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Interview with David A. Lupo, Designer of Addictive Alchemy

David A LupoBeing a first time designer is nerve wracking. Having your project on Kickstarter is also nerve wracking. David A. Lupo (DAL) took some time away from his nerves to answer a few questions about his upcoming game, Addictive Alchemy, and his world as a designer.

CAG: Where did the idea for Addictive Alchemy come from?

DAL: Addictive Alchemy wasn’t the first game that I designed, or even the first game that I intended to publish. The idea originally came about because I kept designing games that had unique pieces, or extra components that would make publishing them a bit more complex than I wanted for my first design. I decided that with everything involved with publishing your first game it would be best to make a game that only had cards as the pieces. I didn’t want life counters, tokens, boards, or anything that wasn’t cards. I figured since I hadn’t made a game like that yet that I should just challenge myself to make one. I didn’t intend for the design to be one that I would publish. However, by the time I had a testable prototype, people kept telling me that I needed to publish it.

CAG: Does the “Deck Destruction” mechanism just mean a deck-building game in reverse?

DAL: In a way deck destruction is like deck building in reverse, but it has a different feel than you might expect. The mechanic was a side effect of wanting to avoid life counters, and only using cards. I debated having people track progress on a pad of paper early on, but that felt clunky, and didn’t add anything to the experience. I decided I’d use cards to track success somehow, and realized that shaping the deck as they lost cards would be a mechanic that would add an extra layer to the game without complexity. In fact, deck shaping was how I originally referred to Addictive Alchemy. I think both terms describe it accurately, but deck destruction sounds a bit more catchy.

CAG: It seems the game relies heavily on play zones for cards. Did this pose a difficulty to playtesters?

Workbench card with play zones

DAL: Play zones are an important part of the game. It’s something most people wouldn’t think about, but every card game has play zones. Your deck, discard, hand, and play area exist in almost every game involving cards. If Addictive Alchemy stopped there, then the rules would mention how they work, and we’d move on. However, the mechanics caused some unique play zones to pop up, and I wanted to make sure players intuitively knew how to interact with those zones. For a deck, I don’t need to describe in the manual that it’s a stack of face down cards that you’ll draw from. I can say “put your deck face down.” When it comes to the play area in Addictive Alchemy things are unique. They aren’t complicated, but it’s still important that I make sure people know what to do with it. There’s also another unique zone called the scrap pile. It’s where your cards go when they are removed from the game. It’s like what Magic players call Exile, but instead of it being a global area each player has their own scrap pile.

As far as playtesters go I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had it tested over 200 times by as many different people. In that time I got to see probably every possible question a person could have, and the unique zones did create a few questions. I found a simple way to let people know what to do with their cards was to include the Workbench card, which highlights where they can place their cards, and whether the cards are placed face up or face down. Even though the zones never confused anyone, it saved me time explaining rules, and it made it easier for people to see what their foes were doing on the other side of the table. One thing you’ll notice on the Workbench card are pictures of sheets of paper with or without scribbled writing on them. If you see the writing you know the cards in the zone go face up. If the paper is blank the cards go face down.

CAG: VectoriaDesigns seems to have done a nice job with the art. Was the theme mostly set before they were engaged on the project? How did it evolve after working with them?

Addictive Alchemy CardsDAL: I love VectoriaDesigns. The theme was set before I started working with them. I had made some art for my prototypes, and I’ve played with the alchemy theme in previous game designs. It was something I was drawn to. It was during a play test with some friends that I mentioned to an artist friend that I didn’t like the quality of the art I came up with. I asked if he was interested in working on the project, and he said that his roster was full for some time, but he mentioned that he thought it would be awesome if the art for the cards looked like labels. I liked that idea a lot, but didn’t know any artists that really fit the style he was describing. Later that night he sent me a link to VectoriaDesigns’ website. I later asked him how he found them, and he said he searched for “steampunk art.” I reached out to them, and much to my surprise this art studio in Belgium consisted of old Magic players, and they loved the idea of working on the game.

Addictive Alchemy Side EffectsI work with artists regularly on projects, and I had been working on larger designs before Addictive Alchemy. I have found that the fewer notes you give artists the better work they do. It’s best to find an artist that naturally works in the style you want, and let them do what speaks to them. They get more passionate about the work, and their creativity really flows. I did that with VectoriaDesigns. I gave them a very vague description of what I was looking for and needed, and they came up with a style.

CAG: What was the motivation to bring Addictive Alchemy to Kickstarter? Did you pursue other publishing paths beforehand?

DAL: I get asked that a fair amount, and it’s a great question. Other game designers especially want to know why I went with Kickstarter over working with a publisher. The funny thing is it was seeing other designers work with publishers that led me to go with crowdfunding. I should say that I love crowdfunding. I believe in what it does, and it’s an incredible format for creating, and the communities are full of wonderful people. That is more than enough of a reason to self publish using Kickstarter.

The decision for me came from a different direction though. I am in Atlanta, and to quote a local game designer Jason Stone “we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to gaming in Atlanta.” This includes a lot of a great local game designers; I’ve met and worked with people like myself who are fairly new to game publishing, as well as incredibly successful designers. One thing I noticed from all of them was that they all had the same story. They would show their game to a publisher, the publisher would sound interested, and say the same few canned phrases. It became clear to me they were all hearing the same thing because it was the publishers’ way of being supportive without showing real interest. Unfortunately, it meant that too often the designer thought the publisher had serious intent on moving forward at some point, and the designer would sit with their design, until they realized nothing was going to happen. I looked into things from a publishing viewpoint as well. They get flooded with designs, more than they can ever look at, and many of them don’t even look for outside designs anymore. The market is flooded with designers, which is amazing, but there just aren’t enough publishers to make all of those games.

I knew even if I had an incredible game and a publisher saw it they still might pass it by because of any number of reasons. I could wait for years to have someone else make my dream come true. I could also just do it now. I haven’t closed the door to outside publishers. If one of them approached me about a second printing of Addictive Alchemy, or another one of my designs, I’d be happy to talk with them. Right now I am also very happy to publish them myself.

CAG: Where do your design ideas come from?

DAL: My design ideas can come from a lot of different places, and it’s different from game to game. There are some common things that usually happen in the design with every game. For example, I usually open up a spreadsheet early on and make a set of tabs related to the game play process. I’ll write down notes on how the game might be played in one tab, and in another I will write out a list of goals. My first goal is for the game to be fun. That feels like it should be obvious, but I use that list throughout the design process. Every once in awhile I check my list of goals to see if I’ve met them, or broken them, and it’s important to ask yourself things like “is the game still fun, or did that elegant solution to a problem cause something to be lost?” I’ve played a few games where the design of the game is incredibly clever, but in the process of design they lost sight of whether it should be fun.

From a concept point of view I can start in any number of places. Sometimes I want to play with a theme, sometimes I want to play with a mechanic, and other times I want to see if I can use a mechanic in a unique way. I’ve sat on a few panels where other designers have talked about this as well. I’ve noticed everyone has their own approach for designing games, and they all seem to start at different points. I think that’s wonderful. It’s what causes each game to reflect the designer, and what helps each game be a bit unique. A great example of this is I have a friend who also designs games, and he’s a lawyer by day. Meanwhile, I’m a software developer by day. I can see how his profession heavily influences his design choices compared to my design choices. He’s not afraid to have rules with subsections, and I am not afraid to make things a bit more abstract. Our design choices reflect our personal experiences.

CAG: As a designer, do you gravitate to card games or were there other considerations for this to be your first published game?

DAL: Deck builders are probably the genre of games that speak to me the most. There is something very satisfying about building a deck that performs in a manner that lets you cycle through every card in a single turn. However, I enjoy games of just about any type, and across many styles and genres. Addictive Alchemy was my first pure card game, and I haven’t built one that fits completely in that space since. The next closest game I’ve come to a pure card game is Youkaimono (Japanese for “Things about Ghosts, spirits, or monsters”). Even that has dice though, so it deviates a bit from a pure card game.

CAG: What other game types do you seek out to learn from?

DAL: I tend to look to games that sound like a unique experience to me first. I’ve played a lot of games over the years, and although most games are unique in some fashion I am always the most drawn to ones that do something in a completely new space. That said, I always try to make my games as unique as possible. That can make it tricky when trying to give a brief description of your game. If someone says, “what kind of game is Youkaimono?”, I still am unsure how to say that it’s “a game about collecting powerful Japanese spirits to use their abilities to claim future spirits towards your cause” because that misses what makes the game unique. With Prophesies: In the Shadow of the Titan, however, I can say “it’s a dice rolling auction game that simulates high fantasy combat” and you’re much more likely to have a sense of what it is, but you miss out hearing about how it is a faux co-op game with a leveling mechanic, and procedurally generated monsters.

CAG: What has been the best and worst experience on the Kickstarter journey thus far?

DAL: The Kickstarter experience has been wonderful, but there are some downsides to say the least. I think the hardest part of a Kickstarter is having someone who backed your project unback it. I didn’t even know that was an option until the first person backed out. I thought “What?! That can happen?” I’ve funded a fair amount of projects in my time, and it never occurred to me to do that. I read about it, and how roughly 10% of backers will back out on first time projects. I was fortunately below average on people backing out, but it’s a very hard thing to experience. I also read that you never get used to it. You really don’t. You tell yourself “OK, it might not be fun, but I’m used to it now.” Then someone backs out, and it hurts just as much as the first time.

I’d say the best experience is that a group of people who really liked Addictive Alchemy got together without me knowing about it, and started a Facebook group dedicated to getting the game funded as quickly as possible. These were people I demoed the game for at conventions, and at meetups. After the first day, the game was mostly funded. I got an invite to the group, and I was floored to see how many people got together to help.

CAG: What is one game you would like to redesign or give your own revision of rules?

DAL: Redesigning is part of what drew me into game design as an adult. As a kid I designed games for fun, but once I entered college I didn’t do much with it for a few years. At some point I noticed that I kept tweaking existing games to make them better, and I thought “maybe I should get back into designing games, but be serious about it.” That said, I am finding that more and more modern games don’t need many rule tweaks. With modern games if you don’t enjoy the game it’s likely because it’s not your kind of game. The need to tweak rules isn’t what it used to be, and if I find a game where I am thinking about tweaking the rules, then I usually just buy a game that doesn’t need rule tweaks.

If I were to make a tweak to a game I’d probably pick a deck builder. I’ve played a lot of deck builders, some more than a few hundred times. The thing I’d love to see some of those deck builders do (or a new trend in deck building) is a way to cut to the chase a little faster. The typical formula is each player gets 10 starter cards, and the goal is to use those to get better cards in your deck, and find ways to either remove those starter cards, or find ways to skip past them. A great way to improve on that would be to help you naturally get rid of the cards you start with a bit faster, or a way to have them become more useful mid and late game. It’d create a very unique tempo and experience.

I once commented to some people at a game meetup “I should design a deck builder where all you do is trash cards.” They looked at me with a puzzled expression, and said “really?”, and I realized I already had with Addictive Alchemy.