Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Isaac Vega
Isaac, thanks for taking the time out to sit down and talk with me. Before we get into your work with Plaid Hat and your designs, tell me about what kind of games you like to play. What are some of your all time favorite games? Are there any specific designers that inspire you?
Thanks for having me! Glad to see that you like to start off with the hardest question for me to answer. I always squirm at the question of my favorite games, because the truth is I don’t ever play anything consistently enough to truly call it my favorite. I am always trying to play something new, or something that is someone else's favorite game. This is because I find great value in playing as many new and old greats as possible. But when I go to teach people games that don’t know anything about our industry, I tend to reach toward games that make people laugh, that are easy to teach, and that stick to simple mechanics that allow people to discover the magic of what board games can be. Designers that inspire me are legends like Eric Lang and Rob Daviau. Those that I have had the pleasure of working with like Emerson Matsuuchi and Jerry Hawthorne. And those that I see making huge impacts like Jamey Stegmaier and Isaac Childres. All are different, all are doing things that I appreciate and drive me to be a better designer. Happy to be a member of a community that has talented people like them in it.
It was great meeting you at Origins. Did you get to try out any interesting new games while you were there? Anything catch your eye?
I didn’t have a lot of time at the show to play too many new things, but I did get a chance to sit down with Conor McGoey and play his new game Gorus Maximus. I am a fan of trick-taking games and it reminding me of those days I would just goof off in art class and play cards with my friends in high school. Great fun. I was also able to see the final production of Dino Dunk made by my friends at Twin City Games. It's a great game and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I was also excited to see the final version of That’s Not Lemonade! at the show. It was a game I was able to play at BGG Con last year and loved it, and the new art is amazing. Lastly, I was able to sit down on my last night at the show and play one Emerson Matsuuchi’s new prototypes. Always an amazing experience to try something he is working on. I love his designs and this one is for sure going to be a huge hit, but unfortunately, I can’t say anything more than that.
You now have six published designs, all with Plaid Hat Games. How did you get your start there? What is your official title with the company?
My official title is the VP of Research & Design. I met Colby, the Plaid Hat Games Founder, in 2010 to show him a game I had been working on. It wasn’t very good, but he encouraged me to keep working at it. Shortly after I pitched him another game that would later become City of Remnants, and from that point on there was really no looking back. I kept volunteering with the company and signing new games with Plaid Hat. I tried to make sure that I wasn’t only designing games, but helping the company succeed in all areas I could. Colby noticed my efforts and I came on full time as his first hire in 2013. We have been working together ever since. Continuing to build the team and trying to make it in this industry. It’s been a lot of work, but it has been a lot of fun too. Seeing the company grow as it has, fills my heart with such joy. I am happy to have been a part of it for these last 8 years and am glad to still be in love with it.
Two of your earlier designs -- City of Remnants and Dead of Winter -- were co-designs. How was it working with other designers on a game? Was the process very different working with Colby Dauch on City of Remnants than with Jonathan Gilmour on Dead of Winter?
Working with other designers is always a different experience than working on a design on your own. Each person has their strengths and weaknesses. The more I have grown as a designer, the more I have learned where my strengths lie, and what I have to bring to a project.
I am actually working on another co-design right now and it is a lot of fun to be able to have someone to go through each decision with. I, unfortunately, cannot discuss any more details about the co-design at this time. Got to keep things hush hush right now, but I can hopefully discuss it more around this time next year.
Whether to work alone or co-design I think really depends on the project and what each designer brings to the table. The projects I have worked on with others I am very proud of and I look forward to doing more co-designs in the future if the project is right.
Speaking of Dead of Winter, when should we expect the next Crossroads game, and what can you tell us about it?
I, unfortunately, cannot delve into details at this time. However, we will be announcing another Crossroads game in the next coming months. This project is not my design, however. For those wondering I am working on another project as well that will fall into the Crossroads family, but that won’t be ready for a while.
Another of your early designs was Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia, which is based on the popular video game. What was is like working with a well known intellectual property? How much flexibility did you have with your design, and what constraints did you have?
IP designs come with quite a bit of constraint. It is a difficult task to transform something that is presented in one entertainment medium to another. You have to keep in mind the demands of the IP’s owners, the audience that loves that IP, and the audience that we as a studio have been able to attract. However, just because the project is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun. Going to Irrational Studios, meeting the minds behind the BioShock series and getting a chance to play an early version of the game is one of my most treasured memories. I had a lot of fun working on BioShock, and honestly, it was a fantastic move for my career. It was able to get me attention from people not only inside the industry but outside as well. I was lucky that I got the chance to work on such a big title so early in my career.
At this point, I prefer not to work on IPs. They can be a fun puzzle to solve, but it doesn’t feed at the core of what I love about design. I love making new worlds, and have so many ideas of my own that I want to keep exploring that. Working on IPs doesn’t give me the free rein to create my own characters, my own locations, and my own style. If the right IP comes along I may consider working on one again, but for now, I have a lot of things in the works that are set in my own worlds.
In 2015, Plaid Hat released Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, an expandable card and dice game you designed. Was the design process for Ashes significantly different given the expandable nature of the game? Do you feel there is still more space to design new expansions in the system?
Ashes is one of the hardest games I have ever worked on. It was completely different from working on my other games. Games like Ashes take an entire team to test and refine. Once the game is designed it never stops the process of evolving since it is made to be expanded. Community feedback as well can be a huge influence on how we continue working on it. Because of the constant evolution of the game, it has been the game I have learned the most from. I still enjoy playing it too. It has made me some lifelong friends, and it continues to bring people together.
I believe that yes we do have room for expansions, and are doing so in the next coming months. Ashes is a game and a world that I will likely continue visiting for the rest of my life. It may not always be the same game, it may not always be the same characters, but my hope is that Ashes will live on in some shape or form.
Your latest design is Starship Samurai, which you were demoing at Origins. What was the inspiration for this design? How long did it take to develop? How different is the published version from your original vision?
Starship Samurai took about a year to develop. I wanted to make a game that featured a theme that wasn’t really well represented in the tabletop industry. I grew up loving anime (still do) and wondered why there weren’t many games in our industry that had the feeling of mecha animes like Gundam or Gurren Lagann that I loved. So I set out to make one. I had to. I just couldn’t get over the idea of making giant samurai mech miniatures so Starship Samurai was born. Once the seed was planted it was off to make a game that represented that theme well. So I decided to approach it by creating mechanics that would help retell of the power struggles that took place in feudal Japan, but in space. I wanted the aspect of diplomacy and war, that let the Samurai be the star of the show. My struggle for the design is that I also wanted to represent those concepts as quickly and easily as possible. Once I came up with the order token system, I knew I was on the right path because everyone was able to pick it up so easily. I still struggled, and even got to a point where I designed another game altogether. But in the end, this design just resonated with people and it was the one that ended up representing the mechs anime-inspired world I had set out to accomplish. I am very proud of how everything came together. The game turned out beautifully and I am excited that people can finally see and play it in its final form.
Do you plan to create expansions for Starship Samurai, with new Samurai, ships, cards, and/or new locations for the game?
Yes of course! I can’t go over all the details at this time, but you should see some rumblings before the end of the year.
Of all your designs, do you have a favorite? Any design decisions you regret and wish you could do differently, looking back as a more experienced designer?
With each new design comes my experience of the last. I have learned so much since my first game, and I have lots of things you could consider regrets. But each one has turned into a learning experience, they have allowed me to grow and change into a better designer. So I needed them to happen so that the next thing I make can turn out to be even better. All of my designs are my babies, so it is hard to choose which is my favorite. But since that is a lame answer I will leave you with this: Ashes and Starship Samurai are probably my favorite games to continue playing. They bring out the competitive nature in me, and I can play them with my boyfriend. Most people are pretty good at beating me at those games (like most of my designs), but that’s probably why I don’t mind going back to them so much. It is hard to not mention Dead of Winter. It is the game that has had the most impact, not only in the industry but in my own life. The diversity of the characters, the stories that are able to come out of that game meant a lot to its fans. It meant a lot to me too. It was able to let me share who I was with the world even when I wasn’t 100% ready to do it myself. I want to make more games like that. That represents me. That give players from all different walks of life some sort of representation. That allows players, either through the stories that come from it or the characters they interact with, to see things from different perspectives and in turn allow them to see the players they are sharing the table with more clearly. They all hold a special place in my heart, but those three are the closest to the person I am today.
Before we finish up, is there anything else you'd like to share about yourself? Any other passions, hobbies, or interests?
I’m a nerd. I like movies, sitcoms, dramas, anime, comics, board games, video games, podcasts, and audio books. I don’t really enjoy much else besides eating great food and spending time with great people. Occasionally traveling. I would like traveling more if someone could just figure out teleportation technology already!
If you guys haven’t checked out the anime Made In Abyss, do it! If you haven’t read the comic Saga yet, do it! And if you haven’t read The Hidden Life of Trees, don’t. It’s going to freak you out, and you are never going to be able to look at a tree the same way again. But if you want to be trapped in the realization that everything in this world is magic, and we as humans no so very very little go ahead do it. But I warned you!