Climbing The Ladder To The Best Treehouse Before The Earth Explodes – A Conversation With…Jason Kotarski

Tom: Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games is my guest this time on Go Forth And Game. It’s a fun interview. I hope you enjoy it.

Hi Jason. It’s great to have you back as my guest on Go Forth And Game. First off, introduce yourself in case someone just got back from Jupiter. What’s your gamer cred?

Jason: Ha! Gamer cred. That sounds way less tough than street cred. But I’ll try. I am the owner of Green Couch Games. We have a line of small box games that are created with the goal of bridging the gap between casual/family gamers looking for an experience to share with their people and more serious gamers who are looking for meaningful games to play with their families and the more casual gamers in their lives.

Let’s talk about your games. You’re a designer as well as a publisher. How about list out your own designs then those you are publisher for.

Yes, game design is where I started. As a designer, I did The Great Heartland Hauling Co., Dead Drop, Kite Fight, FrogFlip with my daughter, Fidelitas and the upcoming Dark Crystal: The Great Conjunction Card Game with Philip duBarry. I have a few other games in the works but nothing official yet.

With Green Couch Games, I have had the chance to work with a lot of awesome designers and illustrators so make Fidelitas, Best Treehouse Ever, JurassAttack!, Avalanche at Yeti Mountain, Wok on Fire, Rocky Road a la Mode, OutLawed!, Ladder 29, and one that’s currently on Kickstarter called, Before The Earth Explodes.

I totally forgot about Dark Crystal. I did some early playtesting for it and it is great! I’m looking forward to that one.

Which do you like to wear more- publisher hat or designer hat?

They are different animals for sure. I really enjoy them both but I certainly spend a lot more time publishing these days. Since publishing has become my work, design has become more of a hobby that I fit in around other stuff when I feel inspired. I do get to scratch the design itch pretty regularly as I’m working on development for the games I’m publishing. So that’s nice.

I love every Green Couch Game I’ve bought. I think we are only missing 2. GCG and Dice Hate Me Games are my family’s favorite publishers. My kids choose GCG over pretty much every other publisher. They are perfect games to introduce to new gamers too. How do you find games with that kind of appeal?

Well, first, let me say I’m super honored! I am so glad to hear that what we do connects with your family. I think the key to finding a game that fits into Green Couch is just that I want to make the kind of games I like to play. And I am a family gamer and I tend to enjoy the people around the table as much as the game mechanisms. I want people to be able to get into the game easy enough that they can also easily get into the social experience that gaming affords as well. I want people to walk away remembering an engaging game and a cool experiences with people. So when I sit down to play prototypes that’s the kind of stuff I keep in mind.

Ok, let’s talk briefly about The Great Heartland Hauling Company.  That was your first published game right?

It was my first game. It was my first published game and the first game I ever designed. It’s a pick up and deliver card game about trucking I tried to capture a board games experience in a small package. It’s currently on the third printing so I guess people are still finding it and enjoying it. I’m very proud of that game and loved getting to work with Dice Hate Me as my first experience in the gaming industry. Chris is good people.

He sure is. I have an interview in the works with him. Then there is Fidelitas. Tell us about it.

Yes, this was the first one I published with Green Couch and my first co-design. I had an idea, it was a kid’s game initially and I messaged Philip duBarry on Twitter and asked him what he thought and he offered to work on it with me to make it a game for grown ups and works to create a bigger experience. The idea of the game is that you are trying to gain the most influence over the citizens of a medieval village by using characters cards to move other characters around to different locations to meet hidden objectives that are based on the game state.

And it’s pretty fun. Lastly Dead Drop. What’s it like?

Dead Drop is my microgame. It’s 13 numbered cards. One is placed facedown as the “Dead Drop” and the goal is to be the first person to figure out what that card is and then get the right combination of two cards that add up to the hidden card to be able to grab it. You gain information with actions that involve swapping cards.

How did you decide on this theme?

The idea from this game come from binge watching the show Alias with my wife. I just thought the idea of leaving really important information laying around for some unknown person to pick up was intriguing. So I started with that idea that spies were competing to grab the information first but they didn’t know what the information was so they had to do spy stuff first to be able to get it.

What was the hardest part of designing it?

Really the hardest part for that one was trusting my instincts and math.

Theme or mechanics first?

More often, I’m a theme first guy but that’s not always the case. I just follow the inspiration from wherever it comes. But it does seem a bit easier to keep going when I have a story to guide my decisions.

What is the hardest part of designing a game for you?

These days, it’s just finding the time.

How quickly do you prototype?

I like to get a prototype made as soon as possible. I want to know if there is anything worth pursuing as soon as possible. And I’m also a pretty hands on guys. I like to be able to hold cards and move around pieces to make stuff work. Sometimes I like to create the constraints of a set components and then just hammer on it until it’s a game,

When do you know a game is done?

I think this comes down to the experience the people are having at the table and if the game feels tight regarding balance. Asking questions like “is everyone having fun?” or “is one strategy running away with the game every time?” are super helpful.

Playtesting seems to be a mixed bag.  While absolutely necessary, it can be slow and difficult. What is your playtesting nightmare?  Do you have a regular group that you playtest with?

Playtesting can be a heart-wrenching thing. If I’ve put in a ton of work and the game falls flat with everyone who plays it that’s a bummer but it’s better to know in the playtesting stage than after the production stage.

I have a very cool group of designers that I play with regularly now that I’ve moved to Grand Rapids. The West Michigan Table Top Design Group. Smart people who play a lot of stuff.

What game is inside you trying to get out?

I haven’t thought about that question in a while. Probably something about music, riding bikes, or a cards-with-numbers kinda game.

What game got out but should have stayed in?

Better out than in, I’d say. A game might not make it very far in the design process but it’s better to go for it and fail, I think. At least you tried and maybe something leftover from a bad idea can be used to help with a good idea!

Is there a mechanic that you really want to use but just can’t get it to work?

I think a worker placement with dice kinda thing would be cool. I tried something like that once but it didn’t work so it’s in the back of my head still.

How do you find the games you publish?

The more time I’ve spent at conventions, I’ve gotten to know a lot of really cool designers. So most of the time, I find games just sitting down with people I know. I also go to Unpub every year to keep my eyes open for the next great filler.

What does you look for in a game for Green Couch?

Having a clear idea of what Green Couch Games is has really helped me to stay focused on the kinds of games I want to do. Games that have an appealing, fun theme, play under an hour, and are easy to teach while still providing meaningful decisions are big keys for me. Having a specific small box size I use helps, too. I am always asking “will this fit in my box?”. But the box size thing is opening up a bit because we’ll be doing some games in a bigger box in the future.

What advice would you give a new designer or someone submitting to GCG?

Be clear. Be brief. Be professional. Listen. And don’t take it personal if a publisher passes. You never know what the workload or personal situation might look like for that person or company.

Let’s talk about some Green Couch Games. As mentioned above, there’s JurassAttack, Outlawed!, Avalanche on Yeti Mountain, The Best Treehouse Ever, Wok on Fire, Ladder 29, Rocky Road A La Mode and Before The Earth Explodes, which just finished a successful KS campaign. Give a brief description of each.

Ok, here goes!

JurassAttack! Is a 2 player dino-battle game where players use clever card play and bluffing to take down more of your opponent’s dinos.

OutLawed! is a bluffing game where players are trying to fill the vacancy of deputy of Bandit’s Bluff by apprehending the most outlaws by lying, telling the truth, and reading the other players to know when it’s best to be honest or lie. It’s such a cool game in the “lying/bluffing” genre.

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain is a race game where players are engineering students that have invented rocket powered skis and decide to test them out on Yeti Mountain. There is some blind-bidding and press-your-luck involved in racing to the bottom of the mountain all while trying to avoid a yeti and an avalanche that’s gaining momentum behind you!

Wok on Fire is a dexterity and set collection game where players are trying to become the master of sir-fry by completing the most valuable combinations.

Rocky Road a la Mode is a game of managing time and resources to become the best ice cream truck driver in the neighborhood by earning the most loyalty points. It mixes a time track mechanism with a bit of engine building and set collection.

Ladder 29 is a new one that is a twist on classic trick-taking and climbing card games. It’s a new classic you can play with your whole family.

All of these have been very well received. Let’s talk about Before The Earth Explodes. Who is the designer on that?

Before The Earth Explodes was designed by Adrian Adamescu and Daryl Andrews, the guys behind the game Sagrada.

Artist?

The illustration and graphic design was done by Davy Waganarok. He did an outstanding job bringing the game to life with his passion for retro sci-fi.

What about it appealed to you?

When I first played it, it grabbed me as a game with simple rules that had a considerable amount of depth in it. I really wanted to do another game that was aimed more at gamers who love fillers rather than gaming families. Not that family gamers won’t enjoy it, just that it leans a little more towards hobby gamers.

It’s a two player game. Did that constraint concern you?

I personally love a great two-player games. I really try to focus on making games I love and this one fit that bill so I figured there has to be others like me who like solid, quick, two player games as well.

Ladder 29 is delivering soon. Can you talk some about it?

Ladder 29 is a pretty special game. It’s designed by Ben Pinchback and Mat Riddle and has killer art by Andy Jewett. It’s a climbing game where your goal is to get rid of your hand of cards. But the twist is that every player drafts their own “Hot Spot” card that is a hindrance that only applies to them for that round and also determines how many points they get depending on the order you go out. It’s the kind of game you can play with aunts, uncles, grandparents. It’s a fresh card game with a classic feel.

You were at Gen Con. How did that go for GCG?

GenCon is always a crazy event. It’s so huge and sometimes as the small company it’s tougher to stand out in the shadow of some pretty huge releases. But we had a great show. It’s always great to connect with folks that have been following us for a while or listening to my podcast. So much of what I do is solitary work, kinda isolated behind my computer, it’s nice to get out and be with people!

Any breaking news?

We are just about to launch Best Treehouse Ever: Forest of Fun on Kickstarter! It’s a stand alone sequel to Best Treehouse Ever that can be combined with the original game so you can play up to 8 players. It’s so fun!

It adds some new scoring twists, animals that you place in your tree that score based on adjacent colors, and even location cards that give players unique abilities. It will be our first game in a bigger box so folks can also carry the original game inside to keep all of the Best Treehouse Ever fun in the same place.

Is there a designer that Green Couch wants more than Jeni’s ice cream?

Oh, I dunno. Jeni’s Ice Cream is hard to compete with. But it would be cool to get to do a game with some of the big names from the generation before I came around: Cathala, Faidutti, Knizia, Bauza, Fitzgerald,  or Moon. I think because of his love for cards games, it would be cool to work with Mike Fitzgerald.

That would be pretty cool. I think I would like to co-design with Selinker or Kramer. Any publishing nightmares?

No nightmares. Just problems to solve.

What’s the BEST publishing experience you’ve had?

When Best Treehouse Ever first came out it sold out at distribution almost immediately and it was nominated for two Golden Geek Awards and since it’s been published in several different languages around the world.

That is pretty cool. There are SO many games out now.  So many different mechanics, themes, etc. In your opinion, what does it take to make a game good?

I mean, really to me, it’s all about if people had fun. Every game is not for every person but if the people playing are having a good time, engaging their brains, and making memories, I’m good with that.

In your opinion what is the current state of the game industry?

It’s an exciting time to be making games. With higher sales of hobby games than ever before to more and more hobby games showing up on mass market shelves, these thoughtful unique games are spreading far and wide in some awesome ways. With this growth it is harder to really stand out in a sea of indie publishers so I think people really have to find their niche to be able to stick it out. As a gamer it really hard to play everything so I think it’s also going to be important for publishers and designers to really focus on quality over quantity to keep people coming back.

Do you think we are headed for a down turn?

I don’t know. I think people are always going to want to sit around the table with people and play games. And with the technology available that makes the world a smaller place I see more and more people throwing their hat in the ring. Hopefully that leads to people making better and better games just to stay alive and relevant. I think the gaming industry is gonna be just fine.

Which of your games are you most proud of?

That’s like asking me to tell you which of my children is my favorite. But I’ll say Fidelitas because it was a first on many levels; first game I co-designed, first game I published. And it still keeps connecting with new people. So I’m pretty proud of that.

What’s in the queue? Any chance of another Kotarski design?

Of course we always have a few fun things in the works. But we haven’t announced them yet.

As a designer, The Dark Crystal: Great Conjunction Card Games I did with Philip duBarry is coming from Toy Vault. It’s a pretty awesome thing to have my name attached to a Jim Henson property!

And I have a few other possibilities floating around but it’s all in the hands of time and other publishers at this point.

My name on a Henson property would be a dream of mine too. What is something interesting about you that most of us would not know?

Rumor has it that my grandfather, who ran a junk yard, used to serve as a chopshop for the Purple Gang, a Jewish gang from Detroit that was associated with Al Capone.

Whoa, that is very cool. There’s a game idea for you right there. Thanks for taking time out to chat, Jason. It is always fun to talk to you. I hope to see you soon.

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