James Baldwin on wargames and Kickstarters
Worldwide lockdowns have had a huge impact on tabletop releases, including production and development, and those planned and currently being funded on Kickstarter have been hugely affected. We reached out to James Baldwin, creator of The Drowned Earth that was very successful on Kickstarter in 2017, and the follow-up that is currently funding on Kickstarter now, about his games, and what it's like to be running a Kickstarter during a pandemic.
TechRaptor: James, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. The Drowned Earth was your first Kickstarter and it funded very well. For our readers who might not be aware, what’s your elevator pitch for The Drowned Earth?
James Baldwin: Well, I guess the first thing to say is that TDE is both a game and a setting. The Drowned Earth is a skirmish scale miniatures game full of dynamic movement and cinematic gameplay. It’s set in a post-post-apocalyptic world full of dinosaurs and the jungle ruins of a high tech civilization that collapsed more than 500 years ago. Now people are beginning to rebuild settlements and societies, and are searching the ruins for knowledge, and ancient technology.
TR: What was your background before creating the Drowned Earth and what inspired the creation of it?
JB: I’ve been a life-long and proud nerd, and it was probably inevitable that I was going to go down the rabbit hole of speculative fiction, whether it was as a writer, designer, or something else. I reached a certain time in my life where I still had relatively few obligations and responsibilities but knew that was running out: so it was “now or never” to follow the dream of crafting a living from something creative.
TR: The Drowned Earth has a very specific theme and a lot of depth to the history of the world you’ve created. Was the theme the initial idea, or did you have some specific mechanics in mind and the theme grew around it?
JB: I think they evolved separately in my mind and were joined when I got serious about making a game. I’d tried to world-build a number of times in the past, and only ever got so far with it. Likewise, I’d tinkered with game mechanics and homebrewing rules, but never finished a project. Deciding to take it seriously not only allowed me but obliged me to follow through.
TR: The Drowned Earth uses a lot of dynamic movement and scenery interaction. A lot of war and skirmish games now streamline scenery and cover interaction, but The Drowned Earth embraces it. What was the inspiration behind that and did you come across any difficulties in the design of the mechanics?
JB: Well in a funny way, the answer is in the question! I don’t like overly fiddly games, and so I wanted to try to create a set of movement and scenery mechanics that were very fluid and streamlined- as easy as shooting or fighting in any other game.
I think scenery is a big wasted opportunity in wargaming, and most gamers seem to love the idea of creating scenery interactions in their games.
Devising a system for leaping around a very three-dimensional board wasn’t difficult to do, but streamlining it was certainly challenging. When I play games it’s important to me that I don’t have to spend most of my game time looking things up in the rulebook, and that the action is fast-paced, with very little down-time for each player. Because it’s both an alternate activation game (each player activates one model, before handing back to the opponent) but also a game with a reaction mechanic there’s almost no time when you’re not either doing things or weighing your options vs what your opponent is doing.
TR: Your new Kickstarter, Ulaya Chronicles, is a new system in the same world as the Drowned Earth. What inspired Ulaya Chronicles? Was it always a plan or has it developed from The Drowned Earth community?
JB: I had originally wanted to include AI mechanics in The Drowned Earth, but there wasn’t time to do it properly without stretching myself too thin and decreasing the overall quality of the ruleset. Similarly, I had wanted to create a bunch of really narrative scenarios for TDE, and the idea of a branching campaign seemed both possible and attractive.
So Ulaya Chronicles started off life as an expansion to The Drowned Earth, and in fact, it still serves as one, since you’re able to export the AI decks and mechanics to TDE with a few important but simple changes, and have AI dinosaurs in your PvP games of The Drowned Earth.
TR: Ulaya Chronicles features solo/cooperative play. The current world situation means that a lot of players are looking for solo rules for their gaming fix. It looks perfectly timed, but it was clearly planned prior. What was the inspiration for solo play?
JB: I promise I didn’t fly over to China with a briefcase of test tubes. It was pure coincidence, but I think solo and coop gaming has been increasing in popularity hugely over the last few years in any case. Many gamers (myself included) find it hard to schedule game nights, and sometimes you just have the urge. So unless you have a long-suffering partner that’s willing to indulge you in a bit of wargaming, it’s hard to do that off the cuff. With Ulaya Chronicles you’ll get your traditional wargaming fix while enjoying some of the advances in design which board and card games have innovated in the last few years.
TR: Has the current world situation had any effect on Olmec Games and the Ulaya Chronicles Kickstarter?
JB: I almost canceled it. But yes, it was really hard to get things properly organized. Due to the lockdown here in the UK, I’ve been fulfilling all our website orders personally, as the company I was using isn’t currently operating. That’s obviously not ideal when running a Kickstarter, which really does need about 14 hours of your attention every day for the solid month.
Additionally, getting prototypes to reviewers was tough, and the increased workload meant I needed to triage on a number of aspects of the Kickstarter I would have liked to expand upon. For example, you can get a good idea of the game mechanics from the playthrough videos we had made, but I would really have loved to properly page-set and proofread the rulebook before the campaign for download.
I also found myself having to film and edit the Kickstarter video, with no experience or training, at home alone.
TR: Have you made any big changes from lessons learned from your first Kickstarter in the creation and running of this one?
JB: I’ve tried to calm down a bit- the first one was completely manic, and I burned out pretty hard at the end of it. Apparently working 14 hour days for six weeks straight without a day off isn’t a great idea! This time I’ve made sure to take some time off during the campaign and work out what really worked last time, and what was wasted effort. This was helped a lot as we now have a really vibrant and busy community who have pitched in and helped with things like answering inquiries in the comments section, promoting on social media, etc.
TR: What’s next for Olmec Games and the Drowned Earth after Ulaya Chronicles? How far in advance have you planned games and products?
JB: What’s next? Wouldn’t you like to know! In brief, though, I’ll be thinking of Ulaya Chronicles chapter 2. The current Kickstarter is just one of many stories I’d like to tell.
Later in the year, we may also run a smaller Kickstarter expansion for The Drowned Earth, which will include different leader models for each faction, and perhaps some new mechanics to change up the game experience a little.
I’m very slowly working on an RPG too, but that’s a long term project we probably won’t see any time soon.
I also have a hankering to venture into the card and board game arena, with other types of game experience set in The Drowned Earth, and so I’d be happy to hear from any budding game designers who are looking for a publisher.
TR: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us James.
We're going to have lots of coverage for The Drowned Earth over the next few weeks, but you can check out the rulebook for free from Olmec's website, and you can back Ulaya Chronicles on Kickstarter now.