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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.

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