Interview Aug 20, 2013

Today’s design interview is with Michael Iachini, a game designer from my own home state of Colorado! Michael self-published his first game – Chaos & Alchemy – last year with a small print run. A second large-scale edition with improved components, graphics, and artwork is currently on Kickstarter (powered by Game Salute) with just a few days left to go.

GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.

Michael: Chaos & Alchemy is a fast-paced game of laboratory building and rivalry between alchemists. Players conduct an experiment each turn by rolling dice, hoping for each die to be at least as high as the shared Fortune Die. Each success lets the alchemist draw a new card from the deck or play a card from hand; each failure means a discard.

Cards represent Innovations to improve the alchemist’s laboratory, Misfortunes to make rivals’ lives harder, Actions to immediately impact the game, and Reactions to respond to other alchemists’ deeds.

When an alchemist rolls doubles in an experiment, Chaos occurs and fortunes change. The experimenter re-rolls the Fortune Die, making success easier or harder to achieve.

Players race to build up a laboratory sophisticated enough to turn lead into gold. The first player with 10 or more points of Innovations in the laboratory is the victor!

GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?

Michael: The experiment mechanic from Chaos & Alchemy is the cool new thing. Rolling dice and comparing them to another die that changes throughout the game (including whenever someone rolls doubles) makes for an exciting way to determine how many actions (draws or plays) you get to take on your turn. It’s fun and strategic to do what you can to manipulate that target die (the Fortune Die) to try to get it as low as possible when it’s your turn to conduct an experiment and as high as possible when your opponents are conducting their experiments.

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.

Michael: The inspiration came when I was in my car, listening to a podcast recording of an RPG designer panel from a gaming convention. One of the designers had mentioned that an idea for a game can come from a “cool dice mechanic,” and for some reason that made me pause the podcast and start thinking about what a “cool dice mechanic” might be. I quickly thought up what ultimately became the experiment mechanic from Chaos & Alchemy, and I was off and running!

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.

Michael: The very first version was one I created as soon as I got home from work the day I head the podcast. I made up an Excel spreadsheet that let me put a card title, card type, and rules text for cards on a sheet of paper, which I could then cut up and drop into sleeves with Magic cards. There was no theme on this version – just card names like Draw Two, Do Over, Roll Again, etc. Initially, cards in hand counted as points, and the goal was to get to 10 points. And it was actually fun right from the start!

The next steps were to send a print-and-play version to my brother on the other side of the country, and then try it with some friends at the friendly local game store. That went well enough for me to decide I needed a theme, so I came up with alchemy. The die rolling already felt like conducting an experiment, so I went with it.

From there, I did an intense evening of playtesting with two close friends, one of whom is also a game designer. This was the playtest where the rules really stabilized into their current form – and this was only three days after my initial idea!

I did some playtesting with strangers a few days later, and they were excited enough about what I was finally calling Chaos & Alchemy that my wife suggested I try to get this game published in time for Gen Con 2012, less than 10 weeks away at that point. So off I went! Graphic design, art, business, legal stuff, finding a printer, packaging… it was a whirlwind couple of months. I wrote about all of this as I went through it on my blog.

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?

Michael: For the initial version, the biggest challenge was the time crunch! I had to go from “initial concept, having never designed a game before” to “I’m at Gen Con, demoing a finished product from an actual print run” in 10 weeks. But by golly, I did it!

GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?

Innovations drive the game, giving you and your fellow alchemists the points you need to achieve victory. And as you can see, the cards are beautifully illustrated.Michael: One of my friends whom I’ve known since kindergarten recently reminded me that I designed a board game for a class project back in the fifth grade; I had completely forgotten about that until he mentioned it! But after that, I really didn’t do any board game design until Chaos & Alchemy. I did have a few years where I was really interested in interactive fiction and programming those types of games, but board games were just something I played, not created, until last year. Now I’m hooked on making games!

GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?

Michael: Seeing Chaos & Alchemy hit its funding goal on the very first day of the Kickstarter campaign. That was a rush! And it was the moment that I realized that my game is going to be available in its full-color glory on game store shelves next year. Wow!

GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?

I live with my wife Barbara and our four cats in Colorado, south of Denver. I work in finance by day, doing research on investments. It’s a great job, and I’m not looking to become a full-time game designer or publisher because I do love my day job.

Aside from designing and playing board games, I also love to play role-playing games (though that has mostly been on hold since I started designing board games). I play volleyball weekly most of the year, and tennis occasionally, and I ski pretty poorly once or twice a year. My wife and I also foster kittens for the local animal shelter; we’ve fostered somewhere north of 300 kittens over the years. It’s a great gig – you get to have cute kittens around, and as soon as they get big enough to start getting into trouble, they’re at the right size to go back to the shelter to get adopted!

GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?

I have a game called Alchemy Bazaar that I’ve been actively developing since January of this year. This is a “worker movement” board game, where the players send their apprentices around a growing bazaar of alchemical supply shops to collect ingredients that let the alchemist complete formulas. The worker movement mechanic is really cool, and I’ll be actively shopping this game to publishers at Gen Con next week. UPDATE: Since returning from GenCon Michael made a detailed post on how the pitching process went.

I also have a very light cooperative mountain climbing game called Everest that I’ll mention to publishers at Gen Con, but that might very well end up as a free print and play or something like that.

I’m in the early prototyping stages of a game tentatively called Robo Battle, which was inspired by an extremely obscure game called Weapons of Zombie Destruction. This is a complete style departure for me, but it’s quite the cool little game. And to be clear, my version will have nothing to do with zombies!

Beyond that, I’m in the concepting stage of a game themed around building houses, where I’m planning to use a little-known auction mechanic that I had written about back in graduate school (my first academic publication, from the Journal of Games and Economic Behavior). And some day, I’m going to make a game themed around my wife’s wool / yarn business.

GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?

Michael: Lately I’ve mostly been playtesting Alchemy Bazaar and demoing Chaos & Alchemy! But beyond that..
- Viticulture: I backed this one early in its Kickstarter campaign last year, which led to a great relationship with one of the designers, Jamey Stegmaier. It took forever for me to get it to the table, but I’m so glad I did! It’s a beautiful worker placement game with fantastic production values and a great marriage of theme (winemaking) and mechanics (worker placement).
- Keyflower: Another worker placement game, but with a very cool mechanic where you don’t exactly own the workers; they’re resources that can end up going from one player to another. Great strategic choices throughout this one.
- Agricola on the iPad: Yep, more worker placement. I’ve really enjoyed the iOS implementation of Agricola, and the Solo Series is a fun way to play by myself.
- Contract Bridge: My wife and I used to play bridge with another couple for several years back when we lived in San Francisco, and we recently met another couple looking to play bridge again. I’d love to see the contract bridge auction implemented in a board game!
- Ra: We had a party with a bunch of non-gamer friends a few weeks ago and I ended up breaking out Ra since someone had been talking about Egyptian art. This ended up being a fantastic gateway game! It’s one that had been collecting dust for years, and I’m glad we had a reason to get it back to the table.

GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?

Michael: Agricola. My wife and I have had stretches where we would play Agricola at least once a day for months at a time. We love it so much that some friends made us a custom set of animals and resources using Sculpey clay for our birthdays years ago. So, we have a totally tricked out Agricola set now, and we love the game.

GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?

Michael: Rapid prototyping! When you have an idea for a game, play it as soon as you possibly can. Don’t worry about writing down the rules or figuring out how everything is going to interact or making it look pretty; just make a version that you can try out ASAP. That version is going to have problems, and you’re likely going to scrap most of it after the first playtest, so don’t get too attached. Just start playing your ideas as quickly as you can! A game isn’t a game until someone plays it.

GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)

Michael: Absolutely!

  • Nate and Bree Heiss: Awesome playtester and graphic designer, respectively, without whom the original Chaos & Alchemy could never have succeeded.
  • Danny Iachini, my brother in Pennsylvania, whose enthusiasm for playtesting astounds me.
  • My wife Barbara, who is the reason I actually am publishing games now rather than just toying around with cool little ideas on my own.
  • Enchanted Grounds, the local game store / coffee shop within walking distance of my house, where I have recruited tons of people to try my games (and played many hours of other games, too).
  • Jamey Stegmaier, who has been a great source of knowledge and advice as well as an inspiring success story as a designer using Kickstarter.
  • All of the playtesters and artists who helped make the original edition of Chaos & Alchemy happen
  • Dann May, who has done a fantastic job with the graphic design on the new edition of Chaos & Alchemy
  • Enggar Adirasa, whose illustrations are making the new edition look so good
  • Michael Fox, who is running the Chaos & Alchemy campaign for Game Salute

GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).

Michael: The best place to follow me is on Twitter as @ClayCrucible. In addition to my own musings, I put out announcements about my games, calls for playtesters, links to cool design and gaming resources, and my whereabouts as I move through Gen Con.

  • The Kickstarter page for Chaos & Alchemy is here – please go check it out!
  • My game company web site is http://claycrucible.com/, where you can also find links to http://chaosandalchemy.com/ and any future games that get to the “deserving their own web site” stage.
  • You can follow me on Facebook
  • I’ll be at Gen Con all day Thursday and Friday and most of the day Saturday
  • I’ll be at TactiCon in Colorado over Labor Day weekend for the whole convention
  • I’m ChaosAndAlchemy on BoardGameGeek

Thanks for the opportunity to talk to your readers!

GDC: Thanks Michael! Be sure to check out Chaos & Alchemy on Kickstarter. As of when this is posted there is just under 3 days left before the project ends. Chaos & Alchemy has already blown through its funding goal and topped some nice stretch goals – you won’t want to miss it!

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