SSG: 20th Anniversary Retrospective – the first 10 years

I’m not usually a visual or graphics oriented person. However, I felt that I should put together a post about SSG in its 20th Anniverary Year; a look back at our published games, mainly through pictures.

Surprised Stare Games was officially born in November 1999, according to our Certificate of Incorporation. Tony Boydell and myself were and are directors, our spouses are share-holders, so that they have an interest in keeping us on the straight and narrow. Reg (our somewhat movable surprised guy) was also born.

In the beginning, there was the word, and the word (according to Tony) was “Coppertwaddle”.

Box cover for Coppertwaddle by Judy Stevens

“To Thee The Coppertwaddling Man and Mayde, Be Thou Sure Thy Debts are Payde.” We had so much fun with this spoof medieval game! It came with its own long history, learned articles and even a notation for recording games. Nadia Marrocco drew the cards and Judy Stevens did the cover. Coppertwaddle was published in 2000, and we took it to Essen 2002 and sold a few. At Essen, we were right next to Richard Breese, who taught us all we should have known before we went to Essen! He had brought his excellent game Keythedral, and promptly sold out, while our very prettily medieval stand remained somewhat devoid of customers. We’re still learning from Richard.

A sample of Coppertwaddle cards. Thanks to silverpenny for uploading the image to BGG.

Mappa Mundi was our first promo card – we (mainly Tony) have been altogether more extravagent with promos since.

Our next offering was Bloody Legacy, “An Unnecessarily Violent & Offensive Card Game for All the Family”. This included a classic scene at Essen 2004: an older lady approached our stand and admonished us for producing such a horrible and disgusting game, concluding with “I’ll have 2 copies, please!”. Bloody Legacy was possibly our simplest card game, a fun last-man-standing game that was produced, artwork and all, in-house. Tony did all the line art for the cards, Charlie did the layout and colouration, I did rules and production. For some reason, Eclectic Games in Reading sold about a quarter of our total stock. It was our first game that flew off the shelves.

A favourite BL image

Notice that we were producing our games in English and German, reflecting our keenness to sell at Essen Spiel each year. Bloody Legacy was translated into German by Melanie Koster, who coped well with idiomatic translations of Tony’s visual and textual jokes.

Our first year at Essen Spiel was 2002 with Coppertwaddle. In 2003, we went as ‘punters’ without a stand. Then, in 2004 back with a stand for Bloody Legacy.

A rather young and proper looking Tony Boydell! We also sold some BL Ts.

As part of our marketing for Bloody Legacy, we produced a little puzzle on our website. The winner was a certain David Brain, puzzle compiler and game designer extra-ordinaire! His victory led to our lasting friendship.

Having produced “only” card games so far, our next venture was our first proper board game. My design started as a pyramid-shaped set of blue cards and some conical pieces, which transmogrified into a rather abstract game called the King of the Castle. After a couple of years of development, we had a much better 2-4 player ancient Ireland themed board game called Tara, Seat of Kings. We indulged ourselves with a rather splendid box cover overflowing with gold leaf.

Tara, Seat of Kings box top

Tony managed to incorporate us into the scene, though I’m a bit unrecognisable now. I never did ask Tony how long it took him to do the Celtic scrollwork. I’m happy to say that it was generally well received in the gaming community – we sold out, but didn’t set the world alight. At this stage in our company’s development, and the development of our game design processes, we’d not yet got to grips with co-authoring or working with other publishers. I suspect Tara would have been a better game if we had.

2007 brought Scandaroon. I nearly said “nuff said” and moved along. However, while Scandaroon has been the butt of many of our jokes about failed games, there remains a good game in there, in my opinion. The primary reason for Scandaroon’s failure was really our lack of marketing experience and expertise. The game itself is a very tight card manipulation game with a bit of strategy on top, and reviews are generally very positive, praising its innovation and depth. Unfortunately, we rushed the theming (why Scandaroon? It’s from Iskenderon, a seaport in southern Turkey, suggesting a kind of medieval, oriental thingy; or possibly a pigeon!). The box turned out to be very bland. It was quite a hard sell, because at heart it’s an abstract tactical/strategic game with a paper-thin theme.

Scandaroon box top

My medium-heavy Euro board game, Confucius, had been under development for a considerable while before its publication in 2008. A bit like with Tara, it started life as a card game and rapidly got out of hand. With at least 3 years from conception to publication it had a reasonable gestation period.

Confucius box top

Many people liked the gift-giving mechanic, and it has been a welcome addition to the SSG catalogue – certainly, I considered it my best design to date. In a sense, Confucius announced us as a serious games company. In keeping with our desire to sell into Germany, we again produced a German translation of the rules, though not a full-blown dual language game. Instrumental in the German side of the project was our great friend Daniel Danzer, who volunteered his services to us poor indie company with little to no resources. We were privileged to have Daniel’s professional help, and he has been a good friend to SSG over the years.

It was also our first game where players made extensive custom pieces!

Customised Confucius board

We were also in partnership with another company, an arrangement that I will not dwell upon, because it was A Bad Thing, and came very close to ending SSG. Despite the negatives around that relationship, Confucius sold well, particularly in the English-speaking world, though surprisingly (to me at least), slightly less well in Germany.

“For me? Really …. you shouldn’t have.” Thanks to MyParadox for uploading to BGG.

Another positive was meeting up with Moritz Eggert (a renowned avant garde musician as well as a gamer who appeared on The Dice Tower). Moritz, I learned, was a fan of my earlier game City of Sorcerers, which apparently had a cell of fans in Munich! I asked Moritz’ group to blind test Confucius, and this was very helpful in the development of the final product.

2009 was our 10th anniversary as a company. 5 games had emerged from the SSG stable. It was touch-and-go after the unpleasantness of 2008 whether we would maintain our 1 / 2 year rate. My own game design inspiration was curtailed for a long while. However, Tony’s seemed to start to ramp up. Fzzzt! I’m guessing this is the only game on BGG with a triple ZZZ, the sound of a rapidly terminating robot.

Fzzzt! pic from our website

Tomorrow’s world is here today!

A world where strange and crazy robots are built in a crackpot factory, and the players (mechanics) compete to collect them as they fall off become available on the conveyor belt.

Fzzzt! was a real pleasure for all of us. Yet another card game from Tony’s endless supply, full of life (well, robot life anyway), humour and fun. This was the first game we launched at UK Games Expo, rather than Essen Spiel. We sold well over 100 copies there, which, considering 2009 was only its third year, was very good; if I recall correctly it may have been the first time we made a profit at the Expo! And the icing on the cake was the award of Best Card Game.

Tony being awarded Best Card Game at UKGE 2009

Now, we started to work more consciously and more effectively with partner companies. Fzzzt! was produced in 2010 by Eagle-Gryphon Games in the States, and also by Lifestyle Boardgames Ltd in Russian!

I’ve just noticed that I started drafting this post before lockdown. I’d better publish it, or it may languish as a draft forever. Then I can start on Part 2.

1 Response to “SSG: 20th Anniversary Retrospective – the first 10 years”


  1. 1 richardbreese August 5, 2020 at 12:50

    Thanks for your kind words. I’ve enjoyed sharing part of the journey with you. Here’s to the next 10! Best wishes, Richard Breese


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