Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers Podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single week, and we talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Fabian Fischer, who designed Crimson Company alongside Dario Reinhardt, who was on in Episode 50. They just recently designed an expansion called Crimson Company: The Other Side, which is on Kickstarter as we're recording. Fabian, welcome to the show.
Fabian Fischer: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Patrick: I have a lightning round for you to introduce you to the guests. Is that all right?
Fabian: Sure, perfect.
Patrick: All right. So, in a perfect world, how many expansions to the Crimson Company would you make?
Fabian: It's a bit tricky to answer in the lightning round. I guess, the ideal world scenario is 200 like Magic The Gathering has now or something. I mean, basically, keep making expansions until we don't think they add any more value to the game.
Patrick: That's fantastic. So, you want to keep making expansions till you're basically out of ideas.
Fabian: Yeah. If it works out business-wise and design-wise. Sure.
Patrick: Fantastic, very cool. So, you have a lot of really cool character art in the game. Who would you want to be friends with, in the Crimson Company universe?
Fabian: Another really tough one. I was thinking art-wise, I prefer the clumsy ogre because he looks really friendly. Effect-wise, probably the assassin would be quite handy to have as a friend.
Patrick: What do you do with your friends? You ask them to murder people for you?
Fabian: Well, if they come and attack you and want to take your castle away, that's what you're going to do.
Patrick: All right. There we go. Good to hear. Then what's a game you play with someone every single time, no questions asked, at a convention?
Fabian: I'm thinking probably something quick, I like Onitama a lot, the abstract game, or just some wacky party game thing. Like, Say Anything, probably.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: OK. Very cool. First real question is, how do you begin to board games and board game design?
Fabian: Yeah, those two questions are very strongly connected to one another. I was always into video games, that was one of my main hobbies from when I was a kid, and it never stopped.
Maybe ten years ago, maybe a little more, I stumbled across some game design blogs from some video game designers I liked and then got into all the game design books that were out there. I kept coming across designers that mentioned “Hey, board games are often much better designed than video games.” I was like, “Hmm, that's interesting.” I mean, of course, you play board games as a kid, in Germany, almost every family is into board games, but it's like Monopoly, or whatever. Sorry, maybe Catan, if you're lucky.
You don't get the impression that they are these awesome games and awesome designs. Then, I found basically this whole world of designer board games, like the euro games and everything and all the genres. Went deep into that and learned all about game design and basically got into game design and board games at the same time, more or less, and have been learning ever since. Nowadays, I'm a video game designer by trade and board game designer by night, I guess, if you will, and have just never stopped getting deeper into it.
Patrick: I've talked to a few video game designers on the show, and I find it interesting that they're obviously very complimentary. If you're good at one, or you practice one, you're probably going to be pretty good at the other. Let's go back to that perfect world. In a perfect world, would you want to be a video game designer full-time or a board game designer full-time? Assuming you can make the same amount of money.
Fabian: I think they both have their advantages. I mean, in a perfect world, we would assume it's as easy to get into video games, as it is to get into board games, so that shouldn't play a role then. You still have things that are unique to one medium or the other. For example, the party games like Say Anything, I mentioned, is better suited to play it in person and write stuff on actual cards and be funny about it and things like that. Video games, on the other hand, are less personal. They are more like competitive, maybe just about the game. You don't care about the human being if you want to say it harshly. So yeah, they definitely have their advantages and disadvantages.
How did you design an expansion so quickly?
Patrick: OK. First, I want to congratulate you on Crimson Company funding back in February, or maybe it ended in the early part of March. I know both Crimson Company and my game launched right around the same time. I think maybe you guys launched a day before me or a couple days before me, but we basically launched at the same time. It was really fun to cheer you on, as I was watching my own campaign.
Both of our campaigns were around February, and it's currently, as we're recording, November. My campaign is just starting to fulfill. I'm just getting photos from my backers. Your game fulfilled maybe a month or two ago. What I find amazing is that your expansion is on Kickstarter, and it's already funded, and you still have two weeks of time left in the campaign. For me, Fabian, I am just starting to relax, my blood pressure is just starting to go down from my first game, and you guys already have an expansion ready to go, and it's already funded. How did you design an expansion so quickly? I don't understand.
Fabian: I mean, it wasn't that quickly. I mean, there was a lot of– We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. I think we really decided we wanted to keep the ball rolling, after the first Kickstarter and then tried to use some of that Essen promotion, basically, to get into the new campaign, which started just the week after Essen, so we definitely wanted to keep it rolling, in that sense.
For the first campaign, what you have to know, is that it was focused on the deluxe edition of Crimson Company, so we basically had the game done. We financed first edition by ourselves at the end of 2018. The deluxe edition Kickstarter was mainly focused about a few updates, basically. The main things were the castle minis and the metal coins, which were huge component upgrades. But we didn't have to test the game a lot anymore or design the base game.
While we were doing that Kickstarter campaign, we were already deep into the design of the first expansion. Because we thought, “If this works out, then we should go on, probably. It's a game that lends itself very well to expansion. We thought it would make a lot of sense. We already had collected a lot of ideas for new card effects. Basically, when the time came to fulfill the first Kickstarter, we were almost done already with the design for the expansion. It was then, at this point, just setting up the campaign, which is also a lot of work, as you know. We had a bit of time before the first campaign so, we could get into the expansion pretty early.
When Did You Commission The Artwork?
Patrick: Well, I love your story. I love that you guys got it done so quickly. I love that you guys got it to your backers so quickly. The game is really good, by the way, I backed it, and I enjoy the game. At what time did you have to start commissioning the artwork? I mean, I understand playtesting new cards, it's pretty easy to write on an index card and try it. Especially because, I think, this campaign adds 15, or more cards to the game. I think it's pretty easy to test new card mechanics. But what about all the art? Didn't that take months to do?
Fabian: Yeah, more or less one month. Our artist, [Yanna] Sofia, which also worked on the base game with us, is pretty good at pumping out those character artworks once the briefings are ready. It took a little bit of time. But the thing is, we started with the artwork for the cards that we were very sure that we wanted to have in the expansion. The ones that were in question still, we put at the end of the schedule and some of those, actually, we changed in the end. That was a good idea. It worked out very well. Sometimes you can make small tweaks and stuff, and balancing cards doesn't change the artwork. We could start earlier with the artwork than we had to.
How do you design an expansion?
Patrick: Yeah. I do want to ask, how do you design an expansion? Here's the way I see it from my point of view, the consumer because the core of the game is already designed and you obviously literally cannot change it, because it's literally in people's hands, unlike software. Do you start with a fun mechanism, or do you do a fun theme, something thematic? Let me add on here, and I think lots of game designers would love to design expansions and love to have an idea of how they can carve out a piece of their game and leave it as an expansion for a year down the line. I'd love to know where to start.
Fabian: I think there's no universal answer, as with so many things in game design. In our case, with this expansion, what we wanted to do is flesh out some mechanics of the base game more that we liked. In our base game, we have these mechanics called “Flip,” which is basically like turning the cards face down. That means it doesn't have an effect anymore, and it loses all its strength, etc. But you can flip it again and turn it back up and also trigger the effect again, so you can build these chains of effects. We liked that, and we thought there could be more cards interacting with that mechanism.
Patrick: Yeah. So you found something that was a cool ability in the base game, but it wasn't really maximized, and you just decided to maximize it with this expansion?
Fabian: Yeah, we thought we could do a lot more with it. It played together with the other thing that we wanted to flesh out more, which was the destruction keyword, which means something happens when a card is destroyed, which we had on a couple of cards in the base game, but not a lot. Our focus for this expansion was on those both effects. From there, we got into the whole question of theme, and it quickly made sense to take it into a darker, a little bit spooky scenario because flipping means you're between life and death somehow. Destruction obviously means– It's like a death effect. That theme came pretty naturally to it. It even fit the Halloween timeline in the end. That came together quite nicely, in the end.
Patrick: OK. As you're playtesting and adding new cards, are you–? Do you already have expansions two, three, and four starting to formalize in your mind?
Fabian: We definitely have the second expansion, and we have a lot of plans already for that one. There will come a bit more from a thematic starting point. I'm not going to spoil it now, but we basically started with a theme. We have a whole bunch of card effects already in our idea-collection, more or less, but we don't just throw the random next 15 effects into the expansion. For this one, we said, “We want this one theme, and we'll see if there's something in our effects that we can tweak to match that, or we need to come up with some new ones.” So this would be a more thematic one, although it will also have a new mechanism. So we're doing both, and we're usually very mechanics driven, both of us. But we think it also makes sense to bundle together your expansion under a theme because then people understand it instantly what it's about, and it just makes sense.
Patrick: Love it. So let me ask you, is there a cadence to this? By “Cadence,” I mean, is there a release schedule? Going back to a perfect world, would you like to release an expansion a year? Is that enough time for you to get out the previous expansion and to work on the artwork and balancing and getting ready for the next year or the next Kickstarter launch? Is that about right, or do you want to speed it up or slow it down? Or, how does that work for you?
Fabian: We'll have to see how things work out. This is the first expansion we're doing, so we'll have to make our experiences with it. But ideally, in theory, we would definitely do an expansion a year, at least. We'll have to see how long it works out, how long people are going to be interested in more expansions, and how quickly we will be able to get new ideas into the game. But yeah, that's the ideal scenario.
How important is having a previous game or a base game to a Kickstarter?
Patrick: So, let me change gears. I haven't talked about funding questions in a while, but I want to go back to them. I think you have a unique insight here, so overall the question is, “How important is having a previous game or a base game to a Kickstarter campaign?” By that, I mean instead of just selling a new game or instead of just selling an expansion, you're also selling the base game or previous games, and a huge number of people are backing both.
I was looking at your Kickstarter campaign, and roughly about 40% of your backers are buying the base game and the expansion, meaning they weren't existing customers. Or, I assume they're not, and they're not buying it for someone else. But they're probably not existing customers, and I've noticed lots of other campaigns do this as well.
There's some massive campaigns that maybe the publisher already has two titles or five titles or ten titles of other games, and lots of people are bundling this new game with a couple of previous games that they didn't have before. Going back to that question, how important is it to have a previous game or base game for a Kickstarter campaign?
Fabian: I think it obviously helps a lot. We had this early bird offer in our expansion campaign where you could get just the expansion cheaper for the first few days, and that was basically an offer to the already existing players that already have the base game. This is still the most popular pledge right now, even though you can't pledge for it anymore. So now, obviously, the bundle starts catching up for the new players that want both the base game and the expansion, but it helped a lot.
The first few days were miles ahead of what we were able to achieve with the previous campaign, because there we basically had no community we could contact in the first few days. We had a few followers on Facebook or whatever, but this time we could write to the 1,500 backers of the first campaign and say, “We have something new that should be interesting for you guys.” And then a lot of them immediately jumped in, and of course, that then helps you to become visible on Kickstarter. People realize, “There's a new project that already has like $5K in it,” or whatever. Then that obviously helps you throughout the whole campaign. At least, that's the plan.
Patrick: I think the reason I'm interested in this is I think a lot of publishers, or a lot of people who want to publish games– At least like for me as a game designer, I want to make this game cool. I've made the game, and I'm moving on to this game. So the first game is a silly game about stealing french fries, and the next game is a horror game, and the next game is an abstract game. The next game is about curing diseases, and the next game is about dwarves mining. I do all these– I have all these different interests, and I want to make a game about all of them, but I think from a money point of view it makes so much more sense as an indie publisher to make a really good solid game and then just to keep making expansions for that game. And of course, keep selling your existing game as you're doing it because you also promoting your existing game. It just seems like a really smart move, and you guys have raised a ton of money. So, good job on that. It's given me a lot to think about.
Fabian: Thank you. I think it also makes sense if you're making different kinds of games because you have the community built up, you have the people you can contact on day one. If you keep making good, interesting games, then people will come back again. People aren't just into one game usually, maybe some Magic players will disagree, but I think it definitely helps in either case.
Before beginning a new game design, what kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching?
Patrick: Let me change gears a little bit. What research do you do before either, let's say before you start an expansion, or before you start an entirely new game? What does your research process look like?
Fabian: I think there are different levels to research. Like, the basic research to me is always playing a ton of games, or at least looking at a ton of new games like watching rules and overviews sometimes is already enough to get a grasp of what's new out there. Like, “What's the new thing?” This is like, and I don't know, like, for a scientist, it would be reading the latest paper of your research area or something.
I play a ton, watch a ton of videos on games, and that's the basic thing. But once you lock into a design, you want to do, of course, you have to get a little bit more specific, and you have to look at similar games. What they have done, what's the great thing about them or what's maybe not so great, or where you think that could be a target audience that wants them to change in a certain way?
That's basically what we did with Crimson Company, where we looked at a lot of card games and thought, “What do we not like about them? What might other people not like about them?” There you have to get a little bit more specific, and the further you go into the design of your own game, you have to do a more specific research, of course. In the end, if you have a theme on your game, you also have to do thematic research. You have to make sure everything makes sense, and you're not going against the rules of fantasy novels or whatever. It gets more specific and more intense the deeper you go.
Patrick: With Crimson Company, it's a fantasy universe. There's ogres, and there's mages, and there's all sorts of magical things, so there's nothing historical that you can look up when you're researching a game for fantasy or sci-fi or just a made-up world in general. What do you do? Do you borrow–? Like, how do you research that? How do you decide if you want to include an ogre but not an orc? I don't know how do you make those decisions?
Fabian: For our base game, we were totally open thematically, we just said, “OK, it's some roughly medieval fantasy world where basically anything goes.” We had all the card effects done, and we just tried to find a setting for them, which made sense and tried to connect the effects to certain characters so that you could remember them just by looking at the character.
So at some point, you don't have to read the card every time, but yes, as mentioned for the second expansion we have in mind, we are taking a given setting more or less. You have to respect some of the rules there and make sure you put stuff in there that belongs in there, and you can't just take anything basically. We didn't do that for the base game.
Patrick: That's one of things I think I do appreciate about magic, is every time magic puts out a new set or a new release of cards, they're usually themed in a certain way. “This set is all about this new universe, and there's all these creatures that behave this way,” and it's nice to have that. There could totally be– After medieval times, there's people who have muskets. It'd be fun to have a whole musket set. Everything is using certain dwarven technology, or whatever. It is nice to have that, so your different sets all feel differently?
Fabian: Yeah, I think that that definitely makes sense. Even if you're using a pre-made setting, where already tons of literature exists, or you're just making something up yourself, that definitely makes sense, that it's like coming from the same place, and everything is just bundled under this one theme. Like we now have it with the other side, it's like the creepy horror graveyard expansion or whatever. All the cards belong into this specific setting, and all the effects make sense in the context of the setting.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: Perfect. Let's move towards the ending questions here, what is a resource that you would recommend to another indie game designer? Like a book or a podcast excluding this one, or a website or something like that?
Fabian: The cheat answer is the design section of Gamasutra, where thousands of game designers publish their stuff regularly. You will, of course, also find some good stuff in there.
Patrick: So, let me interrupt you quickly. I have no idea what that is. Is that more video game designers?
Fabian: Yeah. Gamasutra is the biggest video game design website. It's a blog about game making in general, but there's also a design section, and there are also board game designers writing stuff on there. It's more or less anyone can write stuff on there, and then it goes through the editor team, and then they post it basically. You have a lot of stuff on there.
Patrick: Very cool. I just found it, and I'll have to read through it. I'll have a link in the show notes.
Fabian: If I had to recommend a podcast, I'd recommend probably Clockwork Game Design by Keith Bergan. Also primarily a video game designer, but he recently also Kickstarted a card game. So he is also active in both worlds.
Patrick: I have not heard of that one either. You are giving me lots of good resources, and I'll have lots of links for the listeners.
Fabian: Yeah, and he also has a book by the same name, Clockwork Game Design, which is also quite good. Especially if you're into strategy game design. I always recommend Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, but everyone knows that by now. If you're getting into game design, I think you should read that one, and then you're already ahead of other people who haven't read it.
Patrick: You know what's terrible? I met Raph Koster at an event, and I said “Hi” to him, but I still have not read his book. So, I will have to work on that. Because I've had it recommended once or twice on the show before. So, I got to get on that.
Fabian: It's good to get into the basic mindset of a game designer, I am not sure if you're already doing game design then probably you're just like “Yeah, I know.” But if you're getting into it, that's a great starting point.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: Awesome. So, what does success in the board game world look like to you?
Fabian: It depends on the definition of success, obviously. Financial success is like the obvious thing that you could define easily, but I don't know, it's boring. Personally, what I want to do is make great games. I can 100% say I stand behind that game, I'm proud of that game, and I think it's good.
I think people should play it and people will have their life enriched in some way if they play the game. Or, at least the people I made the game for. Obviously, you don't make a game for everyone because that would be a game for no one at the same time, but you have a certain audience in mind, and I want them to recognize the game as a game for them, basically.
Patrick: So, just making lots of games for forever?
Fabian: Yeah. Of course, you have to live off of it somehow, but yeah. I will try to make good games for as long as I can.
Patrick: That's OK. I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated, where basically I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you have to tell me if it's overrated or underrated, and then give me a one or two-sentence description why. Cool?
All right, so expansions that are designed to fit in the existing box. Are those overrated or underrated?
Fabian: Personally, I would say overrated because I think it's also nice if you have the expansions in their own boxes and can bring them out every time, or mix and match them in a new way. But I know, of course, that people want this desperately. We're also getting these comments quite a bit in our expansion campaign, and we will not forget about it. The first expansion definitely will fit into our base game inbox.
Patrick: Yeah, it's exciting for me because I live in a small apartment right now, so I have very limited space. Whenever a game or an expansion can fit into a box, I'm like “Great. It doesn't take up any space. It only costs me money, not space.” Cool, good to hear that. Since your game is supernatural-themed, or at least the expansion is, I'm just going to go with something simple here. Ghosts, overrated or underrated?
Fabian: I'd say overrated, if they are pure ghosts, I don't know. They're lame. They're immaterial, and they can't touch you even. I don't know, and they need to have some body thing about them. Like, possessed people or something, cool. But not ghosts.
Patrick: Yes, if you can't interact in any way, it's lame. How about this, giving games as presents? Christmas presents, birthday presents, etc. Is that overrated or underrated?
Fabian: I think a lot of people do it, but it's always underrated because it's always great. It's fun for everyone, not just the one who gets the present.
Patrick: Fantastic. Good answer. And then the last one, which– Boy, I forgot to write this down. We're just going to go with– I'm just going to make something up off the top of my head. I'm going to go with Disney's new streaming service, which I forgot what it's called– I think it's Disney plus. Is that overrated or underrated?
Fabian: From what I hear, people don't really like it, but I don't know. Probably still overrated. I don't want another streaming service. I already have enough.
Patrick: I totally hear you. There's got to be some– Because no one's going to get 12 of them, right? There's a limit.
Patrick: Anyways, great. Fabian, thank you for being on the show.
Fabian: Thank you for having me. It was great.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your games online?
Fabian: They can obviously find Crimson Company online on the CrimsonCompany.cc, and me personally, my Twitter handle is @Ludokultur. If you put a dot the E behind that, then you have my personal website, which also has some English translations of my articles and stuff. You'll find everything there, basically.
Patrick: Fantastic. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Fabian said he'd let you win your first game of Crimson Company against him. So if you like winning, I guess you can do that.
Then just a couple of updates of my own, at the time of this recording Mintsugi is a semifinalist in the mint tin challenge. I'm excited to see where it goes, and there's still rounds of judging to see where it goes. I might self-publish this down the line, and I don't know yet. I have an e-mail list for that game, and I will have a link for that in the show notes where you can sign up to hear about Mintsugi. If I ever do self-publish it, you'll be the first to know.
I mentioned this a couple times already, but the first Protospiel in Denver will be in March of 2020. I'll be attending, and I would love to play your games, so if you are anywhere nearby, please stop by and we'll play a game. Again, I'll have a link in the show notes. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I am @BFTrick on both platforms. That is all I got, everyone. Until next time, Happy designing. Bye-bye.