Monday, 23 September 2013

An interview with Emil Larsen, the man behind Burning Suns

This weekend I got the chance to do an email interview with +Emil Larsen of Sun Tzu Games about Burning Suns, a tactical sci-fi board game currently up on Kickstarter.

Burning Suns caught my eye for a few reasons. For one I really dig 4x Sci-Fi board games. Stuff like Twilight Imperium and Eclipse. I was addicted to Masters of Orion back in the day and it's great to see that board gaming has finally really started to capture that feel. Burning Suns looks to do some new things in the genre. There's currently over 700 possible factions in the game (possibly more to come with stretch goals), that totally blows away any other game I know. There's also some really cool looking miniatures that integrate dice into their design. Emil calls them Diceships. There's also a neat alignment system worked into the game.

Personally I found this rather long but detailed review by Undead Viking to really showcase what makes this game stand out:

Anyroad, enough of other people talking about Burning Suns, lets here it from the man himself:

Moe: First off, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I remember when Burning Suns was on Kickstarter the first time around and I fully remember being firmly on the fence about backing it. What I don't remember though is why exactly I decided against backing at that time. Obviously I wasn't the only one since you ended up doing a do over, which this time around has already hit your funding goal. Congratulation on that achievement.
Emil: "Thanks a lot Moe, and thanks for taking your time to interview me - I really appreciate that :)"
M: So my first question is: what's different this time around? What did you do wrong the first time, what wasn't right and what did you do to fix it this time around?
E: "It's an interesting point you raise, because I believe I did a lot of smaller errors that together made the campaign fall short of it's funding the first time around.  
To make it easy for your readers to go through, I'll just point out the things that might have kept you from pledging on my first campaign.

  • Include the rules of the game (in a nice layout).
  • Use pictures/illustrations of the available pledges.
  • Include shipping in the pledge and streamline the amount of available pledges.
  • Do an engaging trailer (that makes people want to read a bit more of your page).
  • Don't put all your cool USPs (unique selling points) like minis into stretch goals, you need some initial pull on the campaign.
  • Make sure to build a "substantial" fanbase before going live.
  • Use your Kickstarter preview option as a correction and optimization tool, not a cheap last minute marketing tool. 
Yea, it's been great and we hit the goal quite fast - Which is definitely a testimony to me learning from my mistakes ;) Plus people have been very supportive and helpful all the way!"
M: I personally thought your three tiered stretch goal system is brilliant. Rewards based not only on how much money the project has raised but also the amount of social media attention it has generated and the actual number of backers. I love the fact that even someone contributing $1 is helping to unlock new things for the game and make it better for everyone. This question was also asked by one of my google plus followers: so how well is this new style stretch goal system working for you?

E: "It's working VERY well, so well I'm positive a lot of new project creators will be using the same formula.  
Burning Suns is much more established on both Facebook and BoardGameGeek after this Kickstarter, mostly due to my very loyal and helpful backers who really wanted to help. And I gave them some tools to make that help visible.

I used the amount of backers as a promo goal, since the amount of backers would determine how important my "Print'n'play" options would become. These were combined with my stretch goals that made it financial possible to upgrade many of the components in the game.

One thing I made sure was that to calculate that these goal wouldn't overlap, but instead come up as a kind of stair, since that makes a world of difference always being able to spot the next goal ahead."
M: One of my Google Plus friends +Eric Franklin was a bit worried about this stretch goal system. He asked the following:

"My only concern is that all three categories of stretch increase the cost of production and two of them add minimal money to the project. The "Viral" goals, for example, add zero money to the project but have the potential to significantly increase its cost to produce (art isn't cheap)."

Would you care to address that Emil?

E: "[He's] right, at a glance it may look like that.  
But I'm making sure that my artwork isn't "just" used for a single purpose. It can both be used on components and as high resolution wallpapers etc. So when I'm structuring the different artwork, I'm always making sure we start out with something big and have the opportunity to use it several places.
Furthermore - I don't really believe in "free", people should get something for their effort, so giving them cool stuff like artwork for spreading the word, is a worthy expense on my project - and viral always add value :)"

M: 700 empires! Sorry over 700. That seems insane. I thought Cosmic Encounters was the Space game with the most factions but you have them beat by a mile. Obviously this number comes from the very unique three part player board. Where each player gets a race, an ideology and a structure, I've got two questions in regards to this: first off how the heck did you get up to over 700 and second, how is it that you can keep that many variables balanced?

E: "Haha, yea - in that regard I got most space games in existence heavily outnumbered ;) 
The concept of the 3 part empire building provides a strong multiplication factor, and since you can find a lot of factors on each component (ideology, race and structure) that can be tweaked, it means that I'll be able to keep designing new stuff for quite a while. 
It all started out with 6 x 6 x 6 different components in the first game, and for this campaign I added 1 extra of each, since then the backers have unlocked 2 more, getting us to 9 x 9 x 9 different empires (729).
There are several answers to [keeping things balanced]. You can find some of my pointers on this topic in one of my updates ( related to a talk Richard Garfield held in Copenhagen a few weeks ago.  
Another thing is how my campaign and final development phase have been structured. Together with my backers I'm going to arrange a lot of beta test activities on the game (hopefully with over 400-500 gamers), tournaments and more. Things to really polish the game before launch. I'm really using the "crowd" in crowdfunding, unlike make Kickstarter campaigns, which is more or less pre-order pages."
M: You seem to be very dedicated to making your fans and backers a part of the game. Having their impact help shape the game and it's world. You not only stress this in your video and backer levels but also in your updates. I've seen very few designers willing to let their backers vote on which artwork to use for example. Can you talk more about this, what your plans are and why you think it's so integral to the project that your fans are involved?
E: "I think it's pivotal to the concept of a crowdfunding project, that you're looking for more than just funding. Otherwise you could argue that a business angel is just as good. But with the backers of my Kickstarter project, it allows me to gain access to a lot of great minds and thoughts about the project, the stories, the mechanics - practically everything.

It's of course important that you state the general directions and that you remain true towards your concept and ideas. But tweaking it to the appeal of your backers, and polishing based on their feedback is immensely important if you want your product to be more than just a flash in a pan. And that is exactly my goal with Burning Suns, I want it to last."
M: I'm a big fan of organized play programs, especially ones that reward the organizers and participants. I'm often running release events and demos at the FLGS and it's always cool to have something to show for it. Things like laser cut tokens, special dice and oversized cards seem popular this year. I see you are really hoping to have public play support for Burning Suns. What type of program do you imagine there being for Burning Suns?
E: "That's a tough question. As of now the sky is the limit. 
I'm still just dipping my toes when it comes to organized play and programs. Hopefully a lot of backers will come up with good ideas. I've also had a lot of great suggestions from backers, and a handful have already announced that they would love to promote the game and do some presentations here and there. 
I think it's important that the community develop this part, and make demands based on those needs. I shouldn't go and dictate what people should do, just like I'm not going to dictate any tournaments. I want my game to be tournament friendly and balanced, but it's the community who will ultimately make the demand. 
Hopefully it'll be high in many regards :)"
M: You seem very interested in publishing not just a game, but a world, a fiction for Burning Suns. Between the newly launched burning-wiki and things like writing contests on Board Game Geek, almost every backer update gives us another peek into the Burning Suns world. A few questions on this. What came first, the world or the game? Just exactly how big are your plans for this world, do you expect it to spill out past the board game into other games or possibly novels? As most people know I'm not just a big boardgame fan but also a huge pen and paper RPG fan and when I see someone creating a world like this I can't help but ask: will there be an RPG in this setting sometime in the future?
E: "You're not the first to ask - so as I said, maybe the demand will rise to a level were it can/must be developed. 
The game came first, and slowly developed into something almost too big to comprehend in one game. In that regard I've also been contacted about plans to maybe share the IP with other designers/creators. 
I would love the universe to expand further - which is also why I did the writer's contest on BGG and why there's going to be a couple of short-stories taking place in the Burning Suns universe. 
The idea is that the Burning Suns game will create the pillars for other great articles to stand on, inspired and developed by backers around the world :)"
M: My last question: one of the things I saw on your project page that made me cringe was this: "Money Back Guarantee" You are willing to pay people back if they don't like it and will ship the game back. Isn't this highly risky?
E: "I've been inspired by Jamey Stegmaier who has been a great support during the project, and I thought that it was a good idea to put a Money Back Guarantee like he did, simply because it's an offer I believe they are entitled too. Furthermore, I believe very strongly in my game being of great value in game play AND in components. I would be surprised if people really would want to send the game back when you take into consideration of what they are getting for their money."
M: That's all I wanted to ask, do you have anything you want to add?
E: "We're entering the last phase of our Kickstarter campaign ( - and there's still some cool stretch goals that I know we would all love to reach, getting more minis to the table! So when you read this - be sure to go and help us out with a pledge, and become part of the final development of Burning Suns :)"
M: Well Emil, thank you very much for your time and the opportunity for my readers and I to learn more about Burning Suns. I'm really looking forward to seeing the game and bringing it out to a Windsor Gaming Resource event and giving it a shot.
E: "Thank you so much for having me in this interview Moe, I really appreciate that! And I'm looking forward to sharing Burning Suns with you and all our backers, it's going to be awesome! :)"

So there you have it. It sounds pretty sweet to me. Sound good to you? Well go back it right now! The kickstarter ends on October 5th!

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