Pat and Kat Lysaght are some of my favorite people, and I was overjoyed to get to talk to them about what they do at Chara Games.
Madeline Turnipseed: Soul of the Empire is your most recent game, released in 2018. Can you give me a short overview of the game?
Patrick Lysaght: Soul of the Empire is a two- to four-player, two-hour asymmetric strategy game that explores the worldview conflict that shattered the Roman Empire in the first century. Play as Christian, Roman, Jewish, or Coalition—which represents a couple of different outside cultures—factions. Players use unique advantages tailored to the historical objectives and methods that those factions were using at the time. As you play through the game it explores that period in history and the different worldviews and what they were up to.
Madeline: Tell me about the development process for Soul of the Empire.
Pat: It was kind of a unique process for us because we started off with an outside designer. He sent it to us, and to say it was rough would be generous. I caught the vision very early on of what he was trying to do, and it was a really interesting back-and-forth between us and him in a way that is probably pretty unique to this game. With a lot of companies, an outside designer will bring a project for development and the designer won’t see the game again until it’s out on the market. For us, it was a year and a half almost of back and forth [with the designer].
Katherine Lysaght: He sent us the game in the spring right before a move. So we were like, “Yeah we like the game, but we don’t have the bandwidth. We like what you’ve got, we see where it needs to go, here is a series of tests. We want you to tweak this, test, and record your results. Assuming that goes well, here’s the next thing to tweak, here’s the next thing to tweak, here’s the next thing.” Twenty-four tests that we set up for him and said, “Do the leg work. Come back to us in six months and we’ll see where you’re at.”
Pat: It wasn’t easy, minor changes. It was like, “We understand what you’re trying to do, but it’s just really, painfully bad. We need to totally rework these systems in a way that’s user-friendly and that streamlines the gameplay.” I sent him a PowerPoint presentation with like, “This is what the player card needs to look like. It’s going to have to use dice instead of these random cards that you’ve got. This is how the systems are going to rewicker because of those changes. Oh, by the way, we’re going to go from three factions to four factions which means we totally need to make this fourth faction, and here’s a chalkboard sketch of what that should look like. Good luck.”We build games that create joy by building relationships with God’s people. That’s our mission statement.
And he did it. To his credit, he put the time in and made those tests over three to four months and came back to us and said, “Hey, it’s working. Here’s the data you asked for.” Which allowed us to look at it and say, “Okay, looks like this is functioning as intended. This is not.” So we went back and forth for another six months between the two parties until we got it to a final, playable configuration that we were really happy with. Then we went to art development and then to Kickstarter.”
Madeline: That’s incredibly intense. I have so much respect for how much knowledge y’all have about games in general and the industry to be able to pick out so many things and say, “This would work, but it needs to actually be like this.”
Pat: A lot of it comes from playing a lot of games and a lot of it is just kind of how my brain works, what I do a lot in my full-time job anyway. I can quickly cut through the noise to find what the core issues were and how the systems work together to streamline. Sometimes it comes across as abrasive, so I’m very fortunate that with Soul of the Empire and with the other designers we worked with, they’re ready to take it. It’s one thing to offer that criticism and it’s another thing to receive that criticism. It’s to his credit that he didn’t just throw up his hands and walk away and say, “These people hate me and what I’m doing.” He persevered, and it’s not an easy thing to do, to take that full-on constructive criticism and use it to create something that’s certainly worthwhile.
Madeline: Chara Games is a partnership. What strengths do you feel like you each bring?
Kat: Patrick is a number cruncher. He identifies systems and can translate them into mathematical probabilities, breakdown a game in a spreadsheet, and see if it’s going to work. Like, I’ll have this little idea and he’s like, “Yeah, no.”
“I didn’t even finish describing my idea!”
“Yeah. No.” [laughs] He handles the work-through-the-nuts-and-bolts of the design. Is it going to work? Is it going to play well? Is it broken because we’ve given too much strength to this component or this mechanic? I don’t understand what he’s doing with his spreadsheet magic.
Pat: It works.
Kat: And I’m a mathematical person! Which makes it even funnier.
Pat: Kat is the outside-the-box thinker. Whereas I am very much [one who] looks at what we have, takes it apart, and sees how things fit together. She is much more like, “What would it be if…?” Which is really important for us. There are times when figuring out how the systems fit together doesn’t give you the answer for how the game should be, they give you the answer for what the game is. I get to the point where I know what it is is bad, and then you need someone to come from out-of-the-box. She isn’t tied to, “Well, it’s this way because of this and this and this.” She’s more like, “What would it be like if…?” Our perfect example of that would be with our first game, Commissioned. It’s about Early Church history. We had put together good events and bad events. It was a boring draw-the-cards, apply-the-cards kind of thing. Very little thought. We’re playing it and playing it and it’s terrible. It’s not working. She looks at me and says, “What if this was a deckbuilding game?” And I was like, BOOM! My brain just exploded with possibilities. It’s an idea that I never would have had, but it was the perfect idea to get us over that design hump into something that had rewarding decisions and good interactions and all of that kind of stuff. She is there to save us when we get writer’s block.
Kat: I’m the good idea fairy.
Madeline: Y’all have kids and I’m sure they help with playing out some of these ideas and developing games to their final form. How important is it that the games you make be accessible to kids or families? Not necessarily games for children, but games that a family could play together.
Kat: I’d say that we have not really focused in that direction. Our first three games were certainly family-friendly. Commissioned is cooperative, so you can play as a family. At the time our youngest was five and she couldn’t play, but our eight-year-old could. He could sit down and you could walk him through it. Our second game, 3 Seeds, is an easy strategy game. It’s really easy to pick up the rules and kids can play. It’s very accessible. Our third game, Unauthorized, is a big group game, and again, you can direct a kid. If they don’t play exactly right it doesn’t really hurt the game because it’s team-based. Soul of the Empire is not child-accessible. It’s a hardcore strategy game and requires an attention span that’s way beyond a kid.We’re trying to appeal to the gamer who is open to talking about Christianity and appeal to the Christian who is not yet a board game addict.
When we finished that one we spent about a year and a half specifically trying to develop a kid’s game. It did not work. Our kids played it until they were sick of that game and we had it in a place where we thought it was finally ready for testing, but it did not go over well with kids because it was Noah’s Ark themed and we were killing animals.
Pat: This is exclusive. No one else has heard about the disaster that is Ark Rescue.
Kat: So, while that doesn’t bother me, it was not okay with kids. I had coached my kids through it and it was fine, but other kids were not happy about that situation. While we were accidentally kid-friendly with our first three games, our deliberate attempt to make a child’s game … [shakes head]
Pat: I don’t know that “accidentally kid-friendly” is right. Our company is built around games that can develop relationships. We build games that create joy by building relationships with God’s people. That’s our mission statement. At least in my mind, it has always been about creating a tool that can be used as a family to play games and spend time together. I think what Katherine is saying is that we never specifically set out to do children’s games, at least with our first titles.
Our games are accessible to kids, but in my mind, the target was more the tween to teenager as opposed to a younger kid. If you look at what the realm of Christianity offers tweens and teenagers, like if you were to walk into a Christian retail store or look online, you’re just going to find Bible studies. We thought that our game would be a fun way to explore a Christian idea; that a family could sit down and engage with faith in a fun and meaningful way. So our target, at least in my mind, was always on the older side of that spectrum. And we haven’t totally given up on a kid’s game, it’s just not going to be what it was.
Kat: It was very sad! I was very disappointed. The game—in its base form—I really enjoyed. I loved playing this game. But one of Patrick’s requirements in game development and publishing is bringing something new to the market. As it was, it didn’t have any shiny new mechanics. It was almost more like a puzzle. Not like the jigsaw kinds, but more that once I figure out how to do it, it’s kind of going to be the same every game. We added player powers and all kinds of stuff that didn’t work.
Pat: And then Rescue Polar Bears came out and basically used the same core mechanic much more effectively, so…
Kat: [sighs] It’s okay.
Madeline: Does that happen often, that you’re working on a project and someone else brings something very similar to market first?
Pat: It happens. Part of that is that there are so many new games coming out. Obviously our themes are different. As a company, we are very different from other publishers in terms of subject matter that our games deal with, but it’s not enough just to tell a separate story. It’s important to me that we also produce high-quality games in terms of the mechanic and the experience that they’re creating. It takes a long time to develop a game and it can be discouraging. We spent a year and a half, two years working on Soul of the Empire and really developing the isometric nature of it and tightening the system so that it’s easy and approachable to learn and use, and then Root comes out eight months before our game. After our Kickstarter, but before our game released. And it totally dominated the asymmetric space. And for good reason, because it’s a great game, but very different than Soul of the Empire. But because it sucked up that market, there just hasn’t been space in the market for Soul of the Empire. It is what it is. Could we have known that was going to happen? No. We just have to keep doing what we do, hoping that the next game does a little bit better.
Madeline: Do you feel your games are designed for Christians who are new to games, or for gamers that are interested in games with Christian themes?
Kat: We’re trying to walk the fence between those markets. We’re trying to appeal to the gamer who is open to talking about Christianity and to the Christian who is not yet a board game addict. We’re trying to appeal to both markets, and that’s a fine line to walk. You have to be careful with the content. If you want to favor one side, you’re going to offend the other half.
Madeline: That sounds like a big headache.
Pat: A lot of small choices are how the process actually ends up working. We’ll come up with an idea or a story for a game and then there’s a lot of testing. As we go through the process of combining the right mechanics with the right theme and the right components, it’s a dance between the two groups. Knowing that a unique component or a unique mechanic is going to appeal to the secular gaming side of the market versus how faithful we are to the story and theme. How approachable we make learning the game is going to push it more towards the Christian side of the market that aren’t gamers. It’s a dance between the two to give each side something they can really like and enjoy about the game without pushing it to for towards one of those directions.… that’s what it’s all about for me: the people who are around the table. I’ll play whatever you want to play.
Our games fall on a spectrum. Three Seeds is a much more basic strategy game that’s much more geared towards the non-gamer. Whereas Soul of the Empire is a medium- to heavy-weight strategy game that is not going to appeal at all to a person who isn’t in the mood for a think-y game or doesn’t have experience learning multiple systems or that model of gaming. Commissioned is more in the middle and can appeal to both ways. We kind of flex back and forth on the spectrum. We certainly think that a kid’s game would be more basic in terms of the approachability side of things, but hope to actually offer some rich gameplay for gamers who want to play with their kids. There are always trade-offs to make as the design comes together.
Madeline: I remember Kat telling me at PAX Unplugged how Pat struggled to make the map for Soul of the Empire. You wanted it to be accurate but also appropriate for gameplay.
Kat: “Jerusalem is too small to put 20 pieces on! We have to fix that.”
Pat: We got really creative with how we were flexing latitude and longitude lines across the board.
Kat: Which made him itch.
Pat: I can’t tell you how many times I drew that board.
Madeline: What are some of your favorite mechanics to play in games?
Pat: I am more on the conflict/strategy side of the spectrum. I like games that compress a lot of options into a manageable decision space. A great example is Scythe. There’s a lot going on, but as a player, you have one of four options to pick from. I really appreciate those design mechanics that allow you to take what can seem like an overwhelming problem and compress it into manageable choices for players to make. I appreciate that kind of layered complexity inside of all different types of games, whether it’s combat-based strategy or some kind of Euro game. I appreciate that level of engagement that you can enjoy and dive into.
Kat: I am much further on the light, fun, goof-off kind of game. Like Carcassone. Really simple choices, more intuitive. I don’t really care if I win or lose at the end of the game. I used to really care, and I had this one particular game that … I am still ashamed of my behavior. My whole life from that point on changed. I was like, “I’ve got to let this go.”
Pat: We still have that game on the shelf.
Kat: We do, I don’t think we’ve played it in a while. But, yeah. I like Quirkle, Carcassone, and Dixit, just lighter games.
Pat: What I appreciate about Kat is that she’s not unwilling to play things outside of her wheelhouse. She’ll take on something just to play with the people who are involved.
Kat: Yeah, that’s what it’s all about for me: the people who are around the table. I’ll play whatever you want to play.
Pat: Although for some of those heavy games she’ll look at me and be like, “Why did you talk me into this?”
Kat: There is one game we won’t play, and that is a game called Diplomacy. This game almost ended our marriage before it began.
Pat: It was the ultimate double-cross. It was genius. Probably the best single move I’ve ever made in a game, and the worst from a long-term planning stance.
Kat: It was brutal.
Pat: I learned my lesson. Never do that again.
Kat: He had to learn early in our marriage that you play differently with your wife than you do with your brother.
Madeline: Yeah, I had to get betrayed to learn to let go of needing to win. I win about five times a year, for all of the games that I play, so now I just try to do at least one cool thing a game. And that’s fine with me, that’s fulfilling and makes me want to play more storytelling games, where there are no winners.
Kat: There you go.
Madeline: What kinds of mechanics or themes would you like to bring into future games from Chara Games?
Kat: The dream is a spiritual warfare game that’s AR-linked and has hidden information. So if I’m on this side of the war I can see this information, but you’re on the other side and you might have information I don’t have.
Pat: The whole possibility that augmented reality brings to the board gaming space, with the use of hidden information and which players can see and which can’t, and how that interacts, it’s extremely fascinating. I don’t know that it’s practical yet.
Kat: Technologically, the space isn’t ready. The technology we need to pull off the game in our brain is not there yet.
Pat: But in another five to ten years, it could be. We’ve toyed around with some of those notions and we’ll see. There’s a lot of work between now and then.He persevered, and it’s not an easy thing to do, to take that full-on constructive criticism and use it to create something that’s certainly worthwhile.
There are some other stories, though that we’re interested in. We’re working on a Commissioned expansion. If you’re not familiar with it, Commissioned deals with a lot of early Church history and how the Church responds to external threats. With this expansion we’re exploring more, “what about the reality that we’re broken people, and how do you deal with people that are broken?” And what does that mean for the Church?
Kat: The other thing I’m excited about for the expansion is the base game comes with six of the Apostles as your player choices. In the expansion, we’re looking at doing two women. There’s a lot of controversy around women as apostles, but there are some really good historical arguments for that reality, so we’ve chosen two characters that strongly supported the early Church. They aren’t explicitly named as Apostles in scripture, but they are key women that are in the first couple of decades. I’m glad we have that option, for women to be able to sit down to play the game and have female characters to choose from. I’m excited about that. But, we will alienate part of our Christian base by putting that out.
Pat: As soon as you put out anything you’re going to alienate somebody. It doesn’t matter what you do, someone’s going to hate it.
Madeline: Well I, for one, am excited about the expansion. Where can people find you?
Chara Games Teammates in Joy is a Facebook group of insiders that are dedicated supporters who are willing to go with us for all of our Kickstarters and try to connect people to our games. We’re going to run our playtesting through that group and all kinds of stuff.