During GenCon 2021 I was lucky enough to bump into Fantasy Flight founder and former Asmodee CEO Christian T. Petersen, ask him to go to dinner, and have him actually agree. And given someone so foundational in the industry, I had a surprisingly good time with this goofy board game magnate.
DTD: [laughs] So was Fantasy Flight “Fantasy Flight” at that point?
CTP: Yup. Fantasy Flight Publishing started as a comic book publisher. And became… Fantasy Flight Games became its DBA [Doing Business As], but it was always Fantasy Flight Publishing.
Christian had previously told the story of starting Fantasy Flight to bring european comics to the west.
CTP: Ultimately, we did get DiskWars… We decided to get, to add some interesting new games. We did Twilight Imperium Armada, which is a starship battles game using the disk mechanics. And that started some interesting things there, with programmed movement. We originally designed it for Star Trek, as a Last Unicorn Games, kind of, Star Trek license. They didn’t want to do a disk game using Star Trek. And so we said, “You design it, and we’ll publish it as Star Trek. And we will get royalties and moneys.” And they said “OK.”
DiskWars was originally an idea from designer Tom Jolly, which Fantasy Flight expanded into their universe of games. Star Trek Red Alert was published by Last Unicorn Games in 2000. Last Unicorn made a name for themselves, licensing Star Trek for RPGs, and was bought by Wizards of the Coast in 2000. Paramount then moved Star Trek licensing to the company Decipher.
CTP: But they ended up only doing one print run. They got bought by WotC [Wizards of the Coast] and they dropped it. So, we got the game system back. And so, we said, “We should put in Twilight Imperium units.” And all this kind of stuff. I mean, lots and lots, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these games, and some was up and down. We did a Deadlands… Which is a big role-playing game, a Deadlands version. We also licensed it out to be a Legend of the Five Rings disk version. But I mean, we had finally hired some employees. It was me, and Todd [Nilsen] who had always been there. Todd is a faithful, great guy. He has always been around, always willing to help, always willing to do things.
CTP: And when I find myself mired in some communication, he’s out there pulling it together, right? Darrell Hardy came and worked for me. There were three people. Even that’s hard to afford. You know, in this kind of environment. When you print so little amounts, it’s very hard to make margin. Hard to afford the artwork.
DTD: I heard, someone at the show, when I said that we were going to dinner, said to ask you about the robot gorilla.
CTP: I hate the robot gorilla… [laughs]
DTD: Oh! I think I was set up!
Worth it. Did I mention it is a robot. And a gorilla?
CTP: Here’s the story. Darrell wanted to do a Twilight Imperium role playing game, and somebody came in to work with them. But I was busy trying to survive, didn’t have much time.
CTP: I had a certain vision regarding what Twilight Imperium would be – in stories and all that stuff. Which really expressed themselves in the third edition. That’s when I really had enough bandwidth to put that into…
DTD: Yeah, there’s so much lore in Twilight Imperium.
Twilight Imperium first edition came out in 1997. The second edition, which was not much different, released in 2000, then the much expanded and improved 3rd edition showed up in 2005. The Twilight Imperium RPG, the topic of our current tale, was finished and published in 1999, and hung around through 2001.
CTP: So, they made this role playing game for Twilight Imperium, which was… I don’t think it was very good. I just was not happy with it. We published it anyways, because the other guys thought it was good. But we were so poor, we couldn’t afford any artwork. And so, we got very little artwork made for it. But we needed more artwork in a role-playing game, because if it’s just words, it’s very dry and boring.
CTP: For some reason, one artist just had a random piece of a cyborg gorilla. Had no relationship at all to Twilight Imperium in any shape or form. Somehow it made it into the book.
DTD: [laughs] The price was right.
CTP: Yeah, it was like, “For 50 bucks you can have publication rights for the robot cyborg gorilla, or whatever.” And so, it made it in there. There is no robot. At least, now Asmodee owns Twilight Imperium, so maybe there will, in the future, be a gorilla cyborg race or pet or something in there. But that’s how it came about. I don’t even know how that became a thing. And then when I told the story to somebody, they said “They put a cyborg gorilla in there for no good reason!” So that became kind of a joke, I guess.
I want it known that I scoured the greater internet for an image of this legendary “cyborg gorilla,” all to no avail. Then, when I was lamenting to my good friend, sometimes editor, and podcast co-host Barry Figrim, he mentioned he had picked up a copy of the RPG at a used bookstore many years ago. And the rest is history. I am complete.
[I don’t even have the core book. Just one TI RPG sourcebook that I randomly picked up somewhere, and it happens to be the one with the robot gorilla. You can’t bury the robot gorilla truth, FFG; I have hard evidence. -Ed]
DTD: We all know it was a plan within plan. Just laying early steps for the “All Cyborg Gorilla” new game.
CTP: I should also say I don’t think the guys trying to make the role playing game were bad guys or anything. Darrell’s great, actually. But it was, it was just in a very “indie” kind of way, and I just had more hopes for the setting, races, and stories.
DTD: Oh sure.
CTP: And so maybe it just failed my aspirations more than it did, than it really deserved my scorn.
I love anyone that can use the phrase “deserved my scorn.” I am saying this more often now. Although it is much more effective with a light, friendly, slightly Danish accent.
DTD: Did you have all the lore and history and everything already in your mind, when you first made the 1st edition [of Twilight Imperium]?
CTP: It evolved. Some of it. It evolves as you share the same thing. You know, stories grow in the telling, and they grow in the mind.
Yeah, he spontaneously came up with this. I wish I could speak like that.
DTD: Of course.
CTP: We had put out Twilight Imperium second edition at that time, which is more or less just a refinement of the first edition.
DTD: Yeah. It was, at least in my impression, it was the third [edition] that really changed the most.
CTP: It was.
DTD: I never played first, but I played second.
CTP: So, then I started, you know, exploring some of the German games coming in. I started gaining an appreciation for the mechanical efficiency of them. Most of them… I still think one of my criticisms of those games today is that they’re just mostly about mechanical efficiency, with a veneer of theme.
DTD: Yeah. More mechanics than theme.
I think I just summed up a glorious aphorism from Shakespeare in the style of Dr Suess. Christian is just so much more eloquent than I.
CTP: So, I thought, “How can we use these pretty cool things?” And one game that really, I really thought was very good was El Grande. Which is… I just thought that was great. That’s probably my favorite German-style game. There’s probably a lot of great ones now. I don’t play them all. At the time I loved how it all blended together.
CTP: So actually, I have thought about that a lot. To me the games I wanted to sell tell stories and have drama. Which means people are engaged and negotiating with each other. And they are, they do battle with each other, and they were strategizing.
CTP: And they can tell stories. I mean the best gaming sessions to me are always the ones where people start getting into character, start speaking with accents. [French accent] “How dare you attack me, sir?!?”
DTD: [laughs] Yeah! Absolutely.
Greatest. Voice acting. Ever. I would love to play games with this man.
CTP: And I’ve never truly gotten into the beard-stroking, contemplative games. They’re fine, but to me that’s not what I go for. That’s not… I don’t consider myself successful if everybody comes up in the table, and says, “That was really great,” but they never had one big “woo hoo!” moment, or laugh, or excitement, or drama. There’s not a lot of narrative. But I got really interested in this mechanical perception of how to do things. Mechanically simpler, but still drive the narrative, and drive a sense of conflict.
I’m a beard-stroker. Big time.
DTD: So, using the euro-style mechanics.
CTP: My first game I did that with was A Game of Thrones the board game.
CTP: Which I still think, in many ways to me, I still feel that was… Maybe the design of that to me was better than the Twilight Imperium design. Personally, I’m more proud of that, I guess, then about, mechanically, Twilight Imperium.
CTP: Because what it did is, it… You know, it has elements of Diplomacy in there, but it hasn’t like… There’s a lot more to it.
DTD: Oh, very much.
1959’s Diplomacy by Allan B. Calhamer has always been a great way to break up with people and create life long nemeses.
CTP: But Diplomacy was always so… long. And it was so hard to decipher. Hard to unwind some of the complex situations that occur in that game. But I felt that there were plays and mechanisms, the way that it worked with your supply, and how many units you had. We’re no longer just one unit. We can have units with capabilities and larger strengths.
DTD: And stories behind.
CTP: And a story behind your characters.
DTD: I mean of all the games that you have talked about, the one with the most “Going into character, adopting an accent, and doing, you know, evil grins” – That’s Game of Thrones.
CTP: Well, I would say now, yes. But I think that followed the TV show. Because when we did Game of Thrones, nobody knew it. We actually published a trading card game of Game of Thrones [first]. What we had to do, is… We loved the books. And we thought it was so great. Nobody… some people knew it. It was a best-selling book. But by and large, it was unknown. So, we actually made a deal with Bantam, who was the publisher. And they gave us 1000 copies of the first novel. For free.
The board game A Game of Thrones was published in 2003. The first book, A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, with A Clash of Kings following in 1998, and A Storm of Swords in 2000. The HBO series did not premier until 2011.
CTP: And we wrapped that novel in the rules of our TCG. And we sent it to every game store in the whole country.
DTD: So, George RR [Martin] should be, you know, writing you letters?
CTP: Oh, I know George fairly well.
DTD: Oh, you know him?
CTP: Oh yeah.
DTD: Wow. I had no idea.
CTP: Yeah, in fact George… George was a part investor in FFG [Fantasy Flight Games].
DTD: I had no idea. Wow!
CTP: Not a lot of people do. He was, has always been great.
DTD: That’s really cool. I follow a lot of his blogs online and just find him very interesting.
CTP: When we first met him, he was a respected fantasy author, but he was not a worldwide phenomenon. So it was fun to see him go from “Hey, George…” to “Now George is on Conan O’Brien.”
DTD: So you knew him before the whole madness?
CTP: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure.
It’s odd to think about the fact that GRR was not known at all when the board game came out, 20 years ago.
DTD: Did you get to know him through the games? Like, via the licensing?
CTP: Yeah, but he doesn’t have a licensing agent. We called him up and talked to him, said, “We want to do a board game.” And in fact, there was a guy named Brian Wood that did it at that time. And then, yeah, we worked with him one-on-one on all this stuff. He approved the art and…
DTD: That’s a different age…
CTP: Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t “George the corporation,” it was just George.
DTD: Just George, the author.
CTP: His characters, and he gave us one of the things that we liked. He gave us actually an early copy of Feast for Crows, so we could read that, and we can start designing characters for our games for that, before the book came out.
A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series, released in 2005. The novel was 753 pages on release, and came out 1896 days after the preceding book, equating to 2.5 days per written page.
DTD: Oh, that’s great. Wow.
CTP: So that was great. Maybe we’ll make another, maybe make another expansion when the next book comes out. [laughs]
The world is anxiously awaiting the 6th book, The Winds of Winter. As I write this, it has been 2094 days since the 5th book was published. So at his current writing rate, it should be about 1600 pages long.
DTD: Well, any day now, right? Any day now.
CTP: He’s always been great and gracious, and a good guy. And so… I think people speak more in character. Prior to that, at least, people spoke more in character in Twilight Imperium. They would like sound like bugs – [chittrer noises].
DTD: I would like to say that I’ve not seen that happen. But, yeah.
Christian did, in fact, go into full insect-like chittering noises. Hard to transcribe.
CTP: But, to me, Game of Thrones became kind of the moment where – “I get it now.” I think, “I understand now, what style of design we want to do.”
DTD: You are now a game designer and game publisher.
CTP: No, no, that was before that. But I don’t think we had landed on our own style. On our own way to grasp the concept. You know, we had published Twilight Imperium probably 6 years before. We had made lots of games. But they had more been in traditional American, I would call them “phase structure”. Where it’s like, “Phase one – movement. Phase two – blah blah blah.” I would wait for you to go through all your phases, and then I would go though all mine.
CTP: And not using those German concepts of abstracting some of this stuff. When I did Game of Thrones, I said, “I get it. I think I found something.” This kind of merger between the European and American style. But staying on the American side of the fence when it comes to narrative and story and character and engagement.
DTD: Oh sure.
For a long time, board games were broadly characterized as either Euro or Amerithrash. Euro games were characterized as having very little luck, little to no theme, but detailed, meticulous mechanisms almost mathematically perfect. Amerithrash games in contrast had huge amounts of story and theme, tons of dice and luck, and relatively simple mechanisms.
CTP: Because we would make game about… You know, trading on the Rhine – that was nuts. We would make games about, you know, exploding zombies or something. We were more the James Cameron of games at the time. Not Stanley Kubrick, right? We were big explosions, fun. But, really dedication to what we’re doing. Doing the best we can. You know, if people don’t like it, sure.
Ummm… The joke is usually about trading on the Mediterranean or Trading on the Tigris. I’ve never heard “on the Rhine.” Also, exploding zombies are awesome.
DTD: No, I mean there is no argument that you had a huge impact, just on the styles of games. On the game companies in general. Fantasy Flight was huge. So, I’ve asked you about giant gorillas…
CTP: Cyborg gorillas.
DTD: I’ve asked you about giant cyborg gorillas, and publishing. So what are your thoughts on the… When Asmodee acquired Fantasy Flight? As the giant gorilla in the industry? See isn’t that a perfect segue? Didn’t I do good there?
CTP: That’s right, that’s right. All the gorillas.
DTD: All the gorillas in the room. I know, but I don’t know a whole lot about the story. But I know it was 2014, right? That Asmodee acquired Fantasy Flight. And at that point Asmodee… I mean, you were one of the first acquisitions, weren’t you?
CTP: I had known Asmodee from my actions in Europe, where they had bought certain companies. And they had actually acquired a good friend of mine’s company in England. That that company was Esdevium, which was the biggest wholesale distributor of these hobby games in Europe. Dan Steel was his name and I saw him being acquired. I saw him work and integrate with it, and it didn’t kill him. At the time… Remember we are kind of leapfrogging an entire development generation, moving from Twilight Imperium third edition. It was 2005. 2005, by the way was… Just before we get into the… 2005 is most important year in Fantasy Flight’s history.
CTP: After Game of Thrones the board game, which I think was 2004, but somebody could probably correct me that could check the stats better, or whatever. I said, “We got it. We think we understand how to do this, how to do this and how to make the kind of games we want.” And we have been fortunate enough to have some good solid picks – I think it was Lord of the Rings in the mix.
Game of Thrones was 2003.
DTD: Wow, OK.
CTP: So, we got Lord of the Rings earlier, and I was a huge Lord of the Rings geek. That’s my #1 IP favorite. We had gotten that. So finally, we had actually gotten to a point where we could afford some games and do them more to the point we had hoped to ever do. And we also, at that point, got into Chinese manufacturing.
CTP: A lot of the manufacturing for games we did was done in Germany. In fact, the first version/edition of Game of Thrones was done in Germany by German manufacturers. There was actually a switch of the exchange rate just about then. 2004. Where the euro used to be cheaper than the dollar, then it flipped. But then the euro became more expensive than the dollar.
The Euro had hovered around $0.90-$1.00 in 2001 and 2002. But in 2003, the euro was consistently over a dollar, peaking in late 2004 at $1.34
CTP: So, the German games got, became quite a bit more expensive. We even published Fury of Dracula in Germany. And that was one of the ones that, right there… Like, “Oh man, we just lost 20%, you know, because of the exchange rate flip.” I don’t remember what the rationale was, probably a euro integration at the time.
DTD: I remember when it happened.
CTP: So, you go back and look at what came in 2005. It was Twilight Imperium.
Waiter: You doing all right over here?
DTD: Doing well, thank you.
Waiter: Good deal.
CTP: It was coming from third edition, which was… We finally were able to put it all together, wrap it all together. And I was able to say, take an old-style US style game like Twilight Imperium, re-imagine it with these more exact mechanics that kept players much more engaged, had various systems that were co-connected and interesting. I won’t say it was a perfect game, but it was, it was very much in the line of “this is what we are going to do now.” But that year, man – I mean, we had… There was Twilight Imperium, Arkham Horror, Descent, and World of Warcraft the board game, which also was giant, really big game. All came out in 2005.
CTP: I think we were able to sort of say, “This is who we are now. This is what we do.”
DTD: Year of the coffin box.
Fantasy Flight famously made several games in a giant size box, 23.25 x 11.50 x 4.00 inches, during this time period. It was affectionately known as the “coffin box” for reasons lost to history. Which means I am not good enough to find the reasons why.
CTP: Coffin box. I don’t know, whatever. People call it that. I never liked those kind of terms. I always called it “epic size”.
DTD: Epic size! I will only call it Epic Box now.
CTP: Epic size box. Yeah, that was what I did. But the “coffin box” stuck. And I think it was somebody in FFG that started calling in that, and it made its way out.
DTD: And I know that I have heard a lot of the influencers talk about, it’s always an argument, “What year is the best year for board games?” And there’s certain spikes that pop up. And 2005 certainly pops up.
CTP: Yeah, I don’t… I don’t honestly know that, but I do know that was, uh… Keep in mind now that the market still didn’t get it. I mean, we published Twilight Imperium at $80 in a giant box. It was completely unheard of. I mean a board game at 80 bucks that was expected to go to most game stores! That was that big! [big hand gestures] It broke all of the rules in terms of shipping containers and carton boxes. I had publishers that were like… I’m sorry – distributors – that were like, “I don’t even know how to ship this thing! We don’t have boxes…” And I said, “Sure, but…” And I told them, “OK, well… All I can tell you is we have two more games this year in that same box.” So they’re like, “[degected] OK…”
DTD: Figure it out now!
CTP: “We will figure it out…”, which was then Descent and World of Warcraft the board game.
It’s really a shame those games never came to market and destroyed the company because of their box size. Oh wait – that’s right, they were best sellers.
CTP: I’m trying to think when we did Tide of Iron. Tide of Iron was just the year shortly after. Then StarCraft the next year. So anyway, we put out all these products. Corey [Konieczka] had come into the business at that time. Around 2005.
8 games are generally included in the “coffin box” list, from 2005 through 2010. They are:
Twilight Imperium 3rd ed. (2005)
Descent: Journeys in the Dark 2nd ed. (2005)
World of Warcraft: The Board Game (2005)
Tide of Iron (2007)
StarCraft: The Board Game (2007)
Horus Heresy (2010)
Dust Tactics (2010)
CTP: I don’t think… He wasn’t really involved in some of those games, but he got more involved later. And I love Corey because he’s… He designed games just like me. He’s better than me. So he, he was able to kind of be my alter-ego on the game design. So we worked a lot together, and I became more, at that time… We started growing as a company, and I got involved in all the things related to that. And I still designed a lot of things, but they were… I couldn’t finish them. Because we were just too busy. So, finishing a design is very hard work.
DTD: Oh, iteration, and tweaks, and…
CTP: All the stuff at the end, the rule book, the final testing. So, I did a lot of design stuff. For example, the StarCraft… Oh!
DTD: That was a good bite!
Christian had either a fantastic bit of food or a truly inspiring idea at just that moment. And I will leave it as a cliffhanger for next time. Come back for more food, more StarCraft, and thoughts on selling to gorillas.