Words by David C. Obenour
A quintessential landmark of the America coast, beach towns are an interesting mix of lodging, food and fun for the throngs of out-of-towners and the more permanent residents alike. For every $5 t-shirt there’s a hidden menu item and for every line at the ferris wheel there’s a tucked away stretch of perfect beach.
Celebrating these communities, AEG’s Josh Wood packs a surprising amount of thought and theme into Santa Monica’s 45 minute playtime. The game components include sand dollars, seagulls, an elusive food truck meeple and much more, that all put you in the mindset of lapping waves, grilling burgers and muffled carnival game music.
Off Shelf: You live in Los Angeles, a very interesting place to be both in terms of the quarantine and protests. How are you doing?
Josh Wood: I’m doing well and staying safe during these difficult times. I think this has been hard for a lot of people and I feel fortunate that I am able to work right now and stay healthy.
OS: Has the extended quarantine changed any of the way you look at playing and creating games?
JW: In the future, human interaction will become a more important feature of the games I create. I think that right now is a reminder that playing with people makes this hobby great. I have completely moved my playtesting efforts to online tools such as Tabletop Simulator which has been really helpful for getting playtests done, but ultimately I miss playing with people in the same room.
OS: Can you talk about the immersive element of board games? Something that seems especially relevant with so many of us stuck inside or limited to a few overly familiar places.
JW: I love the feeling of getting lost in a game. I’m really happy that a lot of people are doing that with Santa Monica. I have received dozens of messages from fans telling me that they feel like they’re at the beach when they play and that it has been a nice respite for them. With Santa Monica my dream was to make a city building game that players cared about. Not just the points, but also the story of their beach that they can live in.
OS: Can you talk a little about the inspiration behind the theme for Santa Monica? What do you love about boardwalk towns?
JW: I knew I wanted to make a game where players have a two row panorama, and a beach town made a lot of sense. Before quarantine, I loved going to Santa Monica on weekends. It has a large farmers market, my favorite sandwich place, and a lot fun stores. In general I’ve always loved the charm that beach towns have. The sun bleached buildings give them a cool history. You can see the local ice cream shop and clearly remember your hometown’s ice cream shop. Beach towns often share similar features, yet each have their own history and stories.
OS: Are you a native to the coast? I’m wondering the differences in ways that a native – or local, in your game – might see this culture as opposed to a transplant – or tourist?
JW: You know what? I’m not. California is the 7th state I’ve lived in, and while I do feel at home here, I am just a fan of different cities and the people who live in and travel to them. Originally in Santa Monica there was only one type of person. But as I was creating specific buildings in my fictional version of Santa Monica, I found myself adding historical facts about the town. “This place is where the locals love to go,” or “this is one of those trashy souvenir shops that sell overpriced junk”. The local/tourist dynamic came out of that. Locals know the way around town so they can move farther while the tourists stumble around, but the latter are often worth more points because they bring in money to your city. They work as opposing forces pretty naturally.
OS: The development of these communities is a very hot button topic – especially considering the livability for locals and the appeal for tourists, both which are addressed as mechanics in your game. Do you have any personal thoughts on the ways to responsibly develop? Was that part of your thinking in creating Santa Monica?
JW: Absolutely! I was in Venice – Italy, not California – about two years ago and tourism is a real issue for the city. They’ve had to dig large trenches for the cruise ships and the amount of tourists coming to the city is causing the island to sink. Locals, and some tourists, really care about the place staying intact, but one of the downsides to a beautiful place is that people will want to go see it. I really hope that these wonderful places don’t compromise too much so they can keep their original beauty intact.
I also want to mention there’s also a lot of cards in Santa Monica which just represent nature which I suppose could be another “side” of a beach community. Beaches are often filled with trash because people don’t respect their surroundings enough.
OS: From sand dollars tokens and a food truck meeple, there are a lot of fun details in the components. Can you talk about some of your favorites? Was there any element you had initially hoped to include that didn’t end up making it into the final game?
JW: My favorite is the food truck and the person trying to catch up to it. It’s a fun little story. As far as something that didn’t make it – Initially there were trash tokens that went out on some cards with a lot of people that you could pick up and recycle or suffer victory points. I wish that this could’ve found a place in the game, but ultimately I think it gave people to much to worry about. I also didn’t want people to think I saw Santa Monica as a trashy place. I really do love the city.
OS: We’re living in a very weird time, a very different time from when you created and designed Santa Monica. Do you see your game any differently now than when you created it?
JW: I have missed going outdoors and I think my game gives a good memory of being in nature and going into stores. Lately, I just want to put on some Beach Boys and sink into that world.
OS: You created the artwork with Jeremy Nguyen, can you talk about your partnership and how that worked in the illustrations for the game?
JW: Jeremy’s great! We’ve been friends since college so reaching out to him on such a personal project was a must. Jeremy flew out to L.A. and we spent the day going around Venice and Santa Monica taking pictures of stores, palm trees, street lights, trash cans… you name it. The next day we talked about the various buildings I wanted in the game and what fun hidden details we could place into the art to add authenticity. Then he got to work. He’d wake up and draw all day until around 2AM. Go to sleep. Wake up. Do it all over again. I sat beside him most the time giving him direction in real time but also just allowing him to add his thoughts onto it. I also want to give a shoutout to the graphic designer Brigette Indelicato, for really selling the overall look of the game with her treatments. Especially that logo which really sells the product in my opinion.
OS: It’s definitely a fun looking game and captures the theme well. Can you talk about your philosophy when it comes to creating game illustrations? Both in appeal and in-game function?
JW: Regarding appeal, I think working with diverse people with different art styles really helps heighten the appeal of a product. It’s important to work with talented people that you can trust and give freedom to. It is also important to me that a game has art that is authentic, unique, and draws players into the world of the game. In terms of function, I gravitate towards art that reinforces what the icons are telling players. For example, in Santa Monica there is an illustration of a wave on every card that gives you a wave icon.