Thursday, September 29, 2016

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 10: Craig Stern

Welcome to People Behind the Meeples, a series of interviews with indie game designers.  Here you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know about the people who make the best games that you may or may not have heard of before.  If you'd like to be featured, head over to and fill out the questionnaire! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples.

Name:Craig Stern
Location:Chicago, United States
Day Job:I'm an attorney; I work for a personal injury and workers' compensation firm.
Designing:Over ten years!
BGG:Craig Stern - Designer Page
Facebook:Sinister Design
Find my games at:
Today's Interview is with:

Craig Stern
Interviewed on: 08/24/16

Craig Stern is a game designer that is somewhat local to me. He's from Chicago and I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and live about 65 miles west of Chicago now. I had the fortune to meet him back in January at a game design meetup and got to play his game, True Messiah, which is now on Kickstarter. Craig also attends the Protospiel events that I go to, so we cross paths every so often. Be sure to check out the Kickstarter for True Messiah and learn more about Craig below!

Some Basics
Tell me a bit about yourself.

How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Over ten years!

Why did you start designing tabletop games?
I started doing it when I was a child, largely to amuse myself. My family grew up poor, and since we spent a lot of time moving around, I had a hard time keeping onto friends. Reading books, writing stories, and inventing games were the cheapest, most reliable sources of entertainment I had, so that's what I did.

What game or games are you currently working on?
True Messiah, a strategy board game and deck-builder of surreal religious horror! Think Dominion meets Dune by way of Zdzisław Beksiński--there's more info--and some really gorgeous art--here:

Have you designed any games that have been published?
I've self-published 8 video games or so over the past decade; but this will be my first published board game.

What is your day job?
I'm an attorney; I work for a personal injury and workers' compensation firm.

Your Gaming Tastes
My readers would like to know more about you as a gamer.

Where do you prefer to play games?
For board games, I prefer my apartment (or a friend's apartment).

Who do you normally game with?

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
It depends on my mood. I enjoy party games, deck-builders, and strategy games (with the proviso that I typically consider games that rely on dice to resolve the outcome of player actions an outright waste of my time).

And what snacks would you eat?
Cookies are good; chips and dip is risky when board games are involved. (Beer is also risky, but the reward outweighs the risk in that case.)

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
Nah; my friends' banter is all the soundtrack I really need!

What’s your favorite FLGS?
My friends manage G-Mart Comics in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, so I may have to pick that one (or else risk getting shanked when I'm not looking).

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
Dominion remains my favorite game to this day; it's lightweight, easy to teach, infinitely adaptable, and it lends itself pretty well to storytelling while you play. (E.G. "I'm visiting the village, and hey--what do you know--the market's open! I sell some used books and buy myself a golem, which goes rampaging through town on my behalf and comes back carrying an entire militia, which then swears fealty to me...")

I'm not sure about "least favorite that I still enjoy". That might be The Dr. Laura Game, in that I sometimes play it ironically with friends as a sort of unintentional "can you get inside the head of a right-wing radio personality and figure out what horrible life advice she'd give to people in different scenarios" game. Either that, or Trivial Pursuit.

Candy Land is an easy choice for worst game; it features all the gripping, tense decision-making and interactivity of watching a screen saver. With results determined entirely at random, you could save yourself the trouble and pick a winner using a random number generator--and in a fraction of the time!

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
I don't think I have a single favorite mechanic; a mechanic is only as good as its context, ultimately, and what works beautifully in one game can outright ruin another one.

I do have a least-favorite mechanic, though: randomized results. I define randomized results as "interpos[ing] chance between a player’s chosen action and the results of that action"; anything of the "roll a die to see if you hit," or "roll a die to see how much damage you do," or "roll a die to determine if you just wasted your turn through no fault of your own and must now wait another 10 minutes while everyone else goes" oeuvre. I wrote a whole, long article on why that mechanic is bad, which you are welcome to read here:

Even with randomized results, though, context matters. This mechanic, too, can be used well--I just find that it almost never is.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
Magic: The Gathering.

...I know, I know: I need better friends, obviously.

What styles of games do you play?
I like to play Board Games, Card Games, RPG Games, Video Games, Other Games?

Do you design different styles of games than what you play?
I like to design Board Games, Card Games, Video Games

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
I enjoy it, but you need the right crowd for it. I'm open to playing as long as it's not going to make anyone uncomfortable.

You as a Designer
OK, now the bit that sets you apart from the typical gamer. Let's find out about you as a game designer.

When you design games, do you come up with a theme first and build the mechanics around that? Or do you come up with mechanics and then add a theme? Or something else?
It varies by game; it just depends on which idea strikes me first. In the case of True Messiah, mechanics arose first, then theme--but the theme then influenced the development of the mechanics, so it ended up developing a pretty tight fit.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
Not for a board game. My first-ever video game won honorable mention in an online competition, though, which helped to convince me that I should keep on making those.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
I admire many different designers; Sid Meier, Julian Gollop. They're mostly video game designers, if I'm being honest. I don't have a single favorite.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?

Seriously, I have no idea. Things just come to me, and I run with them. Then from there, it's just the long, hard process of testing and iterating based on personal observation and feedback.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
I'll start off playing against myself to make sure I have something solid enough that I'm comfortable inflicting it on other people.

Then, when the time comes, I'll start to organize playtest parties on Facebook. The idea behind a playtest party is simple: I lure in a group of friends with beer and pizza, then sit nearby with a legal pad and a pen and take notes as they play.

Once I have the game *really* solid, I'll then start taking it to conventions and such.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I've never worked with a co-designer; I've gotten into the habit of hiring artists and musicians, though. Division of labor is a beautiful thing.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
Ensuring that my games are accessible and not overly long to play; I really enjoy utilizing emergent complexity, but I can sometimes become too enamored of the "complexity" part.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
One of my own, obviously--why would I want to waste my time enriching someone else's IP?

That's probably not the answer you're looking for here, though, so I'll give you this as an alternative answer: Redwall or The Wheel of Time. I *loved* those books when I was younger, and I bet I could do something cool with them.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
"Save up your money and hire a good artist to do the art for you." I figured that one out eventually, but it took me too long.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Published games, I have: All of my work is self-published:
Games that will soon be published are: True Messiah will be self-published:

This is what I have currently crowdfunding: True Messiah is up on Kickstarter right now!
Currently looking for a publisher I have: None. I have never been willing to surrender creative control over my work, and I don't intend to start now.
Games I feel are in the final development and tweaking stage are: True Messiah.
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: A game that I do not care to announce just yet; I've learned to let things bake a little longer before I show them to the world.

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)

And the oddly personal, but harmless stuff…
OK, enough of the game stuff, let's find out what really makes you tick! These are the questions that I’m sure are on everyone’s minds!

Star Trek or Star Wars? Coke or Pepsi? VHS or Betamax?
Star Trek and Star Wars are both great in their own ways--Star Trek for its thoughtfulness and intelligence, and Star Wars for dumb swashbuckling fun. I like a little of both in my life.

Coke and Pepsi are both gross; if I'm going to drink something carbonated and bad for me, I expect it to at least get me drunk for my trouble.

I'm pretty sure Betamax ceased to be a thing before I was actually born, so VHS wins that one by default.

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
Swing dancing; rock climbing; sword fighting; reading; writing; playing video games; cooking. I also run the website, and organize the Chicago indie developer meetup Indie City Games (I'm not sure that those count as hobbies, exactly, but I'm including them anyway).

What is something you learned in the last week?
That the executives of the pharmaceutical company Mylan are basically total monsters.

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
I have broad, genre-spanning tastes in music and movies. In books, I tend to enjoy non-fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi.

What was the last book you read?
I'm currently working my way through the 13th century Chinese novel The Three Kingdoms.

Do you play any musical instruments?
My dad tried to teach me to play the guitar when I was young, but I foolishly refused to learn it, instead wanting to learn the clarinet. (I didn't end up learning to play that one, either.)

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I'm secretly a serial killer!

(To be fair, you didn't say that it had to be TRUE.)

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
I participated in a polar plunge in Lake Michigan on New Year's Day 2016 with some friends. It was 24 degrees out. To my shock and delight, I escaped the experience with my extremities all intact!

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
My birth, probably? :D

Who is your idol?

What would you do if you had a time machine?
Oh, I don't know; I guess that depends upon how time travel works. I'd be tempted to go advise Past Me--anonymously, if need be--on how to handle various things in my life. (Girls, for example.)

The effects of that could be unpredictable, though, and I certainly wouldn't want to return to the present timeline to find things too dramatically altered--although if they were altered for the better, and my memories automatically updated to reflect what had happened in this new-and-improved timeline, would it even matter? Hm...

...maybe I'd just go visit the future and bring back a Playstation 11.

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
I'm actually a pretty even mix; it depends on my mood and the particular selection of people I'm with, mainly.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
I've always been partial to the notion of being able to selectively freeze or rewind time at will, so I'd probably select Sway from the X-Men. (Minus the "being dead" part.)

Have any pets?

When the next asteroid hits Earth, causing the Yellowstone caldera to explode, California to fall into the ocean, the sea levels to rise, and the next ice age to set in, what current games or other pastimes do you think (or hope) will survive into the next era of human civilization? What do you hope is underneath that asteroid to be wiped out of the human consciousness forever?
All of 'em; variety is the spice of life! (Except for dogfighting. Or cockfighting.)

I don't think an asteroid could do the job, but I'd dearly love for the human brain to somehow rid itself of all the myriad cognitive biases and other shortcomings that hamper our ability to reason and perceive the world accurately.

If you’d like to send a shout out to anyone, anyone at all, here’s your chance (I can’t guarantee they’ll read this though):
Hi Mom!

Just a Bit More
Thanks for answering all my crazy questions! Is there anything else you'd like to tell my readers?

Another thing? After all that? Okay, fine--I will share this link, which you should visit:

Thank you for reading this People Behind the Meeples indie game designer interview! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples and if you'd like to be featured yourself, you can fill out the questionnaire here:

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