Welcome back to a GenCon dinner with Christian Petersen, founder of Fantasy Flight Games, former CEO of Asmodee US, designer of Twilight Imperium. The food is ordered, not yet delivered, and we are currently chatting about Stronghold Games founder, Stephen Buonocore.
CTP: He’s a good guy. I like Stephen.
DTD: I really like Stephen a lot. I got to know him much more during the pandemic. I mean, I ran into him as just the Stronghold board game guy. But really got to be friends with him during the pandemic. It’s really been delightful.
CTP: But you’re in… You’re in California, he’s in Florida.
DTD: Yeah, all I know, it was all online.
CTP: It was an online “get to know him?”
CTP: He’s a really good guy, you know. My first meeting with Stephen Buonocore was every potential to be very awkward and adversarial.
Christian grew up in Denmark, and he has a very slight accent. Almost unnoticable. But I absolutely loved the way he said “boo-ahn-o-core-eee.” Made Stephen sound classy and renaissance.
CTP: And it, I think both of us were able to manage it in a… I think in a very good way.
DTD: Oh, that’s good.
CTP: Do you know the story about that?
DTD: I know hints about it. I don’t know any of the things I’m not supposed to know.
Honestly, I knew a different story. I didn’t really know this one.
CTP: So yeah, I mean it’s a pretty basically… So, we had done a deal with Wizards of the Coast, us at Fantasy Flight, for four old games that we wanted to re-do. We did five even; it was five, I think. One was Fortress America, which we redid. Another was Netrunner, which we redid. The third one was Merchant of Venus, which we redid. Two other ones were… I know one of them was Up Front. We never ended up doing that, it ended up getting caught in so much mess, we just stayed a mile away from it.
CTP: But we had almost finished all the work. It was almost ready to go to the press. On Merchant of Venus, which is by Richard Hamblen. And we were at Essen, and all of a sudden, we hear this big announcement – “Stronghold Games is very proud to be publishing Merchant of Venus!” And I’m like, “Ok, what?!?”
DTD: I know the end result, so… No, I don’t know this story at all.
CTP: Yeah. And so I, you know, it’s somewhat awkward, but I go up to Stronghold Games, and I said to them, “Who’s, like, the boss? Who’s in charge? Who can I talk to about a problem?”
CTP: It was some helpers and they were very nice. And then Stephen came up, “How you doing?” You know he’s very…
Christian did an absolutely spot-on Stephen Buonocore impression. Loud, flailing arms, the whole deal.
CTP: I said, “Do you have a second, this is who I am, and… I really want to sit down and just have a talk with you.” So, we sat down. “I noticed that you did this press release, and… here’s the deal. We actually signed the rights from Wizards of the Coast, based on their rights from Avalon Hill. And we’re almost ready to put it out. I mean, we haven’t announced it, because we don’t… We’ve learned our lessons, and not announcing stuff way ahead of time. Because we get slaughtered if we are late, so…” Man, I could just see Stephen going, “Oh! Rrrrrrr….” It was like… And he’s got that New York Italian… like, not fight-or-flight, more fight than flight, right?
Christian really did growl. I’m not sure how to spell a growl. I made it seem like he was purring or something, but it was a for-real growl.
CTP: “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell ya, you know. I know it’s a “super sucks.” And I don’t know where this legal issue is. Because we signed an agreement with them. You must believe you have the rights, too.” It was a long, messy… But it wasn’t messy, it was a messy thing. But I think we both tried to really figure out…
DTD: Oh sure, find out where…
CTP: It wasn’t really apparent what happened, and in the end, you know, in the end we published the game.
CTP: I think the, I think Richard Hamblen probably had more emotional rights in the game, then maybe legal rights in the game. But even then, it was still murky, because of all of the, maybe not-great contracts of Avalon Hill in the day, and so on and so forth. So it was, it was murky, but I do think it was… The clarity was probably on the side of the Wizards component. And regardless, I think we worked it out really well. I think one of the things we got to do, is that we got Stephen warned early. We had the game at GenCon.
I have heard the story now from both sides. It seems there was issue with who held the rights to the game, each party licensing it from different parties. The contracts were old and informal. But both sides agree it was settled very amicably. And Stephen and Christian are still good friends. In fact, if you look at the rules for Merchants, Stronghold Games is thanked.
CTP: I suppose, and there’s various other things we were able to do, and since then, we’ve been, you know, buddies and try to help each other we can.
DTD: Awesome. So, tell me how you got started in the whole board games thing. I know I’m going into almost ancient history here.
CTP: That was really ancient, yeah. Like you… I probably was much younger at that time, but I started gaming really in the early 80s. It came from my dad. My dad was a… He was a consultant, he was in the army, whatever. But he was always a gamer.
CTP: He played Tactics II and all those things growing up with his brothers.
DTD: Oh, how cool.
CTP: So, they were from Chicago. And I grew up in Denmark, actually. I was born in Chicago. Lived there for a few years. Don’t remember much. And then I moved to Denmark.
DTD: Wow, OK.
CTP: That’s where I grew up. And there wasn’t much access to those kind of games over there. I mean, they were kind of niche here.
Technically called the TSR Minigames, these small games from 1977-1983 had folded paper boards and components you had to cut out of sheets with scissors. But I loved them.
CTP: Oh yeah. Sure, sure. So, even getting those, and even getting those in the US was difficult. But I know that, and believe it or not… My dad I think got a clipping out of a Newspaper, or Time Magazine, or something. We lived in Denmark still. They were talking about Dungeons & Dragons.
DTD: Oh, OK.
CTP: And he thought it was fascinating. He didn’t really quite understand it.
DTD: It was really hard to wrap your head around.
CTP: So, he said it was something about numbers. Then, he asked, I guess… I mean I was 12 at the time. He asked my grandparents, his parents, who still lived in the US, in Chicago, to get me Dungeons & Dragons.
DTD: Oh, awesome.
CTP: Whatever that was. And so, they did. And I got the the “red box” and the… Not the blue box, but whatever is before the blue box. I’m blocking. The one with the wizard on the front.
In 1977, Dungeons & Dragons split into Basic D&D and Advanced D&D. AD&D stuck mostly to the classic hardcover books, but the Basic game came in boxes, often vaguely referred to by color. The most popular were released in 1983, when the “red box” was the Basic Set, covering levels 1-3, and the “blue box” was the Expert Set, covering 4-14.
CTP: So, then we got into D&D, and that was a big deal, right?
DTD: Oh yeah.
CTP: That was so great! My dad… I was 12, my English was OK, but it wasn’t at the level of abstraction you needed to understand.
DTD: I thought at that point you’d have learned, you know, 7-8 different languages.
CTP: [laughs] I was a fluent Danish speaker. We spoke English at home, but you know reading English… I did it, but not that much. Later I would, a lot. He wrote the rules, he played the first, the first dungeon master. And you can almost need to play it, to get it, right? So, in a sense.
CTP: So, that’s what we did. And Oh! That was so much fun! This was at Christmas time. So for some reason…
DTD: It’s such an unusual story. I don’t think anybody I’ve talked to, who played Dungeons & Dragons, actually in the 70’s to 80’s, actually played it with their parents. That’s awesome.
I certainly did not play with my parents. I played in secret, after school, in basements.
CTP: So, it was Christmas time, and he read it, and so we stayed a week end at my Mother’s parents in Denmark, and we always had live trees at our Christmas celebrations. And I still remember very fondly, something about gaming and the smell of Christmas pine trees. That I kind of connect. And there’s another weird smell I connect with gaming, and just with the excitement of gaming. And that is really stinky cheese. This is why, because I…
DTD: [laughs] That’s awesome. Nothing wrong with that.
Don’t worry. Stinky cheese is coming up later. I wouldn’t let that get dropped, then just fade from converation.
CTP: I had this D&D… I actually like stinky cheese, but I still favorably… I did not have any D&D stuff. All I had were these two box sets. So we would play that, and I think that I begged and pleaded my Grandparents to send another couple of modules, or something over.
DTD: Oh, that’s so cool.
CTP: I think we got The Lost City, which…
DTD: I totally remember that.
CTP: With The Lost City, there’s a big pyramid, and you went into it. And in the desert. And then it becomes an inverted pyramid. Very, very long. Very, very deadly. So that that was one we played. But that was it. It was some sort of mysterious magic, dropped out of the United States into Denmark. And I didn’t know anybody who played. I got all my friends involved, to try this thing in Danish. And I was the DM. And they were, “Oh this is really keen!” You know, it was amazing. But, so then, I was… I think I was maybe 13. The year after. We were walking the very cold streets. Also, christmastime. Very cold streets of Copenhagen. Which are very… I am from Minnesota, but I am never as cold as I am in the streets of Copenhagen. I mean, it’s cold, but nowhere near as cold as Minnesota. But it’s damp.
CTP: And it’s wet. And it’s windy. And it’s this cold, this cold. [lots of hand gestures]. And yeah, it’s just old stones, cobblestones, it’s emanating cool.
Somehow, Christian communicated to me a surprising degree of “cold” with a strange hand gesture. I wish I could describe it. Just trust me. It was cold.
DTD: It’s, it’s such… I mean, I’m really involved in the story, because I spent Christmases in Hamburg.
CTP: Right, it’s probably very similar.
DTD: Cold and wet. And we we played games. And I vividly remember the red box. Dungeons & Dragons. Actually reading it over and over and over on the plane. So, it’s… all of this is just… connecting.
I was really struck by how much Christian’s story, the Christian T Petersen’s story, connected with my own experiences.
CTP: Awesome. So, we were walking, down the pedestrian street in Copenhagen. We’re going to that… I’d been, for some reason, to my dad’s work. And we were going to the station, to take a train home. I’m looking, and there’s a hobby shop. And a hobby shop in Denmark at the time means model airplanes and kites and maybe some model cars, or whatever.
CTP: But in that hobby shop I see, like a North Star shining in a carpet of night, a D&D box.
CTP: And I’m like, “Holy S***!” You know, this is something I’m really into! I have maybe four books. The D&D logo is… The books are dog eared, and I can’t tell how many times I’ve rubbed the damn wax into my dice, you know?
At the time, it would be difficult to see the numbers on a D20. Some of us rubbed wax, or crayon, into the engraved numbers to make them pop.
CTP: And there it is. And then what it was, it was one of the miniatures boxes. They had put out these boxes with nine miniatures.
DTD: Yeah! I had those.
CTP: This was the purple, pink, one of clerics. But there was enough there to… “Oh, this guy could probably be a wizard, this guy could probably be a warrior.”
DTD: That is so cool!
CTP: So, I up there, but the thing is about this store, is it was up a level, up half a level. Below was a cheese store. Which I mean, I’m sure is a great cheese store. But it continually fumed the upstairs hobby store. So, it would smell like cheese store up there.
Stinky cheese story recap!
CTP: So, it was a smell I really like, I was so excited. Lo and behold, they said, “Yeah, yeah. We got these and we didn’t know what to do with them.” They had a box. Like a small box, but there was probably 80 modules for D&D in there.
DTD: Wow. “Can. I. Buy. Them. ALL?”
CTP: I couldn’t believe it and… Well, I couldn’t afford it! You know, my parents were indulging, but not such as that. So, they actually… I, we talked my dad into buying a miniature box, and then one module, which I think was a Dragonlance. I think it looked so different from the other ones. “This is a completely different one!”
DTD: All right.
CTP: So I got, of course the Dragonlance module, but they actually told me, there’s another store in town. A comic store, one of the oldest comic stores in town. The oldest comic store in Copenhagen, sure. Maybe in northern Europe.
CTP: Called “Fantask.” “And they have this kind of stuff too.” And that’s how I found my first game store. And I played D&D. When we got there, the game store… I told my Dad about it, and he said “Yeah, we gotta go home.” So I think it was maybe a month later, or whatever. We went there, and they had not only the D&D stuff. Also, Games Workshop stuff. But they had board games.
Fantask has quite a history. Founded around 1972, it almost closed during the pandemic, but was revived via a GoFundMe campaign, raising about $80,000.
CTP: They had full Avalon Hill, Victory Games, all those. And my Dad went, “Whooaaaa!” [laughs] That’s what he liked!
DTD: I love it.
Victory Games was a subsidiary of Avalon Hill founded in 1982, specializing in war games.
CTP: So, we went in and bought… First game we bought, we noodled around forever… It was also very expensive there, for the time. So, we ended up buying Hitler’s War. Which is an old Avalon Hill game.
DTD: OK. I can picture the cover.
CTP: Yeah, exactly, with Churchill and… And de Gaulle is on there, for some odd reason, on the cover.
DTD: Yeah, yeah. It was a weird one.
CTP: So, because it was a World War II game, and they thought that would be a reason to play. It’s actually a weird one, it’s a weirdly abstracted one, where you have all these numbers you track on the side.
CTP: But anyway, my dad got into that, and I got into that, and played a lot of that. And that really kind of awoke the board game, the complex board game gene in me. And so, we played a lot of those. Ultimately ended up getting Axis and Allies when I was on a trip over here. My family on the other side are still from here. And so, I was just kind of immersed in the hobby. All of it. Painted miniatures. And I won miniatures painting competitions. And D&D games. All of it is just fascinating to me.
DTD: Wow, you were so much more involved in it than I was. I would randomly… I was in New Jersey at the time. And I knew of a couple bookstores, and like billiards or darts stores, that would carry some games. And I would hit them all the time, because their inventory almost never turned over.
Our waiter returned with some of the finest vintages Yolo County, California can produce. Two wines, best described as “also red.”
DTD: Cheers! [clink]
CTP: Their inventory never turned over…
DTD: Yeah, so I hit them over and over and over, looking for that one new game to fall in. And I think my first Avalon Hill box was Freedom in the Galaxy.
I have oft spoken fondly of 1979’s Freedom in the Galaxy: The Star Rebellions, 5764 AD. It was big and complex. And it was an unlicensed robbery of Star Wars. I give the game more love than it deserves, but it was a formative game from my childhood, and we forgive the faults of those we love.
DTD: Big, massive, blatant Star Wars rip-off.
CTP: Oh yeah, I know! I don’t have it, but it’s… I had it in the office at one point. It was even… Like, the characters were very, very similar to the…
DTD: Oh, they were! It was hysterical. They cracked me up. Bread?
The characters were very, very blatantly Star Wars characters. Look it up sometime.
And Andrew the waiter returns with plates of meat. I’m not entirely sure what the word means, but I’m pretty sure I slavered.
DTD: I don’t see any silver or anything.
Waiter: You need some silverware?
DTD: Yeah, I think we need silver. Thank you.
DTD: And I think I set it up and read the rulebook 100 times, and probably played it twice. It was just that kind of massive game.
I played Freedom in the Galaxy twice, with a margin of error of two. But I truly became an expert at setting it up. No small feat.
CTP: Yeah, just too much… I did the same thing later on with… It wasn’t too much later on than this particular… I tried Magic Realm. And, uh, yeah, that was too hard. My dad was really into it.
DTD: A lot of them were hard.
CTP: Oh man was that hard. I would never… I never ended up being able to digest it.
Complexity rating of 4.53/5 on BGG. Freedom in the Galaxy is only 3.95/5. I guess I am a lightweight.
Interestigly, Magic Realm (1979) is also designed by Richard Hamblen, the designer of Merchant of Venus.
DTD: My dad was very much into chess. So, his opinion was always that chess was the only game. So, I was kind of soloing, when I was playing the games.
CTP: I see. I got quite involved. I even, in high school… I did two things in high school. First of all, I was kind of a business kid, all businesses.
DTD: That seems to make sense.
Christian Petersen, after founding Fantasy Flight Games and being CEO of Asmodee North America, now has started 3 new companies. Yeah. “Business kid.”
CTP: When I was really small I would pick pears from our big pear tree. You know, put them in little baggies and go sell them down at the, down by the beach.
CTP: Fresh pears. And I would… I’m just the kind of kid that would put up, you know, lemonade stands, stuff like that. In high school, I was… I sort of felt that people could do a better job of selling these games. I actually got, when I was in high school, second year High School, I got a contact at Avalon Hill in the US.
In High School, I played video games. Yup, that’s it. Video games.
CTP: And I said, “Can I start an import business of your games,” and so on.
DTD: In high school?
CTP: In high school. And they said, “Sure!”
CTP: I said, “Yes!” And so, I think I borrowed, started with… Maybe at the times, three or four thousand dollars, and putting in an order. And we got it, and it was stored in my parents’ basement.
CTP: We had a spare room that my mom had sewing in, and I pretty much usurped it as my warehouse. And so, we would go to these little conventions. Then I started my own convention, which ran for…
DTD: I am like infinitely impressed.
CTP: Well, I was just into it. So I started a convention, ended up having a 400 person convention that we ran for a few years.
I am officially not talking about my childhood any longer. I didn’t do squat.
DTD: Wow, this is still in Denmark?
CTP: Still in Denmark, yep, yep. So, I’d, you know, I was really a part of the scene, I guess. It was a really burgeoning, exciting, adventure games scene. But my dad was like, “OK, you must finish high school, it’s fine.” But he really wanted me to go to college. At least that was his goal. So, I really wanted to go back to the US, because I mean, the US was where all this stuff came from. D&D, the board games, all that stuff was from the US.
I got almost all my stuff from the US.
CTP: Anyway, I got to the US with my friend, after graduating high school. Drove around all the United States, most of it anyway. Got an old car, just drove around, and saw the sights. And then he ended up going back to Denmark, and I stayed in Minnesota, where my parents had friends.
CTP: And, uh, wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college, because I was too full of other things I wanted to do.
CTP: So, I took a job as a pizza delivery driver in Roseville, MN. And I worked at that for about five months, six months maybe. At a place called Davanni’s Pizza.
CTP: And I soon realized that that’s not really what I wanted to do. I was not really into being a pizza delivery driver.
Come back next time for more stories from the early days. We talk about starting Fantasy Flight out of a love for comics, some early game titles, and the much rumored haven for board game design that is Minnesota.