Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Joseph Z Chen
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Joseph Z Chen, the co-designer of Fantastic Factories. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Before we talk about Fantastic Factories, tell us what kind of tabletop games you like to play, Joseph. Do you have any favorite themes? Mechanisms? How about any favorite designers? Play any great new-to-you games recently?
I like unusual themes or food themes. I'm drawn to fun and colorful looking themes. I primarily play two types of games: medium-weight Euros and party games. I'm into Euros because I like thinky games but I also like them on the shorter side because I enjoy repeat plays of games. It allows me to try out new strategies and improve my play. I also enjoy party games because it's a great way to get a board game to the table and enjoy it with players of all experience levels.
I don't really have any favorite designers. Recently I've enjoyed playing One Deck Dungeon, Vegas Dice Game, Deep Sea Adventure, and Skull. One Deck Dungeon is a neat little one to two player co-op dungeon crawl with some light legacy elements. It's a bit addictive. I recently played Vegas Dice Game with Ruel Gaviola, and it's this great mix of agency and luck. And those elements of luck often result in great moments of cheering and/or fist shaking. The more players the better. Deep Sea Adventure is a tiny little push your luck game about diving for treasure, and Skull is an elegant and pure bluffing game. I'm very much attracted to elegant games.
The interesting thing about being a designer and part of the industry now is that my playing habits have changed. Normally I like to repeatedly play the same games over and gain mastery with those games but there's now a lot of pressure and many reasons why I should be playing new games. It helps build out your design toolbox as well as keep up with the latest in industry news and hotness. A lot of people ask me what my favorite board game is, but there's no longer any consistency in what games I play.
At what point did you decide to design games instead of just playing them? How did you go about it? Did that earliest design evolve into Fantastic Factories?
About year before Fantastic Factories I had tried my hand at designing a game. It wasn't hitting the marks I was expecting so I shelved it after the first play test. A year later, a friend of mine was looking to start a new project we could all work on. We ended up deciding to design a board game. We did a mechanics-first approach by deciding all the mechanisms we wanted in the game. We each designed a prototype and brought it to our meeting a week later. After playing all of them, mine seemed to have the most traction so I kept with it and eventually it evolved into Fantastic Factories.
So what mechanisms did you originally decide you wanted in the game? Did they all make it into the final version? Were any added after the fact to help improve the experience?
We drew from our experience with previous games and basically wanted to combine the mechanics from a few of our favorite games. Some of those included the dice placement from Alien Frontiers and the engine-building from Race for the Galaxy. We also loved how fast and scalable 7 Wonders was to play. Those were the core pieces and design goals and they stuck around to the very end. Throughout the design process the biggest changes/additions were surrounding the mechanics on how to build cards and the marketplace/action cards. Both were challenging to get to the right place and underwent a lot of back and forth changes.
At what point in development did you add the theme, and was the "fantastic factories" theme the first one you tried?
Early on we weren't focused on theme at all. One of our original group members really liked space-themed games so we actually tried to paste a space theme onto the game. Little known fact, we had originally named the game Rocket to Mars, but after trying to rename the cards, resources, etc to match the theme it just didn't work out. The factories theme seemed most natural with the engine-building mechanic. Later on the name Fantastic Factories came about after we started doing some of the art about 6 months in. I wanted the art to be colorful and fun in order to brighten up the otherwise somewhat dull theme of factories. Some other names we considered were Assembly Required, Smokestacks, or Manufaction.
You mentioned Fantastic Factories being a project you worked on with a friend. Tell us about your co-designer, and how you worked on the game together.
The co-designer is my very good friend, Justin Faulkner. Initially there were a group of 4 of us but as life happens, a couple of the members weren't able to commit to the project and dedicate as much time as Justin and I were putting into Fantastic Factories. The initial design and most of the larger design decisions were made by me but Justin has this uncanny way of making really great observations and suggestions that improve the game in really tangible ways. He's a great developer, and I run all my ideas by him. When I'm brainstorming he acts as a great sounding board that isn't afraid to tell me when I'm wrong. I do all the actual graphic design but he also has a great eye for telling me which parts of the visual design work or needs improvement. The project definitely would not be at the level of polish it's at without his invaluable contributions.
You are a software designer by trade, but you did the artwork for Fantastic Factories. Do you have an artistic background? What was behind your decision to do the artwork for the game?
I don't really have an artistic background. I dabbled in graphic design in high school and college and my wife happens to be a graphic designer by trade. It's kind of amusing because when she was first getting into the field I taught her some of the first things she knows about graphic design but now she teaches me new tricks! When I working on Fantastic Factories I was tired of seeing blank cards so I decided that I would try to make some placeholder art. I never intended to actually use my own art for the game until I got into it and started receiving really positive feedback from everyone. I really enjoy games that have a bright and colorful art style so I wanted to make that part of the game. And the simple vector happens to be a great fit for an approachable and clean design. Simple vector art happens to also be fairly simply to illustrate so in a way the art style is a product of my lack of skill and range as an artist! But I knew I was capable of making simple shapes and emulating that style so I practiced it and eventually it became what it is today. You can get pretty far by focusing on what skills you do have but also with the understanding of what you may not be so great at.
Digging into the design of Fantastic Factories a bit, how did you balance the factories and the multiple paths to victory?
I had an internal model of equivalent resources. For instance, roughly 1 blueprint card = 1 metal = 2 energy. That helps set a baseline. I also determine what common archetypes of strategies there were and made sure there were sufficient cards that helped fill out that strategy. But the short answer is that it just requires lots and lots of play testing. At this point the game has probably been played over 400 times.
You and Justin formed Metafactory Games, and published Fantastic Factories on Kickstarter through your company. Did you try to pitch Fantastic Factories to other publishers first, or was your intention always to self publish?
We did consider a publisher at one point. We're really excited about the design, the art, and the overall look and feel of the game. And I actually love the audience-building, networking, and marketing aspects as well, but we were much less familiar about the manufacturing and fulfillment side of the business. We initially sought out to find a publisher who would be willing to split the responsibilities in a somewhat unconventional way but as we were discussing changes to the game I realized that no matter what, publishers will want to make changes and there's a good chance that I wouldn't agree 100% on those changes. If I went with a publisher there would likely be some regrets whereas self-publishing really puts us in control of our own destiny. I knew it would be a lot of work but I wouldn't have any regrets.
Fantastic Factories has gotten a lot of acclaim -- it was an Indie Mega Booth Official Selection, the Luci 2017 Best Design winner, and a PAX South Indie Showcase Official Selection. How did you got the game into all of these competitions? Do you feel there was a good return on your investment to enter into these types of things?
Our first one was being selected for the PAX South Indie Showcase (PSIS). Justin and I have been long time attendees of PAX West and this opportunity popped up on Justin's radar. PSIS is still in its early stages and relatively unknown because PAX usually caters to the video game crowd. However the audience is real, the traffic is insane, and it was an incredible opportunity. We simply applied and got accepted. I did a short write-up on what it was like. IndieMEGABOOTH was a similar experience. There's a selection process but it's primarily a way for indie developers to get floor space at PAX, which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. It's hard to measure the ROI in an objective way but I think it was definitely worth it. It allowed us to expose the game to a lot of people in a short amount of time.
The LUCI Award was less about building an audience and more about validation. For indie showcases the barrier to entry is mostly making sure you have a presentable looking game. However, with a design competition like the LUCIs it's about the strength of your game design. It was from there we got strong validation about our game design as well as really valuable feedback about where the design was still lacking. It's a local Seattle area design competition sponsored by PlaytestNW and Daily Magic Games, who are great resources for new designers. We've attended many of their events so it was only natural to enter into the LUCI Awards.
Are you designing any other games games right now? Are you thinking about any expansion content for Fantastic Factories?
Nothing heavily in the works at the moment. I'm committed to getting Fantastic Factories mostly out the door before I shift my focus to a new design. Fantastic Factories has a lot of open design space for expansions so there's a good chance we'll be working on one. There were a lot of things we cut from the design because we felt it wasn't necessary or introduced additional complexity. We'll likely revisit some of those things and build out a cohesive expansion.
Before we go, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about yourself? Any other passions, interests or hobbies?
I've had many hobbies in the past but game design and being part of the gaming community feels all-consuming in a good way. Between work, raising our first kid, and game design, there isn't much time for anything else. I don't want that to deter anyone from designing games, though. Everyone works at a different pace, and I'm proof that it's possible to publish your own game even while having a baby in the middle of it all. I just love keeping busy and connecting with people within the industry! You can find me at: