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"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 project.

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 the empires.

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 the writing?

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 games?

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 empire.

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 doing.

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 to attack.

As far as empires are concerned, each has a strength, but also a secondary strategy that should be kept in mind. Here are some examples...

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 morning.

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 standing ovation.


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