Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Neal Sofge: Life Is a Long Game
4 January 2018

Spotlight: Hi Neal! Good to have you for an interview. Of course, you are a game designer and publisher at Fat Messiah Games. You have a biographical note on your site, so there would seem no need to ask how you happened to get started, except that there's a line stating it's all made up! Actually, I've wondered over the years whether it's your part that's made up or that of your partner, Mike Wasson. After all these years, can you finally clue us in? What's the real story?

Neal Sofge: The entire "Who Are We" section was fabricated at the dawn of the web era in 1995, except:

The real story is pretty mundane, which is that I went to high school with Mike and the initial art staff (Marc Siry and Michael Yee). We started the company senior year, with an immense – and likely unpublishable – tactical game of anime giant robots that took two years to finish. After shopping it around NYC and getting no takers (my favorite rejection being "this Japanese robot thing is just a fad") we decided to start our own company, because obviously the industry wasn't going to produce our kind of games. But we didn't have much money, so we decided to publish in the microgame format to start and do the monster games later. Shapeshifters took another two years to design, plus one more for us to learn how to do layout and graphic design, eventually seeing print in January 1992. Last Frontier was released the following year.

Spotlight: I think I first encountered your name in emails to Phil Eklund about his games such as Lords of the Renaissance and American Megafauna. I had rules questions and the answers would come back with other folks such as yourself being copied. We also played Insecta, which you helped create. So for a while I was kind of confused about whether it was just one company or two. I think you and Sierra Madre Games shared marketing and maybe distribution at one point too, right? How did you run into Phil and end up working with him?

Neal Sofge: Phil had a booth a few tables down at one of the Los Angeles area conventions put on by Strategicon. He was selling first edition Insecta and Lords of the Sierra Madre (LSM), and came over to talk during one of the many, many lulls in the retail action. We traded games (you often do that at cons, because that way you go home with shiny new stuff even if your sales tank) and discovered a lot of common interests, especially spaceflight – he was working as a rocket scientist at the time, and I'd studied space engineering. Phil was already working with Decision on an LSM redesign, but Insecta seemed like a much better fit with the FMG style, so he asked if I'd be interested in a joint venture. This was an immense creative success, and cemented a friendship that continues to this day, as well as a close business relationship that dominated the next few releases from both companies (Rainforest, Trilobite, Hard Vacuum and Science Gone Mad from FMG, and American Megafauna from SMG.)

Spotlight: If we were to judge by BGG ratings, your most successful game has been Last Frontier: The Vesuvius Incident?

Neal Sofge: Yeah, that surprised me a lot, since Insecta was by far the better seller. Mike and I considered LF:tVI to be our best design craftsmanship, but not as inspired as Shapeshifters nor as polished as Insecta.

Spotlight: As an early solo game it really anticipated the current rage for low player count.

Neal Sofge: I can't take credit for that, we were leaning hard on the true solo revolutionaries from the early '80s.

Spotlight: The storyline of rescuing survivors on a crippled ship on a doomed course is quite tense and exciting as well.

Neal Sofge: Yes, I think that's vital to the game's success. The funny thing is, for most of the game's development there were no survivors, just accounting items. So the game was essentially a bug hunt through a mausoleum. I think it was Mike who had the idea of surviving crew, and then of course we had to make one of them insane. We added the timer after playtesters complained that it was just a dungeon crawl and thus somewhat dull. I realized with busted computers you couldn't know when the ship would really start to burn up – I had anxiously watched the news coverage at age 9 when Skylab came down. The various events and special ship areas were added for the same reason, making the Feynman seem more like a spaceship rather than just a weirdly-shaped map. (We were surprised that none of our contemporaries did this, the ships in Bug Hunter and Space Hulk and Aliens are oddly static.)

Remember what I said about craftsmanship and standing on the shoulders of giants? One reason why Mike and I didn't expect the "sleeper hit" status is that we were inspired by (and often imitated mechanics from) a bunch of late '70s/early '80s games:

Looking back I finally realize that we were being too modest. As is often the case, a really good creative composition is sometimes just knowing what to keep out of a pile of prior art. And we never took enough credit for the amount of details we sweated. In addition to what I said earlier about making the ship "live" there were behind-the-scenes things that you don't see in the finished product at all. We had my little brothers chase each other back and forth through the apartment with different gaits while we counted seconds off a wall clock to get movement rates. We used my college rifle club experience to figure out the hit numbers. We calculated how fast the ring would have to spin to see whether Coriolis forces needed to be included in the movement and combat systems. And we mercilessly shaved off chrome that wasn't worth its complexity cost, like zero-g combat modifiers and ammunition tracking.

As for the genesis of the game, our initial concept was simply "Task Force already did Alien, let's do Aliens!" because we had just seen the movie that summer. I started out by designing a plausible spaceship, and then we built the rest of the system out bit by bit. If we already knew how to do something from prior art, we just grabbed those game systems, but we weren't afraid to invent entirely new stuff as necessary.

Spotlight: I'm amazed at the lengths you took to make your games good simulations! I really wonder how many other designers can say similar.

Neal Sofge: I've often wondered that too, especially in the modern era. (Back in the '80s it was fairly common, like Steve Jackson's extensive SCA experience informing The Fantasy Trip and eventually GURPS.)

Spotlight: Phil Eklund has created the fascinating-sounding mega-game, Artifact that employs four copies of this game. But fiendishly difficult to play, I believe. I'm curious, have you ever tried to play it, and what was it like?

Neal Sofge: I played it twice, but both times with Phil at conventions. When I rewrote the rules for the Print & Play Productions reprint I tried to smooth out the rules as much as I could. But it's such a different experience from anything else there's a limit to how user-friendly it can get. That said, it's not complex per se. Rather, the judge has to keep track of a lot of stuff, and just one mistake can screw up the whole game. So instead of worrying about remembering all of the rules, the judge has to worry about remembering what's going on, and due to the nature of the game no one else can help.

When I played I was the AI computer, and that was the game where the guy playing the Phone Company worked at Verizon at his day job, and thus he suggested that in addition to being undercover agents or Indiana Jones they should have the option of simply being hapless corporate drones who picked the wrong time to make a service call. It was great fun, with secret and not-so-secret negotiations, double-backstabbing, and high powered weaponry going off where it shouldn't. I managed to totally lose, pissing off both the Space Pirates and the Mad Scientist by sheer incompetence – I didn't actually backstab them, but was so bad at feeding them info that they thought I had. In the end the Pirates blew holes all over the station with their cannon turret until the Mad Scientist staged a daring zero-G assault and took over their ship with his (my) maintenance robots, but both of them lost when I helped the remaining phone tech report his partner's murder to the authorities.

Spotlight: Your Artifact matches sound amazing!

With the Beatles, although they all contributed, there is this thing about how some songs were primarily written by Lennon, others by McCartney. What about with Fat Messiah? Would you like to take this opportunity to claim some of the games as primarily yours and, maybe, disavow others?

Neal Sofge: Mike and I really did combine into a "third man" when designing. Shapeshifters really shows that – I can't say who did what at all because it was such a total collaboration, except that Mike did the graphic design for the transform chart circles. For Last Frontier I made the map, but the timer idea was Mike, and the rest of the game systems came from all over the place as detailed earlier. What would usually happen is that one guy would get an idea, but then we'd refine it through a lot of discussion, and then refine it further through testing. We were very big on testing, which is why there was such a long time between titles, but I think it's one of the things that makes FMG games memorable.

Spotlight: Shapeshifters has this really cool idea of wizards changing shape in order to best one another. Surprisingly nobody else has ever seemed to copy or go further with this idea, at least as far as I know. How did you happen to come up with this brilliant concept?

Neal Sofge: There actually was a predecessor – as Lester Smith took pains to point out in his Dragon magazine review, Gamelords beat us by eleven years with Duel Arcane in 1980. I had even previously played it once, but didn't like it all that much, and Mike never saw it at all. (I have a copy now, which I keep along with War of the Sky Galleons to remind me that even the most innovative ideas might still have been done before.) The far more frequent comparison is to the movie The Sword And The Stone which features a wizard's duel that's remarkably like Shapeshifters. Mike and I were both kids during the era of the weekend Disney matinee, so it's likely that dim childhood memories of that film fueled our inspiration. Note, however, that neither of us had a VCR so dim memories were all that was available. Otherwise we'd have somehow included Merlin's winning infectious virus strategy, if only because of the FMG obsession with staying true to source material.

Spotlight: With Insecta, a sort of role-playing game, but in the world of insects, I think after the first edition you took a co-design credit. I suppose that happened because you had started adding so many ideas to the game that it was the logical development? Which parts were some of your contributions?

Neal Sofge: It's funny you should ask, because just last weekend I was talking to Phil about this, and he remembered the same thing. But actually the co-designer thing is an artifact of the BGG taxonomy, which doesn't have a "developer" credit line. In contrast to electronic games, for board games (and especially war games) a developer is someone who turns an initial design into a polished product. Almost everything in Insecta 2nd Edition was in the original SMG white-box edition, but presented very differently. So my contribution was to rewrite the rules and redesign the components to make it all easier to learn and smoother in play. In the course of testing all of that there were a few important rules changes too, but I don't even remember what they were now and I no longer have a copy of the SMG first edition to find out.

Spotlight: Pressing on, after the Insecta expansions you and Darrell Hayhurst created the Hard Vacuum games, which seem a mad combination of Nazis, dogfighting and outer space science fiction. How did you ever come up with the idea of getting all of these together?

Neal Sofge: Darrell had originally designed the game as a Babylon 5 simulation, and if you re-examine the ship designs from that perspective you'll probably be able to see the legacy DNA there. Of course that license was already taken, and so we tried to come up with a background that would fit in with the wonderful seat-of-the-pants feel you get from the game. At some point inspiration hit (though I don't remember who it was that came up with this): the only explanation for that feel is that there aren't any computers to help you fly the ships. So that means either it's after something like the Butlerian Jihad and they've all been destroyed or it's before they were invented in the first place. We decided on the latter, and then fleshed out the background from there. The timeline that runs across the bottom of the book was one of the most time-consuming but enjoyable parts of creating that background, it's full of things that (unbelievably) happened exactly like they did in our timeline – like Goddard moving to Roswell or the Army deciding rockets had no military value. As the timeline goes on, it diverges more and more, first with stuff happening a little too early and then ending with crazy stuff like Radium (which in that universe is Element 43, which early SF pulp stories assigned all sorts of weird properties).

Spotlight: With Jeff Siadek you have done an expansion to Battlestations, also in outer space. Are the two projects related in some sense?

Neal Sofge: Just by my fascination with space travel and science fiction. I work for NASA's Astrophysics Science Division as my day job, after all. Which is probably why the new missions I come up with often involve black holes or pulsars or other high energy phenomena.

Spotlight: In case anyone reading is interested, do you happen to know whether copies of any of the titles we've been talking about still available? And where folks would go to order them?

Neal Sofge: FMG was mostly destroyed in the early 2000s by the "Wizard's Attic Terminal Event", so named because it took out so many small adventure game publishers that it marks an era boundary. At that point I was the only remaining staffer, with a new baby and a difficult job, so there was no longer much room for the Messiah. The next year our WA replacement, Impressions, suddenly dropped us. I had joined WA precisely to avoid having to deal with the day-to-day operations of running a publishing house, so I let the company go into hibernation. But Jeff Siadek made a brilliant Illuminati analogy: it's impossible to destroy a zero-influence group through normal means. So the Fat Messiah dreams in his vat awaiting the time when the stars come right and people want quirky '80s-style high-fidelity adventure games again.

In the mean time there's an unbelievably motley assortment of ways to get our stuff:

Spotlight: Can you tell us more about the Wizard's Attic Terminal Event?

Neal Sofge: To do that I'll have to tell you how the game business works, at least in the United States.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, publishers sold to distributors which sold to retailers. Americans tend not to like middlemen, but they serve a valuable function here – publishers can't afford to call every store in the country once a week, and the stores can't afford to absorb shipping for one or two books from each publisher per week. So the distributors get in the middle and warehouse everyone's stuff. Stores get a single big shipment from one or two distributors, while publishers only have to work with 20 or so distributors.

However, in the late '90s the industry's tiny publishers weren't doing so well. After the post-Pokemon contraction distributors didn't want to waste their valuable sales rep time talking to tiny often-hobbyist publishers, and said publishers wanted to spend time making games, not calling up two dozen distributors every week begging for orders. Eric Rowe had the brilliant idea to add another tier to the distribution system, which basically served the same purpose as the distributors but in a more extreme fashion. Wizard's Attic warehoused all of your stuff and dealt with every distributor for you, including sales calls, shipping, and billing. This meant you had outsourced some of the most time-consuming and irritating parts of running a game business.

However, this also meant there was a single point of failure. I'll likely never know what happened that started the collapse, but whatever it was caused a cash flow issue, which is how most businesses die. However, Eric was able to draw on an unusual source of creative financing: he just stopped paying his clients on time. Since he had a large number of them, he was able to round-robin us, so my profits one month would pay a little bit of what he owed Green Ronin, and then the next month their money would pay Wingnut or Gold Rush, and so on. Each of us got paid just enough to think that Eric was only a little behind, which happens to everyone from time to time. Besides, we were already all in – we couldn't just pick up our stuff and start calling the distributors again, because they didn't want to talk to us at all now that they got used to having a consolidator in the middle. So we let him string us along, until the company eventually got deep enough in debt that the whole thing imploded. Last I heard, Eric had fled to New Zealand one step ahead of US Marshals.

This crippled FMG, as it meant we didn't see a cent of revenue from Science Gone Mad, Lifeboat (which had already sold out, dammit!), or Robotanks. It didn't immediately kill us, because Aldo Ghiozzi had started a new consolidation company named Impressions that picked us up off the floor. He was even scrupulous about paying on time, but about a year later he dropped us for reasons I still don't completely understand. By that time my daughter had been born, and I could see the D20, Euro, and HeroClix writing on the wall anyway. So rather than find yet another fulfillment house FMG went into hibernation, and has been that way ever since.

(As it turns out, it's a good thing I didn't try to keep going because I likely would have joined Osseum, and they cratered in exactly the same way in mid-2005. Of all the ludicrously sad things about the Terminal Event, the inability of the industry to avoid a recurrence is the saddest – especially because some publishers were hit by both!)

Why "Terminal Event"? That was a joke amongst the FMG/SMG crew, because 1) we're a bunch of science nerds and 2) so many companies were endangered that we drew parallels with the Chicxulub asteroid that ended the Cretaceous period. To some extent this was oddly prescient, as the current gaming milieu is vastly different, truly a new era. (And to strain the analogy further, some old dinosaurs like Mayfair and Steve Jackson have morphed into birds and survived, while niche seafloor dwellers like Amarillo and Flying Buffalo live on essentially unchanged like horseshoe crabs...)

Speaking of Amarillo, anyone who's interested in more detail on how the industry works should read Steve Cole's summary book-in-progress.

Spotlight: Although your work seems all around the edges of it, you never published an RPG (about humans). Did you ever design one and if so, why haven't we seen it?

Neal Sofge: Mike and I have done two, both of them space operas and neither one finished. Both had some good ideas that have since showed up via parallel evolution in other products, and some that are still unique. Both died from sheer exhaustion, partly because the sort of engineering-style playtesting that make our products unique is so difficult for RPGs, and partly because the design space is so crowded that it's easier to just find something fairly close to what you're looking for and then modify to taste, even on the fly.

I still think the second one in particular has some promise. We had deliberately picked a handful of intractable problems in RPG design, and sure enough we couldn't satisfactorily solve them. (Hence the exhaustion.) But I think we were on the right track – we just weren't in our '20s any more and so couldn't put in the effort required. If no one else parallel-evolves something comparable maybe I'll convince Mike to go back to it after we retire from our day jobs.

Spotlight: And now, the Blitz Round.

Which of your games has produced the most surprising experiences?

Neal Sofge: Hard Vacuum, I think, just because the dice system Darrell came up with can produce such ridiculous results. It's possible to roll any value with any number of dice, thanks to the zeros and exploding 5s. So occasionally you get ridiculous sharpshooters, or unexpected explosions, or fog-of-war things like not being able to get a bead on a ship right next to you.

Spotlight: If you were a board game, what game would you be?

Neal Sofge: Federation Commander. Despite an attempt at updating to modern sensibilities, still stuck in the past and happy with it.

Spotlight: What's the subject of the game you most dreamed to make, but have not been able to bring to a publishable state?

Neal Sofge: Star Trek.

Spotlight: which game not of your design do you admire so much you wish you had designed it?

Neal Sofge: Triplanetary. `Incredibly elegant movement system, with just enough complexity in everything else to do a vast range of scenarios, from racing to asteroid mining to open war.

Spotlight: Your favorite game first published in the past five years?

Neal Sofge: Neanderthal. (That was really tough, like asking me which child is my favorite.)

Spotlight: Do you have a favorite go-to game for introducing new players, a gateway game?

Neal Sofge: For decades it was Search for the Emperor's Treasure or Arkham Horror, both from the '80s. These days I'm more likely to pull out Monster Derby or Flash Point Fire Rescue.

Spotlight: What is the most significant trend you see in the board games industry today?

Neal Sofge: Kickstarter. It makes it trivial to sell direct to consumers, taking us full circle to the '70s when SPI made their fortunes that way. Unfortunately it fragments the hobby further, especially when Kickstarted games don't ever hit conventional distribution.

Spotlight: Thank so much for your time, Neal. It's been such a pleasure!

Thanks also to Nello Cozzolino of Brasco Games and a fan of Neal's games, for suggesting this interview.

Links cited in this interview:

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