Interview with designer, Ben Burkhardt, on his card game, Pug Time.
Ben, thanks for joining us today, to tell us about your adorable looking game, Pug Time. Could you tell us a little bit about the gameplay?
Ben: Thanks for having me! Absolutely. The game is designed to be a fast and intuitive competitive card game, where each player is tasked with helping their pug have the best time. It’s for 2-4 players and lasts about 15-30 minutes. Each player chooses a pug with a unique ability, and they must help their puggy friend earn eating, sleeping, and playing points. There are two win conditions: reach 12 points and make sure you have at least three points in each area. Setup is pretty straightforward. Everyone grabs a pug, and the deck is shuffled. Players draw up to four cards, and then the game begins. There are three parts to a round: play time, solve time, and break time. In play time, owners must all select one card from their hand and place it face down. Once all players have done this, all cards are flipped over together. The game then moves to solve time. In solve time, the flipped over cards are resolved based on the number in the top right corner. The numbers are mostly dependent on the type of card, with buried cards usually going first, then adventure cards, then disasters, basics, and tricks respectively. Treats are more versatile and end up all over the place. Once all those cards have been resolved and points have been gained, we move into the last round: break time. Break time is mostly just cleaning up the end of the round. We check to see if anyone has met the goal or activated the special game-winning ability of the Cute Pug. Players are also allowed to trade in 3 points for any other point if they’re unintentionally amassing way too many points in a single area. If no one has won, players draw back up to four cards and we circle right back to play time.
What is the story behind the creation of Pug Time?
Ben: The short story is that it was inspired by my pug Peach, but the real story goes back a little further than that! Originally, pugs weren’t really my kind of dog; I thought they looked goofy and kind of like little aliens. But my fiancee loves pugs, and one of her biggest dreams has been to have one someday. So two years ago I moved with my fiancee to New Jersey so she could start a PhD program. Her birthday was right in the middle of our big move across the country, so on her birthday her mom and I got her a little puppy pug – and that puppy was Peach! And I absolutely fell in love with her. I never knew a dog could be as sweet and caring and adorable as Peach is. She loves burying bones, all kinds of snacks, and she is the smartest dog I know (she picks up tricks in no time, it’s truly amazing!). Then Christmas rolled around later that year, and since I was short on cash I thought why not use my game design skills (from my previous job) and make my fiancee a quick and easy card game all about pugs. Everything I put into the game was entirely based around Peach, from her favorite toys (her monkey, her donut, sticks), favorite foods/treats (strawberries, popcorn, peanut butter) and disasters we had run into (the true disaster of waking up every hour to take puppy Peach outside because she had diarrhea. I felt so bad for her). The names of the pugs are also based on Peach, specifically different personalities that we have joked about Peach having. She’d sprint around in circles full speed, and we’d call her the Fast Pug. Or she’d sneakily swipe our socks and play keep away, and that’s the Mischief Pug. And of course, she’s a little snacker and is pretty lazy during the day, hence the Strong Pug. At the end of the day, my fiancee really enjoyed the game, and when I told my friends and family about it they told me to keep working on it and try to publish it. So that’s where we are now!
Let’s talk a little bit about the roles that players can take on. What is your personal favorite to play?
Ben: Wow, that’s actually pretty tough. I think if you had asked me before I created the Brave Pug I would’ve said the Smart Pug and it still might be the Smart Pug, but… I really like the Brave Pug. So let’s talk about both really quick. For the Brave Pug, I love the ability to potentially gain absurd amounts of points if I play my cards right. Although I’m limiting myself pretty heavily by moving disasters to myself, getting the bonus tokens for doing that is just so appealing. I love the decisions it introduces to the game (from a design perspective) and I love that I get to try to outplay my opponent. Using two treats back to back is extremely satisfying when you correctly predict an opponent playing a disaster to stop you from gaining points, and it feels so good to shoot the moon by getting three disasters on you – that might be the best feeling in the game. For the Smart Pug, I love the idea that I get to constantly counter my opponents by burying cards over and over. Like with the Brave Pug, I love the idea of outplaying my opponent, and I also really enjoy getting to constantly make the perfect move. Stalling a game for 3-4 rounds until you can catch up and win? That’s another absolutely fantastic feeling, and one you can only consistently get from the Smart Pug. The thematics for both of those pugs are also so fun. I love the idea of savior/daredevil pug for the Brave Pug, and I was so happy when I finally got something I felt worked for her. Not only does she get to protect her opponents by taking disasters off them, she also gets to show no fear by having the disasters on her and she gets to play the extremely dangerous game of 50/50 chance of gaining tons of points versus giving points to your opponent. The Smart Pug is the same as well. I think most people envision the smart guy as more quiet, reserved, calculating before unleashing a master plan. That’s exactly what the Smart Pug does, planning out moves ten turns in advance and prepping to take over the entire game.
With all that said, I think there’s a pug that everyone can enjoy. I intentionally dug heavily into what made each pug unique because I wanted a wildly diverse experience for every player. I designed the Mischief Pug specifically for my fiance and how much she loves to cause complete chaos. I designed the Cute Pug for my sister, who loves to just go off and do her own thing in games, not really competing with everyone else for a specific goal. While every pug should feel completely different and should have a completely distinct method for getting a win, you should still have an equal chance to win no matter which pug you’re playing. I think that’s part of what makes the game so fun.
Was it challenging to try to balance out the different characters?
Ben: I guess you could say it was challenging, but I would more readily say it was lot of fun because I love solving puzzles and problems. It did take plenty of time, though, and making sure I had solid balance among the 8 different pugs was pretty important. I think the initial goal for me was to make just 8 enjoyable pugs, but once I got to that point, it became a process of finding the right power to give each individual. To do this, I had to determine a relative card value dependent on the number of players in the game which relied on the number of tokens a card could earn and the probability of that card succeeding. For instance, a basic card gets to earn just one token. However, there’s also a chance it gets blocked by a disaster, which reduces the value to a little less than one token, while at the same time gaining a little for the ability to shut down a trick. I eventually came up with a rough number for the relative value of an average card in a 2 player, 3 player, and 4 player game, and used that to compare the value of each pug. Some were pretty tough to project like the Smart Pug, where I had to account for the value of drawing cards and then removing the “worse” cards. Others weren’t so bad like the Strong Pug, where I really just had to figure out how likely a treat or adventure coming up was. On top of this, there is usually a response or some downside to certain pugs that might seem powerful. The 2x or 3x points from the Brave Pug, for instance, might be insane but it’s also far easier to land a disaster on her. The Garbage Pug might earn a lot of points in a single turn, but she’s required to have twice as many treats as anyone else to activate it. The Fast Pug might be able to steal cards, but he has to match them to actually earn points. Every pug has a drawback to them and that’s core to giving opponents the ability to play against them as well as create legitimate decisions for players. All of this is of course extremely theoretical, so extensive playtesting was pretty useful as well to get a read on which pugs were able to consistently perform well (nerf bat time) and which ones consistently struggled (buff train woo woo). I’ve seen every pug win when played optimally, and in almost every game it came down to who was able to use their cards best in conjunction with each of the pugs. Feedback has been pretty positive in that way as well, as it was rare that someone felt they couldn’t win.
What made you decide to self-publish over pitching the game around to other publishers?
Ben: I debated this one for a very, very long time once I felt the game was functional. I had always wanted to get into game design primarily because I love solving problems, and I like bringing joy to the world. I also knew I wanted to eventually own my own company to do awesome things with my games – I even wrote it down on a personal list of goals when I was leaving college 5 years ago. When it finally became time to figure out what I wanted to do with my game, I spent most of my time researching and understand both of my options. As much as I loved the idea that I could just design if I sent it out to a publisher, I had concerns over control of my game and the profits I might actually make. At the same time, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to try running my own company, starting my own Kickstarter campaign, and trying to sell the game out to the world all on my own. I probably talked for hours to just about any of my friends and family members that would listen, and even then I still really couldn’t come to an answer. The thing that finally swayed me was an off the cuff conversation I had with an old co-worker from Riot Games. He and I had discussed the game a little from time to time, but he asked how it was going since we hadn’t discussed it in a while. I had so much fun discussing the game, going over all the little pieces and choices I had made. I felt so fulfilled talking about the game that was my game, not something someone else had changed or made. That was really the thing that convinced me to go forward with publishing the game on my own – I wanted to create my own incredible piece of art and I didn’t want to sacrifice the things that I loved about it to fit someone’s else’s choices. I wanted to be able to take my passion and love for what I had done and share it with the world. None of that is to say I couldn’t have done that if I contracted with a publisher, but I haven’t looked back once since that moment. I’m so excited to get a chance to share the game with everyone now!
Not every game is for every person, who is Pug Time for?
Ben: Anyone who loves pugs/dogs will probably enjoy the theme a lot. I’d like to think it’s a bridge game, especially for people who have never played games before but would like to be introduced. It’s great for helping people learn because a ton of the resolution and meat of the game happens visible to everyone, which is awesome. Additionally, that makes it great for families with smaller kids because an adult can help the kids work through any issues that might happen as the cards get played. It’s a pretty short game once you’ve learned it, but I think there is tons of replayability in the different ways cards can be drawn and in the abilities of the pugs. I know heavier gamers might be turned off from it, but there’s a shocking amount of depth and strong learning curves for a number of the pugs (looking at you Smart Pug), so I think it’s pretty solid for even those looking for a deeper experience. The pugs are asymmetric and I know some people hate that mechanic and some love it so I feel like it’s worth mentioning. As much as I wish everyone would love my game, I know that’s not gonna be the case. I think the types of people I outlined here though would really enjoy it.
Describe Pug Time’s gameplay in 3 adjectives.
Ben: The first three words that came to mind were crazy, quick, and engaging. For crazy: weird, cool things seem to happen almost every time I play the game, and I love that aspect of it. For quick: once you really understand how to play, you can burn through rounds in about 15 seconds and so the game can be as short as 5 minutes for 2 players. For engaging: I think that’s really a product of everyone constantly being involved in what’s happening. No one has to wait for their turn and players are constantly drawn back into the game, not getting distracted or disinterested.
As we wrap this up, will we be seeing more games from you after Pug Time?
Ben: Assuming all goes well with this campaign, I’m hoping to create future editions of Pug Time, like Pug Time: Summer, Winter, and Halloween editions. The idea of having something like, for instance, the Sunburnt Pug (summer option), the Snowman Pug (winter option) or the Ghost Pug (Halloween option) is insanely adorable. I’ve also been brainstorming a cooperative deck-building programming game which I’ve had a lot of thoughts about as Pug Time has worn down. It’s mostly inspired from Mechs vs Minions (from my time at Riot), as well as Aeon’s End (one of my absolute favorites). I’d be ecstatic if this campaign goes well just because it means I get a chance to make more awesome games down that road for even more people to love and enjoy.
Thanks again, Ben, for taking time out to do this interview.
Pug Time is currently on Kickstarter, you can find it there by clicking here