Maxwell Alexander Drake on the Genesis of Oblivion Saga, Musicals, and Graphic Novels

In case you missed my brief review of the Genesis of Oblivion Saga, Maxwell Alexander Drake is the author of the six book fantasy series. A Las Vegas resident, he is now a full time writer with several other projects in the works. I have run into him at several conventions over the years and last year attended his Comic Con workshop on writing Heroes and Villains.

Maxwell Alexander Drake’s Fantasy Literature and Gaming Roots

Goddess with Drakon on the cover of Dreams and NightmaresCG: What fantasy did you read growing up and what have you been reading now?
MAD: I read a lot of fantasy. I always have. I grew up with all the classics, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings were all read by me before I was 10. My third series, the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock probably had the most impact on my young mind. It was the first fantasy that I read that really let me see that the sky is the limit when it came to this genre. Then I was off to Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame saga, Conan novels, which is where I fell in love with Robert Jordan and moved on to the Wheel of Time, Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance, George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Fire and Ice, and the list goes on and on.

Recently I have been going back and discovering authors that have been out for a while, but I missed. Brandon Sanderson tops my list of favorite new finds. He is wonderful. Last year I read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series and thoroughly enjoying myself. Unfortunately, my writing profession has begun to get in the way of my reading for pleasure. I have Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, Paolini’s Inheritance, and Sanderson’s The Way of Kings all sitting on my shelf with no real date of when I will crack any of them open.

CG: As a fellow Guardians of the Flame fan, I do see a bit of Pandathaway in Mocley and you have the same sort of long treks that Rosenberg’s characters occasionally make. When I read Alimia, she really reminded me of Tennetty. What are some of your favorite parts of Rosenberg’s stories and your favorite characters of his?
MAD: You know, that series holds a special place in my heart. I absolutely loved that series, and reread it every five years or so. There is so much to like about it. Carl was probably my favorite. I just loved his, “It’s my way or the highway” attitude.

My favorite scene from that is after Carl become Emperor, and he leads a stealth raid on the castle of one of his own Barons who is getting all uppity. That whole scene was wonderfully done.

I never thought about a Pandathaway/Mocley connection―though I see your point. It is hard to describe a massive, Romanesque city and not have it favor Pandathaway though. I will admit to the Tennetty/Alimia connection. One of the things I do in my writing is pay homage to things that really meant something to me throughout my life. Call them Easter Eggs, if you will. There are many sprinkled throughout all my writings. And with Alimia, I doubt I could convince anyone that there was not some of Tennetty in her. But, only a bit. I mean, Tennetty was insane. Her sole motivation was revenge. Alimia just wants to do a good job. It just happens that she is doing a job that is traditionally meant for a man, so it is one she has to work harder at than her male counterpart.

CG: Maxwell Alexander Drake has to be a pen name, right?
MAD: It is a name that seems to be meant for someone born to be a fantasy author, does it not?

Picture of the glasses wearing author Maxwell Alexander Drake

Author Maxwell Alexander Drake

CG: What games did you play with Charlie, Shane, and Jonathan, whom you thank in your acknowledgements/dedication?
MAD: Ha! Those were my elementary/junior high friends that introduced me into the realm of RPGs. Like many geeks of my time, I can’t tell you how many weekend-long gaming events we held throughout the years. For the most part, we played Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. But, we dabbled in most games out during the late 70’s and early 80’s. (Yeah, I am old.) I actually purchased the Monster Manual the day it hit the shelves. I was so excited!
CG: Were you the DM?
MAD: When I started RPGing, no, I did not DM. We actually had a really nice independent gaming shop that had adults who ran the games for us. Most of us were young, like 11 or 12 at the time. Once we got a bit older, and started playing out of one of our houses for the weekend, yes. We would rotate DMing duties.

I moved away for my high school years. I became the main DM for the group I fell into at that point and have pretty much been the DM ever since. It is probably why I love telling stories so much.

CG: What’s your favorite PC class?
MAD: You know, the thing is, I love fantasy. So, I rotated through them all. I have played good and evil, big and small. Each has its special thing that makes it fun. Again, this is probably the reason I love writing stories, because I get to play everybody in the story.

CG: Do any modules or systems stand out in your memory?
MAD: I still own almost every single item TSR made before it was purchased by WotC. I even have every issue of Dragon Magazine sitting in a protective cabinet in my office. So, yea, many stand out. I really loved the classics, the A series “The Slave Pits” was always fun. The G series when you go against the giants was great. I think if I had to pick one from memory, it would be S1 The Tomb of Horrors. It was just a wonderful mind teaser throughout the entire module.

CG: Have there ever been any games set in Mocley or Ro’Arith?
MAD: Yes and no. No, because this story is a story, not a campaign or a quest from a game. But, I DMed for a long time. And during that time, I came up with many ideas. I will admit that a few of the ideas I had in past years did make at least a small appearance in this series.
CG: An example being?
MAD: Well, I hate to admit it, because I did not flesh them out in either books 1 or 2, but the O’Arkins are actually a throw back to something I created elsewhere. Now, that being said, I have already started fleshing them out for book 4, and they have taken a totally different direction than what they were in the RPG I was using them in.

Still, I try and create unique races and stuff for my books, and there has been a few fans accuse me of having Orcs, and just calling them O’Arkins. And, unfortunately, that is just a dig I have to take. Because, it is not that far off.

CG: How much do you think of things in your books in terms of game mechanics?
MAD: None at all. I think if I did that, I would limit where things could go, and how I would describe them.

Take the Essence, as an example. I have a game designer who is a fan of mine. He loves the Essence. But, we got to talking about how this series would become a game and he commented that the hardest part would be the magic. He said that while the way I describe magic in the series is awesome, he has no idea how to put game mechanics to it. I am sure it can be done, but whoever does it would need to take some liberties away from how I describe it.

CG: What is the “Way of the Lion” about?
MAD: While creating the characters for my stories, I write a ton of back-story. This information, while important to me, as it tells me where the characters are going and how they will react once they get there, is not something that needs to be in the novels. It has nothing to do with the main story, so it really has no place. But, some of my fans want to delve deeper into these characters. Learn more about them. So, as I have time, I polish this stuff up and release it as short stories. The Way of the Lion is the back-story to Clytus Rillion. It takes place about 20 years before the first book. Clytus is just 18, and still in Silaway. It is the story about how he met his best friend and leftenant Ragnor De’haln. It also gives just a hint of who Shaith Ku’rin is, and of the connection she has to Ragnor that you learn about in book 3, Dreams & Nightmares.

I have also released another short called “The Path of Rebirth” which is the back-story to the gray skinned assassin Elith from book 2. At Gen Con this year, a third short, “The Path of Death” will be released in the Dragonroots Magazine anthology for that event.

Musicals and Graphic Novels: Kaboom!, Do Zombies Dream of Electric Sheep? and Downfall

CG: What about your other projects like the zombie Western or the cyberpunk one? Is there any artwork, titles or release dates?
MAD:I have a lot of side projects now. Some are moving forward, some are on hold, some may never see the light of day.

On the comic front, the Zombie Western Dead Ned was put on hold for various reasons, but has recently been revived. Hopefully this will be out late this year if things hold true. I do not have a release schedule on this as of yet.

Traveler surveys post-apocalyptic wasteland on first page of Downfall comic

Page 1 of Downfall by Maxwell Alexander Drake and Jason Engle

But, the project I am doing with the artist Jason Engle (Magic the Gathering, Legend of the Five Rings, Game of Thrones, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) called Downfall, is in full gear. This is set in a post-apocalyptic world. The 10-page promo for this is being released at this year’s Comic Con San Diego and the website should be up and running in May. Downfall already has a production schedule. We are doing a 30-page comic every quarter, with a 120 graphic novel being released each year at Comic Con. After its release, this will be available at all the usual outlets from comic book shops to Barnes & Noble.

I have three musicals I am currently working on. One, Kaboom! The end of life on Earth… a comedy, I am just an additional writer for. I was brought in to beef up the comedy elements. It is in the funding stages now, but it should be playing in Las Vegas by year’s end.

The second, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep, I am currently writing. The composer of this project is David Warrack, most famous for Rob Roy. Zombies will not be out until mid to late 2013, and will most likely open in Toronto, Canada.

The third musical I can’t say much about as we are in the contract phase now. I will say it is the biggest project I have ever been involved in. How is that for cryptic?

I have a few side novel projects, but their release dates are still a ways out, so I will not bore you with the details.

Panel layout of the Downfall comic showing traveler by fire in post apocalyptic setting

More Downfall: CLICK for Larger Version

GMing the Hero’s Journey and Dramatic Tension

CG: Do you think the hero’s journey is suitable for a tabletop game? How could it be achieved? Should a GM tell his player(s) that there’ll be a call to action and so on?
MAD: I am a firm believer in the hero’s journey. Not because you have to follow all the steps, but because I think most stories follow them naturally. No, a GM should not say, “O.K., here is your call to action.” But, when the players hear that blood curdling scream, and run to investigate and end up fighting a dragon to save some hapless princess (no, I am not trying to be original here) which then leads them off on some epic quest (most probably for either a gem or a sword), that is a classic “call to action.” The reason why the Hero’s Journey works is because it is a natural progression of storytelling.

CG: One of the earlier tense moments in Farmers & Mercenaries involves a wagon getting knocked into a river. It seemed that that wagon may have a stowaway and that we as readers should be on the edges of our seats about his fate. To what extent do you think a GM could have such narrative tension?
MAD: I think this is doable for a GM, and I pulled it off many times when I ran my little adventures. This may not be the most popular thing for the players, but I like to split up my parties from time to time―not often, as this will just irritate the players. Make one group go off into another room, and just deal with a small group, or single player. This allows you to tell them what they “see” without telling them what the other character(s) see. With this, you can really play one group off the other. You just need to make sure the other room has something entertaining. I find a PS3 hooked up to a 70” screen works well.
CG: Is that just an example or have you been running some RPGs recently?
MAD: I was running a game a few years ago, but several of the players moved away about the same time my career took off. So, I am not playing anything currently. But, boy do I miss it. I know this has been said by many an adult RPGer, but when things in my life settle down a bit, I will be back to playing something.

CG: Both of the first two books feature an expedition. Has that been your playing experience? I’ve set out on plenty of adventures and made journeys, but never had a base camp per se.
MAD: Again, when I am writing, I am not thinking on the lines of RPGs, so I think differently. As a gamer, I can’t think of any time when we had a base camp to leave and return to. But it does make sense and it is why they are used in real expeditions. So, it fits well in the novel. But, I am not sure a player would appreciate the extra work of maintaining a base camp. I mean, what player ever really likes to have extra work?

More on Developing the Genesis of Oblivion

CG: While there are Drakons, the Niyoka, O’Arkins, lizardmen, and Sareeza, there is little mention in the first two books of any organized dangers or menaces. Are the homestead guarders and Mocley’s guards only defending against the odd thief or krougar attack? How much thought did you give to the absence of dangerous political entities like rival kingdoms and so on?
MAD: This is a question that I am going to avoid until after the release of book three, Dreams & Nightmares, in a few months. A better question for those who have read the first two books would be to ask, “Hmm, in this world the writer has created, you find all sorts of walled cities, but there really is no major threat from monsters or other armies. You have individual “city states” but not an established “kingdom” that is trying to expand its power over its neighbors. How would a fantasy world evolve into this state of being? Why do things seem relatively peaceful, yet there are defenses like this was one big war-torn world not too awful long ago?” It is a subtle thing, but it is something you may want to ponder as you wait on the release of book 3.

CG: If you had to be Alant or Arderi, which would you be and why?
MAD: I love the juxtaposition of the brothers Cor. One is serious, the other jovial. One is pissed, the other is just trying to get by without working too hard. One feels the weight of the world pressing ever harder down upon his young shoulders, the other is reveling in his abilities.

I know where this story is going, and I have to say, it is not going to be pleasant for either. So, I am not sure I want to be either.

If you did not gather from my answer to your last question, nothing in this story is exactly as it appears. And I hope to keep it that way right up to the bitter end. I will admit now that the first two books are pretty much just a pack of lies. But, most readers start to get that by the end of book 2, Mortals & Deities. In book 3, Dreams & Nightmares, I open the book up by revealing a ton of stuff that I have held close to the vest for a while now. I actually write in the villain’s perspective for the first time. One of my beta readers even accused me of revealing too much. Then she started delving into book 4 and realized that even though a lot was revealed in book 3, it was just the tip of the iceberg for what is coming.

As I said, I plan on keeping this pace through all 6 books. I want my readers to feel comfortable in the fact that they know what is about to happen, then have to reread it because it did not go the way they expected. So far, it has been either little things, or more subtle clues like the fact that you have walled cities everywhere, but nothing they are protecting against. But starting with book 3, I start getting less and less subtle with the fact that Kansas is going bye-bye.

All images included in this interview are copyright Maxwell Alexander Drake and used with permission.

The Genesis of Oblivion Saga: Famers and Mercenaries and Deities and Mortals

Craven Games will probably not review too much fantasy fiction in the future (unless it relates to gaming), but at the same time, I do want to bring attention to a great Las Vegas Valley writer, Maxwell Alexander Drake. If you’re saying “Who?”, then read on, this review and overview is for you. My interview with him will be posted shortly.

Cover depicting a savage Kith cat person for Farmers and Mercenaries

Image courtesy Imagined Interprises

Nix is no, morns are mornings, eves are evenings, drakons are dragons, aurns are hours, Southron is Southern and on it goes. Add in a couple dozen apostrophized words like Chand’lean, Hild’alan, and Hath’oolan and the opening chapters of Famers & Mercenaries can be hard going. Author Maxwell Alexander Drake front-loads the first book in his Genesis of Oblivion Saga with strange terms. Once I made it through the first several chapters though, I found myself quite immersed in his riveting story.

What makes Farmers and Mercenaries so immersive is that instead of a single stranger in a strange land with whom the reader might identify, Drake provides three. There is the farm boy Arderi Cor who finds himself plunged into adventure, his older brother Alant Cor visiting the mysterious island of Elmoreth for the first time, and the Kith slave Klain, who is thrust into a life as a gladiator and is the cat person depicted on the cover. All three of these characters also bristle with unrecognized power and potential, which is very appealing to both adolescent males and ones in their thirties. There is only one voice of experience, Clytus Rillion, the Obi Wan Kenobi of the Farmers and Mercenaries heroic journey. Joseph Campbell’s theory weighs heavily on Drake’s writing, to good effect.

As a writer Drake is strongest in the page-turning elements of plot. His storytelling goes beyond foreshadowing, encouraging the reader to make predictions and then usually fulfilling them. The reader can appreciate small dramatic ironies throughout Drake’s series of books, which switch back and forth from character’s perspectives. Drake’s characterization and sense of voice for the characters is another strength. There are regional accents and certain characters leap off the page. Like many young adult authors he uses a good deal of repetition to firmly establish his characters and setting. Forgetting who a particular character is or what one of the protagonists is trying to achieve is almost impossible as a consequence. On the other hand, I never found myself marveling over any turn of phrases or enjoying any succinct passages in his books; Drake stays away from poetic prose and writes very directly. There are no undertones of Tolkien in his work.

Cover depicts cat person Kith, assassin around glowing goddess on Mortals and Deities cover

Image courtesy Imagined Interprises

Also absent are any elves, dwarves, and many other fantasy stereotypes. His continents are populated mostly by humans, either of the Ro’Arith variety or the dark-skinned natives of Sulaway. In the first two books, there are also O’Arkians, brutal mountainous orcs of some variety, the afore-mentioned Kithian cat people, and the skinny large headed Elmorethians, masters of the Essence. The Essence is magic, to be sure, but there are no wizards or warlocks wandering about in Drake’s world. Shapers of the Essence can enhance objects with strength magically and also mend broken objects, including flesh and bone. The mysterious and deadly Elith, a female character introduced in the second book Mortals and Deities, is a member of a fourth Essence-based race. As for deities, they are worshipped in Temples of the Twelve. Drake is intriguingly vague about the gods, but they are an important aspect of his saga.

Interestingly enough, politics are also left out of the first two books though in his interview with Craven Games, there are hints that this will not always be the case. This is not Songs of Fire and Ice, nor almost any other fantasy series for that matter. There are princes and princesses, but the nations they represent are ill-defined and unimportant thus far in the saga. Instead the battles are oftentimes of a more academically magical and interpersonal nature, though the books definitely have fights. Without spoiling anything, despite the presence of the healing Shapers, Drake’s combats get fatal fast. Several events in both books had me marveling over the rapid plot developments and exclaiming to my wife about what had just happened.

The quality of Drake’s writing and plots is consistently good through both books. Fans of Farmers and Mercenaries will not be let down by Mortals and Deities. In fact, the second book alleviates some of the narrative tension that Drake creates in Farmers and Mercenaries, while creating many new conflicts. Both books end with strong hooks, leaving the reader longing for more, and leaving no doubt that each book is only a small fragment of the larger saga. The thrilling saga picks up again in several months with Dreams and Nightmares.

GTS: Effective Marketing and Social Networking

I will be wrapping up my GAMA Trade Show coverage very shortly, having milked my attendance of nearly everything I experienced at the GTS. Here are two other seminars I attended with some advice that potential game designers or game store owners could make use of.

Creating Effective Marketing Programs

Mike Webb, VP of Marketing and Customer Service for Alliance Game Distributors, the largest game distributor in North America, gave an introduction to marketing for manufactuers in his seminar called Creating Effective Marketing Programs.

Two key points that Webb made are that good marketing is deliberate and that good marketing is ongoing. Retailers have complained to him that many manufacturers’ products go unsupported in their stores. There may be product support during the solicitation phase, but once the product is on shelves, the manufacturer ceases support. This is unfortunate because Webb described most retailers as having “absolute passion for the games”, passion that manufactuers should be tapping into.

Webb suggests manufactuers set aside some units of their games purposefully for promotional use, as demo and review copies. He also believes that there will be a shift in the paradigm of game marketing as happened with Dominion and deck-building games. He anticipates that in the next 5 years, there will be 2 or 3 new concepts or big ideas in gaming, but that only one will probably last.

Two resources he suggested were Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy” and for their guerilla tip of the day.

Michael Stackpole on Social Networking

Author Michael Stackpole smiling at the GAMA Trade Show.

Gaming Guru Mike Stackpole

Michael Stackpole addressed his seminar towards the needs of retailers, but game manufacturers and others (myself included) can apply his advice. The author of a large number of Star Wars and Battletech novels, Stackpole was also a developer of the hugely influential Wasteland video game, among many other games he developed. As he mentioned at the Online Retailing debate he also used to manage a Flying Buffalo game store in Arizona when the company still ran one, so he has experience in retailing.

Stackpole suggests breaking the customer base into constituencies, such as Yu-Gi-Oh players, hex grid wargamers, and role players. Efforts should be based on these constituencies and specifically target them, so a Magic player isn’t neccessarily receiving a Warmachines store update.

Customers’ Unmet Needs

Stackpole identified three unmet needs in most stores:

  1. Information: store owners usually possess a good deal of insider information that they can dole out in their tweets, Facebook updates, or emails.
  2. Validation: gamers want to know that they’ve been noticed, says Stackpole, take a picture of the top 3 winners of your tournament. They feel validated and their opponent who couldn’t make the event has even more reason to show up next time to displace them.
  3. Scheduled interactions: Retailers can use social networking to schedule interactions with their players. Stackpole gave the example of a store tweeting “UPS just arrived with 24 copies of the new game, 12 are spoken for, the other dozen are available to whoever gets here first.”

Social Networking Tools

Having identified those needs, Stackpole briefly covered a number of tools to help store owners take advantage of the internet:

  1. Store owners should own their own website and have their own domain name. There was a very archaic discussion about .coms from the attendees at this point, which I did find slightly amusing.
  2. Stackpole next suggested getting a Twitter account, calling it a “painless way to service your constituencies”.
    1. Part of Tweeting is deciding what your store’s presentation is going to be online. Stackpole used Steve Jackson Games twitter feed as an example, as each one of their tweets is initialled by the employee. Only allow access to those people you trust, Stackpole warned, because you don’t want anything done in bad taste reflecting on your company.
    2. Another point about the overall branding on the internet Stackpole made is that your online persona is not neccessarily you, that store owners might take on the role of facilitator, of being the butler or valet, offering friendly advice and service. For example, a store called Giant’s Games might have Gromphus the Giant inviting puny customers to try the newest offerings from Fantasy Flight this coming Saturday. While this is my shoddy example, Stackpole advised that once your online persona’s character has been constructed, to always stay in character with your tweets or posts. Customers will begin to expect whatever identity you’ve created.
  3. A Facebook page. Stores should consider creating a Facebook page to keep track of their customer constituencies and make it easier for their customers to get the validation they want and to supply them with information. Store owners in turn can “friendmine” those who like them on Facebook for any other customers they recognize, but store owners should do so cautiously, with no more than a dozen a day.

Email Services: Mail Chimp and Constant Contact

The combination of a store website, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page seemed to be the basics. With some contributions from other attendees, Stackpole also pointed out some other websites or technologies that retailers could use including Mail Chimp for creating and managing email lists with the first 2000 email addresses free. Constant Contact is a competing paid service that also came up. In my experience, I receive weekly or semi-weekly emails from Las Vegas’s dedicated game store Little Shop of Magic, one from Battlezone Comics, and another from Comic Oasis. Depending on their subject lines and what I initially see, I may or may not actually read them, but it does remind me of new products and the stores’ continued existences. Comic Oasis uses Constant Contact with store management typically spending 25-30 minutes each week preparing their weekly mailing. For store owner Derrick Taylor, Constant Contact is another tool to reach customers. Some of his customers “totally rely on it” for their comic and gaming information. He cited Constant Contact’s Facebook and Point of Sales integration, as well as its “pretty reasonable” price, as reasons that Comic Oasis uses the software.

Google Places and Four Square

Kickstarter was mentioned again as a possible means for store owners to interact with their customer base, but I will be going into greater detail about the Kickstarter craze at the GAMA Trade Show in a separate, more detailed post. Google Places was another service mentioned. Basically when someone does a Google search for “game store”, a store owner should like to see a red teardrop come up next to the store name. This is a Google Place and is a means of attracting new customers and advertising a store’s existence. Store owners can get placed on Google Places easily and automatically by putting their business on Yelp or Citysearch. Another website retailers should look into is Four Square. People check in using their mobile phones at a game store, possibly for a tournament, and all of their friends can see what they are doing (and might be more likely to come themselves). Store owners can put coupons on Four Square and reward their customers for broadcasting their presence. I am more familiar with this as a guerilla means of advertising eating at a restaurant, but the concept should be easily applied to a game store.

More Specific Tools

A QR code for a smart phone with the Craven Games logo inside it.More and more attendees shared more specific tools at the end of the Social Networking seminar. QR Codes, which had an entire seminar the day or two before the Social Networking seminar, were brought up. Store owners can place the QR code, which is a more advanced barcode scanned by smart phones, on a handout advertising an upcoming tournament, sending customers with QR-enabled devices directly to the tournament’s page.’s QR code generator, found at, lets a company place their logo in the code, as I have done to the right. Tweepi for Twitter was suggested as a way of managing Twitter followers and gremln (previously twaitter) allows for the scheduling of tweets ahead of time. Stackpole advised those using WordPress to post something regularly. His is an example of a WordPress site. This site,, is another. WordPress users can schedule posts for times when they will be away on vacation or out of the office. The plugins akismet for comment anti-spamming and WPTouch to format WordPress blogs for mobile devices were also suggested. A final suggestion that I implemented soon after the GTS was using for website hosting. I had noticed that seemed to hang on loading from GoDaddy, my previous webhost. Now on hostgator it loads much quicker, as I would expect it to. I also created a Twitter account, not surprisingly #CravenGames, but I have yet to really utilize it. The 140 character limit is kind of antithetical to Craven Games and in-depth information.

A Few Further Points on Social Networking

“You’ll have a friend in a fit of pique who will unfriend you and this is supposed to crush you.”

There was also a light discussion on the realities of social networking. One attendee pointed out that store owners should ask for permission before posting pictures on their websites or Facebook pages (or even tagging players at tournaments) because they might be “closet gamers”. I had never thought of myself as in the closet before, but I did appreciate what he was suggesting. I have my own unflattering unsolicited pictures on several websites. Another thing that Mike Stackpole mentioned that really stood out to me and amused me was when he said of social networking, “You’ll have a friend in a fit of pique who will unfriend you and this is supposed to crush you.” All in all, the seminar was a very informative overview of the basics of social networking. Perhaps there will be a 201 seminar at next year’s GAMA Trade Show.

Crystal Caste Fantasy Medieval Inn

The front of the prepainted fantasy inn for 25mm scale miniaturesMuch like the Crystal Caste Farmhouse Series, the Crystal Caste Medieval/Fantasy Inn #40001 comes prepainted on the outside, has hinged opening and closing doors, removable roofs, and is felt lined on the bottom so as to not scratch your gaming surface. Unlike the Farmhouse series though, not all of the inn’s doors are openable. The green doors on the second story are facades and do not open.

The inn is richly detailed on its exterior with its own small well supplying it with water. The inn has seen its share of use and abuse over the years with a battered roof repaired with spare shingles, boards, and thatching. Around the exterior are more rocks and bits of debris. The inn is well painted except for the side of one of the gates, which was bare of paint on my model. The interior is also not detailed and is a flat matte black.

A view from above of the weathered and worn miniature fantasy inn.The fantasy inn is perfect for gamers who play RPGs or war games using 20-25 mm bases, particularly for skirmish games where figures can make full use of the exterior walkway. The walkways though don’t allow figures on 30mm bases to be placed on on them except at the corners, so using the Crystal Caste Inn for Hordes, Warmachine, or Malifaux would be quite restricted, much less the plastic line of Confrontation.

The Fantasy/Medieval Inn retails for $98 with is footprint measuring roughly 9.5 inches x 7 inches. The wooden walkway’s supports do extend the size it takes up on the table to an area of 9.5 inches x 10.5 inches. The walkways are about 2.5 inches from the table. Vertically it reaches a little under 6.5 inches to the chimneys and the vertex of the roof. Even from the same manufacturer, I think most gamers would be better off getting a Farmhouse Cottage and Farmhouse Stable for $85, but that is ignoring the design of the inn.

The only real flaws I have found in the Inn are the non-opening doors on the second floor, the lack of paint on the side of one gate, and its price, but its price and quality is comparable to other prepainted terrain manufacturers, if not superior. Another “flaw” that may irk some GMs is how tempted players will be to play with it during an adventuring session if used for an RPG. The inn is also towards the end of its production run, but you can still get yours from Crystal Caste.

Arel and Ro-El Cordero Talk Yards: The Game of Inches at the GAMA Trade Show

I am not a football fan by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoyed going to Cal games when I lived in Berkeley. I also enjoyed playing Yards: The Game of Inches at the GAMA Trade Show after meeting brothers Arel and Ro-El Cordero. Arel got his PhD at UC Berkeley, while Ro-el went to arch-rival (and inferior) Stanford for his undergrad. I very much enjoyed trouncing Ro-el the evening after the interview in his first miniature war game ever, Dark Age. We also all played Jabba Dabba Du from Sirius Games that night, but the Bay Area residents had a lot to say about their own game, Yards. They had to actually tell me that football is referred to as “the game of inches”, because I was puzzled by the fact that their prototype board wasn’t based on inches. The game is played on a gridded board with formation cards with 8 wooden pieces a side. Each turn the player can always move a playing piece one square OR make use of the game-changing formation cards to move one or more player pieces multiple squares. There aren’t really any downs per se, but possession changes when the ball carrier is tackled. Unlike actual football, the winner of the game is the first to score a touchdown, field goal, or safety. Craven Games will be following the Corderos’ progress on Yards as they turn their game design into reality.

Overview of Yards and Its Creation, Response to Yards

Cover image of football board game Yards

Yards box art courtesy Arel Cordero

CG: So I’m here with Arel and Ro-el Cordero, two brothers with their game Yards: The Game of Inches. We just played a demo of the game, it probably took about an hour, is that usual?
Ro-el: It was a little long, but we also had a lot of chit-chatting and-
Arel: Yeah, the game is so designed so that it should be around half an hour once you know the rules.
CG: Sometimes half an hour, but you guys have also played for half a day?
Arel: That was before we introduced the field goal mechanic. That was partly the reason-, in fact, the only reason that we introduced that mechanic was to make the game end.
Ro-el: Yeah, there was that one day that we played on and off for the entire day.
Arell: Yeah.

CG: What was the genesis of the game?
Arel: So I actually had the idea for the mechanic sort of spontaneously on a flight, the idea of using patterns on a grid. Ro-el and I had been, before that, playing a bunch of games like Stratego was one that we’ve always played together over the holidays. I liked the idea of a grid. I wanted a sports analogy. I’d been thinking of like maybe hockey or something else, soccer, and I had some ideas for a mechanic, but nothing really seemed to work, and then it just kind of came to me to do this and I went through lots of iterations.
CG: And how do you as brothers split the design or duties or what you’ve done with it, as far as the game goes?
Arel: It’s been very organic. It’s basically been a labor of love. I was doing this through graduate school and trying to graduate at the same time, so over the years, we’ve basically played a lot together and that’s how it has been evolving is through playtesting and playing it with other people.

CG: So part of the reason you’ve come to the GAMA Trade Show is to solicit interest in it or see what options are available to you, right?
Ro-el: Yeah, I think to solicit interest, but also really since we’re-, we just kind of came out to Orccon a few weeks ago and that’s when we first got exposure to people and started hearing about, you know, what the process is to get the game manufactured and published and distributed and in stores and retail, so we really, on the other side, came here to get information, to learn, to meet distributors, to talk to other game manufacturers, and find out, you know, how did they go through the process, and also to look for retailers and see what their reaction’s going to be like, whether they think it’s something that they would want to carry, so we can start kind of planning.
CG: What has the response been to the game in general?
Ro-el: So far the response, in terms of game play has been very good. I know at Orccon we got a lot of really good feedback, a lot of positive comments and liking it, and then, obviously it was a very strategy-heavy crowd, definitely a gamer crowd. We got a lot of very nice, very fine-tuned suggestions, but on the whole, I think I was pleasantly surprised at the feedback we were getting were all small variations or additions or things we could do as an expansion, but everyone kind of seemed to be pretty positive on just how the pace of the game, the kind of asbtractness of it. We got some people who didn’t like football who played the game and liked it, said that it didn’t have to be so footballish. And we got some people who were more into the football and not so much into the game who happened to walk by who also said, you know, well you know, “I can like this”.
Arel: It’s abstract enough that it can hopefully appeal to people just on the gameplay.

The GAMA Trade Show for New Game Designers

CG: You guys now are Contributing Members to GAMA, to the organization, so how did you guys make that decision that you thought that GAMA was going to be worth it? Did someone recommend GAMA?
Arel: Actually, yeah, someone did recommend it. We were at the Strategicon event-
CG: Just weeks ago?
Arel: Just a few weeks ago, yeah, and this was our-, my first game con and also the first time showing Yards to an event like that, in the public. We’d shown it to game testers, but not really the public. But there I met up with other designers, other people in the industry, who really gave us a ton of really good feedback and spent the time with us and GAMA was one of the things that we were strongly recommended to attend, just because it’s so informative, a lot of great people here.
CG: So you guys have found it to be informative then?
Both:: Yeah.
Arel: Absolutely.
Ro-el: It’s been a good contrast, I think, to Orccon, where Orccon was players, right? Really people who would be playing and buying the game for themselves, consumers, which was really good for us to get to play, the playtesting people, that kind of feedback, whereas here, it’s really more about going to the workshops and learning about the business side of the process and kind of end to end, how do you get your games into the hands those consumers that we were playing with at Orccon.
CG: Has there been a particular seminar so far that’s been valuable to you guys?
Ro-el: Yeah… The intellectual property one was very…
CG: With, I think, Greg Silberman.
Ro-el: Yes! Yeah, that was really interesting.
CG: Are you more inclined now to possibly look for a patent? Is that what seemed applicable to you guys?
Arel: Like it really depends. We’ll talk it over on the specifics. I mean, actually one of us, it’s an investment that you have to weigh out to see whether it’s worth it. We’ll have to talk it over.
CG: On the other hand, you summarized the game as what? Grid movement?
Arel: Yeah.
CG: So it’s grid movement. Is that something that you can really protect?
Arel: Depends, yeah. The feedback I think I’ve gotten the most of, which I’m kind of glad for, is that there is a novelty to the game, the mechanic, I think it appears to some extent in a few other games, but the use of these patterns, and the ability to chain and rotate them, is kind of a novelty.

More Game Design Aspects to Yards

Overhead image of Yards game board, wooden pieces, and game cards

Yards board and card images courtesy Arel Cordero

CG: What do you guys think of as a price point for the game?
Ro-el: Well, we’ve been kind of thinking somewhere like in the 25ish.
Arel: Yeah, 20 ideally, and depending on the cost of manufacturing, 25 that would be the ballpark, that we’d want to aim for.
CG: Which seems reasonable.
Ro-el: Yeah.
CG: It’s very generic, it’s not themed.
Ro-el: Yeah, there aren’t so many pieces that it’d make sense to charge 80 bucks or something for it. There’s kind of enough to it that 5 or 10 dollars would be invested to manufacture it.
CG: Who did you guys turn to for prototyping?
Both:: Oh, we did!
Arel: We did the prototyping actually.
CG: Even these? [The playing cards, I think]
Ro-el: We bought the wooden pieces online and painted them ourselves.
CG: Ok. What about the boards?
Arel: We made them ourselves.
Ro-el: Yeah, we basically cut the board, got the board at an art store, cut it, taped it ourselves, printed it.
CG: So the artwork right now, is this just clip art, or is this-
Arel: No, no, I commisioned art. I have a license for the artwork, but, yeah, this was-, I have the rest of the box art as well. That’s … I’m happy with.
CG: Have you guys started thinking of what age will your suggested age range?
Arel: So we’ve labeled it for 10 and up, in terms of game play. One thing that we learned here is like we’ll have to consider other types-, like choking hazards, et cetera, to decide what the actual age.
CG: They pointed that out?
Ro-el: Yeah, two people. Someone else came up a few minutes ago while you were playtesting. You have to put basically 13 up, otherwise you have to go through an extra set of testing that can be a couple more thousand dollars potentially. So it’s possible right now, we have it 10 up, it’s possible we might actually print it with a different age.
Arel: Or have bigger pieces.
Ro-el: Yeah, or have bigger pieces, yeah.
CG: I also imagine that one of the distributors or at least a publishing company, they could make that decision, for you guys.
Ro-el: Yeah.
CG: So at this point, you’re not thinking of manufacturing, distributing by yourselves, right? You are looking for someone to partner with?
Both:: Yeah.
Ro-el: It seems to be what we’re looking for, it seems that the most direct path to consumers is really to find a distributor who has access to al lot of different places, or several distributors.
Arel: Plus these prototypes take a ridiculously long time to make. In terms of cutting the cards, and painting the pieces, which could be expedited, but we’d really like to partner with someone to be the manufacturer.

More About the GAMA Trade Show

CG: At this point it’s still Tuesday night at the show, so is there anything else that you’re looking forward to at the GAMA Trade Show 2012?
Ro-el: Yeah, there’s a Domestic Manufacturing talk, I think, tomorrow. I forget what the title of it is.
Arel: 101 and 102.
CG: I think you’ll get 102, because I went to 101.
Ro-el: Yeah, it sounds like they switched it, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s actually where we met [laughs].
CG: You will get, there’s also international on Thursday maybe.
Arel: So that’s one thing we’re really looking forward to.
Ro-el: Yeah. So I think the next step for us really, I think, is once we kind of can figure out what it’s going to cost, we’re probably looking at doing something either with Kickstarter or, at least if we know how much it’s going to cost, then we know how much we need to invest in it, if we’re going to do it ourselves or get it Kickstarted, give us more or a better idea of what we need to aim for in terms of raising money.
Arel: And also for me, the expo, I’m really looking forward to see.
CG: The exhibitors’ hall? And then which one of you usually wins? [Both: laugh]
Ro-el: We could flip a coin and answer that, I think.
Arel: We could determine that in a tournament. I think it goes back and forth a lot, which is my way of saying that he has been winning lately. No, I sometimes win.
CG: I don’t know if you guys have heard this, but besides maybe a lot of buzz about Kickstarter, in a lot of different seminars we’ve been to, there’s also a lot of talk about Organized Play, so it sounds like you’re almost-, you mentioned tournaments, is that something you’re already thinking of, like this would help the game?
Ro-el: Yeah.
Arel: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one thing I want to find out more about, how people are organizing Organized Play here, but it’s a football game, so I think it really lends itself well to tournaments, because those already exist in many different forms in football. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time to be able to have a tournament and actually be able to compete with other people. I might be at an unfair advantage having created it, but I still would want to participate.
Ro-el: Something that I think we’ve thought about and we’ve actually done this at a smaller level, is taking it and playing it at bars. It’d be great to have it at a game night at a bar, a local bar, and bring 10 copies, and have a little mini-tournament there or just have people play.
Arel: It’s a good game for beer. Two people over a beer, that kind of thing, I think. Actually the first time it was playtested by two other people was at a bar and it was a lot of fun to watch, because people were kind of crowding around and it was kind of like watching a game.
CG: It’s also a good game where maybe your opponent’s drunk, you can maybe take advantage of that.
Arel: That’s actually one of the benefits, yeah.
Ro-el: Or you could take a shot every time you get tackled, there’s also that potential.
CG: Well, I’m going to leave that in, but I think you will probably leave that out of the game rules. Thank you guys.
Arel: Thank you very much.

WotC Magic: the Gathering – Make the Best of Your Magic Events

“Magic has never been such a strong brand.”

Helene Bergeot from Wizards of the Coast addressed retailers at the 2012 GAMA Trade Show. Her background is in trademarketing and she is Director of Organized Play for Magic: The Gathering and her talk was titled “Moving from Good to Great”. According to Bergeot there were more than 130,000 players for the pre-release for Dark Ascension and “Magic has never been such a strong brand”. The reason, according to Wizards of the Coast, is that Activity drives Activity. WotC has found that the best stores are the ones running the most events. “The size of the event doesn’t matter,” instead, according to Bergeot, the frequency and number of events is what counts. In stores where Magic is highly successful, on average no more than 24-36 players are playing in tournaments or release events.

The response from most retailers was glowing. One retailer crowed that his February sales were big, like his “second-best Christmas”.

Wizards of the Coast to Retailers: “We are here to support you.”

Getting new players to events and engaged in them, Bergeot emphasized, is necessary in order “to grow the community.” Wizards has found that players new to OP balk at participating in their first organized play event. Even their second exposure to OP is no guarantee that they will continue, but after their second time doing organized play, Wizards has seen its “level of retention” among players remain very steady. Twice a year, WotC conducts surveys and spends hours and hours going over them to improve customers’ experiences and their retailers’ sales. Helene affirmed to the attending retailers “We are here to support you.”

A Canadian retailier pointed out that “a lot of gamers have no life” and takes advantage of that by giving them one in his store. He does sealed $25 events and “it just packs the house,” getting 82 players with his last sealed event. For Valentine’s Day he had a special event with girls playing free and wound up getting 22 female players, 15 of them in the store for their first time. Trevor McGregor from the Gaming Pit shared his store’s Full Moon events on the full moon of each month. The special event provides a bonus for including a Werewolf card in the decks, which could be an extra booster pack of cards or whatever the door prize is for that particular night.

I was intrigued when I learned that one of the background images during Bergeot’s presentation was a chandelier made out of Magic: the Gathering cards. Most, if not all, of her background images were taken at Card Kingdom in Seattle. This Magic chandelier was designed by Stacy Lewars from Studio Metro Design. Card Kingdom seems to have a very cozy environment to play in.

Magic: the Gathering lands are strung together to form a chandelier of cards

Magic Chandelier in Card Kingdom in Seattle, image courtesy Card Kingdom.

Magic Supply Easily Tapped and Problem Players

The seminar flowed into supply issues that retailers expressed with obtaining enough Magic cards to meet their customers’ demands. The Canadian retailers present either were particularly vocal or have increased difficulties in obtaining enough product. Wizards will be eventually placing a cap on the total that a retailer can order, but it will be a year before they implement this cap, which prompted some retailer complaints about the cap’s existence at all. A very popular product seems to be the Magic “fat packs” which Wizards only intends to be on shelves for a maximum of 30 days; instead some retailers pointed out that they go through them in “2 days!”

The next sub-topic was another problem faced by retailers, over-enfranchised players who scare off new players and create bad play environments in stores. One attendee pointed out Wizkids’s Fellowship award as a positive step WotC could take to curb problem players. Trevor McGregor again spoke up, saying that store owners or managers “have to be honest and upfront with” the players creating the bad environment. Another attendee uses a token system in his or her store to correct player behavior, which sounded more like elementary school behavior management, but it works according to that retailer. More and more retailers chimed in. A Canadian store owner has called the police on one of his Magic players before which sent a strong message to the rest of his players about how seriously he takes player conduct. This elicited laughs from the room. Another retailer explained that when he confronted a bad sport in his shop, the player said “This is all I’m good at” as to why he enjoyed crushing his opponents so much.

The seminar returned to Helene Bergeot’s presentation where she reviewed FNM, Friday Night Magic, and there were suggestions for events store owners could hold, such as deck building workshops or conduct trading forums. Wizards will be having an improved store locator on their website available in the next few months allowing players to do advanced searches for specific event formats. Wizards will be looking into rotating stores for the Pro Tour Qualifiers. As the seminar wrapped up, a retailer complained that he doesn’t have enough DCI cards for new players with several others agreeing. There is particularly a difficulty in the turnaround on cards for players younger than 13.