Eric Francksen, founder of Sky Ship Studios.
Eric Francksen knew it was going to be the toughest part of the job — finding a way to replicate the fun of sitting across the table from your friends and slapping down the card that wins the game — only on a PC screen.
But that’s how Francksen and the other eight members of Sky Ship Studios, a Madison-based game development studio, have spent the last year-plus: Working on a digital version of Gloom, the popular casual-strategy card game owned by Minneapolis-based Atlas Games.
The project was a stroke of serendipity. Sky Ship, which opened its doors in 2014, happened to be exploring tech to make 2D and 3D images of cards at the same time Atlas was looking for a way to port its game to PCs and tablets. Now, with a workable demo in hand, Sky Ship’s turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds to pay for key finishing touches like voice-acting talent and animations for the game’s collection of dreary characters.
As of Aug. 12, Sky Ship had raised more than $48,000 from more than 900 backers of the $75,000 it hopes to reach by Aug. 14. The Kickstarter cash will cover development of the original game and its first expansion, Unhappy Homes. The studio plans to release the PC version first, followed shortly thereafter by an iOS version. Backers who pony up the appropriate amount will get access to both, as well as other bonuses.
Gloom, which has four expansions, a bunch of cross-game mashups and its own deep and devoted following, tasks you with depressing to death your clan of Edward Gorey-esque family members while simultaneously trying to cheer up your opponents’ broods. To accomplish this, you’re playing cards with charming names like Was Galled by Gangrene and Was Mauled by a Manatee and Drowned in a Bog. It’s not exactly an, um, sunny experience.
Sky Ship’s staff members are not newbies to the game-dev scene or the experience of trying to digitize a tabletop game. Francksen’s a 10-year vet, and was part of the staff of the late, lamented Big Rooster Games, a local shop that nearly gave us a detailed digital version of the tabletop classic Talisman before going out of business in the mid-2000s. Some of the other members have even more experience, which they’ll use to add things like animation of the Gloom characters.
“It’s doing a disservice to the fun factor of the in-person experience if you replace it with something that’s not as fun,” Francksen says, noting that the game will feature 20 animations for each character. “Gloom really is about storytelling; re-creating that in a way that’s interesting and accessible is our biggest challenge.”
The game’s designed for up to four players, so Francksen and the design team wanted to make sure they had a ready-made solution to trolling, the deadly and omnipresent bane of many online games. So they turned to the model Blizzard used for its mega-popular online collectible-card game Hearthstone — an interface that allows players to express a general feeling to the room, but not type-chat.
Given the Midwest region’s strong history with tabletop games — Wisconsin is, after all, the birthplace of titans like Dungeons and Dragons and Apples to Apples, and Milwaukee used to host GenCon — Francksen is confident Sky Ship can carve out a niche digitizing card and board game. And maybe catch the eye of an investor, too.
“We want to be an attractive acquisition for someone,” says Francksen.
Meanwhile, the founders of Thorny Wench Studio, Jacob Schenk and Naomi Bielefeldt, are pushing toward releasing a physical card game called Dragoonium, an idea the couple came up with after an epic campsite throwdown of Rummy 500.
“We thought, ‘Hey, it’d be interesting if there were other mechanics to this,” says Schenk, a computer programmer and tabletop gaming vet whose experiences date back to classics like Warhammer, Settlers of Cataan and the earliest days of Magic: The Gathering. “Once we started experimenting, we were like, wow, this actually works.”
So did the couple’s complementary creative skills, says Schenk. “Flavor doesn’t come to me naturally, but mechanics do,” says Schenk. “[Naomi Bielefeldt’s] the opposite.”
In a typical game of rummy, you’re looking to clear your hand and score points by doing things like collecting threes of a kind and compiling runs. Dragoonium builds on these mechanics by adding fantasy role-playing elements and drawing from other card games. Players pick one of nine possible colors, each of which features a dragon champion that has game-altering abilities players can unleash once they’ve earned enough gold/points by winning rounds — the brown champion, for instance, can opt to discard to the bottom of the draw pile rather than the discard pile.
Several of the cards, which feature hand-painted artwork created by Bielefeldt and some of her friends, have Uno-like effects (think skip and draw) that add additional twists to gameplay. But instead of going into a Dragoonium session expecting to play just your own color, the way you might in a game of Magic, you’re mixing your cards in with up to eight of your opponents.
“The question becomes, how do you play your strategy as well as how do you play your opponent’s strategy?” Schenk explains.
Thorny Wench, which gets its name from a 1920s-era pub Schenk and Bielefeldt created for a role-playing game they used to rock with their friends, has also turned to Kickstarter to help cross the publishing finish line.
With about 20 days to go, they’ve accumulated just over a fifth of the $5,000 they hope to raise to finance the first two print runs of the game. Schenk hopes to have the game in stores in time for the holiday season, and hopes to market it multiple ways — as a complete set with all nine colors and as smaller, three-color sets aimed at different skill levels. Dragoonium’s base set features 126 cards, 14 for each color.
As is generally the case with modern card games, expansions are part of the long-term plan, as is an eventual digital version. Schenk and Bielefeldt have several playtesting sessions coming up in the final weeks of August, including stops at Middleton’s I’m Board! game store on Aug. 16 and Netherworld Games on Aug. 21. The pair has other ideas for card and board games burbling, assuming Dragoonium’s release goes well.
“Games like Dragoonium can expand the way you think about games,” says Schenk. “Thorny Wench is about finally taking these thoughts and turning them into something that’s not just for us.”