subQuark games

Recently I had the opportunity to have a chat with David Miller of Subquark Games as they get ramped up to roll out their first Kickstarter project on September 30. I will be reviewing their Mint Tin Pirates and Aliens games respectively in a follow on article but thought it would be great to spotlight this creative little company who has a clever take on micro games.

Maurice: You’ve had quite the career so far; an indie book and game designer, an eLearning developer, former professor and geologist, teacher, firefighter, paramedic and a Canadian fencer. That’s quite a lot to accomplish! Tell us a little about yourself and what got you into game design?

David Miller: I guess my career is quite varied! If not for the boycott, I would have gone to the 1980 Olympics in Fencing but that turned out for the better because I would have likely become a fencing instructor in Canada. Instead, I moved to Texas and studied Geology and continued on for a Masters to teach high school. After that I moved to Miami because I love scuba diving (NAUI Divemaster) and there I became a geochronologist (radiocarbon dating scientist) by day and a college professor by night.

Eventually a move to New England was in order to be close to our daughter who was studying opera in Boston. I’d already been doing web work on the side and eLearning was a good fit with my teaching experience so I’ve been doing eLearning fulltime for 10 years now and have spoken at a few conferences about the use of OpenSim as a 3D development tool which makes it an easy transition to use it for game graphics.

But game design? That was never planned!

Last year I watched a zombie episode of Mythbusters which stirred up more angst in me than any movie has before and I wondered how I could convey that to others. That evolved into a board game that has the gamer moving through varying densities of zombies. I made a prototype; play tested it, had custom Chessex dice made and even a custom cloth “bug out” bag for a game box! But the cost to make this was crazy high, like $30! I didn’t want to make this overseas and started refactoring the game to more accessible components but a key component, the hex game tiles, just couldn’t be done “off the shelf”.

I then became obsessed with a game’s form factor and what I could pull together as a “maker movement” product – kitchen table industrialism! But the zombie game, ZOMBALAMBA, had too much going on to scale down effectively for now.

Maurice: Tell us about your latest games, especially the pair of games you have debuting on Kickstarter next month.

David: One day while at lunch with my friend Steve I pulled out 2 meeples and a pair of dice to keep us occupied while we waited for our burritos. We challenged each other to create 10 minute pirate-themed games and that’s how Mint Tin games started. The local game design meetup group suggested that a pair of games would be more interesting for a Kickstarter so Mint Tin Pirates developed quickly followed by Mint Tin Aliens and each use completely different mechanics to keep the games interesting.

I love the logistical challenge of creating a game that feels like a full board game but is easy enough for me to assemble at home. Wanting to keep involved as much as possible with the production process, I did not want to use an offshore third-party to do the work. Assembling games by pulling together components isn’t a daunting task to me if it can be done in an assembly line fashion.

Mint Tin Pirates and Mint Tin Aliens represent the best in what I can currently do with the following constraints: the game fits into a mint tin, uses real components, is manageable to assemble at the dining room table and is light and easy enough to learn in 5 minutes while most importantly being fun. The mint tin is key for this to control costs because having a small game box printed can easily run $2 but I can do a mint tin and hand applied label for under a dollar!

Recently we received pricing for embossed and fully printed mint tins but the minimal quantities are 5000 of each. The end price is decent, but the quantity would mean this becomes more like the “big games” that only get reprinted when a large demand exists (if they even do get reprinted).

Our games are light and that’s partly from the need to be playable in a short time but also because I enjoy lighter games that I can play while hanging out in the kitchen. That’s a common theme at our house when our daughter and daughter-in-law visit, two of us might prep one part of a meal while the other two play one of these but we can still be involved in the conversation together.

Mint Tin Pirates and Aliens are meant to be affordable for everyone. The plan is to sell them online for $10.95 each and the Kickstarter pledge level for the two games will be $23, this includes free Priority Mail shipping to backers in the US. Right now there are no plans for a distribution deal because we feel it would be cost prohibitive to the customer, but if the right opportunity came along we would re-evaluate that.

Mint Tin Pirates

Mint Tin Pirates

Maurice: How did you decide on pirates and aliens for the protagonists for these games?

David: Pirates came about because it was easy to imagine them crossing paths and having a chaotic fight with their ships passing close enough for the crew to throw knives and other weapons back and forth but still far enough apart enough that cannons would play a big factor. The dice represent the luck factor using all of these weapons with different damage potentials and outcomes. The Pirate Ghost gives the first player to lose all of his crew one last, but diminished chance to win and is also a nod to Scooby Doo!

For Aliens, I started with the question of why would aliens come to Earth and what would they do here, with a huge creative license on stereotypes, for which I apologize to Aliens. What’s the deal with crop circles? And messing with cows? As a pretty happy-go-lucky type of person, I didn’t want any nefarious elements and the cow abduction is a nod to another game project about global cheese domination . . . it’s not about experimenting on cows, it’s dairy production!

Maurice: What sets your games apart from others?

David: The mint tins and trying to set an example of what I call “maker to player” where game designers publish themselves directly for the game player.

I would like to see more people do this and I believe the game community would benefit as a whole even though I know it’s not an easy task. I’m realistic in my expectations for this because I’ve been working on my children’s books for years and there are over 2 million new titles published per year, so I know the chances of success are tough. Another thing I’d like to see this lead to is that more games being donated to places like shelters and hospitals. When I lived in Texas I was a certified Firefighter and Paramedic and I love giving back to the community, as game designers we can do that easily with donations of a half a dozen games each.

Maurice: Tell us about your game design process and how you take a game from initial idea through to the final product.

David: I start with something I’ve imagined such as two pirate ships fighting or students doing summer projects, the metaphor has to be pretty solid in my imagination but it also must be fun. Then I boil it down to its minimal elements, boats at sea with pirates and weapons for example. Then I do some research and learn things I can incorporate into the games, some I just learn for general knowledge. For example, did you know that the infamous black pirate flag meant that you’ll have safe passage if you surrender but a red flag means the opposite?

Stereotypical movie pirates fight with a handful of weapons and this was a large part of play testing, getting the right number of them into the game. I really wanted a blunderbuss in the game but it was just one weapon too many and then I needed that element of luck. The pitching waves, sea spray that wets the powder and causes slippery hands is all represented by the dice rolls. This also allowed me to dial in the game for probability and length of play, along with the number of each weapon in the deck.

Mint Tin Aliens

Mint Tin Aliens

Maurice: What challenges have you faced in getting these games developed and printed to this point?

David: Lots and lots, over 100 hours’ worth, of online research to find suppliers for the parts. The games are tiny but they need big game quality components, the playing cards are all done on French casino paper and we use Chessex dice so that tells you the quality we want in our games.

Printing was easy once the quality components were sourced, we can create only one game if need be or thousands. The biggest cost is for the cards and that’s what the Kickstarter is set to cover, the card printing. There are no development fees, no time and materials, no illustration costs and no reviewer copy costs; those are all the price of creating a game to us. We’re hoping that people can believe in this project enough to part with their hard-earned money by backing, so I certainly can put up my own money too!

The Kickstarter, if successful, will allow for the purchase of 500 decks each at the best discount possible, I have all of the other components so production will be quick.

Maurice: Let’s talk about the future of subQuark, what do you have in development now and will they become Kickstarter projects too? Also, tell us about the origin of the company name.

David: Mint Tin Villagers (possible other names for it are Utopia or Enclave) is the next planned game and it’s a cooperative game about building a village. I keep going back and forth from medieval to post-apocalyptic for the setting but it’s the same dynamic either way, creating a viable self-sufficient community. It has worker placement mixed with resource allocation along with trading. I know it can be done in the mint tin format and 15 minutes of play but we’ll see how Pirates and Aliens do first.

I have 5 children’s books that will be published starting in November. These are all in various states of professional editing and illustration and they’re illustrated my friend who spurred the development of Mint Tin Pirates! I have the book templates done and will print with both Amazon and Lightning Source.

I still want to develop ZOMBALAMBA into a full-sized game and do a children’s game based on the Kids’ books I’m publishing, so that will allow for some more game development. I’m also working on a novel based on ZOMBALAMBA and the ubiquitous larger-than-life online persona Ener Hax. But that’s further down the road into 2015 and 2016.

The company name subQuark? That’s thanks to Kate, my wife. In 2002 I needed to create a portfolio site and needed a name and I was coming up with truly awful names. She thought subquark would be good and it was available and I liked it because some years ago, Nobel laureate physicists described some quantum particles as quarks which were made of subquarks. At that time they thought that subquarks were virtual particles and that they only existed because they expected them to exist! That would mean that nothing is real! It’s like aboriginal Dreamtime, things only exists because we think of them.

And where do things come from like landing on the moon or making a little game – it all starts in the imagination!
Stay tuned for my review of both Mint Tin Pirates and Aliens and the Kickstarter project from subQuark which goes live September 30!


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