A Conversation With…Chris James of Stratus Games

I’m talking to Chris James of Stratus Games.  Stratus is an up and coming game company and currently publishes two games, Gold Mine and Launch Pad with a third, Eruption, on the way.

This is Chris.

Tom: All right Chris, tell us about yourself.
Chris: I’m a 29-year-old family man. I have been married to my lovely wife, Melanie, for seven years and we are expecting our first child in September.
I’ve always had an interest in and some aptitude for science, technology, games, art, and music. Since my early teens, I have been particularly interested in software development, which led me to pursue a degree in computer science and a career in software engineering. I have enjoyed the experience, yet I have also longed for the variety, challenge, and freedom that can be found in entrepreneurship.
Over the years, I have realized that what I particularly like about software development is solving puzzles and expressing creativity. When I first decided to dabble in game design, I found that it fulfilled both of these ideals, yet also expanded upon another interest of mine: psychology. I often compare game design to writing software for a human platform.

 Tom: Congratulations to you both on your first child. That is very cool. You said ‘Designing for a human platform’. That is an interesting way to look at it. It seems that there are quite a few software and graphic designers in game design. Something to investigate. Ok, so now for Stratus Games. How did it come about?
Chris: Luckily for me, my wife shares many of the same interests. We have always enjoyed playing games on a casual level and we share the same fascination for entrepreneurship. We have always had the desire to work together, as our combined efforts seem to produce a much broader spectrum of skills and abilities than we could ever achieve alone.
In the summer of 2009, Melanie came up with the idea of pursuing game publishing as a business opportunity for us to work on together. The company was launched in September of 2009, and with a lot of hard work and the sacrifice of most of our free time, we released our first two titles in late 2010.

Tom: It’s awesome that your wife is a gamer. That is a rare thing it seems. And having a business together is really neat. Why did you choose to self-publish?
Chris: We have discovered that we both have aptitude for game design, yet our ultimate goal has always been the freedom to work on projects together in a business setting. The running of a business encompasses so much more than game design, and we like the idea of learning new skills and expanding upon our talents. We have found it to be a tremendous challenge so far, yet very fulfilling to oversee the creation of new games from start to finish and enjoy each success along the way.
In addition, we also felt that we could provide a fresh new perspective to the industry with our unique backgrounds and love of gaming on a casual level. We may not be familiar with each and every game or mechanic that is out there, but we love having fun, expressing creativity, and ensuring that each and every detail is well thought out and complete.

Tom: I can see how running your own game company can teach you a lot. I’m glad you are having fun with it. Stratus has three games currently. Give us the run down on them if you would.
Chris: Gold Mine is a Parents’ Choice Award-winning tile-laying game in which players create a maze of mine tunnels of various configurations. Some of the tiles contain a gold chamber, upon which a gold nugget is placed. Each

Stratus' first game - Gold Mine.

player controls a pudgy miner meeple which is used to traverse the mine in various ways and collect as many gold nuggets as possible. Miners can attempt to steal gold from other miners or send bats toward them to chase them away from their current position. The first player to collect the required number of gold nuggets and exit the mine wins.

Launch Pad is a light strategy card game in which players attempt to construct various retro-style rockets and send them soaring into space. Each player controls three zones that represent the three phases of rocket production: construction, quality control, and launch preparation. Each rocket requires metal and fuel and can optionally be fitted with various bonuses to score additional points or

Launch Pad - Stratus' most recent.y published game

add additional security. Action cards allow players to hijack another player’s rockets in various ways, from stealing goods to aborting an entire mission. The launch pad is constructed in parallel, and once it’s complete, the game ends and points are scored.

Eruption (set for release in October 2011) is a competitive survival game in which each player struggles to save his or her own village from destruction caused by an onslaught of lava from an erupting volcano. As lava enters a village, its temperature increases until it has burned up completely. Players can protect their own villages by placing lava tiles defensively and strategically building walls of various materials to hold back the lava. They are also rewarded with action cards for directing lava to other villages. Action cards allow players to rotate, replace, or remove the hexagonal lava tiles as well as cool down and fortify their own villages. Once the volcano has fully unleashed its fury, the player whose village is at the lowest temperature wins.

Eruption is currently in pre-order phase and can be purchased directly from StratusGames.com. We are also teaming up with Game Salute to run special Preview Nights, where game stores can receive an air-shipped demo copy far in advance of the release. A limited quantity of Eruption will be released at Essen Spiel 2011 (look for it at the Stronghold Games booth, 12-86).

Soon to be published Eruption

Tom: Each of those sounds fun. I particularly like Eruption. Did anything get changed from initial concept to final product in any of these?
Chris: I would say that every game undergoes evolution to some extent. For instance, I have thoroughly described the evolution of Eruption in the BGG designer diary that I wrote recently. However, I would say the biggest change that has occurred was in the initial development of Gold Mine. Originally, the game involved a burning building where tiles were used to represent the platforms and ladders of a fire escape, with each player racing to reach the bottom and get to safety. It turned out to not make sense spatially, at least the way we originally approached it, so it evolved into an abstract maze game and finally the gold mining game that it is today. After all is said and done, we are very pleased with the outcome.

Tom: That fire game sounds neat. What is unique about each of your games?
Chris: With each game, we include several optional rules for additional replay value at no extra cost. Gold Mine, in particular, was designed with a simple core game play that can be expanded upon easily through the use of one or more optional rules. On our website, we maintain a collectionof both official and user submitted variants. We encourage our customers to take part in the creative process of game development by designing, testing, and submitting new variants for others to enjoy.

Tiles from Gold Mine

In addition, we have a set of general rules regarding the goals we have for each game: the game should play in an hour or less, be possible to learn by demonstration in less than five minutes, be interactive in some way, be fun for new or casual gamers, and be of the highest quality possible. These goals are a result of our own gaming preferences and the audience we are hoping to reach. For instance, we do not enjoy “competitive math” or “multiplayer solitaire” type games as much, and we like some direct interaction. If we do not thoroughly enjoy a game, we simply will not publish it. To this end, each game that we produce, at least for the time being, should fit within these boundaries.

Tom: I like the idea that you are encouraging your players’ involvement with your games. I think your criteria for your games is very sound. The ‘hour or less’ game seems to be the new target for most designers. I like a long game now and then but with gaming time limited I had rather play several games than just one most of the time. Designing for yourselves, making games that you enjoy is the real key to making a good game I believe. How do you go about designing a game? What comes first, mechanic(s) or theme?
Chris: I tend to begin with a theme that I like. I think about that theme for a while and what aspects of the theme are interesting and could allow for interesting mechanics. Once I have formulated a more complete picture, I sketch out my ideas to further assess their plausibility.
Once I have a pretty solid concept, I design a prototype digitally and run it through initial tests using ZunTzu, which is a free utility to play and manipulate board games virtually. There are usually several problems during the first few tests, so it is nice to keep everything in digital form to easily make changes without having to waste time on creating new physical components.
After I am satisfied that I have a playable game, I create a physical prototype and begin limited playtesting. I usually go through several versions in this initial form, and once I’m fairly confident in the game’s mechanics, I create a draft of the written rules, set up a print-and-play version with assembly instructions, and open up the game to extensive playtesting via our Stratus Sphere club. The rest is a long process of continual tweaking, hiring an artist, and polishing it into a finished product.

Tom: I checked out Zun Tzu. It’s similar to Vassal or Cyberboard. These virtual prototype tools are great for designers. I need to try one out. While we are on game design, what is the hardest part of designing a game?
Chris: I think the hardest part of designing a game is when you know the game is almost there, but you know it needs some changes and you’re not sure how to perfect it. I suppose it follows the 80/20 rule: 80% of the game comes together seamlessly, but the final 20% requires a lot of determination and work.

Launch Pad's card layout

It can also be difficult to give up aspects of a game that I personally like in order to follow the consensus of our playtesters. I just have to focus on doing what’s truly right for the game, and not for myself. In the end, I have been very happy with the results, even if there were tough hurdles to overcome along the way.

Tom: I hear that ‘killing your baby/throwing out a favorite’ thing from everybody. That is really hard to do but sometimes necessary. I put the mechanic away for a later game. Playtesting seems to be a mixed bag. While absolutely necessary, it can be slow and difficult. What is your playtesting nightmare? Do you have a regular group that you playtest with?
Chris: I wouldn’t say that we have had a playtesting nightmare, per se, but we learned early on that it is sometimes difficult to get honest opinions from friends and family. People who are close to you tend to hold back or soften their criticism in an effort to avoid offending you. We usually have to make it very clear that we are eager to receive honest feedback, as ugly as it may be. After all, the time and monetary investment in each game is significant and holding back opinions will only serve to hurt us.
We have found that when we playtest games with our own groups, our own strategies and conceptions about the game come across to the other players. This affects the outcome of the game and in a way invalidates our tests. While we certainly do internal playtesting with our own groups, especially at the beginning stages of design, we put a lot of weight on the feedback received from people we have never met. For this reason, we are very happy to have started Stratus Sphere, which allows us to reach out directly to eager playtesters all over the country.

Stratus Games' playtesting group

Tom: Every designer wants honest feedback and you are right, it is hard to get sometimes. I always try to remember the mantra from my pharmaceutical research days – Fail fast. Failing early in a process saves money and time. The idea of the Stratus Sphere is fantastic. I applaud you for that and am an eager member. What problems, if any, have you had with production?
Chris: Fortunately, we have been able to avoid any major production problems. We were aware of the horror stories before we decided on a manufacturer for our first game. Since our goal from the beginning was to produce top-quality products, we were very selective in our decision.
One minor issue we had was with the miner sculpt for Gold Mine. The original sculpt produced by the manufacturer had the miner leaning about 30 degrees, with skewed proportions. Fortunately, we noticed the problem early on from photo proofs, and it was quickly remedied. On the second try, the sculpt was perfect, with amazing detail and well suited for our game. Once production was complete, we had to delay the release due to a shortage of available shipping containers, but that was not the fault of the manufacturer.

The miners from Gold Mine.

Tom: I’m glad to hear you haven’t had any real problems. By the way, who does your manufacturing?

Chris: Gold Mine and Launch Pad were manufactured by Grand Prix International and Eruption is being produced by InnerWorkings. Both are solid companies that have produced many well-known products.

Tom: I always like to give some time to the art in games. I like to recognize the artists. Talk a little bit about art in your games. Who are your artists?
Chris: We certainly owe a lot of credit to our artists, since artwork is such an important part of any good game. For Gold Mine, we searched high and low for an artist that would be able to produce the style we were looking for. Of the artists that showed potential, about half a dozen, we requested sample artwork for one of the game’s tiles. We received some great results, and it was a tough decision, but in the end we selected Andy Kurzen as the artist for Gold Mine. It was he who produced the original sketches for the famous miner meeple and he did a great job on the rest of the game, as well.

We hired Andy again for Launch Pad, as we felt he would be able to produce what we were looking for and he was great to work with.

A few cards from Eruption

For Eruption, we again hired Andy for the box, board, and tile artwork. This time, we also brought in Matt Plett, who collaborated with Andy and produced the logo, the cards, and the detailed Polynesian style motifs that can be found throughout the design, among other things. We have found that having two creative minds for this project has produced outstanding results.

Tom: Here is the first of my standard questions: What are some aspects of a good player?
Chris: I believe a good player is one who has a good balance of being competitive, fun-loving, humorous, and social.

I grew up being overly competitive, where winning was the only thing that mattered, and if I lost, I was frustrated for the rest of the day. I later realized that this made me a very poor gamer and I changed my

Art from Launch Pad

ways. However, I have also played with people who couldn’t care less if they win or lose. To me, you might as well not play if you don’t have any desire to win, since it produces a bland game where you simply go through the motions. It is good to be competitive, as long as you can accept loss with a good attitude.

As far as the other qualities go, I believe gaming should be a fun, laugh-out-loud, light-hearted experience, either due to the game or the players in your group. To me, the purpose of gaming is to strengthen relationships by face to face interaction. If someone is too serious to laugh, socialize, and have some fun during a game, then it ruins the experience.

Tom: Second – in your opinion what makes a game great?
Chris: As I alluded to earlier, I believe that a good game encourages and facilitates interaction between players, or, if nothing else, allows it to happen naturally. Games that are too serious or require too much thought and planning tend to limit the amount of fun interaction, at least in my experience.
In addition, I agree with Jonathan Degann’s Game Theory 101 articles that explain that a good game has a story arc, steep rewards and sudden catastrophes, impossible choices, and instability. The progression of a game should feel like the plot of a good book, with conflicts, suspense, rising action, and a climax. Turning points in the game are good because they require you to rethink your current path, and impossible choices make you wonder if you chose correctly, leading you to want to play again. In addition, all of this should happen in a reasonably short amount of time.

Tom: Thanks for that link. I’ll check it out soon. I agree with the idea of turning points in a game. They are kind of like good twists in a movie. You appreciate the craft that went into developing that turn. Whose work in the industry do you admire the most?
Chris: There are lots of great people and companies out there to admire. In particular, Jay Tummelson and Rio Grande Games have been on our radar for some time. We appreciate their mission of bringing families together, and feel that they have had a very positive influence on the board game industry. In many ways, we have used them as a model in the creation of our company.

Tom: Jay is on my list for an interview. I’ve heard that he is doing a lot for the industry and designers. Rio Grande is a good example to follow. So, what are you currently playing?
Chris: Between running the company, designing games in-house, and preparing for a new baby, much of our free time has gone out the window. At this point, the majority of our game time serves a purpose, which is to playtest and improve our current designs. We also regularly meet with a local game design group to test and provide feedback on other games, as well, including those that are designed by and submitted to Tasty Minstrel Games. While we wouldn’t mind having more time to branch out a bit, we have been satisfied with our gaming as of recent, since the games we produce ultimately favor our preferences.

The board layout for Eruption

Tom: Michael and Seth (of Tasty Minstrel) have been very supportive of Go Forth And Game. They are both great guys and have a fantastic company. You have Eruption in pre-order right now. What is next for you? Tell us about your current or future projects.
Chris: We are currently testing a light safari-themed dice game called DiceAFARI that involves two aspects of area control in addition to dice rolls. We believe it is quite unique and has good potential as a short filler game. We also are anxious to resume work on a cannon-themed game that we originally came up with at the same time as Eruption. It is a round-based game where players take aim at various targets around the board to destroy them with different artillery. We may even decide to revisit the fire escape idea that served as the inspiration for Gold Mine.

Tom: That dice game sounds like fun. I’ll bet my kids would like it. The cannon game would certainly appeal to my son. Revisiting the fire escape game sounds like a good idea to me. Now, tell us something about yourself that most people would not know.
Chris: I memorized over 1,000 digits of the mathematical constant pi for a contest in high school. I ended up winning the contest by over 700 digits, but soon forgot all but around 50 or so.

Tom: Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?
Chris: Absolutely. Lots of information about our games and news can be found on our website. We also provide interesting news and articles in our monthly email newsletter.

As mentioned, Eruption is currently in pre-order; we greatly appreciate those who help us out by purchasing a pre-order package directly from us, as it allows us to further our game development and move forward with new games sooner. We also have a trailer video for Eruption, and we request that anyone who is interested in the game share the video with their friends and families to help spread the word. Last but not least, we have the Eruption Preview Nightsto share with anyone who is interested in playing an advanced copy of the game.

Soon to be published Eruption. Pre-Order your now!

Tom: Well Chris, I have certainly enjoyed talking to you. Stratus Games has a bright future, sky-high pardon the pun. I wish you lot of success with Eruption and the rest of your games. I look forward to seeing what Stratus releases in the coming years.

Chris: Thanks Tom! I appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed for your site.

Please visit Stratus Games.  They have a very slick website that has video tutorials on all their games.  You can order any of their games there as well other neat Stratus Games stuff.  Thank you for visiting Go Forth And Game.

A Conversation with …. Ron and Veronica Blessing of The Game’s The Thing!

I’m really very happy to have Ron and Veronica Blessing of The Game’s The Thing and Smilin’ Jack’s Bar & Grill podcasts as my guests this time. We’ve been trying to get this posted for a while. Well, it’s finally here.

            Tom: Hi guys. I’m so glad you both are my guests. It’s been fun getting to know you through Pulp Gamer and   your podcasts. Speaking of podcasts, you’re both very busy podcasters. Tell us about your shows.

Ron: We’ve gotten less busy–some by design, some by accident–but we’ve worked on several shows for Pulp Studios. Right now we have The Game’s the Thing, which is our roleplaying show. We have Smiling Jack’s Bar & Grill, which is our Savage Worlds fan show, but that show is ending for various reasons. There will be one last show, and that’s it.

Veronica: Yeah, we’re almost down to one podcast these days, but TGTT is still going strong. The Game’s the Thing is a roleplaying podcast that focuses primarily on the games and the people who make them.

Tom: I’m sad to see Smilin’ Jack’s fade. I like Savage Worlds and you all are the experts. It is really helpful to heard about it. But I’m sure that you will continue talking SW on TGTT in addition to many other games. Why podcasting?

Ron: I got into podcasting to talk games and hopefully get some free stuff, initially. But it became so much more. It’s become my doorway into the roleplaying industry, and it’s allowed me to really hammer out my thoughts on game mastering and design. The real benefit is the friendships I’ve made. I’ve met some awesome people. And these days, if I get a free game I really like, I buy it anyway, just to support the designers.

Veronica:  I started podcasting because Ron bribed me.  Really.  He had started TGTT with a few friends of ours.  They talked about boardgames mostly and I wanted no part of it.  Then Ron decided he wanted to shift the show’s focus and talk about more roleplaying games.  The problem was, that to do that he needed a new co-host.  So he asked me.  I said no.  Then he told me that he had already set up the first interview with…::drum roll please::….Shane Hensley.  Now Ron, the big jerk, did that on purpose because he knew that I had a rather large geek-crush on Shane.  He told me the only way I’d get to help with the interview was if I agreed to become the permanent co-host.  What else could I do?  I had to agree!  I stuck with it because I like meeting new people in the industry.  A game really takes on a new feel for me once I’ve had the chance to talk to the writer or creator.  The roleplaying world is more personable then any other fan oriented industry and I just love that.  Everybody is so friendly and easy to talk to.  In fact, most of them are gamer geeks just like you and me.  I love putting a face with a book.  I love picking up a book in a store, reading the author’s name, and knowing that person.  Most of all, I love sharing that feeling with people who may not have realized that the creators of their favorite hobby are so incredibly accessible.  

Tom: I really appreciate your stories about your gaming experiences.  I can really see how the podcasts can build friendships. Those relationships are very evident on your shows. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and ideas about game mastering. On to the next question. Why do you play games?

Ron: I love the interaction. It’s great exercise for the mind. It’s also a huge creative outlet for me, especially RPGs.

Veronica:  Board games or RPGs?  I play boardgames mostly because Ron tells me to.  I play RPG’s because I love the stories.  Deep dramatic character interaction with intense scenes that make you cry and give you butterflies in your belly until you find out how it’s all going to work out next week.  Yeah, that’s what it’s all about. 

Tom: I agree. RPG’s and game design are my creative outlets. Creating stories is so awesome. Not knowing where they are going, the sense of discovery, tension and anxiety solving puzzles. I play for the same reasons. It’s social. It’s fun. And it’s good for my mind. Ok. Standard question – What makes a great game?

Ron: That’s tough to quantify. A strong, consistent paradigm is key, I think. More than anything else, I think a great group makes a great game.

Veronica:  Any game can be a great game if you’ve got the right group.  Communication is the key.  Keep your group on the same page.  Talk about what you want and what you don’t want, change what you need to, then go for it.  If everyone is having fun, then it’s a great game. 

Tom: Those are interesting answers. A different take on the question from most. Yeah, communication is so very important.  I know you do some playtesting.  What is the hardest part about playtesting?

Ron: For me, it’s the pressure of presenting the game “right” to the players, so I can get the best possible feedback for the designers.

Veronica:  I don’t like saying bad things about people’s games.  People put so much heart and soul into these things and then when I have to tell them that something doesn’t work, or worse, that the concept or the system is lousy I just feel horrible.  That’s why I make Ron do that part. 

Tom: Ha! I agree with you Ron. I get that feeling introducing any game new to a group. Standard question #2 – What makes a great player?

Ron: Speaking of natural talent, I would say the ability to balance character perception with the fact that you’re playing a cooperative game. A little bit of improv ability doesn’t hurt either. For a player who wants to improve their art, I’d recommend reading Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, and try some of that stuff.

Veronica:  Agreed.  Play Unsafe is a must read.  I think a great player is defined by how much they’re willing to make a total fool of themselves at the table.  Props, cheesy accents, lots of speaking in character, stuff like that.  You don’t need to be a good actor, just have a willingness to throw yourself into a role head first and darn the consequences.  A great player also remembers that their best assets are the people sitting around them.  The greatest gamers I have played with always made me feel like a better roleplayer just by being at the same table as them.  Draw your fellow players into scenes and really get things going. 

Tom: I really need to buy Play Unsafe. I like using things to immerse people in a game setting. Accents particularly, as you may have figured out. I really like your answer Veronica – ‘A great player also remembers that their best assets are the people sitting around them.’ That is awesome. What is your most memorable gaming moment?

Ron: Probably getting a legitimate cry out of my players when I put them in a situation where they had to re-kill a loved one in a Deadlands Classic campaign.

Veronica:  Those were totally stage tears.  Really.  Okay maybe not.  I think my most memorable moment was probably when my character in the same Deadlands Classic campaign realized that she was an alcoholic after almost killing her best friend.  There was shouting, there were tears, it was great.  I also had several really awesome moments during a homebrew savage supers campaign as my android character gradually came to the realization that she could be more than her initial programming.  It was a really great character transformation that totally took on a life of its own as we went. 

Tom: Awesome, awesome! Veronica, those sound like really powerful stories. That’s what is so great about role playing – building stories. Whether they are funny, touching, or oddball, creating a cool story speaks to me in such a strong way. Seeing your character change through the story is so very cool. What’s next for each of your shows?

Ron: TGTT will roll on–five years (this past) July. We’re trying to do more topical shows, but in the end, we just like talking to creators about their games. So from a format perspective, the main thing to expect is just that–us talking to folks about their cool game.

Veronica:  What’s next?  Well, I think we’re recording next weekend…oh, you mean in general!  Ron and I have developed a very complicated and technical system for choosing the format for TGTT.  I’ll share the secret.  We do what amuses us at the time.  Right now, we are finding that doing themed shows is very amusing.  That could change.  Roll the die.

Tom: I like the format or lack of, very much. It is very relaxed and conversational. It’s comfortable. You always put your guest at ease and we all have fun with you. Almost like I’m there with you. And you get awesome guests. Really top-notch.

Out of the blue question: What out of print game would you like to see reprinted?.

Ron: The Dragonlance and Marvel Saga games from TSR. I wasn’t in a place where I understood their beauty when they came out, and now, of course, I can’t find them!

Veronica:  That’s harder for me because Ron was the one who got me into gaming, so I’ve only been gaming for 13 (it is 13, right?) years.  Most of the games I’ve really enjoyed are still around, in some fashion.  Oddly enough, I don’t tend to get too nostalgic about old games.  I don’t have cherished childhood memories of primary colored D&D boxes.  I’m always looking forward to the next edition or rules update.  Deadlands is the perfect example; I fondly remember Deadlands Classic (we have the complete set in the basement), but Reloaded is totally what I’d play now. 

Tom: Well Ron one of your wishes is coming true. Margaret Weis is doing a Marvel rpg. I’m hoping you guys will get them on TGTT about this soon. Give us some perspective on the industry and where you see things going in the next few years.

Ron: I don’t see much change in board games, but I do in roleplaying. With gadgets like the iPad, I see the industry learning to truly take advantage of digital. The barrier for new creators is continuing to thin, and I think we’ll continue to see more “indie” stuff. Because of that, I see bigger companies shrinking more, as the “big” piece of the pie is getting smaller. I see the better local game stores coming to terms with digital–Bits & Mortar and various company PDF bundling initiatives proves that they’ll need to for survival. I already don’t buy games at local stores that refuse to participate in stuff like Bits & Mortar, once they’ve been educated.

Veronica:  What he said.  Ron’s kinda the industry guy.  Me? I see changes in people.  The internet has brought fans closer to game creators and each other in a way we’ve never been able to do before.  GMs can share ideas across the globe.  Players can find other gamers in their area more easily.  Got a rule question?  Hop on a forum and ask away!  Roleplaying is one of the few areas of entertainment that I think really has nothing to fear from the internet and everything to gain.  Think about it.  You have access to a wealth of information and ideas that can make your game awesome, but you still have to sit around your dining room table to play.  Best of both worlds.   

Tom: I totally agree with all your points Ron. Anyone can be a creator and have someone play their game now. I really like how you drilled down on one of the cool things about all this Veronica. Fans are closer to the game creators, for good or bad. And I think you are right – role playing does not have to worry about the internet.

Next question: What is your current ‘hot’ game, both boardgame and rpg?

Ron: For boardgames, I’ve been itching to play A Game of Thrones again–one of my all-time favorites. Roleplaying games are tougher to quantify that way, but I have been playing a lot of Savage Worlds lately.

 Veronica:  As boardgames go, I kind of adore just about anything Flying Frog Productions puts out.  Last Night on Earth is the first boardgame I ever publicly claimed to love, and for me, that’s saying a lot.  On the roleplaying front, I’m a Savage Sister all the way.  That said, I’m still all starry-eyed over the Dresden Files RPG and am just dying to give the Leverage RPG a good long run. 

Tom: Well you guys are kinda known as the Savage Worlds folks. You moved to Denver last year. How are things in the Denver area, gaming wise?

Ron: Gaming in Denver rocks. Denver has GenghisCon, which we enjoyed immensely. Later in the year, there’s TactiCon (on Veronica’s birthday) , which is slightly smaller but run by the same folks. There are various mini-cons throughout the year as well, and sci-fi cons with gaming areas. There are several RPG groups, including the Rocky Mountain Savages and Tabletop Roleplayers’ Network. Finally, there are several local game stores.

Veronica:  Meh.  We’ll see.  Denver has great cons and some awesome groups, don’t get me wrong, but I’m the kind of girl that thrives on the weekly game.  Ron’s new work schedule has been a nightmare and I don’t know very many people yet.  I left a truly awesome gaming group to come here and was getting some great gaming action three times a week.  In my opinion, Denver has a bit of living up to do yet. 

Tom: Any chance of seeing you at MACE this year?  Veronica, we share something – cons on our birthdays!!  MACE for me and TactiCon for you.

Ron: With the recent move, I don’t see us affording to fly anywhere this year. Good thing gaming is good here! We have reason to believe we’ll want to do some con travelling next year, though.

Veronica:  😦

Tom: I’m sad too.  I will miss you.  I’ll roll some 6’s for you.  A bonus question just for you – you knew it was coming – What is something about you that the general gaming public would not know?

Ron: For the most part, I’m an open book–perfectly willing to share! I’ll keep it clean for you, Tom. I have been meditating since the age of five. It was taught to me by my allergist, who was treating me for asthma. I always made it worse by freaking out, so she taught me to control my breathing and go to a different place.

Veronica:  My favorite question!  Funny, it always seems more fun when I’m the one doing the asking.  Hmmm…okay, got it!  I’m secretly a writer.  Seriously, I’ve got dozens and dozens of stories hidden away on my computer.  All fiction, no porn, and NOBODY gets to read them.  Not even Ron. 

Tom: Sweet. It’s neat that you are able to control your asthma Ron. And Veronica is a closet writer. You really should let some of them out Veronica. I’d bet they are really good.

Ron And Veronica

Guys, it has been so fun ‘talking’ to you both. I have always felt like one of the crew with you, especially after meeting and gaming with you. TGTT is such a fun AND informative show. I’ve made several purchases based on your shows. You both make it a unique thing. Thanks for being my guests and thanks for The Game’s The Thing.

You can find The Game’s The Thing and listen to why I think this is one of the top three rpg podcasts at http://www.thegamesthething.com/. You can contact them at thegamesthething@gmail.com or call and leave a message at 720-515-2257. Please listen. You will not regret it. And let them know that you read Go Forth.

Thank you readers for visiting Go Forth And Game. Please leave a comment about this interview or any other article. I appreciate your time.

Go Forth And Game enters the 20th Century

I finally registered goforthandgame.com. It has taken me a while for no real reason. I initially started this as a general catch-all blog. But it has developed into a gaming centric one and it is time to recognize that. Along with this upgrade, I plan on changing the look of the site by the end of the year to something more gamer-y.
So update your bookmarks for goforthandgame.com.

My friends at Dice Hate Me Games launch their Kickstarter campaign for their new game, Carnival, today.  Carnival is a very good trick taking game in which you are a carnival manager attempting to get 4 of your 5 rides built first.  It has cards, dice, and tickets.  The interplay between the players is fantastic with lots of ‘take that’ and strategizing about how to exploit what the other guys have or need.  I like this game a lot and encourage you to support not only Carnival but Dice Hate Me Games.  We want them around for a long time.  So head on over here and support this fun game.

A Conversation With … Bellwether Games’ Dennis Hoyle and James Tanner

This time on Go Forth And Game I’m talking to Dennis Hoyle and James Tanner of Bellwether Games.  Bellwether is an up and coming company that publishes the award-winning Drop Site.

Tom: Welcome to Go Forth And Game guys tell us about yourselves.

Dennis: I am 25, just recently graduated with my MBA from Mississippi State University, married to the lovely person and brilliant strategy gamer, Sara, and I am passionate about using games to bring people (physically) to the same table to enjoy each other’s company. As a “day” job I work as a Residence Hall (college dorm) Director at a public university in Illinois.

James: Dennis and I started playing boardgames with a few others back about 10 years ago. It started with lengthy war games like Risk and the classic Shogun. Eventually I wanted something more and ran into Twilight Imperium. Instead of buying this expensive game, I decided to do some research. I found that some of it’s basic mechanics were founded in some game I had never heard of called Settlers of Catan, which eventually lead to Puerto Rico, and now my shelf is full of Euro-games. I worked at Motorola in Libertyville, Illinois designing mobile phones for about 12 years and have recently taken a job with Google in Mountain View, California.

Tom:  So you’ve been gaming together for quite a while.  Very cool.  Tell us about how Bellwether got started.

Dennis: Bellwether Games has been in our minds to do ever since 2008 when we started talking more seriously about game design as a profession. After getting my MBA, I wrote a business plan and continued to design games on the side. Through a competition at the university, our Bellwether Games business plan won $5,000 in start-up funds, which we are just starting to put to work for us. We decided on the name “Bellwether Games,” because the term “bellwether” is synonymous with being a leader in an industry, and it is our aim to develop games that are leaders in innovative and elegant mechanics and that are extremely fun. We also felt that the image of a sheep with a bell around its neck was a strong, unique, fun and positive image, and you can see from our logo how we have integrated the bellwether into our branding efforts.

Tom: That is an interesting story.  I like your ‘philosophy’ of the company and how it is displayed by the logo.  Neat.  Ok, so now for your first game – Drop Site. How did it come about? What is it about?

Drop Site

Dennis: Drop Site is a pretty simple strategy card game about delivering humanitarian aid. It was influenced by Lost Cities The Card Game, but plays even faster and has some extra layers. In the game, players “drop” crates of aid toward the ground, represented by piles in the middle of the table. At the same time, players hide cards face-down that represent people in need. The round can end very quickly, and at the end, the cards that were played face-down are compared with the cards that are still face-up in the middle of the table. You score points for all the matches you make, but if you don’t play carefully you will lose points for non-matches. It’s really fun, plays quick, no two rounds are the same, and you will discover more layers to the strategy the longer you play.

The game really started as something completely different, but as many game designs go, it transformed into something new and better. I distinctly remember working on Drop Site one Saturday morning and just praying to God that I could get the mechanics to work right. My wife was helping me play test various tweaks in the rules, and then suddenly it came together. The game played exactly as I wanted, so I posted the rules to my blog.  About a week later I heard about the 2010 Premio Archimede game design contest in Venice, Italy, and shortly thereafter decided to submit Drop Site.

It took about three weeks to develop the theme and prototype artwork, and I submitted it to the contest. About 4 months later I learned that Drop Site won the Carta Mudni special prize for best card game, for which we earned 1,000 copies manufactured

The Carta Mundi Award

for free. 6 months later we are now marketing those copies to the public and planning the release of our next two games, Over a Barrel and Aristocracy.

Tom: Wow! So you’ve already won a gaming award. That’s awesome. The video does a great job of explaining how to play and increasing excitement for the game.  You mentioned that this game changed from initial concept to final product. Could you elaborate?

Dennis: I think I may have touched on this already, but I would say, almost everything. My initial idea had to do with counting red cards as negatives and black cards as positives and trying to get a score close to zero, but as the game evolved nearly every aspect of its original form were eventually abandoned. What’s left is a seriously fun and addictive light strategy game that I like to call a great board game “chaser.”

Tom: Art. Who does the art on Drop Site and how did you find your artist(s)?

Dennis: As part of the Carta Mundi prize, the artist was found for us and did the artwork for free as part of their contract with Studio Giochi. The artist’s name is Paolo Vallerga, from the company ScriBabs, which is located in Italy. He did an excellent job with the game, and we would definitely work with him again on future projects.

Tom: A strategy chaser or filler is a good niche to fill. How do you go about designing or developing a game? What comes first, mechanic(s) or theme?

Dennis: Sometimes theme comes first and sometimes mechanics come first. When I get an image or idea for a world that I want to experience or that I want other players to experience, I design the game around capturing that experience and look for a mechanic to match. At other times there is a mechanic that I feel like would make a great game and then the trick is finding a theme that mirrors the mechanics, and also generates interest.

One of the Over A Barrel boards

James: I’ve spent some time trying to understand from where the origin of board game design comes and am not quite sure except for the general understanding that necessity is the mother of invention, as well as T.S. Eliot’s quote, “anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” I always enjoy lying awake all night worrying about how I’m going to make something work. I’ll even think intensely on the issue before I fall asleep in hopes that I’ll wake up at 2:00 AM worrying. Our forthcoming game Aristocracy came out of a desire to play Risk with cards, which truly is unlike Risk. Over a Barrel came out of the desire to have a travel game where the buying and selling price was the same price for each stop. In Over a Barrel we developed a physical boat mechanic, which came out of the need to organize data into information.

Tom: I can empathize with you James.  I’ve had game ideas that just would not let go.  I used to play Risk a lot as a kid so Aristocracy sounds neat.  While we are on game design, what is the hardest part of designing a game?

Dennis: Following-through. Ideas are easy to come up with, it’s taking that idea and working on it and tweaking it continually until it takes shape into something truly special that is the hard part. Second to that is divorcing yourself from an idea or mechanic that you’ve been using in order to make a better one. It’s hard to “give up” on a mechanic or idea that you’ve put a lot of work into, but you need to realize that every mechanic is just a bridge to another better mechanic.

James: I believe the original spark is the most difficult. That starting spark must contain a single unique concept. The rest of the design follows that spark. I also think finding a responsible and free artist to be a difficult task.

Tom: Oh man, do I agree with both those points. I’m terrible with follow-through. I’ve a couple of games in various stages of progress that I need to get finished. Deadlines work pretty good though. And I’ve heard the ‘throw out your baby’ idea from several designers as one of the keys to changing a good game to a better game. Finding the unique among many ideas is a fantastic point. You want something that stands out and offers gamers something new. Great responses. Now, play testing seems to be a mixed bag. While absolutely necessary, it can be slow and difficult. What is the hardest part of play testing a game?

Dennis:I hate forcing myself and my games on people. Playing a game should be fun, but in its early stages of development a new game can be abysmal. It’s difficult for me to ask someone to “play” a game, when I know that the game has a high likelihood of not being fun. This is why I think it is very important that people know what they are getting into before you spring a new design on them. I avoid using regular game nights as play test sessions, but instead try to keep play testing separate so that I know every participant is there to “work.”

James:Play testing is the perspiration of design. It’s not fun playing a broken game 100 times. It’s also difficult to understand when it’s fixed because after playing the game 100 times it still hurts to play the game.

+3 Drop Site card

Tom: What a great way to put it James.  Yeah, sometimes play testing is not fun. And I have the same issue with asking friends to play test for me. It seems imposing upon their game time. Why did you choose to become a game publisher?

Dennis: I feel like modern board games are a very refined form of art, and they fascinate me. James introduced me to them about 8 years ago and I have not looked back. I knew I wanted to work in the board game industry, but I wasn’t sure to what degree or in what role. In 2008 I visited Hans Im Gluck in Munich and took part in one of their game nights. It was an awesome experience. A lot of famous people in the board gaming world were there including Andreas and Karen Seyfarth (designers of Puerto Rico and Thurn and Taxis) and Bernd Brunhoffer (designer of St. Petersburg and Stone Age and owner of Hans Im Gluck). Brunhoffer very graciously took some time to talk to me about game design and publishing, and it wasn’t long after that that I decided to start a company of my own. Then, after Drop Site won best card game at the Premio Archimede, we felt like the time was right.

Tom: What a cool experience. Awesome story. Next is a question I ask everyone – What are some aspects of a good player?

Dennis: I believe that the optimal strategy for each game lies along a continuum. On the one end is planning and calculation and at the other end is intuition and making decisions without all the information. Some players are excellent at calculation and planning, but don’t succeed as well when they have to make intuitive decisions. The best player is able to do both and most importantly is able to adapt to each game’s optimal strategy.

James: I’ve learned that from play testing all types of players are necessary. The extremely intelligent Euro-game players will find the holes in the mechanics, but the non Euro-game players will find problems with the artwork, rules, and more-obvious mechanics issues. I’ve learned, apart from play testing, a good player is gracious, competitive, quirky, and creative.

Tom: The continuum idea is a neat one that illustrates your idea well. And play testing again shows just how important it is. Who’s work in the industry do you admire the most?

Dennis: No surprise here. Probably Bernd Brunhoffer, both for the reasons already mentioned and because I often cite St. Petersburg as being my favorite game.

James: I’d have to say Andreas Seyfarth is straight genius. His games bring such good feelings. You know it’s a good game when you take last, yet still enjoyed and admired the mechanics of the game. I think his Puerto Rico is the greatest game ever, but I also enjoy Thurn and Taxis, and Manhattan. I also admire Reiner Knizia for all of his brain teasing games, but I think his games can be a bit abstract which sometimes mitigates fun and causes analysis paralysis.

Tom: I enjoy both those designer’s games. I played both Puerto Rico and Stone Age for the first time recently and agree that they are fantastic. Now to your games. Of them, which is your favorite?

Dennis: Hard to say because they are each very different. Right now I feel a very strong desire to play Over a Barrel again, so maybe that is my favorite.

James: I still most enjoy playing Aristocracy. It’s just a fun game to play in a social environment, especially playing in teams.

Tom: What are you currently playing?

Dennis: Drop Site, Over a Barrel, Pillars of the Earth, Ticket to Ride, Bang!

James: I just played 7 Wonders twice last night; I took 1st and 4th (last).

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

Dennis: Seeing the amazed looks on people’s’ faces when you talk about what you’ve been working on.

Tom: What problems, if any, have you had with production?

Dennis: No significant problems yet. Shipping Drop Site from Belgium to the States came with a host of challenges, but nothing too bad.

Tom: What is next for you? Tell us about your current projects.

Dennis: Designing, e-marketing, learning and building community. As far as designs go, we plan to have Over a Barrel out by January 1 (fingers crossed), and Aristocracy out shortly thereafter. Over a Barrel will introduce some completely unique game pieces and mechanics, which we will begin to reveal at our website, bellwethergames.com. Aristocracy is a fast paced deck-destructing game. Both are a 10 on the fun factor!Another Over A Barrel board

Tom: I’m very intrigued about both of these games. I want to see these unique mechanics and bits. And a deck de-construction game sounds very cool. Can you give us any more info on these two?

Dennis: We are very eager to get both of these games out, and have been hesitant to reveal too much until our play testing is done. Blind playtesting for Over a Barrel is set to begin at the end of July (and yes, Tom, you are being highly considered for this, so you might get to play the game for yourself), and we hope to have it published by the end of this year. Still, we can say that Over a Barrel has a unique physical component, “the ship,” which is an actual wooden boat, and barrels that you load onto the boat. The supply and demand of each good changes at every port, so as you play you are trying to maximize your “profit,” but the trick is that there is a limited capacity on the ship, so your well-laid-out plans for scoring big can fall apart when your barrels start getting pushed off! As you could imagine, this game has been very difficult to develop (we started in 2008), but the hard work has paid off and we believe it is going to be really special.

Tom: I so want to play that. It sounds really cool.   Where can people fin out more about Bellwether Games?  Are there any links or sites you want to direct us to?

Dennis: www.bellwethergames.com is the hub for everything Bellwether. If you want a copy of Drop Site you can only get it at bellwethergames.com. Sign up for our newsletter at: http://bellwethergames.com/my-bellwether/subscribenewsletter.html or contact us at info@bellwethergames.com. You can also follow us on twitter (bellwethergames) or Facebook (Bellwether Games).

Dennis and James, thank you very much for being my guests on Go Forth And Game.  It has been a lot of fun learning about Bellwether and your games.  Drop Site sounds really fun and I’m hoping to see a copy of Over A Barrel or any other of your games (hint, hint) soon.  I think Bellwether has a bright future ahead.

Now for a BIG surprise. Bellwether Games is giving away a copy of the award winner Drop Site to one lucky reader of Go Forth And Game. All you have to do is visit the Bellwether Games website. Find the answers to the questions below.  Then email those answers to goforthandgame@gmail.com.

You will receive one point for each correct answer plus an additional point for signing up for the Bellwether newsletter.  We will tally your scores.  The person with the most correct answers wins.  If there is a tie, we will randomly choose a winner from those with the most correct answers.  Here are the questions.

What is a bellwether?

What are the recommended number of players for Drop Site?

What organization does Bellwether Games support?

In what century will the theme of Over a Barrel be?

What is one website that has reviewed Drop Site?

What is Bellwether Game’s slogan?

What award did Drop Site receive?

How many different voices are featured in the Drop Site tutorial?

The contest will run until the end of August 2011.  So get on over Bellwether Games, find the answers, then shoot Go Forth And Game an email with your answers.

And why not leave a comment while you are here.

Under The Microscope – Homesteaders

Abstract:  Homesteaders is a resource management game with auction and worker placement mechanics.  In the game, players are building a city beginning with a single homestead.  They will bid on building permits, build building, and receive resources, victory points, and abilities from the buildings.  The player with the most victory points wins.

Introduction:  Homesteaders was designed by Alex Rockwell and is published by Tasty Minstrel Games.  Players are pioneers in the American West in the 1800’s.  Each is trying to build a city starting with their single homestead or farm.  They must hire workers to tend their land and later run their stores and businesses.  This earns players money, victory points, and resources.  But workers must be paid.  Money enables players to grow their homestead to a settlement to a city.  If players use their resources wisely, they could be declared mayor of the city.

The game board

Materials & Methods:

Materials (Components):This game comes with a boat load of stuff.  The game board contains the auction and railroad development track.  There is a player screen for each player.  The screen has a reminder of the game turn on the back.  There are homestead tiles for each player in red, green, yellow, and blue.  Each player receives a homestead tile, a worker meeple, six silver, and two wooden cubes of their color.

Auction Tiles – These tiles are what are actually auctioned off during the auction phase.  There are several types representing the types of buildings in the game.  There are also special tiles that give immediate benefits when won.

Building Tiles- The rest of the tiles (and there are a lot) are building tiles marked either Settlement, Settlement/Town, Town, or City indicating the phase in which they are available. There is an additional type, Special, which become available after the Settlement phase.  Each building has several aspects.  It has a name like Market or Bank.  It has a victory point value, a cost in resources, an income area, and possible a bonus area.

There are a lot of  cardboard tokens – trade tokens, victory tokens, debt tokens, railroad track tokens, and silver ($) tokens.

Awesome components!

Now we come to the most awesome components – the wooden resources.  Cowboy worker meeples, painted cow meeples, gold coins, copper ingots, iron beams, wooden planks, and apples.  These are quality custom bits that really bring out the theme of the game.  These are used to ‘build’ or pay for buildings.

The game comes with a four page rule pamphlet, a start player tile, several reference tiles, and two wooden cubes in each player color.

Methods (Game play):  Each game of Homesteaders consists of 10 rounds.  Each round is composed of three phases – Income, Auction, and Building.  In the income phase, players allocate their workers to their properties’ income area(s).  Once all workers are placed, players collect their income – be it money, resources, trade tokens, or victory points.  After collecting income, each player pays their workers one silver each (to the bank) per worker.  That ends phase one.

Phase 2 is the Auction Phase.  Each round there is an auction for I call building permits.  These tiles indicate what types of properties are able to build that round.  There is one less auction than there are players.  Players can bid on an auction or opt out.  If they choose to opt out, they move forward on the Railroad Development track, which I will get to in a minute.  Players vie for the building permits, upping their bids until there are no more raised bids.  One interesting thing is if you are out bid on an auction you have the option to move to another active auction or more to the Railroad Development Track.  Once the winner of each auction is determined they paid their bid price for their building permit. They then select the building type indicated on their permit.  Periodically, there are also non-building tiles up for auction.  These give an immediate benefit like an extra worker or victory points.

If you can’t afford to stay in an auction you can take debt or sell resources in the market place.  Taking a debt chit gets you two silver but it takes 5 silver to pay back.    Debt must be paid for by or at the end of the game or you receive negative points.  Now to the marketplace.

The marketplace is used to buy or sell resources for silver at rates listed on Market Reference cards.  You can sell resources to get silver to pay for your auction bid.  You can do this at anytime.

If you choose not to bid in an auction you move your cube forward on the Railroad Development Track.  Each space on the track gives you the pictured resource when you move onto it.

A building tile

Phase 3 is the Building Phase.  The building permits have three types – Industrial, Residential, and Commercial.  These are the three types of building available.  Auction winners choose a building based on the type of building permit they won.  They then pay the building cost in resources shown on the building tile.  If there is an immediate effect/benefit they take that.  The buildings are added to the player’s play area or tableau.  Each building has an income that is activated when workers are placed on it in the

Income phase.  It may also have automatic income that the player receives each round without having to activate with a worker.

As mentioned the game consists of ten rounds.  Rounds 1 through 4 are the Settlement rounds.  Only Settlement and Settlement/Town buildings are available for purchase in these rounds.  After round 4 the Settlement only tiles are removed.  The Town building tiles are added, available for purchase now.  Also available is a new type of building – Special.  Special buildings are high cost, high victory point buildings.  In rounds 9 and 10 only the City tiles are available.

After round 10, victory points are added up and the winner determined.  Victory points come from the point value on buildings, gold, cows, copper, and victory point chits.  Debt tokens are negative points – one for one token, 2 for the second to total 3 negative points.  This increase incrementally for each debt token.  Points are totaled and the player with the most victory points wins.

Discussion:  I like this game a lot.  I was a bit apprehensive when I opened the box and saw the condition of some of the bits.  Tasty Minstrel had some unforseen issues with the first company that produced the game.  But Tasty Minstrel stepped up and fixed things quickly.  The second edition, due out any day now, will not have those problems.

Homesteaders in play

My first reading of the rules was a bit confused.  It took a second read for things to cleared up.  Set up is easy and fairly quick.  Game play is smooth and fast.  The theme is very well supported by the art and the components.  You can really imagine that you are building a town in the old west.  The game is easy to teach and learn but it has surprising depth.  It’s a subtle game that sneaks up on you. On first glance, it doesn’t appear to have the complexity that it does.  The game moves so fast that you have to think quickly to get your resource engine working so you can buy the needed buildings.

The interplay between the players in the auctions adds a lot of fun and strategy.  Can you outbid your friend to get that one property that you NEED to get your strategy going?  Is it worth taking debt?  Manipulating your workers to get the resources you need at the right time is tricky and the heart of the game.  You have to be flexible as a lost auction can crash your plans.  Resource management is the key.  Get your engine going soon or you’ll get left behind.  Because the game only lasts about an hour.  Several in my game group like the game quite a bit and one purchased it after only one play.  The second edition will be published soon.

Please visit the Tasty Minstrel site to learn more about Homesteaders.

Homesteaders is a fun and fast game that has enough depth and strategy to satisfy gamers.  Homesteaders is published by Tasty Minstrel Games.

Results:  4 out of 5 microscopes

Some of the pictures used in this review were sourced from Boardgame Geek.

D6Generation Feedback!

D6G – Dystopian Wars. I listened to The D6 Generation’s interview with Spartan Games recently. They talked a lot about the new faction, Antarcticans, and the new land based part of the game. I have to say Dystopian Wars is really calling to me. I’m a sucker for alternate histories and that is what this game is about.
They also talked to Wyrd Miniatures. Their major game is Malifaux, a skirmish level minis game. It is a Wild West horror themed game and has a really cool style. In addition to Malifaux, the thing that interested me was Terraclips, Lego style terrain. I checked them out on their website and they look really neat. I can see using these in rpgs for sure. Wyrd’s new game, Puppet Wars, sounds really fantastic too.
I really enjoy The D6 Generation and am glad that I can get good minis info that I can trust from them.