Interview with Atheris Games co-founder, Andrew Birkett. We talk present games, future games, along with mistakes and lessons learned along the way.
Welcome Andrew, and thanks for agreeing to do this publisher interview with us. Before we jump in, tell us what brought you into the hobby? Why become a publisher? What is the story behind the founding of Atheris?
Andrew: My introduction to the hobby is an interesting one – at least to me – I decided that the world needed a great automotive racing game. I don’t think I expected to make a board game publishing company out of it. The idea for the game was not even strictly physical. I wanted it to be paired with a digital implementation of the game.
I went to the University of Florida and pitched the idea which would become Atheris Entertainment as part of an elevator pitch competition (60-90 second competition where you have to explain your business to a set of judges). Somewhere along the way, I picked up some amazing business partners, Chuck and Barry.
My business partners and I then entered a business plan competition got in the top 16, but didn’t get further. We had a lot of interest from investors who loved the idea.
Though, we quickly realized that getting the investment necessary to fund that game would not be easy. In the meantime we wanted to show progress and didn’t have the capital to make the automotive game, Holeshot Heroes, so we started learning as much as we could about the board game industry.
Only then did I get into playing modern games. We started working on a war game, which ended up being a war against neighbors when I came up with an annoying story. We launched Cul-De-Sac Conquest and raised over $20k. We were shocked.
We entered more competitions and even placed 3rd in the 2016 University of Florida Big Idea Competition. As part of the competition, we started a pop-up board game store for 6-months. My business partners got busy with real life and I had to make the decision of whether I’d continue with the company or not.
I, of course, decided to continue and am so grateful to be a part of this amazing industry.
What is Atheris’ philosophy when it comes to games and the games it wants to publish?
Andrew: The original philosophy was to create games with immersive stories, and that’s still mostly true. Though, I find myself more willing to sign great games even if the story is lacking (as I can always develop it and refine it later).
We also focused entirely on smaller games to start in order to learn the industry. However, I am excited for a future in which Atheris will publish a more encompassing portfolio of games.
We’re currently working on our first mid-weight euro with Quick Simple Fun Games, which is heading to Kickstarter on Tuesday (Jan 22nd 2019).
That’s another part of our game philosophy now – co-publishing games. There is only so much time in the day and it is massively helpful to be able to leverage the resources of another company in addition to Atheris’.
Atheris is a bush viper, right? How did the naming of the company come about?
Andrew: You’re correct.
When I was working on Holeshot Heroes that is what we used as the company name. When I realized that we were going to be a publishing company my business partners and I realized we actually had to come up with a name. We ultimately decided to name the company after the first card in our first game – a car in Holeshot Heroes which I felt like looked like the venomous serpent.
Let’s talk about some of the games you already have out. Could you do a very brief rundown of your titles and give us a sentence or two about what each game is about?
Andrew: We started with Cul-De-Sac Conquest. Cul-De-Sac is a take-that game about annoying neighbors in which players compete to annoy their neighbors out of the neighborhood.
We then published Mutant Crops. Mutant Crops is a 15-30 minute worker placement game designed by Sebastian Koziner and originally published by OK Ediciones in Argentina in which players are farmers of mutated vegetables.
Our most recent game was Supernatural Socks. Supernatural Socks is a 15-30 minute set collection game in which players are doing their laundry with a bit of ghostly interference.
Whatever happened to Holeshot Heroes, that racing game that started this whole adventure?
Andrew: Holeshot Heroes is still in development. The game has changed a lot. Though, I do plan on releasing it eventually. I have a lot of the artwork already. However, I keep going back and forth on how I want the gameplay to work.
You talk a lot about learning. Learning about and from the industry. What are, say ..the top 3 lessons you have learned that really have helped you along the way?
Andrew: Learning is very important to me. I’d say my lessons would be:
1) Business is about people – treat them right.
Whether it’s customers, employees, contractors or other stakeholders of your business treat them as if the business wouldn’t be the same without them – it surely wouldn’t. Be grateful. Be humble. Be kind.
2) Ask for help & help others
People are generally nice. If you ask enough people for help someone will assist you. Though, don’t expect someone to take time out of their day and drop everything for you without anything in return either. Be grateful when someone does takes the time and thank them. Find ways to return the favor.
Also, do kind things for others. If you want to be a part of the board game industry find out how your talents can be utilized for the good of the industry and the folks who are a part of it. For example, while growing Atheris I’ve volunteered with several companies at conventions and spent countless hours assisting first-time creators with running a Kickstarter campaign.
3) Communication is key
Communicating is tough. Miscommunications can cause delays, headaches, and issues. It’s important to be thorough. Don’t make assumptions about any stakeholder knowing about anything – they might not. Be clear in your communications.
Also, some Kickstarter creators might learn a thing or two about updating backers regularly. Kickstarter backers are paramount for the success of most small publishers these days and should be treated as such.
What are some mistakes you have made along the way and what did you learn from them?
Andrew: I’ve made far too many mistakes to list here. Though, my biggest mistake was shipping. I added too much weight and had to change the box size for Cul-De-Sac when we hit stretch goals which led me to having to pay way more in shipping than I should have.
I learned from that and no longer add stretch goals which will drastically affect the size or weight of the box and thereby shipping price.
That’s interesting. Shipping often seems to be the biggest or at least most “mistake” I hear from publishers about Kickstarter. What advice would you give to anyone that is looking to run a Kickstarter their first time?
Andrew: First-time Kickstarters should do their research. Back other projects and be introspective – what led them to back that project?
They also should embrace and become a part of the community. If possible they should attend conventions as well.
Let’s turn our focus to a game you currently have on Kickstarter, Ore. what can you tell us about the game?
Andrew: In Ore, players are owners of rival mining corporations. They must compete to gain lucrative contracts, build the most investment properties and become the largest mining corporation. It is at its heart an engine building worker placement game. The game plays with 2-5 players in 60-90 minutes.
What drew you to the game that you knew you had to sign it?
Andrew: I’ve wanted to work with Quick Simple Fun Games for some time. I am a big fan of their company, products, and their people. Their former developer is a close friend of mine and brought the game to our weekly prototype meetups while the game was in development.
I always was a fan of the game and jumped at the opportunity to work on it with QSF. I think the thing that drew me to the game was the interesting decision matrix involved with placing workers in the mines. When workers are placed in the mines they gain resources of that type every round until they either deplete their ability to go further or until the player extracts them (which will cost them).
Some workers need to go to the mines in order to complete contracts. However, if too many workers are in the mines a player won’t be able to perform other important actions. It’s a fun, nail-biting, strategic game.
This brings up a good question. What do you look for in a game that could possibly be signed by you?
Andrew: I definitely enjoy games with unique themes and novel stories to tell with mechanisms that create a fun and engaging game experience for players. I don’t really look for anything particularly though. We seek to sign and publish great games. Aside from that, I’m not too picky.
So there are game types that you’re not looking for then?
Not really. There are some game genres, which I would be less likely to be interested in (i.e. war games, party games, and kids games). However, there are always exceptions to the rule.
So if a designer wants to pitch a design to you, what is the best way to contact you?
Andrew: Designers can feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @AtherisAndrew or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Though, by far the best way is talking with me at conventions. As a small company, it is even more important to work with good people. We definitely aim to work with designers who are kind, considerate and willing to take feedback. Meeting in-person is the easiest way to gauge the validity of the game as well as the designer’s personality.
As we wrap this up, let’s turn our eye to the future. After Ore what is coming in 2019 from Atheris?
Andrew: We’ve got a ton going on. We are looking at potentially working together with Quick Simple Fun Games on a few other projects after Ore.
We also have Ruins of Mars, which is a really amazing martian themed game in which players are learning about ancient Martian civilizations and uncovering their technologies by Don Riddle. Ruins of Mars uses a mancala-esque resource shifting rondel. The worker placement spots change every turn so it really changes the economy in the game and makes correctly timing actions critical.
After Ruins of Mars, we have White Elephant by Michael Mihealsick, which is a game about a white elephant gift exchange. Players choose a pile of cards from the center of the table or can instead trade with another player and place a trade chip in the center of the table. Each card is worth a varying degree of points and are part of several suits. At the end of the game, the player with the most of any given suit will lose 1 point per card instead of the card’s given value. The player with the lowest points wins.
We also have Oni by Sebastian Koziner, who also designed Mutant Crops. In Oni, players are Japanese demons, or Oni, which are trying to trip someone in a parade. The parade is in the center of the table and is constantly shifting. Players must find and trip their assigned member of the parade before their opponents. Whoever has the most points at the end of three rounds wins.
We have a few more, but we’re keeping the rest of our projects under wraps for now 🙂
Thank you, Andrew, for taking the time to do this interview.