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JT Smith on The Captain is Dead
Interview with JT Smith of The Game Crafter, on his game currently on Kickstarter, The Captain is Dead. A Cooperative Game sci-fi game, that puts you in the role of crew members trying not only to get the ship's Jump Core (engines) back online, but also survive a hostile alien attack while doing so. All of this is done of course, is without your beloved Captain, because, well... he is dead! The Captain Is Dead plays anywhere from 2-7 players and takes about 60-90 minutes to play.
JT, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?
JT: When I was young my family would play a lot of card games and the occasional board game such as Monopoly, Risk, Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit. When I got to high school, I started playing role playing games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Heroes Unlimited. It wasn’t until college that I started designing games, but once I started, I couldn’t stop! I’ve been designing and publishing games for 20 years now. Five years ago, I gathered up my partners and started The Game Crafter so we could help other people get into the hobby of designing games.
What are some of your favorite games to play currently?
JT: From the big publishers, I’m a big fan of Axis and Allies, Roll Through The Ages, Jupiter Rescue,Agricola, and Flash Point: Fire Rescue. From indie designers, I play a lot of Village in a Box, Farmstead, Gentlemen Thieves, Junk, Scarborough Fair, and Turbulence.
What, in your opinion, makes a fun game?
JT: First and foremost, I have to feel like I get to do something on my turn that impacts the game. Whether that is an important decision that will impact future outcomes, or advancing toward a specific goal, or getting a chance to antagonize my friends!
With the exception of Axis and Allies, I dread games where it takes half an hour to come back to my turn, ideally it should be no more than 5 minutes between turns. The reason Axis and Allies is an exception is that watching the battles unfold and how that impacts what I will need to do on my next turn is interesting enough to make it worth the wait. If the landscape of a game changes enough to keep it interesting, then it’s OK for a turn to take a bit longer.
I think it’s also important for table top games to be incredibly social. They need to have something that requires you to work with or against the other players. Whether that be bidding against the other players on some resource, or trading with the other players to get something, or working in a team to achieve some objective; there must be a sense of interaction with each other not just with the game.
What out of print game tabletop would you love to see back in print?
JT: None. I look at games as being ephemeral. Each game has it’s 15 minutes of fame, and then you move on. There are so many great games coming out every single day that I don’t see a lot of reason to hold so tightly to the old ones. Don’t get me wrong, I have have my favorites which are somewhat timeless; and I like to revisit the oldies now and again. However, given the choice between trying out something new, and revisiting the old, I’ll chose trying out something new almost every time.
So, currently you have a game on Kickstarter called The Captain Is Dead (or TCID). Could you tell us a little bit about what type of game it is and give us an overview on how it is played?
JT: The Captain Is Dead is the last 10 minutes of your favorite sci-fi show except things have gone so horribly wrong that the captain is dead. So now, you and the other crew must work together to save the ship and yourselves. It’s a co-op game for 2-7 players where each player takes on the role of a crewman on the ship. One might be an engineer while another is a doctor. There are 7 roles to choose from and one of our Kickstarter stretch goals is to include 7 more for a total of 14.
The players use various systems on the ship to fight off an alien threat while working toward the goal of getting the Jump Core (engines) back online so they can get to safety. Meanwhile, the hostile alien ship isn’t standing still. It’s sending boarding parties to your ship, blasting the hell out of your ship, and even occasionally calls for reinforcements so other hostile ships will show up to aid in the assault. Basically it’s a tooth and nail fight just to survive, and first-time players often comment on how intense it feels.
What is the story behind the creation of the game?
JT: One of the users of The Game Crafter, Joe Price (aka Moldyvort) came up with the idea for the game. I played an early prototype of it, and loved it. It still needed a ton of work, but Joe didn’t have the time or resources to allocate to make it happen. After about a year of asking him about what the status of the game was, I finally offered to buy it from him. We worked out a deal and I took over. I spent a year after that refining the game and getting high quality art for it. I removed and added systems and rooms to the ship, and came up with a lot of new roles. I balanced everything so that you’d get a consistent experience on every play through, and added difficulty levels so that as you get good at the game you could ramp it up. As you know, it takes a ton of work and hundreds of play tests to refine a big game like The Captain is Dead.
Why did you decide to Kickstart TCID instead of just straight out making it available on your website The Game Crafter?
JT: There are several reasons:
a) As with any game, artwork is expensive. So to justify the expense I need to sell a lot of copies up front. The focused marketing effort of Kickstarter helps with that tremendously.
b) By doing a bulk sale we can include the price of shipping in the game, which lowers the overall price to the consumer.
c) At The Game Crafter, we like to do bundle deals on Kickstarter. So we’re actually adding two other optional titles to TCID Kickstarter. If you choose the bundle option you can get 3 games for the price of 2. Who doesn’t like getting a free game?
TCID is an action point spending game, what kind of actions will players be able to take in the game?
JT: Every character has some basic actions like moving around or fighting off aliens. Then the systems that are online give additional actions like teleporting around the ship or firing torpedoes at the hostile alien ship. And finally, many of the roles provide extra actions or modified actions like being able to use the Captain’s Journal to give everybody special advantages against the hostile alien threat.
Each player gets to take on a unique role. Could you share with us some of the roles and what they do?
JT: Sure. Here’s a quick rundown of a few of the fourteen roles:
First Officer - He is able to read the Captain’s Journal, which provides special abilities through-out the ship.
Soldier - She is a hostile alien killing machine!
Diplomat - She is often able to trick the aliens, thus canceling their attack for a turn.
Hologram - He is a super powerful artificial intelligence with lots of abilities, however, tends to go offline as the ship gets damaged.
Science Officer - She can invent new technologies to protect the ship, and also solves weird anomalies that seem to keep happening.
Besides the 7 roles that come with the game, there is a stretch goal to add 7 more roles – making the count 14 different roles(as you mentioned above). Who is your favorite role to play and why?
JT: I actually have two favorite roles:
My first favorite role is Teleporter Chief. His only ability is that he can use the Teleporter as a free action as long as it’s online. But being able to zip around the ship for free means that every action spent is an action that has real effect.
My second favorite role is Ensign. At first blush, he appears to be the weakest role in the game because he can hold less skills than other players and his abilities don’t seem to be all that powerful compared to the others. His first ability is that he can run faster than other players. That really doesn’t matter when the teleporter is working, but when it’s offline it makes a HUGE difference. His second ability is that he can freely exchange skills with other players that are in the same location as he is. So a trick I like to do is to spend actions to teleport a bunch of people to my location, and then rearrange everybody’s skills so that they can more efficiency complete their tasks.
Can we talk customization for a minute? In the TCID can you customize the difficulty levels and is there a random set up or anything that will make each game different each time?
JT: Absolutely we can talk customization! And yes every game will be different every single time. There are three things that cause this to happen:
1) First, we recommend that roles be assigned randomly rather than chosen. This means that your not always playing with your ideal character.
2) There is a deck called “Alerts” that proceeds from Yellow to Orange to Red in severity. This is essentially the bad stuff that the hostile alien ship is doing to you. This deck is shuffled at the start of every game, so the order in which things happen is completely random each game. So, in one game you might start out with the some systems offline and several players injured, and in another game you might start with half a dozen on-board invaders and some weird anomaly making everybody angry with each other.
3) You can adjust the difficulty of the game in 10 different levels from Coward to Insane. The more difficult the challenge, the deeper you will dive into the alerts deck, which means the more devastating the damage will be to your ship as the aliens attack.
What, in your mind, makes TCID unique to other co-op games, say Pandemic or Flash Point (outside of the theme)?
JT: I love both Pandemic and Flash Point. They’re both great games and I play them both frequently. That said, they’re both pretty similar to how they function:
They both use a random exponential escalation effect (if you hit the same city or the same room you get an outbreak or explosion). TCID does not have the random exponential escalation effect. Instead, each card in the alert deck has a specific bad thing that happens, and there are a specific number of yellow cards, a specific number of orange cards, and a specific number of red cards. That means that the game will always escalate in a more controlled manner. In Pandemic if you happen to get unlucky with your draw, you can get really bad outbreaks really early in the game. The same with Flash Point if you get really unlucky rolls.
Both Pandemic and Flash Point use roles, and so does TCID. However, the Dispatcher/Captain role in Pandemic/Flash Point can be both incredibly useful and mundane. If you don’t have that role it can be much more of a challenge than without it. On the flip side, that role can be incredibly boring to play. So instead of making that sort of a mechanic a role, we made it a system on our ship (Teleporter) that anybody can use, and we made it even more powerful. That way when you lose it, you really feel it. By having the systems give you all these extra functions, it ensures that you have everything you need to complete the game at all times, and yet still leaves room for true uniqueness amongst all the actual roles.
In Pandemic you occasionally randomly get a special one-use ability. We put ours in the Captain’s Journal and made them always accessible. This makes it so the player has to choose between going for a special ability or doing something to directly affect the objective of the game.
The map is much smaller in TCID compared to Pandemic and Flash Point so you focus less on movement and more on action.
Beyond expanding upon their ideas, we created a universe that has some more unique challenges:
a) The Alerts deck is really a “Mission.” The rest of the components are reusable. This means we’ll be able to develop expansions that give you additional missions by just shipping you a new deck of cards. This can further enhance the replay ability of the game by making it a completely different game. For example, we’re working on a mission called “Foothold” where the aliens already control the ship and now you need to take it back from them. And another called “Wasteland” where there is no alien threat, but rather you’re stranded in the middle of an asteroid field and have to navigate out.
b) We have lasting effects called anomalies that the players have to overcome. In this same vein, we allow the aliens to call in reinforcing ships (fighters, transports, frigates, and battleships) that also attack you unless you deal with them.
c) We made the big bad in the game more in your face by allowing them to actually invade the ship rather than just being this outside oppressive force.
How does the 2 player game differ in rules or overall feel compared to say the 6 or 7 player game?
JT: Mechanically a 2 player game is the same as a 7 player game, except that we remove Anomalies (the lasting effects), because with 2 players most play testers said that was just too oppressive. The anomalies are available in 3 player and above games.
That said, it’s got a completely different feel. With only 2 roles you have a much easier time dealing with threats, because not much has changed on the board since your last turn. That said, because you only have 2 roles, you are missing out on a bunch of special abilities that you’d find useful to help you win the game. So in the end, those two things balance each other quite nicely.
Let’s talk art. The art is TCID is done by Gaetano Leonardi – could you talk about why you choose Mr. Leonardi and your vision for the art?
JT: Gaetano (or “Tani” or “Tanibus” as a lot of people online call him) is a brilliant artist who brings a fresh style rarely seen before. His choice of bold colors and sharp lines makes his art really stand out from the crowd. When we were initially searching for an artist we contracted many to give us their idea for an “Admiral” character. Here’s a sample:
These were the top 3 responses we got back from our test. These are all first drafts, not complete products, but it’s enough to get an idea of the style of different designers. We honestly like all three. But, Tani brought us something we hadn’t seen before. It was a more dramatic interpretation, yet still fun. We knew instantly that he was the artist for this project.
Once we saw his style, we also got a better handle on the direction we wanted to take for the game. We were initially thinking a bit more cartoony, but ultimately decided that we wanted to go with more of a old-school commercial propaganda style, so that turned his admiral from the one you see above into this:
And that ultimately informed things like logo choice as well:
What is your favorite piece of art in the game?
JT: I think that the inside of the ship that we use for the game board has to be my favorite. It’s certainly the most visible piece of art in the game, because you’re interacting with it the entire game. But also because it’s got all kinds of amazing little details. It tells the story of what the game is all about.
You describe this game, as the last 10 minutes of your favorite Sc-Fi show, but with things going badly. I have to ask – do you have a favorite Sci-Fi show and if so, what is it?
JT: My favorites are Stargate SG-1, Babylon 5, and Star Trek: The Next Generation in that order. Other than Stargate, it seems that all of the big Sci-Fi shows such as Farscape, BSG, Andromeda, and even Star Wars center around an ensemble cast and a ship or space station. In the later years of Stargate SG-1 they eventually develop ships as well. That’s what’s so great about TCID, you can see yourself in your favorite show fighting the battle to avenge your captain and save your crew.
Stargate is my favorite for so many reasons. I love that the mythology of the show is built around the ancient cultures of Earth. It makes it relatable yet foreign. I love the chemistry that the team had. And I felt that they did an amazing job of balancing the episodic stories with the overall arc of the war against the Gou’ld.
What was the best piece of feedback, from a play tester, that you received when you were still prototyping the game?
JT: My favorite piece of feedback was really not from one play tester, but from many. I knew that I was on to something when people wanted to keep playing the game over and over again even in it’s very early very unrefined state.
I think the best piece of feedback I got was “if it happen’s once, it can happen again.” When I was trying to balance out the Alerts deck, there would sometimes be a really overly brutal starting condition that would make the game nearly unwinnable. So finding the exact right balance to ensure that those random occurrences couldn’t happen was both tough and ultimately made me create a better game.
What was your favorite part of designing the game?
JT: Playing it. So many games, after I’ve tested them a million times make me not want to play them anymore. But TCID is something I will gladly play even after several hundred plays under my belt.
I also really loved refining the different roles. We went through so many different roles, and it was fun to see what worked and what didn’t. What was boring or exciting. What was over powered vs. underpowered. How do we keep each role unique? It was a tough but fun job.
What was the most challenging part of designing it?
JT: Getting that exact right balance so that the game goes from feeling hopeless to making you overconfident of victory. And also making it so the players truly have to choose between sacrificing one system or saving another.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed The Captain is Dead?
JT: This is the first time I’ve ever taken someone else’s idea and made a game from it. While it was more challenging this way, I think that ultimately made it a better game.
Could you give us some pointers on how to teach new players how to play TCID? What is your typical outline when you are teaching it?
I start with the premise…the last 10 minutes of your favorite Sci-Fi TV show, except things have gone so badly that the captain is dead.
Then I set up the board and explain each system on the board as I’m setting it up. I usually start with the Jump Core, because that’s how you win.
Then I show off a couple characters and explain how special abilities work.
Then I show them the alerts deck, which is the bad stuff that can happen. For each player in the game you draw one alert. So they can see how the alerts will devastate the ship. This is hugely important to set the tone of impending doom!
And finally, we dole out characters, and begin the game.
I’m working on a tutorial video that will be available before the Kickstarter campaign launches.
Why did you decide to add other games to the TCID(and ones you didn't design at that), instead of just doing a Kickstarter for the game by itself?
JT: Each of the games in the Kickstarter is strong enough to stand on it’s own. Each is a great game. However, when we do a Kickstarter, we want to do more than just promote our own game. We want to promote our community. The Game Crafter has over 50,000 users, among them are some truly remarkable designers. It’s hard to get noticed in an industry full of great publishers and games, so we like to pick out a couple that we think people should take notice of.
In addition, by including multiple games in a bundle, it affords us an opportunity to provide a bundle deal. Everybody likes a deal. So instead of paying $135 for 3 games, you can get all three shipped to your house for just $99. That is a smoking deal!
Could you share with us an overview of the other 2 games that are a part of your Kickstarter?
JT: Scarborough Fair is a resource trading game for 2 to 4 players. The premise is that you’re a merchant at a fair, and trying to sell your goods to passersby as they make their way to theater, music, and food. You’re playing with a market economy, so prices will change, but you always need to make a profit, while keeping the prices low enough for the customers to be interested. There are many ways to succeed, and that’s what’s so interesting about the game. You can be the low price leader, corner certain parts of the fairgrounds and charge outrageous prices, or corner the market on specific types of goods that the fair goers are interested in.
Turbulence puts you in the role of air traffic controller trying to get planes to lift off and land successfully. The game is a sort of abstract puzzle where you try to manipulate the air streams to make your planes go where you want, while pushing your opponent’s planes into crazy positions. If you’ve played games like Tsuro from Calliope Games, then you’ll get the general idea. However, this game has a lot more meat on its bones than Tsuro. You can easily learn to play it in a couple minutes, but I’ve spent hours playing the game and had tons of fun.
We have overview videos posted on our Kickstarter page if you want to see the nuts and bolts about how these great games play. I highly encourage you to watch.
TCID is expected to be released in September of this year. Many Kickstarters take close to a year to complete (if not more) - how and why do you expect such a fast turnaround?
JT: There are several reasons why we can turn it around in just a few months, when others struggle to do it in a year:
a) Our games are built, play tested, and have 99% of their artwork and graphic design done before we launch the campaign. This has a higher risk because if we don’t fund then we’re out all the investment in those things. However, it ensures that we can start production immediately after collecting surveys.
b) We manufacture almost all the components in these games, and we do it in the United States. Therefore we don’t need to wait in line with 100,000 other games to be manufactured ahead of ours. And we don’t need to wait for a 3 month shipping/customs time from China or India. We have all the materials we need to manufacture the games at our production plant in Madison, Wisconsin by the time the Kickstarter Campaign ends.
c) We also ship every single order ourselves. This ensures that as soon as the games come off the assembly line, they can be shipped direct to our backers. We don’t need to ship them to third-party fulfillment services. The games are literally in a shipping box on their way to your house while they are still warm from going through the shrink wrapping process.
By controlling the process from beginning to end, and by manufacturing where most of our customers are, we can produce games faster than just about anybody else. Not only have we done this exact thing for our own Kickstarter Campaign in the past, but we’ve done it dozens of times for other campaigns both large and small. That sort of experience makes us highly adept at what we do.
What 2014 tabletop release are you most looking forward to?
JT: I play 10-15 new tabletop games every single month. When you spend that much time trying out new games, you need not monitor what is on the horizon. Instead you just bask in the glory of the game when you finally get to play it.
Anything else on the horizon for you in 2014 or 2015?
JT: I don’t like to put dates on things, but yes I am working on another game. I don’t have an official name for it yet. My working title is “Uprising.”
Uprising is about a human uprising on Earth a few years after an invasion that ultimately lead to their occupation of the planet. One player will take on the role of Alien Overlord. All the other players will take on human roles fighting in the uprising. It all takes place in the ruins of an old human city. The humans can try to seize control of low value targets such as human stores, factories, and warehouses to gather human made supplies for their efforts. Or they can take out high value targets like alien command posts that will have alien technology that can be co-opted for the resistance.
Mechanically it is an area control game, but it’s also part role-playing game. I say it’s like role-playing because they’ll be playing characters in the game that have stats, and equipment, and personality quirks. So this isn’t your average abstract area control game.
I’ve been working on this game since 2008, and I’m finally getting very happy with it. If all goes well, I should have all the play testing, artwork, and whatnot sorted for the game by about this time next year. So who knows? Maybe another Kickstarter in the near future for me.
As we wrap this up, could finish the following sentence in 12 words or less? The Captain Is Dead is ________.
JT: ...not your father’s co-op game.
Thanks, JT for doing this interview, is there anything else you would like to add?
JT: Thank you so much for doing these interviews. I read many of them as you publish them, and I find it fascinating to take a peek inside the mind of the game designer. It’s a valuable insight and a valuable service.
Oh, and I suppose I should mention that if there are any other fledgling game designers out there, you should check out thegamecrafter.com . It’s the best place to design and manufacture your game ideas.
Thanks JT for taking time out to do this interview.For those interested in The Captain is Dead, you can check out the Kickstarter, by clicking here. The Kickstarter is going on until July 12, 2014
What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?You may want to check out these links:
• The Game Crafter's official website
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Welcome to The Inquisitive Meeple - A blog that is dedicated to interviewing board game designers. Est. 2014
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