Thursday, August 18, 2016

Interview Stephen McLaughlin - Co-Designer Of The Duke

There is no shame to admit this. I love the duke. It was my first abstract when I started collection board games and I still love it to this day. Co-Designer Stephen McLaughlin answered some fanboyish questions I had about the game.

The Duke is my favorite abstract game. Can you tell the story of how it went from an idea to a successful kickstarter campaign?

That's quite flattering to hear; thank you. The Duke has passed through many hands, and that it made it out into the wild mostly intact made me pretty happy.

In 2006-7, I was meeting with friends who were mostly industry professionals to kick around the ideas for games that we'd not put enough time into. The results became Bucephalus Games, an extremely ambitionus game company startup. We released a few games with small print runs, and a couple of them received some recognition from the community. I was the primary designer of Toboggans of Doom, Rorschach, the Suicide Bomber Card Game, Roman Taxi, Dogfight, and Zombie Mosh. There were some other concepts that never made it to light through our efforts as a group, and the Duke was one of them.

My partner-in-scheming Jeremy Holcomb had the idea to purchase the rights to the Duke from the other members of Bucephalus once the momentum there had dwindled, and in turn he drove the efforts to find a new publisher for the game. Catalyst looked kindly on us, and had the idea of using the Kickstarter to accelerate the game through their development calendar.

Were there pieces that you had in initially that were too overpowered? was it tough to find the balance for such a variable game?

The most important things for me when initially designing the pieces were these three ideas: Simplicity, not getting stuck on the far end of the board, and feeling distinct. In many cases, the piece design started with adding symbols, and the balancing and refining process consisted of removing symbols.

The special abilities of pieces like the Oracle were almost removed entirely, and I think the game is still fine even if you forget to use them.

I also wanted to focus on structural changes to the game that appear as variants, such as drafting or pre-drawing the pieces, so that any perceived imbalance could be exploited to add depth, rather than just frustration.

Nowadays with kickstater exclusive pieces tend to make their way to the general public at some point after the campaign. The duke has not done that. Why?

In purchasing the rights to the Duke, Catalyst also assumed the responsibility of further development and distribution of the Duke altogether. I have seen the Robin Hood, Conan, and the Siege Engines for sale at retail, but the other promos may not have gotten the same treatment. I think a primary bottleneck is simply the cost of a print run of pieces compared to the lasting success of the game. With enough support from the community, perhaps Catalyst would see fit to reprint several exclusive pieces into a group reprint, if it would make financial sense for them.

My favorite pieces to add in are the ones from CONAN. How did that partnership happen?

Honestly, there is no partnership to speak of. The original novels are part of the public domain, though the brand of Conan has a separate copyright. This is why the pack of pieces was named after the author. The other early expansion packs come from similar IPs that aren't defended by high-priced legal firms.

We wanted to make sure that the expansions played on the inevitable asymmetry of the game; your set would be different from your opponent's, but neither side would win all the time. You should always feel a little jealous of the opposition's pieces, because this spurs on the desire to play again with the sides reversed.

I have been hoping for a MEGA DUKE that includes all the pieces. Is this a possibility via kickstarter or retail?

You may have seen JARL, a continuation of the Duke's mechanics that focuses on a Viking Raider theme. It doesn't contain any repeated pieces from the Duke, but you could play Duke v Jarl, or other combinations of the pieces. I think it's not likely that another Kickstarter campaign will happen, as those things are way more work than most people realize before they have survived the first one, but Catalyst are known for being very willing to react to the desires of their customers.

Finally, what is a game that you love that we may have not heard of?

 love, play, and create games of lots of different formats, so I'll give you too many answers:

I'll take a second to plug old collectible games I have worked on: Anachronism and Magi-Nation.

Two of my favorite video games are The World Ends With You and Super Puzzle League.

I've spent an incalculable amount of time playing Time's Up! and Pinochle with many of the same people that helped me create all of the games I've mentioned here.

Finally for board games, Santiago and Dreaming Spires are two that really surprised me for being different from the norm, and I'd encourage others to check them out of they haven't before.

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