By day, Doug Levandowski teaches English at Princeton High School. Step into his home, though, and you’ll find board games like Gothic Doctor; Unpub: the Unpublished Card Game; and You’re Fired—all games Levandowski himself created.
You’re Fired received the Most Dynamic board game award at last month’s Boston Fest Indie Games, BostonFIG for short.
For many, the term “board game” might conjure up an image of Monopoly or Clue. Levandowski said “tabletop” is a more accurate term, but board game is the terminology used to differentiate what he creates versus console and video games.
“There is more competing for people’s attention now,” he said. “It is harder to keep people engaged. The designer needs to think more about what they can do with the game.”
Levandowski and his wife, Andrea, like to play Settlers of Catan, a tabletop game where players act as settlers, acquiring resources, expanding settlements and earning points in the process.
The problem came when the couple wanted to play alone.
“She let me do my thing poking at it, asking what we do to tweak it for two players,” he said. “It got me thinking about the mechanics and what makes a fun game.”
Ultimately, he was not successful, “but I learned a lot from failure and had a good time trying,” Levandowski said.
He co-wrote his first game, Gothic Doctor, with John McNeill about five years ago. They launched a Kickstarter, which was unsuccessful. Though it worked out the following year, Levandowski has sworn off the self-publishing route.
Gothic Doctor is a “pandemic game” where players work together to try to cure a disease found in Gothic literature.
“The tension is very important,” he said. “How do you keep people interested from beginning to end? The more modern games consider player engagement and fun.”
Which is why he is especially excited about You’re Fired winning the Most Dynamic award.
“In board games ‘most dynamic’ means a synthesis of board mechanics, theme, and art,” he said. “It was great. Super flattering. Super surprising.”
Of his three games, Gothic Doctor is the most traditional. It’s a box game with more components than the other two. Unpub is strictly a card game. A gamer friend from Texas, J.R. Honeycutt, gave advice to Levandowski when he was creating Gothic Doctor.
“J.R. said the No. 1 thing you can do is cut your game in half,” Levandowski said. “Fifty-four is the magic number because it fits on a printer sheet. I wanted the game to work for four players.”
But at that point, the game still had more than 54 cards. Honeycutt suggested that Levandowski cut down on the number of cards by combining other elements of the game. It went from a 15-minute game to a 10-minute game without sacrificing elements of the Gothic Doctor experience.
“It is about the experience you want to deliver,” Levandowski said. “Some have to be two-, three-, four-hour games. Some can be quick—10 to 15 minutes. Gothic Doctor is an action game. The cards are the main part of the game. There are treatment cards to treat patients and action cards to make it easier for you to heal or harder for others.”
Andrea, a project manager for small business development and technology at the New Jersey State Library, prefers playing a less aggressive version of the game, so they remove the cards that might make it harder for others.
“If I play with my friend Ian Reed,” Levandowski said, “he likes to go for the throat,” so the helpful cards are removed.
The community is what Levandowski, who grew up in Pennington and attended Brown University and Ohio State University, loves most about designing games.
“When I first started, I thought it would be people out of mom’s basement who wanted to tear people down. In fact, the opposite is true—they live out of the attic,” Levandowski said. “They are so warm and so caring. The community as a whole is so wonderful and supportive and creative and awesome. I was stunned at my first convention. The community is welcoming and inclusive. It was great to meet people, make friends, and play games.”
He attended his first convention in 2013 after struggling to create Gothic Doctor. He said he and McNeill were trying to design in a vacuum, which he learned does not work. You need people to play the games and give feedback, as it happened with Honeycutt, and testing games is a big part of the convention environment.
Levandowski and Honeycutt went on to create Unpub: the Unpublished Card Game, which came out in the middle of 2015. Unpub came from pitching games to publishers, and it’s published through the company Dice Hate me Games.
He co-created his most recent game, You’re Fired, with Jason Tagmire. Released this year, the quick, two-player game has players competing to be the first to get the other’s boss fired before their boss loses his job. It only takes about 10 minutes to play.
Levandowski says when designing the game, “the experience you want players to have should drive the design. If you want to have fun and goof around, you design a game like charades or Taboo. If you want meaningful decisions with luck and things being problematic, you are playing a longer, two-to-three-hour game. I tend to go for lighter and more fun—well, fun in the sense of stuff going on.”
Levandowski’s real passion, though, is teaching English, which he has done for 12 years, and aspires to do for another 36. Students recently asked him to advise a new club. As an advisor to five other clubs, he hesitated until he heard they wanted him to lead the board game club. He smiled and agreed to it, while continuing to advise the newspaper, gender and sexuality alliance, stand-up comedy, ethics bowl, and vegetarian clubs.
In his spare time, Levandowski enjoys “hanging out with people who are awesome and creative and doing interesting things and playing games with them.” Last month, he went to a board game meet-up at a local Panera. He brought with him Code Names, Grizzled (“a wonderfully simple emotional game about World War I, a great cooperative game), Star Realms (“a deck builder game”), Lantern, Convert, and his own game, You’re Fired.
At home, the Levandowskis have “shelves organized by stuff I have bought but not played yet, open ones I’d grab anytime, and ones we really like but don’t do as often.”
The latter category has many games he plays with other people because Andrea doesn’t like them as much.
Levandowski is working on his next game, which will be part of Chris O’Neill’s Seven Minutes in Hell series of games that are a “tongue in cheek look back at middle school, based on games played in middle school.” Though there is no reason a middle schooler could not play the game, it is meant for adults to look back on their middle school days.
The Levandowskis co-host North East Nerd Night, a monthly charity game night, with their friends Elton Clark and Terrie Judge. The event is held the third Tuesday of each month from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Triumph Brewing Company in New Hope, Pennsylvania. People can bring their own games, or play one of the dozen or so games the Levandowskis bring with them. There is no cover charge or drink minimum. As they are in a private room, it is open to gamers of all ages. Past local charities supported include Fisherman’s Mark, Tabby’s Place, and A Woman’s Place. New gamers are always welcome.