As I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, I am solicited pretty frequently for coverage of crowd-funded gaming projects. Having been there myself in soliciting others, I get why they have to do it, and how it feels pretty intrusive. I’d like to say that A) I get the reasons and am generally congenial to help out where I can; and B) I’m supposed to be “professional” or something so that more content will occur and more audience and blah blah blah. However, what is more accurate is that I find myself irritated by said solicitations, and if you’re seeing me talk about something here, it’s either because I am personally very excited about the project, or because the solicitor took the time to stroke my ego and reference something that suggests that they have read any of my scribbles here. Sometimes it’s both.
Jeff Siadek has designed a few games including Lifeboat, Desert Island, the Worst Game Ever, Monster Derby, Who Would Win, 99 Chances, Hunting Party, Caesar, Palaces, Pantheon, RoboTanks, Throwing Stones, Total War, Wordariffic, and World Conquerors to name a few. Today we’re looking at the long awaited second edition of Battlestations, which Jeff describes as the culmination of his life’s work and the product of 16 years of development.
Battlestations (currently killing it on Kickstarter) is a RPG/board game hybrid, similar to Mice & Mystics. Here’s a blurb from Jeff himself about it.
Battlestations is multi-map board game that simultaneously features ship-action in space AND the events on board the ships involved in the conflicts. It uses a simple board game system, but allows for complex RPG-like imaginative choices, like climbing into a boarding torpedo aimed at an alien ship or performing risky maneuvers outside a damaged starship.
So yeah, that’s pretty cool. Most of the games I have played involving a ship, the ship is the main part, you move it around, you do stuff. The crew of the ship is not something that really matters in most games involving starships that I have played. In Battlestar Galactica, the crew is pretty much all that matters, as the titular starship is mainly the board with some action spaces on it, and that crew has enough to worry about without the whole “flying around and doing stuff” part.
Battlestations gets the best of both worlds by giving you a ship to fly around a map on, as well as the inner workings of the crew as the main access point for the players. What’s more? You actually get to make the characters. While this does add to the total time investment, it adds a considerable amount more to the overall experience. When you’re assigned a character, you will probably enjoy it (and there are pre-generated characters in Battlestations for those who prefer), but getting to custom design one? That’s just cool on a different level. There are many RPG players who don’t really get into board games and vice-versa. This game helping to bridge the gap promises a uniquely cool experience for gamers of all backgrounds.
I had the opportunity to ask Jeff a few questions which I’ll share with you here.
PSS: How long have you been a gamer?
Jeff: I learned gin rummy and crazy eights when I was 4 or 5 from my parents. I played GI Joes with my older brother Jack and that was the foundation for roleplaying every boy got even though there were no roleplaying games in the 60’s. My younger brother Jason and I would set up every game in the house (Monopoly, Sorry, Stratego and half a dozen others I can’t remember) and play them all simultaneously. All of this built up toward the crystalizing moment at the age of 14 when I was introduced to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons player’s handbook in 1978. That book profoundly changed my life. Since then, I’ve been a roleplayer, Ameritrasher, and eurogamer and felt guilty that I haven’t done more miniatures or serious wargames. I’ve been a gamer all my life, I just didn’t know it until I found the hobby and it was like waking up for the first time.
PSS: Well said. At what point did you decide to throw your hat into “professional” game design?
Jeff: Like every other gamer kid, I house ruled nearly every game I played (since becoming a “professional” I house rule a lot less). I sent in over a hundred items for Steve Jackson’s “Car Wars” and 5 were accepted for “Uncle Alberts 2085 catalogue” (it might have been a different year) In 1985 I designed and published “9th Generation” an RPG set 9 generations after the nuclear holocaust. I had it printed at my girlfriend’s father’s chemical company but we ran out of plates doing the interior pages so the covers were photocopied. I formed Gamesmiths in 1992 to publish “Total War” and “Pantheon” and later “Robotanks”, “Caesar”, “Monster Derby”, “Throwing Stones” and the “Throwing Stones Roleplaying Game”. Gamesmitths went bust so I crawled off to lick my wounds. In 2000 or so, I designed “Lifeboat” and Fat Messiah games published it to a sell out (yay!) but the fulfillment house went bankrupt without paying (boo!). In 2004 I founded Gorilla Games to publish Battlestations. Throughout all of this time and even up to today I’ve worked various side jobs, day jobs and odd jobs to make ends meet. If you judge “professional” by making a living at it, I haven’t been very “professional” to date.
PSS: It’s certainly more of a passion-driven thing. At least in my experiences. Sometimes you have runaway success and can make it your thing, but many designers both published and aspiring are doing other things to pay the bills while sharpening their games. Once you have a polished product, you still need a groundswell of interest, and the actual production isn’t cheap. At the end of the day, you probably get to be a hundredaire, but that’s not really why we do it, is it? What was your first published game?
Jeff: My first published game was “Mass Murderer”. I published it under the name of my girlfriend at the time because I still had political aspirations at the time and I knew that title could come back to haunt me. This story about me hiding behind my girlfriend haunts me more than that stupid game could. The idea was that each player had stacks of cards moving around a board. The stacks were secret so you didn’t know if it contained bystanders, commandos or murderers with weapons.
PSS: What changes would you make to it now if you were starting over again with your current knowledge of the hobby and industry?
Jeff: I wouldn’t publish it now. It was half a bad idea done in poor taste. There is something to be said for the fact that a baker’s early experiments don’t live on for decades to shame them.
PSS: We live and we learn. Mostly, I hope. Frequently we live and don’t learn. Who is your favorite designer?
Jeff: Richard Garfield is my favorite designer. Aside from the fact that he is an absolute prince of a man, he’s managed to create a new type of game (CCG) as well as delivering some really fine games that are great in their own right (“RoboRally”, “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle”, and “King of Tokyo” to name a few.). If you read his writing on the subject it is full of the power of the positive. Richard’s games are about putting fun power in the hands of players and we love it.
PSS: I don’t think I have read any of his writing on the subject, but I think your endorsement makes me want to change that. What is your favorite game?
Jeff: Agricola. The way this game simulates subsistence farming is beautiful. The rules are intuitive (You harvest grain from fields and bake it into bread. You add rooms to your house so you can grow your family). The balance of play is superb and it feels like you’re struggling to survive and then later struggling to thrive. Uwe Rosenberg makes starving on a farm into an evening of intense fun gaming action.
PSS: See? This guy GETS IT. While Agricola is a wildly popular title with many gamers (I personally preferred it to Caverna while many said that Caverna was an evolution), it hasn’t always done so hot with some of the people I’ve played it with. It’s a challenging game that sometimes feels like “how do I lose the least hard?” rather than “how do I win?” Someone quipped on Reddit some time ago that their problem with the game was that “Agricola takes X turns to win. The game lasts X-3 turns.” While it was meant to be an indictment, I find that’s one of the game’s charms, but it’s no secret that I enjoy a little gamer masochism. The struggle is real. Tell me one of your favorite gaming stories.
Jeff: In a D&D campaign I played with a fellow player who was the kind of Lawful Good power gamer cleric who wore a magic holy symbol to an evil deity under his cloak so he could get the wisdom bonus. My character was an evil goblin thief with a heart of gold (ish) and we fought mightily with the pompous cleric finally banishing me from the party. The DM said I could create a new character so I created a gnome ranger. Of course, this was my goblin shapeshifted but also disguised before shapeshifting. When the Cleric used true sight, it revealed that I was shapeshifted but true sight couldn’t see through the disguise underneath the shapeshifting.
PSS: Well yes, of course. Word to the wise, kids. If you plan to kick someone out of the party, it’s best to do so off of a cliff. Let’s talk about the main reason we’re here though. Why a second edition to Battlestations? In what ways does this improve on the 1st edition?
Jeff: I learned a tremendous amount over the last 12 years since the first edition was published. I had to restrain myself from not answering “Battlestations” to all the previous questions because, in fact, it is my favorite game, my first real professional game and the source of many of my favorite game stories. Being in print, in the world, getting played by thousands of players all over the world informed me about the design process in general and “Battlestations” in particular to no end. The obvious physical changes are that the modules are larger and the game uses fewer of them. The superficial changes are that the abilities, species and equipment have been more finely balanced. The deep changes are that the game is faster (literally, the ships are faster), more balanced and easier to play, teach, and learn.
PSS: Sold. I always enjoy talking to designers about their projects. The love really comes through, and it’s always a rewarding experience. This particular story has the benefit of watching your game grow over the years. Have you played Xia: Legends of a Drift System? While Xia and Battlestations are clearly different games, there are parallels to be drawn.
Jeff: I’ll be honest, I have not even heard of this game, but after you asked, I looked it up on BGG and read your conversation with Jamey Stegmaier about it. Wow. That does look like something I’d love. I am something of a eurogamer in addition to an ameritrasher and I love the idea of flying around the galaxy in a trader. I used to love Merchants of Venus except for the fact that my brother-in-law with a Harvard MBA would beat the snot out of me at it. It looks like Xia offers a lot of small nuggets of a story in a relatively short time frame. A single session of Battlestations will have one of those adventures but you’ll be aboard the ship.
PSS: What are your thoughts on Kickstarter, and how it has changed game publishing?
Jeff: Kickstarter has allowed people with great ideas to get the money they need to put out fantastic games.
Kickstarter has allowed every idiot to publish rubbish.
I don’t mind putting up with the rubbish if it means we also get the great games. The glut in gaming is getting bad but there is always room for a great game.
PSS: I agree. There have been some thoroughly outstanding titles I have found through there, and some solidly mediocre games that tricked me into giving them dollars by taking a reflex hammer and tapping on my gaming lizard brain. What advice would you give any aspiring designers reading this?
Jeff: The most important piece of advice I can give is this: Play. Play for fun. Play for keeps. Play other games. Play your own game. Play with playing your own game. Whatever you are designing will be better if you are free to have fun with it. Playing other designer’s games with an open mind improves your design skill. Playing your own games with an open mind improves your game.
PSS: Absolutely. And to that I will add (unsolicited) that an idea on paper is worth 10 ideas in your head. When you get something, start taking notes and BUILD A PROTOTYPE. Once you have an (extremely) rough version, you can actually play with it to see if there is a Statue of David hiding in your misshapen chunk of marble.
Seeing as Battlestations has such an emphasis on the crew of a starship as well as what said starship is actually doing, I have to ask…Kirk or Picard?
Jeff: I grew up on Kirk but Picard has so much more depth that I’ll have to give him the nod. I’d trade the pair of them for Han. Battlestations takes place in a quasi-military Universal Republic that is more along the lines of Trek but the small crews and informal nature makes it more Star Wars.
PSS: Very interesting! What are you excited about coming in 2016?
Jeff: 2016 is the year of the Monkey. I just got back from Taiwan and I’m stoked about the future for Gorilla Games. We’ve got “Battlestations” blowing it up on kickstarter right now but I’m also releasing “Palaces” a deckbuilding bidding game that is more of a euro style as well as a retooling of “The Worst Game Ever” along with it’s “Best Expansion Ever”. “Desert Island” just shipped and “Lifeboat” is back in print. I’m certain other things are coming from other designers and publishers but this is the stuff that is fueling my starship.
PSS: I remember reading about Palaces a while ago and I remember being interested in it but was on a self-imposed Kickstarter ban at the time. For a gamer with sometimes poor impulse control, Kickstarter can be a dangerous place for my wallet. 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to talk shop with me for a few, it sounds like 2016 will be a banner year for you, and I’m excited to stay tuned to what you’ll be up to.
Jeff: Palaces is a real eurostyle game with no dice and all of the action consists of bidding and building. I’m terribly proud of it. It should be out by the end of the summer. Thanks for the interview! I look forward to reading it.
Battlestations Second Edition is still on Kickstarter for another 8 days as of the publishing of this piece. All but two of the stretch goals have been unlocked, and I have to admit, it’s looking pretty bad ass. One of the cooler things I have seen done as a stretch goal in any project are a list of scenarios for Battlestations by guest designers, all of which have been unlocked. Go check it out and consider lending your support via throwing American Dollars at it.