Today’s Conversation is with Chad Ellis of Your Move Games. Your Move Games publishes the hit Battleground series, Battleground: Fantasy Warfare and Battleground: Historical Warfare. They publish a couple of other games as well including their newest, My Kind of Town. Welcome to Go Forth And Game Chad. Tell us something about yourself.
Chad: I’m a father of two girls (seven and not-quite-five). That restricts my gaming a lot, but gaming has always been my main hobby. My wife would probably say it’s almost my only hobby! I used to be a serious Magic player and before that I was a serious Chess player. I’ve also played RPGs (mainly D&D in high school and then GURPS in college). Now I mostly play Euros and kid’s games.
Work-wise, I’ve done a pretty wide range of things. It helps that I was lucky enough to go to Harvard Business School for my MBA – that opens a lot of doors. I’ve run a marketing department in Munich, been the CFO of a mid-sized non-profit, been a Wall St. securities analyst and run my own game company. It’s been a pretty fortunate life.
Tom: Wow. That’s a really diverse history. Harvard Business School, CFO, Wall St., you’ve done a lot. And now successful game company owner. Battlground: Fantasy Warfare was a huge hit out of the gate. It continues to roll along and always gets good press. Tell us about it. What is it about? Where did the idea come from? Where is it going?
Chad: The core idea for Battleground was Rob Dougherty’s. Rob used to own a game store and ran Warhammer tournaments. He loved miniature games but was frustrated by how hard it could be to get new people into tabletop wargaming because the entry barriers were so high. Then, as he tells it, he saw some people playing Warhammer and using potatoes to represent some units they didn’t have figures for and realized that we could extract the gameplay from the buying and painting of figures. Using cards instead of movement trays was an obvious solution once you thought about the problem.
The reason Battleground has done so well is that it’s much more than a change in form factor from figures on movement trays to cards. The command and control system (using standing orders that stick with units and a limited number of command actions to represent your ability to influence the battle) makes you feel like a general in charge of a low-tech army. Miniature enthusiasts rave about that at every convention I go to.
The other thing I think Battleground does really well is use the fact that it’s on cards to improve other aspects of gameplay. Too often when people apply a new form factor to an existing genre they miss out on opportunities to improve gameplay by taking advantage of everything that is now possible. Cards let us track all sorts of information, both by printing on the cards and by writing on them during play with a dry-erase marker. The obvious use is to include unit stats but color-coding hit points lets us track when units need to take rout checks and how much combat effectiveness they’ve lost as a result of damage. And, of course, being able to write on the cards makes the whole command and control system work.
In terms of where Battleground is going, it’s actually as a pretty exciting point now – where experienced players are getting to design factions. Our most recent fantasy faction, the Dark Elves, was designed by Niko White who is not a Your Move Games employee. He’s a player. The next historical set, Alexander’s invasion of Persia, is being designed by another player and Niko is the lead designer for yet another historical release (Aztecs vs. Conquistadores). On the YMG forums we’re working on the next faction as a collaborative effort with the whole community invited to join.
Tom: The idea of Battleground is great – a minis game you can carry in your pocket. I can’t wait to see these expansions. The company seems to be doing well. Tell us about Your Move’s other games.
Chad: We have four other games. Two of them are just OK, one is fantastic and the fourth is just out so it’s too early to tell but I like it.
The first two games we published were Succession: Intrigue in the Royal Court and Space Station Assault. Succession looks at the battle for the thrown from the perspective of the palace flunkies. There are five candidates vying to be the next king or queen but the players aren’t them – instead they have to try to position themselves as the favorite lackey of whichever candidate is chosen. The candidates are NPCs.
Succession is a game of negotiation and resource management. It’s the first game I ever designed and looking back on it years later I can see a number of things that should have been done better. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it’s hugely group-dependent. With some groups it just clicks and I get an email saying they each consider it one of their favorite games. But if one person doesn’t like it the whole game is likely to bomb for everyone. The good news is that since we made the classic “new game company” mistake of printing way too many copies it now has a reduced MSRP of $15 so if you want to try it out it won’t cost much to do so.
Space Station Assault is a quick, two-player card game of fighting spaceships. It’s the first design of Darwin Kastle and it’s main problem is that it’s nowhere near as good as Darwin’s second game, The Battle for Hill 218.
If you ever thought it was impossible to have a deep tactical game take ten minutes then go play Hill 218. You can download a free online version from our website and play against the AI. Then go buy a copy for $10. It’s just insanely good. We’re also close to selling out our second print run (and as a small publisher you’re ecstatic if you sell out the first print run) so it’s not just me who thinks so.
Our latest game is My Kind of Town. I was inspired to make another two-player card game that could be played in under ten minutes. MKoT is a quick area control game but with an interesting twist. The cards combine influence “points” with icons that determine which type of influence will matter. You might be ahead in guns and money but if I make it so it’s all about the dames that doesn’t matter. Like Hill 218 you can download a free version at http://www.honte.org/MyKindOfTown/MyKindOfTown.html
Tom: I own Hill 218 and play it with my son. It’s pretty fun. And I’ve heard good things about Succession. Let’s talk about expansions. You’ve been very consistent with the release of expansions. How vital are expansions to Battleground or to an expandable game?
Chad: Part of the enjoyment of a game is the exploration of new strategic or tactical “territory”. Even incredibly deep games like Magic: the Gathering get stale after a while for many players. The nice thing for Battleground is that each new faction creates a lot of new territory to explore since it creates new challenges for each existing faction rather than just being something new to play on its own.
The key question for a designer and for a publisher to ask about an expansion is, “What does this add to the game?” An expansion that’s done primarily because the core game is a big seller (i.e. to make money) is likely to do poorly and can undermine enthusiasm for the game itself. Even from a business perspective your goal should be to make the core game better as a result of the expansion.
Tom: How important has BGG been to Your Move Games? What about Origins and GenCon?
Chad: Since you don’t get to live life twice (or in alternate universes) it’s always hard to know how important any one decision or convention or website is, but I’d say BGG has been huge for us. It might be more accurate to say that the online community of hard-core gamers has been really important, but BGG is a huge part of that community so let’s just go with that. BGG provides a platform for games to succeed or fail on their own merits, rather than based on advertising budgets or name recognition.
Conventions are also critical. That’s where you can get people playing and talking about your games in the first place. Most conventions, especially the large ones, are money losers. You sell product but not enough to cover your costs. Success is measured by how many new people you have telling other people about your games.
BGG and conventions are also a great place to learn. That’s where you get a ton of information from players, both good and bad. It’s extremely valuable.
Tom: I listen to a lot of gaming podcasts. I know I learned about you through The Dice Tower. How important have podcasts been to you?
Chad: I love podcasts. The people doing them genuinely love the hobby and put a lot of time into learning about the games they share with their viewers. They are also an area where a small publisher can compete with the big companies since they tend to identify with us a bit more and will give a newcomer a chance.
Tom: How did your company come about?
Chad: I co-founded YMG with Rob Dougherty, a very good friend who owned the retail store I used to play Magic at. We had complementary backgrounds and similar visions for how the company would work and we really enjoy each other’s company so it was a natural fit. Many years later Rob has moved on to other projects (in particular he’s a big tournament event organizer) and I bought him out of the company.
Tom: What problems, if any, have you had with production?
Chad: We’ve had some specific challenges that I’ve heard echoed by many small company peers. Controlling costs is the biggest one, especially when it comes to publishing a full board game with all the component choices. The dynamics of printing are pretty straightforward – high setup costs mean that in order to get acceptable unit costs you often have to do a print run that is larger than you can realistically hope to sell.
It’s easier for us now that we’re publishing almost exclusively card games and we have an installed player base that gives us some confidence that we can sell a good-sized print run over time. Another challenge we have is finding and correcting all the errors that creep up in cards and rule books. We had two errors on our most recent set, which is unacceptable.
That ends Part 1 of my conversation with Chad. Please join me next week for Part 2 to learn about how YMG designs their games, playtesting, and more about Your Move Games.