Ammon Anderson on how a painful accident led him to create the much-lauded Gnome Hollow
Ammon, thanks for making time for this. I’m delighted to talk to you about Gnome Hollow – lots of people have been excited about this game! It was called “The hottest ticket at GAMA Expo 2023” and some are predicting it will be 2024’s standout tabletop title. Is it your first game?
Actually, it’s my second. I worked as a graphic designer in the insurance industry until about four years ago. I set out as an artist, but after a couple of years, that wasn’t going anywhere. As I sat at my kiosk in the local mall, I began creating and illustrating a game called T.A.C.O. I illustrated the entire game in 28 days. Three months later, I Kickstarted it and it barely funded – to my regret!
Yeah, I ended up losing money everywhere on T.A.C.O. because I honestly didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t have a plan… But it did fund which was really cool. Personally, I was thrilled to see my game become a reality. Nothing can beat the feeling of having your idea become a reality. However, I didn’t have enough money to fulfil. But I wasn’t going to do that to all the people who supported me, so I put all the shipping costs on my credit card to get my backers their copies!
It’s a great little party game and years later, I have two publishers looking at it right now.
I’m glad there’s potentially a happy ending there! So did you start working on Gnome Hollow straight after that experience?
No, I had an art gallery in the local mall at the time, but it was tanking – it was really hard to sell art in the middle of COVID-19. Anyway, I was heading home from the gallery on Christmas Eve, and I was rear-ended at a stop light. The girl was texting and hit me going 45mph. I woke up on the other side of the intersection.
I had a really bad concussion, which turned into post-concussion syndrome… I didn’t work for eight months because I was so dizzy with a non-stop migraine that I couldn’t function. I’ve had a constant migraine since the accident – for almost three years now.
That sounds absolutely awful.
It was. For an extended time, all I could do was lay in bed in a dark room; it’s enough to drive you insane. Finally, one day, I asked my wife to bring me my watercolours and I started painting what would become the meadow of Gnome Hollow.
But at this point, there wasn’t a game in mind?
No, it was just these fun little mushroom paths. I started painting, and it helped me; I felt better as I painted. I still didn’t feel good – I still have pain every day – but it changed something and made the pain tolerable. I jumped into it and as I painted more pathways, I realised there’s a game here!
How did you take it further? What helped push it from painting to a board game?
Well, I threw that first sheet of paper away and started again, but this time, I was really deliberately painting pathways that worked on a hexagonal grid. I sketched out a central garden with pathways that would connect in interesting and unique ways. I then created some tokens on my 3D printer which quickly evolved into little gnome pieces. The game evolved naturally; it felt like the game wanted to exist – it almost made itself!
Almost! But let’s not take anything away from you! We’ve got some snaps of the prototype dotted throughout this piece… You mentioned instinctively knowing it would be a tile-placing game. Were you a fan of this type of game already?
Yes, the first modern board game I played was a tile placement game. I’ve always loved them. So, when I went down this path, I bought the top 10 most popular tile-placement games and played all of them! Mostly because I didn’t want my game to be like any of them. I dissected all of their strengths and weaknesses…
Amazing. And why do you think the gnome theme presented itself to you?
I’m typically into heavier themes, but Gnome Hollow is so warm and bright and colourful because I think that’s what I personally needed at the time. I was living in constant pain and in a dark place, so I started building something fun, light, and cheerful. My wife suggested that gnomes would go really well with the mushroom path theme, so I added gnomes!
Before we continue, we should let people know how Gnome Hollow plays! How would you pitch it?
In a nutshell, Gnome Hollow is a tile-placement game with developing worker placement. Turns are simple. On your turn, a player selects two out of eight tiles to place into a growing tabletop garden. Then they may move one gnome to take an action.
Tiles have partial paths of little white mushrooms on them – and occasional colourful mushrooms. You are combining these together to create mushroom rings. Each time a ring is formed you get to select a qualifying bonus and your board automatically increases your score.
Because of the centralised garden, players are all building around each other, so actions such as “reserving a ring” are essential so that other players cannot steal your work. In Gnome Hollow, gnomes are passive-aggressive! Other actions include selling mushrooms at the Pinwheel Market, visiting signposts as they are placed into the garden, and collecting wildflowers. There’s more to the game than this, but people will have to play it to fully understand.
It sounds great. And I imagine there’s fun ‘conflict’ in carving out space for your rings on in the garden.
Yes – with players all building rings next to each other, it creates a lot of fun tension. It also means each time another gnome builds part of their ring, it affects how you can build yours. When you complete a ring, with your gnome on it, you get rewards – and the bigger the ring, the better the reward. So planning your strategy is as important as the tiles you select and the mushrooms you collect to sell later in the market.
You make important decisions each turn, but the game is designed to keep those turns quick so those decisions are constantly changing and evolving.
Yes, there are plenty of really smart nuances in the game, including some worker placement elements, and a market… There’s enough meat on the bones for tabletop gamers to sink their teeth into, but simple enough for new players to embrace.
Yes, the complexity quietly ramps up as you play, but everything stems from placing tiles. So, clever players will be able to select and place tiles in ways that can benefit them in two or three ways simultaneously. This complexity is hard to describe in words.
Placing a tile might help you finish a ring, that gives you a really strategic bonus, but also allows you to collect the mushrooms you need to buy treasure at the market and block that sale from another player. Players tend to have an “Aha! Moment” about halfway through their first game when they begin to see how every tile you place is really crucial in this game.
Great stuff. So how did this find its way to USAopoly? How did you pitch it around?
I actually didn’t pitch the game to any publisher! I was going to put it on Kickstarter. A close friend of mine – Brandt Brinkerhoff, the designer of the amazing game OROS – suggested I go to Dice Tower West in Las Vegas with him.. He felt people would really love Gnome Hollow. So, we split a hotel room and went. Honestly dude, over those four days, I played Gnome Hollow non-stop from 10AM to 2AM with attendees and publishers – my brain was on fire! It was so hard…
It was – but it was also amazing! I had publishers walking up to my table wanting to play the game. I got incredible feedback. I was interviewed on a YouTube channel. A major publisher gave me valuable feedback that gave me a lot of confidence in the game I had created and speaking with other publishers.
Bree Goldman, an industry professional, told me I should bring Gnome Hollow to GAMA Expo. She had played the game at Dice Tower West. She is the best! Anyway, I brought the game to the GAMA Expo the next month – April 2023 – and publisher after publisher requested to play it. I had jumped in the deep end and I didn’t even know it!
It went down well!?
It was crazy. On the second night of the GAMA Expo, my table was swarmed with publishers and influencers all asking to play it and know more! The week in Reno was a whirlwind – I showed the game to everyone who asked that week. When I got home the buzz continued to spread…
Over the next four months, I received 13 offers from so many incredible companies. More than that, I realised that there are so many incredible people working in this industry. I have made so many wonderful friends through this process.
Absolutely – and 13 offers! Wow…
Yeah, every publisher that I talked to felt that Gnome Hollow could appeal to both the mass and hobby markets. I designed it to be accessible, but you can play it as zen or competitive as you want. I also include a hard version that really challenges hobby players because of the difficulty.
Was USAopoly one of those who wanted the game at GAMA?
I met USAopoly – or The Op – at the GAMA Expo, but it’s an interesting story. By the third day, I was feeling totally overwhelmed. Gnome Hollow was attracting publishers and influencers like an industrial magnet. About halfway through the second day, I needed a break, so I ran off to hide in the bathroom!
On the way, I walked past a digital game board that looked amazing. I stopped and started talking to the guys who were there. As we were chatting, one of them asked who I was and how I was finding the show. I quickly flashed Gnome Hollow that I was holding under my arm, mentioned how it had been received, and told them that I thought publishers were scary… The other guy laughed and pointed across the table to the other guy and said: “You do know that he is a publisher!?”
Ha! Exactly! But as I was trying to apologise and backpedal, he said: “Don’t worry! It sounds like you’re overwhelmed and could use a sounding board. I haven’t heard about Gnome Hollow yet, but I would love to hear more. And I can give you a bit of advice.” I could honestly just feel that he was being genuine. That man was USAopoly’s Tony Serebriany.
Ah! I thought so! Tony is a gem.
Tony was so kind to me. He’s exactly what you’d hope a human being would be. The next night we played the game with Daniel Burrell on an empty information desk at 11PM. Tony said: “I think the Op would be interested in Gnome Hollow, but if you would prefer I just remain a sounding board, I am OK with that as well.”
He shared why he felt the game was really good and he coached me through things like what to look for in a contract and other areas of the business. This turned into regular phone calls following the convention. We both laughed about how crazy the buzz was growing for Gnome Hollow. He coached me for months and we became good friends.
A couple of months later, he called me and said: “The Op is interested in giving you an offer for Gnome Hollow, but I also know you’re a bit overwhelmed, and I don’t want to add another layer of stress with another offer. If it’s too much, I’ll tell them no and that’s absolutely fine – I can continue to help you navigate this as a friend.”
What was your first reaction?
What an honour! I knew the Op was a quality publisher and was thrilled that they were also interested in the game. So I told him I would welcome an offer from the Op. The offer came in and as I weighed who I wanted the game to go to, I kept coming back to the Op. Amazing publishers were presenting offers, but I cannot explain why the Op just felt like the right home for Gnome Hollow…
I’d met the team, loved them, and trusted them. Then just before Gen Con, I made the decision to go with the Op. My wife went to Gen Con with me and met Tony for the first time and the team… When we left their booth she said: “WOW! What an amazing team! I know why you wanted to go with the Op.”
From the day I signed with the Op, the way they’ve worked with me on the game totally reinforces that I made the right choice for Gnome Hollow. They’re an incredible team – and they have the chops for both mass and hobby, so it’s a perfect fit for Gnome Hollow.
What a fantastic story – and a nice testament to the fact that the industry boasts good eggs like Tony. I should ask, when is Gnome Hollow set to launch?
It’ll be released at GenCon 2024. I am so excited!
Good luck with that; I’m sure there’ll be queues! Have you been bitten by the game design bug now?
Yes, I’ve designed another game called Twinkle Twinkle that I will be showing off personally at Pax Unplugged in December. It’s a fast-playing tile-placement game and I’m working on refining the scoring system for that now. I’m also working on six other games – one’s called Eat the Feet. It’s a funny, family-friendly dice placement game with polyominos.
We’ll have to tie-back in to dive into those soon! Before we wrap up, given that Gnome Hollow was born out of the aftereffects of your accident, how do you now fuel your creativity? What helps you have ideas today?
Life. I look around and I see ideas for games everywhere.
You can approach game design by refining game mechanics, or by exploring a theme. I’m very much the sort of designer who designs the theme first. I feel like I can solve so many gameplay issues by leaning heavily on a theme. Gnome Hollow was pretty broken at one point because of a ‘rain’ mechanic I’d added. I loved it, but it was not working. I was trying to work out what was wrong and so I looked at the theme again… I realised that mushrooms don’t actually grow in the rain! I removed the mechanic and the game improved drastically. Engaging with my themes helps me find design solutions over and over again.
Ammon, this has been fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us and I look forward to seeing how Gnome Hollow resonates when it lands next year.
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