If you’ve gotten the impression that Star Realms is my favorite game, you’re right. So when a new big Kickstarter is happening for the game, you better believe I get excited. I had the chance to talk to Rob Dougherty, CEO of White Wizard Games and co-designer of Star Realms, about what’s different this time. Read on to find out!
First, tell us a bit about yourself and your history of game design, and the history of White Wizard Games.
I grew up in upstate NY, and I always loved games. When I was little, I was obsessed with Monopoly and Risk. In my teenage years I moved on to Axis and Allies, Dungeons and Dragons, Champions, and Warhammer. From a young age, I was also modifying games and designing new ones.
I joined the U.S. Army right out of high school, completed Airborne training, and served with the 1st infantry division. That was intense, and helped me develop my self-discipline skills. I went to community college and was able to use this newfound discipline to improve from my distracted-by-games-barely-getting-by high school grades to straight A’s. I applied to the Electrical Engineering program at Northeastern University, and was thrilled to be accepted. I was doing great there until something magical got in the way.
I heard about a new card game at GenCon, but wasn’t interested until a game reviewer friend of mine insisted I try it. I quickly became obsessed with Magic: The Gathering. Soon I was filling my backpack with cards and walking Mass Ave bridge over the Charles River to play with friends at MIT.
I wanted more cards, but they were expensive. I starting selling Magic cards online, and it was very lucrative. I think I may have been the first person to sell Magic cards online. I was a poor college student on the GI bill, and posted cards for sale to the MTG-L site (to raise more money to buy cards with!). I remember when eventually someone else posted cards for sale, thinking to myself, “Hey, that’s my thing.”
I enjoyed selling cards and gaming, and there seemed to be a real opportunity there. I figured I could give it a shot and if it failed I could always go back to school. So, I dropped out of college and opened “Your Move Games” store. We had a big Warhammer and Magic community, and I led the store’s legendary professional team, which created a slew of Hall of Fame Magic players. This is also where I met my best friend and business partner, Darwin Kastle. I went on to run events in New England for Wizards of the Coast and to create my own games. I was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.
While running a game store and large game events, it was easy to work on my game projects on the side. There were always plenty of potential playtesters around, after all. My dabbles became real products, and I eventually sold my game stores and worked on games full-time.
I have over 20 years of industry experience spanning nearly every aspect of hobby gaming:
Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Champion and Hall of Famer
White Wizard Games CEO
Designer and Co-Creator of Epic Card Game
Co-Creator of the Star Realms Deckbuilding Game
Co-Creator of the Hero Realms Deckbuilding Game
Co-Founder/Co-Designer of the Ascension Deckbuilding Game
Gary Games Inc. COO
Your Move Games Inc. Co-CEO
Stoneblade Entertainment Organized Play Director
Game Store Owner
Premier Tournament Organizer
Tournament Judge (Level 3 Magic Judge)
Organized Play Designer/Consultant
I co-founded several game companies over the years and successfully published dozens of games and gaming accessories. Darwin and I started White Wizard Games together with Tan Thor Jensen and Vito Gesualdi in 2013.
About White Wizard Games:
About 5 years ago, Darwin Kastle, who was a long time friend and who had worked for me on multiple game projects, was looking for work in the hobby games industry. I suggested he make a game and shop it around to different game companies to show off his skills.
He showed it around some, but got no takers. I decided to help him develop and polish the game. Darwin and I had worked together for decades, first as Magic: the Gathering professional player teammates, then as game designers/developers. Over that time, we developed a strong rapport and I can improve games faster and better with Darwin than with anyone else.
As we worked on his game prototype (that would later become known as Star Realms), it got better and better. Eventually, it got so good that I suggested we should just make it ourselves. White Wizard Games was born.
Additionally, could you share some little-known factoids? Do they match up to the dog-breeding, ballroom-dancing-instructor side of Darwin [Kastle]?
I have 7 children and a Saint Bernard.
Our home was built in the 1700s.
I love to play Just Dance with my 9 year old.
I like to bake pies (yes, really!).
Star Realms was the game that kicked off White Wizard Games, and now we’re back full circle with a new, big Kickstarter for the game. When I interviewed Darwin in 2014, he talked about the low price point being a gamble and wanting the game to “catch fire.”
Looking back, did the gamble pay off? Anything you would have done differently with that first launch?
Yes, the box size was a big gamble.
With my first deckbuilding game, Ascension, I wanted people to understand it wasn’t a trading card game. My business partner Justin Gary and I were big Magic players and we leaned early on that heavily in our marketing. I was worried that would translate to people thinking Ascension was a trading card game, so I put that game in a large, board game style box, and had it come with a game board (even though it wasn’t really necessary). That worked well, and Ascension was a big hit.
I, however, was never fully happy with that packaging. I would take the Ascension cards out of the box and put them in a card carrying box from my Magic decks to make it smaller and more portable. With Star Realms we decided to try making the game box small and portable. This allowed us to sell what would have normally been a $40 game for just $15. On the down side, we put all the work in to make what should have been a $40 game but were just getting $15 for it! It also meant the game was smaller and harder to see on the store shelf, and might get confused with trading card games. So, a lot could have gone wrong. Fortunately, people seem to really love the affordability and portability, and Star Realms took off even more than Ascension did.
Star Realms’ accessibility has always been a huge boon to the game, yet there’s a lot there to explore. With Colony Wars, I was impressed how different the game felt with very few new mechanisms. With Frontiers, we’ve seen at least one new mechanism (double ally abilities). How do you balance keeping the game fresh without overdoing it or “using up” your ideas too soon? How far out do you have ideas planned for the future?
One way we keep things simple with Star Realms is avoiding keywords. So with Colony Wars we had a mechanic on some cards that when you acquire them, if you have played a card of that faction already that turn, they go to your hand instead of your discard pile.
Instead of making that a keyword (like say “Reinforcement”) we just wrote the text of what to do on the card. This allows us to do cool new things without players having to learn more. Just read the card and you will be fine.
There were some mechanics in Frontiers that had keywords, which got changed to just have explanation text during development. The double ally ability will need to be explained in the rulebook, but it is fairly intuitive so I don’t think new players will have trouble with it.
We don’t plan out mechanics more than a set in advance. That said, we sometimes come up with cool mechanic ideas and decide to save them for a set down the road where they would be a better fit.
Speaking of Colony Wars, that is the only standalone release from White Wizard Games that did not come out through Kickstarter. Was that not as successful as you wanted? What’s the motivation for moving Star Realms back to Kickstarter with Frontiers?
We have been doing new games on Kickstarter, and new expansions direct to stores. Several factors brought us to the decision to bring Frontiers to Kickstarter.
Our Star Realms fans helped make our Epic and Hero Realms Kickstarters a big success, but most of them weren’t around for that first Star Realms Kickstarter. I heard from a lot of Star Realms fans that they wish they could have been part of a Star Realms Kickstarter.
We have found that the games we have launched on Kickstarter do better in retail than those we don’t. Kickstarter backers tend to be excited about the games they get, and take them to stores and play with their friends, essentially working as a demo team for their local game store. This translates into more excitement and more sales at the hobby store level.
The extra dollars raised by a Kickstarter campaign allows us to do so much more than we could otherwise do. Better art, more cards, more game development, etc.