Up in the Sierras with Jonny PacSeptember 6, 2019
Interview with game designer, Jonny Pac Cantin, about his game Sierra West.
Jonny, thanks for taking time out to talk about Sierra West. For those that may not know much about it, could you tell us a little bit about the game?
Jonny: Sierra West is a bit of mashup—in more than one way. Upfront, there are four different modes that you choose from each time you play the game. These are mixed together with the basic components to form a complete game—with a unique thematic twist. Then under the hood, there is a somewhat unusual mix of mechanics: action-programming, deck-building, worker-placement, and more. There is a lot in there. But the most notable part is probably the way you select actions by fitting cards into your player board. It’s like catnip for some gamers.
What’s the story behind the creation of the game?
Jonny: The full story is fairly lengthy, as you can find out in my recent BGG Designer Diary. But in a nutshell, it came from the idea that your workers move across a tableau of cards, taking a sequence of actions from left to right. Then I began working within a Donner Party theme: a snowy disaster full of meeple-eating. That’s what inspired the big mountain of cards. After the game got signed we changed the theme to be more straight-forward and divided the product into four modes: Apple Hill, Gold Rush, Boats & Banjos, and Outlaws & Outposts. (No crazy blizzards to worry about!)
Besides, the beautiful art, the thing that really draws your attention to the game, is how the action programming works in the game, with laying cards into special notches in the boards. What inspired that?
Jonny: It started with tinkering in my studio. That’s where I usually try to “find the fun”. Plus, I like to have some novel elements in my designs. It seemed that tucking cards into a toothed board—exposing and concealing various icons—was well suited for making interesting decisions. Then running meeples over the results was what I call “stupid fun”. I like that special blend of smart and stupid. For example, I find that my favorite Euro-games have thinky economic elements side-by-side with childlike, playful things such as wooden meeples, chunky tiles, and bright, friendly aesthetics. Sometimes they take it a step further with things like the cog-wheels in Tzolk’in, the conveyor-belt boards in Solenia/Black Angel, and the marble dispenser in Potion Explosion. I love that stuff. You can see it influence my work on Merchants Cove, with the Alchemist’s marbles, the Captain’s spinner, and the Chronomancer’s Labyrinth-like tile-sliding rondel. Stupid fun. Smart game.
As mentioned, the game actually comes with 4 different modes. Do you have a favorite one?
Jonny: I’m not sure, but if I had to choose it might be Boats & Banjos. It has the most robust economic systems, plus you get to paddle cute, little wooden canoes up the river to go fishing. But overall, I’m happy to play any of them, as they each have unique qualities I enjoy.
Do you have any ideas for more modules that you love to see as an expansion?
Jonny: Yes. For sure. I am working on one that is kind of a callback to the original theme of the Donner Party—though there will no overt meeple-eating, if any. It’s designed to be an “express mode”—one you can play quickly with little downtime, even at higher player counts (a common complaint). There will be more (indirect) player interaction and some exciting push-your-luck elements too.
It is my understanding that Board&Dice has commissioned more modules from some bigger name designers. Word is that Samuel Bailey and David Turczi are working on their own modes, planned for release sometime in 2020.
It seems you really like the Wild West/westward expansion theme—you have designed Coloma, A Fistful of Meeples, Hangtown, and of course, Sierra West. What draws you to this time period in history?
Jonny: Well, I live in the heart of Gold Country, California. Hangtown is the former name of my hometown, Placerville. And Coloma is downriver just a few miles from my cabin in the woods. There is a lot of interesting history all around me every day. Besides those games, my other designs are thematically all over the place: I have one about mobsters running booze in the Prohibition Era; one about ancient Lydia and the first use of coins as currency; and another about finding planets in the Goldilocks Zone before the three little space bears do…
What was the best piece of advice you received from a playtester when playtesting Sierra West?
Jonny: I tend to believe that special abilities and such are just surface noise unless they satisfy a player’s desire. So when designing rule-bending elements I like to ask playtesters: Was there anything you wanted to do but the game wouldn’t let you? I often get really good suggestions. This question cuts through coulda and gets to shoulda.
It was after a playtest at Pacificon Protospiel that someone responded by saying they wanted to perform a third Summit Action (which they could not because they only had two meeples). So I introduced the Mule, a temporary third meeple. And if you’ve played Sierra West, you probably love the Mule.
Board&Dice published the game. What has been your favorite part about working with them?
Jonny: Filip, the co-founder, pushed me to make Sierra West into a kind of game console, one that you plug modular content into to offer new experiences. It was very inspiring—and still is!
As we come to a close, what was the biggest lesson you learned as a designer from designing Sierra West?
Jonny: The best lesson I got was literally a lesson. David Turczi gave me an in-depth rundown on how to make a good solo mode as he took what I had already created for Sierra West and whipped it into shape. And he taught a man to fish along the way.
Thank you again, Jonny, for taking time out to do this interview. If you are interested in a copy of Sierra West it is out now! If you like to contact Jonny you can find him at www.jonnypac.com or on Twitter: @JPacCantin