Meet Clarence Simpson, co-designer of The Wolves

Clarence Simpson Feature

This month I had the esteemed pleasure of interviewing Clarence Simpson half of the dynamic duo behind the recently released game, The Wolves. Previously Clarence designed Merchants of Magick: A Set a Watch Tale, and Shaking the Tree which came 1st place in the HABA USA Design Contest (2019), and Runner-Up at Cardboard Edison Awards (2020).

The Wolves, published by Pandasaurus Games, is described as a pack-building strategy game. Where the only rules are the rules of the jungle, and each player has to build the most dominant pack by claiming territory, recruiting lone wolves, and hunting prey.

In this interview, we talk about how The Wolves got started and where the idea came from, Pandasaurus’ involvement in the design of the game, and what’s it like designing with another designer.

Hi Clarence, thanks for taking the time to agree to do this.

To start things off, congratulations on The Wolves, it’s getting a lot of buzz up to its release. How are you two feeling about the game and the reception received so far?

The hype surrounding the Essen Spiel release was definitely a high point for us. It’s definitely validating to go from thinking that you probably have a good design with market appeal to seeing that come to fruition. We’ve been happy overall with the reception and hope it continues to find its audience!

A creative shot of The Wolves, designed by Clarence Simpson and Ashwin Kamath.
Such a gorgeous looking board game

Absolutely, I can’t wait to get my hands on it at some point as well. This is the first time you and Ashwin have co-designed together. How did that come about?

Yes, The Wolves is our first co-design. We actually met in 2019 through the Tabletop Mentorship Program. I volunteered to mentor some new designers (while also being mentored myself by more experienced designers) and Ashwin was assigned as one of my mentees that year. After the 3 month session, we had formed a legitimate friendship and kept in touch afterwards, eventually deciding to try designing a game together.

What’s it like to design a board game with someone else? Who’s the sane one? And were there any great ideas vetoed by the other person?

We’re all mad here, aren’t we? We live on opposite sides of the US. So, all of our collaboration was online. We used a Google spreadsheet to keep track of ideas and send comments to each other. Ashwin has a background in architecture, so it made sense for him to do most of the graphic design for the prototype. Other than that, we didn’t have much division of labor. We generally discussed all changes and only moved forward when we both agreed. 

There were definitely times when either of us would veto ideas by the other. But I wouldn’t say there were any great ideas vetoed. I think we did have some great ideas, but we both agreed on all of them.

Then given the topic of mentorship. What’s one thing you’ve learnt from designing and developing The Wolves, that would help other board game designers?

One very unique feature about the design of The Wolves is that it was concepted, designed, and pitched entirely digitally, with no physical prototyping or playtesting, during the height of the pandemic in 2020. COVID forced us, along with almost all designers, to move into a virtual playtesting space. So, we had a crash course in digital game design that I think continues to be helpful even as the worst of COVID is behind us. We learned how to network with designers around the world through Discords and online conventions devoted to design and playtesting. We learned how to implement our designs in a virtual tabletop (like Tabletop Simulator). We learned how to pitch online via Zoom and virtual speed pitching events. And we continue to use those skills to this day.

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The hunting grounds

Oh awesome, is that how you ended up working with Pandasaurus Games?

We submitted The Wolves to participate in a speed pitching event hosted by Heather O’Neill of 9th Level Games. She periodically hosts these events to match up designers and publishers. We were accepted and Pandasaurus was one of the publishers in the event. It also didn’t hurt that I’m in the same local design group (Game Designers of North Carolina) as Alex Cutler, who does scouting for Pandasaurus.

It goes to show how important it is to get up and get out there. Talking about Pandasaurus, it seems part of their brand these days is board games with wildly unique themes. You know I’m thinking about The Loop, or Skate Summer.

So I’m wondering, do they get a say on the theme? Or was The Wolves built from the ground up with wolves in mind?

In this case, the theme was already wolves from the start and everyone involved wanted to keep it wolves. There were honestly never any discussions with Pandasaurus about changing it.

When we decided to work together on a game we scanned through some topics and themes trying to find areas of common interest. I graduated from NC State University (home of the Wolfpack) and Ashwin is a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves. So, we started talking about wolves. We quickly realized that wolves are fairly underrepresented in the board game space, especially in a positive context. If they are in games, they are generally the villains or obstacles to avoid or destroy. So, we decided that we’d try to be one of the few games that would use wolves as the protagonists of the game.

That’s such a great origin story, my school’s team was the redback spiders. So I hope no one gets the idea of making those bastards a protagonist!

Now that we know where The Wolves came from, what about your other games? From your Twitter it seems you never stop designing board games both big and small.

That’s a good question! I find inspiration from a lot of different sources. Sometimes I’m inspired by learning about a real-world theme that isn’t well-represented in board games. That’s how I ended up co-designing Horns of Harlem, about managing a jazz band during the Harlem Renaissance. Sometimes I start with an interesting mechanic that is underused, like inductive logic, which led to Letters from the Otherside. Sometimes it comes from looking at published games and wondering if something about their experience could be amplified, or simplified, or even made more complex. Sometimes inspiration comes out of restriction, like when you enter a design contest and have restrictions on theme, mechanics, or components. Although it’s a little counterintuitive, restriction can be incredibly inspiring.

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Player boards

Continuing the same line of thought, how do you improve yourself as a designer? Is it just by constantly designing games?

As for improving myself, I’m constantly researching games. I want to know what already exists. I want to know what kinds of systems other designers have tried. I want to expose myself to all genres and types of games. And I also have tried to push myself to design something different every time. I didn’t want to be the designer who only made roll-and-writes, or only made polyomino games. I want to try to do it all. And you learn something new from everything that you try. So, as a designer, I’m just constantly building up this mental toolbox that I can pull from in future designs.

So… After The Wolves, what’s next? is this start of a wonderful new board game designer duo?

We are currently hard at work on an expansion to The Wolves!

Additionally, I have two solo designs scheduled to come out next year with AllPlay (previously known as One is a small box tile-laying game about herding and feeding dinosaurs. Imagine a cross between Point Salad and Sprawlopolis and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the game is like.

The other is an inductive logic word game about decoding messages from the beyond. It would appeal to fans of games like Letter Jam, Decrypto or Mastermind.

Thanks so much for your time, Clarence. Really appreciate you answering these questions. We’ve made it to the last question, which is hopefully an easy one.

Outside of The Wolves, what are your favourite games at the moment?

At the moment, I’ve actually become quite enamored with Next Station: London by Matthew Dunstan. It didn’t look like something I’d be really into, but I got talked into playing it on BoardGameArena, and now I really enjoy it. As a designer, I’m really impressed with the elegance of it. It’s so easy to teach, and even kids could play it, but there’s definitely a deeper level to the strategy of getting high scores.

The Wolves Game Spread

Another massive shout-out to Clarence for his patience and persistence with this interview. Together we’ve battled Thanksgiving, Christmas, PAXU, and Coronavirus to finally get it into your hands. I hope it was worth the effort.

As mentioned, The Wolves is getting an extremely positive reception from board gamers and reviewers. You can find it wherever you buy your board games!

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