North Star GamesUp until now North Star Games has been known mostly for party titles. The company’s flagship product, Wits & Wagers, is a trivia game where players bet on which one of them has the best answer. Its two most recent releases are Clubs, a trick-taking card game in the same vein as Spades, and Happy Birthday, which has players giving each other strange and silly gifts.

Today, however, North Star is in the process of launching a strategy game division. For the first product of that division, North Star has turned to Kickstarter and chosen a game called Evolution.

I had the opportunity recently to spend an afternoon at North Star Games’ office speaking with company founder Dominic Crapuchettes about the new venture, as well as playtesting Evolution. Dominic shared with me some of the history behind North Star Games, talked about how he sees the company developing in the future, and addressed the role of Kickstarter in those plans. The game I enjoyed a lot. It’s smart, engaging and thought-provoking without being overwhelming.

The Interview

DominicThe following is an excerpt of my interview with Dominic. Below that is a link to the full audio recording, which lasts about half-an-hour.

How did you get in to the game business?

I’ve been a gamer my whole life. The earliest that I considered starting a game company was in high school. Actually, I wouldn’t say considered; I decided that’s what I was going to do. And that was actually the only thing that I could see myself doing with my life. But I was really too young and inexperienced to pull something off like that. And I kind of inherited a fishing operation; I captained an Alaskan fishing boat, a salmon fishing boat. That just made more economic sense. I was getting paid some good money to do that. But I increasingly wanted to start this board game company, especially given some of the near-death episodes that took place—every year there were several. And so at some point when the industry was kind of in a lull, I decided that now was the time; I was going to go to business school, try to figure out how to start a company, find a business partner, and do it.

How did North Star Games come to be?

My original idea was to be a bridge from the games people know here in the U.S. to the games that I loved, which were increasingly coming out of the Euro or German market. As soon as I took in investor money the whole me doing this hobby and turning it into a lifestyle company kind of morphed in to well people are giving me large amounts of their retirement money and I better find a way to give it back to them.

My idea was we’ll have this big huge blockbuster that sells millions and then we’ll have these devoted fans and I’ll slowly take them one step at a time towards all these other great games that are out there. And I think I found that I went the other direction. Like the bridge was just too great. I didn’t fathom how great of a bridge it was to these casual American gamers to actually play these hobby games. Every time I tried, it would just fail miserably, so the company went lighter, and easier, and more accessible.

So you end up bringing party games to the hobby gamers.

Exactly! The reason that happened is I spent so much time on the BoardGameGeek. I played all the Eurogames, so it makes sense to me that I was going to market to all these people that I tested with.

I kind of always assumed that these hobby games were going to grow. Now I look back 10 years and the growth is considerable. In fact, the hobby section in Target, Walmart, Barnes & Noble those are the only board game categories that have been growing. The party game section has been shrinking. So now looking at it business-wise, that increases our willingness to say now the time is right. Lets jump over—start-up strategy division to this company!

You finally get that opportunity to take it back to what you wanted in high school?

Yeah! The buyers at Target, Barns & Noble, and Walmart, they said, “Look you guys are hobby gamers and you know how to put out really streamlined games that are accessible. You need to be doing this for us.” People have been asking us for years now to do it. They say that given our background and what we’re experts at, this should be a shoe-in for us. We just haven’t put our heads to it yet.

Tell me more about this new direction with North Star Games.

We’re starting a strategy division that’s going to put out hobby games—games for hobby gamers—as opposed to what we’ve done in the past. Right now Evolution, which is our first release, I would say is a 1 hour game of complexity similar to maybe 7 Wonders or Dominion. Our sweet spot right now is medium-weight Euro—some people might call it medium light.

Evolution is just testing the waters?

We have a thousand games in mind! The issue isn’t games. The issue is time and energy. I’d say right now expansions for the Evolution brand is first and foremost in our mind. Evolution—I love it! I wouldn’t stake the whole start of our strategy line unless I found a game that I thought was amazing. And I think it is. I think it’s fantastic, so I expect it to do well and expect to put out expansions.

One of our goals was to gain credibility in the hobby world. It might not have been the right financial decision. I don’t know. We’ll find out.

To launch this new product you’re going to Kickstarter. It’s certainly common these days. But North Star is well-established. Why do you need Kickstarter?

There are several reasons. One is gauging interest because I have very little idea of how many I should print. I’ve gotten diverse answers from different people. This is one way to help us as we enter a new market where we really just have no idea. That’s a really big thing for us. We’re certainly not going to print 50,000 copies like our last print run of Wits & Wagers.

Another big thing here is personal for me. I’m a little bit worried that if the whole thing flops, I gotta go to our investors and justify that this was a business decision not just a passion play because I like it and was using their money to fund my hobby. All the money we get from North Star Games we reinvest. None of that’s just sitting around. So I’d like to be able to go to them and say we were able to actually raise money from enthusiastic people that would like us to start a strategy division and they’re showing their support by kickstarting this. And of course, if it’s not a flop I’m not going to have to go on justifying it.

Also, part of me wonders am I making the right business move or not. We’re doing really well with the other side of the company. Should we really be doing this? I think the answer is yes but who knows whether I’m being clouded on my decision.

It’s about gauging the market then, not about financing the game?

It is the financing of this new division for us. I could divert money away from what I’m calling our party games division but then that’s going to be growing less. Every year we borrow money to print games. We never have enough cash by a long shot. So if I take money out to start this other thing that’s increasing the money we have to borrow over there. I don’t even know we might be maxed out on the money we can borrow. So there is a legitimate need for capital. To me, it’s a new venture that is risky. I’d rather not be diverting funds away from a company that’s doing well.

What other products do you have in mind at North Star? I’d heard that you were working on a television game show.

That’s still in the works. The last I heard there is a very established production company that wants to option the rights. But that’s just the first step in a long long road

We’re starting a digital division and I also want to keep finances separate from this digital division. That we’re actually going to raise money for. We’re going to try to raise $1.5-2 million for the digital side. So that’s another initiative.

On our core side, we’re going to put out travel versions of the three Wits & Wagers and two Say Anything. Those are just basically the questions.

Download: Dominic-Crapuchettes-of-North-Star-Games-5-2-2014.mp3

The Game

Evolution_BoxLeft3D-600x600This first strategy title from North Star is a game appropriately called Evolution. But rather than about changes at a game company, Evolution is about growth and adaptation among competing animal species.

Over the course of a game, each player develops a stable of species, adds traits to them (such as horns and burrowing), grows their body-size and population, and takes them to the watering hole to eat. Population determines the amount of food a species can and must eat. Body-size affects a species’s ability to defend itself from predators (or success at being a predator, as some species through added traits, may become carnivores). Individual traits confer a variety of special abilities, such as the ability to store food from one game round to the next (fat layer), the ability to inflict population losses on an attacker (horns), or the ability to collect extra food whenever another carnivore species attacks (scavenger).

Each round, players receive a new hand of cards, select one of those cards as a contribution of food to the central watering hole, and then use the rest to add traits to their species. After new traits and the amount of available food is revealed, the players take turns feeding their animals. Any animal species that has not eaten its full loses a population and may go extinct.

Hard-Shell Horns Long-Neck

The goal of the game is to develop the most successful stable of animal species. After the card deck is exhausted, the winner is the player with the most points: 1 point for each unit of food eaten, 1 for each trait among all species, and 1 for each level of population.

Overall, Evolution is a fun experience that presents interesting strategic choices. Whether to focus on developing a smaller number of species or building a bigger stable is, for example, one of those important choices. Another is the constant choice between herbivores, for whom food at the watering hole in replenished each round, and carnivores, who can eat other species but may also end up eating a player’s own species. Evolution’s mechanics fit the theme well and promote a strong degree of interaction.

North Star Games’ Kickstarter project for Evolution has already raised more than triple its goal with 39 days still to go. A pledge of $50 gets a copy of the game. For $65, one can get Evolution and one other of North Star’s games. Delivery is expected in October.

North Star Games is a Purple Pawn advertiser.