Monday, March 21, 2011

10+4 BG Questions with Sean Ross about "Haggis"

I am starting a new section/type of post today. It's essentially an 'interview' with a game designer. Without going into too much behind-the-scenes thinking (as that isn't the focus here), I thought it would be fun to ask game designers some questions electronically and then post their responses and maybe throw in some other related information if it's relevant.

I initially thought 20 or 25 questions, but when coming up with a list of questions it seemed a bit too long and unwieldy. I also had the idea of doing maybe 20 questions + 5 follow-up questions, but again, too many. So, I then thought 10+5 questions might be good (not too many, but then enough to do good follow-up). However, I couldn't think of a good name for what I would call this 'type' of interview. Magazines often have a "10 questions with the author" sort of thing so how do I do this and be a little different at the same time?

So, I came up with "10+4 BG (Board Game)" questions which is bit of a play on "10-4 Good Buddy" for CB radio speak. Not that I'm into CB radio or anything and not that it even makes sense in terms of CB radio slang, but there you have it. I have no intention of extending the relation further than that. What is does ultimately do, though, is force me to ask (hopefully) interesting and diverse questions and then 4 focused follow-up questions looking for more specific detail or expanding on something mentioned in the previous 10 answers.

Well, we'll see how successful this is, but I like the concept at least. Something else I didn't expect was how many MORE questions I ended up wanting to ask after the initial 10. And, as you will see, I cheated a little bit here asking 2 questions in one in a couple of cases, and asking extra follow-up questions to other individuals. So much for structure, but rules are meant to be broken, right? Let's just say it's a 'variant' :)

Why Haggis and Sean Ross for your first 10+4 BG feature?
Well, a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that I just got Haggis, I have enjoyed the game so far and am excited about it but didn't know much about the background. Secondarily, I hadn't seen any formal interviews with Sean specifically about Haggis although Travis did an Essen video overview of the rules. Also, I did a review of Haggis recently and thought it might be nice to follow up with an 'interview' of sorts and, if it goes well, I can maybe continue the trend for other games as well.

Obviously (as you will see) I should have looked around on a bit more as there was a lot of intrinsic information from Sean posting the original rules and effectively redesigning parts of it interactively with other BGG members via forum posts. But even that sort of information doesn't necessarily get to the essence that some questions might elicit.

So, without further delay, here are the 10+4 questions (+ extras from Travis Worthington, publisher, and Gary Simpson, game artist):

QUESTION 1: Where did you get the idea for Haggis and why did you pursue it?
SEAN: For many years I'd been wanting to find a two player traditional card game, other than Cribbage, that I would really enjoy playing. I'd researched all of the games at many times over, but I didn't really find what I was looking for.

My search then led me to BGG where I discovered a whole world of games I hadn't known existed. I began learning everything I could and continued searching for that two player game I'd been wanting. Along the way, I discovered Tichu. Even before I played it, I knew it would be amazing. And I very much wanted to play it.

But, at the time, I had almost no opportunities to play games of any kind that would take more than two players. So, I started looking into the two player variants that had been made for Tichu, while also revisiting the two player versions of any and all of the other climbing card games I'd encountered during my research. Nothing satisfied me.

The beginning of the development of Haggis began at that point, back in September of 2005. I played a modified version of Jeremy Friesen's two player variant of Tichu back then - I was already trying to change it before I'd even played it. I asked in the BGG forums if anyone knew of a climbing game that was good to play with two players. There was very little response and what little there was did not indicate that such a thing existed. Larry Levy, however, went out of his way and designed a game (Teech for Two) that he posted at While I enjoyed Larry's game, I found that I kept wanting to add things to it to make it a bit more "interesting".

At around the same time I finally got to play real Tichu (4 player) and that confirmed for me that this was the kind of game I wanted to be able to enjoy when there were only two players, not just 4. Three years later, I posted the first working version of the game that would be further refined into Haggis. That took another year.

[Haggis originally was called "逐步升级 (ZHUBU SHENGJI)", aka 'step-by-step raise the level', aka "Escalation". The name Haggis refers to a Scottish dish made of various sheep organs. Left over cards == left over sheep entrails. Nice.]

[NOTE: Sean sometimes wrote back in giant running paragraphs - stream of thought and all that I suppose. I decided to break out his large blocks into digestible paragraphs - however I did NOT change the content. Just in case Sean was wondering if he reads this...]

QUESTION 2: How much work was involved in developing Haggis?

SEAN: A lot.

[Ok, that didn't need breaking down into paragraphs. And, yes, there IS A LOT in that geeklist linked to that TINY little reply. You know, I may have even run across it prior to my asking the question of Sean. Really, I should have looked for it first. But, I claim innocence (ignorance?) - it seems a great majority of games are developed quietly behind the scenes and then suddenly come on the scene ready for us gamers to enjoy and I guess I assumed that was the case. Boy was I wrong!]

[To summarize the link, here's a quick synopsis: 

  • Tichu was the inspiration.
  • Solved the deck configuration and hand 'shedding' using custom developed software and the concept of 'suitedness'.
  • Used evenly distributed wild cards and concept of giving the lead to the trailing player as a way to even things out.
  • Solved the scoring problem using triangle numbers to reward good play.
  • Determined proper game ending score (based on max # of hands played desired)
  • Incorporated bombs and determined the correct bombs to be available.
  • Added card point values and the concept of giving bombed tricks to loser to give bombing a penalty along with the reward of control.
  • Added bidding for hand valuation element.
  • Streamlined the game scoring to simpler method: 5 points per card held (instead of complicated triangle number point chart) + captured point values + bid.
  • Haggis was published!

QUESTION 3: At what point were you really excited about developing Haggis (such as the point you realized it was a good game or even a crucial point of the development that really turned the game into what it eventually became)?
SEAN: When I decided that the cards in a trick won by a bomb would be given to the opponent. That happened in September 2007. Suddenly, with this element of brinksmanship added, the game became extremely tense every hand. This is when I started to enjoy playing my own game.

QUESTION 4: Is there any special meaning to the artwork? I assume they are Scottish knots (Haggis is a Scottish dish) as I noted in the box opening I documented but some have said Celtic knots, which technically might be the same. So which is it?
SEAN: Honestly, I don't know. You'd have to ask Gary Simpson. Gary did an amazing job of creating the 'look' for Haggis. The only thing he really had to work from was a vague notion that the publisher and I were looking for something that was essentially a Scottish Tichu. Gary took it from there, and evolved the design with tweaks and suggestions supplied from the publisher and me. The only part of the artwork that has special meaning for me is the Tartan used to form the bottom portion of the box cover: that's a slightly simplified version of the Ross Ancient Hunting tartan - my family's tartan. I'm very proud to have that on my game. It means a lot to me.

GARY SIMPSON (game artist):
The concept of the Haggis artwork stems from three design points:
  1. Suits needing different shapes (triangle, circle, square...)
  2. Suits needing different colors
  3. Suits displaying historical cultures that influenced Scottish heritage (Gallic, Celtic, Picts, Greek...)
So some fun tidbits are that the orange triangle (triskelion) shows a bit of Greek influence in Scotland. The red square shows Gallic. The silver bands show Celtic. The royal card illustrations themselves are very Romanticized with red cloaks, clasps, and armor.

See, Scotland's history stretches back 10000 years and I thought it might be fun submerging the design in it -- so while Haggis is a modern card game, it feels like it has lineage to it. The game design of Haggis is also very solid and well-worn with testing so it was easy to focus what the game will show off.

+QUESTION FOR GARY SIMPSON: You seem to do a lot of detailed illustrative work such as in Summoner Wars or Call of Cthulhu CCG and Haggis was so different...what was your approach to this game as opposed to those sorts of games - how was it different and how was it the same?
Really any approach is to make sure the player "gets it". Gamers have a strong sense of expectation when it comes to games they try. Card games that focus on units and characters and items tend to need illustrations for them. They act as movie stills for the player's imagination to play off of.

Haggis is not like those -- its a climbing game that would just be bogged down if it had much detail. Seeing games like Tichu or Euchre, dealing almost strictly with suits and numbers just reinforce what players would expect.

QUESTION 5:  Were there any significant shifts in game functionality, "theme", artwork, etc, during development and, if so, what and why?
SEAN: Hm. If you mean development after it had been picked up by the publisher, then the answer is 'No. Not really'. There was one significant change to the functionality - the "tournament rules" for handling bombed tricks in a three player game were added very late in development thanks to feedback from Alex Rockwell. Other than that, all of the changes to the game had been before the publisher picked it up.

QUESTION 6: Did you run into any challenges in testing this game and, if so, how where they overcome?
SEANI did. I didn't have many people to play-test it with locally. Eventually I joined a game group in the area, and my opportunities increased but it took a couple years of solo testing before I was willing to foist it on one of my fellow game group members. I was reluctant to ask people to play it so it only got played sparingly over the next year or two after that. It got played more often as it started to become more simplified and approached its final form.

To overcome the lack of frequent play-testing opportunities and shorten the time it would take to explore the many possible options I had for solving the problem of how to make a two player climbing game, I developed some software to help me analyze different deck configurations and different playable combination sets. These helped me quickly narrow down the options for physical play-testing by giving me an idea of how they would feel to play - the pace they would give to the game - without having to deal out thousands of hands and play them out against my shadow. Though, I probably did that as well....

[There is more detail about this in the geeklist mentioned previously. It is quite impressive the amount of work that Sean put into this game - years of development, programming of a card deck hand simulator, innovative methods for determining a 'shed' factor to evaluate how quickly a game would move and, thus be able to determine if it was a direction worth pursuing in play testing or not. And yet, the game doesn't suggest anything of a programmed/mechanical nature at all. Awesome.]

QUESTION 7: Why does the lid fit so tightly and would you be offended if I used a punch to make a couple of finger holds to make it easier to open?
SEAN: I don't know why it fits 'so tightly' - or even that it was especially tight - but, no, I wouldn't be offended if you modified your copy of them game.

[Ok, this was intended more for levity than anything - and perhaps I shouldn't have been writing questions at 1 AM - what's silly @ 1 AM can seem crazy during normal daytime hours. And, to set the record straight, I have NOT punched finger holds in the box - I have since found that the lid has loosened up quite a bit after opening many times and slides open quite easily on it's own without requiring long fingernails or a prybar to open the thing]

QUESTION 8: What difficulties did you run into when getting this game to market?
SEAN: That might be better answered by the publisher, Travis Worthington. From my perspective, there were no difficulties. While I'd considered the possibility of having Haggis published (I did offer it to one publisher before Indie) or of self-publishing it, I hadn't really put any effort into pursuing those options. Then, Travis asked me if I'd be interested in having him publish it, and I said yes. Thinking back, I remember now that we did get off to a bit of a bumpy start with the artwork, though. Initially, Travis was going to do all of the art himself (as he had done for the first edition of Triumvirate). Let's just say I'm very grateful that we were able to get Gary involved or Haggis might have had quite a different appearance when it first arrived....

TRAVIS WORTHINGTON (Indie Boards & Cards owner): When I first was looking at publishing Haggis I was still exploring publishing options and was thinking that doing it via a POD printer would make sense given what I had already done with my own game design (Triumvirate). But with the experience I had gained I quickly made the decision to get the game published with a full scaled printer - which made the decision to use a great artist like Gary an easy one. I still did a limited POD printing to help generate interest in this great game - but I did so with good art.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't car[e] about the game art - in fact as I continue to publish more games I am quite convinced that the artwork in my games is second to none.

QUESTION 9: Do you wish you could change anything about Haggis?
SEANHm. I would prefer that there was only one way to handle which player the cards in a bombed trick are given to rather than having my rules and Alex's tournament rules. I think the "safer" option would be to adopt Alex's version, as that addresses the King Maker issues that some people will object to in my version. I'm not going to debate which is better. I do like it my way, that's how I play it, so I'm glad to have it out there for people to try it - but if they don't agree they can play it Alex's way and I'm okay with that as well.

Other than that, I do sometimes wish we hadn't suggested the smaller number of points to play to, 250 points. This was done to give an option to people who prefer shorter play times for two player games. The problem is, many people seem to think this is the preferred or optimal game ending score and only play the game in this way. I think it's fine to play this way every now and then, when you're short on time, but the preferred/optimal way to play is to 350 points. This gives the game more chance to develop/shine, with greater opportunities for comebacks. At 250, the game can be over pretty quickly if one player is dominant and/or gets some strong hands.

[I have found in my experience I actually prefer the 250 point game. To me, the longer 350 point game feels a little too long. Perhaps this is just because of inexperience and spending too much time evaluating my plays. I totally get the reason for 350 points though and hope that 350 becomes more the norm for me as I play more.]

QUESTION 10: Is there anything secret, juicy or at least vaguely interesting that might not normally be known about Haggis?
SEAN: As I mentioned earlier, I did offer Haggis to one publisher before Travis approached me about having Indie publish it. When Travis made his offer, I gave the other publisher first right of refusal and they opted to pass, so Haggis was added to Indie's now steadily growing stable of games and I'm pretty proud to be along for the ride.

Still, that other publisher I've been mentioning was Tasty Minstrel Games and they have their own great stable of games taking shape (with games like Train of Thought, Belfort, JAB, and Eminent Domain coming out this year) so I definitely wouldn't have minded having Haggis included amongst that companies roster either.

Personally, I think it's great to see both of these independent publishing houses looking to do so well in 2011 and I'm glad to have some small part in helping that happen for one them.

I want to say that Sean has been AWESOME in his responses to my questions. I was very appreciative of the detail and thought. In addition, he responded to my initial set of questions within about 2 hours of my sending them! I was blown away! It took me 10 days to get to my follow-up questions back to him, mostly due to family and work stuff going on. At least I'm on my own deadlines I guess :)

These are the 4 follow up questions. And the answers that Sean provided.

+QUESTION 1: You have mentioned several times that you only had 1 other person to game with frequently which is why you went looking for a 2-person card game. Who is the other person behind this and what were their contributions, if any, to the game development (beyond just playing of course)?
SEAN: The other person was my best friend and Pond Hockey collaborator, Mike Forbes. For Haggis, Mike didn't have a lot of contributions. He played several times, but I'm not sure if any of his feedback factored into the design. The person who did the most play-testing and whose feedback helped shape the game the most was William Bekking. I met Bill later on in Haggis' development, after I'd joined two of the game groups in Ottawa, and my opportunities for gaming had greatly increased. Bill's main contributions to Haggis were in weighing in on the changes as the game evolved, helping to direct the game to the state it's in today. The game improved pretty much after each play-test with him. Thanks, Bill!

[Pond Hockey looks like fun! I have Street Soccer but have only played it once. Now I need to pull it out again - I wonder if I can also play Pond Hockey on the Street Soccer board.....??]

+QUESTION 2: You mentioned the key thing that got you really excited about Haggis was when bombing a trick that the other player captured the cards. This certainly seems to be innovative in comparison to other card games in terms of a mechanic and does add to the brinkmanship. However, the most important element to me is the JQK cards which have triple duty as high cards, wilds AND usage in bombs - when and where to use them is the most agonizing decision making part of the game. You seemed concerned about them being used as wilds during the discussion about this with Chris Beaven. Have you had any issues/aversion with those cards being used that way?
SEAN: My concern was to ensure that people would continue to use the face cards as wilds - not just as bombs. Before I made the face cards worth points, and made it so that a bombed trick was captured by the opponent, the wild cards were being used as bombs more often than I liked. After the change, the use of the wild cards became more varied - people had to reconsider whether it was really worth it to use them as a bomb. In many cases, it is not. I really enjoy the hands where the face cards don't end up being used as bombs - or are used to force your opponent to use theirs as a bomb (so you get the card points) - instead you get to find interesting/surprising ways to play your cards.

[I definitely have found this in my play. Just the other day my Dad played 8QK for a run! I hadn't seen THAT play yet before! I don't remember if it was successful or not, but it was definitely surprising. I think he was hoping for me to bomb it so he'd get all the points - which I probably did.]

+QUESTION 3: In reading through all the information on BGG about your development process and even the forum posts that literally helped bring some of the key changes to game, it's terrific to actually see the design process and struggles you went through. How different do you think the game would have been if you hadn't had this community to help move you along?
SEAN: It would have been more complicated and it would have been harder to play well. Mechanically, the game has changed very little from the day it was first presented to BGG. But the scoring is much simpler and the betting is way, way simpler. I've brought back some of the ideas from that original betting system in a variant I call Auction Haggis (not part of the published game) but it's still much cleaner and simpler than it would have been if I hadn't been forced by the BGG users to reconsider the kind of arithmetic I was asking users to perform. Without that simplification in scoring, I don't think the game would have been picked up by a publisher - at all - so I'm quite grateful to Chris Beaven and Sheamus Parkes (amongst others) for pushing me in that direction.

+QUESTION 4: What games have you been most interested in playing lately beyond Haggis or Tichu, either new releases or just something that has piqued your interest in particular?
Well, I recently moved across the country to North Vancouver, so - having left my gaming groups behind - I haven't had a lot of opportunities to play the latest published games. Instead, I've been playing alot of unpublished games. In some ways, I find these more interesting than the games that have been published....

I'm a member of the Game Artisans of Canada. We have several members living in the Lower Mainland (Jay Cormier, Peter A. Grant, and Graeme Jahns, to name a few) and we meet about once a month or so to play prototypes. The non-local members ship us copies of their prototypes for blind play-testing as well. So, I've played several games by most of the group members over the past year and I'm excited to see several of them coming out in 2011. Here's a few of them: Belfort, JAB: Realtime Boxing, Undermining, Godzilla: Stomp!, and Octopus' Garden. There are others that may come out this year, or in 2012. Being part of the development process for these other designers has been very enjoyable.

I've play-tested designs by other designers as well. I've enjoyed playing Doctor Who: Solitaire Story Game, Untamed: A Rummy Revolution, and Livestock Market: the Card Game.

For published games, I'm mostly interested in trying several Ameritrash designs from the past year or so. Games like: Catacombs, Android, Middle-earth Quest, Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game, Mansions of Madness and the latest D&D board games. I'd like to try The Resistance some day as well. Other than these, maybe Hey Waiter! (a partnership card game by another Tichu-lover) would suit my tastes.

The Euros really haven't interested me of late.

[Ooh, I noticed Hey Waiter! mentioned recently on BGG but didn't pay much attention. I need to take another look now! Lots of pointers to interesting looking games...and to think I already just spent a bunch of money on games earlier this evening....ah well, maybe someday!]


I want to say a big THANK-YOU to Sean for letting me bug him with my questions - twice! It was good to be able to ask follow-up questions (although it took me a while to get back with my 4 follow-up questions) There are probably dozens more questions to ask, but I hope I found a nice range. I was hoping to dig out more information beyond perhaps what was available and/or obvious about the game from just reading what is already out there - to hopefully get a more insiders view of the game (and a bit about Sean, too)

Thanks also to Travis Worthington and Gary Simpson for providing more background information.

All of you seem like terrific guys and people that would all be great fun to game with. You're welcome to the Board Game Back Room anytime if you ever happen to be in Eugene, OR -- just drop me a GM!


Now, for any of you readers still here reading -- Go buy a copy of Haggis or something else from a small publisher and help support the independents and small publishers that keep putting out awesome games!


  1. well done Matt, and thanks Sean for the detailed answers. :-)

  2. Very cool interview. Haggis has been one of my favorite recent games :)

  3. Thanks Van. I got to play it again this weekend both 2 player and 3 player and am liking it more and more. Playing with different people begins to reveal new and interesting ways to play.

  4. Just wanted to take a moment to thank you, Matt, for the interview. It was flattering to be asked and I'm glad to hear you're continuing to enjoy the game. Cheers!

  5. Indeed I am continuing to enjoy it! I played this past week @ Gamestorm 3 player and enjoyed it at well - the play is certainly different with 3 as you have less protection from your 3 wilds. I also got totally stomped by my much better card playing friend in 2-player. Also played 2-player tonight and was getting stomped AGAIN. We originally were playing to 250 and, once we did, I was starting to make a comeback. So, we decided to continue and I kept gaining ground to where it was finally 345 to 331! I didn't win the final hand, but was very glad we continued playing. To help turn it around I started betting high every round and started playing unusual combinations which threw my buddy off I think and drained my hands quickly. But then he caught on and started doing the same thing. We were playing our wilds as wilds a lot more and less as bombs. So many subtleties to this game. It is his favorite new game for the year!


Comments are open to anyone. Criticism is fine if it's clean and reasonable. Anything deemed inappropriate by me will be removed.