Cardboarding with Carla: ROBOT RISE! Interview

Today, Carla chats with a game designer and publisher, Craig Froehle, and discuss the current ROBOT RISE! Kickstarter campaign.


Carla: Hello, Craig! Welcome to Cardboarding with Carla and thanks for being on this interview! Could we start off with you telling us a bit about yourself?

Craig: Hey, Carla, thanks for inviting me. After testing Stellar Leap at Origins, it’s always fun to chat with you. I’m a husband and dad first — my daughter, Sam, and my son, Colin, are a big reason we got into game design as a family. Career-wise, I started as an engineer and then a dot-com startup guy, but I’ve been a business professor at the University of Cincinnati for over 15 years now.

Is ROBOT RISE! your first design?

First game design? No. I’ve been designing games since I was in my teens. And my first commercial game is Emergency!, an educational simulation game we sell to institutions. But ROBOT RISE! is our first consumer game.

Can you tell us more about ROBOT RISE!?

Sure. ROBOT RISE! is a card-based game for 2-6 players, ages 8+. It’s themed around mad scientists (the players) battling each other for domination using giant robots, clever gadgets, various defenses, and even forming temporary alliances with each other. It takes 15-30 minutes to play and we designed it to be very fast with almost no downtime between turns. It’s meant to be a quick, casual game.

What really makes ROBOT RISE! stand out against other board games?

Interesting question! One of the most unique elements of ROBOT RISE! is the eponymous giant robots that you create by combining one each of head, body, and legs cards. The 45 robot-part cards in the game allow you to create over 3,000 different unique robots. We also think ROBOT RISE! is different from most games out there because of the combination of its deeply themed cards and delightful art, the fact that it’s designed for adults but accessible to kids as young as 8 or so, and it is unapologetically take-that. We keep asking people who play it if it reminds them of any games and they routinely fail to come up with any (which we take as a good sign).

Check out this related TIGR story

Robot Rise!: Preview
Behind every great robot take over of humanity is an evil scientist. And, today, that's no Robot Rise! is a two- to six-player card game by Happy Harpy Games... read more...

I agree that it’s a good sign! It’s not often that I can say that a game doesn’t remind me of other games, but when I can, I definitely remember it.

Your website says that it took about 15 months to develop ROBOT RISE!; could you give some insight on how the game developed over that period of time?

Playtesting ROBOT RISE!

My family and I have been designing games for years, but just for ourselves to play. We first had the core idea for ROBOT RISE! in late 2015. Initially, it was motivated by those old flip books where you could combine, say, the head of a farmer with the body of a clown and the legs of a doctor. We turned that into robots and figured mad scientists making these robots to fight each other was a pretty fitting theme. Over the next several months, we playtested the heck out of it until we thought the rules were pretty stable. Then, we hired an artist to start working on the artwork. Meanwhile, we continued to playtest…and playtest…and ideas continued to emerge to improve the game. One thing we did objectively wrong was to get our artist, Aaron, involved too early. Rookie mistake. That said, he’s been a trooper in terms of adjusting to a few unexpected rounds of adjustments. Eventually, in early 2017, we felt that our playtesting iteration wasn’t producing any additional feedback and we set the rules pretty much in stone. We’ve clarified and tweaked a couple of minor things since then, but the game has been 99+% complete for several months now. Since then, we’ve just been trying to get people to play it, because when they play it, they usually really enjoy it.

Your whole family is part of your team and that’s awesome! How does that work?

Sam and Colin of Happy Harpy Games

We started Happy Harpy Games as a family project, so we make sure that everyone knows what’s going on, even if not everybody is directly involved in everything. For example, Sam and Colin do a lot with ideation, initial design, and giving the kids’ perspective on early concepts (“Dad, no, that’s weird.” is a statement I get a lot). Lori’s preferences for games are pretty different than the rest of ours, so she is often the voice warning us we’re going to far down the wrong path. And I do most of the other stuff, such as updating the website, crafting prototypes, and, uh, doing interviews… 🙂

What do you feel was the most important thing you learned during playtesting with Robot Rise? What changed the most in Robot Rise due to playtesting?

Probably the biggest change to the game was how we handled player elimination. Early on, it was pretty easy to be eliminated quickly, which led to too much downtime and dissatisfaction…the things that tend to give elimination a bad rap, especially in slower-moving, highly strategic games. Based on playtesting feedback, we evaluated several options for improving this aspect and arrived at a hybrid approach involving secret lairs (in the game, each player starts with three secret lairs and exits the game when their third lair is destroyed). It not only improved elimination by making most player exits happen right near the end of the game, but it also softened the tone (from “killing” your opponents to merely destroying their secret bases), which we thought was appropriate given that we’re trying to create games that adults can play with kids if they want to.

Your solution seems to be quite the win-win!
Do you have any interesting stories to share about designing ROBOT RISE!?

We had originally planned to release a 72-card core game and a 36-card expansion set (we later decided to just roll the two into one big game, which is what is currently on Kickstarter). When we were testing the first version of expansion cards, one of the ones I was hoping might work out was the card called “Malware.” Malware is a defense card — it protects against Giant Robot attacks only — but it’s fun because it sends the Giant Robot back to attack its owner. This mechanism isn’t very common in games, so I was unsure how it would be received. At the first playtest with these cards, someone got attacked by a Giant Robot and used a Malware defense. Everyone thought it was fun and interesting, and the defender was pretty smug about it. I was busily jotting down the reactions in my notebook when the original attacker (the player who had sent the Giant Robot in the first place) plopped down their own Malware card and the whole table went nuts. There was shouting and laughter and the expression on the first defender’s face was absolutely priceless. That’s when I knew that card had to stay in the game.

At Origins, you had a booth and were dressed like a Mad Scientist! It was really awesome. Have you done anything else interesting from a marketing standpoint?

Craig at Origins promoting ROBOT RISE!

I am a terrible marketer. My careers have been overtly technical — mechanical engineer and academic researcher — so marketing and promotion are not things that come naturally to me. Dressing up in the mad scientist garb was something I still find kind of hard to believe I did…and that I’ll be doing again at our event tables at Gen Con (Hall C, Yellow 11-12). Our next game, Picky Eater, is food-themed, so I’m really hoping I don’t find myself needing to dress up like a chef next year. 🙂 That said, one thing that helps promote ROBOT RISE! that I’m fairly proud of is the limited-edition promo cards that we’re giving away at Gen Con. These are fully playable, unique cards that will not be part of the production game, and the only way to get them is to see me or play ROBOT RISE! at a con. They add a unique zing to the game and are pretty exclusive given the small quantity we printed up.

Check out this related TIGR story

Origins 2017 Recap
I’ve just gotten back from my first Origins and it has definitely been my favorite convention For those who don’t know, Origins is held in Columbus, Ohio and this year was scheduled Games [caption id="attachment_9712" align="alignright" width="300"]... read more...

That sounds like an excellent way to promote your game! I’m sure that everyone who gets your promo card will be super excited to go back ROBOT RISE! as soon as they can.  Was Origins the first time you ran a booth at that large of a convention? Do you have anything you wish you had done differently? Anything you learned while manning the booth?

Yes, Origins was the first complete soup-to-nuts booth experience for me. I’ve helped staff booths at other kinds of conventions before, but I had never had to design, set up, staff, and run one on my own. Figuring out what kinds of tables and layout and look-and-feel we wanted was a challenge…there’s so much you can do with even just 100 square feet! I did a lot of prep work, such as studying photos of effective booths from previous cons, to try and avoid easy mistakes, but I still made several. For one, even though I was helped a lot by my sister (thanks, sis!) and some awesome friends from the Cincinnati design community, I was in the booth by myself a lot of the time. That’s not good, especially when there are two (or three) groups wanting to learn about the game at the same time. Next year, I’ll be better prepared on that front. But all told, I think it went pretty well. We were able to show ROBOT RISE! to a lot of people — even more than at our event tables — and the exposure was helpful.

What do you think was the most important thing you did to prepare for your Kickstarter campaign?

That’s hard to say, as we’re still in the middle of the Kickstarter campaign, but a couple things stand out. One is building up our company’s social media profile much more significantly prior to starting the campaign. Another was generating a lot of visual assets (e.g., art and graphics) that we could use during construction of the campaign page. Those both took (and continue to take) tons of time, but I can’t imagine attempting a Kickstarter campaign without them. But I don’t see the social media element as a “cost”…it’s much more an investment. One thing that I’ve come to realize even more by seeing things from the business and design side of board gaming is that our community is damned amazing in so many ways. Unlike other industries, where competitors truly compete, in ours, competitors are literally helping each other because we all have a shared goal: getting to play awesome new games. So I’m really thankful for all the advice and guidance that many, SO many, have offered through their blogs, tweets, panels, and so on…it’s fantastic! So maybe that’s the most important thing I did to prepare for our Kickstarter: read lots and lots of advice and benefit from the experiences of those who had gone before.

Do you have any advice for people looking to build up their company’s social media profile?

I only know what works for me: Be authentic and engage with people as people, not random wallets wandering around. While part of your job is to tell people about your games, most of your job is to make the whole community better. Don’t be afraid to promote other people, good products, and good ideas…that’s how people come to value what you have to contribute.

I couldn’t agree more with that! Do you have anyone that you’d like to give a shoutout to that helped you out? Feel free to list more than one, if you’d like.

Oh, geez, the list of people to whom I’m indebted would fill a page. Jamey Stegmaier and James Mathe post tons of great insights on their websites. Tony Miller, Ian Zang, and Gil Hova’s podcast, “Breaking Into Boardgames,” is a must-listen that I always enjoy and learn a lot from. Kim Brebach of Good Games routinely shares shining pearls of wisdom on Facebook. And you… you’re very forthcoming with what it’s like to be a new designer and self-publisher. This list could get embarrassingly long, so I’ll stop there. But suffice to say that I could literally spend every waking minute reading great advice in various forms…so many people in our community are just so generous that way.

I’m glad I could help! It’s really great to be listed among such awesome people!  Any advice that you wish you had at the beginning of this project?

As I mentioned, we engaged our artist too early, but that was advice I ran across eventually. For the Kickstarter, however, I think I wish I had had better guidance as to how large our “audience” should be in order to support a campaign of a particular size. There’s not a lot of help out there for brand new publishers to estimate, for example, how many followers on Twitter they need or how large their mailing list should be prior to flipping the switch on a Kickstarter campaign with such-and-such funding goal. Having some data about that would’ve been, and probably would still be, a hugely useful thing.

Do you have any favorite quotes about ROBOT RISE!?

Two stand out. At Origins this year, there was this group of five or so 20-something friends who played ROBOT RISE! at one of our events. They had an absolute blast. The trash-talking was over-the-top. There was so much laughter and (friendly) shouting that people actually started coming over to see what was going on. At the end of the game, one of the players said “Oh my god…I love this game!” That was pretty gratifying. They came back to play two more times during the convention.

The other one was a boy of 9 or 10 who first played ROBOT RISE! at Acadecon, a small con in Dayton, Ohio last year. He kept coming back to play…ended up playing several games over four sessions across three days. He then found us at another con early this year and played a few times there. Then, at Origins, he came up and asked when he could play again. I was already delighted by his enthusiasm, but then his mom said, “He’s made me promise multiple times to back it when it goes up on Kickstarter.” I wish he ran our marketing.

Anything else you’d like to add?

As with any first-time publisher, our biggest challenge is getting on the radar of people, so it would be excellent if your readers could go check out the ROBOT RISE! campaign and maybe consider becoming a backer. Even if they just give the game as a gift, every backer matters and helps us get to where we can actually turn it from a concept into a real product.

And thanks again for your invitation. These have been great questions. And I’m looking forward to seeing you again at Gen Con!

Thanks again to Craig for being on Cardboarding with Carla! ROBOT RISE! will be on Kickstarter until August 31st, so make sure to check it out before then! 

One thought on “Cardboarding with Carla: ROBOT RISE! Interview”

  1. Great interview! I met Craig and played ROBOT RISE! at GenCon 50. He was great to talk to, and the game certainly is fun.

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