Excavate, a game about finding fossils

Excavate

By now you should be very familiar with the Zia Comics game guy, Danny McKinley.  He is the one in all our “How to Play” videos.  Danny also runs our free board game demo night every Saturday from 5-9pm at Zia Comics in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  He is always quick to explain a game to people or even show them a quick demonstration.  Danny literally lives and breathes board games.

Danny has developed a few of his own games as well.  One of those games that he is particularly proud of is EXCAVATE! He really wants everyone to know about this game and have their very own copy.  The only roadblock is the high cost of manufacturing a game.  For that reason he has placed the game on Kickstarter in hopes to get it crowdfunded.  Please go to the Kickstarter page and pledge anything you can spare.  Help an independent game designer break into the mass market of board games.

Danny typically shies away from the limelight, but I twisted his arm and got him to do a quick interview.  Let’s learn a little bit about the man behind EXCAVATE!

Can you walk us through how you design a game? How do you start? What is your process?

I sure can! I will either decide on a theme or a mechanism that I think I can do something interesting with. Normally that will be a themed game which you try to create a strong game for the players without making it convoluted. Once I come up with a basic design, I test it and decide whether it I can make it work smoother without diminishing the fun for the players.

Do you follow the design philosophy of starting with a theme and building game mechanics around it or do you find it better to think of some great mechanics and find a theme to fit?

I believe that it can work either way, but you will have to match the two in the process. For example, If I said I wanted to make a game based on stocks and economics I probably would not use many random variables, like dice or trivia. I did this with one of my games, called Candidate Land. I wanted to make a political game about becoming the next President. I know there was a mechanism called “deck-building” which would go hand in hand with the theme. This mechanism works by having all players start with a small deck of cards that are identical. As the game continues, they build it like an engine with cards that would be most beneficial. The players who do this the best will win the game. I always thought this mechanism works perfectly with the theme because the Candidates are building their campaign the same way.

What is the ratio of games you’ve started designing to games you’ve finished?

Very few that I have come up with ever get to the point where you believe that they are finished. It starts with the idea. Then prototyping the game. Next is testing and finally is completion. Like most games, I hold their feet to the fire and if they do not stand up they can go back to the storyboard. With that being said, I have completed quite a few games so you can imagine just how many I have needed to sift through to get the best.

What is one theme that you’d love to design around but haven’t been able to yet?

I have always been a fan of the circus. While there are a few circus themed games in publication now.  I never felt that they truly captured the theme. I have been working on one like this for a bit over a year now.

Is there a certain board game theme or mechanic that you feel is really overdone and perhaps should go on hiatus for a while?

I’m afraid that Zombies are used a bit too much in ALL media. Board games are not the exception. I loved watching zombie movies when I was younger. When I saw one about zombies gaining emotions and falling in love I had to call it quits on that theme.  If you describe a game to me and start by saying: “It’s like Magic the Gathering, Except…” I will walk away.  If a game is anything like Magic the Gathering I will just play that because they have already done it. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

What’s one game that you love that you wish you designed?

Very easy, although there are many games I feel this way about I would have to choose Pandemic By Matt Leacock. This game design is brilliant and the theme works with it perfectly. It keeps you scared the whole time. You are incredibly engaged with the board.

If you could set up your ultimate gaming session and play a tabletop game with anyone in the history, living or dead, what game would you choose and who would you play it with?

Honestly that would be a hard one to pick because it depends on if the people are actually enjoyable people to spend time with or even if they like games. If I had to choose, probably Charades with a young Charlie Chaplin. I doubt I would be able to keep a serious face.

What is one thing you want everyone to know about the Excavate game?

That it is very unassuming, because it looks very simple. But the depth of strategy that it allows is rare for a game this easy for people to understand. More often than not people are very comfortable playing it within 10 minutes. Then I get asked if the same players could play it again and again. I know that if it were not fun and the players were being nice, I would never see them after their first play.

Let’s start with your earliest experiences. I’m sure you played things like Candy Land when you were a kid.

Of course. I played all of the staples. I used to play Monopoly and Risk with my brothers all day long. First big change in gaming happened when I started playing Collectible Card Games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. After that, I started playing board games like Carcassonne and the rest is history.

Where does your inspiration come from?

I try my best to compile a combination of themes that are important to me as well as themes that I believe would make for an interesting design. I grew up with comedy so almost any game that can make me laugh will go straight to my collection. Other times I find a theme to be interesting enough where even though I was never interested before, I could develop a game for it. That’s where Excavate came from!

If you had the opportunity to design a game with any other game designer in the world, who would you work with?

I feel like from the interviews I have watched with Matt Leacock (Pandemic), He would be a great person to work with! Just an all-around nice guy. There have been a number of designers which I have worked with in the past, like Brad Talton of Level 99 games and Curt Covert of Smirk & Dagger games. They are all real supportive and friendly to anyone in the industry. I’m happy to be a part of it.

Give me the brief pitch of the game.

In Excavate! 2-4 battling paleontologists have all been assigned to the same fossil-rich excavation pit. The players will try to maneuver around the opponents and snag up the best pieces for their private museum display. The player with the best display at the end of the game wins.

Who are you?

I am a professional game demonstrator, the geekiest job in the world! I have been teaching board games for over 2 years to large and small groups of people. Also, I am an elementary teacher here in Las Cruces.

What’s your background?

I have grown up in New Mexico nearly my whole life. I have always been a gamer and used to compete in tournaments of all kinds. I have always been a creative person and most hobbies that I get into I try to help expand the hobby. I would like for this game to represent someone that came from our awesome community that we can be proud of.

Did you invent this game on your own?

I did! I woke up one day from a dream with an idea of an excavation themed game. I quickly put it down on paper. That was more than 2 years ago and I have been testing it and refining it since.

What was the process of making it like?

When you first create any game you have to start with an idea. Once you have that you create the prototype. Next you test it with other players. This is the point where most games get discarded because they either are not fun or convoluted. However, Excavate made it out alive with high praise. After making the rules a bit more user friendly so almost anyone can play, you make final revisions. I wanted to give everyone a sense of a theme with this game. Players naturally want to put the cards together to make a larger image, even if they have no intentions of playing the game. Making it visually appealing was also important. I want people to stop when they are walking by because it looks interesting. It really does that! If everything goes well it will be printed in a large scale. That is what I am trying to do now with Kickstarter.

How’s the fundraising going?

It is going well. Every person who has tried the game wants to buy a copy. Unfortunately, I can only show it off so much. It seems like a lot of money to make a game, is it? It is an investment. But that is because the investment would produce enough copies for everyone to get a reasonable price. If I had it printed on a small scale it would be extremely expensive. Roughly $50 for each copy. I don’t think that is a fair price for a card game like mine. I wanted to give everyone a lower price which means it will have to be a print run from 1,000-2,000 copies. I can get them printed for about $5-7 each at the amount, but then I have to pay for shipping from the warehouse to me (overseas) plus shipping for anyone who buys a copy. All of this combines to being the goal I set for the campaign since shipping is so much. Because of this I was able to cut the cost for the buyer to half that original rate. It works out as long as people work together everyone gets it cheaper!

Are there other things people can do to support you other than give money?

Yes! Absolutely! The more people you tell, the more backers we can have. As more and more people help to fund this project, the cheaper everything will be and more stuff can be added. So tell everyone to share the Kickstarter page and help spread the word. Even if you cannot back it I appreciate every time that Share button is hit!

What happens if you don’t get all the money?

Then the backers do NOT get charged. I want to make that clear. You will only pay your pledge amount if the campaign is successful. So it doesn’t hurt to pledge. If it doesn’t go through, I will look in to other printing options for the people who are interested in the game. However, it will likely be a bit more expensive for the reasons stated above.

Give me the slightly longer pitch of the game. (How it works, how many players, how long it takes, etc).

You got it! First off, the game plays 2-4 players at a time. Once you are familiar with the rules, it takes about 45 minutes for a full game. Kids as young as 8 years old can play it without being run over by the adults. But this is not produced specifically for kids. Adults especially appreciate the game because it allows them to use deep strategy to play. The more you play it, the better you get.

I made this game to be a light-weight game. Meaning it takes me only about 3 minutes to get you started playing. By the first few turns you will understand how it works and how to play. The game “board” is made of a 5×5 grid of cards. Think of these like decks of cards that you can draw from. Players place their character pawns (called meeples) between these decks of cards. One your turn you will take a few actions. These actions include moving your pawn, digging up cards, selling them for money, or displaying them in front of you for points.

Many of the cards are fossils. These are the primary way to score points in the game. The more pieces of the fossils that you build to make a full dinosaur, the more points they are worth. Other cards like diamonds, artifacts, oil, pyramids, and tool cards will give you more points, money, or abilities to make you better. Finally, there are dirt cards which are fun to put on other players cards, and Gas Lines, which act like a three-strikes rule to end the game. There is quite a bit more but these are the basics of the game and you can see a full explanation on the Kickstarter page.

Let’s say I’m really not interested in board games where I have to learn things, can I enjoy this game just on a strictly it’s fun to game level?

Yes! I have turned so many people on to board games because of this game alone. It is called a Gateway Game because it is easy enough for EVERYONE to learn, yet engaging enough for non-gamers to be interested the whole way through. I’ll give an example. A few weeks ago after work I was telling my coworker about this game because she is interested in geology and fossils. Her daughter overheard and became interested as well. So I brought it in and showed them how it works.  After a few turns they were both engaged in the game and decided to play the entire game through instead of going home to relax from work. They couldn’t stop! And they were NOT gamers outside of this one game.

What do you think it takes to be creative?

I have always wanted to make things, whether to be an inventor, musician, etc. I think naturally everyone wants to be creative. Everyone loves to make things. I have spent most of my life learning how to take these things and make them a reality. It’s like baking a cake. I just want to make 2,000 of my “Cakes” and get them to the people who appreciate the game.

Where do you get flashes of brilliance from?

I can’t say it’s a flash of brilliance because that would be too much of an ego. I really owe a lot to all of my friends. I come up with silly ideas for games and judging by their reactions I see to it that I make those ideas happen. My friends and family are my backbone for all my crazy ideas.

Zia Comics would like to thank Danny McKinley for taking the time out of his day to answer these questions.  Now we are a bit more familiar with the man that teaches us how to play all the popular games out there.

PLEASE go the the Kickstarter page for Danny’s EXCAVATE! game and pledge whatever you can.  Watch the videos and you will see just what an easy, yet fun game it really is.