In this second part of our interviews will Matt Leacock and Zev Shalasigner, (part one you can find here) we talk to Zev Shalasigner, founder of Z-Man games who is now currently working for Whiz Kids Games.
Working more on the publishing side of things sitting down with Zev was the chance to learn more about how a board game moves from the idea, to the pitch and to the production. Zev also explains what his favourite games are and just how often he is wow’ed in his day to day work. Enough of the small talk though, let’s dive right in.
Q: Thank you for your time today. To start off with, mind telling me in your own words who you are what you do?
“I’m Zev Shlasigner, I founded Z-Man games and I now work for Whiz Kids Games.”
Q: What kind of games did you play as a kid?
“Definitely played a lot of war game type things, I went into Risk, and from there Axes and Allies. But I’ve played Monopoly, I’ve played Clue, I’ve played life, Payday, Careers. So yeah, I did a lot of the classic games, ones you would find on most toy store shelves.”
Q: So what’s your favourite game that breaks all the rules?
“Well I cut my teeth on war games so I’m use to some player elimination and length of game so it’s hard for me to answer that. I play Risk and you can be eliminated in Risk but I still like it. I know it’s a long game and players can sit out for a long time but I still like it. Risk is the one where I forgive such rules.”
Q: How long does production time take, from concept to release?
“Well, I can’t say from idea because I don’t design, but from when I pull the trigger on seeing a design that I like, it depends on the complexity. If it’s a simple card game, could do it in 2-3 months. If it’s a board game, it could take 6-8 months. It depends on a lot of factors. All the components, how much art, these are things that impact the time.”
Q: Are you open about what games you’re publishing or are they closed behind doors until a certain point?
“I think we’re pretty open. The only thing is that the earlier in the stage, the less I have to show. *laughs* So I can do is talk about a game and be “Oh, it’s like this!”, but I have no artwork to show so but once we start getting artwork, yeah, you know. Sometimes we roll it out, I send it to distributors. If I’m at a convention I may show it to people there. Certainly on the website there might be a logo or some sneak peek art. That’s all part of marketing of a game. I don’t think there’s any game where I was like “Ooh, hush-hush”, I can’t mention that, I don’t remember anything like that.”
Q: Is play-testing an important part of the publishing process?
“Absolutely, I like to playtest any of the games that I decide to publish. Because I want the first hand experience of, you know, did I like it, what did I like about it. It also helps me understand the game, especially even production. Because there’s times when I can say, ‘No, we can do this better. I’ve seen this game, you know, why do we need 10 dice, you know I think we could do it with 6 dice because of something. Or maybe these cards aren’t need it or maybe we need more cards. Or maybe we need more reference cards.’ So I think doing that helps me in production and of course it helps me with pitching the game when I’m at a convention. People go ‘What’s this game about?’ ,’Oh, I’ve played it, so I know!’ *laughs* “And also getting the feeling of do I like this game, is this game I think is worth to be out there as well.”
Q: What is something you would like to see, that hasn’t already been done, in a board game?
“Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know! I don’t think there’s anything pressing that I must see. I think everything that I could experience in a board game, I think we already have. Yeah, I can’t imagine…Unless it becomes a physical thing, you know, to play a wrestling game and you actually have to wrestle the players. *laughs* I honestly think pretty much the board game experience has…you know, I mean unless it’s something new, a new mechanic where you go “Oh, that was well done!”. But i think as an overall experience, no I think it’s really just playing with good people I think. That helps.”
Q: So what do you think about tablets in board games?
“It depends what it does. I don’t mind it. And it’s not something I need, to answer the previous question. So that’s why I’m saying I’m not looking, I’m not saying “oh, we definitely need this”. Certainly if it’s done badly, I think it might take away from the board game experience. Where if you lose some of the interaction, but if it’s information like, it processes stats for you or something like that, yeah ok, I can see that, might make it easier. But yeah, as long as it doesn’t replace the social aspect of hanging with friends and talking with friends and enjoying the game that way I don’t think…I mean, for example, let’s say we were playing Risk and the app maybe roll the dice for you. That might be, ‘no, I wanna roll the dice.’ I don’t want that to happen, that would take away that experience. But if it just said ‘Oh, btw, you have this many armies in each country’ then I can just look there rather than on the board. Yeah, I wouldn’t care about that. That wouldn’t be something that I would miss or hurt my experience.”
Q: Would you want the board game version of Risk and the tablet one to stay separate then?
“No, no…You know what, honestly, I remember playing an old version of Risk on the computer and I hated it because the AI was horrible. So it actually detracted from the experience. I’m like ‘Nobody would move like that! You’d never split your forces like this!’ So I was like’ you know what’ and I ended up, I stopped playing it after awhile.”
Q: What’s something that someone has brought to you as game to publish and really stood out and made you go ‘Wow!” within, say the last two years?
“It’s actually been a few years…The one that sticks out of my mind the most is …I would say probably the last thing that I saw that I really went ‘Wow!’…I saw the prototype for Mysterium when that came out. That really wow-ed me when I saw it and then I wanted it. But I was too late, they had already signed a deal about a month before I was finished testing it. Beyond that, I don’t recall anything else that has just…There’s been a lot of really good stuff. And I think there’s a couple of potential. Actually I think there’s one in my possession now, where it’s like…I love the idea. It’s made me go ‘oooh, that’s kinda cool.’ But I haven’t fully playtested it myself yet so I don’t know.”
Q: What kind of impress does the UK market give you at the moment?
“I think it’s healthy, it’s growing just like everywhere else gamers here are the same as pretty much everywhere else. I think it’s actually a very healthy culture that’s here.”
Q: How about over in America?
“I think Geek culture if I may use the term, has definitely gone mainstream and has opened up the use of board games. You see in many times, if you watch some shows your see board games in the background of some scenes and others that are mentioned within mainstream shows. The environment is definitely changing in the US.”
Q: So in a period that has been good for the industry, what with growth and the number of games coming out, do you think this is leading to a bubble that will burst at some point?
“Well, I go this way. If it busts I don’t think it will be a burst where, let’s say the real estate market where you lose money like crazy because you invested it. If it bursts it just might mean there might not be as many games coming out but as a form of entertainment I think it’s going to be continuous and always here. I refer back to other media choices you could have. So books at this time or even movies are like, why see another movie you’ve pretty much seen every movie but yet movies keep coming out. Books keep coming out. What are they going to write about we have seen everything but, there is something to speak about so I think board gaming there will always be something new that people will want to play with. So that’s why I think as a form of entrainment it’s always going to be around.”
Q: So do you think the industry will grow to a point where we see it behaving similar to video game with early copies and review embargoes?
“Well with video games you have video game magazines, you have all these reviewers for these magazines who are paid to review. How much is it their passion and their criticism, I don’t know. For our industry though, I don’t know. We have had several magazines but they haven’t lasted long.”
Q: Do you attend many conventions?
“Yeah, when I’m at a convention I meet designers all the time. Sometimes I go around, especially at like GenCon. I do like walking around the booths and seeing what’s out there. I’m very proactive in that respect. And if someone tells me ‘ Oh, Zev, you have to check out this game, I’ll make a b line and I’ll go check out that game, you know.”
Q: What is a franchise you would like to see as a board game that hasn’t been done yet?
“Again, I don’t think…At least nothing stands out of my mind that I have to. I mean is there a license…I mean, years and years ago I might have said ‘Oh, what about..’ Well actually even Marvel and stuff, so…just growing up I read comics but that would have been a movie, right? I would have loved to have seen more movies but now, we’ve got that and that’s fantastic. No, I don’t think there’s anything in board games that I’m desperately looking to see. There’s so many things out there that are fun and great and I’m having a great time with.”
Q: And so what advice would you give someone who wanted to get into the board game industry?
“For a designer it’s…I mean, I think it’s actually a great time for designers now. I think there’s so many more opportunities for them. But definitely know the industry, know what’s been out there. Be able to pitch smartly and quickly. Do it as, you know everybody says, the elevator pitch. Condense it to like a minute or 30 seconds or something. But something you could explain your game very quickly and get the point across of why this is a game somebody should really look at. And I think it’s also attend conventions. And that’s part of doing the research, right. Know the players out there, know the publishers, know what the gamers are playing, know what the games are like. I think that’s like a lot of things. You’ve gotta know your industry. Don’t just come up ‘Oh, I’ve got this roll and move game” but, oh dude, that’s been done before, you know, why are you doing it? But people don’t realize that. They think they have the greatest thing and they just focus on that and don’t think about anything else. ‘Hey , has someone else thought about this? Is there anything like it?” And they get shocked and disappointed when they have something that has already been out there.”
Q: And if they had something quite new they would get published quite easily then?
“Yeah, I would definitely think so. But yeah, they might be of the skills of meeting with people, being able to pitch it and being able to show that it is so new and different and what not. And a lot of it can be timing, right. I mean, sometimes you could look at a game that is doing great now, but three years ago? Would people have liked it? I don’t know. There’s that aspect as well. But I think as a designer, do your research, playtest very well, come up with crystal clear rules. And be able to pitch the game in a short space of time.”
Thank you to Zev Shalasigner for his time and input. A big thank you to Esclectice Games in Reading for being such woundeful hosts and thanks to Esdevium Games for making the event possible. If you missed part one where we sat down with Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic then you can check it out here.
Thanks for reading.