Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jim Krohn Interview Part 1

Recently OBGB had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Krohn the designer of the much anticipated Space Empires 4X. Because Jim was so gracious with his time the interview is rather large so we're going to split it up into multiple postings.  Check back tomorrow for part 2.

OBGB: Jim tell us a little bit about yourself.  How long have you been a gamer?

Since 1979.  Obviously before that I played the games you would find in a game store, but 1979 was when I started playing good games.

OBGB: What got you into gaming?

War of the Ring.  I was a big Tolkien fan and I was introduced to that game.  That brought me into contact with other gamers who then introduced me to Avalon Hill.  I ended up getting many AH games, played a ton of Squad Leader, had a subscription to the General (AH's wargame magazine), etc.

OBGB: What types of games do you enjoy most?

Wargames and 5 player euros (to play with my family all at once). 

OBGB: How long have you been designing games?

Space Empires was my first and that started in 1990.

OBGB: You currently have two titles waiting for release Band of Brothers and Space Empires 4X. Let's start with SE4X, what inspired you to develop a 4X board game?

A friend of mine had a monster space game that he was working on.  We designed and played that game a lot.  Family pressures limited the ability to play it and I started from scratch on a design that would play quicker and easier.

OBGB: SE4X seems like something you have been working on a very long time which I'm sure means it has seen countless iterations. How many times do you think you've played your own game and how many iterations has it gone through?

I could not count how many times I have played the game.   However, I would say that the game went through at least 5 major iterations.

OBGB: A lot of readers, myself included are always curious of the development process.  Could you briefly describe the process of taking a game from the idea stage to testing and then to ready for production.  When did you know you had something you thought you could take to a publisher?

It wasn't until the early 2000's that I thought something might really come of this.  For Space Empires it was probably different than most game.  I did not set out to design a game to send in to a publisher.  I set out to play a game.  Band of Brothers was probably a more traditional path of development.  With that game I started by reading many books on infantry combat, taking extensive notes, modeling and testing small parts of the system, refining the system, and then doing research on the 101st to write scenarios and confirm my design decisions.

Some of the bits from Space Empires 4X

OBGB: Are you surprised by the success from the P500 orders of this game? Why do you think it is gathering so much pre-release buzz? 

I am completely surprised by the P500 success (and gratified). I think there are a lot of things that have helped the game.  If I were to list a few, I would say -
  • There are not a lot of space games that have a strong wargame feel.
  • On the other hand, it is simple enough so that non-grognards can play.
  • The mounted map has certainly helped to make the game accessible to more people.
  • GMT has done a good job with the game.
  • It has to help that, although they primarily publish wargames, GMT has a number of excellent games that are appreciated by non-grognards.  Space Empires fits in that mold.
OBGB: I imagine your confident in your design and must feel very proud to see it coming to tables everywhere but you know how board gamers can be are there any nerves about the upcoming release?

Sure, some, but not much.  Everyone, from my developer at GMT, to the play testers have been very positive about the game.  Plus, there has been a lot of different hands on the game already. 

OBGB: I think what impressed me is that for a game in this genre the rule book is very streamlined and relatively small.. How did you manage to pull that off? I imagine players can be up and playing in a short amount of time 

Well, that was my goal for my own use.  I wanted streamlined.  I like to play lots of games, and so my goal from the very beginning was a sleek, quick playing game.  It was in the back of my mind in every design decision.  It is why I chucked my complicated attack tables for a simplified combat system.  It is what motivated me to use exploration markers.  It is the reason why the economic phase is only done once every three turns and can be done by all players simultaneously.

OBGB: I don't want to get too heavy into specific rule topics because the rule book is available for all to read. However since the rule book is split into standard and advances rules how would you recommend players start off? Should they play a few games with the standard rules first? Do the advance rules add more time to the game? Do they add more downtime between player turns?

I recommend starting with the basic rules, not only to make sure the system is understood, but so that you begin to understand the ship interactions.  The advanced rules don't add time to the game, but do add strategic surprises that a new player does not need to be dealing with.

OBGB: One of the issues usually with Space conquest type games is the under powered ships get ignored in the building process. I've seen you comment on how SE4X tries to eliminate this problem but could you describe that here for readers who may have missed it?

There are several ways that SE encourages the building of balanced fleets.  Here are a few of them:
  • There is a combat bonus if you outnumber an opponents fleet by 2:1.  This abstractly represents how a larger fleet could more easily maneuver to fire on downed shields or damaged parts of a ship.  You don't want to be on the short end of that stick.  Therefore you are always encouraged to build escorts for you capital ships.
  • Some technology is only available on some smaller ships.
  • Ship Yards are needed to build fleets and available ship yard space sometimes constrains you to build  a smaller ship than you would like.
  • Money - it is always in a short supply and that can often cause you to build a smaller ship.
Near final map
OBGB: Lets talk a second about the scenario or play book. I was very impressed with the options contained in this book you have everything from a single player scenario to an epic 2-8 player scenario which requires a second copy of the game. A main reason players shy away from other games of this type is the time commitment, do you think you have solved that issue with the options presented in the play book?

Yes, the game is very customizable and I intended it to be that way.  It is normally a quick playing game.  However, say you have a very social/slow opponent.  All you have to do is play the game on a smaller map.  If you are playing a 4 player game and some of them are slow, then you should go with team play to speed things up.

On the other hand, if you want to spend an entire Saturday playing it, play an epic two map game, without teams, and play until the last person is standing.

OBGB: Finally if you had to pick something that sets SE4 apart from other games in this genre what would it be?

Its theme and its emphasis on technology and combat.  Many space games have an emphasis on economics and negotiation.  They also are abstract enough that they could easily be set in medieval Europe.  SE has an important economic system, but it is there for the purpose of supporting your fleet and technology decisions.  At the same time, the theme is very strong in this game. 

I suppose the fact that it is fairly simple and quick helps too.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of the interview where we discuss Band of Brothers.


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