Thursday, June 30, 2011

Origins Xtra: Steve Cole of Amarillo Design Bureau

If you are a long-time gamer you have either likely played Star Fleet Battles or, at the very least, heard of it. The game has been around, in one form or another, for over thirty years. There's few wargames that can make that claim.

The Rural Gamer had the opportunity to interview Steve Cole, owner and head desiger of Amarillo Design Bureau about his product lines and his time in the game industry. In a very turbulent industry, Steve is one of the survivors.

TRG: Steve, could you give us some background on how you got into game design, and the beginnings of your company? An origin story, if you will.

Wow, that's a long time ago, and it's going to be a long story. Are you SURE you're interested? Ok, here goes:

Back about 1964, I went to a church party where people were all told to bring a game. A guy my age named Scott Poole brought Avalon Hill's D-Day and went around trying to find someone to play it. Nobody wanted to, until he came to me. I had seen one Avalon Hill wargame in a store once (my parents refused to buy it for me; that was back when kids didn't have money) and D-Day was the second one I had ever seen.

As my father was a reserve military officer who was using me as a practice student for his lectures in Command & General Staff School, I knew what all of those little boxes meant, something no one (including Scott) knew. (The ones with a "hot dog" were tanks; the ones with an "X" were infantry.)

So, I became a wargamer. Scott Poole had a great collection of Avalon Hill Games, and all through high school we met two or three times a month to play them. Very quickly, I started designing my own games, using the basic Avalon Hill rules system. (They had two dozen games that all used about the same rules. Scott and I would pick a game, then sort through other games looking for a combat results table that did not have "attacker eliminated" in the 2-to-1 column.) I just kept designing my own games. (The first game I bought was Anzio in 1972.)

About 1973, I got a letter from a guy (name forgotten) from the back page of the Avalon Hill magazine (the "opponents wanted" ads). We were planning to both go to the same college, so we decided to create a magazine (something dozens of gamers did in those days). Turns out, we never met (he went somewhere else) and he dropped out of the magazine company (JagdPanther) when we lost money on the first issue. I took over as editor and publisher and learned more than I wanted to know about the printing business.

2. Was Star Fleet Battles the first game you published? What year was that?

Star Fleet Battles was not the first game I published, not by a long shot.
I had run that small company (and magazine) called JagdPanther from, as I said, 1973. JagdPanther published several dozen games over four years, including Marine, Airborne, Jacksonville, Anvil-Dragoon, Zeppelin, Siege of Barad-Dur, Rigellian Wars, Crazy Horse, MP44, Cowpens, Paris Commune, World War III Super Variant, March on India, and, well, shucks, I don't even remember them all now. (I'm sure somewhere on Internet there must be some interview I did about JagdPanther when I still remembered everything we did.)

One of the local wargamers (Allen Eldridge) became my business partner in 1975. In November of 1976 we realized that we had created a business model that paid the bills but would never pay us, and decided we wanted to do something else with our time. (Free of the game business, I started looking for a girlfriend and got married shortly thereafter. Leanna and I have spent 34 years together.) Allen and I didn't stay away from the game business for long. By 1978 we were talking about starting a new company, which became Task Force Games. We decided to keep the workload down by doing only pocket games (something Metagaming started) and only selling to wholesalers (not mail orders). We published our first games at Origins 1979, including Star Fleet Battles. By 1983, Allen and I split the company (my design half became Amarillo Design Bureau, his publishing half remained TFG) and by 1999, TFG (three owners later) was dead but ADB continued on.

3. ADB's Star Fleet Universe products are officially licensed by Paramount/CBS Consumer Products. Yet, they're a bit different than other Star Trek products on the market. Could you describe the particulars of your licensing arrangement?

I first designed Star Fleet Battles back in 1975. As the legend goes (and it's true), I was playing Jutland while watching Star Trek reruns in college. We played it (a lot) in the JagdPanther offices. When my partner and I started Task Force in 1979, we dumb lucked into the phone number for Franz Joseph Designs, who gave us a license to print Star Fleet Battles. That was all before the first movie, at a time when Star Trek had been off the air (except as reruns in college towns) for a decade. By the time the movies and The Next Generation showed up, we had already printed dozens of products with a vast amount of newly created material. Paramount contacted us, figured out we were legal, and gave us an "agreement that includes a license" to keep printing the Star Fleet Universe. That contract notes that the Star Fleet Universe (SFU) is "separate" from Trek and that we are not an "official licensee" even if we are completely legal. We have Vulcans but not Spock, and while the Enterprise is on our official ship list, we never use it in fiction or scenarios. We have many new species, but not the ones created in TNG and beyond.

As our "agreement" never expires, unlike companies that get a two-year Trek license, we just keep going on and on while "official licensees" come and go.

4. What is your favorite part of working in the Star Fleet Universe?

All of the great people I have met. That includes Steven Petrick and Jean Sexton, who now work for ADB.

5. Within ADB there are several iterations of the starship combat game (Star Fleet Battles, Federation Commander, Federation & Empire, Klingon Armada, etc). Could you give a brief overview of what makes each of these products unique?

Star Fleet Battles is a starship combat game. Each "unit" is one ship, but battles can handle a dozen ships or so. Federation Commander is a new game on the same scale, starting with a much-simplified set of SFB rules and using some new concepts in some areas. It plays much faster, and is prettier since it's in color. Klingon Armada is part of the Starmada series done by Daniel Kast of Majestic 12 under a joint venture deal. It's designed for larger fleets, with much simpler rules than even Fed Commander, and easily handles 20-ship fleets. Federation & Empire is a strategic game, with thousands of ships on each side and a lot of economics. We also have RPGs for GURPS and PD20M, and a card game (Star Fleet Battle Force), a line of pewter miniatures, and the new Marines game.

6. Why do you think Star Fleet Battles has lasted this long?

I wish I knew. The subject matter must be part of it, but there have been other Trek games before and after SFB, none of which lasted as long, and none of which ever had the kind of player base we have. I must assume that I got the design "right" in regards to what players wanted to play.

7. How has the gaming industry changed in the years since you started Star Fleet Battles?

In more ways than I can count! Back when TFG began, there were 75 or so wholesalers, compared to less than a dozen today. Back then, there were about five real companies and everybody else was a "garage operation" whereas today, there are about 50 real companies with offices and professional printing (and 200 more that just do d20 RPG PDFs). Speaking of that, PDFs (and personal computers) didn't exist when we did our first games, but PDFs are now a big share of our profits.

Another phenomenon is the way the industry has grown. The original wargamers (which I call H. G. Wells Gamers) were middle-aged men with painted soldiers and expensive dioramas. Just before I arrived in gaming, there came hex-and-counter wargames, which expanded the industry tremendously, leaving the original H. G. Wells Gamers (the O.G.s, or Original Gamers) wondering why nobody paid them their proper attention and respect. Then RPGs arrived, quadrupling the size of the industry, but leaving the hex-and-counter gamers wondering why the "wargame industry" was suddenly called the "adventure game industry." Then came cards and clicks, greatly expanding the industry but leaving the previous parts (now much smaller parts of a much larger whole) wondering why nobody was paying attention to "the guys who started this thing."

8. Do you have time to play games from other companies? If so, what do you play?

Rarely. Other than playtesting and rare demos, I haven't played one of our own games in years, and not more than one or two scenarios in 20 years. Oh, wait, I have played our card games some. I probably get to play a game from another company five or ten times per year. We have a copy of Space Hulk that we play whenever we can (about six times so far in two years), and we've played Munchkin every time Jean Sexton comes to visit.

Thinking about this for a minute, I realized that the last three games I actually bought a copy of (over the last 10 years) were Tide of Iron and Memoir 44 (both World War II in Europe land combat games, and in both cases the rules had so little to do with World War II ground combat that I wrote new sets) and Space Hulk (which is, also, a ground infantry combat game).

Now, the one game I do play, a LOT, is an RPG called Die In Place. It's basically a leadership game based on the modern US Army. Steven Petrick and I play it two or three times per week, as we walk the two-kilometer hiking path near the office. It's like playing chess in your head, trying to remember who commands Company B and who is the mortar platoon sergeant. (After each session, we write down what happened. Someday, these campaigns would make great war novels. The first campaign, about Vietnam, went on for two years and ended in a titanic battle of the Tet Offensive.) We spent much of the last year playing a campaign to rid the US of zombies, and this spring we've been playing Battle: Houston as we try to defeat the water-stealing aliens who did amphibious landings at 20 cities around the world (including that movie about Los Angeles). Playing this RPG as we walk takes our minds off how tired we are and how much our feet hurt.

9. ADB has a presence every year at Origins, but not at Gen Con. Why is that?

Well, Jeff, going to a trade show is a major undertaking. It takes almost a month of hard work to get ready for Origins, and takes us out of the office (and away from designing new products) for a week. It also costs about three grand to go to Origins (and a bit more to go to Gen Con) counting booth costs, hotel, truck rental, and so forth. We make enough in sales at Origins to pay for the trip (and then some), but the one time we went to Gen Con (since we became the publisher in 1999), we lost money.

We see 200 of our customers at Origins (that's why we go), but maybe 20 at Gen Con, most of whom were also at Origins. (That seems to be because the two shows are so close together in space and time. The "locals" just go to whichever show we go to, and those who travel do the same.) We go to the shows to talk with customers and show the flag. Having done that very successfully at Origins, there seems no point in spending twice as much time and money for no more results. If we went to both shows, we'd just divide the existing audience into two smaller groups.

All of that said, there is much concern over the rumored plans to move Origins to a date in May (before the school year ends). Many of our players have expressed great concern over the idea, stating that they would be unable to attend Origins at those dates. If that becomes an issue, we may have to move our "presence" to Gen Con, but that would be instead of Origins, not in addition to it.

10. What product is coming up for 2011 that you are most excited about?

Star Fleet Marines, the ground combat system for the Star Fleet Universe. It's a very simple streamlined game. The biggest battles are battalions, with about 40 units on each side. You point to a unit, then to a target, roll the die, look at the chart, and the target is either destroyed, flipped upside down, or unaffected. Units that didn't move (and weren't upside down) then move to better firing positions. (You shoot so that you can move later, and move so that you can shoot later.) The whole rulebook is about 10 pages.

What's exciting for me is that I am a ground combat guy, having spent time in the US Army and the Texas Guard. On a personal level, ground combat at the operational level (a battalion on each side) is where I am most comfortable. It's funny that this is only the second game on this scale I have ever designed, the first being Jagdpanther's MP44, which I described as "squad-level PanzerBlitz." It came out a year or three before Squad Leader, and (if you ask me) was a better game.

Star Fleet Marines is going to be so completely different from Squad Leader that you won't be able to compare them.

I have to mention a runner-up in the "most excited" category, that being STARSHIP ALDO. This is a little 16-page adventure done for GURPS and PD20M which we whipped up for Free RPG Day. It's an "explore the deck plans of a wrecked starship" game, and I tremendously enjoyed created the deck plans, the die roll table for room contents, and the eight characters. (All of the characters are based on real people, six of whom went through the Terrorwerks gun run together at Origins 2010).

11. Where would you like to see ADB, as a company, in the future?

On Mars, publishing games from the Valles Marineris Dome City.

Until that happens, I'd settle for becoming one of the top 10 companies instead of the top 30 or 40. The problem is that retailers fill up most of their store with the top five or ten companies, and the other 40 hardcopy publishers get maybe one or two shelf spots each in 10% of the retailers. Every retailer has the products of my good friends at Steve Jackson Games. My games are as good as theirs, but retailers cannot find me in the crowd of 40 or so "smaller publishers" which is why my company has six employees, not the 30 or 40 it would actually take to do all of the jobs that need doing.

I'm quite proud to run a company that has no debts, writes me a regular paycheck, owns our own office building, and puts out a dozen new products a year, but I'd be a lot more proud if I was selling 10 times as many copies of each game. The only reason I am not selling more copies is that the retailers can't see my tree in the forest.

TRG: Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to share with us. We wish you continued success!

NOTE: This interview was conducted in late April, knowing Steve was going to be very busy shortly thereafter preparing for Origins 2011. In mid-June Amarillo Design Bureau and Mongoose Publishing annouced a joint venture: A Call to Arms: Star Fleet which takes Mongoose's popular starship combat system (previously used for a Babylon 5 setting and currently in the Fading Suns RPG setting) and tailors it for use with the Star Fleet Universe. Mongoose will also be producing all-new CAD-designed resin miniatures for the new system. This is a huge boon for both ADB and Mongoose. It provides greater visibility and retail presence for ADB and gives Mongoose an immensely popular new setting for their ACTA ruleset.


  1. As part of the deal between ADB, Inc. and Mongoose, an official conversion of the Prime Directive RPG material is being worked on for Mongoose Traveller (MgT). Versions of Prime Directive already exist for SJ Games' GURPS and D20 Modern.

  2. I have been playing SFB since 1979. I was a volunteer worker for the original Task Force Games and did playtesting for SFB and the original Prime Directive RPG.