Cardboard Fire Interviews

Interviews with designers, artists, and other prominent members of the board game community.
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Interview with Stephen Baker

Gary Sweatt
United States
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Stephen Baker has loads of games to his credit and was kind enough to answer some questions for Cardboard Fire. He covers his career in gaming and even drops in another reason to be excited about the upcoming HeroQuest release.

1. How did you first get into board games? Also, how did you get into designing them?

As a young boy I always loved games, history and toy soldiers. My friends and I would play loosely structured stand’em up knock’em down type games. However, I painted my soldiers and this rough play would chip the paint, so I made up some very simple rules. These covered how you would move, what range different weapons had and how combat was resolved. This was all very, very simple. My dad then saw a book at the library called, “The Wargame” by Charles Grant. He brought it home, as he thought I would be interested. That book changed everything. It was 1973 and I was nine years old.

Grant’s book was one of the classic wargaming publications of the late 60’s early 70’s. Along with other works such as Donald Featherstone’s, “War Games’. These books opened my eyes to tabletop battles. They inspired me to collect armies and build the terrain that created the battlefields over which they would fight. The authors would often describe the historical realities around troop organization, troop movements, tactics and weaponry. They then walked through their thought process for how this would all be adapted based on ground scale, troop ratios and game time to create the simple rules. What fascinated me was how something could be interpreted into a spectacular experience that was in some way a simulation of real events. I began designing my own games. I would design games based on anything that interested me and anything for which I had cool pieces.

My interest then brought me to some of the early The Avalon Hill Game Co games. One of my first was 1776: The Game of the American Revolutionary War. Again, I was fascinated by how an entire conflict was modelled into a game. The game captured some of the key military challenges faced by both sides. I still have that game, along with all the status notes from games that my friends and I could not finish in one session. We would write down where everything was and then pick the game up another day. I loved those games but always felt they lacked the visual appeal and grandeur of tabletop games.

2. Do you have any favorite designers or games?

Yes, many. With regards to favorite games it depends on the play scenario. There are games I love to play with my family, games I like to play in a mixed crowd and then there are those games I like to play with other gamers or wargamers. However, that being said one game I always enjoy for its simplicity and tactile quality is Napoléon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. This was originally published by Avalon Hill and is now available by Columbia Games. What I like about it is how it captures at a very high level the essence of army maneuvering. How you have to think through the routes of march. How your troop compositions are unknown to your enemy. There is plenty of opportunity for bluff, delaying actions and probing all while trying to make sure you have the best strategic advantage once the main battle is joined. As to favorite designers, I am a big fan of Richard Borg. He is a man after my own heart, and I love his games for their ease of play and visual appeal. His Game: Commands & Colors range and Memoir '44 are always go-to favorites.

3. When you are working on a game, do you usually pick a theme first and design a game around it, or start with the mechanisms and then find a theme that fits the game?

It depends. As a professional designer I am often presented with the theme by my client. Sometimes I will also be given a mechanism around which a game needs to be developed. Generally, though I start with two questions, “Who am I designing for?” and “What experience am I trying to deliver?” While I have designed abstract games, I am much more comfortable when there is a narrative involved. A narrative always helps to focus the design. Narratives create certain player expectations, and this helps me understand the experience they seek.

4. How did HeroQuest being reprinted come about? Are there any changes between the upcoming release and the original?

While I can’t comment in-depth on the relaunch, I do think the design team did a great job giving the game a more contemporary refresh while still staying true to the classic elements fans know and love. As far as my involvement, Hasbro did approach me to write a bonus Quest Book for one of the stretch goals, which I enjoyed very much. It was recently unlocked when the HasLab campaign reached $2M and is called Prophecy of Telor.

5. Do you ever go to any board game conventions such as Origins or GenCon?

The work I was doing during my last few years at Hasbro was more focused on the operational side of the business. There was no need for me to go to conventions. When I was part of the games team, I would attend these regularly. Having started my own business in September of 2019 I did go to Essen last October. It was great to be there again after a gap of several years, it has always been one of my favorite

6. What do you do when you aren't playing or designing games?

I like to challenge myself with creative learning. I read on game design, modelling, illustration, and creative thinking. I am always looking to grow my creative skills as this allows me to be more effective when developing and prototyping games. Whatever I do I am always only one-step away from another idea.

If you're excited for the HeroQuest reprint, feel free to drop a comment. Also, please check out the other Cardboard Fire interviews! Cheers.
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