13 Questions with Chris Wray, Designer of Xylotar

by Jay Bernardo April 12, 2024

13 Questions with Chris Wray, Designer of Xylotar

13 Questions with Chris Wray, Designer of Xylotar

We sit down with legendary trick taking card game designer Chris Wray and ask 13 questions about his designs, his process, and how he became the current Director of the FBI.

 

 

1. What was the crucial step on your journey to becoming the current Director of the FBI?

The name was key. When my parents named me Christopher Wray, it became inevitable that I’d become America’s top law enforcement official. It is a name that just screams, “I’m going to be the FBI director one day.”


2. How has designing games impacted your career and personal life?

My coworkers certainly consider it a novelty. When it comes up, I get peppered with a lot of questions. 

But, to be candid, it doesn’t come up very often because most people in my life (outside of  my family and game group) don’t know I design games. When I posted on social media that Xylotar was being published by Bezier, the most frequent message I got was some iteration of, “Wait. What? You design games?!?”


3. BGG has 10 trick taking games attributed to you as the designer. Why trick taking games? Why not board games, wargames, dexterity games, or party games? What is it about designing trick taking that you find fascinating?

I played a lot of trick-taking games growing up, and I’ve been obsessed with them for about a decade. I’ll always have a soft spot for Hearts and Spades and other classics. I’ve spent way too much time huddled around a 1990s PC playing Microsoft Hearts.

 

 

I’ve never had a good idea for another type of game, but maybe one will eventually come to me. I’ve always wanted to design a social deduction game; that’s way harder than it looks! 


4. What makes designing trick taking games difficult?

Designing trick-taking games is, at least to me, easier than designing other games, because the goal is to make a simple, seemingly familiar game, but with a highly original twist. I can design trick-takers in a few hours, whereas I doubt that is even possible with mechanics like worker placement or deck building. 

That said, for those that don’t follow the mechanic closely, I think it can be a challenging area to design in, because it is such a remarkably crowded genre. The most frequent feedback I give when I playtest other people’s designs is that their game is too similar to something that already exists. Trick taking is an area where it is hard to do something fresh and exciting. 

One of the first steps I take when making a new game is sending the genre’s walking encyclopedias (like James Nathan or Taylor Reiner) an email asking if the game I’m working on already exists! 


5. What inspires you to design a new game? What inspired you to design Magic Trick?

For a while, I was trying to put down a different idea every day, then every few months, I would sort through those ideas and pursue the most promising among them.

Magic Trick was born out of my desire to make a game where players could “bid” mid hand. I thought that mechanic would pair nicely with a deduction mechanic. The first iteration (which I barely remember) was a bit of a disaster, but when we first played Magic Trick, it just kind of stuck. The game was almost entirely done, at least until the changes for Xylotar!

 

6. Why have you never designed a shedding or ladder climbing game? Have you ever thought about it?


I’ve fully designed two of them, but I’ve never released the rules into the wild. The first is probably going to be a future ruleset for February, which is a game of mine for which I release a different rule set each year. It is called “Climb the Calendar.” 

 

The second is tentatively codenamed “Split Decision” (which I think is a terrible name, so that’s got to change) and involves receiving a stack of cards like in Tichu, but you have to play from one half before you can use the other, and you score based on what happens when you’re in your second hand. The impact of that is that if you put all of your high cards in your first hand, you can’t score many points with the second hand, but if you do the reverse, it will be hard to even get to your second hand. It is a fun balance. 


7. What other interests or hobbies do you have outside of gaming? How have they (if ever) sneaked into your designs or design process?

I have endless hobbies! I’ve got the collector bug and collect books and vinyl records; I used to collect coins. I travel a lot. The weirdest place I’ve been to has been Antarctica. I love theme parks and will go out of my way to visit them when I’m in a new place (favorite: Tokyo DisneySea). 

For a lot of my trick-taking games, I can recall precisely which album I was listening to when I came up with the idea. And some of my best ideas have come on plane rides, though I’m not sure how or why that happens. The first (and only) solo trick-taker I designed I made because I was alone on a ship in Antarctica, which is just a fantastic place to design a solo game. 


8. Which trick taking designers have inspired you the most?

My favorite game designers are Ted Alspach (Sandbag, You Suck), Friedemann Friese (Foppen, Stichmeister), Alan Moon (Black Spy, Tricks), and Matthias Cramer (Pies). And they all designed the trick-takers I just listed! 

 

 

These days, many of the most inspiring trick-takers are coming from people who focus on that genre, and my favorite designers there are Shreesh Bhat (Aurum), Hinata Origuchi (Seven Prophecies, Tezuma Master), Taylor Reiner (Seers Catalog, Short Zoot Suit), Taiki Shinzawa (9 Lives, Charms, Ghosts of Christmas), and Muneyuki Yokouchi (Cat in the Box, Yokai Septet).


9. Do you think this burst of interest in trick taking games in North America is just a trend, or do you feel it’s here to stay? Why?

I think interest in trick-taking will continue to grow, just because as a portion of people who regularly play board and card games, the trick-taking enthusiasts are a very small circle.   

I’ve long maintained that trick-taking is the most popular game mechanic on the planet. (For a differing viewpoint, here is Alan Moon dissenting!) 

That means that good designs like The Crew or Cat in the Box can really break out and sell a lot of copies, since there are literally millions (or possibly billions) of people that know the basics of trick taking.  

That said, I think the recent flood of trick-taking designs has to end at some point. It is already much harder to design with the mechanic than it was a few years ago because so many games already exist. It's great for fans of the genre. But at some point it will be hard to make something new. That said, maybe I’m wrong on that too because human creativity seems to have no bounds! 


10. As the Director of the FBI & a trick taking card game designer, you must get asked countless questions. What’s a question you’ve never been asked but feel should be asked more often from game designers?

Q: “Are aliens real?”
A: Only in One Night Ultimate Alien.

Q: “What game do you wish you had designed?” 
A: My answer would be Stichmeister by Friedemann Friese, since it is always a wild time, and the audacity of that design is impressive. For the uninitiated, it is basically a trick-taking game where you pick the rules each hand, making thousands of possible trick-taking games.  

 

 

11. How do you feel about the development and evolution of Magic Trick to Xylotar?

I’ve been pretty open about the fact that getting to work with Ted Alspach on a game was a dream come true for me. He’s one of my favorite game designers. I’m a giant fan of several of his designs (Ultimate Werewolf, the One Night series, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Suburbia, Maglev Metro, the Silver series, etc.).  

And I love the changes. The tiered deck Ted added was a genius add. The new scoring is perfect for a wider audience. And the 2-player game (also a Ted add) is superb. 

 

 

12. What are your thoughts on the rather unique theme of Xylotar?

I love it.

I absolutely love it. 

I remember reading the email from Ted and thinking, “Yes, this is perfect!” And when I saw the artwork — the cards as keys on a musical instrument – I fell in love.

The backstory came later, and it is absolutely hilarious. For the uninitiated, it is worth a read. Bobby McColdsnap (the polar bear) goes to a concert, and afterwards, there is a tragedy. Bobby is suspected of a crime and escapes into the night with the Xylotar. As one friend put it, players will start playing the game, and then somebody will interrupt and ask, “Wait, do you think the polar bear did it?”

 

13. Sources say you were around in the late 1900s. Do you have a favorite song from the 80s? Is it “Things Can Only Get Better” by Howard Jones?

The rumors are true: I do date back to the late 1900s, and even lived through part of the 1980s.

“Things Can Only Get Better” is a great song, but my favorite 80s song would either be “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John or “Africa” by Toto. And both of those albums (Too Low for Zero, Toto IV) are awesome.

 

Xylotar comes to retail in June 2024.

https://lw6olftftv05fh5m-7404855.shopifypreview.com/collections/all-games/products/xylotar-preorder

Pre-order Xylotar to get your copy before the retail release!




Jay Bernardo
Jay Bernardo

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