Friday, September 22, 2006

Ted Cheatham and the Road to Silk Road

First, a reminder that at Charcon (the first game convention in Charleston, West Virginia), on Saturday, October 7, at noon, I plan to run A Game of Thrones mini-tournament. Fantasy Flight Games has generously donated a copy of the Storm of Swords expansion as a prize for the game. You can sign up for this competition by e-mailing the Charcon gnomes at Find out more information on CharCon at

And now, today’s blog…

I never expected to know a real game designer. But Ted Cheatham, the heart of the Appalachian Gamers Club, is seeing his first published game debut this week. Silk Road is medium-weight game based on the famous medieval trading route that ran from the Near East to China. I decided to ask Ted for an interview and see what the real story was behind the creation of this wheeling and dealing masterpiece.

KRIS: Ted, I know you’re a major history buff, and so I assume that Silk Road was inspired by books about this legendary trading route.

TED: Absolutely. The idea came to me after reading the Stephen Ambrose book “One Hump or Two: The Silk Road and Camels of Glory.” Plus, Through the Desert had just been nominated for the Speil des Jahres, and Knizia was making boatloads of dough.

KRIS: Yes, I see how that could inspire you. So how did the various game mechanisms evolve?

TED: Well, from my research I learned that about 1240 A.D., Arab caravan masters began storing goods in three-foot wooden cubes. Turns out, storage cubes are the perfect shape for loading onto camels. And within fifty years after the introduction of cubes, they started color-coding them according to what kind of good was stored in them. Helped a lot during inventory.

KRIS: Of course. So that’s what inspired you to use little wooden cubes as goods in the game.

TED: No. I stole that idea from Age of Steam. But once I learned that there had been real caravan cubes, I felt a lot better about it. And I insisted that the game cubes be exactly 1/123 the size of the real-world cubes.

KRIS: What’s the significance of that number?

TED: It’s the size of the game cubes.

KRIS: Er…Yes.

TED: It’s also fascinating that real caravans used an auction to determine which cities to visit.

KRIS: And so you imported that mechanism into the game.

TED: Well, I really started out with a piece of cardboard and a plastic arrow spinner. But some of the playtesters suggested an auction might be cool. Luckily, that turned out to be a perfectly authentic mechanism.

KRIS: So how did Bruno Faidutti become involved with the game?

TED: I was having a few problems with an early prototype. And I wrote to Bruno, mentioned that I was a fan, and asked for suggestions. I happened to have written to him at exactly the right moment. Bruno had just broken up with Ashley Judd, and he needed a new project to take his mind off things.

KRIS: And what are the advantages of working with Bruno?

TED: Bruno is an exemplary game designer. He tightened up the game, clarified the rules, simplified the scoring system, and provided a lot of great suggestions about the graphic elements. Plus, I got to meet Scarlet Johansson.

KRIS: Wow. How cool is that. So was the game always called Silk Road?

TED: No. The game went through a lot of name changes, as we experimented with different prototypes, and even different themes. At one time or another it was called Chic Sheiks, Humpty the Happy Camel, Corduroy Road, Union Pacific 2 (don’t ask), and Hey! That’s my Cube! I even experimented with a prototype based on the legendary Turkish pastry caravans. That one was called Through the Dessert.

KRIS: So let’s get to the question that everyone really wants answered. Will Silk Road have more plastic camels than Through the Desert?

TED: Are you sure that’s the question people really want answered?

KRIS: Pretty sure.

TED: I mean, Zev at Z-Man thinks people really want a fast-paced, resource-trading game that plays in under an hour.

KRIS: Plastic camels. Got any?

TED: The initial ratings on Boardgamegeek have been very positive. I’m pleased that almost everyone who’s played the game so far has ranked--

KRIS: So there’s no camels?

TED: Who cares if there’s camels! It’s a great game. With or without them.

KRIS: My guess is there’s no camels. Too bad. People loved ‘em in Through the Desert.

TED: Sure. This from the guy who prefers Railroad Tycoon to Age of Steam.

KRIS: What’s that supposed to mean?

TED: Face it. You prefer toys over substance. You can’t handle tough games. You love the second-raters.

KRIS: You’re crazy.

TED: Mister Go-Broke-On-Turn-Three. We had to bend the rules just to keep you in the game.

KRIS: Age of Steam has that tiny dark little board. It’s depressing.

TED: Bet you think Roger Moore was the best James Bond.

KRIS: No, I don’t. But that parachute scene at the beginning of Moonraker is the best action sequence in the whole damn series. You gotta give him that. Why are we talking about this?

TED: You’re threatened by Sean Connery’s virility.

KRIS: Well, at least I didn’t design a caravan game with a great big hulking camel smack in the middle of the cover—and then forgot to put camels in the game.

TED: Bet you like Kevin Costner more than Harrison Ford.

KRIS: Boy, I’m glad you didn’t design Axis and Allies. Open the box and--wow! No planes or tanks or ships. But there’s five hundred wooden cubes! Johnny’s really gonna have fun playing Rommel this Christmas.

TED: Bet you like Rene Zellweger more than Nicole Kidman. You’re drawn to the second rate. You feel at home there.

KRIS: What is this pathetic obsession with movie stars? Did you put them in Silk Road? The winner gets to add Nicole Kidman to his harem. The losers get eaten by Rene Zellweger.

TED: That’s it. Railroad Tycoon is going on the prize table. From now on, it’s Age of Steam or nothing, baby.

KRIS: For the last time: are there plastic camels or not?

TED: Buy the game and find out.

KRIS: Fine. Be that way.

TED: Fine. I will.

KRIS: Fine.

TED: Fine.

KRIS: If Roger Moore had designed Silk Road, there’d be plastic camels.

(Interview resumes two days later)

KRIS: Will we be seeing more games from you in the coming years?

TED: I hope so. I’ve got several prototypes in the works. One that is coming along is based on the annual Amish grain harvest competition. I call that one Sheaf Encounter.

KRIS: Of course.

TED: And I’m putting my parental experience to use in my latest prototype. Each player is a parent with three demanding kids. The parent who can satisfy the greatest number of childish demands by the end of the game is the winner. Right now it’s called Whine Handler.

KRIS: I can relate. Now, what about these rumors that you’ve got a secret project in the works?

TED: I can’t say too much about that. But it isn’t a secret that a certain high-profile rock group wants to do a remake of the classic animated Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine. The movie studio sees lots of merchandising potential, and they’ve asked me to put together a game.

KRIS: And what’s that one called?

TED: U2 Boat.


huzonfirst said...

This is hilarious. Ted, I always knew you were insane. Kris, I don't know if you started out that way or have just been hanging around Ted too long. Anyway, great piece. I hope Silk Road is just as entertaining!

Coldfoot said...

All interviews should be that entertaining. Thanks Kris, and Ted.