Interview: Game Designer Josh Buergel

Interview: Game Designer Josh Buergel

July 6, 2018 Off By Dan

For the first interview here on tabletop-test.com, I reached out to Josh Buergel, designer for some of my favorite card games, Hocus and The Fox in the Forest. Josh and I have known each other for 10 years now, and it was nice to get a chance to chat about his experiences, notable games, and to get a glimpse of the future.

What was your first tabletop game?

I distinctly remember sending in six (or eight?) box tops from cereal to get a copy of Pay Day as a kid, so I guess technically that counts. My first real hobby game was a copy of the Holmes edition of D&D, given to me by my step-sister when I about eight. I instantly fell in love with that, and have been obsessed with hobby games ever since. That version of D&D led to trips to various stores in the area that carried other D&D material, including finding a copy of the 1st edition Player’s Handbook on sale at the White Elephant in Spokane, and being utterly baffled as to why it contained a different, incompatible set of rules than my Basic set.

I then managed to talk my mom into subscribing me to Dragon Magazine, which she figured was at least me asking to read more, and therefore could have been much worse. That magazine became my window into the larger hobby, and I would pore over the ads in it, dreaming about which of these amazing games I would ask for for my next birthday or for Christmas.

You have a huge game collection. How many games do you currently own?

According to my collection on Board Game Geek, I own 3665 games and 1032 expansions. This doesn’t include RPG stuff (I’m less scrupulous about inventorying that, but I have 523 items marked in RPG Geek as owned) or miniatures games. It also under counts a few categories of games, such as games included with magazines, which I didn’t inventory when I put everything in at BGG. But, it’s close.

Do you have a favorite game?

I have a few answers for that. In terms of my personal life, Dungeons & Dragons will always probably be my favorite. It’s my first love, and it’s been with me now for 35+ years. And I still play it (or similar games). It was my introduction to the hobby, and that hobby has been central to my life for a long time. Bridge will also always be a love of mine, although I don’t really play it much anymore.

Some of my most important life-long friendships in high school were cemented over games of Bridge, with people that I’m still hanging out with and gaming with all these many years later. I also met my future wife over a game of Bridge, so arguably, it’s been even more important to me in terms of personal relationships than even D&D.

Magic the Gathering is maybe the game I’ve thought about the most, even though my intense love affair with it only lasted for seven or eight years. During that time, I thought about it constantly, and the competitive experience was unlike anything I’ve participated in before or since.

Among recent games, I’ve probably played Through the Ages more than anything, hundreds of times, thanks to some fine online implementations. It’s everything I want from a civilization building game, and I treasure it.

Finally, a big shout out to Warhammer Quest, a game that I’ve spent tons of time playing, tinkering with, and just laughing over. It’s big, and dumb, and silly, and it’s just raw entertainment. And it desperately needs a lot of fixes.

You mentioned Warhammer Quest, and that got me thinking about miniatures. Do you have any miniatures hobby projects that you’re working on, or looking forward to working on in the near future?

I’ve just about talked myself into getting into 15mm historical minis, actually. In particular, I’m looking at Peter Pig’s Poor Bloody Infantry rules, a system for company level WWII combat. The rules look like fun, and I’ve never really explored historical minis very much.

Any plans to jump in on a new game from Games Workshop?

I’ve purchased the recent-ish Warhammer Quest boxes, but Silver Tower was a disappointment. I’m still looking forward to trying Shadows over Hammerhal, though. I’ll continue buying any Warhammer Quest stuff they put out, out of loyalty.

One of my favorite games from them was the old Man o’ War, which I loved, loved, loved, and actually had complete fleets for every race for. Quick, breezy, and so much fun. I bought Dreadfleet from them, and still haven’t had a chance to table it, but I really want to try it as well.

I’m tempted by all the skirmish level stuff, as I really liked the old Necromunda and Mordheim a lot, but I’ve stayed away. But if they re-launch epic 40K, the game I probably spent the most time on back in the day, I’ll be sorely tempted to get back in.

You mentioned Magic: The Gathering as one of your favorites. Have you played the game recently?

Just on the app, which is fun and scratches the itch, at least a little, for a minimal cost. I did just learn that Magic Online now allows you to complete a tournament over multiple sessions, and frankly, I’m afraid for what that’s going to do to me.

Do you have a favorite format?

I love limited formats, drafts and sealed deck. I was in the top 20 worldwide for those formats way back in the day, after some strong showings in tournaments (especially Alliances pre-release) coinciding with the launch of the rankings. That’s not as impressive as it sounds, by the way, but it’s kind of fun to say. But I really like trying to shape a coherent strategy out of a pile of garbage, as it suits my strengths as a gamer.

Have you tracked the recent developments in the game at all?

I’m afraid I haven’t, although as I say, I’ll probably fall off the wagon soon.

Let’s talk about designing. When did you decide that you wanted to make games?

I got a copy of a little ziploc game called The Castle, which was offered as part of the Science Fiction Book Club, back when I was nine. I loved it, because it was a dungeon crawl I could play on my own, and my first ever design was taking that game and porting it to a science fiction context. I wish I still had that. From that point, for the next dozen years or so, I didn’t really design but did spend a lot of time tinkering with games. I used that time to try and figure out what worked and what didn’t for games.

In 1996, I discovered GMT Games, and started playing their games. I then got involved with them first as a playtester and then doing some development work for them. At around that same time, a friend of mine decided he wanted to do some designing, so I worked with him to develop his game and then help with publishing it. At around this time, I started serious work on what would be my first completed game, Foresight. That design started in 2001 or 2002, and I finished it up in 2005, although I wouldn’t release it until much later. That started a period where I designed lots of things for myself, but nothing ever really went all the way to polished and finished.

In 2012, I decided to try and release an app every month to the Android store, an experiment that went about six or seven apps deep, which isn’t bad! It included a couple of games, which was fun. It kind of reminded me about the work involved in finishing something up for publication, and got me thinking seriously about making something releasable again. The next big event was at the end of 2013, when I helped Grant Rodiek some with a game of his that he was preparing for a contest, and where I submitted a game of my own. After making contact with him, he shared with me another game that he was calling Wizard Poker. I provided a bunch of feedback, tested in, made more suggestions, and gradually ended up as co-designer. That turned into Hocus, which we Kickstarted at the beginning of 2014.

That game was really a new phase of designing for me, with Fox in the Forest following, and several more games in various stages moving along. I’d like to get to the point where I have a game published about every year, although we’ll see if I get to that pace.

Which of your games are you proudest of?

I’m super proud of the reception that Fox in the Forest has received, and I think it really will stand up to the test of time.

Let’s talk about Fox in the Forest. In a nutshell, what is it?

It’s an attempt to capture the feel of classic trick-taking card games, like Spades, Hearts, Bridge, Pinochle, Euchre, and others, and provide it in a two-player package. It’s the game that I hope a couple might pull out repeatedly as just a comfortable routine.

What inspired you to make Fox in the Forest?

It was actually a spin-off of Hocus. Fairly early in 2014, we discussed making Hocus a multi-game box, with a series of games you could play with the main deck. I started designing “Cribbage, but with spells” as part of that proposed suite of games. We abandoned that as a product strategy, but I kept iterating on that game. It shed the Cribbage idea fairly early, as every version of that that I played just made me wish I was playing Cribbage. But it eventually evolved into the game that we have today.

What makes it so special?

It’s designed from a place of true love for these types of games. It’s a love letter to classic game play. I think the thing people respond to the most is that the game provides a push-and-pull between trying to take tricks and trying to avoid them. Because of that, it contains a bluffing dynamic that you don’t often find in these types of games, and that keeps things surprising, which is important to keep players engaged.

The design problem that I really had to engage with was how to keep one player from taking control and running away with things. Because the player leading is determining which suit will win that round, they can seize control and hang on, and really drive the action in such a way that the second player feels helpless. This dynamic was prevalent in a lot of my early tests of this game.

In response to that, I need to provide tools for the second player to surprise the first. That led to the development of the 1 cards (to allow the second player to choose a moment to steal the lead) and the 3 cards (to change trump and change the landscape of the game). And then the scoring system allows players to choose which goal they’re going to go for. Since players can keep it concealed, you’re never sure if you’re helping or hurting your opponent. All of those provide the second player with options to control things as well, and makes for an interesting game.

When you made Fox in the Forest, were you expecting it to be such a huge hit? I see it all over the place.

I was fortunate with the publisher I’m working with. Randy Hoyt, the owner behind Foxtrot Games, is someone that I’d admired for a while, as someone who does a great job developing and publishing his games. When Fox got far enough along, I reached out to him to pitch the game to him, because I knew he liked classic styles of game play. It turns out he was also really big into folklore, so my fairy tale theme resonated with him.

Almost by accident, I had chosen the perfect theme and game play match, and Randy quickly fell in love with the game and signed it.

At that point, Randy and his team (especially Charles Wright, who developed the game along with Randy) did a great job of getting the game ready to be published. That care included doing a great job of finding an amazing artist (Jennifer Meyer) as well as making the game play super polished. That comes through in the final product and helps word of mouth.

Randy partners with Renegade Game Studios, a large hobby publisher, who have been great in getting press attention and in making sure that the game is in stores all over. Finally, the price point makes it easy for people to pick up and try. If you add up all these factors, it’s been far more successful than I would have hoped.

If you were to change a rule or mechanic for Fox in the Forest, what would it be and why?

That’s a tough one, but I think what I’d change is adding The Mirror back in. This was a special card that was treated as identical to whatever the Decree card was at any time. So it changed as the Decree card changed, which was a lot of fun. It provided some really nice room for strategic play, and was a unique feature. We cut it from the final version of Fox in the Forest because it alone generated more rules questions than the rest of the game put together, but I miss it.

You have a Russian printing of Fox in the Forest coming soon. What other languages are you hoping to have the game localized into?

We also have a French publisher that has licensed the game, which is great. I’d love to see a German language version, as I think the German market really enjoys these types of games and it would do really well there.

Do you have any other news you’d like to share about Fox in the Forest?

It hasn’t been officially announced or anything, but I’ve been working on an expansion for the game for a while, which brings back some things that were cut from the original game in new forms, as well as adding some new surprises. It seems a little strange to be expanding a small, elegant game like this, but I’m excited about the fun possibilities with it, and you know, maybe we’ll have something to officially announce at some point.

Let’s finish off with a few questions not specific to Fox in the Forest. Do you see any new trends in tabletop games that excite you as a player? As a designer?

As a player, I think that we’re seeing more and more super niche products. And that’s great. Prior to the advent of Kickstarter, those games might have struggled to get made or to get attention. But now, people can put them up, reach a few hundred folks, and bring things into the world. Add in some great print-on-demand and low print run technologies, and it’s more practical than it’s ever been to make a game for a small audience.

As a creator, I think my answer is similar, but with an emphasis on those print-on-demand tools. Things like Drive Thru Cards, the Game Crafter, and Print & Play Games are amazing services, and I love making use of them. They enable so much fun stuff.

If you could work on any design team, on any IP, with any mechanics, what would you work on?

I don’t really love fictional worlds the way I once would have, so this is going to sound super lame. But I’d love to work with Mike Duncan on games to accompany his Revolutions podcast. In particular, I have a French Revolution game on a back burner, and I think working with him on that would be fantastic.

What is tabletop gaming to you?

The best! Tabletop gaming combines problem solving and thinking about strategic and tactical problems with in-person socialization in a way that nothing else really does. Digital games don’t provide the same social experience, and just chatting at a party doesn’t give you the same brain exercise.

Josh, thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you and ask some questions about your favorite games. If you’ve not played The Fox in the Forest, I strongly encourage you to head to your FLGS, and check it out.