Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Peter McPherson
'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 Peter McPherson, the designer of Tiny Towns. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Thanks for chatting with me, Peter! Before we talk about your new game, Tiny Towns, tell me what kind of board games you like to play. Do you have any favorite mechanisms? How about any favorite designers? What are your all-time favorite games? Play anything recently that really caught your interest?
Thank you for interviewing me, Eric! I play a wide range of games, but most of my favorite are fairly simple but have difficult decisions. I enjoy spatial elements in games, and I like games with positive player interaction, like the market mechanic in Isle of Skye or the resource mechanic in Via Nebula. Uwe Rosenberg and Matt Leacock are two of my favorite designers--both of them do an incredible job of taking a simple concept and building on it through several games. Dominion and Roll for the Galaxy are two of my all-time favorite games. They're both engine builders, but they're very different in how your engine is fueled. Flamme Rouge is one of my more recent favorites for its elegant rules, agonizing decisions and its ability to play well from 3 to 12 players. I love that it's more of a "deck-breaker" and how much it really feels like a race.
At what point did you decide to design games instead of just playing them? How did you go about it?
It was never really a decision--I just had a few ideas and put them to paper to see what would happen. Most of my first designs (if you can even call them that) were simply prototypes. I never got as far as playing them. I simply made several pieces that looked like a game, laid them out on the table, and said "Huh. I don't know what to do now." It took me way to long to actually start playtesting my prototypes. I think at first I was fixated on the theme and the final product. I didn't spend enough time considering what decisions the players would be faced with and what the anatomy of a turn would be.
You have a game listed on BoardGameGeek called Temple of Knowledge. There isn't much other info out there about this game, so tell me a bit about it.
Temple of Knowledge is a game I co-designed with my friend Kevin Root for an Ed Tech company. We had a small team focused on creating printable games for the classroom that could be used to study any subject. In place of die rolling, Temple of Knowledge used flashcards to determine whether students made it past traps as they explored the temple. It was very much inspired by games like Forbidden Island, and we had a ton of fun testing it in the classroom with students and watching their reactions. The project never game to fruition, but we had a great time and learned a lot about a different type of game design.
Give us the elevator pitch for Tiny Towns. How does it play? Who do you see enjoying it?
In Tiny Towns, each player is the mayor of their own tiny town, represented by a four-by-four grid. Each player is trying to score the most points by constructing buildings in their town. There are seven buildings available in each round, and they are constructed by arranging the five resources in Tetris-like shapes in your grid. Each player takes turns being the Master Builder, who chooses one of the five resources that all players must place. Once you have a resource layout that matches one of the building cards, you remove the resources from your board and put the building meeple in any space where the resources were. Because you can only have one resource or building per space, your board fills up quickly. After you can no longer build, you score each building and subtract points for empty spaces to get your final score. Though there are only seven buildings per round, they change from game to game, and each player has a personal building called a Monument that only they can build, so each round of Tiny Towns is fairly different. I see anyone from families to gamers who like strategy and puzzle games enjoying Tiny Towns. The rules are fairly simple, but the game itself can be very challenging and punishing. I think it's the sort of game that works well with groups of mixed skill levels. No matter how well you play, you still have a tiny town to admire at the end of the game.
With Tiny Towns, what mechanisms did you originally decide you wanted in the game? Did they all make it into the final version? Was anything added later to help improve the experience?
The original idea of the game was the mechanic of placing resources named by other players to construct buildings. I knew I wanted the resourced to "glom" down to one space, and I first started prototyping with five resources and seven available buildings. I think I really lucked out with the initial concept--most of my ideas made it into the final version, and we did add some things. Monuments were a later addition, and the developer, Josh Wood, worked with me to double the number of buildings in the game to add variety. The only thing that didn't make it into the final version was player shields. In earlier versions, everyone built their town behind a shield so you couldn't see what everyone else was working on. I ditched those after playtesters continually asked why shields were necessary. Removing them made the game more interactive and made it look a bit nicer on the table.
At what point in development did you add the theme, and was the current theme the first one you tried?
Though the game has a fairly abstract feeling, I went with town building as the primary theme early on. It was during development that Josh Wood and I decided on a woodland creatures theme. We wanted something about these towns to be tiny, and we came to really like the idea of a civilization of forest critters.
Tiny Towns is listed as 1-6 players. With the resource collection mechanism where one player chooses each turn, how does scaling work? How does the solo mode work?
In two to six player games, there's no change in the resource naming mechanic. Two player games are much more cutthroat and strategic, whereas in a five- or six-player game, you're just trying to make order out of the chaos as resources bury your town. The solo mode uses the resource deck, which you only have to shuffle at the beginning of the game. There are three cards of each of the five resources. You deal three cards face up--these are your options for each turn. After you take a card, you place the corresponding resource, put the card at the bottom of the deck, and flip another card. This allows you to control the order resources will show up in as you go through the deck, and you have to deal with difficult resources as they fill up your three options.
How did you get Tiny Towns in front of AEG? Were they the first publisher you approached? Tell us a bit about the process of getting a game signed.
I set up a meeting with AEG prior to PAX Unplugged 2017, along with four other publishers. I sent each publisher a sell sheet and the rulebook and had a pitch with each of them. With AEG, I had a 30-minute slot, so we had time to play a full game. I knew the meeting went well, and a couple of weeks later, they offered me a contract. This was my first time pitching a game, and though I did a lot of prep beforehand, I think I got really lucky.
How much input, if any, did you have on the game once it was in AEG's hands? Did they develop it more after signing it? Were you involved in the art direction?
AEG told me that if I signed Tiny Towns with them, I would be as involved in development as I wanted to be. True to their promise, I was involved every step of the way. Josh Wood, who I mentioned before, developed the game, and we worked together to narrow down the selection of Monuments and increase the number of building cards. It was a very collaborative effort. Since Tiny Towns can be played over video chat, we were able to do a lot of online playtesting together. Josh Wood was also the art director, but I did have some say in the appearance of the animals and the style of the buildings. Josh would often send me the latest batch of artwork and ask for my input and opinion on the pieces. Most of the time, we were in agreement.
Do you think there is design space to expand Tiny Towns? Any plans to do so, as of yet?
Absolutely. No official plans as of yet, but Josh Wood and I are co-designing several expansion ideas. I think there is plenty of room for more ideas in Tiny Towns.
Are you working on any other game designs right now?
Tiny Towns is still my main focus, but I am working on a game called Petal Pushers, which is about running flower shops and building up a garden that pollinates your flowers as well as your competition's. I've been messing around with this one for about a year, but I'm still working on some of the central ways players earn money and sell their flowers. The engine-building aspect of pollinating flowers is working well, however--which is the most important part.
Before we go, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about yourself? Any other passions, interests or hobbies?
I'm a huge reader of both fiction and fantasy. I'd say reading is just as big of a hobby as board gaming, for me. My girlfriend and I co-run a book blog, Lit Lens, and I review books for Publishers Weekly, which is a ton of fun.