This Man Is On A Mission! – A Conversation With… Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games

I’m extremely excited to have Stephen Buonocore the main man at Stronghold Games as my guest this time. Stephen is the busiest man in gaming, having put out ten games in the last four months of 2014. And he has a Kickstarter campaign burning up the internet. Amazing! He graciously took some time to talk to me about what’s going on at Stronghold.

Tom: Hi Stephen. To start how was BGGcon?pic2322793_md

Stephen: BGG.con is my single favorite convention of the year.  Besides it being the END of the very long, exhausting convention season, it’s a convention where I can really RELAX in the evenings and spend time with all the Geeks.  It is also simply an amazingly run convention.  Jeff Andersen, who is the Chairperson, does a spectacular job getting it done with all those volunteers.  Huge kudos to Jeff and his team, who pull off a bigger and better convention each year.  Geeks out there who are reading this:  GO TO BGG.CON!  It is really, really worth it!

Tom: I will have to save my $$ to see if I can make it this year.What was the game of the con for you?

diamonds 1
Diamonds, my new trick-taking card game by Mike Fitzgerald, is just hitting it out of the ballpark.

Well… that can be answered in many ways, as in Stronghold Games’ best selling game at the Con or the game that I enjoyed playing the most.  So, I’ll just go with the former:  It was DIAMONDS!  Not only did I bring more Diamonds than any other game, it sold out the fastest.  Diamonds, my new trick-taking card game by Mike Fitzgerald, is just hitting it out of the ballpark.  Gamers are loving it’s very innovative take on the trick-taking genre.  Families are playing it, as they are rediscovering this type of games from the classics they have played in the past like Hearts and Spades and Euchre.  Really great game with awesome components.  I have to give a shout out to Kanban, which came in a respectable second in the best-selling contest at BGG.CON.  It’s being called Heavy Eurogame of the Year 2014, and for a reason.  Fantastic dead on thematic Euro!

Tom: We will talk about each a bit later. Any surprises?

Stephen: Hmmm… BGG.con feels like “home” to me now, so not too many things surprise me there.  Oh, but wait!  This past BGG.con I participated in the “Scotch Crawl” in the hotel.  What’s that you say?  Well for lovers of single malt scotches, the “Scotch Test Dummies” run this unofficial event each year.  About 5 or so rooms in the hotel are made destinations, and about 10-15 people donate a bottle of fine single malt.  The result:  ahhhhh…. It’s a very social experience where you get to hang around with other lovers of malt for 2 hours, sipping and discussing scotch.  Fun!

Tom: What a great event! It sounds like you had a blast and really relaxed. That’s great. Panamax is doing fantastic. I’ve played it once and it was in my top 11 of 2014. I liked it a lot. Talk a bit about it.

Stephen: Panamax was released a bit earlier than Kanban, which is the only reason that is sold less at BGG.con.  Many people had it already and were playing it all over the convention!  Panamax is an economic game of shipping through the Panama Canal, where you are trying to maximize your wealth by the end of the game.  Innovative, chain reaction  “pushing” mechanics and action dice selection are the hallmarks of this great game.  Panamax has also been selected by some as their game of the year.  Panamax-SG-box-top-1022x1024

This is a good point to mention that I released TEN new titles between late August and mid-November, which is just an insane number, I know — but it was a perfect storm.  Five of the games were base games, and 5 were expansions.  All 5 base games sold out, either before their retail Street Date even occurred (this is called being “allocated” into Distribution — demand is greater than supply, so all the distributors can’t get the amount they want), or were sold out within a few month.  This is a “good problem”, but a problem nonetheless.  I am in the process of reprint all, and both Panamax and Kanban are back in stock already.

Tom: Man oh man you are really rockin’ it. Ten games in what, three months. That’s insane. You are insane. Let’s talk about Diamonds. I have played it and oh, man is it hot! It seems to have been the game of the con of GenCon. It is so accessible. How did you wrangle it into the Stronghold family?

Stephen: It’s a funny thing… sometimes you have a game, and you know it’s good even greadiamonds-box-top-for-BGG-2-769x1024t, but you are just not sure if it will make it in the market.  With all my releases, I was actually most worried about Diamonds.  Why?  Because it’s “just” a trick-taking card game.  I mean, there are many out there, and this means that the market may not stand to have another one.  I am happy to say that I was very wrong!!  As stated above, this was one of the 5 “base games” that I released, and it is sold out.  It has taken some extra time to get this one back in stores, as I was hoping to get a partner on board in the EU.  Instead, I have a Chinese partner who is also doing Diamonds with us.  I anticipate that Diamonds will be back in stores by May.

Tom: You have several game lines. One of the most successful is The Space Cadets family. It is expanding. Why? What’s next?

Stephen: Space Cadets is now my biggest line of games.  It has:

  •  Space Cadets (2012) — This is the original base game, cooperative and in real-time.  Man a bridge station on a starship, and play various real-time mini-games to achieve your missions.  This was expanded by:
  • Space Cadets: Resistance Is Mostly Futile (2014): We added a Science Officer, enabling you to play from 2 to 7 players, and Experimental Equipment…which may or may not work right.
  • Space Cadets: Dice Duel — The second game in the line.  And the tagline for this says it all: “The Team vs. Team, Real-Time, Dice-Rolling Game of Starship Combat”. Nothing on the market competes with this game.  This was expanded by:
  • Space Cadets: Dice Duel – Die Fighter — Adds to the insanity by enabling games from 2 through 10 players, plus 3 different modes of play.  And cool Experimental Equipment cards that you can draft in the beginning of the game to customize your ships.


Tom: And then there is Space Cadets: Away Missions. Man! Does it look great! Minis galore! Stronghold is always pushing the envelope, going the extra mile. And the game play sounds really fun too. Tell us more about it and why you decided to change your game plan a bit and Kickstart it.

Tell us about how Away Missions plays.

Stephen: In Space Cadets: Away Missions, you are a member of The Rocket Patrol.  Thematically, mankind is just started traveling around the solar system (this is a prequel to the original Space Cadets games, btw).  And when they get out there to the solar system, they find that there has been an alien invasion!  Humans are being captured, turned into Thralls, and there are many different types of aliens on various ships, that must be destroyed!

You go on missions (20 come in the game), with your crew of 1 to 6 characters (players), each with their own specialties, of course.  As you explore the location, aliens are swarming you, so you must deal with these hordes as you attempt to achieve the mission objective.  

away missions1

The Overkill System™ is the most brilliant mechanic I have seen in a while.  When you roll for success on d10s, anything above 1 success is called an “Overkill”.  You can then use the Overkill option of your weapon, of your character, or of the alien to do all types of heroic feats.  This ends up creating a thematic narrative, and an experience in a game that you will talk about for days and weeks after the game.

Tom: That sounds a lot like a role playing game mechanic. The game itself has a very rpg feel which I like a lot. Very cool. I can see how that would lend itself to narrative and memorable games.

And now — *NOW* it’s on Kickstarter.  “Away Missions” is, by far, the most ambitious project undertaken by Stronghold Games, which is why we put it on Kickstater.  This is a $100 MSRP game with 100 plastic miniatures in the box, as well as 20 Scenarios/Missions.  The Kickstarter has been very successful.  We are at about $110,000 as I type this, and since I am an uber geek and I wanted everything that I had envisioned in the box, I unlocked all away missions2the Stretch Goals today!  The solicited demand from the Distributors for the game post-Kickstarter is very good, so we determined we have made enough money to mitigate the risk of printing this insanely big game, so we just “put it all in the box”!  Everything we had thought of, and more, and we’re giving it to the backers.  

With gorgeous retro-Sci Fi art, this game features very innovative cooperative, tactical game play, and will be outstanding looking on the table as well as a wonderful play experience.  It is a very exciting project, and we hope that people go take a look at this!

Tom: It looks absolutely gorgeous.  I’m a huge pulp fan and this game smacks me right in the face. I SO want this game! I’m really excited for you. I love the look and the overkill mechanic sounds really cool.  Man, I wish I had $99 to drop on it. What’s next from Stronghold that has you the most excited?

Stephen: Well, we just announced STRONGHOLD – 2nd EDITION!  This is an amazing IP, and we are co-publishing this with Portal Games, one of the premiere hobby games company.  Ignacy from Portal Games is not only a good friend, but he’s a genius game designer.  He’s taken Portal Games to great heights with games like Robinson Crusoe and Neuroshima Hex.  I am so proud that he asked us to join him for the printing of Stronghold – 2nd Edition.stronghold1

The obvious branding implications are fantastic.  It’s been a “grail game” for me to publish since 2009 when the game was announced, and Stronghold Games was just starting up.  With a new 2nd Edition, we think that this is going to be a big seller for us.  Fantastic game.

Tom: I saw this announcement and thought it was a perfect marriage. Portal and Stronghold are the two hottest, most respected publishers right now in my opinion. I’m glad you were able to work things out.

I won Medina in your recent BGG contest. First, thank you very much! Medina is a reprint. Reprints are one of the ways Stronghold got started. Are you planning any more?

Stephen: Medina is an amazing game, and was out of print for a while.  White Goblin Games loves working with Stronghold Games, so they sought me out to do this game. It was a no-brainer to pick it up… as long as the game was done with AT LEAST as good components at the original.  And we creamed it!  The game is simply beautiful to behold on the table with its 200 pieces of wood.  When you finish playing Medina, you have BUILT A CITY from scratch right in front of you with the pieces in the game.  Gorgeous and great game play…Medina-Stronghold-Games-Box-Top-1024x749

…but I didn’t answer your question.  There are no current plans for a reprint of another game.  The well is drying up for games that need a reprint.  I am sure they are out there, but they are fewer and farther between now.

Tom: I can see that. And it’s a tougher market these days.

Talk a bit about Knights of the Stronghold? Who’s running it? How does it work? What are some benefits? Should I get involved?

Stephen: The Knights Of The Stronghold!  Great name, huh?  Who doesn’t want to be a KNIGHT! 🙂

The Knights of the Stronghold is my demo/presentation team.  I used the name loosely for a couple of year already, but at the end of 2014, a company approached me, and told me about a program that they were creating called Envoy.  Envoy is brand new, but run by some people that I have known for many years.  They run the biggest conventions in the greater NYC area (NJ specifically).  Very very organized group, and the always get the job done that they seek to do, which is why I put my confidence in Envoy.

The Envoy program signed up about 30 companies prior to it’s official launch on 1/1/2015, with Stronghold Games being one of them.  The program works like this:

  •  Gamers sign up for the program.  They can select any one (or more) of the companies in the program that they want to represent to conventions, game stores, meetup groups, etc. Of course, I hope they choose to be a The Knights Of The Stronghold!
  • Envoy ensures that the person can present themselves well (since they are representing the company that they chose), and they ask them to show how they would demo their chosen game(s).
  • If all goes well, they become a The Knights Of The Stronghold (or a Ranger of R&R Games, etc. – whatever they choose).
  • The Knights Of The Stronghold go forth and do demos and earn points that they can then exchange for goodies (games and such, of course), and they can get these things from any of the participating companies in Envoy.

The Knights Of The Stronghold are giving cool T-shirts and their first game immediately upon getting into the program.  

If anyone is interested, they can start by going here to find more information on The Knights Of The Stronghold:

Tom: It sounds really interesting. I know it will do well for you. The Geek Allstars played Kanban for the most recent episode. I got to Dan’s late and was not able to actually play. But I watched most of the game. It looks great and I think I would like it. Talk some about it.

Stephen: Kanban is a thematic Euro.  I don’t think there is a eurogame that marries theme and mechanics better.  Why?  Because the interesting thing about Eurogames is that they are doing “Kanban”.  Kanban is a “Process Management System”, know for its “J.I.T” (Just-In-Time)  methods.  The flow of the goods/pieces in the system is all about efficiency and doing things with the right timing.  Sounds familiar?  You have Eurogame.

Kanban, the board game, is specifically about “J.I.T” manufacturing in the Automobile Industry.  In fact, both Toyota and Honda during the 1990s used the Kanban methodology to become the preeminent car companies in the world, proving the Kanban system.  Many other manufacturers of cars and other goods now use Kanban.Kanban-Box-Top-final

In my board game, Kanban, you are a factory manager, an up-and-comer. You must efficiently produce cars, by getting projects, getting parts, upgrading parts, producing the cars, and all the while ensuring that your boss, Sandra, is pleased with your work in the various departments.  And don’t forget the Board of Directors that you must report to at times.  Efficiency is everything in Kanban!

Tom: You are so right. The theme and mechanics are so intertwined. The game really makes you feel like you are working in the automotive industry.

You just announced that you will be bringing La Granja to the U.S.A. That is sweet. I hear lots of good things about it. Can you talk a bit about it?

Stephen: La Granja was a bit hit this past Essen.  The game was published then by Spielworxx, a small German publisher that does very small print runs of their games.  They always sell out at Essen or in their preorders.  Uli Blennanman of Spielworxx is a good friend, and we decided to create a strategic partnership, whereby I would do La Granja and other games in the future, bringing his fantastic games to a worldwide audience with Stronghold Games global distribution.  

This is a very exciting project in particular, as it continues down the line for me with another great Eurogame.  In this case, however, it is a very approachable one, unlike the heavyweight champs of Kanban and Panamax.  La Granja is a solid medium weight game that almost any gamer, especially those who like Euros, will really relish.  “Bah, a farming game!”, you say?  You play La Granja and then tell me how great “farming” can be!

la granjaTom: Farming theme shouldn’t be an issue. Look at Agricola. As you mentioned you are working with some European publishers to bring these game to America. Tell us what you can about how you established those relationships.

Stephen: It’s all about the beer, man!  No, seriously, it is all about just reaching out, and establishing good relationships with EVERYONE.  And I mean everyone!  I would like to think that if you asked anyone in the industry, on both sides of the Atlantic, that they would say very nice things about Stephen Buonocore.  I treat people well at all times. Then, when there is an opportunity to work together, we all know each other, and we all want to work together.  Essen is the big opportunity for me to establish these relationships.

Tom: Everyone I talk to has very good things to say about you. I can’t wait to meet you. I want to talk about your 2015 release schedule. Tell me about Dark Moon first.

Stephen: Dark Moon is the “Game Formerly Known as BSG Express”, which was the most downloaded print-and-play game on BGG.  When we decided to do the game, we needed to strip the “BSG” out of it, as that IP is owned of course in game form by FFG.  So, we ended up with Dark Moon.

dark moonOn Dark Moon, you are a miner on Titan, known as the dark moon, of Saturn.  One or more players are infected and are trying to destroy the base, while the uninfected human players are simply trying to survive.  No one knows for sure who is on their team (neither the good humans or the bad infected players), but the infected players can reveal themselves at some point in game. The really innovative part of the game comes from the dice rolling mechanic.  When attempting to achieve tasks and missions, dice are rolled behind the player’s screen, and then the player submits a die OPENLY to the die pool.  However, these are custom dice and weighted to have more negative values than positive values.  So, a good player might have to submit a negative die roll to a task that they want to have succeed, whereby all players are going to start point, screaming, cursing that this player is actually an infected player.

And best of all, unlike in the game “Battlestar Galactica”, which is a 3 to 4 hour extravaganza, Dark Moon plays in 60-75 minutes.  And you can play from 3 to 7 players, which is a great player count!

Tom: This sounds fantastic. I’ve avoided the BSG game because of the time commitment. Dark Moon sounds like it will be just right. Now Pictomania. Tell us about it cause it sounds fun.

Stephen: Pictomania is a gamer’s party game, a drawing game, by the great designer Vlaada Chvatil.  Vlaada has more games in the top 100 on BGG than any other designer.  In fact he has 6 games in the top 105 (approximately) on BGG.  That’s some track record!Pictomania-Box-Front-Stronghold-Games-edition

In Pictomania, it’s not about how well you draw, it is about making very quick doodles only, and making fast guesses at other people’s doodles.  If you can draw a car differently than you would draw a giraffe, for instance, then you are fine for this game!  Small doodles and quick guesses of the other players doodles are going to be rewarded.  THis is another game by Vlaada that simply sets a new standard in a genre!

Tom: You are the busiest man in game publishing right now I think. How do you top Away Missions?

Stephen: Funny thing, I was just pitched an idea that makes “Space Cadets: Away Missions” look like a small game.  Really, I am not kidding.  But I can’t tell you any more about this.  We’ll see if it comes to fruition…

Tom: Whoa! I’m very intrigued! I can’t wait to see it.

Stephen, thank you very much for being my guest. I really appreciate you taking time out to talk with me. Stronghold is going gangbusters and I’m extremely happy for you. And for us gamers because Stronghold puts out such fantastic games. Thank you for that.

Readers, go right now and back Space Cadets: Away Missions right here. You don’t have much time. There’s many more interviews on the way – Happy Mitten Games & Matt Worden, Masquerade Games, the guys behind Between Two Cities (Stonemaier’s next game), just to name a few. Come on back.


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