Todd A. Breitenstein is the designer of Zombies!!! and one half of Twilight Creations. He and his wife Kerry were manning their booth at Comic-Con 2012 and he took the time to answer some questions about the Zombies!!! line of games and The Current Number of the Beast which Kerry Breitenstein designed.
New Products for Comic-Con and Twilight Creations’ Sales
CG: So, Todd Breitenstein, creator of Zombies!!!, what are your new products here?
TB:: New for Comic-Con this year since last year we have Little Dead Riding Hood. That came out last October at Spiel and Zombie Survival 2 came out at the beginning of the year. It’s obviously an expansion for our game Zombie Survival. It adds outside obstacles and that sort of thing to the inside obstacles that go along with the game. Humans 3 just came out about a month ago. It’s very cool because it’s actually set in a gaming convention loosely based on Gen Con. It has elements of all the conventions that we do. It’s a lot of fun and increases the Personality cards so when you run into a Human in the game, you have to draw one of these cards and it tells you what kind of human it is and they’re all based on gamer stereotypes, so it’s rather humorous. Also we have Go Goblin Go! which came out the same time as Humans 3. It’s a goblin racing game, it’s kind of a racing/gambling game.
CG: It’s kind of a lighter tone for you.
TB:: Yeah, a little bit. See, the cool thing about it is, is that it actually won a Design a Game with Twilight Creations contest that we held at a convention called Marcon in Columbus, Ohio a couple years ago. We brought all of the bits and everybody had three hours to come up with a game. Actually this is the game he came up with in three hours and it was just-, we were floored by it. Just said, “Look, we’d happy to publish this. Tweak it a little bit.” So that’s where that came from, so that’s why it’s slightly different than all of our other stuff. Although Little Dead Riding Hood is also a racing game and it’s a little bit lighter as well.
CG: Did I just hear that someone from Mattel possibly-
TB:: Apparently Mattel wanted to come out with a game called “Little Dead Riding Hood” and they can’t because we did it first.
CG: Awesome. Before we go back to your products, there’s been a whole ton of new zombie games either coming out or that have come out recently. I’m not really aware of older ones that are in the board game format other than yours, but how concerned are you or what do you do about that?
TB:: Nothing. You really can’t do anything other than keep on keeping on.
CG: You’re distributed in mass market shops like Hot Topic-
TB:: Are we in Hot Topic still?
CG: I’ve seen your stuff in Hot Topic.
TB:: Well, that’s news to me then. But once we sell to distributors I don’t know where they sell it, but I do know that we are in Barnes & Noble. That’s the biggest mass market [for us].
CG: Does that beat out sales through Alliance?
TB:: Oh, goodness no!
CG: So gaming shops are where you make your sales.
TB:: Oh, absolutely. They’re our bread and butter.
CG: What’s your biggest show in terms of sales? Gen Con?
TB:: Probably Gen Con… definitely Gen Con. But actually Dragon*Con in Atlanta is actually a close second.
CG: For a game designer, when should they start looking at going to Spiel Essen? Or someone with their own game?
TB:: Wow. I don’t really have any idea. I really can’t honestly answer that. It is so daunting and expensive to go to Spiel that unless you’re fairly confident you’re going to move some units of something… it’s not an easy thing to do.
CG: How did you come to that decision yourself?
TB:: Oh, see, our situation was a little bit different. I worked at the United States Playing Card company when I designed Zombies!!!. So they actually owned the rights to it for a couple of years even after we started Twilight Creations, because the division that I was working in, they dissolved in order to sell US PC which was privately owned at the time so they were grooming it for sale. Anyway, they laid everybody off from my division and this had just come out [Zombies!!!] and they’d spent a stupid amount of money on promoting it. And so, it’s a great game, they spent a ton of money promoting it, so it actually took off. We actually had a bonafide hit by the time we started Twilight Creations, so then going over to Spiel was kind of a no-brainer at that point.
CG: How many times have you done that show?
TB:: This will be our ninth year, I think.
CG: Oh, you do it every year.
TB:: Oh, yeah. We’ve done it so many times that we actually have tables and chairs in Germany for the booth and everything. We have a whole cadre of friends in Germany who help us out, which is good because my German is very bad!
Some Particulars About Zombies and Other Products
CG: One of the things that sets Zombies!!! apart from a lot of other products is the low, low cost, its price point.
TB:: That’s actually one of our goals as a company is to keep prices very low.
CG: So you can walk in and just get a complete game, for what? $15? $20.
TB:: Yeah, Zombies!!! is $30 now, but yeah the newest games that are coming out next month, The Current Number of the Beast and Zombies!!! are all priced at $19.99 and I think even the Zombies!!! Card Game, we’re talking about lowering that price even a little bit. We’ll see what the final numbers work out to be. But yeah, games are too expensive. I mean I love Fantasy Flight and I love what they do, but we’re trying to be an alternative to that. They do what they do very well and they get $50, $75, $100 for a game, but especially things like Comic-Con and stuff, they wouldn’t fly here. It’s just too expensive. On the other hand, people will drop $20 on a game. That’s the market we’re trying to hit and quite honestly that’s why I think Zombies!!! has done so well.
CG: I read in Wargame Design by the now-defunct SPI that back in the 60s and 70s people were buying their games and Avalon Hill’s, not as collectors, but as something they wanted to play, but they never got around to actually playing. Are you aware of that happening with Zombies!!!, that you might have more sales just to zombie fans, but they never crack it open.
TB:: Oh yeah. It happens all the time, especially in situations like Comic-Con here where the people who are buying it aren’t neccesarily gamers. They like the artwork and the box and the concept of the game and whatnot. We’ll even have people come back the next year and say “I bought this last year and I haven’t played it yet, but I want to buy this, this, and this.” It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen.
CG: So yeah, with me, I’m not a fan of zombies myself, but I got it because it was so cheap. You’re in a situation where you can take advantage of that.
TB:: Right. Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s why we keep coming out with expansions too. Expansions sell phenomenally. There’s a large fanbase for that little box which is kind of humbling in my experience. It’s neat.
CG: What’s been the most successful in your Bag O’ product line?
TB:: Probably the regular Bag O’ Zombies, simply because people use them to play D&D and they use them for canon fodder for all kinds of RPGs and that sort of thing.
CG: So you’ve seen tons of pictures of your little guys being used for different-
TB:: For everything, yeah! Actually Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the guys that designed Dungeons & Dragons, before they died, we used to see them every Gen Con. They’d come up and buy a bag of zombies from us. It was very cool.
CG: I’m not familiar with Bag O’ Babes.
TB:: Oh, Bag O’ Babes. In the 2nd Edition of Zombies!!!, there’s 50 guy zombies and 50 girl zombies and the Bag O’ Babes is just 100 of the girl zombies.
CG: Now what about the Zombies!!! The Card Game? How did you decide, “I’m going to move away from miniatures to a card game”?
TB:: Because one of the things about Zombies!!! is that it can take a while to play. So we were looking for something that is an alternative to that that still kept the zombie theme and the feel of the Zombies!!! board game, but you could actually play in 20-30 minutes and it didn’t take up three dining room tables’ worth of space. It really came from that. Our goal was to cut down the playtime and cut down the play space, while still keeping the intent of the original board game and I think we did that.
Todd Breitenstein’s Start in Gaming
CG: How did you get started in gaming yourself?
TB:: We always played board games when I was growing up and then after that I started playing D&D when I was like maybe 12, I think. And then just a natural progression from that. Got out of it in college a little bit, then got back into it. We started playing Magic: The Gathering and the X-Files Card Game. When the first wave of CCGs hit we were big fans.
CG: How did you get into game design yourself?
TB:: Actually through the United States Playing Card company. My wife Kerry was a big X-Files CCG fan. That was originally made by the United States Playing Card company and we got to know the guys that were responsible for that, just became friends with them. They were starting a new division to develop newer games, card games that sort of thing and I hated the job that I was in, so I said “Please, please bring me aboard so I can get out of advertising!” So I did. Honestly, I don’t think I ever really-, I never set out to become a game designer. It was just something that I lucked into.
CG: They brought you on board to help with game design?
TB:: To help more with graphics actually. My background is in journalism and advertising. I was Word boy and graphic design boy.
CG: Then how did you make the decision to branch out on your own?
TB:: Well, I didn’t. That was forced on us. They dissolved the division that I was working for. It was called Journeyman Press, which was a division of the United States Playing Card company. The owners of the United States Playing Card company were grooming the company itself to sell it. And so they were cutting out the excess chaff and waste and unfortunately Journeyman Press was one of the more wasteful things. It was very poorly run.
CG: Did you have to buy back your own rights to Zombies?
TB:: Yes, yes. Yes we did. We did that two years after we left.
CG: Because as an employee you had made it under contract with them?
TB:: Yes, exactly. They owned it. They had every right to it, but they were very gracious and sold it to me after a couple of years. But it wasn’t free! Let’s just put it that way. [Laughs]
Zombies Smart Phone Game
CG: I’m not aware of this, but do you have any apps for Zombies online?
TB:: Yeah, actually it’s out on the Windows phone right now. There will be some announcements in the very near future as to other platforms that it might be on, but I can’t say any more than that right now.
CG: Do you play it yourself?
TB:: Oh yeah. Yeah. It’s on my phone right now.
CG: How well do you do at playing Zombies?
TB:: I die a lot! [Laughs]
CG: Is that part of the game design.
TB:: Oh yeah, it says that in the rules. That’s why you start over again. You don’t just die and that’s it, because that would be very short.
The Current Number of the Beast
CG: What’s the genesis of The Current Number of the Beast?
TB:: Honestly? We were playing a game in the driveway at home listening to the radio. Actually the hardcore heavy metal station on Sirius satellite radio and they do a countdown and it’s called “The Current Number of the Beast” and we thought that was hilarious. So we wrote it down kind of thing. We went “We should design a game called the Current Number of the Beast”. Long story short, when we sobered up it was still hilarious. And so Kerry actually got to work on it and she came up with a dynamite little game.
CG: So your wife’s the designer?
TB:: Yeah. Actually she’s a better designer than I am by far. I’m a better tweaker. I’m better at taking what she comes up with and making it better, but as far as initial design, she’s way better than I am.
CG: What caught my eye about it is that I can’t imagine this product in the 80s, the controversey it would have caused.
TB:: Oh yeah. That’s kind of what we were going for.
CG: Now it doesn’t seem tame, but it’s-
TB:: It’s almost inane now. The world has definitely changed hasn’t it?
CG: So is this something that you yourself would play now? How much game playing do you actually do now?
TB:: Actually we do more now than we have in the past few years. I’ve been doing this personally with Journeyman Press and on our own and everything for 13 years now. There was like maybe a three or four year stretch a few years ago where it was like, “OK, if I never see another game, it’ll be OK with me.” And then about a year ago or so we started actually playing more stuff again. Actually a lot of Fantasy Flight, Mayfair, and Z-Man Games stuff. Like Wiz-War, I love Wiz-War. And my wife and I we always play a lot of Scrabble. Scrabble’s our favorite game. We can play Scrabble sitting here at the booth. We have DSs, so we play on them.
CG: Who usually wins at that?
TB:: That’s usually about 50/50. She’s a better player, but I have a better vocabulary. Yeah, it’s about 50/50, although I won two out of three games yesterday.
CG: What was your reaction to The Current Number of the Beast? Did you majorly react or did you just say, “Ok, this is a good idea, let’s see what we can do with it.”?
TB:: That was one of the few times where I went “Wow, that is very very cool.” I’ll put it to you this way. Usually when we design a game and get it playtested, playtested, playtested, and get it out to the manufacturer, it becomes “OK, I don’t want to see this again for 6 months or so”. This one we sent to the manufacturer and we continued to play it. We’ve played it a couple of dozen times already this weekend back at the hotel. It’s that much fun. It’s that solid of a game. It’s quick, it’s down, it’s dirty. The cards are fun. It’s just an awesome game. But yeah, that one was one where I went “Wow. I can’t wait to show this to people.”
Twilight Creations and Organized Play
CG: Is the company pretty much you two?
TB:: It is Kerry and I, yes.
CG: Do you have demo guys?
TB:: Oh, yeah. Like at Gen Con and stuff we have a group of people who help us out.
TB:: Yeah. They’ve turned into friends over the years. Even at Spiel we have half a dozen guys that live in Essen and Dusseldorf and stuff that help us out.
CG: But it could be you at other shows demoing the games?
TB:: Yeah, if it’s a small show, it’s just her and I. Like Dragon*Con, it’s just her and I, not that Dragon*Con’s a small show.
CG: Have you ever realized something about a game while demoing or do you try to have the game so figured out by that point-
TB:: It happens. That happens every once in a great while. I can’t think of any examples off-hand. Generally it’s seeing uses for things that we didn’t. For example, the promo card for this year, What The Hell? Ten Years, I was reading it earlier today and went, “Wow, this is a lot more powerful than I thought it was.” Because I thought of a new use for it.
TB:: Yeah, exceedingly so.
[Some conversation about the absence of organized play from Twilight Creations.]
CG: Why have you chosen not to do organized play?
TB:: It’s not even a choice. Organizing organized play is, it’s like herding cats. We’ve tried so many things over the years to get people to go out to game stores in their area and demo for us and stuff. Everybody just always wants “Send me every one of the games you make and I’ll be happy to do that” and that’s just giving stuff away at that point.
CG: So it’s not cost effective?
TB:: We haven’t found a cost effective way of doing it, no. If you can figure out how to do it, I’d be happy [to know].
CG: How do you feel about the concept of organized play?
TB:: Oh, I think it’s great, but to actually get people to go out and do it is the problem. We have a couple people throughout the country that’ve actually been with us pretty much from the beginning who still go out and show people the games and demo at game shops and stuff…
CG: So it’s not that you don’t see Zombies!!! as something to play competitvely…?
TB:: It’s more of a beer and pretzels game anyway. It’s not so competitive. People do run it in tournament format, but it’s not something that we actively promote or anything. It’s more of a social sort of game. Toss in a movie, open a beer, and kill some zombies.
CG: Wrapping up, any exciting new stuff coming up? You’ve got the phone announcements forthcoming.
TB:: There’s some big news in the next month or so on the video game front for Zombies!!!. We’re doing a Zombies!!! scenario book this fall, maybe the beginning of next year. We’re going to keep on chugging along.