As the man behind Sirlin Games and the Fantasy Strike universe its games are set in, David Sirlin has made quite a name for himself. Among tabletop gamers, Sirlin is well-known for two reasons: publishing a slate of consistently high-quality games, and taking a unique approach to designing new iterations of them. Sirlin won’t let a good idea die, and it shows. Of his five major releases since 2011, the only game not to receive a revised edition was already itself a follow-up: Chess 2.
When Sirlin’s latest creations were revealed—a second edition of Pandante and a third edition of Flash Duel (both currently funding as a Kickstarter project), the tendency became a trend, and the timing was right for a deeper look at how and why these improvements come to pass.
In talking with Sirlin, it became clear that he does not just want to make games, but that he strives to make the best games. That is no trivial quest, and embarking on it is an easy way to put a target on your back. Most of Sirlin’s titles are asymmetric, aka “Hard Mode” for game design, and he aims to hit the sweet spot of both satisfying competition for highly skilled players and enjoyable gameplay for casual fans. Without an appreciation for the difficulty in this goal, it’s quite easy for fans to look at their Sirlin Games purchases and feel slighted when left owning an older edition.
FreakSugar: Why revise both Pandante and Flash Duel now, as part of the same project?
David Sirlin: Both games up are accidentally similar in that they both happen to have new simpler streamlined rules. I was originally going to reprint Flash Duel with no changes, but I found some system rules that if we changed them, it would become easier to explain the game. That was already what I was doing with Pandante.
FS: In working with past designs, do you reach a tipping point of having enough significance in the improvements to warrant producing a revised edition?
Sirlin: With Pandante, it came while demoing to new players at conventions. With my friends demoing alongside me, we would all get frustrated at some of the rules we had to explain. We would even leave them out, because they only mattered for advanced players, but it was just as uncomfortable not to be teaching the correct rules. We started to think “is there some other way to do this?”
The pre-production version of Pandante was simple and elegant, but then as experts played it, they found problems and exploits. I always erred on the side of “the game needs to work.” We’d address all of these problems and add a little rule or exception here or there because we didn’t know any other thing to do. You are supposed to be able to play for real money, so it has to be as solid as possible. Competitively, at a high level, it holds up just fine, but the resulting game was a bit more fiddly than it should have been.
After doing all of these demos, I started brainstorming about ways to take a step back fundamentally, changing core rules that would prevent s these problems from happening in the first place. We tried a few crazy things, and some of them seemed to work. It worked so well that we said “wow, we can’t really keep this to ourselves. We’ve really managed to streamline this. How do we present this?” We decided to add in some new content as well, and the very first thing we thought of was casino cards. They kind of designed themselves. Every gambit [hand, in Pandante terms], you are visiting a new casino, and it changes the rules a bit. The casinos add variety, but the game remains simple because only one rule is changed during a hand. Pandante‘s second edition was definitely a full product at that point, when there was a full new expansion.
“It burns me up inside to not release the best version I know how to make.”
FS: Are you worried about short attention spans in the tabletop audience? People seem to constantly be chasing new games, so players are likely to experience the earliest iteration of a Sirlin game. When some great improvement is later incorporated, will the players have already moved on? If so, they will then have never experienced the best version of your game.
Sirlin: Well it was the best version at the moment I shipped it, but yes. What I’m worried about most is that what I’m aiming to do is not what people want. Imagine that most player of tabletop games play a game between 1 and 10 times, and then move onto another game. If that is the case, then someone who makes games designed to be played thousands of times at a high level, even if they also care about the quality of the first 10 plays, is still spending years of time to make sure that thousandth play is great. That is a mismatch of market.
I am very much into these games really working. When you have a game that is asymmetric and competitive, it just has to evolve. It will hold up when it ships, because there are no known issues with it, and it was tested as well as it could have been. But once you get a whole community of people and experts who are passionate about it, playing it hundreds or thousands of times, it’s hard to turn your back and cover issues up with an expansion. I know that’s the more common practice in tabletop games, but I just can’t imagine it. When I know there is a better way to do something, it burns me up inside to not release the best version I know how to make.
FS: Would you attribute your strong reputation as a designer to having fans among the video game crowd, where gamers are more accepting of these sorts of gameplay tweaks?
Sirlin: The video game crowd definitely does seem into that. It is normal to them, yet definitely is not for the tabletop crowd. But most of my sales are to the tabletop crowd, so it is really important to get some buy-in or education for this way of doing things. I’ve heard it argued that if a new revision of something is released, then it just shows that the original was bad.
FS: As opposed to the second version simply being better?
Sirlin: I look at StarCraft. A new patch for StarCraft is released, so StarCraft is bad? No, it’s the opposite. It just shows that Blizzard cared.
FS: With Pandante, you are streamlining the game, but how do we define what makes a game good, and therefore decide which version is better to play? Is goodness tied to how well a game holds up as a competitive test of skill, or how it measures up on some unquantifiable scale of “fun?” Do you struggle with trying to score high on both scales?
Sirlin: That is definitely very challenging, and Pandante is the most extreme example of that for me. If you are a professional poker player who wants to play for money, then in some ways Pandante is a better choice than poker. I know that is sacrilegious to say, but it has a higher skill ceiling because if you are better than the opponents, there are more ways to pull ahead than in poker.
That is one extreme, but what about the other? I’d say “well, in a family game, I just want to play a fun thing with my children,” but actual poker is a really bad family game. It’s a psychological warfare game where you want other people to be afraid of you and sweat. People are folding over 60% of the time, maybe 80% in 2-player. Player elimination is a horrible thing in a family game, but Pandante is probably the best family game I’ve created.
I’ve talked about this in other interviews, and I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it, but there is a certain joy with playing it. It’s how everyone knows everyone is lying and there is a lightheartedness or playfulness that goes along with it.
A sampling of cards found in Pantande
FS: What is with the Pandas anyway?
Sirlin: One of my Fantasy Strike characters is named Lum, and he is a gambling panda. So what do the pandas play when they gamble? It wouldn’t be poker because that is a human game and pandas have their own culture, so that’s why I invented Pandante.
FS: Going back to Flash Duel, what prompted the changes there?
Sirlin: We had run out of stock and wanted to print it again, so I figured I would look at some balance changes. In looking at that question of “who is this for? beginners or experts?” some ideas came out. When beginners play Flash Duel, they understand the rules easily and can see where the strategy is quickly. However, amongst the top experts, the game looks completely different, and I think it’s different in a bad way.
What it looks like is [a game] very heavy on calculation, and people are spending maybe ten minutes on a turn mapping out the entire possibility tree. They feel like they have to because somewhere in there, they might find a checkmate situation. It just doesn’t look anything like it’s supposed to look, and it’s kind of excruciating. I played around with a variant for a year trying to address that. The game would be same for the beginners, but not turn into something different with experts. It’s frustrating when what a game appears to be like is not what it turns out to be later on.
In Flash Duel, you reach the end of the round rather quickly and there is a tie breaker. Because rounds are so short, it often goes to this tie breaker, and the tie break procedure becomes a central part of the game, by preparing yourself to win the tie. By making rounds longer, the game actually became shorter, and we actually removed that tie break procedure completely, replacing it with something simpler. The game became more “seat of your pants,” with bluffing and improv involved.
FS: Has consistently coming across improvements in old designs changed your process in creating future games?
Sirlin: No, it hasn’t, but I do have a project I’ve been working on for over 10 years now, called Codex, and it is my reworking of the CCG genre. It is not true that I’ve developed Codex while thinking about this issue of updates and revisions, but now that I’ve got Codex pretty much figured out but not yet released, it is weighing on me. What do I do when it seems great, but one or two years down the line, people want balance changes?
New versions of Pandante and Flash Duel, plus a brand new expansion for Pandante, are all currently funding on Kickstarter through April 11th.