Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Anne-Marie De Witt
Before we get into the business of board gaming, I'm curious what kind of games you like to play. What are your all-time favorites? What has been hitting the table a lot lately?
There are many games I have admired over the years. The more I play, the more my tastes change, but I always retain my respect for the games that have shaped my experiences. An early favorite was Tikki Topple. Looking at how much play you can get out of different objectives with common actions is fascinating to me. And I’ll never forget the first time I played Pandemic. It was a New Year’s Day, and I played all day long. I didn’t take a shower until I finally won! My current favorites are Honshu, Takenoko, and Splendor. Those games present interesting and rewarding challenges every time I play them. However, the game getting the most play right now is Pandemic Legacy, simply by the nature of the game. We’re getting together with friends every Friday we can and doing our best to save the world from disease. (Hint: You don’t want us at the CDC.)
Does being the CEO of Fireside Games take any of the joy out of playing games? Are you always thinking about how you can improve them? Are you able to enjoy other publisher's games without being threatened by the competition they bring?
When I’m playing games, I’m opening the box to enter a different world with its own rules. I want new, unique experiences. I’m not thinking about them as competition to the games we create. Games that provide engaging, rewarding experiences inform my game design, and I’m grateful for them, not threatened by them. When I do find games that don’t hold up to play, I spend some time considering why they don’t work, and that informs my game design as well. It’s the ones that don’t work for me but have somehow captured the imagination of the larger gaming community that confuse me. Regardless, I always find something about a game that helps me have fun, deepen my game design, or influence my understanding about gamers.
That's a great perspective. But I've already gotten a bit ahead of myself. How exactly did you become the CEO of Fireside Games? What does being the CEO of a game company entail?
My husband, Justin, and I became co-founders of Fireside Games in 2008, and although we collaborated on all aspects of the business, we naturally started migrating to different functions. He’s the stronger game designer, so he became our Chief Creative Officer, and I have more of a mind for strategy and business development, so I became the Chief Executive Officer. We still rely on each other for input on our areas of responsibility, but I’m the one analyzing industry and market conditions, driving strategy development, determining marketing initiatives, making ad campaigns, and managing all projects. That doesn’t actually cover everything I do, but as an owner in a small organization I do whatever needs to be done.
In addition to being CEO, you are also a game designer. You've designed Munchkin Panic, Bears!, and The Village Crone, and co-designed Bloodsuckers with Justin De Witt. What is your design process like? How much different was it co-designing a game?
When I’m designing a game, I start with theme and think about what is the most compelling activity within that theme. Then I think about what mechanics best support or express that action. Development is a further refinement of theme expression and mechanics. It’s a challenging, frustrating, exalting, and ever-alluring endeavor. I love it. Entering that kind of creative thrashing with another person requires a lot of trust and understanding. Fortunately, Justin and I have been married 23 years and have a strong basis for wrestling together on agonizing decisions. The difference between simply having someone provide feedback that you consider and having someone co-design a game with you lies in the decision making. If you are co-designing and both of your names are on the line, both of you need to be comfortable with the design choices.
Your first big hit, back in 2009, was Castle Panic. It's still in print, with multiple expansions. What is it about the game that has given it such lasting appeal?
I think it’s how the game makes you feel. Players can be on the edge of their seats, fighting off monsters until the last tower is standing, and really feeling in it together. One of my favorite memories is of playing Castle Panic with a brother and sister at a convention. Their father kept checking in every 10 minutes or so, and at the end of the game, he said, “I don’t care what this game is, I’m buying it. My kids have never gotten along for 45 minutes like this.” And the expansions grow the game with the players, adding new mechanics and changing up the game.
In addition to Castle Panic, there have been three other Panic games made: The zombie-themed Dead Panic, Munchkin Panic, which features the characters of Steven Jackson's Munchkin, and Star Trek Panic, which was made with USAopoly and licensed from CBS Consumer Products. What were the challenges of each of these rethemes?
Dead Panic was our first variation in the line, so the challenge with that one was determining how to create a new experience that reflected a zombie apocalypse for gamers and yet retain some of the DNA from Castle Panic. And I think Justin did a great job with that. The next variation was Munchkin Panic, and the challenge there was to marry a very friendly, cooperative game with a game known for its backstabbing. The key with that one was to amplify the card combos and change up the need to protect the castle. The only thing that matters in that game is who has the highest number of points from slaying monsters at the end. Working out those variations helped Justin in his approach to Star Trek Panic. He knew we needed to reflect the theme and make sure that gamers really felt they were working together on the Enterprise. Of course, the challenge was just how to do that. Justin is an exceptional divergent thinker and came up with a solution that is really faithful to the series. I am quite proud of the work he did on that game.
How was it collaborating with Steve Jackson on Munchkin Panic? How about USAopoly and CBS on Star Trek Panic?
Collaborating with both Steve Jackson Games and USAopoly was painless. Justin’s first job in the industry was with SJ Games, and we remain very close with many people there, including Phil Reed and Andrew Hackard. They gave us a lot of freedom to explore solutions and great feedback about what was working and what wasn’t. We had fun playing the prototype with Steve Jackson, and I enjoyed a late-night email exchange with him about final feedback. It was exhilarating talking game design with him. Working with USAopoly, we found a great deal in common in terms of company culture. We’re of very different sizes, but our approach to work and our personalities are very similar. I really enjoyed the structure of their processes.
Which is your personal favorite of all the Panic titles?
Although I enjoy them all, my personal favorite is Dead Panic. I feel like that game grows the best, and the variety in the weapons and events and the threat of dying and becoming a zombie generate such distinctly enjoyable and memorable experiences.
You have two new games coming out later this year: The cooperative, press-your-luck game Hotshots, where the players are fighting wildfires, and the light strategy grid movement game Kaiju Crush, which features giant monsters. Tell us more about both of them. Who are the intended audiences? What makes these games special?
The primary audience for both is adults who enjoy light strategy games with theme, and the secondary audience is families. That’s generally true of all of our games. What makes Hotshots special is that it’s a cooperative game with individual risk and a unique application of the press-your-luck mechanic. Justin conducted a lot of research on wildfire fighting to reflect that theme well in the play. The more we learned, the more respect we developed for firefighters. The game isn’t a simulation of wildfire fighting, but the basic strategies and many of the details are present in Hotshots. The key differentiators for Kaiju Crush are the mechanical combinations (limited grid movement with shared objectives) and the simple fun in fighting each other. The fighting at first glance looks a bit random, but as you learn to read each other, you see the tactical delight. We’ve never played either game with a group that didn’t want to play again immediately. If readers want to find out more, we have in-depth information on our website. Here’s the link for Hotshots, and here’s the link for Kaiju Crush.
Will you be demoing Hotshots and Kaiju Crush at GenCon?
Yes, we’ll be demoing both and selling limited quantities of them. Come on by booth #1349 and check them out.
Your company lists its values on its website. They are Originality, Authenticity, Service, Excellence, Passion. How do you embody these values in the games you design and make?
I love this question! Our values play a deep part in our approach to our work. With regard to game design, we endeavor to create games that bring something original to the market. It’s far too crowded to regurgitate a game that just feels like anything else out there. The way to do that is to generate authentic expressions of what we find fun, and in so doing we’re serving the primary need and expectation of our customers. In addition to unique games, we strive for excellence in our game design. It’s the polish and refinement that allows a game to feel right to a gamer and that causes gamers to want to play again. And as we are going about doing our work, we’re bringing and tapping into a great deal of passion. If we’re feeling excited about the games we’re creating, authentically passionate about them, we’re on a good track. One other value we’ve been operating under but haven’t yet updated on our website is Teamwork. Everything we do engages our team, starting with the employees of Fireside Games and extending to the participation of players, retailers, and business partners.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Is there anything else you'd like to share with us about yourself or Fireside Games?
Periodically, we take tours of game stores in different areas of the country. This year we’re going to be hitting the Midwest for the first time. If you are in the area, you can come out to get free demos and promos for Hotshots and Kaiju Crush and meet Justin to get an autograph or just give him a high-five. Here’s our blog post about the tour, which lists the specific dates and times for each store we’ll appear at. We’re really excited about meeting everyone. If you can’t make it personally, you can follow us on social media. We’ll be posting videos on YouTube and posting on Facebook. Finally, I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported us in the past and to let you know we’re hard at work creating more great games. Hope to see you all soon!