An hour into our interview, Isaac Vega is still brimming with energy, gesturing and talking about his next project with all the verve of a life coach or an eager teenager. Vega’s a lead designer for Plaid Hat Games, who have published the board games Dead of Winter (2014) and Summoner Wars (2009). It’s obvious he loves what he does.
“I’d like to break the barrier in board games that we don’t see in other media,” Vega tells me. Tabletop gaming has a unique barrier to access that no other media has: a steep learning curve. To gather a group of people together for a board game, someone has to sit down, read the rules, learn how to play and then proceed to teach the group how to play. “It’s the short and small games that change the industry,” Vega says. Games like Settlers of Catan (1995), Munchkin (2001) and Love Letter (2012) boast simple mechanics, and it’s easy to see why they’ve sold so well. With the huge influx of new tabletop players, Vega wants to hew toward making games everyone can play, regardless of background.
Vega is a storyteller first. He went to school for videogame design, just for a year, so he could learn to craft stories. After looking at the gaming industry and the long journey from programmer to designer to director, he backed out and worked other jobs for a while. When the opportunity to work with Plaid Hat presented itself, he turned to cardboard and paper, and has since designed Dead of Winter and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn (2015), among others. Every game he’s designed has been an opportunity to create a miniature world with its own internal logic. Every mechanic and rule in these games becomes an opportunity to reinforce an undergirding theme or sentiment: exhaustion and mistrust in Dead of Winter, or the “there can only be one” competition in Ashes.
All of Vega’s games are character-driven. He tells me one of his favorite films growing up was Jurassic Park (1993), watching how each character lives and dies based on their motives. Dead of Winter is similarly character-driven, with a large cast of characters with their own personalities, all moving around and between each other. The focus in Dead of Winter is to play out these human stories: gathering food, scavenging for supplies, maintaining balance in the group. Ashes, likewise, was conceived as a way of fixing some glaring problems he saw in Magic: The Gathering (1993) and other CCGs (Collectible Card Games), but at its core is a conflict between two characters. Each Phoenixborn has a personality and unique playing style that reflects who they are, which in turn affects how each card interacts with each other card.
I tell him that Ashes seems very much like a personal labor of love, and he nods and tells me that it connects with his middle-school self. Vega grew up in a small town in Ohio. “I enjoyed the Dragonball Z card game, but I could never play the game the way my friends could because they were older and had more money,” he said. “They came from white middle-class backgrounds, and I was a poor Latino kid. I couldn’t experience the game on their level because I simply didn’t have the money.”
“My friends were nice,” he said, backpedalling with a smile. He explains that they gave him cards because his parents couldn’t give him the money to go buy the cards for himself. “But they didn’t give me rare cards or great cards: they gave me multiple copies of whatever they had leftover,” Vega said. “So I could only craft certain things, and no matter how well I made a deck, there were certain cards I couldn’t compete with just because I didn’t have the capital.”
Vega’s background is partly why Ashes follows a less rigorous release schedule than Android: Netrunner (2012), Magic, or Fantasy Flight’s other card games. Cards are released on a slower, more measured calendar—partially because Vega thinks the other LCGs (Living Card Games) and CCGs release untested and throwaway cards. He wants everything in Ashes to be of value, in a way, as a gift to his teenaged self. So he pared away the parts of Dragonball Z and Magic: The Gathering he thought were lacking to craft something he hopes people will play competitively. “I wanted to create this feeling of a tense battle,” Vega said. “You act, your opponent reacts. It should feel very much like a boxing match.”
While Vega is in love with building huge, fascinating worlds on players’ kitchen tables, my experience playing Dead of Winter is something else entirely. Dead of Winter is a slow grind of tough decision-making and cutthroat group management. There’s a kind of maturity and self-awareness in the design. Vega never grew up playing the kind of board games he now designs: he grew up playing Monopoly (1903), which doesn’t carry any of the narrative or theme he builds into his own designs. The tabletop mechanics were something he must’ve had to learn. So I ask him to tell me about his first board game he designed.
City of Remnants came out in 2013. Vega fumbles on the details of the release, but he’s clear he wasn’t all that happy with the art. He hadn’t yet met Fernanda Suarez, who illustrated Dead of Winter and Ashes, and when he was starting out at Plaid Hat, he hadn’t yet become art director. The premise for his first game was all about gangs. In City of Remnants, players lead alien gangs all thrown together on a prison planet, rebelling against an overlord race. It was influenced by Puerto Rico (2002), and Dominion (2008) as a mashup of Eurogame management mechanics and his own combat mechanics.
He’d originally wanted to make it about real-world gangs, but didn’t want to pit players against real-world police. The solution was to take it sci fi and add some genre color to it, so that everyone could hate the overlords and feel good about it. The moral greyness of his original concept was re-skinned so that everyone could be the hero of their own story.
This approach seems at odds with Vega’s model for Dead of Winter, though: the fantastic setting in City of Remnants was used to water down his concept. In Dead of Winter, no player works unselfishly for the group. Excepting the betrayer role, everyone has a minor neurosis or inner demon to appease in addition to the group’s main objective, be it a hypochondriac scrounging for medicine or a hoarder gathering junk. Humanity isn’t so easy to box in.
Dead of Winter is labelled as a “Crossroads” game, so I ask Vega what that is, in his words. He nods thoughtfully. “It’s about telling human stories,” he said. “The Crossroads model forces you to make tough decisions: do you choose the thing that benefits you, or doesn’t benefit you for the good of others? Something might be good for you and not someone else. Sometimes a choice might not be good for anybody. It’s trying to recreate (and simulate) those points in life where you have to make a tough decision. And all of that’s in service to crafting an interesting story.”
The heart of this experience lies in role-playing your character, getting attached, and seeing the best and worst of your own humanity. A group might survive a long while in Dead of Winter only to see everyone die because of a petty squabble between two players. Vega tells me that’s a big part of the human experience: “How do you accomplish your own wants and needs in life, and compromise, or give it up for the good of the team?”
I push a little and ask Vega what changed between City of Remnants and Dead of Winter. Although “deep genre” media are being used to tell deep, affecting human stories in, say, Game of Thrones (2011-present) and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Vega moved into genre stories to escape the hard questions in his first game. “That was part of my development as a designer,” he answers. “We’re all developing and learning as we tell stories.”
He says that the more he grows as a designer, the more he understands himself and the more he can put himself in his games. When he developed City of Remnants, he was uncomfortable telling his supervisor he was gay, but as he’s grown into greater self-acceptance, his games can approach deeper issues. “I want to talk about LGBT issues, I want to talk about race, and I want to throw those things in a game, because I think this game can handle it,” he tells me.
Even so City of Remnants always contained the seeds of Vega’s Crossroads game model: putting people together in difficult situations, emphasizing diversity and character. The factions in City of Remnants contain diverse philosophies, but each one recruits competitively from the same pool regardless of origin or race.
The games are never a platform to push an agenda or thought process, though. Dead of Winter contains a transgender character in its new expansion The Long Night but the original also allowed for gay relationships. “It allows us to talk about things we care about: games aren’t just fun, but are also a medium for people to experience a new story and see and feel things they haven’t necessarily seen or felt before,” he said. “A lot of people playing may never have interacted with someone who’s gay, or trans, or from a different race. So the game becomes a space to tell these stories, start a conversation around the table that could bring these things to light for a group of players.”
There’s a crisis card in Dead of Winter: The Long Night that seems specifically engineered for these sorts of conversations. It’s a crisis card that prompts players to tell a “non-game secret.” Vega says it’s a social experiment. “The game already allows players to bring out more of themselves than they wouldn’t in other situations. This is a way to force conversation.”
He laughs. “And it’s also a way for me to mess with the players.”