Issue 13: Tim Fowers talks Burgle Bros 2, cooperative board games
Hello! I hope you’ve all had a good week. I’ve got a fun newsletter in store for you this week, as I chatted with Tim Fowers, designer of, among others, Burgle Bros, Now Boarding, and Fugitive — three games I absolutely adore.
Fowers actually lives some 20 or 30 minutes away from me, and while we chatted over Zoom, I’m pleased to have a great game designer in what is essentially (though not literally) my backyard.
You can catch the full interview on this very site, and I’ll include some of my favorite bits from the discussion below.
Before that, though: Here’s what I’ve been playing lately.
Burgle Bros 2, which you’ll read more about in the interview, hit the table this week, with Ginny indulging my request here. (It’s a good thing she subscribes to this newsletter!) For me, it’s a nice improvement from the original, and the theme just pops right off the table. I’ve been writing about it on Instagram over the last few days, so hop over there for more of my thoughts.
I just got my Kickstarter copy of The Fuzzies and gave it a play, and I was really pleased with it. It’s a dexterity game all about picking these great little balls of fuzz from a conical tower, then placing them in another spot on the tower. I didn’t know how well it would work, but it was a fantastic effort from the same design team behind Wavelength. My four-year-old niece also loved it, and she was almost certainly better at it than me, too. So there’s that.
I played another table in Super Skill Pinball 4-Cade. This time, it was Dragon Slayer, which presented some interesting puzzles — the Hoard is probably the biggest one, as it’s also the primary way to earn points. I ended up with a multiball pretty early in the second and third rounds, and as a result, I really racked up the points. Great fun!
Alright, let’s get to the interview!
On cooperative games and gear in Burgle Bros 2
One thing that came out of that was this feeling of the gear, where it's like, having a divine intervention ability, where I can just be like, I got you, I'm gonna use this to save you.
At the core of co-op games, there's this idea of vulnerability, where I cannot help myself, so somebody else comes in and says you're valuable, but the way they say you're valuable is through sacrifice, either sacrificing time or resources.
So it was important that these gear were limited use. So it's like they're signaling to you, you're important, because you're using their most powerful gear or whatever to save you. And I think that can form bonds between between people when you when you get that kind of interchange.
On design decisions in Burgle Bros 2
The nature of Burgle is that there's this thing where people actually project themselves onto the guard. They'll often say, what is the guard thinking when he sees a hole in the wall? We've really left the guard as this faceless force of nature. People like to kind of fill in the gaps. And you want to feel like you're outwitting him, you know, you want to see the look on his face when you pull off this huge thing, and he's kind of your foil that you're playing against. People project themselves.
The nature of Burgle is that it is kind of a procedural story as more of a sequence of events, especially with the event deck itself and kind of that craziness, those were kind of the plot twists in the original. But we realized that leaning on them, going back to the movies, Ocean's 11 and whatnot, is like kind of having this high stakes thing as the culmination.
I don't remember at what point it came in, but it felt like to have a climax to the game, instead of just being like, oh, we got the last safe open. Usually in Burgle, just because everything's so tight, you had just enough time to get out. But this one, you're going out with a bang. And actually, Rob Daviau gave me a little bit of his time and helped me work out the suspicion system, so the game can calibrate to your group. But also, he helped me figure out — so what we do is a little wonky in the rules. There's always been this thing: Well, the Burgle Bros. don't even know what they're stealing. So we have one side, that's the story. And it gives a little hint of what's what's going to happen for the finale, but you don't get to know exactly how it's going to play out, so you can't try to solve it.
A big part of Burgle is this unknown of whether to run or to peek. There's not a right answer. It really helps the alpha gamer problem because there wasn't a right answer, there's no way you could have known. You've got to trust, go with your gut, and when it pays off, it feels great. So, it's similar with the finales.
Once you've played through and beat all the finales, we actually didn't even want you to repeat, so win or lose, you play through all of them. And then you can go back and play the one specifically if you want. But generally, once you've played everything, then it's just random. So again, you can't plan. You can prepare, and you can kind of look at the possibilities of what might happen. We want a little bit of like group adaptation.
This goes back to like Left 4 Dead, which was a big inspiration. There's an article about the video game Left 4 Dead and how the zombies were designed, these super zombies were designed to break up groups and to be a curveball for a whole group. That's what I want the finale to be as well, where it's this big problem you all have to solve together.
I never want you to have — and I did this in Now Boarding — I just don't want you to have all the variables, so that you think you can game it out exactly until on your turn you do it live.
On his design philosophy
Like a chef, you're looking for flavor combinations people haven't done before. At my level, a lot of stuff is more combinatorial. Once you kind of know all the mechanical tools, you kind of like seeing which ones fit together, sometimes you're doing a theme and mechanics.
If you look at my games, a very common thing is their difficulty level. Their difficulty level or their complexity level on BGG are very close to each other, down the line. I kind of try to find this sweet spot, between a core game and a casual game. Right? There's a cap on how much bookkeeping I want to have and how much thinking head you have to do.
I don't like domination. I don't like the idea of, I'm better at this game than you and I proved it. I've really moved away from that. Even my most directly competitive is like Sabotage. So when I do direct competition, I like to hedge it with something — like is it asymmetrical, like Fugitive, where it's like, OK, we're competing, but we're doing different things. And so it's not as emotionally taxing.
On new projects
I've been working with Skye Larsen on Paperback Adventures, which is a solo rogue-like deck-builder in the Paperback universe. I'm actually looking for testers right now. We just got it up on Tabletop Simulator so you don't have to cut everything out — because it's a lot of parts. We're trying to get people to play that and just see it.
Well, I hope you enjoyed the interview — it’s something I’d like to make a part of the newsletter, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to intersperse that sort of content with the other sorts of content I’m hoping to create.
In the coming weeks, you can expect another interview or two, a look at some of my favorite games of five and ten years ago — 2016 and 2011, which is wild to realize — and maybe even further than that, although that could be a harder ask.
Stay safe out there, folks!