Interview with Jay Cormier, Co-Creator of Belfort and Train of Thought

Meet Jay Cormier. Together with Sen-Foong Lim, he has published board game titles such as Belfort (2011) and Train of Thought (2011) under the duo’s moniker, the Bamboozle Brothers. But that’s not all! As of June 2013, Jay also teaches the Game Theory Analog class at VFS, passing on his years of board game design experience. But wait – there’s more! Jay is also a tech blogger and a children’s entertainer, clowning around Canada with his jungle-explorer persona Bertolt. I chatted with Jay about how he got into game design, coming up with Belfort and it’s upcoming expansion, as well as advice for fellow game designers who are looking to get published.

Growing up with a family that played lots of board games together, Jay became interested in designing games at an early age, eventually taking on his first dungeon master role for the fantasy tabletop game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in seventh grade.

Jay: Looking back now, it’s like well I guess I did like designing games even then. Making maps and all that kind of stuff. But then it wasn’t until fast-forward to university days and it was with my buddy Sen – he introduced me to ‘Magic: The Gathering’. I was like, holy crap, what is this? This is really cool, like I really like it… I got totally hooked on it, spent like a billion dollars on it.”

Over a period of time, Sen introduced Jay to a variety of games such as crayon rail games and war games like ‘Risk’ and ‘Supremacy’.

Jay: Slowly we’d play games like ‘Illuminati’ and [I was] like, that’s weird, this is a game where you’re allowed to cheat? That’s kind of neat, and ‘Robo Rally’ and maybe even ‘Settlers of Catan’ and slowly starting to realize wow, there’s a lot of neat stuff out here. But still just only went and played those kinds of games with my friend Sen. And then slowly as I started getting out of Magic because of the money drain, I would buy one or two games here or there of my own and be like cool, now I have a game I can bring. Then it pretty much exploded in terms of buying and owning games and now I own like hundreds of games.”

Their shared passion for games eventually led to the formation of a life-changing partnership.

Jay: “And then I don’t know if it happens to everybody, but invariably, if you have a creative mind I guess, and you like a ‘something’, eventually you’re like – I bet you I could do something. And so Sen and I said, ‘Let’s make a game! Yeah! And we’ll open a bar up together too!’ – we didn’t do that part though.”

Little did they know it would be five years of hard work and perseverance before their first title was published.

Jay: “So we started making a game and invariably what happens, and this is a really good quote by Ira Glass and this is a paraphrase, but if somebody likes something, like some sort of art medium, and once they get involved in that medium, invariably what happens is their first attempt really sucks because they have high standards. That’s why they like that medium and they like games, they like music, they like painting. Whatever it is they like what they like ‘cause they think, at the very least, they have high standards of what ‘good’ is. And they can differentiate, like that’s not good, this is good.

And so on their first attempt to make something in that medium that they love so much, it’s invariably not very good. Because they have no experience, right? And so ninety-nine per cent of people just quit. They say that’s it, we’re done. And Ira Glass says no you gotta stick to it, that’s experience, you gotta. It might be weeks, months, years, until you all of a sudden are good at something.

And so we did it. We went through it and we created a game and we’d meet every week and figure things out. And it wasn’t working and we got to that point where we just slowly stopped talking about it and we’d just play games and not talk about this other game ‘cause we were frustrated by it and couldn’t figure it out. And then we stopped. And then a year passed. And two years passed. We still didn’t talk about it.”

It wasn’t until a year after Jay moved to Vancouver, leaving Sen in Toronto, that the ball really began rolling. Sen visited Jay and the two agreed to recommit to making a game together. But now that they no longer lived down the road from each other, how could they accomplish their dream?

Jay: “We created our own little [online] forum just for him and I to talk and that was it. That was the magic. Because now when Sen types something, I read it and go ‘well now I have to respond’ and then it just goes back and forth. We both feel like we have to keep contributing. And eventually you’ve got not just one game you’re working on, but several ideas spin off of that. So now if we’re ever running low on inspiration, we’ve got all these places to go, all these various games at different states we’ve been working on.”

After a few years, the Bamboozle Brothers had built up a number of games that they were ready to pitch to publishers. But it would be an idea for a marketing gimmick that would eventually lead to the creation of the game that won first place at the 2011 Board Game Geek convention.

Jay: “…this was back when we were thinking we were gonna mail them a letter, literally, and say, ‘Hey, are you interested in looking at games?’ And in this mail, we thought wouldn’t it be kind of cool if we kinda gave them a free game? Not that we’re pitching it to them but like, a little free game. So we started thinking well, it’s gotta be something really small, so we gave ourselves a limitation of twenty, twenty-five tiles. How can we make a game with twenty, twenty-five tiles? So we made one game called ‘Hot Property’. It’s actually a pretty fun little game for two players. We had this little cardboard box that wrapped around and it was a nice little package, really neat.

I was kind of really intrigued by the process that went into making this little pocket game and so we challenged ourselves, like maybe we can make some more. So we tried one or two more, and then three or four, and we started coming with all these ideas for other games that we could put into twenty-five tiles. And I’m telling you, constraint is the mother of invention. If you wanna be creative, give yourself a constraint.”

Jay and Sen made numerous card and word games until one day Jay took inspiration from one of his favourite computer games at the time.

Jay: “[I said to Sen] I wonder if we could do a resource game, like Warcraft II. And that’s where it started. Where I’m like, you’re going out, you’re getting workers and resources and then you use those resources to build things. But with twenty-five tiles? I don’t know how to do that. But we tried. And I made it.

One tile was the entire map of Belfort. And then you had your wood, stone and you had to turn it to indicate how many you had. That’s already four cards right there because I’ve got two and you’ve got to have two. Then the rest of it was cards that you tried to… I can’t remember.

Anyway the first time we played it, Sen was like ‘it’s cool, but it needs to be bigger’. And at first I was like ‘but the constraint! We’ve gotta make it work!’ and Sen said but it’s so interesting, we’ve gotta make it bigger. ”

The game grew and grew over weekends until it grew into Belfort – but not before a bit of name hunting.

Jay: “So as we were playing ‘Castletown’ and we were all agreeing that wasn’t a good name. One of my friends suggested, ‘you should call it blah-blah-blah’, and it was a terrible name and I went, ‘why?’ and he said well that’s because it’s the name of a castle that actually has five sides. [I said] Oh, that’s kind of cool. So we went and Googled five-sided castles and one of the first ones that came up was Belfort.”

Belfort went through 27 iterations of design and play testing, redesign and play testing.

Jay: “Back then we had another building called the barracks and a new type of unit was a warrior. And you could set warriors out to protect your building. And we found over and over again, feedback about the entire game was always focused around orcs and the dragons. So we kept trying to fix it and change things and it just came down to, ‘No, in a building game, people do not like their things getting destroyed’. So eventually we just took it out and it was way better.”

The path to being published was one of trial-and error. The Bamboozle Brothers had no contacts in the industry and no idea of how to get in touch, save emailing publishers directly. But with a tip from a friend, Jay made his way to the GAMA (Game Manufacturers’ Association) convention – a board game convention for publishers to pitch to retailers. Armed with quick-sheets to help sell his game while pitching – a rare practice at the time – Jay managed to send off a few games with publishers. But the games were sent back to him a few months later.

The following year, Jay went back to the GAMA convention. Spotting a fellow designer setting up a table, Joy volunteered to join him and his team as a play tester. During the play session, Jay mentioned Belfort and the designers expressed interest in playing.

Jay: “About three-quarters of the way through playing this game (the play test), I realise these guys that I’m playing with weren’t designers, these were the publishers that were playing this game. I’m like, oh! That’s interesting.

So we set up Belfort and they really like it. They said, oh let’s go for dinner. So we went out for dinner together. And the next day they say they wanna play it again. Not only that but as we’re playing – I could’ve paid them – but people walking by ask if we’re playing later, because they want to play it.”

For Jay, one of the key things that led to him sealing the deal with his publisher Tasty Minstrel was his willingness to apply feedback they gave him during the first play test.  For those curious, they adapted the way King’s Camp (turn order) works – a change that remains to this day.

Tasty Minstrel took Belfort in for a probation development period of six months, further refining the mechanics and implementing artwork. At the end of the six months, the Bamboozle Brothers had secured their first publishing deal that was closely followed by the signing ‘Train of Thought’, also to Tasty Minstrel.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Tasty Minstrel are soon to release the Belfort Expansion that was Kickstarted on May 9th this year by 977 backers, reaching $34,101 of its $20,000 goal.

Pictured: Prototype cards from the Belfort Expansion.

Pictured: Prototype cards from the Belfort Expansion.

What advice does Jay have for board game designers who are looking to get their work out there?

Jay: “I would strongly recommend for designers to find other designers. You could do that on various meet-up online sites and whatnot. You can do it just via online, that’s kind of one step.  And there’s the board game online forum. Board Game Geek has designer threads and all that kinda stuff and that. Get involved, contribute and whatnot. But even more better – more better? Better-er – is meeting other designers in real-life and play-testing each other’s games. It’s amazing to see not only how other people design, especially the next iteration after the feedback you’ve given. To see what they incorporated and what they didn’t. It’s just really neat to see.

We got involved in a group called The Game Artisans of Canada. We have chapters all across Canada. We have a chapter here in Vancouver. We try to get together as often as we can, as low as once a month maybe. We just playtest each other’s games.

It’s fascinating to get feedback from another designer. I would never say just get feedback from them ‘cause you need non-gamers to play your games as well. But the feedback from designers, I find, is really valuable because they already know certain things about games and a few of the levers and consequences of what happens if you change this. So they usually won’t give asinine feedback. They know if you get rid of this, you lose motivation to do all of this. So they won’t even give that feedback. That said, it’s still good for non-gamers to give that feedback ‘cause there’s something behind why they’re saying that.”

For Jay, market research and gaining experience wherever possible is crucial. So when I asked him what advice he had for VFS students looking to get their board games on the market, he had this to say.

Jay: “So much playtesting. And playing more board games. So that you can really see how and where your game fits in the world of board games and which publishers would probably be interested in that kind of a game. I remember going to GAMA once and going up to a specific publisher and I had ten games I could have pitched. And I said that, ‘I got a bag full of ten games, but I want to show you two of them,’ and afterwards she was really thankful. She said, ‘thank you so much for respecting my time because I get people that don’t even think that and they just… [show game after game] …and we don’t publish big games like that. That’s not our thing’. So knowing your market and more and more experience is so vital.

I was talking to one designer and he had this party game, and the board kinda told you what to do and at the end I’m like, ‘I felt the board was superfluous, I don’t get it. I mean, you could just have a card and every round you choose a different card. And he’s like no, you need a board. It’s a board game, you need a board. I’m like, no. Haven’t you ever played ‘Apples to Apples’? [He said] no, never heard of it. I’m like, yeah okay, I know you’re not supposed to know every game in the world but ‘Apples to Apples’ is now like a five-million seller. It’s a pretty big game now.

If you’re in a certain space, like party games, you should know other party games that you’re competing with. Just to know if similar things have been tried or done before. And what new things you’re bringing to it.  ‘Cause if yours is just ‘Pictionary’ but you use two hands at the same time to draw, okay, that’s not that amazing. But if you didn’t know ‘Pictionary’ existed, maybe you thought that was amazing. So you’ve gotta know the games out there and you’ve gotta play them. And you’re like, okay, I’m gonna abandon this one whole idea for this other game, ‘cause it’s already in this system here.”

Jay also had these words of encouragement for students seeking a career not only in game design, but in all creative pursuits.

Jay: “If you really wanna be in game design, ‘cause that’s something that’s really cool, it’s just something that takes persistence. You can’t give up because you think you suck at it. And I hate people who say, I guess I’m not meant to be a game designer. I guess I’m not meant to be a singer. I guess god doesn’t want me to be a writer. All those kinds of things. It’s like no, no, that’s your experience. You’re in a phase of learning and figuring things out. And eventually you become better, if not good, if not excellent at it over time. And I mean, we’re still on that journey of trying to do that as well.”

 


Jaymee Mak is a Game Design Student at VFS, and a winner of the Women in Games Scholarship

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