Calliope Games collaborates with best in field for new project

Redmond-based gaming company Calliope Games recruited some of the most popular designers in the industry for its newest project, the Titan Series.

Redmond-based gaming company Calliope Games recruited some of the most popular designers in the industry for its newest project, the Titan Series.

The fate of the series, however, depends on the success of its current Kickstarter campaign, started by Calliope Games president and co-founder Ray Wehrs. The campaign, which has a goal of $135,000, is scheduled to end May 30.

As of April 22, the Kickstarter campaign had 789 backers and had raised $101,477 — 75 percent of the goal.

If funded, nine games will be delivered over the course of three years. Each year, three new games by three different designers will be released.

The list of 14 designers includes names like Richard Garfield, creator of games like Magic: The Gathering and King of Tokyo. The goal, said Wehrs, is to grow the market.

“These guys are typically building games for the core hobby gamers … (and) they’re great games, but they’re also games that most people that are in the general populace are not going to play,” he said. “With the Titan Series we came to them and said, ‘We don’t want you to do what you typically do, we want you to design a game for everybody else.’”

Calliope is what Wehrs described as a gateway game company. Gateway games are games that a hobby gamer (Wehrs refers to them as alphagamers) can use to introduce a non-gamer to board games. Simply put, they’re games that players at all levels of interest and skill can enjoy. Wehrs described Calliope as a family-owned, family-run business making games for families.

“The general public doesn’t know about board games. When they think of games, they think about Monopoly, Scrabble, Jenga — titles that have been around forever,” he said. “And a lot of people are not interested in those style games and they don’t even know about the true experience of the current gaming market — what it actually has to offer.”

Calliope Games was founded in 2009 by designer Jordan Weisman, Dawne Weisman and Wehrs after the success of WizKids, a New Jersey-based game company founded by Jordan. Wehrs had done sales for WizKids on the side while running an art gallery in Chicago.

“I had no experience in the gaming industry, I didn’t even know the gaming industry existed,” Wehrs said. “During that time at WizKids, one of the things that I loved is that we would get mail and emails from parents and kids alike talking about the experiences that they would have and things that they learned and how they were able to overcome challenges like autism.”

When WizKids was sold, it was these experiences that Wehrs took with him to Calliope. They went on to release multiple games, including Got ‘Em!, Ugh! and Double Double Dominoes. They also acquired the license for a previously released game, Tsuro, and released it under Calliope ownership.

“Our focus is on getting people to unplug and spend a half hour to an hour with people that you love and enjoy their company,” Wehrs said. “And today, we all get so busy that we don’t always have the opportunity to set the time aside to make that happen.”

The goals of Calliope’s games, especially in the Titan Series, are pretty simple, according to Wehrs.

The games must be playable by everyone: mom, dad and the kids, too. This means the game is neither too hard nor too simple, and can accommodate at least two to six players. This family-friendliness is a company standard, said Wehrs.

“We didn’t want to be building games that mom and dad wanted to play but had to throw in order for the children to compete,” he said. “The games are actually made for and targeted toward adults, but youngsters as young as 8 can play and compete and I think that is what makes our games very unique.”

Additionally, the games have to be brief. Although many boxes suggest 60 minutes per game, Wehrs said, most run around 30 minutes.

Designer Zach Weisman said one of his goals is to make good games simpler and more expedient.

“I prefer designing for the more casual player. Growing up, I was definitely more of an alphagamer so I understand that kind of want for more depth in games and obscene strategy,” he said. “But then I realized I don’t ever want to spend more than an hour or two playing a game — I just don’t have that time.”

Weisman is working on a game for the first flight of Calliope releases. He also created Got ‘Em! for Calliope. His father, popular designer and Calliope co-founder Jordan Weisman, is assisting with the game, as well.

Weisman said around the same time he was invited to design for the project, he was visiting the Essen board game festival in Germany, searching for inspiration. He said the game took about nine months to get to its current form.

“I was just sort of thinking of new and fun mechanics to use to mix together and make this game and I think it all came together kind of nicely,” he said.

He playtested the prototype of his game for the Titan Series with Wehrs and others at International Tabletop Day on April 11 at Uncle’s Games in Bellevue. At the event, Calliope Games offered a table to play their prototypes with the designer and president, as well as a life-size version of one of their most board games, Tsuro.

In the prototype of his game, Calliope employees and Tabletop Day attendees battled to build the best menus, buying the necessary ingredient cards and even buying the shops that sold them to thwart their competitors.

Every game goes through a constant play-and-revise cycle. The designer tweaks, alters and overhauls, and turns it over to playtesters to play through and offer feedback. The designers may also play through the game with Wehrs to discuss what’s working. The designer then receives the game, and all of it’s new compliments and criticisms, and the cycle begins again.

Paul Peterson, best known for Guillotine and Smash Up, is also a designer for the first flight of games. His track record, he said, is what made Wehrs want to hire him for this project.

“(Wehrs) is like, ‘You! I want you as one of these people.’ Because if you say ‘Guillotine’ or ‘Smash Up’ to a tabletop gamer they’re going to say, ‘Yes, I know those games. I want a game by that guy,’” he said.

Previously, Peterson has worked for Wizards of the Coast, a company best known for Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, and online game companies like PopCap and Zynga.

His current game is a dice game, with a tentative “Running of the Bulls” theme. He first came up with the game idea in 2011, but has been continually improving it since then. In it’s current form, with the bulls theme, he said he’s played it around 40 times.

“It is a casual board game,” Peterson said. “The way I describe it is it’s like a pachinko machine using dice.”

Many of the games for the Titan Series are in prototype stage, some farther along than others. Weisman’s, for example, is being polished at this stage — the art and the theme are up in the air, but the mechanics are pretty much decided on. All of the first flight games (from Peterson, Weisman and Garfield) are in the prototype stages.

Designer James Ernest is one of the “stretch goal” designers (his game will be released if the Kickstarter beats its initial funding goal). Ernest owns a Seattle-based games company and has also worked for a handful of other designers, including Wizards of the Coast.

He said he was invited to work on the project as a designer and as the main video producer for the Kickstarter campaign when Wehrs called him last New Year’s Day to bounce the idea off of him.

“I would say that Ray has got a really crazy idea,” he said. “Things that have looked similar have failed in the past.”

While he said he’s confident in the project, he understands the risk involved for backers to support the Kickstarter campaign.

“Every one of these designers has made a bad game in his life so it takes a lot of trust for the backers to say, ‘I believe Ray will only buy a good game from this person’ or ‘I believe this person will only make a good game for this project,’” he said. “I would say the only reason I’m doing this is because of what a challenge it is — it’s a dangerous proposition. But I really want to knock it out of the park.”

Holly Thorpe is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.