#17: Special Guest Chris Handy! (Perplext)

Hey there! I know this is 2 days early but I just couldn’t wait to share this with you. What a treat I have this week! This guest is another one of the designers I met on Twitter and was enticed by his preview posts. For months, I saw posts and pictures of cute, pocket-size games that all combine into a nifty Pack O Game. By the time his Kickstarter project launched I knew what was coming, but I was still blown away by how great of an idea he had! 

I started emailing with Chris Handy because I am fascinated with micro games. They are great for any company’s catalog because a good one is more likely to be played and shared (by friends, with family, etc.) than a big box game. I really struggle with designing at that scale, though. So, I asked Mr. Handy for some pointers. What he sent back was just fantastic. Not only did he take time away from his project to email with me, but he gave long, candid answers. The information he shared was GREAT. Then, he graciously gave me permission to share our chat with you! Here we go:

  • Aside from Long Shot and Cinque Terre, do you have a background in the physical or virtual game industries?

I’ve been professionally designing board games since 2000, so I’d say yes to the “Physical” part of that question. Also, my publishing company, Perplext, released 4 fast-playing games on iOS within a few months of the iOS App craze: Enterstate, Kount, Clockwize, and See-Quence. Digital Game design is a skill I’m desperate to have and I have been teaching myself Objective C, Unity and others in the last few years to become proficient.  I have some big game ideas that I’m hoping to get out at some point.  Right now, Long Shot for mobile is in development, and we’re making some great progress at the moment. I’m hoping that in the next release of AppleTV, they’ll open it up to apps and we can release a version of Long Shot that you can play with 8 players on your television.


  • How did Pack O Games start? Where did the idea come from? It looks like it was a design exercise that you stuck with and elaborated upon.

I don’t do design exercises. But, what I do is change up card sizes and components now and then, to keep things feeling fresh and to add extra interest. I had an idea for a color-square, tile-laying game that used long cards in a 1 x 3 fashion. I printed the game, and initially used some wooden pieces to score in an “area control” fashion. I was calling it, “Colorisma.”  In testing with my wife, I said, “This is great, but it would be fantastic to make it a “cards only” game, but still retain some kind of long term strategy in the game. We reworked it and came up with “the last card you hold is what you score” mechanism, and renamed the game RGB. I soon made a tuck box for the game and took it on vacation. I was shocked at how much we played it, and how tiny it was. After we got home from vacation, I started challenging myself to think of other games I could put in this box using only 30 cards. It started with a single new game idea, then other, then 2 more…then it was a rush of ideas.  I have close to 100 one-sentence theme/mechanism pairings, 40 SOLID ideas that I could start to print immediately and about 20 that I actually printed within about 2 months period.  Once I determined that I was going to publish these under Perplext and launch a KickStarter campaign, I backed off on design and really hammered out, tested and revised the ones I had printed.  This was a 12-15 hour a day process, for about 6 months straight. I was completely hyper-focused, obsessed really. I wasn’t much fun to be around either.  I was very protective of the idea as well, when usually I’m willing to put my games in front of anyone.  I felt like this was a much stronger concept than so many other games I had done. To me, it truly paired my artistic/craftsman side, with 15 years of game design experience, with KickStarter campaign strategy influence on design and “series” concepts, with Publisher Manufacturing/Distribution perspective.  It was a melding of ideas that frankly was overwhelming at the time, and felt completely original, fresh and inspiring.

  • Why gum pack size games? Was it a specific effort at this unique size and shape or a flippant “THIS small!” type specification?

It was the tuck box for RGB (which became HUE) that really set the tone. In carrying it around is that size box with cards in that are 1 x 3, it was so obviously comparable to a Pack O GUM. My wife came up with the name by the way.

photo RGB’s first night out on the town.

  • How early on did you hit upon the variable difficulty and rating system? It’s the kind of professional “extra” you don’t typically see on self-published projects.

In blind-testing with non-gamers, I saw some reactions that clued me in on the fact that there was an expectation from a game this size.  Certainly gamers expect these to be really light, simple, maybe even kids games. The opposite is true for non-gamers. TKO and FLY are what they would expect. But, letting non-gamers figure out GEM, with it’s different phases, auction, turn-the-card-to-indicate-status, and unforgiving nature, you’ll quickly see that it’s a game they’re NOT expecting to find in this pack. As gamers we’re completely used to phases, auctions, and so many little common game mechanisms that we’ve seen hundreds of times. So, as a gamer, you might not agree with a “3 – Challenging” rating of a game like GEM, but we’re meeting two target demographics here.  I didn’t intend my “3 – Challenging” rating to match Twilight Struggle’s rating, or the BGG rating system.  It’s about expectations from a game this size, for both demographics.

  • Were there certain games that you pack-i-fied purely for the challenge? How about because you thought they’d just be great / fun in a smaller format?

No, but I had a couple unpublished games that I’ve reworked for this size. I have thought about specific mechanisms (I’m trying to switch to saying “mechanism” instead of “mechanic”), and how I can use the materials effectively, but I’m not obsessed with doing that.  Again, I have a ton of game ideas, and there’ll be no shortage for me any time soon in this form factor.

  • Which is your favorite game in the pack and why?

HUE (RGB) was the first, so it’s special in that regard. There’s an elegance about it that I always find attractive in other games. Players only take 4-5 turns too, but it completely works on a satisfaction level.  I’m really proud of it.  But, it doesn’t stand out too much from other games like BUS or SHH.  SHH pulls off some serious tasks for what it sets out to do. Having a word game with 1 card representing each letter exactly 1 time (26 letter cards) is a challenge for any word design. And BUS is “Pick Up and Deliver” in 30 cards!

IMG_9691HUE (RGB) testing with Steve Sartain

  • Of course, which was the hardest game to develop? Why?

SHH was most difficult for a couple of reasons.  It started out with some “virtual card/place holder” mechanisms that through people off.  It was VERY difficult to win/play. I found non-gamers trying to edit the game instead of trying to win.  Man, is that an indicator that it’s time for a big revision. But, there were challenges in revising it. In a normal box game, you can put a million ideas or revisions or extra cards in there.  In the case of a Pack O Game, you are STRICTLY limited it. This is where I feel like 15 years of game design has finally paid off. There’s no way I could have made these games 5 years ago.  No way.

Another challenge was perception of the game from an on-lookers point of view.  The cards in this game are vivid, close-up pictures of real objects.  It draws people in like nothing I’ve ever seen.  But, in doing so, people may think, “Oh, it’s gonna be a laughing, party, apples to apples thing…..I want to try it!”  Then, they continue to watch and realize, there’s complete silence and concentration happening.  There is an occasion giggle if a word is misspelled or if it has to be referenced.  It’s all part of the game and is possibly the most impressive of the bunch.  I was really afraid of putting it in the “core four” game offering in the KickStarter campaign because of gamer sentiment towards word games. So, I held it back. But, I think it has the most potential to cross-over into more channels than any of the other games.  It’s certainly a favorite in my playtest groups.

SHH – When it was called “GAB” and was more difficult and clunky with the “virtual letter” mechanism
  • I understand there’s a significant variance in the development processes, but what would you say is the biggest difference in your APPROACH to a micro game versus your previous full size games?

You can put a million different concepts in a 12 x 12 x 4 box. You can always add more cards for balance, add extra rule pages for clarity. Add another set of bits to add to the number of players, etc. In Pack O Game, you have to work at lot harder to achieve a solid game that accommodates 4 people, and uses only 30 cards. Every millimeter on every card and on the rule sheet counts! It’s a very different design experience. But, it’s one that I have enjoyed immensely. But, I certainly don’t think I could have pulled this off much sooner in my career.

  • When did you KNOW that you had something special, here?

When I made the second Pack O Game (which I won’t name, and which will NOT be a part of this first campaign in any way.)  I often like to surprise my wife with the games I’m working on.  I’ll only talk “around” what I’m working on, and then “BAM!!!”, I’ll bust it out on the table. We were sitting at a restaurant, and right after we ordered, I said, “And…there’s THIS!” She was shocked that I was able to put a completely different game into the form factor.  But, it wasn’t until I explained it that she was complete taken by the different use of the cards, completely different theme, and even more complexity in the level of gameplay. As I dropped her off at the airport that night, I told her I had ideas for many other games, and I needed a name for the series.  She came up with Pack O Game while we were driving, and I bought 4 domain names WHILE I WAS DRIVING.  When I picked her up the following night from her business trip, I had printed SHH earlier in the day (then called GAB.)  We played it that night, again waiting for our food at a restaurant, and we both new that this was it.  This was the right idea to launch with. The next 9 months was a whirlwind. I journal on an app every night, and haven’t missed a day in 3 years. So, luckily I can go back and review early photos or prototypes and playing with people to see the progress.  One more indicator.  I took it to TKO to my niece’s birthday party and taught my niece and newphew how to play the game afterwards.  After a few plays, I told them that I had to take the prototype with me, and couldn’t leave it as they were asking me to.  My niece quickly made a crude version with pen and paper so she could continue to play.  I’m pretty certain they haven’t played the Cinque Terre game I gave them.  It’s been an exhilarating year.

IMG_9849My niece’s crude version of TKO

  • Any other thoughts? Advice?

On the design front: Keep it FUN!  Games only “work” if they create an experience of interesting choices and fun interaction.

Outstanding stuff! Thank you so much for the time and insights, Mr. Handy. I know this isn’t my normal format or topic, but it was such a great response that I had to share. Please, head on over and check out Pack O Game. He may be fully funded with 4 days left, but I know we’d all love to unlock some of his “extra” games with those stretch goals 😀 And be sure to let him know how much you appreciate him sharing his story!

Let me know what you think