Schwarz said Stefan Feld has been a particular inspiration for his game design, especially when it comes to multiple paths to victory.
“Feld’s most popular/famous game is Castles of Burgundy, and I guess that game sets a tone that a lot of his games are known for, which is that it offers many different paths to a similar end goal, which is maximizing your score. Some people prefer to focus on the ship/science path, others think animals and buildings work best and so you can find yourself trying out different strategies each game depending on what the tiles give you, or you can develop expertise in one particular strategy and just stick with it regardless. I like those options.”
“I also like how in many of his games you can create fun combos where your get more powerful actions because you string together benefits from elements you’ve pieced together over the game. I’ve tried to bring that together in Envelopes of Cash.”
Schwarz said he’s been particularly happy to see players find those combos.
“I was at DunDraCon in Santa Clara, CA and a high school kid who plays a lot of Magic: The Gathering and quickly caught on to the game. He played the card that allows you to replace the basic under-the-table currencies of the game (the envelopes of cash) with the one above-the-table currency which is the only currency you can carry forward from turn to turn. This is the NIL card I mentioned before. Then he built an engine that was driven by grabbing every card he could get that turned envelopes into regular currency so he could fuel a buying spree and ended up with a very high score and had great fun driving around paying for players with NIL money.”
“That was a combo I’d designed and hoped someone would find. And he got the same joy in finding it that I would get playing a Stefan Feld game, so I knew it had worked well. Now as it happens, I did decide to slightly tone down one of the cards in the combo he played just to weaken its power a smidge. But all in all it was a great success.”
Schwarz said he recognizes that he’s walking a difficult target audience line here, trying to target both existing hobby gamers and college football fans.
“I have been told that I should expect 95% of my audience to be board gamers, not sports fans. That is, that hobbyist games/Euros do not sell because of the theme, or do not sell to fans of the theme, but rather sell to fans of the mechanics and of the genre of game, and that the theme may help distinguish the game, but not to sell it not people who wouldn’t buy the game otherwise. If that’s the case, I think I am in trouble, only because I think that the Venn diagram of people who get really into Euros and the people who are really into college football features only a pale sliver of overlap.”
” I am in the sliver, and I know other people are too. But I have gotten a lot of “Oh, I don’t like sports” from gamers I’ve spoken too. Especially since I talk to a lot of Germans because I play online over at Yucata.”
He said he thinks there’s potential here for something that could introduce new audiences to gaming, though.
“I think the game works both independently of the theme, but also because of the theme. By which I mean, I think if I do my marketing right, this can be a game to bring new people into the hobby because they are drawn in by the theme. Let’s imagine that all I have done is create a decent homage to a Stefan Feld game, with a mélange of other designers tossed in for spice. For one thing, you could say that about dozens of games coming out on the market every month and some of those are really good game in their own right.”
“So for your basic hobbyist, someone who has no idea how to breed sheep or to work in a seaside warehouse or to ship spices from the far east, this never stops them from enjoying a good game. So the fact that the resources say LB and OL instead of Porcelain and Jade, shouldn’t really matter. If the games is a 7.5 rating on BGG and you like the mechanics, you’ll have a good time. My illustrator’s work is really pretty, and I think my rules are pretty clear to read, so what’s not to like?”
“But then, there is this whole swath of Americans for whom the Euro game is literally and figurative a foreign concept. And if you try to explain to them that they should carve out 2 or 3 hours to play a game about sheep farming or spice trading or running a warehouse in Hamburg or Le Havre, they will look at you like you’re insane. But if you tell them it’s about college football recruiting, maybe you’ll lure them in.”
“And they’ll play a game that maybe isn’t Castles of Burgundy fantastic, but it’s 90% as good. And for them, they’ve never played anything like this and it’s mind-blowing, because the first time anyone plays a Euro after only playing what are basically kids board games, it’s just a different experience. That’s kind of why I’ve jokingly been calling the game Castles of Bama’ndy, even though it’s really not like CoB at all, but just to capture the idea that I see it as a gateway game of a sorts. Not as easy of a starter game as a Ticket to Ride might be, but using the theme of college football as a gateway theme to attract fresh blood to the hobby.”
Schwarz said he’s leaned into that with his marketing efforts too, focusing on college football fans rather than just existing hobby gamers. One example here is what he did with Extra Points recently. And he said he’s doing more things along those lines:
“I’ve put a lot of effort into marketing at smart college sports fan audiences. People who read the recruiting blogs during the off-season. I’ve been trying to get to the Shutdown Fullcast, which I think of as a podcast for smart people who like college football despite knowing better, or perhaps because it’s more religion than sport for them. But of course it’s harder to advertise with them than to reach the Pope on the phone, so who knows whether I’ll actually get through.”
“And yes, I am also advertising on Board Game Geek and running a live session with the Good Time Society (Becca Scott) to hit the regular gamers, but my hope is to use the theme to tap into a new market and use that as a … wait for it… game changer vis-à-vis a game that might otherwise just be one of a dozen good Euros without anything that makes it stand out.”
He said his goal here is to be “subversive, but not didactic,” which means making a good game first rather than a game trying to make a point first.
“First and foremost, a game has to be a good game. If there is ever a point at which theme or moral gets in the way of game, you’ve blown it. So there are a few cards that simply break the deep thematic link. And while I am still thinking of ways to maybe improve those, if I cannot, they will stay sub-thematic because the game is the most important part.”
“Then comes theme. People want it to feel like a decent simulation of what the game represents, within the standard limits of a Euro’s level of abstraction. We’re not asking them to figure out how to pay for airfare to get from point A to point B, they just spent 1 Envelope of Cash for each movement point. But they do have to go to the Recruits home to actually close the deal — you have to sell Mama on taking care of her baby. Oh, and also slip the family four blue envelopes of cash.”
“But, if you read the rules cover-to-cover, you’ll see what I really think. The starting player token goes first to the person who most recently suffered wage theft. And the whole game itself totally normalizes paying players to come to your school to provide you with athletic services. So the idea is that if it becomes popular then 15-year olds will be asking their parents, why don’t they just give them Envelopes of Cash, and then my work will not have been in vain.”
Schwarz said he’s written about these issues many times, but a game provides a different way to try and get his points across.
“I’ve written the same piece for (the old) Deadspin (R.I.P.), Vice Sports (R.I.P), 538.com, Slate, ESPN, Marquette Law Journal, U.S. Presidential Scholars Review, etc. And helped more senior economists write the equivalent for judges all the way up to the Supreme Court. And I’ve testifies to Congress, state legislatures, etc. But it just feels like at some point, people stop listening because you sound like a broken record. I wanted another way to get the word out, without really having that be the sole focus of what I was doing. If anything, it’s tertiary. But it’s still important.”
It’s interesting to see a first-time designer and publisher on Kickstarter these days, as while that platform keeps growing for board games, much of the growth there is from established companies. Schwarz said it was a logical place for him to go, though, and it made sense for him to try and do this himself rather than sell an established publisher on this idea.
“I didn’t think I had the patience to pitch to publishers and get rejected 49 times just to find the 50th one to say yes. I’ve been doing that with my other (and more important) side gig, the Professional Collegiate League, where we need to raise millions of dollars and have yet to find the deep pocketed investors and I decided I probably could afford to do this one with my own money as long as the crowdfunding demonstrated that enough people were out there willing to buy it.”
“So I am using the Kickstarter less as a source of funds to be able to afford the upfront costs than as a gauge to know whether it will be wise for me to plunk down the kind of money required for the 1,500 minimum print run that a board game requires. Because 1,500 is probably nothing to Asmodee or Hans im Gluck, but I have visions of 1,450 games in a warehouse in Oakland for the rest of my life and paying storage fees, and I shudder. So I’ve set the funding targets high enough to feel comfortable taking the plunge but low enough that it’ll still be a risky endeavor (and a money loser) if that’s all we sell. I just want to feel like I’ve got a little wind in my sails before I sail off into the great unknown.”
One hurdle for many in supporting a first-time designer/publisher is if they’ll ever see the game they back. Schwarz said he’s done his research, though, and he knows what he’s getting into. And his goal with this is just to see if there’s enough interest to make printing it worth his while.
“As for people’s assurances from me — all I can say is I am going to make this happen if the Kickstarter funds. Like I said, I have the money to make this happen. I am motivated to get this game into the world and to see it have a life independent of me. If someone sends me their $65 plus whatever the shipping costs end up being, I will spend $200 to get them the game if that’s what it takes. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but this is not really a for-profit venture, at least not as the primary purpose. To be clear, I am not an idiot: if I can make a profit, I will. But if I commit to selling the game (i.e., if the Kickstarter funds), that promise will be kept even if it causes a loss.”
On a different note, it’s interesting that Envelopes of Cash has some die rolls (often anathema in a Euro game), and particularly uses a 12-sided die (or d12). Schwarz said he wanted to bring some uncertainty into the game.
“One feature I like about Euros is the fairly low level of pure chance involved. But college football recruiting is not an exact science. The game is driven by players Recruiting Rankings, but as any fan of the game knows, it’s hard to judge a Recruit’s real skill until you see him against other comparable players and a lot of times a 4-star may be playing all of his games against a bunch of players who will never go to a D1 college. So you don’t really know.”
“So I originally made it so that under each recruit would be a value modifier token, with a +2, +1, 0, -1, or -2 on it, and the distribution was basically heavily weighted towards the center, i.e., the rankings tend to be right, but with some chance of being a little wrong and occasionally very wrong. But then I realized a die would be so much easier than putting 40 tokens out on the board under 40 other tokens, and a d12 captured the distribution of values best. I guess I could have used a d8 and gotten close, but I find d8s to be clunky to roll, in that they seem to fall to the table and just go plop. Whereas d12s and d20s will actually roll for a bit, which I prefer, because it feels less likely someone can rig the roll.”
He said his first goal here is to get enough support to fund the game, but his ultimate goal is to maybe get more people into gaming.
“My first goal is to sell enough via KS to fund the game so we can make it. Second is to sell enough to not lose money so I can say to my family we didn’t have to give up a vacation, etc., for my silly game. Third goal is to actually improve the hobby by bringing in new gamers who find out about Euros through Envelopes of Cash, but then are willing to try games with less American themes because they quickly discover the mechanics they like in EoC were taken from great games made in Europe by Germans or Italians, etc. And that a game about a Viennese café/hotel could possibly be the most fun game on the market right now despite being about serving cake and strudel.”
Schwarz said he’d love people to check out the Envelopes of Cash Kickstarter page.
“Please go to https://bit.ly/KS_EoC today and sign up. If it’s before March 8, click the Notify Me button. Every time someone clicks that button (which is free!), Kickstarter ranks us a bit higher on the search algorithm and more people have a chance to find us. And then of course, I’d love it if you go back on March 8 or after, and consider backing the project.”
As part of his desire to expande the gaming hobby, Schwarz said he also wants people to check out free gaming site Yucata, and perhaps play with him there.
“I’d also like to put in a pitch for the website Yucata.de/en (or drop the en if you speak German). it’s a free, all volunteer site with no advertising where a lot of great games can be played any time of day or night and if you find me (I’m andyhre there, as well as on twitter), I will teach you most of the games I mention in this article if any of them intrigue you. And someday I hope we get EoC up and running there too, once I convince the Germans that yes, college football is a fun theme.”
And he has one final thought to leave people with:
“Amateurism is a con.”
The Envelopes of Cash Kickstarter campaign is here.