The Daily Worker Placement does not do Kickstarter previews.
Let me say that again: The Daily Worker Placement does not do Kickstarter previews.
It’s not our jam. Our jam is spread out on our ‘About’ page, between two lightly-toasted slices of journalistic independence.
What do, however like to write about tabletop design and culture. So when longtime contributor Nicole H said she’d heard about a game launching on Kickstarter at the beginning of March (a) whose designer had done a great job on cultural research and (b) was also pretty darned good, I was intrigued. In the outrage-driven click-world of social media, we tend mainly to hear about the cultural-misappropriation dumpster fires, and not so much about why and how people are trying to “get it right”.
When I made contact I emphasized to the designer that the focus of any interview would not be hyping the game itself but rather about his design journey and philosophy, particularly around this cultural research I’d heard about.
Which led to this hour-long interview with Elli Amir, the designer of Worldbreakers, a two-player duelling card game set in an alternate version of our 13th century, which is launching on Kickstarter on March 1. Yes, I know, Kickstarter = crypto = bad, I don’t personally plan to back anything on KS until they get their shit together, but I’m also not going to penalize or weed-whack a first-time designer either.
Because Elli and I covered a lot of ground I’ve broken up the interview into three parts. Today Elli tells us his backstory; tomorrow will be about why and how Elli’santi-colonial and anti-hegemonic stance informed Worldbreakers’ design, and Thursday’s concluding section will about the cultural research that went into the game’s backstory and how it informed its design. The transcript has been edited for readability and ‘flow’.
And so, we begin.
What I’m interested in is first of all your journey to beginning Worldbreakers, and then there’s the story of how you went about the world-building of Worldbreakers. So we’ll start with: How does a boy from Herzliya who goes to Ben Gurion University and gets a degree in computational biology become interested in Netrunner? What can you say about that first part of your card game journey?
So, as you pointed out, I was born in Israel. I’ve been a gamer since at least age 6. I got the Dungeons and Dragons Red Box when I was six and I became a Dungeons and Dragons fan.
I always dreamed of designing my own game. I designed a bunch of small games, I guess they no longer exist, but there must have been hundreds of pages with game ideas and Dungeons and Dragons adventures and modules and so on and so forth.
I’ve also been playing video games since forever. I started learning programming when I was eight, so I can make my own games. Like Civilization clones and Might and Magic clones and text-based adventures and maps for different games I’ve played.
And around the time I was 10, a very monumental event happened: Magic: the Gathering was imported to Israel for the first time.
I started playing Magic around the 4th grade–I believe it was Revised–so maybe I’m like one or two years off.
But how did you hear about it? Were there other kids who are already playing?
Yes, another kid in school. But I don’t know how they found out about it. I’m guessing they went through one of the local gaming shops that we had. And I was hooked. Most of my time between the age of 10 and the age of 18 was spent playing Magic.
What was it about Magic that hooked you personally?
First of all, the theme. Back in the day I was still a fan of like Medieval fantasy, knights and wizards and so on. I have since burned out on that and we’re going to talk about that when we talk about Worldbreakers.
But 10-year old-Elli was a huge fan of medieval fantasy. And in Israel at the time, Medieval fantasy was very different from other things kids were into. So the theme was a big.
Secondly, it was the deck construction. I just love customizing decks. Nowadays I’ve gone back to Magic Arena [online] recently, about a year ago. I have less time to build my own decks, but I still enjoy taking decks and then tweaking them based on my playstyle.
The last component was the competitive aspect. I love playing. I love playing tournaments. I like playing competitively. I love winning. I love losing. I’ve never been a big tournament player. I think as a kid I maybe had like two Top 8 finishes across dozens of tournaments. But I just love going to a tournament with like 30-40 other people and just playing competitively.
So I would say these were the elements: the theme, the customization, and the competitiveness of it all.
And then Netrunner came along, which added a whole new dynamic: the asymmetry of the Runner versus the Corp.
Oh my gosh, I don’t know how deeply you want to go into the details there. Let me know if it’s too much.
Go as deeply as you want into it!
So, one day a friend of mine got a copy of The Duelist,which was the Wizards of the Coast magazine. I think his dad visited the US and just picked up a copy. And serendipitously, that was the issue where they announced the release of Netrunner—Richard Garfield’s original Netrunner. And I was a cyberpunk geek since forever, and I saw a game about cyberpunk and I thought, “Oh my gosh I have to play this!”
But it was never imported to Israel. There was no way to get it, and I dreamt of playing Netrunner for literally decades—until I heard that Fantasy Flight was rebooting the whole thing as Android: Netrunner in 2012.
I couldn’t go to Gen Con that year to get a copy. I had a friend who went and I told him you have to get me a copy and he couldn’t, because when Fantasy Flight released it, they ran out of copies before the Vendor Hall even opened.
So I had to wait a few months. I printed cards and I played with printed cards until I actually got a copy and Netrunner became the consuming passion of my life from 2012 until 2015 or so.
But by then you were already in university and going on in your studies.
Actually, by 2012 I was deep into my PhD. I immigrated to the U.S. and I went to Columbia University to do my PhD. And I had a one-year-old. I’m super-lucky to have a very accommodating wife, who is immortalized as a character in Worldbreakers. We just made it work. She’s a big board gamer herself. Right now she’s definitely much more into board gaming than me, and that’s been the case for several years now, she has her own Meetups and stuff. So yes, finding the time to play was an interesting challenge. But we managed to make it work.
After I graduated, I joined a startup company called Custora, which has since been acquired and disappeared. It was a marketing startup, it had nothing to do with biology. The team at Custora was super nice. I would say stuff like: “I need to take two days off to go play in a board gaming tournament.” And they’re like: “That’s awesome! Go ahead!” And then I came back and everyone asked, “How was the tournament? How did you do?” It was really fun to be in a professional environment that was very open to having a personal life.
I stayed with them for two-and-a-half years and then I left and I joined Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City as a researcher. So I went back to biology.
Then I quit Netrunner for various personal reasons and as soon as I quit I started working on my own version of Netrunner. There were certain things in the Fantasy Flight version that I thought could be improved upon and I have notes going back to 2016 with ideas at least some of which ended up appearing in Worldbreakers.
Can you think of one major thing that you felt could be improved in Netrunner that made you think, “Oh, if I make my own game I want to go this way instead of that way, design-wise”?
The way Android: Netrunner plays, there is a lot of emphasis on economy and a big part of the game is managing your finances as opposed to the opponent’s finances. Which is fun, I like it. But I wanted to divert the attention from pure finances into timing and sequencing of actions. Which is where worker placement games come into play.
And while we’re talking about that let me just say I love Agricola. If you would ask me to stop this interview and play Agricola right now, I would be on the next flight to Toronto, we’re going to play Agricola. I have four games on Boardgamegeek which I rate 10 there: Android: Netrunner, Agricola, Caylus, and Worldbreakers.
[actually, according to the screenshot I took below, the fourth game is not Caylus but Through the Ages—not worker-placement per se but definitely action-driven]
So, you loved the worker placement mechanic, and that’s where you thought of the idea of using it to incentivize players to concentrate on timing and sequencing their actions as opposed to worrying about how to pay for them.
Exactly because in worker placement you want to do things in a certain order to be as efficient as possible, but when you play competitively, your opponent knows what you want to do, and they can try and find that link in your chain of actions that they can break, even if it’s a suboptimal move for them, especially when you play two-player, it’s a zero-sum game. If they lose three points but you lose 6 points, they’re still going to do it.
When I played two-player Agricola, a big part of the game for me was: how do I starve the other player? Especially pre-expansion.
I wanted to take that kind of tension where you want to do certain things and your opponent wants to do certain things and you all want to interrupt each other and bring that into the framework that was born by Netrunner.
So in 2016 you start thinking about this. You want to figure out how to make those things mesh together. Then what happened?
The big thing that happened is that I started my own business, called Astrolabe Diagnostics. I took all of my PhD research and all of my experience in Mount Sinai Hospital and turned it into a company. And apparently founding a company is extremely time-consuming, like ridiculously time-consuming on a level that I didn’t even imagine.
Starting in May 2017, there was this gradual process where every element of my life was just discarded and sacrificed on the altar of running the company. Until the only things that stayed were my wife, my two kids, and the company. And everything else was gone. Not very healthy. I do not recommend it, but that’s what happened. And you know, it paid off because Astrolabee was really successful. The company is in a great spot right now, where I can afford to finally reclaim these parts of my life that I had to discard.
At that point I kept working on ideas for Netrunner, but it was really on the back burner like once a month or so. And then two big things happened:
First, NISEI was founded, which is a fanmade organization for continuing Netrunner after Fantasy Flight lost their license. A group of fans, building and holding the game themselves, including releasing new cards. And they’re doing a phenomenal job. I didn’t think I could improve on that. Looking at my design files from that time, was I evidently thinking along the same lines as them because a lot of the stuff they’re doing—for example deemphasizing the run subroutines and ice and putting more emphasis on tension between the Corp and the Runner—these are the things that I envisioned for my hypothetical reboot. I realized I didn’t need to think about it anymore.
The second thing that happened was the pandemic started. It was difficult for me, my wife, and my kids. Just to be clear, it was not as difficult as it was for other people. But it was difficult.
So I decided about a year into the pandemic that I really need to start doing the things I’d been dreaming about. I can’t just do work and family and surviving the stress of Covid. I decided to just slice off a big chunk of time and focus on designing a game.
And since I didn’t need to reboot Netrunner because NISEI were doing such a good job at it, I went back to the drawing board and said OK, I’m designing a game from scratch. I was no longer constrained by the Netrunner framework. And that’s when I started working on Worldbreakers, about the middle of last year.
Tune back in tomorrow for Part Two, where we’ll discuss colonialism, hegemony, and why we can’t have nice things.