Designer Julio E. Nazario on how a career in engineering steers his approach to inventing games like Ctrl and Holi: Festival of Colors

Julio E. Nazario
Julio E. Nazario is a rising star of the game design world, with his eye-catching titles like Ctrl and Holi: Festival of Colors leading tabletop royalty Eric Lang to recently tweet: ‘Julio Nazario will win a Spiel des Jahres before 2025’.

As Holi readies for launch, we caught up with Julio to learn more about his start in game design, how his engineering career influences his creations, and what he makes of high praise like Lang’s.

Julio E. Nazario
Hi Julio! To kick us off, how did you first develop an interest in game design?
I started with video games! When I was little, I had a GameBoy and played Pokémon, and since then I’ve always had a Nintendo console. Video games were my jam!

One of the things I really enjoyed about video games in the early days was ‘couch co-op play’. Sitting on the couch with friends, just playing games. I used to host this thing where we’d put five or six TVs out and play Smash Bros. or Street Fighter and all those classics.

I’m originally from Puerto Rico, and when I graduated college, I moved to the US. When I moved here, I didn’t know a lot of people, but I’m a big extrovert and started to go to places where people would meet to play games. I went to the local games store and they had a local board game convention. That’s where I first played games like Catan, Ticket to Ride, Bang! and I was blown away by how far they’d come from games I knew about like Monopoly, Scrabble and Clue.

So after this board game epiphany, was it long before you started to design your own games?
Well, that was about five years ago, and I spent a few years playing more games and buying more games, and then three years ago I had an idea.

I work for the Forest Service as an engineer, and I was out with a co-worker and he was talking about lots of different types of trees and how they all had different colours associated to them; red maple, yellow pine, black walnut, white oak. I thought that was cool and that maybe there was a game in there somewhere! I called it Timber Tactics and that was my first ever design.

Julio E. Nazario
It’s fascinating to hear how your job inspired your first ever design in such a direct way! Are there any other aspects of your approach to game design that you feel are down to your engineering background?

Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of my designs have a lot of special and 3D elements to them, and verticality as well. I like to explore those areas in board games. As a civil engineer, I get to do a lot of AutoCAD design and deal with topography and grading. For that you need to think in three dimensions and expand your mind to visualise things in that way, and that definitely helps when it comes to game design.

There’s also the math element too. I’m not a great storyteller, so my designs are maybe more mechanically inclined. My ideas spawn from all kinds of sources – names, themes, mechanisms – but engineering is at the base of it all.

Great stuff. Now to dig into some of your designs, am I right in thinking Ctrl from Pandasaurus Games your first published game?
Yes, Ctrl was my first game to be released but actually was my fourth game I signed! Things work differently with different publishers, but Ctrl was the first to come out, back in July. A few of my games were supposed to launch in 2020, but things have changed for obvious reasons!

Julio E. Nazario
Yes, I can imagine the pandemic has played havoc with a lot of planned tabletop launches this year.

Yes, but this still worked out well. Ctrl has been really well received.

It looks fantastic! Talk us through the basic premise and where the idea came from?
Well I love that Ctrl was my first published game because it’s such a simple, elegant game. You essentially have a 3D 3×3 black cube, the size a Rubik’s Cube, but it has holes it in. You are connecting smaller cubes to essentially control areas of the cube, tackling it from five different directions. You’re basically connecting cubes in a line, but when you wrap around a corner, the 3D aspect comes into play. It’s simple, but has a lot of depth.

Julio E. Nazario
And how did these first deals come about? Did you go to a show and nail your pitches first time?

I wish! When I started out, I had lots and lots of designs. Some new designers focus on one game, which is fine, but for me, I kept having ideas and I kept working on them. In my first year, I’d probably designed around 15 games.

When I got into board game design, I put all my extra time into that. I listened to podcasts, watched videos and just learnt as much as possible from other people’s experiences. That helped me a lot and going to conventions was a big help. That’s where I met publishers and designers, and oddly enough, my first ever pitch at a convention was with two different publishers at the same time! I pitched four games and I didn’t sign any of them, but the original version of my game Holi was actually in there!

And that’s Holi: Festival of Colors, which is actually being published later this month by Floodgate Games?
Yes! So that taught me that while a game might not sit right with a certain publisher, it could be a perfect fit for another. With Holi, that was definitely the case!

Julio E. Nazario
Sticking with Holi, it looks fantastic and has a novel theme. Where did the seed for that idea come from, and was the theme there from the start?

The game has a rich history and the theme is actually different from my original one. The inspiration for Holi came from a convention I went to for work. There was a native American speaker and he was telling us stories about his culture. He said that in his culture, they have 7 directions, instead of four. These were north, south, east, west, Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. I thought that was really cool, and that’s where the idea started; I wanted three boards in a single game that all interacted with other.

One thing I’m always very careful about, being from Puerto Rico, is the use of other people’s cultures in my designs. With this idea, I knew I had to be careful, so I started doing research and looking into cultures that also had similar ideas, and I noticed that Shamanism had this concept of The World Tree; the branches of the tree represent the heavens, the trunk of the tree represented the earth and the roots of the tree represented the underworld.

My initial design used the box as part of the game. The branches were on the box, which was elevated, then the insert was the trunk and then I had the board on the table. It looked nice, but that 3D verticality helped people grasp how the puzzle of the game worked.

I signed it to Floodgate Games, but at the time, they had a game coming out called Bosk, which was a game about trees. This meant they didn’t want a tree theme again, so Ben Harkins, the owner of Floodgate Games, brought forward the idea of Holi as a theme.

Julio E. Nazario
And were you a fan of that theme from the off?

Well, one of the first things I said was “let’s make sure this is done right”. I wanted us to do our research and use cultural consultants and Ben was all over it. I didn’t even need to say it, he was already doing it and everyone did a fantastic job on the game. You can see for yourself with the product, it’s beautiful, a great game, but it’s culturally accurate as well.

It’s interesting, and encouraging, that you brought that up with the publisher straight away. Do you think it’s ultimately the designer’s responsibility to ensure they pick partners who will take the time to research these kinds of themes and utilise them in games responsibly? I imagine some new designers, especially if it concerned one of their first deals, might worry about bringing that up when entering into discussions with publishers.
For sure. It all depends on what publisher you’re dealing with. I’m glad Floodgate Games was open to this kind of thing and it wasn’t a surprise because they’ve been doing this for a while. I don’t know what the situation would’ve been if I’d signed the game with a different publisher. Maybe they would’ve gone a different way, and not been as considered. That’s why it’s important that when you sign a deal for your games, you sign with somebody that you trust based on their previous games.

As you get deeper into the industry and the community, you talk with more designers, and when someone has had a good experience with a publisher, that sort of thing gets brought up. And it’s exactly the same with negative experiences.

Julio E. Nazario
I’m also interested, as you mention, the game is unique in the sense that it’s played across three tiers; was that a stumbling block for any publishers?

It definitely created a few walls, because some aren’t comfortable with games that look complicated from a production standpoint. You get more rejection with these kinds of games, but I think if you’re working on something you enjoy, you should keep doing it, and you’ll eventually find someone who believes in your vision, and that’s what I did.

Absolutely. Now, with a few games under your belt, you must be a pitching pro, so I’m interested in what makes for a successful pitch?
Being prepared is key, and that’s easy to achieve, because ultimately, you know your game best. Ensuring that information is translated to someone else in an organised manner that’s easily understood is really important. One of the things I started doing, and still do, is having a good sell sheet for each of my games, detailing the essence and the hook of each one.

I also make overview videos for my games for when I pitch them, and I attach a QR code to the sell sheets so publishers can easily scan it and watch the videos.

Having rules written down for your game is also vital. Some people might reach out with a sell sheet, but not a finished version of their rules. I like to be prepared and have everything on hand that a publisher might need. I don’t like to keep publishers waiting in that respect.

One of the traits that can sometimes sink new designers is an unhealthy attachment to their games, and often only having one idea can fuel that. I’m interested, did being overly precious about your ideas ever get in the way for you in the early days?
That was definitely a thing. For my first game, I made everyone sign NDAs and I even paid an artist to create art for my game, because I was so excited about this new venture. But I was watching videos, listening to podcasts and learning from designers that have been doing this for many years, and when a lot of people mention the same things over and over, it’s probably true! So it wasn’t long before I wasn’t doing NDAs, I wasn’t worrying too much about art and instead I just cared about the design side of things.

Absolutely, and I imagine having 15 ideas straight off the bat helps to prevent you becoming too attached to any of them! And on that, how do you have so many ideas? What fuels your creativity?
Having time for myself helps, and doing something on autopilot, like driving around. I’m an engineer and I deal with a lot of roads; yesterday I had to drive five hours as I was going around inspecting roads. That gives you a lot of time to think and that’s where my inspiration comes from. At this point, I have lots of ideas and not enough time to implement them!

Did lockdown impact on your ideation process this year then, not being able to go out and about?
It did, but not in the way that you think! I knew I wouldn’t be going to many conventions this year, so I set myself the task to learn new skills that may help me ‘level-up’ as a designer and I got a 3D printer. I’ve learned how to use it and it has levelled up my designs as a lot of my ideas have a 3D element to them.

I also learned how to use nanDECK, which is a software that merges with Excel to help designers make cards or tiles, and also got to grips with Tabletop Simulator. It’s become the new standard for playtesting at this point, as people can’t playtest physically. It is a bit limited, especially for the kinds of games that I design, but it is useful.

As an aside, in my job as an engineer, I’ve been studying for my professional engineer exam. I took that in October, so games design took a backseat for a few months, but I get my results back soon. So yes, 2020 has been a growing year for me!

Well good luck with the results! I’m sure you’ve aced it! Before I let you go, I saw on Twitter that prolific game designer Eric Lang mentioned you in response to a question about rising stars in the design world. He said ‘Julio Nazario will win a Spiel des Jahres before 2025’. Support and encouragement in this industry doesn’t get better than that!
Ha! That’s obviously putting quite a weight on my shoulders! But I’m not going to change anything based on that, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. If it happens, it happens and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

I’ve met a lot of great people over the last three years, including Eric, and when people see you’re professional, you do your research and have a good work ethic, you stand out in a positive way.

Lots of people approach this from a monetary standpoint, which is fine, but for me, I enjoy the fun of it. I have my own job as an engineer, which I love, and I don’t see myself switching to game design full-time anytime soon. I’m doing it because I love it and if the games are successful, that’s even better.

Good stuff, and one last question, can you tell us anything about any of your upcoming games? Who knows, one of them could be the Spiel des Jahres winner that Eric is sensing!
Yeah, I have a game coming out that features a core mechanism centred around changing DNA strands. I’m really excited to see how that one ends up like. I’m working on euro games and party games and trying to do a little of everything.

As a new designer, I hadn’t played a lot of games, and it was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I didn’t know what was out there, but that allowed me to create some quite unique games and develop my own style.

Thank you so much Julio; it was great to catch up. Good luck with Holi, and fingers crossed for you on the engineering exam front too!

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