Havok & Hijinks – Don’t slay a dragon… BE one!

I’m really excited about this week’s interview. About a year ago I had the pleasure of meeting the team at Epic Slant Press, and not only did I get a chance to try their incredibly fun card game, but I learned a lot about the business of game design, Kickstarter, and even leadership. I was so impressed with the team I backed the project that night, and later when I found out about their other projects I had to share them with the rest of you.

Recently, their team leader, Adam “Ferrel” Trzonkowski, took a few moments to talk with me about all of these things including Havok & Hijinks

Twix the Magnificent

David : Hello Adam thanks for taking the time to meet with me today.

Adam: It’s my pleasure David, thank you for your interest in me and our project.  I really appreciate it.

David: I want to start by saying I had the pleasure of meeting you, and your team at Epic Slant Press, during last year’s DragonCon in Atlanta Georgia. You told me several things that have stood out to me as interesting, and useful. In fact I’d say I got more from our brief conversation than an entire con’s worth of panels. The first of those being that Epic Slant Press works to be a business run with a positive tone both inside, and out. I didn’t think to ask for details on how you do it, but even in our brief conversation I saw signs of it. Still, I’d like to learn more about this practice?

Adam: You’re right that that is our main drive in everything that we do.  We feel that by sticking to being positive above all else it impacts every aspect of our business for the better.  Positivity begins simply with a good attitude.  We don’t complain, we don’t rant, we don’t speak negatively about business deals, customers, partners, or contractors; it just doesn’t seem to help when you do that.  Instead we try to find a positive light to situations so that even negative situations seem better.  This company goal includes treating our customers with the utmost respect and gratitude for them allowing us to do what we do.  After making sure our customers are happy, my next most important goal is that our staff, volunteers, and contractors are happy, as a staff with negative morale doesn’t produce very well and they don’t enjoy what they do.  As long as everyone inside and outside of the organization is happy, I know that even if something we work on doesn’t work out like we wanted, we gave it our best shot.

David: The second thing you mentioned to me back then was how Epic Slant started as a publisher for books, but you’ve recently been expanding into games. That’s an interesting step, and I’m curious what caused you to move into the field of games?

Adam: For the most part, it was a matter of interest.  We had spent so much time and effort doing the three books that we did that we found ourselves in a lull with no immediate ideas for a new book.  Havok & Hijinks was born out of looking for a specific kind of game that didn’t seem to exist, so we decided to take on the project to bring the idea to life.  We could end up going back to books, making new games, or venturing into something completely new.  It depends on what our staff members want to pursue as a team.

David: I love that attitude. It’s really inspiring as I look into publishing both board games, and RPGs. Speaking of RPGs, in your line of books The Guild Leader’s Companion is the one that jumps out at me the most. What I love about the GLC is the premise. It really seems to give a message that mirrors how you do business. I find that interesting because at first glance I’d assume this book is targeted for guild leaders for games like World of Warcraft. However, it really looks like the lessons in companion aren’t limited to online games.

Adam: You are correct. The GLC was written and marketed to the guild leader audience because I was a credible voice in that field. However, all of the lessons contained in the GLC apply to the way I do business in Epic Slant Press.  Nearly everything in the GLC can be used for various aspects of life, such as managing a company or group.

Guild Leaders Companion

David: If you don’t mind me asking about leadership, both online and off. What would you say the biggest misconception new leaders have going into a leadership position?

Adam: In my mind, the biggest mistake people make going into leadership is not asking themselves first, “Why do I even want to be a leader?”  I think a lot of people have a misguided sense that being a leader is full of all fun and powerful things.  The truth of the matter is, if a leader isn’t investing heavily in making everything better for everyone else, they’re not doing it right.  I don’t think a lot of people getting into the role are ready for that level of commitment.

David: Can non-leaders benefit from the companion? In what ways?

Adam: Absolutely yes.  The main benefit is that they may understand a little better what their leader is going through on a day-to-day basis.  It will help to facilitate conversation between them and their leaders.  Most people don’t understand the level of commitment that is necessary to be a good leader and to keep an organization running smoothly.

David: What inspired you to write the companion?

Adam: I truly felt like I had been doing a good job as a leader, and there just wasn’t a lot of information out there for would-be guild leaders.  I simply wanted to share my story and, truthfully, I just wanted to see if I could write a book.

David: I understand that desire. Speaking of challenging desing goals, when I think back to our conversation we had during DragonCon we met because you had recently started a Kickstarter, which ended up being massively successful, for the cute dragon card game Havok & Hijinks. Would you be willing to share the story of Havok & Hijinks?

Adam: We were at PAX East and my wife and I were walking from one area to another when she suddenly turned to me and said, “I want to play a card game.  With cute dragons.  That has to exist, right?”  We looked around and saw nothing there, then went online and still found nothing.  This sat in the back of my mind for a while after we got home until I pulled up an Excel spreadsheet and came up with some ideas for mechanics.  My wife and our friend Patrick joined me in my office and we sat on the floor, throwing around ideas, writing down the ones we liked and laughing off the ones we didn’t.  Eventually, we had the basics of a game put together and printed out the cards onto stickers, got a couple decks of Bicycle playing cards, and stuck them onto the cards to play with.  From there we went through multiple iterations until Havok & Hijinks was fully formed.

David: I believe theme, or the story of the game, is just as important as inventive and interesting mechanics. I love the story of Havok & Hijinks, but let’s be honest, you’re the expert of the world of cute dragons, and you’d do a much better job of explaining it. How would you describe the setting, and the narrative of the game to a new player?

Adam: The interesting thing about Havok & Hijinks is that it’s born from a far darker RPG setting.  It’s my home grown D&D setting that I’ve been running since I was a teenager.  When we were looking for an interesting and well-established theme that we could control, we thought that my setting was good as long as we put a much brighter veneer on it.  As such, we created a much happier, simpler world of Vallhyn that focuses much more on the lives of young dragons and the shenanigans they get into as they grow up.

David: I love the idea of mischievous young dragons finding their way in the world. It’s a refreshing take on the classical fantasy setting. That said, a great story can only take a game so far. That is to say, a lesson I learned early in game design was that good ideas are easy, but making those ideas live up to their potential is the real challenge. Based on the unique mechanics I think it’s safe to say Havok & Hijinks lives up to the story. Still, I’m curious when you were designing the game what design goals did you set for yourself? What challenges got in the way of those goals? How did you get around them?

Cute Dragon - Havok & Hijinks!

Adam: We focused on four core pillars.  One:  the game had to play in 30 minutes or less.  Two:  the game must be playable by anyone and everyone that was capable of reading (or with the assistance of an adult).  Three:  the game had to be approachable by non-gamers. Four: it had to be sickeningly cute!  With that in mind, any mechanic or design decision that violated any of those rules was removed.  We focused heavily on how we wanted the game to be, not exactly how it would play.  We got lucky and eventually the game morphed into something that fit those rules, after early incarnations that lasted over and hour and weren’t fun at all.  Once it fit within the confines of our pillars, we continued to morph it from there to get it just right.

David: Those are great design objectives, and not unlike my own. I suspect that’s partly what really appeals to me about Havok & Hijinks. What’s next for Epic Slant Press? I’d love to hear about any future games, or books you’re working on.

Adam: Currently, we are in very, very, very early stages of considering a Havok & Hijinks expansion.  We’re also assisting another company in developing the mechanics for a game based on their intellectual property.  Beyond that, we’re going to try to spread the word on Havok & Hijinks for a while to increase adoption of cute dragons.

David: On a more personal note, I suspect you get asked this a lot, but I’m curious. Where does the nickname “Ferrel” come from, and what’s the story behind it?

Adam: A very long time ago, when EverQuest was new and it had just released its first expansion, my friends and I started new characters to play together.  I made a high elf cleric and was randomly trying to decide on what to name it.  Ultimately I came up with Fer’El.  I seem to remember not being allowed to use apostrophes at the time, so I went with Ferrel as spelled today.  I ended up playing that character for years and adopted it as my online monicker.  At this point, I answer to it as much as I do my own name and probably more people know me as Ferrel than Adam.

David: I like that Havok & Hijinks is a team effort. To date all of my games have been solo projects, in that I’ve designed them from the ground up on my own, and I suspect many games share a similar origin as my own. For those of us who haven’t designed on a team can you share what that experience was like? What would you say is the trickiest part of designing a game as part of a team?

Adam: In general I prefer to design and/or work with a team.  It’s just in my nature.  By having a team, we’re able to throw a lot of ideas out there and really determine what we feel is best.  This gets difficult when one team member is extremely attached to an idea that you as a leader don’t necessarily agree with.  It can be a sticky situation to tell someone that you’re not going to use their idea.  However, as long as everyone understands how decisions are made and the team members understand the vision of the project, things should work out fine.  It also helps that my team is a close-knit group of friends who have the ability to work things out maturely and honestly without letting conflicts affect our relationships.

David: One thing I see that kills a creative project faster than anything is conflicting visions. You said maturity and friendship can help with that. Do you know of other ways to help a team project be a success?

Adam: In the case of Havok & Hijinks, we set up the four core pillars before anything else.  We treat them as if they’re their own entity and have agreed upon them as a team in advance.  Any vision or idea that doesn’t match them is, by our rules, discarded.  On the other side of things, final say for this project rests on me as the producer.  Sometimes you have to make a judgment call and go with that, and everyone on my team understands and accepts that.  Through hard work, many hours together, and friendship, my team trusts me to make the best decision possible.

David: That’s really incredible. It really inspires me to try and work on a team project sometime soon.

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