Trevor Lehmann, from Convergent Games, joins us in this edition of The Game of Crowd Funding Written Interviews. Convergent Games has a Kickstarter project for Crop Cycle on Kickstarter going through November 28, 2014. Make sure to check out the Crop Cycle Kickstarter Page!
What do you do as a profession? (besides making games, and it can be generally and not specific if that is your preference)
I have had many jobs, but currently I work as an Academic Advisor at the University of Manitoba’s School of Business. That is a fancy title to basically say that I advise students on which courses to choose is order to complete their degree as efficiently as possible. The job allows me engage with university students and talk to them about academic and personal interests, which is lots of fun. Generally, I just like to make people happy so providing academic advice, creating space in classes, etc. is really rewarding when students leave my office satisfied.
What makes you a geek?
I hit most of the categories on the geek checklist, but I have been playing video games and board games since I was four (I started with Commander Keen and Chess within a few days of each other) and even reviewed a few games while in high school and university. I also run multi-day LAN Parties once every three or four months that are great community events.
Outside of gaming, I am a pop-culture junkie and huge fan of cyberpunk so I try to find ways to incorporate quotes from Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, etc. into my workday at every opportunity.
I also enjoy beer brewing and am looking at an orange Wheat beer that is fermenting near my desk. There is something so satisfying about making food and drink from scratch that is comparable to the feeling I get when I first saw the prototype of my game arrive.
I could keep going, but I feel this affirms my geek cred.
Do you have a geek level passion for something that most people might not consider geek related?
I really enjoy running and weight lifting. I have been running for a long time and managed to pull off a marathon a year ago before medical complications limited my running. I then got into weight lifting and was pouring hundreds of hours into the gym before medical complications forced me to scale back. Now I run as much as I can and weight lift on occasion, but I still love discussing physiology, technique, etc. I find a lot of the gym junkies are also gamers, so I found myself at home discussing Bioshock Infinite with a Bodybuilder and Injection Plastic Molding with a toy maker that was Bicep Curling 100lb dumbbells.
Outside of gaming, what keeps you going and excited to approach each day?
I am a goal-oriented person, so I have a bucket list that hangs from on my desk as I work and keeps me focused on checking off all the boxes.
I have had a few close calls in life, so I appreciate the fragility of each day. I took a page from the monks in the middle ages and have a big skull that sits on my work desk to remind me of how temporal life is and to keep on pushing to achieve goals.
I am also really fortunate to be surrounded by immensely supportive friends and family that have helped me in everything I have done. I don’t want their efforts to be wasted so I keep focused out of respect for their time.
The Internet crashes and never recovers, are you lost or do you thrive?
My educational background was originally in history, so I know that people survived without it. I like to think that because I design board games instead of video games, I am future proofing myself [laughs]. If the internet crashed, it could increase the amount of gaming as I would certainly be hosting more LAN Parties and board game nights…I see nothing but good things.
Speaking of the Internet, what has been social media’s impact on your view in to the gaming industry?
I think has been hugely beneficial. Social media lets gamers connect with designers in a way that was never possible. Twitter and Facebook lets you message people that you barely know (game companies, designers, etc.) and start a conversation without seeming taboo or creepy.
I think that allowing people to connect, communicate and organize is beneficial to all levels of the games industry.
Besides your own creations, what are the last 5 games you played?
For Board Games this would be: 7 Wonders, Small World, Terra Mystica, What’s He Building in There, and Battle Tech.
What’s your favorite genre of game, and why?
That is a tough one and a straight up split between tactical games and casual games. I love tactical strategy games like Small World or Twilight Imperium because asymmetrical factions (factions that play differently or have different abilities/mechanics) and the amount of detail poured into the story and lore of the game. The only problem is that I have trouble sitting through the whole game.
I love casual games like Werewolf or Fluxx though, as the amount of entertainment v.s time spent is obscenely high and I really appreciate a game that ends in under 15 minutes.
What’s your least favorite genre of game, and why?
Worker Placement games without a doubt. I have played several and have yet to find one that by the 45 minute mark, hasn’t reduced me to making random choices in order to speed up my turn and end the game faster. I have trouble planning ahead in these economic games and don’t find myself satisfied even when I win (on those rare occasions). I appreciate that some people love these games, but I would prefer to do just about anything else.
Do you have a moment that you can point to where you decided to move from casual game player to wanting to be in the game industry from a business perspective?
I have always wanted to create my own game, but due to my ineptitude in computer programming, I could never hope to make my own video game. About 4 years ago I was working at a daycare and had a chance to play against some very competent children in a game of Chess. Playing the game rekindled my interest in tactical games and the enjoyment that they can bring people. I did some research into the board game industry and found that if you have an idea for a game and want to ensure artistic and creative control, the best solution is to create it yourself. Once I found the crowd-funding platform and an artist supportive of my goal, everything just fell into place and I went out and registered my company.
What’s a typical game design process for you?
I tend to design around a theme or experience. I sit down and think about a scene or experience occurring and then try to design mechanics that achieve that feeling. When I created Crop Cycle, I envisioned people playing cards and complaining yelling about the successes, failures and close calls of farming. I developed a mechanic around different seasons and crop types to support this initial vision and everything and simply added mechanics to balance gameplay from there.
I am also a big fan of 24 hour design contests and like the idea of getting all the main points down in one shot. When designing a new game, I set an artificial deadline of 24 hours to create a draft of the rules. Once the initial game and mechanics are down, I share it with friends and continue refining it.
Where does playtesting come in to your overall process?
As a game designer, I recognize I am prone to tunnel vision when it comes to looking for game balance and refinement, so I start playtesting as soon as I can. I have various playtest groups to test out different aspects of the game. I have casual and generalist players that evaluate the overall theme and “feel” of the game (are they having fun and are experiencing the emotions I want the game to convey). Next, I run the game by a pair of power gamers that crunch the numbers and notice imbalances. I also show it to fellow game designers whenever possible to ferret out any game mechanic issues.
Finally, in the case of Crop Cycle, I had Magic The Gathering players test the game extensively and critique how the game compared to Magic and any imbalances they could perceive.
A lot of times, rules and rulebooks can make or break a game from a player perspective. What do you attempt to do to make sure that’s not an issue for your games?
I write a weekly blog and write quite a bit at work so I am able to keep my editing skills pretty sharp. With that said, once you spend so long developing the rulebook, you begin to develop tunnel vision. The prototype version of the game we initially shipped had some glaring grammatical oversights (that’s why they are called prototypes!) that we were quick to fix. I typically send the rulebook out to a number of friends and family to have them provide feedback both for clarity and grammar. I am also fortunate to have some friends that work as writing tutors that are great at pointing out the obvious and not so obvious mistakes.
Do you have a litmus test for yourself on when a game is “done?”
I recall hearing once that “no game is ever done, it is just published”. I am a firm believer that failure is the best way to learn, so I tend to simply plough ahead and accept that if I fail, I will learn faster than if I procrastinate.
As a general rule of thumb though, when criticisms become 50/50 splits on whether a mechanic or game element needs to be made stronger or weaker, that is when I feel that it is balanced and can be left alone.
How does collaborating on a project differ for you from solo design?
Collaboration with my artist has been really good. Though I like to think I am a competent game designer, the trouble is that I become too attached to the game. Having someone unconnected to the original design is tremendously helpful when it comes to refining and polishing the game design. The same can be said of all elements of the project, as my artist looks to others for feedback on the drawing that he has spent hours slaving over just as I look for feedback on the game design.
Give us your elevator pitch for Crop Cycle. Ready? Go!
Crop Cycle is a 2 – 5 player farming where you struggle to plant, protect, and harvest crops before your opponents do. The game has a Seasons mechanic that limits when cards can be played to certain seasons, forcing players to balance conserving their cards for a future season or discarding and drawing in the hopes of obtaining cards that are immediately useful.
All the fun of farming in 30 minutes with none of the hassles.
What was the driving factor that inspired you to create this game?
Crop Cycle represents a lifelong goal to create a game. What keeps me going is the drive to create something out of your head and turn it into a physical reality that brings happiness to others. Every time I get stressed out over the project, I tell myself that I am designing a game and everything falls back into perspective after that.
What went in to your decision to go with a Kickstarter campaign versus seeking publishing?
First off, I really like people, so the idea of success being tied to connecting to people drew me to Kickstarter.
Beyond that, I wanted the control and learning opportunities that Kickstarter’s self-publishing route would allow me. Hiring an artist and collaborating with him every step of the way from card design and layout to website formatting even manufacturing specifications has been a huge learning experience for both of us.
The other elements of game publishing from researching and implementing social media marketing, contacting manufacturers, and attending conventions and panels have been tremendous learning and development opportunities. Once this Kickstarter is completed, I will have developed a skillset that is applicable to projects both inside and outside the board game industry. In short, I will have developed a lot of “personal capital” to carry forward in my life.
In the spectrum of “I love designing and don’t want to handle publishing at all” to “I love the publishing side and want to do that full time” where do you fit in?
I am really torn on this one. On one hand, I started my games company to create games and I feel that the publishing role has left very little time to design or even to play games. With that said, I think the publishing route has been much more beneficial for me, as I have acquired skills and knowledge that I will be able to apply to other areas of my life.
I am a big advocate of personal growth, so while I may want to focus on game design, I should be publishing from a professional development standpoint.
What are a couple of things you would tell someone on the fence about your project that would make them say, “I HAVE to back this right now!”
Crop Cycle brings all the fun and frustration of a farming into a 30 minute match against your friends.
The game features stylized photographs taken from around Manitoba and effectively showcases Canadian agriculture while being loads of fun.
Finally, if you know anyone involved in agriculture or farming (in Manitoba this is includes pretty much everyone), this is a no-brainer gift!
Do you have any lessons about the Kickstarter process that you can share with others that might be looking at launching their first project?
- Be prepared to put in ridiculous hours, particularly if you have work or family commitments. I find that I always work best in the morning, so I get up at 4:00 or 5:00 A.M and work on the Crop Cycle project until I have to go to the office. Others work in the evening after their family goes to bed. Find out when you are most productive and make sure that you focus those hours on the board game as much as possible.
- Take advantage of the free resources out there. James Mathe and Jamey Stonemaier have created comprehensive guides on the Kickstarter process. Beyond that, there are very active Facebook groups and podcasts such as Funding the Dream, Ludology, and of course All Us Geeks!
- Set artificial deadlines and push yourself. I created Crop Cycle in May 2014 and set November as the deadline to launch my Kickstarter. December and January are regarded as the worst months to launch and Kickstarter and there was no way I was waiting until February 2015 to get my game funded so I have been pulling double duty these past few months to make this dream a reality. No need to drag out a project any longer than it needs to.
Where can people find out more about you/your company?
Lots of ways!
Kickstarter Page for Crop Cycle: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1776342422/crop-cycle?ref=allusgeeks
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/convergentgames [A series of shorts on game design]
Feel free to contact me if you want advice on your own Kickstarter, Game Design, or just want to talk shop!
We would like to thank Trevor for taking the time to answer our questions and let us know a bit more about Crop Cycle. Make sure to check out the Crop Cycle Kickstarter Page, running through November 28, 2014!
If you are interested in being interviewed by All Us Geeks, please visit our contact form and let us know.