Fireside Chat: An Interview with Justin De Witt of Fireside Games PART ONE

A column article by: Park Cooper

One day, Barb noticed in the local weekly community periodical that someone was going to be having a sort of open house for their new boardgame at a local comics shop. Now, I like boardgames-- sometimes I even feel compelled to make my own board or card games, just for fun. I was an only child with no brothers or sisters to play with around the house, so such things were a special novelty to me when I got to play them. So, we went to the shop, where I met with game creator Justin De Witt, who talked with me and showed me the basics of how to play the game, called Castle Panic! from the also-newly-formed Fireside Games. I liked the game (and still do), and bought a copy for myself, and exchanged cards with Justin, so that we could later do an interview. Here, then, is the start of our interview!

Park Cooper: So what's up?

Justin De Witt: We're keeping busy. Trying to keep up with retailer requests and lots of inquiries from gamers.

PC: Tell me more! About the keeping up. And the inquiries. Is this "how can I get it" inquiries, or "hey can I come work for you" inquiries, or both?

JDW: Ha! So far it's mostly "how can I get it" inquiries. Since we're a small publisher a lot of store owners either aren't aware of our game or haven't put it on the shelves yet.

PC: Are we shipping outside the US yet?

JDW: We're getting a lot of people wanting to know how to get it and we're really urging them to check with their local game stores. There have been a few distributors that have picked up copies of the game overseas. I've heard from gamers in Canada, England, Korea and Germany, but I can't say for sure how many games are moving out of the US.

PC: So... things are going well? Or are you one of those businesses that has success so sudden and explosive it's painful, like in the UPS commercials?

JDW: Things are going extremely well, and luckily we're not to the painful stage (yet). There don't seem to be enough hours in the day, but hey, who can't say that?

JDW: We've gotten some great reviews and basically retailers are having a tough time keeping the game on the shelves, so I can't complain!

PC: So how'd we come to name it Fireside?

JDW: Ah yes, the company name. Well, we had gone back and forth on which game to release first and when we settled on Castle Panic we needed to make some progress on the company.

PC: Uh huh...

JDW: Castle Panic really hits on a lot of the key ideas of what we wanted to bring to the game community as a company. We want to be known for games that are fun, innovative, and accessible. We focused on that and then started generating names that seemed to fit.

PC: Uh huh...

JDW: We settled on Fireside because we liked the idea of gathering people together in a friendly way. But we also liked the reference to fire and the idea of being next to something exciting and a little dangerous. The logo design then went more towards the flame-y feel, as we tried to balance the two ideas.

PC: Can you give hints about the next game on y'all's agenda? For I am very curious...

JDW: Ah yes, you're not the only one! At this point I can't say too much, but it's not going to be another cooperative game. This one will be more traditional in the idea of players actually working against each other, but we're still going to make sure it's fun, easy to learn (and teach) and is something you'll want to invite people to play.

PC: Board? Card? Other? I'll understand if you can't say.

JDW: I can't say for sure what format it will take yet. There's still a lot of playtesting to be done, and then once you get into production the costs and print buying can always have an impact on what the final product is. More than likely it'll be another board game with tiles and tokens. I’m toying with an idea to make the board completely modular and make it out of tiles, but it's all gotta work together.

PC: Understood. Ooh I love modular tiles.

JDW: Yep, me too.

PC: When I was a kid I had Donald Duck's Haunted Mine Game from Disney (which I remembered Mickey being the star of, oddly, until I looked it up)... Now, I have Carcassone. Heh heh heh.

JDW: Ha! I think Mickey would be proud. I miss some of the old games from our childhood. I remember all sorts of wacky electronic parts and motorized bits. I’m amazed some of that stuff was ever produced. 

PC: Did you have DARK TOWER? I did. You can play it online now as a flash game. Which may or may not appease the insane nostalgic fighting over it on EBay.

JDW: I never actually owned it, but a friend did and we played it until half the buttons quit working.

JDW: Yeah, a flash game just isn't the same...

PC: Heh. PC: Okay. So... let's back up. For the sake of my readers: so how exactly did you decide it was a good idea to start a games comapny?

JDW: Good idea? Hmmm... Just kidding. I had been designing games on my own for years and playing them with friends for quite a while. Back in 2001 I had the opportunity to work for Steve Jackson Games as a production artist. I learned a lot about the business while I was there, but I also realized I didn't want to sign my games over to a company and just let them run with it. After I left Steve Jackson Games I continued to work on my own games and it soon became apparent that Castle Panic was really working well. As we moved forward my wife and I decided that if we were going to do this right, we would need to do it ourselves. Between my past experience, skillset as a graphic designer and her editorial and project management skills, we realized we actually had the tools to make all this happen. I had a few contacts that I could connect with and that got me started down the path of publishing.

PC: The mechanics on Castle Panic work very well, but it's fun, also. But how did we come up with the title? The castle part is obvious... how'd we hit getting "panic" in there too as the second word?

JDW: Actually that was there almost from the beginning. I had a pretty good sense that the game was going to be a bit tense and we wanted to get that across. We toyed with other names, but came back to Panic pretty quick. Plus the name has a vague feel of Japanese manga and anime which, while it isn't really echoed in the game at all, helped it to feel kind of fresh and unique. 

PC: (Right, I’m aware of Full Metal Panic, etc.)

PC: How long did you test and tinker with CP before feeling it was time?

JDW: A good three years of development and playtesting went into the game, but I was working on other games and working full time at the same time, so it wasn't 24 hours a day.

PC: Understood. Any advice for game-creators just starting out? Board, card, etc.?

JDW: Well, first off, don’t beat yourself up if it’s taking a while. Honestly it's about priorities and where you are in your life. If you've got other things that are more critical like family or school that are taking up your time, let them. Those are great things to focus on. We should all be trying to work on something we love and no matter if it’s knitting, basket weaving or designing games, we make as much time for it as we can and when it's right, it's right.

Next time: The conclusion, with a lot more advice for up-and-coming game creators...


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