We are pleased to announce our very first inductee into The Game Crafter's Hall of Fame: Kevin Lanzing's Clockwork Colossus Games. We sat down with Kevin to discuss his accomplishments...
NOTE: You can read the unabridged interview with photos on news.thegamecrafter.com.
Tell us a little about Clockwork Colossus Games.
Clockwork Colossus Games is my label for games which I design. It's a whimsical name which I hope will take people by surprise and fire up their imaginations. The name was actually inspired more by the automatons of Greek mythology than steampunk, which I knew little about. Now steampunk is everywhere, so I guess I'm riding a wave of popular fandom.
Please describe Flash Point and Air Show.
Flash Point is a fully cooperative firefighting game. The players are all firefighters and rescuers, working at the scene of a structural fire. The goal is to find and rescue the people trapped inside, all while keeping the fire under control. If the fire spreads too far too fast, it will destroy the walls and bring the roof down upon everybody's heads.
Flash Point invites easy comparisons to Pandemic. Like Pandemic is a cooperative board game with a disaster management theme. There are specialists, and action points as a device to simulate expended effort. On the other hand, the way the fire spreads is dice-driven rather than card-driven. The game plays quickly, with stronger action than puzzle elements. The theme is also much "closer to home" - quite literally, as you are dousing house fires and rescuing a family.
I should mention that Flash Point has found a publisher, so it is no longer available on The Game Crafter.
Air Show: Circus of the Skies is a "simultaneous action selection" game with real-time elements. The setting is obviously an air show. Players are pilots steering their stunt planes between pylons and shooting at the other planes with their (nonlethal!) paintball guns. There's a good amount of RoboRally DNA here, as turns are simultaneous and actions must be programmed in advance. I've never played Wings of War, though from what I've seen there are some parallels here too. But a key difference between Air Show and those other games is that here there are no cards. Any sequence of maneuvers a player wants to undertake is possible. I wanted to empower players and make them feel like they are in the cockpit of a real plane. The use of a sand timer keeps analysis paralysis from creeping in, and reinforces the theme. Real pilots have to think fast, too.
Air Show is an idealized vision of what an air show could be, in a perfect world where high-speed collisions result in a point penalty instead of human tragedy. Originally I set the game in Reno, Nevada, but then there was that terrible crash at the real-world Reno Air Show. I changed the setting to New Mexico, out of respect for the victims.
Tell us what inspired you to create Flash Point and Air Show?
Flash Point: People ask me if I am a firefighter. The answer is no. As a kid, I wanted to be Superman, not a firefighter. But I have tremendous respect for the profession. There's danger and heroism and teamwork, all wrapped in a tight package. And yet, I was not aware of any firefighting board games in the consumer market. It was an opportunity too good to pass up.
At this time Pandemic had exploded on the scene, challenging long-held perceptions that a cooperative board game couldn't be fun or exciting or marketable. I'll admit that Pandemic was an early template for Flash Point, although I was careful to imitate and not copy. The way that fire spreads in Flash Point is quite different from the way disease spreads in Pandemic, for the reason that fire is a quite different beast.
Air Show: Air Show's genesis was circuitous. When the Vehicle Design Contest was first announced on TGC, I started brainstorming ideas for a "vehicle game". I took it as gospel that the vehicles could not merely be window-dressing, but must be at the forefront of the design. And what is a vehicle but a thing to be driven? Clearly I had to design a driving game.
But which vehicle to choose? TGC has stock cars, race cars, tanks, submarines, rockets, and planes. My first tentative design was an auto-racing game with some of the same physics and simultaneous action selection that ultimately made its way into Air Show. But right away I foresaw a problem. The risk of unforeseen collisions with other cars was too great. So I decided my game needed a new theme: the demolition derby! Here, collisions weren't an irritation but rather the whole point of the sport! Plus, it was a fresh idea that hadn't been done to death like auto racing. But... it never really came together. The paradox of demolition derbies is that the best way to win was also the easiest way to lose - ramming your car into another car is a great way to destroy BOTH cars. To deter players from just avoiding the other cars I had to implement a rather cumbersome scoring system that rewarded aggression and deterred defensive driving. Who knew driving cars into other cars could be so complicated? My interest in the project flagged.
Again I considered alternative themes. One that appealed to me was a tank-driving game. It would have most of the same rules as the demolition derby game, but with gun turrets that could be rotated 360 degrees and fired. I abandoned my cumbersome scoring system for something much simpler: shoot other players, and don't get shot. Easy! Except... it looks like the tanks TGC sells don't have rotating guns. No surprise there, but I was discouraged by the prospects of having mechanics for driving the tank and managing its swiveling gun mount, simultaneously and without confusing players. Darn it, this was getting complicated again!
I would up changing the theme a third time, to airplanes. Why planes? Because with airplanes it is plausible to have forward-mounted guns. Also, I was attracted to the idea of managing altitude and airspeed. Planes that fly high can hit low-flying planes at greater distances, while planes with high airspeed could outrun their opponents. I guess planes are as complicated as cars and tanks, but it is a good sort of complicated that works with the rules instead of against them. Finally, planes are cool, and I haven't played a lot of games where they featured directly.
It would be too obvious to give my game a military theme, so I went with air shows instead. This gave me the best of all worlds - players could fight each other, race each other, or engage in any manner of aerial contest. I was struck by the potential for customization and expanded content - new events and new ways to play them. The basic rules are simple and robust enough to allow easy experimentation.
Did you create a design journal for your games? If so, did you publish it anywhere?
Flash Point: Yes, I posted a designer diary for Flash Point on the BoardGameGeek.
Air Show: Not yet, but I'm sure I'll get around to it soon enough.
What publisher picked up Flash Point?
Indie Boards and Cards, a small publisher that has made a big name for itself recently, with The Resistance.
How did you go about getting Flash Point published?
I had been selling Flash Point online for nearly six months before I was contacted out of the blue by Travis Worthington, the owner of Indie Boards and Cards. Apparently he had found out about my game and he liked what he saw. He asked for a review copy. I was quite surprised, but shipped him a copy and in less than two months he made me an offer, which I accepted.
What were the steps being officially signed and actually getting the game released?
It's pretty simple, actually. You just have to sign the license agreement, and mail the form back. Negotiations are as complicated as designers and publishers allow. I said up-front what I was interested in and what I expected, and got most of it. Money wasn't the only consideration. Designer credit on the box and in the rules was important to me. Free games (for friends, family, or to sell at conventions) is another thing designers may ask for. Any request that won't cost the publisher out of pocket is likely to be approved, so be creative!
Getting a game released is really the responsibility of the publisher; not the designer. Travis is a "hands-on" kind of guy who wanted to tweak the rules, so I was involved in those discussions. Some of the changes he proposed I actually liked, while many others seemed unnecessary or really fiddly. I made my opinions clear, without (I hope!) being too difficult to deal with. The final rules were a compromise and a collaboration.
Where can people buy the game now?
Local game shops in the U.S. and Canada should have the game in stock within the next few weeks. Definitely before Christmas. Otherwise, there are online retailers. I have word that a certain book store chain will be carrying Flash Point. At this point I can't be more specific.
How many sales have you had so far?
I sold 42 copies of Flash Point through TGC. At Essen Spiel 2011, Indie sold about 450 copies; many of those preorders. The remaining preorders will be mailed out over the next month. I don't know the numbers, but 5,000 games were printed, and all of those need to sell at some point. And Indie isn't even the biggest publisher on the block! All this makes me feel like a small fish in a very big pond.
Did you already have the idea for Air Show in your head before the contest was announced?
No, not at all. As I've explained, the pieces fell into place gradually. I started with an idea for a simultaneous-action driving game, and that mutated into a plane game with an air show theme.
What made you decide to enter your game into the contest?
I needed a new project, and the contest gave me a good excuse to dive in. The lure of free publicity and Crafter Points were impossible to resist.
Would you have been motivated to work on the game as much as you did without the contest?
No. And its quite likely I wouldn't have worked on this particular design if I hadn't had the impetus for a "vehicle game". It's hard to find the right balance between designing new games and promoting old ones, but the time seemed right for a new game. At the same time, earning Crafter Points could help me promote my other games, which allowed me to kill two birds with one stone.
Has winning inspired you to enter more contests or design more games?
This is the second game design contest I have participated in. The first was a promotional event for Blue Panther, LLC, a small publisher in Michigan that specializes in games with laser-etched wooden components. My entry, Tako Judo won the contest and was published soon thereafter. That was in 2007. So my trend line is very good but very short. I don't enter many contests, but when I do I know I'm going to pour my heart and soul into the project and make something really special. I don't know if I'm prepared to do something like that on a monthly basis, but the contests have been treating me well so I owe it to myself to participate more often.
Could you describe any influence The Game Crafter had on the success of Flash Point?
Flash Point was my first project using The Game Crafter, and the first I tried to sell directly to the public. Prior to that, game design was a hobby I shared with family and friends. I dismissed dreams of fame and fortune as hopelessly naive. I knew the costs of self-production, and I knew that most publishers were far too busy to take much interest in a hobbyist game designer's pet project.
My first impression of TGC was that it would save me time handling some of the difficult production tasks, and result in a more attractive product. If I made a few bucks selling games to gamers, that would be a nice bonus as well.
It worked about as well as expected. Sales trickled in slowly, until I had my first big break. A nice German programmer made a Java version of my game, in 3D and complete with pyrotechnic effects. He asked if it would be okay to release Java Flash Point online to the general public. I considered refusing, but decided that any sort of publicity was a good thing, even if some people decided that a free PC game was "good enough" and never bought the real thing. Sales were brisk after that, although I wouldn't say gamers were beating a path to my door. Sales were in the dozens, not hundreds. In the days of TGC Beta, that was enough to make my game a "best-seller".
The thing I came to realize was that games have legs. Every game sold is going to a gamer who will play that game with other gamer friends. If the game is any good, it may spark word-of-mouth sales and even reach the attention of publishers (who are also gamers, it turns out). That's what happened when one of my customers brought Flash Point to the Gathering of Friends, an invite-only gaming event in Columbus, Ohio hosted by game designer Alan Moon. It caught the attention of some industry people, and a few offers. Travis of Indie Boards and Cards made the first offer, which I accepted. I would not have expected this result from just selling a game on the internet, but magical things happen when you put yourself out there for people to find.
What's next for Clockwork Colossus Games?
I'll take the unexpected success of Air Show in the latest contest as an invitation to continue development on that game. I have devised a number of alternative "events" for the game, which will be posted to my website at my earliest opportunity.
The phenomenal success of the Flash Point kickstarter has motivated me to look at Kickstarter as a funding vehicle to get a cash-strapped game designer with a vision off the ground. Not that I plan to abandon TGC in any sense. I see TGC as a nursery for game designs large on promise and small on budget. It is also a workshop and a laboratory for testing new ideas, and gauging public response before risking a lot of money on a "small" print run of "only" 1000 games.
Any last words of encouragement or advice to all the designers reading this who would love to experience your success?
It's a lot of work getting a game from "good" to "great". But the process is mentally rewarding, even if the monetary rewards are small. I'd recommend getting involved in a game design community of some sort. The forums and chat features on TGC are a starting point, but nothing is better than face-to-face interaction with a local game design group. For me, the Marietta Board Game Design group is a terrific resource. In addition, the regulars at my local game shop are very knowledgeable about games and the game industry, even though none of them are designers. I'm sure I don't have to explain that board games are a thing to be shared. What good is a game without players? So my best advice to budding game designers out there is to play a lot of games, meet a lot of gamers, and wring as much useful feedback from as many of them as possible! No designer is an island!