I started a company in Alabama with 2 of my friends in 2015. We called the company Druid City Games because Tuscaloosa, where my friends live currently, has so many old growth oak trees everywhere, that its nickname is the Druid City. Tuscaloosa’s hospital, where I was born, is called Druid City Hospital.
Working with Druid City Games as an owner, designer, developer, and publisher was a dream of mine that went back more than 30 years. In 1977, the year that Star Wars hit the theaters and blew me away, I also discovered Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. My best friend Andy’s father, Morris Simon, was writing Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books for TSR Endless Quest line and they had given him a copy of Basic D&D to try out.
From the first moment I held those crazy plastic dice of various shapes and sizes in my hand – even though you couldn’t see the numbers on them until you filled them in with a colored crayon – I became a gamer for life. Having Mr. Simon (Sonny to his friends), be the Dungeon Master for our small group which included Andy, myself, and Andy’s older step-brother Sean, was a life-changing experience for me.
Over the next few years, we ran through modules with unforgettable names, such as The Keep on the Borderlands, Into the Unknown, The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Against the Giants, The Aerie of the Slave Lords, Ravenloft, The Tomb of Horrors and the Temple of Elemental Evil. I became obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons. I spent most of my high school experience working on maps and creating my own adventures instead of listening to the teachers.
Over the years, as I graduated from high school and started college, my obsession with Dungeons and Dragons grew even more out of control. I joined the Fantasy Game Club of the University of Alabama and began gaming with a very robust and energetic group of gamers. I started playing 2 sessions of D&D a week … and then 3 and then 4. At one point it got so outrageous that I was playing in a different person’s campaign every single night of the week, including Saturday and Sunday evenings, AND was running my own campaign on Sunday mornings with a few hours break during mid-day before the evening session started.
Now some folks might ask – how do you maintain your grades while playing 8 five or six hour sessions of D&D per week? The answer is – you don’t. I had to drop out of school for an entire semester because I was in danger of failing all my classes across the board and ruining my GPA permanently. So – I dropped out of college to pursue my promising new career as a Dungeonmaster.
Yes, as you might have guessed by this point – I eventually decided to tone down the D&D to only 1 or 2 games per week and get back in school, eventually graduating with an M.I.S. degree from the business school.
With many sudden new holes appearing in my previously filled RPG dance card, I turned to board games as a way to enjoy a bit of my free time. My first real board game that I can remember, other than the standard fare of Monopoly, Checkers, Parcheesi, Chess, Risk, Operation and so forth, was the 1981 huge box game called Dark Tower. You had a round map with an electronic tower in the middle that would rotate to face the current player and had flashing lights and loud electronic sounds of battle. The game would probably not be much fun to play given the advances in gaming in the last several decades, but I will always think of it fondly with my Nostalgia Glasses on.
I had lots of fun with some Milton Bradley big boxed games like Shogun, Fortress America, Broadsides and Boarding Parties, and so forth. I also dived into Magic Realm for a session or two, although that game, like many board games from the 70s and 80s, was so complex that I was barely able to follow it and gave it up after a few tries. The Avalon Hill game Titan became my next obsession, with me playing some infamously long (like 12 and 14 hour) sessions with 6 players that eventually ended the next morning with 2 players worn out and snapping at each other until the bloody end.
I played from 6 pm on a Friday night until 8 am on a Saturday morning once, but it was worth it as I finally was able to locate and destroy my friend Keith’s Titan stack and obliterate him from the board. I don’t think we were on speaking terms after that game for a month or so afterwards. We were so tired we were literally snarling at each other as the morning light was peeping in through the curtains.
The discovery that grabbed me next and moved me solidly into the board game realm and out of the RPG realm, though, was when I stumbled across a pair of games by a group of designers, that just blew my mind.
I am, of course, talking about Dune and Cosmic Encounter, by Peter Olotka, James Kittredge, Bill Eberle and Bill Norton (Bill Norton is on the credits for CE but not for Dune).
Both of those games had been around since the late 70’s, but I didn’t run across copies of them until the 80’s. These games were groundbreaking in a couple of ways. The first thing that blew me away was the theme. The theme was so well integrated, especially in Dune, with the game, that it gave me goosebumps sometimes as I was playing the evil Harkonens and destroying my opponent with an especially nasty trick like a Las-Gun/Shield explosion or using Weather Control/Family Atomics to blow the Shield wall and wipe the Atreides player’s entire army off the map, when he thought he was safe and snug in his Stronghold.
The next thing about those two games that really impressed me was the asymmetric nature of the player boards. With Dune, you had Great Houses that played in 6 entirely different ways. With Cosmic Encounter, you had 16 (or more with the expansion packs) different Alien Powers that you played as, each breaking the rules in their own, unique way. After I acquired some of the expansions, we started playing with Dual Powers and that upped the fun factor even more. I still tell the story to this day of a CE game in the early 90’s, where a friend of mine named Dave-san was looking at his two power sheets for quite a while. Eventually I asked him “What are your two powers?” He looked up and said, “I am a Mutant and a Loser.” To which I replied “Yes, but what are your powers?”. The whole table cracked up, eventually even Dave-san joined in the laughter.
Another element of those games was the cleverness/chaos/combo factor. Many games I was used to playing allowed you to use various tactics and strategies (short term and long-term planning), but with CE and Dune, you could combine cards to do really awesome and clever things. Combining cards and powers and using those combos at just the right time, or even more hilariously – screwing them up and doing them at the wrong time – really, really appealed to me. Anybody can play Dune or Cosmic Encounter after some lengthy rules explanations, but not everybody can squeeze all the nuances and subtleties out of those games, at least until they have played them several times and become veterans.
The chaos element I mentioned above was especially prevalent in CE. In that game you could have a full count of units (round, colored chits in the original version – cool plastic space ships that stack on each other in later versions), you could have an alliance of 5 out of the 6 players, you could have amazing cards in your hand, and you might still lose the battle because the other player you were attacking pulled the 40 combat card and your highest was a 20…. Or because the other player used his Power to reverse the digits of both cards, turning your 20 into a 02 and his 19 into a 91.
I had never run into such craziness in all my years of gaming! This was amazing. No two games were ever the same. Gone were the sometimes-tedious games of Risk where the winning player, 4 out of 5 times, was the person who grabbed and solidified Australia first and got a steady bonus of 2 troops every round to help him conquer the map. Gone were the games of Titan where you marched around with caravans of stacked chits of troops endlessly nipping at the heads or tails of your opponent’s caravan trains, hunting weak creature chits to wipe out or the ever-elusive Titan stack.
Over the years I have played Dune and Cosmic Encounters until I have worn the games out and had to replace them. They embody everything that I love about gaming.
Oh and guess what – they are diceless! You heard me – there are NO DICE in either Dune or Cosmic Encounter. Why is that important or interesting? Well, for the style of game that I like to play, with a rich theme, high player interaction, asymmetry, variable player powers, elements of chaos, card and power combos, and so forth – usually fitting well within the American style of board games (known to some as Ameritrash board games as opposed to Eurogames), many of these types of games involve endless dice rolling.
Titan, for example, had moments where you had finally recruited up the chain and got a Serpent, and you might be rolling 18 six=sided dice or even 36 at a time and counting successes. With Risk, you might roll poorly and lose your place in multiple continents, in Monopoly you might not roll the number you need to get on the property you want, while your opponent is grabbing Park Place and passing Go like a madman.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of dice rolling in games. I like a bit of randomness, whether it comes from dice or card draws or whatever …. but I am one of those unfortunate people to whom the dice do not reciprocate the love. I once rolled 53 six-sided dice in the game Eclipse before I got a single 6 on any of the dice. Statistically I should have rolled 8 to 9 sixes by that time. In some dice-heavy games I just sigh as none of my tactics or strategy seems to matter and I watch the game slip away from me despite my best efforts. Games I design will most likely include dice, but only occasionally and should only determine small ranges of luck and not decide the entire game for the most part.
There are many amazing Eurogames, where the theme is usually Renaissance Europe, set in the countryside of France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and so forth. That style of gaming, with its wooden resource cubes, auctions, resource management and trading and catch-up mechanisms and so forth is hugely popular to a large portion of the board gaming community. For the most part, though, that is not my style. I want to sink my teeth into some nice juicy theme and have amazing art and components to look at and to grab onto while playing. Give me some zombies, pirates, space ships, gangsters, or even the servants of the mighty Cthulhu and I am usually quite happy.
We are in the Golden Age of board gaming right now with board game sales increasing by roughly 20 percent every year for the last 4 or 5 years and becoming a billion-dollar market. There are many factors which are contributing to this, including the rise of the crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter as well as huge leaps in artwork and components, 3d modeling and printing software and hardware, etc.
Because of the groundwork that has been laid by the “founding fathers” like the designers of Cosmic Encounter and Dune mentioned above, as well as the euro designers like Wolfgang Kramer, Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, Rudiger Dorn, Michael Schacht and many, many others such as “Ameritrash” poster child and all around cool guy – Eric Lang, people like me are now in a position to publish our own designs and share them with the world. The old system of only a few major companies selecting only a few titles each year to publish has vanished like the passenger pigeon.
So back to Druid City Games. With James Hudson and Doug Butler as partners, we decided to cut our teeth on a bluffing card game called Barnyard Roundup. It was inspired by one of my all-time favorite card games called Cockroach Poker. We took some of the mechanics and we feel that we improved the gameplay as well as re-theming the game to something a bit more family friendly. The main goal from this game was to keep it simple and learn the ropes to using Kickstarter and dealing with the whole process of designing and publishing a board/card game. Long story short (too late for that right?), the game funded on day 1 and we learned many things about the industry.
Game number 2 was in prototype form when our company attended Gen-Con 2015 and met Tim Eisner, of March of the Ants fame. He was shopping for a publisher for a reboot of an idea he had that was originally called Three Pigs. It didn’t fund the first time around and he was currently too busy with ongoing projects to re-visit it, but he was hoping someone else could assist him in making the game a success on the 2nd attempt. After playing the prototype, my partners and I really felt like the mechanic was something fresh and interesting and the new name/theme was a natural next step for us from our first game and would fit right in with what Druid City Games was all about.
We dropped our current prototype in the dust and never looked back. I must have played 40 different demos and new games during that Gen Con, but on the drive home, I told my partners that Tim’s game was the one I enjoyed most out of quite a prestigious list. After a few weeks of negotiations, we signed a contract with Tim to develop Three Pigs which was now emerging under a new name – The Grimm Forest.
As Lead Developer, I had an amazing opportunity to take the game to another level. I took Tim’s ideas and mechanics and used them as inspiration to create almost an entire new deck of cards for the game. It was very important to me as I was creating the fairy tale characters and so forth in the game, that they be thematically paired very strongly with their powers. For example, when creating the Goldilocks card, I created a power for her called Breaking and Entering, where she would steal some items from other player’s boards. The art matched up and showed her at the kitchen table in the Bear family’s house having just eaten some porridge, with the kitchen looking ransacked in the background.
The Grimm Forest was a smashing success for us. I think it was a combination of Tim’s brilliant game mechanics and vision, James Hudson’s talent for marketing, Doug Butler’s steadying influence and wisdom and playtesting notes, and my ability to create content and come up with new cards and mechanics to boost the game to its full potential.
With 2 games under my belt, I decided to branch out on my own so that I could fully explore some ideas that I have been working on here and there for about 20 years. I have a stack of game ideas and prototypes and notes that’s about 2 feet tall and I was really excited to start turning my newfound knowledge into getting some amazing and interesting games on the table. I have all the good wishes in the world for the continued success of Druid City Games. Doug and James are going to be a force to reckon with in the gaming industry going forward. I am excited to see what the next game they decide to focus on will be.
But now it’s time for the world to see what Seventh Son Games can do as well.
I searched long and hard for a name for my new company, that would reflect some of my core values. I had to find an available URL to match the company name and that was harder than I thought it would be. Many of my choices for a company name were already taken. Some were for sale from some opportunistic people who had just registered everything they could think of with a fantasy or sci-fi word in them and the put them up for sale for exorbitant prices. Other names were available, but when I did a google search for them, I found that they were attached to some extremely disreputable and/or shady content. I don’t want to mention it here, but ask me at a Convention sometime and I’ll tell you what a couple of the choices were that I had to steer away from in horror.
Searching for inspiration, I went back to my heavy metal roots and started searching through the lyrics of Ronny James Dio, Black Sabbath, Rainbow and Iron Maiden. One of my favorite Albums/Songs from the old days was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a very interesting Album where the title song was based on an award-winning Orson Scott Card (of Ender’s Game fame) book called Seventh Son, which was in turn based on folklore.
I searched the internet, almost holding my breath, for negative things associated with the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son legends, but I didn’t find any roadblocks like I had with previous searches. So – I liked the name, it meant something to me personally, the URL was available, and not only did I not find something prohibitive in the lore. In fact, the lore was pretty cool.
A Seventh Son, born with a completely male line, with no sisters born in between each brother, throughout history has been thought to have supernatural powers. A Seventh Son OF a Seventh Son was supposed to be even more powerful. The powers include a broad range, from clairvoyance (a.k.a. second sight), to healing, to having power over snakes, to being a werewolf in Latin America.
The two aspects that I wanted to focus on with my company were:
- Second Sight – I want my company to take lessons from games of the past and industry trends and so forth and go forward, looking to the future. Seeing where the gaming industry is headed in terms of social media, marketing, distribution, sales venues, pricing models, corporate buy-outs of the independent companies and other factors should help me to create/publish products that I love and get them out into the world in the best way possible.
- Lycanthropy – For no other reason than werewolves are so damn cool. I designed my own logo and it is a werewolf howling at the moon. I have decided to name him RJ, in tribute to Ronnie James Dio who’s amazing lyrics inspired me so much as a teenager. RJ will be my mascot and I will make sure he gets on every box cover of every game I am part of going forward, if at all possible. I am imagining a “where’s Waldo?” type situation, but with a werewolf.
I plan to Blog a bit about the design process and my thoughts on various aspects of the gaming industry. I have written about a lot of things over the years, but they have mostly been inflicted on my friends and gaming buddies. Now I have a chance to share my thoughts with any who care to listen and am looking forward to some lively discussions in the days ahead. I plan to discuss games and mechanics that I love or hate, publishing companies and online retail trends, books and movies, and maybe even throw in a few heavy metal lyrics that I find interesting from time to time.
If you have read this far then I thank you for listening and applaud you for your dedication and perseverance!
I will end this for now with some RJD lyrics:
Rainbow in the Dark (1983 Holy Diver Album)
When there’s lightning, you know it always brings me down
‘Cause it’s free and I see that it’s me
Who’s lost and never found
I cry out for magic, I feel it dancing in the light
It was cold, I lost my hold
To the shadows of the night
No sign of the morning coming
You’ve been left on your own
Like a rainbow in the dark
A rainbow in the dark
Do your demons, do they ever let you go?
When you’ve tried, do they hide, deep inside
Is it someone that you know
You’re just a picture, your’re an image caught in time
We’re a lie, you and I
We’re words without a rhyme
There’s no sign of the morning coming
You’ve been left on your own
Like a rainbow in the dark
Just a rainbow in the dark, yeah