The Inquisitive Meeple’s in-depth interview with Spanish publisher, nestorgames. Best known, perhaps, for their abstract games, that are printed on mousepad like mats, that can be rolled up and easy to travel with. They discuss the story behind nestorgames, abstract games, publishing, and designing.
Welcome to Publishers of Play, our series where we interview tabletop publishers. This time we talk with Néstor Romeral Andrés, founder of nestorgames. I would like to note, that for Nestor, English is not his native language, so there may have been some minor editing of his replies to correct his English. We hope you enjoy our in-depth interview about the story behind nestorgames and some of its games.
First off, Nestor, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. With the exception of Project GIPF games and Hive, there are not many publishers putting out abstract strategy games, especially perfect information ones these days – outside of you via nestorgames. Could you tell us how nestorgames started and why you decided that you wanted to publish abstract games?
Nestor: Thank you for the opportunity, Ryan.
You’ve partially answered the question. Maybe I’m doing this because not many publishers are.
This all started around 10 years ago (nestorgames is almost 9). I was co-founder of a software company, but not happy with it. A digestive illness powered by stress and burnout drove me to the hospital for twenty days. There I realized I was doing everything wrong and changed course. I wanted to create games and puzzles for all my life, so I started right there designing Taiji and Adaptoid. I sold my part of the company and took a two-year leave to recover and design the nestorgames model. In fact, the nestorgames format adapted to Adaptoid itself. It’s my flagship ever since.
Actually designing the format took a lot of time. I wanted to create a company with almost no initial investment (both as an experiment and also a stand against a debt-based economy that made me struggle in my previous company). This forced me to do all by myself; game design, production design, manufacturing and online selling (selling online was the only viable option). Fortunately, the company has now evolved and all the manufacturing is done by US, European and mostly local providers (nothing is made in China)
Bravo for having the courage to make the change, from the job that was literally making you sick. When it comes to Adaptoid do you credit in some small way of saving your life, since it was designed during that illness period of your life?
Nestor: Well, my life was not at risk, but I was having a hard time. A good friend told me that, in order to get rid of stress (first step in curing myself) I had to find ‘balance’ in life. I became obsessed with that word ever since and now I consider it my signature in game design. Taiji was the first consequence of this (a game where you play both colours on your turn, joined together in a single piece resembling the Yin and Yang). The other was Adaptoid, where you must find balance between having powerful creatures and room enough to survive. Its design was lurking in my mind for a long time, but not until I added this balancing mechanism (they need as much food as their power to survive) the game was finally finished.
As a side note, I promised myself not to stress ever again, so I created nestorgames stress-proof. No debt, no risk, no inventory, no staff…
For those that don’t know Adaptoid is a game where you actually place arms on to your pieces in the game, to make them stronger. Do you remember where the idea of adding to the pieces on the board came from?
Nestor: Adaptoid is derived from another game that I was not very happy with, where players built fortresses and upgraded them in order to battle with the opponent. In this previous game, the fortresses where immovable, so it was too static and dull. I added movement and the above-mentioned balancing mechanism. It worked like clockwork.
One of the things nestorgames is known for is their use of neoprene (mousepad type) mats as the actual board. You do offer some nice acrylic version of games, but the majority of what you offer is the mats. Where did the idea of using those come from?
Nestor: It was my only option, although it took me some time to find it out. I needed a format that was light (so shipping costs were low) but also resistant and printable on demand. Cotton case + plastic/acrylic pieces + rubber board was it.
However, the boards are not made of neoprene, but rubber+polyester fabric. Neoprene smells just too bad.
About that cotton case. Why did you decide to instead of putting names on side of case to instead put unique symbols for each game on it?
Nestor: Good question. Many reasons for this:
– The logos are made of vinyl. Peeling the vinyl to extract the letters (in order to iron them to the cotton case) is very time-intensive and may increase the price by up to 2 eur. The name ‘HEX’ is easy. ‘Penguin Panic: The Great Icescape’ would be a pain.
– Also the logo on the side identifies the games when stored as if it they were wine bottles.
– It gives character to the format. It’s ‘different’.
You are very active on BoardGameGeek and seem to have built up a loyal following of fans. Do you think that BGG has helped your business grow as a small publisher?
Nestor: Definitely. That was the first step in my business model plan. Enter BGG, then create nestorgames.
With nestorgames, designers can publisher their own games through you, via nestorbooster. However, you do check out the game to make sure it is good and not broken in any way, etc. What do you look for in the games that you publish, and how to go about making sure nothing is broken/solvable in the games that you publish?
Nestor: First I must say that nestorbooster is just an option. Designers can submit their games directly. But nestorbooster is the fastest way. Also the -low- submission fee usually filters out bad designs, as authors won’t risk to losing the fee by submitting a broken game. Moreover, with nestorbooster I can release good games even if they’re not my taste. This is a common mistake by publishers. Publishing only games that you enjoy is not a good business practice, because your market might not agree with you!
Answering your question, after 9 years of publishing you develop some ‘sense’ that tells you if a game is broken by just reading the rules. But we also run playtests here.
Nestorbooster started as a crowdfunding site and kinda morphed into a pre-order GMT Games type of thing. Why did you decide to go this route over what has become the standard more or less with Kickstarter?
Nestor: Mainly because of two things. First, it turned out that the designers themselves preordered near half of the copies themselves. Second, the Spanish lawmakers put in place very restrictive rules for crowdfunding sites, that I could not comply. I must say that Spanish lawmakers and taxmen have been (and still are) the tallest hurdle by far for nestorgames.
I am sure you get this question all the time, but do you have any plans to partner with someone to bring nestorgames to the US distribution?
Nestor: My business model won’t fit with a distribution scheme. I had that clear right from the start. And it doesn’t bother me much. However, I do have some resale agreements (with gaming clubs, customers)… They buy large quantities at a discount and make a profit (mostly because group orders pay shipping costs only once). They also promote nestorgames locally.
Let’s turn our attention a little bit to games now. Let me start by asking the question: What makes a great (perfect information) abstract game?
Nestor: I’ll refer to the master here:
But in the case of abstract strategy games, I’d add ‘elegance’ (simple rules – big combinatorial explosion and diversity).
Many may look at abstract games, especially perfect information ones, as “dry” or “boring,” but no doubt as a designer and publisher of those games, you don’t look at them that way. What do you see in them?
Nestor: Elegance. It amazes me how a simple set of rules can lead to a combinatorial explosion that’s fun to explore. It doesn’t happen all the time though. Just as in any other ‘art’, not all pieces are good.
The ‘dry’ or ‘boring’ perception is a bit of a curse. Fortunately, it seems to fade away when you paste an appealing theme on the games. However, abstract strategy games are not and never will be for everyone.
Abstracts can often be broken down into certain categories: nth-in-a-row, capture, connecting one side to another, stacking, fitting together polyominoes, etc. Is there a type that you are partial to?
Nestor: I like any mechanism that is not overcomplicated (there seems to be a wave of unnecessarily overcomplicated games nowadays). It must be ‘natural born’. I also like to combine two or three very simple but apparently disjoint concepts. For example, Pent-Up (or his brothers Seven, Counterplays and Stack-22) combines polyominoes and stacking. Flink combines a pentomino, stacking, and connection. Onager combines stacking and crossing…
A Nestor game that is is popular in my house with my kids is Hippos & Crocodiles. That is one you actually designed, so I have to ask how did this game come about?
Nestor: A friend of mine asked me for it. She works with Autism and Asperger kids. She needed a game with no text, very spatial and with just one rule. I’m a fan of polyominoes since I read Martin Gardner when I was a kid. Everything came into place almost instantly.
Interesting. As someone that has put out a ton of games, what do you think is the most interesting story behind the creation of a game you have published?
Nestor: Almost all my games have a story behind. The story is the catalyzer that puts the pieces together to form a game. The closest to my heart is Sheep, Dogs and Wolves because my daughter gave me the idea when she was 4 (she’s credited as co-designer). It’s a brilliant mechanism. A single piece for both players. The wolf wants to eat the sheep, but there is a dog in between that defends the sheep.
I definitely believe that the creation of most, if not all, have some kind of story behind them, that’s actually part of why I do The Inquisitive Meeple, to find out those stories. Speaking of stories, I understand there is an interesting one behind one of the more popular nestorgames, Yavalath. It was actually created by a computer/AI system. What’s the story behind that?
Nestor: Cameron tells the story better than I could ever do:
Regarding its publication, I was simply browsing BoardGameGeek in 2009 looking for an interesting game. It was not in my plan to release games from other designers, but this one was special. I already had 3 games to start the company (Adaptoid, Hippos & Crocodiles and Hexellation), but I felt I needed one more. It all happened quite fast. I contacted Cameron and he happily agreed on its publication. We’re friends ever since.
Speaking of Yavalath. Many of your games you publish use similar hex or checkerboard/squared mats. Are you worried that players will buy say a Yavalth mat and be able to play many other hex based games you offer, like say Feed the Ducks or buy a LOT square board and be able to play the game Coffee? Doesn’t that eat into your business?
Nestor: I feared that at first, but I realized that I could never know if that is good or bad for business because my market is so small that I can’t do analytics on it. One thing I had crystal clear is that I had to release as many games as I could, even if they use similar components (my product is not the games, but the company). However, I warn potential ‘nestordesigners’ of this fact. Games too similar to others already in my catalog might not sell well. But you never know. Time has proven me wrong too many times on too many things.
Anyway, a few years ago I published a book of games that can be played with a Yavalath set.
One of the nestorgames that you designed yourself, Sugar Gliders, was recently picked up and published by White Goblin Games (who previously published your game, Hong). Out of all your designs, are you surprised at all that it was Sugar Gliders that received a bigger distribution?
Nestor: Sounds a bit overweening, but I wasn’t surprised. The game popped up in my mind almost in its final form. Not much tweaking. Right from the early playtests everyone agreed that the game would be a hit. A few months later White Goblin Games knocked at my door. It was not in my plan, though. I just want to make a living having fun.
People expect abstract games to be “easy to learn, but hard to master”, the good ones typically get tournament level plays, and you have to make sure they are not solvable. Do you have any advice out there for anyone that may be trying their hand at designing an abstract game, where to start and what to look out for?
Nestor: I can tell you what I do, but not give you an advice. What works for me might not work for someone else. What I do is to have fun. If I’m not having fun designing a game then it won’t be worth the effort and most likely it won’t be fun either.
If there is someone out there, new to abstract games (outside say the standard checkers or chess) – what are some good games to start with?
Nestor: As a publisher, I recommend the ‘light abstracts’ section of my site. If you want to lower the entry point even further, pick the ones with a theme or very colorful.
One of the barriers to the abstract strategy games hobby is that newbies are forced to learn Chess first. This is a mistake, IMHO. Chess is a good game and the icon of abstract games, but it’s hard and it scares newcomers. Imagine a player that barely knows how to draw in Tic-Tac-Toe trying to master Chess. I’ve also noticed over the years that players hate looking dumb. They prefer not to play rather than losing. Especially parents. Give them a game that they can learn in 10 seconds and is ‘fun to lose’. You mentioned Hippos & Crocodiles before. That’s a good example.
We should also note you do more than perfect abstract games. What are some good non-perfect abstract games that you publish you recommend to someone new to nestorgames?
Nestor: There is a fantastic section on my site called ‘family games’. Some of them are perfect- information, but the family aspect prevails.
As a designer, Gardens of Mars and Sugar Gliders are my best sellers among the family games category. Also, my personal pick would be Top Speed; a game that I designed even before Adaptoid. It took me eight years to finish it and it’s my playtesters’ favourite ever. However, it’s been bashed by some trolls on BGG because it admittedly uses a previously existing mechanism for the card draw (used in Diamant). The vast majority of games use previously existing mechanisms, but for some reason, the trolls gravitated towards this one. On the other hand, trolls made me improve my designing skills over time and made nestorgames a more resilient company. I’ve taken from them more than they’ve taken from me. Good deal. Sorry; that was not the topic of the question.
More information here:
You actually have owned the whole trolled thing on your website, almost like a badge of honor, and you mention it on the Top Speed page of nestorgames. Do you think as a designer you need to have a little bit of thick skin to be able to deal with criticism of something you created?
Nestor: Not thicker than the skin you need to deal with life. Positive criticism is very helpful. Regarding trolls, people pay more attention to what others say rather to what others actually do; and that’s why they have a voice. You have to deal with it. You can’t change human nature. I prefer to do things instead.
You mentioned earlier Gardens of Mars, that was another game that was signed by another game company. In this case, it was picked up by US-based, Big Kid Games. They started a Kickstarter last year for it but decided to cancel it, to improve upon some things. Are there any updates on that? Should we still be expecting a new Kickstarter for it?
Nestor: It is scheduled for 2020, but I don’t have more information. It’s quite different from the nestorgames edition, as it includes special powers and actions, and also more ways to score.
Speaking of future releases. What does 2018 have in store for nestorgames? What games can we expect to be released in the future that you are currently working on?
Nestor: Currently, in the pipeline, I have Manalath (Dieter Stein and yours truly), Madcap (Steve and Will Erickson), Frozen Forest (yours truly), Salta (classic), some assembly nestorpuzzles and a sequel to Gardens of Mars and Gardens of Io. I’m also working on an expansion for Arcade, but not sure when it will be ready.
Not to embarrass you, but before we go I understand that nestorgames has a really cool special relationship with a children hospital there in Spain. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Nestor: Yes. Once a week I play nestorgames with the kids at the Miguel Servet Hospital for Children in Zaragoza. They have fun and disconnect from their problems for a while, and it also helps me learn about kids reactions to rules, mechanisms, …
Don’t underestimate a kid. They’re very smart and focused. I’ve been beaten at my own games a few times!
I am sure the kids look forward to game day. What are some of the games that seem to be the kid’s favorite to play?
Nestor: They have just a few nestorgames there (some donated by my customers). Yavalath and Hippos & Crocodiles work every time. Kids above 10 years old also enjoy LOT and Moon Harvesters. They also love the puzzles Trifolia and Gadeiro.
Overall, from this interview, it would seem a big key and theme for you running nestorgames is “fun”. What do you do to make sure you don’t get bogged down or burned out and that it stays fun?
Nestor: Having a standard format is a double-edged sword. Everything flows smoothly, but you might also get bored. So I try to introduce new formats or components, or improve or tweak the existing ones, but still keeping everything under control. For example, I’ve introduced the new Deluxe Format recently, and also 3D printing.
Also, the company is not my full-time occupation. I also have a daughter, I design games, do some math, learn a lot. Learning is the most important aspect of game design. Learn anything. Even unrelated topics. All the time. You build a structure of knowledge in your brain that acts as an incubator for new ideas.
As we wrap this up, do you have anything else you would like to say to readers out there?
Nestor: Don’t read me. Just play my games. Or any game, actually. Life is short.
Thanks Nestor for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview.