The Fun and Beauty of Game Design
An interview with Kory Heath
Regular customers who read my interviews and newsletter
articles know that I participate in an annual game designers
convention called Protospiel. The gathering was first started in
2001 by Stephen Glenn (designer of Balloon Cup). Last year, two
days before setting off to Protospiel 2003, I was browsing some
websites and I came across the design notes for a game called
Zendo. Kory Heath, the game's designer, had recorded his
experiences from the earliest concepts of the game to its final
published version. Rather than skimming his extremely detailed
notes, I found myself reading every word, fascinated at how
seriously he took the process of game design. To him, it was a
journey of discovery. He spoke of the process with an
appreciation that I've felt myself, but that I rarely find in
other designers. I immediately wanted to talk to Kory, if not in
person, at least by email. I wrote him right away and, thinking
the 2003 event was too short of notice, asked if he'd consider
coming to Protospiel in 2004. Almost immediately I received a
reply. It turns out he was online, planning out his trip to the
event two days away!
So, I met Kory a couple days later in East Lansing, MI and we
spent much of the next four days discussing our games and the art
of game design. As I suspected from reading the information at
his website, he's a very talented artist. I enjoyed all of his
games that I had a chance to play. His suggestions and philosophy
have had a clear impact on my own designs. Besides the influence
Kory has had on me, I'm convinced we'll see many more great new
games from him in the years ahead. I'm glad to be able to offer a
few insights into his thoughts and style at this early point in
Mike Petty: Kory, I'm glad we've got this
chance to do an interview. Could you start off by telling us a
little about yourself?
Kory Heath: I'm a 33-year old ex-computer
programmer from San Jose, CA. I taught myself how to program
computers when I was in elementary school and I was lured into
the Silicon Valley working world before I had a chance to finish
college. In late 1999 I quit my job, moved to Maryland, and am
now living the life of a starving game designer. You can only
pull this off if you've saved up a lot of money beforehand. Trust
MP: And how long have you been designing
KH: It's been about five years now. In early
1999 I started working on my first real design - an Icehouse game
called Pantopia. (I haven't finished that one, and I probably
never will.) About a year later, I moved to Maryland and embarked
on a crazy spree of Icehouse game design, along with John Cooper,
Jacob Davenport, and Kristin Matherly. This continued until the
publication of Looney Labs' book "Playing With Pyramids"
in early 2002. After a period of burnout, I changed my focus to
designing German-style games, and that's what I've been doing
Like most game designers, I really got started when I was just
a kid. I remember I had a deck of "monster cards" that
I cut out of a book, and I invented all sorts of games to play
with them. I also remember using hundreds of playing cards to
create free-form, abstract adventure games. (I wasn't allowed to
play "satanic" games like D&D, so I had to invent
my own!) I would create castles, mazes, dungeons, treasure-chests,
and monsters out of face-down cards, and I had all sorts of rules
about how to travel around, how to collect keys for the different
castles and treasure-chests, how to collect weapons and armor for
the different monsters, and so on. I played these games by
myself, but I imagined that they could be played with multiple
players as well.
When I got older, the lure of computers and computer games
snared me, and I drifted away from board games. However, sometime
during high-school I discovered Sid Sackson's book "A Gamut
of Games", which planted the notion that grown-ups could
design games, too. However, that seed lay dormant until the late
90s, when I finally discovered the world of German games.
MP: When you're not working on your own
designs, what are some games you most enjoy playing?
KH: My favorite three-plus player games are
Knizia's Ra and Kramer's Daytona 500. They're both filled with
agonizing decisions, and have a superb mix of chance and skill.
My favorite two-player game is Knizia's Lord of the Rings: the
Confrontation. It's a bit rules heavy for my taste, but the
gameplay is extremely compelling. More than most other strategy
games, it creates a strong sense of unfolding narrative - each
game is like a little story. I'm amazed by how well Knizia
managed to balance the unequal forces.
I enjoy many of the lighter Knizias - Kingdoms, Quandary, Lost
Cities, Schotten-Totten, Tutankhamen, Royal Turf. These games all
exhibit a mathematical elegance, coupled with a dose of chance
which keeps them from being too dry. Some of Leo Colovini's
designs, like Cartegena and Carolus Magnus, also come to mind in
Two of my favorite card games are Mamma Mia and Klunker, both
by Uwe Rosenberg. These designs are extremely clever and highly
underrated. I've probably played more games of Klunker than of
any other game in existence.
Some games are favorites only after modification. I love
Kramer's Expedition, but I think the official rules are
completely broken, so I play with a much-altered ruleset.
Knizia's Modern Art is terrific, but I think those double auction
cards really screw up the balance. I've spent many enjoyable
hours playing Carcassonne, but there are lots of little things
about the ruleset that bug me.
Werewolf is one of the best games ever designed, although I
find it so intense that I usually can't handle playing it.
My favorite party game is Dictionary (a.k.a. Balderdash). My
favorite traditional game is Backgammon.
MP: Before I knew anything about your games,
I heard you speak at a session at Origins about simplicity in
game design. You were on a panel with several other folks from
Looney Labs. What is your relationship with them?
KH: My business relationship with them is a
standard designer/publisher relationship. They've licensed the
right to publish a boxed set of Zendo, and they've licensed the
right to publish the rules to a few of my games in Playing With
Pyramids. However, it's not all business; I'm also good friends
with them. In fact, I moved all the way across the country just
to hang out with them and their game-designing cohorts! Almost
every week I go to their house (called "Wunderland" by
the insiders) to hang out and play games. The people who help me
playtest my new designs nowadays-John Cooper, Jacob Davenport,
Kristin Matherly, Dave Chalker, Liam Bryan-are all people I met
through the Looneys.
MP: What's your main motivation behind your
KH: I have two motivations: to create
something fun and to create something beautiful.
Fun: When I sit down to write ideas into my game journal, I
always start by asking myself, "What game do I really want
to play right now, but can't, because it doesn't exist yet?"
My goal is to envision and then create a game that I myself would
love to play. Zendo was like this. I was itching to play an
inductive logic game using configurations of small colored
objects. No such game existed, so I had to invent one.
Beautiful: When I'm designing a game, I'm not just trying to
create a fun set of rules. I'm trying to create a finely balanced
mathematical sculpture, a glittering, perfect gem. I take great
pleasure in contemplating the elegance and colorfulness of games
like Royal Turf, Cartegena, and Daytona 500. I want to create
games that exhibit this kind of beauty.
MP: You mentioned Zendo a moment ago, and I
imagine that's where most gamers will recognize your name from. I
know you have detailed design notes for that game at your
website, but could you tell us a little about how you got started
with that game?
KH: I got started with Zendo way back in high
school, but I didn't know it until much later. Someone showed me
a little game where you repeatedly set up configurations of five
pencils, and have to guess what number, from 0-5, each
configuration represents. That "game" turned out to be
a kind of trick, but it left me wondering how it might work if it
wasn't a trick. Later, I read about Eleusis in one of Martin
Gardner's books. I was fascinated, but also somehow unsatisfied;
I wanted something less mathematical and more visceral -
something more like the Five Pencils game. Later, I read about
Bongard Problems in Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach,
and thought, "that's more like it". Much, much later, I
discovered the Icehouse pieces, and realized that they were
perfect for the game I'd been imaging all those years.
MP: Zendo was, in my opinion, one of the most
original games released in 2003 and I love the attention it gets
when I'm playing it with a group of people. It can be quite a
heavy thinking game, but almost everyone who plays it really
KH: Thanks! I've found that it goes over
surprisingly well with non-gamers, if you stick to simple rules.
MP: Do you remember a particularly great rule
you or someone else used in a game of Zendo?
KH: One of my favorite Zendo experiences
happened at Origins 2002. Jacob Davenport was the Master, and we
were using Mike Sugarbaker's giant foam Icehouse pieces. Because
the pieces really grip each other, we had a bunch of koans set up
in bizarre, gravity-defying configurations that you could never
set up with the ordinary plastic pieces. We were having trouble
solving the rule, and at some point Kristin Matherly came by and
said, "I can't focus on these giant pieces - I'm going to
set this up with the plastic pieces." After a minute, she
said, "Hey, some of these koans don't work with the plastic
pieces. In fact, none of the white koans do, but all of the black
ones do." There was a moment of stunned silence, and then we
all burst out laughing. That was the answer, of course!
MP: What was the most difficult rule you've
seen a master use?
KH: There are too many to list! It's really
easy to come up with absurdly difficult rules, and they're
usually not fun to play. Perhaps the craziest one I've ever heard
of is: "A koan has the Buddha nature if and only if the koan
consists of a single stack of four pieces representing a Bridge
trick which is won by the third card. The top piece represents
the lead card, the second piece down represents the second card,
etc. Red is trump."
MP: That sounds like a good way to burn about
three hours of gaming time! As much as I enjoy the game, I find
the most basic rules give me a more than sufficient mental
workout! We keep it pretty simple when we play.
You and I met last year at Protospiel and I enjoyed our
discussions about the art of game design. Even your answers here
remind me how seriously you take it. What's your favorite part of
the design process?
KH: That's a tough one, because I love just
about every part of it! I love jotting down the initial ideas in
my journal, mulling them over, working up initial rulesets,
making prototypes, playtesting for months, writing up the rules -
I love it all. I guess if I had to pick a favorite thing about
game design, it would be the thrill that I get when I come up
with a beautiful, elegant solution to a knotty design problem.
It's especially fascinating to explore the unexpected emergent
effects that these fixes always seem to generate. This kind of
thing makes game design feel more like exploration and discovery
MP: What part do you like the least?
KH: The thing I like least about game design
is having to wait around for the next opportunity to playtest. I
almost always come away from a playtesting session bubbling with
ideas, and usually within 24 hours I know exactly what I want to
try next and have made any necessary changes to the prototype.
Unfortunately, I often have to wait days or even weeks before I
get another opportunity to playtest that game. Compared to some
designers, I'm actually extremely fortunate in this regard - I
have two regular game nights a week, and I have terrific friends
who are always willing to playtest my stuff. Nevertheless, the
list of new things to try is always growing faster than the time
I have available. In an ideal world, I would playtest six or
seven nights a week - as I understand Knizia does.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I'm such a big fan
of Protospiel. We designers are always desperate for more
playtesting, so the idea of an entire weekend devoted to it is
MP: Yes, and the fact that most those doing
the playtesting are also designers makes it even better!
I played a few of your designs at Protospiel last year. One of
them is now being published and will be in stores shortly. While
Zendo is a pretty serious game, this new game is quite different.
Can you tell us about that one?
KH: Sure! It's called "Why Did the
Chicken...?", and it's a party game - something I never
expected to design! It's being published by a new company called
Play Again Games, and it should be available by the time this
interview hits the web.
The game is all about coming up with funny answers to randomly
generated riddles. Each round, the current "judge"
turns up a question card and two noun cards, resulting in a
riddle like "What did a traffic light say to an ant?",
or "What's the difference between a jack-o-lantern and a
plumber?" The rest of the players write down as many answers
as they can in two minutes. Then someone reads all the answers,
and the judge awards points to his or her two favorites. Play
until exhausted... from laughing! (See, I'm working on my sales
I love games which allow players to be truly creative, which
is why Balderdash is my favorite party game. However, in each new
round of Balderdash, I find that the first answer I come up with
is a funny one, not a serious one. I'm always tempted to write
down the funny one and go for the laugh, but this is a sure way
to lose the game. There's a direct conflict between being funny
and playing to win. So my goal with "Why Did the Chicken...?"
was to create a game in which being funny and playing to win are
the exact same thing.
MP: You know I've been particularly
interested in the development of this game ever since we started
talking about the core concept last year. I can't wait to try the
KH: Thanks! I should point out to our readers
that you were instrumental in the early design of this game. I
came to Protospiel with an idea about finding analogies between
random nouns and you came to Protospiel with an idea about
inserting player's names into funny questions. Eventually this
evolved into the idea of answering riddles formed from the
juxtaposition of random nouns and you helped a lot with the early
playtesting and brainstorming. Thanks so much for helping me with
MP: It certainly was my pleasure. Playtesting
the game has always been a hilarious experience. I still crack up
with I remember that first playtest at Protospiel when we had the
question "What's the most boring title for a movie?".
Dave Chalker's response: "Film: The Movie". I felt it
was one of the best games we played last summer and I'm glad it's
What's the best question and answer you can remember from one
of your sessions with the final version of the game?
KH: I don't know that these are really "the
best", but here are a few random ones that came to mind:
Q: What happened when a lawyer went on a blind date with a
A: "You looked better in your picture," said the cow.
Q: What do a marshmallow and an artichoke have in common?
A: They both have these really cool mascot characters.
Marshmallows have the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and artichokes
have, like, Chokey the Green Chokey Guy.
MP: Ah, yes, that sounds like the game in all
its glory! I love how it takes on a certain character depending
on the group you're playing with.
KH: I should point out that Why Did the
Chicken is one of the first in what will hopefully become a long
list of published games which have seen their inception at
MP: I can think of four games offhand that
I've seen playtested at Protospiel that are published or being
published. While I don't think there's anything magical about the
event itself, I believe the attendees take game design very
seriously. The information, encouragement and contacts found
there are invaluable to designers at all levels.
While we're on the subject, Protospiel 2004 will be in East
Lansing, Michigan again this summer. In fact, you're scheduled to
do a couple seminars this year. Assuming some people reading this
might be interested in attending, what are you planning on
KH: I've been mulling over some theoretical
ideas about the relationship between theme and mechanics in
boardgames, so I'll definitely be talking about that. That should
be fun, since there's likely to be some disagreement - and maybe
even a good old-fashioned brawl!
I'm also planning to give a talk outlining some of the most
common game design problems I've encountered like kingmaker,
petty diplomacy, etc., and some thoughts about how to go about
MP: I'm looking forward to sitting in those
sessions and talking with you again in June. Thanks for taking
the time to do this interview.
KH: It's been a pleasure! Looking forward to
seeing you at Protospiel.
Did the Chicken...? are available at Fair Play Games.
If you're interested in more information about Protospiel 2004,
you can find details as they become available at the Protospiel