Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Sen-Foong Lim
'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 Sen-Foong Lim, the designer of Belfort, Junk Art, The Legend of Korra, Kingdom Rush, and more. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Sen, thanks for joining me! Before we talk about your designs, let's talk about some games you've enjoyed playing recently. What's been hitting your table recently? Anything new to you that really surprised you?
I'm just getting back from Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends (an annual private event in Niagara Falls, NY) and I was super surprised by two published games: Gold & Silver by Philip Walker-Harding (NSV) and Krass Kariert by Katja StremmeI (Amigo). Philip has such a way with taking simple games and making them engaging — it's why I'll never not play one of his games! Gold and Silver is a polyomino flip and draw game where you're pirates, mapping out islands and searching for treasure. Krass Kariet is a simple, yet complex, trick taking game where you cannot — I repeat, CANNOT — reorder the cards in your hand. The game is all about figuring out how to play cards in such a way that you can make the cards you want to play together end up beside each other. You feel very clever when your plan comes together!
Belfort, a design of yours and Jay Cormier's from 2011, is about to come back into print. What's new with this edition? How do you feel about it getting a new edition eight years later?
This edition has some new guilds, new rules that try to address some of the issues players had with long turns, and some new inhabitants of the Beautiful City — notably, the Queen herself, as well as a few other city employees that will add new experiences to the game. It's pretty neat getting another edition this far along! It's such a solid game, even eight years later, that it always makes me a little sad when players are talking about games that I enjoy less than Belfort (biased, I know), only because they've never played Belfort! I'm hoping that more people get to experience the game and enjoy it as much, if not more, than I do!
Another of your popular designs with Jay is the dexterity game Junk Art. What is your favorite mode to play when you play Junk Art? In general, what do you feel makes a dexterity game fun?
My favourite mode is Montreal, not only because it's a beautiful Canadian city, but because you have to move around the table a lot! It's the variant where you end up inheriting the tower of the player you were challenging with hard pieces to place just a minute ago! The shift in strategy from "I'm going to give you this piece so your tower topples!" to "I'm going to give you this piece so your tower is stable!" is so fun to watch. I'm always amazed at what people can build in Junk Art — especially given the challenges they are posed by their opponents! People from around the world have sent me pictures of the stupendous structures that they've been able to construct — it's pretty humbling that so many people appreciate our work, to be honest!
The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena, a game you designed with Jessey Wright, is based on the Nickelodeon television series The Legend of Korra. Were you a fan of the show before you designed the game? How did you try to express the show's theme into the game?
I love Avatar, Korra, and the newest series by the same writers, The Dragon Prince. I'm a huge fan of animation, great story telling, and memorable characters — these series have all of that in spades! When we were asked to design a game based on Korra, we jumped at the chance! The show's theme is, in part, about bending the four elements to use as tools. In Korra, they turn this ability into a sport, called Pro Bending. We were specifically asked to emulate that sport and it's true to form from the arena layout to the knock out rules to the referees being blind to infractions a good percentage of the time! What we really worked on was making sure the bending mechanisms felt like bending. We did this by pressuring players to decide if they wanted to use their powers to attack or defend OR if they could figure out a way to do both at the same time! The deckbuilding is fast and fluid, with card buys coming to the top of your deck instead of your discards, so you're guaranteed to see the card you just bought. The cards are simple in layout and play in a top-to-bottom order. As a PvP knockout game, it's really slick. If you're a fan of the series or a fan of PvP head-to-head tactical combat, please check it out. I was so happy to hear that there have been leagues started up around the game and even happier when my friend, Leslie Cheung, presented me with a handmade raised platform arena, just like in the show — it even includes a pneumatic central dais, which is used for to break ties in a bender vs. bender sudden death match! Oh yeah, I should also mention that the expansion not only has super cool minis, but it's a co-op mode that allows players to work against the uprising of Amon, a pivotal event that happened in the show.
You have a number of other games based on existing intellectual properties coming up -- Batman The Animated Series: Rogues' Gallery, Dragon Ball Super: Tournament of the Destroyers, and Men In Black: Undercover. What is different about designing using a licensed intellectual property? Is it more challenging? More fun?
It's definitely challenging in many ways — you have to meet the expectations of gamers AND fans. Sometimes, those two don't intersect as much as one might think! You also have to deal with the approval process, which can hinder the development process and throw a wrench in things. There are often more constraints on what you can and can't do with characters. The licencors give us lists and lists of rules to follow — this character's eyes must always be this particular Pantone, this character can never be depicted as killing a human being, etc. etc. It's definitely fun, though. I love playing in other people's worlds. As I get more experienced, though, I find myself creating my own worlds more and more. But then, someone offers me an IP that I can't say no to...
You currently have a tower defense game, Kingdom Rush: Rift in Time, on Kickstarter now, that you designed with Helana Hope and Jessey Wright. Tell us a bit about how it plays and who the target market is. What is unique about it?
Kingdom Rush is one of those exact IPs I was just talking about! It's a co-op tower defense game where you and your partners are working together to stop an advancing horde. You use your impregnable towers and your mighty heroes to defend the realm by shooting polyominoes at the enemies! That's right! You will defeat the endless enemies with Tetris pieces! That's actually kind of what's unique about it. Now, there's nothing really unique about polyominoes. We've seen a rash of games that use them in recent years — Fits, Patchwork, Barenpark, The Cartographers, to name a few. However, we use the polyominoes to represent attacks from the towers and heroes. Thus, what makes the game unique is not necessarily what it does, but what it DOESN'T do. Most tower defense table top games require heavy dice rolling and damage tracking — boring, procedural stuff that's better left to computers to do for us, right? For us, it's simple — if you can cover the enemy with a polyomino, it's dead! Bam! Simple, no tracking of damage, no extra chits, etc. We also have horde cards, which represent multiple enemies on a single card. This cleans up the play area a lot as these cards move as units and yet still represent a huge number of enemies. The target market is anyone who likes the app, anyone who enjoys a middleweight co-operative game, and anyone who likes to have fun by smiting evil where it stands!
You co-design with others often. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a partner designer as opposed to solo designs? How is the labor divided up, and is it different with each co-designer, or each co-design?
The advantages is that, really, two (or more) heads really are better than one. I, long ago, realized a truth: as smart as I am, I have many, many areas of limitation. My friends (because they're all friends first, truly) are amazing — they have strengths where I have limitations and vice versa. We are better together than we are apart. It allows us to bounce ideas off of invested people and come up with brilliant ideas that neither of us could have come up with alone. It does mean we often have to come to consensus on the direction we want to take, but, again, I, long ago, realized another truth: the table doesn't lie. Debating whether something will work or not can often be an exercise in futility but once we put the change into the game and test it through play, the truth will be revealed! So while, yes, some theorycrafting is necessary to get past some points — you can't iterate everything or you'd kill all the trees everywhere — you really need to get the game to the table ASAP to help you find where your ideas are failing.
You have another game coming to Kickstarter soon, ComplexCity. What kind of game is this? How did the idea for it come about?
ComplexCity is coming to Kickstarter in Q2 2019. It's a city building, tile laying game set in the far reaches of outer space. Scientists have detected the start of what will be an extinction-level event that threatens to wipe out all life on each of the planets in this galaxy. Except one - an already barren and lifeless planet on the edge of the cataclysm. You have been tasked by the Ambassadors of the four planets to create a city capable of meeting the diverse needs of each of the species that will be shuttled to this planet prior to the sun exploding. I know that sounds grim; the game, however, is super cute! Kwanchai Moriya did an amazing job of creating a world where the inhabitants are so unique and interesting, yet relatable! The tile laying is quick and simple - play a tile, pick a tile. We designed this game to combat one of the common issues in similar games where all players are building a share tableau of tiles - with larger player counts, the game state changes so much by the time it gets to your turn that you can't plan. So, instead, you might disengage. In ComplexCity, each player has their own tableau. This allows you to plan on other people's turns without the chance that your plan will be ruined. This reduces down time in a very positive way - turns are quick! "What about multiplayer solitaire?" you say? Fear not, good citizens! ComplexCity addresses that with scoring being reliant on comparing your tableau to your neighbours. To impress the Ambassadors, who will be deciding where to ferry the survivors, you not only need to keep up with your neighbours, you need to surpass them!
How are you able to maintain such a high output of designs, especially considering the broad range of themes and game mechanics in your ludography?
Co-design, no sleep, and a consume media voraciously. I am always learning and always playing. I get at least 10 design ideas a day. Now, I didn't say they're all good...
Since you are a professional DJ, in addition to being a game designer, what do you think of Dropmix? Is there anything you would want to see from a game like that in the future? Also, what is your DJ nickname?
I love DropMix! I haven't played in a while because the Bluetooth connection was wonky last time, so I don't know if any of the rules for the games have changed. While the games were simple, the pure enjoyment of hearing the music blend seamlessly was so entertaining. My family loved it as well! While I wouldn't call myself a professional DJ anymore as I haven't played a club or radio slot in a decade, I've been known to rock the wheels of steel every now and then, still I do still write music, though I find that I have less and less time to do that, even though I really want to write more.
The name I DJ and produce under is "DeepSix" and I will send a free game to any reader who can correctly identify where that name comes from! Hint: It's not GI Joe, though I am a big fan. Yo Joe!
You are the co-host of the Meeple Syrup video show where "designers discuss design." What made you want to get into board game media? Why did you choose the format you did?
Honestly, what made me think about getting into media was that there were plenty of design-centric podcasts, but very few avenues where people could actually see the faces of the designers whose games they love. I was a bit off put when one of the industry's pre-eminent designers was talking to a media personality and gamers came up and asked for the media personality's autograph while completely ignoring the designer. It felt a bit cart-before-horse, if you get my meaning. I'm not necessarily jealous of the attention that media personalities get — they're the names and faces that people see daily when watching reviews. It was not about taking that away. It was about raising the profile of designers visibly. That, and I'm too busy to do a podcast. As odd as that sounds, with a live video, there's no editing. With a podcast... there's a ton of editing. As a DJ, I have all of the software and equipment needed to do that. What I don't have is the time! And so, Meeple Syrup was born!
Before we go, is there anything else you'd like to share with us? Any other hobbies, passions, or interests?
I love RPGs. That's actually where I started gaming, so I'm working on a lot of RPGs for friends and writing one with my pal, Banana Chan, right now. It's about Chinese restaurants and vampires! I also love martial arts, particularly Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I've been training in that art for over ten years now and teach 2-3 classes a week. When I'm not doing all that stuff, I enjoy cooking, particularly barbecuing and smoking foods!