Next of Ken, Volume 4: An interview with Torben Sherwood of Valley Games

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Well, as if I needed further evidence that my teaser abilities are not up to snuff, this week I'm pushing aside my planned article on kids games in order to feature an interview that *just* got wrapped up last night.  The interview is with Torben Sherwood of Valley Games, and we dish dirt on all things Valley, past, present, and future.  Join us, won't you?

Ken B.:  Torben, thanks so much for talking with us.  As with everyone I interview, I have to ask—what’s your gaming background?  How did you get into gaming?

T. Sherwood:  In elementary school I used to play board games with my little brother and my folks, things like Rumoli, Monopoly, Scrabble, and other popular titles of the time. Around grade six, there were some guys on my baseball team who invited me to play this game I hadn't heard of, called Dungeons and Dragons. Well, that meant a sleepover and the one guy had wealthy parents, so he had Atari and Intelevision and we would drink pop and stay up half the night. How could I refuse! Well, I pretty much fell in love with the creative side of D&D. I was captivated by the creativity and imagination that evolved from playing in a fantasy world. I soon found there were a lot of people playing it.

I found some game groups in other towns and our group even played in a couple of tournaments,  something that I found unusual, as you don't typically think of role-playing games fitting a tournament model. I played baseball in lots of places and we had tournaments all the time but a board game or a role playing game tournament? That seemed so crazy to me. But we had a great deal of fun.

From grade six on, I always had a group of about five friends that would get together three or four times a month to play games of one kind or another. While I may be older today some of these game sessions are a bit farther apart, I STILL regularly play games with 5-10 people. We play just about everything – from published titles to prototypes. It's always great fun!

KB:  As a budding gamer, what games were the “classics” for you?  Which ones molded you the most into the gamer you are today?

TS: There's a few that really stay with me: Advanced Civilization, Talisman, Merchants of Venus, Car Wars, Titan, Settlers of Catan, and D&D. The epic games were great because we had nothing but time as kids and as young adults. Today, I find I like quicker games but every once in a while we dust off one of those oldies and play for most of the day.

I like games with substance and with more than one way to win. I like games with some degree of luck, but games that encourage creativity can beat luck every time. I really enjoy games where there is interaction with the other players. I think it’s more fun to have that interaction, as opposed to simply plodding along doing your own thing isolated from what others are doing.

KB: How did you get involved with Valley Games?  How did all that get started?

TS: My business partner Rik Falch and I met at a game store in Calgary. They were running a D&D campaign the following weekend and he invited me to play. From that point on, whenever we sat down to play games or whenever we visited game stores, we would critique how they were being run and that if we were doing it, it would be different.

So in July 2003 we opened our game store in the town just south of Calgary called Okotoks and it was called Valley of the Mage. We were active in our local community and ran various events to support local causes, one of which of note was when the food bank in our area was flooded (, or raising money for kid’s school supplies, etc. It was through running these events we would make contact with many publishers to get donations for these causes. Later in 2005 that we thought about trying our hand at publishing.

We heard about Die Macher possibly being available and it just took Rik calling Karl-Heinz Schmiel, the designer, and we were on the road to publishing! We both took out second mortgages on our houses and then crashed our way down the rocky slope of learning artwork, printing, distribution and shipping... and voila! Die Macher in 6 languages and in Comic Sans font, but that’s a story for another time.

KB:  Valley Games really achieved something that at one point seemed impossible, by acquiring the reprint rights to box_large_hannibal-300x249Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage.  I know that some of the legalities of that arrangement are of a non-disclosure nature, but what can you tell me about the mission to get that reprinted and what was involved?

TS: Well, Hannibal was a lot like Die Macher. We thought it would be great to give fans of the game a reprint and attract new interest to the title. Some of our other titles required a great deal of work in order to secure the rights – others were much easier. These titles belong on game store shelves. They belong in people's game collections. They should be PLAYED, not locked away where nobody can see them, or where old copies cost you several hundred dollars. Everyone should be able to have a copy.

In every case, we chose games that the public wanted – in some cases for several years. We thought addressing this need made reprinting these games a good investment and would be worth our time to try and sign. We try to listen to people out there about what they are looking for, and if we can do something about it, we will. Some games are very difficult to get and some may never come back but you never know what can happen out there.

KB:  Valley Games quickly put themselves on the map with Ameritrash and Wargamers with a solid catalog of monster reprints, including the previously mentioned Hannibal, but also Titan and Republic of Rome.  Were your personal tastes the passion for getting these games such lavishly gorgeous reprint treatments?

TS: Our idea was to try and do it right: good artwork, nice box, solid bits, decent price. We wanted to make the games “pop” off the table so when people walked past it they would stop and have a look. Our own personal tastes are not that flashy but we wanted people to get good value so we would analyze it by saying “would I pay $70 for that game looking like that?” We are our own worst critics. As a business, we want nothing but the best for the lowest possible price. It's a balancing act. I know avid gamers are like that also, so when you weigh Titan at almost 9 pounds we felt the reprint represented a good value for sure.

KB: Hannibal is quite possibly the most beautiful reprint of a game I’ve ever seen, far exceeding its original in terms of production quality.    I know you guys ran into headaches with some elements of production that were out of your control, especially relating to some of the pre-order bonuses.  How frustrating was that for you?

TS: Well, it’s like promising your daughter the pink bike with the ribbons on it only to find out it was made so horribly that it’s unsafe to ride. She really wants it though and she wants you to fix it, and you’re an accountant and the only tools you have are the pliers and the multi screwdriver in the junk drawer in the kitchen.

The promotional Generals were a similar issue.

We got cases and cases of those generals delivered and all our shipping people could tell us was “they are really brittle and most of them are broken”, awesome. These were an idea to help promote the game back into the hearts of gamers who hadn’t seen the title in many years by adding something visual to the game. They make no difference in playing the game they were only meant as a bonus to look at.

The whole process was really frustrating as many people took this as a personal attempt by Valley Games to rip them off when the figures arrived broken. The printer used a different kind of plastic, it was more a resin composite and this is not what we asked or paid for. Thus at the end we had these very brittle figures and lots of people very upset. Even though the figures were given away free, people were still pretty ticked that they were breaking.

KB:  Valley Games then moved on to prove it had breadth, as seen with a lot of the family games and Euro games that have launched since.  Was this a purposeful, conscious choice to expand in this direction?  Or was this just a matter of having some good games and reprint choices that ended up in front of you, and you rolled with that?

TS: It’s a good question and it was a direction that I think we just migrated into. When any good game designer asks you to do one of their titles, you look at it for sure.

Rik and I had a vision of making games for everyone. Perhaps this was a little bit ambitious, but we really think we could do just that. We thought if someone were to walk into a game store they would be able to find a Valley Game that would suit their tastes, whether it be a war-game, party-game, family-game or Euro-game.

In the beginning we had to look at the reprints in order to get rolling, but from there we were given the opportunities to look at new titles from designers, both new and experienced. The marketplace has told us that we have well-chosen the titles we're currently producing, and we expect that to continue into the future.

KB: A lot of the cardgame offerings have been quirky fun and good with families.  I do have to ask, though—what is the story behind Beep! Beep!?  (We’ve quickly pegged it as an awesome drinking game for conventions.)

beepbeep_cover-246x300TS:  Beep! Beep! is a Reinhard Staupe title and if you have seen any of his games they are all about the fun, fast-paced games with great themes and crazy mechanics.

We were offered this title in a different format and we decided to make it a little bit more “Canadian.” When driving through mountain roads, one tends to encounter wildlife unexpectedly, so you have to stay on your toes.

The squeaky car in the middle of the table came to being because of my dog actually. She gets those squeaky toys and just squeezes it over and over and over again until you go absolutely mental. It was after one of those sessions that I suggested it to Rik and in turn he told Reinhard about it who thought this was a great idea. Last year, we sponsored a Beep! Beep! Tournament at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When you see a room full of people laughing and having fun with this title, you know you're doing something right.

KB:  Bugs strikes me most closely as being a Great Dalmuti-esque game in terms of play, but providing actual scoring structure.  What was the story behind Bugs getting published?

TS: Bugs is a title by Keith Meyers. It was submitted in a different design than what you see now. We have some great playBugs-Cards-300x168_copy test groups and the one group that Rik works with in his day job must have played this prototype about 100 times during their lunch hours. They loved it and from there the ideas on themes took shape.

While The Great Dalmuti has a few different facets to it, the object is similar in that you want to get rid of your cards. In Bugs, the scoring helps to define the winner as well. People can catch up if they get a good hand or play well in a round, so even if they have a bad round they still have a chance to win eventually.

The Bugs theme was something that we hadn’t seen too much of and working with our artist we were able to get some beautiful images of the bugs on the cards. We also worked with an entomologist to add some fun facts in the game rule book for a little extra flavor.

The game itself is addictive to play, and we find we will play it as a filler between longer games or as a “warm up” or “cool down” for the evening. You can’t beat the smack-talk either... especially when everyone is gunning to beat the 18-card record that was set in one of the play groups that one person was left holding.

KB:  Bargain Hunter is a mean, much deeper than it appears trick-taking game from Uwe Rosenberg (of Bohnanza and Agricola fame.)  That was one that was originally long out of print.    Is this one that you were a fan of and decided to get it back into the hands of gamers who may have missed it before?

TS: Well, as with all of our reprints, we're fans of the original titles and we simply wanted more people to have them. In this case, the original was only in German and so we thought there was a great opportunity to do it in English and so far people BargainHunter_Box_Top_RGB-218x300have really embraced this title. Yes, it is much deeper that it appears as just a card game, many people have come up to us at conventions and said they were very surprised how good it was.

Uwe really is a remarkable designer and we are very happy to have been able to produce this title. We look forward to other titles in the future by Mr. Rosenberg.

It involves all sorts of things like playing the same value but making it lower to sabotage tricks, or calling trumps that someone doesn’t want, or dumping cards you know that people will have trouble getting rid of.  I’m surprised at how much is going on in what appears to be a simple little game with only a couple of pages of rules.   

We found the game to be very dynamic. There is a lot going on many ways you can play it depending on the cards you have. Sometimes you don’t need a great deal of rules to make a great game. Bargain Hunter definitely offers something for those who like a little more out of their card game!

KB:  Master Builder was something my brother described as “Eurotrash”—meaning that as a compliment.  You havebox_large_masterbuilder-300x247 your auctions and resources and workers…but then you’ve got awesome little constructable cardboard buildings, workers fighting and bickering, people showing up to work drunk, that sort of thing.  That one is from famed designer Wolfgang Kramer and Harmut Witt.  Did you find the production on this as complicated as Hannibal or Titan, or were there plenty of valuable lessons learned that served you well?

TS: This was a tough one because it had all of those cool cardboard buildings in it and it took a couple of printers to get it right. The first edition had some real issues in that the games were not really cut to spec like we wanted them. It took almost a year to get that sorted out and once that was done then it was great from there.

Wolfgang Kramer and Hartmut Witt are really great people and they came together to make this really cool game. Anyone that likes an engaging, interactive Euro-game will like this title. Like you said, it has almost everything in it except for moving wooden cubes around. That difference is what gives it space on game shelves. Plus, making the medieval town right on the table is a great effect and it’s fun watching it all come together.

KB:   Days of Steam was a reprint of a JKLM title.  How did you guys end up choosing that for reprint, and what was involved with that?  Did you pick that one out purposefully as an intro-level pick-up-and-deliver that could get folks into that style of play without leaving them to drown with something like Age of Steam?

TS: We saw this title in a prototype version at Origins a few years ago. I fell in love with it right away. The guys fromdofs_boxback1-300x214 Stratamax had already worked a deal with JKLM to produce it for the show  and later that year in Essen, but it was only for a small print run. We offered to do a larger print run and if it worked out we could do it for the following year.

Well, Essen came and went and their game didn’t get produced as they had expected. So we went into artwork mode and got some people involved so we could get it produced and we eventually did it for the following year's show at Essen as a preview to a release in early 2010.

The great thing about this game is that it has all of the things a train game should have, but only takes 45 minutes to play! Max Michael from Stratamax Games says that in Days of Steam, you can pick up and deliver goods and lay track like a train game without having to collect coloured cards. Aaron Lauster is the designer of the game and his vision was just that: All of the features of a train game simplified without the game making it really rough on you.

Martin Wallace’s Age of Steam is – without a doubt – one of my favourite train games. But it is simply not for the average gamer, as it is very heavy. The title given “Days of Steam” – or as the guys from Stratamax like to call it, “CarcaTrain” – was meant to honor Martin’s title but to suggest that it doesn’t have to take an age to play it.

KB:   I see that there is an expansion for Days of Steam as well, just released, called Days of Steam: Locomotives.  Is this intended to add a little more meat for fans of the base game who are looking for more?

TS: Yes indeed. The expansion gives the game a few added goodies that give players more options.

The Locomotives have been given special abilities and the movement dice is not used. There are factory tiles that are used to produce a single good for anyone to pick up and deliver. The game also introduces more coal in coal stations that give your locomotives more fuel to consume when you want to.

Like most expansions, the game now has a few more possibilities and options. The symmetry of it is really good and we have seen nothing but great reviews from people who have played it.

Barnes and Noble has just recently signed with us to begin carrying this title in their stores starting in June 2011. We're excited about that, and believe it's a worthy title for mainstream gaming.

KB:    Although you’ve dabbled in the family and Euro markets throughout the past year or so, it doesn’t appear you’ve forgotten your roots.  Stronghold was this beastly, heavy game with a great siege theme.  This one is thankfully, finally back in print.  Can you give me a history of the production of this one?

TS: Stronghold is a fantastic title, heavy in theme, and brilliant in design. There were a few bumps in the road with this one when it came to reprinting and it, but eventually it got done... but it took almost a year to get out of the fog.

stronghold_banner-1024x286When we first got the game we played it a few times and loved it but there were issues with the rulebook. Most of the issues were probably due to translation issues from Polish to English. Rules translation is certainly no easy feat. Many people complained about the rulebook, but once you got past that, the game was pretty easy to understand. It reminds me of Titan in that the game is pretty easy to understand but with all of the possible situations that can occur, it causes one to constantly reference the rule book through the first couple of plays.

We began by changing the rulebook. We now have two books, one for the Invader and one for the Defender. We also enlisted the help from some great guys to help us work through the existing rulebook and define any issues within. Each time we had a change or rule tweak it would get played a few times to see how it went, then we would consult the designer on the idea and offer stats from our findings. This went back and forth for months, literally. We were finally able to come to an agreement on the rule tweaks, the rulebook layouts and finally the artwork. A great deal went into this edition, as it wasn't simply a reprint.

From there, we had some issues with the colour and sizes of the cubes that kept showing up from the printer in our sample copies and after a few hundred emails, a few megabytes of pictures and a just a little swearing, we finally had a game again.

KB:   At long last, the reprint of Liberte is finally available.  I know that one took longer to get to market than some gamers may have liked.  What can you tell folks who were fans of the old game, long out of print?  More importantly, what can you tell new gamers who haven’t had the chance to try this one due to it being unavailable for so long?

TS: I can tell you that Martin Wallace is one of the premier designers out there and if you don’t own all of his titles, you need to. This game is a classic. It is a game rich in theme and brilliantly designed by one of the greats.

The game, as you say, has finally been reprinted and we were very lucky to have the opportunity to do it. There have been a couple rules tweaks from the original version but mostly it was just the addition of a variant recommended by players who had many games of Liberte under their belts that everyone felt should be included.

Here is a review of the game that could help:

KB:  With Crows, Liberte, the Stronghold reprint, and the Days of Steam expansion, it seems you guys are really firing on all cylinders.  What is next for Valley Games? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?

TS: We have some things that we are working on for later this year, but so far our dates are not definitive. We have some great reprints still to come, and we have new titles that are close to being ready as well, so there will be a great deal to choose from in the near future I promise.

We announced that we will be doing the expansion for Stronghold: Undead – hopefully later this year. We also have the new dice for Command and Colors: Napoleonics close to completion, just to name a couple of things.

We have also signed D-Day Dice by Emmanual Aquin recently. We really see a line of games under different themes for this mechanic with adjustments for head to head, co-operative and/or multiplayer versions.

We will continue to update our website with announcements regarding upcoming new games. We will also keep you informed as well, for the benefit of your many readers.

KB: Torben, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk with us, and I wish you and Valley Games continued success.

TS: Thank you for having us on and we really value your website and the forum it provides for this industry. Keep up the great work!

Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff.  Click here for more board game articles by Ken.

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