As part of our February Spotlight on The Last Garden, we strive to inform readers of little extra tidbits surrounding the game. Games are made by people, and one of those tidbits we enjoy is learning a little bit more about the people behind them. Some designers shy away from the public stage, while others enjoy being front and center.
In the case of The Last Garden, both the energy and excitement that emanates from designers Matt Christianson and Chris Rowlands is pretty obvious. This design duo are more than happy to share their thoughts and stories about the game’s origin and development. As with many design teams on the go, however, the tricky part is finding the means of getting all of them in one place at one time.
Still, given that the premise of the Last Garden is about creating some lasting grace at the end of the world, we only assume that these two men are prophets of some kind, and having seen the apocalypse, are hard at work trying to prevent it. Either that, or day jobs. (50/50 really.)
As such, we gave them as much latitude as they needed before stepping away from their efforts to stop Skynet, Unicron, Captain Trips, or whatever else may inevitably trigger the end of days. Thankfully they did eventually find a reprieve to do so, and were able to sit down to share some thoughts on what it was like to create The Last Garden, how the entire premise did indeed come from a dream. Enjoy!
Round One Questions
CR: What was your Gateway Game?
Chris: Catan: I think I’ve had a few “Gateway Games” into the hobby. The very first game I got into was Dungeons & Dragons, and I played that for a few years as a kid. I didn’t know that many people that played, but spent a lot of time making characters. From there, I discovered Magic: the Gathering in 1993 which got me venturing down to my local FLGS on a regular basis. Oddly enough, I actually attribute Diplomacy to be the game that really got me into hobby board games. While most wouldn’t consider it a Gateway Game, it really changed my mind about what a board game could be. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Matt: Well, the first real hobby game I played was a game from Games Workshop called Man o’ War. It was back in ’89, and it was a ship-to-ship combat miniatures game based in their fantasy setting at the time. As a kid there was nothing cooler than this for me.
CR: What was the last game you really enjoyed playing (besides The Last Garden)?
Matt: The newest edition of Twilight Imperium is rad. Also, Dinosaur Island was fun.
Chris: I like a wide variety of games, but some of my favorites recently have been Dinosaur Island, Calimala, and Noria.
CR: How big is your game collection?
Matt: It fluctuates. I play almost all types of tabletop games: miniatures games, CCGs, board games, RPGs. I’ll find myself constantly selling and trading my collections in addition to hoarding new collections. To really answer the question, it is almost 30 years of constant growth and riddance.
Chris: I’m worse at getting rid of things than Matt is! I probably have between 150-200 games, maybe more if I count RPGs. I simultaneously have too many and not enough.
CR: What is your favorite type of game to play?
Chris: In a vacuum, I’m still an RPG player at heart. If I could play RPGs all the time I would be stoked. With responsibilities, that becomes sort of an issue. I really will play almost anything and go through phases. Sometimes I am into really heavy Euros, and sometimes I am into lighter fare. In general, I think I gravitate towards middleweight games the most. 30-45 minute Euros are sort of my jam.
Matt: Miniatures games and 4X board games.
CR: How do you feel about Monopoly?
Matt: Every once and awhile we have to break it out and remind ourselves that if you actually play by the rules with no house rules…it can honestly be kind of fun. Very unpopular opinion, I know!
Chris: I’m probably not as high on it as Matt is, but I really don’t have an issue with it. Folks tend to be too focused on defining themselves by the things they don’t like. I like to be the opposite.
On The Last Garden
CR: Okay, let’s start with the obvious – Robotanists is a fantastic portmanteau. So, which came first: the game or the term?
Matt: The game actually came first and it had a few different themes. After finally deciding on building a garden in the apocalypse, Chris and I popcorned some details around and landed on little junky wasteland robots. Then out of the blue, Chris blurts “Robotanists!” Boom, done.
Chris: It was my finest moment.
CR: The Last Garden has a melancholy theme (what with the whole apocalypse and all). How did the idea behind the game develop?
Matt: Well, before the apocalypse theme, it was a theme that started the whole idea of the game. I had this really stupid dream of me crafting fake flowers. The silk kind you can buy from Michael’s craft stores. The dream had me painstakingly placing dew drops made from a hot glue on the flowers. Yeah, cool dream, I know. So, I woke up in a mild panic and said aloud, “Glue Gun Dew Drops.” I know in that moment, I had to design a game around this stupid theme, so I made a quick prototype. After trying to explain the theme we know it had to be changed. So, we finalized with building a garden after the apocalypse, paying homage to that original fake flower crafting dream.
Chris: We sort of went through some evolutions even within the post-apocalyptic themes. Ultimately, we decided the story that we wanted to tell was about what it might be like if you were the last person on the planet. Would you bother trying to make things beautiful? The Queen wants to, and I think the theme actually has a lot of heart behind it. We imagined it as a Pixar movie. It has some sad, but there is some hope in there as well. Make something beautiful even if nobody will get to see it.
As an aside: when we were looking into European distribution we were told that the game’s theme was “Too depressing for Germany.” We almost put it on the box.
CR: You mentioned in the Kickstarter campaign that you had a chance of having it picked up by a traditional publisher but only if you changed the theme. What is it about the concept that resonates so much to turn such an offer down?
Chris: Well first, Matt and I had always been planning to self-publish games. We were going to start with something smaller than The Last Garden, but publishing was something we wanted to do, so I don’t want to make it sound like the theme was the only reason we ended up making it. We actually went through a few iterations of other themes during development to see if something stuck, but nothing jumped out and we kept coming back to the game as it exists now.
Matt: We really liked it and wanted to see if we can try something weird and different.
Chris: That’s exactly right. In the end we thought, “Well, if the game falls flat at least it’s us putting ourselves on the line with something we believe in.” We don’t fault the publisher for wanting to make something more traditional, but we figured if we are going to take a risk we should do it ourselves.
Matt: We gave her very little guidance and without a doubt she knocked it out of the park. She really added some amazing storytelling within a single piece of box art.
Chris: Yeah, Beth was amazing to work with. We had suggested a few cover concepts and she delivered thumbnails of those, but also threw in an extra design that she came up with. Of course, that is the one that we ended up going with.
CR: Last Garden relies on a balance between betting on the outcome of each round with a continual manipulation of the board. What was it like to find that kind of equilibrium?
Matt: It took a massive amount of playtesting until it felt right. With the help of a lot of players with varying board game experience, we finally nailed it down into something so simple.
Chris: Matt and I aren’t spreadsheet-y designers, although I envy people that are! We just played the game endlessly for a year and a half and kept adjusting things until it felt right.
CR: One of the more unique parts of the game’s Kickstarter campaign is the introduction of open-ended “Hack Pack” mini expansions that allow players to come up with their own expansion ideas. Can you expand on that idea?
Chris: Our mission with One Thousand XP is to inspire imagination and encourage creativity. It’s at the core of everything we make. With the Hack Packs, we wanted to give folks that might have never considered designing a game some tools/prompts that would encourage them to give it a shot.
Matt: When Chris and I were kids, we always made expansions for games we already owned. It could be anything from new weapons for Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, or adding new countries to Axis and Allies. This was the seed that really made us interested in game design and we wanted others to plant that seed as well.
CR: Similarly, the game comes with three special Program tiles that players can use over the course of the game. Did you ever experiment with having additional or alternative powers that didn’t make it into the game for one reason or another?
Matt: Absolutely. The game originally had five different Program slots with the option to switch them out with others every game. After many playtests, we found that players would only pick a few of the Programs; those are the ones you see in the game today.
Chris: We had some ideas that may come to fruition someday but wanted the game to feel fast and tight. We believe that we’ve struck a great balance between tactical depth and accessibility. Ultimately, we’re designers though and so it’s natural to think of more than what made it in the game. I come from a film and video background, and sometimes the editing is what makes the whole thing sing.
CR: Finally, we’re really curious to know – what is The Queen’s real name? You know, for the historical records…
Matt: Hahaha! Well…the Queen is actually a playable character in a design I am working on currently. You may just have to find out then…
Chris: Matt won’t even tell me!
Interested in planning out your own garden monument to humanity? Well, now you have the chance, as we’re raffling off a copy of The Last Garden right now!
Photo Credits: The Last Garden cover and photos by One Thousand XP.