An interview with Flaster Siskin, designer of Pirate King

An interview with Flaster Siskin, designer of Pirate King Hot

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Flaster Siskin and Cliff Camp 
Flaster Siskin, designer (left) & Cliff Cramp, artist (right) 



On November 13 Flaster Siskin left this rather enigmatic comment on my review of Pirate King.

I am sorry to inform you, but the product available at Tuesday Morning is a discontinued, unauthorized and unlicensed version of the game. I must recommend that you do not buy it from there.

The New & Authentic version is currently available at Thought Hammer
As Sag says:

Whoa -- that is a pretty BIG chunk of information you just dropped. Would you care to elaborate a bit?
Since, Flaster didn't reply, I decided to poke around a bit and discovered that Temple Games, the original publishers of Pirate King, had appearantly dropped off the face of the earth. It's website returns a 404 - Not Found error. Temple Games is probably best known for re-releasing Polarity in 2005 and ChiZo Rising in 2007. Early in 2007 they announced that they would be distributing Pitchcarin North America - apparently that never happened.

Suspecting foul play and the possible involvement of Jinteki, I decided to do a little investigative journalism and make the mysterious Flaster Siskin, if that was his real name, "elaborate a bit." Well, that, and he  offered to do an interview. Plus he's a Hottie! (that's him on the left above)


So, Flaster Siskin, that's quite an unusual name here in the States. Where in the world are you?
 

I am in Los Angeles, CA.  Flaster is actually my middle name but my friends in college started calling me Flaster so it stuck.  It is also my Grandfather's last name and he had three daughters and his name did not get passed to the next generation so I thought it would be a nice way to honor his memory.  Plus he was the only Flaster to survive WWII out of Hungry so helping his name live on had even more significance for me.  That is why I also named my company, FlasterVenture, for him as well.


Did you play games in college with these friends that started calling you by your middle name? What did you play?

I was really into D&D back then.  Freshman year, my roommate had brought all of the old AD&D books with him and we started studying them more than our school work.  We got a nice group of about 8 people in the dorm to start playing a regular game.  We played an awesome year long multi campaign adventure with the same characters.  Our Dungeon Master was a really experience and creative player and made for the most memorable gaming experience.
 
I was a cavalier but due to our entire party being evil alignments which we all kept secret at first, we modded an evil cavalier for me.  Everyone figured it out after I projected an aura of fear rather than protection from fear during one of our battles.  The tremendous amount of backstabbing (not the rogue kind) was hysterical.  We were constantly creating secret mini-alliances within the party that switched almost week by week even day by day like the TV show Survivor.  We were so into it we would have secret meeting outside the game to plot against the other players.  We really should have gone to class a little more that year - lol.  But as it turns out considering my career, I guess that qualified as studying.
 
After freshmen year we continued to play where I was the DM for a while but were never able to put together such a long and memorable campaign like that again.


So, then you were D Master Flaster. Skipping class didn't have any long term detrimental effects on your academic career.  I know my brother was able to take classes in Frisbee out in Santa Cruz, but I don't know of any programs in game design. What did you end up getting a degree in? From where? Connect the dots for me from playing D&D to designing a board game about Pirates. What makes some one decide to design their own game? Was Pirate King your first game, or do you have a box full of other attempts under your bed? Why pirates?

I was a Film Studies Major at UCSB.  The film background is probably why I like a strong theme and engaging artwork in a game.  I worked in film and television for several years.  Probably the only movie I worked on that you would have heard of is Ed Harris's film Pollack.  I wrote several screenplays and had a couple optioned but never made it beyond what they call “development hell”.
 
However I have begun to adapt one of my screenplays to a graphic novel and board game.  I hope to have the graphic novel done by late 2009 and the board game by 2010.  The writing background is where I like to anchor my game design.  Obviously mechanics are important but story and theme are as well.  I feel if you cannot lose yourself into a board game like you would when watching a movie allowing your imagination to create your own world within the game, the game is missing a very critical component.  That is what I loved about D&D and other RPGs is that you create a character and story in the game but in your mind as well.
 
After  Hollywood , I worked in video games for a few years where I honed a sense of game balance and mechanics.  I mostly worked on real time strategy games like Empires Dawn of the Modern World, but my favorite type of video game has always been the turn based strategy game which essentially is the video game version of a board game.
 
Drawing from those two careers it felt like a natural progression to move on to board games.  Pirate King was my first fully developed game but I certainly have a dozen or so ranging in stages from just design documents to full working prototypes.  In fact, I will begin the manufacturing of an all new game in January 2009 for a holiday release in '09.
 
Pirate King was inspired from several game nights with a non-gamer group of friends consisting of eclectic bunch of girls and guys.  We kept on playing familiar childhood games like Risk, Life, & Monopoly because that is all they knew.  Yes, I know, how boring for a gamer, but we had a great time hanging out with friends, being social, drinking a little wine or beer and playing an easy game.  Seeing potential in the fun we were having, I wanted to make a game that a gamer could enjoy while at the same time they could easily teach it to a non-gamer and play with them.  It is a very tough fence to straddle but that was the goal: To create a game to bridge the gap.
 
After working on mechanics that drew upon the familiarity of the childhood classics, a pirate theme seemed like a natural fit.  The one thing I had always wanted to do is attack Boardwalk!  And with the first Pirates of the  Caribbean  movie fresh on the mind and at the time a new one was going to be released soon the genre was getting hot.  Besides, I’ve always loved pirate movies and themes.  The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at  Disneyland  has always been my favorite ride!


The first impression I got from Pirate King was, "This feels like an old pirate movie." It's fun and light and takes you along for a ride. It has a sense of real historic place and time, but also throws in all those pirate cliches . You can play it like you're the noble Captain Blood, establishing and developing your ports, working your way up to being governor, or you can play like Long John Silver, going after the treasure and the adventure. But it's missing the actual characters. I mean, your character is essentially a boat. We want the expansion with different Pirate Captain characters, with different special abilities. Will you design one for me?
 
Sure.  Actually we considered making Captain Characters and I have the blue prints for them but we ended up not implementing them in order to streamline the game and also to have players start off even.  There is a variant that we had designed into the game originally that involved the crewmen cards.  I will probably release that variant online early next year.  It does not require any new pieces just a small set of additional rules governing the crewmen cards.  Again we cut this element for the final version to streamline the game but knew that this aspect was just beneath the surface and we could pull it out anytime for the gaming community.  Essentially it involves getting pairs, three and four of kind of the same crewmen type.  So a pair would give you a minor enhancement or ability and its power would increase with three and four of a kind.  Each type of crewmen has a unique enhancement or ability making ten crew characteristics you could develop through the course of the game.  Plus you will be able to trade crewmen with other players to make these combinations easier to create but you most likely have to give your opponent something good in return.  This might give you the character customizing you are seeking.  However I will re-explore the Captain Characters for you.

 
That makes so much sense. It always felt like those crew cards were meant to do something more than just look pretty. I'm holding you to the Captain Character expansion. The crewmen rules plus captain charaters - it will be like the director's cut of a movie.

Something else that impressed me was how the movement system simulated all the real frustrations of attempting to navigate a sail boat. Have you done much sailing yourself?
 
I have done quite a bit of sailing but unfortunately I do not have my own boat.  One day I hope to.  I guess I will need to sell quite a bit of Pirate King before I set sail in my own pirate ship.  I do have good friends who have a sailboat locally and I go sailing with them a lot.  But I have always been akin to the water.  I am avid swimmer, scuba diver, and snorkeler.  Over the years I have been lucky enough to have gone to the Caribbean a few times and I just love it down there.  I dream of the Jimmy Buffet life style – any good pirate does, right?

 
Absolutely. It's snowing here, and I'm dreaming of the Jimmy Buffet life now myself.

Although my dream has less swimming and more blender drinks.

my_100th_Pina_Colada.jpg


The components of Pirate King are quite impressive. I particularly like the round crew cards with the portraits. The special treasure cards are cut in the shape of a skull and crossbones. There is artwork and flavor text on every card. There are special boxes designed  to look like crates to hold the cards. Many publishers might have chosen to simpler, less expensive options. Just cardboard tokens for the crew, and standard cards for the treasure. Were these features your idea? Why didn't you make less expensive choices? And who did the artwork?
 
First of all, the fabulous artwork was done by Cliff Cramp.  Once I saw his work I knew that it was important to showcase it throughout the game to give the game as you said that “old pirate movie” feel.  I knew I needed to display that art in a myriad of ways while implementing it into the game play itself.  It is always a very difficult decision between your vision and the financial bottom line.  I tried to give the game as much cool bits as possible while watching my costs carefully because essentially the more it costs me to make the more the end retail price will end up being so it is a very difficult balance to find.  You have to get very creative with the components in order to keep them looking cool, functional and cost effective.

 
For those F:AT readers who fantasize about living the glamorous, jet set life of an LA game designer, can you tell us how you got you first big break. Were you playing Pirate King at a diner on Hollywood and Vine when an agent from Temple Games walked in Discovered you?
 
I wish it was that easy and glamorous but it if more hard work and perseverance than anything.  It may have been the experience of the aspiring Hollywood writer that helped drive me and never give up no matter the obstacle.

 
There has been a number of printings of Pirate King. Can you walk us through it's history. I know that the first printing by Temple Games had some problems. You got those off the shelves and now they are popping up at discount stores. My understanding is those had the wet/mold/warped board problem that seems to have been plaguing board game publishers these past few years, and that you have been warning people not to purchase them. Is that correct? Many of us have been wondering why this has been happening, do you have any insight into it? What was done differently with the next printing to prevent this from happening?
 
I think the biggest issue is quality control in China.  For the second run I spent a large amount of money on quality assurance and third party inspectors at the factory to insure a better quality product.  The second time around I had a more direct role in the manufacturing process so I was able to implement certain initiatives.  In fact I am working on moving my manufacturing to America.  I am in the middle of negotiations with a domestic manufacturer for my next game and if things keep going in a positive direction my next game will be Made in the USA.  I believe I can get a very high quality product at competitive rate here.  It will be much easier to do quality control and more importantly I feel really good about bringing manufacturing back to America and creating jobs in these really tough economic times.
Pirate King Editions

 
Other than correcting the damp problem, were there any other changes made to the game with the second printing?
 
Yes, we made a few component changes, a few improvements to the rules, a smaller box and a more organized interior box.  The most significant component change is the ships and cannons.  Although I liked the old 3-d ships they were a bit unwieldy.  Now we have 2-d ships on stands but they still look great thanks to Cliff’s amazing artwork.  In addition we have cannon tokens that have a color and black & white sides.  Here is where one of the rule changes comes in.  In the first version when you lost a cannon in combat you lost it permanently.  Now you don’t lose the cannon you just lose the use of it until you can man it again.  So you turn it from the color side to the black and white side to indicate it as inactive.  In addition we have a supplemental rule set out called the “Cutthroat Rules” which I think really heightens the action.  They can be downloaded for free off my website www.flasterventure.com or at Board Game Geek.  One of my favorite improvements though is the interior box.  I am very happy with the way it looks and its functionality.  It really helps players organize the pieces.

 
Originally, Pirate King was exclusively available at Barnes & Nobel. Why was that?
 
Actually it was just because they placed a big order so we gave it to them.  It is as simple as that.  It is hard to say “no” to a nationwide chain like that.

 
Pirate Kingis currently being published by FlasterVentures, which is your own company. What happened to Temple Games? What motivated your leap to start your own publishing company?
 
I should not comment on Temple Games due to pending litigation against them.  But the reason I formed my own publishing company was out of total necessity.  It has been a very hard road but we are persevering and I assure you we will ultimately be triumphant so our success will be ever so sweeter.  My advice to anyone out there who wants to get into this business is to be very aware that there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there, put everything in writing and to have an excellent attorney at your side.

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Have you made any changes to the upcoming version? And when can we expect it to hit the shelves?

note: The upcoming version to which I refer was hinted at in the BGG Pirate King contest which mentioned a "future run of Pirate King" which would include the contest winner's portrait.

It may be a while until we release the next version.  We still have plenty of inventory so we will not begin producing a new run until we sell most of it.  Although I will, through out the year, release additional supplementary rules sets that can be used with the current version.

Can you give us any hints about the game you are currently working on?
 
Right now the new game is still under wraps.  In about a month I will be glad to tell you more. What I can tell you for now is that it is a very unique family game implementing an ancient gaming technique.  Plus Cliff Cramp is doing the art again so we know it will look amazing.
An interview with Flaster Siskin, designer of Pirate King There Will Be Games
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