Q&A with Rob daviau

This is an archive of the live Q&A with Rob Daviau hosted on the Tabletop Mentorship Program Discord channel after the re-release of Rob's talk, "Being A Professional Game Designer." It has been edited for clarity.

Mike Belsole: Hey everyone! We've got Rob Daviau here for about an hour to answer your questions. There's no queue or anything so feel free to ask away. To get the ball rolling, Rob, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Rob Daviau: Hello! Thanks for having me. I've been a professional full-time board game designer since 1998. 14 years with Hasbro and 8 on my own. I'm a designer and a publisher. I've got about 100 games that I've seen to print - licensed and unlicensed. My wife does graphic design and production so I can sort of speak to that. So ask away!

Tanner Simmons: Hi Rob! I just watched your Gen Con talk and found it super helpful! You mentioned in your video that you and your wife work together, and that she's a graphic designer. Could you tell us a little bit more about that relationship as far as how you take on projects and how you both create a work pipeline together?

Rob Daviau: Lindsay and I met at Hasbro, where she was a graphic designer. So were co-workers before we were even friends or dating.

We're at different ends of the pipeline so we get to be "in charge" at different points. But mostly its a collaboration. She'll playtest and give thoughts but it's my call. I'll see art and have thoughts but it's really her call. We work in different rooms for the most part (and different hours). It's a little extra communication to work together as well but we've always made it work.

Tanner Simmons: Gotcha! I come from an illustration/graphic design background but have been working on designing games and making art for them together, so I haven't had as much experience in a collaborative environment like that. Thank you!

Steve Unfred: Awesome. My wife is an artist and I'm trying to get her into the industry too. My wife wants to draw exactly what I want but I'm trying to get her to trust her own judgement as I do hers. It's good to hear that the “two rooms” collaborative approach can work in a marriage.

Jason Brisson: Hi, Rob. Thanks for being here! I'm really excited for Restoration's new projects! Q: What mechanic/genre do you see as the dominant trend today, and if you could choose the next major mechanical/genre trend, what would it be?

Rob Daviau: I will admit that COVID has made it nearly impossible to stay aware of current games. So I'm a bit outdated. I'm trying to fix that. I'm also not good at trends. But let me give it a try.

I'm seeing more theme these days. Less Euro, at least on the BGG hotness. Cooperative is still a thing that tends to dominate or at least have an equal seat at the table. I think that "table presence" is what I'm focusing on right now. Looks good and you go from "oooh...that looks fun" to playing your first turn as fast as possible.

I'd like to see more innovation in packaging and components. Surprise me when I open the box. Also, I'm having more "fun" with my games these days. They don't have to take themselves so seriously.

Steve Unfred: Innovations like Colt Express and Potion Explosion? I hear ya.

Rob Daviau: Yes. Colt Express is a great example of a game that got a little more attention than it would have because it draws you in.

Steve Unfred: Yeah, it totally could have been done with a board (and might be physically easier to play, actually), but the immersion is worth the extra effort.

Jason Brisson: That really tracks with the Dark Tower design! Can't wait to get a hold of a copy.

Rob Daviau: I feel that good tabletop games put us in a place we all could get to as kids, where you are looking at blocks and toys on a table but your mind is seeing a world. Like really "seeing it".

Kirsten Lunde: I love your philosophy on the gaming experience with that childlike imagination.

Jason Brisson: I felt that way with Key to the Kingdom's flip-out-portal sections as a kid, and those moments still pop into my head now and again.

Rob Daviau: Working on our Key to the Kingdom game today. That's EXACTLY what we want.

Kirsten Lunde: You briefly noted that your published games helped as an intro to publishers when you first left Hasbro. There's a bit of a Catch 22 there for new, unpublished designers. Any thoughts on getting past that first hurdle? Is it better to start with a smaller game with lower risk? Self publish (a whole new job, of course)? Or is it sort of have a good game, persevere, build a brand, and eventually it works?

Rob Daviau: I got lucky. That path isn't really open to most. So I have to speculate as to how I would approach it now. The answer is the same no matter where you come in, which is largely hustle.

(I'm going to put aside, but not ignore, that as a married white guy I also have built in advantages that are invisible to me.)

I would start small and I would not self publish. Work with a small publisher on a small game. See the process. Learn to pitch it. Learn to work booths (in normal world) to present it. Or online. Be active around the industry without being intrusive. Listen. Have lots of ideas. Move on from ones that get consistent negative feedback. Not forever, but for now.

Chris Chung: Well said!

Rob Daviau: You will find your voice.

Think of your audience. Lots of people think "this is a great game". And it might be. But how does a great game get into the hands of people who want to play it? Does it look better? A good name? Is there an easy way to pitch it? Who is playing it? Why would they go back to it?

It's easy for designers to fall in love with the potential of design, our own or others. But other people don't always see games the same way. In fact, if you are on this Discord on a Sunday, I guarantee you don't see games the same way as most people.

Kirsten Lunde: This is so helpful! I have been feeling that playtesting with other designers is a distinctly different experience than playtesting with gamers exactly because we think of games differently. I'm looking forward to Wellycon next weekend to playtest with gamers. How do you get the most out of playtesting?

Rob Daviau: I get the most out of playtesting by shutting up, which is nearly impossible for me. But, the real way is to set expectations with yourself and your players. Tell them where the game is. Let them know if you are testing the first half and then you might stop it or if it is a final polish.

Tanner Simmons: I absolutely have this problem as well, something I'm working on for sure.

Kirsten Lunde: Ha! I relate! I've been thinking of muting myself on discord during playtests.

Rob Daviau: Let them know if you are testing rules so don't ask questions of you or if it is more a systems check so feel free to ask for clarifications.

Tanner Simmons: Given your many years of experience in the industry, I was curious if you had any specific advice for people looking to pare down their rulebooks for their games. This is something I like to ask lots of designers as everyone seems to have different takes on what takes priority. Any thoughts on this?

Rob Daviau: Rulebooks are an unsolvable puzzle. Everyone learns differently. I know that how I like to write them is not how everyone wants to read them. I know that Rodney Smith prefers a different approach than mine, for example.

But I feel that the first draft of rules really comes into focus when it is laid out, even with placeholder images. Really lets you put information onto pages or spreads. You see where you are wordy. I like to get there and then cut a lot of text that isn't needed now that the pictures are in there.

There is nothing magical about words. Cut away. Don't fit your rulebook around this sacred text. Use semaphore to get people to play if it works best.

Steve Unfred: Good point. Like, sometimes people try to make them as short as possible, but when I played Century I felt they pared the rules down TOO much (just one page) and I needed more detailed explanations and examples.

Rob Daviau: Rulebooks fight themselves. You want a clear, quick run through to learn. Then you want a highly-detailed organized manual to check an obscure rule. They can't be both.

Fantasy Flight tries to solve this with two books. I like the concept but I don't think they've quite nailed it.

Tanner Simmons: Thanks for the points on rulebooks! Glad to know I'm not the only one trying to solve this impossible challenge.

Joseph Z Chen: How do you juggle your time between design/development and publishing? Is there one aspect you enjoy more than the other?

Rob Daviau: I like design but it's something you can hit a wall on after a bit so it's nice to go and solve other problems. And it all rolls up into whether a game is good or not. So thinking through art or card architecture or pack out all are little things that add up to the game experience.

Joseph Z Chen: How do you decide when you need to hire someone as an employee as opposed to doing it yourself or contracting it out?

Rob Daviau: I have a hard time not doing it myself since I always have. But I'm learning to bring others in. I'll have a better sense in five years.

Jason Brisson: When do you know when an idea isn't worth more time investment?

Rob Daviau: That's very hard to say, because all games suck until they don't. So it's easy to have first drafts of a lot of games. It's also easy to have a white whale that you think is the perfect game and no one else can see it.

Experience, unfortunately. Put something aside. Leave a note as to where you were. Come back to it in a few weeks or months. See how excited you get. More importantly, see if any of your playtesters ask for it while it's gone or react favorably when you bring it back. You are in this for the players.

Jason Brisson: Do you currently have a white whale, and how long have you been out to sea?

Rob Daviau: My white whale is currently whether to reboot Seafall. I know I didn't do my idea justice the first time around and I could make a better game. I think I could make a very good game. But I think the well is too poisoned.

Kirsten Lunde: Do you have any guidelines on knowing when a game is ready? Or is it just instincts? For example, I'm having a rate of 3-4 great playtests with awesome feedback to 1 test with a lot of constructive criticism. Then I tinker and start again.

Rob Daviau: A game is ready when all you are doing is moving around the final bits that make some people like it more and some like it less. There is no "done". Done for me is when the deadline hits.

Kirsten Lunde: Yeah "done" was a bad word choice on my part. But that moving things back and forth resulting in some liking it more and others liking it less is exactly what the stage I'm in feels like. Not being a pro, I don't have a hard deadline. Should I just give myself one?

Rob Daviau: I like to add structure to my process so that I don't just waffle about for weeks or months. Tell yourself you have until November 8th to finish it. Then shelve it and start something new. I just gave you a deadline.

Joseph Z Chen: In your mind, what is the value of exhibiting at conventions? Direct sales? Marketing? Networking?

Rob Daviau: Convention presence means different things to different publishers at different times. It's just good to know what you want before you go there and plan for it. Do you want more people to know your company? Launch a product? Market a product that's struggling? Make money?

Joseph Z Chen: What is often the reason you attend?

Rob Daviau: I attend because they are vital business networking opportunities, to see game players to remind myself of my audience, to see what else is out there, and to catch up with industry friends.

Chris Chung: Hey Rob, kind of amazing that Buffy has come full circle with Unmatched! In regards to working with older games, if you're restoring a game where the designer has unfortunately passed, but their estate carries on with the game, how is it like working with their family members to bring that game back to life? Do they give Restoration full control?

Rob Daviau: Every game is different and Justin handles it all. He's a lawyer by trade so he's set to do it. So I can't be of much help.

Konstantinos Karagiannis: Hello Rob thank you for being with us to chat! My question is about design and development. When does the design stop and when does the development start? Should designers fully develop their games and what is the role of the publisher in this process?

Rob Daviau: I consider my job as a designer to be making the game as good as possible for as long as needed. Developers are great at pressuring your system, being another voice, and filling in a few areas that you might be weak in. The publisher is thinking of how to market it and make it profitable.

So at some point, you are reacting to other vital collaborators. There's no clear line in my head. I know some people see one.

Tony T: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Rob Daviau: I draw inspiration by thinking of an experience I want to convey. "Sailing the open seas" or "going mad while playing the game".

Konstantinos Karagiannis: I feel like I put a lot of effort thinking about components, costs and streamlining the rules in expense of making games that I would like more. Is it correct as a designer to care about these things that much?

Rob Daviau: At some point the game is going to have a cost and a box and components. Unless it's going to be a lot of generic cubes and tokens, it's best to have an opinion early. If your game needs plastic figures and the publisher does cardboard tokens, that doesn't feel good at the 11th hour.

Konstantinos Karagiannis: One last question from me. How do you know what game could sell well and one won't ? Is it just a got feeling that makes you design or publish a game over another?

Rob Daviau: It's always a guess. Sorry. At least with my own games.

Kirsten Lunde: I love Mountains of Madness. Such a major success in creating a thematic and memorable and fun gaming experience all at once. Thank you for that!

Rob Daviau: Thank you! Wrapping up here. Any other questions?

Marc Kenobi: Thank you for giving up you time for this.

Konstantinos Karagiannis: Thank Rob for your time :D

Kirsten Lunde: Thank you for being here, answering questions, and giving me a deadline. I feel like a pro now with a Rob Daviau deadline!

Tanner Simmons: Thanks so much Rob! Great to have you, and best of luck with your current projects.

Tony T: Thank you Rob, hope you're staying healthy

Rob Daviau: Thank you all! I'm good and safe and content.

Jason Brisson: I really appreciate you doing this Q&A today, and I've got one final question if you've got time: How often do you apply the 'sandwich method' of game design? Take this game I like, and this game I like, and jam them together to create something new.

Rob Daviau: I often use other games to make games but don't usually sandwich from scratch. Mostly because I'm usually too busy to think of brand new games right now.

Jason Brisson: Totally. Thanks again Rob!

Hankins Feichter: Thanks for sharing your wisdom Rob!

Steve Unfred: Your video pretty much brought up all the questions I wasn't thinking of. So I guess listening has been best this time. :) Thanks!

Rob Daviau: Thanks!