, and he suggested a backstory to Tessen that really tied the theme to the mechanics perfectly. It’s kind of funny how central the animals have become to Tessen. They were originally going to be generic resources, but we couldn’t find good prototype artwork, so we just used the animal art out of necessity.
GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?
Suzanne: We’ve always been into playing games, but we kind of got into game design by accident. Chris had written a computer program that generated alliterative phrases from any two words. One day when Purple Rain was on the TV, I decided to type those words into the program and see if Chris could guess what I had typed from the alliterative clues. A friend of ours was hanging out with us, and we all took turns reading and guessing clues. It was a lot of fun, so we decided to turn it into a game. We put together a prototype and brought it to our book club, and it went over really well. We found out that designing games was something we really enjoyed doing together.
Chris: That first game idea is now called Skewphemisms. Tessen is the second design we really focused on. When we decided to get serious about it, we started doing research about the industry and we realized there wasn’t one good place for aspiring designers to learn about the hobby. There’s a LOT of useful information out there, but it was scattered across the Internet. We decided to create a blog called Cardboard Edison (www.cardboardedison.com) to share everything we found with other designers, and that’s how we’ve started making a name for ourselves.
GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?
Chris: There have been so many! One of our favorites is when we took Skewphemisms and Tessen to the Unpub 3 playtesting event in Delaware this past January. I was talking with A.J. after he had just played Tessen, when a young couple who had played the game the day before came running up to us asking if they could play the game again because they liked it so much. This happened right in front of A.J., and I felt like I had to assure him that we hadn’t paid the couple to do that!
Suzanne: We were also more excited than any other time when A.J. called and offered to license Tessen. Every step of the development process with A.J. has been a pleasure, all the way through the Kickstarter campaign he created and the outpouring of support from the game design community and our family and friends.
GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?
Suzanne: I’m a stay-at-home mom to our four-year-old daughter, Lily. I really enjoy reading and quilting. I also keep myself busy with our daughter’s gymnastics and play dates.
Chris: I’m a business journalist professionally, and in the little spare time I have outside of work, family and game design I like following politics, listening to indie music and reading.
Suzanne: We enjoy watching a few TV shows together like Big Brother, Once Upon a Time, The Booth at the End, and Shark Tank.
GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?
Suzanne: Aside from Skewphemisms, we’re working on a lot of new designs. With Tessen coming out soon, we’ve been spending a lot of time helping out A.J., and we have been traveling the past couple of weeks. But the new game we’ve been spending the most time on is called Cottage Industry, at least for now.
Chris: Cottage Industry is a whimsical economics game set in a fairytale land. Players are business owners building all of the famous castles and cottages from fairytales and folk tales, like Cinderella’s castle, the three little pigs’ homes and Rapunzel’s tower. But the game’s economy will be a sort of Disney-fied version where everyone is expected to play nice and whistle while they work–not that they always do…
GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?
Suzanne: We just picked up Jaipur, which is a fun two-player game. We’re always looking for good games for two players, and Jaipur is a great game I love. We also just met a couple of designers we know from Twitter and played their games. Matt Worden’s Jump Gate is a really fantastic game that I’m excited to buy through The Game Crafter and show to our gaming group at home, and Brett Myers’ Dvoevlastie is a really cool two-player game that I can’t wait to see published soon.
Chris: We also just bought a game for our daughter called CooCoo the Rocking Clown. It’s a silly balancing game that’s actually a lot harder than you’d think, and the rocking wooden clown creates some fantastic moments where everything goes awry and the pieces get thrown all over the table.
GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?
Suzanne: Panic Station. It’s a semi co-op where you’re never sure who’s on your side, and it creates some interesting player dynamics.
Chris: Tough call, but let’s go with Coloretto. I love its simple choices that still offer deep decisions. It just does so much with so little.
GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?
Chris: Just one? We’ve collected more than 1,000 game design links on our blog! But let me just say that, in our experience, helping other people is a great way to help yourself. Board gaming is a close community, and the personal connections you make will take you a long way.
Suzanne: Be open to other people’s ideas. If you want to get your game published, you have to find a balance between your vision for the game and what experienced people in the industry know to be true.
GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)
Chris: Jeez, too many to mention! We’ve only been able to get as far as we have with the help of countless other people. But A.J. from Van Ryder Games has been a joy to work with, and we appreciate the ongoing support of our friends and playtesters, and the online game design community.
GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).
Suzanne: You can find us online at www.cardboardedison.com, on Twitter as @CardboardEdison, and you can friend us on Facebook. Our BGG username is CardboardEdison. As for cons, we’ll be at Gen Con in just a couple of days helping run Tessen tournaments. In September we are planning to go to the Boston Festival of Indie Games, and in November we hope to have Cottage Industry ready for the Metatopia playtesting event run by Double Exposure here in New Jersey.
GDC: Thanks so much for taking your time to be interviewed, and for all you do for the game designer community!