Flying Blind--An Interview with Scott Almes on His New Design, Island Hopper

Today we’re joined once again by Scott Almes, designer of games such as the Tiny Epic series, and Best Treehouse Ever. He and publisher Eagle-Gryphon Games have a new game up on Kickstarter: Island Hopper. Let’s take flight and see what this is about.

Scott, thanks for talking with us again. First, tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a game designer, best known for my Tiny Epic Series, but I have a growing catalog of other unique games like Best Treehouse Ever, Martian Dice, and now Island Hopper. By day, I’m an engineering manager and develop products for the railroad industry. I’m certainly a tinkerer at heart. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for most of my life, where I live with my wonderful wife, Beth.

Island Hopper is your latest game--tell us about it.

Island Hopper is a super fun blend of dexterity and European game sensibilities. In the game, everyone is trying to make deliveries to these remote islands in order to make tons of money. The twist is that nobody actually has any money at the moment, and your group can only afford one plane. That is, one plane that is in complete disrepair, with broken instrumentations and a windshield covered in bugs and seagull feathers. You might as well be flying blind… which is exactly what you have to do. Each round, players will auction off the Captain role, who is in charge of flying the plane. That player will pick up tokens, close their eyes, and then attempt to drop it on cardboard islands to make successful deliveries. Other players must bribe and give hints to get the Captain to go to the right islands and fulfill their contracts. Super fun! Plays in under an hour and supports up to 6 players. It has those great resource management decisions when you weigh the costs of everything, a nice social element with the bribing, and then those stand up moments when the dexterity element happens. There’s something for everyone.

What was your inspiration for Island Hopper?

For me, it’s an addiction to quirky dexterity games. I don’t think that there’s a genre that’s more alluring for non-gamers. When you see a cool dexterity game--think Hamsterrolle, Villa Paletti, or Riff-Raff--it’s impossible not to stop and see what it’s all about. It’s a great way to lure people into the hobby. But, I always think there is more to say within particular genres. In this case, I think the dexterity genre would be great if it branched out a bit more into more ‘meaty’ games. Some games do this, like the amazing Safranito, but there’s room for so much more. This is my entry into that void: a dexterity game with strategic meat to it.

Did you find it more or less difficult to design a lighter game?

It’s just different, really. I like the lighter and casual end myself, but I have done some heavier designs. For a light game, each rule carries so much weight to it. A great ‘light’ game can be carried by just two or three rules. Island Hopper is a step up from that, but each rule has to matter and it can’t be layered with exceptions.  For example, in a medium or heavy weight game, you might be able to get away with a bit of difficult math to get a rule working, or detail a way to handle an exception. For example, in Kings of Air and Steam we have some addition ‘rules’ when building a route. It’s not a simple, “You can build a depot on any open space.” It includes additional rules like: 1) You can only have one depot per link, 2) the second person on a link must pay more, and 3) you can’t build on a link to nowhere, etc. All those are essential for making the game work, but in a lighter/casual game that doesn’t stand. The rule has to be straightforward and simple with no conditions. Both ways are tricky in their own way.

Did you go to either Origins or Gen Con? If so, what were some of the standout games there?

I didn’t make it to either con this year, but the two games that blew up social media were Cry Havoc and Ice Cool. I’m not sure if you can pick two titles that are more different, but that’s what had everyone on twitter talking.

What’s your favorite dexterity game (besides Island Hopper, of course)?

Castle Crush! It’s a great game where everyone builds a castle and then uses a falling post to try and destroy everyone else. The scoring is very clever, and it makes the game have some nice strategic depth to it.

Who’s your own favorite game designer?

Friedmann Friese is a favorite of mine. I like how he dabbles in many different genres. He’s done the invincible Power Grid, the great solo game Friday, cool indie titles like Fearsome Floors and Fresh Fish, trivia games, little card games, and then the ultra ambitious 504. I’m a dabbler myself, and like to create games of every type. So I like seeing another designer do that as well, and do it successfully.

What’s your most memorable gaming experience?

There are really too many. I played Tobago with my wife the night I asked her to marry me. I’ve played my copy of Hive Pocket all over the world. The first time I played a production copy of a game with my name on it, which was Martian Dice, in the hall just outside GenCon, with Michael Mindes and Seth Jaffee, moments before the hall opened for exhibitors. Teaching Tiny Epic games to people from all over the world at Essen. My family when we first discovered Escape Rooms. Gaming is such a big part of my life – with friends, family and now business – that I’ll just say I want to remember all of them!

Time for our lightning round! Five quick questions, and five quick answers.

Favorite Olympic event?


Food you despise?


Favorite X-Man?


Color you grab when playing a board game?


Best book you read in the last year?

Ah, so so many. I’m an avid reader. To stick with a game theme, the best non-fiction book I read was Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, which will change the way you think about games in society. Best fiction book I read was Radiance by Catherynne Valente, which was a haunting alternate history of the movie industry with some space opera in it. Best graphic novel was Pyongyang by Guy Delise.

Thanks for talking with us, Scott! And thank you for reading! Island Hopper still has two weeks to go on Kickstarter, so check out the campaign for yourself.