The Real Princes of the Dragon Throne—An Interview With Fred and David MacKenzie

photo (9)Today we have the pleasure of interviewing the team behind Clever Mojo Games’ Princes of the Dragon Throne: Fred and David MacKenzie.

Guys, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to answer some questions with us today.

Let’s start off by having you guys tell us a little bit about yourselves.

FRED: Hi! Happy to be here. Well, what’s to say? I’m just a typical middle-aged guy who loves playing games. To be honest, I might actually enjoy designing them even more.

DAVID: Well, I’m just this guy, you know? I’m more of a game adjuster than a designer. I look at game ideas that Fred and others have, offer feedback and suggestions, then help them bring the design to tip top performance.

FRED: Don’t let David fool you. He’s a good designer with a couple good ideas already in prototype stage. He just doesn’t have time to work on his own designs now.

How did you get mixed up in this crazy gaming industry?

FRED: That would be David’s fault. We grew up playing all the standard fare that everyone else was playing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then just party games with the family, then pretty much nothing for several years. I was introduced to Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne in 2006 and I showed them to David soon after. We were hooked. The discovery that games like these were available re-awakened David’s creativity. One day he told me he was working on a game design and asked if I would like to help. This game became Ogre Castle.

DAVID: Actually, Fred and I each had game ideas independently of each other and we just dove in and started designing and playtesting. Fred’s idea was called “Oubliette” and mine was “Ogre Castle.” Oubliette was going to be the first game we published, but we lost momentum after a game agent turned it down. We put more work into Ogre Castle and in mid-2009 we put out a homemade garage production and Clever Mojo Games was born.

So let’s talk about Princes of the Dragon Throne: Where did the idea for the game come from?

FRED: It needs to be said that the game we now call Princes of the Dragon Throne was originally intended to be something quite different. My first inspiration came from the fact that I love dragons and wanted to design a dragon game. My second inspiration came from a poem David wrote, which tells of the life of a dragon, from birth to death. My first version (in 2009) of a game based on that (which was called Dragon Frenzy) required 125 dice! I knew there was no way a game could be affordably made with that many dice (this was before Quarriors) so I scrapped that idea. I won’t bore you with the details, but Dragon Frenzy went through many iterations over the next two years as I attempted to discover just what this game wanted to be. Near the end of 2010 I played my first games of Dominion and Ascension and I just knew I wanted deck-building in the game. For the next four months Dragon Frenzy was developed to be similar to those games, with a few tweaks. But the game just seemed to be missing something, so I told David of my ideas for adding worker-placement and area-control to our current resource-management and deck-building mechanics, and actually making a board game instead of a card game. This is the game we have been developing ever since. With these changes the name Dragon Frenzy didn’t fit anymore and Princes of the Dragon Throne was born.

DAVID: Yup, what he said.

Can you tell us how the game plays?

FRED: Thematically, players are dragon princes making a claim on the now-vacant dragon throne. Mechanically, players use their starting decks to gather resources. They use those resources to recruit more influential prospects into their hands. They use those recruits to place supporters on the board. They use those supporters to gain control of as many kingdoms and guilds as possible. They use that control to influence the clan houses in the dragon parliament. When all members of the dragon parliament have chosen a prince to support, a new king is crowned.

Dave MacKenzie—Fred wouldn't hold still for a pic...

What about Princes of the Dragon Throne will make it stand out from other games in its genre?

FRED: I guess that depends on what genre it is placed in. Is it a deck-building game? Then its area-control mechanics will make it stand out. Is it an area-control game? Then its rich theme will make it stand out. Is it a highly thematic game? Then its worker-placement mechanics will make it stand out. Is it a worker-placement game? Then its deck-building mechanics will make it stand out.

 DAVID: In my mind, what makes PDT stand out is that it uses deck-building in a non-traditional way. Deck-building is not the game; it’s the engine that drives all of the other game systems. The cards you recruit into your deck control the resources you can acquire and the guilds you can control and the clan houses you can pack with your loyal dragon lords. It’s really a whole new animal, and we think gamers will be intrigued.

Can you tell us a little more about the designing process—did one of you handle certain aspects and then put them together, or was it a collaborative effort from beginning to end.

DAVID: As I mentioned before, I’m less of a designer and more of a project manager and game doctor. PDT is Fred’s game and he was the driving force throughout. He’d give me a new version to try and I’d run it through my local play testers and then give Fred the feedback and ideas we had. He’d consider them, reject most of them, keep a few, and then we’d do it all again the next week. So, yes, it was collaborative to a point, but Fred was always “THE” designer.

Is there anything else you guys are working on that we should keep an eye out for?

FRED: I have a small press-your-luck dice game called Monsters and Maidens that has already launched for support on I have dozens of other ideas, several of which are at varied stages of development, but none of which are actively being worked on at the moment due to concentrating on getting the first two produced.

DAVID: Well, PDT is the major project for Clever Mojo Games at the moment, but I’m also working with several other designers on projects you’ll see on Kickstarter later this year. The two closest to the top are Magnum Opus by Ian Steadman and King’s Forge by Nick Sibicky. Magnum Opus is yet another riff on the deck-building mechanic that will make people re-think that genre, and King’s Forge is a dice-building and management game that’s fiercely competitive. Oh, and there’s a new expansion for Alien Frontiers coming to Kickstarter in a couple of months. 2013 is a VERY busy year for the Clever Mojo Game label.

Since launching the initial Kickstarter you’ve taken down the campaign to re-tool and re-boot it. Can you tell us a little bit about your thinking behind that decision and what changes were made to the campaign?

DAVID: Basically we learned that games are not like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Chocolate and peanut butter might taste great together, but Euro-game mechanics and Ameritrash minis just cause confusion. Euro-gamers maintained that the game was overproduced and Ameri-trashers were wondering why their minis were bogged down with a game. The other lesson I learned personally, or rather I should say “re-learned”, is that Kickstarters don’t really want a FINISHED game. They want to see a game at bare-bones and then get the thrill of building it up through stretch goals. I learned this in Formula E and I learned it again on Princes of the Dragon Throne.

We’d love to hear your top three games of all time, and why you love them!

FRED: There are so many games I haven’t played that any list of favorites will seem severely lacking to most people. Currently my favorite light game is a tie between The Great Heartland Hauling Company and Biblios. Both games are easy to learn and fast to play and just a ton of fun. My favorite medium game is Finca. I love rondels and hope to design my own rondel game at some point. For my favorite heavy game I am totally going to cheat. I have only read the rules and watched several reviews but I know that I will absolutely love Stronghold when I finally get to play. If that answer doesn’t count, I also love Trajan and Castles of Burgundy.

DAVID: When people ask me “Have you played X, or Y, or Z”, I always tell them it’s best to assume I have not played it.  I spend so much time playing prototypes that I can hardly remember the last time I played a published game. The games that are my favorites now will be your favorites 2 years from now. That’s the best answer I can come up with for that.

So why board gaming?

FRED: I love the challenge of testing my mental aptitude against my opponents. I love the fellowship of hanging out with friends, or making new ones. I love the escapism when I just want to get away from the daily grind. Of course, these days the daily grind includes board game design, so sometimes it‘s hard to distinguish between the grind and the escape. But I still love it.

DAVID: It’s about the socialization for me. I’m no Brainiac and I lose nearly every game I play, but I have fun with the people who are playing. If a game is too serious and thinky and tense, then I’m not having fun.

David, your email signature says you are the “Shepherd of Games” at Game Salute, could you explain the thought behind that title?

DAVID: Game Shepherd is the summation of what I’ve been saying about my role in game development. I work with designers to bring their games to life, grow them into strong healthy titles, and then lead them through the production process. It’s very rewarding when a game I’ve been shepherding for a year or two finally hits the dealer table at a convention.

reeses-peanut-butter-400x4001 Word Questions - Please answer these next 5 questions with only 1 word (or phrase).

Favorite director?

FRED: Spielberg

DAVID: del Toro

Do you have an archenemy?

FRED: Social Anxiety Disorder

DAVID: Sweets

Favorite ice cream flavor?

FRED: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup

DAVID: Caramel

Favorite lyrics?

FRED: I don't really care if they label me a Jesus freak.

DAVID: We Will, We Will, Rock You!

Let’s say there was some sort of crazy cyclone thing that picked up you and one book, and took you out to sea where you were stranded alone on an island for one year: What would you want that one book to be...? (Let’s assume this island has plenty of fresh water and food. And no hatches or polar bears.)

FRED: The Bible

DAVID: Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary

You can check out the rebooted Princes of the Dragon Throne campaign here. Thanks for joining us for this fun interview!