Garfield of Dreams
I first met Richard at a game convention in San Francisco called Mana Fest. The convention was specifically a trading card game convention, so my friends and I drove up from Los Angeles. I was walking through the lobby when I saw Richard walk by. Be aware, at this point I knew who Richard was. He was the creator of Magic: The Gathering, my favorite game. While we had never met, I knew that Richard was aware of who I was. You see, at the time, I was the "Magic puzzle guy," and Richard had written a few nice things publicly about my puzzles.
Seeing an opportunity, I introduced myself to Richard. Even though I knew that he knew me, the fact that he recognized my name was quite exciting. He shook my hand and said that he and some others were about to go up to Richard's hotel room and play some games. Would I like to join them?
Understand that inside I was screaming, "Richard Garfield just invited me to play games with him!" but on the outside I... who am I kidding, I don't think I kept my excitement contained in any way. I told him I would be honored. We then went up to his room and we played Roborally (note, this was before the game had come out, so we were playing with mock-ups—meaning I had never seen or played the game before).
A quick aside for those who might not know their Magic history: Roborally was the game that Richard and his friend Mike Davis first brought to Wizards of the Coast in an attempt to sell. Peter Adkison, the CEO of Wizards of the Coast (which was then a tiny roleplaying-game company) told Richard and Mike that while he liked Roborally it was too expensive to produce for a company his size. What they could make, though, was a game using cards. Peter wanted something small, portable, and with a quick play time, "something to play in between roleplaying sessions." Richard said he had an idea and the rest is history.
After my game-playing session, I returned to my room to find one of my roommates. To the best of my memory, here's the conversation that we had.
Him: Hey. What have you been up to?
Me: I was just playing games with Richard Garfield!
Me: Richard Garfield is here. I met him in the lobby. He invited me up to his room to play games, which is where I just was.
(appropriate pause of awe)
Him: Okay, you have to tell me everything.
Then, as each new roommate returned (this was back in my pre-Wizard days so that meant eight of us were sharing a room), the last person to hear the story would blurt out to the new person what I had just done and then I was forced to once again walk through the entire evening. I believe my recapping of my game-playing lasted longer than the actual game-playing.
Garfield of Inquiry
Later that summer, I would fly myself to Gen Con and convince Kathryn Haines, the editor-in-chief of The Duelist, to let me write more for the magazine. That led to a lot of freelance work, which included being flown to a number of events. It was at these many events that I first got the chance to know Richard. Richard is a bit quiet when you first meet him, but as he gets to know you, you find out he is anything but shy.
The first thing I learned about Richard is that he loves games. Loves games. I have met many passionate game players in my time but I have yet to meet anyone with as much passion about games as Richard. He is truly a student of games and is constantly trying to learn as much as he can about how they work. As part of this, Richard is constantly hunting down new games and is always excited to talk about them. Stick around Richard and you will be introduced to an endless supply of games, new and old.
At this time, game design was merely a hobby of mine and I loved talking design theory with Richard. Richard always had great insights about what made games tick and I would soak in everything he said. Richard, in turn, was fascinated with Hollywood, so I would tell endless stories about my many adventures in Los Angeles. We would only see each other one weekend every couple of months but it was during this period that I started to become friends with Richard.
Garfield of Vision
About a year later, I offered up that I would be willing to move to Seattle, and before you knew it, I was employed at Wizards of the Coast. All of Magic R&D were implants to the Emerald City so we tended to just hang around with one another. Here's how a normal day would go: We'd get to work and work all day up until dinner. Then we would go out to a restaurant for dinner. We would return to work and start playing games until the early hours of the morning. We would then go to our respective apartments (those who didn't just sleep in a sleeping bag under their desks) and crash. The next morning, we would wake up and it would all begin again.
While we all played the games, Richard was the ringleader. Some of the time, we would play old favorites. Some of the time, Richard would introduce us to new games, many from Germany—which, at the time, had not yet broken into the American market, which meant that all the games' instructions were in German. This meant we were at the mercy of Richard to explain how each game was played. Sometimes, we would play a new game Richard had come up with. I consider this period to be my true education into games. Sure, I had been a gamer my entire life, but as I would soon learn, I had barely cracked what the gaming world had to offer.
In addition to the games at night, R&D was fond of playing games the rest of time as well—except, these games were ones we could play while we were working. The biggest game was known simply as "The Game." To the best of my knowledge The Game was something Skaff and friends had created while in college. Here's how The Game worked: There were a bunch of rules. If you broke any one of the rules, there was a penalty. Most often that penalty was a punch in the arm, but the penalties could vary. One of the harshest penalties kept you from being able to talk until you could trick someone into doing something to release you from your silence.
I have neither the time nor the memory to flesh out The Game, but suffice to say it had a number of ramifications that ran throughout work. For example, there were a number of words that were dubbed power words. If you said a power word, you had to make quote marks with your fingers, otherwise another player could penalize you. As everyone was aware of these rules, one of the minigames was to try and goad other players into saying these words. Remember, this happened during normal work hours, so you constantly had to be on your guard.
Another part of The Game was that it was never explained all at once. You had to learn it piecemeal as you played. I was never even sure I learned all the rules to The Game, but I played it for a number of years.
Another game was one introduced by Richard. It wasn't named but I called it the Lying Game. Here's how it worked: Whenever the opportunity arose, you made a lie—not a normal, believable lie, but rather an over the top outrageous lie. As long as one person believed your lie, you had to keep it up, making the lie crazier and crazier until finally no one believed it. During the entire thing, you had to keep a straight face. Richard, by the way, was very good at this game.
Let me run you through an example based on an actual lie made during this game (by designer Jonathan Tweet, to the best of my knowledge):
R&D Member: I'm pretty sure in a fight, a polar bear would beat a shark.
Jonathan: Were you aware that polar bears aren't actually bears?
R&D Member: What do you mean?
Jonathan: Well, they look like a bear, which is why most people assume they're a bear, but in actuality they are members of the weasel family.
R&D Member: Then why are they called a polar bear?
Jonathan: Originally they weren't. They were called polar ferrets.
R&D Member: They don't look like ferrets.
Jonathan: That's because they have all the hair due to the harsh arctic climate, but if you shaved a polar bear it looks a lot like a giant ferret.
R&D Member: How do you know what polar bears looked like shaved?
Jonathan: Because when I was in Peru, I saw a giant sun ferret. They roam the beaches there. And the giant sun ferrets are the closest relative to the polar bears.
R&D Member: Why would a ferret be on a beach?
Jonathan: Because the main diet of the giant sun ferret is clams.
This sometimes would go on for a silly-long time as one gullible member of R&D would ask questions trying to catch the liar in the lie.
When asked why he introduced this game to R&D, Richard replied that lying was a good game skill to have.
Garfield of Study
I was hired into R&D as a developer, but what I really wanted to do was design. I loved talking design with Richard and during one of our discussions, we got to the topic of Magic design. Since I had known him, Richard hadn't done any Magic design. He was busy designing other trading card games (Jyhad—later Vampire, the Eternal Struggle; Netrunner; and Battletech) and board games (The Great Dalmuti, Roborally, Filthy Rich, What Were You Thinking, and others) While talking about Magic design, Richard confided in me that he wouldn't mind doing some design again. Sensing a golden opportunity, I asked, "If I put together a Magic design team, would you be on it?"
With Richard aboard, I went to Joel Mick, who was at the time the head designer (and head developer, as the job at the time was both positions). I pitched the idea of me running a design team quickly, adding that Richard said he would be on the team. With Richard aboard, I got Joel to give me my chance. You all might know that set as Tempest.
I had a blast working with Richard on Tempest. He obviously understood Magic well and, having not worked on it for two years, he had built up a lot of ideas—two of his biggest were buyback and cycling. "Cycling," you say, "that wasn't in Tempest." It wasn't printed in Tempest, but Richard first proposed it during Tempest design. Tempest design was overstuffed, so we cut some stuff for later. Mike Elliott, who was also on the Tempest design team, would later take cycling and his own mechanic, echo, which was also in the Tempest design for a while, and put it into Urza's Saga.
I had a lot of ideas, but Richard was good at helping me see what ideas worked and why. Richard has a good eye for what things are clicking in a design, and the more I worked with him the better I got at seeing what he saw. Eventually, with time, I started getting my own intuition for what was working.
During this time, I was not exclusively working on Magic design (as opposed to now, where 95% of my time is spent on Magic), so I had the opportunity to work with Richard on a variety of other games. He and I, for example, worked closely in the making of the Star Wars Trading Card Game.
Richard also enjoyed Tempest, so from time to time I got him to join me on other Magic teams. The next Magic set we worked on together was Odyssey, where Richard came up with the threshold mechanic which I combined with my flashback mechanic to make a graveyard-based design.
Also during this time, I started working on a mass-market trading card game that I called Mood Swings. Richard was instrumental in helping me understand what I was trying to do and it ended up with a game that to this day might have been my best non-Magic game design.
Richard was a wonderful teacher and mentor and I consider these years as containing my golden lessons that helped me build my foundations as a game designer.
Garfield of Expertise
Time rolled by and, eventually, Wizards of the Coast was purchased by Hasbro. As the largest stockholder, Richard now had the financial freedom to do whatever he wanted. Richard was going to keep designing games, as it was in his blood, but he was going to explore opportunities outside of Wizards.
Richard's departure wasn't sudden, as he still worked part-time for a while. But, eventually, his visits to Wizards grew less and less frequent. Richard and I had become friends, so I still saw him socially, but I had fewer opportunities to work with him. I missed that, as Richard was always a blast to work with and I learned something with each encounter.
One day, he and I were chatting and I brought up the fact that I was putting together a design team for an upcoming set—a little thing called Ravnica. I had just become head designer and I was in charge of making a multicolor set that was able to live in the shadow of Invasion, one of the most popular blocks of all time. Richard said he missed working on Magic and if we could work it out, he'd love to join the design team.
I quickly got permission to bring Richard in as a freelancer and we were good to go. Ravnica was a smooth design (the team was Richard, Mike Elliott, Aaron Forsythe, Tyler Bielman, and myself) and Richard was a valuable contributor. He came up with the convoke mechanic (although he turned it in for Boros and I moved it over to Selesnya), he made the cycle of Auras with "enters the battlefield" triggers, he made the Hunted cycle of creatures that each gave token creature to the opponent, and he made numerous individual cards. His greatest contribution, though, was something that didn't even appear in the set.
Because we were in a city, Richard came up with a new card type he called structures. The idea was that they represented buildings. Structures functioned a lot like enchantments or global artifacts, in that they had a static effect, but they had one difference—a toughness that the opponent could attack and whittle down. I didn't end up using it in the set because Ravnica was already stuffed to the gills, but I loved the idea.
I loved it so much that a few years later, while trying to create a different new card type, the Planeswalkers, I borrowed what I thought was the most interesting component of structures—the ability to destroy it by attacking it. It had a great flavor and fit the Planeswalkers perfectly.
Garfield of View
With time, my family grew and I moved out to the suburbs. This made it harder to see Richard and I saw him more infrequently. In fact, I had kind of come full circle as the place I most often saw him was at Magic events. Even though we lived in the same city, he and would run into each other most often in other cities and countries.
Whenever we'd get together we'd talk design and I'd see what he was up to, while I would fill him in on where Magic had ventured. One such talk happened at the World Championships in Memphis, Tennessee. Once again, Richard uttered one of my favorite sentences, "The next time you run a design team, I'd love to be on it."
As I always do when Richard makes the offer, I put him on the design team. This time,Innistrad. As Alphaand Arabian Nights both show, Richard loves top-down design, so I felt horror world would be a great fit. Richard would come in once a week and the chance to see him on a regular basis again was wonderful. As always, he was a pleasure to have on the team.
One of the most interesting aspects, though, was that none of the rest of the team knew Richard. Sure, they knew of Richard, but there had been such a long gap since Richard worked at Wizards that very few people in R&D actually knew him. It was great fun to get to introduce so many of my current coworkers to Magic's creator.
Richard had great fun bringing all the monsters to light. The creatures he was most interested in designing were Zombies, and he brought design after design exploring many different facets of what made Zombies tick. Richard's help was invaluable as always, and it was no surprise that Innistrad was a big success.
Garfield of Knowledge
I haven't had the chance to work with Richard since Innistrad,but I've let him know that the door is always open. As I like to say to him, Magic is his baby and I'm just making sure that everyone treats it right.
Before I wrap up for today, I wanted to share a few game-design lessons from Richard that I've learned along the way.
Lesson #1: Understand your foundation
If you think of a game as a building, there is something it is built upon. For Magic,that has always been the color pie. As a game designer, you have to understand what you are building your game on top of and make sure that along the way you don't lose sight of it.
This is one of the reasons I'm such a stickler of the color pie, because I know when you dig down deep, it is what Magic is built upon. The easiest way to topple the proverbial building is to eat away at its foundation.
I find it's always important early in a game design to understand what the foundation of that game is. When I design an expansion, for instance, I always want to make sure that I can clarify to my team what the heart is of the design. Ravnica was about the guilds. Innistrad was about capturing the feel of horror. Theros is... well, we'll get to that one soon enough.
As Richard told me once, "If you don't know what your game is about, how are you going to make sure you don't lose it?"
Lesson #2: If it can be cut, cut it
One of the great things about working with Richard through many projects, from beginning to end, was I got a chance to see how he collected ideas for his games and then decided what to keep and what to get rid of. What I learned along the way is that it's very easy to add elements to your game but very hard to remove them, but part of being a game designer is making the tough calls of what to remove.
The best games are the ones that have no more rules than they need to function. Every element of the game has to be pulling its weight or it has to go. Richard was a fan of finding ways to have components pull double duty. Why have ten things each doing ten different functions when you can have five things that each serve two functions?
Whenever I was working on a game and I came to Richard for some advice, he would often examine the game, look at some component and ask, "Does this need to be here?" Almost always, the answer was "no." Richard was very good at seeing what was superfluous.
I take this same approach to my Magic designs, always asking myself, "Does this need to be here?"
Lesson #3: Don't lose track of the fun
Sometimes you can dig so deep on a design that you lose track of what's important—fun. Your game can do everything else right but none of it matters if the audience doesn't enjoy playing it. Richard taught me that the best test of whether a game is a success is this simple question during playtesting: "Do you want to play again?" If the answer is "no," there's something wrong.
Lesson #4: Build on what your audience already knows
I already wrote an article on this concept, what I call piggybacking. I learned this concept from Richard. Learning a game is always a barrier, so anytime you can make that barrier lower by using knowledge your audience already has, do it.
I talked earlier about how Richard is a historian of games. One of the reasons he spends so much time playing games is he wants, as a game designer, to have as many tools at his disposal as possible.
Lesson #5: When trying to get someone to playtest, the answer to how long it will take is always "15 minutes"
Back when Richard worked at Wizards, he used to come up to my desk and ask me if I wanted to playtest. When I asked how long, he always answered "fifteen minutes." It took me a while to realize that he always gave the same answer. Through trial and error, Richard had learned that this was the answer that got the most people to accept his invitation.
Garfield of Opportunity
That's all the time I have today. I hope you all had fun getting a little insight into the man behind the Magic. One of my great joys of working on Magic has been my opportunity to become friends with Richard. So happy 50th birthday, Richard! Thank you for all the lessons and so many good times, and remember—the next time you want to do Magic design, the door is always open.
Join me next week for a trip around the Worlds.
Until then, may you meet someone who impacts your life as much as Richard has impacted mine.
Drive to Work #43—Mirage, Part 3
Today, I continue my podcast series on the design and development of one of the very first sets I worked on, Mirage.
- Episode 43 : Mirage, Part 3 (12.5 MB)
- Episode 42 : Mirage, Part 2 (11.4 MB)
- Episode 41 : Mirage, Part 1 (11.1 MB)
- Episode 40 : Wizards of the Coast (14.9 MB)
- Episode 39 : Randomness (13.9 MB)