"Never Give Up"
An Interview with Dan Verssen
Last spring I was very much intrigued by a new release from
GMT Games. Flagship, currently sold in two boxed sets,
sounded like a game I'd love to see succeed. From what I could
gather at the time, it played very much like a collectible card
game. In fact, it was designed by Dan Verssen, the man behind one
of my favorite CCGs, 7th Sea. But what made Flagship
so appealing to me was that the game was not collectible. I could
buy one box and have enough cards for a complete two-player game.
I eventually picked up a copy of one of the sets: Prometheus
Unchained. The game itself focuses on battles of starships,
handled by relatively simple rules that allow for plenty of
tactical play. But this is all enhanced by the larger backdrop of
the Flagship universe and that's where the game really
shines for me. I'm a sucker for rich themes and this game has
plenty to offer with hints of more to come. After reading the
fiction and background information in the rulebook, I knew this
game was more than just a new twist on popular trends. This was
someone's personal project--a labor of love with plenty of heart.
It wasn't much of a surprise, then, that Dan Verssen
enthusiastically agreed to do an interview with me about his game.
As a game designer myself, with plenty of goals and dreams for my
own designs, I found our talk very encouraging. I hope other
aspiring designers will enjoy it as much. Also, I hope it
introduces many new players to this ambitious and entertaining
Mike Petty: Dan, it's clear from even a casual reading of
the rule booklet that the Flagship project goes well
beyond what you'd get in the two sets of decks that are available
now. There are detailed settings, characters and back stories. I
get the feeling there's a lot of passion behind this game. Could
you summarize how this all came about?
Dan Verssen: Thank you Mike for the kind introduction. Our
goal was to create a fully functioning world for our game to take
place in. Credit for the initial world design goes to Kevin
Wilson. Kevin and I worked together a couple years before at
Alderac Entertainment Group on the 7th Sea CCG. My goal
with Flagship was to create an easy to play tactical
starship combat card game. Once I had a refined basic design put
together I asked Kevin if he would like to create the setting and
Once that work was done I showed the game to GMT and began the
search for artwork.
MP: I'm sure that was no small undertaking. There are a lot
of pictures in this game. Tell us how that went.
DV: Artwork turned out to be a huge challenge. Flagship
is more of a standard card game in its marketing, but it has the
demands of a CCG for artwork. Our first two games, for example,
have over 200 pieces of art.
That was when Chris Richardson volunteered to get the art done.
Chris and I first met when he helped to play test the Star
Trek Collectible Dice Game a few years before. Chris had
worked for an animation company that did the computer graphics
for Babylon 5, From the Earth to the Moon, and other Hollywood
productions. Chris knew some of the artists there, and they
agreed to do the art for us on the side. We then ran into the
problem of a budget for art. The artists wanted to be paid as
they worked, and we didn't have any upfront money. That was when
Chris stepped in again to save the day. He paid the artists out
of his own pocket, and production continued.
Through all of this the game was going through a lot of
changes to get the feel, balance, and complexity just right. My
wife, Holly, was invaluable during this time. Holly has helped to
develop all of my games and she really came through on this one.
The last step of the project was writing the rules. Some
designers write the rules at the start of the design cycle and
update them as changes are made. I've found this doesn't work
well for me due to the large numbers of revisions I make in a
design. For me, it is better to just write rule outlines during
design, then write the final document at the end. For these
rules, we put in many long hours writing, editing, and revising
the rules to get them to be as clear as possible. Janet
Sorrentino was the central person in the rules writing segment of
the game. Her knack for procedure and clarity really come through
in the rules.
MP: It sounds like you get a lot of support from family
and friends throughout the whole process. Besides them, where do
you look to find playtesters for your games as they develop?
DV: For most games I use a combination of local playtesters as
well as playtest group around the country. I have even been in
contact with overseas groups. For the local groups we meet at
game stores and generally make it a work day of playtesting and
pizza. For the more distant groups, almost all communications are
done through PDF files and emails. This is a great improvement
over a few years ago when everything was done with regular mail
and phone calls.
MP: I enjoyed the backstory from the rule book and I hope
to read more of the story in the future. Who's responsible for
DV: It would have been great to have Kevin Wilson continue
writing the fiction, but by that time, he was working at a new
full time job and turned over the writing reins to Andrew Romine.
Andrew was a great asset to the project, along with creating a
lot of the artwork, he also turned out to be a talented writer.
Based on Kevin's notes, he went on to write the stories and
character bios for the game.
MP: How does it work when GMT produces a game? It sounds
like you had to do a lot of footwork yourself.
DV: Flagship is the exception to how past games with GMT have
worked. Normally, I design the game and Holly develops it. When
we are finished, the game is turned over to the artists and a
month or two later Holly and I look over proofs to make sure all
the numbers and text are correct. From that point on, GMT handles
all the production issues, such as printing the cards, making the
boxes, printing the rules, etc.
For Flagship, Holly, Chris, and myself had a direct
hands-on interaction with the project throughout production. Once
design and development were finished we carried the project into
the production stage. With projects like this, the components
have different deadlines due to production times. Cards and boxes
for example take a month, but rules only take a week.
As the various parts of the game were coming together, the
issue of where to get it printed came up. I found a great company
near San Diego, California, Graphics Converting. They agreed to
print the cards for us on a tight budget. They also turned the
cards around in 10 days! Which means that from the day they
received our CD, it took them only 10 days to print, collate,
cut, corner, wrap, and ship the cards.
Once all the artwork and card mechanics were finalized, I laid-out
the cards and prepped them for the printer.
Chris, Holly, and I actually drove down to Graphics Converting
to make sure the CD with the art came up properly on their
computers. In fact, we have some great pictures of me making last
second changes on the cards on their computers.
A couple days later the cards where ready for their press
checks and Chris and Fen Yan, a long time friend, drove down to
make sure the colors were coming out properly.
A few days after that Holly, Chris, Fen, and I drove back down
and actually watched as the cards were being printed from
midnight to about 5 in the morning.
Once printed, cut, and wrapped, the cards were shipped up to
GMT for shipping.
MP: What sort of support are you guaranteed, if any, from
GMT for future expansions?
DV: Well, guarantees in the gaming industry are hard to come
by. About the only guarantee I've ever encountered is, "If
this game makes us money, we'll ask you to design another."
GMT uses a pre-order system to determine which games get
produced. When a game gets 500 pre-orders it is moved on to the
production schedule. So far, both Wave #2 games, Horns of the
Dragon and Exile's Crusade, are sitting at about
175 pre-orders each.
MP: What sort of things would be introduced in the future
DV: Our plan is to introduce large Battle Stations and Siege
Platforms in wave #2. Battle Stations are treated as large ships
and tend to be worth anywhere from 10 to 30 points. They are very
formidable in combat. They can also have Modules attached to
given them additional capabilities such as more weapons, fighter
bays, enhanced defenses, improved Command capabilities, etc. Each
Module costs 5 points. Wave 2 will also introduce new ships, and
new ship types, like the Siege Platforms. These are very large,
slow moving ships that are designed to attack bases. For action
cards, there will be a whole new selection of cards for each
In all cases, you can always mix and match cards from
different waves to make the best deck possible.
We have also given some thought to how the game is packaged.
One option that Chris, Holly, and I have discussed is producing
the future games in CCG Starter boxes that would retail for about
$12.95 per deck, rather than in large $25.00 boxes. We think this
format would lead to more impulse purchases and a better
placement near the cash register of most stores. I can't tell you
how many stores I've gone into, only to find Flagship boxes
shoved sideways on the shelf with eurogames.
MP: I know what you mean. I hate to see a great game stuck
on the bottom shelf where no one will discover it. If there's one
advantage to an online shop, we don't have the competition for
shelf space. But, of course, we can still pick exceptional games
to feature on our front page!
I've only begun to explore the tactics and choices
involved in Flagship, but I'm looking forward to playing
many more games. Can you give any tips for success? My guess is
that it's going to depend a lot on which empire you and your
opponent are playing.
DV: You're right, each empire has their own feel and how they
fight. A successful player must not only keep in mind what their
empire is good at, but also keep in mind what the opponent is
For example, most games start with a turn or two of building
up Crew. Well, if you are building Crew faster, and they are not
attacking, keep on building before devoting your Command Points
As far as empires are concerned, each has a strength, but also
a secondary strategy that should be kept in mind. Here are some
Heisenberg Dynasty: Their primary weapon is
the Guided attacks. Their secondary is the Direct fire capability
of their small ships. With a few well-played action cards can
make these small ships very effective.
Freeman's Followers: They rely on their
superior ships, as they have inferior Crews. There secondary
strategy is action card combos. All empires can combo action
cards for increased effect, but these guys are the best at it.
Kirikin Swarm: These guys really like to
Board. But, due to their huge Hull ratings, they can afford to
put their Capitol ships in the first row for the first few turns
of the game. This protects their smaller ships, which are in the
second row, and allows them to make decent Guided or Direct
attacks from the first row.
Standing Nations: The Nations usually build
up huge Direct fire attacks on their fighters as their primary
attack. They can also perform a limited number of highly
effective Boarding attacks. These are usually best saved for the
enemy's large ships.
MP: I've always been intrigued by card games that play
like CCGs, but that are not collectible. Based on the response
you've seen to Flagship so far, do you think such a game
will be accepted by the usual CCG crowd?
DV: It's hard to say. I think our biggest hurdle so far is
making people aware of Flagship. I have demoed the game
for literally hundreds on people at last year's Gencon, this
year's GAMA, and many Los Angeles area game conventions. When a
person sits down and plays the game, they almost always have a
very positive reaction. In general, I can sit down with a new
person and have them up and playing in less than 5 minutes.
Distribution is key in gaming. There are a lot of new games
coming out every month, and whether a game succeeds or fails
often comes down to if it gets noticed by the distributors and
retail store owners.
On the distribution side, one person I am very grateful for is
Mark Easterday at Alliance Games. All things considered, Flagship
is a small fish in his big pond, but he has always taken the time
to help promote the game and answer my phone calls. Thanks Mark!
MP: When I first asked you about an interview, you
mentioned your new company. Could you tell us about that?
DV: With pleasure! About six months ago Chris, Holly, and
myself created our own game design company, "Dan Verssen
Games", or DVG for short. I have wanted to start my own
company for several years now. Up until now, I have designed
games on a contract basis and it has been fun. To date I have
about 25 games that have been produced by several companies.
MP: So are you a full-time game designer?
DV: I devote about half my working time to game designs and
the other half to my day job as a graphic artist. Holly and I own
our own graphic arts company. This crossover of skills is very
handy for creating prototypes and such.
MP: It must be great being able to devote that much time
to game design. What's it like?
DV: My favorite aspect of being a game designer is the casual,
friendly work environment. As you might have noticed from what it
took to get Flagship produced, friends and family can
play a big part in getting a game designed. A good local pizza
place and a 24 hour fast food restaurant are also vital. Most of
my quality design time happens between midnight and five in the
MP: What sort of work have you done with DVG so far?
DV: Our first design project as a real company has turned out
to be a dream. Chris was in a game store when he first saw Z-Cardz.
If you haven't seen them, a Z-Card looks like a die punched,
painted, credit card. You punch out the pieces and slide the
pieces together to form aircraft, dinosaurs, cars, tanks, etc. As
luck would have it, the manufacturer of Z-Cardz, California
Creations, have their offices about 20 minutes from where I live.
We went down and met with the owner of the company, Mark Dinges,
and explained our ideas for possible game designs that would
allow Z-Cardz to expand into a whole new market.
We then met with Mark each week throughout the design cycle as
the design took shape. In all, Z-Cardz: The Game has
gone through 30 major design versions.
What makes Z-Cardz: The Game unique in gaming is its
combination of playing cards and Z-Cardz. Players actually use
the Z-Cardz while playing the game to show different formations.
This game is actually one of the most difficult I have designed
due to its design constraints. The game needed to use Z-Cardz as
the focal point, it had to be easy to learn, fast to play, and
suited for children who have not played a CCG before.
I have seen the game's final artwork by Mark Mugrage and he
has done a fantastic job. It is bright, and colorful, and really
stands out when compared to other game packaging.
The plan is to release the game in January of 2003 through
game stores, retail stores, and major retail chains.
MP: We wish you the best with your company and the Z-Cardz
game. As a final question, do you have any advice to other
aspiring game designers who might read this interview?
DV: My best answer is to relate a story that John Wick told me
a few years ago while we were at AEG.
When Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of England a college
asked him to give the commencement speech to the graduating
class, in order to pass on his wisdom. The speech was to
summarize what it took to get England through the dark days of
WWII. He agreed. At the ceremony after much fanfare, they finally
introduce him to a great ovation. Winston Churchill slowly rises
from his seat and walks to the podium. With a steely gaze he
seems to look into the eyes of each graduate. Satisfied that all
is in order, he speaks. He says, "Never give up." He
nods, walks back to his seat and sits down. There is silence in
the room. The Director of the college leans over to him and tells
him they need more, and indicates that maybe Winston should go
back to the podium. Churchill thoughtfully nods, walks back to
the podium and says in a slow firm voice, "Never. Give. Up."
He walks back to his seat and sits down. Again, the Director says
the class needs more and indicates the podium. Again Churchill
returns to the podium. This time, in a loud resonant voice he
declares, "Never Give Up!" The room erupted in a