Smash Pages Q&A: Jason Thompson and Jumana Al Hashal on ‘Cartooner’

Jason Bradley Thompson and Jumana Al Hashal discuss going from gamer to creator.

What’s it like to go from gaming to creating your own games?

The husband-and-wife team of Jason Bradley Thompson and Jumana Al Hashal have plenty to say on that topic. Both are serious gamers who are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund their second game, Cartooner: The Fast & Furious Game of Drawing Comics. Cartooner focuses on the creative elements of comics and allows anyone who can draw a stick figure to make their own—while the clock is ticking. We talked to Jason and Jumana about how they created a game that turns the players into comics creators, and they also shared some of the game art by Konstantin Pogorelov.

First of all, can you give our readers a quick description of how Cartooner works?

Jumana: Cartooner is a game that combines storytelling and drawing. Think of it as Dixit or Once Upon a Time plus Pictionary.

The game plays out in four rounds that build up in intensity. Each round is five minutes long. Your goal is to get the most Fame Points. First round is the warm up round: you draw three Theme cards (out of 136) which will stay with you for the rest of the game, for example “Sharks,” “Tech Startups” and “Desire to Save the World.”

Now you have to come up with a story about these three things, and you have five minutes to come up with two panels! Fame Points are awarded for finished panels, expressing the Trend cards (visually or verbally), and limiting yourself to three or less word balloons so as not to be too verbose. There are no points awarded for artistic ability and that is by design.

In later rounds you also have to deal with market Trends. Trend Cards are fickle and last only for one round. For example, round 2 might introduce the “Monsters” trend and for that round, your world-saving, techstartup, shark story needs to include a monster. Trend cards also have more in-depth rules: for instance, the player who draws a monster with a largest number of limbs and heads gets a big Fame bonus. The next round, “Monsters” goes away and you have two new trends: For instance, now you have to introduce “Romance” and a “Natural Disaster”! In round 4, the last round, there are three Trends offering Fame and Fortune: maybe it’s “Emo, “Mutants” and “Superheroes”, or maybe “Gadgets”, “Mystery” and “Noir.” There are 52 Trend Cards, so there are many possible combinations.

Jason: Cartooner is a tabletop game where the players draw comics. Basically, it’s about combining your personal Themes with Trends that are outside your control. Of course, you don’t have to follow Trends, but if you don’t, you won’t get as many Fame points. Fame. Basically, it’s a game version of the classic artist’s dilemma: stick to your guns, or sell out for fame?

A game lasts four rounds, so in the end the most Famous artist is the winner, but everyone draws a four-page comic. And making that comic—ending up with a story you’ve made that you can show to people after the game is over—is what makes the game special to me.

What are the most important skills for someone playing this game? It is OK if they can’t draw?

Jumana: You do not need to have any artistic skills to play. In fact, we found in most playtests that the games where players had the most fun is when they let go of their inhibitions and just allowed themselves to be open to exercising their creative muscle and engaged in strategic exploitation of the marketplace Trends. This is a social game with solid rules. You will get more creative and your artistic skills might improve as a result of repeated play but that is just a bonus byproduct.

We do realize that Cartooner can be a great companion for artists as well, especially when looking for inspiration for Inktober or a daily sketch New Year’s resolution; that is why we designed a solo mode where you can do just that.

Jason: Our goal was to make a drawing game where drawing skill wasn’t important. There’s a lot out there of what I call “judge games” where points are assigned by players judging “who told the funniest joke” or something, but I felt that a drawing game which boiled down to “who draws the best” or even “who told the best story” would be intimidating and wouldn’t be fun to most people. In Cartooner, you’re playing to get Fame points, and if you tell a funny story or make good art along the way, that’s just a bonus.

Instead of getting points for how good your art is, you get points for communication. For instance, if one of your Theme Cards is “Car Chases”, you can either draw a car chase, or you could just write the words “Look! A car chase!!” or (say) “They’re getting away! Step on the gas!!” into your comic. As long as the other players look at it and agree “yep, that’s a car chase,” it counts. If you want to spend the time drawing a cool car chase, that’s great, but you get the same amount of points either way.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t skill involved. The important things are (1) speed, (2) remembering all the Theme and Trend Cards that are in play and (3) creatively bending the rules in a way that the other players will accept. So it’s sort of a combination of creativity, improv, and time management. Actually, I’ve found that players who draw a lot often lose to players who just draw stick figures, because the artists get sidetracked drawing crosshatching or something and they lose sight of the goals. If one player is a better illustrator and draws some beautiful art but doesn’t get as much Fame, and another player can’t draw but wins the most Fame by some hilariously shameless Trend Card exploitation, I like to think that there are two winners.

How did you get the idea for Cartooner, and how did it change as you developed the game?

Jumana: The game actually started as a roleplaying game but through numerous playtests, we realized that the most fun aspect for the players was being able to create a story of their own. The act of creating something brings people so much joy so we pivoted to focus on that. So we kept simplifying the structure to focus on what will deliver the players the most satisfying gaming experience. The main challenges were how to distill an entire trend in comics history like, for example, “Noir” into a set of rules that capture the spirit of that style but judge players on strategy and executing the rules rather than artistic ability. We think through years of playtests we found a good balance.

Jason: Cartooner developed out of our first game, Mangaka, which we designed from 2011 to 2015. I love manga, so when we had the idea for a comic-drawing game I always wanted to give it a manga and anime theme. But lots of people asked “What about an American comics version?” so that was always on the back of our mind as a sequel or expansion. Eventually we realized that there’s so much material in American comics (by which I mean not just superheroes of course, but indy comics, graphic novels and strips) that it could support a whole new standalone game.

How is this game different from Mangaka?

Jumana: Two ways: (1) the Trends are distilled from tropes found in Western and American comics rather than Japanese comics and (2) the rules have gone through a significant streamlining process based on continuous player feedback. We also introduced new tokens and partnered with a new artist, Konstantin Pogorelov, to bring a fresh and painterly look to the cards. The game is fully compatible with Mangaka and you can mix both the Trend and Theme cards.

Jason: The Cartooner rules are an evolution of Mangaka. We simplified a few things and we tried not to have the upper end of Trend Card complexity be as high as in Mangaka. And of course there’s new Themes and Trends: for example, Mangaka had Trends such as “Shonen Manga,” “Shojo Manga,” “Otaku,” “Kawaii,” “Fanservice,” etc., whereas Cartooner has Trends like “Zany”, “Emo”, “Mutants”, “Musical”, and other American media tropes.

What did you learn from the experience of creating Mangaka and funding it on Kickstarter? What are you doing differently this time?

Jumana: This is our fifth Kickstarter and we continue to learn new things every time. Most of the learning is around logistics: how to effectively communicate with printers, how to handle shipping, and how to design box inserts! We are partnering this time with our distributor to handle the fulfillment of rewards and were able to cut down the shipping costs for backers from the previous Kickstarters.

We are also quite proud of the art. We loved our previous artist as well, but having a local artist in San Francisco who we can directly brainstorm ideas with and is an experienced game artist has been very helpful.

Jason: We tried not to have as many different low-level side rewards as we did for Mangaka. For example, for Mangaka I had to hand-silkscreen 100 two-color hachimaki headbands; it was fun but it took a lot of time and was sort of distracting. The key thing is the game itself and we hope people support Cartooner to get the game!

I know you both enjoy games yourselves. What is your favorite part of gaming, and how did you incorporate that into this one?

Jumana: I know this sounds maybe too serious, but for me, something about gaming really increases resilience: the ability to deal with mistakes and learn from them, the creative space that a bounded ruleset provides, and the unpredictability of what is to come. Gaming stretches our world and our thinking and creates a space for exploration whether it is a new Sci-Fi video game, D&D, or even Tetris.

In Cartooner, you cannot get too hung up on your first ideas; the magic happens when you let your guard down and just accept the random elements introduced by the game and figuring out a way to make the pieces fit together to achieve maximum points. You cannot dwell for too long because the next round is just around the corner.

Jason: My favorite parts of gaming are chaos and creativity. I love it when a card or a die roll or a clever strategy overturns things and everything gets weird and the game reaches the edges of the system and surprises you. This is a big feature of my favorite game of all time, Cosmic Encounter. I also love games where people play-act roles or make up stuff, like roleplaying games.

What was it like to go from gamer to game designer?

Jason: Ever since I was a kid I’ve written down little games and variant game rules, like Monopoly house rules and Dungeons & Dragons adventures. The key difference between doing that kind of stuff and actually making a game that people will play (other than your little brother and sister) is playtesting. We did hundreds of playtests of Cartooner and Mangaka with both friends and strangers. It’s not always easy taking feedback, but it’s an invaluable experience to know what people think about your game and how to make it more fun and accessible.

Jumana: My professional experience in usability testing and user experience design was actually really helpful here. Designing a logical rules system did not feel alien but I have now even more mad respect for fellow game designers. Figuring out what is “fun” and dealing systematically with the playtesting feedback is no small feat. Also, realizing that you are not always your target audience takes a lot of empathy and listening and careful observation to how players are reacting to your game.

What are your plans for Cartooner once the Kickstarter is over?

Jumana: We are actively working on the game right now. We have over half of the art done (you can see it in our Kickstarter updates). Most of the game components are done. We need to finish designing the inserts and finalizing the printing and layout files. So it is full production mode post the Kickstarter with an eye towards going to printing in early 2018 and a full public release in the Summer.

Jason: Once funded, we hope to print the game by Summer 2018. Most of the art is done, the rules are done, we just need to get more supporters to make it happen! Please support the Kickstarter (it ends on December 17!!) and help us out!!

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