Industry Interviews – Cheapass Games, James Ernest interview!

Greetings All,
Today I get to bring you a great interview with Mr. James Ernest from Cheapass Games! My favorite game form Cheapass is Kill Doctor Lucky, although I am more partial to the card game version of the game. Kill Doctor Lucky is a great game and is best played with the maximum amount of players. Please check out the Cheapass Games site and their awesome free games section! Did you know that James Ernest wrote a book about juggling? Check it out! Enjoy!
1)Your gaming career started as a writer for Wizards of the Coast, during your time with them, when did you decide that you were meant for bigger things?
Honestly, nothing would have been bigger than a chance to work in Wizards R&D. Some very successful game designers have come out of that place. But my work for Wizards was mostly writing and graphic design, not game design. Wizards had a round of layoffs and a change of direction in 1995, and I took that opportunity to jump ship and (eventually) start my own game company. 
2)What was the inspiration for the name “Cheapass Games,” and your first game: “Kill Doctor Lucky?”
“Cheapass Games” was based on the idea that our games were cheap, our company was small, and we were proud of it! I saw a lot of smaller game companies pretending to be huge, but that just wasn’t my style. So we made a big deal out of how small we were, and the name “Cheapass” was part of that strategy.
The inspiration for Kill Doctor Lucky actually predated Cheapass by a few months. I had written a “mystery” story in College, where a detective grills a bunch of murderers in the front room of a mansion while their victim is still alive, and when the lights go out, they all murder him in a matter of seconds. In turn this was inspired by games and movies from the mystery genre, including “Clue” in both cases, as well as many others. 
One day while I was driving across town, the name “Kill Doctor Lucky” came into my head, and a nearly complete picture of the game wasn’t far behind. I had made a few board games already and this seemed like a perfect way to launch my own company, once I had failed to sell it to a few existing publishers. 
3)Kill Doctor Lucky was your flagship game, was it the first game you created?
I’ve been making games since I was very young. My first formal design project was in high school, when I wrote an abstract game (basically a chess variant) as a core element in a fantasy novel. I never finished the novel but my design partner and I thoroughly and enthusiastically finished the game. Before starting Cheapass I had also sold some games to Games Magazine, and had created several other board games and even a few trading card games.
4)How do you think the break in game production affected the company in the long run?
When we closed down (in about 2006) it was the right thing to do. I had too many employees, and too much inventory, and there wasn’t much for it but to spend a few years on hiatus. The break gave us a chance to reinvent the company, and for the world to invent crowdfunding. When we came back with a site full of free games in 2011, many of our customers hadn’t even noticed that we were missing. 
5)What did you do before your gaming career started?
I have part of an engineering degree, and I had a short career as a professional juggler. All of this leads naturally to a game publishing career. I guess. From 1984 to about 1993, my main business was promoting my own juggling act, and publishing an instructional book called Contact Juggling. I also did freelance graphic design and technical writing, as well as comic book writing and illustration. And the kind of odd jobs that jugglers have, like scooping ice cream.
6)What made you want to be involved in the gaming industry?
I saw the success of Richard Garfield and Wizards of the Coast and realized that game inventing could be a paying job. I’ve got a passion for entertainment and mathematics, and I’m not bad at publishing, so it took a while to make sense of it all but I think I was destined for this career for a long time. 
7)What is your favorite game in the Cheapass line and what is your favorite non-Cheapass game?
My favorite non-Cheapass game is poker, if you measure by hours spent playing. I learned a lot from Magic:the Gathering at a critical time in my career, but I also learned by watching that game’s imitators that I would rather create something new than make incremental changes to a thing I know. There’s less money in innovation, but it’s where I would rather be.
Of all the games I’ve invented, I am most fond of Tak, but that’s not technically in the “Cheapass” line… we put a “James Ernest” logo on that box. Other favorites are Lords of Vegas and Pirates of the Spanish Main, also not from Cheapass. My favorite CAG branded game might be Diceland, a quirky little game that never really got off the ground. 
8)Is your family also heavily involved with tabletop gaming?
My wife Carol is VP of Cheapass Games, so yeah. Our daughter Nora is fifteen, and she’s more of a console gamer than a tabletop gamer, but we will rope her into working the booth at Gen Con this year, and then she will either be hooked, or vow to escape at the earliest opportunity. Either way, we win.
9)Your company has some of the (in my opinion) best customer interaction out there, what would you say is the reasoning behind that?
Everyone will tell you that customer service is important, but I think our approach to it comes from a time when we didn’t have the budget for anything else. Our customers are our greatest advocates, and board games spread by word of mouth, so we figure that one happy customer can lead to many more.
10)For anyone out there that is hoping to be a part of the gaming industry, what would be your advice?
Nobody gets into this business for the money. Our industry is populated by people who have a deep passion for games and for gaming, and who create, promote, and sell games because they love it. If you feel like that describes you, then you can probably find a home here.
I hope all of you enjoyed this great, mini in-depth interview! I want to say thank you to Mr. James Ernest and Cheapass Games for this interview, it means the world to me that great companies like yourselves have time for us little guys. Until next time… Live by the Board.

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