As part of our May Spotlight on Zephyr: Winds of Change, we strive to inform readers of little extra tidbits surrounding the game. Games are made by people, and one of those tidbits we enjoy is learning a little bit more about the people behind them. Some designers shy away from the public stage, while others enjoy being front and center.
In the case of Zephyr, it’s been a bit tricky to get the game’s two top gun pilots in the same place at the same time. While each of them are ironically pretty grounded individuals, it’s been a bit of a challenge getting them out of the skies and away from their patrols. But that’s the life of a Zephyr pilot these days. When you join up with that crew, keeping people safe from pirate raids isn’t just a job – it’s a way of life.
At least, that’s what the recruiter in the office we visited told us. They even offered to have us join their ranks right then and there they were so excited for new blood. Sweetened it with fancy pen and everything.
Admittedly, it was a pretty tempting offer. It was a really nice pen…
Still, before we decided on anything, we wanted to really know what we were getting ourselves into, and we figured there’d be no better voices to instruct us in the code of team Zephyr than its two architects, Jon Mietling and Aaron Kluck.
As they explained in their brief time on the ground, Zephyr is the name of a band of vigilantes. In this game world, civilization is tenuously being held together in a scant few areas, and the future of humanity’s chances are continuously under assault by a malevolent band of warlords and brigands. They have no real ambition other than to destroy and plunder anything they can get their hands on, whether that’s on land or in the skies above.
The only thing capable of stopping them are the Zephyr themselves. In this co-op game, each player commands their own vessel as they do their part to complete the mission at hand. Players must outfit their ships with armor and weapons, hire crew, and do whatever it takes to stay aloft to fight again another day.
It can be taunting, to say the least, and it definitely takes a certain amount of character.
To find out how we got to this point, and whether we’d enlist after all, we sat down with Jon and Aaron to share their thoughts on the matter. They don’t have long before their planes are refitted and refueled, so we should get right to it. Enjoy!
Round One Questions
CR: What was your Gateway Game?
Jon: We have always played games in my family so Euchre and card games was always something we did. The game that started me down the gamer path was Decipher’s Star Wars CCG back in 1996. This was closely followed by Magic the Gathering. However, my official “gaming career” started when I got my family to play Settlers of Catan on Christmas 2011. From there it’s grown exponentially for me.
Aaron: The credit should probably also go to Settlers or Ticket to Ride, but I’m gonna go with Small World. Its great artwork and streamlined gameplay that felt like a perfect evolution of a game that I grew up playing, Risk, really opening my eyes to the wonders of modern board games.
CR: What was the last game you really enjoyed playing (besides Zephyr)?
Aaron: I am loving Gloomhaven and Dark Souls right now
Jon: I enjoy most games I play. One that hits the table a lot for me, or that I want to hit the table more right now, is Roll for the Galaxy.
CR: How big is your game collection?
Jon: I am in the middle of moving right now so many are packed away. I can’t get an exact count. I think I am close to 200.
Aaron: I think mine is around 60.
CR: What is your favorite type of game to play?
Aaron: I love co-op games with flavor. I am also always down for a nice engine building euro…but it needs a strong relatable theme.
Jon: Anything with cool combos or where you have some sort of engine building is a hit with me.
CR: How do you feel about Monopoly?
Aaron: I actually wouldn’t mind playing it right now. The Lord of the Rings version was always my favorite. Okay, so it’s not the greatest game, but I grew up playing it.
Funny story; the first time my now wife played a board game with my family, I thought she was going to leave me. Apparently, we “were super aggressive” and “kept yelling at each other!” Seemed normal to me.
Jon: I think people spend too much time talking about it. I had good times playing it as a kid. Great memories with my Great Aunt. Do I want to play it now? No, but thanks for asking.
On Zephyr: Winds of Change
CR: Many air combat themed games default to players fighting one another. Yet Zephyr went with a squadron-esque co-op approach. Was that planned from the get-go or something that evolved over time? ?
Jon: Both. It was planned early on to be a co-op game. However, we started testing first as a PvP game to develop the combat system. This helped catapult it forward and focused development on what we most enjoyed in the combat system. This also had the implication that the game could support a PvP expansion at some point. We’ll have to wait and see if that actually happens.
Aaron: Jon and I both have always loved the co-op experience. We’ve gamed together for years and some of our best times were playing video games like BF2, TF2, and League of Legends. That carried over into board games, and so I’m not at all surprised that our first design was co-op.
CR: Zephyr has an original process for recruiting crew to the game by mixing a choosable role with a randomized character trait, all using a transparent overlay system. How did that mechanic come to be made?
Jon: Originally we had crew members that were simply a faction token. We also had the ability to earn perks for your ship that would give you unique powers. Through the development process we would take a step back and assess if the game was hitting the points we originally intended to hit and made adjustments to refocus in on the these points.
In one of these sessions – fairly early in the process – we decided to focus more on the crew since it was one of the more interesting parts of the game and a thematic element that I love.
With this adjustment we combined the perks as personalities with the crew faction to make each crew more interesting and imply a narrative of each member of the crew bringing their special abilities to the ship. I have always loved team style stories and movies, from X-Men to Firefly; I love a good team with a variety of members.
CR: This game has a lot of moving parts, from its modular ships and crew to variable missions. What was the process like of balancing a game with that amount of variability?
Jon: Zephyr was a daunting project. As you said, there are a lot of parts and the game isn’t very short either. This made our playtest sessions much longer, and it took a lot of time to iterate. Our development process took about three years. For a while our playtest group would joke about how the whole game changed each week as we tried to find a good balance to focus on the fun.
We also had much more content to start, but for cost and development time we reduced the amount of components. However, this does give us a lot of content for expansions in the future.
Aaron: To be honest, if the game wasn’t out, we would still be tweaking it. Someone needs to invent an easy way to patch board games…
CR: Each Zephyr airship offers its own strengths that provide different approaches to accomplishing the missions. Which ship is your personal favorite?
Jon: To be perfectly honest, my favorite ship will be released in our next expansion. Out of the current ships, I like the Imperial. I am a bruiser type and it has some awesome powers for letting you crew shine. I love my crew.
CR: Some of the harder missions can be quite challenging, even as a team. What kinds of tips would you give to Zephyrites (especially newer players)?
Jon: My biggest tip is play as a team. Zephyr is a co-op game, but I feel this needs to be defined a bit further. Zephyr is a team game where each player can bring their strengths to the table. So work together. Our best matches are ones where we get the right supplies to the right player. Trading items, scrap and crew can make or break you.
One more tip is: Try again. Zephyr is meant to be hard, but with risk comes reward. Especially single player, it is about the journey and not always the win.
Aaron: My advice newer players is to experiment! We offer suggested builds in the rulebook. and some ships very easily fall into “roles” like a tank or dps…Ignore everything. Build your ship the way you want. It will probably surprise you how versatile the ships of Zephyr can be.
CR: Whether it’s the overall flavor, or the artwork specifically, Zephyr strikes us as the kind of game that has an ‘Easter Egg’ or two hidden within. Is that the case? And if so, what is one you’re particularly amused by?
Jon: It’s funny you ask. As a big Firefly fan there are a lot of subtle nods to Joss Whedon’s creation, as well as other hidden gems. But one that no one will get, which is why I can reveal it, is a card that uses the phrase ‘among thieves’.
Our first game, Pick the Lock, went through a number of names. After a month or so under a working title we would find there was another game with the same name. The name that stuck the longest was Among Thieves. When we were a week out from launching our Kickstarter, though, another game launched their Kickstarter under the name Among Thieves.
At that point we had shared the game with reviewers and invested in the name. So I wrote a strongly written letter and got no response. With days left before the Kickstarter we said forget it and popped out the name Pick the Lock, since the whole game is about guessing your opponents’ locks to steal their treasure. After a ton of searching, no game was named this so we set it in stone and moved forward.
So it was a small joke for just Aaron and I. To all of you looking for an inside joke to be part of, welcome! We are glad you’ve joined us.
Aaron: The prototype also was basically one giant Easter Egg. At one point, I believe a skirmish card was titled “…It takes a while…”
CR: Bringing Zephyr to life was no easy task. As just your second game created and run on Kickstarter, how was the experience of the Zephyr campaign different from the first? And would you have done anything differently?
Aaron: When you look back, there’s always something we could have done differently. However, our campaign was a success, our game is a reality and people all over the world are soaring the skies as captains in Zephyr! What more could we ask for?
Jon: Our first campaign was possibly approached a bit better from a budget standpoint since it was such a cheap game and we could set the goal much lower. With Zephyr we were worried that we wouldn’t have the funds for some hidden fees and then the shipment would be stuck in some port somewhere with no way to get it out. So we were possibly overly cautious with our funding goal. Our first project helped out a ton to know how the Kickstarter process worked.
Zephyr, however, was a whole different animal. I was doing publishing tasks and artwork all at once. Over 100 pieces of custom artwork was a huge undertaking with my schedule. I really wish I could do this full time, but I have another full time job and this is one of three part time jobs I have on top of that. There are many things I would do differently. However, everything is a learning process and I know so much more now. Ultimately, I am very grateful for all our supporters who made this project a reality.
CR: Finally, we’re curious: have you ever visited any of the real-life settings in Budapest?
Jon: Aaron comes from a long line of names that start with the letter “A”. With 3 “A” name siblings himself, he also married his wife Alea who has 6 siblings with “A” names and their 3 children all have names that start with “A” as well. So, an “A” nickname should be bestowed upon Aaron in my opinion.
Aaron: Ha! I’ll take it, but Jon is the better Zephyr pilot. He probably has over 500 hours of solo flight time himself!
We don’t want to alarm anyone, but the Zephyr teams could really use some extra help. The sky pirates have been particularly aggressive of late, and it’s led to significant casualties. The Zephyr want to strike back and put a significant dent in their operation, but in doing so they’d leave Flotsam open to attack. Something they really don’t want to do.
So they’ve asked us to put the call out. They’re looking for brave new hotshot pilots to help safeguard the skies around the last great bastion of civilization whilst they take the offensive deep into enemy territory.
It may not be the front lines, but even defending the homestead comes with risk. They want your help. That is, assuming you’re capable of passing the test.
Since spare planes are hard to come by, they’ve instead offered up some mission simulations, in the form of a board game.
And we’re going to give away a copy of that away to one brave airman. Right…now.