Adventures on the Tabletop: A Movie About Board Game Design
Directed by Douglas Morse
After reading about Adventures on the Tabletop, I managed to speak with Douglas Morse a little bit about his project and to get some background information on what this film means to him and the gaming community.
How were you introduced to tabletop gaming?
I always liked Monopoly, but I truly began to love it and appreciate its simplicity and sophistication when I learned the rules and studied strategy. Without free parking, without loans from the bank, without king-making, and with auctioning property, and, there is no luck in Monopoly. Monopoly, like most excellent dice games is all about knowing the odds and optimizing rolls you do get. This is true of most well designed games involving dice and certainly any competitive card game like poker, hearts or bridge. The best players understand the probability and strategy and will, nearly all the time, win over weaker players. It’s true in Monopoly, poker, and Settlers. With enough dice rolls and enough games played, skill wins out nearly every time. Monopoly is a very short game when played by the rules.
The separation of a childish understanding of games and a more sophisticated understanding is something I am learning about in the documentary. As we move into adulthood, we get frustrated with unsophisticated game play. Many people have not tried nor are they aware of more engaging games. One of the most immersive experiences is role playing. I started role-playing, Dungeons and Dragons of course, in my teen years and continued on and off through grad school. The CCGs, for whatever reason, didn’t appeal to me but were a huge turning point in tabletop gaming and have influenced both tabletop game design and illustration. CCGs expanded the hobby as a whole. When a small game shop opened up across the street from us, and when some gamers were playing Settlers, I was hooked on Euro Games. I knew, just looking at the board (a German import) that I would love the game. Upon reflection, the similarities with Monopoly are striking. Both games require dice rolls to gather resources. They both involving building houses and then upgrading to buildings of greater value. Also the crucial element to winning the game is superior strategy and superior trading skills. I am very skilled at both Monopoly and Settlers. However, anyone, with some effort, and practice, can learn those skills. Every resource and every build must be optimized to win the games. Every single trade affects the final outcome. There is also a point of no return where even a tremendous amount of luck will not help the players who have fallen behind. Often, they don’t recognize it. The better players are always within a point or two of one another.
What first sparked the inspiration to move from playing games to filming the creation behind them?
First and foremost, I’m a filmmaker. I’ve directed innumerable shorts and six feature films. I knew that eventually I wanted to make a movie set in this world. But I wasn’t interested directly, in the gamers and gaming culture. So I didn’t know how to craft a story. One option was to structure the movie around a competition. The movies Spellbound, Wordplay and King of Kong all use this structure to great affect. It is a natural narrative construct and it works. It wasn’t what I wanted to do either. Then I saw Caine’s arcade and here was a nine year old constructing an arcade out of cardboard. How cool was that? Designers play with, and cut, innumerable pieces out of paper and cardboard and find bits to make their prototypes. I had found my story. I would follow a game and game designer from prototype to development and hopefully through publishing. As I discovered, the most difficult task is to find the right subjects.
What kind of reactions were you met with when you began seeking interviews and sessions with game designers/developers for this film?
The game community is very, very open and friendly. Many of them, as creators of entertainment, understood what I was trying to do and the story I was telling. And people instinctively want to share their stories. It’s the primal human need: to share experience. Existentially, social interaction is what makes us exist.
How did you feel when the project funded? What are excited for the most in the upcoming months?
I have learned to make films very, very inexpensively for niche audiences. It’s the only way, save winning the filmmaking lottery, to continue as an independent filmmaker. I make a modest profit from some of my films and it helps balance out films that don’t turn a profit. I set a low ‘backstop goal’ of $5000 that would help me get through this year shooting the film. If you don’t make your funding goal, Kickstarter rules prevent you from collecting any money at all. My true goal was $15,000 because with that I knew I could get a movie ‘in the can’ Now, amazingly we have surpassed that goal thanks in no small part by a backing from Steve Jackson Games and a new website Tabletop Tally. Some smaller game designers, Brooklyn Indie Games, Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower, Gorilla Games, and the makers of Jet Set have also come in at higher levels in exchange for sponsorship. So I give them a small plug here! It was the large pledges, both near the beginning, and near the end that set my heart pounding. It is tremendously exciting. Ironically perhaps, success equals more work.
Much more important than the funds is the building of community and audience. Producer Ted Hope recently said the greatest challenge for any independent filmmaker is not raising funds, but finding an audience. Kickstarter lets me connect with the tabletop community directly.
Next month I have a major trip to Germany to visit with various designers and publishers, hopefully Spiel Des Jahres Winners. I am making plans to go to the Spiel Des Jahres Press conference where they announce the winners. I don’t know if any of the American web media have covered that ceremony before.
Are you still looking for designers to speak with, or is your path already set in stone?
Short answer: I am looking for more designers. I will be at Gen Con, BGG.con and Essen. Long answer: Feature film writers work for years gathering material for their scripts and spend many months and years revising and honing their screenplays. With documentary, the task is to gather raw material to work with in the editing room. I do hope I have found my primary subjects and a specific game to follow from Alpha prototype to published game. That could take nearly two years!
Are there any other projects related to Adventures On The Tabletop that may be seen in the future?
Absolutely. Two in fact. And they have to be completely under-wraps. Loose lips truly do sink ships. The two projects are also 2-3 years away if they do happen.
For those on the fence about backing the project, what benefits do you hope that gamers will receive from watching your film?
All I can say is that gamers and designers really need to look at the Kickstarter page and there are some very, very inexpensive pledge levels. A dollar will get anyone access to hours of extended interviews. The digital download is much less expensive than comparable Kickstarter projects. The project page truly does explain the project in detail. The backer updates also contain a wealth of information and great photographs of designers. http://www.tabletopmovie.com redirects to the Kickstarter page and will eventually have a mechanism for people to pre-purchase the film or become late sponsors of the film. That said, there are certain benefits that are Kickstarter exclusives to reward people for having faith and who want to support Adventures on the Tabletop.
Many thanks to Douglas for taking the time to answer some questions about this film. If you are looking for more information on the film, be sure to check out the Kickstarter page for Adventures On The Tabletop. Also, keep your eyes on Grandfather Films for these under-wraps films in the future!