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Geek Chic: The Sulton Gaming Table (GenCon 2008)

Robert Gifford of Game Chic was kind enough talk with me at GenCon 2008.

Tell us the beginnings of this table.

Honestly it started out like a lot of gamers do – you sit around and say “If I could have the ultimate “something,”  if I could have the ultimate table…”  I was talking to a handful of gamers and honestly half-heartedly, half-jokingly said, “You know what I’m going to do?  I’m going to do this.  And they took me dead seriously because I’m that type of guy.  They said, “He’s really doing it.”  And, of course, I guess maybe I’m the kind of guy that takes a dare.  And I said, “Well, goodness gracious.  They think I’m going to do it, so I’m going to do it.”  That was actually happening right about the same time as Gary Gygax’s passing and it was kind-of putting things in perspective. I thought, “You know, 40 years of war-gaming, 30 years of role-playing gaming…or 100 years of war-gaming if you go back to HG Wells, and we didn’t have any kinds of solutions that were like this at all.  It was all home-made, hand-done, and no commercial stuff.  And the thing is this is about respecting our hobby and respecting the game.  It’s about elevating them to a level that they deserve.  People buy pool tables all the time and they never play pool.  We play these games all the time and we play them on pieces of plywood over sawhorses.  We need to start realizing that these games are worth our time, worth our money, and worth our overall investment, and that’s how we bring our families and people around these things and keep these things going.

What is your background on this?  Are you a woodworker, engineer?

No, it’s funny.  I guess I had a designer deep inside me.  I designed the table completely and totally.  I built it up in 3D.  I hadn’t used a 3D program before then, but I figured I’m a computer geek…you know I really consider myself a meta-geek; I’m geeky about geeks.  Geeks to me are people who are absolutely focused in or at least really curious about one thing, so I’m really curious about what kind of roads people have traveled down.  So I kind-of know people’s passions because that’s what interests me – other people’s passions.  So I kind-of knew the people to talk to.  I knew a guy a long time ago that I would call a wood-geek or a furniture-geek (Hans Weber), and I brought the plans to him and we sat down and talked about it and I said, “Is this doable?”  And this was only about 6 months ago really.  And he looked at it and he said, “Yea, it’s doable.  Let’s go.”  We just went full-tilt, straight out after that.  You’re looking at our second prototype.  The third and final production model is being built.  And Hans is on a very well-deserved vacation hiking through the Cascades right now.  I think the response has been very positive and we’re really proud of it no matter what.  People could say, “It’s garbage,” and we’d say “You’re WRONG!”  (Laughing)  We think it’s great and we’re just glad everyone else thinks it’s as great as we do.

Tell me a little bit about the features that you love about this table?

You know, I like all kinds of gaming, so the big thing about it is that I wanted it to be multi-purpose.  I wanted it to be absolutely multifunctional for whatever game struck your curiosity, for whatever game fell out of fashion and then came back into fashion.  I’ve played miniatures games, role-playing games, card games, collectible card games – I’ve played the whole gambit of stuff that’s available, and I wanted to make sure that it satisfied all that.  I guess the feature that I like most about it is the versatility.  The thing about it is that it’s the perfect role-playing game table.  Each person has their own gaming station with a flip-down desk and drawers and storage and a drawer that knocks back so you get all the space that you need whenever you want it.  These things slot back all the way in so that when you flip the desk down you get enough space to put your character sheet and your book.  Now if you don’t need that, if you’re playing war games all the time and you’re setting up against someone on the opposite side, you pull this back out and push this back up and you have a dice rolling channel down the middle of the table for rolling all your dice.  You’re no longer knocking down all those guys, bending the spears on those little guys that you worked so hard to put together and play.  You can flip down what we call these command stations – the GM stations on the end.  Each side has one.  You end up with a big, full space to put all your reference books and papers and everything.  You can file them in these little slats or whatever you like and you’re ready to go.  So when you need that rule on orcs – what’s their morale save against ballistas – you got it right there.  You walk over, you grab it, and you’re no longer shuffling through everything you have.  It has this light table surface (although I may be overstating it because I don’t want people putting their negatives on it because it’s not color-balanced or anything) that absolutely emits light.  It’s what we use to push light through on the back of the satellite photos that we put in there.

 I heard you got stopped by Home Land Security because of the photos.

We did!  Apparently Home Land Security thought our satellite photos were worth looking into, so they got rerouted.  I guess that’s a good thing.  It means we’re bringing gaming to a level that Home Land Security finds threatening.

Where are you based out of?

We’re north of Seattle.  Seattle is the closest place.  Right now, what we’re doing for probably the next 6 months is trying to get these things into people’s homes.  In 6 months I might change my mind thinking “We’re going to go broke,” but right now we’re delivering it for the purchase price of the table.

 And what is the price tag?

$9650.

What is it made of?

It’s made out of black walnut and hard-rock sugar maple.  From the perspective of being green, we wanted to be good about this.  One of the things people ask us is do you do it out of mahogany.  Well, we don’t do it out of mahogany and the reason is that mahogany is a rainforest wood.  Black walnut is a stainable wood out of the US.  We want to make sure we are doing this right in every way that we can.  We’re cutting down trees to make these things, so the big thing about it from my perspective is that when you buy stuff you want to make sure it lasts a lifetime.  You buy stuff that you don’t intend to throw away, and this thing is going to last 50 years and then your grandkids are going to fight over it.

 Have you gotten orders?

Yes, absolutely.  Before the con we had this kind of GenCon preview.  We took in 9 orders.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  We really think there’s a lot more people out there that could have this.  There are people here at the con that are asking dimensions and measurements; they’re going right home to check it and make sure they can do it.  There are people that were on the phone with people back at home checking to make sure the measurements work.  We haven’t signed any paperwork yet at the con, but we have people that are checking measurements and we’ll probably have some by tonight or tomorrow.

 What are the dimensions of the table.

The exterior dimensions of the table are 9 feet long by 5 ½ feet wide, comparable to a large tournament pool table.  It’s 35 inches high.  The interior dimensions are…the play space that has the light table is 4 feet wide by 7 ½ feet long, so it’s large enough to play all the tournament-style games.  4 x 6 is the largest possible tournament play area you need, so you have some extra room to set aside figures.

What about the felt?

It’s velvet.  We put that in what we call the “game keeper.”  The game keeper actually sits in the notch and is flush to the top and it gives you 2 inches underneath that surface to keep your games in progress.  So you keep it going in progress and you can just freeze everything, but you still have a table that you can play your casual games on – your card games, board games, etc.  It actually has 2 surfaces.  One of them is velvet that is good for card games or board games.  The other one is a walnut surface to match so that if your wife wants to use it as an extra table, she can.

Interview with North Star Games Founders

Dominic Crapuchettes and Satish Pillalamarri are the founders and co-managers of North Star Games, a new party game and family game company that is surprising the industry.  Initially a brainchild of Mr. Crapuchettes, North Star Games came to be in April of 2003.  After meeting Mr. Pillalamarri, the two men worked to develop a company that brought something different to the market of family and party games.

With their own money already invested in the company, Dominic and Satish raised funds from various remarkably generous associates and family members to fully design and print their first game, Cluzzle.  In 2004, Cluzzle was a success for them, winning several awards as one of the best family games.  By the end of the year, Cluzzle was being carried in about 100 stores across North America and appeared on frequently visited websites like Toys “R” Us Online and Amazon.com.

In 2005, Dominic and Satish finished their second game, Wits & Wagers.  The game tested very well, with many describing it as a potential blockbuster game.  This led to North Star’s decision to partner with Eagle Games in order to print 10,000 copies each of Wits & Wagersand the 2nd edition of Cluzzlein 2005.  Since then, Target Stores placed an order for more copies of Wits & Wagersand Games Magazine awarded Wits & Wagersas the party game of the year.

These two gentlemen have been kind enough to grant us an interview.

Your first game, Cluzzle was very successful.   What was the inspiration for this innovative sculpting game?

DC: Cluzzle is modeled after a 1988 game by Klaus Teuber called Barbarossa.   My goal was to remove all of the complicated elements that bogged the game down, so that only the fun aspects remained.

What do you think people enjoy most about Cluzzle?

DC: Laughing at the sculptures that other people make when they are trying to be tricky!   A lot of funny situations arise.

SP: I think it’s that the sculptures don’t have to be done very well.   For one, that makes it fun for people who are bad at sculpting, like me.   In fact, Dominic makes fun of me because I still can’t make an oval out of clay.   This mechanic also brings out a lot of the humor in the game.   People ask funny questions about funny-looking sculptures.   Players can joke around and not feel pressured by having to sculpt well.

Wits & Wagers has taken off like a rocket.   What do you attribute its success to?

CD: I think it comes down to two things; it is very simple and very fun.  Going much deeper is difficult because it is hard to explain why something is fun.   On one level, it just is fun.   But if I were to try and break it down, I would say that it has a unique mix of interesting trivia, a touch of strategy (playing the odds and spreads), great social interaction (bluffing, smack talking, and betting on the answers of other players), and the excitement of gambling (being able to bet big and get lucky).

SP: I think Wits & Wagers is just a really strong product.   It’s one of the few games out there that can really be enjoyed by both gamers and non-gamers alike.   It takes 2 familiar genres, trivia and gambling, and combines them in a way that’s totally new and interesting, and that we think improves upon both.

Wits & Wagers is a big improvement upon other popular trivia games like Trivial Pursuit.   For one, you don’t have to know the right answer.   You don’t feel dumb if there’s a question about something you might not follow.   People really latch on to that.   Second, the game has no turns.   People like the fact that everyone is involved in the action the whole time.   In Trivial Pursuit, it’s not uncommon to wait 20 minutes for your turn to come around again.   Another point is that it’s more interactive than most trivia games because you can bet on other players’ answers.   Knowing what your friends know is just as important as what you know.

Congratulations on the Wits & Wagers deal with Target stores.   How was the home office when that deal came through?

CD: We were dumbfounded and excited!   All of a sudden, our company went from the verge of bankruptcy to the potential of great success.   But the reality set in once we returned from Toy Fair.  We would have to get a hold of $400,000 to print the inventory, and we had to get at least $100,000 of that money within a month.   Without a track record or a purchase order, there were no banks that would loan us the money.   So we had to write a business plan and find professional investors.   Not a simple task for someone who views himself as a full-time professional game designer.

SP: At first, we were ecstatic!   The deal increased our distribution 5-fold and will give many more people who are just casual gamers the chance to play Wits & Wagers and hopefully see that there are tons of great games out there, and not just Monopoly and Scrabble.

However, very soon after the news, we really had to crack down to make the deal a reality.   Target wanted us to ship more games than we had produced during the company’s history prior to that point.   First, we had to raise $400,000 to print the inventory that we needed and ship it to the U.S.   We also re-designed the packaging to make it more mass market friendly.   We also added 100 new questions to the game and updated the other 600 questions to reflect the latest information.   And we had to do all of that in about a month!

What type of games do you admire?

CD: I admire games that use the least amount of rules needed to get people involved and having fun.   With party games, this means rules that can be taught in minutes.   With role-playing games, this means rules that enhance a story instead of rules that get in the way of the story.   With strategy games, it means the fewest rules needed to make each game strategically and tactically different from the previous game.   With negotiations games, it means the fewest rules needed to get people negotiating on the value of different items.   In short, I like playing all types of games, but I don’t like sitting around and learning the rules.

SP: I admire many different types of games.   Now that we create games for a living, I understand how difficult the process is and most people who do it should be commended.   I also think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it can be to design party games.   Most people who play party games have very little tolerance for extra rules.   Good party games need to be elegant, which I would define as having fun game play and interesting decisions with as few rules as possible.   Simplicity is key – you can’t spend 10 minutes teaching a party game. 

Game development (in addition to what may traditionally be defined as game design) is also really important in party games.   For example, the questions in Wits & Wagers need to be good for the game to be good.   They have to be interesting and they have to be things people can guess at, but not know exactly.   That’s hard to do.  If the questions were bad, people wouldn’t enjoy the game, even though the design is good.   Such attention to detail is important when designing party games.

Do you play any other types of games?

CD: I cannot think of a genre of games that I have not been passionate about at one time or another.   Some of the favorite experiences were with role-playing in high school.   But I also played competitive Magic for several years culminating in about $30k of winnings.   More currently, I enjoy introducing my non-gamer friends to the light Euro games and getting them to play party games that have a little more meat than their normal fair (such as Wits & Wagers).

SP: I play 3 main types of games – Euro-Games, party games, and card games.   For card games, I’m an avid poker player and play traditional games like hearts and rummy.   For party games, I’ll play most of them and pretty much anything I hear is good.   I love party games that involve creativity (like having to come up with something funny) or communication.   For Euro-games, I prefer the lighter and medium-weight games (Settlers, Carcassone, Ticket to Ride series, Notre Dame, Yspahan, Thurn & Taxis, etc.) and some of the abstract strategy games (Blokus, Ingenious, Qwirkle).   I play heavier Euro-Games on occasion.

GR: Do you get a chance to play much?

CD: Answering this question makes me sad!   Ever since I got serious about trying to make a living running a board game company, my game playing time has diminished.   I used to play games several times a week (everyday when I was on the pro tour).   Now I play games 3 or four times a week.   Then I binge out when I get to a convention and play for several days straight.

SP: I probably game about twice a month these days.   Strangely, it’s often harder to play other games when you run a game company.

GR: What makes your games “designer games”?

CD: One of the most important things to me is that game designers get credit on the front of the box.   Big corporations don’t want to give game designers credit because it gives power to the game designer.   Once a game designer gets recognition, they can charge more money for their work.   So big corporations to their best to keep game designers anonymous.   Well who wants to be the lowly game designer that gets taken advantage of?   Not me.  So relatively few people go into the profession of game design.   This means the quality of games is not as good as it should be.   At North Star Games, we want game designers to get the recognition they deserve.   We want to pay them the money they deserve.   We believe that in the long run, this will increase the number of people that want to become full-time game designers (not just hobbyists that design games on the side), and increase the quality of games that are available in the market.

SP: Simply, that they are designed by real-life game designers who care about the quality of the game, not corporations looking to maximize profit or put out a great gift instead of a great game.   This won’t be a new concept for gamers.   But most people in the U.S. who play board games are casual gamers.   This idea will be new to them.

Here are 4 things that are important to us:

  • Our games have no turns, because we think waiting for your turn is boring.  Everyone is involved the whole time.
  • No one gets eliminated.  Everyone plays until the end.
  • Our games can be taught in 3 minutes or less.
  • Our games are short, so they fit into people’s schedule easily.

What separates your games from all the rest?

CD:

  • We think waiting for your turn is boring, so our games don’t have turns.   Everyone is always involved the whole time.
  • No one gets eliminated.   We think it sucks to go to a friend’s house to play games and then have to sit on the sidelines while others are still having fun.
  • Our games can be taught in 3 minutes or less.   We hate waiting to play a fun game in order to teach people the rules.   Even worse if you’re the person learning the rules.   It reminds me of high school.

What is in store for North Star in 2008?

SP: We will be releasing a new game in the summer of 2008 that’s called “Say Anything”.   It’s a party game that we think combines the best aspects of Wits & Wagers and Apples to Apples.   We’ve tested it with over 200 people so far and it’s been really well received.   We’re excited for the possibilities.

We’ve also begun working on expansion packs for Wits & Wagers.  We hope to have some new questions ready before the end of 2008, but so far we haven’t been able to set a release date for this.