This week Cameron Art, founder of The Board Game Bulletin and designer of Vowl, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his board game career so far.
DM: Hi, Cameron, thank you for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little about yourself?
CA: Hi there! My name is Cameron Art. I am a full-time college student at New Mexico State University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accountancy. My wife, Jennifer, is also a full-time student, and we live in Las Cruces, New Mexico with our eight-month-old son. In my free time, I love playing, designing, and discussing all things board games. Some games I’ve been playing a lot of lately include Wingspan, Dead of Winter, and Root.
DM: Your first game, Vowl, was recently on Kickstarter. Please can you describe it for us?
CA: Vowl is my attempt to introduce a fresh take to the word game genre in which you are racing against both time and your opponents to recognize words that have had their vowels removed. While this may sound simple at first, with a few critical rules, you’ll quickly realize it’s trickier than it seems! The game includes more than four hundred unique cards, multiple game modes, and a unique, tiered scoring system.
DM: What was it about that combination of word puzzle and real-time mechanisms that inspired you?
CA: I’ve always been a fan of a wide variety of word games including Bananagrams, Codenames, and Quiddler to name a few. As Vowl continued to expand and change over the course of its three years of development, real-time play just felt like the most natural way to implement the game’s base system. I wanted players to always be engaged, even when they weren’t playing. Because of the game’s real-time aspect, turns are not only short, but even when it isn’t your turn, you can still feel the rush of racing against time as DM: The scoring system is intriguing. Can you tell us more about how it was developed?
CA: I knew from the very beginning of Vowl that I wanted to create a word game that didn’t feel like a traditional word game. My goal with the design was to try to bridge the gap between the classic word game genre and the more modern hobby. Part of the way I attempted to do this was through the use of a unique scoring system.
Whenever you achieve a success in Vowl, you get to choose how you score your points. You can either move your scoring token two spaces forward along the scoring track, or move it only one space while also lowering your victory condition and an opponent’s victory condition by one. This is a critically important decision that you’ll be forced to make each time you score because the scoring track is made up of increasingly difficult tiers that force you to draw extra and more difficult cards as you gain more points. If you charge full speed ahead, you have deal with more difficult cards. If you take it slow and lower your victory token, you’ll be making future turns easier, but you’re also helping an opponent.
DM: How do you overcome the challenge of replayability as presumably over time players will get to know the answers?
CA: What I discovered as we continued to record playtests of the game was that memorization doesn’t play a large role in the game. As you play the game more and more, you will start to get better at the challenge of recognizing words. With more than four hundred unique cards, though, and a super tight time constraint each turn, memory doesn’t factor in too much, and you will find yourself continually stumbling over and getting stuck on cards even if you’ve seen them many times before. I’ve been playing this game for three years, and I still trip over cards that I designed and have seen hundreds of times!
I will say that the slight advantage that comes from experience does have a built-in counter by means of the scoring track. Players who are further along in points have to deal with both a higher number of cards each turn and extra difficult cards each turn, which serves as a nice catch-up mechanism.
DM: What approach are you taking to the campaign? Are you learning as you go through a grassroots approach, or are you enlisting the help of experienced colleagues?
CA: I’ve done absolutely everything I can to prepare for the campaign ahead of time. Every single detail both on the financial side of it (I am an accounting major after all) and the design side of it has been carefully designed and thought out based upon reading dozens of blogs, books, and more about how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. However, reading can get you only so far, and I recognize that sometimes you have to make mistakes in order to learn how to do something.
So while I’ve done a lot to prepare, I would still say that I’m taking more of a grassroots approach to it. As problems come up and I make mistakes, I do my best to learn from them, remedy them, and try to make sure that they won’t happen again. So far, I think the campaign is going great, and we haven’t had any major issues that weren’t fixable.
DM: In addition to being a game designer, you run an online gaming magazine, The Board Game Bulletin. Please tell us more about it?
CA: The Board Game Bulletin is a monthly, online magazine that I publish on my website. Each issue features interviews with game designers and content creators, recent game announcements, a look at upcoming Kickstarter projects, some sort of featured article written by myself, and a whole bunch of fun other stuff. The magazines also have absolutely gorgeous photography from Imagine All The Meeple (Todd Patriquin). I do all of the writing and design work for the magazine, and it’s 100% free to read, download, and subscribe to.
DM: As if designing games and publishing magazines is not enough, you also run design competitions. How did you get involved with these, and what do you look for in an entry?
CA: When I started publishing the magazine in December 2019, I thought it would be fun to run micro game design contests and feature the winning design in each month’s issue. When I first got it going, I had no idea whether it would be popular or not. Now, seven issues later, each contest tends to have anywhere from 5 to 15 fantastic entries!
Part of what I think makes it so popular is that I give constructive feedback on every single entry, regardless The three biggest things that I typically look for in the designs are how well you met the prompt, how well-integrated your game’s theme is in the mechanisms, and how polished the gameplay and rules feel.
DM: What are your future plans, in terms of both the magazine and a career in game design?
CA: In terms of the magazine, I plan to continue producing and publishing it as long as I am able to! Right now, from both some small ad revenue and our generous Patreon backers, it does pay for itself. So long as I can keep it that way, I’d love to keep expanding it and providing it as a free resource for the community.
In terms of game design, my goal with Vowl — and the four other designs I have in serious development right now — is to create games that toe the line between accessibility and strategy. I want my games to feel unique and provide players with interesting decisions, while also being accessible enough that players who have only ever played Monopoly don’t feel overwhelmed by the gameplay. I do plan to continue self-publishing through Cameron Art Games, and I am excited to keep sharing my designs with the hobby.
DM: What lessons have you learned from your time in the boardgame industry so far?
CA: This hobby of ours is so incredibly vast and supportive! Regardless of whether you are a designer or just a player, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I never would have guessed how incredibly kind and giving the people in this industry are, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support from so many different designers and gamers that I’ve met along the way.