jdodson: I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I am wondering if you could give a quick rundown of your history with gaming and what you currently do for Fantasy Flight Games?
Kevin Wilson: No problem. I've been gaming for about 30 years now, getting my start as a D&D roleplayer way back in the day. After that, I managed to fall into a position at Alderac Entertainment writing RPG books for several years, then moving to Fantasy Flight Games, where I wound up in the board game department. At FFG, I've worked on a number of their board games over the last ten years, including A Game of Thrones, Arkham Horror, Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Android, and Sid Meier's Civilization.
jdodson: Recently you had a hand in the Fortress America reboot. I wonder how the process was refreshing the original? How involved was Hasbro in the process?
Kevin Wilson: Mostly I talked to Mike Gray to see if he had any thoughts on things he'd like to see changed. Hasbro was very hands-off for the small bits of redesign I did and in general I tried to have a very light touch because I felt Fortress America was a very good game already.
jdodson: As you think back to the games you have created I wonder which one you look back at as your best work?
Kevin Wilson: That's a tough call. I think that my work on Android is perhaps the work I'm _proudest_ of, but I don't think it's my best work, necessarily. Arkham Horror was certainly the most successful work, but I think I have to give the nod to Sid Meier's Civilization: the Boardgame as my best work to date. I had a good amount of time to really engineer that game, and I felt I was able to weave a lot of interesting mechanics together into a game that really felt like the computer game while still retaining an identity of its own.
jdodson: When you are creating a new board game how long and involved the process is for coming up with the initial concept to playing the first version of the game? Do you play it by yourself generally or with others?
Kevin Wilson: It varies greatly based on the size, ambition, and clarity of the initial concept. I've designed a couple games in an evening, while Android took approximately two years to finish. For my initial playthrough, generally I'll just solo the game for a few turns to make sure things are flowing the way I envisioned. After that, I step it up to actual playtesting with others, and that continues until the game is ready for prime time.
jdodson: For aspiring board game designers I wonder what you recommend they do to break into the industry?
Kevin Wilson: Another hard question. I was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time when I broke into the industry. You can't really engineer something like that. What you CAN do is present a professional personality and appearance, be friendly and courteous to EVERYONE in the industry you talk to (you never know who will turn out to be the key to your future career), and do your research. By that I mean to include not only books on game design, but actually study the products made by the game companies you are interested in. Also, cultivate other hobbies and interests besides gaming. It's not only useful to be a more well-rounded person when trying to break in, but if you DO make it into the industry, you can find yourself swallowed up by the job if you don't have other things to anchor yourself.
jdodson: I love Doom. I couldn’t get enough of Doom and one year many moons ago I picked up Doom: The Board Game. Quickly it became my favorite board game of all time. I love it because it totally threw me for what I thought board games were. It had awesome pieces, the rules fit the mood of the game and it had a tone I hadn't seen in a board game before. I was blown back by how well a first person shooter translated to a board game. Oh, and its hard as hell, which is awesome. That said, if you could beg my indulgence as its been out for many years now, I had some questions about it.
jdodson:When I first sat down to play the game with my wife I wanted to collect everything and take my time with going through the scenarios. She stomped my face into the dirt and I quickly learned the point was to escape alive. I wonder, where the focus on the escape and evasion rather than the typical dungeon crawl came from?
Kevin Wilson: I wanted the marine players to be afraid. If they kept fighting and dilly-dallying, they would eventually be overwhelmed, dragged down, and defeated. This motivates them to move through the level as quickly as they dare, in a sort of endless fire fight. I really wanted that desperation, and all the time the invader player is sitting on the other side of the table, taunting and laughing at them.
jdodson: How involved was iD in the process of the creation of the board game?
Kevin Wilson: iD wasn't involved any in the actual design, but they were very generous in providing nice 3d shots of the monsters from all angles posed however I wanted them. It was incredibly helpful when we had the miniatures sculpted. Overall, they were pretty pleasant to work with, I thought.
jdodson: This game is generally panned as being very difficult. Ill admit, I lost all of my early games as a lone Marine. Part of the games charm is how difficult it really is, for me winning is a badge of pride. That said, I wonder for you what do you think about its difficulty now? Have you been designed a game that was more difficult by design or chance?
Kevin Wilson: It was interesting to see how difficult many people found playing the marines, and the various ways they reacted to that. When I designed Descent 1st ed., I purposely started the quests easier for the heroes at first, and then ramped them up over time because of the violent reactions some folks had to Doom's difficulty. It's tricky to gauge that sort of thing because no two gaming groups are the same, and that makes the 50/50 win ratio that some expect kind of impossible, assuming it's even a worthwhile goal. People forget that just because a game plays one way for their gaming group, doesn't mean it plays that way for EVERY gaming group. Still, I won't deny that the difficulty of playing the marines in Doom was an unpopular choice.
As for more difficult games, I'd say that I've cranked the difficulty of Arkham Horror beyond that point when you take into account the various expansions. I've always found it funny how players keep asking for it to be harder. Well, at least up until Innsmouth Horror. I think that expansion finally scratched the difficulty itch for players.
jdodson: Over the years as you have experienced people playing your games, I wonder what has surprised you the most about that? Do people experience your games in ways you didn’t expect?
Kevin Wilson: Hmm, I'd have to say that seeing parents playing Doom with their kids was quite surprising for me, given the source material. That said, I was very proud of that, and made sure to anticipate it more when designing Descent 1st ed.
Other than that, I don't know that I've been "surprised by" so much as I've "learned from". Games are sort of like a conversation between the players, and the best designers learn how to slip in what they have to say without interrupting the players. I feel I've succeeded some at this and failed some at this, but I always strive to push my skills to the next level with each new design.
jdodson: What have you been playing lately?
Kevin Wilson: My group has been playing a fair amount of Quarriors and King of Tokyo lately, besides our usual mainstays of Cosmic Encounter and Battlestations. I'm not really sure why we've gravitated to lighter fare lately, but we certainly have.
jdodson: What game do you think really encapsulates what you love most about gaming?
Kevin Wilson: If I had to choose a single game, it would have to be Cosmic Encounter. It's endlessly replayable, and it creates all sorts of interesting dynamics between the players at the table that shift over the course of the game. All that and it's a simple game to learn and teach. It's truly a gem of a design.
Now, on the other hand, if I were to choose a game designer who encapsulates what I love about game design, it would have to be Sid Sackson. He was a master of crafting wildly different experiences with each of his games. If you look at I'm the Boss!, you get this tense, freewheeling negotiation game. Acquire is a wonderful mix of luck and skill with some incredibly clever bits. Can't Stop is an exciting press-your-luck game...the list goes on and on. He always had something new to say with each release. Sid was really an amazing guy.
note: As we finished the interview Kevin let me know that he was leaving Fantasy Flight Games on good terms to become an independent Board Game Designer. He was awesomely able to answer a follow up to that:
jdodson: Are you going to be making a game on your own or consulting in some other way? If you are going to be building a game, do you have any details you want to share about it?
Kevin Wilson: Well Jon, having left FFG, I'm going to be going out on my own as a freelance designer. That means I'll probably be doing a mix of work-for-hire and my own original concepts, which I'll then attempt to sell to a company. Some of those projects may very well be with FFG, since I'm still on good terms with them. I can't speak about anything I'm working on yet except to say that I'm definitely planning on doing a collaboration with Eric Lang (Chaos in the Old World, Quarriors) later this year.
For more follow up to Kevin going freelance there is a post on Board Game Geek about it:
I want to thank Kevin Wilson for taking the time to answer my questions and wish him well in the design of his next games!