Interview: Alan Paull, co-founder of Surprised Stare Games

Alan Paull joins Diagonal move to discuss the 20 year history of Surprised Stare Games including recent releases The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress.

DM: Hi Alan, thank you for joining us. Surprised Stare Games is currently celebrating its 20th year as an independent board game publisher. How did you get started?

AP: When Tony Boydell and I first started Surprised Stare Games we were both game designers. We had loads of ideas, designs in various stages of development. Lots of semi developed projects that we wanted to take further. The company was founded with the intention of being design focused and that we would license our designs to other, bigger, companies.  

This was back in November 1999 and we quickly discovered that there were very, very few publication slots available for licensed games. Back then you needed to be a well established designer before someone else would release your games. So, we decided to try to publish our own games.

In 2002, we released our very first release game, Coppertwaddle. It was one of Tony’s designs. A 2-player card game inspired by his experiences playing Magic the Gathering. It was a small game, just a single deck of cards.

SSG’s first published game

We went on to publish smaller games like Fzzzt then bigger boxed games such as Confucius. Over time we were able to release games annually. Our most well-known game to date is Snowdonia which has developed a loyal fan base over the years.

Now we take an approach where we release limited print run games ourselves, for example ‘The Cousins’ War’. For bigger games we either collaborate with other companies or, as we did with the Snowdonia Master Set and Guilds of London, fully licence to someone else. For those two games we worked with NSKN and Tasty Minstrel Games respectively.

DM: What changes have you seen during the lifetime of Surprised Stare Games?

AP: It’s now much easier for a game designer to release their own game without the need for a company in support.

When we started the company, the smallest print run we could contemplate was 1000 – 1500 copies. It was just too expensive to do any less. There were only a few specialist manufacturers, perhaps two or three, that would print and assemble games.

Many more manufacturers now specialise in printing games – in China, in India, in Europe – it’s a major change. This, in combination with platforms like Kickstarter, has reduced the cost of publishing games.

Historically, Surprised Stare Games entire calendar was geared towards releasing a game in time for the Essen Spiel convention. Unfortunately, when we started, the audience for boardgames in the UK was tiny. The UK Games Expo didn’t exist. There were a handful of small conventions but certainly nothing on the scale that the UKGE has grown to. The market for games in the UK has grown tremendously in the last 20 years and, for a small company, this is hugely important.

Confucius by Surprised Stare Games
Confucius, an SSG big box game

DM: Your most recent releases are two games in the ‘Pocket Campaigns’ series. Can you tell us about the series?

AP: The Pocket Campaigns series is a loosely linked series of warfare themed games for low player counts that would play in 30 -45minutes. Small box games with a lot of actual depth to the gameplay.

The first of these was ‘The Cousins’ War’, by David Mortimer, which was released in 2017. The game itself is set during the War of the Roses and features multi-function cards and a variant of Liars Dice for combat. It was well received, and a second edition was released in 2018.

The Ming Voyages is set in China during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Chinese are trying to complete their oceanic junk voyages while simultaneously fending off the barbarian hordes on their borders. The Barbarian Overlords are trying to extend their territory by conquering parts of China.

The third game, The March of Progress, is a micro-wargame that explores conflict during different historical periods ranging from the 30 Years’ War to World War 2.

DM: Please can you provide insight into the design process of The Ming Voyages?

AP: The Ming Voyages is an asymmetric game designed by David Mortimer and I. It has a similar card system as The Cousins’ War, however, there is a variable number of cards. The Ming player has more cards than the Barbarian Overlord. These cards have events, actions and command points so each player can use each card. Combat is again dice based and can be augmented by the cards.

Each turn players will simultaneously choose a card to play or reserve and then swap hands. This provides each player with an idea of what the other has in hand. It can also mean that a player can deny access to cards that the other player would benefit from. This awareness of possible decisions available to your opponent is reflective of the Chinese intelligence network of the period.

Being asymmetric, we had to ensure the Barbarian Overlord player faced decisions that were equally challenging and interesting as those presented to the Ming.

The Ming Chinese were undertaking voyages of exploration and maintaining control of their territory so there is naturally a more varied strategy. The Barbarians essentially wanted to control the borderlands. We had to make sure the Barbarian player had more than a repetitive ‘hammer on the door’ approach.

We developed a system whereby the Barbarian player has more choice in how to use their reserved cards including the ability to attack with an entire horde. There is a lot of decision making involved in building up to those big attacks.

Balance in asymmetric games is a major challenge. And it simply requires huge amounts of playtesting to get right.

Ming Voyages Map
The Ming Voyages map

DM: Can you tell us more about how March of Progress explores the conflict during different historical periods?

AP: The March of Progress is a design that arose from my interest in war studies. It gives players limited resources, a restricted space to manoeuvre – home countries, a neutral area, some pieces representing armies – and asks ‘how can we manage this? We can make new armies; we can move in a limited way and we can time our attacks. In each scenario you need to read your opponent and learn to counter what you think their strategy is. Of course, they may not do what you expect.

We have boiled down the strategic decisions to their essence. What was the key purpose for going to war in each period? Was it increasing territory as it was in the pre-Napoleonic period of limited warfare? In that case sitting back growing powerful armies while your opponent rushes out grabbing territory will probably result in defeat even though they may be weaker militarily than you are.

There are very slight changes to the rules in each scenario. These tweaks may only change one or two rules or cards yet result in entirely different decisions.

For example, in the Napoleonic scenario, the focus for the French side is on defeating the other players armies and controlling areas. Meanwhile, the Austrian side can gain points by fulfilling certain conditions that will attract support from the British.

The World War One scenario on the other hand forces both players to choose between attacking or losing points. This results in a war of attrition where each side needs to attack yet raises the question of ‘how do we do this when it isn’t necessarily the best strategy’.

It’s almost abstract, however, we tried to get the feel of conflict in each period. For example, playtesting feedback for the WW1 scenario was that it was frustrating to be unable to do the things players wanted – which is exactly the position the WW1 leaders found themselves in! It’s that flavour we trying to bring to the fore while retaining playability.

The March of Progress
World War 2 Scenario set up

DM: How does this differ to bigger, more complex war games?

AP: Bigger war games, particularly the Hex and Counter style, often have a focus on the tactical. On supply lines, zones of control, combat factors and how to convert these into an operational or strategic advantage. We have removed those details aside from certain elements of the World War Two scenario where victory points are used as a proxy for logistics. Logistics were so important during World War Two that we felt that they had to be represented in the scenario.

Wargames often are considered simulations rather than games. We very much wanted March of Progress to be a game. Hex and Counter games are fun, I’ve spent many hours playing 12-hour, 24- hour games, but it’s a unique type of fun. The March of Progress is the kind of fun you can have during a break from those more complex games.

DM: The Kickstarter for the Ming Voyages and The March of Progress,was the first time you ran a campaign yourself. How did you find this?

AP: Surprised Stare Games has always been a serious hobby rather than our main jobs. Previously we have worked with companies that performed much of the Kickstarter management – the Snowdonia Master set being a good example – and we had very limited involvement in running the campaign.

For this campaign, I took over the reins. We knew what we were getting into, however, it was very much a learning curve.

Our European partners, 2Tomatoes and Frosted Games, both have substantial Kickstarter experience and they provided immense support. The quality of the graphical material on the Kickstarter page is an example of that support.

Kickstarter is fantastic for discovering what is going well with a campaign and what isn’t. Feedback from backers is very quick and it allows you to respond to change promptly. I found that, so long as I wasn’t doing anything horribly wrong, our backers were very supportive of what we were doing and how the campaign was going.

Overall, we funded significantly higher than the campaign goal, hitting many of our stretch goals. As a result of this backer support, we can provide a better product than we would have been able to otherwise.

Ming Voyages and March of Progress from Surprised Stare Games
The Ming Voyages and The March of Progress

DM: What plans do you have for the future of Surprised Stare Games?

Tony and I both have games in development. Currently we are not sure which, if any, of these will be Surprised Stare Games projects.

My next big project is to help redevelop classic strategy game ‘Kingmaker’ for Gibsons Games.

Gibsons Games have been looking at redeveloping parts of their back catalogue of games recently. One of these was their re-publication of l’Attaque in 2019 as part of their 100th anniversary – a tad more than our 20th! Tony was speaking to Gibsons at UK Games Expo last year, when it came up in conversation that they were considering re-developing that eternal favourite, Kingmaker.

Knowing that I was a Kingmaker fan, and something of a wargame designer (Airfix Battles, The March of Progress), Tony suggested that I might like to be involved, and I jumped at the chance. I’m very grateful to Gibsons for the opportunity, and I believe we will come up with a “revised-yet-traditional, stream-lined” version.

The probable next instalment of the Pocket Campaigns series is in development. It’s set during ‘the Anarchy’; a series of events that occurred during the 12th century succession crisis between Stephen and Matilda. It’s designed by Rob Harper and is along the lines of The Cousins War.

One of the games I am working on, with David Mortimer and Rob Harper, is tentatively called ‘Snails and Grails’. It’s inspired by drawings that medieval monks would include in the margins of religious texts.

These drawings featured scenes of knights fighting snails or grotesque hares and monkeys. There are various theories as to why these were drawn, however, no one really knows what they signify. We thought it would be a wonderful theme for a fantastical co-operative exploration game that would show these creatures to their fullest.

DM: Do you have any advice for people just starting out in the board game industry?

AP: No one really knows what will work and what won’t. Be inventive, be creative, try out new things but make sure you finish something. Game design is not about starting projects, it’s about finishing them.

A version of this interview first appeared on the Zatu Games blog.