Interviews

Decemberists, Phoenixes, and Action Cats–Twogether Studios and how a two person team has one of the most diverse portfolios in gaming

Twogether Studios is something special in the gaming world. Keith Baker and Jenn Ellis manage to balance married life with game design, and that design covers a lot of ground. As the creator of Eberron, Gloom, and the recent Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game, Keith has many separate projects in the gaming field, but Twogether is his family’s special territory to create projects on its own terms. These projects include Illimat, a partial tie-in part inspired by the Decemberists’ album Hazards of Love, Phoenix: Dawn Command, a card based RPG wherein characters level up by returning after death, and Action Cats, a cat generated storytelling card game. I talked to Jenn and Keith about their process for making games together and how the same two people can generate such an effective yet eclectic collection of titles.

Living and breathing games

I was curious about how Twogether decides its projects, which range across the spectrums of mechanics, genre, and type. The response is that both members are truly joined to the process of creating these games. That “Two” in Twogether is more than just a pun. The heart and soul of the company is their partnership, working in concert over time to create something that they are comfortable living with for months or years at a time. Something the gaming audience doesn’t always see is how many small decisions have to be made for their products to work. Twogether’s team members have to live not only with the game but with one another, and they can only devote the time and mental energy into such a project if that project is special not only on its own, but between the designers themselves.

While Keith does design other games for separate companies, Twogether’s games need to be special to garner that kind of determined attention. Jenn and Keith need to believe strongly in the product to the level that they are willing to immerse themselves in the experience for as long as it takes to bring it to fruition. It also needs to be interesting and unique at its core. The kind of game that another publisher wouldn’t touch, and an experience that a normal game company couldn’t give them yet.

Twogether studio’s staff (pictured above) prove how much small groups can accomplish in the tabletop industry

Another goal for a married design team (and for the rest of us, though too many gamers tend to forget it) is to have fun. Keith and Jenn play games every day to connect to one another, but also to make sure they understand the customer base that they are designing for. As they consider it, you and your customer are looking for joy, and you can’t deliver that to someone else if you aren’t having it yourself. With these things in mind, Twogether set its sights on Illimat and Action Cats, two games based around letting family members join in an experience, whether they see themselves as gamers or not.

One of the most crucial aspects of game design, and one that doesn’t always get enough attention, are the physical aspects of the product. Action Cats a small game, but that works in its favor because it allowed the final product to be affordable and easy to transport. Illimat has style that makes it seem complicated, but in fact is a small game with a runtime of only about 20 minutes. Phoenix: Dawn Command is longer and higher concept, but the 5 ½ pound roleplaying game is more complex by design, and those components help to justify the purchase.

One of the most important things about creating products that people want is to find what already engages them. “We didn’t plan to make Action Cats as a game until we saw how much people enjoyed it. No master strategy. Just what people enjoy. We’re just doing what works and trying.” As much time as we (and I, admittedly) spend waxing philosophical about the depth of theme and mechanics, we all come to gaming to enjoy ourselves. We shouldn’t let pretense get in the way of that, hence Action Cats: the family game of storytelling adorned with pictures of fans’ cats.

“You’re doing a cat game? What?” But the joy of silliness and total simplicity of putting a sillyname together and watching a friend laugh hysterically with their daughter. This is something we have to make. We didn’t plan to make Action Cats as a game until we saw how much people enjoyed it. No master strategy. Just what people enjoy. We’re just doing what works and trying.

Illimat: the game of secret societies and hidden lore

One such experience came about largely by chance, but has grown into its own unique project that involved profound design challenges. Its story begins with a photo shoot for the Hazards of Love, a Decemberists’ album that chronicles an intimate, mystical folk/rock opera in its hour long runtime. The shoot contained a mysterious, occult board that at the time was nothing more. Years later, a Gloom fan contacted Keith, offering to trade Decemberists tickets for Gloom lessons for him and his daughter. This seemed like a typical Portland arrangement at the time, but it made much more sense when Keith realized that the person making the offer was in fact Chris Funk, the band’s guitarist.

As it turns out, the Decemberists play games regularly while touring. While Keith and Chris got to talking, they got the idea to develop this art prop into an actual game. The goals were simple, perhaps too much so to provide much direction to a designer: to make the game feel like something that those in the world of the album might play. The other goal, and a more personal one, was to create a game that they could share with their families. This meant approachable, familiar rules, hence a game that appears at first to be a normal card game a la bridge or hearts.

They didn’t have much beyond a few images to start with. Twogether didn’t have much but some game pieces and the board itself: a black square split into four pieces with symbols and lines, and a box at the center with mysterious significance. Gloom started a similar way: Keith saw transparent cards and wondered how to use those to enhance a gaming experience. Once you know the goals for an experience, you work backwards as a designer to create a game to suit those goals.

It took a lot of time letting the board sit in a basement, mocking Jenn and Keith before they understood where to take the product: much of the Hazards of Love has to do with changes, not only magic changing the nature of people but how those changes are tied into their physical environment. With a board segmented into four parts and a box at the center, they had the idea to focus on turning that box to changes seasons around it, each one having different effects on gameplay. The playing cards have four seasons instead of suits, reinterpreting the playing cards from the shoot into its new context.

For the components, they chose to use the center as a physical object that would spin to change the seasons, but also as the top of the box itself. The board was an odd size, but by making it cloth, thus allowing it to fold, it could fit inside the box and more easy to transport. Keeping the components cloth and metal reinforce the 1800s feeling that Hazards of Love worked to evoke.

The Society of Luminaries keeps its secrets well, which makes this depiction of their meetings such a cultural rarity.

Another part of this experience, and one that engages fans as the game develops is the Society of Luminaries: the secret organization whose rituals and mysteries include Illimat as a centerpiece. Only a core group of Kickstarter backers will ever know the secrets held within the Variants and Apocrypha books, but we will be seeing variant rules eventually. For now, the Society of Luminaries is limited to some ranks, lore, and concepts, but we should expect some news on organized play in the coming months. Games take on a life of their own because of the way the community grows and changes after the game is released.

What it means to succeed

That notion of a game’s life inspired us to discuss what it is like to support a product after its initial release. Twogether recognizes that sales are nice, but Jenn very saliently pointed out that we all have games on our shelves that we don’t play. (I gaze across the room to rest my eyes shamefully on the Gunslingers set I received as a Christmas present…last year.) Because Twogether is a new company, the team is experimenting with how to make their games have a real impact.

Paying attention to your audience is difficult, but well worth it. Jenn recalls many nights staying up beyond decent hours to respond to fans. When people ask how they could handle so much audience feedback, the answer is obvious: “the fact that someone remembered they kickstarted something a year ago and still want it is wonderful to me.” It’s the enjoyment of the product that carries it forward and makes it special, not just the sale.

Something else they look at is how many people are discussing the game online. Not only that, but where they are discussing it. Boardgamegeek is a resource, but one relegated to a certain type of fan.

Twogether’s enthusiasm has paid off. Keith and Jenn took a big chance to go on a road tour for their game (the kind of idea I would love to see take off) to see fans’ reactions directly. They remarked that being out in the community, meeting people where they play rather than in the specialized environment of a convention, lets you meet them on a more intimate and direct level. Over time, this provided a boost in confidence This also helps people who aren’t already fans get into gaming on a more friendly basis. “It’s all about whether people have access to know how to play.”, Jenn explained. At one board game café, most people only wanted to spend their time on Cards Against Humanity. A later event in Chicago which was hosted by Cards Against Humanity, people were taking special time just to try out Illimat.

The risky proposition of Phoenix: Dawn Command

After all this talk of simplistic gameplay, it seemed surprising that Twogether would create as risky and complicated a product as Phoenix: Dawn Command. Keith is the creator of Eberron, the acclaimed (and inspired) magipunk driven D&D setting, so he is no stranger to roleplaying games. It was partially his love for that setting that drove the desire to create another game.

Keith said that he “started [conceptualizing] with Eberron, but we can’t write anything until Wizards takes it out of the vault. Phoenix did not originate as an Eberron adaptation, however, but from work he has been doing on a setting neutral system when Dan Garrison (co-designer of the game) suggested the concept of using death as a means of character improvement. Appropriate to the name, Phoenix tasks its characters as demigods who rise from their own graves a limited number of times, each death bringing new power. Everything else erupted from that concept. While one might be able to modify the idea for other systems (for instance, getting a level up every time you die in D&D), Phoenix’s mechanics and setting were built from the ground up from that idea.

Beyond rebirth, narrative control and teamwork are the point. Death only happens by your choice, and only after you have accomplished something awesome. You don’t die to challenges by the GM (or Marshall, in Phoenix) but when you decide to use the last of your resources to do the impossible. While randomness is still a focus of the mechanics, it is a different randomness entirely from most RPGs. Most games are random from action to action, but Phoenix is random in each hand of cards that you draw, which tells you your resources for each situation.

You get to decide how to spend your resources, success or failure rests on your decisions, and how best each would fit the story. It’s about giving players more knowledge and control over their actions while also setting up a world where the odds are often against you in ways that in a traditional RPG would be very unfair. That way, you can mitigate the causes and narrative fallout of death. Currently, the game and one expansion are out (which grows it beyond the five player limit), but fans are a major part of growing Phoenix. Fans are working on a science fiction hack, and plans are in the works to create an Open Gaming License, which would allow fans to create and sell their own material for the game.

Twogether’s website is the best place for fans and retailers to find out more about these products. Phoenix: Dawn Command also has its own site if you want to know more about lore or mechanics, but I will continue reporting on these products here at Gaming Trend as well

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