[Kick It] Interview With David Sirlin Part 1 – Pandante, Gambling, and Premium Poker Chips

David Sirlin tells us everything about Pandante!
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Welcome to [Kick It], where we chat with developers and creators about their Kickstarter projects.

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Today we’re talking with David Sirlin, of Sirlin Games, about his Kickstarter for Pandante

Pandante is a unique and elegant game loosely inspired by Texas Hold ‘Em and, well, pandas. It looks incredibly fun and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. It’s a game about gambling, it’s a game about lying, and (more importantly) it’s a game about pandas.

If the name Sirlin sounds familiar, that’s because David has been a major contributor to both the tabletop and video game scenes; and he is known for his work on Fantasy Strike, Streetfighter HD Remix, and his famous book Playing to Win.

Everything about the comprehensive Kickstarter video (below)–the numerous gameplay videos, premium luxury poker chips, extensive Kickstarter strategy, and the gameplay itself–all looks wonderful. Pandante is an impressive, yet surprisingly simple game that is designed to charm.

Because David had a ton to say about both Pandante and about the Kickstarter process, I’ve broken this interview into two separate articles. Part two, which is more specifically about Kickstarter, can be found here. 

So, who are you? What is your background in gaming?

SR: “Hi Jay. I’m David Sirlin, an indie developer and publisher with a new Kickstarter for card game called Pandante. My background includes being a high-level Street Fighter player, as well as the lead designer of Street Fighter HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter HD Remix. I also wrote the book Playing to Win. Then I created the Fantasy Strike universe at my own company, Sirlin Games, and have released three Fantasy Strike games so far (Yomi, Puzzle Strike, and Flash Duel). Upcoming games I have are Chess 2, Pandante (live on Kickstarter now), an expansion to Yomi, and a whole new game called Codex.”

Anything else interesting about your life?

SR: “These days I mostly just make games. Because I handle practically all aspects from game design, balance, packaging design, website design, graphic design, art direction, manufacturing coordination, marketing, and so on, I don’t really do a lot else anymore, ha. I used to travel the country to play Street Fighter and Guilty Gear though, I even went to Japan for that. Now I travel the country to go to game conventions that feature my games. I even ran my own called Fantasy Strike Expo last June.”

Right then, what is Pandante and how did it get started? 

SR: “Pandante is a panda-themed gambling game that has a lot of emphasis only lying (humans call it “bluffing”). It’s a pretty social game because it doesn’t have player elimination and doesn’t have as much folding as human poker does. So everyone is involved most of the time, and everyone is lying most of the time too, so that’s pretty fun. At the same time, it’s actually suitable to be played very hardcore and seriously for real money. There’s a lot of skill. I think it appeals to both ends of the casual and hardcore spectrum, or at least it has so far with playtesters.”

How exactly does it work? Could you give an example of how a typical hand (if a ‘typical’ hand even exists) might play out?

SR: “Each player gets two private cards, and then three community cards are flopped onto the table, which is called the splash. That’s the same basic structure as the human poker game Texas Hold ‘Em (without pre-splash bidding though). Anyway, everyone has a board that has spaces for the 10 different kinds of hands you can make in Pandante. Like in Texas Hold ‘Em, you make your hand of 5 cards from any combination of your private cards and the community cards.

“Everyone is involved most of the time, and everyone is lying most of the time too”

Here’s where it really starts to diverge though. After the splash, you go around the table and each person bets by putting a chip their own board to mark the hand they are claiming to have. Whoever claims to have the highest hand gets to draw a card and discard a card for free. That’s called getting a free snack. Everyone else has to pay for snacks though, and they pay more the farther their hand is below the highest hand. Right now you’re thinking, “Why not claim the highest possible hand always?” You’ll see in just a moment!

After that betting round, the dealer turns over a 4th community card (that’s called the paws, you know, because Pandas have four paws). Then another betting round, then a fifth community card (called the tail), then another betting round. Here’s the catch: each betting round, you CANNOT go down what hand you’re claiming to have. So if you say straight flush or something right off the bat, you’re stuck with that the entire time, and when it gets to the end, people can call you out for lying. If you are lying, you’ll have to fold and pay those who called you out.

There’s one more important phase just before the end though. There are 6 suits (colors) of cards in Pandante, and each suit has a special ability. They are written right on your board and they are pretty simple–like raising, getting new cards, stealing from the pot, etc. Just before the end, everyone gets a chance to do up to two abilities, and they are “supposed” to be only whichever colors you have in your 2 private cards, but actually you can just claim those are anything you want. If no one calls you out on the abilities, you get to do whatever you said.

Hopefully that gives you a pretty good idea of it all. There’s one other cool bit about how if you manage to win a pot by lying (so no one calls you out), then you get a Panda Lord to watch over you for a while and give you a boost. Winning by lying is the highest honor to the Pandas.”

Can you explain some of the inspiration behind the game and the game’s design?

SR: “I was working on a game that had a mechanic where you can do abilities that you don’t even have in your hand as long as no one called you out on them. I was really having trouble making it actually be good. There were all sorts of troubles. A friend of mine heard me complaining about it and said “you know, that mechanic would work a lot better in a gambling game.” Hmm. Actually, it would.

Totally unrelated to any of that, and years previous, I had an idea for a panda-themed gambling game. Why? In the Fantasy Strike universe, the character Lum is a “Gambling Panda.” The idea is that he’s not the only one; Pandas in general like gambling. But what game do they play? Poker is a human convention so they’d play a different game, one from their culture. The game I had back then used a deck with 6 colors of Pandas: 3 kinds of Happy Pandas and 3 kinds of Sad Pandas. It also had Panda Lords. It didn’t work anything like Pandante though.

Anyway, back to the part where lying about which abilities you have could be a good idea for a gambling game. As soon as I heard that suggestion, I realized the abilities could be tied to suits. And I wanted to have 6 abilities. You can’t have lots like 20 or something because everyone has to be aware of all the abilities to be able to play. But 4 is not quite enough, so I planned for 6–coincidentally the same number of suits in my old panda deck. And this idea about lying about which abilities you have is a natural fit for lying about what kind of hand you have in a gambling game. So I thought back to that old panda gambling game I worked on, took the deck structure I had there with the new mechanics idea of “your lie is true unless anyone calls you out.” It started to design itself.

The whole game came together very, very quickly. It all just made sense to me. I was so sure about it that I did something I never do, which finish all the graphic design for the entire game before playing it even one time. I contracted Hectore Blivand, the minimalist fashion designer, and he agreed to do it. (I met him on a consulting trip to Paris a while ago). Anyway the very first playtest of Pandante, I had game boards with his graphic design that looked like a completely finished product, and even a professionally printed deck that seemed finished too. The playtesters were really confused, like where the hell did this come from? lol. 

Despite all that, it didn’t quite turn out how I had hoped. It “mostly worked.” It was a situation where a thing is 90% working, but not actually working, and yet tricky to solve. It took a few months of testing and iteration to iron it out and get it tuned right and get the incentives right so the dynamics that arise are actually fun. But we got there I think.”

How long were you in the Panda Lands?

SR: “About a week. It was for some consulting.”

Why pandas anyways?

SR: “As I said earlier, Lum is a “gambling panda” in the Fantasy Strike world, so Pandante is the game his people, er his Pandas, play.”

What do you think is the most exciting thing/what are you most proud of about Pandante?

SR: “Most exciting thing about the production: definitely the poker chips in the luxury version. I want those so bad for myself, so if enough other people want them too, then I can get them without going bankrupt, lol. They are just so sweet looking. Poker chips are often kind of gaudy but these are really elegant.

Most exciting thing about the game design: there was an unexpected synergy that turned out way better than I realized ahead of time. We had a game design problem at one point that it was impossible to ever win a Panda Lord. So that means you just couldn’t win by lying. Some playtesters pointed to the (completely finished looking) prototype box, where it says “lying” right on there, and laughed and said that we had to fix this. The mindset needed to fix that was very…hmm…”system designery.” Kind of mathy, but also really thinking about the game as a purely mechanical thing, and how do we solve this problem with the system of rules. We needed to keep people in the hand longer, give them hope that they could still win the hand, set some variables right, etc.

My point is that solving that was very unemotional of a thing. Yet accidentally, or something, it had a huge emotional effect on how it feels to actually play. All the things we did for game-system reasons happened to give it the very best qualities of a social game. A game where everyone is involved the whole time, where everyone feels like they have a shot, and where everyone is laughing because they all know everyone is bullshitting half the time. So I’m just really glad and kind of amazed that it ended up way more “joyful” than I realized it even could. “

Why are you deciding to launch this project now? Do you think you can juggle both this and Codex?

SR: “Ha, you mean juggle Pandante, the Yomi expansion, Codex, a makeover of www.sirlingames.com (a lot of that already done!), the iOS version of Yomi (coming soon?) and new features in the online versions at www.fantasystrike.com. It’s a lot to juggle. The reason to launch this now is because it happens to be in a finished state before Codex and the Yomi expansion, so launching it now will let me spend more time on those other projects afterwards.”

The deluxe version of Pandante is a very interesting concept, but the high quality ceramic chips make it very pricey. Why do you think it is necessary to include this version of the product?

SR: “Yeah, high quality ceramic chips cost a lot. Another Kickstarted had ceramic chips around $1 each and they didn’t really look as good as Pandante‘s and didn’t come with a game either, ha. So part of the challenge is explaining to people who don’t know much about chips that the best kind really do cost this much.

As for WHY even have them at all, there were two inspirations that you’ll never guess. One was an article I read about the netbook computers, and the other is the Kingdom Death: Monster Kickstarter.

I don’t happen to have a link to the article, but it was explaining that there literally are no netbook computers anymore. It listed the top manufactures of them and went down the entire list one by one showing that every single one had discontinued making that type of product. Why? Because, it argued, that that type of product was a no-man’s land in the middle of two other options. On the one hand, some people wanted netbooks because they just wanted a small thing for web surfing, e-mail, and Facebook. They didn’t need a super powerful computer that, but the iPad completely dominated this market. Maybe an iPad can’t do a lot of things you can do on a computer, but that type of customer didn’t care. They only want very basic functionality.

On the other hand, other people wanted netbooks for a different reason. People with lots of money to spend liked to spend some of it to have a regular laptop computer be smaller. So these people wanted a premium product, not a bare-bones one. They wanted like “the best possible netbook they could get, at any price.” The Macbook Air dominated this market. The build quality is exceptional, OS X is great. Yes, it costs way more than a netbook, but it was for people who wanted to pay for quality. Apple basically drained the entire netbook market away from BOTH sides.

Do you see the part that applies to Pandante? Some people want the price to be as low as possible. If the basic version came with chips, that would drive the price up, and they’d be unhappy. They could have used their own cheapy plastic poker chips, or various pieces of garbage from their house as chips. But some people want chips. How about this idea: some average chips. Is that exciting? Not really, it’s like a netbook. It’s like some middle of the road thing no one actually wants.

But try this out: the best fucking chips you can ever get. Is that exciting? Hell yes it is. I know “the best chips you can get” is way subjective, so when I say that what I mean is for me personally, I want elegant and clean looking chips and those are mysteriously hard to find. So here’s a set, that isn’t plastic, isn’t cheapy clay or composite or that kind with a metal disc in the center for weight, but actual ceramic. (Note to hardcore chip-lovers: the other kind of super top quality chips are made of clay, and I know that, but the Pandante chips designs are not feasible on that kind of clay, and ceramic is also a high grade material.)

Oh, I also mentioned Kingdom Death: Monster. That’s a Kickstarter for a board game that raised over $2 million. It has miniatures that look fantastic. What’s weird is that the designer did the opposite of what I do, though. He wouldn’t show anyone the real game design or the exact card data.

Meanwhile, when I did my Kickstarter for Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition, I made the rules freely available, every image of every chip on my website, and a fully playable online version at fantasystrike.com, lol. For Pandante, the rules are freely available too and so is a print-and-play version with all the cards. Anyway, the point is that, if people didn’t have detailed info on exactly how Kingdom Death Monster played, why did they pledge for it? The same comments came up again and again: “The miniatures look AMAZING and even if I end up not liking the game, I’ll be happy to own the components.”

Another angle there is that the figures really are so good in that game, that it’s kind of better than what you can even get anywhere else. Having a product this so high end that it’s crazy is what generates hype. AND you get the fallback of “I would be happy to own this even if the game isn’t for me.” So I wanted to do the same thing. Chips so good that it’s ridiculous, and the luxury Pandante set doubles as a poker set too, and even comes with a special poker deck by Blivand in the same graphic style as the rest of Pandante. So at the very worst, you get a great poker set (but why not play Pandante? hehe).”

End of Part One

And that is the end of part one of my interview. Part two of the interview can be found here and contains pertinent commentary about the nature of Kickstarter itself. I want to extend a warm thanks to David Sirlin for taking the time to answer my questions! If you are looking for more details about the game you can visit the Pandante Kickstarter page, or visit the website. Keep track of the development of Pandante by following David on Twitter @Sirlin or on Facebook.

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