Five Question Friday with Aaron Dill and Sean Sweigart, Board Game Designers

Five Question Friday with Aaron Dill and Sean Sweigart, Board Game Designers

June 10, 2016 2 By Gary

Full Disclosure: I love board games.

One might say, I’m obsessed with them. I play them and when I’m not playing them, I think about playing them.

My favourite board game by far is Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery. It’s a game wherein you assume the role of the leader of a gladiatorial school in a Roman city (yes, it does use elements from the TV show of the same name) seeking to bribe, betray, and pave your path to glory using the blood of your enemies.

It was developed by Gale Force Nine, the company who’s also responsible for Firefly:The Boardgame, Sons of Anarchy: Men of MayhemHomeland: The Game, and more. All of these games are unique, and fantastic in their own ways; their components are high quality and they’re just darn fun.

They’re releasing Star Trek: Ascendancy this summer, a massive game which promises to boldly go where no gamers have gone before, and Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks, in the fall, which is semi-cooperative and set in the universe of Time and relative dimensions in space!

Other than being awesome, these games have another common thread: their designers, Aaron Dill and Sean Sweigart.

Today, I had a chance to chat with Aaron and Sean about their games, where their company’s been, and where it’s going.


spartacus (1)

Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery

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Gary: Prior to the release of Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, Gale Force Nine (GF9) was primarily known for being one of the hobby’s premiere accessories companies, producing high quality components for miniatures games as well as maps, tokens, markers, and terrain, among others.

I’d love to hear the origin story about how the board game arm of GF9 came to be.

Can you offer any insight into how the company decided to move into also making board games?

Sean Sweigart: Actually, Spartacus was not our first licensed game project. In truth [the] first project we worked on was a Discovery Channel license for “Deadliest Catch.” It was a tight little crab fishing, race game. It was well along in development and some problems on the licensing end [resulted in] scuttling the project. It never saw the light of day. Spartacus grew out of a good fit between us and STARZ; we were new to game design and STARZ was new to licensing. It worked out to be a good project for both of us.

Aaron Dill: We got into making board games for largely the same reason we got into making game accessories – it’s what we were excited about playing ourselves. GF9 started by making accessories that we wanted to use, which in turn found a market.  Board games are similar – we wanted to make games that we wanted to play.

[We’ve all] been playing games for a long time.

We’ve tried to make games that are well situated in the licensed worlds, where the players can tell their own stories and have their own adventures.  Our games aren’t recreating the literal events of a TV series. For example, in the Sons of Anarchy game, each player controls their own gang and is competing against the other criminal organizations from the show.  The players aren’t leading specific characters from the show through the actual events of the show.



Firefly: The Game

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Gary: I know Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks is coming soon and Star Trek: Ascendancy is releasing this summer [at Gen Con], but are you able to share any details about what’s coming next that you may not have talked about to this point?

Aaron Dill: As far as future releases, we’ve got a few more games coming out this year.  Our new Family Guy game is coming out later this year. It’s a very different style of game for us – a fast, word-play based party game for larger groups of people.

Gary: That’s Family Guy: Stewie’s Sexy Party game, right Aaron?

Aaron Dill: That’s right.We’re also publishing a new D&D board game, Tyrants of the Underdark, where each player controls a different Drow House, competing against the other houses.

Star Trek: Ascendancy (ST:A) is also going to be a very expandable game. In addition to the core set, which includes the Federation, Romulan and Klingons, there are going to be Cardassian and Ferengi Player Expansions Sets out later this year. (These expansions expand the game to five players, from the core three – Gary)


WWE Superstar Showdown

WWE Superstar Showdown

[img via Team Covenant]

Gary: You have several huge releases in the pipeline for this year, a few we’ve already mentioned such as Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks, Star Trek: Ascendancy, your first 4x game, which is due out this summer, and Family Guy: Stewie’s Sexy Party Game.

With so many massive new titles on the horizon, how do you ensure your new titles match the quality standards of your epic past releases such as Spartacus, Firefly, and Homeland?

Aaron Dill: Keeping the quality of the games high is something that’s really, really important to all of us here.  Making high quality, fun to play licensed games was the impetus for getting into designing board games.  We certainly aim to continue in that vein.

But you’re right, there are a lot of hard choices to make in order to keep the quality of our games high. There are certainly other games we could be making, that we just don’t have the time to include.

The first few games we designed with a very small team. As we’ve grown, our team has too, which has both increased the quality and quantity of games we’re able to do.  Our lead graphic designer Katie has really done a great job of that.

Sean Sweigart: Thank you for the high praise. In our design process, we really try to focus on two primary goals – good game play and strong theme. Creating a sense of immersion in the universe goes hand in hand with a fun game play experience. One enhances the other. This design sensibility is something we try to bring to all our work and I think all our games are the better for it.



Star Trek: Ascendancy

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Gary: I’m definitely excited about Star Trek: Ascendancy.

Everyone I know is excited about Star Trek Ascendancy; they are definitely interested in seeing what you can do with a 4X game set in the Star Trek universe. The one common comment (other than overall excitement for the game) revolves around the base game only being able to support three players, though you’ve already mentioned that expansions (Ferengi and Cardassian will follow the core set’s release in August) will expand play to up to five.

Can you talk about why it was decided to start the game with three players only?

Aaron Dill: A lot of that comes back to one of your earlier questions, what do we do to keep the quality of the games high and that was just very much a decision of Star Trek is a big game, each player has, in the core set, 30 really detailed plastic ship models for your civilization, you’ve got detailed control markers, three dimensional plastic control markers that identify who’s controlling the planet, all the resource nodes that generate different resources are sculpted 3D clear, really cool translucent plastic pieces.

The game is a huge box, that comes with a ton of stuff, and it was very much a decision of: we can either do a three player core game that’s awesome, that’s really a ton of stuff, a ton of detail, lots of plastic figures, something that’s really exciting, or we can do a four player or five player core box where some of those components become cardboard, maybe there’s fewer of them, less systems to explore; something has to give. So we opted for the better quality, more exciting product.

Sean Sweigart: I would also like to add that when you think of the Star Trek universe, it really is the three base powers: it’s the Federation, the Romulans, and the Klingons. So thematically, the three player choice was an easy one. These are the pillars of the universe and the game, as designed, plays wonderfully with three. It really does.

You know with four or five players, it plays fantastic too, but they’re much longer games. Another consideration is game length; when you’re having your first game experience, it’s sometimes better for that to be shorter  so you can get to grips with it and get through the rules. Obviously playing a three player game is a quicker experience than playing a four or five player game.  Fans of 4X games [know] these games can be titanic in length,  we’re trying to…we use the term it’s an “accessible” 4X design. It definitely strikes a balance between depth/rich experience AND accessible game play mechanics.



Homeland: The Game

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Gary: Other than GF9 games, what are your favourite games to play with your friends?

Aaron Dill: Right now, I just recently in the last few months got into playing a new miniatures game that I’m sure excited about, that everyone is tired of hearing about, called Guild Ball, that I’m really enjoying.

It’s straddling the miniatures and board game world. I’m impressed with Codenames, I’ve played that a few times recently, I really like Caverna, that’s really one of my favourites. Kingdom Builder’s always been one. I could go on, I’ve got a lot. Those are a few I’ve played over and over again.

I have to give a shout out, me personally, in recent months, the game that I’ve enjoyed and appreciated most is actually Sandy Peterson’s Cthulu Wars; just the over the top design aesthetic and just a very elegant, simple, worker placement/conflict driven…it’s a nice merging between conflict, theme, and a Euro design. I’ve really enjoyed that.

Gale Force Nine games make up a really large percentage of the time that we spend playing games but you know, when we get home after work, I’m not generally breaking out a Gale Force Nine game because I just played Gale Force Nine games all day.


Tyrants of the Underdark

Tyrants of the Underdark

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Gary: The thing I find most interesting about your games, and I’m pretty sure I own all of the ones that you’ve released to this point, is that the mechanics are so different. It’s not as though you hit on a winning concept and sort of tried to develop that concept [exclusively.]

Spartacus has the three independent aspects: the diplomacy/negotiation/treachery, the close fist bidding, the arena mini game, whereas Homeland is the semi-cooperative [save the world game.]

Sean Sweigart: That is by design.

One of the very early things we hit upon was, we didn’t want to get pigeonholed doing one type of game.

As Aaron touched on earlier, later this year: Stewie’s Sexy Party. It’s a completely different style of game than we’ve ever done before. This 4X game, Ascendancy, it’s completely different than any of our other mechanics. We purposely chase projects that allow us to flex our creative muscles in different ways.

We really don’t want to fall into that trap of doing a dungeon crawl over and over again. That’s certainly on purpose.

Gary: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Aaron, Sean.

Is there anything you’d like to add, about stuff you have in development or stuff we haven’t discussed yet?

Sean Sweigart: Well, we’ve got a lot of surprises in the wings that we’re working hard on…now…I can’t talk a lot about next year’s plan outside of name, but we are in development for our big tent pole release for next summer.

[It’s] a Dungeons and Dragons title called Thieves Guild.



Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem

[img via: Geekz United]


Thanks so much to Aaron and Sean for chatting with me; what a great scoop to end on, getting the name of their tent pole game for next year!

I don’t know what Thieves Guild is, but if it’s published by Gale Force Nine, I know that it’s going to be great, and I need to own it.

Convention season is beginning and on the weekend of August 4th – 7th, and Aaron and Sean are dividing and conquering!

One of them will be at Gen Con in Indianapolis, and one of them will be at the 50th Anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, talking Star Trek: Ascendancy, and all of GF9’s awesome library.

If you’re at one of the cons and you see the GF9 booth stop by and say hello to these engaging dudes who make great games. If you see them, tell them that Gary at GCE says hello!

If you want to learn more about the games GF9 produces, you can do so here.