Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Dominic Crapuchettes

Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Dominic Crapuchettes

'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Dominic Crapuchettes, the founder and co-president of North Star Games. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.

Dominic, thanks for talking with me! Before we talk about your game designs and your company, North Star Games, let's talk a bit about what kind of games you like to play. You are known for lighter games and party games, are those your personal favorites to play as well? What game do you love that might surprise people?

Games are my favorite form of entertainment because they are interactive and social.  They can engage the mind, evoke emotions, and give you exercise (sports) while creating a memorable experience with friends.  Because they are a collective experience, I can’t separate my favorite games from the people I am playing them with.  

When I was young, my favorite party games included Charades, Pictionary, and the home-made version of Telestrations and Balderdash. I love the humorous moments they create. I enjoyed Chess with my Dad because it made me feel like I was coming of age. He spent time with me reading chess books, teaching strategy, and taking me to tournaments. I even took second place in a regional tournament with hundreds of kids from Southern California. We used to go on a yearly ski trip to a friend’s cabin. While trapped during snow storms (this happened multiple years in a row), we would play Monopoly, Risk, Acquire, Take One (the public domain version of Bananagrams), Civilization, and Diplomacy. But my favorite gaming experience of my entire childhood was definitely the year long role-playing campaign I ran during my junior year at my boarding school.

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My current favorite games are ones I can play with my entire family. They include Clash of Rage, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, The Mind, Most Wanted, Werewolf, Beasts of Balance, Texas Hold’em, Ingenious, Stone Age, Magic Maze, Star Realms, Pandemic, and Happy Birthday (my daughter’s favorite game for the past three years). 

When I’m playing with gamers, I enjoy a wide variety of games depending on the situation, but in general, if the game is in the top twenty on BoardGameGeek, it has too many rules for me. Although I love deep strategy, I don’t have the patience to sit through long rule explanations when I’m hanging out with friends. I once sat through 45 minutes of rules at a convention before realizing I wouldn’t have enough time to play the game before my next panel event! I like strategy games where the rules are clear, and the game is won by good strategic decisions instead of a greater familiarity with the rules. 

What was your first board game design?

One of my early games, Kabloogi, became so popular that it was banned from 8th grade because too many people were playing it during class. It was a two-player war game where you created your side before the game (like Stratego). The thing I was most proud of was that you took four actions on your turn, giving the game a lot of flexibility and making it difficult to know what your opponent would do. It doesn’t sound inventive now (they call it action points), but at 11 years old, I thought I was a genius for coming up with that idea.  

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One thing people may not know is that you were a former professional Magic: The Gathering player. What was it like playing a collectible card game at such competitive levels?

Magic was a wonderful obsession for me. I was on the perma-invite list to the pro-tour for 7+ years due to my ranking (4th in the world for several years in sealed deck), but I didn’t go to all the tournaments. During the summers I worked on a boat in Alaska, and during the winters I was busy paying my way through college. But I made a special effort to attend the sealed deck tournaments where you draft from a random assortment of cards. Drafting a deck is a little bit like designing a game, and playing in the tournament is a little like testing the game you created.

Most of the players were wonderful and amazing (several of them have entered the board game industry and created fantastic games), but there was also culture of cheating and of swindling good cards from the inexperienced and young players. Those aspects of the Magic scene helped drive me towards Euro games and towards starting the board game company that I had been dreaming about since high school.

So, legend has it — along with your profile on the North Star Games website — that you were the captain of an Alaskan salmon fishing boat, and left to start North Star Games after an incident where the boat lost power and you were forced to guide the boat by the North Star. Is this really true? 

Yep, it was crazy. Intense physical work coupled with long stretches of boredom, 12-20 hours without sleep (we once worked for 52 hours straight), and near-death experiences that seemed to occur every few years. That story wasn’t even the scariest of my Alaskan experiences, but it brings to life some of the real moments that occurred in that job. Everything is true about that story except one thing — guiding my boat to safety by the North Star. That line just ties in the story to the name of the company. It was raining and there were clouds, so I couldn’t see any stars, but there were boat lights all around, so I always knew my location. I knew where I was and where I wanted to go. I just wasn’t sure if I could get there without sinking.

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Tell me what the early days of North Star Games were like, before Wits & Wagers and Say Anything. Where did you start? How did you grow the company?

During the summers, I captained a fishing boat in Alaska.  During the winters, I was a programmer at a dot com.  I decided to leave both jobs, go to business school, find a business partner, and start publishing the games I had been designing throughout my life.  I got extremely lucky with my business partner — Satish Pillalamarri. He’s been a key part of the company since basically the start. Although I had been working for North Star years before Satish came on board, most of that time involved designing games and learning about this foreign area of study called business where the goal was to earn money. Something my liberal arts background did not prepare me for.

One recent decision you have made is to pursue video game adaptations of board games, starting with the Evolution video game from North Star Digital. Are you happy with the digital implementation and the reception it has gotten? 

I am ecstatic about the digital implementation of Evolution. Several times a week, someone reaches out to me to say it’s the best digital board they have ever seen. Furthermore, a quite a few people tell me Evolution is one of the best games they’ve ever played, and they have no idea how they over-looked it for so long. This is exactly what I was hoping for. Evolution has deceptively simple rules, which can lead people to think it’s a light family game. It isn’t. It’s a highly thematic strategy game with tournament quality depth. We made the digital game free-to-try hoping to reach new fans by giving people an easy way to play the game. In short, I could not be happier with how the product turned out. Whether it will turn out to be a smart business decision is a completely different story...   

What are your future plans for North Star Digital? Plans to adapt any other titles at the moment?

It’s too early to tell what direction we’ll go.  We’re still in the middle of the Evolution video game launch. We’re giving away 10 free copies of their Evolution board game every day to 10 people you played an online game of Evolution that day.  We still have over 500 games to give away!  Since you can play one online game a day for free on Android and iOS, there is no reason not to download the app and check out the game.

Once the launch is done, the team will figure out what to work on next. It might be the Climate expansion, it might be porting the game to the Switch, it might be adding weekly events, and it might be working on a digital version of Oceans or Quacks. Or maybe they’ll just eat pizza and watch movies. It’s hard to say.

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Your next big board game project is Oceans, which is part of the Evolution series. How does it play, and what makes it different from the previous games in the series?

Oceans is the culmination of working within the Evolution game system for the past six years. With over 100 unique cards and pieces of art, it’s the most massive project I have ever worked on. It is also the smoothest version of the series ever released.

My goal was to effortlessly bring people into a dynamic game space like the one that inspired me for years as a Magic player. That’s no easy feat. Those games hit you upfront with 100 - 300 cards to learn (and that’s just for the base set). We solved this issue by creating a core deck of 12 traits that’s fully playable without any of the other components. The core is a tight tournament worthy experience that brings familiarity and stability to the game. We coupled that core experience with another deck of nearly 100 unique power cards called the Deep, designed to invoke a sense of childlike wonder each time they hit the table. You will only see a few of these power cards each game, prolonging the delight you feel as you admire the beautiful art of new cards you’ve never encountered, and discover powerful ways they interact with the environment. The juxtaposition of these two elements is what gives Oceans its magic — tight tournament level stability coupled with power cards of pure delight.  

Oceans plays very different from every game in the Evolution series. It’s still an ecosystem game where you must pay attention to the other players and adapt your species to the changing environment, but the turn structure is easier to teach and getting attacked is not very punitive. There is a lot of interaction, but the interaction doesn’t cripple your position like it might in Evolution. Oceans has a much better first game experience than other Evolution games without compromising on depth.

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You are one of four designers listed on the game, what did each of your contribute to its development?

The four game designers worked on different aspects of the game. Nick Bentley and Brian O’Neill (a professor of marine biology) worked on the game architecture and a rough draft of the 12 core traits. Nick is well known for his two-player abstract games. He is a master at creating a simple structure that provides tremendous emergent strategies. As a former pro-Magic player, I have a knack for balancing a set of cards, so I took over the design about a year and a half ago. I added Aging, which is a core aspect of the game architecture that drives the game forward in a thematic way, added scenario cards, and found a way to incorporate the 100 unique traits (that Nick had been wanting) without throwing the entire game into random chaos. My job was to balance the core deck, make the scenarios simple and impactful, and tie everything together into one vision that provided a fun experience. While I worked on balancing and unifying the game, Ben Goldman created nearly 100 power cards for the Deep. Ben also has a phenomenal knack at designing and balancing games, so he helped tremendously with the core set. Then I spent another couple hundred hours going over all of the power cards (one at a time) to make them easier to understand, more emotionally impactful, and iron out the rough edges that inevitably happen when 100 power cards have the chance of interacting with 100 other power cards.  Finding these wacky interactions could not have been done without the dedication of a very large group of outside playtesters. Speaking of which…

Oceans had hundreds of outside playtesters that printed out three different prototypes and logged over 2,000 games into our database. A core group of 30+ outside testers contributed hundreds of ideas and comments every day on Discord for several months. I’ve poured through thousands and thousands of posts and spent many late nights analyzing the logged data in countless spreadsheets. The contributions of these outside playtesters has been immeasurable. A game of this magnitude cannot get polished without the help of a very large dedicated community and our outsider playtesters were rock stars.

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Another big project you've been working on for a while now is a new team version of Wits & Wagers called Super Wits which pits a team of heroes against a team of villains. Can you tell me a bit about the development challenges you've faced with this game, and how you feel you've finally cracked them, making this game finally ready for release?

We started working on a ten-year anniversary edition of Wits & Wagers in 2013, but it needed more polish, so we decided it would be the eleventh-year anniversary with a tagline of “this one goes to 11”.  We had a print files ready in 2016 for the Epic Geek edition, but after printing 100 copies for press, decided it wasn’t yet fulfilling its full potential. Creating a party game with strategy is an extremely tough project to pull off. Anything complicated or with fiddly accounting pulls attention away from being social. It kills the party. I kept at it and finally cracked the nut early in 2018. Several people at GenCon 2018 said it was their favorite game of the show, but there were still a few small issues I wanted to iron, which I did by SHUX in October.  Since then we’ve just been refining small details, finalizing the art, working of an international set of questions, creating original comics to introduce the characters, and hopefully finding the time to write the rules in comic book form.  Ambitious, but a heck of a lot of fun! It will be released as Super Wits on Kickstarter in February 2020.

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How is the Happy Planet line of games going at North Star? For anyone not familiar, what makes that line unique and different from your other offerings?

Our Happy Planet games are not designed for hobby gamers. They are simple game concepts designed to quickly get people interacting and laughing. Each game can be explained in a minute, plays in 2–10 minutes, and comes in an adorable portable pouch. The line is doing very well. Not only has every Happy Planet game been nominated by the most prestigious mass market awards at Toy Fair and ASTRA, but Happy Salmon and Monster Match have also been embraced by gamers on an international scale. Happy Salmon’s now available nationwide at Target.

Going a bit in the opposite direction, you've also been branching out into more involved, strategic games, like bringing over Warsaw: City of Ruins and Kennerspiel des Jahres winner The Quacks of Quedlinburg over from Europe. What made you decide to pursue these types of games, and are you happy with the dividends so far?

I’ve always wanted to expand our product line of hobby games. The problem is that our games take an average of 3–5 years to design and test in-house, and the hobby community has a voracious appetite for new games. We quickly fall of the radar every time we go to a convention without a new game.  Three years of nothing to show for our efforts is confusing to our customers. So we’ve decided to couple our in-house designs with games that have been designed and developed by some of the best over-seas publishing companies. It’s a strategy that is working very well for us. I probably don’t need to mention that Quacks has been insane. Everyone’s talking about it and we’re having a hard time keeping it in stock.

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Speaking of the community’s appetite for new games, what are your thoughts on the state of the current market? Do you think this increase in new games every year is sustainable? Is it the new normal, or a potential bubble?

I don’t think the new pace of board game releases is sustainable, but in the meantime, we are getting to see some of the best games that history has ever produced. Let’s enjoy it while we can!  Some companies have reacted by releasing more games in order to increase their revenue streams, knowing they will last less long.  We went in the opposite direction; we’re spending several years more time on each of our in-house releases to help them stand out in a crowded market.

Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to share about yourself? Any other passions, hobbies or interests?

Some of my other passions include soccer, coffee and French pastries, composing music, literature, and economic theory (not business – I don’t really like business). But more than anything, I just try to be a good dad and a decent husband. My life is simple when you boil it down to what I actual do each week — Spend time with my kids, design board games, and play soccer. Oh… and email.

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