How a Pro 'StarCraft II' Player Became a Tabletop Designer
Retired 'StarCraft II' pro Kevin Riley on how he left esports behind to make games of his own.
Kevin “qxc” Riley wasn’t necessarily planning a career in tabletop design. In fact, until he almost accidentally began work on his game, Aeon’s End, in September 2015, he had been a pro StarCraft II player. His extensive career saw him training in a team house in South Korea for a summer before competing in harrowing matches that would eventually culminate in a personal all-kill against Korean team Incredible Miracle at the 2011 Global StarCraft II Team League (GSTL).
Life can surprise you, though, and instead of guiding his customary Terran units through competition, Riley ultimately found a full-time career in designing a cooperative card game, Aeon’s End. The game was funded earlier this year through a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $180,000 — well over the initial goal of $30,000. Aeon’s End ships around the second week of November, and people across the country will be able to request a copy from their neighborhood board game shop. All told, that sounds like a success.
Judging by Riley’s lifelong love of gaming and building custom Warcraft III maps, game design seemed like a natural path, but it wasn’t always so clear. Riley spoke with Inverse all about his pro gaming career, tabletop design, and even offered some helpful advice on indie board game publishing.
Do you think you could tell me a little bit more about your StarCraft career? It sounds like it was pretty impressive.
So I did it part-time when I was in college, and then when I graduated I did it full-time for a few years. I was playing StarCraft II in the beta and basically practicing it as much as I could while still going to school. I did quite well early on. I won some tournaments and participated in a lot of local events, traveled basically all over.
The thing that most people know me by was when I played in Korea in the GSTL (Global StarCraft II Team League). It was our last match of the season, and we were completely defeated up until that point. It turns out Koreans are pretty good at StarCraft. Surprise! In that match, I managed to defeat four of the team’s players in a row by myself, and that’s called an all-kill. That was really spectacular for me. Nobody really had any expectations for us, and I got all these messages like “Wow, I can’t believe it!” and all of this stuff, and it was really a special day for me.
How did that lead into game design?
Ha! So that’s a little funny path from there to here. I always had kind of a passion for design. So in StarCraft and Warcraft III, and later in StarCraft II, I actually made some custom maps, and custom maps are basically like Dota. Dota started out as a Warcraft III custom map. But Dota is not very similar to Warcraft III. There’s incredible things you can do in that engine to basically create your own game. Nothing I made was on that scale, but I made a few games in the engine, just figuring things out and seeing what I could put together myself.
Fast-forward some years and my StarCraft career was not going particularly well. And so I took a break and I decided I would try and make a board game with my girlfriend. So we took a copy of Dominion, which is a really popular deck builder — kind of the first one that popularized the genre. We took a copy of that, and we basically just made up our own rules and changed some of the cards to try and fix some of the things that we thought were problematic with the game.
We were having such a good time that eventually when StarCraft became too much to bear, I had something that I wanted to go back to and work on, so we kept working on the board game and that kind of turned into this thing that is now much bigger than we ever imagined.
So the gameplay is mostly inspired by Dominion. Did you draw from any other games or stories when you were creating the world of Aeon’s End?
As far as the gameplay itself, originally it was very heavily inspired by Dominion because we were literally using a copy of Dominion to test things. And as the game got farther and farther away from that, the similarities between that and Dominion diminished more and more; it has no real bearing or similarity with Dominion now. We tried very hard to make sure that none of the cards in the game are copies of anything you’ve seen in other games.
Basically I got my hands on every cooperative deck builder I could, and played them to get ideas and see what works and what doesn’t work. And we did try lifting some ideas almost directly from other games and they just never worked, because each game kind of has its own ecosystem where ideas will make sense and they don’t make sense elsewhere. So nothing was really stolen from other games as much as inspired, but there’s no one game that Aeon’s End is particularly inspired by. It’s mostly the assimilation of so many different ideas put together into its own unique package.
You talked about how your experience building custom Warcraft maps got you started down the path of game design. Were there any aspects of your pro StarCraft career that had an influence on designing Aeon’s End as well, be it your approach to strategy or mechanics?
There aren’t any particular cards or mechanics that are derived from my StarCraft experience. What I really carry over from StarCraft are the qualities that made me a successful professional gamer. For example, StarCraft gave me a great appreciation for balance and the value of things. How much does “card draw” cost, how much is damage worth, and so on. Being able to accurately assess the value of something was integral to optimizing my strategies and [winning]. In addition, one of the crucial requirements for being a pro is consistency of practice, which I apply to Aeon’s End as I playtest several days a week, every week, to ensure that the game works exactly as I want it to. No feature is left untested.
How did you go about finding a publisher?
There’s a big board game convention called Origins in Ohio in June each year. I brought Aeon’s End, and I emailed a lot of publishers ahead of time to try and establish contacts and things like that. And when I got to Origins, I pitched it to 10 or 11 different publishers. Luckily, I was able to meet Action Phase Games and we found we have similar ways of approaching design in board games that really made the relationship work out.
It’s nice to hear that it’s easy to approach companies and everyone’s just generally interested in the industry, so they’re always willing to talk about games.
Yeah, the main thing is like you want to present it in a way that’s very manageable. What I did for my pitch was I put all of my cards in a binder so that I could literally just take the binder out and put it on a table. So the setup took me like two or three minutes compared to if you were taking the game out of the box, it would take quite a bit longer. And then I pitched the game as, “Give me 10 or 20 minutes and I can show you what my game’s about, and if you like it we can play a whole game which will take a bit longer.” So being able to create a small experience for your game and pitch it as that experience helps a lot.
And I think that’s great advice for other people who are looking to get their game published.
Yeah, for sure. The biggest thing with getting something published is to test it a lot and make sure you like the game. And the people you play it with, I mean, they can like it, that’s kind of important. But I think the biggest thing is finding something that you really like and are willing to play a lot. Because if you don’t like the game, why are other people going to like it? And once you’ve got a game that you really enjoy playing, then it’s time to maybe start looking for other people, like actual publishers, to look at it.
What are some other challenges in making a tabletop game? What are some challenges that are unique to tabletop as opposed to video games?
The thing that’s really weird to me as somebody who’s largely been a video game person for the majority of my life is that once the game ships, you can’t make any more changes to it. Right? And that’s really weird, especially now when companies release games that aren’t really finished, because they know they can patch them in the months to come. That’s just not possible with a board game. Once you decide that it’s done, you can’t do any other changes to it. So we finished work on Aeon’s End partway through the Kickstarter in April, and people will begin getting copies of it November-ish. But there haven’t been any changes since then. Once it was finished in April, that was it. That was the end.
Do you have any plans for games in the future after you’re finished with Aeon’s End?
So we’re working on another standalone thing for Aeon’s End. So if you take all of the content we’ve already made and double it, that’s basically what we’re working on right now. We’re trying things that really push the envelope of what’s possible within this engine and this world that we’ve created. Things are interesting and different and strange. We’ve had a lot of games where it’s like, “I don’t … I don’t know what just happened. I don’t know if it was good or bad.” We’re going to need some more games to figure it out.
That sounds exciting, and I mean, it can’t be that bad if you get to play games to figure things out.
Yeah. Playtesting is fun. It’s a lot of taking notes. It’s very tiring. It’s difficult to consider all of the different variables that exist in the game when it’s so fresh. There’s a lot more decision-making, because now when you’re testing stuff, it’s like, “Is this [character] good for the game? Should we remove it altogether?” And so the earlier into the design process you are, the bigger and more complicated and interesting the decisions are that you have to make.
That’s almost overwhelming. How do you even consider everything?
I kind of keep a mental checklist of things that are good for the game and things that are not, and that checklist has expanded because we tried more different design and some of it really did not work at all. But it was good because it told us like, “we cannot use this concept for the game,” rather than just like, “this specific card doesn’t work.
So I’m guessing the game looks a lot different now than from when it started.
Yeah! It’s unrecognizable from the beginning.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.