Interview with designer Ryan Cowler (JurassAttack & SuperPLEX) on his newest game to hit Kickstarter from Green Couch Games, OutLawed!. In OutLawed! (which is a bluffing 2-4 player card game), players are bounty hunters trying to catch the most bandits.
Ryan, it wasn’t too long ago we talked about SuperPLEX from Button Shy Games and here you are with your SECOND Green Couch Title, OutLawed!. Not only that but you did win the Gen Con Game Design Challenge this year. What is the secret to your success?
Ryan: I don’t think I have any secrets, I just happen to be on a lucky streak I guess, haha! Right place right time and I just try to do my best.
Ryan: Sure! OutLawed! is a social bluffing game where you’re all trying to “score” cards by bluffing, double-bluffing, TRIPLE-bluffing, reading your rivals, and sometimes just plain ol’ telling the truth. It’s a dusting of Love Letter, a smidge of Brave Rats, mixed with a different kind of “bluffing engine.”
I have to admit to any readers, that I’ve been there from the birth of OutLawed! back in 2014. I even remember when you and I were trying to figure out the animals in the game as well as the outlaw names. However, for everyone else what is the story behind the game’s creation?
Ryan: Yeah, it’s been a crazy road! OutLawed! started out from a really simple idea: a game where players try to score cards by convincing each other to play all the same cards, all while trying to play DIFFERENT cards themselves. From that I set out to make the prototype and during that process I started messing around with the notion of making a little “ecosystem” bluffing between the cards that I felt I hadn’t seen in any other games currently, and that quickly grew to be pretty much the base of what the game is today. After the foundation was there with the cards, my first theme for the game was actually a ghost-summoning theme. My initial thought was that the players were each a different psychic TV personality brought together in a haunted mansion for an annual contest to see who could summon the most of the 10 unique ghosts that haunt the manor. After bouncing that theme around for a little while and chatting with you about it, you suggested that theme wasn’t family friendly enough and didn’t feel right, to which I agreed. You then said what if they were bounty hunters in the old west trying to catch different crooks, and that struck a chord with me, and then I brought up about what if they were animal outlaws, to make the same a little more family friendly, and then everything just clicked!
Why did you choose to do animals for the western theme, and why choose things like giraffe, tigers and lions?
Ryan: The animals just made sense given the theme and trying to make it more family friendly and different. But WHICH animals to choose was a very intentional process, because I didn’t want the game to seem to Rango-ish (an animated movie set in a western theme, where all the characters were small animals), so I tried to choose larger animals that were very evocative of an attitude. Stretch Tannen (the giraffe) was the first idea I had because I had this vision of a wanted poster where his neck just extended off the page so you never saw his face and I knew I HAD to do that. I also chose early on to try and avoid just making all the animals puns on famous historical outlaws or Wild West personalities, such as a goat named Billy the Kid, or a frog named Annie Croakley, because as fun as it was to come up with those names, it just took me completely out of the “universe” of the game. Later I made ONE exception to that, which was Croc Holliday, just because it was a personality added later on and it was just one character- and that Val Kilmer in Tombstone-esque goatee and mustache combo on him just cracks me up!
The game hasn’t changed too much since its infant stage. However with the Green Couch Games signing a new character as been introduced to the game– the lawman, Croc Holiday. What does he do and what does he bring to the gameplay that wasn’t there originally?
Ryan: I had the idea for an 11th card in my back pocket from way-back for the game, but at the time didn’t see a need for it as all the cards reacted very well with one another and at the time I just didn’t have any good way to introduce a pother card without throwing the balance of the gameplay out of whack. When Jason picked the game up and we started hammering out some details on it, he asked if we could add another card, possibly as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter. I told him I did have another character in the chamber, so to speak, but that I needed to find a good way to integrate him. That integration came during the last UnPub in Baltimore this year when, after a play test, Matt Loomis made the comment that it would be great to have more incentive to tell the truth in the game. I had toyed around with Croc being someone that would “bust” all the players that lied that round, and Matt’s feedback was the last little kick I needed to flesh him out and integrate him- and it worked pretty well. I decided to make Croc a Lawman and not an outlaw because it was just too thematic to how he interacted with everything in the game. Croc doesn’t have a reward value (VPs, basically), because he’s a Lawman, and he makes it so that any players that lied that round can’t apprehend their card- so he adds some great moments in the game. He definitely works as a way to get players to play more truthfully if his name is called, I’ll tell you that much!
Another thing Green Couch added to the game is the Beginner’s Game Variant – what is it and exactly why did you guys feel it was important to gameplay experience?
Ryan: The Beginner Variant to the game was Jason’s suggestion, and it’s one of the best things we could have done. From the beginning, the biggest hurdle I had with OutLawed! is that there was a pretty big learning curve for the first 2 games or so. So while players had fun playing it, it took a little while before everything “clicked” and they saw how all the pieces fit together. The Beginner Variant really makes things easier to process because you take out some of the harder cards to apprehend and also lessen the amount of info that a new player has to learn. This way after playing one Beginner’s game, players get that little taste and want more, and now that they understand the fundamentals of the game, they get all these NEW outlaws to play around with- it’s a really great way to be eased in to a game that would otherwise seem kind of overwhelming upfront.
What makes OutLawed! different in your mind to all the other games bluffing games out there?
Ryan: It’s “co-petitive” bluffing, and I’m not sure if another game does that yet. Most bluffing mechanics are pretty much one sided, and other players can only defend against a possible bluff. But in OutLawed!, every player can turn another player’s bluff into a scoring opportunity for themselves, if they’re creative enough. Because of this ecosystem of bluffing, the game really adapts well to the play group overtime and you start learning your friends’ strategies and try to counter-bluff them, but then by that time your friends know that you’re onto them so they try to tell the truth or double-bluff you! It’s a really great experience because, much like party games, the replay value of OutLawed! comes from the creativity of your group, not just the cards themselves.
You are the first designer to have a second game picked up and Kickstarted from Green Couch Games. How does that feel and what has it been like to work with them again?
Ryan: It feels pretty neat, although I didn’t intend it! Green Couch picking up OutLawed! just kinda happened by chance at GenCon last year. It was at or near the end of the JurassAttack! campaign, so I flew out to GenCon for pretty much one day only, and during that afternoon I asked Jason Kotarski and a couple other players to play test OutLawed! and give me some feedback. We played it and it was received well, everyone had a good time with it and we just kinda left it at that. Later on, while Jason and I were walking to the Iron Design Challenge (put on by Jason Slingerland and Rob Couch from the Building the Game Podcast), Jason looked over and said, “I kinda can’t stop thinking about that game…. I think I want it!” And so here we are, a little over a year later, and Jason and I put a lot more love into it and made it better! It’s always a wonderful to work with Jason, I feel like we work really well together as a team and I love Jason’s intuition on design and theme- I’ve learned to trust his gut feelings, because they’re typically right! I also believe in his product brand and his dedication to it, Green Couch Games have a definite flavor that players know to expect, and it’s great how he cultivates it. It also helps that we can talk about pro wrestling in total sincerity 🙂
How does the 2-player game differ in rules or overall feel compared to 4-player game?
Ryan: A 2-player game is much more cut-throat than a 3+ player game. In a 2-player game you don’t play with 2 outlaws, and the exclusion of those two really change the tone, it’s interesting. Actually, one of the cool things I’ve noticed over the course of playing the game is that a 2-player game feels and plays very different than a 3-player game, and the 4-player game feels and plays much different than a 3-player game. The strategies and interactions change every time you add or subtract a player….totally unintentional, but I’m happy that it has that kind of effect!
The gameplay hasn’t changed that much since it’s infancy, what would you say is the biggest change from OutLawed!’s early days compared to now?
Ryan: I’d say the biggest change to the game from a design level was when Jason suggested to change how the game ends/is scored. Originally, players had ONE chance to apprehend an outlaw because if you failed to apprehend an outlaw you played, you discarded it for the game and you kept playing until all players played all their outlaws and whomever had the most apprehended outlaws won. Jason’s suggestion was to have failed outlaws go back into a player’s hand and give them another chance at possibly getting them later on, and suggested that the endgame be triggered when a player apprehended X amount of outlaws. We then chose to add on the reward values to give a bit more suspense at endgame so that the player who triggered the endgame wasn’t necessarily the player who will win. That changed the flow of the game a lot and I think made it more fun in the long run, and really showed me how a small shift can really change the tone for the better for some players! I still like the one chance per outlaw way, but I just play that as a house rule from time to time, because I really dig the whole “do or die” element to the bluffing, but the way the game plays currently is totally the “right” way to go!
What was your favorite part of designing OutLawed!?
Ryan: Easy- watching that smile creep onto players’ faces when the game “clicks” to them and they realize how much fun they can have with the game. It’s like watching someone open the gates to an amusement park or something, you just see all these possibilities that you didn’t see a few seconds before. One thing I think games should do more of is illicit smiles and laughs. Usually you just get a laugh or two during a “take that” moment or at the very end of a game, but with OutLawed! I’ve been elated to see lots of laughs and smiles and fun being had at all points of gameplay. Each round brings more opportunities for mischief or triumph, and it translates really well. A GREAT side effect of this is that players are bummed if they don’t win in OutLawed!, because it’s a game where the journey is truly the star of the game, not the destination.
What was the most challenging part of designing it?
Ryan: Adding in the reward values. One of the main changes to the game since my first prototype (then called Help!! Wanted) was that in the beginning players won just by apprehending the most outlaws after 10 rounds, so there was no need for reward values. When we made the change to add rewards, we then had to figure out how to monetize the outlaws based on how hard or easy they were to apprehend (score). This proved pretty hard, haha. We’ve had to tweak the reward values several times (and might still tweak things some) because it’s not always straightforward- some outlaws are easy to catch in 2-player, but get harder the more players there are, so we had to adjust stuff up and down accordingly for that, and it’s quite the process to figure out a sweet spot that will work no matter the player count.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed OutLawed!?
Ryan: That I was able to create a bluffing game that really brings players together rather than divide them, and that I’ve yet to see a single game played without at least one smile or laugh. That’s pretty darn cool.
If you had to describe Outlawed! in 3 adjectives, what would you choose?
Ryan: Mischievous, Joyful, Clever
So this year you had JurassAttack and SuperPLEX come out and we’ve just finish talking OutLawed!. What is next for Ryan Cowler when it comes to game design?
Ryan: I have a handful of stuff rattling around in my head, but I’m definitely taking a little bit of a breather at the moment. I’ll hopefully have a game coming this year as a part of Button Shy’s postcard game line, so be on the look out for that! Chris Handy will also be starting to get to work on Pack O Game series 3 in the near future, so I assume I’m going to be having a blast helping test stuff for that and see what new great stuff he has in store for series 3!
As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?
Ryan: I would just like to thank everybody for the support over the past year with JurassAttack!, SuperPLEX, and hopefully with OutLawed!. And definitely a BIG thank you to YOU, Ryan, for all your help with the ups and downs of OutLawed! specifically! You were there at the beginning of the idea that slung forth from my head, and you’re here to see it all come to fruition- how cool is that?!
Very cool! I still think my most valuable contribution to OutLawed! was the naming of Bandito Pandito. Haha. Well that’s it, the perfect place to wrap this up. Thanks Ryan for taking time out to do this interview.