Can you imagine creating a brand new fantasy world completely from scratch? That’s exactly what Jeff Irving did, with his upcoming game series, Vrahode. After more than 30 years of dreaming and refining his ideas, he thinks the time is finally right to share his ideas with the world.
In this episode, we talk about how Jeff created his fantasy world, how he’s building a team to bring it to life, and how he’s handling the marriage of cold business realities to lofty dreams.
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Jeff Irving: It was like getting a new cellmate in prison by yourself. You know what I mean? After being in the cell by yourself for 25 years.
Brandon Rollins: My name is Brandon Rollins, and this is the Weird Marketing Tales Podcast. On this show, I will be interviewing small business owners, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals, all to help you see the ways that you can make a living that you didn’t even know were possible. And for this episode, I have brought on Jeff Irving from Weathervane Games. Jeff, how’s it going?
Jeff Irving: Great, Brandon, how are you doing?
Brandon Rollins: I’m doing great, especially since you’re here. So I think first question I gotta ask is what will Weathervane Games be doing?
What is Weathervane Games?
Jeff Irving: Well, Weathervane Games started, let’s see, this year. In fact, I created a little business, an LLC in Montana where I live to, to have one purpose, essentially. And that’s the house the Vrahode Game System. And so we are in the weeds as it were of that development, which is huge for a new business, a small business that essentially was me.
So, but I needed to create a business entity, so created an LLC just to house the project and any future projects. For the foreseeable future, we’ll see, obviously the rest of this year. Next year, we’re hoping to crowdfund in quarter four. And so Weathervane Games will be busy with the Vrahode Game System until probably sometime… I think we’ll be able to officially say that we’ve wrapped that sometime in ’24, at least as far as the core box and the first three expansions.
What is Vrahode?
Brandon Rollins: Very cool. So I suppose the, the better, more specific, and let’s be honest, more loaded question is what exactly Vrahode?
Jeff Irving: It is a nonsensical word that allows you to have a really short email address.
Brandon Rollins: Nice.
Jeff Irving: No, the, Vrahode is, is the world that our fantasy system exists within. It came to me a long time ago, back in, uh, 1990 when I was a graphic design, fine arts and journalism student at Ball State University. And, I was this, you know, uber geek on one side, I was also a lead singer in some bands on the other side, but I played games since I was a little bitty kid and they all seemed the same to me.
You know, I was playing a human, an elf, a dwarf, and I was typically saving damsels in distress from a red or green dragon. Those were pretty common themes. And, uh, at the end I would get the proverbial Lord of, you know, Rod of Lordly Might or some sort of typical magic item. And I was really kind of tired of it.
So Vrahode kind of came out of that desire for a new fantasy world, a new world that wasn’t full of all these Tolkien and Gary Gygax tropes. So Vrahode started with that and I really intended to write a bunch of books about the world of Vrahode. And I thought, you know, someday I’ll write these books, but I continued to play games and over time, over the years and doing a lot of writing, I realized I really didn’t enjoy the process of writing as much as I’d hoped, I would.
So I started to look for other mediums, uh, with which to share the world of Vrahode with people. And I kept playing all these games and I just slowly came to the conclusion that I can make this interactive experience for people that could be more fulfilling than them reading novels about Vrahode, but actually getting to, to take part in the world and battle through the conflicts of the world.
And so Vrahode came about and then morphed into this game system with that goal in mind.
Brandon Rollins: See, that’s cool because I gotta imagine that at first, when you were in the mindset of thinking of Vrahode as being a fantasy novel universe, it probably took quite a shift in mindset to go from novels to games.
About when did that happen?
How Jeff decided to turn Vrahode into a game
Jeff Irving: Well. I remember about 25 years ago. I was dealing with an extended illness. I was, I can’t – it was some sort of, I think it was some sort of, uh, like upper respiratory infection that just turned into pneumonia and ended up just really knocking me for a loop for a while. And I think that was the time when I got serious about translating, you know these, I’d written all these sociologies for all these different races and matrilineal, patrilineal descent patterns. How their, how their magics were sourced, how these races dealt with each other, you know, and I had all these, all this stuff typed up all these documents of, of these races that I was making real in my mind.
And during this illness, I, that was really when I thought, “hey, these, these are factions, these are game factions and one of the series that I loved when I was younger, like college age with my friends, we’d play the Milton Bradley master series, which, you know, were hugely popular.
You’re talking about like Axis & Allies, Conquest of the Empire, Broadsides and Boarding Parties, Shogun, Fortress America. I mean, it was, a lot of older gamers will remember this series and you still find Axis & Allies and Conquest occasionally in a rummage sale but, um, I loved the games and I, I became a big fan of dice chuckers.
So I set out during this illness, I set out to create this kind of homage to Axis & Allies, but using the world of Vrahode. And so I, I baked it down to this kind of dice chucker, wargame where the generals, the fantasy generals of these fantasy armies would come in and lead this group of soldiers, but their magic would enhance the very kind of subtle magic of the troops.
And so then just by virtue of the general in charge of the army, your army would change its tactics and its abilities and strategies based on that modification to the troops. And then you set out to just chuck dice. Okay. I got five chances for a four or less. Boom. All right. I got three chances for a two or less boom, you know, and you’re, and you’re just, you’re just having dice chucking fun.
And then obviously the enemy armies, they wanna take out that general, you know, so that all those fun modifications, your troops are getting go away. So I created this elaborate prototype and I’m sure there’s a lot of people in this industry that can empathize with it and sympathize with this process, you know, you, you spend all this money and try to piece together this beautiful prototype that shows that you’ve created the best game ever made.
And then you send it off to somebody who knows what they’re talking about and just wait and wait.
Brandon Rollins: That’s pretty common.
Jeff Irving: Yeah, so I sent my, I sent this big box of stuff that I’d spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on just cobbling it together, send it off to Fantasy Flight Games. They were super kind.
They said, this is probably one of the most beautiful prototypes we’ve ever seen, but it’s $150 game. As you know, 25 years ago, that was a decent, that was a decent chunk of change. Uh, they said, “we’re making $12 games right now, but thank you.”
Brandon Rollins: Yeah.
The difference between writing rules and writing books
Jeff Irving: So I basically just kind of, I chalked it up to, you know, “hey, it doesn’t matter.”
What mattered about the experience was me learning to write a rule book and understanding how to make a rule system. And, and that much like an electrical schematic, the words in rule books have so much more weight than words in novels, because in a novel, the reader takes the meaning and does what they want to with it.
But in a, in a game system, in a rule system, even if you change the tense of a word, you’re changing the gameplay. And so I really learned the power of the words within a game system and a rule system, and that you can very easily go astray where the game is just unplayable just by changing one word.
Brandon Rollins: That’s true, because when you really stop and think about the experience and, and let’s just think about gamers as customers for a minute. I mean, the whole customer experience is you play out these particular actions and they have some kind of story meaning, some kind of thematic meaning. That just so happens to express itself in gameplay.
So suddenly an errant word is not just an odd word choice, something that an editor finds and weeds out, or that slips in through the publication process and it’s not a big deal. Suddenly, it has all these kind of impacts that chain on one another, that kind of derail what you’re trying to say with the game.
Kind of high stakes.
Jeff Irving: Oh, yeah. and, if, there, there is a player out there that will find that and uncover that mistake.
And they will exploit it to the nth degree because that’s what gamers do. We, we find ways to play better, to, to be more powerful, to, you know, stack the deck in our favor. And, uh, the one that really got me was when you, when you say the word “player,” and then you look at that in the rules, and if you change that to “hero” then it affects a whole different group. It affects a whole, you know, the, if it’s player, well then if that player is playing three heroes, then shouldn’t that rule affect all of the ones they’re playing. And so it’s, it’s a slippery slope.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah, something you said a minute ago got me thinking where, well, you know, 25 years ago was 1997 at, as of the time we’re recording this. So at that time, of course, there wasn’t really an appetite for an Axis & Allies style game that had this big fantasy world behind it. It sounds crazy to say now to a modern gamer, who’s used to the existence of stuff like Gloomhaven and very, very story heavy $150, $200 tabletop games that have all the things you just mentioned.
But then there wasn’t a lot of that you have to, you had to really hunt for it. And the internet was too new to really connect with people who had that. This was before Board Game Geek. And yet your time, it has come because now what you have identified, this thing that you identified out there of not being a product that was like what you wanted. Now, a lot of people agree with you and you’ve got this market and you’ve had this idea in your head that you came by honestly, and have refined over the years. And now this idea is colliding with this existing market. And I think that’s just, that’s really special.
Jeff Irving: Well, I think one of the things too that happened is I recognized in that first initial effort to create that kind of Axis & Allies type wargame was that, that wasn’t what would serve the world of Vrahode best. And, and I learned that, hey, this was a, a red herring that even though I loved Axis & Allies, and I loved dice chuckers, and I loved wargames, the best way to pull people into this world was to make it more of an adventure dungeon crawl game, and really, truly adventure slash dungeon crawl, not just a dungeon crawl with a little bit of adventure aspect, but truly, you know, one that, that did justice to Overland adventure and the Underland dungeon crawl type, you know, where you got the finite number of rooms and halls and, and that sort of thing.
The pros and cons of having a complicated brand name
Jeff Irving: So it allowed me to, to look at that first game, which I think the name of the first game was called the Vrahodean Chronicles, which was just a mouthful of cole slaw. It was, it was a big, big bite. And, and Vrahode, even though it’s kind of a nonsensical word that I’m told, you know, you shouldn’t really name a game after a fantasy word because no one knows, you know, your, your lore, but it’s so central Vrahode the name of the world is so central to this game series that I, I have to keep it. So…
Brandon Rollins: It’s a two edge sword. The thing with nonsense names in businesses and brands is that yeah, you can actually make it work. You really, really can. It’s just an uphill battle. If you pick a word that is super common, you have a good chance of being discovered by random chance.
If you choose a word that is not super common, nobody is imitating that nobody is doing what you’re doing, but you have to get people to know the word, to look up in the first place. And as long as you have the patience and the persistence to just say the name over and over and over again, through various different forms of content marketing, I think that having the word Vrahode is a title is gonna be fine. Cause I like, I know you, I know you’ve got the patience to actually say it over and over again until people start Googling it.
Jeff Irving: Yeah. I do. Um, and I it’s, it’s not like I’m just starting to say it either. You know, I’ve been saying it since college.
Brandon Rollins: No, you’ve been doing this since ’90.
Jeff Irving: Yeah. So now I’m just thinking of, “how do I say it louder and clearer and have it carry over a farther distance?”
Brandon Rollins: Mm-hmm, through a big team effort. And I think that’s another thing to point out is like, I also know the size of your team, which I am also a member of myself. You’ve got a ton of different artists and writers and marketers and that kind of thing, working with you. So that’s gonna help make quite a bit of it easier too.
Jeff’s worldwide team of experts
Jeff Irving: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think that, you know, it’s fun when I go out there and I look at the artists, that have taken part in, in creating, you know, the characters and the, creatures and the environments. They’re pretty far flung. I’ve got, you know, I’ve got three Italians, see two Russians, two Aussies, three Brazilians, two Brits, a Frenchman.
And so, it’s neat to see because I always try to create friendships with them on social media as well. And, it’s neat to see them posting about their contributions to the project. Seeing people respond just to them, knowing them, and to their art in and of itself, not as part of the larger project, but just these little pieces, these little facets of what will create the whole world.
And it really, it really makes me kind of jazzed up because this is just little isolated pieces of people in all these countries that are gonna know about what we’re doing eventually. So it’s cool.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And by the way, for those of you who happen to stumble across this podcast on the blog, if you scroll down and look through the transcript, you’ll also see a lot of this artwork interspersed throughout the post. So if you wanna see specifically what this looks like, I encourage you to do that.
So to make things abundantly clear for anybody who needs a little additional context on this podcast, the game that you are working on right now is Vrahode: The Calteeryn Ascension, and I’ll link to relevant links in the transcript below so people can check that out. The basic idea is that you’re going to be taking this game to Kickstarter.
What is the difference between a game and a game system?
Brandon Rollins: Now, what is interesting to me is that you often use a phrase “game system” instead of “game.” So can you help me, and by proxy, the listeners, to understand a little bit about how a game system differs from a game?
Jeff Irving: Definitely. I, I think there’s a, there’s a really strong headwind for us as a new company, an untested company in Weathervane Games, me as an untested game designer because nobody got to play, uh, the Vrahodean Chronicles. When I, when I crafted that, because it, it ended in a prototype.
And so by marketing this as a game system, we feel like it’s a different kind of approach. It’s kind of like what Hero Quest did. And, and not a lot of other games do this where you’re basically promoting the product as a whole, as a rule system. And so what you’re telling people is that we think we have a rule system here that we’re excited to create sanctioned content for.
We’re excited to create, like you said, the Calteeryn Acension, which is the core box. This is kind of the jumping off point into the world of Vrahode, and we’re creating three large expansions to that core box. And those are, the first one is called The Enlighted & The Enslaved. The second one is called Facing the Storm and the final expansion for the game series is called the False Gods’ Deceipt.
But these four games, you know, all three expansions are dependent on the core box. You have to have that, but the, the four game series exists within the Vrahode Game System. And so what we’re saying to you is this is our offering to you within the Vrahode Game System, but because this is a new world, and we think that you’re going to enjoy all this new lore, these new heroes, new roles, new creatures, new plot lines, and a new way to play fantasy games.
We want you to contribute your own content, make your own heroes and role archetypes. Make those up yourselves. We give you the tools to do that. Also, there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own quest chains and your own campaigns yourselves and then we are gonna host those for you. We’re gonna allow you to create your own content and welcome you into the world of Vrahode with us and say, “hey, here’s the sanctioned material we’re making for you. What can you make to make the community better? What can you do to make, to help expand the lore of this new world?”
And the fun thing is it’s like that first time you played a role playing game or a tabletop game and the game master, because all games required game masters back then puts, puts the first mini on the board and tells you, “okay, here’s a Kobold and you have this level one fighter or whatever.”
And you’re like, “holy crap. What is that? Is it friend? Is it a foe? Can it kill me?”
Vrahode basically does that. Let’s just have that kind of childlike wonder of a fantasy world again. And so then having the sanctioned material and allowing our backers and fans to create their own heroes, their own content, their own campaigns, let’s us kind of say, “hey, let’s do a fantasy reset.”
So that’s what a game system is, and it helps us kind of combat that headwind of a no-name studio, an unknown designer. I mean, there’s obviously other ways we can fight that headwind. You know, I think the release of the Calteeryn Ascension in the Kickstarter and simultaneously releasing the three expansions.
In other words, if you back us next fall, you’ll have the opportunity to, if you wanna just try it, you’ll be able have the opportunity to get the Calteeryn Ascension. But if you want to back the entire story arc , you’ll be able to do it at that time. Cause what we wanna do is show the backers and fans that, “hey, we can create a lot of really high quality content here.”
Just as much as say a Steamforged Games or a Mythic Games. Or CMON, you know, because we have this wealth of story that started in, you know, ’89, 1989, or 90, right around then. And so this isn’t like, this isn’t our first rodeo, so to speak, you know, we, we actually have been developing this, this idea for the product for, for a long time.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And for those who want to learn more about the lore, by the time I drop this podcast – I’m recording these quite a bit in advance for Weird Marketing Tales – Jeff and I will likely have a podcast specifically about the Vrahode lore out at that time. So if you wanna check that out, that is almost certainly going to be on vrahode.com by the time that you hear this. So for anybody who wants to get really in the weeds on that.
How Jeff is keeping Vrahode approachable despite its customization potential
Brandon Rollins: Now in, in terms of what you had just said about, um, just how people can create their own stories and their own characters within the world of Vrahode. I think that’s interesting because it allows the game to also be a sandbox, kind of like a lot of the most popular video games of the last decade have been sandbox games.
And I’m talking about. Oh, gosh, like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky. I’m pretty sure Fortnite counts, although I’m not sure how to be honest with you, but like point is, there’s a massive appetite and we see this in the video game industry for people forging their own path and you can find similar parallels in board games, but you do another interesting thing where you avoid the trap that sandbox games seem to fall into, which is where you actually give people enough direction to know what to do when it’s their first time playing. Cuz you’ve got your campaign book, you’ve got your pre-made roles. So anybody who doesn’t want to have to think about all the implications of their choices can just pick up what you recommend and go from there.
Jeff Irving: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the big complaints in the board game industry, when you get towards the Gloomhavens and that sort of thing is set up time. You’ve got to design something that is quick to get to the table for those people, you know, there, there are those people that if it takes them more than 10 minutes to get the game set up, then they’re start, already starting to lose interest.
And I get that because life is, life is busy. People wanna, they wanna get right to the meat. They wanna have, in most cases nowadays they wanna be able to play little short sessions that fit into their lifestyle. I think giving them that quick play option, the pre-generated heroes, our dashboards kind of do that in our system.
We have these dashboards. You have one for your hero and you basically plug in all these little action cubes, your cards and it’s all right there. And, and you just take off with it. And it kind of does the heavy lifting for the rule system. And so as soon as you figure out this piece of plastic in front of you, that really does a nice job of managing a ton of data points in a very concise manner, then you just kind of focus on your friends.
You kind of, or if you solo play, you just focus on the gameplay. And that was a tall order, but it was something that, because I, I don’t have the pressure of working for a studio. I just happened to create this studio, to house this project. And it could take however long it needed to take.
I didn’t have a financial deadline. I wasn’t like, you know, about to be homeless. I’m retired. So it kind of became something just was my Magnum Opus. And I thought, what does it mean to create a game that is your Magnum Opus? Well, to me it meant giving it all the financial resources that you needed first and foremost, I had to tell myself, “can I afford to make this game?”
And then you have to give it the love and the time that it needs to actually be a fully fleshed out bloom, you know, a fully fleshed out flower at the end and something that is compelling and beautiful. And so I have that luxury that I’m not beholden to some boss that’s going, “you know, we have to, this has to be done by second quarter. And if it’s not, you can look for another job.”
I could, I could just be like, “well, this will be done when it’s done. It will be a quality proposition to our customers, not a value proposition, it will be expensive and it will be worth every penny.” And that was kind of what I set out to do because the, the world meant so much to me that I was willing to create something that didn’t necessarily fit in what the game industry says is the ideal product. No, this is, and I just feel like if I take that journey to the very end, you know, and I stay true to that goal, that there will be a large number of people that want to do that with me, that wanna experience that with me.
And I think, I think that’s another way to kind of beat that headwind is to say, “I’m not, I’m not creating something here that you are going to expect. This is gonna hit you from every angle that you don’t expect.” Especially our 3-D terrain system. I mean, who does that? Who creates a game series and tries to squeeze a viable 3-D terrain system into that?
Well, nobody it’s idiotic.
Jeff’s innovative 3-D terrain system (Harbinger)
Brandon Rollins: And that, that you’ve gotta actually explain a little bit, because this is kind of a mind blowing thing for people who have played tabletop games, like… oh, what, what do I say to the normies? Cuz I know like a lot of regular people are gonna listen to this. So basically like when you’re playing a game and it’s, and it’s modular, that is, there isn’t a set board that you just play off and it’s the same every time you almost always are just gonna lay it out in a two dimensional way. If you want to expand the world you do so in well, one of four directions up, down left, right. That’s it. But you’re actually working on making it to where these, these, the board can actually go in three dimensions in a modular way that is different every time.
And that’s Harbinger.
Jeff Irving: Oh, yeah. You know, a lot of gamers can discount look at Vrahode and discount us as you know, our artwork is different. It’s not as overdone. I think a lot of art today is very overdone. You know, you’ve got, I’m talking about heroes with swords that are longer than they are tall and they weigh, you know, they would weigh 400 pounds in real life. And one, and one swing of that, you know, sword will kill an entire room of enemies. We really didn’t want that experience because we feel like that, that trend towards super dark, demonic, hyper, everything hyper.
I just kind of wanted to say let’s just wash the dishes. Let’s see what these look like clean again, you know, let’s look at, let’s look at a set of clean dishes and really start in a new direction with that. And so the world is different. Everything starts out simple. Heck, you don’t even have metal weapons to begin.
It’s stone, stone, and wood weapons, you know, these rudimentary things. But again, part of that Vrahode game system appeal or what’s making it compelling is the things that we’re doing different. And the Harbinger system, I think is our, our, you know, you can discount Vrahode in many ways, if you’re used to Gloomhaven and all the tropes of other fantasy games, but I dare people to discount our Harbinger system because what it, what it does is it hits you from left field.
We give people in this game system, we give them 28 different macro settings. That you can zoom into to have these compelling battles. And they’re 18 by 18 inch flats. And I don’t like hex systems. I think hexes look, sci-fi in a fantasy setting. I’ve never liked hexes, even though they’re more accurate for movement.
We have square grids throughout everything inside, outside spaces. They’re all square grids. But we give people 28 macro settings to zoom into from the Overland, from the, from the world map, you can zoom in, so the game stays flat, but then you can modify the flats with these little terrain miniatures.
So you can customize the flats when you write your own quests and things, you can modify those with our, our basic terrain set of miniatures. So we give you that, which is very common. I’ll tell you someone who did it brilliantly of late was, Shadowborne Games in their game, Oathsworn.
I mean, you’ve got these wonderful little houses and trees and walls. It’s very immersive. It’s beautiful. Our, our basic terrain system for our flats is much more basic than that. It’s not, doesn’t take out quite so much space, but it does allow you to customize those flats and it still keeps the gameplay very easy to track.
But then as we progress later into the game series, we introduce, like Brandon said, we introduced this Harbinger system and it’s this interesting series of room and hall tiles, stairs, stair risers, and even dungeon risers that allow you to lift an 18 by 18 inch flat up to two inches or four inch height so that you can literally have up to five level deep dungeon or indoor experiences on your tabletop.
Nobody’s done it. We’ve worked extremely hard to make this thing as simple as we can, as fun to click together as fast. And it’s not like we’re trying to get people to build erector sets every time they need to play. We’re augmenting our flats with the Harbinger system.
So let’s say, let’s say you Brandon, you’re creating content for the Vrahode Game System yourself, and you’re this uber dungeon freak. You have to build the biggest, most complex, deepest dungeon ever made. Well, then the Harbinger system allows you to do that for your players and your game group might dig that.
Well, my game group is not gonna sit around and wait for 20 minutes while I build this thing. So what we tend to do is we’ll have a dungeon flat, and then off that dungeon flat, we’ll take you up a level or two into some other rooms and hallways and let you experience that.
And then the further you get into our game series, a lot of the final battles we like to give you that richer, deeper experience. And so those will have a few more Harbinger tiles and levels set up, but you don’t have to do it every quest because it is, it, it can be burdensome, but it’s all based on what your interests are.
If you wanna do that, I’m telling you what, when this thing, when this thing hits Kickstarter and you can really see what it looks like when it’s full glory, I feel like there’s gonna be some other companies that wanna do it, want, wanna do something like it. So I’m, hopefully, hopefully we can do this thing and get it out first because you know, it’s, it’s pretty cool.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And the thing, the thing about gamers that are willing to spend more than a hundred dollars on a game, physicality counts for a lot, like board gaming, basically… two of the major reasons why people will play board games instead of video games or do something else is: one, they wanna actually hang out with their friends in a physical space. And the other thing is they want something that is physical and tactile and interesting to look at. And this is going to do that in a very specific, very real, very dramatic way that I don’t, I can’t think of any other games that are actively doing that right now.
So I, I’ve got a totally um, left field question based on, on what we’ve been… Well, it’s, it’s not a strange question. It’s not a strange question. I’m not, I’m not here to grill you.
What Jeff did before Weathervane Games & Vrahode
Brandon Rollins: I’m not here to grill you, but, uh, yeah, my question was what did you do before Weathervane Games?
Jeff Irving: Ooh. Well, obviously, I, you know, earlier we were talking about how the Vrahode story started and I was talking about being in college. So, you know, obviously I was a fine arts guy and a graphic design guy, journalism guy, you know, I used to sit around sketch canvases, draw naked people. I mean, that was kind of where my interest lied was in fine arts and things.
And then I went to work for my family business, which my dad and uncles had an aggregate business. They sold, uh, stone and gravel and they, they built bridges and they made asphalt highways and stuff. And so I went to work for them. But obviously my college degree was in the graphic design and journalism.
So I thought, well, I’ve got this to fall back on. If the business isn’t there for me and I’ll be darned, I started a management training program for my dad. Sixteen months later, he sat me and my brothers down at the table and said, “well, we’re selling the business.” And I’m like, “oh, well, I’m glad I took in college what interested me, so that I could go work.”
And so, I started my first business at 23. I start started a little computer software store called Dream Realm Software. It was a closet and I loved computer games. And of course, I had just graduated in graphic design so I knew my way aware around a computer pretty well. I couldn’t believe it. I put, I think I put $15,000 in to start it and I actually made money. I couldn’t believe it. I made money selling computer games. And so then a couple years later, I bought out another company that had not paid their sales taxes for a few years. They had not really done right by the government.
And so they were shut down. Well, I, I went to the bank and I bought all their inventory back from the bank and I opened up in their location. I kind of started on with the next iteration and I called it Irving Computing. And so we did all the fun stuff. We added console gaming stuff. Like at that point, I think it was Sega, maybe, maybe Sega games, Nintendo games.
Jeff Irving: Yeah. Yeah. Genesis, that’s it. Genesis and computer games. And we started doing rebuilding computers and installing networks. So I did that. And then I went to my accountant I said, “hey, we’re actually making money. You know, a little bit of money doing this.”
I said, “I’m thinking about moving to the mall.” And he said, “well, that’s a, that’s a big bite. He said, but you’ll never know if it’s gonna be successful unless you do it.” So. I took all the money that I’d leveraged from the first two businesses and put it into Irving Computing in the mall. And we did that for another five years, until the tech bubble burst.
And I think most people alive today, remember that what happened with the computer industry, everything just tanked and all the profit went out of that industry for a bit. And that’s when we kind of walked away from our 11 year run of computer stores. And then after that, I spent most of my time doing graphic design for a large company called Draper, after that. So, yeah, a lot of graphic design, being entrepreneurial, running businesses.
And I loved that. I loved my customers and I had great relationships with so many, so many gamers and computer geeks and stuff. It was so fun.
How Jeff’s graphic design background makes it easier to manage a team
Brandon Rollins: See, that’s cool because I, I imagine that also helped you build up the skills that you’re using on your current project as well.
Jeff Irving: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. It’s nice to be a game designer and I can say that I am, cuz you know, I did, I did one before, so I, I do have that hat to wear. It’s not a fancy hat, but I do have the designer hat to wear, but to be able to, to honestly say, “hey, I’m a, I’m a viable graphic designer.”
Now that’s not to say I’m a viable board game industry, graphic designer, cuz I’m not, you know, there’s, there’s subtle trends and there’s, there’s things happening in the board game industry that I’m just not attuned to finely like people that actually work as graphic designers in the board game industry, you know, they see trends come and go.
I’m not really tuned into that stuff. And I’m okay with that because Vrahode isn’t really going to follow the trends that might be current, it’s gonna follow what it’s supposed to be. You know, so I think I’m a good enough designer to know what I want, know what I want it to look like and say, “hey, this is kind of what I want you to do to put it together.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. And that, that helps a lot because having a graphic design background makes it a lot easier to manage artists. A lot of people don’t realize just how specific feedback has to be when you’re doing something for product design or even something for part of a larger picture in some way. You have to be able to give feedback that’s not just like, “I don’t know, make it pop.”
Jeff Irving: Oh, no, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. That’s kind of the cool part because I draw a little bit from my graphic design background to give feedback. I draw heavily from the story from the world and how specifically I’ve envisioned it in my head all these decades. When you combine those two things and I have enough graphic design knowledge to say “this layer needs to be desaturated, this needs to be more transparent.”
And so those three things together, I think the artists have appreciated it.
Brandon Rollins: And I think it takes a very specific set of experiences to be able to pull off a project to this scope. I mean, you have to know how to be able to run a business, but you also have to know how to, how to make good art, especially as part of a team. You have to be able to write really well too and develop these worlds. And that’s, that’s a pretty, that’s a pretty rare combination of skills.
How Jeff hired help from fantasy writer, Shawn Allen Dressler
Jeff Irving: Well, and, and I’m, I stay in my lane when it comes to that. I think one of the first exercises that I had to go through in this project was to let go of the baby. I had to let go of this beautiful baby that I had in my head all these years, which was the story and the world. I had to let that go to someone who could actually write it.
Brandon Rollins: That’s one of the hardest parts.
Jeff Irving: Yeah, so I had to really search and do a lot of trial and error on finding writers that weren’t just good, but they were able to write epic fantasy. That was the important thing, and so I went through several writers that were decent writers.
They just couldn’t write epic fantasy until I found Shawn Allen Dressler, who is a published epic fantasy novelist. And so we spent a great deal of time and I spent, I even, you know, I had to, I had to pay him for the weeks and weeks of immersion that it took for him to get down into the world with me.
And I was happy to do it because the feedback that he would give me and the dialogue that we began to have. It was like getting a new cellmate in prison by yourself. You know what I mean? After being in the cell by yourself for, for, for 25 years, 30 years, finally, you have this interesting cellmate that you can talk to.
But inviting Shawn into the world and being able to hand him the world of Vrahode after spending those weeks and weeks and weeks of saying “here, I’m gonna pay you just to just to really, really in your heart, embrace this world.” And he did. And it was like, hey, this is what it took, was this time of just really making sure that he didn’t leave me and leave the project and trying to engage him in, in the world. It really bore fruit. And so then I was able to say, okay, now here’s the story arc that I see.
Here’s the layers of, of lies and deceit that are occurring within this world. Now you take it and run with it and then I was able to just go over, keep my graphic design hat on, keep my art director hat on, keep my project manager hat on until you came along and, and, and just stay in that lane. Just stay, stay the heck away from Shawn, leave Shawn alone and let him do it.
And, and then what I would do is I would work through my channels. And then once I got stuff to the point where it was fairly polished, then I could run it by him for wordsmithing, like card text and things like that. But I, I would stay in my lane, get things to where he could spend a little time on them, but wouldn’t be bogged down in my channel.
Brandon Rollins: And that’s good because you’re also avoiding the classic trap that happens with a lot of passion projects where you’re actively getting other people involved. You’re letting them have input and you’re letting people’s feedback improve the world that you already have a vision for which I think in some ways comes with just kind of feeling like you’re tapping into something else that’s out there instead of making it up, which I find a lot of creative people do.
If you know what I mean by that.
Jeff Irving: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s, I’ll tell you, what’s been the hardest part of this whole thing is I’m a gamer. The hardest part of this whole process has been not playing games. I don’t wanna pick up rules from other game systems and put ’em into Vrahode. It’s gotta build, it’s gotta, just like Minecraft. We’ve got to put this game together, brick by brick to be its own thing. So that when people unbox this. It’s not the same thing. They’re not saying, “oh, this is just a rehash of this. This is very similar to this game.” I want people to unbox this and go “that’s different.”
Brandon Rollins: And you’ve played a bunch of games here. You’re just talking about like letting the other games sit for a minute so that you actually have time to develop new and original ideas.
Pitching highly original ideas
Jeff Irving: Everybody wants to know where this fits. You know what I mean? Everybody wants me to tell them what this thing is, what is Vrahode and how does it play? And so when pinned down, you know, when people say, I need to know what, if I’m gonna back you, I need you to tell me “what is it?”
The most concise answer I can give them is if Gloomhaven and Hero Quest had a baby in an art gallery, that would, that would be what this. Because it’s way, it’s way less complex than Gloomhaven. We’re trying to make it way less fiddly. But we also, we wanted one of the things that’s the coolest about Hero Quest and, and I mean, doesn’t matter what kind of games you, you like, or don’t like, it’s hard to deny that the combat system for Hero Quest is very accessible and fun and fast.
And so we, what we said is we want something that’s just as fast or faster and more fun than Hero Quest, but we want it to be richer, not more rule heavy, but richer. And so that is that core. That’s the core to everything. When you’re talking about dungeon, crawlers and adventure games that have, that are combat heavy is that’s your money shot right there.
Advice for new business owners and creatives
Brandon Rollins: Yeah. So I’ve got just one last question for you. And that is “what advice would you give to somebody who’s just starting up their own business or creative project for the first time?”
Jeff Irving: Wow.
Brandon Rollins: Yeah, you can think about that for a minute.
Jeff Irving: Well, I tell you it’s easy because for me, my journey in the board game industry started such a short time ago that I am that person, you know, I am, I’m just like anybody else who would decide that it’s important to them to create something that either shares a new wrinkle on a, on an existing concept, a game, or allows them to create a new world or even just a very simple game like Azul or, or you something like that, but if that’s really what you wanna do, I guess the best advice I can give is this.
If you have the wherewithal to do it, it’s not a get rich quick scheme. You will not make money doing this. This has to be a passion project. You know, making board games is not a get rich, quick scheme, it’s not even a get rich scheme. It’s just not about.
Can you make money? Can you be successful as a small designer? Yes. Now that Kickstarter is there you absolutely can, but that can’t be that can’t be primary. If you wanna make money, then you’re in the wrong industry. It’s just not well suited for wealth creation.
I would say this, I would say being part of this industry, what I’ve learned is it is full of more wonderful, helpful, and genuinely nice people than any other industry I’ve ever been exposed to. There are nice people around every corner go to GenCon, go to Origins, go to PAX, go to Essen, whatever you’re gonna find people are creative. The community is inclusive. I think it’s a welcoming community. I think everybody wants to create safe spaces for people no matter how they identify so that I think that’s important.
If you’re a, an LGBTQ designer, don’t be afraid. There’s gonna be a great big audience of people out there ready to welcome you and, and enjoy your products.
But I think important thing that I would say is this, if it’s not about the money and it’s a passion project, then unless you’re willing to put your heart and soul and effort into it, have the humility to take on other people that are smarter and more talented than you. Have the ability to take criticism, be thick-skinned. I mean, all these things are necessary and artists are notoriously a little bit egotistical.
No, you have to think like a graphic designer. When you’re a graphic designer, you work for the client, and that client is the gamer and if you can’t create a product that can hold its own in one of the 4,000 games that’s released every single year, 4,000 a year. Imagine that. How are you possibly going to create a game that stands out in one of 4,000?
Well, if you believe in your product and you’re not about the money and you’re willing to be humble and you’re willing to bring on people that are better than you and smarter than you, then what is the mark of success at the end of that? If you can create something that lasts beyond your lifetime, to me, that’s success, that’s a legacy.
So if it’s not about money and then you could be about that, then I say, it’s the greatest industry that you could possibly be involved in.
Brandon Rollins: And I think that’s some very good parting advice to end on.
Finding Jeff online
Brandon Rollins: So at this point, where can people find out more about your project online?
Jeff Irving: You can go to the Facebook page, the Vrahode Facebook page. We have a, another group page on Facebook called Vrahode Tavern. Um, and it’s V R A H O D E. It’s kind of a weird spelling you can go to vrahode.com. That’s the website and we have a landing page, landing.vrahode.com.
And because this is a passion project, all we want is engagement. It can be engagement by you saying your art is horrible or, or, or this game looks ridiculous. I don’t care what it is. I just want engagement. And I want people to help us make this thing as good as it can be.
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Brandon Rollins: Yeah, and for anybody who wants just to easily click on that, show notes and transcript, you’ll find links there as well.
Thank you for listening to this podcast. My name is Brandon Rollins. This has been the Weird Marketing Tales Podcast. If you would like to find us online, you can go to weirdmarketingtales.com. On pretty much every social media outlet you can think of, we are either @WeirdMarketing or @WeirdMarketers. Either way, the links, all that stuff is gonna be in the show notes in the transcript if you would like to find it.
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