Alderac Entertainment Group
“We Make Fun”
This week, we are thrilled to feature another of our most favorite Board Game publishers. Near and dear to us, they’ve been an amazing retail partner to our ever-growing company. Todd Rowland, Director of Alderac Entertainment Group, was gracious enough to give us an insider’s view of how AEG has risen to become one of the biggest little publishers on the market. As a bonus, Tiny Towns designer Pete McPherson also has also provided insight from a creator’s perspective.
The Early Years of AEG
Founded by John Zinser in the early 90s, Alderac Entertainment Group, or AEG for short, got its name from John’s high school D&D campaign setting. Little did they know, the name Alderac would live on for decades to come! Originally located in Ontario Canada, AEG was formed to publish Shadis magazine, a publication primarily focused on RPGs. But shortly after, AEG created the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, which would soon after become an RPG as well. (Later, Fantasy Flight Games would release it as a Living Card Game) With L5R in hand, they launched headfirst into game publishing.
Having found their legs in both the CCG & RPG markets, in under a year they went from publishing one CCG to developing 6 more. All that, while making plans for further RPG releases. Eventually, this seat at the CCG / RPG table would place John in a position to help broker the deal for Wizards of the Coast to purchase TSR, changing the D&D and CCG market landscape forever. (You can read more about John’s journey on his blog.)
AEG also dipped their toes into the RPG genre more than once. John Wick’s sword-swinging magical romp of an RPG, 7th Sea was the winner of the Origins award for best RPG of 1999. It eventually passed to Chaosium in 2019, and is still in publication today. Though discontinued by AEG in 2005, ENnie nominee RPG Spycraft is still enjoyed more than 20 years later, and .pdf releases continue to be published online by the original creators.
A modern focus on Board Games
Over time, AEG slowly began to turn its head toward board games as a genre. Meeting early success with award winning hits like Smash Up and Love Letter, AEG is now a fully board game focused company. Other well known board game titles to come from AEG include Mystic Vale, Mariposas, The Captain is Dead, War Chest, Point Salad, Dice City, Istanbul, Thunderstone, DoomTown Reloaded, and of course, Tiny Towns.
According to Director Todd Rowland, “Our focus is on each year making better, but fewer games, as we focus in on those we find to be the most fun. We create games that are for every facet of gamer, from extremely casual to serious veterans. We try to have games that can be played on multiple levels, from casual to hardcore strategy, all within one box.”
Now relocated to California, AEG’s workforce is primarily a virtual one. With international staff spread everywhere from Canada to Alabama, Greece to Las Vegas and beyond, AEG was uniquely poised for the unanticipated turn of events that was 2020. By the time the pandemic arrived, AEG was “already veterans at working in our pajamas.” While other companies scrambled to adjust, AEG’s plans continued almost unaffected.
With a diverse creative force, their crew ranges “…from those who are obsessed with theme and experience, to those who literally just want to see the numbers on blank pieces,” confessed Todd Rowland. “AEG believes that a wide variety of tastes in game helps to pull together experiences that scratch a lot of different itches for gamers.”
Meet designer Pete McPherson
One of those creative forces is free lance writer and designer, Pete McPherson. The Tiny Towns creator calls the New York Capital region home, finding both inspiration and support from his family and his locale. The story goes that the spark of inspiration Tiny Towns came from playing a home-made game written on napkins to pass the time waiting for food at a restaurant with his father while. Scrawling 5 by 5 grids on napkins, they’d take turns naming a letter that both would have to write down. Once there were no more spaces, whoever could make the most words would win.” Sort of like a home made Boggle!
It’s easy to see how that translated into award-winning Tiny Towns. In the game, each player controls a grid map of their tiny town, attempting to construct permanent buildings by placing resource cubes according to the available building plans. In manner reminiscent of Tetris, buildings become harder to place as your map fills up. To further complicate matters, each player takes turns calling out a building resource which ALL players must take, and place. Don’t have a good spot for a Glass cube this turn? Too bad. Place it anyway, and try to figure out a way to make use of it before your grid is too full to continue! Simple and elegant, while deceptively strategic and cutthroat, Tiny Towns is one of our best selling board games.
On becoming a Game Designer
So how did Tiny Towns’ designer get into creating board games in the first place? (We’re always curious about this. Its not exactly a common major for university students.)
“I didn’t study game design,” Pete told us, “but I did get into modern board games in high school, and I started tinkering with designs in college. Game ideas came to me as I played popular titles like Carcassonne and Catan,” Ah yes, the classic gateway games! “…and I started making some prototypes that were, in hindsight, quite awful.” But that’s what fuels success: learning from imperfect results rather than giving up!
Pete also shared some suggestions for those looking to get into board game design. “I always recommend jumping in and making your first prototype as early and as cheaply as you can,” he advised. “Physically moving the pieces around and going through the motions of a turn before you show your game to others can teach you a lot about your design and using cheap components like hand-written index cards allows you to make changes quickly and without much remorse.” Sound advice!
Inspirations for the future
Aside from family games on diner napkins, where else does Pete’s inspiration come from? “Uwe Rosenberg is one of my biggest inspirations as a designer, and I think there’s a lot of Patchwork DNA in Tiny Towns. I also admire the mechanisms in Vlaada Chvátil’s works that punish players for their own mistakes rather than punishing players with random chance or other players’ actions.” This focus on player choice as the driving force behind winning or losing is a classic hallmark of Euro games, as opposed to the classic American style games, which place a heavier emphasis on the luck of a roll or flip of a card and physical movement around a board.
Inspiration also comes from the community. “Shortly after signing Tiny Towns, I joined a local playtesting group that hosts quarterly playtesting days. Not long after that, a board game café opened in Troy called Bard & Baker, and it has brought together even more local designers and become a sort of community center for local gamers. Having a local network of board game designers has been a huge boon.”
We’re so glad Pete stuck with it and made it through the strenuous years of design work before premiering Tiny Towns. It’s an amazing game; we even hosted an in-store tournament with it a couple of years ago! We got the idea from playing it with a huge crowd at a gaming convention. Pete perhaps started the idea when he had a chance to lead a 1,000—person game of Tiny Towns at Gen Con. “It was surreal” he admits, “to have so many people playing my game at once. I’ll probably never have a chance like that again.” We hope you do!
More Fun to Come
What’s coming next from Pete McPherson? A little bird told us there are two upcoming titles he’s very excited to announce soon; both spatial puzzles that fans of Tiny Towns should be excited for. Pete plans to continue working with AEG, in particular along side Josh Wood, who developed Tiny Towns and co-designed its expansions. “Josh and I have a few other designs we are collaborating on that we can hopefully share with people some day soon.” We can’t wait!
Our sources confirm that AEG has plenty of fun planned for 2021. This year will have releases including new titles like Sheepy Time and Meeples & Monsters, both of which are now available for pre-order. You can also look forward to TEN in collaboration with Flatout Games, and continued releases for flagship titles like Tiny Towns, Space Base, and Smash Up. In the meantime, you can also sign up to play along with live games hosted by AEG on their Live Gaming facebook page.
In closing, Todd Rowland notes, “Our company goal has always been to be the best small game company in the industry. The interesting thing is that “best” is always a moving target, and when you think you might be near it in one aspect, you discover something else you could improve upon. It’s a never-ending process, and that seemingly unattainable goal continues to push us forward in new directions from year to year.” This ongoing dedication to excellence is what fuels Alderac Entertainment Group’s success, and drives our excitement to see where the future will take them!