I was able to connect with Jesse Klug the designer of the upcoming game Park Hero the game. Jesse lost his job as a theatrical designer when the pandemic took away live entertainment almost a year ago. Since then Jesse has been working on a passion project designing a board game that reflects his family and friends love of the National Park system here in the US. I was able to get some time with him and ask a few questions to get some insight into his design and process.
My job as a theatrical designer disappeared on March 12, 2020. Live entertainment has been basically illegal in this country since then.
How did you get in to game design and what led you there.
Jesse: So I guess 2 things get us to the end game. One-I have a group of 4 friends from high school that I have been going on a yearly camping trip with for the last 20 years. We go with our wives and children now and it’s wonderful. We collectively have a huge love of the great outdoors and national parks and have been trying to plan our trips to see at least one new one every year. It’s a great thing to share with close friends who are practically family. We grew up together playing games like monopoly and risk and others that take time and create a reason to sit around together for extended periods of time.
Two-My job as a theatrical designer disappeared on March 12, 2020. Live entertainment has been basically illegal in this country since then. So I have had an extreme amount of extra time on my hands. I wanted to achieve 2 things with new time. One, I wanted to learn new skills. So I thought why not teach myself photoshop, that seems useful. And second, I wanted to find something to do over zoom calls with my camping friends. Just chatting was getting a bit old and I wanted an activity that we could do together that would take the pressure off of having to bring something to talk about weekly.
So I made building this game my photoshop project. I found some artwork from the internet and created a rough board and then we started playing. I had all the guys print it out and tape it together and then once a week we started to play and iterate. Toss ideas around. And it grew from there. Each week I would take feedback and change the game and build new artwork. I made a goal of creating a poster for each of the parks so I wouldn’t be beholden to anyone else’s artwork. But part of the journey has been to create it all myself and learn new skills. When I finally had all the elements of my own making I started to look for manufactures locally who could build me a working prototype.
If you haven’t caught on by now, I have a lot of free time and a severe case of idle hands
I settled on thegamecrater.com in Madison Wisconsin. They were reasonable and could do the whole thing in house so I wouldn’t have to piece it together myself. This was just so I could see my laborers of the last months blossom into something that I could hold in my hands. The next step began by teaching myself about e-commerce. I wanted to learn to build a simple website that I could sell these on. So I learned Squarespace and stripe and a few others and put it together into a thing. As I started to sell a few I thought why not learn more about large scale manufacturing and crowdfunding and see how all this works. If you haven’t caught on by now, I have a lot of free time and a severe case of idle hands syndrome.
But that's kind of it. It's really a garage project gone wild right? I just wanted to play a game with my friends where I could learn new marketable skills. I am happy to say that after all this I decided to go back to school and I’m currently in a bootcamp learning web design that I believe will be my next career. And I know for certain that without having taken the time to learn, design and build this game I would not have had the skills and the confidence to do that.
What is your favorite game to play?
Jesse: Over the years my favorite game to play has been risk. And park hero has many overtones of that game. I love strategy and diplomacy. I think the subtly of the mind games you need to play with your opponents is the best part of any game. Making friends for as long as you need them to not be your enemy is very exciting. I think that why I also love games like cards against humanity and apples to apples. They are group games with many people trying to delve into each others psyche. I find those kind of games the most fun.
What inspired the theme of this game?
Jesse: The name Park hero came from a place of looking at where the artwork was going. I was inspired a lot by comic book feelings and retro 70’s/80’s artwork. I had been looking at a lot of other peoples work in the national park poster market and found most leaning into a bygone era of early hand drawn style posters inspired from from 30/40’s art work I wanted to move into another direction. I wanted to a bit more youthful and playful, and a bit less nostalgic. The cartooning of the images led me in the comic book path and when combining them with bold fonts I started to feel like the parks were each their own kind of superhero. Which is where the name came from. Each time you save a park you are taking on those super hero like traits in a way. I want people to feel the parks are less like museum displays and more like the ice cave where superman goes. A place filled with magic that is real to touch but a bit unexplained in its daunting and magnificent beauty.
The art in your game is really interesting. What inspired that and how much fun was it to do art for every national Park in the US?
Jesse: I probably just answered this in the last question but sufficed to say it was fun! I really enjoyed it. I still do and I am working on new artwork for new elements of the game already.
What did you find was the most difficult part of the design process?
The hardest part of the process honestly was the map building. Once I knew I wanted the arrowhead to be the main outline of the map shape, and I wanted to keep the tree and the mountains as neutral places, I had to find a way to fit in 62 parks in that space that made sense and didn't overwhelm the board. I was adamant that I didn’t want to exclude any parks. I leaned on my group of friend a lot to help me with dividing the parks into categories and then we would try out different patterns on the board to see where pinch points were and how we might “gerrymander” the borders. It was hard to find equitable layouts that created a game flow that seemed fair to all players. I feel good about where we have landed.
What was an "ah ha" moment in your game design process?
Jesse: The arrowhead map definitely. I knew the rules for the game, I knew the elements of the game I just didn’t know how to contain them into a map that had a larger meaning. The arrowhead was a huge ah ha moment, that finally created a container for the park that was meaningful and cohesive without feeling locked into some type of existing real world map. It gave me an abstraction with roots.
What is your favorite game mechanism in the game?
Jesse: I love the collection of cards in the game. They are probably the part that I am most proud of. I think they show off the artwork and deliver so much vital information. I want the game to be a learning tool. I want to play this game while camping at a national park and dreaming of where the next camping trip will be. That is something my friends and I always do. We sit around the campfire on night two or three and start talking about where to go next year. And then you have to do research and google places and look for info. This game gives us a list of the places in our hands. “Where is that one?, how big is it? Are there any cool features?” Holding those cards are a walking advertisement to learn and experience more of them. I think having cards that do that is the most important mechanism in this game by far.
Design something you know. Find something you're passionate about...
Any advice for new game designers?
Jesse: Design something you know. Find something you're passionate about outside of game design and make a story about it. And don’t be afraid to make something super super super rough and try it out. Sometimes tearing up some paper scrapes and stealing your kids crayons is the best way to find solutions. And listen to what others tell you. Try their ideas out! Collaboration is the greatest way to build great things. I listen to all the ideas people give me on this game and I go through the process to see if they can indeed make it better, because I don’t have all the answers.
Do you think you will continue on designing games?
Jesse: Maybe, if I find something else I am passionate about. This has been so much fun to do. I am so glad I did it and took it as far as I did. It was not as hard as I had thought it was going to be when I laid out all the steps in front of me. You just start knocking them off one by one and persevering, not worrying if it's perfect. I have learned so much by doing this and that was the most important part for me.
You have until April 2nd to back Jesse and Park Hero the game on kickstarter. A pledge of $55 will get you you a copy of the game upon a successful campaign.