Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kickstart the High Seas - An Interview with the Designers of Fleet

If your a regular here, you know that we are smitten with games, nerd culture and the DIY mentality. Which is why Kickstarter tends to get a lot of love from us, both on the site as well as our bank accounts. Recently Fleet, a new board game project much akin to a euro card game in play and style, hit the scene and hit its funding goal of $6,000 in less than 12 hours. We reached out to Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback and had an opportunity to talk with them about their current project, thoughts on Kickstarter as a platform, games and what the future holds.

Read our interview with them after the jump.

Ok, so Fleet right now is doing fantastically well on Kickstarter and folks can easily go
to your Kickstarter page and read up on it, but there is very little information there about the two of you. What can you tell me about you?

Matt: Thank you Mike! Fleet is doing incredibly well. We could not be more excited. On a personal level, I am happily married with two beautiful girls (the Riddlenettes are 6&7). I like sports and Star Wars and Fantasy novels and PC RPGs. I am pretty good at Starcraft 2 for an old guy. I watch movies at 1.5 speed on my PS3 because you can still understand all the talking and they get over quicker. I do not watch much TV, and still play rec basketball a couple of night a week despite my current manly stature. WOW, that reads like the lamest online dating profile ever! Good thing my wife is stuck
with me. Moving on…

Ben: I’m married and have a two and a half year old son who now also designs games every Tuesday night when Matt comes over. It was just the other day Ty was talking to Matt and I about buiding size exponential vs linear scoring in our area control design. Pretty intuitive for a two year old I’d have to say. Seriously, I enjoy hanging with the family, gaming, mountain biking, gaming, and golfing. I always knew I had it in me to design a game, but getting someone else to play it was always the biggest hurdle for me. We owe a ton of thanks to Gryphon Games for all of this.

What can you tell us about Fleet that wouldn't be able to learn from reading your
Kickstarter page?

Matt: I think one of my favorite “behind the scenes” moments with Fleet was Eric J Carter getting involved. Not just because he has been amazing, but because of how it happened. We had an artist prior to Eric (Gabe) who was doing good work, but was struggling with time and personal stuff and it had begun to affect his work. He was clearly talented, but just could not keep pace. It was not his fault; he had legit real life
stuff to deal with. He finally had to step down.

This was literally on my wife’s birthday and a week before Christmas. It is Dec 19 and we have to find a new artist… who can get us to the proto printer by the first week of January so we can get protos back by Feb 1 and get some review and survey copies out for a March 1 kickstarter launch! I hit the bgg design forum, I posted at freelance/ed/er/ing, deviant art, etc. I was flooded with emails and geekmails and replies from all these very talented people and I (with Ben’s help) had to figure out who to pick. I have said this before, but art is a complete mystery to me. I cannot draw, I do not particularly like art (I mean, it’s neat, but I like mechanics), and I have no idea how much work it takes. We sorted through all these responses and somehow through luck, divine intervention, or gut feel we picked Eric. You have seen the outcome of that choice and he is a HUGE reason Fleet has been as successful as it
has. Go checkout ericjcarter.com and hire this guy. Eric was sending sketched and card updates and layout changes on Christmas Eve and Christmas, then worked all week in between to get this art done so we could get protos printed. It was crazy. I remember sitting at my in laws house on Christmas day sneaking looks at my phone and checking out one of Eric’s boat drawings he had just sent and, of course, it ruled.

Ben: I’d like people to get to see how some of these gameplay decisions are made. But then I don’t want people to see it at all for fear of scaring them away! I want people to think every single design decision is based on some sound math formula, but then I’d also love for them to see me getting pissed off one lunch period and making a complete rash change and then 20 games later that change proved to be the right answer. Making games sometimes can be a brute force process. We aren’t smart enough to
figure everything out before hand, so there’s a TON of “It seems to me..” followed by dozens of rounds of testing. The cool thing was that we had fun every single time we ever played Fleet. That’s how we knew we were on to something. It always remained fun.

Gryphon Games will be publishing Fleet. What led you to publish with them, as opposed to doing it yourself? This is the age of Kickstarter after all.

Matt: 50% lazy, 50% busy. Ben and I both have really good 9-5ish jobs and young kids. I am very impressed by the guys that can balance that AND self publish a game. It has been a ton of work getting Fleet and a kickstarter off the ground with Gryphon’s help, and that is with them handling all the production, logistics, and such. Ben and I were given responsibility over the kickstarter and any “grass roots” promotion. There are so many great websites out there talking about games (like fruitlesspursuits.com ) and we have had the opportunity to discuss Fleet with so many awesome people.

Ben: Matt and I never intended to get rich designing games. My #1 goal has always been to get my designs into gamers’ hands and hope they enjoy them. When Gryphon responded positively to us regarding Fleet, it was a no brainer for me. I already had half a dozen Eagle/Gryphon games myself and knew this was a golden ticket opportunity to get into the industry and get our games out there to the masses. Sure maybe we’ll look at something in the future, but the chance to work with such an established and professional gaming company was the perfect intro to the industry for me.

What can you tell me about designing Fleet, and how it came to be? Who did you have in mind for playing this as you were creating it?

Matt: It was a long process, but a fun one. I am going to steal a bit from our designer diary and quote myself, which I think is like talking in the 3rd person but more pretentious…

“It all started with Emperor Palpatine… Our game group (4-8 engineers every other
Thursday night) had been paying a lot of Race for the Galaxy and Dominion. Those are
two powerhouse games, but if I have a complaint, and I do, it is that 90% of the cards
you touch, read, look at, etc are going to have no purpose to what you are trying to

accomplish. In classic engineering fashion, we analyzed, broke down, and performed
failure analysis on each and every game that we played. With Race, the same things
kept coming up: I f#$%ing hate when I am building my engine and suddenly cannot
draw a blue/brown/military/green/etc card OR if I had just gotten that (insert name) 6
cost card I would have won. OR, specifically, if I go military and on the 2nd to last hand
I draw Emperor Palpatine, that is a huge boost. If I do not…… The point here is, without
either of us vocalizing it directly we had been analyzing the games we were playing and
developing ideas that we would put into a game if we were the designers.”

2ish years later and HUNDREDS of hours of playtesting later and Fleet is born!

Ben: That about sums it up. At first it was fun to just start the project, but once we got rolling and realized we might actually be on to something, the ideas just kept coming. The target audience has always been that player who loves a good card game but wants one with substantial meat in a reasonable amount of time. Filler time but not filler weight is what we’ve always said.

You are two dudes from Detroit. Obviously we all know that commercial fishing is a pretty big thing there, but how did that translate into a theme for your game?

Matt: We are mechanics first, theme second. Theme is very important, but we had a good chunk of the design done when our buddy Pat suggested cool boats and fishing. Ben does a good job of talking about how that helped Fleet grow.

Ben: We went pretty quickly from “Ya, sweet fishing boats!” to actually integrating the fishing theme into the current mechanics and then letting the theme drive the project home. A couple of our best card buffs came right from brainstorming this fishing theme. Giving a bonus for the number of ship captains you have and processing fish are
probably our two best mechanics and they both came straight out of the theme. It was a cool process. The game would have been much worse without Pat’s initial suggestion. We’d still be buying parcels of land and settling cities.

Being your first time publishing a game, I'd imagine there’s been a decent learning curve during this whole process. What are some takeaways you'd be willing to share that will influence your next game?

Matt: Do it for the love, because there is not any money. It is also a TON of work and completely worth it.

Ben: My advice is the same these days. Don’t be terrified of publishers. They are busy hard working people just like you and me. Have a good game well presented with good rules and go market yourself. You can do it. Matt and I have easily 15-20 “no thanks” emails that we appreciated even hearing back on, but we believed we had a good game and kept going.

What has your experience with Kickstarter been like? both from the perspective of a customer and a project manager (vicariously via Gryphon)

Matt: Kickstarter is a racket, 10% for the rights to host your page and video. BUT, it has been an incredible way to spread the word about Fleet and get buzz. Again, Gryphon allowed us to have control over the kickstarter with the help of one of their guys Brandon (who has been a HUGE help). Ben and I are active posters on bgg and other great gaming websites so we have witnessed the growth of kickstarter from a board game perspective. I like the idea that a good idea can be brought to market in a different way. With that said, we are proud that Fleet made it through that “publisher wicket” prior
to being kickstarted.

Ben: It’s been an amazing experience to see the direct pledges towards our game on a day to day basis. I think the first day where we funded in less than 12 hours was about as exciting as it gets. We owe about all of our early success to great art, good networking, lots of luck, tons of hard work, and hopefully a great game idea. The most important thing for me now is that come September Fleet proves itself as a fantastic game and doesn’t just fade into the abyss of flash in the pan Kickstarter successes. I
think our game has staying power, but of course I’m biased.

Anything that you'd suggest to improve the Kickstarter experience for all?

Matt: Be discerning. It is fun to back projects and watch them develop and fund, but do not back games that are not complete. I still see too many projects that seem like they are only 50-70% done and maybe the designers became overcome with excitement and were premature in launching the campaign. Make sure the game is done before you back.

Ben: I think it’s a win win win for everyone. Publishers, designers, and consumers. If consumers pick wisely, like Matt said, then they are probably going to pledge some great games that also end up kicking in some really cool swag along the way. This is a fantastic bang for your gaming buck.

Any current Kickstarter projects aside from your own that you've been eyeing?

Matt: I backed several past projects (Zong Shi, Carnival, Borogrove). Currently, Gunship: First Strike is #1 KD project. Steve and Sam (two of the principals involved) were incredibly helpful to us when we were launching Fleet. Currently I have backed and am tracking Gunship, Cartoona, and Farmageddon (which just closed). I missed out on Viva Java, which I think looks really neat. There are a few others I want to look into when I have a little time as well. Oh, and Double Fine (me and 1 million of my closest friends). Another cool thing about kickstarter is that if a game is successful, but you did not or chose not to back it, it will be available when it completes production. 90% of the time Ben and I play games, the other is also playing so we very rarely double up on game purchases, so he has not backed any of these projects, but we discuss them all the time.

What is each of your top 5 games? Whats the 1 game you are most looking forward to (Fleet doesn't count)

Matt: My top 5:
Ben: Being a former niche indie music junkie, Matt is waaaay ahead of the curve compared to me on all the latest gaming hotness. By the time I catch wind of a really good polished campaign, Matt has already funded it. Like most other people on the Geek, I’m excited about and waiting for Atom Punk. Favorite games of all time are anything designed by Knizia, Power Grid, Dominion, and whatever Matt and I are currently working on.

Matt: Not just niche indie music junkie, CHRISTIAN ROCK indie niche music junkie. That means there were like 7 bands to follow...

Whats next for you guys?

Matt: We are on game #3. Game #2 is a pick up and deliver, more of a classic euro then Fleet. It is out being blind playtested as Ben and I work on game #3. When it gets back we have to decide where to go with it. Leave it as is or take it a few steps deeper. It's a fun tight game right now, we have some ideas to make it deeper but like its current incarnation as a mid weight "gateway game". We would like to have it I'm front of publishers by summer.

Ben: As Matt mentioned, game #2 is undergoing blind testing and has a day of reckoning coming soon. Do we add depth or keep it short, tight, and medium to lightweight? It's hard to decide when we prefer a deeper game, but we also know there is a large market for streamlined family titles. My guess is we'll add a layer or two. Game #3 is our take on area control, and we think we have a few legitimate innovations here. We couldn't be more excited for this one. Other than that it's our catalog of future Fleet ideas both tested and untested. I guess we'll see if the market has a want for them. I sure hope so! It's been a fantastic journey so far sharing our game.


  1. Replies
    1. Anytime! It was great to work with you guys, and look forward to doing it again soon!