When James Ernest founded Cheapass Games, he created a ripple effect in the gaming industry. With a mantra of "Games: they cost too much, and they are at some level all the same," Cheapass virtually created the cheap games market, selling the boards and cards for their games packaged in white paper bags. Shortly after taking gamers by storm with Kill Doctor Lucky, Spree, and a number of humorous titles, James and Cheapass were being imitated right and left. What did it take to get where Cheapass is now, and how does the company plan to stay on top of the cheap games heap? James Ernest took a few minutes for an OgreCave interview with Allan Sugarbaker.
How did Cheapass Games get its start?
Cheapass Games formed in an underwater Volcano near the modern island of Maui, in the late summer of A.D. 594. We were the offspring of Nonzig, the Pacific God of War (yes, we know it's ironic), who disguised himself as a walnut and accidentally mated with Zircon, the goddess of Inexpensive Board Games, who had by a freak coincidence disguised herself as the very same walnut.
The cover story is that Cheapass Games started in 1996 when I had just left Wizards of the Coast with a bunch of game ideas no one wanted to buy, and just enough startup money to get myself in trouble. I designed the first few Cheapass Games in 1996 and started getting them into the
distribution channels in 1997. I had published a book previously, had a bunch of game ideas I wanted to create, knew about printing and small business, and had connections in the game industry, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.
What's the design process like for one of your games? Do you start with a theme, or with a central game mechanic, or something else?
In most cases, we start with a theme. Diceland is a notable exception,
where we came up with a game mechanic so cool we had to wrap a theme
around it. But in general I think game mechanics are more interesting and
easier to learn if they're based on a story. Also, since I'm in the humor
business, I need to sell my players on a story before they ever learn the
rules. That's why it's "Kill Doctor Lucky" and not "Be Alone in a Room
with a Wandering Target When No One Can See You and Then Attempt to Win."
Do you find game ideas running dry after a few years of being a publisher?
Quite the opposite. I think everybody has good ideas all the time, but if
they have no reason to keep them those ideas get forgotten. When I have an
idea for a movie, it rarely goes anywhere. I don't make movies (much). But
when I have a game idea it goes into a notebook and that notebook fills up
faster than I could possibly empty it. I could rattle off twenty game
ideas I really want to work on without any effort; I'm sure I couldn't
have done that in 1996.
When collaborating with other designers, as with Tom Jolly on Light Speed, what sort of adjustments to your design process do you make?
I get to skip the first draft step; that's about it. I'm going to treat
any game submission I see as a rough draft, not a final product. Some
designers can handle that, some can't. When Tom brought me Light Speed it
was a game about Zulus and it was turn-based. (He also had a version with
spaceships, which I liked better.) I removed the turns, added the asteroid,
and Tom and I went back and forth on it until we were both happy with it.
With some designers, I fiddle with their game and they get upset, try to
keep it exactly like it was. But I put the few gme submissions I actually
get through my playtest process, and we almost always end up wanting to
change it (unless it's not salvageable at all).
Have you ever decided to scrap or rework a game because of a similar release from another company?
Heck, no. I'm trying to think of one time when we've said "we can't do this now because of...". I don't think we ever have. Most of our stories are so unique that we've got zero chance of being scooped. (Who else is ever going to bring out a game where everyone is a taffy machine trying to gum itself up with squirrels?) Our game mechanics are the same, and it's usually the case that I see a game that looks a lot like one of mine after my game's already on the market. Frankly I wish other companies would stop in their tracks because of something I've released, but that's probably just wishful thinking.
How does Cheapass intend to stand out now that the under $10 game market is packed with competition?
Perhaps you have a different definition of "competition" than I do. :) Seriously, we were first in the market (not in all history, but in many players' minds) so that gives us an edge. I think we stand out by continuing to innovate, reinvent the category, and make better games cheaper than everyone else. When everyone else moved into envelopes, we put our games in boxes for essentially the same price. We're about to do a boxed game with full-color boards just because the game's better that way, and we're not raising the retail price on it. And we're also making color card games cheaper than the competition: I'm amazed how much a 2-deck card game and 120 seconds of breathable air is going for these days. $35?
What can you tell us about the buttons we used to see everywhere? For a while, it seemed like everyone wanted to license Button Men.
We've actually been instrumental in advising them not to. A few companies early on were disappointed with their Button Men sales, so these days we make sure to let licensees know that Button Men is great as an advertisement, but not always great as a profitable product. We're looking at cheaper ways to print the game that don't make it cost $4.50 for two characters. More on that when we figure it out.
Ben Hvrt is now available through RPGnow.com. Has this release been a success, and do you plan more electronic reprints?
So far we have not heard a peep from RPGnow.com, so I assume it's not selling. Like everything we do, that release was an experiment, and at this point I don't have plans one way or another. If it does well in the next few months, I've got a couple more games I can convert to PDF. If not, we'll look at other ways to get those games back into circulation.
Have downloadable games in general have had an impact on Cheapass?
I've got no way to know, but I'd guess not. A lot of PDFs cost more than a lot of our physical products, and a lot of our retail sales are impulse buys at the retail store. With those two factors I think Cheapass can easily exist in a world of downloadable games.
Aside from PDF reprints, Cheapass has ties to a computer game company as well. What can you tell us about Digital Eel?
Rich Carlson and Iikka Keranen came to me with a little arcade game, Plasmaworm, late in 2001. I liked it and I was interested in publishing software, and they were Cheapass fans looking to bypass the mainstream computer game market. So far we've done pretty well for them, especially with their second game, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. The third Digital Eel game, another arcade game called Dr. Blob's Organism, is at the printer right now. It's an awesome little shooter and it's going to do very well. Especially at the low low price of $10.
What effect have computers and the internet had on tabletop gaming? Do you see them becoming more closely related?
No one can answer this question, least of all me. There are new developments in both areas and I think both forms can learn from each other. Video games were part of my inspiration to create real time card games (Falling, Brawl, and Fightball). I think it's more fun to challenge another human to a game of speed, rather than a computer. Some people are using computers in their roleplaying games, just to sort the limitless rules and background data, and some people are designing games with electronic chips in the components. I have no idea if those games are any more fun because of the chip technology. I doubt it.
As for the internet, you can easily see how the communication between gamers has exploded in the last 10 years. Magic: the Gathering came along just in time to ride a huge wave of new computer geek chat. The Internet changed Magic from what the designers expected (a world of mystery) into something completely different (a world of phenomenal cosmic power at a reasonable price). These days it doesn't take long for a new game to get bought, reviewed, and forgotten online. Or instantly heralded as the coolest thing since sliced bread. And I think that's part of what contributes to the shrinking life cycle of new game products.
Your latest wallpaper selection mentions 'Venus Needs Men.' Tell us more!
It's basically a team game: players decide whether they're on the Earth or Venus team. Venus needs men, but so does Earth. At the moment, it really doesn't matter if the teams have the same number of players, which is cool. Whichever team gets the most points, which in this case means capturing the most Men, is victorious. Features boodles of cute alien girls drawn by Phil Foglio. This is a game that's been kicking around for some time and may or may not actually come out this year. With a big project like Diceland and a little project like my 20-month-old daughter, I'm having more trouble than ever keeping up with a schedule.
If you could go back and start Cheapass Games over again, is there anything you'd do differently?
I'd never start the company and just buy more Wizards stock, of course. Duh.
Which of your game designs are you most proud of? Which was the most difficult to hammer into shape?
The answer to both is Diceland. Diceland has very tricky physical aspects (designing the paper dice took about a year) and mechanical aspects (the dice need to be designed in 3-D space to account for all the connections between sides). We worked hard on the original game and even harder on the Space and Ogre sets, and it's been very satisfying.
What's next for Diceland?
I'm actually not sure. We're working on a lot of ideas but we are waiting to see how the game sells over the summer before we commit to the next expansion. I'm working on new mechanics for a Giant Robots set as well as a booster-only expansion for Deep White Sea, and some traditional themes like wooden ships and WWII. But nothing is really carved in stone aside from Extra Space, an 8-die booster that comes out in August.
Are there any games you've found enjoyable lately (other than your own, of course)?
I'm pretty fond of a few hobby/party games, like Time's Up and Apples to Apples. I play a lot of Poker (I played two or three tournaments a day on my last trip to Las Vegas.) I like mostly simple games that don't take too long to learn, and where you can start figuring out strategies in your first game. I played the heck out of Magic when it first came out.
What's next for Cheapass Games? Any major projects on the horizon?
The soonest-to-come new project is called One False Step for Mankind, a surprisingly intricate Cheapass board game about gold rush towns racing to the moon. Diceland: Extra Space has eight new dice and ships in August. I'm working on a number of ideas that aren't currently on the schedule, including re-releases of Before I Kill You Mister Bond (with a new name) and The Big Idea (with more cards and a new set of rules). I'm also hoping
to do a new game compilation called Chief Herman's Next Big Thing, and I'm working on a Poker book with Phil Foglio. Another very cool project you'll see sometime in the Fall is a film called The Man Between, which I shot in
2002 and am in the process of editing. It's a 30-minute film about a spy in his less-than-perfect moments. The Man Between will be showing at Origins and Gen Con, and will be available for sale from cheapass.com in the fall of 2003.