Spotlight On Southern Designers: J.L. Reid of Bentpin and designer of Worst Enemy

Hey board gamers! We’ve been spotlighting new designers from around the South for years, but it has been a while since we posted a new spotlight. I was happy to find out that J.L. Reid, the mind behind The Bentpin Games, is a designer from right down the road in Georgia!

J.L. is an up-and-coming designer with a mobile game already to his credit who loves board games. He was very busy preparing for his upcoming Kickstarter launch for Worst Enemy, but made time to talk with us about his gaming history, favorite ice cream, and of course, Worst Enemy. Hopefully, we will get J.L. to come by Southern Board Game Fest’s GeauxPub section someday!

Here is our interview (edited for space constraints, all photos courtesy of J.L. Reid):

Hey, J.L. nice to chat with you. Give us the elevator pitch: Who is J.L. Reid, and how did he get into gaming?

Ah yes, the origin story. I’ve played games for as long as I can remember.  My childhood family, and I’m including my extended family in this, were always pretty big on traditional card games. I’m thinking Spades and Rummy and the like. Whenever we would have family gatherings, there would be that point in the night when the adults would gather in a back room for a few hands of whatever they were into at the time. That back room, with everyone in there cursing each other and laughing at whatever improbable situation was happening on the table, became a place of wonder and mystery that I wanted desperately to enter, but never really could. 

Of course, there were the typical Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley titles—I even still have a copy of Stop Thief from back when I was a kid. My copy of Hero Quest is somewhere at my mother’s house. But when it comes to game games, I’d say that one of my childhood friends, Wesley, was the one who introduced me to my first big box game. Again, my folks were at his house to play cards with his parents, so I ended up in his room and he asked if I had played Axes and Allies. He then pulled out this huge box and I had no idea what was in store. He’s also the one who introduced me to roleplaying games, and just the idea that games were more than the typical roll and move fare of the day.

That’s fantastic. We started out with games like The Dark Tower and Dungeon! way back when, too. So now that you are deep in the hobby, what’s your favorite board game to play of all time, and what’s that game that you have an envie (a burning desire) to play right now?

I don’t know if I really have a favorite of all time—I’m the kind of person who sincerely enjoys just about any kind of sport. Put it on and I can become absorbed, but I’ve never had a team. Same with board games. I can find my way to the fun with most any well-designed game, so I’m always eager to try any and all titles. Root is a game that I will play any time. Eyrie for life.

Are there any board game companies that you admire?

Kind of going back to my sports analogy, I tend to take things on a game-by-game basis. I never really consider the publisher. If you dropped a stack of games in front of me I’d base my decision on what to play by what’s on the back of the box, or from glancing through the rule books.

Now, having said that, I would say that I dig what Ryan Laukat has done with Red Raven Games. But that’s more about me admiring his singular vision as a designer, and especially what he’s been doing with incorporating narratives into his games. As a writer who games, or a gamer who writes, I have nothing but respect for what he’s accomplishing. I mentioned Root earlier. Cole Wehrle is another designer that I’d put into that same class. So for those reasons, I’ll keep looking at Red Raven Games and Leder Games to see how they’re stretching their particular ways of designing games.

We all discover new games in different ways. What kind of board game creative content do you consume?

Definitely the Dice Tower. I think I first found them on YouTube probably six or seven years ago. So I still watch their content. As for others, Paula Deming is fun.

As for podcasts, I listen to some of One-Stop Co-Op Shop. I used to listen to Chris Kirkman’s State of Games, especially because I’m a North Carolina native, and it was great that he was just a few miles down the road in Chapel Hill. I also listen to a fair amount of game design-related shows like Game Designers Roundtable and Board Game Labs.

Then there’s also these cats in Louisiana that I’ve recently gotten into, but I won’t go into all of that here.

The State of Games podcats — that’s awesome, it is one of my favorites, too, especially when they start talking about BBQ. Speaking of food, it’s time to plan a board game dinner party — let’s assume it is you and three of your friends — what’s the appetizer (small box game), the main course (the bigger game) and the dessert (an easy, party style or card game to cap the night) on your menu?

Appetizer – Ticket to Ride New York
Main course – Root
Dessert – So Clover or a low-key round or five of Telestrations where we ignore the scores can just play for laughs.

Those are three great choices! I finally got to play So Clover at Southern Board Game Fest. It might be even better than Just One, which is saying a lot. Those games you mentioned are all over the map in terms of theme, setting and mechanics. So, here’s the always-asked question about board game design: theme first or mechanisms first?

Six of one, half-dozen of another. I’ve had a particular mechanic spring to mind first. I’ve had a theme or a particular narrative experience jumpstart the process. As long as the two work in concert, then the question of which was first is pretty much chicken and egg.

I think the more important question is does your concept have a hook? That can stem from the theme or the mechanisms, though I think hooky mechanisms are an easier bag so I’d recommend new designers start with that.

I have found that I tend to like adding a twist in my designs, a subversion of the expected gameplay. In 3 Guns Dead it was the fact that you played your opponents’ cards to the play area, and they yours. With Worst Enemy it’s the idea that a group can  be truly cooperating despite what might look like obvious traitor mechanics. I like the meta conflict such twists create.

Building twists and turns into a game experience is so rewarding for players. But enough blather, gamers want to know more about your upcoming Kickstarter project. Tell us a brief synopsis about Worst Enemy.

Worst Enemy is a (mostly) cooperative trick-taking card game with a taste of hidden roles and one-vs-all mechanisms. The players are all parts of a single mind, so every round one player will be the Core Personality who sets the team’s trick target. They are also the only player whose tricks they’ve won count for the round. The other players act as negative traits that each has a unique rule that acts contrary to the team’s objective.

What was your inspiration?

I was definitely inspired by classic trick-takers as well as the success The Crew has seen. But my fundamental starting point was the saying, “Sometimes you are your own worst enemy.” It popped into my mind, and I wondered if I can make a game themed around that.

We are big fans of The Crew here in the Gumbo. An homage?

Definitely The Crew, especially in that both are “task” oriented rather than focusing on chasing/amassing a score. And, obviously, the focus on trick-taking as a cooperative gaming experience.

What’s your thought on the new crop of trick-takers like Brian Boru or Joraku that use both cards AND boards?

Worst Enemy does have a small board where the Core Personality places a token/marker to set the type of trick condition they want the team to go for during the round. It’s also modular in that you slot particular negative trait and Core Personality tiles around the board to create a unique session.

I like the idea of incorporating boards with primarily card games because they help focus the gameplay around some spatial element while still preserving the primacy of the cards. 

What’s the ideal play count for Worst Enemy in your mind?

The game supports two to four players, but I think I’d mostly prefer playing with four. Since hidden roles are a part of the game, having that number means the players will get the experience that I originally intended.

That said, in addition to the standard two and three-player variants, Worst Enemy also has a separate two-player mode that I call Hand-in-Hand. It drops the hidden roles conceit in favor of five tasks that the pair must accomplish before losing five times. My wife and I tested that prototype first, and it was fun. So I decided to include the variant in the box despite it being an essentially different game.

How’s the playtesting been going?

Playtesting has been a blast. I’ve yet to find someone who tried the game and didn’t like it. This is also despite the fact that Worst Enemy isn’t easy, and most sessions do end in a loss. I’ve had people say that they had fun even while losing. I think that’s a big deal.

Also, I’ve been surprised at how easily people have slipped into role playing whatever negative trait they happened to be playing. I always assumed playing with the negative trait rules would be fun, but I never imagined players would slip into their roles so easily.

How good are you at your own game?

Oh, I fail right along with the group. Even though I’m a big trick-taker fan, it’s hard playing my own game especially when doing a teach with a playtest group. I’m looking at it with two sets of eyes. I’m a player trying to navigate the situation the game’s design has put us in, but also I’m thinking about potential design issues/questions. Couple that with me playtesting digitally, and my mind is also split worrying about tech issues.

But just playing the game…? I’m decent.

You’ve been gearing up for the big Kickstarter launch. But why should people back now?

This might sound trite or pat, but without Kickstarter Worst Enemy probably wouldn’t see the light of day. I hope to ultimately place the game with a publisher, but I firmly believe that a successful Kickstarter campaign, along with the publicity and community it would help to build for Worst Enemy, would be essential to landing the perfect publisher.

So if Worst Enemy is a game that you’d not only like to play but would also like to see on your local game shop’s shelves, then backing the Kickstarter—helping to promote the Kickstarter—is the only way.

We love lagniappe in the Gumbo.  Are there any special little things about the Kickstarter? 

I’ve designed Worst Enemy to be as lean as possible when it comes to the number of components. And I should say that I will die on the hill of not adding something to a fundraising campaign just for the sake of giving the product more prestige. If I can’t justify a particular component as being fundamental to the gaming experience, then it has to go. Kill your babies and all that…

As for what’s currently in the box, aside from the highest quality card stock possible—linen finish, UV coating—I’d love to have upgraded tokens/markers in the game. So either screen printed wooden tokens or possibly even printed acrylic tokens. Metal would be interesting, but I think that’s skirting too close to that unjustified line. I’m currently pricing out both wood and acrylic, and all reasonable upgrade options with potential manufacturers. Of course, those would be tied to stretch goals.

In a retail release, you can imagine that component quality is at the publisher’s discretion, so I could easily foresee all the tokens being punchouts. So the Kickstarter could have a more premium feel in that regard.

I’m also including that “standalone” 2-player variant that I call, Hand in Hand, and it’s possible that a publisher could opt to leave that out, or charge extra for it as a mini-expansion.  Who knows?

This has been a long journey for you. Have you gathered any useful tips for playtesters out there? We’ve got a lot of the gamers that follow The Gumbo that are involved in developing games or playtesting them.

(P)laytesters have to be willing to speak their mind. If you’re testing with other designers this is less of a problem since they hopefully get it, but if you’re part of a blind playtest, and especially if the designer is sitting at the table with you, don’t hold back. Don’t be cruel, of course, and don’t just say, “I didn’t like it.” Comments like that aren’t helpful. Be specific and say when the game lost you. Did a particular rule or part of the core loop not make sense? Did it feel out of place? Say that. Don’t just say that the game was too long or wore thin, say what you’d cut and why.

Now—this is particularly for people following designers online, which is mainly on Reddit in my case—if you give feedback don’t assume that it will be taken whole cloth. The designer might have a reason for a particular rule or theme. So if you say X isn’t working but the game would be great if you did Q, don’t take it personally and start a flame war if Q never materializes.

While I was working on my mobile game I literally had someone say that they didn’t like the 3-Card Monte mechanic, but if I took it out and did things in a particular, different way, then they’d love and play the game. I had to politely tell them that I appreciated their thoughts, but it was quite possible that my game wasn’t for them, and that was OK.

Whether you’re the designer or a playtester, criticism can’t be given or taken personally.

Great answer! Well, J.L., it’s time to give the readers some lagniappe with some rapid-fire questions. Here we geaux:

  • Favorite food?

    I’ll give you a favorite dessert, which is Macha ice cream.
  • The perfect game night for you would be (place, time, people are all fair game)

    A hidden gem of a board game cafe/bar, any time would be cool but let’s start with lunch and play until they kick us out. I’d be up for deep diving in the Arkham Horror card game—I’m a big Lovecraft-head. So, you know, full on roleplaying the characters and situations. I’d love for my old friends to be there, just goofing and playing like old times.

    But then, I’m easy. Old friends. New acquaintances. Whatever. I just need an open and inviting group and a game with an interesting hook, and I’m in heaven. (Man I need to hit the Con circuit like bad!)
  • Favorite place in Louisiana to visit?

    My mother-in-law is French, so I’d probably get into trouble if I didn’t say the New Orleans’ French Quarter. If I were over that way I’d have to stop by the Cafe du Monde to have some coffee and a bag of beignets.

    Now I’ve been in proximity to swamps and marshes in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but I think it’d be great to tour and see the wildlife in some of the bayous.
  • Your favorite trick-taking game (besides Worst Enemy, of course!)

    I don’t think people realize how many good Trick-takers there are out in the wild. When you start digging into the scene you’ll quickly realize that Japan has a well-established community of trick-taking game designers and players. The volume and breadth of games coming from there is staggering, and I’d be telling a lie if I said I wasn’t envious. I’m sure there’s a Japanese design that will blow my mind and become a fast favorite.

    But… With The Crew being such an inspiration, I’d have to put it high on the list. But if I were just to plop down with my family, chances are it’d just be with a deck of cards. We’d probably play Oh Hell, which I love for how swingy the bidding can be. There’s something about making an outrageous bid, whether claiming you can win the single-card first and last tricks or making your bid last with a number that means someone will definitely bust, and after everyone scoffs and rolls their eyes at you you then manage to actually make the bid happen. Despite all odds. There’s nothing more fun for me. We typically keep score during our Oh Hell games, but that’s not what I find fun or motivating. The trick-by-trick tactical play is where it’s at for me. Of course, you’re more likely than not to fail horribly, and there’s something I find fun in that, too.  As long as we’re all laughing, it’s all good.

So, that’s our interview with J.L. Reid! Take a look at his webpage for Worst Enemy, and sign up for the pre-launch notification. Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ

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