Interview with Douglas Morse, "The Next Great American Game"

Mr. Morse is currently wrapping production of what looks to be a truly excellent documentary film about the industry and one man's quest to publish a game. To order The Next Great American Game, you can visit  A review should be available on this blog once the film is released around December 2014.

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m a filmmaker. At this point, it’s a compulsion really. I don’t have to do it, but I’m driven to do it. The creative process really is a joy most of the time. But sometimes the process can be so grueling, so draining, that it doesn’t seem worth the stress and hassle. On my last film, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Renaissance era drama The Jew of Malta, I turned to my costume designer in a particularly difficult moment and confided “I don’t think I can do this again.” And she replied, “You all say that.”

What inspired you to make a film about the designer game industry in general, and at what moment did you narrow your focus to tell the specific story the film ultimately tells?  Looking at your Kickstarter updates, it seems initial shooting looked at the process of game design, then you began to follow one hopeful designer in specific.

I’ve always been a tabletop gamer. It began in earnest with Dungeons and Dragons when I was a teenager and continued off and on with tabletop and role-playing games. And then Settlers of Catan -- back in ’95 when it was only available as an import -- blew my mind. I spent the next five years or so fully immersed in the burgeoning Euro-game hobby. So the idea for making a documentary about the tabletop game industry has been brewing for quite a while. But I didn’t have a subject. When I saw "Caine’s Arcade," I knew I wanted to make a film about the designers. The people who played with bits of cardboard would be inspiring. After The Jew of Malta, I didn’t have a plan. But coming off a large scale period piece managing 50 or so cast and crew, the idea of a one-man-band documentary was appealing.

So for nearly six months, off and on, I started to interview designers, known and unknown, attending PAX East, the New York Toy Fair, Origins, and Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends. In terms of the main story, I had several false starts as I searched for a subject and a way to tell the story. I interviewed well known designers like Alan Moon and Richard Launius, as well as publishers and developers from Hans im Gluck and Abacus Spiel. I attended the announcement of the Spiel des Jahres. During that time, I reconnected with someone I knew in passing growing up in New Hampshire: Randall Hoyt. He is a professor of graphic design at Keene State University and he's back in New Hampshire after having taught at the University of Connecticut for many years.

He had a prototype of a game, Turnpike, that he'd been working on for five years. I invited him to Origins with me. He couldn’t make it, but he did come to Gen Con with me. I filmed him as he tried to figure out how to pitch to publishers. I continued to interview designers, publishers, and others in the industry. After Gen Con I went to hang out with Richard Launius for a couple of days. He was a lovely host and I learned so much about game design. However, when I got back to the editing room to see how the story might take shape, I kept coming back to the footage of Randall. His intensity, naiveté, and raw talent were intriguing. He is loquacious to a fault and I loved his pontifications on creativity, process, and the gaming culture in general. I started to see that as the film took shape, he could be our Virgil, our guide through the industry.

Is this your first film project?  And are you a game designer as well as a filmmaker?

This is my seventh feature film. Although I did catch the design bug from making the movie, I quickly realized that like any craft, it takes years and years of dedication and failure to achieve success. That said, I am noodling around with some ideas. My focus, though, will remain filmmaking. It’s all I know how to do, really.

You got interviews with quite a few superstars in the game design world.  Was that difficult to pull off?  What surprised you most in making the film - either something that happened over the course of making it, or something that was revealed in talking to these fine folks?

The industry is remarkably open. People are so supportive. They are a very, very smart group. So approaching the superstars was relatively easy. You also have to remember that super-stardom in the game design world means someone is big fish in a very small pond. Games, especially the hobby games market, are dwarfed by movies and video games. So demand on a superstar’s time in this world is smaller than any sort of film star. Ultimately, people enjoy telling their stories. I like to think I’m a good interviewer. I was able to chat with Rick Loomis about the history of Flying Buffalo, play by mail games and computer punch tape. I will make as many of these interviews available as extras on both digital media and digital download.

It helped that I'd known Alan before he shot to fame based on Ticket to Ride. And it turned out Knizia and Teuber were just as easy to approach. They understand how this works: they want to sell their games. At the same time, we all share the same passion for games. I was thrilled when Antoine Bauza, Steve Jackson, and Alan backed the Kickstarter along with Scott Alden and Tom Vasel. That was all unexpected.

What are some of your favorite moments making the film?

One of the highlights was visiting Mike Gray, former head of acquisitions for Hasbro. He also worked at TSR for a time, and he knows and is respected by everyone in the industry. Randall and I visited him in his "lair," somewhere in Massachusetts. It was truly like meeting Yoda with his wall of thousands of games. Our main still comes from the scene we shot at his house. His advice to Randall (and to all budding game designers) is invaluable; I don't want to give that away, as it anchors a key scene in the film.

Your Kickstarter for the film was a great success, collecting over 400% of your relatively modest initial goal.  Will that extra funding have any effect on the finished product?

Absolutely. I was able to hire a second cameraman for several days of shooting, including the one at Mike’s house, NY Toy Fair, and ChiTAG, as well as a couple of other events. I have recently hired a sound editor and I am looking to hire a composer. Money also went towards travel (mine and eventually some of Randall’s) and equipment. My initial Kickstarter goal was to get me through a few more months of shooting. However, my actual goal was 300% of the stated goal to finish the film and as you point out I exceeded 400%. I haven’t crunched all of the numbers, but I am likely still in the black. That said, manufacturing the physical media and shipping the rewards will take thousands of dollars. It would be nice to have a little bit left over to cover expenses promoting and screening the film. If the film starts to generate a profit, that would be fantastic.

On the one hand, as artists, we shouldn’t feel bad about actually making money from our work. On the other hand, The Jew of Malta certainly put my company deep into the red and that film will never make its money back. You can never predict the success of a creative endeavor, artistically, professionally, financially. My tiny documentary about hikers on the Appalachian trail has enabled me to continue work as an independent filmmaker funding projects that break even, eventually squeak out a profit, or others that lose money. If The Next Great American Game finds an appreciative audience, it will help fund works that may not be as lucrative. (See below.) (smile)

What's next for you?  Do you intend to make another film, and if so, on what topic? 

I am preparing my fourth adaptation of a classic drama. The first was The Summoning of Everyman (the medieval morality play), the next was filming a stage production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and then more recently The Jew of Malta. Next up is The Second Shepherd’s Play. It’s another medieval tale (yes, gamers tend to love the medieval and Renaissance milieu) about a group of shepherds trying to recover a stolen lamb. It’s a comedy that was performed as part of the nativity cycles popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The play is often taught in drama survey courses, but students rarely have the opportunity to see it in performance. As an educator (I teach Screenwriting and Script Analysis at The New School in New York City) I want drama and English students to experience performance rather than just reading the text.

Many thanks to Douglas for taking the time to chat with us!  The Next Great American Game, with hours of extra interviews and digital content, is available at The filmmaker’s main website is