Trouble Brothers’ Jeff McCord talks board games in the digital age

Long before the invention of video games, families and friends would often get together for an evening of fun and frivolity around the kitchen table as they dove in to the latest and greatest board games. Now thanks to the iPad, that experience has been reborn for the digital age. Trouble Brothers is a new developer on the iOS scene intent on recreating the fun and social play of tabletop gaming.

With their first release Wizard Hex already on the App Store, and the games Cargo Runners and Match-O-Matic expected to release before the end of the month, Trouble Brothers is gearing up to become one of the premiere names in original board games for digital devices. We recently sat down with Trouble Brothers’ Managing Partner Jeff McCord to discuss board games, the App Store, and what’s next for the burgeoning developer.

Why board games?


As I see it, there are many people that are hungry for a reconnection to an in-person, human interaction experience of playing games together, and with each of our games we hope to be delivering that experience on an electronic device.

Each of Trouble Brothers’ games should feel like a once-lost traditional board game that has been rediscovered, and brought to light on the new devices such-as the iPad or netbook computers (an Intel AppUp version of all three games is coming out soon). We also want each game to be original — not published in some other form before, but invented to be played here for the first time! Ironically both Cargo Runners and hopefully later Wizard Hex *will* be published in print form, but bringing them out in electronic form first has been a unique model that not many developers have explored. We feel that the convenience and flexibility of playing on these devices is something that is only just now becoming possible because of the larger screens, more affordable prices, and the trends to use these larger devices more “socially” than previous form-factors like smartphones or large, upright laptops.

What our dream would be is to see friends walk into a pub, sit down, and play 10 minutes of Match-O-Matic with friends, or meet some friends at a cozy coffee shop and play a game or two if Wizard Hex, or pull out Cargo Runners at home and play a game together with family around the living room coffee table. We create these games with these scenarios in mind. At the same time, we also enable the games with alternative, though slightly limited, solo play options. But we acknowledge the optimum experience in playing all three games is together with friends and family — the social experience that many of us crave! Trouble Brothers hopes to satisfy that craving and reach the people who want to share their game experiences in that way.

Has Wizard Hex been getting a good reaction so far?

We’ve been really pleased with the response to Wizard Hex so far. Some feedback has been that people would like to see more detailed rules or an in-game tutorial, so we will work toward either or both in one of our updates. In the meantime we’ve posted more detailed rules on our official forums, and a great fan has even posted rules he translated into Spanish for us! We’ve also published a gameplay video on YouTube for those who are interested;

In many ways we see this game as like how you might learn the rules of Chess or Go. You sort-of pick up the basic gist of the game while playing it the first few times, and then it starts to dawn on you how all the strategies work. We are constantly discovering new strategies each time we play!

What has made us very happy is that players have already started a forum thread on Board Game Geek talking about Wizard Hex and excited about Cargo Runners — as board games! One person describes sitting down and playing Wizard Hex with his wife all afternoon, and enjoying figuring out the strategies together. That’s exactly what we want to hear!

We realize that since we live in the instant result app world, we may get some initial negative feedback from some people who are expecting more of a quick-to-understand solo play game. But we really think that if Wizard Hex is played with at least one or more human competitors, the real beauty of the game will shine through. That’s what we’re hearing from fans who are playing it that way.

Still, in future versions we intend to continually be making the AI better and more challenging for those who wish to play the game solo as well. Right now the AI is best for teaching you the game, and for adding in an AI element when playing with another human player. It tends to add the surprise element when played that way.

Is Trouble Brothers your first experience in developing board games?

I come from years of experience as a game designer and traditional board game collector. I have over 200 classic board games in my collection, many from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, the so-called “Golden Era” of games. With some old Parker Brothers titles such-as Tell It To The Judge, Boake Carter, Star Reporter, and Fire Alarm, I bring some of that classic game inspiration and look-and-feel to our new games.


I also worked as a graphic artist and game designer for a traditional board game company in Seattle called “Front Porch Classics,” which prided itself (ironically) on what it called “Unplugged Entertainment,” re-inventing the classic, beautifully-designed board game with award-winning products such-as Dread Pirate, Old Century Baseball, and Shut the Box. I guess we are making “unplugged entertainment” plugged again! Or at least rechargeable! ;^)

Can you tell us a little about your upcoming releases Cargo Runners and Match-O-Matic?

Match-O-Matic, we believe, has the possibility of being a sleeper hit. Designed to be the most accessible, quick-play, and lighthearted of our games, M-O-M (as we call it in-house) is a fun, retro juke-box-looking automatic trivia machine. Two things we often feel missing from trivia games are:

1. The “visual” element. Most trivia apps are just trivia questions or challenges, providing fun or silly facts or questions and answers. With M-O-M we will have slightly tongue-in-cheek twists on a wide variety of categories, with subject matter such as “Creepy Crawlies” (bugs, lizards, snakes and the like) to “Mustachioed Men,” or things like that (these may or may not be real categories in the initial release).

2. The “social” element. We know what makes trivia the most fun is not showing yourself how much you know (or don’t know), but comparing your trivia prowess with friends! What’s cooler that battling out who knows more in a variety of categories, and finding out that you may happen to know more of subject-matter, but your friend happens to know more in another. By keeping trivia light and, well, “trivial,” it makes playing it a fun but challenging diversion. It becomes part of the laughs and discussions you may be having in the larger social experience that you get from meeting in-person; talking, laughing, and playing games with friends or loved ones.


With Match-O-Matic we plan to launch with about 20 random categories and then add more during the product’s life-cycle. Each one typically has about 150 to 300 images, and only 20 images display for any one game. So there’s going to be oodles of built-in replay value!

You play with one other human competitor (solo-play will also exist). Since you never know what category is going to come up, we’ve added a wagering element: Each player starts with 20 points. If you think you know the category well you can set your wager level at balls-to-the-wall “4”, or if you are unsure you may wish to stick to a “1” or “2” point wager. What’s great is that the “Tortoise and the Hare” syndrome can come into play. One tough question can come up from the 4-point-know-it-all, and all of a sudden the play-it-safe 2-point wagerer can amble past once the Mr. Boldilocks suddenly loses 8 points in a row!

With Cargo Runners we expect to see a wide interest once it comes out. From initial reaction, that is the one that people are most-eagerly anticipating. We realize that the graphics alone are really appealing. Who doesn’t want to play a richly-detailed but simple retro-looking game that is played on a world map?! Our artist, Jim Dixon (based in Bellingham, WA) comes from the same company where I also worked as a board game designer and graphic artist — Front Porch Classics. Jim designed many of the classic-looking FPC games and almost all of the mechanical functionality of the kinetic games published by the company.

Also, lead game engineer and coder, Owen Goss (based in Ontario) comes from his own history of great game designs and his own releases such-as the elegant puzzle game LandFormer and very recently the fun little game Dirty Diapers.

Cargo Runners, we feel, will appeal to a crossover audience: Those who like traditional North American games such-as Monopoly and Risk, and those who like European-style games such-as Ticket To Ride and Small World (to name a few). Some people would call Cargo Runners “Euro Light” (we’re not sure we like the title, but we’ve heard it bandied about).


Imagine taking a cargo ship from your Home Port and traveling around the world, competing to be the first to deliver $10,000,000 dollars of contracts to win the game! Each player (2 to 4 players) travels to individual Cargo Ports picking up Fruit, Apparel, Coffee, Lumber, Energy, and Aerospace and racing to be the first to deliver randomly-generated contracts at the six Home Ports around the world. Challenges like Hurricanes (blocking routes), Embargoed continents, and other players stealing your cargo (when they get a chance to) add to the sense of urgency and competition.

Cargo Runners was originally designed to a physical board game about three years ago (we were the game designers for a private client). But after it was completed and pre-sold for production, the distributor had to put on the brakes due to the tough economy. We knew everyone loved our design, including the prominent retailer who signed up to distribute the initial release, but the dollars just didn’t line up in the tough world of print board games. When we knew the iPad was coming out, we pitched the idea to the original team, of bringing this wholly-original design to the iPad FIRST, and then we licensed the electronic rights of our original design. We think Trouble Brothers is among the first to release a game in this order: Electronic first, then helping to foster the print release.

The game has evolved during this process to become even better during it’s iPad development! And in recent news, we’ve gotten word that the distributor — in excitement about this great iPad release — has just signed the deal to manufacture and distribute the game for around Holiday 2011 or Spring 2012. When we are allowed to say where you can buy the print version, we’ll be the first to let you know!

Other developers seem intent on porting existing board games to the iPhone rather than creating new ones. Why do you think that is?

It’s true, creating an original board game concept does not come easy. There are so many absolutely great pre-existing games out there, and the burden to bring them to the electronic market is much lower because of existing game mechanic, graphics, etc. Also, they are tried and true. Just look at the wonderful success of Carcassonne and Small World on the iPad and iPhone!


We feel there’s a place — an emerging market if you will — to introduce never-before-seen content on these new e-devices. Before, it did not make as much sense to play a multiplayer board game on your iPhone or Android, or even on your large laptop or desktop machine. Not exactly “social” or multiplayer devices by nature. Then along came the iPad and small, lightweight netbook computers, and the whole landscape changed. Now you can actually imagine playing Wizard Hex at a coffee shop with a friend, or Match-O-Matic on your iPad at a pub, or Cargo Runners in the living room with family. We want to introduce more and more “original” content, but we also applaud the ports that are coming out! Both are waaay fun, and make great use of the technology!

Are there any great multiplayer experiences on the iPad that you’ve been enjoying from other developers, board game or otherwise?

Like the proverbial “cobbler’s shoes,” we’ve not had a ton of time while releasing three new games (four if you count soon-to-be-release Sword of Fargoal 2 by my other partnership, Fargoal, LLC) to play all the great games out there for iPad. But certainly we *love* what TheCodingMonkeys have done with Carcassonne. In my humble opinion they are the Gold Standard!

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