Moon Quake Escape: Jeff Johnston Sheds the Light and the Glory!

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A few weeks (months?) ago i was attending Unpub in Baltimore. Its a convention for unpublished game designers hoping for exposure and feedback. Intermingled with the troves of up-n-comers were Scythe and a few other heavy hitters.  As I wondered the isles I saw the most captivating game of all; MoonQuake Escape!

It was so cool. So cool it made you want to play it. It made you want to buy it. It made you wish you designed it. So polished and gorgeous. A real show stopper.

And who was showing the game off? None other than Jeff himself, the designer. His enthusiasm instantly won me over. He was a guy who was really passionate about his game and had to tell you why.

Here, he sheds light on the process of design, how it all came about, and what else in coming down the line. So enough of my rambling. Lets get to the game and hear from the designer himself.

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About the Game: In MoonQuake Escape, get ready to face the challenges of the spinning, changing 3D surface of the doomed prison planet of Zartaclaton. A massive MoonQuake grants you sudden freedom from your captivity, but there’s only one way to Escape–the last rescue rocket, and you need to reach it before the other players. Use the rotating and revolving 3D moon to gather charges and decide which actions will best meet your goal: finding and stopping others players, readying or stealing key equipment, or finding better ways to hide. Along the treacherous journey, watch out for shifting and dangerous terrain, out of control defenses, and a relentless prison guard that are out to end your sentence–for life!

…and on to the interview!

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0)  Hi, Jeff. Thanks for shootin the breeze with me.  We met at UnPub, What brought you there?

Hello, Glenn. That was my first UnPub and it was great. Like many there, I have a day job and game design is my serious hobby, so getting input from other designers and play testers is fantastic.  I’m lucky to be near Boston’s Game Makers Guild for advice, but UnPub brings in such a wide cross-section of designers—it’s a real gem and so well organized.

1) I gotta say when I saw your game at Unpub, it immediately pulled me in. It looked so cool. When something looks fun,  you WANT to interact with it which makes it that much easier to enjoy. Where did this idea come from and where did the look of it come from?

Thank you so much for noticing MoonQuake Escape  (@moonquakeescape). I’ve been having a lot of fun sharing it with new fans.

The initial idea came a few summers ago when I was thinking about a project I might KickStart with my son who was enrolling in an entrepreneurial course in the Fall. Well, he quickly said “No” to the notion of working with his dad (go figure!), but the idea remained.  The spark was to add two features to a game I’d just completed that had a simple “hide & seek” mechanic while players race up a four space track. I wondered what might happen if I gave a “shield” as a bluffing mechanism in the “hide & seek” part, and what if the board brought players together in unexpected and interesting ways.

The art had three key turning points. My initial inspiration was from a childhood book, You Will Go To The Moon, but Michael Parla (@michael_parla), the art director, saw a much more fun theme that he felt matched the way the game plays. The board I presented to Michael when we first started our collaboration was basically a game board pretending to be a planet.  Michael and I talked a lot about making a planet that we could play a game on. And, finally, I’d envisioned a stark, bleak world for this prison planet, but our publisher, Shari Spiro (@ad_magic) of Breaking Games (@breaking_games), wanted it to really “pop”, and thus our angry orange world was born.  A lot of creative ideas that Michael blended beautifully.

2)  How many iterations did it take to lean this one down to the final product we see today? Where there any ideas that got left on the cutting room floor?

Goodness. I was on version 0.14 of the game before working through about five versions of how to present the rules. Over that time, many ideas were added, changed and removed along the way. Some were thematically great, but just didn’t deliver enough fun.  And several ideas I’d assigned to future expansions (we can always hope!) worked their way into the main game. A really useful exercise I tackled about halfway through was to list out every component, mechanic, and notion in the game and rated each for theme, fun and strength of the mechanic.  That not only helped me retire parts that just weren’t working, but helped me cull out a Basic versus Advanced rule set.

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3)   I never tried Toasted and Roasted but did try  Flashlights & Fireflies and thought your game  had a really gentile inviting art style. Your newest baby, Moonquake Escape, continues with a light-hearted flair but the gameplay is more involved. With time, have you seen your sense of craft changing, in terms of what pleases you, what you are aiming for, perhaps what you are interested in, and what you want to be your masterpiece! or is it simply a case of “this is what popped in my head now, let’s go with it.” 

I usually have an eight-year-old and family in mind when I design a game. And I’m always jotting down childhood experiences that I think would be fun to play a game about that activity, adding some dash of whimsy.  You mention Flashlights & Fireflies—that’s the “hide & seek” game I built MQE on top of, and Gamewright turned into the beautiful game it is.  For MQE, I’ve just followed whatever path it’s led me down and I knew I wanted at least one game that’d appeal to an older crowd—a ten-year-old and family!

4)  How long had this game been in development?  Do you develop several simultaneously? Were there any parameters that needed to be considered during its creation?

I started development on MQE about three years ago, partnered with Michael a bit over 18 months ago, and have been courting Breaking Games, well, since PAX East 2014 before they were even a publisher! I do need a lot of incubation time on my projects, so I do often switch between them. But, it was hard to focus on anything outside MQE for about two years. I recall distinctly last Fall after we’d submitted the final rulebook and such a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.  I immediately had several breakthroughs on a game that had been on the shelf for a few years.  Very satisfying.

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5)  What’s the most challenging part of creating a game in general and this game in particular?

Getting the rulebook right is always hard and particularly so with MQE.  It had to not only explain how to play the game, but set the scene, explain the board and how it behaves. That wound up being a tall order, but I found great help from many colleagues and Jim White (@twwombat), in particular. The other challenge I focused on was making sure that the players would interact with the cards and board in meaningful ways. I didn’t want the board to come off as a tacked on gimmick. That’s where I worked the hardest.

The board itself was its own challenge.  I went through several approaches on how to make the board: how it spins, how the moon rotates and revolves, and how one might manufacture this contraption.  3D printers and laser cutters are wonderful tools, and to be honest I used 3D printing to figure out most of the ways *not* to build this!  And, building through a process of elimination is not necessarily what I’d advise to anyone without plenty of time! And I latched onto AdMagic/Breaking Games very early.  Clearly MQE was going to need wizards to make it real, and that company is populated like Hogwarts!

6) Who is this game aimed at? Who do you see really enjoying it?

Any 10-year-old or anyone who’s still got a 10-year-old heart should try this game. But that doesn’t mean it’s a kid’s game.  If you enjoy having to react to a changing situation with new plans on the fly, then join us on Zartaclaton!  But, if you only enjoy games where you can plan your path, start to finish, this may not be the game for you.  And that’s OK, too.

7)  If I were to say “if you like game X, then I think you’ll like Moonquake Escape.” What would game X be?

This would be an easier question if I played more games myself! People have mentioned Kill Dr Lucky. Also, one memorable quote was “It reminds me of Munchkin, but I hate Munchkin and love this.” I think part of that comment comes from the way MQE “reverses” the “Take That” mechanic. Players don’t play bad effects on each other—they pick the effects on themselves while trying to find other players.  That reversal really takes the edge off a typical “Take That” game.

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 8)   Anything else in the works?

I’m really pleased with how a cooperative family game is coming along. It’s about kids at a bus stop working to build snowmen before the dreaded school bus arrives, which I like to call Snow Dazed.  Some pretty nifty but focused choices the team has to make. And I have most of the ingredients about a leaf raking game. We’ll see where that goes.

9)   What games did you grow up liking?

As a youngster, classics like Mille Borne (a game i love- glenn), Monopoly and Risk were big, but games like War of the Ring, Squad Leader, Flat Top, Magic Realm and Titan put me in charge of cool worlds. And along that time, an article in Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi magazine on role playing games introduced me to AD&D. We spent a lot of time with those games!

10)  What games do you like now?

Most games seem to make my head hurt, so I like lighter games. Game of 49 is a fun parlor game, Gravwell a cool concept executed so precisely, and MQE—a tad self-serving, but I could spend weekend after weekend sharing it with new fans, no problem.

11)   They say an overnight success take about 10 years. You’ve had a couple of games published now, what was the process like?  How did you get noticed and what’s a good lesson you learned along the way?

I really have no idea what I’m doing, so lesson one: there’s hope for everyone.  Others: Be prepared for many rejections before you find your game’s special home, so be persistent and courteous. Help people with their games, we’re all in this together. Be able to convey how people have fun with your game and use the energy from people having fun with your game to help you propel your pitch. If you’re generally shy, draw confidence from your game. Set achievable goals—there will be many frustrating points along the way, but if you’ve already had a self-defined “success” anything else is just gravy.

12)    What are some of your other life interests? (ex watching football, dangling hot dogs from a wire hanger just out of your dogs reach, etc)

Nothing as exciting as all that.  I enjoy working with Boy Scouts (Game Design merit badge, imagine that!), intramural volleyball, and day trips with my wife.

13)   I also run a blog called Boardgames & Bourbon and have the best bar in town. Drinks are on me. What are you having?

A stout please.  Cheers, my friend!  And here’s to Boardgames & Bourbon.  Thanks for listening to me prattle on!

Stout it is Jeff. Drink on! Read about Murphys Stout here: https://www.beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/240/703/

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Like the Article? Talk to the author, Glenn, on twitter at @gamesandbourbon