Many a budding game creator/developer/aficionado dreams of their passion becoming their jobs. They want to spend their time doing what they love and building something for others to enjoy over and over. Some may even have aspirations to build a company or brand to ultimately be sold to a larger one. Alan Emrich has been developing games for longer than many gamers have been playing them. When he built Victory Point Games he may or may not have known that he’d one day sell his company. But I’m sure he didn’t know he’d sell it Tabletop Tycoon as he was approaching his retirement years.
My name is Alan Emrich and a brief bio is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Emrich, but suffice it to say I have been working around the gaming industry since the mid-1970s. I founded the L.A. Strategicon Game conventions (Orccon, Gateway, and Gamex) while I was in high school and they’re still going strong. I have worked at game stores, distributors, and publishers in just about every capacity (from cleaning the toilets to owner), have written innumerable articles over the decades and a handful of books along the way. I enjoyed over a decade teaching game design, prototyping, and project management at the college level and have loved gaming passionately throughout my career. I’m much more of a game developer than designer, as I have a knack for getting the best out of a designer’s creations and delivering a polished game that all concerned can be proud of.
I have learned that, in the game industry, as in life, the value of a good thing is to have done it.
What got you into tabletop gaming?
I’ve been a big fan of board gaming since I was a kid. To me, a good game is a good game and I’m less particular about subject matter or type. My favorite part about most games is analysis, followed by camaraderie. I’m more about playing and enjoying and less about winning; tournaments are really not my thing. At a game convention, you’ll find me in the open gaming room, gabbing with friends and playing (or, more likely, playtesting) this game and that.
I love gaming because it is a people hobby, especially board gaming. Plato rightly noted that, “You can learn more about a person in an afternoon of play than from a lifetime of conversations.” That has been proven to me over and over again.
What was the impetus to go beyond casual interest in this hobby and to become a creator?
There is a Swiss Proverb that says, “A good spectator also creates.” That comes from immersion into that activity and it is that special thing you bring to the event. I tinkered with a lot of things when I was young—of course, in those days, you had shop classes and were expected to learn how to carve wood and mend a car—but I particularly liked tinkering with game mechanics, worlds, doing historical research, etc. That really made my gears turn, and writing about games greased those gears.
When I’m working on a game and interacting with its developers and/or players, the wheels are turning and things can be very good for game, gamer, and gaming (our hobby’s trinity).
I see Victory Point Games started life based on a passion for the war game genre but has since expanded its offerings. Do you plan to expand even more in the future or have you found your niche for the time being?
I do miss Victory Point Games since I sold it last year to Tabletop Tycoon; they retained the entire VPG staff to create a VPG-branded game development studio under their umbrella but ended things one day by laying off the entire creative team (myself included).
I do have a fondness for war and strategy games and have worked on many deep, serious, historical wargame simulations, but also plenty of lighter fare as well. Remember, a good game is a good game, right? Life is too short for bad games (at least, my life is), so there needs to be something about a game which sparks my interest. That is why you see my name in the credits of all kinds of games including Cosmic Encounter, Sid Meier’s Civilization, Nemo’s War, Master of Orion, Totaler Krieg!, Dawn of the Zeds and scores and scores of others. I designed none of those, but helped develop them. And, really, who remembers or even thinks of a game’s developer? (Good designers, that’s who!)
I love that you devote an entire section of your site to solo gaming. Before I’d tried playing solo myself, I thought it a bit strange. But then I realized I’ll watch movies and read books alone so why not play board games solo too? Do you see that it gets a lot of attention these days? Do you think it will become more popular?
Board games have long been played solitaire, even those games not specifically designed for solitaire play, because you are the “opponent who is always there.” There is a certain studied schizophrenia that comes from playing both sides in a two-player game. Doing that for decades growing up has taught me that things look really different when viewed from an opponent’s perspective! Whether moving around the table, rotating the game board, or even just “taking stock” at the beginning of the next player’s turn, that bit of role-playing—stepping into the other player’s shoes—is a great education (and serves poker players very well).
There are plenty of special development issues when making a great solitaire game. The fulcrum rests of the tension between (hi)story narrative vs. randomness, surprise, and replayability. You need the player to write their own story within the game’s overarching narrative (that is their reason for playing) by overcoming its obstacles yet keeping that fresh with each playing—and mixing that recipe correctly is a real challenge. Writing a screenplay is one thing (the actors say what you tell them to say and there is only the one outcome that you wrote), writing stories that players can drive and alter to myriad possible endings is another thing (fun to play but a challenge indeed to create properly).
One thing I enjoy about solitaire games is “co-op” play, where it is you and your friends vs. “the system.” Those bring out the best times at the game table for me.
What are your proudest achievements regarding projects you’ve created or worked on?
The friends I’ve made along the way. While it is very satisfying leaving this or that game as a legacy to outlive me, the friends I’ve made through gaming (including my wife of 25+ years) are what make life worth living. Along the way, I guess I’m proudest of hosting game conventions and teaching others the mysteries of thinking like someone in the game business—creator, publisher, and marketing. I want everyone to find the joy in gaming that I have found; it’s a great life for one who thinks and loves.
Was there a low point as a creator, and what did you learn from that experience?
Some people really suck, even among gamers. The lesson? You can’t save everyone no matter how much you care. Once identified, avoid those people. Anyone who stops being a friend never was one.
You have a new player, what game do you choose to introduce to them?
I have lots of introductory games that I used to demonstrate particular lessons of game design, but when I’m just cracking open a box—smaller, lighter fare is always most welcome by me, but whatever interests who I’m playing with is usually the right game. As long as it’s a good game; life is too short for bad games, remember, and teaching a bad game will probably shorten that new player’s time in our hobby. That makes it doubly bad.
Of the games that I’ve published, I will always enjoy breaking out Star Borders: Humanity and Gem Rush because they are quick to grasp and deep to play. For a great brain-burner, I love our For the Crown game!
You’re heading to a friend’s house and can only grab three games. What are they and why?
It depends on the friend. I mean, I would much rather host a party than attend one, so whatever they might want to play is the priority. If I’m going there to dine with friends and family, then you want a good game for that particular occasion (like Codebreakers, the old co-op Lord of the Rings game, or a card-slinger like Formula De or Colossal Arena.
When I’m off to a wargaming buddy’s for a weekend, obviously, the game selection would be different and specifically tailored.
Look, games are played in hours but recalled and relived in moments. Two things make those moments: an event in the game or an event among the players—the best of all worlds is to recall a moment in the game and the players’ reaction to it. Priceless. You should want to play those kinds of games with those kinds of players to savor the nectar hobby gaming.
What are you currently working on that readers should be on the lookout for? This could be weeks away or even months/years.
Currently, I am working on a huge wargaming endeavor with legendary game designer Frank Chadwick. This project, Frank Chadwick’s ETO [editor’s note, there are lots of useful links at that ETO link!], is a multi-volume series of large hex-and-counter wargames which are a refined and elegant “throwback” to that hobby’s origins in the 60s and 70s when we spent much more time with our eyes on the map rather than the rules book. In those days, wargames were “serious fun” and both words carried their weight. Anyone interested should look here: https://www.watchword.biz/eto-support.
Another project on a warm burner is Atlas Wars. Although “wargamey,” it is designed to introduce people into our hobby with simple rules, deep strategy, and a huge, constant “take that” element to the tactical science-fiction battles and stories unfolding. This game could become a “lifestyle” go-to game when you have a young niece or nephew, or a new gaming buddy or interested other with whom you want to share something fun and show them your special hobby. It is built to intrigue and create some moments at the game table that are joyful-and-boisterous and others that are reflective-and-thoughtful. We’re aiming for the “whole package” introductory-to-middle weight sci-fi conflict game with the broadest possible appeal.
Mostly, however, I am just keeping my ears open for another steady gig either teaching or making games. That will make my wife happy as we head into retirement. And, no, I’m not above asking your readers for help finding those opportunities. As I say when reminding a player of a corrective rule or strategy, “that is why we have each other.”
Who is one of your favorite creators that we should interview next?
The two people with the most published games out there are probably Reiner Knizia (who has interviews galore) and Joseph Miranda (whom few have heard of). I would suggest catching Joe; although the physical space around him is often in a state of chaos and disorder, his mind for game design, mechanics, and subject-matter is brilliantly structured. Fueled by a large iced green tea from Starbucks, Joe has more facets than the greatest polyhedron die you will ever roll and has forgotten more about designing games than most of us will ever know. His is a story that should be shared.
Final Thoughts on Alan and Victory Point Games
Confession: I didn’t realize Alan and the Victory Point Games team had been let go when I began this interview. While I do love learning new things in these interviews, I didn’t enjoy learning this bit of bad news. A lot of times the creators I interview want to offer something to the readers by way of a giveaway. But I wonder if this time we might reverse that and help Alan out. Perhaps a reader out there knows of a full-time gig suited for him. We effectively have his resume here in this interview and I have his email address to share with you all. (He gave me his permission to do so.) Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and help Alan head into retirement with grace and confidence!
His email address is email@example.com. Please keep him in mind.