Do you like offbeat humor and quirkiness? How about immersive dungeon crawlers with bottomless nerdy pop culture references?
In April 2018, an independent game developer stepped onto the scene with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Sentient Cow Games had funded their first game at 149% of their funding goal. Considering that game was a heavy dungeon-crawler with lots of components and minis, that is quite the success story. Most indie developers dip their toes in the water with something small and affordable to build up their reputation. But Weller, Donna, and Craig decided to go for it all with a game that had an $80 price tag.
I personally backed Escape from Dulce after I played a prototype and I love having it in my collection. It is quirky, fun, and accessible despite its somewhat intimidating array of components. But this isn’t about the game (that’ll be another post). Instead, I’m focusing on the creators behind the game.
In the last couple of years, I’ve learned a good deal about Sentient Cow Games. Mostly Craig. They are great people with a sense of humor and of humility. I would be remiss if I didn’t give you the opportunity to get to know them a bit more too. I have shared our correspondence below. Important note: I have made minor adjustments to their responses for readability and/or clarity. Otherwise, the responses are in their original form. Enjoy.
Chris Weller (CW)
My name is Chris Weller, but most people just call me Weller. When I was a kid there were too many Chris’s living on the block, so we went by our last names and it kind of stuck. I’m originally from Pennsylvania and moved to Los Angeles about 9 years ago for work. Before starting Sentient Cow Games with Donna and Craig, I worked in the toy industry for 20 years, specializing in packaging and branding.
Donna Ackerson (DA)
My name is Donna Ackerson. I’m originally from New York but spent many years living in the bay area before moving back to the east coast where I met Weller. As Weller said, we packed up our pets and moved out to LA about nine years ago to start a new adventure together. When I’m not working on new Sentient Cow mayhem, I like to relax with video games. Or work on other creative endeavors.
Craig E. Sawyer (CS)
My name is Craig E. Sawyer, I was born in a small town in Middle Tennessee to a blue collar family. I moved to Nashville, TN to pursue professional acting. I did a lot of local theater, commercials, and film there, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue more of that. Life has recently steered me into creating board games, while also writing for comics, games, film and TV. Story telling is my number one passion.
What got you into tabletop gaming?
CW—As a kid in the early 80’s I grew up playing a lot of Risk, Shogun and Axis and Allies with friends. This led to Dungeons & Dragons for a few years and then by the late 80’s I hit high school and just didn’t have the time anymore. Fast forward to about 2012 and Craig came over with a copy of Arkham Horror. I realized board games had come a long way over those 20 years I dropped out of the hobby and wanted to see what else was out there. Thus, an old addiction started over again!
DA—I played the usual Monopoly (which I actually like), Risk, Life, Checkers, Mancala, and the like with my family. I had the Green Ghost game too but my only memory of that game is putting all the ghosts on my fingers and running around the house in the dark. I loved it! When I was in my 20’s some friends started a weekly game night with Cosmic Encounter. That got me hooked again and back into board games as an adult.
CS—Like Weller, I grew up predominately in the 80’s playing a Avalon Hill Games and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. The boxed expert set with the bearded wizard opening the portal (the blue book) that Stephen Marsh helped to bring to life. That was my first intro into the world of tabletop. Come to think of it, Weller looks a lot like that wizard. Weller and Donna started out as my neighbors. We first bonded over comics, punk music, board games, and obscure anime. We soon discovered that we were a great team to start a board game company. I couldn’t ask for better business partners and friends. I am really lucky.
You’re heading to a friend’s house and can only grab three games. What are they and why?
CW—Scythe, Mice & Mystics, and Thanos Rising. Scythe because it’s a brilliant strategy game. Mice & Mystics because it’s a perfect blend of an RPG and a board game, plus those mice are cute as hell! Thanos Rising because it’s simple yet totally addictive.
DA—Cosmic Encounter, Backgammon, The Witches. Cosmic Encounter because it’s still a great game and a lot of fun for new gamers. Backgammon because I like that it is easy to teach but has lots of strategy tricks to learn. The Witches because everyone needs more Terry Pratchett in their lives.
CS—There are some fantastic games out there, so this is a tough one. I would have to start with D&D. It’s the ultimate specimen of a table top experience. It has unlimited possibilities, which we tried to tap into with Escape from Dulce. Hero Quest was huge for me as a kid, but I gotta say the board game that I had a lot of fun with was Shogun. I was fascinated with ninjas and feudal Japan at the time, and it had a little ninja. I also have to give honorable mentions to Avalon Hills Superstar Baseball and 83′ Elric for awesome memories.
You have a new player, what game do you choose to introduce them to?
CW—Lords of Waterdeep! This game seems to get to our table often, and is a great introduction to worker placement. It’s not the most complex in the genre, so it’s easy to teach new players right out of the gate.
CS—Escape from Dulce, of course….just kidding….kinda. I sound like a broken record, but gotta go with Dungeons & Dragons. I would tell them scary stories about THAC0, but would slap down some 5th edition. We would fight kobolds and a few skeletons on the edge of town, then down a few brews at the local tavern and brag of our exploits.
What was the impetus to go beyond casual interest in this hobby and to become a creator?
CW—After Craig brought over Arkham Horror, it opened the flood gates for other games. We picked up a copy of Zombicide and thought it was pretty cool, but it could be a lot cooler. We started talking about how it could be improved and what we would do if we were making a game. Craig brought up the whole idea about Dulce Base and we started developing characters, mechanics and the story. After a couple months of fleshing things out, we thought we might be on to something. We spent a year refining Escape from Dulce and the people we first shared it with had a blast.
At our age, some people have a mid-life crisis and will spend all of their money on a sports car or start dating someone half their age. Our mid-life crisis involved quitting our jobs and starting a board game company. We thought there would be a market for this weird and wacky game and figured there would be at least a few hundred other folks it would appeal to. We all jumped into the deep end of the pool and haven’t looked back since.
CS—We had the right group of people at the right time. We have many nerdy loves and skill sets, but we just happened to be in the right head space to make a board game, and the timing is great. The board game scene is like a punk music or art scene, a cultural phenomenon that we will look back on one day as something special. Who would have thought that D&D would ever be this popular! I grew up in the bible belt and had to sneak around to play. Table topping is a great counter to the age of ‘living on our phones,’ and I really do think playing games is necessary to the health of our culture. It has existed since the formation of early civilization, and it will always exist in one form or another. I am so proud to play a part in it.
What are your proudest achievements in regards to projects you’ve created or worked on?
CW—Our proudest achievement is when our first game, Escape from Dulce, funded on Kickstarter and manufactured. We were a brand new company at the time, with a very ambitious first game, two things that tend to be red flags for Kickstarter backers. We’re all still incredibly proud of the fact that we were able to stand out in a very crowded marketplace and make this weird little game become a reality.
A close second to that would be becoming friends with Tim Kask because of our game. That name might not ring a bell, but Tim is a D&D OG. He was the first employee of TSR, hired by Gary Gygax in 1975 and worked as an editor and game developer for TSR during the formative years of Dungeons & Dragons. He had a hand in creating some of the adventures we loved as kids. Tim showed an interest in our game, so we sent him a copy. Additionally, he ended up loving it and talks about it often on his Curmudgeon in the Cellar podcast. He recently ran demos of Escape from Dulce at AppleCon in Maine, which blew us away. It’s amazing to think we have Skype calls with him now and chat about game ideas we’re both working on.
CS—Breaking in with a successful Kickstarter is first. The backers and fans acting so positively to our first outing is also amazing. Meeting Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin, and having them say great things about our crazy universe, while having our game featured on the ‘420’ episode of Fatman Beyond podcast made me us all happy campers.
However, the biggest nerdgasm thus far is Dungeons & Dragons luminary Tim Kask demoing our game at the AppleCon convention. It’s an honor to call Tim a friend. Every gamer needs to check out his show on Youtube called ‘The Curmudgeon in The Cellar.’ He is RPG royalty and the coolest dude you will every meet. He is a real wizard. That is full circle for me. D&D is where my love for gaming started, and I feel like this is just the begging for Sentient Cow, our fans, and these crazy characters we have created.
Was there a low point as a creator, and what did you learn from that experience?
CW—Our lowest point as creators was when our first Kickstarter campaign for Escape from Dulce didn’t fund. In hindsight, we learned so much from that failed campaign. We spent a couple of weeks licking our wounds and feeling sorry for ourselves, then sat down and took a very serious look at what we did wrong. We honed in on two key things: an overall goal that was too high and a lack of on-the-ground marketing. So we spent the next year trying to figure out ways to lower that goal and went to every game convention we could to help spread the word about our game.
We ended up at Gencon 50 running demos of EFD, and while there, attended a panel about running Kickstarter campaigns. The panel was moderated by John Wrot, of Gate Keeper Games, and he really influenced us and gave us some sorely needed motivation. While a lot of other people were saying, “Your game should be more like this”, or “It’s way too long, you need to cut the play time”, John told us to stick to our guns and make the game we wanted to make. That advice is some of the best we’d received. We try and impart that little bit of wisdom to new game creators whenever we can.
CS—I will double down on Weller’s sentiment. The first Kickstarter not funding was a strong kick in the jewels, but in hindsight was the best thing that could have happened to us. It was a crash course in everything Kickstarter and game marketing. A test from Crom to see if we were really cut out for this business. The important thing is that we learned from it and it made the game better.
What are you currently working on that readers should be on the lookout for?
CW—Secret Unknown Stuff was initially thought of as a trilogy of big box games that all link together to tell a larger story. Escape from Dulce being chapter one, The Hollow Moon chapter two, and Lost in Time chapter three. We’re knee-deep in development for The Hollow Moon, but decided to take a bit of a detour before we go there. There were additional stories we wanted to tell related to Escape from Dulce, before we all blasted off to the moon.
We’re currently working on 4 new adventures that expand the world and mythology of Escape from Dulce. Think of these like the adventure modules from Dungeons & Dragons. While they all take place in different locales, they are all part of the same world. From a story telling perspective, you’ve escaped the base and are headed to the moon, but before you go there, you need to get some back up in the form of additional characters. Each of these adventures centers around one of the potential allies in EFD and fleshes them out to fully playable characters, while also filling in their back stories.
‘The Mystery of Mount Shasta’ focuses on Blurry the Sasquatch, and you’ll have to help him find out why all of the sasquatches have been disappearing. This adventure takes you into the dark heart of the mountain to face off against an army of clockwork troopers and ancient Lemoorians, all under the control of an evil giant robot who is a remnant of the Axis from WWII.
‘Attack on Atlantis’ is the story of Kaltar the Atlantean and his quest to take back the throne from the evil Sharkasaurus. Atlantis is actually a mobile fortress, normally hidden under the waves, but Sharkasaurus has had enough of us mouth-breathers and decides to invade the surface world. After surfacing off of Santa Monica, you’ll have to help Kaltar battle your way down the pier and then track Sharkasaurus to Atlantis for the final confrontation.
‘Journey to Point Pleasant’ is all about Maury the Mothman and sees our heroes traveling to West Virginia, where the mothman mythology first started. Maury informs you that his favorite actor, Richard Gere, has been kidnapped by another mothman and you need to rescue him before time runs out. How and why are there two mothmen, and what connection do they have?
Lastly, ‘The Hunt for the Jersey Devil’ is the tale of Mikey the Goatboy and our homage to heavy metal! We’ll travel to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, to help Mikey retake the forest from the corruption of the recently summoned Jersey Devil. Battle your way through evil forest creatures and cultists on motorcycles, as you try to collect relics of the Metal Gods to help you in your final showdown with the Jersey Devil.
These mostly self-contained adventures do require some components of the Escape from Dulce base game to play them.
All of these adventures, as well as a second printing of EFD, will be coming to Kickstarter hopefully late this year.
Who is one of your favorite creators that we should interview next?
CW—Scott Rogers, who is probably best known for Rayguns and Rocketships and Pantone the Game. He’s been in this industry a lot longer than we have. He always has good advice and an encouraging word. Every time we see him, he’s always got 3-4 new ideas he’s working on, and they’re always fabulous. He’s full of insight and would be a great person in the industry to interview.
CS—Derek Funkhouser from Skybound Games has a rad western themed game he is working on. I love gunfighters and the Old West.
Also should speak to John Wrot at Halfies Dice. The best dice in the realm! Yes John, you may use that catch phrase.
Final words on Sentient Cow Games
I love the quirky nod to Weekly World News and Mo Moussa’s art is perfect for this game. Apparently Weller and Mo go back 20 years so it’s the kind of relationship where they understand one another intuitively. It’s probably why the art meshes so brilliantly with their humor.
Clearly, these are some fun people. Steeped in nerdy pop culture, this group is not above adding jokes in their work that some will never catch. I can attest first-hand that their fun and enthusiasm shines through in their game. They each have an impeccable taste in games. If I’m ever in LA, I hope to share a table with them and play a game. Be sure to put them on your radar for the upcoming Kickstarter. Check back when they do as I will have some thoughts on Escape from Dulce published by then.
I have an unopened copy of Escape from Dulce plus two expansions—Joey Fixit’s Wild Ride and The Hidden Shrine of Umugatu—to give to some lucky reader. Let me know in the comments who else you’d like for me to interview and I’ll reach out to them. Add their site in the comments so it’s easier for me to find them. Who you choose (and whether we ultimately interview them) has no bearing on whether you’ll win the game. Commenting is enough for consideration! I’ll announce the winner on November 1, 2019. Be sure to follow Sentient Cow Games on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.