Interview: Thing 12 Games – The Seals of Cthulhu

I had a chat with Sean Epperson, from Thing 12 Games, to get some behind-the-scenes info on how The Seals of Cthulhu came to life. Follow along here and then check out the Kickstarter campaign. Let the madness begin!

With the slew of games out featuring Lovecraft‘s most infamous spawn, it is nice to see a Cthulhu game that has a play time of 20 minutes (not that I don’t love a great session of Cthulhu Wars, but it’s hard to get that to the table on a regular basis). And, The Seals of Cthulhu is also specifically designed for two players, which I love!

To Play Is Human: Did The Seals of Cthulhu start out as a two-player game from the beginning?

Sean: It did start out as a 2p game. There’s an interesting story about the inception of the game. I came up with the concept about 3 years back. The base idea was each player had something that was less valuable to them but was very valuable to their opponent.

I mocked up the game and tried it out. And…it was not fun. At all. I shelved the game for a year or so, forgetting about it. I happened to see it one day, going through my design stuff before heading out for a game day, and had a moment of inspiration on how to potentially fix it.

I quickly mocked up the cards and tried it out with the play group and bingo…there was the missing element of fun. It needed a lot of work still…but the potential for fun was there.

TPIH: Can you tell us a bit about your vision for who the target audience is for The Seals of Cthulhu? Who did you have in mind during the design process?

Sean: This was always a game designed for strategic-minded players. I didn’t want any elements of randomization. I wanted players to have to beat their opponent by outwitting them through strategic game play decisions. But I didn’t want something like chess where the player who knows the game better always wins. The player who knows the game better will have an advantage…but it’s not guaranteed and the new player has every opportunity to win.

TPIH: Elements of The Seals of Cthulhu definitely reminded me of playing poker. There’s a strategy for playing the game, but also for playing your opponent – with bids and bluffs for which you *hope* they’ll take the bait so you can build your collection of artifacts and take the win. I’m glad we’re playing with influence tokens and not cash, haha!

Sean: Thanks! I wanted the game to be more than just “I want your stuff AND my stuff”, which is why the Cthulhu theme and the elder gods work so well. Some of them can be helpful, at a terrible price…and you have to decide if you’re willing to pay that price. Others you most definitely do NOT want…which adds that extra bit of interesting choice to make. Is my opponent trying to sucker me into over-paying for a card? Are they trying to sucker me into paying for a card I don’t want?

TPIH: I fell in love with this project when I saw you sharing your ideas for the box art. For those who have never been on the design and production side of board games, can you walk us through some of the things you have to consider when developing and executing ideas for box art?

Sean: Visual punch is key. You have to have something that is very eye catching. But you should also be thinking about what’s common on shelves so that your cover stands out from all the others.

TPIH: Would you be willing to share a series of images to show the cover design evolution? Who are the artists you’re working with for The Seals of Cthulhu?

Sean: Here are 2 images we had during the evolution of the cover design. The first cover we had looked like a mysterious package that had arrived. We liked the logo design, and the cover was interesting…but it wasn’t quite there. The second had more of the book style, but something about the mottled white looked more like stone or wall paper than a book cover. You’ll notice a distinctively different name on the cover there. 😉

There are 3 artists working on the game:

Darrin Michelson is doing the cover art and logo. Darrin is a long-time contributor to our games, having done work on all of our published titles, and was the primary artist for both Dice of Crowns and the soon to ship Dice of Pirates. Darrin is a creative powerhouse, and good friend, whom I have personally known for well over a decade.

Kris Quistorff created the card frames and look and worked with me to choose font styles. Kris is another artist we frequently work with and is a great guy that I have known for many years. Kris is one of the fastest artists I have ever known and is able to make visual magic in a time frame that consistently boggles my brain.

Son Duong is the character and creature artist. Son is my neighbor (literally living a couple houses away from me) and our daughters have been great friends growing up, which is how we met. Son is a very talented artist and illustrator, and actually made the Thing 12 Games logo for us, when we first created the company. I’ve been wanting to work with him for quite some time…but the projects have never been a really good fit until now. I love his raw style. He physically paints the images in the game, using watercolor, then does some post-processing in Photoshop. This is a rare thing to see, and I’m super happy to bring his unique style to the board gaming audience. You can see more of Son’s work at his website or follow him on Instagram.

TPIH: Lovely team! Props to the entire artist team for their work on this project. As I said earlier, the cover art is what first drew me in to this project. And I looooove the card frames! Particularly how they work with the artifact building mechanic – quite lovely design, both in the art and the game play. The character and creature art is delicious – fits beautifully with the theme.

Were there any particular design challenges you faced with The Seals of Cthulhu?

Sean: The name. Oy vey. While the Lovecraft mythos is available for use, “Arkham” as a word generally isn’t (as it can be easily confused with Fantasy Flight’s games and Warner Brother’s IP). We went through many name changes, looking for one wouldn’t cause legal problems but would also be interesting and thematically appropriate.

TPIH: Ah, no kidding! It’s hard enough to get a unique name with anything these days, let alone within a well loved and prolific universe such as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. What were some of the names that didn’t make the cut?

Sean: As you’ve seen (above), Battle for Arkham was the first title we had. I loved the energy and visceral punch that the title carried…but after talking with our legal counsel we were advised to avoid “Arkham” because of the Warner Brothers and Fantasy Flight connections. We went back and forth with lots of things, but I really like where we ended up because the concept of opening seals to unleash power is actually more thematic to what you’re doing in the game (each card being sealed closed until it is unlocked through the bidding of the player’s influencers). So sometimes setbacks can turn into better opportunities. 🙂

TPIH: Definitely! I really like the name you landed on. It’s wonderful when what seems like a setback actually pushes you on the path home.

Sean: I generally try to take that approach to things in life. Failures, set backs, and things that go wrong…when approached in the right way, can be used to help put you on a better, stronger path. “Fail fast” is a term in game design, and it is one I embrace. The quicker I can fail, the quicker I can rebuild from that failure learning from it and making it better. Then if I fail with that? GREAT! I can learn more, adjust and change, and keep going.

TPIH: What is your favorite thing about this game? Was there an element of the game or a moment during the design that made you say, “Yep, this game is happening”?

Sean: My favorite thing about the game has been seeing people get surprised at the depth of game play all within the short number of cards you have available for use in each game…and that “okay, one more game” feeling you get when you lose, as you see where things went wrong for you.

I knew the game was “happening” with that playtest, once I fixed the game. “Is it fun” is a critical question for me, as a publisher, because if the fun isn’t there I won’t bother. We have so many other games we’re working on, that I’m not going to bother looking hard to find the fun in something if it’s not there in the beginning.

It’s been kind of a rollercoaster, when I look back at what the original game was and where it is now…which is also part of the fun of the process. Watching your creation take shape and getting input from others to help mold it into something much greater, then watching people respond positively to it as they play against each other. 🙂

TPIH: Ah, warm fuzzy feelings! I think anyone who has ever created or developed something can relate to that feeling of joy as your idea begins to take shape and then, finally, bring joy to other people.

Sean: Almost no one gets rich making board games. It is absolutely a drive of passion. When players send us pics or stories about the fun they’ve had…when we see pics posted on-line with smiles and grins…when you see people engaged in the rules and discussing various strategies…that is the fuel that keeps us going.

There’s a message to your audience. If you have fun playing a game, share those pics and stories with the publishers (they will usually send them to the creative team as well). Like us, they LOVE getting that kind of thing.

TPIH: What can we look forward to with the launch of the Kickstarter for The Seals of Cthulhu? Any add-ons or stretch goals we’re working toward?

Sean: We have many stretch goals and add-ons planned. All of which are based on how our funding proceeds (sorry…no spoilers). But, and this is a total tease, we have something planned that…if we reach the goal…will be a VERY interesting surprise for our backers. It is something I have never seen any other game do…so I really hope we hit the goal.

TPIH: A tease, indeed! I look forward to the unveiling of that surprise!

Any final words for my readers before they head over to check out the Kickstarter campaign for The Seals of Cthulhu?

Sean: We are REALLY excited to bring this game to people, and have some awesome upgrades in both what you get and the quality of what you get. We strive to keep our prices very reasonable…so each backer is incredibly important to us.

Recently, a backer had this to say about us: “this is my 3rd KS from the team and they have been great in all three”. Keeping backers informed, following through on promises, and delivering a fun experience that has been well-tested are just some of the ways that we earn the trust of our supporters…and that was great to see people responding well to it. They invest in us, both in dollars and in trust, so we work hard to show our appreciation and respect of both.

TPIH: And that’s a wrap, folks! Now go over and take a look at the Kickstarter campaign for The Seals of Cthulhu! If you’re in the Seattle/Bothell, WA area, check out the launch party event happening this afternoon (5/22/2018)!

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