In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming’ is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Alex Cheng, the designer of Giga-Robo and head of Cardboard Dynamo. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Alex, it’s great to be able to catch up with you. I haven’t seen you in person since you were playtesting Giga-Robo at the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con 2015! A lot has happened with Giga-Robo since then, but before we talk about that, tell me what kind of games have been hitting your table recently. Anything new catching your interest? Any old favorites getting brought back out?
I’ve been playing mostly RPGs over the last year, as they’ve been the easiest to coordinate with social distancing, but it’s been really rewarding. Specifically Mothership and the beta for Kieron Gillen’s DIE, though there have been one-shots of other systems rather frequently. It’s been really rewarding and a great source of inspiration for developing an RPG concept that I’ve been sitting on for awhile.
Now that my immediate circle of friends is getting vaccinated, I was able to do a playthrough of Root for the first time, which was lovely, and I’ve been champing at the bit to play some games of Infinity N4 (like many others, I used quarantine time to paint more minis.)
Giga-Robo is obviously a love letter to the giant mecha genre that was originally popularized in 1980s anime. What’s your favorite take on that genre? Gundam, Escaflowne, something else?
There are so many takes that I adore, but my favorite has to be Getter Robo. There are numerous entries in the series, but the thematic through line is that only an unstable person would willingly climb into a giant robot to fight, which creates a great contrast between the robots, who are traditionally colorful, spectacular and bombastic, and the pilots, who are violent, misanthropic, and deeply flawed. There’s also a sense of danger from using the Getter machines as their power source threatens to overtake the pilots, and it’s hinted as the cause of something far more dangerous than the actual villains in the series. Some of these story beats have ended up turning into genre tropes, but Getter Robo has a wildness to it that feels entirely unique to me.
What are your thoughts on Pacific Rim and its sequel, the fairly recent live-action films that pay homage to the genre?
I adore the first one. It’s a gorgeous, beautifully-lit film, the scale is exceptionally well presented, and Guillermo Del Toro knows his audience is there for robots fighting monsters (unlike the 2014 Godzilla, which is kaiju anemic). I felt like the sequel lacks a lot of the ambient artistry of the original, from the lackluster Jaeger designs to the flatly-lit daytime fights and unexciting action set pieces. That said, I’m happy that it’s persisting as a franchise. More Pacific Rim is better than none, and I love how it has popularized the genre.
On a related, yet more real-world note, are you excited about the Yokohama Gundam?
I apparently needed yet another reason to visit Japan.
For anyone that isn’t familiar with Giga-Robo, how does it play? What kind of experience were you looking to create with it?
In Giga-Robo, players choose a pilot, select a robot, create a completely custom build of attacks and abilities between their choices, and then duel other players across a city map filled with fully-destructible terrain that changes the game as you play. My goal was to combine the interaction and rhythm of collectible card games with the tactics and tangible play of miniatures, but more than that I wanted to create a thematically uncompromised game that let players do virtually anything they’d have seen in a Super Robot anime. I also wanted to convey the frenetic pace and constant power struggles that the genre features, so I created a system where every action a player takes can be responded to and there’s always something to do even when it’s not your turn.
As a backer of the Giga-Robo Kickstarter, I know how many challenges you faced trying to get the game fulfilled. Looking back, now that the game is out in the world, how do you feel about it? Are you happy with how the final product turned out?
For the most part, yes. One of the challenges was having to constantly wrestle with the manufacturer to get things done right at seemingly every turn. I’ve learned plenty from the years of production and because of that, I know the process for my next projects will be much smoother. I’m happy with how it ended up, but the production copies used an early test print file that wasn’t present in the prototypes and advance copies I approved, so the rulebook and a few components have typos. Thankfully I’m able to fix that issue with the living rulebook online, but I still wish the initial production run hadn’t had the issue to begin with.
How has the reception been to the game since its release?
There’s a tight-knit community of loyal fans online that have been supportive and enthusiastic, sharing and comparing their unique builds, as well as posting pictures of their painted minis, which has been awesome to see. I’ve been getting a lot of emails asking about the future of organized play, which I would love to make a reality once it’s safe to do so. It’s unfortunate that it was released at the beginning of the pandemic, but the reception’s been great nonetheless.
You’ve announced that you’re working on a stand-alone sequel to Giga-Robo, called Giga-Kaiju. How will this play differently? Will you be able to integrate it with the original, or will it only be a standalone?
Giga-Robo Vs. Giga-Kaiju will be a standalone expansion, fully compatible with the Giga-Robo Core Set, that will introduce new pilot and robot options, and of course new kaiju characters to play with. The kaiju will differ in that they have far more static and activated abilities to select from and use, and they have smaller decks than the robots and pilots but with more multimodal cards. They also reward players for wanton city destruction! From a pure gameplay design view, they’re an easier option for players who don’t care as much about fully customizing a build, as there’s no pilot to mix-and-match with and all of their options are self-contained. I wanted the kaiju experience to feel less technical and more bestial. Also it’s possible there could be more of a sense of player ownership, as selecting their suite of abilities is a little more like designing an RPG character than building a deck.
I understand you’re also working on solo and co-op options for this one?
The current plan is to have a solo/co-op mode built in with an overpowered AI-deck controlled kaiju as the opponent. I’ll have more details to announce as the game goes deeper into development and gets into the hands of some test-pilots.
How has the pandemic impacted your ability to playtest and develop Giga-Kaiju?
The pandemic has affected development massively. Normally I’d be in a rhythm with fellow designers and playtesters where I could be getting critical feedback regularly, demoing and running playtests at game stores, etc. Currently game assets have to be set up to be tested online, so there’s far less flexibility for on-the-fly revisions, and it staggers the natural flow of playtesting. Also Giga-Robo arrived from the manufacturer right as the pandemic started, so a lot of 2020 was spent dealing with the challenge of shipping and fulfillment in a locked-down world, and problem solving complications with an under-staffed warehouse, rather than focusing on what comes next design-wise. Thankfully things have stabilized significantly in the last few months. I’m finally on the verge of being able to put a majority of my focus on what truly matters: (tiny) giant robots punching (tiny) giant monsters.
In working on both Giga-Robo and now Giga-Kaiju, have you played many other giant robot and/or monster games for research purposes? How have these games informed your design decisions? How do your designs differentiate themselves from others?
During Giga-Robo development, I played everything I could get my hands on in and out of the genre. The process of learning what works and why from other games is obviously very important, and I definitely learned from some games that succeeded at selling the giant scale of combat. One thing that I felt was missing was that there weren’t any miniature games that gave a robust experience built around single characters battling. Many other titles are built around controlling armies, which works for the Real Robot genre with its modern military parallels, but the idea of a Super Robot or kaiju needing a squad of support units robs those characters of the power and mythic status that makes them so fantastic. I also wanted pilots to be put in the spotlight and not be generic player avatars. I wanted them to feel just as important and distinct as their machines, and to have their personalities reflected through their playstyle.
Ultimately, I think Giga-Robo is different because every design decision I’ve made has been justified by the theme.
With all the experience you’ve obtained from running your first Kickstarter campaign, what do you plan to do differently with publishing Giga-Kaiju? Do you even plan to use Kickstarter?
I do plan to return to Kickstarter for Giga-Robo Vs. Giga-Kaiju! As for changes, my main goal is to launch with the vast majority of art completed so there’s a minimal delay before entering production. I’m also aiming to have as much of the manufacturing done domestically as possible so quality control and prototyping is easy to handle.
Do you have any advice for others looking to self publish a game?
My main piece of advice to those looking to self publish is that you have to advocate for yourself in every phase of the process. Pre-production, manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, and fulfillment are all their own separate beasts, and the vendors you work with will never care about your game as much as you do. Always require transparency and communication, never settle for anything less than what was promised, and for the love of all that is holy, raise about 10x the amount of money that you initially think you’ll need, because no matter how exact you think your calculations are somebody’s going to mess up their quote.
Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself? Any other passions, hobbies, or interests?
On the side I’ve been writing an original RPG currently titled “The Black Woods” that I’m extremely excited for! It evokes the mystery and danger of Slavic folklore, and the horror of classic occult fantasy. Every class has built-in narrative hooks and offers options for creative mechanical freedom, such as creating original spells, unique abilities based on character history, and inventing technology. There’s also a strong focus on non-violent alternatives to conflict resolution. I’m not sure when it’ll be ready to share, but it’s been my pet project for when I need to take a breather from mecha design.