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Emerson Matsuuchi: an interview with the designer of Specter OPS

Those who know me know that I love games in the 'hidden movement' genre. On New Year's eve I published my top 50 games in a blog on boardgamegeek with Specter OPS top of the pile. It is my favourite game so I decided to seek an interview with the designer, Emerson Matsuuchi. Here is that conversation, for your enjoyment. You can also click here for our Specter OPS review.

Peter: Hi Emerson! Well firstly would you like to give us a general background on who you are (in the world, not just board games)?

Emerson: Certainly, my name is Emerson Matsuuchi. I have three children, all young. I have been a software developer for almost two decades now. Been a geek my entire life… rather disappointed that being a geek has only recently been a cool thing to be.

P: Ha. Well better late than never. Who do you develop for?

E: I used to work for a large Wall Street firm managing a team in an IT department. I left after 10 years and became a consultant, or a sort of freelance software developer. And I have been consulting with many different firms and in different industries for a number of years now.

P: Very good. So you've been a software developer for a long time and a geek forever. When did you get into board gaming?

E: It was early in my life, I'd like to say around 6 or 7 years of age. My father taught me some abstract games. Namely a variation on Connect Four using a Go board and pieces. I don't recall the English name, but it was called Go-nukonanabe in Japanese. Then I learned Japanese Chess, called Shogi. Not too long after I was infatuated playing games. Around the age of 8 or 9, I got into the mainstream board games like Risk and Life. And my first love of Ameritrash games started with Shogun, which I believe is now called Ikusa.

P: So are you American but with Japanese parents/grandparents? Has that heritage strongly influenced your gaming life?

E: That is correct. American citizen, with roots in Japan. I'm sure it has had some influences on how I view games, but I would be hard pressed to explain how.

P: Do you have any opinions on the Rising Sun Kickstarter? There have been suggestions that some of the content/theme could be deemed offensive or inappropriate.

E: I don't have any strong opinions on Rising Sun other than I want to play it ☺ What part of it did folks find offensive?

P: Well I don't pretend to have any knowledge on the subject but it seemed to be centred on the use of the Rising Sun flag. There was some debate that it could be roughly the equivalent of using a swastika when not pertinent to the theme.

E: Oh I see. While we can't fault anyone for having certain emotions arise from seeing certain iconic emblems. Since this is a game, and there are many things that separate it from the real world, hopefully we can frame it as something imagined (like a book) rather than something that was meant to stir repressed emotions. I can tell you for sure, the warriors of feudal Japan don't resemble anything even remotely close to the miniatures in Rising Sun.

P: Thanks for explaining. How did you get into designing board games?

E: I have designed games, or at least attempted to, since I was around 8-ish. It's only recently that I've been designing games in a more serious capacity. I have made many many terrible games growing up.

P: So, I believe your first publisher game was Tricks & Treats. How did that come about?

E: At some point, I wanted to have my own game company. It was a childhood dream that came back to haunt me, appropriately around midlife. I was very cautious and decided it's best to start small, minimize your risk and all that. My first game was meant to learn how the industry worked, and how games go from an idea, to prototype, to finished product and finally into distribution.

P: And that seems to have been successful because you then went on to publish Volt: Robot Battle Arena, a movement programming game very different to Tricks & Treats. Did this come from an interest in robotics?

E: I was successful in understanding some of the ins & outs of publishing, but it wasn't a big financial success. The seasonal theme meant that retailers would see it as a seasonal item. So that was a lesson learned. With VOLT: Robot Battle Arena, I came in with more sophomoric confidence and ambition. I have always had a love of robots. Perhaps this is where my Japanese roots have an influence. Almost every Japanese kids television show I watched had big robots. Again, while VOLT was a success from the standpoint that I believe it put a tiny dot on the map for my company Nazca Games, the profits made on VOLT were nothing to write home about, haha ☺

P: Ha. I think this is something that all game designers experience. Even successful games don't often make the designer fortunes.

E: Yes, even games that are well received don't always translate to financial pay-outs.

P: Next up was the hit game Specter OPS, currently ranked 320th on BoardGameGeek. Did it feel like you had hit the big time with this release? What is it like to have a game nominated for an award like Golden Geek Best Thematic Board Game?

E: While my name is prominently on the box for Specter OPS, it would not have been so well received if it wasn't for Plaid Hat's involvement with the game. I feel I can't take as much of the credit given to me for the success of that game. I was very happy with the reception that Specter OPS got. Compared to all the games that came before, it was certainly a huge leap. Whether a game is a hit...I would call it a hit if people are still playing it many years from now. And that is always something I strive for, I want to make games that people will enjoy for a long time.

P: Well that's very humble of you, but it is clearly your game, even if you had significant help from Plaid Hat. I don't see any co-designers listed!

E: That is true. But there are many people that are involved to make a game as good as it is. The developer, artist, graphic designer, producer, designer, and many many playtesters. But only one name is on the box.

P: Well that's fair. For instance, I love the board artwork in Specter OPS which obviously wasn't done by you.

E: That is correct, the Artist, Steve Hamilton, did an incredible job on all of the art!

P: I completely agree with you regarding what makes a hit, but also I think that the critical reception over time (not just a few months like some over-hyped games) can be a good barometer for a successful game. Specter OPS has been around for a couple of years and is still very popular, certainly here in the UK. Some games arrive in a flash of plastic brilliance and then get forgotten about very quickly it seems.

E: That is half a shame when a game has gorgeous components and incredible miniatures but comes in a game that's not very much fun. I only say half a shame, since many times I feel it takes just a reworking of the rules to make the game, maybe not stellar, but at least pretty fun to play.

P: Absolutely. How long did Specter OPS take to develop from start to finish?

E: Let me look back at some of my notes....Looks like I made the first prototype back in the summer of 2013; it was released in May of 2015, so a little less than 2 years from proto to production. Although, Specter OPS had an interesting development. I was originally going to publish the game under my company Nazca Games with the title "Cipher OPS". Around the early part of 2014, I had all of my assets off to the manufacturer and the proofs approved. It was slated for a Gen Con 2014 release. But at Pax East 2014 Colby Dauch, head of Plaid Hat Games, made me an offer I could not refuse. We had to immediately call the manufacturer as it was just about to go into mass production. From that point, Plaid Hat did their magic and so "Cipher OPS" became "Specter OPS".

P: Wow! That sounds like a pretty unusual development scenario. It also sounds like working with Plaid Hat Games was a fantastic experience for you. Has F2Z's takeover of Plaid Hat changed the dynamics for Nazca Games?

E: The Plaid Hat team is absolutely fantastic to work with. It's hard to find a group of more passionate and talented board game professionals. I know I sound like I'm gushing about PHG, but they really have been amazing to work with. With the F2Z acquisition, there were bound to be changes. With a bigger company, more structure is necessary. Since I had worked almost exclusively for large companies in my day job, I was accustomed to it. Even with the changes, Plaid Hat is still an amazing company to work with. (/gush)

P: Haha. Well that's good to know. Has it had any effect on projects like the companion app?

E: As for the App(s), F2Z did have a policy that they retain the digital rights for all of their properties. So that did have an impact on what Nazca Games could produce. That said, I still do have the digital rights to Specter OPS.

P: Where are you in the app development cycle?

E: The development of the Specter OPS app was put on pause due to some projects that had taken priority. I also recently bought a house which took much more time that I had ever expected. Now we are in the process of preparing our old home to sell on the market. But I hope to get back to development once life settles down a bit.

P: Well I for one am looking forward to it. How about future expansions? What would you put the likeliness rating at if 1 is extremely unlikely and 10 is almost definite?

E: After F2Z had acquired Plaid Hat, they had told me that they were not interested in producing the expansion at that time. Now with the Asmodee acquisition of F2Z, it seems that an expansion for Specter OPS is not out of the question. So would "it's possible" be acceptable?

P: Sounds decent enough! Ok, tell me about your next release: Century: Spice Road. I'm particularly interested in the fact that all of your published games seem entirely different from one another. Is that a conscious decision or just how it's happened?

E: "Century: Spice Road" will be released by a new company, Plan B studios. It's a light euro-style game of trading cubes for victory points. There's probably a way to make that sound more exciting. While it may not sound amazing in description, it's a design I'm excited about. As for the designs, I didn't make a conscious decision to make the games very different from one another. Purely coincidence ☺

P: Is Plan B also your studio or is it a collaboration?

E: When F2Z was acquired by Asmodee, the former president of F2Z, Sophie Gavel, negotiated a deal with Asmodee to allow her to form a new game company with a hand-picked staff from F2Z. That new company is Plan B. Also part of that deal was that Pretzel Games and Caravan (now Century) falls under Plan B. So now Plan B and Nazca Games are collaborating on the Century Trilogy.

P: Fantastic. What will the games have in common, and what will differentiate them?

E: The idea behind the trilogy of games is to have each game be different mechanically, and also set a century apart historically. But the games will give that same experience of trading cubes for victory points! The games will not be expansions or 'expandalones' in the traditional sense, but there will be elements that can crossover to the other games.

P: Sounds like an interesting concept. Brilliant, thanks so much for your time Emerson. Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven't asked about?

E: I was always curious, do the board gamers in the UK get bothered by the spelling of "Specter OPS" (Specter vs Spectre)? ☺

P: No I don't think so. It's an American game with an American designer, nothing to get upset about!

E: Haha, we are a bad influence sometimes ☺ This has been a lot of fun. Thank you for having me on and putting up with my chaotic schedule!

P: Not at all, I really appreciate your time. And I want to thank you, and everyone else involved in the production of Specter OPS, because it is my favourite game and I always have tremendous fun.

E: It was a pleasure. I'm glad you are still enjoying Specter OPS!