Interview: Ryan Wolfe


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Looking for an epic space game of intrigue, trading, and piracy set in a futuristic dystopian-type universe with cool miniatures?  This new Kickstarter project just may be of interest to you!  First-time designer Ryan Wolfe sits down with iSlaytheDragon to discuss his dream and project.

First off Ryan, describe Shadowstar Corsairs in one sentence.
If you’ve played Merchants & Marauders (ed. note: we have), I’d say it’s like M&M in space if you could own multiple ships and had troops to secure and hold ports; but if you’re unfamiliar with that game I’d say it’s starship miniatures and ground troops in a fast-paced game of area control and resource management, with lots of ways to play and win.

(How’s that for stretching the rules?)

Well, I see you may need some explanatory elbow room. Good thing space is big!  Anyway, you had me at “Merchants & Marauders.”  So in that case, give us the elevator pitch for your design?
How tall is this building with the elevator?

The players are independent starship captains who have been invited to tame and claim a dangerous, but lucrative, area of space known as the Shadowstar Expanse. There was recently a mutually destructive engagement here between the human ConFederation and alien Umbral Empire. Whichever corsair proves most worthy will be granted permanent governorship of the Expanse.

A player enters the Expanse with one old ship but can buy a couple more, plus some cargo shuttles and a dozen or so squads of CREW (“Combatant/Resource-Extractor/Workers” (that doesn’t sound forced does it?). Ships, shuttles, and CREW can occupy resource-producing locations on the board. The resources harvested are turned into things like cards, credits, and more CREW.

The goal is to earn reputation (victory points) using these cards. Technology cards are things like ship upgrades, weapons, and cool devices. Politics cards bend the rules and mess with other players. Contract cards provide a reward for completing a certain task. If you invest in Tech cards, then picking a fight is a good way to demonstrate your technical savvy and earn some rep; but you could instead play Politics and be more subtle or defensive ; or just do your own thing and work on Contracts. More likely, you’ll mix and match depending on how things develop. It’s all good.

Turns are short: players move their ship(s), take one specific action, and then can attack an adjacent rival if they want. Combat is one round of fighting (one die roll each). It will typically take two or three fights to destroy a ship, so there is usually a chance to retreat, repair, or bring in reinforcements. Of course, a well-placed fusion bomb can change that!

I’ll let go of the Emergency Stop button and let you get off the elevator now.

Hey, no worries, we don’t have any bell hops on our elevators. So why did you make Shadowstar Corsairs?  What was the impetus behind it, the “drive” inside you, and what particularly about this theme and subject attracted you?
I’ve been crazy about sci-fi and spaceships since seeing Star Wars with my dad back in ’77 (yes, I am old). I drew ships as a kid and made 3D models of them as a video game programmer. I worked on the Serenity and Battlestar Galactica role-playing games and started my own starship product line a decade or so ago, adding posters and miniatures more recently.

I’m the type of guy who likes to make a game as much as play one. I wrote video games back in the day. I published my own RPG setting and ran some epic Star Wars campaigns. I’ve been heavily into board games since moving to Pittsburgh, leaving my long-time group back in Louisville, so it was only natural to eventually develop my own board game.  I love the creative process – the mix of visuals and rules, even the arts & crafts aspect of prototyping. It’s a lot of fun to create your perfect vision of a game, though it’s never been practical to share it with the world until Kickstarter came along.

There was never any question that my dream game would be a sci-fi setting and involve starships – that’s just what I do. Having a big pile of art, miniatures, and setting material gave me a tremendous head start, letting me focus on game play and production. Once I started, it went from dream to obsession, and here we are.

How did the setting develop? Things like the Expanse, ConFederation, and Umbral Empire…had they been mulling around in your brain or via some other creation before Shadowstar Corsairs? Or is all of this original material for your new game?
The setting has evolved over time as a background for my line of starship deck plans. I make these PDF documents that I sell on RPGNow detailing a ship, its crew, and interior. I try to keep them generic enough to fit into any game, but I still need a rough setting in order to sketch out a ship’s history. The ConFederation evolved to fill that need.  It’s a pretty rough place, with humans coming out of a long dark age brought about by corporate war, resource depletion, and ecological catastrophe; kind of like Firefly without the Wild West overlay.

Shadowstar Corsairs uses ships from, and takes place in, that setting. Since I have it, I’m going to give backers free digital copies of the documents and maps for all of the player ships. Even if my supporters aren’t in a sci-fi RPG at the moment, I think the extra information and art will really help bring the board game to life. Also, I’m an artist at heart, so I can’t pass up an excuse to show people my work!

So, then you’re designing all of the game’s miniatures. Who will produce them in mass quantities?
I design the miniatures and model them using CAD software left over from my game programming days down in Austin. For the prototypes I have high detail 3D prints made. Then from those masters I make a silicone mold and cast a bunch of resin copies up in my attic. The actual game will use injection molded plastic, since thousands of ships need to be made. I’m using the same manufacturer as Merchants & Marauder and Xia, so I expect the results to be top notch.

And, if I may, I think that the fact that I’ve hand-cast every miniature is a strong point of this campaign. I’ve personally been bitten by Kickstarter projects where the makers only had fancy renders or 3D prints of their miniatures. Then it turns out the model cannot actually be cast in a mold because it’s too delicate or weirdly shaped. That leads to all kinds of delays and frustration. I’m not going to be That Guy.

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Well, they all sound impressive. I’m curious, are any of your designs or concepts inspired by other sci-fi shows, movies, and/or franchises?
Absolutely. Many of the ships in my full product line were designed specifically to look at home in one franchise or another because they were meant to be used in role-playing games based on those properties. On the other hand, I don’t want them to fit ONLY in those settings. I try to give them some common features so they also look like they are from the same place (my “ConFederation of Terra Mortis”).  And that’s a good excuse to reuse parts and textures when building the 3D models – which saves all kinds of time.  Though they aren’t in Corsairs, I have created ships that are reminiscent of the Falcon and Galactica and there are a couple Trek-style: one shaped like a Bird of Prey and the other my take on the saucer and nacelle layout. My favorite (which is in the board game and on the cover of the box) is very clearly Serenity-esque.   I don’t mind tapping into the heaping piles of pop-culture backstory that already exist for these settings. I think it gives players a big head start when thinking about how to portray or interact with a ship from my fleet. For the board game, I really hope the sense of history – both for the ships and the setting – comes through.

As a side note, since the ship miniatures in Shadowstar Corsairs are from the same masters as the RPG minis, they are the right size to use on a battle mat with other commercially produced miniatures if you’d like.  They are little bigger than your standard board game pieces (like in Firefly or Xia) but the whole project has been a “Go Big or Go Home” sort of thing.

Very nice! So which of your starship models is your personal favorite and why?
My favorite is Jo Lynn, a Clydesdale-class gunboat refit for civilian use. Inspired by Serenity, she has the same rotating engine pods and rugged character. Of course she’s also named after my wife, so I suppose I have to say it’s my favorite (and not mention its reputation as a dependable workhorse).  It’s the first ship that I converted from a digital product into a physical poster & miniature (via Kickstarter). She’s also the one on the cover of the Shadowstar Corsairs box because she best exemplifies the tone of the setting which is rugged & gritty, maybe fallen upon hard times but undaunted and determined to rise again.

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What about target audience? Is there a particular gamer type you’re aiming for or that you feel it will appeal to most?
If you like tactical starship games or strategic area control games, then Corsairs is a good match. If you like both types of games, then it’s a great match. It’s a “medium weight” game; there are a lot of parts, but they are not complex or overly intertwined. The rules are also divided into a basic and advanced game, which adds more options plus the non-player factions: ConFederation Cruisers that will protect players, and Alien Scouts that harass the hinterlands of civilized space.

I designed the game so that people could play it many times and in different ways. The board is made up of two-sided sector tiles so the layout can be changed every game. With the variety of cards and ships added in, there is a lot of replayability. Shadowstar Corsairs is made for gamers who want to captain a starship with the potential for violence, but for a reason and in a larger context. You’re not just equal fleets meeting up in space to fight. You have larger, more complex goals and so fights may not be equal, or might be better avoided. Sometimes diplomacy and deterrents can be more effective.

Direct player conflict isn’t necessary to win, but it’s likely to happen to some degree. This isn’t a passive-aggressive Euro game. If someone puts a worker on a space you need, you can blow them up and move in your own guys.  There isn’t player elimination, though. If you lose your last ship, you’ll get a replacement.

So to summarize, if you want a tactical combat game with something more, or a strategic area control game where every unit is important and memorable, then Shadowstar Corsairs is for you.

There are obviously a lot of things happening in Shadowstar Corsairs.  Can you give us some insight on any difficulties you experienced through the design process in keeping game play tight and controlled?  Were there any changes you had to make, or elements to cut, in order to keep the action manageable?
Oh, yeah. At the outset, this was going to be a rondel-driven game, where players move a marker around a wheel to pick their action each turn. In games like Antike I really liked how that approach could yield fast, simple turns while still allowing for depth and interesting decisions. Then I spent about a year adding in everything else I wanted in a game. No surprise:  it got very bloated and complex – like playing a rondel-driven version of Merchants & Marauders while simultaneously playing Risk on the same board. But at least it looked cool.

Luckily I hauled the prototype up to Madison for a Protospiel event and got some much-needed professional feedback. In particular, I owe the Game Crafter crew a big thank you for the time they devoted to play-testing and critiquing. There is nothing better than having real designers, who care more about making a good game than sparing your feelings, give you honest feedback. So the rondel went away to allow for free action choice, lots of superfluous flotsam and fluff was cut, and the non-player factions were split off into an “Advanced Game” to allow for a faster play option and so that beginners would not be overwhelmed.  The game wasn’t anywhere near perfect after that, but it had turned a corner and was heading in the right direction. Over the next few months, I kept working and, through much play-testing, I increased the elegance of the ruleset, sped up the pacing, and upped the fun factor.

One part that went away that I’m hoping will come back is the option for a five player game. Shadowstar Corsairs works well with more than four players but you need many more pieces and a few more board sections.  I could also add another ship type or two. It’s just a matter of funding and the amount of room in the box.

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How about when you’re not designing spaceships, what types of board games do you enjoy playing in your free time?
I really like the ones that take a long time to play and let you build an empire of some sort while you’re at it. So Twilight Imperium (3rd Ed) and Game of Thrones (2nd Ed) would be at the top of my list. I also like sandbox games where you have a ship to take care of and get things done. Firefly (especially with the bounty hunter expansion), the aforementioned M&M, and Xia: Legends of a Drift System are good examples in that category. I don’t care too much for race games or ones where it feels like everyone is playing their own private solo game. I’d rather be able to interact directly with other players, to be able to drag them back if they start to pull ahead. It should be no surprise that I’ve tried to work these preferences into Corsairs, except that I’ve kept the playing time in the 2-3 hour range (max) since I realize I’m in the minority in liking epic length contests.

And, of course, the most important question:  if you had to pick one board game to play with a bunch of deep space-faring astronauts, which one would you pick and why?
I guess it depends on whether they were human astronauts heading into deep space, or alien astronauts arriving from deep space. For the human astronauts, it would have to be Twilight Imperium as it would teach them everything they would need to know in order to deal with (and conquer) any alien civilizations they might encounter. From combat to diplomacy to trade, it’s all in there; and it would also keep them busy. With the time dilation effects as they head out at near light speed, a game of Twilight Imperium could take centuries to complete!

For alien astronauts, I’d select either Civilization, Roll Through the Ages, or Clash of Cultures. The latter is my favorite of the bunch, mainly because it was designed by Christian Marcussen (one of the Merchants & Marauders guys) but any of the three would be great for bringing visitors up to speed on the history of our species. And since they would all be newbies at the game, it should be easy to defeat them and prove the superiority of our world. Then again, X-COM might be a fun conversation starter.


And so Ryan finishes off as he started – slipping in two answers to one question! Now some one that resourceful has to make good games, right? Shadowstar Corsairs is currently seeking your support on Kickstarter. The campaign will run through Tuesday, March 24, and you can join in on the action with a $60 pledge, which includes any stretch goal rewards the project may earn, plus shipping to the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Germany.  Join now – the game and its components are out of this world!

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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  1. Pingback: Today in Board Games Issue #252 - Star Wars: Imperial Assault Giveaway! - Today in Board Games

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