Conversation With An Innovator #2 – Colby Dauch, Plaid Hat Games

In continuing this interview series, I contacted the creative genius and owner of another small-press game publisher, Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat Games. Colby has been immersed in the gaming industry for many, many moons and has worked on high-profile projects such as Heroscape, as well as his own product, the new and exciting game, Summoner Wars. His story is inspiring and really goes to show what a man with some passion and some big, brass balls can do when he sets his mind to it. He, personally, spent several weeks on the “Hotness” list at boardgamegeek.com and his product has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Tom Vasel and Michael Barnes to be “brilliant” and “one of the best games of 2009”.

SFC: Alright, Colby, the first thing I’d like to know is how did you enter the business?

CD: Well, I, uh, started this Heroscapers.com website, just because I was into the game, loved it, and there was a need for it, so, from there I just met the right people. I ended up meeting Craig Van Ness, the designer of Heroscape, and, I got in on the playtesting on that, and he liked what I was doing there, and he offered me some work, and then offered me some more work, and that’s kind of like how I got my feet wet, by, y’know, working for the big guys, straight off, Hasbro, and I really enjoyed it. The next step, for me, seemed to be, well, to do something that was totally my own.

SFC: So, what was it like being a playtester, y’know, pseudo-professionally? Was that a tremendous undertaking or did it kind of come naturally to you?

CD: It, being a playtester, is mostly just playing the game. You play the stuff that’s coming out, and you give your feedback on it, offer your suggestions on it. It came pretty natural, and it was good fun, and you get sneak peeks of what’s coming out, and, uh, you got to be a part of the process. As a fan, I was thrilled with that.

SFC: Sounds kind of like a dream gig! You get to play a game you love, and get some benefit from it too. So, what made you decide to build and launch Heroscapers.com into the behemoth it’s become, with five or six thousand users, and it’s a tremendous asset to both Hasbro, and, more importantly, the consumer? I mean, you get news, articles, strategy, it just seems like the perfect storm for a fansite. How did you decide to get that going?

CD: It mostly came from a love of the game, I was doing a little blog site where I just talked about our experience with the game, and uh, I was just a big fan. I was on the first fansite for Heroscape, and I got to know the guy who did that, and we became friends, then we moved onto another site, and there’s a whole history there of defunct Heroscape sites, but, at the point that I started Heroscapers there was yet another fan site that was going defunct and I decided that I thought I could do a site, I thought there was a better way to do it than what had been done, so I explored that.

SFC: What led to the entrée from going a playtester and a freelance guy, to deciding to undertake the tremendous job of building, designing a game, hiring an artist and all the things that go along with deciding to develop your own product?

CD: I’ve done five or six games for Hasbro, of varying degrees, some from pretty much the ground up. It’s kind of a weird deal, like, someone will have an idea to put something together in a certain way, but that’s it, they have nothing beyond that. And then they bring you on as a freelancer, and you’re basically building the whole game based on this one small idea, and the guy who had the small idea is the one who gets the royalties and you just get your freelancer hourly pay.

SFC: (laughing) So it’s like taking a penny and inventing copper wire, and the guy who gave you the penny gets the credit for it?

CD: (laughing) Right, right. But the funny thing in this particular case, was that the game never went to print, so I got paid and the inventor didn’t… So it can work out weird sometimes. So, anyhow, I had some experience building some games from some pretty early stages, and uh, I really liked it. The downside as a freelancer is that you don’t have any control, whatsoever. I’ve done five or six games, and brought them to the point that they’re ready for market, and then Hasbro will just decide that, um, they just don’t want to do a Star Wars game, or whatever, at that time. It has nothing to do with the work I did, I still get paid, ah but…..it’s one of those things that it’s like, I put a lot of work into that game and I want people to see that and have a chance to play that.

SFC: So, did you get a lot of pushback from companies that you’re working with when you announced that you were going to go ahead and do your own thing?

CD: You know, the main people that I was working with at Hasbro, they cheered me on. I showed them all the game at Gencon, where I get to see them all face to face and whatnot, but they gave me a lot of encouragement and support. I mean, I never talk to the guy, who, who’s getting the money going into their pocket or anything, it’s designers I deal with. I’m not talking to the executives or anything like that, they don’t care…

SFC: Yeah, that’s the same everywhere. Executives are focused on profits and shareholders, no matter where you work.

CD: (laughing) Yeah, I guess so, but the guys I do work with, the designers and the guys that are directly over, um, you know, me…

SFC: The guys who manage the products you work on, those guys…

CD: Right. They were great about everything.

SFC: So, now, what gave you the idea for Summoner Wars? It’s kind of a unique system, in my estimation, it’s a minis game but it’s a lot more efficient because you don’t have to go back to the card to see what the figure’s power is, it’s right there.

CD: Yeah, it’s gotten compared to some stuff, but it’s mostly stuff I’ve never played, and a lot I’ve never even heard of before. People started comparing Summoner Wars to a number of games, so I don’t know if there’s something out there that does quite what Summoner Wars does, bit the idea for it, when I thought of it, was original to me. The idea pretty much came to me intact. I was lying in bed, and just had this idea for a game where it would be….I had some experience developing Heroscape, which is a miniatures game, and I liked a lot of what I was doing there, but I was like, what if it was cards, and people could have entire armies, themed armies, y’know, in a ten dollar card pack? I mean, how cool would that be? To get a big themed army like that in any other miniatures game would cost you an arm and a leg!

SFC: That’s exactly right, which I think is a huge appeal to people. That’s kind of the beauty of the game, that it’s got a very low threshold to enter, and, y’know from what I know…well let me put it out there that I own both copies of the existing game, well I bought one from the site and then traded for the other, but, uh, at the end of the day it’s an interesting concept. I’ve heard it compared to Battleground: Fantasy Warfare, but it’s not. It’s nothing like that. It’s really unique unto itself….

CD: Yeah, Battlegrounds does what mine does and has a miniatures feel to it, but it’s hardcore, it’s a miniatures game with cards, and a lot of people like that, but mine is like, it’s going to have some miniatures concepts, but also some resource management and things, it’s it’s own system and has a unique feel to it, which was my objective when I had the idea.

SFC: It seems like you’ve done pretty well with it. What was it like, the production like, from going to an idea, to getting an artist to development, into actually getting a product build done?

CD: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how much work it is, and it is a lot of work, but it’s work I thoroughly enjoyed, every process of it, I’ve just gotten a kick out of it. It may just be because it’s new and fresh, but I just like having my hands in the batter, I guess.

SFC: Another recipe for Awesome Sauce revealed, huh?

CD: (laughing) Yeah, it’s a lot of work and a lot of learning because I’ve never been on the production end before. But, but, on the same token, it’s been a lot of fun. Does that answer your question, I’m sorry?

SFC: (laughing) Yeah, but more or less, I was just curious, what were the barriers to entry? Did you have any roadblocks you had to overcome? Or was it pretty much just a, you know, perfect storm that everything just happened and fell in line the way that it should’ve?

CD: I don’t think things just happened by themselves, but it….let me think…

SFC: Let me rephrase. How hard was it to go from an idea to a product, in short?

CD: The whole development of the actual game, I had some experience with. The part of it I was familiar with was building the system, and all that, and then from there I just knew there was certain things I would need; graphics, art, a printer, a distributor, so, ah, I just went after those things and got quotes, and got money, and investors together, and there was a lot of work to get this thing to happen, but it was work I was excited about, so, so, it became…it didn’t come easy, but it was fun, and you know they say that if you love what you do you never work a day in your life. That’s kind of how I felt about the whole process. Some of the stuff you just learn as you go. Like, the printer referred me to a fulfillment agency, which was a great step in the process, finding that place. What these guys do is they warehouse the game, and they already have contacts with a bunch of distributors, internationally, and they just pitch the game to those distributors and do my distribution sales for me, and they’ll even take orders from my website, and ship them for me. That’s been great, and they do it all for a percentage, and, um….so I have a whole staff that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to hire on.

SFC: Yeah, that’s phenomenal, and it must’ve been a huge boon to you. Um, as far as going forward, with your product, do you think you’ll have any more starters or are you now moving on to expansions?

CD: Well, I don’t want to do a lot of starters because I don’t want to resell people all the bits they already have, I mean, that’s not fair to my customers, and they don’t need more of what they have. It’s mostly going to be packs of cards. It’s nice, affordable. That’s the direction I want to go with Summoner Wars. I’ll do more factions, which will come as Summoner Packs, they’ll be a new Summoner and all of the cards needed to play that deck straight out of the pack. There’ll also be reinforcement packs that will just have more units that will expand the factions that you already have.

SFC: At this point, your reinforcement packs, are they going to include, well, at least what you’re thinking of, are they going to include a couple from each faction or be faction specific?

CD: Well, the way they’re going to work…let me just tell you about the two that are already far into development. The one pack will have three Tundra Orc Champions, two Tundra Orc Commons (five copies of each), three Phoenix Elf Champions, two Phoenix Elf Commons (five copies of each), one Mercenary Champion and one Mercenary common (5 copies). The other pack will be the same, except Guild Dwarves, Cave Goblins, and Mercenaries.

SFC: Wow, that’s pretty slick. You hit all your bases with that and people that have one starter don’t have to buy both packs to get their armies buffed, you’ve kept the armies in the pack consistent with the starters. That’s a really righteous move, not to hose people into buying both when they may not need them.

CD: Yeah, that’s the idea. I’m not trying to force anything on anyone, I want people to buy what they want and know what they’re getting so there’s…I just don’t want to be that guy that is forcing people to buy a bunch of stuff they don’t want to get at something that they do. That’s not what I’m about, that’s not what Plaid Hat is about.

SFC: Yeah, this is definitely not a CCG, never has been, and from what it sounds like, you’re committed to the game’s premise and especially to the customers.

CD: That’s right. The most important thing to Plaid Hat is our customers, and we’ll do anything we can to make sure that we’re offering them the best service in the industry.

SFC: Yeah, seems like you’ve hit all your bases, y’know, for a very affordable price, and people can really build their armies up, kind of on the cheap, no?

CD: Yeah, they’re in playtesting now and we’ve been having a lot of fun. It…it offers a whole new dimension to the game. I’ve heard people say that they’ll just grab factions and not worry about deck building because it seems restrictive, and that’s fine, and I wanted that. I wanted that to be an option for people, but the deck building really does add on a new layer. It is restrictive, but there’s a lot of room for customization in that restriction. I wanted to be restrictive, I think, for good reason. Uh, if your system has some, uh, level of tightness and control to it, I think that you can avoid a lot of the problems that some people tend to stay away from card games of this nature because of.

SFC: Like, if you limit how many of an individual guy you can have in play, you avoid the trap of the guys with deep pockets becoming the dominant players due to their willingness to toss huge sums of money into buying the next super-duper-awesome guy that makes any opposition pretty easy to whip?

CD: Yeah, I did a number of things to prevent too much min/maxing, and just stuff I thought turned off the average gamer, you know, that isn’t into that kind of stuff.

SFC: With regard to your starters, there was a lot of, well maybe not a lot of, but some pushback in the market due to your inclusion of the paper mat. I, personally, was not really turned on by it, but that’s because I’m a bit of a bits junkie, but maybe I’m not the typical gamer because of my tastes….

CD: I think you are, a lot of people are bits junkies, a lot of people like those bits, but a lot of people like their money too, and I wanted to offer a complete game for twenty-five bucks, y’know? I think you get a pretty big game in that small package. I could’ve done one set with all four factions and a board, but then you’d need another board to play the four player game, which is my favorite part of the game, the four player game. And I would’ve had to charge fifty or sixty bucks for it. The board is fairly large, because of the fact you have the whole card there on the board as your character, so to make it affordable and compact, to really fit the bill for a card game, the mat had to be paper to get it to that price point that I felt it should really be at, to give as many people as possible the opportunity to check this thing out. And I knew all along, that I’d produce this paper board, and then release a premium board, for those people who want to pay more, who want that extra bit, that extra niceness, They will have that option, but it won’t be forced on those who just want to check the game out and don’t really need it, or don’t want to pay the money for it.

SFC: Oh, so are you offering that right now? Like available immediately? Or, does anybody know about this?

CD: Yeah, it’s available now, for preorder, and what I’ve got on the website now….we did this….we’re a small company and we’re still building revenue for projects, and there’s been a lot of call for this nicer board, so we wanted to get it out as soon as possible, so we did this preorder thing where we said that if we get 400 preorders we’ll go to print with it right now, and we’re up to…bordering on 300…

SFC: Wow!

CD: Yeah, just preorders! So, we’re sending it to print immediately as soon as we get the proof back, we’re not even waiting for the preorders.

SFC: Right on! So, you’re going to be sending it to your paying customers pretty quickly, then everybody’s going to be happy…

CD: Yeah within the next couple of months. It’s a Plaid Hat exclusive, you have to go to our website to get it, and it’s not packaged for retail, but there are some retailers who have asked for it personally, so we will send some out to them and they’ll carry it for their customers, but it’s few and far between, so your best bet is to go to plaidhatgames.com and get it.

SFC: OK, so let me ask you this: What’s the deal with Plaid Hat Games? Where’d you come up with that?

CD: (laughing) John Clowdus. I have this silly hat, y’know, its plaid and I got it from some rummage store or something, and I wear it sometimes, and I thought it was unique and quirky, and so I wear the thing around. It became kind of an online identity, more than in real life, and I had this avatar made up with the hat on, and it kind of became a recognizable……um, um….

SFC: Like an icon of Colby Dauch…?

CD: Yeah, that’s the word. It became iconic of my online persona. So John picks the name and I’m like, and I’m like, meh, but I asked some friends and they all jumped on it and said it was great, it was quirky and memorable, they jumped all over it. They thought it had all the elements for a good name.

SFC: Well it looks like they were right, I mean it’s as good a name as any and it’s certainly different and iconic! (laughing) So let me ask a couple more questions and we’ll be done here. So, what are you working on now that we don’t know about? Any more expansions you’ve not talked about? What?

CD: We’ve got the Vanguards and Fallen Kingdom coming out, and I’ve done previews on my site and other sites, and you can check them out on the Summoner Wars Facebook page as well, I put all the previews up there. The Fallen Kingdom are an undead faction, they raise their dead, and make all these gruesome sacrifices to gain an advantage in the game, and the Vanguard are a righteous knight faction that is defensive and protective of life…and they both offer a whole new play style, have their own unique feel. Then right behind that we’ve got the ones I mentioned before that, the reinforcements, that….that will be more Orcs, Goblins….all the stuff you need to get into the deck building if you want that.

SFC: Do you have a release schedule with that?

CD: Nothing solid yet, but the art’s done, the design is done, and we’re getting the money together to send it off to print, we’re almost through playtesting…

SFC: So, a month? Two? What?

CD: (laughing) Uh, probably four or five months from now…

SFC: Awesome sauce.

CD: It’ll be on market by then…the printing process takes time…

SFC: That’s good, because it gives me time to save up all the money I need to buy all this stuff from you (laughing)!

CD: (laughing) Yeah, on the heels of that we’ll be coming out with the Cloaks, they are this rogue faction that has all kinds of trickery in store for their opponents, then after that we’ve got the Jungle Elves coming out, and they’re like a hardcore tribal elves faction that sing these magical war chants that offer them all kinds of special powers, they also call upon various jungle creatures to help them in battle. Then we have more and more cool stuff behind that. Summoner Wars has a lot of stuff planned for way back deep, and alongside that we’re working on a couple of, uh, new games as well.

SFC: Okay! So, let’s talk about that then, seeing as you just segued yourself right into that for me and you’re talking into an interviewer! (laughing) So, what’re you going to tell me about, Mister Colby?

CD: (laughing hard) Uh, well, I don’t know how much I want to reveal just yet….

SFC: C’mon man, I only get 5 people a year to read my articles anyhow, so you can tell me! (laughing hard)

CD: (laughing hard) Well, uh, it’s something not too far enough along to really talk about it yet….you know, people beating you to press if you have a really good idea….I don’t really want to reveal too much….

SFC: Fine, well how about this. Is it going to be Earth, Space, or Other?

CD: (laughing) Earth, Space, or Other….hmm…(laughing)…I’ve got a space idea in mind, but it’s not in development…I’ll tell you one is built in the world of Itharia and is going to center around summoning stones, and it’s going to be cool, but it’s totally different gameplay, but it’s going to take place in that world of Summoner Wars. That’s going to be real fun, cool, like beat up on your neighbor type game…

SFC: I love that, you know me, I loooove cut-throat…

CD: Yeah, that’s going to be a cut-throat, and the other is going to be…well they’re both going to be a dungeon crawl, but they will both take it to a totally different place.

SFC: So a Summoner Warsy dungeon crawl…

CD: Yeah, Fantasy Setting, summoning stones cut-throaty dungeon crawl, stab your friends in the eye type of…..well I don’t want to give out too much information….

SFC: Hey, that’s fine, tell me what you want, but remember I do this for a living in my day job and I’m pretty proficient at getting people to tell me things they don’t want to tell… (laughing)

CD: Yeah, I don’t want to tell too much about either of the game because they could really be something special… Just keep your eyes out because we’ve got some really great stuff in store. In fact, neither of these games are by me. I have a couple of designer friends that are really talented, really skilled…I just don’t want to get into it. We have some really great stuff coming.

SFC: Well, this is going to take me 5 hours to transcribe anyway, so I’ll close with this: Thanks a million, Colby, and I wish you all the luck in the world, God bless, you’re a great guy and have a really great product.

CD: Thanks for the opportunity!

You can learn more about Summoner Wars and Plaid Hat Games at:
http://www.plaidhatgames.com/

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