New designer spotlight: Wouter Buckens

Today, Fairway chats with Wouter Buckens, designer of Plunder!, about his game, Belgium and Kickstarter. Plunder! is currently live on Kickstarter.

Fairway (Mike): Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Wouter: Right, so let’s start with the basics – I’m Wouter, 23 years old, software engineer by day and game designer by night. My first foray into game design started a little over 2 years ago, although there’s not much left of those first attempts. I’ve been working on Plunder! for a year and a half now.

Apart from game design I’m also a programmer, and in my spare time I like to work on building my own video games as well, but that’s a story for another Kickstarter… Maybe. Right now my focus is 100% on Plunder!.

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Plunder!: Preview
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You have a Kickstarter campaign going right now for Plunder! What’s the elevator pitch?

Plunder! is a quick, dynamic, ‘take that’ game, with a lot of conflict and a touch of strategy. It plays 3 to 5 players and a game takes about twenty minutes. In the game you’re a pirate captain, trying to steal the other pirates’ treasures and undermine their plans. You play action cards, and react to your opponent’s cards using reaction cards that let you alter or sabotage their action. Plunder! is easy to learn and it plays quickly, it’s a load of fun and it’s great as a lighter game or a ‘filler’.

You’re from Belgium. What’s the board game community like there?

Board games aren’t very prominent, but if you look closer they’re everywhere! For the small country that Belgium is, I feel like we actually have a lot of board game groups and events. And they all know each other! The whole Dutch speaking board game community is connected through groups on social media. So one day I’ll be showing Plunder! in one place, and the next day I get invited to demo it at a game club on the other side of the country. It’s a really great community, and it gives me a fantastic foundation for launching a Kickstarter.

Some folks have found that being outside the United States for Kickstarter is a barrier. Have you found that to be the case?

Absolutely. A big one is the exchange rate between the euro and the US dollar. Plunder! is priced at €24 per copy, which is a decent price for a game like it. But in the US that turns into a price tag of $28, which is just a tad higher than what people will easily spend on a small game like Plunder!. And that definitely has more impact on my funding levels than I anticipated. Right now I’m actually looking into offering group pledges at a lower cost per game, to compensate for that impact a bit.

But for me as a creator, the biggest struggle is definitely the time difference. Belgium is between 5 and 8 hours ahead of the US, where a large portion of the KS crowd is, so by the time they get around to checking out my campaign and engaging in the comments and on social media, it’s past midnight for me. So I’m probably going to lose some sleep during the campaign.

Besides coming to yours truly for a preview, what else have you done to prepare for your Kickstarter?

I’ve been building up some presence on social media for the past six months, and collecting an email list so I could notify everyone the moment I hit launch on the KS. This gave me a bunch of day-one backers, and a lot of people who are now helping me share and talk about the campaign.

Apart from that I’ve lined up several demos throughout the duration of the campaign, and I’ve got an article about Plunder! coming out in a regional magazine in a few days.

I could have definitely done more to prepare, though. I did bring a small audience, but not quite enough for the goal that I set. That’s something I’ll be paying more attention to for a next Kickstarter. For the Plunder! campaign now, I’m really counting on myself and my backers, to share the campaign and get the word out as much as we can. But so far, in the first 24 hours of the campaign, Plunder! has raised over €1300. So while it’s not a ‘funded at day 1’ campaign, I do think it’s been a great start.

The art on the cards is really interesting.  It’s decidedly not a dark and grimy pirate aesthetic. What was the inspiration for that?

I think that’s mostly because I don’t really see pirates as dark and grimy. One of my favourite ‘classic’ books is Treasure Island. It does get pretty dark at times, but the story is really about going on an exciting adventure, exploring a mysterious island, to find this fantastic treasure…

Image courtesty of the Plunder! Kickstarter page

It’s that sense of wonder and adventure, that I think makes pirates such a magnificent theme that never really goes out of style. So I want the game art to reflect that as well. When looking for an artist for the game, I checked out several artists who did pirate-themed work, but like you said – that tends to skew darker and grittier. In the end I went with someone who has mostly done fairytale illustrations, like elves and enchanted forests. You can really see that type of charm in some of the cards in Plunder! as well, and I love that. I’m really happy with the work she’s doing for the game.

Lots of people react poorly to Take That mechanics, but it seems to work well in Plunder!  Why do you think Take That gets a bad rep?

That’s something I noticed very early on during playtesting: some people hate direct conflict in their games. But I’ve learned to listen for underlying issues in feedback, and ignore the “It’s a bad game because Take That sucks.”

One reason I hear regularly for disliking Take That, is the player feeling “trapped”. When another player is “bombarding” you and there’s no way out, and you basically just give up. This is one of the things that I want to solve with the crew mechanic in Plunder!. By collecting more crew members into your pirate crew, you can build up defenses against various types of attacks.

The same goes for the reaction cards mechanic, which is actually my favourite part of Plunder! because it ensures that players won’t start to feel disconnected from the game. You have to keep your mind in the game, even when others are playing, because you might profit from what the others do, if you play the right card at the right time.

So those two aspects I think are what sets Plunder! apart from your typical Take That game. But of course it’s still a Take That game at its core, so if you don’t like that you probably won’t enjoy Plunder! very much either.

At what point in your game design process did you say to yourself, “I should Kickstart this?”  Did you ever rethink that decision?

For a long time I actually wasn’t going to do anything with Plunder!. I had this game, and I thought is was fun, and other people thought it was fun, and that was kind of the extent of it. Plunder! was actually the fourth game I completed, I trashed the other three because they weren’t good enough for me, and I didn’t expect much more from this one. But then I got some really positive responses to my Plunder! playtests, so I decided to keep it developing.

It still took a while before I started thinking about getting it published though. I think the moment for me when I realised that Plunder! had potential was when I kept getting questions like “can we play it again” and “can I buy it” cause to me that meant that the game was becoming something special.

What part of Plunder! are you most proud of?

Like I mentioned, I think the reaction cards mechanic is the best part of Plunder! because it keeps all the players active and invested throughout the game. For myself, I guess most of all I’m proud of the whole thing, of the fact that I’ve made a great game and that I’m actually going to publish it.

Watch closely what the other pirates do in their turn, and play reaction cards to defend yourself or to profit from their actions.
Image courtesy of the Plunder! campaign page.

Backers often have insights and make suggestions during the campaign. Has that been your experience? Are you still working on improving the game?

I don’t think I’ll stop working on the game until the moment I hit send on the final ok to the manufacturer. I’m someone who’s never completely satisfied with the state of my projects. I can get to a point where I can say “this is good enough to be published”, but there’s always going to be things I want to change and improve.

You’re an active member of The Game Crafter community. Tell us about that.  And do you think that that’s helped at all with your campaign?

Absolutely! I don’t think I would’ve gotten to this point, if I hadn’t had a lot of help and advice from the TGC community. They’re an awesome bunch! When I have a question and the answer isn’t on Jamey Stegmaier or James Mathe’s blog, I’ll take it to the TGC chat and someone in there is bound to have an answer. It’s really helped me a lot.

Looking at the other Kickstarter campaigns out there, is there any other campaign that made you think, “Wow. That’s cool?”

Of campaigns that are currently running, I don’t really have one that I think sticks out. I’m not really one to just browse Kickstarter, I usually find the games via Twitter or word of mouth.

I do remember a while back there was a campaign for Stellar Armada, which was a tiny little game that consisted of just two cards and cost $1. I haven’t even played it yet, and I don’t think I will anytime soon, but I was just like “Huh, this is nifty. How do they pull off making a whole game for just $1?” and so I instantly backed it.

You’ve backed like fifty games on Kickstarter. What makes you pick the games you do? Are there things that are immediate turn offs in a campaign?

Since I live in Europe, one of the most important things I check first is the cost of shipping. No matter how good a game looks, if I have to pay too much in shipping compared to the game, it’s a dealbreaker for me. I’m not talking $20 shipping on a $60 game here, if the game is worth it I’ll do that. But I’ve seen campaigns for, say, a $20 game, with $15 shipping costs. That’s just too much. Same goes with EU friendly shipping. I’ve been burned by import taxes before, so now I only back campaigns that have the EU friendly shipping badge.

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Other than that, my reason for backing will vary wildly. If it’s a nice theme or if the art looks great, I might back a game just because of that. For instance Tao Long, that game just looked so beautiful, I only quickly skimmed the description before hitting the pledge button. Others have an interesting story, like The Grimm Forest, which combines parts of all sorts of fairy tales into a nice looking resource gathering game. And then there’s games like Plague Inc, which I backed because I’m a big fan of the mobile game and I figured the board game version would be fun too. And of course I always try to help out my fellow crafters at TGC with their Kickstarters.

Is there a game on your bucket list that you haven’t yet played? If so, what is it?

One game I was looking forward to for a while is Terraforming Mars, but just last week I finally got the chance to play it. And it did not disappoint!

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Another game that I’d really love to try is This War Of Mine. I love games with a good story, and the original video game was amazing! I actually backed the Kickstarter for the board game when they started, but then reconsidered when I realised that nobody in my gaming group would be interested in that type of game, since it’s so much heavier and darker than the type of games we usually play. I kind of regret canceling my pledge now though, so I hope to be able to play it at some point in the future, with somebody who did back it.

If you could give one piece of advice to other new Kickstarter creators, what is it?

Read all the Kickstarter blogs by Jamey Stegmaier and James Mathe. Twice. Both of their sites contain a wealth of information on every Kickstarter-related topic imaginable, and you’d be a fool if you didn’t use that information for your own Kickstarter.

I’d like to thank Wouter for taking the time to chat with us today. His campaign for Plunder! is live on Kickstarter right now. You can snag a copy of the game for about $28. Check it out now.


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