Designer Dialogue: Jackson Pope

In the first of series of dialogues with experienced boardgame designers, I managed to grab some time with Jackson Pope - the former owner of Reiver Games.

In 2003, Jackson Pope designed a simple civilisation and war game called Border Reivers. Three years later, he formed Reiver Games to self-publish Border Reivers as a hand-made limited edition. Border Reivers sold out within the year, and the next year a second limited edition game (It's Alive! by Yehuda Berlinger) also sold out. When a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis meant that Jackson was able to spend his own life insurance, he chose to invest a chunk of that in Reiver Games and turn pro, working full-time for it from 2009-2011 when Reiver Games finally closed its doors. Jackson is now back designing games and blogging about his experiences on his website, Creation and Play, and hopes to get back into hobby publishing later this year.

Jackson's first game, Border Reivers. (Image Source)

Robin: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Jackson. Before we start talking about your design ambitions and processes, let me first ask what kinds of games do you enjoy playing recreationally?

Jackson: My favourite games are lighter euros that come in around 60-90 minutes along with a few more themed games too. Some of my most played games are Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, Carcassonne and Magic: The Gathering. I've fairly small collection (~70 games), just games that I'm always keen to play. I'm aiming to have them all played at least ten times by the end of the year!

Robin: What game designs that you are currently working on?

Jackson: I've got four in the pipeline at the moment. A second edition of Border Reivers, the game that got me started - it's been 13 years since I designed it, and I hope I've learnt a lot since then! Plus Codename: Vacuum: a deck-building 4X sci-fi game set in a steampunk version of our solar system; Zombology: a quick card-drafting filler about alternative therapists trying to cure a zombie plague and finally Dragon Dance: a 2-player card and dice bluffing game about St. George and the dragon. As a father of a young daughter I don't have a huge amount of spare time, so I tend to focus on one or two at a time.

Robin: When you begin working on a new game, what does your design process typically look like? For example, do you start with a theme, a mechanic, or something else?

Jackson: My first idea can be theme, mechanics or a mix of both. Vacuum leapt into my head as a sci-fi deck-builder and hasn't changed a huge amount in the ensuing four years, Zombology was a science theme (which warped into alternative therapies!) and drafting. Once I've had an idea I spend anywhere between a few days and a few weeks scribbling down notes in a notebook or Evernote before I make a physical version. The first versions are hastily scribbled on paper as I expect them to change a lot after each of the first few plays. I'm hopeless at soloing games though, so I tend to test my ideas on friends at work or at our monthly Playtesting session that we hold in a local pub.

Robin: Playtesting is something I find difficult to handle, so I'd really like to get your thoughts on that. When do you know if a game is ready for a group playtest? Where do you find your playtesters? And how do you handle any negative feedback?

Jackson: I'm lucky, the Newcastle Playtest group are a great bunch. We're a bunch of designers and keen gamers and we're all keen to help each [other] make new games. We'll try a brand new game as soon as it's printed out, so the decision about when to start playtesting is simply: as soon as possible. The decision about when to open up playtesting to blind playtesters is much harder. You want something that's mostly finished, so that's it's not so bad that you put people off, but by the same token the sooner you get it out there the more ideas and feedback you can garner. Getting enough blind playtesters is something I find really difficult actually, I have to rely on a small group of great testers who have volunteered over the years. Thankfully, they are a great bunch.

Robin: You have always seemed to choose to do fairly small print-runs for your previous games and it’s refreshing to see a designer eschew Kickstarter and go for this more traditional self-publishing route. Why have you continued with this route with your most recent game?

Jackson: As I said in a recent blog post, I've a family and very limited free-time. KickStarter is a massive time sink if you do it properly. If your campaign is successful (and putting in enough effort to make it successful is a huge job in itself), then you've got a massive job (of a size you're not fully aware of until the campaign finishes) getting a full size print run (and possibly a significant number of stretch goals) manufactured while there's a huge number of people who have paid you money and you owe a product who are sitting around waiting for you to deliver. That's the kind of pressure I could do without in my spare time. If I make a small limited run of hand-made games I know exactly how much work I'm letting myself in for ahead of schedule and I don't take money until I've got something to sell. Which takes a lot of the pressure off.

Robin: From your experience publishing other people’s games in Reiver Games, can you offer any advice to new designers looking for a publishing contract?

Jackson: Test you game. Then test it some more. Then send it to people you don't know to blind test it for you. I received a lot of games that needed a lot more testing and development.

Robin: I've seen you comment on your blog that you think your former company, Reiver Games, can act as a cautionary tale. What was it about Reiver Games that serves as a warning?

Jackson: I spent a couple of years making hand-made small print runs very successfully. The games sold out quickly and I made a reasonable profit. So far, so good. Then I made the jump to being a proper publisher getting games professionally made for me and trying to sell to distributors and shops, and I lost a ton of money. I wasn't ready to make the jump - in terms of experience, knowledge, contacts or market presence and I didn't have the budget or the marketing know-how to bring my games to enough people's attention.

Robin: What are your ambitions for the future? Do you envision many more games on the way? Will you continue with small print run games or try out some other publishing models?

Jackson: I'm not sure, a lot of it will depend on how the first release goes, and how running the company fits around my full-time job and family. I've got a few games I'm working on, so there's scope to do more if I can get them up to a high enough level.

Robin: Thanks again for your time, Jackson.

Jackson: You're welcome - thank you.

You can check out Jackson Pope's blog, Creation and Play, or his twitter feed, for more information about his design process and his upcoming games.