Staking A Claim In The Game Industry
An Interview With Scott Starkey
I first heard of Scott Starkey when Jim Doherty released his
second game, Monkeys on the Moon. Scott did the artwork
for that game and he followed up, this time with more
illustrations, on Jim's next game The Penguin Ultimatum.
I was surprised last summer to learn that Scott is not only an
illustrator, but he designs his own games as well.
We added his game The Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch to
the Fair Play site last year after he sent us a review copy. From
the first time I tried it out I've enjoyed the game quite a bit.
It's a great little filler that offers some room for decisions
and includes a healthy dose of humor. I'm always glad to have it
hit the table during a gaming session, particularly when I'm
playing with a group who knows how to ham it up with those
drifter cards. The rules state that a "campy western accent"
is optional, but I find using one is nearly unavoidable when I
play. I should also note that Scott also illustrated his own game.
His cartoon style adds that extra touch of fun to the game,
making the final product an impressive show of talent on all
The following is the interview Scott was kind enough to grant
Mike Petty: When you're not designing games, what do you
do for a living?
Scott Starkey: For my "day job", I am a computer
technician for Purdue University's Athletic Department. I set up
new computers, fix them, do network/database administration, and
that sort of thing.
MP: How long have you been into gaming?
SS: You could safely say I've loved games my whole life. My
father played games with me like Chess, Poker, and Skat at a
pretty young age. I grew up in the 80s loving the Avalon Hill
classics and role-playing games. Late in the 80s and early 90s, I
was part of a regular Eon Cosmic Encounter group. Today,
I play anything I can get my hands on.
MP: What are your favorite games to play?
SS: You can probably always get me to play the classics:
Poker, Chess, Scrabble, Cosmic Encounter, or
even Survive! (out-of-print Milton Bradley game, but a
good one). That being said, I always love playing new games.
Currently I'm itching to play Pitchcar, Mü,
Knizia's Lord of the Rings, and Nobody But Us
MP: What turned your interest to game design, and what
made you choose to self-publish?
SS: About three years ago, I made a New Year's resolution to
become a game designer. Before that, I had designed games as a
hobby, but I'd never treated it quite seriously before that.
After I made that decision, the light came on in my mind,
illuminating game design. The ideas started to flow faster than I
could prototype them. Sticky Gulch came out of that
initial rush of ideas, and was one of my favorite designs of that
Yet, I was unsure of how to get it published. I talked to a
game manufacturer (one which happens to be about 10 miles away
from where I live!) to get estimates on the cost of publishing.
They only wanted to print orders in big batches of 10,000 or more
units, which were unlikely I could afford. They suggested I talk
to an agent, which I did at great length. The agent explained a
bit about the American game industry to me, how the big
manufacturers would generally not talk to independent designers
without an agent. Even with his help, it would take years for my
design to hit the shelves. Also, I would be considered an
inventor and not a designer or artist, and likely be uncredited
for the work. I wanted credit for Sticky Gulch, and I
was pretty sure I wanted to do the art for it too. I was proud of
the project. I wanted to find another way. I discovered the Yahoo
group SpitAndBailingWire, a helpful forum of shoestring-budget
game designers. After fiddling around with the tedious process
die-cutting my own cards, I decided I would shop around for some
printers that would allow a print run of 1000 units or so. I
chose Delano Service because of their excellent customer service
and their distance geographically to me
If I could jump in the "wayback machine," I might
try to sell my game to some of the small hobby game publishers
around. There are some that accept outside submissions. Then
again, I might have ended up back at the same spot I am, now.
Regardless, I don't regret the decision I made.
MP: I know you also did the artwork for two of Jim
Doherty's games. Did he provide any of the inspiration for you to
pursue your own designs?
SS: I met Jim on the SpitAndBailingWire list. When I
introduced myself to the group, I mentioned that I was a
cartoonist. He was needing some custom artwork for this new idea
he called Monkeys on the Moon. So we hit it off.
So, yes, he did provide mentoring and advice in getting my
designs published. There's a veil between the "insider world"
of game publishers and regular gamers. I mean, the game design
seems like a fun job, and it is, but it's also hard work! So, Jim
was the voice of reason for me. I listened to about 72.3% of his
advice, and I wish I had listened to him 100%. He also helped me
by splitting a booth with me during GenCon 2003.
MP: Briefly tell us how The Mother Lode of Sticky
Gulch came about.
SS: Well, the name came first. The name "Sticky Gulch"
was the name I always used when I played that old SimCity
computer game in the '80s. "Sticky" is a corruption of
my last name, and it's a little more rustic-sounding than "Starkey
Gulch." Its double-entendre also made me chuckle.
Fast forward several years. After I decided to become a game
designer, I thought it would be fun to do a wild west game based
on Sticky Gulch. The mechanic of covering spots on a card and
then making prospecting rolls on it seemed to fit a mining theme,
which worked. Out of my original batch of games, Sticky Gulch
turned out to have the broadest appeal between gamers and non-gamers,
so I went with it as my first published product.
MP: Late last year Sticky Gulch was selected by Games
Magazine for their top 100 games. Congratulations on being
selected with your very first game.
MP: What was it like to find out your game was selected?
SS: Wow, when I heard the news, I just about fell out of my
chair. I have been a long-time reader of Games for about
twenty years now. To me, such an honor is difficult to fathom.
But I hope it's just the tip of the iceburg. Sticky Gulch
was my design from three years ago. I like the games I've been
producing recently even better. So, I'd like to try again.
MP: As I'm sure you know, there is no shortage of would-be
game designers out there looking to get their games published.
Now that you've seen your own design go from concept to a
successful finished product, what advice would you have for other
SS: Well, my first advice would be playtest - playtest -
playtest. Then, when you can't stand playtesting any more, you
must playtest some more. It's helpful that I've got a group of
good friends (a circle of would-be game designers near where I
live) who I can bounce ideas off of and are willing to play
almost anything I thrust in front of them. Bonus points if you
have a group who will tell you when one of your ideas stinks. (In
a nice way, of course!)
If you need help, seek out advice from other people doing the
same thing. For example, it might be helpful to check out the
YahooGroup SpitAndBailingWire or the Board Game Designer's Forum
Odds are, someone has gone through the same problems you have,
and people seem to be generally helpful and nice there.
Then, I would try to see if another company would be willing
to publish your stuff. Don't just send them a prototype out of
the blue-that's rude. Send an inquiry email first, or maybe ask
one at a convention. Ask if they are in the market for outside
submissions, and if so, find out about their submission
procedures. There's several small presses out there that are
looking for external work.
Many designers get in the biz by first getting their name
known in contests. There are a number of contests for unpublished
authors: Hippodice, Piecepack, and more. Find them, and send them
Only after you've exhausted other avenues, would I consider
self-publishing. The market for new games is tight, and even a
modest project will cost in the thousands. It's also difficult to
round up art, lay it out in a proper format for a publisher,
copyedit your own work, etc. And that's the easy part. After you
get the project, you must become the accountant, promoter,
marketer, and salesman (in addition to being the game designer,
layout designer, artist, and editor). If this sounds like a lot
of work, well, it is. And even after doing all that work, the
game still may or may not sell.
However, it is a very interesting path I've chosen for myself,
and I don't regret it. And I'm currently in the process of
developing another game to start the crazy process all over again.
MP: Well, speaking of this process, I contacted you early
this year for an interview, but before we finished it, we ended
up working together on something completely different.
Specifically, you did the artwork on the New World Games version
of my game of What's It To Ya?. I read one of your
comments at the Boardgame Geek stating that the job had special
challenges. Hopefully that wasn't because you had to work with me!
What was different about that job?
SS: Ha-ha! No, you were pretty easy to work for. I had a few
challenges in What's It To Ya?. One challenge stemmed
from the fact that the game was totally in black & white.
When I started out as a cartoonist, all of my artwork was in
black and white for the student newspaper I worked for. Over the
past few years, however, I think my artistic brain tends to think
in color, and forcing it back into monochrome was difficult.
Another challenge can be summed up in two words:
Anthropomorphic Arrows! That's a first for me, my friend.
The shape of the cards was a little different too. I'm used to
hogging an entire card with my picture. But in this game, in
order to make room for the words, the action had to be pushed to
the margins of each piece. I wanted the space in the middle to
seem natural and part of the picture. So, I made a template for
myself with a blacked-out center to make sure that I wouldn't
encroach on the word-area, and that seemed to work.
All in all, the project ended up being a fun challenge for me.
MP: My favorite illustration from those cards is the pre-historic
scene with the gigantic dinosaur version of Up chasing Down in
caveman garb. It cracked me up when I first saw it because you
took my original idea of arrow guys so far beyond what I
SS: The dinosaur scene is one of my favorites too. I seem to
work best with some general guidelines about what the designer
wants, and then take that idea and run with it.
MP: Well, back to your games, what can you tell us about
games we might see in the near future?
SS: Of course, it depends on your definition of the word
"near". I have a couple of sequels set in Sticky Gulch
that I really like, one of which I hope to show off at GenCon
2004. I've also got several other games in various stages of
prototyping, which will come soon after I convince my family that
producing another game would not be a fool's errand. Or after I
sell the design to another company, whichever comes first. =)
MP: Either way, we look forward to seeing the results!
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us.
SS: Sure thing, Mike. Thanks for the opportunity for the
Games illustrated by Scott: