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.