Board game designer talks Dylan Howard Cromwell

From glass blower to game designer – Dylan Howard Cromwell moved from the US to Berlin and had a chat with me. His first published game „Seize the Bean“ is going to Kickstarter. He took the time to talk with me the day before the launch.

Karsten: So Dylan, how was your coffee today? Is the adrenaline pumping already?

Dylan: (laughs) My coffee was cold. I like to sometimes brew it at night, let it cool and stick it in the fridge for the morning.

I would say my adrenaline is pumping today – day before our Kickstarter campaign – with or without coffee! (laughs)

Karsten: You already gave a hint, cause maybe some readers will be wondering why I’m talking about coffee: Your first published game will be “Seize the bean”, launching in the near future on Kickstarter. To be exact: tomorrow. So thanks for taking the time today for this interview. Are you a coffee addict? How did you stumble upon the idea of the game?

Dylan: I do love coffee, haha, but I wouldn’t throw the word addict around lightly.

Before I had my first child I was working on Paul-Lincke-Ufer, a pretty canal-side street in Kreuzberg, Berlin. There, outside my office, was a hole-in-the-wall café called Concierge. I love the founders; they are literally baristas who worked at another café in Berlin and quit their jobs to open their own. And now they are massively successful.

This is the story of Seize the Bean, so in essence, we tell Benjamin and Nami’s story (the founders of Concierge).

Karsten: That’s a nice background story. So were they also “consultants” on this project? How important is researching the theme of a game to you?

“I will admit I am super theme-driven.”

Dylan: Researching the theme of a game is massively important to me. My team often calls me the “theme guy” because I let theme drive so much of my design work.

I spoke a lot to the founders of Concierge (as well as other famous cafés in Berlin) and also spent a lot of time with one of our team members, Kerstin Schmitz, breaking down the customer archetypes of Berlin to select the widest group that would be most fun without offending anyone.

My co-designer, Andy Couch, went on a Barista training course with our friends from the Blaue Bohnen too.

Josh Wilson, my co-creator and I even spoke to some major roasteries to understand the corporate side of the business.

In short, loads of research went into the making of the game’s theme!

Karsten: I think many designers shy away from this huge amount of work. That’s sad cause I really dig games with deep immersion and want to be sucked into a theme.

I also love the tiny little details in your game such as the 3d milk cartons and all these things. So do you generally prefer to be inspired by themes to find the right mechanic or do you also design with mechanics in mind and try to get a good theme for that?

Dylan: I will admit I am super theme-driven. Recently I’ve been practicing some exercises to design with mechanics first, but I find it’s just so much more engaging to start with a story, with a setting. It’s interesting though, even beginning with theme, the mechanics will help you tell the rest of the story, often to your surprise. During Seize the Bean design (and redesign) I stayed open and let the game change to become what it needed to be. In the end, it’s less about technical details of coffee itself and more about the culture and people around the beverage. It’s a surprise to me but I really like that. It reflects the true origin story, after all!

Karsten: As you are speaking of “redesigning” – how many different versions did you have to refine while playtesting?

Dylan: (laughs) The million euro question. We’re a bit funny in that we’ve tried to semantically version our game design and development, and while I won’t bore you with a definition of that I can say we’ve had three major version changes on the game (pre-v1, v1, v2 and now to our final v3). We’ve detailed these changes in our private team blog and we’re considering to release them to fans during the Kickstarter – if people would be interested in that sort of thing.

Karsten: Oh yeah, I do think that a lot of people are very interested in the details of the game designing process. You yourself seem to be interested in many things. If I did my homework right, you come from an artistic background. You have worked as a glass blower, put together interactive installations, did freelancing as a web designer. How important is a great visual design for you in a game? Can you even enjoy games with mediocre art but great mechanics?

“Even the prettiest game with shallow mechanics or boring gameplay won’t hold my attention.”

Dylan: Yes, you have done your homework correctly; my true trade is that of sculpting molten glass – I miss it dearly! And my main profession over the last two decades has primarily been some form of programming, though recently I’ve been given the opportunity to learn a lot about leadership and teaching.

Visual design is massive for me. It’s what draws me in. I love art and I highly respect and value artists.

I definitely can enjoy visually simplistic games too. I think that as long as you have a healthy dose of imagination, anything can be beautiful, can transform. This is very important, actually, to be open with my mind’s eye, when prototyping and playing rough developer versions of a game (especially if it’s not one I designed myself). There’s a big difference between appreciating visual detail and getting caught up on what’s not there (yet).

In the end, even the prettiest game with shallow mechanics or boring gameplay won’t hold my attention or bring me back to the table though, so we can never say that art outshines the game design itself.

I look at it like the lyricist versus the DJ. In the world of hip hop (real hip hop, I mean) the MC never existed without the DJ. But soon enough the MC overshadowed the DJ, however it is few and far between that an a cappella song will hold its ground without the presence of underlying instrumentals (of some kind). I think you can see the same relationship between game art and game design!

Karsten: Yeah, that’s true. And how did you get to the idea of using your artistic nature to become a board game designer? Was it a conscious decision you made or more of a slow progression into it?

Portrait Dylan Howard Cromwell
Dylan Howard Cromwell

Dylan: I love games. Always have since I was a kid. Used to make more own board games on family vacations when our Game Boy batteries would die out. My older brother, Michael Ragen (now an amazing cinematographer and hobby painter), was a huge inspiration and great teacher for learning to draw. We would draw a lot of games and play with each other, tons of imagination involved. Later in life I would also grow to love Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons (being a DM, of course!), and even the lesser known LEGO Wars (or what I think is actually called BrikWars now). My dad raised me on Pit and Cribbage and Amiga games too. My mom always encouraged all of this creativity. Was a very exciting childhood.

Perhaps six months before writing the first design for Seize the Bean I had a surplus of video game ideas and began pursuing that before realizing it seemed like far too much work to bring it altogether. My wife, Jazz, has always been really supportive and encouraging of me doing something professionally that I truly enjoy, even if it might mean us living more frugally.

At that time I was enjoying the company of a group in Berlin known as Wednesday Games Night.

Joder, Remigi, Mouse, Andeee and Gar really showed me the beautiful, simplistic fun in board gaming.

There the spark was lit and since then it’s been an explosion, hardly a slow progression at all!

Karsten: While living in Berlin for quite some time now, do you have seen any differences in gaming culture between the US and other countries?

Dylan: Wow, hard question! I’ll go on the record saying that I am actively trying to shake (stop using) the terms “euro” and “ameritrash” for describing game types, themes or mechanics. With that said, I will note that I do see cultural differences appearing in general between many people from the US and other countries, especially Germany. My wife – who is German – often links me to humorous yet true-to-life YouTube videos that express the cultural differences in how excitement is shown between German / American couples. I think this is true in some cases. It may explain why many theme-driven games with more involved components (such as miniatures) do better in the US than in Europe, or why randomized parts of games lead to decisions not to results pop up more in the European market. I also think cultural differences in gaming can be seen between Europe and Asia too. Just looking at social media posts from the Tokyo Games Market, for example, may expose some subtle nuances. I’ve not been yet (excited to setup our first booth this year with Dark Flight Games) but can’t way to discover the differences (and similarities) myself!

And I don’t want to leave out any other cultures; I’m a newbie in this area but very eager to discover more. At Quality Beast we heavily value our international and widely remote team; we have a lovely family from America, United Kingdom, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands and more. This diversity is super important to us. And it’s the same in gaming; whether that be gaming culture, themes or mechanics. We believe the more inclusive the industry is, the more diverse it will become and the greater creations it will feature.

Karsten: Team diversity definitely sure helps a lot in developing and polishing a game. So as your Kickstarter is just around the corner… How stressful are the last days before the campaign? How does your task list look like in these last hours?

Dylan: Oh, you know, I’m relaxing on a hammock, reading science fiction soap operas between naps and discussing philosophical theories with my four-month-old daughter. Piece of cake!

Karsten: Now I’m envious. (laughs) Thanks for taking the time and being our guest, Dylan. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a great Kickstarter campaign!

Dylan: Or press your thumbs, right? (laughs) No, but seriously, thank you, Karsten for having me. I’d love to give a shout out to the whole Quality Beast team – you know who you are and you’re all amazing – and a special shout out to all our fans and supporters – without you there’d be no Seize the Bean, and we’re really going to see that come tomorrow on Kickstarter!

Boardography of Dylan Howard Cromwell

  • Seize the Bean (2018)











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