I’ll never forget meeting Rob Dougherty and learning Star Realms ahead of the Kickstarter at Gen Con 2013. I was wowed to be in front of a Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Famer, and even more wowed by this tiny little game that somehow smushed my two favorite games, Magic and Dominion, into one tiny, cheap little box. A year-and-a-half later and my suspicions have been proven true: Star Realms has won several accolades, including four Golden Geek Awards and the inaugural SXSW TableTop Game of the Year. On the cusp of launching their next project, Epic, a re-imagining of an old TCG with all of the elements of Star Realms’ success mixed-in, co-designer (and fellow Pro Tour Hall of Famer) Darwin Kastle talks to us about that upcoming launch as well as recent success. Thanks, Darwin!
Normally I ask designers to share a little history, but we all know that you are a M:tG Pro Tour Hall of Famer, and an experienced game designer. Maybe you can give us some little-known factoids?
I used to be a dog trainer and I still do it in my free time occasionally. I have a wonderful and well-trained dog named Molly. I also used to be a ballroom dancing instructor. I was raised on a small farm in Connecticut. I have a degree in Broadcast Journalism. One of the things that really pushed me in the strategy gaming direction was winning my dorm’s chess tournament when I was in college. I used to be obsessed with the board game Titan.
Other than the main “killing each other should be the goal” aspect of Star Realms, what other design lessons did you take away from witnessing the rise of Dominion, Ascension, other deckbuilders, and before them, Magic and TCGs?
From TCGs I learned two important things. One, was that you could design a game that wouldn’t just be another game on the shelf, but would actually become something people’s lives revolved around. Two, I learned that no matter how good a TCG you make, it’s almost impossible to build the gigantic player base needed to sustain it, people are too afraid that their
rares will be worthless and that there won’t be anyone to play against.
Deckbuilders seemed like the perfect answer to that problem. You got the fun of drafting, deckbuilding and playing a game that was a bit like a TCG, without having to buy any random packs or worry about whether your friend had a deck. It’s almost impossible to be a dominant player at two major TCGs at once (while also having a life), which is one of the things that really got me into deckbuilders. With Star Realms, I took things a step further than other deckbuilders, by creating a deckbuilding game that would appeal to TCG players even more by having combat and yet like many deckbuilders, it could appeal to non-TCG players as well with it’s easy-to-learn mechanics.
To me, this seems to be a game designed to directly compete with Ascension (and wins by a mile). Is there any bad blood there?
None at all. I was a developer on Ascension and Rob Dougherty, the development lead on Star Realms, was one of the designers of Ascension. We consider those guys to be our friends; we often share booths with them at conventions and trade shows. Ascension was inspirational; it showed that it was possible to take a great game like Dominion and improve it so dramatically that you were reinventing that game genre. It helped me realize that just because I loved Ascension, didn’t mean that I couldn’t make an even better deckbuilder. Besides, I really love space battles. 🙂
I actually created Star Realms as a tool to show to game companies that were considering hiring me, to give them a glimpse at my design talent. I showed an early prototype to the guys at Stoneblade, but they were too focused on other projects to pursue it with me. When I showed it to my best friend Rob Dougherty after I had visited a few game companies on the West Coast, he actually suggested we make our own company together and produce it ourselves. This may just have been an elaborate strategy to keep his best friend from moving away to the west coast of course.
Rob had suggested we partner to make a game company before and I’d never felt that we were ready, but with Star Realms we both felt we had a real winner on our hands. It helped that I knew just the guy to go into business with to make sure we would have a great digital version, Tan Thor Jen, the creator of Apprentice.
It’s amazing to me how low the price point for this game is. Clearly, the model has been very successful, but how did you come up with that? Most new companies, I think, would fear that the margins would be too low… Was the hope always to make it up with digital sales?
It was a calculated gamble. We were swinging for the fences. We had both designed moderately successful games in the past, but the reason we started White Wizard Games was because we were committed to beating the odds and creating a successful game company with a hit product from scratch. The price point was both the risky part and a major part of the plan to hit it out of the park. Most games could sell 10,000 copies and be a success. For us that would mean we would probably break even. We needed this game to catch fire, but having such an amazing price point gave us a lot of lighter fluid. This was one of many great ideas thought up by Rob to really propel the company forward. This formula of a massive amount of game play per dollar has now become the guiding philosophy for the company.While our digital game has become quite successful, our main source of revenue is actually the physical game. At $15 for a great game with lots of depth and replay ability, we stand alone in the physical space and we’ve been selling it as fast as we can print it. Our digital game is free to download, but in the digital space there are thousands of games that are free to download. The popularity of the physical game has really helped people learn about the existence of our digital version. This has resulted in greatly increasing digital sales, but it’s not our big earner. At least not yet. 🙂
Speaking of digital, this game was designed from the ground up with digital in mind. I’ve found deckbuilders translate very well, especially since you can fast-forward through the rote processes of playing your cards on your turn – Star Realms even has a “Play All” button! It seems that the “discard everything, draw 5” aspect of deckbuilding games has made turns very long, but also made hand management somewhat of a lost art. One of the most crucial aspects of Magic: the Gathering’s design and tense feel was deciding whether to Lightning Bolt their 2/1 creature or save it for the 3/3 they’ll surely have later… Do you think this is a flaw in the design of deckbuilders, or a good thing?
It’s not a flaw in deckbuilders; it’s merely a difference between them and TCGs. You get one type of play experience when you play a TCG and another when you play a deckbuilder. For today’s busy lifestyle, being able to play a great strategy game asynchronously is a huge win for players. Not everyone has the time or the interest to sit down for a few hours of Magic Online.
You’ve also been pushing to make sure Star Realms has competitive play options. Have you seen any crazy combos or scenarios from players that you didn’t come up in development, or are the mechanics and card abilities too basic for that to happen?
Our decision to add the year one promo cards to the digital release of the Gambit Set has led to some really crazy plays and crazy games that we didn’t see much of in the physical development of those cards. We have a great group of digital testers though, so we had a good idea of what would happen when we released it. In all our cards, including promos and expansions, there has only been one card that I would definitely redo if I could (and we can and will!) People that play with the Crisis: Events expansion for a while will probably figure out which one I’m talking about. [Editor’s Note: My guess is Trade Mission…?]
On the same note, now that Star Realms has been played a LOT by many people, it seems even the highest players only have a mid-60’s win percentage. Was this surprising to you? Do you think that’s good, bad, or a just-right balance of skill and luck?
It isn’t overly surprising, because we pair people up against opponents that are of a similar level. While I may only win 60% of the time against other high level players, that percentage shoots way up when I face beginners. With Star Realms, you get the benefit of a high strategy game that strongly rewards skilled players, yet also has enough luck that an upset can happen any given game.
You’ve announced Star Realms will have a new base game with an entirely new trade deck -every year-. When I tell people that, their first reaction is “Can they really make that many new cards and keep it fresh?” What would you say to quell their fears? How will the multitude of options available translate over to competitive play?
I would say wait and see. Up to this point we’ve always come through with a great product and we don’t intend to change that. We intentionally kept the base game quite simple mechanically. This was both to make it easy to learn and to leave us vast amounts of design space for expansions. Too many companies don’t plan enough for success, we’re determined not to be one of them.
Can you give us the ‘origin story’ of the development of your new game, Epic? (As well as how you decided upon such a simple name…)
Several years ago, I worked with Rob at a tiny game company called EpicTCG.com, which he founded specifically to make a cool TCG that he was creating. Despite the fact that we were running on a pauper’s budget and didn’t always know what we were doing, the game was good enough to be fairly successful. The base set was successful enough to justify the release of an expansion set, we held 5K tournaments and there was even an EpicTCG World Championship tournament with large cash prizes that people had to qualify for. I have long felt that EpicTCG was the best TCG I ever played and if we were as good at our craft back then as we are now, it would have really taken off. With the success of Star Realms, it gave us a chance to do it right. The first thing we did was to decide we were going to follow more of a Star Realms model with the product and NOT make it into a TCG. With a much bigger art budget, streamlined and improved rules and the ability to have up to four players playing out of one $15 box, we feel this will be another winner.
I recently saw the preview KS page for Millenniun Blades, a game where you play as gamers playing a CCG (rather meta). There was a giant warning on the front of the KS page saying “THIS IS NOT A COLLECTIBLE GAME.” I’ve already seen people confused by the ads for Epic saying “TCG-style play.” How do you plan on combating that possible confusion?
This sort of thing happens with all card games in small boxes these days. With Star Realms, I’m constantly having to reassure customers at conventions that there isn’t any randomness. People are reluctant to invest the needed money to play a TCG without knowing if they’re going to like it and if their rares will be valuable. I expect Epic to blow people’s minds the way that Star Realms did, but even more: you get over 120 unique, nonrandom cards in a $15 box that you can play and draft with over and over without having to buy anything else. It’s like if someone handed you a carefully balanced, fully playable draft cube full of awesome cards and only asked you for $15.
What’s the advantage of doing a “build-decks-before-hand”, classical, CCG-style game versus a deckbuilder? Do you think the audiences are the same? Do you find yourself thinking one game is better than the other (Star Realms or Epic)?
One of the great things about Epic is that you don’t have to do any deckbuilding if you just want to start playing. You can shuffle up the deck and hand each player 30 cards at random and just start playing. This is one of the things that sets it apart from other TCG style card games. I do think TCG style games have a slightly different audience than deckbuilders, though with lots of crossover. Deckbuilders have a bit more structure and are usually easier to learn and master. TCG style games usually have a bit more depth and allow for even more creativity on the part of the player. One of the great things about owning your own game company is that you have the option of only working on games that you personally love playing. So it’s not surprising that I love playing both Epic and Star Realms. Star Realms is currently my favorite digital game and Epic is my favorite physical game.
I feel like both games have been coming from a standpoint of streamlining what’s out there, cutting the glut out of the rules until the game is intuitive. At what point in your design career do you feel you made that ‘shift’ into that mindset?
I always felt this sort of thing was important, but I feel that we’ve really refined it with our efforts at White Wizard Games. One of my first published games was The Battle for Hill 218, which really displayed many of my guiding design principles: easy to learn, fast to play, hard to master and great replayability. My favorite games are ones with lots of strategy that I can easily teach people to play with me, like Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne.
Anything else you’d like to say about Epic?
Over the past year or so, I’ve had people constantly telling me how much they regretted not backing Star Realms on Kickstarter or at least buying a copy during the first print run. I hope people keep that in mind when Epic comes out, because we’ve put together a really great game and a really great product.
What have you been reading/watching/enjoying lately?
I recently finished reading The Kite Runner, which totally blew me away, a really powerful and moving story. I also just finished season two of Black Sails and it was incredible, now I’m eagerly awaiting the new season of Game of Thrones. I have been really enjoying playing Epic (it’s for work – really!)
Thanks for helping get the word out about the great things we have in the works!
Thanks again to Darwin for the interview. The Kickstarter for Epic launches soon!