Q&A with Eric Reuss

This is an archive of the live Q&A with Eric Reuss hosted on the Tabletop Mentorship Program Discord channel after the release of Eric's talk, "The Lens of Tempo: Player progress and game experience." It has been edited for clarity.

Mike Belsole: Hi Eric! Thanks for doing this Q&A! To get the ball rolling, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Eric Reuss: Thanks, Mike! I'm a stay-at-home dad and board game designer, though in the past I've also worked as a software engineer. I've loved games since I was a kid, and have been coming up with game ideas of one sort or another - board, RPG, LARP, play-by-mail, computer, etc - pretty much my whole life. I left my job as a software engineer in 2010 to focus more on game design, then we had our first kid in 2012, so I had a halcyon 2 years or so of being highly focused on games, but most of my life it's been woven in and around my other pursuits. (Which are many, and games have not always been my primary focus.)

These days, a large chunk of my game design attention is focused around Spirit Island, though I try to make sure I have time for other design as well!

Kenny Michael-Otton: Hi Eric! Just wanted to say that Spirit Island is my #4 game of all time, and what I consider to be the best cooperative game ever made! I have a question related to some design choices in Spirit Island; were there other permutations you tried on the Minor/Major Power system (i.e. outside of draw 4, keep 1) before you settled on it? Why did you settle on it?

Eric Reuss: I knew from the start that I wanted gaining a power to involve flexibility/choice, because I wanted Powers to be different/divergent enough to be good or bad in different contexts - as well as elementally matching/not a particular Spirit. But the flexibility of having to choose powers that weren't necessarily optimal fit well into the "making do with what you have" feel of the gameplay. I explored a couple other options, but nothing else clicked as well.

Wit: Hi Eric, thanks for taking the time to be here. Obviously, when it comes to games, the story being told is less so by the designer and more by the players. So, how do you as a creator use theme and background information to tell the story you want to tell without making the players feel like they're on a railroad?

Eric Reuss: That's a great question, and one which could probably be a whole talk on its own. I feel like there's this balancing-act between providing enough narrative tie-togethers and thematic weight for players to give game elements narrative significance, but leaving the connections chaotic and free-form enough that it's the players projecting order/story out of chaos rather than things being on rails. Though I also have thoughts about combinatoric systems, and board game designs which work kind of like Choice Of Games IF games to accomplish something similar.

Kennedy Goodkey: I am curious about the concept of advantage - more specifically about the process of qualifying it (no doubt it changes from game to game). It's feeling kind of opaque to me. Can you did into what approaches do you use to determine it and then develop that into useful analytical endpoints?

Eric Reuss: "Advantage" is incredibly broad, and encompasses nearly anything in a game that isn't directly measured for victory. Eg: in a VP-based game, anything that is of use to a player but is not literally VP or directly worth VP at game-end is advantage. 

The fact that it's so broad is what makes it difficult to compare on a numeric level. It's easy to say "this player gained Advantage" (say, by acquiring resources in an Uwe game), but trickier to say "this much Advantage", especially if trying to comparing it to other forms of Advantage in the same game.

I go almost entirely by balance-feel - a rough "OK, does this feel really good, kinda-good, super-good?" Or perhaps do a comparison of "would I rather have X or Y?" But since you're looking at an overall shape, pinpoint precision isn't required. I might do a "0-to-10" scale, but with a keen awareness that it's super-approximate.

Tony Tran: Hey Eric, have you made any more insights into tempo in games since that talk you gave at Tabletop network? I drew a tempo chart the other day and thought of you.

Eric Reuss: Hey Tony! The pandemic kind of clobbered my available attention, so haven't thought about it super-much, except in the context of work I've been doing on Spirit Island, sadly.

I have been thinking about a different sort of tempo lately: the tempo of actual physical play (ie, of the players taking their turns), which is a completely different topic than what I talked about. Playing games via Tabletop Simulator or the like has a very different tempo in that regard, which has been an adjustment.

Kenny Michael-Otton: Another Spirit Island related question (I'm sure you never get asked about that game :P). Just so happens that some of my content has some parallels with Spirit Island.  What would you consider your 2 most successfully designed Spirits? Why? What would you consider your 2 least successfully designed Spirits? Why?

Eric Reuss: I'll need to think on that question; it's easy to knee-jerk answer based on which Spirits fell furthest away from the target point of game balance, but that's actually a very separate issue.

Kenny Michael-Otton: I'll be very curious to see your answers. Because I agree it's a very separate question to "which spirits were the farthest from the centre of the power curve"?

Eric Reuss: Thinking about it, when trying to judge 'best designed' you need to choose a type of measurement.

Eg: for first-play experience, I think Shadows Flicker Like Flame is probably the least successfully designed - it doesn't signpost as well as other Spirits, is a little under-strength, has a constrained opening that if you don't play just right further impacts its strength, etc. It's not the worst first-play Spirit, but the Medium and High-complexity Spirits weren't designed with that in mind, so I'm not judging them on that scale.

Similarly, if I use the yardstick of "diversity of play for highly experienced players", River Surges in Sunlight is one of the least-successfully designed Spirits: it's too self-encapsulated, it has such an incredibly powerful top-tier innate that it can hit with no additional Power Cards other than its starting 4, so its strongest strategy tends to be extremely constant.

Courtney Shernan: Hi Eric! Thank you so much for answering questions! In your video, you talked about how important player perception of the progress and tempo of a game is. A couple questions for you related to that topic: 

- What kind of questions do you typically ask playtesters (particularly non-designers) to gauge their perception of the progress/tempo of a game?

- With the shift to mostly online playtesting in the past year, has this impacted your ability to observe and note players' feelings over the course of a game? Do you have any suggestions for things to pay attention to during a virtual playtest that may provide insights into how players are feeling about the tempo of the game?

Eric Reuss: I might ask some questions at endgame about "when did you really feel [winner] had it in the bag?" or the like, but a lot of it is also from observation rather than interrogation? As the designer, I usually have a better handle on the actual victory progress / advantage of each player than they themselves do (assuming I have all the info they do), and if how they're behaving (either in a social-mannerisms way or a "what choices am I pursuing in game?" way) is out of whack with how well they're doing, that's something to note.

This past year I've done basically zero non-Spirit-Island playtesting of my own designs, so my ability to speak to this is limited. But yes, in those cases (and when testing others' designs) it's been a lot harder to observe. Voice chat helps some. Observing "attention" in TTS via the hand or what pieces people are fiddling with is a lot harder than IRL.

About sussing out subjective tempo considerations when you can't observe players: I think the easiest / most universally applicable way is probably just to ask, even though that may disrupt the flow of the game. It occurs to me that an advantage of online testing is the ability to communicate via voice and via text, so it might be possible to use that - eg, to shoot one player a text question while another player is taking their turn, so the querying becomes less disruptive to the experience of play.

Kennedy Goodkey: Further on Advantage... So, to confirm... a subjective 3,5 or 7 point scale from Bad to Good on a per turn/move basis (throughout a game) would match your process?

Eric Reuss: Absolutely. Though definitely consider the scale you end up choosing: "From 1 to N" makes assumptions; there might be games where "-N to N" or "from 5 to 10" or other scales more accurately reflect the game. Mathematically the two can be readily translated into each other, but they feel different to players, so the distinction is relevant.

Kennedy Goodkey: That's good clarity Eric, thanks.  Have to go set up for a playtest.  Will read the rest later. Also... will totally use this: "when did you really feel [winner] had it in the bag?"

Eric Reuss: Bye Kennedy!

Kenny Michael-Otton: How important do you find uncertainty is to a gaming experience? For example, base game Spirit Island is more akin to a puzzle (albeit a challenging one). There is only a very small level of uncertainty (which card will flip next for the invaders, what fear cards will I earn, what powers will I draw). In the expansion, events were introduced, which radically shift how the game feels in regards to certainty / uncertainty.

Eric Reuss: Uncertainty is a strong ingredient, definitely relevant. How much is "good" depends immensely on the design.

Base Spirit Island is often cited for low uncertainty, but it has a source of uncertainty that's rarely mentioned: lookahead opacity. Beginning players haven't internalized "how will things play out?" nearly as well as experienced players do, so the game has more functional uncertainty to them. So base Spirit Island becomes less and less uncertain with increasing skill, and Events are designed to add uncertainty back in for players who've gotten to the point where there's too little in the mix.

Kenny Michael-Otton: I like the term "lookahead opacity". Definitely a concept I was aware of, and it makes sense.

What do you do when a player's opinions of a game are very influenced by poor decision-making/strategising on their part? For instance, I playtested a game recently where a player made a large and reasonably obvious "unforced error" early in the game, which then had catastrophic effects on them over the remainder of the playtest (not a complete game). This naturally made them feel that the particular mechanism they made the error with was "unbalanced".

Eric Reuss: Re the sort of playtesting scenario you mention, I think there's two takeaways. One is: try really hard to do enough playtesting such that outlier events can be seen for what they are. The other is: mentally (or notes-wise) flag that error as something to keep an eye on - there might be something about the game which is making that error a more tempting path to new players than one might think. It also depends on consequences: if "catastrophic effects" means "lose badly", most players of competitive games are going to accept that as normal, but if the consequences are "don't really get to participate in the fun of the game" (eg: getting locked out of turns or meaningful decisions or participation), that's usually way worse.

Jason Brisson: Hi Eric. Thanks for answering questions today! What is your process for designing automated NPC action systems like the Spirit Island colonists?

Eric Reuss: I haven't actually designed NPC systems that often, so I don't have a defined process I deliberately follow. It's on my mind, since one or two of my early-prototypes want such a system! With Spirit Island, the key was just the same as any other design: try stuff and iterate. The first version had a thematically-derived set of 3 actions, but you dealt out a single card which gave you something Ravage-like in one terrain, something Build-like in a second, something Explore-like in a third. I noticed that this felt really incoherent from turn to turn, and also made it really hard to make any sort of plans for subsequent turns that weren't incredibly heuristic and vague. Since I wanted a feeling of inexorability and advancement for the Invaders, having them show up someplace and then not Build there for 5 turns felt kind of off, and I knew I wanted a more strategic game.

So for process I'd say "iterate", for initial starting point I'd say, think about what descriptions of the system should be true / what effects (mechanical or experiential or thematic) the system should bring into the game, and use those both to come up with a first-pass idea and to guide iterations / back-to-the-drawing-boards.

(Though "back to the drawing board" has so many levels; taken literally you chuck out the whole design, but I'm talking about more limited falling-back.)

Jake Foxford: Hi Eric, thanks for taking the time this afternoon/evening! When you're designing, do you find you start with theme or mechanics, or see the inspiration for one in the other? Do you recommend starting with one rather than the other in your experience?

Eric Reuss: Totally depends. Most of my designs happen when 2 of (a mechanic, a theme, a vision of a moment during play) collide in my head. Once I start, I ping-pong back and forth between mechanics and theme. (And how much weight I give to thematic integration will depend on the type of game. It was a lower priority in For SCIENCE! than for Spirit Island, for instance.)

But I know other designers who work differently.

There's no correct answer here, other than "don't ignore thinking about either (unless you make the conscious decision to do so)" and "ultimately, 'player experience' is more fundamental to how players will perceive your game, and that's informed by mechanics and theme and other factors".

Breeze G: Eric hello! Spirit Island is a pretty dense game in terms of rules and systems. I'm curious where your starting points were in the design? What mechanics did you get nailed down first, and then which others did you branch off into and add? Any major ideas that got cut?

Eric Reuss: Mechanically, I started off with the boards + pieces, with Power Cards (the core means by which players affect the game-state) and the Invaders (the core means by which the game affects the game-state). There were no elements or innate powers, and very early on there weren't different Spirits or Unique Powers - I just had each Spirit draw a few Minor Powers at game start to serve as their starting Powers. No Adversaries. Fear didn't exist. Events basically didn't exist.

Power Cards have a wide range of effects; those I came up with via brainstorming "what thematic ways could spirits of nature try to get rid of invaders?" and finding clusters of similar answers. (I'm hoping to do a talk / workshop on this brainstorming method some year at TTN.)

Breeze G: What's been the thing in Spirit Island that you've seen new players play incorrectly the most? also why do you think it happens? Also to save people from googling, what other stuff have you done besides Spirit Island?

Eric Reuss: Back in the day, it was "cascade Blight to all adjacent lands" instead of "to one adjacent land", but that seems to be less common now? After that, probably mushing together the Spirit Phase and the Fast Phase - "OK, I paid for this card, so I use it now" is how most games work.

For other stuff I've done: I have two other games published besides Spirit Island: Fealty through Asmadi Games (a lightly themed abstract positional) and, now For SCIENCE! through Grey Fox games (a real-time, cooperative dexterity strategy game). I've just recently gotten my professional website up at https://rericreuss.com/, you can read more about both games there.

Gustavo Tontini: Hey Eric, I gotta admit I didn't really hear about Spirit Island before today (sorry, hope is ok to ask questions too) but I saw how impressively well rated it is on BGG and stuff. Been digging about it, and got curious about the publishing process. Sorry if it was asked already and I missed it, but how long was it from development to actually launching the campaign? And did you try presenting many pitches to publishers before it or did you go straight to KS?

Eric Reuss: No worries; knowledge of Spirit Island (or liking it) isn't in the least bit required. The rough timetable of Spirit Island is not necessarily indicative of other games, but was:

I always intended to pitch to publishers - I followed Andy Looney's game design back in the day, so had a pretty good idea what self-publishing involved, and never really wanted to get into that.

Gustavo Tontini: Thanks! That's a very cool answer and seeing it in a breakdown like that is incredibly helpful to grasp the real ropes. Guess we don't need to get bummed when the game that started last year didn't take off yet. Awesome!

Eric Reuss: Yeah - for comparison, Fealty was something like 8 months from initial conception to the first printing being out, but I started For SCIENCE! before Spirit Island and it's just being printed this year.

Kenny Michael-Otton: What was the hardest part of the Kickstarter journey?

Eric Reuss: Probably writing the "focus on a Spirit" updates; those take some work. There was a period of time where it looked like the Kickstarter for the original game wasn't going to do well enough to include Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves & Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds in Branch & Claw, which I would have been sad about.

Kenny Michael-Otton: If Sharp Fangs hadn't made it, I would have been very sad indeed.

Eric Reuss: Yeah, there were a couple of playtesters who might have hunted me down.

Jason Brisson: My game group and I are huge fans of Spirit Island, and beyond the mechanics it's often my go-to recommendation due to its theme. It's great to see a game flip the colonial narratives all too common in euro games; how did you decide this theme?

Eric Reuss: I was playing some colonial euro - Goa? - and noticed that the game had completely abstracted indigenous peoples out of the "found a colony" action.

Breeze G: What are the most important/relevant/interesting things you've learned when it came to making a co-op game? It's a hard genre to make. Also I have Emily here who illustrated Mist and Starlight in the new expansion. She loves Starlight's backstory and that she got to work on such a neat spirit

Eric Reuss: Awesome! (And: Hi, Emily! Love your art!!)

I don't know if I can come up with most important/etc off the top of my head, but a few things that are definitely up there:

• Having good difficulty scaling is incredibly important. Co-ops aren't fun if they're too easy, and are rarely fun if they're too hard.

• Making sure "progress towards victory" and "game's progress towards defeating you" are sufficiently decoupled can be incredibly important. Spirit Island has a weak coupling between the two (get rid of Invaders to win, but Invaders are what cause Blight which makes you lose), and even that weak coupling - which is important for thematic reasons - can end up undercutting tension in the late-game, since destroying Invaders will push you towards enough board control to more readily avoid Blight.

• Even though balance between player positions isn't really required for a co-op, it makes players feel happier about the game in a variety of ways.

Jeff Johnston: I recall early playtesting of For Science at the Game Makers Guild. How did that game evolve for you?

Eric Reuss: It got there in the end, but the journey was super-rough. Like, 2/3 of the game worked basically perfectly in 2010: "design a structure using cards" and "build that structure using blocks". But for reasons I'm not going to get into right now, the game really wanted a third part to it, and I went through something like seven major iterations on what that third part would be, with many of those having involved sub-iterations. Time after time, I'd come up with something that I'd think would work out better, run it by the publisher (who'd be supportive and enthusiastic), then they'd test it with players and... nope. They all worked mechanically, but players didn't find them fun or interesting, especially compared to the rest of the game.

Thankfully, I finally realized the fundamental problem I was grappling with which made it so that no third system could ever work, as well as a conceptual workaround. I iterated on that and found something fun, which then tested out great.

Jeff Johnston: Glad to hear. I think we got exposed to it somewhere in the middle of all that!

Eric Reuss: The fundamental problem was that from the perspective of an interest curve, nothing was going to top "successfully building a block structure", so the third part had to either be before the Build, or completely separate from the Design-Build system. The eventual solution was the latter.

Grace Kendall: Eric, thank you so much for doing this Q&A - there's so much interesting information here for everyone to explore!

Eric Reuss: Thanks for having me! Bye, all!

Courtney Shernan: Thank you so much!!