An Interview with Star Realms co-Creator Rob Dougherty

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).

 

Last weekend, South by Southwest (SXSW) Gaming announced the recipients of the second annual SXSW Gaming Awards.  Star Realms, a new deckbuilding game designed by former Magic pros Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, won the Table Top Game of the Year award, a new category for this year.  The game was nominated by fans, selected as a finalist by a panel of judges, and voter the winner by a combination of judges and the general public.  (Not to worry If you’re not familiar we’ll be posting a review  of the game shortly)

Rob Dougherty, co-designer of Star Realms, is a 20-year veteran of the gaming industry.  He opened the legendary Boston-area Your Move Games stores, was a stalwart of Magic’s Pro Tour in the 90s and early 2000s, and more recently has been COO of Gary Games, where he helped design and develop the popular deckbuilding game Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer.

Currently on a trade show tour promoting Star Reams, Dougherty took some time out of his day to talk to GeeklyInc.com.

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Geekly:  Tell us a bit about what you’re doing on the trade show circuit right now.

RD: At PAX East and SXSW, we have been introducing the game to new players.  We also have a new product that we’re coming out with in the fall, that we’re doing our first reveal to retailers here at the GAMA show, hopefully to get them excited to carry it when it comes out.

Is this Star Realms related?  A new expansion?

No, we’re doing a new game.  We’ll have a Kickstarter Campaign for it in about a month.  In general terms, it’s kind of a like a draft cube for a trading card game.  It’s not random, but it plays just like a trading card game; it comes in a little box and costs $15 just like Star Realms.  You can play Sealed deck, and booster draft, or constructed [selecting cards from the entire set to build a deck], all out of this little pack of cards.  It’s for up to four people.  It’s really fun and we’re excited about it.  We’ll have more to say about that next week.

Let’s walk back to the SXSW award that you just won.  It’s hot on the tails of finding out you just won four Golden Geek awards from BoardGameGeek.com.  Tell us a little bit about how you’re feeling about the recent success and the recent recognition.

Oh, it’s super exciting.  We decided to make Star Realms the way we wanted it to be—the way we wanted to play it.  It’s not always the smartest thing to design products that way, where you’re designing for yourself.  It’s obviously more important to design for the customers out there; but it just happened that the way we liked this game lined up to the way everyone else liked it.  [Laughs]  So that’s really exciting to see.

There were just so many elements in Star Realms that came together in a good way.  Obviously we like the gameplay a lot.  There’s the art, the trading card game level art in Star Realms.  A lot of time board games have subpar art, because art’s expensive, and board games don’t tend to make a lot of money, so it’s risky to have a big art budget for a board game.  Also, putting it in a little tiny box with no packaging and selling it for $15 as opposed to putting it in a big box with plastic and spacing and charging $40; the bigger boxes give you better visibility in the store, you don’t have to sell as many units to make your money back, so it’s a lot safer to do the big box.  It was a risk.

But I think all those elements came together to make a game that people love so much.  It’s inexpensive.  It’s portable.  It looks nice, it plays well.  And I think if we were missing any of those factors—there’d be people who like the game, but I think maybe it wouldn’t have gotten the recognition it’s gotten so far.  Yeah, it’s been super exciting for us.  The Golden Geek Awards were huge, winning four in one year.  And the fact that two were for the physical and two were for the digital was really gratifying as well, because we put a ton of work into both sides.  We really like the presentation.

And then, of course, the Game of the Year Award from SXSW is a huge honor.  It’s the first year that they’ve had tabletop as a category, so that makes winning this year extra cool.  We’re a tiny little indie company; literally, it was me and my friend Darwin Kastle working on this game in a little office above my garage.  So, to win awards that are national or global in scope, where games from gigantic game companies are competing with us—it’s really exciting.

IMG_7191Congratulations again.  If I can ask you a little bit more about the design and development process: in an interview with Geekenstein.com, you mentioned that you had been working on the Ascension card game, and it sounded like around the same time Darwin Kastle had come up with the concept for Star Realms, and then you started working on it together.  What was the design and development process like, and when did you know that it was time to take it to Kickstarter and get the game produced?

So, I partnered with Justin Gary to make Ascension, which is a great deckbuilding game—it’s got sort of a fantasy/medieval theme to it.  That game did very well. So I was working with that company, working on various stuff for Ascension

Darwin was working on getting a job as a game designer in the industry, and I was basically giving him advice, and I said, “Look, the best thing you can do is design your own game and shop it around to people, so that you can show them what you’ve done.”  So he did that, and I helped him with it a little.  And in the process of him showing it around to some companies, and us taking it back and improving it and tweaking it—at some point I was like, “This game is great.  We should make this.  Let’s just do it ourselves.”  So we did the Kickstarter.

“We decided to make Star Realms the way we wanted it to be—the way we wanted to play it.”

It’s funny, because it sort of started out as a resume project for Darwin—and he has tons of experience in the industry; it’s not like he’s new to it, but it’s always good to have one more thing—obviously, he has plenty of job offers now, but he doesn’t want any of them.  [Laughs]

Darwin’s a really great designer and developer, and I’ve been working with him for a very long time.  We have done a lot of game projects together. In the past they’ve been for companies that I owned.  For a long time I was trying to convince him to partner us with me on the business venture, and the design.  It’s been super fun for us to finally do that—where we make the games together and own the company together, and get to be a team designing and developing the games.

When you say business venture—I was going to ask, looking at the page that you guys designed for the Kickstarter campaign: it looked like you had already gone ahead and commissioned a bunch of artwork, done a lot of visual design (and I love the artwork, by the way, I love how visually distinct each of the factions is; I think that comes through very well): was there a breath-holding moment, when you started to move forward, but because of the way Kickstarter works, the funding hadn’t quite come in yet?

So, we sort of approached the Kickstarter process a little differently than some companies do.  I don’t feel comfortable going to Kickstarter until, basically, the development of the game is done.  I want to know that the game is awesome.  If you’re in the early design portion of the game, and you haven’t done the development yet—you don’t really know.  I mean, you have a cool idea that you’re excited about, but you don’t know how the final product will be.

“We’re a tiny little indie company; literally, it was me and my friend Darwin Kastle working on this game in a little office above my garage.”

So we had a bunch of artwork done, pretty much all of the graphic design done, and all of the game design done when we went to Kickstarter.  What we didn’t have was the money to actually print the game.  Obviously, there’s a lot of expense in the design and development, and the art, and in the graphic design.  So we basically paid for those other pieces up front, ourselves, and then went to Kickstarter to help us push it over the finish line.  And for our future Kickstarters, we’re going to do the same thing, where we have the game with the development at a point where we’re happy with it.  We’re not going to bring something to Kickstarter until it’s at that level.

As a game designer/developer, do you feel like that structure gives you additional opportunities, that you didn’t have access to in the past?

Yeah.  You can do things that are a little bit outside of the box.  And if Kickstarter accepts it, not only do you get the money form Kickstarter to pay for the project, but the general public is also much more likely to accept it.  Stores are much more likely to pick it up if it’s a successful Kickstarter project that already has customers.  It makes it a proven entity.  So you can do things like make a game in a little tiny box—unconventional packaging, unconventional price point.  If it worked for the Kickstarter, stores will at least give it a try.  It really frees you up to follow your vision.  And you don’t have to get approval from the people with the money first.  [Laughs]

As a games fan, it’s interesting to hear that perspective—that it gives you an opportunity for proof of concept.

But it’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it?  Because as a customer, it’s hard to tell whether the game is any good or not.  You have a lot of Kickstarters out there that bring in a lot of money, and the game might be terrible.

For Kickstarter, if it looks really cool—if it’s got some cool-looking components—and the person pitching it sounds excited about it and it sounds cool, then it can raise a lot of money before anybody’s ever played it.  And in some cases—if the game came out in a more conventional fashion, where it was sold in small quantities to stores—if a few reviews got out and the reviews were bad, it might never get off the ground.

So the great news is that more games come out; developers can follow their dream and put out their ideas.  The bad news is there’s no filter.  Or the filter is more visuals and presentation than it is gameplay.  Obviously, we try to make it so that the gameplay is great.  And there is a gameplay filter, in that your next project will have a hard time if the game wasn’t fun.

But people put a lot of trust in us for Star Realms, as the first Kickstarter for the company.  Obviously, both of us had experience in the game design and development world beforehand, which helped a lot.

Let’s talk a little bit about that game design industry experience that you’re drawing on to create Star Realms.  I’ve played the game, and I really enjoyed it.  It’s clearly got a lot in common with Ascension, and I’m sure that your experience as a professional Magic player also informed the design and development.  What are the influences you’re working with?  How do you see Star Realms as being different?  Did it give you the chance to do things you wanted to do with Ascension, but couldn’t?

Yeah.  So, I had wanted to make a more player-versus-player combat-oriented deckbuiler for a while.  I actually had some early prototypes for it when I was on the Ascension team, and it just never got off the ground.  So it’s definitely a concept that I think is very exciting.

The biggest problem I have with the deckbuilders that existed before Star Realms is the “simultaneous solitaire” factor.  I love the deckbuilding engine.  Dominion was just a brilliant concept.  The play is so fun and addictive; you feel the constructive process of building your deck as you’re going through the game.  That’s tons of fun.

But it has this problem where people are building their own deck, and playing their own deck.  And I frequently find it hard to even pay attention to my opponent’s turn when I’m playing a lot of deckbuilders.  Even in Ascension, where they’re killing monsters and such—I have no input, and I really don’t need to be paying attention.  I know I should be, but it’s hard.  And in Dominion, I found that factor to be especially painful.

With the player-versus-player combat element, you’re attacking your opponent and they’re attacking you.  Even though you don’t get to stop them on their turn—they get to do whatever they want until they’re done—the fact that they’re attacking your stuff, it keeps your attention on it, and it feels super-interactive.  And you get to make purchase decisions that are directly defending you versus this onslaught.  That, combined with the fact that you don’t have to count up score at the end of the game—you have the score and it’s getting eliminated as the game progresses—that’s really great, because when you finish the game it’s very satisfying.  You know why you won or lost; you saw it happen.  So those elements are very cool.

“With most deckbuilding games the way that you play the two-player game is the same as the way that you play the three or four player game—you’re just adding more people around the table.  With Star Realms, the play experience can be radically different with three, or four, or five, or six people.”

Having this player-versus-player combat element also allowed us to pull on the rich casual environment for multiplayer formats for trading card games.  I don’t know if you’ve ever played the multiplayer versions of Star Realms, but there’s a lot of them, and they’re a lot of fun.  And they’re very different play experiences, depending on which one you play.

There’s the Raid, where one person’s super powerful and they’re fighting a bunch of normal players;  there’s the Hydra format where you have a teammate or teammates, and you share your resources with tem, but you each have separate decks.  There’s the Free for All format, which is super-political; there’s the Hunter, where you’re attacking left—so there’s so many different ways to play.  But it adds a whole new layer to the game. With most deckbuilding game’s the way that you play the two-player game is the same as the way that you play the three or four player game—you’re just adding more people around the table.  With Star Realms, the play experience can be radically different with three, or four, or five, or six people.  A six-player Emperor game is wildly different than a two-player game of Star Realms.  So that’s a really neat factor with the Star Realms game.

That makes for an interesting segue, because I was going to ask about your choices for packaging and distributing the game.  As you said, you decided to go with the inexpensive, minimal packaging, and chose a lower price point.  It creates an interesting entry point for people who are interested about the game, but don’t want to buy in too much.  With the Crisis expansion, you have four different booster packs, and players have their choice of which to buy.  Can you talk about the philosophies, or the strategies, that are behind those kinds of distribution decision?

Again, our initial concept was less a strategy and more of us making what we wanted out of the game.  When I get game that feature cards in a big box, the first thing I do is take them out of the box, find some other, smaller box that’s of the appropriate size, put the cards in there, and throw away the big box.  So I figured we’d just save that step.  So it was less strategy, and more, “this is what I like, so we’re going to do it this way.”

Everything else progressed naturally from there.  We really wanted to have these multiplayer formats, but we wanted to keep the price point down and the package small. From that point it was kind of a natural progression of, “okay, you can just buy another deck, and then you’ll have enough cards for three to four players, or a third deck if you want to go to five or six players.”  That makes it very nice for the consumer, because they can decide what level they want to play at.  If they want to try the game out, it’s easy to buy, very cheap.  If they like it, and they want to try those multiplayer formats, they can add on those decks later.

And even if you do all that, you’re only at $45, and that’s more or less the starting point for a lot of four-player deckbuilding games that come in larger boxes.  So it could be cheaper at all levels, and also modular, so that people could buy the play experience that they want.

So, the Crisis expansion, we broke into four $5 packs.  That gave us a lot of freedom, as designers.  Take, for example, the Event cards.  I really enjoy the Event cards—they were fun to design and they’re fun to play—but they are heavily random, just by their nature.  You have things like comets, and supernovas, and crazy things happening in the course of the game.  Some players love that—something big and random could happen; that’s really cool—but other players hate that—“I had my strategy, I was going along, I should have won, and then this random thing happened, and I had no control over it”—and then they flip the table.  [Laughs]

So if we made one set that had all these cards in it—the new ships and bases, and the Heroes—people would feel obligated either to play with the expansion or not play with the expansion.  Shuffle ‘em in, or don’t.  But by taking it and breaking it up into little packs, you can now play with Events, if you want to play with Events, and not play with Events if you don’t.  And it feels very natural to people.  If someone doesn’t like the randomness of the Event cards, they can buy the other three packs and put those cards in.

Heroes are another one.  They’re sort of on the other end of the spectrum from Events; they’re a very controllable card type.  When you buy them, they go directly into play, and you can keep them in play for as long as you want and scrap them for their abilities exactly when you want to.  If you think that kind of card is great, go ahead and add it!  If you don’t, you don’t have to buy that pack—just play with the ones you want.

I feel that deckbuilding games, by their nature, should be customized by the people who play them.  But I think just adding this element of the packs—it’s like we’re giving them permission.  They can more easily customize their experience.

It makes it clearer to them that they don’t have to buy all of it at once, and they don’t have to buy into all the concepts you’re putting out there.

Exactly.  And it’s also nice that if you have a player on a real budget, they can go into the game store, and buy that one pack for five dollars.  They can play with it for a few weeks, and then the next first of the month, they can come in and buy one more pack.  For some people that doesn’t really matter, but for some people it does, and for them it’s nice that they can buy in at a smaller amount, if they want to.

We will be making Crisis for the digital game.  It’s just going to be a little bit before that’s out.  We’ve got all the design, development, campaign missions, etc.  There’s a lot of work that goes into translating the physical to the digital.

IMG_6693I can imagine.  I’ve really enjoyed the robustness of the Mission mode and the presentation of the digital game.  You even went to the trouble of making voice-overs.  Can you talk a little bit about the development of the digital side of things?  How did all that happen?

We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do a digital version.  On the Ascension game, we found that when we made the digital version of Ascension, it really pushed the sales of the physical version.  People could try out the digital version and say, “Oh, this Ascension game is awesome!  Now I want a paper copy so that I can sit at the kitchen table and play with my friends.”

We were actually a little nervous when we were first working on it, that maybe it would hurt our physical sales.  The app was $5, and the physical game was $40, so we were a little bit paranoid about it.  But as it turned out, if people get to try it in the digital form, and they like it, they want it in the physical form.  So we ended up picking up a lot more people, and so I knew that it was a good idea to have a digital version of your physical game.

We actually partnered up with a friend of ours, Tan Thor Jen, a programmer—he and Darwin and I formed the company together.  So while we were working on the physical game, we would pass along all the stuff to him, and he was working on the digital game alongside it.   He’s a dynamo—I would have a list of bugs or changes that I’d want, and that night I’d get a new build with all the stuff.  The speed at which he worked was amazing, and he did a phenomenal job.  So we had that in parallel.

But the thing about the digital game is that you’re never done.  You can always make improvements, because you can just update it.  With the physical game, you make it, you package it, it’s on the shelf, you can’t change it anymore.  With the digital game, we can keep making it better.  So, for example, you were mentioning the voice over for the campaign mode.  That didn’t exist for the first eight months or year of the product’s life.  We added that in recently; we thought it would be cool, and were finally able to hire a voice actor, and we put it in the update, and now it’s there for people. So we are continuing to try to improve on the base game experience.

“With the physical game, you make it, you package it, it’s on the shelf, you can’t change it anymore.  With the digital game, we can keep making it better.”

Another example of an improvement we’re working on is tournament play.  We want to have in-app tournaments, where people will be able to enter an event, and play against people, and get rewards for doing so.  We’d like both casual events, and competitive events in there.  So there’s a lot of work that goes in that.  Among other things, once we have anything on the line—any kind of prizes—we need to take the security to a whole new level.  With the current version of the game, we’re not particularly concerned—people are just playing for fun, you just unlock some avatars as you go up levels.  That’s something the players won’t really see, but it’s a necessary step before we can bring people the in-game tournaments.

If I can ask a little more about tournaments:  you have store-level events happening right now, and you have tournaments happening at major gaming conventions, and player-versus-player on the app seems like it’s very popular.  Where do you see the future of Star Realms organized play going?

I have a big history in organized play, especially from Magic—both Darwin and I are hall of fame Magic players—and I was a premiere event organizer for Wizards of the Coast, running Magic tournaments for a long time. That included some events that, at the time, were the biggest Grand Prix in North America, and some of the largest prereleases in the world—events with literally thousands of people.

I think that organized play is great for the health of the game.  Now, it’s important with organized play to not just focus on your competitive players, competitive people who are playing for big prizes.  Keeping that in mind, we want to have events for players who are more casual—events where we introduce more cards, and you get rewarded primarily for participation; you have additional prizes given out randomly, and only minor incentives to win your games.

But I’d also like to have highly competitive prize-structure events where players can win significant prizes, and compete against the best players from all over the world.  The great thing about an event with a decent size cash prize—say, in the thousands of dollars range—is that it brings more people to the fray. If you put out a good prize, people from all over the world will look and say, “Oh, I’d like to win that.  I’m pretty good at this game; I’ll give it a shot.” So the larger the prize, the more serious the competition, and the more participation you get from skilled players around the globe.

So, my long-term dream for Star Realms organized play is to have casual stuff happening both in store and in the app, for casual players to play.  And for super competitive players, both in store and in the app, something like the equivalent of a professional qualifier event, where people play at their local game store or at a convention or on the app, and the winner of that qualifies to play in a big championship, and we get players gathering from all over the world to play for a titled event for Star Realms.  I would love to see that happen.  We have a lot of work to do before we get to that stage, but that’s my end goal for the organized play, to have those things going on.

IMG_6712As a quick follow up to that: as the designer/developer of the game, do you think it pulls you in different directions, to have in mind both people who want a robust, competitive game, where the better player has more of a chance of winning, versus more casual people?  Or is there not necessarily a dichotomy?

I don’t think that’s a problem.  Basically, when you design a game, you have a level of luck involved.  On one end of the spectrum, you have games like Go and Chess, where there’s no luck, or the only luck is whether your opponent is daydreaming right now or not.  The game is basically pure skill.  On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a game like Chutes and Ladders, which is 100% luck, and there’s no interaction from the players.  So you have a game, and it’s somewhere along that spectrum.

Darwin and I like to design games that are about 70%, 75% towards the skill end of the spectrum, but still have a significant luck component. I just find those to be more fun.  And there’s a certain skill in planning for the unexpected, and being able to figure out what your “outs” are.  When you know you’re the underdog, and you’re probably going to lose—is there a path to victory? and how can you find it? I find that kind of thing really interesting, and you need a luck element to have those kinds of experiences.  At the same time, we like the strategy genre, so our games tend to be toward the skill end of things, but there’s healthy dose of luck in there.

Honestly, I think it makes for a better competitive environment for the game, because you can get more participation.  There’s no reason for me to enter a world championship for a game like Go, unless I think that I actually might be the best player in the world for that game.  And unless you’re delusional, that’s going to be a very small pool of interested players.

But with a game that has a luck element, I know I’m really good at the game—maybe I’m not the absolute best, but I’m in shooting distance of being the best, and that’s really all you need.  Maybe I can get a little bit lucky, or that guy who’s a little bit better than me could get a little bit unlucky, and I could win this event. It opens the play up to more people.  It makes it possible for more people to win. And larger participation means that you can have cooler stuff going on around it.  The more people are interested in a thing, the better it is for your marketing, the more you can afford to put into prizes, et cetera.

So yeah, I think it actually doesn’t negatively impact the game, to have that luck factor in, that the more casual players enjoy.

Speaking of the future for Star Realms, from the game design and development perspective—obviously you can’t spill all your secrets, but what sort of things can we expect in the future?  And from your perspective, in terms of design space, and what you can do with the game—what do you see for the game two, three, five years from now?

With Star Realms, we view it as an evergreen product.  We feel that we could continue making Star Realms products basically forever.  In order to achieve that, we need to continue putting out quality things that people want to play.

Our general production philosophy is that each year we’re going to make a box—like the 128 card deck that exists now, and some packs that go along with it, to make sort of a playset for that year.  We are currently working on the next Star Realms deck box.   It will have scouts, and Vipers, and Explorers, just like your current one.  But the trade deck will be all new.  So you’ll be able to treat it like a completely separate game—so I’ll have this new version of star Realms, and I’ll play it, and it will be different from my existing set.  Or you can take the two decks and you can combine them together.  And, if players want, they can customize, mix and match, pull out cards, whatever they want to do.  So we’ll make a game that’s playable on its own, but compatible with everything we’ve done thus far, so that people can play it in a whole bunch of different ways.

“I feel that deckbuilding games, by their nature, should be customized by the people who play them.”

I feel with that model, we can continue to make enjoyable products indefinitely.  There’s lots and lots of mechanical space in the game.  Really, with games like this, there is infinite variation that you can design into the game.  So it’s more a question of: are you doing a good job with the design and development of the game? And, is it fun?

If I can ask, a little further on that: will that involve any reimagining of the factions, as they are now?  One of the things I noticed while I was playing is that they have really distinct mechanical identities, in terms of how you split up what each faction can do. You want to dip into two factions, so that your deck can do what it needs to do, but with the Ally system you’re incentivized to also get a lot of each individual faction.  Do you see evolving, them, keeping them the same, even as you change abilities?

The factions will remain distinct; they’ll have their things that they’re good at.  It may be that we’ll introduce new abilities, which various factions are good at.  But those, again, will be divided up amongst the factions, so that every faction continues to have strengths and weaknesses.

There’s a whole lot you can do with that general philosophy.  Again, comparing to Magic, they have that sort of general philosophy, and they have made thousands and thousands and thousands of cards, with their five-color wheel that they have.  Obviously, we have a four-faction world, plus the occasional unaligned item.  There’s just a ton of room to work within the factions, and to do slightly different things, but to still feel, “Oh yeah, that’s a Blob thing.”

It sounds exciting.  Is there anything you want to say as a closing statement?  Anything you’d like to sound off with?

I just want to thank the fans of the game.  Ever since we sent out copies to our Kickstarter backers, the fans have really been the driving force for the game.  We haven’t really had a marketing budget; we’ve been able to put everything into game design and development and printing more copies of the game, because our fans have been out there showing their friends how to play, convincing judges to put us up for awards, and then going out and voting for the game when it’s been up for awards. There’s a whole lot of great stuff happening for Star Realms on the marketing and sales side, which allows us to concentrate on the design and development, and just making a great game.  So I just want to thank the fans for pushing it—if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to keep making it.

DohertySXSWAward

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