Interview: Elijah Kellogg

Angus McNicholl

Interview: Elijah Kellogg
September 11, 2020 Angus McNicholl

Elijah Kellogg is the creator of NCO and Star Breach, a popular sci-fi skirmish game. We caught up with him to talk tabletop games, rulesets, and inspiration.

Hi, Elijah, thanks for taking the time to speak to Parallel Worlds. For those who don’t know, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Well thank you very much for having me. I am always very grateful to hear about people playing and enjoying Star Breach. So thank you for reaching out! 

As for the basics, I’m 32 years old, I have a beautiful wife and two young daughters. Though I’m originally from California, I now live in a remote jungle town in south east Asia. We’ve been here for about two and a half years and, while life can be very difficult in our region, we absolutely love where we are and I wouldn’t trade my current life for the world. My ‘day job’ is working as a foreign ministry worker for a religious nonprofit. In particular, I work with a local partner and we co-own and operate a student life center and cafe, complete with music stage, coffee shop, and books and board games library! 

 

You wrote Star Breach back in 2018, and it’s been available as a free PDF. You recently completed a Kickstarter to bring the book to hard copy. Could you tell us a little about what inspired you to write the game?

The journey of developing Star Breach actually started even farther back, in early 2017. I was playing tons of both Frostgrave and Bolt Action at the time and I wanted a ruleset that brought WW2-inspired tabletop combat down to a squad versus squad level. I was also a huge fan of Mordheim back in the day, so I wanted to see something that had both tabletop player versus player skirmish action, with an RPG-lite pre- and post-game feel. Unsatisfied with what I found out there (which is still not very much), I decided to create my own ruleset for such a game. 

Once satisfied with what I had made, I called the game NCO and put it out on the internet in mid-2017. To my surprise, it really started taking off, and hundreds of players from around the world started checking out the game. Those first rules were still pretty rough! So with lots of player feedback and my own continual playtesting, I continued to polish the rules until the end of 2017. NCO is still now a wonderful little ruleset for WW2 skirmishing, completely free for players to use. I thought it all good fun, and I figured that would be my first and only foray into rules writing. Haha!

Right about that time my family moved overseas, and I lost a huge part of my life: the tabletop gaming hobby. I loved seeing NCO’s success from afar, but I also started picking up small squads of Games Workshop Warhammer 40,000 guys from a super random store that I found while we were stationed for training in Thailand. I was cathartically painting the sets, but with no real use for them in mind. 

As I painted those models up, it began to dawn on me that (at the time) sci-fi was also missing out on a solid squad-level ruleset. There was the new Necromunda, of course, but that was thematically very niche. Though featuring beautiful sculpts, Infinity is also super niche, and has always been hit-or-miss for player groups. Shadow War Armageddon was already long gone and old Kill Team was long gone as well. I looked into a few other indie rulesets, but found many of them really underdeveloped and others really overdone… and boring! And that’s when I realised that maybe I could start applying the foundation of NCO to a new sci-fi multiverse tabletop skirmisher that would be model-agnostic and unbound to any particular franchise.

Once I actually put my fingers to the keyboard, I realised I was in for a huge task. New ideas just kept coming for rules and I was often writing and rewriting the same paragraph for hours. Also, if I wanted to be all-inclusive to the nearly endless availability of sci-fi models and different popular sci-fi motifs, I knew I would have to come out swinging with a massive list of different ‘vanilla’ warband factions. 

I worked on the rules in the evenings and in my free time: about three hours a day for four months. And so it was then, by early 2018, I finally released to the online world my very, very first copy of what would become Star Breach. The ruleset was first called ‘Starfall’ and featured seventeen factions, everything completely free for players to download. It was decent enough — better than my first release of NCO — but also still very rough. Nonetheless, a few faithful players took a chance on the game and started falling in love with the overall idea and basic gameplay mechanics. I worked on editing the rules often, and we continued to grow the game as a small community.

Only after a few short months after the game’s release, things got kinda shaky. First, Games Workshop made a huge announcement with the return of Kill Team, and I immediately lost a lot of players’ limited attention in the wake of the hype. Also, suddenly it seemed like everyone and their mom wanted a hand in writing their own sci-fi skirmish game and rules! Tons of new games and models just kept popping up. Then, a children’s reading app company, called ‘Starfall’ of all things, sent me a C&D because of my game’s name and the website. They had zero case against me, but I realised it wasn’t worth all the trouble to keep the name of my little game. 

So I worked really hard on cleaning up the rules, added three more factions to a round total of 20, and I re-released the game under the name it’s known by today: Star Breach. Our player base from then on grew steadily. 

I think we really hit our stride in 2019 when the hype of many other games, including Kill Team, was beginning to dwindle with actual player experience. We started getting some bigger names in the gaming community playing Star Breach, falling in love with the game design and polished rules, and giving it a shout on their various social media channels. Very honoured and humbled by just how far the game has come, all thanks to our players!

Could you talk us through the Kickstarter process and what it was like to work through? Are we right in thinking that you set up Slow Death Games in order to publish Star Breach?

Actually, I did not start Slow Death Games, nor do I have any ownership of the company! So this kind of a really cool story actually, if a little long. I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.

I loved the idea of keeping Star Breach accessible to people from all socioeconomic walks of life, and thus keeping the rules online as a free download, forever. That being said, I was also tempted very early on in making a hardcopy. I figured even just a ‘collectors’ gift copy would be fun to make for our diehard players. I debated the idea for a long time until one day I had an online conversation with one of our players in mid-2018. He challenged me to make a nicer, paid-for copy of the book, even if it was just a nicer PDF that sold for like $5.

His argument was really compelling. He basically said that players play crappy games all the time because they are financially invested. They don’t even like the game, but they play anyway because they paid for it. But then when a ‘free’ game is introduced to the table, people often shrug it off, not really trusting that it will be any good. And even if it does prove to be good, they might often go back to their paid-for games, because of their investment. That argument was very, very good, and I found that experience to be true even in my own gaming life. So I decided then to make a physical art piece version of the game.

I started hiring artists from around the world to work on illustrations for the book, but figured I wouldn’t actually run a Kickstarter campaign until maybe late 2020 or early 2021 when I was back home in the states after our first term overseas. Well, in early 2019, my youngest daughter was born and three days later had a massive stroke. Thanks be to the Lord Jesus she’s totally fine now, though slightly disabled, but at that time we rushed back to the USA much sooner than I was anticipating. I reached out to our Star Breach community and asked if people were ready to potentially back a hardcopy, even though I personally felt it was all a little too early for such an endeavour. And once again, with massive community support, I was encouraged to give it a go.

To ramp up the hype a little more and run a successful Kickstarter, I started touring the game around to a number of different conventions local to my region. That was when I first met Chris Kohler from Slow Death Games. I met him at OrcCon in Los Angeles, where he was promoting his fantastic indie skirmisher Wild in the Streets. He was super humble and hardly told me anything about who he was when he and a friend first sat down to demo-play Star Breach. After their game, he looked up at me from the table and said, among a few other comments: “This is a truly great game.” It was then that he really chatted with me about who he was and we immediately hit it off. We left the convention exchanging info, but I figured that would probably be the end of that. Just a nice meet-up.

So I went to Kickstart a hardcover book and I totally botched the launch. We had a ton of support, but I messed up the pledge levels pretty good and I had to cancel for a restart. Right after I cancelled, that’s when Chris called me and told me that he would be really excited to release Star Breach with Slow Death Games and expand his company to add me as game designer and writer. Years back we both worked in the local underground music industry, and we both loved the punk-rock feel and egalitarian ethics of DIY releases and friendship-based partnership. So I was sold! 

From then on out, Chris absolutely crushed it at promoting Star Breach and launching the successful paperback retail Kickstarter. We go 50/50 on nearly all sales, and we’re both very happy with our partnership and how well Star Breach has just absolutely blown up in 2020. So yes, while I don’t actually own Slow Death Games in any way, I absolutely love Chris and what he does through his platform.

 

Star Breach draws inspiration from a great many sources, from Star Wars to Predator, and offers a multiverse of crossplay possibilities. Was it always the intention that Star Breach would take a multiverse approach over the development of its own internal back story?

Yes. It was definitely always the intent to keep the game as franchise-free as possible. I was never interested in starting my own story, and I was especially not interested in attempting to create a whole new IP and line of models. I personally think there’s already so many incredible sci-fi worlds and stories out there, and I think it’s in the geek’s nature to want to see those worlds occasionally collide and fantasise about all the ‘what-ifs’ of multiverse battles. It’s those IPs and copyrights and licensing issues that always stop such awesomeness from actually happening in an official way. Thus, I definitely created Star Breach with a mind to construct a proper arena in which players could creatively face-off their favourite sci-fi characters in battle, all the while providing an entertaining and balanced set of rules to do so. So while all 20 different warband factions do have a small amount of description tied to them, those descriptions are vanilla enough to keep me legal and to allow players the freedom to be creative in their setups. I absolutely love some of the awesome stories and warbands and battles our playerbase has come up with!

 

How would you describe the unique points of Star Breach in comparison to other popular wargames?

Star Breach, mechanically speaking, is my favourite game of all time because ultimately it’s the combination and the refining of my favourite gaming mechanics of all time. There are some obvious influences, such as order dice from Bolt Action, or psychic abilities and schools from Frostgrave, but there are other mechanical influences that are much more subtle or entirely unique. The attack roll versus dodge roll mechanic is actually loosely based off of the X-Wing miniature game. And of course the terrain and circumstantial modifiers for rolls are inspired from Games Workshop games, among others. But unique elements also abound: very small stat lines for characters that are easy to memorise and utilise, the basic maths and intuitive process involved in resolving attacks and close combat, the close combat round in general, the scenarios, the campaign rules, some of the warband special rules and weapon rules are fairly unique, and so on. 

I think the key feature of the game is that it’s as equally intuitive and strategic as possible. When I demo the game, players are often playing the full second round without my help and little reference to the rules, and by the third round they are doing so with great strategic capability. I love seeing it all click and players having a great play experience from the get-go.

What are your plans for the future of Star Breach?

So as many players already know, later this year we are hoping to release a co-op/solo expansion for Star Breach titled Hunters. It’s a mission-based campaign book that features all the favourite elements of Star Breach game mechanics, but also has a much more in-depth storyline and lots more RPG-lite elements in game and between every game. Honestly, it’s much more of its own game than just a supplement or expansion. It’s completely standalone, and it’s really exciting to me to see just how much players are already enjoying it and sending me their feedback from the first demo mission (which is available on our website now — free as usual!) People seem to be enjoying a lot more co-op and solo board game releases these days, so I think Star Breach is the perfect format to bring that kind of play to the proper tabletop gaming world.

Down the line, we’ve got multiple language translations in the works, thanks to our incredible global community and the hard work of many multilingual players. These will all be available online on our website, for free, forever. I’m really excited for how that will only continue to make Star Breach as globally accessible as possible. Slow Death Games has also been talking about eventually moving Star Breach up a level and doing platoon-style engagement rules, with new small vehicles and monsters and such for all the warbands — like old, old-school Warhammer 40,000-sized games. And then of course I’m also currently writing an entirely new game with a new theme entirely. MUAHAHA!

 

Do you play games by other designers?

I did! Now that I live where I do in a very rural and poor community, I hardly get to play boardgames — let alone tabletop games. I haven’t played a proper tabletop game in nearly six months now (since I was back in the USA). I am slowly working on Flames of War ‘Nam armies; just hobbying and painting models I brought with me to occasionally pass the time. Skimmed the rules, but not sure if I’ll ever get to play.

Honestly, I do a lot of games writing, simply because I miss getting to play games myself. There is so much out there I’d love to try, but simply can’t at the moment. If I had to look back on when I was playing games, I would say a game designer I really look up to is Joseph McCullough from Osprey. I really admire his work and used to play and demo hours and hours of Frostgrave when I had the chance. I was also a big player and proponent of The Ninth Age: Fantasy Battles when that first went community-driven. I still have massive armies of both Goblins and Dwarves back in the ’States. And of course I loved playing Bolt Action and X-Wing, among many others.

 

Do you have any advice for us game design novices who dream of getting their game published?

I would say foremost just write the game you want to play, and then start playing it. A lot. Be a tough critic and don’t shortcut the mechanical design process. Don’t leave rules to the player’s imagination, and try to discover and disband as many ambiguities and loopholes as possible before getting your rules to the public. There’s this weird trend now where indie game designers are trying to fit their rules to like a page or two pages, and they market that like a good thing. I think that’s 90% of the time a lazy thing and a hurtful thing, long term. I think players ultimately dislike having to ‘house rule’ every other mechanic in a game, and if they have to tweak your rules too often to make the game enjoyable, let alone playable, then you’re missing the point of creating rules to begin with.

That also means I think would-be game designers need to greatly lengthen their timeline of release and minimise their income expectations. To be frank, the first few proper iterations of your game probably suck in a lot of ways, and you need your community to have their hands all over the rules early and often, and for free. When they have feedback — and they will — you have to genuinely listen to what they’re saying. Resist the natural urge to be defensive of your creation, and realise that if somebody is giving you their honest opinion, that means they care enough to tell you what they think, and they genuinely want you to do well and be successful. It also means they like your game, and they want it to be ever better! If you put your game out there and nobody is writing back to you about it, that’s not a success. That’s when it’s time to pack it up. 

Way too many start-ups these days rely on flashy artwork and models to sell their game, and when players finally sit down to play the game is just not fun at all. That sucks. And it’s a cute way to make money quickly, but you’re only going to get away with it once. That’s why so many ‘game companies’ these days are just a flash in the pan. And that’s why good games, truly great games, take a long time to catch on and regularly show up in your FLGS [friendly local game store]: their solid rulesets will ultimately win the table space.

 

What are you reading at the moment?

Many people may be surprised to hear that I am a devout follower of Jesus. So I do read my Bible everyday. Apart from that, I recently just finished Animal Farm by George Orwell and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, for a second time. I am jumping into Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and a few Adventures of Tintin graphic novels shortly. I have a variety of non-fiction articles and news sources I read daily. I also speak Burmese, and I am learning to read it now, so I read lots of little Burmese children books and stories when I can. ဒါပေမယ့်အဲဒါခက်ခဲပါတယ်။ Haha.

 

Do you play video games?

Sure! A lot of Star Breach warband influences actually come from a couple of my favourite video game series of all time: Bioshock and Dead Space. I love a few PC real-time strategy games as well, like Outpost 2, StarCraft, Company of Heroes, Ultimate Civil War General and the Total War series (though I don’t often play against other players as my reflexes are atrocious!) Now that I’m a father, of course, I surprisingly love playing more cutesy titles on our Nintendo Switch with my older daughter like Mario Kart 8, Yoshi’s Crafted Story, or Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I did, however, recently finish Darkest Dungeon and The Return of the Obra Dinn. Both of those were absolutely fantastic indie games with wonderful storytelling!

 

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! We wish you all the best with your next project.

Thanks for having me! Check out Star Breach for free at starbreach.com!