Games vs Play: Today I’m very happy to be talking with Allen Chang and Alistair Kearney from Rule & Make, one of Australia’s top games companies, based in Brisbane, Queensland. I’m talking with them via conference call from down here in Melbourne. [Editor’s note – Alistair was driving at the time and was listening in but not able to take part much in the conversation]
Allen Chang: Thanks for having us.
Alistair Kearney: No worries, thanks Martin.
GvP: Excellent. So maybe I’ll just start by asking if you could tell us about what your roles are at Rule & Make?
AC: Yep. So I am the Creative Director, and Alistair is the Head of Production. I do a lot of the games development and design as well as working with some of the designers, and Alistair does a lot of the production of the games themselves, like the physical components and the costs. But in reality it’s a lot more muddied – it’s very much all hands on deck, everyone’s wearing multiple hats. Alistair helps with the design as well as development, and I help with the communication side of things like answering emails. Even though we’ve both got distinct titles, given the size of the company we do different things. Frankly that’s just how the publishing industry as a whole mostly works.
GvP: Yeah, in any sort of creative industry you need to be doing lots of different things at once. So, how did Rule & Make start? What’s the origin story for Rule & Make?
AC: About 5 years ago I was living and working overseas when I had the opportunity to work on a mobile phone game. Through that I did a lot of early planning and testing, and I got in touch with manufacturers, artists and other people. So when I came back to Australia I mentioned to Alistair that we should look at an idea that we had a long, long time ago, which was to create a card case for Magic. This was just a tentative idea. We wanted to roll a play mat – like a mat you could play card games on – and a card case into the one product. I had an idea of how to do it, and I met the manufacturer who was capable of doing it, so we started a company to create tabletop gaming accessories. That served as our door in, basically. Kickstarter existed at the time, but we didn’t know about it – so we started working to pull together funds to make this work. We made the product, sold it predominantly in Australia, and it sold out pretty quickly. That got us thinking about where we wanted to take the business. We were thinking of doing a second edition of the [card game] accessory, but Kickstarter Australia had just happened. So we thought this was a really good opportunity. We had some ideas that stemmed from that video game that I was working on overseas, and used that as a basis to create what it is now Rise to Power, the first game that we worked together on.
GvP: That’s interesting how you started with a small thing, and then it became a much larger proposition. That’s great.
AC: Interestingly enough, the original idea for Rise to Power was that it was going to be a micro-game. There was another micro-game on Kickstarter at that time that gave us a lot of inspiration. It was like, “Oh wow, why couldn’t we do something like that?” So at first we thought that the game we wanted to create would be a fairly small game, just to do the testing of the waters. But that evolved into a much larger thing. For us, Rise to Power was more a manufacturing challenge than a design challenge. How do we create a game that would fit into an A4 envelope, or even a C5 size one? This was inspired by a game called Province that was designed and developed by Laboratory Games. That was our impetus to say we could try to use that as our design constraint. We felt we had a pretty good handle on the game design side of things to allow us to make the game a little more ambitious. That confidence helped pave the way for what the game eventually became.
GvP: Now, you guys said you use Kickstarter as your primary cash flow. I saw that you had announced your most recent Kickstarter for Skyward. Can you tell us more about this new game?
AC: That’s what we’re currently working on. We signed that game way back when Rise to Power was funded. At that point we got more involved in the tabletop games community on the Brisbane-side, which led to us being more integral in the TGDA [Tabletop Games Designers Australia]. Through doing that we met Brendan Evans and then we signed Skyward. Essentially that’s almost two years that we’ve been designing and iterating over Skyward. So it’s a long time coming, this game.
GvP: What’s Skyward about? Could you give us a brief description of what people can expect from that game?
AC: We haven’t really ironed out the actual pitch yet, so it’s gonna be a bit haphazard. We know how to explain the game to ourselves, but we haven’t honed it yet! The core of the game is about having one leader, which we call the Warden. The Warden gets to split the pool of cards among the players. So, for a four-player game for argument’s sake let’s say there’s 11 cards, and they have to be split into four piles. They don’t have to be equal, there can be more cards in one pile than another. Once you’ve split the cards, as the Warden you let the person to your left pick first. Then you go around, and the remaining pile gets given to the leader. So the leader gets to choose the split, but gets the last pick. The tactical element of the game is to decide how to split the deck, so that the players get what they want but what they don’t want comes back to you – which in reality is what you actually want. That’s the core conceit of the game. The design was inspired by Brendan’s love for Magic: The Gathering and its draft format. So a lot of the inspiration came from how to make a game that gives that feel of Magic drafting, but in a single package. The theme of the game is that four factions have finally united, and in celebration of this unity a city will be formed – Alistair, you may have to help me out here.
AK: Yeah, a city will be formed together of all the factions. It’s a uniting of the factions in a triumph of coming together. And these factions will create this new airborne city.
AC: Right. And the reason why it’s in the air is to make it fair for everybody, it’s not encroaching on anybody’s territory. Each player plays as a representative involved in getting the city put together, and their interest is to make sure everybody gets a fair go into what’s going into the city. Each round they elect a new Warden who splits the cards and gives out the choices that way. That’s really the very basic gist of it. There’s a story element that will eventually show up in the game as well.
GvP: So, when you’re commissioning a new game, what tips would you give to designers about what you’re looking for?
AC: We’ve been described as a company that really likes mechanics. As a designer, if you have a game that has a really clever, interesting or possibly unique game mechanic, and have a game that services that mechanic, then that’s a thing we really like. I’ll give you some quick examples of the games we’ve produced. Rise to Power is all about sequences and combos. How do you maximise the combo you’ve got out of the cards that you’ve acquired? It’s about linking up to get more action points to do more things. That’s the reason the game is about power plants and power, because it’s about engine building. The theme informs how the gameplay works, hand in hand. Moving on to Entropy. Entropy is all about simultaneous action to action, but in a way that allows for deception and second-guessing. You’re playing a card, but you know somebody else is playing the same card, in which case neither of you get to do the action, so you have to do a different action – but you know that you know you’re going to play a different action, so you’re blocking that one. There’s a lot of mind games, and that’s the core conceit of the gameplay. Everything about the game services that one mechanic. Burger Up is the same sort of thing – there’s a puzzle element to how you lay the ingredients, matching the right ingredients, and then planning for the next ingredient. That’s the core game mechanic, and the game services that. You might have seen on Facebook that we recently partnered with Table Tyrant Games. They have a different kind of focus and niche, and their market is more about the theme and storytelling games. That’s why we partnered with them, and it works really well for us because we don’t really compete in the same space. We’re both based in Brisbane, and they do really amazing work. We think there is a lot we can do together to produce wonderful and really interesting games for all niches of the market.
GvP: That sounds like it will be a very productive relationship with Table Tyrant. Congratulations to both of your companies. I was just wondering, what’s the big plan ahead for Rule & Make? Where do you see you guys in 10 years time as a games company in Australia?
AC: Well, we don’t really plan that far ahead. First steps for us, for the next two years Alistair’s and my efforts are to push Rule & Make into the international market. That’s what we’re focussed on. Alistair and I are working on Rule & Make full-time, we have six or seven games lined up that are progressively more ambitious, and they are designed in a certain way that will appeal to a certain market that we know we can get into. The 3-year plan for us is to see Rule & Make as a known publisher internationally. I don’t know what we’d look like in 10 years; I don’t know how to presume how the boardgame industry will look like in 10 years. But that’s what I see ahead for us.
GvP: So what sorts of challenges do you see in the international market, which is huge but mainly focussed in Europe and North America?
AC: The challenges are numerous! First of all, geographically we’re just in a very disadvantaged location, and our currency doesn’t help either. It’s definitely a more expensive endeavour for us than if we were actually in the US. Staying competitive is very expensive. Someone who lives in America is able to go to conventions at a much lower cost than us, because they don’t have to travel so far. We have to compete by flying to America to establish connections in the States where we don’t really have a very strong grounding. Except that Kickstarter has given us that route to get into America, because with the two Kickstarter funded projects we’ve had so far we’ve seen more and more Americans getting onboard. It’s somewhere between 30-40% American now, about 20% from Australia, and then the rest from the rest of the world like Asia and Europe. We do have a homeground advantage here, we have fans in Australia that support us and we’re super-grateful for that. It’s also good to see that our numbers are growing, and while the Australian base is still very solid for us, the numbers in the US are starting to outpace them. We want to continue that trend, to try to get more American customers or fans of Rule & Make, and establish our brand over there. But Alistair and I are also putting a significant amount of our budget into going to as many conventions as we can. So we’re going to Essen, and we’re also going to GAMA and Gen Con next year, then we’ll see how we go after that. The plan is to essentially push our name and push our brand and find opportunities, either through distribution opportunities or collaborative opportunities, and so try to get ourselves more established in the international stage. But you know, that said, we’re doing this because we’re intensely passionate about the industry, and we really want to make a good go at it given that I think there’s an opportunity for an Australian publisher to really be known internationally. So it’s an exciting time for us.
GvP: It is an exciting time, and I think you guys are helping make this boom or renaissance for games take place. And it’s good that we’re seeing it happen here too, in Australia. Thanks very much guys for that, it was great. I wish you both the best of luck for your company.
AC: Thanks, great.
AK: No worries.
Games vs Play would like to thank Rule & Make for permission to use images appearing in this post. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!