Alan Paull, game designer and co-owner of Surprised Stare Games, joins blogger Neil Bunker for a chat about medieval snails, Ming era ocean voyages and 20 years spent publishing board games.
Hi Alan, thank you for joining us. Please tell us a little about yourself.
I have been a game designer for over 40 years. My recent designs include The March of Progress and I am the co-designer, with David Mortimer, of The Ming Voyages. Both games had a successful Kickstarter campaign in March this year.
Surprised Stare Games is currently celebrating its 20th year as an independent board game publisher.
When we first started, in November 1999, we were intending to be purely a design company and license our designs to other, bigger, companies. We quickly discovered that, back then at least, there were very, very few publication slots available for licensed games. You needed to be an established designer before someone else would release your games. So, we decided we were going try to publish our own games.
We had loads of ideas, designs in various stages of development. Lots of semi developed projects that we wanted to take further. In that way we were different from many small publishers who typically have one or two great ideas that they want to see published.
Our very first game, Coppertwaddle, was released in 2002. It was one of Tony’s designs. A 2-player card game inspired by his experiences playing Magic the Gathering. It was a small game, just a single deck of cards.
Over time we were able to release games annually. Initially smaller games like Fzzzt then bigger boxed games such as Confucius. Our most well-known game to date is Snowdonia which has developed a loyal fan base over the years.
Now we take an approach where we release limited print run games ourselves, for example ‘The Cousins’ War’. For bigger games we either collaborate with other companies or, as we did with the Snowdonia Master Set and Guilds of London, fully licence to someone else. For those two games we worked with NSKN and Tasty Minstrel Games respectively.
How has the games industry changed during the past 20 years?
From our point of view, the cost of entry has reduced. When we started the company, the smallest print run we could contemplate was 1000 – 1500 copies. It was just too expensive to do any less. There were only a few specialist manufacturers, perhaps two or three, that would print and assemble games.
Many more manufacturers now specialise in printing games - in China, in India, in Europe – it’s a major change. This, in combination with platforms like Kickstarter, has reduced the cost of publishing games. It’s now much easier for a game designer to release their own game without the need for a company in support.
Historically, our focus was always Germany and the USA. Our entire calendar was geared towards releasing a game in time for the Essen Spiel convention. Unfortunately, when we started, the audience for boardgames in the UK was tiny. The UK Games Expo didn’t exist. There were a handful of small conventions but certainly nothing on the scale that the UKGE has grown to. The market for games in the UK has grown tremendously in the last 20 years and, for a small company, this is hugely important.
Your recent Kickstarter campaign was for two games in the ‘Pocket Campaigns’ series. Can you tell us about the series?
Surprised Stare has always been a company interested in releasing games that Tony and I enjoy. This has resulted in a very varied back catalogue. We have released card games, euro games, historical games. There is no real pattern.
The Pocket Campaigns series is a departure from that approach. We wanted to create a loosely linked series of warfare themed games for low player counts that would play in 30 -45minutes. Small box games with a lot of actual depth to the gameplay.
The first of these was ‘The Cousins’ War’, by David Mortimer, which was released in 2017. The game itself is set during the War of the Roses and features multi-function cards and a variant of Liars Dice for combat. It was well received, and a second edition was released in 2018.
We thought to ourselves “wouldn’t it be nice to build on this in an asymmetric game”. That thought became The Ming Voyages which I co-designed with David.
The Ming Voyages is quite different to the March of Progress both thematically and in terms of mechanics. Please can you provide an overview of both games?
The Ming Voyages is set in China during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Chinese are trying to complete their oceanic junk voyages while simultaneously fending off the barbarian hordes on their borders. The Barbarian Overlords are trying to extend their territory by conquering parts of China.
It has a similar card system as The Cousins’ War, however, there is a variable number of cards. The Ming player has more cards than the Barbarian Overlord. These cards have events, actions and command points so each player can use each card. Combat is again dice based and can be augmented by the cards.
Each turn players will simultaneously choose a card to play or reserve and then swap hands. This provides each player with an idea of what the other has in hand. It can also mean that a player can deny access to cards that the other player would benefit from. This awareness of possible decisions available to your opponent is reflective of the Chinese intelligence network of the period.
We have also included a solo variant. The player is the Ming Dynasty and a dedicated deck of cards acts as the Barbarian Overlord.
The March of Progress is a design that arose from my interest in war studies. After reading a book called ‘On War’ by Clausewitz it occurred to me it would be excellent source material for an abstracted game on the extremes of actions that states take while at war.
It gives players limited resources, a restricted space to manoeuvre – home countries, a neutral area, some pieces representing armies – and asks ‘how can we manage this? We can make new armies; we can move in a limited way and we can time our attacks.
The meat of The March of Progress lies in the scenarios. These scenarios reflect the strategic approaches to warfare seen from the period of the 30 Years War through the Napoleonic era to World War 2.
In each scenario you need to read your opponent and learn to counter what you think their strategy is. Of course, they may not do what you expect.
The March of Progress comes with multiple scenarios including the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars? How did you manage to encapsulate these very different conflicts into one small game?
There are very slight changes to the rules in each scenario. These tweaks may only change one or two rules or cards yet result in entirely different decisions.
For example, in the Napoleonic scenario, the focus for the French side is on defeating the other players armies and controlling areas. Meanwhile, the Austrian side can gain points by fulfilling certain conditions that will attract support from the British.
The World War One scenario on the other hand forces both players to choose between attacking or losing points. This results in a war of attrition where each side needs to attack yet raises the question of ‘how do we do this when it isn’t necessarily the best strategy’.
We have boiled down the strategic decisions to their essence. What was the key purpose for going to war in these periods? Was it increasing territory as it was in the pre-Napoleonic period of limited warfare? In that case sitting back growing powerful armies while your opponent rushes out grabbing territory will probably result in defeat even though they may be weaker militarily than you are.
It’s almost abstract, however, we tried to get the feel of conflict in each period. For example, playtesting feedback for the WW1 scenario was that it was frustrating to be unable to do the things players wanted – which is exactly the position the WW1 leaders found themselves in! It’s that flavour we trying to bring to the fore while retaining playability.
Bigger war games, particularly the Hex and Counter style, often have a focus on the tactical. On supply lines, zones of control, combat factors and how to convert these into an operational or strategic advantage. We have removed those details aside from certain elements of the World War Two scenario where victory points are used as a proxy for logistics. Logistics were so important during World War Two that we felt that they had to be represented in the scenario.
Wargames often are considered simulations rather than games. We very much wanted March of Progress to be a game. Hex and Counter games are fun, I’ve spent many hours playing 12-hour, 24- hour games, but it’s a unique type of fun. The March of Progress is the kind of fun you can have during a break from those more complex games.
How important is the history to these games? Were design decisions made based on actual events?
For the March of Progress, I wanted to retain historical accuracy. To truly reflect, as much as was possible, how the strategies were used during the periods covered.
The Ming Voyages – and The Cousins’ War – while, true to history in many ways, are less concerned with maintaining this accuracy.
Our aim was always to make the best games we could. Games should be enjoyable for the players and that is our priority.
These games are historically themed rather than historical simulations.
The Ming Voyages is an asymmetric game. What design challenges does this present over a more traditional game.
The main thing is to ensure that the player experience, particularly for first time players, is right.
If a game ends very quickly the first time you play, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you could have done to stop it, either you’ve made a series of colossal mistakes or the balance isn’t right.
Balance in asymmetric games is a major challenge. And it simply requires huge amounts of playtesting to get right.
The other significant challenge is ‘how to make the game equally interesting for all players?’.
In the Ming Voyages we had to ensure the Barbarian Overlord player faced decisions that were equally challenging and interesting as those presented to the Ming.
The Ming Chinese were undertaking voyages of exploration and maintaining control of their territory so there is naturally a more varied strategy. The Barbarians essentially wanted to control the borderlands.
We had to make sure the Barbarian player had more than a repetitive ‘hammer on the door’ approach.
We developed a system whereby the Barbarian player has more choice in how to use their reserved cards including the ability to attack with an entire horde. There is a lot of decision making involved in building up to those big attacks.
Surprised Stare Games have published via KS before, however, this is the first time you have run the campaign yourselves. How did you find this?
Surprised Stare has always been a serious hobby rather than our main jobs. Previously we have worked with companies that performed much of the Kickstarter management – the Snowdonia Master set being a good example – and we had very limited involvement in running the campaign.
For this campaign, however, I took over the reins. We knew what we were getting into, however, it was very much a learning curve.
Our European partners, 2Tomatoes and Frosted Games, both have substantial Kickstarter experience and they provided immense support. The quality of the graphical material on the Kickstarter page is an example of that support.
Kickstarter is fantastic for discovering what is going well with a campaign and what isn’t. Feedback from backers is very quick and it allows you to respond to change promptly. I found that, so long as I wasn’t doing anything horribly wrong, our backers were very supportive of what we were doing and how the campaign was going.
Overall, we funded significantly higher than the campaign goal, hitting many of our stretch goals. As a result of this backer support, we can provide a better product than we would have been able to otherwise.
What is on the horizon for yourself and Surprised Stare?
The probable next instalment of the Pocket Campaigns series is in development. It’s set during ‘the Anarchy’; a series of events that occurred during the 12th century succession crisis between Stephen and Matilda. It’s designed by Rob Harper and is along the lines of The Cousins War.
Tony and I both have games in development. Currently we are not sure which, if any, of these will be Surprised Stare projects.
One of the games I am working on, with David Mortimer and Rob Harper, is tentatively called ‘Snails and Grails’. It’s inspired by drawings that medieval monks would include in the margins of religious texts.
These drawings featured scenes of knights fighting snails or grotesque hares and monkeys. There are various theories as to why these were drawn, however, no one really knows what they signify. We thought it would be a wonderful theme for a fantastical co-operative exploration game that would show these creatures to their fullest.
My next big project is to help redevelop classic strategy game ‘Kingmaker’ for Gibsons Games.
Basically, Gibsons Games have been looking at developing parts of their back catalogue of games recently. One of these was their re-publication of l’Attaque in 2019 as part of their 100th anniversary – a tad more than our 20th! Tony was speaking to Gibsons at UK Games Expo last year, when it came up in conversation that they were considering re-developing that eternal favourite, Kingmaker.
Knowing that I was a Kingmaker fan, and something of a wargame designer (Airfix Battles, The March of Progress), Tony suggested that I might like to be involved, and I jumped at the chance. I’m very grateful to Gibsons for the opportunity, and I believe we will come up with a “revised-yet-traditional, stream-lined” version.
Unfortunately, the current virus situation has slowed down playtesting. However, I’m working on an improved board, removing ambiguities from the rules, and a shorter game play time, with alternative victory conditions, while retaining the feel of the original.
Do you have any advice for people looking to get started in the industry?
If you are a designer, be inventive, be creative, try out new things but make sure you finish something. Game design is not about starting projects, it’s about finishing them.
Most importantly of all, be optimistic and persevere. The game industry is variable. No one really knows what will work and what won’t. We have been around this long because we have kept at it.