These days, it takes some fine minds and a unique twist on the concept to craft out a game that will stand longer than a year, which is exactly what helped local game creator Max Holliday when he put together his own turn-based card game, Eaten By Zombies. Today, I chat with Holliday about his game and the process to getting it made and published, thoughts on the industry itself and a few other topics. (All pictures courtesy of Holliday.)
Gavin: Hey, Max. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Max: Hey, Gavin. Well, my name's Max Holliday and I'm a graphic designer living here in Salt Lake City, but I'm originally from Ogden. I work freelance in the board-game industry and pick up odd jobs here and there where I can.
Gavin: How did you first get into gaming, and what were some of your favorites growing up?
Max: Well ... Guess Who. Does that count? I can’t wait for the movie! I was raised on CCG -- Collectible Card Games -- like Magic: The Gathering, although I was a bit early for Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. I was at my peak of playing in the late '90s through '01 with games like Star Wars: CCG, L5R, Mythos, Rage and the Star Trek: CCG; although I did play a lot of board games like Settlers Of Catan, the gateway game.
Gavin: What specifically got you involved with more role-playing and turn-based games?
Max: It was mostly the end of Star Wars: CCG. Lucas sold/took the rights away from Decipher about the time Hasbro bought Wizard Of The Coast. So, that ended my favorite game, and about that time the friends I was playing a lot with started parting ways, growing up and whatnot; really, they're all just slackers, with their kids and wife and whining about mortgages! Haha! Once I didn’t have the money suck of the CCGs -- and I had bills to pay -- I found buying a game $30-$60 that I could play with four - six friends was a better way to spend my time and money.
Gavin: How did the idea come about for you to start up your own card game?
Max: Well, It was more of just a simple "I think I could make a game! Other people seem to be doing it more than anything. Back in high school, I had designed two 150-card sets for Magic, just for fun. No one ever wanted to play them but it was fun to design. So, I started designing a game where each player was a demigod trying to prove themselves to the townspeople to be the city's hero. Very geeky, I know, but the game wasn’t working well and so ...
Gavin: What made you decide to go with zombies as the theme, and why specifically a turn-based game?
Max: After the demigod game was falling flat, I was walking home from work and I decided I should go with something I knew a little better, so I went with a zombie movie. It only took about 20 minutes to come up with the basic game play. The idea was simple: There really wasn’t a game that I felt made you feel like you and your friends were in a zombie movie. So, I asked what happens in a zombie movie: You have to fight or run, and if you fight you're slowly driven mad, and if you run you never really fix anything, you just get away for now, leaving your friends behind. Your tools are the things you scavenge from the leftovers of the world and you do your best, with no promises of a happy ending.
Gavin: Considering how much the genre of zombies is already in the culture at the moment, was there any worry that people might not be interested, or did you feel it would instantly have an audience wanting more?
Max: I designed the game almost four years ago -- a bit before zombie-media-apocalypse of the last two years. To tell the truth, I didn’t really design the game to go into production. It was made so that I could try my hand at designing a card game; it was practice for my graphic design. It was just something to entertain me, but after I started showing it to my friends -- and really anyone I could talk into playing it -- I got a lot of good feedback. People wanted to play again as soon as we would finish a game, so I thought, "Why the hell not try to produce it?"
Gavin: What was it like for you developing the game and making sure the mechanics worked to make it fair and easy to play for anyone who started?
Max: Oh, that sucked! I played the game for six - seven months with one set of rules that people loved, and then I showed it to my friend Travis. I explained how to play, he said okay, and broke the rules into a braining mash for toothless geriatric zombies. I had to go back and rework everything, trying to keep the things that people were loving while fixing the things Travis exploited. I worked for two more months to tweak everything. Before I could start play-testing again, this happened a couple of times in the first year and a half. The biggest help came when I started asking the online community at BoardGameGeek.com to help with play-testing. They gave me a lot of great feedback and helped a lot to make sure everything was ready.
Gavin: Describe to us how you play Eaten By Zombies.
Max: Eaten By Zombies is a "deck builder," meaning that each player begins the game with their own deck of 12 cards. These are the supplies you have in your safe house when the shit went down. You draw six cards from your deck into your hand and these are the cards you have access to during the game. You will need to scavenge for more supplies i.e., cards, to add to deck, so each turn you have to go out and face the zombie horde. To start your turn, you must reveal a zombie card from the top of separate deck we call the zombie deck. Once you’ve revealed the zombie(s), each other player has a chance to add more zombie cards from their hand, so you could end up having to deal with several zombies on your turn. Now, you have to decide whether you’re going to try and fight, hopefully, killing the zombies, or if you’re going to flee, hopefully, getting away by playing cards from your hand. If you get past the zombies either by killing all of them or running, then you can scavenge for supplies from the piles of cards on the table, adding them to your hand and discarding any cards you played. If you can’t get past the entire zombie horde, meaning you couldn’t kill all of them or you couldn’t run from them all, then you have to lose cards from your deck. If you run out of cards, then you die and join the zombie horde, resorting to helping the zombie plague kill your remaining “friends" -- you know, just like in the movies! The game ends if one of three things happen: If you are the only one still alive, the credits roll and you win!; if you and the other surviving players can manage to kill all the zombies in the zombie deck, then you win as a group!; and last, when you kill zombies, they get added to you deck, so you will end up having them in your hand. If a surviving player ever reveals a hand of nothing but zombies, well, they’re that guy in the movie who just can’t stand all horror and decides it’s better to just let the zombies in and everyone dies! The zombies win! This also means that any player who had died will also take the win!
Gavin: You sought out funding on Kickstarter and received over $47k for the project. What made you turn to Kickstarter, and what did you think of the support you received?
Max: Well, the support was mind-blowing! The game was just something I made for myself, and then to see that kind of interest was unbelievable! The Kickstarter was more of the publishers doing than mine. I had never heard much about it at that point. At the time, we were the third-highest-funded game of our kind; now we’re not even close. Kickstarter is a very different beast nowadays. It has become more of a pre-order system for big(ish) companies and a way for small companies to get some press for their products, although it is still making it possible for individuals to make things that would never get founded otherwise, I think of it as the reverse of the show The Shark Tank: Instead of having to convince three people to give you a huge chunk of cash, you have to convince a lot of people to give a reasonable chunk of their cash, and you hope you can get that huge chunk to get your product made. For us, it was more just trying to feel things out and see if we could sell the game; it turns out we could! Yay!
Gavin: How did you hook up with John Huetra to design the artwork?
Max: John and I taught graphic design and 3-D animation at a trade college. We had known each other for over 10 years and we just got talking about the game. he liked the ideas, so I asked him to do some/most of the art. it started with the “Rosie the Riveter” painting -- that was the real reason the game is themed to the 40s-50’s. We loved the idea of taking iconic imagery and making it over with our zombies. At the time, no one had done that image, but by time we found a publisher, there were a few others.
Gavin: What was it like for you shopping the game around, and how did you eventually come across Mayday Games?
Max: That's kind of the strange part of the story. Seth, who owns Mayday Games, had bought a cell phone from my cousin, who I play a lot of games with. They had talked about the game and Seth had mentioned that he was looking for some more games to publish. So, my cousin got his number and e-mail for his brother, who designs games. I had just happened to be at the family game night and overheard them talking and "got" Seth’s e-mail. After I sent an e-mail to Seth, it took five months for him to finally sit down and take a look at the game. We meet at SaltCON, a local game convention here in Salt Lake City. Seth, his son, his brother and I sat down and played one of the worst, longest games of Eaten by Zombies I had ever played! I thought for sure I was sunk and they were just going to tell me to shove off, but they liked it so he sent me a contract the next week. I think it had a lot to do with the game being all but done -- the cards you see in the game were the cards with the art I showed him. I didn’t really know what a prototype was at that point ... haha!
Max: Really, the only thing that has changed is the name. I was calling it "I hope you get eaten by zombies!" just because of the backstabbing aspects of the game. I had sent the game to one other publisher the month before because I had given up on getting with Seth. They sent me the same deal two days after I signed with Seth. I’ve been working in this field for a few years now and that is unheard of, so if you have a game you want to get published, don’t use anything I’m telling you as a basis. You can send a good prototype to a dozen publishers and get rejected from three and never hear from the rest; that’s just how it works, and that’s why you've seen so many games on Kickstarter over the last year. We have the explosion of games right now because before there were too many games being designed and never enough publishers to go around. Nowadays, we have a player base that can just go out and buy the games they want to play through Kickstarting the game and the publishers get to just grab what works.
Gavin: The game officially launched back in 2011. What was the initial public reaction to it and how was it for you seeing it take off like it did?
Max: It’s strange to see your baby wander off for the first time through street traffic, and it’s funny how the Internet works. By "funny" I mean painful, and by "works" I mean "eff" the Internet!!! No, just kidding. The initial reaction was great; for the first four months, we were on our way to being listed as one of the top 100 games, but then came the zombie-media-apocalypse and the folks started coming out of the woodwork with “I hate zombies and I hate card games but I’m going to give this an honest review and it sucks!” Though it’s been really great; people who get it love it and it was Mayday's highest-selling of all time.
Gavin: Since the launch, you've had two expansion packs. How have they done as far as expanding the game and bringing in new players to the game?
Max: The expansions add two more players, taking it from a four-player game to a six-player. I’ve also started adding new zombies to the mix and hinting at things to come, but mostly just adding new zombies and new weapons. You can never have too many weapons when it comes to zombies.
Gavin: Are there any plans down the road for creating new additions to the game, like series such as Magic: The Gathering have done, or will it simply be an expansive universe based on the original?
Max: I’m looking at a new, bigger box to fit everything in. I think it should be more expansive of the base game. John and I had talked about doing yearly fun packs, where you could have “samurai vs. ninja and zombies,” a two-player game that could be added. It was good for a laugh but it’s just not that kind of game. Although I’ll tell you, I’d love to make a Eaten By Zombies movie. That would be a hoot!
Gavin: Considering the success of the series, do you have any plans for creating a new series or a different kind of game in the near future?
Max: Oh, of course, but I don’t know how near that is going be. You always want to make more, but it takes a lot out of you to make something like this -- four years of nothing but zombies is a long time, and you thought you were burned out on zombie stuff?! Haha!
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourself and Eaten By Zombies over the rest of the year?
Max: I’ll be working my tail end off. I quit my teaching job and I’m living off of my freelance work for now, so if you see me, it will be the credits of the game as graphic design. As for Eaten by Zombies, I have two new expansions planned that will add some new things to the game like vehicle and characters you’ll have to rescue from Horde for some game-changing effects -- and, of course, more zombies!
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Max: Sure, I’ll take one for the team. Check out a new game I’ve been working on. It should hit Kickstarter in the next few weeks, called Walk The Plank. I’ve been working with a great artist by the name Mike Grove; you can find his stuff over at Poopbird.com. Also, if you’re looking for a great local charity group to follow and support, take a look at the ZionCurtionSisters.org and follow them on Facebook. They raise money for the homeless youth here in Utah and help raise awareness about bullying and Safer Sex -- through the Utah Aids foundation. And, of course, check out MaydayGames.com and buy some junk!
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