I met our next Nor'easter, Jeff Johnston, years ago PAX East at the Indie Games Megabooth. At the time he was showing off a very polished prototype of MoonQuake Escape dressed in an orange jumpsuit and handing out Moon Pies. You couldn't miss his energy, infectious smile, and overall amazing presence in a show floor crammed to the gills with people. I've since seen Jeff at many other shows, gotten to know him better, and am glad to call him a friend. He's always one of the first people I seek out to say hello to and chat with at any convention I attend.
Tell everyone a little bit about yourself, and what you do
Hi, everyone. I'm Jeff Johnston and I design family-oriented tabletop games. It's a hobby I enjoy, and a few have found home with publishers. For the gaming community, I am also active in the Boston area Game Makers Guild and the Boston Festival of Indie Games. In real life, I'm a military defense contractor and spent many years in the United States Air Force.
Ironically, answering your questions awaiting the arrival of yet another Nor'Easter this season!
A Nor'easter that doesn't seem to be coming! At least not in CT.
Tell me a bit about your gaming history. What got you interested in tabletop games? What were some of your favorite games in the beginning?
A very early game I recall fondly was The Sinking of the Titanic--loved how the ship actually sank during game play, restricting movement options. But in the late 70s, computer games barely existed (Atari 2600 Adventure anyone?!), so board games were the best way to insert myself into my favorite books, movies or time periods. So, I moved up from Mille Bornes, Uno and Rummy so that War of the Ring could put me in Middle Earth; Squad Leader, Flat Top and Luftwaffe would put me in the boots of WWII military action; and Magic Realm and D&D could scratch my fantasy realm itch. In high school, Talisman and Avalon Hill's Titan became staples, and I still get together with a college crew to play these classics.
Those are some heavy duty games! When did you start designing your own games?
Around 2006 a colleague shared his bucket list included one day seeing a book that he'd written in a book store. My gears started turning and I realized it'd be cool to do the same with a game in a game store. So, I thought back to fun activities with my young family and developed Toasted or Roasted, a simple game about toasting marshmallows (and turning your opponents' into blackened crisps!). The industry landscape was very different back then--no crowd funding, etc. I worked with a game & toy "agent" but couldn't find a home. Then Uncle Sam called, needing one more military person in the Middle East, so I focused on that duty and put it away on the shelf.
Around 2012, friends inspired me to dust it off and I found Education Outdoors, a great family-friendly game publisher in Michigan. They loved Toasted or Roasted and have done a great job sharing it at camp grounds, outdoor stores, and gift shops in Parks around the country. It's really fun to see pictures from those stores. Bucket list item--checked off!
Of course that wouldn't be your last game to hit store shelves, would it?
I have had the fun (and lucky timing) to see two other games find homes with excellent publishers. Gamewright did a wonderful job bringing Flashlights & Fireflies to families, letting you play flashlight freeze tag on a warm summer evening. And, Breaking Games brought MoonQuake Escape to life, giving everyone a chance to flee a doomed planet. Well, one of you!
You've had experience with 3 different publishers now. What was the process with each like? In what ways were they similar? Different?
Each has been uniquely different and rewarding. Education Outdoors adopts one or two products a year, so they were very focused when they introduced the game to the world. Gamewright added beautiful art direction and it was exciting to see the final product. And Breaking Games provides so many opportunities for me to share the game personally with new fans--they're extremely generous with how they approach game conventions and giving game designers the chance to share their project.
I've seen you in action a few times now at Breaking Games' booths at different conventions. I can honestly say I've never seen someone demo as long as you do with the amount of energy you do. How do you do it?
Two main parts fuel me. The first is pretty selfish--I LOVE to share this game! I get a kick from people's reactions as the "show" unfolds. The second is empathizing that people spend a lot of money to go to these conventions, and if you're kind enough to linger with me for 5-7 minutes, I owe you my best. The family that stops by late Sunday afternoon may just have that one day at the show--and they deserve the best I can give them…and a Moon Pie!
I do love the Moon Pies!
Tell me a bit about your design process. Do you tend to start with a specific mechanic, or maybe the theme first?
Always theme first. I imagine a fun topic, often something nostalgic, then come up with a way to play. Often that's a frustrating process, and I'm jealous of those game designers savvy enough to start with a cool mechanic first. I also look for clever ways to use components to help players feel like they are doing the thing they are playing. That's where I find the fun in designing a game.
Who are some of your favorite designers? Your inspirations?
In that regard, I guess I'm pretty "new school". Rob Daviau (legacy games--such a cool concept), Matt Leacock (Forbidden Island--the master of co-op games)), and Eric Lang (after just a glance at MQE, gave me great advice on how its future would play out. Drat you, Eric, for being so right!)
All excellent designers! So, any new designs in the works?
Yes. "Leaf Me Alone" is a fun family game about raking leaves, but it's mostly about jumping into piles of leaves. Received some great feedback via contests that will help it across the finish line with some lucky future publisher (wink!). It's part of a game series I'm doing--a game about each season. "Bearly Asleep" is a new project--a really cute game where players are a team of bear cubs working together to put all the adult bears into hibernation so you can play games all winter long. Inspired by a design contest--very happy with how that's coming along. MQE expansions--ready if the market needs them! And, of course, a few other projects in "incubation"--waiting for another bit of inspiration to move them along.
Well I'm ready for a MQE expansion. Isn't that enough?
For you, Rob (and the Pawn's Perspective audience!), let's do it!
NICE! Moon Pies for everyone!
(Then maybe the Moon Pie Twitter account will notice us!)
So where can we expect to see you over the next few months? PAX East? CT-FIG? Elsewhere?
PAX East is a blast. Look for the orange jumpsuit in the Breaking Games booth. CT-FIG and Boston FIG are on the radar--great venues to share new projects. Everyone should come to those to see (and help!) the latest and greatest designs. And GenCon in Aug. But, pulling back a bit this year--real life seems to step in on its own schedule!
Real life is a total drag!
Well. Some of the time.Well thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Anything you'd like to add before we finish?
Thanks, Rob, for spending time with me. Love what you're doing for the community. Everyone can check out the Pair of Jacks Games Facebook page for updates on all my projects and MoonQuake Escape's page for news there, too. And, any of you readers that got this far--I owe you a Moon Pie the next time I see you!
I'm totally going to hold you to that.
About the Nor'easter Series
Nor'easters is a series of articles spotlighting a different tabletop game designer, publisher, or content creator from the Northeastern United States each week. The series was inspired by all the amazing people in the industry I've met over the years in my home region of the US.
Make sure to come back every week and see who is spotlighted next! To see a complete listing of the series' articles, click here.
Media personality Rob Kalajian has been a staple in the board game world for many years. As a former writer for Purple Pawn and the owner of A Pawn’s Perspective, Rob focuses on board game reviews, events, and news. A self-proclaimed geek, Rob loves all things toys and games and even helps raise his four kids in his spare time.