Ok, sorry about that pun in the title.
One of my early purchases when I was getting into board games was a little game called Fleet. For me and many others, this cemented the design team of Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle as designers to watch. They have been making their marks in the world of boardgames with original games that blend Euro style and American flair.
They are fantastically fun people to hang out with in person, but also very busy designers. You might think a team of two would have more time to chat, but they are always some of the busiest people I know at conventions. Fortunately, I finally got a chance to ask Ben Pinchback about how they make everything work.
Oakleaf Games: It’s been a big year for you guys.
Fleet Wharfside just hit the first backers. Floating Market is on its way. Morocco is on Kickstarter right now. Monster Truck Mayhem is scheduled to return at the end of the month. You also had announcements of Alcazar (to be rethemed) from Dice Hate Me Games, and Back to the Future from IDW.
And of course, I’m sure you guys are working on even more games that are in some state of progress, or that you can’t talk about. How many designs are in active progress right now?
Ben Pinchback: You know, it’s funny, we were talking a little with Scott Almes about this earlier in the year. We’ve been designing nonstop for almost 5 straight years now. When Fleet finally arrived and was received well, that truly opened doors for us that we probably wouldn’t have had access to before. It’s been a tremendous blessing and we can’t thank the Fleet community enough.
To answer the question, we have our Wasteland Trucking game with Jon Gilmore signed, but un-announced right now. Development on that one is ongoing. The publisher is rocking it these days, and they are gonna knock this one out of the park. Other than what you mentioned above, that’s it for officially signed projects, but we have a few more in serious development cycles. I think right now we have about 5 projects either in development or waiting on an evaluation with a publisher.
OG: How do you find time to design that much, let alone test it? How much time a day do you spend on it?
BP: First of all, we have a huge advantage in that we work together, so almost every lunch period is spent working on something. Alchazar was designed and tested at lunch, Eggs and Empires, Wharfside, major parts of Floating Market, lots of Back to the Future reps. It’s a nice way to break up the long day knowing that you have 45 minutes in the middle to work on something you’re passionate about. And then on top of that, we have our sacred weekly design night. We have been faithful in this and have probably only missed a handful of weeks in the last 5 years. This is where the heavy lifting is done. As far as how much time a day…. Ben Rosset asked us that over dinner one night at Unpub4. My answer was, if I’m awake, I’m thinking about a game design!
OG: You hit a lot of conventions, too. At Origins the two of you were in about 3 places at once. And I think I saw you maybe twice in passing at Gencon. Earlier in the year there was Unpub, You just hit Grandcon, and BGG.Con is coming up soon. I’m still trying to learn how to handle conventions. So between talking to publishers, demoing, testing, buying and playing new games, and normal human functions like eating (and, I assume, sleep in small amounts), how do you decide how to divide your time at a convention?
BP: You’re absolutely right. There isn’t enough time for it all. Playing the brand new games is the first to take a hit. We obviously love gaming, but the more we accomplish industry wise, the less time we have just to sit down and play. And when we do play, it’s often times a great proto from a friend such as yourself! So Matt does an amazing job of organizing meetings with publishers for us. That is always a top priority right alongside teaching the “Play with the Designer” events. Those events are priceless. Having fun playing our games with people that take the time to seek us out will never get old. It is always a yearly highlight even if it’s 4-5 hectic hours back to back like this last Origins!
OG: This year’s Gencon was my first real experience with this. It’s exciting and humbling to meet fans who are there to play your game. Another way you connect to your fans is through podcasts. Do you approach podcasters, or do they usually approach you? Has that changed as you have gotten more games under your belt?
BP: It’s probably half and half. Many of these talented personalities have become friends over the last 5 years, so they often reach out to us, but we’re also not shy about asking if we have something coming up that we want to promote. Or if we just want to have some fun like the Con recap shows. Those are my favorite to do.
OG: Speaking of conventions, I just saw your Ridback Enterprises sign for Eagle Gryphon at Essen Spiel. So far, most of your games are with EGG. How did that relationship start?
BP: The relationship with Eagle-Gryphon really did start the “old” fashioned way. Matt was emailing publishers through their websites when we had first finished Fleet and Eagle-Gryphon was one of the few that showed legitimate interest in trying a prototype. They were high on our list, so when they played the game and liked it, working with them was an easy decision. Since then, we have just been so blessed to have multiple successful and fun projects with them. You never forget who gave you your big break, and we hope to continue working with them for a long time.
OG: As I mentioned, your next game with them, Morocco is on Kickstarter now. How long has that been in progress?
BP: Morocco holds a special place with me. It’s probably my favorite game to play that we’ve ever designed because it harkens back to the mid 2000s Euros that got me so excited to be in this hobby in the first place. The design and development for Morocco has been almost a three year process by now. It’s been through such thorough playtesting and iterating along the way. It’s not by chance that the game delivers a satisfying experience in about 45 minutes. That was a goal, and it took a long time to dial it in.
OG: Take us through the development process a little bit. I think I’ve heard you say on other podcasts that tile laying euros are one of your favorite genres. Morocco adds in a bit of resource collection with information cubes, and some worker placement as you send people into the market. What parts of this were early in the design, and which came later?
BP: The game started absolutely with the resource collection. That little flower shape gathering mechanic we stumbled upon one night and it has been the backbone ever since. Giving yourself two things and everyone else one thing is such a good decision. What we call the tile laying, which is more of an area control thing came quickly after. With everything else developing around it, the resource gathering flower shape and the tiles with arrows were always the heart of the game.
OG: You have also said that you created this as sort of an Ode to classic Euro games. Compared to Fleet, Eggs and Empires, Floating Market and Monster Truck Mayhem, a bazaar has a relatively traditional “euro” feeling. And I know several of your games went through a number of theme changes, so how much of that was a conscious choice when you started the design, and how much was filled in as the design developed?
BP: This one started a little crazier theme wise, but the classic feeling mechanics didn’t seem to fit the crazy theme in the long run. It just kind of made sense that with this tactical of a game that more of a traditional Euro theme would make players feel more comfortable. And the theme really helped us drive home the design with the final designs of things like the special workers.
OG: Where was this at when you showed it to EGG? Was that something you decided to pitch to them, or did they ask you when your next game was?
BP: We approached them with Morocco, and they are always willing to listen based on the good success we’ve enjoyed together. It’s not something we take for granted. It was actually about the same time they came to us asking for another EGG series card game (Wharfside) that we offered up to show them Morocco too. The timing on Wharfside was perfect and Morocco made sense to slot into their fall calendar so here we are!
OG: Also coming up is the Monster Truck Mayhem relaunch with Dice Hate Me. I’ve got some experience with that, and we talked a little after your first campaign was unfortunately canceled. Is it more or less stressful this time around?
BP: It’s way more stressful this time around. Coming off of Origins and the way that everybody, literally everybody, was having an absolute blast with Monster Trucks, I don’t think any of us could have guessed that it would struggle. And then it did. It was very difficult, but at the same time the feedback was never negative toward the game but rather that the project just needed some different structuring to get backers attention and to get them excited. Now with the re-launch we of course have a million things running through our heads. When a project doesn’t click you naturally question everything, but we have to remember that this is the same game that had crowds and crowds of people yelling, shouting, sweating, and bringing their friends back to play. We just need to find the audience with the next campaign re-boot. And that can be a tricky thing on Kickstarter right now. You sure pulled it off with New Bedford, so I’m hoping Dice Hate Me took good notes!
OG: Well I can attest to how much fun everyone has playing Monster Truck Mayhem. It was always attracting a crowd, and I’m sure it will attract a crowd when you relaunch. Do you have any concerns over double dipping on the Fleeple fandom with two games on Kickstarter right after another?
BP: As a designer, there are tons of things out of your control, and publisher scheduling is right at the top of the list. At some point, if you’re doing more than one game a year, you are bound to run into this situation, so the best thing you can do is saddle up and give your all to promoting and supporting the projects that you’ve put your heart and soul into over the last couple of years. It’s a great situation to be in if you consider the alternative being none of our projects are out in the marketplace. I would feel bad if I didn’t fully believe in these designs, but I truly believe that when each one finds its proper audience, then those players are in for a great time.
OG: I suppose it’s a good problem to have. And in this case, the games are aimed at pretty different sectors of the market, so hopefully you’re just creating an even bigger set of fans.
Let’s get back to talking about future games. Pun intended. You are just starting a relationship with IDW, on BttF. I know you can’t share too much about the design itself, but tell us about how this partnership came about? Was the game first, or the relationship first, and at what point did the theme come in?
BP: This relationship is one we’ve been developing over the last year or so. They are on the move and have so many amazing things happening right now and in the near future. Once again, Fleet opened this door for us, and we were excited to get to know them. For Back to the Future, we had requested that they keep us in mind if any exciting projects came along and they asked us if we wanted to do BttF. It took us about a millisecond to fumble over ourselves and respond YES!! The design was all theme first here. I immediately bought the trilogy three pack blu rays to brush up and we got to work.
OG: All of your games thus far have been on Kickstarter, right? Is that something you seek out, or is that just whatever the publisher decides.
BP: So far, correct. That’s the publishers’ calls for now. We certainly support whatever avenues they take, but at some point yes, you do start to fear that the backers might grow fatigued of seeing us. But luckily so far our backers have overwhelmingly been happy with our games and have shown us amazing support. And you know, at some point, every game isn’t going to be for every backer and that’s ok. We design drastically different experiences as you’re probably starting to see, so it’s all about as I said earlier, finding the right audience for each project.
OG: Any thoughts on making the transition to non-crowdfunded publication channels?
BP: For starters, keep your ears open in 2016. You should see our first traditional path releases coming your way. But once again, if we enjoy a publisher’s games, respect what they’ve done, and honestly get along with them on a personal level, we would love to work with them no matter if their strategy involves Kickstarter or not. The most fun part is making new friends, developing fun games with those friends, and then watching the public also have fun with those games.
OG: Ok, as a wrap up, I’ve told you before that Fleet is one of my favorites, but it I wonder if there might still be a few expansion ideas “floating around” out there. And a dice game seems like the next logical move. Any other plans for the Fleet universe?
BP: First of all thanks! Coming from you, a designer I really respect, that means a lot. For Fleet proper, I think we’ve all agreed that we have exhausted the ideas that are worth using. Potentially a promo card or two in the future could happen, but we aren’t actively working another large expansion. Wharfside was an absolute blast to create, as it let us return to our beloved Ridback Bay but in a new, fresh way. I think we would absolutely entertain more spinoff titles in Ridback Bay if we thought players would be open to it. Given that people love dice, and especially the fishing theme being a natural fit, a dice game does make sense. We’ve had some ideas and I’ve blocked out some things, but we haven’t officially begun developing it yet. If we get serious, you’ll be the first to know!
OG: Ben, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions. This has been incredibly helpful for me as a designer still making my way into the industry, and absolutely fascinating to hear. It has been a blast getting to grill you.