INTERVIEW: The Creators of Cartooner; a Game about #MakingComics

Today I’m talking with Jason Thompson and Jumana Al Hashal, the duo behind Cartooner: The Fast & Furious Game of Drawing Comics – now on Kickstarter
What made you decide that you wanted to design a tabletop game about comic creation? 
JUMANA: We want to inspire people to be storytellers, to reclaim trends and themes from comics and media and make them their own.
A huge and a very important part of why I am working on this is because I believe in the power of storytelling, creative thinking and improv. It is therapeutic, it is empowering, and it is fun. Creating something is a very rewarding activity.
Games are a perfect medium for letting go of inhibitions and immersing yourself in a different world, same for comics. Most people shy away from drawing and we wanted to create a game where drawing is a mechanism but where the rules did not judge artistic skill. This way people can engage in a hands-on creative activity but not have it be intimidating.
JASON: Well, if you want to go WAY back, it started out way back in 2011 as something really random: I’d been reading autobiographical manga like “Disappearance Diary” and the work of Kazuhiko Shimamoto, and I thought that writing a RPG where you play a manga artist (rather than, say, a magic-user) for “24 Hour RPG Day” would be weird and fun. I actually wrote up a whole short role-playing game with dice and statistics (like Story, Art and Passion). There was also a minigame where you simulate making your comic by actually drawing a little comic in real life for 5 minutes.
So anyway, I played this game with Jumana and some friends and everyone agreed “The roleplaying part is a mess, since it’s hard to roleplay a character who just sits at home alone and draws all day, but the drawing minigame is fun!” So the two of us did more playtests, and gradually stripped out the RPG elements until it was 100% a drawing game. A few roleplaying-ish elements do remain, actually: the idea that your ‘character’ has Obsessions, which are the three Theme Cards you draw at the beginning of the game to determine what your comic will be about. Also the idea that your editor pressures you to put certain stuff in your comic so fans will like it…this became Trend Cards. Also like in the original RPG version, the goal is to become the most Famous artist, represented by Fame Points.

Another thing that influenced the game is, at the time, I was doing speeches on manga in Seattle libraries. I got tired of just talking about history and I decided to turn it into an interactive presentation where people draw their own comics, using the rules that became Mangaka and later Cartooner. It was one thing playing the game with our tabletop-nerd friends, but playing it with an audience of tweens and teens and people who aren’t necessarily into games was a real eye-opener…we were encouraged by how much people liked it! If you don’t make it a “whose art is best” competition– which Mangaka and Cartooner never was, the rules aren’t based on how good your art is — most people really like drawing comics. We playtested it from 2011 to 2015, and made it better and better, and then after we Kickstarted Mangaka in 2015 we went to work on the standalone sequel, Cartooner.

How does Cartooner draw from your experiences with Manga-Ka? 
JUMANA: We learned a lot creating Mangaka and we translated the learnings into Cartooner. This came across both in the simplification and the streamlining of the rules, to the streamlining of the production and manufacturing process.
JASON: We did an extra 2 years of playtesting from when we Kickstarted Mangaka and when we Kickstarted Cartooner, so we tried to streamline the rules based on what we’d observed. The cards are compatible between the two games, but the new cards in Cartooner reflect our attempt to make Mangaka even better. Also, using tropes from American comics, instead of manga, opened up a ton of new possibilities.
How did you decide on the right art style, and what was it like working with Konstantin Pogorelov? 
JUMANA: We went with what we loved. We are lucky to live and work and play with a large number of amazing comic and game artists in the San Francisco area. We loved Konstantin’s work because it was both painterly and playful.  He has a very approachable art style but yet still had a very distinct indie personality. We work mostly on Slack, although we see him in person at our game night almost every week. Generally we try to just give the concept or what the card is supposed to be about. Sometimes we provide an initial sketch, he responds with another sketch. Some cards are straightforward, others we go back and forth for a bit. After initial concept is locked we generally give him total artistic freedom over the execution.
Here is an example of shared universe : first one is our sketch, then his response to our sketch, he then sent an in-between, then a final. Looks pretty good, no?
JASON: Konstantin is amazing. I met him at the Academy of Art years ago and he plays an Egyptian wizard in our D&D game.
Are there any other games that your researched or analyzed in order to create Cartooner?
JUMANA: We play a ton of games! We pretty much tried to play every story game out there from Dixit to Once Upon a Time and we tried to play every drawing game out there, for example: Pictionary, Telestrations, Draw Something. The drawing games did not include a story aspect necessarily and the story games had no drawing. In both cases, getting people to engage in creative output was not an objective and that is really the part that when we started playtesting saw as a unique and charming experience. Even those who believed they could not draw, surprised themselves by their ability to create something entertaining, to weave a story, and felt safe being not judged on artistic ability. We realized that that is the essential game experience we were after and since we could not find it in any other game, we made it ourselves.
JASON: We looked at every other drawing game on the market, and the truth is, there really aren’t many: there’s Pictionary and Telestrations and not much else. There are a few games where you reshuffle cards with preexisting visuals to tell a story, or games like Dixit (which is great) which are sort of about art interpretation, but almost nothing where you actually put pen on paper and create new art.
Looking at Telestrations and Pictionary, I noticed that first, they’re both extremely simple games, especially Telestrations, and second, they both have really simple minimal artwork, just stick figures. Obviously this is to make them less intimidating, but I do like a tabletop game to have good art, and 95% of games have good, professional-quality art. So we bucked both these things about Telestrations and Pictionary when we made Cartooner, which is a drawing game which has a little more meat to its bones rules-wise, and also has painted color artwork which I think expresses the game’s creative, playful, whole-world-of-possibilities feel.
What have been the greatest challenges in designing this game? 
JUMANA: Distilling entire trends in comics history into a card is not an easy task! For me, the most difficult part was devising mechanisms to account for the situation when you have radically different skill levels in players playing the same game. For example, we added a Reboot Trend card that gave players a chance to discard their initial hand as a way to get out of the frustration zone if someone hit a real creative block with the prompts that were dealt to them in the beginning of the game. We also introduced a mechanism to help the underdog in a given round by allowing the player with the least points to determine the Trends for the next round.
What have been your favorite moments in playtesting this game? 
JASON: There was one moment at a game store in Berkeley when one player figured out an amazing loophole in one of the Trend Cards and exploited it. There’s one or two intentional loopholes in Trend Cards in Cartooner, if you draw them and know how to use them; my feeling in games is that balance is great, but it’s also fun to have a few Easter Eggs which surprise you and make you think “Holy crud, I never thought of using those card THAT way! This is crazy!!” Normally the ending Fame count for the game is about 40-70 with 80 as the ceiling, but this one person using this one card combo figured out how to get about 200 Fame Points. In the process they drew a very silly, absurd, minimalist comic; everyone was laughing at the audacity and ridiculousness of what they’d done. And I think that’s great; the game’s not about intentionally drawing the best art but about trying to maximize your Fame and follow Trend Cards and the fun is seeing the stories and drawings that arise out of that.
Can you show us an example of what a finished comic might look like? 
JASON: We have tons of examples online! We have a gallery of comics from Cartooner and Mangaka here: This also includes some solo comics, created using the 1-player mode.
Is Cartooner only tailored towards those who know how to create comics, or are very familiar with the industry? 
JUMANA: No, Cartooner is for everyone to try their hands at being one! The point is to allow everyone to experience the fun and the thrill of making stories and exercising both sides of your brain. Drawing and making something from scratch is a very rewarding experience. The game is built in a way to encourage it but the rule system does not judge artistic ability. Although we do have a solo mode if you are an artist and want to use Cartooner as your companion for your next Inktober or 24Hour Comic Challenge.
JASON: We always wanted to make a game that wasn’t about drawing ability, one where people who don’t draw could ‘beat’ artists and everyone could have fun making up stories. There’s no cards in Cartooner that reward you for drawing the ‘best’ art, and it’s possible to win the game while doing pretty minimal drawing.
In terms of industry familiarity, there’s a few injokes for comics fans in the Themes and Trends. “Shared Universe,” “Crossover,” “Reboot,” comics Trends like that; or Themes like “The Richest Person in the World,” “The World’s Greatest Assassin,” “Bats”, “Spiders.” But we tried not have anything that most players age 12+ wouldn’t recognize. Mangaka had some really fun but nerdy cards like “Kaiju”, “Otaku”, “Kawaii”, but Cartooner is more about American media tropes—including some genres like “Medical” and “Noir” which are more represented in American TV and movies than comics per se.
If the Kickstarter is successful, what will be your next steps? 
JASON: If we make our goal, we hope to send the game to the printer in January and have it delivered to backers in Summer 2018! Fingers crossed, so please support us and check it out!
Do you plan to continue making games?
JUMANA: As long as people will play them 🙂 yes.
JASON: I do. I’ve been working on a roleplaying game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories, more the fantasy and less the horror-centric Cthulhu stuff. I’ll be doing the art for this one myself, and we’re playtesting it right now.

Jason and Jumana’s Kickstarter campaign for Cartooner will end on SUNDAY, December 17th! Please check it out and show them some support HERE!

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