Designer Interview: Garth Avery
Garth Avery is a board game designer in Seattle, WA working on his LUCI-award-winning debut game, “Primordial Secrets” (primordialsecrets.com). This interview, originally recorded in December 2021, has been condensed and edited for clarity, with a few updates.
"Before the birth of time itself, Primordials held court in the great void." – primordialsecrets.com
What games did you play with family and friends growing up?
Garth: I guess it all started with Magic the Gathering in middle school. From there it went to all the TCGs (trading card games)—we played Pokemon, Star Wars TCG, Star Trek, Legend of the Five Rings. It was a whole thing back then, where there was a TCG every week.
Thomas: They were cranking them out.
Garth: Yeah, we were into all of those, but it was always Magic. It always came back to Magic.
Thomas: What was your favorite deck type as a kid?
Garth: I still have my first deck put together for some reason. It was bad—it was Prodigal Sorcerers, Counterspells and Serra Angels. It wasn’t so bad I guess, some of those cards are pretty good. I just don’t know what the Prodigal Sorcerers were doing in there, but I guess I just like the art.
If you had to pick two desert-island games, what would they be?
Garth: This is a bad answer for a board-game designer, but I’d go with Heads Up—that could be our party game, then something hardcore, deep with replayability. I don’t know… maybe Magic, even now. That might be my other game.
Thomas: You could bring a cube* and just draft from it.
Garth: Yeah, a cube, a Magic cube—perfect.
* A cube is a collection of cards that you can draft from repeatedly and then just put back into its set, ready to draft from the next time you need it. No need to go buy more boosters!
What is your favorite genre of game?
Garth: I think currently my favorite genre is deckbuilder—not to be confused with collectible card game, because I want a deckbuilder where it all comes in one box, we start from an even playing field and go from there.
Thomas: It’s a good genre. We’ll talk about [your game], Primordial Secrets (which is a deckbuilder, spoiler alert), but it’s so satisfying to build up a deck in a game like that.
Garth: Exactly. I just love that it’s such a big genre right now and people are constantly proving that there’s so much space to explore in that genre right now.
Thomas: Okay, then we’ll do desert island games but for deckbuilders, and it can’t be Primordial Secrets, I’ll disallow that.
Garth: *laughs* It started with Dominion—that was like 12 years ago now. That was a classic. I’m into Dune Imperium, that’s a deckbuilder with some worker placement elements and some direct conflict as well. I like Mystic Vale—it’s more of a card-builder where you’re actually improving cards in your deck by sliding new effects into the sleeve that the card is in. I just love that there’s different ways to go with everything. If we’re on a desert island, I feel like I’d have to bring some classics too like Dominion or Ascension or something.
How did you get into game design?
Just about the same time as I started playing Magic I was already trying to design games. It always allured me—setting up a structure, giving players interesting decisions. I’ve been designing games my whole life, but they’ve all been bad for one reason or another. I have a lot on the cutting room floor. But it’s always been a passion of mine or a hobby, just exploring what the game design space has to offer.
What made you interested in publishing a game?
A couple years back I designed Primordial Secrets off the back of another game that was kind of similar but didn’t quite get there because it was too much of a guessing game. I designed it and we played it a couple times with my wife or a friend at a bar—it was real rough back then but it showed promise and for the first time in my life I was like “oh wow, this might be worth pursuing.” So I tightened it up a bit and then went from there.
What is “Primordial Secrets”?
“Primordial Secrets” is a deckbuilding game about the dawn of time. Before the birth of time itself there were these great god-like beings called Primordials that held court in the great void, politicking, reveling, dancing, and devouring. You join this pantheon as they seek to gain pawns to entertain and serve, and be devoted to you. You start with this entourage of lowly musicians and messengers and advisors and every round you’ll go out to other realms and pay tribute to return with more powerful allies every turn, so your deck gets better and better. That’s the deckbuilding side of it.
The other part that I was really passionate about—this is the thought where this came from—was can we make a deckbuilder that’s as interactive as possible, a deckbuilder as interactive as magic or those other games I like? So the other half—not only are you making your deck better, you’re choosing an opponent and comparing your hand to their hand, and there’s a stat check; if you have high enough insight, you can steal a secret (one of the victory conditions) but if your insight is lower than their deceit that’s when they can trick your visitors into sacrificing themselves as sort-of a housewarming gift. So that’s the player interaction/counterplay.
When brainstorming, did you start with game mechanics or themes?
I started with the theme and mechanics, but the only thing that survived was the mechanics, and the theme is what you see now. There were dwarves and trolls and giants in a mountain. It was painted as more direct conflict. That’s where we started and it just didn’t quite feel right. I was lucky enough to have a talented illustrator come on board last year. She is a very unique lady who had some very unique and amazing art so we collaborated and came to the theme we’re at now.
What stage were you at when you started collaborating with this artist?
A year after the initial conception when I presented it to her. At that point it was still dwarves and trolls and all that. The game was similar in many ways to what it was now. The art was just placeholders, there were some things that were not quite [where they are now]—one of big changes shortly after getting her on board was splitting up the two different visiting powers that matter. In the final version, there’s insight and devotion and you need to have your visitors with high insight, which is the stat you check against the host, and you also need high devotion; that’s what lets you return. Believe it or not, it was still cool enough to pursue, but it’s way better now that there’s more knobs to tweak.
How many playtests have you done?
I think around eight hundred. No joke! I’ve played this game a ton. I’ve got a playtest form and have been able to collect feedback as we’re narrowing in on balance changes from people that I don’t even have to be involved in the game. People can just hop on my discord server, play a game and fill out the form, and that can give me stats about making sure nothing is too overpowered. Including those I think we’re up to a thousand maybe.
What was the most broken playtesting interaction you’ve had?
We’re on version 27 now, and through the years there’s been a lot of broken things. I think version 19 or 20 lasted three days. You know how every deckbuilder basically has the “silver piece,” the one thing that’s always available and improves your deck just a little bit? In my [game] it’s called The Familiar. It’s just this little mortal pawn and it’s just a little bit better than the cards you start the game with. Right now, it gets added to your next turn’s visiting party, so it pumps up your next turn quite a bit. At one point, the line of text that’s on those familiars that says “the first Familiar you buy in a turn gets added to your next visiting party” that line wasn’t there, so it said “whenever you buy a Familiar, add it to ”. That was very dumb; that was just an oversight on my part so we were all just like “turn one: buy a Familiar, turn two: buy two Familiars, turn three: buy six Familiars, turn four: buy everything”. I guess that was the most broken [interaction].
I have received a lot of great feedback from PlaytestNW virtually and am grateful for that. What was your playtesting journey like?
Of the 1000 playtests, I would say 900 of them were [virtual], so that has been a godsend for us. It’s made it easier to version—if there’s just three or four cards that need to be updated, just put [the new cards] right in there and all of a sudden, everyone that plays has the most updated version, I just love it. But there’s something very different about playing in person, especially with a game like this, there’s elements of bluffing/reading your opponents. That mind game might be a little lost in the digital version.
Plus there’s things that you need to find out if they are work [to do in person]. There’s a button that just says reveal and then all the cards are revealed, but in person, we have to flip over all six cards every turn. It’s certainly a different experience.
When I played your game it was an excellent two-player experience. Can you talk a bit about your experience playtesting for different player counts?
One of the things that’s cool, I think, are the intents. At the start of [your] turn you draw six, secretly put three hosts, three visitors, and the other thing you do secretly is play an intent card. Basically they are just fingers pointing at certain players—sometimes they have modifiers or other effects like forcing a player to visit you. Those started in a very different place, it was just every round you are visiting a different person. Then we found it was very interesting to let players have some more power over who they visit. In a two player game, the intent cards are less important.
The other thing that’s interesting in a three and four player game: all of your rivals could decide to visit you on one particular round, and that gets really swingy. It actually produces shorter games sometimes, which is unusual for a high player count game.
You mentioned wanting to take Primordial Secrets the Kickstarter route; what made you settle on that?
Agency, I guess. I think the game is worthy of being on game shelves. I want people to play it and I don’t want to wait for someone else to see the merit of it and go through all this hullabaloo of getting approvals. I’m not opposed to a publisher picking up my game but I’m not going to wait for that. Plus, I have a marketing background, which is the extra step, right? On top of building a good game, if you want to do a kickstarter, the whole second half is marketing and getting the word out. I think I have a head start on that front, so it seemed like a natural fit for us.
Did you pitch the game to any publishers?
At PAX [Unplugged], I did have one pitch meeting. I reached out to a publisher and they agreed to have a meeting. It was an interesting experience; it was very fun. I don’t think I was at my most eloquent during our half-hour, but it was a fun experience anyway.
You won the 2022 LUCI Award for best strategy game, congrats! Can you describe your experience with the game award process?
I knew I wanted to try to enter the game into some contests. So we entered Cardboard Edison, The BoardGame Workshop and the LUCI contests. They all work a little differently, but there’s some overlap too, like they all needed a “pitch sheet,” they all needed a tagline, brief description, and some sort of video component. And some of those things need to get sorted out anyway for pitching or for marketing, so I found the toughest part of preparing for contests actually finding them! LUCI was by far my favorite, and (I guess obviously) the contest Primordial Secrets was best suited for. From my experience with the other two contests, which we entered first, it became apparent that what makes the game great is hard to just tell people in a quick overview video. Yeah you can say the game is interactive, you can show off the cool art, but when it becomes a stand-out game is when you actually get to turn 4 in that first game and start to realize that you can really outplay your opponent for the first time in a deckbuilding game. I could go on and on about the experience - it was sooo nice having so many really knowledgeable and well-versed judges play through a whole game. I don’t think I’ve gotten so much actionable feedback in the rest of my playtesting combined. And that validation is huge when you’ve poured your heart and soul into something for so long, so yeah, I’m eternally grateful to everyone involved.
Do you have a timeline for wrapping up playtesting or polishing on “Primordial Secrets”?
We done! Well, there’s always room for polishing. I am going to swap around the tribe of two cards that won’t make any gameplay difference. We’ve got a manufacturing plan but with [no time] left until the Kickstarter I’m still shopping around for what sort of bells and whistles we can add to the components that we can afford that add the most value to the player. But it’s all little stuff at this point like a word here or there in the rulebook, a millimeter here or there on the first visitor token or the player mat. Honestly the last few months have been much more focused on marketing than on playtesting. We’re really happy with the game experience but what we’re not happy with yet is how slow it’s been getting the word out. Now it’s crunchtime on that front so, I don’t know, tell your friends!
Update 6 August: Primordial Secrets was funded on Kickstarter! Now for those stretch goals.
What is your favorite pie?
I think maybe blueberry? Is that crazy?
What is your game of the week?
If you'd like some more discussion about the direction of the game, playtesting, and maybe a few bad jokes, here is the edited audio from our interview.