If you look at any board game collection it is likely you will find a game published by Stronghold Games. Some of the games they have in their catalogue include hits like Core Worlds, Among the Stars, Dark Moon, Jorvik, Nations, Pit Crew, Space Cadets, Survive: Escape from Atlantis, and the recent award-winning successes Great Western Trail and Terraforming Mars. That is no minor effort and testifies to the powerhouse Stronghold Games has become in the industry in the last 10 years for providing games that stand for quality in design and publication. The driving force behind Stronghold is none other than Stephen Buonocore. Stephen is a vibrant and charismatic figure that provides a personable face to Stronghold. Stephen is always working not just to promote his games, but to promote and build the gaming hobby. He is a well-loved personality in the hobby and I was very pleased when he agreed to spend some time talking to us.
You are well known as a gamer through and through. So what is your favourite game?
This is EASY! I’ve said this many times… It is WAR OF THE RING! It is the most thematic game ever done, and it culminates in either Frodo dunking the ring, succumbing to Corruption, or the last Stronghold on Middle Earth falling. It is so well done, so well balanced. Just a beautiful game. Oh, and I own the Collector’s Edition… ☺
War of the Ring is a classic loved by many. Honestly, I have come close to buying it many times but never pulled the trigger. This may just push me over the edge. So who then would be your favourite designer?
Hard one, as there are so many good ones. Martin Wallace has traditionally been my favourite. He’s also a good friend. I hope we will work together in the near future! I’ll toss out Geoff Engelstein, who is a great friend and local New Jersey guy, and his innovative designs have been getting better and better. I’ll finish with the great Friedemann Friese. The man just constantly pushes the envelope of game design. Look at this year’s Fast Forward Series! Brilliant!!!
That is certainly an "A-List" of game designers. Martain Wallace is amazing and such a solid designer he never puts a foot wrong. Geoff Engelstein has gone from strength to strength and released a wonderful list of games published under the Stronghold name. Readers should look forward to our forthcoming reviews of Fog of War and Pit Crew from Geoff. And who could argue with Friedemann Friese? I would not hesitate to call his designs fearless. 504 was one of the most interesting design challenges set and it required such a professional handle on design that there is no one I could imagine making a game like that happen. Can you share some of your story of how you got into gaming and how it shaped you as a person?
I have been a gamer FOREVER. I grew up on games, playing all the mass market ones as a child. I graduated to RPGs in High School (Advanced D&D! Old school!). I played video games on my earliest computers (Apple 2 Plus! VERY old school!), Did the whole CCG thing including Magic the Gathering a bit. However, Jyhad/ Vampire: The Eternal Struggle was a passion, and I helped resurrect that game from the dead (pun intended) in the mid-late 90s. Then, I found the whole eurogame movement, playing Catan, Puerto Rico, Amun Re, and the like in the late 90s, early ‘00s. I realized my passion lay here: in the social aspects of gaming. This is the best part of gaming indeed: We get together to spend time around a table and challenge (or cooperate with) each other. This is the best of all in gaming, for me.
What a wonderful way to marry your profession and passion. What are you most proud of with Stronghold Games?
Stronghold Games grew from a tiny company to an industry leader. By establishing relationships with great publishers around the world, I have been able to make Stronghold Games a marquee brand. I now have publishers from around the world beating a path to my door to work with Stronghold Games, which is awesome for the company’s growth. And of course, without the fans and gamers in general, none of this would have happened. I am proud and humbled by this.
And it is a reputation that is well deserved. Yet building a company like Stronghold Games must have been a character building journey. What were some of the challenges in building your company? How did you get through the tough times and make the most of the good?
This industry is not easy, but then again, building something great is never easy. Getting the word out is difficult when there are very few viable places to market. This is one reason that I achieved notoriety - purposefully – by doing podcasts… ALL of the podcasts. Making Tom Vasel my Arch Nemesis of Gaming was also a choice – he actually called me that before I did! The more I can get myself out there in front of gamers, in audio format, in video format, in person at conventions, on TV (did you see me live on TV in Indianapolis during Gen Con?!), the better for Stronghold Games, and for that matter, the industry. Thank goodness I am pretty good at making appearances! I may not be the prettiest, but I am the most conversational. ☺
It sounds like you have worked hard to create your own luck in this industry. Sadly I did not see you live on TV for Gen Con, but I have seen you on many of my favourite Youtube channels and Podcasts. What relationships do you see as vital to your success and how did they support you?
As mentioned, I have created copublishing relationships with many publishers around the world. Of biggest importance now is the strategic partnership with 2-F Spiele, which is Friedemann Friese’s design studio. They are fantastic to work with and I know that year after year they will have great games for me to publish. Our newest strategic partner, Lautapelit.fi, is killing it as well, so they will become more and more important as time goes on. Flame Rouge has been a bit hit this year, and Space Freaks… wow! Wait until you see and PLAY this game!
With such successful games and effort invested into industry relationships, what would you say is your philosophy of business?
Simple: Make great games for gamers. I am a gamer, first and foremost. I want every one of my games to be “best in class”, regardless of the class/genre/mechanic that they are exemplifying. I want all of my games to be unique in either Mechanics, Thematics, or Funtastics (my word). As a corollary to all of this, particularly the previous discussion about partners, be fair in all of your dealings with people, and by doing so, people will want to continue to work with you.
I think it is safe to say that Stronghold Games has had an amazing year in 2016 and is set for another great year in 2017. Can you discuss your role as a publisher including game selection, game development, as well as marketing and hidden roles that we may not see?
I do everything. LOL!
Well, I don’t do any of the artwork, graphic design, or layout on the games, nor do I do any of the marketing materials, like Sell Sheets, Banners, and posters. For all of these items, I have the great Bill Bricker, who’s been an illustrator for 25+ years, and he’s a pleasure to work with. Bill is considered my art director, and I use him for many marketing functions. Recently, I have gotten someone to do more trade shows for me when I can’t be there, and that’s Cynthia Tuck, who is a great spokesperson for Stronghold Games and the industry. Paul Incao is my Lead Developer, and I use him for game evaluation and refinement. Oh, and importantly, I do not do the actual sales across the world to the over 100 distributors, plus the big Retailers (Amazon, Walmart, Target, B&N, etc.). My Sales Agent is Publisher Services Inc (PSI), who do a fantastic job at this. Besides that, it is on me to select the games, work on the relationships, find the printers, get the artwork done to my satisfaction, do all the customer service, and promote the heck out of the games.
That is quite a burden, yet it is wonderful to learn a little more about the amazing team working alongside you. Your hands-on approach has clearly been positive. When do you know that you have found a game you want to publish?
When I love the game, or see a need for the game in the market, I publish it. It is not truly science, really it is an art. You go with your gut on a lot of things, and I realize that the Stronghold Games brand will sell things in and of itself. However, I still want “great games for gamers”, so I have to ensure that all of them are GREAT, i.e. “Best In Class”, as I mentioned.
Board Games are a growing market which is great for consumers, but what does that mean as a publisher competing in an expanding marketplace?
As long as the market keeps expanding, there will not be an issue, and all of us will continue to carve out a piece of the expanding pie. If the market halts its expansion, but games continue to come out at this increasing rate, we’ll see issues, and weaker publishers will cease to exist. This is macroeconomics 101. For now, Stronghold Games is positioned to have a 2017 that is more than TWICE as good as 2016 was, which was, of course, a remarkable year.
That is hugely impressive considering that 2016 saw several financial and critical successes, including a Kennerspiel des Jahres nominee. There is a great list of games coming out this year including another run of Terraforming Mars (which I am most pleased about). What are you most excited about and what should we keep an eye out for?
SPACE FREAKS is my most exciting game for the style of game that I love. It’s a tactical combat game with miniatures. BUT, you BUILD your Space Freaks each game: Select a head, arms, legs, and body, each of which gives you certain benefits, and then take your Space Freaks into The Arena of Annihilation! Great replayability in this fantastic game!
The Fast Forward Series is very exciting. FEAR, FORTRESS, and FLEE, are the first 3 games in the series, where you don’t read rulebooks to play the games! You just get your friends together, and begin playing! The game teaches you how to play as you go along. This is a riff on the Fable System, and the game will change over time. You’ll play each one 10+ times before you play the whole system, and then you can reply it with the same or another group! Brilliant!
How exciting! A game that teaches you how to play as you play! If that works, Friese will have developed the board game equivalent of Super Mario Bros, so you know I will be getting a copy of that. If I could only buy one game this year what should it be?
Well, as I mentioned, from my catalogue, it would be SPACE FREAKS! It’s gonna be fantastic. The very innovative game, NORIA, from first-time designer, Sophia Wagner, uses a new mechanic called “Wheel Building” and with the beautiful artwork, this is going to be a huge game. Going outside my catalogue, I’m waiting for Ares Games Hunt For The Ring, which is, like War Of The Ring, very very very much my theme… ☺
With not much of the year to go I am astounded to hear how much we have to look forward to. Things are clearly on the up and up and I cannot wait to try some of these new games.