Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Jason Dinger
'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 Jason Dinger, the designer of Captains of the Gulf and the upcoming Crescent City Cargo. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Hi Jason, thanks for joining us. Before we discuss your designs and hobbies, what kind of board games do you like to play? Any favorite mechanisms? How about designers? What’s been hitting your table recently?
Mostly medium-heavy Euros, but I’ve been getting into some dexterity games lately: Crokinole and Klask are two of my favorite dex games. As for favorite mechanisms, there are so many that I enjoy: worker placement, pick-up-and-deliver, drafting, multi-use cards, deck building, rondels… I love to explore games and mechanisms. I guess it’s a cop out to not pick just one, but I genuinely love so many of them.
Favorite designers: Uwe Rosenberg, Alban Viard, Simone Luciani, Andreas Steding, and Michael Kiesling.
My most recent plays this past week include Brass, Lowlands, Gugong, Fields Of Arle, Captains Of The Gulf, Caylus, and A Feast For Odin.
Your first board game design, Captains of the Gulf, was released at Essen 2018 by Spielworxx. How did you get it signed by them?
It was really out of the blue. I never intended to publish it. I was just happy making something for Donna and I to enjoy together. I woke up one day to see I had a DM waiting for me from Uli Blennemann asking if I could send a prototype to him. Captains Of The Gulf is literally and figuratively a dream come true in that way.
Tell us a bit about your design process for Captains of the Gulf. How different is the published version from what you first envisioned?
The core of the game has remained unchanged from the very beginning — going back to the dream that woke me up on Valentine’s Day 2016. From the very start, the game focused on multi-use cards that could be played to your tableau to build an engine or discarded to fish, while players had to manage their fuel and compete for limited seafood resources.
Throughout the life of the design, there were lots of things that were added / removed / changed. The game was originally not solely focused on the economics of it all. Up until early 2018, the game focused on victory points in the form of the captain’s reputation in the Gulf region overall and at each of the three individual ports. On top of everything else players were doing (fishing, selling, adding cards to their boats, etc), there was a series of area majority battles going on in each individual fishing hex.
Towards the end of the development process, Uli helped me see areas we could remove / streamline. He suggested removing the area majority aspect and focusing on the economic aspect. I’m really happy with the final game and how it plays. The entire process was very educational and taught me more than I ever imagined.
You have said that Captains of the Gulf was created to honor your late grandfather. In what way?
After World War II, he returned back home when his time in the Navy was over. The shrimping industry was really starting to take off here in Morgan City at that time and with his experience on ships, he transitioned into life as a fisherman. He worked every position on the boat until he’d worked his way up to captain his own.
My parents divorced when I was six and to put it bluntly, it wasn’t a good situation. Though my dad had custody after my mom left, I spent quite a bit of time with my grandparents. They were both such wonderful role models, even if I didn’t realize it as a child. I cherish the time I had with them raising me.
For all the misery that was my childhood, my grandfather was my “lighthouse” in the storm of my life — showing me that there was a better way than what I knew and inspiring me to do what I could to make the world a better place in the process.
At the beginning of the year, Spielworxx signed another one of your designs, Crescent City Cargo. What is this one like?
Crescent City Cargo is a very different game from Captains of the Gulf. Though, they both share the four cornerstones of all of my designs — driven by theme, little to no downtime when not your turn, planning is critical, and lots of opportunity for both strategic and tactical play. In CCC, players take on the roles of competing logistics companies at the Port of New Orleans at the turn of the century. While it plays different from all of these games, it has inspirations in Lisboa, Il Vecchio, and Snowdonia.
You’ve said that Captains of the Gulf and Crescent City Cargo are the first two games of the Cajun trilogy. Tell us more about what you want to explore with this theme. How will the third game of the trilogy fit with this thematic goal?
The third game in the trilogy will be Acadians: Life Of The Early Cajun Settlers. The trilogy explores Louisiana’s waterways / boats and their impact on industry in the state through history. The trilogy goes reverse in time with CotG being set in the 1950s, CCC being set around 1910, and Acadians being set in the 1700s.
You’re working on two other designs — Acadians: Life Of The Early Cajun Settlers and Sweet Harvest. How are those designs progressing?
Acadians is going well, but with CCC being the priority, I’m only working on Acadians every few weeks on average right now. Sweet Harvest is currently in limbo. I know what I want the game to be, but I’ve had trouble finding the right mechanics to fit the theme.
I can’t force mechanics into a design. The way I describe it: theme is the vision of the final painting that I want to share with the world and the mechanics are the canvas, brush, and paints that I use to create it.
In addition to designing board games, you are well known in the online board game community for giving away games, dice trays, and card holders. What spurred this generosity?
As I mentioned, my childhood was a very dark, miserable time in my life growing up in poverty and dealing with extreme physical abuse. I’ve dealt with serious depression for most of my life. About 17 years ago, I tried to commit suicide. Thankfully, my wife was able to get word to a friend who found me and stopped me before I could go through with it. He and I sat in the park talking and crying the entire night.
It was a huge wake up call to me. I still deal with depression, but that incident woke me up to how my actions affected those around me; namely my wife and kids. Counseling helped me to recognize and be more mindful of when the apathy and negative thoughts start to creep into my mind.
When I would feel myself starting to slip, I would force myself to do something productive that would make someone else happy or make their life a little easier to help ward off my own downward spiral. This grew into it becoming a habit of spreading smiles and happiness. I found that making other people happy was the best method for me to fight my own depression. So, I guess you can say that it’s actually selfish of me, but it works and hopefully makes the world a little better in the process.
You make the wooden dice trays and card holders that you give away. How did you get into woodworking?
We bought our house about ten years ago and it required a lot of work before we could move in. After all the closing costs, etc, we couldn’t afford to hire contractors to do the work. So, I had to learn how to do it myself. After building some cabinets that we needed, I fell in love with the process and never looked back.
For years though, all I’d ever made was furniture. I heard a podcast a few years ago where someone (Amanda Davis, who is now a dear friend) mentioned that the noise from the dice cups in Roll For The Galaxy were making it impossible to play due to migraines she was dealing with. That inspired me to try to make a set of quiet dice trays that were small enough to fit behind the player screens for that game.
After that, I just started experimented with making different types of gaming accessories.
You're a brown belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Why did you decide to get involved in martial arts? How long have you been learning Jiu-Jitsu?
Like most things in my life, my grandfather was the inspiration here. Before returning home from Japan at the end of World War II, he trained Judo there. By the time I was born, he was no longer training (working to support a family, injuries, and other things got in the way).
After he passed away, I was able to read through his journal and learn about his martial arts training. This inspired me to start, but there were no Judo schools anywhere near our small town. As I learned more, I discovered that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was born from Judo and was fortunate enough to find a school here in Morgan City. I originally started training as a way to honor his memory, but now, almost 13 years later, Jiu-Jitsu is as much a part of my life as anything I’ve ever done.
Making it all the more special is the fact that Donna trains too (she’s also a brown belt). So, it’s something that she and I share and grow through together.
Thanks for taking the time, Jason. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap things up?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a little of my story. Something I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of posts on BGG forums tend to lean negative. Realizing that inspired me to pop into forums for games that I enjoy and post something positive (game play session, props for thematic integration, rules that run smoothly, etc). Not sure if it’ll do much good, but any chance I get to spread a little more happiness is something I’ll never turn down.