Behind the Z - The Déjà Vus of Change
We continue our Behind the Z series with another peek behind the studio curtain. In this, his final Behind the Z post as Z-Man's Head of Studio, Steve Kimball pontificates on life’s journey, the changes we encounter along the way, and how déjà vu moments abound if only we know where to look. Over to you, Steve!
POIGNANT PARISIAN PARALLELS
In my personal list of “most impactful Pixar films,” Brad Bird’s Ratatouille holds the top spot (with Pete Docter’s Inside Out checking in at a very close second). I felt a kinship with Remy, whose ascent to rodent stardom has inspired me throughout my career. There are so many memorable motifs that it’s really tough to choose a single favorite, but I’ll give it a go.
First there’s Chef Gusteau’s iconic mantra, “Anyone Can Cook,” which encourages discerning minds to both look for success in unexpected places and embrace greatness on merit alone, no matter its humble origins.
Then there’s Anton Ego’s stirring monologue, which reminds us that “in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
But currently, the most poignant parallel for me comes in the dramatic exchange between Remy and his dad on a rainy Parisian sidewalk outside of a pest control shop. Remy’s father claims “This is the way things are. You can’t change Nature.” Remy so eloquently reverses the idea with his bold reply: “Change is Nature, Dad. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide” (emphasis mine).
Remy’s reply proved deeply profound for me. True change can be extremely difficult. I know firsthand, as today I find myself at yet another crossroads of change, this one in particular far more bittersweet than those others I’ve traversed previously along my career. I’ll regale you with the tale of crossing this juncture, a saga which includes not one, not two, but un trio déjà vus—but first, you need context for how I got here. So buckle up, dear reader! There are a lot of changes to cover, and it’s going to be a wild ride!
LEAP “FANTASTICAL FLIGHT” OF FAITH
Take my own journey, for instance. After graduating college in 2010, my wife, Jess, and I left the routine certainty of undergraduate life. Together, we decided to accept an entry-level developer position with FFG and moved to the Twin Cities with nary a connection to the Midwest—it was “Minnesota or Bust!” We found an apartment online, crossed our fingers, and rolled into town in our 2007 orange Honda Fit with only a few hundred dollars left of our meager college-student savings. As you can imagine, this was a huge, scary leap of faith for us!
Just over a year later we accepted another professional change, which had me managing a team of exceptional humans and being project lead on X-Wing 1st Edition. This experience was significantly formative in developing my product and game design chops in ways that I still use to this day. Plus, I got to go to work and have a legit reason to say “Pew Pew!” while playing with toys. 8-year-old me would be so proud!
When Asmodee acquired F2Z in 2016, another pivotal change occurred when I was offered to take the helm at Z-Man. I jumped at the chance to, among several things, return to my roots of casual family games, work closely with industry legends (Matt Leacock, Rob Daviau, Moritz Brunnhofer, and many others), and serve as vigilant custodian over the Pandemic brand. I was fortunate enough to be joined by several other passionate FFG alums as well as fresh new talent, culminating in a veritable “dream team” of crack-commando creatives.
At this point in my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on projects that run the gamut of game categories: Dust and X-Wing for miniatures, too many clever card games to count, and a plentiful helping of board games to round out the menu (one day I’ll get the chance to work on an RPG and finish my BINGO card!). I’ve also had the opportunity to work on IPs and projects that span across virtually all ANA studios, which Asmodee viewed as a unique, rare, and appealing commodity. So appealing, in fact, that the company created a new position to take advantage of the full spectrum of my versatility.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Earlier this summer I was offered a new role within the Asmo-verse on the Central Publishing team that is somewhat of a “Swiss army knife.” Known as the Director of Special Projects, they needed someone who understands the creative side of the business, can do game dev, instructional design (rulebooks—my specialty!), help with marketing initiatives, and overall be capable of tackling publishing miscellany that crops up at any studio. “Doesn’t that sound exciting?” you ask? Well yes, actually it does! But the flip side of this coin means leaving my current studio.
I recently accepted this new position and have been quietly filling this role behind the scenes for several weeks as we coordinated making this announcement. This change means that this, my final Behind the Z article as Head of Studio, marks the end of an era and the beginning of another. I have deeply enjoyed my time at Z-Man's helm; from the creative brainstorming sessions to the daily grind, from presenting new games at Asmodee Live’s Essen stage to crafting these reflective essays of studio happenings. So, what’s Z-Man's next move? You’ll never guess. No, seriously, even with that hint I buried in the question itself, I suspect very few saw this surprise twist coming.
DÉJÀ VU #1: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Sophie Gravel has been asked to lead Z-Man on the next leg of its journey as its new (returning?) Head of Studio. You may recall that Sophie owned F2Z Entertainment and had the Z-Man imprint under her leadership for years before Asmodee North America acquired F2Z in October 2016. One of Sophie’s landmark accomplishments during her first tenure with Z-Man was launching Pandemic’s second edition and growing it to great heights. After Z-Man, she founded Plan B Games, having further success with Azul and its signature delicious, candy-like tiles.
This makes Déjà Vu #1 a fascinating and unlikely tale of mirrored reversal. When I visited her offices in Montreal back in ‘16, she was the one uploading knowledge to me in my transition to lead Z-Man. Yet now the script has been flipped; I’m the one offering context for her to jump in and assess her next steps. The irony at play here is astounding; you can’t make this stuff up! I’ve never experienced such a textbook example of déjà vu before, and let me tell you—it’s a trip.
Sophie will remain as Head of Studio for Plan B Games, which she will continue leading simultaneously alongside Z-Man. I’m also very pleased that the rest of the studio is to remain intact. For those who have done professional creative work, you’ll know how essential interpersonal synergy is to a creative team’s success. The Z-Family consists of a wonderful batch of emotionally intelligent and empathetic humans who have formed some exceptionally strong bonds with one another. Their tangible harmony has produced the outstanding creative work on display these past few years—Pandemic Legacy: Season 0, CRYO, and the new edition of Love Letter, to name a few.
I can honestly count on one hand the number of industry veterans I know who are savvy enough to operate two different studios at the exact same time. Sophie is absolutely among those elite few who could pull off this dual-wielding-studio feat. By combining the Z-Folk’s skills with the proven track record of Sophie’s creative genius, I’m eager to see what exciting innovations will emerge!
DÉJÀ VU #2: AFTER THE FACT
In 2015, my last FFG project was a Konieczka–Kimball collaboration that yielded Rebellion, the epic Star-Wars-in-a-box experience. I have fond memories showing off the game’s strong emergent narrative to the SUSD crew during one of their FFG visits to film their Twilight Imperium documentary. Rebellion ended up releasing after I had exited FFG, and it’s happening all over again—Déjà Vu #2. As I depart Z-Man, there are several titles that I touched from start to finish that will experience a similar fate, launching after I’ve left the studio. My team really outdid themselves, so be sure to keep an eye on upcoming announcements and prepare to be impressed!
DÉJÀ VU #3: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Corey Konieczka has been a mentor and friend for me throughout my career. He was on Fantasy Flight’s interview panel when I was hired in 2010, and, while working together on Rune Age and Blood Bowl: Team Manager, his insight was formative. When I transitioned from FFG to Z-Man, Corey remained and then later split off to start Unexpected Games. At that point it appeared that we were headed in completely different directions and wouldn’t collaborate anytime soon—and, right on cue, along comes Déjà Vu #3!
Among the tasks on my Director of Special Projects’ to-do list is assisting Corey with various odds and ends that are simply too much for any one individual to tackle. Ideally this allows Corey to spend less time administrating and more time designing. It’s been fun “getting the band back together” for some brainstorming jam sessions, where we struck on a few really exciting and innovative chords. Who knows if anything will spawn from those specific discussions, but whatever the outcome, I can definitely guarantee that it’s bound to be…(wait for it!)…very unexpected.
To all the FFG and Z-Fans out there, thanks for supporting me on this decade+ run. Working on so many fantastic games over the years has been, frankly, a dream come true for me. It has been my honor and privilege serving in these roles and having a hand in bringing so many beloved games to life on your tables. I wish you endless hours of unplugged fun together, and I hope they provide lasting memories for you and your fellow gamers.
To everyone at Asmodee, you’re still stuck with me! I'm excited to keep doing my part to make great games and tell amazing stories.
To Sophie, in true David Rose fashion I say “best wishes and warmest regards.” Welcome back to your former deck and familiar tides. I can’t wait to see what lies in store for the Z-Crew as they navigate new and uncharted waters, surely destined for greater horizons.
And lastly, to my Zeeples, you are the reason I’ve enjoyed coming to work every day and remained fiercely loyal. I’m grateful for your trust in me as your leader and for all that we accomplished together these past 5 years. As you embark on your nautical voyage to explore the great unknown with Sophie as your Captain, I can’t wait to experience what awesome new discoveries you’ll make—now as a player!
For myself, a new adventure awaits. I take courage from the final exchange of Remy’s fateful sidewalk scene: after articulating his decisive statement on change, he turns to leave as the rainfall gradually starts to dissipate. His father quickly asks, “Where you goin’?”
“With luck, forward.”