Saturday, May 13, 2017

Five or So Questions with Jeff Tidball on The White Box

In a last minute burst, I have an interview with Jeff Tidball about the project he's currently publishing via Kickstarter, The White Box! It's an unusual concept and when I saw it, I had to ask about it! See what Jeff has to say below.


Tell me a little about The White Box. What excites you about it?

The White Box is very simple: It’s a book of essays and a box of components. The essays are about how to design and produce tabletop games. The components are a very generic set of pieces — dice, cubes, meeples, etc. — designed to get people started experimenting and prototyping right away.

I really, really like making games. For me, this has also become an enthusiasm for talking about the process of making games, which has lead to more and more teaching folks how to make games. The White Box is a very efficient way to spread that to a large number of people, over (what will hopefully be) a long period of time, if we can establish an evergreen place for it in retail stores.

Something I think we’ve seen more and more, in the last 10–20 years, are increasing non-formal educational opportunities for people who just want to learn to do some particular creative thing. They don’t want a degree, they just really like the idea of learning how to do a thing, and I think they also like thinking of themselves as people who could do that thing. We’ve seen an explosion of classes (in person, online, at retreats, during conventions…) about writing novels, composing screenplays, making documentaries, and — yes — designing games.

One of the non-obvious upsides of this interest in learning is that there’s a chance to do this teaching as something other than philanthropy. Am I going to get rich publishing The White Box? No. Neither is Jeremy (its author), or Gameplaywright, or Atlas Games. But it can become a self-sustaining thing. So, in addition to liking to talk and teach about gaming, I’m excited at having (with this Kickstarter’s apparent success) worked my way into a format for talking and teaching that’s financially sustainable,

What kind of components are inside The White Box, and why?

The stuff inside The White Box is a set of relatively common board game components: cubes, meeples, dice, and punchboard counters. The cubes, meeples, and dice come in a variety of colors. The base was four colors; our 1,000-backer stretch goal added a fifth color. We’ll add a sixth if we hit 100 retail backers.

The one unusual thing we’ve got in that vein of componentry is a giant wooden cube in each color. They look great in the pictures, and I’m interested in seeing what they inspire in designers.

What we *don’t* have is also interesting. Earlier versions of the parts list included blank cards, and a blank game board. We had to cut down the list to make the box more affordable, because we were really invested in the idea that The White Box should be a no-brainer purchase for someone interested in design. We really didn’t want to lose them over price. In my design experience, cards are much better created on a printer (cut a sheet of office paper into nine pieces) and then sleeved. We can’t compete with the cheapness of that (and the reusability of the sleeves), and we’d be providing something worse than that anyway. So they went.

The board was both especially expensive, and not large enough to accommodate what I thought would be relatively standard design uses. And large sheets of paper aren’t hard to come by, so again, it didn’t seem like a huge loss to lose it from the roster.

What was the biggest inspiration for The White Box and its specific components as a product, beyond seeing a need?

Jeremy Holcomb, the creator of The White Box, seems like he was most inspired by both his teaching (he’s a professor at DigiPen) and the same questions recurring in convention panels. The essays in the book are calibrated to answers those perennial questions. But I suppose those are both in the category of “seeing a need.”

I can’t speak for Jeremy as to deeper inspirations, but I have done a fair amount of teaching — formal and informal — and mentoring in the area of game design, and I’m inspired by a love of creative pursuits generally, and game design in particular. I also love the entrepreneurial endeavor of bringing a game to market, and so teaching people how to make games that can succeed in a greater marketplace games is something that I dig, and that I think is valuable.

This is such an unusual product, and sounds like a challenge to prepare for a larger audience. How have you tested The White Box?

Jeremy has literally tested the component mix by collecting samples and dumping them out on a table with friends to see what they can make. He’s also passed the book's essays around to students and colleagues in order to garner feedback and improve their content.

For my part as a publisher, I spent a lot of time worrying about whether the marketplace had any interest in a product like this, and trying to figure out how I could test the general idea to get a deeper sense before launching a Kickstarter that might fail.

Those concerns seem ridiculous now that we’ve raised five times our funding goal halfway through the campaign, but it’s impossible to know what will succeed and what will fail beforehand, which is *nervewracking*.

My publisher’s “testing” consisted of creating a graphic that looked as much as possible like the contents we were proposing — it’s more or less the same graphic we’re using as the Kickstarter feature image — and showing it to both designers and retailers. I asked things like, “Do you need one of these?” “Would you buy one?” “How much would you pay for one?” “Could you sell this?” “How much would be too much?” That’s the process that provided as much validation as we could get (without doing it for real), and led us to a $29.95 price point, as opposed to something higher.

What benefits do you think educational game products bring, particularly The White Box? Are there skills (ability to complete tasks), or traits (behaviors and trends in ideals)?

I definitely think you can learn things from other people, whether that learning takes the form of reading their written works, listening to their lectures, or talking with them in a conversation.

But I don’t think you can get all the way to an *understanding* that way, and (obviously) learning in that way doesn’t allow you to directly product anything. (Other, maybe, than notes.) To arrive at a deeper understanding, and to produce something, you have to sit down and make. And usually, you have to make iterations. Drafts of a novel, prototypes of a game, or even individual performances (or rehearsals) of a piece of music. And of course, in a creative pursuit like game design, to produce a thing is also the goal. So you deepen your understanding in the act of making.

But then you wind up going back to learning, as you hit walls, or as you seek feedback on the last thing you made. So, I think it’s cyclic. Learn, make, learn more, make again.

Circling back to The White Box, I’ll say this: I think the best thing a teacher — be it a person, a book, or whatever — can do is to encourage the making phase. If the teacher sees the learning as an end in and of itself, I think the whole enterprise is a little sad and incomplete. So part of the crucial thing about The White Box is that *the things inside of it encourage the making*. It’s not just a book of advice; it’s also a call to action. And I think those two things are both critical to the endeavor.

The White Box teaches skills, probably, except insofar as it takes excitement and investment to begin the process of learning (to trigger the process of making), and the way the essays approach game design — with enthusiasm and love — will hopefully engender those traits necessary to invest the time to learn the skills.


Thanks so much to Jeff for answering my questions! The White Box only has a couple more days on Kickstarter, so if you want in, check it out now

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