Is Steve Ratter the most rockin’ guy or the biggest nerd? The answer is yes.
I was introduced to Steve as the former singer of KXLU-bred and Jabberjaw-tested Slug in the late ’80s, and it’s been a pleasure to get to know him better since he and his wife Max became involved in the Save Music in Chinatown project earlier this year. Following the last benefit, which they kindly deejayed as Cyrano and Lotus from the Molotov Cocktail Hour, I’ve become more aware of Steve’s participation in indie card games.
So how stoked was I when he kindly let me hijack lunch last week by asking questions about his involvement in the underground board and card game scene as well as the new game, which is being funded on Kickstarter right now.
How would you describe Desert Island to non card game players?
Desert Island is a 4-6 player card game where the participants are castaways marooned on an Island. At the beginning of the game, each player finds out, secretly, who they love and hate among the other players. The goal is to escape the island and try to ensure that your secret love survives and that your secret, hated enemy perishes. Each turn, by playing cards, the characters have to choose from foraging for food, helping to prepare the signal fire, or trying to take something from another player. There is a great deal of trading weapons and tools, asking for help, or moving into someone’s else prime location on the island. There is also pirate loot to be found, and holding onto it just might give you the edge to victory. It’s a big game, packed into a small box.
Negotiation, bluffing, temporary alliances, identity deduction, and backstabbing. Do you have to be a dick to be good at it?
No, but it helps. This is a game of interaction and asserting one’s self. I don’t think anyone likes to be pushed around, and playing Desert Island is a great exercise in not only achieving your goals but navigating the waters of negotiation. Not unlike situations in everyday life, right? Lifeboat draws on a rich history of shipwreck and survival literature like Treasure Island, Lord of The Flies, and In The Heart of The Sea. Naturally, when a group of people are stuck “in a bottle” together, certain loyalties, grudges, uneasy truces, paranoia, and other human coping mechanisms start to develop. From the get-go, there is a player you should protect and another you might want to passively hinder (if not outright harm). At the same time, you (potentially) are also the object of someone’s goodwill and of someone else’s machinations. Very quickly a social dynamic starts to develop and it’s natural for players to begin to role-play, casting themselves as a slippery weasel, a peacemaker, a bully, diplomat, or despot. As you want your secret love to survive, you also don’t want him or her to win the game with say, a stash of pirate loot. You’re playing to win, after all. There is a fine balance between helping someone survive versus helping him or her to thrive.
As a guy who makes a living creating art for video games, what’s cool about working on a card game?
Well, I think there are important social dynamics that happen around a dining room table that just can’t be replicated online, or even sitting next to one another with controllers on a couch. An “analog” board or card game allows players to think, respond, strategize, second guess, and bluff in ways you can’t in video games.
It’s also a different skill set that I’m using. When I work on art for video games, It’s a long process, sometimes a couple of years to see your work truly in context. Making handsome looking art in video games is only a small part of the equation. Some of your other responsibilities after the art making include working with designers on how your art is used, optimizing your work to run smoothly, debugging problem areas, and ensuring your work appears consistent and intuitive to the user. So there’s an aspect of tweaking and tinkering right up the moment when a video game is shipped.
In video games, I have to employ a long-term view of what something is going to look like. For artwork in a card game like Desert Island, I can get results towards my goal pretty quickly. In games, you collaborate with many people and have to consider their concerns and responsibilities. In this card game project, I am working with one other artist, Fred Davis, who handles the graphic layout and acts as my Art Director. The designer of Desert Island is Jeff Siadek and, as his company is Kickstarting the project, he has final say. By and large though, the images and how they appear are up to me. Fred and Jeff are there to support what is the “best image,” and we’re usually on the same page. I’m happiest if I can present something humorous or give it a story of some sort to tell. I like to put little things in the art for perceptive players to pick up. I guess that comes from hiding Easter eggs in video games all these years.
Have you always been into card games? Even when you were in a art/noise/punk band?
I’d have to resoundingly say “Yes!” I grew up in a big family and I think my parents knew board games provide a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to entertainment at home. My folks also provided a great example of getting together with their friends for evenings of massive card games of Bridge. While I didn’t participate in those, I could see there was some heavy-duty adult fun going on there. We had a game cabinet in our house, and I have many fond memories of playing board and card games with my brothers and sisters. As I got older, my love for those experiences was rekindled in college with what I call the “Euro-gaming revolution” that started in the late ’80’s/early ’90s.
Strangely enough, that was close to the time I guess I started playing in a band. New games were coming out of Europe that stressed player interaction, resource management, and deeper experiences of player choice and consequences. These games seemed different from the ones we grew up with. Take a classic chestnut like Monopoly. You have one choice in that game–are you going to buy a property or not. And usually, if you can, you should. House rules aside, I don’t consider that a very engaging experience and I think we’ve all played marathon Monopoly games and for what? A thrilling conclusion? Usually everyone is burned out and the richest player dominates the last hour in what becomes a game about attrition. I enjoy a game most when a narrative starts to unfold and I’m drawn into its theme. Well-designed games have an elegance to them and by the end, you have taken part in a story.
This appreciation of storytelling possibilities also led me early on in junior high to classic role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. And as I got back into it in college, my early bonding experiences with some members of my band were playing games with them like Settlers of Catan and D&D. We were (and still are) all a bunch of geeks in our own way and embrace what we love. The Revenge of the Nerds happened and you know what? The Nerds won.
You mentioned that the game has been translated into a bunch of other languages. Is there an international scene that I don’t know about?
There most certainly is. Board gaming as a social and even family phenomenon is absolutely huge in other countries. The predecessor to Desert Island, a game called Lifeboat, has been printed in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Russian. It’s not uncommon for families outside the U.S. to play board games as adults, and for people to have gaming groups that get together regularly. This is largely due to the quality of the games, but it’s also a great pretense for people to get together, blow off steam, maybe do some trash talking, and have a shared experience. The idea of a weekly game of poker, mahjong, dominoes, or backgammon among friends is pretty familiar, but it’s essentially a subculture that does the same thing. In San Francisco, there is a very thriving board game underground–maybe it’s because of the weather and people enjoy staying in and playing games on cold nights. And I see that interest growing in L.A., in some ways greater than it ever was! In the past couple years, there are small game stores popping up and it’s cool to see.
Going back to a music analogy, there are small game companies that put out games just like indie record labels have always put out underground music. Jeff’s company is his own, run out of his house, and his stock fills his garage. Anyone that has run a small record label can relate to that, myself included. It’s a labor of love. In the world of games, just like record labels, for every Lookout!, Drag City, SST, or K-Records, there is also a Touch & Go, Dischord, Epitaph, and Matador.
To put it in worldwide context, the biggest annual game convention just wrapped in Essen Germany. It’s like the E3 of board and card games and goes on for days! Unlike video games, board games have a longer shelf life, and favorite designers and artists are regarded almost like beloved authors whose work you can enjoy over and over. So I guess someone out there must love Monopoly, right? Video games certainly occupy places in the hearts of their players, no question. However, as hardware changes, video games tend to drift away into the fog and stay there as happy memories, like playing Frogger in an arcade as a kid, or Yars Revenge on an Atari 2600 or Karateka on an Apple II. I’m not sure who is that excited about going back and re-playing Lode Runner, Pitfall!, Lemmings, Zork, or Doom.
I thought it was interesting how you guys printed out cards for beta testing at gamer conventions. What tweaks did that lead to? Did any of you sit in on those sessions?
We’ve play-tested the game at my house and at some other private sessions. Desert Island’s designer, Jeff Siadek is like a chef, always adding a bit here, tweaking aspects there, trying to craft a balanced experience. And like a great meal is delicious, a great game is also fun. It’s a lifelong passion for Jeff and it’s a blast to collaborate with someone so driven. Printing out prototype decks has proven to give the game early life, make it feel substantial and tangible. Even in the testing phase, when you get your hands on real cards laid out in front of you, the game suddenly breathes. I might be asked about something or make a suggestion, but Jeff is the one at the helm. Some examples of changes that happened fairly recently were: making the wild boar attack more severe, making the character of “The Kid” not quite so weak. These might be small things, and even sound obvious, but there is an invisible engine under the hood of the game and the designer is the mechanic. Many of these revisions made at the tail end of testing have to do with streamlining the game, so it doesn’t become bogged down under its own structure–finding the balance between too much and not enough. Think of a restaurant where there’s five things on the menu versus being in one that has a seven-page menu. People need to feel empowered, but you also don’t want someone to feel overwhelmed.
Kickstarter campaigns can be effective but are also difficult to pull off… What do you think is the coolest premium for Desert Island?
The little black wooden skulls are cool, as are the custom banana tokens, but I think I would have to say, the coolest premium is our “Voodoo Volcano Tiki Expansion.” If we hit our highest stretch goal, we will include more cards in the game, and I get to draw cool Tikis with supernatural powers, a voodoo doll, and an old friend from the previous game will be returning, in a hilarious, state of transformation.
Plans for a third game? Other projects?
As Jeff is the creator of Desert Island and its predecessor, Lifeboat, I’ll have to wait and see if he can make it a trilogy! My immediate future involves going back into the world of video games, working for an amazing start-up called The Tangentlemen. I will be joining my incredibly talented, inspired, and veteran group of friends on a game of dark, existential horror. They are already crafting an eccentric and curious experience and it’s going to be a wild ride. I’m looking forward to lending my art, storytelling contributions, and possibly even music endeavors to the project. But I have a feeling I’ll be called back to the world of Desert Island for another adventure someday, and when it happens, I will gladly be on board!