Punchboard Media: Conversations Between Turns - Breaking into Board Games
Trey Chambers currently has his Empyreal: Spells & Steam design running on Kickstarter from Level 99 Games, which funded in 25 hours and is still chugging right along. I thought this mid-campaign lull would be a perfect time to catch up with Trey and find out a bit more about his history and growth as a board game designer who now has three published designs under his belt.
Eric Buscemi: Empyreal: Spells & Steam isn't your first design -- or your first Kickstarter campaign. So let's start at the beginning. When did you decide to try designing board games? How did you first go about it? Did your initial attempts turn into published games?
Trey Chambers: I've designed games since I was a kid, using pencil and paper. They were basically glorified mazes I let my friends play, and they resembled levels from Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda. I wanted to design video games as well, but programming just never interested me. Or any of the technical aspects, really. I just wanted to come up with the ideas, which is fine for board game design but not so much with video games.
I never really considered designing board games, though, because like so many people at the time I had no idea hobby games even existed. For me, board games meant the usual fare of Monopoly, Life, and Clue. All games I enjoyed as kid, but not ones I had much interest in as an adult. Then a friend introduced me to Catan about 10 years ago and it was down the rabbit hole. It still never occurred to me to try to design my own games because I had no idea where to start. Fast forward several years and I was at a game night playing Lost Valley. My friend had made profession-looking player aids for Lost Valley, and I asked him how he did so. The process was super simple and that night I resolved to use this technique to create my own prototypes.
My first couple of game design were solid, but never got picked up (publishers, holla at me). One was basically Werewolf with a board, similar to Battlestar Galactica before that game existed. The other was like At the Gates of Loyang, but better, and with a Blacksmithing theme. I shopped them around at several conventions, but had no luck.
Argent was my third design, and seemed to follow a similar pattern at first. Publishers would always tell me it was a good game, but that it wasn't a great fit for them. By this point, I had been designing for years. Countless hours and dollars had been invested, with nothing to show for it. I was pretty discouraged and at the brink of giving up on game design period. Then at a Publisher Speed Dating event, I was able to demo it for Brad Talton of Level 99 Games who immediately offered to publish it. The rest is history.
Eric: Did Argent have the wizard school theme when you showed it to Brad, or did that come later in its development? How did the idea for Argent's design come to you? How long did you work on it?
Trey: The theme for Argent actually came first. I had a dream about different elemental schools of magic fighting each other, sort of like Avatar: The Last Airbender. So I designed a game about battling over influence over one of those schools. It was originally called “Wizards of the Consortium”. Everyone relates Argent to Harry Potter, but that actually wasn’t the direct inspiration at all, though it did become a bigger inspiration further along in development.
You can still see echos of this original design in the schools of magic in Argent. In Wizards of the Consortium, Fire mages (now Sorcery in Argent) were the ones that could wound your mages and take their place, just like in Argent. The Earth mages similarly could defend against that, just like the Nature mages in Argent.
The game was in development for a couple of years before Level 99 picked it up, then another year with Brad’s involvement. He added some of the neat aspects like the modular board, upgradable spells, and the 5th school of magic to join Earth, Fire, Water (Divinity), and Wind (Planar), the Mystic school and later the Technomancy school from Argent’s expansion.
Eric: Your second published game is Harvest, which was released in 2017 by Tasty Minstrel Games. This game was developed into a thematic sequel to Scott Almes' Harbour, and was released directly into retail instead of through Kickstarter. How different was this experience from your experience with Argent and Level 99?
Trey: Very different. With Level 99 I worked closely with all of their staff to develop Argent (and later Empyreal). With TMG I only worked with their developer, Seth Jaffee (an excellent developer, by the way). Each publisher has a unique style, but I am very proud of how both games turned out!
Eric: Tell us more about how Harvest plays, and how it evolved through the development process.
Trey: It’s basically a farming worker placement game like Agricola (its main inspiration), but plays in about 10 minutes per player. It packs quite a punch in very short playtime! And lots of replayability too. There are different actions, player abilities, and buildings in every game, so every game is going to play very differently.
Replayability is my biggest emphasis on my designs as I like to keep a small amount of games in my personal collection. I try to only purchase games that can hit the table many times before feeling old, so I try to design games with that same idea.
Harvest came together really quickly as far as development. All the main ideas were there in the very beginning. The major thing TMG did is help me balance the game and to suggest adding asymmetrical player powers, which ended up being my favorite thing in the design.
Eric: Both Harvest and Argent use a worker placement mechanism. How did your use of that differ in each design? Did you consciously avoid using a worker placement in your next game, Empyreal?
Trey: For Argent it’s a really original twist on the formula: each of the worker types players can draft have very different abilities. Harvest is more traditional, but you only have two workers and you can’t get more like in many other Worker Placement games, so you have to use them wisely!
I actually don’t mind designing more worker placements games since I love the mechanism, but I do design many other types of games! Empyreal was just the first non-worker placement game I’ve designed that got picked up for publication (besides Argent: Hall Monitor, an abstract game that went to 1st Edition KS backers).
Eric: How did you come up with the idea for Empyreal? Did it start as a train game? A pick-up-and-deliver game? Who do you see being the audience for it?
Trey: I don’t remember the exact inspiration for Empyreal, it was kind of a progression of thoughts. I was big into Terra Mystica at the time, and around the same time I began wondering why there wasn’t a fantasy-themed train game. That inspired me to design “Fantasy Rails”, Empyreal’s first name. It was always meant to be a pick-up-and-deliver train game, but one very different from the existing train games out there.
As for the audience, obviously train game fans, but I also wanted to appeal to both Euro and Ameritrash fans. I think Euro players will love the engine-building and strategic planning, and Ameritrash fans will enjoy the player interaction and strong theme. There’s a little something for everyone!
Eric: At what point in the design did you bring it to Level 99 and connect it to the same thematic world as Argent? Did you have to pitch it to them, like you did with Argent?
Trey: I have a good relationship with Level 99, so I show them a lot of my prototypes. Other companies were already interested in it, but I thought Level 99 could really do something special with the game due to already having the Indines world ready to go as far as the setting. I showed it to them at Gen Con, and they picked it up immediately.
Eric: From looking at the Kickstarter campaign, this looks to be a very big box game with a lot of stuff in it. Did you originally envision it being such a big game, or did it grow as you designed it?
Trey: Level 99 tends to “take things to 11,” meaning they add more and more content to almost all of their games. They certainly added a lot with Empyreal! I had always intended the game to be chock full of content, but Level 99 in particular added the various modules in the expansion, so now there are many ways to play the game.
Eric: Did you find the availability of Empyreal on Tabletop Simulator to be useful for playtesting the game? How about promoting the game?
Trey: It’s invaluable for playtesting because the Level 99 crew lives in Albuquerque, and I live in Houston. It’s also been useful for people to try the game and then share their thoughts online, which helps allay any fears that it’s all bling and no substance like some Kickstarter games are. These are not paid reviewers, but actual players who played on TTS and then offered their thoughts on the game, which makes their takes more authentic than if we were using paid previews.
Eric: Having already gone through the Kickstarter process once with Argent, how were you feeling right before the campaign went live -- more nervous or excited? Did you expect the campaign to be where it is now?
Trey: Certainly less nervous than I was for Argent, but you still have some level of doubt. “Will anyone find this as interesting as I do?” is the question running through my mind before a campaign launches. But after seeing how loyal Level 99 fans are with the Argent campaigns, I felt more confident that this one would fund.
Eric: Do you find it is easier as a designer now that you have established yourself with a few published designs? I imagine it is easier to get meetings with publishers as a known entity, but I also imagine it is harder to keep finding fresh, new design inspirations on a regular basis.
Trey: Oh yes, just like in any creative field, getting your first break is definitely the hardest one! It took me many years of pitching to publishers before Argent got picked up. I had almost given up completely before I got my fortunate introduction to Level 99. Since I’ve had two (now three) successful Kickstarters as well as an excellent release by TMG (Harvest), publishers definitely are more willing to check out my prototypes.
Eric: So after you wrap up with Empyreal, what’s next for you? Any other designs already in the pipeline? If so, at what stages?
Trey: I have many, many finished prototypes that I’ve “shelved” to marinate for awhile. Sometimes I take them off the shelf and polish them up. I’m always torn between that and focusing on new designs. I’m currently not sure what I’ll be bringing to Gen Con to pitch, but hopefully it will be at least 2 games if not 3 or 4. As for what those designs will be, I’m not sure yet. I am most excited currently about a heavy co-op I’m designing in the vein of Spirit Island. If I can get it publish-ready by Gen Con, I’ll definitely be bringing it there!
We hope you've enjoyed reading this conversation. Have any questions for Trey that weren't covered? Comment below and let us know!