We are nearing the end of a fantastic lunch at Oceana in Reno. Eminent designer Eric Lang and I are talking through the designer’s transition from the early days of Fantasy Flight, into Cool Mini or Not and beyond. The food is nearly gone, and satiety evolves into nostalgia.
EML: But anyway, so the point was, you asked about the rest of… You asked about FFG [Fantasy Flight Games].
DTD: Yeah, I asked about getting into FFG.
EML: We had this tight, tight camaraderie, that like… We went through hell together. At the same time as doing a CCG, he [Christian Petersen] was planning Twilight Imperium third [edition]. We were planning World of Warcraft, the board game. We’re planning, like… He had the Lord of the Rings board game coming out. All at the same time, so…
All of this was happening around 2005, a magical year for Fantasy Flight. I am assuming the Lord of the Rings board game in question is Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, released in 2005. Fantasy Flight also brought over the Reiner Knizia classic cooperative Lord of the Rings game, but that was earlier, in 2001.
DTD: And all the big licenses were coming in.
EML: We just brute forced our way through all of that. And we would sleep under the desk, but we loved it. We loved it.
DTD: That is awesome. It’s like these early software incubation-house kind of environments.
EML: That’s right. Now, Chris Petersen was a pain in the a–. You know – you’ve met him, right?
DTD: Everybody says it, and I’ve met him and I think he’s fantastic. But he’s a fantastic pain in the a–.
Someone should interview that guy!
I have heard from several sources that he can be a difficult boss with strong demands. But I found him charismatic and delightful at dinner.
EML: He’s a, he’s a pain in the… Well, for people who work with him. But people who don’t work with him have a very different relationship with him.
DTD: I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve worked with him.
EML: Now, I was also a pain in the a–, right? So, like, it takes two to tango, right?
The phrase “it takes two to tango” comes from a popular 1952 song by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, popularized by Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey.
EML: So, Chris and I basically spent ten years like this [opposing fists], all the time. Great, great respect for each other. But we were always like this [bumping fists again], right? I was always like, “I know better! I know better!” He was always like, “I’ve got the vision! I’ve got the vision!” But for some reason, my superpower at FFG was… Like, Chris was a “Steve Jobs” character. He was the… He was, in my opinion still is, the creative nucleus of FFG. He’s the guy. He’s the “top down”.
DTD: Yeah. Vision.
EML: Every day he was surrounded by a lot of smart people. Great at execution. But they’re executing his vision. I was the only one in the organization that also had my own vision, that did get incorporated into FFG.
EML: Like, I mean the way they designed card games is based on my vision for what card games are. And so, Chris and I fought a lot. And we influenced each other a lot.
EML: And my superpower was that I got to win the occasional argument.
I need that superpower. My wife disagrees, and convinced me otherwise.
DTD: That’s called collaboration, isn’t it? “Fighting” all the time.
EML: Well, because I was just that… I didn’t pick my battles, I picked every battle. And it was like “F— it, we are just going to fight over everything.” And that made me a much, much, much better designer, and it’s one of those…
DTD: That’s cool!
EML: That’s a period that can never happen again.
DTD: Sure. So, and I’m running through all the standard stuff… So how did you transit then over to Cool Mini [or Not]?
Eric Lang was director of Game Design for Cool Mini or Not from March 2017 through September 2020.
I should note: Eric had famously posted online that he was tired of the same interview questions over and over again. And I was acutely self-conscious of this.
EML: Well, there’s a lot of in-between.
DTD: I know, I’ve skipped a generation there.
DTD: But I want to hear about Exploding Kittens, so I’m jumping these big time gaps.
Eric Lang left CMoN in August 2020, and shortly thereafter was consulting with the relatively new game publisher Exploding Kittens.
EML: Oh sure, sure, sure. So, there’s a big time gap where… Like I never, I wound down with FFG, even in 2006… No, I didn’t wind down, I went non-exclusive in like 2006 or 2007. I don’t remember.
It was around this time that Fantasía S.A. and Quarriors, titles outside of Fantasy Flight, appeared.
EML: But I still was primarily with FFG. So, like I… We were so close, I was like by gentlemen’s agreement, they had first right of refusal on any cool new thing that came on me.
DTD: Oh sure.
EML: It wasn’t contract. I was just like…
DTD: And they were, like you said, they were comrades in arms. If you had something cool, who are you going to bounce it off of?
EML: Right. Like, “You all made my career, right? I feel obligated to at least show you something.” But I was, I had other things I wanted to do. Like, I had a relationship with WizKids at the time. And then I did video games for four years after I burned out.
Quarriors (2011) and its spiritual successor Dice Masters (2014) were popular projects Eric Lang worked on with publisher WizKids.
EML: And then after that I came back to FFG to do Star Wars. I did … Star Wars [the Card Game], Warhammer Invasion, Warhammer Conquest. Chaos in the Old World. I had that second golden age, where Chris [Petersen] just basically said, “F— it. I’m tired of fighting with you.
DTD: “Do what you want.”
The above games released between 2009 and 2014. Chaos in the Old World (2009), a Warhammer title, in particular is one of Eric’s most celebrated titles, and is considered a predecessor to Blood Rage.
EML: “Here’s some games… Like, well, let’s just discuss what kind of games…” And he chilled out a lot, too. And so did I. So we’re like, “Let’s not fight all the time.” So we’re like, let’s agree that there’s some games that I should just leave. And I picked the stuff I wanted to work on, and that worked. And it worked really, really well. And I also had the… And they were also at the point where, “Like, we’re not going to do games in six months anymore. We are going to take what it takes. We are going to let it…”
EML: They became more Blizzard-like. And to my mind, that was the golden age of FFG. That was… They came up with most of their best stuff.
Blizzard Entertainment, the video game publisher behind Diablo, WarCraft and Starcraft, was famous for a time because of their philosophy towards release schedules – “It’s done when it’s done.” And sometimes that took a very long time.
DTD: I agree.
EML: Of course, Descent, Arkham Horror, all that stuff came out that same philosophy, right?
EML: And like, I mean, Kevin Wilson, Corey Konieczka, and myself were like the three-headed creative force at that time. So thats when all of our best s–t came out.
Kevin Wilson and Corey Konieczka are both very prolific designers with FFG.
Kevin is best known for Descent, Fury of Dracula 3rd edition, and Cosmic Encounter.
Corey’s achievements include Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars Rebellion, and Twilight Imperium 4th Edition.
I would not cry if either of them went to a meal with me.
EML: We also cross collaborated a lot. So like, I worked on Corey’s games, Corey worked on Kevin’s games, Kevin work on my games. And back and forth. Anyway, after the FFG thing, I started getting obsessed with miniatures again.
EML: And I wanted more toys. More, more toys! I want to play all the toys!
DTD: Toys are great.
EML: I’ve always loved Games Workshop. I’ve never liked Warhammer the game, but I love the universe, sort of. I love the idea of it. I love the surface level, like “elevator pitch”. For this epic, spanning, dystopian “Game of Thrones” universe, where magic and tech are indistinguishable. I loved all that stuff. And the visual storytelling. You don’t need to know anything about Warhammer, but if you look at the s–t on the table, you’re like, “Oh my god…”
Warhammer 40k, released in 1987, is a miniatures-based game set in a distant future, featuring Space Marines, Necrons, Orks, and more, engaged in mechanised combat. The miniatures are stunning, and people tend to take incredible amounts of care in painting them. It is definitely a lifestyle game.
DTD: You get it.
EML: It fills in the gaps for you, right?
DTD: I totally agree. I’m fascinated with all their stuff. I don’t think I’d play any of their games.
EML: Right. But I love them from afar. Then I met David Preti. Who was at the time working for… I don’t remember. He and Paolo Parente were doing, they did Dust Tactics together.
David Preti has been the COO of CMoN since 2019.
EML: And they were also orbiting FFG. David [Preti] was one of Chris’… And I noticed that David and Chris’ relationship was like this [super tight], right? They were also like this [more separate], and it was like, huh… Is there like… Like did I find a kindred spirit? But David and Chris… David is not a.., well he’s a creative, but he’s business model.
There was quite a bit of hand gesturing during this exchange.
EML: He is the… He’s Elon Musk-like, actually. Except I think the world’s better with him than without. But we will stop there… [laughs].
DTD: I’ll tell Elon you said so.
I don’t know Elon. But if he wants to go to dinner, I would not complain…
EML: But he’s like, he’s a rogue scholar. He wasn’t formally business trained, but he has the great instincts.
DTD: He gets it.
EML: He knows what to. He knows how to surround himself with people, he accepts when people are smarter than him. But he’s got it, right? Even if David, unlike Chris [Petersen]… Chris says all ideas have to come through Chris. But David is like, “I don’t care where the idea comes from, but when I see the ball, I kick it out. And I will mastermind the business plan, and whatever you need.” So, David basically invented Kickstarter for big box games, the way we see it, with Zombicide.
In May 2012, Zombicide raised $781,597 from 5,258 backers. At that time, this was an inconceivable Kickstarter success.
EML: He invented that formula. Now I was working with them at the time, and I didn’t really like Zombicide, so I didn’t work with them on that. But when I saw the Kickstarter, I was like “Holy S—t!”. I was like, I started looking at my chest, at my bucket list. Of things that I was pitching publishers, that nobody could possibly make. I had Kaosball as an idea for ages. Like, Blood Bowl in a box, with 1000 miniatures, but everyone would look at me and go, “You’re insane.”
DTD: But who could do that?
EML: I showed it to David, and he was like, “Done. That’s our next Kickstarter.” I was like, “Holy S—t”. So, I worked on game after game after game. And it was just me and David [Preti], and two of his top lieutenants, who were not part of CMoN at the time.
EML: He just… Like, David built a relationship with CMoN. I built a relationship with CMoN in parallel. I met David Doust at BGG Con, and just hit it off. And we were just talking all the time.
David Doust is the owner and founder of CMoN, Cool Mini or Not.
DTD: Wow, OK.
EML: And he comes from a Magic [the Gathering] background. He used to be an event organizer and stuff. We really hit it off. We shared a lot of background, but I was like… I remember our first dinner, I was like, “You’re not a game designer, are you?” And he’s like, “You’re not a businessman, are you?”
EML: I’m like, “No, I’m not.” I was like, “Alright, we’re gonna…”
DTD: “We’re gonna figure this out.”
EML: “This is a start of a beautiful friendship I think.”
DTD: That’s awesome.
EML: We complement each other well. And then, so David came in, and he met Chern [Ng Chern Ann], who is the CEO, in Singapore because he had to work in Singapore for his day job. So then, I meet David in Singapore one year after I burned out, like so, so… Like, a couple years past. I go to Singapore because I was burned out on video games. I worked on video games for two years, and I just said, “F— it, I quit. I’ll leave.” And I just went, “I’m going to Singapore for a month.” And David is there! And so, we just hung out there together, and he showed me a bunch of art that he was working on. The art for The Others, what was going to be The Others, he had that on his computer.
The Others: 7 Sins is an epic battle between ordinary heroes and the 7 deadly sins. The game came with expansion boxes specific to each sin. The Kickstarter Campaign raised $1.4 million in October 2015.
EML: I was like, “What is that?” He was like, “I don’t know.”
DTD: It’s cool art. What do you want to do with it?
EML: So, I’m like, “Can you give it to me? I’ll do something with it.” He showed me a bunch of other art, and he said, “Yeah I had this game, the idea.” And I was like, “Well, I love your art, but the game idea’s crap. What if I took that art and made, I want to do a sequel for Midgard.” Right? And what if I re-theme it to that art? And I tried; it was good. It was fine. But I wasn’t feeling it. But I was like, “Oh God, I really want to do a sequel to Midgard… F— it – I want to do… Let’s do Vikings.” And then David introduced me to Adrian Smith, right?
Adrian Smith is the artist behind many of CMoN’s project, and has been art director for the company since 2017.
EML: And he was like, “F— yea, Vikings!” He said, “Go, do what you like. Come back when you’re done.” And the art direction for Blood Rage…
DTD: I love how organically that all just kind of happened.
EML: So, Adrian knows Norse mythology better than I do.
DTD: All right.
EML: So, all I did, was… Like, my art direction was, “I need the following Gods… I need the following monsters… I have 5 or 10 more monsters I’m gonna do. Go nuts.”
DTD: “Just pick me monsters.”
EML: Give me art. I’ll design to that art. Those usually end up being stretch goals. Because the core box, I’m doing first…
DTD: Sure, music versus lyrics, right?
The eternal creative’s dilemma.
EML: Just give me sh-t that’s hateful, right? Then I can live with it for a little while, we go back and forth. And it was great. But like, I never, ever told them, like… My art, my notes were always like “great, great.”
DTD: You just gave him free reign, almost.
EML: And I wasn’t even in charge. It was David, he was the art director. So I’m sure he probably gave them a lot of notes.
DTD: That’s really cool.
EML: The only note I ever gave him was… I don’t know how well you remember Blood Rage, the product? If you look at the player boards, on the back of the player boards is this piece of art of a bunch of Vikings with spears?
EML: That was the original proposed cover. When I saw the cover, I was like, “Mehh, it’s so static. And there’s too many people on it. Why is it grey?” And it was the first time I ever complained about a cover. And Dave got pissed off, Adrian got pissed off. I’m like, “Couldn’t we just like… Couldn’t we make it pop?” And Adrian was like, “FINE. F—er.” And overnight comes up with a cover that you see. And I was like, “THAT’S IT!”
DTD: That’s the cover.
EML: Like, in anger. Like, he thought he was going to piss off… Or be like, “See?!? This is why we don’t do what you want!” And then we’re like “That’s amazing!” And he’s like, “yeah, that is amazing…”
DTD: [laughs] It’s the Quiet Riot story. Is what that is.
The story is that in 1983 the band Quiet Riot were told to cover the 1973 song Cum on Feel the Noize originally performed by Slade. The band was so annoyed, they did one take of the song, sloppy and without rehearsal, just to prove how bad the song was. And it was their biggest hit.
It didn’t hurt that Eric loves heavy metal. I think I scored points.
EML: [laughs] Yeah, yeah it is. It is amazing.
Come on back next time for the last of Lunch with Lang. The epilogue to eating with Eric. And we finish with a short one: some talk about the Blood Rage Trilogy, a little Exploding Kittens, and some mentor mentions.