Interview with Maverick Muse

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oddball Aeronauts by Maverick Muse is on Kickstarter now. This clever 2 player game requires no surface to play, has gorgeous art, and has been in development for 2+ years. I really wanted to ask some questions of the lads who made this thing possible. 

My questions will be preceded by HG, with their responses as MM.

Hyperbole Games: Nigel -- Welcome to Hyperbole Games!

Maverick Muse: Thanks Grant and thanks for this opportunity.

HG: Tell me about yourself, your brother, and Maverick Muse.

MM: Maverick Muse is actually 3 people. Myself - primarily game design, my brother Ash - primarily artist, and Debs our Creative Director. Between us we do everything including website design, fulfillment, administration, branding, legalities, accounts, customer service. Everything. I haven't worked out yet whether we're gluttons for punishment, stupid, or inspired? But we have a lot of fun with all of it.

Obviously, Ash and I grew up together and we've played and designed games together, as well as created worlds for those games, for as long as we can remember. As the game designer and artist you really get to see what we do - it's right there in your face.

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Debs, my wife, grew up playing lots of traditional card and board games, but she's really embraced modern games. As Creative Director, she's our designer and graphic designer. She looks after the brand which means she's had a major input into the look and feel of the world, the game, the company and, well, everything. Her contribution isn't always so obvious as Ash's and mine but no less impactful for that. We work really well as a team and without each of our contributions, oddball Aeronauts wouldn't have been half the game it is. So it would have only been 23 cards . . . hehe!

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HG: Your first game, oddball Aeronauts, is currently funded (past its goal!) on Kickstarter. The most important question on all of our minds, firstly, is: Why don't you capitalize the "o" in oddball?

MM: Because keeping it lowercase is in keeping with the world itself. It's oddball. It's a bit maverick. Simple as! It's one of those branding thingys!

HG: Now that that's out of the way, tell us about the game?

Right - oddball Aeronauts is a light strategy, play in the hand, no surface required, card game of dirigible dog fights in an oddball fantasy, steampunk-esque world for 2 players, ages 9 and beyond. A game takes about 15 to 20 minutes to play, but don't be fooled into thinking there's no depth to the game. A lot of reviewers and gamers have been happily surprised on this score.

Yep, you can say all of that in one breath! Test it for validity!

HG: Many Kickstarter games get the reputation for being under developed. I was really impressed by the fact that oddball has been in development for over 2 years. Walk us through your process. What was your inspiration for the game?

MM: I don't think we do anything too different to other designers. The idea first, work out some rules, create a very rough prototype, play it a bit in house, fix any broken rules and smooth out the rough points as much as you can, then take it to beta testing and through blind beta tests polish the game off. As simple as that really. I know I can say that to you jokingly as it's never that simple in practice but maybe one day, for one of our projects, it will be!

In all honesty, I don't know how any small or start up publisher can bring a game to market in less than 2 years. They're obviously doing something we're not and I'd sincerely like to know how they do it. It's the number of beta tests which are absolutely needed that takes the time. There's a lot of back and forth in that period. Once we're more established we'll be able to get a lot of beta testing going at the same time, and so reduce the time it takes to thoroughly test games but until then its a slow-ish process. If you want to create a good game you can't skimp on the beta tests unless you're very lucky.

When it came to oddball Aeronauts, I grew up playing Top Trumps as a kid. It's an incredibly simple game and really only suitable for very young gamers. I used to play it in the school yard a lot. Then a few years ago I stopped doing that and I thought it would be great if there was a game with more depth that kids could get into but with the same play in the hand, no-surface dynamic as Top Trumps. That was the impetus and when I nailed the core mechanic the gameplay slotted into place quite quickly. Then it really was a case of testing, testing, testing. Plus a bit of testing as well. Along with some testing that is.

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HG: What were some of the early problems you faced with the game? How did you solve them?

MM: The biggest issues have been around balancing the two factions. When you've got a primary and secondary stat on each card - the Skill Level and Skill Bonus - and one of those stats comes into play twice as often as the other, it makes it a bit trickier. We had to look at all 24 cards of a single faction as a whole and ensure that in their entirety these 24 cards balanced out with the other faction's 24 cards. Solving it was a case of 1 part maths and a lot more parts trial, error and testing. We're back to that testing thing again.

HG: What would you say are the top things that make oddball Aeronauts a must-own game? Who would love it?

MM: oddball Aeronauts is an incredibly portable game and can, literally be played anywhere two people can get together. It's a fact. I've even seen someone play it on a ski lift. And up a tree. It's the start of 'extreme oddball Aeronauts'!

So it's an ideal travel game and great for "killing time" - say in a convention queue. Also, its so quick to play that you can play it in between long games or, with some of the games out there, while you are waiting for your turn to come around. You can also easily pause a game of oddball Aeronauts and come back to it later - simply put your deck away mid-game and get it out again later - it's easy to carry on from where you left off.

As for 'who would love it?' Tough question. We know it goes over really well with kids and its great for parents to play with their kids as the game has enough depth to keep us oldies interested. So, we're thinking anyone!

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HG: When did you decide to publish oddball yourself instead of using the traditional method of finding a publisher?

MM: Right from the start. As a studio we're more than just the game design. We really enjoy creating worlds for our games and so with an artist, game designer, graphic designer, writers and world 'builders' between the three of us, we decided from the outset to publish our own games.

What's fascinating is that we've found the game adding elements to the world and the world adding to the game. It's an interesting experience. For example, we've been working on the 'of Shot & Blade' adventure game and from a game perspective have a number of skills that are used to overcome threats and obstacles - think scouting or sneaking - and so worked out all the different combinations of those skills. Then we look at the world and see if there is an obstacle or threat that would match the different skill combinations. Let's say you've got scouting and sneaking as your combination and the obstacle is an enemy patrol - you can get by the patrol by either scouting a route, or sneaking by. For some skill combinations there just wasn't an obvious world threat or obstacle to use so we had to get imaginative and create one. The result, we hope, is a game that fully complements the world and vice versa.

HG: You are both designers and artists, correct? Tell us about your art background.

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MM: I used to draw reasonably well when I was younger but never pursued it. Debs is an artist herself and uses that skill with the graphic design and so on. Ash is the illustrator and is mainly self-taught. He's become as good as he is through hard work and a lot of practice plus innate talent.

I like to think game design is part art and part craft. Then I can say I'm an artist and use that to excuse my eccentricities and oddballnesseses.

HG: How did you pick the theme for oddball Aeronauts? The art is outstanding. It's an 18th century steampunk style thing with animals. It's really fantastic.

MM: Thanks. Ash has done a great job of visualizing all our oddball Realms ideas. And Debs steered it in the direction of steampunk. I just sat back with my feet up and cracked the whip!

The world of the oddball Realms came first. We all had a hand in creating that and still do. We wanted to have a setting that would have as broad an age range appeal as possible and so using anthropomorphic characters was ideal. Then we fleshed the world out (to a point) and established its look and feel. So the world building came first. We've got several 'worlds' created specifically for backdrops to our games.

So when the game design for oddball Aeronauts came to me, we looked at what would best suit it. We wanted this game to have a broad appeal as possible and so the oddball Realms was the ideal world fit. And as any reasonable person would do, we decided on the specific theme of duelling dirigibles. I mean, who wouldn't?

HG: What did you learn through iteration with the art? What were some of the challenges you faced?

MM: We've got a big advantage in that we have both an artist and graphic designer as part of the company. This means we can all work very closely together to ensure all aspects fit. The challenge was working out how to produce the art in such a way that all three of us were happy with the results. Over the course of this project we've learnt to take the art in steps just like you do with game design. We start by going over a concept - or concepts - Ash then starts with concept sketches and runs these by myself and Debs. We then tweak the look and firm up the sketch before moving on to line work and finally colour with input from Debs and me at each point. We've streamlined this process along the way and the results speak for themselves.

Another great advantage we have with an in-house artist is the ability to tweak and adjust at any point. For example, during the Kickstarter, one of our backers had the idea to put a monocle onto one of the bots. We thought this was really cool and relatively quick for Ash to add the monocle in, so in it went! We've really enjoyed this kind of interaction with our backers and want to keep going with this after the Kickstarter when we start work on the expansions. So you can expect monocles on everything!

HG: What are some of your favorite games to play? Did they influence oddball in any way?

MM: We definitely prefer games that can be learnt easily. That's a primary factor as we don't have a lot of time to game. And we play the same games a lot before getting new ones. Recently we've been playing a lot of older games - Ghost Stories, Elder Sign, Blood Bowl Team Manager, Escape: Curse of the Temple and The Hobbit. None of them directly influenced oddball but you'll see some key elements in common - player choices, random elements, easy to learn, different characters or factions, special abilities, variety and replayability. We definitely aim to include all of these elements in our games.

HG: What are your plans for oddball, aside from the obvious of publication? Is this a game that'll work with more players? More complex deckbuilding? Peel back the curtain and tell us how the sausage will be made, if you don't mind.

MM: Well, we've tested out a 3 player version and some of our backers are currently testing 4 players. In fact, one of them came back with a great suggestion that we need to fully test that I'm excited about. So, oddball Aeronauts does work with 3 or more players but we'll always market it as a 2 player game with rules available for 3 or 4 players. The main reason for this is that you'll need 2 sets to play 3 or 4 players and we have no plans on creating a version with 3 or 4 factions in the one box.

As to the future, we have 6 factions already worked out that need to get beta tested fully. These will be the first couple of expansions. We've also been playing around with Upgrade and Damage cards. Basically, the concept is that if you've got an oddball Aeronauts session going, after each game in that one session you play you select one Upgrade Card of your choice and add it to your deck. However, you also randomly pick one Damage card that you also add to your deck. There will also be Trophy cards to represent the winning of a game. It's just a little thing but your deck changes over the time of the session which is fun - a 'flash' campaign almost.

And we've got ideas for giant dirigibles. These would be twice the size of regular dirigibles and so the 24 cards representing them would have higher stats and so on. You could play giant dirigible vs. giant dirigible or you could have 2 players with regular dirigibles go up against 1 player with a giant dirigible - 2 versus 1.

As you can see we've got a few ideas we're working on and it's possible that not all of them will work out. When it comes to more complex deck building I've been thinking about deck 'rigging' where players can decide the exact order their faction cards are in at the start of the game - so there's no shuffling. This is literally just an idea as I haven't even tried it out myself. The question is what to do with the Event cards? Maybe still pick 2 randomly but, again, you can put them anywhere you like in your deck? If someone out there wants to give it a go and let me know the results that would be great.

HG: Do you have any other games you're working on? I remember you had a few when you contributed to my community preview article. I'd love to know what else is coming from you guys.

MM: Yes we've got quite a few games lined up in various stages of design. Some are just pure concepts whereas others are on the verge of going to beta testing.

We've got another 3, play in your hand, surfaceless card games. These all use the same core mechanic that's in oddball Aeronauts but do provide different experiences in different worlds to the oddball Realms.

Then there's the oddball adventure game where up to 6 players split into 2 teams of up to 3 players in each. Each team then takes on roles of officers and crew of an airship and the two teams race across the oddball skies from air island to air island in search of fortune and glory. It's a modular board game that allows for many different adventurous scenarios and a lot of variety. I don't think I've seen a game like it and that's why we're creating it. We've got a similar game to this called 'of Shot & Blade' but set in our own fantasy world of Edath.

Those are ones that are closest to beta testing.

We've also had a request to produce an RPG in the oddball Realms and I think role-playing in the oddball Realms would be a lot of fun. Ash and I were RPGers before we were board gamers. I've got ideas on how to make it a bit different to other RPGs…but our focus right now is on our board and card games. If there's enough demand though...

HG: Where do you see Maverick Muse headed as a company? Focused on your own games? Do you see yourselves taking submissions? What do you think defines a Maverick Muse title?

MM: We're definitely focusing on our own games and the worlds they're set in. We've started discussing the idea of taking submissions but haven't decided on a policy as yet. If we did take submissions then those games would have to fit into our studio criteria and that leads nicely into your last question about what defines a Maverick Muse title.

Our worlds are designed to be adventured in and so our games are designed around the fundamental themes of adventure and action plus we aim to instill story and narrative into them. If our games can get players groaning, fist pumping, moaning, cursing, laughing and celebrating then I think we would be very happy.

HG: Anything you'd like to add?

MM: 3 + 3 ?

I just wanted to thank you for this opportunity and say that I've been following your blog for a while - your posts on game design are always interesting and get me thinking. So thanks for that as well.

I want to thank the folks at Maverick Muse for helping me with this interview. If you're interested in oddball Aeronauts, it's on Kickstarter (already funded) for another week!