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Interviews

The Man Behind Devil Bunny and the Disposable Car

An Interview With James Ernest

I remember stumbling on James Ernest's "top secret" webpage back in 1996 shortly after I'd fallen head over heels in love with games and the Internet. Having just kicked off his company, Cheapass Games, he had an interesting approach which seemed novel to me at the time--make entertaining games and sell them dirt cheap! Over the years he's released tons of games, some of which have proven to be very popular. Imitators followed in his footsteps, but most of them have fallen by the wayside. Still, it seems James is here to stay and he has his sights set on even bigger things.

This is not to say everything he's created has been widely praised! Many have argued his games are underdeveloped or far heavier in style than in substance. In my own experience, some of my best and worst moments of gaming have taken place over his creations. But for me, this has always added to the appeal of James Ernest and his games. On one hand he has a company that I don't even refer to by name and I've spent (albeit, relatively little) money on a few of his games that I'd never force a group to endure. On the other hand, he's a hilariously creative designer who knows what it takes to make it in a very tough industry. Not only due to his ablility to design games, his company has remained successful because of his many other strengths in the areas of business, graphic design and writing. Whether you care for it or not, his unique style is immediately evident in his games, giving them a personality all their own.

So, having been intrigued and impressed with James' work over the years, I was very happy he agreed to do an interview with us for Fair Play. I recently read of his new partnership with Mike Selinker which has resulted in such things as a new products for WizKids and even a game to be published by Rio Grande (I honestly thought that was a joke when I first heard it!). Intrigued by these big steps in other directions, I took this opportunity to ask him, among other things, what this meant for the future of the Cheapass line.


Mike Petty: James, I've played your games for years and I've kept up with your line of new products all along. Just to start out some research for this interview, though, I did a search at the Boardgame Geek for your games. There are around 70 entries counting games and expansions that credit you as the designer. I know there are several games in your Chief Herman collections not listed, as well as many expansions to Button Men and Brawl. That makes for an awful lot of games released each year with your name on them. I'd imagine you spend most of your time playing and making games. Is that accurate? And if so, is that as fun as it sounds?

James Ernest: I actually spend more than half of my time working on the business, and half of my game design time is spent on mundane things like graphics and prepress. I'd say I actually get to spend about a day and a half every week actually designing games. So, no, it's not as fun as it sounds.

The design process itself is very rewarding, but can sometimes be the least fun of all. Especially when a game isn't working. We have an interesting situation with a game right now: One of my regular playtesters came to a playtest with a preconceived notion of what the new game would be like, and although it's turning into a pretty solid game, he'll never like it because it's not the game he would have written. That's frustrating.

MP: This raises a question that I've discussed with several designers. Generally speaking, as you playtest your games with groups, are you working toward a personal goal you have set for the game, a target player you're trying to reach or do your playtesters have a lot of say on the direction of the design?

JE: Before playtesting even begins, I decide on a blueprint for the game. It's a list of details about who's going to play it, who's going to publish it, how long will it take, how complex it is, and so on. By the time there are players involved there's little chance of that blueprint changing. I try to give the testers an idea of the goals, so they have a better idea of what's working and what's not. Without groundwork like this, it's impossible to answer even the simplest questions about whether the game is working.

MP: Over the years, what's been the hardest part of your job, whether it's with Cheapass or as a freelance designer?

JE: With as many as 12 game projects gong at once, I think the hardest part is prioritizing them. This Spring I spent a lot of time working with Mike Selinker on games for our design studio, Lone Shark, and less time on games for Cheapass. The result was a little last-minute action and a lot of stress on games like The Big Idea and One False Step Home (which are now in the pipe and looking good). But when I'm deciding whether to release a Cheapass Game on time, or to finish a board game that I can sell for $5000, it's a tough call. I don't lose $5000 releasing The Big Idea a month late. But retailers get justifiably irked.

MP: Do you get a lot of time to play other games besides your own? If so, what types of games do you enjoy?

JE: I rarely play hobby games outside my own, though I'm a big poker player. I try the hot Eurogame when I get the chance. I played a few sessions of Carcassone last month, and I tried Puerto Rico a few times last fall. Fine games. But these games only get played when there is a lull in my own design schedule, a time when there isn't a playable new game on a given Wednesday night.

MP: So it would seem when it comes to games, you're mostly playing them when you're working. Do you ever miss just playing games?

JE: Well, it's actually tough to "miss" playing games, since I do more now than I did before I got into the business.

MP: Are there other games you'd be interested in playing, but you never get the chance?

JE: I'd love to get a big campaign wargame going someday, but I just haven't got the time, so I do miss those. But when I just feel like playing a game, I do what I'm doing tomorrow morning: I go play poker. :)

MP: You've done humorous games, short games, long games, worked with other designers, made several free games that use components you'd find around the house. With such a wide variety of games, I'm sure your approach varies greatly, but is there an overall philosophy you use when you start working on any game?

JE: My basic approach is to try to understand the implications of the theme, and draw the game details from that. Recently Mike and I were working on a game about Las Vegas. A potential publisher complained that, in essence, there was no mechanic that enabled the player in the tail to feel like he had any chance of coming back. We examined the problem and realized we'd left out a critical element. We were doing a game about Las Vegas, and there wasn't any gambling! We added the option for any player gamble in another player's casino, and it helped simultaneously to improve the mechanics and to satisfy the theme.

I often find that going back to the story is the only way to solve game mechanics problems. Ideally, games model real life systems, and (to some degree) those systems really work. So, if my game isn't working, how does it differ from the real system? This approach is more effective than simply changing rules arbitrarily until the game is balanced. If you make too many tweaks with no allowances for the theme, pretty soon the game isn't about the theme at all. In the Vegas game, we entertained multiple suggestions for hobbling the leader and rewarding the tail. But those solutions bug me, because they explicitly single out the players in the front and back. The gambling option, on the other hand, is available to anyone, but it is more advantageous to the players who are losing.

MP: How did you get the job to do the American Idol card game?

JE: Around August of last year, I opened the door to freelance design jobs, and talked to some industry people about work I could do for them. American Idol and Pirates of the Spanish Main are both projects that came up pretty quickly after that. In both cases, the publishers approached me with the game projects in mind. A reviewer in Undefeated recently complained that the American Idol game is too simple, but considering the audience, I think we did just right. This claim is supported by the proportion of complaints Fleer receives about how overcomplicated it is. :)

MP: I'm curious how familiar you were with the American Idol television program when you were offered the job. Had you watched it enough to know most of the details or did you have to do a lot of research?

JE: That game required a little extra research, for which I was lucky enough to have a little help. I don't have cable, so if anyone brings me a TV theme, from Sponge Bob to the Sopranos, I'll probably have to do a little research. Luckily, watching TV is easier than designing games.

MP: When you have the role as designer for a CCG, how much does that entail--the basic system, some of the cards, all of the cards, etc.?

JE: Usually the expectation is that I will provide a core mechanic and the first complete set of cards. For example, on the Looney Tunes CCG, I turned in a complete rule book and a set of about 250 cards. Wizards actually changed a lot about that game before it came out, though they more or less kept my card list. This didn't lead to the most playable game....

CCG design does involve several stages, though. At the first presentation it's enough to show a working game mechanic and just enough cards to get through the game. At the next, it's good to have a more complete set, and options for how it can be developed. The most difficult element is the "metarules" document, which details how the game is permitted to break its own rules. This helps expansion designers keep from wrecking the game. Without it, subsequent contributors have to guess what's legit. Can I add another color of mana to Magic? The metarules probably say no.

MP: You mentioned you've recently teamed up with Mike Selinker creating Lone Shark Games. What can you tell us about this new arrangement?

JE: Mike is a game designer and friend who recently left Wizards of the Coast. We've teamed up because we have a nicely complementary set of skills and a huge combined list of contacts. Between us we've designed every kind of paper game there is, from full-on RPGs to games about flipping coins. Mike is the expert on research and back story, and I'm the expert on core mechanics. Whenever either if us gets stuck, the other takes over. And we've managed to create some pretty great games, most of which we can't tell you about.

MP: Does this spell an end to Cheapass games?

JE: Yes and no. The core "Cheapass" brand, the black-and-white games in envelopes and boxes, have always been my most profitable line. I have fared less spectacularly in the arena of color games, where my sales don't pay back nearly the same percentage on my investment. While I will continue to do color games (such as The Totally Renamed Spy Game in October), most of my more elaborate and expensive new games will be sold through Lone Shark rather than being produced by Cheapass. But I'm keeping the core Cheapass line gong strong with at least four new games next year.

MP: I got a look at Pirates of the Spanish Main at Origins. Besides having some unique mechanics and components, judging from the crowd at the booth, it looks to be very popular and entertaining. Could you give us a brief overview of the design process of that game?

JE: I talked to Jordan Weisman about doing freelance work for WizKids in August 2003, and he came to me in September with a request for a polystyrene pirate game. We debated styles and themes, and decided that flat cards were better for making ships than people, so a ship-scale miniatures game seemed the right way to go. Jordan's requirements were that it be playable from two booster packs, so it seemed pretty reasonable to make the tabletop into the open sea, and make the cards into ships. I'm also not a fan of the bum-rush wargame, so I introduced the concept of treasure as something to fight over.

Being the Cheapass Gamer that I am, I designed a game that expected players to provide their own 6-sided dice and use coasters for their islands. Now each booster comes with a tiny 6-sided die and a cardboard island. Apart from that change and a few other tweaks, the core mechanics are pretty much as I designed them.

When the mechanics were done in November, Jordan asked me to write a backstory for the game. I brought Mike Selinker on board to design the individual ships and characters. We turned it over to Wizkids for a second round of development and playtesting, and had a couple of meetings about tweaks to the rules. The game was out of our hands by February 2004.

MP: How would you say you've grown as a designer over the last eight years?

JE: I have no idea. I certainly have more experience, and more things I want to try, than I did in 1996. I also have the comfort of being recognized, whereas in 1996 I had a lot to prove. I remember getting into a pissing contest with an industry giant in early '97. He sent out a trailer on rec.games.board looking for unknown designers to contribute to a new boardgame line he was managing. I was unknown, so I offered him Kill Doctor Lucky, which had just been published through Cheapass. He offered me a tiny sum for the rights, I asked for more, because it was a pretty good game. His opinion was that I should be happy with what I was being offered, because the most important thing at this point in my career was to get my name out there. I suggested that, if name recognition mattered, he wouldn't be trolling usenet for unknowns. It devolved from there; he still hates me.

Nowadays I think that conversation would have stopped a lot sooner.

MP: You mentioned there are more things you'd like to try. What are some of those things? Maybe James Ernest style party game?

JE: Well, those things I want to do next are close relatives of things I am already doing. Party games, RPGs, miniatures games, and computer games are so far outside my area of expertise that I'm not really curious about them. It's more like, as you zoom in on a fractal, discovering more and more detail in an area you thought was all the same. I think there's a lot of very creative invention yet to be done in board and card gaming, and that's what's interesting to me.

MP: What's been your favorite success as a designer?

JE: Cheapass was conceived as a brand, not a single product. But the one game that best represents the brand and that continues to outsell the rest is Kill Doctor Lucky, our very first release. In part this is engineered: in 1996, we chose Kill Doctor Lucky from a list of potential releases as the best flagship title. Since then, we've continued to use Doctor Lucky as our mascot, and our fans tend to give it to their friends as the gateway Cheapass Game. But of course, it's also a success because the theme is darned funny.

MP: Since you started the company back then, it seems so many collectible games that focus on full-color illustrations or detailed minatures have dominated the landscape. Eurogames with expensive and perhaps over-produced components have grown in popularity. Do you find it interesting that your black & white, supply-your-own-components games have continued to fare so well?

JE: Actually those games were starting to dominate the landscape before I started. An industry-wide drive to improve production values in the mid-nineties led to a sucking vacuum at the bottom of the price scale. So it's not surprising that my games continue to do well, since the competition at the top is as fierce as ever.

MP: Of all the games you've designed, what's your personal favorite?

JE: This question is hard to answer. From the perspective of success in all categories, I'd have to say it's Kill Doctor Lucky. The game I'm most likely to play varies from day to day, though I'm partial to Girl Genius: The Works, Diceland, Flip, and the Las Vegas game I mentioned above. I have a lot of favorites, but don't get me wrong - I hate a lot of them too.

MP: I haven't played all of your Cheapass games, but I've certainly had many hours of fun with a lot of them. As you know, however, there are gamers that generally pan the games, usually calling them undeveloped or for whatever reason, not worth purchasing. I think your success in the industry speaks for itself, but is there any game you've done that, if you could go back, you'd make some major changes before publishing it or maybe you wouldn't publish it at all?

JE: That's tough. I don't think there is any "going back." I released a lot of games because I was building my catalog and because I was willing to experiment with novel formats and mechanics. I don't think I would withdraw any of the experiments just because they didn't succeed, because I learned as much from the ones that didn't. You can tell which games I don't much care for by looking at the list of games I've taken out of print: Bleeding Sherwood, Renfield, Parts Unknown, U.S. Patent #1. (Actually, the -really- bad games never go out of print, because I never run out.)

Bleeding Sherwood is an interesting case. It came and went before most people had heard of Cheapass Games. Players (and reviewers) all seemed to have the same response to that game: they played it once, wrong, and gave up. I think if I released the same game today, people would give me a little more credit and at least play a few times (the hands take 10 minutes, guys) before giving up. But back then, it was like, "If I can't understand the strategy on the first try, why should I try again?" I learned an important lesson from that failure: watch out for that first step, it's a doozy. My group had been playing that game a lot, and their tactics were fine-tuned. But a group starting cold was completely in the dark. The first few elements of strategy in a game should be readily apparent, even if there is more strategy that's not.

Contrast this with the American Idol card game, in which the basic-level strategy is so simple that some players don't look beyond it. I have a note for those players too. Look a little deeper. It's there. :)

MP: Is there anything you haven't already mentioned that we can look forward to seeing from you in the upcoming months?

JE: Here's what we know is going on. Rio Grande has purchased a Lone Shark design called Gloria Mundi, set during the fall of Rome. That is, I think, coming out next year. Mike and I are working on a poker book called Dealer's Choice, shipping in January. We have a couple of cute little card games that haven't been announced yet, plus Dungeonville, a card game coming in 4th quarter 2004 from Z-Man games. Cheapass is releasing a One False Step expansion, One False Step Home, and The Big Idea (Semideluxe edition) in August, then The Totally Renamed Spy Game in October, and Jacob Marley, Esquire (a banking game) in November. We have a lot of other great titles in the works, like Secret Tijuana Deathmatch and Six Days for Burkonti, but there's no telling when they'll actually get done.

MP: Wow, that gives us plenty to look forward too! Thank you for taking the time out of a busy schedule to do this interview with us!

JE: No problem. Thanks for the questions, and remember: Buy more Cheapass Games!


In closing, the "Disposable Car" in the title of this interview is a reference to one of the most hilarious, entertaining games created by James Ernest that I've played--The Big Idea. The game has recently been re-released in a larger edition. You can find it here.

 



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