Our most recently highlighted Kickstarter project, Sentinels of the Multiverse: OblivAeon, is certainly experiencing some astronomical levels of popularity. I had the great pleasure of being able to chat with Christopher Badell, chief game designer of Sentinels, about his latest project, as well as what it takes to make a successful card and board game company. Being the busy man he is, our interview was over the phone as he was on the road at the time. Enjoy!
You can also listen to our interview on Soundcloud
You can follow Christopher on twitter: @GTGChristopher. You can also follow Greater than Games: @GTGamesLLC
Mith: So let’s just jump right into it. Sentinels really has its roots in superhero mythos. Each Hero seems to embody the spirit of each hero type you would find, regardless of the genre. For example: Legacy hearkens back to Superman or Captain America, Wraith to Black Widow or Batman. What would you say was your thought process when creating each of your heroes and villains?
Chris: So when we originally sat down to create the game that would become Sentinels of the Multiverse, we knew we wanted to create our own heroes and when I say “we” I’m talking about Adam Rebottaro, the artist who’s done all the art for Sentinels and myself, we — the two of us have been friends for over 20 years now and we had always been into comic books and games. We wanted to make a game that was a comic book style game that made you feel like you were playing a comic book. We had told lots of comic book stories and a lot of the characters from Sentinels pre-date the game, they’re our own creations for various sundry projects all of which were pretty terrible. But you gotta start somewhere.
Mith: Heh Right
Chris: So we were like, okay well we want to play something, because we had played lots of comic book games/super hero games and a lot of them all boiled down to “okay, You be Spiderman and I’m gonna be Superman and we’re going to punch each other until one of us passes out.” That wasn’t interesting to us. We wanted to feel the story of “We’re all unique heroes in some way that all work in different ways and the thing that is our true strength is how we can work together against a villain who is way more power than any of us are but with our powers combined…” So we wanted that kind of experience.
Mith: Yeah Voltron style, you know “I’ll form the head” You know, everyone becomes part of that team to defeat evil.
Chris: Right Right. Absolutely, and so for us these heroes needed to be evocative of things people recognize. They need to be archetypal, you need to be able to look at a character and say “Oh! Just based how this guy is standing or what She’s doing, I get a feel for who she is.” We knew you’re going to have lots of art in the game and bits of flavor text and some ping test, but ultimately everything on the table needs to communicate a complete character. I’m very please that we came up with that.
Mith: Oh absolutely. So sticking with Sentinels the game itself; i think a lot of us have experienced the wide and deep chasm between conceptualizing a process and executing it. Conceptualizing a project or something like that and executing it. We might anticipate some elements being challenging or difficult that you might try to look ahead and see that but the challenges that often trip us up are the ones that we often least expect. What was the most surprisingly challenging thing about creating Sentinels when you guys started getting down to brass taxes?
Chris: Hmm… That’s an interesting- that’s a tough questions, because Sentinels, when we sat down to make it, it was the game we always wanted to play. Every time we made another design decision it was well what do WE want to do? It’s a very selfishly designed game, because we’re like what do we want to do to solve this problem? Rule of Cool is very important to us. I think one of the biggest challenges to us was figuring out how to make the game Balanced for multiple players: 3, 4, or 5 players, That was a challenge early on it was a challenge that we failed- Nah didn’t fail, I’m not going to say we failed or completely failed at, but we did not succeed as much as we wanted to with the original edition of the game. The most common edition of the game that you’ll find are the “enhanced edition” which is funny because the original edition we printed 5000 copies and we printed 70000 copies of the Enhanced edition so far. So it’s really become the Standard Edition.
Mith: Right, Enhanced really IS the Standard right now.
Chris: Right, Exactly. So with the printing of the Enhanced Edition, it upgraded the quality of the cards and Adam re-did some of the art for it, but the big thing that, for me, was I went through and changed a bunch of Mechanics. Simplifying some things, streamlining some other things, so adding in things that made it balance much better for the full spectrum of 3-5 players. That was a thing that we, when we sat down to start, we had thought about, and I think that was one of the reasons why we did not succeeded as much as we liked in originally, was that we had found a thing that we hadn’t focused as much on. We were worried about a lot of different aspects and one of the things that we did a less good job at was the balancing for multiple players. However, I’m very pleased with how it works on that front now.
Mith: So in Hind sight it might be the balancing that you were talking about but, if you could change one thing about how the game was developed or marketed or otherwise came to life, what would it be? Would you say that if you could go back and change it would you release the Enhanced Version first? or was it something else that you wish you could maybe go back and change about the way the game was rolled out?
Chris: Well, a big thing was, with our original prototype of the game, all of the Villains had one card that they ran by. A character card that was bigger than the other characters, a card that stood out on the table and had all the information on it. In the Printing of the original edition, we were unable to make that happen because the printer couldn’t do over-sized cards. They could only do standard size cards, so the Villains had to have 2 character cards. We went with that and managed to make it work, but since them we’ve printed an over-sized card pack where you can buy all the Villains as we originally intended them. So that is the thing that I would have liked to have made Standard from the start if we could, the other thing would have been that, hind sight 20/20, I wish that we would know that we could have gone this far with it. We had hoped at the very beginning like, “Man, wouldn’t it be crazy if we actually got to tell..” Because we had this whole story arc that we had planned from the beginning of how far it could go. Like okay if we get all the way to the end that would be great! But we made the game going, you know what guys? let’s be honest, we’re not going to get all the way to the end. It’s just so many games and so much stuff, there’s just no way. Super hero games don’t do that well in the market, so let’s hedge our bets a little bit. If I’d known that it could have gone this far, I would have added in a bit more hinting to where everything would go, instead of trying to be quite so Episodic.
Mith: There’s a dream where just a few years later you’d be running a Kickstarter that would bank $700,000 in it’s first week, so..
Chris: I’m still blown away by that, We definitely had no idea it was going to get this big.
Mith: So speaking of hind sight and developing the game, what character or mechanic of the game underwent the most change from conceptualization to release. So from when you were thinking of it to when people were playing it, what would you say changed the most?
Chris: Well from the original edition of the game, or the original set characters, the thing that change the most for sure was the character Absolute Zero. That sticks in my head so much because even though that was like 5 years ago there has been so many thing in between then and now, that character went through more revisions than any other character to date ever has. He changed so many times. Which is a fairly micro thing when compared to the biggest or macro sense of the world. I think… man, I think that the biggest character thing that happened with it was Absolute Zero, the way that that deck worked, the character motivation, it was very different than we originally envisioned him. It came out much better as a result, but still it was a lot of work. The other stuff that changed would really be how we, and this is outside the realm of Sentinels, but still very important too, was the creation process. How we grew as a company. Every time we ran into a problem, any sort of challenge at the company, we fell back on, well look, we’re good at things we’ll just do it ourselves. This meant that: we do our own fulfillment, we sell to our own distributors to all the different distributors and everything, and we have our office space has over 15000 sqft of warehouse. We do our own browsing and we have forklifts, a warehouse manager.
Mith: You’ve driven a forklift around?
Chris: I do! I do!
Mith: So you help with the shipments and all that?
Chris: I do, you know we just did the ship out for Villains of the Multiverse and I did, I’m going to say I did at least a quarter of that ship out myself. But it was a big ship out, and when we have these big ship outs it’s kind of all hands on deck. Originally we started like we had a little 5×10 storage locker that we kept the games in. Then we’re like, well, we need to be able to receive shipments of cargo containers from China. So we had to get a place that had a dock height to load all these games. Then we needed a place to store all the games. So a lot of other Indie game companies, when they’re getting started, they look around and go, “oh we’ll find a place to store this or we’ll find somebody to-
*Audio Cuts out here for a few moments*
Mith: Sorry Chris I think we lost you there for a moment. Are you on the road now?
Chris: Yeah, sorry about that, I’m on the way to Kansas City we have an event this weekend at a game store there.
Mith: Yeah sounded like you just drove through a dead zone there. So we lost you right when you were say that other game companies say okay we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Chris: Yes, a lot of other Indie game companies will generally find another company to do their shipping or fulfillment or cargo containers because you will find that you don’t have a ton of space for that. Every time we ran into that issue we just kinda doubled down on it and said, “No we’ll just do it ourselves.” It’s generated a lot of extra work for us, but it’s made the company what it is and it’s made a lot of growth that we didn’t expect or plan for at the start.
Mith: Shifting to the app for Sentinels. In our tech saturated age, apps and other forms of technology are seeping into the Card and Boardgame world. I know personally I’m playing Magic the Gathering, and I have an app that tracks my life total or decide go goes first etc. What were your primary motivators when you developed the companion app for Sentinels?
Chris: The story behind it was actually really funny. We launched the game at GenCon 2011 and a couple of weeks later went to PAX Prime in Seattle. Our booth there was across the aisle from a small company called Candelabra which had a video game in which you were Presidents punching each other called “Uncle Slam”, it was cute. They were like “Yeah, come play our game! You can be Presidents punching each other!” We were like, “That’s Cute, hey come play our game you can be Heroes punching each other!” So at the end of the game expo, Jeremy the owner of Candelabra and John the Lead Programmer both went home with copies of Sentinels. At that point forward, John kept hounding us that we should make a digital version of the game. And we were like “We…don’t…really want to do that… We’re here to make board games, that’s not a thing we want to do.” He just kept saying “No, you should really make a digital version of the game.” and we’d be like “I…don’t wanna, that’s not… I’m not convinced” So he (John) then made what is now Sentinels: Sidekick, he made it on his own he just programmed it himself. He sent it to us, “this is how it works, not a video game but just as a digital companion app for helping you track hitpoints and things like that. What do you think of this?” At that point we were like, “Oh my god, this is great!” He wanted to know if they could publish it and we were like, “Yeah no problem, go for it.” So then he was like, “Okay, now that we’ve shown that we know the game, Can we make a video game for it?” “uuuuuuhhhhhh… more convinced now!” Now they’ve done a great job with the video game.
Mith: Yeah, 2011. Smartphones had been out for a few years, but still the whole app market and the concept of having companion apps for games was still fairly new so that’s really interesting that you were able to jump on that. They got out ahead and thought that this game could use something like that.
Chris: Yeah, they’re very clever.
Mith: Going back to the development of the (Board)game, when you’re a creative artist it’s sometimes hard to avoid integrating yourself into your work. Is there a Hero that was designed in your image specifically? or did any members of the development team channel their personalities into the -cuts out- I know you were saying you want to make a game that’s cool you guys were all very selfishly, as you said, designing the game, so did that also play into it?
Chris: We really didn’t want to make any heroes of ourselves because we didn’t want to go down that road. BUT, the Villain Citizen Dawn from the core game, has her Citizens of the Sun, and 2 of them are based on Adam (Rebottaro) and I, Citizens Hammer and Anvil. Citizen Hammer looks like Adam, Citizen Anvil looks like me. So IF we were Super powered individuals.
Mith: So not Front and Center, but you worked yourselves into a background sort of way.
Chris: Yeah, we definitely get to show up and I THINK part of Adam’s motivation for it was, aw we look like the Role play versions of ourselves and then as soon as we had these characters, the next piece of art that Adam drew was our Flagship Hero Legacy punching my character, Citizen Anvil, right in the face. So I’m like, “Okay… I see where this is going”
Mith: So going onto the current Kickstarter Project. So to say that your current Kickstarter is a success would be gross understatement, I mean you guys hit $100,000 of funding in about Half an hour and right now you’re at about $700,000 before when I checked. What does your team do to foster such a supportive community, how do you get to that point?
Chris: That’s a great question. We’ve been making games that we want to play since 2011. A big part of our process has been: This is a story game. This is a game in which you are playing the story. You can ignore it if you want, but it really is the glue that hold the whole game together. So with that we try to release a bunch of story information through other avenues as well. There’s story writeups in the rule book, we have stuff on the website. Another part of it is we have stuff, through our website Greaterthangames.com our forums there’s a bunch of people who are always talking about what we’re doing.
So we, leading up to the OblivAeon Kickstarter, we had an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) in which the rulebook for Villains of the Multiverse, the previous product, had some weird things in it, we had a name repeated a bunch of times, it had some text boxes in the background color, match up with the color of different page numbers, and somebody finally realized that there was something weird there and started decoding the puzzle and it went down this rabbit hole of having all these different puzzles that were on the website that when people would solve them the comic book covers would be revealed. Just a whole other half of that reveal for that next expansion was this story that would end with the OblivAeon Kickstarter being announced and then 3 days later we launched the Kickstarter. So that really helps tie in the community, but the involvement, so you were saying how do we foster this sort of community, the direct community that we see of those people that are directly locked into what we do is somewhere between a few hundred and maybe a thousand people.
What we’ve seen on the Kickstarter is that, we just passed over 5000 backers on the Kickstarter, so it’s way larger of a community. Like I mentioned earlier To Date we’ve printed over 70,000 copies of the Enhanced Edition of Sentinels of the Multiverse and have sold the vast majority of those. We only have a couple thousand in our warehouse right now. And they’re also sold from game stores, amazon, and other online retailers, we sell directly from our Website, we sell them when we’re at convention. We’ve sold tens of thousands of copies of Sentinels of the Multiverse, so there’s a bunch of people out there that play the game who aren’t even directly connected into the story stuff that we’re doing. I just recently this week found a blog that somebody runs, or a tumblr that someone runs where they take questions and answer in the voice of various SotM characters and do little drawings of the characters. I was just so thrilled, This is great! They’ve been running this blog since 2014 I think and I just found it now 2 years later. I feel bad about not paying attention to what my Intellectual property is doing online but, it’s so cool, like this is great, the person that does this is very clever and does all these little drawings and I love it a lot that people do all this community stuff. It’s stuff that I don’t even get to really see or pay attention to. So I guess the key to fostering a good community is write something that is interesting to yourself and try to hang onto the reins.
Mith: Just let it go and see where it takes you, that’s really cool that you’re discovering your intellectual properties in the back channels of the internet.
Mith: So Sentinels has garnered a wide and loyal fanbase like you were saying… But this is the finale, this is it. Where does your team go from here? The flagship game is, the one that everyone has revolved around is being retired, Where do you guys go from here? What’s next?
Chris: Well we’re going to keep printing and selling all the Sentinels Products because as part of this Kickstarter alone we’ve gotten a ton of new people into it. A couple of years ago we were sure that we were hitting the Saturation point of Sentinels, it’s slowed down a little bit from the first couple of years of sales, but it’s still constantly selling. I’ve had several distributors and retailers contact us this week and say, “Hey, due to the popularity of the Kickstarter, your game is selling like hotcakes again, so we need more.” It’s interesting to see that resurgence. That said, we’ve got lots of other games that we’re working on, and a bunch of other things that we have planned in house. Some are completely unconnected products, some are things, like later this year, we’re going to be doing a Kickstarter for the Sentinel Comics RPG, that uses the characters and settings from SotM for a pen and paper table top RPG. We’ve been working on that for a couple of years, we’re really excited to launch that. We also have some other products last year that we Kickstarted, a game called Spirit Island, which isn’t even my design, it’s an outside designer R. Eric Reuss. another great game. I’m also doing another Kickstarted at the end of April too for a series of games just a small series of games that aren’t connected to anything we’ve done prior. So lots of plans.
Mith: So lots of plans in the works then?
Chris: We definitely have more irons in the fire than we can do in one year. So recently every time we’re like “There’s this great idea, we should totally make this game…in…2018.”
Mith: So you mentioned earlier that you debut this game at GenCon 2011 just barely 5 years ago, and now you’re smashing these fundraising goals, again with a large and supportive fanbase. For groups that are just starting out, groups of nerdy guys that were wanting to make games about Superheroes punching each other or whatever it might be, what would be your bit of advice in creating a product and a company that can last?
Chris: The best and most true thing is that you gotta get Lucky. There are lots of people making great games every day that don’t get noticed. So that said, I’m not saying it’s ALL luck. I’m saying you need to GET lucky.
One of the big things for us, when we presented that game at GenCon, we didn’t know that it would be a success or not, Turns out it was. Tom Vasel, who’s a prominent Board game reviewer called Sentinels of the Multiverse his #1 game of GenCon 2011. We got a bunch of attention from a bunch of avenues. But before we even went to GenCon, we’d already signed up to go to PAX Prime a few weeks later. We’d reached out to every Media person that we could talk to, we knocked down as many doors as we could, tried to get in front of as many people as possible. I drove to every game store that I could find within a 4 hour radius of where I lived and I would be like, “Hey I want to hang out in your game store and run Demos of this game. Could you give me a little bit of space and some time?” and any one of those thing could have payed off. One of the reasons that Sentinels succeeded so well and so quickly is that A LOT of those happened to pay off for us. We were very fortunate. But we made those opportunities for ourselves, we got out there and knocked on doors.
That said, I’ve seen many games, that were very good game, do that same work that try to get in front of people and don’t, and that’s to no fault of their own. But if you’re not going to at least put in that leg work, then you don’t have much to go on.
Think of it like a game, if the only way you can win, is by rolling a natural 20 on a d20, the best thing you can do is roll as many d20s as possible. You gotta give yourself that opportunity.
Mith: And you were saying that making a company last…
Chris: Yeah so in terms of making a company, My FAVORITE game, and people ask me this all the time, “You’re a game designer, what’s your favorite game?” My favorite game is running the company Greater than Games. It is a high risk, Medium reward, worker placement, resource allocation game, that is a challenge on a daily basis. It’s a blast. It’s up there in terms of intensity.
A big part of making your company last is making plans and having multiple plans. Most thing we approach we have a best case scenario, expected, and a worst case scenario; and we are constantly re-assessing those plans. Okay this has gone to the worst case scenario plan, so now we need to have 3 branching plans, from the point we are now, we need to have best, expected, and worst case. Making those plans, sticking to them, and being adaptable is really important. When we were still early on in making the game, we established the company and a big part of that was because figuring how to do these things, how are we going to plan, at what point do we throw in the towel? Making those plans and sticking to them is really key and very helpful for us.
Mith: So you were mentioning that that your favorite game is running the company, but if I’m going to follow up on that, what would be your favorite not running your company, Do you have a non-sentinels/non GtG related board or card game, what would that be?
Chris: Man, you’re taking away all my favorite games! So this is a tough question, I don’t get to play as many games as I used to. When it’s time to play a game now it’s okay I have to do play testing for something that we’re working on.
That said, games that I have played in the last month or 2 that I really adore, and these might not be the best games in the world and not my favorite games, but they’re definitely games that I’m saying I’m comfortable saying I like a lot are: Pandemic Legacy, Everyone is talking about Pandemic Legacy right now and you know what, rightly so. They did a fantastic job of taking a game that was already a great game, I enjoy Pandemic, but I don’t feel the need to play it all the time. I kind of know what’s going to happen when I play Pandemic, but with Pandemic Legacy, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I love it, and I love the implementation. There a card game called Machi Koro, are you familiar with it?
Mith: I’m not no, Machi Koro you said?
Chris: Yeah, so it’s a Dice and Card game in which you do an engine building. It’s kind of like a deck building game but you are trying to collect numbers that you roll on a die, it’s a kind of city building scene where you’re building different buildings in the city, and on your turn the first thing you do is roll a d6. Let’s say you roll a 4 but I have a building in front of me that says, “When you roll a 4 take one coin” Then I pass to the next player and she rolls a 1, but I have a wheat field that says “Whenever any player rolls a 1, take a coin” then you use those coins to build buildings. It’s a great delightful little engine. And then the other game that I have to plug is Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, I’ve been a D&D player since before College and I think 5th Ed is a great implementation of that.
Mith: Have you had a chance to play Pixel Tactics?
Chris: I have not, I’ve seen it and I’m familiar with it, but I have not played it yet. I’ve heard lots of great things.
Mith: That would be my counter suggestion for you. I’ll pick up Machi Koro and you try out Pixel Tactics and we’ll compare notes.
Chris: Haha, I really do need to sit down and play it, I have a copy in my library that needs to be played, so I’ll make sure that happens.
Mith: Well Chris, thank you so much for sitting down with us today. Again Sentinels of the Multiverse: OblivAeon, Currently running a successful Kickstarter at over $700,000. I wish you all the best of luck. Now you’re going to be at some Conventions coming up yes?
Chris: Yes, I’ll be at PAX East, Origin(game fair), GenCon, those are all for sure, and there’s probably some other as well that I’ll be at.
Mith: Chris, again thank you for taking the time, and we’ll talk to you again later.
Chris: I look forward to it, thank you.