The Hungry Gamer Interviews Michael Melkonian of Cardboard Console
In life there are very few places more filled with nerves and awkwardness than a school dance. Usually by high school we have all gotten past the boys congregate on one side and the girls on the other and the middle is as dead as the DMZ. However, the mix of people at the high school dance is just as delightfully awkward. You have the cool kids holding court, the wildly inappropriate dancing in the center of a mass of kids, the kids off in the corner making out, the younger students (usually) who still are trying to work up the nerve to go talk to someone they are attracted to…and let’s not forget all those boys who don’t have full control over what their body is going to do when they dance with that person they are attracted too. Add into that mix the chaperones who are either too bored to care, or taking intense joy at breaking up couples dancing too closely.
Now why no one has ever created a game about this den of drama before is beyond me. In fact when I first heard about it on one of the podcasts I listen to (so sorry I cannot remember which one), I thought “Now that is clever. There are very few events with higher stakes than a HS dance.” So when Scott McFall, whom I worked with on the Sadler Brothers interview, reached out to me about speaking with designer of Dance Card! Michael Melkonian, I had to play it cool, but I was totally pumped to get to know a little bit about him, and how he came to create this game.
Michael was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email over email, and while I am sure everyone enjoys my bloviating about high school dances, let’s get on to what the real star of this show has to say!
Can you share a little bit about your background as a gamer?
Sure! I played the usual mainstream board games growing up, but I was more of a video game player for most of my life. I didn’t really get into tabletop games until Arkham Horror 2nd Edition, which blew me away at the time. It had a lot of the elements that I enjoy about video games like exploration, combat, awesome visuals and a thematic setting. That really changed what I thought a tabletop game could be. Something like T.I.M.E Stories is a great example of this as well. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate more abstract games like Sagrada or Azul, because I adore both of those games, but beautifully illustrated and thematic games are really where my passion is. That’s why each character in Dance Card! has a specific look and personality, specific social relationships with other students in the game, and unique abilities. I didn’t want them to feel like generic stand-ins for the player; they are individual characters that I want the player to connect with, the same way I connect with my favorite protagonists from video games. That’s also where the name of the company, Cardboard Console, comes from. It’s a combination of two things I really love: tabletop games and video games!
This is not one of the originals, but one he made recently , which is a throwback to those old games
How did you get into designing? Like a lot of designers, I started as a kid. I designed both board games and video games, though the latter were also just with pen and paper. We always had these stacks of perforated paper in the house, because printers back then actually used those. I would lay out this long, connected piece of paper, probably like ten sheets or so, and draw the individual screens of what a side scroller would be like, where the platforms would be, the path the enemies would walk, etc. They were basic, but they were my amateurish attempts at something like a Mega Man game. The board games I designed as a kid were a little more involved. There would be different locations on the board that were the houses of my family members, and then I’d have index cards off to the side where I would write out what were essentially encounters. I’d play with my cousins, and they’d get a kick out of it because the encounters were based on people we knew.
Author’s note: I feel better knowing that someone else did that with the old style printer paper. I may or may not have done a project in school that was a reskinning of Super Mario, but each boss was a letter, shooting lower case letters of itself at the hero…of course the final boss was Bowser.
My first designs as an adult were fan-made expansions and scenarios for games I already liked. I was heavily invested in Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game for a long time, and I would regularly post my custom content on BGG. I made everything you could think of, including custom cards, custom setups, custom campaigns, even quality of life components like custom dividers to keep everything organized. There were other games I made custom stuff for, like Arkham Horror or T.I.M.E Stories, but a lot of those didn’t go anywhere. Eventually it occurred to me that maybe I should be putting this effort into making stuff that I could sell, you know? I wasn’t short on ideas, and I remembered how much fun I had making up my own stuff as a kid, so I started tinkering around with a handful of ideas. I probably came up with the basic designs for about ten games, some of them very far along in development, before I settled on Dance Card! as the game that I would use to launch Cardboard Console.
I do not know for certain, but I am going to venture to say that there are not many games based around a school dance. What was the inspiration behind that?
I don’t think there are either! I’ve been asked this question a lot, and unfortunately, I don’t really have a good answer. My brain is just always trying to connect themes to mechanics by drawing on various life experiences. I get a new idea for a game every day, but most of them don’t go anywhere. With Dance Card!, the theme and the mechanics arrived at the same exact same time. Probably within ten minutes, I had all of the elements I needed for a game: the dance floor was the board, the stat bonuses were your social standing with other students, the goal was have three successful dances, etc. The game was done, all I needed to do was produce a prototype, play test it, and commission the art. That’s really the best feeling, when a game comes to you fully formed. Not perfect, no game comes to mind completely balanced and ready to put on the market. But if you’re lucky, the foundations come to you all at once, and those are the ideas worth pursuing. Otherwise, you end up spinning your wheels trying to make square mechanics fit into a round theme.
What is your best and worst memory from dances in high school?
I don’t think I went to any! I know that’s a lame answer for someone designing a game about a school dance, but hey, most designers also haven’t slain dragons or summoned Cthulhu, either!
Author’s note: Seems like a bold statement to me…I can only assume the current political climate is the result of so many Cthulu games being created and lots of summonings.
I happen to teach middle school, and have chaperoned my share of Middle School Dances, and have interacted with plenty of High Schoolers as well. Does Dance Card manage to capture that incredible awkwardness of students at a dance? Does it manage to capture that incredible difference between a freshman, and a senior in maturity and stupidity? If so how?
Well you’ll be happy to know that there are also chaperones in the game! We have a reward tier on the Kickstarter where a backer can be included in the game as a Chaperone. As for capturing the awkwardness of a high school dance, we’ve put a lot of effort into making sure the game feels authentic. Attempting a dance roll is actually a very stressful decision, because if you fail it can take up a lot of turns to undo the bad impression that you made. The mechanics simulate a lot of things you may need to do during a real dance to get yourself ready. For example, you can get the moral support of your friends to give you a boost confidence, or you can sneak into the bathroom for some alone time to build up some nerve before heading back out onto the dance floor, or can talk to the friends of your dance partner so that they give you tips on how to impress their friend. There’s even a character who starts the game with a debuff to Dance Rolls because he’s so nervous, but he then gains permanent bonuses for each successful dance roll, because he’s building up confidence.
Any other games in the cooker?
Too many ideas, too little time! Dance Card! is meant to be the launching point for Cardboard Console, and we have at least ten ideas ready to move into active development if our first game is successful. Two games are very far along, a third is close to the play-testing stage. Our goal is to build a stable of diverse titles from different genres and play styles. What they will all have in common is great artwork, rigorously tested mechanics, and immersive themes. That’s what we want to be known for.
Are you willing to share a teaser of any of these other games?
Author’s Note: He did share an image, but it uses some stand in materials that he was using to represent things on his demo. Since some came from other games he did not want to share the images. However, there is a Dungeon Crawl he is calling Oathbound in the hopper!
Your first attempt at funding Dance Card was not successful, why do you think that is?
We didn’t really market the game. We didn’t do interviews, have banners in groups, run giveaways or contests, didn’t talk about it on BGG, etc… that was our big mistake. We have a very dedicated community on Facebook, and they showed up to support us on launch day. But the reality of crowdfunding is you that you can’t just stick to your little corner of the internet and expect your hardcore fans, no matter how passionate they are, to be the only thing you need to carry you to success. You need to get out and show the game to people, and that’s what we’re doing now.
Any thoughts of giving up?
Not even for a second. The same time we announced the cancellation we also announced the relaunch. We really believe in Dance Card!, the feedback from everyone who has seen it has been universally positive. The problem is, not enough people saw it! We never felt it was the game’s fault for not funding, it all came down to our lack of focus on marketing. We’ve learned our lesson.
What changes are you anticipating for the reboot?
The biggest change we’re anticipating is that it will fund this time! In addition to that, we’re adding a bunch of new content and pledge tiers to entice people. If I’m being completely honest, I really don’t like the concept of Kickstarter exclusives. I never want to block off content from someone forever just because they didn’t buy the game at a specific point in time. That said, we will have some limited time exclusives that will eventually become available to everyone else, but backers will get them first and for free.
When will the reboot launch?
Dance Card! comes to Kickstarter on September 24th!
If there is someone who is reading this, what is your elevator pitch to get them to pledge?
Need a medium-weight strategy game that scales well for new players and experienced gamers alike while also presenting a fresh new theme and awesome art? Then pledge for Dance Card! on September 24th! I would also direct them to www.cardboardconsole.com where they can watch the trailer and sign up for our newsletter!
At G33k-HQ, the label “geek” is a source of pride, though it means different things to different folks. Do you consider yourself a geek? What does geek mean to you?
I’m answering these questions while sitting here in an NES Duck Hunt t-shirt, so if I’m not a geek I don’t know who is! The most important part of being a geek, or a nerd, or any kind of hobby enthusiast, is that you’ve found something that you enjoy spending time with that is intellectually and emotionally engaging. Games are the closest thing I have to a religion. Aside from my family, games are the number one thing that gives my life meaning. I’m not ashamed to say that, rather I just feel sorry for people who aren’t passionate about anything outside of themselves. It must be excruciatingly boring to be that kind of person.
Dance card is slated to return to Kickstarter in September, after having cancelled their first KS attempt earlier this year. This is a game that has a unique premise, what looks to be fun gameplay and a theme that looks like it is absolutely nailed. I can only say that I hope I get the chance to preview it before the launch!