Sixpence Games is one of those indie developers that flies under the radar an awful lot, with only sporadic appearances in gaming publications, even though their titles seem to get some decent coverage among the crowdfunding press. Much of this coverage is down to the fact that almost all of their games are entirely funded through Kickstarter, with their modest sales just about keeping the company profitable enough to justify developing another game.
Though their releases are all pretty cool – with titles such as Cultists of Cthulhu and Venture Capital being pretty addictive – the small team has never had the success that seems to come with having several successful Kickstarter projects and a number of high-quality games. While their titles – thematic board-games – is pretty niche, you’d still think that their name would be a little more widely circulated; a quick Google search only turns up the likes of their official website, Kickstarter campaigns, official stores and some short interviews.
All of this gives somewhat of an air of mystery to the small indie development team, so we sat down with Thomas Eliot, the chief designer and CEO of Sixpence Games in order to talk about the studio, their past releases, the trials of Kickstarter and their future plans.
Sixpence Games is better known for releasing board games. What was it that originally drew the team to the board game genre?
In the summer of 2011 I was lost. I didn’t get any funding for grad school for maths, so I wasn’t going to that, so my whole life plan had gone awry. I moved to Berkeley, CA, and for the first time, met folks who had started their own businesses, and they heavily encouraged me to do so as well. I started looking for things I was good at that people pay money for, and I’ve been making up home rules for board-games since I was a little kid. I decided to try my hand at designing games, and it was a smash hit and I haven’t looked back!
So far, the team have released a number of games, the vast majority of which have been well received. When you first started out, were you expecting this much praise this early in Sixpence Games’ journey?
Hah! I was hopeful, but didn’t want to pin my dreams on getting nothing but praise, because there will always be people who don’t like your games. My first game, Professor Pugnacious, got one particularly vicious review, and that hurt for a bit. It wasn’t until my second, Cultists of Cthulhu, that the reviews became overwhelmingly positive.
Sixpence Games has only been around since about 2012, but you’ve released a decent amount of games since then – or at least, enough games to make most people envious of your work ethic. How has the team managed to keep up the pace, and quality, when there seems to be more projects to work on next?
The key to keeping a good pace is having a supportive playtesting community that you can try your ideas out on, get good, useful feedback, revise your ideas, and try again, with as little time to complete one of those cycles as possible.
Speaking of being well received, a number of your games have been well funded on Kickstarter – Murder Most Foul being one of the most recent. Did the team have many nerves when launching your first ever Kickstarter campaign?
Yes. In particular, my most recent was an RPG printed by DriveThruRPG, which has an excellent kickstarter fulfillment program, which really lowered the necessary funding goal, and let us get a much better profit margin on each copy.
Since we’re on the subject of Kickstarter; not everything can be a massive success every time. Has Sixpence Games ever had many obstacles to get past when it comes to Kickstarter?
Yes. The first kickstarter for Cultists of Cthulhu actually failed; it wasn’t until I relaunched it that it was so successful. The relaunch didn’t involve changing the game at all, just getting more finished art so that people will know what the final product would look like (as opposed to my sharpie-and-construction-paper prototype), getting more outside reviews, and working to get that funding goal down.
Getting back to the games you’ve released; while they’re all in the board game set-up, they all seem to be of different genres – Venture Capital and Cultists of Cthulhu probably couldn’t be described in the same genre. Is there any particular setting – such as sci-fi, fantasy etc. – that Sixpence Games prefers focusing on?
I tend to design thematic games – games that tell an interesting story. Venture Capital is a light filler game, but always gets people laughing and playing in character, especially if they are familiar with Silicon Valley start-up culture. Cultists of Cthulhu does a great job telling the story of academics at Miskatonic University trying to live through whatever the Cultist is doing. Professor Pugnacious built up a great alternate history London, while Murder Most Foul lets the players create an intriguing murder mystery to solve.
My philosophy is that the mechanics should be solid enough that even without a theme they’re fun to play with, and also that they should support whatever the theme is – for instance, the dice mechanic in Cultists of Cthulhu is fun on its own as a sort of push your luck game, and also, since you’re most often choosing between trying to stop bad things happening to yourself or bad things happening to the group (or trying to make bad things happen to the group without people discovering you’re doing it on purpose, if you’re the Cultist), it conveys the feeling of dread and “there’s always bad things happening, you can’t save everything” that so permeates Lovecraft’s stories.
The team has already released a number of games, and have managed to successfully navigate Kickstarter several times in the past. What exactly can fans of your past projects expect in the future? Are there any other projects in the works?
I’m currently working on a dungeon crawling, GM-less RPG that uses player skill in place of character skill (it’ll be a dexterity game). It doesn’t have a title yet, so if you or your fans have any good ideas please pass them on!
While we’re on the subject of future projects, since many of your games have been received pretty well, are there any plans to release further instalments for them in the future, similar to how Dungeons & Dragons has gone on for so long?
Yes! I’ve been kicking around Cultists of Cthulhu at the Mountains of Madness for a bit, though the mechanics aren’t good enough for my satisfaction yet. I’m also going to make a book of additional scenarios for Murder Most Foul, including running a second writing competition, and release that most likely later this year.