A Conversation With…Kevin Nesbitt of Stronghold Games

This time on Go Forth And Game I am joined by Stronghold Games’ Kevin Nesbitt.

Tom: Welcome to Go Forth And Game, Kevin. Before we find out about Stronghold, how about telling us a bit about yourself.

Kevin: Well, I’m in my early 30s, and my background is in economics. Very early in my life I had thought perhaps a career in sports would be possible, and although I was able to make it to a tryout for an MLB team, failing eyesight in my teens made it more and more difficult to continue. I have had a very interesting range of jobs throughout my life, and perhaps intentionally so since I tend to like a lot of variety in life. I’ve built houses, been a professional blackjack player, worked at a funeral home, spent time as a poker player … all kinds of unusual jobs.

Games have been important to me for a very long time. I consider my start of “serious gaming” to be when I was 9 years old and my uncle bought me a copy of “Panzergruppe Guderian” for my birthday. Since then I’ve been getting better at finding reasons why my game collection should expand. In fact, my interest in business and economics can largely be traced to games, both printed and computer (Capitalism and Aerobiz are games I still play to this day).

When I’m not gaming I raise Japanese Koi as an additional hobby. That’s only a very recent hobby for me though, and I’m still learning the ropes. I have been very fortunate to marry a beautiful ballerina named Stephanie last year, and I consider myself exceptionally lucky in this regard She’s given me the support and encouragement I need to focus on Stronghold Games.

Tom: It sounds like you’ve had an interesting life so far. I’ve never heard of raising koi as a hobby. That is pretty neat. And it is awesome that your wife is supportive of your involvement in Stronghold. How did your company come about?

Kevin: In order to understand how Stronghold Games came about, I should back up a few years It makes much more sense when I start at the beginning.

In 2004 I really began to think about the potential to start my own company, and my plan was to focus on reprints in order to set my new company apart from the sudden glut of new companies coming to the industry. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with new games, but I realized it would be difficult to set a new company apart from others, and I came to the conclusion that the pedigree of the games themselves could accomplish this goal. I was willing to bank on my personal experience, and because I had a gaming background, I felt that I could remember and find some of the best games to reprint.

The first game I was set to make an offer to reprint was going to be “For Sale”, which was a favourite of mine Unfortunately, at the same time I made the decision to pursue additional schooling and returned to University to pursue economics, which side-tracked me just enough. “For Sale” was signed by Uberplay, and I put the whole concept on hold for a short time.

In 2006, while still in University I still had the plan in mind to start a company, and some research indicated that “Die Macher” was available. Through a friend I happened to have a contact to the designer. Just about that same time, I made mention of this to two gentlemen who were running a struggling game store, and they expressed interest in the idea. In exchange for a portion of a new company I supplied my business model, contacts, game experience and time and a new company was formed.

Unfortunately, in 2008 it was becoming clear to me that the objectives of my business partners were not the same as my own. I sold my stake in the company and resigned my position. Some of the frustration I had experienced with the perils of being a minority partner in a company with diverging interests led me to take most of 2009 off. Thankfully, I had decided to reenter the world of stock market investing, and this provided a nice distraction for me while I decided upon my next move. Maybe karma kicked in a little bit too because 2009 was a wonderful year to be an investor.

In the middle of 2009, I was contacted by my current business partner, Stephen Buonocore. He and I had chatted about games in the past, and he asked me if I had ever thought about returning to the industry. I told him that I had thought about it, but was still wanting to rest from my previous experience in the industry. He left me with the thought that if I should ever want to return, he would be interested as well. I could tell that Stephen was serious about getting into publishing, and to be quite honest, the extra time helped to get me focused back onto the original reasons I entered publishing in 2006.

Late in 2009, Stephen spoke with me again, and we came to an agreement to form the company. I would put some of my own industry experience on the table, and we knew Stephen’s experience in all things business would be a huge asset.  Stronghold Games first product went to market in late 2010.

Tom: I appreciate you recounting the story of Stronghold’s birth. It certainly was a trying time for you I’m sure. I am glad that you stuck with it and can feel your passion for Stronghold Games. Two of your games, Survive: Escape from Atlantis and Code 777 are reprints/updates of previously published games. Why go after reprints? Is this a business model for Stronghold.

Kevin: I would say that, yes, this is definitely a business model for Stronghold. The basic business model itself comes from as early as the late 1990s when I began purchasing a lot more Euro games. Often I would go into a store and ask for a certain game. I would be told with increasing frequency that a certain game was “out of print, but you can wait for it to come back into print”. Often the waiting would last for months or even years. The secondary market didn’t always offer a lot of help. A game one year out-of-print could cost in excess of $100, and that really prices out the younger crowd who may be working with limited income. I felt that there had to be others who were in the same position as me.

Though reprints are not a new concept in the industry it led to my formulation of the reprint-based model.  In my mind, obtaining a reprint license needs to focus upon the treatment of the game as a “public treasure”, and those customers who purchase the game need to be able to trust the company printing it to treat both them and the game itself fairly.  With Stronghold Games, I’ve had the chance to rework some of the ideas, and having Stephen on the ownership team has allowed us to execute the “customers-first” element of the plan properly.

This isn’t to say that Stronghold won’t do any new games, of course.  We’ll have just as much attention and care to show for any game we sign, reprint or not.

Tom: I think you’ve really hit on something with this business model. I want to follow this idea for a minute. Without giving away any secrets, how do you find games to reprint? And are there any ‘holy grail’ games that you would love to get the Stronghold Games logo on?

Kevin: Honestly, it’s almost a completely different adventure for every reprint that we do. In my initial experience “reprint-hunting”, it was often a chase-and-convince exercise. The chasing came in trying to track down designers who may have left the business before boardgames really started to take off again in the late 1990s. To make matters worse, in the 1970s and 1980s game designers weren’t necessarily treated in the most appropriate fashion by their host companies. With some designers this left a bitter taste, and perhaps created a motivation to stay away from designing new games, or in the case of some designers, even wanting to be found. This is where the “convince” portion comes in. We always try to start a discussion with a designer who hasn’t had a game in-print in a while with a mention that the industry has changed and designers are treated with more respect and paid at a better scale then they were previously when there was less competition in the market. This combined with supporting evidence of a fair offer for their work, as well as demonstrating a clear understanding of their design is often enough to convince them of our ability to deliver on our promises.

Most recently, perhaps we’ve acquired a bit of a name for reprints with designers, because we’ve noticed a lot more of them are receptive to us immediately. I think having a policy of treating a reprinted design like a “holy grail” really shows that we’re not just here to exploit a design for profit, but rather we’re here to benefit the hobby that we know and love. Since I believe most designer’s first design is out of love for gaming more than for profit, I think they recognize that Stronghold makes a good home for their work.

There are many “grail” games we’d like to print. Quite honestly, I do notice that in the past couple of years other publishers are also jumping onto the reprints concept, and while I can’t blame them, that does force us to play our cards closer to our chests than in the past. For that reason, I can’t divulge anything specific at this time, except to say that Stronghold prides itself on putting in the time and energy to give all we can to a production. Whatever game design we print, be it new or reprint, you can bet we’ve got our full attention on those projects and we think our love for what we do shows through in our final product. I would like to think that any fan of reprinted boardgames secretly hopes that Stronghold Games will be the one to reprint them, and we want to continue to reward our customers with our best efforts.

Tom: I really think this is a fantastic plan. There are so many good games that are out of print. It would be great to see them come back from company that will do an admirable job of it. Personally, I’d like to see new versions of Escape From Colditz and Merchant of Venus. Next question, how important have podcasts become for Stronghold?

Kevin: Honestly I think they’re quite important, but it’s one of those intangibles that are so hard to measure in real terms.  Certainly with the glut of new games on the market, being able to have someone talk about and show off our products can only help.

We’re very lucky in that we have Stephen taking most of our podcasts.  He has a knack for podcasts that I just don’t, and while I like doing public speaking, I think he makes the perfect voice for Stronghold’s podcast appearances.

We like and respect the folks that produce these podcasts a great deal.  That’s a lot of work, and despite that you can hear see just how excited they are about the hobby.  On a collective basis they probably make some of the biggest contributions to the hobby.

Tom: I agree. I think podcasts are a huge asset to the hobby. Without them I would not know about most of the games that I play now nor about companies like Stronghold. How important has BGG been to Stronghold?  What about Origins and GenCon?

Kevin: BGG has been a huge help to our company.   In marketing, it’s always tough to try to find your core audience or target market.  In fact, corporations spend many millions every year trying to establish just *who* is buying their products.  BGG is our core audience, so it helps to simplify some of the research aspect.   In my opinion BGG has done a tremendous amount of promotion for the boardgame hobby and even created new gamers in some instances.

Stronghold's version of Code 777 gets some play time.

Origins and GenCon are relatively new for us, and so I’m not sure I would call them “important” to us.  At least not at this stage.   In fact, this is our first year attending Origins and we’ll also be at the WBC.  Gencon we’ll have to wait until next year.   Still, any big show where we can meet our customers can only be a help to us, because I think people like to know the company that they buy games from.

Tom: Again, I think BGG is probably the greatest single asset in the industry. Being able to research a game before I purchase it is so valuable. And the ability to contact other gamers, trade or sell games (especially oop games), and keep up with all the news is awesome. What problems, if any, have you had with production?

Kevin: Every company that produces something will have problems, but I can think of at least two instances where we faced specific challenges.

In Survive, we wanted to go with wooden pieces across the board because of their “warmth” and inviting look.  In the case of Survive, with hidden values on the meeples, you need a meeple that looks nearly the same from piece to piece.   The product we ended up receiving was as beautiful as we intended, but the number of people receiving one or two meeples that were horribly deformed were more than we had expected.   It’s been quite a headache, but we’re sending out replacement pieces at a furious pace, and the factory has worked with us to create a plastic meeple for the release of the 5/6 Player Mini-expansion.

The other problem we had was with the Spy pieces for our upcoming game “Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War”.  These are a one-of-a-kind piece design in which one bakelite-like piece slots into a larger bakelite-like piece.

The unique game pieces of Stronghold's Confusion

These pieces are both square, so you’d think it would be enough to give the factory some measurements and wait for the perfect end product.  But we were wrong about that entirely!   The pieces were manufactured with some square and some out of square, and with some variances that caused some pieces to fit too loose and others too tight.     Fast forward seven engineering samples (and several months) and we finally approved an iteration that had these issues resolved.  But who knew this would be such a challenge?

I expect continued challenges going forward, perhaps even moreso than our competitors.  The reason is that we push the envelope a little bit with what we’re willing to try to manufacture (Survive’s mountain tiles were an industry-first, as are Confusion’s spy pieces).   I think our customers don’t necessarily mind a project being delayed while we make it as close to perfect as possible as long as we keep them informed as to the

manufacturing timelines for each game.  So, this has become an important part of our marketing; anyone who wants to know the latest timeline on our games only needs to sign up for our newsletter, and they receive this updated information each month.

Tom: The art and production on Survive is fantastic.  The different thicknesses of the island tiles is genius in my mind.   A perfect example of mechanic following theme.  Tell us about how Stronghold finds your art teams.

Survive's thick mountain tiles

Kevin: First, thank you for the compliment on Survive.  That’s something we love to do: Find ways to further attach the elements of the gameplay and theme.  Hopefully the addition of the Double Agent in Confusion will also give this same effect.

We find our art teams in two ways:  The first way is known artists whom we have contact with from previous experience.

The second way is that we solicit bids from artists whose work has caught our eye.  Often I make a mental note about a certain style of art, and then try to remember that artist should a project come up that he or she would be perfect for.   There’s no such thing as an artist who is perfect for every job, so that’s why we don’t mind introducing our customers to artists who aren’t well known in the board game industry.  In fact, our customers will be meeting some new talent with some of our upcoming releases.

Tom: Regarding game design, what in your opinion, is the hardest part of designing a game?

Kevin: I’ll take your question literally, and separate designing games from developing them (we do the latter on nearly every game we license).

I think the hardest part of designing a game is making the decision to design the gameplay first, and then pick a theme later, or the other way around.    Now personally, I tend to be the latter – I think of a theme that interests me, and then design the gameplay around that theme.  There is a risk, however, that the gameplay ends up not being all that fun, and therefore the SECOND-hardest thing is knowing when to sacrifice realism for gameplay.   As a note here to myself:  One should ALWAYS sacrifice realism if it results in better gameplay.

Tom: Playtesting is an important part of game design.  What’s the hardest part of playtesting a game? 

Kevin: The hardest part is testing strange strategies.   It’s one thing to test the game out the way I myself would play it, but that’s not the goal of playtesting.  The goal has to be to account for the way anyone could potentially play the game, and then correct any issues that arise.   It’s a real skill to be able to accomplish that, and so we make up for it by putting the game into the hands of as many playtesters as we can, instructing them to try to “break” the game by trying out unusual strategies.    The more people we have trying out varied strategies, the better our chances of finding that one weird strategy that needs to be tempered.

Tom: What’s the coolest part of being a game designer?

Kevin: I’ve always thought it was really cool to be able to create a “world” and see the results.  This is why I like designing economic games so much; I get to set the parameters and then watch the economic experiment unfold.     But this can be true of any game, of course.

Tom: I ask these two questions of all my guests. First question – what are some aspects of a good player?

Kevin: To me a good player is gracious, and while he tries to win at every game, he doesn’t fret about losing.

Now, as to what makes a skilled player, I think it comes down to being able to strip down the game to its core more quickly than any other player.  My brother tends to be good at this, for example.  He describes the game in automotive terms, and speaks of trying to open the hood and get a look at the engine.  The faster he does this, the better he understands which goal to drive at.   Getting distracted by all the chrome and wonderful outer workings is definitely the fun part, but to be a skilled player, you definitely have to look past that at times.

Tom: Question 2 – What makes a good game? 

Kevin: I don’t think there’s any one, or even any one-hundred elements that make a good game.  If there was a limited set of key ingredients, I doubt we’d see as many good games being printed as we do these days.  For me, a good game rewards those players who observe the changing conditions during gameplay and are the quickest to react.  This can even mean that some luck is involved, though of course, not too much.

Tom: I’m interested in how games make it to the market. As a developer, what do you look for in a game?

Kevin: I look first and foremost for some degree of “fairness” in the game system itself.  That’s not to say luck cannot play some part, but rather the game should allow the best player to win the most often, or there’s not much point to playing.

If there is luck in the game system, ideally it will be countered by some kind of compensation mechanic to smooth over the rough patches of bad luck that a player might experience.   Bad strategy is one thing, but bad luck should be compensated where possible.    I think this is perhaps the biggest difference between a good modern design and an outdated one.

Replayability also needs to be a focus of the design.  It’s one thing to have a great game once, but with a good boardgame costing $50, you really want to offer the player a reason to come back again and again.

Tom: I like luck in a game but consistent bad luck is a game killer for me. Replayability is a must. Like you said, if I pay $50 for a game, I expect to be able to play it more than once or twice. You mentioned that you have been gaming for a long time. Coupled with Stronghold’s unique business model, you must know about a lot of game designers. Whose work in the industry do you admire the most?

Kevin: There are so many sectors of the industry that it would be difficult to name all the various people or companies that I admire.  In the realm of the game designers, I’ve become quite a fan of those designers who are capable of creating a game with a lot of depth without a lot of complicated rules.  Designers like Dirk Henn, Michael Schacht, Alan Moon, and Tom Lehmann all come to mind, but quite honestly there are more that I could list.

However, there are a lot of other people in the industry that I admire for their willingness to act more like a friend than a competitor.  There are a lot of talented and honest people to be found in the boardgame industry, and I’ve never seen any other industry quite the same.

Tom: You know, I hear that from everyone I have interviewed. This industry is truly a community.  Everyone helps everyone else.  That is one of the unique and attractive things about board gaming.  Of your games, which is your favorite?

Kevin: That’s such a tough question to answer.  If I only had to think of Stronghold games that I like, and completely from a personal perspective I think I’d have to look first at Confusion.  That’s a good blend of strategy and deduction that really clicks with me.  However, I also really like Outpost and Survive too, but for very different reasons.  I think that, like with my non-Stronghold favourites (yes, not all my favourites were published by Stronghold), it matters more to have a variety of challenges than any one favourite.  Because of this, I tend to think of Stronghold’s products more like a single product or direction.   Because of this the games we license all have to be favourites in some way, or else we wouldn’t produce them.

Tom: I really can’t wait to play Confusion. I can’t help but think of Stratego when I see it. I know I will like it. What are you currently playing?

Stronghold's Cold War game - Confusion

Kevin: I won’t include including anything by Stronghold here because frankly, it’s true what they say about starting a game company being the best way to cut into your gaming time.  Outside of games from our company, I have noticed I’ve been playing a lot of train games recently.   I’ve been playing a lot of the “Railways of the World” series as well as Chicago Express and some 18XX-series games.  I’ve always liked railroading games, but I seem to be enjoying them at a faster pace than usual.

I’ve also been playing quite a bit of Thunderstone and have been enjoying teaching that one to new players.  A friend showed it to me a few weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying the game quite a lot.

Tom: Tell us about your current projects.  Anything in the pipeline you’d like to talk about?

Well, sure, there are plenty in the pipeline that I’d like to talk about, but because of the nature of our business model, I can’t yet say anything about them.   I can tell you that Stronghold signed a “hot”, if not “the hottest” prototype being shown around at the most recent Gathering of Friends, and we’ll be thrilled to tell everyone about that later this summer.   There was a lot of interest shown by other publishing companies, so we’re thrilled to have the honour of bringing it to gamers.

As for our current projects, we’re up to our elbows working hard on “Crude: The Oil Game” (the reprint of McMulti), Outpost, and Core Worlds.   Of those three, Core Worlds is a new design whereas the other two are reprints of classic games.   I know Core Worlds created quite a stir when we posted some of the early artwork samples a few days ago, so I think our customers are really excited for that one as well.

I’m starting to think that Stronghold selects our titles to print much like we pick what games to play from our own collections.  Nobody likes too much of any one thing, and so I think our customers can look forward to a continued variety in the kind of games we print, with our continued effort focusing on signing the “best of breed” games in genre or mechanic.

Tom: Can you tell us any more about these games?

Kevin : Sure, I’d be happy to! Let me give you the “elevator pitch” on all three so you get a sense of how they work.

First, Core Worlds – In Core Worlds, you are playing as a Barbarian-type kingdom in the vast reaches of space. A series of planets making up a republic has started to fade, and the players take command at the moment they realize the time is right to carve up this empire for themselves.

This is a deck-building style game, and we think it’s going to get some attention for its unique gameplay elements. In Core Worlds, there is a Central Zone where players draft new units and tactics, but also new worlds that are ripe for the taking. A player’s empire is defined by a starting deck and a Home World. From there the decisions by the player affect the rise and fall of his empire and the strength of a players fleet is just as important as the strength of his ground forces, since without the former, the latter cannot be used effectively. Players can used captured worlds to deploy their forces and cast an expanding shadow over the crumbling empire of the Galactic Realm.

Outpost – This is a classic game of building a Space colony on a far-away planet, and quite honestly this reprint has been a long time coming. In Outpost, players must first decide which of the many hundreds of different approaches they’ll take towards victory, and that’s not the easiest task when your opponents are trying to stop you.

Classic returns thanks to Stronghold Games

Each round a player will participate in an auction for new components to add to their Outpost. These might be production/harvesting facilities or they might be other buildings that confer bonuses. If a player wants to staff a production facility he must allocate workers or robots there. Workers are limited, but there cannot be more robots than workers (I think that’s how Terminator 2 starts, isn’t it?). Once staffed a production facility starts turning out production cards, and these are the resources a player needs to bid on further buildings. It’s a race for the best Outpost the players can build, and to me the real fun comes from seeing how each player’s strategy meshes or destroys my own.

We’re also thrilled to have this edition benefitting from the many years of improvements by its fanbase. One of the game’s biggest fans, Tom Lehmann, has even been kind enough to provide us with his updated rule set and his “Kicker Expansion” which will be included in every Outpost we print. We wouldn’t want to deny these excellent bonuses to anyone.

Crude: The Oil Game (a.k.a. McMulti) – We’re so pleased to be bringing this classic back as well.

Stronghold is bringing this back as Crude: The Oil Game

In Crude, players are C.E.O.s of large oil companies, seeking to find, process and sell crude oil and refined gasoline. But sometimes changing news events can alter the economy in ways that were not expected, and the game has an economic-tracking engine which allows each game played to be different. Players may find that one game plays out as a drawn-out boom, where another game sees the market fall into depression and ruin for those who overspent.

Crude is played on two boards, an Economic board and the all-important Operations board. On the Operations board, player receives a 6×6 grid, and must decide where to place each oil well, refinery, gas station, or other items they purchase. On a players turn, they make a production roll, and every row or column “hit” by their roll causes buildings sitting there to activate and pump or refine oil, or even sell gasoline to consumers. But don’t let the die roll element scare you off! Every time you roll, your opponent to your left and right share the roll with you, and they too get to activate a row of their own. It’s really quite an impressive compensation mechanic, and it’s what initially drew me to the game.

The winner of Crude is the player who hits a set amount of cash first, and in this edition that can be either $750 Million in the standard game, or $1 Billion in the extended version.

Crude contains a massive amount of plastic miniature oil barrels, pumps, refineries, service stations etc. This game was legendary in the past for this reason, and Stronghold Games intends to live up to the game’s rich history.

Tom: Wow. These all sound pretty fun. I’m especially interested in Outpost and Crude. I can’t wait to play them. Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?  Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

Kevin: I’d certainly like to point out our monthly newsletter to those reading this interview.  You can find the signup at www.strongholdgames.com along with some other good information worth hearing about.  We don’t send out drivel in our newsletter, just important updates, expected dates for release of our products, and other want-to-know information.

I’d also like to invite everyone to join our Facebook page! There is lots of useful information to be found and it’s a good way to keep in touch with us or ask questions.

Tom: Kevin, it has been fantastic interviewing you. And congratulations on placing Survive and Code 777 in Barnes and Noble. I’m looking forward to all of Stronghold’s games. I really appreciate you taking time for the interview.

And thank you to everyone for visiting Go Forth And Game. I invite you to leave your comments. And come back soon.

tomg

(All photos originated on Boardgamegeek.com under the respective game’s page.  Thank you to those gamers who posted them there.)

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Comments

  • skirkham  On June 19, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Tom, this is a great interview. I need to get with you sometime to see how you get these interviews and also your tools, like email, phone, etc.
    Shawn

    • tomgurg  On June 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      What, and give away all my secrets! Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. And send your friends.

  • Chris K  On June 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Fantastic and comprehensive interview, Tom! I’m looking forward to getting my copy of Confusion at Origins, as well as talking to Stephen Buonocore for Dice Hate Me!

    • tomgurg  On June 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm

      Kevin was really responsive and helpful with the interview. I’m VERY excited about Stronghold Games. Just from the interview and our correspondence, I can tell they have a plan and know how to implement it. I think they will be one of the big dogs soon. I’m excited to play Confusion when you get back from Origins. We really need to get a regular game night set up.

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