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Off the Grid interviews Cheapass Games' James Ernest


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

We've been paying a lot of attention to James Ernest over the past few weeks. As the founder, president, and lead game designer at Cheapass Games, he's responsible for a slew of analog games, including Diceland, Enemy Chocolatier, Kill Doctor Lucky, and many others. Despite his busy schedule, Ernest was able to answer a few questions for Off the Grid, and allow us to pick his brain on a variety of topics.

Let's talk a bit about your history. How did you start doing game design? What brought you into the field?

There's probably a fine line between "designing" and "making up" games. I've been making them up forever. In high school I actually designed a chess variant as a key plot element in a fantasy novel. It's not so much a chess variant as a "game you can play with chess pieces," since all the pieces have different moves and different names. I was so interested in making sure the game worked that I spent most of my time testing the game, and not much time working on the novel. I eventually published the game as "Tishai" through Cheapass Games, first as a stand-alone title and later as part of a Chief Herman collection. The novel is, well, pretty much nowhere.

From what I understand, you left Magic: The Gathering publisher Wizards of the Coast to start Cheapass Games. What sort of work were you doing at Wizards, and what prompted the change?

I did work for Wizards of the Coast in various jobs from 1993-1995, but it was never the job I wanted. There was a round of layoffs in 1995 and I volunteered to be among them. At that point I'd designed one CCG that Wizards had optioned (they never published it), and I was building up a collection of original games that I was pretty sure I'd never sell, either to Wizards or anyone else. So I took some of those games and a couple of new ones, and started Cheapass Games in 1996.

As a game designer, you have a very recognizable style. That is, you focus as much on the theme or narrative of a game as you do on the mechanics and game system. How do you believe this style developed? Do you find it makes for stronger games?

I think the approach of starting with the story creates stronger intellectual property, whether or not it creates stronger games. My opinion is that story (or the lack of it) is the first thing a new player learns about a game; it's the reason he decides to learn more. I've always thought that with a good hook (which could be great story, great buzz, great pieces, or anything great) you get a player's attention for long enough to teach him the rules. I also think that good stories are a lot harder to create than good game mechanics, so when you think of the story first, the hard part is out of the way.

I have been in far too many meetings that go like this: "Okay, we have a finished game mechanic, now what's it about?" People stare at each other dumbly, then grasp at straws until they compromise on the least horrible thing they can come up with, and the story never fits the game. But when the meeting starts "Okay, let's do a game about X, how would that work?" it usually results in a storm of great ideas for game mechanics, far more than you could ever cram into one game. If it doesn't, I try a new theme.

As for my recognizable style, I've had the luxury of creating a unique voice and character for Cheapass Games. Creating that look and feel was challenging, but rewarding. Sometimes that style is appropriate when I do work for other publishers; sometimes it isn't.

Let's play favorites! Out of all the games produced by CAG, what's your all-time favorite, and why?

But... they are all my children! No seriously, I'll be the first to tell you that some of those games are awful. I'd have to say that Diceland is my favorite, especially the Space sets, just because it was fun to test and continues to be really fun to play. As products go, Diceland isn't that successful, but the people who like it really, really like it. Other favorites include FALLING, BRAWL, Button Men, One False Step for Mankind, and The Big Idea. I love listening to a group of people who are really into a game of The Big Idea.

And your favorite non-CAG, non-digital game?

Poker. I play it all the time. I'd be playing poker online right now if it weren't a class C felony. As it stands I have to be content with the occasional trip to the local card room. In Las Vegas.

Do you play a lot of digital games? What are some of your favorite, and why?

I'm working in the electronic games industry right now, and I certainly play a lot of them. I've been a console gamer forever; I saved my pennies to buy an Atari 2600 and I've owned more or less every console system since then. Right now I waste most of my time playing arcade games and puzzle games, though I'll play almost anything. I like how the electronic games people call their games "interactive." It confused me for quite a while, since they're hardly as interactive as playing with real humans. It's like calling beer "drive better drink."

At the moment, how do you feel non-digital games are doing in the market? Is there cause for concern? Do video games pose a threat to the future of analog games?

I think it's a mistake for paper game publishers to equate their market to the market for digital games, or to think there's some sort of direct conflict between them. Are movies impacting gaming? Are sporting events? Is the Internet? You bet. We are all different branches of the entertainment business, and there's room for both digital and paper games to thrive or fail side by side. Look at what's happening in the poker world: is online poker killing live games? Do people play less with each other when they can watch it on TV? Of course not. The real danger for the paper game market is itself: it's always been small, and it's probably going to stay that way. Some paper games have been breakout successes in recent memory: for example, poker, Magic, Pokémon. These games succeed in part because they're not afraid of working with other media.

Finally, what's next for Cheapass Games? For James Ernest? Any fun projects you can let us in on?

Actually, Cheapass Games is closing down while I go make a killing in the tech world. I'd tell you what I'm working on, but then my evil overlords would have to--

Sad, but true. James Ernest has made the slow transition to digital game design, working as part of Carbonated Games, developers of the surprise hit Uno on Xbox Live Arcade. Ever the optimists, we'll trust Ernest when he says that digital games aren't a threat to the analog market, and account for his departure from non-digital design as coincidental, and nothing more.

Thanks for your time, James. And good luck with your top-secret whatevers!

Scott Jon Siegel is a game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

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