Spotlight on Southern Designers, with Mike Becnel

Here at Board Game Gumbo, we celebrate gaming in the Deep South, with a Louisiana flavor. I noticed a Kickstarter with a familiar sounding name, and investigated. Sure enough, I found out that Mike Becnel, the designer of Battle Roads Miniatures, was born and raised near New Orleans and attended LSU. He makes Houston, Texas his home now, but we had an interesting email chat about his gaming experiences, his ongoing project, and his love for war gaming.

Mike, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in board gaming? What types of games tweak your “acquisition disorder?” 

I was born in the old Lutcher hospital and lived originally in La Place, Louisiana (a city on I-10 just west of New Orleans). I have a BS degree in Management/Entrepreneurship from LSU (ed. note: Geaux Tigers!). I am a graduate of the US Navy Nuclear Reactor Operator program which, from an engineering perspective, is one of the hardest including MIT. I also attended Texas A&M where I played Lacrosse and gamed way too much…hence the time in the Navy.

I started board gaming in middle school when I visited the Game Shoppe which used to be located in Tiger Town just off the campus of Louisiana State University. I bought a game called Rivets for about $5. It was a pocket game. I still have a copy of Rivets. I was ~12 years old. I remember reading the rules several times and really loved the complexity of the game. Within a month or so I bought Ogre by Steve Jackson Games. I played that game so many times I wore out the counters.

My favorite games now are mostly miniature based with pre painted minis. My three favorites are Wings of Glory, X-Wing Miniatures and Sails of Glory. I have also recently started picking up on the Indie game scene with a local gaming group which often includes all my primary play testers for Battle Roads Miniatures. In the past I had a games store called Historical Hobbies in Longview, TX. The core of the store was Games Workshop. I built the clientele with a giant Blood Bowl league. Later we moved on to Necromunda which I still have and will use as terrain for some BRM convention games.

Are you in a game group or unpub community? How is the Houston area gaming / designing community? 

I am in a game group from my days at Texas A&M in the late 80s. We are called Nova. We call ourselves Nova. Our “committee” used to be a part of the Texas A&M student organization department located in the student union. I was the committee’s chairman in 1990. We used to run Warcon and Novacon on campus at A&M. Many of us still stay in contact via a massive email list. 2 of my playtesters for BRM are former Novads. One of them is Andy, the one I mention in the quick play video who is cursed with horrendous dice rolling. Overloaded disruptors range 4 no ECM shift? Andy rolls 6s. (Star Fleet Battles reference…hits are 1-5).

Are you a convention goer?

I am a big time convention goer. I will be at Origins and Gencon this year. I also regularly attend Owlcon (Rice University – Houston) and Millenniumcon (Round Rock, TX). I may attend Protospiel in Michigan this year as I have a friend up there I want to visit who lives 30 minutes away. He has the Guinness Book of Records largest a$$…his Donkey Romulus. Yes, he likes Romulans and Romulus drops R sized land mines (another SFB reference…yes I am very old school).

Have you traveled to any other Southern cities for gaming? 

I have traveled all over the South gaming but mostly Texas and Louisiana. Last time in Louisiana was for a con in New Orleans at the WWII history museum. I do not recall when that was but it was superb.

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All Rights Reserved, Mike Becnel Games 2016

What is your personal experience with crowdsourcing?

Battle Roads Miniatures is my first project. I have been watching Kickstarter for a long time. I watched what worked and what failed. I figured out what I wanted to have in my Kickstarter and how I wanted to advertise it over time. I learned a lot about what NOT to do on a game I like a lot. The game was great, but the KS fulfillment was a disaster. Retail copies were shipping out before KS copies and the retail price was far less than the KS price. It was a lesson learned. I will not repeat that one!

I have actually never backed a KS project directly but have been a part of a “buddy” combo a few times where I bought a copy with someone else. Sails of Glory is one of those. I can see it from where I sit now. I am ex-Navy and love that game.

Battle Roads is a unique take on a miniatures skirmish style game. One of my friends called it a “ground level version of X-wing.” What was the genesis of the idea, and how long have you worked on it? 

“Looks like” X-Wing (Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures game) is a huge compliment if that is what is thought. From a quality perspective, X-Wing is my target. From a game play perspective there is no similarity. X-Wing is one maneuver per turn with moves not being simultaneous and allows for dice to be modified. BRM has two maneuvers and two shooting phases per turn and all moves are simultaneous. In BRM you must anticipate what your opponents move will be and guessing wrong can be bad news. In addition, X-Wing has generic damage, BRM has specific component damage. The biggest influence X-Wing had was I redesigned the “upgrades” to show the resource value in a large number on the counter like X-Wing does on all ships and cards.

The closest examples of games similar to BRM are Wings of Glory and Aerodrome 1.1 (WWI air combat – Stan Kubiak). I played Aerodrome 1.1 at Origins in Ft Worth, TX in 1993 for the first time. That is when the idea for BRM was born. The programmed turns and execution was 5 to 6 times faster than Car Wars and easily adaptable to a ground version. BRM has slowly developed since then. It is similar to Wings of Glory in that there are two movements and shooting phases per turn and all moves are plotted. I am not a massive fan of the movement decks in WoG as keeping them organized after a massive convention battle is painful.

 

All Rights reserved, Mike Becnel Games 2016

What does Battle Roads bring to the table top community that is different from other games like it? 

First, from a component there are no pre painted car vs car miniature combat games on the market as far as I know. I have been wanting this since I first saw Car Wars. From a game play perspective the critical system is different than any game I have played but there may be similar that I am not aware of. Any time the attacker rolls even one success when shooting there is a chance for a critical. The defender rolls dice equal to the remaining chassis points on their car. If any successes are rolled there is no critical. If all are failures the attacker gets to assign two points of damage to the defender with some restrictions. This system makes it so it is extremely unlikely to have a critical on any untouched car but more likely as the car is damaged. I truly dislike critical systems where an untouched unit can be blown to bits in one shot. Example: pilot killed/etc. This blind luck result can totally ruin a game where one side has tactically “owned” their opponent. I do not think it is a good addition to any tactical game.

How have you enjoyed the design process? What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them? What has been the most surprising thing you learned? 

I have been designing BRM for years per above. I have worked on it off and on. My real life career has kept me too tired often to really get into a “creative” mode. I really picked back up on the game about 18 months ago when I created the first wooden prototypes for the control boards. I use those prototypes for conventions.

My biggest challenge has been converting the final concept to a game that can be easily manufactured and stand up to heavy play. The biggest changes were on the miniatures themselves to make them suitable for plastic injection molding. The Prospector used to have its gun off to the side. This is not possible in a simple injection mold as it causes an “undercut”. An undercut prevents the mold halves from separating and releasing the part during manufacturing. No undercuts are allowed!

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All rights reserved, Mike Becnel Games 2016

Another change was the design of the control boards. One of my final 2 chosen manufacturers suggested a design change to use 8mm acrylic cubes vs plastic pegs in the control boards. This is much like the main boards you will see in Scythe by Stonemaier games.  PandaGM made the suggestion. This eliminated the need for some tooling (~$2K cost reduction) and insured the control boards will not wear out over time.

The most surprising thing I learned over this entire process is how much the industry has changed since I got into it in the 80s. In the past, the barriers to making your own game were massive. Only a few companies were making games and they were rarely international. Now, Joe Blow (ed. note: I think he meant “Jeaux Bleaux”) can make a game and distribute it internationally in no time at all. It has truly raised the bar and brought in a much larger group of people. In the “old days” you did not see too many women at cons. Now, helloooooo Cosplay =D. The market is wide open. Good ideas have many avenues to get to market. My favorite is Kickstarter but it is definitely not my only path.

There are a lot of KS projects that come out each week. It is almost overwhelming even to the hard core board gaming fan. What made you choose KS and how did you prepare for it? Are you a fan of the wunderkind of KS like Jamey Stegmaier and his blogs/book? 

First, yes I am a devoted reader of Jamey and have read his blogs multiple times. I have done what he recommends wherever I could. I am also using his primary manufacturer as one of my primary option (Panda). I chose KS in large part as my first publishing route in large part due to Jamey’s blogs. I do not own his book. The main thing I chose KS for is it eliminates the need to take out a loan to fund a game. It also quickly gives you a quick feel for your market and, worst case, it is fantastic “free marketing”. If I do not fund, I pay nothing.

 

If  you had to do it over again, what would you change about your KS project?

What would I change? Well, I have not come to a decision on that yet but I would have preferred if BGG started my ad campaign when my KS started. Ads started up early Sunday and then hit full speed Sunday night. I was already past the critical first 48 hours so the damage was done. I also have a copy of my game out to Lance Myxter the Undead Viking. Lance likes my game and will be posting a video soon. I had sent my game to Lance about 2.5 weeks before I started the campaign. Right after Lance got his prototype copy of BRM he started a new job with Tasty Minstrel Games and was jetted off to Japan for an Indie games gathering, so was unable to send in the review. On the Thursday before I launched I reviewed many similar projects that funded well in the past and saw they did not have 3rd party reviews so I decided to launch. On Sunday the 15th I emailed Lance one last time and got an immediate response and learned of his trip. We talked via phone for a bit and now I await his review. His review may not push me to funding level, but long term his video will be an important tool for me to publish BRM even if my KS does not fund. If you have never watched one of Lance’s videos, look up a game you own and watch his review of it – you will likely find he hits on the things you like. His library is unholy.

In designer diaries that I have read, designers seem to have a love/hate relationship with playtesting. Great for the feedback and iterative processes, but sometimes the feedback can be frustrating. How has your playtest experience been? 

My playtesting has been way WAY better than expected. I have gotten superb feedback from every session and have tweaked BRM when good ideas were brought forward. I made a change as late as February at Owlcon to add another die when shooting at a stationary vehicle to prevent “park and shoot” tactics” which can be effective in some circumstances.

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All right reserved, Mike Becnel Games 2016

Blind testing was great. I can sometimes have horrendous grammar so the feedback and corrections there were much appreciated. I do not have a case of “KIA” aka Know it All and am aware some of the best ideas out there will likely not be my own. Even the shape of the miniatures and my logos are more than 50% inspired by the modeler and artist (respectively) that created them. In each case I ask for a mock up, I give feedback where I feel the need arises then they finish it. So when it comes to player feedback, I treat it as “customer feedback”. I have not found any part of it frustrating and truly have enjoyed the experience. I made BRM because I wanted to play it and I love playing it with play testers and now with convention goers.

Are there are any designers out there that you admire or aspire to be? How have they influenced you? 

There are many I like but not 100%. Jamey is one example. I am a fan of his execution and business savvy; however, I am not a fan of his games (yet). I am honestly more of a war gamer. Scythe may make me a fan though. I also love the war games by Steve Jackson Games. I hope Cars Wars version 6 is a major success. Good or bad I will own it. I played it at Millenniumcon back in November when it was run by Scott Haring.  I was massively relieved it was nothing like BRM but was also intrigued by how Scott had changed it. I know I will like it, I just hope the masses love it.

From an overall execution stand point I like Roberto Di Meglio’s team at Ares games in Italy. Their execution of their WWI and WWII air combat games WoG and WoW are dead on favorites of mine. I love the pre painted minis and their continued support of the games after the designer moved to partner with Ares. I look forward to meeting Roberto face to face sometime later this year.

From a quality perspective, Fantasy Flight sets the bar in my opinion. The look and feel of their games are superb. I have way too many X-Wing minis. I owned X-Wing minis over a year before I played it. The minis looked superb sitting in my display case. The Millennium Falcon sitting next to my X Wings and Tie Fighters was a joy to look at. Once I actually had time to play the fleet grew exponentially. FF influenced every decision I made in terms of component materials, finish and graphic design. Everything has to have a quality texture, long life expectancy and strong attention to detail. I am surely not at FF’s level of quality but that is my goal. When I saw their pre painted minis I knew it was time to bring BRM to market.

One last question: best food, Cajun or Tex-Mex?

No question, Cajun. Three cans of Blue Runner and several jambalayas (in the house)!

Mike, thanks for the interview, and good luck with the Kickstarter campaign. 

Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

B.J.

(Note — all pictures regarding Battle Roads are used with permission of Mike Becnel and come from Mike Becnel’s Facebook page, and all are designated as all rights reserved Mike Becnel Games 2016.)

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