Interview with a designer: Justin De Witt of Fireside Games

Justin De Witt is chief creative officer at Fireside Games, a company best known for its smash-hit Castle Panic.

I recently got the chance to put a series of questions to Justin to delve into his background, how he got started in the boardgame industry, and to find out Fireside Games’ future plans.

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I see from reading up on your website that you are a long-time game designer, taking the plunge in 2007 to do this full-time. What were your experiences like? I guess there are many hobby designers out there, but very few make the step up to a successful career, and even fewer to make a business out of it.

It’s a difficult business to make a full-time career out of it, and we are incredibly fortunate that we’ve been able to take our hobby and make it into our livelihood. It started with me working on game designs in the evenings and on weekends, and as they got better and better, Anne-Marie and I started thinking about what to do with them.

I worked at Steve Jackson Games in 2002 and learned a ton about the industry before deciding to take the plunge into being our own publisher. The only reason that choice really made sense, though, was because of the combined skill-sets of Anne-Marie and me.

I had worked for over a decade as a graphic designer and illustrator, with board game design being a hobby. This put me in a unique position of knowing how to get things printed and being able to create, edit, and art direct the graphics for our company.

Anne-Marie had a background in creative writing that she had evolved into an editorial executive position at an educational publisher. Her writing and editing skills plus her project management and business acumen meant that we had a lot of bases covered when it came to running a publishing company. We filled in the gaps with a lot of phone calls and web searches as we learned all the specifics about the board game industry.

Take us through a typical day at work – is game design / publishing what I’m sure everyone imagines – lots of play testing and attending conferences (itself hard work I’m guessing!) or is it 90 per cent paperwork and tax returns and 10 per cent gaming?

You are pretty close to the mark! I often comment that I don’t run a game company, I run a small business that just happens to make games. Not only that but we are a small business that deals with international manufacturing and shipping, warehousing, a three-tier distribution system, foreign licensing, and a dozen other issues.

It’s definitely a challenge to keep game design on the right level of priority. On a typical day, I will be communicating with our printer about games in production, tracking down data on games being shipped, dealing with website and e-commerce issues, managing contractors, concepting advertisements, keeping up with social media, and managing reviewers and review copies.

Weekends with conventions are fun but hard work as well, and they happen pretty often and require a lot of planning before you even set foot on the convention floor. And that doesn’t even touch on the executive level work Anne-Marie does every day! Game design is still a priority, though, and the days when I can focus most of my attention on that are the best. I’m betting it’s not quite the perfect gameplaying fantasy most people imagine.

Do you like playing other people’s games, or is it (as we say in the UK) a busman’s holiday – the last thing you want to do after spending the day designing and testing your own? As a former journalist I sometimes can’t bring myself to read a newspaper as I spent so many years having to read them all every day to keep an eye on the competition!

I do actually. I love to try new games or at least ones that are new to me, but I admit it’s hard to squeeze that in around our schedules. It’s nice to take a break and read, hike, play video games, or some kind of different activity, but I try to sit down to a board game every chance I get.

Castle Panic was the first game you produced, and is rightly the one you’re best known for (it’s awesome). The Engines of War expansion is soon to be released – do you see Castle Panic continuing to develop in this way in the future, or will you be more focused on other games, and maybe variations of the Panic theme (e.g. Star Trek Panic, Dead Panic).

A little of both actually. I have several other ideas for expansions to the base game that I think fans will really enjoy as they let you go deeper into that world. We have a few other ideas for new variations as well, but the trick there is that we won’t do it if it doesn’t add something new to the game. Plus the variation has to make sense with the core “Panic” mechanics, meaning our system of ring and arc combat and the steady advance of threats. In addition, we have several completely new games in development that have nothing to do with the Panic system that I’m really excited about.

I like the mission statement you have on Instagram “we publish fun, family-friendly board games.’ Right away you know what you’ll get with a Fireside game. Why did you pick this audience for your games?

Two main reasons. Personal taste and market predictions.

First off, it’s a reflection of our tastes as gamers. We found ourselves and our fellow gamers gravitating towards the easy-to-learn games that you could play a few times in a night rather then the epic games that take hours and hours.

I’m also pretty obsessed with introducing new players to our hobby. I love showing someone who is not a gamer how much fun they can have and how much better games have become since they abandoned them. You can’t do that with a complex, slow, rules-heavy game.

We wanted to make sure our games allowed people to have a great first experience that brings them back for more. That leads to the second reason, which was that in order to grow the business we wanted to create games that become evergreens. The family-friendly market is where all the growth is. RPGs, miniatures games, and wargames have their loyal fans, but we can appeal to both new and experienced gamers with a lot of our titles. This allows us to grow the business and enter new markets with very little resistance.

I imagine, rightly or wrongly, that you guys have notebooks filled with ideas for games. How do you know when you’ve got a Castle Panic hit on your hands, and when to abandon the idea of simulating night-time fishing via dice? How do you actually go about creating a game – talk us through the main steps.

To answer your first comment, yes, many notebooks full of cool ideas! Secondly, knowing when you’ve got a hit is really tricky. I have to trust my guts and go with what excites me the most, since that seems to be working so far!

A lot of times it comes down to playtest feedback. We’ve worked on games that were really mechanically sound, with great components that just weren’t fun to play, so we scrapped them. While there is a lightning-in-a-bottle aspect to a big hit, you will know when a game is just OK and for us, OK isn’t good enough.

As far as the steps in making a game, it’s a long, complex path. For me, it starts with an idea that is original or unique enough to keep me interested. It may be inspired by a theme or mechanics, but usually the two are connected from the beginning. I will make notes and bounce ideas around in my head until I’ve got something that I think is worth prototyping.

From there it’s scraps of paper and placeholder art to try out the basic ideas. If it still seems to be working, I’ll refine the main ideas and rebuild the prototype to start playing it either on my own or with playtesters and friends. The game will evolve as we find the sticking points and work to make it play as smoothly and be as much fun as possible.

Once we’ve got it pretty well nailed down, I’ll start working on the exact specs that we need to get the game printed. We will look at pricing to make sure we can actually afford to make the game, considering things like price point, game length, components, etc.

Around this time I’ll start working with an artist to create all the pieces we need. Playtesting will continue, and when things have settled, we will test the rules for our games. We do this by handing our rules and a playtest copy of the game to a group of players and watching them as they learn how to play. It’s invaluable when it comes to seeing how good your rules are, and it’s also one of the hardest parts of game design. Once we’re comfortable with the rules, we are usually ready for final layout and then sending the files to the printer.

Of course, our job isn’t really over since now it’s time to work on marketing, advertising, safety testing, dealing with the printers, shipping, distribution, and such, but the design part of the game is over, and that’s always a great moment.

Finally, what’s next for Fireside Games? What’s the next big event in your diary, be it a convention you’ve been planning for or a new release?

We have a few shows that are just for retailers coming up, but BGG.CON will be our next big consumer show in November, and we’ll be celebrating that with the release of Engines of War, so we are super excited for that!

 

Interview with a designer is an infrequent series of interviews with tabletop game creators. So far I’ve interviewed Andy Looney of Fluxx creators Looney Labs, the brothers behind Boss Monster creators Brotherwise Games and Jordan Goddard of the Kickstarter-funded deck builder Collapse.

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