Game Designer Interview: Rob Dougherty on Star Realms and White Wizard Games

If you’ve gotten the impression that Star Realms is my favorite game, you’re right. So when a new big Kickstarter is happening for the game, you better believe I get excited. I had the chance to talk to Rob Dougherty, CEO of White Wizard Games and co-designer of Star Realms, about what’s different this time. Read on to find out! 
First, tell us a bit about yourself and your history of game design, and the history of White Wizard Games.
I grew up in upstate NY, and I always loved games. When I was little, I was obsessed with Monopoly and Risk. In my teenage years I moved on to Axis and Allies, Dungeons and Dragons, Champions, and Warhammer. From a young age, I was also modifying games and designing new ones.
I joined the U.S. Army right out of high school, completed Airborne training, and served with the 1st infantry division. That was intense, and helped me develop my self-discipline skills. I went to community college and was able to use this newfound discipline to improve from my distracted-by-games-barely-getting-by high school grades to straight A’s. I applied to the Electrical Engineering program at Northeastern University, and was thrilled to be accepted. I was doing great there until something magical got in the way.
I heard about a new card game at GenCon, but wasn’t interested until a game reviewer friend of mine insisted I try it. I quickly became obsessed with Magic: The Gathering. Soon I was filling my backpack with cards and walking Mass Ave bridge over the Charles River to play with friends at MIT.   
I wanted more cards, but they were expensive. I starting selling Magic cards online, and it was very lucrative. I think I may have been the first person to sell Magic cards online. I was a poor college student on the GI bill, and posted cards for sale to the MTG-L site (to raise more money to buy cards with!). I remember when eventually someone else posted cards for sale, thinking to myself, “Hey, that’s my thing.”
I enjoyed selling cards and gaming, and there seemed to be a real opportunity there. I figured I could give it a shot and if it failed I could always go back to school. So, I dropped out of college and opened “Your Move Games” store. We had a big Warhammer and Magic community, and I led the store’s legendary professional team, which created a slew of Hall of Fame Magic players. This is also where I met my best friend and business partner, Darwin Kastle. I went on to run events in New England for Wizards of the Coast and to create my own games. I was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.
While  running a game store and large game events, it was easy to work on my game projects on the side. There were always plenty of potential playtesters around, after all. My dabbles became real products, and I eventually sold my game stores and worked on games full-time.
I have over 20 years of industry experience spanning nearly every aspect of hobby gaming:
  • Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Champion and Hall of Famer
  • Game Designer
  • White Wizard Games CEO
  • Designer and Co-Creator of Epic Card Game
  • Co-Creator of the Star Realms Deckbuilding Game
  • Co-Creator of the Hero Realms Deckbuilding Game
  • Co-Founder/Co-Designer of the Ascension Deckbuilding Game
  • Gary Games Inc. COO
  • EpicTCG CEO
  • Your Move Games Inc. Co-CEO
  • Stoneblade Entertainment Organized Play Director
  • Game Store Owner
  • Premier Tournament Organizer
  • Tournament Judge (Level 3 Magic Judge)
  • Organized Play Designer/Consultant
I co-founded several game companies over the years and successfully published dozens of games and gaming accessories. Darwin and I started White Wizard Games together with Tan Thor Jensen and Vito Gesualdi in 2013.
About White Wizard Games:
About 5 years ago, Darwin Kastle, who was a long time friend and who had worked for me on multiple game projects, was looking for work in the hobby games industry. I suggested he make a game and shop it around to different game companies to show off his skills.
He showed it around some, but got no takers. I decided to help him develop and polish the game. Darwin and I had worked together for decades, first as Magic: the Gathering professional player teammates, then as game designers/developers. Over that time, we developed a strong rapport and I can improve games faster and better with Darwin than with anyone else.
As we worked on his game prototype (that would later become known as Star Realms), it got better and better. Eventually, it got so good that I suggested we should just make it ourselves. White Wizard Games was born.
Additionally, could you share some little-known factoids? Do they match up to the dog-breeding, ballroom-dancing-instructor side of Darwin [Kastle]?
Hmmmm… factoids…
I have 7 children and a Saint Bernard.
Our home was built in the 1700s.
I love to play Just Dance with my 9 year old.
I like to bake pies (yes, really!).
Star Realms was the game that kicked off White Wizard Games, and now we’re back full circle with a new, big Kickstarter for the game. When I interviewed Darwin in 2014, he talked about the low price point being a gamble and wanting the game to “catch fire.”
Looking back, did the gamble pay off? Anything you would have done differently with that first launch?
Yes, the box size was a big gamble.
With my first deckbuilding game, Ascension, I wanted people to understand it wasn’t a trading card game. My business partner Justin Gary and I were big Magic players and we leaned early on that heavily in our marketing. I was worried that would translate to people thinking Ascension was a trading card game, so I put that game in a large, board game style box, and had it come with a game board (even though it wasn’t really necessary). That worked well, and Ascension was a big hit.
I, however, was never fully happy with that packaging. I would take the Ascension cards out of the box and put them in a card carrying box from my Magic decks to make it smaller and more portable. With Star Realms we decided to try making the game box small and portable. This allowed us to sell what would have normally been a $40 game for just $15. On the down side, we put all the work in to make what should have been a $40 game but were just getting $15 for it! It also meant the game was smaller and harder to see on the store shelf, and might get confused with trading card games. So, a lot could have gone wrong. Fortunately, people seem to really love the affordability and portability, and Star Realms took off even more than Ascension did.
Star Realms’ accessibility has always been a huge boon to the game, yet there’s a lot there to explore. With Colony Wars, I was impressed how different the game felt with very few new mechanisms. With Frontiers, we’ve seen at least one new mechanism (double ally abilities). How do you balance keeping the game fresh without overdoing it or “using up” your ideas too soon? How far out do you have ideas planned for the future?
One way we keep things simple with Star Realms is avoiding keywords. So with Colony Wars we had a mechanic on some cards that when you acquire them, if you have played a card of that faction already that turn, they go to your hand instead of your discard pile.
Instead of making that a keyword (like say “Reinforcement”) we just wrote the text of what to do on the card. This allows us to do cool new things without players having to learn more. Just read the card and you will be fine.
There were some mechanics in Frontiers that had keywords, which got changed to just have explanation text during development. The double ally ability will need to be explained in the rulebook, but it is fairly intuitive so I don’t think new players will have trouble with it.
We don’t plan out mechanics more than a set in advance. That said, we sometimes come up with cool mechanic ideas and decide to save them for a set down the road where they would be a better fit.
Speaking of Colony Wars, that is the only standalone release from White Wizard Games that did not come out through Kickstarter. Was that not as successful as you wanted? What’s the motivation for moving Star Realms back to Kickstarter with Frontiers?
We have been doing new games on Kickstarter, and new expansions direct to stores. Several factors brought us to the decision to bring Frontiers to Kickstarter.
  1. Our Star Realms fans helped make our Epic and Hero Realms Kickstarters a big success, but most of them weren’t around for that first Star Realms Kickstarter. I heard from a lot of Star Realms fans that they wish they could have been part of a Star Realms Kickstarter.
  2. We have found that the games we have launched on Kickstarter do better in retail than those we don’t. Kickstarter backers tend to be excited about the games they get, and take them to stores and play with their friends, essentially working as a demo team for their local game store. This translates into more excitement and more sales at the hobby store level.
  3. The extra dollars raised by a Kickstarter campaign allows us to do so much more than we could otherwise do. Better art, more cards, more game development, etc.
Colony Wars also just arrived on the digital app, along with a host of other interface and security changes, which I know have been a huge amount of work for your company both before and after release. What was the impetus for these changes? Have you been surprised by fan reactions, whether good or bad?
The reason we updated the look and feel was to improve the look of the game to be more attractive to new players.
The security updates, in addition to just being a nice feature, are a necessary step along the road to one of my long term goals for Star Realms: in-app tournaments.
On initial launch of the updated app we had some bugs, and not surprisingly this frustrated users and we got a lot of negative feedback. Once those bugs got fixed and long term players got a chance to get used to the new look and feel, feedback improved dramatically. Most importantly, the number of games played on the app is up.
There are now 192 different formats in the Star Realms app, and many more for the paper game. What’s your favorite way to play, both online and on paper?
I really like quick matches. Let my opponent decide what sets we play with. The constant changes keep things fresh and exciting! On paper, I mostly playtest sets in development. 🙂
Since Star Realms kicked off, you’ve had two other games released: Epic and Hero Realms. There seemed to be some reaction to Epic where players said, “Wait, I didn’t want this; I wanted fantasy Star Realms!” to which you all said, “Okay then!” and made Hero Realms. Looking back, did this “fan service” project pay off? Has Hero Realms garnered the following that Star Realms has? Do you wish you had done those projects in the opposite order?
Hero Realms has done great and really fills that demand our customers expressed.
Epic, with over 60,000 units of the base game sold, while not in the category of success as Star Realms, is no slouch. 🙂
I’m very happy with the order of the releases. Epic has very different mechanics than Star Realms and showed our range as game designers. I feel that was important for us to do as our second project to show that we weren’t a one-trick-pony.
Hero Realms has some really unique things that separate it from Star Realms—character packs and cooperative play. Do you feel obligated to keep the games distinct, or when an idea becomes very popular (e.g. character packs in Hero Realms)? Is there an incentive to bring it to the other game?
I can do both!
The popularity of Character Packs in Hero Realms led to the creation of Command Decks in Star Realms (in the Frontiers Kickstarter).
We keep things different by keeping with the theme. In a fantasy adventure setting, it feels right to have your character improve: Gain skills, find treasure, etc. So, characters in Hero Realms are designed to improve over time as you play through multiple campaigns.
In Star Realms, you are a leader of an entire realm. In this context, that type of character improvement doesn’t feel right. So, instead, you play as a legendary commander, one of the most brilliant tacticians from the Star Realms universe. Command Decks are designed to be super powerful to begin with, not improve over multiple play sessions.
One thing that has really propelled Star Realms forward is the immense amount of community the players have generated online, both through BoardGameGeek and A Star Realms Fan Created Community Page on Facebook. Did you expect the game to have such a community behind it? How do you think that happened?
I didn’t expect it, but I love it!
Star Realms is a game you can sink a lot of time into, developing strategies and playing over and over, but without spending a fortune. I think people like to talk about games with that kind of depth, and that led to the community forming. We have tried to help out along the way by offering prize support and such to the community and their tournaments. We had many of our fans attend our White Wizard Games Fair, and there is video highlighting our community here.
Geeks Under Grace is a faith-based site. All three of your games have religious references: Machine Cult, angels, demons, and so on. Do you think faith or worldview has an effect on the way players approach board gaming, or on the way designers approach game design? Should it?
Faith has always been part of the human experience, so we have fictional faiths in our fictional worlds.
I think people of any faith (or no faith) can enjoy these games.
Gotta ask: Any tidbits you can tell us about Sorcerer?
The art is beautiful, the theme is dark (very EVIL), and the game play is a lot of fun.
The horror/dark magic theme makes it not a game for kids, but I think the grown-ups are going to love it.
What have you been reading/watching/enjoying lately?
Watching: Walking Dead, House of Cards, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones.
Reading: The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie), Codex Alera series (Jim Butcher), Old Man’s War series (John Scalzi)
Anything else you’d like to add?
A big thank you to everyone who plays our games. I love making them and it is a dream come true to do it for a living.
Thanks to Rob for the interview and check out the Frontiers Kickstarter right here!

Derek Thompson

I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.

Leave a Reply