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This month’s game designer interview is with game designer Sean Fenemore of State of Mind Games.

In the beginning…

SRGA: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in gaming.

Sean: I’m a middle-aged guy living in Canberra with my wife, 2 kids and dog. I’ve had a number of jobs since I left school. I fell into game design in 2014 after being made redunant from the public service. At the time I was in a top 10 clan for an app game. Then the devs made changes that broke the game and refused to admit it for months.

Eventually the top clans all left and our clan fell apart. I was grumping around the house when my wife said to either go and learn how to make my own games or to stop whinging about it. I discovered that the AIE was at the other end of my street. So I enrolled there and started studying game design. I graduated in 2017 with a graduate diploma. Before that I’d played games on and off but none of the modern hits. I still haven’t played Catan or Ticket to Ride!

The games

SRGA: Tell us about the game you have developed. (Genre, setting etc)

Sean: So far I’ve had 4 game releases:

  • The Stars Align, published by Breaking Games
  • Panakizhi, a collection of 3 different games in the one set. I self-published via KickStarter with Khairul Hamdan of Garage Games Australia.

All these games are 2 player abstract strategy games. Although Breaking Games did theme our original unthemed prototype as stars that come out at night. It begins twinkling while you look for a shooting star. The stars flip from one player colour to another while you try to make a line of all your colour. At which point you remove those stars from the board.

Panakizhi has 3 unthemed games. They are loosely tied together around the idea of the pieces being coins in a money bag (a Panakizhi). Scholars are gifted these by rulers, and the games are what the scholars sometimes played with them.

The prototype furthest along is “Of Stone & Wood”. This is again a quick 2-player abstract that I’ve themed to fit into a fantasy setting. I’m currently trying to find a publisher for it. I’m also working on my first game that I’ve designed from theme first. It’s a quick 2-player simultaneous action card fighting game called “Dealing Blows”. I hope it is selected for the Pax Collaboratory later this year. I’d like to get some player feedback to gauge its popularity.

SRGA: What motivated you to start creating your own game?

Sean: Originally it was to keep my mind active after being made redundant. Get me out of the house. Then our first prototype for a digital game turned into a board game, and we started to get more involved. Over time I’ve come to accept that I prefer working on tabletop games. So far all the people I’ve interacted with online in this area have been way more pleasant than a lot of the digital fanboys, which is an added bonus.

“[I’m most surprised by] how hard it is to get any traction overseas, or to even pitch to an overseas publisher. Despite all the technology so many of them only deal in face to face pitches.”

The Australian gaming industry

SRGA: What has surprised you most about your experiences creating / producing a game in Australia?

Sean: How hard it is to get any traction overseas, or to even pitch to an overseas publisher. Despite all the technology so many of them only deal in face to face pitches. It is slowly starting to change whereby some will take a sell sheet or tabletop simulator pitch/demo. But they are few and far between, and not with the bigger players yet.

However as a positive, I’m surprised at how helpful all the other designers are. They often give their time and knowledge for no return. And the players at conventions who willing – and sometimes excited – to try a new game. They know it’s probably broken, but they can help shape it.

Writing process

SRGA: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you meticulously plan every detail, or spontaneously go with the flow when creating your game?

Sean: A bit of both? I think because I have mainly done 2 player games I have been able to think through what would/should/could happen and design for it. But then when you get a game in front of people, they never do what you thought they would. In those cases I go by a combination of gut feel and logic to try and keep the game heading the way I want it to. So I’d say I’m a plotter initially that is also a pantser when the need arises.

SRGA: What is important to you as a player, and how have you incorporated aspects of that into your own game?

Key game features

Sean: I really struggle with heavy games and long games. I may admire a deep Euro or a game like Twilight Imperium in passing. But that’s it. I’m looking for shorter – max of 20 mins but up to 30 mins. Games that provide strategy and fun. Games that also have components that let me do something with my hands while I’m waiting for my turn. Probably because of this the games I’ve designed so far have been fairly short. “The Stars Align” is a 2-player abstract that takes about 20 mins to play but has quick turns. You also are planning your next turn and playing with your pieces but it usually has very little down time.

I designed “Panakizhi” with Khairul Hamdan. It is a collection of 3 2-player abstract strategy games. Each take 5-10 minutes to play (at least the way I play). Downtime is low so I don’t usually notice that I need anything to do with my hands.

My current game is another 2-player game that takes about 10 minutes to play. But it has simultaneous actions so there is almost no downtime at all. I’m trying to push myself into new design spaces (for me) like designing for more players and designing with a theme. But I can’t see myself intentionally designing a longer game. If I can get the game to the good, tense bits quickly and have players resolve it satisfactorily in a short time, then I’m happy. Then they will probably decide they have time for another game.

The future

SRGA: What do you think will change about the Australian hobby gaming industry over the next 5 or 10 years?

Sean: Print on demand could be interesting with more people owning pretty good quality 3d printers at home. Everyone complains about the cost of shipping to Australia (quite rightly). But if they can back a game & print all the minis at home it could revolutionise stuff. Because if designers no longer need to source manufacturers, and if shipping is lower then more people may back the game even if they never print the minis and just play with tokens from other games.

Games with a solo play mode are becoming in-demand. With smaller households (in the number of people and actual size of the dwelling) smaller solo games or 2-player only games may take off along with mint tin games.

Quick questions

SRGA: Finally, some fun questions to finish off (give quick answers please!):
SRGA: If a movie was made of your life what genre would it be, and who would play you?  

Sean: According to my daughter the genre would be “Boring”. No one will play me because no one wants to be associated with it. If I had to choose it would be some sort of weird comedy along the lines of Dumb & Dumber. I’d love Jerry Lewis to play me if he was still alive. If it has to be a modern living actor then to keep them in character with myself it would be some Neville Nobody.

SRGA: If you could bring back any fashion trend throughout history, what would it be?  

Sean: Skinny ties. I don’t wear a tie anymore. But they look so stupid I’d like to see all the guys schlepping to work with a ridiculous tie on.

SRGA: What personal trait has got you in the most trouble?

Sean: Thinking fast but talking faster 🙁 

Wrap up

SRGA: Thank you for your time, and for being part of the Australian role playing community. If readers what to find out more about your game, or purchase copies, what is the best way for them to do that ?

Sean: The Stars Align is available online from most stores or direct from Breaking Games in the US.

Those interested in Panakizhi can contact me at stateofmindgames@gmail.com or Khairul via Garage Games to see if either of us have any copies left. It’s a limited, handmade edition.

The Reliquary zine is set in the world of Relics: A Game of Angels by Steve Dee. To get copies, contact me on the email above or Steve Dee via tinstargames@gmail.com.

The 3 Panakizhi games are included in the Ancient World Game System by Playford Games, which will hit KickStarter soon. We have also included a variant of each game that will play on a 6×6 grid board instead of the usual 5×5 grid. If you love abstract strategy games check it out – the kit will come with about 18 games suitable for a range of player counts. 

You can read other SRGA Game Designer interviews here:

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