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Screams from the Cave 2008
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Christmas Gift Guide 2006 (11/30/06)
Ogres' Choice Awards 2006 (7/28/06)
Christmas Gift Guide 2005 (11/29/05)
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Night of the Living Gamer
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Interviews: Mike Selinker


OgreCave editors Allan and Mike Sugarbaker connected with industry vet Mike Selinker via email on the eve of WizKids' GTS announcement of his first large project with James Ernest (as part of their new game development venture LoneShark). Selinker wrote for TSR when it was still TSR, eventually became WotC's creative director for licensed RPG projects, and most recently helmed Avalon Hill and its first-in-20-years redesign of Axis & Allies. No one can fill in the rest better than Mike himself, so let's dig in...

You've recently left Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill. What are you up to now?

I've formed a game design studio called LoneShark Games with James Ernest, the president of Cheapass Games. James and I have been friends for almost a decade, and we think too much alike for it to be safe for the world.

Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

We started when James was designing the upcoming American Idol card game for Fleer. We then immediately launched into a cool new game for Wiz Kids called Pirates of the Spanish Main, which was just shown off at the GAMA Trade Show; it uses beautiful polystyrene punchout ships which sail and fight in a very fluid fashion. We're doing some new games for the German market and a new Cheapass game and, well, there's a lot more. Basically, a bunch of companies contacted us once they found out we were working together, and so a lot of projects are in the works now. Oh, also, I've done a game with the late Paul Randles, the designer of Pirate's Cove, and Bruno Faidutti of Mystery of the Abbey fame. It's a deep-sea diving game called Treasure Island from Tilsit, and it should be out next year. I'm very excited about that.

You've designed games with James Ernest in the past, haven't you?

Yeah, we did Fightball, a futuristic real-time card game with knucklehead gangbangers who bring their baseball bats to the basketball court. It rocks.

This new studio, just doing designs and leaving the publishing to others, clearly takes a page from the business model of PC and console games. What else could the tabletop industry stand to learn from video games, in terms of how the business is structured?

A ton. Their design departments are smaller, and they understand that one company shouldn't have to shoulder all the responsibility for making a game work. They are much more comfortable with intellectual-property partnerships than the tabletop games industry, and I'd like to think we can help change that. I also think the tabletop games distribution channel puts way too much emphasis on hitting specific release dates, timed for catalogues and conventions and trade shows. The videogame industry understands that a game is only late once, but it's bad forever.

Will this new venture be doing any roleplaying work? (Justify your answer, please :-)

Tough one. I'm enjoying focusing on board games and card games right now. But hey, I spent twenty years working on D&D, and I was thrilled to be one of the creative directors on the D&D relaunch a few years ago. It's been two years since my last big D&D books (Masters of the Wild and Book of Challenges), though I did work on an upcoming hardback for D&D. I could definitely be intrigued by doing something else, and I have some ideas I'd like to pursue. I have a lot of respect for companies like Green Ronin and White Wolf, so if someone really wanted to put a budget behind a project of mine, I could see getting back into the RPG world.

Tell us about your dream contract - the scale and nature of games you'd really like to be doing.

My favorite gaming experiences are huge in scale—hundred-player live action RPGs, weekend-long road rallies, thousand-person puzzle games. I want to bring more of those to life. Games are great when you share them with your friends, but imagine sharing one with an entire theater of people. I do a lot of those now, at conventions like Gen Con and Origins, but I keep dreaming larger.

Why did you decide to leave WotC/Avalon Hill? Did you achieve what you had hoped for while there?

I'd been there for eight years, and was fortunate enough to work on all their great games. I absolutely achieved what I wanted to do there. With the job title of "inventor," few people had as good a job as I had. But in some sense, with the exception of my puzzles, I'd become defined by other people's properties—D&D, Axis & Allies, Harry Potter, Marvel, that sort of thing. I wanted to stretch a bit and work with James on some new ventures. But Wizards remains close to my heart (as well as my house), and I still do a few things for them when time permits.

Now that the new edition of Axis is out, has anything surprised you about fan reaction?

I was surprised that it's been so rabid—positive, negative, you name it, but always absolutely ferocious. You won't find any player who's indifferent about the revision. There are fully functional online engines for the game running already. Look, it's been 18 years since it was last revised, so I knew bringing it into the 21st century would be extremely controversial. Since I was best known for RPG and TCG work prior to this, a lot of people in the board game community didn't have any idea who I was. I guess they do now.

On the other side of the coin, what's going to surprise people the most about Risk: Godstorm?

That it's not Risk 2210 B.C. You'll be able to do a lot of things you could never do in Risk, like have your soldiers fight after they die. Plus, you can sink Atlantis. How cool is that?

Were you involved in the recently announced Betrayal at House on the Hill?

Yeah, I was a developer on that game. Betrayal is brand new, and nothing like it has ever been published before. It's a horror board game that really feels like you're in a horror story. The game comes with beautiful painted figures and tiles in which you build a haunted house. The amazing part is that the designer, Bruce Glassco, invented a mechanism where you only find out who (or what) the badguy is late in the game. I expect it'll be a huge hit around Halloween.

If you had to guess, what's the future of Avalon Hill?

Extremely rosy. Along with Eagle, Days of Wonder, Uberplay, and others, it will revitalize the American board game market like no one's ever seen.

We all have an answer to this one, but let's hear yours: dream AH reprint?

You could get me energized about a new version of Kingmaker, but hands down the answer is Squad Leader. My first hobby game, and probably my favorite. I love the global scale of Axis & Allies, but I get positively giddy about trying to get five guys and a halftrack across a minefield. I think Squad Leader would need a thorough overhaul for the modern era, though, and I would kill to be the guy to do it.

So, just how big of a Simpsons fan are you? I ask because of a certain card game...

I used to think I was a huge Simpsons fan. But then I met some of my developers on The Simpsons TCG like Elaine Chase and Andy Collins, who could quote every line of every episode. I can't match that. Still, I was a big enough fan to be flattered when, six months prior to the TCG's release, one fan site called it the "worst...game...ever!" I don't get many compliments better than that.

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