Stephen Glen - Designer of Ballon Cup
I first met Stephen Glenn via e-mail back in 1997. We were
both discovering the world of games through the internet at the
time. We kept in touch over the years and in 2000 we both lept
headlong into game design. That summer we sent game upon game
back and forth, sometimes coming up with several new ideas a day.
We became good friends before we ever met in person.
I finally did meet him face to face in 2001 when a few of us
gathered in Virginia for the first "Protospiel". It was
the humble beginnings of his vision--a convention for game
designers. As I expected from his e-mail, Stephen is a hilarious
person to be with. He's one of the few people I know who loves
games and designing them as much as I do. I was thrilled for him
when I heard Kosmos was going to publish one of the games he
showed me during that summer in 2000. When we found out the game
would be available this month, I asked if he'd do an interview
with us for Fair Play and he agreed.
Mike Petty: When you're not designing games, what do you
do for a living?
Stephen Glenn: I teach English at an alternative high school
in Norfolk, Virginia. For those wondering, an alternative high
school is one attended by students who have been suspended or
expelled from their regular high schools.
MP: Have you always been what you'd call a serious gamer?
SG: I enjoyed board games and rpgs when I was young, but never
really maintained a serious interest after high school [mid-80s].
I had a brief and torrid love affair with Magic the Gathering
in the early 90's. Then in 1996 I first went online and typed
'board games' into a search engine. It all kind of exploded from
that moment on. That was also the year my daughter was born.
Great timing, huh?
MP: I remember your old Stratogems website
devoted to two-player abstract games. Are those still your
SG: I still have a soft spot in my heart for two-player
abstracts, and since my gaming group usually consists of myself
and one other person, I'm always on the lookout for interesting
two-player games. However, it's no longer necessary that they be
abstract and/or luck free. When I ran Stratogems, I
thought two-player, no luck abstracts were the only games worth
playing. Of course, at that time I had no idea that TGOO (These
Games Of Ours) existed. By TGOO, I'm talking mostly about
European imports like Settlers of Catan, El Grande,
and the like. So, to answer your question, no they are not still
my favorite, but I'll always consider them my "first love"
-- the one you never forget.
MP: What was it that drew you from those games into the
SG: One of my best customers, Ben Baldanza, was the individual
who introduced me to the wonderful world of games I now enjoy. He
knew I liked two-player games, so he suggested I check out Reiner
Knizia's Mole Hill. I did, and I discovered an art form
and artists I never knew existed.
MP: And finally, what made you seriously pursue game
SG: I love to create. Whenever I develop a passion for
something, one extension of that passion is to try to create the
thing I'm passionate about. In my life I've composed instrumental
music, recorded my own songs (yes I do sing), written children's
stories, short stories, one act plays, and screenplays. However,
I am, by nature, a very lazy person. By this I mean, while I am
motivated to create, I'm not typically motivated enough
to make it pay. With game design it was different. When I
discovered TGOO in 1997 I had been married for a year with two
children (by the way, it's not necessary for you to do the math
on that) and had just graduated from college. Most of the gear in
my music studio had been sold years earlier to pay for college
and I had neither the time nor the money to build it back up.
When I discovered Settlers of Catan around the same
time, I found something that fueled and seized my imagination
like music had before. I developed a passion for games! And, as
stated above, when I develop a passion for something it's not
long before I start wanting to create my own.
MP: Who are your biggest influences?
SG: Sid Sackson and Reiner Knizia. There's a definite charm
and elegance to their games that are indefinable.
MP: Where do you get your ideas for games?
SG: I have to be honest. I didn't get ideas for games before I
discovered TGOO and began collecting them by the hundreds. So, at
least at this point in my development as a designer, most of my
ideas probably evolve from things I've seen in other games. I
can't say I've had an idea that wasn't somehow influenced from
another game. I probably take my favorite parts from those games
and use them in ways that are appealing to me. This is not a
conscious effort to borrow the hard work of others. It simply
means that I have not yet found my "original idea."
That is one long term goal -- to become less and less derivative
as I go. I've come a long way since my first prototypes. And I've
still got a long way to go.
MP: I remember the day you first wrote me about the game
that became Balloon Cup. Tell us how that one came along.
SG: Balloon Cup was originally called Pinata,
and the idea came to me after my daughter's fifth birthday party.
She had a pinata (Pikachu, I believe) and the image of kids
scurrying after pieces of multi-colored candy appealed to me. I
specifically remember thinking about it while mowing the lawn one
afternoon with my headphones on. I don't remember what I was
listening to, but I was definitely in my own little world --grooving
to the music while taking the mower on that spiral journey to the
center of my lawn. The game evolved almost entirely in my head
before I was done. Some things have been changed since, by myself
and my publisher, but the main mechanic of Pinata (and
now Ballon Cup) has remained constant.
MP: How hard is it to break into the industry as you have?
SG: I understand it's a terrific longshot. I had been fooling
around with Pinata for about a year and was pretty happy
with it. In my opinion, it was a solid, light little two player
cardgame that had been playtested and enjoyed by some pretty
credible gamers. I'm a big fan of the Kosmos 2-player series and
I had a friend who was an acquaintance of Wolfgang Luedtke from
Kosmos. Through my friend, I sent a letter to Herr Luedtke asking
if Kosmos would be interested in taking a look at my prototype.
He replied affirmatively, which rather shocked me, so I sent it
off. I certainly entertained no real hope of getting published by
Kosmos, but I figured it was worth a shot. Several months later I
had some ideas for a 2-player sports series and decided to write
Kosmos to see if they'd be interested. I had heard nothing about Pinata
and assumed they'd passed on it. Well, they contacted me and told
me they were not interested in sports games, but that they had
had many successful playtests with Pinata and were
seriously considering publishing it. This was in February of 2002.
In June of 2002 they wrote me and informed me that they had
decided to publish it. I really almost fell out of my chair when
I read that e-mail.
MP: What, so far, has been the most exciting part of the
entire process of concept to final production of your game?
SG: Probably when Kosmos sent me the graphic file of the Balloon
Cup box cover. I mean, this was it, this was really
happening! Up until that moment I was concerned that something
would go wrong and they would decide not to publish it. But when
I saw the box cover (which is beautiful, by the way) I really
knew that one of my dreams was about to come true. Before I
opened the file I gathered my kids around me and we looked at it
for the first time together. I don't think they understood the
magnitude of the moment, though.
MP: I know I've told you before, but congratulations on a
dream come true. What sort of games can we expect to see from you
in the near future?
SG: Plenary Games will be releasing Jet Set sometime
later this year. Jet Set was recognized as a finalist in
the 2002 Hippodice Competition. It's a rather modest cardgame,
much like Balloon Cup, but it can handle 2-6 players.
It's a brain burner.
MP: We get a lot of comments at Fair Play from aspiring
designers interested in our Independent Designers Program. I know
you've started an annual convention for amateur designers. What
can you tell us about that?
SG: Protospiel is a game designers' convention that will be
holding its third annual meeting this year. We invite game
designers to come out and playtest each others' designs. We've
found that the feedback you can get from other designers is
incredibly valuable. We've also held workshops and talk sessions
by folks in the industry. We're still very small, but growing.
You can read more about it at this site.
Balloon Cup is published by Kosmos in German and by
Rio Grande in English. The English version is expected to be
available in April.