Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Interview with Gil Hova, creator of Bad Medicine

Doug Levandowski here with Gil Hova, the man behind Formal Ferret Games and the creator of games like Battle Merchants and Prolix - and who’s now running a Kickstarter for his hysterical, inventive party game, Bad Medicine. I’ve played it, I love it, and I backed it the day it launched. Gil, can you tell us a little more about esteemed game designer Gil Hova?

Hey look everybody! It's Gil Hova!

Sure, Doug! I’ve been designing board games since about 2000, but it took me a while to figure out how to do it right. My first published game was the word game Prolix (Z-Man, 2010). Then came the economic strategy game Battle Merchants (Minion, 2014).

I’ve led a full life. I was a sound editor in film and television for five years (worked on the first two Pokemon movies!), played in an Indonesian gamelan orchestra for a month, done radio shows, interviewed heavy metal bands, recorded indie punk bands, programmed computers, and now I’m designing games.

About the ferret thing: I didn’t just pick a random animal. I’ve owned various ferrets for 20 years. They’re my favorite animals in the world.

So you’ve done basically everything then, huh? What’s the absolute worst job you’ve ever had? Or the worst part of one of your jobs?

I’ve been really spoiled and lucky when it comes to jobs. The worst I’ve had were just unpleasant or stiflingly bored. There were some low points working on the first Pokemon movie, like the time I accidentally wiped out one of my editor’s entire dialog reels, or got a tongue-lashing from an abusive editor for making a tiny technical issue, or having to work a 36-hour day because of a last-second merchandising request.

I’m very glad I worked in that business, but I’m also glad I’m out of it. I have no real special horror stories otherwise; I’ve never had to spend a day sifting through the contents of a dumpster, or worked in a 5-star restaurants with kitchen staff that did unspeakable things to the food, or tore down a house that was infested with brown recluse spiders. I’m very grateful things could’ve gotten a lot worse.

So the spider in Bad Medicine’s cover art isn’t a true story then? That’s a shame… As I said earlier, I think Bad Medicine is inventive - but howzabout if you tell us a little bit about what makes Bad Medicine different from other party games? How is it played?

In Bad Medicine, the players are all pharmaceutical companies coming up with awful drugs. Each card has three things on it: a bit of a drug name, a bit of a description, and a side effect. You’ll come up with a drug to treat a Malady by choosing three cards for their names and two cards for their description. Then you’ll have to pitch the drugs, with every player voting for their favorite pitch.

Bad Medicine's cover art

In a 3-4 player game, once you finish your pitch, every player gives you a card. You’ll choose your favorite side effect to include in your drug. Then you’ll have to say why the side effect isn’t as bad as it sounds. The player whose side effect you chose gets a point.

In a 5-8 player game, players will team up with a different teammate each round. One player will formulate a drug and pass it to their teammate, who must pitch it without peeking first!

The game strikes an interesting balance. On one hand, having three items on each card, and having so much detail in your drug, means there is a lot for you to work on. Many party games give you only a few details, and some players feel lost in space.

On the other hand, the game is not a “fill in the blank” game. There’s lots of storytelling to be done here, and people who enjoy making things up will really like it.

Yes, I played a 7 player version of the game, and it definitely struck me as very, very different from your run-of-the-mill party game. But this is also a very different game from Battle Merchants, your last game. What made you want to design a party game?

I was talking to my girlfriend’s dad, who works as a copywriter for Big Pharma. He mentioned that this would be a fun theme to do. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head!

With this theme, I thought the core engagement would be coming up with funny drugs, so I wanted the mechanisms to incentivize that kind of humor. I was considering a light tactical card game at first, but I soon realized a storytelling party game was perfect for it.

In the meantime, I wanted to start up Formal Ferret Games. There’s a big strategy game I want to release, The Networks, which would be a tricky undertaking as a first project. But Bad Medicine, as a party game that was just a bunch of cards, a rulebook, and a box, was a perfect first project. Especially because my testers have been really enjoying it!

Yes, having played The Networks a few times with you at cons, I can see why you’d want this one to be the first. Much more manageable printing costs! You recently had the game at UnPub, and since I was two booths over from you, I know you were pretty packed the entire time. What was the response to Bad Medicine like?

It’s been electric! I’ve hit some kind of nerve here; people are really responding to a funny game that takes on Big Pharma. There are a lot of backers who aren’t gamers, but who are in the industry and heard about the game through gamer friends and family. I’m really happy about that; I think those folks are going to get a big kick out of the game.

As for the gamers, I’ve already had a few tests that have ended with people demanding that I sell them my prototype right then and there. I know I’m close when that happens!

That’s phenomenal - and I can’t say I blame them. I’m eager to own my own copy. What’s the best feedback you got about the game while you were there? Anything you’ll be tweaking as a result?

It’s funny, a lot of new designers think “good feedback” means “I love this game!” But I vehemently disagree. Good feedback is more like “wait a second, something’s not right here.” You want people to break your game before it comes out. It’s much better than people breaking it after it’s too late to do anything!

Amid all the people enjoying Bad Medicine, I saw a crack in the rules for the 6- and 8-player game get played out. Players’ teams are assigned by a random deal at the start of the game, and the teams rotate clockwise. It’s possible that if the cards come out just so, then the players will always be on a team with the same player for the rest of the game. This means the game will be perpetually tied!

I was aware of this flaw, but I was curious to see how a table of live players would deal with it. Would they laugh it off? Would they house-rule it? Would they get frustrated? Answer: they got frustrated. I made a quick rules adjustment for that session, and then brainstormed ways to fix it. I’ll be testing that fix later that week, along with something that will hopefully streamline the 5-8 player game setup. 

People enjoying Bad Medicine at Dreamation

This is one of the reasons I wanted to self-publish. I’m a tweaker; I like improving my games for as long as possible. That’s tough to do with a publisher who expects the game to be at a certain level of done-ness, but as a self-publisher, I get to say when I’m done. I think this is a more natural way for me to work. Bad Medicine will certainly be a better game for it!

As a self-publisher, I 100% understand all of that. When I first started, I wanted to be told a game was good. Now, when someone tells me, “This is good,” it’s like, “NO! Tell me what’s wrong so I can fix it!!” And I absolutely understand wanting to have final say about the game, too. The only downside for me is headache and heartache of Kickstarter! This is the first Kickstarter you’ve run, so what did you do to prepare yourself for it?

I studied successful Kickstarter projects, from the wildly successful to the ones that just squeaked by. I also studied failed Kickstarter projects; and by “failed,” I mean projects that didn’t meet their funding goal, projects that got canceled because they didn’t look like they were going to fund, and projects that did fund but that either delivered significantly late or never delivered. I’ve backed over 80 projects on Kickstarter, so I had some front-row seats to the occasional bit of high drama!

I also read up on Jamey Stegmeier’s and James Mathe’s Kickstarter and self-publishing advice, and followed a few Facebook groups on the subject.

Then, I collected quotes from a few printers and crunched numbers. I have a friend who has done shipping and logistics, and she has experience in shipping board games. She helped ground me and set me on the right path in terms of printers.

Once I saw that the numbers wouldn’t put me in the poorhouse, I went ahead with the project! That meant scheduling the campaign during a bunch of conventions, setting up a lot of demos, and shooting and editing video until my eyeballs melted.

What has surprised you about this process? The learning curve on a Kickstarter can be pretty steep…

I’m not sure if this is the answer you expected, but…

Everyone warned me that this would be a huge amount of work, and they were right. It’s been 12-14 hour days, and I don’t really get weekends off, other than the occasional few hours I get to steal away to a game group or to a concert or show with my girlfriend.

But the work has been awesome. I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, and he talks about meaningful work. Work on this Kickstarter has been remarkably meaningful to me so far.

Gladwell says that meaningful work requires obvious rewards from effort, complexity, and autonomy. I missed a lot of that at my old day job, but now that I’m juggling freelance gigs with game publishing (I’m not doing games full-time yet; that takes a lot of skill, time, and luck!), I find that I get all three in abundance.

Yes, I had the same experience over the summer. Brutal hours, but such, such great interactions with people, so much enthusiasm and excitement - it was just exhausting. But, all of your hard work paid off! I got the update today saying that you funded! What’s that feeling like?

A lot of relief and fulfillment! I feel like I’ve really struck a chord with Bad Medicine’s theme. A lot of people are really responding to it.

Let’s talk about a few more general things. You’ve been in the gaming industry for a little bit. What changes have you seen over the years you’ve been involved?

Definitely the rise of the indies. I know everyone has a different definition of “indie”. I define an indie publisher as a designer who self-publishes most (over 50%) of their own work. Any less than that, and you’re chiefly a publisher (which is no less work, believe me!).

I saw RPGs go through an indie movement, where RPG fans used desktop publishing tools, a burgeoning convention scene, and the internet to distribute games with radically new mechanisms. Lots of indie RPGs emphasized storytelling over grinding and simulation, and that resonated with a lot of fans (and ruffled the feathers of quite a few traditionalists). There was also a lot of incredible discussion and analysis of the genre online that pushed the craft forward.

Then I saw video games go through an indie movement, thanks to technology like Unity (which lets developers make games for multiple platforms), Steam (which lets developers easily sell and distribute their games through the internet), and new mobile platforms like Android and iOS. Indie games have stripped-down graphics and a more artistic approach, with an emphasis on aesthetics and innovation instead of technology and violence. It also is developing a core of academia, to the point that you can now get a Bachelor’s and Master’s in game design at NYU.

For a long time, I felt that board games could never have their indie moment. The barriers to entry are just too high. Five years ago, if you wanted to make a respectable-looking game, you needed to drop five figures to print at least 3,000 copies. Then you had to deal with shipping, logistics, warehousing, taxes, and retail. So it was no wonder that there were few designers who self-published.

But things have changed. At the last Dexcon, almost all the vendor booths I saw were filled with designers who are self-publishing. What’s changed?

First: Kickstarter, of course! It’s a lot of work, and it’s not guaranteed, and you will have to spend some capital for art and such before launching. But it is possible for a person to raise the five figures they need for a print run before the game goes to print. This also comes bundled with a de facto pre-order system, where the self-publisher can now gauge demand of the game to some degree of accuracy, and with a built-in marketing platform, where backers are incentivized to tell their friends about the game so that it’s more likely to fund.

Second: Printers no longer require a run of 3,000 copies. Well, printers in the USA still do. But Chinese printers go down to 1,000 copies, and still produce very high-quality products. Sure, the per-unit cost is higher, but it’s not so high to make the whole affair impossible.

Third: Fulfillment services, like Amazon Multi-channel Fulfillment. I know someone who self-published a game 10 years ago (he claimed to be going through a mid-life crisis, and it was either a game or a sports car). He said when the truck pulled up with his games, he expected everything to come in loose boxes. Wrong! They were wrapped pallets, all ridiculously heavy, and had the truck driver not happened to have the right machinery with him, he may never have been able to unload the games to his garage.

A self-publisher no longer has to worry about this. The printer can ship the pallets straight to the fulfiller, and the self-publisher no longer has to deal with warehousing themselves. And now there are fulfillers based in Europe that can streamline the difficult, annoying realities of VAT. It’s a remarkable change.

So indie board games are a huge part of the scene now. You’re a part of it, Doug, with your awesome success with Gothic Doctor. It has a different characteristic than the RPG and video gaming scenes, though. Indie board games are more entrepreneurial. The barriers to entry are lower, but they’re still high enough that a self-publisher has a significant learning curve to master. But self-publishing board games is no longer an insane learning curve, and it’s no longer an insane risk.

Of course, the challenge for board games - and one of the ceilings that indie RPGs and especially indie video games have hit - is discovery. How do board game fans find out about all these new games? When does that discovery become work? When do they get apathetic and tune out? Is the board game industry growing too quickly? Those are all things that keep me up at night.

Well, thank you for the kind words about Gothic Doctor. Any yes, I’ve had a few conversations about the “boardgame bubble” that have just about ended with all of us breathing slowly into paper bags. But, you’re right: in the end it’s about exposure and people finding out that these great games are out there! What games are you playing right now that you absolutely love?

I love heavy Euros, so Panamax has been a real blast. So much amazing cause-and-effect, and I love the challenge of liberating money from your corporate account… as long as there’s enough!

In terms of lighter games, I think Isle of Trains is phenomenal. If you like multi-use cards, like San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, this is your kind of game. I’ve grown surprisingly fond of Camel Up, partially because I think the math behind the camel race is incredibly sound. There’s such an amazing mix of opacity and transparency there. You have a good idea who’s going to win, but you’re never 100% sure. In almost every turn. That doesn’t happen without a lot of work.

And in terms of party games, I just received But Wait, There’s More!, which is kind of a spiritual brother to Bad Medicine. It’s a different take on a similar style of game. It feels quicker and more stripped-down than Bad Medicine, and it has an opaque scoring system, whereas Bad Medicine has a transparent scoring system. Bad Medicine has more “hooks” you can use to craft your story, with three elements per card and 6-7 cards in hand (depending on number of players) so I think that’s why it feels denser and deeper than a lot of party games.

What games have you been dying to get to the table but just haven’t had the chance to yet?
I need to get Kanban out more; its learning curve is a little intimidating. I’ve played one full game, and found the endgame unforgiving. I’m curious to see if that’ll happen again.

Also, Arkwright! It’s so strange, because it’s a simple game at heart, with only three rules. But those three rules are so dense and complicated that they make the whole affair head-spinning (in a good way!). I haven’t gotten to try the full “Waterframe” rules yet, but I’ve played the shorter “Spinning Jenny” game a few times, and I’m eager for more.

I normally have a weekly gaming group at my place, but that’s been temporarily suspended because of my Kickstarter. I can’t wait to have everyone back once things settle down again!

Sounds good! And if you bring Arkwright to Dreamation, I’d love to get a game in with you! Thank you so much for talking with me! Bad Medicine from Formal Ferret Games is on Kickstarter until March 17, but if it sounds good (and it is! I’ve played it!), don’t wait. Click here and support the project right now. This is a game that I’ve played and enjoyed. I’m looking forward to playing for many years to come! Gil, thanks for sitting down at The Nerds’ Table and letting me fling questions at you during your Kickstarter campaign!

My pleasure, Doug!

Doug Levandowski is a game designer for Nine Kingdoms, which currently has a Kickstarter up for Ivan Turner's Titans of Empyrean. When Doug's not designing, interviewing, marketing, or sleeping, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on Macbeth right now, which is his favorite play to teach. You can find him on Twitter (@levzilla or @ninekingdoms) and on the web (

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