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Interviews by an Optimist # 95 - Ray Smith
Ray says this about himself…
Growing up with my two older brothers amidst the time of the classic Milton Bradley and Parker Brother games is what initially piqued my interest in games. It was the usual, what else do you do on a rainy day? This was soon followed by delving into the Avalon Hill releases. I wouldn’t have called us avid gamers, but we did play everything from Mouse Trap to Blitzkrieg. (Of course, I always lost since older brothers have no mercy.) My true gaming fixation occurred when I was fortunate enough that my college days coincided with the heyday of SPI. Gathering together with a group of friends with the same interest, and all weekend to play (what, study?), were fabulous times. I still remember my first purchase from SPI’s mail order was Patrol. Each of us took turns getting the latest offerings from SPI, and subscribing to S&T, so our collections blossomed nicely. After a few years of gaming bliss, then disaster struck -- we graduated.
Fortunately, now many moons later, my college gaming buddies are still within relatively close proximity to my place, and we get together to game once per month. I have definitely supplanted my grognard status with the Eurogame invasion which I wholeheartedly support (to my lovely wife’s dismay who’s not a gamer at all). As my profile on BGG states, even with game play, my small game company, and writing game related articles, my gaming addiction is rarely sated.
I am originally from Pittsburgh, PA (Go Steelers!), and now reside near Gettysburg with our five cats, and teach math at a state residential school.
Tom: Tell us more about this "Eurogame" invasion, and how it affected you, as a player and a designer.
Ray: It’s tough for me to pinpoint exactly what directed me to Eurogames. I suppose the mixture of discovering the Game Cabinet, Mik Svellov’s site, and then Counter Magazine, showed me that there were other intelligent games out there beyond wargames. For many of us, the timing was right, too. Eurogames provided the challenge we grognards wanted, while reducing the minutia, multi-hour gameplay, and repetitiveness that are often part of wargames. All that being said, of course the internet has been a huge influence. Having instant informational and purchasing access to the world of gaming has provided a window previously undreamt of. As for affecting my gaming preferences, I would guess that of my top twenty favorite games, now only about three or four would be true wargames.
My timing as a designer could not be worse. The creation of my company, and the final release of my first historical simulations, directly coincided with the decline of wargames. Also now, unless a game has gorgeous art with pounds of plastic, it just isn’t deemed worthy. For a little guy like me, it’s tough to compete. I do have several designs of various types in the hopper, but for the first time in six years, I won’t have a finished release.
Tom: Tell us about your company. How did it get started?
Ray: As I alluded to previously, in my opinion the wargame industry through the 70’s and 80’s was stagnant. I’m not being derogatory, just pragmatic in the available ways that were used to accurately simulate a historical situation. In all these years, the counter hasn’t fallen too far from the James Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen tree. But, since my philosophy has always been, “Don’t complain; do something about it!”, I set to work creating my own games for submission.
Being a regular attendee at Origins, I attempted to make contacts there to learn the ins and outs of design, and bounce a few ideas off the “pros”. Well, without burning any bridges, let’s just say that my inquiries went over like a lead balloon. No support whatsoever! Since my creative juices couldn’t be denied, I finally submitted a game to Strategy & Tactics, which was well received, but ultimately rejected. I then had an interview and offer for a position at West End Games. But, at that point in my life it wasn’t the right fit. The advent and success of desktop published games set my course for trying to make it on my own. After a little legal mumbo-jumbo, getting savvy with a computer, finding suppliers and a printer, and wonderful friends, the Triumph Game Company was born.
I selected the name Triumph for two reasons: 1) The usual connotation to conquest and victory, and 2) I wanted to carry on the tradition of the SPI quad games, but with three, i.e. a trio. For my game design process, I self-imposed three challenges: make it fast; make it fun; make it accurate. Fast in my mind is getting in under eight pages of rules, and under two hours of set-up and play time (both of these unheard of in wargame terms). Fun is my subjective attempt to reduce tedium and increase player interaction. Accuracy requires tons of research, but the tough part is how to incorporate all facets into a system that is user friendly. Hmmm; this all sounds very Eurogamish doesn’t it?
Tom: Tell us about the process to produce your first game...
Ray: The usual “chicken or the egg” question is, theme or mechanic first? I usually have a mental vault of game mechanics that are waiting for a theme to present itself. I try to mesh the two in a way that enhance each other. And, I won’t deny that for some game mechanics, reviewer critiques, and blogger suggestions of other games, influenced my design process. There are just too many great ideas on improving play out there to ignore!
For my first release, I wanted to initiate an ongoing and expandable series with a standard set of rules, like others had done. But, to also integrate my preference for operational level games and the ancients era, along with the mechanics I favored in two other games: The variability of force factors in Hitler’s War (Avalon Hill), and the hidden attributes of the Columbia block games. This created my overall framework..
I selected the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and the Reconquista for my first “trio”. These were major interests of mine (with a nudge of influence from my wife, a Spanish teacher), and were not well represented in wargames at that time. Then, the all consuming research began in earnest. I found that the greatest challenge is not what to include, but what to exclude. My preference is for a bit of “chrome”, but not fiddly, special case stuff that needs to be constantly referenced.
Back in the era of stone knives and bear skins (pre-internet), the best source of gaming feedback was in magazines, such as Fire & Movement, Paper Wars, etc. In my attempt to appease the masses and increase user friendliness, I created a sequence of play flowchart, used large hexes for area movement, and integrated leadership, morale, combat, and terrain factors into charts organized sequentially. From there, the game came together amazingly easy.
The part I hate most in producing a game is the production. Checking the composition and the printer innumerable times, finding and ordering parts, and the collating and packaging is the drudgery that good friends are drafted for. How I personally hand laminated every map with rolls of contact plastic still makes my neurons twitch!
Tom: What things have you learned about production through these painful processes?
Ray: 1. You’ll never be able to do everything you want to, unless you have unlimited funds.
2. No matter how closely you scrutinize every detail, mistakes will slip through.
3. Encourage the feedback of many others; just don’t rely on it. Go with your gut. After all, it is your game.
4. When your labor of love just becomes a labor (and it will), put it aside for a while and only return to it when your enthusiasm for the project returns.
As agonizing and seemingly never ending the entire process is, it’s worth it in the end. I still glean a smile every time I pull out one of my designs and think, “Cool. I made this.” Sure, the money and fame is great (cough, cough), but the greatest reward is the self accomplishment.
Tom: Tell us about your games, past and future...
Ray: Along with By Force Of Arms, my second triad game is To Forge A Nation. This covers the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. A completely self-contained game utilizing the identical system as BFOA, but, of course, with three new maps and scenario sheets.
In reference to the following release, did you ever have this fabulous idea you tinkered around with, then someone a million miles away comes up with the same idea and beats you to the punch? I guess this just proves that creative minds think alike. For my War Of The Ages, think a mixture of Duel of Ages combined with Anachronism and you pretty much have it. Mine actually predated the others by a couple of years, but my sub par components kinda put it way under the radar.
Then came two games that were literally thirty years in the making. Back in the 70’s my oldest brother wanted to create a game to rival one of our favorites, Strat-O-Matic baseball, but for NFL football. Even though we played everything from Pigskin to Foto-Electric Football, we thought we could do better. With him crunching the stats for all the great players, and me using index cards in a manual typewriter, after a couple of finger sore years, my present Legends Of Football was conceived. It is still essentially the same game. In a nutshell, LOF is similar in play to a combination of Strat-O-Matic and a shifting game of Battleship. You and an opponent select offensive and defensive players which are displayed on separate playmats. The defensive player alignments are screened from the offensive player who calls a play. The result of the play is determined by whether a defensive player is present in coverage, or the offensive player is open. The quality of your offensive line, and dice rolls are other determining factors.
Legends Of Hockey is my other 70’s reinvention, and along the same vein as LOF, but is very different. Both players move their hockey players along the "ice", set up shots, check other players, incur penalties, avoid offside passes, etc. Everything capable in a real hockey game. Like LOF, it includes over 90 all-stars from history to the present.
My yet-to-be-released offerings are very heavily influenced by the Eurogame invasion, but I still can’t resist injecting some combat elements. One is an interconnecting tile laying area control board game (phew!) with cards and dice, around a theme of raising conquering and defending forces from the dead. Think Mexica with sprouting armies. The other is a dice fest of space exploration and conquest. Think Titan in space, but with species being generated at each new planet explored.
Tom: Wow, you certainly have a varied taste in games! Where do you get your ideas from? Do you have a favorite genre?
Ray: What I enjoy playing definitely influences my designs. And, I enjoy playing everything! From Jagun Fighters to 18xx; from Pit to Pacific War. After saying that, it will sound strange to say that I’m very selective in the games I purchase. I spend waaay too much time surfing through all the game sites, checking out all the new and old releases. My general tactic is to wait for enough pictures to be posted, and some reviews to come out, before I even think about adding to my burgeoning collection. But, with all this variety, it fuels and challenges my design processes at the same time. It provides tons of variables to consider while forcing me to try to create something new and different. In buying or designing, I’m mostly looking for something unique.
Beyond being blown away by the quality games and components now coming from the US companies -- Fantasy Flight, Eagle, Days of Wonder, etc. -- what amazes me most is the maximum fun squeezed out from Adlung Spiele. To have their wonderful little card games that play like big board games just amazes me. But, on any game day, I’ll still enjoy my old favorites like El Grande, Tal der Konige, Minos, and McMulti, to go along with the new classics like Battle Cry, Power Grid, Heroscape, and Puerto Rico.
Tom: How important is component quality to a game?
Ray: I think it all comes down to expectations. When purchasing a Cheapass or Winsome game, you’re buying it for the game, and not the overall visual and tactile experience. But, if Kosmos came out with a similar product, they would surely get nailed for it. Regardless, I think everyone likes nice graphics and bits. They can really sway a
borderline purchase into a must have if it looks great. Some games just need an extra “zing” to make it more fun or worthwhile to play. For example, I recently purchased Lexio (Dagoy). Although a great game, if it came with cardboard tiles instead of the awesome plastic blocks, I wouldn’t even have considered it. Something like Im Zeichen des Kreuzes (Queen) also comes to mind. You could call me hypocritical, since I know that gameplay is the prime factor, but my first look into a game is always its appearance and uniqueness
Tom: So what should be my expectations of your company? Tell us more about your organization, your goals, etc...
Ray: I was afraid you were going to ask that.
Mainly due to the lack of time necessary to make TGC an endeavor I can be proud of, I’ve seriously considered dissolving my company. Also, since the “company” is solely me, many of the expectations I had from its inception have already been met: Production and sales of some designs, maintaining a booth at Origins for six years, and mostly, gaining wonderful correspondence with other avid gamers who enjoy my efforts. My tinkering days will never end, but to full out produce another game, let’s just say that the fat lady hasn’t sung yet, but we’re in the second act!
Although approaching the output of Knizia, Teuber, Moon, Schacht, or Faidutti is far beyond my talents, I have an equal amount of awe and aspirations for the efforts of Thornquist, Schloesser, Alden, Siggins, Aleknevicus, and you. I also enjoy writing immensely, and relish that others of my ilk have actually read my selective musings that appeared in Counter magazine, The Games Journal, etc. Ultimately, whether my remaining designs ever see the light of day or not, I would like to somehow contribute on a different level as an editor or co-designer for an established game company or companies.
Tom: Tell us about your experiences at Origins, running a booth...
Ray: My initial booth experience came eons ago when I shared one with a small company whose name I don't even remember, nor how I got involved with them. At that time my sales weren't even game related. I was selling the rejects of my comic book collection! (Which is still being added to apace with my game collection. Spare warehouse, anyone?)
More recently, my group of friends and I have switched over from just being attendees to actual participants in the big Origins hoopla. Getting a booth and set-up is very painless (except for the wallet) and is a great experience. It enables us to conveniently stash our purchased loot instead of lugging it around; I can dump my humility and actively push my goodies, and can also meet plenty of nice discerning game folk. Being able to casually and quietly browse and shmooze around the vendor floor before the crowds arrive is my biggest perk. As for sales, I always consider it a banner year if my earnings pay for the cost of renting the booth and my room, which happens only about half of the time.
I’ve always wanted to try gathering together a “mega-micro” booth of around ten small or obscure companies like mine, and compete at Origins by bombarding the masses en mass. This could give small guys like Sierra Madre, Microgame Design Group, and desktop publishers an exposure at Origins with a shared, minimal investment. I know it’s been tried before, but I’d like to give it a go in greater numbers. As for everything in my life, I just need to invent a method of stopping time first.
Tom: Is forming a community the only way that small publishers can survive?
Ray: It depends upon what their goals are. My company is more of a hobby. Creating games I really enjoy and want to share with others, with the hope of some miracle to hit the big time. I’m far from a business guru, but to make inroads towards broader market distribution and real profits, I don’t know how else small publishers have a chance. It's an incredible risk to make the leap whole hog into major production to compete with the big guys. I have tremendous respect for all the relatively new notable companies, who I've watched work their way up the ladder, and earned their present status -- Z-Man, Dragonlords, Rose & Poison, Angelo Porazzi, Wassertal, etc.
Tom: What would be your advice to someone aspiring to start their own game company?
Ray: Something I didn’t do well. Select one thing to include in each design that is extremely special that sets you apart from the crowd. Many games are fairly ordinary, but are purchased for their uniqueness. I wouldn’t call it a gimmick, but you need something to grab the attention of the clients -- A special component, unique materials, different presentation, off-beat theme, an odd mechanic, something. For example, Tin Soldiers’ theme, box, and included player spinner; the see-through cards of Gloom; the faux guns in Cash ‘n Guns; the bell in Pit; the macabre theme of Pain Doctors; the sliding dragon track in Emerald; the pop-up devil in Teufels Kuche; etc. Of course, having gorgeous bits is an easy draw, and a sure winner, if you can afford to include them!
Tom: What changes have you made - mistakes that you've learned from?
Ray: Since I’m only speaking from one side of the fence as an amateur, I can only imagine what may have occurred if I got serious about game production. My initial thought was to produce a quality design with plastic pieces and laminated maps, and list them for a really reasonable price. Sounded good to me at the time, and I think I succeeded in those regards, but it just didn’t pan out. I also thought that when favorable reviews of my games hit Fire & Movement, Zone Of Control, Paper Wars, and BROG, I’d hit the big time! Unfortunately, my high was very short lived.
If I would have put more emphasis into my two biggest shortcomings, advertising and packaging, would it have made a difference? I don’t know.
For my future releases, I’m hoping to someday take advantage of overseas production quality, and their significantly lower costs, and make a jump into the lion’s den of “top quality components” to see how I fare. I would much prefer to be accepted into the likes of Fantasy Flight or Eagle Games, where the infrastructure is already established. But, since companies already have so many established designers in the
works, I don’t see too many of them reaching out to veritable unknowns.
I guess what it all boils down to is, you get out of it what you put in to it. My hobby company gets hobbyish results. With all the tremendous games, companies, and designers, it’s very difficult to make a presence without being extremely dedicated and doing your utmost in every aspect. For us discerning buyers, our current “best of times” for gamers is a very competitive time for designers.
Tom: Tell us about other companies, then. Which board game companies are doing things "right"?
Ray: The wonderful folks at Rio Grande and Mayfair are hedging their bets by generally supporting us Anglos, thankfully, with their translations and reissues of established games from foreign lands. Phalanx is desperately trying to corner the market on games bridging wargames with Euros, with mild success. Eagle continues to dazzle us with lavish bits, who I think are just hitting their stride. The big momma companies, like the new Avalon Hill, Ravensburger, and Kosmos, balance quality with quantity. And, it’s always a treat to see a new “big box” game come out of Hans Im Gluck, Goldsieber, Queen, or Schmidt. But for consistent quality, variety, innovation, support, and promotion, my top votes go to Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight Games.
Although DoW is rightfully riding the Ticket to Ride train for all it’s worth, each version (so far) still remains fresh, and is a signature series for their other great offerings. For FFG, although heavy on the fantasy end (duh), they have created something for everyone -- large, small, simple, complex, but all worthwhile. My highest respect, kudos, and envy go to both of these companies.
Tom: Tell us more about your game-related writing...
Ray: Although several reviews of mine have appeared in Counter magazine, my most prolific and enticing source for my writing creativity was with The Games Journal. It provided an outlet and a challenge for more unique articles in a more casual setting. What I mean is, although Boardgamegeek and Web-Grognards provide everything known to man in gaming, TGJ was much more user friendly with compact information. Similar to what Consimworld is doing for wargames. Both pairings complement each other nicely.
My articles ranged over a gamut of topics, including the usual reports from Origins, reviewing reviewers, game rating, etc. Two “series” of articles I promoted were Spielus Obscurus, which dealt with great games few people ever heard of, and Hints From Hell, Louise, where I relayed simple physical fixes to specific games needing an upgrade. Both seemed to fit nicely into the niche of TGJ. I can’t thank Greg enough for fostering such an excellent outlet and accepting my articles.
Tom: Do you think the quality of writing has improved over time, with the advent of many amateur writers on the 'net? Or is the "signal to noise" ratio poor with the huge amount of writing available overwhelming?
Ray: I’d like to think it has improved, since I’m one of the amateur contributors. But, there is a definite increase of weeding out the wheat from the chaff. Being able to state valid opinions openly to interested parties is a boon for the gaming world. Unfortunately, for every worthwhile site, there are too many others filled with blog “noise”. Overall, I think it still comes out a big plus. And, how else would we ever have heard of the indomitable Tom Vasel!
Tom: What would be your advice to an aspiring game designer?
Ray: Beyond going with the obvious of designing what you like to personally play, research what’s already out there, and playtest the crap out of it, two other items are essential:
1) Make contacts. Something I thought would be easy by soliciting advice from other companies, or surfing the net, became a long, hard fought, task. Finding production companies for various bits, boards, boxes, etc., is like going on a treasure hunt with no map. However, recently Tom Jolly posted a fabulous source of info with sage advice to assist all us wannabes (http://www.silcom.com/~tomjolly/design.htm).
2) Artwork. Since the “look” is the sell, well done graphics and art are essential. Along with cool bits, I’ve purchased many so-so games just for their art. Since we all won’t be able to use Franz Vohwinkel, Doris Matthaus, or Roger MacGowan, fortunately with the CCG craze, there seems to be a bazillion fabulous artists out there. But, how do you find them? My only source has been through large comic book cons I attend. There are numerous relatively unknowns usually there, more than willing to expand their artistic exposure in any way. You just need to find someone with the “look” you’re looking for.
For both of the above items, it would be great to get some feedback from other experienced folk as well, about their production contacts and recommended artists. Developing a detailed, up to date, contact database to refer to, listing specialties, style, rates, etc., would be the Lost Dutchman’s Mine for aspiring designers!
Tom: How much history do you put into a war game, and how much "game"?
Ray: Depends on your target. For games like Memoir ‘44, Battlecry, and Titan, the war aspect is more of a theme than a simulation. Although three of my favorites, their accuracy of simulating conflict takes a back seat to the “game”.
In attempting to accurately recreate an historical conflict, detail and historical research is the focus which the game is built around. For the two wargames I’ve released (BFOA and TFAN), I attempted to give them the look and feel of being more “gamey”, but containing many attributes found in a typical hardcore wargame. Unlike other games in the nebulous game category (“Is it a Euro-type game? Is it a wargame?”), like Civilization, or Age of Renaissance, my offerings still contain a Combat Results Table, morale values, etc., found in the more traditional wargame.
However, my current preferences are to the former. Games such as those, and the likes of Minos or Serenissima, definitely hit my game table more often. Even in a Euro, I gotta have a little combat! My future designs would be more along these lines.
Tom: Can you tell us more about your future designs?
Ray: All of the following are in various stages of development, and some may never see the light of day or could be drastically revised. But, to give you a few specifics….
On the historical simulation front, the next set in my series is titled From Distant Lands, which will cover the campaigns of Attila the Hun, the Crusades, and conquerors of the Aztec and Inca empires.
On the Euro side, one of my strategy boardgames entails dominating tiles positioned upon the board, and manning them with miniatures representing undead armies raised from the terrain they’re guarding. The players (two to four) are each represented by a necromancer piece, who expands his territory in domino-like fashion, moving and attacking along the tiles. The various minions are raised by successful dice rolls and managing action points. Combat is card-driven, relying very heavily on hand management. The game’s working title is NecroMaster.
Moving from fantasy to sci-fi, another design has one to five players in the ignoble trade as StarSlavers. Each player explores various planets using a dice generated ship, encountering dice generated aliens to be brought back to the homeworld for gladiatorial combat. The game has two distinct, alternating, phases of space exploration and arena combat. Players will outfit their gladiators in a roll-playing manner, and wager on each match to garner victory points.
A couple other offerings involve a hybrid of Ticket to Ride and 18xx with players experiencing the expanding river trade along the Mississippi. Then, I also have a really unique sci-fi conquest game with players representing a character from one of five different dimensions.
Tom: Ray, thanks for all this great information! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Ray: Just as in playing a game, designing is also a learning process where you learn from your mistakes. If there was more support from GAMA, or some other group, for newbies, the transition from gamer to designer could be far less arduous.
Tom, this interview has been a major highlight of my gaming career(??), and thank you for all of your innumerable contributions! And, kudos to Raymond, Mike, Scott, and Brian; my gaming cronies.
Edited by Tom and Laura Vasel
March 8, 2006
"Real men play board games"
Thornquist, Schloesser, Alden, Siggins, Aleknevicus, and you
Surely there is something wrong with this order... It isn't alphabetical, so it must be .. .. growl ... on merit!
Great interview guys. Ray, if you have surplus mechanisms, I have surplus themes. We should talk.