I first met Darrin through a local beg/borrow/trade/sell Facebook group for the town we live in. I was selling an old copy of Mystery of the Abbey and he was interested in it. We met at a local Barnes & Noble to make the transaction and chatted a bit about our hobby, how he was a gamer and also had been working on some games. One thing led to another and we became fast friends. Turns out then when my wife and I bought a new house in town in was only 4 houses down from Darrin and his family and we didn't even realize until shortly before we moved in! The rest, they say, is history.
Tell everyone who you are and a little bit about yourself.
Hi, My name is Darrin Horbal, and I make games. Well, I do lots of things, but making games is my passion. During the day I work at Firefly Studios, an independent digital game developer that specializes in massively multiplayer historical strategy games. Our core product line is the Stronghold series. On the side, I am also part owner (1 of 4) of a board game design company (Geek Fever Games) and also a part owner of a new board game publishing company (Phase Shift Games) with Jason Miceli.
I came into game development through the art door, but now I am also heavily involved with game design. I have a particular strength in graphic design, which is really important for board game development.
You've got your hands in quite a bit of different cookie jars. Let's start off with your history of games and gaming. Did you grow up with games?
I did, I was an 80’s kid. I played D&D and all the old TSR boxed RPGs as well as Traveller, Champions, Car Wars and a bunch of other cool stuff from that time. I also played a bit of Risk and other board games as well, though it was not until later that my true love for board games blossomed. On the digital side, I started out with the TI994A, then the C64 and ultimately the Amiga. The Amiga was the tool that really kicked off my digital art creation and desire to make games.
When did you initially get into design, both digitally and for the tabletop?
In 1992 I started an educational software company with some friends. I designed a number of the storybook games we made and had a lot of fun. Unfortunately, we were better at making games than selling them so we went out of business a few years later. This did give me my first taste of design though, and ever since I have also played around with designing digital games. While I was never an official designer in any of my roles in digital game development, I would often contribute design ideas and rapidly prototype my design ideas using Game Maker.
I spent most of my career in digital game creation, but after a while, I started to feel the tug back towards the physical world. I liked playing games WITH people physically. Even more so I enjoyed MAKING games others could play with each other in person. In particular, I enjoyed designing games I could play with my sons. When I found The Game Crafter I was off and running designing games and printing out prototypes.
What were some of your early tabletop designs like?
Well, that settles that!
lol. In all seriousness, usually, your first designs are not very good. The job of the designer is to refine and refine and refine (with a heavy use of playtesting) until it is good/great, or to determine as quickly as possible that it may never be good/great. It never happens that you wake up one morning with a game idea, have a prototype by lunch and have a publisher in a few weeks sign it and proceed on to a successful Kickstarter. Well, actually, that is what happened to my Pocket Sub game, but other than that it never happens, at least not to me… except that once.
How did you get involved with the Geek Fever Games guys?
I don’t remember the exact moment, but Jason was very enthusiastic about my games and really encouraged me to submit my Guardians of AsunDur to CTFig that year, and so I did. It did very well there, but more importantly, I got to meet Jason and the guys in person. From that point on, it seemed like destiny that we would all work together. We are all game designers and we each bring our own strengths. At the time, they needed an in-house graphic designer to really bring their designs to the next level. I slotted into that spot happily, as I really enjoy graphic design. The Geek Fever team is comprised of Jason Miceli, Matt Plourde, Tim Mierzejewski and myself.
How did that lead to you and Jason starting Phase Shift Games?
Jason and I have always been interested in the publishing side of the board game industry, so we formed Phase Shift Games as a publishing (not design) company with Matt and Tim's blessing. We are really excited about some of the projects we have well underway. As you know, we are working on Queens Quest, as well as a couple other smaller titles in the same universe.
Tell me more about some of your own designs.
I started out designing mostly cooperative games so I could play with my kids rather than playing against them. At an early age, this helped me to model behavior for both winning and losing together. I definitely have a fondness for coop games. I also like games that you could play solitaire if you are so inclined. Not all my games are coop, however. For example, Pocket Sub (published by Alley Cat Games) is an abstract strategy game of nautical warfare, featuring unique Submarine meeples. I also have a small abstract card game, KhromaZones (looking for a publisher) that is a fast-paced card game of colors and zones for one to two players. My favorite design is Guardians of AsunDur (also looking for a publisher). It is a cooperative board game for 1-6 players where each player takes on the role of one or more guarding angels seeking to restore virtue in a world growing darker with vice. My son and I have played and refined this game hundreds of times and we still are not tired of playtesting it. Further out I am working on a retro sci-fi themed cooperative board game with a working title of Starguards. That is my current passion project.
You know I'm a big fan of Guardians!
You're not just into the game and graphic design, but the world building as well, correct?
Absolutely, I love world building. We are already off to a great start with Queens Quest (though that is largely Jason’s baby). As for myself, I have been working on my Starguard universe. I love the idea of multiple games and other media all set in the same world and watching it grow.
Tell me more about the Starguard universe!
Starguard is set in an alternate retro science fantasy universe just a phase shift away. All the races in Starguard are of a common ancestry, though they vary widely in shape, size, and hue. These various races expanded outward from their home planet and now have colonized multiple planets in surrounding systems. The home planet was subsequently taken over by a sinister spawn of evil and is seeking to dominate the rest of the sentient beings. Standing in opposition to this threat are the vigilant Starguards, a brave force of men and women hailing from all the remaining developed worlds.
What about the Guardians of Asun'Dur universe? Are they the same, different, similar?
There are rumors that there are connections between the two. 😉
So what's coming up in the near future for you?
Right now, my main focus is are the three Queens Quest games. We plan to have two in the Fall, and one next spring. That being said we are going to do them right and not rush them. When they are ready for KS, they are ready.
I look forward to them!
So what are some of your favorite games to play right now, not including Geek Fever or Phase Shift designs?
My son and I really love to play FFG Battlelore, and we play many Sunday mornings. I also finally got bit and received the Age of Sigmar boxed set for my birthday. Oh no!
Oh, no is right!
Planning a lot of painting?
Yeah, but I am going to not stress about it as that will defeat the point. I will just do a little over lunch each day, and before you know it I should have them painted. (at least that's the plan). I just like how GW has changed. I like how they are reducing the barrier to entry, and they have always been masters of the fluff. Being a fan of IP's, this is also a big draw for me.
I feel like I need to get into it again, but the last thing I need is ANOTHER time suck 😀
Anyway. I think that's all I have. Anything you want to add before we wrap up?
Just that I feel very blessed to have hooked up with you, Jason, Matt, and Tim with regards to our board game hobby.
Well, thanks for taking the time to chat!
About the Nor'easter Series
Nor'easters is a series of articles spotlighting a different tabletop game designer, publisher, or content creator from the Northeastern United States each week. The series was inspired by all the amazing people in the industry I've met over the years in my home region of the US.
Make sure to come back every week and see who is spotlighted next! To see a complete listing of the series' articles, click here.
Media personality Rob Kalajian has been a staple in the board game world for many years. As a former writer for Purple Pawn and the owner of A Pawn’s Perspective, Rob focuses on board game reviews, events, and news. A self-proclaimed geek, Rob loves all things toys and games and even helps raise his four kids in his spare time.