Taking The "Euro" Out Of "Eurogames"
An interview with Steve Gross, Don Beyer and Ray Eifler of
In the summer of 2003 I started some email correspondence with
Don Beyer, a Fair Play customer from the Detroit area. I could
tell from his orders that we shared an interest in the same types
of games. Since he was fairly close to us, I suggested Terry and
I meet with him and his friends at a centrally located mall for a
day of gaming. We met up on the Fourth of July and had a great
time learning several new games. During that gaming session Don
shared that he had an idea for a strategy game. As I usually do,
I encouraged him to pursue it.
Well, not only did he pursue the idea, but within weeks he had
teamed up with two friends, Ray Eifler and Steve Gross, and
started SDR Games. I was impressed with their progress in such a
short time. Of course, I was even more impressed and surprised to
learn that, not even a year after we had talked, Don & Co.
had signed a contract for that game with Eagle Games!
As soon as it was official that their first game, Bootleggers,
would be produced by Eagle, I asked Don if he, Ray and Steve
would do an interview with us for Fair Play. When they agreed, I
took the chance to ask about their vision (their website claims
they want to "take the 'euro' out of 'eurogames'") and
what it's like to work with the Eagle Games crew.
Mike Petty: First off, please tell us a
little about yourselves--both as SDR Games and as individuals.
Don Beyer: SDR Games is a partnership of
three really different guys that like playing, and now designing,
Me personally, well... I should probably let the others answer
this one for me, I am sure they have much more colorful ways of
describing me. :-) In general, just an average middle-age family
man big company IT employee that doesn't really like sports very
much and can't seem to keep a hobby more than 6 months. That
pretty much sums it up.
Ray Eifler: I am much like Don only taller
and I like to watch the Detroit Lions. So, I must hate sports too.
Steve Gross: I'm thinner, younger, and much
more attractive than Ray and Don. I only like sports that have a
fair-to-middling chance of maiming me such as motorcycle racing.
My cover identity is as a mild-mannered electronics engineer
working for the University of Michigan Space Physics Research
Laboratory. Also, all three of us have some sort of graduate
management degree which means that we're always trying to
delegate work to each other.
MP: I first met Don when he placed an
order at Fair Play. I have since learned you guys are part of a
fairly regular game group that meets at Ray's house. What sort of
games do you usually play?
Steve: Oddly enough, I used to really dislike
playing games, with the notable exception of Cosmic Encounter.
Then Ray bought a smoothie machine and a bunch of rum. Now I'll
play pretty much anything, but usually we focus on the German-style
strategy games. I do have a real weakness for simple card games
like Wizard, Rage, Take 6, and Guillotine
though. And I am still in awe of Cartagena. It is so
MP: When you three game together, who
Steve: It's not Don, that's for sure. Ray
wins more than I do, he's ruthless.
Don: But when I do win, I sure appreciate a
whole lot more.
MP: Has it affected the way your group
plays games now that the three of you are designers yourselves?
For example, maybe you make an effort to try certain games, more
different games, or maybe your sessions would be more critical
than if you were "just a bunch of gamers" getting
together to play.
Steve: Absolutely. We haven't changed how we
decide which games to play, but we can see what's going on "behind
the curtain" a lot more clearly. For example, some mechanics
and rules are obvious "balance fixes" to us now (not
that there's anything wrong with that!). I am particularly
critical of strange component choices. The impossible-to-handle
¼" cubes in Wallenstein come to mind. Ever try to
pick those up after three or four rum smoothies? At the same
time, I pay a lot more attention to how the rules are written and
Ray: I now despise the concept of victory
points. I like a scoring track, or money, or decimation of your
opponent. Victory point games always feel like the balancing was
done after the game was done.
Don: I definitely think we are more critical.
As Steve said, its just a lot more obvious what the designer was
trying to achieve with the mechanics and whether it was
successful or not. It's also obvious now when we didn't
understand the rules and something breaks on us during play. We
played Power Grid the other week and it was pretty clear
we had misunderstood the endgame by the way it played out. We
definitely don't try to second guess or try to figure out how we
would have done something differently or better
enough of our own projects for that sort of thing.
MP: What's your vision for SDR Games?
Ray: To bring back the glory days of American
Don: This may seem a like a strange answer,
but there is something really special about sitting around the
kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon with your family playing a
Steve: We want to produce American-style
alternatives to the German-style strategy games. Like I said
earlier, Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game of all
time. The theme, mechanics, and artwork are all closely tied
together. There's a ton of direct player-to-player interaction,
free-form dealmaking is vital to winning, and the "replayability
factor" is huge. Those are some of the things we try to
incorporate into our designs.
MP: This raises an interesting point. One
could argue that Settlers of Catan has all those
elements you mention. It's always been the top seller at Fair
Play by a huge margin. Still, we never find it in a Toys R Us and
ten years after it's been released most people I talk to have
never heard of it. What do you think keeps great games like this
one from reaching the public and what do you (and possibly Eagle)
hope to do differently so your games do catch on as you hope?
Steve: That goes directly to the heart of
what we're trying to do at SDR. We think that games like Settlers
are too abstract to appeal to the mainstream American market. The
mechanics are interesting, complex, and deep, but the theme often
seems to be "pasted on" at the end. Here in the US we
love immersive entertainment-look at the popularity of movies for
example. For Bootleggers, we kept the Euro-style deep
mechanics but tied them very closely to the theme and artwork to
make you feel like you are a prohibition-era mobster running an
empire based on bootlegged whiskey. We really think this is the
key to opening up the American market.
Ray: When you pick up a box of Settlers
at the store (as an American consumer), does Settlers
look "engaging"? Not really. You would buy it because
you already know it's a good game. If you don't know
that, you're going to go for something more familiar theme-wise
or a party game. Plus, when someone introduces Settlers
to people new to this style of game, they invariably beat them
because they understand the statistical placement phase at the
beginning. You can actually beat new players before the game
begins! You are much better introducing people new players to
designer games with something like Take 6, or Top
Secret Spies (aka Heimlich & Co.)--which has a
party feel to it--or Bohnanza or even Cartagena.
Start with games where everyone feels like they have a chance,
even at the end. Then put Settlers on the table.
Don: The mainstream retail game market in the
US has created expectations about what board games are and should
be. They are mostly party games, classics that we played when we
were kids, and games based on movies or TV shows - mostly kids
games. It doesn't occur to most people that grown-ups can have
fun playing a board game. Settlers is sold by people who
have already discovered that. Settlers was my first
designer game and I was in awe. Not so much of the game, but of
the experience. The regular game night at Ray's just furthered
that experience. Now with invitational events like Great Lakes
Games, I think that there is something really important going on
with board games and we are just at the beginning of it.
MP: Was Bootleggers the first
game you guys worked on together?
Don: Yes it was, that's where it all started.
MP: Tell us about how the game got
Don: I had been noodling around some ideas
for a game and pretty much thought I was nuts to even consider
doing anything about it. You know, you read all the negatives on
the web about getting a game to market; all those articles can be
pretty much summed up as: 1) Your game idea stinks. 2) Everyone
that plays games thinks they can design one. 3) Publishers get
zillions of submissions so don't even bother trying, and 4) by
the way, your game idea stinks. Unfortunately, or fortunately,
for short periods of time I can be quite obsessive like others
whose name I won't mention (ok, its Ray) and refused to let it go.
You may even remember that I mentioned it to you the time we got
together up at GLC over the July 4th holiday for some open gaming.
At the time, it was just a mechanic around the concept of
improving something over which you only have temporary ownership.
Basically building something up and then losing it to another
player. I was also kicking around the three-tiers of producing,
transporting, and processing. Anyway, we were all hanging around
at Ray's after his girls' birthday party and, after some
encouragement from my wife and a little liquid courage, I
nervously mentioned it to him. He immediately suggested
prohibition in place of my lame theme: plantations, paddleboats,
and mills. Some number of rum punches and general brainstorming
later, we had the rough outline for the game. I re-wrote it over
night and got it back to Ray. Next trip to Ray's to fiddle around
with the game found Steve hanging out reviewing the rules. I
think all of our families were out of town that week. We spent
the remainder of the week fooling around with the components that
would eventually become trucks (plastic champagne glasses),
crates of moonshine (pennies), and influence markers (colored Risk
player pieces). By the end of the week, it seemed like we sort of
had a game. Then it got tough. I think we spent the next several
months playing a turn, changing, playing a turn, changing, etc. I
think there were some long nights where we only played two turns.
Ray: Rum Punch. I remember rum punch
and Don nagging me about paddlewheels. The rest is a blur.
MP: What were some of the most memorable
moments in the development of Bootleggers?
Don: I think we all have our personal
favorites. A couple of mine were things like Ray yelling at me,
"Stop checking the rules! You wrote them!". And Ray
vehemently arguing for a rule change on something that went
against him only to argue it back the next turn when the revision
also went against him. That one was particularly funny. I think
it was also about that time I earned the nickname "Magoo"
for my notoriously bad eyesight that made me write our rules with
two-inch margins so the "fit to screen" would make it
legible for me. Both Steve and Ray used to complain horribly
about that. I can see quite well now, but of course the Magoo
epithet still pops up now and again just for fun.
Steve: When we were pitching Bootleggers
to Eagle, by the end of the game nobody was sitting down. We were
all standing over the board through the entire final round. That
really made an impression on me
that a game we made could be
just as engaging as a game from a big name designer.
MP: What's the typical process you guys
use when you start working on a game?
Don: This one's easy. Generally, I come up
with some mechanics and a really horrible theme. Ray applies a
great theme and we all start shaping the rules to fit. Steve is
our cleaner - he is amazingly detailed and has a real sense for
game balance. Soon as I start regularly losing, we know we have
something. Its not always that way, however. Steve and Ray
concocted a corporate politics games in a coffee shop in Chicago
the weekend we met the Eagle team that turned out to be a really
good game. There are also Ray's "I had a vision" games
where he sees the final product and it becomes sort of an
adventure to get there. Sometimes we get lost only to find
ourselves again at a later date with a promising design. Bottom
line, there is no way any one or two of us could do it on our own.
It's the combined talents that make it possible.
Ray: Yeah. Don is the Starter, I come in as
relief, and then Steve is the closer. Remember, coffee is for
Steve: I wish I could do it without them
because then I wouldn't have to split the royalties. The reality
is that if you give me a blank sheet of paper and say "go
design a game" you'll just get your blank paper back. But
once Ray and Don put the theme and mechanics together, I file
down all the rough edges and make it all fit together smoothly.
MP: I talked to Don several times about Bootleggers
over the last year and I know it went through a lot of changes.
How did you determine when it was finally ready?
Steve: Well, you eventually reach a point of
diminishing returns. After we got the game basically working-and
fun to play-then we playtested with lots of different people
until we couldn't find any more serious balance problems or
strategies that broke the game. When we got to the point where
the playtesters were only suggesting things that we had already
tried, or that we thought were outright ludicrous, we stopped
development. This was well after Eagle picked the game up, by the
Ray: For months we only played three turns.
When we finally got to turn four, we new we were getting close.
MP: How often do you guys get together to
work on designs?
Ray: We collaborate daily. We get together to
playtest whenever someone yells, "It looks ready." They
are usually wrong, and the process begins again.
Steve: Yes we have a constant flow of e-mail
and phone calls. Don't tell my boss though.
MP: Do you have any official organization
within the group, for example, is there one of you who has the
last word in case you can't reach a consensus?
Ray: HA! The struggle is the art!
Steve: That's our one trade secret. Maybe
someday we'll write a book.
MP: How did it come about that Eagle
picked up Bootleggers? Judging from their past releases,
it looks like a stretch for them.
Ray: We all went down the CHITAG to compare
ourselves to other games and see if we were out of our league.
There were so many games there where we looked and said, "I
think ours are better." So we are feeling good about
continuing our little hobby and run into this Glenn guy. We spend
hours talking about games and the game industry. The entire time
we never talked about our games. It was great fun. Glenn felt we
really had similar views on games and game designs that he did,
so he invited to visit him one day. When we called months later,
he remembered us--a good sign. We asked him if he still wanted to
see our stuff, and he said yes. We expected them to say some
encouraging words and send us on our way, but they were just
great. Once the Eagle guys played it, Glenn liked the fit even
Steve: We were really fortunate that Eagle
was looking to explore a new market just as we had a game ready
to go in that market space.
MP: How long was it from that first time
they saw the game until now, when the game is about to be
Steve: We showed Eagle four games this past
March. Eagle told us on the spot that they wanted to publish Bootleggers
and gave us an 18-month time frame. Within a couple of weeks they
had pulled the launch date ahead to Gen Con (late August) which I
thought was impossibly aggressive. That turned out to be true but
only barely. We're going to hit Essen (late October) and we'll be
on retail shelves in the US for Thanksgiving.
MP: I've seen Eagle games show up
everywhere from Comp USA to Toys R Us. If anyone is poised to
bring a euro-flavored game to the American mainstream, they seem
to be likely candidates. I have to say, though, I'm surprised
they went for a theme of running booze for their first stab at
this. I can't help but wonder how it would look on the shelf at
Toys R Us with other family games or if it will get the "best
family strategy game" award in Games Magazine! Was there any
talk whatsoever about the theme as they considered picking it up?
Steve: Actually, we did talk about this quite
a bit. Mobsters and prohibition are just naturally interesting.
The main characters in the movie Shark Tale--which I
just took my kids to last week--are all mobsters. I don't know
how many we're going to sell in Utah but I don't think it would
look out of place at Toys R Us at all. Especially if it were
called "Godfather: The Board Game" or
something along those lines
Ray: Plus, this is a theme that is popular
with the American audience.
MP: How much input did you guys have on
the finished product--let's say the look of the components and
the written rules, for example?
Steve: Eagle was really great about this. We
told Glenn our vision for the art direction and he agreed almost
100%. We provided detailed notes for Paul (the artist) who did a
fantastic job with them. Eagle sent all of the components to us
for proofing, and bent over backwards to make changes when we
asked them to. We wrote all the rules and play examples, then
Eagle did the graphic design and layout and again sent the
finished product to us for proofing.
MP: You previewed the game at GenCon in
August. How was it received?
Don: I know everyone I played with wanted to
finish the game and seemed to really enjoy it. The most
enthusiastic group we had was with a group of guys that came all
the way from Alabama to attend the show. Three of them played
with Steve on Friday. Saturday they came back dragging two more
of their buddies with them. I played with them, though at that
point I think I was pretty much a spectator. They really got into
the theme and understood the true purpose of the thug cards. They
came back two more times on Sunday for pictures(!) and autographs(!!).
Obviously this was way over the top, but it was a lot of fun for
all of us. My own personal highlight was actually winning for the
first time! Though Steve wasted no time in reminding me that Ray
had played the first two rounds and therefore it didn't count.
Ray: Plus, Don looks great in the hat!
Don: Aw, shucks.
MP: What's been your biggest surprise so
far as you've rather quickly moved into the game industry?
Steve: I'm still shocked that we got a game
published! But I'm most surprised at how much work goes into
designing and producing a game and how important the little
details are at every stage of the process.
MP: Do you have any advice for others who
are hoping to get a game published?
Don: I will leave the game theory to others.
The best advice I would pass along is to not be afraid of
abandoning a game. You should see our graveyard --some real
stinkers in there. Sometimes I think folks get too wrapped up in
a design and don't know when to let go, for good or bad. I can
see that trait in ourselves sometimes.
Secondly, make sure you have a game with a high degree of
replay value. Prevailing wisdom is that replay is good for the
market. My feelings tend to be more selfish in hoping to avoid
going nuts with the insane number of repeated plays through all
the playtesting and now the demos!
Finally, this is a business and even though it is about games
and entertainment, you need to treat it as a business. This may
be your hobby, but this is how the folks looking at your design
earn their living. Even if you think you have a really great
game, you need to understand that it will only be picked up if
the publisher believes that they can make the product a
commercial success. Hopefully, I am not falling into that
Steve: Playtest the heck out of your game
before you take it to a publisher. Your playtesters will find
lots of problems in the game that you never thought of. If you're
lucky they'll also find opportunities that you never thought of
either. Our Bootleggers playtesters really drove us to
expand the direct player-to-player negotiation possibilities to
include, for example, using Thug cards to blackmail other players.
This added a great new dimension to the game while fitting in
perfectly with our design philosophy.
MP: Don, you particularly have helped a
lot with some game design events here in Michigan. You and I have
worked together on the Midwest Game Designers Forum and
Protospiel 2004 and both events have been greatly appreciated by
the attendees. How do these organized events fit into your goals
with SDR Games?
Don: In two ways. One, obviously, is for
selfish reasons in finding a group of folks that can critically
playtest our designs. Playtesting is difficult and not a lot of
fun. More importantly is finding folks that are experienced
playtesters who can provide the type of feedback we need at that
stage in the games' development. The downside to hosting these
events, as you know and I have learned, is that you tend not to
get as much time to test your own designs. I think it is the
added responsibility for keeping the event running and to ensure,
as hosts, that everyone else attending finds value in the event.
Secondly, I wanted SDR Games to have a positive influence in
the game industry. We are tremendously fortunate that internally
we already have the minimum number of players for any game we are
working on. Not all designers have that opportunity; for most,
these events represent the only time they can test a design and
gain critical feedback.
MP: What plans do you have for the near
Ray: Well, we have more games in the pipeline
Steve: We have no intention of being one hit
wonders, that's for sure.
MP: Is Bootleggers typical of
these other games you're working on now, in terms of complexity
and strategy, or do you have some party games or light, humorous
card games in the works too for example?
Steve: Our main interest is games like Bootleggers--richly
themed strategy games--but we've got completed designs for things
ranging from simple 2-player card games (Canoe Race) to
raucous party games (Fallen Idols, now on something like
version 6!). Plus some things that are probably totally
unmarketable because they are interesting to maybe seven people
in the entire world.
MP: Guys, I want to thank each of you
very much for the interview. I hope you enjoy much success with Bootleggers
and your future projects!
Steve: Thanks for your time, too, Mike. We're
looking forward to knocking Settlers off from the #1
sales position at Fair Play.