Interview: Dan Hallagan on Game Design and Writing

by Boaz Dror

During our recent global pandemic, with so much indoor quarantining with family, I inadvertently developed an addiction to boardgames. I blame this on my screenwriter’s love for format constraints and creative limitations. After all, there is no better representation of a tight cognitive frame than a literal rectangular piece of cardboard into which story must fit. My newfound enjoyment soon sent me down a wormhole that gobbled up shelf-space and time.

Fortunately, this tabletop tailspin led to Obsession, a boardgame in which players take on the roles of Victorian-era families vying for reputation and prestige. The game’s creator, Dan Hallagan, started out as the author of The Climber series of fantasy books before veering into game design, producing a resounding critical success with his very first attempt. We chatted over Zoom, I in Los Angeles and he in Dayton, Ohio, where he runs Kayenta games.

TCR: How’d you become a writer?

DAN HALLAGAN: I consumed books voraciously as a teenager, starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs, then Lord of the Rings launched me into the stratosphere. I remember writing primitive fantasy and science fiction stories when I was younger. Then about ten years ago I realized there was a change coming… the old gatekeepers for a novelist were a few big publishing houses, and to get published was akin to hitting the lottery, especially if you were an unknown. But that changed with Amazon. Once they permitted self-publication with on-demand printing, it was an opportunity to give it a shot. So I said, “what the heck, I can do this.”

And you had The Climber series ready?

DH: Yes. I had written – and I still have in my safe – a three hundred-page manuscript of the book that I actually had an agent for, who felt it had potential. I like apologetics, I’m a Christian, and one of the things I thought would be interesting would be to use fantasy/creative fiction as an apologetic tool. The Climber series has an angelic figure in it, and a good-and-evil flavor. It asks, “What is Hell?” and that was the thing that got me writing. When I decided to develop The Climber, that’s when I stumbled into the Amazon revolution, and it drove me to actually write it, get an editor and make a concerted effort. I actually have eight books in that series… I don’t know if I’ll ever finish them, but maybe one day.

Then Obsession happens; was that also a case of seeing a window of opportunity?

DH: No, but that’s insightful, because the same ability for a game designer to break into the market exists. There were six major book publishers back in the day and there’s many more game publishers, but you still had to go through a publishing company to pitch an idea. I played games as a young guy: Dungeons & Dragons and Axis & Allies. I always loved games, but when I had a family and got married it all fell by the wayside, because those games were major projects. But I had a friend who a little less than ten years ago tried to recruit me over to the new tabletop board games that were coming out. So one Christmas, I told him “I got room under the tree, give me a couple names,” and he said 7 Wonders and Dominion. I bought ‘em, slid them under the tree, and we couldn’t put those games away, we wore them out, and then I went bonkers: buying everything under the sun. I didn’t realize there was this revolution in board games which took tactics and imagination and theme and put it all into an evening’s experience. That was mesmerizing; it got a hold of me. I was still writing at the time—this was 2013—and by 2014 the idea came to me to try to do my own game.

Was that Obsession? I read somewhere that you started off with a fantasy game.

DH: The majority of games published have a fantasy/science fiction theme, and I did have a medieval knight type game, but it never got far. Then this idea hit me: I’d just gotten Terra Mystica and was all excited, showing my wife, [saying] “Come here and look at this!” And she rolls her eyes [and says], “Nah, I don’t like that stuff. Let’s just watch Downton Abbey.” And a light bulb went off. I thought I’ll go find a game for us based on 19th century British literature. But that was harder than I thought. I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t a simple party game. At that time I liked the heavier stuff, the crunchiness. And yet everything I looked at, in the Victorian/Regency/Edwardian era, or in the Romantic period, was light and fluffy. So I thought I’d give it a crack.

TCR: As writers, we each have our ways of cracking stories, but how does one “crack” a game?

DH: When I played a game, I was looking for “the magic.” And it wasn’t to be found necessarily in the mechanics, or the intellectual problem that you’re trying to solve; to me it was found in the theme. Like my favorite game of all time, Castles of Mad King Ludwig: I’m transported by magic with the silly fun of constructing that darn castle. That became the template for Obsession’s tiles; I was trying to make rooms like in Ludwig, and that was as far beyond my production abilities as I am from you geographically right now [laughing]. There was no hope that I could get that to work, so I surrendered the idea and instead said, “What if I just have the rooms as their own separate tableau?” To me there’s something thematic about hosting, gathering the focus of attention onto the event.

The magic lies in the theme, and where the theme and the mechanics meet coherently is where you find the most magic. If you think about Victorian literature, the most prevalent plot devices are disaster and surprise. I went deep into this “disaster-piece” on a couple of early models, where your deck of gentry could die, your manor could burn down, and you could lose rooms. It was a house of horrors! I almost brought my sister-in-law to tears during a playtest because she finally got her English garden and it burned down in the next round! [Laughter] I learned the game had to be enjoyable as well as brutally realistic… So I settled on a light negative element, the unsavory gentry, like Wickham from Pride and Prejudice or Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility… this bad bunch who if you associated with them, it hurt your reputation. That was one of the things I kept from that disaster model, as well as being able to pluck a servant from another player, because there’s always a shortage of good help in Derbyshire.

TCR: Were there moments that surprised you, by how well the theme integrated?

DH: Absolutely. I will tell you to this day—this is not false modesty—I’ve no idea how the game came together. People think that designers – and probably people like Vital Lacerda and Uwe Rosenberg [big names in game design] do this – they’ve got mathematical probabilities of certain things happening and try to balance it carefully. Zero of that [laughing]. Yes, there was playtesting, which exposed things… and I didn’t do enough of that. First edition to second edition, I had to make corrections. I used to have it where you’d flip the tiles back and forth every time you used them, and you kept losing victory points when you played the tile a second time. It was like getting your wrist slapped for being predictable: You don’t want to drag the Duchess to five games of bowls. Thematically it worked, but mechanically it stagnated the game. It was “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” that governed many of the changes.

And I credit [YouTube boardgame reviewer] Richard Ham, who goes by Rahdo. If it weren’t for him, we’re not having this conversation and I don’t have a game. When I approached him, I was that unknown author approaching a towering figure in the industry. He had no reason to say he’d take a look at the game, but he did. He lived in Malta. You know how much it is to ship something to Malta? [laughing] He told me first time he played it, “you got something interesting here, but the game doesn’t work. I can review it but it’s not going to be a positive review.” I made massive changes off that. Reminds me of when I read Stephen King’s On Writing: you have to know when to “kill your children.” And I hacked out so many things from the first to the second iteration. And when it got simpler, it got better.

So what unlocks the most magic for you in a board game?

DH: First of all, the table presence of a game is meaningful, and that touches upon components, upon the look, how it invites you in. Secondly, if the mechanics are so difficult as to require rules references when you play, then you’re missing the magic. And I gotta be careful, because I wrote forty-two pages of rule book/glossary, so I’m not one to talk. But for example, I’ve played On Mars by Vital Lacerda; beautiful table presence but so dense that unless you’ve really played ten times in close proximity I don’t think you’ll ever get away from the rule book. And that’s okay, I mean we’re talking my own narrow and perhaps primitive objective of “magic;” there’s a lot of geniuses in our hobby that can read a rulebook and have it committed. But getting into a flow, so you’re not thinking about how you’re doing things, you’re thinking about what you’re doing. When people say a game’s too long, I don’t know if the game’s too long or you never got into that zone with the magic in it. When I’m playing a great game, it’s never too long.

TCR: One particularly magical moment for my group came at the end of courtship, when we realized the Fairchilds were coming to visit the leading family.

DH: My brother, who was my main play tester, that was his idea. [Originally] there was no courtship at all in the game, it was just twelve rounds of activities. And he said, “something’s missing. You gotta get some romance in there.” So I worked on that. So often, that kind of feedback is what pushes you to think in a different direction, because you get your head down and you’re designing and writing and you think you’re really seeing the trees, but you’re not seeing the forest.

How important was assembling the cast of “gentry” characters to building the game?

DH: The game leaned heavily on the characters but the game produced the characters. I developed the idea of a “gentry deck” and then faced the number one problem every small publisher faces: the cost of artwork. Those original cover images I have on my three books were about $500 apiece. So while my original thought was to use a J.M.W. Turner type of artist, who has an impressionist style, and have artistic renditions of people, I thought “how am I going to have $50,000 of art in this project?” Now I know a little bit about intellectual property, and photographs before 1929 are in the public domain. So I asked myself “are there pictures of people from Victorian England?” And once I dove into pictures from the 19th century, it came to life. Then I was confronted with creating their stories, so I would look into the publications of the “landed families” of 19th century England, and get names like Exeter, Whitlow, Cole, Thornhill. I’d say over half came out of the registers for English aristocracy and the other half came from either foreign music or a number I just picked out, like Churchill, Kent––there’s a Thatcher in there, an Eden––from Prime Ministers from recent times.

TCR: How did crowdfunding help your development?

DH: If you’re going to crowdfund, you’re going to create two thousand or five thousand relationships, and if you have the cheek to ask somebody to give you money for an idea you’d better have the humility to listen to their thoughts about your idea. When I launched, the overwhelming reaction was “this thing is freakin’ ugly.” That takes like twenty-four hours of inner whining before you get to the point where you say, “OK, what’re they talking about?” The reality was that I had no thought of design, I was so entranced with the mechanics. I pull up my prototype today and think, “Oh my God, I sent that to Rahdo? I can’t believe I’m even breathing in this industry.”

Fortunately, I listened, and went back to those folks and their response was unbelievable. People who were taking the cynical approach of “this thing looks like crap. Is this a joke?” would then pivot and say, “there’s a lot here… but you’re not understanding what clashes.” I’m not a graphic design guy, I’m a company of one… so if it weren’t for those people helping me and that transformative process, it wouldn’t have been remotely as successful. The value of Kickstarter is twofold: the first is to see if the project is viable. Number two is the marketing potential: how else can I contact tens of thousands of people to look at my first project? It’s an evangelism platform, to reach the world… that’s what’s amazing about it.

What’s life like after Obsession? Is running a boardgame company harder than you imagined?

DH: Infinitely. I cannot tell you the challenges: manufacturing, transoceanic shipping, warehousing, ensuring freighting, delivering quality correction… I don’t mind it. I actually look at every hard thing that comes along as an opportunity to shine. I have a philosophy: anything’s wrong with the game, I’ll fix it ‘til it’s perfect. I’ve never argued with anybody, even if I have to ship a package three times to Sweden. That business part of the model is what people don’t anticipate when they think it’s going to be all about “here’s a cool game, let me show people and they’ll buy it from me.” I literally did everything wrong that a designer or small businessman can do, and once you do something wrong you remember how not to do it wrong again. You may do the next thing wrong, but eventually you figure it out and it makes life a lot easier.

Looking back, is there anything you’d change about Obsession?

DH: I’m not particularly happy with the objective cards. They’re probably the least thematic thing in the game: “get this and get points” is something that doesn’t sit well with me, though people could eliminate it. One thing I feel strongly about is that I do not have a problem with the random elements in the game. There’s a giant undercurrent in our hobby as to what makes a good game, and it revolves around randomness. That’s become the litmus test. The most cutting thing someone can say about your game is “it’s all random.” Boom, that’s the kiss of death, the scarlet letter. And it’s a total misunderstanding of what the hobby is; Randomness introduces story. If you have no randomness then you have a mechanical path; you either follow it or you don’t. But once you introduce the random element, then you have decisions, which are sort of the basis of our existence and human interaction.

If I’m going to capture the vagaries of British literature, the crazy wife in the attic, the scoundrel who poses as an honorable man, I need to have surprises and unknown things hit you between the eyes to make you step back and say, “What do I do”? And yet because they can’t have randomness, designers are putting stuff in to produce these… abominations. It’s the multi-purpose thing: here’s a card, this card is a story about this particular character, or particular place… BUT if you don’t like that you can turn the card in for one money, or convert it to two wood, or turn it sideways and move backwards or discard two to get another card, which you can then discard with one wheat and turn back… I like the idea of capturing the Victorian flavor, where if you get an American Heiress that comes unexpectedly on the arm of your son back to your manor while you’re entertaining a Duchess, you’ve got a problem—deal with it! If you lose the game, that’s fine, I don’t care. Because ultimately the sign of a great design is that you have as much fun losing as winning.

TCR: With your next game, did you consciously try something in a different vein?

DH: I did try something different. I’m a heavy gamer by inclination, but the reality is that most of the world is not. I found my gaming evangelism was getting tougher and tougher. Say you’re bringing a game to somebody and you want them to play. Think what’s going through their minds when you proceed to explain something that borders on knowing a foreign language. It’s this Catch-22: they don’t want to be a punching bag for someone who’s mastered a game enough to teach it to them. So I realized that I needed to go lighter, and I’ve acquired a great affection for light games, like Bohnanza by Uwe Rosenberg: it’s absolutely a hoot, not very deep, with a nice little mechanical twist. You’ll have 6 or 7 people screaming with laughter, whereas if I sit six or seven people around a game of Agricola it’s like medical students studying in a quiet library.

And I stumbled onto a trick-taking game using Obsession cards that’s just too freakin’ cool, discovered by accident… no way that this game could’ve been conceived without the gentry cards. I explained it to my brother, who helped design Obsession, and he was shaking his head because it makes no sense, [saying] “What’re you talking about, this is idiotic,” and I said “Can you play a game first?” And he got to the end and he [said], “My jaw’s on the table. I don’t understand why this works.” I feel like I didn’t design anything. And I would never even compare myself to Michelangelo’s helper, but Michelangelo said that he never carved anything out of marble, he just chipped away the pieces covering up what was inside. I just pulled this deck out and asked, “What if I did x?” Literally one question and the game happened… That communicates to me that it’s original. If there’s one thing our crowdfunding hobby suffers from, it’s derivative games. Someone comes out with an Exploding Kittens and you get Farting Mushrooms and Rainbow Unicorns. I never want to be derivative.

When can we expect the new Kickstarter?

DH: I don’t want to rush it. I want it to look nice. It’ll probably be late Winter/early Spring. Also, there’s no more Obsession copies on planet Earth; I’m in the midst of a production run. We got disasters on the seas, transoceanic shipping is at a standstill, there’s all kinds of problems, so I’ve got to get Obsession back in stock and then I can dedicate myself to finishing up.

Any advice you’d give writers reading this who might be interested in game design?

DH: Write less! The Achilles heel of my game is all the writing I did. It’s far and away the number one criticism. I buried too many critical rules deeper into the thematic pages than I should’ve. You asked about something I’d change… I’d have a technical writer do a four-page rulebook on the core rules without a zip of the thematic, and then I’d do a glossary to my heart’s content. The tendency for a writer is to bring their craft to the game… But it’s imagination, not wordsmithing, that puts you at an advantage, because you have an ability to create a narrative and a story, which is the future of this hobby. So if you’re going to tell a story, be loyal to the story and let the story create the game.

Boaz Dror is a screenwriter and filmmaker fascinated with stories and narrative across all media. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently pursuing an MFA from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert low-residency program.