Exclusive Interview: Flocks & Flyways Co-Creators Stephanie Palermo & Matt Hickman

 

While it may seem like all anyone plays these days are video games, card games have actually been making a resurgence of late. And I don’t just mean Magic: The Gathering, UNO, or Mystic Warlords Of Ka’a. But while some recent card games share the same basic tenets as those classics, many have taken their mechanics in different and often deeper directions, resulting in card games that involve more than just shuffling the cards and hoping you don’t get Enchanted Bunny, again.

One such game is Flocks & Flyways, a strategic card game about migratory birds that’s currently looking for funding via Kickstarter (which you can access here). But in talking to its co-creators — designer Stephanie Palermo (who, I’d like to disclose, I work with sometimes in her capacity as a video game publicist) and designer/artist Matt Hickman (who’s worked as a designer on such video games as Alpha Protocol, Aliens: Infestation, and Doki Doki Universe, though I don’t know him) — it’s clear that while they’ve designed their card game to be deep, it’s not necessarily complicated.

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For someone who hasn’t looked at your Kickstarter page yet, what is Flocks & Flyways and how do you play it?

Stephanie: It’s a quick, strategic game about drafting and building up flocks of birds and migrating them south for the winter. When you have the correct flock size, you play your birds into the flyway they are able to fly in.

Flyways can quickly become crowded, though, so we designed action cards that keep play both thematic and exciting, such as the Predator card, which swoops in and kills a bird from a flock in play, allowing you to steal one point from that player’s flock.

Another example is the Fog card, which allows you to force a flock into another flyway, clearing a flyway for you to use on the next turn. If the flock you moved doesn’t typically fly in that flyway, a bird from that flock gets “lost in the fog” and is removed from play.

What other card games do you think it’s similar to, and what makes Flocks & Flyways different?

Matt: Jaipur has a similar card drafting mechanic. Collecting and playing sets of cards will also seem familiar to those who have played Ticket To Ride, with its mechanic of collecting trains to complete routes.

Flocks & Flyways is centered around migratory birds. But the name of your company is Shark & Shark Games. First, why do you like about “&” marks so much?

Stephanie: Well, [comedian] Kumail Nanjiani seems like a pretty wise guy. He once wrote , “Wanna make your restaurant seem fancy? Just throw an “&” in there!” So here we are, damn fancy.

Ha! Second, why not make a card game about sharks?

Matt: How do you know we’re not?

So in Flocks & Flyways, do you have to worry about sharks eating your birds?

Matt: In this edition of Flocks & Flyways, you won’t find your flocks flying over the ocean very much, as the Central, Pacific, Mississippi, and Eastern flyways here are over land.

Stephanie: The birds are safe, from sharks at least…

Flocks & Flyways card 02

In your Kickstarter video, you said you wanted to make a game that could be played by two people, but would also be fun for four people. Why was this important to you?

Matt: We really enjoy playing games together. It’s relaxing to get home from work and be able to sit down and play a game just the two of us.

Stephanie: Yeah, but we also really like having friends over for game nights, as we’re often the hosts with our 150+ game collection, so it was important that we had a game that was just as fun for two players as it was for a group.

You also said you wanted to make sure the game would appeal to both serious board game players as well as novices and kids. Were you at all worried that by doing this, or even just by admitting it, you might turn off people who will think this is going to be shallow or is too mainstream or childish?

Matt: You always run the risk of turning off hardcore players when you use such phrases as “easy to learn,” and our theme of birds may not necessarily immediately attract hardcore players. We do try to reinforce how you play your birds, what you draft when you draft it, and how the use of actions can make the game as competitive and intense as you want it to be.

So what did you do to ensure that it would be deep while still being something novices could enjoy?

Stephanie: We kept the card design very simple, and it includes only a few pieces of key information needed to play the game, but there’s also a lot of depth that comes with how you choose to use that information.

Matt: For example, you may not just want to take the bird that scores the most or migrates the fastest, you may want to watch what your opponent is drafting and play flocks that will block the flyways they need to use to migrate their flock.

One of the things that struck me about Flocks & Flyways is that the cards have a very clean but professional-looking design.

Stephanie: Simple and clean was the look we were going for to achieve that balance of speaking to both novices and core board game players.

The look of the birds on the Flocks & Flyways card remind me of things I’ve seen in bird books and old encyclopedias. Why did you decide that was the way to go?

Matt: The art style was heavily influenced by classic naturalist art, where ornithologists and biologists go out into the wild and document new species, before it was documented with photography. We wanted to pay homage to this style, with a little modern flair.

Flocks & Flyways card art

So are those actually images from bird books, or did you create all new designs?

Matt: We used references to make sure we got the coloring and patterns correct, but the art in our game is all original.

Making a card game like Flocks & Flyways seems like a huge undertaking. How long did it take from the time you came up with the first idea to this point?

Stephanie: We’ve been working on Flocks & Flyways for about a year now. It actually started out as a whale migration board game, but their migration routes aren’t very varied, whales follow a lot of the same paths, so it didn’t end up making for a very competitive or interesting game.

The game itself took several evolutions, and tons of tweaking and playtesting to balance the amount of birds and types of cards that made the game consistently feel fun, and within our gameplay time goal of around thirty minutes per game.

What was the hardest thing to figure out?

Stephanie: The biggest obstacle early on was letting go of the idea that we needed a board, tons of meeples, tokens, and player pieces. Once we eliminated the board itself from the game, everything slowly started falling into place.

Matt: After that, it was about finding just the right balance of number of cards, points, and basic tuning.

And what was the thing that you two disagreed on the most?

Matt: Through the course of designing and balancing the game, there were lots of little things that we would tweak, and one of us sometimes would think it was an improvement, and the other would be unsure.

Stephanie: Yeah, we usually resolved any unsureness with more and more testing until we were both confident the tweak was right for the game.

Both of you work in video games, but in different areas. How do you think working in video games, both as a whole and in your individual fields, has impacted how this game works?

Stephanie: Well, every video game can trace at least some or all of its mechanics to board games.

Matt: Actually, a common technique that video game designers use is to make a simple tabletop game and test out the video game’s mechanics using physical cards or play pieces to prove out a concept before a programmer even touches it.

Stephanie: We’ve actually paper prototyped a few single-player video game ideas together before, too.

How about how it’s impacted how you’re working on the game? The Kickstarter, promoting it, etc.?

Stephanie: Since I work in video game public relations, I took one lesson to heart: reporters do not like being badgered to write about Kickstarter projects until it’s a real thing that can be purchased by their readers. This makes it significantly more difficult to get PR, and therefore get backers to support the project, than most video games I’ve worked on.

We’ve taken the grassroots approach of sharing the information with friends, taking the game to small local events and local game shops, being active on board game forums, Reddit, and other ways we can reach people we think will enjoy our game once they just know it exists.

Flocks & Flyways card 03

So why did you decide to fund the game through Kickstarter, as opposed to pitching it directly to a card game publisher?

Matt: We did consider it, and we researched it heavily, but much like with video games, working with a publisher has some drawbacks. After weighing the pros and cons and our options, considering the difficulty of a first-time designer getting a publishing deal, we decided to try our luck and learn the entire process by trying crowd-funding.

You mentioned drawbacks to working with a publisher. What does doing it through Kickstarter allow you that you wouldn’t get if you went to a card game publisher?

Stephanie: While they come with the advantage of retail distribution, which can be very difficult to get for an indie designer, there are several things that designers need to be aware of. When entering a deal with a publisher, it’s not unlikely that your game will be completely reskinned. Most large publishing houses handle art internally, so our bird game could ironically become a hunting game by the time it hits stores.

Depending on the publisher’s release schedule, the game may also not come out for several years beyond the date of the contract. Since it’s our first game, we kind of just want to get it out there and learn from the process.

One of the interesting things about your Kickstarter is that the largest amount someone can contribute is only $175. Why so low?

Stephanie: We thought about doing crazy binocular boxed collector’s editions for a higher cost, but ultimately our goal is just to get people playing and enjoying our game. We didn’t want to dilute the core of Flocks & Flyways, which is simplicity and approachability to the game’s strategic play.

Matt: Hence the relatively modest goal that will fund the production run and cost of shipping.

How hard was it to figure out what perks someone would get for contributing? I mean, giving them a copy of the game is an easy one, but what about the others?

Matt: Yeah, the game itself of course was an easy one, and one tier for board game shops to pick up several copies was another gimme. It was actually pretty tough to outline the different perks and tiers because our game is balanced and tuned for exactly the number of cards and birds it has, so adding tons of bonus characters for higher tiers wasn’t really an option.

It’s pretty common on Kickstarter to see games offer custom characters or pieces, and we figured there may be a lot of bird lovers out there finding our game, and would love to see their favorite bird in the game. It’s a one-of-a-kind addition, and won’t affect overall game balance.

Was there anything you thought of but rejected? Because I could see you thinking t-shirts would be a good idea, except that if you don’t get this funded, or if people only kick in low amounts, you’d then be stuck with a whole mess of t-shirts.

Stephanie: Yeah we looked at shirts, mugs, even custom socks and bird call whistles, as well as the binocular-shaped box we mentioned earlier. None of it really made sense for the game and it didn’t contribute to the core goal was to get the game made and in people’s hands.

Flocks & Flyways box art

Finally, if Flocks & Flyways does well, is the thinking that you’ll make a sequel, Flocks & Flyways II: Electric Birdaloo perhaps, or that you’ll do something completely different like Sharks & Shakes, in which you have to prevent sharks from getting ice cream headaches?

Matt: Ha! If our Kickstarter for Flocks & Flyways is successful, we have considered making a full board game version, or a European migratory bird version of the game.

Stephanie: We have a few ideas in the works, but we’d like the core game type to stay constant: games that are quick to play but offer solid strategic depth and drive the desire for a rematch. You can always count on the fact that they’ll be solid for two players, even if it can be played by more, which is something not all group games are known to do well.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Exclusive Interview: Flocks & Flyways Co-Creators Stephanie Palermo & Matt Hickman

  • August 28, 2014 at 4:23 am
    Permalink

    brilliant interview, cant wait to start playing. i am intrigued and fascinated

    Reply
    • August 28, 2014 at 7:20 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks for the compliment. Yeah, I think it’s going to be a fun game, too.

      Reply

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