The first time I’d ever played Munchkin was sometime in the fall of 2013; back when I was drafted into a debate tournament and carted off to Bay City- a place, which (and no offense to its residents) is…a lovely and…wonderful-smelling urban paradise. Luckily or maybe unluckily for me, I sucked at debate and had something like 12 hours of downtime between getting destroyed in the two events I was stuck in (PF and LD for all you debate people out there).
But lo, a Wonderful Person™ had the foresight to pack along some games for such a crisis situation. And as a result, I ended up playing 12 hours of the classic deck card game Munchkin and its edgy twin Star Munchkin (which, for the curious, is pretty much Munchkin, but in space).
Now some of you might not know what the heck I’m talking about, and some of you might even be fans of the beloved game of kicking-in doors, killing plutonium dragons, and dogpiling on that one dude who managed to sneak an extra level while no one was looking. Some of you might even have heard of Steve Jackson, the award-winning, Austin-based game wizard behind some geek staples like Munchkin, its six million variants, Illuminati, Zombie Dice, Ogre, GURPS, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Steve, a Rice Grad and certified mad genius, does this primarily through his own company, Steve Jackson Games, whose products you can pick out by the suspect Illuminati pyramids on the sides of their packaging.
As for the rest of that trip, it’s all kind of a blur to me. I vaguely remember getting bitten by bedbugs, drinking this disgusting, watered-down, orange Tang™, and getting called a Nazi for half an hour while our noticeably-stoned judge kept asking us what the rules were.
“Heh. Was that before Godwin’s Law (1)?” Steve asked in a smash cut to the near present. I’d been fortunate to get a few words from him and he was more than happy to work in a chat between the “Other Stuff™” as he put it.
Oh man, being a high school freshman, I was not ready at all for the ad Hitlerum. Not that our judge was paying much attention anyway. There was something on the ceiling that really, really had his eye.
I’ll give it a shot!
So your games are all marked by the kind of humor and weirdness that jumps up out of a RAW (2) novel or a Monty Python sketch. All over the place, there are so many references to books, cult movies, nerd culture, and wild conspiracy theories. What would you say first set you on the path of the odd and unusual while growing up?
I never knew any other path. My childhood reading was SF, and not just Heinlein juvies, but whatever was in Analog (3) that month. One of my favorite books growing up was Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. And I actually had a Charles Fort (4) book. I couldn’t have been normal if I had tried.
Would you ever call yourself a Fortean?
Not in the usual sense. But he loved strange phenomena, and people who talked about strange phenomena, and a lot of the time he had his tongue firmly in his cheek. That’s me, too.
What other books, movies, or even music would you say had a big effect on your style?
Pretty much the whole body of 70s-90s “hard” science fiction; The Princess Bride– the brilliant book, not the perfectly competent film. Such a great authorial voice; the games of Dunnigan and Simonsen (5); Thurber and Benchley (6); The National Lampoon. I like the Stones and the Who, but can’t claim they influenced my work.
So here’s the one you’ve probably been expecting: what got you in to game design?
I played a lot of boardgames as an undergraduate at Rice. Risk, Strategy I, Borodino, Diplomacy . . . also chess, but I liked the less abstract games. After I got to the UT Law School, I began to perceive that I did not want to be an attorney. I eventually answered a classified ad that led me to the Austin company, Metagaming. I did development work for them, then submitted an original game (Ogre), and the rest proceeded from there.
How was that like, submitting your first game?
They gave me a set of physical specs for a very small game, designed to fit in a paperback rack, and said “Design a game about a supertank,” and that became the first microgame (7), Ogre. It was a very fun process and did not seem at all momentous at the time. I had no idea that I was setting my life’s course. But I am very glad that I kept the copyright in my name; that made a lot of difference later. Authors, artists, game designers, pay heed.
Did you happen to be very big on tabletop roleplaying (D&D, Cthulhu, etc.)?
I had played a bit of D&D in college, and the Metagaming group had a D&D campaign. I also played Traveller (8) with the UT game club. So yes, I was around for the early days of roleplaying, and enjoyed it. It was dissatisfaction with the original D&D combat system, such as it was, that led me to create my second game, Melee (9). I wanted some tactical detail and complexity, not just “I attack the orc.” “Okay, roll some dice. You hit it.”
I’d be out of money if I had a buck for every time we argued about combat rules around the table, all of it climaxing with the GM staring down at his notes, pausing for a moment, and going, “Uh…yeah he’s dead.” I think better combat is like the Holy Grail for gamers, and there’ve been some interesting solutions.
The catch of course being that everyone has a different idea of “better,” so there’s a big solution space available. For some people the original D&D combat was fine. I was not that guy. I was the guy who wanted to make his own. There’s a strong “wanna change the game!” streak running through most hobby boardgamers.
So when was the idea for Steve Jackson Games born?
Believe it or not . . . I am not sure. Someplace in there it just became evident that I wanted to be my own boss and that I knew enough to at least have a shot at it. I named the company after myself, rather than giving it a cool name, because I could not really think of a cool name and my reputation as the designer of Ogre, Melee, etc., was my biggest asset.
Did setting up your namesake company begin smoothly or were there some bumps along the way? Also, was there any person, or people who helped you get started?
It ran smoothly enough; I can’t remember any interesting bumps. No doubt there was daily drama. Nobody who stayed around for the long haul except my Significant Other, Monica Stephens, to whom be all praise.
So what did the creative process look like for some of your games like Munchkin or Car Wars?
#1: Have an idea. For me, this always starts with theme, and I write rules to represent what goes on with that theme. Some other designers, Europeans in particular, start with a game mechanic, and they may get the game running completely smoothly before they put a skin on it. For Car Wars, the idea was “Motorcyclists need guns to deal with the bully drivers!” and it was suggested by Chad Irby. Though, of course, in the game the bully drivers get guns too. For Munchkin, the idea was “I wanna do a silly parody of dungeon-crawl games.”
#2: Determine if there is some demand for a game of this type or with this theme. At this stage you are probably just using your own knowledge of the hobby, rather than doing any sort of polling or research. But if you don’t THINK about demand at this stage, you’re not approaching it professionally; you are just fooling around.
#3: Make a game. This goes through initial design, then playtesting and development. Repeat playtesting and rewriting until the game is fun or you give up. Iterative process. Playtest, rewrite, playtest again. Car Wars took a long time. Munchkin just rolled out of my brain.
#4: Get printing bids. At this stage you should have some idea how many you want to print, and you should know what you think the game components will be. Almost everything we do goes through a print representative company, Grand Prix International which has good long-standing connections with factories in China. I do not recommend trying to deal with China on your own. If you know something about the printing and manufacturing processes and want to be hands-on, I recommend visiting printers and factories and making your game in the USA. That’s what we did for the first 25 years or so and it was valuable training for me.
#5: Settle the actual components, and then start physical production of masters (10), which depends entirely on what kind of game you are doing.
#5 (optional): If you are doing a Kickstarter campaign, this is the best time to start it, because at this point you should have a good handle on your costs but should not have invested much except your time. Depending on your campaign, you may end up making more or better components than you would have otherwise. Or you may cancel the game. A side note on Kickstarter: don’t overpromise! Both Car Wars and Munchkin were before Kickstarter, but we have since done KS projects with follow-ons for both games, and they went well.
#6: Send the game to press. For us, this used to mean “carry physical masters to an Austin printer,” and now it means “Dropbox the files to China.”
#7: Wait. Do what you can to promote your game by social media and convention demos.
#8: Ship the game to backers, if Kickstarter, or distributors, if you are using conventional means.
#9: Now you are a game publisher. Welcome to my world. Try to support your game and keep interest high, and think about the next project.
Which of your own games are you most proud of?
Probably Munchkin because it has touched so many people – every so often, for instance, I get pix of a Munchkin-themed wedding. Illuminati gets a mention because I think it’s the most “different” design I have ever done.
Are there any current projects you are excited about?
We have just released a collectible card game based on Munchkin. That’s the current coolness, and so far it looks as though it is pleasing the people who have tried it. Upcoming coolness is a reissue of Triplanetary, a 40-year-old space game that I personally like very much. It is at the printer now. Further-down-the-road upcoming is a new edition of Car Wars, “when it’s done” but probably early 2019.
On your personal page, you plug a few interesting websites for the Mars Society, Alcor Cryonics, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Are these big (or pet) causes of yours? They’re pretty cool, I’m not going to lie.
Short answer is yes. Long answer is “yes, because each in its own way is about the future.” When I rebuild that page, I should probably add SpaceX. I drive a Tesla and hugely admire Elon Musk. That man is *making* the future, and doing it with a sense of humor.
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring game designers, or really to anyone who wants to share their creative talents?
(1) Work to perfect your craft, whatever it is, and (2) show it to others, both for feedback and because, as Heinlein said, “writing for the trunk is masturbation.” Then (3) would be “Hang on to as many of your rights as you can, and get the going rate for what you sell.” (4) Lather, rinse, repeat.
Marvel or DC?
Iron Man, Batman. Batman, Iron Man. That’s not an easy question . . .
Bonus Question: There’s a long running conspiracy theory that your game Illuminati: NWO (11), has predicted everything in the modern age plus some. Obviously (they say) either (a) you know some Forbidden Knowledge™ or (b) you’re one of the Lucky Guys™ who gets to control the world. Thoughts?
My thoughts are that it was a lot more fun to claim “I’m with the Illuminati and I’m here to control you” 30 years ago than it is now. There are too many believers now in whatever nonsense comes down the pipe. I looked too closely into that abyss, and boom, now I am part of some people’s theories. Yet I persist. At the printers now is a new game called Conspiracy Theory, and I’ll give you one guess about the subject. Go on, guess . . .
Could it…perhaps be a farming game?? Like Agricola??
All in all, I would like to give a special thanks to Mr. Jackson for putting up with my cross examination. I’m not going to lie, it was exciting to get to get a word or two-thousand from him, especially after finding myself handed a whole blog for my own devilish schemes. It’s also always great to have a nice conversation, especially without being called Hitler in a debate about vegetarianism or something like that. Gosh…thinking about the bedbugs again, or worse, the Tang™.
Before we called it a wrap, I asked Mr. Jackson if he had any particular portrait or photo he’d like me to use. Needless to say, I think it ties this up perfectly.
- As an (online) discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. Also called reductio ad Hilterum.
- Robert Anton Wilson was the gent behind the Illuminatus! Trilogy (with Robert Shea) and a few other wild, surreal novels.
- Golden Age-era sci-fi mag that published pieces by authors like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
- American writer and investigator of unexplained phenomena (read: weird stuff).
- Wargame designers.
- American humorists who wrote for The New Yorker. James Thurber is probably best known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty– the 1939 short story, not the Ben Stiller movie (which I thought was pretty good).
- It is what it is: a game published in a small package, around 4”x7” (theoretically big enough to fit in your pocket).
- Mongoose Publishing’s interstellar tabletop roleplaying game.
- Melee was itself a very well-received combat microgame based on six-sided dice. If I’m not mistaken, SJ would later adopt some of its combat rules into his GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System).
- That is, the master copy of the game- the prototype that all subsequent copies will be based on.
- Picture a conspiracy theory-based Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic: The Gathering. Now picture a community of people who imagine that every card coincided with some event/disaster/public figure that’s actually real.