Welcome back to dinner with Christian Petersen at Weber’s Indianapolis, during GenCon. We had been talking about Christian’s early ventures in gaming, and I was just told the story of this illustrious Fantasy Flight founder and Asmodee CEO… working as a pizza delivery boy in Minnesota.
DTD: That was not your end career goal?
CTP: So, I’m like, “Alright fine, I’ll look at these colleges.” So, I went out looking at college, private college in Southern Minnesota – St Olaf College, and went there. Which, bizarrely enough, is actually quite connected to a lot of gaming industry roots. So, guys like Jonathan Tweet went there.
Jonathan Tweet is a prolific role playing game creator and writer, having worked on Ars Magica, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, and 13th Age.
CTP: Who’s… I don’t know if you know him, he’s a big role-playing writer. He ended up being a lead writer I think on D&D 3rd edition. And John Nephew who was from Carleton; who’s from the town, Northfield, MN.
DTD: Where Carleton college is?
DTD: I knew there was an awful lot of gamers there.
CTP: Something in the water there, I guess.
Minnesota is a gaming hotbed. Must be the cold – you strand people indoors enough and their imagination goes wild. For better or for worse.
CTP: So then, yeah, that’s where I went to college.
DTD: Yeah, my grandparents lived just outside of Minneapolis, and so I went a lot. I actually almost went to University of Minnesota. It was my #2 but I ended up going to California.
CTP: Where did they live in Minnesota?
DTD: Bloomington – Is that right? So, my grandmother was a secretary for admissions to the veterinary school in Minnesota. I wanted to be a veterinarian. That was going to be where I went to undergrad, was University of Minnesota.
Didn’t happen. I opted for University of California. It was farther from home.
CTP: That’s great.
DTD: I liked the city a lot.
CTP: How come you wanted to be a veterinarian? You loved animals, or…
DTD: Oh, I did, yeah. My parents took in animals a lot. I had a very strange upbringing. Uhm, my dad was a very heavy computer guy. He was one of the founders in early computer science. And so, I was raised with computers and technology. So, I kind of wanted to do that, but we also brought in animals all the time. We raised raccoons and squirrels and all sorts of animals. So, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I also was… [big clank] Oh! Well, I won’t say now. I was a burgeoning musician as well, so I looked into going to music school, and I was… I thought about going to, actually to Eastman.
The big clank denoted above was a pretty sizable crash of plates and silverware. Pretty startling.
CTP: That’s funny. I was a musician as well.
DTD: Oh wow.
CTP: I almost, in college, I almost decided to do music rather than games.
DTD: Oh, I had, I had… I ended up doing Graduate School, academia, research. But I had Grad School, Music School, and Veterinary School all lined up in front of me. And I just bounced between a lot of different things. So, was it around that time that you started designing Twilight Imperium? Because from what I understand, that was kind of the entry point into really being in the industry.
CTP: Right, so… Just let me take another bite here.
DTD: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s the biggest problem I have with the interviews, is I never let people eat. I’ll sit and eat comfortably, and have a good old time. [laughs]
Meanwhile, I have been happily eating away the whole interview.
CTP: So, when I was in college, I had a friend, Anton [Soemitro], from Indonesia. And we both realized we had grown up with all of these European comic books that we loved.
DTD: Oh yeah.
DTD: I was going to say Asterix.
I stayed in Germany for months at a time when I was young. And the family I stayed with had Asterix books. Good times.
CTP: And they weren’t really available in the United States, so I started hatching a business plan, as I usually do. And I said, “Well, we should bring them over. We should start a publishing company, and we should totally do it. They’re great! America doesn’t know.”
CTP: So, you know, again, I wrote the publishers and rights holders in Europe. They said, “Sure, yeah, you can get America.” That’s great, some unknown kid will get American rights. Turns out they actually tried it 10 years ahead, and it kind of didn’t work. So, we got the rights. We did a business plan, we raised money. Did a real business this time, not just a high school thing in a basement.
DTD: Wow. That is so much more prepared and productive than I ever was.
Remember, this is like the 4th business Christian had started. And he was barely out of high school. I didnt even have a job out of high school, and this dude is acquiring international publishing rights.
CTP: I partnered with Anton and just as a… some weird energy in the, in this whole “grading things.” It turned out that Anton actually was ultimately not able to stay, because he couldn’t get a residency permit. He had to go back to Indonesia. So, I slaved on. But it was really not a very good business. It really did not sell. We made them. We learned how to do publishing things. We learned how to do desktop publishing, we learned print manufacturing, all these things.
DTD: Wow. So, you weren’t just importing them, you were actually printing them.
CTP: Oh yeah, we were the men, we were publishing them. We got the rights, this was way back. Lots of technology’s changed, in that we were dealing with the dye lots, blue lines, and all these kind of things. You know, plate grill making, actually baking plates using film, and it was … terrible!
DTD: Oh yeah, that was one of my earliest jobs, was phototypesetting. Way back when.
Technically I was working for my father, and I suspect he gave me jobs that didn’t really need doing. Just to keep me busy.
CTP: It didn’t sell, it was terrible business. We lost all the money, I mean it ate the money up. We weren’t selling inventory. So the board that I put together, I’m like,”You know, we can try to keep churning and never give up…” But through this process, I’ve known that in marketing to comic book shops, I’d been coming to learn that really the gaming industry and the comic industry were almost like conjoined twins.
DTD: Oh yeah. Was that way until Magic [the Gathering].
It has been widely accepted that selling board games is very difficult. So, most stores partner board games with something else, such as comic books or collectible card games. Magic the Gathering, released in 1994, quickly became the income support for many a board game store.
CTP: Yeah, yeah. Well even… This was even after Magic. This was… Magic had come out while I was in college. That was kind of my blind spot – I missed the release of Magic. I got home and I got into it a little bit with my friends, but I missed that initial booming of Magic, because that’s when I was studying. And I was playing some games, but I was really kind of out of it for those three years.
CTP: So, what happened was, I had this game idea. All told, comics were great; I thought it was a great product. But my real passion was actually games. And I think that we had learned something here, that I could maybe make a game. And I had this idea in my head. I remember this, some of the game from Magic Realm. This whole concept of these… Because all the games at this point were Avalon Hill mostly, right? And they were all hexagon-based. But I was really fascinated with what could be done with loose hexes.
We had spoken last episode about Avalon Hill’s Magic Realm being an alluring but almost unapproachably complex game from Christian Petersen’s childhood.
CTP: Really wasn’t, really done. So, I said, “What if you have… What if I make up the hexes like this?” And I would try to make a game that’s not… Deep, but not too deep. That’s more like, maybe a little more advanced than the Gamemaster series from Avalon Hill. I’m sorry, from Milton Bradley.
CTP: So, I came up with a science fiction game. And that’s ultimately what I… When I make games, I make games for myself. I just make games I want to play.
He’s talking about Twilight Imperium! He’s talking about Twilight Imperium! Excited!
DTD: Yeah, that was the one you wanted to play.
CTP: Yeah, so that’s cool. I wanna play that. I want a game of high politics and space, and you know, exploration, building economies, and… Because I was into… Some of my favorite games have been games like Diplomacy. Of course I was a big science fiction nerd, you know. I was really into, at the time I remember Dune. I re-read the Dune novels.
DTD: I am right there with you.
CTP: So, did Twilight Imperium and got a cover for it. Put together the prototypes. The board was pretty impressed by it, though. “This is something brand new. Something unique. Yeah! This is ours.”
DTD: So, you were just self-publishing. You were making it and you were going to put it out.
CTP: At this point, I wasn’t even publishing it yet. We were almost out of money. I mean, money was gone, basically. Nobody really wanted to put in any more money because it was pretty clear that the comic books were toast. They were done. At the time, I actually started distributing comics, because I made that very few retailers, like… Comics in Berkeley, for example, was good. And very few stores would carry those comics. So, I said I’m going to sell directly to them. I’m not going to go distribution. Because distribution was all about one catalog, fire and forget, periodicals, traditional American comics. And that dropped them out. Articles, you know. So, I started buying up graphic novels, because there was maybe 50 stores in the US that would like graphic novels, and the graphic novel format. So, I started buying them up for publishing to make it more available to our little distribution unit. Because that was some way I could get some revenue. I knew it was not a lot of profit, it was something to keep it [the company] running.
DTD: Just to keep afloat.
CTP: Keep it running. Yeah, it was tough. And then Twilight Imperium got there. I got it going, but we really did not have the 20 grand or whatever it took to print it. Just didn’t have it. And I could have tried to raise it, but I was pretty stubborn.
CTP: You know, I didn’t want to leave my other… The investors who invested originally, I probably thought I had a great bit of honor and accountability to them, so… Didn’t want to just say, “Ah, we’re done. Poof!” Blow it up, and start another one. I didn’t want to do that. Never did. But so we… I’m trying to think here.
And the slabs of meat arrived at the table. Beautiful, grilled pieces of cow and pig, cooked to perfection with a variety of delicious sides. I had a bone-in rib eye, medium rare, with asparagus. And Christian went with sticky ribs, which I may have shared, and a New York strip. With fries.
DTD: Oh hey. Oh bone-in, I had that. Sorry, I don’t hear too well. Thank you. Wow.
DTD: That really was. Yeah, it sounds like you did all the stuff that, you know, me and my friends thought about doing. But none of us actually had enough energy, bravery, or resources to do it.
CTP: So, what I did with Twilight Imperium, is I actually went to GenCon in 1996.
GenCon is the largest board game convention in the United States. This interview with Christian, in fact, took place at GenCon 2021. 25 years later.
CTP: I didn’t have any product. I had some comic books. But I wanted to show the game. And start developing some contacts with some distributors or retailers. So, I had a booth, a small 10×10 booth. Where I put the poster up, and my game behind me. And I showed the prototype off. And I played with a bunch of people. You know, the demo. And this was… GenCon was small.
CTP: It was big, I thought. But it was small.
Early on, GenCon was a smaller affair than today. And a lot of it was dedicated to role playing rather than board games. Attendance in 1996 was 27,000. At it’s peak in 2019, GenCon has reached 70,000.
DTD: Well, it certainly wasn’t board game dominated.
CTP: No, there was almost none.
CTP: Sure, it was still small. I mean… But anyway, so I got a bunch of contacts there and I got some people interested in buying it. And so, finally we were able to put together a strict little loan from the bank, actually. Gotta sign a personal guarantee, and all this stuff with that and… Finally got into doing it, and so we ended up printing it, and going to Origins with it. I assembled most of it myself. Because we couldn’t afford to assemble.
The Origins Game Fair is another large board game convention, located in Columbus Ohio.
DTD: I heard a story that you actually went to the hospital, because you inhaled so much cardboard dust. [laughs]
CTP: OK. Not true.
DTD: OK, OK.
CTP: Not true. There’s something to the story, but…
DTD: But not that.
Oh, the story is coming. Do not fear.
CTP: Not that, no. We sold them, printed 1500 copies. And we got a little tiny Ford Escort station wagon. We loaded it up with as many games as we could put in there. Drove to Origins. And we sold all of them. And it was a $50 game.
CTP: Which at the time was completely nuts. And people were like, “$50 bucks?!? Gah! Boo! No way!” Well, we demoed it and demoed it and demoed it and demoed it. Have you been to Origins?
DTD: I have not.
A black mark on my character and reputation as a gamer.
CTP: So, there’s a… So it was still at the same Columbus Convention Center. There was this hotel, and all the food was on the one side. And the Convention Hall was on the other side, and there was this glass atrium corridor that connected the two.
CTP: And so, we couldn’t afford a big booth. We had a booth, but we wanted to demo and play the game, so we were like, “OK. Everybody goes to lunch…” So I shanghai’ed a couple of tables, a couple big tables. We put up signs, and we just sat there.
DTD: In the walkway?
CTP: In the walkway. Played Twilight Imperium… I don’t know, 20 hours a day. Early morning, late late at night. People would come, “What’s that?” “So, you want to play? Come in, come play!” And so we played. And sold everything. And compare that to – we had been to a couple of comic book conventions where we sold like 2 copies or something! And selling like 50 or 60 copies of a $50 game at the time was like, “Woooo!” And distribution then got into it. They bought it. We sold out very, very, very quickly. And that’s how we kind of got into the game. But it was a tough business, because now I had to reprint it, you know. And board games was not the thing at the time. It was Magic, RPGs…
DTD: No, you can’t just dial up Panda and say, “Print me this”.
CTP: No, no. We printed it in the US. And yeah, so… And this is really becoming more a business story, than a design story, really. But then, then we really struggled. I mean we put out Battlemist, and another game [GolfMania Mag·Blast]. A similar mixed kind of copy. Although it’s really funny – you know that one GenCon that I went there without the games already, but I was showing my prototype? There was another damn game, that was really, got really popular. Same damn hexagons!
DTD: [laughs] Right around ’95…?
Whatever could this super popular game with hexagons be around 1995? What could have settled into that niche?
CTP:’95, ‘96. One of those damn like sheep and wood and roads games! [laughs]
DTD: Well, luckily that game didn’t go anywhere.
CTP: [laughs] But I’m like, “Wait a minute. I did the same thing!” It’s the exact same kind of layout! People were like, “Oh, did you get this idea from Catan?” And I was like, “Catan? Catan’s brand new! No, I did not.”
CTP: Mine came out in May ’97. And it did get “Is this Catan in space?!?” I got that a lot.
CTP: But then, yeah, because we really started… We put out games, but games are a tough, tough, tough, tough business. Because it is very capital intensive. You know, you gotta put in art, and a lot of labor and design and writing. And then you gotta put it in a big inventory, and it’s not like anybody’s gonna take a risk for you, really. So you gotta risk the inventory. All your money is sitting there.
If you print a ton of copies, you have spent lots of money, and then if they don’t sell, you need to store them. Choosing how many copies to print is quite a gamble that can make or break a company.
DTD: And then it’s a gamble.
CTP: And it’s a gamble. And then even if you sell half of it, you probably won’t have any money, because you may have made money back, but you still had to feed yourself. So your burn rate of just small rent, small… You know, a very, very tiny amount of money you can afford to even sell. So that was rough. I mean, we had to go back and try to raise some more money. We tried some things. Most of them weren’t successful. I tried a game called GolfMania.
CTP: Because I thought we could sell to golf stores. It was kind of a fun little weird… humor. It actually made fun of golf more than being about golf. And I think they didn’t like… Golf probably didn’t like being made fun of.
CTP: Because it was more like Caddyshack, the card game, then like a serious golfing game. I did all these cartoons, where people were you know doing stuff. Like, I know that one of the ways you could cancel this card, was to play 3 stress cards. Like somebody was jumping up and down, and trying to break his golf club, right? And stuff like that.
I’m all right… Nobody worry about me…
DTD: [laughs] Yeah.
CTP: It was very much in the vein of like Steve Jackson humour games.
ie. Munchkin. Munchkin is somehow simultaneously derided by “real” gamers yet almost universally their gateway entry to the hobby.
DTD: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
CTP: But then, I went to the first Essen. I think this was in ‘98 or ‘97. But nobody else went to Essen. I guess it was Will Niebling from running Mayfair Games. Talked to me at a couple of shows. And he said, “You really should go to Essen.” He thinks it’s really great. And I think he deserves a lot more credit for growing an American presence.
Internationale Spieltage, the largest boardgame convention in the world, is colloquially referred to as “Spiel”, or just “Essen,” after the town in Germany where it is held.
DTD: Oh yeah. And I’ve heard other people say the same thing.
CTP: He was its ambassador in the United States. He was right. We went there and the Germans absolutely appreciated us being there, and were really excited. And they had more stuff than games there. They had their own gaming culture. But like me, you know, the US had a particular style of game and narrative, and they were excited.
DTD: Starting to get… to branch there.
Most boardgames are characterized nowadays as either “euro” or “amerithrash”. Euros tend to be cerebral, dry, themeless, with engine building and cube pushing. Amerithrash games are very lucky, rich with story, and build atmosphere with art and miniatures.
CTP: That was great. I met a gentleman there named Tom Jolly.
CTP: He was looking for game publishers. And we had a handful of games out. We had Battlemist… Which, by the way, is interesting. I learned when I was selling that game, some Germans were giggling at me. Finally, I said, “OK. Do you think it’s funny, or is it…? Why are you giggling at me?” They said, “Well, the thing is that mist in German means poop or manure.” [laughs] To them it was a bit funny. But anyway, the… Tom [Jolly] had this really interesting game. He called it Amoeba, and it involved disks. These round disks that he would flip. And when they land on top of each other, there would be some rule, or point scoring, or whatever. There were different sizes and stuff. It was really fascinating. I was fascinated by this, because… Not necessarily because of the game, but because of the mechanical concept of these disks flipping on a table, like free-form movement. The bigger the disk was, the longer it moved, the more displacement it would have over the… And so, I said, “Tom, this is really something. I really want to do this. But I don’t want to do your game, I want to do your concept.” And so we put together this game called DiskWars.
CTP: Which I designed. And, it’s almost like an amalgam of Magic [the Gathering] and Warhammer, right?
CTP: It was army battles, and you would flip disks. And when they overlapped, then you have an attacker and a defender. And you got in these complex situations, where once all those disks were flipped, you got one on top of each other in different combinations, and they would resolve. And then…
DTD: I love when the random physicality leads into these interesting rulesets.
CTP: But there wasn’t any random physicality. No, the way the disks worked was that you would take a disk… Let me use this piece of… Flat disks, right?
CTP: So, the way they would move… Let’s say a movement of “three”. I’ll go like this – one, two, three.
Christian was stepping random objects across the table for me. Napkins were battling salt shakers on the decimated landscape of devoured steak and discarded flatware.
CTP: So, there wasn’t any randomness to it. You would decide where they go, and maybe this had movement of 6, maybe it was a cavalry. Or a 10 … If I overlap you, now I pin you, you can’t do anything. Because you’re pinned underneath my… So, we are engaged in battle.
DTD: That’s awesome.
CTP: That was really cool, and it was a brand new thing. Nobody had really done it.
DTD: Eat something!
I had finished off my wonderful meal, but Christian was so wrapped up in the stories, he had barely touched his food. And I have been accused in the past of not letting my interviewees eat.
CTP: A lot of people called it pogs, which it did look like. And that was probably it’s worst case problem in the end. Is people just didn’t see it as an interesting game; they saw it as pogs.
DTD: Yeah, it fit that formula for the new stuff.
CTP: That’s the game.
DTD: I’m gonna take some pictures, also. I always forget to take pictures. [laughing] That’s awesome. Thank you, thank you.
Christian Petersen, boardgame founding father, master entrepreneur, and ex-CEO, may have been hamming it up for the camera. Oh, you’ll see later.
CTP: DiskWars, now – that’s the game where we did one version, and I sold it right away. Even though it was a very small print. For us it was a big success.
CTP: And actually, we’d been in debt ever since the comic book business. We never quite got out of it.
DTD: Even with Twilight Imperium?
CTP: Even Twilight Imperium, yes. We sold 1500 copies. It’s just not… You have to draw a salary of, you know, $20,000 a year or whatever. It’s still a problem. Twilight Imperium, we only did two print runs of it. I mean, a total of about 3000 copies or something. And we did some expansions, but… I mean, it sold, but there wasn’t any gaming culture.
CTP: There were war gamers. Your chit-based Avalon Hill games. I mean, people liked the game, but…
DTD: I guess I wasn’t clear, too, on when Warhammer came into the picture. I didn’t realize… I knew GW [Games Workshop] was an older company. I mean they did Talisman back in the day. But I wasn’t clear when Warhammer actually became a thing.
CTP: I was playing Warhammer. It was pretty involved and mature back in the early 80’s, mid 80’s.
DTD: Wow. I never ran into that corner of the culture. At least until recently.
Waiter: How’s everything over here guys? Tasting good? all right?
DTD: Very good. Thank you, thank you.
CTP: Even with DiskWars, you know, we were still trying to just break off our debt load. So we started assembling them ourselves. The way they came – you know, they are die cut. Big die, BOOM, cuts big sheets.
The gestures around the “BOOM” were magnificent.
CTP: So, I had to tear these sheets apart. They sold them in something I called “flats”. I got that from theater. I don’t know if you were a theater guy, but the big things you move up and down a theater stage are called flats.
DTD: OK, yeah.
CTP: So, I called them flats. But I felt, “Well, they were a 2D representation of something alive and physical and fun.” So when we needed to assemble a box, you would get some random flats, and some regular flats, and whatever in those boxes. But it was in the process of me working out some loans. Sometimes I would have help. But I would be tearing apart so much paper, dust in the air from tearing apart these thousands of packages, that I got pneumonia from it.
I promised a pneumonia story earlier. And I delivered.
CTP: So, I was sick for about a week, week and a half, with the pneumonia because… I presume it was the dust anyway. It was the middle of summer.
DTD: Dedication to your craft.
CTP: Survival? You know the two are often hard to discern.
Next time, Christian Petersen and I continue to wax rhapsodic about the early days of Fantasy Flight. Plus George R R Martin makes an appearance. And there’s a cyborg gorilla. Honest.