I’m talking to Chris James this time. Chris is the head honcho of Casual Games Revolution and Stratus Games. CGR publishes Casual Games Insider, a gaming magazine that is aimed right at bridging the gap between hardcore gamers and ‘family’ gamers.
Tom: Hi Chris. It’s been quite a while since we last talked. What have you been up to in the interim?
Chris: It certainly has been awhile. My wife, Melanie, and I now have two little girls, which always keep us on our toes. In addition, we recently moved from Tucson, Arizona, to Payson – a nice mountain town that has a much milder climate than the desert of southern Arizona. What’s more, we have started a side business (mainly Melanie’s) that we are doing in parallel with Stratus Games. Needless to say, we have been very busy as of late.
Chris: It all started after we had been marketing our products in the game industry for several years and we realized that there is a disconnect between typical “family” games (marketed in the toy industry) and “gamer” games (marketed in the hobby game industry). As casual gamers, we have always appreciated the sweet spot in the middle, but this is really a gray area in terms of marketing. In general, you either have to market to kids or hardcore gamers – but where are all of the people in the middle? It seemed that there was no good way to reach these people, but we knew they were out there. We set out to reach this audience (those who are casual gamers like us) and we felt that the industry as a whole could benefit from it. So, Casual Game Insider was born.
Tom: Before we get too far into this, what is a casual game?
Chris: A casual game is relatively quick (< 1 hour), easy to learn (< 10 minutes), and offers some light strategic thought, dexterity, or social interaction. A casual game is not a game of pure luck, nor is it a game of heavy strategy or high complexity. The ideal casual game is one that can be picked up relatively easily by nearly anyone from older children to adults.
Good examples of casual games are games like Tsuro, Forbidden Island, Ticket to Ride, King of Tokyo, Get Bit!, or the recent Spiel des Jahres winner, Camel Up. We have a whole page dedicated to casual games that we recommend – the list continues to grow as we evaluate and review games in our magazine and on our blog.
Tom: That is a great resource by the way. How has Casual Game Insider been doing?
Chris: It has been doing well. We continually get amazing feedback from our readers, which is great to receive. Casual gamers like us who stumble upon on our magazine definitely understand and love what we are doing, and even experienced gamers can appreciate most of our informative content, as well. Our sponsors love to have an advertising platform which allows their casual games to shine, without being surrounding by toys or more hardcore fare.
Tom: It’s a beautiful magazine. Who is doing the graphic design, layout, etc.?
Chris: Thank you! I started out designing the magazine myself for the first 6 issues. I then passed the baton to Gregg Lewis, who has continued to design the magazine with a similar look and feel but has also improved upon it in many ways. Each article is a unique work of art, and I am always pleased to see how they turn out.
Tom: You cover a wide range of games and subjects. I particularly enjoyed the article by the soldier who talked about gaming with his colleague while deployed. That was great. How do you get such material?
Chris: We have a great network of authors who have shared their articles with us, and we simply would not exist without them. We certainly have our own editorial ideas that we cover ourselves or recruit authors to write about. But articles like the military article that you mentioned we could never have thought of or written about ourselves. We’re just so glad that we can offer a voice to people who have great knowledge and experiences to share with the world.
Tom: How has the response from your advertisers been? Are they seeing sales from CGI?
Chris: We have heard publishers say they’re getting a response, and we are seeing repeat advertisers, which is always a good sign. In fact, 3 of the 4 gold sponsors this year (cover advertisers) had been working with us previously, as well as several others. On the other hand, not every ad is effective in every situation – a poor game isn’t going to turn around overnight just because there is an ad in our magazine (or any magazine). Thousands of people may see that ad and pass on it. That is just the nature of print advertising, and we are simply the messengers. An ad can be a good part of a complete marketing strategy, but it shouldn’t be the only part.
Tom: You are currently Kickstarting the next ‘season’ of CGI with hopes of going to ‘hard copies’ on magazine stands. I’d love to see this in B&N but it seems like a very daunting endeavor. Why?
Chris: We are already producing hard copies that go out to over 2,100 game stores and our subscribers who opt for the print version. Getting onto newsstands is the next logical step that we hope will accomplish two purposes: 1) reach more casual gamers like us, and 2) provide an even more effective platform for our advertisers. We are constantly trying to serve our advertisers by increasing our distribution and gathering more attentive readers.
The ability to get in Barnes & Noble and similar stores became a reality when we were accepted by a major magazine distributor, and it would be difficult to pass up such an opportunity. That being said, there certainly is risk, as retailers can return up to 100% of the magazines by ripping the cover (rendering it unsellable). It is really a terrible practice, in my opinion, but based on a realistic return rate and the added potential for us and our sponsors, we are confident that it will be worth a try. Aside from some design changes on our end, most of the logistics will be handled by our printer and our distributor.
Tom: Let’s switch gears and talk about Stratus Games. It’s been on a hiatus of sorts while you got CGI rolling. How have things been with the game company?
Chris: Unfortunately, Stratus Games and CGI are mutually exclusive in many ways. We simply don’t have the manpower to focus fully on both, and CGI is currently our priority. As such, we are beginning to clear out our game inventory and rebrand Stratus Games as a design studio rather than a full game publisher. We are hoping to partner with some of the many great folks we have come to know over the years to license our upcoming game designs. By the way, any retailers reading can contact me for some really good deals on our games. We certainly want our games to go into good hands.
Tom: That’s an interesting and I’m sure well thought out decision. I’m glad you are getting back to some designing. I think Eruption is a super game. I should repost my review of that by the way. What’s next in the queue?
Chris: Thank you! We put a lot of work into it and we are certainly pleased with how it came out. We are almost finished polishing Ballistic, a casual naval battle game that has some awesome new mechanics for simultaneous play. Anyone who wants to test a print-and-play version of the game can contact me. We have a ton of other really great ideas to work on, if we can ever find the time.
Tom: I assume you will be at GenCon. What are your plans there?
Chris: I hope to roam the show and cover the best new casual games coming out, as well as mingle with our advertisers and sponsors.
Tom: I’m sure there will be plenty to cover. We seem to be in a gaming renaissance. Any other cons this year or next?
Chris: I attended ASTRA for the first time earlier this year to scope out the casual games there, and I was pleasantly surprised. We also plan to cover Essen later in the fall. Any other future plans are not solidified at this point.
Tom: Any last words?
Chris: Thanks for the interview, Tom! I always appreciate the opportunity and I look forward to speaking with you again in the future.
It was nice to catch up with Chris. Casual Game Insider is a very good magazine with lots of quick reviews and in depth articles on gaming. You should check out the Kickstarter here. HOT OFF THE PRESSES! CGI will be carried by Barnes & Noble! Congrats Chris.
By The Way, there’s a BIG Game Giveaway over at the CGR website right here. You should go there now.
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 EruptionPreview Nightsto share with anyone who is interested in playing an advanced copy of the game.
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.