The Guts And The Glory: An Interview With Zach Gage

Zach Gage is an educator, a designer, and a programmer. He’s the man behind the iOS hits SpellTower and Bit Pilot, as well as an intriguing music app called synthPond. He’s also created museum installations, one of which was a simple speaker that played an “iPhone Text Message Received” or “iPhone Mail Received” tone at random intervals. The resulting behavior of the visitors, both angry looks and furtive glances at their own phones, was the performance.

But can he make a board game?

In the halcyon days of last month, Zach Gage was deeply rooted in efforts to get his Kickstarter project, a post-apocalyptic board game entitled Guts of Glory, funded. It was a brilliantly run campaign: some brief chatter on Twitter about a new card game he’d been working on, followed by the Kickstarter launch and capped off with a successful showing at PAX Prime.

I’d been in touch with Gage prior to Guts of Glory’s Kickstarter launch, and as such our interview focused much more on the game’s origins and creation than anything else. His insights into the delicate balance of game mechanics and iteration, as well as his thoughts about what it was like to create his first physical game, are a great lesson for anyone with an interest in design.

Gage created Guts of Glory for the Game Center at New York University, specifically their 2012 No Quarter Exhibition. The event started in 2010 as a way to help foster the development of creative and potentially groundbreaking games, and the games are typically meant to shared by people in a social space.

“The original idea was about time management,” Gage said of the game. “Basically, while working freelance jobs I started noticing that the more jobs I did, the better the offers I’d get. But taking too many good offers meant that I couldn’t take great offers when they came around, because I had no time.”

Then, when considering whether or not to make a game for the 2010 Global Game Jam, Gage remembered his time management idea and soon became intrigued with the idea of combining it with a theme of extinction. “I started thinking about how to make a game about being the last person on earth and wandering the apocalypse, shoving things in your mouth trying to survive as long as possible,” he said.

“In that version the objects were Tetris-shaped,” he continued, “and they gave you nutrition when you put them in your stomach, and again when you digested them. Items also had Diablo-like powers that aided your digestion. I never ended up building that game, but when New York University commissioned me to make a game for No Quarter, the idea came back around as something I could do as a competitive card game.”

With that, Guts of Glory was ushered into the world. Described by Gage as a surrealist food eating contest set in the post-apocalypse, he notes that learning the whole card deck (à la Magic or Ascension) isn’t part of the plan: “You can teach someone in five minutes and they’ll be competitive by the end of their first game.”

While the concept may have evolved away from the original idea of time management, the gameplay itself remained relatively unchanged. Gage said, “Jess Worby and I made the original game that we showed at No Quarter in three days, start to finish: all the rules, art, everything, so there wasn’t really time for blowing through prototypes.”

“Actually, how I started designing the game was with (physical) cards,” he continued, “dealing myself blank cards of varying toughness and chewing two per turn to get a sense of how many turns could go by until my mouth would be reliably full. Then I based the number cards off of that math before coming up with any powers at all.

“Since then we’ve tweaked, added, and removed, but the core game has always been the same.”

Those things that are tweaked, added, and removed? Those are the guts and glory of any creative project; they’re the extra tablespoon of cinnamon in a banana bread recipe, or the key change in I Wanna Be Sedated.

Guts of Glory, of course, was no different. I asked Gage about the kinds of design hurdles he encountered, such as conflicting rule sets, and he said that one of the problems with the game was always overpowered cards.

“Typically on any turn,” he said, “while you are given two chews to distribute, you can only place one per card. Double-chewing allows you to place two on a single card. This is pretty powerful, (so the) solution was to make complex downsides for those cards and limit their effects.”

Guts of Glory’s rule set wasn’t the only thing that changed: Gage mentioned at least a couple of individual cards that were eliminated for various reasons. He said, “Early on I had a card called ‘Dog’ that had horrible downsides for swallowing (ie. ‘don’t eat dog’). I really liked the card, but in the end it was just too easy to not swallow it, so I dropped it. There was also a card that gave you an extra temporary food slot, but that made the game too unpredictable and was tossed as well.”

One card that doesn’t quite mesh is just a devil in the details, though. Gage said the hardest part of the game’s creation was overcoming larger design issues inherent to physical, multiplayer games.

“Multiplayer strategy games are hard to design,” he said. “You have to leave room in your system for humans to be humans and feel powerful without having their actions be meaningless. Decisions people make can’t be too powerful, but they also can’t be too weak. It’s a strange balance.”

“To put it another way,” Gage added, “you don’t want someone with perfect systemic understanding to crush everyone, but you want better players to be able to play better.”

Regarding the physical aspect of the game, Gage said the design of a game should lead players through what they need to do without any outside rule enforcement. “The rules need to accommodate someone who doesn’t understand them and might be playing wrong,” he said, adding that even in those circumstances the game still needs to be fun and interesting.

Minor (and likely typical) design challenges aside, the development of Guts of Glory was relatively stress-free. “I think for the most part,” he said, “I was – and still am – surprised that the game works at all. I’ve wanted to do an accessible multiplayer game with open information for a long time; it’s a pretty insane set of constraints to design around, and I feel really lucky to have stumbled onto this set of rules.”

“I was – and still am – surprised that the game works at all.”

Gage thinks the balance he struck between randomness and fairness in the game is one of its more appealing aspects. Elaborating slightly, he adds, “It’s too random and complex to plan more than a few turns in advance, but yet players always have powerful options with gut-wrenching (literally?) decisions to make.”

Thanks to contributions from Jess Worby and Jesse Fuchs, Gage took the finished Guts of Glory to the fertile grounds of Kickstarter with hopes of mass-producing it. He said he wasn’t concerned about Kickstarter fatigue, because he feels there are few independent developers creating physical games at the moment.

But he was worried about failure for another reason.

“Mostly I was worried about how much we were asking for, and the fact that I have zero track record on board games,” said Gage. “It’s a lot harder to sell a game on the vague talents of the person behind it than to sell a game that you know that person can make.”

As an example, Gage noted that if Tim Schafer were to try to get funding for a robust property management game, he’d probably get the money, but it wouldn’t blow up like Double Fine Adventure did.

Concerns long behind him, Zach Gage’s Guts of Glory is now successfully funded, his insanely long and diverse track record paving the way. Far surpassing the goal of $25,000, the game finished with over $41,000 pledged and 1350 backers – a phenomenal outcome for someone who was nervous about what he was going to occupy his time with after the runaway success of SpellTower.

As if he had to worry.