Kirk Dennison: Gearworks

Fairway sits down with publisher and designer, Kirk Dennison, about his current Kickstarter: Gearworks. The Gearworks campaign has a little more than week left.

Mike: While I reviewed Flagdash awhile back, some people might be new to the amazing world of PieceKeeper Games’ games. Tell us a little about yourself and your company.

Kirk: Thanks Mike. I’m a healthcare programmer/analyst, husband/dad, and I create board games on the side, primarily with the help of my wife Emily. We started PieceKeeper Games in 2015 after I had an idea for a board game. I like new challenges so I chose to go the Kickstarter route with that game (Flag Dash) and now here we are with 3 games in the “works.” One is designed by myself (Gearworks) and two we signed from other designers (Rurik: Dawn of Kiev and Door Number 3).

Check out this related TIGR story

Flag Dash: Review
Wanting to relive his more athletic days, Fairway takes a look at Flag Dash, a Flag Dash is a two- to four-player capture the flag board game by... read more...

You and I are both from the Madison area. The area is teeming with great board game designers (like Keith Matejka and Kane Klenko among others). What do you think makes the Madison area such a great center of board game design?

I believe the Madison area has turned into a mini game design hub due to a combination of factors. (1) It starts with long and cold winters – people quickly learn to find things they enjoy doing indoors and board games naturally has its place in freezing weather. (2) There are several great board game stores in Madison, which continue to inspire new gamers and provide ample opportunities for local designers to playtest. (3) The Game Crafter is located in Madison. So we have easy access to prototypes and they started a local designer meet-up in the area, the Madison Game Design Cabal, and run Protospiel Madison. (4) The success of others challenges others to be successful so we all collectively make better games.

You’re latest Kickstarter project is Gearworks. Tell us a little bit about it.

In Gearworks, you are tinkerers in a workshop fixing a broken clockwork machine. You compete to earn parts created by the machine each round and use those parts to build steampunk contraptions. It plays in 30-45 min for 2-4 players, ages 10 and up.

The game has a strong puzzle feel to it. You even describe it in terms of Soduku. How have players and play testers responded to that aspect of the game?

I must say that I was definitely not the first to recognize a connection to Sudoku. But after dozens of blind playtesters kept pointing out a similar feel to Sudoku, we decided to embrace the relation and market it as such. Players have LOVED the puzzle feel of the game and how unique the gameplay is. I have yet to hear players name a game that Gearworks is similar to (Sudoku is a puzzle, not a game).

The clockwork/steampunk seems to mesh well with all the turning and twisting of the little gear tokens in the game. Which came first, the theme or the mechanisms?

You’re right – the theme integrates very well with the game mechanisms. The mechanisms of turning gear tokens came first, although at the time they were more abstract pieces. Gearworks initially struggled to find the right theme to match the game. We used a Satellites theme for a hot moment but fairly quickly found the gears theme to be a natural fit for the actions you take in a game – placing cards into a grid and twisting tokens outside of the grid.

I watched you demo this game a few times to new players who, by the end, were incredibly engaged and anxiously watching the other players turns. What do you think the makes the game click for people that way?

That’s a really good point. In almost every game of Gearworks I have watched, player are engaged throughout the vast majority of the game – especially on other players’ turns. The play area changes quite a bit with many moving parts and players are intrigued to know if their next play will turn out the way they would like. (see what I did there?)

The game looked really polished for a pre-production version. Are you still tinkering with the game or the art?

Thanks. The main game is done gameplay-wise. Some backers have had some great ideas for new scenarios, variants, and modes of play that we are considering and test. We are 95% done with the artwork for components in the game as of the Kickstarter launch. With some stretch goals we are adding some new artwork so that is the main bit to complete yet.

The art for the game is really eye catching. But I found the contraptions the most intriguing. Almost like a Leonardo Da Vinci style. Was that the inspiration for the art direction?

A good friend, Dan Cunningham of Lunarchitects fame who is also in Madison, suggested I should add the contraptions to Gearworks to really take the theme to the next level. Man, I am sure glad he suggested that as players have fallen in love with the contraptions! Yoma did a great job creating all of the contraptions and the parts and really brought the game to life.

It was a really cool design challenge to figure out the right way to integrate two categories of parts you earn with contraptions that need one part of each type. Eventually I organized this by functional parts (e.g. wing, wheel) and start-up components (e.g. fire, crank) and all of the contraptions make a lot of sense as to what parts are used to build them.

The Gearworks campaign is obviously not your first foray into Kickstarter. You’ve got a few under your belt. What, if anything, are you doing for your Gearworks campaign that you wish you’d done for your others?

We spent a lot more time on pre-marketing for Gearworks, which has paid off. In particular, we made a Facebook group for the game and had 340 members as of the Kickstarter launch.

Check out this related TIGR story

Lesson #14 – Building an Email Subscriber List
Compiling and utilizing and email/subscriber list remains one of the best assets a creator can use Start small, start comfortably... read more...

The days before I launched, I was really nervous about clicking that launch button. I can only assume that doesn’t go away after the first campaign. What do you do to calm the nerves?

I was still nervous leading up to the Gearworks launch! I listened to Explosions in the Sky (an instrumental rock band) in the hours leading up to the launch as I put the finishing touches on many things. I find their music to be really calming and since it there are no words it doesn’t distract me from the tasks at hand.

You’re both the designer and the publisher. I know from experience that that’s a lot of work. Are there parts of the game publishing/design process (outside art) that you get help on?

Outside of getting blind playtesting help from hundreds of players, I regularly talk shop with fellow designers Keith Matejka and Dan Cunningham. They help me figure out how to approach different publishing/design scenarios and challenges at hand.

Some publishers look to build a library of games that fit some criteria for them or that’s a good fit for their brand. If you’re looking at game designs from other people, do you have something like that in mind?

We now have 3 separate brands under the PieceKeeper Games label. It might seem like a lot for a small publisher, but based on our current titles it made the most sense for us to organize this way. We may eventually drop to just 2 brands if we find one category is not resonating as well with our core audience. Gearworks fits under the puzzle brand.

We welcome game submissions for all of the categories.

  • Puzzle: 30-60 min with very simple rules and deep gameplay.
  • Strategy: 45-90 min with a rich theme that tells a story and very novel mechanics.
  • Family: 15-30 min with a very accessible theme and high player interaction.

When new designers ask you whether they should publish their own games, what do you tell them?

I ask them whether they have 10-15 hours of free time per week and whether they have $5k or so they can afford to invest in the game. If the answer if no to either question then I advise them to find a publisher to license the game to.

Is there an upcoming game from another publisher you’re really excited about?

I’m pretty stoked about Cursed Court from Atlas Games. It is designed by Andrew Hanson, another Madison game designer, and is a better version of poker in a board game format.

Before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to say about Gearworks, the campaign, or anything else?

If you aren’t convinced to check of the Gearworks campaign already, I’d ask that you at least give the page a look. We’re really proud of this project and know it will be a beautiful and strategic game players can enjoy for a long time.

If you’d like to be keep up with our projects, feel free to join our mailing list. You can reach me with any questions or game submissions at games [at] piecekeepergames [dot] com. Thanks!

Thanks so much, Kirk. Kirk’s Kickstarter campaign for Gearworks runs for another week. If you’re a fan of puzzles and thinky card games, you should definitely give this one a look.

Your turn. Share your thoughts: